Italy 2004, part 3

Back to Rome

On the 19th we traveled from Venice back to Rome by train. We were supposed to have the same sort of transfer assistance on the way in: a special water taxi and someone to help us on/off it and into the train station. The taxi showed up but the assistant didn’t. Informed of this, the taxi driver[? captain? pilot? I guess it’s not a driver if it’s a boat] rolled his eyes in a knowing manner, said “I’ll help you,” and we were on our way. He did help us, so he got the assistant’s tip. We made it onto the train on our own with little incident, thanks to a ramped walkway off to one side constructed for wheelchairs and rolling luggage, no thanks to the train conductors who were conspicuously absent from our car.

(Digression: Tracie and I can pretty much negotiate any transportation situation unaided, since she can get out of her chair and climb up/down stairs when absolutely necessary. We engage the service of transfer assistants when traveling because it’s a heck of a lot easier to get through a train station (for example) when there’s a third person to push the chair, handle luggage, explain how the train tickets work, etc. If her mobility were more seriously impaired than it is, situations like escorts failing to show up would be disastrous. Hence good-natured people who take it upon themselves to make up for the failings of their peers, such as the taxi pilot, earn a great deal of gratitude.)

We expected the train ride to be about five hours long. At the last minute before departure we were joined by Joe and Joan SomethingItalianSounding, a pair of elderly American tourists from Florida. I think Midwesterners would describe her as “a piece of work.” She reminded both of us of Joan Rivers. She was loud, funny, self-deprecating, and just shy of obnoxious. He was quiet, cheerfully patient, posessing of a very dry sense of humor, and reminded us faintly of Tracie’s father. They’d been married for 47 years and were in their 70s, although they didn’t particularly look it. At times she resembled a stereotypical American tourist, complaining loudly of Italian coffee and smokers, but it was hard to actually dislike her because of her seemingly boundless light-hearted enthusiasm.

There is some expression from the Bible or somewhere that’s something like “God protects the innocent”; it certainly applies to her. She went on at some length about how they didn’t have enough euros to get from the upcoming train station to the hotel because they’d just spent all of their cash on an unexpectedly high taxi fare, how they were actually on the wrong train because their tickets were for a train two hours later but she didn’t have the energy to wait two hours in the station so they got on our train anyway despite the protestations of the porter, how everyone on their cruise ship complained about the food, how Joe’s father subsisted on onions when he came across the Atlantic at the age of 15 on a immigrant ship, that she didn’t know where their hotel was because she’d lost her book on Florence and didn’t have a map, how much they’d spent on both cruises and hence how much they’d lose if they didn’t take the second one home (without calculating what it would cost to return by other means), how she was intimidated by the automatic door on the bathroom in the coach so Joe had to come to protect her from its perils, and so on and so forth. The crowning touch was when she pulled out her copy of Italy for Dummies, a well-chosen purchase if there ever was one. (To her credit, though, the book was obviously well read, dog-eared and bookmarked, and she took copious notes when Tracie tried to fill in some details for her.) Joe took this all cheerfully in stride–clearly he was used to her company. At one point he took off his hat to reveal his bald head and quipped that he had hair at the beginning of their vacation, and later leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and said, “wake me up when the train reaches Florida.”

She yammered away for most of the three hours from Venice to Florence, their destination. Tracie and I related some of what we saw and knew about Florence, including attractions that might be of interest to Joe since he was a builder, such as the dome and the science museum; and some practical details like the fact that getting from the train station to their hotel without a taxi was going to be nearly impossible given the volume of luggage they were hauling along. (Considering that their vacation was a month long, they didn’t really have an excessive amount of baggage, but it had already been demonstrated that while Joe was quite sturdy for his years, Joan wasn’t pulling her weight in bags, so to speak.)

We managed to avert them from a couple of potential disasters by filling them in on a couple of pertinent details, such as the fact that museums are generally closed on Mondays, there is a long line to see David (or just about anything else in a museum), Siena is more than an afternoon’s jaunt from Florence and closed to automobiles, etc. We ended up exchanging 50 euros for some of their American cash so that they could at least get started in Florence, and Tracie gave them an extra map she happened to have (on which Joan made little circles and notes). In exchange they made the time pass more quickly than it would have had we done nothing other than gazed out the window. I helped them off the train with their luggage in Florence. We figure that when we’re traveling at their age, our good karma will pay off.

The rest of the trip to Rome was relatively peaceful. I wrote a little bit and started trying to reproduce some of the mosaic patterns I’d seen in Venice. Our assistant in Rome did appear and was most helpful with the luggage. (She was probably stronger than I am. I don’t think that I could have hefted our suitcase into the car with quite the same gusto that she did.)

We arrived at our hotel in the late afternoon. It is directly opposite the Trevi Fountain, the magnificent marble fountain with statues of Neptune and two Tritons. It was built in 1762, but marks what used to be the end of an aqueduct built in 19 BC. Our first-floor-room window looks directly towards it.

Since I know that some of my fellow audio geeks are reading this [hi Chris, Dan, and Gregory], I must describe a remarkable audio illusion in the room: When the window is open, the noise from the fountain and the crowds around it reflects off the opposite wall. If you sit at the foot of the bed between the window and the wall, the reflection sounds like a second crowd of people. It’s so startling that several times Tracie and I looked back towards the wall, thinking that there was someone entering the room or making an unusual racket in the hall outside the door. I’m going to try to make a recording of the phenomenon with my binaural mics.

A Relaxing Day in Rome

Today we had a very relaxing and enjoyable day in Rome. Arising early, we watched as Trevi fountain was turned off for cleaning. A crew of several men in tall boots polished the fountain and swept up piles of coins with push brooms. I don’t know how often this happens; we’ll see tomorrow morning whether or not it’s a daily routine. Maybe they only do it on Monday mornings, after the weekend crowds. It’s a widely known ritual to throw a coin over ones shoulder into the fountain, so a great number of coins accumulate there.

After eating breakfast in a room on the top floor overlooking the fountain, we headed out. Our first destination was an obelisk mounted on top of an elephant statue which Tracie is fond of. Its title is the Obelisk of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and it was designed by Bernini. It has a rather whimsical look about it.

Next we visited the Campo de’ Fiori, an open market that has taken place at the same piazza since medieval times. There are a number of stalls selling flowers, meats, cheeses, and a large array of fruits and vegetables. Two particularly unusual items which caught my eye were some tomatoes that looked like little pumpkins, and young zuccini-like squash with the flowers still attached and intact. The market was clearly populated almost entirely by locals buying foodstuffs rather than tourists buying trinkets.

Tracie led me to Fontana delle Tartarughe, the turtle fountain. It’s one of her favorite fountains. It’s a bit off the beaten path, and stands in the middle of a small square. We were the only ones looking at it, although an elderly local stopped to tell us its name with a touch of affection in her voice.

By chance we ran across a section of Roman ruins, about the size of half a city block (in American terms–there are no blocks per se in Rome because none of the streets meet at right angles), fenced off, unmarked, and unidentified on our map. There was an interesting array of columns, platforms, and other remnants, but the most remarkable thing about it was the colony of cats that inhabit it. As we watched, more and more cats started to emerge from bushes, corners, nooks, and crannies. At a guess there were at least two dozen cats visible by the time we left. We spent a bit of time watching and video-taping them as they wandered around in the ruins, chased each other, and generally did cat stuff. They looked pretty well-fed and had healthy-looking coats, so clearly they’re living fairly well, at least. But what were these ruins?

Our guidebook provided the answer. Referred to as Area Sacra dell’ Argentina, they’re some of the oldest known ruins in the city. There are four temples, and the oldest dates from the early 3rd century BC. Other parts have been identified as a building where the Senate met and Julius Caesar was murdered in 44 BC.

Next we returned to the Pantheon. I was hoping to be able to better experience its wonderful acoustics in the lesser morning crowds, but unfortunately a maintenance crew was operating a huge jackhammer in the same square. Nonetheless, we spent some time gazing up at the dome. It’s a really remarkable construction, and it’s utterly mind-boggling that it was built in 118-125 AD. Hadrian designed it, it turns out. It might be my favorite thing from this trip, if I had to pick one.

After emerging from the Pantheon we stopped at a cafe on the same square, Piazza della Rotuonda for cappuccino for me and acqua minerale frizzante for Tracie (see, I’m learning Italian) and decided what to do next. Realizing that we were enjoying not doing much of anything that required long treks over basalt cobblestones and long gazes upwards at wall-mounted art, we decided to head back towards the hotel for a little blogging (yesterday’s news) and a brief rest.

Lunchtime rolled around, and we wandered back to Via Condotti, the street on which we first stayed, and found our way to Fior Fiore, our favorite pizzeria. Tracie ate a surprising amount of pizza (it was very good), and then we had a reckless amount of gelato. We returned to the hotel and amused ourselves by spotting particularly bad fashion mistakes among the people passing by the fountain.

For dinner we visited a pizzeria near the hotel, where the young proprietor was playing the soundtrack to The Rocky Horror Picture Show rather loudly. (Hearing American music in Europe is always a little surreal. Someone was listening to Bob Dylan in the kitchen while we ate breakfast today.) The pizza was very good: potato and rosemary. Then we sat at the fountain for awhile, watching the tourists and fending off the flower sellers. Tracie eventually decided that she needed a little more gelato, which I fetched for her.

Noting the way that the fountain is illuminated at night, we tried once again to take self-portraits at the window with the camera’s remote control. Some of the results might actually be printable. The photo on this this page was taken at the cafe; I held the camera in my outstretched arm and pressed the shutter release with my thumb.

Off the Beaten Path in Rome

Apparently the fountain-cleaning procedure we witnessed yesterday morning does not happen every day. Today they gave the fountain only a cursory once-over, without turning it off and without sweeping up the coins from the bottom. I suspect that the thorough clean-up we watched yesterday happens on Monday mornings, after the weekend crowds.

After breakfast, we headed to San Giovanni in Laterano, a large and beautiful church built originally in the 4th century AD but rebuilt twice after fires. We arrived early enough that it was largely unoccupied, which was a very nice treat after fighting the crowds elsewhere. The church has a wonderful collection of floor mosaics and a 13th-century apse mosaic, and a huge pipe organ. I spent much of the time photographing the patterns on the floor, but also did four nuns a favor by using their camera to photograph them in front of the reliquary. The mosaics lacked the spectacular spiral motifs that we saw elsewhere, but had some lovely repeating patterns. Those guys really knew how to divide the plane, that’s all I can say.

Not far from the church we stopped to photograph Porta Asinaria, part of an old wall, dating to the 3rd century AD. Near it stand several remaining chunks of aqueduct which date to the 1st century AD.

Next we visited the Baptistry behind the church, which was built in 432 AD but updated with a lovely predominately blue mosaic in the 5th century, and later some frescoes on the walls. It adjoins a pretty little 7th-century chapel, the Chapel of San Venanzio, which I did not photograph out of respect for the people who were doing what people do in chapels when they’re not being tourists.

After a somewhat arduous trek over unfortunately narrow streets, we found the Santo Stefano Rotondo, a round church built in 468-483 AD. It was set back a ways from the street, bordered on one side by a pretty garden. There was a sign near the street that said it was closed for reconstruction, but an attendant in front of the building beckoned to us when he saw us. It turns out that the whole place is indeed undergoing reconstruction, but the work in some respects has stalled because after they ripped up the wooden floor, they discovered a much older building underneath it. So at the moment it’s not really open for a lot of visiting traffic, but the attendant ushered us in for a short visit.

It’s really a remarkable place–one of the more unique things we’ve seen on this trip. The inside is a large cylinder maybe 80-100 feet across. There is an inner circle of pillars with a sort of altar or something in the center. It’s illuminated by circular windows at various locations, some of which apparently act as a sort of sundial. The wooden floor is largely absent, revealing metal girders over an intriguing array of very old brick constructions–steps, walkways, arches, rooms, etc. The upper walls are covered with faded frescoes of saints being martyred in particularly nasty ways.

Much of the above information was related to us by a German gentleman who had passed us on his bicycle on our way in. He’s very fond of the place, and first visited it about 12 years ago. He says that very little progress has been made in the last 10 years because no-one is quite sure what to do next, because of the ruins below. He was pleased to note that the celing reconstruction had been completed since his last visit.

A few more people wandered in, creating a critical mass which exceeded attendant’s comfort level, and we were ushered out. We thanked him profusely; it was a special event for us. An eldery nun emerged from a door to the side and waved at us cheerfully as we left.

Next we stopped at the Cordnata, a wide rampled walkway flanked by a pair of granite Egyptian lions. Next to it is the Aracoeli Staircase, a flight of 124 marble steps completed in 1348. I declined to climb the steps, since I was a bit pooped from the morning’s travels and it wasn’t getting any cooler.

We started working our way back towards the hotel, keeping an eye open for a place for lunch. We stopped at a restaurant with tables outside, and had a leisurely and delicious lunch. I had an appetizer of fresh mozarella (the real kind, made from water-buffalo milk–it’s really good) and tomatoes, Tracie had a mixed salad. She had large handmade raviol stuffed with spinach and parmesan cheese, and I had rigatoni with eggplant and tomato sauce, followed by a cup of what might have been the strongest coffee I’ve had yet.

Full of food and a bit tired from our morning’s adventures, we had a brief nap upon returning to the hotel. Soon we will have to venture forth in search of gelato.


My friend Dan pointed out an error in one of my recent accounts. Dante is actually not entombed in the same church as Galileo and Michelangelo. Dante got kicked out of Florence, and died and was buried elsewhere. The memorial in Florence was installed later when someone decided that Dante had turned out to be important enough after all that Florence should cash in on some of his fame. Our guide actually went to some length to make sure that we understood the distinction, but I forgot to mention this in my subsequent blog entry.

Dan also looked up the Edward Gorey verse I mentioned, which is the fourth verse from the end of The Fatal Lozenge: “The Wanton, though she knows its dangers, Must needs smear kohl around her eyes, And wake the interest of strangers With long-drawn, hoarse, erotic sighs.”

Thanks, Dan!


Today’s our last day in Rome, so this will be the last news item posted here until we arrived at home. This may be the last entry in the Italy log, unless I think of something else to say on the subject.

This morning we visted Castel Sant’ Angelo, a sort of castle/palace/fortress sort of place. The first thing built on the site was Hadrian’s mausoleum, built in 139 AD. Since then it’s been expanded and used in various way, including as a medieval citadel, a prison, and the residence for various popes when there was sufficient discontent that residing in the Vatican was not particularly wise.

It’s not particularly wheelchair accessible, and parts of it were closed ostensibly for rennovation. (I couldn’t help but notice, though, that the paper sign taped to the window of the ticket office which apologetically stated that certain levels were closed “today and tomorrow” was rather weather-faded.) So we had a fairly short visit, but took some nice photos as we looked down across the river from its windows. There was a small collection of old weapons and armor, and one 200-year-old flag from one of the local bombadier squadrons. I made brief forays on foot into the areas that were unreachable by wheelchair, and decided that while the frescoes and painted ceilings were nice enough, they weren’t worth Tracie’s effort to visit. I also decided that I’m pretty burned out on looking at frescoes and gilded ceilings and stuff by now, silly as that may sound.

Next we went to the Piazza del Popolo, a large piazza with a big obelisk atop a fountain with three handsome statues of lions. There was also a nice fountain of Neptune and two Tritons (I’m guessing) at one side.

Our other objective for the day was to find some bread or pastries or something to sustain us on the plane flight. Oddly enough, finding small hunks of portable bread in Rome is more difficult than we expected. Eventually we found some croissants at a slightly ritzy cafe sort of place, occupied by unusually rude locals but unusually gracious merchants. Later we found some spherical rolls of the sort that Tracie is fond of at a little deli. Along with our four bottles of Gatorade, we’re ready for the return flight (at least as far as food and drink goes).

While we were out, we decided to make a last visit to the Pantheon, just because it’s so neat. Tracie expressed a desire to find a bathroom, so we stopped in a somewhat tacky-looking gelateria right on the edge of the Piazza della Rotonda, the piazza in which the Pantheon stands. Our original intent was to just buy some water or something in hopes of winning favor and gaining access to the restroom, but we were seduced by their wide array of gelato and the unusually cheerful proprietors. I think they were having a slow day because of the maintenance going on in the street directly outside of their shop. In any case they turned out to serve some of the best gelato we’ve had so far. Tracie always gets vanilla or crema since she’s certain to not be allergic to them. It’s always a little difficult to convince gelato servers that she really only wants just vanilla, since gelato is usually served with several flavors combined, but this guy took it in stride. He then explained that they had three different kinds of crema and provided spoonfuls of each so that Tracie could make an informed choice. I intended to order chocolate and mint, but because of a misunderstanding between my bad pronounciation of Italian and his not-quite-so-bad pronounciation of English, I ended up with chocolate and mango. It turned out to be a pretty good combination, although the rich chocolate (chocolate gelato is quite dark in chocolate terms) overpowered the mango a bit.

After escaping from the gelateria we hung around in the Pantheon a bit. I was chastised by one of the attendants for squatting beside Tracie’s wheelchair, which we found somewhat baffling but it didn’t seem worth arguing about. There was also a brass plaque on the wall near the entrance to the piazza which said (in effect) that the piazza was a special place and people should behave accordingly. To reinforce this point, there were little diagrams with red circles and diagonal lines which seemed to declare the following restrictions: No Sitting in Fountains, No Vocal Duets, No Schnauzers, and No Dropping Cubes While Walking.

We gazed at the dome for awhile and then wandered back to the hotel to pack. Then we walked to our new-favorite pizzeria, which is just down the street from Trevi fountain, on Via delle Muratte. As far as I can tell the place doesn’t have a name, but it’s the first pizzeria on the left as you walk down this street away from the fountain. There’s no outside seating and only about eight stools inside. Most tourists pass it up because of its unassuming appearance, but it’s packed with locals, including teenagers, bricklayers, businessmen, fountain cleaners, and elderly couples. The pizza is excellent. It’s cooked in big, rectangular pans and presented under glass at a long counter. You order by pointing (if your Italian isn’t very good, although the young fellow working there spoke excellent English) and they chop out a section of whatever size you want. If you order it to go, they cut it in two, stack it face to face, and hand it to you wrapped in paper. (Somewhat inexplicably the locals–particularly the businessmen in expensive suits–eat their servings while still standing and facing the counter.)

We intend to be lazy for the rest of the day. We have to get up at some ungodly hour tomorrow morning to head for the airport. We’ll watch the crowds at the fountain and maybe walk back to the gelateria near the Pantheon. When in Rome…