September 24, 2006

Rome Part I

Greetings from Roma, courtesy of a university halls internet connection. I arrived on Wednesday, and have been seeing the sights ever since.

Wednesday 20th September
The food on BA flights is better than Swiss Air, but the views of Alps were wonderful, and unforgettable, especially with all the lakes and glaciers. I also saw the Dartford crossing, Thames windfarm, and Sheppy and Thanet. Rome is warm, and distances seem even longer with a heavy suitcase, although mine was by no means the heaviest. The rooms at the residenza are nice, and the food filling, if a little predictable-lots of pasta with tomato sauce for starter.

Thursday 21st September
Headed into town with three friends, and discovered a road junction flanked by four fountains representing the Tiber and Anenine rivers and Strength and Fidelity, and a lovely little church by Borromini, before we reached the Palazzo Barberini which has a wonderful painted ceiling of The Triumph of Divine Providence. Fortunately they provide large seats in the middle of the room so that you can lie back and admire it. Unfortunately renovation works limits what one can see, but they have a Caravaggio Judith and Holofernes, as a rather gruesome highlight amongst some lovely religious paintings, a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII, and Raphael’s La Fornarina.

Following this we made our way to the Trevi fountain to toss in our coins, and admire what is a massive work of art hidden away in a small square, which also has a very nice deli that does good pizza slices. To complete the day’s selection of ‘must see tourist sights” we strolled to the Spanish Steps, which are one of the big places to hang out in Rome, and there are a lot of them, beautifully set off by a boat shaped fountain at their foot. The last sight of the day was Piazza del Popolo, a large square with an obelisk at its centre, unfortunately covered in scaffolding, but at least the scaffolding had an image of what lay underneath. Here we visted Santa Maria del Miracoli, and ice creams were consumed whilst waiting for Santa Maria del Popolo to reopen for the afternoon-many churches are closed 1-4. It was worth it for the lovely chapels, including one with a pair of Caravaggios, that apparently caused a stir when first painted, due to their dramatic subjects and chiaroscuro. We then caught the metro back to Gulio Agricola to avoid rush hour, as the Rome metro can be very crowded, although the most modern trains don’t have partitions between the carriages. In the evening the whole group went into town again to see the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, and Piazza Nuovo by night, the fountains especially being beautiful when lit up. The journey home was a little more of a challange though, as the metro is currently replaced by buses in the late evening, and we did a lot of searching to find a bus, eventually having to run to catch one at the Piazza Barberini.

Friday 22nd September
We four decided that although we wanted something a little more restful after our excursion yesterday, we still wanted to see the sights, so we headed for Piramide metro station, which is named after a large white marble pyramid, which is accompanied by one of the old gates in the city walls. Then we headed for our destination, the Baths of Caracalla. Unfortunately we went the long way round trying to find the entrance, but discovered just how big the site was in the process These took 9,000 workers 5 years to build (started by one of the shorter lived emperors) and could take up to 9,000 bathers a day by having two identical sets of rooms, although only 1 olympic sized swimming pool. From what remains of the columns, one can tell that the roof would have been enormous, and beautifully decorated, judging from the mosaic fragments propped against some of the walls. Unfortunately the Farnese family removed the most important sculptures, some are now in Naples, but it is still a lovely place to spend time, surrounded by trees, on the Aventine hill.

In the afternoon we met up with everyone else for the first of our guided tours, with a young British lecturer, named Caspar, from one of the American universities in Rome-apparently there are two rival institutions.

The Palatine hill overlooks the Forum and the Circus Maximus, and the Domus Flavia was originally built by the Emperor Domitian. It is a large complex, still with some of the original coloured marbles that would have decorated the palace dotted around, giving some idea of what the interiors, which are now plain brick, would have looked like, and it would have had large courtyard gardens, one of which even has the remains of a sixth century private ampitheatre. The statues found here are in a small museum, including several imperial heads, and there are also some intricate frescos. There is also the remains of an extension that Nero made to one of the aqueducts for his Domus Aurea. Caspar is a very good guide, explaining the history of Rome, although he was somewhat foiled by the hoardes of tourists on the terrace overlooking the Forum.

Then we wandered down to the Arch of Titus, which although completed after his death, shows images of his Triumph having defeated the Hebrews. This brought back memories of the Cambridge Latin course at school, but it has some lovely carving, although it has had to be somewhat restored-the new bits are in a pit-marked undecorated limestone, so you can tell the difference. We then walked through the Forum, seeing the various temples and public buildings, mostly rebuilt after a fire in the third century AD.

Finally we walked back along the anciet Via Sacra to the Colosseum, as all the tour groups were going home for the night. This, although not the best preserved ampitheatre, was by far the largest, and it is possible to gain some idea of its awe-inspiring size, and the complexity of the underground tunnels that held the animals and moved them around under the arena floor. The stories of Nero and his exploits brought back fond memories of Tacitus and A Level Latin.

It was lovely to revisit some old haunts and be a classics vulture again, although a little too hot-I was very grateful for the water fountains dotted around Rome.

Saturday 23rd September
We descended on the city en masse again in the morning, walking to Campo di Fiori, the vegetable market, via Largo di Torre Argentina, which has at its centre yet more ruins. The market was buzzing and it was interesting to see all the colourful Italian fruit and veg. I also had a lovely white peach. We then had coffee-I tried expresso for the first time, before heading through the Jewish ghetto towards the Tiber. The river still smells a little, but has been cleaned up considerably. We then walked back past another couple of temples to the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, a massive white marble concoction, although some of the murals are very nice, and the views, especially of the Roman sites, are fantastic. The café on the terrace at the rear of Il Vittoriano is a little expensive, but the views are worth the price. We eventually walked back towards the metro via Trajan’s column, finally finding a working bancomat or hole in the wall machine.

In the evening some of us went to a performance of La Traviata at the American church in the centre of Rome: St Paul’s within the Walls, a Neo-gothic, stripy, building, with a Burne-Jones apse mosaic. The performance was very good, although the soprano couldn’t reach all the high notes. The journey back involved another instance of running for the crowded metro replacement bus in unsuitable shoes-this is unfortunately becoming a habit it seems.

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