Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Remember I Went To Rome?

Ah yes, the Eternal City...

...And in all of it's history, throughout all those centuries, the only thing missing was me.

Until about 9a.m. on Tuesday, October 8th, that is.

This is me arriving at Termini Station after a rather more comfortable trip from Vienna than I had getting there:

I got in the queue outside for taxis, managing to annoy a local who decided he didn't want the next cab, but the one after that (mine) and ended up missing both. It's complicated, but wasn't my fault.

The stories about Roman traffic are legendary and well-deserved, and my particular chariot race lasted about twenty minutes before finally ending up at my hotel off the Piazza Fiume.

See the second floor (third to American readers)?

My room was in the back, with a marvellous view of the airshaft in the centre of the building. But I didn't even get to check in before the concierge, a man named Mustafa, explained apologetically that my room wasn't ready yet, and he'd made alternative arrangements for me for that night in another hotel on the far side of the piazza. Fair enough.

He took half my luggage and led the way to a similar building 100 metres away, and I was shown to my room, where I unpacked and showered before heading out for the day. The bathroom was large, with a comfortably-sized shower with good water pressure. Just what I needed after 36 hours without one.

Anyway, having unpacked, I took to the streets and headed for the Spanish Steps, having been led to believe they were within reasonable walking distance. This turned out to be the case, although the route I took was more meandering than 'Roman Road', so I got to see a lot more than if I'd gone directly.

The blister count was high, and after my second shower of the day, I slept well.

Wednesday:

The following day I moved all my stuff back across the piazza to Mustafa's hotel, where my room now awaited. Given where I'd spent the previous night, I had expected something different, but it wasn't all bad.

Air conditioning, PC with internet connection and the most reasonably-priced and well-stocked minibar* I've ever encountered made up for the lack of a real view, but the size of the shower was something of a let-down.


Phone booth.

Small phone booth.

I will speak no more of this.

*No bottle opener

After getting myself squared away (again) I took a short walk around the immediate neighbourhood, to acquaint myself with the area. It is truly beautiful. A man could live here and be happy.


Later, the concierge showed me which bus route to take to get to Piazza Navona - the 62.

The 62 goes from the Porta Pia all the way to St Peter's, and everything I wanted to visit was in a line between these two points, so that was okay.

To any prospective tourists, here's what you do:
Buy your ticket at a Tabacchi (tobacconist). At the time of publishing (ahem), tickets cost €1 and are good for one trip on the Metro or 75 minutes on buses.

Buses are clean, punctual, and largely pickpocket-free.


Anyway, I took the 62 to the Corso d'Italia and got off at what I believed to be the correct stop. It was, but I had the map upside-down, so I walked purposefully in the wrong direction for several minutes before I copped on.


Returning whence I started, I met some Canadian tourists who knew exactly where they were going, and accompanied them. Oh, Canada...

Piazza Navona is a long, elliptical space, possibly large enough to have been a gladiatorial arena or a market. Not long enough, perhaps, for chariot races, but you can't have everything. What it did have, at this early hour, was very few people, so I was free to wander without obstruction.

The piazza is home to Bernini's 'Fontana Di Quattro Fiumi' or 'Fountain of the Four Rivers',

which, when I arrived, was covered due to 'renovation'.

But I got a photo or two, after which I went for lunch in an Irish-themed bar called "The Abbey Theatre". (Important note: when abroad, every self-respecting Irishman makes it his business to find an Irish pub, as genuine as possible. Mostly for the Guinness, but also because the staff will usually be better than the local tourist bureau at pointing you at the best spots.)


The barman was a guy from Portmarnock (that's in Dublin), but his boss was pure Roman, who seemed to have a problem with tourists, but in a funny sort of way - he ran a mile as soon as someone started speaking English. The Guinness was so-so, but the food was worthwhile.

I resolved to return, if only because they'd be showing the Ireland vs. Germany Euro 2008 football qualifier. Plus the England vs. France World Cup rugby match. At the same time.

Cool.

After lunch, I wandered around a bit more, absorbing the architecture and style of the place. I put the map away and just walked, since I appear to have proven I can't read a map, which came as a surprise (to me, anyway).

I found a building claiming to house the State Archives, with a long courtyard at the end of which was a small chapel. This is it:

The chapel interior was unremarkable compared to the exterior, but provided somewhere to rest one's feet, which I did.

Later, when they'd recovered, I took a stroll along the Tiber, to the top of the Via Giulia. This is the view downstream, towards St. Peter's:

And this is the upstream view:

My guidebook suggested that a walk along the Via Giulia would reveal many sites of historical interest, and indeed it did, most notably the Headquarters of the National Anti-Mafia Police Task Force. The building was difficult to miss, and I got the impression that photography would be, shall we say, discouraged, so I saved them the trouble and continued, finally ending up back at Navona.


Thursday:


There's no point in going to St Peter's on Wednesday, because the Pope gives his weekly audience and admission is by ticket only, which one has to organise way in advance.

Happily, being something of an atheist (sorry Mom), I went on Thursday, only to find that the queue for the basilica went twice around the piazza.


So I decided to see the Vatican Museum first. The queue for this was but 40 minutes long, despite the assertions of would-be tourguides that it'd be two hours before I got to the ticket desk.

That being said, it took another twenty minutes to pay for tickets and get past security (apparently everything is a potential target these days).


The Vatican Museums house quite possibly the most beautiful collection of artworks I have ever seen. I paid about €6 for an audioguide and headed off, into the past.

This is the Cortile della Pigna, named for the giant bronze pine cone that once formed part of a Roman fountain. Behind it is the Egyptian Museum, with everything but a Go'a'uld with his Jaffa guards.

This is a bust of Athena. She, as we all know, was a Greek goddess, known in the Roman pantheon as Minerva, but Roman art boasts many examples of copies of Greek statues honouring her.

A bust of Julius Caesar. People were not-quite-queueing to have their photos taken next to it, usually in a 'me and my best mate' sort of pose. Rather childish, I thought.

The Octagonal Garden. Originally square, Pope Alexander VI Borgia decided he wanted some changes made, so added four more sides. Except for the loud young tour guide who, proud of his voice, used it to hammer everybody within earshot with how much he knew, I expect it might have been quite a restful, contemplative place.

If one were Pope.



The rest of my photographs are much the same and don't do it justice.

You have to go and experience it for yourself.
It took me almost six hours, but I did it, I made my way through the libraries, the Map Room, the tapestries, all the way to the Sistine Chapel itself.

The chapel painted by Perugino and Botticelli, Michelangelo's frescoed ceiling the defining work of his life.


This is where Popes are elected, have been for over five hundred years. Living history.

Watch 'The Shoes of The Fisherman' sometime - the scenes where Cardinal Leo McKern and the rest of the College of Cardinals elect Anthony Quinn to be Pope give some indication what it could be like. Even an atheist like myself couldn't but be affected by it all.

After that, St Peter's was an anticlimax. This is it at 5pm. I'm at the end of what is by now a rather smaller queue. It took about fifteen minutes to get to the area near the security cordon where, after passing through metal detectors (I swear I spent about five hours altogether those two weeks queueing for metal detectors) I was free to walk up to the Basilica itself.


This is what the Pope sees (well, almost) when he addresses the faithful:

Cool, isn't it?

The Basilica was huge, dark, and not what I expected. I don't know what I expected, exactly, but that wasn't it. A lot of marble and statues.

Maybe I was just tired. It was almost 6pm, after all, and I hadn't eaten since breakfast.

I took the 62 home, where after a brief nap, a shower, shaved, and change of clothes, I visited a restaurant recommended by the concierge, "La Cantinola di Livio" on the Via Calabria.

It was in this establishment that I had my first experience of Italian dining, the four-course meal with wine and liqueur, and which changed forevermore my ideas about Italian cuisine.

Livio's was run by the owner, a man who, the moment I saw him, reminded me of a cross between Borat and Manuel from 'Fawlty Towers'. The similarities were entirely visual, however, and he and his staff made me fell like a regular customer. I got the impression that many of his customers were non-Italians, and that he was enjoying the evening every bit as much as they were.

A carafe of the house red and one of water were placed in front of me along with some bruschetta and olives, and that was before I'd even opened the menu.

The wine was Chianti, nice and light, and I drank as much of the water as I did of it.

The first course, or Antipasto, was cured ham and melon, a portion that looked as though it would serve four people (and in Ireland, probably would) but which suited me fine.

The Primo was Spaghetti alla' Bolognese, on which I even had some Parmesan, which I usually avoid like vampires do garlic. It was excellent.

The Segundo, a fillet steak with garden salad, and the Dolce, or dessert, Tarta alla' Nonna, or Grandmother Cake.

The meal took a good two hours, and I took my time and enjoyed it. The owner spent much of the time talking with two of his female customers, one of whom I figure was a regular visitor. She was explaining to her companion that she'd tried pretty much everything on the menu at one time or other, and recommended certain dishes to her. She was a big woman, with a deep, hearty laugh that she used often, and reminded me (strangely) a little of Susan from Sesame Street.

I finished the evening with an espresso and a shot-sized glass of something called Amaro.

It's very bitter, hence the name (Italian for bitter) very strong, and definitely an acquired taste, and is taken after a meal as a 'digestivo'.

Wikipedia describes Amaro as

"
...a variety of Italian herbal liqueur, commonly drunk as an after-dinner digestif. It is usually bitter and sweet, sometimes syrupy, usually with an alcohol content between 16% and 35%. Amari are typically produced by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark, and/or citrus peels in alcohol, either neutral spirits or wine, mixing the filtrate with sugar syrup, and allowing the mixture to age in casks or in bottles..."

Worked for me.

The bill came to a mere €42.

I left a decent tip, thanked the owner, and went on my way.

And then there was Friday...

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