Thursday, March 13, 2014

Ah, Roma

Rome took me completely by surprise.  It is magnificent.  I usually reserve that word for mountain vistas, but this is one magnificent city.  Everything is on a grand scale.  Beautiful, big, old  buildings, with huge arcades along the ground floor (we’d seen arcades in Florence, intended to protect citizens from the sun as they strolled from place to place, but none with such high arches and ceilings), most of the apartment buildings with balconies, many with awnings that can be dropped down to protect from the morning or afternoon sun,  lovely, tree-lined boulevards, the real, live Colosseum,  which is surely, like the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the universal symbol of Rome, the astounding Vatican (which, I realize, is actually its own little country, but when you’re there, it’s just a part of Rome), the legendary Tiber River (Tevere, to the Italians), which is crossed by numerous lovely stone bridges, both palm trees (which surprised me) and what we learned from one of our guides are called umbrella trees, because they look like opened umbrellas (we saw many of these on the drive down from Florence, evenly spaced, marching like soldiers along the tops of ridges), lots of roofs gardens, here and there lush greenery spilling over garden walls.  Also, of course, lots of traffic.  Tourists everywhere – and tour buses – but also lots of locals, who somehow manage to look both intense and blaze.   

The Hotel Rose Garden Palace, where we stayed, is across the street from the U.S. Embassy, which should give you an idea of our neighborhood.  Very nice.  Trees lining the streets, providing valuable spots of shade when one was out walking in the bright, hot sun (except for about an hour in the middle of the day in Venice, this was the hottest weather we had thus far encountered).   A few blocks away, the  large and lovely Villa Borghese Gardens, a park we were to drive through on our way to somewhere or other, and which features lots of folks jogging, riding bicycles – and horses! – pushing baby carriages, relaxing in the grass.

The hotel itself was a bit on the coldly elegant side for me – white marble everywhere, but not enough furnishings or decorative touches to give it any warmth.  And we were all dismayed at the failure to provide wake-up calls – there was an automated system on the room telephones, but it never worked.

The first place on our agenda was the Colosseum, visited the afternoon of our arrival.  After something of a drive through the streets of Rome, we found ourselves on a street that looked down at this universal symbol of Rome.  Oh, wow, there it was.  As we curved down and around the ruin, we saw that part of it was simply not there.  Indeed, the whole outer wall, which is four stories high, rises up along only half of the structure.  Large brick wedges have been built to shore up the outer wall at each end of its curve.  We learned from our guide that long after the Colosseum had ceased to provide Rome with gory entertainment, it had served as a convenient quarry for the citizens of Rome.  They would simply come and cart away whatever kinds of building materials they might need.  When you see pictures of this truly colossal celebration of the worst aspects of ancient Roman culture, they usually do not show the missing bits.  

The Colosseum was built of limestone, brick, something called Tuff or Tufo (no, not tofu), which was a porous stone used for some minor pillars, and in the preparation of cement, which the Romans had only recently discovered – that was used for the vaulted arches holding up the ceiling of the corridors that encircle the arena.  And there was marble, for the seats, statues and drinking fountains (!), all long since gone.  Back in the day, each of the hundreds of arches you see facing the street on the second and third levels would have contained a marble statue.  That’s a lot of marble statues.  When you’re up close and personal, you can see this mishmash of building materials...everything but the marble.

Inside the Colosseum
Back in the day there were also 80 entrance arches, which was certainly a good way to get up to 50,000 people in and out efficiently.  No such efficiency today: all the thousands of people who pour into the structure every day must pass under the same arch, in line, then move slowly around the curve of the building – still essentially “in line,” with security guards regarding them blankly-- until they reach an open area, from which they are free to go where they will, or where their tour guide takes them.  We made our way up a couple of flights of stairs, and came out at the second viewing level.  From here you can get a good overview of the whole.

For all that it is very much a ruin, it is still impressive as hell.  Probably especially so because the floor, which would have covered the cells and corridors beneath, is no longer there, and you can see those cells where animals and doomed humans were kept, the corridors along which they were led to their deaths.

Cells and cages, beneath floor of arena
Reconstruction of part of floor can be seen in rear
A bit of floor has been rebuilt at one end, so you can get an idea of what it looked like.  There would have been sand on it, for gladiator fights, and animals tearing into human beings, but there might also be an imitation jungle, with animals being “hunted,” and slaughtered.  Indeed, more animals than humans were killed here, and in other amphitheaters throughout the Roman Empire.  And by the way, the Colosseum was originally named the Flavian Amphitheater, in honor of  the emperors who built the thing, who were of the house of Flavius.  This was long after the days of Julius Caesar, or Augustus Caesar, or any of those emperors we’re all familiar with; the building was completed in 80 A.D.

It came to be called – one might say nicknamed  -- the Colosseum because of the colossal bronze statue of Nero that stood out front.

One thing I wondered about were what looked like concrete roofs slanting down to open archways.  Turns out those “roofs” once upon a time lay beneath the marble seats.  The black holes you see every now and then among the roofs are where people would enter the arena from the stairs that climb up from the corridor on the ground floor.  Where the mysterious substance is missing, you can see the evenly spaced slanting brick walls that held up the slanting tiers of seats.  You really miss the presence of seats, but a book I purchased in the gift shop on the third level does a good job of showing you what the place looked like then – complete with seats – and now. 

"Roofs" that once supported marble seats
No question: a great place to visit.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Getting Un-lost, to see the guidebooks' favorites

After a few minutes of genuine concern – good grief, how was I going to find the group if  I couldn’t even hear the guide over my headset? – I suddenly remembered that the other major sight we were to see was the main piazza.  And since the Duomo sits at the top of the town, I figured my best bet was to follow the meandering street we’d come up, down, and surely, at some point, there would be some indication of whence lay one of the most famous city squares in the world.

And sure enough, I hadn’t meandered long when I saw that, at a fork in the street, most of the people were going off to the right.  And I was pretty sure we’d come up that street on the left.  So I went right, with the crowd, and a couple of minutes later I could hear snippets of lecture coming over my headset.  And in another couple of minutes I came out into the bright sunshine pouring down into a vast open area full of people.  And over to my right, being lectured to, I spotted my group.  Oh, frabjous day, I was un-lost.

Piazza del Campo
But now that I knew where they were, I took a moment to take in the scene.  The main part of the Piazza del Campo is this huge shallow bowl, not circular-shaped, but rather (as my guidebook helpfully suggested) fan-shaped, the straight line of the opened fan running in front of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall).  The brick bowl slopes gently up from there, and people sit about here and there on the sloping bricks, even lie back to soak up the sun.  All around the rim of the plaza are cafes, restaurants, pizza shops, sidewalk vendors.

Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall), Siena
I have to say something about the City Hall building.  It is somewhat like the one in Florence, though not quite so awkward-looking.  The one in Florence, whose official name is the Palazzo Vecchio, dates from 1322, the one in Siena from 1342, which undoubtedly accounts for their similarity.  The one in Florence  is this big, flat-faced square building, topped with a crenelated roof,  in the middle of which stands a very tall bell tower, which I must say looks spectacularly phallic.  The Siena City Hall is wider, and lower; it’s proportions are more pleasing, and the bottom floor is saved from the blankness of the rest of the building by a line of white arches.  But its bell tower is very tall, and sits far to one side, completely negating those pleasing proportions.  I’m including pictures of both, so you can decide for yourself which is more attractive.  Much is made of both buildings, which were the center of civic life in the middle ages, and are still.  For me the most impressive thing about them is that they have been standing, and functional, for almost 700 years.
Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall), Florence

But as to Il Campo itself (its name, The Field, comes from the time when it really was a field, outside the city walls): its biggest claim to fame is the Palio, a horse race held there every July 2nd and August 16th.  Thousands of people crowd into this piazza, and spill over into the narrow side streets, to watch this race.  The riders ride bareback, around the embankment that circles the sunken piazza.  There’s a picture in my Eyewitness Travel guidebook, and I can’t believe all the people – it’s like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but more concentrated.  Can’t see how most of those people could see the riders, never mind the horses.  And apparently those cheering fans can’t go to the bathroom, because someone said no outdoor facilities are provided.

And what does the winner of this spectacular event win?  A large banner (which is what “palio”means).

When I rejoined the group, I got a number of “There she is!” and Gianni assured me that as soon as he had dismissed everyone for lunch, he had planned to come looking for me (I really was the bane of his existence). Pat and I settled at an outside table at one of the cafes, and did a little people watching, while consuming a perfectly nice lunch – one of those moments that I said earlier we didn’t get enough of on the trip.  Then we went looking for a bank, as I was drastically low on cash, and it really is better to deal in that than in credit cards, especially in small shops and cafes.  I looked up how to say “bank” (una banca), and was directed up a kind of alley lined with shops to the narrow, hilly streets beyond, where we wandered for a while, trying to find that banca. When we did, we found we couldn’t get into the little vestibule where they had the ATMs, because you needed a card key to get inside.  When a lady came along and helpfully used her key to get us inside, we couldn’t get the ATM to give us any money.  A frustrating 15 minutes, especially since we both felt we should be exploring.

When we returned to the group it was time to go (off to the wine tasting, see Note of July 27, 2013), which did not set well with most of us in the group; we simply had not had enough time to explore this fascinating, ancient little city.  One should have at least a full day; we had about four hours.  A word to the wise.

A final note: as we were walking back to the bus – here, as elsewhere, tour buses must park a good way outside the historic areas to be visited – I spotted an ATM on the outside wall of una banca.   I rushed over to use it, and right behind me was another member of the group, who had also not been able to locate an ATM earlier.  The group just kept going, which annoyed us both.  Ben, the fellow with me, a big, bluff  man who had appointed himself class clown -- and often was quite amusing, in his blank-faced way -- was not amused now, especially since the group had waited for one of our members while she slipped into a sweet shop to buy some candy.  He grouchily muttered “For her they could wait," while I was looking over my shoulder, and seeing with relief that Doug, a tall fellow from Texas who always wore a baseball cap, was waving it in the air as he walked on, so that we could see to follow.  The group really had gotten good about looking out for one another.