Sunday, 27 September 2009

I'm Sorry, We've Ran Out of Home Made Pasta

Early September is always Holiday time for Jen and I. The kids are back at school (i.e. not where we're going), the weather in Europe isn't too hot, and the hope of any decent weather in England is officially on hiatus until 2010. We've been to Barcelona for the last two years, and despite us being able to taste Sangria on our lips (it's cheaper than Blossom Hill) we decided to go to Rome.

As usual, we left booking the holiday until a few weeks before we left. After days exploring Expedia it appeared that must hotels in central Rome were last refurbished in the early 80s. We ended up staying in a hotel that was on the outskirts of the city centre but only a 5 minute walk away from the Metro (a walk which, according to many reviews, passed a number of hooker hot-spots). We were initially sent to the wrong room, probably scaring the life out the person inside when I was trying to force the door open. I inadvertently had my revenge on the staff by constantly pulling on the emergency alarm in the bathroom for 10 minutes (I was trying to turn the non-existent extractor fan on), leading to Jen getting a confusing phone call about trouble in the bathroom from reception. The hotel was very contemporary, having not only a bidet but, next to the bidet, a telephone. And I thought ringing someone on the toilet was weird.

Rome is a deceptively small city and it's easy to stumble upon a breath taking view whilst aimlessly walking through the city (Rome's Metro doesn't stop at many of the big sites; they're building a third line but progress is slow as every time the tunnel advances they unearth some hidden treasure). For example, in the first 20 minutes of exploring Rome we walked down an insignificant backstreet and stumbled upon a beautifully decorated cross road:

Although it is one of the most well known sights of Rome, Fontane de Trevi is a perfect example of a monumental sight unexpectedly crammed in a tiny out-of-the-way square. Unfortunately the tiny square was permanently rammed with huge crowds whenever we walked through it, watched over by the fountain police (to stop people jumping in, apparently). Throwing a coin in the fountain is meant to guarantee a return to Rome. We chucked in 10 cents, so evidently we weren't that bothered. We attempted to take some photos of us sitting on the edge of the fountain, unfortunately this put us directly in the line of fire from small bits of metal flying from the crowd so the photos were a little rushed (hence, not shown).

The most iconic sight has to be the Colloseum, and like the immigrants flogging umbrellas and faux gladiators selling picture opportunities, it jumps out in front of you when you leave the Collosso Metro. Due to the pillaging throughout centuries the Colloseum looked far more impressive outside than in.

We made a habit of using the Collosso Metro at night, as the view on the road walking towards it is amazing. We'd first pass the Monument to Victor Emanuel II, and then walk down a long road flanked by the Forum and ruins of Ceaser's house, with the lit up Colloseum approaching on the horizon.

Anyone who knows me well knows that, much like everything in and attached to my body, my bladder is small but perfectly formed. Rome and I suspect Italy do not do public toilets. One night walking to the Metro I was so desperate I had a cheeky pee half way up a dead-end stair case. Luckily the wall was just above groin height. This has to be the most picturesque toilet experience i've had in my life (not difficult), I felt like Caeser having a cheeky wazz on his was to the Forum. To be fair, a pigeon had pooed on my head a few days previously, so I was just muddying up his turf as revenge. For cover I pretended to take some pictures, one of which is below. Unfortunately, as the camera was merely a prop in my cunning deception, the photo is rubbish. Regardless, here it is:

Although there seemed to be less beggars, dodgy street merchants and theft than in other major cities, those that did it were full on. Beggars were one of two types, either young pregnant girls asking for money to support their bambino or old ladies, hunched over with a stick stumbling around and incoherently mumbling whilst rattling a mini Pringle can full of change. The later were genuinely scary, you could imagine them grabbing your arm and placing a curse on you if you dared to put less than a euro in their retro-fitted savoury snack container.

The scariest beggar we saw was a hybrid of the two types, a scary pregnant old lady (we think the bump was fake). For some inexplicable reason she was wearing a glittery dome shaped hat, looking like she'd been involved in an accident involving a badly secured disco ball. When a waitress tried to shoo her away from an establishment the begger turned, looked the waitress in the eye and made an un-earthly wail at the top of her lungs. After a few seconds of wailing she turned around and continued mumbling at scared Americans. From that point on Jen and I referred to her as Mumm-raa, and regularly ran away if we saw her stalking a square.

Gingers have a lot in common with Vampires - pale skin, fear of the sun and despite all logic, they are deeply attractive to the opposite sex. Well, maybe not the last point, but the Sun is a bitch. And Rome in September gets a lot of Sun, ruining every other photo we took. E.g:

The food in Rome is great and unlike Barcelona the bill isn't full of mystery surcharges. We were genuinely shocked when we got the bill for our first meal and were asked to pay for what was written on the menu. The one night we decided to get food in the hotel we were told that they'd ran out of the home made pasta. We didn't that mistake again. The thing i'll miss the most is the amazing ice cream, which we stuffed in our faces daily.

After four days of walking the city and countless museums history fatigue began to settle in and apathetically it became difficult to be impressed by another gold leaf 20m2 fresco or a monument that only 50 people probably died building. Luckily we ordered things such that we visited the epic Vatican Museum towards the end of the trip.

I had to stop taking photos of the frankly awe-inspiring testament to the Catholic Church's greed and excess as I was concerned that carrying the camera over the border would infringe on the Obscene Publications Act. It is a huge place, and room after room is quite literally jammed with statues, paintings and frescos such that you become desensitized to the beautiful craft exhibited. If you gave every piece the attention it deserved you would never leave. I actually felt bad that I wasn't more interested in large bodies of work - it must be like Disney Land for a historian. Despite Scott's suggestion I didn't get round to asking the staff where the Nazi Gold was hidden.

The Vatican Museum houses the Sisteen Chapel, or as it should probably be called the 'Nippon Sisteen Chapel'. Nippon, a Japanese Company purchased the video and photo rights to the chapel in exchange for paying for its refurbishment. For that reason, photography is forbidden, a rule which is strictly enforced by the Vatican's miserable fun-sponge guards.

The 'Rough Guide to Rome' describes the Vatican staff as

'unsmiling suited functionaries that appear at every turn. A care free experience it is not'

We saw a Japanese couple being marched out of the Sisteen Chapel for taking a photo, a women being dragged away from St. Paul's because skirt length infringement and, ironically, an elderly lady being pulled from her knees for daring to try and pray at the tomb of Pope John Paul II.

Ironically, I think we saw my two favorite things about Rome on the first day. The first was The Capuchin Crypt, 6 rooms entirely decorated using the remains of 4000 monks. Oddly, it was more impressive than morbid. The Crypt's intention was to remind the viewer of the impermanence of life, which is very Buddist for a Catholic Church. No photos were allowed, so here's some I found on the 'nets.

The second was 'The Allegory of Divine Providence' a breathtaking fresco in Palazzo Barberini. I actually found it more impressive then the Sisteen Chapel, more alive, more vibrant, brighter and more awe-inspiring. The fact we were alone in the room and not being shouted at by the Vatican Police probably improved the experience. Something which doesn't come out in the photos is that the fresco looked 3d, the arches in the corner had amazing depth to them, despite the fact it was simply paint on plaster.