In this journal:
- ancient empire capital；
- a pay-per-use elevator；
- tons of pasta, tons.
Per Aspera Ad Astra.Latin Proverb
The Holy See-ty
This time, my 2 short days in Rome is not really a comprehensive exploration like most other places on this blog, as I have actually been to Rome before when I was a child. In fact, Rome was the first European city I had ever visited! Additionally, this EuroHop is incredibly tight on time constraints, and I had virtually no time in Italy, which I am sure many of you have visited before. I mostly chose Rome as it was one of the few places that still had access to my next stop, Dubrovnik, in winter, and also because of the fact that a good friend happened to be living in this ancient capital at that time.
Of course, I met up with this certain friend in an old local pasta restaurant. What can I possibly do in Italy except devouring spaghetti? Pizza? Oh that may be the only other viable option. We ordered a different noodly goodness each, and got right into catching up. Remember Anna? Yes, my great French friend that treated me well even though I am mostly just a slab of mostly-fat meat attached to a below-average personality, and definitely emits way too much sound. After our last adventure together in Lyon, she seemed to want to get in touch with her Italian heritage, and promptly moved to Rome as a personal challenge and internal journey. While she was busy asking me about my life in 2019, I was busy slurping noodles, to the dismay of her but a fat grin from the chef and server.
Needless to say, these are the best pasta I have ever had in my entire life. I have not been back to Italy since 2015, and this gooy substance has not changed at all. The chewiness of freshly handmade pasta can never be compared to the dry ones manufactured by machines hanging around in the supermarket aisles, and the sauces are unfathomably rich in flavor. Mine was enhanced with minced meat, but I could not find the meat anywhere, as it was dissolved into the tomato sauce, while Anna’s was covered with a layer of clams. After the dinner, it was only reasonable to catch up while taking a walk along the innermost areas of Rome.
We walked past the Ceaser Square. Unlike the salad named after the emperor, this square was actually constructed under his command 2 millenia in the past, while Cesar Salad was invented less than 100 years ago in Tijuana, Mexico. Then here you see the Column of the Immaculate Conception, whose Mary on the top receives a new wreath of flowers every year on December 8th thanks to the brave local firefighters. We eventually passed by the ancient ruins of old Rome city, mostly tucked underground, semi-protruding from the subterranean slumber, and reached the city icon: Rome Colosseum.
No introduction is necessary, this giant has stood unparalleled ever since its late 1st-century debut. It is so large and monumental that 2000 years of weathering did not bother it one bit, and maybe it will stand for 2000 more years. It probably could house 60000 to 80000 people when it was in use, and just in comparison, most large football stadiums we have today, constructed using steel beams and concrete with modern machinery, can house approximately 50000 people. The ancient Romans still beat out almost everyone today! Now that is crazily impressive. Sadly, we were unable to gain access of the inside, as the colosseum has a very packed ticketing system, mostly sold out weeks in advance to tour groups from Asia. However, it is still not difficult to hear the echos emitting from the distant past, when thousands of nobles from all around the empire, larger than anything else at the time, congregated at this theatre, larger than any other at that time, cheering for the sparring gladiators.
Right next to the famous landmark, sat Arch of Constantine. This is the largest triumph arch ever constructed by the Romans, and is basically the foundation of all triumph arches built for the later centuries. The victorious Roman army would march into the city from the road that used to link the gates to the forum, and they would pass right underneath this building. On the other side of the street, in the ancient center, sat a much newer structure, Vittoriano. Commemorating the first grand victory of the first ever king of a unified Italy, Victor Emmanuel, this gigantic modern forum is a testament to the power of this country in late 19th century. It overlooks the entire Piazza Venezia, and is wonderously illuminated at night.
Then, we have the beautifully quiet Piazza Navona. Its name has quite a bit of history. Built on top of an old arena housing the games, the Romans called it Circus Agonalis, since agone is the latin word for competition. Later, it was changed into “in avone”, and then shortened to “avone”, eventually arriving at its current name of Avona. The 17th-century church hence boasts the title of Sant’Agnese in Agone, clearly inspired by the old name. The fountain in the middle of this charming square is called Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, Fountain of Four Rivers, complementing the church gracefully as both are built during the peak of Baroque period. The four rivers are represented in each cardinal direction, and each corrsponds to a continent: Nile for Africa, Danube for Europe, Gaunges for Asia, and Rio de la Plata for Americas.
And here you can see the famous catholic basilica Santa Maria Maggiore. Known for the famous Salus Populi Romani painting, which depicts Saint Mary holding baby Jesus in stereotypical Byzantine fashion, this major worshipping place is also a rather strange occurance geopolitically. Sitting a few kilometers away from the Papal state, Santa Maria Maggiore is dedicated by an ancient treaty that it should always be owned by the church, so even though it sits on Italian soil, the building and its insides are completely under the jurisdiction of the Holy See.
Ahhh, good’ol Trevi Fountain. With a whopping 250000 reviews on google maps, this Baroque pool somehow managed to be more popular on the internet than Colosseum a few kilometers down from the road. Originally a small aqueduct junction built by the Romans, it was renovated during the peak of Baroque period for some extra flair. Thanks to the famous movie Three Coins in the Fountain, thousands of tourists toss coins with their right hand over their left shoulder on a daily basis, amassing nearly 3000 euros in the pool every single day! That is 1.3 million euros in the pool every single year! Do not worry, these metal is not allowed to oxidize in the blue waters: the money is used to feed a group of local homeless persons.
During daylight, we paid a visit to the Spanish Steps, an asymmetrical 135-step-stair situated on a steep hill. This is another Baroque claim to fame in the city, constructed as a way to connect the church on the top to the masses at the bottom, and is now one of the most famous photoshoot places in Rome thanks to its prominent appearance in the icon of cinematography, Roman Holiday. At the bottom of the stairs, in Piazza di Espagna, the 17th century Fontana della Barcaccia sat quietly in the middle of the square, bubbling clear water conducted from the nearby mountains via an aqueduct built in 19 BCE. The shape of a sunken ship is inspired by a popular legand that a flood in Tiber River carried a small boat onto the square in 1598, and when the water receded, this broken boat was stuck here.
For most of the time, I just hang out in Anna’s temporary residence in downtown, binge-watching TV shows when the storms outside raged on. We are both big TV show addicts, so there was no better time to just chill indoors while discussing our life plans. What shook me to the core, however, was the fact that in her apartment building, ELEVATOR COSTS MONEY. What.the.actual.fuck. I know capitalism is all about charging as much as you can, as frequently as you can, but elevator rides, really!? In an apartment building that you have bought and still pay a monthly management fee!? How??? What kind of moustache-twirling cane-tipping grin-wearing monopolistic shit is that? However, the ingenious working class people like me always have a workaround against this kind of bougeoisie bullshittery. I simply asked Anna to climb up the 6 floors to the top, and press the call button while I was inside. Voila! Not a single drop of sweat!
Of course, dinner had to be even more pasta. No possible alternative exists, end of story. We devoured our fettuccine drenched in a rich meaty sauce, and inhaled another dessert probably made my calorie counter burst into tears of agony. We trudged on, next morning was a perfect sunny day, best suited for a little walk to another country. Yes, walk across the border sounds like a special kind of fun.
World’s smallest country is the size of a city block, whose borders are guarded by a few dozen tourist touts and souvenir shops. St. Peter’s Square at this time was especially festive, as a large nativity scene was set up in the middle by the obelisk. Since this is the most prominent place of Catholicism, the crowds were already suffocating me on this Saturday morning. The queue for entering St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest Christian structure in the entire world, meandered from the entrance all the way across the plaza, along the columnated border for half a country, literally, and reached all the way into Italy itself. Nah bro, time to get out before the entire country gets literally filled with people!
Back to Italy
A difficult 10-minute trek later, we were on the banks of Tiber River, overlooked by Castel Sant’Angelo, a large cylindrical building towering over the rest of the sceneries. This was built by the Roman emperor Hadrian as he and his family’s final resting place, and was the tallest structure in Rome during its prime. It was topped with a roof-top garden, and a scenic hidden connection directly into Rome center. It was later converted into a castle by the popes, and eventually turned into a museum we see today. It is topped by a statue of archangel Michael, facing directly towards Pont Sant’Angelo, a gorgeous bridge featuring 10 angels each holding something related to Christ and his death, ranging from the lance, the cross, the nails, and all the way to a sponge.
We proceeded along the waterfront, which was covered by a thick layer of crunchy leaves, freshly fallen with the lightest whif of winter breeze. Not many people chose to walk along this river, probably because Rome has way better attractions than the slightly-polluted city waterways, but I enjoyed it nonetheless, just a little bit of a pasttime with a nice friend in the nice cozy afternoon, what else shall I ask for? We continued along this area, and eventually reached a neighborhood called Trastevere, one of the oldest fully-preserved neighborhoods in the world. This area had been in use ever since the Regal period nearly 3000 years ago, and its name comes from old Latin trans Tiberim, which means “across the Tiber River.” It has the oldest church in town, Basilica di Santa Maria, consecrated in 3rd or 4th century, and the oldest synagogue as well. It is so old that nobody even knows why the area symbol is a golden lion on a red background!
The narrow, cobbled streets formed a stark contrast to pompous and wide boulevards built with papal influences, or the symmetrically grandiose monuments erected by kings and presidents. These organically-grown webs of thoroughfares felt more of a natural result of such an ancient city, and the least touched by powerful rulers’ careless hands. However, that does not mean it has escaped capitalism unscathed either. Most of ground floor spaces have been converted into pubs and restaurants, perfectly suited for the flocks of American students on their semester abroad in one of the half-dozen American university campuses scattered around the neighborhood. At night, large gatherings of tourists and young international exchange students congregate at every corner, bringing much-not-needed raucous disturbances. Yet, mostly, the area managed to retain its charm, with church bell rings echoing in the little alleyways full of local grocers chit-chatting with old grandmas.
While I was busy examining the old architecture omnipresent in the neighborhood, Anna dragged me into a tiny hole in the wall. Initially startled by her devlish grin, I was quickly enamoured by the gorgeous-looking fried foods presented with a gigantic variety, too big to be comprehended by human mind. I may be forever alone in this world, but that gaping hole in my heart can be filled, at least on a 3-hour basis, with these little fried goodies. This is one of the few remaining friggitorie shop named Supplì Roma, specializing in almost all kinds of fried food. Its most famous dish, of course, is the namesake supplì, a large rice ball with a myriad of fillings, covered by bread crumbs and deep-fried to a golden hue. This Rome special’s innards can be with tomato sauce or without, vegetarian or full of minced meat, or perhaps even chicken, hence its name, supplì, being a literal Roman-ization of the French word suprise. Anna ordered a classic one for me, and wow, surprise, it is like a calzone meeting a rice bowl, just to be interjected by a deep frier! What an interesting concept, and what a delicious snack! I thought so to myself as I managed to pull out the long string of mozarella.
I devoured the rest of my order, including an artichoke, a slice of pizza, a few other fried goods that I was too lazy to name, while Anna tried explaining to me that the supplì is sometimes called supplì al telefono because the cheese that I managed to pull out to nearly 30cm long looked like telephone cables. I simply ingested my daily 12000 calories, with a smile as big as the chunks of scraps hanging out between my chins. Eventually, I had to bid Anna farewell, as I had my flight later that afternoon. Ugh! Why does good time always have to pass so quickly!
So, I gave Anna a big hug, while using that opportunity to wipe down some oil on her jacket, before setting off to Fumicino airport. While waiting for my flight to Dubrovnik, I could not help but think about an old Latin proverb I heard recently, Per Aspera, Ad Astra. It roughly translates to “Through hardship, reach towards the stars.”
Just here in the capital of the everglorious Roman Empire, thousands of years ago, the citizens, emperors, priests, and scholars, traversed some of the most iconic and difficult histories. And now, thanks to their aspirations and hardships, Rome has reached a level of stardom it has never enjoyed before. Sure, it may not be exactly the center of the world now, but its status has risen beyond mere geographical importance. It is difficult to talk about history and culture of most of the western world without mentioning this pivotal empire at least a dozen times, just look at my journals about Germany, Spain, Malta, and much more. Rome has become the foundation of many more cities, transcending into a concept rather than a physical manifestation of a metropolis. In ways more than one, it has truly reached the heavens, with those stars twinkling in the sky.
Within the blink of an eye, my flight had crossed both the Italian mountains and the tranquil Adriatic Sea. When I saw the jagged coastlines of the Croatian Dalmantian islands for the first time, I realized the focal point of this trip had just arrived. Dubrovnik, the jewel of these azure coasts, would surely blow me away, and I believe, it will do so for you too.