We arrived in Rome on a gorgeous sunny October day, driving down from Tuscany with the Elderhostel group, regaled on the way by remarks by Borden Painter, a retired President of Trinity College, Hartford, (which manages all Elderhostel trips in Italy). Borden gave us a several bits of background on Rome, both the historical and the hysterical (Italian Rule of the Road: “You must not have a car in front of you.”)
We spent the last three days of our Elderhostel trip in Rome, and then stayed on in the Eternal City for six more days. Just about every day was sunny and warm, which is always a blessing, and which allowed us to concentrate more on figuring Rome out. Rome is a treasure hunt, and Rome is a layered jigsaw puzzle. Part of the enchantment is discovering the juxtaposition of layers of civilization, one next to or on top of another. More about that next time.
Elderhostel had several treats in store for us, including a surprise private viewing of the Sistine Chapel. The chapel’s ceiling has been restored to its pristine glory, but most people lucky enough to get in are sandwiched with hundreds of others, all craning their necks to get a look at Michelangelo’s universe unfolding above them. We spent the better part of an hour, just thirty of us, with our superb student guide, Paolo, pointing out all of the wonders of Michelangelo’s creation. Begun in 1477 at the instance of Pope Sixtus IV, (thus the name “Sistine”), Michelangelo did not complete the Last Judgment until around 1547. It was indeed a life’s work. It was worth the restoration, the organization of which began in about 1979, and was actually finished, or so my notes say, sometime after 1994. A donation of ten million dollars by Nippon TV made it possible.
Elderhostel had more surprises in store for us that evening. We were led to the Hotel Columbus after the Sistine Chapel (just being in the Vatican Museum was a thrill: Long corridors of beautiful religious artifacts were our passageway to the final thrill of the Chapel, about the size of a basketball court.) The Hotel Columbus is right down the street from St. Peter’s, on via della Conciliazione. We were led upstairs to a large private medieval-looking room (part of the hotel’s famous La Veranda restaurant) where we were served Prosecco, (that wonderful light sparkling Italian wine) and hors d’oeuvres, just as though we were at a diplomatic reception. Following the wine reception, we were led into a gorgeous dimly lit dining room where the gala dinner of the 30th anniversary celebration was held. Our first course was a spinach flan with Parmesan sauce, followed by a pasta course, (to be specific, a tagliolini timbale with aubergines,) and then a main course of baked roast veal filled with pistachio nuts and grilled vegetables. The dessert was a coffee parfait, and the wines were extraordinary. We later decided that it was the best meal we had had on the trip.
We were introduced to the two founders of Elderhostel, and many other dignitaries, including Walter Persegati, a delightful 86 year old, who was the Treasurer of the Vatican for 25 years. (He’s the one who was presented with the ten million dollars by Nippon TV to restore the Sistine Chapel.) It was one of those magical evenings that unfold before your eyes and you think you are dreaming, but you aren’t. The room was alight with the memories and dreams of so many people who couldn’t believe what they had accomplished in the past 30 years. As we heard stories from attendees and letters from past Elderhostelers, we were thrilled to be novices among so many veterans. The stories were fascinating. I was asked to read a letter from a woman who had gone to Antarctica with Elderhostel, and had a transcendent moment with a penguin.
The next morning the delights continued as we visited the Borghese Gallery in the Borghese Gardens. The Gallery is full of the gorgeous collection of the Borghese family, including several exquisite Bernini sculptures. They make you feel as though marble is as pliable as plastic, in their detail and ephemeral qualities. After a lecture on the gallery by our very erudite guide, Paolo, we felt as though we could spot a Bernini anywhere.
The almost final Elderhostel moment was a walking tour with Ashley Turney, the Director of Elderhostel programs in Italy, who obviously knows her way around the walking streets of the Centro Storico. (She had led us through winding streets to the Trevi Fountain the evening before, tho’ I’m not sure I could ever find it again.) Lest you think it was all monuments and history, she also led us to her favorite gelato shop. Gelato is one of the major religions in Italy. It was great to get our bearings for our next six days in Rome. We were beginning to discover that Rome is really a small town after all, or maybe it is several different towns. Our walk led us from the Piazza del Popolo all the way to the Campo de Fiori, past the Pantheon.
Back at the Parco Terrena Hotel, we had our farewell dinner with Elderhostel. It had been a wonderfully educational 10 days, and we were thrilled that we were going to stay on to see and learn even more.
I urge you all to check out Elderhostel. There is virtually no place where they do not tread, (OK – Iraq) and you can learn as you travel. Our accommodations were quite good in Montecatini, not so great in Rome (our hotel was way out on the Aurelia, though easily arrived at by the subway, and the food in the Rome hotel was just so-so.) Our room in Rome was huge, but the lighting was so poor, we could hardly tell. There was a very spacious balcony, though, overlooking lovely green gardens. While the food may not be the best at some Elderhostel locations, the lectures are superb, your fellow travelers will be intelligent and eager, and the quality of the staff and the arrangements reduces anxiety levels a whole lot.
There is much, much more to say about Rome, and the way it opened up to us as we wandered around on our own. Stay tuned.