I lived in Rome for six months (January-May 2015), but it wasn’t until I started frequenting the park behind the Castel Sant’Angelo that Rome really felt like home.
It wasn’t that I felt uncomfortable in Rome. I loved the city the moment I set eyes on the Colosseum. We drove by it at night, sitting in the top portion of one of those red tourist buses that circle around all the sights. The normally dull stone of the Colosseum was back lit in orange lights, and glowed as we slowly drove around it. The imposing architectural marvel looked like it had a halo. I was entranced. I’d never thought I’d see the Colosseum in real life. But, I couldn’t really go hang out outside the Colosseum during the day. There were too many people either taking selfies with a selfie stick, or shoving them in my face to try and convince me to buy one. I needed somewhere in the city to just sit, and read. I found that place at the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the most iconic buildings of Rome. It’s featured on almost every postcard, and sits just a hop and a skip away from St.Peter’s Square. The building itself was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian around 123AD as a mausoleum, because he thought the bigger the mausoleum the better the emperor– which I guess is kind of true. But, the best part about the Castel isn’t what is inside the fortress, it’s the back: the park.
The park isn’t very big. It only curves around the back half of the Castel Sant’Angelo, and there’s not much in it, besides trees, gravel, and grass—thought it’s all very well maintained. Most of the benches are located on the pathway a level above the park, and while sitting in the grass can be fun, I don’t like bugs. So, I always sat on one of the benches, usually sharing it with a Pidgeon or two.
I don’t know if tourists are just too interested in the museum inside the mausoleum-turned-fortress, but for some reason the park behind the Castel Sant’Angelo was never crowded. Even in May, when tourist season really took off, I could always find a free bench to sit on. The park was a little slice of solitude– though it was far from quiet. There were always packs of children running around the park, screaming, and climbing to their hearts content.
I didn’t even realize there was a park behind the Castel until my roommate Nicole and I went there to read one Saturday afternoon in March. Usually if I wanted to go lounge on a plot of grass I had to walk all the way to the Villa Borghese; a park that was way more than a hop, skip, or jump from my apartment in Trastevere, and by the time I made it to the Villa my feet ached so much from the wobbly, Roman cobblestones that I would immediately turn around and go home.
The Castel, on the other hand, was only a measly twenty minute walk from my apartment. A walk I ended up making every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon to sit and read on one of the benches surrounding the park. It’s there that I finished re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring, watched couples stroll, and randomly got asked by pedestrians how to get around the city. Apparently a girl sitting on a bench reading signaled to people that I knew Rome.
And to be honest, I did. Thanks to the weekly excursions of my Roman History class, I’d become a tour guide to the eternal city. I could pick out pieces of history embedded in the walls of ‘newer’ buildings. I knew the names and dates of all the rubble in Trajan’s Forum, and could recite passages from Pliny the Younger’s writings about Pompeii. I knew Rome, or at least knew it as well as a 19 year old girl from Texas could know a city like Rome.
It was because of the park that I felt grounded in the city. I always knew if I was having a bad day that I could go sit on one of the hard, metal benches until the patterns imprinted on the skin of my thighs, and everything would be okay. It gave me a place to go every week, and because of that I grew comfortable in the scent of cat piss that wafted around the Tiber, and the way old men leered when I wore dresses that were just a tad too low cut for winter. For me, the park behind the Castel became the heart of Rome, and it was the one place in the bustling, ancient city that I felt content in.
It’s been a while since I wrote anything travel related, but I had a dream the other week about this park and felt that I should share my experience in it. Rome is a city that kept a piece of my soul with her when I left, and that piece is most definitely sitting on one of those metal benches throwing bread to the fat pigeons.
A short video about the Castel Sant’Angelo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fhHySWO7rHE