My last blog post was almost two months ago – seven weeks to be exact – but as we slip into winter, sunny Sicily seems like aeons ago. Since then, our journey has involved returns, first to Rome, which we last saw in the depths of winter when we first arrived in Italy, and then back to Florence. Perhaps because both places were not completely new experiences, I haven’t felt the same urgency about blogging our experiences. But though both cities are familiar, we were far from bored. So herewith, a catch-up blog post to fill in the gaps and reflect a little on the last seven weeks. I’m going to cover a bit of ground, so grab a cuppa and settle down for a long-ish read.
We left Catania, on Sicily’s east coast, late at night, travelling by ferry from that city to Naples, having had a scare on the way down from Taormina due to the chronic inefficiency of the Sicilian train services, which managed to make our train almost an hour late departing. After a rather breathless taxi ride to a darkened and almost deserted ferry terminal, we finally boarded with twenty minutes or so to spare, and settled into our cabin for the twelve hour overnight trip. At this point, I’m sure you are probably asking why on earth we didn’t catch a plane; not an unreasonable question (and one we asked ourselves a few times during this particular exercise). Certainly we would have got there much faster, and it would probably not have been much more expensive, but on the other hand using entirely terrestrial modes of transport does give you a wonderful sense of really travelling, which is lovely if you have the time. And of course there is none of that infuriating palaver that surrounds the otherwise quite magical experience of flying – getting to the airport, struggling with automated ticketing systems, endless queues through dehumanising security procedures, and waiting around in overcrowded terminals for the inevitably late flight. That’s my rationalisation, anyway!
This particular ferry duly arrived at about 11 am in Naples, after a smooth and peaceful journey up the Italian coast. Having slept soundly, had a hot shower, and enjoyed a nice breakfast (you can’t do any of that on a plane!), we disembarked; an hour later we were on our fast train up to Rome.
Our first arrival in Rome, back in January, had been in the dark half-light of a wintry dawn. This time, we were arriving in the bright sunshine of a late summer’s day, and as our taxi careered across the city, driven by a very chatty young woman who provided us with a running tourist commentary in barely-intelligible English, we both felt as if we were seeing the city anew. Where the trees had been leafless and the roads wet on that last arrival, now everything was green, the streets and monuments were bathed in the brightest of sunshine, and where there had been relatively few people about, the city was now swarming – the only word for it – with tourists. Our destination was different this time, too. Instead of a tiny one-bedroom apartment at the back of a building that fronted onto the Campo dei Fiori, right in the heart of the old city, this time we were in a two bedroom apartment (so as to accommodate Robert’s sister, Trish, who was joining us for this part of the trip), in an area of Rome called Prati, just across the river.
Prati, we soon realised, is a pretty comfortable, middle-to-upper class area. The central open space of the district is the Piazza Cavour, just a few metres from our apartment, a big and lush green space bisected by pathways and shaded by palm trees. In the centre of the piazza is a massive statue of Camilo Benso, Conte di Cavour, Prime Minister of Piedmont and one of the giants of the risorgimento, who keeps an eye on the kids playing football in front of the main facade of Italy’s Supreme Court, a gorgeously over-the-top folly of white marble that is probably intended to evoke all the awful majesty of the law, but which actually just looks a bit bombastic. Still, I suppose it’s a nice place to go to work for all the lawyers and their assistants who cross the square every day, moving very purposefully (for Italians!).
The Supreme Court’s neighbour is the equally iconic Castel Sant’Angelo. This fortress, which was constructed over the mausoleum originally erected for the Emperor Hadrian, provided a secure place of refuge for the various Renaissance popes who found themselves under siege whenever the warlords who controlled the city stopped fighting each other long enough to unite and rise against him. There is in fact a long fortified corridor that runs from the Vatican Palace to the Castel, enabling besieged popes to hurry to safety without setting foot at ground level. Right at the top of the fortress, there is a statue of the Archangel Michael, featured in virtually every production of Verdi’s opera Tosca, whose final and tragic act is set on the upper platform of the fortress.
So they’re the big boys of Prati. Behind them, the streets, arranged in a neat grid-pattern bisected by long avenues radiating away from the Tiber, are wide and tree-lined, bordered by miles of Liberty-era apartment buildings (the entire country, I swear, must have been rebuilt in the last thirty years of the 19th century), all very genteel, neat, and tidy. It’s very much a residential district, lots of nice restaurants and bars, none of which could be called “tourist”, though there are plenty of tourists about.
We did most of our blockbuster sightseeing back in January, so apart from revisiting a few highlights with Trisha (it was her first visit to Rome), we were planning to fill in a few gaps, and spend some time at a couple of places that are rather less well known. For example, we had a fascinating morning looking at our nearest Roman ruin, the Ara Pacis. This first century AD temple was built by the Emperor Augustus, and originally stood in the Campus Martius, the open area outside the Roman walls that was used for military exercises and for elections in the days of the Republic, when “the People” would gather in their tribes to elect magistrates and pass laws proposed by the Senate (ever wondered what SPQR stands for? Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and People of Rome). The temple was relocated by Mussolini to its present position opposite the mausoleum of Augustus, and housed in a pavilion which was then replaced after the war with the present light and airy structure, designed by American architect Richard Meier.
Another fascinating museum, also just across the Tiber from us, is the Museo Napoleonico, dedicated to Napoleon and his family. Where the little Corsican is seen elsewhere in Europe as a rather blood-soaked conqueror, here in Italy he has always had a softer reputation, partly because, as a Corsican, he was really half-Italian (throughout his life he spoke his French with a noticeable Italian accent), and partly because his conquest of the peninsula provided an early inspiration for the idea of a unified Italy. The museum is fascinating, covering not only the Emperor and those of his family who had some relationship with Italy, but also having a room dedicated to Emperor Napoleon III, the conqueror’s nephew whose foreign policies had a major influence on the risorgimento. And as an added bonus on the day we went to visit, there was a concert performance in the main salon, by a brilliant young pianist named Damiano Paci, a mere 18 years old!
We had two other major expeditions – one to visit the Borghese Gallery, which of course also entailed spending an afternoon in the gorgeous Borghese Gardens, and the other to the Vatican Museums – an altogether less pleasant experience. But first, the Borghese. It must be twenty years since Robert and I first went there, and we had both forgotten what an amazing collection of sculptures and paintings the gallery holds. If you are a fan of Carravaggio, the Borghese is heaven, since they have half a dozen of the master’s works there. Then there are the amazing Bernini sculptures, Apollo and Daphne, in which Bernini captures in the most delicate way the moment at which Daphne turns into a laurel tree, and The Rape of Persephone, cruelty, desperation and sensuality all rendered in pure white marble. And finally his David, a study in determined, dramatic action, quite unlike any other David statue I can think of. And they’re just the blockbusters …
Our visit to the Vatican Museums, on the other hand, though fascinating in its own way, was a far less pleasant experience. Though we had bought tickets in advance, thereby skipping the mile-long queue of people who hadn’t had the foresight to do so, once we were inside we found ourselves in a literal tide of humanity, shuffling our way through some of the most glorious rooms in the Christian world, hardly able to stop and look at anything for any length of time without being jostled by some tour group or another. Yes, we got to see some iconic works, such as the famed Laocoon, and the Apollo Belvedere, and yes the Sistine Chapel still elicits gasps as you crane your neck looking at the sublime images that seem to cover every inch of its walls. But not for the first time we began to have some sympathy with those in Italy and elsewhere who have begun calling for some control over the volume of tourists that descend on cities like Rome and Venice each summer. They are right: sooner or later this will kill the goose that lays the golden egg.
Apart from sightseeing, much of our time was spent doing the very ordinary things of wandering the streets and piazzas – always a joy in Rome, even at the height of the tourist season – visiting the markets to buy food, and eating in various restaurants, some excellent, some awful, most actually pretty decent for the price (more expensive than in the south, but still quite reasonable). Rob was very excited to meet one of his food heroes, a lady named Rachel Roddy, who writes a weekly column in the Guardian, having all-but stalked her in the Testaccio Markets, where she shops each week. And so a pleasant couple of weeks passed, by the end of which we felt that we had at last come to grips with a city whose essence had, despite three or four visits, always managed to elude us.
From Rome, the journey to Florence is just a hop by train, and arriving in Santa Maria Novella station felt like a coming home of sorts, for we had, in our earlier stint in Florence, started and ended many journeys here. But instead of crossing the river to our old haunt of Santo Spirito, this time we were to be holed up for a five weeks in a completely different district, an area just a little east of the Duomo, bordering Santa Croce. The apartment, a pleasant and well-appointed one-bedder, overlooked the internal courtyards of a building that was once the Palazzo Valori, one of the many palaces along this street originally built by the Albizzi family, the deadly rivals of the Medici, and their friends and dependants. Immediately opposite there is one of those big restaurants (mercifully hidden away in the inner courtyard of the palazzo opposite) that cater to large tour groups, so it was not unusual for us to push open the massive wooden front door of our building to be confronted by thirty or forty rain-coated Japanese tourists, snapping photos of everything, including us, before toddling off for their obligatory bowl of pasta and slice of pizza.
The Italians, like the French, have never quite given up on the idea of village life, even in the most urban of environments. So it was no surprise for us to discover that, barely a hundred metres away, there was a little piazza that, in addition to the obligatory three or four restaurants and bars, also hosts an excellent fruit and vegetable stall that was set up and taken down each day, a local macelleria (butcher), and an excellent rosticceria, or cooked-food shop, from where one can buy all sorts of excellent pre-prepared meals. In other words, a replica of the type of little piazza you can find in any small town in Italy, with the sort of small businesses that elsewhere in the world (certainly in Australia) have been crushed out of existence by the big supermarket chains. No doubt it is all highly inefficient, and probably expensive relative to supermarket prices, but those economic rationalisations seem irrelevant, I suspect, to most Italians.
Like Rome, we have well and truly seen all the sights there are to see in Florence, so it was very nice to be able to settle into a routine where we felt no pressure to rush off here and there to see things in a limited amount of time. Though it was technically autumn, the weather was uncharacteristically sunny and warm, so we were able to enjoy all the outdoor things we had loved from our first visit, particularly the long walks into the countryside (which is spectacularly beautiful and easily accessible), catching up for lunch and dinner with various friends, old and new, both in Florence and further afield, and generally enjoying life.
Robert took up again with his art tutor, the incredibly knowledgeable Alan Pascuzzi, who took him off to various sights around the city – including a tour of the art works of Santa Croce church only a week or so before a piece of the ceiling fell down and killed a tourist! He also gave Rob some practical classes in the arts of fresco, tempura painting and gold leaf application. That kept him occupied while I tried to make some progress on my novel. So we were not entirely idle!
Thus pleasantly occupied, five weeks passed in a flash. We finally said our last farewells to Florence on Monday, promising we will come back, and picked up our rental car to drive down to our next adventure – a month in the rural countryside near Volterra, living in a bucolic farmhouse with a marvellous view.
And that, friends, will be the subject of the next blog entry you will see from me.