Greetings from Rome!
As I rest from my last full day here, I’m quite proud of all that I accomplished on my Roman itinerary this week. Refusing to use busses, I walked this city from north to south and east to west. There’s action on every block and people to watch in every piazza, so why would I skip all of that on a bus? (Plus, it’s not like I’m a stranger to walking at this point).
I’ll remember Rome as a marathon. I was always on the go from one thing to the next, hoping to see it all. And looking back, I feel like I saw it all. I learned about the Roman republic and empire at the Forum, Colosseum, and National Museums. I saw the center of the Catholic Church at St. Peter’s Basilica and Vatican Museums. I marveled at the architecture of the Pantheon and Castel Sant’Angelo. I stared at art by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Caravaggio. I ate plenty of pasta, pizza, and gelato. I had a beer with an old Italian man and played chess in the park (he won twice). I even waved to the pope.
Yes, this spontaneous detour was quite the success. I learned a lot from the eleven history museums I visited and the four walking tours I endured across the city. I’m a a better teacher because of this visit.
At most of the museums I skipped the tour guide, opting instead for my Rick Steves audio guide app. As I bounced from one museum to the next, I became really thankful that I didn’t join any tour groups. The groups really zoomed through entire museum rooms at lightning pace. Meanwhile, I take my time in each gallery, contemplate the art, and stop to read every placard. Plus, I have a fairly strong background in Ancient Rome and an even stronger background in Christian history, so I didn’t need their history lessons to catch me up to speed. Instead, I took it nice and slow to really grasp the deeper historical context. A great joy of this journey has been going at my own pace - whether I’m trekking the Camino or walking through an art gallery.
In all of Rome, I joined just one tour. On Sunday I found myself near the old Jewish ghetto and passed by a large synagogue. They had a banner advertising their museum, so I thought “why not?” and went through the security check. I found myself on a tour of the 100 year old synagogue. In the last month and a half I’ve stuck my head into at least a hundred churches, but this was only the second synagogue I have been to in my whole life. Our guide explained that the Jewish community in Rome extends back 2200 years to the Maccabean period. Each century brought changing conditions for this religious minority. Originally respected, they were viewed with suspicion after the Jewish revolt in Israel and the subsequent destruction of the Jewish temple in 70 AD. In Christian times, the fate of the Jews was up to the personality of the pope in power. Some times were good. Some times were hard. Antisemitism spread during the Renaissance and the Jews were quarantined into a walled ghetto subject to frequent floods. It wasn’t until Italy was unified in 1870 that they were free from the ghetto and from having to identify themselves with a yellow scarf or star in public. It was in this time period that this great synagogue was built in a Romanesque style. Of course, their freedom would not last long with the rise of Fascism and WWII right around the corner. The Nazis rounded up the first 2000 Jews for deportation and eventual extermination on the piazza right outside the synagogue. Just 16 of those Jews survived the Holocaust.
A lady in the tour group asked our guide what life was like for Jews in Rome today. Our guide replied that it’s hard because she feels like no one knows the Jewish story in Rome. They’re a small community of less than 20,000 and no one knows too much about them. I suppose that with all of the ancient history and Christian heritage in Rome, it’s easy for visitors and locals alike to overlook this small population. I mean, I only went into the synagogue because I saw a sign on the street. But my guide seemed passionate about spreading her community’s story, so that’s why I decided to relay it here on my blog.
After the tour, I followed the guide’s recommendation to a Kosher restaurant and tried the delicious fried artichokes. From there, I took a brief walking tour around the neighborhood. As I walked, I was disturbed and saddened by the occasional graffitied swastika and the strong police presence necessitated by a terrorist attack several decades ago. Clearly the Roman Jews still struggle with Italy’s long history of antisemitism. In a city that feels so “glammed up” for tourists, I saw this neighborhood in both its flaws and its glory. It’s not something you’ll find at the top of Tripadvisor, but it was one of the highlights of my Roman itinerary.