28 March 2011

When in Rome... CYCLE! [Day One]

The trip down to Rome was really beautiful. Think rolling, green hillsides, blue skies, sun shining. A perfect day! I got into Rome at about 3:30pm and decided to make the most of the afternoon. Following my tourist map Petra had kindly given me, I made my way to the closest church. The cool thing about Rome is that all (or most) of the churches are completely open to the public. Anyone can go in and check em out, take a few photos. You would think this would be normal, but try getting in to St. Pauls in London - it costs you about £15!

The exterior of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major was fairly plain looking... But the interior? blew my mind. I have seen a whole lot of
churches in a lot of countries, but this was the next level. (I think I am going to be doing this a lot, but) I cannot explain how amazing this place was, so just check out the photos!


Next up I wandered past the Piazza della Repubblica, which contains the Fountain of the Naiads at the centre of a huge round-about. The fountain is very cool, full of sculpture. On one side is the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs - with one of the most unassuming, basic façades. The interior is a different story. Huge, white arches towering overhead, beautiful sculpture, vivid paintings, amazing decoration.

While walking toward the next spot on my map, I looked up and was struck by this massive white marble construction in the distance. There were huge columns, pillars holding statues high in the air, flags, and steps that seemed to stretch forever. It was the National Monument of Victor Emmanuel II, built to honour Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy. I cannot stress enough how large this thing was! I had a bit of an explore, took some photos, and came across two soldiers standing guard over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and eternal flame(s).

I took a quick look at Capitoline Hill and the Roman Forum, but the light was fading and I decided it would be better to dedicate them more time rather than trying to squeeze it all in. So instead I made my way to check out the Pantheon - built in 126 AD! and still to this day has the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. Impressive! While trying to find it I stumbled upon the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. This wasn't on the tourist map, I just happened to see it and decided to take a look. I am so glad I did, the ceiling in this church is unbelievable. I am actually a little disappointed with the photos, so I guess you will just have to go and see it for yourself. Besides that, it also had huge arches soaring high overhead, intricate sculpture and amazing detail and decoration.

I decided to give up on the Pantheon, and made my way to meet my host for the next four nights. I got to the meeting point with 5 minutes to spare and waited... 15 minutes went by and no sign. I gave him a text and he called me right back. I think he had actually forgotten about me, haha! But that was OK, he said he would be right down. Sem turned up - an Italian guy born and bred in Rome. He is passionate, friendly and overly helpful. He told me he was actually on his way to a Buddhist meeting, and that I could join if I wanted... Never experienced that before, so sure! Why not?

The meeting was really interesting. Lots of chanting and words I could not understand, but they seemed like a really friendly, happy bunch of people... so they must be doing something right. After the meeting we went back to Sem's house where he lives with his Aunt and Grandmother. I dropped my bag off and we were straight back out the door - we were going on an adventure! Sem is very passionate about cycling, and has four or five bikes at his place that his surfers can use. Mine was a nice green colour, a traditional European style frame... But lets call a spade a spade - it was a bit shitty. The rear brakes did not work at all, and the front ones were not much better. The chain was really rusty, and kept coming off. Don't get me wrong, I was extremely appreciative to have a free mode of transport for the next few days. And it was very reliable! (well, apart from the lack of brakes, and the chain that kept coming off). I am really gutted that I forgot to take a photo of it.

So we were off. Sem on his brand new mountain bike, and me on the green machine. Sem is nuts. Riding up one way streets, across intersections, red lights, dodging traffic, between cars, footpaths... And here is me on the green machine trying desperately (and failing) to keep up. After about 30 minutes of this we arrived at our destination - Plaza del Freddo. The oldest gelato store in all of Rome. We met up with Davide, one of Sems friends who was also a really cool guy. It turns out Thursday is half price day, so I ended up getting a 600ml TUB of gelato. A tub they have for people to take home and put in the freezer. All for €3, WIN! And I ate the whoooole thing. It was so good.

Full of sugar, Sem took me on a cycle tour of Rome by night. We visited a hill where you can look through a keyhole and get an amazing view of St. Peters Basilica... We passed by the Colosseum... We also stopped in at the Bocca della Verità (mouth of truth), which I had never heard of, but was apparently in the film Roman Holiday. The deal is - you put your hand in the mouth of this big stone face and say something. If you are lying the statue will bite down and take your hand. If not, nothing happens. I put my hand in and said 'Neal is EPIC!'... I still have both my hands ;)

I have no idea where else we went that night, but I know two things - we cycled a bloody long way, and we ended up on Gianicolo, a hill near the centre of Rome. It was really nice and peaceful up there, but we kept cycling around looking for a viewpoint over the city. We must have spent 30 minutes going around in circles before we finally found it. The green machine was not too bad on the flat, but uphill it was well under par. So I was kissing the ground when we finally found it. But it was a really cool spot - with views over both the central part of Rome and the Vatican.

We made our way back down the hill and found the St. Peters square and basilica. Without even knowing it I had entered a whole other country! The square is surrounded in rows of huge pillars, which are quite spectacular, but the church at night was quite... underwhelming. I was pretty keen to go home at this point, being well after midnight. But Sem wanted to go on. I think he would have stayed out all night cycling around if he had the choice! He has a real love of cycling, and of Rome. I finally convinced him to take us home, but even then I'm sure he took the 'scenic' route.

We finally got home somewhere between 1 and 2am. I was so so tired, but still buzzing from my first crazy day in Rome. I am glad that I left this visit to Rome until after my two years of travelling Europe, because I think everything from this point on will forever be compared to Rome. So in summary, amazing city, amazing host... what more could you want?

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