Rome, where we almost made history

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The metal prayer candle stand teetered, tipping burning candles and hot wax precariously close to the edge. I hurried over to steady the stand as our tour guide came up beside me.

“You almost just made history,” she said, mostly to my 10-year-old, a curious boy who likes to touch things. It was a close call.

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Thankfully, on our trip to Rome, we did not burn down the Basilica di Santa Maria in Trastevere, the city’s oldest and only remaining medieval-style church. It dates back to the third century, and I would have hated to destroy it. The prayer candles must have been working. We said a lot of prayers on this trip.

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We toured Rome with a party of nine – me, Sarge and the boys, my in-laws and brother-in-law’s family – and one more if you include Anni, our tour guide from Local Guddy, a service that pairs tourists with locals to see sights beyond the beaten path.

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We did do the typical touristy things that I had seen before on other trips, making stops to marvel at the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Forum. We tossed some coins in Trevi Fountain and sat on steps nearby to eat gelato. We sweated under the summer sun. We visited St. Peter’s Basilica and St. Paul’s Outside the Walls. We met nuns, gypsies, tramps and thieves and left Rome minus one wallet and passport – but that’s another story for another time.

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With Anni, we discovered an excellent restaurant close to the Vatican (Trattoria Vaticano Giggi) that serves authentic Roman pastas and wine. We visited an uncrowded hilltop (Gianicolo, or Janiculum Hill) with spectacular views of the city. Sarge made friends with a gladiator who let him wear his helmet for a photo op. We cooled our feet in a fountain (Fontana dell’Acqua Paola) that was not nearly as crowded as Trevi. We filled our water bottles from beautiful public drinking fountains that are piped into the city’s aqueduct system. And we discovered the neighborhood of Trastevere.

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Seeing Trastevere was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I would have never known it was there because it’s not on the must-see list of Rome. Maybe it should be. The former working-class neighborhood on the west bank of the Tiber River has all of the cobblestones, piazzas and charm of Italy without the August crowds we ran into everywhere else.

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The Basilica di Santa Maria was magical. Anni told us it was the first church in Rome to hold a public Mass and the first church to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary. While we were inside, sunlight streamed in on the ornate, golden walls. We walked around and admired the mosaics, the history, myths and traditions. I will think of it every time I see a prayer candle and remember the time we almost made history.

 

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Pigeons in the Piazza

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Back when we were young newlyweds, Sarge and I planned a European rendezvous.

At the time, he was serving a yearlong deployment in Afghanistan, and I was working as a newspaper reporter in Hawaii. We met up on his mid-tour leave in Germany, rented a car on an Army post and set off for more countries than we had ever been – all in the span of two weeks.

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One of my favorite spots we visited was Venice, where we stayed in a hotel off the beaten path that had interesting artwork on the walls and a romantic arbor-covered restaurant in the back garden.

When we made spur-of-the-moment plans last week to take a weekend trip to Venice, I pulled out my worn Italy guidebook that I packed from the States and searched for that little hideaway. Of course, it was completely booked. It’s July in Venice. But through the magic of the internet, I found a reasonably priced apartment across the canal on the island of Giudecca, and we piled in our tiny rental car for another European road trip.

We told the boys we’d do all of the quintessential touristy things we could fit in a 24-hour tour, including taking in the art and architecture, a gondola ride, Venetian food and souvenir shops.

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I had forgotten about the birds. I had no idea one of my boys’ lasting memories of Venice might just be playing with the pigeons.

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As soon as we entered St. Mark’s Square, it wasn’t the breathtaking beauty of what Napoleon once called “the drawing room of Europe” that they boys noticed. It was the hundreds of pigeons and what seemed like almost as many Bangladeshi birdseed hawkers.

Half a dozen vendors accosted us, shoving bird food in the boys’ hands and roses in mine, and putting their palms out to Sarge for money. It probably cost Sarge 40 euro for us to walk across Piazza San Marco.

“We’re not spending money,” Sarge explained when I urged him to stop handing out coins. “We’re making memories.”

Those street hawkers loved us. The boys made it out of the pigeon frenzy alive, and I ended up with a dozen red roses.

I also had a chance to relive some nostalgic memories. We took that gondola ride with the kids, just like Sarge and I had done years before.

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And the next morning, we found that hotel with the grapevine arbor. It wasn’t open to the public for breakfast, but we snapped a few photos anyway.

We picked up some souvenirs, a glass bracelet for me and fedoras for the boys. “W” talked me into letting him get a dog, at least one made of Murano glass. Thank goodness he didn’t pick a pigeon. Those things will give me nightmares.