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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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