Tuesday, May 1, 2012


Montepulciano to Rome – Day 30 – Saturday

I got up early to catch the bus for Chiusi at 8:30.  Fiorella and Kiriku saw me to the station.  It was hard to say goodbye, but the rest of Italy was beckoning.  Chris and Age, whom I seem to see everywhere, were on the same bus, although they went north to Assisi once we got to the station.  The train for Rome was on time, but it was crowded.  I found a seat, but had to leave my suitcase half a car away.  The darn thing weighs a ton, but a conductor helped me heave it into the overhead.

The train ride to Rome took about two hours.  The scenery was the familiar green hills and fields that I have been seeing for the past four weeks and then, suddenly, we were stopping in Rome.  Unfortunately, we were not at the Termini station near my hotel.  This was my first indication that Rome was going to be contrary.  There had been a train wreck the day before and the track into Termini was blocked.  We stopped at the Tiburtina station.  Despite my best efforts to book a hotel half a block from the train station, I ended up having to haul my baggage halfway across Rome on the subway.  After a month of cold and rain, it was hot.  I was sweaty by the time I dragged my bags into my room.

The metro deposited me at Termini Station and I stood in a very long line to make reservations for my trips from Rome to Naples and from Naples to Florence.  I chatted in Italian with the woman behind me who was very exasperated with the line.  She told me that Rome is extra crowded this weekend because  Tuesday in Labor Day in Italy and many people take a four day weekend.  Before I left the station, I also went to the tourist office to buy a Roma Pass.  The pass gives you transportation within Rome for three days, free admission to the first two sights and discounted admission to most others.  It is a good deal, but really pays off because you don’t have to stand in the ticket line for those first two sights.
B&B Cappellini

I am staying at the Cappellini B&B.  Like a number of other B&Bs where I have stayed in Europe, this one is really just a large apartment in an apartment building with a dingy lobby.  There are five rooms and a kitchen/dining room.  My room is very pleasant.  It is painted a cool shade of blue and has a window that opens.  It is on the quiet side of the building.  I have my own refrigerator, kitchen sink, cable TV and a safe, all this for 64 Euros a night.  The neighborhood is a little dodgy, but it improves rapidly within a block.  I try to get home before dark.  The owner, Pasquale, is Asian but speaks Italian and British English.  He is very polite and helpful.  He gave me a map and showed me where to find major sights and what transportation lines to take to get there.

I rested and took a couple of hours to get organized and then set off for a walk about 4:00.  Since it was late, I didn’t want to validate my Roma Pass until the following morning.  I decided to take an overview walk through Rome and see some of the admission free sights.    Rome is big and everything in it (except the cars) is big.  All of these monumental sites are embedded in a crowded city with narrow streets.  The street names change every block or two and nothing looks anything like my map.  Rome was definitely not built upon a grid!  I have to reorient myself at every intersection.  I am constantly stumbling unaware upon some iconic vision. 

A note on photos:  My camera battery has died and will not recharge.  I am sometimes able to use my cellphone to take pictures, but the quality is not nearly as good and I usually can’t see what I’m shooting until I get back to my room.  My cellphone battery is dodgy, also, so if the weather in the photo doesn’t seem to match the narrative, it may be because I had to go back to take the photo at another time.  This is regrettable, but I don’t think Italy is the place to buy a new camera.

I walked north from the station to the Piazza della Republica and stopped into the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli.  One could play a game of football in that church.  It’s huge with a monstrous pipe organ to fill the cavernous space with sound.  During Roman times, the building housed the Baths of Diocletian.  I also stopped in to see the petite but beautifully decorated Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.  I barely glimpsed Bernini’s statue of St. Teresa before a coughing fit sent me running outside where I could hack up a lung without disturbing anyone’s prayers.

The Spanish Steps
I walked down the street of the four fountains.  The buildings on all four corners of the intersection sport intricately carved fountains spewing water for the neighborhood’s use.  These fountains have not been cleaned and are nearly black with soot.  I continued on to Piazza Barberini to take in the Triton fountain and then headed for some open space that appeared to be a vista point, but turned out to be the top of the Spanish Steps.  All of the planters surrounding the steps were blooming with fuchsia colored azaleas and the steps were a sea of color.  People lounged in the sun on the steps, making it difficult to descend in anything resembling a straight path.  At the bottom of the steps is another Bernini fountain of a sinking boat, but the piazza was so completely packed with people that the fountain was almost invisible.  The entire street past the fountain was a solid mass of humanity off into the distance.  I turned to head back in the direction of my hotel, rounded a corner, and found myself staring at the Trevi Fountain.
Trevi Fountain

What a powerful work of art that fountain is!  The figures rise from undressed blocks of stone, giving them power, as if they were springing from the bank of an untamed river.  The crowd surrounding the fountain was certainly untamed.  I took a few photos with my cellphone, since my camera battery refuses to recharge, and swapped photo taking services with an Asian girl who unfortunately lacked a good sense of composition.

Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument
I continued past the Palazzo del Quirinale, where the president of Italy lives, Trajan’s column and marketplace and wham!  I found myself face to face with the largest pile of blinding white marble I have ever seen or will likely see again.  The monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II is 200 feet high and 500 feet wide.  It features the world’s largest equestrian statue.  A person could sit within one hoof and the king’s moustache is five feet wide.  Vittorio Emmanuel II was the first king of a united Italy.  He came to power in 1861.  The monument really calls to mind the glory of Rome and gives one an idea of how the Forum must have looked when its buildings were new and bright.

Late Afternoon at the Colosseum 

After gawking at the monument for a bit, I tramped on, eventually coming to the Forum and the Colosseum.  The sun was beginning to set and the Colosseum was bathed in that yellow glow that every photographer hopes to capture.  I even managed to take a decent shot with my cellphone.  It was hard to miss.  I was beginning to drag, but stopped into a grocery store to but some meat, cheese and beer and limped back to my room.  I was dive bombed by bats on the way.  Somehow, bats were fitting.

Ah, beer!  This was the first beer I had tasted since arriving in Italy.  Beer is expensive here and rather bad.  Dark beer is not available.  It is never cold enough, either.  For this reason, I have been sticking to the cheaper, but better, wine.  At the grocery store, I bought a couple of big bottles of Beck’s and brought them home to my fridge.  I had crostini with salami and buffala mozzarella with lukewarm beer for dinner and watched a strange program about Italian motorcyclists riding through Baja California with a soundtrack of 60s and 70s rock music.  Must have been MTV.

Rome – Day 31 – Sunday

Had a rough night and coughed until 2:00 am (Guess everyone else in the B&B had a rough night, too.  Sorry.)  I didn’t get up as early as I had planned.  Breakfast was coffee and toast.  Not much choice at Cappellini B&B unless you like jam.  There must be six kinds.  Italians serve orange soda for breakfast.  Possibly it has a small percentage of juice in it.  Possibly not.  The coffee here is strong, but not espresso.  It’s a good thing the cups are small because it’s not decaf.

I decided to get the ancient Roman stuff out of the way first.  After my long walk yesterday, my hip was bothering me so I decided not to walk any more than necessary.  I walked to the metro station near my hotel and discovered that the B line (the one that goes to the Colosseum) was closed for the day.  I walked back to the train station where the buses stop because there was supposed to be bus service to replace the metro.  There were buses, but not nearly enough to accommodate the traffic.  They were packed so full I couldn’t bear the thought of riding one, even if I could have gotten on.  I walked to the Colosseum again. 

My Roma Pass saved me from waiting in a very long line to buy tickets at the Colosseum and the Rick Steves audio tour I had downloaded saved me from paying for the audio guide.  I stomped around and up and down the Colosseum.  It’s big.  In its heyday, it could seat 50,000 people.  The games were free and, unlike today, there were exits all around the structure, allowing all of these people to exit within about 15 minutes.  (The chariot parking lot may have been a different story.)  These exits, spewing forth humanity were called “vomitoria.”  This is the origin of the word “vomit.”

The Colosseum was originally called the Flavian Amphitheater.  The name “Colossem” was taken from the colossal, 100’ tall bronze statue of Nero that once stood in front of it.  Only fragments of the statue remain.  The Colosseum was built of brick and concrete, faced with stone and marble.  Most of the marble was plundered after the fall of Rome, but you can see the holes where metal brackets once held it in place.  The Colosseum displays the history of Greek architecture with plain Doric columns on the bottom, Ionic columns on the second tier, leafy Corinthian columns on the third tier and a mix of all three on the top.  There are some nice views out over the forum and Palatine Hill from the upper level.

Palatine Hill

After the Colosseum, I visited the Palatine Hill.  I came in the back way and wandered through nearly deserted gardens before arriving at the forum side of the hill which is honeycombed with layer after layer of former palaces.  I was suffering from museum overload, so skipped the museum, but I did wander through some of the ruined palaces enjoy the view out over the forum.  Everywhere someone excavates on that hill, layer after layer of habitation is discovered.  Our word "palace" comes from the name of this hill.  Whether or not you believe in the legend of Romulus and Remus, there is no doubt that Roman civilization began on Palatine hill.

I descended the steep hill to the forum and began my stroll through the Forum at the Arch of Titus.  Romans were big on triumphal arches.  There are three along the Via Sacra: Septimius Severus’ at the top, Titus’ near the bottom and Constantine’s lower still.  Walking up towards Capitol Hill, the first sight is three monumental archways, which are all that remain of the Basilica of Constantine.  These three arches are immense, but they were originally only the side aisle of a basilica that covered an area the size of a football field in its day.  Basilicas were not religious buildings during Roman times.  The term refers to the architectural plan of the building (central “nave” with flanking arcades.)  This one was the hall of justice.

Roman Forum

The former Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina is now inhabited by a church, but the nearly 2,000 year old, 50’ tall Corinthian columns are still impressive.  Less impressive is the small Temple of Julius Caesar, which resembles a rest stop restroom.  People still leave flowers on the mound of dirt where Caesar’s body was burned.  The ruins of the Temple of Vesta and house of the Vestal Virgins are move story sorority house remain.  Vestal Virgins who served their 30 year terms dutifully were given large dowries and allowed to marry.  Virgins who weren’t (virgins) were given a loaf of bread and buried alive.  Bummer.

The Curia or Senate House still stands, although the bleachers that once allowed 300 senators to sit and listen to orators are long gone.  The building is well preserved because it was used as a church from early Christian times until the 1930s.  The acoustics are wonderful.  At the top of the Forum is the Rostrum, a 10’ high stage where orators could stand and speak to the crowds in the Forum.  The hill behind the Forum holds more modern buildings today but, during the time of Ancient Rome, it sported the Temple of Jupiter.

Exiting the Forum, I climbed the steep staircase to Piazza del Campidoglio, an attractive piazza with a copy of the ancient equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius as its centerpiece.  Michelangelo designed this piazza and surrounding buildings.  I visited the Capitoline Museum and had lunch in the café on top.  There is a beautiful view from the terrace there, as Capitol Hill is the tallest hill in Rome.

Not realizing that there was a shortcut that would have saved me from climbing hundreds of stairs, I descended Michelangelo’s grand staircase and circled around to the front of the Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument.  I climbed up and up the blinding white marble steps to the terrace at the top.  The building is just as impressive close up as it is far away.  At the far right, one can pass from the monument across to the entrance of the Church of Santa Maria Arcoeli, saving a climb up a daunting staircase.  The church is very old, but beautifully decorated.  I was glad that I got the chance to visit, after all.  I returned to the “Vittoriano” and descended the way I had arrived.  Then I set off for the Pantheon.

The Pantheon

The Pantheon is a 2,000 year old domed temple that once honored all gods, but is now a Christian church.  The dome is 142 feet high and wide and has a circular skylight open to the elements in the center.  Because the temple was dedicated to all gods, it was never looted.  It gives us a wonderful example of Roman interior decoration.  The dome is built of concrete.  It is thicker at the bottom than it is at the top and the materials used to make the concrete get lighter as the dome rises.  The upper part is made from volcanic pumice, which is very light.  The whole thing is a marvel of engineering and a simple and pleasing design.  Raphael and Italy’s first two kings are buried in the Pantheon.

Piazza Navona

 From the Pantheon, I wended my way through narrow streets to Piazza Navona.  This long rectangular piazza was once a racetrack.  Today, it is filled with cafes, mediocre artists hawking their works and a spectacular Bernini fountain depicting the four river gods from the four continents known at the time of its sculpting: Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de la Plata.  It’s a dramatic fountain, full of motion, and supports an Egyptian obelisk.  You will have to indulge me while I force you to look at this fountain carefully.  It is my favorite fountain in the world.  I am developing a Bernini obsession.
Rio de la Plata

The Nile

Central Horse

The Danube
Not yet having completed my Roman death march, I continued on to Castel Sant’ Angelo and climbed to the top of the fortress.  Hadrian originally built the castle as a tomb for himself and for a hundred years or so Roman emperors were buried there.  The tomb eventually became a fortified palace and refuge of threatened popes.  Chambers were decorated in papal splendor, although I wondered about the rather secular theme of Cupid and Psyche in the Pope’s bedroom.

I limped back down all the stairs and across the street to the bus station, where I was fortunate to find a seat on a #40 bus that would be packed tight by the time it returned to the Termini station.  I stopped on my way home for some spicy Indian roast chicken and a piece of naan.  Ethnic food was noticeably absent in Tuscany, but Rome offers Chinese, Indian and Turkish food.  I returned to my hotel and enjoyed a cold (!) beer.

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