Monday, April 7, 2014

My Rome Bucket List -- 21 Things to Do in Rome in a Lifetime

I've been noticing a trend. In case you're interested, I'm not a very trendy person. I usually pick up on things around 2-10 years after they become popular. Case in point, I just discovered Downton Abbey and Madonna's album Ray of Light. (Have you heard it? It's amazing.) However, every so often--and I'm talking very rarely--I actually get into something before it starts trending. I still claim to have started the Capri pants craze back in the late '90s.

You're welcome.

Upon further consideration, it may just have been that I was about four decades late in picking up on a trend that Audrey Hepburn had started back in the 50s.

But be that as it may, another trend that I somehow jumped the gun on was the Bucket List phenomenon. Before "bucket list" became a common household term, before there was even a film of that name, I had written one.

Of course I didn't call it a bucket list. It was probably called Things I Will Do Before I Die, or similar. And believe me, there were a lot of things on that list. But now that making these ambitious and adventurous lists has become so very trendy, particularly with bloggers, I guess I'd better make a new one. But this time, its a themed bucket list. Below you will find 21 things that I vow one day to do in Rome.

And as anyone who's ever written a to-do list knows, you've got to add some items that you've already accomplished, so you can feel good about yourself, like you're getting things done. And I may throw in one or two things that seem well nigh impossible, just to make sure I never stop dreaming.

1. Climb the internal spiral staircase to the top of the Column of Marcus Aurelius.


Ok, so I'm starting with an impractical one. No one gets to do this. And by no one, I mean, probably Obama could do this if he were weird like me and knew to want to do such a thing. This is going to be a very hard one. No plan as yet.

2. Stand in the Sistine Chapel when it's empty (or at least, empty of all but one or two guards).

I could actually probably do this one pretty easily, since my Maritino is one of said guards. I'll have to bug him.

3. See every Caravaggio work in Rome (and eventually the world!).


Considering I have traveled to Naples, Malta, Siracusa, Messina, Cremona, Milan, Paris, Vienna, London, and beyond, just to see works by my favorite painter, it kind of surprises me that I haven't seen all of the ones right here in my city. The only one I haven't seen is the so-called mural of Jupiter, Neptune, and Pluto that adorns the casino of the Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, a noble residence, still in private hands. They do allow visitors, but very rarely and by advance appointment only.

4. For the above, and other reasons, visit the Casino of Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi.

And try not to cry when thinking about the vast and sublime hillside gardens that once existed here, but were heartlessly bulldozed to create Via Veneto. Viva la dolce vita.

5. Visit every single museum in Rome, at least once. 

I'm not sure exactly how many museums there are in the city, but if I had to make a random guess, I'd say between 60 and 80. Luckily I've got a big head start on this one.

6. Write a blogpost on every single museum in Rome, after visiting.

This is probably going to get very tedious, but you know what? You're worth it.

7. Chat with Maestro Riccardo Muti in the green room of Teatro Costanzi just after he's conducted a Verdi opera.

Personal photo
I did this one.

8. Stand in the office of the mayor of Rome (and on his balcony).

Prime Minister Andreotti, Roma Mayor Argan, and French President Giscard, 1977 [Source]
While yes, I have done this one too, the mayor (then Gianni Alemanno) was not there at the time. The best part about his office is its private balcony that juts right out into the Roman Forum from above the Tabularium.

9. Meet Pope Francis.

The Maritino has already done this. So jealous.

10. See Antoniazzo Romano's frescoes in the Tor de' Specchi convent (also known as the House of Santa Francesca Romana).

So this one I have actually done three times. Anyone can do it, you just have to get the timing right. It's only open one day per year, 9 March. It's always a good idea to call ahead to check the opening times, as they vary year to year. Also, go as early as you possibly can, or risk having to stand in a long line. Either way, it's absolutely worth it.

11. See Annibale Carracci's glorious frescoes in Palazzo Farnese.

Another one I can check off right away. This has luckily become not such a difficult thing to do. Just takes a little planning. When I first moved to Rome back in 2004 (hereafter known as "back in the day"), if you wanted to visit Palazzo Farnese (the seat of the French Embassy), you had to wait until La Notte Bianca and line up for about 2-3 hours. Well, not anymore! Now you can book a visit online through Inventer Rome Cultural Association. Heads up though, the Carracci Gallery (the main reason to visit the palace) is presently being restored. Don't bother visiting until 2015, perhaps later.

12. Visit the Quirinal Gardens.

Again, planning is everything. These lush gardens are open to the public every year on 2 June for the Festa della Repubblica. This is one of those things that I always plan to do, but never quite get around to.

13. Have the Trevi Fountain entire to myself.

If you get up early enough, or stay up late enough, anyone can do this. For me it happened some time during the summer of 2007, during a very late night out with some friends, cycling around Rome at about four in the morning. When we stumbled upon the fountain, it was deserted. There was literally no one there but us. But you don't need to be awake at quite so ungodly an hour, providing it's the off-season. My friend Katy, who's living here for the year, was out and about early one morning, and found the Trevi deserted around 8am.

14. Visit the Casino di Bel Respiro in Villa Pamphilj

Photo by author
Back in 2010, the last time the late Colonel Gaddafi visited Rome, I burned with indignation that this international bully (to use a mild term), was allowed to traipse around the jewel of Villa Pamphilj. How dare he be allowed inside the Casino di Bel Respiro (also known as Villa Algardi), a sublime Baroque treasure that is closed to the general public, when regular Italians are not permitted to set foot inside? Or so I thought until I was informed otherwise. We non-heads of state actually can visit this exquisite palace, but only on Saturday mornings by appointment. It's even free. I haven't yet done it myself, but here's the number in case you are interested: (+39) 0667794555 (or email

15. Visit the Vatican Necropolis.

As in, where St. Peter is supposedly buried. Can't believe I haven't done this yet. No excuses, really.

16. Visit all seven pilgrim churches on foot, preferably in a jubilee year. And walk through the Holy Doors of St. Peter's.

I'll have to wait till 2025 (and invest in a very good pair of walking shoes) before I get a chance to attempt this.

17. Visit the interior of the Pyramid of Cestius.

Photo by author
I believe that this was relatively possible until a few years ago. Now that the pyramid is being restored (its white Carrara marble is scrubbing up quite nicely, by the way), who knows if visiting the interior will ever be possible again? Since I walk past it every day on my way to and from work, it has dug its way into my imagination, and now I'm dying to explore inside.

18. Visit the Tower of the Winds.


Although not completely off limits anymore, as it was "back in the day" when I got to go (an exceptionally rare visit that I was allowed to be part of thanks to a friend of a friend of my now Maritino), the Tower of Winds (or Torre dei Venti) in the Vatican has nevertheless been seen by very few people. It's a fascinating and beautiful place and you can read more about its function and history here.

19. Visit the Basilica Neopitagorica.


This is probably one of Rome's most mysterious sites. Almost nothing is known about this 2000-year-old esoteric basilica buried near Porta Maggiore and discovered by chance in 1917. The vast three-nave basilica is entirely underground and it is decorated with stucco reliefs of mystical images. Because the basilica is directly underneath major railway lines near Termini Station, it is extremely fragile. That, and the fact that a mysterious "parasite" or "bacteria" lives down there (according to the above-linked video), means it is very very closed. Another daunting challenge.

20. Get married in Rome.

© Luca Cappellaro, Fine Art Wedding
Done and done.

21. And last but not least, have my own rooftop terrace with a view of the city.

A girl can dream, right?

Can you think of anything to add? Have you done any of these things?
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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Batman Invites You to Celebrate His Birthday at Romics--Here’s Why You Should Be at This Party

 Batman and Superman © Jae Lee, Courtesy of Romics Press Office

Guest post by Claudio Ianniello

Romics is an unmissable opportunity to immerse yourself in 360° of imagination and fantasy. This event offers ideas to revive childhood dreams and rediscover a wealth of symbols and myths that—consciously or not—we all refer to at some point during our lives. Despite the economic, moral, and intellectual crisis we are experiencing, this festival of comics, animation, games, and entertainment, returns to the Nuova Fiera di Roma with renewed energy for its 15th edition. The slew of interesting events and guest stars from around the world confirming the international appeal of this great Kermesse that takes place in Rome twice a year. Organized by the Fiera di Roma and I Castelli Animati ( the international animated film festival), the exhibition takes place inside enormous trade pavilions, which host dozens of stands with all the latest releases, video games, gadgets, as well as major collectors and representatives of the most important publishing houses and comic book shops. There are also various themed performances, as wells as areas where fans can meet with authors, personalities, and publishers.

Paolo Barbieri, Courtesy of Romics Press Office
Barry Purves [source]

Three world-class special guests will receive this year's Romics d'Oro Award. First, an undisputed star of American comics, Jae Lee, the author of the latest Batman and Superman series, and a true legend in the world Dc Comics. In addition, the festival celebrates 75 years of Batman, an unmissable milestone for comic book lovers. And from the universe of Fantasy drawing comes the astonishing pencil Paolo Barbieri, who has designed covers for the books of dozens of writers, including Michael Crichton, Clive Clusser, Umberto Eco, Bernard Cornwell, and Wilbur Smith. He also illustrated a publication of Dante's Inferno and St. John’s Apocalypse, both meeting with resounding success. Barbieri’s work will be the subject of a retrospective exhibition. And finally, straight from the big screen, legendary animator and director Barry Purves, will be making an appearance. This Oscar-nominated puppet master has collaborated with directors such as Tim Burton on Mars Attack and Peter Jackson on King Kong.

Naoya Yamaguchi [source]

Romics will also host a world-renowned master photographer, Naoya Yamaguchi, one of the greatest interpreters of Eastern photography. Yamaguchi travels around the world presenting his work, The Japonism, an exhibition of his photographs that express the essence of the Japanese spirit, and reveal the hidden soul of the Land of the Rising Sun.

© Naoya Yamaguchi, Courtesy of Romics Press Office

Other events include the "Grand Gala of Dubbing," a tribute to the great Italian voice-over actors, the presentation of the "Cosplay Romics Award" and “Cosplay Kids Award,” competitions dedicated to those passionate about dressing up as their favorite comic book characters.
In addition, with the aim of providing maximum circulation of high-quality comic books, Romics hosts a comic book competition, offering a comprehensive overview of the most recent and relevant publications in Italian comic books, published by major publishing houses specializing in both comic books and graphic novels.

Batman, Courtesy of Romics Press Office

An entertaining first-time event will be the “Nippon World Karaoke Grand Prix Cosplay By Live Adam” where participants will perform (in costume) the theme songs of Japanese cartoons.

ovie lovers will enjoy a preview of the horror film Oculus by Mike Flanagan starring Karen Gillian. In the Movie Village, the film area that was inaugurated last year, will be dedicated to the fourth season of Game of Thrones. In short, there is something for everyone—whether you’re a comic book lover, a gamer, a movie enthusiast, or just someone who remembers dressing up as their favorite super hero as a kid. For anyone who appreciates original design, a good book, or an artistic photo, Romics is all this, and much more.

Nuova Fiera di Roma
Via Portuense, 1645 (north entrance)
Tel 0687729190.
3—6 April. Open 10am—8pm.
To get there, take the FR1 train to “Nuova Fiera di Roma” (€1.50) from Tiburtina, Tuscolana, Ostiense, or Trastevere stations.
By car take the “Fiera di Roma” exit on the Roma-Fiumicino freeway.
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Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A Podcast is Born! The BitterSweet Life: Two Expats in Rome

I was 11 years old, sitting alone on an uncomfortable school bus seat on a cold Northwestern fall morning. After spending my entire elementary school life sheltered in a tiny private school, I was suddenly out in the big, scary world of public middle school. I was, in a word, daunted. And pretty sure I would never make any friends.

About halfway into the commute to school (in my memory this happened on the first day of school, but I can't be certain that was the case), a cute, dark-haired girl named Katy, who was just my size--maybe even an inch shorter (and I was always the shortest in my class)--got on the bus and shyly asked if she could sit with me. This, my friends, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

With Katy, on the stage of Youth Theatre Northwest, Mercer Island, WA, about 13 years old

Fast-forward twenty-some years and I'm living in Rome, far far away from the beautiful, rainy Pacific Northwest and all the old friends I grew up with. Despite seeing Katy once a year or usually less, we've remained as close over the years as we always were. She's one of those people that, despite the distance that separates us, despite how infrequently we see each other or even talk on the phone, I just know will always, always be in my life.

So you can imagine my surprise and elation when she announced that she and her husband were moving to Rome for a year. It was an expat's dream come true. She has been here since September, and it has been one of my best years in Rome so far, because of her.

With Katy on her first full-day as a Rome expat, Gianicolo Hill, September 2013

Since Katy is an NPR radio producer, and I am (among other things) an expat blogger, we decided to put our talents and expertise together to create a weekly (free!) podcast discussing the ups and downs of expat life. Since we both live in Italy, we naturally talk about Italy and Italians a lot, but we also touch on many topics that expats in any country might encounter. Our combined experiences, mine as a long-term expat, Katy's as a short-term one, give us two complementary points of view, which makes for lively and (we hope) interesting discussions.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know I don't write much about my personal life. Yes, every so often I will wax poetic on my Italian ancestors, the fated path that brought me to Italy, or the battle of the sexes Italian-style, but nine times out of ten, my posts are about art, history, music, and curiosities here in Rome or the Vatican. As much as I'd like to post about my personal life, an odd sort of shyness often prevents me.

Well not any more! The podcast, The BitterSweet Life, is frank, spontaneous, and thoroughly personal. It is probably of particular interest to those of you who may be considering taking the plunge and moving abroad yourselves, whether to Italy or any other country. We welcome questions and try to address them all on the air. If you already are an expat, and are currently in Rome, and you think you might have something to add to the conversation, let us know! We also interview other expats from time to time.

There are two ways to listen to The BitterSweet Life. You can visit our website, where you can either stream each podcast, or download them for later listening. Or you can find it on iTunes, where you can stream, download, and also subscribe so that you never miss an episode. We post new episodes every Monday morning, and they are about 20-30 minutes long, (perfect for your morning commute!). In our first episode, we discuss our first impressions on becoming an expat, and in our second episode we discuss language: both living nearly your entire daily life in a foreign language, as well as living in a country in which you do not speak the local language. We can't wait to get more episodes up, and we hope that you will enjoy them! If you do, please share with your like-minded friends, and let us know what you think!
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Thursday, March 13, 2014

Twelve Months a Pope

© AP/Alessandra Tarantino [source]

This post has been about a year in the making. I meant to write it right after Pope Francis was elected one year ago today, in order to share with you, my dear bloglings, what I experienced that unforgettable night. Honestly, I did.

But the truth is, I was so sick and tired (mostly tired) of blogging by that point that I just couldn't face it. I kept putting it off and putting it off, until the papal election wasn't news anymore and there didn't seem any reason to write about it. But now everyone's favorite pope's first anniversary is here, and I finally have an excuse to write that post I've been meaning to write for so long.

Now, before we go any further, I don't want you to think that I'm still sick and tired of blogging. That was a temporary thing. You see, when dear old Benny (remember him?) decided he'd had it with the whole Supreme-Pontiff-of-the-Holy-Mother-Church/God's-Representative-on-Earth/Vicar-of-Christ/Must-always-Wear-White-no-Matter-the-Weather gig, I was swept up into a blogging (and tweeting) frenzy. As Rome moved toward conclave it got even worse. I ate, slept, and drank nothing but conclave. I became obsessed, my friends, obsessed. I even got added to the Huffington Post's list of conclave-related tweeps. That's how bad it got.

I'm sure you all know how long winded I am by now (case in point: this post), but my conclave-related blogposts defied all the rules of how long a post should reasonably be before you can assume your readers have given up and picked up War and Peace for some lighter reading. I blogged about Pope Celestine V, the only other pope who has willingly resigned, I blogged about the entire history of the papal conclave, which up till then had been my longest post ever, but then I topped myself just three days later when I blogged about every single minute (and probably useless) detail and rule of conclave that you have never wanted to know. What can I say, I was on a roll.

Then exhaustion hit. After spending something like 15 hours straight on that last post, I didn't even want to see my computer, let alone turn it on (and conclave hadn't even officially started yet!). But then I thought about Mozzarella Mamma. Big-time journalist, mother of three, she was running around the city, live tweeting from press conferences at the Vatican, interviewing the likes of Cardinal Timothy Dolan, and doing chimney watch from her perch atop Bernini's colonnade in St. Peter's Square, all the while baking red velvet cupcakes for her kids and hand-sewing them Carnival costumes. (OK, maybe I made that last bit up.) But still, I thought to myself, here is a woman with a crazy intense job, and three kids, and if she has the energy to blog about conclave every other night, surely I should have it to too.

So I eked out one last post on the first day of conclave, listing some of the most likely Papabili to take home the big prize. I left out our dear Frankie--just as the experts did--although I did predict an Argentinian, let it be noted! If the conclave had gone on for several days (or even weeks) as many people predicted, I don't know what I would have done. But as it happened, Pope Francis was elected the very next day, and afterwards I promptly collapsed and didn't post again for well over a month. Meanwhile Mozzarella Mamma posted a wrap-up just two days later--how does she do it???

Well, here, at long last, is mine. (Whoa, six paragraph preamble--I really need to learn the art of succinct blogging. Next time.)

Everyone knew the pope wouldn't be elected on the first day of conclave. With only two scrutinies, that would have been unprecedented. But most people didn't think he'd be elected the second day either. Unlike when Benny was up for election and a complete shoe-in, no one had any idea who'd be elected this time around, and we all assumed it would take at least three days. All I knew was, I wanted to be there when it happened.

I had missed the white smoke and first papal appearance back in 2005, and I wasn't going to miss it this time. Only problem was, I had tickets to the opera for the 3rd night of conclave, and I couldn't miss the chance of seeing Riccardo Muti conduct Verdi, especially as I had just interviewed him. If that hadn't been the case, I might not have gone to St. Peter's Square on the 13th at all, assuming it was too early anyway and planed to go the next night.

As it happened, I met my friend Jill (officially the most Catholic person I know) to take a leisurely stroll toward the Vatican around 5:30pm on Wednesday March 13th. Neither of us were expecting to see white smoke that night. When we arrived in the square, the atmosphere was jovial. Everyone was having a good time and no one could imagine the intense night that was ahead of them. Finally, at around 7pm, as we were milling about the back of the square, laughing with an American family we had just met, we noticed the smoke. At first it looked black, but nevertheless, just seeing the smoke was exciting, and everyone gasped gleefully. But then the smoke got grayer, and then it turned white. A collective whoop arose from the crowd as we realized we had a pope.

The very first sight of the smoke. It still looked gray at this point. © Tiffany Parks

Instantly everyone began pressing forward, and I knew what I had to do. I grabbed my friend's hand and took off, fighting to get as close to the Benediction Loggia as possible. How many times in your life do you get to see a newly elected pope appear on that legendary balcony? Not many, and I wanted a front-row seat.

Can you see the tiny puff of white smoke behind me?

Being short has its advantages, and I was able to push and dodge and squirm my way up nearly to the very front of the metal barricades until finally we could get no further. I dug out my phone and texted my maritino, telling him to high-tail it over here. Jill assured me we had at least 40 minutes before the new pope would be announced. Even so, my maritino ran. It was raining by this time and he just put his head down and ran. He described to me later the streets of the city, traffic stopped, just full of people running, all running toward the Vatican. I don't know how but he got there in 15 minutes (usually it's a 45 minute walk).

In the fray. White smoke clear as day. © Tiffany Parks

Somehow in that crowd of tens of thousands of people, we managed to find each other. We also managed to secure a prime spot, just behind the statue of St. Peter (appropriate). The wait seemed eternal but at last we heard those historic words, "HABEMUS PAPAM." It gave me goosebumps, not because I am the world's biggest fan of the institution of the papacy, but because I knew I was witnessing a historic moment. When the name Bergolio was shouted, I was truly stumped. That wasn't one of the names I had painstakingly researched. The maritino was quicker, he shouted, "Argentino!" and I was happy just for that--without knowing anything about him--just that he was from South America. Just that was enough to make the election historic.

We were so caught up in the announcement of who the new pope was, we completely missed his papal name at first. Then we heard far-off voices, Roman voices, shouting "Francesco! Francesco! Francesco!" Could it be? we asked ourselves. It's not possible that he chose that name. Another first.

Pope Francis's first appearance. © Tiffany Parks

But the moment no one who witnessed it could ever forget waswhen our new pope appeared. After the deafening cheers quieted, the newly minted pope stepped out onto the balcony and, with a humble smile, uttered the two words no one had expected, "Buona Sera." As if he were just talking to old friends. The entire square gasped and then exploded into even more cheers.

But surely the most moving moment was when he asked that, before he bless the crowd, (and give us all our hard-earned indulgences--no purgatory, yay!), that every person in the square should first bless him, and pray for him. He bowed his head with unimagined humility, and for a long moment that exuberant crowd of tens of thousands was absolutely silent and focused and reverent and it was powerful to be a part of.

I don't know how they managed to print this so fast. It was available before we left the square that night. © Tiffany Parks

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