Rome, Part 2: Dodge Vespas, Catch Raindrops

Rome is not only the capital of Italy, it’s a world capital and feels like it. Hustle and bustle don’t begin to describe the energy of the city, with beautiful people dashing hither and yon on urgent and mysterious missions. These missions are usually conducted on Vespa scooters that lack a muffler. You can hear them coming a mile away, which gives you time to reach the safety of a cafe before you’re mowed down.

The always-cool Vespas are everywhere, ridden by women in dresses and high heels (occasionally sidesaddle), men in business suits (ties flapping), students with book bags, couples clutching groceries between them and so forth, all of them looking cool.  Watching the Vespas weave in and out of traffic is both terrifying and charming, knowing this intricate dance could end abruptly with the tiniest misstep. Vespa Street Theater is always lively.

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Something else I found cool about Rome was the manhole covers and public works all have “SPQR” written on them, from the Latin phrase “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “the Senate and Roman people.”  This is the ancient signature of the city and its official motto. It’s yet another fascinating link between ancient and modern Rome, and coming from the western edge of the New World where few things are more than 150 years old, I’m in awe of the reach of their history.

In the center of Rome is the domed Pantheon, a 2000-year-old ancient temple originally built for the many gods of the Romans and rededicated as a Christian church. The Pantheon is the only structure from ancient Rome still standing, but she doesn’t look her age one bit. Walking through the portico in front of the building takes you past the enormous bronze doors and into the serene circular space. The top of the dome is open to the sky, and I was fortunate it was raining the day I visited because it’s a beautiful experience to watch the water falling through the hole (called an oculus) to the marble floor below. Directly below the opening are notches to drain the water and they work as perfectly as the day they were installed.  Something so simple engineered with such perfection is truly fascinating.

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The day we visited the Coliseum, we hopped on the metro, rode it to the aptly named “Coloseo” station and walked down the very long tunnel toward the entrance. Upon exiting the tunnel and stepping outside, you find the magnificent Coliseum standing directly across the street, a view I will not soon forget. I literally gasped and got a chill at how powerful it was to see it up close, and I’m grateful the street was closed for Italy’s Labor Day because I’m afraid I would have wandered into the path of an oncoming Vespa, mouth open in amazement. It’s a big place, much bigger than I imagined, and I was immediately struck by the realization that the sky above was perhaps the last thing seen by the many people who died there. It’s hard not to be moved by that thought. The brutal history of the place aside, the architecture and design of the Coliseum is truly a wonder to behold.

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A short distance away is the Roman Forum, the center of ancient Roman life. You can still see the ruts from the chariot wheels in some places on the stone road, which somehow makes the entire site feel more real. There are many columns from ancient temples still standing among the ruins, and it’s easy to imagine the Senators speaking from the marble steps and the soldiers walking the streets while citizens conduct their business. It’s also a peculiar feeling to stand in the same spot as the Caesars and watch a Ferrari zoom past on the avenue nearby. Peculiar, but wonderful.

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I find that the best way to absorb such a conflicting juxtaposition of ancient and modern is to find a gelato shop and order two scoops of whatever looks most awesome (or three, depending on how much you saw that day). Take a moment and let the sights soak in. Gelato is the perfect compliment to any experience in Italy, whether it’s an afternoon spent looking at priceless art and history, or a lively hour of attempting to cross a busy street with your limbs intact. Gelato always helps. Always.

I hope you’ll join me for the next installment: Florence.

Find previous adventures in Italy by Matt Grigsby, Including “Rome, Part 1,” here.

Matt Grigsby is a Redding native who has learned how to tell the difference between fresh gelato and machine-made. He owns a beautiful imaginary six room villa in the hills above Florence as well as a very real cottage on the West Side of town. By day he’s a computer analyst toiling for the public good and he dreams of one day owning a robot servant. Matt only uses the fancy ketchup.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

Matt Grigsby
Matt Grigsby was born and raised in Redding but has often felt he should have been born in Italy. By day he's a computer analyst toiling for the public good and by night he searches airline websites for great travel deals. His interests include books, movies, prowling thrift shops for treasure and tricking his friends into cooking for him. One day he hopes to complete his quest in finding the best gelato shop in Italy.
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33 Responses

  1. Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

    That picture of the parked Vespas just tickles me. In Italy, cars are parked anywhere, including on the sidewalk, sideways, on top of bicycles, etc. But Vespas are lined up precisely like a drill team!

    It's part of the Itaian charm. More articles, please!

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      It's almost as if there's a Vespa Committee that has bylaws for how the scooters are arranged on the streets. For all I know, there is. Once the rider climbs on board though, the neat and orderly system becomes something quite different. It's quite cool to see!

  2. Avatar Sandy Tincher says:

    Hi Matt,

    Another great story. Can't wait for Florence. It is one of my favorite cities. I'm sure you will love it also. I relate to the gelato. Italy has the most wonderful gelato. Just keep walking and "maybe" you won't gain gelato pounds. Ha.Ha–good luck.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I consider gelato to be Travel Fuel when I'm in Italy. I wouldn't want to offend the vendors by not ordering something every time I walk by. I'm a diplomat like that.

      Stay tuned!

      • Doug Cushman Doug Cushman says:

        I too, look forward to your report on Florence, one of my favorite cities. Actually, may spend another Christmas there this year. Curious to where you ate (I mean really, isn't that how one REALLY explores a city?)

        Of course, after your Rome reports, I may need to get down there too. Great stuff. Matt.

        • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

          I'll be talking about food and restaurants in a future article, so I hope you'll drop by and have a seat at the table!

  3. Avatar Christine says:

    love it! can't wait for florence.

  4. Avatar Karen C says:

    I just finished reading, "One Year Off", by David Elliot Cohen. His trip to Florence was a disappointment and here is what he had to say.

    "I know the Florence is everyone's favorite city, so I'm sure this all sounds whiny and heretical. But between the rain,huge crowds, long lines, bad food, high prices, and rampant commercialism, our particular experience in the flower of the Renaissance was slightly worse than a bad day at Disney World." He was there late September or early October.

    So, while I have not been there myself and cannot comment, maybe someone else could chime in with a positive comment.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I address Florence in my next article, and specifically discuss sentiments like you mention here. Visiting the city in the summer might indeed leave people with a bad impression, but I've been in the spring and fall when things are cooler and I couldn't have been more impressed by her charms.

    • Barbara Rice Barbara Rice says:

      Anyone can have a bad time in any city, but a vacation also what you make it. I can't say what got Mr. Cohen off on such a bad start, but what he wrote certainly doesn't sound at all like what we ran into.

      It did rain occasionally. There was one momentous thunderstorn and downpour in particular, but when we walked out in the evening the city was washed clean and fresh. There were crowds and long lines, but in Europe, if there's a line for something, it's usually worthwhile. Or you can alter your sightseeing times to get up early and beat the crowds. Plus many attractions offer tickets that include a reservation for a specific time, allowing you to bypass the line. Or, just walk around the city. Art is everywhere. You don't have to go into a museum to be surrounded by beauty in Florence.

      i did not see any rampant commercialism. In fact, if you arrive at a shop just as it's closing for afternoon break (usually about 1-3 PM), you can be waving fistfuls of cash in the shopkeeper's face and they'll say, "No, no, come back later." To the Italians, that afternoon break is more important than selling.

      Bad food? He couldn't possibly have been in Florence. There is NO bad food there. It is virtually 100% Italian food. I remember one sushi restaurant, a Middle Eastern take-out shop, one Chinese restaurant, a McDonald's. EVERYTHING else was Italian. Maybe he doesn't like pasta and pizza? Too bad, because it's the best ever.

      i think he was just having a bad day.

  5. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    I know the big cities is where the great sites reside . . . . but there are so many little gems to explore in Italy. You don't like the city? Drive 12 miles south on the ricardo to Tarvenella val du Pesa or any other of dozens of other villages that dot the country side. We encountered and classical music festival one week-end, a farmer's market on the plaza, GREAT restaurants. Wineries with tasting rooms .. .I dunno . . . I seem to agree with Barbara: vacations are what you make of them . . . and yes, i wish I lived in a country that practiced REPOSA (siesta)!!!

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I agree, there are lots of wonderful things to be seen in the small towns and villages of Italy, but most people won't manage to make it that far. I want to present a picture of what can be found in some of the bigger cities, places people might be be able to visit one day. It's the bigger cities that made me fall in love with Italy, and the smaller towns are more gems in her crown!

      America could do little afternoon rest every day. Europe has us beat on that front!

  6. Avatar Sunny says:

    Oh my goodness! I love the vespa picture. I feel like I'm actually there standing with you looking up through hole in the Pantheon watching the rain. How do you do that? Make me feel like I'm really there? In a previous post, I lamented about how I had another Italian city to go to…now I have three!!! I truly love reading your articles.

  7. Avatar Shirley Barone says:

    Matt,
    I love your articles on Italy so much. I love the pictures and some day I'm going there and when I do, I'll be driving a bright purple Vespa, with streamers on the handle bars. I can't wait for Florence!

  8. Avatar Cynthia says:

    Great article Matt. I too enjoyed the women dressed to the nines (OOOH, the shoes!) traveling on Vespas.

    And what is with the guy who whined about bad food in Italy?? He wants to whine about bad food, I could take him to a few places in Iowa. Feh. Some people don't know happiness when it bites them in the butt.
    Cynthia (aka abookmom)

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      We could ALL give that guy a list of bad places to eat as long as our arm and still need another arm for more! However, even a bad meal in Italy (if they exist) is still a MEAL IN ITALY. He's missing the forrest for the trees, I think.

  9. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    Oh, Matt . . . I understand about your pieces and (BTW, most excellent writing) trying to give the reader a thumbnail sketch of your experience. And the cities is where most would spend their time if their time was limited. My comment was simply meant to convey to the person with a bad experience, "if it wasn't working for you . . there's plenty of other places and experiences to be had " . . . especially in Italy. Don't whine, go find 'em!!!

    Keep writing those pieces . . . even if it does make me "home" sick!!!

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I took your comment as such, and couldn't agree more. Anyone can find fault with any city in the world, but it's such a shame to travel all that way and get whiny about crowds or the heat, both of which are to be expected in the summer. He would have done better to take your advice and indeed see the countryside as a different place to explore this wonderful country.

      I'm ready to hop on a plane TODAY and go back, I swear.

      • Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

        Let me know when you make your reservations . . .. I WANNA GO TOO!! There, that's my whine for the day!!!!

        My son and his family lived in Naples for three years . . . my grandkids got LOTS of visits from Grandma!!! LOL!!!

        • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

          I booked my next trip way back in the frozen days of last February, but if you're willing to scrunch up, you're free to squeeze into my spare suitcase. Bring extra water!

  10. Avatar Cindy C says:

    I love that the number of gelato scoops is dependent upon the number of attractions seen that day… Obviously, another great article. Can't wait to hear about your girl, Flo.

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      I think it never hurts to add an extra scoop of gelato, just for good measure. After all, coming back to America means leaving really good gelato behind!

  11. Avatar Karen C says:

    The author of the book and his wife took one year off to travel with a two year old and two older children. The covered a lot of countries and tried to home school, as well. Not all things worked out for them. I think they put their kids in great danger several times, and I think they visited Florence at a bad time in their agenda.

    Florence is one of the places I dream of going. I'll take a purple Vespa too, please!

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Not having traveled with anyone under the age of 9, I can't imagine what would possess someone to take a toddler on a trip to Europe. Insanity. That may have tainted his view of Florence, and he only has himself to blame. I admit I feel very little pity.

      I'll place orders for the purple Vespas as soon as I land!

  12. Avatar Adrienne jacoby says:

    Matt . . . i can scrunch with the best of 'em. If I were scrunched into your suitcase, it wouldn't be the water I was drinking but the water drank I'd have to worry about. LOL!!!!

  13. Avatar Sunny says:

    One more purple Vespa, please!

  14. Avatar Sandy Tincher says:

    Hi Matt,

    Reading karen's comment about the book David Cohen wrote on Florence made me think that he was a"typical tourist" and didn't get off the beaten track. We asked locals where they went and they sent us to out of the way museums where there were "no" lines and away from the tourist restaurants where the food was delicious (made in the kitchen by Mama), and the prices were very reasonable. That guy needs to learn how to travel. Waiting to see your comments on Florence–bet you are not the "typical tourist".

    • Avatar Matt Grigsby says:

      Always ask locals where to go or eat, and they're rarely wrong. I've also learned it never hurts when shopping for food to ask the vendor what he or she would eat/drink. We've gotten some pretty fantastic olive oil and wine that way.

      As for being a typical tourist, I'd say that while I definitely visit all the big tourist sites, I'm always aware that for every statue of the David, there's a dozen lesser works of art that will take your breath away too. It's worth it to find them.