In the Footsteps of the Cast of Ben Hur

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May 30th 1964
Published: December 31st 2018
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1964 Diary Entry

"The next morning we started to pack for that day we were leaving for Rome. At about 12 o'clock we caught a taxi to the airport. When we got there we had our baggage checked, had our passports stamped and then we went to the flight waiting room. At about 1 o'clock we were called into the aircraft. Then about ten minutes later we took off. We slowly rose to about 37,000 feet and there we levelled off. By that time we were over Italy. Then we started to go down and about ten minutes later we landed in Rome. There we went through passport control, health and customs and then a man in a private car drove us to the Excelsior Hotel. There we were shown to our room. After seeing it we walked up to a little street café where we had a drink. After we went back to the hotel, had dinner and got into bed.

The next morning we got up and had breakfast brought to our room. After breakfast we walked all around Rome. First of all we went to one of the main fountains. This fountain was really beautiful. It shot about ten feet into the air and it had all little fountains around it. Then we went to four fountain square. This square has a fountain on each corner. From there we went to the Trevi Fountain which is the most beautiful fountain that I've ever seen. It has a main figure in the middle, two other figures next to him and a couple of seahorses with people on them in front of him. After seeing this fountain we strolled back to the hotel for lunch. After lunch we went on a tour all around Rome. First of all we saw some buildings and then we went to the soldiers' war memorial. After seeing this we went up to the hill behind the monument where we could see the Roman Forum and the Arch of Triumph. We then walked down the hill and at the bottom we met the bus. Then we hopped in and drove to a small cathedral called St Peter's outside the walls. After seeing this wonderful structure we drove to another church this time being St Peter in Chains. In this church there is a very famous statue. This statue is of Moses. After seeing this church and all its statues we drove to the old Roman Colleseum (sic). This is where gladiators used to fight duels. After seeing this we were driven back to our hotel. That evening we had dinner in the hotel dining room and after eating we went to bed.

The next morning we got up and had breakfast for we were going on another tour. At about 1/4 to nine we were picked up and then we went passed (sic) lots of buildings. Finally we stopped at the Pantheon which is an old church. It has a perfect dome on the top and if you call out it echoes. After seeing this we went to Vatican City where we found that they were having a bicycle race. After the bicycle race was finished and the crowd cleared away we went up to St Peter's Cathedral. This cathedral is the most wonderful in the world. We walked through it for about half an hour and when we came out we found that our bus had broken down. We waited for about half an hour and finally another bus came and we were driven back to our hotels. Then we had lunch at the hotel dining-room. After lunch Dad and I went for a walk to see if we could find the place where my photos were being developed. After finding the place we went to see the big railway station. Then we walked back to the hotel. When we got there we all had a rest. When dinner time came we once again went down to see whether or not my photos had arrived. They hadn't and so we had dinner at a cafe nearby. In the middle of dinner Dad went to see if they were there once again. This time they were and after finishing dinner we went back to the hotel in a gourgy (sic) and got into bed."

On-line bookings were still several decades away in 1964, and it seems that one of the essential prerequisites for a trip such as ours was a trusted travel agent. I've got very vivid recollections of my parents' trust in their agent beginning to seriously wane at this stage of the journey. They had apparently made it abundantly clear that they had no interest in staying in and paying for luxury five star hotels, yet these seemed to have become a regular feature of our itinerary, and none more so than Rome's ridiculously luxurious Excelsior Hotel. I now read that it was founded in 1906, and it's still there now in the guise of the Westin Excelsior Hotel, having recently been purchased by a Qatar based mega-corporation. It is apparently regarded as the hotel of choice for visiting celebrities, and its two-storey "Villa la Cupola" suite, complete with seven bedrooms and a private cinema, is reputedly one of the most expensive hotel rooms in the world. The cast of Ben Hur stayed there during filming in 1959, and it gained some additional notoriety when Kurt Cobain overdosed whilst staying there in 1995. Based on what we could see of the opulence around us as we checked in, I suspect that my parents were seriously concerned that the bill was going to bankrupt them. I think we might have "walked up to a little street café where we had a drink" so that Mum and Dad could regain their composure. The diary doesn't say exactly what was drunk, but I suspect that alcohol may well have been involved.

I remember being very impressed by the Trevi Fountain, and I made sure that I threw some coins in after Mum told me that if I did this I would go back there again some day. Mum was right as usual; Issy and I went back in 2015. It was a lot less impressive then, being empty due to renovations, and if anyone had bothered to throw any coins in all they would have heard was the sound of them bouncing off a concrete slab.

Based on an inscription on the back of one of my photos it seems that the "soldiers' war memorial" was actually the massive and very prominent Victor Emmanuel II monument. It does indeed house the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but that seems to be of secondary importance to its main function as a secular temple dedicated to Italy and its peoples. Apparently half the population hated it then and thought it looked like a giant toilet block, and from what I now read time doesn’t seem to have done a lot to change those opinions.

It seems that “St Peter's outside the walls" was actually St Paul Outside the Walls. I’d always thought that things were supposed to seem bigger when you were a child, so I'm not entirely sure why I’d described what I now read is actually the City's second largest basilica after St Peter's as a “small cathedral”. It was built in 395 AD over the grave of St Paul, who was executed in Rome in the first century.

I remember us standing on a hill looking down on the Forum, and being very miffed that we weren't able to actually walk down into it because that wasn't included in the price of the tour. It was very hot, and I think Mum and Dad were by contrast quite relieved that they didn't have to walk all the way down the hill and back up again under the blazing sun.

St Peter in Chains is indeed notable for housing Michelangelo's very famous 1545 statue of Moses. This minor basilica is so named because it houses the relics of chains used to bind St Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem.

I'm not at all sure why I seem to have very distinct memories of the timing of our visit to the Pantheon being at dusk, when it seems we were actually there sometime around nine o'clock in the morning. I also thought I remembered our guide sneaking a large group of us in via a very small side door, almost as if he was doing us a favour, because it wasn't really meant to be part of the itinerary. I now begin to wonder how much of this recollection is fiction. Why is it that memory is sometimes non-existent, yet so good at other times? There's no mention of the Excelsior Hotel's address in the diary, yet I distinctly, and it seems correctly, recall it as being in a street called Via Vittorio Veneto. I wonder why my brain would bother to remember such a trivial and useless fact from five decades ago, and yet sometimes now struggle to recall what I had for breakfast this morning.

I'm still not entirely sure what a "gourgy" is, and the Google machine wasn't entirely helpful. My best guess from very vague memories is that we took a short ride back to the hotel after dinner on that last night in a horse drawn Georgian carriage.....

Some things apparently never change, so good to note that the tour bus broke down and we had to wait for another one to replace it. Also good to note that we had to wait for a bunch of cyclists to get out of the way before we could access one of Christendom's most famous sites. It seems however that other things do change, and perhaps more than just a little marginally. I'm not at all sure how I'd go trying to explain to a millennial teenager that if they'd wanted to see one of the photos they'd just taken back in 1964, they would have needed to (1) wait until they'd taken a whole lot more photos to finish the film, (2) wind the film back into the camera, and then open the back of the camera and take the film out, (3) put the film into the small plastic canister that it came in, (4) find a suitable shop that they could take it to to get it developed, and (5) wait several days to get the final prints back. No instant previewing in 1964; you didn’t know whether your shots were any good until days or weeks later, by which time you’d probably moved onto the next country, so if all your shots were duds it was a bit too late to wander back and take them all again. And the paid for the film, and you paid again per print to get it developed, and you paid just as much for "midnight in the jungle" and "white rabbit in a snowstorm" shots as you did for photographic masterpieces. No wonder Dad and I spent so much time traipsing backwards and forwards to the shop to check whether or not our prints were ready to collect. It seems that my dear Dad was so fearful of the shop closing before he could get to it, and us then having to leave Rome without ever seeing our precious shots, that he interrupted his plate of spaghetti carbonara mid-mouthful in a last ditch effort to avoid this potential disaster.


31st December 2018

Thanks again for sharing your wonderful recollections...
yes, our memories are very selective. Have a Happy New Year!
2nd January 2019

Happy New Year
Many thanks for your kind words, and Happy New Year to you guys too.

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