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life lessons

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. 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 terribly impressive 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 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.