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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)

La dolce vita

rain 16 °C

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vatican Museums

Vatican Museums

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

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

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

Gallery of Maps at the Vatican Museums

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

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

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

PROHIBITED photograph in the Sistine Chapel

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

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

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

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni all'amatriciana at Hostaria Dino e Toni

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

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

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

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Antipasto at Hostaria Dino e Toni

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

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

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

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Ceiling fresco in the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Egyptian mummy at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Statue of Ancient Greek statesman Pericles at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

Adoration of the Magi at the Vatican Museums

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

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

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Rome in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

San Marino in the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

Moon rock samples at the Vatican Museums

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

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

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

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

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Spinach and ricotta pastry at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Rigatoni carbonara at Hostaria Dino e Tony

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

Tiramisu at Hostaria Dino e Toni

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

City of Lilies

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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)

Boy gorge

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

When I met my Airbnb hosts Natalija and Jure on my first morning at Lake Bled, they strongly encouraged me to visit Vintgar Gorge, a ravine several kilometres north of Bled town. They did warn me, however, that there was no public transport there, the shuttle bus to the gorge only runs in summer, and that I would have to seek alternative means of getting there.

I had a lazy Monday morning, I had some leftover snacks I had taken with me on yesterday’s hike at Lake Bohinj for breakfast, and I spent a couple of tedious hours at a laundromat just up the hill. Being the first weekday after a four-day long weekend, the town was suddenly D-E-A-D dead dead dead. I could have lain down in the middle of one of the main streets for hours and not get hit by a car.

I had lunch at a bakery-café opposite the bus interchange near my apartment. While I was having my coffee and pastries for lunch, I saw something I had never seen before – sunshine in Slovenia. Sun, glorious sun! I revelled in it, I turned my chair slightly at my outdoor table so my face could get the full force of that weird yellow object in the sky I hadn’t seen for a week since I was in Hungary.

In Australia I avoid the sun like the plague. Being of mostly British heritage, I have extremely fair skin and I burn to a crisp after a few minutes in the harsh Australian sun, even with sunscreen. I schedule my outdoor activities to late afternoons or after dark or days forecast to be cloudy in order to avoid the dreadful excoriating Australian sunlight. I hate being out in the sun and I simply don’t understand what goes on in the brains of Australians who love spending their days at the beach or playing sports or doing other activities that require being scorched by that blinding fireball in the sky. But in Europe, things are different. The European sun is gentle and golden and reassuring and wholesome. The European sun is simply nice. After a week of being denied the innocent joy of having my skin tickled by those life-giving rays, sipping my coffee in the sun was just too marvellous.

There was a small tour agency inside the bus interchange that advertised tours to Vintgar Gorge, I think for about ten euros they would drive you in a van out there and back and entrance was included in the price. I went inside and asked if I could go that afternoon. The tour agency owner sighed and said, yes, he would take me. He made it clear through his body language and tone of voice that he rather wouldn’t. I guess that having only one person in the van wasn’t very economic.

He told me to meet him at the tour office at three, when he picked me up in a van from the bus interchange and drove me north to Vintgar Gorge. The van travelled through gloriously green countryside in the sunshine. Slovenia looks even more bewitching when the sun is out. The Karavanke mountain range to the north, a forbiddingly solid range of mountains topped with snow, loomed in front of the windscreen. The top of the Karavanke range is the Austrian border.

After about ten minutes I arrived at the Vintgar Gorge car park. The driver said he would meet me back there at five o’clock. I showed my ticket to the park ranger at the entrance and entered the canyon.

Vintgar Gorge is a mile-long ravine carved from the rock by the Radovna river through a ridge that separates Lake Bled from the Sava valley around Jesenice. There is a path the entire way, much of it on a timber boardwalk suspended over the rushing river swollen by the heavy rain of the past week. The opaque river was the colour of turquoise, rushing down the gorge like liquified gems. The water bounced form rock to rock, over logs, through whirlpools, down flumes and into caverns along the side of the gorge. Above the river were limestone cliffs and trees at the seasonal pinnacle of riotous autumn colours.

About three-quarters of the way down the gorge was a beautiful bridge, a high stone arch span so far above I had to crane my neck to look at it. I opened Google Maps on my phone. It was a railway bridge on the famous Bohinj Railway. I opened up the Slovenske železnice website and looked up the timetable. A train was coming in eight minutes! Should I wait around to take a video of a train going over the bridge high above the rushing rapids? Well, duh! So I did.

At the downstream end of Vintgar Gorge, the gorge ends in a waterfall, Slap Šum, where the Radovna river falls down to the plains of the Sava valley. It wasn’t a very high waterfall but it was loud and powerful and very pretty. If Margaret & David At The Movies reviewed waterfalls rather than films, they would have given Slap Šum four and a half out of five stars.

It’s such a pity that I had to meet the driver back at the car park at a fixed time because I could have spent forever in Vintgar Gorge. It was just what I needed with my cold, an easy stroll in the pure mountain air along a stupendous white-water canyon on a brilliant autumn afternoon. So I walked back up the gorge along the boardwalks and rocky paths.

The driver met me back at the car park, drove me back to Bled town as the sun began to set, and I farewelled Bled with another stroll around the east end of the lake. I had one more kremšnita, this time at an open-air restaurant on a terrace looking over the lake opposite the castle. This restaurant claims to have invented the kremšnita back in the 1950s. It was very nice, but I still maintain and I don’t care what Slovenes think – the kremšnita is nothing but an Australian vanilla slice with a layer of whipped cream between the custard layer and the top crust.

After doing some packing and another hearty dinner at a traditional Slovenian restaurant – farmer’s sausage, stewed apples, baked millet porridge – I went back to the gostilna near my apartment. This pub is awesome, and not only because the walls are completely covered with licence plates from all around the world, including several from my home state of New South Wales. I had a stimulating farewell conversation with the bartender, the geography nerd whose company and conversation I had thoroughly enjoyed a few nights earlier. I did a very stupid thing – I forgot to ask if we could add each other to social media. I only dimly remember his name. So if anybody meets a friendly, talkative and somewhat awkward bartender with a slight lisp and a tremendous memory for geographic facts at a pub near the Lake Bled bus interchange, tell him that the fat bearded Aussie guy with glasses who used to live in Bathurst and told him all about Australian licence plates says hello and that I want to send him a jar of Vegemite because I found it difficult to explain what it tastes like.

Sun, glorious sun!

Sun, glorious sun!

Karavanke mountains and countryside north of Bled

Karavanke mountains and countryside north of Bled

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Vintgar Gorge

Bohinj Railway bridge over Vintgar Gorge

Bohinj Railway bridge over Vintgar Gorge

Karawanks from the top of Slap Šum waterfall

Karawanks from the top of Slap Šum waterfall

Slap Šum waterfall

Slap Šum waterfall

Kremšnita and Bled Castle

Kremšnita and Bled Castle

Farmer’s sausage, baked millet porridge and stewed apples

Farmer’s sausage, baked millet porridge and stewed apples

Posted by urbanreverie 06:58 Archived in Slovenia Tagged waterfalls cuisine slovenia gorges Comments (0)

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