Rome! How exciting! This was our original point of entry into Europe, before we chickened out and changed our flights to London. And just as well, too — we simply couldn’t imagine landing straight from Australia and getting ourselves set up here in this bustling, bewildering metropolis!
The drive from Tuscany was quite long but scenic for the most part; at one point we drove past an escarpment with a village clinging to the plateau, multi-storey buildings right up to the edge, with bunker-like holes in the rock beneath. Time got away from us, and by the time we were in the outskirts of Rome it was getting dark. What’s more, Nigel’s instructions were getting a little vague and out of kilter, and a wrong turn took us off the motorway and into the northern suburbs. We decided to take the opportunity to find a place to eat, and so we did, after driving around a bustling and grotty little square that looked like a promising area to find some food. It being still quite early, the restaurants were empty but open, and we picked one and had some pizza, in the sparsely covered Italian style. Very tasty Ortolana, with eggplant.
Moving on, I entered into a little private navigation nightmare, with Nigel leading us all over the place, dropping out and freezing up at critical intersections, leaving me to fend for myself. After about 45 minutes of this (it should’ve been only about 15 minutes to the caravan park we were after), we finally found our destination on the other side of the divided road. I found a way across to the other side, and after an interesting six-point-turn manoeuvre to turn onto the road from what looked quite a bit like an off-ramp (during which there was sudden silence from the passengers — where’s the trust?), we finally made it. There was even applause.
So, we checked in, and were thrilled in the process to find out we could pay €5 for three days of wi-fi access (the presence of Internet access is a very exciting thing on the road! Or is it just us?). We picked up some fresh water at the caravan park’s service point, Timmy and I taking turns holding the hose against the tap as I lost the attachment in Florence, and as is our new routine, the two of us walked around and scouted out a site. Very fun to have Timmy there to do that stuff with! This was a very swish caravan park, with opera playing in the deluxe bathrooms, a shop, and its own tourist info desk. Luxury.
We bought ourselves some €25 ‘Roma passes’, which give us entry into two attractions and include public transport usage, and headed on into Rome on the quite comprehensively graffitied train.
Rome bustled with people, as well as scooters and cars, bouncing over the cobbled streets. Everywhere, beautiful old buildings met our eyes, as well as an absolute glut of impressive fountains, statues and obelisks. Dodgy guys roamed the piazzas with roses to thrust at unsuspecting female tourists then demand payment; a very, very bad human statue of liberty fidgeted beside the fountain, and a busking couple Latin danced to a tape in an alley, surrounded by admiring onlookers.
We spotted a Wind telco shop on our way, and excitedly ducked in to talk mobile broadband; we would return the next day with my passport and seal the deal — a very exciting proposition to be connected again! Further on we found the Trevi fountain, beside a seething mass of visitors; Jen tossed in a AU$2 coin to ensure her return to Rome. I’m sketchy on the physics, but I’m told that’s how it works.
Our next sight was the Pantheon, an imposing and ancient cylindrical building with a massive columned annex, looming over cafés, souvenir shops and fully costumed gladiators prowling around for people to take their picture for a fee. Inside, a quiet roar of hundreds of low voices filled the huge circular space, and a volumetric beam of sunlight was cast down through a round hole in the ceiling. Intricately decorated marble everywhere we looked, and statues and shrines in every nook around the outside.
We stopped for a lunch break in a café down a nearby alley (the tiramisu being the highlight!), then pressed on. Almost immediately we stumbled upon a particularly impressive building, by the Piazza Di Sant’ignazio, and peered inside to find a church, impossibly opulent, with every surface either painted with incredible detail (the entire roof, for example), intricately gilded, or festooned with statuary. The space was filled with organ music accompanying two amazing voices, a man and a woman, rehearsing up by the altar. It was impossible to take it all in, although we tried for a while!
Next, we found the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, a mighty columned building with steps leading up towards it and sporting some fairly impressive equestrian statuary. After a little time spent searching unsuccessfully for the Apple store promised by Google Maps to be nearby (we wanted Snow Leopard, dammit!), we made our way to the Colosseum.
Framed by imposing grey clouds, the Colosseum was quite a thing to behold. We entered and followed an audio tour by Rick Steves that we took along with us on my iPhone, all huddled around the phone for each section. This turned out to be absolutely fantastic, much better than your standard packaged audio tour. On that note, by the way, basically all of the informational material we came across in Rome was appalling — badly written, and very dry, focusing on the most tedious of details (building materials, names and dates, to the exclusion of, say, cultural significance). Having Rick Steves’ guide was therefore fantastic, and really transformed the experience for us.
Almost as soon as we entered the Colosseum, those grey clouds made their presence felt, and the place shook with thunder. The accompanying rain made us a tad damp, but it brought out the colours of the Colosseum. Very atmospheric.
The thing I found most interesting there was not so much the size of the stadium or the other details with which we were already familiar (it is quite famous, after all!), but the graffiti, dating back from the Colosseum’s glory days. Some things never change. See, the attendees would scratch names of gladiators in the stone beside them, or draw scenes of combat. I found that record of the small details of everyday life quite interesting.
Minds full and feet sore, it was time to call it a day — we caught the crowded and pushy metro to our train back to the caravan park.
We started the next day walking through Rome, down along the river. We stopped for lunch at Piazza Navona (amusing scenes of statues plagued by pigeons), and headed onwards to a few other sites that Annie and Jen had pegged. We found our way to the Forum, beside the Colosseum: The original centre of everything Ancient Rome. Queue the next thunderstorm — amazing fork lightning over the ruins — as we went through the rest of Rick Steves’ tour. The site of Caesar’s cremation and the Curia Julia, the senate building, were two sites that stuck in my mind, as well as the house of the ‘vestigial virgins’ (yikes, so much for human rights — you don’t want to be a vestigial virgin caught being not-so-pure!). The tour’s concluding remarks nicely rounded off the latter end of Roman history for us, talking about the decline into corruption, the trouble with Genghis Kahn and the eventual descent into the Dark Ages. Heavy stuff, looking out over the ruined Forum bathed in that odd post-storm late afternoon light.
For our final day in Rome, it was Vatican time. We booked tickets from the caravan park, with an agency that allows you to skip the queue and includes an audio tour. We arrived at the meeting place at the designated time, having walked there from the metro stop past about 700 metres of queuing tourists, and were escorted en masse to the Vatican museum’s entrance and handed tickets. A bizarre system, but at least we skipped the line.
The Vatican museum was a seething ‘conveyer belt’ of packed-in tourists, the most remarkable tourist experience I’ve ever had. If this was ‘limiting the number of visitors’, I’d hate to see the alternative! As it was, it was very difficult to stop and look at particular items; the best course of action being to just go with the tide, step after plodding step, and just see what you could from where you were.
One interesting aspect was the fig leaves covering most statues’ bits: Apparently all of the penises were deliberately broken off the statues at some point during the Vatican’s history (as they might inspire lusty thoughts!), and replaced by plaster fig leaves! Ah, such a beacon of enlightenment.
The audio guide was mildly informative, although I did feel quite bewildered by the sheer amount of material, and the pace of the tourist-tide didn’t really lend itself to stopping to listen to much! At one point I lost my companions in the crowd and didn’t find them again until Katherine plucked me out of the crowd 20 or 30 lonely minutes down the line; at other point we lost Timmy and only found him again at the exit.
Not surprisingly, the highlight was the Sistine Chapel. How amazing that during the time of Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and the other teenage mutant ninja turtles, the art culture was such that art was just slathered all over the walls of significant buildings, in eye-bursting masses. How gaudy! Seeing that famous work, The Creation of Adam (touched by His noodly appendage!), in its proper context on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, almost lost in the profusion of other paintings, was quite remarkable. It’s just one little panel in a collection of dozens. I stood for a long time, working through the audio tour sections trying to wrap my head around the collection, but I honestly still can’t begin to understand the symbolic significance of any of it. Apparently it’s very clever though.
The Chapel gently hummed with hushed voices. Signs around the Chapel called for silence but, amusingly, the peace was broken at regular intervals by staff members hissing for quiet and calling out when people started to pull out their cameras. Once, a startlingly loud announcement blared out a list of rules in five or six different languages for a few minutes. Hilarious.
So, we re-entered the human tide and were swept out and back into the world. It was time for our second meet-up for our next ticket delivery procession, this time to the big daddy of churches, St Peter’s Basilica. It was also time for the daily thunderstorm, and we got drenched in the process, rain absolutely chucking down. We dripped our way up to the audio tour pickup desk, picked up our handsets, headed into the basilica and started the audio tour’s first item playing.
My first impression was of bemusement as the slightly breathless, bordering-on-hysterical audio tour narrator began spouting some quite impressive hyperbole about my imminent commencement of one of the most emotional and spiritual experiences of my life. My bemusement rapidly deteriorated to want-to-strangle-somebody irritation as the narration became both more extreme and religious, and filled with uninteresting, irrelevant facts like the purchase history of various artwork. Argh!
Irritating audio tour aside, St Peter’s Basilica is an incredible place, making the church we saw earlier look like a lean-to. Such a display of wealth and power, it’s hard to comprehend; every surface was intricately painted, gilded or contained some priceless (or pricey!) artefact.
Anyway, with very tired feet, we trudged through Rome to the Wind shop to set ourselves up with mobile broadband, me leading the charge with the map in hand. This was ultimately a triumph, and we returned to Nettle to rest our weary bones.