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.

Amalfi, day seven

This morning we decided to go to the Grotto dello Smerelda, the Emerald Grotto that wasn’t far from our house. The day was quasi fine – not bright sun like yesterday but no rain either. The sea was amazing; it was grey but look like it had been petrified in some places – still and solid – where it ran liquid in other places. Like it was both land and sea. So endlessly interesting as a place.
We drove down to the Grotto. On our way, there were a couple of police men on the side of the road. Myles hesitated in the car; the police looked at us with some amusement and then, Myles wavered, inviting the one of the cops, the more handsome one, put up his tiny stop sign. We were caught! Who knew?
Myles wound down the window and then handed it over to me. I played dumb; no point in putting ourselves in a position of even less power with me stumbling over my terrible Italian. ‘Buon giorno,’ I beamed. ‘We don’t speak very much Italian. We are tourists.’ ‘Ah,’ said the handsome policeman. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Australia.’ ‘Hmmm.’ He then looked in the back seat and admired the children. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Amalfi.’ ‘Ah, that is four kilometres down the road.’ ‘Thank you.’
All very pleasant. He withdrew his tiny stop sign and on we went. What were we being stopped for? Social interaction?
But we didn’t go to Amalfi – yes, we had lied to the police about our intentions. Instead, we turned the other way and headed for the Grotto. There is a little carpark and it had a few cars there which looked promising. But the locked gates did not. So we went into a bar come ceramic workshop to see what they could tell us. The oldest woman in the world greeted us. I asked her about the Grotto. She shook her head sadly. And told us why. And we much have looked bewildered because then she rocked her hand to and fro. ‘Ah,’ I said.’ La barca.’ It turned out that it was too rough for the boat to go out on this day. We thanked her and then looked out over the side of the cliff to see these rough waves. Not so much for us. But what did we know about taking a boat out into a cave. Perhaps you need the water to be like a millpond before anything like that could happen. Oh well. It was our last day. There was no other day we could see the grotto. Next time.
Perhaps the force of the police was greater than we could have known because the next thing we did was go to Amalfi. Suddenly, the weather was high summer (who could say if this would affect the waves). It was hot. We shed clothes quickly. The kids were down to tee shirts and we weren’t far behind. In the little harbour in Amalfi, constructed from stones, there were six men playing the strangest game we have seen. They were in kayaks and had a soccer ball. The object of the game appeared to be to get the ball into a net, but the teams were not clear and they seemed to have much more fun belting one another’s boats with their oars and capsizing each other. Paris and I were laughing our heads off. I suggested that he introduce this sport to Fitzroy. He was doubtful. ‘No water.’
Amalfi was hot with sun; we sat on the waterfront and ordered lunch. And all around us, the well-dressed Sunday families having their pre-lunch drinks. It was so hot, we got sunburned sitting there. I could only imagine what summer must be like here. We were the only ones eating. Everyone else was having brightly coloured drinks with slices of oranges jammed in them. We are entirely unfashionable or unknowing about how and where you eat. Who cares? The pizza was good. The sun was shining. There are few greater joys.
We left the waterfront and walked into the town proper. There is a church here; it has the hallmarks of the striped marble we saw in Tuscany and the golden mosaics of Venice. Large steps invite us up and in. But we don’t go. It is strange. What we suddenly found was that we no longer had much curiosity. There we were, sitting on the steps below this beautiful church and none of us were in the least compelled to go inside. The kids; this was understandable. But Myles and I? Can you be cured of curiosity? Can you be so sated that you can’t find any else to see? Perhaps. Well, here, at this point, anyway. It is a very odd experience though. At the beginning, we went in everywhere. But now … shrug. It is rather wrong I feel, but you can’t chase emotions too far. They are stronger than duty or will.
We dallied around Amalfi for a bit, ate ice cream, walked the pier, saw a Japanese tourist slip over (we tried to help, she was not having any of it), watched other tourists gaze at the SITA buses parked waiting for some sign of direction or intention. And then we left to go back to our villa. It was time to settle down, so some packing, finish our reading. And there were cards to play too.

Amalfi, day six

As if to make up for the terrible day, the day dawn as cloudless, and the sun repaired our hearts and souls. We couldn’t get out of the house soon enough – with the kids complaining that their room was haunted, and there were bugs everywhere. I promised that we would throw the whole house open when we returned from the trip – harness the antiseptic joy of the sun – shake and sun dry all the sheets and sweep and clean everything. They settled in the back of the car, occasionally mumbling, like the slightly deranged. Getting out would make everything better.
We headed for Ravello. This is a high hill town; not at all a sea side resort; more, I think, a retreat from the heat of the summer. According to Myles’ sources, this was a town where Lawrence and Woolf spent time (though, not together, you might imagine). I can’t verify this, I have no internet … Up the winding roads and through some very narrow passes. We did come into contact (not literally) with the SITA bus – we all held our breath until we got passed. I think I have written about the SITA bus before in terms of catching it, but not as the terror it presents on the road for car drivers. This is a full sized bus (built for full sized roads) that travels at speed along roads that are built for slender donkeys, goats and the new smart cars. To see this monster swing around the corner meaningfully and then toot you is not something you want to court too often.
We arrived in Ravello in full sun at about 10.30am. Myles was charmed by the fact that the town was well organised, a good sized carpark just below the main piazza. ‘Now that is how a town should be organised.’ At the top of the stairs, there is a large historical marker telling you the movie that have been filmed here. We saw this at the fjord too. So, ‘Beat the Devil’ was filmed here (with Humphrey Bogart, and written by Truman Capote – I might have to get it out and watch it when I get home). The markers tells you the plot, someone comes into Ravello on a donkey (see, it is correct about the roads) and then, presumably, changes the lives of those already there. Shane Maloney once said in a lecture I saw that there are only three kinds of narratives: an individual begins a long journey, a stranger enters a village and a horse walks into a bar. You can see the point – this was clearly the second kind of narrative. Capote didn’t mind a bit of ‘stranger entering a village’ work.
We went off to visit the Villa Rufolo just off the Piazza Duomo. It was built in the 13th century and then restored by some Scottish industrialist in the early 20th. What does an industrialist do? We couldn’t get into the villa itself, it appeared to be used as offices or something, but you could roam around the villa and into the courtyards and across the gardens. The gardens were really something – or rather the view was really something. We all became very drowsy with the sun and the view and ended up sitting on a stone bench, falling into light dozes. Myles woke us all up by saying: ‘we are really bored now, aren’t we?’ The kids didn’t contradict him. Everything it still the same, wonderful views and incredibly sights, but it is like a car trip. It is always about half an hour too long regardless of views, supplies and comfort of said car. The truth is, we are tired of one another’s company. We are all desperate for a chat with someone other than each other, and a chat that is more than organised logistics. Oh well; in Rome, we will have the internet. Paris can Skype for one, and this will relieve some of the tension.
We left the villa and walked the town. Winding cobbled tracks that no car can use up through the high part of the town and between hotels and villas (‘available for weddings and private parties with Liberty style gardens’). And then we came upon a truly pastoral scene; a vegetable garden in the middle of the hotels with a small vineyard and a young man pruning it; well organised and beautifully laid out beds with lettuces and broccoli and strawberries. With the hills rising behind it, and the sun shining, it could have been the 19th centuries and us intrepid English travellers looking for a quiet place to finish our novels and raise our children. And then the bloke’s phone rang, and it all went to hell.
We walked back down the cobbled streets stopping only to buy some limoncello from a man who apparently makes it in vats out the back. We had many bottles to choose from; shaped like guitars, or violins, or smiling crescent moons. But I went for a very sober three sided bottle. Zelda, by this stage, had fallen deep into one of her food depressions (perhaps hyperglycaemia?), so we had to source lunch immediately. In the piazza, there were dozens of tables in full sun waiting for us. We ordered and soaked up the rays. We were down to tee shirts (even Myles) while the locals were in their versions of puffy jackets. If you are local, anything below 30 degrees must be considered fresh. It felt like 25 degrees or even hotter. There is something healing about the sun or your face and hands. We all felt much better for it. Above us was the church. It was almost entirely unadorned; a wooden roof not painted and dome above the altar was pink. It also sloped towards the front doors so you could slide out if things didn’t work out for you. On the way in was a book opened to a page of the ‘saint of the day’. Today it was San Sebastian. Uncle Matthew in ‘The Pursuit of Love’ was scathing about San Sebastian and said something like: ‘What’s that fellow standing there smiling for? If he was full of arrows like that, he’d be dead.’ It is a very gruesome martyrdom. But what isn’t? Actually, as plain at this church was, there were a lot of representations of martyrdom on the walls. Perhaps the good people of Ravello have to be kept in check. There is much sin lurking?
After admiring the local dogs and cats and children, we left for the car and decided to drive down to Minori – just to the left of Ravello but by the water. Now this was our town we decided. Big enough for things to be happening and shops open and a lovely little beach, but not crazy big like Sorrento and not tourist mania like Positano. This is where we could have laid our bones happily for these seven days. Ho hum. It was ice cream and a race with the waves for hours. The beach is everyone’s playground.
We returned back to our little villa on the hill of isolation and, as promised, clean swept the house and hung all the linen over the balcony to feel some of the power of the sun. It made everyone feel better about being here for another two nights. I even got excited and did some handwashing. ‘Yay,’ said Zelda from the sidelines. ‘Clean undies and socks!’ It is becoming a little desperate.
Myles and I went up to Furore Alto for a walk and to get some milk. It is a serious climb (for me, anyway), but you are rewarded with views that are to die for. We arrived at the top just as the sun was going down – a sunset like I have not ever seen. And why? Because it was confined to just the line of sky immediately above the water. This was no big show of orange clouds and pink stripes across the sky. This was the merest thread of intense orange and red at sea height as if the sky and the sea had an understanding that sunsets were not to be about the sky at all, but were to be shared with the water too. It was like the sky and the sea were one. You could see how it was easy to believe in the earth being flat and the sea just being stopped by the sky; as if the whole thing were just a dome.
There are small fires burning all along this coast. I think it is perhaps pruning time for olives and lemons, and the limbs that have been removed are burned. But along with this amazing sense that the sky and the sea are somehow linked, the fires that send up smoke give the whole area a feel of mythical times or ancient times. Without the SITA bus, and the mobiles phones, this is a place lost in time (and even somehow between reality and myth). Anyway, it is working its magic on us, slowly. Perhaps we have not really been in the right place to receive it. Perhaps another time.
Back down to the house we cooked a light dinner and then played more cards. Myles is a brute in card games. We are all against him because of his mock meanness. Regardless, and perhaps not surprisingly, he won the round of games. 

Amalfi, day five

It was all grey skies this morning, and the rain came down. We, as you know, have been almost strangely blessed with good weather and this is the first day we have really seen proper rain. We have struck rain at other points – our last day in Paris, our first in Carcassonne – but nothing that had really prevented us from doing things, and no rain that had really kept us indoors.
This rain did. It was belting down, really pouring from the skies. At points, we couldn’t even see the sea from our windows. The sky was determinedly grey around us; deep grey with black patches, but further out to sea, it was a lighter grey. It sort of looked like a theatre curtain, the way it reached down to the ground just around us. We thought we should try to get out (but as you know, the fatal flaw of the non-waterproof puffy jacket was a problem) so we made it down to the car in the vain hope that we might try for Ravello. But it was truly raining and it became less the problem of waterproofing and more the problem of driving on roads that are barely useable in bright sunlight. I kind of thought it was a death wish. Paris was worried about us meeting the SITA bus on a wet road. Everyone else was silent. We sat in the car as the engine idled. Then Myles turned it off. The day trip was over.
But we did consider that being house bound here for twenty-four hours might need provisions. So he turned the car back on and we gingerly drove up to Furore Alto for supplies.
It was treat Friday too, so we had to consider the treat factor. Paris opted for a stew (weird, no?) so we found some beef and vegetables and whatnot, and then cakes and chocolates, and wine and song. We left with our parcels and settled in at our house.
And then proceeded to get cabin fever in no small way. Just a reminder. There is no internet access here in the house or anywhere around us. The TV only works sporadically (and, apparently, when it rains, not at all, so we couldn’t even watch the BBC World News channel), the heater is a blow heater so while it has warmed the house, it is also slowing drying us all out to a quasi mummified state, we have limited books (just what we have bought with us – and I have read them all – and the pot boilers on the shelves). Niccolo can’t read independently. And the house is very small.
So we cooked lunch together. Paris and I did the lion share, Zelda and Niccolo organised the chocolates and the treats. We managed to make a half way decent stew with our limited resources. Myles cooked rice for the mop up (though most of us chose to use bread). And the cake and chocolates were fine. We cleaned up and then looked at the rain with some hope. It was belting down. Myles retired to his book (he is deep in the Millennium series), Niccolo found some games on my computer and got down to business, Zelda, Paris and I had a round of gin rummy. Now, when we play a ten card hand, for some reason, I can win quite easily, but the seven card hand defeats me every time. This time, we were playing ten card hands, so I was winning like mad. But before long – about seven hands – we were losing momentum. The rain had eased a little, though not enough for driving; you could at least see the sea. Myles proposed a stairs walk. We all said no. So he walked the stairs up to the road that takes you to Furore three times. This is quite something. I can make it once, but it is a serious haul.
So it was to reading. The shelves contain – in English – only really murder mysteries set in England. They are full of gruesome details and lots of plot twists (very clever too), but also full of details that just makes me think if Enid Blyton which seems to take away the tension somewhat. Cups of tea and cake for instance. It just the way the English express it that makes me think Blyton. It is wrong I know, but I can’t help it. And it was across all kinds of murder mysteries – one called ‘The House at Midnight’ a kind of English version of ‘The Secret History’; one called ‘Trick of the Dark’ which made Oxford look like a hotbed of pyschos (perhaps it is …); one called ‘The Reckoning’ which was all gender problems in the police force and the issue of ‘innocent’ or ‘guilty’ victims.
I began to wonder if England couldn’t do worse than name a town Blyton and we could all go there and have our very English experience of ginger beer and tea, and cakes and softly boiled eggs. I guess there would need to be some kind of magical element too, where chairs fly unexpectedly and trees have lands at the top and there are individuals with weird heads. Hmmm. The cabin fever was bad.
We began to wander the house and get in each other’s way. Things were not going well. Then Paris opened the fridge and smashed a bottle accidently. After cleaning that up, we all went to bed. Seriously. There was not much to do.
There is no doubt the weather has been kind. If it had been any other way, the trip might have been a series of days in which we plotted the demise of those around us.

Amalfi, day four

Myles had found his feet where driving was concerned and was therefore quite happy to organise us for a day trip through Positano and Sorrento. OK. The day began misty and the sea is quite different in this light; not the milky mystery of the afternoon, but a soft, delicate blue with tiny, dancing specks of light balanced in the water. You could watch the sea all day and its changing character. But we were for the coastal towns. Before that, it was time to get connected and find an internet point. We had been deprived since Monday morning and it wasn’t going well. Our dependence on connectivity has been something of a revelation on this trip. We miss it. Desperately. Our hosts have a kind of gaming and internet shop in Agerola so we headed there. We had been told that there was a point in Furore but much questioning of shopkeepers and barmen revealed nothing of the sort.
Once in Agerola, we were hooked up immediately. The relief of checking and sending email, of uploading onto the blog, and of looking at the news of the world. We are so cut off here – no TV, no anything. It is great on one level, but I guess we must be information junkies. Sad for us. Then suddenly, my sister came on line and we got to chat on Skype (another modern miracle). Paris got to connect on Facebook, and Myles did he usual trolling around. The other two didn’t do anything online. Their online vice is to what the new episodes of Total Drama and Horrible Histories and it wasn’t possible in this shop.
We left the shop considerable lighter in our minds and having made the connections that needed to be made. Myles had done some shopping while I was Skyping, so he made sandwiches for the road and we set out.
The mist was lifting and the whole coast was awash in bright blue light. It is truly astonishingly beautiful here, if you can lift your eyes from the horror that is the roads. As it happened, I was sitting in the back seat, and so wasn’t at the cold face of buses bearing down, so I could look about. All this life embedded in an unlikely hillside, desperate to be a part of this landscape – to have the sea within reach of their toes (very long toes in our case, but certainly, metaphorically our toes are close to the water). And all long the cliffs, terraces growing the important things in life – grapes, lemons, oranges. There are probably tomato plants up there somewhere too. Garlic perhaps.
In about an hour, we were driving into Positano. We could see what we should have done when booking for the Amalfi coast. We should have booked in a town. I can’t remember our reasoning now, but we had thought, I guess, that being outside a town would be fun. Well, when you don’t know the geography … we found a carpark and left the car to walk down to the beach. It was a decent walk, about a kilometre on these same hairy roads, though this one was one way which made it at least a little predictable. There are bogonvillias everywhere, threaded through trellis work; purples and oranges and some whites. It wasn’t the best season for them, but they were their never the less. There were also lemon trees crucified on trellis work for shade and beauty. The building are sprinkled across the landscape like colourful, determined blocks – and just to underline this, there are mini Positanos (and other towns) replicated in miniature along the road at strategic points – little cliffs with block house jammed into the sides. There is always a nativity scene to be found in these mini towns. Not in the real thing though. At least, not that we saw.
January is the quietest time of the year here. Nothing was open but a few shops selling bathers in an optimistic manner, some men with their shops open but repairing and painting rather than selling, and one restaurant right on the beach that was doing a roaring trade for those tourists and locals left stranded by the shut down. It was, not unexpectedly, expensive but they had a takeaway section that was OK.
The kids played on the beach. It is possible that playing on the beach should be a mandated activity for kids of all ages in a regular way. They were battling the waves (Zelda had seen some history thing where a Roman emperor had employed his army (or navy?) to quell the waves. He thought he had succeeded when the waves had retreated at low tide. So Paris, Zelda and Niccolo decided to re-enact this rather quaint act. Hours and hours of fun because the sea never gets tired. Myles and I wandered up and down the beach (admiring the local beach dogs, one of which was clearly a corgi and looked like a mini version of Shimmy), and looking again at the water now that the sun had burned away the mist. The sea is now a deep green and like the colour of old coke bottles (how interesting that I should come to coke for a simile). It is clear and looks cold, but we were longing to jump in. If only the wind wasn’t quite so cold and it wasn’t quite so January. Still – no tourists (other than ourselves of course). It must be intense in the hot months.
We could see that if we had booked a house in a town like this one, we wouldn’t be so stranded or isolated. There are places to walk and an accessible beach where the kids could attack the waves for hours, not to mention making friends with the local dogs. No language barrier there. Next time … we will know.
After some hours and pizza, we walked back to the car. We took a chance on the alleyways this time, rather than the road at it was very pleasant in a rabbit warren kind of way. More steps (my thighs are only just speaking to me again), but the sun was at our back and it was very beautiful. At least, we made roadfall, and we were at the car. The bloke who ran the car place waved us out and we were off to Sorrento.
This confused Niccolo. He knows Sorrento as the place on the Victorian coast where we go in summer. He decided that there was therefore a Sorrento A and a Sorrento B. We were now travelling to Sorrento B. Myles could not convince him that this Sorrento had existed first. You could see the kid’s point. More incredible cliffs and countryside with terraced lemon groves and vineyards.
And then we realised, as we pulled into Sorrento (B), that we were completely with Niccolo. We has also constructed this Sorrento from the Sorrento we knew from home (smallish, a bit sleepy, one major road, dead as a door nail in winter). But no! This Sorrento is a huge place, busy as a bee hive with frantic traffic and people walking and shopping. And tourists shops open everywhere selling various versions of lemons (lemons, ceramic lemons, aprons with lemons on them, limoncello – which I want to try – wall plaques with lemons). We were a bit overwhelmed so we headed for the water. Where we were (or perhaps everywhere, we weren’t sure), the coast was a port and industrial. There was one small section that had a forlorn sign saying ‘Spiagga: Free Beach’ but it was little more than some rough sand and a bit where you could launch boats. The kids couldn’t quite capture the enterprise of the beach at Positano and it was getting dark by this time anyway. It was time for ice cream – which we found on the main road and a slow walk in the twilight.
Sorrento, if anyone is interested, has orange trees as street trees. You can literally reach up, in Sorrento, and pick an orange. I didn’t try it. I wasn’t sure if the oranges were somehow municipal property. I didn’t want to test it. The police directing traffic looked a little fierce.
It was time to go home for pasta. The trip was about an hour and a half on dark roads choked with hazards and beauty in equal measure. By the time we made it home, it was seven and we all could have used a lie down. I cooked tuna pasta (Zelda’s favourite) and some other bits and pieces. We ate like fevered souls. And then it was  time for the gin rummy tournament. Niccolo retired hurt early, but the rest of us pushed on, with me triumphant. It is good to know that you are quite sporadically good at one thing. The wine we had bought for dinner turned out to be fizzy (NOTHING on the label). But it was quite drinkable.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Amalfi, day three

Today we were going to Pompeii. The guide book warned us that we were best to travel there by train to avoid the parking and whatnot. But our experience in Amalfi to this point – that the coast is deserted in January – had us thinking that we should risk the drive. The drive itself again would involve us going around the hairy roads, but it was daylight and glorious sunshine and we thought that there would be no better time.
The morning dawned gloriously again; the sun shone through our window and burned the world to day. We all rose and were going before ten, an absolute record for us. It was to be about an hour in the car, but not too far. The time was really that the roads were so torturous rather than great distances that needed to be travelled.
We glided over the mountain and through the tunnel that transforms the world from the third world horror of Naples to the remote wonderland of Amalfi. And there we were again, battling the traffic and the rubbish and the horrible conditions that are apparently Naples. What ever happened to the romance that had been associated with Naples? Even Scott Fitzgerald (who was no great fan of Italy generally) wrote a romantic story set in Naples and Capri. No where we could see it. But what we could see, what followed us to Pompeii, was the hulking darkness of Vesuvius; a big bite taken out of the right side (from where we were looking, which was coming into Naples from Amalfi) where the eruption of 79AD had blown half the mountain away and covered several cities in the process. We were going to see one, but Herculean was also buried and other towns suffered too. Pompeii is the big one though.
We were right about no one being in Pompeii. The large carpark was ours and ours alone. The attendant was keen for our business and offered us lunch afterwards. We said we’d consider it.
January is really dead here; the piazza through which you walk to get to the ruins had only one souvenir shop running and all the eateries were closed. We wandered up to the ticket window with a few Japanese tourists. They didn’t take card. Myles went to get some money. Some French tourists came to the window. They didn’t take cards. There was a drama. All up, it took us (what with waiting for the French tourists to finish their histrionics and collect their money and so on) about twenty minutes to buy tickets in a queue that really only had us in it. If this is the level of organisation here, I’d hate to by here in high season.
We went off to the tourist point and asked for a map in English. Even this was a joke, with the woman in the shop front choosing to have a fight with one of the guides rather than listen to my question. I swear, it didn’t begin well.
But finally we had tickets and maps and we went through the turnstiles to the ruins. The word ‘ruins’ is a particular one; there is a finality to it. This is the last phase of these buildings. We can only see them as dead and silent. And Pompeii is creepy. We were there relatively early and were some of the few tourists tramping about (later it got a bit busy, but there was this sense for most of it that we were more among ghosts than people).
What is remarkable about Pompeii is how similar it is to any city we might have today. There was clear organisation (down to traffic organisation; no chariots were allowed in the forum – there were stones blocking their paths; and at cross roads, there were great stones that required any chariot or wheeled cart to slow down). Large administrative buildings were around; there was the ‘good’ side of town with large houses beside one another. There was the theatre district with two theatres (a big one and a small one) and a place for the theatre goers to walk about during interval, perhaps have some refreshments. There were factories (a wool one in particular) and gardens and vineyards. And there were sporting arenas, a large amphitheatre that was surprisingly like our modern sporting grounds. Except sport then was a bit different. There were bars where the city dwellers ate lunch – long counters with holes in them where the lunch was kept. Recognisable. Ordinary. We almost knew these people. Myles liked the public baths (there were at least three that we saw). He thinks that bathing is the mark of civilisation. The kids were disappointed that there were no plaster casts of the dead. There were being repaired or something.
Pompeii is drenched in rosemary bushes. This is almost beyond a cliche, but there it is. Fingers of the dead; forget me not.
What we all liked were the dogs. There were signs saying that you were not to approach the stray dogs in the ruins. And there were a lot, basking in the sun, and trotting about. Most had collars (red ones) and we speculated that they were the official stray dogs of Pompeii. Paris liked that they didn’t drive the dogs out (which, presumably, they could have) but rather erected signs for them. One of them took a fancy to Niccolo and made him a friend. Many of them were sitting in the big theatre awaiting the show to begin. Zelda thought they might be disappointed by the shows. Great hordes of tourists coming in, listening either to a live guide or their audio tours, taking photos and leaving again. Not much of a plot.
Pompeii was a creepy but memorable experience, a kind of sobering one where you could see that not much had changed in terms of human organisation in 2000 years. Our cities are bigger. But that’s about it.
I was taken by the silencing of an entire city pretty much overnight. It wasn’t like the dinosaurs or anything – this wasn’t extinction. It was one city that had been covered and destroyed over four days about 2000 years ago, which allows us, today, to see how people lived. And we only come to wonder and hypnotise. Not to live (despite that optimistic signs ‘Pompeii viva’ everywhere), but to consider and then to leave for the living towns. Ruins indeed.
And at our shoulders, Vesuvius waits and watches.
After three hours, we went back to the car. None of us were in the mood to eat out, we all wanted to get home to eat home cooked stuff. In addition, four of us were suffering from the steps of yesterday, and were in physical pain. My thighs hurt, Zelda had painful calves, Paris had sore legs generally and Niccolo complained that his buttocks (his word) hurt. Only Myles appear unscathed by the experience.
We left Naples with no pangs. What a horrible place it is. Everything falling down or being torn down, rubbish in every corner, the most impatient drivers in the world. We sighed happily when we went through the tunnel and came out in Agerola at the other end. Even through the crazy roads awaited us. With the largest buses in the world taking corners at serious pace.
Back at our place, I cooked for a while and we ate lunch. And then, when I looked out of the window after lunch, mists had fallen all across the sea somehow giving it a new image. No longer bright and sassy, it was now cloaked and mysterious. You could not see the mountains across the sea. The sea itself was no longer blue, but now white and milky. And there were only a few black spots dotted across it to tell us that there were still boats about. So many different sides to the sea here. Another ancient site. Men would have rowed across here, or sailed across here, for centuries. And in all the moods of the sky and sea. We haven’t yet seen bad moods. Perhaps before we leave.
It was a late afternoon of rest. Most of us read, and then the kids got involved in some computer game they had downloaded earlier to my computer. Myles decided to walk the stairs for exercise; even Paris refused to go. He was in too much pain, as was I. My legs appeared to have seized up completely.
It gets dark here quickly and quite early. But five thirty it is dark and cold. We didn’t eat dinner, lunch had been late and huge. But later, Myles and I braved the streets again for some wine for late night chats. But as it happened, I was involved in a book and had to finish it. So we drank a glass of wine each in separate rooms.
This is a weird place, but probably a good one for our second last week. There is not much we can do if we don’t really want to brave the roads. And you can’t really walk for miles either in the hills or along the beach. The hills are death traps with cars, and the beaches don’t appear to exist. I like it, but it is like the Great Ocean Road, amazing to look at, but you can only access a few bits. But it does make you just relax and do nothing.

Amalfi, day two

The heaters had done their work in the night and we woke to a little mellow heat. But what we really woke to was steel sunlight coming through the window. The sun rises behind some mountains that lie across the water from us (Sicily?); a peeping gold to begin with and then a razor sharp blade of brightness powers down. The sky is the bluest of blues; this must be burning hot in summer. As it is, in midwinter, the sun is most welcome in our windows. There is no sleeping past 7.30am here. The sun is a taskmaster. And the curtains are no match.
We all got up and organised not only for the new day, but the new week. Living week to week, quite literally, is an interesting phenomena; very short term but quite detailed in the planning. And you don’t plan beyond the immediate week because you don’t know what kind of place you are going to for the next week.
Because the sun was so strong, we decided to see if the air outside was as warm as it looked. It wasn’t, but it also wasn’t cold. Paris decided that it might even be tee shirt weather. Not me. But neither was it for a puffy jacket. Have we seen the last of them for this trip? From our terrace, the sea ripples out for miles, torn in two by the bleached white path of the sun. We are rammed into the side of a hill, all windows one side (the side of the sea) and none the other side because it is pretty much underground.
It is a pretty but tough kind of place. No real resort-y places to stay. You are in a house (some are lavish of course) or a little hotel. But nothing of the scale we saw in places like Monaco. Well, there seemed to be more flat surfaces in Monaco than here.
We discovered the garden and found space in the banana lounges there. We all got books (except for Niccolo who was intrigued by the way that the banana lounges could be modified and made to lie completely flat) and sat in the early sun and read. You could imagine spending hours here, doing just this and then wandering, a little dazed, back into the kitchen to make something for lunch. Perhaps a sleep after lunch. And, if the weather was hot, a little swim (somehow, but how to get to the water? It feels like it just there, but is probably miles away). We admired the clean sharp yellows and oranges of the fruits on the trees (the most vibrant yellow of a lemon I have ever seen, but is it just a trick of the light?). We planned to go up to the town via some steps to see what we could see.
This is an ancient place (but what place isn’t?). And by ancient, I think I might mean that it has had its civilisation recorded in quite specific ways for centuries, and ways in which we might currently identify. Living in cities, drinking wine, organising elections, writing plays and poetry, trying to understand the world through both religion and science. It all feels strangely ‘modern’ in the sense that these civilizations were peopled apparently but individuals ‘just like us’. The people of Pompeii are not ‘other’ but just us in togas. And you can see why a toga might have been the right thing to wear here. You’d need some breeze here in high summer I’d think.
As noted last night, the roads are really just some kind of terrible roller coaster, so we thought we’d walk up to our little township. ‘Just up the stairs’ our host had said last night. ‘There are shops and an internet point … everything you might need’.
With the laptops, we set off.
Steps, hmmm. Well, there were hundreds of them cut into the side of the mountain. I pity the person who had to do this because it must have been done by hand; no possible way a machine could have worked on this cliff. And the steps are uneven, hacked at will; some with very high riders (how many times will I trip?), some long and low and flat. We climbed steadily; up past houses (that must be fun when you do the shopping) and the long narrow terraces with grape vines or lemon trees. And still we climbed. Sometimes we were climbing on winding paths, but most often it was the brutal stairs. At last, there was a road. There were also more stairs going up but I was for trying my luck on the road. Surely, where there is a road, there is a shop. This is our version of civilisation. The road. In Roman times, it was probably the Senate, or the baths. So we stumbled along the road for a while, came across a man fixing his truck and asked if he knew where Furore was. He indicated that we keep going up the road. Really?
And then around a corner, and there was a tiny township perched on the side of the hill. The little bed and breakfasts on the sea side, somehow built mostly on the air, and the shops of the other side. There was no internet connection anywhere in the town (I’m writing this in Word, and will load this up with lots of others when we get connected again). There was, however, a cafĂ© and Paris was happy to drink good coffee in the strong sun. Apparently, in Furore, what you do for fun is wait outside the post office for it to open. Strange, because by this time it was half past ten or so. And yet, there they waited. There seemed to be a lot of waiting here, but no one minds.
We turned around and headed back to the house.
Down the stairs, that is, beyond our place, you get to the only fjord in Italy. So we thought that might be fun. We had been warned that there were a thousand steps (or more?) but it was sunny. Forty minutes said the sign ominously.
Is this something about my age? The kids leapt from step to step and had races and were laughing all the way down. I was shaking and sweating very early on. Is walking down steps suddenly as hard as walking up them? It appeared that way to me, and I would breath much relief when there was a flat bit along which I could walk at a steady pace. The descent was unforgiving; straight down. We met some goats. They thought we were most amusing. And after forty, thigh burning, knee cracking, back jarring minutes, we were at the fjord. What is a fjord? I’m not sure; but this was a tiny beach that lay in the gap between what appeared a crack in the cliff. No sunlight here; some boats pulled up onto the stony shore. A bridge crossed the crack high up above the beach (the road, the road!) and this dripped water. The view from the bridge was dazzling. But Myles was sweating with vertigo. We had to move on. None of us fancied going back up the steps but we had heard that you could catch a bus to Amalfi from hereabouts. But where? A bloke pulled his car up to the steps at the crucial moment and we asked him where the bus would go from. Just up the road, he said. One minute. Well, it was something like one minute if you have nowhere to be at a certain time, and you were not walking along a road that had no footpaths as was only one car wide with cars driving like maniacs along it. It was a rather long one minute. But finally, there was a bus stop. Myles remembered reading somewhere that you couldn’t buy tickets on the bus, so we went to the tiny petrol station that sat next to the bus stop and asked them. And it turned out they sold tickets to the bus; and told us that the bus was coming: now. Well, now is a relative term. And while the men who worked the petrol station had coffee with their friends and finally locked the door to go to where? The local bar?, we waited in the sun. Oh my god; the sun is glorious, it gold plates your back and makes you feel like the richest person in the world. So we were not concerned. And of course, at last, the bus did come. We got on. I went to ask the driver about what we did with the tickets but (terrifyingly) he was on his mobile phone. We lurched off, him chatting to someone and driving around corners that felt like they might crumble beneath the wheels with one hand. The smattering of Japanese tourists that were already passengers smiled politely at us. We grabbed seats. Myles sat on the sea side of the bus. I wanted to hug the cliff. We all felt dizzy when we pulled into Amalfi. It is the most surreal bus drive. At no point do you  really believe you are on a road at all. It feels like you are driving somehow parallel to the cliff, but not really on it. And beneath you are hundreds of metres of air and finally, the sea. I don’t suffer vertigo, but this gave me something akin to an uncomfortable thrill.
Amalfi is shut down for winter; the town had its eyes closed and was sleeping in the sun. We did manage to find a small bar with food open for lunch. The bloke who ran it had the most remarkable way of managing orders. He did each plate one at a time. For example, I ordered soup. And so did the woman at the next table. But he didn’t make them together. He made hers. And then, some time later, he made mine. He cooked Niccolo’s hamburger. Then he cooked Myles’ pasta. Then he made Zelda lasagne. Then my soup. And then he came out to tell us that Paris’ melanzane was no possible. He had run out (this was forty minutes later). OK. He’d have pizza. And then, he cooked that. It was kind of mesmeric. As we sat there, locals came in to have a tiny coffee, or tiny liqueurs (that they would throw back and then leave). We watched music videos. Then the bloke turned the channel to sport. He was trying to find the tennis (after we had a discussion about where we were from). We ended up watching American football. Close enough. After this, we meandered down by the water. You can see why Amalfi is one of the larger towns here; it is one of the few with flat land. There is an impressive church (the kids refused to have anything to do with it), and a few piazzas with some shops languidly open (but not with any real conviction). There were a few tourist dotted about the place. We thought we should shop for provisions. I went into a bar to ask if there were any supermarkets around. I was told by the barman that there was but it was closed. When would it open? He shrugged. Perhaps four thirty. Perhaps later. As it was only three, we decided not to wait around.
We returned to the bus stop. And then, the greatest comedy on wheels. Amalfi is the terminus for the bus. And so what happen is this: buses roll in from the top of the cliff. People get off. The driver gets off. He turns off the sign that tells where is might be going (or where he has come from), he puts on his jacket. He gets his bag. He disappears into the local bar. About seven buses came this way. The place was clogged with buses. We waited with locals who patiently watched this charade. Finally, one bus turned on a sign – Agerola. We all ran like crazy for the bus. The driver looked at us with some contempt and then put on his jacket and disappeared. But amazingly, within ten minutes he was back (he couldn’t have drunk that much in ten minutes, could he?). I asked about getting off at Furore. He assured me it was possible. Away we went. If anything, this was a worse drive than the first one. For one thing, we were much higher this time, and the roads were much more busy. But no one appeared concerned except us. Swinging around corners, passing cars with about a hair width of room, driving over passes that, when looked back at, apparently existed without support. Furore couldn’t come fast enough. True to his word, the driver got us off at Furore. We waved the bus off with some relief. Nothing was open in the town (too early?) and we walked back down the stairs on shaky legs to our house.
But not for long. We had to get food. So Myles and I braved the roads and drove into Agorola. The people we came across were amazingly friendly, helped us find a supermarket and a butcher. The shop keepers were lovely and helpful. Here is an interesting discovery. Chicken breasts here are sold with the bone in. I had ordered the chicken breast from the butcher through some rather humiliating pantomime. The butcher had asked if I wanted it cut up (I think, but now I realise that she was asking if I wanted the bone removed). I had said no. And then I had to bone it myself (badly) when we got home. So shopping was all good. Myles and I did have a bad moment when we realised that we were driving along some very dangerous roads and what would the kids do if we failed to return? But best not to dwell on that one.
We returned safely. We ate dinner. We had a gin rummy tournament (Myles won, the evil sod). We fell into bed with very sore thigh. Well, mine were sore.