Saturday, October 19

Romancing Rome


In Rome, Phyllis Wong joined the romantic crowd at Trevi Fountain to toss a coin and wish for a fast return to the alluring Italian capital

The newly-wed taking a stroll on the cobbled pavement leading to the Colloseum.

The tradition is to toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain for a fast return to the Eternal City.

Two coins are tossed if you want a fast return and fall in love, and three coins, if you want to return, fall in love and get married. And you toss the coin with your back facing the Fountain.

I was told about the Trevi Fountain legend before I left for Italy. Trafalgar tour director Giacomo said just before we alighted from the coach: “Beware of pick pockets – it’s your last night in Rome and I don’t wish for anything untoward to happen. I suggest you leave your bags in the coach and take only the coins you want to toss into the Fountain.”

It was all right, I surmised, since I needed only one coin to bring me back to Rome again one day.

As we walked towards the Trevi Fountain along cramped crossroads, my fellow journalist Sebastian from peninsular Malaysia enthused: “It works. I threw in one coin last time and now I am back. Throw two coins together, using your right hand over your left shoulder – one for returning to Rome and the other for another wish – whatever wish.”

I dug into my pocket – I only had one – and my bag was in the coach. Surely, I couldn’t borrow a romantic or happiness wish from Sebastian!

The Fountain suddenly appeared around the corner. It was lit and the lights sparkled in the cascading water. That’s Trevli Fountain shining and glowing in the night.

Many hopeful and romantic people have visited Trevi Fountain. And the coin-tossing tradition gained popularity after it became the theme of the 1954 romantic comedy – Three Coins in the Fountain – and much later, that of another movie – Rome Holiday.

Turning around after making my wish, I saw thousands of coins glittering in the Fountain and wondered how many coin-inspired relationships would actually bloom into enduring romantic love for couples to live happily ever after.

There is a miniature fountain to the left of Trevi Fountain. Legend has it that if a couple drink from this small fountain of lovers, they will be forever faithful to each other. What a romantic bonus!

I did a mental mapping, based on my observations over the past week, and discovered there was none among our 28 members who came in pairs – nor had romance blossomed over the week. It got me thinking whether those tossing two coins had wished for a fast return to Rome to quench their thirst at the fountain of lovers with their partners.

However, as I found out later, there is another (and better) reason for tossing coins into the Fountain. A swift return to Rome and romance aside, the coins are used to support a good cause. At least 3,000 euro (RM15,000) worth of loose change is collected from the Foundation and sorted out by the Roman Catholic charity – Caritas –  everyday.

Caritas runs food and social programmes for the needy and the oppressed in 200 countries and territories worldwide. It has also been operating low-cost supermarkets for the destitute in Rome since 2008.

On my return visit someday, maybe I will toss an extra coin or two – not for something romantic but in aid of the good cause. I know I will.

That was our last romance in Italy, capped by a dinner at a five-star hotel albeit on a cold winter night.

Before the Trevi Fountain, we stopped at the Spanish Steps, the playground for lovers as well as the meeting point for Italians.

Susan Sarandon, star of Thelma and Louise, surprised the world when she said she conceived her daughter on the Spanish Steps in 2012.

The 66-year-old actress described how she had trouble conceiving until she visited Europe’s widest staircase in Rome. She was reported as having confessed: “On the Spanish Steps. That’s where Eva (her daughter, now 26) was conceived – on the Spanish Steps.”

This beautiful monumental stairway gives the Piazza di Spagna or Spanish Square a graceful and elegant 17th Century touch with scenic and almost theatrical effect which was the reason for its popularity during the Romantic and the Art Nouveau periods.

The Spanish Steps starts at the Piazza di Spagna and leads up to the French church – Trinitàdei Monti. Both tourists and locals alike enjoy sitting and lingering around the stairs to soak up the place’s romantic ambience and enjoy the panorama of caricature artists and street vendors exhibiting their skills at the foot of the stairs, and of gelaterias, cafes and 18th Century buildings surrounding it.

It’s a popular destination for pilgrims, artists and writers seeking inspiration, and definitely a place for courting couples.

According to Giacomo, on every December 8, Italians celebrate the Feast of Immaculate Concepcion and gather near the staircase in front of the Colonna dell’Immacolata or Column of the Immaculate Conception where a statue of the Virgin Mary lies on top.

The Pope pays homage to the Immaculate Virgin during the Feast and lays a wreath of flowers beneath the statue, then gives his blessing to the people. It is a popular place to take wedding pictures.

During our visit to the famous stairway, I didn’t see any wedding photo shoots taking place there though but at the Colosseum, the last monument of Ancient Rome, a newly-wed couple and their family members and friends were happily posing for the camera.

The white bridal gown contrasted starkly with this ancient reminder of an earthquake that devastated the city. But to me, it is a spectacular imprint of a romantic setting linked paradoxically with gory combats between gladiators and innocents being thrown to hungry wild animals as a form of entertainment in a blood-spattered arena.

As I watched the bare-backed bride brave the winter cold, I told myself it must be love and romance that’s keeping her warm. Even as I was thinking such pleasant thoughts, I could feel the niggling bites of the wintry gusts and as I turned to join my group, I tightened my loosely worn scarf to shield from the pervading cold.

Still, it was romantic, beautiful and very much out of this world. I couldn’t help but capture the image of the bride’s veil as Giacomo hurried the group towards the entrance of the imposing architectural masterpiece – the Colosseum.

Originally, it was known as the Amphitheatrum Flavium but later called Colosseum, referring simply to a large amphitheater for sports and entertainment though it is always capitalised and spelt differently from the generic coliseum.

The first games at the Colosseum were held in 80AD by Emperor Titus, lasting 100 days with over 3,000 gladiator fights. The very last gladiatorial games were held in 435AD.

Besides gladiatorial contests, public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles and dramas based on classical mythology, were staged here.

It was an amazing sight – a theatre with a 50,000 seating capacity. I stood in awe of its intricate warren-like design and historical significance despite the ruinous appearance, recalling the Hollywood award-winning film Gladiator epitomising the colossal power of the Roman emperors.

With the bride’s veil still fluttering softly in the cold winter wind, I came to realise this place is not only perfect for history buffs but also bold romantic love in a surrounding graced by stately Roman sculptures and architecture.

I wished for the love of the newly-wed to endure as long as the Colosseum. Or was it also their wish to make their matrimonial vow at this monument?

We skipped the long queue at the Vatican Museum – thanks to a special arrangement Trafalgar has with Vatican City. It was a good feeling walking all the way into the Museum, bypassing the long line of people waiting to get in.

Security is tight. Giacomo reminded tour members to bring a small bag as bigger bags are not allowed. We walked through many museums and ended up at the Sisten Chapel which receives five million visitors a year – or 25,000 a day.

This Chapel is most famous for Michelangelo’s frescoes. The Renaissance man began work on the ceiling in 1508 and completed it in four years.

Awe-stricken, I looked at the Chaptel’s ceiling, wondering rather incredulously how Michelangelo could have painted in such great detail a 12,000 sq feet picture – about one-sixth the size of a football pitch – depicting events in the Book of Genesis – from Creation to the account on Noah.

In the panel depicting the Temptation, Michelangelo’s tree is a fig and the serpent (Satan) is depicted not as a male figure but with a woman’s head. I wonder why it is not an apple tree!

I came across this amazing fact in The Telegraph’s travels:

Contrary to myth, Michelangelo did not paint on his back but on a platform of his own devising that extended over half the area of the Chapel and allowed him to stand upright. It was moved midway through the project. At no point could Michelangelo look at the work in progress from below but he was still able to paint images on a vast scale from a distance of a few inches.

From the Sisten Chapel, we moved to St Peter’s Basilica. I found the gigantic scale of this church a little overwhelming but this Catholicism’s mother church has been designed to awe and wow!

Italians are very proud of their history as I was to discover. While roaming the shopping streets, I struck up a conversation with an Italian couple. The man said: “The magic of our history, the warmth of our people, the flavours of our food, the delights of our wine, the glory of our architecture and our art all make Rome a place for romance and love.”

His starry-eye girlfriend with a warm smile nodded in agreement. I couldn’t disagree either. Rome is a romantic place in its own way – those who had gone before still exist in the shapes and landmarks of this Eternal City.

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The honeycomb-like interior of the Colloseum.

The Trevi Fountain.

St Peter’s Basilica by night.

The interior of St Peter’s Basilica.