Thursday and Friday: art lessons, old favorites and going home

Thursday

I was too busy trying to cram in all the last minute details to do any blogging, so I am writing this final blog from the plane.

I got up very early and made a last run down to the ATM. I had it in my mind to do some panning shots with the camera on the way back. I had a vision of seeing Gregory Peck on a green, white and red Vespa (never mind the small detail that he is dead) and stopping him while keeping the background blurry, creating that feeling of movement. Well, let me tell you that the Vespas don't come by on cue, and even when you do fnd a scooter rider, they think you are weird when they see you panning them with your camera.

These three are the best panning shots I could do. I will keep practicing! I like the guy in his little green three wheeled truck best.

 

Jose came to give Genene a sketching lesson early in the morning. He brought her a gift of a beautiful set of coloring pencils, some quality paper, and a clipboard. He explained to her how important it was to use good paper. Good pencils like good paper. Their lesson gave Greg and me the perfect opportunity to get our things packed. Genene and Jose spent the first hour in the living room, making a sketch from an oil painting on the wall. I heard Jose telling her several times, “And now I'm going to show you a little secret.” They spent the second hour on the rooftop terrace, sketching a church dome. Genene soaked it up like sponge.

Between packing, I also stared out the window of the terrace. I watched an artist creating an image of Jesus in colored chalk on the plaza in front of the church across the street from us, Sant'Andrea delle Fratte.

 

I could not make out whether the artist was a man, but I think he was, in spite of the braided pony tail. A beggar woman (perhaps his wife) and her young child sat in the doorway of the church, waiting for people to put money in their basket. Using my telephoto lens, I captured mother and son in an unguarded, tender moment.

 

At the end of two hours, Genene and Jose came down off the terrace hot and sweaty. I have never seen Genene so proud of herself. With Jose's kind instruction, she had produced a wonderful little colored sketch of San Carlo.

 

We said our goodbyes to Jose. We gave him the cheeses and olives out of our refrigerator that we would not have time to eat. We shook hands, hugged and kissed him goodbye. I tried not to cry. Genene immediately said that she was going to miss him. We went out to the terrace to see if we could wave one last goodbye, but he was lost to us in the winding Roman streets. Thank goodness for email. We will stay in touch.

On the last day of any vacation, we try not to do anything radical or new. We use it as a chance to revisit favorites for the last time. We went downstairs and got a last sandwich from the shop. We thanked the people there for being so nice to us and said our goodbyes.

We went souvenir shopping all around our neighborhood. Genene and I enjoyed walking in the streets and into the shops.

 

Greg wanted a new belt for his birthday. I was thinking that he might want to go to a fancy shop on Via Condotti, but he found a leather store on Tritone and in ten minutes had his belt picked out, cut and fit to size, paid for and done. He's no fun when it comes to shopping! Genene got a Pinocchio hand puppet and she was done. We stopped back by the apartment for a refreshing Coke. I had more shopping to do, so I left Greg napping and Genene making Pinocchio dance.

I went back out to finish the souvenir shopping and to satisfy a curiousity. After going to Castel Sant'Angelo and the bridge, I did some reading about it on the magic internet (thanks, Al Gore). I read that Bernini's “Angel with the Crown of Thorns” on the Ponte Sant'Angelo bridge was actually a copy. It is one of the most artistically significant of the angels, as it is said to be the artist's self-portrait. The internet said that the original was in Sant'Andrea delle Fratte!!! This is the church right across the street from our apartment. I mentioned this to Jose, but he did not know about it and said I should go check it out. He advised me to just stroll into the church like “you know what you are doing.” I did. The Bernini was under our noses all along!!

 

Exhiliarated by “finding” a Bernini original right in the hood, I came back out into the sunlight and finished my stroll. I found Greg and Genene awake when I returned. We sat on the terrace for a while, and Genene sketched the bell tower of Sant'Andrea while Greg had a beer and I drank a glass of wine. She was so proud of her work that she made me take a photo of it and email it to Jose, who immediately responded and told her that he would cherish the photo. How sweet!

We got ready for the passeggiata and dinner. We passed by our regular gelato shop, and the young man behind the counter called out to Genene, “Ciao, bella!” We loved this young man. He was a dead ringer for Mr. Bean and knew it. He would dish out the gelato while doing his imitation, much to Genene's delight. Sadly, that “Ciao, Bella!” was to be the last thing we said to each other. We had intended to come back for gelato later that evening but stayed too long at dinner and returned to find his shop shuttered. We will have to come back another time. We've all thrown coins in the Trevi Fountain, so we know we will be back someday.

We strolled to Pietro al Pantheon for our last dinner out. Of all the restaurants we had been, we liked this one best. It was quaint, two tables wide, with real Italian charm and house red wine by the liter, served cool in a pitcher.

 

They recognized us and greeted us very warmly. We got same waiter, who took good care of us. Greg was going to order some fried artichokes and he looked conspiratorily at Greg and put a finger to his lips and shook his head “no”. We took his hint and had the fried zucchini flowers, and they were the best we had in Rome. Toward the end of the meal, the old lady came out from the back and greeted Genene warmly and introduced us all to her grown daughter. We ate like kings and queens and met the family. What more could you want?

We strolled back by the Trevi Fountain one last time. All of us had taken turns throwing coins into the fountain (more than once) so there was no need to do more than blow it a kiss, watch the crowds for a minute and keep walking.

It was about 11:30 PM, and we were amazed at how quiet the streets were. I don't know if there is some particular reason why Thursday should be a quieter night, or perhaps we were out just a little later than usual. Anyway, it was nice to stroll along without being pushed or shoved. There were still plenty of people around so it felt safe, but it was no longer crowded.

Of course, we headed down to the Spanish Steps. We found a gelato shop there that was still open and sat down to eat the cold, creamy dessert on the steps. It seemed that most of the people on the steps were young Americans. What fun it would be to be young and in Rome for the summer! Even the pesky street vendors had slowed down some. We only got a couple of offers to buy things, and no one tried to force a flower into my hand. It was nice.

Genene sketched an open window she saw from across the piazza.

 

We sat on the steps and waited for the clock to strike midnight so we could wish Greg a happy birthday. He turned 60 years old sitting there on those steps. We've all had worse birthdays than that.

 

We strolled back to our apartment and went to bed. It was a perfect end to a perfect day.

Friday

Our driver arrived early and was waiting for us at the front doorstep. He drove us straight up Janiculum Hill, and we realized we had never been there. Fourteen days in Rome, and we only scratched its surface. When we booked this trip, we wondered if we were staying too long. Now I know that we could never see it all.

We did not have access to a printer in our apartment so we tried to use the British Airways app to put boarding passes on our iPhones. After much effort, Greg and I managed to get ours on the phone, but we never could get Genene's pass to appear. Just as we got to the front of the line, Greg's phone locked up and he could not get his boarding pass retrieved. Ultimately we asked the nice lady to print all of our boarding passes, since she had to print Genene's anyway. Paper doesn't run out of batteries or crash.

The airport in Rome is sprawling and we had to take a train to get to our gate. Along the way, we had to go through a passport control area and clear security. Still, we made it to the gate in plenty of time, only to find that our gate did not have any British Airways flights leaving from it. We looked around for a bit and found that they had moved us over one gate, so we made our way over. The gate area was not adequate for the numbers of people that use it. There probably were not more than 50 chairs, and there were hundreds of people waiting for the plane. People were sprawled out on the floors. After a while, our flight disappeared off the gate sign, and another later British Airways flight appeared in its place. We thought, what now? A man at the gate told everyone “not to worry,” and that this would be our gate. I couldn't relax until about 20 minutes later when they opened the gate and put the right flight on it. That all seemed very confusing to me. Jose had commented upon those kinds of quirks several times during our tour. For instance, once we went into a practically empty parking lot, and the electronic sign board marked it as “full.” Lino and Jose had chuckled and said, “Welcome to Italy.”

After the initial confusion, our flight went off without a hitch and arrived at London's Heathrow on time. We only had an hour to make our connection. One of our experienced traveling friends had warned us not to do this, while another friend who is also familiar with Heathrow said we could hitch up our skirts and get it done. The tight connection suited us in terms of total travel time so we had gambled. It worked on the way over. We prepared our gear and told Genene that we would be running through the airport. Turns out we need not have worried. When we got into the terminal, a man from British Airways was waiting for us holding up a sign with our flight number and Houston on it. I spotted him immediately and he said, “Three of you then? Gordons and Aylett. How easy was that?” We had our own personal tourguide through Heathrow. He shepherded us through the entire process from the entry gate and fasttracked us through security and to our gate. British Airway's service was impressive, and we made our connection in plenty of time.

Our flight from London to Houston was uneventful, but I have never in my life been on a plane with more screaming babies. We were surrounded! We counted nine in the seat rows directly in front and back of us. One in front bellowed her lungs out without ceasing, and a toddler just behind me made a game of straightening his new little legs while bracing them on my seat. No one seems to be in a hurry to change diapers any more either. That one baffles me. I will never win “Mother of the Year,” but I NEVER let Genene sit around in a stinking diaper.

Our flight landed in Houston 15 minutes early. We made it through immigration and customs very efficiently, and our cab driver had us at our door by 8:00 PM. From the time we left the apartment in Rome to the time we hit our front door, 18 1/2 hours had elapsed. We were beat. Genene has already gone to bed, and we are eating some bean soup thoughtfully left for us by Greg's sister. As much fun as it has been, it will be nice to sleep in our own bed again. As Dorothy says, “There's no place like home.”

PARTING THOUGHTS

I have had fun sharing the photos, and I am really glad that Santa brought this new camera. I am still learning how to use it, but it is a vast improvement over my old point-and-shoot. Best of all, learning a few things about how to adjust the camera gave me a lot more flexibility in terms of getting the shot.

For those of you camera nerds, I want to share one “best buy.” Before the trip, I bought a Black-Rapid R Strap, the RS-5 cargo strap. It is the best thing I got for this trip. It's a thick wide strap. The fastener screws into the tripod socket on the camera, so that the camera hangs upside down with the lens pointing down. The strap is worn across the shoulder, so that it goes over your right shoulder and the camera hangs at your left arm just at or below the waist (or you can set it up the other way if you're a righty). It makes the camera virtually impossible to steal. It is right at your fingertips, and the weight is very evenly distributed across your shoulder so that you can carry it all day. Best of all, there is room for other things on the strap. It has a pouch big enough for an iPhone. There are two zipper pockets that are roomy enough to hold credit cards, money, an extra camera battery and an extra memory card. Most of the time, this is the only thing I left the apartment carrying. I did not carry a purse because everything was right in the strap. It's a very handy thing to have, and I highly recommend it.

The best gift we gave ourselves during the trip was getting the guidance of Jose. I know I have been singing his praises, but I want to do so one last time. He is a patient, kind teacher. He knows the tricks and and the traps to avoid and got us through every place with a minimum of waiting or standing in line. He clearly loves Rome and wants to show the beautiful city to everyone. His passion is evident. He had something to give to each of us. He made the myths come alive for Genene. He showed me some of the most beautiful works of art that have been produced by man. He showed Greg beautiful works of nature. He is a man of many interests and talents, and if you ever want a fabulous guide in Rome, you should check him and his work out here.

We tried to do a lot more on this trip than we usually do. I think my blogs suffered as a consequence. We saw so much in a day that I just did not have the time or energy to write it down. I hope I can read more about the things I saw later so I can put it all together in my mind. A few thousand years of history is hard to fathom or process…in two weeks or in a lifetime.

I will give my standard disclaimer about the blog. I usually write them at night when Greg and Genene are watching TV or in bed, and many times the blogs suffer from a lack of good editing. I reread a couple of them after posting and saw gross spelling errors and grammar problems. I promise that I do know the difference between a statue and a statute. I use a lot more of one of them than the other at work, so my fingers naturally want to type statute. I apologize for the errors and hope you will overlook them. I write the blogs as a way of sharing with my friends and family and as a way for Genene to remember. Mostly, I write them for myself. On a bad day at work, I can dust one off and read it and be transported.

Rick Steves writes in his Europe Through the Back Door, “Travel is intensified living, maximum thrills per minute and one of the last great sources of legal adventure. Travel is freedom. It's recess and we need it.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Thanks for coming with me to Rome.

Ciao!

 

Wednesday: Villa D’Este and Villa Gregoriana

Today was our last formal tour with Jose and our last ride with Lino, and we were taking a day trip out to Tivoli. The original plan had been to tour Hadrian's Villa and Villa D'Este, but Jose suggested that we might want to give Villa Gregoriana a try in place of one of the villas on the original itinerary. I think some of it was natural curiosity on his part. The park is fairly new, and he had not been there so it would be a chance for discovery for all of us. It is a nature park, filled with grottoes and waterfalls. After all the great art, beautiful museums, and castles, we were ready for a nature walk. We pounced upon the idea of Gregoriana. For once, Jose made us make the decision on which of the other two villas to skip, and we eliminated Hadrian's Villa. Our reasoning was the Hadrian's Villa was more ancient and in ruins, having been constructed by the emperor as a pleasure retreat in the second century AD. In contract, Villa D'Este is more “modern,” having been constructed in the 1500's. D'Este also has the advantage of being smaller in scope and more manageable. We were very pleased with our decision. It was a gorgeous, idyllic place.

Our day started at 8:00 when Lino and Jose arrived promptly at our doorstep. We left town the same way as when we headed out to Pompeii, and miles before the sulfur zone (at which Greg and I were falsely accused of passing gas), Lino started giggling and making comments to Jose. We all got plenty of chances to accuse each other. Jose got a lot of mileage out of his best joke. On the first day in the car, Lino had worn a suit and tie. We had told him that was not necessary, so he had on an open shirt when we went to Pompeii. Jose said, “When Lino takes off his tie, he lets go with the smell.” From high art to toot jokes, Jose can do it all. Of course, Genene loved it.

We decided to see Villa D'Este first, and we had the place all to ourselves in the first hour. It was magical. Villa d'Este was commissioned by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este, who was the son of Alfonso I d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia. He was also the grandson of Pope Alexander VI. Jose delicately explained to Genene that the pope was not supposed to have a family, but sometimes the popes were “naughty.” It would have taken a person about four hours by horseback or carriage from Rome to get to the villa, comparable to modern-day Houstonians who get a place in the Hill Country outside San Antonio. It was a getaway. The cardinal wanted to create a Renaissance showplace, and he succeeded. It is a garden of dancing waters. The fountains are marvels of hydraulic engineering. Franz Liszt was a guest of the cardinal here and was inspired to write “Les Jeux d'Eaux à la Villa d'Este.”

The grounds were beautiful, with spectacular views of the valley below. Best of all, in the morning the villa provides shade, and we were actually cool. What a relief! Genene enjoyed getting wet and running around freely. Jose stopped her from time to time to tell her stories of mythology or to point out significant details, but she had a lot of free range roaming, which she thoroughly enjoyed.

A view from the Villa garden.

From one of the many terraces.

 

The happy family enjoying a day at the Cardinal's pleasure palace.

Beautiful fountains adorn the entire garden area. Many of them have been restored so that they operate hydraulically, but some have not been completely restored and have some electric assistance.

 

One of Genene's favorite fountains had a set of doors which opened promptly at 10:30 AM, revealing an organ that played automatically. Can you imagine the engineering feat it took to operate all of this?

A wall of fountains and greenery known as The Hundred Fountains.

 

The fountains and pools are spectacular.

Genene and Jose look for fish.

 

The vistas are breathtaking.

Romulus and Remus suckle at the she-wolf.

 

Genene got a kick out of this fountain, which Jose described as “Abundance.”

Some of the fountains depict areas of ancient Rome.

More fabulous views.

 

We spent all morning wandering these grounds, and it was simply fantastic. The shaded gardens and the gentle spray from the fountains kept us cool. Jose stuck his head under one of the Hundred Fountains, and Genene immediately imitated, drawing a gentle admonition from one of the groundskeepers. He told us that the water was river water, not clean. (He didn't see Genene in Naples.)

We headed over to Villa Gregoriana at lunchtime and picked up some simple sandwiches before plotting our walk. Villa Gregoriana is nature park. In 1835, Pope Gregory XVI commissioned engineers to rebuild the bed of the Aniene River, which had been damaging the city repeatedly by flooding. The ambitious project diverted the flow, saved the town, and enhanced some spectacular waterfalls. The area is filled with cliffs, grottoes, and archaeological ruins from different eras. It is a great place for a walk in the woods.

The town of Tivoli from the entrance of Villa Gregoriana.

The park trail generally runs in a horseshoe-shaped switchback down to the valley floor and up the other side. There are side trails for viewing the caves, water, and ruins. Genene loved running down the trails. I tried to warn her that what goes down in this case must come back up, but kids will be kids, and she rushed ahead with abandon.

Water flows in and out of the grottoes.

Views of the waterfalls.
Toward the end, Genene's energy flagged, but she made it out under her own power and even managed a big smile for the camera.
 
Jose treated us to gelato at a restaurant with a nice view.

 

We rode back to Rome, exhilarated from our day in the country. Because we spent much of the day in shade, we did not feel as tired as we have felt on some other days.

We left Lino at the doorstep, and he gave each of us the double-cheeked kiss that I thought only the French did. Greg was surprised but did it like a man right out on the street. Genene gave Lino a goodbye hug.

Jose has been wanting to do some sketching with Genene, but we have always been on the run. Genene enjoys art of all kinds at school, so she welcomes the chance to get to draw. I was so glad when he offered to come by our apartment in the morning, to have one last bit of time with Genene. I really did not want to say goodbye to him on the streets and am happy he is coming for a final visit in the morning. I am not sure how we will tell him how grateful we are for his kindness to us and particularly to Genene. He has brought this city to life for us all. I feel as if we have a friend in Rome now.

We had dinner at home and will probably go out later for the passeggiata, the evening stroll. I love this Roman ritual. When the sun casts its last golden glow, the people–young and old–come out for the walk. They come to see and be seen, to get supplies for the next day, to go to dinner, and all of that. Growing up in Nashville, Arkansas, we all went out to “drag Main.” It's a bit like the same thing, only the Romans do it on their feet instead of in their parents' old Chevrolet.

Excuse me while I go drag Rome.

 

Tuesday night at Piazza Navona

We had a nice evening out. We ate well at a restaurant just off the piazza. I had a goat cheese and pepper pasta with a sea bass entree. Greg can't get enough of the beef. Genene devoured an entire pizza.

Best of all, we struck up a conversation with a girl at the next table who was dining alone. She was a young American. She is marketing for Loyola University and will be in Rome for a year. Her Italian was impressive, and the waiter was so much more solicitous of her. I think she was glad for us to talk with her because it kept her from being more forcefully courted. She was young, pretty, and confident. Her parents must be so proud of her. I hope that Genene will be that poised in a few years.

As we dined, acrobats performed, and street musicians strolled. It was a nice night. I don't have much to say, but I thought a few pictures would be nice.

Piazza Navona with Sant'Agnes in Agone in the background.

People strolling along the piazza.

 

Genene gets right into the action with the street vendors. By the time we got home, the balloons had completely deflated.

 

Neptune is still slaying the octopus, even at night. A god never sleeps.

The piazza is alive with artists, street musicians and performers, well into the Roman night.

 

We strolled back by the Pantheon on the way home. The fountains there are interesting, especially in the evening light.

This is why people should drink from the up-spout instead of the down-spout.

Crazy Genene runs in the moonlight in front of the Pantheon.

 

Tuesday: Castel Sant’Angelo and Ponte Sant’Angelo

Today was another free day, and we chose to head over to Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel). We took our first ride on the Metro, and it was uneventful. The Metro in Rome is not as useful as the trains in New York or Paris. Those cities have several lines that intersect at grids throughout the city, creating a spider web of connections. Rome has only two lines, A and B, and they cross in the center of the city in an X (or maybe it's another cross, come to think of it). One reason their rail lines are not as extensive is because excavation in this city is so problematic. Any time someone starts digging, they find more ruins and antiquities, so it is impossible to get things done.

As I said, our ride was easy, but as always when riding an underground train, I get completely turned around. So did Greg, so we walked a big block in precisely the wrong direction. I finally asked an old man filling up his bottle at a fountain, and he got us pointed in the right direction. I know only a few words of Italian from listening to CDs in the car. I had learned “right” and “left” and armed with that knowledge and the old man's hand gestures, even I was able to get the gist of what he was saying. We were soon oriented properly.

An aside about language….Greg has been doing all the speaking and listening in Italian. He took classes from the Italian Cultural and Community Center in Houston, and he has done really well. People appreciate his efforts and respond very kindly to them and to him. I find that I can get along with English and a few of the niceties (like please, thank you, good day, goodbye, where is? and so on). In France, the native people respond to our bungling attempts with perfect English. It is as if they appreciate the effort but cannot stand to hear their language butchered. The Italians will keep trying to respond to you in Italian, and they will help you when you are failing.

Anyway, back to today's adventure. Our map of the city is not true to scale, a fact we discovered on this journey. What looked like a short stroll from the Metro stop was actually a long haul, and we were already hot and tired before we got to the Castel Sant'Angelo. We perked ourselves up with overpriced Cokes and fruit cups before hitting the line.

Castel Sant'Angelo began as Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum. Not even an emperor could be entombed inside Rome's walls, so Hadrian did the next best thing. He got the most commanding piece of real estate just across the Tiber and built a huge monument to himself in AD 139. For about 100 more years, other emperors were entombed in this place.

In the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great (that's what Greg is calling himself these days) saw a vision of the Archangel Michael over the Castel. The angel sheathed his sword, signaling the end of a plague. Thus Hadrian's mausoleum got a new name.

The Castel served many purposes through the years, and structures were built right on top of Hadrian's tomb. In the Dark Ages, it was a fortress and a prison. In 1277, it was connected to the Vatican at the pope's request and became the last refuge for popes under threat or siege. The connection was made via a raised corridor. Apparently the Castel was used quite a bit as a papal hideout, for it was decorated in the manner suited to a pope, complete with frescoes, apartment, bed-chamber, receiving rooms, and the treasury.

This is a view of the Castel from the Ponte Sant'Angelo.

 

The interior of the Castel offered refuge to us from the brutal Roman sun. I enjoyed walking in the lower part, which was Hadrian's burial area.

We only got one audio guide, and Genene hogged it the entire time. I'm not sure how much she actually listens, but she loves finding the numbers and pressing the corresponding buttons. A few days ago, I was laughing about how we had avoided this fate by using Jose. On our own today, we became those tourists wandering around from numbered item to numbered item with the box stuck to our ears.
 

We ascended into the light to find more another angel (or two).

 

The views from the Castel are among the most stunning in Rome. I can imagine the Pope strolling around from the safety of this defensive perch, surveying the city.

Genene and Greg take it all in.

A different perspective on the same idea.

A representation of the pope's vision of the Archangel adorns the top of the Castel. Unfortunately, the view is marred by some kind of cabling in the background that I could not avoid, no matter the angle I tried. If I were better at controlling depth of field, perhaps I could have made that junk disappear. I'm still learning this new camera.

 

Genene and I enjoy a lunch with a view. That's the Vatican in the background.

 

The fortress was constructed right atop Hadrian's mausoleum.

 

The Castel was made for defense, and reminders of its old “job” are everywhere.

 

The pope's walkway to safety from the Vatican is visible here. Can't you just see him running along, robes hitched up high?

You can see a better view of the entire walkway (the arched structure at right) in the next photo. The dome of St. Peter's Basilica is peeking up on the left side of the photo.

 

For me, the star of the show in this area is the Ponte Sant'Angelo (Bridge of the Holy Angel). Built by Hadrian to connect his mausoleum to the city center, the bridge was for centuries the only access across the Tiber to the Vatican, so it was a pilgrim's way. The bridge also served as a macabre gallery of sorts. Beheadings took place near the bridge, and the heads were hung from the Castel. According to Rick Steves, the locals said, “There are more heads at Castel Sant'Angelo than there are melons in the market.”

What I love about the bridge are the statues of angels that adorn it. Each angel represents a passion of the Christ (whips, crown, nails, throne, lance, etc.). They are beautiful and evocative, and I think they were posing for me today. I apologize now for overdoing it on the photos, but I just love these.

Angel with the Sponge.

Angel with the Lance.

Angel with the Cross.

Angel with the Nails.
Angel with the Garment and Dice.
Angel with the Crown of Thorns.

Angel with the Whips.

Angel with the Sudarium.
Angel with the Throne.

 

We decided not to slog back to the Metro stop, as it was already 2:00 PM and broiling hot outside. We found a cab and made it back to the apartment very quickly. I am glad we tried the Metro, but I am shocked at the difference in time it took going out and coming back. We must have spent over an hour riding the train and walking, and the cab ride took about seven minutes. To me, it is worth the price difference. Time is at a premium now, and I know I cannot see it all.

I haven't even scratched the surface of this place. I know I have had a nice long vacation, but I am starting to have that familiar, sad feeling I get toward the end of each trip. I know that I am on the waning side of the vacation, and the clock is ticking. It won't all get done. My job is to “be here now” and stay happy. I console myself by saying that Rome has been here for thousands of years and will be here for me when I return.

Enough of the pity party! We just finished our siesta and are heading out to dinner. We are going to stroll over to Piazza Navona. We have been there in the day but not at night, and I have heard there is much to see. I will post a supplemental blog if I see anything cool tonight.

Ciao for now!

Monday: picnic in the park and a night at the opera

This post will be short, as we gave ourselves a light day after the Pompeii excursion. We all stayed in our underwear until after noon. We decided that we would go back to Villa Borghese and rent another rickshaw and ride go-carts and bicycles. We packed a picnic and took the short stroll up to the park.

At our urging, Genene struck a Greek goddess pose.

After an hour in the rickshaw, we rented two carts and one bicycle. Greg was a gentlemen and rode the cart for much of the time. Those things were rickety and hard to get to go.

 

We came home at 5:00 PM or so, hot and exhausted as usual. We took our showers, and Greg fixed a great meal at home. He bought pesto at the supermarket and we ate a leisurely meal and sat on the balcony and watched the crowds go by.

After stumbling across last week's opera on the Spanish Steps, I read more about it via the magic of the internet. Turns out it is a weekly event in the summertime, so we decided to go back. The show was the same, but I still enjoyed it. The views are stunning, and this is opera as it was meant to be heard, in Italian by Italians. We were amazed at how many people were singing along in the crowd. If I ever figure out how to post up videos, I will send some of these out as a supplemental post. For now, I will just offer the still photos. There was also a dance interlude, Genene's favorite part.

 

One of the crowd favorites was Bizet's “Chanson du Toreador” from Carmen, and everyone was singing along. Of course, all I could think of was the “Gilligan's Island” episode when they all decide to do the musical version of Hamlet, and they set that song to different lyrics. I walked home singing, “Neither a borrower, nor a lender be. Do not forget. Stay out of debt…..” The earworm will be singing to me all night.

 

Sunday: Pompeii

On the afternoon of August 24, 79 AD, the residents of Pompeii watched as the mountain five miles from their city went up in a cloud of smoke and ash. Before this eruption, Vesuvius had been quiet for nearly 2000 years, so none of the residents of Pompeii knew its power. There were warnings: there had been an earthquake about 15 years before the eruption. The water around the city had poisoned some sheep, an event that according to Jose was covered up by city officials. The springs and wells dried up in the spring before the volcano erupted. Clues without context were not enough: the residents of Pompeii were caught completely by surprise when Vesuvius blew its top. The cloud of smoke and ash was carried by the winds and rained down on the city like missiles, killing people where they stood in the street. The bustling city contained over 20,000 people. Many of them fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were the smart ones. Over 3000 people who stayed behind died and were entombed in the city. Ash blanketed the city to depths of several feet, collapsing the roofs and suffocating people as they huddled in their homes. Finally the pyroclastic flow of hot lava, ash and fragments rolled down the mountainside at speeds of over 100 miles per hour and buried the city, incinerating everything in its path. The eruption lasted over 18 hours.

Pompeii is about a 3 hour road trip by car from Rome, so we started our day early. Jose and Lino showed up promptly on our doorstep at 7:00 AM and we were off. More adventurous travelers can take a train to Naples, but since we have Genene, we have opted for comfort by using Lino to do all the driving. He is very interesting. He comes from southern Italy. He told us that his great-grandfather had 9 children with one wife and 14 with another! Before Lino opens his mouth, you would almost think he is from Ireland. His skin is fair, and he is strawberry blonde. He explained that he is descended from the Norse people who settled (invaded) in southern Italy. He also related the story that one of his great-uncles was taken by the Russians during World War II and was never seen again. Another great-uncle was captured by Americans and sent to a prison camp.

As we left the city, the car filled with an odd smell. No one said anything, but I was sitting there silently being annoyed at Greg, as I thought that he had passed gas in the car. Genene leaned over and whispered, asking me if I had done it, and I shook my head “no.” We just drove along in silence, and I was so embarrassed. After a few minutes, Lino said something to Jose in Italian, and Jose translated, “Lino says that you may be smelling an odd smell as we leave the city. There are thermal waters nearby, and the smell is sulfur. Lino doesn't understand how people could live here.” I laughed in relief and then told Jose what Genene had asked me. He started chuckling and translated to Lino. I thought Lino was going to wreck the car laughing. Thank God it wasn't Greg.

We got to Pompeii before 10 AM, before the tour buses started unloaded. There was virtually no line to purchase tickets. The local tour guides are very aggressive, and had we been going it alone, we would have been pounced upon. Instead, we just lined up with Jose, and he got some really dirty looks from the local guides. I guess they think that everyone who comes to Pompeii is “theirs.” Jose said simply that they lack professional courtesy.

Vesuvius looms large over the city, even today. Jose said that 2/3 of the volcano came off with the Pompeii eruption. Rick Steves says that to imagine how big Vesuvius once was, you should draw lines from the bottom of what are now two peaks and make one huge mountain.

 

Pompeii was a bustling port city, a pleasure town. It is now several kilometers from the coast, because the lava flows cooled and formed new earth.

The streets were dotted with white stones, cats' eyes, to help people walk on the street after dark.

 

The streets were washed down daily to remove debris. Stepping stones were laid in the middle of ths steets so that people could cross without getting wet. Cart sizes were standardized and the wheels could pass between the stones.

Below is a good shot of the Forum of Pompeii in the shadow of Vesuvius.

The remains of the Temple of Jupiter also align with Vesuvius. The altar is in front of the temple.
Jose explained that much of the construction of Pompeii is what we would describe as faux. Real marble was too expensive, so the illusion of marble columns was created by carving into the stone. Likewise, the illusion of bricks was created by carving the grooves into the fascade.
Two views of the basilica in Pompeii, which was used a law court.

 

Genene finds a bit of shade in one of the columns.

 

A view of the city street. Shops faced the front of the street, while people lived in the spaces behind the shop.

 

This place would be interesting to view from a helicopter, but I didn't have one of those. This photo gives some idea of the excavated city. After being buried by ash and lava, Pompeii was not rediscovered until the 1600s. The modern discipline of archaeology begins here. Can you imagine how thrilling it would have been to dig this city out of its time capsule?

 

Genene and her dad enjoy a moment.

 

The baths were important places in Roman life. They were places to meet, and the baths were thought to keep people vital. Women and men bathed at different times of the day. A hot bath was taken first, then a tepid one. Finally the cold bath was used to close the pores. I told Jose that we had a modern-day equivalent in Hot Springs, Arkansas.

Entrance to the baths.

The mosaic on the roof of the bath house.

One of the rooms in the bath house.

 

We came across our first “body” in the bath house. When archaeologists were excavating, they found hollowed out places. They realized that these hollows were where bodies had been. Plaster was pushed down into the holes, making a perfect cast of those people frozen in time.

 

The Temple of Isis served the Egyptian community in Pompeii. As Jose explained, it is not accurate to describe Pompeii as a perfectly preserved, frozen-in-time ROMAN city, as it is so frequently characterized. Pompeii was a port city, a melting pot of sorts, and there were many different peoples living here. Certainly the construction of the roads, forum and basilica bear testimony to Rome's influence as conqueror, but others were here too.

 
These next four frescoes are for “more mature audiences.” As I mentioned, Pompeii was a pleasure city and a port city. Brothels were a popular destination. The frescoes were high on the wall, and Genene really could not make out what was going on in them, although we did give her a brief age-appropriate explanation of what would have gone on here. The frescoes may have been a “menu” of what service was offered inside. As Jose described it to Genene (perfectly, I thought), “This is a place where women were paid for their caresses.” What impressed Genene most is that the beds were made of stone. The rooms were very tiny, like closets. I cannot imagine how people got it on in there, but I guess if I were a man that had been out to sea for months, I might feel differently. The brothel is called a “lupanare”. “Lupe” is the Italian word for she-wolf, so the brothel is named for the howling sounds the women made to attract their customers. One theory is that Romulus and Remus were not adopted by a real she-wolf but by one of these ladies of the night.
 

 

Okay, you can uncover the kids' eyes now.

Jose explains how the city and the volcano to Genene.

 

Jose lamented the state of the excavations in Pompeii. Over 2.5 million people visit this UNESCO site each year, yet so many of its relics are simply stacked up in sheds. Jose expressed the opinion that the young, unemployed people could be trained to handle the artifacts and at least clean some of them up for display. In this next photo, you can see one of the plaster bodies sitting in a shed with all kinds of other artifacts just stacked up.

 

One positive about having the plaster casts sitting out in the shed is that I could get good photographs of them, unobstructed by glass.

 

We entered and exited the city as the sailors would have done, through the port gate.

We were hot, exhausted and hungry. Naples is a short drive away and is famous for its pizza. Jose had a place in mind for us to eat. He said it was President Clinton's favorite joint when he visited. Before Bubba went all vegan on us, the boy knew how to eat so I was game to try. We arrived to find it closed, as was much of Naples. I was struck at how scruffy this city was. Graffiti was everywhere in the heart of the city, and we drove past some kind of international bazar, something akin to Harwin in Houston, only much more base. I saw people selling nothing but piles of used running shoes. Others sold what looked like dirty clothes, just piled up on the ground. Trash was everywhere. I had no desire to get out for a closer look, but it would have made for some great photos, in a sad kind of way. We kept driving and found a spot close to the shore. Jose lamented that it was a tourist area and he really did not know where to go for pizza, so we just picked a spot. It turned out to be a really good pizza, and after lunch Genene jumped in the water with the locals. Lino couldn't believe it. He thought the water was “too dirty” for her. I shurgged my shoulders and told Jose that kids eat dirt, so who cares? It was Genene's favorite part of the day, I think.

I know Jose wanted to show us the frescoes in the museum in Naples, many of which were removed from Pompeii. Alas, there was no time for that. Sometimes, you just have to let a kid be a kid. Genene enjoyed getting dirty and gritty in the waters at Naples.

The view from our restaurant.

 

Lino, Genene and Greg enjoy the afterglow of a good pizza.

Genene took a swim in the shadow of Naples and Vesuvius.

A family portrait.

 

We drove back to Rome, exhausted from the day. We passed right by the reconstructed abbey at Monte Cassino, site of the famous World War II battle. I wish we had time to stop and look, but the drive up to the abbey would have taken another hour, and we were ragged out. All I got was a photo. We will have to come back another time!

 

I know I have gone on too long today, but Pompeii fascinates me. I could have spent days there.

We got home at 7:00 PM, 12 hours after leaving. We were exhausted! We took showers and walked downstairs for dinner.

It's now Monday at 12:30 and we haven't even gotten dressed yet. Ah, the life….

 

Friday night food and Saturday at the Catacombs

Yesterday and today, I wrote my blogs in the afternoon, just after siesta, when my energy level is a little higher. Greg has gone to Despar (the supermarket), and Genene is still snoozing. She stayed up too late last night partying. Well, okay, that was me.

When I posted yesterday, it was afternoon and we had no big plans. We strolled back over to the Pantheon for an ATM stop, and I put a telephoto lens on my camera for the walk. It gave me some new and different views of old subjects.

This is a view down Via del Tritone, the first major street we have to cross on the way to the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon. Pedestrians have the right-of-way in the crosswalk, but there is no light. Romans have the deserved reputation as madcap drivers, and it takes some bravery to step out into the crosswalks. If you hesitate, they roar through, so you must be bold and step into the street. I like to get behind a Roman and follow.

A close-up of the Trevi Fountain while the sun is still out.

A detail of a column. Jose taught Genene the difference between an Ionic, Doric and Corinthian column. He thinks she will be able to skip third grade now. 🙂

 

The top of the Egyptian obelisk at the Pantheon is adorned with the cross. One of the popes had the obelisks, which were spoils of war with the Egyptians, placed at various plazas in the city. They can be used for wayfinding/navigation.

 

A close-up of the Pantheon, bathed in the golden light.

We got our money and headed for our evening meal. We found a small hole-in-the-wall place on the street between the Pantheon and Trevi. Greg has nicknamed the route “the Gringo trail” because so many of us tourists are on it. Many of the restaurants have very aggressive waiters out front, barking at you to come in for a meal. We had read about our restaurant in Trip Advisor and had to look hard for it. No one was begging people to come in, and there were very few tables in the place. It was worth looking for. We had a delicious meal of grilled vegetables, fried zucchini flowers (a Roman delicacy that Jose told us to try), rosemary pasta, pasta with mushrooms, beefsteak (for Greg) and a liter of house red wine that was cool and delicious. An old Roman lady that worked in the back came out to talk to us, in Italian. She spoke only a little English but did not let that slow her down at all. She insisted on teaching Genene some Italian words and wanted to know where we had been and where we were going. When she found out we were from Texas, she said, “Oh, cowboys! John Wayne!” and made the forefinger-thumb gun sign with both hands. We closed the place down, and they gave us two limoncello drinks on the house at the end. It was a wonderful, quaint place.

We passed back by Trevi on the way home.

 

This is our small street.

 

And this is our building door. Genene likes to help open the big door and call the elevator.

 

We went to bed full and happy.

Saturday morning was to be another Jose tour. This time, we were going beyond the city walls to visit the catacombs at Basilica of St. Agnes and the Mausoleum of Santa Costanza. Jose gave Genene a small keychain flashlight and told her she would need it in the catacombs. Jose had arranged for a driver, Lino, and he showed up promptly and driving a large (by Roman standards), comfortable Ford. Traffic was light, and Lino had us out of the city in no time, passing right by Porto Pia, a gate through the Aurelian Walls of the city designed by Michelangelo. He had his hands in everything!

Jose explained that in Rome, bodies were not buried within the city walls. Instead they were buried alongside the roads outside the city wall. We drove out Via Nomentana, the northeast route out of the city. We went to the Basilica of St. Agnes first. In Italian its full name is Sant'Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes outside the wall). The remains of Agnes (without the head) are said to be entombed just below the altar. We had seen her head some days earlier in another St. Agnes church in Piazza Navona, St. Agnes in Agone. I was so worn out that day that I forgot to mention it in my blog. Genene had been fascinated with the tiny skull set in its own little room inside the church.

Jose has chosen to focus a lot of time on Agnes, for Genene's benefit. Agnes was an early Christian martyr. She was killed at the tender age of 12 in the year 304. She had refused the advances of an important prefect's son and was sentenced to death. As a virgin could not be executed, she was dragged through the streets naked to a brothel first. She prayed to God, and her hair grew long to cover her nakedness. The Romans tried to set her on fire, but it wouldn't start. Finally she was beheaded. Jose has told the story to emphasize to Genene that one must be steadfast and brave in one's beliefs, no matter what the consequences, a good lesson for all. I am glad that Jose chose a young girl as the star heroine for Genene.

Connected to the church is the Mausoleum of Constantina (or Santa Costanza). Constantina was the eldest daughter of Constantine, the Roman emperor that legalized Christianity. She had prayed to Agnes for a cure for her leprosy, which was granted, and so Constantina had a special place in her heart for Agnes and wanted to be buried next to her.

The church is built on several levels, into the side of a hill. We descended stairs to go into the church. You can see bits of old markers on the walls.

Remains of old mosaics are on the sides of the wall.

The church is layer upon layer of history. As Christians believe in the resurrection of the body, cremation is not an option, thus the catacombs. The catacombs we saw had the bodies removed (except for two which were kept intact as samples for the curious; of course, we gawked). We descended into the crypt under the church with a guide. The only ones on the tour were the four of us and one old Belgian priest. He had been conversing with Jose in Italian but when he found out we were from America, he shifted into perfect English. He had been to Houston and had seen the Rothko Chapel, “a place for all religions to worship'” as he described it. Last night, we were cowboys. Today, we were associated with Rothko. Houston is a diverse place.

Anyway, I was just amazed that we were in this place, practically alone. One could feel the ghosts. The ceiling dripped water in places, and you could see tree roots from the garden above us penetrating the ceiling of the catacombs. Thousands of early Christians were buried here, most with simple inscriptions or symbols to mark their graves. We learned about the sign of the fish, the Ichthys. In Greek, the word “fish” is an acronym for “Ίησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ”, (Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr), which translates into English as “Jesus Christ, God's Son, Savior,” a bit of secret code. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the neat Greek letters!)

Genene loved shining her tiny flashlight into the dark places. When we got to the grave of St. Agnes, Genene read the inscription aloud at my urging, and the priest was pleased with her. We came up out of the crypt into the church, and the kindly old man wished us well in our travels and went on his way. Part of the fun of the journey is the people you meet along the way.

The altar at St. Agnes is beautiful. Her headless bones are directly below.

 

Each column within the church is different, recycled from other temples. Jose makes a game of it by asking Genene to pick her favorite.

 

A floor mosaic. Recognize that dragon?

 

A close-up view of one of the mosaics on the altar.

 

Ceiling detail.

St. Agnes is in the middle, of course.

 

From the church, we strolled next door to the mausoleum. Constantina liked the wine, and some of the mosaics in the mausoleum are dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine. Constantina saw nothing inconsistent in mixing her Christianity with a little fermented grape. This early mosaic shows the stomping of the grapes.

 

More views of the ceiling mosaics.

Check out the graffiti in this next photograph. In the seventeeth century, a society of mostly Dutch and Flemish artists active in Rome at the time used to drink all night and then go over to the mausoleum for their little fraternity party. They would make rowdy processions to the church and make libations to Bacchus in front of the sarcophagus of Constantina. Pope Clement XI finally put a stop to this nonsense in 1720.

 

We emerged into the sunlight and took a last walk around the exterior of this early Christian church and burial place.

The ambulatory basilica.

A grotto with offerings to the Virgin Mary.
 
St. Agnes.
Since we had Lino, we had options for a stop on the way back into the walled city. We chose to make a brief stop at an old Roman bridge, Ponte Nomentano. It was beautiful, though Lino lamented at how scruffy it was. It was not “kept up” at all, and no tourists were there. There are places like this all over Rome. Lino told us that Romans take all of their history for granted and say to themselves, “Next year, I will go see that.”
The bridge against the blue sky.

Daddy's girl.

 

A pretty girl in Rome.

 

Can you see the Roman boy fishing on the banks at the right? He is wearing a red shirt.

One last view of the bridge, with its ramparts. You can almost see the archers up there shooting down, can't you?

 

It's dinnertime now. Greg is back from the store, and Genene is awake. We are going to have an earlier (than usual) dinner and try to get in bed early. Our day starts very early tomorrow, as we head out for Pompeii. I expect us to be gone all day, so you probably will not see a blog from me tomorrow.

Have a good Sunday!