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Exploring Rome

DAY 3 THU Re-energised by our long sleep we joined the German and Australian couples we had met at the airport for our bus ride back to Bahrain International. After what seemed a particularly long flight, the boredom of which was not broken by an almost inaudible movie (“Payback”) we landed at Rome Airport at 6.30am and were met by the CIT driver who drove us to our hotel .

La Giarda was a small establishment on the second floor of a rather nondescript building on Via Principe Amadeo, which also housed a second hotel on the first floor (piano in Italian). The lift was an ancient capsule apparently designed to hold one extremely slim person and her handbag and I was forced to jam our two suitcases into the tiny space, press the button then run up the stairs to retrieve them before somebody else did. Our room was correspondingly small but very clean and boasted a ceiling fan which saved us from succumbing to the Rome heat. I asked the manager for two cups of coffee and was a bit taken aback when he turned up with normal sized cups only a quarter full. This, I later learned, was how Italians took their coffee.

We were anxious to begin exploring the city and, having packed our backpack with water, maps and our heavy but very useful Lonely Planet guide, we left the hotel to begin our 17 kilometre walk to the Colosseum, the Forum and other sites in the area.

I felt great excitement as we approached the Colosseum. The huge, hulking building was just as I had imagined it would be. An assortment of hawkers and pretend gladiators mingled with the tourists swarming around outside and we hesitated not a moment before paying our money and entering the majestic but ruined arena. We were lucky enough to come across a young woman who was just beginning a free guided tour and over the next thirty minutes learned more about the recreational activities of the ancient Romans than we would have by simply reading our Lonely Planet.

A short walk across the piazza took us to the Forum with its assortment of temples, palaces and halls, most of which, with the exception of the Curia, were jumbled collections of pillars and blocks of stone and marble in various states of disrepair. It was difficult to believe that all these once marvellous buildings had stood together in such a small area. It almost seemed to me that the remains had been collected and placed in the same fairly small area by some nineteenth century entrepreneur intent upon creating a theme park. My favourite building was the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, a well-preserved monument whose imposing bulk and soaring columns eternalised the power of that long-dead imperial partnership. The Temple of the Virgins was the largest structure in the area, suggesting that there were an awful lot of virgins in ancient Rome. The Curia was the only building we could enter and we could almost see Julius and his senators discussing the oversupply of Roman virgins.
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Above the Forum we found the Piazza Campidoglio, designed by a famous Italian and, not far away, the Victor Emmanuel II Memorial. This enormous building was built by Victor only last century to perpetuate his greatness and rivalled any of the nearby ancient structures. The Piazza Navona, with its three Bernini-designed fountains was our favourite square and the numerous artists and sidewalk restaurants gave it an exhilarating air of life in progress.
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According to our map the Pantheon was not far away, but despite our best efforts we couldn’t find it. Margaret asked a young man for directions and after some difficulty in communication, he beckoned us to follow him and set off at a brisk pace down a series of narrow cobbled streets. Margaret fell behind as I struggled to keep up with him. We hadn’t expected him to actually take us to the place but he seemed happy to oblige. Margaret reckoned that I should have given him money for his trouble but he obviously didn’t expect a reward and departed with a friendly wave. The Pantheon was a large round building with an impressive ceiling and lots of paintings on the walls and, as an added attraction, contained the tomb of Raphael (the artist, not the archangel). According to an inscription over the door one earned a plenary indulgence just by going inside. This was extremely generous as there wasn’t any admission fee.

By the time we reached the Spanish Steps we were exhausted and decided to return on another day for a closer inspection. We paused at a kiosk near the Metro entrance for a Coke. At the table next to us a large and fearsome punk, clad entirely in graffiti-covered leather and sporting a mohawk haircut and numerous pierced body parts lounged aggressively sipping from a large bottle of beer. When he ambled over to his purple-haired girlfriend nearby a passing young man made towards his table with the intention of grabbing his half-full bottle. At that moment the punk started back to his table and the young man veered off and disappeared into the crowd with understandable haste.

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The Metro was not as user-friendly as other rail systems we had encountered during our travels (we hadn’t been to Paris yet!) and, as it was peak hour, was overflowing with commuters. After a fairly short and claustrophobic ride we disembarked at the Terminus and were relieved to find that it was only two streets from our hotel. After a short rest we walked down Via Principe Amadeo in search of a laundromat for future reference.

DAY 4 FRI At 7.30am we ate our first hotel breakfast at La Giarda. Orange juice and buns as well as croissants and tiny squares of toast accompanied by plastic containers of chocolate spread and jam. A feast unfit for a king! At least we got full cups of coffee.

We took the metro to the Vatican, again sharing our carriage with commuting Italians. Italian train drivers are the same people who ride Vespas through the crowded streets; they can stop on a dime. Several times the train slowed from 80 kph to 0 kph in two seconds, sending Italians staggering into one another. In Sydney angry voices would have been raised but in Rome no one even changed expression.

We reached the Vatican around nine and soon found ourselves in St Peter’s Square. People are astounded when I tell them that I expected the square to be bigger. At first I thought that it must be a smaller square just outside the real one. The facade of the Basilica was totally hidden by scaffolding in preparation for next year’s jubilee celebrations. We found throughout our travels in Italy that virtually all cathedrals, monuments and other famous buildings were at least partly concealed by scaffolding which was a bit disappointing.

The Basilica itself was very large, though again less enormous than I had expected. My attitude was not good as Margaret and I had had an altercation about dinner the previous night (ie whether to have it or not) and as a result I found the Basilica rather oppressive. Surrounded by huge marble columns and outsized religious statues I felt the weight of the Church bearing down on me. We joined the queue for the cupola before exploring the building in depth as we feared (correctly) that hordes of tourists were heading our way, all intent upon climbing to the top of the dome. I was too parsimonious to pay the 8000 lire required for the lift so we saved a dollar by climbing the stairs. We barely made it to the top. The stairway grew steeper and narrower the higher we climbed and by the time we reached the last flight we had to crouch to fit. Margaret almost had a panic attack due to the claustrophobic conditions and we were approaching death by the time we stumbled onto the roof.

The view of the city from the cupola was stunning but spoiled somewhat by the smog. The roof boasted a souvenir shop crammed with postcards, rosary beads, holy pictures, holy key chains and other religious artefacts to numerous to mention. When we descended to the Basilica we found that the crowd had grown to biblical proportions. A hundred groups of tourists followed a hundred tour guides, each of whom held aloft a stick with a flag, flower or, in one case, a pair of pink panties attached. Before leaving we visited the crypt and gazed with awe upon the ornate tombs of various Pontifex Maximi.

Outside St Peters we joined a queue to see the Sistine Chapel but left after fifteen minutes when it failed to move more than a few inches. In Rome, as anywhere else, it pays to arrive at a tourist attraction by 9.30am so you can beat the coaches.

In the afternoon we walked the length of Via Cavour in search of San Maria Maggiore which, we later discovered, was only a block away from the hotel by another route. This enormous white edifice looked from the outside like a typical government building of the late nineteenth century. The inside was almost totally concealed by scaffolding, though what we could see certainly looked artistic. In the square outside the church Margaret bought a t-shirt puportedly painted by Michelangelo, though I thought it a fake as I’m almost sure they didn’t have t-shirts in his day.

After another rest in our room (it was very hot) we caught the train to Spagna then climbed the Spanish Steps and visited the church at the top. By this time we were totally exhausted and decided to return home for yet another rest. On the way down the stairs a swarthy gentleman of gipsy appearance offered to take our photo. I pushed him over, grabbed Margaret’s hand and fled, not stopping until we reached Via Condotti. Talk about out of the frying pan and into the fire! Via Condotti is home to Cartier, Gucci, Just Jeans and other high fashion shops and is even more interesting than Rodeo Drive. Enthralled by the fabulous jewellery, the well-turned heel of an Italian leather shoe and the wispy haze of a Roman negligee, I insisted that Margaret look at every shop in the street.

In the evening we walked the streets in search of a trattoria we had admired the previous night. It had vanished and we finally settled on a ristoranti which is one step up from a trattoria. When the time came to pay the bill I silently practised my Italian. As a waiter approached I prepared to ask him for the tab, however Margaret stuck her finger in the air and he disappeared inside to prepare il conto. We waited ten minutes and, when he hadn’t appeared, Margaret left to return to our room. I motioned over our original waiter and exclaimed, with wild gesticulations, “il conto, per favore”. He beamed his appreciation, as did the elderly couple nearby, and returned shortly thereafter with a packet of condoms.

Back at the hotel I asked the hotel person for two coffees, one black and one white. “Que?” he asked, uncomprehendingly. “With milk”, I explained. “Cold milk?” he echoed, his simple peasant face a mask of disbelief. “Si!”, I exclaimed with much waving of the hands. I laughed ten minutes later when I handed Margaret her quarter cup of black coffee and sank back on the bed to enjoy my full cup of cafe latte. Margaret had the last laugh, however. My coffee with cold milk was very cold and I spilt half of it with shock.

DAY 5 SAT We were amongst the first at breakfast today, five past seven on the dot. It was not that we were anxious to get stuck into our soggy croissants and toast with chocolate spread, rather that we were travelling to the suburbs for the first time. After buying all-day tickets and a souvenir lighter at the local tobacconist we caught the train to Lepanto in search of the 812 or possibly the 218 bus to the catacombs.

We had great difficulty in finding the right bus stop, however we managed to attach ourselves to a trio of English tourists who had a vague idea of where to go. The bus was crowded and I held my camera tight to my bosom while scanning the passengers for possible gipsies. The bus sped down the Apian Way, stopping briefly at the Catacombs of St Sebastian and drawing away before we had a chance to rise from our seats. We got off at the next stop, about a kilometre further on, and waited for twenty minutes for a bus to take us back. A friendly local woman who spoke not a word of English asked the driver to stop at the Catacombs so that we wouldn’t spend the rest of the day being bussed backwards and forwards past our destination.

As I write: from our hotel room we can hear an Italian family singing and playing what could well be Italian folk songs

We bought our tickets then hung around the entrance gates waiting for the English speaking guide. There were lots of Italian and German tourists and lots of Italian and German speaking guides, most of whom arrived after us and set off before us. We were eventually joined by a pair of young Australian parents and their curly headed son or daughter and still later by a group of Americans and their local priest. After about half an hour an elderly guide turned up and led us to an assembly spot where he gave us an overview of the history of the catacombs.

Not all the levels are open to visitors, so our guide led us down three sets of stairs to the third level where we found ourselves cocooned in a clammy semi-darkness lit only by the occasional electric light. The galleries were very narrow but the ceilings were high and I could almost imagine that we were in the middle of the Great Pyramid. Stone bunks for the dead had been carved into the walls, though their occupants had long left for the greener pastures on the far side of the Styx. I’m sure we weren’t the first visitors to muse aloud over the nightmare possibility of being caught in the catacombs during a blackout.

At the end of the tour we found ourselves in a small chamber with four Americans and a priest. Imagine our delight when they invited us to participate in a private Mass deep in the bowels of the earth! I thought all my Christmases had come at once. A thousand years earlier Christians had performed the same rituals in the same spot, though possibly without the obligatory second collection. The inevitable souvenir shop was full of great trinkets. Margaret bought an icon while I was happy to pay $7.50 for a genuine clay oil lamp as used by ancient Christians.

We were not all that keen on visiting other catacombs however the Catacombs of Saint Callisto were supposed to be just down the road. A short walk down the Apian Way (sounds grand but it was really just a narrow country road) took us to a memorial cavern complex built in memory of the people of a nearby Italian village who were murdered by the Germans during World War II. We couldn’t find any more catacombs so we caught an extremely crowded bus back to Lepanto where we explored San Giovanni de Laterno, a church boasting newly restored paintings, a very striking red and gold ceiling and twelve enormous statues of the Apostles.

Before descending into the Metro I left Margaret to wander around an upmarket clothes shop while I made a quick circuit of a rather extensive market. Fortunately Margaret had all the money and I was unable to purchase a cassette titled “Songs of the Fascist Era”.

Our day had barely begun. A long train trip and an even longer walk took us the Castel St Angelo, a very imposing building constructed as a mausoleum for Hadrian, best known for his wall in England. We were loath to pay the entry fee but took too many photos from every possible angle, most notably from a bridge built by Hadrian but lined with statues designed by Bernini. I had thought Bernini to be a composer (Bernini’s Violin Concert No.1) and was surprised to find that, musician or not, he was best known to history as a quite acceptable sculptor.

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Rather than walk several kilometres back to the subway we elected to travel by bus. Finding the bus stop proved to be more difficult than we had expected, however our search took us through some very narrow, cobbled streets which we would never have found had we been looking for them. Eventually we found the bus stop and Margaret, who was walking in front of me, disappeared behind a parked truck. As I emerged from behind the truck I saw Margaret already on a departing bus, her mouth frozen in a silent scream behind the closed doors. Luckily for both of us the driver heard her cries, stopped, and opened the doors to let me on.

In the evening we strolled down the street to a nearby laundromat. The laundromat men were the most dedicated service people we had yet encountered. They constantly patrolled their machines and barked commands at the hapless customers, several of whom were spectacularly dressed transvestites. Our little clothes-cleaning trip turned out to be quite an adventure though the smell of dead rats from the garbage bin outside the door detracted from the ambience somewhat.

We finally found Trattoria Giovanni for which we had been searching since an American recommended it a few days earlier. Margaret had a dinner, which she reckoned to be the best she had ever had while I had six chops and a large bottle of beer. So good was the fare that we swore to return on Sunday night despite the $55 bill. Darkness had finally fallen so we caught a bus to the Colosseum which, illuminated by giant spotlights, was real pretty in its garb of gossamer gold. On the way back we saw the most paralytically drunk man we had ever seen.

DAY 6 SUN Upon checking in at La Giarda we had been presented with a letter from Cardinal Cassidy along with two ringside tickets to a Mass in St Peter’s Square. After a quick and early breakfast we caught the train to the Vatican and walked the short distance to the square where we found hundreds of people, possibly even thousands, milling about as they waited to be directed to their seats. Our special passes entitled us to sit in the section adjacent to the altar and above the hoi polloi crammed into the square below. The only people closer to the Pope than us were several ranks of cardinals, the odd nun and a group of people wearing identical jackets emblazoned with the legend “Misericordae”.

Most of the people in the square belonged to various charitable groups, for today’s Mass was to honour charitable work. The various groups each occupied an allocated space and held up banners and waved coloured streamers, giving the impression that St Peter’s Square was covered in an undulating patchwork quilt. A few yards in front of us security men with curly leads dangling from their ears scanned the crowds and whispered into their sleeves. I wondered whether they would shoot a potential assassin to protect the Pope or whether this would present an ethical dilemma. I remembered that Christ had prevented Peter from chopping a few Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane in his defence, though this might not have been through any sympathy with his assailants but rather because to do so might have interfered with a reluctantly desired outcome.

Theology aside (as it should be), the suspense was electric. Even I felt excitement as the choirs practiced and a line of young priests circled the altar and practiced ritual grovelling in front of the papal throne. About half an hour before the Mass was to due to begin Pope John Paul II began his extremely slow walk from the Basilica to the altar. I couldn’t help thinking that it would have been kinder for all concerned if he had ridden the distance on one of those three-wheeler contraptions with a pennant flying from the back.

At long last the Mass started and for the first twenty minutes or so I sat enthralled. It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off, especially since the entire service was in Italian. Instead of a homily three social workers from Uganda, Ireland and some ex-French colony gave long speeches in their native tongues. Unfortunately their voices faded after thirty seconds to be replaced by the Italian translation. It must be very difficult to read your speech in English or French while the Italian version is booming in your ears. After several hours of preliminaries it was Communion time. Only a few score of the extra privileged received Communion from the Pope, the rest, including a disgruntled Margaret, had to make do with a common or garden-variety priest.

The service concluded with a papal blessing, which was very well received by the crowd. In the front rows people held up holy pictures and rosary beads which would apparently be endowed with even greater powers when blessed by John Paul. One especially devoted man held up an arm from which hung at least a score of beads. I had the unworthy feeling that he would soon be selling his sacred stock outside the Colosseum, though he may well have been taking them back to his family and friends in Naples.

After Mass I had a private audience with His Holiness during which I suggested that the Church might gain some credibility if he publicly revised the rather nasty concept of Hell which was no longer taken seriously by many Catholics anyway. He promised to do so within the next two months, though he refused to budge on more important matters like contraception and the banning of that obnoxious hymn “Come to the Water(s)”.

Leaving the square was more difficult than entering it had been. The enormous crowd exited the area via a narrow gap in the barricades that had been placed between the columns. Margaret was nearly arrested or possibly even shot when she decided to make her own gap by pushing aside a barricade. A policeman in a car tooted her and motioned her back rather peremptorily. A passing nun gave him what appeared to be a severe dressing down for being so rude to an ignorant tourist. I also started to move a barrier but desisted when a bullet-proof-vested cop waved his machine gun at me and snarled something Sicilian at me. I muttered what I hoped was an inaudible “porco” under my breath before rejoining the exit line.

I find that I have a natural ability to converse in Italian. I even found myself telling Margaret to “crosso” when we came to a pedestrian crossing. Despite this gift it was almost always Margaret who did the communicating, though she never mastered the art of throwing her hands and arms around or rolling her eyes.

After pizza at a nearby pizzeria we took the metro to the Borghese Gardens. Rome doesn’t seem to have very many parks and we found ourselves strolling amongst hordes of Italian families out for a day in the “country”. We sat for several minutes in front of a small artificial lake and left only when we spotted the inevitable rose seller heading in our direction. Our busy day finally caught up with us and we made our weary way to the nearest metro, arriving at the terminus with only minutes left on our transport ticket.

At around six we dined once again at the Trattoria Giovanni where we indulged in entrees of pasta followed by an excellent main course which included artichokes washed down with a fine chianti. More than elegantly satisfied we literally staggered back to the hotel to watch the eight o’clock news. While attending Mass we had been extensively filmed and there was a very good chance that we would appear on the little screen. Unfortunately most of the news was devoted to sport (made us homesick) and the Mass didn’t rate a mention.

DAY 7 MON This morning we left early so that we could get to the Sistine Chapel by opening time. This meant catching the train during peak hour, which is an experience not to be missed. We managed to avoid being shoehorned in by the station assistants, edging our way on board by shouldering aside a few little nuns and a legless veteran of the Abyssinian expedition. Some less fortunate passengers were almost cut in half by the closing doors which jerked open and slammed shut several times like a demented guillotine.

A line had already formed by the time we reached the chapel, however we were fairly close to the front. Shortly after we joined the queue several busloads of tourists arrived, vindicating our decision to get there early. A spiral staircase led to the ticket office where Margaret attempted to buy our tickets with a 50,000 lire note. The objectionable man behind the counter refused to accept the bill and motioned us away. We thought for some inexplicable reason that he was telling us that entry was free today, so we proceeded to put our belongings through the X-ray machine. The X-ray guard asked for our tickets and assured us politely that entry certainly wasn’t free. It turned out that our banknote was old fashioned and not acceptable. The ticket man, with ill-concealed contempt, suggested that we go to a bank and swap it for a nice new one. This was not a suggestion, which we were about to heed as it would have meant leaving the building, finding a bank, changing the note then rejoining the queue. Fortunately Margaret managed to scrape together 30,000 lire in small notes so that we could proceed without further trauma.

We soon found that one doesn’t just pay one’s entry fee and walk into the Sistine Chapel. First you have to walk through many ornate halls and minor chapels which, I hasten to add, is a very rewarding experience for artistically inclined people such as ourselves. We eventually reached the chapel and found several thousand other tourists craning their necks to view the ceiling. Why Michelangelo didn’t paint his masterpiece on the walls is beyond me, it would have been much more convenient for spectators lugging backpacks (such as myself). I was a little disappointed in his work, mainly because it was too far away for me to see properly.

Before reaching the outside world we wound our way through the Vatican Museum with its fabulous collection of antiques. The Etruscan Pottery room was crammed with cups, saucers, plates, urns and bowls, all with a browny orange finish and all looking much the same. One room contained Rodin’s Thinker, always a favourite of mine for obvious reasons (must I explain? ). I touched his metal head with reverence, not realising that the real and original Thinker was housed in a little town just outside of Paris. This one was a fake!

I have been forbidden by a higher power from making any mention of lavatories, bowel movements or other bodily functions, however I simply must relate my experience in the Vatican Museum toilet. The line outside the ladies’ convenience was extremely long whilst we gents suffered no waiting time at all (more efficient plumbing). While performing an act of nature (I cannot be more specific) alongside several others of my sex I was horrified to see a trio of giggling teenage girls rush into our sanctum and commandeer three cubicles for purposes which were only to obvious. If they had been Italians or perhaps Turks I might have been less disturbed (their sense of what is proper is sometimes a little different to ours) but they appeared to be Americans!

We were too tired to revisit the Pantheon as we had planned and decided to return to the hotel for a rest. On the way back something happened that was very embarrassing for Margaret and would have made for a jolly tale at her expense. Unfortunately she swore me to silence and I was so frightened by her threats and imprecations that I have completely forgotten what it was.

From the hotel we walked to the Termini to locate the platform from which we would depart for the airport in a few days time. We agreed that we would rather drag our bags up the street and pay 26,000 lire for the train rather than 70,000 for a taxi.

Having paid upwards of four dollars for a can of beer for the last few days we were chagrined to find that beer of all varieties sells for a mere $1.50 at alimentares.

Posted by kafka001 18:38 Archived in Italy

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