Although schoolwork is of course the main priority during my study abroad experience (hence the phrase “study” abroad), seeing as much as I possibly can of Europe while I am here is also essential to my experience (hence the phrase study “abroad”). And the number one country I wanted to see was Italy, as a significant part of human history, and my own personal history.
I could feel myself shaking with anticipation the entire flight to Italy. When we landed at Ciampino airport, I kept hitting my friend Hannah every time I spotted a sign in Italian. She kindly pointed out that we would be seeing a lot of those, considering that we were now in Italy. During the bus ride to the hostel, I made my best attempt at translating the signs we saw, and I was surprised that often my four years of high school Latin was more helpful than my year of college Italian. After disembarking from the bus and setting off on foot to find our hostel, the Ursa Major Hostel, it truly struck me that for the first time here, we were in a foreign country without anyone who spoke the native language fluently. In Germany, Hannah’s friend Christian was always with us to translate. All we had to say was “Danke”, “auf wiedersen”, and “hallo”. In Italy, we only had my minimal Italian, which was mostly made up of ancient Roman Latin. If we had landed in Rome two thousand years ago, I would have had the situation handled. We were able to find our hostel with little incident, and were soon off on our first sightseeing mission: the Colosseum.
The lady at the front desk of our hostel supplied us with a map and directions to reach the Colosseum, as well as a recommendation for the best pizza in Italy. Although I cannot confirm if it was the best pizza in Italy, it was the best pizza I ever had (including Sbarro’s, I’m afraid). Luckily for us, our hostel was located in the heart of Rome, and the Colosseum was only about twenty minutes away. Of course, I slowed us down a little bit by stopping every few streets so I could ogle multiple ruins. The most striking part of Rome to me was that on one side of the street there could be a pharmacy, and ancient ruins on the other. Surprises were located around every corner. Without warning, I saw Trajan’s Column in the middle of a piazza. The elaborately carved column commemorating Trajan’s imperial leadership and military victory in the Dacian Wars. What makes this particular column exceptional is that the entire 98-foot structure is covered with elaborate scenes depicting Trajan’s military victories. We studied in Latin class in high school, as well as in Art History class at Salve. I have grown familiar with the feeling that comes when I see something I’ve only ever seen as a picture on a page, but I don’t think I’ll ever get accustomed to it. Hannah also had to pull me past every manhole cover I saw, as each one was emblazoned with the initials SPQR, or Senatus Populusque Romanus (Latin for “The Senate and People of Rome). I remember Mrs. MD teaching us that phrase in Latin class, and mentioning that it was found on the street everywhere in Rome. Finally, however, we reached the Colosseum.
Our first sight of the Colosseum was obstructed by the scaffolding covering the facade. Once we walked around the structure, though, we were able to see the most recognizable structure in Rome. The impact of where we were did not really hit me until we actually stepped inside. The Colosseum is a difficult sight to see because although it is the symbol of Rome, similar to the Eiffel Tower in Paris, it has a much more complicated history. Many, many human beings died here, including slaves, prisoners, and Christians. Their deaths are made even more gruesome as they were carried out for the entertainment of the spectators. Even while I marveled at the human innovation that built the Colosseum, I also remembered those who were brutally murdered here. One feature of the Colosseum that I didn’t know about is a simple wooden cross that stands inside the arena, commemorating all the Christians whom died for their faith here. It is a fitting tribute, especially considering that Rome eventually became the seat of Catholicism in the world.
Our ticket to the Colosseum also bought us admission to the Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum. The Palatine Hill is significant in both Roman history and mythology. It is believed to mark the place where the twins Romulus and Remus, the mythological founders of Rome, were found in the care of a she-wolf. It is the most centrally located of the Seven Hills of Rome, and the most elite Romans built their palatial homes there overlooking the city. The ruins of the imperial residence can still be seen on top of the hill. Although looking at ruins can be frustrating, it also gives the viewer an opportunity to imagine the buildings as they once were. I like ruins because I know that though they have been preserved, what I see is what was there thousands of years ago. After exploring the Palatine, we descended to walk in the Forum. The Forum was the commercial, political, and social hub of ancient Rome. Although everything is now in ruins, it is astounding to walk where so many legends also strode, to see the platform where Marc Antony delivered Caesar’s eulogy, and the temple to Caesar where he was laid to rest. After the fall of Rome, the Forum was left to ruin, much of it dismantled to build other structures or to remove all evidence of paganism from the city was the Roman Catholic Church gained power. Despite the years, however, the ruins still stand as a proud memorial of the mighty Roman empire.
Besides looking at the glorious monuments of Rome’s past, we enjoyed its other great accomplishments: food. It was a pleasure to stroll through the streets in the strong sun eating gelato. When we got back to the hostel, we asked the woman at the front desk for a recommendation for dinner. She gave us very vague directions and marked a few streets on the map. After about fifteen minutes of wandering the streets looking for the restaurant, we asked some ladies for directions. They told us that they had never heard of the restaurant, but still spent ten minutes with us trying to figure out where it might be. In the end, they invited us to eat with them, but we didn’t want to impose on them any longer. I was pleased that Italian hospitality was alive and well, and Italian grandmothers sole desire is to feed everyone. Our stomachs rumbling, we stopped at the first restaurant we found. Thankfully, every restaurant in Rome is absolutely delicious. We dined al fresco at a restaurant called Il Tarallo Allegro in the neighborhood of Trastavere. I ate spaghetti carbonara and tiramisu, and enjoyed the warm Italian night, listening to the sound of scooters whizzing past and Italian conversation (fifty percent of which consists of hand movements and slapping the table). I felt like I was sitting at my Grampy Ravita’s table again. Every time I heard “Aspett, aspett!” or “Madonne!” (excuse my spelling, never really saw it in writing before), I remembered my grandfather good naturedly yelling the same at us. Hannah and I toasted him over a glass of red wine, which Grampy would have approved of even if it wasn’t Fortissimo (his extremely potent favorite wine). I am so happy I was able to go to Italy for my grandfather and myself, and I could feel him smiling down on me.
We set out early the next morning on our way to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Although Vatican City is a very short distance away from our hostel, we had a little difficulty finding it, and it took us about twenty minutes to get there (to be fair to us, that map showed streets that most definitely do not exist). Walking into St. Peter’s Square was another jolt to my system, reinforcing that I really was in Rome. The line wound around the whole square, and it either moved quickly or I was just too distracted staring at Bernini’s statues to notice time passing, but we were heading inside in no time. Before going into the actual basilica, we headed upstairs to the dome. My sole regret for this trip is that we were too cheap to pay the extra two euros for the elevator to the top (I blame the poor college student budget). I thought the steps would never end, winding in a spiral up and up and up. I never considered myself claustrophobic, but I got a little panicked at time when the passageway narrowed to the width of my shoulders). After a seemingly endless stairway, we made it to the top of the dome. The view was so spectacular I was able to forget my aching knees for a few minutes (I was swiftly reminded when we started the descent). About halfway down, we were able to take a break on a lower roof where the gift shop was located. This stop afforded us the opportunity to see Bernini’s statues that circle St. Peter’s Square from behind up close. It was a pleasure to see the statues I had been admiring earlier from the opposite side up close and personal.
After we completed the descent and recovered our breath, we went inside the basilica, where my breath was taken away again, but for very different reasons. It is difficult to capture the magnificence of St. Peter’s Basilica in words or photographs. I put down my camera and simply took the opportunity to gape. It was a pleasure to see views without the obstacle of a camera screen obstructing my eyes. I made a point for the rest of our time in Rome to admire the landmarks with my own eyes, and wait for pictures. The highlight in St. Peter’s Basilica for me was seeing my favorite statue, Pieta by Michelangelo. I have written about the sculpture for several classes in the past, so I know many facts about the work. I have written about the distorted proportions that make Mary’s lap abnormally wide and Jesus as a grown man seem much too small. In person, I finally understood the reason for this alteration. There are so many statues, paintings, and icons depicting Mary with the baby Jesus. Her face is sometimes joyful, sometimes in awe of her son, and often sorrowful. She knew that he son was the Son of God, but did she know the fate that awaited him even at his birth? Michelangelo’s Pieta shows not only a follower’s sorrow at her lord’s death, but a mother’s anguish over the murder of her son. It is a beautiful work of art, and Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece (yeah, the David’s great, but to me, it’s got nothing on Pieta).
After leaving St. Peter’s Basilica, we went to the Vatican City post office to mail a postcard from the smallest country in the world (Mom and Dad, you should be receiving that in the mail any day now). After, we walked to the Vatican Museum to view the Church’s massive art collection. Besides their collection of ancient art, we were able to see their collection of contemporary art. I was surprised and pleased to see that the Church has continued their tradition of supporting artists and encouraging art in society. The final sight in the Vatican Museum was what we had been waiting for all day; the Sistine Chapel. There were signs posted along the hallway leading to the room that silence was to be observed. It was hard to imagine that a bunch of tourists could ever possibly shut their traps for that long, but the first sight of the Sistine Chapel is enough to still any tongue. It is at moments at like this that I am thankful for all the knowledge I have in my head about history and art, because I knew exactly what I was looking at. I was able to pick out Michelangelo’s self-portrait (man, did he have self-esteem issues) and the iconic image of God giving life to Adam. I wish I was curator of the Vatican museum, so I could go into the Sistine Chapel every night after closing the building, lie down, and just stare at the ceiling. We were so packed in with other tourists that I could barely bend my head back, but it was such a pleasure and privilege to see the most famous ceiling in the world.
After leaving Vatican City, we walked across the river in search of the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon is the best preserved building from ancient Roman times primarily because it was converted into a Catholic church in the 7th century, but it was originally built as a pagan temple in the 2nd century. The dome is a marvel of ancient architecture, and remains to this day the world’s largest, unreinforced concrete dome. I was excited to see Raphael’s tomb, and read the inscription carved into his sarcophagus: Ille hic est Raffael, timuit quo sospite vinci, rerum magna parens et moriente mori (Here lies that famous Raphael by whom Nature feared to be conquered while he lived, and when he was dying, feared herself to die). That’s what I call a tombstone inscription. After leaving the Pantheon, we set out for the Fontana di Trevi. It seemed like a short, straight walk according to our map, so of course we wound up lost for half an hour. It was entirely worth it, however, when we finally found that famous fountain. It is so spectacularly beautiful, despite the slight drizzle coming down over the Rome. After throwing our coins into the water, we headed back to the hostel for a quick nap before dinner.
That night, we didn’t wander too far for dinner, wary of our experience the previous night. We ate in the Jewish Quarter of Rome. We both had pasta bolognese for dinner (lamb insead of beef) which was absolutely delicious, as well as handmade, freshly baked Italian bread. The real highlight of the meal, however, was the chocolate ricotta cake I had for dessert, which I will be attempting to recreate for my family when I get home to the US. It was a perfect end to another perfect day in Roma.
Our third and final day was spent exploring the city without any real agenda. It was very relaxing and satisfying to simply walk around the city enjoying the beautiful weather. An elderly Italian man stopped me on the street, claiming that I was the love of his life, and begging for a kiss (at least I think that’s what he said, my Italian is less than fantastic). I blew him one before hurrying along. A street vendor gave Hannah and I both bracelets for no charge, claiming that they would bring us both luck in love (mine is still on, mostly because he tied it on really well, and I am just superstitious enough to fear cutting it off, and my future happiness in love along with it). We ate delicious strawberry gelato on the Spanish Steps, and snuck into a museum to see the Ara Pacis Augustae, a spectacular altar dedicated to Emperor Augustus’s victory in battle. For dinner, we ate at the pizza place we had gone to the first day, where we had the most delicious pizza of all; pizza dough smeared with Nutella. Fantasic! We walked over to the Colosseum after to say good bye before turning in so we could wake up at 4:30 AM to get to the airport for our flight to Barcelona!
Overall, my experience in Rome was everything I wanted it to be and more. I saw all the sights I have read so much about, ate all the food I have always dreamed about, as well as soaking up some sun before returning to cloudy (but still lovely) England. After visiting, I feel more complete as a person, having visited the country that is such a significant part of my heritage. This time abroad has fulfilled this void within me that existed all my life. The more I see in Europe, the more complete and at peace I feel. It is not a feeling I expected to have coming here, but it is most welcome. I know even when my time is over, I will return home a more well-rounded, worldly, cultured, and happy person. What more could I ask for from an education?