Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Impressions of Rome

My real reason for being in Italy was for A&K's wedding, but I'm skeptical of the merits of travelling so far for just one week, so I organised to spend the preceding week as a holiday. My original thought had been to head to Florence or one of the more "Renaissance" cities (or so I think of them), but in the end, for the sake of simplicity I settled on spending a few days in Rome. Like any solo holiday, there are lot of thoughts about the character of the city and my experiences that go unshared, so in the interests of getting them persisted somewhere, I figured I would jot them down here.

It may be the parts of Rome I visited, or the way I spent my time, but my overarching impression of Rome is of the tourist machine. So much of what I saw was surrounded by swarms of tour groups - from all over the world but above all Italian primary-schoolers, French adolescents, and English-speaking retirees - following around guides with little coloured cloths on sticks, used crook-like to lead their errant flocks. These packs were orbited by hawkers flogging the usual knick-knacks you find around tourist attractions - selfie sticks were, inexplicably to me, the dominant artifact during my visit.

During my six days I stayed in Trastevere, quite a hip and almost Parisian-Latin-Quarter style with lots of bars and restaurants in small winding streets ripe for exploration. Like the Latin quarter

All the tourist infrastructure left me, on many days, walking around seeking out places just to be, to sit and read or reflect on the other things I'd seen. Such places felt in shorter supply than in other cities I've visited, although I did find some good ones - the Borghese park, the Villa Celimontana and around the Domus Aurea. I also had a very pleasant morning at the botanical gardens (Orto Botanico), the highlight being a japanese garden up the top, watching apple blossoms fall over a koi pond while I read my book, before being brought harshly back to Italian reality by a swarm of Italian schoolchildren.

I kind of see Rome as being at least two cities, from a tourist perspective. On the one hand there is the Rome of Romulus - the remnants of the great civilisation that ruled the Mediterranean and so much of Europe for so long. This Rome has great romantic appeal to me, having grown up reading the myths and legends of the Greek/Roman gods. I saw a bunch of these - the Roman forums, the Coliseum (past but not in), the Argentina ruins, the Teatro Marcelo, and quite a few trips past and along the Circo Massimo (which had some Natale di Roma shows on the first days of my visit, with dancing Vestal virgins and parading legions). My favourite part of the ancient part of Rome, though, was the Palatino. Part of it was that it had some of the names I liked so much from stories like "I, Claudius" - Augustus, Livia, etc. Even more, though, the ruins of the Palatine were much more intact than those elsewhere in Rome, so I got a much stronger sense of how things had been. Whether it was its isolation on top of the hill or some other reason, it had been less picked over and scavenged (for marble and stone) than the neighbouring Forum, for example.

The other Rome of is that of the Catholic church - the Vatican and the works of all the popes, cardinals and other faithful in the millenium-and-a-bit since the other Rome faded from prominence. To be honest, not really my thing. I'm all for spirituality, but the kind of ostentatious gilt-ceiling brand of worship evidenced in the Roman churches is a difficult fit to my ideals. I visited some spectacular sites of this Rome - the Pantheon, the Basilica of the Vatican (past but not in), the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli next to the Vittoriano, and the extravagant Laterano de St Giovanni, whose chapels were bigger than a lot of churches I've been to. One of the things that's frustrating about the two Romes is that so much of the Catholic Rome is built from pieces of the ancient. One of the more beautiful churches I visited was St Maria di Trastevere, near where I stayed. It was flanked by giant columns, which all sported different capstones (probably not the correct term). I'm pretty sure, based on what our walking guide had told us, that these would have been taken from an ancient Roman site - the forum area was particularly ravaged by this - which made me a little sad. I'd be more interested in visiting temples to Mars or Juno than for St Paul or St Peter.

The complement to the churches is the wide array of things built by the popes, cardinals or others of the believers in the Catholic era. This is most obvious in the villas, many of them on the hills of Rome's founding. I spent a few hours walking around the parks of Villa Borghese, Villa Medici and Villa Celimontana, very pleasant green spaces but which don't really show any of their ancient heritage any more.

I did have a couple of glimpses of interesting aspects of a more contemporary Rome. At one point I got a little bit lost around the Quattro Fontane, and found myself in streets flanked all by orange trees, which is a pretty cool idea I haven't seen elsewhere.

(Ed: I have some photos, and given time and a more accomodating copmuter, I will try to weave them in at some point)