Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rome, day seven: last day in Europe

We began with the Queen, or a phantom queen. We never did quite know whether it was the Queen we saw on our first day in Europe, though the newspaper later confirmed four royal women wandering around in black on Rememberance Sunday: Kate, Sophie, Camilla and Elizabeth. Well, there might have been pretenders for the first day, but on our last day in Europe we ended with the Pope. And you can’t really mistake him, if only because he has a window, and there are thousands in St Peter’s Square calling for him, like a rock star. But why were we here? And how did we get here?
Myles was calling for it since we had missed the Pope’s mass on Wednesday. And because he had been so sad about it, we indulged him. We decided to walk to the Vatican through Trastevere; it apparently has the biggest flea market in Rome on a Sunday. Perhaps. But we didn’t come across it. All we saw were some pretty sad little stalls selling pieces from the $2 shop.
Trastevere, according to guide books, is a gentrified former working class suburb. This was interesting because it looks nothing like a former working class suburb. It is all hills and parks and large buildings. It looks, as Myles said, just like South Yarra. It was quite peaceful walking though the suburb on a Sunday; though there were too many hills for most of us. We ended up in a large park on the top of the hill, with people selling balloons and some very excited children having a party, and old men sitting on benches reading the newspaper. It was also quite close to a series of hospitals, so harried people going for visiting. There were lots of busts of people here too, at least three busts of various Garibaldis, who knew there were so many? And a few busts of people (and by people, I mean men) who sported quite spectacular mutton chops. Perhaps they were famous for their beards.
Time was marching on and Myles didn’t want to miss the big moment when the Pope appeared at his window and blessed the crowd. So we stumbled down the steep roads and into Vatican city. This time (unlike the disappointing Wednesday) the place was full to bursting with people, so carrying placards with Mary and Jesus featured (for what? Protest? Support? Is wasn’t clear). There were groups marching around with banners. There was a group who had control of a microphone and an inexhaustible supply of rollicking religious tunes in Italian.
Zelda spotted the carpet laid out from the window of his palace (it was a bit, blink and you miss). The musicians kept playing and we waited. And then, with no fanfare really, the Pope appeared at his window. The group with the microphone happened to be in the middle of a song, and had to kind of fade it quickly as he began to speak.
It was mostly in Italian, all about words and actions and helping the sick and being a good Christian (at least they were the bits I could understand). And then he began to go through a couple of different language. He began with French, then English, then German, then Spanish, then another language we didn’t recognise but thought it was some kind of Eastern European tongue. The kids were quite excited by how many language he could speak. The message in English at least, but possibly replicated across all the language, was that Christ was the way and the light, and that we had to be good. Being good was the big thing.
Then he introduced a young girl and she gave a speech about being good and climbing the mountain to overcome evil and badness and listening to your teachers and parents. It was all a bit depressing really. We left before it all ended.
Myles liked the bit when an American couple walked passed it and suddenly realised that it was the Pope at the window. ‘Shit!’ said one to the other. ‘I think that might be him!’ Ah the yanks. Always good for a laugh.
As it was our last day in Europe on this tour and we were feeling very sentimental (at least I was) we thought we needed to have a last hot chocolate and possibly cake. So we ended up in a little cafĂ© and ordered hot chocolate and lots of cake. Myles is off all this so he just watched, but we ate and drank and felt good about the world. And then it was time to go home and good all the fabulous vegetables that we had bought at the market the day before. It was close to one when we got home and we had to get cracking. But things felt apart as you might imagine. We didn’t have eggs so we couldn’t make the fried eggplant. Then I had already made chicken with passata, so going for a ratatouille was looking shaky. So we had to do some improvisation quick smart.
We ended up not quite pulling off a delicious lunch. Sad really, because we had very much improved our cooking skills and we had diversified our ingredients. It just wasn’t to be. We were too addled; our heads were too much in the sky rather than on the ground.
After lunch we all lay down; some of us in the bath.
And then a final goodbye to Rome. Myles skilfully turned us to Via del Corso for more shopping; god I hate shopping, so the kids and I left him to it, and we walked to the Trevi fountain for a final farewell. We had no money throw over our shoulders but we watched others do it, and some kids apparently getting into trouble for littering. It must be odd to be cop here. And they have a million different kinds; this was the municipal police, but there are the state police, and the national police and traffic police and so on. So the municipal police apparently go after the hard core litterers. And you can’t blame them really.
On the way back to the shops, the kids discovered a Lindt shop and as you may or may not know, this is their very favourite thing in the world. So we ate Lindt balls. More walking. Great buskers; a woman danced in the most wonderful black suit with an umbrella, some break dancers (how??), an old couple with a microphone and a portable karaoke machine. Whooo hoo!
The right way to say goodbye to Rome, and to our trip.
God we have love it.
Thanks to everyone and anyone who had joined us on this tour. I have adored all your comments and emails and encouragement.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Rome, day six

There was no mucking around. We were going to the Forum and Palatine Hill come hell or high water. Surely strikes and chaffed thighs were things of the past, we could go forward and see some sights.
But it was also Saturday and the market in Campo dei Fiori does not run on Sunday. Paris, being particularly visionary, decided that we had to visit the market early so we could buy a whole lot of interesting vegetables for a Sunday feast. Who can disagree with that? Now that he has read a series of Bronte novels without being promoted and has argued to buy vegetables for fun, I feel that my work here is done ..
So we did. Artichokes, eggplants, mushrooms, capiscums, potatoes, and then some fruit. We carted it home.
And then we set off for the Forum for the third time. This time we went behind the great monument to Vittorio Emmanuel and the unification of Italy and then we got lost and had to back track. But we could see people wandering around the forum, so that boded well. And the faux gladiators were out in force as were the scarf sellers and the sellers of mini Colosseums and so on. Things were looking good.
The line for the Colosseum was huge; this looked bad. Perhaps everyone caught in the general strike yesterday were going for broke today. I wasn't keen on a long wait in line, but we had to do this thing.
As it happened, our luck held. There was hardly anyone in line for the Forum. And we already had our tickets so we didn't have to wait to buy. At least we had tickets. Whether they would still be valid was a whole other ball game. I went straight up to the bloke who was guarding the door and in my best Italian, explained the situation - we had bought the tickets but were caught in the general strike of yesterday. He looked at my tickets and my winning smile. The doors opened for us. We were finally in.
It wasn't quite the sunny days were have become used to, but it was warm and humid and Niccolo was soon down to a tee shirt. Not me, so much. But the warm blood of youth ...
So there we were, picking over the carcass of that beast that was the Roman Empire. This has a very different feel to Pompeii, which was a city cut down in its prime, and was like a perfect body resting on its side. The forum and Palatine Hill were pockets of decay and ruin (in its true sense). As I had been bold about approaching the door guard, we didn't get a audioguide or a map so we had to rely on what was written on boards around the place. Lots was about Nero - his megolomania, and how much of what he built was later torn down in a rage by the people. The kids, funnily enough, knew quite a lot about Emperor Nero from Horrible Histories (God love that show) and could tell us what he had done and how bad he really was. They were actually more a fan of some other emperor whose name I can neither remember (or, indeed, spell) who was seriously deranged. Rome; the playground for madness. No wonder Hilter was so attracted to the symbols and architecture. Must had felt right up his alley.
Palatine Hill was the place where the wealthy citizens of Rome built their houses and surveyed the plebians. There were the remains of quite a few mansions, including the house of Augustus which is remarkably intact, and you can visit, as though you have been asked for tea. It is reassuringly similar to the houses we build and live in today (I'm not sure why that this reassuring ...); quite small rooms (perhaps so you could heat them), beautifully painted with frescos (now that is something we should bring back to our housing), window seats, doors.
I had a good look at the children. Zelda was a pale as death. Had she had breakfast? No, she had not. Her mood was dropping like a stone. We had to find an early lunch. Myles took me aside to discuss possibilities. He doesn't like to discuss in front of the kids in case it accidently locks him into something he was not prepared to entertain. As we walked away from them, I told them, in mock tones, that we were abandoning them. Paris said: 'Cool'. Niccolo said: 'Leave us some money'. Zelda said nothing.
We decided on a place to eat; somewhere we had passed in our trips around the city; and then we took the kids around the rest of the site. Up to the gardens that hung above the city (very nice, but NOT, I feel, 2000 years old), and then into the commercial quarter and the forum itself. It was all very like a village - cobbled streets with shops on either side, temples and churches, housing. Lots of marble fragments lying about. I wish we had an audioguide or something. The kids were full of history, they couldn't take in another thing so perhaps I was the only one yearning for more information.
The place was the pulse of one of the biggest empires our world has ever seen. It was fitting that there were still mighty structures that spoke a testimony to that, but they were also dwarfed by what had arisen since. And was the ground lower 2000 years ago? Everything seems to sit lower on the earth than where we currently live.
There is a haunting here too; your feet hit the ground in the places where thousands of others had hit the ground; same needs and desires (though we are not here to live, but to be voyeurs so that is a bit different). Same stumbling on steep steps, same rolling of ankles on uneven stones. We are a part of something just by being human; it is a haunted site, but not lonely.
So to feed the kids. Once Zelda was eating lasagne, the colour came back into her face and she could smile and speak again. Paris had pork and vegetables. Niccolo, a hamburger. Myles and I went for the melazane alla parmigana. It was ace. This is going to become a dish for my kitchen too.
The sun had come out. We went to Piazza Navona for more ice cream and to look again at the Bernini fountain of the four rivers. We tried to guess what they were - turns out we couldn't have been more wrong in our judgement. We liked the lion at the bottom of the fountain very  much. Then Niccolo chased gigantic bubbles that were being produced by a woman at the other end of the piazza. I had a run in with her 'minder' who told me I had to give her money before I could take photos. I hotly pointed out that the child I was taking photos of had just put a hunk of change in her hat and perhaps he should back off. Grrrrr.
Campo dei Fiori was practically pulsating with life when we returned. It was middle afternoon; around four, and people were already getting on their dancing shoes. Myles and I bought English magazines (and tickets for the bus so we could get the airport early on Monday morning) and we returned to our apartment. I got in the bath with my magazine. The kids watched Total Drama on the computer. Myles watched The Karate Kid (not making that bit up).
We had discovered that there was a concert on at the Church of St Ignatius that night. It was a choir from Tampa Florida (conducted by an Irishman named Donal Noonan) singing sacred music. Well, it was free and we though, why not? The kids were not enthusiastic. Niccolo discovered a film called Sky High on the TV in English and he wasn't going anywhere. So Myles and I put on respectable clothes and went off to church. We had not yet gone into the Church of Saint Ignatius, but had walked through the piazza several times; it has become one of my favourites. The church is amazing, incredibly painting on the ceilings with that remarkable feeling you get in the Sistine Chapel too, that the painting are somehow three dimensional. The usual saints in the wall thing. There were quite a few of us there to see the singing. Interesting.
It was a mix between the sublime (some Mozart which was beautiful) and the nuts (some more charismatic, hand clapping, 'let Jesus come' stuff). And directing the whole thing was perhaps one of the more eccentric conductors the world has ever seen. He was a huge bald Irishman (who was quite clearly loved by his singers) who conducted as if the music was coming from his body - up on his toes, shoulders rippling, hands everywhere, knees flexing. It was entertaining. He also had a set of 'Danny Boy' pipes and, on occasion, handed his stick to another to have a sing (a kind of Captain/Coach). The woman who he gave his stick to conducted as if she were kneading bread or sewing a large garment; the bloke held the stick delicately and pointed.
The choir itself was made up of older people and very young people. There was a girl who sang up the back (though she did a solo too at one point) who couldn't have been much out of her teens, who was having the best time, but couldn't get in time for the more charismatic stuff - swaying the wrong way, hand clapping at the wrong time. I couldn't keep my eyes off her.
All in all, the American singers, the Irish conductor, the Italian aesthetic, and the rather rag tag crowd; this was perfect.
After it was over, we walked the streets of Rome (hark! are those bells? look! is that the Pantheon? and so on) and went into a bar for drink (with the youngest crowd I have ever seen). We had a long chat about religion.
Campo dei Fiori was fierce in its crowds of people looking to party. It was going to be a long, noisy night for us in our tower. Turned out it was. Men yelling and singing, fights, and the mysterious new born cry which I now think might be a cat. The poultry was silent (or drowned out). They prefer the morning anyway.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rome, day five

The thighs had healed and we were on the road again. The day was blue like blue, and it was our last Friday in Europe so we were up for a big one. We went to the local bakery where French like pastries beckoned. But they were not anything like we might have expected. The Italians can't do the French style pastries in our limited experience. Oh well, when in Rome ...
We made our way back to the Forum. Our host had organised for the apartment to be cleaned and the young woman arrived just before we left. I had a little chat with her and she warned me that there were strikes on (the buses, she said). Oh, well, we wouldn't need the buses; we were close to everything. So we set off with high expectation. The streets did seem rather thin in terms of people and there was certainly less traffic on the road (including buses). But nothing was really triggering alarms. And then, weirdly, hardly any people trying to sell us scarves or mini Colosseums or bubble headed gladiators. Hmmm.
The gate to the Forum and Palatine Hill was shut and it was odd because it was about ten in the morning. I went up to the gate to see what was happening and there was the sign. Closed for General Strike. Damnation.
We walked back to the Colosseum to find out what was happening and if we could use our tickets tomorrow. The Colosseum was opened (though it was going to close at 1pm) and we were told that out tickets would be fine tomorrow. OK. Now what. Well, Rome is a big interesting place. That was good news. We wandered up to the Trevi fountain. I like this fountain very much if only for the fact that while there are beautifully carved figures, they lie on rough ledges that look very much like 'the real world'. It wasn't too busy here; there were a few Japanese tourists throwing coins over their shoulders. Niccolo thought throwing coins might be fun, but wanted to do it from the upper level but we had to convince him that throwing onto a series of tourists might not end well. So he tramped down to the lower level and threw it with the others. So did Paris. So they are certainly going to return to Rome. We had been walking for some time now, and Niccolo was white faced with hunger. So we fed him and the rest of us (very nice artichokes, just for the record) and headed off to the Spanish Steps.
I love the idea that an architecture is commissioned to design, and then builders are paid to build steps for the common good. And these are not any old steps; these are monumental and glamorous and fabulous. They reach up high and offer the average punter the joy of sitting in the sun on a beautiful piece of architeture that belongs to the world. Very democratic. Right beside the Spanish Steps is the Shelley/Keats museum. The door was being very firmly shut when we arrived (it was 1pm) so there was not prospect of doing some kind of sentimental tour of Keat's death bed. Oh well.
We walked up the steps to the Villa Borghese and messed around the the gardens for a while We liked very much that there were lots of busts of men around the gardens in various flattering and not so flattering poses. There had been many casualties with noses. It is a vulnerable part of the body; even in marble.
We were aimless in this too beautiful city, and that was kind of good. We then just set off to walk around; down cobbled lanes and up busy streets and into piazzas and largos. We looked in shop windows and admired dogs and stylishly dressed men having tiny coffees or tiny alcoholic drinks in little bars. We liked very much the colours of Rome; apricots (but un-bridesmaidlike), and light reds and pinks, and all rosy in the afternoon sun. We had ice cream at Piazza Navona and admired the fountains again.
And then we were back in Campo dei Fiori with the statue of the monk who had been burned here for hereasy in the 1600s. This was the favourite place in Rome for executions. Everything goes on here.
This is a very lively place; here were we live and is not more lively than a Friday night. On past nights, I have been woken by drunken youth wandering from Campo dei Fiori home; with their voices echoing up and down the walls and arriving all blurry up in our bedroom. I also woke to the cries of a newborn baby (could I be making that up?) and smashing of bottles, and the driving of vespas. But on Friday night, way after the night had fallen and we had been asleep for some hours, there was yelling and screaming, and some young man in deep distress being assisted by his friends who appeared to be laughing. I think his vespa had been stolen (or perhaps not). And all of this is the ghostly, echoy referred sounds created by the cavern like walls of the street. It spooked me a bit.
And we were woken again by geese. Really. Geese.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Rome, day four

The ancient ruins beckoned. Why are we so entralled by the ancient? Is it to prove our longevity? Is it to see what we might have been if we had been ancient? Something else? Well, we were caught in the same net, and we were going to see the Colosseum and the Forum and Paletine Hill. Happily, you can bundle the whole thing up in one ticket that lasts two days and you can be ancient to your heart's content.
It is not busy here this time of the year, though not busy still means you queue for a bit (summer must be deadly). We walked from our place to the Colosseum; it is not far, we apparently are not far from anywhere. A lovely bright blue day, but cold. Cold. Cold.
In we went, and bought our tickets and then a couple of hours around the Colosseum. It is surprisingly (or perhaps not so) like what you would see currently in a sporting stadium. Long tiers of seating, good views from everywhere, a large arena (this one is oval), gates leading in and out. The arena itself is only partially covered with wood (this is part of the restoration); the other side exposes the network of tunnels and rooms that lay underneath the arena where animals and slaves were stored ready for the ring.
We got one audio guide and decided that each of us would have a listen and then explain the information to the others. Ah, the joy of an educational exercise this late in the piece ...
There was a whole lot of information about the myths that have arisen around and about the Colosseum - the gladiators died in great numbers (untrue according to the guide; it was way to expensive for the organisers of the games, they had to pay for each gladiator who died and the payment was one hundred times their worth. The people who died in numbers were slaves and prisoners condemned to death. They were just slaughtered for fun either by gladiators or by exotic beasts. As for Christians, there is apparently no evidence that Christians did die at the Colosseum - the narrator did assure us that Christians certainly died at the hands of Roman, but not necessarily here.) Some fun facts about the Colosseum: the exotic beasts suffered most at the Colosseum. As Rome conquered more and more of the known world, they brough back more and more of the spoils and animals were a prized spoil. Apparently, the Romans loved a hunt and they loved to watch a re-enacted hunt in the Colosseum (in the morning; who knew?). During one series of games, 10,000 gladiators killed 11,000 animals including panthers, lions, hippos and so on. There was much cheering. The games were put on by private (and very wealthy) citizens during the Republic and then by the Emperor during the Empire. Romans had something like 170 holidays for games per year. And you wouldn't have to go to the games if you didn't fancy all that blood letting. You could go and cool your face in a fountain. Or lie abed. The things about the Christians sprung up a couple of centuries after the Colosseum closed. It was not used as a fighting arena after the 5th century AD after which is fell apart and was looted for marble and building supplies. But the stories of Christian suffering in the Colosseum (true or false) was the central reason why the Colosseum stands today. In 1750, the then Pope declared the Colosseum a sacred site where maytrs had died and must therefore be preserved. Then the Colosseum was used for passion plays and other Christain rituals until the end of the 19th century when everyone got quite scientific about the site and decided to make it an archeological dig. Hence the tourists in 2012.
There was a lovely black cat enjoying the sunshine in the Colosseum much more than many of the tourists.
This is a creepy place, anywhere where many sentient beings have died for pleasure must be. And it reminded me all too vividly of the MCG where we all like to roar and watch the bloodshed. No one dies (well, almost no one), but how much do we like a thump to the head and so on. It is more the seating and organisation. The tribal yelling from the grandstands while the players sweat bullets. Oh well. That's what the ancient experience will teach you.
And now a true and modern story and perhaps a cautionary tale. Towards the end of this walk around the Colosseum, both Niccolo and I began to feel burning in our thighs. Nothing, clearly, to the suffereing of others in the arena, but rather unpleasant for us. We decided that our new pants (that we had not washed before wearing) were somehow bothering us. Both of us. At the same time. We weren't sure that continuing to walk with this burning was a terrific idea. And because our tickets lasted for two days, we could blow the rest of the walk off.
Niccolo and I hobbled after the rest of the team while they walked to a place for lunch. It was a mock American bar that served burgers and fries to the MTV beat. I had roasted chicken. We watched MTV as if someone was holding a gun to our collective heads. Not sure what is wrong with us. We are giddy with exhaustion and desperate for some control over our environment. But TV is a decent substitute.
Back at home, Niccolo and I took our pants off and our legs were on fire. Neither of us could put new pants on, our legs were so sore. I had a bath (OWWWWW) but afterwards, the inflammation came down a little. We decided we couldn't go out again with no pants so we played cards and bummed around at home. At some point, Paris and Myles went out for dinner.
So the cautionary tale, my friends, is always wash your new pants. It took me 44 years to come up with that one.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Rome, day three

It was, indeed, the day to see the Pope’s mass. Myles had heard about this from two people on the train from Milan to Venice; and had read about it in the Lonely Planet guide. On the basis of such deep, rich, structured information, we set off. But first, a quick lap around the market in Campo dei Fiori for dinner. (Something I have failed to mention of yesterday was that we went clothes shopping after dinner and bought some clothes for most of us. We were all wearing our new clothes. For some of us, they were the only clean clothes left.) Paris has fallen in love with eggplant and artichokes. So we stocked up on both, plus some zucchinis and capsicums and good ham from the deli, bread and so on. He was already planning the meal. We dropped our supplies off, and set off again for the Vatican.
Yes, things went wrong. Myles had assumed that the Pope gave the mass in St Peter’s Square and none of the rest of us was interested enough in researching further. It turned out that we needed to acquire tickets to this said mass, and then go through a mystical bronze door (this was all learned later) to attend. As it was, we hung around the square for half an hour, with Myles saying; ‘Gee, it’s pretty empty; do you think he will bother?’, and the only real highlight was, as the bells struck eleven, the police in a golf cart did a lap of the square. ‘How do you get THAT job?’ Paris asked (but not of them …). We finally gave up. Myles was really disappointed. The rest of us were secretly pleased. None of us really wanted to sit through a mass. Zelda and Niccolo didn’t even know what a mass was.
We returned to the apartment to regroup. Then we set out for a few sights and some more shopping. We went first down the Via Governo Vecchio which is supposed to be a kind of cool place to walk (which it was) and then to Piazza Navona. Great sunny skies met us here, and we enjoyed walking around. The people running the local restaurants were charming and there was a performance artist pretending to be the invisible man (Niccolo liked this very much, but told me later he could see the strings …). We went from there to the Pantheon. This is two thousand years old and stands as tall and straight as any building anywhere. There is a huge hole in the room for light (and signs around the building with headings in Italian: ‘But what happens when it rains …’). Here, Raphael is buried. According to the signs, he was bought to the Pantheon as soon as he died, but was exhumed later to verify he was really there, and then reburied. It seemed a sort of overkill (perhaps literally) to me. Umberto and Victorio Emmanuel are also buried here. It is a strange place, now a church, but never built for that; indeed built before Christianity had any kind of hold on Rome. It is split space with a split history; and has an odd energy for that reason. That, and the fact that it is circular. A circular church … I’m sure that is a metaphor worth playing with at some point.
Then we were off to Via del Corso. From spirituality to commerce in a few short steps. But Zelda needed pants badly, and she had not fared well in the shopping trip of the night before. So we found ourselves buying black trousers, and then a series of jumpers and pants for Myles, some tee shirts and cardigans for me, tops for Niccolo and a belt for Paris. And hour or so later and we couldn’t find our way home fast enough. Shopping is very, very bad for the soul. We went via the Piazza Venezia and the huge white palazzo that dominate the place, then back down to Largo Argentina and the sacred remains that casually inhabit this huge space, and back up to Largo dei Librari which is what we call home. We had a date to meet our host at five; she was coming in to help us with some problems; and Paris was keen to get cooking. Our host turned out to be charming and we had tea with her while Paris and Zelda began cooking; he peeled and prepared the artichoke (full marks) and the mushrooms, she cut the eggplant and the capsicums and began cooking them. After the host left (the owner turned up too at some point), it was all stations go. Paris decided to wing the artichokes and cooked them in oil with garlic, thyme and salt (and good they were too), we breadcrumbed the eggplant and fried them, mushrooms in oil, butter and garlic, capsicums slow cooked in oil, tuna from a can, some slices of chicken also bread crumbed and fried, bread from the morning market. Niccolo is toying with vegetarianism, so he was forced to try all these dishes and quite liked them. Zelda was a big fan of the eggplant (my work here is done), and the rest of the dishes we were fighting over for the last bits. Good food: is there nothing it can’t do?
Cards, ‘A Night at the Museum’ on the TV in Italian. Falling asleep with the kids all in bed with me. Happy days.

Rome, day two

We were woken by what sounded like chickens or geese chuckling or clucking what felt like right outside our window. It was very ‘ancient’. Where would you keep chickens in Rome?
Here we are in the Eternal City. It is eternal, I guess, as far as western history goes. It is the longest running city in our sense of history.
We had plans to go to the market in the Campo dei Fiori, but somehow forgot that we were going to do that. When we left the apartment, it was after ten, and then we walked through the Campo, looking admiringly at the market – a good one. It runs every day but Sunday so that’s a lucky thing. Such good vegetables and fruit. We promised that we would remember to do something about this on the morrow.
We were off to the Vatican museum and St Peter’s Square and Basilica. The reason we were doing Rome from the Vatican down (rather than, say, the Colosseum up) had to do with something called the ‘Rome’ pass which Myles has read about. As soon as you activate the ‘Rome’ pass, you had three days to use it. And the Vatican wasn’t included. Well, it wouldn’t be, I guess. It is, strictly speaking, Rome. From our place, the Vatican is just up the river, across, and down one street. We really are madly central here. It was not a sunny day, but quite mild. Zelda and I didn’t even bother with the puffys and didn’t suffer at all.
The Tevere (what we call the Tiber) reminded me a little of the Yarra. It doesn’t appear here as the huge and mighty force that the other major cities have in their rivers – the Seine in Paris or the Thames in London. This is not wide and not fast flowing. And it seems a little neglected. No traffic on it, it sits at a decent depth below the city it serves, and is overgrown with weeds. An unused river is a sad thing.
We crossed over the Tevere at the Bridge of Victor Emmanuel. When I was here twenty years ago, I seem to remember the building here as some kind of asylum, with a huge man, behind bars, looking patiently at the traffic while he smoked cigarettes. It was a hot summer when I was last here. There was no sign of the asylum, perhaps I dreamed it. It is, however, an extremely strong memory.
Then we were in the Vatican. There is no designated border that tells you you are in a new place or state, but the ratio of lay people to priests or nuns suddenly increases ten fold. And not just priests in discreet dog collars and nothing else distinguishing, but priests in full robes, in monks habits, and nuns in full regalia. And all the shops on the side of the road are dedicated to the religious life, including lots of postcards of the likely of the currently and the recently(ish) deceased pope. We were in the right place.
I didn’t remember this from last time we were here, but as soon as we were in reasonable sight of St Peter’s Square, we began to be accosted by people who told us a whole lot of stuff about how we really needed to join a tour to see the Vatican, how it would take us up to an hour and a half (or more, one man warned) to even buy tickets and then how confusing it would be for us to get around and how a guide was so very important. Yeah. OK. But the prices were insane and we thought we would give it at whirl ourselves. We are not illiterate or anything, and can read the occasional map. One bloke was really appalled at our decision, threw up his hands in horror. It looks like we had condemned ourselves to queues and ignorance. Paris was looking distinctly uncomfortable. But we stuck to our guns and followed the signs to the Vatican museum. We saw no one lining up anywhere. ‘Perhaps we are going the wrong way,’ someone intoned (it might have been me). But no, the signs were insistent. And so were the men who were handing out flyers for local restaurants. We found the door of the museum. Still no line, still almost no one. Perhaps you needed to have booked online (this, I think, was me again). But there was the ticket office. We bought tickets. No waiting. I asked about maps and was told we could get them upstairs.
And then I got angry. What a joke. Damn it, I hate spruikers at the best of time, but outright lying was a whole other thing. But Paris, Mister Voice of Reason, did point out that they were just doing a job. Hmmm.
We decided to get the kids’ audio tours (Zelda and Niccolo) and one adult one between me and Paris and Myles for additional information. Then we went to the gallery for religious art. I got all excited because there was a sign in German that looked like it was advertising Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (which is usually, I think, in Dresden). I asked at the bookshop before we went in, but the woman there had no idea what I was referring to. I never did find it. There was another Raphael there, but not that one. Sad because I happen to like it a lot. This gallery was amazing – there were some frescos that had been rescued from a church that had been destroyed at some point which were so light, and full of bright blues and golds that it made you kind of glad. Much religious art, for me, is gloomy and depressing; dark colours and terrible subject matter (martyrdom in particular, depresses me). This was quite different though. We all liked them. And, strangely perhaps, right in the middle of all this was a portrait of George the Fourth of England (in, as Paris said, a particularly flattering representation. The kids like to sing a song about the four Georges as ‘the sad one, the bad one, the mad one and the fat one’). Then it was to the other side of the museum, and the long tour through the huge building on our way to the Sistine Chapel.
There is a huge Egyptian collection in the Vatican (surprising? Just about conquest?). Zelda had studied ancient Egypt during the year and knew all about it, so she could fill us in. There were statues and mummy cases and coffins and shabtis and scrolls. All incredible and much more full on than the Tutankhamen exhibition that had come to Melbourne last year. And then, a mummy itself, all dark and wizened and wound mostly in cloth, with one eye out where they had removed the brain. A human three thousand years old and very much before us. Niccolo could hardly look at it; I found it very confronting. Myles couldn’t take enough photos of it.
We spent a lot of time in this section of the museum because the kids’ audio tour was extensive at this point and Niccolo needed to find every exhibit that had a corresponding explanation. So I saw a lot of the bits and pieces very close up. After the Egyptian part, we went into Roman statues – very impressive, marble and bronze to feed an army. And then we went through the map room. I don’t remember this bit from twenty years ago, but this is a long room with huge maps painted on the wall of all the important parts of Italy and surrounds. It was incredible. The world (known at that time) all lit up. It would make a super place for planning holidays. I’m not sure that the popes used it for that purpose, but they were missing something if they didn’t.
The kids’ tour ended here, but promised them that the next thing they would have narrated was the most famous ceiling in the world. So for the rest of the tour, Zelda or Niccolo asked (in every room): ‘Is this the most famous ceiling?’ You can imagine how popular they were with me. Through the Raphael rooms; so beautiful but so much violence and hatred in them too. Through the Borgia apartments (nice; how do I get me some rooms like that?) and then, rather shockingly, through room after room of rather more contemporary art – Matisse, Chagall, Dali and so on. By this time, the kids were intent on the most famous ceiling in the world and wouldn’t wait. I got snagged on the Chagall room, and made them wait for that, but then I was dragged by an invisible string through a series of rooms and then some corridors and steps that wound around until we were at the door of the Sistine Chapel.
‘This,’ I said, ‘is the most famous ceiling in the world.’ Necessarily, for Niccolo and Zelda, it was an anti climax. What did they have to compare it with anyway? But for Myles and I (I’m not sure about Paris), this was a revelation. I think it had been cleaned since last I was here, but it really looks almost three dimensional. The saints particularly, who are painted onto the sides of the ceiling (if you see what I mean) almost leapt out at you, with a kind of boldness. The story of creation across the ceiling was also amazing. And the last judgement would  have given anyone pause for thought. Fear and respect, as they say. There were a lot of people in the chapel, but nothing crazy, so we stayed for some time and drank in the roof. It is somehow a tiny bit weird walking around looking up. Perhaps that changed perspective was partly was Michelangelo was all about. You think differently with your head in the air. You feel more vulnerable. You feel a little remote from the images, but also somehow smaller, more insignificant than what is above.
It was time to feed and water the troops.
The Vatican has places to eat. We indulged. We ate pizza (quite good and all). Then we bought cards of the art we had liked (mostly the frescos). All in all, this was a museum we had all really, really liked. Myles wanted to go around again (which technically you could do). But it had been four hours already and we were a bit tired. We were also a bit pleased with ourselves that we had managed to get around the Vatican without exploding or getting lost as had been the worse predictions of the tour organisers outside.
On the way out, there is a fantastic staircase that winds down to the street level like the back of a snail. It was ruined for me a little by the flashing lights everywhere that warned: ‘BEWARE: STEPS!’
Outside, we couldn’t help but inform the spruikers, who were still keen to sell us tours, that there were no queues. One was shame faced, but replied in a very pronounced English accent; ‘No, but usually there are.’ Great.
So we went to see the Basilica. This in fact did involve a queue to get through the security. I failed the security many times; the challenge was to pass through the metal detector (with metal in my case, because I have bracelets I can’t remove) and not set it off. The guards have been to some particular school where they learn the expression: ‘not my problem, you are wasting my time’ as I went backwards and forwards and annoyed the heck out of a Japanese tour group behind me. I finally made the miracle happen and we were off.
The sheer size of St Peter’s impressed the kids (not ‘just another church’; this one). We went first to the Pieta. I love this work; the kids were ‘eeah’. Myles liked it. So we went looking for the remains of saints in the walls: Jerome and Innocenti. They were both in slippers. We looked at the marble representation of saints (I like saint Veronica in particular). We marvelled at the dome. We read all the bits of information. We looked at the mosaics and the paintings. We were tired.
We made our way out of the church and home. Paris was told off for sitting down (which he did in exhaustion while Myles and I were occupied taking pictures of the Swiss Guard – the pope’s private army that consists of young German men who were very silly stripped costumes and all wear Harry Potter glasses.
We made pasta for dinner. We played cards. There was complicated toing and froing about baths and showers. Niccolo, in a moment of pure exhaustion and confusion, locked himself accidently in the bathroom. It was more than time to go to bed.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Amalfi, day eight; Rome, day one

[Sorry for the flurry of posts, and the lack of photos. We have had little or no internet access, and now in Rome, it is limited. Loading up photos is tough. I'll try again tonight.]
Our last day of changover and our last destination. We were off to Rome. Despite everything, and the loss of what we felt was perhaps curiosity, we had liked Amalfi. But we felt the deprivation of no internet and no washing machine. It is the simple things.
We packed and left the villa by 9.30am. A quick stop in Agerola to say goodbye to our hosts and to check our email for our next destination and we were on our way. From Amalfi to Rome, it is about three and a half hours. We weren’t to be met by our host until three so we felt like we had time. We figured that, including a stop for lunch, we should be in Rome by about quarter past two. Heaps of time to get organised and get ourselves to the apartment. Best laid plans and all that.
We were no longer compelled to gaze out of the window constantly. This countryside is pretty but nothing that was going to get our juices going at this time of the trip. As we left Naples and headed out to the motorway, we were suddenly held up by what looked like a traffic jam. But we also noticed that the lane on the far left seemed to be moving a bit, so we moved across and realised that what we had come face to face with was industrial action by truck drivers. We weren’t sure what the action was about, but it was a fair guess that it had to do with the austerity measures, and the hike in taxes. There were hundreds of trucks on both sides of the motorway – right at the pay station – halting those who were trying to transport goods, and waving through cars like us. It was pretty intense, with about thirty or forty men standing blockade and waving you through, or stopping you for a check.
Myles, Paris and I then had a fight about it. Myles said that they were breaking the law and they should make changes within what was possible. Paris and I argued that changed often happens when people work outside the law, challenge the status quo. Paris and I were feeling very righteous.
Lunch was nothing much – roadside nonsense. The best bit was we ate with Franciscan monks. Fat ones.
And here was something else interesting, something that I had noticed before, but was particularly apparent at this roadside stop. Even when I speak Italian to shop keepers and so on, they will often answer me in English (my accent must be that bad; sometimes they speak to us in English even before we have spoken – always a little creepy). And I will continue to speak in Italian, and they will continue to speak in English. And the joke of it is really that my Italian is bad and, for the most part, their English is equally bad. We would be far better off speaking our own language to one another. But we are locked in this polite dynamic. I think it is polite to try my best in the local language and they think it is polite to try their best in the language of their guest. It can get a bit messy.
We were all sweating when we came into Rome. Partly because it was humid and party because driving through a big city is not any of our favourite experiences. Samantha got us through sort of (she is a little flaky these days), and we found that we were at the station. Myles, with his incredible vision, found the tiny sign that said Hertz, and we drove up and up and up through a car park. At the top, we found Hertz. Abandoned. The men who were operating the car hire place next door told us that they had gone for coffee and would be back in five minutes. And so they were. Everything went like clockwork and we were out and in the street with time to spare. Now, to find a taxi …
I asked a man on the side of the road where we might find the taxi rank. He told me that there was a taxi strike and there were no taxis to get. Sigh.
I rang the host to warn her that we would be late, and to ask which bus we needed to take. She told us; and then we went to the bus stop and got more information – tickets and so on. It was strangely smooth (though exhausting). The bus was there. We got on with our crazy heavy bags. I asked a woman beside me where I needed to get off. She told me she would help me. She did. Off we got. Then to the newsagent to buy a map, to ask for directions. And after several stops and more advice, we arrived at Largo dei Librari. And there was our host.
But I do have to confess that this all took about an hour and there is something stressful that is beyond straight logistics about getting around a huge city with enormous lumps of luggage and kids. You wonder if you are going to lose a kid somewhere. And part of my confession here is this: all my liberal ideas of the individual having the right to strike when there are decisions taken that are not in their best interests went straight out the window. I cursed the taxi drivers and their industrial action. I wanted a big stationwagon to pick us up and deliver us to our destination. So much for self righteousness.
Up we went to the apartment. This was one of our early bookings, and Niccolo had been most excited about it because it looked like the kitchen ceiling was so low, you would have to cook on your knees. It turned out to be not that dramatic; though you do have to duck pretty low to get to the fridge. Their room however, was that low. It is a kind of attic thing (which they love, love, love – Paris even tried to bribe them so he could get it, but they were having none of it) where you cannot stand up straight unless you are eight (so Niccolo is fine) and everything is tiny and somehow secret. I had to put their clothes away while sitting on my backside. They disappeared into this slice of Enid Blyton Italian style and drew their curtains immediately. We got set up. Internet. Hooray. Washing machine. Hooray. Some semblance of TV that works (though no BBC). Hooray. Good heating. Hooray. Long walks that beckoned just outside our door. Hooray. And an elevator. Double hooray.
We went out for supplies and dinner. We are a few steps from Campo dei Fiori so it was here that we headed. We chose a strange place, a mozzarella bar (who knew?). It was great. Everything came with the mozzarella that is like rope; great long ropey lengths of delicious cheese. Those of you who know Myles would know that his horrified him (he ordered the tomato soup), but Paris and I had the melanzane with lashing of mozzarella and couldn’t have been happier. I’m for this concept. I think we need one at home.
After supermarket shopping, we all had a bath, one after the other. It was a joy to be properly clean and, as the bath has jets, nice to have a back massage into the bargain. We think we will like Rome. We really do.