Saturday, August 02, 2008

Roma Notte

When people come back from Italy, bragging about their wonderful vacations, remember this: a good number of them are lying. Every day, I see American tourists dragging their sad butts around Rome in the burning sun, desperately swigging water from overpriced bottles. They look pretty good around 9:30am, but by noon they are frantically flipping through their guidebooks looking for a decent place to eat. By 1:30 they are back out in the ruins, baking in the afternoon sun, stumbling from broken column to broken arch. They are looking, let’s face it: Very, very bored. In late afternoon, they are staring vacantly in the distance on the steps of a church or an obelisk; by 6pm, they are lazily eating dinner, staring vacantly into space while they wonder why they have nothing to talk about. By 7:30 they are scrambling into their hotels, never to be seen again. They do not look too happy to me.

The thing is, Rome during the day is not just broilingly hot, it is also horrifically educational. Not that I’m against education, mind you. Some people think I actually teach it, and I have done my time. If Claudius sneezed somewhere, I have touched the brick his snot sprayed upon, and gazed at the wall his slaves built to memorialize the imperial cold. I have seen every gorgeous church mosaic, philosopher statue and twisty medieval walkway this city has to offer. But let’s face it, Americans aren’t so big on history, and everything here is Pope Pius this and the Vice-Consul’s Third Burial Assistant that. Even for a history/archeology buff like myself, it gets to be a bit much. And it’s not like afterwards you can just go bowling or watch TV or something. They don’t have bowling, and almost everything entertaining is in Italian.

The key is to see Rome at night. Rome at night is gorgeous, full of pleasant breezes and well-lighted piazzas. Europeans have figured this out, the city is overflowing with them walking around with their backpacks and strollers until the wee hours of the morning. And the Italians themselves love coming out in the evening, with their nightly paseggiatas at the pace of a newly-walking toddler. During the day, Roman neighborhoods are for the heat-loving old people, who are always getting in the way on narrow sidewalks. It’s all “Out of my way, Sophia Petrillo!” But Rome at night is full of people in their 20s and 30s, who spent the entire morning asleep and the afternoon watching their mother wash their clothes and cook them dinner.

At night, the Pantheon is perfectly lit, spectacular, almost otherworldly. The Colosseum positively glows, the arches creating amazing juxtapositions of light and shadow against the walls. Santa Maria Maggiore, otherwise kind of a dull-looking, Renaissance city-government building during the day, lights one of the inside frescoes at night. Even the VE II monument in Piazza Venezia, hideous and overbearing and fake during the day, is quite lovely at night, V-Eman lit up in royal blue, looking far less fascist and artificial. And by the way, all the churches are open until 7pm, and the ruins and museums until sunset.

During the day, Campo d’ Fiori has a pretty market, it’s true. But at night, it is absolutely packed with young people, partying and drinking and having fun. Piazza del Popolo has a night market, and the Villa Celimontana plays jazz music every evening. Right now, along the Tiber, you can join about 25,000 of your closest friends packed cheek to jowl in one long open-air bar and flea market. The Castel sant’Angelo has some sort of games festival going on this week, with old people playing chess and free ping-pong tables. Rome has amazing, vibrant public spaces that people actually use. It is one of the best things about European cities.

Guidebooks have all these warnings about walking around Rome at night, with their gypsy boy gangs and their tentacles of fury probing every orifice for cash faster than hummingbird wings. I have to say, Rome is one of the safest cities I have seen. Even the bums don't bother to ask you for money, although the lady bums can be surprisingly feisty and spry.

I am always amazed at the random things I find walking around at night. Tourists tend to congregate around the Spanish Steps – hey tourists, it’s just a bunch of stairs – but if you walk up and hang a left for a quarter mile, you can get a gorgeous panoramic view of the entire city. (It is even a bit better if you walk up the old staircase on the right side of the street.) If you walk a bit farther, you are overlooking the Piazza del Popolo; last night they had an astronomy festival where you could look at the stars through telescopes. Near Largo Argentina, a teenage marching band was bopping along outside an English pub. The Pantheon had a mime doing vaudeville for a huge crowd. On my way home, I walked through the Circo Massimo, a long dirt oval where they used to run chariot races. People sit there in the middle at night, surrounded by colored votive candles. I find myself going out for an hour or two, and getting back home six hours later.

So sleep in, American tourists. The best stuff’s after dark.


At 1:35 AM, Blogger jp said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 1:36 AM, Blogger jp said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm loving your blog (and photos) and if I am ever lucky enough to visit Rome, I'll definitely sleep in!


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