Sunshine in Málaga

A few months ago, staring out of the window at the dark skies and considering the possibility of the sun ever returning to us, my partner and I decided that we had to get away. Just for a few days, long enough to soak in the sun a little and get a taste of Spring. Last year we visited Rome, as a combined birthday present and escape to the sun, and this year for the same reasons we returned to the Mediterranean, and a country that neither of us had never visited.

It was my partner who decided on Málaga, a place that I’d never really thought that much about, and which conjured up images of dusty industrial parks and scrubby bush land (for those not familiar with the exciting industrial suburbs of Western Australia, consider yourself lucky). I have always had an interest in Spain, and so happily agreed.

We left on Friday night, amid a crowd of grey-haired explorers who seemed to be regulars. The man in the seat next to me on the plane over there had been 12 times already, and owned a house in a town just outside of Málaga. Once he realised that I was willing to listen (or at least not willing to tell him to stop talking) he proceeded to describe the surrounding areas, his house, his ‘lady’, good hiking areas, how much it cost to hire a car, the best places to eat and how long it took to get to Granada. He then showed me photos, mostly himself in front of dramatic landscapes and a pile of maps, pointing out nice villages and landmarks. We eventually landed and he disappeared with a bashful smile, as our fellow passengers did their usual headlong bag-grab-and-dash to the doors. On the tarmac the air was vaguely smokey, and thick with scents we didn’t recognise, a change from the clear air of Sweden. As we were the last arrival for the night it was easy to grab a cab and rumble off to the apartment where we would be staying.
As with our trip to Malmö, we were using Airbnb and again it worked like a charm. Our host met us at the door, showed us around and then left us to unwind. A quick trip up to the terrace revealed a breathtaking view of the city, from the dry river behind us to the walls of Gibralfaro on the hill, lit up in the crisp darkness. Having whet our appetite with the view, we then slept.

Morning over Málaga

Morning over Málaga

The next morning we began with a leisurely search for breakfast through sunny morning streets (just a quick warning; the word sunny may pop up a few times in this post. My excuse is winter and the fact that right now, behind me, sun is shining through the windows. It’s a northern Europe thing). Many places were closed, and when we found a tapas restaurant that we liked the look of with glasses of wine for £1 we popped in for a snack. Unfortunately the lady at the bar seemed unimpressed with our lack of Spanish and so, in a round about way, ignored us so we in turn, in a more direct way, took our custom elsewhere. A glass of fresh orange juice, an expresso and thick bread with cheese later we were over our snubbing and raring to explore the sights.

Málaga cathedral

Málaga cathedral

The first stop was the Roman amphitheatre which sits in the shade of Alcazaba. Just in front of that, visible through a triangle of glass, were the remains of stone basins used to make garum, the famous Roman condiment of rotten fish. I wonder if there was ever a whiff of it during a performance?

The amphitheatre, still in business

The amphitheatre, still in business

We sat on the steps for a little while, contemplating this and basking, and then climbed up into the citadel. The path twisted and turned through gates and arches, narrowing into dark passages and then opening into paths lined with orange trees. As we ascended we had views out over the city and the sea and could hear the loud strains of a Christian rock band playing by the harbour. Near the top we reached a garden overlooking the sea, with channels of water running to a bubbling fountain surrounded by shrubbery and climbing roses on pillars.

A fountain

A fountain

The gardens continued for the next few twisting levels, with pots of rosemary, fountains, channels, oranges and bowers heavy with years of growth. At the top we found the palace, a small maze of cool rooms around two open-air courtyards, one lined with orange trees and the other circling a pool. The crowds limited the sorts of photos that would have summed up the peaceful atmosphere it was trying to project, but it was still lovely and graceful and just the sort of place I would like to have if I had a summer palace in the Mediterranean.

Oranges in Spring

Oranges in Spring

After our leisurely stroll about the palace and citadel, were headed for the heights of Gibralfaro. It was reached via a winding, steep path up the hill, past eucalyptus trees and other tourists panting and taking off their winter layers. From a vantage point we had a view of the bull fighting ring, which filled me with a mix of distaste and historically relate interest, resembling as it did the ancient Roman equivalents. The sandy arenas and animal battles of the Empire haven’t quite disappeared yet.

Bull ring

Bull ring

By the time we reached the top we were feeling a little bit puffed and thirsty, so after a look around the walls and over them at the surrounding city and more distant hills, we found a place to rest and refresh ourselves. It was a small cafe, which we suspected of touristy expense and tastelessness, but which turned out to be the perfect place for a midafternoon break. We took wine and tapas, a bit of juice and an icecream and finally olives and more wine, while sitting in the sun and gazing out over the sea. The taste of herbs, warmth of the sun and sharpness of the wine blurred into a sort of bliss as we sat and did nothing much, and felt rather as though we had slipped into some sort of paradise.

View of the harbour

View of the harbour

And here is where I will leave this part of our Spanish journey, sitting in the sun and feeling the relaxation of a holiday seeping into our bones.

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A glimpse of old lives

I should start by saying that I feel very lucky that my partner knows me as well as he does. I know this because his present to me was a private tour around Rome.

The day of the tour didn’t start well, with rain threatening, but it being our last full day in Rome we couldn’t change the date so decided to take the risk. Thus we ended up running through the streets, avoiding (most of the) puddles and umbrella salesmen (who were legion) and arriving at the Baths of Caracalla only 5 minutes late. Our guide, Marisa, met us there, and after the introductions we got started on our exploration of everyday ancient Rome.

One of the things that had appealed to us about the tour guide was the option of a special tour entitled ‘Daily Life in Ancient Rome’. As my previous post about Ostia may have hinted, I am most fascinated by the traces of everyday life left by people going about their lives, from local bath houses to apartment buildings and bars. Yes, the basilicas would have been grand and imposing, but what about the little stalls in the shadows of the columns? The lawyers shilling for work from all comers, and the teachers trying to drum grammar into the heads of distracted children over the bustle of the crowds? If you look closely at the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Forum, you can see circles carved into the marble, the remnants of game boards made thousands of years ago. Perhaps someone had been bored, while waiting for an appointment, or while watching a speech from the rostrum? We’ll never know I suppose, but that’s why we write stories.

Paintings, perhaps from someone's dining room

Paintings, perhaps from someone’s dining room

The Baths of Caracalla are massive, and were apparently not even the largest complex in ancient Rome. The whole site would have covered 25 hectares, and the closest approximation I can imagine would be a massive luxury gym that was open for all members of the public, the sort of building I can’t really imagine existing now. The fact that anyone could go there for a low fee, and sometimes for free, was one of the things I liked about it, but it’s dimensions and the beauty of the remaining art and the construction are also amazing. Much of the roof has now collapsed, leaving arches and towering walls where domes and mosaic laden ceilings were once suspended over glittering mosaics and bathing pools brimming with the multitudes of Rome. As we walked through the halls and corridors, Marisa explained what it would have been like to visit, and about the engineering and labour that went on behind the scenes to keep the caldariums hot and the frigidariums chilly.

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

From the Baths we headed to the Caelian Hill, which I hadn’t even really noticed before. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, to the south of the Capitoline, and is dominated by churches. We went into one of the churches, under which lies part of an ancient neighbourhood. We entered a small domus, with paintings still intact, and proceeded to explore. Connecting rooms also featured paintings, figures and beasts, some of the figures censored by ancient monks. Then we were out on an ancient street, descending to another level, softly lit but for the dim corners and deep wells.

A garden feature

A garden feature

The houses and streets had been preserved as the foundations of the church, as with many other sites around the city. These particular ruins were of interest because of a theory about 2 skeletons that had been discovered there. They were found buried in what had been a garden, which was very strange for ancient Rome, where everyone was cremated or buried outside the city walls. It had been assumed by Christians that the bodies were those of two martyrs who were known to have been buried in a garden in Rome. Whether or not the skeletons really were John and Paul (though not that John and Paul), it was wonderful to be able to walk through ancient streets and ancient houses, only a few metres below the living city.

Part of an ancient street

Part of an ancient street

The final stop was the museum that accompanied the houses, and then we were out and walking together to the Colosseum, where we sadly farewelled Marisa and went off the have lunch.

I thoroughly recommend her tours, to anyone who is considering visiting Rome and it’s environs. She was able to answer all of our questions and give us endless reams of information and a sense of what it is like to live and breath Rome, both ancient and modern. If I ever visit again, and I reeeally hope I will, I’m definitely going to look her up again. Well, after following her recommendation of an early morning visit to the Pantheon.

Panorama of the Colisseum

Panorama of the Colisseum

After lunch we joined the queues for the Colosseum, eventually making our way in and then spending about an hour wandering around the huge ruins. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a ruin, with so much still intact and the scale still discernible, if diminished. Sadly the lower floors were closed due to flooding, and the upper floors were closed for an unspecified reason, but we were able to join the crowds for the full circumference, admiring the spectacle around us, and exhibits of the toothpicks, plum pits and knuckle bones that had been left behind by visitors thousands of years ago.

The new city through the old

The new city through the old

The last attraction was the Museum of the Imperial Forums, the highlight of which was yet more ancient streets, this time flanked by mostly intact rooms that once held shops, that tower over the street in multiple stories.
From the top stories we had a very good view over the Forum as dusk was approaching, and after a final stroll along the streets, imagining the area in the midst of ancient bustle, we went out onto the street.

A street from the Imperial Forums

A street from the Imperial Forums

Dinner that night was at the Tavern of the Imperial Forum, just around the corner from the museum, which not only featured an ancient Roman wall along one side of the room, but excellent food and wine. If there was only one thing I would take away from the tour with Marisa, it would be an ability to recognise ancient Roman brickwork. Perhaps a specialist skills, but I hope to put it to use.

Charioteer mosaic

Charioteer mosaic

The next day was the last one, spent packing and then whiling away the last of our time at the Palazzo Museum, which contained the most astounding mosaics and wall paintings that I have ever seen.

Mosaic of a girl

Mosaic of a girl

The triclineum of Livia was especially wonderful, featuring a riot of trees and shrubs, housing birds that seemed as though they would fly off at any moment. The room was lit in such a way that every hour it would cycle through the changes of light in a day, and I wish I could have experienced all of them.

A tree in Livia's triclinium

A tree in Livia’s triclinium

We also found remnants from the ships of Nemi, rudder clasps, railings and a face of Medusa in bronze, and some extremely fine sculptures. Next time I visit I hope to go to the museum again to give the items the time they deserve.

The beaten boxer

The beaten boxer

Then we went to the airport, said goodbye to the Italian sun and in a few hours stepped out into the wet chill of a Swedish afternoon, memories of warmth and sunlight on ancient stones still clear in our minds.

Goodbye to Rome

Goodbye to Rome

Downtown Ostia

On the 5th day of our Rome trip, we headed out of the city again, this time to the sea.
Our destination was Ostia, the ancient city that used to sit as the mouth of the Tiber and through which flowed all shipments to Rome (since writing this I discovered that Ostia comes from the Latin word for ‘mouth’. I swear I didn’t know this before I wrote the previous sentence). Even though the coast and the river have since moved, the ancient streets, shops, warehouses, apartments and temples remain, worn but in many cases amazingly intact.

A mosaic floor in the bath house

A mosaic floor in the bath house

Our journey to the coast took us through parts of Rome that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, the outer edges beyond the suburbs, even including what looked like a bayou, complete with rotting trees and similarly decaying shacks. The trains themselves also got more graffitied as we went further from the city, until at last we pulled into the Ostia Antica stop and stepped out among a crowd of other tourists heading for the ruins.

Remnants of the Forum temple

Remnants of the Forum temple

Appropriately, the approach to the ruins is via the ancient road, which still has clusters of graves and memorials, more intact than the ones I’d seen on the Appia, though on a smaller scale. The paving stones throughout the town were the same that I’d seen in the Forum, along the Via Appia and around the Colosseum, and I wonder now whether that’s due to some more modern preservation work rather than all being ancient remnants. In any case, it does make it all nicely Roman and orderly.

The theatre

The theatre

We were soon wandering along the main street, with ruins of warehouses and a huge public bath complex on either side. Enough remains that we could imagine how it would have looked, as a visitor entered through the gates and peered around at the bustling hub of commerce. Not very far up the road we took a right and found the Forum of the Corporations, a large rectangular area with the base and pillars of a temple in the middle, with the ruins of arcades surrounding it. Along the ground of the arcades are intricate mosaics, mostly in black and white, with fix, ships, wheat and amphorae, perhaps illustrating the stalls that once stood there. Facing onto the Forum was the theatre, which is very well preserved, though sadly closed at time. It was interesting to see for myself the real heart of a Roman town, commerce and business gazing up to a temple and with a theatre backing onto it.

The sign of a businessman

The sign of a businessman

Further down the road, we managed to get lost among ancient streets, finding ourselves suddenly in the residential areas among fancier villas and street-side shops. Many still had mosaic floors and enough of the walls remained to make out the rooms and imagine what it must have been like living in them.

Lunch, when our hunger finally overcame our curiosity to explore every single house we came across, was basic and carby, just the sort of food that had been keeping us on our feet all day for the past week. Fortunately the carbs and exercise balanced out, else we would have returned significantly more spherical.

Re-energised and slightly heavier we headed back out, and soon found another eatery. It had an impressive marble bar, a nice area around the back to sit and enjoy a meal in the sun and some nice paintings on the wall. It would also have gone out of service about 1.5 thousand years ago. It was astonishing how intact it was, from the mosaic flooring, arched ceiling and broad bar, including a little shelving unit and even a fountain in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time posing on the bar as helpful and pushy bar-keeps, and then even longer just staring about at the place, as the space under the bar for washing dishes and the cosiness of it all.

The bar interior

The bar interior

It was a perfect example of what I love about exploring historical sites; an everyday place where people lived, relaxed and that we can recognise today. In the corner perhaps three labourers from the harbour, having enjoyed a show at the theatre, would have sat at a table snacking on olives and pastries. A barmaid brings them a top-up of wine and then continues to the next table, where a young couple sit close together, flirting and too preoccupied to notice the offer of a top-up. The bar-keep is watching from the bar, checking that a particularly rough looking customer, a slave extending the time given for an errand, doesn’t make off with the bowl he’s furtively emptying of lentil soup.
All imaginary lives, obviously, but standing there I could feel the echoes of lives like them, still chattering on amid the ruins.

A shelf in the bar

A shelf in the bar

Across the street from the bar stands an apartment building, which to my delight was intact enough to explore and climb. Three floors remain, each floor getting slightly less neat as you climb the stairs, until you find yourself on the open space at the top. From there we could see out over the whole town and beyond. We also had a good view of the bar. Perhaps someone living here could have watched the customers coming and going, smelt the food on sale and yelled down an order before descending down to the street. I suppose once more floors would have stood above, getting still more crowded but with better views if you could afford the rooms by the windows.

View from the apartment

View from the apartment

After this we tried to head towards the exit, with a brief attempt to enter a part of the city that was closed off, and much sidetracking into interesting sites we’d missed. As with Pompeii, or the Villa of the Quintilli, you need at least a day to properly explore Ostia.

A panorama of downtown Ostia

A panorama of downtown Ostia

Back in Rome we headed to the Museum of the Ara Pacis, the altar built by Augustus the celebrate the peace of his principate. I’d somehow missed it the last time I was in Rome and was looking forward to rectifying that. The museum building itself is grand and open, with glass walls and spotless white floors. The building almost seemed to dwarf the monument, huge though it is. It’s made of beautifully carved, white marble (the bright paint has long since gone), with details of tiny lizards among lush vines and processions of ancient VIPs.

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

Elsewhere around the museum there were other fragments of statues and altars, and reconstructions of the altar. It was all very grand and well presented, with a loop of an Einaudi tune giving the room a sense of mystery, but the sense I got was more related to the intention of the construction, rather than the beauty of the art. Both the altar and the museum that housed it emanated self-aggrandisement, the first of Augustus and the second Mussolini. Yes, pretty much all Roman monuments are a testament to someone, but the open, white space of the museum seemed somehow less graceful than the Pantheon and less laced with history than the Forum.

Menu or decoration?

Menu or decoration?

This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine piece of art and history, but for me, there is no comparison between a masterpiece of marble and a bar in downtown Ostia.

A way from Rome

The day of my birthday dawned bright, and for once we were up early, rushing to catch a bus back to the airport. Going home already, you ask? Thankfully not, though we were about to have a change of scenery.

Soon after arriving at the airport we were leaving again, hitting the road quite carefully in a cute little Fiat 500, and managing to stay on the wrong side of the road. (I fear that no matter how long I spend overseas, the right side will always be the wrong side) We headed back towards the city looking out for the Porta San Sebastiano, from where the Via Appia Antica begins. After a bit of misdirection, we were pootling along, the vine covered walls of villas leaning over the old road giving the impression of a little country town. Soon the bitumen turned to cobbles, and bumped along though we were, could see now and then a plaque or worn slab of marble that had once been part of the forest of monuments that had lined the road. Though occasionally rising and falling, the road never diverged from a straight line, and though I’m not absolutely sure, I think most of the cobbles may be original or at least from Roman times.

The Appian Way

The Appian Way

They were the same wide, grey stones from the Forum, and I hope that they would have been better maintained in ancient times, because anyone regularly driving a cart or chariot up the road would have eventually lost their teeth or sanity to the jolting. Fortunately the traffic slowed as the land on either side of the road opened up, and we were able to roll along gazing around for landmarks. The first one that we found was the Circus of Maxentius, the most intact Roman circus in the world, which was probably only used once.

Starting gates

Starting gates

The park where it sits is mostly grassy fields with little white flowers, the perfect first stop on our first trip out of the city. For most of the time we were there, we were the only visitors, and so I was able to walk along the spina, occasionally surprising basking lizards.

The spina, in a field

The spina, in a field

We then made out leisurely way to the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, which is interesting in a number of ways. It’s the way of history to have very little pattern in the things that are preserved, so rather than a tomb to Cicero, Cornelia Africana or Vespasian, we were left with a towering monument to a woman known only as the daughter in law of Crassus. The monument is more a dedication to the Licinii and Metelli families than the woman herself, and any indication about who she was, if there ever was anything, is long gone. In the time since it’s dedication, the tomb had been looted, and converted into a tower from which to guard the road that passes under it’s shadow. If all the old mausoleums of the old families were this size, it must have seemed to travellers that they were passing through a strangely abandoned town, rather than graveyards.

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Continuing onwards we came to a stretch that looked like the romantic pictures of the road, with tombs lining the sides and pines towering above. We marched up and down for a while, admiring the remains of mausoleums and fragments of tombs from which faces sometimes watched us. The sun gradually began to fade, so we climbed back into the car and rolled onwards over the ancient stones, imagining the sights that this road must have seen, from marching hob-nailed sandals heading out to the edges of the empire to a cart carrying a small family hoping for a better life in the world’s first big city. I forgot on the day that the road would also have seen the 6000 slaves caught when Spartacus was defeated, crucified along either side for miles. There’s no trace left of them, though I suspect Spartacus would have been a bit pleased to be known all these years later, if baffled at the justice, freedom and liberty heroics ascribed to him.

A not-forgotten family

A not-forgotten family

The final stop before we started climbing the hills to the south was the Villa of the Quintilli, a massive estate – no really, it’s huge. We only spent about an hour and a half, in which we only saw about half, and that while repeating, ‘no, we really must move on now,’ ‘this is the last little detour’ and ‘absolutely, the last one, yes.’
The estate is a large area of land with the Villa in the centre, perched on a hill. People used to think it was an ancient town due to it’s size, but apparently it was originally a Republican villa that was expanded by the Quintilli brothers around the 2nd century and was grand enough that the emperor Commodus decided he’d quite like it himself, actually, and had the brothers killed.

An ancient mosaic

An ancient mosaic

Even though we only have the ruins of the baths, dining rooms, servants quarters, halls, exercise arenas and other areas, I think I can understand why he did it. I’m surprised it isn’t more well known, actually, and though it doesn’t really compare to Ostia and Pompeii in terms of size, the impression of a grand villa, with mosaics and marble still lining the floors and giant arches above the baths have more of a sense of completeness and grandeur than many of the tenement blocks in those towns.

Bathhouse arches

Bathhouse arches

Unfortunately by this stage we were getting peckish, so we reluctantly headed back down the hill, and onwards on our journey.

Following the recommendation of the woman from whom I’d bought a painting, we were heading to Nemi, a volcanic lake nestled in the Castelli Romani region just south of Rome. To get there we wound our way up the hills, passing the beautiful Lake Albano and snatches of lake side towns and then further upwards through tree-lined roads, until a steep descending road to the right indicated that Nemi was close. We came through a small tunnel, and found ourselves in a picturesque town perched on cliffs above an almost perfectly circular lake. The sun had come out again, and the surface of the sheltered lake seemed completely calm, reflecting the tree lined valley sides. I could wax even more poetically, but I fear I have not the adjectives.

Nemi

Nemi

Having parked our cars we wandered along the main street overlooking the lake, looking for somewhere to eat and wondering where the sound of a waterfall was coming from. We settled on a restaurant that had a balcony sticking out over the valley, from which it was hard to draw out gazes away. Down by the shores of the lake we could see strawberry farms, and a few houses, but otherwise the hills seemed bare. I’d read something about a temple of Diana being built here (thank you again Lindsey Davis), and I can imagine why.

Nemi on the cliff

Nemi on the cliff

Another claim to fame were two giant pleasure ships that Nero had built there, which were then sunk after his death. Much later Mussolini had the lake drained to retrieve the ships, and they were moved to a nearby museum, which was soon after burnt down by Nazi forces, as if people needed further reasons to be annoyed at them.

A local delicacy

A local delicacy

There was no sign of emperors, ships or armies as we ate lunch and drank wine, and enjoyed local strawberries, soaking in the beautiful scenery. We eventually had to leave, buying a little bottle of strawberry liquor and mixed berries and staring at the view as we went.

Heading back to Rome we drove around the other side, passing the Pope’s holiday estate by Lake Albano and winding streets in the town close-by. Soon we were dropping off the car and catching a bus back into the city, where we had a stroll through the streets before a dinner at home, including some very tasty and fresh mixed berries.

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

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.

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

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.