Boxing Day diversions

Boxing Day saw me leaving the hotel bright and early to get the metro to Colisseo which meant a change at Termini, the only point where the two lines cross. I thought some of the tube interchanges in London involved quite a few steps but it took more than five minutes to get from one platform to the other – maybe there was a shorter route for the locals but Termini reminded me a bit of the subway in Japan where you are tempted from your journey by a plethora of retail opportunities. The tour party assembled just outside the metro station with a clear view of the Colisseum which is absolutely massive and breathtaking – and most of it is missing! Start time 09:45 for a prompt ten o’clock entrance.

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Into the arena
This was my first experience of paying in advance for a ‘skip the line’ tour. By the time we’d all assembled, been equipped with headsets and radios to catch our guide’s wise words we were already fifteen minutes after start time and after struggling through the groups entrance, airport type security and general faff we didn’t actually get into the Colisseum until twenty to eleven. We were a motley group on Americans from Iowa and Florida, an Iranian couple who vanished midway through and of course a family of six Chinese one of whom did her best to interpret for the others who lacked her command of English.

The structure is incredible and one has to remember that it would all have ben clad in marble. The Romans obviously gave us a lot but I couldn’t help relating current coverage of Qatar’s brutal methods of building prestigious stadia for the World Cup and what must have happened as this and other magnificent structures were built. Life is cheap in these circumstances. The rich must be glorified in the manner of their choosing. The other thing that was cheap was wood and as I’m reading Annie Proulx’s fabulous book Barkskins about the deforestation of New England to build British ships, homes for migrants and the displacement of the native Americans, I couldn’t help remarking that lack of respect for both life and natural resources is nothing new.

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Showing the underground area where gladiators and animals  and condemned criminals waited to be brought up to the arena by rope-pulled elevators

Social media

We leave for the next part of the trip, the Roman Forum. We wait for fifteen minutes at another security check because we’re two numbers short (the Iranians) and I suspect guide Emilia gets charged for any radios missing at the end as she seemed in a real panic about it.

We admire the Arch of Titus parts of which are well preserved and show him clearly bringing home the loot such as menorah from the sacking of Jerusalem. We had already been staggered by the arch of Constantine which sits between the Colisseum and the Forum across the Via Sacra which was the route for the religious to St Peter’s later on. What surprised me most about the Forum – you get blasé about 2000 year old objects in Rome – was the difference in levels.

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It’s like a trifle or a layer cake with a difference of some 50 metres between the current excavated floor thought to be around 100 BC to the entrance to the Senate House built in 283 AD, The general explanation is floods and alluvial deposits from the Tiber and demolishing buildings for new edifices and leaving debris behind.

Doors that got awayThese bronze doors – apparently one of only three that weren’t melted down at some stage are high above the level we are now walking at.

The Forum was of course where Romans came to gossip, plot and make the laws – mostly done on Twitter today. Our trip has overrun so we miss the Palatine Hill and I exit up to the Capitoline and down into the Jewish quarter for a refreshing beer in Bar Toto a recommendation from another gift Jo sent with me, a leaflet with hints and tips on unusual things to do in Rome. This was a very relaxed local bar in a great people-watching location.

 

 

Gone Galleria

My next port of call was  the Galleria Doria Pamphili which guide books raved about. I found it easily, paid my fee (no discounts for the elderly) and entered this amazing palace. It had a great courtyard, fine staircases and then room after room of overhung galleries. By this I mean large paintings exhibited three high on walls about 5-8 metres tall giving you severe neck ache. The main attraction of two important Caravaggios were absent on loan to Florence and apart from a superb Velazquez portrait of Innocent X next to Bernini’s bust of the same pope there was little to delight the eye. The Bernini-Velasquez juxtaposition was fascinating viewing but the rest I found dull in the extreme – room after room of gloomy Dutch landscapes. It smacked of art acquisition not art appreciation – so what else is new?

Crazy old man and the altar of peace

Bernini ElephantI walked through Piazza Navona passsing more Bernini fountains  – I especially liked his elephant supporting an obelisk on its howdah. – and I pass the church where I have a concert on Thursday night and on up the Tiber to the Ara Pacis museum. This had not been on my original agenda but I’m easily diverted. This is a glass box built recently to house the Altar of Peace of Augustus which was consecrated in 9 BC after Augustus had conquered France and Spain and people and animals had to be sacrificed to celebrate. It was buried under silt until 1939 and is in remarkable condition and a very beautiful structure despite its deadly purpose.

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To my delight there was an exhibition of Hokusai woodblock prints in the temporary exhibition space beneath. There were old favourites like Red Fuji and The Great Wave but many that I hadn’t seen before. There was also one room that bore the legend ‘Adults only beyond this point’. It had Hokusai and Eisen shunga, the very filthy erotic works they used to produce to educate brides and grooms – well that’s one story we heard in Tokyo.

Home cooking

I walked back to the Piazza del Populo a massive square with people statues, legionnaires for selfies, bubble blowers and buskers – also a bar, and just beyond a convenient Metro stop on the A line which whisked me back to the hotel.

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My hotel at night

I went out again and found a very fine local restaurant, Joseph, with a great family atmosphere  and good simple food in my case a succulent veal chop, salad and fries.

When in Rome …

Stella

Christmas Day began in tears as I opened the one present I had brought with me – dedicating the name of a star to Dee from my daughter and her family. I shared that on Facebook to a phenomenally large and positive response. After breakfast I skype Tom and Caroline in Hong Kong – more tears but lots of laughter too.

Il Papa

Then as the morning progressed it was time to head for St Peter’s Square to see the pope do his Christmas message. The crowd was huge but perhaps not as big as his Easter performance. I did manage to see him through a 300mm lens (600 would have been perfect) and seeing people drop to their knees in prayer and then applaud him like a rock star was quite an experience.

Waiting for the pope
Waiting for the pope
Pope addressing
The pope’s Christmas message
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Amen

Roaming

Busy Spanish stepsI then went back to the metro and went to Spagna to see the Spanish steps and have my first proper coffee – 95 cents for a good shot of strong espresso. Excellent preparation for the day ahead. In my trip schedule I had nothing booked for today and decided to discover Rome on foot. It was after all as I told too many people clear, blue, sunny and 14 degrees. Ideal for a stroll. I made my higgledy piggeldy way to the  Tiber and crossed into trendy Trastevere where there are book stalls and bad art lining the river promenade.

In many of the tourist hotspots there’s a smell of cellulose in the air as aerosol spray painting seems to be the big thing here. Time for a beer and to read a misdirected email from our friend Erika in Boston who was in my thoughts for the trip as her father Bob who Dee and I got to meet both in the US and London wrote the definitive book about Bernini who not only designed St Peter’s Square but lots of Rome’s most famous fountains and sculptures. About six weeks ago she replied at length to mine but sent it to herself not me.

Castell Sant AngeloHer knowledge of and love for the city spurred on my feet as I wandered further down the river swapping banks by the huge Castel San Angelo and on down the left bank to the Jewish quarter, through to the Capitoline Hill with the huge Victor Emanuele vanity project (I was told off by the guide the next day – it was not just for him but to commemorate the reunification of Italy – right) which caused great controversy among Romans at the time. It destroyed a whole medieval neighbourhood, took loads of taxpayers money and was derided as ‘the wedding cake ’, ‘the false teeth’ and ‘the typewriter’. The massive equestrian statues confirm it as a vanity project for me. Beyond it I strolled along to get a first sight of the Forum and the Colosseum due for a guided tour tomorrow. This route was along  wide boulevard created when Mussolini order a whole medieval neighbourhood to be bulldozed for this prestige route – HS2 sound familiar?

Victor's cake
Victor Emanuele monument – you decide!

The Road Home

Military everywhere
Entrance to Piazza del Popolo

My final saunter was the length of the Via Corso which goes straight as a die (Roman roads again!) north to the Piazza del Popolo. One thing I noticed on my walk was the frequent presence of the military with armoured vehicles and gun-toting personal at the entrance to every square.   What had been surprising was how many shops were open and how many people were shopping.

Christmas Day is not the biggest deal here – or anywhere else really except the UK I suppose. Things were beginning to close up and the metro stopped at 21:00 today so I made my way back to the hotel choosing the correct exit and arriving within the six minutes promised and with no police intervention.

I have to say that after eight hours of mostly continuous walking my ancient feet did feel they’d done their time. So to my room for a slightly mad skype with the Addison family up in Manchester for the festivities. The hotel’s main restaurant provided some interesting fruit combinations I hadn’t had before but which worked really well. My starter was smoked salmon served with blueberries and rocket and my main was steak with cantaloupe melon and rosemary potatoes both extremely tasty and helped down with a Sicilian Nero d’Avolo. And so to bed exhausted.