Monday, June 29, 2009

Rome VII: Ostia and the Spanish Steps

Our plan had been to spend a day in Pompeii, but after reflecting on what three hours of travel, each way, would mean for us (not to mention the 25-euro cost of a train ticket) we decided to visit Ostia Antica instead. It’s a thirty minute train ride outside of Rome, but covered by the public transportation system, so our 4-Euro day passes took us there.

Ostia was an ancient Roman port near the mouth of the Tiber, that gradually became a ghost town as the river silted up and malaria became endemic. The ruins are well-preserved. You walk along actual ancient streets with rows of buildings on either side. There’s a really good theater and mosaic floors in the baths. My main impression of Ostia is that a group of kids could have a truly amazing game of house there.
Theater in Ostia
Theater in Ostia

I liked this diamond pattern in the bricks.

I'm not sure what was happening here.
The thing about Ostia is that it’s huge and by the time you’re done exploring, you’re pretty tired. Luckily there’s a cafeteria at the far end of the complex where we purchased an overpriced and mediocre lunch. Just as we sat down to eat; a group of people standing behind us began singing a Praise Jesus-type song, with much enthusiasm. They were wearing matching polo shirts and were very obviously American. The diners watched them politely, but puzzled. Once the singers had spread their message to the random collection of people at the Ostia cafeteria, the group moved on while Jon sung “O Canada” under his breath.

Since our day passes didn’t expire until midnight, after dinner we decided to take the metro to the Spanish Steps. Rome has decent public transportation. The buses are cheap, the stops have names and the signs tell you the names of all the stops on that buses’ route, so even a foreigner with a rudimentary grasp of the city can manage to get around, if in a somewhat cumbersome fashion. We had to take the metro to get to the Spanish Steps and the stop funnels you more or less directly to the foot of the steps, which are very high, but, unlike the Trevi fountain, are probably better appreciated in the daytime.
I admired Keats’ house, which sits at the foot of the steps, and peeked in the window of Babington’s Tea Rooms which has been expensively serving British tourists since Victorian times.
A 26-Euro muffin? To put this into perspective, I could buy breakfast for myself and at least two of my children at our neighborhood bar for about nine euros.

At the top of the steps a flower-seller tried to get me to buy a rose, which I refused, but he was very aggressive, even inserting a rose into my folded arms and otherwise being a nuisance. Then, he somehow talked us into letting him take our picture, and Jon gave him two Euros, which I think is reasonable for two seconds of work, but he wanted more, and then we were annoyed at having let this man insinuate himself into our group, and even more so when we saw the comically terrible quality of the picture he took of us.
We endured a crowded metro ride, and an interminable wait for our crowded bus to leave the station. Italian buses have few seats. I noticed the capacity signs which listed 20 seats for each bus, but standing room for nearly 90 people. You spend most of your time on Italian buses with your face pressed into the armpit of a complete stranger, and at every stop 500 people get on and two or three get off.
Me, making sure I didn't lose my children in the metro station.
It was nearly midnight when we got home, but little did we know, our night was just beginning. Drama Queen disappeared into the shower, and soon after, Mad Scientist noticed that the kitchen was completely flooded. The only thing to be thankful for was the fact that the kitchen is a step lower than the rest of the house, so the flood could spread no further. It took ages to clean it up, and Jon and I had the sort of fight that spouses have when there is flooding in the middle of the night.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Rome VI: St. Peter's

Today we saw St. Peter’s Basilica and climbed to the top of the dome. The Basilica, like the Vatican Museums, is overwhelming. There’s just too much to see, but I was able to get close the La Pieta, which is worth seeing with your own eyes. Seeing La Pieta almost made up for the disappointment of the Sistine Chapel yesterday. We breezed through a quick line for tickets to the top of the dome. You can take an elevator halfway up or you can climb the whole thing. We chose the climb. The portion of the walk up that’s covered by the elevator is a gentle slope, anyway and takes you to the roof of the Basilica, where the stair-phobic can stop and admire the view from there. Next, you walk out onto a narrow gallery inside the Basilica, at the base of the dome. This is really something to see. For one thing, you are smack against mosaics you can barely see from floor level, and, naturally, the view down into the Basilica from that height is extraordinary, although we somehow neglected to take a picture of it.

I peered up the sloping walls of the dome, to the cupola at the stop. There is no sign of a staircase and I wondered how we would get up there. You exit the gallery and begin a long climb up a tightly wound spiral staircase. The stairs themselves are none too big because you are squeezed between the outer and inner walls of the dome. I had imagined that the climb would be like the scene in La Dolce Vita where whats-her-name climbs the dome on a grand staircase with beautiful round windows every few feet where she can pause and spin about. Since 1960, they’ve built walls of yellow brick that block the windows to mere slits.

I did not like that climb, and experienced an uncomfortable combination of vertigo and claustrophobia. The spiral ends eventually, but you are not at the top yet. For a while, the stairs are a straight, though narrow ascent, through walls that curve to the right, as you follow the curve near the top of the dome. Then you come to a second, even smaller spiral staircase. Each step is barely big enough for your feet, and a stout rope hangs down into the abyss, which you are supposed to hold onto for support. At last you emerge onto a gallery at the top of the dome, where you can walk a full circuit to see the view from all angles. It is worth the scary climb. But then, I am easily frightened. I was amused to see that I could see the spot in Giancolo where we got so horribly lost.

There is a separate stair system for the climb back down, equally narrow and tightly spiraled, although somewhat less scary for me. The first, tiniest staircase has no rope, so you hold onto its central pole and hope nobody above you steps on your hand.

Altogether, St. Peter’s is not as taxing as the Vatican Museums, and in the afternoon, the girls and I revisited the shops near Piazza Navona. We still have not seen the Spanish Steps. The plan for tomorrow is a day trip out of Rome.

The ascent

A Barbie palace!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Rome V: The Vatican

Do you think less of me when I say that I had been dreading visiting the Vatican? My guidebooks and my friends who have been there warned of long lines and an intense, sweaty crush, and so it proved to be. Actually, the line to get in wasn’t too bad. I never got around to ordering tickets in advance, and was prepared to wait for hours but the line moved forward smartly. We probably waited half an hour. There was mass confusion once we passed through the turnstiles and we followed the path of least resistance to the right, to a side gallery of Medieval Christian art. This was relatively empty and I wondered what I had been worried about. “This isn’t bad at all,” I remarked to Jon and the kids, several times, no doubt because I am prone to repeating myself. But when we’d been funneled back to the exit without seeing the Sistine Chapel, I realized we’d made a wrong turn.

We had no choice but to turn left and soon we were caught in a sweaty tide of humanity, moving as inexorably toward the Sistine Chapel as lava flows down a volcano. Everywhere was art: paintings, sculptures, frescoes, carvings, but you could hardly pause to look at any of it because of the crowd surrounding you and pushing you forward. Not only that, Mr. McP grumbled constantly. He didn’t like being jostled, he didn’t like the crowd, he was hungry, he wanted to sit down, he wanted to go home. I sympathized, but there was nothing I could do for him—a fact he refused to recognize. I admit I had strong desire to throttle him. And only the day before I had been so thankful that he hadn’t cracked a vertebra!

At last, the Sistine Chapel. I had been expecting something glorious and light-filled. Something to make the sweaty pushing and jostling worthwhile. It was like a gloomy cattle car. I tried to look at Michelangelo’s paintings, and appreciate them, but it was impossible, what with the pushing and shoving, the braying of the crowd, the flashbulbs popping everywhere. (Flash photography is forbidden, but nobody seems to respect this rule. A guard told Jon it was OK to take photos without flash, but our camera’s battery died before we’d seen much of the collection.)

Rome for Dummies says not to even think about seeing St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museums in the same day. We did think about it, but decided we were too exhausted, even after a lunch break in a restaurant near the museums. I suppose we will return tomorrow. I want to climb to the top of the dome, and there didn’t seem to be much point in attempting it with a camera that didn’t work.
After a rest at home, Drama Queen and I explored the Basilica of St. Cecelia, which is in Trastevere, a five-minute walk from our house. It’s a pretty church with gloriously fragile frescoes covering the walls. Its best feature is the sculpture of St. Cecelia. Her body was discovered in the catacombs of San Callisto, but was moved to this spot because the basilica had been built over her house and the spot where she’d been martyred. Her body was intact and the sculptor used it as a model for the sculpture. It depicts the position of her body when it was found, and it’s arrestingly beautiful. For a small fee you can visit the excavations under the church which include what is supposed to be the remains of St. Cecelia’s house. Drama Queen and I were the only people down there, which was slightly creepy, particularly when we explored a side tunnel, which branched into two smaller, pitch-black tunnels. I peeked down them and was instantly reminded of one of my all-time worst nightmares. I couldn’t get away from that tunnel fast enough! At the very end of the excavations is a surprise: a tiny, perfect chapel. It seemed completely out of place among the rough ruins, but there was no information posted about it, and the nun who sold tickets spoke only Italian, so the chapel remains a mystery.

St. Cecelia

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Rome IV

It’s funny how in a city like Rome, even when you’ve been here only a short time, you start to take the sights for granted. There’s nothing like doing something completely prosaic, like, say riding on a city bus, and passing the Colosseum. Or you’ll be standing at a crosswalk and realize that the building you’ve been staring at so vacantly is a medieval tower. The other day, I sat on the steps of the Pantheon and bitched because my gelato had dripped on my skirt.

Mad Scientist really wanted to see the Catacombs, so that is what we did on Saturday. This was an adventure because they are located along the Via Appia, outside of Rome. We took the bus. The woman in the tourist information booth told me which busses to take—two transfers—and sold me day passes. I think I will indulge in patting myself on the back for taking three kids (Miss G and Jon stayed home) onto a bus in a strange city where we don’t speak the language. The tourist information lady told me which stops to get off at, but knowing the names of the stops is of little help if you have no visual landmarks or knowledge of the area to guide you.

First we took a tram, which is relatively easy because it goes in a straight line and stops at each stop. At Largo Argentina—which I knew because we’d already walked past it—we transferred to the number 87 bus which took us far from the center of Rome, making many turns, while I peered anxiously through the window looking for the San Giovanni stop, which is at least labeled on a street sign. We then crossed a busy traffic circle and got on the 218 bus which took us out of Rome altogether. I saw a sign for the San Callisto Catecombs, but too late, and the bus went whizzing past. We started to get off at the next stop, but the elderly woman who stepped off the bus ahead of us turned on us and fiercely shooed us back onto the bus. “Prossimo! Prossimo!” she said, in what sounded to me like an angry voice. We thought she didn’t want us following her off the bus and we meekly returned to it, but the other passengers explained that she had been telling us to wait for the next stop, which dropped us at a second entrance to the catacombs.

The catacombs were worth the trip, particularly for their setting on a beautiful and peaceful country lane. Tours were grouped according to language, and conducted by priests. Our guide was from Australia. My favorite bit of the catacombs was the tomb of St. Cecelia, martyr and patron saint of music. Her body was found there, miraculously preserved, six hundred years after her death. Her body was moved to the site of her house and where she was martyred and where there is a church built in her honor—but more about that later.

The bus ride back was uneventful, although we couldn’t find the opposite stop for the 87 bus, so we had to get on it going the wrong direction and hope it would loop around eventually, which it did, but not before we’d had a long tour of a decidedly untouristy part of Rome. Since it was Jon’s birthday, we went to a nice restaurant for dinner.

Sunday, Drama Queen and I got up early to visit the Porta Portese flea market, which Rome for Dummies promised would be a wealth of antiques and local color. We found a few tables of antiques, but the vast majority of stalls stocked the sort of clothes you see in the “Fill a bag for $5” bins at thrift shops. It was unspeakably dreary, like a giant outdoor Goodwill, as Drama Queen put it, and to make our morning complete, it began to rain as we walked home. It wasn’t so much a rain as a monsoon complete with thunder and lightning. We had brought one umbrella to share, but we were soaked and shivering by the time we got home. The rest of the family was still asleep, so we took off our wet clothes and went back to bed.

Later we went to the crypt of the Capuchin monks who decorated their tombs with bones. It’s weirdly kitschy. Bill Bryson, in Neither Here nor There, says he can’t recommend it highly enough, but I feel I could have done without this site. Not to mention the fact that it was a long walk, and it started to rain on the way. Worst of all, when we left the church, Mr. McP slipped on the marble stairs and landed on his back and got the wind knocked out of him. I can’t even describe how horrible this was. He is OK—but for a few minutes, we weren’t sure if he was. It's lucky that Jon's background is in emergency medicine.

At the Trevi Fountain--it was a madhouse, even at 10:00 pm

Oldest fountain in Trastevere

Tomorrow we attempt the Vatican Museums.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Rome III


It’s a bit of a miracle that I managed to rent an apartment, without knowing anything at all about Rome, that is within walking distance of most major tourist attractions, located in a charming neighborhood of its own, and located steps, mere steps—not that we plan to avail ourselves of this service—of one of the best spots in Rome to score marijuana.

We are on a tiny alley named Vicolo del piede. It's the sort of neighborhood where people hang their laundry on lines that sometimes stretch right across the street. There’s a parking garage across the street, but it’s not what you think. All you see is an ivy covered wall with a car-sized opening in it. The three parking attendants, Bruno, Roberto, and Cosimo, sit at the entrance all day, discussing soccer and doing crossword puzzles. The street is barely wider than a car, and there are no front stoops or lawns. When you step out your door, you are in the street.

The elegant photos that the rental agency posted of our apartment led me to believe our landlady would be equally as elegant. Indeed, I half worried she would refuse to rent to us, since a family with four children is bound to be somewhat grubby after fourteen hours of travel. I need not have worried. Rosella, the landlady, is dressed perpetually in jeans and old tee shirts. She speaks almost no English and smokes like a chimney. She lives next-door and also owns a shoe shop down the street, and she spends her days sitting in a chair in the street in front of her shop. She has two dogs, Annio and Margarita. About five times a day the quiet of our little street will be disrupted thus: There will be the buzzing of a fast-approaching scooter, or the jingling of an approaching dog collar, then the sound of mad barking, and finally Rosella will screech, in her cigarette-roughened voice, “ANNIO!! A QUI!!!” One day, she sat in front of her shop, shaving her legs and dipping her razor into a white plastic bucket. I was so perplexed by the etiquette of how to address an acquaintance who is shaving her legs in public that I walked a good way in the wrong direction so that I wouldn't have to pass her. So much for the feared, elegant landlady.

A ten-second walk down our street takes you to the Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere. It is the classic Italian piazza, right down to the guy playing an accordion by the seventeenth century fountain. Every time I step into it, I expect to see Romeo dueling Tibault. The piazza is dominated by the Church, Santa Maria di Trastevere. It’s fairly important, since it is the oldest official Christian church in Rome, and famous for its mosaics. The church is like the good fairy for the entire neighborhood. Its bells chime the hour every fifteen minutes, and five minutes before mass starts, the bells will play a lively tune. The churches here look so different from the churches in the US, that at first I did not recognize them as such. There are no pointy steeples, but instead a friendly rotund fa├žade not unlike a Swedish grandfather clock, and even the most venerable churches, such as our Santa Maria, have apartment buildings built right against them.

Every single night is like mardi gras. Around 8:00pm, the crowds gather, street performers of all types begin their acts and the restaurants and bars are busy far into the night. There is apparently no open container law in Italy because everybody buys bottles of beer and takes them to the fountain to sit on the steps and drink and watch the entertainment. Our first night here, we were exhausted, but could hardly sleep due to the loud voices in the street and the scooters buzzing past. Now, I hardly notice the noise. In the morning, the piazza is buried under a mountain of litter, but the garbage men come every day. The garbage trucks here are tiny—they look like toys, with old-fashioned brooms on the back of the sort you’d expect a witch to fly about on.

We have settled into life in Rome. We noticed that we eat less here than we do at home. Not because the food is bad, but because it is so much effort to obtain it. You could be dropped, blindfolded, into any spot in Rome, walk in a straight line for thirty seconds, and you would stumble into a restaurant of some type. I have never seen a city that is more devoted to eating and drinking. But we can’t eat all our meals out, so every morning I make my perambulation of the neighborhood to buy food. When you consider that I have to walk to the markets, and carry everything I buy—which has to be enough for six people—all the way home, you can see why we never seem to have enough to eat in our apartment. Luckily, we have our favorite bar around the corner, where the owner is nice and we can get coffee and pastries.

Trastevere is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood. The streets are so narrow, that not even Romans can drive fast down them. There are no sidewalks and the streets are paved with tiny, ancient cobbles. Cars, scooters, and pedestrians claim equal ownership of the roads, and for the most part, everybody gets along. My children can go out and walk about, and I feel confident that they are safe and I’m proud that they have learned to find their way among the maze of tiny streets. But that is in Trastevere only. The rest of Rome can be difficult for pedestrians, as I’ve already discussed. I’m trying to emulate the Romans as they cross the street. When you are at a crosswalk with no light, the thing to do is to step calmly into the street, look straight ahead and just walk. I have seen Romans step straight into the most appalling traffic, and get across the street unscathed. Indeed, once I was stuck behind an old man who actually paused in the middle of the street to light a cigarette as a line of cars approached while I danced around behind him like Rumpelstiltskin.

As for what we’ve been up to so far: The day after we visited the Colosseum, Drama Queen came down with a virus and spent the morning throwing up. Mad Scientist, Jon, and Miss G quickly succumbed as well. Still, that night everybody had perked up enough for us to walk to the Trevi Fountain. We’d heard it is less crowded at night, and perhaps it is, at, say 2:00am, but at 10:00pm, when we visited, it was packed with people. Still, I liked seeing it at night because it is pretty all lit up. Thursday was spent recovering from illness. Friday we walked to the Pantheon which is probably my favorite site so far. We explored the area around the Pantheon and saw the stunning St. Ignatius church, as well as Gesu, the first official Jesuit church. Friday evening Jon and I walked to St. Peter’s Square, just to see if we could, which we can. Today, June 20th is Jon’s birthday.

Roman men carry purses

View from our apartment

Another view from our appartment

Santa Maria di Trastevere

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rome II


At the Coliseum
Coliseum day. I had been half dreading this day because to see such a major attraction at the peak of the season could possibly be somewhat less than agreeable. We walked. Technically, it’s a fifteen-minute walk from our apartment to the Coliseum, but when you consider the detours to find pedestrian crossings and multiple stops to consult the map and get lost, it is more like half an hour. To be a pedestrian in Rome is an exciting experience. There are crosswalks, many of them even have traffic lights, but Roman drivers go very fast and slam on their brakes at the last minute. It is exhilarating to be in the middle of the crosswalk while a phalanx of cars and scooters bears down on you determinedly, only to come to a skidding halt just inches from your knees.
The line wasn’t too bad. I had been expecting to wait for hours, but we stood in line about 15 minutes and it was all clearly marked and well-organized. Actually, the Coliseum is little more than a giant kiln. The bricks soak up the heat of the sun and reflect it back, literally roasting you alive. We gulped down the contents of our water bottles within the first five minutes, and then we suffered, and not too quietly, as far as the kids are concerned. How we longed for a fountain!

Rome’s public water fountains are the best thing in the whole world. Imagine this: you have just walked five sweaty blocks up a steep hill with the sun beating down on you relentlessly. Suddenly you see a quaint little cylinder, with a spout of running water protruding from it. You hold your hands under the cool water and splash some on your face. Then you use your hand to block the faucet and the water is redirected upward in a thin stream from which you can drink. It is a wet and messy way to drink but the water is the most delicious I’ve ever tasted. You can refill your water bottle and walk away refreshed. Unfortunately, the spacing of the fountains is somewhat erratic. You might find three or four within a few blocks of each other or you might walk for ages and not see one. There were no fountains on the way back from the Coliseum, at least not until we were nearly at our apartment, and we pounced on it like a crowd of greedy piranhas. The kids put their heads right under the faucet—positively wallowed in it.

On the road leading to the Coloseum there was a long line of busses labeled “Polizia Pentenziara.”
I half wondered if the inmates were getting an outing at the Coloseum, but the busses were very luxurious, nothing like the ancient school busses our get transported in. There were at least ten of them and we soon figured out that there was a major police to-do in front of the Coloseum today. A bandstand had been set up and hundreds of police milled about. All the police officers in Rome look like fashion models and their uniforms are very smart. I will try to get a picture of one. An all-police band started playing while we were in the Colosseum and the distant sound of drums helped evoke a feeling of ancient times. On the walk home, the police made us cross the street, which was worrisome because it is a huge street and we really needed to be on the other side. We walked for a bit—the entire street was closed to traffic—and when we were distant enough from the police that they probably would not try to chase us—we sprinted back across to the correct side. Two seconds later, an official motorcade drove past, with someone important in one of the cars. We were the only people on the street, but, whoever he was; he did the parade wave continuously, as if he’d been wound up.

Our tickets included entrance to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, which were temporarily closed due to the police event. Late in the afternoon, Drama Queen and I trudged the long walk back so we could see them. We had already seen the Forum from above, on Sunday, but I really wanted to walk the Sacred Way and climb the hill. It was worth braving the traffic a Circus Maximus yet again although I never want to have to walk that way again. (The Romans were oddly prescient in giving this stadium—it is now nothing more than a long oval of beaten down grass that joggers use, but once seated 250,000 people—a name that translated so well to the future because the traffic near it is a maximum circus. ) Anyway, the Forum was not crowded, there was a cool breeze, some stunning sights, and a long view from the top of the Palatine. For a while we sat on two rocks while Drama Queen sketched, and collected an audience of students from Catalan, who admired her work.
I took this photo for my friend (you know who you are) because we had been discussing this person's books. Who would expect to find a street in Rome named after a Scandinavian writer?

Who knew the Romans were Kristin Lavransdatter fans?