Sujatha Bagal

Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.


We ride into Rome on one of Treinitalia’s high-speed lines from Naples. Rome’s Termini station is large, swanky and user-friendly. It’s drizzling outside but our hotel is only a short distance away, so we walk. By the time we get settled, the sun is peeking through the clouds and we head out.

We are warned to stay away from Rome’s bus route no. 64. That route hits all the popular tourist destinations and is therefore a favorite among pickpockets. We dutifully follow the suggestion and decide to take the train instead.

The Colosseum is the first destination on our list.

Even in its dilapidated state, even with resplendent visions of Gladiator floating in our minds, even with Russell Crowe nowhere in sight, the Colosseum does not disappoint. Running our hands down the pock-marked walls and feeling history at our finger tips is a sensation we indulge in time and again on this trip, first in Pompeii and now in Rome.

We take a slow walk around as much of the inside perimeter as we can, before we are stopped by barricades set up for maintenance work. Even from two stories high, the dungeons seem foreboding.

From the dungeons to the top of the Palatine Hill that showcases a Rome whose ancient splendors can now only be imagined, the ruins of the hubris of an empire lie bare.


A view of the Temple of Vesta and The House of the Vestals

from Palatine Hill (two photos above)


A stadium on the grounds of the ancient palace on Palatine Hill


I must confess we have never heard of Palatine Hill until we purchase tickets for its guided tour along with that of the Colosseum. Our guides are young students from the U.S., spending semesters in Rome, one of them pursuing a PhD in Roman History. They are smart, articulate and funny. We follow them mesmerized, as the point to the archway through which Caesar’s body was brought into the Forum and talk about vestal virgins and high priests and prefectures, their vocabulary straight out of some ancient history textbook.

By the time we come to the end of the tour, we have been walking or climbing (with our one-year-old in a stroller) for a good 30 minutes. We’ve been on the go since the morning and decide to return to our hotel for the night.

The subway is convenient and quick so we head right back to the underground.

It’s a mostly professional crowd headed home in the evening rush hour, but four women stand out in the packed compartment. Grubby jeans and tee shirts, rotten teeth, greasy hair slicked back into buns and large cloth bags slung over shoulders in a sea of business suits, sharp ties, cell phones plugged to ears and smart briefcases. They are hard to miss, particularly because one of the four is pregnant, her belly spilling out from underneath her tight-fitting tee.

But, I would have completely missed the dirty fingernails had I not caught five of them at the end of a slender hand slithering – ever so gingerly – into my husband’s pant pocket. “That woman’s hand is in your pocket,” I say to my husband surprising myself with my matter-of-factness. His hands fly to the sides of his legs. Startled, the woman recoils. Then, to my utter amazement, she turns to one of her accomplices and shakes her sad face, as if to say she did not succeed and she was sorry. She receives a comforting nod and wave of the hand in return.

Needless to say, our senses are on hyper-alert the rest of the journey back to the hotel and for the duration of our stay in Rome.

The next morning (after a change of hotel – we moved closer to the center of the city when we realized that our first choice near the train station was not as spiffy as an agent had made it appear) and the day after, we explore Rome on foot, by metro and by bus. We discover Rome’s multiple personalities – the Rome of Hollywood, of history, politics, religion and blockbuster novels.


Spanish Steps (if you actually see any of the steps, good for you!)


The dome of St. Peter’s Cathedral

A religious procession headed to St. Peter’s Cathedral

A guard at the entrance to the Vatican


Artwork on the facade of a building depicts the legend of the wolf raising Romulus and Remus


A beautifully constructed spiral staircase at the Vatican Museum

At the entrance to the Vatican Museum (visiting which was one of the best decisions we made during our stay in Rome), our hearts sink at the long, winding lines. We make our way to the main doorway, wondering whether to try again the next day or strike it off of our itinerary. A guard spies us, with a young son and a toddler in a stroller and he waves us in along with other families with members in wheelchairs. We flash him a grateful smile and head in.

The next two hours are spent gaping – at the walls, at the ceilings, at the statues, at the paintings, at the treasures encased in glass cases. Room after room after room, the splendour of color, form and design is a treat for the eyes.


A couple of scenes from the Vatican Museum (above and below)


Nowhere is the ancient splendor of Rome better preserved than at the Pantheon.



A standing testament to the triumph of geometry over gravity, the temple to the gods of ancient Rome has found use one way or the other ever since it was built early in second century A.D. We make our way through the crowds teeming in the Piazza della Rotonda and walk in through a porch lined with massive pillars to find a Catholic service in progress.

Our heads immediately look upward, following the large dome as it soars toward the sky, its vast circular sweep unblemished by supporting pillars or beams. Daylight streams in from a circular opening above, the oculus.

Even in the midst of the crowds, the hall feels intimate yet open to the universe. Wiser minds than mine have wondered the “how” of it all. We’re just content to stand and gawk at its beauty.

In the three days we spend in Rome, we’re never disappointed with the food, no matter whether we eat in a tiny pizzeria or in a deli. But the restaurant our concierge recommends to us on our last night in Rome (Taverna Flavia on Via Flavia) turns out to be a fine way to top off our Italy trip. The staff is welcoming, the food is great, the atmosphere is relaxed. The walls are lined with photographs of famous actors who frequent the restaurant. After a couple of days of imagining Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck on the Spanish Steps, Russell Crowe in the pits of the Collosseum, Charlton Heston at the Circus Maximus, Rex Harrison and Elizabeth Taylor on Palatine Hill, and now with celebrities beaming at us from the walls, you will forgive me for what transpires next.

A few minutes after we settle in, an elderly lady and a younger woman are seated at a two-seat table across from us. Both of them sound British. They are engrossed in an animated conversation, but the mother (we assume) looks over at our kids once in a while, an indulgent expression on her face. She has a longish face and grey hair combed neatly in a bob. Emboldened by her pleasant expression and with the thought that I was probably never going to see these people ever again, I venture, “Hello, are you Vanessa Redgrave by any chance?” Her smile widens for a brief second before she shakes her head, “Oh no, dear. I’m not.”

OK, a year and a half later I can still feel my face going hot at the memory. Maybe I’ll laugh at it in a couple more years.



This entry was posted on January 7, 2009 by in Travel Writing and tagged , .
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