The Eternal City
Allow me to add my voice to the presumably infinitely long list of people who describe Rome as unique. There is no better word to describe its sheer majesty. My friend and I were astounded right from the walk from the main station to our accommodation for the few days we would spend in the city. It was as if, as my friend described it, everywhere you look something else - another ruin, a church spire and so on - was competing for your attention, demanding that you stare at it instead. You will be walking along and it feels like any other Italian city before it slaps you in the face before daring to believe it is like any other city in Italy with a ruin that predates the fall of the Roman Empire. That might be a violent image, but we were regularly taken aback quite violently by the place, whether that be the Colosseum or the main Synagogue; the frescos in the Vatican or random ruins that remind you this is not just any city, this is Rome, the centre of a once great empire.
Our trip probably did not differ all that much from anyone who visits Rome for a few days. We wandered the streets around the central squares, the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps. We visited the main Synagogue, a stunning building and roamed (I could not resist) around the Jewish Ghetto, where we enjoyed kosher pizza because when in Rome. Obviously, we went to the Vatican. We took in the Forum and tried to picture it as a bustling centre of an empire. We marvelled at the Colosseum and I made far too many jokes about it being broken. The jokes, however, make an important point. Because whichever way you look at it, Rome is broken - literally and metaphorically. The Roman Empire 'broke' 1500 years ago and the city that was once its centre has been crumbling ever since. So sure, the Colosseum is broken. The Forum is broken. As you walk around Rome, large parts of it, parts that were once significant and magnificent, are broken. But here is the point. Here is the travel article paradox. It is in its brokenness that lies Rome's completeness. As my friend remarked, we have now attached significance not to the Rome as it was, but to what it is now. The Colosseum is a colossal, one marvels at its size but it is how it stands now that we find beautiful. It somehow would not be as complete if it were complete. The Forum is striking precisely because we have to simultaneously see it in ruins yet go through some mental gymnastics so we can imagine it as it was - the centre of one of the greatest empires that ever existed. Maybe Rome speaks to the broken parts of us - for we are all broken - but we work the same; we are beautiful despite our brokenness, however that may manifest.
Rome makes you work a little bit to appreciate its beauty. Sure the Trevi Fountain is stunning and along with the central squares has a wonderful atmosphere, especially at night. Sure there is something beautiful about anything you know has existed for over 1500 years, whatever its state now. But there is something more beautiful about filling in the gaps, constantly reminding yourself that large swathes of Europe and beyond were ruled from the very ground you are walking upon. That the Colosseum once stood full of screaming fans. That Ostia Antica (about a 30 minute train journey from central Rome and aptly described as a mini-Rome) was once a central port, essential to the Empire's development, despite its current state as nothing more than some pillars and crumbling walls. That Roman Senators once met frequently in the Forum. That everything, broken as it may be now, once had a purpose, was once used in a way that, if you think about it, was incredible for its time. What have the Romans ever done for us, indeed.
There are exceptions. The Vatican stands. Personally I was underwhelmed by the Sistine Chapel (sorry, Ranana - though we do, of course, appreciate all your suggestions and help!) but Raphael's Frescos were easily one of the standout parts of the trip. That has little do with the fact that I share a name with the artist, a little bit more to do with my love of Plato, the focus of one of the paintings and everything to do with the genius it takes to paint scenes as clever as these. Any painting with Plato pointing upwards, (correctly, of course) identifying the importance of the Forms is likely to win favour with me, but it is, Plato aside, a special painting. And yes, some of the statues show signs of age, but the Vatican remains imposing, powerful and, well, not broken. It does not fail to impress in a different way, but it suddenly felt less like the Rome we had been used to. No less worth visiting. No less stunning. Just different. And Rome has its landmarks like the Trevi Fountain, central squares, Parliament buildings, museum buildings and so on that, much like many European Cities, are beautiful and worth visiting, if only to stare at in a slightly stunned awe.
On a personal note, it was an accidental find that will stay with me the most. One of Rick Steves' audio guides (thanks Eliav, a brilliant help. Well worth downloading his free app, plugging in some headphones and letting him guide you round many European cities and their landmarks) took us through Travestere, which happened to be where we were staying. It took us opposite the apartment we had rented on AirBnB, which is where there is wall with some columns. We had passed them a few times going to our apartment and not paid any attention to them, until Rick told us to stop and look at it. We learnt the wall was once the wall of a synagogue, which makes it the oldest surviving part of a synagogue in the Western World. You can still see the Hebrew writing carved into the column spelling out Beit Ha'Melech or House of the King. Opposite our apartment. It felt like a uniquely personal, special piece of history that was somehow mine. In a city where the main synagogue has a church opposite it with Hebrew writing intended as an attempt to convert the Jews of the Ghetto; Jews who were forced to go to Church after Shabbat services had ended, there was something about this unremarkable wall that felt important. If I can put my finger on it, I will edit this post. Until then, the somewhat vague description I have offered will have to suffice.
The synagogue itself is unlike any other synagogue I have been to. Looking remarkably like a church, distinguished on the outside only by the security presence and the square, not round, dome, it stands imposingly over the rest of the Jewish Ghetto. Shabbat services were...different, but a wonderful way to end a superb trip. Rome, you might be broken. You might be crumbling and somewhat fallen apart, but therein lies your charm. Of course it does.
The boring stuff:
Download the Rick Steves app. Enjoy the latent sexual tension between him and his "friend" Lisa. Go on the walks he covers.
The Jewish Ghetto has plenty of Kosher options. Ba'Ghetto was excellent, both as a milky restaurant for pizza and as a meaty restaurant for Shabbat. The Gelato was excellent, there is a Kosher store and two Kosher bakeries, one of which does a cheesecake that is superb but not as good as Eliav would have you believe. A burger for €6.50 is a bargain not to be missed.
Do the things you do not need a ticket to enter (central squares, fountains etc) at night, the atmosphere is amazing and you will not be disappointed.
Book early for all attractions, especially the Vatican (at least two weeks).
Rome is relatively accessible if you are willing to do a little bit of walking. There is always the chance you'll almost trip over a 2000 year old broken column that makes it worth it.
Ostia Antica is good day trip and easy to do.
We bought fruit at Campo Di Fiori most mornings - it's excellent, cheap and a good alternative to a sit-down breakfast along with a pastry from an aforementioned bakery.
This post was updated on 02/07/2017 to reflect a cliché I could not resist adding in.