ROME — It would be impossible to describe all the wonders I have seen and experienced in two weeks in Rome, the world’s most inexhaustible city. Tuesday, with students, I got the scavi tour at the Vatican. If those are St. Peter’s bones below the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, then I got within a few feet of the burial crypt of the rock on which Jesus built his church.
No matter what your belief system, or level of skepticism, there is a deep thrill in being in close proximity to a place of such historical and spiritual significance.
The last time I was here I walked with students on the ancient Appian Way, one of Rome’s first great roads. We stepped into a church that commemorates the Quo Vadis moment. That’s when Peter, fearing for his safety, decided to flee Rome. He was heading south on the Appian Way when, according to tradition, he encountered the risen Christ. Peter, who must have been a little surprised, not to mention embarrassed, to be heading the wrong way, asked, “Domine, quo vadis?” (Lord, where are you going?). Jesus answered, “I am going to Rome to be crucified again.” Peter realized that he was failing Jesus again — it was Peter who denied Jesus three times after his arrest in Jerusalem — so he turned around, re-entered Rome and accepted the inevitability of his martyrdom.
To tell the truth, I found walking on the Appian Way -- intact after 2,327 years -- more meaningful than the square of marble that commemorates the Quo Vadis encounter. Walking the Appian Way is one of the top 10 experiences in my life as a traveler.
I spend a lot of time with the students I teach, and I love to see Rome through their young and impressionable eyes. But a fair portion of my time is my own. Whenever I get the chance, I take the appallingly unreliable bus into the heart of Rome and wander around with a guidebook, cameras, binoculars, maps and notebooks. I make long lists of things I want to see. My rule for myself is that, once I am in the city center, I walk everywhere, no matter how distant the site, because the only way to explore a great city is to let to get a little lost, to turn down narrow side streets and corridors on a whim, to discover a church, a chapel, a statue, a piazza, an obscure fountain, a tiny park, an acre of ancient Roman ruins in the midst of modern urban office buildings, or a funky little museum that doesn’t make it into the guidebooks.
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My very favorite thing to do in Rome, when I am alone, is to wind up mid-day at the Pantheon. In the short list of the world’s greatest buildings -- the Parthenon in Athens, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, the Taj Mahal in India, the Chrysler Building in New York, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul) -- the Pantheon, built in 126 AD, is at the top as far as I’m concerned. Jefferson never saw it, but he loved it, and used illustrations of the Pantheon as the model for the centerpiece of his “academical village” in Charlottesville, the rotunda of his University of Virginia.
There is a little outdoor restaurant in the square in front of the Pantheon. The food is not great, but I find almost perfect happiness sitting there, eating a plate of food so simple that it would not register as a real or full meal in Bismarck and gazing at the Pantheon’s concrete dome and the 16 massive 60-ton columns that uphold the portico.
All this reminds me of one of Jefferson’s most beautiful letters, written from Marseilles in southern France, on his famous wine journey of 1787. The future president of the United States wrote, “A traveller, sais I, retired at night to his chamber in an Inn, all his effects contained in a single trunk, all his cares circumscribed by the walls of his apartment, unknown to all, unheeded, and undisturbed, writes, reads, thinks, sleeps, just in the moments when nature and the movements of his body and mind require. Charmed with the tranquility of his little cell, he finds how few are our real wants, how cheap a thing is happiness, how expensive a one pride.”
I cannot read this passage without sighing and ordering a second glass of the vin du pays.
(Clay Jenkinson, the author of nine books, is a North Dakota native who lives in Bismarck. Contact him at Jeffysage@aol.com.)