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Rome

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 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.

Roman Holiday for Us

There is no place like Rome for the holidays. Two of our books are set there and the Eternal City, well, I admit it’s my favorite. It is an easy bias because, over the course of writing Molly Goes to Rome and The Shield of Horatius, I learned so much. I love talking about Rome.

Our first book had a distinct disadvantage: it was our first book. Molly Goes to Rome is a fun story and we immensely enjoyed the process of putting it together. However, each book is a learning process and many lessons were learned with our “prototype.”

Amy has a few more pencils and more tricks to show off these days.
Amy has a few more pencils and more tricks to show off these days.

So, we’re revising it. The story won’t change, though one misspell will be corrected. There will be a new illustration for the cover and each of the existing illustrations will get a makeover, as this one, featuring the Pantheon, has.

The revised edition will be out in the next couple of weeks. We’re very excited to do this.

Oval Meets a Square

While you’re here, let’s talk a bit more about Rome. One of the locations featured in Molly Goes to Rome is the Piazza Navona.

The Piazza is a plaza with three fountains, the most famous of which is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi) by Bernini.

The fountain and square area is a large oval. Some of my research indicates it represents what was once the competition ground of the Stadium of Domitian. This may or may not be true as the oval also defines the street that runs around the square. What is true is that portions of the stadium remain and are visible when you take a stroll.

One of the striking aspects, maybe because I was only there at night, is how enclosed the area feels. There is no visual continuity for the small streets that lead into the piazza. In other words, you can’t look down the street to see other buildings, etc..

When you’re on a tour looking for the next thing is a natural thing to do. The Piazza Navona, however, forces you to reckon with it, to appreciate it.

The old illustration, soon to be updated. Molly in the Piazza Navona.
The old illustration, soon to be updated. Molly in the Piazza Navona.

There was  another reason for me to appreciate it. I visited Rome as a student in my teens. The excursion to the piazza was not a planned one, and only a couple of students were invited. I was thankful then and continue to be grateful for this.

Then, as now, the piazza had a good place to get gelato. After we confirmed it still existed, there was no question that Molly and Michael would find their way to it. Our contributor to the book, who was born and raised in Rome, agreed it was an excellent place to include.

Part of the charm includes the art market that sets up there. This is depicted in our book where an artist does a drawing for Molly.

If you’re going, particularly if you travel with kids, the Piazza Navona is not to be missed.

 

The Immersive (Pre)Travel Experience

Many people talk about how travel changes a person. What is it about the experience that changes you? You see, feel, taste, touch, and hear another culture. There is the beginning of an understanding about the people. You detect the general atmosphere or energy of the city.

This doesn’t have to be an overseas or international thing. There are plenty of differences between Indianapolis and San Antonio, or even San Diego and Los Angeles. The two cities are close to each other, but contrast enough to notice a few things. The differences are subtle to others, but probably not to the people that live there.

The illustrator and author at travel (Red Rock Canyon).
The illustrator and author at travel (Red Rock Canyon).

Austria was the first place I had an experience with this. We were in Salzburg, to be precise. Anyplace where mountains hundreds of feet high shoot suddenly from grassy plains must have a few peculiarities. Everything was clean, and it started with the air coming off of the snow-capped mountains. The cool, crisp, mountain-scoured air seemingly inspired the local residents to likewise behaviors within the city. I cannot recall a place as clean as the birthplace of Mozart, and have seen very few (if any) places as beautiful.

That trip also taught another lesson: if you speak even a bit of the local language, everything is different. A barrier is breached. Locals in many places throughout the world will breach the barrier willingly and show their hospitality, but if you do it and show just a hint of your awareness of the culture, the smiles will be bigger, the laughs heartier, the conversations more open.

Molly and the Magic Suitcase LogoI was pretty young and some of the adding of two and two happened after the fact. Just a few years later I had a much keener experience. This time the city was Washington, D. C.. The Washington I experienced was in a presidential inaugural year. There was energy, probably much more than at other times, there was a fast pace, and there was time to explore. That was the key.

Molly and Michael play Sepak Takraw with friend Yung in Thailand.
Molly and Michael play Sepak Takraw with friend Yung in Thailand.

When we conceived Molly and the Magic Suitcase one of our main goals was to provide an immersive experience. Our characters Molly and Michael do not make the tourist rounds reading from a guide book. There is much value in that, but showing what is in the city only partially gives a sense of being there. Molly and Michael begin the journey by befriending a local.

We begin the process of developing each book the same way by interviewing people from the places and others that have traveled there often. In the story, the local boy or girl that helps Molly and Michael essentially speaks with the voice of our contributors. There are a few instances where the characters’ dialogue is a direct quotation. When Yung talks about his favorite dessert in Molly Goes to Thailand, the words are from someone savoring the memory of the flavor. When Marco explains the game elastico in Molly Goes to Rome, it is the remembered youth of someone that grew up there.

These are the ways we seek to give children and their parents a brief immersion into the sights and culture of the many places our books visit. Even an eyewitness account from us wouldn’t be enough to deliver the same experience. Whether or not there is an opportunity to go, you can travel and share the experience with your kids.