It’s the beginning of the year – planning season! Among the myriad of plans you are making, you are probably envisaging your next holiday. Milan? Maldives? Barbados? Have you thought about Rome, the ‘Eternal City?’
What comes to your mind when you think of Rome? Warm and hearty citizens? Deliciously ‘fattening’ pasta, pizza and gelatin? Awe-inspiring historical sites? Papal splendor in the Vatican? World-famous arts and crafts? I experienced all these and more when I traveled to Italy in the fall of 2014.
A Congenial People
Among Europeans, Italians stand out for their geniality, affableness and general good nature. I was reminded of this upon my arrival in Rome at midnight. I took a taxi to the apartment building my travel agent had booked on my behalf, only to discover to my dismay that the number of the caretaker, which I had been given, was invalid.
Tired, hungry and at my wits’ end, I took refuge in a nearby café. Owned by an Italian man who introduced himself as Pietro, it was obvious that my presence was an imposition as he was on the verge of closing his shop. Sensing my apparent distress, however, he offered me some coffee and croissants and lent me his telephone to call my travel agent in Nigeria (an expensive, international call). When the call failed to go through, he offered me the option of staying in a hotel and trying to call my travel agent in the morning. I told him that I didn’t have any Italian money on me, and he offered to take me to a nearby ATM machine (at that time of the morning!)
At this moment, my Nigerian ‘roommates’ alighted from a nearby taxi. They had the correct number for the caretaker of the apartment building and within minutes, we were ushered into our warm and cozy apartment. I may never see Pietro again but he will always stand out, in my opinion, as a quintessential Italian gentleman.
Sugar, Spice … and All Things Nice
‘The Epicureans would have loved Italy!’ I remarked to myself. Strolling down a street in Italy on my first day, I was enchanted by the array of quaint cafes offering Italian delicacies - pasta, sauces, cookies and cakes. Unable to resist the tantalizing aromas, I walked into one and ordered a three-course meal. At the end of my meal, I realized why Italian food and wine are as famous as Italy’s artistic and historical assets. Italian recipes are national treasures!
A Blast of the Past
‘He who does not remember history is condemned to repeat it.’ Because one cannot claim to be fully educated without a sound knowledge of the past, I took pleasure in visiting several historical sites in Rome. The Colosseum was a sobering reminder of the persecution of the early Christians. The Ostia Antica were quiet, fascinating and great to explore. The Villa dei Quintili (once home to Emperor Commodus) was captivating. The Catacombs of San Callisto were eerie, creepy yet fascinating at the same time.
‘’On this Rock will I build my Church …’’
A visit to Rome is hardly complete without seeing the ‘Vatican City’ - the most compact independent state in the world. As a practicing Catholic, I had a personal, religious interest in this part of my vacation and I was not disappointed.
St. Peter’s Basilica is a sprawling edifice capable of accommodating hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists. The Square features gigantic statues of Saints Peter and Paul and ornate sculptures of saints and holy men and women of old. Indecipherable words are emblazoned on the crest of the Basilica in gleaming gold. The iconic dome dominates the skyline of Rome.
Notwithstanding the beauty of these architectural masterpieces, the cynosure of all eyes was the Pope! As soon as he rode into St. Peter’s Square in his ‘Pope-mobile’, cries of ‘El Papa Francesco! El Papa Francesco!’ rent the air. We all strained to catch a glimpse of him. The lucky ones among us got more than a glimpse – a smile, a touch, a kiss or a Rosary. After riding around the Square, the successor of St. Peter gave a short address in Latin. Our inability to understand the language did not lessen the excitement of the experience!
After his address, we filed into the Vatican for a guided tour. We saw the ceiling of the famed Sistine Chapel, which Michaelangelo had painted for decades on his back. We saw several chapels and altars and the Chair of St Peter. The entire interior of St. Peter's is lavishly decorated with marble, reliefs, architectural sculpture and gilding. The basilica contains a large number of tombs of popes and other notable people, many of which are considered outstanding artworks. And at the end of the tour, we celebrated Evening Mass in the Vatican. A holy end to a holy day!
I have been to several cities – Chicago, Dubai, Cape Town, Madrid, Paris, London - but my visit to Rome will always stand out in my mind. From the foregoing, it’s clear that it’s a city with an eminent past, a thriving present and a prosperous future. When I was there, time seemed to stand still.
Little wonder it’s called ‘The Eternal City!’