Rome 2010 – an inferno

ROME –  Tuesday 6th July 2010
(written in Rome, but starts with a week in England)

I’m in my tiny cottage on the outskirts of Rome.  It’s early evening and pleasantly cool after the heat of the day.  Only an hour from the heart of the great city and I’m surrounded by vineyards and a national park, with just the sounds of thousands of chirping crickets and the faint rumble of distant thunder to keep me company.   It’s very peaceful, and from the little I’ve seen of the neighbourhood so far I’m looking forward to exploring it all tomorrow.  The cottage is located down a long winding country road in a kind of courtyard entered through a great big gate.  Lavender bushes line the wall of the driveway and there are flowers around the front door. 

It’s hard to believe it’s been a week since leaving Australia, but it was quite wonderful being back in England again amongst friends.  The flight from Oz to UK was OK except for a lengthy delay in Singapore which meant that many people on board – including me – missed connecting flights from Frankfurt.  
4 hours wait in Frankfurt airport was not something I’d planned (or enjoyed), but fortunately Daryl was still able to meet me on the later flight and we drove straight from the airport to Herefordshire (about 3 ½ hours) to stay at his mother’s place in the pretty village of Weobley (pronounced Webley).  

Weobley Village, Herefordshire

Weobley is one of Britain’s scenic Black-and-White villages and it won the accolade of ‘Best Village in Britain’ in 1999. With many 16th century buildings with black Tudor beams at all angles, and whitewashed walls leaning tipsily over cobbled streets, it’s not hard to see why.  There are about 12 of these Black and White villages on a kind of tourist trail through the countryside of Herefordshire and over the next couple of days I saw several of them.   Daryl and Sylvie were the kindest, most generous hosts and they gave me an excellent look around this part of England.  It’s definitely been added to the list of places I have to return to….

Bookshops galore in Hay-on-Wye

We had dinner the first night with friends of Sylvie’s at the Royal George, a typical old pub in a nearby village, and next day drove to Hay-on-Wye on the Welsh border.  This little town is famous for its bookshops and literary festival, and claims that it has more books per square mile than anywhere else in the world.  To add to its charm, it’s also twinned with Timbuktu!   An absolute delight – and somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for years.  From Hay we drove through Welsh villages with absolutely unpronounceable names – how on earth do you say Cwmu???   I can’t remember the name of the little town we stopped at to set off on a 2-hour walk through beautiful farm country and woodland in the Black Mountains.  There were stunning views of hills and dales in all directions, black-faced sheep and even a donkey near a stile we had to climb.

With long summer evenings and beautiful balmy weather it was also good to walk in the late afternoon through the fields and parks around Weobley taking Harvey the spaniel for a run.  If only we had all these gentle footpaths and walkways through the countryside in Australia …

Before heading back to Maidenhead next day, we explored Shobden, another black and white village with an old church described as ‘Strawberry Gothic’. It had a very pretty white interior that looked like an iced wedding cake, and was filled with flower arrangements from the Flower Festival of the previous weekend.  From Shobden it was on to Berrington Hall, and a guided tour through this old stately home with a stroll through another grand old English garden designed by Capability Brown.   

Arriving back in Maidenhead in the late afternoon definitely felt like coming home.  Highlights of my 5 days in Maidenhead included two trips up to London with Pauline – using the last 2 days of my 2009 Seniors Rail Pass before it expired…   On Friday night, we went to a 5-star show in the West End called ‘The War Horse’ which is basically about the horses in the 1st World War but is done with huge, life-size puppet-style horses on stage.   The way they worked these animals is amazing.  Everyone in the theatre was carried away by the realism and the quite moving story. 

Colourful Camden Markets
Boat trip to Little Venice, Regents Canal

The second London visit next day was to do one of the superb Old London Walks, this time through Camden Town to learn something of the history of NW London and to explore the fantastic Camden Market.  I think it’s probably the best market I’ve ever been to, and Camden is a truly fascinating and colourful part of London.  Once a very poor and run-down area, it’s now home to many of the rich and famous and is the centre of the independent music scene, punk bands, fashions etc.  Oasis and Amy Winehouse were two names I recognised in the list of artists who started out in Camden.  The market is enormous, right on the docks on Regents Canal, with wonderful tunnels and architecture, wild colours, huge sculptures and the most diverse crowd of locals, tourists, vagrants and tattooed and mohawked youths.   It was a glorious summer day so hundreds of people were out enjoying the atmosphere and the sunshine.  After lunch on the banks of the canal, we did a boat trip up to Little Venice, past Regents Park and London Zoo.   Only a stone’s throw from the old pubs and houses of Camden Town, the canal bank around Regents Park becomes a millionaire’s row with huge mansion houses and stunningly beautiful properties.  But all along the canal there are also permanently moored river boats which are home to another group of Londoners.  What a fabulously diverse city! 

After a full day in London we enjoyed a dinner party at one of Pauline’s friends place.  Mary, aged 80, was one of Pauline’s cycling companions on the recent Danube trip – and just a few days after getting home, she managed to turn on dinner for 8 people!   Another balmy summer evening … so after wine and dinner in the garden out came the croquet mallets.   Bob was the only one who seemed to know the rules but we managed to form two teams and had lots of laughs trying to get the ball through the little hoops.  Very English – and lots of fun.

My last two days in Maidenhead involved drives and walks around the beautiful Thames Valley with Pauline and Bob.  I’d grown to love this whole area when I was living in Daryl’s house two years ago.  We drove through Marlow, strolled around Hambleden and up the river path, and enjoyed afternoon tea in an old church yard.    On the last day we visited Henley, then went to Danesfield Hall for a traditional English High Tea and a stroll through the stately gardens overlooking the river and the Chiltern Hills.    Between times, we also caught up with Daryl and his mate David for dinner at a local Carvery on Sunday night.  This turned into another fun night and a farewell for Daryl who was on his way back to Adelaide next day.  Over the course of 3 days since getting back from Weobley, he’d managed to finalise his visa arrangements, book his ticket and sell his car!   

 This feels like a very rushed diary entry and only the briefest of summaries of a great week in England – but hopefully it will be enough to bring back memories because the next few weeks are going to be a totally different adventure here in Italy.   

ROME 2:   Sunday 18 July   (from Wed 7th – Sunday 18th)

6.30 Sunday morning. This is the only time of the day that it’s possible to breathe cool air and feel half-human again.   Rome, the Eternal City, is insanely hot in July and, I suspect, eternally challenging all year round.   I hate to say it, but I haven’t yet found the magic in this city…. 

My cottage is on the outskirts of Rome, about a 30-minute train ride from the city.  It’s about 5km from the local station so I have to drive the car into La Guistiniana (an outer suburb) along a maze of little pot-holed country roads.  This is probably typical Italian living but it feels somewhat isolated and rural to me.   There are actually a lot of houses in the area but they’re all hidden away behind big locked iron gates, and you rarely see another person along the road.  On my first day I’d decided to drive around a bit to get my bearings, and did manage to find the station, the supermarket, the post office etc – but then I got completely and utterly lost trying to find my way home.  I drove up and down every little road in the area for nearly two hours expecting to stumble across ‘my’ road sooner or later, or at least find someone to ask.   Impossible!!  There’s not a sign of life out here in the middle of the day, and the only woman I found in a place with a gate half-open couldn’t help.   There appear to be no public telephones in La Guistiniana (and they’re another challenge anyway as I’ve since found out) so in total desperation I had to ask a nice-looking Italian man if I could borrow his mobile phone.  Fortunately I was able to contact Ivana and get directions.   I was completely knackered by the time I reached home.   Driving a LH drive manual car on the other side of the road for 2 hours in the blazing heat does not rate as a good introduction….

The second day wasn’t much better.  All afternoon was spent at Termini (Rome’s main railway station and an absolute hell-on-earth) getting information and tickets for a planned trip to the Cinque Terre,  before I traveled out to the airport to meet Penny when she flew in.  She’d come from Dunedin, via Beijing, and had been traveling for nearly 30 hours  – so guess what??  Rome train drivers decided to go on strike that evening.  We only got as far as central Rome before the train stopped dead.   General confusion followed with hundreds of angry stranded people everywhere.  To cut a long, tiring story short, we eventually met up with some Canadian girls of Polish origin who were also going to La Guistiniana and who happened to find a Polish-Italian who could give us directions to the buses.  It took two buses and 1 ½ hours through Rome by night to get back to La Guistiniana, then find the car and make the journey through the pot-holes back to the cottage by midnight.  Welcome to Rome!!!  

On top of these little challenges, I’d also found that the TV didn’t work at the house, and then somehow I managed to crash the computer and the telephone. So by the time Penny got here we had no links with the outside world.   This situation continued for several days while I tried to find a working telephone and use a local phone card – with no success.   We got it solved in the end, partly through Benito (Ivana’s father) fixing the TV antenna, and Ivana arranging for a computer technician to call when she and her husband came back to the house while Penny & I were in the Cinque Terre.  I’d had to go all the way back to Termini to find a phone to call Ivana.  

Sutri: hilltop village on the way to Viterbo

Because of the train strike and uncertainty about the buses, we opted to use the car next day to drive about 60km north to Viterbo, an ancient walled city founded by the Etruscans. It was residence of the popes and centre for the papal elections from the 13th century.  A bit of a pity because we’d been invited to a concert in Rome that night by an Australian friend of Ivana’s – and without a phone I couldn’t even let her know we weren’t coming.   (I’d bought a phone card but had no luck trying to make it work.) In Viterbo we wandered around and saw the cathedral, several palazzos and, according to the guide book, some of the best examples of original mediaeval buildings in Italy.  The best part of the day, though, was finding Sutri, a little hilltop village on the way to Viterbo.  This was a little gem with hardly any tourists in the tiny cobbled streets and stairways.  With flowers cascading over balconies and flourishing in tiny gardens, there was a delight around every corner.  We whiled away an hour or so wandering in this lovely village.

Another nice thing happened on Friday night.  Benito (Ivana’s father) called in to see how we were going. He’d lived in Australia for some years so speaks pretty good English and was very entertaining company.  After fixing the TV aerial, he produced a 4 litre plastic bottle of local wine made by his friend.  Of course we had to try it (it was sh*t). He also brought his partner, Nina, who lives across the courtyard from here.  Several drinks and much laughter later, we were invited for dinner to Nina’s place – a very spontaneous scratch meal of pasta, salad, local bread and cheeses, followed by liqueur wine and biscotti.   This seemed more like the real Italy and we very much appreciated it. 

Trevi Fountain

With the trains running again at the weekend, we spent the next two days sightseeing in Rome.  Walking the length of the Via del Corso from Plaza del Popolo to the Colosseum on Saturday allowed us to take in the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, St Ignazio church, the Spanish Steps plus more churches, piazzas and the huge white Victor Emmanuel monument – a bit like doing a highlights-in-a-day tour.   There’s no doubt about the beauty and magnificence of some of these buildings and fountains. It’s just a pity it was so hot and crowded and the signage was so incredibly poor.   Finding the Trevi Fountain was like playing Where’s Wally … every sign seemed to point a different way and we went round in circles following Italian directions.   But we, along with 10,000 others, came across it eventually.   Having thrown our coins in it over 40 years ago when we were last here together, Penny and I did get some pleasure in realizing that the myth is true and we were actually back here again.  But I think I might have wasted the 20 cents I threw in this time because I don’t think Rome will be on my list of travels again in the coming years.

Sunday was yet another disaster.  Because Penny had only a couple of days to see Rome, I left it to her to choose what she wanted to see.  She planned an itinerary to include the Forum, Colosseum, Capitoline Hill and nearby churches.   This meant two train changes along the way, including a transfer at Termini, a nightmarish purgatory place.   And this is where Ms Been-Everywhere, No-Problems-World-Traveller finally got her comeuppance …. I had my purse stolen by a gypsy woman as I was pushed and shoved onto a crowded train.   I’d read all the warnings, I knew the dangers. And still it happened.   Despite being angry and upset at losing my nice red wallet, a fair bit of cash, all my credit cards, and a few other bits and pieces, I couldn’t help feeling a touch of admiration for the woman’s cleverness in getting my bag open and her hand in, all in the space of a few seconds.  I actually almost saw her doing it, but needless to say she vanished into the crowd in the wink of an eye.   Termini Station is reputedly one of the worst places in Europe for this kind of thing. It happens to people every day, but I never thought it would happen to me.

Of  course it was then a major challenge to report it to the police, get a police report, contact Visa, American Express, banks etc.  Fortunately Penny was with me and had money, and through a stroke of luck I’d taken our Cinque Terre train ticket out of my purse the day before so we were still able to have our few days up in the north of Italy as planned.   I’d had no end of trouble earlier on when trying to use public phones, but eventually managed with an international phone card and dozens of calls to contact all the various institutions and arrange for replacement cards.   All in all, an unfortunate experience, but I didn’t let it spoil the Cinque Terre and – fingers crossed – it will make me even more careful in future.  

Needless to say I didn’t get into the Colosseum and the Forum.  I left Penny there for a couple of hours while I made my way back to Termini yet again to do the necessary phoning etc.  It was so bloody hot by the time we re-grouped that we’d both had enough of ancient Rome and all the touristy kitsch that accompanies it … like fat Italian men dressed up as gladiators posing for photographs in front of the Forum.   It’s very difficult to get a feel for the splendour of the past millennia that this place is really all about .    

ROME 3:   Trip to the Cinque Terre & Lucca  12-16th July

Cinque Terre

The five villages and surrounding countryside that make up the Cinque Terre must be one of the most beautiful parts of Italy.   With a backdrop of mountains covered by terraced vineyards, these tiny villages cling to the cliffs along a magnificent strip of the Mediterranean coast.   Stringing the villages together is a rocky cliff-top walking trail with hundreds of steps that wind up and down the hills and valleys through olive groves and light forest, high above the blue, blue sea.  Around every corner there’s a stunning spectacle of mountain and sea, plus the villages themselves. 

On the Cinque Terre, overlooking the Mediterranean

Monterossa, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore make up the Cinque Terre.  Each village has its own character and ambience, but all have their pretty little coloured houses built one above the other, almost hanging onto the side of the cliffs.  Little bays, harbours and beaches with coloured fishing boats add to the picture postcard vista.  It’s all absolutely gorgeous – no wonder it’s a World Heritage listed area. 

Somewhere along the Cinque Terre walk

Penny and I stayed in a very comfortable guest-house high above Vernazza – the prettiest village of all, in our opinion.  Getting up and down between the village and the guest house required a bit of huff and puff and mountain goat agility (for me)… while Penny of course ran up the 400 or more steps.  I like to think I enjoyed the scenery by taking it a bit slower….   We had two extremely pleasant American couples sharing the house with us and really enjoyed their company.

It’s possible to take the train between any or all of the five towns, or take a boat, but we chose to walk the trail from Vernazza to Riomaggiore on our first day.  This took several hours but we did stop for a lovely swim in Manarola and also spent time in each of the villages just soaking up the atmosphere and lots of cool drinks.   The toughest stretch (for me) was between Vernazza and Corniglia – about 2 hours of constant up and down steps – but overall the walk was wonderful and I wouldn’t have missed one bit of it for anything.   In fact I’d do it all again if ever I get the chance.

Next day Penny chose to walk in the other direction, from Vernazza to Monterossa which we’d heard was pretty rugged and quite mountainous.  I took the easier and equally attractive option of going around the coast by boat.  We’d both come back on the boat the previous day and loved seeing all the towns and mountains from the sea – a different perspective.    We met up in Monterossa and spent the afternoon eating, drinking and swimming, before again setting off separately on foot or by boat to return to Vernazza.   Dinner that night was shared with our New York friends, Howard and Claudia, on the large balcony in front of the guest house.  We’d all brought wine, bread, cheese etc up from the village and dined like millionaires with the best view in the world beneath us. 

It was tough having to leave next morning, but we’d decided to spend a day and night in Lucca, an old walled town in Tuscany, instead of heading straight back to Rome.   The country trains in Italy are good and it was relatively easy to get tickets when we wanted them.  The trip up from Rome to La Spezia had been very pleasant too – about 4 hours in total. 

With Penny in Lucca

Lucca was wonderful.  Everything went well here – from our first port of call at the Tourist Information office to the cosy little B&B they booked for us.  Everyone was helpful and friendly and the town itself is extremely picturesque.   Lucca is the home of Puccini and Boccherini, so music and festivals are part of the life of the town.  The town dates from the BC era. It was originally an Etruscan stronghold, later taken over by the Romans.  It’s surrounded by massive stone walls, inside which are many ancient palazzos, towers, cathedrals, wide squares and interesting little streets and lanes.  At the suggestion of the friendly lady at the Tourist Office we hired audio-guides and did our own self-guided walk through the town, taking time to climb one of the old towers to get a birds-eye view over all the red tiled roofs and other buildings.  Could have spent hours browsing in the shops too, but we had to dash the last bit in order to get back to the old church of San Giovanni for the 7pm concert of operatic arias which is held every night of the year, performed by some of Italy’s top opera performers.   This is something not to be missed – the soaring voice of the beautiful soprano floated to the rooftop and the young baritone sang with his soul.   We heard Puccini and other composers – all magnificent.   It would have been impossible to go straight home to bed after such a treat, so we stayed in the square and shared a bottle of local wine and delicious Tuscan salad while listening to more music – this time a gentle jazz duo.   It was a warm, balmy summer evening and Lucca looked lovely lit by lamps and moonlight. 

At breakfast next morning we met another couple from the US. The woman was a Social Worker and when she heard I came from Adelaide mentioned that she was a friend of the late Michael White of the Dulwich Centre.  Well …. Penny and I, both being Social Workers too, were quite familiar with his work so that set us off on another great conversation over a shared meal!  Amazing the people you meet when you’re on the road. 

All good things have to end, so we had to head back to Rome on Friday because Penny was due to fly out on Saturday.   I also had to get to American Express to pick up a new card to replace the stolen one.  This meant plodding through the hot, hot streets again, but at least the venture was successful and the card was ready.  So while we were in the Piazza de Spagna, very near the Spanish Steps, we decided to visit the Keats House Museum.  This is the house where the poet John Keats died in 1821 at the age of 25.  It’s been set up as a museum honouring Keats, Shelley and Byron who all spent time in Italy and all died tragically and romantically within 3 years of one another.  It turned out to be a very peaceful, quiet, cool oasis filled with books, letters, photos and personal items belonging to the poets. Definitely worth a visit. 

From here it was back outside. And it didn’t take long for the Eternal City to turn on its worst yet again.   The trip back to La Guistiniana involved taking the Metro, then changing to another train on the suburban line.  All would have been OK except that the suburban train simply didn’t turn up.  It was around 5pm, so peak hour for commuters who were pouring on to the station in hundreds and thousands while we all continued to wait and wait and wait.  No-one seemed to know what the problem was and – of course – there was no announcement or explanation.   After almost one hour – yes, one hour – a train arrived and a stampede followed.  It was about 40 degrees in the shade so everyone was hot, sweaty and tired, and the crush of hundreds of sweaty bodies into carriages designed for about a quarter the number was something I hope I never have to endure again.  But being Rome, it’s quite possible I will ….

Fortunately Ivana’s car was still intact when we got back. We’d had to leave it in the street near the station while we were away.   A quick stop at the supermarket for cold beer, wine and salad and it was homeward bound for a very welcome cold shower and a last supper with Penny.  

ROME 4:  Sightseeing in Rome 17-20th July  

Even the hottest, weariest cynic has to admit Rome does have some rather special churches and archaeological treasures.   Despite the heat, dust and crowds I’ve ventured forth and discovered a few of them over the past couple of days.  I can’t yet say that Rome is one of my favourite cities, but I am beginning to appreciate the historical and cultural wealth of the place even if I can’t really get my head around the antiquity of it all.

After seeing Penny off on the train to the airport on Saturday, I’d been planning to head straight home because it was still at least 38 degrees and I needed to regroup and refresh after the busy week we’d had.  However…. the Italian train system had no intention of letting things be quite that easy.   I was using the same train ticket on the return trip to La Guistiniana because it says something about having 75 minutes use written on the back.  But, oh no, when a conductor spied the ticket she was ready to whack a 50 Euro fine on me – the equivalent of about $80 Aust dollars!  Of course I pleaded ignorance and stupidity, so eventually she let me get off the train at the next station on the proviso that I bought another ticket.   As it happened, the next station was San Pietro, the one closest to the Vatican, so… what the heck … there I was …. might as well wander on down to the Basilica before buying the ticket ….   

The dome of St Peters Basilica

The heat was intense but it obviously hadn’t deterred the other million and a half people who were trying to get a look at the Holy City, so I joined the throng.  Fortunately I was wearing a dress that covered the knees but I had to buy a hideous scarf to wrap around my bare shoulders – for the princely sum of $2.50.  Dress code is very strict in the Vatican, though how on earth they think the sight of sweaty tourists with all kinds of garb covering the necessary parts is respectful, I fail to understand.  

ST Peters Basilica

It felt like being in a herd of cows winding our way around a maze of cattle runs to get into the Basilica. And then, once inside, there were a million flash cameras going off in all directions.  It’s quite a challenge to feel humble and spiritual in such a setting. However, the Basilica is, of course, an amazing wonder of art and architecture and, despite the crowds and the cameras, I guess I felt quite privileged to be there.  The huge dome is spectacular and the statues, paintings, pillars, side chapels and Michelangelo’s Pieta are indescribably beautiful.   I think if I’d been a Catholic – or an art historian – it might have helped me appreciate it more, but I did the best I could in the circumstances.  I may go again another time.   (Some residual memory of my visit in 1966 lurked in my brain but I seem to recall it was a much more peaceful scene back then. And the Pieta wasn’t covered by a shield of bullet-proof glass in the 60’s because some idiot hadn’t yet tried to smash it with an axe.)

The Vatican museum and Sistine chapel are some distance from the Basilica so I didn’t get that far on Saturday.   

Sunday and Monday had to be rest days.  With blisters on my feet and a nasty red heat rash on the back of my legs I needed to lie low for a day or two.  I also had to wait for the courier to deliver my replacement Visa card.   I was extremely skeptical that anyone would find their way out to this house, but, wonder of wonders, the DHL van actually did arrive and the man delivered the package at about 5pm.   Next trick now will be finding a bank which will give a cash advance because the replacement card doesn’t come with a PIN.  Nothing’s easy….

Today (Tuesday 20th) there was the briefest respite from the searing heat – the forecast was for only 31 degrees, though I have to say it still felt incredibly hot.  I spent the day in the city again and discovered a few more rather special places.   Maybe Rome will grow on me yet….

Porta Ostiense – the Pyramid

First port of call was the Non-Catholic Cemetery where Keats, Shelley and many other writers, diplomats and noble protestant expatriates are buried.   This proved to be a beautiful, serene place with masses of flowers, trees and cool green grass.  I wasn’t the only one paying homage to the poets but all the other visitors obviously felt the same pleasure in this lovely place.   There were some fascinating graves and headstones with many famous names amongst them.  It’s located behind the strange Pyramid at Porta Ostiense, one of the original gates to the ancient city of Rome.  The Pyramid – just like the Egyptian ones – was for the funeral of one of the Roman Emporers.  

From here, it was back to the dreaded Termini station to do some travel bookings for a trip to Florence next week. 

Mission accomplished, I then wandered on to the National Museum of Rome.  This museum is actually spread over 4 sites and holds the most fantastic archeological collection of treasures excavated around Rome  – it’s said to be one of the most important collections in the world and, at least in the Palazzo Massimo where I went, it is superbly displayed.   It makes me wonder how the experts can claim that the much more recent Michelangelo and Bernini sculptures are the world’s greatest, when artists were creating such magnificent pieces in marble and bronze back in the days BC.   Honestly, all of the works in the Palazzo Massimo are simply stunning, and most of them were buried under the ground around Termini Station for centuries.  Some of the highlights were the massive mosaics that must have once graced the floors and walls of ancient villas, also the frescoes from the excavated Villa Livia which belonged to the wife of Emporer Augustus.  The frescoes are still vividly coloured and whole rooms have been re-created in the museum, much as they would have been back in 20BC.   I could have taken photos of every single piece of art in the whole place, but ended up simply walking around exhausted but awe-struck. 

Near the museum is the very lovely church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.  I enjoyed sitting quietly in here and appreciated the beautiful interior even more than St Peters Basilica.  Of course it had huge paintings on the walls, statues, pillars, domes, coloured glass windows … all the usual sumptuous decoration of these Roman churches … but with fewer people around there was a much greater sense of peace and quiet.  There was also an exhibition of Galileo’s works and ideas of time, space and movement. 

And that’s it for now ….  

ROME 5:  21-23 July

Sometimes you have to face facts.  And the fact is that I really don’t like Rome much.  I’ve tried hard, but it’s starting to grind me down.   Impressions of places depend so much on the timing, weather, people you meet and the particular experiences you have – and the Roman gods seem to have conspired against me here on most counts.  Sure, there’ve been some bright moments but most of these have been outside Rome – in the Cinque Terre, Lucce and more recently Bracciano. Not in Rome itself. 

Bracciano Castle

In order to escape the city, I drove north to Bracciano on Wednesday, about 30km from here.  It’s an old mediaeval city built on the edge of a huge lake.  How Penny and I didn’t find the lake when we drove through last week, I’ll never know, because it’s like a vast inland sea and absolutely beautiful surrounded by mountains and little towns on hilly outcrops.   We also somehow missed the enormous castle which overlooks Bracciano – the very same castle, as I found out later, where Tom Cruise married Katie Holmes!  

I got to Bracciano at around 1.30pm and of course discovered that the castle didn’t open until 3, but this gave me time to wander through all the narrow little streets of the old town and just stare at the ancient houses up the little lanes and steps, all with wooden shutters at all kinds of angles and masses of terracotta pots of flowers on doorsteps and windowsills.   It’s amazing that people have lived behind these old doors and windows for centuries and shopped in the same little lanes and markets.  Around many corners there were breathtaking views of the lake, olive groves and little farms. 

While I was desperate to get into the water of the lake, I decided to do a tour through the castle – and then had to choose between the 3pm tour in Italian or 3.30pm in English.  I opted for 3pm and of course didn’t understand a word, but there were little plaques on the walls in each room written in several languages so I could read which king, emperor or pope had slept where, and what each room had been used for.   It didn’t really matter; it was enough just to get a feel of an old Italian castle and to see how it differed from English and French castles.   The views from the windows and turrets were fantastic, as were some of the frescoes, friezes and ceilings inside.  But the room I liked best was the bedroom where Isabelle de Medici took her lovers ….  Next to the big four-poster bed was an innocuous little door, though which it was assumed a hasty escape could be made when necessary.  In fact, it led to the ‘tunnel of blades’ and a very long drop down into a pit of boiling lime … a most convenient way for Isabelle to do away with men she had no further use for!   I’d read all this while the guide was talking, but I knew when she got to the interesting bit when all the women in the group roared laughing.  

Lake Bracciano

After traipsing around the Castle, I drove down to the lake and followed the edge of it for several miles until I came to the little town of Anguillara with its simple beach of black shell grit.  It was such a pretty sight with lots of people swimming, umbrellas dotted along the beach, sailboats out on the water, and the attractive backdrop of the town hanging on the sides of the rocky hill at the end of the lake, a bit like the Cinque Terre villages.   It was even easy to find a good shady parking spot, so with no further ado, I stripped into my bathers and collapsed into the water.  Bliss!!   It’s obviously a popular place for families and locals to relax and enjoy and, I imagine, would be quite crowded at weekends.  But late afternoon on a Wednesday was a great time to be there. 

After an hour or so of floating and lazing, I got changed and went for a walk along the foreshore.  It was still a bit early for the little ristorantes and pizzerias to be open – it seems that people don’t eat out until dusk or after dark – but I imagine it would be a pretty sight when the lights go on and there are people in the square.   I may go back another day. 

After such a pleasant day on Wednesday, I decided to brave the city again on Thursday and ‘do’ some more galleries.   According to the guide book, Palazzo Barberini is a magnificent building, and now houses the National Gallery of Ancient Art.  With one of the finest collections of Renaissance Art, it sounded like a good place to start.  

Of course it proved difficult to find…. with no signs from the Metro station, and a map that didn’t show where the actual entrance was to a building that took up several city blocks, Rome presented me with yet another challenge.   I really ought to have learned by now to simply ask someone as soon as I emerge from the Metro station, and not waste time and energy trying to follow the map. But I did find it at last, and, yes, it looked very palatial from the outside and must have been a great place for the Barberini family to live back in the 15th and 16th centuries.  Sadly, like many of these old palaces and stately homes, the upkeep is not fantastic and there is slow restoration work going on everywhere, which means that many of the rooms are empty or closed and courtyards are ripped up.  A few desultory workmen toiling in the heat, and the odd OHS sign, sort of spoil the effect.   Two of the main features of this palace are said to be the staircases designed by Bernini and Borromoni.  Both are now “Closed for Restoration”. 

The paintings themselves were all the usual Madonna and Child, Crucifixions, Saints and Cherubs that typify this period of religious art – no doubt all very wonderful in their own way, but I’m afraid I can’t tell a Caravaggio from a Tintoretto and after a fairly short while they all start to look the same to me.  I think it’s also unfortunate that the curators can’t do a better job in displaying them.  I’ve seen much better exhibitions in less prestigious galleries around the world.  

While I’m having a whinge, I might as well also say a word about the staff at all these places. They would have to be the most unfriendly, unhelpful people I’ve ever come across in places where there are obviously thousands of visitors.  I’m sure they’re all hot and bored, and sick and tired of the endless hordes, but hey, it is their job, so surely they could sometimes force a smile??

Next on the agenda was another one of the four sites of the National Museum (the institution I enjoyed so much a couple of days ago).  My entry ticket allowed me entrance to all 4 of the sites, over a 3-day period, so apart from wanting to get my money’s worth, I thought they’d all be a similar standard and therefore worth exploring.  Wrong again.   The one that I chose was the Palazzo Altemps, near Piazza Navona (which was worth a look) – but it only contained more ancient sculptures, and these not nearly so well displayed as those in Palazzo Massimo.   More restoration work was going on, and by this time of the day I was trudging rather than strolling, and everything looked as worn and old as I was feeling.   I won’t be bothering to try to see the other two museum sites.

It was quite a hike back to the nearest Metro station (Spagna) but there was little choice, so the teeth got gritted and one foot stepped after the other as I wound my way back through the hot streets and piazzas.   Then on the train journey home, exactly the same thing happened as happened last week when Penny was sill here. When I had to change from the Metro onto the suburban train, the stupid bloody train just didn’t show.  About 6 trains went past in the opposite direction while I, with hundreds of others, waited on our platform for nearly an hour.  I really don’t know how the good citizens of Rome cope with this, but there was a sense of resignation and calm acceptance amongst the hot, sweaty crowd.  One thing I am so pleased I packed and brought with me is a little fold-up fan that I got as a freebie at Writers Week.  Lots of women use these simple hand-fans here and when there’s no air-conditioners, I guess they’re better than nothing. 

What an enormous relief to get back to my tiny cottage, a cold beer and a cold shower. 

ROME 6:  24th-25th July – a weekend of great art …

Villa Borghese

Isn’t it amazing how things can turn around?  Just when I thought Rome wasn’t doing it for me, I went out and found some more great treasures and I’ve actually had a good weekend.

You can only get into the gallery at Villa Borghese with a pre-booked ticket, and even then it’s limited to 2 hours, so I’d booked a time slot for Saturday morning.  This gallery was re-opened to the public in 1997 after a lengthy restoration process, and since then it’s been one of the most ‘in-demand’ places to visit in Rome.    Actually it’s been frequently refurbished and remodeled ever since it was created by the Borghese family in the early 1600s.  Built by Cardinal Scipione, nephew to one of the Popes, it’s been worked on by all the great names in art and architecture over the centuries, with successive Popes and Cardinals commissioning ever grander designs and improvements.   It was acquired by the Italian government in 1902, so the villa and the wonderful art collection now belong to the Italian people.  

There are too many famous paintings, sculptures, ceilings and frescoes to describe, but some of my favourites would have to be Bernini’s huge works in marble, such as Apollo and Daphne and The Rape of Persophone – also a very beautiful sculpture by Antoinio Canova of Paolina Bonaparte Borghese called Venere Vinitrice.   (Paolina was Napoleon’s sister who married into the Borghese family.)   These works are quite sublime – they make marble look like silk and fine leaves and flowers.   Everywhere you look in Rome there are spectacular creations by Bernini – fountains, facades, piazzas and statues by the dozen.  He was truly a genius and must have been a very busy fellow, along with Michelangelo and all the other artists of their day. 

Villa Borghese is set in a huge park with lakes, fountains and miles of roads and pathways weaving through it.  I walked in to the gallery – about 30 minutes from Plaza de Popolo – but decided to be brave and catch a bus out.   I had very little idea of where it would take me, but it did a great little tour through some of the parts of the city I recognized, and I hopped out at Piazza Barberini to see yet another of Bernini’s creations, the pretty little Bee Fountain .. the bee, being the symbol of the Borghese family.   And then, when I wasn’t sure where to go next, I spied a bus heading to Cipro Station, another familiar landmark.  This bus ride was even better than the first and gave me a great look at Rome above ground – much better than traveling by the Metro underground.  I knew there was a bus from Cipro back to La Guistiniana, and sure enough when I got there, it was waiting.  Surprisingly it was faster than the train and I didn’t have to change at dreaded Valle Aurelia where the trains sometimes simply don’t turn up.    Interestingly, most of the bus passengers seemed to be of Asian origin… maybe Italians prefer cars or trains?    

So on to Sunday….  I’d read that on the last Sunday morning of each month, the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are open free to the public, whereas normally a visit costs 15 euro (over $20).    I’d also read conflicting reports about whether this was a good option to choose or not, on account of very long queues, crowds of people etc . But weighing it all up I decided I had nothing to lose, and I’d already lost enough money in the stolen purse, so I got up at 6am  to make sure I was there well before opening time.   Luck was smiling again – when I got to the station, there was no train but the good old bus 907 that I’d caught yesterday was waiting for me.  And it took me right to Cipro, just a short walk from the main gate to the Vatican.   I arrived about 7.15 to find the queue snaking down the street. But with only 200-300 people already ahead of me, I knew I’d definitely get in.   Of course it meant a wait of nearly 2 hours until opening time but people-watching filled the time.  They kept on coming … heaven only knows where the queue must have ended.  

Saints atop the Vatican

Anyway, the free visit turned out to be excellent.  Yes, there were lots of people, but the Vatican is big and there are lots of galleries so it wasn’t too uncomfortable walking around looking at all this incredible wealth of art..  There was time and space to enjoy thousands more absolutely amazing sculptures from ancient Rome, Greece, Egypt etc – and more superb Berninis – also fantastic painted ceilings, tapestries, ancient maps, mosaic floors, Etruscan treasures, gold, bronze, marble … even a contemporary art museum with prized paintings from the Impressionists onwards.   Each gallery seemed more breathtaking, and it took a couple of hours to marvel my way through them all before coming to the piece de resistance, the Sistine Chapel.   (Of course, one can’t help that old niggling feeling about the Pope having so much wealth in Rome while millions of his poor devout followers in South America, Africa, Mexico and the Philippines struggle through their lives in grinding poverty – but no-one’s managed to solve that little dilemma through the centuries, and I guess the guilt does go wider than Roman Catholicism.)

Inside the Vatican Museum

Well, this time I’d done some homework and had the Guidebook in hand, so I kind of knew what to look for in Michelangelo’s magnificent painted ceiling and Last Judgment painting – unlike when I was here over 40 years ago.   I couldn’t help wondering why I had such little recollection of my previous visit, but I read that this Chapel, like much else in Rome, has also had a major restoration and clean-up in the 90s, so lots of accumulated dirt, dust, wax etc was removed from the works, bringing to light the amazing colours that Michelangelo used so long ago.  It was probably a bit dull and dingy in 1966.  

To be honest, it’s actually very difficult to see the chapel as a holy place when it’s so packed with people and the guards are shouting continually:  Silence Please!  No Photo! ….  Despite this, every person who enters the chapel continues to aim their camera upwards.  It must be a soul-destroying job trying to keep any kind of order in the place – and they don’t succeed.   There are flashes going off everywhere and lots of pushing and shoving, and heaps of noise!    Despite the circus, I was still very pleased to be there and to be seeing and appreciating the paintings.

Bernini’s altar in St Peters

Having read the Guidebook, I found the little door on the right that leads back to the Basilica.  It’s supposed to be for guided tour groups only, but it’s not hard to attach yourself to a group for the purpose of getting through, and it saves miles of walking back around the Vatican walls and going through the cattle runs again to get back into St Peters.   Getting back in so easily gave me the opportunity to have another good look around and gasp at the vast beauty of the place. It’s like lots of churches all in one, with side chapels and altars everywhere, and Bernini’s main, magnificent altar dominating everything.  It was packed to the gills with tourists and visitors, most of whom didn’t seem to respect the fact that it is the holiest place for Catholics in the world.   It staggers me how some people seem to be totally intent on viewing the world through a camera. Hundreds of them just point and click at absolutely everything.  I reckon their friends and families are in for some boring slide nights ….

Now it’s Sunday night and I’m getting organized to go to Florence tomorrow. 

ROME 7:  (or FLORENCE 1)   26-29th July

This is going to be a random jotting of highlights of the trip to Tuscany this week.  Trying to remember too much detail gets more difficult as the experiences continue to multiply, but overall it was a very positive few days. And Florence is definitely a more beautiful and welcoming city than Rome. 

Travelled up on the slow train which took 4 hours but cost only 17 euro – as compared with the very fast, sleek express that I came back on which took under two hours but cost 44 euro.   I enjoyed both …. train travel in the Italian countryside is efficient and comfortable.  When I got back to the city, it took me nearly as long to travel from Termini to La Guistiniana as it had from Florence to Rome!  

San Gimignano

I spent my last day in Tuscany in San Gimignano, an old walled town high in the Tuscan hills famous for its many tall towers.  It’s been the setting for quite a few movies – extremely scenic and evocative of the Middle Ages – but is now mostly a huge tourist attraction.   I guess it’s hard to get the balance right in these kinds of places … everyone wants to see them, and the locals want the money they bring in, but having hordes of tourists everywhere does kind of spoil the effect.  But at least the good folk of San G. have done it well.  The little shops which line the main thoroughfare are all very attractive and tempting and the wares that spill out onto the street are beautifully displayed.  All kinds of Tuscan ceramics, leather goods, wine and food products – it would be easy to spend up big.   The view from the top of the wall is very panoramic … exactly like all those cards, calendars and book covers about Tuscany … rolling hills dotted with olive groves, vines and old villas.   It’s easy to see why so many artists, writers and cooks have found their way to this part of the world and written about it. 

It was quite overcast all day in San Gimignano. The weather in Tuscany had generally been such a relief after the baking hot days in Rome, but the rain held off until the bus I was on returned to Florence.  And then the heavens opened.   It was torrential.   But you have to hand it those Sudanese guys who sell fake handbags on every street corner … they were out like a shot with handfuls of cheap umbrellas!  And people were snapping them up!!   I was one happy customer .. I would have been drowned without my new shiny green 3 euro brolly.

Siena

The day before San G, I’d caught another bus to Siena.  Both these trips take about 1 ½ hours so are easy to manage for a day’s outing.  Siena is also a very special place … for me it brought back lots of memories of being here in 1966 for the famous Palio, the horse race that happens around the huge city square twice a year.  I believe it’s more difficult now, and very expensive, to visit during the Palio, but 40-odd years ago, 4 girls in a Kombi van had front row positions and enjoyed all the traditional parades and flag waving that form part of the spectacle as the 9 different sections of Siena compete, as they have done for centuries.  Of course there was none of this happening this time, but there are plenty of postcards, pictures and flags around Siena to let everyone know that this is the big event in the annual calendar.  The whole place is like a living history book … the magnificent sloping ‘square’ in the centre (which is really more of an oval) is surrounded by ancient palazzos and mediaeval buildings, and is dominated by a massive bell tower.   Of course I had to climb it – all 400 old stone steps – and the view from the top is incredible.  I’m not scared of heights, but I did hold pretty tightly to the rails at the top and on both sides of the tiny narrow stone staircase.  They only allow 25 people up at a time, and it’s definitely only one-way traffic.  Obviously the Italians who built these towers in the middle ages were quite small guys.     

Pageantry in Siena

The winding, cobbled streets make it very easy to get lost, but that only adds to the charm of the place.  I spent several hours just wandering around, up and down, and through little courtyards, coming across little scenes of everyday Italian life around every corner.  I’d really had my fill of churches, museums and other ‘sights’ by this stage, so for me the real pleasure was in just drinking in the atmosphere of the old streets and stones.  Somehow all roads eventually lead back to the centre, so it wasn’t too difficult to find the bus stop when I needed it.  Altogether, a lovely day.

Although I spent the best part of 2 days out of Florence itself, there was still plenty of time to explore the city.  Like much of Italy, Florence really comes to life in the late afternoon and evening, so there were hours to stroll around the streets, sit and listen to great music in many of the piazzas, and enjoy some good simple Italian food and wine while still watching the world go by. 

This is a city of great beauty, culture, art and design. Even today, many of the leading fashion designers have shops here and I sensed a real feeling of pride and community.   Quite different from brash, arrogant and hard-nosed Rome.   Everyone seemed friendly and helpful, and even in the markets, where they’re all hell-bent on doing deals, there was a sense of fun. 

Ponte Vecchio, Florence

My hotel was in the main market area. Hundreds of stalls get set up every day from dawn ‘til dusk selling leather jackets, bags, clothing, shoes, jewellery and souvenirs of every description.  Quality varies, but prices were obviously much lower than in the beautiful leather shops all over the city.  Florence would be the place to visit if you wanted to restock your wardrobe – and if you had a fat, healthy credit card.    

Florence Cathedral

There’ll be shrieks and howls of disapproval at this point, but I didn’t go to the Uffizi Gallery or even to the Galleria Academia to see David.   (Been there, did that, 40 years ago)   Mainly, I just couldn’t face any more lashings of great Italian art … it’s everywhere, and it just goes on and on getting more and more sumptuous and resplendent.  My only two ventures into the world of overwhelming art experiences in Tuscany were the cathedrals in Florence and Siena…. and both of these contain enough riches for a lifetime.   The Duomo (cathedral) in Florence is an icon with its famous dome designed by Bruneschelli … it’s magnificent.  And the façade outside is breathtaking.  It was good to have free English-speaking guides inside the cathedral explaining the history and the artworks.  

But if Florence was superb, it’s impossible to describe Siena cathedral. There is not one square centimeter inside or out that it not covered with beautiful marble sculpture, frescoes, mosaics, glass and gold. There are angels and saints and tombs and tapestries – and a whole library full of bibles and religious texts handwritten and painted by monks many centuries ago.  Your head just spins with all the richness everywhere. 

Being so hilly, Tuscany has lots of places with fabulous views.  On my first evening in Florence I caught a local bus up to Piazza Michelangelo which overlooks the whole city … a great place to get some idea of the layout of the city along the river Arno, and get a fairly close bird’s eye view of all the churches, the bridges etc.  I’d already walked across the famous Ponte Vecchio to get to the bus, but it didn’t seem quite as beguiling as I’d remembered it from before.  It’s always been where the jewellers lived and worked, but now seems like just any other very expensive jewellery shopping mall.   Earlier, in a little back street, I’d stumbled upon a much more magical shop with the most superb rings and jewelled works of art by the artist Alessandro Dari, who was sitting in a corner playing his guitar while I tip-toed around his gallery. 

Florence – the view from Fiesole

Another short trip by local bus is to Fiesole, ca little hilltop town about 10km from the city.  The long and winding road up to the town is home to lots of expensive hotels and restaurants – no doubt all with fantastic views – and at the top there’s an Etruscan archeological museum (which I didn’t go into).   I had to while away an hour or so over coffee while rain fell, but just as I was about to give up on Fiesole the sun came out, and I then had one of the happiest couple of hours wandering around this little town.  I climbed up a very steep hilly road to yet another panoramic viewing point and found a very old church and Franciscan monastery at the top.  But best of all, I was the only person there for about an hour and it was so peaceful and pleasant exploring the church, the little gardens in the cloisters and the tiny cells where the monks once lived.   There was also a really excellent (and free!) museum below the church that showed the old Etruscan walls and foundations upon which the monastery was built – and a collection of Oriental artifacts brought back by the missionaries who’d gone out from the monastery over the centuries.  It must have been a truly awesome experience for Italian monks from a tiny outpost in Tuscany to go so far afield to spread their message.   I think I liked this little church as much as any of the grand cathedrals – just for its simplicity.  

The little Franciscan monastery at Fiesole

With more time and money, there’d be much more to see, do, eat and drink around Florence and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.   It was lovely at least to have a little taste and relive some old memories again. 

ROME 8:   Arriverderci Roma   – the last week 30th July – 6th August

First day back from Florence last week was spent with basic living stuff – even in Italy the washing and supermarket shopping have to be done.

Saturday (31st) turned out a little different to what had been planned, but I did get to see the Catacombs along the old Appian Way.  I’d decided to do a guided tour for this experience rather than go it alone because the catacombs are a bit out of town and apparently not the easiest place to find by bus.   However, the best laid plans often come unstuck in Rome, and, sure enough, I found that the trip I’d arranged to do had been cancelled – what a surprise.    Having had an early start from La Guistiniana to be there by 9.30am, this was not good news.  The young man in the office was very apologetic, even embarrassed, and to cut a long story short he finally arranged to book me onto another company’s tour that afternoon at 3pm – but not before inviting me to do an independent tour with him of another lot of catacombs south of Rome the next day ….  shades of Shirley Valentine …??

I then had to fill in about 5 hours, so decided to re-visit the Forum and Colosseum which Penny and I had intended to explore on the fateful day my purse was stolen.   Fortunately the weather was much more conducive to climbing hills, steps and cobble-stones this time, so I wandered around and discovered lots of vantage points and pathways that I hadn’t seen before, including a rather good museum of the history of Rome, and an art gallery that opened out on to a fantastic terrace which overlooked city in all directions.   It adjoined the terrace at the top of the Victor Emmanuel monument, a huge white landmark building replete with statues, pillars and very grand steps above the elegant Piazza Venezia.  

The Roman Forum
Where else? The Colosseum …

The Forum and the Colosseum are some of the most amazing remains of the glory days of the Roman Empire and must have once been the scene of vibrant city life in ancient Rome.   I walked right round the outside of the Colosseum and figured I got a pretty good view of quite a bit of the inside, just peering through the gateways and holes.   I have a dim recollection from years gone by of going into the cellars and dungeons where they kept the slaves and the lions – and it’s not difficult to imagine the brutal rituals and gladiatorial contests that must have gone there.

Eventually I met the bus tour people – only 8 in the group, a mix of Spanish and English-speaking and a bi-lingual guide.  I really don’t like guided bus tours, but after walking around the Forum for nearly 5 hours, this time it was a relief to just climb into a bus and let myself be organised by someone else..   

It turned out that this tour was labeled their “Christian Tour” ( fortunately they didn’t check credentials before letting people on the bus…)  and it visited not only the Catacombs, the original burial places of the early Christians, but also some of the most important churches in Rome.   Yes .. more incredible architecture, art, ceilings, mosaics and holy pictures. But I learned something that I hadn’t known before – St Peters Basilica is not the most important church in Rome.   The cathedral of Rome is actually San Giovanni’s in Laterno, the real holy of holies.   There are four basilicas in Rome which all belong to the Vatican, and San Giovanni (or St Johns) is the oldest, and the one where the Popes have their own inner sanctum. 

Devout pilgrims ascending the stairs on their knees!

The adjoining Palazzo Laterno was originally home to the papal court before it went to Avignon in France, then came back to St Peters.  And in this building, there’s the most amazing staircase  which tradition says was brought from Pontius Pilate’s house in Jerusalem by the mother of the Emporer Constantine (head of the Roman Empire, builder of Constantinople etc).   Anyway Jesus himself is supposed to have trodden these stairs, so they are now a very important place of pilgrimage for the pious and devout, who have to ascend the whole long flight on their knees!!!   Sure enough, there were at least 20-30 people making their way slowly (and painfully) up while we stood there watching.  I was completely gob-smacked .. I thought this kind of thing only happened in India where people prostrate themselves and crawl hundreds of miles as a kind of penance.   For anyone who doesn’t want to go up on their knees, there are two more staircases on either side – one for going up, one for coming down! – which can be used to see the little chapel of the Popes at the top.   I had a peep through the grilled windows but can’t say that it was particularly impressive, certainly not in comparison with many of the other chapels I’ve seen in recent days.  (I like the quote in Lonely Planet, attributed to Martin Luther when he was crawling his way up the stairs a few centuries ago … supposedly he said the equivalent of “Sod this for a joke” … and walked back down.)  

We also visited the huge church of St Mary Maggiore before bussing along to the Catacombs.  Being a bit ghoulish, I was sorry I hadn’t visited this area back in the 60’s, because we were told that all the skeletons, bones, skulls etc that used to be visible in the remains of the old tombs were all taken away about 30 years ago and buried somewhere in the Vatican … (apparently ghoulish visitors used to help themselves to souvenirs).   Anyway the whole place has been respectfully cleaned up and lots more archaeological work done since then to make the tunnels safe.   There are several areas of catacombs, mostly discovered by farmers digging in their fields.  They date back to the 3rd century when the population of Rome was quite large and there was no room for burials within the city walls.   They dug these labyrinths of tunnels under the ground and buried people in hollows in the tunnel walls.  The tombs were sealed with marble slabs, many of which have been recovered and are being dated and catalogued.   Lighting back then was provided by little oil lamps … it must have been quite a dark and scary place, but families and friends could come to the burials to say their farewells so it was all part of the cycle of life and death.  There was also a whole underground church in the catacombs the tour visited.   It’s worth a look. All in all, quite a fascinating little tour. 

Since Saturday, life’s been taken up mostly with reading, writing and sleeping.  The TV antenna has given up the ghost again so I can’t even get BBC News on the telly, and there’s no English-speaking radio that I can find.   However, on Tuesday night I met up with one of Ivana’s friends, an Australian woman who’s been living and working in Rome since the 70’s.   We’d arranged to go to a concert in one of the churches – Beth had seen it in the daily paper – but when we got there, there was neither sight nor sound of music and the church was all locked up.   Ah well … this is Rome …

We ended up having dinner, then wandering down to Piazza Navona which looked lovely in the evening light, despite being thronged with tourists, buskers, street artists etc. A very lively place indeed.  I had a chance to see one of my favourite sculptor’s work again .. Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in the middle of the square.  Before meeting Beth, I’d taken myself to Santa Maria de Vittoria to see another of Bernini’s famous and controversial works .. the Ecstasy of St Teresa, which  I’d heard about in a recent documentary.   What St Teresa described in words is her experience of ecstasy and pain on feeling the holy spirit moving her, but her words are very suggestive of another form of ecstasy and this is what Bernini has captured in marble.   Quite beautiful really – and one that lots of people were coming in to see.  

Wednesday ….spent most of the day doing some work stuff and generally lazing around, but too much time alone gets me a bit stir-crazy, so around 4.30pm I drove up to Aguillara on Lake Bracciano again.    Had a lovely swim and an ice-cream (best ice-cream in the world in Italy!), watched swans gliding around the lake, enjoyed the lovely view of the mountains and the town on the cliffside –  then drove home via the supermarket to stock up for the last couple of days.  

Last night in Rome – along the Tiber

Thursday …. Met Beth in the city again at 7pm and had the best night to end my stay in Rome.  I was a bit early so spent the time looking around the outside of Castel San Angelo and the Bridge of Angels designed by Bernini.  Then strolled along Via Victor Emmanuel past lovely shops and little lanes until I met Beth in Largo Argentina.   There are old sunken ruins in this piazza where the cats of Rome are protected. They’re looked after by volunteer women and have become a bit of an attraction in themselves.   From here it’s an easy stroll to the river where in the summer, little stalls and restaurants are set up all along the river bank.  After dark it’s a fairyland of little lights and happy people eating, drinking and lounging back on big cushions or armchairs in the hundred or more little bars and cantinas … a bit like a mile-long Garden of Unearthly Delights that happens in Adelaide at Festival time.    It was so good to see Rome by night and get a different perspective on this big, complex and multi-layered city.   Isn’t it always the way … things get better as the time comes to leave?  

So this is the end of my Roman Holiday – off to Greece tomorrow.

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