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 heart of Rome

Apartments in Monti

Apartments in Monti

Saturday dawned bright and sunny for our first full day in Rome.
Or at least I assumed it did, as our rented apartment was at the bottom of the lightwell, with one big window, so to get an idea of the weather we had to go outside and peer up past the many floored apartment buildings to the little square of sky. The positive of this is that, as a historical geek, I felt as though we were staying in an ancient insula, albeit one with very good plumbing. Out on the street the apartment buildings reared up above the cobbled streets, the buildings a mix of warm shades from red to yellow, with those lucky enough to have morning sun opening their shutters to let it in.

The colourful Suburra

The colourful Suburra

On the advice of hotel staff we headed to the local piazza, which turned out to be a neat little square with a fountain in the centre, and a church, and cafes facing on to it. In one corner a mother was playing a game of catch with her three daughters, and all the time locals and occasionally tourists were passing by, many headed to the end of the steet, where the Colosseum loomed. Before we could explore the ancient sights though we had a bit of shopping to do, mostly bits and pieces we hadn’t known to pack. A quick trip up the Via Cavour, peering down in the Suburra and avoiding the multitude of salesmen, and it was sorted, and then we set out for the heart of Rome.

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum sits in the valley between the Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine hills, and though only remnants remain today (boo, Pope Julius II, boo) it’s possible to see echoes of what it must have been like. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the ruins, taking photos and pointing out our favourite monuments. Having more time and more knowledge than when I visited last, I was able to spot things I’d missed and enjoyed more little fragments of the past, such as the game boards carved into the steps of the Basilica Julia and an olive tree, a fig tree and a vine planted where the same had apparently stood during Roman times, mostly dwarfed by the monuments around them.

Olive, fig, vine

Olive, fig, vine

To my excitement the Curia, or Senate house, was open (it had been shut for some reason last time) and I almost ran up the stairs and through the thick curtains in the doorway. Inside I was surprised by how bare it was, and I had thought that it had been stripped while being turned into a church, but apparently it had been more or less the same originally. Aside from the exhibition set up around the sides and friezes standing around, it is mostly unchanged, the three low steps still visible, the original marble floors still intact, and its height dwarfing everyone inside.

What struck me most was how moved I was at being there. Even though it wasn’t the site of all of Cicero’s speeches, Octavian’s coup or the murder of Caesar, due to the somewhat infamous Clodius, it was the site of so much history before and after. So many important decisions were made in that space, and so much of the everyday running of the Republic and then the Empire, and for me the space felt almost sacred, and alive with history.

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

We eventually left the Curia for the sunshine, and continued our explorations, admiring the temples and unwieldy cobblestones and making our way up to the Palatine. I hadn’t really had much time to explore this area before, so much of what we saw was new, and generally on a massive scale. The word palace comes from this hill, though the ruins and garden that are there now don’t convey the grandeur of the Forum. While we were searching for the ‘huts of Romulus’, the apparent location of the first settlements during the Bronze age which had been partly excavated by Augustus, guards began to blow their whistles and indicate that it was time to leave. We were all herded out, onto the now slightly darkening streets, and wondered what to do next.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

In order to better fit in with the Mediterranean style of life, we decided to have a rest before heading out, and on the way back bought some groceries for a quiet night in. Also local wine, obviously. When we headed out again apertivo hour was in full swing, and we found a little bar that was just right. As we sipped beer and snacked on little pastries, olives, vegetables and tasty delights, it seemed like the Italians were certainly on to something with their whole eating situation. After a dish of pasta and seafood I was in absolutely no doubt.
Very full and very satisfied, we went back to the hotel to rest and prepare for another day in Rome.

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun