Rainy Day in Rome

“Check, please.”

“Eh?!” The waiter gestured toward the window and shrugged the question and the answer with his whole body.

Twenty-four hours earlier, James and I had been stretched out on beach chairs under a big umbrella on Lungomare, Fiumicino. But Sunday brought sheets of rain, so we had ventured into Rome to see history indoors. And the waiter was right; we would have to stick around inside the pizzeria a little longer if we were going to get anywhere dry with just an umbrella.

Busts in the National Museum of Rome
Busts in the National Museum of Rome

Eventually the rain slowed and we made our way to the nearby National Museum of Rome. It was a perfect way to spend a rainy afternoon. From the comfort of modern hallways filled with ancient art, we could see rain still falling in the inner courtyard over an artistic arrangement of orange trees. Most of the halls and rooms were filled with busts of emperors, Greek and Roman gods, athletes, philosophers, and other elite. One floor housed collections of mosaics, frescoes, and reconstructed rooms of an excavated Roman villa. The basement was mostly dedicated to displaying changes in currency over time up to the modern Euro.

Seafaring fresco
Seafaring fresco
Wall and floor of mosaics
Wall and floor of mosaics
Art made from bits of marble
Art made from bits of marble

We waited in the lobby for a while around closing time for another break in the weather before heading to the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri (St. Mary of Angels and Martyrs). The crumbling brick exterior gave it the appearance of a ruin, but the inside was marble and gold and statues. A baptism was taking place at the altar, not far from an enormous sculpture of the decapitated head of St. John the Baptist.

Entrance to the Basilica
Entrance to the Basilica
In the Basilica
Inside
Domed ceiling
Domed ceiling
Baptism at the main altar
Baptism at the main altar

By evening, only the clouds remained and we were able to take a walk around to some of the other sights. The Trevi Fountain is currently being renovated, but that didn’t stop crowds of tourists from flocking to see it empty and surrounded by a wire fence. Sadly, pickpockets, scam artists, and panhandlers could be seen (and I have no doubt many were unobserved too) everywhere. The train stations and main squares were the worst, where crowds and confusion provided distraction. We had mostly avoided this threat all day by staying indoors in uncrowded areas, so had to stay more alert on our evening explorations. Knock on wood, our wallets and cameras survived the trip.

Empty Trevi Fountain (I put my camera through the fence)
Empty Trevi Fountain (picture taken through the fence)

For a late dinner, we ended up sharing a seafood assortment that turned out to be an elaborate work of art. The wine bar we had stopped into was showing the World Cup match between France and Honduras (final score: France 3-0), and had live music from two guys playing the guitar. Despite the weekend ending in rain it was hard to leave Italy, with its cross-at-your-own-peril traffic safety, expressive body language, delicious food, and generally relaxed attitude toward people and rules.

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When in Ancient Rome…

Weekend in Italy Part 1 of 2: Ostia Antica

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Via delle Tombe
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View from Piazzale della Vittoria

Now overgrown with wildflowers and tourists, Ostia Antica once sat at the mouth of the Tiber River less than twenty miles from Rome, Italy. The river itself has grown away from Ostia, but a detailed outline of the once-thriving port city remains. Crumbling arches, elaborate mosaics, and stone foundations tell its story dating back to 300 or so BC.

James and I visited the remnants of this ancient Roman city last weekend and were astounded at how much of its layout is preserved. We wandered various routes along ancient roads of massive cobblestones under the murderous summer sun and were able to see a fair amount of the unearthed city. The excavation of Ostia Antica had begun in the early 1800s, was put on hold during World War II, and eventually continued afterward.

Baths of Neptune mosaic floor
Baths of Neptune mosaic floor
View over Baths of Neptune toward barracks
View over Baths of Neptune toward barracks

We passed unroofed remains of barracks, a gymnasium, baths, temples dedicated to Roman gods, and much more. One particularly striking area is where an amphitheater looks out over a field that was once a piazza of commerce. Floor mosaics can still be seen along the rectangular perimeter of the piazza, indicating the nature of each business represented there.

View from the theater over Piazzale delle Corporazioni
View from the theater over Piazzale delle Corporazioni

Many enormous mosaics line the floors and some walls, incredibly preserved and some in the process of being restored. An information board revealed a sample of the layers involved in each mosaic: gritty base material, design sketch on finer material, and tiles. The example consisted of a two-toned design with one color of tiles raised so that the blind could experience the mosaic as well.

A cat inspecting a wall mosaic
A cat inspecting a wall mosaic
Close up of the same mosaic
Close up of the same mosaic

I’m also told that the ancient heating system is preserved here. But I refused to be bullied by the elderly multilingual woman who insisted she could show it to us if we paid for a tour, so I can’t comment on it.

Interestingly, modern art is lightly interspersed with the statues that have stood the test of centuries and millennia. An exhibit of sculptures by modern artist Francesco Messina is scattered among the ruins and stands side by side with history in the Ostia Antica museum. It produces an interesting and thought-provoking effect.

If you’re interested in reading more about the history of Ostia Antica, click here.

Part 2 of this vacation will be posted on Saturday. Stay tuned for how we faced rain, pickpockets, and uniquely Italian culture in Rome itself.