Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Custard buildings, Jewish ghettos, dead poets...

On our second day in Rome, we decided to do walk described in B's guide book, that would show us the delights of medieval Rome.

It did do that, but it also gave me an enormous blister on the ball of my foot.  Ouchie.

First sight we saw on our sight-seeing tour (heh rhymes) was the Vittoriano, officially known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland).  In a city of medieval grandeur and debilitated but beautiful ruins, this rather garish marble monstrosity looks quite out of place.  Roman's often refer to it as the 'typewriter', referring to its boxy shape, or the 'zuppa inglese', after the custard-style Italian dessert.  Built in 1885 to commemorate King Vitorio Emanuele, the first king of unified Italy, nowadays it holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and so is policed by scary guards preventing you from sitting down anywhere on the site.

Opposite the Vittoriano is the Palazzo Venezia, the official residence of Mussolini.

From the Vittoriano we walked down the road to the Teatro Marcello, or Theatre of Marcellus, an open-air theatre completed in 12BC.  The upper storey was rebuilt in medieval times, and has now been converted into expensive apartments.

Next to the Teatro are three lone columns, the remains of the Portico d'Ottavia, which stands in the centre of the Jewish Ghetto.  In 1555 a papal bill forced the Jewish population of Rome to live in this area, surrounded by walls with gates locked at night.  When the Jews left the ghetto they had to wear yellow accessories to identify themselves, and they were forced to attend Catholic sermons on the shabbat.  Every year the Rabbi had to petition the city counsellors for permission for the Jewish people to stay another year, and every time he was literally kicked up the backside.  The laws requiring the Jews to live in the ghetto remained until 1882, and the walls were finally torn down in 1888.

Cutting through the backstreets, we wandered past Piazza Mattei, with it's Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) centrepiece, and sat for a few minutes in Piazza Caircu.  There are many fountains in Rome, which were built to provide drinking water brought from the aqueducts.  Indeed, weary tourists still surround the fountains and taps around the city, filling up their water bottles and washing the sweat and grime from themselves.

We then got a little lost attempting to find the Gelateria Alberto Pica, which was named in my guidebook as one of the five best gelateries in Rome.  I had riso (rice) and torta omana e pinoli (ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts), while B had limone (lemon) and anguria (watermelon).

Refreshed, we walked to the Campo de'Fiori, via the Palazzo Farnese, a very imposing palace revamped by Michelangelo when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534.  Apparently we also walked past the Palazzo Spada, but didn't notice it.

Campo de' Fiori, which means 'field of flowers', has housed an open air market every day since 1869.  In the square is a stature of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who was burned alive in 1600 at the exact location of the monument.  Bruno was a philosopher and astronomer, who proposed the theory that the Sun was actually a star, and that there were infinite 'Sun's in the universe, with infinite worlds populated by other intelligent beings.  He was a pantheist, believing that the Universe and God are the same.  This was not in keeping with the Vatican's view of a personal God, and so he was condemned to death for opposing the Church.  The statue was erected in 1887, facing defiantly in the direction of the Vatican, as a symbol of freedom of speech.

From the Campo we walked towards the river Tiber, and sat for a little while on its banks looking out at the Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).  Originally built to house the tomb of Hadrian in 139AD, it was subsequently converted to a fortress for the Pope in 401, and a secret underground passage built from the Vatican to allow safe flight for the Pope when under attack.  Bruno, the chappie mentioned above, was imprisoned here for a while.  It also featured in Dan Brown's atrocity Angels & Demons, as a secret lair and church.

Continuing through the backstreets, which contained some very nice shops, including one dedicated solely to compasses, we ended up in Piazza Navona.  A spectacular open space (which completely lacks shade), it used to hold the city's market, but now mainly hosts street sellers peddling sun umbrellas and 'original' art work to tourists.  In the centre is the rather extravagant Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), depicting the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate, surrounded by a palm tree, lion and a horse.  As if that wasn't enough, it is then topped by an obelisk.  There are two other fountains, but they do not compare to the extreme sight of the Four Rivers.

Next stop on our walk was the Pantheon.  Now a Catholic church, the current building was erected in 126AD by Hadrian, on the site of an earlier building, and was originally a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome.  When you consider it is almost 2000 years old, it is astonishing that it is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  I cannot imagine how they built it.  The hole in the centre of the roof admits the only light, and the floor is slightly slanted to allow rain water to run into the near invisible drains in the floor.

Then it was lunchtime!  Our first Italian pizza from Zaza was very tasty, though we did have to endure a crowd of American teenagers as we ate.

After our first pizza experience, it was time for our first coffee experience, at Caffe Tazza d'Oro, widely regarded as having the best coffee in Rome.  As it was a boiling 36degrees, we went for the Roman speciality granita di caffe con panna option - frozen sugared espresso, served as ice chips with whipped cream underneath and on top.


En route to our next stop, the Trevi Fountain, we passed the Piazza di Montecitorio and the Piazza Colonna, which contain a very impressive obelisk and column respectively.  The Fontana de Trevi is one of Rome's most famous landmarks, and is really quite beautiful.  It's quite surprising in its size - its difficult to appreciate how big it is because the surrounding buildings are so close that it almost feels claustrophobic.  It lies at the convergence of three roads (tre vie, hence the name), and heralded the end of a great Roman aqueduct.  Neptune's chariot rides the stone waters that tumble from the walls of the Palazzo Poli, led by two Tritons on horses - one wild and one tame, representing the moods of the sea.

Traditionally you are meant to throw a coin into the fountain to ensure you will return to Rome, so obviously we did that.  Every day it is estimated about 3000 euros are thrown into the fountain, which are collected and given to charity.

From the Trevi Fountain we attempted to go to the Mausoleo di Augusto, got lost, eventually found it, were disappointed, and then went to the Spanish Steps, or Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti.  Designed by a French man, the steps are named after the nearby Spanish Embassy.  At the bottom right of the steps is the house John Keats died in, on a holiday to improve his health.  Clearly didn't work very well.

After washing my very sore foot in the fountain at the bottom of the steps (Fontana della Barcacciai, Fountain of the Old Boat, based on a sunken boat that washed up on the Piazza Spagna when the Tiber flooded in 1598), we ascended the steps and walked to the Villa Borghese gardens.

After the crowds and traffic of central Rome, stepping into cool tree-lined paths of Villa Borghese was heaven.  The Borghese family were very powerful, and started the gardens in 1605.  They were bought by the commune of Rome in 1903, and opened to the public.  The Villa Borghese Pinciana (Borghese villa on the Pincian Hill) was used by Scipione Borghese as a 'party villa', and to house his extensive art collection.  The collection was first opened to the public in the 18th century, and is thought to be one of best art galleries in Rome.  It is so popular when we got there they were only accepting pre-bookings for the following week, but fortunately a large group had cancelled so there were a few spare tickets for that day.  We took two of the last three.

Sadly, no pics, as you have to check in all your bags and cameras before entering.

After the gallery we wandered through the park, stopping for a short while by a shaded fountain.  A couple had also stopped there, and were very very close.  We continued on to the Pincio, where you can look out onto the skyline of Rome, towards the Vatican.

We descended from the Pincio, and headed to the nearby Piazza del Popolo, which contains the obelisk of Rameses II from Heliopolis, brought to Rome in 10BC.  It was overlooking this we sat and ate our dinner, washing down a spicy penne all'arrabbiata with a nice glass of vini di casa bianco.

Then it was home on the metro, to soothe my sore blistered foot :(

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