Intrigue and amphorae

Day three of the Rome trip! Before I go into that though, I just realised that the titles of the Rome posts so far have been somewhat anatomically focussed, which was a complete accident. Luckily there were no days that merited ‘The spleen of Rome’. And so, on with the holiday…

Imagine a cafe in the morning sun, just around the corner from the Spanish Steps, from whence comes a constant rumble of chatter and occasional tourists. On a few of the tables set up outside sit couples, mostly tourists, including one couple from Australia that are enjoying a fresh breakfast and sunlight. They are also half-listening to a conversation at another table, where 3 men in suits are having coffee, and in the opinion of one of the listeners, are one step away from nefarious deeds. Some of the conversation went like this:

“Giovanni, I’m not saying they’re crooks, but they understand that sort of business, and we’ve got to work with them that way.”

“This deal just isn’t going to go through, we’ve got to be realistic.”

“What are you asking for bags of money?”

“…just go to the paper and say there’s been a huge theft.”

“I’m more than happy to walk away from 4 million rather than risk…”

Now maybe it was all perfectly innocent, and the Godfather was too fresh in my mind. In any case I am sure I have entirely forgotten the address and appearance of the men, if anything were to come up later.

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

After the mysterious gentlemen had left and I’d almost stopped speculating about it, we headed around the corner to the Spanish Steps. Though overly touristy places can be a turn off, the steps are quite grand, and from the top there was a nice view over parts of the city which we used to plan the next destination. The plan for the day was to find a camera shop, as my partner needed a few rolls of film, and a circuitous loop would lead us to the Spanish Steps, and from there to the Piazza del Popolo. Another grand place, with nice statues and a fountain with an obelisk, from where we could then cross the Tiber and continue to the camera shop. As we neared it, the city around us seemed to drain of tourism and become more of a business and residential district, the first we’d been in since arriving. It was quite refreshing to be away from the omnipresent stalls, crowds and noise.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

After a successful visit to the shop, we continued on and the quiet was suddenly overwhelmed. It seemed to change instantly as we turned a corner, and were confronted by hoards to tour-guides and souvenir stalls and lots of other tourists. As it turned out, we had just wandered up to the Vatican. We had both been there before, and had been to the museum, but as it was on our way we had a look at St Peter’s Square. It was swarming with visitors, with a long queue along one side and folding chairs being cleared from the centre. I have since found out that the day before had been the Pope’s regular visitation, for which modern pilgrims get a comfortable seat.

I had read in a novel set in ancient Rome (this one, if you’re curious) that there was a wonderful view of the city from the Janiculan hill, which sits a little south east of the Vatican. We headed there now, climbing up a backstreet that we soon realised sat below some sort of raised park, on which stood statues and from which would be the views I was after. We climbed the hill, hoping to find an opening, or perhaps loose stones in the wall that would allow climbing, but found nothing. We did however find a small valley on the other side of the road. After climbing through a convenient hole in the fence we were in what looked like an abandoned park, with a worn bench and overgrown weeds, and further down the hill cherry blossoms and a view of the Vatican.

A mysterous pastel church

A mysterous pastel church

Continuing on the road we finally made it to a gate, and turning back in the direction we’d come, walked along the raised park, lined with busts of important men and a giant statue of Garibaldi. We also found an amazing view of the city spread out below us and over the river. To the right we could see the yellow brick ruins on the Palatine hill, and to the left of that a hint of the Colosseum through tall buildings. To the left we could see the dome of the Pantheon amidst the apart buildings, and I could imagine how the view must have been 2000 years ago. Red roof tiles and whitewashed walls, the same warm tones as today and with familiar, worn by the years and still standing amid the forever bustling city.

Rome from above

Rome from above

From the height of the Janiculan hill we descended into Trastevere, a maze of colour, antique doors, locals and a more authentic feeling of Rome than any of the other areas. I suspect it’s becoming more and more well known to tourists, but I hope that the influx won’t take away the feeling of older days and independence from the area ‘beyond the Tiber’.

Trastevere

Trastevere

From Trastevere we headed back to the river, and continued south to Testaccio. As we crossed the river I saw a fountain on a round-about, decorated with amphora, a definite hint that we were headed in the right direction. The suburb of Testaccio is named after a hill, and not any ordinary hill.

The hill began it’s life around 100 CE, when the area was designated as an olive oil amphora dump, and Romans being Romans, each year more amphora were neatly stacked, until the dump was abandoned and gradually the bustle faded away. Soon it was covered in dirt and trees grew on the heights, roots pushing through the hard shards beneath. In medieval times people threw animals down in carts for festivals, and later a city was built around it again and with it came archaeologists who dug down into the strata of pottery to answer questions about the people who had created a hill from scraps. There was no access to the hill, but we walked all the way around it, spotting here and there fragments of pottery on the hill sides, and a bar that’s back wall featured a cross section behind glass.

A hill of amphorae

A hill of amphorae

Time was drawing on so we decided to head back to the hotel, feet now a bit sore from the almost non-stop walking. On the way we bought some supplies from an old-fashioned grocery store, where the till had a wooden drawer and the owner wandered around recommending the best pasta. Soon we were at the Circus Maximus, and not long after we were in the hotel, happily unloading our bags and jackets and having a rest before a home-made dinner of pasta and local wine.

The steps to Trastevere

The steps to Trastevere

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The eye of Rome

For our second day in Rome the sunny weather continued and in addition to blue skies and warm skin as we had breakfast in the piazza, we were treated to singing. Firstly from someone who was quite drunk but very enthusiastic and then from the Sunday morning service in the church, which was less enthusiastic and much more harmonious.
We then headed to the Colosseum, where we realised that my partner didn’t have his pass (you can buy a pass to the Forum, the Palatine and the Colosseum that lasts 3 days – very good value) so we trekked back to the hotel, but had no luck. By the time we had returned to the Colosseum the line had lengthened signifiantly, so we decided to visit my favourite monument instead, and return later.

By a hilarious turn of events, it turns out that the reason we couldn’t find his ticket was that he hadn’t had one. My ticket was for two. Not really very funny at the time, as we worked it out a day after it had expired, but once we stopped the face-palming we decided that yes, one day it would be funny.

So, which is my favourite monument in Rome? Some hints: ancient, beautifully made, the building I previously compared the Hagia Sofia to and the only building I’ve been in that I can imagine breathing. Need another hint? It has an eye.
For those that guessed the Pantheon, you are correct! I didn’t think much of it before I’d visited Rome years ago, but since those first steps inside and peering up at the dome, there was no doubt which was the finest ancient building in Rome.

Cat sanctuary near Pompey's theatre

Cat sanctuary near Pompey’s theatre

Our walk there from the Colosseum took us past Trajan’s column, more remnants of the markets and the ruins of Pompey’s Theatre, the site of Julius Caesar’s murder. The last is now a cat sanctuary, and included many felines basking in the sun, wandering around the ancient stones or relaxing on an ancient altar stone.
We soon reached the Pantheon, walking between it’s massive pillars and towards the doorway, and stepping inside looked up and waited for our eyes to adjust to the slight gloom. Looking up at the bright circle of sky in the oculus, you can’t initially make out the details of the dome, but when you can pull your eyes away from the sunlight it’s a wonderful vision. Very ordered and purposeful, as with most Roman art, the squares within squares formed a dome that seemed to be reaching out and upwards, even without the gold and bright paint that once covered it. The openness of the space inside the building makes me think of lungs filling with air.

Light in the Pantheon

Light in the Pantheon

There were of course crowds in there, taking photos and being toured about, but when your gaze is constantly pulled upwards you don’t notice that too much. We spent a while in there, sitting on the pews (it is now a church, which I suppose is why it hadn’t been razed) and staring around, and taking it all in.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

The next stop was a gelaterie that had blown my mind during my last visit. I forgot to count the flavours, but I’d guess at least 50, and all delicious. I settled on the creme caramel and profiterole flavours, and it was about as amazing as you may be imagining. And yes, it did include miniature profiteroles.
As I slowly ate my icecream, my partner led us to the Piazza Navona, a busy square filled with artists and tourists. We then went on to Campo de’Fiori, a smaller square full of stalls selling pasta, spices, truffles, fruit and vegetables. We had lunch in one of the restaurants lining the square, and were treated to a very good busking quartet.

Pomegranates in Campo de'Fiori

Pomegranates in Campo de’Fiori

Then we headed in the direction of the Tiber through the maze of streets, and having found her spotted Isola Tibertina. Ancient myths say that the island was formed from silt building up around the body of the last king of Rome, who had been lynched and thrown into the river. I imagine that if everyone thrown into the river had turned into islands, there would be no need for bridges. At some point marble and other stone was added around the shores, giving it the shape of a ship, which you can still make out. Today a hospital sits on the island, near where a temple to Aesculapius the god of healing once stood.

Tiber flowing by Tibertina

Tiber flowing by Tibertina

We made a circuit of the island, along the marble steps that were littered with drift wood or flooded by the Tiber rushing past. Trees have grown up around the edges of the island, and scraps of plastic bags, socks even chairs stuck in the branches give an indication of how high the tide can reach, and how much trash the old river must be carrying. Walking right next to the flow, close enough to tip your toes in, I could see how fast and powerful it was.

Rubbish trees on Tibertina

Rubbish trees on Tibertina

As we crossed back across one of the bridges, I saw an artist next to her display of watercolours, some of which I really liked. We reached the other side of the bridge with a painting that I’m hoping to frame soon, and a recommendation of a place to visit when we hired a car.

Following the river we came across two temples, without any plaques or signs to mark them out. I have since found out that they were the Temple of Portunus and Temple of Hercules Victor, and are in such good shape partly due to being converted into churches. It felt a bit bizarre to have spent so much time wandering around ruins, and then to come across two buildings that seemed almost intact, standing anonymously in a park next to a road.

Temple of Hercules Victor

Temple of Hercules Victor

From here it was a short walk to the Circus Maximus, and approaching from the short end to the west we could take in the size of it. Sitting on remnants of stairs, we imagined how it must have been like to be sitting in the same place many years ago, watching a triumph or race, and being deafened by the crowds all around us.

The Circus Maximus

The Circus Maximus

After a relatively short walk back to the hotel via the Colosseum, and a short rest, we went out for dinner. I had found a piazza we hadn’t yet visited, so we headed there, only to find that it was little more than a carpark with a fountain. Getting hungry we walked on and came across the Trevi fountain. It is extremely touristy, but impressive all the same, especially at night when the marble looks golden under the lights.

Trevi fountain

Trevi fountain

Around the corner we found a cosy restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal with wine, though were still hungry when we left. While getting lost on our way back we stumbled across another restaurant, decorated to look like an ancient Roman taberna. In authentic style, the walls were covered in garish frescoes and mosaics, and at the back a harpist played, so we couldn’t really walk past it. The atmosphere outweighed the food and drink, but it was worth it for a taste of old Rome.

After this we slightly tipsily made our way back to the hotel, to rest for another day of wandering.

A city of stories

As many of those who read this blog will know, I have something of an interest in ancient history and ancient Rome in particular. As with all cultures in human history they had very different perspectives on some things, and in others were like a mirror to ourselves. Satire, roads, incredible engineering, public baths, the manumission of slaves and a dogged refusal to surrender all fascinate me. Their traces can be found all over Europe and beyond, but the heart of society was in their old, smelly, beautiful and lively capital, spreading down from the 7 hills into the former marshes below and over the river.

Why am I waxing lyrical about Rome, you may ask? Well my first answer would be because it’s a day ending in y, and the second is that Rome was the destination of the mysterious trip last week.

Actually Rome.

I had suspected it, as I’d come up with a list of possible locations try though I might to avoid guessing. Rome was in the top three, so my reaction when we arrived at the airport and looked at the destination of the next flight was a mix of excitement and my suspicions being confirmed. Also being unable to speak very much due to said excitement. Eventually words did return to me and we were able to begin to plan the week ahead.
We had both been to Rome before, myself once 6 years ago and my partner twice, the last being in 2009. We had seen the well known locations and had favourite highlights, so we decided this would be the perfect opportunity to see the other places, that we hadn’t had time for or hadn’t known about, and re-walk our favourite streets and gaze at our favourite monuments together.

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

For the flights out and back my partner had pre-booked seats, right at the front, so we got priority check-in and a front row seat to the goings on of the cabin crew. Heading out we were entertained by a very Italian airhost and the fact that the co-pilot’s surname was ‘Ace’.

By the time we’d landed, got to the city, walked to the hotel and been shown to our apartment, we were pretty tired, though not enough not to want to start the explorations and hopefully eat something. Our rented apartment was in Monti, between the Viminal and Equiline hills, right in the centre of what many years ago was the Subura. In ancient times the Subura was the slum of Rome, the dangerous, dirty mess lurking in the shade of the Imperial Forums and the more middleclass areas on the surrounding hills. You didn’t got there unless you had no choice or had a death wish. Nowadays it’s a maze of twisting streets, tiny piazzas, cars and scooters hurtling around corners and boutique shops. Plus wonderful cafes and restaurants. From the door of our apartment we could stare down the long street to the Colosseum, buttressed with scaffolds but recognisably huge.
It was to this immense and familiar monument that we headed, after having the first of many pasta dishes that we would enjoy that week, at a glittery street restaurant around the corner. Carbed up we continued towards the ancient amphitheatre.

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum is huge, and the size is generally the first thing you notice as you approach and crane your neck upwards to take it all in. Up close you can’t fit it all in your line of sight, despite half of the outer wall being lost to an earthquake a long time ago. I don’t think it’s only the size of the building that draws people, but the precision and grace of its construction. Each arch is identical, the even layers piled neatly on top of one another with the confident grace that for me characterises the best Roman works.
I have to confess that while I’m impressed by the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre, I don’t like it as much as other buildings in Rome. I’ll hopefully get into that when I describe my visit to the Pantheon, in the next but one update.

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

So as we wandered around lit-up monuments, I got a request from my mum to wave to a webcam she had found near the Colosseum. As the directions got a bit confused we wandered some more, staring at security cameras and looking for men in red jackets, until we had to call in a night, it being about 2 in the morning by this stage.

With a last look at the hulk of the Colosseum we turned our backs and heading into Monti, to get some rest before we properly launched our explorations of Rome in daylight.