Saturday, July 6, 2013

ancient ruins, heat, and great gelato

Following my adventurous morning, we got a slow start to the day, which is probably a good thing. Rome is an outdoor city. Between the ancient sites, city squares and fountains, parks, al fresco dining, and beautiful architecture, Rome should be experienced on foot. As mentioned in my prior post, it is pretty warm right now – 88 degrees today with 70% humidity. The Ecksteins tend to run hot, so Keri and I have decided that, with five days here, we should not push the kids to do more than one big thing per day.

We started off with an Italian-style brunch. They don’t really do breakfast in Italy, preferring to slam down an espresso to start the day. If something is eaten, it usually not cooked and on the lighter side. We spread out on our table a couple kinds of breads, blueberry preserves, cream cheese, strawberries, peach, yogurt, and some bufalo mozzarella. It was very different than our normal breakfast, but everyone seemed to enjoy it. Even Keri was satisfied by the thimble-sized take-out cappuccino she had purchased. When we finally got out the door, close to 1pm, we walked down past the Colosseum and Palatine Hill to Circus Maximus, where the Romans held tens of thousands of chariot races over hundreds of years. The site is long and narrow, without a sign or marking saying what it was. Although you can envision its original purpose, although if you did not know what this place was, you could easily walk past it and think nothing of it.

We continued west, getting to the Tiber before turning north and going just past the old Jewish Ghetto. It had been at least 90 minutes since our children had last eaten and we were in search of gelato. We landed upon Gelateria Alberto Pica (on Via Arenula). Our waiter seemed unceasingly frustrated with us, but the gelato made it well worth it – a coffee and cream for Lauren and a strawberry and banana for Keri. I ate more than my share of both. Owen insisted upon an ice cream sandwich. His palate needs some refining.

Fueled up, we went into the Jewish Museum, which sits in the basement of the Synagogue that lies in the heart of what was the Jewish Ghetto. At one end of the basement is a small sanctuary. The rest is filled with artifacts and narrative displays that describe the history of Jews in Rome. We took a brief tour that included stops in the small sanctuary, as well as the Synagogue itself, which is truly amazing. A dramatic mix of styles and colors with a skylight surrounded by feathers in the colors of the rainbow, this Sephardic sanctuary is unlike any I have ever seen.

Our guide explained that Jews had once numbered 40,000 in the City of Rome, whose total population was 100,000. I have no idea if there is any truth to this, but it sounds very high to me. He further explained that Italy’s total Jewish population was now 35,000, and that 15,000 of those lived in Rome. Those numbers sound about right.

In any event, our guide and museum walked through the history of the Jewish people in Europe’s longest, continuous Jewish community, the first Jews having come here when they were looking for assistance in dealing with the Assyrian Greeks. Jews remained after their homeland became a Roman province and after the Romans expelled all the Jews from the same. The Jewish population increased dramatically here following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. In 1555, Pope Paul IV created the Jewish Ghetto here to segregate Rome’s Jewish population. Laws were enacted that further enforced the separation. There were ebbs and flows over the years to how strictly this separation was enforced (the most notable being when Napoleon conquered the city), with the Jews finally being emancipated in 1888.

Lauren began our tour by saying, “I thought I would not have to read any Hebrew during the summer!” By the end, she was remarking about the beautiful torah covers, menorahs and marble arks. I am not sure whether her change in attitude was a well-designed manipulation of her parents. Either way, it worked, and we were very pleased.

Our walk back took us by a pastry shop (we had hit the 90-minute mark) and the Pantheon, where Owen announced, with great urgency, his need to use the bathroom. A kind café owner was his salvation.

It was then on to the Pantheon itself, a pagan Greek temple built in 27 BCE by Marcus Agrippa. The structure was destroyed by a fire in 80 CE, but was rebuilt and has remained in place – and in use – ever since. It has been a church since the 6th Century. The outside of the building is a square. The inside is circular, with a 1420-foot dome serving as the ceiling. The dome is massive – apparently the largest one built before the invention of reinforced concrete – and has a large hole in the middle that provides natural light for the building. I think this building is best experienced from the inside, looking up at the engineering wonder of a ceiling.

From there, it was back to the Urbana flat, a brief rest and then dinner in a nearby café, where I enjoyed a great seafood pasta and Lauren a tasty lasagna. When we stepped out into the street after dinner, the rain was falling, sending us back to the flat without gelato. (Note: my children’s fear of rain is greater than their love of gelato.)

I think we all slept well again. Keri and I had our window open, as our ineffective a/c unit was completely down, allowing us to experience just a little bit nightlife in Rome. Falling in and out of sleep, my recollections are of an a couple arguing in Italian and of some American college boys on a backpack trip talking about breaking something. I should say, of the former, that it sounded like arguing to me but, as the locals are prone to speak quickly and loudly and I speak no Italian, they could have been having a book club or politely discussing the weather for all I know. As to the latter, I apologize to the good people of Rome.

Another good Eurobreakfast this morning and then we were off to the Colosseum, trying to beat a little of the mid-day heat. The Colosseum is an amazing structure. No matter how many times you see it, you cannot help but be impressed that this building was put up nearly 2,000 years ago, without a single crane, earthmover, or steel beam. The Romans were so advanced, in so many ways, of which this building is but one example.

We ended up paying for a tour, as it is hard to figure out anything without one. Our guide spoke quickly and with a strong accent, so I don’t think the kids picked up much. It was also quite warm standing among the stones, which wore them down pretty quickly. Indeed, there were a couple moments when I thought we were going to lose Owen, who seemed as miserable as one of the poor souls condemned to die here.

Keri and I quite enjoyed it, the structure itself and the remarkable things the Romans built into it. Of course, all of those things were, in one way or another, built to make more entertaining the systematic killings of (probably close to one million) human beings and (countless) animals. As I tried to tell my kids, human beings are capable of wondrous good and evil. Are you not entertained?!? Few places capture that better in one spot than the Colosseum.

We walked back to the flat, stopping for a leisurely lunch at La Vacca M’Briaca, a hosteria down the street. Keri made some effort to order Owen’s initial request – spaghetti with butter (which she even said in Italian) – but was met with total confusion. The first waiter pointed to an item on the menu that included spaghetti, and a whole host of other things, none of which was butter. Keri said no, and a second waiter was called over. Keri repeated her initial request – spaghetti with butter – and was again met with a look that there was more than just a language barrier separating us now. A third waiter was called over, and Keri, sensing what needed to be done, asked for spaghetti marinara for both kids.

Mid-way through lunch, Owen excused himself to find the bathroom. He was gone his average ten minutes. In addition to his normal bathroom activities (whatever they are) he had apparently gotten into a discussion with a young man who was seated behind us with what looked like his father and three-year old son. The discussion ended with Owen explaining that the three-year old had the same birthday as his friend Reno from school.

As we were finishing our leisurely lunch, a woman walked in holding a baby, looking very desperate and saying something in Italian. I felt awful, paralyzed by linguistic and social barriers. Fortunately, the grandfather of the three year-old, who turned out to own the place, stepped in, walked back to the kitchen, and returned with a take-out presentation of some kind for the woman. I really appreciated that.

We spent the next several hours back at the flat, avoiding the mid-afternoon sun, heading out around six, intending a nice long walk before dinner. We walked to Via Dei Fori Imperali, from which there are great views of the Colosseum, the northern section of the Roman Forum, and Fori Imperali. We walked around Monumento a Vittorio Emanuelle II, that massive white marble structure that sits high above the Piazza Venezia, and is known by the locals as the Wedding Cake or the Typewriter. At that point, both children, each in their special way, explained they would need to eat sooner rather than later. We headed back and stopped at a rather mediocre place that at least provided good shade. There is a certain mix of frustration and embarrassment one suffers from knowing one has wasted a meal slot in Italy on such mediocrity.

Fortunately, our day ended not with greatness, in the form of two truly outstanding stracciatella gelatos from Ciuri Ciuri. This place is on Via Leonina, which runs parallel to Via Cavour but feels a world apart, as it is small, quiet, cobblestoned and quite pleasant. More important, the gelato was truly outstanding. As we were eating our little bit of heaven, seated on some steps just across the street, Keri made the astute observation that we should only go to places with lots of stickers in the window. I looked over to see that, in fact, this place had about 20. I walked over to get a look, and saw they consisted of a number of local gelato awards (that clearly has to mean something) and more-tourist oriented ones, like TripAdvisor. When I returned to my family, Owen had his hand jammed into his ice cream cone. Keri had her camera trained on me, capturing the utter disbelief and disgust that was my reaction.

The kids had complained a number of times during the day about all manner of things. Sitting on those steps, as Keri correctly observed, a world-class gelato will cure just about anything. “How would you rate today, guys?” “Awesome!”


  1. Lauren and Owen - You are the AWESOMEST! Keep it up and enjoy! It is hot here also. Love you all. Baba

  2. Keep the posts coming! They provide wonderful reading and many images of all of you. Love from us to you!

  3. I'm sorry, the Ecksteins TEND? to run hot? In my experience...most DEFINITELY! Lauren still asks how I "survived" my parents house when my mom keeps our AC at 80 or above.