I'd been to Rome a few times before; once as a baby, because my grandmother lived there at the time; once with my then girlfriend while inter-railing in 1986; again on my own in 1992; and a few times for conferences and other work trips since 2002. Anne hadn't been in Italy at all apart from cutting across the northeastern corner on one of our Balkan trips. So we were coming with different experiences and expectations.
First minor glitch: our lunchtime flight out of Brussels was two and a half hours late. So all we got of Rome on Friday evening was dinner, and basic orientation in and around the hotel (La Griffe, on Via Nazionale near the Piazza della Repubblica - decent enough, the rooms rather warm but that has its compensations).
We arose in a leisurely way on Saturday and got the Metro to the Vatican. Once there, we by-passed the museums to go and explore St Peter's properly. What strikes me is that it is so huge but wears its hugeness quite lightly; there must have been well over a thousand tourists and pilgrims there with us, but we didn't feel crowded. There were significant numbers of eastern Asians among the tourists, and I reckon that they were mainly Japanese rather than from the more Christian countries of the region, coming to get a good look at the European cultic sights as European and American tourists do the rounds of Shinto temples in Japan. St Peter's is a working religious space too, of course; one corner is roped off for confessions, a Mass was going on in a side-chapel, in the crypt people were venerating the recently occupied tomb of John Paul II. Indeed, that's the message of St Peter's in a way, that this is the headquarters of an institution with centuries of history behind it, I guess one of the longest surviving political or religious entities in today's world. That's why the centrality of the tomb of St Peter himself is so important to the building, and the continuity is emphasised by the visible monuments of his successors - indeed, one or two of the successors are themselves visibly on display, most notably John XXIII.
We left and headed east, down to the Castel Sant' Angelo, built as his own mausoleum by a bloke more famous in England for his wall, also of course where Tosca hurls herself to her doom; and then crossed the river and found lunch in the Piazza Navona, populated with rather indifferent buskers and rugby fans filtering in for the match on Sunday.
Then we strolled over to the Pantheon, again built by the bloke who did the wall; a beautifully proportioned building, very graceful. Is there another building in the world still being used for its original purpose after almost 1900 years? I mean as a place of worship in general, of course; there are churches and cathedrals which were built before the Pantheon was handed over to the Christians (thinking of the cathedral in Trier, for one, and I'm sure the monastery at Mt Sinai goes back almost as far) but I don't know of anywhere else where the original 2nd-century infrastructure is still in use. Perhaps in India or China; I'm not well-enough informed. But I suspect the Pantheon may hold the European record.
A block or two away we had a good giggle at Bernini's elephant built to honour Pope Alexander VII, because apparently the elephant was considered a symbol of continence because it was supposed to mate only once every five years. History does not record whether the Pope thought this rate was appropriate for Popes, clergy or laity.
And then slowly over past the Wedding Cake monument (shrouded in scaffolding, alas) to the Forum. The difference in street level between the modern tarmac and the Forum's flagstones is pretty incredible; I wonder if anyone has analysed how much of it is down to rubble, and how much to general domestic rubbish piling up over the centuries. My favourite things in the Forum are the three triumphal arches, Septimus Severus commemorating his defeat of the Parthians (with Smurf hats), Titus commemorating the sack of Jerusalem, and Constantine celebrating the Milvian Bridge. One new thought that occurred to me was that the arches actually are not so very big, compared to, say, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or Trafalgar Square. The Romans could certainly have built that big if they had wanted to (clear enough from the Colosseum across the road), so they must simply not have wanted to. I wonder if anyone has done a cost analysis of how much of the loot from the campaign went into commemoration? Of course, there would have been less durable aspects to the victory celebrations as well, games etc, and perhaps the arches had to be finished to a deadline, which would constrain their physical size.
We walked around the Colosseum but were daunted by the queues and headed vaguely north to the hotel. We stopped on the way at Santa Maria Maggiore, a big Baroque church, and paid a rip-off four euro each for the museum, which basically has ecclesiastical relics and vestments from the last few centuries, including various paraphernalia belonging to Pius IX and Pius X. Still, that long long walk from St Peter's to the Colosseum taking in the various sights en route is my absolute favourite thing to do in Rome, and it was great to share it with Anne.
Started on Sunday by trying to get into the church of San Lorenzo where St Bridget of Sweden is commemorated; but it was locked. Then north to the Trevi Fountain, which is indeed pretty charming; and north again to the Spanish Steps, but the Keats and Shelley museum is closed on Sundays. I did manage to find one more sight I had always meant to see: the tomb of Augustus, a few blocks west of the Spanish Steps. It's pretty massive, but you can't see a lot because of all the trees growing on it. ("Don't eat the figs!") I seem to remember it played a key role in Peter Greenaway's The Belly of an Architect, but don't remember it as being so overgrown; maybe they actually used somewhere else for the film?
Then by taxi to an actual museum, the MACRO which specialises in contemporary art. I am afraid this was only just about worth the one euro entry fee. There was an exhibition by an Iranian artist, featuring her animations of whales swimming through the walls of houses, and a man who savagely attacks his dog for no reason. She had also various studies of humans and animals, including several pictures of a huge manatee. I attempted to explain to Anne that this was funny, but don't think I succeeded.
In the afternoon we attempted to find the catacombs along the Appian Way. We got to the Colli Albani metro station all right, but then the lack of clarity of our maps, the low sun confusing my attempts to get my bearings and the natural lie of the land all led us some way to the southeast instead of the southwest, and we gave up after a long walk through not unattractive countryside, and got the bus back into the city.
I had invested in the Time Out Guide to Rome before we left Brussels, and though it let us down at the catacombs, we did very well out of it for dinner. On the first night we took its recommendation for a sushi restaurant called Doozo very near our hotel: that was pretty yummy. On the second evening we did even better, with a superb gourmet experience at the Hostaria Glass in the heart of Trastevere: five courses of wondeful delicacies. The Sunday evening saw us go in the same direction but without crossing the river, to try a restaurant called Da Giggetto which supposedly specialises in Jewish cuisine; I liked the fried artichokes "à la juive" but didn't think the rest was particularly exotic compared to what I would get in an Italian restaurant in Brussels; but the same was true of the prices, so I can't really complain.
And so back home on Monday morning; have been writing this on the plane, while Anne gazed out the window at the Alps. Back to work tomorrow.