Tourist Traps, Aqueducts & Piazza’s

When we went to Rome for the first time, we spent the vast majority of our week wandering the streets aimlessly, and googling monuments as we passed.  There were many beautiful buildings that I photographed, but know nothing about, neither it’s name nor its significance.  And that is okay.  This is often a beautiful way to discover a city – walking,  and slowly uncovering its mystery.

But not every trip affords the same amount of time to get to know a city.  On this second visit to Rome (and the first for the majority of the group), we had 4 nights, and I wanted to give my students the fullest possible picture of Rome in our short time there.  When I travel on my own, I have come to enjoy longer periods of time in one place, allowing me to get to know the area as fully as I can.  However, when planning itineraries for my students, we tend to take on a few more destinations, with a little less time at each.  This gives them a breadth of experiences, usually just enough to make them fall in love with Europe and dream of returning.  And that is what we did in Rome.

We took a 3.5 hour train (much cooler and nicer than the one we took into Venice) from Venice to Rome.  We arrived just after lunch, walking 10 minutes from the train station to our hotel to drop off our luggage.  We then took a lovely stroll about 20 minutes down the road to the Piazza di Spanga – the square in front of the Spanish Steps.  We were early enough for kids to get a snack – and they (and I) headed straight for gelato.  The most prominent gelato place in the square is one that has tailored its process for naïve tourists.  When you get in line, they have a price on the counter, but they only show one size of cup/cone.  So when you give them your order, you think you are paying €4,00 for your gelato.  A little high, but not terrible.  When they finish adding gelato to your cone, they ask for €8,00.  FOR GELATO.  This is outrageous.  When you point to the pricing on the wall, they say that is for a small cone.  But you didn’t ask for a small.  You didn’t even know size options were available.  You could walk away, but they are adamant, and by now you have a wallet out, and sure enough, you shell out the €8,00 to avoid making a scene.  And because you just really want that gelato.  This is how we started off.  I went in line first, got to the end, and of course was outraged, but not surprised that this happened.  When I get into  situations like that, all I tell myself is that I should have known better.  Experiences is a great teacher.  I tried to warn off the students, but they didn’t want to listen.  They just wanted to dig into their first gelato of Rome.  But in a square as famous as this one (and truthfully, near or around any major tourist attraction), low-quality, high-priced food is what you will find.

We were in the square in order to meet up with our guides from Through Eternity (an amazing tour company and gave us 2 days of the highest quality and most educated guides I have ever had).  The Spanish steps themselves were closed off, needing repair (following a college football fight of some sort), and the square itself seemed rather unimpressive.  We divided the group in half, and my half of the group have the privilege of touring the city with Mario, who was OUTSTANDING.  First off, he was Dutch (which makes him awesome by default).  He could also speak 5 languages fluently, and was working on his sixth.  He had a degree in theatre and art and a Masters in classical language and culture.  We left the Piazza di Spanga quickly, heading towards the area of town known for “Propaganda” or protestantism.  When it first came to Rome, where Catholicism reigns supreme, anything that related to modern day Protestantism was viewed as propaganda (the propagating of faith).   Next to the buildings associated with this propaganda (on propadangda street), were just a few of the water fountains of Rome.  Fresh water is flowing from water fountains all over the city – brought in by the ancient aqueducts from springs just outside the city (because no one should drink anything from the Tiber).  The water fountains bring amazing water into the cities, for Romans to drink, or to fill the local fountains.  Aqueducts abound.  Bringing a water bottle with you in Rome to fill up as you go is just smart practice.

We moved next towards one of the big sites of Rome – the Trevi Fountain.  I have blogged about the Trevi before (see here), with it’s hoards of tourists, and yet beautiful art.  The Fontana di Trevi is one of the most famous fountains in the world.  The 86 foot tall travertine stone fountain was completed in 1762.  There had been a fountain here before it.  Earlier in Roman times it was tradition to end all Roman aqueducts with a fountain.  The Acqua Vergine ended at the exact spot then, and is the same aqueduct that feeds into the famous Fontana di Trevi today.  Construction began in 1732, after there was a competition (a common practice in the time) to see who would design this fountain.  Originally it was  commissioned by Pope Urban VIII in the 1600’s for Bernini to do, but the Pope died and project was abandoned.  Fast forward 130 years,  the competition was won by a man named Alessandra Galilei; however, upon his winning their was an outcry all throughout Rome because he was from Florence.  So they gave it to crowd favourite, and the man they expected would have won the competition in the first place, Nicola Salvi.  Salvi died before it’s completion, but others stepped in and saw his vision through the final steps, with only a small handful of changes from the original plan.  It was considered completed when Pietro Brace’s central sculpture was put in place – Oceanus – god of all water.  Oceanus was less know, but you can see more famous Triton, Poseidon’s son, blowing on a conch shell to his left.  Over 250 years the fountain took a lot of wear and tear, but very recently, Italian fashion company Fendi donated 2.2 million euros for a 20 month long renovation (finished in November 2015), that addressed the cracks and wear to the sculptures and foundation, and added 100 LED lights to help with night time viewing.

There is a legend that  says that if you throw a coin into the Trevi – back to the fountain, throwing the coin with your right hand over your left shoulder – that it will ensure a return to Rome.  City workers pull approximately €3000 A DAY out of the fountain.  This money is used to fund a subsidized Roman supermarket for the poor, the Italian red cross, and a few other local charities.  And for the record, there are some who try to steal from the fountain,  but I don’t recommend it, it’s illegal!

We moved from the Piazza di Trevi to the Piazza di Pietra, a square with some amazing buildings, and the Temple of Hadrian (temple built by his son in honour of the deified Hadrian in 145 AD).  Only one wall of the temple remains (a new building has been built and is connected to the one wall, currently occupied by a bank), but you can still see the grand columns, made of smaller individual pieces stacked on top of each other (a much more efficient way to make columns).  The building looks like it is riddled with bullet holes, but apparently it’s not war, but time and neglect that give it the appearance we see today.  The church across the street (which does not look like a church) has a beautiful door, and painted ceilings that give it the illusion of height it does not have.

Right around the corner from Hadrian’s Temple is the Piazza della Rotonda.  This is the square containing the Pantheon.  Mario had stopped us near the end of the street to talk a little bit about the area, and everyone had their back to the Pantheon.  They couldn’t see it just around the bend, but of course I knew it was there.  One of my students in my group was the kind who finds wonder and joy in every aspect of the travel adventure.  While he was listening intently to Mario’s stories, I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed behind him.  He turned around slowly, and there it was – the Pantheon.  I watched as his eyes opened up as wide as can be, and his jaw literally dropped.  Seeing the city through the eyes of another adds an entire new depth to the experience, and was definitly a highlight of the trip for me.

The Pantheon is a temple, built around the same time as Hadrian’s, only a few steps around the corner.  It has a circular dome at the top, with a hole in the centre (oculus), and as a building is circular as well, though the columns and triangular arch in the front facing the square can obscure you from seeing that fully from the outside.  It’s impossible to photograph it’s shape accurately from inside the building, through I have tried many times.  Because the Pantheon has been in use non-stop since its construction (it is an active Catholic Church), it is one of the most well maintained ancient buildings in Rome.

The centre of Rome, with it’s curvy alley’s and pedestrian streets, is a walkers paradise.  But with that comes sore feet and exhaustion, so a break was in order.  Now, if you have followed this blog for a short while, you will already know of Ray’s love of Sant’Eustachio’s coffee.  It was here that Ray truly fell in love with espresso, and it is Sant’Eustachio espresso beans that currently line my counter (and fill my freezer).  It’s just amazing.  So Ray was all smiles when Mario’s suggested break would be none other than the famous coffee bar.  There wasn’t a day on this trip, or the last (save Christmas day) that Ray skipped a visit to Sant’Eustachio’s.  The coffee bar is named after the square, which is named after a minor basilica, which is named after a saint – Sant Eustace, patron saint of hunters, firefighters, and anyone facing adversity.  Getting a short break for caffeination made our group incredibly happy (and full of energy), and made the group that didn’t get to stop here, a little jealous.

Sant’Eustachio’s is right around the corner from the Piazza Navona.  By now the sun was beginning to set, so the Piazza has that beautiful warm light that I have come to love to much.  Still light enough to see everything, but the street lights, restaurant lights, and fountain lights were also on to enjoy.  It was here that we focused on Bernini’s most famous fountain.  I’m not going to give you all the details here, because I have written about it previously (see Sant’Eustachio link above).  Because Mario had brought attention to the aqueduct system, I learned that the Trevi Fountain, and Bernini’s fountain here in Piazza Navona, are connected through the same line.  So if you were to dye the water in the Trevi fountain (not that you should – but if you did for some reason), you would eventually see this same colouring reach Bernini’s.  I never really understood the significance of this part of Roman architecture, but through this tour Mario started to point out aqueducts, and fountains and street signs and buildings and their relevance in proximity to one another that told much deeper a story that I imagined.  First time around Rome felt like disorganization and chaos, and while it still feels like disorganization and chaos, at least I now know that their was a little reason behind some of it.

Very last stop.  Campo di Fiori.  Or as Ray and I call it, home.  It was here that we first got to know Rome (more about that here).  The stalls were gone, the crowds had disappeared, and we were left alone with the statue of Giordano Bruno, which I had never noticed before.  The statue was erected at the request of a Pope in the late 1800’s in response to the freemasons.  Bruno has been burned at the stake at this exact spot in February of 1600 for heresy (based on his religious views at the time, that have now become known as pantheism, which contradicts a few Catholic principles).  Besides his religious theologies, he was also a mathematician, and in the scientific community well known for his cosmological principles (that furthered the work of Copernicus, about the role of the sun at the centre of the solar system).  As a science teacher and lover of science history, I was surprised that I missed this significant spot on our first visit to Rome.  Then again, there are a LOT of statues in Rome, and all the plaques are in Italian – so maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised.

The Campo was our last major stop on our tour with Mario.  From here he took us back up to Largo Argentina to meet up with the other group, and we were able to head off to dinner together.  With a group of 30 we most often had reservations made far in advance.  To find good (not overly touristy) restaurants with fair prices in the right locations that take reservations and can seat 30 at once – well let’s just say it’s the hardest part of my travel planning.  I make use of a website I used when making a group reservation in London (mytable.com) that allowed me to search by trip advisor review, date, time, and number in the group, and found the perfect fit – so I went ahead and made the reservation.  When we showed up the restaurant knew NOTHING about this.  They said they weren’t signed up to use my table for reservations.  I showed them the print out from the website and they said this was the third time this week they had someone coming in with a reservation from this website that they were not affiliated with.  How frustrating for them!  I don’t know if they dropped the ball, or if thetable.com was really at fault, but it did teach my the value of calling and confirming my reservation directly with the restaurant.  Thankfully, the great people at Il Giardino di Albino were able to make space for us (we were there early, by Italian standards, at 7:15 PM).  The manager and I put together a good group menu on the fly, and I had some of the best Carbonara I have ever had.  So a little hiccup, but a smooth recovery.  Gelato, sort feet, fountains, cobblestone, pasta – we were truly in Rome!

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