I had never been to Europe; and it took some desire and determination to get there. It was a long, uncomfortable overnight flight Boston to Zurich, then after a 3-hour layover, on to Rome. What a strange phenomenon: to get on a plane at night, and have that night disappear into the next morning. And to have to function normally all the while

We were zombie-like in Zurich; but on the flight over the Alps, the Italian countryside and Mediterranean coast, a transformation occurred. The senses were stimulated, the body re-energized and the mind well, focussed and ready to race.

Finding and then fixing yourself in a place never before visited or experienced is one of life's greatest joys. An exhilarating feeling, to be savored for the few moments it lasts. Fully realizing where you ARE: on a different continent, in a different culture, and in my case, in the homeland of my father's ancestors. We made it — Italy!

First impressions of Rome: How are we going to find our way around here? What does that sign mean? What road are we on now? Hmmm, not so different from Boston after all ... Then we had our first encounter with a motorbike, then another. They were swarming all around us, maneuvering, passing and leaving us in the dust. Or they would meander along the narrow roadside, making it hard to get around them. Tiny cars, as long as they were wide, everywhere. Very practical we'd discover, for driving Rome's narrow streets and squeezing into the limited parking spots. Heading for the hotel, we saw several ladies of the afternoon, waiting.

Next impressions: what a beautiful city. Greenery everywhere — palm trees, flowering plants, tall sculpted pines. Our hotel was more in a neighborhood than a city setting, amidst elegant buildings in warm pastel colors surrounded by lush vegetation. And no skyscrapers to be found.

My idea of "old" would be forever changed after a few days in Rome.

On our first full day, we took a bus tour to get acclimated ... a good idea, sort of. We were immediately in the center of Rome, walking to Nicola Salvi's Trevi Fountain — a more recent masterpiece by Roman standards, completed in 1762. Lots of tourists and no time to look around on our own because we had to keep up with the group (our one and only guided tour of this trip). [Trevi panoramic]

Next stop: the Pantheon. A classical columned entrance, attached to an immense drum-shaped church with 19-foot thick walls that support the mammoth dome. From inside we could really appreciate it ... The height and diameter of the rotunda are both 140 feet — there's an oculus (opening) at the top, providing the only light in the Pantheon. On the inside of the concrete dome are hollow stepped coffers, neatly designed to reduce the weight. This was Sunday, and a service was in progress while hordes of us tourists crowded about. The first Pantheon was built in 27-25 BC by Marcus Agrippa, then in AD 118 Emperor Hadrian designed the current rotunda. Raphael's tomb (1520) is inside. What an introduction to Rome ... [Pantheon panoramic]

Our walk continued .. too fast for my taste. I had to photograph on the run, where I would have loved to do more exploring. We stopped in the long rectangular Piazza Navona, where the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agone provided an elegant backdrop, and the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi the centerpiece.

The Pope really is there, under canopy

Back on the bus, and we were soon in another "state" — the Vatican, seeing the Pope performing Sunday mass. An unexpected thrill. St. Peter's square is immense, spectacular. From Bernini's plaza and architectural design, to Michelangelo's dome — it's hard to imagine the genius and effort it took to design and build things so massive, so beautiful, so perfect. Because of the mass, the Basilica and Museums were not open ... so that meant a return trip.

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