It was Saturday, April 6 when we woke up in Rome, and my kind bride had scheduled the most fitting activity I could possibly engage in at that moment in that place: gladiator training followed by a trip to the Coliseum. Why? Because Monday, April 6, 2009 was the first day I started working for myself.
I’ve tried to do something to honor my soloversary every April 6, but 10 years seemed special and worthy of something even more special, and given that I have a Penley painting of Teddy Roosevelt on my wall and his “The Man in the Arena” speech etched onto a wooden plaque near the painting, I wanted to signify the date by being the literal man in the arena.
We learned techniques for blocking, striking, and stabbing; we got tunics to wear; we got to battle (both individually and as a team) the other family in our class. Can you imagine the pressure of trying to defeat some man you’ve just met in front of your children, inside a dirt floored arena in Rome? I can. I won.
We walked through a park and into the San Callisto catacombs where half a million (mainly) Christians–sometimes martyrs or popes–are buried in 12 miles of passageways through 4 stories of tunnels in the volcanic rock under 90 acres of land. Our leader was a monk, and he gave the tour not only a comprehensive level of knowledge and history, but also an appropriate level of reverence for the place. We were all moved by the experience.
We then took an uber to the Colosseum, where we were scheduled to meet a private guide for the day, but first, we had pizza where our driver suggested getting pizza if near the arena, and it was good.
We entered through the gladiators gate. We spent a few hours exploring the arena and taking in its history. I loved it.
We explored the Roman forum, the Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill, and several temples nearby. We marveled at the ancient engineering as we looked at what is and imagined what was.
For dinner that night, we went to il Ciociaro, a recommendation from a friend who went to undergrad nearby and has gone back for decades of mission trips since. It was great food–not very expensive–and close to our B&B in Vatican City. Afterward, we got gelato at Old Bridge Gelateria several blocks away (which meant walking by several other gelato places, but it was totally worth it).
That night, we’d arranged for one of the innkeeper employees to babysit for us, so we could enjoy some of the Rome night life on my 10-year soloversary. There were 2 speakeasies I’d really wanted to see: one of them I’d requested the password and reserved timed entry to months before. But first, we visited Agaveria La Punta. We sat down at a table inside what seemed to be a Mexican restaurant in an alley in Rome (that had been hard to find after being dropped off by uber). When the server gave us menus, and we said we weren’t planning to eat, but just wanted to try some of the drinks, she said, “Come with me, then,” and I thought were were in trouble for something, but she led us down a narrow stone stairway into the basement, and once we got there and sat at the bar, I realized I loved this place.
I had a drink called “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” that featured cotton candy hovering above the glass like a magic edible cloud, and everything featured perfect concoctions of high quality mescal, and the bartenders knew all about American beatniks and made us feel like we were the only people down there (which we pretty much were); I was actually sad when it was time to go to the second place, which we’d reserved for 11pm.
When we got to the Jerry Thomas Project at 5 minutes til 11pm, there was a long line of frustrated potential patrons waiting to try and enter what’s been called one of the world’s greatest bars. I walked up to the door and knocked, gave the password I got after answering a trivia question on the website a few months before, was asked my name, provided it, and was allowed inside, feeling as cool as I’ve ever felt in that moment. It was dark and quite crowded, but we had our own little table, a very thorough menu of craft cocktails, and impeccable service. This bar was larger and louder that the one from whence we’d come, but I loved it just the same, and I totally get why it’s included in “world’s best bars” listings now.
We concluded our night at Jonathan’s Angels, a bar my friend Jody recommended that was just a short walk from where we’d been, and it might have been awesome a few hours earlier, when we had more energy and hadn’t been at the other places, but a loud and cavernous den of younger folks at 1am was not necessarily the vibe we sought at that moment, so we had a drink apiece (which was great!) and headed back to Vatican City at the B&B, arriving about 2am.
Sunday morning after breakfast, we took the metro to Piazza del Popolo — the “people’s square” –and boarded an inflatable raft to paddle down the Tiber River through the city.
We went under a bridge built in 2000 BC, through a few rapids, and stopped on Tiber Island to walk around and explore, all the while seeing a version of the city most visitors never see. We had lunch at Tiberino before gelato and a visit to Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere (which is sorta unassuming from the outside but really pretty and impressive from inside).
We visited the French embassy at Palazzo Farnese, a building designed by Michelangelo, walked through Piazza Navona and saw all its fountains and obelisk. We stopped at an artist’s studio, watched he and his wife + daughter paint, and bought 2 of their pieces.
We visited the Pantheon and Sant’Ignazio Church before the Trevi fountain and Spanish steps. After that, we were tired and sought refuge in shops, buying Camper shoes for several of us (2 pairs for me!) and luggage at Mandarina Duck (because it was on sale and bright yellow — a combination my bride can scant resist).
We tried to get dinner at the acclaimed rooftop Guida Ballerino at the Bernini Bristol but were turned away (due to no reservation, even though Open Table had given us one), so we had a good meal at La Fiorentina instead, which was near our B&B.
Monday morning, we met our guide from Saturday and walked into Vatican City and saw Greek statues from the BC years, along with the Pope’s cars, carriages, space suit, etc.
There were Raphael paintings and Michelangelo sculptures, and of course, the enormity of St Peter’s Basilica and its Sistine Chapel ceiling (which forbade pictures), which was amazing.
We walked through Castel Sant’Angelo, had more gelato, and saw where Caesar was stabbed to death on the Ides of March (which is full of cats now) at Torre Argentina before doing more shopping at a fabric store and a mens clothing store (I needed linen dress shirts, because Atlanta is hot).
Monday evening, we took the train back to Milan for our flight home Tuesday morning, arriving at nearly 11pm at the Moxy Milan hotel for a few hours of sleep before the morning flight back to Rome (for some reason, doing our trip this way saved thousands of dollars on Delta, and even though I called to see if we could just board our flight in Rome instead of from Milan–since we were there the night preceding our trip home anyway–they wouldn’t or couldn’t do that without a huge price increase). We got to have breakfast at my favorite airport lounge in the world, the Alitalia lounge in Area F of the Rome airport, and then we boarded our plane home.
This trip to Italy was one I’ve wanted to take for as long as I’ve heard that “all roads lead to Rome” and “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” which is close to 4 decades. It was a survey course in a sense, as we could have easily spent a week in each of the 4 cities we visited instead of the day or so we spent in each, but it allowed the 5 of us to see where so much of western civilization took off, while allowing history previously confined to textbooks, pictures, and film to become real, tangible places.
I hope we can go back to Italy; I can’t imagine we won’t.