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.

Istanbul Day 4: Finding the walls

I have finally reached the last day of our trip to Istanbul, about a month after I started, and for the first time in a while it’s a short one!

Our final day in Istanbul was the shortest day as our flight was to leave mid-afternoon, so any plans to visit the Rumeli Fortress or see the non-European side of Istanbul had to be shelved. What we ended up doing was something that hadn’t been on the itinerary. We would find the city walls.

When we had first arrived in Istanbul, we glimpsed many remnants of the old city among the flash and colour of the new city, and what stood out most were massive stone walls that stood on either side of the tram lines. I’d read about ancient walls when researching the trip, but the locations seemed unclear, which is possibly because they are huge and as we were to find out, have been all but absorbed by the city.

The city walls, definitely Turkish

So following a final delicious Mediterranean breakfast at our hotel we headed out to catch the tram we’d arrived on, and hopefully spot the walls in time to get off. We didn’t quite manage that, but after a bit more travelling we made it to the walls. Up close they still looked massive, though we don’t know enough about the specifics of wall architecture to be able to say whether they were Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman, though I suspect they are probably a combination of all three. Strangely, though, as we walked along the walls there didn’t seem to be any gates charging money to enter, or people with maps or anything that would indicate that they are an historical site. We did find a gate but all it seemed to be protecting were plastic chair and tables. Further along we found a pile of stones low enough to climb up on the wall and my partner had a go, perching on the narrow stone ledge. As he sat there, a local holding a plastic bag with a mysterious yellow substance joined him, chattering away happily and breathing in the contents of the bag. After a little while my partner climbed down, under his new friend’s friendly gaze, who waved us goodbye as we continued along the wall. As we walked along we spotted someone between the crenellations on one of the towers, though how he got up there I couldn’t work out.

Crumbling but huge

Crossing back to the city side we found ourselves in a somewhat dodgy area, the first indication being a dead cat in a garden. We headed back towards the tram stop we’d arrived at, walking along a street lined with the crumbling wall on one side and crumbling houses on the other, mixed with workshops and small storehouses. The only people we saw were a group of old men trading bullets and two other tourists, who also seemed to be in a bit of a hurry. At intervals the wall was crumbled or low enough for people to climb up, so along the battlements we saw men with suitcases looking lost, others chatting companionably and still more looking down at the city below. It seemed as though the walls were something like a public park, where people wandered about during the day and where somewhat dubious activities possibly occur at night. Despite this, the arches were still graceful and the size and grandeur of the walls were still impressive, and made it possible to imagine the confidence they must have inspired in those who lived on the city side years ago. We read later that the old Roman walls were placed quite a distance from where the city was at the time, and people scoffed when the Emperor said the city would reach them in time. I don’t know if they were the walls we saw but I think it’d be impossible to set limits on a place like Istanbul.

Spot the city walls

After a rest and drink in the shade of the walls, we headed to the airport, and the end of our visit to Istanbul.

Goodbye Hagia Sofia

Having had about a month to think about the trip, what I remember most strongly was how my senses were so vividly enlivened, every day. In regards to colour, taste and sound, Istanbul envelops you, and then keeps drenching you in yet more richness. I loved the sweet dried figs and apple tea, the bright sun on ancient buildings, the haunting call to prayer and the endless busyness of the people who live and work there. I was also confronted by the insistent salesmen, lack of women working almost anywhere, the sudden, empty, threatening streets and the smog, which was quite a contrast after Sweden. There was also a multitude of cats, who got everywhere and I suspect actually run the city behind the scenes.
I’ve always liked to imagine cities as living things with characters, that are awakened by millions of lives and never ending activity, though there are only a few places I’ve been where I’ve felt that. Istanbul is one of them, and perhaps has the most character of any I’ve been in so far. I would very much like to meet her again.