For most of my life, I dreamed of living in and exploring Italy. My father’s family is Italian; his parents came from a town—village really—about 90 miles east of Rome. The first neighborhood I lived in had a strong mix of Italian immigrants. Many of my father’s relatives lived within a half mile area. My grandmother lived with my aunt and uncle, on the street behind us. All we had to do was cut across our backyard to their backyard and we were there.
I vaguely remember the old ladies (to me—they were probably not much older than I am now. Hey! Wait!) sitting in my Auntie Mella’s kitchen with my Nana, speaking Italian. At least one day a week the “mid-century” metal and Formica kitchen table was covered with flour, then pasta. I would watch Auntie Mella make raviolis, rolling out the bottom layer of pasta, putting in scoops of meat and cheese, overlaying with the top layer, pressing down gently, then using a pizza cutter type implement to cut out the squares. (This was long before the days of pasta machines.)
Naturally, when I got it into my head decades ago to move to Europe, I planned to live in Italy. It was definitely one of those “I must see before I die” places. But Italy tightened up their requirements for immigration. I looked into citizenship requirements—a little easier for me because of my grandparents—but still a difficult process. I started casting around for other places in Europe to live. Portugal kept popping up at the top of “best places to live,” the visa process and requirements were easier, and here I am. I think I made the right choice for me.
My plan was always to live relatively cheaply and explore Europe from my base. COVID put that plan on hold for months. Finally, in October, I had my freshly minted residency permit and vaccination certificate in hand and I was ready to travel. Friends met me in Rome and we spent nine fun and slightly chilly days exploring Italy. For me, this was a trip to get my feet wet, to take a look around and see what areas I’d like to visit again and explore more deeply.
The Vatican, Of Course
Of course we did the Vatican museum, which starts you off with rather mundane items with no context as you walk around the lobby. We wound our way through, the first displays within reach and therefore touchable. (We quickly ascertained that the “touchable” items were castings and not priceless artifacts as represented.) The deeper into the museum we went, the more valuable (and out of reach) the items on exhibit. We went up stairs and down stairs, moved into side galleries and through galleries. All of it, of course, leading to the ultimate goal of every visitor: the Sistine Chapel. No photography is allowed in there and people are asked not to speak (or use hushed tones) so that everyone can take it all in.
Section of a ceiling of just one of the galleries leading up to the Sistine Chapel. Not too shabby, eh?
Going through the galleries that came after the Sistine Chapel was just more overwhelm. A LOT of gold and jewels. By the end of it, all I could think was that the Vatican could wipe out poverty by selling off a few bits and bobs. Seriously. For some reason they choose not to. Just sayin.
Is it stunning? Yes, of course. It made me wonder what other cool stuff they might have locked up in the vaults.
Best Decision of Rome: A Walking Tour
My travel companion Mary Anne was wise and resourceful enough to find Nina, a Rick Steves’ guide, to give us a walking tour of Rome and that made a huge difference in our experience there. She has been a guide for over a decade and was passionate about the history of Rome and, as we teased her, she had a thing for Marcus Aurelius. (But really, who wouldn’t?) We started at the Colosseum (our Airbnb was just a block or two away) and hours later ended at the Pantheon. When you’re looking at ruins, having someone fill in the gaps for you helps you to imagine how things were. For example, as we looked at the Arch of Constantine, Nina explained that this was one of only three remaining original arches, pointing out the sections that were “borrowed” from elsewhere which gave context to the economics of that particular period. At every stop, she expertly weaved in the changes that occurred over time, the politics that were behind the structures, the daily life of the people at the time.
At Trajan’s Column, we admired the carvings that curl around the column like a scroll, leading up to a statue of St. Peter at the top. Wait! Who? Frankly, we wouldn’t have known who was standing up there or what we were looking at. Nina filled in that the carvings depict Trajan’s victorious campaigns against the Dacians. A statue of Trajan had originally topped the column but it disappeared in the Middle Ages and was later replaced by a statue of St. Peter. I suspect the original statue is hidden in a vault somewhere deep in the Vatican, but that’s just me.
We ended with a tour of the Ghetto of Rome, a Jewish enclave that was established in 1555. When Italy surrendered to Nazi Germany in September of 1943, almost 8,000 Italian Jews were in Rome. Within weeks, the Nazis demanded a payment of 50 kilograms of gold from the Jewish community, threatening to deport 200 family heads if the payment wasn’t made. Payment was made by the deadline, two days later. Less than three weeks after that, the Nazis raided the Jewish Ghetto, detaining 1,259 people. Of those, 1,035 were sent to Auschwitz. Only 16 survived.
Nina pointed out the “stumbling stones”—brass markers at the houses of Holocaust victims who were taken from their homes. (Image Credit: Mary Anne em Radmacher)
The history of Rome is complicated, harsh, a study in extreme wealth and poverty, all of it wrapped in intrigue. It is a city of layers, above and below the surface. It is a working city, with residents impatiently threading their way through the crowds of gawping tourists. It is busy, full of color and movement. It is not weighed down by its history—history is thoroughly integrated into daily life. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) called it “the city of visible history” and it still is.