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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)

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)

All railroads lead to Rome

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My train to Rome was not due to leave Firenze Santa Maria Novella station until 12:17 on Saturday the tenth of November 2019 so I had plenty of time to squeeze in some more Florence sights before I left.

Or so I thought.

I was silly, I thought seeing things would be as simple as rocking up to the venue in question, waiting a short while in a queue, buying a ticket and going in. Hardy har har. Combine the dysfunctional organisational skills of Italians with the insane numbers of tourists that would put even the famous efficiency of the Swiss or the Japanese under unbearable strain and you have the recipe for hordes of disappointed visitors who should have been smarter and bought their tickets online.

First, I tried the Palazzo Vecchio, the fourteenth-century castle-like building that was the administrative centre of the Republic of Florence. Apart from the magnificent apartments of the Medici clan, the chapels and the banquet halls, the Palazzo also has a reputed art gallery. I eagerly joined the long queue. After several minutes I realised the queue was not moving. I thought that perhaps the Palazzo was not yet open, but I peered over the shoulders of people in front of me and the ticket counters were indeed open, it’s just that the staff were so slow and inefficient that the queue never moved.

I decided to give the Palazzo Vecchio the flick and head to a nearby church, the Orsanmichele Church. The front door of this significant fourteenth-century place of worship was open. Yay! So I went in, but couldn’t go any further than a couple of metres because the church was closed for renovations. Bugger. At least I got a few glimpses of the stained glass windows and the back of the splendidly Gothic tabernacle.

After having no luck getting into the Duomo the day before, I thought I might have a better shot today. But of course, it was Sunday! And the Duomo is a cathedral. Which means it is a church. Which means that people use that church for worship. The Duomo was closed to the public all day for what appeared to be a never-ending succession of Masses, as were the Basilicas of San Lorenzo and Santa Maria Novella.

There was one sight I managed to experience before catching my train – the Mercato Centrale (Central Market). This is a two-storey affair, not especially historic (I am guessing it was built in the late nineteenth century) but attractive enough. The bottom floor is Florence’s wholesale produce market. Being a Sunday this section was closed but it was just the same grotty collection of forklifts, pallets, carboard boxes and the overpowering stench of rotten cabbage that you find in wholesale produce markets all over the world. Upstairs was open though, and what a great place it was! There were rows of fancy food shops – delicatessens, butchers, gelaterias, wine bars, cheese shops – underneath an impressive glass canopy.

The Mercato Centrale was a foodie’s paradise and I regretted that I had already eaten a distinctly crappy breakfast at yet another rip-off restaurant. I had enough space in my stomach for a cannolo though. Cannoli are reasonably common at cake shops in Australia, a doner kebab-like roll of pastry with a sweet cream filling, but the cannoli I have had back home cannot compare to the one I had at the Mercato Centrale. The dusting of crushed pistachios made what was already a superior cannolo simply divine.

Time was fleeing so I went back to Tina’s apartment, fetched my backpack from my room, exchanged heart-felt farewells with Tina, and hauled my pack the short distance to Firenze Santa Maria Novella station.

I didn’t have to wait too long until my train appeared. There are two companies that run high-speed rail services in Italy – the government-owned Trenitalia with its Frecce services, and the privately-owned Italo. My Italo train, a sleek, stylish thing the colour of Sangiovese wine, glided silently into the platform, came to a stop, and I waited while a scrum of people trying to get on were pushing against plenty of other people were trying to get off. God damn it, Italy!

I finally settled into my seat in the Prima ambience. Italo trains don’t have classes like normal trains, but ambiences. The marketing guff is that no ambience is better than one another, they are just different, and passengers get to choose which ambience suits them the best. It just so happens that some ambiences are more expensive and have more room than other ambiences – in descending price order, Club, Prima, Comfort and Smart. It’s a load of advertising industry bullshit if you ask me.

Despite the cringeworthy wankery of Italo’s “ambiences”, it was an awesome train. The service was great, the carriage was antiseptically clean, the seat was comfortable, the Wi-Fi, USB ports and power points were greatly appreciated. An attendant came around with a trolley and served a free and entirely creditable cup of espresso coffee with an apricot pastry as I watched the scruffy Tuscan countryside speed past at 250 kilometres per hour.

The Italo train arrived at Roma Termini on time at 13:50, only ninety-three minutes after leaving Florence. Roma Termini is not the most pleasant station I have ever seen, but it is enormous and rather dizzying. In terms of size, its bland glassy modernist architecture and the kinds of retail and fast food outlets that clog all the corridors, it reminds me more of an international airport than a railway station. It took me forever to find the Rome Metro platforms.

I finally found my Line A platforms – the signage in Roma Termini was nothing short of appalling – I bought a weekly Rome public transport ticket and I boarded my dirty, crowded metro train for my six-station trip to Ottaviano. I know it was very early in my stay in Rome but I disliked the city already. There was a harshness of manner among the people I encountered at Roma Termini and on the metro that I found a little disquieting. It seemed as if many people had a chip on their shoulder, a hardness in their eyes, like they were just waiting for the opportunity for someone to look at them the wrong way so they could punch them. The clashing scrums of people trying to get on and off the train at the same time at the various stations seemed like further evidence that Rome wasn’t going to be a nice city.

I basically had to fight my way off the train at Ottaviano. I emerged from the grim, dim, brown metro station onto the street above. This neighbourhood wasn’t too bad. Prati is an affluent suburb of neat late nineteenth-century apartment buildings on broad tree-lined avenues; this neighbourhood was built to house all the public servants who moved to Rome when it became the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy after the Risorgimento. Prati seemed in a way more Parisian than Roman.

I found my hotel – a large apartment divided into about five hotel rooms, really – called the Empire Suites. The elderly owner greeted me like a long-lost friend. Perhaps I was wrong in my first impression of Rome.

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Ow-strah-lia,” he said.

This happens a lot in Italy. Every man and his dog has a close relative who lives in Ow-strah-lia. “Wow, that’s nice.”

“He-a leeve in Seedanee. Where in Ow-strah-lia you leeve?”

“I’m from Sydney too.”

“My-a son, he-a leeve in Manly. You-a know heem?”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him that Sydney has over five million people, a population greater than even Rome’s, and that unfortunately I had yet to make acquaintance with each and every Sydneysider. “No, sorry, I don’t know him. Manly is very nice though. It’s expensive. It has a very nice beach. Lots of pine trees along the beach.”

He seemed pleased that his son had made enough of a success of himself to live in such an agreeable and wealthy suburb.

After checking in and dumping my backpack in my room I went for a walk. It was fairly late in the afternoon on a Sunday, I wouldn’t be able to explore any museum or major sight. I decided to indulge in my love of geography instead.

The Empire Suites was a fifteen-minute walk from the State of Vatican City, the world’s smallest country. There aren’t many countries where you can walk around the entire country in a leisurely ninety-minute stroll. I had yet to walk around any country. I was determined to change this.

I started at the north-eastern corner of Vatican City and walked clockwise around the country. The country is only forty-nine hectares, about twice the size of Australia’s largest shopping centre. The border is quite easy to follow, the vast majority of it consists of a very high brick wall enclosing the church property within – the Apostolic Palace, St Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Gardens, the Pope’s personal railway station and heliport.

Many people think the State of Vatican City is ancient, as old as the Roman Catholic Church itself. In reality it is a twentieth-century invention. For over a millennium the Pope was not only the spiritual head of the Catholic Church but also the ruler of the Papal States which covered most of central Italy. When Garibaldi and his troops invaded the Papal States in 1870 and reunified Italy in the Risorgimento the Pope refused to recognise the new Italian kingdom. A succession of Popes for six decades refused to leave the church’s headquarters on the Vatican Hill – they described themselves as “prisoners of the Vatican”.

In 1929 the Pope and Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini came to an agreement, the Lateran Treaty. In return for the Pope recognising Italian sovereignty, the Catholic Church would have its own sovereign state, the State of Vatican City, which would likewise be recognised by Italy. This sovereign state, as miniscule as it is, would at least allow the Holy See to conduct diplomatic relations with other countries and provide a secular base from which to manage the entire Catholic Church worldwide, just as the old Papal States did. It is no coincidence that Vatican City has the same flag as the erstwhile Papal States.

After one and a half hours and four kilometres I completed my circumnavigation of Vatican City. Hooray! How many countries have you walked around the entire circumference? I’ve walked around a whole country and you haven’t. So nur nurny nur nur.

The sun was setting and I decided to explore some of Rome’s public transport system. It’s not very good. To be honest, most Australian cities have better public transport than Rome, which is a rather unusual thing to say about a European city. Only a small part of the Rome metropolitan area is covered by the three-line metro system, the trams are dirty and ancient and also only cover a very small part of the urban area, the buses are infrequent and difficult to navigate, signage is abysmal and transport services are often so crowded you can’t get on board.

I caught a route 19 tram from Piazza del Risorgimento to the Policlinico hospital on Rome’s eastern side. Route 19 travels in a long arc from just outside Vatican City in the west through Rome’s northern suburbs and then out to the east. The tram was battered, filthy, ugly, slow, rattly, draughty and uncomfortable.

After what seemed an eternity I alighted at the tram stop at Policlinico. The tram stop was a narrow platform squeezed between the tram tracks and the traffic lanes of a busy arterial road. A pedestrian crossing was at the far end of the tram platform. The tram I was on was occupying the track. In front of me was a wizened, hunched old woman – perhaps deaf, perhaps demented, perhaps both – standing in the centre of the platform. I kept asking politely if she could move so I could get past her. “Scusi? Spiacente? Umm ... hello? Buona sera? Could you move over a bit, please, so I can get past? Umm … ciao? Scusi? Hello? Can you hear me? Per favore? Hello?” No matter what I said, the old woman wouldn’t budge.

I soon felt a series of very sharp jabs in my calves. I turned around to see a young father pushing a stroller with his baby in it against my legs with his wife just behind him. “Scusi!” he snarled.

I snapped. Like most people, I don’t take too kindly to being physically assaulted. “What? Are you f#$%ing blind, you dumb c#$t? Can’t you f&*%ing see that there is this old bitch in front of us who won’t f@#%ing damn well move? For f*$!ing f*#&’s sake!” It’s very hard to be angry in a language you don’t know well so I reverted to English.

“No! No! No!” he shouted at me, assaulting me even harder with his baby’s stroller. He looked like he was about to smash my face in. Thankfully a small gap in the traffic suddenly appeared and I was able to jump off the platform onto the street and run across to the footpath.

Stuff Rome and stuff Italy.

I took the metro four stations on Line B from Policlinico to Colosseo. The Colosseum wasn’t open being well after sunset but it was pleasantly lit in a soft golden hue. I reflected upon the absurdity of how the Ancient Romans built a stadium and it is still standing two thousand years later while the government of my state of New South Wales is wasting $2.3 billion on knocking down two perfectly good stadiums built twenty and thirty years ago and building new ones to replace them. I would have to return in the daytime when it was open.

I then caught a bus back to Prati. Without an Italian SIM card (thanks a bloody lot, the Gorizia TIM shop), it was hard to find public transport information. The bus stop signs just showed a list of routes with no maps or timetables. After stumbling around the neighbourhood for ages I finally found the stop for the bus route I wanted. I then waited forever for the bus. In most European cities the buses, trams and trains are so frequent that you don’t need timetables, the vehicles just seem to magically appear as if your mere presence at the stop is enough to conjure it from thin air. Rome is not your typical European city. I was grateful when my bus finally appeared so I could grab dinner and retreat to my hotel room. I had the feeling that I would need to recuperate in order to strengthen myself for whatever Rome might throw at me over the next few days.

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Orsanmichele Church in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

Cannolo at the Mercato Centrale in Florence

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

On board the Prima carriage on the Italo train from Florence to Rome

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

High-speed Italo train at Roma Termini station

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Antique 1940s tram in Rome

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Pontifical Swiss Guards on sentry duty at the Vatican City border

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Most of the border of the Vatican City is a very high, sloping brick wall

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Tram at Piazza del Risorgimento in Rome

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

Train on Line B of the Rome Metro

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

Posted by urbanreverie 08:18 Archived in Italy Tagged trains borders italy public_transport florence rome vatican_city Comments (0)

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