Packing a small bag of clothes and getting on a train seemed a little strange at first as we actually had to watch the clock to make sure we caught it on time. We are so used to leaving whenever we’re ready and not having to wait for the sound of a little whistle from a man in a peculiar hat standing on a platform.
We had picked the perfect day to leave the bike in the workshop and head to the capital. It was 37 degrees for the second day in a row and we were, I would love to say as cool as cucumbers, but we had managed to book onto the slower train, which was void of any form of air-conditioning, so the journey was going to be warmer than expected. But saying that, it was nice with the windows pulled down giving a gentle breeze through the cabin, at least for the first part of the journey. What is impressive is the length of the tunnels that the train hurtles through on the way to Rome. We had entered one particularly long tunnel when the train came to a sudden stop about a minute into the gaping hole in the side of the mountain. There was an eerie silence and I could see people around me looking at one another; I guess for some people being trapped in a lift is unnerving, for others it’s train tunnels, personally I rather like the unusual and was enjoying looking out the window at the rock wall of the tunnel illuminated faintly with the cabin lights. Then I felt the air pressure in the cabin begin to change. It was a bit like when you are in a plane ready to land and your ears begin to pop. Nicola was reading her book on the iPad and looked up at me with a slightly pained expression. The pressure and pain were getting worse and now the whole cabin of people were holding their noises in what looked like a sneeze-in-unison. Then with absolutely no warning the cabin literally exploded… one of the high speed intercity trains on-route from Rome to Florence was passing us at 362kmph and at precisely one metre away on the parallel line, it was like a tornado and clap of thunder at the same time. For those not expecting this it was a rather startling event; the compression wave generated by a train traveling at that speed is massive and the resulting wind that entered the small box we were sitting in lifted everything not bolted down into the air so that we were all left covered in newspapers, dust and food wrappers. I could hear high pitched screaming in our cabin as the train passed, but that soon stopped after Nicola squeezed my hand and said I was embarrassing her.
This happened three more times in subsequent tunnels. Apparently bad things happen if two trains are traveling in opposite directions and one doesn’t stop… we learnt the slow trains always loose out.
Rome, where do you start… all roads lead there apparently so it’s easy to find. We arrived at lunchtime and had booked a little B&B just ten minutes by taxi from the train station. We had a list of sights we wanted to see and to start the Rome experience off with a bang we headed for the Colosseum to immerse ourselves in the rich history of the Roman Empire.
The actual building over the past 2000 years seems to have fought as many battles to survive as were fought inside its huge stone walls.
Construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian in around 70–72 AD, funded by the spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem. Slightly controversial, given that it has such close connections with the Roman Catholic Church, as each Good Friday the Pope leads a torch-lit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum.
The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators and was used for many events to please the people of Rome. Top of the billing was a good old-fashioned gladiatorial contest; men (and sometimes women) would fight in pairs or separately to become the victor in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Most were slaves forced into the sport and if they did well and managed to keep their head, so to speak, could win their freedom. Some gladiators actually volunteered for the shear thrill of it, not only risking their legal and social standing but their lives by appearing in the arena, but as a result of a win could make a lot of money as well as fame. The games reached their peak between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, finally declining during the early 5th century after the adoption of Christianity as state church of the Roman Empire in 380AD, although beast hunts (venationes) continued into the 6th century and some would argue continue today with the one remaining gladiatorial contest, bull fighting… where man and beast enter an arena and the crowds cheer violence and blood. But then that could be said for any sport really where fighting is concerned, take boxing for instance, where man fights man and the crowds cheer. Or now I think about it, ice hockey, where the fans feel duped if there isn’t at least one gloves-off and a good punch up. How far have we really come in two thousand years of ‘civilization’?
It wasn’t just about Gladiators as the Colosseum was also used for other public spectacles such as mock sea battles, where the bottom level was flooded and turned into a lake. They had animal hunts where exotic animals were shipped in from the empire and tragically shot with an arrow or butchered for a bit of fun. Public executions of condemned men were always a popular way to spend an afternoon with the kids. Re-enactments of famous battles that the Romans had won somewhere in the world and dramas based on Classical mythology, not so popular unless it involved a beheading or two. But the building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. Over the years that followed it was used as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, a Christian shrine and finally a massive money maker with about 5 million visitors a year.
Although in the 21st century it stays partially ruined because of damage caused by devastating earthquakes and stone-robbers, these days the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome and is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions.
And what an attraction it is too, well worth the cover charge if any of the above floats your boat, there are not too many places left on earth where you can feel the drama etched into the stonework and see with your own eyes the brutal history of people that made their nation so powerful.
That was enough for one day, we had walked there and back which was about five kms on pavements and our feet were killing us, so we decided on a quiet beer and a pizza just around the corner from the hotel and an early night so as to be ‘tourist-fit’ for the next day.
At 6am we were up and ready… did our morning yoga session of putting our shoes on and holding the bend for an extra four seconds, camera batteries charged, SD cards empty, water bottle full, cash in wallet, breakfast of coffee and croissant… Rome here we come for day two…
First off the checklist was the Trevi Fountain, built in 1762 by Nicola Salvi, the winner of a competition organized by Pope Clement XII to have a new fountain built in place of an existing Roman one, which he thought insufficiently dramatic.
A traditional legend, nobody knows since when, was that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain they are ensured a return to Rome, that’s if they wanted to come back. However, since 1954 after the American romantic comedy ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ and consequently the Academy Award-winning song by the same name, things changed. (‘Change’… get it?… wasted)
Now people throw three coins and pretty much wish for what they like because as much as 800,000 euros (more than a million U.S. dollars) is tossed into the fountain each year. To keep the thieves at bay it’s collected each morning. The charity Caritas uses the funds to run food and social programs in the city and even opened a supermarket for the needy.
Nicola and I tossed our six coins into the fountain and made a wish, which was that we had kept them for a coffee, but alas think of the poor and needy…
And we were off for the second stop on the tour-de-Rome, we were heading in a straight line to the Vatican City, world’s smallest country and one of the world’s richest in historical artifacts and works of art.
Before one can enter the city one has to go through a body and bag scanning stop so they can pull out the crazies carrying hand guns or hunting knifes.
The queue, as we discovered, more by chance than by magic, is at a low ebb around 10.23 am when it was less than 17 km long, so we got to the head within the hour; show up before or after and it seemed to grow considerably with waits up to three hours. I went first dropping my small camera bag on the conveyer belt and walked into the waiting arms of a rather serious faced policeman, with sunglasses and gun, to give me a body search. Nicola was right behind me and the last I remember was her dropping the small backpack consisting of sun cream, camera, water, tissues, etc., onto the scanner before all hell broke loose. Now, I’m not saying she was arrested exactly as I did promise her Dad I would take care of her, but how was I to know she had a big hunting knife with her. The truth is everyone was surprised and when Nicola was asked, “why are you carrying a hunting knife into the Vatican City?”, she was truthfully unsure. Well, I forgot it was in there… didn’t I… we use it to cut up tomatoes and baguettes for picnics and besides I had no idea we were going to go through more security than Bagdad airport.
It only took the shocked look on her face and the small flutter of her eyes for them to release her from the headlock, remove the handcuffs and let her get up off the floor.
I stayed well out of it, as I decided a big hairy boyfriend getting involved at this stage would only aggravate the situation, and besides Nicola had them laughing within minutes and had decided to tell the truth about it being for picnics. They bought her story and released her, thank the Lord as we could have been there for weeks. Nicola came up with a very quick and clever idea, finding a man selling gelati and drinks outside the gates. He agreed to look after the knife for her, as it was not a first time request from a desperate tourist to look after a sharp object.
Once you are inside the Vatican City, it’s the pure indulgent grandeur of the place that slaps you in the face. Looking out over St Peter’s Square at the Basilica is awe inspiring, but Nicola and I have seen so many extraordinary monuments to God that another big Cathedral had lost its wow factor. Perhaps had it been the only huge building dedicated to the God of the Christians that we had seen in Europe, the wow factor would have been greater. What hits you next is the shear weight of numbers that pour into the country the size of a small dairy farm, with a population of 800. With an estimated daily average number of visitors of over 17,000, there is a certain feeling one gets that we were being herded like cattle, which I completely understand needs to happen, as with that many people wanting to take a look at the Pope’s hangout it could end up becoming chaotic.
What is interesting is the Vatican City was only established as an independent state in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty, signed by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri, on behalf of Pope Pius XI and by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. I know what you are thinking, this is fascinating stuff, but I always thought the Holy See had been independent for a lot longer than that.
So in short there are two parts to see, the free part, which are St Peter’s Square and the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter where many believers of the Catholic faith head to for some intimacy with their God. For some it is a day out with the children, grab a postcard with a smiling picture of the pope and on the way home have a slice of pizza before downloading the photos onto the laptop. Vatican City, tick.
Then there is the cash-cow and the Vatican’s main source of income, the Museum, or as the Italians like to call it, Musei Vaticani.
From St Peter’s, turn left out of the city, through the gates, past the African gentlemen selling knockoff handbags, scarves and tourist tat. Talk about a blatant lack of respect to the designers of French and Italian leatherwear. They may as well camp outside the Yves Saint Laurent personal home and sell their cheap gear. They act like meercats on the prairie, every time there is a sniff of police they lift their heads, make a strange call to one another, pack and wrap the whole set-up in under three seconds and merge with the crowd so you would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the other one thousand people walking between the two places. But what I find surprising is watching the people who buy these rip-off products. What does that tell you about them, apart from the obvious, which is they plainly can’t afford the original… but that they seem to have a clear conscience of what is tantamount to stealing and would go home pretending they have an original. Well, you’re not exactly going to wander into your local bar, get a nice comment on the bag over your shoulder and then say you bought it off the pavement from an African gentleman in Rome for a fraction of the price. Or perhaps they do… but who am I to judge.
The sad part for Yves Saint Laurent, and all the other designers that have been targeted by these rip off merchants, is that when somebody does actually go out and spend $2,000 on a handbag, which incidentally I find amazing that people would spend that to impress others, they then actually look cheap because everybody who sees you with it immediately thinks it’s a rip off anyway. You can’t win…
Where was I, oh yes… turn left past the pizza and drinks sellers and you hit another queue, this time longer that the first. Wait two hours, for those who did not know you can book your tickets online, before reaching the front…. Pay 12.50 euros and head through the scanners, watch Nicola have flashbacks of being rugby tackled to the ground and you are in the museum of museums displaying works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.
The museum was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century to hold the collection that began with one marble sculpture, purchased 500 years ago. The sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons was discovered 14 January 1506, in a vineyard near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Julius II sent two very knowledgeable chaps, called Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo Buonarroti (one of them you will have heard of) who were working at the Vatican at the time, to examine the discovery. On their recommendation, the pope immediately purchased the sculpture from the vineyard owner. The pope put the sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons on public display at the Vatican exactly one month after its discovery. Not many people know that.
The collection of works is enormous and it is calculated that if you were to spend one minute looking at every piece it would take you twelve years to see the lot. Now admittedly you would know the collection possibly better than the museum’s curator, but your feet would be killing you so I wouldn’t recommend you try. Over 5 million people visit each year (do the math) so the place gets busy. That’s particularly evident when you begin the pilgrimage towards the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling decorated by Michelangelo. While you make your way though what seems like endless mile after mile of corridors, it takes on a new level of packed, pushed and prodded. We had managed to get bunched in with a very noisy group that were from a country that seemed to have an accent with a high-pitched screech and also appeared not to sell any deodorant. But we were here to see the creation of a genius, why let a few high-pitched squealers with smelly underarms spoil the day.
There is a sign at the entrance to the chapel that says “No Photos and no talking, this is a place of worship”, completely understandable but we were still hearing a drone of whispering.
When you get in the place is packed, like one of the chicken farms in a documentary, you don’t have much choice but to be taken along with the flow of people being slowly pushed out of the door at the other end of the room. To get over 15,000 people through in a day you can’t afford to dilly-dally. Then slowly the whispering rises in volume to a chatter, which is cut off with a very loud, frustrated security guard, who then shouts in a robotic Italian accent “Noooooo photos, nooooo talking”. This made absolutely no difference, as how the hell do you stop three busloads of Japanese tourists taking photos on their iPhones, let alone keeping quiet, it’s not going to happen, so the man kept shouting “Noooooo photos, nooooo talking”…
Then you look up in the slightly gloomy room, which we personally found a little underwhelming. It’s still an incredible feat of craftsmanship and Mike did an excellent job, given he was upside down for 4 years, but it’s not the most incredible work of art I have ever seen. I guess it’s the hype surrounding this huge masterpiece that is part of the attraction. What Nicola and I did both expected before we went in was that it would be a round chapel, not something you would associate with a boarding school dining hall. We were also surprised that it was part of the museum and not the Basilica… always learning.
We spent a good four hours looking at a fraction of what the museum has to offer before we got “AO” (art overload) and called it a day. There are only so many paintings and nude Roman chaps one can admire before you start to dream of them, which is possibly not a good thing to admit to anyone.
There is a little interesting fact that I will share with you… did you know that on 22 January 1506 Pope Julius II founded the Pontifical Swiss Guard, who were recruited Swiss mercenaries, as part of his army. He hired these strapping young lads as part of his personal bodyguards and over the past 600 years they have continued to fulfill that function for subsequent popes. At the end of 2005, the Guard had 134 members. Recruitment is arranged by a special agreement between the Holy See and Switzerland. All recruits must be Catholic, unmarried males with Swiss citizenship who have completed their basic training with the Swiss Army with certificates of good conduct, must be between the ages of 19 and 30, and be at least 174 cm (5 ft 9 in) in height. Members are armed with small arms and the traditional halberd (also called the Swiss voulge which is a long pole with an axe and rather pointy spike). They are all trained in body guarding tactics, which is obviously important given what they are there for. Personally, I always associate bodyguards with dark glasses and dark suits and not bright blue, yellow and red bloomers giving off the appearance of court jesters. But if that’s the preferred uniform for the Pope, then who am I to disagree, and besides, they look very fetching and I’m sure given the occasion could chop you in half, so I thought better than to point and make fun.
It’s hard to summarize all the wonderful things we saw in Rome over the couple of days there, the Spanish steps at sunrise, void of tourists, was a personal moment that gave me a second to stop and smell the roses so to speak and reflect on how extraordinary man can be when he puts his mind to it.
I say that for the purpose of introducing you to one of the highlights of the trip so far for me… we have seen so many links to the past that I could write for a week and only just get to the front doors. But it’s this place that we walked into next that sent a shiver down my spine and gave me that moment when I stopped, looked up and said nothing, not because I had nothing to say (which you know would be a first) but because I was, as an old British expression describes, “gob smacked”.
The Pantheon has changed very little over the past two thousand years and is still used today as a church, not as a tourist trap making money because it can. It costs nothing to enter and in some ways makes entering it a more personal experience.
The original building was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome (the name Pantheon is derived from the Greek words pan meaning all and theos meaning god), and was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. The reason it is so well preserved is that in 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Christian church and consecrated it to Sancta Maria ad Martyres, now known as Santa Maria dei Martiri, and since then it has been used as a Christian place of worship.
The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky, which served as a symbolic connection between the temple and the gods. Rainwater enters but drains away through 22 almost-invisible holes in the sloping marble floor. A remarkable fact about this dome is that its diameter is exactly equal to the Pantheon’s interior height of 43.3m. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.
If you are a door lover, which Nicola and I have become on this trip, then you can’t be more impressed than when you are standing at the front entrance to this place. Taking in the massive original Roman doors, made of solid wood covered in bronze, you get the feeling you are entering a special place. The tombs of two kings alongside that of Raphael are also housed in this extraordinary ancient monument.
Looking at the wonderful decorations and incredible feats of engineering that took place so long ago once again makes what we build today pale into insignificance. To give you some idea as to the lengths in which they built these monuments and to man’s capability, take a look at what went into just getting the grey granite columns that were actually used in the Pantheon’s pronaos to Rome. They were in fact quarried in Egypt at Mons Claudianus in the eastern mountains. Each was 39 feet (12 m) tall, five feet (1.5 m) in diameter, and 60 tons in weight. These were then dragged more than 100 km from the quarry to the river on wooden sledges. They were then floated by barge down the Nile River when the water level was high during the spring floods, and then transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman port of Ostia. There, they were transferred back onto barges and pulled up the Tiber River to Rome. After being unloaded near the Mausoleum of Augustus, the site of the Pantheon was still about 700 meters away. From there it was necessary to either drag them or to move them on rollers to the construction site when workers could then spend months on chiseling them to shape to make the beautiful columns.
Can you imagine the cost to do this nowadays, without the benefit of slaves as opposed to machines and unions, let alone the skills needed… Remarkable.
I often wonder what the generations in the future will have in the way of 21st century architecture, we build everything so cheap and temporary nowadays that I don’t think there will be much for them to look back at and say “what a marvel”. I guess the last great builders that spared nothing and built things to last were the Victorians, so in a couple of millennia they perhaps will be the link to the past. It’s all in context really when you think about it. History lessons in two thousand years will look at us going to the moon, which in our lifetime was a massive feat, as not that impressive really, the equivalent of the Romans moving a 60 ton block of granite from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. You have to really think about what was involved at the time and how amazing humans are at working out problems and overcoming them.
Our trip out of Rome was slightly tarnished with something nearly everyone we met warned us about and that’s pickpockets. There are signs in every station and bus stops in the capital warning you to watch your stuff. We were rushed to the train station due to a huge demonstration in the streets, something about a bank had stolen all their savings and the CEO was sitting in the French Rivera on a super yacht (don’t get me started). We weren’t actually sure what the anger was about but there were thousands of union people shouting something rude to the Government.
During this crazy ten minutes being pushed and pulled in the train station somebody had managed to get there grubby little hands into our camera bag which was over my shoulder and pull out our camera and iPhone. Nicola thank God had just downloaded the day before’s photos so we had an empty camera. Luckily for us they didn’t find the laptop, iPad or wallet, so the reality is we came off lightly considering. We have a spare camera, which Nicola uses, and we don’t use the phone apart from the address and calendar functions. We live and learn…