Rome – the highlights

My trip to Rome felt a lot like those late night cricket highlights packages they broadcast for those who want more than just the two minutes they’ll see on the news, but don’t have the time or patience to sit and watch a whole day.  Our train got in on Friday evening, leaving us enough time for a decent pizza but not much else, and by midday on Monday we were back at the train station again, bound for Ancona to catch a ferry that night for Split.

So I had a Saturday, a Sunday, and a checklist of Rome’s greatest hits.  Basically, that covered the Vatican City, plus enough of the falling (or fallen) down bits that I felt I could justifiably claim to have done my high school Latin teacher proud.

On the way to the Vatican City: a bridge over the River Tiber, with the dome of St Peter’s in the background

Strolling through the Vatican Museum on Saturday morning was for the most part an exercise in the appreciation of scale.  The museum is not physically huge, but it’s certainly full.  The sheer quantity of stuff is quite something.  After a while, I have to concede that one ancient Roman statue (minus arms and one leg) starts to look very like another (minus head and genitals) – especially when they all seem to have had their midsections modelled on the same one guy, who apparently spent his entire life alternating between (a) functioning as some kind of Roman equivalent to a Calvin Klein model, and (b) lifting heavy things (and putting them down™) using nothing but his obliques.  (In fact, it seems reasonably appropriate that one of the more famous statues in the collection is the Belvedere Torso, which is headless, legless and armless.  Also dickless.)

The Belvedere Torso: priceless statue, slightly used, minor damage to certain parts

The statues, paintings and tapestries left a strong (and carefully cultivated) impression of the Catholic Church as a custodian of the history of Western civilisation.  Although religious iconography is not really my thing, so once I’d passed through the (many many) halls of Greek and Roman statues, I picked up the pace a little past the no-doubt-fascinating-to-plenty-of-people-who-aren’t-me rugs and painted things.

Of course, no matter how much interest you don’t have in carefully arranged pigments, the Sistine Chapel is going to be the focus of any trip to the Vatican Museum.  It didn’t disappoint, but it wasn’t quite what I expected, either.  (Probably because I read its Wikipedia page a couple of minutes ago, writing this post, rather than, say, before I visited the Vatican.)  For starters, it’s a plain rectangular hall, not the ornately furnished cross-shaped layout that my brain has associated with ‘proper’ chapels ever since I went to school (an Anglican one, admittedly, so not a massively logical association on my brain’s part, but whatever).  Wikipedia tells me its ceiling is barrel vaulted, but if you’d asked me ten minutes ago, I would have sworn it was flat – it’s certainly not the grandiose arch of a ceiling that I’d envisaged in my head either.  And the most famous part of the ceiling – the finger of God reaching out to touch the similarly extended digit of Adam – is, well, smaller than expected.  Less of a focal point, more of a nice touch that happens to be on the panel that happens to be in the middle.

But still, the Chapel deserves its fame (no doubt Michelangelo will be relieved to know I approve).  It’s tricky to get a full sense of its holiness and serenity when sardined in with several thousand others, many of whom are spending their time seeing how many photos they can take before a guard comes over to remind them that it’s bad manners to be taking happy snaps of Jesus when he already asked you not to at least forty times.  And that goes for photos of Jesus’ friends, too.  (Seriously, though, are any of those photos going to look good anyway?  The girl taking forbidden shots with her iPad not only wasn’t nearly as surreptitious as she thought – it’s an iPad, for fuck’s sake, it’s enormous – but I’m also guessing her photos would have turned out better if she’d bought a postcard, taken it outside where there’s some light, and taken a photo of that.  Although it would have been harder to get her dad in that, I suppose.  Meaning your family photo album would be missing that key “and here’s us violating the sacredness of one of the most important places of worship in all of Catholicism” shot.  So there’s that.)  Nonetheless, the holiness and serenity are still appreciable, despite the presence of the plebeian masses in the temple, and so the effect Michelangelo was after works out after all.

The famed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (centre), from the side you’re allowed to take photos of: less impressive than you expected, no? It’s pretty good from the inside, though.

After the museum, it was back out into Italy to go round the corner and back into the world’s smallest state from a different side to see St Peter’s Basilica.  The Basilica is most impressive, inside and out.  Quite stunning.  At the risk of unintentionally involving myself in a dogmatic rift of faith in which I have no interest, I think I prefer it to St Paul’s in London, at least as far as its insides go.  (St Paul’s wins the iconic landmark competition, though, as far as I’m concerned.)  Anyway, I won’t go into any detail describing it, but I will mention that it’s worth your while doing the stair climb right to the top of the cupola for a great view over the Vatican and all of Rome.

The main altar of St Peter’s Basilica, complete with dusty rays of light and all-seeing eye of Sauron

View from the outside of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica, looking out over St Peter’s square and into Rome

I’ll spare you a recital of the minutiae of every last site I saw in the rest of my time in Rome, but the remainder of the highlight reel basically included:

  • the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill – a fitting, albeit delayed, follow-up to all those years reading Ecce, Romani! in high school (it’s a Latin textbook).
  • the Colosseum – whatever you do, unless you’re doing a guided tour, follow Wikitravel’s advice and don’t buy tickets at the Colosseum itself.  I went to the Roman Forum first (the one ticket, bought there, covers entry there and to the Colosseum, and there was almost no line at the Forum at 10am), and very much enjoyed a satisfying stroll past the enormous Colosseum line to go straight in.

The Colosseum. Looks pretty good from the inside, too, no?

  • the Circus Maximus – impressive in Ecce, Romani!, less so in real life these days, especially after the imposing grandeur of the Colosseum.  Now strangely reminiscent of The Castle:  ‘I dug a hole.’  Or, since they appear to be rebuilding it currently, perhaps the Six Million Dollar Man.
  • the Trevi Fountain – good lord there are a lot of people here!  Nice fountain, though.  Apparently it collects about €3000 of coins per day, just sitting around doing nothing.  I’m sure there’s some sort of joke to be made there about welfare fraud or something, but I’m too lazy and comfortable in my unemployment to make it.
  • the Pantheon – a personal favourite, although it would be even better to be there when it rains, with the rain falling into the centre of the church floor through the giant hole at the apex of the dome.
  • Piazza Navona – done early in the morning, before it was full of other photographers crowding the sculptures and getting in the way of the photos I wanted.

The colourful Piazza Navona

  • Terme di Caracalla (the Roman Baths of Caracalla) – big enough for 6000 customers and with an Olympic-sized pool in the frigidarium, the scale of these is fantastic.  There’s not a lot of pretty stuff left there, though I’d earlier seen the Farnese Bull (a huge statue group) in the museum at Naples, so it was interesting to see where that once stood.
  • the Pyramid of Cestius – a slightly bizarre sight right next to an old gate in the city walls, but there you have it.  Apparently cool enough to have its own metro station.
  • more pizza.  Also calzone.

All up, it made for a busy couple of days in the capital of the ancient (Western) world.  I’m sure at some point I’ll be back to see what the city’s like when not running around like a headless chook with a camera.  (And maybe even by then I’ll have my own camera back, if Canon can ever tell me what cunning plan they have for fixing the manufacturing defect in my otherwise excellent S100.  [Late posting note:  this got sorted in Zagreb, so you can all stop worrying your pretty little heads.]  Thanks to Chris for letting me borrow his S90 for said running around – all the photos in the post are by me, but with his camera.)  But in the meantime, job done!

Ecce, Romani! (“Look, the Romans!”)

Feeling sorry for the rich and famous in Capri

I’m told Capri is quite the holiday destination for the rich and famous.  The place to be.  Spectacular.  Breath-taking.  The stylish and inspirational leisure location for the stars.

Personally, I have to say, I don’t really see it.  We went for the Blue Grotto – basically, we ferried out for two days (one night) so we could go swim in a cave.  It’s certainly a nice cave.  Quite impressive to see the rich blue light refracted back up through a submarine entrance to disperse through the water, bathing the seaside hidey-hole in a glowing azure hue.  But I don’t think most tourists – and certainly not most celebrities – turn up to go doggie-paddling through a hole in the cliff.  (You can go in on a rowboat, too.  But then you’d have to put up with the guides on the rowboat.  And that just sounded tedious.)

Swimming in the Blue Grotto

I don’t think they turn up to go climbing up to the top of Monte Solarno, either.  That’s where you get the best views over the island.  (You can cable car up there, alternatively.  But then you’d have to put up with the knowledge that you’re fat and lazy.  And that just sounds irritating.)  Nor, from Monte Solarno, are they likely to be wandering across the top of Monte Cappello, to get the best view down into Marina Piccola and across to the Faraglioni (aka the Sea Stacks).  And they certainly are nice views.

Marina Piccola and the Faraglioni (aka the Sea Stacks) as seen from the top of Monte Cappello

So, to be honest, I’m not really sure why they go.  Marina Piccola seemed a bit of a disappointment, as beaches go – tiny, crowded, pebbled, and missing the better vistas of the island.  The towns of Capri and Anacapri seemed OK, but nothing to write home about (see Mum, that’s why I never emailed!).  And the whole lot seemed overpriced and overcrowded.

How to ruin an otherwise perfectly reasonable beach spot – built up crud at Marina Piccola

All up, I ended up feeling a little sorry for the rich and famous.  I wasn’t sorry I went, don’t get me wrong.  But it seems a bit like they could be missing out on more interesting holiday destinations elsewhere.


Pompeii, Herculaneum and Vesuvius

Despite my enthusiasm for consuming potentially inappropriate quantities of it, pizza was not the reason for visiting its birthplace of Naples.  In keeping with my recent theme, in fact, the purpose of visiting Naples wasn’t actually Naples itself, as such:  it was Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the cause of their interment, Mt Vesuvius.

Mt Vesuvius itself, as we’d anticipated, was just another quiet crater atop just another mountain – albeit one worth visiting just for the sake of having done so.  We spent a while at its summit (well, as close as they’ll let you get to its summit) trying to make out Pompeii and Herculaneum from next to the souvenir stand – with mixed success.  (We eventually confirmed that we’d figured out roughly the right spots, but that not much is actually clearly seen from the mountain.)  Other than that, our entertainment mostly came from observing the sometimes valiant, more often not, struggles of many a not-so-intrepid tour group adventurer attempting to make it up to the crater from the carpark in the first place.

But our excursions to Pompeii and Herculaneum were substantially more enlightening.  Especially since those self-same tour groups in Pompeii confined themselves to a fairly limited section of the huge site, leaving the rest of the ruined city for us to explore alone.  Even better, Herculaneum was nearly entirely free of them.  In that vein, if you’re going, please for the love of Jupiter don’t go in a big organised group.  Instead, you can catch the Circumvesuviana from Piazza Garibaldi in Naples out to both excavation sites (Pompeii Scavi and Ercolano Scavi are the station names, and the stations are both in easy walking distance of the site entrances), and go and wander the streets freely by yourself for the day.  Much better than plodding from one cherry-picked soundbite to the next in a sweaty mass of time-poor historical window-shoppers.  (And even though I seem to dislike most audio guides, I recommend the Pompeii audio guide to get detailed info on what you’re seeing – it’s quite good, so you really don’t need a real corporeal guide to show you around.  We didn’t get the Herculaneum audio guide – instead there was a booklet of descriptions available, and that was enough for us.)

Herculaneum – remarkably intact for a city that died a horrible death under thousands of tonnes of ash

The excavations at both sites are fascinating.  The scale of Pompeii (which we happily explored for a full day) is as captivating as the detail of the incredibly well-preserved remains of such a large proportion of Herculaneum.  In Pompeii, you visit everything you would expect of a large, thriving Roman city:  a forum, temples, bars, a brothel.  Herculaneum, closer to the volcano and a much smaller city, has what for modern visitors, if not for its original inhabitants, is the benefit of having been less devastated by the initial eruption, but more thoroughly enveloped in boiling mud in the aftermath.  Thus the incredible state of Herculaneum’s preservation in parts:  the muddy entombment being enough to prevent wood from rotting, or buildings from falling down, or frescos from eroding away.

The signature dish at Pompeii, I suppose, is the plaster cast bodies.  When the hot mud and ash flowed through after the eruption, covering the bodies of those who didn’t make it out, it solidified around their remains.  Corpses being corpses and flesh-liquefying bacteria being flesh-liquefying bacteria, those remains then slowly rotted away, leaving human-shaped cavities in the hardened volcanic mess, and providing a perfect opportunity for some enterprising dudes and dudettes with little hammers to play archaeological Play-Doh nearly two thousand years later.  Hey presto, plaster dead guy.  But much to the dismay of three American cruise boat travellers who asked us for directions, there aren’t actually many plaster dead guys on site.  And to be honest, it’s not that big a loss.  There are much more stimulating things to see.

Plaster dead dude looking distinctly unhappy about his present situation

My two biggest highlights, I think, were the baths – there are two major ones, the Forum Baths, which are quite well-preserved and detailed, and the Terme Stabiane, which are larger but have suffered more from the passage of both time and volcanic excreta – and the Villa dei Misteri.  The latter is a bit of a walk outside the main city ruins, but is well worth the effort, to see a beautifully decorated large Roman villa largely intact.  The painted walls of its dining room are stunning.

Fresco in the dining room of Villa dei Misteri, in the Pompeii excavation site outside the main ruins of Pompeii

Of course, in addition to those two highlights, it’s hard to go past having a snicker at the brothel (the Lupanare).

Teehee, it’s a brothel

A view over Herculaneum

The baths in Herculaneum were a focal point, as in Pompeii – although unfortunately we could only go into the Central Baths:  the Suburban Baths, which looked from the outside like they had definite potential, were closed on the day we wandered through.  But not to worry, there was plenty else to see.  The most interesting feature of the buildings around town was probably the bits of preserved woodwork – covered in hot ash, the wood carbonised rather than slowly rotting away, so a surprising amount of it is still there.  And the mosaics throughout the ruins are incredible.

Mosaic on the floor of the women’s baths

After two days, by the end of our time in Pompeii and Herculaneum, I think it’s probably safe to say we were all ruined out.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the last few houses and tavernas in Herculaneum started to look remarkably like the dozens we’d gawked our way through over our two days of exploring already.  But the experience of exploring two dead cities was awe-filled and thrilling.

And hey, it was good exercise, to boot.

Oh, by the way, random tip of the day:  unless I completely misunderstood the guy behind the desk (which seems unlikely, because I was just confirming something that I’d been told by another traveller), Pompeii is apparently half price for South Australian students.  No idea why, and it’s a long time since I was a student, so I was only half way to meeting the requirement.  But there you have it;  any fellow South Aussies who are visiting, and who still haven’t made it out of school/uni, archaeology your heart out for a bargain basement €5,50.

Finally:  thanks and credit to Chris, who doubled as my photographic assistant while my camera was indisposed with a manufacturing defect.  All the photos in this blog post are his.  Cheers, mate!

Cheap pizza and cheap coffee in Naples

As I write this [in mid-July:  I’m a little behind on publishing blog posts, I’m afraid], I have just completed more than my fair share (half, since there are two of us) of the four pizzas we ordered for dinner in Naples.  So you’ll have to excuse me if it’s a bit of a slow post.  Right now my digestive system is doing a lot more than my … whatever the thinking system is called.

We’ve been in Naples since Saturday night, and as I write this it’s now Wednesday night.  So that’s … Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … five nights’ worth of dinners.  And there were a couple of lunches in there too.  Over the last (Google search for five times twenty-four – no, wait, four times twenty-four) ninety-six hours, I’ve averaged more than two pizzas a day.  And on average, it’s probably cost about four euro per pizza, or less.

Not all of them have been to my taste, I must admit.  The thing covered in corn tonight, for example.  Honestly, who puts corn on a pizza?!  But most of them, well …  I guess there’s a reason I’ve been averaging more than two pizzas a day.  (Bear in mind that most days I haven’t got around to lunch, so that’s not one pizza for lunch, one for dinner.  That’s two pizzas for dinner.  Much to the disgust of, well, anyone in the general vicinity.)

Ok, so it’s not the most elegant photo ever. But then, it wasn’t particularly elegant if you were there, either. Honesty is important in a travel diary, after all.

So, you’d think my lasting take-away from Italy would be pizza.  (“Take-away”, get it?  Terrible joke, I know, but like I said, not a lot of blood to the brain right now.)  But no, I think it’s the coffee that takes the metaphorically mixed cake.  Eighty euro cents for an awesome espresso from pretty much any random place that you walk past – how could I say no?  In fact, how could I not say yes multiple times within the space of an hour or two?

We’re going to Croatia after Italy, so I’m hard pressed to complain about how deprived we’re going to be in any regard.  But brilliant four euro pizzas and tasty eighty euro cent coffees will be sorely missed by my taste buds, if not by everything from there on down.