Going Solo

September 17, 2014

I swear I’m nearly finished. I swear. I’m writing this for my memory as much as anything and I’m trying to include everything, so I can look back at it in the future. Which means I ramble. Whoops!

I had to be up fairly early on Sunday morning as free breakfast finished at 9:30am but it wasn’t such a chore as I wanted to be leaving Blues at 9:30 anyway. It’s now the law in Italy that state museums are free entry on the first Sunday of every month – I think they’ve done this to make up for the fact that they’ve recently changed the law for over 65s. They used to be able to go places for free, but no longer – and I’d saved one or two places specifically for free Sunday. Not the hugely popular places, as they would be insane on a free day but some things that were off the beaten track a little and mightn’t attract large crowds. First on my list was the Pyramid Of Gaius Cestius, an actual real pyramid that I thought was 12th century but was actually 12BC. It’s usually only open two Saturdays a month but it was on the Sunday free list so I decided I would give it a try, and if it was closed at least it was beside what’s commonly known as The Protestant Cemetery but is actually for anyone who isn’t Catholic so a lot of famous overseas visitors reside there. It also contains – you’ve guessed it – a cat colony! You’ve also guessed that the pyramid was closed, but I didn’t mind too much as at least I’d checked. The graveyard was leafy and cool, providing shade and peace from my itinerary. Little signs appeared here and there pointing towards Goethe and Shelley but this probably would have required going up and down every row, which seemed a little too energetic to me at 10am. I saw a sign pointing towards the ‘new’ part of the cemetery and it seemed a bit sparser, with park benches so I sat down, admiring the views of the pyramid. There were passers-by and I asked them if they could take a photo of me avec pyramid but all attempts ended up disastrous. One man even pressed the digital zoom button instead of the phototaking button, and I don’t think he even realised. I thanked them nicely though. Sometimes, there’s nothing else for it but to take a selfie.

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It’s a bit arty because of the angle and the sun, but I really love the way the sun creates a sunspot at the point of the pyramid. I think it gives it added Egyptianness, or maybe just added Stargate. Here’s a photo without me to give you an idea of the setting.

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I did find poet John Keats as he was in the new section, buried beside his close friend. I didn’t find Shelley, but on Via Del Corso there was a plaque dedicated to him, which I found the next day. So I sort of found him.

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And I found a graveyard cat.

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I was reluctant to leave the peace and quiet but had realised when map-planning that I was very near Aventine Hill; one of the seven hills of Rome. I had a quest there, but I really enjoyed the tree-lined walk, random cats and segway tours I met and the fact that I wasn’t quite sure exactly where I was going. Atop this hill is the villa belonging to The Order of the Knights of Malta and I’m not sure how this was first discovered, but at some point someone looked through the keyhole to their front door and saw that the view had to be seen to be believed. I suspect it was originally designed this way, but somehow this news got out to tourists as a niche thing to do and I found a queue of about 20 people there when I arrived. I would’t say I was sceptical before I looked through the keyhole, but I’d seen images online and wasn’t expecting the real view to be anything near as perfect as a photoshopped glory. It was breathtaking! An avenue of bushes, trimmed to form a pathway for the Knights to walk along, the dome of St. Peter’s hovering magically as if a hologram in a kaleidoscope. I tried to take a decent photo but a man behind me shouted at me for taking too long so I became quite flustered and forgot how to use my camera… Here’s a press photo.

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In Rome, it doesn’t matter if the bus you get is on the return part of the route you want, as all routes are cyclical, or at least go from A to B to A again so when I realised I was on the 85 but heading the wrong way, it wasn’t a huge problem. Until an hour later in quite bad traffic and stifling heat taught me that this was one of the longest routes in the city. Plans to visit the Domus Aurea [possibly getting renovated], Castel Sant’Angelo or possibly Galleria Borghese on free day went completely out of the window as I clung to my battery-powered fan [I’m sure people envied me] and got back to Termini an hour and a half later. I gasped towards a tram and went the two stops to Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, hoping that icecream would help bring me round. I’d had water, yeah but was trying to ration it on the bus. One scoop of tiramisu icecream and a scoop of creamed rice icecream with grains of rice inside helped a good deal, as did the price. 1 euro and 60 cents. You pay first then order your flavours at the counter, when the server asks if you want whipped cream on top for no extra charge. You say yes. As well as tables and chairs what I liked about this place is the park benches they had dotted around the interior, for solo diners. I sat on one, chewed on my delicious grains of rice and refilled my water bottle. Still though, I walked right back to the hostel and I’m honestly not trying to sound sexy, immediately put the ceiling fan on, tore my clothes off and had a cold shower. It was a brutally hot day. I napped for about two hours after that.

So trying to see the St. Agnese Catacombs after this was perhaps a little ambitious. I knew which bus I planned to get, but as my last bus journey had been so warm when someone on Tripadvisor told me there was a metro station near it, I plumped for that. Arriving at the station though, I was in an area that didn’t seem to make much sense to me. Burials at the time had to take place outside the city walls so this particular place was off my map – and off the map in the train station, which was perplexing – which meant I was relying on my rapidly flying memory. I couldn’t see anything churchy so eventually got on a bus, trying to get back. The bus sat in the 34 degree heat for about 20 minutes and of course as soon as it started moving, I spotted the street name I’d been looking for. I didn’t want to get off the bus right away, so went a few streets and tried to retrace my steps. Easy enough, but I wasn’t countering for the heat. Weather reports were marking it as high 20s but an inner city street can go much higher and I believed the sign in the window I passed. I reached the gardens of St. Agnese at around 5:15 and couldn’t see anything pointing towards catacombs, although I sat in the grey, cool interior for a while, breathing. I saw a gardener and considered asking him but realised they were probably closing up for the day, and I truly couldn’t face more walking after that anyway. I got two buses back to Termini and found my local tram. Whether because it was 6pm, or just that the tram schedules were reduced on Sundays it seemed there were an awful lot of people waiting to get on the one tram and when it finally arrived it was like a scene in Mumbai, people grabbing their friends by the arm and pulling them on. It was sweaty, to say the least. Another cold shower and nap beckoned. I was well-hydrated though, with sun lotion and a sun hat, so never fear!

At around 8 I’d cooled down enough to begin the search for food, and took the metro so I didn’t have to tackle another bus. The temperature had reached a comfortable level and I did some ‘final night’ walking around, amused that shops were open at 8:30 on a Sunday night as in Ireland on Sunday we have reduced Sunday opening hours of 1-5, and even on weekdays shops are only open 9-6. I’d heard there were a few decent restaurants on Via Della Corso but I couldn’t find two the guidebook mentioned, and the third didn’t have the thing I wanted to eat. I took a wider tour, looking for some other guidebook places but by then I had a very specific idea of what I wanted, and nothing else would do. I headed back to della Corso and chose a place called Difronte a… and chose the Fettucine alla Norcina [pasta with cheese sauce, sausage and mushroom]. I was a little disappointed as the sausage was beef instead of pork [I shouldn’t have assumed] and the texture of the pasta seemed a little off. Reading on Tripadvisor lots of customers seem a little unsure themselves, but it was a reasonably priced meal and was certainly filling. So filling I couldn’t even manage a bedtime gelato! I slept well, which was handy as I had a flight home ahead of me…

I always arrive at the last day of a holiday with a huge list of things I didn’t have time to do, and stress myself by trying to do it all before I get on the plane. This time, for the last day I had consciously took the pressure off and made a very light itinerary. Bus 85 to San Clemente, 85 again to Tritone and San Crispino gelateria, then whichever bus I could get to take me to a park. Yeah, I was making time to actually relax. Don’t know what came over me!

Checkout time at my hostel was 10am. Sabine said he could mind my case for a few hours but I had to collect it at 2:30, as he had an appointment after that. That suited me, meant I could wander caseless for a while and after 2:30 all I had to do was sit with my case in a restaurant for two hours. My bus to the airport was at 5 but I was going to get there at about 4:30 in case of queues and getting lost and alien abduction.

San Clemente is a church. A quite lovely 12th century church. But all churches in Rome are quite lovely. What marks San Clemente out as different is the fact that it’s built on top of a 4th century church, which was in turn built above a 1st century Pagan temple dedicated to Mithras. A male-only fertility cult, apparently? In a land of excavations, people are obviously going to dig [hoho; when I get tired, I reach for puns] stuff like this. And it’s fascinating, frescoes in the mid-level cut-off halfway by the foundations of the current church, an altar in the Mithraeum on which bulls were slayed, and the water you can hear rushing by on the lower two levels. On the third level they have the excavated remains of a Roman house with a spring water well in the room which they presumably used to drink from. I bent down and touched the floor, which was damp. Narrow corridors offer windows on half-completed excavations and passageways that may one day be safe for visitors. You’re not supposed to take photos but everyone was, so I couldn’t resist one:

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Everyone says San Crispino Gelateria is the best in Rome. Now they do things I personally don’t like. They don’t have chairs so you have to find a shop doorway to sit in. They don’t display the gelato, keeping it in silver-coloured containers to preserve the flavour. A cone would also contaminate the flavour so they have no cones at all, but I always go for tubs anyway. One scoop caramel meringue [containing real meringue] and one scoop ginger & cinnamon later and I was sitting in a doorway [that I later got shouted at for sitting at, but oh well. Rome lacks seating areas in public squares. Unless you pay to eat at a cafe or sit on a fountain, you have to stand] marvelling at the strength of the cinnamon and the amount of meringue pieces. I went to a bus stop on Tritone and found that the 170 went to Villa Borghese which by all accounts is a lovely park. I decided to go for it.

Having six miles of… park, I didn’t do much more than brush the periphery, as tiredness dictated I have a rest. I passed a few occupied park benches and hovered a bit, unsure if you could sit on the grass. The sight of a few couples doing exactly this reassured me, so I found a tree with a wide trunk and sat for about an hour, feeling incredibly relaxed.

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About a thousand birds were vocally making themselves known from nearby trees but although the chattering surrounded me I found it calming. Nature going about its business, man. The park was alive! Further careful reading shows me this park has a zoo, a boating lake, the famous Galleria Borghese, statues and some sort of helium balloon, but that’s for another time. I was just grateful to that tree. Are they Cyprus trees, does anyone know? A tall, slim trunk with few branches on the lower level and a puff of cloud-shaped greenery near the top. On my Roman journey I also found some orange trees. We don’t have orange trees in Ireland!

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I collected my case in an amazingly smooth transaction with, once again, no hidden charges! Ritmo Blues B&B was a nice place. Four rooms at most I think. When I was there the only other paying guests I saw were a German father and daughter there for a weekend of sightseeing. How lucky to choose two clean, pleasant, quiet guesthouses! If you want a party, pub-crawling hostel, you probably shouldn’t get me to do the choosing.

All that was left was for me to find somewhere to have a relaxing dinner, and laziness dictated I chose somewhere near Termini station as that’s where I was getting my airport coach. I wheeled my suitcase around the nearby streets, checking menus. As soon as I found a place I was told they wouldn’t let me sit inside. Not sure why, maybe to keep the more ‘exclusive’ tables tidy for later guests? No matter, a quick five minute walk led me to a place that would let me sit indoors and even though it was slightly more expensive than the places I had been eating, I decided to go for a last-day treat! Once again, Tomoko Tudini receives mixed reviews on Tripadvisor but I found my starter of bruschetta with real white, creamy mozzarella and anchovies pretty good. Yeah, I might have gotten an anchovy bone stuck in my gum and had to do some awkward fiddling in my mouth to find it… but that’s probably not strictly the restaurant’s fault. I ordered spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino as I’d had it in Florence and really liked it. It’s basically plain pasta flavoured with olive oil, chili peppers and garlic. I admit it was nicer in Florence as they had full cloves of garlic and here the garlic was just a light flavouring but again, that’s personal taste. Altogether with water and a cover charge it was slightly less than 20 euro so my idea of an expensive treat is possibly cheaper than most people! The service was perhaps slightly impersonal but I sat there without feeling uncomfortable, eating slowly and reading Anno Dracula [on second thoughts, perhaps with reading that it was best not to have a heavily-garlicked meal!] and psyching myself up for the coach from 5-6pm, the wait at the airport, the flight at 8:30 and getting the midnight bus from Dublin to Belfast. I deserved those two courses!

So! That’s the end of the trip. No point writing about the buses, plane or airport except to say that they were all perfectly ordinary and as expected. More point perhaps writing about the places I didn’t have time to visit, like the famous catacombs that have been so popular apparently some bones had to be moved elsewhere, as tourists kept stealing them… I didn’t have time for Janiculum Hill and the view from Orto Botanico, visiting the canon that booms midday every day. I didn’t have the time or appetite for saltimbocca alla Romana, which seems to be veal escalopes wrapped in ham. Mmmmmmmmm. Perhaps one day I’ll boat on the lake in the Villa Borghese, go inside the Cestius Pyramid, explore what’s left underground of the Domus Aurea – a palace or series of palaces ordered by Nero and built over afterwards by Emperors embarrassed by Nero’s legacy. Oooh, and more gelato…

I’d been home for about two days when I texted my friend Andrew and asked him if he wanted to borrow Anno Dracula now I’d finished it, as he’d been waiting to read it. He replied saying “Speaking of Dracula, I’m eyeing up a trip to Transylvania in October if you’d like to travel again that soon. Up for it?”

Well…

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