Rome, part 1: Voi siete qui

voi siete qui

Rome is everything you’ve heard and more. Compared to other European cities, it’s dirty, chaotic, and corrupt. It’s also one of the most glorious and seductive places on earth, a feast for the senses and the home of more beauty than anyone can comprehend.

My partner and I recently returned from two fabulous weeks in Rome, my first time back since the year I lived there in grad school. I thought I knew what to expect. I remembered the copious ruins—

forum from palatine hill

tempio di vesta

—the innumerable ancient headless statues, some plundered from Greece, some hauled out of the Tiber river, some just lying around in some guy’s field until someone thought to pick them up—
eros torso


—the umbrella pines, and the way the massive dome of Saint Peter’s basilica in Vatican City dominates the skyline—

palatine hill


san pietro

—and certainly the brash confidence of Romans themselves, perhaps best exemplified by the way they drive:

piazza venezia

What I couldn’t have predicted, what had faded in my memory, was the unique and intoxicating smell of the city. It’s a heady combination of cigarettes, espresso clouds rolling out from bars on every corner, flowers in full bloom, motorbike exhaust, women’s perfumes (as complicated and sexy as their shoes), pizza ovens’ wood smoke, and sultry, inescapable heat. It’s a very satisfyingly adult smell. Like leather. Or gin.

For this visit we rented an apartment in Trastevere, a rough medieval neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying:

pza smt


Trastevere isn’t on the well-beaten Vatican/Colosseum/Trevi Fountain tourist path and it’s notoriously difficult to navigate, which makes it a terrific place to stay. We were right down the street from two of my favorite small museums, the Palazzo Corsini and the Villa Farnesina. The latter is the home of several Raphael frescoes that recently underwent a superb restoration, such as his “Galatea”:


Doesn’t it take your breath away? That’s just painted on the wall. Of a house. And Rome is so jam-packed with stuff that many guidebooks don’t even list it.

So what does one do in Rome? Well, the museums alone would take months, assuming your brain didn’t melt from processing it all. And you can visit churches. A lot of churches—more than 365 in the city limits. There’s San Luigi dei Francesi, with a life-sized statue of Jeanne d’Arc at the door and three Caraviggios tucked into the back chapel. There’s Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which boasts the body—but not the head—of Saint Catherine of Siena. There’s Santa Maria della Concezione, with a crypt where the bones of over 4000 Capuchin monks are arranged in artful designs. There’s San Clemente, where Mithraic cults sacrificed bulls in the 2nd century, before Christians built a church on the same spot a couple hundred years later. By the twelfth century, a full basilica was added above that. Thanks to careful excavation, you can travel far underground to witness all three sites.

san clemente

But where the aesthetic meets the spiritual, I much prefer the simplicity of medieval churches to the bombast of the Baroque, as at Sant’Andrea della Valle:

sant andrea

Of course, Baroque overkill is the only thing that could make the gold mosaics and Cosmati pavements of the 12th century seem “simple.” But anyone who’s ever tasted spaghetti alla carbonara or seen Versace’s designs in his heyday can tell you that when it comes to Roman style…more is more.

[To be continued next Thursday]

9 responses to “Rome, part 1: Voi siete qui”

  1. Mike N. says:

    The Trastavere photos are my two favorites from this post. I want to be there so badly I can taste it. A testament to your descriptions.

  2. Adriana says:

    Yay, what a treat today on the GW! Can’t wait for Part II. I LOVED your description of the smell.

  3. pizzocalabro says:

    Ah, the evocative reek of an Italian city street. How I long to smell it again.

    The photos are fantastic. Wish I were there.

  4. Scotty says:

    Before I read this post I never wanted to go to Rome. Thanks for the attainable goal.

  5. Rachel says:

    By all means, go! And take me in your suitcase.

  6. Stephanie Wells says:

    Hurrah for the return of Rachel!!! Especially when she’s returning from somewhere so fantastic! I’m with Adriana–the smells paragraph is the best part of the whole thing. Adult smells, like leather . . . like gin.

  7. rach — i’m feeling jealous that we’ve never made it to europe w/ you. we’re heading to paris in a couple weeks (!) and will think of you the whole time we’re there. let’s just plan a summer vacation sometime, can’t we?

  8. ps — terrific photos!

  9. Rachel says:

    Thanks! Alas, I am not that talented. They are all courtesy of my lovely traveling companion.