Via dei Fori Imperiali
Preface: The Gretta Factor (when good things happen unexpectedly) was in full force on our first day of our 2010 trip to Italy. When we arrived in Rome, little did we know that by the end of the day, we would witness “East meets West,” and see some international diplomacy in action.
A Funny Thing Happened After a Day at the Forum
Travel Memoir and photos
by Greg Larson
The big europlane landed softly at the Rome airport early in the morning. After a shuttle into the city, Gretta and I checked into our boutique hotel near the Termini (main train station in Rome). The hotel was located across the street from the Opera House, within walking distance of many sites and attractions in the old city. The quaint elevator with the stairway that wrapped around it seemed like something out of an Audrey Hepburn movie. For us, the elevator was a novelty, an amusement ride when we entered and exited the hotel.
Hotel elevator and stairway
Gretta and I decided to shake off our jetlag and walk in the warm autumn sunshine to the Colosseum and the Forum. We strolled along the Via dei Fori Imperiali, and noticed big red decorative Chinese lanterns hanging from the street lamps. They seemed a bit odd, but festive, and we didn’t give them much thought until later in the day. Our goal was to tour the most famous of the seven hilltops in Rome…the Palentino or Palentine Hill, which overlooks the Forum ruins.
Carved cornice on Palentine Hill
Our tour guide told us about the hedonistic emperors of Rome who took opulence and extravagance to new heights on the hill, while the citizens below dealt with the muck and mire along the banks of the Fiume Tevere (Tiber River). Statues, floors, and walls of every type of granite and marble available were designed into the palaces and gardens to create peaceful settings among the pines and the olive trees. The emperors installed polished granite walls in the courtyards, not so much as vanity mirrors, but as a security measure to allow them to look out for possible assassins behind them. Today, bits and pieces of the carved stone remain strewn about for the archaeologists to study.
I looked out over the city and saw St. Peter’s Basilica shimmering in the sunlight. The Palentino hilltop was our respite from the polizia sirens and the hubbub of the city below where the Ducati motorcycles and the Vespas swarmed like hornets along the Via di San Gregorio. After our tour was over, we lingered along the paths, and looked out over a city layered with centuries of temples, churches, meeting places and commercial centers. It is a city that tells the story of Western Civilization without speaking a word.
Roman Forum below Palentine Hill
We quickly walked past the Colosseum, to get out of the path of the hucksters, beggars and pick-pockets. Then we found a sidewalk café across from the Forum. It was time to relax and have some birra and pizza, and enjoy the warm day in the shade of overhanging vines.
After lunch, we wandered past ruins and churches and found our way up to the Via Nationale. I thought we might find a bancomat at the Bank of Italy, and then realized it would be like looking for an ATM on the front of a U.S. Federal Reserve Building. Our best luck in finding the bancomat was to look for gypsies gathered on the sidewalk.
Later in the day, after a short nap at the hotel, we decided to go out for an espresso. As soon as we exited the elevator, I saw a crowd outside the hotel. On closer inspection, the polizia and Caribinieri (state police) cars and vans were askew in the street, and police tape was strung all along the curbside. Has there been an accident? Was a crime committed?
The crowd was focused on the Opera House. It was then that I noticed the large red banners and the Chinese lanterns. The banners proclaimed the beginning of Italy’s celebration of a year of Chinese culture. Word was going around that Italy’s Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, were attending a performance that marked the beginning of the cultural exchange, and that they would be leaving the Opera House very soon.
Rome Opera House
While we waited, I looked at the architecture of the Teatro dell’ Opera. It wasn’t what I expected in the historical city of Rome. Although it was built in 1879, the exterior has been revised numerous times, with the most recent changes made in 1958. With the red decorations on the columns, the recipe for the façade appeared to be cheesy Italian moderne with tomato sauce, a touch of Lincoln Center, and a dash of Sunset Boulevard. It wasn’t exactly dripping with the old European details of centuries gone by.
Paparazzi and onlookers
Vans and limos were lined up in the Opera House entry drive, and there was a crowd of photographers and TV cameras waiting for the leaders to exit. The motorcycles were lined up ready to start the procession. The police chatted on their radios and headsets, and it seemed as if the exit of the leaders was imminent. We walked around the perimeter of the police tape and stopped on the sidewalk on the other side of the street from the Opera House. It appeared the motorcade would exit down the street where we were standing. We would be only a few feet from the passing vehicles. I couldn’t believe it…no barricades or police to block our view.
Suddenly, there were shouts and cheers. The strobes of the paparrazi cameras began flashing, and the leaders, with their delegation and entourage, made a wave to the crowd as they quickly walked to the vehicles. The polizia roared past us on their motorcycles, followed by the Caribinieri motorcycles and squad cars. They were followed by the Chinese delegation in several vans. The Chinese had a huge delegation. I counted ten large vans, some the size of small busses, full of smiling Chinese.
As each vehicle passed, the speed increased. By the time the Italian cars made the turn onto our street, their tires squealed, and the cars tilted towards the curb as they roared past us. In the van leading the Italian group of cars, a Caribinieri officer held a machine gun in one hand, while his other hand held onto the unlatched door of the vehicle. We weren’t able to see Berlusconi in his vehicle, as most of cars had tinted windows.
In a flash, the motorcade was gone. The remaining Chinese and Italians that had attended the event began filtering onto the street and into the bars and cafes.
I found some answers on the evening television news. I didn’t need to understand the Italian news anchor to discern that the main focus for the Chinese delegation’s visit to Italy was to sign several trade accords between the two countries. The Chinese cultural year was just a side attraction. There was no video or mention of the kick-off celebration at the Opera House.
Everything looked normal outside the hotel the next morning. The red banners had been removed from the front of the Opera House, and business was as usual. According to Gretta, the newspaper article briefly mentioned “a concert” that was attended by the leaders, but there was no mention of what was on the program. It must have been a “yawner,” or a good time for the diplomats to snooze between the day’s events and the evening parties.
The goal of the accords was to quadruple the trade between the two countries in the next five years. There were few specifics in the news articles, just canned phrases from the leaders. The Italians planned to build a Chinese cultural center. The leaders exchanged handshakes and signed the agreements. Marco Polo never had it so easy.
On the television, the Italian and Chinese delegations looked happy, at least on the surface. But I detected one thing: the Chinese seemed to have the bigger smiles.