We have returned to our point of departure, calling at Civitavecchia in the wee hours of the morning. There is plenty of time to tour Rome today without worrying about getting back to the ship too late; we're overnighting in Civitavecchia and disembarking tomorrow morning.
It's almost as if they saved the best for last. Not that other ports weren't enriching and exciting to visit as well; not that I didn't have some great tour guides along the way. But my full day in Rome couldn't be faulted on any count, including the timing (more about that later).
Rome is ideally suited to a broad spectrum of passenger interests, having early cathedrals and basilicas, the catacombs, St. Peter's and the Vatican for those wishing to explore their Christian heritage. For those for whom ancient history and archaeology are paramount, Rome is the mother lode of all ruins -- and the shopping's not too shabby either.
From the moment I met Gino, our guide, I felt I was in mature, competent and experienced hands, and it wasn't just that he was garbed in a black suit and tie. Even before we had exited Civitavecchia for the autostrada, Gino had impressed us with juicy bits of history and information that was new to me. The first such factoid was that Civitavecchia is now the number one port in the Mediterranean for cruise traffic, having just beat out Barcelona for that honor, which surprised me, given the casual state of the infrastructure here.
I was also surprised by the age of the port city, having been built up by the emperor Trajan in the first or second century. Originally created as a fishing port, massive warehouses were later erected for the spoils of Trajan's military campaigns. As we departed the port, portions of the ancient Roman walls became visible. It turned out Civitavecchia was an ancient port even before Trajan developed it, having been established originally by the Etruscans in the eighth century B.C. Sadly, Civitavecchia gets short shrift by tourists because much of the city was destroyed during bombings in World War II.
Our route took us along the seacoast, giving us views of the new 600-boat Trajan Yacht Harbor in the village of Santa Marinella. At the height of their civilization, the Etruscans had more than 30 city kingdoms in the region, of which the only things remaining are the elaborate tombs, or necropoli. Gino ascribed the demise of the Etruscans to the constant warfare between city states, which made them easy for a highly organized Roman civilization to defeat. I found this explanation really interesting, since our previous guide, Remo, claimed that the Etruscan civilization collapsed because they were too peace-loving, and failed to defend themselves.
As our route turned inland, I had a chance to chat with my fellow excursion members, and to pursue my quest for input on the off-ship experience from the perspective of first-timers. Almost immediately, I hit pay dirt. The couple one row ahead of me on the same side of the bus, Don and Debbie from Tampa, turned out to be first-time European visitors. In chatting with them I learned that they had planned this trip for over five years, and the reason they chose Carnival was that they loved the cruise line and had taken 10 previous cruises with Carnival. They definitely had that glow of excitement and expectation that I had been looking for among the first-timers onboard. Additionally, they had done a lot of homework before leaving the U.S. and had a really great handle on what to expect.
So, I posed the question to them: How did they feel taking the trip of a lifetime and winding up with bad weather, bad guides or both? The answer was surprising in a way, since I anticipated that, with such high expectations, disappointments would be exacerbated. Nothing could be further from the truth for Don and Debbie. They were delighted with everything they had seen and done; everything exceeded their expectations. Of course, one individual couple does not a scientific sample make, but it did serve to remind me that Europe's assets are the stars of the show and they present themselves well with our without the footnotes of a guide, and despite the inconvenience of a bit of uncomfortable weather.
A Tourist in Rome
Our first stop was one not listed on the excursion description: the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, originally built in the fourth century A.D. by Constantine over the graves of Christianity's first major preachers. There seemed to be a lot of activity and sprucing up going on. As it turns out, today is a major holiday in Roman Catholicism, and the Pope was planning a trip outside the Vatican walls to visit a number of important cathedrals, one of which was this one. Several times during the day we saw motorcades (or perhaps the same motorcade) led by cadres of motorcycle policemen, and we tried to stare into the smoked-glass windows of the passing limousines to see who was inside.
As we approached the archeological center of Rome our first encounter with Imperial Rome was with the 270,000-seat Circus Maximus, the second century B.C. site of numerous chariot races (remember "Ben Hur"?). Beyond and overlooking it were the remains of Caesar's Palace -- the residence, not the casino -- crumbling, but still huge and majestic.
Our next stop -- because it was in order logistically, not chronologically -- was the Monument to Italy's first elected king Victor Emmanuel, one of neoclassical Rome's most famous edifices. Walking away from the monument -- informally known as "The Weeding Cake Monument" for its stacked-up, ornate decor -- we passed Venice Square, the nexus of all ancient Rome's roads, and now a center for foreign embassies. Central to the square was a massive arch appropriated by Mussolini as a triumphal entry for Rome's most distinguished guests.
From there we walked toward the Roman Forum. There were two side by side, the older Roman Forum and the newer Imperial Forum started by Julius Caesar. Caesar recognized that the growing population of Rome required expanded space for the institutional buildings, banks, baths, shops and palaces that made the Forum the center of daily life in Rome.
Though there are few near-complete buildings, as one sees, for example, in Pompeii or Herculaneum, the very size and monumental scale of the Roman Forum is awe inspiring. Our first view of the Forum was from street level above. We then ambled down a sloping walkway to the Via Sacra (Sacred Way), the main drag in the Roman Forum, passing first the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Septimius Severus, and then the Rostrum, an area devoted to public discourse, much like Hyde Park in modern London. We stopped at the tomb of Julius Caesar, which contains his cremated remains. The areas of the tomb blackened by Caesar's funeral pyre can still be seen, and to be that close to vestiges of living history gave me goose bumps. Farther along in the Forum we saw the Senate House and the Residence of the Vestal Virgins, passed through the Arch of Titus and Vespasian commemorating the conquest of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and finally past the Arch of Constantine into the shadow of the Colosseum.
Exiting the Forum via Via Sacra, we circled the perimeter of the Colosseum, completed by Titus in A.D. 80. We think of the competitions between gladiators, or between gladiators and wild animals, and many of us have heard that later on the Colosseum was flooded for mock naval battles, assuming that this was one additional form of audience-titillating spectacle, so I was surprised to find out that these events had a strategic side as well; it was a way to test out naval tactics.
Leaving the Colosseum we walked by Nero's "Final Palace," also known as the "Gold Palace," where he resided after having burned Rome and blaming it on the Christians as an excuse to persecute them.
Rejoining our bus we drove to our lunch stop in the middle-class "St. John" area. Again the choice -- or lack of -- was a set menu including salad, lasagna, and for dessert, tiramisu. Not looking forward to another "scooped-out-of-the-chafing-dish-cafeteria-style" meal, I asked Gino if I were to offer to pay out of pocket for a cooked-to-order choice from the regular menu, would the restaurant be able to comply. I can't guarantee this will work on all tours with all guides, but my buddy Gino went to bat for me in Italian, and, lo and behold, a delicious plate of Penne Arrabiata (tubular pasta with a spicy tomato-based sauce) was placed in front of me. I enjoyed the same side dishes as my tablemates.
The last stop on our tour was a visit to the catacombs. This was a new experience for me, and it began with an education in one of the major gaps in my knowledge. I had surmised that the catacombs were a single, unified system of underground graves honeycombing the ground underneath Rome. In fact, there were numerous catacomb systems. Around Rome there were several, both close to the Archeological Zone and farther afield. We visited the Catacombs of Domitilla, named for the patrician Flavia Domitilla, who was related by marriage to the Emperor Domitian, who apparently had sympathy with the early Christians.
When we reached the site of the catacombs we hooked up with Monica, our local guide. She started our tour by giving us a background lecture on the basilica constructed in about A.D. 300 underground at the entrance of the tunnels. Many of the Christians buried in these early catacombs were later beatified and made saints, and the basilica was built on the same level as those most sacred graves -- that is to say, at the level of the catacombs closest to the surface. Later as Christianity grew, so did the need for secret final resting places safe from pagan desecration. Thus, the builders were forced to excavate deeper and deeper. All told the entire system held about 100,000 tombs on four descending levels.
The basic structure of the catacombs was a series of cramped tunnels with shelves for the dead carved into the walls. The tombs were marked with symbols significant for the Christians. One of the most abiding of such symbols is the fish, which was used on the earliest crypts because of its ambiguity. Romans, during the age of the persecution of Christians, might look at the graphic and surmise that the tomb contained the remains of a fisherman; true believers would recognize it as a symbol of the faith. Other graphic representations included the dove, Orante (praying figure), and the monograph of Constantine, a "P" with an "X' superimposed on it. (In Greek, the X stands for our letters, CH, and the P stands for R, making the "logo" read, "CHR," short for Christ).
As we walked through the tunnels two things became apparent to me. First, most tombs were empty, but a few were bricked over. So I asked Monica if those were undisturbed crypts, or if they had been excavated and later restored to the way they looked in ancient times. The answer was that they still contained the bodies and whatever was buried with them. My second question was about the size of the tombs. Many seemed miniscule -- infant-sized -- while even the largest seemed too small for an adult. I asked Monica to estimate the size of a typical Roman man in the first century. She pointed to herself. "Same as me," she said. Monica was about 5 feet 3 inches tall. And the proliferation of tiny tombs, she explained, was due to the high rate of infant mortality.
As we began our journey back to Civitavecchia, Gino threw in another extra not on the agenda. we drove past the Vatican and St. Peter's square, just as another motorcade was driving into the gates of the world's smallest country, with the colorful Swiss Guards standing at attention.
As we left the center of Rome I realized something that had been in the background of my perception. Tagging (spray-painted graffiti) is rampant in Rome, but I didn't see a single case of graffiti on ancient ruins. Either the ancient remains are assiduously cleaned and maintained, or Rome has a population of very respectful taggers.
We arrived back at the ship in plenty of time to -- yippee -- pack.
Carnival runs a shuttle from the port into Civitavecchia proper, and the prospect of a dinner in one of the town's seaside bistros did sound tempting, but dinner on the last night in a ship's main dining rooms is such a tradition in cruising (and those that fink out are usually perceived to be the ones who stiff their servers on tips), that I would have it no other way than to have dinner at my regular table with my lovely servers, Crisella and Katherina.
There was no show in the Victoriana Lounge tonight nor was anything going on in any of the other entertainment venues, but the ship was running "Gladiator" on the giant Seaside Theater screen (how apropos).