Ginny on the Road

23 April 2014
Pompeii, Italy

Part 2 of 2 of photos from an incredible place like no other.

Full blog post at: http://ginny-on-the-road.tumblr.com/post/83762051774/23-april-2014-pompeii-italy-i-remember

23 April 2014
Pompeii, Italy

I remember learning about Pompeii in both primary and high school as part of our courses on Roman history. I remember the documentaries on crappy CRT televisions, the photos of the plaster casts of the citizens who were trapped and died, written accounts we read from people who lived those times and recorded what they saw of the devastating eruptions. So like every other person who walks through its city gates, Pompeii is a place that we already feel like we know.

Arriving at the Pompeii-Scavi train station, we eagerly got our maps and audio guides andset off into this millennia old city. We had a strategy of chronologically following the 80 or so major sites pinpointed on the map. And like a giant open air museum took us through a series of grand houses, temples and tombs, markets and squares, snack houses, baths, shops, a granary, amphitheaters, and even a brothel.

All of these structures were in different conditions. Some were only columns and steps, others retained all their walls and some reddish colour on the walls (a colour made famous by Pompeii in ancient times), but most amazingly some retained almost perfect walls and beautifully colourful frescoes and mosaics. In addition to the famous Villa of Mysteries, a house we walked into in a quiet part of town had almost intact of its bedroom frescoes of some faces and commnual scenes and beautiful hunting scenes painted near the central garden.

The brothel that we saw still had karma sutra style drawings on the walls (very modern sexual positions mind you!). Our audio guide told us that in the upstairs rooms they hace found graffiti of customers praising the beauty of some girls or complaining having caught venereal diseases from this house!

It was evident all around us on the 12km² site that Pompeii had a sophisticated system of governance, water pumping and heading systems for the baths, and industries for processing and dying wool. We saw a number of small houses which had an ancient cafeteria system where people ordered from a counter where they could see the dishes of the day in sunken hovels in the countertop. Our audio guides told us about the Pompeii-an diet, which consisted of bread and cheese for breakfast, a variety of meats and stuffed fish, grains, fruit and desserts for the remainder of the day. That made our lunch seem extra authentic: crackers, cheese and salami taken on the side of the road code to one of these cafeterias with our feet touching where Pompeii-an miles and carts eroded long tracks into the cobbled streets.

We did see a few different plaster casts of victims who perished in the eruption and they all looked so small compared to modern people. You can clearly see ththe unnatural contortions of their bodies as they struggled against suffocation. Many of them were killed when they hid in their homes during when the clouds of ash rained down on them. They had been hit with other disasters before that. It was sad to hear that a huge earthquake had hit Pompeii in 62AD and much of the city was being restored and renovated when Vesuvius erupted in 79AD! More fortunate than them were those who had already entered the afterlife and were being honored in the many necropolis which lay outside each of the city’s seven gates which led to another nearby establishment, including Herculeum which we will visiting later this week.

It difficult to write about all that we learnt during the 6 hours that we wandered through the grounds of Pompeii. It was definitely information overload! Each temple had Gods who were worshipped there, every administrative building a function, every house a description of the function of each room. Apart from some gorgeously preserved villas, there were 3 amphitheaters that were in incredible condition considering they had been underground for at least 1,800 years - especially compared with ththe Colosseum!

Although we got to visit most of the points of interest, there were many sites closed off to us probably due to conservation or just plain danger, but it was still amazing to just walk around the city and see the sheer size of it and lightly touch the walls lightly. I actually saw a handful of people take a pebble from the ground as a momento. I instead took over 200 photos :)

As we ventured further from the main throng of tourists, you could see that many streets and houses were only half excavated. In fact they estimate that a 1/3 of the site remains to be discovered. They have been working on the site since the 1700 and they are still finding new things all the time - wonder what will be here if I come back in 20, 30 years time? They might have better conservation technologies to ensure that the buildings don’t fall apart in the weather or Vesuvius might blow again in that time, then all we will have left will be what has been taken to the museum in Naples. I hope someone has a plan for that scenario…

22 April 2014
Naples and Sorrento, Italy

Fuelled by a huge breakfast of Nutella and peanut butter toast (out of a giant nutella jar od course!), museli and yoghurt, we did a quick morning tour of a the hilly castle that we have seen in the distance last night from the coast. We had wanted to go to the Archaeological museum given that all the treasures are there rather than the actual site of Pompeii that we will be visiting soon. Unfortunately that is closed on Tuesdays so the castle was the other option.

To get to Castel San Elmo, we need to take a funiculare (cross between tram and a cable car) going steeply up the hill. Instead of arriving right on the steps of the castle as I expected, we arrived into a beautiful hill top suburb with cute cafes, bakeries and gorgeous views over the rest of Naples. Just our luck that the castle was closed too, but we lingered for a while at its borders to admire the view of a very misty Mount Versuvius in the distance, still casting a shadow over the city after all these millennia.

On the way back to collect our bags, I knocked another oastry off my check list, but this time, a sfogliatelle which had the most amazing crunch I have ever had including fried goods! It is a multi-layered pastry with orange-flavoured ricotta filling, mmm.

The Circumvesuvia train ride out to Sorrento is run by a private company and given its monopoly on such a popular route (stopping at Pompeii), the 70s style train was not in good shape. But we managed to get a seat and squish our big backpacks into our little seat hovel.

Sorrento is a small town but it has quite a bit of history (just like all the cities we have been and will go to) with Greek era ruins found from 600BC. Now filled with restaurants, alimentari, enoteca, and souvenirs shops, Sorrento also seem to be the playground of the wealthy as the main boulevard it’s also filled with designer clothing, shoes and handbag stores.

We quickly skipped past all that and got to our AirBnB apartment right off the main stench. Our home for the next 4 nights is basically a small studio apartment with a living area with a kitchenette. The sofa has drawer pulled out from underneath which becomes the second bed. Quite nifty! The bathroom is located separately and under the staircase of the ground floor and you can often hear people going uo and down.

There isn’t a lot to do in Sorrento itself, but we went exploring anyway and ended up at the recommended (and only) museum in town, the Museo Correale di Terranova. The museum was the result of two brothers from the ancient Sorrento family finding their entire collection of Neapolitan art and objects. There were paintings, old cameras, clothes, clocks, ceramics, fans and furniture. It was comparatively quite an odd collection compared to the vast rooms of the museums we had visited lately, but it was beautiful to think that every item was selected by someone on purpose to go into their home almost.

The grounds of the museum and the Correale’s former home also has a lush garden out the back that leads to an alfresco dining restaurant that overlooks the ocean and the surrounding cliff top buildings. The path leading to the viewpoint is lined with lemon and orange trees, presumably to make the local speciality of lemoncello (a strong lemon drink). We tried in vain to get an orange but neither of us were anywhere near tall enough haha.

The view was just as good down along the coast line with a dramatic staircase leading down into a winding mountain road. We had gone down to find out about the cost of the ferry to the holiday island of Capri, but at the cheaper price of €28 it was out of our budget. Just leaves more time for the Amalfi coast!

Keeping within our budget, we spent the night cooking pesto pasta and washing it down with a strange bubbly €1.60 red wine, followed by cheese, salami and crackers. The wifi signal is intermittent in our room, so we moved our chairs into the hallway to watch some great a Capella video clips of a group named Pentatonix who were on a US reality show for a capella groups named “the sing off”. We also discovered that we both love musical theatre and the soundtrack for the Disney movie Frozen. There are a few US karaoke bars in town so with 3 more nights here, anything could happen!

21 April 2014
Naples, Italy

I got to Naples just after 3pm today on the cheapest train that I could find. I have been told by multiple people that the city is a little sketchy and has a serious litter problem and I definitely cant disagree with the latter! My new friend from Cinque Terre was already at the hostel so we set off together into the chaos of vespars, street vendors and overflowing bins.

Naples has the most intact ancient Roman street plan anywhere in the world but actually was already settled by the Greeks by around 2000BC. To see a different side of this history, we took the “Naples Underground” tour - after a magherita pizza and dessert of pastiera naturally. A lot of the top Pizza places were closed for Easter Monday but we did manage to get a pretty tasty one close by to the popular Via Tribunali. There is actually an association based in Naples that prprovides certification to pizzerias all around the world that meet the criteria of true “Neopolitan” pizza. And it is a pretty long criteria but I am sure where we ate makes the cut!

We actually had the pastiera first whilst we were looking for the pizza. I have a list of pastries I want to try whilst here in Naples and the Campania region and although it is on my list, I had no idea what it was and even whilst I was eating it. I know it is traditionally eaten during Easter. Google tells me that “the crust is a pasta frolla, traditionally made with lard (strutto), filled with a ricotta cream and egg mixture that is lightly flavored with rose flower water and cooked hulled wheatberries.” Yup, it was pretty tasty.

I knew that I had only about a day or so in Naples so I had googled the list of top things to do and this “Naples underground (Sotterranea)” tour came up. Our guide was a woman from Belarus who walked really briskly, even down the initial 121 steps into the Labyrinth.

Whilst the first people of this region began digging into the ground more than 5000 years ago, the Greeks began work in earnest in the 4th century BC dug deeper to extract tufa stones to build the city itself. The Romans continued this week, but also using the large underground cavities to create long aqueducts. The holes of the quarries became wells for the people above too. What we saw during the tour was an area of about 1km² out of the 170km2 of underground tunnels that exists after 400 years of excavations by the Romans - done by slaves of course. The underground Naples in this sense is actually larger than the Naples above ground!

Within one of the spacious cavities or “rooms”, our tour guide also gave us some modern history, in particular the fact that whilst we were standing within Roman constructions, we were also just standing within Napoletan garbage! After the aqueducts were abandoned in 1884 due to a cholera outbreak, the people used these tunnels and wells as a rubbish dump for 60 years! And when the government wanted to used the tunnels again as WW2 air raids shelters, they realised there was too much rubbish to clean up, so they just poured concrete on top of it all, in places up to 5m of garbage had to be covered. Guess that is how this city developed its terrible littering habits…

There were many war relics within the tunnels, some authentic (like kids toys), others moved there for dramatic effect like the bombs that were dropped on the city and now hang under a former well. At times, people had to remain here for up to 3 days and these wells served as air vents. There were private shelters for nuns and monks, but it turned out that some of the nuns were using their shelters to hook up with the monks at night - quite a scandal even by today’s standards!

I was far more interested in the ancient history of the complex and it was fascinating to hear about the lives of the well cleaners who had to climb down the wells (15m) and then walk all along the water along steps or just by putting their hands and feet into these little cavities on the walls. They would skim any floating nasties out of the water but that would’ve been a prettysuperficial clean. There is also a legend about some of these cleaners who becamellovers of wealthy ladies and would leave gifts for them by climbinf up into their houses through the wells. When questioned about these gifts by their husbands, the ladies would say that it was because their house was blessed by the little monk. So the legend of the little monk stuck! People seriously would believe anything back in those days!

The passage ways between the larger rooms were narrow and high to pressrize water flow. The narrowest passageway we squeezed through by candlelight was only 50cm wide, 7m high, 100m long. These passageways led to cisterns (water reservoirs), and ee sae a smaller one for a wealthy family and a bigger one which was for public use. These were almost beautiful as the water shimmered in the dim light and it was easy to imagine that a Roman was standing here overseeing its construction almost 2000 years ago!

The latter part of the tour was focused on the Roman era amphitheater that was incorporated into the construction of the modern city. Not much excavation has been done since you cant just ask a few city blocks to leave their homes, but of what we saw, parts of the theatre had been used for an old lady’s cellar, a parking garage, a shop and a b&b. Pretty incredible for us but I don’t know if the locals care as much given that they are completely surrounded by the Roman legacy. We even saw parts of the Amphitheater’s arches which are completely enveloped by the apartments around it, but it was definitely visible and we would have walked underneath it completely oblivious.

For the remainder of the evening, we walked along Via Toledo, a busy shopping and dining strip that runs through all of downtown and leads the coast where we admired the illuminated Egg Castle, Castel dell’Ovo which sits on the site of old Roman fortifications and as a castle was built anand rebuilt from the 12th century. From here, there were beautiful panoramas of Naples and also views of the small sailing ships that are moored all around. These days at the foot of the castle are a whole cluster of seafood and pasta restaurants taking advantage of this incredibly romantic setting. On the way to the castle, we were approached by 3 Italian men who wanted Us to practice English with one of them due to his upcoming trip to the US and coz they wanted to record him speaking - to laugh at later. They were really nice though, giving its radiant restaurant suggestions and even trying to call one up re its opening hours.

On our way back to the hostel, we stopped in Piazza Carita along Via Toledo and tokk dinner at one of the street side eateries. Ordering a pizza of course (this time mushroom and ham) and a big bowl of carbonara. The carbonara is definitely a lot nicer here since they use eggs instead of cream and isn’t over-salted like a lot of places back home. As nice as the food was, the service was terrible. Everything we needed we had to ask 3 times but we felt better when we saw lots of other tabletables getting the same treatment haha…

Back at the hostel, we met two Americans in our room, one of whom wants to visit Australia but is too terrified of all the dangerous animals we have. I think Taoism Australia needs to lift its game a bit if people still think that. I tried to tell him what big cities are like… but he wouldn’t hear of it at all. Oh well, I tried.

20 April 2014
Rome, Italy

Some things you do purely for the experience, some for love, and some out of necessity. This morning was definitely option A.

Given that we are in Rome for Easter, it seemed to even someone as unreligious as I am that it would be silly not to check out the atmosphere in St Peter’s and listen to a full mass in Latin.

So us and literally the other 10,000 believers and non-believers got into St Peter’s Square at about 8am this morning and stood in the same spot for 4.5 hrs through the drifting of the crowd, the entire service and the tortuous wait of being able to move again. The crowd around us was so diverse in age, nationality and temperament. We did have a few people who tried to push in front of us claiming to be short, but most of us held our positions. I really dont know what difference it would have made.

The service began at 10:30am and went for about 2 hours, but the start of the service which involved saying the full rosary in Latin (with an American girl behind me helpfully praying all in English) was constantly interrupted by a brass band that was playing pomp and ceremony kind of music on and off at very inconvenient times.

It was probably the only service I have been to and will ever go to where people were expected to and did cheer and clap when the leader of the service (aka the Pope) arrived. I haven’t been to service, especially full Catholic mass, since Primary School so it was extra surreal.

Most of the service was in Latin, but there was one reading that was done in English, another in Spanish, another in Greek. But most impressively was a section which was spoken consecutively in Chinese Mandarin, Korean, Hindi, German and French. That was pretty amazing for me to hear Chinese at the Vatican. The Catholic church has a long way to go, but this was a little bit of progress that I could appreciate.

At the end of the mass, a group of priests came out into the crowd to give communion to those who were close enough. I think we had managed to get into a ticketed standing area after my friend and I kind of just walked though a gated area along with the masses who did have a ticket-like thing… but we weren’t close enough for communion. And soon after, the Pope came out into the crowd and we were only metres away from him. At particular at this point, I was so glad that my friend is so tall and could get some photos of this moment (and the service too) as I had been staring into the back of people’s heads and backs for close to 4 hrs at this point. So many people around us were cheering Papa, and that only increased in volume when the Pope appeared on the balcony under the trademark red banner.

By the time we left St Peter’s, my feet felt like someone had hit them with a sledgehammer and every step was a new level of discomfort. We managed to make it to the nearby castle, and a short break and a couple of pictures on the bridge, we crossed over to grab some food. Typically in travelling fashion, we had some quick pizza but then also split a roast pork sandwich a few doors down coz it just look so good.

We had had such a great view of Florence from the top of Piazzale Michelangelo, so we headed to Giancolo hill to get a similar view of Rome. The hill, whilst incorporated into Rome in Roman times, was most significantly the site of the defining battle in 1849 between the forces of Garibaldi against French forces to keep the Papal power out and to keep the Roman Republic intact. So on the way up the hill, we encountered a beautiful mausoleum dedicated to all the fallen from this war, including 11, 13 and 16 year old drummer boys; marble busts dedicated to these heroes; and a giant statue of Garibaldi on top of the hill. The view from the top was a little obscured by the high tree line, but there a spectacular view of the St Peter’s dome on the opposite side of thethe main view.

We couldn’t leave Rome without having something from the Giolitti gelateria, which was opened in 1890 and is still owned by the same family. The lines were long, noisy and disorderly in that uniquely Italian way, so we waited in line for 15 minutes until we were able to order. Small fry compared to the marathon of waiting earlier in the day. I got the pistachio and sour cherry flavours which were both delicious, creamy but yet packed a punch in flavour.

After some administrative tasks, we hit our last destination in Rome, aka Eataly - a restaurant and gourmet supermarket rolled into one huge light filled and delicious establishment. In one particular section, I have never seen so many types of pastas in my life and probably won’t again for a while. Eataly has quite a few locations around the place, but we went to the one next to Ostiense station which looked like a train station out of a horror movie. The station and the surrounding area were both really rundown, heavily graffiti-ed and oddly devoid of people. It was this backdrop that made the presence of Eataly more bizzare.

So after 7 days running around Florence and Rome together, I bid farewell to my new friend who was now armed with some excellent bread, cheese and ham from Eataly for his homeward journey to Madrid. And I made my way back to my suburban-based hostel for a quiet night in before changing scenery and heading for Naples and the Amalfi Coast. If Rome has taught me nothing else, it is that you just have to ask in life, and most of the time something good will come out of it, even If is just learning a new word in Italian or a great new recommendation. The possibilities are endless, but you will never know any different if you stay silent.

19 April 2014
Rome, Italy

Views from St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican; Spanish Steps; dessert; and music :)

Full blog post @ http://ginny-on-the-road.tumblr.com/post/83447751017/19-april-2014-rome-italy-today-was-probably

19 April 2014
Rome, Italy

Today was probably one of the craziest tourism day I have ever had. We lined up to see the Vatican museums, in particular the Sistine Chapel, by about 8am and it was almost 2.5 hours before we actually got into the museum. Even though we were standing next to his group the whole time, this Korean tour guide cracked the shits with us because apparently we had skipped the line. He was getting quite abusive, especially when I sgeoped into stand up for a Spanish family who had also been in line with us. When I was conversing with them in Spanish, this tour guide actually used his guide book to cover my mouth. Some people are just nuts and I cannot believe that no one in his tour group stood up for us.

We thought that we were really strapped for time when we we got into the museums because we had been told by multiple sources that the whole Vatican complex from the Museum to St Peter’s were closing at 1pm. This really put the pressure on given that we wanted to see Sistine, the Cathedral and climb the dome!

So we made a bilateral decision to speed through the Vatican Museums - which would take a whole day on their own at least with all the different collections - and sped through the complex towards Sistine. And when I said sped, I mean we literally ran through parts of the museum, dodging tourists left and right. It was super stressful and I do not recommend doing this unless you seriously only have 30 minutes like we did.When we got to the Sistine Chapel, it was packed and OF COURSE we weren’t allowed to take photos - like all good things in Italy.

But walking into the Sistine was like walking into a painting. Every surface of the chapel was painted. Every figure had a purpose and every colour as vibrant as the day they were plucked from the palette. I just had to take a few photos, especially of the ceiling’s central motif of God and Adam. We have seen so many of Michelangelo’s works over the last week but this IS the creme de la creme. In those moments, every ache in my back, foot and neck was forgotten as I joined the masses in looking upwards and giving thanks for this one man’s genius.

Daylight was brief as we crossed a small courtyard from Sistine into St Peter’s, and it was every bit as big as I imagined. Sculptures of (I think) all the popes were set into the walls, framed paintings and other masterpieces of sculpture were backdrops for elaborate altars. There were so many people there that even some of the carvenous space lost a little of its beauty, but not much. It was incredible to think that this place, this institution, has been such a seat of power in the world for so long. And judging by all the people here, its influence is here to stay for a bit longer.

By now it was after 12pm so we didn’t have long until the 1pm closing time to climb up to the top of the dome - 551 steps in total. We had planned on speeding up the steps to ensure that we had enough time to return to the museum to grab our checked-bags, but before long we were walking only a few steps every minutes or so as the backlog of people going up hit us. The walls surrounding the steps began to curve around us as it fit around the contours of the dome. We were given a breather from the steps when the steps opened out onto the dome’s balcony and we could see the dome from up close. I must say I think the dome of the Florence Cathedral are far more beautiful and elaborate, but the stunning mosaics along the lower parts of the dome probably have no equal in the world. From afar what looked like large bruch strokes became small tiles up close and the art came alive through its jagged nature.

The view from the top was worth the climb - even just for the aerial of St Peter’s square. And to think that we will be only a speck in that square tomorrow when 1000s crowd in to watch Easter Sunday Mass! The other views were interesting but not as beautiful as Florence, as it consisted of a few gardens but mostly low rise apartments in fairly drab colours.

Now the real kicker came along. As we were leaving St Peter’s, we were told to hurry as it was after 1pm even though we literally ran down as many as steps as we could! But as we circled around the entire perimeter of the Vatican to get back to the museums’ entrance, we could see that 1000s of people were still in line to get into the museum!!! So for some reason, everyone we encountered was telling us an untruth and we probably could have spent more time in the museums anyway. Oh well, I wasn’t going to get too upset about it. There is always more time to see the museums in the future - because out of all the attractions in Rome, the Vatican has the least chance of going anywhere…

So close to 6 hours later, we left the Vatican exhausted but content with what we had seen for the morning. A quick lunch later, we visited the famed Spanish steps where unfortunately the fountain was drained and fenced off. The weather was grey and rainy, so we both went back to our respective hostels for a nap. On the way back, there was a buskers’ group on the train, playing some fantastic music on electric violin, guitar and bongos. The bongo player also incorporated the carriage railings into some of his music!

After only 3 hours sleep last night coz I was sorting through photos for this blog, I fell into such a deep sleep fuelled by exhaustion and too much pasta. I almost woke up too late after sleeping through a couple of alarms, but before long I was on my way out of the hostel to meet my friend. The jazz club we went to last night had recommended a blues club in the beautiful Trastavere area, an area known for great restaurant, bars and its cobblestone streets. I read online that many cobblestones around Rome had been removed as the resulting vibrations caused by cars was damaging the ancient moments. But in Trastavere, the stones were left alone.

We waited for our tram to Trastavere for close to half an hour. And when it came, torrential rain had blanketed the city. Given the level of rain, we had to change from tram to bus half way through our journey and then change trams after we got off at the wrong stop. The rain only got heavier and we got completely drenched running through puddles and skidding around corners to find the club. I don’t think I will ever forget my friend yelling sarcastically all the while we were getting soaked about how much he loved his Study Abroad program got him into this mess.

When we did finally arrive at Big Mama, we were so drenched that I had to go stuff toilet paper in my shoes. A drink was definitely in order and I got a big white russian cocktail and settled down in anticipation of a good night’s music again.

You wouldn’t believe it if I told you that the four piece band that played had an absolutely authentic southern USA sound. The drummer was the singer and he growled his way through every note high or low. Sometimes the songs were in Italian, other times in English. Given my travel buddy is a Texan, he was in seventh heaven!

We also got talking to a group of Italians next to us and they gave us some great tips for places to eat around Rome as well as Naples (my next destination). But unfortunately we did have to leave early before the end of the second set to catch our train. The rain had thankfully stopped by now and we were able to enjoy the journey home a little more, walking from the tram stop to the metro past Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Colosseum all lit up. As dirty as the Rome metro system is, it is at least frequent and I have always felt quite safe even when returning at night. No need for a taxi at all!

18 April 2014
Rome, Italy

Our first order of business today was the Capitoline museum at the top of a hill in the Piazza Campidiglio designed by Michelangelo. The museum building itself has quite a bit of history most associated with Papal rule, starting in the late 1400s when the first collection was ‘donated’ to the Italian people by the Pope at the time. It was opened for the general public in 1734 and is considered the first ‘museum’ in the world! There are three separate buildings, one of which has a beautiful view over the Roman Forum, two of which were also worked on by Michelangelo.

There were a lot of Roman artifacts in the museum, from a long underground exhibition which was exclusively about funerary epitaphs. It was fascinating to read a few of them and see the low life expectancy, the clear distinction between freedman and slaves etc. But equally there was an emphasis on people’s professions and their families.

Above ground there were rooms and hallways filled with busts and sculptures from long bygone eras. Some rooms had 10s or 100s of busts staring down at us as we passed in awe. The Romans definitely had a sense of humour in the way they depicted the Gods and ordinary life - exemplified by a sculpture of an incredibly drunk older lady. It was also interesting as many of the works were “Roman copies of Greek originals” so I am now really interested in learning more about the relationship between the Romans and the Greeks. There were also pieces of Medieval and Renaissance art which of course we had limited understanding of as well haha. But I really loved some of the huge tapestries depicting biblical scenes or epic battles of relatively more modern times.

We actively sought out the most prominent works, from the statue of Marcus Aurelius, to the Capitoline Wolf, to the dying Gaul. The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius statue took 7 years to restore in the 1980s after being in Michelangelo’s square for hundreds of year s. According to the information on offer, after the original was placed in the capitoline museum, a painstaking copy was then made by the national mint using specially developed a special plotting technology given the original was too delicate to be copied. And now that copy is what stands outside in the piazza.

I also learnt something new about the statue of the She-Wolf of Capitoline, i.e. after she was discovered (thought to be of 5th century BC origins) the twins Romulus and Remus were added in the 15th century to tie it more closely with the founding of Rome legends. And of course the dying Gaul carving is absolutely amazing too. You can clearly see the wound on his stomach and that he has fallen on his shield. The agony is still completely evident even after more than 2000 years. Surprisingly another Roman copy of a Greek original.

After being a little museum-ed out, we headed out of the centre of Rome into what’s left of the Appian Way - one of the earliest and most important Roman Roads. To get to the old Road, it took us absolutely forever to find out way through a massive public park (Parco della Caffarella) which felt like it was in the middle of the country side rather than in surbuban Rome. It has quite ancient origins as well and has been protected from urban development due to its historical significance and for the green space. It was a beautiful day and there were countless people sun baking, riding bikes, jogging or checking out some of the ruins that lay within the boundaries of the park itself.

Our key destination amongst all this story was the Catacomb of Callixtus (or San Callista) which is the largest catacombs in Italy and would’ve covered 15 hectares at its height and extends 4 levels, around 20m underground! It was built in the 2nd century AD and held the remains of about 500,000 Christians including 9 popes in the Crypt of the Popes but also 7 popes elsewhere. Pope Sixtus II was actually beheaded in the Crypt itself by the Romans.

We were a bit bummed that all of the bones had been moved down into the deeper levels of the catacombs since the tombs’ rediscovery after centuries of secrecy - but note, you can book private tours down there. And then again, after walking through its dimly light and tightly packed pathways, I’m not sure I would have been so comfortable with being surrounded by up to 9 levels of human remains. A fascinating fact is that perhaps in its ‘heyday’ I may have not have to see all the bones. The catacombs are built into volcanic soil so it was easy to dig deeper down into the earth, but also because this soil has a peculiar property which means that it absorbs stench but also naturally closes up the opening of the tomb after a period of time. The tombs that we see today with a large open cavity were actually caused by looting and later restoration into its ‘original’ form.

Right next to the Crypt of the Popes was the burial chamber for Saint Cecelia. According to ‘legend’, her body did not decay after 500 in the tomb, and was later moved to San Cecelia Basilica to be honoured. There is now a statue there in place of her body that was quite intricately carved. Our guide, a priest from Indian, was rather enthusiastic about this part of the tour, so I guess that’s why it stuck in my memory so much.

Back in the centre of Rome, we got a bit lost trying to find the closest metro station and ended up in the incredibly beautiful Basilica of San Giovanni (or St John Lateran in English). I didn’t know much about it when we saw it, but now that I have had some time to do some reading online, it is one of the oldest and first amongst the four major basilicas of Rome. What can I say, it was definitely one of the most elaborate churches that I had ever seen, even in Rome!

Before having a well-deserved nap, we also saw the four fountains - Quattro Fontane - a group of Renaissance period fountains located at a single intersection representing the two rivers of Rome and Florence and the Gods of Chastity and Strength. My travel buddy had studied the statue of Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, so our final destination was the Santa Maria della Vittoria church to see the work in person. The life sized work is considered one of the artist Bernini’s best and a masterpiece of the Roman Baroque era. I don’t know much about art, but just the draping of her gown alone is deserving of its accolades.

After a break, we headed off on our evening adventures in the Vatican area. We were recommended to go to the Alexander Platz jazz club, which we later learnt to be one of oldest Jazz clubs in Italy, established in 80s and one of the top ones in Europe! But given that we were in the Vatican area, we went into St Peter’s Square to get some night pictures of the Basilica. Its size was definitely worthy of the title “One Church to Conquer Them All” and the square itself was absolutely magnificent with its colonnades surroundings and the 4000 year old Egyptian obelisk. Don’t ask me why an Egyptian artifact is there in the centre of the most important Catholic establishment in the world. We get a good look at the Basilica itself when we visit of course, but for now, the square was rather impressive.

And like our recommendation, the jazz club was equally magnificent as St Peter’s, if not more so! It was located in a side street quite a few blocks away from the Vatican metro station. After you go downstairs, you come into this gorgeous multi-roomed but still incredibly intimate space filled with jazz memorabilia and scribbles by artists who have previously played there. That night the Lorenzo Tucci “Tranety Trio” was playing, consisting of drums, piano and double bass. Every player was a master and yet at the end of every solo, they effortlessly came back into perfect sync (as synced as jazz can be anyway :P). We were sitting at a small table right behind the piano, so I got a great look at those beautiful chords. We both took videos, but not sure if we supposed to. I am sure the double bassist gave us some strange looks.

Live music - what more do you need in life? A really unexpected but great end to yet another day in Rome. I hadn’t intended on seeing any gigs in order to save money, but there you are. Every Euro well-spent. You know what, I still haven’t gotten over the fact that I am spending Euros haha…

17 April 2014
Rome, Italy

To Rome, to Rome - and in my case, at the crack of dawn.

I bid my farewell to Florence as I trudged my way across Florence at 5am. The sun was slowly rising and the river sparkled as the life stirred all around me. I slept better than I had in a few days on the 2 hour train journey to Rome (given that I had a few snorers and immature roommates in my dorm who had to told at midnight that lights off would be a good idea if there are people trying to sleep).

I almost slept right through the train journey and woke up to a full train instead of the empty carriage I remembered before kaput-ing. I found my Florence train buddy at the train station, and after checking into our respective hostels, we met up at the entrance of the Colosseum amongst all of the other overwhelmed tourists.

I am perfectly willing to admit that I got a bit emotional looking at the Colosseum. I think everyone learns about it in school, reads about Spartacus, see countless movies set in Roman times that feature the arena… but to actually stand in front of it - forget the other people, for a moment there I enjoyed perfect bliss. And then the tour touts came along.

I thought that it really sucked that you couldn’t look at the 3rd level or any of the underground chambers without a guide - I would like to think that it is a safety thing, but I am CERTAIN that it is more of a money grabbing ploy. Anyhow, we enjoyed our time in there by not only looking at the Colosseum itself, but also by browsing through the new exhibition on the second floor about the preservation of culture. I learnt so much in those short hours, including the fact that before Roman times, scrolls and other written materials were written without punctuation or spaces between words, so reading was not an leisure activity, but instead undertaken with great strain in public forums (or read aloud by slaves). Under the Roman Empire, the written form changed and reading became a common activity, and the Romans built many libraries across its empire, from Rome to Alexandria.

The Colosseum itself has so many facets and secrets, it would take days to detail everything that I read, but the two bits of information that I think I will always remember was that during its early days, the Colosseum (or the Flavian Amphitheatre, its real name) could stage water shows whereby the arena was flooded. They have found winches and pulley systems in the excavations to substantiate historical records. Also, the reason why the structure is in extra bad shape is that overtime, people took parts of it for other buildings and during its later years, people lived and staged a market within its walls… absolutely heartbreaking to know, but that’s progress for ya.

After the Colosseum, the Forum and Palatine Hills were so anticlimactic. Especially the Forum which was mostly fallen columns and temples which required your imagination to construct. I definitely see its historical significance (since about 5th century BC??) as this is where much of Roman public life took place for hundreds of years. The Palatine Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome, did have a bit more to look at, including the imperial palace complex where the Emperor Augustus resided, but his wife’s residence was in much better shape and was housed within a closed building. You were able to look through a window and look down into her quarters, of which some of the paintings are still visible.

Making our way from the ancient district, we passed through Piazza Venezia where we ended up making quite a detour into the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele or the Altare della Patria. Especially compared with some of the rubble that we had just seen, this white gleaming building was like an oasis. Apparently this is the largest monument in white marble Botticino ever created at 135m wide x 70 high. Two soldiers stood guarding its eternal flame next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and although some locals find it a bit over the top, I do think it is beautiful. As we walked a bit more around the city, it is apparent that in some quarters these shiny white buildings can be in short supply, and so many ruins and future-ruins do give the city an unique character.

If I was in love with the Colosseum, the Pantheon is definitely a VERY close second. The sheer size of it, and that after almost 2,000 years, its dome is still an architectural feat is absolutely amazing. The Pantheon was first conceived as a temple to all of the Roman Gods, but in Medieval times it was saved from a fate like many other Roman buildings as it was consecrated as a Church (what else!). At one point when we were inside, the sun shone through the dome’s opening and left a perfect disc of sunlight on one of the walls as if to say that we were destined to visit at this moment. Quite romantic haha, but it was a nice thought at the time.

After we left the Pantheon, we past countless other churches, walking near the river but resisting the urge to get closer to the Vatican given that we want to see the museums and climb the dome the day after tomorrow. As many churches as there are, they are always just as many palazas and archways. From the Palaza Repubblica, we ascended to a viewpoint where we could rest our weary feet in a sweet park area and with a good view of that side of Rome.

Struggling to find an apertivo buffet, even after a lot of running around, jumping on the metro etc., we ate at an all-you-can-eat pizza place for 10 Euros, and I think between the two of us, we had close to 18-20 slices (some secretly doggy-bagged of course!), some of which were actually quite, including a ‘meat-lovers’ style one and a smoked salmon variety.

Before heading off to bed, we decided to have a go at photographing the Trevi fountain. But even at close to 11pm at night, there were so many tourists, we jostled for ages before getting into a few good positions. But the fountain is gorgeous. Every piece of the masterpiece by Nicola Slavi is worth further examination and the sound of the water really makes it come alive. It is much bigger than I thought it would too and good old interweb tells me it is 26.3 x 49.15m!

A great way to end our first full day in Rome. Tomorrow morning we are hitting up the Capitoline museum to see quite a few famous works like the Capitoline wolf and Marcus Aurelius statues. And some churches of course :)