84. Five Little Lessons from my Recent Return from Rome
This short Mini Pod makes five points based on a recent trip to Rome and towns in northern Italy.
Here is a short Mini Pod with no higher purpose than to make 5 simple and mostly practical points based on my recent return to and from Rome.
My first point is to say something like, “I told you so.” That is, our visit confirmed the main practical point of my podcasts, which is that getting ready for Rome enhances the value of a visit. It’s a little sad to see tourists flock into the Stanza della Segnatura, for example, and then start looking around for a description that tells them where they are and what they would be looking at if they were not busy reading the description.
Sadly, I suffered this fate to some extent myself, for while I was well-prepared for some sites, such as the Roman Forum and Colosseum, I was less ready for others. These lapses did not rob me of all pleasure, but they slowed me down, tired me out, and kept me from getting a little more out of the experience. A good example concerns the architect Palladio in Vicenza. I had a vague familiarity with him, but I was unprepared for how productive he was, in both his writing and his building. I enjoyed learning more about him from the various exhibits we visited, but if I’d listened to a “Get Ready for Palladio” podcast before arriving in Vicenza, I would have learned more and had more time for other things. I also missed seeing the Archeological Museum at the Roman Theater in Verona the simple reason that I did not know it was there. Only after leaving the city did I make the time to read about how to visit it.
I once summarized one of my goals by saying I wanted to bring an end to “thoughtless travel to Rome,” which seems to have miffed someone who responded by declaring: “There is no such thing as thoughtless travel.” This is true, I suppose, if we lower the bar for what qualifies for thought, and I do agree that walking or pedaling into a new city with little knowledge about it can still be exciting, charming, and educational. This said, Rome is such a rich city that you will be able to take more of it home with you, and will hold onto it longer, if, when you arrive, you already know at least the broad contours of its history, art, and architecture.
I was reminded that it also helps to get ready for Italy by studying Italian, though I realize that the busyness of modern life makes it highly unlikely that anyone is likely to follow this advice. A weekly podcast of 20 minutes will not take you far. Still, knowing some Italian will help you get what you want or need, whether it be a poncho when the rain starts, a train ticket, extended luggage storage at your Airbnb, or the right contorno at a restaurant. Even more important, it can be a great pleasure to talk to Italians, who often welcome the chance to speak to a visitor in their own language. For this reason, I always make sure to get a haircut when I’m in Rome, and instead of running from people who hand out flyers or request signatures, I engage them. Waiters too are easy targets, at least when they are not too busy. A little Italian goes a long way, and I find the Italians very forgiving of my mediocre accent.
Point 2. We were not able to visit as many sites as I had hoped. My recent Mini Pods, numbers 25 to 30, laid out an ambitious plan of attack on the city’s main sites and helped me keep in mind the various possible sites to visit in all parts of the city, but we could not keep pace with the proposals I had made in the podcasts. I had been candid in saying that the plan behind my Mini Pods was just to sketch the main possibilities, not to say that anyone could visit them all in a week, but we fell further behind than I had anticipated.
We scheduled museum entries to the Colosseum, the Borghese, and the Vatican Museums, but we should have done so also at Castel Sant’Angelo. As it was, we waited in line for 45 minutes and then were told that they would not be letting anyone in without a reservation, so we wasted some time and missed seeing a site I’ve always enjoyed. At other sites we were able to get in even without reservations, so this led to some complacency regarding Castel Sant’Angelo.
I am not weeping at having missed some sites I had wanted to visit, for we had a wonderful time and saw a lot, but the lesson is that you won’t move as quickly as you might expect. There are many reasons for this, including the time it takes to get from one site to another and scheduling surprises that keep a site closed you thought would be open, but a major one in our case was that we enjoyed sitting down for good meals with one another, and we sometimes needed to pause for an espresso in the morning or aperativo in the afternoon.
The simple solution—simple at least if shortages of time and money should vanish—is to return.
Point 3. We enjoyed getting outside of Rome, and this was another reason we did not get to as many spots in Rome as I had expected. We took a night and the better part of day to visit Castelgandolfo, where we had friends and wanted to take a break from the big city. We took Olivia, the two-year old daughter of our daughter to the lake, Lago di Albano, and enjoyed a long lunch at D’Agnese, where I used to go to console myself after losing tennis matches to my Italian friends. Mauro ran the place twenty-five years ago, and he is still there, and we did not regret exchanging a day in Rome for a day such as we had. Castelgandolfo is just a 45-minute train ride from Rome’s Termini train station, and I discuss its charms in Mini Pod 3.
From the Ferry on Lago di Garda, with the Mountains rising from the Lake
Our daughter and her family left Italy after one week, and my wife and I then headed to Bolzano to begin our 10-day bike trip. I felt a little guilty about this, for it was a major snub to Rome, but I should not hide the fact that I’ve loved and learned from other parts of Italy, not only Rome. I could have used the time to visit the places in Rome we had missed during our week there, but I don’t regret the change of pace represented by Trent, Verona, Padua, and the other cities we visited in northeastern Italy; and of course the mountains, lakes, and countryside, so often filled with grapevines and carefully pruned fruit trees, were often beautiful. Particularly stunning was the five-hour boat ride we took from the northern shore of Lago di Garda to its southern shore. Much better than peddling a bike the whole way!
We enjoyed the biking, and we hope to do something like this again. We rented our bikes and had our suitcases transported from town to town by a firm called Eurobike, but a bike-free version of the same trip could have been done with a rental car or a combination of bus and train. We ended up taking five different intercity trains, and to my surprise, they all ran on time and provided good occasions to read and relax. Purchasing tickets was easy both online and at a train station. We always used Trenitalia, but I did not even realize that there is now a competitor, Italo, which I should have investigated.
If you are tempted to try the biking, don’t underestimate the challenge of finding your way. I used an app called Komoot—k-o-m-o-o-t—and it was possibly a life saver, for it helped to keep us off the busiest roads, and it was certainly a time saver. It’s no fun getting lost, especially if you are behind schedule or it’s raining.
Cavour in Verona
Point 4. The themes of Get Ready for Rome travel well, and they were clearly in evidence in the cities we visited in northeastern Italy. Ancient Rome became an Empire, Christian Rome influenced much of Europe, and the Risorgimento transformed not only Rome but Italy as a whole. We thus did not lose contact with our main themes when we traveled outside of Rome. We saw ancient Roman ruins especially in Verona, Catholic churches everywhere, and monuments remembering Garibaldi, Cavour, and Victor Emmanuel II in most cities. I did not do any systematic searching, but only in Venice did I see a plaque remembering Mazzini. You may remember that his more radically democratic views led the monarchy of the new Italy to prevent him even from entering the nation he helped to bring into being.
Funeral Monument to the Doge Pietro Mocenigo in SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice
Although we saw Catholic churches everywhere, they did not always honor the same people. Of course, Christ and various saints were not forgotten, but to put my point in the negative, the popes were not honored as much in the north as they honored themselves in Rome. Other ecclesiastical or political figures received the honors that were not given to the popes. The most striking example was in Venice, where the doges—as the chief executives of the Venetian Republic were called—frequently received beautiful funeral monuments in churches, as Alexander VII, Urban VIII, and other popes did in St. Peter’s. This was especially noticeable at the beautiful Dominican Church of Saints John and Paul, that is, Giovanni e Paolo.
I conclude that getting ready for Rome will help you get ready for other places as well.
Fifth and finally, here’s a simple lesson I did not learn in time. While wandering Rome, I noticed a lot of small hotels, apartments, and rooming houses, and wish I had gotten the contact information for a few of them. We stayed at Via Cavour, street number 295, and I love that area. It’s close to the main sites of Ancient Rome and to what I previously identified as Rome’s “fixed point,” Piazza Venezia. It’s also in a lively neighborhood filled with good restaurants and cafés. Since I so like the area, I should have looked around for other places nearby—I’m sure there were many of them—just in case I have the chance to return to Rome and Airbnb does not deliver for us as well as it did on this recent trip. If you search “apartments and rooming houses in Rome,” you will see that there are now many alternatives to Airbnb and VRBO, but it would have been a good idea if I’d done a little preliminary searching when I was there on the ground.