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Lessons from Rome

by Steve McKee on August 28, 2005

If the world didn’t have an Italy, we would have to invent one. It’s just too amazing of a place for us to do without.

I recently had the pleasure of a nine day sight seeing trip through Italy with Melody. When traveling there, keep the following in mind:

Wear shorts that cover your knees
Sometime between now and 1982 when I last visited Europe, the churches gave up on trying to make people wear pants and dresses when they step inside to visit a church. But they do require long shorts that at least go to your knee. This is according to the diagrams on the signs outside of churches that show a red circle around one image and a red X over another. St. Peters in Rome still enforces the old full coverage dress code, including no bare shoulders.

Ear plugs can be your friend
Rooms with a view are great, but a room directly overlooking the Spanish steps has a downside.

Rome has got an energy and buzz like no other Italian city. There are parts to the city that go to bed pretty late. The Spanish steps, that most splendid wide cascade of steps with the baroque curves and the many places to sit, are a natural people magnet all day long and into the night. It’s a place to see and be seen, and apparently also a place to play guitar and sing and chant until two in the morning. Thank you ear plugs, so soft and spongy, friend of the jet lagged.

Become a fan of the “piazza”
Piazza (pronounced pee-AHT-suh) is the Italian word for plaza. To hear the word “plaza” in English is to picture some simple rectangular urban space with a few park benches. Piazzas, as found in Italian cities, are much more dynamic than that, connoting an astonishing variety of shapes and uses that inevitably grew out of the social or artistic need of that particular location.

In Italy, it’s not just about the buildings, it’s also about the space between the buildings. (You probably know the classic example of the figure-ground relationship: is it an outline of a vase or is it two faces looking at each other?) For centuries everybody there understood this and acted in concert to respect this. Neighboring buildings will give way and subordinate themselves in order to support whatever creative concept is at work in the piazza. We Americans aren’t even close to “getting it” at the level the Renaissance era Italians were doing it.

A grand piazza may have resulted from a concerted effort by a city to establish a definitive heart of the city where civic functions can happen.

A minor piazza may have resulted simply from the widening of a street in front of a church in order to let the church be seen properly and to allow for gathering around the church steps. Notice how easily these broad stone steps tend to be used as a resting and gathering spot for the neighborhood. Take note of how a nearby building may bend back at the corner just right to make sure that your approach to the church and your view of its facade from this particular angle will be artistically magnificent.

Another piazza may derive its shape from the ruins of an ancient Roman oval race track (think chariot races) that were later used as the foundations for buildings created during the Renaissance. This is how the Piazza Navona in Rome achieved its graceful long oval shape. Later remodeling of this piazza by certain popes resulted in the addition of a fountain by the sculptor Bernini and a church by the architect Boromini making for one of the finest urban spaces on earth.

Notice how nicely all these different piazzas create natural and spontaneous spaces for friends to gather. See how easily and splendidly these piazzas allow for outdoor dining. Also take note of how the piazzas punctuate a walk through the city as narrow streets give way periodically to a more open vista of a fountain or building. This leads me to my next subject . . .

Explore on foot without a plan
In addition to visiting every site on the “must see” list for a city, it’s a good idea to just explore at random. To discover something unexpectedly is to truly discover it.

It’s quite satisfying when you follow the cobblestones of a narrow curved street and find that it opens up as a piazza in front of some great little (or not so little) church. This “discovered” place may not be remarkable enough to get into a travel guidebook, but is amazing on its own and is almost empty of people.

Go inside this church (if your shorts aren’t too short) and put .50 euros in the little metal box and light a candle in remembrance of someone or something important to you. Enter a smaller side chapel and pause in front of a 400 year old painting of Christ being lowered from the cross by mourners. Look at all the carved stone work throughout. Think of all the love and effort that went into this seemingly forgotten church and marvel at this world of ours.

Years ago, as a student spending a semester studying in Rome, I visited Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli outside of Rome with my friend Ron. It’s a two thousand year old ruin that covers acres, and includes half fallen down colonnades and remnants of brick walls and arches. It was interesting enough, not unlike ruins we had seen in various places around Rome. But it was when we left the official pathways designated for tourists that it got fun.

We rounded a grove of trees and discovered our own ruin, off on its own and not visible from the others, an untended brick structure overgrown with plants. We spent an hour or two sitting in the shade of a tree sketching the amazing Roman brickwork. I loved it. (Those guys, master builders that they were, would embed hidden brick arches inside a brick wall to reinforce and disburse loads.) It was as if we had discovered a remnant of some lost city. And guess what . . . we had!

Keep an eye on the cab fare
Two out of five cab drivers that Melody and I used during our recent trip blatantly attempted to rip us off by increasing the total shown on the digital fare counter when we were outside collecting our bags. Because I knew that the thirty euro total shown was a lot more like fourteen euros a mere half a block ago I argued with the driver and got the fare lowered closer to the right amount. I would then take some comfort in being only “slightly ripped off.”

Expect scaffolding
Some of your favorite sights will be partly obscured by scaffolding. This is almost a certainty. Just be glad they’re preserving or restoring it and figure it comes with the territory.

“Eyewitness” guidebooks are the best
The thoroughness throughout and the excellent graphics of “Eyewitness” books seem to me to be unequalled among travel guidebooks. Maybe it’s just me, but the illustrations showing the cutaway views of buildings and courtyards just fascinated. It’s also easy to love all the cross references and blown up maps with numbered locations.

Don’t worry about the currency conversion rate
People on their deathbeds never say they wish they had spent more time at the office, and they also don’t say they wish they had waited for the dollar to be stronger against the euro before they explored the world.

Mark Twain wrote “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.” Go.

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