A Travellerspoint blog

La dolce vita

rain 16 °C

The morning of Wednesday, 13 November 2019 was yet another dismal, drizzly morning in Rome. Yet again I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about leaving my comfortable hotel room. But leave I must for I had an important date.

On Monday afternoon when I visited St Peter’s Basilica I approached a couple of Swiss Guards on sentry duty at one of the many checkpoints controlling access into Vatican City. I asked nicely if they could please spare me a ticket to the weekly audience with the Pope on Wednesday morning and they gladly obliged, giving me a little pink slip of photocopied paper. The Swiss Guards are the defence force of the State of Vatican City. They look decidedly un-martial with their baggy blue, red and yellow uniforms, berets cocked on their head, perfect grooming, smooth complexions, winsome smiles and sweet, polite demeanour. Would that all the world’s militaries were like the Swiss Guards! This planet would be a much more peaceful place.

In typical Urban Reverie fashion I arrived at the audience with Pope Francis a little bit late at about half past nine. The audience was an intimate affair, just me, His Holiness and about ten thousand other people.

On most Wednesday mornings when the Pope is in town, His Holiness will hold an audience in St Peter’s Square with the faithful and the not-so-faithful but merely curious. You need a ticket from the Swiss Guards which is free for anyone who asks. The Pope will make a speech to those assembled, his face shown on big screens for the benefit of those up the back. Portions of the speech will be translated by other priests in various languages; I recall English, German, Portuguese and Spanish being used. Most of the Pope’s speech will be only in Italian and left untranslated.

Pope Francis is in the cream robes in the centre of the podium

Pope Francis is in the cream robes in the centre of the podium

With the possible exception of Queen Elizabeth II, Pope Francis is now the most famous person I have ever seen with my own eyes. He was a long way away; a mere cream-coloured dot on a podium surrounded by black-robed priests, but I saw him nonetheless. The crowd was silent and respectful; dotted through the multitude were various national flags flown by groups of people who had come all this way just to see His Holiness – Argentina, the Philippines, the Czech Republic. About half of the immense expanse of St Peter’s Square was occupied by the audience.

I must admit I was slightly disappointed. I sort of half-expected that the majesty of the moment would fill me with reverence and awe while I would be struck by a lightning bolt from Pentecostal skies like what happened to St Paul on the road to Damascus and God Himself would say to me in a booming voice, “Urban, my dear child, give up thy sinful ways and follow my path of righteousness!” Instead I spent most of my time wiping the drizzle off my glasses with my handkerchief, trying to decipher Pope Francis’s Italian – the Duolingo course only got me so far – and wondering when the speech would ever end.

Pope Francis on the big screen in St Peter's Square during his weekly audience

Pope Francis on the big screen in St Peter's Square during his weekly audience

The audience did finally come to a close; the Pope led the crowd through the Lord’s Prayer in Latin – the text was helpfully printed on the back of my ticket – and His Holiness blessed the crowd, also in Latin. The audience had the opportunity to meet the Pope afterwards; many had brought along religious items such as Bibles and Rosary beads to be blessed by Pope Francis, but I was getting wet and hungry so I went off to a nearby municipal covered market to marvel at all the amazing fresh produce and have some lunch.

I had booked a ticket to the Vatican Museums for the half past twelve slot. I joined the long queue and was granted entry. The next five hours were a blur. The sheer amount of art, sculpture, architecture, artefacts – it was too much to take in. It was far more overwhelming than the Uffizi in Florence. The Vatican Museums are dizzying; I passed from gallery to gallery, corridor to corridor, courtyard to courtyard and only remember little bits of it, there was far too much for one brain to absorb in just one day.

Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums

Note that the correct name is Vatican Museums; plural, not singular – they truly are several museums in one complex. I would advise visitors to set aside an entire day and book a morning slot, half past twelve didn’t leave me enough time before closing.

The range of exhibits covers the entire gamut of human civilisation; from Egyptian mummies to post-modernist paintings, from Ancient Greek statues to Renaissance frescoes. The museums aren’t just galleries of Catholic religious art; they are also ethnographic museums; statuaries; natural history museums; contemporary art galleries. The Vatican Museums are every great museum in the world distilled into one location.

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

My favourite part of the Vatican Museums was the Gallery of Maps. This is a long, elaborately decorated, barrel-vaulted corridor with enormous painted maps along both sides; each map depicting a different region of the Italian peninsula. This gallery was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII in 1580. I spent at least half an hour just marvelling at the detail and skill. By the cartographic standards of the sixteenth century these maps are incredibly detailed and accurate. I found all the places on the Italian peninsula that I had visited and travelled through so far.

A little further on I entered the Sistine Chapel. I took a few steps into the hall, extracted my phone from my pocket and took a photo. One second later a security guard came up to me and snarled at me. No photos! Photography forbidden! I apologised profusely but he didn’t seem mollified. I didn’t see any sign prohibiting photography in the Sistine Chapel but apparently it is. He didn’t make me delete the photograph from my phone so I have included this TOP SECRET ULTRA-ILLEGAL CLASSIFIED INFORMATION photo here for your enjoyment.

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

I found the Sistine Chapel rather unpleasant. It wasn’t that Michelangelo’s art wasn’t fantastic; of course it was. But the chapel was much dimmer than I expected; I had to squint to see some of the ceiling frescoes. Also, the priests running the show were simply horrible. There was a strict rule of silence in there, but of course people would whisper to each other in hushed reverential tones about being surrounded by such amazing art. People would begin to whisper quietly and the priests would bark at everyone at the top of their lungs – NO TALKING! THIS IS A SACRED PLACE! Then silence for a few seconds, a few of the hundreds of people in the Sistine Chapel would begin whispering once more, and thirty seconds later the priests would again bark at us – NO TALKING! DID YOU HEAR ME? NO TALKING! THIS IS A HOLY PLACE! RESPECT THE HOLINESS OF THIS CHAPEL! Honestly, the only people desecrating the holiness were the vicious, snarling priests acting like sadistic prison guards in some dystopian horror movie.

Another interesting thing were fragments of a moon rock. The crew of Apollo 11 brought back rocks from the moon and US President Richard Nixon sent little samples of them preserved in glass to every country in the world including the Vatican City. The last thing I visited was an ethnographic museum showing artefacts from indigenous cultures around the world; my country was represented with a large collection of dot paintings, woomeras, coolamons, boomerangs and Arnhem Land burial poles.

In the evening I went to a restaurant near my hotel. It was recommended in my Lonely Planet travel guide. I tend to avoid restaurants found in travel guides but I was sick of getting ripped off by scam artists posing as restaurateurs and I thought perhaps Lonely Planet would do a better job than I could at picking the genuine Italian places from the con jobs.

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

I thought correctly. Hostaria Dino e Toni is an old-fashioned trattoria in the neighbourhood of Prati and ought to be the greatest tourist attraction in all of Rome. The Colosseum? The Roman Forum? Pffft. They can’t even hold a candle to the greatness that is Hostaria Dino e Toni.

The place doesn’t look like it ought to be a great restaurant. Hostario Dino e Toni is a cramped little place with unassuming signage. The interior looks like it hasn’t changed much since the 1950s with battered green walls and chequered tablecloths. Yet the food was out of this world.

The two elderly proprietors, the eponymous Dino and Toni, constantly shuttled between the kitchen and the tables. There was no menu; whatever is being cooked on a given evening is what you get. Plate after plate of delicious food was placed on the table by the ever-smiling Dino and Toni. First, there was antipasto – salami, prosciutto, suppli, and spinach and ricotta pastry on a separate plate. This was followed by the first course, primo piatti – two pasta courses, really; rigatoni carbonara and rigatoni all’amatriciana in separate bowls; all washed down with a carafe of delectable house red wine and sparking mineral water. Dino suggested the second course, secondi piatti, various grilled meats and fish, but by this time I was more than full. I obliged by consenting to be served dessert, a nearly overflowing bowl of tiramisu.

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Not only was the food divinely inspired but the atmosphere was fantastic. Dino and Tony were so friendly and happy and they made me feel like I was an honoured guest in their home. The courses were not only made with skill but made with love; love of food, love of life, love for their customers. It was rather expensive but I didn’t mind, it was worth every cent and then some.

While at Hostaria Dino e Tony all the bad things I had been thinking about Italy melted away. I had finally found the real Italy. And I learned a lesson: Italy is great. It’s just great in different ways to other countries.

Yes, Italy is disordered, dysfunctional, corrupt, barely belonging to the First World. But what life, what passion, what beauty. Thanks to Dino and Tony I no longer regretted coming here.

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

Map of southern Italy in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Map of southern Italy in the Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

Scale model of the entire country of Vatican City at the Vatican Museums

Scale model of the entire country of Vatican City at the Vatican Museums

Payphone with Vatican City coat-of-arms at the Vatican Museums

Payphone with Vatican City coat-of-arms at the Vatican Museums

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Posted by urbanreverie 09:43 Archived in Vatican City Tagged art museums restaurants italy cuisine rome pope vatican_city Comments (0)

Pompeii and circumstance

rain

When I was in Year 3 of primary school my class studied Pompeii. I was spellbound by the descriptions of the Mount Vesuvius volcano raining fire and ash on a city, burying the entire town and its unfortunate inhabitants beneath tens of metres of cinders, only to be unearthed perfectly preserved eighteen centuries later.

Learning about Pompeii at school awoke within me a lifelong fascination with volcanoes. I guess I have always been interested in things that I can’t see in Australia and Australia, occupying the most geologically stable continent on earth in the middle of a tectonic plate, doesn’t have active volcanoes.

I was determined to visit Pompeii one day. Thirty-three years later, I made it. Better late than never.

First, I had to get there. Pompeii is two hundred and forty kilometres southeast of Rome. In Australia, with its poor roads and slow, infrequent trains, this distance would most likely be outside day-tripping radius. Thankfully Italy is much better endowed with transport infrastructure.

Thus on the morning of Tuesday 12 November 2019 I emerged from the Empire Suites in the grim, damp dawn twilight, took the Line A metro to Roma Termini railway station and grabbed coffee and a pastry for breakfast at a station café near the platform entrance. Italian coffee culture is unusual from an Australian perspective. The coffee is excellent – Australians have learned well from their Italian maestros – but typically a customer will buy a coffee from the café, stand at the counter, wolf the coffee down in one gulp then go on their merry way. Judging by what I saw in Rome, coffee doesn’t seem to be quite the social thing as it is in Australia where the lingering mid-morning “coffee run” with colleagues and chatting up the cute barista have been elevated to a treasured ritual.

I showed my €36.50 Trenitalia ticket on my phone to the Trenitalia employee who let me through the gate and waited a short while for the sleek, long, red Frecciarossa high-speed train to arrive from Florence. Frecciarossa is Italian for “Red Arrow” and is the fastest of the three types of high-speed train operated by the government-owned Trenitalia.

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

Frecciarossa high-speed train at Napoli Centrale station

After enduring another very Italian scrum of people trying to get on forcing their way against people trying to get off (God damn it, Italy!), I settled into my very comfortable window seat in a Standard class carriage and the train departed on time at 07:55. After a few kilometres of negotiating its way through the congested tracks around Roma Termini the Frecciarossa then found itself on the dedicated high-speed line southeast towards Naples.

The train rocketed across the fertile plains of Lazio and Campania at three hundred kilometres an hour, farms and villages little more than a blur. I experienced quite a bit of cognitive dissonance – how on earth does a nation as disorganised, corrupt and fractious as Italy manage to have such awesome railways? I asked my Italian colleague when I returned home, he told me that the Italian railways are secretly run by the Germans. I don’t think he was lying. It is the only explanation that could make any possible sense.

After about an hour the train entered Naples’ suburbs. My heart sank. I wasn’t in the First World any more. This was Dhaka or Lagos or Caracas or Manila. The dreary landscape was studded with grotty high-rise apartment buildings of the most appalling decrepitude. Every conceivable surface that could possibly be reached by human hands, and even many surfaces that couldn’t, was covered in the most vile graffiti. Some of the graffiti was in places that made me think the only way the vandals could get there was by helicopter. The slummy houses looked as if they were ready to collapse. The filthy narrow streets were congested with the most disorderly traffic. I thanked my lucky stars that my stay in Naples would only be brief.

The train arrived at Napoli Centrale station on time after its 220-kilometre journey from Rome that took only seventy minutes. I navigated through the buzzing station concourse trying to find the Circumvesuviana platforms, but of course all the signage was contradictory with a sign telling me to go one way right next to another sign telling me to go the other way. (God damn it, Italy!)

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

Graffiti-covered Circumvesuviana train in Naples

I found the Circumvesuviana platforms confusingly called Napoli Garibaldi station even though it is part of the Napoli Centrale station complex. I bought my magnetic-stripe ticket to Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri station and walked down the stairs to the platforms. I had entered the very portal of hell itself. The station had all the charm of an underground car park, smelled like a public toilet and the trains, each and every one of them, were entirely covered in graffiti. A nasty old man who objected to me photographing the trains gave me the finger. Charming.

My Circumvesuviana train arrived after a twenty-minute wait and I boarded the noisy, rattly old thing. Circumvesuviana is a system of suburban rail lines serving the Naples metropolitan area running on a network of narrow-gauge tracks that are separate to the Trenitalia railway network; most lines run at thirty-minute intervals. As the name suggests, the lines form a ring around Mount Vesuvius.

The crowded train with cramped, uncomfortable plastic seats slowly emptied as it stopped at every station through Naples’ southeastern suburbs on the plains at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Thankfully the train soon arrived at Pompei Scavi-Villa dei Misteri and it was with considerable gratitude that I disembarked.

The entrance to the ruins of ancient Pompeii is right next to the station. I bought my entrance ticket, hired an audio guide and entered through the Porta Marina, the old city gate on the road to the old harbour which was nearby.

The next six hours saw me stumbling around one of the most magnificent places I have ever visited, my jaw scraping the two-thousand-year-old cobblestones as it dropped in amazement. I found myself involuntarily squealing with delight as I found yet another pristine mosaic or crisp mural or antique snack bar counter that looked like it was installed yesterday.

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Mount Veusvius towering over the Pompeii Forum

Pompeii is laid out like many Ancient Roman cities. There is a broad main street running roughly east-west, another prominent street running roughly north-south, and the two intersect at the Forum, a major square that was the commercial and governmental heart of the town. Running off the two main streets is a dense grid of narrower streets meeting at crisp right angles; the regularity of Pompeii’s grid meant I never got lost.

On the Forum with its pillared Basilica and temple to Jupiter is an open-sided shed with a display of artifacts unearthed by archaeologists. Among these finds are plaster casts. The bodies of humans and animals were buried by the ash and rock. The volcanic debris solidified around the corpses. The bodies slowly decomposed leaving a void in the compressed cinders in the shape of the body. Archaeologists pour plaster into these cavities as they find them and carefully chip away the volcanic matter to reveal a perfect impression of the dead person or animal. The most famous of these casts is the “Mule Driver”, crouched in agony, his hands feebly covering his face. Even more haunting is the cast of a child rigidly lying flat on its side with their arms clutched around their chest. There is also a dog lying on its back, its wide collar plainly visible, its four legs contorted as if trying to push the falling cinders away.

Just north of the old town outside the city walls is the Villa of Mysteries. This sprawling residence belonging to a patrician family has more courtyards, gardens, mosaics, saucy murals and servants’ quarters than I could care to count. It is much better preserved than most of the houses in town – the roof seems to have been spared collapse – and seems just as inhabitable now as it was back then.

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

Ancient Roman zebra crossing at Pompeii

I ambled around the streets in awe for far longer than I had anticipated. At regular intervals on the main streets were zebra crossings. Yes, the Roman Empire had zebra crossings. Ancient Roman kerbs were quite high – I would guess at least thirty centimetres if not higher – which made crossing the street quite dangerous. Never mind – the municipal authorities two thousand years ago installed stones shaped like zebra crossings, the tops of the stones flush with the height of the kerb; the gaps between the stones allowed carts to pass through the crossing unhindered. Genius.

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

Thermopolium (hot food snack bar) at Pompeii

There were houses for the rich with their mosaics and gardens and fountains, houses for the poor with their narrow frontages and small closet-like bedrooms. There was a brothel, its interior walls above the doors to the working rooms daubed with murals showing all the different positions customers could point at and order from the girls, rather like a McDonald’s menu. There were the thermopolia, snack bars with counters facing the street where hot food was served from pots recessed in the tiled counters. I could just imagine it – lentil stew, olives in red wine sauce, barley soup – drool! The Pompeii park authorities could do no better job than to bring these thermopolia back into service; the “restaurant” at Pompeii is expensive and disgusting. You would think I would learn by now to bring my own food when visiting tourist sites like this.

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

Millstone and oven at Pompeii bakery

There was a bakery with its millstones and kneading benches and ovens, there were the public baths with its changing rooms and elaborate water heating systems, there was the macellum meat market with its stallholder booths facing onto the quadrangle. There was the amphitheatre where gladiators fought and Pink Floyd once performed, there was the theatre where Pompeiians were entertained, there was the palestra where athletes trained and competed, there were temples to this ancient god or that, there was a vineyard where a heirloom variety of grape is grown to make wine using the same methods as two millennia ago.

There is also so much yet to be discovered – only about two-thirds of the town has been excavated. The rest is still buried and will most likely remain so. Park authorities are fighting a never-ending battle against decay. The bits of Pompeii that have been unearthed are now exposed to the elements and are falling apart; many sites are closed to the public due to conservation works.

My plan for the day was to spend a couple of hours at Pompeii then somehow find my way to the top of Mount Vesuvius by bus or taxi, walk around the crater, then return to Naples in time for the train back to Rome. However, Pompeii was so interesting, so stimulating, so indescribably enthralling that I couldn’t leave. On every cobbled alley there was some sight that contrived to keep me lingering in Pompeii just a little bit longer.

The park closed around sunset at five o’clock. I left Pompeii grateful that I had been given the opportunity to see one of the greatest historic sites in the world, a snapshot of life as it was in a provincial town of one of the planet’s greatest empires of all time twenty centuries ago. My memories of Pompeii will be a source of delight the rest of my life.

I went back to Naples on yet another crummy, slightly nauseating Circumvesuviana train. I got to Napoli Centrale station at about six o’clock with ninety minutes to spare until my train back to Rome. I didn’t really feel like hanging around a railway station for ninety minutes so I got out my Lonely Planet, turned to the page with a map of the Naples city centre and started walking across the giant, windswept Piazza Garibaldi into the old town.

The route I chose was a rough triangle through the neighbourhood west of the station as far as the cathedral and back. I was slightly nervous – I had read too many horror stories about Naples, the thieves on Vespas who cut backpacks away from tourists with machetes at high speed, the giant piles of uncollected garbage, the rough quarters ruled by the Camorra organised crime families with an iron fist. I needn’t have worried too much.

Yes, I found myself in some of the filthiest, most disgusting neighbourhoods I have ever seen in the developed world. The grimy narrow streets were almost impassable due to the logjam of cars and motorbikes and scooters and delivery vans, the merchants whose wares encroached metres out the front of their shops, the disorderly crowds and the rancid bulging bags of rubbish.

But the diamonds I found in the Neapolitan rough! Laundry hung on lines strung between windows across the streets – just like in every movie I’ve ever seen set in Italy. It’s not just a stereotype! Six-year-old boys were kicking a football in the street completely unsupervised, their talents leaving me in no doubt that they will win the World Cup for the Azzurri in 2042. How many places are there in the Western world where kids can still kick ball in the street without anxious parents watching their every move? You can’t throw a brick without hitting a pizzeria in this city which is the birthplace of pizza. Everything you have heard about Neapolitan pizza being the greatest is true – and only two euros the slice, a rather large slice too. Carts sold freshly baked pastries of the most delectable sweetness for one euro each. A raven-haired lass of about twenty years and the most stunning beauty pulled up beside me on her Vespa. She shouted into the shop next to where I was walking. “Angela! Angela! Zia Angela!” Her black-smocked aunt came rushing out of the shop and they embraced as if they hadn’t seen each other in a decade.

Naples is dismal, decaying, disorderly. But what life! What zest! The streets are abuzz with community, with family, with belonging, with passion. Who can truly say they have been alive if they have not yet been to Naples?

Naples at night

Naples at night

I wished that I had allotted myself more time to explore Naples – it seemed far more lively and authentically Italian than Rome and the energy of the place was nothing short of contagious. Unfortunately, time was fleeing and I needed to go and catch my train.

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

Frecciarossa train at Roma Termini

My Frecciarossa trip back to Roma Termini was just as efficient and uneventful as my morning southbound journey. Soon after getting off the train I had to go to the toilet. It was that dreaded time once again – I had to go to battle with that most repulsive of species, Bitchius maxmius, the common lesser spotted European toilet attendant.

I found the poorly-signed public toilet in some remote corner of the gargantuan station. Bitchius maximus was not at her little counter with the coin tray; she was just a couple of metres inside the entrance talking to some other customer. By this time I was rather desperate. “Buona sera? Hello? Umm … spiacente? Ho bisogno to go to the toilet … like, now? As in, right now? Hello? Ciao? Can you hear me?”

Bitchius maximus didn’t even respond. I waited as long as I could and called louder but she didn’t even blink. I needed to go. Desperate times call for desperate measures – I decided to go into the toilet and pay after I did my business. So I walked into the male toilet cubicle and locked the door.

World War III broke out. Bitchius maximus suddenly deigned to notice my presence. Fancy that! There was banging and kicking against the door and shouting and all sorts of cursing in rapid-fire Italian. I had no idea that such a small, demented old woman was capable of such furious strength.

I don’t understand European toilets. Every single one of them is staffed full-time by some hideous crone to whom you pay good money for the right to use yet every single one of them is disgraceful. The seat was missing. There was no soap. The hand dryer didn’t work. The toilet hadn’t been cleaned since Mussolini was Italy’s leader. I don’t know about you but if my full-time job were to oversee a public toilet the place would be so clean you’d be able to eat dinner off the floor. It’s not like the duties would be that complicated – collect cash from customers, clean and tidy up when things are quiet. Hardly the most taxing of jobs.

I took my sweet time just to make Bitchius maximus even more riled up then I finally emerged and with a smile on my face placed a one-euro coin in her stupid little tray. “I did try to get your attention, you stupid old cow, but you ignored me! I was going to pay, you mad f#$%ing bitch, no need to get your knickers in a knot. Go to hell, you miserable old w#$%e!” I shouted at her in English. I walked away and the lunatic was still shouting at me. I’m being honest – nothing makes me more proud to be Australian than our toilets. They are free, they are usually clean, they don’t have some psychopathic hag hanging around them making your life a misery. Aussie Aussie Aussie! Oi oi oi!

The Mule Driver

The Mule Driver


Vineyard at Pompeii

Vineyard at Pompeii

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Floor mosaic in the house of a wealthy Pompeii family

Theatre at Pompeii

Theatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Amphitheatre at Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Gladiator fight advertising in Latin in Pompeii

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Pompeii Forum, the town's main square

Street in Pompeii

Street in Pompeii

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Animal mural in Pompeii house

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Changing room at the Stabian Baths in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Plaster cast of dog killed by eruption of Mt Vesuvius in Pompeii

Posted by urbanreverie 05:16 Archived in Italy Tagged trains italy naples pompeii archaeology railways toilets ancient_rome Comments (0)

Upon this rock I will build my church

rain
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

I awoke at midday on 11 November 2019, my first full day in Rome. I am not ashamed of this fact. I needed the sleep. It was also raining rather heavily outside. And Rome kind of sucks and the city could wait. Yes, Rome has an impressive list of must-see sights that ought to be on every traveller’s bucket list. But that doesn’t change the fact that Rome still kind of sucks. I needed to recharge in the cosy, elegantly minimalist confines of my room so that I could summon the strength to face whatever crap the city could throw at me.

I eventually shuffled out of the Empire Suites, had breakfast – lunch, really – at a nearby organic eatery that had the most confusing system of ordering one’s food that I have ever seen, and walked the short distance to Vatican City. Even in the driving rain, St Peter’s Square is a wonder to behold. It is massive and makes you feel like an insignificant ant, yet the circular colonnades that almost completely enclose the square give it an intimate air. The obelisk in the centre of the square serves as an anchor, a point of reference that helps to make the lonely individual standing out in the open square feel not quite so lost.

Standing watch over the square is St Peter’s Basilica, the mother church of the entire Roman Catholic Church, the most powerful religious institution the world has ever known. There was a lengthy queue winding around the square in the shelter of the colonnades with thorough security screening before you could enter the church.

And what a church! There is no other building anywhere on Earth that is so expertly designed to inculcate in the visitor a stunned, unavoidable reverence for a Supreme Being. I was so awestruck that I had to restrain myself from begging one of the many priests to baptise me into the Christian church right then and there.

In my daily life in Australia, my attitude to religion oscillates between “apathetic indifference” and “trenchant hostility”. When I think of religion, I typically think of people like Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Reverend Fred Nile, Lyle Shelton, Cardinal George Pell, Margaret Court and other hypocritical, self-serving, sanctimonious Bible-bashers who pervert the words of Jesus Christ – the great man who they claim to worship – and try to impose their twisted, deformed beliefs on the rest of society to justify bashing the poor and unemployed, discriminating against LGBT people, oppressing women, and exalting the wealthy and privileged. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see religion sent to the bottom of the sea. It’s fairly safe to say that religion and I are not close friends.

When I travel, something weird happens. I become not only interested in religion but appreciative of it. I love visiting churches, temples, mosques, and learning about the history of the religions in the countries I visit and what those religions believe. I even occasionally pray in some of the places of worship I see. That’s not like me at all. The last time I prayed while not travelling was on the day Donald Trump was elected – sometimes prayer is all we have.

St Peter’s Basilica was no different. I ambled around the immense space of this chief church of Catholicism for a long time – I lost track of time, it was several hours, I believe. There are so many chapels off to the side, so many paintings, so many grottoes, so many murals, so many tombs of dead Popes, so many altars, so many gilded ceilings, so many inscriptions.

Taking pride of place in the Basilica is the Baldachin, a structure over the Papal altar and the tomb of St Peter that looks a bit like one of those old four-poster beds. This bronze shelter is so elaborately carved with impressive fluted spirals billowing up each of the four posts that it would make a famous tourist attraction in its own right.

Closer towards the entrance to the Basilica is a chapel containing one of the world’s most famous statues, Michelangelo’s Pietà. This harrowing depiction of a mournful Mary embracing the corpse of her son Jesus is pure perfection in brilliant white marble. Even the stigma on Jesus’s right hand looked so realistic that I half-expected it to start bleeding.

While I was looking at all the magnificent art and trying to decipher the many Latin inscriptions a procession entered the Basilica and slowly went up the aisle. There was a priest carrying a large crucifix at the head of the parade but most of the people behind him were laity. I am guessing they were from the Latin America. The look of devotion and of ecstasy beaming from their faces as they chanted a Spanish hymn while their hands were clasped in front of their chests made me wonder if my irreligious life and upbringing isn’t missing something.

I left St Peter’s Basilica shortly after sunset and had a late lunch – or possibly an early dinner – at a nearby restaurant. It was yet another tourist rip-off joint serving microwaved pasta and stale fruit cake with an exorbitant service charge that didn’t appear on the menu added to my final bill. I wish there was an easy way of telling apart these places from the genuine Italian trattorie.

I caught the metro to the Spanish Steps. I don’t get it. They are just steps! Yes, they’re somewhat more ornate than most steps, and they have appeared in a lot of movies – but they are just steps! I climbed the steps anyway and promptly climbed back down them. I can get exactly the same experience just by climbing up and down the steps in my apartment building. The nearby Column of the Immaculate Conception, a pillar topped with a copper statue of the Mary the Queen of Heaven crowned with a ring of stars dedicated in 1854, was far more interesting.

Also far more interesting was another sight not far away, the Trevi Fountain. Now this is something worth seeing. What a wonderful fantasy in stone and water with billowing carvings of rocks, of vines, of horses, of angels. The surging throngs of tourists couldn’t detract from the magic of the Trevi Fountain.

As I walked away from the fountain up a side street, one of the teeming hordes of scam artists, pickpockets and beggars accosted me. He was at least six foot six tall and intimidating as hell itself. He stepped into my path.

“Hey, man! Your shoes! They’re black! Black, just like Africa. Where are you from?”

At the best of times I don’t like strangers on the street trying to strike up conversation with me. Perhaps it’s my British ancestry that makes me so reserved. But considering Italy’s reputation for rampant petty criminality, I was on high alert. I guessed that he was trying to draw attention to my shoes so that he could pick my pockets while my gaze was directed down at the ground. “No thanks, I’m not interested,” I said firmly.

“Why? Why don’t you want to talk to me?” I tried to sidestep around him but he kept blocking me no matter which direction I tried to go.

This pushed my buttons. “FUCK OFF!” I shouted as loud as I could with a decidedly un-British lack of reserve. The street was crowded with tourists and I hoped that drawing attention to him might stop him from proceeding with his nefarious intentions.

It worked. He was visibly shocked. Perhaps not many tourists have given him the expletive-laden ear-bashing he so rightfully deserved. As I walked away there was mock outrage. “What? Fuck you too, man! What did I ever to do you?” he shouted at me with the most unctuous air of fake offence.

God damn it, Italy. A First World country would have at least a half-competent law enforcement system that would effectively deal with these thieves and liars and scammers. Perhaps Italy is not a First World country.

I get the feeling that Italy, along with other similar countries on Europe’s dysfunctional Mediterranean fringe, trades upon its past greatness. Look how great Rome was two thousand years ago! Look how great Florence was five hundred years ago! This is all well and fine. Perhaps it would be finer if Italy tried being great now.

I tried catching a metro to Termini station to explore a bit more of Rome’s public transport system, but the metro station was closed for repairs. Apparently it had been for many months. I found a bus stop with a large crowd of other people waiting in the rain. I waited forever and ever. I looked at the list of bus routes on the bus stop sign, there were at least half a dozen going to Termini. I waited. I kept waiting. After about fifteen minutes a bus finally appeared. It was so full that hardly any of the people at the stop could get on. Stuff this for a joke.

I ended up walking to the next metro station in the heavy rain. I’m glad I did, otherwise I wouldn’t have come across the circular Piazza della Repubblica with its centrepiece fountain and gently arcing colonnades surrounding the roundabout.

From there I caught a jam-packed Line A train to San Giovanni and changed to an even more crowded train on the new Line C that serves the south-eastern suburbs. I got off the driverless train at Mirti in the suburb of Centocelle. I emerged from the underground station into a pleasant working-to-middle-class neighbourhood of peach-painted apartment buildings and buzzing squares. The rain had cleared, families and friends were ambling through the neighbourhood in large groups chatting loudly and amicably – the famous passeggiata, the evening stroll that is such an integral part of Italian urban life.

I stopped at a gelateria and bought the yummiest gelato ever, two massive scoops and a cone for only two euros. It would cost me about three times as much in Sydney. People on the street greeted me with a smile. I stopped at a real estate agent and looked at the window. One-bedroom apartments in Centocelle were selling for €120,000; two-bedders for €180,000 – about one-third of the price of apartments in my part of Sydney. I found a cosy little tavern and had an entirely creditable beer and pizza, not microwaved trash, for a very cheap price and served by friendly staff. I couldn’t believe I was still in the same city as the scoundrel who assaulted me the night before with his baby’s stroller, the restaurateur who charged me a small fortune for microwaved fettucine carbonara or the pickpocket who wouldn’t get out of my way. Perhaps the bad things I was thinking of Italy were unfounded to an extent.

It was getting quite late and it was time to get back to my hotel. There was another railway line nearby – the Giardinetti Line. Rome has three railway lines called “local railways”, they are isolated lines that connect outer suburbs to various points on the metro network. The Giardinetti Line feeds into Termini station from the south-eastern suburbs and is operated by ancient little yellow and white trains – more like trams, actually – on narrow 950-millimetre gauge track. My train back to Termini was noisy, draughty, a little bit sketchy but great fun. Who needs transport museums when you have Rome’s decrepit public transport system?

St Peter's Square

St Peter's Square

Nave of St Peter's Basilica

Nave of St Peter's Basilica

The Chair of St Peter

The Chair of St Peter

Dome of St Peter's Basilica

Dome of St Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo's Pietà

St Peter's Baldachin

St Peter's Baldachin

Tomb of Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica

Tomb of Pope John Paul II in St Peter's Basilica

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

Column of the Immaculate Conception

Column of the Immaculate Conception

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica

Gelato in Centocelle

Gelato in Centocelle

Giardinetti Line train at Centocelle station

Giardinetti Line train at Centocelle station

On board the Giardinetti Line train

On board the Giardinetti Line train

Posted by urbanreverie 09:10 Archived in Italy Tagged churches architecture fountains public_transport rome vatican_city railways Comments (0)

All railroads lead to Rome

sunny
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

My train to Rome was not due to leave Firenze Santa Maria Novella station until 12:17 on Saturday the tenth of November 2019 so I had plenty of time to squeeze in some more Florence sights before I left.

Or so I thought.

I was silly, I thought seeing things would be as simple as rocking up to the venue in question, waiting a short while in a queue, buying a ticket and going in. Hardy har har. Combine the dysfunctional organisational skills of Italians with the insane numbers of tourists that would put even the famous efficiency of the Swiss or the Japanese under unbearable strain and you have the recipe for hordes of disappointed visitors who should have been smarter and bought their tickets online.

First, I tried the Palazzo Vecchio, the fourteenth-century castle-like building that was the administrative centre of the Republic of Florence. Apart from the magnificent apartments of the Medici clan, the chapels and the banquet halls, the Palazzo also has a reputed art gallery. I eagerly joined the long queue. After several minutes I realised the queue was not moving. I thought that perhaps the Palazzo was not yet open, but I peered over the shoulders of people in front of me and the ticket counters were indeed open, it’s just that the staff were so slow and inefficient that the queue never moved.

I decided to give the Palazzo Vecchio the flick and head to a nearby church, the Orsanmichele Church. The front door of this significant fourteenth-century place of worship was open. Yay! So I went in, but couldn’t go any further than a couple of metres because the church was closed for renovations. Bugger. At least I got a few glimpses of the stained glass windows and the back of the splendidly Gothic tabernacle.

After having no luck getting into the Duomo the day before, I thought I might have a better shot today. But of course, it was Sunday! And the Duomo is a cathedral. Which means it is a church. Which means that people use that church for worship. The Duomo was closed to the public all day for what appeared to be a never-ending succession of Masses, as were the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella.

There was one sight I managed to experience before catching my train – the Mercato Centrale (Central Market). This is a two-storey affair, not especially historic (I am guessing it was built in the late nineteenth century) but attractive enough. The bottom floor is Florence’s wholesale produce market. Being a Sunday this section was closed but it was just the same grotty collection of forklifts, pallets, carboard boxes and the overpowering stench of rotten cabbage that you find in wholesale produce markets all over the world. Upstairs was open though, and what a great place it was! There were rows of fancy food shops – delicatessens, butchers, gelaterias, wine bars, cheese shops – underneath an impressive glass canopy.

The Mercato Centrale was a foodie’s paradise and I regretted that I had already eaten a distinctly crappy breakfast at yet another rip-off restaurant. I had enough space in my stomach for a cannolo though. Cannoli are reasonably common at cake shops in Australia, a doner kebab-like roll of pastry with a sweet cream filling, but the cannoli I have had back home cannot compare to the one I had at the Mercato Centrale. The dusting of crushed pistachios made what was already a superior cannolo simply divine.

Time was fleeing so I went back to Tina’s apartment, fetched my backpack from my room, exchanged heart-felt farewells with Tina, and hauled my pack the short distance to Firenze Santa Maria Novella station.

I didn’t have to wait too long until my train appeared. There are two companies that run high-speed rail services in Italy – the government-owned Trenitalia with its Frecce services, and the privately-owned Italo. My Italo train, a sleek, stylish thing the colour of Sangiovese wine, glided silently into the platform, came to a stop, and I waited while a scrum of people trying to get on were pushing against plenty of other people were trying to get off. God damn it, Italy!

I finally settled into my seat in the Prima ambience. Italo trains don’t have classes like normal trains, but ambiences. The marketing guff is that no ambience is better than one another, they are just different, and passengers get to choose which ambience suits them the best. It just so happens that some ambiences are more expensive and have more room than other ambiences – in descending price order, Club, Prima, Comfort and Smart. It’s a load of advertising industry bullshit if you ask me.

Despite the cringeworthy wankery of Italo’s “ambiences”, it was an awesome train. The service was great, the carriage was antiseptically clean, the seat was comfortable, the Wi-Fi, USB ports and power points were greatly appreciated. An attendant came around with a trolley and served a free and entirely creditable cup of espresso coffee with an apricot pastry as I watched the scruffy Tuscan countryside speed past at 250 kilometres per hour.

The Italo train arrived at Roma Termini on time at 13:50, only ninety-three minutes after leaving Florence. Roma Termini is not the most pleasant station I have ever seen, but it is enormous and rather dizzying. In terms of size, its bland glassy modernist architecture and the kinds of retail and fast food outlets that clog all the corridors, it reminds me more of an international airport than a railway station. It took me forever to find the Rome Metro platforms.

I finally found my Line A platforms – the signage in Roma Termini was nothing short of appalling – I bought a weekly Rome public transport ticket and I boarded my dirty, crowded metro train for my six-station trip to Ottaviano. I know it was very early in my stay in Rome but I disliked the city already. There was a harshness of manner among the people I encountered at Roma Termini and on the metro that I found a little disquieting. It seemed as if many people had a chip on their shoulder, a hardness in their eyes, like they were just waiting for the opportunity for someone to look at them the wrong way so they could punch them. The clashing scrums of people trying to get on and off the train at the same time at the various stations seemed like further evidence that Rome wasn’t going to be a nice city.

I basically had to fight my way off the train at Ottaviano. I emerged from the grim, dim, brown metro station onto the street above. This neighbourhood wasn’t too bad. Prati is an affluent suburb of neat late nineteenth-century apartment buildings on broad tree-lined avenues; this neighbourhood was built to house all the public servants who moved to Rome when it became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy after the Risorgimento. Prati seemed in a way more Parisian than Roman.

I found my hotel – a large apartment divided into about five hotel rooms, really – called the Empire Suites. The elderly owner greeted me like a long-lost friend. Perhaps I was wrong in my first impression of Rome.

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Ow-strah-lia,” he said.

This happens a lot in Italy. Every man and his dog has a close relative who lives in Ow-strah-lia. “Wow, that’s nice.”

“He-a leeve in Seedanee. Where in Ow-strah-lia you leeve?”

“I’m from Sydney too.”

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Manly. You-a know heem?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Sydney has over five million people, a population greater than even Rome’s, and that unfortunately I had yet to make acquaintance with each and every Sydneysider. “No, sorry, I don’t know him. Manly is very nice though. It’s expensive. It has a very nice beach. Lots of pine trees along the beach.”

He seemed pleased that his son had made enough of a success of himself to live in such an agreeable and wealthy suburb.

After checking in and dumping my backpack in my room I went for a walk. It was fairly late in the afternoon on a Sunday, I wouldn’t be able to explore any museum or major sight. I decided to indulge in my love of geography instead.

The Empire Suites was a fifteen-minute walk from the State of Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. There aren’t many countries where you can walk around the entire country in a leisurely ninety-minute stroll. I had yet to walk around any country. I was determined to change this.

I started at the north-eastern corner of Vatican City and walked clockwise around the country. The country is only forty-nine hectares, about twice the size of Australia’s largest shopping centre. The border is quite easy to follow, the vast majority of it consists of a very high brick wall enclosing the church property within – the Apostolic Palace, St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens, the Pope’s personal railway station and heliport.

Many people think the State of Vatican City is ancient, as old as the Roman Catholic Church itself. In reality it is a twentieth-century invention. For over a millennium the Pope was not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church but also the ruler of the Papal States which covered most of central Italy. When Garibaldi and his troops invaded the Papal States in 1870 and reunified Italy in the Risorgimento the Pope refused to recognise the new Italian kingdom. A succession of Popes for six decades refused to leave the church’s headquarters on the Vatican Hill – they described themselves as “prisoners of the Vatican”.

In 1929 the Pope and Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini came to an agreement, the Lateran Treaty. In return for the Pope recognising Italian sovereignty, the Catholic Church would have its own sovereign state, the State of Vatican City, which would likewise be recognised by Italy. This sovereign state, as miniscule as it is, would at least allow the Holy See to conduct diplomatic relations with other countries and provide a secular base from which to manage the entire Catholic Church worldwide, just as the old Papal States did. It is no coincidence that Vatican City has the same flag as the erstwhile Papal States.

After one and a half hours and four kilometres I completed my circumnavigation of Vatican City. Hooray! How many countries have you walked around the entire circumference? I’ve walked around a whole country and you haven’t. So nur nurny nur nur.

The sun was setting and I decided to explore some of Rome’s public transport system. It’s not very good. To be honest, most Australian cities have better public transport than Rome, which is a rather unusual thing to say about a European city. Only a small part of the Rome metropolitan area is covered by the three-line metro system, the trams are dirty and ancient and also only cover a very small part of the urban area, the buses are infrequent and difficult to navigate, signage is abysmal and transport services are often so crowded you can’t get on board.

I caught a route 19 tram from Piazza del Risorgimento to the Policlinico hospital on Rome’s eastern side. Route 19 travels in a long arc from just outside Vatican City in the west through Rome’s northern suburbs and then out to the east. The tram was battered, filthy, ugly, slow, rattly, draughty and uncomfortable.

After what seemed an eternity I alighted at the tram stop at Policlinico. The tram stop was a narrow platform squeezed between the tram tracks and the traffic lanes of a busy arterial road. A pedestrian crossing was at the far end of the tram platform. The tram I was on was occupying the track. In front of me was a wizened, hunched old woman – perhaps deaf, perhaps demented, perhaps both – standing in the centre of the platform. I kept asking politely if she could move so I could get past her. “Scusi? Spiacente? Umm ... hello? Buona sera? Could you move over a bit, please, so I can get past? Umm … ciao? Scusi? Hello? Can you hear me? Per favore? Hello?” No matter what I said, the old woman wouldn’t budge.

I soon felt a series of very sharp jabs in my calves. I turned around to see a young father pushing a stroller with his baby in it against my legs with his wife just behind him. “Scusi!” he snarled.

I snapped. Like most people, I don’t take too kindly to being physically assaulted. “What? Are you f#$%ing blind, you dumb c#$t? Can’t you f&*%ing see that there is this old bitch in front of us who won’t f@#%ing damn well move? For f*$!ing f*#&’s sake!” It’s very hard to be angry in a language you don’t know well so I reverted to English.

“No! No! No!” he shouted at me, assaulting me even harder with his baby’s stroller. He looked like he was about to smash my face in. Thankfully a small gap in the traffic suddenly appeared and I was able to jump off the platform onto the street and run across to the footpath.

Stuff Rome and stuff Italy.

I took the metro four stations on Line B from Policlinico to Colosseo. The Colosseum wasn’t open being well after sunset but it was pleasantly lit in a soft golden hue. I reflected upon the absurdity of how the Ancient Romans built a stadium and it is still standing two thousand years later while the government of my state of New South Wales is wasting $2.3 billion on knocking down two perfectly good stadiums built twenty and thirty years ago and building new ones to replace them. I would have to return in the daytime when it was open.

I then caught a bus back to Prati. Without an Italian SIM card (thanks a bloody lot, the Gorizia TIM shop), it was hard to find public transport information. The bus stop signs just showed a list of routes with no maps or timetables. After stumbling around the neighbourhood for ages I finally found the stop for the bus route I wanted. I then waited forever for the bus. In most European cities the buses, trams and trains are so frequent that you don’t need timetables, the vehicles just seem to magically appear as if your mere presence at the stop is enough to conjure it from thin air. Rome is not your typical European city. I was grateful when my bus finally appeared so I could grab dinner and retreat to my hotel room. I had the feeling that I would need to recuperate in order to strengthen myself for whatever Rome might throw at me over the next few days.

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

Posted by urbanreverie 08:18 Archived in Italy Tagged trains borders italy public_transport florence rome vatican_city Comments (0)

City of Lilies

overcast
View Urban Reverie Late 2019 on urbanreverie's travel map.

Florence is an Italian city with an intensely savoury history. It is the venerable cradle of the Renaissance, that heady epoch when Western civilisation threw off the suffocating shroud of superstition and embraced enlightenment in the arts, in commerce, in politics. The town lays claim to being one of the birthplaces of modern capitalism, its merchant bankers financing military adventures, voyages of discovery, great public works. The very word “Florence” evokes the most famous political feuds of all time – the machinations of Machiavelli, the meddling of the Medicis.

I’m sure that history was waiting to be discovered. It was just rather difficult to find it among the dense crowds of thousands of tourists.

What you are about to read makes me a monstrous hypocrite, I am quite aware of this. I am going to write it anyway – there are way, WAY too many tourists in Florence. If I found the crowds difficult to handle on a grey, slightly chilly day in November, I would hate to see what Florence is like in August when the whole of Europe shuts down and everyone goes on holiday.

There appears to be no economic activity in Florence save for that related directly to tourism – rip-off restaurants, rip-off hotels, rip-off souvenir shops, rip-off ice cream vans, pickpockets, con artists. How on earth can a city retain its priceless heritage, hold true to its historical values, maintain its special way of life if every single person on the street is a tourist, if the city becomes nothing but a theme park for the amusement of short-term visitors? What will keep the city going if those tourists suddenly stop coming – a major war, say, or an economic depression, or crude oil running out making international travel prohibitively expensive?

I don’t know what the solution is. Maybe some sort of rationing system where you have to buy one of a limited number of vouchers to stay in Florence, sort of like what the government of Bhutan does. Or perhaps make the visitors stay in hotels in the suburbs or nearby towns with good public transport links to the historic centre. I don’t know. I’m sure there is a solution that balances preserving all the things that make a city special and allowing people from elsewhere to enjoy those things.

I still made a good attempt at enjoying those things as I shuffled out of Tina’s apartment and onto the crowded streets of Florence’s compact city centre in the late morning of Saturday, 9 November 2019. In no place which I have hitherto visited have so many architectural gems been crammed into so small a space as in Florence. The jewel, of course, is the Duomo, which is just as spectacular in daylight as it is at night. I couldn’t visit the interior of the cathedral, for some reason it was closed for much of the day and it was almost impossible to buy tickets. I went to one place to buy tickets only to be told that they didn’t sell tickets despite the massive sign outside saying Duomo tickets were sold there. God damn it, Italy!

There are plenty of other churches worth seeing – the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and of Santa Maria Novella among many. I hardly see why these other churches less than five minutes’ walk from the Duomo were necessary. Surely the entire population of Florence could fit within the enormous bulk of the Duomo, rendering the others superfluous?

I ambled through the Piazza della Signoria, one of the chief squares, on which is the striking castle-like Palazzo Vecchio, the “Old Palace” that was the centre of Florentine power. There is a plaque on the square marking the very spot where Girolama Savonarola was burnt at the stake in 1498. Savonarola was a populist priest who vehemently campaigned against the corruption of the ruling elite of the Republic of Florence and the perfidy of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. As reward for his efforts, the aforementioned elite executed him. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine the scene – the angry denunciations by the shills of the Medicis, Savonarola’s devout followers wailing, the crackle of the firewood as Savonarola and two of his fellow priests were consumed by the flames – but I couldn’t. There were too many tourists for me to concentrate on anything else. Naughty tourists.

On one side of the Piazza della Signoria there is a loggia – a sort of open-sided covered courtyard surrounded by arches. Inside the loggia is an astounding collection of statues – Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus, The Rape of the Sabine Women, and many more.

A short walk south brought me to the banks of the Arno, a wide, rapid, muddy river the colour of Milo. A short distance downstream was one of Italy’s most famous bridges, the Ponte Vecchio. The “Old Bridge” is one of those mediaeval bridges that is lined with houses and shops. I crossed the bridge along with about a million other people. It was suffocating. Every shop – every single shop – along the bridge was selling jewellery. I don’t quite understand what the connection is between this particular bridge and jewellery. I mean, back in Sydney, Castlereagh Street is known for its jewellery shops, but it’s also a part of Sydney that is full of very well-paid business executives and finance workers so that sort of makes sense. But why the Ponte Vecchio? Why not elsewhere in Florence? I am mystified. I must confess that buying jewellery was the last thing on my mind as I tried to negotiate my way through the chaotic mêlée.

I walked back towards the Piazza della Signoria and waited in a very long, slow queue to buy tickets for admission to the Uffizi, one of the world’s most famous art galleries. It was worth the wait.

The Uffizi consists of two long buildings with a wide courtyard – more like a street – between them, and the two buildings are connected to each other at one end by a skyway. The word “Uffizi” literally means “offices”; they were built to house the offices of the public service of the Republic of Florence. Even now the Uffizi looks vaguely governmental. On each storey of each building there is a long corridor with large windows opening out onto the courtyard and off to the sides of the corridors away from the courtyard are rooms that used to house individual offices. I could easily imagine public servants waddling to and fro along the corridors carrying hefty files, ducking out for a smoko in the courtyard, gossiping in the doorways to the side offices. Nowadays the corridors are mostly dedicated to the Uffizi’s collection of statues while the paintings are in the side rooms.

Where do I begin? Unlike Michelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, there is no single work of art that defines the Uffizi. The collection is so heterogeneous, the buildings so vast, that without looking at my photographs I can only remember a handful of paintings. But what a collection nonetheless! The Uffizi is ordered chronologically. The visitor starts in the Middle Ages – church triptychs, crucifix paintings, that sort of thing. Then in the late fifteenth century something very special happened right there in Florence – somebody discovered perspective. This changed art forever.

As the Renaissance marched on, artists experimented and discovered more techniques that made their works even more realistic – light and shadow, focus, mist in the background to accentuate the foreground. The depiction of facial expressions became more nuanced, more accurate in their expression of human emotion. I particularly admired Judith Beheading Holofernes by Artemisia Gentileschi, a seventeenth-century female artist who herself had been the victim of sexual assault and no doubt enjoyed a visceral revenge in her painting of a heroine decapitating a grotty old man. There were plenty of works by Botticelli, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Rembrandt and many other great masters of the Renaissance.

Towards the end I found the Uffizi boring. Not because the art was poor, but because the art was great and there was far too much for my puny mind to absorb in one go. As I have written before, even beauty becomes boring if you have too much of it. So shortly before closing time I gratefully spilled out onto a street behind the Uffizi.

By this time I was starving and I picked the nearest restaurant I could find – a somewhat American-style diner that sold burgers, hot dogs, hot chips and the like. I love Italian food but I felt like a change so I went there. I ordered a cheeseburger, chips and Coke. It took forever even though there were few customers. When it arrived I began to eat one of the most disappointing meals I have ever had. The burger had limp, mushy lettuce, a stale bun and a charred, desiccated beef patty. The chips were disgusting little things, almost certainly frozen chips from the supermarket. When it was time to pay I was given the bill. It was about sixteen euros, roughly five euros more than I had expected.

“What the f#$?” I shouted involuntarily. This was much more than the price given on the menu stuck to the wall outside. I argued with the arrogant, distinctly unlikeable proprietor.

He shrugged his shoulders. “Service charge,” he said dismissively.

“Service charge? What bloody service charge? I didn’t see anything about a f#$%ing service charge!” I squeaked several octaves above my usual vocal range.

“Yes, issa right here,” he said as he pointed to fine print at the bottom of the back of the in-house menu. And what do you know, there was a massive service charge plain to see – if you were carrying an electron tunnelling microscope around with you, which I doubt few tourists do.

I gulped and paid my bill and glared at the restaurateur like the Devil himself. If I were any angrier I probably would have been inclined to do my very own Judith and Holofernes re-enactment.

The sun was setting and I decided to climb the Campanile, the Duomo’s bell tower. I bought a ticket and climbed the stairs as the sun set over Tuscany. It was a hard slog but I have climbed enough church towers in Europe by now to know what to expect. I emerged up the top and watched the last light tickle the horizon as Florence twinkled below. It was a magical sight far above the madding crowd, a city of terracotta roof tiles and church steeples and narrow yellow-lit streets set in a bowl of Tuscan mountains. The waxing moon rising in the east made the view even more enticing. The great red-bricked bulk of the dome of the Duomo loomed close in sight, a work of art in its own right.

I also had a look inside the Baptistry, an octagonal building in front of the Duomo and part of the cathedral. Oh goodness, how much beauty can one see in one day? Surely it is possible to overdose. Gilded frescoes of the most lustrous sheen adorned the interior of the dome while the floor had the most perfectly laid patterned tiles. The altar shone as if it were a portal to Heaven itself.

I retired to my room for a while then went out for a late-night dinner. Unlike Sydney where it is nearly impossible to get a decent bite to eat after nine o’clock nowadays and citizens are expected to tuck themselves into bed at sunset like good little boys and girls (thanks a bloody lot, Liberal Party!), European cities are very well suited to night owls such as myself. I wasn’t going to leave Florence without trying the most famous dish of the City of Lilies, bistecca alla Fiorentina. This literally means “Florence steak”. So I flicked through Tina’s notebook on the desk in my room and found a nearby trattoria she recommended. I was sceptical – it’s just a steak, how could it possibly be any better than steaks back home? Oh boy, how wrong I was.

I don’t know the magical secrets of Florence’s chefs. I don’t know what they do to make a slice of cow flesh taste so great – so tender and so juicy yet with just the right amount of flavourful charring. It was certainly a fitting crescendo to my final night in Florence. Despite all the sham, the rip-off merchants, the impenetrable thickets of ambling tourists, some of its historical magic still manages to shine through. Bravo!

Florence Duomo and the Baptistry

Florence Duomo and the Baptistry

Palazzo Vecchio, the centre of power in the Republic of Florence

Palazzo Vecchio, the centre of power in the Republic of Florence

"Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus" at the Loggia dei Lanzi on the Piazza della Signoria

"Menelaus Supporting the Body of Patroclus" at the Loggia dei Lanzi on the Piazza della Signoria

Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river

Ponte Vecchio over the Arno river

A typical corridor of the Uffizi

A typical corridor of the Uffizi

Maestro della Croce, "Crucifix and Eight Stories from the Passion", ca. 1240

Maestro della Croce, "Crucifix and Eight Stories from the Passion", ca. 1240

Leonardo da Vinci, "Annunciation", ca. 1472-5

Leonardo da Vinci, "Annunciation", ca. 1472-5

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith Beheading Holofernes", ca. 1620-1

Artemisia Gentileschi, "Judith Beheading Holofernes", ca. 1620-1

Filippo Lippi, "Madonna and Child with Two Angels", 1460-5 - a very early example of perspective in painting

Filippo Lippi, "Madonna and Child with Two Angels", 1460-5 - a very early example of perspective in painting

The Tribune of the Uffizi with its shell-lined dome

The Tribune of the Uffizi with its shell-lined dome

"The Birth of Venus", Sandro Botticelli, 1480s

"The Birth of Venus", Sandro Botticelli, 1480s

Caravaggio, "The Sacrifice of Isaac", ca. 1603-4

Caravaggio, "The Sacrifice of Isaac", ca. 1603-4

Perugino, "Portrait of a Young Man", ca. 1494

Perugino, "Portrait of a Young Man", ca. 1494

Giovanni Bellini, "Lamentation over the Body of Christ", 1500-1506

Giovanni Bellini, "Lamentation over the Body of Christ", 1500-1506

Dome of the Duomo and Florence at night

Dome of the Duomo and Florence at night

Florence at sunset from the Duomo Campanile

Florence at sunset from the Duomo Campanile

The dome of the Baptistry of the Florence Duomo

The dome of the Baptistry of the Florence Duomo

Altar of the Baptistry of the Florence Duomo

Altar of the Baptistry of the Florence Duomo

Campanile bell tower of the Florence Duomo

Campanile bell tower of the Florence Duomo

Bistecca alla fiorentina

Bistecca alla fiorentina

Posted by urbanreverie 08:28 Archived in Italy Tagged churches art architecture italy florence cuisine Comments (0)

(Entries 1 - 5 of 54) Page [1] 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 .. »