Monday, September 8, 2008

Eight places. Wait, make that ten.

Treadmill, free weights.

Someone asked me recently to identify eight favorite meditative spots in Rome, places which might facilitate focused introspection and rejuvenation. I have to confess that I'm not really the silently meditative kind and I have a little trouble keeping still. While I regret this aspect of my personality, it comes with the territory, so there you go.

This doesn't mean I'm not a thoughtful person who seeks and finds inspiration in quiet reflection. I like to write when it's time to sort out my thoughts; and rather than finding answers in motionlessness, I tend to use the rhythm of walking, running or the systematic making of things to figure things out. I get a lot from physical experience. I guess I prefer a significant amount of sensory input when questioning things.

I confess that while I had hoped to collect a ton of photos myself for this travelogue, I haven't had time to shoot everything listed. So I'm filching some of these pictures from the internet and hoping they'll do justice to the promise of these places. I shot Piazza Mattei and the bottles in the river. The rest are the products of my thievery.

Eight places isn't a lot in a city as wonderful as Rome so I'm upping the ante to ten, in no particular order.

• The Pantheon.
It's a stone's throw from the apartment, and the Pantheon at any time of day is a great kick in the ass when you're feeling put upon in life. It's a truly phenomenal testament to the genius and resourcefulness of mankind and I challenge anyone to say "I can't" when considering this achievement. I sometimes bring a cup of coffee to the piazza and sit on the steps of the fountain in the morning, facing the temple. It's especially beautiful on a cool, cloudy morning in winter, when the gray color of the stone, the pavement, the sky—everything in sight—elide harmonically. At night, when the piazza is filled with exhausted tourists, the lights are beautiful.

Fontana dell'Acqua Paola.
While everyone else is clamoring for photo opportunities at the Trevi Fountain in the center, the Fontana dell'Acqua Paola on the Gianicolo offers a stunning vista of the city with a grand backdrop of gushing water, lit masterfully at night and cooling the atmosphere while the sun is high in the sky. Go at dusk and plan to spend a little time like the two-faced god Janus (after which Gianicolo was named), gazing out on the domes below and turning 180 degrees to watch the cascade. It's a bit of a walk (about a mile) from my place, but it's well worth the effort.

• Piazza Mattei.
Just outside the Jewish Ghetto (where you can observe some great neighborhood dynamics among young and old), this spot has two great things going for it: the Tartaruga fountain with four youths languidly reaching for Bernini-crafted turtles and a little place called Bartaruga. If you have the money to spend, get a glass of wine and sit outside. It helps if you have company (at least to split the bill). A couple of glasses of wine cost about €14, which is pretty high in my opinion, but you're paying for the atmosphere. The interior of the bar is pretty kitsch, but very comfortable with an opportunity for intimate conversation and the people inside are very nice.

• San Luigi dei Francesi.
Near the Pantheon (with your back to the Pantheon turn left at the far end of the piazza) San Luigi dei Francesi is the parish of the French Catholic community in Rome. The exterior could use a good cleaning, but perfection awaits inside. The last chapel on the left holds three large Caravaggio paintings chronicling the story of St. Matthew. It's always crowded but well worth the visit.

• Santa Maria del Popolo.
In Piazza Del Popolo another pair of Caravaggio's—The Crucifixion of St. Peter and the Conversion of Paul—are free for the looking at Santa Maria del Popolo. It's not always easy to sit in silent meditation of these paintings. A good long look, however, followed by some quiet reflection in the church, is very rewarding.

• The Ecstasy of St. Teresa, Santa Maria della Vittoria.
This is far enough away from the center to be a little less populated by tourists, so I think it's worth the hike. And unlike the Caravaggio paintings you can sit to face the sculpture head on.

• Temple of Aesculapius, Villa Borghese.
This is a 19th century folly, not a true temple, but it's a nice place to sit and read, think, write or draw. The park is also a great place to run and the Galleria Borghese holds a lot of fantastic art.

• A Walk Across the Bridges
Begin in the morning or as the sun begins to fade with Ponte Fabricio, the oldest bridge in Rome. Make your way to the Trastevere side after crossing Isola Tiberina (the island). Turning right on the other side, you'll reach Ponte Garibaldi which you'll cross back to the other side. It's worth a stop on Ponte Garibaldi to behold the mesmerizing dance of the recyclables in the falls below the bridge. Don't miss this strangely beautiful phenomenon. Repeat this zig-zag pattern until you reach Pont Saint Angelo, with Bernini's angels flanking each side, and then head back. Some mornings around 9:00, on Ponte Sisto, you'll find the most emotionally demonstrative accordionist in the city. He's a little Asian man who faces the sun with his eyes closed, his entire body swaying with the music as he plays. And he can really play with sincerity and emotion, unlike a lot of the clowns who make money in the center.

• The Protestant Cemetery
Behind the old city wall and spilling out of the base of the Pyramid is the Protestant Cemetery, the burial place of non-Catholics and foreigners in Rome. Shelley and Keats are buried here and it's a remarkably peaceful place whose walls keep the din of the city at bay. There are plenty of places to sit and you can wander for a couple of hours from row to row in search of interesting lives which have passed through Rome over the centuries.

• The Palatine Hill at Sunset.
From the top of the hill at Piazzale Ugo di Malfa (the crest of the long hill running along the south side of Circo Massimo), take in the ruins of the Palatine on the other side of the field. At sunset, the warm bricks and austere arches and towers are really beautiful, and you can really gain a sense of the privileged vantage point of the aristocracy in Ancient Rome, when chariots raced in the Circo below.

• Bonus Spot.
If all else fails light the torches on our lower terrace at night and sit at the table. Looming above, you'll see the remains of the great round entrance hall of the Baths of Agrippa, constructed in about 19 BC. The past, and Rome has plenty of it, gives pause to present concerns.

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