It was a cold day in February when my husband of 6 days and I landed in Rome. There was still slushy snow on the ground and a tantalizing nip in the air. The driver of our airport shuttle — a sleek black Italian-made vehicle — whose name was Fabiano (spoken with a sing-song accent on the third syllable [Fab-ee-AHN-o]) efficiently conveyed us to our cozy bed and breakfast in an imposing building with large doors on a quiet street near Via Settembre on the north east side of the city. It was late in the evening when we arrived, and the roads were largely free of the clutter of rush-hour traffic. Rome looked shiny and elegant in the artificial light of the street lamps.
Dinner was simple fare — bruschetta followed by thin crust pizza with wild mushrooms washed down with some wine at a small but tasteful pizzeria (La Baita) down the street from where we were staying. The decor and ambiance were a far cry from Pizza Hut’s. There were candles and wine glasses on the tables, and wine bottles decorated the delightfully old-world brick walls. The waiter threw in a free and deliciously lemony digestif at the end of the meal — a distinctly European touch that I was experiencing for the first time.
Day 1 in “Roma” was spent largely at the Vatican Museum, where we were spellbound by ornately decorated ceilings, all manner of sculptures, and of course, the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel. (A testament to the efficiency of the Vatican Museum is surely to be found in the fact that we were able to retrieve, with minimal fuss, an iPad we had “lost” near the entrance to the Sistine Chapel. Once we discovered it was missing, we reported the loss to one of the security guards, who with one short call on his walkie-talkie was able to ascertain that someone had indeed turned in an iPad with a black cover at the lost-and-found counter near the museum’s entrance. I couldn’t help thinking that if this had happened in India, we would never have seen our iPad again.) Inside the Sistine Chapel, an audio guide to the frescoes on the walls and ceilings brought Michelangelo’s genius alive for us. In general, I found that the audio guides to be had in a number of Italian museums, including the Borghese, were really useful in helping one to navigate the rich repositories of sculptures and paintings.
After we had feasted on the visual delights inside the Vatican,we took a short stroll to the famed St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. Unfortunately it was too late in the day to go to the top of the cupola, but we walked through the magnificent piazza and looked at the art and sculpture in the main hall, where Michelangelo’s Pieta reposes, dimly lit. An evening mass was about to commence, and we saw some priests and choir boys make their way to the altar and begin the prayers while a sacred hush settled over the interiors.
On our way back to Via Collina from the Vatican, we experienced something closer to home when we encountered a man from Bangladesh selling woolen caps and gloves on the street outside the Vatican walls! It was truly astonishing to see how many immigrants there are from the Indian subcontinent in Italy. A few days later, in a restaurant near the Pantheon, we had a waiter who was originally from Calcutta.
We spent days 2 and 3 in Rome visiting more museums (notably the National Museum and the Borghese Gallery, which is home to some fabulous Bernini sculptures) and also touching on the archeological hotspots like the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum and the Pantheon. Mode of transportation: mostly metro, bus, and our own two feet. The 3-day Roma Pass we had purchased gave us unlimited travel on public transport, and we made the best use of it. Rome is a very walkable city; in fact, if you don’t walk everywhere, you are likely to miss a lot.
We spent days 4 and 5 in Florence, soaking in more art and history, and ending it all with a long walk by the river Arno, past the Ponte Vecchio. We took a high-speed train from Rome to Florence that took us about an hour and a half. We travelled second-class, which was still comfortable and quite roomy. In Florence we sampled gelato (I had one that was Tiramisu flavored — a case of overkill?), some Tuscan cuisine, the sculptures of Michelangelo (most notably his David), all the art the Uffizi could hold, and some delightful river views. The spirit of the Renaissance is still alive there, amid the cobbled streets, narrow alleyways and medieval architecture, despite the slick and touristy facade. In contrast to ultra-modern skylines made up of chrome and steel skyscrapers, the sight of the distinctive reddish Duomo rising above a teeming vista of old buildings and towers reassures one that in some parts of the world, the forces of modernity have not completely leveled the glory of the past.