Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Rome, where you want to...

First things first: thank you all for your immense patience in awaiting this very long overdue update on my various travels, trials and tribulations over the last month or so. Without further ado, here goes; as there's a lot to get through I've broken it down into bite-size, city-by-city chunks so that you can savour a morsel in your tea-break, come back for another nibble at lunch, and savour the left-overs of an evening...or just skip straight to whichever bit you think will be most (or at all) interesting, or simply will feature you! To get things started: Rome.


The first leg of my Italy trip started fabulously with perhaps my most hassle-free flight ever. For the first time, I flew from London City Airport having scored a bargain fair with Swiss via Zurich, and believe me it is a joy. Half an hour from home by DLR, London City is what, I can only imagine, it must be like flying from a private airfield; no queues at check-in or security and a spotless, quiet and really rather luxurious lounge from which every gate is just a couple of minutes stroll. It was also my first flight with Swiss, and both the chocolates and the Teutonic stewards were delicious. I killed the couple of hours transfer time at Zurich airport browsing the swanky boutiques on its mini-Bond Street shopping stretch and enjoying a beer and a baguette (which I impressed myself by managing to order in German, a language I hitherto hadn't known I spoke) in one of the stylish bars, before boarding my onward flight and arriving at Rome Fiumicino just an hour or so later. Next it was all aboard the 'Leonardo Express' for the €11, forty minute train ride to Termini station, and before you could say 'Benvenuto a Roma' I was checking into the Hotel Massimo d'Azeglio on via Cavour, right next to the station.

Having settled into my very comfortable and pleasingly large room, I headed out into the Rome night to see if the hotel was as central as it appeared to be from the map. It certainly was; a five minute stroll down via Cavour and a side-street brought me to the spectacular-by-night sight of the Colosseum and its neighbour, the charming Arch of Constantine. The area was alive with people, tourists staring up at the centuries old structure open-mouthed, lovers canoodling on the grassy hillocks nearby, photographers snapping the spotlit ancient monument in its hulking nocturnal glory and plenty of police keeping it all safe and salubrious. I was suitably awed as I walked around the perimeter, taking in the vastness of the near-2000-years-old edifice and enjoyed a camp moment remembering Audrey Hepburn whizzing round the same path on the back of a Vespa in Roman Holiday.

First site seen, it was time for a sight of the scene and so I flip-flopped off to Coming Out, a large and busy cafe/bar on the nearby via San Giovanni in Laterano. A few doors away I found the delicious (in every sense) Ice Cream Bears, a gelateria owned and run by, you guessed it, a couple of hulking bears whose creamy goodness attracts a cuddly, hairy clientele. Although the only two de facto gay venues on the street, the bars in between cater to the overspill and on a balmy evening like this the crowd, mostly a diverse selection of boys but with a fair few girls, pours out onto the street and drinks and gossips the night away in the shadow of the Colosseum - a quite remarkable experience. I finished off the night - wanting to get some beauty sleep ready for sightseeing on the morrow - with a flying visit to Hangar, an altogether darker and heavier three-room affair on via in Selci just a couple of minutes from the hotel. there's much to recommend Hangar, not least a rather horny (in both looks and mind) clientele, but the clincher for me was the novel payment system - on the way in you're given a card on which the bar staff write down what you've had, and you pay on the way out. This was the bar's last night of business before closing for the summer break so I was glad to have had the experience while I could!

The next day, after a good night's sleep and a very good breakfast, I embarked on a day's sightseeing that would ultimately nearly kill me with its length and breadth. Against all warnings not to try to do too much of Rome in one day - it wasn't built in one, after all - I started early, and finished late, taking in many of the most famous sites and wearing out a pair of flip-flops in the space of a few hours. I began with a walk across town, heading for the Pantheon and on the way taking in a couple of fountains, the Tritone by Bernini and the iconic Trevi (which I completely chanced upon, surprised as many must be by its odd location at the back of an otherwise unremarkable civic building at the junction of three minor shopping streets!) Before seeing the Pantheon's spectacular if utterly bonkers and strangely proportioned interior, I enjoyed an eye-opening caffe machiato at La Casa del Caffe Tazza d'Oro - it translates, deservedly, as 'The Golden Cup'. Next I moved on to the Vittorio Emanuele Monument, also known (variously) as The Altar Of The Nation and the Vittoriano. This vast white marble bulk, topped with mighty equestrian statues (most notably of the King after whom it is named and putatively exists to honour) is - how can I put this?- not exactly universally popular, but it has its attractions. One, a free exhibition on the history of the Italian army, rather thin on the period 1939-45 but otherwise interesting and staffed by real Italian soldiers. Two, it's a pleasingly cool escape from the Roman heat and offers a comfortable way to reach the top of the neighbouring Capitoline Hill . And three, atop it all there's a pretty reasonably priced canteen serving delicious salads and juices (my caprese was heavenly) and from which the panoramic views of Rome are picture perfect.

Refreshed, I moved on to the Capitoline, arriving in the piazza Campidoglio. I skipped the museums around the perimeter in favour of taking in the buildings' exteriors and descending the cordonata, the gently sloping ramp designed by Michelangelo and flanked at the entrance to the piazza by his statues of Castor and Pollux (and being nudes, one can see their Pollux very clearly...) From here I went on to the Colosseum, still as magnificent by day as by night but once inside I wondered whether the 45 minutes I'd spend queuing was worth the fairly limited extent of what's inside, and from there - where, to be honest, I should have called it a day - I pushed on to the Palatine and the impressive ruins of palaces of Caesars past, and the Forum (I'd like to report that a funny thing happened on the way, but alas not). The latter was, despite my increasingly severe, self-inflicted Ancient Rome Fatigue Syndrome, simply magnificent, still - despite the ravages of the centuries - sufficiently complete as to give one a real sense of what life day-to-day, with its triumphal arches, temples, mausolea and senate chambers, could have been like.

By this stage exhausted, I limped back to the hotel and after a very pleasant siesta, set out again on foot for the Spanish Steps, which I approached from their top end and descended (picturing myself as Jude Law, or perhaps Gwyneth Paltrow, in The Talented Mr Ripley), weaving my way through the youthful, noisy crowds to the designer label heaven of via Condotti then up via del Corso to the piazza del Popolo which I found, in its dullness, rather disappointing. I doubled back down via del Corso to a quiet piazza where the restaurant, deli and bar Gusto appears to be taking over every available space and so they should in my view, given how delicious were the gourmet aperitivi served with my Campari and soda - my 'Italy drink'. Fairly full, and wholly knackered, I opted for a simple supper, an excellent pizza Diavola and very boozy Tiramisu at an anonymous restaurant near the hotel...and so to bed.

Worn out by that day's excesses, the next morning I slept in and then after a leisurely late breakfast set off by Metro ('grimy', I jotted in my notebook) for the Vatican. The piazza at St Peter's, so famous from years of televised appearances, was immensely impressive, beautiful for its symmetry and scale (even though the fountains were, sadly, inactive) but I have to say that I found the basilica itself, and the vast, labyrinthine Vatican Museums, to be bordering on the obscene. I am not irreligious, but I really do fail to see how when there is so much suffering and poverty in the world, so much preventable sickness and death, and much of it in nominally Catholic third world countries, that it can be right for so much wealth to be hoarded by a church. I left as quickly as one can when there are near on twelve miles of corridors all of it strictly one way, and returned for a quiet afternoon of reading and blogging (NB: Italy has an anti-terrorism legislation, strictly enforced as I found, that requires anyone wishing to use internet or cheap telephones in internet cafes to produce photo ID, a passport or driving license. Odd!) I went down to the hotel bar for 'Happy Hour' - i.e., more Campari & soda with more free nibbles, then headed across the road to the tenth-floor roof terrace of a sister hotel to watch the sun set over the city.

The rest of the evening was nothing if not flattering. Firstly over an excellent dinner of saltimbocca a la Romana, washed down with a very nice Verdicchio, I was approached at my pavement table by a not-at-all unattractive man who after very little initial preamble invited me home with him for sex - I declined, having not even tasted my veal yet and really rather wanting to. Then, having moved on (unaccompanied!) to Coming Out, I struggled to avoid the predatory gaze and subsequent advances, entirely unwelcome but wholly understandable, of a travelling Belgian. Nice to know I've still got it in me, so to speak.

Booked on a train to Florence the following afternoon, I nonetheless wanted to get some value of the morning if I could, so I strolled a few minutes from the hotel past the pretty fountains of the piazza della Republica to two noteworthy churches; one, Santa Maria della Vittoria, which houses Bernini's famous sculpture of Saint Theresa in Ecstasy (in, not on, please note, but from her face it's hard to tell) and the modest but beautiful basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli which fronts the remains of the Diocletian baths or terme from which Termini station gets its name - not, as I and no doubt you would have thought, from its being the end of the line. Churched out, I had just enough time to pop to the international bookshop for a copy of A Room With A View - my 'guide book' and source reading for Florence, my next destination. I was able to board the train feeling that I had really seen Rome, not just the main sites but some less obvious ones too, had savoured its food and wine, and experienced life as it's lived by day and night. Exhausting it may have been, but new relationships always are, and I think this was just the start of what will be a life-long love affair with Rome.

Next instalment coming, ASAP!

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