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…

LOLosseum

September 14, 2014

It was a pretty sleepless night. I never sleep well if I know someone has gone out. Not because I’m worried about them, but because I hate being rudely awoken just after I’ve fallen asleep. For that same reason I can’t sleep if I have an alarm set, or if I know someone is calling the next morning. I knew Georgia our hostess was calling at 10am to get payment for our stay, so I woke at 9 in readiness and woke the sleeping beauties at 9:30. As tired as I was feeling, I became quite chipper at seeing the green-around-the-gillsness of the others. Money was handed over with no hidden charges, good feeling and Georgia telling us we could stay as long as we wanted that day, leaving our keys on the table when we left. Donna and Gemma were getting the train to Florence at 6pm so I was going to head on my solo adventure then, going to a guesthouse a few streets away as the current one didn’t have a single room for me. We left our suitcases in the room and headed on to our Friday activities: mainly the Forum and Colosseum. We had another free outdoor breakfast at the Cafe on the corner of Via Merulana facing Santa Maria Maggiore. I can’t remember the name of it though… I’m not one for eating outdoors because of smokers, passers-by, noise, insects… but the others loved it, and I figured I could eat indoors to my heart’s content on the solo part of my trip! We had nice little tables with umbrellas though.

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I had read there was an English language tour of the Roman Forum [basically, the ruins of the old City Centre] at 12:30 costing 5 euro on top of the price of tickets we’d already purchased. When I phoned they said they didn’t have the information on whether there were spaces left to hand, so we should just show up. When we did show up at the Forum entrance we were told that the tour begins at the Palatine entrance [something neither the website or phone information had told us] and it was around half an hour’s walk away, so we might as well just go in the gate we were already at. I’d been told that the information signposted at the Forum wasn’t very helpful. When I read a few of the signs I found they were reasonably helpful, but incredibly dry. And I like historical info! So I had a loose plan of trying to find a tour guide and tagging along for free at some point. A good tour guide can really make something come alive.994484_852470311437557_828445748913504821_nIMAG0104

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The sun beat down mercilessly and I think I was probably best off, as I was the only one with a sunhat. We stayed together for a few pictures and then Donna and Gemma rested their hangovers under a shady tree. I tackled Palatine Hill at this point, finding random staircases and following them up until I reached the Villa Farnesiana. I’d spotted a few guides giving personal tours to couples but at the top of this hill, in a shaded area a tour guide was guiding a group of 15 people and I crept along behind, enjoying the stories, the shade and my dishonest resourcefulness! He took us down some steps to a wonderfully cool area that contained a grotto and waterfall, blocked off by gates. When the tour finished I joined the others, who had relocated to a cafe for some cool drinks and we sat for a while, gathering our strength for the Colosseum.

Our internet tickets of course meant that we could bypass all queues but we still spent a good amount of time observing from the outside, noticing things we’d never seen before, like the huge sign on the side.

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It’s a huge place. Huge. There’s a notice for visitors saying the Colosseum is limited to only 3000 visitors at a time. Only?! We all know the stories. Entertainment took place there; entertainment that was free to attend! Gladiators fought with animals that were kept in underground cages and brought to the surface with moving platforms and winches. Exotic animals were brought over to Rome by ship, as of course the Roman Empire extended far and wide! Gladiators fought with each other, and they stayed underground too, prior to their big moments. You can see a pale wood platform that sightseers are standing on and the underground area is viewable beyond that.

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It was coming close to train time for Donna and Gemma so we got a last meal together at a place very near the Colosseum called Angelino ai Fori dal 1947. I had satisfyingly meaty Fettucine alla Romana and we had all reached exhaustion point, so it was a pretty quiet time for us all. Donna remembered last minute that she hadn’t got to see the Bocca della Verita [mouth of truth], a statue that features in the film Roman Holiday. Rumour has it that if you place your hand in the statue’s mouth it will bite your hand off if you tell a lie. Apparently it was used historically to ascertin the honesty of wives. But not husbands, apparently? They dashed off to find the statue and I went back to finish packing and to have a bit of a much-needed lie down. I admit, I was starting to feel nervous about changing hotels and having my solo time!

They’d taken so long at the statue we had to leave pretty much right away and after they headed to the train I carried on down Via Napoleone III praying I wouldn’t throw up in public through sheer nerves. I reached Ritmo Blues B&B in about 15 [panicked] minutes, feeling a little more uncomfortable when the neighbourhood began to look seedier and seedier. I kept control of my stress during Sabine’s Introduction to Blues talk and started to feel calmer, especially when he told me I could use the guest computer, and when he made me try the key in the lock with his supervision as there was a knack to it, and had I been left to do it alone I probably would have just given up. That’s one thing I always notice with hostels. Most of the locks are tricky but the staff expect you to work this out by yourself, be it clockwise, anticlockwise or just a little extra elbow grease. The practice run was very much appreciated! My room was lovely with a double bed, ceiling fan, private bathroom and fridge, so I lay down and tried to be calm.

And calm I was. By about 9pm I realised a walk would be beneficial, to help me sleep and get me familiar with the area. Slightly apprehensive, I felt much better when I stepped onto the street and the first thing I saw was a family with a small child. And then another! This was reassuring. I walked around the corner spotting a few restaurants and heading towards lights found a supermarket where I heard a bunch of Australian students getting their holiday groceries. I grabbed some bottles of water and rosemary and olive flavour Pringles, which you can’t get here. The icing on the cake was when I spotted Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a guidebook-recommended gelateria less than 5 minutes walk from Blues! A quick nip inside showed me an amazing array of flavours and a wide open airy seating area. I was sold, and relaxed enough to sleep with my first solo full day ahead of me!

The next morning I was so excited about the solo part of my journey! I could spend ages staring at maps without appearing antisocial, I could keep checking and rechecking things, I could take my time finding things [for example, if I didn’t find the Pantheon right away I could keep trying without worrying about boring people] and wouldn’t have to compromise on destinations and wouldn’t have to eat outdoors! I could buy a three day bus ticket for my remaining three days and literally bus-hop, going to random places. I could do anything!

So it started off with me getting hopelessly lost. I’d read on the Couchsurfing website that there was a free walking tour – taking in some of the more unusual sights I wanted to see like the keyhole on the Aventine Hill [I’ll explain later], the statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the Bocca Della Verita, the Jewish Ghetto, Bernini’s elephant statue – starting at the Circus Maximus at 10:30am. All I needed was a bus ticket to get there. I had enough money for a single ticket but decided it would be more economical to buy a three day ticket, so I had to find an ATM. On finding it, the machine asked me if I wanted 20 or 50 euro. 20 would buy the ticket but not be enough for dinner too, so I plumped for 50. The machine gave me a 50 euro note. The ticket-buying machines said they accepted 50 euro notes, but didn’t. I tried more than one. It also didn’t accept cards. By then I was quite a distance from that first bank machine so I randomly picked a busy street and started walking, figuring that a busy shopping street would have another ATM sooner or later. I didn’t mind which direction I was walking in as I knew whenever I got my ticket I could just get a random bus. When I found another ATM it told me I was at my limit for the day, so was kinda trapped with a 50 euro note. I walked for a while, thinking I might be able to buy a ticket at the actual manned ticket booth at Termini. Halfway there, I realised I had another card which I don’t use often, but might just help me out. Trouble was, it wasn’t compatible with many ATMs. Certainly not the first one I tried. I’m not sure how I ended up on Via Merulana but I didn’t quite realise how far I’d walked until I reached San Giovanni in Laterano. Which I wouldn’t have minded seeing, but not right then. And it was completely in the opposite direction I’d wanted to go in! I retraced my steps, found an ATM that accepted my second card and realised just how gosh-darned hard I was pushing myself to walk fast. I accepted I’d missed the tour and wouldn’t be able to find them so I made a concerted effort to walk slowly and not go hell-for-leather. I walked to Termini and got the Metro to Spagna, as that was fairly central and could be the start of me conducting my own walking tour! It’s not easy to get a good photo of the Spanish Steps as they’re so busy, but if nothing else this shows how busy they are!IMAG0065And here’s me:

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As this was the first morning of my holiday and I had no real schedule, I decided to try and find a nearby gelateria called San Crispino, considered by many to be the best in Rome. When I arrived I couldn’t for the life of me work out why the door seemed to be locked on a Saturday, until I read the opening hours and realised it wasn’t yet 11am. Usually at home I’m still asleep at 11am! I had about 10 minutes to wait but fickle as I am I decided to try the next-best option, Giolitti, apparently a few streets away. Guidebooks say it may be past its best but as I’d never been there before, I would have nothing to compare it to. I got one scoop pistachio [which I was delighted to find contained whole pistachios] and a bright, sharp-tasting scoop of mint, taking it with me the two streets I roamed looking for the Pantheon.

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Most of Rome’s buildings from BC are ruins. The Pantheon – rebuilt in 126 AD – is still a working concern. Its Pagan origins led to consecration as a Christian church in 609. I ain’t a historian though, so have some pretty pictures of the bronze doors that were replaced in the 15th century.

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And the tomb of Victor Emanuele II:

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The interior is spectacular, cool marble surrounding the hole in the ceiling that’s constructed to let air and light in. The sunlight through this oculus causes circles of light inside the building, which I would have photographed had I a better camera! I went outside, leaning against a pillar and writing a postcard before taking a closer look at the fountain nearby.

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Aimlessly pottering after this, with a loose view to looking for Piazza Navona and instead found this dude, called Minerva’s Chick.

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I never did find Piazza Navona. I came out of the winding streets at a[nother] set of ancient ruins set behind plexiglass, which I recognised as Largo di Torre, a site of four excavated temples which historians believe contain the site of Julius Caesar’s murder. They say Shakespeare set the murder in the Forum as all the other action took place there, and simply wanted to save theatres have another set change. Whatever the truth, the truth now is that there’s a cat sanctuary there and I looked around through the ruins awhile, playing spot-the-cat.

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It was 11:55 and the sanctuary opened at 12 so I waited a while, considering how I didn’t want to wait at San Crispino for it to open. Priorities, eh? The volunteers vaccinate each cat, treating existing conditions and neuter all cats, to try and reduce problems in the future. Reading about the sanctuary on Tripadvisor I once again became annoyed at ridiculous comments like “This place smells of cats” or “It’s depressing, seeing blind cats”. I think the fact these cats have good care is anything but depressing! Yes, it was sad seeing a cat with no eyes [eye infections are rife with stray cats] but the soft grey cat in question had a comfortable place to stay, seemed fairly content and could have been a lot worse. I was mildly amused that a black, blind cat was called Stevie Wonder though… Their naming policy is odd. I have no idea what monstrous thing this particular cat did to get such an awful name:

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Here are some inmates.

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I had no food in my bag.

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Cats can read? In… English?

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Cat-garden:

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I couldn’t afford any of the souvenirs [a cloth shopping bag was 15 euro] so scrabbled around in my purse for some coins. I don’t think the other visitors I saw donated, but to be fair I was outside the door before I remembered, I had to come back in. They don’t have signs up asking, which is nice and unobtrusive but… leads to forgetting.

By now I thought going back to the hostel for a nap was a great idea, after a quick lunch. I found an Italian restaurant very near the hostel and I can find it on streetview, give you the address and describe the decor, but none of this is helping me find the name online. I had some garlic bruschetta with actual cloves of garlic and some fiore di zucca, or battered zucchini flowers. Sometimes this is cooked with mozzarella and I wonder if there was some in mine, as it contained more flavour than a deep-fried vegetable has right to have! Somewhere between a fishcake and a potato cake. Yeah, it tasted mildly fishy. No, I’m not a food writer. Can you tell? I felt perfectly comfortable eating alone anyway and I was totes indoors! After the food I couldn’t face going for a nap as there was a city to explore so I did a bit of bus hopping, finding [my favourite Piazza?] Piazza Campidoglio which was designed by Michelangelo and if you take one of the little side streets off the rear you have wonderful aerial views of the Forum and yes, this is where the statue of the she-wolf resides! I jumped a bus again, partly looking for a post office and partly just… looking. The heat was starting to properly bear down on me by this point though. Have I told you about the public drinking fountains? Clean, cold drinking water gettable from fountains dotted all over the city, placed strategically in popular tourist points and/or points that don’t get much shade. Bring a bottle and refill, these things are life-savers!

I’m not sure how to describe the Museum and Crypt of the Capuchin Monks. The top part – the above ground levels – is indeed a museum and I spent a lot of time reading about the lives of the order, how it has changed over the years, the significance of the hood shape, the lives of particular monks [some awaiting confirmation of sainthood] as I didn’t want to appear to be a bloodthirsty hag who just skipped immediately to BELOW. And the top level was very interesting. More interesting than the signage in the Forum, let me tell you. But most people do visit this museum because of BELOW. Below is monk bones. Not unusual for a crypt, you might say. But these monk bones are arranged. Into… collages? Tableau, anyhow. 4000 monks were used in the making of these pictures, often with a message of worship, or more commonly, making the use of time while you have it. Skulls are winged [a wing perhaps formed from half a pelvis?], hourglasses are winged; “Time flies” is the message here. Use it while you can. Photos aren’t allowed, but a few professional ones exist online for website purposes. Instead of describing any more, I’ll put one or two up.

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I was enjoying peace and quiet in the ossuary, some gentle chanting music being quietly piped in when I loud-voiced lady appeared, leading a tour group. I quietly raged, until I realised she was telling more information than the signs were given, so I slowed my pace to listen. After 10 minutes or so another tour group appeared, with an equally loud-voiced lady giving slightly different information, which gave me a fuller picture of the picture, as it were. I stood between the two groups and listened to both descriptions, pleased at my luck. Much like the cat sanctuary, I wouldn’t say it’s a depressing sight. Peaceful.

Being a cool dude, I went back to my room at 7pm, eating Pringles and reading for the rest of the evening. I checked the guest computer and slept my first proper sleep since getting to Italy. I slept like a stone through the night.

Roman Roamin’

September 12, 2014

If I don’t start writing about this holiday now, I’ll probably start to forget things! And if I forget things these entries will be shorter, which would never do. Writing about the actual process of travel isn’t that exciting, so I’ll get it out of the way. I got the 2:30am bus and instead of being empty like I expected, it was pleasantly busy with Dublin airport-bound folks. I slept part of the way on the bus, meaning that annoyingly when I tried to sleep on the plane, I was wide awake and trying to suppress my restless legs. I found Donna and Gemma quite easily in Ciampino airport, and the first meeting with Gemma went pretty well, with smiles and excitement and enthusiasm. We fried a little in the sun but only had to wait 20 minutes for the Terravision bus. I refused to take my denim jacket off, as then I would have to carry it. I also refused to search in my case for my sunhat. Laziness is a terrible thing. When we arrived in the city centre I consulted [one of] my map[s] and managed to get us about three quarters of the way to our hotel. Unfortunately I then became slightly confused as I mixed the back of the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore up with the front [the back was so ornate it never occurred to us it was the back]. Gemma took the map and edged us slightly forward and we suddenly figured out the problem.

When we got to Mia Lodge we were delighted at the things that we hoped it would have, but weren’t 100% sure. It had an elevator! A fridge! When in Rome, you’ll find a fridge for your drinks is a necessary thing. I’d been kind of wanting to write little paths and cafe locations on my maps but because I’d borrowed them from my friend Steve I realised I couldn’t. All this was solved when Georgia from the hostel gave us an introductory talk about Rome, circling things on her pad of tear-off disposable maps and giving me the idea to do the same on the one she gave us. We had a triple room [one set of bunks and one single] and it was clean and peaceful, with a ceiling fan and unexpected balcony, greeted delightedly by smoker Gemma. Our room faced an inner courtyard and as we were on the third floor, we barely had any outside noise. For the first night of our stay there wasn’t anyone at all staying on the same floor as us and when the other guests did arrive they were two very quiet girls. Relief, exhaustion and peace & quiet dictated that we all napped. So we did.
Courtyard:
10704192_10154600294875694_1232735173466002491_nWe’d decided before we left that the plan for the first day was to wander, looking at things that were either free or just looking at things from the outside. No point booking tickets to see expensive things if we were all too tired to enjoy them. Georgia had told us that the Colosseum was at the bottom of our street [Via Cavour] so we decided to start walking towards there and head wherever the wind took us. Well, I say “wherever the wind took us”, but I had a fairly specific idea of where I wanted to go… The first thing the girls did was get a gelato but I declined, holding out in some kind of protest, waiting until we reached a gelateria that was guidebook-recommended. Our first glance of the Colosseum was scaffolding-side, so we didn’t take any photos until we got to a more familiar view.It’s certainly stare-worthy, but the Roman Forum is right beyond it which means that whichever direction you look, there are ancient ruins, precariously standing tall and well-preserved, with bermuda-shorted tourists pointing cameras at them. We were starting right in the centre of everything! Stopping frequently to look down at the Forum from the viewing stations set up along the street, we meandered towards what we soon found out was the Vittorio Emanuel II Monument, built to remember the first King of the United Italy. An imposing white building which manages to fit in pillars, marble, gilt, steps and statues of horse-riders, it’s very busy aesthetically and tourist-wise. Posing for a few photos on the steps we heard a far-off whistle, only realising it was directed at us when the security guard came running over to tell us [in mime] that standing and climbing were fine, but sitting was not allowed. Still, we got this!

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Then I stood up. See the area with the statue against the gold background? That’s the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We couldn’t understand at the time why machine-gun wielding soldiers were on guard, thinking it was just… a statue. The flame you might be able to see is a memorial to Italy’s war dead.

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Directly facing us from our vantage point on those steps we could see Via del Corso, one of Italy’s main shopping streets and straight as a die, in the Roman tradition of building roads going straight from A to B, no messing. I also had a fairly good idea that the Trevi Fountain was somewhere in this direction and although I’d heard it was under restoration and currently had no water in it, I figured it would be worth a look. Like I said earlier, Rome is full of surprises, excavations and pillars around every corner. When you’ve been there for a while you get to realise when one is coming up. You see a square [or ‘Piazza’] ahead, the street you’re walking along begins to get brighter, light up ahead. Not so with Trevi though! It backs onto a building and isn’t in a particularly spacious area, so you’re likely to come upon it by surprise. It’s a superstition that visitors to Rome are supposed to throw a coin in the Trevi Fountain if they want to return. Because of the current lack of water, this is frowned upon as the coins hitting the dry cement is chipping the plaster, so they’ve set up a tiny ‘Temporary Trevi’ for your coins. There’s also a bridge going across the fountain so you can get closer to the parts of it that aren’t being worked upon. You can cross this bridge for 2 euro…

Temporary Trevi:
IMAG0068IMAG0069We were pretty near the Spanish Steps by this point but as we were all pretty sleepy Donna suggested we stop for food. We ended up eating outdoors at a place called Al Caminetto and I tried Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe which is spaghetti noodles cooked with black pepper [which gives it a kick] and pecorino cheese which is not unlike parmesan. It sounds plain, but was anything but, almost having too much flavour for me! Delicious! Feeling duly fortified, we made our way to the Spanish Steps and climbed to the top, chatting to two American men on the way, me reading to them from my guidebook about the history of the steps. I was amused reading reviews of the Steps on Tripadvisor. Some people indignantly exclaimed “They’re just steps!” The clue’s kinda in the name, guys… As the Pantheon was free and also apparently nearby we tried to find it along with Piazza Navona, but both eluded us although we were following the signs. The next few days showed me that while most are correct, some signs in Rome are definitely pointing the wrong way! In the end Gemma just pointed at an obelisk in the distance and we walked towards it, discovering on arrival that it was the rather beautiful Piazza Del Popolo which is overlooked by the Pincio Gardens. We were too tired to do much more than sit at the fountain listening to the emo kids play Metallica and Green Day on their ipods and we chilled out a while, eventually getting the metro back from Flaminio to Termini, which was the nearest station to our hotel. We were in our pyjamas by 9pm and while we stayed up chatting and didn’t sleep right away, none of us were up for a night out. It had been a long day!

Thursday was to be an early morning for us as we had Vatican Museum reservations for 10:30am. I once again had to tread the line between reminding the girls that we had a reservation but gritting my teeth to stop myself from actually mentioning the words “hurry”, “up”, and “late”. The fact that I hadn’t slept might not have helped. I always have trouble sleeping on the first night in a new place. Silently, grimly throwing psychic waves at them eventually worked, and we arrived at the museum just a little after 10:30. Such a relief to breeze past the insane queue against what looked like a fortress wall, telling the ticket touts “It’s okay, we have ours!”10675609_852464241438164_3985848452495695417_n

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Now, inside was mostly art. I tend not to take photos of great works of art as I figure my camera won’t do them justice and if I want to see them, there will be amazing professional photographs of them online. The photos I take on holiday tend to be of… me. Sorry! Mainly because there ain’t no-one else going to take pictures of me. Also, inside the Sistine Chapel specifically [it’s part of the Vatican Museums] there are signs up saying No Photography. Donna got one of the ceiling though.

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Yes, we saw this in real life! We had to struggle through these crowds to get there though.

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So obviously progress through the rooms preceding the Sistine was slow. It gave us time to appreciate the art though, and when we finally got to the Sistine we were very glad to sit down on some benches they have along the walls and just stare at the ceiling, leading to a condition I call ‘Vatican Neck’. Just think, Michelangelo lay back flat on a board laid atop a ladder to paint that ceiling. It took him four years. When he was commissioned to do it he was known for sculpture and didn’t consider himself a painter at all. He thought he might as well give it the old college try. That wasn’t the only painted ceiling though. Check out this average staircase:

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And I found a mini-Sphinx.

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After a few hours we found the spiral staircase exit, and exited. After photos of exiting.

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After all this, we were lured into Giuly’s Cafe on Via Santamaura by the promise of 7 euro pizza. Or rather, they were. I had my eye on something different: Pizza Bianca. Basically a pizza base without sauce and sometimes without cheese. Just a crisp base, flavoured with olive oil and in this case, rosemary. I really enjoyed the cheeseless treat but would love to try one with mozzarella sometime. I’m all about sampling the local delicacies. Then it was time for the other part of The Vatican: St. Peter’s Square and Basilica. How does one make a Basilica look even more Holy than it already does? Surround it with pillars. Lots of pillars. This is exactly what Bernini did. We’re not experts with the old panoramic photography, but here’s Gemma attempting to show the scale of the collonade beside the Basilica.

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And for even more scale, here I embrace an individual pillar.

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Of course, as this is the square where the Pope makes his public addresses, we have some chairs set out for Pope-fans.
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The Vatican have their own ‘police’, the Swiss Guard. Interesting uniforms:
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It’s free to enter the Basilica, but you have to queue for security, and the queue snakes round most of the square. It probably took us half an hour of waiting, which is nothing really. You do have to pay to climb the dome though. You can pay 5 euro and climb around 550 steps, or pay 7 euro and take the elevator up part of the way then climb roughly 330. We were exhausted by this point, so it was a no-brainer. Before you reach the summit there’s an interior viewing level where you are inside the dome and can look down into the Basilica, or around you at the mosaics covering it. You can touch them! As a dome connoisseur by this point [it’s kinda my thing when I go to a big city; climbing the dome] I can say that St. Peter’s is a thoroughly pleasant climb. One way staircases which means you don’t have to hold your breath and flatten yourself against the wall when someone comes along in the opposite direction. Well-lit, tiled walls, wide stairs. Of course, by the last 20 or so steps you’re in a very tightly winding spiral staircase which has no room for a bannister so instead a rope hangs down from the top and you can grasp it to keep yourself steady. But we need a bit of a challenge, don’t we, folks?

View from the top!
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Me obscuring the view.
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What I especially loved is that, since the staircase to go up is one way, the staircase down is on the opposite side of the dome. There’s a little gift shop at the bottom of the steps, just before you get the elevator to take you the rest of the way and the only way you can reach this particular shop is if you’ve made it to the top and find this staircase down. A gift shop staffed entirely by nuns selling beautiful pieces of jewellery, ornament, religious iconography… They don’t even have cash registers, they add the prices up on calculator. It’s so… non-consumerish.

After our climb we deserved a gelato and I lifted my embargo on non-guidebook recommended places. I had a tub with one scoop lemon and one scoop creme caramel. We walked down to the side of the River Tiber and looked at the water for a while, admiring the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge and the Castel Sant’Angelo behind us.
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A quick dash to the 40 Express bus back to Termini was our first overground journey and gave us real perspective on the city, spotting things we recognised and things we were intrigued by. It made us feel like it was all more real, somehow. A nap followed and Gemma and Donna had a small balcony picnic in our room, whereas I was holding out for a quick bite in a cafe later. At around 10pm we headed to a nearby cafe, the one where our breakfast vouchers were for. I tried a mushroom pate bruschetta and a filetti di baccala which is basically a small battered piece of cod. Not really any different than what we would get in a chip shop here, but at least I tried! The bruschetta was great. I headed to bed at around 11pm while the others decided to try to find some Roman nightlife. I wished them well, but needed my bed!