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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)

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