Similar to the Texas Hill Country, Italy’s Tuscany features rolling hills and winding roads lined with trees. Our family-owned agri-hotel offered farm-to-table meals and wine. This restful setting proved perfect after our bustling activity in Venice.
Sherri and I decided to take the day off from the tour. While our group ventured to Florence, we lounged around the pool, meandered the country roads, and sampled their Italian cuisine. A perfect respite for me following my bout with an upper respiratory infection.
That evening the hotel treated us to a chef’s presentation of pasta making. Good-natured, the chef invited the children to participate in the process. Truly a delight to watch, but I’ll leave the future pasta-making to those more ambitious than I.
Renowned for its romantic tales, rural Tuscany offers a rest for weary travelers. Revived, we sped down the road south for Rome – where rich history awaited us.
What a sight! Stone-pine trees lined Roman streets, motor scooters zoomed in and out of traffic, pedestrians scurried across walkways, and taxis zigzagged through the streets. Watch your purse, hurry crossing streets, and only take an official taxi. Rome was not as safe as other European cities.
But the history. Three thousand-year-old cobblestone streets snaked their way throughout the city. With more unearthed yearly, ancient ruins were evident everywhere. Merchants hawked their wares in the plazas by day while various artists entertained at night. Exquisite fountains and statutes from days bygone adorned the plazas. We even drank water from a well-constructed thousands of years ago.
First stop: the Pantheon. Built in 126 AD, this temple served the numerous Roman gods. Surprisingly, some of the pillars and doors were shipped from Africa. Quite an undertaking! As the largest unreinforced building in the world, the builders laid a 25 feet thick foundation with only a four feet thick ceiling. A large hole in the center of the ceiling lightens the weight-bearing load. In 609 AD, the Roman authorities converted the Pantheon into a Christian church. That done, they stripped the bronze from the ceiling and used it in St. Peter's Basilica. The Roman Catholic Church still regularly holds services there.
Afterward, our tour group separated to explore on our own. The expansive plaza on which the Pantheon sits offered dining, music, a rousting soccer game on a big screen, along with assorted nuns and priests. In fact, nuns and priests were everywhere. We even saw numerous specialized stores that cater to the priesthood.
Then we wandered the narrow streets in search of our hotel. We wandered some more. Then more. Clearly, we were lost. Deep in a neighborhood far from tourist attractions, we could find no one who spoke English. None. Lost in Rome. Sounds like the title of my next book. My friend began to panic. Me? I was secretly captivated by our unplanned adventure. However, we finally managed to communicate with a local and found our way. Unbeknownst to us, we were not that far from our abode. Whew! Now that was exciting.
Soon we relaxed on the rooftop of our hotel with a glass of wine and a stunning view of Rome. Eventually, though, a seagull perched on the ledge eyeing our snacks. Because seagulls never shy from snatching food right out of your hand, we scurried downstairs to a safer place to lounge. And speaking of seagulls: why had they strayed so far from the sea?
Visiting the Colosseum and Forum the next day proved an emotionally charged experience. Our guide, raised by her American mother and Italian father, brought both to life. Encouraging us to time travel, she placed us in the shoes of the Romans, whose life span lasted only 30 years.
By the time Rome built the Colosseum, they had conquered the world. Its purpose? Keep the people happy. The Emperor attended these special events, too. Mornings featured exotic animals (from India to northern Africa) fighting to the end. Executions took place in the early afternoons. To top off the day, gladiators - ancient "sports" heroes - fought. But never to kill. After training for two years, they were too valuable to the owners to allow killings. An architectural wonder, the Colosseum was soaked in history. There I stood where ancient sagas have impacted the world – and still today we learn from it.
The Forum, originally a swamp to which shepherds brought their herds, evolved into a market that grew into Rome. It was the center of public life. Oversized, all Roman buildings symbolized strength. Further, all surfaces were covered in colorful marble or painted plaster. After the fall of Rome, though, locals removed the marble, melting it into lime for cement, which accounts for their drab presence today.
At one spot, our guide informed us that we stood where Brutus murdered Julius Caesar. Was that true? Did it matter? We knew he must have at least stood nearby. For an American to be surrounded by such antiquity, it took my breath away. Our history remains in its infancy compared to Rome.
Places echo the stories of those who came before us. As a 2760-year old city, we have much to glean from these ancient chronicles. Rome was built for permanence so they would not be forgotten. Layers upon layers of archaeological finds still lie beneath the city.
With Rome offering so much to ponder, our hearts were bursting as we flew across the Atlantic Ocean toward home.