Italy VI – 2,000 years in 6 hours

(This post was updated by the spolling police as a result of the awful spolling, for which there is no excuse. Dave will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Apologies.)

Time flies when you’re having a good time and as a result, Saturday came around far quicker than it should have. Our last full day in Italy was set aside for possibly the highlight of the trip. Rome.

I wanted to see the Colosseum. I was hoping to see the Circus Maximus and the Forum. I wanted to see and experience the centre of Roman culture as all I had seen to date were the remains of defences built on the borders of their empire. As impressive as Hadrian’s Wall and the amphitheatre at Caerleon are, the capital of the Roman Empire would be more so because it was the beginning of it all.

We had about 6 hours in total in Rome. All week our rep had been extolling the virtues of buying a guided tour of the Vatican for 35 Euros. She explained that it would get us priority tickets to bypass the inevitable queues at the Vatican Museum. We had already signed up for the morning coach tour to enable us to see a range of the sights but we were in two minds about the Vatican tour. In the end we decided not to.

We picked up our coach tour guide and set off around the outside of St Peters square and the Vatican. We made our way past significant religious sites and on to the Roman centre of the city. Unfortunately, viewing these places through the coach windows wasn’t the best way to do it. We passed magnificent ruins that deserved time being taken to view and appreciate them. There was no time or opportunity to experience their size and grandeur.

We stopped at the Colosseum to spend about 30 minutes in the grounds. It was as spectacular as I had expected, although physically smaller than I imagined. What made it for me, though, was the context in which it sat. Nearby was the fountains where the surviving Gladiators would bathe following their fights, the Meta Sudans. I found it easy to imagine the banter and joking that would hide the sheer relief of surviving. Behind it were the remains of the temple to Venus. Close by was Constantine’s Arch, the last such monument built by the Romans and erected to commemorate Constantine’s victory over the last pagan Emperor, Maxentius.

Behind, near to where the coach dropped us off was the site of the original village on which Rome was founded in 800BC. It would have been good to tour the Colosseum but I quickly realised that to do it justice would require a good few hours, and we didn’t have that. The urge to pop in for half an hour wasn’t there. Instead, we jumped on the coach and drove past the Circus Maximus, where chariot racing took place (see Ben Hur) in front of up to 250,000 people.

We moved on passing the extensive ruins of the forum, the centre of Roman rule, Hadrian’s tomb (which was later turned into a fortress for the Vatican) and a 2,000 year old bridge across the Tiber. Our guide explained that after the fall of the Roman Empire, it took the citizens of Rome another 600 years to build another bridge over the river. It was the same in Britain. After the Romans left, the technology they left us was allowed to fall into ruin and it’s like wasn’t seen for more than a thousand years.

I have always found historical sites amazing and atmospheric. You can read a number of my blog entries on the subject. The remains in Rome were no exception and i found myself imagining the famous and powerful people that had been to these places when they weren’t ruins. Simple things, like worn steps and the socket holes left by people stealing the marble from the walls of the Colosseum helped.

Those of us not going on the guided tour of the Vatican were dropped outside the walls and given directions to the museum. We walked around the walls, always expecting to find the end of the queue we’d been promised. We found the entrance and went through the door and sure enough, there was a line of people. But we quickly realised that this wasn’t a queue, but a bunch of people on a tour listening to their guide. We bypassed them and went to the ticket desk. No queue. We walked through having paid only 15 Euros and couldn’t believe our luck.

Our initial plan was to bypass the museums and go straight to the Sistine Chapel, our goal for this part of the day. But there was no short cut and we joined the crowds as they made their way through the first of many rooms.

How glad we were that we didn’t miss out on the museums. The sheer volume of exhibits alone was impressive, before we started to look at them individually. Everywhere we looked, there was something magnificent, or beautiful. Paintings on the walls full of vibrant colour and intricate detail. Frescos on the ceiling with fantastic depth. Sculptures so life like I half expected them to move (like the living sculptures we’d seen in every city we’d been to so far). One exhibit was just a foot!

We passed through a gallery of ancient maps of Italy and some of the Italian provinces (Italy didn’t become a single country until the 1861). We passed through a long corridor with magnificent frescos on the ceiling, that seemed to stretch for miles. And all the time the signs pointed to way to the Sistine Chapel.

We could both feel a sense of mounting excitement as we neared the chapel. The museum exhibits became a blur (which are just beginning to refocus as I look through the photos we took) but the general sense of magnificence and and riches built up. Looking back it was a clever way to bring people to the chapel itself; a clever psychological build up. We entered the final gallery, of modern art, and then headed up the simple steps through a small door and suddenly we were in the Sistine chapel itself.

My honest first opinion was ‘is this it?’ I guess after an hour or so of rich, bright colour, detail, beauty and opulence, the chapel was dark and seemed a bit dull. The place was fairly full of tourists and all of them seemed to be taking photos, despite the signs up saying not to. There was a loud murmur of hundreds of voices, too.

I looked up to the ceiling, and at the same time started to realise the significance of the place I was in. This was where the Cardinals gathered to choose the new Pope. Given the the Popes have had a massive influence throughout history, this place was probably one of the most significant places I have ever been to.

The ceiling frescoes by Michelangelo took him 4 years to complete. Other Renaissance artists, including Botticelli and Perugino contributed work to the walls. I got neck ache from looking up at the ceiling for so long but I found I couldn’t take my eyes off them. They were familiar from pictures and the TV but seeing them for real, a few feet above me, was a priceless experience that I wouldn’t have missed for anything.

A clap from near the door was the guard attracting our attention. He said ‘Silenzio, no photographs’. I had taken two at that point, but I put the camera away. Many of the people around completely ignored the request but the guard did nothing. I didn’t want to leave the chapel but it was time to move on.

Beyond the chapel, more corridors and galleries awaited but most people walked swiftly through them, having experienced the climax of the tour in the chapel. I am a little ashamed to say i was one of those, although I made an effort to look at the personal artefacts of some of the popes and cardinals. Ornately bound bibles, intricately carved crucifixes and a myriad of other items were displayed, bringing a more intimate feel to the museum: Everything we’d seen up to this point had been public works (or at least owned by the church).

We passed the inevitable gift stalls and shops, which was also a bit disappointing. It reminded me of something I’d been noticing all through this trip; the difference between the wealth of the church and the poverty of the beggars often found outside church buildings. (This was most obvious in Florence, when we passed a beggar prostrated on the floor with his forehead on the ground at the entrance to the cathedral, in which the value of the artefacts and décor would probably have fed the whole city for a week.) I have never been able to understand that anomaly about any region where the there is an emphasis on money. I was most surprised at Assisi, where the Basilica was full of costly adornments despite the Franciscan order renouncing worldly goods. While the purpose of this blog is to tell you about my holiday, I cant help but quote a lyric from U2:

“The god I believe in isn’t short of cash…”

Outside the Vatican Museum, we made our way back to St Peters Square and drank in the atmosphere. The queue to enter the Basilica spiralled around the square and we crossed the line a couple of times as we walked around. Then it was off, across the border (the Vatican is a separate state to Italy) and down the Via della Concilliazone towards the gellaterie for an ice cream. We sat at the side of the road, within sight of St Pauls Basilica eating an ice cream, before making our way back to the meeting point and on to the coach for the journey back to the hotel.

Rome was a little disappointing, but only when measured against my expectations.  I expected too much of a mere 6 hours in the city. It’s one of those places I’d like to go back to and explore leisurely and on foot, because that is the only way to take it all in.I’d need a full day just of the Colosseum and it’s immediate surrounds.

One day, perhaps.

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Italy I – Verona

8 days, 7 cities. It was always going to be a hectic, headlong rush around the northern part of a beautiful country, only having time to touch the surface. We acepted that as the price to pay for the chance to see a range of different places, to find the ones we’d like to return to spend more time in.

We left on Sunday from Cardiff airport for the two our flight to Bergamo, near Milan and set off for our first hotel, La Perla in Riva del Garda, which we reached at just after 12.30 am. Tired and numbed by travel, we collapsed into bed.

Our first city was Verona. We had an easy morning, leaving on the coach at 11am for the 90 minute journey on the autostrada south. It was raining and this dampened our spirits a bit and there was the inevitable thoughts that this rain might persist. We pulled in to the coach park and were led by our tour rep the short distance to the piazza Bra.

This was our first experience of crossing Italian roads. There were black and white painted markings on the roads similar to zebra crossings, but the priority was all different. As far as I can tell (and this is from experience gathered over 7 days), traffic has priority unless you are brave enough to step on to the crossing, when the priority shifts to the pedestrian, unless the pedestrian hesitates, when it returns to the traffic. Thus the priority can shift several times during the several seconds of a crossing experience. It’s the new extreme sport.

The piazza Bra is dominated by the giant Roman amphitheatre (or ‘ampy theatre’ as our tour rep kept calling it). It’s the third largest in the world and it should have impressed straight away but the rain, the extensive metal fencing around it and the large chunks of stage scenery piled up outside took much of the impact away. The amp… sorry, amphitheatre is now used to stage operas and one was being prepared for that morning. An interesting comment on the times is that when in use for its original purpose, the amphitheatre could hold the entire population of Verona – 30,000 people. Now, thanks to health and safety, it can only hold 15,000 despite it’s actual capacity not having changed. For a schoolboy giggle style fact, the entrances to amphitheatres are called are called Vomitoria.

We were set free from the tour rep to explore for ourselves with a small photocopied map annotated with handwritten notes, crossings out and a large ring around the meeting place for the journey back to the hotel. We set off in the rain to walk the main shopping street. the pavement was polished stone and quite slippery in the damp. The street was busy and it was hard to get any sense of where we were or what we were seeing.

But then I looked up, above the eye line and over the heads of the tourists and there was something special. The architecture, hidden at ground level by the need to sell, was present above the shops. Tall, narrow windows with wooden slatted shutters, tiny balconies with colourful flowers in pots, the yellow plaster that I had seen in pictures, crumbling and cracked in places. For me, it changed they way I was feeling and the rain, still unwelcome, wasn’t quite so bad.

We carried on, heading towards Casa di Guilietta, where Juliet’s balcony (‘wherefore art thou, Juliet..’) can be found. Except Shakespeare’s story, based on earlier stories by Luigi da Porto and others, is fictional. Nevertheless, the balcony has attracted a connection to the story (only the most cynical would say it was a clever tourist-related ploy) and in its own way, is worshipped by young lovers who come here to scrawl their undying affection in marker pen on the walls of the alley way into the courtyard. There is also a tradition, fairly recent, of attaching padlocks adorned with the lovers names to anything suitable. We saw hundreds attached to railings there and in other places in the city.

From there, we decided to find somewhere to eat. Further along the street, we came to a small market place and there was a street cafe with large awnings and we decided to eat there. Carefully choosing seats to avoid the drips from the awning, we ordered coffee and food. I had an Americano and a cheese and ham pannini. Sat down and with no pressure to do anything, the atmosphere changed for me and I began to enjoy, despite the rain. It felt good sitting sipping coffee without having to rush.

By the time we’d finished, the rain had stopped. I felt my spirits lift. We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering, with no definite plan of where to go. It was by far the best way to do things and suddenly we were away from the tourists and the crowds and we could enjoy the narrow streets and some sense of history.

We went over to the Castelvecchio, built in 1347; a red brick fortress that didn’t look capable of defending against even a half determined attack. Indeed, it was built originally as a home rather than a defensive structure. Then we walked back through the back streets, eventually emerging behind the amphitheatre where all the staging for the opera was being stored. There were huge sculptures of lions and columns which were totally out of place against the magnificent ruins they obscured.

We got back to the coach after putting in our newly practised road crossing skills and headed back up the autostrada for dinner in the hotel. Then we sat out on the balcony of our room, enjoying the warm evening, the views of Monte Camplone (1,977m) and Monte Cadria (2,254m), the white walled ‘bastione’ on the mountain side and a fine bottle of red wine. As the darkness fell, we watched the stars come out and spotted a shrine, lit up on the side of the mountain. It was a lovely end to the day.

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