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  • Writer's pictureCristina Dwyer

Italy in Winter: Rome, The Eternal City

Updated: Feb 29

We arrived in Rome on an early January afternoon, after a 12h flight from Shanghai to Milan, followed by a standing up cappuccino at the Milan Central station and a 4h train ride. I must have been tired, and jet lagged but I don’t remember any of that. It was my first time in Rome, and I simply couldn’t wait to get up close and personal with the Eternal City.


Our hotel, located very close to the historical centre, was a small, modernized old residential building with a cute old-style elevator that just didn’t exude much confidence – small, with visible cables and two sets of doors, one of wood and another of cast iron, that had to be handled manually. We took it once for fun and then took the stairs for peace of mind. After checking in, we left our luggage, freshened up and hit the road, heading towards the Trevi Fountain .


It was a warm and sunny afternoon, with a perfect blue sky and I couldn’t be any happier. This Italian trip happened with little warning. I joined Eddie in one of his work engagements and luckily he could take an extra day off so that we can do some sightseeing together. I had learned and read quite a bit about Rome in the past. I knew I was walking in a living museum, way to vast to be able to comprehend it all, so the only way to enjoy it was to abandon myself to its legend and fully embrace its antique and modern vibe. I did that for the next two days.


The Trevi Fountain (Fontana di Trevi), the most beautiful and largest fountain in the city, takes its name from its placement at the intersection of three streets: Tre Vie (three ways). The fountain, famous for its size, beauty, and myth about making wishes come true, doesn’t seem to have aged a bit. Dating back to 19 B.C. , the fountain was and still is the end of the original Roman viaduct Aqua Virgo. Yes, you read correctly, that two-thousand-year-old viaduct is still being used today.


Before getting to the Treci Fountain , we first passed by the Spanish Steps, officially known as the Staircase of Trinita of Monti. We arrived at the top of the stairs. Cascading like a grand carpet, the steps unfolded from the Trinità dei Monti church at the top, descending gracefully into the Spanish Square below.


The church and top terrasse were glowing in the golden sunlight, dominating the top of the slope. With every stair we stepped into the cooler shade and got to touch the unique beauty of the travertine they’re built of. Their off-white hue, adorned with subtle grey and cream tones, bore the marks of countless footsteps, a testament to their enduring elegance. Unsurprisingly, there were many people, but it didn’t feel that stuffy as I feared when I had gotten there. A festive Christmas tree decorated the midway terrace, infusing the scene with a joyful spirit and a sense of relaxation.


Our next day kicked off with an immersive guided tour of the Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel.


Nestled within the heart of Rome, the Vatican City State stands as the world's smallest sovereign nation, both in terms of area and population, the Pope being the head of state. Back in time, as a proof for being at the Vatican, people would send post cards with the Vatican post stamps, which can still be done today.

Also unchanged is the presence of the Swiss Guards, posted as sentries or patrolling in their colourful uniforms.

Stepping into the Vatican Museums was like entering a treasure trove of artistic wonders. The Catholic Church's rich patronage for the arts is evident throughout, showcased in the museums’ diverse collection of paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and tapestries and its very own architecture. As I marveled at these masterpieces, I couldn't help but ponder the creative genius of the artists who had crafted them. Despite the controversy that may be surrounding their creation or acquisition, the sheer perfection and beauty of these works are nothing short of divine.

 

Also, it's awe-inspiring to think about how these artists, with limited resources and tools, were able to achieve such remarkable feats of creativity and craftsmanship. Their passion, ingenuity, and unwavering dedication to push the boundaries of artistic expression serve as a reminder of the power of human creativity. I was contemplating how in an age dominated by technology and machines, perhaps we've lost touch with some of the innate human creativity that fueled these artistic triumphs.


After exploring the main art displays of the Vatican Museums, we entered the St. Peter's Square, making our way towards the iconic St. Peter's Basilica. It was a welcome intermission, allowing me to prepare for the next chapter of Italian masterpieces. Taking a moment to admire the square from above, I was struck by its unique trapezoidal shape, which offered an empowering, heightened perspective. The immense gray sett paving is interrupted by white lines of travertine, drawing different geometrical shapes. At the center stands an ancient Egyptian obelisk, serving as the focal point of the piazza and functioning as a gigantic sundial gnomon for zodiac signs. Surrounding the square were colossal colonnades, four columns deep, which I would later appreciate for their sheer magnitude, as we drew closer.


As I stepped into St. Peter’s Basilica, I immediately felt enveloped in a sense of tranquility and serenity. Unlike many Renaissance churches that can feel and are meant to be imposing, St. Peter’s exuded a welcoming warmth that made me feel … protected.

 

This iconic basilica holds an immense significance in the Christianity and Catholic tradition, and the hearts of believers around the world. St. Peter’s is considered a “major basilica” and is the final resting place for numerous popes, starting with St. Peter himself. Interestingly, even though it serves as the primary location for many of Pope’s important liturgical events and ceremonies, it is neither his official seat, nor the “mother church”. These titles are held by the Archbasilica of Saint John Lateran, which I did intend to visit, but could not as at that time it was not open for the public.  

 

St Peter’s Basilica has been built by the most illustrious architects and artists of the time. Its dome, the tallest in the world, is the result of the genial contributions of the likes of Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo. It is the highest point in Rome, and it will remain as such for as long as we can foresee, as no building can be built taller than it in Rome.

Its interior is a testament to human artistry and devotion, with its opulent marble decorations, gravity-defying sculptures, and breathtaking mosaics that resemble intricate paintings.


Amidst this splendor, Michelangelo's La Pieta, (La Madonna della Pietà), stands as a timeless testament to the artist's unparalleled skill and vision. Carved from marble over 500 years ago, the sculpture remains astonishingly lifelike and emotive, capturing the essence of Mary cradling the body of Christ with profound grace and compassion. Michelangelo unprecedented interpretation of the biblical moment is indeed “a heart’s image”, as he had intended.



My next encounter with Michelangelo’s brilliant and revolutionary art was just around the corner: The Sistine Chapel.

At first, I found the atmosphere in the Sistine Chapel rather austere. It was darker than in the St. Peter’s Basilica and the interior decorations seemed more subdued. The relatively small windows cast a dim light on the interior, concealing the frescos below. I imagined the vivid tapestries that once adorned the walls, now removed for preservation, would have undoubtedly added warmth.

Once I found my way within the crowd I looked up to the ceiling. “Ahhh, here it was!” Michelangelo’s iconic ceiling fresco depicting scenes from the Book of Genesis. I then understood why the “Creation of Adam”, placed in the centre, has become the most famous of all, for I was mesmerized too. The more I looked at the ceiling, the more it seemed that it was becoming alive before my eyes.

And then, turning to face the Altar Wall, I saw the second masterpiece of Michelangelo – The Last Judgement.

Talking, photography and videography inside the chapel are strictly forbidden, as is the time the visitors are allowed to stay. A blessing in disguise I would say, as it totally forced me to be fully present in that moment, in that place.

How fitting that such human genius adorns the space where new popes are elected, as Michelangelo’s art is nothing short of divine. How surprising to know that Pope Julius had to twist his arm to get him to do it, since Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter.

Nevertheless, not even Michelangelo could refuse the Pope and since he was allowed “to do as [he] liked” he went off and created one of the most enduring masterpieces of all times. Trust me, it is an experience you should have and actually can only happen inperson.


We “crossed” the border back into Italy and, after a rather disappointing lunch near the Vatican we headed towards a 2000-year-old miracle – the Pantheon. One of the best-preserved Roman buildings, the Pantheon’s architecture impresses with its front portico, built out of gray granite solid columns brought from Egypt, and its dome, built of unreinforced concrete, the biggest yet of this kind. The only source of light is an oculus in the middle of the dome, whose purpose was to ensure free passage to the Gods during the debates and discussions. In essence the Pantheon’s interior is one enormous room covered by the dome, with a colorful marble floor contrasting with the monotone, gray shade of the dome’s concrete.

As it was raining just before getting there, I was wondering if we would be able to visit it. I quickly learned that rain wouldn’t have been a deterrent, as the dome, with its height and form, transforms the outside rain into a sort of a mist. Also, the middle of the floor has been specially designed with a slight slope and barely visible holes that would allow the water to drain. What an engineering and architectural feat!

The building has been continuously in use, having been converted to a church, “St Mary and the Martyrs” as far as the 7th century.

As I left I looked closely at the immense gates, the oldest original Roman bronze gates in Rome. They seem strong enough to last for more years to come and protect this unique landmark. Maybe the direct line to the Gods worked after all.


Our journey through the illustrious past of the Roman Empire continued with a captivating exploration of the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum.


In the heart of Rome's bustling city center, ancient archaeological sites seamlessly coexist with modern life, offering glimpses into a bygone era. However, it was the Roman Forum that truly transported me back in time, immersing me in the glory of ancient Rome.

As I wandered amidst the remnants of what used to be the heart of Rome, I couldn't help but marvel at its significance. From the echoes of public speeches to the echoes of triumphant celebrations and commercial transactions, every stone seemed to whisper tales of Rome's illustrious past. To truly appreciate the depth of history embedded within these ruins, I highly recommend a guided tour. As a casual observer it is easy to overlook the stories these “ruins” have to offer.

Colosseum - the display of glory, eccentricity, power, and wealth of the ruling Cesars; the means to please and control the people of Rome; the largest ancient amphitheatre ever built, erected in only eight years and capable of hosting up to 80,000 people. There are many movies about gladiator fights, roman aristocracy and their privileges, slaves and common people, all gravitating around the Colosseum. When I climbed up at the second level, looked at the arena and imagined the stands full of people, with all the noise, the colours, and motions, I understood the fascination that the games and the venue itself has had from its inception to this day.

As an engineer by trade, I find the inventiveness and practicality with which these constructions have been built 2000 years ago simply astonishing. Some of their basic principles are still in use today. For instance, as the Colosseum had to be filled or evacuated very quickly, the Romans employed a clever numbering system: they assigned numbers to each of the 80 entrance/exit gates and staircase, as well as the rows and sections of rows that considered the social status, and seats. Spectators would be given tickets in form of clay chips that would contain all this info. Not too different from how the modern stadia work today, isn’t it?



While visiting the main historic attractions requires a bit of planning, getting a feel for today’s Rome only requires comfortable shoes and a bit of curiosity. We did quite a bit of that. Sometimes we got lost, sometimes we ran into places we heard of but didn’t know they were so close.

This is how we ended up in Campi di Fiori, a well-known local food and artifacts market, surrounded by a string of restaurants on all sides.

On the last day, as we were trying to find our way back to the hotel we stumbled upon the Trajan Column which depicts the Trajan's wars in Dacia. As a Romanian, this unexpected encounter with a monument I had learned so much about, was a reminder of the shared history and enduring connections between our cultures.



And, saving the best for last: Italian cuisine. With an abundance of options at reasonable prices, here are my top three favourites:

  • Coffee at St Eustachio coffee

  • Pizza at Antico Forno Roscioli

  • Gelato at Otaleg



So … “do all roads lead to Rome”? Maybe not literally anymore, but there's little in Western civilization that hasn't originated from Rome. Perhaps we should say that “all roads [of life] come from Rome”. It takes a lifetime to truly know Rome, and I only had two days—so memorable and rich that they felt like a whole different life.



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