On our way back to Rome we stopped for a coffee in Siena. We sat in the Piazza del Campo, and tried to imagine it filled with crowds and horses during the Palio di Siena, a horse race held twice each year in July and August. Perhaps we would be back one year to see it.
We arrived back in Rome (just as the Trevi Fountain had promised) in time to squeeze in the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon before dinner. A friend who had visited Rome a year earlier had warned us to curb or enthusiasm regarding the Spanish Steps.
“They’re just steps” she emphasised. “I know what you’re thinking, that they’re the famous Spanish Steps, Audrey Hepburn walked down them in Roman Holiday, but trust me on this one, they’re just steps.”
Still I found myself excited as we approached the top of the steps, suddenly there they were and yes, she was right, they were just steps. Steps so crowded with tourists taking photos and locals lounging about, that it was a challenge to negotiate our way safely to the bottom.
“They’re just steps” we murmured to each other and have since referred to disappointment at an over-rated tourist attraction as ‘the Spanish Steps Effect’.
There was however an interesting fountain at the base of the steps; the Fontana della Brancaccia or “Fountain of the Old Boat”. We stood close by and strained to hear the trickling water over the noisy crowd. Keats could hear this fountain as he lay on his deathbed in his villa beside the Spanish steps, and it is said to have inspired his request for the grim epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. Cheer up Keats, you’re popular now, the Buzzcocks even named a song for you.
On to the Pantheon which did not disappoint. When it was converted from a pagan temple to a Christian church, the marble statues of Roman gods such as Mars and Venus were craftily converted to statues of St Francis of Assisi and Mary, by adding animals to the Mars statue and a baby in the arms of the statue of Venus. A good application of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.
We ate a fabulous dinner with a few others from the group at a little restaurant in a side street. I don’t think it is possible to have a bad meal in Italy, for every course they have a range of delicious options. Start with an aperitivo, perhaps cinzano or prosecco, then switch to wine with the antipasto of prosciutto, olives, artichoke hearts, mushrooms, capsicums, mozzarella cheese, bread with olive oil and vinegar or bruschetta. For primo there are a vast range of pastas and sauces, risotto, gnocci and soups such as minestrone to choose from. For secondi pick a fish, seafood or meat dish such as the delicious parmigiana, scallopini or saltimbocca, or choose from the array of pizzas. Squeeze in a dolce of panna cotta, tiramisu or gelato, caffe with biscotti and finish the meal with a digestive of limoncello or amaretto. It is no coincidence that the ‘eat’ part of Eat, Pray, Love is set in Italy. If I had to choose one cuisine, at the exclusion of all others it would be cibo Italiano per favore!
We woke to clear blue skies on our final day in Rome and went straight to the Vatican. Our guide drew our attention to the fig leaves strategically placed on many of the statues, not by the artists but later under the bull of Pope Paul IV. Particularly noticeable are the metal fig leaves that Pope Innocent X preferred to plaster leaves. Attempts to remove the fig leaves often removed more than just the leaf, so they have stayed. We strolled past magnificent tapestries and intricate maps and stood with heads back staring at the magnificent ceiling of the Sistine chapel. Rubbing our necks we emerged into the vast magnificence of St Peters Basilica and down into the Vatican crypt where some of the Popes are buried. A mass was in progress and the singing echoing through the underground chambers was eerie. We eventually emerged into the bright sunshine of St Peter’s Square, which we recognised from the footage of Pope John Paul IIs funeral when it was packed with people for weeks. A quick giggle at the Swiss Guard’s uniforms and we were done.
Across to the Coliseum, the queue to get inside was huge so we just had a look at the outside which was impressive enough. We stopped to get our picture taken with a couple of guys, one dressed as Caesar, the other as a Centurion who were posing with tourists in front of the Coliseum. Their accomplice snapped two shots of us and then refused to give the camera back until we handed over €30. In retrospect it was a small amount to pay to learn that there is always someone looking to take advantage of ‘stupid tourists’. Rumour has it that the costumed creeps are ex-felons, excluded from many jobs due to their criminal records. Technically their scam is illegal but the police turn a blind eye as it is less illegal than what they might otherwise be getting up to.
Our final stop was San Pietro in Vincoli (St Peter in Chains) church to see Michelangelo’s Moses, with the horns coming out of his head which are apparently rays of light. I think Michelangelo intentionally made him look like the devil, from what we have heard about him it is something he would do. Actually, I am sure I wouldn’t have liked Michelangelo had I ever met him, sure he was a genius, but he was quite the temperamental artist, despised women and left work unfinished.
The whole tour group went out together for our final dinner in Rome. We had an excellent meal, accompanied by popular opera with lots of audience participation. We exchanged details with a few of the Australians and New Zealanders, and give one of the New Zealanders the hideous umbrella as inexplicably she actually liked the pattern. It was a wonderful way to end the trip, however as we chatted to the Montenaros on the trip back to the hotel, the conversation took a sad turn when Montenaro Junior remembered that their first task when they arrived home would be to bury their dearly loved dog. He was close to tears and I desperately tried to think of a way to change the topic, when suddenly Nato came to the rescue.
He turned to Montenaro Senior and asked, “have you seen a movie called The Thorn Birds?”