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Published: October 27th 2013
Off to Rome . . . . . .
Compared to Rome, Florence was Sleepy Hollow. We drag our bags across the car park and bus terminus outside Rome’s massive Terminii station and are immediately struck by the contrast. Traffic, traffic, traffic. Hordes of people. Google maps helps out as we walk the few hundred meters to the hotel. Hotel Universo is in a street full of cafes and just around the corner from the Opera; the biggest so far and our room is delightful, complete with another foot bath thingy. The Italians must get really dirty feet.
Rather than wash our feet we decide to go for an orientation walk. It is warm and sunny, around three pm, and we are within walking distance of the Trevi Fountain. We decide to tick the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps boxes. When in Rome, do as the Romans do! Every one in Rome did as we did. They were all at the Trevi Fountain. At least five hundred metres away the crush started. Tour buses lined the roadside, gaggles of guides with little flags in the air and
pushing and shoving from all directions. We have never seen such an ugly oppressive crowd. Very unpleasant. Photos are taken. Despite the throng, the Trevi is a masterpiece and the water is crystal clear. But let’s get out of here!
Up the hill we go towards Piazza de Spagna. Here it is slightly less crowded, but the steps are completely covered by tourists; most of them sitting on the steps. The grandeur of the architecture is clear, but after the relative calm of Florence, we are not enjoying Rome. We have been away five weeks and no doubt we are a bit travelled out. The craziness of Rome has hit hard and we head for the tranquillity of our hotel room. Will Judy leave the hotel tomorrow? Can we exist on room service until Friday? Do they even have room service?
With a collective deep breath we head down for breakfast and plan an early sortie to the Coliseum. Down via Cavour we go, and attempt suicide at several pedestrian crossings. Unlike Melbourne’s crossings, Rome’s encourage drivers to score points by accelerating aggressively whenever a tourist appears. The trick
is to walk confidently, be assertive and have ambulance cover. We can now see the Coliseum in all its rugged glory. The closer we get the more incredible the view. Clearly modelled on the Melbourne Cricket Ground but built in the first century AD. At ground level immediately outside the entrance we are confronted by Roman Centurions and Gladiators in full costume. They will pose for a photo for five Euros. Ron suggests ten Euros but they won’t pay him that much.
We queue for only ten minutes and are immersed in the oldest most historic place we can imagine (we are yet to see Palatine Hill). The craziness of yesterday’s chaotic crowds is forgotten as we wander in awe. Years of decay and neglect have not dulled the majesty. Beautifully proportioned and a constructional marvel. Over the centuries it has been seriously neglected and was cannibalised as a quarry for marble and other building materials for various Roman construction projects; including the Vatican’s St Peters. We can see the underground passages that enabled the movement of Gladiators and animals on to the arena and the ramps where they removed the bodies. Even with the now steady
stream of tourists there is a strangely peaceful atmosphere; completely at odds with the arena’s brutal history. It seems, however, that the Christians were not fed to the lions nor slaughtered in the Coliseum. That did happen en masse, but not here. It was at Circus Maximus around the corner. Our wander through was very relaxed, but there were tour groups rushing around. We overheard one group complaining; “do we really only have forty minutes in here?”; and; “Can we have a photo?”; “No! we don’t have time, we have to be back on the bus”. The Coliseum ought not be rushed. Just wonderful. No statues of Russel Crowe however.
Constantine’s Arch and the Palatine Hill can be seen from the Coliseum and are our next port of call. Archaeological digs are happening right beside the pathway as we queue to enter. Palatine Hill is reputedly where Romulus originally founded Rome and as such is very ancient; dating from 750BC. Basically it was the high rent district of it’s time, or the Beverley Hills of ancient Rome. Most has since fallen down and the body corporate has some serious questions to answer. Recent excavations have uncovered what
is believed to be Nero’s dining room with what they believe to be a rotating room enabling a 360 degree view while tucking into Saltimbocca alla Romana and practising the violin. We think he may have had an external fireplace.
Later we see Livia’s place and Augustus’s joint with living room walls decorated with paintings by the celebrated Roman interior designer, Al Fresco. Graceful ruins everywhere, beautiful gardens and too much history to absorb in one day. Palatine Hill deserves long contemplation to appreciate the history and grandeur of Ancient Rome.
With a vague plan we set off along via del Quattro Fontane and hang a left into via del Quirinale, where we encounter oodles of police, tv crews and well dressed dignitaries hanging around Piazza Quirinale. A policeman explains that they are waiting for the President – this is his official residence. In the centre of the Piazza there is a fancy fountain with impressive statues of Castor & Pollux from ancient Greek and Roman mythology. They remain unfazed by the attention.
As a convoy of police motorcycles, black limousines and SWAT teams howl past
we continue our amble and find ourselves facing an impressive obelisk and surrounding ruins that turn out to be Trajan’s Forum. Nervous English tourists learning to drive Segways provide comic relief. Across the road to the Victor Emmanuel monument or Altar of the Fatherland. A war memorial housing the tomb of the unknown warrior. We think this is an impressive building but we get the impression that Romans think it is a bit of a sore thumb, being only around a hundred years old. Risking suicide again we manage to cross the road and the intrepid explorers head up through the wilds of via del Corso. We are looking for the Pantheon.
Left into a narrow side street (is Ron lost again?) and then zig zagging through even narrower laneways, we encounter an Elephant with an obelisk in its back. This is Piazza Minerva. Hardly anyone about. Aside from the mutant elephant this is a reasonably nondescript piazza. There is a relatively plain looking church however and Ron remarks; “Hey this is a Gothic style church – must be the only one in Rome”. This is a complete lie; he looked it up later in a book.
He goes in for around thirty seconds and returns; “you have to see this!” Wow! Statues by Michelangelo, splendid paintings, mosaics and beautiful frescoes. Only five other people are in the church. We have not planned our visit to Rome very well and have decided to engage in random wandering and discovery rather than racing about ticking boxes. The accidental discovery of the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva was a thrill. Yes, it is in the guide books but we found it ourselves.
The back end of the Pantheon beckons from Piazza Minerva and we toddle along to the other side and Piazza della Rotunda. Time for a coffee, and to absorb the action and excitement. In the next café there is TV interview happening. Our café owner moves his sign to be next to Ron’s shoulder so it is in shot. We attempt to look sophisticated. We are probably not in focus anyway. No idea who it was. After the coffee and atmosphere has been absorbed we decamp to the Pantheon. The Pantheon was first constructed as a place of worship for all Gods by a bloke called Agrippa in 27 BC, renovated by Hadrian
then converted into a church and later into a mausoleum for the kings of Italy. It has survived well in contrast with many of the ruins that date from the same era. The interior is truly marvellous. Large signs request silence. Are all tourists illiterate? Attendants resort to loud shushing and the cacophony hushes to a dull roar. We marvel at the incredible dome, the columns and calm atmosphere of this gracious building.
Through more narrow streets and we burst upon Piazza Navona. This city square is elegant and lively with impressive fountains and full of artists. We were reminded of Montmartre. A relaxing place to wander about. At the North end there are street musicians and we head there to get a better look. Fantastic jazz and we again hear ‘Hava Nagila” played in Italy. Big smiles and loose change is thrown in the guitar case. We sit and enjoy the musicianship for around half an hour. Rome is weaving it’s spell.
Next on the agenda is Campo de Fiori and off we go. We are possibly going in circles when Ron exclaims; “Look, an excellent example of a “mannerist” style church.” This
is yet another fib. He read it later in a book. Again, a relatively plain exterior. There is a sign saying this is the Church of San Luigi dei Francesci and we go inside. Incredible. Ron has read Peter Robb’s biography of the artist Caravaggio and immediately recognised the St Matthew series of paintings. These were Caravaggio’s first public commissions in Rome and there they were; right on the wall in front of us and completely unexpected. Famous for his intense realism and dramatic use of light and shade; Caravaggio was a controversial individual, a drunk, a brawling sword fighter and at times a fugitive from the law with a price on his head. Our sort of guy, he is generally credited as the artist that began modern painting. In awe, we manage to stumble into Campo de Fiori.
Campo de Fiori is a hive of activity. It is a busy market, with stalls selling everything from produce through to fashion. We are not tempted, but marvel at the range of produce that is available. In the middle of the market there is a brooding statue of a gentleman wearing a hoodie. This poor chap was burned
at the stake for heresy at this very spot. He has since been reinterpreted as a martyr to freedom of thought. He still looks a tad unhappy and we are hungry. It’s time for a late lunch and we head in the general direction of the hotel and pass more ruins which turn out to be Largo di Torre Argentina. The area is undergoing conservation and we are surprised to see countless cats roaming around the ruins in what appears to be a cat sanctuary for Rome’s cats. Volunteers were feeding the felines and distributing trays of fresh cat litter about the site. We had earlier heard that Cleopatra had brought cats to Rome as a gift for Julius Caesar, but finding he was allergic to them, he let them run free. It is said that these cats are the ghosts of ancient Romans. Rome : the Eternal Kitty? One important Roman lost his life on this spot, uttering the words; “et tu Brute.” Yes, this is where big Julie got it in the back and where Mark Antony asked the Romans to lend him their ears. Brutus was no pussy however.
Further up via di pussycats
we alighted at Café Ducati for an excellent late lunch. We think this is a chain but the food was cheap, very tasty and it was full of hipster business types. We fitted right in.
It’s time for the Vatican. While we do not particularly like tours where we follow a little flag or umbrella about like sheep; we decided that the legendary queues could best be avoided by booking a tour. The hotel was happy to organise this and we were picked up promptly at 8am at the hotel. As it turned out, this was an excellent choice. We were bussed to the Vatican and went straight in at around 8:45. The Vatican museum was everything we had expected and more. Incredible beauty and history with a lively, entertaining guide. Photos are ok in most areas provided you do not use a flash. Treasures everywhere. Our guide Susanna takes us out into the gardens where sensibly, there are large panels showing the walls and ceiling of the highly anticipated Sistine Chapel. This allows the guides to chat about the details and the fascinating history of the chapel before we enter. Once
inside, silence is required. Susanna also reminds us that unlike the other areas, inside the Sistine, any photography is strictly forbidden. Michelangelo’s ceiling is of course legendary, but we learn also about the work of Botticelli, Raphael and others on the walls. We head back inside and make our way to the Sistine Chapel and Susanna takes the opportunity to remind us that once inside, silence is required. Susanna also reminds us again that unlike the other areas, inside the Sistine, any photography is strictly forbidden.
As we are descending the final steps, Susanna tells us that she will meet us at the far end at precisely 11:15 and takes the opportunity to remind us that once inside, silence is required. Susanna also reminds us again that unlike the other areas, inside the Sistine, any photography is strictly forbidden. As we enter there are signs everywhere telling us that silence is required and that any photography is forbidden. Now fully restored, the Chapel is of course completely magnificent and we are truly privileged to observe one of the world’s great works of genius. Most of us are gazing open mouthed at the incredible spectacle. One of our
party however decides he must take a photo; his camera is seized and he is escorted out. We remain silent.
There is a door at the far end of the Sistine for tour groups to go directly into St Peter’s and avoid the massive queues in the square. As the Pope is having an audience in the square this day, the door will not be opened until much later- say 1pm. Susanna takes us through a few more galleries in the Vatican and our formal tour is over. We can stay behind if we like and re-enter the Sistine chapel later to take advantage of the tour group shortcut to St Peter’s. We elect to do this and have a light lunch at the café. Judy finds the Vatican Philatelic centre. She is in heaven.
Back into the museum and the Sistine Chapel; eager to see St Peter’s. The door in question is still closed. Worse, many others have the same plan, and there is massive congestion in the Chapel. It is hot and oppressive. After an hour and a half, the Pope is still on his walkabout and accordingly the door is still
closed. It is very claustrophobic. At least we are able to chat quietly with some of our tour group who have also stayed behind. Nice people. The call for quiet is increasingly impossible to enforce in this elegant sardine can and the attendants are continually shouting “silenzio” over blaring loudspeakers. The incongruity seems to escape them. We decide on another fifteen minutes then we will give up. The door opens and we are through.
St Peter’s quietly grabs us by the scruff of the neck. Any vestiges of our long, unpleasant imprisonment in the Sistine Chapel evaporate immediately. Big beyond comprehension; beautiful beyond description; it transcends all we have seen before. Michelangelo designed the dome and kindly provided some sculptural decorations as well. He was definitely an overachiever. St Peter’s dome has been described by some as the greatest creation of the Renaissance. The vast beauty of St Peters is incredible, inspiring and humbling.
We are tired, and the mundane reality of practical issues has us on a ‘hop on hop off’ bus negotiating the snarling Roman traffic. We are delivered to the Terminii and the intrepid tourists walk to Hotel Universo, dinner and
Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg saunter casually from Hotel Universo in their Ron and Judy disguises. They hop on the ‘hop on hop off’ bus that takes them on another circuit around Rome. An accidente in via Congestione delays their arrival in Piazza Barberini, but they have seen the sights again with a commentary that for a change is in sync with the scenery.
The Tritone fountain is under restoration and hiding behind scaffolding. There is nothing to be seen except some graffiti on the construction fence. We cross the road, again risking death, and we are in via Veneto; the fashionable location for many films including La Dolce Vita. On the right hand side is an unremarkable church with a remarkable crypt. The Capuchin Monks museum. The museum is interesting but the drawcard is the bizarre crypt. For unexplained (unexplainable?) reasons a few of the monks decided to decorate the crypt with the bones of around four thousand of their deceased colleagues. It has been described by some as strangely touching and beautiful. We are not sure about the beautiful bit. It is incredibly elaborate and certainly strange. A sign proclaims “"What you are, we once were. What we are, you someday will be." Fair enough! Certainly macabre. This crypt is not for the faint hearted nor the easily spooked. Grisly but fascinating. Back outside, the contrast could not be more marked. Further up via Veneto, we stop for lunch in an elegant outdoor café and practice looking sophisticated and mysterious. Ron is thrilled to hear the electrifying crackle of a highly tuned car exhaust and cranes his head to see a black Ferrari snaking through the S bends being chased by an Audi RS6. Almost like Lygon Street. Later there is a siren sounding convoy of motorcycles and SWAT team laden Land Rovers escorting another black limo to an important meeting. Expensive cars, expensive hotels and a stream of attractive, dare we say high maintenance, women are on parade in via Veneto. Lunch is very relaxing. We stroll past Harry’s Bar and cross the road under the City walls.
Villa Borghese is a huge area of parkland in the middle of Rome and is perfect for a relaxing stroll. The buskers in Rome are excellent and we can hear Mozart and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue being played expertly on the piano accordion. Sadly, we did not realize that the Borghese Museum needed to be booked in advance. Oh well! We have seen plenty of museums anyway.
Our last day is spent quietly roaming the shops. Judy is after a shirt to wear on the plane but they are already selling winter outfits and nothing pleases.
After a stressful start, Rome has won our hearts. We have only scratched the surface.
A high speed car ride to Fiumicino, Leonardo da Vinci Airport and we find ourselves in the world’s slowest immigration queue. Our plane leaves fifteen minutes late because a few of our fellow passengers were stuck in the same queue for over forty minutes.
After such a wonderful adventure we are relaxed and looking forward to Melbourne, family and friends.
Pity about the jet lag.
R & J.
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