When one of Goethe’s poems entitled “Mignon” was on our lesson plan during high school in Germany decades ago, we mockingly quoted it to one another in our adolescent inanity: “Do you know the land where the lemon trees grow,…”. I had already been reminded of Goethe’s memorable visit to Italy when I happened upon his monument in the park surrounding the Villa Borghese, but when I beheld a lemon tree in the middle of Rome, on a busy sidewalk, surrounded by buildings and pavement, his verses returned unbidden.
It did not take me long to realize that what, at first, appeared exceptional and exotic in this urban setting, was widespread and common, reflecting its Mediterranean climate. Despite living at 38 degrees northern latitude in Colorado, compared with Rome’s almost 42 degrees, one does not get the sense of living in a “southern” environment at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. Rome, on the other hand, kept serving reminders of its position on the globe.
I was captivated by the verdant, lush, and, to me, tropical flora, including emblematic stone pines, descriptively called umbrella pines, enchanting mimosa trees whose pink plumes fluttered in the breeze, climbing vines covering old stone walls and rooftops, and flowers issuing in all shapes and sizes.
Even though my destinations were mainly structures built of stone, their charm was enhanced by the plants that grew on, between, and over them, and never was I as aware of this as on my last morning in Rome. I was out of the hostel at first light, knowing that I would have to be at the airport early in the afternoon. To save time, I traveled by metro to San Giovanni station in the city’s southeast quadrant, where I intended to visit St. John Lateran Basilica. When my entrance was barred because of a bishops’ conference, a glance at the street map convinced me that I could follow the old town wall, and reach the nearby Via Appia Antica, or Appian Way. In the gyri of my brain, likely in the vicinity of Goethe’s verses, lay the memory that this main travel corridor connected ancient Rome to Southern Italy’s port city of Brindisi, off the coast of the Adriatic Sea, which served as the focus for trade with the Orient, before Rome built its own harbor. I did not have enough time to explore it thoroughly, but I marched on its cobblestoned surface against the busy morning traffic to the famous Quo Vadis church where Peter, during his flight from Rome, encountered a vision of Jesus, which resulted in the apostle’s return to the city and his death by crucifixion. The church was closed, so I veered onto an inviting, tree-lined side street leading to one of three catacombs, the Catacombe di San Callisto, final resting place for thousands of early Christians. While this subterranean experience was impressive, even more so was the feeling of having left the big city behind me, and of being in the Italian Campagna, the busy city within walking distance notwithstanding.
Azalea-lined paths, and expanses of meadows bordering pastoral villas invoked rural Italy, with its rolling countryside and groves of olive trees, possibly the country’s most characteristic, next to lemon trees.
It became evident within hours of my arrival that my ravenous appetite for Rome would not be stilled with this trip, and within hours of my departure, I was also overcome by a hunger for additional Italian destinations, and for more sun, blooming flowers, burgeoning trees, rolling hills, the Mediterranean, sandy beaches… For Goethe, his time in Italy was life- and career-changing. I suspect that few people can visit this country without being moved to their core. I was.
To guarantee a return to Rome, I had already followed the custom of tossing coins into the Trevi Fountain over my shoulder. I accidentally left a cardigan hanging over a fence south of Rome, and hope that this might ensure a return to rural Italy. So far, I am still dreaming about the fulfillment of my wishes.
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