Saturday, 14 September 2013

Rome , not a bad place to celebrate

July 19 - 22, 2013

 It only took a change of trains at Pisa to get back to Rome from Lucca and fortunately we’d found some budget accommodation just a block from the big Termini station but by the time we got settled in our room the best part of the day was well and truly gone. We settled for a simple meal at one of the nearby cafes and an early night so as to be fighting fit for some serious exploring of this ancient hub of civilisation. Karen had her trusty map marked out with a long list of must see locations and Rick Steve’s excellent free audio guides downloaded onto her I-Pad so we were all set.

About to join the line up for the Colosseum
 With walking shoes firmly strapped on we left our accommodation reasonably early and headed off. The first stop was only a few blocks away at, you guessed it, a church. To be fair the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was a very ornate example with exquisite inlaid marble floors, glistening with gold and filled with priceless artworks and sculptures. It was bigger than most cathedrals but we were assured it was simply a humble church. Yeah right!
The first church we visited took up a whole, very large city block

The ornately carved timber ceiling also sparkled with gold leaf.


In this case all that glitters is gold.

It's interesting how so many of the Pope's commissioned larger than life sculptures of themselves being pious. No ego involved at all of course.

Strangely enough our second stop was, wait for it, a church. The Church of San Pietro is relatively small but was certainly worth the walk up a very steep set of stairs to reach. Inside was a magnificent sculpture of Moses by none other than Michelangelo himself. Remarkably the work is actually unfinished as it was commissioned to be a two story high funeral monument for Pope Julius the Second complete with twenty larger than life sculptures. It was never completed because Michelangelo was otherwise engaged on a little job at the Sistine Chapel.
Any time Karen gets up close and personal with a work by Michelangelo you can be sure
there's a big smile on her face.

So enough of churches for a while. It was now time for head to the biggest structure of ancient Rome, the Colosseum. Standing in a long, slow moving line, we had plenty of time to research the history of the place while we waited to enter. Constructed from 70 to 80AD, the huge amphitheatre was without doubt one of the great works of architecture in history. It could hold up to 80,000 spectators who could all get in and exit very quickly via eighty entrances circling the oval shaped venue. Patrons received a small piece of pottery with their entrance, section and seat number marked on it to facilitate efficient movement.  The fact it was built in just ten years long before mechanisation is a marvel in itself. The Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles, animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. With the Emperor’s conversion to Christianity many of these uses fell from favour and by the early medieval period the building had ceased being used for entertainment. It gradually fell into disrepair and later suffered damage in an earthquake. Unfortunately it became seen as an easy source of building materials and all of its marble and large amounts stone was removed as the once mighty building became an above ground quarry. A fair portion of the stone used to build St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican originated here.
When we finally made our way inside and looked around the interior of the Colosseum from just below the Emperor’s private area, we were a little underwhelmed by what is actually left of the once grand building. The Rick Steve’s audio tour we were using on Karen’s I-Pad did its best to bring the place to life but only reinforced that what’s no longer there far outweighs what’s left. There is quite a good museum area on the top level which includes a number of artifacts, sculptures etc and an artist’s rendition of the building in all its glory complete with retractable shade awnings that covered the entire seating areas of the amphitheatre. We could only imagine how spectacular it must have looked reaching to its full height and grandeur completed coated in gleaming white marble. Oh for a time machine, what wonders could we see.

If only we could see ancient Rome in all its glory. Time machine please.
After the morning’s walking and climbing the rough, stone steps to the top of the Colosseum and back down,  we were certainly well into our exercise quota for the day but there was so much more Rome and so little time. Lunch was a sandwich on the go as we left the Colosseum at our backs, passed by the hill dominated by the Temple of Venus, a popular wedding photo location apparently, and made our way to the heart of the ancient Roman Empire, the Forum.

Looking down into the Forum.
Initially looking down into the valley the Forum is situated in produced yet more thoughts of ‘Is that all that’s left?’. Fortunately over the next couple of hours our friend Rick Steves demonstrated in his audio tour that in the stones that still stand there are incredible human stories to be found.
For example, in ancient Roman religion, Vestal Virgins were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth and regarded as fundamental to the continuance and security of Rome. They cultivated the sacred fire that was not allowed to go out. The Vestals were freed of the usual social obligations to marry and bear children, and took a vow of chastity in order to devote themselves to the study and correct observance of state rituals that were off-limits to the male colleges of priests. The Vestals were committed to the priesthood before puberty (when 6–10 years old) and sworn to celibacy for a period of 30 years. These 30 years were divided in turn into decade-long periods during which Vestals were respectively students, servants, and teachers.
Afterwards, they were retired and replaced by a new inductee. Once retired, a former Vestal was given a pension and allowed to marry. A marriage to a former Vestal was highly honoured, and, more importantly in ancient Rome, thought to bring good luck, as well as a comfortable pension. Ancient tradition required that a Vestal Virgin found to be unchaste be buried alive within the city, that being the only way to kill her without spilling her blood, which was forbidden. However, this practice contradicted the Roman law that no person might be buried within the city. To solve this problem, the Romans sealed the offending priestess in a small underground chamber with a nominal quantity of food and other provisions so that the Vestal would not technically be buried in the city, but instead descend into a 'habitable room' where she would then die. It would have to have been a lawyer that came up with that loophole.


Not much remains of the Palace of the Vestal Virgins but their story lives on.
Great care is needed to keep your footing as you make your way down the well worn, now uneven stone roadway that runs through the centre of the forum but realising that you are literally walking in the footsteps of Julius Caesar and other of the biggest names in human history certainly touches the soul. This was the path conquering generals paraded triumphantly on their return from great victories bearing new riches for Rome. Standing by the spot Mark Anthony delivered his speech at Caesar's funeral made famous for eternity in Shakespeare's play and seeing flowers still being laid on the actual rock that the slain Emperor's body was cremated atop converts this place from a pile of stones to a truly surreal experience.

A simple corrugated iron roof now covers the rock upon which Julius Caesar's
body was turned to ashes following his murder by conspirators.
People still place flowers on Caesar's place of cremation.
From the Forum we made our way to the very impressive War Memorial and tomb of the unknown soldier. It is a huge, white marble building, ornately decorated with sculptures and a very fitting monument to those that served.
We then wondered through a number of very old, narrow streets to reach a bridge over the Tiber River and entered the old Jewish sector to embark on another of Rick Steve's magical mystery audio tours. This proved well worth the additional kilometres walked even if by now our feet may have disagreed. The area is charming and the tour took us to two sites that had originally been homes in which early Christians had gathered to pray in the time of the persecutions. Now two beautifully decorated churches stand in their place.

By now our feet needed a rest so a sit down and bottle of wine in a cafĂ© by the square was in order.

We headed back towards our hostel but didn't get far before this restaurant  called us inside for a nice dinner and another bottle of wine.

Of course Karen pointed out we should have a look at the markets by the river after dinner.
 We did eventually make it back to our hostel for a few hours sleep before we were up and at it again for day two. This was our 28th Anniversary so Rob had a couple of special things arranged to celebrate the day in appropriate style.

Our first stop on day two was the Vatican. Yep, St Peter's is a very impressive piece of architecture and certainly attracts the crowds.
The real star of our Anniversary morning was taking Karen to see the Sistine Chapel and
Michelangelo's amazing fresco. We booked our tickets with set entry time via the internet.
This is a MUST if you want to avoid lining up for two hours or more at the door.

What we didn't realise, was that to get to the Sistine Chapel you first wind,
 Ikea-like through room after room and building after building of the Vatican
museum packed with obscene millions if not billions of dollars worth of the
church's art treasures. Every wall and ceiling is a masterpiece.

Just one of the rooms we got to peak in but unfortunately couldn't enter.
The marble sculptures were spectacular
A small hallway lined with amazing medieval maps we were herded through

One of many huge silk tapestries hanging throughout one of the long hallways.

By now Karen was getting VERY EXCITED and just about filled her
 I-Pad's memory with photos

Just part of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling. No photos allowed of
course so this was the best Rob could do being sneaky.
 After about an hour and a half we finally made it into the Sistine Chapel itself. What an amazing experience. The scope and detail of Michelangelo's work is truly breathtaking. While the chapel was extremely crowded we were lucky enough to score a couple of bench seats by the wall after standing for a while. We then sat for almost an hour just trying to soak it all in. It really is hard to know just where to look.  Karen was so moved she literally had tears in her eyes. It will certainly be an anniversary we'll remember for a long, long time.

If the Sistine Chapel didn't have our heads in a spin, the stairs to get out
of the Vatican Museum certainly did.

St Peter's Basilica and square had originally been hemmed in by housing but
Mussolini knocked a big tract of it down and built this long, wide boulevard
to open up the view and provide an 'appropriate' entryway.

One of the bridges over the River Tiber we walked over after leaving the Vatican.
While the big major sites of Rome are fantastic, wandering down character filled back streets
finding our way from place to place was also one of the real highlights of our days.

Another of the many Piazzas we wandered through.
We may have even stopped for a vino in this one.

We were quite disappointed that so much of the 'art' on offer was clearly copies
churned out in China's art factories and being sold by merchants who wouldn't
know one end of a paintbrush from the other.

It was late in the day when we reached the Pantheon and we just got inside
before the closed the entrance and started to herd people out. So glad we made it.
Very impressive.

The Pantheon building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome with a central opening to the sky. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon's dome is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the opening and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43.3 metres. It is one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings. It has been in continuous use throughout its history.

Since the Renaissance the Pantheon has been used as a tomb. Among those
buried there are the painters Raphael Sanzio da Urbino and Annibale Carracci,
the composer Arcangelo Corelli, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi.
Above is Raphael's funeral monument.

So much for all the old stuff. We've found the REAL art.

Early evening and time to relax and celebrate our anniversary at one of the
world's most romantic spots, the Trevi Fountain.

A traditional legend holds that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain, they are ensured a return to Rome. If it’s true we’ll be going back to Rome someday. Coins are purportedly meant to be thrown using the right hand over the left shoulder. An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day. The money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome's needy, however, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain.

We had dinner and bubbles right by the fountain. It was pretty special.

The Trevi Fountain under lights was even more spectacular.

We walked home past the War Memorial which also looked great lit up.
While we checked out of our room early the next day we were fortunate to be able to leave our backpacks there while we spent a bit more time crossing another couple of 'must do' items of our Rome list. We had booked tickets online to see the Galleria Borghese which houses a substantial part of the Borghese collection of paintings, sculpture and antiquities, begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of Pope Paul V (reign 1605–1621).
On the way we just had to check out the Spanish Steps, which we found out
were, well, a set of steps. What's the big deal?
The Villa was built by the architect Flaminio Ponzio, developing sketches by Cardinale Borghese himself, who used it as a villa suburbana, a party villa at the edge of Rome. Must have been a tough life being a Cardinal in those days.
A very limited number of people are admitted to the gallery each day in two hour sessions. It is essential to pre book as no tickets are available on the day. We found the wealth of artworks on display were simply mind blowing and while Rob was enjoying himself, Karen was literally in raptures again. Here's a small sample of some of the pieces on exhibit. For a better idea of what's to be viewed in the gallery check out the website.
Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Truth Unveiled by Time by Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Madonna, Child and Serpent by Caravaggio

Susanna and The Elders by Rubens

This sculpture of Napoleon Bonaparte's sister, Pauline by Antonio Canova is
absolutely stunning. Pauline married into the Borghese family and this piece
scandalised the society circles when it was unveiled. When asked how she
could have posed for such a work Pauline calmly replied with words to the
effect of  'There was a fire so there was no problem, I was not cold.'

After leaving the museum we came across this wonderful establish and just
 had to stop in for a drink in honour of our new grandson 'Harry' of course.
So then it was time for a metro ride back to pick up our backpacks from the hostel and the horror stories you here about needing to be careful of pick pockets in Rome are all true. Stepping onto a very crowded metro train, Rob sprung a young Indian guy red handed. He literally caught him with a hand in his pocket trying to extract the wallet. Rob grabbed him by the wrist and announcing to the world he was a scum pick pocket shoved him out of the train onto the platform from where he beat a very hasty exit.
Two trains and bus back to the marina later we were back on the boat. A day of boat jobs followed and it was time to say 'Arrivederci Roma' and move on down the Italian coast.

Sometimes we’re so busy out doing things we don’t have enough time to write about doing things and our blog slips a little behind time. To stay right up to date with what we’re up to these days and see lots more photos check out and 'like' our Dreamtime Sail Facebook page at Dreamtime Sail on Facebook
If you have only recently discovered our blog and would like to read how it all started, or work through our previous adventures, click the link to go back to our first blog entry. Stuff it. Let's just go sailing anyway.  We hope you enjoy reading the previous posts to catch up on our story.

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