Monday, 15 November 2010

Rome, AD 2006

Ponte Vittorio Emanuelle II with Castel Sant'Angelo in background

To travel through time is a wonderful dream and an impossible reality.  For if it were possible to travel through time then a man could travel back and kill his father while he was still a boy, and then the man would never be born and so could never travel back to….. you get the picture.  

But imagining for one silly SciFi moment that time travel were a possibility, where I wonder should I go ?  Perhaps to London around 1602 and to the newly-constructed Globe theatre for the first ever performance of Hamlet, with Dick Burbage as the eponymous hero and the lad himself as the Ghost (allegedly).  

Or maybe to Kansas City circa 1940 when a young alto saxophonist by the name of Charles Parker, Jr. got up for a jam session blow already playing what would be the new bebop and was hooted and jeered off the stage (once more allegedly).  

But no, it would be neither of these, but to Rome in 51 BC that I would set my time-travel digit, the year the mighty Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon in defiance of Roman law, and marched on Rome to confront his conniving triumvirate allies Pompey the Great and the pathetic Crassus.  The wily and skilful Pompey, realising that he lacked the forces to defeat Caesar, made a tactical withdrawal, and Julius entered Rome in triumph, and in a bold gesture typical of the man, abolished the Republic and declared himself Emperor. Traitors were summarily executed, thrown from the Tarpeian Rock or strangled, each death confirmed with the words: ‘He has lived’, perhaps spoken by Cicero himself, the greatest orator of his time, and maybe of all time.   

Oh yes, no doubt about it, Rome is definitely where I would go if time travel were possible.  And I did finally make it Rome, albeit with a lapse of 2,057 years, on 6th November 2006 to be precise, arriving at Campino Airport around 8:30 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time plus 1.

Campino is Rome’s second airport and it looks it too!  It is a tiny airport which closes overnight, and on stepping out from the terminal building I was confronted with the inevitable construction works.  I quickly navigated the obstacles (for some reason I’m always in a hurry) and looked for a bus to the city.  I found one just about to leave and hopped on.

The bus was spacious and comfortable with only half a dozen of us travellers onboard and we were quickly on our way.  The driver was evidently in training for Monza as we sped along through the suburban Roman night, passing everything on our way.  But I love driving into new places at night, watching the suburbs slip past, more alert than I normally am, which probably isn’t saying very much.

We made the normally 40 minute journey in 30 minutes, and arrived at Termini, the main rail terminal in the centre of Rome. There is a large open space in front of the terminal, which looked deserted.  I quickly spotted a Metro sign and a narrow, dimly-lit flight of stairs leading downwards for about 10 or 15 yards, then apparently turning to the left.  I went down the stairway with some trepidation, not knowing what was around the turning, and found myself at the barrier to the escalators down to the platform. There was not a soul around.  I bought a ticket from a machine and went through the barrier and down to the platform……to find it heaving with people!  Then when the train arrived it too was packed.  I squashed myself on board and held on to what I could.

A beautiful Rome street.  My hotel was up there somewhere.

The Rome Metropolitana is not as extensive as the London underground or the Paris metro, and has very few stations in the city centre.  Its purpose is to ferry commuters from the suburbs into the city, so it did not take long to get the station of Circo Massimo, where I got off. 

Circo Massimo, or, to give it its Latin name, Circus Maximus, is where ancient Romans would go for a relaxing afternoon of chariot racing.  Nothing remains of the original stadium, which is now a public park, but with a little imagination you can still see the chariots with their white stallions charging around the circuit to the roar of the spectators and the occasional screams of a slave being whipped for some minor misdemeanour.  

I got to my hotel next to the temple of the god Mithras, above the house of Aquila and Priscilla where St. Peter lived, and up to my room with a balcony overlooking a paved garden with palm and fruit trees - and how cool is that? The next morning I was up with the larks (though it was November so that was pretty late) and off for my first jaunt around the Eternal City.

I have never liked superlatives since nothing is ever that simple.  But if I did like superlatives I would say that the Beatles were the greatest pop artists of all time, Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale the greatest poem ever written, and Rome the most beautiful city in Christendom.  So, after dodging a hustler trying to sell me dodgy raffle tickets for a phoney charity (I know a dodgy charity raffle ticket hustler when I see one, that nun’s habit didn’t fool me), I set off in the direction of….the Pyramid.

Yes indeed there is a pyramid, but this isn’t what I was after, but the cemetery nearby which all English travel books call the Protestant Cemetery, but which is, in fact, the Non-Catholic Cemetery.  So my demands at passers-by for il cemitero protestante produced blank looks and “Non lo so”‘s.  Eventually a young woman helped me out, and after a bit more searching, I finally found it.  Right behind the pyramid, in fact!

The Pyramid from the Protestant Cemetery

The cemetery is where the tombs of two of England’s greatest poets are located - Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats.  And it took no effort at all to find them as they were certainly the most visited graves in the cemetery, with very clear and prominent signs directing the visitor.  Shelley’s tomb is at the highest point in the main part of the cemetery, and Keats’ in what looked like an extension.  Also, confusingly, Keats’ grave does not bear his name, though the one next to it does.  I lingered awhile, then set off to find the river and a nonchalant stroll into the centre.

There is always something inevitable about taking a wrong turning, but I took one and found myself on a long road with row upon row of shops selling nothing but motor cycles.  But eventually, after asking an elderly Roman: “Dove si trova il fiume, per l’amor di Dio?”, I found what I was looking for.

I love cities with rivers and Rome with its Tiber is one of the best.  It was peaceful too, just the occasional jogger or Roman walking his/her dog.  A couple of youths yelled across at me if it was permitted to fish and I shouted back “Non lo so”.  

All along the embankment there were wonderful stone bridges: Ponte Sisto, built by Sixtus IV in 1474 in the ruins of the Pons Jani-culensis; Ponte Mazzini and Ponte Principe Amedeo; and Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, the bridge which connects the historic centre of Rome with the Vatican City.  It was here that I left the embankment to join the tourist hoard.

Il Ponte Sisto

From the bridge I followed the via della Concialiazione which leads St. Peter’s Square.  The avenue was created in 1936 following the reconciliation of the Italian State and the Holy See.  It has been described as ‘the most disliked avenue in Rome’.  [Teresa Cutler - Life In Italy dot com]

St. Peter’s Square was full of people in the warm November sun, mostly tourists, a few nuns, who knows, maybe even the occasional pilgrim. Together we will have outnumbered the total Vatican City State population of 800 persons.  There was no sign of the Swiss Guard, nor of the Bishop of Rome, aka the Pope.  I had no wish to join the ten hour queue for the Sistene Chapel or the Raphael frescos, as much as I would obviously have liked to have seen these glories of il Rinascimento.  I used to be a big fan of Raphael until I wearied of the endless Madonnas that he churned out for his ecclesiastical clients.  Maybe he grew weary of them, too, but kept going as they were good for business.  So I had a wander around the square, took a few predictable snaps, and headed off back to the river.

I crossed Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, hung a left, and toddled down to the next bridge in the sequence, the famous, the incredibly famous, the fabulously famous….what‘s it called again?….ah yes, the magnificently famous Ponte San Angelo, previously called Pons Aelius, built by Emperor Hadrian and completed in AD 134.  It leads directly to the Castel Sant’Angelo, the cylinder-shaped mausoleum of the aforesaid emperor.  

Ponte San Angelo leading to Castel Sant'Angelo

I didn’t go to the top of the mausoleum to enjoy the unforgettable views of the most beautiful city in Christendom, but instead wended my weary way in the direction of the Spanish Steps.  It was here that Keats lived when he and his companion Joseph Severn arrived in Rome.  He’d been told by his physician in 1820 that a winter in England would kill him.  So he journeyed to Rome where a winter in Italy killed him.  He died on 23 February 1821 in the house overlooking the Spanish Steps.  He was 25 years old.

The house is now the Keats-Shelley Museum, and next door is a shop appropriately named Byron, though I suspect that this was more contrived than accidental.  The museum was just closing when I got there, but I managed a quick shufty before being ushered out.

The square outside, la piazza di Spagna, was calm and pleasant, despite the many tourists, but I headed off to find the Trevi Fountain.  It was smaller than I imagined, and completely hidden behind a wall of tourists and souvenir vendors.  Also the sun was setting casting long shadows over Neptune and his friends.  It is said that if you cast a coin into the fountain and make a wish then your wish you will come true and you will return to Rome.  I didn’t, so it hasn’t and I haven’t.  

Keats-Shelley Museum at the Piazza di Spagna

That night in the hotel I watched part of a football match on TV between two Italian teams.  The usual pundits were in the studio, surrounded by a collection of medieval suits of armour and busty young women with low cleavages who leaned forward and pouted each time the camera was on them.  

The next morning I was out bright and early to get to the Colloseum before the crowds.  It was a good strategy, and would have worked, too, if others hadn’t had the same idea.  But it was another glorious day as I wandered slowly down the long via de S. Gregorio, past the famous Palatine Hill, arriving at Constantine’s Arch, built in AD 315 in celebration of the emperor’s victory on Massenzio, three years earlier.  It is remarkably well preserved. Beyond it is the biggest amphitheatre of antiquity.

Construction of the Colloseum got under way in AD 72 when Vespasian was emperor.  He was of the Flavia family, which is why the Colloseum is also known as the Amphiteatrum Flavium.  It had a capacity of 55,000 spectators for its gladiator and wild animal tournaments, and for its fantastic naval battles, known as naumachie.  It is also the site at which many of the early Christians were martyred, before Rome, realising it was losing the battle, decided to adopt Christianity as the official religion of the Empire, and to mould it to their own ends. I went inside and stood in line just a few short minutes at the ticket office, then through the turnstile and we’re in!


I’d been in Roman amphitheatres before, in Arles and Nimes, as well as the magnificent Antique Theatre in Orange, but none compared with this giant edifice at the very heart of the Roman Empire in which so many emperors had walked. I tried to imagine the spectacles that would have presented themselves to the audience almost 2,000 years earlier, but my feeble imagination let me down yet again, just when I needed it.   Or perhaps it wasn’t one of my better days.  So I just stood there, looking and feeling very much the tourist, and gazed down into the hypogeum, the warren of underground tunnels where the animal and human performers were herded for their grand entrances, and which now takes the place of the wooden arena floor which was destroyed by fire.

I came across a small exhibition of vases and other artefacts from the even earlier Greek civilization depicting images of Achilles and the siege of Troy. And I admired and photographed the magnificent views over what remains of the Forums of Caesar, Augustus and others, and the ruined temples and arches.  How grand it all must have been in its time!  Then, after about an hour, perhaps more, I left the building and walked up the via dei Fori Imperiali, and spent some time wandering around the ruins. I felt a sense of epic history all around me.  I also felt an overwhelming desire for a pizza.  So I made my way to the Colloseo metro station, past a loud demonstration which was unfolding, and took the first train to Termini, where I knew there was a reasonable restaurant.  

Constantine's Arch from the Colloseum

After dining and checking out i romanzi gialli, the ‘yellow novels’, which is what Italian publishers call their crime novels, and of which there was a large selection in the Termini book shop, I set about the ever time-consuming quest of finding somewhere I could buy postage stamps for my postcards.  I tried a succession of tobacconists (the usual outlet) where I received the constant reply: “Finito”.  I went to the station post office but they were queuing out of the door.  Eventually I tracked some down and then set about the next task of finding a post box.  The trouble was that I didn’t even know what colour they were.  Red?  Yellow?  Pink?  Finally, I asked an attractive young woman in the Tourist office, and she offered to put them with her mail for me.

Finally I made my way back to the airport.  My brief visit was over.  In the daylight I discovered that the airport was also a military one with many signs warning you not to take photographs.  I checked in, bought a cheese and ham sandwich and waited for my flight to be called.

Once onboard the plane the captain told us how long our flight would take. About three hours.  Then I suddenly realised that we measure our plane journeys not by the distance that we travel but by the time the journey takes.  So I was wrong all along.  Time travel is possible.  I take it all back.  

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