ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!

2 Nov

THANKS A LOT JULIUS!  —  I came, I saw and I photographed. It was October,2011 and I was at last taking up Julius’s open offer of a reciprocal visit. On my 62nd birthday I stood in the middle of St Peter’s Square, gazing at the great domed basilica. The fountains were gushing, the tourists were queueing and I was watching the statues on top of Bernini’s curving collonades slowly turning into silouettes as the late afternoon sun dipped. I had made it to Rome at long last! It’s the “Eternal City” that uniquely and generously offers two countries for the price of one — Italy and the Vatican. Eat your heart out Tescos! What follows are a few of my impressions.

THE COLOSSEUM FROM OUR WINDOW  —  Our 2nd floor apartment lay just a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. I leant out of the window, pushed the shutters back and looked left. There it was, shining in the floodlights — ancient Rome’s greatest amphitheatre just at the bottom of our street!

Half an hour earlier, it had been a surreal experience suddenly driving around the Colosseum in our taxi, as if we had stumbled upon an abandoned film set. Next to it stood an ancient triumphal arch. ” O look, it’s the Arch of Constantine!” I exclaimed, like the good History teacher that I am. It was like a giant textbook suddenly springing to life! Now I was gaping at it through our window. Separating us from the 9th Wonder of the ancient World was: a cobbled street, a line of pavement cafes, tightly parked cars with moter-bikes squashed inbetween them, a half-excavated gladiators’ academy and a cream-coloured early Christian basilica. The next morning, I watched the first school groups and parties of tourists arrive to visit the Basilica of San Clemente with its 3 layers of Roman history. On our second day we visited this fascinating place ourselves.

MIXED-UP HISTORY and STRANGE JUXTAPOSITIONS.   —   San Clemente is a 12th century Greek style church which sits on top of a 4th Century Basilica, which in turn is built over the remains of a 3rd Century pagan, Mithran temple. The historical multi-layering of San Clemente is typical of Rome as a whole. The city groans beneath the weight of its own history. Different eras and architectural styles crowd in on one another, creating a constant whirl of confusing juxtapositions. A medieval bell-tower rises up beside an ancient arch; a flamboyant Baroque church- facade looms up behind the columned porch of an early temple, and so on. In certain places, like The Forum, buildings of different ages mix together in an intoxicating jumble, all the time being encircled by open-topped bus tours and camera touting tourists.

TOURISTS OR TRAVELLERS?  —  There is supposed to be a subtle difference between a traveller and a tourist. Travellers, it is claimed, are a bit more thoughtful in their choice of sights , not just flocking to the more obvious, famous destinations which appear on most people’s tick lists. I smugly think I belong to the former category but probably am also a fully paid-up member of the latter. Whatever — Rome pays host to thousands of tourists AND travellers. This must be especially so in the height of summer but parts of it were still very busy when we visited in mid-October. It appears that Rome has developed into a whole year destination. The trouble is , many of the visiters want to go the same places, the so-called tourist ” honey-pots”. Thus the hordes of people we encountered at the foot of the Spanish Steps one morning were probably mostly the same as those we had met throwing their coins into the Trevi Fountain the previous evening.

You can always tell when you are approaching a tourist “honey-pot”. The crowds thicken and the streets start filling up with souvenir stalls, buskers, pavement cafes and ice-cream parlours. You will probably get to meet a golden Tutankhamen or a silver Statue of Liberty who only move when a coin is put into their pot. I got to kiss the daintily gloved hand of a Jane Austin -style lady in the Piazza Navona, for the bargain price of 1 Euro. Sometimes it seems as if tourists are a bit like sheep, all flocking to the same few places just because they are famous. On the other hand, a more discerning traveller might seek out more obscure but equally rewarding sights, or wander down quiet streets and through deserted squares just to see what exciting surprise might pop up. Chris and I tried to do a bit of both. We visited a mixture of the famous and the obscure and did our fair share of aimless but fascinating wandering.

We walked around Rome most of the time. apart from a couple of Metro journeys. I have never been attracted to the easy but expensive convenience of the open-topped bus tour. This seems to me to be a way of seeing everything without actually seeing anything. Whizzing round the Colosseum and taking a couple of hurried, blurred photos is no substitute for actually visiting the building and soaking in its history. We visited it shortly after opening time and it was still quite busy. It was awe-inspiring standing inside the 2000 year old stadium and imagining 70,000 people blood-thirstingly screaming at brutal gladiator fights or hapless criminals and Christains being torn apart by wild beasts. However, by the time we left at around 10-30am, any historical atmosphere had been ruined by the hordes of tourists pouring in. It’s ironic that they seemed to be destroying the very thing they had come to experience. Sometimes, modern tourism is like that — killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Maybe budget airlines are partly to blame for opening up foreign travel to so many people, but then again, if it wasn’t for Ryanair and their like, we would probably have not been there either!

WHAT I LOVED.  —  I loved the evocative ruins of the Forum and the Palatine and Celian Hills. I loved the Renaissances palaces, the over-the-top Baroque churches and the piazzas with their flamboyant statues and fountains. I loved the faded yellow, orange and red buildings of the old town, glowing in the sun. I loved the sculptured, pollarded trees with their deep green tops. The multi-flavoured ice creams were absolutely delicious like everywhere in Italy. I loved looking at the hieroglyphics on the ancient obelisks that seemed to punctuate every grand piazza even though we were in Italy not Egypt. They were a reminder that the Romans were plunderers as well as civilisers. However, the most memorable moments for me were entering 5 special places of worship. ( 5 of the many in Rome.)

The first two were Greek style early Christian basilicas : San Clemente and San Saba. Both have shining medieval mosaics, fading but still colourful frescoes, stately columns and geometrically patterned marble floors. The 3rd and 4th were 16th Century Renaissance churches — San Luigi dei Francesi and Santa Maria del Popolo. Both had strikingly luminous works by Caravaggio, in side chapels, looking as though they were painted just yesterday. The intense light and shade, the dramatic foreshortening and the startling realism make this a thrilling experience. They even eclipsed the spectacularly frescoed ceilings.

The final unforgettable place of worship was the incomparable Pantheon — the Roman temple of all gods. It was later converted into a church. Entered between giant Corinthian columns, one enters a majestic circular splace, surrounded by ornate shrines and tombs of the “great” and the “good”, including that of Raphael, which we somehow managed to miss! However most of one’s attention is taken by the huge, hemispherical dome that just seems to hang magically in thin air, with no visible support. It was designed by the Emperor Hadrian himself in the 2nd Century AD. Sunlight pours through a circle in the centre of the dome, its shafts illuminating different sections of the coffered ceiling as the sun moves across the sky. There is little else to do but sit down and stare until one is in danger of contracting permanent neck-ache. Awe-inspiring seems to be a phrase specially invented for this ancient building.

FINAL THOUGHTS — NO COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN.  —   So that’s our first visit to the “Eternal City”. Yes, it’s got lots of noisy traffic, crowds of tourists, enough pizza and pasta to feed a small army every day, pestering street sellers and devious pick-pockets. But Rome is also a beautiful, enchanting place full of memorable sights, sounds and smells. I know we will be back, though we never actually threw any coins into the tourists’ favourite fountain.

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2 Responses to “ROME — No coins in the fountain, but we’ll still be back!”

  1. Gerry Fenge November 2, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    Am busy right now but intend to catch up with all the throwaways in the Scrapheap – back soon!

  2. scapheapstuartMr Stuart Bates November 3, 2011 at 10:37 am #

    Thanks Gerry. Any more episodes of your American road trip in the pipe-line?

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