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March 2016

The Piazza at Night: An Evening in Rome

There are occasions we receive opportunities. Some years ago I received the advice, “when someone asks you to do something, say ‘yes.'” The reference was to volunteer activity. There are some moments I wished this advice came to me sooner, but then I wouldn’t be where I am and there is nowhere else I’d rather be. One occasion I said ‘yes’ was on this trip.

Day Five: Still Getting to Know Rome

The day continued after our stop in the ancient Roman Forum. We boarded the bus and made the short trip to the Circus Maximus. Today the Circus is essentially a long, flat park. During Natale di Roma (Rome’s birthday, April 21st), the park serves as a showcase for various events including battle reenactments. We saw that remarkable. Our guide talked mainly about the Imperial Palace, which overlooks the grounds.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
Southeast end of the Circus Maximus.

The Circus was essentially a huge race track with two tight turns at each end. Chariot races and other events were held there. According to Pliny the Elder, the stadium seated 250,000, but historians think it was considerably less. Regardless, it must have been something. The original movie Ben-Hur gives an idea of the thrill and danger of the races.

The Imperial Palace didn’t seem like much from our vantage point. The panoramic photo I share below doesn’t show much. It seemed like so much ruin and it was difficult to picture the splendor the palace once had. Appearances are deceiving.

When I wrote The Shield of Horatius there was a need to revisit the grounds, and in much greater detail than before. Fortunately, Google Earth allows you to explore the palace as it is now, and the Internet at large gives us access to numerous artistic renderings of the Circus and the Palace (scroll to the bottom of the linked page).

One of the things hidden by the ruins is the Hippodrome of Domitian (middle photo of the article). Scholars aren’t certain whether this was a stadium or simply a garden. Either way it shows the ruins of the Imperial Palace have more to offer than what is seen from the roadside benches on the other side of the Circus Maximus.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
A stitch of two photos I took produces this panorama of the Imperial Palace. You’re looking at the Palatine Hill, immediately adjacent to the Forum (on the other side of the hill). In the foreground is part of the Circus Maximus. The line between the two photos is clear at grass level, but hard to pinpoint further up.

Domitian expanded the palace significantly in his day and renamed it the Domus Augustana in honor of Caesar Augustus. Augustus, ironically, lived mainly in a borrowed home. The house, like the palace later named for Augustus, was also on the Palatine Hill and is a fairly recent addition to a tour of the area. The house was discovered just 50 years ago.

We piled into the bus again and went on a motor coach tour of the city. I do remember the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, but there wasn’t time to snap a photo. Given the area, Giovanna, our guide, probably also discussed the Aurelian Walls. One other moment burned itself into memory. We drove past the Israeli embassy and I saw armed guards at the road gates. I must have been looking the right way this time because the men were armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. It seemed pretty clear they were ready for anything.

Say ‘Yes’ to the Piazza Navona

The lead chaperones on our trip were an English teacher and his wife. I never had this particular teacher for class, but his influence was greater than many teachers I did have. Much of it comes down to this first evening in Rome.

Most of the adults, you see, decided to have an evening out. Not a dinner or anything that took hours, they planned to go to the Piazza Navona. The day was pretty long and I felt the extent of our travel to that point, but was privileged to be asked along.

An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from "Molly Goes to Rome." Illustration by Amy Houston Oler
An artist draws Molly in the Piazza Navona, from “Molly Goes to Rome.” Illustration by Amy Houston Oler.

The Piazza Navona is a large square in what was once known as the “Field of Mars.” When Rome was still pretty small this was the assembly area when they needed to field an army. The same part of Rome today boasts the Pantheon, the Mausoleum of Augustus, the Campo de’ Fiori area, Trajan’s Forum, and many other sites of interest. Piazza Navona was once a relatively small (compared to the Colosseum) stadium. It hosted competitive athletic contests, as opposed to involuntary gladiator bouts. We might call it an Olympic stadium today. The area of the Piazza closely conforms with what was once the athletic field. The city market relocated here in the late 1400’s and there is a continued market today of artists.

I can’t put a finer point on this: this brief evening excursion was an important life event. If I only wrote about this and left out all the other lessons learned, the story would be nearly as complete. Well, let’s make an exception for Pompeii.

The Piazza Navona was then and continues to be a great place for gelato. Partially because of this it is a great place to take kids. We confirmed these things when Amy interviewed a former coworker who grew up in Rome and takes her kids there often. The interview was part of our research for Molly Goes to Rome.

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book "Molly Goes to Rome."
The Fountain of the Four Rivers, illustration by Amy Houston Oler. From our first book “Molly Goes to Rome.”

The open air market is part of the attraction, but also the three fountains. The most well known is the Fountain of the Four Rivers. It is a tradition to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain and you should do so with the currency of your home country. I brought along a few quarters. One thing I didn’t bring was my camera. The Canon Snappy AF was not a low-light performer, at least not with my photography skills.

My memories are certainly romanticized. I recall the lighting of the fountains, the tropical air, the imposing (due to the lack of lighting) edifice of Sant’Agnese in Agone, the few artist stalls still there from the day, and the community of travelers there to experience it all. The crowd was small and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves. Families and small groups took photos, there was a general festive feel.

We didn’t stay long, maybe an hour. It was the first bit of Europe I experienced without our large tour group. It allowed me to relax and really absorb the atmosphere. It was similar to the experience in Siena, but magnified. All this and my first instinct was not to go. Why was I asked? Who knows?! I am thankful it happened.

Molly Goes to Rome features two illustrations from the Piazza Navona, more attention than we gave any site. There is simply something more to it. It is, as others say, a place to observe today’s Rome and its culture.

A Teen in Europe (Part 5): Morning in the Eternal City…I Think

I admit to a strong bias when it comes to Rome. Excepting cities I resided in, Rome is the city I know best. It is partially because of the trip I’m writing about, but mainly because I wrote a mystery set there. Google Earth is a tool this author cannot do without. That said, most of the sites in the book I saw only on a computer. Instead of revisiting what was familiar, I set out for new ground. Besides, memory is not a reliable narrator, as I found out.

The Colosseum, Rome, Italy.
The Colosseum, Rome, Italy. A van parked near the base provides some scale.

The Stadium

Thanks to Ridley Scott many people have a better idea of the size of the Colosseum. The digital reproduction in Gladiator was amazing. No such re-creation was available in 1990. There was little to prepare us. It was, after all, built in the 1st Century AD. A reasonable mind wouldn’t expect the reality of the Colosseum. My most recent stadium experience at the time was the old RCA/Hoosier Dome, with a seating capacity of just over 60,000. The Colosseum, in contrast, had an average attendance of 65,000, with a larger maximum capacity some sources say.

The Romans had a secret for mixing concrete: they used volcanic ash. In fact, they were particular about which ash was used. The resulting product is weaker than modern concrete, yet more resistant to deterioration. I learned this just a few years ago while researching my book. This is how some of their structures remain intact after two millennia.

We set out from our hotel early. The Colosseum was a short walk. We turned the corner a half block from our hotel’s entrance and there it was, just a few blocks further. Time has not always been kind to Rome. The city lost much of its population after the collapse of its empire. Dust and debris piled up to the point where many of the landmarks of ancient Rome were buried. Because of this, our first view of the stadium was deceptive.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The “aura” effect is present here again. Interior of the Colosseum as it was in 1990.

The ground around the base of the Colosseum is around fifteen to twenty feet lower than modern Rome. In other words, the first glimpse (link to a photo on Wikipedia) we had of the structure was about two stories shorter than it’s actual size. When we came close enough to realize this, I was in awe. To continue the earlier comparison, my eyes told me it was at least as big as the RCA Dome, and probably larger. This was one of the things I recall telling people over and over after the trip.

Our guide Giovanna was probably relaying great information, but I was busy processing the information from my senses. I do remember her talking about the brick structures, visible in my photo at left, used to shore up the outer walls. Much of this preservation was led by the Vatican and large stone plaques (one is also visible in the photo) are placed in various spots around the structure to commemorate the efforts of particular Popes.

It was a spectacular morning. A thin cloud layer had not yet dissipated and its effect on the light of the sun is apparent in my photos. The layer diffused the light of the sun to create the aura effect you see. It was something I barely appreciated at the time, but certainly do now. Please click on the photos to get a better look.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler Author
The Arch of Constantine…NOT a ticket office for the Colosseum (visible in the background).

Misinformation

Memory is a tricky thing. I am certain our group was told this: “Every stadium has a ticket office and the Colosseum was no exception.” The moment I heard this we were in the grounds around the Colosseum and my attention was on the Arch of Constantine. Whether the rest of my group was looking the same direction, I don’t know, but for years I thought our guide meant the arch was the Colosseum ticket office. I told people this when they looked at my photos.

It is much easier today to research such things. Sigh.

The Roman Forum – Write It Down!

The area at the base of Capitoline Hill is generally referred to as the Forum, but there are many structures there. It was once the center of Roman civic life and there are a number of temples as well. All in all, it is a compelling location for a tourist. And…I have little memory of our walk to it or partially through it. I can’t tell you which! There is evidence I was there, though. The photo at right and below is the Temple of Castor and Pollux. The angle this is taken from suggests we were right down on the lowest level of the Forum grounds. I have no recollection of this, nor of taking this photo.

A Teen in Europe - Chris Oler
Temple of Castor and Pollux, Rome. I have only a vague memory of taking this photo.

What I do remember is walking along a small side street packed with parked cars, mostly Alfa Romeos. Whatever we were looking at was on our right and below us. We came to corner that overlooked many ruins and this where I shot the photo of the Temple. Or so I believe. Looking at a map of Rome today and using Google Earth, it is impossible to reconcile my memory with the physical reality unless the street I was standing on was excavated in the last 26 years. What I’m saying is if you want to remember something, write it down!

It is surprising how much I remember given the time span between this trip and now, but there are a few blank spots too. I will return to Rome and gather new memories, but return a third time? I doubt it, even though I could spend years, there is too much in the rest of the world I want to see! So…next time I’m bringing a journal. Next time, I’m writing everything down when we return to the hotel in the evenings. Next time, I may make notes while we’re exploring the sites. It is such a rare opportunity to see these things, I am so very thankful for it, and I don’t want to chance not recalling any of it.

This was just the first morning of my first day in Rome. My first evening in Rome was really something special and we’ll get to that next time. Thanks for reading.

A Teen in Europe (Part 4): A Ride Through Tuscany

Tuscany, in short order, became the destination in Italy. In the spring of 1990, it was just the place we had to drive through to reach Rome. Venice to Rome is a haul, particularly in a bus.

A Proper Italian Meal?

Vineyards dominated the countryside. We passed traffic signs and saw a bit of Bologna from the highway. We stopped only twice between Venice and Rome. The first time was at a truck stop.

I had several European meals by this point, and my stomach grumbled at the amount of food (see Part Two). The truck stop had a cafeteria-style restaurant. I determined this meal would not lack in any way and got a lot of food…$20 worth, which seemed to be the amount the cashier decided upon, rather than ringing the actual price. He looked at my tray with some disgust and somehow rang up an even dollar amount.

It sounded expensive because $20.00, at the time, was L24,000 (L = Lire, the former Italian currency). In fact, adjusted for inflation, that $20 would be $36.25 today. So I’m sure the cashier purposely overcharged me, and it wasn’t good value to start. Don’t expect much in terms of flavor from cafeteria food in an Italian truck stop. It was a bad move on my part, but fairly harmless. It also made me a bit more wary for the rest of the trip.

A Teen in Europe (Part 4) - Chris Oler Author
Partial view of the Duomo di Siena. When you’re with a tour group, it doesn’t always seem like you have time to frame a shot.

My next decision wasn’t much better…maybe. Italy hosted the World Cup in 1990 and our trip was just a couple of months ahead of the event. Souvenirs were everywhere and it was in this truck stop that I bought a soccer ball emblazoned with the official logo and with official-looking packaging.

Let me be clear: this wasn’t a souvenir-sized ball with a keychain, but a full-size, take-to-practice soccer ball in its packaging. I could not tell you how, but I made room for it in my suitcase and the thing made it back across the Atlantic with no difficulty. The ball sits in my office today and it still has the original packaging. Say what you will, there is a big difference between ordering a soccer ball through the mail and carrying one back from Europe.

The Second-Best Meal I Had in Europe

The other stop we made was in Siena. The city is fairly well known today thanks to the popularity of Tuscany as a destination. In 1990, I had no idea there was a city in Italy named Siena until I saw it on our itinerary.

A Teen in Europe (Part 4) - Chris Oler Author
The view from the cafe where we ate: Piazza del Campo, Siena, Italy. The bell tower of the Duomo is visible above the buildings.

Siena is primarily known for the Palio di Siena, a horse race around the perimeter of the Piazza del Campo. The race is run twice each summer and pits the various wards (contrade) of the city against each other. Some say the passions the race inspires are the defining extreme of sports fanaticism. The photo at left gives some idea of the event. The gray stone area is the track and it is covered with dirt to give the horses better traction. The central area, which appears orange here, will be a solid mass of people. The race was shown in the James Bond film Quantum of Solace.

The Siena Cathedral (Duomo di Siena) is another notable tourism magnet. We observed the cathedral from afar while our guide talked about it, but did not have an opportunity to tour it. If you check out the link, you’ll see why it’s something not to miss. Instead, we simply made our way down to the Piazza del Campo after the brief lecture.

A Teen in Europe (Part 4) - Chris Oler Author
The Palazzo Pubblico, the dominant feature of the Piazza del Campo in Siena.

We were more or less on our own for about 45 minutes. The cafe where I took the photo (again, left) was about halfway around the plaza from where we entered. I heard an older couple in front of us struggle to make their order. It seemed the staff did not speak any English. The names of the menu items were on the wall and the pronunciation seemed pretty straightforward, so I nervously ordered ‘two (holding up two fingers) cheeseburgers and two patata frita (fries). Yes, it was a bold departure, but this was a greasy spoon cafe in a tourist center. We didn’t really have options for an authentic meal, nor did we have the time. Also, that cheeseburger was good (they put bacon on it).

A Local View in Siena

The rain made for a slow day. For the Sienese, it probably meant no crowd in the Piazza del Campo and they had an opportunity to stroll and visit with others during the midday hours. These were some of the easiest moments of the trip. The atmosphere felt small and local. I gather this is what many experience in Tuscany, in various places including Lucca.

We only ranged halfway around the piazza, but it was enough to get us away from our tour group and any others. No one else joined us, though two of the chaperones made a dash for the cathedral and were able to briefly tour it. In any case, it was an opportunity to simply absorb Italy. This was something I sought out two days later in Rome, and, after that, everywhere I’ve traveled since.

Off the beaten track is where you have the chance to truly learn and get a feel for things. True, we were just yards away from our group, but sometimes you don’t have to go far to get a completely different perspective. This is the lesson Siena taught me and another reason this trip made all the difference.

A Teen in Europe (Part 3): Exotic Venice

It is easy to think of Venice as an otherworldly place. The geography sets it apart, but there is more. On foot, Venice is a maze of walkways. Everyone knows about the water, but Venice also bridges a cultural gap, a legacy of its rich trading past. It was so much more than expected.

Day 3: Innsbruck to Venice

Our hotel room in Innsbruck was sparsely decorated. A lonely print adorned the wall, a triumphal arch located in Orange, France. Weird. Particularly strange because of all the prints that could have hung there–and all the places it could have shown–it was where my sister lived as an exchange student. So, a print of a landmark in France, encountered in an Austrian hotel room, connected me to home. It was grounding moment before stepping into another world.

We drove through the Alps and our guide mentioned Liechtenstein. Looking at a map, we shouldn’t have been any closer to it than when we left Innsbruck. The mountains defied description. My family went on several ski trips, including one in Colorado, but I’d never seen anything like the Alps. They seemed to rise impossibly high on each side of the highway as we headed for Italy.

A Teen in Europe (Part 3) - Chris Oler Author
The Grand Canal and me, but not my jacket.

The memories of our arrival in Venice are a bit hazy. Soon enough, we boarded a large boat to head to a “glass factory.” The route should be lost to time, but I took a series of photos as we cruised toward then past the Piazza San Marco. We swept down the Grand Canal. It was cooler than I expected, almost certainly the wind whipping off the water. Unfortunately, my jacket was on the bus.

A Teen in Europe (Part 3) - Chris Oler Author
A Murano master at work.

This brought us to the Murano Glass Factory. They took us to the workshop first. The gentleman made his work look effortless. It was truly something to behold. Apparently the demonstration is free…then they herd you into the store, which, honestly was almost as impressive as watching the craftsman. The variation in color and design. I thought a whole tea set didn’t stand much chance of survival in my suitcase, so I opted for a small vase, a pale and transparent blue with gold detail. This was the gift selected for my Mom.

Piazza San Marco

We re-boarded the boat and headed for tourist central. The Piazza San Marco is a small-ish, rectangular (well, trapazoidal, really) plaza with the Basilica San Marco at one of the long ends (facing east). Just to the basilica’s left, the area opens to the waterfront. This is the area you enter the square. The Doge’s Palace and bell tower for the basilica, the Campanile, are the dominant features here. You likely know this tower, whether you’ve seen photographs of Venice that include it or visited Disney’s Epcot Center.

A Teen in Europe (Part 3) - Chris Oler Author
Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square): the Clock Tower with the statues and bell at the very top. The arches to the right are part of St. Mark’s Basilica.

Walking into the square, St. Mark’s (the basilica) is on your right and directly in front of you is the Clock Tower. We arrived just as the tower acknowledged the hour. Two bronze statues took turns hitting the bell and, as you can see in the photo (left), many people gathered to watch.

St. Mark’s Basilica was unbelievable. The architecture is Italo-Byzantine and I saw nothing else like it during the trip. Inside, the ceiling is covered with gold mosaic that depicts various Christian themes. What was truly humbling was the altar containing St. Mark’s relics. I’m not Catholic, but I struggled to process this. “Awesome” is an over-used slang word, but that is exactly what St. Mark’s is.

The remainder of our scheduled time was spent touring the Doge’s Palace. I usually have a good sense of direction, but was quickly confounded by the corridors and steps. Perhaps that was the intention of the various Doge, but, more likely, it was the distraction of St. Mark’s.

The Disco

A Teen in Europe (Part 3) - Chris Oler Author
The Bridge of Sighs. This is the photo everyone takes in Venice, they just don’t normally take it off center and a bit crooked. Daring.

We had an hour of free time before heading back to our hotel (on the mainland). The “streets” around the Piazza San Marco were tiny. The one thing I’ll never forget was the seeming proliferation of Benetton stores. There seemed to be one in sight at all times, though maybe we were walking in circles.

In any case, we made it back to dry land. Our guide Giovanna announced our hotel had a “disco.” Now, I studied German throughout high school and knew the word for a nightclub or bar in German was “Disco,” but that was a classroom. It was a little strange, given the bad associations we often had of “disco” in the United States, to hear the word in 1990 Italy. Nevertheless, we gave the disco a go, and a disco it was: all the lights you expect to find at a skating rink, but without the skates. The music was about what you’d expect in a European dance club at the time: a bit ethereal with plenty of bass. I was just happy to catch up with my jacket.

The Presence of History

Salzburg opened my eyes to the beauty of travel. Venice revealed what an incredible learning experience travel often is. A social studies teacher could assign a report on Venice, but looking up facts and photos simply does not make the same impact. The presence of history, as I felt it in St. Mark’s Basilica, was dumbfounding. The feeling is easily recalled. It is, in fact, there when I research our books. When I wrote The Shield of Horatius it was a constant. Ah, Venice!