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A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum

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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)

Upon this rock I will build my church

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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)

City of Lilies

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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)

A slice of Pisa

rain
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It seems unavoidable that roughly three weeks into any of my overseas journeys I am always overcome by a certain fatigue. It’s not ordinary sleepiness, it’s not depression, it’s not physical exhaustion. It’s just a kind of psychological fatigue, this state of jaded apathy, this idea that I’ve seen far too much already and nothing I could possibly see today could be anything better than all the amazing things I’ve seen already so why bother getting out of bed? It’s just so much nicer to stay under the doona and fart around on Facebook and Twitter on my iPhone instead.

It was early afternoon on Friday 8 November 2019 when I summoned the grit to get out of bed, shower and dress. I walked in the drizzle the short distance to Firenze Santa Maria Novella station along tight little streets lined with market stalls, most of which appeared to be selling genuine knock-off brand-name handbags. Handbags. So many handbags. How many handbags does the world need? The stench of vinyl was confronting, as were the tactics of the stallholders who kept stepping into my path, shoving handbags right under my nostrils and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Do I even look like the kind of person who would want to buy a handbag? For crying out loud. Just leave me alone, you dickheads.

I entered the vast, dull brown brick box of Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, bought my ticket under the not terribly watchful eyes of bored Italian Army soldiers carrying machine guns who looked like they would much rather be anywhere else, and boarded the Regionale Veloce (“Fast Regional”) train to Pisa Centrale, a long train of white, green and blue carriages with electric locomotives at each end. My carriage was empty when I boarded, but right before departure the carriage filled up with a large group of young male friends holding an extraordinarily animated conversation who wouldn’t quieten down. For Christ’s sake. I wish Italians came with some sort of remote control with volume buttons and a mute button on it so I could shut them up.

Of course, such a remote control doesn’t exist so I moved to another carriage which was slightly quieter. I toyed with the idea of using the earplugs I keep in reserve for long-haul flights. The train headed west down the valley of the Arno river through utterly uninteresting industrial towns and after about an hour it arrived at Pisa Centrale station.

There is only one real reason why most people come to Pisa, that reason naturally being the Leaning Tower, and I was no exception. The Leaning Tower was built in 1372 as the campanile (bell tower) of the adjacent Duomo (cathedral). The vast majority of European cathedrals are constructed in the very heart of the old town but for some reason Pisa’s cathedral was built well outside the city walls. Even now it is on the edge of town several kilometres northwest of the railway station.

I bought a bus ticket from a vending machine outside the railway station and caught a local bus to the Campo dei Miracoli, the “Field of Miracles”. Campo dei Miracoli is a large grassed enclosure containing the Leaning Tower, the Duomo, the Baptistry and other associated buildings.

I got off the bus and had to brave yet more sleazy market stallholders to enter the enclosure. I saw the Leaning Tower of Pisa at the other end of the Campo dei Miracoli with thousands of tourists milling around it. At first, I was underwhelmed. I had seen so many photographs of the Leaning Tower in my life, had seen it so often on TV and in movies, that it seemed too commonplace to be remarkable. It is only when I got close that I realised how special the tower is. It is leaning! It has been leaning for six hundred years! How has it leaned all these years without collapsing? Even if it weren’t leaning it would be a most remarkable specimen of campanile architecture and still worth seeing.

I bought a ticket to a tour of the tower. Tickets are limited and you have to buy a ticket for a certain time block to prevent the narrow stairwell being too crowded. A guide took us into the ground floor of the centre of the tower. The tower is hollow; you can look straight up to the sky. The interior of the tower is also very plain, there is none of the elaborate ornamentation you see on the exterior. On the middle of the ground floor is a pillar with a surveyor’s level affixed to the top; surveyors use this to measure any movement in the tower.

After the guide told us the history of the tower and rattled off a list of facts and figures, we were allowed to walk up the spiral staircase between the hollow centre and the external galleries. This was fun – because the tower is inclined, the staircase is much steeper on one side than the other.

There is an excellent view over the Campo dei Miracoli from the uppermost gallery of the Leaning Tower and the surrounding countryside. Pisa is a university city on the lower reaches of the Arno a few kilometres inland from where it flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The landscape is flat and marshy with mountains to the east. On top of the Leaning Tower is the ancient flag of the mediaeval Republic of Pisa, a red banner adorned with a white cross with bulb-like protuberances extending from the end of each cross.

The sun was setting as I descended the Leaning Tower. I entered the Duomo next door. The Duomo, a Romanesque cathedral built in 1092, was nearly empty except for a tiny number of other tourists I could count on both hands. This is a travesty. The Duomo of Pisa, if it isn’t the most magnificent cathedral I have visited, is right up there. The gilded ceilings! The amazing mosaic of Jesus Christ on his throne in the apse above the altar! The frescoes! The elaborate chapels off to the sides! The nine century-old mummified corpse of Saint Rainerius! The most skilfully sculpted pulpit you will ever see! The Duomo was far more inspiring than its mere bell tower just outside yet it was empty. Thousands of tourists were all gawking at the Leaning Tower and taking perspective-based photos of themselves holding the tower up with their fingers, and right in front of their noses is one of the world’s greatest religious buildings that they don’t want to enter? Philistines!

It was getting fairly late. After visiting one of the dozens of shonky market stallholders to buy a stainless steel model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my tower collection that sits on top of my stereo at home, I went for a nice easy walk into the centre of Pisa a couple of kilometres away. There were no tourists. A constant procession of tourist coaches come in their hundreds every day to the Campo dei Miracoli for tourists to take a few silly photos of the Leaning Tower who then promptly get back onto the coach and bugger off. They don’t know what they’re missing. Pisa is a university city with an awesome vibe, of young people enjoying themselves sensibly, of bars and bookshops and cafés and restaurants with affordable food. How European university cities make me wish I were young again!

I found a pizzeria where I ordered an Aperol Spritz and a pizza called “quattro stagioni” – four seasons. One quarter of the pizza had ham, another quarter had olives, the next quarter had artichokes, and the last quarter had mushrooms, each quarter representing a different season. Yum.

I walked a short way along the wide, muddy Arno, each bank lined with an illuminated promenade. I crossed the river and waited for my train back to Florence. The Regionale Veloce arrived on time at 21:32, a double-deck electric train with comfortable seats that was nearly empty. The train sped through the rain back to Firenze Santa Maria Novella where I arrived an hour later. The jaded apathy had faded. Perhaps a slice of Pisa is all I needed to get over my travel fatigue.

Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station

Firenze Santa Maria Novella railway station

Train from Florence to Pisa

Train from Florence to Pisa

Campo dei Miracoli

Campo dei Miracoli

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa Duomo and the Leaning Tower

Pisa Duomo and the Leaning Tower

Looking up the middle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the bottom

Looking up the middle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa from the bottom

View over the Campo dei Miracoli from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

View over the Campo dei Miracoli from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa

View east from the Leaning Tower over Pisa's suburbs

View east from the Leaning Tower over Pisa's suburbs

Front facade of the Pisa Duomo

Front facade of the Pisa Duomo

Nave of the Pisa Duomo

Nave of the Pisa Duomo

Apse of Pisa Duomo

Apse of Pisa Duomo

Pulpit in Pisa Duomo

Pulpit in Pisa Duomo

Mummified remains of Saint Rainerius in Pisa Duomo

Mummified remains of Saint Rainerius in Pisa Duomo

Campo dei Miracoli at night

Campo dei Miracoli at night

Leaning Tower of Pisa at night

Leaning Tower of Pisa at night

Street in central Pisa on a Friday evening

Street in central Pisa on a Friday evening

"Quattro stagioni" pizza in Pisa

"Quattro stagioni" pizza in Pisa

The Arno river in Pisa at night

The Arno river in Pisa at night

Train from Pisa to Florence

Train from Pisa to Florence

A model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my collection

A model of the Leaning Tower of Pisa for my collection

Posted by urbanreverie 06:56 Archived in Italy Tagged architecture cathedrals italy pisa towers Comments (0)

Alea iacta est

semi-overcast
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San Marino is a fantastic little country but there wasn’t much to detain me for more than two nights. I had to keep exploring the world, so I had a buffet breakfast at the Hotel Joli, checked out, and walked up to the bus interchange to wait for the 10:30 bus back to Rimini on the brilliantly sunny morning of Thursday 7 November 2019.

San Marino’s sole public transport link to the rest of the world is a single bus route that runs between the City of San Marino and Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast ten times a day. I boarded the comfortable modern bus – this time the driver put my five-euro note in the cash tray and gave me a ticket, what refreshing honesty – and the bus almost rolled downhill along the hairpin bends like a pinball in a waterslide all the way to Rimini. It entered the city (not much traffic this time), went past the Augustus Arch which was once the main gate to the city on the road from Rome and is still used by pedestrians two millennia later, and then to the nearby railway station where I disembarked.

Rimini is a mid-sized city on Italy’s eastern Adriatic seaboard and is best known for its immense length of beach lined with resort hotels; Italy’s Gold Coast. However, unlike the Gold Coast, Rimini actually has history and culture. Rimini has a historically significant old town. I had some two hours until my train so I went for a stroll.

First, I walked along the waterfront of Rimini’s ancient port to the Tiberius Bridge, a gleaming white span of stone arches. I walked across it. This is more amazing than it sounds. The Tiberius Bridge is two thousand years old, dating from the time when, well, Tiberius was Emperor of Rome. It is still in use and not just by Australian backpackers. Cars, trucks, Vespas, cyclists and pedestrians all use this two-millennia structure to get between Rimini’s city centre and its northern neighbourhoods. I smiled as I crossed it. In the Sydney suburb of Parramatta there is a sandstone arch bridge from the 1830s built by convicts, the Lennox Bridge is seen as a historic treasure and especially ancient. Ha. I learned about the Roman Empire at school, but learning about antiquity in history lessons is only in the abstract. When I walked on a structure built by a glorious long-dead empire that I have only ever known from textbooks – what a magnificent sentiment that experience aroused.

I headed back across the river to the historic centre following ancient city walls and then into the Piazza Cavour, Rimini’s main square, with its fifteenth-century church and Arabesque town hall. A short walk away through narrow, cosy shopping thoroughfares is the Malatesta Temple. This fifteenth-century church was built by Sigismondo Malatesta, a local nobleman, in honour of his mistress. God damn it, Italy!

I went back to the station. There was a left luggage office in there. When I arrived in Rimini I had intended to store my backpack there, but it was closed with a sign on the door that said in Italian “Back in 5 minutes”. I had waited five minutes and there was no sign of the attendant so I explored Rimini with my backpack on. When I returned to the station the office was still closed and there was an American couple standing in front of it waiting for it to open. They had been waiting twenty minutes. I told them of my experiences and advised them not to bother. God damn it, Italy!

After a yummy lasagne for lunch at the station restaurant, my first of two trains of the day arrived, the all-stations Regionale 6464 scheduled to depart at 13:15. It was a very nice train, an Alstom Pop, a brand-new sleek and shiny three-car electric train with USB chargers and comfortable high-back seats. I was impressed. Except for the annoying habit of only showing the next train on the platform displays several minutes before the train is due and not showing arrivals and departures in different colours on the displays in the booking hall, I have no complaints about Italian trains so far. They are reasonably frequent, comfortable, and (by European standards, not Australian standards) rather cheap. My fare to Florence was €13.95, hardly extortionate for a 163 kilometre journey.

The Alstom Pop took off from Rimini on the ruler-straight dead flat main line that runs along the very southernmost edge of the Po Valley plain where it meets the Apennine mountains. It stopped at every town, the service was well used and in parts it was standing room only. At one point I crossed the Rubicon. Yes, I did. A short distance north of Rimini the train crossed the Rubicon, a small muddy stream. It was hard to believe that such a puny river is of such historical importance. I said “alea iacta est” as the train went over the river – blink and you’ll miss it – even though I was crossing in the opposite direction to Julius Caesar who illegally led his army the other way back into the territory of the Roman Republic.

About forty-five minutes later I got off at the town of Faenza where I had only a few minutes to change to a small three-car diesel train along the minor branch line from Faenza to Florence. This mountainous line crosses the Apennines, following a vineyard-lined valley through tunnels and viaducts and the kind of ramshackle villages you see in television advertisements for pasta sauce. The terrain got steeper with forested mountains cleft by rushing rivers and scattered farms. After passing through a long tunnel the line descended the other side of the Apennines and into the grimy suburbs of Florence, a landscape of neglected apartment buildings and desolate railway stations where every surface was covered in graffiti.

At about four o’clock the train terminated at Firenze Santa Maria Novella station, Florence’s main railway terminus. I took a photo of my train. I guess you could call it Florence and the Machine.

Santa Maria Novella station is not what I was expecting from Florence. The station was built in the Fascist era and is a bland, utilitarian, modernist brick warehouse. Surely Italy’s greatest jewel of the Renaissance deserves a railway station more in keeping with the city’s aesthetic ethos?

It was about a fifteen minute walk to my room in my Airbnb host’s apartment. After climbing four stories – very high stories – a lovely young woman, Tina, welcomed me into her apartment. I do have ethical qualms about Airbnb, I do not think it is fair that tourists push locals out of their city’s rental market. But this is a spare bedroom in an apartment owned by Tina, a setup I am OK with.

Tina showed me around her gorgeously decorated apartment. Tina is a fashion designer of Serbian origin who moved to Florence to pursue her career. She showed me how to use her Bialetti Moka Pot – believe me, it takes practice. I couldn’t manage to brew anything except burnt charcoal toxic sludge or weak light-brown piss. I think I will stick with my trusty coffee plunger (what Australians call French presses) at home.

After dumping my luggage I kept exploring because there was something that was about to close soon. Only a few blocks away was the Galleria dell’Accademia. There is a statue in there you may have heard of. For some reason, I got free admission – I don’t know why, perhaps because it was close to closing time, but the front desk waved me through. I stepped in and then I saw it. Michelangelo’s David.

There is a psychiatric disorder called Stendhal’s Syndrome. It is caused by people seeing an immensely beautiful work of art and then descending into hysteric delirium so severe that staff have to call the police who haul the unfortunate sufferer off to the nearest lunatic asylum for a lengthy stay, presumably involving a frontal lobotomy, electro-convulsive therapy and a hundred different pills. I almost fell victim to Stendhal’s Syndrome. That is how beautiful David is.

How do I describe it? It’s like all the photographs you’ve seen, only better. The detail, man, the detail! The bulging veins on David’s wrist. The subtle definition of all the muscles. The determination in his face. The tinea on his left foot. No human being could possibly have made a sculpture so perfect; David must have been divinely inspired. There is no alternative rational explanation.

Though the Galleria dell’Accademia is smaller and not as well known as the Uffizi, it still has plenty of other artworks, some of them quite notable – The Rape of the Sabines, mediaeval triptychs, Renaissance portraits of Florentine nobles. They just can’t compare to Michelangelo’s David so I don’t really remember them.

I went on an evening ramble through Florence’s astounding historic old town. The centrepiece is the Duomo, the city’s cathedral. This is an unusual church – from afar it has a whimsical look, almost like it is a dollhouse constructed of coloured cardboard. When you look at the walls up close, you see that it is made of the most exquisite marble in multiple colours – white, green, pink. The pride in work of the artisans who built this thing was extraordinary.

Tina had given me plenty of restaurant recommendations all neatly written in a notebook left on the desk in my room. I chose a pasta restaurant. Pasta restaurants aren’t uncommon in Italy, but this one was special – the pasta was fresh. By “fresh”, I mean “the pasta does not even exist when you order it and a grinning Nonna makes it right there in front of your eyes”. Back home I buy expensive Italian pasta from the deli section of a greengrocer’s shop near my place, but now that I have eaten freshly made pasta, nothing I can buy in Australia could possibly compare. I’ve been spoilt.

My post-prandial perambulations led me through the Piazza della Repubblica, a large nineteenth-century square where a merry-go-round, ice cream stand and con artists were doing a roaring trade, and along the buzzing streets of Florence. I love European cities at night. So much life, so much spirit, so many things to do and see and eat and drink and buy, without any of the violence and bad attitude you see in Australian cities on weekend nights. Why does Australia have to be so … so … so bogan?

Mount Titano from the highway leaving San Marino

Mount Titano from the highway leaving San Marino

Augustus Arch in Rimini

Augustus Arch in Rimini

Tiberius Bridge

Tiberius Bridge

Malatesta Temple

Malatesta Temple

My train from Rimini to Faenza

My train from Rimini to Faenza

Train from Faenza to Florence

Train from Faenza to Florence

Vineyards near Brisighella

Vineyards near Brisighella

Apennines scenery between Faenza and Florence

Apennines scenery between Faenza and Florence

A very grotty railway station in Florence's suburbs

A very grotty railway station in Florence's suburbs

"David"

"David"

The other side of "David" you never see on postcards

The other side of "David" you never see on postcards

David's tinea

David's tinea

Duomo of Florence

Duomo of Florence

Piazza della Repubblica

Piazza della Repubblica

Posted by urbanreverie 02:02 Archived in Italy Tagged art trains architecture italy florence railways san_marino rimini apennines roman_empire Comments (0)

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