Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Roma

It is hard to believe that this time yesterday we were sitting at a trattoria a short walk from the Colosseum, savouring freshly-made pizza and una birra during our last few hours in Rome.

Rosie saved up for a holiday, which she needed to take to fit in with other workers, and none of her friends were free to accompany her. So I fell on my sword and volunteered.

Martin kindly drove us to Heathrow early Monday morning, which turned out to be extra-good for us as the traffic was terrible and we ended up arriving very late for our 9.25am check-in cut-off. Happily he had also upgraded us with airmiles to Business Class, the main advantage of which at this point was that we were fast-tracked through baggage, and were the subject of a stand-off between BA employees as one fought for us to jump huge queues at security.

But we made it! We had great seats, with Rosie at the window and an empty seat between us, so loads of room for wriggling and bags. I ordered a G&T with my meal, and Rosie a Bloody Mary, by way of celebration, and when the air hostess found out it was our first trip to Rome she brought delicious champagne for us. So we had a most enjoyable and relaxing flight.
Rosie sorted out tickets for the half-hour train ride to Rome Termini, from where we map-read our way to the flat she had booked for us on Airbnb. Dale and David had called in before we left to give us their Rome guide and top places to visit, together with a detailed street map, so we were able to negotiate our way with our wheeled case. Unfortunately it absolutely poured with rain and despite coats and an umbrella (which broke) we were soaked through by the time we had arrived, leaving clothes inside the case damp, and the borrowed map floppy.

The flat on Via di San Giovanni in Laterano was perfect. At one end of the short road stood the Colosseum, a daily treat when we stepped out in the morning; virtually across the road was the historic church San Clemente; and at the other end of the road was the enormous Basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's former base as Bishop of Rome.
Our hallway
That's the Colosseum at the end!
The owner met us and showed us around his flat, which had a twin room, kitchen, bathroom and hallway, all furnished with attractive old furniture and very cosy. We found two little shops a few steps away so stocked up on cereals and milk for breakfast, then after a quick cuppa set off to explore the neighbourhood.
By this time it was growing dark, and gently raining. The Colosseum looked amazing in the sparkly darkness, so huge but also a warm reminder that Romans two thousand years ago were not so unlike ourselves. We walked around the circumference under the surveillance of the carabinieri, coming across another huge arch and marvelling at how close together everything is in Rome.
Our mission to find a typical Italian meal was simple: a trattoria half-way home was heaving with locals, so we joined the pack and were soon enjoying a carafe of red wine, warm pomodori (tomatoes) with dressing on bruschetta and then some fantastic pizze baked in a stone oven behind Rosie. And all for about £15.
On Dale's advice, we had pre-booked tickets to the Colosseum on our first morning, so avoided queues. It is undergoing a $35 million clean therefore partly shrouded in scaffolding, but it is of course so huge that there is nevertheless plenty on display.
We used up our full two hours at the Colosseum, and were going to set off for a hot drink but found ourselves instead en route to neighbouring Palatine Hill, where according to Roman mythology Romulus and Remus were born, suckled on a wolf, and eventually founded Rome. It was the home of the wealthy and influential of the city, able to look down upon the forum whilst filling their homes with beautiful objects, some of which remain.
That's the Colosseum, down through the trees.
In the Palatine Museum
 From Palatine Hill to Forum
SO tempted to pluck lemons everywhere
We finally spent some time wandering around the Forum, full of tumbled columns, chunks of engraved text and enough towering relics to give a clear idea of just how tightly the Romans packed their competitive statues and buildings, each seeking to outdo the other and garner greater respect. Rosie was the perfect tour guide, able to give me a bit of history as we went, explaining who and why and giving me a much more vivid picture of a living, breathing society than any number of written plaques.
What a seat!
Proving I was there... also sitting on something ancient.
We popped out of the Forum onto a main road boasting plenty of restaurants, so sat outside at a caffe table and ordered what were effectively folded pizzas. Very nice they were too! Then after consulting the map we wandered along some smaller streets, at one stage following three nuns at a fast pace up a very steep cobbled and windy road with vespas zipping down.

Every time we went down smaller roads we found beautiful cobbled streets bordered by ochre-washed Mediterranean style buildings, gently co-ordinating shutters and zebra crossings that went nowhere. Taking one turn Rosie thought she spotted Trajan's Column, so we set off downhill and indeed she was right: it was brilliant to see the original of the cast she had taken me to see in London's V&A a few months ago, and to realise that amongst all the other tall structures at the time, people would have been able to read the wrap of historical scenes with ease.

More happy wandering found us tracking down some huge metal statues that appeared over the rooftops and turned out to be atop an enormous white building. Climbing the steps we read it held the tomb of the unknown soldier, and a pair of guards changed duty as we watched. Neither Rosie nor I were impressed, though, with the building itself, which seemed too huge and bright.
But it did look down grandly on a rectangular square with cars teeming around, in the midst of which Rosie saw a white-hatted policeman casually directly traffic in exactly the style shown in our old Richard Scarry "Busy, Busy World" book. When we traversed Piazza Venezia again next day another of these mad policeman was being interviewed by an English film crew, and we later watched, bemused, as he popped in and out of the streams of traffic which somehow managed to avoid him and each other.

During our entire stay we kept walking through doors and discovering amazing churches, all free to enter and with the most amazing statuary and art. Many were heavily gilded and seemed very overdone, but with beautiful mosaics and if we checked we found that paintings or statues we had walked past were in fact by Caravaggio or Michealangelo. It is hard to believe so very many places of worship can exist within such a small area, and yet one day we came across a priest conducting an outdoor service on some steps in a park!
 Remembering to cover up for Catholic sensibilities
We reached the Pantheon as rain and dusk fell together, the cobbles sparkling prettily. It is open to the Gods at the top and the drainage holes in the floor had not kept up with the deluge so the centre was cordoned off. But astonishing to see such a perfectly-preserved building almost 2,000 years after its construction and despite the fires and earthquakes that have wrought such havoc upon many of similar age.
Just up from the Pantheon
We missed Vatican City entirely (too much else to see) but Rosie did get to meet the Pope, on a revolving dais in the waxworks window. Special.

After more roaming Rome we decided to try some pasta, so found a restaurant on a busier street and dug into spaghetti and a seafood pasta, which hit the spot. Not quite ready to turn homewards, Rosie found a scenic footbridge to take us across the Tiber, looking beautiful under soft lights.
We wandered along a while to investigate an enormous, round building which turned out to be the Castel Sant'Angelo, commissioned for Hadrian as his mausoleum, later turned into a fortress and now a museum. We did finally reach the flat, popping into our local shop on the way for chocolates to go with our evening tea.
Wednesday dawned gloriously bright, clear blue skies visible through our courtyard-opening windows, and once the morning chill burnt off it was a beautifully warm day. We had pre-booked tickets for the Galleria Borghese, so spent an enjoyable morning finding our way there, including walking past the Trevi Fountain (covered in scaffolding as it is undergoing renovation) and the Spanish Steps, and buying a small Christmas present for Martin.

The Galleria is a perfectly-formed, small museum, purpose-built to show off artworks and achieving its aim. The Borghese family went out of their way to encourage visitors to make full use of the pleasure gardens and enjoy the art, with a beautifully-worded welcoming tablet pointing out that those behaving themselves had nothing to fear.
The lower floor is full on ancient and modern sculptures, including many busts and figures which Rosie was able to explain to me. We found an Aphrodite (the subject of her dissertation) and marvelled too at the realism of Baroque works such as 23 year old Bernini's sculpture showing Hades grabbing Prosepina, full of movement and emotion. I loved the sculptures thanks to my excellent guide, though we were both less interested in the upper gallery full of Madonna and Child paintings by equally famous artists.
We found our way through some smart shopping areas back to cheaper cafes and were seated outside awaiting our pizza orders when the very busy waiter asked us to move for another group. He was most apologetic and sweetly offered us free coffees, telling us an Italian phrase meaning 'the sun shines on le belle'.

We then walked more cobbled streets to find Augustus's tomb and the Ara Pacis, the text of which has been etched afresh on the walls of a new museum housing the rebuilt altar, and treated ourselves to a stracchiatella at a gelateria for dessert as we wandered past tiny antique shops stuffed with art and came upon even more fantastic churches, plus what appeared to be a whole series of embassies, all sporting flags and armed guards.
Just a few shops were decorated for Christmas
Another fountain...
Having not yet headed North, we ventured towards Barberini. Pope Urban VIII's coat of arms bears the symbol of bees which is found everywhere here, the family having apparently desecrated and built in equal measure. We walked through a tempting archway at a museum to find ourselves in a pretty garden, as music from someone playing a harpsichord drifted down from an open top-floor window. Magical!
For supper that night we had decided to try a proper Italian menu, so headed towards Isola Tiberina (an island in the middle of the Tiber) but found it was too early for the main restaurant there. A great excuse to walk along the riverbank awhile, finding that the medieval area of Trastavere was in fact the perfect place for a meal. Rosie and I had a carafe of red wine, bread and oil, a starter (a single, huge ravioli for Rosie and some gnocchi with oxtail for me), followed by oxtail and lamb and a delicious tiramisu.
We returned to the flat late and still full, to find the water gurgling in the pipes: it turned out there was virtually no water from then until we left, but we did manage to make drinks and flush the loo so weren't troubled. Next morning we decided to get colazione out, so found a caffe along the street for coffee and pastries, followed by an enormous fresh doughnut!

Knowing we needed to be back at the flat for our luggage at 1pm we spent our time wisely, first returning to the church almost opposite to explore further, having read that it held so much history. In fact San Clemente was full of interest, from the broken and rebuilt marble blocks to the mosaic ceiling portraying a line of sheep with a grumpy leader whose picture I brought home for the kitchen.
The present Basilica was built in the middle ages, on top of a 4th century basilica built over the home of a Roman nobleman, the basement of which was at one time a Mithraeum, itself built on the site of an older building possibly destroyed in the great fire of Rome in 64 (when Nero is said to have fiddled). Below ground it is clammy and damp but the brickwork on walls and floors is neat and precise, and you can still see some of the ancient frescoes (including one which only appeared after the one in front of it fell off the wall) and hear a stream running through the ground. It was only dimly lit below ground, with clever stick-lights, but Rosie spotted that this was enough for plant life to burgeon
Back into the sunshine we walked further up our road and across the square to the enormous cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano, where the Pope is bishop and used to reside.
We wandered beneath a huge statue up a corridor to find nuns shushing us away: apparently this was a private area. I took photos of Rosie standing at the huge doors at the far end, which turned out to be the main front doors, Roman originals from the Senate House in the imperial forum.
This far end of the cathedral was actually the front, from which it looks even more grand, with its huge statues standing atop the roof visible from far afield.
We were short of time coming out into the sunshine, but Rosie was keen to walk along Via Appia a while as we could see what looked like an ancient aquaduct, and was in fact part of the old Aurelian Wall. By this time we had mastered the art of walking out across a sea of traffic on a crossing with sufficient confidence to ensure the drivers stopped for us, and a passing tram waved us an apology when he cut between us as I tried to take a photo of Rosie in front of the tomb of Eurysaces the Baker, which she managed to recognise when we came across it quite by chance.
Some speedy walking got us back to the flat at exactly 1pm... but there owner was nowhere to be seen, and we could not muster either him or his local contact by telephone. There followed an uncomfortable half an hour when we knocked on doors and went down to the lobby to see what we could find. In fact a lovely old woman expressed sympathy when I explained in broken Italian that we needed to get our bags in order to catch our flight. Most fortunately, she knew both people whom we had contacted, and as we chatted to her a man went past who turned out to be the very neighbour who had the spare key. Huge relief, and so very lucky we had stayed to talk to the lovely lady, so we went up to collect our bags with smiles and 'Grazie mille's.

And so our holiday finished. We went for a final pizza lunch at the splendid local trattoria, sitting outside next to a voluble couple and enjoying listening to their sing-song Italian.
Then we walked through the sunshine to the train station, popping our noses through more archways and into more churches as we went.
 all decked out in lemons and bay leaves
The airport was virtually empty, so we sped through the checks and spent a relaxing hour in the BA lounge drinking and eating.
A brief wander round the shops and then onto the plane, with excellent seats again and a tasty meal. We were off so quickly at the other end that we had collected our bags barely minutes after our designated arrival time, so waited a while for Max to collect us (Martin had gone to Bristol to see Ben's gig, after cancelling a London dinner he was due to attend).

And so now we are back, two footsore but delighted travellers who feel we have wrung the most out of our few days in a beautiful city, to which we would both happily return.

Thank you so much Rosie, it was a wonderful holiday which I shall always remember!