Published: February 1st 2009January 31st 2009
What did Russel Crowe say, something about the 'beating heart of Rome'?
With our time in Florence finished we grabbed a train to the southern coast of Italy, to the Amalfi Coast. The first stop was Naples and we toyed with the idea of spending the day there and seeing the sights, but dragging our luggage around quickly put that idea on the back burner. It turned out to be a good idea too, because it was quite a journey to get ourselves to the small town of Sorrento which would be our home for the next 3 days. From Naples we jumped a local train which rattled it's way around the Bay of Naples and through the shadow of the infamous Mount Vesuvius. We arrived in Sorrento which is the end of the line for the train and walked the short distance into town. We quickly found our hotel, or more accurately we quickly found where our hotel should have been.....sure there was a building, but a residential one with no indication that there was, or had ever been a hotel. Fiona and I stood there looking at each other with stupid looks on our faces wondering what the hell to do next. Fortunately our dumb-arse looks of confusion attracted some assistance
Down Town Sorrento
Here's Fiona in front of Sorrento's main Piazza.
from the locals who told us that the place was actually a B&B located in that building. Leaving Fiona on the ground floor, I started climbing steps through what was essentially an apartment building wondering if anyone who saw me would call the cops and report a suspicious looking white guy with bad facial hair slinking around. By the forth floor I was getting worried but spotted a sign to our B&B and knocked on the door. It was opened by some very friendly people who proceeded to ask me in very broken Italian what the hell I was doing there - they had no reservations.....excellent, things were getting better and better. Of course I had no printed voucher because I forgot to pack my 4-in-1 when we left the US, so I had to go into their house and bring up my e-mail account and show them. After a brief game of charades and what looked like some monkey impressions we worked out that the website I'd booked through hadn't passed on the reservation, but it was ok because it was winter (I think spirit fingers meant winter) so they had spare rooms. They then offered to bring up
The View from the Top
Well, the top of our B&B. It shows Sorrento and the Bay of Naples with a snow covered Mount Vesuvius.
our bags on their 'elevator' which consisted of a rope, hook and pulley system set up over their fifth floor balcony. With the laptop and a stein or two in our bags we politely declined and elected to carry our bags up the stairs.
All this aside the place actually turned out to be an absolute pearler. It was located just around the corner from the main piazza and had an open roof which looked across the bay to Naples and the ominous Mount Vesuvius - it was absolutely stunning, and worth much more than the $60 a night we were paying. With some daylight left Fiona and I decided to walk the cobblestone roads of this quaint small town. We pulled into a pizza shop for lunch to find the Naples versus Rome soccer game on TV, so the owner was much more interested in watching that than serving anyone, but at least the pizza was great. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the town checking out all the shops which catered for the tourists who obviously flocked there during summer, and the spectacular cliff top views which seemed to be offered everywhere we looked. We
Here's a cool little vehicle you see getting around everywhere. It's actually a 3-wheeled motor bike with cabin and tray.
found a small restaurant town a tiny little alley which was great value and settled in for a meal. We sampled the local vino and seafood, and it being a quiet weeknight the owner had nothing better to do than come and chat with us for about 30 minutes which was very entertaining - the food and wine was pretty top notch too. Turned out the father of the bloke running the show had lived in Melbourne for about 12 years and left in 1972 but had very fond memories of the place.
The next morning we woke and set off on what is touted as one of the most spectacular bus journey's in the world - the trip from Sorrento to Salerno along the entire Amalfi Coast. At a measly 3 Euro this trip certainly didn't disappoint. The road is a narrow and winding strip of bitumen which clings to the lip of the cliffs which form the Amalfi coast. Buses, cars, trucks and motorbikes breezed along the road which we would probably classify as barely wide enough to be one way, and the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. It was right up there with the the
The Amalfi Coast Drive
Here's one pathetic attempt to capture the scenery. For a better idea check out the video attached.
Great Ocean Road or the West Coast of the States, and Fiona and I gained a lot of respect for the bus driver who just cruised through the twisting turns like he was driving a mini. A couple of towns dot the road between Sorrento and Salerno, most of which take advantage of dark sand beaches which provide a bit of refuge from the heat of summer. However, some of the towns are perched impossibly on top of cliff faces, the people have taken advantage of any piece of flat ground and built upon it. As the bus wound its way along the coast those little towns looked like they were clinging to dry land desperately trying not to tumble the long drop into the Mediterranean. The journey was a spectacular three hours which had us glued to our windows and occasionally holding our breath hoping the driver was about to turn the goddamn wheel! We eventually arrived in Salerno to a windy and rainy welcome. We found our way into a packed cafe and ended up chatting with a local bloke who was doctor on his lunch break from work. It turns out that he had visited Australia twice
More Amalfi Coast
This is the terrain in which those amazing towns are built into. They even had vineyards growing along the cliff.
and was pretty keen to practice his English on us. After lunch he invited us to his favorite cafe for an Italian style Espresso which as a non-coffee drinker absolutely blew my brains out and had me wired like I was on speed for the next few hours. He walked us to the train station and gave us directions to our next stop - Paestum, and small town with a large collection of Greek era statues. Despite Francesco's best intentions, the stupidity of dumb tourists prevailed and Fiona and I managed to get off the train on the wrong stop (our stupidity combined with no signage at any of the train stations and the train running over time). After we'd worked out our mistake we tried to comprehend our problem - the next train was an hour away....it was afternoon and dark wasn't too far away, but Paestum was only 4 minutes away by train. What the hell, we'd walk it. We set off along a road which paralleled the train station heading for Paestum. We stopped just about every local to ask directions but no-one in this part of the country could speak English. So we stood on the
The Pompeii Ampitheatre
Here's Dan standing at the top of the theatre which could seat 5,000 people.
side of the car with me talking shithouse Spanish to a women who could vaguely understand me so she thought I could understand here when she jabbered 10,000 words a minute at me in Italian. Once again I was reduced to charades which when combined with bad Spanish we worked out the temples were only 20 minutes away. So we continued....for about another thirty minutes.......then we saw a sign saying the temples were 6 km. Shit - she meant twenty minutes by car. Shit. So we made another quick decision and hoofed it back to the train station.....double time. Fi and I power walked along the side of an Italian country road with people waving and honking at us, but we made in with back with 10 minutes to spare. We sat on the platform, and we sat, and we sat.......the bloody train didn't come.....this was starting to suck a bit. We checked the schedule and the next train to Paestum was well after 5pm.....that meant well after dark, but the next train back to Salerno was another 30 minutes, so we decided to abandon our adventure and head home - we continued to sit, and we continued to wait.
Inside a House
Looking across the Dining Room to the Atrium of a well preserved house in Pompeii.
I kept watching the horizon hopeful that our train would just appear and we would get to see the temples after all, but to no avail. At some point an announcement came over the PA in Italian and we figured it was that our train had been canceled. Turned out it wasn't - next minute a high speed train below through the station at about 300 kmph with us cowering on the skinny little platform get blasted by the pressure and noise of the train. Another bloke who obviously didn't speak Italian either almost crapped his pants and jumped about 5 feet in the air before jumping completely off the platform as the train blew through - it was incredible. Ironically our train back arrived on time and we caught the connecting bus from Salerno back to Sorrento. By this time darkness had fallen and it was teaming rain, so we spent three hours on one of the worlds most scenic drives staring out through a rain streamed window into a puddle of darkness. A shitty end to a day which had started with a lot of promise. Truth is though - the first three hours on that spectacular road
Inside the Roman Baths.
The ornate decorations of the Pompeii Baths.
made it all worth while.
The next morning we woke to find the rain had seriously settled in. It was a freaking' miserable wet, rainy, overcast, dark and overall crappy day. We were not going to let that stop us though; today we were off to visit Pompeii, a day trip I had been looking forward to for the whole journey. Pompeii and Herculaneum were two Roman towns located on what is now the Bay of Naples. Pompeii was home to about 20,000 while Herculaneum had a smaller population of somewhere around 5,000. In 79 AD 'Mount' Vesuvius, which everyone suddenly realised was a volcano erupted. Both Herculaneum and Pompeii were buried under metres of ash, dust and grime - completely buried and uniquely preserved for hundreds of years. Eventually archaeologists got to work and uncovered Pompeii which covers an area of some XX acres, and provides an amazing insight into the Roman way of life almost 2000 years ago. The degree of preservation differs around the city, and the entry area is somewhat disappointing, it really just looked like a dirty pile of rubble which you could tell were buildings, but little else. Once we made it into
I think I'll have that one please, but hold the cheese.
the city proper, things changed. Fiona and I walked into the homes of some of the wealthier people which are complete with mosaic floors, intact frescoes on the walls, statues and gardens. In some cases roofs had been added to protect mosaics and frescoes which provided an even better idea of what these homes once must have looked like. The street plan of the city is still intact with the footpaths, roads, chariot tracks and even pedestrian only signs still intact as if they had been built only a matter of years ago. Due to there being no plumbing in those times, the roads were sunken below the footpaths to allow waste and rubbish to wash down the street (which on this particular day was flowing with rain water). Large stepping stones stood at each intersection, much like the zebra stripes we use today, which allowed pedestrians to cross the road without getting their feet wet. Fiona and I strolled through wealthy homes, poor homes, bakeries, fast food shops and even a brothel complete with frescoes illustrating different positions available to clients (or perhaps they were motivational posters?). Some of the outer walls of buildings were lined with graffiti, much
Here's Fiona enjoying a 2000 year old fresco while standing in the garden of a Pompeiian house.
of it political slogans or campaigning ads for upcoming elections. I looked for a Kevin '07 or Obama 'Yes We Can', but I guess the public of Pompeii were too smart to fall for that crap. We stood on the stages of amphitheaters, and on the floor of arenas where gladiators and wild animals had once fought. We stood in the dining rooms of homes and looked at two thousand year old frescoes which had once been the pride and joy of the family that lived their. Some looked like they had been painted only decades ago.
One of the more chilling aspects of visiting Pompeii can be attributed to some enterprising archeology. Whilst removing the hard set volcanic refuse, archaeologists came across hollow sections in the debris. Plaster was then injected into the hollow space and the debris chipped away leaving plaster casts of people who died where they fell in twisted positions with expressions of fear and horror on their faces. In some buildings, groups of 4 or 5 people were discovered huddling together trying to hide from the anger of Vesuvius. Their casts now remain in the same positions in which they died, forever humanizing the
People frozen in time....
Plaster casts of people who died in the Pompeii eruption can be found throughout the entire city.
tragic loss of the eruption. Although it was amazing to walk around such a well preserved city, it was a reminder that this opportunity had come at some cost. Unfortunately for us, the rain simply did not let up all day. It rained and rained and rained. Fortunately we had remembered our rain coats, had one umbrella between us, and most importantly, water proof shoes. This made the conditions bearable, but it did 'dampen' the mood somewhat. But what an amazing experience - for me it was one of the best things I have seen in our entire trip and I can't believe Pompeii is not a wonder of the world....it is incredible. We completely underestimated the size of Pompeii and the time it would take to see it. We had been there for over six hours before we realised we had to return our audio guides in about fifteen minutes, and we were on the other side of the city (and it really is a city) a decent hike from the exit. We arrived about twenty minutes late with the audio guide bloke waiting very impatiently and shooting us filthy looks. We caught the train back home, had a
Piazza Novana by Night
One of the three fountains which occupy this impressive Piazza.
quick bit to eat and enjoyed a hot shower and a dry, warm bed.
We checked out the next morning with the weather looking a little overcast, but much clearer. We could finally actually see Mount Vesuvius rather than the cloud which had been covering it that day. We boarded the train with the intention of checking our bags at the train station and climbing the still active volcano. Unfortunately the rain over the passed few days and potential for more meant the mountain was closed, so we decided just to jump the train to Rome. We arrived at the busy train station and forced our way through the bustling crowd. If we hadn't been traveling for seven weeks you would honestly think the Italians were the rudest bunch of people in the world. They didn't care that we were dragging our luggage around, they pushed passed you, pushed you out of the way, men even pushed Fiona out of the way with her bags - it was pretty unpleasant to be honest, but I guess it's part of their lifestyle. We eventually found our hotel, and decided to check our e-mail, which with hindsight was a bad idea.
The Collonade at St Peter's Square
Here's Fi admiring the columns at the Square. They are actually four deep, but line up exactly from the point where Fi is standing.
Waiting for me was a work email which indicated that my new work location wasn't aware I was still and leave and thought I was Absent Without Leave - AWOL. Great, what a fantastic mess to have to clean up from the other side of the world. So, after numerous e-mails and phone calls into the wee small hours of the morning the situation had been calmed and I finally got to bed.
For our first day in Rome we decided to head to Vatican City. We caught the Metro to the nearest stop and followed the crowd into Saint Peter's Square. While absolutely huge in size, it is not at all overwhelming. The pillared awnings which line each side of the square are a nice touch, but there isn't a huge amount of wow factor. The obelisk which stands in the centre is nice, but nothing speco, and from the outside St Peter's Basilica didn't look much (at this stage we were left wondering if we'd just been traveling too long and seen too much). We crossed the square and joined the short line to enter St Peter's Basilica (traveling in winter has some advantages and no lines
Inside the Basilica
Here's Fiona standing in front of the 7 storey tall bronze canopy over the alter.
to get in anywhere is by far the greatest). We walked through the atrium and into the nave of the church and were slapped senseless by the wow factor. The size of the basilica stopped us in our tracks. The marbled floor, ornate pillars, and sculptures all combined to draw our eyes up to admire the sheer size of the place and the monumental dome which towers directly over the alter of the church, under which St Peter is said to be buried. Fiona and I stood there speechless because our jaws were hanging down around our knees. We had seen some of the greatest churches in Europe, but none could compare to this Basilica (Saint-Chappelle in Paris can, but for different reasons). To try to describe the size and opulence of St Peter's is a task which absolutely reeks of futility, so I'm not even going to try - if you have not yet seen it with your own eyes, then put a visit to this sucker on your 'To Do' list. You won't regret it. The only thing I will say is that I stood next to the alter of the church and gazed up into the dome
The Top of the Basilica
The view down into St Peter's Square - it was worth the climb.
and tried to make out the mosaic of God in the very top of the dome. All I could see was a blur of blue and red which from that distance, resembled a finger painting of red fish I did in kindergarten. Standing over the alter is a bronze canopy which is seven stories high and does not even come close to looking like it's big in the towering expanse of the dome. We were so awestruck by the place we spent two hours just absorbed by it's splendor which was also left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth given it was built in a time when most people were living in poverty. But, some good comes with bad, that two hours was the longest time I'd spent in church since I got married (sorry Nanna, I've been meaning to go).
After leaving the church we wandered the Tomb of the Popes which lies directly underneath the Church. It is the places where many of the Big Cheeses of the catholic church (and a few generous donors) have been interred, including Pope John Paul II. We then decided to make the 500 step climb to the
The Vatican Museums
The spiral staircase when leaving the museum.
top of the massive dome. Huffing and puffing we eventually emerged into sunlight and faced sweeping views across St Peter's Square, Rome and onto the surrounding mountains which were covered in snow - no wonder the breeze was a little chilly. We enjoyed the view while camera toting tourists pushed and shoved, jockeying to get a good spot for a photo and it all became a little too much for me, so we made the walk back down. It was at this point that I was truly thankful to be in Europe during winter and not the crowded summer period.
We left St. Peter's Square and followed the walls of the Vatican around to the entrance to the Vatican museum. Usually absolutely chocked with tourists, we found it pretty empty and were able to walk straight through the security check point and the ticket office, with me once again singing the praises of winter tourism. The Vatican Museums hold a pretty impressive collection of paintings, sculptures, artifacts and various other bits and pieces, but closing time wasn't too far away, so Fi and I were forced to breeze through much quicker than was warranted. We lingered a bit longer
Fiona standing under the impressive expanse of antiquities largest domed building.
in the Gallery section, but after nearly seven weeks of travel we were a bit 'arted out'. This was a little bit ironic though as the reason for our hurried tour of the museums was to make sure we made it all the way through to the Sistine Chapel which one of the very last stops in the museum. We spent some time in the Raphael rooms which are formal state rooms within the Vatican that were decorated in much the same way and at the same time that Michaelangelo was working on his masterpiece(s) in the Sistine Chapel. Eventually we spilled out of the Raphael rooms into the Popes own private chapel adorned with years of Michaelangelo's labours. The first thing that hits you is the mix of bright colours - the clash of the blues, oranges, yellows and various other colours almost makes the place look cheap. We settled into a chair on the side wall directly under the most famous section of the painting, God reaching down from heaven to touch Adam and give him the 'spark of life', and listened to yet another of our MP3 tours. It told the story of Michaelangelo's labours, the symbology
This is my best Gladiator phase. I still dunno what Fiona is thinking......
of each segment of his work, and how painting the roof of this church almost physically killed him. It was really quite interesting, but honestly faded in comparison to the 'wow' of St. Peter's Basilica (a bit of an unfair comparison, I know). After taking in the Sistine Chapel we left the Vatican and started to wander the streets in the general direction of home.
It is quite surprising how compact the centre of Rome is, and after strolling through a few Piazzas and past a few state buildings we found ourselves standing in front of the best preserved building from Roman times - The Pantheon. Built as a place of worship for the many Pagan Gods of ancient times, the Pantheon looks like a typical roman building - Greek style arches supporting a triangular roof. Pretty impressive, but it was impact of walking into the place that blows your socks off. A huge dome, which is not that obvious from the outside, creates a huge cavernous interior finished with a huge hole in the top to allow light in. The dome is just absolutely massive - the largest built until the renaissance. You can't help but stand underneath
Inside the Colosseum
Well if it's the beating heart, then Rome was a smoker. Did seat more people than the SCG though.
it gazing up and just wondering how the how they built it without the assistance of mechanical equipment or electricity - absolutely amazing. The interior is not original, but it set out in much the same manner as it had been nearly two thousand years ago, although now Christian images replace the statues of Pagan gods which one stood there. There isn't a whole heap to look at in there, as the place lies slap-bang in the middle of town, in fact pretty much in the middle of a piazza surrounded by modern buildings, but what there is to see is very impressive. We sat and ate dinner in the shadow of the Pantheon and tried to imagine the history this building had seen in its life time - made us feel pretty insignificant.
The next day it was time to see more Roman buildings (or ruins). First stop - the Colosseum. We set out on foot once again and slowly made our way down to the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. On the way we passed the 'Area Sacre', the place where Julius Caesar was stabbed to death, which is now little more than a few Roman columns
Constantine's Arch and the Forum
Here's a view from the Cheap seats of the Colosseum passed Contastantine's Arch and across to the beginning of the Roman Forum
and ruins. The Colosseum loomed in the distance and we eventually made our way to the human zoo that is it's surrounding piazza. The piazza links the the Colosseum with the Roman Forum, so as you could imagine it is absolutely chocked with tourists. Guys were wandering around the stadium dressed as extremely bad imitations of Roman Legionnaires trying to coax money from tourists by posing in photographs with them. Fi and I found a quiet piece of turf and sat in the sun soaking up the warmth and the atmosphere. We listened to our MP3 tour as our cheesy American tour gave us the spiel about the stadium all in comparison to American sporting events and venues. Having done a bit of research we walked the 100 metres to Palantine Hill and purchased our entry tickets to both the Colosseum and Roman Forum. We then walked back to the Colosseum, through the security check point and straight passed about a 150 metre long line of people waiting to get tickets inside the Colosseum - thank you Lonely Planet. We walked out to where the Emperor's viewing box once sat and surveyed the scene which lay before us. Although an
The Roman Forum
Fiona chilling out and people watching right in the Forum right near where Caesars body was burned.
amazing feat of construction, it can be a little difficult to picture what the Colosseum must have looked like at her best. With the floor of the stadium gone and exposing the series of underground tunnel, and pretty much all the seating eroded away, she is definitely a shadow of her former self - but still very impressive. We walked around the stadium, and then climbed the stairs to cheap seats to enjoy a view more perspective. Eighty different elevator shafts led from the underground corridors to the floor of the stadium allowing gladiators, animals and props to be moved to into the stadium incredibly quickly. But no matter the mastery of engineering, the Colosseum cannot escape its brutal (by our standards) past. To celebrate the opening of the stadium, one hundred days of games were held. In this time over 2000 people and 9000 animals were killed as part of the spectacle - apparently that worked out to be one death (either man or animal) every five minutes for one hundred days (the games ran for about 10 hours per day for all you mathematicians out there). Regardless of it's current condition and history, the Colosseum is an amazing
Rome's Eternal Flame
This temple is all that remains of where the flame of Rome was tended by the Vestal Virgins.
structure, and along with the Pantheon it is a testament to the engineering ability of the Romans.
After leaving the Colosseum we started our last MP3 guided tour - the Roman Forum. The Forum was the seat of Roman power, the physical and symbolic centre of the empire. It sits in a small valley running between two hills topped with victory arches upon which the Arc de Triomphe was modeled. Whilst many of the buildings lay in some state of ruin, the road plan of the area is still clearly laid out, which makes the tour well worth the walk. Fiona and I strolled passed the temple of Julius Caesar, the place where his body was burned, the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Rostrum where Rome's people could speak their mind (and also the place where Cicero's hands and head were nailed as a warning to not speak too ill of the emperor) and the Temple of Saturn (the home of Rome's Treasury). It was pretty amazing to walk the streets of what was once effectively the centre of the Western World. After walking the forum we found our way to the Circus Maximus which was once a
I dunno how the hell anyone actually fits into this bloody car!
chariot race track but now little more than a long narrow grassed area flanked by turf embankments. We wandered back for one last look at the Colosseum before heading into town to find somewhere to eat, and what could be more Italian than an Irish pub. Just like bus loads of Japanese tourists wearing white face masks, you can find Irish pubs abso-bloody-lutely everywhere, so why resist. After eating local food for pretty much the past seven weeks, a hamburger had my name written all over it (as did a pint of Guinness!). They went down like a greased oyster - awesome.
The next morning was the beginning of the end, the last full day of our trip. By this stage we'd seen enough castles, palaces, museums, art galleries and ruins to last us a few months at least, so we decided to have a little sleep in and just spend the day wandering some of Rome's piazzas. The first stop was the Spanish steps and talking about defining the word underwhelming - it was another Paris Hilton tourist attraction - famous because it is famous. Hundreds of tourists were crammed into the small piazza looking at.....well.....steps. Really people,
Fi and I looking our most attractive at the Spanish Steps.
they are just freakin' steps. Whoop-dee-bloody-do. I dunno what I was really expecting, but I was left scratching my head wondering what the fuss was about - the steps up the hill at Coogee Beach are more impressive. Apparently the Spanish Steps are where the beautiful people of Rome meet, so Fiona and I got a photo looking our most beautiful and we exited stage right pronto - good place to leave hordes of tourists taking photos of stuff just because it's famous. The next stop was the expansive Piazza Popolo. We pulled up a seat in the sunshine to get in some good quality people watching. The serenity was quickly broken by a small little 'bitsa' dog that had obviously been eating smacko's laced with speed. He was carrying a red rubber ball and was mates with anyone who would chuck the ball for him. His owner, and old Italian bloke who spoke as much English as we did Italian, just watched and laughed as this dog kept chasing the ball, bringing it back to Fi and I and then standing there tensed like spring waiting for us to throw it. On a few occasions he got bored with
Dog on Speed
This little guy was like the energiser bunny, her just kept going and going and going......
us and went to someone else, but within two or three minutes the little guy would be back again for more. After seven weeks of traveling it was very relaxing to do something normal like play catch with a dog. In the end the owner had to take him away before the poor little fella ran himself to death, which I think could only have been a matter of minutes away. We then wandered a few more Piazzas, had a Panini for lunch, and walked some markets while listening to buskers play piano accordions and violins. It was a beautiful sunny day and a very relaxing and stress free way to end the trip. We found ourselves a nice Italian restaurant for dinner and enjoyed our last meal followed by some Gelato of course. So our great adventure of over two years has come to an end. It has been an amazing and somewhat surreal experience, and we are sad to have to close this chapter of our lives. However, we are very excited about getting back to Australia, to live a 'normal' life once again.
We hope you've enjoyed reading the blogs and keeping up with our travels,
When in Rome.....
You should drink Guinness?? Isn't that what the saying says....??
it's been a great way to share our experiences. I am personally pretty glad this is probably the last blog - it's been a pretty big effort to produce (its now totaling over 90,000 words and 600 pictures) and probably a greater effort to read. If you haven't liked them, then you're probably not reading this, so it's safe for me to tell you to go and get stuffed. If you have enjoyed reading them then ignore the last sentence and be happy that you've saved yourself the pain of listening to my boring stories in person and you won't have to look at photos next time we see you, so everyone is a winner!
There are more photos below