Europe Travel Log – Rome


Tuesday 6 September

There is a long queue for a taxi at the Roma Termini. Apparently there is a transport strike and no buses or trains are working. Our taxi driver is animated, cursing the scooters that come a hairs breadth away from hitting us. He has seen four scooter accidents this morning already. It is 8.30am. He says that on a wet day he sees ten or twelve accidents in a day.

Our hotel is about 100 metres from the Tiber River, and not far from the Spanish steps where we head for. There’s a church at the top of the steps, a fountain in the shape of a boat at the bottom, and hundreds of people sitting on the steps.

We decide to walk on to the Trevi Fountain which is not far away. We pass a gelatarria, Roma Antica, and stop. This place makes the best gelato I have eaten, maybe the best in Rome, In Italy. The staff wear waistcoats and bow ties over white shirts. The owner is a broadly smiling elderly gentleman who makes the gelato himself and who could sell ice to Eskimos. It’s an experience as well as a gelato.

The Trevi Fountain isn’t what I expected. It isn’t stand alone, but attached to the back of a building. It is wonderful, springing out from the wall. The carvings of the horses are magnificent, and the water moves beautifully through the artwork. It’s cooler here than at the Spanish steps, although there are many, many more people – thousands. It’s crowded but there’s a real buzz.

We visit the church at the corner of the square where the Trevi Fountain is. It’s typical of the design of other churches we’ve seen, with the high altar and side chapels, friezes on the high vaulted ceilings, and large paintings on the walls. It does not appear to be of any political, historic or artistic importance, and in some ways it’s a relief to enter an ordinary functioning church. Except that the side chapels are so over the top and tacky that it makes me squirm.

Outside the church we meet an elderly couple we’d met on the train to Rome – even Rome is small! We chat with Richard May for at east half an hour. He’s a very interesting American who, before retiring, had been a judge, and now is invited to lecture on his interest, the legal aspects of our rapidly changing society. It was a pleasure to have a stimulating political discussion about America while standing in throngs of tourists in Rome!

Wednesday 7 September

I’m so excited! We’re going to the Vatican and we’ll see the Sistine Chapel! We’ll take the wheelchair route, literally. Instead of coming in under the altar as everyone else does, we’ll enter from the opposite end, against the flow, but facing the way Michaelangelo intended his masterpiece to be viewed. Peter is excited because he’s always dreamed of seeing St Peter’s Basilica.

It’s Wednesday so we have the option of seeing the pope up on his stage speaking to the people. But we’d both rather just get into the Vatican …

The taxi driver drives around the vatican wall and drops us opposite the entrance. The wall is imposing and intimidating. Two policewomen patrolling the pedestrian crossing escort us across. Italians seem to have enormous respect for the disabled. I’m on my crutches so I switch to a Vatican chair. We have free entry so long as I can show evidence of my disability – it must be greater than 70%. I’d been warned that showing up in a wheelchair or crutches isn’t enough so I have my Total Mobility card with me that has my photo on it. It’s enough!

The “Creation of Man” is superb. Adam particulately is breathtakingly beautiful. We slowly advance (against the flow) to take in the rest of the ceiling and walls. People part for me.

No photos are allowed and one man is stopped and asked to show his last photo, and the one before, and the one before … Until all the photos of the chapel are erased. He is told that one more photo and he will be “kicked out”.

The “Last Judgement” was also painted by Michaelangelo, but the walls were painted by his students and by other artists such as Boticelli. It’s almost too much to take in, there is so much art, so many paintings!

The other area we want to visit is the Raphael Rooms. We go with the flow this time and start at the third room. I am disappointed, but find out that although Raphael designed the work, he did not complete it. The second and first rooms are magnificent though. The first room was originally used as a library, and of the four wall panels, I really love “The Philosophers”.

The Vatican wheelchair is big and clumsy with footplates that stick out. Going with the flow is difficult. Nobody can see me and I cannot see above their chests. It’s claustrophobic and hot. I’m ready to leave.

To get to St Peters we have to go outside and walk around the wall. The path is wet and my right crutch slips from under me. I’m on the ground and covered in filth. Peter turns back, and with the help of a large American, they lift me up. I don’t care that my (Amy’s) long white lightweight pants have big streaks of dirt all way down my leg. I want to see the basilica.

Because I am disabled we jump the huge queue.I have never seen such an ornate building! The high vaulted ceilings are covered in friezes framed in white and gold, beautiful works of art are everywhere. Much of it is propaganda showing god’s and the saints approval of popes and the church. The high altar is behind an extraordinarily kitch structure of black and gold that stands high above what is supposed to be Peter’s tomb. The black and gold theme is repeated at the altar above which is a simple stained glass window of the Holy Spirit. The idea of so much wealth in a church is slightly repugnant, but without this wealth and power, many of these works of art would not exist.

The “pieta” is the only piece of art that has ever moved me to tears. No photo can do it justice. The marble Jesus is at once heavy on Mary’s lap, and lightweight. This has more to do with a mother’s grief than with divinity. Her love for him makes him as light as a feather as she supports his body, yet her grief is heavier than the marble itself. She holds her left hand out as if asking “why”. Every mother can relate to this. (Not that I’m suggesting my sons are divine, rather that Jesus, like my sons, is deeply loved by his mother.

I ask if I can take the lift to see the dome, but the lift only goes as far as the terrace. I have asked a man who now appears to be the boss. He arranges for us to take the lift free of charge to the terrace where we a wonderful view over Rome.

There is still a little time left in the day so we visit the Pantheon, a cicular building built in the third century by the Romans., It had been converted to a church around the seventh century but still has many original elements. The huge doors, high dome (which apparently the designers of the Duomo in Florence looked at, but the technique used to build it had been lost), the floors and part of the walls. The top of the dome is open and below it is a concave floor to drain the water away. It has the original mosaic floor laid in a geometric, symmetrical pattern. Some of the wall is exposed so the original brick work and plaster can be seen. I am blown away that this building is still completely intact after eighteen hundred years. The Romans must have been remarkably skilled engineers and architects.

Not surprisingly, the square in front of the Pantheon, this circular building, is called the Piazza Della Rotunda. (Who decides which nouns are masculine and which feminine?) A string trio is playing light classical music, the evening lights are appearing and the atmosphere is great. We decide to have dinner at one of the many ristorante/pizzerias that are around the edge of the piazza. The string trio is replaced by a jazz trio playing swing. Everyone is happy. The lady at the table next to us is sketching the musicians. We chat. The meal is expensive, partly because there is a compulsory 15% tip! Nice one. Still, the evening has been priceless.

Night is falling and we decide to walk to the Trevi Fountain to see it at night. We walk through narrow lanes and allies where diners line either side. We see a flashing blue light ahead. A police car is coming down the lane. It has it’s wing mirrors swung in, but diners still have to stand and pull their chairs in, pedestrians move between tables. It’s hilarious. Rome is crazy.

The Trevi fountain at night is beautiful. There are lights in the water shining upwards, and small street lamps beside it. I feel very fortunate to be in Rome – along with the other thousand surrounding the fountain. The crowds don’t matter, I’m getting used to them.

I’ve walked a long way this evening, so we catch a taxi back to the hotel. Taxis in Rome are cheap, they’re an ideal way for me to get around. It probably doesn’t costs much more than two three day travel passes.

Thursday 8 September

Today is all about ancient Rome. Amy has suggested that we start our tour on Palatine Hill, explore the Roman Forum, then exit to the Colosseum. This will avoid the queues at the Colosseum. We drive past the colosseum on the way to Palatino and the queues there already snake several hundred metres around the outside! There is no queue at Palatino.

Palatine Hill is one of seven hills around Rome, and it is where the wealthy Romans built their villas and temples around the first century BC. At the top are the remains of two large villas between which is sunken a large stadium that would have been a lush garden. I can see the remains of the walking path and columns around the perimeter. The remains of many villas have been uncovered but the most interesting is the Casa of Augustus. Two rooms have been recently excavated. Remarkably, we are able to stand inside them. The walls and ceilings are in excellent condition, and we can see on the floor a complete outline of the mosaics that were once there. The frescoes are preserved in fantastic condition and are stunningly vivid colours. It is almost inconceivable that we can stand inside a room that has been preserved for so many centuries … No restoration, no reproduction, and we are not just looking at it through Perspex!

Excavations are ongoing and reveal more and more of the area’s history. For example, little can be seen of Domus Livia but we understand that excavations have shown it to be vast, frescoed …and linked to Casa Augustus’ (to whom she is married) far more modest house!

Further on, gardens have been excavated to show cryptoportals (underground passages) that were used as places to cool off when the day became too hot, and to link buildings. It is also thought that they were used as secret meeting places.

From the top of Palatino we can look down over the ruins of the Roman Forum. It is a spectacular scene. We can see the remains of streets, temples, arches and the Curia where the senate met. It is not difficult to imagine how it must have looked, especially as the marble arches of Titus and Severus are in excellent condition, and the Via Nova has been excavated to show shops and apartments that would have been two stories high. Some of the brick arches that would have supported the second floor are still standing. Brick foundations and walls of villas that sprawl down the hill give further clues. Pieces of marble columns lie everywhere. What is difficult to comprehend, is how old all this is, how industrious and clever the Romans were, and how their buildings were made to last … Millennia.

The Roman Forum is dusty. My shoes are filthy, I will probably have to throw them away. It’s hot, very hot. We both struggle in the heat. I am exhausted, but I am determined to get to the colosseum. It has taken us six hours to get to the entrance.

I have a burst of energy just thinking about how amazing this structure is. It’s everything I’ve ever seen or read about, and more. The outside is truly awesome (I am running out of adjectives, but each Roman building is worthy of it’s own superlative.) Completed in 100AD it is extraordinary that it still stands in such splendor nearly two thousand years later. It is a tribute to the Romans, who constructed it of massive stone slabs, that it had for the most part withstood earthquakes and pillaging. The north side was damaged during an earthquake and the looseened materials were used to construct St Peters. The south side still stands tall. Modern stadia seem to have followed the colosseum’s layout, apart from the underground tunnels. It is awful to think of how these tunnels were used, and the purpose of the colosseum.

The day began by entering Palatino at 9.30am. As we leave the colosseum it is 5.30pm. I have walked almost non-stop. As we walked through the Roman Forum I had become so tired that I simply put one foot in front, or beside, the other, my will battling my body. I did it though … I have seen what I came to Rome to see: the Sistine chapel, St Peter’s, and now Pakatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the colosseum. I’m happy.

Friday 9 September

Peter plans today. We are to walk to the Piazza Novona via the Castile di Sant’Angelo, so named because someone is said to have seen an archangel on it’s roof.

As we leave the hotel we notice yet again the absolute road chaos in Rome. Cars park on the outside edges of intersections, across pedestrian crossings and in any space that will allow one car to pass, whether it is a one way or two way street. Smart cars park at right angles to the footpath in non-existent parks, between cars that are parallel parked. They are barely longer than the width of other cars. I can see why people in Rome drive small cars. Not only do they park anywhere, but they drive in tiny lanes not much wider than a footpath. There are more small cars than scooters.

The castle is only a few hundred metres along the river yet there is something happening nearly every foot of the way. We walk along the River Tiber (which is an odd olive green colour and probably horribly polluted), passing the Palace of Justice. This is a huge, rather imposing but attractive building decorated with statues and carvings … And the Italian and euro flags. We also pass a swimming pool beside the river. It has chaise longues with curtains for shade. Entry is 10 euro. We pass through a market selling second hand books and vinyl records, clothing, as well as the usual tac.

The Castile was originally built as Hadrian’s tomb in 140AD, and the bridge leading to its front gate was built at the same time. It is as wide as a road and still standing as strong as ever and used by pedestrians. The Castile was later added to in 1475 and used by the Vatican as a fortress to defend itself, particularly during the sack of Rome by zcharles the first in the sixteenth century. The pope at the time used the top of the wall that ran between the Vatican and the Castile to escape to the castile. Initially I was disappointed that the Castile had been added to so “recently” until peter pointed out me that America was not discovered til 1492. Rome does that to you. It is so ancient that buildings that are over five hundred years old begin to seem young …

The best part of the Castile is still the original helical ramp (which would have prevented the useof battering rams!), the carved out space where Hadrian’s tomb stood on raised legs, and the hall of urns that is at the top of the ramp.

The bastions built by the Vatican, and named after the four evangelists, are also interesting. I can look down from the terrace to see the canons below and the spaces where bowmen would have stood. These can be accessed and Peter looks more closely. We can also see the wall between it and the Vatican. I visualize the battles that would have occurred here.

We walk acros the Sant’Angelo bridge heading to the Piazza Novana. We see a supermarket and buy some cheese, tomatoes and bread for lunch. Oh, what food! The young man working there, running back to the front counter, bumps into me. He apologizes profusely, then apologizes again when I reach the counter. I ask if he speaks English. Cautiously, he says he speaks a little (everyone speaks a little, and tries to be helpful). He speaks enough to understand when I say “it’s not every day that a nice young man runs in to me.” He laughs, and pointedly puts the change in front of me, not Peter!

In the Piazza therei are artists everywhere, painting and selling their work. I see a watercolor of the “pieta”. The artist, a young woman, has captured something of Michaelangelo’s statue. I think it is special. I buy it on impulse. A busker is playing Schubert’s Ave Maria on the violin.

It’s lovely, but it’s so hot by 3 I’ve wilted. Back at the hotel I sleep for over two hours.

Saturday 10 September

After being so tired yesterday, I use the wheelchair to reach the Villa Borghese and its eighty hectares of park like grounds. It’s at the top of the Pincione Hill. I find it difficult to

use the wheelchair because I can’t see over cars that are parked on corners and every which way, so I can’t see any approaching cars. The pavement is cracked and uneven, there are holes, and the cobbles are very uneven and broken. Peter ends up pushing me most of the way.

Once we’re there, though, it’s lovely. It’s quiet, I can hear birds singing in the trees, yes, trees! And there are squirrels. Peter has an esspresso while I write. It’s cool and uncrowded. We move closer to the lake. There are only a few French and English tourists in the park, mostly local families out for the day.

Every day it seems to get very hot around 3. We head down the hill into tourist mayhem, particularly around the Spanish Steps and through Via Condotti, where all the label shops are, and that heads straight for Ponte Cavour and our hotel. Pedestrians are walking shoulder to shoulder along the road (which is quite wide) and only move when a police car clears a way through. We are moving in a river of people. Even so, it is cooler down here than on the hill.

The people of Rome are friendly and relaxed. They have an expression that sounds like “calmer, calmer” that even those with no English use when I apologize for not speaking Italian, or try to get out of their way. Rome is noisy, crazy, happy chaos!

Notes on Accessibility

It is difficult to use a wheelchair on roads in Rome. However, places like the Vatican are very wheelchair friendly. There is a lift in the colosseum. I saw small electric buses that are wheelchair accessible but I was never able to identify their routes. Taxis are cheap, and by far the easiest way for anyone disabled to get around.

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