A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

overcast

There was something about Rome that sapped my energy, my lust for life. I can’t put my finger on exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the beggars, scam artists and pickpockets that infest every tourist attraction. Perhaps it was the terrible public transport – by far the worst I have seen in Europe – that made getting around the city a blasted chore. Perhaps it was the insane traffic with kamikaze drivers of farty little Fiats pretending they were playing Super Mario Kart. Perhaps it was the grime, the disorder, the rip-off restaurants, the rudeness and aggression of many of the people. Perhaps it was all of these things combined.

Whatever the cause, I was sick of it. So the grey morning of Thursday, 14 November 2019 was yet another day when I took my sweet time getting ready to emerge from the Empire Suites, my last full day in Europe before the pandemic.

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

As I left the apartment building on Viale Giulio Cesare I noticed three little brass plaques embedded in the footpath. I bent over and took a closer look. On the plaques were inscriptions in Italian – basic biographical details of the lives of three people who used to live in the building. Giulio Mortera was born in 1870 and was murdered in 1943 in Auschwitz a week after being arrested in Rome. His daughter Jole, born in 1904, was also deported to Auschwitz and was killed at an unknown time and place. His wife Virginia, born in 1866, was arrested and murdered on the same days as her husband.

We all know of the horrors of the Holocaust in the abstract, but to see these unassuming little plaques telling me that I am staying in the same building as where Holocaust victims lived was a profoundly moving experience. The very stairs I had just descended were also used by SS officers to drag innocent people to their slaughter. To be honest, I had no idea that the tentacles of the Holocaust reached this far south – I knew that Northern Italy became a Nazi puppet state after the coup that deposed Mussolini’s Fascist regime, but I didn’t know that this puppet state, the so-called Italian Social Republic, went as far south as Rome.

There are plaques like these in pavements all over Europe. They are called Stolpersteine, German for “stumbling stones” – there is a project to install a Stolperstein outside the homes of every Holocaust victim.

I caught a very crowded metro train to the Colosseum. As I tried to alight from the train at Colosseo station I had to fight against a scrum of boarding passengers who refused to let people get off first. “Let people get off the train first, you f#$%ing morons!” I admonished. I was forced to lunge between two people just to exit the carriage and for my troubles some jerk pushed my back with such force that I almost fell onto the platform. God damn it, Italy.

I waited in an eternal queue to buy my ticket to enter the Colosseum and then climbed the stairs to the upper galleries of the stadium. I would like to say that the Colosseum took my breath. It didn’t. I had seen it in so many photographs and television programmes that I felt no sense of wonder. The Colosseum is also much smaller than I expected. I thought you would be able to host a football match in it, but it’s probably only large enough for a beach volleyball game – the oval playing area is eighty metres long and forty-six metres wide. (For comparison, the Sydney Cricket Ground is a hundred and eighty-six metres long and a hundred and forty-five metres wide.) Then there was the fact that everyone else took their sweet time taking the same photos over and over again and not being quick about it, thereby blocking me from trying to get around the place.

The Hypogeum of the Colosseum

The Hypogeum of the Colosseum

Most of the field surface has been removed revealing the hypogeum, the intricate system of corridors, dressing rooms, service areas, trapdoors and the like through which the gladiators, animals, performers and condemned criminals were transported up to the surface. To be honest, I found this the only interesting thing about the Colosseum.

The Colosseum is right outside the Forum, the civic heart of Ancient Rome. Between the Colosseum and the Forum are two triumphal arches, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus, the latter being the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

The Arch of Titus is on the Via Sacra, the ceremonial axis of the Forum and essentially Ancient Rome’s main street. The Via Sacra still leads to the visitor’s entrance to the Forum.

The Via Sacra also contains the greatest concentration of scoundrels in all of Italy. I was accosted three times by these miscreants on the short walk from the Colosseum to the Forum. They are utterly merciless. Florence was teeming with these con artists too but at least there they had the good sense to take a firm yet polite “no, thanks” for an answer. Their counterparts in Rome were not so diffident.

Their schtick is the same as the ones who hang around the Trevi Fountain. They will step into your path with astounding dexterity and make it impossible for you to step around them. They will draw attention to your shoes. “Hi man, your shoes are black, just like Africa. I am from Africa. Where are you from?” And I suspect that while your gaze is directed at your shoes, they or an accomplice will rifle your pockets or backpack and rob you blind.

I was having none of it. I managed to extricate myself from the first two with some difficulty but the third boxed me in against a retaining wall along the side of the Via Sacra.

“Just leave me alone, I don’t want to talk to you,” I said.

“Why? Why don’t you like talking to the black man? Are you racist? You’re racist!”

“For f#$%’s sake, just let me pass!”

He then shouted to all the passers-by. “Look everyone, here’s a racist! He doesn’t like talking to the black man! Look everyone, a RACIST!”

“I’m not a f#$%ing racist, I just have the right to walk around this city without you miserable mangy mongrels blocking me wherever I go!” I shouted back.

“RACIST! This man’s a RACIST!”

He then let me walk away and he didn’t disturb me any longer. A Scottish family visiting Rome were passing, heard the exchange, saw that I was a little shaken and asked if I was OK. They let me walk with them the rest of the way to the ticket office.

When I reached the ticket office I saw a little corner in the retaining wall, stood there off to the side of the streaming crowds and discreetly looked back. I saw what they were trying to do. These rascals would only ever approach single travellers, occasionally couples. I saw one of these pieces of trash try to manoeuvre his hands towards a possible victim’s watch but never quite getting there. Then one of these contemptible criminals saw that I was looking at him. He flipped me the bird and gave me a look that let me know in no uncertain terms that I would most likely end up at the bottom of the Tiber river if I kept watching him.

The emperor's personal stadium at Domitian's Palace

The emperor's personal stadium at Domitian's Palace

Discretion was the better part of valour so I bought a ticket and entered the Forum. First I explored Palatine Hill. This is one of the original Seven Hills of Rome. It was the site of the emperor’s residence and is the place from which the English word “palace” is derived. Most of Palatine Hill is taken up by the ruins of Domitian’s Palace. This palace had its own stadium for the sole pleasure of the emperor. Though most of the roofs had gone, many of the walls and much of the brilliant white marble floors still remained.

Next to the Palatine Hill in a valley is the Circus Maximus where chariot races were held. The outline of the racecourse is still visible but it is now surrounded on all sides by busy roads.

Next to the palace on Palatine Hill is the Farnese Gardens, one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe and founded in the Renaissance by a cardinal. The gardens contain a belvedere from which a view can be obtained over the Forum and the Colosseum in the valley below.

View of Forum and Basilica of Maxentius from Farnese Gardens

View of Forum and Basilica of Maxentius from Farnese Gardens

I then descended from the gardens down to the Forum. The Forum is strange. It is a stunning collection of ruins in various stages of dilapidation, from “still almost intact” to “an unidentifiable jumble of rocks”. The strange thing though is that it is surrounded on all sides by a very much intact city.

Here’s an analogy. The city of Sydney was founded in 1788 when the British arrived on the First Fleet; they established the colony on the shores of Sydney Cove around what is now Circular Quay – this area from the very beginning was the city centre and it still is; the area around Circular Quay probably has Australia’s greatest concentration of skyscrapers.

Now imagine that for whatever reason, some time in the nineteenth century, the area around Circular Quay had been abandoned. Meanwhile, the rest of the city was still active and Sydney grows up and expands around the abandoned area, but Circular Quay was left to fall into ruins. This is sort of what happened to the Forum.

In most European cities of ancient pedigree, the classical heart is still the city centre; whatever ancient buildings still exist are part of the urban fabric and sit alongside newer buildings. In Rome, however, the Forum seems detached from the life of the city, an archaeological park for the amusement of tourists, almost like a zoo but with columns and pediments instead of giraffes and elephants.

It makes sense when you learn more about the history of Rome. After the Western Roman Empire fell in the fifth century AD, Rome declined. And I mean, declined. The city lost most of its population, about seventy-five percent. The people who remained in the city clustered around the bend inside the Tiber river to the west of the Forum; this area became the new heart of Rome. Not only was the Forum abandoned, but over the centuries the Catholic Church thought it would be a smashing idea to pillage the Forum of stone with which to build their magnificent cathedrals and basilicas elsewhere.

Temple of Castor and Pollux at the Roman Forum

Temple of Castor and Pollux at the Roman Forum

Hence the modern visitor to the Forum can see the eerie sight of a tympanum teetering on crumbling columns at the Temple of Castor and Pollux; the Basilica of Maxentius, an enormous basilica with half of the building missing revealing huge vaults enclosing the interior that bring to mind an empty egg carton cut lengthwise and turned upside down; and more jumbles of stones, foundations, crypts, steps and walls than you could possibly remember.

The Roman Forum was interesting enough but I had to keep exploring. I was accosted by two more ruffians asking about my shoes along Via dei Fori Imperiali. Thankfully this street is wide and windswept; it was easier to get away from them than in the narrow confines of the Via Sacra. When I got to Piazza Venezia I saw a building with a sign – “CARABINIERI”. A police station!

I went in, not to report a crime, just that I was curious about what these scam artists are up to. Surely they aren’t pickpockets. I don’t know much about picking people’s pockets, but these people were too loud and too aggressive – wouldn’t pickpockets prefer not to draw attention to themselves? They weren’t trying to sell me anything, they didn’t seem to have any wares with them. So what were they up to?

My extensive travels in over two dozen countries have led me to formulate Urban Reverie’s Theorem of Law Enforcement. It’s a simple rule: “the more corrupt, dysfunctional, authoritarian, ineffective, violent, incompetent or lazy a police force is, the smarter their uniform will be.” It is an ironclad law, totally beyond refutation. Take the Netherlands for instance, probably the most liberal, safest, least corrupt, best governed country on earth. Their police wear these horrible slobby tracksuit jackets with fluorescent stripes on them that make them look like roadworkers. Or how about Sweden? Their police wear these dorky little brimless hats that make them look like McDonald’s employees.

On the other hand, the uniforms of the Carabinieri are very, very, very smart.

I entered the beautiful yet dim police station. It really was a work of art. I walked across the tiled floor to the timber counter with its brass bars. Behind the counter were three Carabinieri officers. They looked splendid in their crisp black uniforms with epaulettes and white sashes and red stripes down the seams of the trousers.

The three officers – two men and one woman, if I remember rightly – were gossiping among themselves languidly. I think “languid” is the right word. If they had had any less energy they would have been comatose and I would have had to call 112 for an ambulance.

After a small eternity one deigned to finally notice my presence. I explained in my very broken Italian – none of them could speak a word of English – that I wasn’t there to report a crime, I just wanted to know what these men hanging around tourist attractions were trying to do.

Nero?” one of them asked.

Si. Nero,” I nodded.

Another of them yawned. “Si. Tutti nero.,” he said mid-yawn.

They tried to explain in Italian what they were doing but I couldn’t understand, so one of them turned Marcel Marceau and tried to explain by mime – something to do with watches; he kept stroking his fingers around his wrist with a circle.

So they were watch thieves! That explained it.

“But what are you doing about it? There are criminals out there right now almost within sight of this building trying to rob tourists left, right and centre! So why are each of you just sitting here doing nothing but yawning and gossiping? There is crime to fight out there! So get to work, you lazy bludgers! What the f#$k are the taxpayers of Italy paying you to do?” I wish I had said. But I didn’t. Mainly because my Italian isn’t good enough. The Carabinieri officers seemed to really resent my presence and the fact that I had interrupted their somnolent chatting, so I left.

Vittoriano

Vittoriano

Across the Piazza Venezia is a monument of stupendous proportions, the Vittoriano. It looks ancient but it was only completed in 1935 in honour of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The Vittoriano is an orgy of ornamentation, a massive faux-Classical wedding cake of columns and quadrigae, a marble pile sitting on top of a hill of immense stairs. It almost hurts to look at the Vittoriano, not because it is necessarily ugly but because of its scale and the elaborate, ostentatious decorations covering every available square inch.

The sun was getting very low in the sky and I hadn’t had lunch yet. I came across a restaurant on either Via del Plebiscito or Corso Vittore Emanuele II. There was an English menu on the wall outside. I knew it wasn’t going to be great but I didn’t care, I was hungry. I think I ordered a lasagna with salad.

It was one of the vilest meals I ever ate, the customer service was blatantly rude and disgusting, my food took forever to arrive, and of course there was a massive hidden service charge added to my bill. I grudgingly paid and as I left, I finally figured it out – when in Italy, never, ever, ever eat at a restaurant that has an English menu. If you ever come across a restaurant in Italy that has any sort of English menu or signage, run and do not look back lest ye turn into a pillar of salt. Even if you can’t read a single word of Italian, don’t even think of going into such a restaurant. Don’t! I regret that it took me until my final day in Italy for me to finally learn this law.

Pantheon

Pantheon

A short distance north is the Pantheon. Visiting the Pantheon was a sure-fire antidote to the bitter taste in my mouth from that so-called “restaurant”. The Pantheon was originally a pre-Christian temple to all the Ancient Roman gods – “pan” being Ancient Greek for “all” and “theos” meaning “god” – but as was their wont, the Roman Catholic Church decided to adapt existing Ancient Roman religion to their faith. Stealing Christmas and Easter and the worship of virgins from the Ancient Roman religion wasn’t enough, they had to take their buildings too.

And what a building. The dome is so vast it is impossible to capture in a single photograph from the inside. In the centre of the dome is an opening to the sky; there is a drain on the floor beneath the opening to remove any rain that might enter the church. The Pantheon is also the final resting place of several members of the former Italian royal family; monarchists have placed wreaths at some of the sarcophagi which are placed at intervals around the edge of the vast circular interior.

I took a leisurely evening stroll through the centre of Rome. There was the Torre Argentina – nothing to do with the South American country; it’s a city square that has a concentration of ancient ruins in a sunken garden surrounded by streets on all sides. There was the Column of Marcus Aurelius with its frieze spiralling up the column. There was Palazzo Chigi, the rather plain residence of the Prime Minister. There was Piazza Navona, a very long square buzzing with life featuring the beautiful Fountain of Moro.

Tiber River at St Peter's Basilica at night

Tiber River at St Peter's Basilica at night

I reached the Tiber river. I did not see it foaming with much blood. Enoch Powell was lying. It’s not the biggest river I have seen nor the most beautiful per se. It does have, however, some amazing views around it. There is the Castel Sant’Angelo, a riverside fortress, and looking downstream an appealing vista presents itself – a long view up the wide boulevard of Via della Conciliazione to the softly illuminated bulk of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. The river is crossed at regular intervals by stone bridges with attractive arches all artistically lit.

It wasn’t far back to my hotel room in Prati so I walked. All the better to avoid having to travel on Rome’s deficient public transport system. I stopped off at a restaurant down the street from my room which specialised in Neapolitan cuisine. Rome, being the national capital, attracts residents from all over Italy to work in the public service or in the many Catholic Church institutions or to study at its universities, so all of Italy’s regional cuisines are amply represented in the Eternal City.

Paccheri with three meat sauce in a Neapolitan restaurant in Rome

Paccheri with three meat sauce in a Neapolitan restaurant in Rome

The restaurant in the basement of an apartment building was great. It was packed. I didn’t have a reservation but they let me in. A band played some jaunty tarantella, the traditional folk dance music of Naples. I started off with antipasto – flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puff – like a samosa, but Italian. The main course was paccheri – smooth tubular pasta about the same diameter as a radiator hose – smothered in a rich three-meat tomato sauce. For dessert I had pastiera Napoletana, a dense tart made of ricotta and dried fruit dusted with icing sugar.

It was certainly a change from the rip-off merchant who dared to sell me a stale microwaved lasagna and limp, rancid salad a few hours earlier. The feast was also a most fitting farewell to Italy. Italy has many problems – corruption, ineffective government, petty crime and dishonesty, regional inequality – but my word, the food, the wine, the beauty, the art, the history and its people’s love of life and laughter must go some way to make up for it, surely.

Bravo, Italia, bravo.

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Stolpersteine on Viale Giulio Cesare

Eastern end of Circus Maximus

Eastern end of Circus Maximus

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Constantine

Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra

Arch of Titus on the Via Sacra

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Column of Marcus Aurelius

Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo

Remains of temple at the Roman Forum

Remains of temple at the Roman Forum

Flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puffs

Flower of pumpkin, mozzarella and anchovy puffs

Pasteria Napoletana

Pasteria Napoletana

Posted by urbanreverie 15:16 Archived in Italy Tagged architecture ruins police italy cuisine rome pantheon colosseum forum crime 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 7) Page [1] 2 » Next