Monday, 10 October 2011

Italy 2011, Rome, Piazzas and Pizzas

Our plan was to spend two days in Rome and today we would visit the northern classical part of the city and the areas that are predominantly Renaissance and Baroque in architectural character and we would leave Ancient Rome of the Emperors and the Gladiators until the following day.

It was approaching midday as we set off towards the Piazza della Republica and then down the long straight Via Nazionale towards the centre of the city. We could see the huge Victor Emmanuel monument now but before we reached it we took a turning right that took us past the Quirinale Palace built by the Popes on one of the original seven hills of Rome, previously the home of the Italian Monarchy and now the official residence of the President of Italy and to our first sightseeing destination, the famous Trevi Fountain.

There was no need for a map to find it, we just followed the swarm of people, because this has to be one of the busiest places in Rome with the huge fountain almost completely filling the tiny Piazza with people crammed in and shuffling through as they squeeze slowly past the crowds. Thirty-five years ago, on my first visit, people were still allowed to sit on the monument and cool their feet off in the water but that has been stopped now. There is a tradition of throwing three coins in the fountain guarantees that you will return one day to Rome. These days’ tourists with a desire to return to the Eternal City deposit an average of €3,000 a day in the fountain and this is collected up every night and is used to fund social projects for the poor of the city. That is probably why people aren’t allowed to paddle in it anymore and there were plenty of police on duty to make sure that we didn’t.

It was time for a refreshment break and true to form Kim rejected the first perfectly suitable place that we came across so we walked a little way further and found a pavement café where we stopped for a while. It was pleasant but the cost was a shock when the waiter presented a bill for €25 for three small beers, a Coca-Cola and a bottle of water, which was expensive by any standards and much more than we really like to pay.

Rested and refreshed we made our way now to the most famous and most crowded of all Rome squares, the Piazza di Spagna, shaped like a bow tie and surrounded by tall, elegant shuttered houses painted in pastel shades of ochre, cream and russet red and in the centre a fountain shaped as a leaking, sunken boat at the foot of the famous Spanish Steps that were crammed with people making their way to the top and back under the shade of cheap parasols sold on the streets by the illegal traders.

To the right we saw the house, now a museum, where the English poet John Keats lived and died and to the left the Babington Tea Rooms which was opened in 1896 by two Englishwomen who spotted a market for homesick British tourists with a yearning for a traditional afternoon pot of Earl Grey and a plate of cream scones. We turned our back on this and walked along Via Condotti, which is Rome’s most exclusive and most expensive shopping street where the major designers have their shops and where prices were way beyond our budget!

At the Via del Corso we turned left and walked back towards the Victor Emmanuel Monument at it southern end but turned off half way down and in a matter of minutes passed through hundreds of years of history, first through Piazza Colona and the column of Marcus Aurelius, then skirting past the Italian Parliament building, the Palazzo di Montecitorio, and after that the Temple of Hadrian with its huge columns which is now the façade of the Italian stock exchange.

It was lunchtime now but after the earlier scare we weren’t prepared to risk Rome restaurant prices so in the narrow and shady Via del Seminario leading to the Pantheon we found a fast food take away and ordered a slice of pizza each and ate it in the street before continuing with our itinerary.

We visited the Pantheon, which is one of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings, originally built as a pagan temple but later converted into a Christian Church and is the burial place of the ex kings of Italy and other important Italians such as the artist Raphael. Next it was the Baroque Piazza Navona in the blistering heat of the afternoon as the temperature reached well into the thirties.

I liked all of these sights but I was intrigued by something much more mundane. All of the manhole covers displayed the Roman symbol SPQR which, I learned later, is the motto of the city and appears in the city’s coat of arms, as well as on many of the civic buildings. SPQR comes from the Latin phrase, Senātus Populusque Rōmānus (The Senate and the People of Rome), referring to the government of the ancient Republic. It appeared on coins, at the end of public documents, in dedications of monuments and public works, and was the symbol on the standards of the Roman legions.

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