Friday: A Walk in the Park (Villa Borghese Gardens)

We have taken it easy today. We slept fairly late and went down the street to a cafe advertising an American breakfast. We were curious as to how they would interpret our morning meal. The menu was American: eggs, bacon, white bread toast, swiss cheese, coffee and orange juice. The waiter knew that Genene would not like the Italian-style coffee so he made her cappuccino, which made her feel special. It was all delicious, though Genene did not like the bacon. It reminded me of what I call “country-cured” bacon, the kind I had when we raised, killed and cured our own hogs back when I was in high school. The bacon was VERY salty, and Genene couldn't get past that. Greg and I did not have any trouble and cleaned our plates and hers too.

We came back up to the apartment for a few minutes to gather our gear and headed for Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome's answer to New York's Central Park. We rented a rickshaw and spent the next two hours pedaling around the park. It was relaxing and idyllic. I didn't learn a darned thing, and it felt good!

Genene drinks from all the fountains now, just as a Roman would. She learned to use one today with the up-spout. Water pours constantly from the downspout, and if you cover it with your hand, you get an instant water fountain. The water is very COLD and refreshing.

The views above the Spanish Steps on the way to the park are stunning.

The fig tree is important in Roman mythology and in daily life. According to legend, when Romulus and Remus were born, their great-uncle ordered their death because he was afraid they would overthrow him. A servant could not bear to kill them and instead tossed them into a basket and set it on the side of the Tiber River. It floated downstream, where it lodged in some fig tree roots, thus saving the twins so they could grow up and quarrel over who founded the city known as Rome. Fig trees grow everywhere here, including out of the sides of walls. You can see the fig leaf on the left in the next photo.

No building can be taller than the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, seen below.


Since I did not bring my camera yesterday when we were in Galleria Borghese, we stopped back by to take a photo of the exterior.


Doesn't this look like Donkey's girlfriend in Shrek?

Greg and Genene pose in the rickshaw.

We found a playground with swings….


and a seesaw.

The pine trees are trimmed into these shapes.


We found a pond filled with ducks and turtles.


The view directly above Piazza Popolo is very beautiful too.


I always seem to be behind the camera. Greg forced me to get out in front for this one.

After two hours, we returned the rickshaw and retrieved Greg's driver's license, which was being held as a “deposit” to assure that we came back. The man only charged us for one hour's rental, and we were grateful for the small kindness.

We headed back to the apartment for the sandwich pizzas.


It's 4:00 PM now. Greg is waking up from the afternoon siesta. Genene and I skipped it today. I was not that sleepy, and she loves to watch TV. She is processing so many different sights and sounds out on the street. New languages, new customs, new food. Nickelodeon shows feel very familiar to her, and I am letting her watch. It's her vacation too.

I'm going to post this up early. I think the rest of the day will be low-key and will involve food, wine and relaxation. We are trying to rest up, because tomorrow we go see the Catacombs of St. Agnes, and Sunday is the BIG day trip to Pompeii.

If anything interesting happens later today, I will post up a supplemental blog. Otherwise, good evening and happy Friday!


Thursday: Borghese Gallery and picnic on the Spanish Steps

Jose had one more art experience in mind for us today, so he arrived at our apartment at 8:15 and we all caught a cab to the Borghese Gallery. Reservations are required, and Jose had taken care of all of those details for us. The reservation system assures that the gallery does not become overcrowded, and the crowds are shooed out after 2 1/2 hours to let the next group in. I really like that system, as it keeps the throng manageable. There were absolutely no photographs allowed, and in fact, they do not even allow women to carry purses into the gallery. There is a coat check at which everything must be dropped. I read about that requirement and thus left the camera at home and tucked everything I needed into my cargo pant pockets. I was traveling light, and it felt good.

The gallery (palace) was designed by the art-loving Borghese family, and all of the works of art were commissioned for the space. The villa sits in the Borghese Gardens, Rome's answer to Central Park. In 1605, two months after becoming Pope, Paul V appointed his nephew Scipione as cardinal and gave him the area outside Porta Pianciana. Scipione hired all the best artists of the time to produce this showcase. He obviously wanted to be on the tour of homes.

Jose knows exactly what he wants us to see, and we follow him obediently. I know I am beginning to sound like a running advertisement for Jose, but I really enjoy what he brings to the experience. While all the other folks in the gallery clutch those handheld guides with their canned presentations and march from room to room in order, standing in front of statute no. 3 in room 1 and pressing the button, we go against the grain and head into one of the rooms all by ourselves to see the art.

As I said, photography was not permitted, so I am using some postcards just for illustration. Disclaimer: the gallery contains paintings, sculptures, mosaics, vases, urns, ceiling frescoes, etc. I am only hitting the barest highlights and those things that linger in my memory.

Jose led us straight to Bernini's “Apollo e Dafne” and told the story to Genene. According to Jose's version, Apollo thought Dafne was beautiful and simply had to have her. She was not interested, having sworn off men. He grabs hold of her anyway, and she calls out to her father, Peneus, for help. He turns her into a tree so that Apollo cannot have her. A postcard cannot do this justice. The work must be viewed in three dimensions with a 360 degree spin around to fully appreciate it. You can see the leaves beginning to sprout on her hands. Her toes are growing roots. Bark grows on her back. It is magnificent.


Next we saw Canova's “Paolina Borghese as Venus.” Paolina was Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, and she married into the Borghese family in a power play. She posed fully nude for Canova, scandalizing Europe. When asked how she could do such a thing, she said, “The room was not cold.” I like her style. She was the only family member to visit Napoleon after his exile in Elba, and apparently had lots and lots of lovers along the way. She sounds like an interesting “lady.”

We saw Bernini's “Rape of Proserpine,” although that is not exactly what Jose called it when talking to Genene. He explained the gist of the story as Pluto kidnapping Proserpine and taking her with him to the underworld. I love this statue. The three-headed Cerberus hangs out at their feet. She cries out. His hands dig into her flesh. Jose explained that this myth is connected to the changing of the seasons. Proserpine's mother was Ceres, who was the goddess of wheat (agriculture). Mom was so distraught that she mourned and mourned, and things died (winter). The gods got worried and made Pluto return her from the underworld for part of the year. When she is with her mother, things bloom and thrive. When she has to go back to her “husband,” winter returns.
Look at the hands digging into the flesh. Stunning.

Next we saw Bernini's “David.” This is not the idealized David of Michelangelo. This David brings the Bible story to life. His too-big armor is set at his feet, along with his harp. His slingshot is readied. His face has the intense expression of concentration, the kind of face an athlete makes before attempting that great shot.

The face of concentration.

We went upstairs to view the paintings. My favorite was Caravaggio's “David with the head of Goliath.” Jose told us that the face of Goliath in the painting is actually that of Carvaggio. I love the expression on David's face. To my mind, he is not triumphant. He looks downright unhappy about what he has had to do. Caravaggio had murdered a man in his youth and had to flee from Rome and spent most of his life on the run. Perhaps the sadness in David's face is Caravaggio's own.


Finally, I wanted to share Genene's favorite, Raffaello's “Woman with a Unicorn.” This painting had been altered after the fact to remove the unicorn, probably out of concerns that it was too pagan. In 1935 during a restoration, the wheel and goose feathers were scraped away, revealing the tiny unicorn. Genene thought the lady and her pet were beautiful.


We also saw what is arguably the most famous work in the gallery, Titian's “Sacred and Profane Love.” In 1899, the Rothchild family offered more for this work than the estimated value of the entire gallery. Their offer was refused, and it remains in its rightful place of glory in the heart of Rome.

We left Jose in front of the museum and strolled through the Borghese Gardens. The park is vast, and we want to come back. There are places to rent bicycles, paddleboats, and even horses. There is even a zoo. We wandered aimlessly, and the wayfinding signs left something to be desired. Soon we were lost. Thank goodness for iPhones. We try not to use them too much, even though we have an international data package. It was certainly worth its price today. We turned it on, pressed the locator button, found ourselves and moved toward the house before the midday sun beat us to death.

As we headed down the Spanish Steps, an old beggar woman approached. It is not unusual to see them, and they usually adopt a pose of supplication with a cup in front of them. This lady was much more active than that. She was almost chanting, and Genene said that she thought the lady was trying to hex her. The lady put me in the mind of Snow White's step-mother when she was trying to give Snow White the apple. I wonder if Walt Disney was inspired by these Roma beggars?

We stopped a toy store and bought Genene a stuffed animal that she had been admiring in the window. It is a dog that is asleep on a mat, and by the miracle of batteries and some kind of balloon inside it, it looks like it is breathing. She loves it. I think it is a bit creepy. Hey, at least we don't have to take it out for a walk, and it won't soil the rug.

We cheated on our sandwich shop today and tried the pizza joint. They sell it by the weight, and the crust is very thin. Two slices are cut square and put face to face, so that you clutch the outer crusts like a sandwich and walk and eat. They were delicious. We had a long nap, awoke refreshed and took a stroll.

We like to use an ATM at a BNL Paribas near the Pantheon. For one thing, BNL is associated with my bank, so I avoid some ATM charges. For another, it gives me more money than other ATMs. What I think I like best, though, is that after a certain time in the afternoon, the glass door closes and you have to use your card to get inside the well lighted area. It gives me an added measure of comfort. Anyway, we got some euros, strolled by the Trevi Fountain, and stopped at our neighborhood grocery for a sandwich.

We just finished a picnic on the Spanish Steps. It was a nice night, and everyone was out. A young man got out his guitar and was playing and singing some songs in English. He was a good singer, and many of the young people in the crowd began to sing along and clap after each song. Before much time passed, a police officer made him stop, and the crowd booed the cop loudly. He kept a stern face, but I think he was a little bit sorry at having to stop the guy.

Here are two views of Trevi Fountain at night.


The Pantheon against the night sky.

Two street scenes.

The picnic on the Spanish Steps.

Daddy's girl.

And the view from our picnic on the Steps.

We strolled home happily. I'm headed up to the rooftop terrace now. Genene and Greg are already up there. The wine is waiting. We have no agenda tomorrow. I am looking forward to an easy day.


Wednesday: The Vatican

Another overwhelming day. We had tickets for the Vatican and met Jose in a cafe just outside the entrance. He was worth his weight in gold today. The line to enter snaked down the hillside, and if we had not had a guide, we would have queued up in it with all the other poor people. Instead, we had a cup of coffee, Jose laid out the plan of attack, and we headed for the entrance. We went in with practically no wait, and Jose strollled with a purpose from place to place.

I would just be pretending if I tried to explain all that we saw. Jose made it all real to us. We are not Catholics, but we got a crash course in the Catholic Church and its rituals. We also learned a lot about art and the vast collection of it that is stored and displayed at the Vatican. Genene got lessons in everything from original sin, free will, perspective, mosaics, frescoes, geometric shapes, astronomy, cartography, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. We only scratched the surface. A person could spend years in the museums of the Vatican.

If we had gone to the museums on our own, we would have wandered aimlessly, without seeing. Jose led us from great work to great work and explained the significance of each.

Below is the first radio tower that transmitted a signal. The first voice heard was that of the Pope.


Jose explains Raphael's “The Transfiguration” to Genene.

Exploring the Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The view of Rome from Vatican City.


The beautiful marble sculpture of “Laoco├Ân and His Sons” tells the story of Laocoon, who tried to warn his people of the Trojan horse. Poseidon sent the sea serpents to kill him and his sons before the ruse was discovered. Sometimes telling the truth will get you in a lot of trouble.


A ceiling in the Vatican museums.

Genene and Jose (at right) ponder the mosaics in the floor.


Just another hallway.

St. Peter's Square.


A view of the ceiling within St. Peter's Basilica.

Another view of St. Peter's.


We got to see Michelangelo's Pieta. Sadly, it is behind glass, so my photo is not great. I cannot think of this work without thinking of my high school English teacher, Neva Byrd. She was mortified that a crazy person attacked it with a hammer. She used to tell the story about it and shake her head woefully, so that even kids in Nashville, Arkansas felt the loss keenly.


The light fell across the altar at St. Peter's perfectly.


Two more views from inside the basilica.

No photographs were allowed in the Sistine Chapel, but everyone knows the story of Michelangelo's four year labor. We must have spent thirty minutes inside, gawking up at the ceiling. I cannot fathom the work that went into those frescoes. I asked Jose if he thought that men were as great today as they were in the time of Michelangelo, and he said without hesitation, “No.” I cannot argue with that. The chapel is supposedly a holy place, and I was moved by the magnitude of the human achievement on that ceiling. However, the hordes of people seem profane. The guards constantly scream, “Silence! This is a place of worship.” All the while, the throng mills. I saw plenty of people trying to take illicit photographs. I thought that it must be sad to have the job of those guards, all the day screaming at the tourists. We thought it was quite crowded, but Jose said he had seen it much worse. Ah, to be a Cardinal and get to see this room without the crowds…..

An angel guards a tomb inside St. Peter's Basilica.


Two views of the Swiss Guard, sworn to protect the Pope.


Genene in St. Peter's Square, looking for the white and black smoke.


On either side of the basilica, there are columns. If you stand in a certain spot, all of the columns line up behind each other as one.


One final view of the square.


We met Jose at 8:30 in the morning. We sat down for one small snack but spent the rest of our time looking at art and talking. When we looked down at our watches, it was 3:00 PM! I was shocked at the passage of time. We had spent hours longer than planned and still did not scratch the surface. Genene was worn OUT, but she had remained interested for virtually the whole tour. We said our goodbyes to Jose and caught a cab back to the apartment. We got our first woman cabbie, and she was also the first one that wanted to engage us in conversation. She wanted to know about our plans. Turns out she wanted to undercut the other drivers we already had lined up for our Pompeii trip and the return ride to the airport. Everyone has an angle.

We had a sandwich at our new favorite shop downstairs and immediately went to bed. We woke up in time for dinner. One of my client friends had recommended a restaurant that was a 10 minute walk from the apartment, and we felt sufficiently energetic to try it. We did some window shopping at a toy store first and headed up the Spanish Steps.

We had a wonderful meal, and I loved our waiter. He must have been a father himself (or perhaps a doting uncle). He warned Genene that she could not have dessert unless she cleaned her plate. When she couldn't finish, he negotiated with her for bites, and finally he stood behind her and fed her the last bite. We sat at a table outside, and I was amazed at how often the gypsies would wander through trying to give us a flower or a trinket. One of them put something in Genene's hands with the words “a gift for you” and then said to us, “Two euros.” We made her hand it back, and she gladly did. It was a keychain, and she said, “I have one like it at home, and it is not worth $2.42.” We were amazed at her math! She had converted the currency! Pawpaw Aylett will be so proud when he hears that story. I've always said that my dad could remember anything if you put a dollar sign in front of it.

One of the gypsies was particularly annoying. Our waiter saw him and came rushing up and said something and the man scurried away. It was the only sour note in an otherwise wonderful evening filled with Chianti, delicate ravioli, pasta with clams, cheesecake, ice cream, and even limoncello.

Genene is starting to gesture like an Italian.


She enjoyed the pasta.


We seem to be ending a lot of our evenings on the Spanish Steps.


I am saddened by all the street vendors that are so aggressive. They try to hand you things. You cannot even stroll in peace. At the foot of the Spanish Steps, a young woman handed Genene something, and I barked, “Give it back! We don't want it!” The woman said sheepishly in English that she had found it on the steps and did not want it herself and Genene was welcome to it. It was my turn to be sheepish. I thanked her, and Genene headed home with her little trinket. It is a shame that I have come to regard everyone on the Steps with suspicion.

I need to go to bed now, but my head is swimming with all that I saw. More art tomorrow!