Place: Rome, Italy
Date: April 2012
People: Daniel, Corradino, and Gio
Lessons Learned: If you love drugs, go to Spain. Romans love to go out and party to celebrate a beautiful day, regardless of how early in the week the day actually is. Rome is stunning at nighttime and much more peaceful. When at the Trevi Fountain, throw in a coin and make a wish. Seeing Rome on a moped is the most special experience, and it’s a very Italian and authentic way to discover the city.
When I was back at the flat I again had troubles opening the door but luckily someone was home when I got there. Daniel* and Corradino* were sitting in the kitchen and talking after a long day of work. Once I had all my shopping bags stored in Gio’s bedroom I joined them. After some time of chatting and regaling them with stories of my adventures that day of exploring the basilicas and shopping, Gio* entered the flat. He had been gone the past few days on a trip to Spain and although I had been sleeping in his bedroom for the previous two nights, I never made his acquaintance until that day. Like any face to face encounter with someone from the internet, it was mildly awkward at first but the conversation became more easy going the more we got to know each other. It was intriguing to see what he looked like in true actual reality. He had reddish brown curls and amber eyes, he was tall but trim with very thin legs. He was much older than me, 13 years to be exact.
He had interesting stories of his time in Spain. One of the country’s appeals is it’s convenient location to Morocco. With the two countries nearly touching each other, Spain has always enjoyed the privilege of being first in line to receive Morocco’s drugs, such as marijuana and hash, and pass them on to the rest of Europe. With that privilege, the Spanish are able to buy at a cheap price and upsell to other countries. The further down the line it goes, the more expensive it gets; such is life in the drug world. Gio told me about how expensive marijuana is in Italy. On average it goes for 5€ a gram, but in Spain it is much cheaper. Gio certainly took advantage of the discount during his time there. He grinned and chuckled as he told us, “You have no idea how much marijuana I’ve smoked these last days!”
He was a funny guy with a free spirit and a good sense of humour. When I told him of the basilicas I visited, he smiled and placed a hand on his heart, “So you visited San Giovanni? Since I am also Giovanni I like to call it Saint Me! But…” He paused to take out a bag of loose tobacco and measure out chunks of it onto a cigarette paper and roll it into a cigarette, “It is actually one of the uglier churches, there are much more beautiful churches in Rome.”
I was blown away by such a statement. I had never before witnessed so much art and detail in an interior of a religious institution. Growing up protestant, the churches I went to as a child were minimalist and bare and seemed to pale in comparison to what was found in San Giovanni. To call it ugly seemed to me a blasphemous statement. When I told him this he responded with a smile, “You just wait and see the other churches in Rome, you will see what I’m talking about. It’s a nice church, but Rome has much prettier churches.”
I later did see many other churches in the city and they were indeed pretty, but San Giovanni still holds a special place in my heart, since it was my first experience visiting a religious institution for the sake of its art and wares, rather than for a religious purpose such as mass, baptism, funeral etc.
As we were discussing the art and beauty of Roman Catholic churches, Giovanni momentarily slipped into his bedroom and presented me with a book he had on the sculptor Bernini. The book contained an array of images of the many works he had done in his lifetime scattered across Rome. It was inspiring and it filled me with excitement and euphoria for the coming weeks ahead, which I would spend discovering this ancient and wondrous city.
As I was flipping through the book Gio asked me what my plans were for the evening. I had none. He then invited me to go on a trip with him on his moped to see an important work of Bernini’s that was not to be missed.
I accepted the offer and tucked my camera into my track jacket pocket. Gio gave me his extra helmet to put on and I sat behind him clutching his waist as he drove his moped onto the street in the direction of the city centre.
We went past all of the sites that I had visited the first day I explored the city on my own, but at a much faster pace, now that I wasn’t on foot. The sites had a different appeal to them as they basked under their lights placed around them, so that they could still illuminate and shine for visitors regardless of the time of day. The streets were much more peaceful with less tourists and commuters in the city centre.
When we got to the end of Via dei Fori Imeriali, Gio stopped the moped and showed me a section of the street right of Il Vittoriano that was covered and closed off for construction.
“You see the construction there,” He looked over his shoulder at me to see that I noticed where his finger was pointing. I nodded. “This will be a stop in the new train line. You see that, the balcony there?” He now pointed to a large building left of Il Vittoriano on the Piazza Venezia. “That is the balcony where Mussolini gave many of his speeches to the public. You see this place where we are standing right now? This is the heart of Rome, the very center of the city, so this spot is very important.”
As he told me this everything began to make sense. When one observes where the ancient remains of the city are and how close they are spatially from each other, from the various Fora, to the Pantheon, the Coliseum, Palatine Hill, Circus Maximus etc. everything becomes more comprehensible once you know where the center is. The forum as a center of business and commerce and the heart of any city, is at the very center of it all and everything else is organically built and extended from this center. Like a heart in a body, I could understand and feel how the blood and life force of this settlement flowed out in all directions with everything flowing back into the center and once more flowing back out. It was a smart move for Mussolini to deliver speeches right in this heart. In the heart of the heart of Italy. It’s deeply symbolic.
It was exciting to have an actual Roman as my personal tour guide. Shortly after we reached the end of Piazza Venezia, Gio parked his moped and we took off our helmets and saw the rest of the city by foot. My hair was a little messed up from the helmet but I was happy to have experienced what its like on a moped.
I asked Gio why we parked the moped instead of driving. “Because I want to show you something and it’s nicer to go there by foot,” he answered.
As we walked down the street I noticed that there were many bars and clubs full of people. The patios full of chairs and tables were massive and extended far out onto the cobblestoned street. I had never seen such large bar patios in my life. In Edmonton most patios have limited tables and they are much smaller and more confined to our narrow footpaths. I was also surprised to see these patios full and bustling. It seemed like the whole city was alive and partying. Such a sight wouldn’t have surprised me had it been a Friday or Saturday but it was a Monday. I had never seen so many people out on a weekday, especially a Monday. I asked Gio why it was so.
“Well there was a lot of rain the last few days and now that the weather is finally warm and sunny again people want to enjoy it.”
I found this mentality intriguing. My city’s nightlife is almost always dead on a weekday, especially on a Monday, no matter what the weather is like. I liked this carefree attitude of the Romans. When your city experiences a beautiful sunny day, why not celebrate and enjoy it for what it’s worth?
As we walked further on Gio paused, “This is it, we are nearly there!” He exclaimed.
“What do you mean we’re nearly there?” I asked.
“Let me show you, but you can’t peak it’s a surprise!” He then put his hands over my eyes as we turned the corner. “Count to ten,” he ordered. I did as I was instructed. As we walked on, I began to hear the sound of falling water. When I got to ten Gio removed his hands from my eyes and showed me my surprise: Trevi Fountain, or as the Italians call it, Fontana di Trevi.
It was such a lovely surprise. Before I came to Rome, I was told by a friend that seeing the Trevi Fountain at nighttime is much better than in the day and one of those must see experiences, although it’s best to go accompanied rather than by yourself for the purpose of safety and company. I was excited to be able to experience it. Later on in my trip I did go and visit the fountain during the day. It’s beautiful no matter what time of day you go but I personally prefer it at night. It’s less crowded than during the day and it feels more peaceful and special to see the fountain illuminated against the night sky and to hear the water lapping against the stone and not feel crammed in at all sides by hordes of people.
Trevi Fountain during the day
“You know what you have to do now?” Gio told me, “You have to throw a coin in the water with your back to the water and make a wish, it’s tradition.”
I awkwardly searched through my money belt tucked safely away beneath my jeans and procured a small coin. I must have looked silly rifling through my money belt, which was placed under my jeans just above my crotch, but I figured it would be the best hiding place for my money and passport. Besides, if someone were to try and steal it, I would know right away since it’s close to a “sensitive” area.
I felt a little silly and bashful about throwing a coin into a fountain and making a wish, I hadn’t done anything like that since I was a kid when I would throw pennies into tacky shopping mall fountains in Canada. Nevertheless I did what I was instructed.
Gio kindly bid my request of having a photo at the Trevi fountain by taking these pictures of me.
He then brought my attention to a large stone piece on the right side of the fountain that seemed to jut out and rise up and out from the fountain. “You see how that stone is carved taller than the others, it was a design of Bernini. Pope Urban VIII thought that the design of the fountain was ugly so Bernini made sure that this section of stone was tall enough to block his view of the fountain so he wouldn’t have to see it.”
I’ve later tried to look online for information about this fact of the fountain’s design but I wasn’t able to find anything so I’m not sure how true it is. But I think it’s an interesting story that adds a quirky element to the fountain’s overall structure.
After some time of gazing at the fountain and taking pictures of it, Gio offered to take me out for gelato, his treat. We came across this sign on the way, which made me die a little inside.
Ew corporate evil!!
We went to the gelateria Blue Ice. It’s a chain found throughout Rome and they have really good gelato at a decent price. As you can tell this gelateria had a lot of Nutella, lots and lots of Nutella…yum!
Any decent gelateria will have a Nutella gelato and a Kinder gelato. This gelateria certainly did and since I was in a mood for chocolate that night I got a scoop of each of those flavours.
Once we bought our gelato we went for a walk and saw other sites around the city, such as this building with large ancient looking columns.
I still have no idea what this building is called, if you know please tell me in the comment section.
We went to the Pantheon.
It is such a large and impressive building and it is wonderful to walk around the building and around its columns in order to get a sense of its sheer size. It’s especially special to see it at night because there are hardly any people around compared to in daytime. If you see the Pantheon during the day it can be so uncomfortably full and busy even outside of the building. Of course the rotunda is only available for viewing during the day, but I think the having a good look of outside of the building is just as important to see as the inside and serves as a fine example of architectural feat and ingenuity. One other reason why visiting the Pantheon was special for me was because I chose to do my course presentation on the Pantheon and I had read and written a lot on the building. But no matter how much I read or wrote about the Pantheon, I never truly appreciated the size and scope of the building until I saw it with my own eyes.
This building is massive!
We then walked further and came to Piazza Navona.
We found this random wall of butterflies at Piazza Navona
Although there were people walking around the piazza it still was nowhere near as full as during the day. Later on when I did my course we did have a lunch break at the piazza during the day and it was a much different experience than during the night. During the day it is full with art vendors and hawkers. At nighttime the art vendors are gone and the square is much more open for people to walk through uninhibited.
I love Piazza Navona, I think it’s such a beautiful place. Bernini sculpted the fountains there and they are sculpted with such detail and emotion. My personal favourite is the fountain of the four rivers, Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.
As you can probably tell from these pictures, the piazza is much different during the day than in the night
After Piazza Navona we then walked on to Largo di Torre Argentina, which contains an archeological site where remains of four ancient Roman temples were found and unromantically named Temples A,B,C, and D, which were first excavated under the patronage of Mussolini’s government. The archeological site is also a cat sanctuary for Rome’s many wild kitties. It is quite common to see cats stretching themselves under the sun on ancient remains and roaming around the site.
I didn’t take any pictures of Largo di Torre Argentina when I was there at nighttime, but here are some pictures of what it looks like during the day
Petting a kitty at Largo di Torre Argentina. I know I shouldn’t, but they’re so cute!
I asked Gio what it was like to have grown up in such a city full of artifacts, history, impressive artwork, and architecture. He told that when he was younger he wanted to leave Rome and experience other places. He did a big trip around Europe and became well-travelled in the Continent. He saw and did many things and had an abundance of unique experiences and stories. But when he came back he realized just how special his home city was and how lucky he was to grow up there. For him Rome has a lot of life and a lot of history. It’s a city that’s always surprising and never boring. Now he is happy and content to be in such a city. Not many cities in the world are like Rome and when you are in such a place, it’s easier to stay.
I asked him, “Do you ever wonder what it might have been like for your ancestors who grew up in the days of the great Roman Empire?”
“You know I don’t think that our human memories extend that far into time. Our minds are not that powerful,” he responded, “I feel like humans can only have a memory of the past that extends to a couple hundred years, that’s it. To be honest I’m not even sure if my ancestors were in Rome during the days of the Empire.”
In my head I was imagining what it would look like to see any one of Gio’s ancestors in ancient Rome. I pictured them walking through the city with its original public works and monuments in their former glory, before they crumbled and became fragmented artifacts; guesswork for archaeologists. It was a shame he didn’t want to collectively imagine this whimsical fantasy with me. Although I’m sure at some point in his life the thought must have crossed his mind.
Once we were done gazing at the excavation, we left Largo di Argentina behind and made our way back to Gio’s moped. On the way back to the apartment we went past the Coliseum and turned onto Via Labicana, Gio stopped driving momentarily to show me a street that ran parallel to Via Labicana. It had a bunch of bars and clubs.
“So this is a gay part of town,” He explained, “One time I walked into one of the bars to ask for directions and I didn’t know that it was a gay bar. My friends knew it was a gay bar but they didn’t tell me because they wanted to play a joke on me. So when I was in this bar the men there were looking at me like they wanted me sexually it was really weird. When I walked out of the bar my friends were laughing hysterically. They sure got me good with their prank!”
In later walks down Via Labicana, I would gaze down that street and always remember Gio’s funny story. It always makes me laugh and smile inside.
Once we were back in the apartment I was so tired from such a long busy day of sightseeing and walking. Before I went to bed Gio warned me, “I’m not sure what the English word is for this is,” he made a snorting sort of noise. “Do you mean snoring?” I asked. “Yes snoring,” he replied, “If I am snoring please wake me up and tell me, ‘Gio shut up your snoring’.” This warning made me giggle. Right duly noted. I had a peaceful sleep and thankfully I was not woken up by any snoring. Instead I fell into a sleep full of sweet dreams of gliding down the streets on a moped, discovering the heart of Italy in a very Italian way.