A Travellerspoint blog

July 2020

Upon this rock I will build my church

rain
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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)

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