Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Spanish Steps... and the rest

Last day in Rome, and we took a gruelling route around as many of the things we hadn't already seen as possible. This was extreme tourism. Piazza Navona, Spanish Steps (pictured), Pantheon, Trevi fountain, Trastavere, Colosseum (again). We walked for eleven hours until are feet and out backs failed.  

The highlight was - I don't know - it was all wonderful. But we sat on the Spanish Steps for a long time watching the antics of the rose grifters. We were the first victims so we knew how they worked. As you walk into the piazza the smiling young man swoops. Couples are his favourite. He thrusts a bunch of roses into the lady's hand.There is no refusing. The flowers are yours. "For the beautiful lady." Then he walks off. A few moments later he is back. "Take your photograph? With the roses?" And then you know that he is not going away until you pay. So the male half of each couple is pestered and badgered. I relented after a few minutes and handed him two euros. "Not enough," he says. So, in each case, the lady tries to hand the roses back. He doesn't want them, he just wants money. Only paper money is enough. He didn't get paper money from us so in the end we were left with one rose, the consolation prize. All up and down the Spanish Steps there were couples with roses - a badge of gullibility. It really was fascinating to watch the subtleties of how he and his many colleagues worked.

The rest of the day was no less fascinating, and we had learned how to stare-down the street vendors in a way that sent them scurrying.  We ate ice cream. We watched rain pour through the hole in the Pantheon roof  (the only time it has rained during our trip to Rome). It stopped again as soon as we went back outside. We threw money into the Trevi Fountain - two coins to ensure we return. I really hope there is something in this. We have every intention of returning.

Tomorrow we fly home. I have a gig in the evening. The wonders of air travel, hey? But this is the 'Travelling in a Box' blog. We'll be hooking up the box and heading for the hills again soon. But our trip to Rome goes right up into the top five of the holiday league table. It has been a cracker.  


Tuesday, 25 October 2011


Headed out of Rome today to see the Villa d’Este at Tivoli. We felt we needed a rest and some chill time.

First off we were mis-sold our BIG ticket, and given one that only covers inner Rome. So when we arrived at Ponte Mammolo where we had to change from Metro to bus, we had to buy another ticket, and it wasn’t obvious where to go to do this. We returned to the bus station, tickets in hand, to find the bus packed full. We chose to let it go rather than stand all the way to Tivoli.

So now we were first in the queue. The bus arrived ten minutes later. It’s the first stop on the route so at this point there’s nobody on it. Only half a dozen people are waiting in the queue – but then from nowhere there are hoards, barging and elbowing and pushing, and within seconds the bus was damn-near full again. And we were still outside on the pavement. We need to get the hang of the Italian school of queue-jumping.

We did get on this bus and (only because of a bit of late seat swapping) managed to get the last two seats.

The bus ride to Tivoli is about one hour. It’s not one of the world’s great public transport experiences. Neither was the trip on the Metro for that matter. Derelict factories and graffiti daubed roller-shutters – it’s pretty depressing.

Anyway, after fifty minutes or so the bus leaves the industrial wasteland and winds up into the mountains through groves of olive trees, and all is forgiven. The Villa d’Este itself is tranquil and restful and full of water: fountains, waterfalls, cascades. Really magical. Smaller than I had expected and twice the price printed in the guide book, but worth the visit. The main fountain (pictured) is worth the trip alone.
The bus journey back home, though, was an ever-present demon waiting in the wings. This time when the bus arrived we tried using elbows and rudeness, but we are English and we just don’t have the technique mastered yet, and again we were lucky to get a seat.

The journey back involved going downhill. There were hairpin bends. A UK bus needs considerable work to pass its annual inspection - just a single missing length of seat-trim is enough to fail it. The downhill slalom from Tivoli is the point when you realise you are in a vehicle that would fail even to get into a scrap-yard back home, there being so few serviceable and salvageable parts on it, not the least of them being the brakes. We went hurtling down that hill, and on every bend the seats – apparently not anchored to the bus floor – were tilting and swaying and rocking and always threatening to cast us into the minging, greasy darkness of the bus aisle. It was almost a relief to get back to the mobile graffiti hoarding that passes for the city Metro.

It was good to get back into Rome. Most cities tend to be noisy and threatening, especially at night. Rome is the opposite. Even quite late after dark it is friendly and feels quite safe (unless you are crossing the road.) It seems it is outside the city where you feel vulnerable and at risk.

Tomorrow is our last day. There’s a lot in the city of Rome that we haven’t yet seen. We’ll stick to the places our feet will take us.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Leonardo da Vinci

On the northern side of the Piazza del Popolo, part of the Complesso Monumentale di Santa Maria del Popolo, there is a small museum that currently has an exhibition of the machines and inventions of Leonardo da Vinci.
Someone has studied Leonardo’s notebooks and built, from wood, many of the things the great man designed: the helicopter, a glider, instruments to help fly his flying machines such as an artificial horizon. There is a bike for heaven’s sake. This was designed in the 1400’s and it is, for all intents and purposes, a modern day bike complete with a chain and sprockets.
Many of the smaller engineering solutions such as those for transferring the direction of motion and for reducing friction: gears, ratchets, bearings. There is an excavating machine – a fifteenth century JCB.
This exhibition is a joy. I knew nothing about it. So to just find this and wander in off the street was a thrill, and that is understating it. Leonardo da Vinci has always been something of a hero of mine, particularly for his inventions. Okay, so he was also a bit of a painter and knocked off the odd picture, like the Mona Lisa, say. But what an engineer/architect/designer/scientist he was too. Many of his things didn’t quite work because they were about 500 years ahead of materials technology. Imagine what he might have come up with had he been around today. What a guy.

Earlier in the day we had been to St Peter’s. Bit of a disappointment. The piazza was ruined because it was two-thirds filled with barricades and plastic seats, so the sense of space was gone – wrecked. 

We also picked a bad day because it was closed the day before and the basilica wasn’t due to open open until one-thirty. The queue went twice round the outside of the piazza. The best entertainment was watching how many brazen, hard-nosed people just bunked in right at the front of the line, and the fights that nearly started as a result. We toyed with using yesterday’s trick of skipping the queue by joining a tour, but this would have set us back nearly a hundred Euro’s for the two of us and, well, we decided to save that until next time we come to Rome.
Because there will be a next time.  

Rome Day2 - Part B

Aha! I have at last figured out how to get photos from my phone into the blog. Not as good as the ones in my camera but they'll do for now.

So, after the Colloseum and the Forum we needed toilets again. Sorry to keep harping on about this but in Rome it is an issue, because there are none. A good standby has always been museums, but I suppose we have become a little spoilt living in the UK because for us the museums are all free.

We came upon the pallazzo della esposizioni which was a bit pricey, only because we had none of the requisite money-off items such as bus tickets or vouchers. Anyway, we hit the toilets, recuperated in the classy cafeteria in the basement, then went to see what the exhibition had to offer. (Actually this isn't quite right. We'd passed many of the paintings on our way to the toilets and were blown away, so in fact we were itching to see the rest.)
Realismi Socialisti - grande pittura sovetica 1920 - 1970
Soviet art on loan from galleries in Moscow, St Petersburg and a few others across Russia. It was fabulous! Well worth the 12.50 Euros we paid to get in. These were big pictures. So much detail. Our favourite was a scene from inside the early Soviet parliament, with Lenin holding forth to a hundred or so members. Each face was unique and detailed and had an emotion all of its own. One face in particular was staring out of the scene straight at the artist. It was quite disconcerting, like being spotted watching something you shouldn't. A wonderful painting. I wish I'd made a proper note of the artist and the painting's name.
One that I did note, though, was a painting by Aleksandr Laktionov, showing a hero of the Soviet Union visiting a tank commander's academy. It is the light and the fine deail in this one that is so astonishing. The way the rug is kicked up by a nonchalant boot. The way the light from the window shines through the paper of the banner that has just been painted. It really is a spellbinding work.
And they just kept coming. Vast canvases. Image after image. One of the best exhibitions I have ever seen. Some seem tantalisingly familiar. Other were completely new. Stumbling into this gallery in Rome was one of those rare serendipitous moments that come along only once in a while. If this is a touring exhibition I hope it comes to the UK, because we'll be there, for sure.
So then we found a lovely little trattoria and had pizza, and a sensational day was complete.
And now it's Monday. What wonders are in store for us today?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Rome day 2: Colosseum

Started early today to get ahead of the crowds. But the crowds started earlier. It appears the Collosseum has been closed for a few days following heavy rain. The queues were immense. It transpires that if you pay 12 Euros you queue for three hours. If you pay an extra 15 Euros for a tour guide you get to jump the queue, you get a friendly and informative guide who tells you stuff, then you get into the Roman Forum afterwards and get a tour with another guide. And you jump another queue. No contest.

So, the Colosseum. Wasn’t sure what to expect. If it’s like visiting castles, I thought, then you get the best view from the outside anyway. It turns out the Colosseum is not like visiting castles. Inside it is awesome. This is a stadium that once seated 50,000. In its day it was faced with marble and statues and bronze shields and it was covered over with a roof of canvas. And the whole thing took just eight years to build. They’ve taken longer than that, apparently, cleaning four of the arches. They’ve taken longer than that just talking about a new stadium for Liverpool FC.

As a quick aside, be warned. The toilets are a bit iffy. Plastic phone boxes with no tardis-like features. Locks that don’t work. Very dark. Very very dark if you are wearing sunglasses. I bet the toilets were better in Trajan’s day.

That’s my only gripe, though. The Colosseum is fabulous. How must it have looked filled with 50,000 blood-crazed fans. And
here’s another thing. They built it without mortar. The slabs were pinned together to allow slight movement, because the Romans knew this was an earthquake zone. And it worked. It was only after the stone was pinched for other civil engineering projects, then replaced with bricks and mortar that bits stared falling down during the odd tremor. Two-thousand years old and they knew how to make it earthquake proof. That’s how to build stuff!

So then we headed for the Forum in the company of Greg, our new guide. This is where we learned of the racetrack inside the Emperor’s home. Of a five story palace that would have been 100 metres tall. And next door, Circus Maximus, another stadium. A really big one. This one used to hold 300,000. If it had remained standing it would still be the biggest stadium in the world. Think about it. Rome must have been a wonder to behold in its day. It still is, but you need to use your imagination a bit. It’s hard to picture because time has given us glimpses of many pasts here. You have to look at each one in turn or it all becomes too chaotic to get straight in your mind. It’s also hard to think of what two-thousand years really represents. It’s too big a number. Two thousand years and they were better at some stuff than we are. Makes you feel kind of insignificant, does Rome.

Also makes you feel a bit knackered. Eleven hours of sightseeing today including a gallery visit - more on that one another time because right now I’m ready for bed.

October in Rome

I might have fallen in love with Rome.

We haven't brought the caravan - this time we decided to cheat and use the big silver cheap Irish bird. (It took two-and-a-half hours. If we'd have been towing we'd be leaving Kent round about now.)
The flight was fine, apart from a poor lady who had what appeared to have been a stroke in the seat in front of us. I really felt for her daughter, her travelling companion. What a way to arrive in a strange city.

Anyway, we jumped a coach from Ciampino airport and were in Rome by lunchtime. We're staying at the IQ Roma hotel, which is a fabulous mix between swanky and budget, with all the right elements from each. There's an automated bar on the roof terrace with reasonably priced beer, wine and hot drinks. It's a lovely place to take a book after a hard day on the tourist trail.

Yesterday afternoon we did a recce. Just enough to find that we'd brought all the wrong clothes and not enough of the right ones, but for all the right reasons. It was sunny and hot. The light is extraordinary.

Highlight of the day was the Palazzo Venezia. Apparently the locals revile this monster of a building. I was agog. It is an incredible edifice. It's a monster. Can't help but admire it. I'd show you a photo but I didn't bring my camera. My wife broght her camera but I can't interface it to my net book. Hey ho.