Around the world in 40 years . . . Part 8. SPQR

Senatus Populusque Romanus – SPQR.
The Senate and People of Rome. Those initials are still used on the modern-day emblem of the Rome municipality. It’s everywhere –  and a reminder of Rome 2,000 years ago.

But Ancient Rome’s incredible story is all around, woven into the very fabric of the city. Add to that the impact of the Catholic Church and the Renaissance on Rome’s architecture, and there’s an eclectic mix of ancient and modern, Christian and pagan, sacred and secular, and all things in between. Benito Mussolini also contributed to the architectural pot-pourri in the 1930s. Take, for example, the FAO headquarters building that stands beside the Caracalla Baths (Terme di Caracalla) at the foot of the Caelian Hill (one of Ancient Rome’s seven hills), looking over the Circus Maximus, the buildings on the Palatine Hill, and to the far west, the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. A rambling building in which it’s quite easily to get lost (and I have), it was originally Mussolini’s Department of Italian East Africa.

Views from the FAO roof terrace, looking north over the Circus Maximus towards the Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum (on the right) at the top of the Via di San Gregorio. You can just see the Arch of Constantine peeking above the trees, to the left of the Colosseum. The Victor Emmanuel II monument can be seen on the skyline on the left of the photo (click on this and other images to enlarge). Likewise on the photo below, the magnificent dome of St Peter’s dominates the Rome skyline.

Many visits to Rome
I’ve been traveling to Rome on quite a regular basis since 1989 when I made my first trip there. I must have been back there about 20 times or more while I was working at IRRI in the Philippines. That’s because Rome is home to three UN agencies: The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); and the World Food Programme (WFP); as well of one of the 15 centers of the CGIAR, Bioversity International (formerly the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources – IBPGR, which became the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute – IPGRI, before becoming Bioversity International in the mid-2000s).

When it was first founded in the 1970s, IBPGR was located in the headquarters of FAO in Rome. And that’s where I headed in the late Spring of 1989 to sort out the funding for germplasm collecting work in the Canary Islands for one of my PhD students, Javier Francisco-Ortega. Then in April 1991, even before I formally joined IRRI as Head of the Genetic Resources Center, I was asked to represent the institute at the meeting of the Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture held at FAO. And for the next decade I would travel to Rome every year, sometimes more than once, and in one year between 1993 and 1996,when I chaired the Inter-Center Working Group on Genetic Resources, I actually traveled to Rome five times.

But when I changed jobs at IRRI in May 2001, and took on responsibility for raising funds from the institute’s donor agencies, I still traveled to Rome each year to visit IFAD or attend inter-center director meetings hosted by Bioversity International.

So this is by way of background to explain why I traveled to Rome as frequently as I did.

And it’s a city that I came to know quite well, and to love the buzz of the place. Even so, I feel as though I’ve only scratched the surface of Ancient Rome, if the stories told by Cambridge classics professor Mary Beard on recent BBC TV programs are anything to go by.

So what is special about Rome?
Rome is a great city to get to know on foot – and I’ve walked miles and miles through the maze of narrow cobbled streets and piazzas, and along the River Tiber of course, heading towards the Vatican City and the glories of St Peter’s and the Vatican Museum. Even so, if you get sore feet, Rome has an extensive network of buses and trams on which you can hop; its taxi system is also very efficient (at least in my experience, although the 140 kph or more dash to the airport always had me on the edge of my seat). Despite all that walking, I still have only scratched the surface of Rome, ancient and modern. That’s because I could only get out and about exploring when I had a weekend free.

It also goes without saying that Rome is also a great place for food and wine – and not really over expensive. If you choose the right location. I very quickly found a number of restaurants that I would visit frequently, such as La Villeta (waiters all wear the AC Roma colors – family run, good atmosphere) and the Taverna Cestia (always had a good meal here) at the southern end of the Viale Aventino, or the Grottino da Rino (great antipasti) just down the street from FAO, close by the San Anselmo Hotel on the Aventine Hill where I often stayed. Near the Colisseum I often stayed at the Lancelot Hotel, and often ate in a typical tratoria, Luzzi in Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. And it’s this last one which really epitomizes the sort of restaurant I looked for: one where the locals were eating, with some tourists. But wherever you search, there are so many good eating places to choose from – serving simple and delicious food. I’ve only been to restaurants in Trastevere a couple of times – tends to be a little touristy, maybe catering to the tastes of a younger set.

The map below is centered on the Colosseum, but just zoom out and explore Rome!

Of course there are certain sights that everyone should visit: the Forum, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, Villa Borghese, the Colosseum, and the Catacombs. I could go on; and I haven’t visited all these.

Dominating the skyline between the Caelian and Palatine Hills, the Colosseum, built by the Flavian emperor Vespasian and his successor Titus between AD70 and AD80, is a wonder of Roman architecture and construction (the Romans used lots of concrete). On a still night you can almost hear the lions roaring.

Overlooking the Piazza Venezia is the ‘wedding cake’ monument to Victor Emmanuel II – an iconic part of Rome’s skyline.

Here are some views of the Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon (where the former Kings of Italy are buried), and the Spanish Steps.

Finally, no visit to Rome is complete without at least a look at St Peter’s – even if it’s only from outside. What a stunning piece of Renaissance architecture. It’s worth a look inside (my photos are not so good), but depending on the season, the queue can be quite daunting – as can be that for the Vatican Museum. If you have the patience, the museum has some incredible treasures (to be expected from an institution that has dominated all parts of the world for two millennia). And from the museum it’s possible to walk in part of the papal gardens.

Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to visit Rome once more, and then take time to visit all those places that are still on my list. And I must remember to take a decent camera with me next time. In my dreams I’m eternally returning to the Eternal City.

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