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Further adventures in the Eternal City

by Steve McKee on September 23, 2005

Last month I wrote a column about time I spent in Rome recently. That column received a lot more response from people than I usually get. I guess writing about one of the most extraordinary places in the world, a place layered with over two thousand years of art and human history, will do that.

I really like the place, despite its flaws, but I hope I didn’t sugarcoat it too much in my article. I don’t like it when some place or some thing gets described to me in glowing terms without mention of its warts, creating a sort of dazzling image that reality cannot hope to meet.

My buddy Gary emailed me to mention his upcoming trip to Rome and to tell me that he liked reading my suggestions regarding attire (shorts must be at least knee-length to make you acceptable to enter most churches) and cab fare (watch for drivers who pump up the meter number when you’re not looking.)

Then he asked if I had any more advice. I thought about it for all of two seconds and decided yes, there really was more to say on this subject. Especially now that I could see that people were actually going to use this advice during their travels. So here goes, warts and all.

Don’t leave the best to last
We missed seeing the Sistine Chapel in Rome and later missed going to the top of Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence because we tried to enter these places on our last day in each city and learned too late that the hours were restricted.

Get used to seeing graffiti
Graffiti has come to Rome and other Italian cities in a big way. There are lots of spray paint scribbles seen along the bottom storey of many buildings. To my American sensibilities, the graffiti gave a feeling of neglect and decay to these places. Rome’s willingness to live with litter didn’t help either. Luckily the strength of Rome’s civilized urbanity, its incredible array of architecture and art and fountains and churches and piazzas, shines through and overrides the infantile and ephemeral phenomenon of the graffiti and litter. Don’t let it get to you.

By the way, Florence kept its streets very clean of trash and had less graffiti than Rome and Venice.

The lamentable tale of the pickpocket incident
The bad news is that the pickpocket threat is real in Rome. The good new is that they’re kids and not physically threatening. If you know what to look out for, you’ll be fine. They just seem like harmless little urchins when a group of them come up to you and gather around quite closely while one or two of them try to show you some artwork or object. There’s jostling from the kids and it’s all meant to seem so harmless. My friend Ron lost the contents of his dangling zippered pouch this way when I was in Rome with him in 1982. My pal John was approached this way a few years ago and he pretty much just pushed them away and acted angry when they tried again, so they gave up on him.

On the trip Melody and I made in July, we were standing on a crowded subway car in Rome when the door opened at a station and several (four or five?) young kids surged on, bumping into everyone, including a woman holding a newborn, causing people to stagger and lean into each other before collecting themselves. My wife, having been warned of the pickpockets of Rome, thought to bring her fanny-pack around to the front to keep tabs on it, but her thoughts didn’t turn to her wallet in the shallow front pocket of her shorts. Two stations later the kids were gone and so was the wallet.

There was no chance of hunting it down, so we resigned ourselves for the next hour to unpleasant chores like making phone calls to cancel the lone credit card that the wallet contained. Fortunately we were traveling with minimized content in our wallets. The credit card guy told Melody that she needed to tell him the number on the card in order to cancel it. What’s up with that? Luckily she happened to have a receipt from our last hotel in a different pocket with the number on it.

With a mixture of admiration and anger I think of the method the kids used to meet their goal. There we all were, momentarily stumbling about, everybody’s focus scrambled just long enough to allow the adorable waifs to infiltrate a pocket without being sensed. I must say they were pretty masterful at it, the little bastards. I can imagine them the moment right before the subway door opens when they are looking through the glass scanning the assortment of passengers inside looking for good possibilities, planning who to bump into. . .

Cab rides can be a thrill
In addition to the excitement of needing to make sure your driver isn’t going to jack up the fare at the end, you also get the exhilaration of the ride itself, often done at high speeds on twisting streets shared with too many motor-scooters and other vehicles. It’s a river of traffic and you’re in the rapids. Disneyland would be lucky to have a ride quite this dynamic.

In order to enjoy the experience, I suggest you take a fatalistic view: “I’m not causing this cab to race for that narrow opening filled with speeding motor-scooters; this goes on everyday whether I’m here or not.”

How can it not be a thrill for the motorbike riders too, hoping that the many cars don’t cut the inside corner just enough to send them and their petite female passengers crashing into a concrete bollard or building. One time the handlebar of a scooter bumped our taxi which caused a spirited verbal exchange to erupt between the drivers, complete with hand gestures, all done through the open window of the cab while at full speed.

Note the contrast when your cab enters the slow crawl of people moving up the Via Condotti. Use your zen mind to enjoy the stillness. There are people here and there in costumes posing as statues. Note the line of people outside the Gucci store. Is there really a need for that line, or does Gucci limit the people inside in order to create a perception of shortage? So much for zen mind. Take another look at the meter to see if it’s jumped up disproportionately when you weren’t looking. Walkers are now going faster than the cab. Tell the driver this is far enough, using “okay” (one of the most universally understood words in the world.) Get out and tip the guy a euro or more because he didn’t try to rip you off.

The six dollar can of coke
Many restaurants charge as much as four or five euros for a single can of diet coke which comes to about five or six dollars. (Meanwhile a very enjoyable Neapolitan pizza is only nine bucks. Go figure.) I chose to pay it from time to time, quickly rationalizing it as an acceptable expense compared to all I had spent in order to be in Florence sitting thirsty under an umbrella in the Piazza della Signoria.

When in Florence . . .
If you’re a reader, definitely take a look at “Brunelleschi’s Dome” by Ross King before you go to Florence. Maybe you already knew that Renaissance architecture came from studying and copying the proportions and techniques that the Romans had mastered almost two thousand years before. Well . . . this is the guy who did it, this Filippo Brunelleschi (pronounced broo-nuh-LES-kee.) He was a superman worthy of an Ayn Rand novel, with an amazing and inventive mind. He virtually invented Renaissance architecture. He left Florence to live in Rome for fifteen years because he was unwilling to follow a mandate to share artistic control on a big commission for some bronze church doors. During that time he studied the various ruins that then filled Rome. He poked around the Pantheon (the temple with the dome that has the round hole in the top and is the coolest building ever, in my opinion) and then came back to Florence to successfully direct the design and construction of the largest dome ever attempted, a complete triumph of art and engineering that took decades to complete.

If you like Michelangelo, it goes without saying that you will visit “David” in the Galleria dell Accademia in Florence. Highly fulfilling for me was to also go to the little-visited Museo dell Opera del Duomo where Michelangelo’s “Florence Pieta” (completed in 1555) can be intimately visited and enjoyed up close from all sides with no one else in the room with you. This is not his ultra-famous “Pieta” (completed in 1499) that’s in St Peters and can be viewed only through bulletproof glass from one angle from thirty feet away thanks to some whacko who attacked it in 1972. In this later version, Christ’s lifeless form is especially twisted and poignant as he is held by three others. There are highly polished parts of the marble and areas that are left roughly chiseled. There it all is, inches from your roving eyes. It’s quite a treat.

Also check out the Ponte Vecchio, the most noteworthy bridge in Florence. Right around sunset this pedestrian-only bridge hosts an impromptu concert by a fairly bohemian set of street musicians. I never knew a song written by Sting could sound that good.

Forget traveler’s checks. Use ATM cards.
It’s much easier this way and the usage fees are reasonable, about two or three dollars per transaction. Just don’t lose your wallet to undersized pickpockets.

Explore on foot without a plan
I said it before, but it’s so true that it must be repeated. Get out and make your own discoveries! It’s probably the best idea I shared in last month’s column.

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