Like hordes before us, we entered Rome through its northern gate. We had rented a terrace apartment in an old marble-filled building in the Flaminio neighbourhood, just outside the ancient city walls. Each day, we kept pace with Romans bustling to work and flowed through the Porta del Popolo, built in the late 1400s as a grand entrance to the city.
Centuries before we arrived, barbarian tribes (so named by the Romans) stormed in here and sacked the city. Martin Luther also travelled this way. He came in the early 1500s to live in a monastery, from which he observed the church and the pope close up, just nine years before he and his ideas rocked the world. Later, there was Queen Christina of Sweden, who in 1654 converted to Catholicism, abdicated her throne and rolled into her adopted city through Porta del Popolo dressed as an Amazon and riding in a chariot.
Unlike the Visigoths and the Gauls, and unlike the queen, my family and a friend came in peace and attempted to blend in with the Romans. And while Luther might not have liked what he saw, we did — very much.
The first morning, in a haze of jet lag, we paused to get our bearings after passing under the arch. To our left, a ragged woman hoping for alms sat on the steps of Santa Maria del Popolo. Inside the church, works by Caravaggio, Raphael and Bernini belied the simple facade, its travertine dirtied by soot. With 10 days stretching before us, I figured the artwork could wait.
In front of us, the vast expanse of Piazza del Popolo made a warm welcome. Sun bounced off its cobblestones. In its corners, sculptures representing the four seasons gazed at indifferent passersby. An obelisk pilfered from ancient Egypt in the early days of the Roman Empire soared. On stairs at its base, young people smoked cigarettes and worked their smartphones. A pair of matching churches, one behind scaffolding, marked the far side of the square. Radiating out from them, three main roads led more deeply…