Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A Travelogue of Miles

Last night we watched Ben Hur and today I ran around the Circus Maximus. We’ve run a travelogue of miles on our journey so far: through the Louvre arches, on the bridges over the Seine, along the Canal du Midi in southwestern France, beside the beach in Barcelona, past the cathedral in Seville, amid the orange groves in the Algarve, above the Arno in Florence and now around the race track of Rome. How will I ever go back to running on a high school track with no magical sights to distract me? The Circus Maximus is now just an overgrown oval in the basin between the Palatine and Aventine hills and very little of its original marble grandeur remains. But as I jogged the sandy circuit I imagined the myriad chariot races that took place there, witnessed by cheering crowds of spectators when Rome was in its glory. The days of the city’s strategic importance may be over, but running past the abundant vestiges of when it was at its peak makes them hard to forget.

I’ve logged dozens of miles under the fluffy, towering, pini romani in the Villa Borghese gardens, our classy neighborhood park, passing by the locals walking arm in arm for their passeggiata, especially on Sunday afternoons. Leaving the gardens, I’ve made my way to the wide road that hugs the park’s winding perimeter down the hill to the Tiber. A six-mile paved trail below street level follows the river and while Rome isn’t Paris and the Tiber isn’t the Seine, it makes for a fascinating run. Because the streets are significantly above water level, many of the riverside sights are obscured from view. But the Isola Tiberina, the picturesque island of stately, ochre-toned villas that sits across from Trastevere in the Tiber, and the Castel Sant’Angelo just outside Vatican City, imperial mausoleum turned fortress and then Papal castle, do appear briefly to spice up the route.

A full month-and-a-half in Rome has allowed us the time to not only run past but also visit so many corners of the city: in its teeming center, along the less-congested periphery and in the lovely hills nearby.

   We explored Testaccio, a neighborhood just to the east of the Tiber, south of the Aventine Hill and home to a colossal mound of broken olive oil amphorae, now obscured by weeds and vines. Monte Testaccio, 220,000 square feet at its base, with a circumference of two-thirds of a mile and a height of 115 feet, was organized by the Roman Empire to clear the city of amphorae debris. It is nothing short of amazing to think that this ancient garbage heap, now surrounded by a vibrant neighborhood filled with bars and restaurants, has sat where it is for nearly two thousand years. Estimates put the number of broken terra cotta vessels in the mountain of fragments at over 50 million, which held 1.6 billion gallons of the precious liquid -- definitive evidence that Romans have long loved their beloved golden oil.

   We took an extended city bus ride to the decidedly postmodern EUR (Esposizione Universale Roma), a stark residential and business district well to the south of the city center commissioned by Benito Mussolini in the 1930s as a tribute to twenty years of Fascism in Italy. Although World War II thwarted plans for a 1942 world’s fair, the sprawling complex was originally envisioned as the exhibition site. Much of La Dolce Vita, Federico Fellini’s 1960s classic black and white film starring Marcello Mastrioanni and Swedish bombshell Anita Ekberg was shot in the EUR. While on the surface the location presented Rome as an ultra-modern, sophisticated hotbed of sex, parties and debauchery, the desolate cityscape was a perfect allegory for the shallow, detached existence of the film’s protagonist. The arched windows of the symmetrical Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana, an icon of Fascist architecture, honors and echoes the curving lines of the Coliseum in a four-sided form, celebrates Italy’s many trades and industries and glorifies the importance of work. The austere, white architecture and the wide, geometrical street grid were particularly bleak the day we visited as one of Rome’s rare days of blinding sleet and snow soaked and chilled us to the core. We actually sought temporary refuge in a EUR McDonald’s to warm up with fast-food cappuccinos as all else was closed. The EUR is one of those spots I’m happy we visited but I can’t imagine we’ll ever return, unless of course it finally gets its chance to host a world’s fair in the future.

   We hiked up the Janiculum Hill rising behind Trastevere on the west bank of the Tiber on a glorious winter day. Although the second highest hill in the contemporary city, it’s not one of Rome’s proverbial seven hills since it was on the other side of the river outside the ancient city’s original boundaries. The Janiculum is home to the renowned American Academy in Rome, the Fontana dell'Acqua Paolo, a monumental baroque fountain built to celebrate the reopening of an ancient Trajan aqueduct, the American University of Rome, host of many study abroad programs and one of the best viewpoints for a stunning panoramic view over the countless domes, campanili and piazzas of the city.

   We followed the English literary trail and visited the pastel Keats-Shelley Memorial House on the edge of the Spanish Steps in which the young English poet John Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821. Keats was buried in the small Protestant Cemetery of Rome, a peaceful, verdant spot, under a simple tombstone which reads: “This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these Words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone -- Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water. The final line was all the poet wanted as his epitaph, but his close friends Joseph Severn and Charles Brown who cared for him in his final days added the additional clarifying text. We lingered at the foot of his grave and felt Keats’ sorrow when he died, convinced that his writing had made no literary mark whatsoever. If only he had known... In sharp contrast to the writer’s modest resting place is one of the more quirky sights in Rome: a massive, out-of-place pyramid built into the Aurelian city walls. Looming next to the Protestant Cemetery at 118 feet tall and 97 feet wide, the circa 12 BC ashen marble monument houses the remains of Caius Cestius, a Roman magistrate known not for his achievements but his wealth. Undoubtedly the size of one’s tomb does not the man make.

   We wandered up the streets of the exclusive Aventine Hill and were rewarded with two incredible views not often seen by tourists: one magnificent and one in miniature. The first was a broad vista over the city from the Parco Savello, a walled garden of leafy orange trees that looks west over the Tiber towards Trastevere and Vatican City beyond. The next, through the Aventine Keyhole Gate down the street, was a perfect, oval view of St. Peter’s. What a delightful surprise to find the peaceful, deserted square, peep through the tiny opening of the locked gates of Santa Maria del Priorato, and discover the celebrated basilica perfectly framed like a Victorian cameo at the end of an alley of impeccably trimmed trees. Rome is filled with artistic treasures on a massive scale but the inspired vision that went into creating this flawless sightline was something special indeed.

   We walked several miles along the rutted Appian Way out of Rome, possibly the most historic thoroughfare in the world. One of the earliest and most prestigious roads of the ancient republic, the Via Appia Antica connected Rome to Brindisi on the Adriatic coast, the port in southeastern Italy that was and remains the maritime gateway to Greece and Egypt. We started our bumpy hike at the Mausoleum of Cecilia Metella, erected for the daughter of a wealthy Roman aristocrat, and made our way over a long stretch of the original broad paving stones now worn to a shine by the paces of thousands of Roman centurions and over two millennia of use. The aura of ancient history surrounded us as we strolled under the majestic cypresses so characteristic of the Roman countryside and made our way along the age-old road flanked by fallow fields dotted with ruins, temple fragments and tombs.

   We took the suburban train east to the medieval hill town of Tivoli, about 20 miles out of the city at the edge of the Sabina Hills, to see the lush Villa d’Este and the sprawling Villa Adriana. I had fond memories of making a solo trip to the former on my 1977 backpacking trip and was looking forward to sharing the Renaissance palazzo, its lovely terraced gardens, spectacular waterfalls and gushing fountains with Joe. But a joint visit will have to wait for another day, since upon arriving we learned that the Villa was closed due to ice and snow <sigh>. Not to be discouraged, we hopped on the first bus from the town square and headed to the Villa Adriana, Emperor Hadrian’s 300 acre complex, a winding four miles outside of town. The emperor was an architect with wanderlust who traveled to every corner of the vast Roman Empire, from Britain (where he built his famous wall), to Egypt, Jerusalem and Athens, and then embellished Rome with the Pantheon and his grandiose personal tomb (Castel Sant'Angelo). The Villa Adriana, his expansive country complex from which he oversaw all-things-Roman, was built at the height of the empire and allowed him to rule from outside, but still close enough to, the capital city. We wandered through the remains of the fascinating property dotted with pools and decorated with replicas of the structures the emperor had seen around the world and liked most. Hadrian’s Villa was the Roman version of Versailles built long before the Sun King arrived on the scene in France. We could only marvel at the extensive estate and imagine its heyday magnificence.

After a total of forty-four days of exploring la città eterna, we’re going to finally have to pull up stakes. On last Sunday’s long run, my breath visible in the chilly air but my workout clothes heavy with sweat, I passed the now familiar sweeping rooftop vista from the edge of the Borghese park. I then peeked down the narrow vicoli, the residential alleyways at the base of the Spanish Steps, catching glimpses of domestic Roman life as I ran by and realized just how much I’m going to miss this pulsing city. While its ancient sights have always fascinated me, this time they gently made their way under my skin as they became part of the fabric of our every day and opened my mind’s eye to the millennia they have been there. I found it easier than ever before to visualize the Pantheon, Coliseum, Imperial Forums and all the sundry fragments of walls, columns and friezes that dot the city landscape as they were when Rome was the center of the universe. I’ve always known I could live in Paris and now I know I could live in Rome. With so much yet to see (and so much yet to eat), I need to get moving to start my Sunday run. Where will it take me in this immortal city today?

Pictures of our adventures: http://gapyeargirlgoestoeurope.shutterfly.com

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