Italy 2004, part 1

We’re here!

We have arrived safely in Rome. Internet connectivity is terrible, currently, so I’m not going to post much at this time. I should be able to improve matters somehow (the hotel has 802.11g wireless access) but at the moment I’m so tired I can hardly see straight so I’m not making much progress.

September 10: Rome in a Day

It’s about 8:00PM and we’re unwinding after our private “Rome in a Day” tour. First I must apologize for yesterday’s anticlimactic blog entry. Yesterday I was not only exhausted from the journey and lack of sleep, but the internet connectivity situation here is currently rather frustrating. We were told that there is wireless access in the room, and indeed there seems to be a wireless hub within range (barely). I cannot figure out how to get a connection, though, after a substantial amount of trying. The front desk loaned me a laptop and it worked, but I was unable to deduce the proper incancations by examining it. [For the geeks reading this, it seems as though DHCP is turned off on the router, because I can’t seem to get a dynamic address and the wi-fi PC card in the hotel’s laptop had its IP address written on it in ballpoint pen. However, why wouldn’t DHCP be turned on if they actually want to give their guests access? If anyone reading this has any clue, please write to my usual email address with suggestions.] So we’re reduced to using the local Earthlink dial-up port, which means not only paying Earthlink’s international roaming charges but also paying the hotel for local phone calls. I don’t know which is more expensive and I don’t particularly want to know, since we’ll end up paying for both. But in any case this means that, at least for now, we can’t upload many photos because doing so would be prohibitively expensive, as we found out the hard way after our stay in Paris.Anyway, as for the journey itself, there’s not much to say about it except that it was uneventful but long. We both managed to sleep on the plane a little bit, which helped. Just before we left Boulder I sprang for two pairs of snazzy Sennheiser headphones with active noise-canceling circuits. They proved to do a pretty impressive job of reducing the interior noise of the airplane, which I think reduced the overall discomfort of being trapped there for nine hours.

Today our private tour guide Mayta and the hired driver Arnaldo [I’m not sure that is really his name. Tracie and I heard Mayta address him by at least two different names. I thought that it might have been Oswaldo, but Tracie tells me that there is no one in Italy named Oswaldo. It’s sad that we can’t remember his name because he was terribly gracious to us. Tracie just suggested that I refer to him here as Fred.] met us at 9:00AM to give us a guided tour of the city. Rome is a huge city and parts of it are inconceivably old, so seeing all of it in one day is obviously impossible. We certainly saw a lot of it nonetheless–enough that Tracie is replanning some of our remaining days because we saw things that she did not expect to see today, but had planned to see later.

We drove (or rather were driven) around for about eight hours. I can’t possibly recall everything that was shown and described to us, but here is some of what comes to mind:

The Colosseum Obviously we saw the Colosseum. It’s hard to miss, since it’s huge. Actually it seemed about the right size to me in that it was neither bigger nor smaller than I expected, based on seeing it portrayed in various movies. However, that is not to say that it is either small nor unimpressive. It’s quite large, and the fact that something that large was built nearly 2000 years ago boggles the mind. It also boggles the mind to walk around in a place built nearly 2000 years ago.

We ended up on the uppermost still-intact level, which is about halfway up the original structure. From there you can see the entire interior, including the system of trenches underneath what was once the floor of the arena. Bits of it have been restored by various people at various times, so it’s a little hard to tell whether you’re looking at part of the original structure or something more recent. It’s really quite impressive to see the place, and not at all difficult to imagine it looking the way it once did, which is to say the way it looks in the movie Gladiator, for instance. (No, we didn’t see Russell Crowe stalking around amongst the tourists.) I think I’m just as glad, though, that I didn’t see any of the exhibitions once put on there, such as criminals being eaten by bears.

The Pantheon This may have been the high point of the day, if we had to pick one. The Pantheon is a vast cylindrical building with a domed top, about 140 feet in diameter. It was built in 118 AD. While we wandered around inside, I tried to photograph the unphotographable and enjoyed the acoustics. I’d really like to see (or rather hear) what the place is like when it’s not filled with tourists, but I’m not likely to see it that way unless I move here (which is not at all likely).

St. Peter’s Chains at San Pietro in Vincoli San Pietro in Vincoli is a medium-sized church with two big claims to fame. One is a couple of lengths of chain that were used to hold St. Peter. Some time after that use they were separated, and later they miraculously rejoined when the two parts were brought back together. They now hang in an illuminated reliquary in a sort of open cellar near the pulpit. More interesting to those of us unimpressed by miracles, though, is Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses, which is not far from the chains. A huge work in marble, it was originally supposed to be mounted on a roof but ended up being incorporated into a large shrine for various departed popes because it was decided that it was too nice to leave outside at the mercy of the pigeons. (Okay, I’m taking liberties with the detailed account that Mayta gave to us, but that’s the gist of it.) It’s very beautiful. As Tracie put it, he looks so lifelike that he looks as though he might suddenly stand up. That’s him in the photo on this page. No, Moses is not usually depicted with horns. They are there as a result of an error in translation of the Old Testament. Yes, really. (Kinda makes you wonder about other details in the Old Testament, eh?) By the time Michelangelo did this sculpture the error was known, so perhaps he had an odd sense of humor, or perhaps a touch of contempt.

Bocca della Verita This is the big, stone mask, as seen in Roman Holiday–you know, the one that Gregory Peck puts his hand in in an attempt to scare, and thus win the heart of, Audrey Hepburne. I thought about how many millions of hands had been inserted into the mouth and hence decided against putting my own hand in, on grounds of hygiene rather than fear of reprisal. We did have our photograph taken in front of it, though.

We saw bits of the orignal city walls, roads and aqueducts. Some of the aqueducts were built in around 200 BC; the age of some of the things in this city is more or less impossible to comprehend. We also briefly saw the Forum, the former site of Circus Maximus, Trevi Fountain, and Piazza Navona. We are returning to all of these, though, so I won’t describe them at this time.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that Mayta is fond of. The food was excellent. For an appetizer we had fresh mozarella–the real stuff, made from water buffolo milk–with tomato and basil. Tracie had fettucine with ricotta and pancetta, and I had Tagliasomething [I’ve forgotten how to spell it–it was narrow pasta] with oil, prosciutto, and hot peppers. Both were excellent, and we ate enough that we’re skipping dinner this evening.

Tracie just discovered, to her dismay, that they took the soap away when they cleaned the bathroom today. Of course one expects nothing else from a hotel of this calibre, but we are both faintly dismayed by the wastefulness. Perhaps tomorrow morning we will hide the soap.

The Vatican Museum

We’re having a very nice vacation, but it seems to be plagued with technical difficulties. I still can’t get the networking connection to work, and yesterday evening I noticed that our camera seems to be acting strangely at times. Some of the photos we’ve taken have come out badly underexposed (i.e., too dark). About a dozen of the photos I took yesterday are worthless. I took over 200 yesterday, so there are plenty that are okay, but I lost several good shots from a hill overlooking the city, and it’s unlikely that we’ll be able to replace those.

I can’t really discern a pattern among the failure, but it seems to be that the failure is most likely to occur when we take pictures outdoors in fairly bright light. I took over 200 photos today, mostly inside the Vatican museums and St. Peter’s Bascilica. Almost all of those are fine, but almost all of the ones I took outside the building are too dark. It’s strange, and incredibly frustrating, particularly because the light here is quite striking.

Early this morning, after breakfast, we went to the Spanish Steps, which are just up the street from our hotel. They are very crowded during the day, but we noticed yesterday morning that they’re nearly deserted in the early morning. We took a few pictures there and then wandered around looking at store windows. There are some extremely upscale stores in this neighborhood. Our room window looks down on a Bulgari shop, with Gucci on its left and Cartier across the street. I think that every third store is a lingerie store. We found one particularly inviting shop in a small courtyard at the end of an illuminated tunnel, with windows full of very striking clothes. Tracie proclaimed it too fiscally hazardous to risk entry, but I think she’s mustering her courage for another visit.

Mayta, our guide, met us at 9:30 and we headed to the Vatican by taxi. The Vatican museums are vast–around 2000 rooms in all–and house a vast collection of antiquties and art gathered up by and for popes through the ages. There is everything there from ancient Greek and Roman figurines to a ceramic robin presented by Richard Nixon. We saw a tiny fraction of the collection, since our time there was measured in hours rather than, say, months.

We also saw the most densely packed crowds of tourists that I think I’ve ever seen anywhere. Most rooms were filled wall to wall with people. The Sistine Chapel, for instance, which is probably the most important part of the collection, was shoulder-to-shoulder, front to back.

The collections themselves are quite remarkable. We spent much of the time in a tall hallway lined with huge tapestries. At a guess they’re at least 20 feet tall, and are incredibly detailed and colorful. I tried to take some photos of them, but they’re dimly lit to slow their aging so my photos are somewhat oddly exposed and a little blurry. There were camera flashes at a rate of about one every thirty seconds, set off by idiots who chose to ignore the repeated cries of “NO FLASH PLEASE!” from the guards.

Between there and the Sistine Chapel we wandered through a series of rooms, including a remarkably long hallway lined with huge painted maps. We saw altar pieces, little oil lamps and flasks originally used for visiting the catacombs, tables inlaid with mosaics, tiny Grecian busts carved in various minerals, a porcelain altar about six feet tall, and so on.

The Sistine Chapel itself is quite something to see in person. The ceiling is quite high (about 60 feet, if I remember correctly) and the wall with the depiction of Judgement Day is probably around 30 feet wide. I hesiate to say it, but my reaction was that it’s actually all rather ostentatious and maybe even a little gaudy. I mean, yes, it’s floor-to-ceiling Michelangelo paintings and hence is indisputably magnificent, but it just seems a bit much to me. Any one of the nine main scenes on the ceiling would stand on its own as an individual painting; all put together they’re somewhat overwhelming in their intensity. I wasn’t supposed to take photos at all in that room, so the one on this page is illicit, but I forgot because, well, plenty of other people were taking photos…

[By the way, because of the problem with uploading stuff from our current location, I’m not putting any photos in the photo gallery currently. Instead I’ll put one photo up with each blog entry, as you see here.]

Of course, my enjoyment of the spectacle was severely hampered by being packed into the room with heaven knows how many hundreds of other tourists. It’s difficult to gaze peacefully at the ceiling when you’re in constant danger of being walked into by someone else gazing at the ceiling. There was no part of the chapel in which I wasn’t within arm’s reach of at least five other people. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Vatican has chosen to turn a room that presumably was supposed to be one of the greatest papal glorifications into a herding room for hundreds of paying tourists. The sanctity of the place was sacrificed in favor of its income-generating potential–there are no two ways about it.

After that we visited St. Peter’s Bascilica, which is near the museums. It’s a huge church lined with statuary and marble, with a dome designed by Michelangelo and an altar by Bernini. The most noteworthy work is a sculpture by Michelangelo, depicting Mary holding the body of Christ. I was also rather taken with a huge statue of St. Veronica, who is depicted in wind-blown robs, carrying the cloth that she offered to Jesus. It’s also overrun by tourists, of course, bu thankfully it’s not as densely filled as the Vatican museums.

From there we returned to the hotel, quite exhausted, and had a late lunch. After that we did a little shopping and people-watching, and are now about to fall asleep.

Too Tired to Write Much Today

It’s 10:00PM, we’ve been out all day, we just finished dinner, and we’re dead tired. Today’s entry will be short; I will have to leave longer descriptions for tomorrow. I’m just too tired to write much tonight.

We went to Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli. It’s the site of a vast summer estate built by Emperor Hadrian sometime a few years after B.C. Big chunks of the buildings are still intact. We wandered around there for hours, under the guidance of Mayta, our guide with a seemingly inexhaustible knowledge of matters Roman.

After stopping for lunch, we went on to Villa d’Este, a spectacular complex of gardens and fountains constructed by one of the popes several hundred years ago. Tracie got driven around in a somewhat absurdly modified electric utility car while I followed on foot, taking pictures and video.

More about Tivoli

Okay, we’ve been restored by a night’s slumber and breakfast. We leave in about 45 minutes to see Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden House. I’ll try to relate some of yesterday’s adventures now.

The nicest part of day in Rome is arguably the morning, because it’s still cool and there is relatively little traffic (of either the motorized or bipedal variety). After breakfast yesterday we wandered in search of a marketplace we intend to visit sometime when it’s open, and ended up in a piazza with two beautiful fountains. The larger fountain has huge statues representing the four rivers, surrounding a central pillar. I was rather more taken with the smaller fountain, though. Its central figure is a large man spearing an octopus wound around his lower legs. They’re ringed by six or eight smaller statues depicting cherubs and two self-satisfied-looking women wrestling sea creatures (and one goose) into watery submission. We took pictures of the fountains and watched a trio of small, high-strung dogs make mischief while their owners attempted polite conversation.

We met Mayta and the same hired driver at the hotel at 10:00. (It turns out that the driver’s name really is Oswaldo.) He drove us to Tivoli to see Hadrian’s Villa and Villa d’Este while Mayta (with our encouragement) related tales of the occasional misfortunes encountered by a professional guide in Rome. (Hints to the would-be sight-seer: If you want to stay in the favor of your hired guide, don’t let your son wander off by himself in search of ice cream, and keep tabs on your elderly relatives so that you don’t all have to engage the services of the local police and the U.S. Consulate in order to retrieve them.)

Hadrian’s Villa is a vast estate that was constructed for Hadrian in 118-134A.D. It was a summer retreat for the emperor, and hence somewhat modest by imperial standards; it covers a mere 300 acres and had only about 10,000 slaves, servants, soldiers and so on to attend the emperor and his guests. Most of it has been reduced to rubble by the ages, but there are a number of structures still standing, and archeological excavations continue to uncover more of it.

We did not cover all 300 acres, but we spent about three hours wandering through the ruins. Mayta deliberately directed us to areas that were accessible by wheelchair, or nearly so. At some point Oswaldo, who tagged along at with our welcome after he revealed that he had never visited the site, took it upon himself to propel Tracie and her chair over the more difficult bits of terrain. Tracie and I both tried to convince him that he needn’t rise above the call of duty in this manner, but he would hear none of this. His guiding Tracie left me free to run around and take photos of the areas that she couldn’t reach, and far be it for me to attempt to persuade an Italian gentleman six inches taller than myself that I was more able to wrestle a wheelchair over marble paving fragments than he.

The buildings (or what’s left of them) are amazing. Even in its current state the beauty of the architectural design is astonishing. Tall columns precede arched entranceways, statues and pillars ring reflecting pools, maze-like passageways open into echoing cylindrical bath chambers with hemispherical ceilings rising 20 or 30 feet above.

The emperor’s private sanctum is particularly engaging. A small building of only a few rooms is enclosed by a circular moat inside a high circular wall. Once across the moat, the emperor (or more likely his servants) could retract a sliding drawbridge to ensure that he could not be disturbed by anyone.

On the way out, we passed olive trees, tall flowering oleanders, and a pomegranate bush. We stopped for lunch in Tivoli. Tracie had ziti with zucchini and other vegetables, and I had spaghetti with whole shrimp—and I do mean whole shrimp, complete with eyes, feelers, claws, etc. It was very good.

Next we visited Villa d’Este, a palatial estate developed in the 16th century by the cardinal son of Lucrezia Borgia. A large villa at the top of a hill overlooks a series of terraced gardens and walkways among huge fountains and statuary. The gardens have largely fallen into neglect and many of the fountains no longer work, but it’s still a lovely and magnificent spectacle.

The visit got off to a somewhat rocky start. Our guide had arranged ahead of time that someone at the villa would convey us in some sort of electric car, since much of the estate is difficult to reach by wheelchair. She reconfirmed this reservation while we were at lunch, but when we arrived at the villa, we were told that the car was broken. Lengthy and heated discussions in Italian ensued between the guide and various members of the villa staff. Then it was revealed that the car only needed its battery charged, which would take about 10 minutes.

After 10 or so minutes, the car appeared. It was one of those low electric cars that you see on outdoor malls, used by maintenance people and gardeners. To convert it into a transport for wheelchairs and their occupants, someone had grafted a platform with rails and a folding ramp onto the back of it. It was a pretty unlikely looking arrangement. The real problem, though, was that it could only convey three people, including the driver and the occupant of the chair. Another lengthy and heated discussion ensued between the driver and the guide. I don’t speak more than five words of Italian, but as far as I could tell the guide went on at great length, taking to task the driver, the rest of the villa staff, and probably their relatives and pets for the inconvenience of failing to produce a useful conveyance after promising one. (Think of all of the stereotypes you have for Italians arguing, and you’ll have a pretty good picture of the scene.) Tracie kept up with the exchanged but wisely stayed out of it.

Of course, none of this seemed to address the actual problem at hand. Any number of scenarios were proposed and discarded, including the guide remaining behind, me remaining behind, and Tracie remaining behind—which of course would mean that the car itself was superfluous. Eventually I managed to propose that everyone else ride in the car while I followed on foot, figuring that the distance I’d cover would be only a fraction of what I’d previously walked at Hadrian’s Villa. This solution was too obvious to accept without further Italian exchange, but eventually it was settled upon and off we went.

The gardens and fountains are beautiful. At their height they must have been quite dazzling. Today there are still several very large fountains and cascades and a number of smaller auxiliary fountains. The guide pointed out that the water works were arranged to create varying amounts of sound as visitors made their way from the bottom entrance up the hill to the villa. Even the curved half-walls on either side of the twin staircases at the last ascent had cascades of water running along their length, emitted at the top from the mouths of huge stone frogs. About halfway up several reflecting ponds stretch away from a large cascade topped by a pillared temple. Today the ponds are occupied by large fish, at least one of which is a rainbow trout if I’m not mistaken. Not far from the other end of the ponds stands a 16-breasted statue of a fertility goddess, emitting a small jet of water from each nipple.

After wandering/driving around in the gardens for about an hour, we made our way back up the hill to the base of the villa. Tracie bought a reproduction of a print in the gift shop. Then we were informed that the elevator that had taken us from the parking lot down to our current location was now broken. We were escorted out and up a somewhat hidden passageway, which was steep but not impossible for me to push Tracie up. Our driver spotted us as we emerged from one corner of the parking lot, and managed to whisk us away just before a marching band made its way through the street, complete with baton twirlers and a brass band. (Yes, it seemed a little out of place. Imagine your local high school band, dressed up for homecoming, making their way through the narrow streets of Tivoli.)

We bade our guide and the driver a fond farewell at the hotel and staggered upstairs, quite exhausted by the day’s explorations. Eventually we went upstairs to the lounge and dined on focaccia and Pellegrino. (Pellegrino comes in flavors here.)

-> on to part two