Where the golden apples grow: Sightseeing in Rome

Where the golden apples grow: Sightseeing in Rome
Where the golden apples grow: Sightseeing in Rome

Read Part IV: Conference in Rome

Gabrielle and I had talked all year of her visiting me in England, but in the last-minute rush to finagle my quarantine-free entry to the conference, she obliged me by redirecting to Rome. Joy squeezed my heart at the sight of her – a little piece of home, arriving in a blaze of sunlight. Five days of freedom beckoned, a generous allowance for exploring the city at our leisure.

Both of us hazy with jetlag and sleep deprivation, we sleepwalked through mass and a post-conference mixer on her first evening. Take-out pizza from the corner shop revived us enough to make it back to our hotel. The next day we saluted departing conference members with with cappuccinos on the patio, then retired to book a week’s worth of world-class excursions.

Italy’s “Green Pass” system (COVID vaccine or 48-hour negative test result for entering most major attractions) proved a persistent complication in our touring efforts. That first morning stacked up delays as I attempted to join the line outside the train station, discovered too late that authorities wouldn’t accept those results, and diverted to the nearest pharmacy. At long last we arrived at the first stop on our self-guided tour: the Colosseum.

For this starry-eyed art history student, the Colosseum represents a masterwork of architecture, but Gabrielle reminded me of the tragic side to its history. We remembered the Christian martyrs and countless martyrs who suffered there, while marvelling at the technological ingenuity of its design. Apparently the staging allowed for aquatic battles, with the lower levels flooded and beasts rising from the pits. It once featured a retractable ceiling – a feature too extravagant for most modern sports stadiums.

To round off our ancient history tour, we waited in the long, long line for the Pantheon. With free entrance (save the mandatory “Green Pass”) attracting a hydra-length crowd, plus the obligatory social distancing bottleneck, we dipped in and out of the advantageously positioned souvenir shops, stocking up on gifts for family and friends. Once inside, we lingered in the dim light of the oculus, where tradition showers down rose petals on Pentecost. I tried to absorb its grandeur, but the magnificence of a structure so peerless and so influential stretched beyond me.

After a much-needed rest, we dressed for an evening excursion of more modern dimensions. The guides from the conference had tipped us off to an open air swing dance event — no COVID restrictions, they promised, not even masks! Though we arrived late, I suspected it wouldn’t cost us much on Italian time; indeed, the event didn’t kick off for another half hour. It tickled me that the beginner lesson unfolded exactly as I had experienced dozens of times before — except in Italian. As the night matured, I savored Lindy Hop dancing with a parade of talented, courteous dancers. If I ever had a reason to move to Rome, this would be it: I don’t think I have ever enjoyed better Lindy Hop at an open dance.

Though on Wednesday we had hoped to view the Pope during his papal audience, some holiday had interrupted the regular schedule. We settled for touring what must be one of the most fabulous art galleries in the world. Before reaching the star attractions, we passed through collections that would take center stage anywhere else — including a favorite of mine: Laocoön and His Sons. Displaying again the bloodthirsty tastes acquired from art history lectures, I exulted over the exquisite dynamism in its, er, evocative portrayal of agonizing pain.

Less questionable delights awaited. The Sistine Chapel enforced its no-photo policy with attentive guards, alas, but Raphael’s School of Athens didn’t shun the spotlight.

Forced to rush the final rooms, we split for Gabrielle to attend mass in San Pietro while I scaled the dome to survey the city. The Vatican itself shelters behind stone walls, impenetrable but from above, like a secret garden. It struck me as surprisingly green in the midst of a scorching summer heat. Then I devoted an hour to the cathedral itself, before its mighty doors shut for the day, regarding open-mouthed its mammoth statues and peeking into art alcoves…where, all unsuspecting, I chanced on Michelangelo’s Pieta.

Climbing the dome of San Pietro

In between world-famous attractions, Gabrielle and I hunted for local fare. Upon being queried for restaurant recommendations, a waiter at our hotel had opined, “There is no good food in Rome” — but this tourist counted herself satisfied. The rich, textured pasta dishes always plated just enough to satisfy (making sense of the European complaint about American serving sizes: they are not enamored of leftovers this side of the Atlantic). For dessert: gelato, what else?

The Borghese for Bernini, a Rome local from the conference had advised me. Intent on viewing my all-time favorite sculptor’s work in the flesh (almost not a metaphor, in his case), I persisted despite more COVID regulation setbacks (my “Green Pass” had expired; I had to race several blocks away to re-test before the staff would admit me).

It was worth every tear it cost. Though a relatively small museum, featuring perhaps half a dozen rooms and galleries, the Borghese exemplified that old adage “quality over quantity.” Not one, but all three of Bernini’s most spectacular works graced its collection: the Rape of Proserpina, Apollo and Daphne, and his unique David. The last of these had first acquainted me with the sculptor; I recall my teacher comparing his powerful movement to the stately Michelangelo’s. Much like Caravaggio’s forceful paintings, Bernini’s energy enchants me with its sheer improbability. How can stone yield so much fluidity?

Speaking of Caravaggio, the collection boasted a few of his paintings, too: a one stop shop for all my art history idols.

I fawned over the Apollo and Daphne so helplessly that a guard consented to let me overstay my social distance booking. When I had drunk my fill, Gabrielle and I reunited near the Pantheon.

For our final evening, we schemed extravagance: cocktails with a friend from the conference, then splurging on dinner before a classical music concert: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

After searching the menu in vain for my childhood favorite, frutti di mare, I contented myself with manicotti pasta shells overflowing with ricotta.

On our final day, we thought my late evening departure afforded ample time to surmount any obstacles — but I hadn’t counted on discrepancies in international COVID policy. While my rapid test qualified me for arrival in Italy, South Africa immigration would not accept it. The airline refused to issue me a boarding pass.

Cue an agonizing 24 hours, as I pleaded with airport staff for alternatives and reluctantly surrendered to delaying my flight until the following night. The night passed with little sleep, as I dozed draped over my luggage airport and woke unbearably early for a PCR test. With fearful relief (and not too exhausted to appreciate the stereotypical efficiency of the Swiss crew), I boarded my flight at last: en route to South Africa, after eighteen months away.

My world tour ends in the next installment with visits to friends in opposite hemispheres: South Africa and stateside!

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