Sunday, January 10, 2010

Roman Holiday Part 5 - The Pantheon, The Gay Rights March and the only Non-Pizza Dinner

At long last! Part Five!

Okay, so getting to the 39 steps proved a challenge, but it was nothing in comparison to finding the Pantheon. The night before as I was making my way to Trevi Fountain, I saw all these signs for the Pantheon and figured I’d swing by to look at it (even though it was too late to go in) on my way to my destination. No matter how many signs I followed, I couldn’t figure out where this thing was. I also wasn’t 100% sure what it looked like. Was it really tall? Would it blend in with the many other ancient churches lining the back alleys of Rome’s streets? I was not sure. Bottom line: I never saw it that first night. Yet here I was, having just crossed the 39 Steps off my list of things to see and was feeling confident that I could find anything – Anything! – that I wanted to see in the city. I checked my map in my Frommer’s Guide for the bajillionth time that day and found what I thought was the most direct route to where the Pantheon (allegedly) stood. There are actually a couple of direct roads in Rome (Via del Corso, Via Nazionale and Via Cavour stick out in my mind) but there’s also just a lot of small alleyways that connect everything and it becomes like a maze. You could be right around the corner from what you are looking for, but if you turn left instead of right you might go on a loop that takes you in a loop that will take 20 minutes before you get back to where you wanted to be. I guess it’s a bit like the financial district in NYC.

From the Steps, I made my way back to Via Del Corso, took that straight shot street south but then had to veer off eastward into the maze of backstreets for the pantheon. There was an extra place I needed to find right around the corner from the Pantheon: Giolotti. Giolotti is this giant Gelati store that has hundreds of flavors of Gelati on-hand. It’s what all Gelati stands wish they could be. I actually came across Giolotti before the Pantheon which was exciting because a) I knew that I was close to the Pantheon and b) Giollotti to me looks like the candy store in the beginning of Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory where they sing "Candy Man." Oh, what delicious fun! I had just had a gelati at The Steps, so I thought I’d hold off on getting another one and find the Pantheon first.

I took a couple more wrong turns after following a few signs with arrows that in fact did NOT lead to the Pantheon (so frustrating!) but eventually I made my way into a piazza that gave way to the sight of the Pantheon. The Pantheon is beautiful, dark and awesome. It’s not the tallest building but it’s hard not to see it for the first time and be like “damn.” Some things just stand the test of time and the Pantheon is at the top of the list for surviving for millennium in style. I particularly loved the giant Egyptian granite columns outside. They were just so striking.

There was a big crowd outside the gates to the Pantheon and I made my way through the people to find out that there was actually a church service going on (because it’s still a functioning religious site) and we’d have about 40 minutes before tourists were allowed back in. I knew what that meant: Time for my trip to Giolotti! I cautiously made my way back through the streets trying to remember exactly how I’d gotten from one place to another. Fortunately, it was not too difficult in reverse. Once inside Giolitti, I was not sure what flavor combination I should go for. I wound up with a delicious chocolate, watermelon (which chocolate chips for seeds!) and frutti de bosco which in Roma was a kind of purple grape flavor. SO SO GOOD! Armed with my massive gelati I made my way back to the Pantheon. It was actually very crowded in Giolotti’s so it took up most of the wait time. When I got back to the Pantheon gates the crowd had swelled even more. People were getting restless. Can’t those freaks inside finish praying to themselves silently as they exit the building? Do they really have to finish the whole service just sitting there? Finally the worshippers exit, the gates open and the crowd rushes in. Now, this place shouldn’t be any different from the other churches of Rome, where there are signs asking you not to take pictures and people oblige, but that was not happening in the Pantheon. Camera flashes start going off left and right. People are trying to get pictures of the dome (which is even wider than the dome at St, Peter’s Basilica) and the whole place is just filled with noise and people falling all over each other trying to see what’s around them. Thankfully after that initial push in, the place calms down a bit and people filter throughout the space. I just loved being in that building. Some buildings speak to certain people and for me I just adored the Pantheon and the Colosseo. Those were my favorite buildings in Rome (with a shout out to the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica as well.) There’s not a whole lot to DO inside the Pantheon though so after about a half hour of breathing the place in, it was off to my next adventure.

I wandered back to Via Del Corso and did a little window shopping. I had visions of me buying myself a new spring coat in Italy, but when I saw the prices with the exchange rate of the dollar I gave that dream up really quickly. There’s not much else of note about my time shopping other than to say that I did manage one whole conversation about the price of something with a sales clerk in my limited Italian. Also, they have many of the same retail stores we have on Via Del Corso, but at prices you wouldn’t believe. A jacket at Diesel for $450 American dollars! A pull-over sweater at H&M for $140 American dollars! No wonder we have so much European tourism in NYC. It’s already more than a 1.5 exchange rate and then the prices are still half as high here than they are there! It’s a sweet deal.

I made my way to the end of Via Del Corso which opens up to the giant monument Vittoriano. I make a note to myself that I want to climb to the top of it tomorrow for a great view of the city (it’s too late to do it now, because the sun has already started to set) I walked around to Via dei Formi Imperiali to make my way back to my hotel, when I came across a gay pride march. Now, I had seen signs about the March for the past two days and I knew it was happening today (which coincidentally was the same weekend as the Equality March in DC). I had wanted to go to the March in DC so I felt happy that I at least got to share in the experience of it’s Italian cousin. It had started in the Plaza Repubblica, which I assumed was where I happened to find myself, but upon further examination of my map later on, I realized that they had started in a completely different area of Rome and had marched their way down to Vittoriano. I sat on these giants steps as people flooded into the piazza. It was a very pleasant laid back sort of atmosphere which fit with the rest of my experience in the city. People congregated, there was a short speech which I couldn’t understand besides the word "equality" and the waving of the rainbow flag. Then everyone cheered and started wandering off to get cappucino. This also fit with the rest of my experience in the city. It was nice to see so many young people out and proud and letting their voices be heard. It has to be a weird dynamic with Vatican City being like a 15 minute walk east of where they were. Not that we’ve had an easier time trying to get marriage equality recognized in the States, without a religious base of operations right on top of us, but it has to be a strange dynamic under which they live.

So after that, I went back to my hotel to rest my feet for a bit before heading out to dinner. I unloaded my bag, which was still packed with my sweater and jacket and everything I’d picked up along the way from when I’d started my day back at the Colosseo. Doesn’t that seem FOREVER AGO? It did at the time as well. It was still a little early for dinner so I watched some International news. I didn’t write it down in my notes, but I believe they were discussing Obama having been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Also I saw a travel segment about visiting Germany at a time other than Oktoberfest and what it had to offer.

Dinnertime! I was very tired after my full day of walking and didn’t want to go too far from the hotel. The only problem with that was since I was so close to the Colosseo there was a lot of tourist trap restaurants around my area. I walked for a bit and settled on one that seemed minimally tourist trappy. When I sat down to eat, my main goal was to have some kind of leafy vegetable, because all I’d had for two days was pizza, pastry, gelati, water, wine and the chewy granola bars I had been carry around in my backpack. A vegetable was required. I wound up getting a nice salad (which on the menu translated to daily vegetables) and a pasta with ham in a cream sauce. The dish has a name you’d know, but I can’t think of it now. I got to sit outside at this restaurant and people watch which is all I really wanted to do. But then these two guys sat at the table next to me and we struck up a conversation.

The younger guy’s name was Dano. He was from Slovakia and seemed to be mid-20's. He was apparently staying with the older man who lived in Rome and who never formally introduced himself. For the entirety of the conversation at dinner I couldn’t figure out what the relationship was between these two people. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. There seemed to be a solid 30 years between them in age. I don’t think their relationship was sexual. I guess it could've been. Dano seemed very interested in every female that walked by our outdoor seating area though. Maybe the older guy was Dano’s relative? It was possible. The reason I don’t know (and outright asking seemed a bit rude) was because Older Guy was not really interested in talking. Dano was VERY interested in talking and so when Older Guy wasn’t responding, Dano turned his attention to me.

Dano was very nice. He had just arrived in Rome earlier today, he was staying with Older Guy (for reasons undisclosed) and was enjoying the city. I told him I was from New York. He asked me if people were happy there. This struck me as odd, because the dude who asked me for directions earlier in the day asked me the same thing in almost the exact same wording. I think I told him people were okay but that the economy was still bad. He had never been to New York but was very interested in visiting someday. He had travelled through a lot of Europe. We then got into a big discussion about renting apartments in NYC. I don’t know why we stayed on the topic for so long, but it really was like half of our dinner conversation.

I probably would’ve hung out a bit more with Dano because he seemed like a nice guy and he had a good grasp of English, but Older Guy really creeped me out. He seemed uncomfortable the whole time. So after I finished the last of my wine with dinner, we said good night and parted ways. I went back to my hotel and got my bookbag in order for the next day. It was a little before midnight, and I knew that the hotel bar stopped serving at that time, so I went down to see if I could get one last cheap glass of wine, and see what the scene there was like. Unfortunately, the bar was kind of a bust. It was a very nice room, but it was empty. I was hoping for people, but there was no one worth talking to. I tried to get a glass of the house red, but the bartender lady said they had no more and she gave me a glass of a more expensive wine that did not taste good, and this was one of the few instances on my trip where I though “enh, this didn’t work out so well.” but I checked my email on the computer there and sipped my drink for a long time and read some of the book I brought with me. Then it was back upstairs to bed! Today had been a long successful journey across the city several times order. On the list for tomorrow was a stroll through the parks at Villa Borghese, a trip up Vittoriano and much more Gelati!

Up Next in Part 6 – Owen Meets Nilor -his BBF (bicycle best friend), and explores the natural beauty Rome has to offer. Also, more gelati!!

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