16 October 2010

96 hours in the Eternal City

SONY DSC[Above: Winged statue atop Il Vittoriano, Rome]
Legend has it that two young brothers, Romulus and Remus, were once cast out into the wild and later rescued and suckled by a she-wolf.  When they grew to maturity at some point in the 8th century BC, they decided to found a city to house the followers they had gathered around themselves.  Romulus chose a hill known at the Palatine for the core of his city, but Remus wanted to build it on the Aventine.  The two quarrelled and Remus died, and so the foundations of ancient Rome were laid upon the Palatine, with Romulus as its first princeling.  This legendary explanation for the origin of the Eternal City is still remembered in the city’s iconography, with the famous bronze statue of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf standing as a symbol of the mystical roots of the Italian capital, a city that once stood at the heart of the world’s mightiest empire.
Just as in the days of empire, Rome still draws sightseers eager to partake of its heady blend of history and style.  I visited Rome for the first time in the hot, sticky summer of 1997.  The bus tour I was travelling on didn’t stop in the city itself; rather, passengers disembarked at the leafy Camping Seven Hills site about 12km north of the city.  But while there wasn’t much big-city bustle at the campsite, the city bus deposited me at the Piazza del Risorgimento just outside the Vatican walls, and I was able to spend several days soaking up the sights of ancient Rome.  It was a fantastic city to visit, and I fitted a lot into my few days there, even if my plan to visit the Pantheon was thwarted when it happened to be closed on my last day in town.  I would just have to return some other time.
I’ve been back to Italy since then.  In 1999 I spent a fantastic week with friends in Tuscany staying at the Castello Vicchiomaggio, a place that I’ve rambled on about at great length ever since.  And in 2008 I lapped up the ancient history on offer during my visit to Naples, from whence I savoured the sights of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  But I’ve not returned to the capital itself - until last week, that is.  Bruce and Sally were venturing for their first big European trip together, and had kindly invited me to join them for the first few days in Rome, so I jumped at the chance both to catch up with them and to see Rome once more.
My flight from Gatwick was a leisurely mid-afternoon affair, so there was no rush in getting to the airport.  While waiting there I bumped into my friend Toakase, who was on her way to a Berlin flight.  In a city of seven million people you’re not supposed to bump into people you know!  It was a swift two hour Easyjet flight to Rome past the southern tip of the Alps and down the length of the Italian peninsula, arriving at Fiumicino, Rome’s main terminal, just as the sun was setting over the city.  The first sight to greet me as I entered the airbridge was a manky old dot-matrix printer, which didn’t inspire great confidence in the airport IT systems – I mean, when was the last time you saw one? 
I arrived the night before Bruce and Sally, so had booked myself into the HI hostel, which was conveniently only a few hundred metres from Rome’s central Termini station.  A perfectly acceptable place, although the the next bed, containing a kid from Osaka, was only 5cm from my own bed, and the dorm was beset with the usual dickishness of late-night clubbers returning at 2am and waking everybody up.  Seems to be par for the course in hostels these days, he added, peevishly. 
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After a swift breakfast at the hostel I took a short stroll back to the station to meet Bruce and Sally, who had just arrived via Singapore and Auckland.  Once reunited, we ambled out of the station and about 50 metres down a side street we located our accommodation for the remainder of our Roman holiday – the Hotel Rimini – dumped our bags and headed out to explore.  Bruce had visited Rome once before in 1979, but for Sally it was her first time in Italy and indeed her first day in Europe, so there was a lot to fit in!
Stitched PanoramaIt was a pleasant sunny morning so we strolled down the Via Cavour to admire Trajan’s Column and the mammoth and ever-so-slightly vulgar expanse of Il Vittoriano, a towering expression of nationalist fervour that was designed in 1885 but not finished until 1935.  After a walk around the outside of the Colosseum we took the metro two quick stops back to Termini and had lunch at the Caffe Nazzareno, a likeable family-run place on the corner by our hotel.  In the afternoon we took the other metro line to see the Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain, both of which were as popular as ever with the tourist crowds. 
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The highlight of the day for me was the chance to finally see inside the mighty doors of the Pantheon, the ancient temple that was remodelled by Hadrian in 120 AD and has stayed basically intact ever since.  (Although Pope Urban VIII did rob the Pantheon of numerous metal decorations and fine stonework for the construction of St Peter’s).  The domed ceiling is one of the most famous architectural feats of antiquity, and was the largest in the world for over a thousand years until Brunelleschi completed the Duomo in Florence in 1436.  The bright sunshine that streams in through the Pantheon’s central aperture (the ‘oculus’) plays on the inside of the dome in a remarkably beautiful way.  
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Later that evening we met up with cousin Andy, his wife Cat and two of their friends for dinner; not only did they happen to be holidaying in Italy at the same time as us, but they were also staying in a hotel close to Termini.  So we enjoyed a pleasant meal, again at Caffe Nazzareno, which benefited from palatable table wine and a fine tiramisu on the dessert menu.
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The next morning Bruce and Sally and I had an early start, taking the metro during rush hour to reach the western side of the Tiber.  Approaching the imposing walls of the Vatican we met up with our tour guide for a visit to the impressive collections of the Holy See.  In my 1997 visit I had relished the plentiful exhibits and the stunning collections of artworks, but I confess I found the sheer number of exhibits daunting, and my appreciation of the key artworks was limited by my lack of knowledge of art history.  This time around we had the benefit of a keen Irish chap called Ruari as our guide (well, he said his name was ‘Roo’ so I presume that was his name).  He was able to give a great deal of detail about the various artworks and the history of the Vatican, and I particularly benefitted from his description of Michelangelo’s astonishing work decorating the ceiling and producing the peerless Last Supper wall painting in the Sistine Chapel and the ceilings and walls of Raphael’s rooms, spotting the intricate details and hidden barbs contained within the artworks. 
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[Above: detail from the Hall of Maps, and one of the ceilings decorated by Raphael]
After our three hour tour we explored St Peter’s itself, including the beautiful Pieta of Michelangelo (below) and the famed Bernini canopy over the high altar, which is believed to rest atop the burial place of the saint.  I only wish it had been a sunny day so we could’ve enjoyed some of the famed shafts of light from St Peter’s impeccably placed windows.  It really is a fantastic structure
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SONY DSCAfter emerging into the sunshine of St Peter’s Square (which is actually round) we were quite famished, and needed to pause for slices of delicious takeaway pizza and gelato to revive us.  There was time to walk past the imposing Castel Sant’Angelo, which was originally constructed between 135 and 139 AD to serve as Hadrian’s mausoleum, and then over the Ponte Sant’Angelo towards the historic centre of Rome.  Our last stop for the day was admiring the fountains and statues of the Piazza Navona, and then we returned to the hotel to regroup.  For dinner I consumed a perfect pizza Margherita with a splendid thin crust, capping off a most enjoyable day.
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T he next morning saw Rome covered in thin grey clouds and the odd spot of rain, but that didn’t stop us looking forward to our visit to the Colosseum for a guided tour.  We arrived in plenty of time to meet out 9.45am tour, but as the appointed time arrived and passed we wondered what was going on.  Turned out we and about ten other people had been misdirected; instead of congregating at the sign saying ‘meeting point 1’ we apparently should have waited at the sign saying ‘meeting point’.  Right, just as long as it’s clear and straightforward.  After a short delay we ended up on the 10.15am tour, which imparted a few useful facts – for example, there’s a giant cross erected to commemorate Christian martyrs but there’s actually no proof any Christians were killed at this particular amphitheatre.  Our guide wasn’t as good as our Irish host at the Vatican though.
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DSC07691Next stop was the Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills on which ancient Rome was founded, and traditionally home to the wealthiest elites of the city.  It was a little hard to visualise, but afforded great views over the outline of the Circus Maximus (the chariot racing stadium that could hold 250,000 spectators at its largest extent), and the Roman Forum, the commercial and political heart of the city and the Roman Empire.  It was exciting to follow the exploration of the Palatine with a stroll in the Forum, and to renew my acquaintance with its memorable sights like the massive Basilica of Maxentius and the beautiful trio of columns that are nearly all that remains of the Temple of Castor and Pollux.
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DSC07716_7_8By the time we’d finished at the Forum it was time for lunch, so we took the metro to Fiorentino for a quick bite at a cafe on the Piazza del Popolo.  The weather had improved and we wandered through the pleasant expanses of the huge park surrounding the Villa Borghese, where a big concert was being prepared in the middle of the park (I think it was for Italian performer Renato Zero’s 60th birthday).  Visiting the Villa itself, we learned that its impressive collection of artworks - perhaps the best in Rome, including Caravaggio, Raphael and Botticelli – couldn’t be visited without a booking.  We took some consolation from the fine afternoon sunshine and ambled back through the park to the metro, and another fine dinner in the city.
After dark I wandered down to the Colosseum to take some night shots of the structure, which is illuminated in bright white and red spotlights.  Aside from other tourists doing the same thing and a few canny hawkers selling cheap Chinese tripods, there was hardly anyone about to admire the grand architecture from antiquity.
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Stitched Panorama On the last day of my visit I escorted Bruce and Sally to the train station for their onward journey to Sorrento and the rest of their Italian adventure.  Then I took the opportunity to soak up a little more Roman culture before I headed back to London.  It was a hot and sunny morning as I took the metro and walked to St Peter’s to take a few more pictures.  This turned out to be good timing, as I’d unwittingly chosen to visit during the Pope’s weekly public address on the steps in front of St Peter’s.  The top of the piazza closest to the basilica was full of hundreds of seats for schoolchildren, who are bussed in from all over Italy for a close-up view of the head of the Catholic church and a much-welcomed day off school.  Benedict was driven around in an open-top car to wave to the spectators, and then sat under the protection of a sunshade while his cardinals read prayers in a variety of languages.  In the brief passage the Pope read himself his voice sounded rather fragile, which is no great surprise for a man in his mid-eighties.  Worshippers and tourists alike enjoyed the busy fountains in the piazza and the bright Roman sunshine. 
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SONY DSC After hanging around for a short while to see if anything interesting was going to happen, I strolled back towards the centre of Rome, pausing to admire the city’s oldest bridge, the Ponte Fabricio, which connects the north bank of the Tiber to the Isola Tibertina.  The bridge has been used continuously since 62 BC!
After a quick lunch I spent the rest of the afternoon in the old palaces adjoining the Piazza del Campidoglio, which are known as the Capitoline Museums.  From my perspective the highlights of the collections were its amazing statues from Roman and Greek antiquity.  These included:
  • the original Capitoline Wolf, an Etruscan bronze believed to be 2500 years old, which depicts the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus;  
  • the original equestrian bronze of Marcus Aurelius which was first erected in either 176 or 180 AD;
  • the Spinario, a famous 1st century BC bronze of a boy removing a thorn from his foot;
  • a Greek marble depicting the head of an Amazon, copied from a bronze original created for an artistic competition in Ephesus around 440 – 430 BC.
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It was soon time to depart.  After a brief meal I collected my bag from the hotel and took the train out to the airport, sharing a carriage with a multitude of burly Italian businessmen shouting into their mobile phones.  I had seen plenty of Rome in my brief visit, snapped 530 photographs and caught up with the family to boot.  All in all, a very successful Roman Holiday.   
Below: six short video clips from my stay in Rome - 
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