On any summer vacation, most of us seem to venture out in search of water. Whether its a calm seashore, quiet mountain lake, rushing woodland stream, or tropical waterfall, water brings refreshment, moving water a calming babble. In the chaotic city of Rome, which lacks the Mediterranean beaches of Spain or the thermal pools of Iceland, one starts to notice, and gravitate towards the only source of water available – fountains. It all started atop the roof terrace of our rented apartment on Via Baccina. Six stories below is a small square, surrounded, in typical Roman fashion, by cafes, a newsstand, a produce shop, and a shoe store (?). At the center of the square sits a simple and ordinarily round fountain. From the base of this fountain spring four rows of steps, and a ring of benches beyond that. Sitting on the steps of this fountain, we found out, is the social center of the neighborhood. Fountains, it turns out, are as an integral part of the Roman scene as old ruins, but in some very different ways.
After a week of drinking slimy, salty tap water in Barcelona, I was amazed by the fresh, clean taste of what came out of our spouts in Rome. In the US, city water is the worst, and one must venture into the realms of clear mountain streams to get really good tap water. What was different about Rome? In the way of water, much. When we stepped outside our new digs for the first day of sightseeing, we noticed a small, fire-hydrant shaped fountain next to the large aforementioned one, in the adjoining square. It turned out to be one of many constantly running drinking fountains, providing free, fresh water to the citizens of Rome and its visitors. People approach these fountains continuously, filling water bottles, giving their dogs a good lap, or putting their hands over the spout to create a strategically aimed stream from which to drink directly (a technique Lily mastered by the third day). The fountains are still supplied by the original first century aqueducts, and their pressure is controlled only by those settings, which rarely disappoint. (Our shower is literally painful if allowed to blast a full force). But it was these amazingly common public fountains that have become Lily’s main Roman obsession. As I watched her play, I decided I liked them too, and not just for the fact that I didn’t have to buy bottled water to get a decent drink.
There are more decorative fountains in Rome than I am able to describe in a semi-interesting post. They all lend a bit of refreshing beauty to the maze of hot cobblestone streets and ancient buildings that can make Rome an otherwise exhausting summer vacation spot. Different fountains have different goals, I think. Whether to pull the observer back into Rome’s past, or have him become part of Rome’s present, fountains in various areas are worth visiting. One of the most famous is the Trevi Fountain. Built by the famed architect Nicola Salvi in 1762, it is a celebration of all things aquatic. Since no streets directly approach it, the visitor is unexpectedly bombarded not just by the grandness of the fountain in all its glory, but the throngs of tourists, souvenir salesmen, and gelato shops surrounding it. The Trevi Fountain marks one end of the Acqua Vergine aqueduct, built by Agrippa (of Pantheon fame) in 19 BC. Its dramatic, muscle-bound figures, complete with Triton blowing a conch shell, convey the power and agility that was ancient Rome, while the tons of water pouring miraculously from all angles is still amazingly powered by those first century aqueducts. Rows of step seating descend from street level, so people can look at the fountain as they drink beer, make out, or write blog entries. The quintessential tale of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain backwards assures one’s return to Rome, so of course, we all did it. I hope it’s not because we leave our passports behind or something equally ridiculous.
A second fountain of note is Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain, which depicts four river gods (Nile, Ganges, Danube, and Rio de Plata) representing the four continents known it the world at the time of its construction in 1650. It sits in Piazza Navona, a popular spot for tourists, street musicians, artists, and little redheaded girls severely intent on illegally touching the water. Like the Trevi, the Four Rivers fountain is meant to be looked at, surrounded by park benches, cafes, and other fountains. It deserves it, being an amazing work of art at the center of one of Rome’s most visited piazzas.
Throughout the course of our bike riding, sightseeing, and aimless wandering, we encountered more and more fountains. Some spurted dramatically, others simply trickled. Most indirectly provide the free drinking water I’ve come to love so much. Many, like our neighborhood fountain, are, for all intents and purposes, nameless, and won’t be found in any guidebooks. Yet our neighborhood fountain is my favorite. We’ve spent every night of our stay lazily gazing at it, and those who surround it, from our apartment terrace. We take Lily down their every day in the late afternoon to play in the drinking spout and climb up and down the steps while we people watch. The shops and cafes surrounding the fountain tend to have a quite loose relationship with time, and keep very irregular business hours – the café is open all day and night, the produce stand only on weeknights and Sunday, the newsstand was closed all day yesterday (?). Clusters of locals and tourists alike gather around the fountain at all hours of the day and night. Unlike Trevi, they don’t come to stare at the fountain (the steps face away from it, after all). They come to be with each other, to eat, drink, smoke, play cards, catch up, kiss, watch their kids run, people watch, or simply wait for something else. I figure Trevi, Four Rivers, and the other masterpieces may represent Rome’s past, but our little nameless fountain in its unremarkable square, represents Rome’s present, and both, I think, are equally worth getting to know.