Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rome: Eternal City

Our first day in Rome was a pretty lazy one. We pretty much just chilled out at the hotel, as it’s a fair distance from the city in a nice residential area. We awoke to a sure sign we were in Italy – the view of a lovely tower surrounded by fairly typical Italian buildings and poppies from our room window. We had a meeting with our tour group and Travel Director, they all seem quite nice, mostly on the middle age and older side but that’s okay. Then off to Giapponese (Japanese) for dinner around the corner – it was a public holiday in Italy so it was the only place open, but it was pretty tasty!

The view from our hotel room

Our first day with our tour group was absolutely chockas, but really great! Rome is so beautiful and there is just so much history everywhere!! We received a wake up call at the extremely uncivilised time of 6.30am, and had to be on our coach by 8am, which we managed to do! So we started the drive into Rome, passing a huge ruined complex which our Travel Director told us was the remains of the Imperial Palace, looking over an oval with more ruins on it that was the Circus Maximus. Honestly, I nearly cried. The number of times I have read about the Circus Maximus and Ancient Rome and seen pictures and then I was finally actually there!! Unbelievable! We crossed the Tiber River, which is in a very sad state: apparently the source of the river is drying up so the river is now too shallow for boats to cruise up and down it, there is grass and weeds growing over the banks, dirty polluted water, and it’s also really deserted – compare this with the Seine which is so full of life! Boats going up and down, people strolling and sitting along the banks with their wine and cheese and bread, nice gardens and statues... it’s very sad that this once mighty river is in such a state.

The ruins of the Imperial Palace. That grassy bit in the foreground used to be the Circus Maximus.

Ruins at the Circus Maximus

Anyway, first stop St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City! We met up with our local guide, Eleanor, and her multi-toned purple scarf on a stick which we were to follow around the place. I thought the square was lovely, with the perfectly aligned columns running around the outside, and the facade of St Peter’s Basilica with its massive dome. From the Square you can see the Pope’s house (?), including window (second from the left) from which he gives blessings, and the balcony from which he gives the special Christmas blessing. We followed Eleanor’s scarf through the metal detectors and up into the Basilica. On a Sunday groups aren’t technically allowed to go in, so she gave us some info outside and in we went for an hour free time. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t blown away by St Peter’s. After the bright, simple (well, relatively anyway) beauty of St Paul’s in London, and even York Minster and Notre Dame of course, I just didn’t think it was amazing. Even though it is bigger than those cathedrals, it didn’t feel that way because there is just so much ornamentation EVERYWHERE – statues and gold and mosaics and the humungous high altar (not in use today because the Pope was away and he’s the only one that is allowed to use it) all seem to break it up. And I also thought it felt rather dark, actually. We did, however, get to see Michelangelo’s Pieta, his famous sculpture of Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ, and it was absolutely breathtakingly beautiful: how on earth you can get stone to look so soft and fleshy is beyond my comprehension. Less appealing were the weird monuments to popes or cardinals or whatevs that look like corpses lying in glass cases – a couple of which even had that green-tinged emaciated look that corpses have. For a while there I actually thought they were real corpses – you know how there are those saints whose bodies don’t decompose and they get carried around all over the place... you never know!

Eleanor's scarf

The columns surrounding St Peter's Square

The Pope's house

 A funky guard at the Vatican

Inside St Peter's Basilica

Michaelangelo's Pieta. Stunningly beautiful!

Looking up into the dome

The main alter

Outside the Basilica

St Peters. As you can see in the above picture there are chairs in front, and the Pope stands on that white stage in front. The big screens showed footage of the mass he was giving in Milan, I think, that morning.

After wandering back to the bus we went for a drive around Rome, and saw the Castel San Angelo, the Piazza Venezia with Mussolini’s balcony and the huge monument to the unification of Italy, plus a lot of ancient ruins and our first glimpse of our next destination, the infamous Colosseum. We had a couple of options: go on an ‘optional excursion’ to see the Catacombs; have three hours free time; or have two hours free time before going to see the inside of the Colosseum and then going to the Vatican museums the next day as a second ‘optional excursion.’ As much as we would have liked to see the Catacombs, you can’t do everything in one day so we opted for the free time option and got in line to see the Colosseum’s interior. The line wasn’t as long as we’d thought it would be, which was great, so we got to have a pretty good look around it. It was a very surreal experience actually being there: on par with being at the Eiffel Tower, but even cooler because it’s so old and full of so much history. I think the one thing that really blew me away was how much it felt like you were in a modern stadium: the numbered entrances; the different layers, I suppose, around the outside of the arena; the stairs leading up and out to the spectator area; the rows for seating. Those Romans were pretty dang clever. I also liked that they had bits of statues and columns and other decorative features lying around the place where they’ve been found again, and there is one part you can stand on that feels like you're actually a gladiator stepped out into the arena ready to fight - just like Russell Crowe! The place is so big and would have been so full of spectators all calling for your blood, how intimidating!!

Castel San Angelo

Monument to the unification of Italy.

Mussolini's Balcony, from where he used to address the people - in the middle with the flags on it. I believe it's a palace built in the 15th Century... but don't quote me on that.

The Colosseum!!

Here you can see the three rings around the arena

Constantine's arch.

Numbered entrance gates.

We're in! This is the line to get tickets to go further in, after the line to first get into the building

The labyrinth that was beneath the ground of the arena

View of the Palatine Hill from the Colosseum, the hill on which Rome was founded.


Bits and pieces of the Colosseum that have been found

Gladiators etched into stone. And I guess that's a dog... maybe a wolf or something?

Remains of snacks consumed at events

One thing I have to add about the Colosseum is it is completely surrounded by dudes trying to sell you stuff they carry around: scarfs, umbrellas, hats, sunglasses, and these weird splatty animal toys (go figure. Look what I bought at the Colosseum in Rome! It’s a pig shaped bit of goopy stuff that you throw at the floor and it squeaks and splatters before taking it’s original shape again!). And they are really all up in your face about it. And they are everywhere! You’ll finally shake off one bloke holding an umbrella over you trying to sell you one, and another person will come up to you and hold an umbrella over you trying to sell you one. I mean, they’re just trying to make a living but surely you just saw me reject that last guy with the same wares!!

We finished looking around the Colosseum with a bit of time to spare, so we headed for the Roman Forum which is just up the road. We could see it all from the outside, but for a while there couldn’t figure out how to get in... Finally we found the entrance with only about 20 minutes to spend in the complex. If we had the time again, we would have gone to the Forum first: the ticket for the Forum gets you in to the Colosseum as well and vice versa, and naturally the line for tickets at the Forum was A LOT shorter than at the Colosseum so we would have had more time to look around both attractions. Ah well, hindsight, hey? Anyway the Forum was AMAZING and it was so frustrating having to run around like crazy people clicking away on our cameras so we could get back to the tour group. My favourite part of the Forum (well, what we saw of it anyway) was the Vestal Virgins’ Villa (V.V.V.) – it was very cool, because you can really see what it must have been like back in the day. And it must have been really nice!

The Roman Forum

Courtyard of the Vestal Virgins

Incredible, everywhere you look there is more evidence of the lives of the Ancient Romans

A bit of a power walk and we made it back to the group, so it was back onto the bus and back to the hotel. But do not fear! Our day was not yet over, for it was only 2pm at this point! After a bit of R&R at the hotel for an hour or so, it was back on the bus again to be reunited with Eleanor and her magic scarf on a stick for a nice stroll through the city. And it really was a nice stroll, the city is so incredibly beautiful, with its richly coloured apartment blocks with shuttered windows and climbing plants and flower window boxes all over the place, cobble stones and narrow laneways with sidewalk cafes and fountains everywhere. We saw the Presidential palace; the house of government with a large column outside commemorating the defeat of the Germans by Marcus Aurelius (the war at the start of Gladiator) topped by Saint Peter out the front; and the Trevi fountain. Of course we had to chuck our coins in: throw with the right hand over the left shoulder, four coins which means you’ll win the lottery. Surely, even though the Blarney Stone seems to have failed in its task of gifting us with eloquence, the Trevi Fountain will pull through for us! It really was beautiful, too: much larger than I had expected, and the water was so clear and such a nice aqua pool colour I really wanted to swim in it. And we didn’t even get pickpocketed! Hooray! We got some gelato by the fountain, yummy pistachio, strawberry and the most delicious, rich chocolate for me; Mads had chocolate, chocolate chip and mango.

A street in Rome

The Presidential Palace

The Trevi Fountain. Beautiful!

Mads after chucking her coins. Let's hope it worked, even though she did it backwards. 

My turn! Pleeease let me win the lottery! Then I can go back!

Yum yum gelato!

Column commemorating the win over the Germanic people by Marcus Aurelius

Then it was on to the Pantheon. Now this gave me the wow moment I’d been expecting at Saint Peter’s earlier! The dome is incredibly beautiful, with the spotlight of sun tracking across it. Amazing that it has lasted so long, originally a temple to the Pantheon of Roman gods, turned into a Catholic church later. Raphael is buried here, and his tomb is quite lovely with sculpted flying birds above it.

The Pantheon, originally built for the Ancient Roman gods, now a Catholic church

The amazing dome, with its continually moving sunspot.

The main altar.

At midday (or 1pm daylight savings time) the sunspot aligns with this main doorway

Birds on Raphael's grave. 

Off to Piazza Navone next, a lovely oval-shaped piazza dominated by a beautiful church and a large fountain with figures representing the four continents (no Australia yet I’m afraid) and their major rivers. For centuries artists have come to the Piazza to sell their works, and still there are people selling a lot of watercolours of Rome mainly. There were also a lot of buskers, favourites included a man with a violin and a man with a guitar playing various rock songs; and especially this little old guy in a red vest who lip syncs and sort of bobs up and down to music playing through his speakers. So adorable!! Mads and I had dinner in a laneway just off the piazza, at a restaurant with fairy lights and red and white tablecloths. Lasagne for me and a nice glass of Rose (the lasagne wasn’t as great as I’d hoped but it was still nice) and Mads had some roast chicken with delicious potatoes. It was such beautiful weather, a really lovely evening! Back to the hotel completely exhausted after such a busy but great day! There is so much to see in Rome it’s absolutely going to have to go on the ‘must return’ list! 

We had dinner in this lane way, the place on the right at the end of the street with the fairy lights on the wall.

Chicken and lasagne

Piazza Navone

Art for sale, Piazza Navone

There are beautiful flowers all over the city

This cute old man lip syncing and dancing away

The view of the Tiber looking back towards St Peters at the end of the day

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