June 30 – Coming over from Split to Rome
I mentioned in the last post my failed trek out to the Roman ruins at Salerno – there’s a picture below to remind you; well, after that I spent most of the morning packing up and making the air conditioner produce strange noises by covering it with my wet clothes, for I had my very first intra-European flight that evening, from Split to Rome. Since the airport was a good 25km away from Split, I decided that it was worth the $6 shuttle to get there, and I had a great chat with a girl from Boston on her way from Croatia back to Israel, where she’d been studying and visiting family. I got to the airport with lots of time to spare, and marvelled at the minute length of the flight, which barely had time to level off after the ascent before setting down again. I got into Rome about 6:45, battled my way through the usual paraphernalia of flight, had an awful airport sandwich and took the train to my hostel, ready to crash in preparation for judicious quantities of tourism the following day.
July 1 – The Vatican, the Colosseum, the Forum and the Palatine Hill
As has become my entirely established pattern by this time, I took advantage of a free tour company to get an orientation of the city. They are much rarer in countries like Italy, since every tour guide needs to be trained and licensed by the region they operate in, and most are experts of one kind or another. However, I did find one, operating one tour that started from the Spanish steps and ended in the Vatican, and another from the same destination to the Colosseum and Forum area. They were named after their destinations, but in fact the main body of each was a walk through various diverting aspects of Rome with little unifying relevance except the general trajectory they fell into. In this vein, I got to see an instructive cross-section of the various shopping precincts; Roman monuments; medieval, renaissance and baroque architecture that was finely mixed together throughout the city; and get a decent history of the place. It became a theme over my time in Rome that I knew very little about the history of Italy, between the end of the Western Roman Empire and Mussolini. Because it fragmented, each part had its own distinct procession of events and wars and rises and falls, and simply because it is complicated to explain, I have never tried. More about this a little later, when I visit the Roman ruins at Pompeii and Ostia, and tour the National Museums.
The first tour ended pretty unceremoniously in Saint Peter’s Square, and I got to have a look at the Vatican. I always knew that it was a tiny tiny country, but I really had no concept of quite how small it is. I always imagined the Square (which is actually rounded) being far, far bigger, and even the Basilica (which is the largest and oldest purpose-built church in the world) didn’t have quite the wow that I expected. I went through the security check and queue for the Basilica and had a wander round, but I probably spent more time in the surrounding bookshops and Vatican Post Office than the church itself. It just wasn’t that interesting. Even still, it’s a feather in the cap to have visited the world’s smallest country; eating lunch in the sunny Square made for some decent people-watching; and there was some good points, which you can see below.
Tour number two lingered a little longer around the monuments for which it was named, showing us all kinds of viewpoints where you could have a good squiz at the Forum and Palatine Hill without paying, which is always a plus for me, and I have to say that they really did have a wow factor. To see these buildings, ruined but still majestic after being buried under rising earth for thousands of years and opened to marvel at, gave me a real kick in the happy-history-glands. It turns out that there are a number of different fora – a pre-imperial one (as in, pre-Augustus, who was the first Emperor), which was used for a few hundred years until Julius Caesar (Augustus’ predecessor, who was dictator-for-life by the end but never strictly emperor) built his own, and then pretty much every emperor who could afford to built his own large public square for government and social occasions. The pre-imperial one is the most famous, directly under the Palatine Hill (hill of the palaces, surprise surprise), because it was used after its official abandonment as a place for all the monuments and triumphal arches and things built subsequently – the Arch of Titus, which depicts Titus’ sacking Jerusalem and his soldiers carrying off Temple artefacts, for instance, is there. In contrast, the Colosseum, while as large as its name suggests, was as inflated by fame and repeated imagining as the Vatican and thus itself also something of a disappointment. We got there in late afternoon – just one hour before it closed – and so I didn’t buy a ticket (though it lasts two days and the line was quiet, so if you end up taking this tour it is a perfectly viable option to go to the Colosseum for that hour and then visit the other parts the following day), contenting myself to wander around the area some more, looking over fences and through arches to get a further feel for the area.
Upon returning to the hostel, I got talking with a Canadian, who said that she routinely downloaded free audio guides to various monuments, a practice of which I had never heard, but sounds ideal for Colosseum, or indeed any foreign monument, purposes. There’s an app called Rick Steves’ Audio Europe, which has loads ripe for the download. I shall try them forthwith and report back.
July 2 – Orvieto
Once again following fairly established patterns, I decided to take a day trip out of Rome, using my Eurail pass. The question was: to where? I knew Tivoli was meant to be good, but it would also be expensive – historical sites run at €11 a pop, and there are two there – and I was feeling stingy. So I hopped on my trusty TripAdvisor machine (aka laptop) and found a place about an hour north of Rome called Orvieto. The website promised a vast system of Etruscan (that is, pre-Roman, hundreds of years BC) tunnels, an exceedingly pretty medieval town atop a striking plateau, and a cathedral that had inspired the Sistine Chapels; so I was pretty sure it would be okay. Let me show you around.
July 3 – Pompeii and a bit of Naples
This was a pre-planned trip – I made reservations on a high-speed train in advance because I knew that Naples was a long way off and after that I had to make a connection (a very packed and rickety train that loops around Vesuvius). The connection also passed by Ercolano, so on an impulse I stopped there (for those who aren’t aware, Ercolano is the city built around the Roman town of Herculaneum that was buried in the same eruption as Pompeii; it’s smaller but apparently at least as good, if not better). I found the normal entrance to the historic site but it was boarded up and directed to another entrance that didn’t seem to exist. It didn’t take long for me to give up in the heat and just take the next train to Pompeii. I spent the first hour and a half or so there wandering around somewhat aimlessly, because I didn’t want to pay an exorbitant sum for a tour or audio guide, figuring that there would be at least some signs around. There were not, so my only bits of information were coming from snippets of sneaky eavesdropping on the many many tours going around. At this point, I saw some people walking around with a little booklet, which seemed to have exactly the kind of information one would expect, all conveniently packaged, numbered and ready to be read. Apparently they got it at the desk on the way in, along with a numbered map and suggested walking itineraries! I was medium annoyed that I didn’t get one, but figured if I just went back and asked there would be no trouble, and I could salvage the visit. It was not to be: they had run out. But I would not give up! I sat and waited by the exit, asking everyone who looked English speaking if they were finished with their guide (I even got ordered out by the security guard, and had to walk around and enter again – I stood a little farther in the next time :P). Eventually people were coming out who had never got a guide in the first place; but I was fortunate enough to encounter a group of Israelis who were happy to give me one of theirs. So once again I set off, intent on going through and reading every caption, walking through every inch of the town and learning it all. I did pretty well! I got most of the bits that looked interesting, but even the history nerd in me gave up after about four hours, and retired to a shady spot to messily mop up the melted chocolate bar I had forgotten about in my bag (delicious). By this time I was right at the other end of the town, and stupidly I assumed that by exiting at the clearly signposted exit I would be able to get back to the train station fairly easily walking. Well, I found the road fine, but there was no footpath; I tried to find another way around and ended up waking quite dangerously up a freeway ramp to eventually hit the same road and just walk up it to the train. I jumped on the train back to Naples, had a pizza (for that is where it was invented, and they do it well) and headed back to crash in Rome. Now, don’t get the idea that Pompeii is bad – actually, it’s excellent. There’s really nothing like it. Just get there early, make sure you get a map and a guide, and you will, I guarantee, have the historialicious time of your life. Here’s some photos to show you why. Not pictured: filthy brothel frescoes displayed like a menu across the roof (available to the discerning adult on request). Also not really pictured: Pompeii was only conquered by the Romans in the second century BC – before that it was a seriously Greek city! I had no idea how little the Roman territory was before the Caesars came in…
July 4 – Ostia Antica and Basilica of Saint Paul Outside The Walls
So today I had planned to visit Ostia Antica, which is another preserved Roman town, this time much closer to Rome because it was once the imperial port. Now, after spending a very large amount of time at Pompeii the previous day, I was somewhat less enthusiastic to go than I had been before, but I made a friend in the hostel who was keen to see it, and I had suggested it as a good place to visit, so I ignored my misgivings and went for it. It turned out to be rather good, even comparing it with amazing Pompeii. It was much quieter, a similar size, and much greener. It was a newer city, so showed evidence of later developments, and also had a lot more evidence of commerce and trade going on. There were fewer surviving frescoes but better mosaics; an equally good theatre; and, right at the other end of the town, something of a McMansion section of insulae (that is, low-rise Roman blocks of flats) with wide roads and green squares that was exceedingly beautiful and very educational. The signage and information was pretty patchy – some places looked like they were signed in the 60s while the insula area was very modern and comprehensive – and there were far fewer group tours to eavesdrop on, though we did run across a university group from Oregon who had a hilarious and very knowledgeable old gentleman taking them around, which was a huge plus. I would say if you can get to Pompeii, go there; but if you can’t this is a good option and certainly a far more real and down-to-earth Roman ruin than the Palatine Hill/Forum/Colosseum area. It’s easy to get to from Rome (you can get there on a standard public transport ticket) and easily worth half a day or more.
After a few hours there, we came back to Rome, my new friend took the train to Florence, and I had a few hours left of the day, so I decided to head across town to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside The Walls. This church, located (hence the name) on the place where Paul the apostle was buried after his execution in Rome, outside the walls of the old Rome (as mentioned already, all Roman towns had their necropolises outside of the city, usually flanking the main roads), has been around for over 1600 years and continues to enjoy great importance to the present day: in the 870s it was used to defend Rome against the Saracens, in 1959, Pope John XXIII announced the extremely important Second Vatican Council there. Aside from the church itself, its great size and decorations and parade of portraits of all the Popes, the church also contains an excellent historical museum, including a small archaeological dig, various excavated artefacts, some beautiful medieval cloisters, an art gallery and a chapel filled with some anthropologically interesting reliquaries. The €2 fee to get into those is very well worth it. There’s also a gift shop with various soaps, ointments, unguents and sweets produced by the on-site monastery inhabitants. I went through all this first because I wanted to leave the descent into the central but lowered alcove that displays one side of Paul’s sarcophagus and the chains he was bound in during one of his many prison sentences till last, hoping that I wouldn’t be distracted and I would be able to leave remembering not the artistry and wealth of the church, but its focus on a first-century Greek-speaking Jew, executed for his faith and buried unceremoniously outside the capital of the empire that persecuted him. It was a profound thing to walk down in there, kneeling down at the provided kneeling station which brings your eyes level with the exposed sarcophagus, to see this first hand and to understand what it means that Paul really did what he did and died how he died. I felt little or no connection in St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps because of the grandeur, perhaps because you couldn’t actually see anything but the stuff that was built centuries more recently and Peter was hidden away metres below the ground; but here I was struck. This was a personally valuable experience; and it was encouraging to see that the Catholic Church is still in touch, even in the most tangential way, with the facts and people that are its foundation. They still understand that seeing these things first hand can make a difference, and I respect that. So, in my opinion, the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside The Walls is something not to miss. Even if you’re not religious, it’s a good value museum 😛
July 5 – National Roman Museums and the Circus Maximus
My final day in Rome was spent on a visit to three of the four sites of the Musei Nazionale Romane, which house vast collections of classical art and sculpture in various places around the city. The first and most important site was very close to my hostel, so I got up early and headed there for opening – I knew I had a lot to cover in one day, so I figured I’d get going. Now, it never does to expect English signs and captions in museums across the world – it’s not their language, after all – but in general if there is going to be a second language, it’ll be English. Anyway, this museum proved to be well-signed and nearly all the information was available in English. The bulk of the exhibition was several large floors devoted to Greek and Roman statuary, based around various themes. There were rooms of Roman imperial portraits, Roman copies of Greek statues, Greek statues in their own right (for much of Italy was Greek or Greek-influenced well before the ascendance of the Roman kingdom/republic/empire) and even a room with a fittings removed from an excavated ‘floating palace’ built on a boat by Nero. Apart from this being a rich collection of art, the exhibitions also traced a lot of Rome’s history – particularly interesting to me was the later imperial period, when Emperors began to be elected, so you had them coming from Hispania and Africa as well as Italy) – and a significant amount about the mythological and artistic symbology and techniques used in the statues: why certain statues were nude and others were not, the physical characteristics of certain figures and how to recognise them even when in very different settings, and so on. I came out feeling like I had learned a lot, and I think anyone else would as well. The basement was a separate exhibition – this one about coins and currency through Roman history, from the ancient world right through to the adoption of the euro. Once again, the artefacts were good, but the meta-history that surrounded them – tracing pre-coinage currency, the various devaluations, adulterations, economic crises and coinage styles of the Roman Empire, the brief invasion of the Goths, the Byzantine reconquest that saw Rome become a peripheral outpost, and generations of papal rule before the reunification of Italy under a king in the 1860s and 70s – were extremely valuable. There isn’t much that shows the history of a city as well as detailed coin displays.
I had a craving for gelato after this, and took a train down to the reputed best gelateria in Rome, Gelateria Fantasia. For €4.50 (reasonably expensive, but not much more than you’d pay for the same size at Cones in Hawthorn, and far, far better) I got an enormous pile of intensely delicious sorbets and ice creams, broke the cone within the first few seconds, and spent the next ten minutes frantically but happily trying to stop it melting all over me. Definitely worth. The next part of the NRM was nearby, so I walked up there, getting lost a few times, and wandered down the public park that now sits on the site of the Roman Circus Maximus. The slope of the seating and the central split that the chariots would race around is still there (stadia and theatre were regularly built on natural slopes, to make construction easier), so despite there being no structure remaining it still felt very close to reality. Now, I did say that the next part was close by – turned out my map had deceived me, and the name of the palace I was looking for was woefully misplaced. This resulted in my tramping around the Capitoline Hill for ages, getting some great views of the Forum site once again but not being particularly pleased about the whole affair. Eventually I gave up looking for it, and instead went to the Crypta Balbi, a site I knew was definitely there. This palace, named for the family that owned the crypts underneath, stands in a part of Rome that was never uninhabited throughout all of its history, even when the city was more or less abandoned during the Dark Ages. Consequently, it’s the perfect place to get a cross-section of Roman history. Pretty much immediately on arrival, I was asked if i wanted to join a group going out into the active excavations, something only available on the weekends because (naturallly) there are workers there during the week. I probably should have spoken up, on reflection, when the guide asked us if we were all Italian (I guess I thought because I knew several other people were Americans that they would), because the whole tour was subsequently delivered in Italian, of which I caught about one word in fifty, and that with a nice American lady occasionally throwing me some translation. For a look at what I did manage to pick up, see below. After this, I went up through the various floors and got a great look, again, at the post-Roman history that I knew so little about (and this time in a more direct way). I had an equally good time here.
The final stop was the Palazzo I had been searching for on the Capitoline Hill, which was actually very far away from there, and filled with more classical artworks – a much more political and military collection than the civic and civilian works of the first gallery. It was a good way to round off the day, and a good way to round off my stay in Rome.