Saturday, June 25, 2011

EUR Solo, with aperitivo

[Maryanne]By the time you’ve reached the end of this the title WILL make sense, I promise!

While Kyle spends the rest of the month in the USA, I’ve been pottering about the boat and small town of Fiumicino and not really achieving much in the way of anything to show for it. Housework is such a short term high, and no matter how wonderful a job you do of it, it always seems to need doing again so soon.. Yuk!

Having realized I hadn’t done anything adventurous for a while, and yet I’m practically IN ROME I looked again as to ‘what can I do’; I’m still trying to avoid the top Rome sites so I can share them with Kyle – EUR seemed a sensible choice not least because it is where the bus goes!

A suburb of Rome, purpose built for a 1940’s exhibition that never was (a war kind of interrupted things), EUR actually stands for Roman Universal Exhibition (or it does when you say it in Italian – Esposizione Universale di Roma).

The district is described as "Mussolini’s Orwellian quarter" in my guidebook, it’s been built with travertine facades (looks like marble form a distance) that give you a feel for the whiteness of Rome in it’s day.

Every building has a story that I'll leave you to discover on your own one day - but you can probably spot the Palace of the Workers - affectionately know as the 'square colosseum'

There are lots of museums, that I didn’t make the time to explore, I just wandered up and down the streets with no particular goals.

The pictures make EUR look a lot more perfect that it is. In reality ever other block seems to have MAJOR building works. Pavements, pedestrian underpasses, etc. are blocked off, and every gap between buildings if filled with roaring traffic of too many lanes to dare cross. Where there are open piazza(s), these have been turned into parking areas and really make the place look generally ugly, with the occasional oasis.

One of the more famous building sites (well, the thing they are building and the designer are famous) is to be the new Nuvola (Cloud) Conference center (a steel/Teflon ‘cloud’ suspended in a glass box, and the big meeting hall is one of the floors in the cloud!)… Doesn’t look too impressive yet, and I can’t quite say I ‘get it’, but I’m all for variety! I wonder if I’ll be equally inspired by the skies of Greece as the architect Massimiliano Fuksas was?

The 'Cloud', now, and later. Obviously I borrowed the 'done' picture, but my source did not indicate the owner - so thanks owner of image - you deserve all the credit!

On my way back to the bus station I was determined to stop at a recommended café, housed in the Exhibition Ticket office and with original 1930s/40s fittings for ‘aperitivo’. The Caffé Palombini. Technically aperitivo is a drink used to stimulate the appetite, a pre-dinner drink, but bars that offer it generally also provide snacks to nibble on (hence saving the need to dine at all if you are on a budget, and not too hungry). As I sat at an outside table in the sun, I looked around to see what people were drinking. There were a few cokes, coffees, and beers, but most people had tall glasses of very interesting colours (Orange, green, etc)… I really wanted to know more, but chickened out and ordered a white wine (sorry, maybe next time). It was a great place to people watch and was a really mixed bunch: businessmen, lovers, small groups of young lads, and of elderly women, oh and the classic aloof waiters also (but so well dressed).

I enjoy my aperitivo, while nearby locals bring their own table and chairs to enjoy a game of cards in the shaded park!
{Caffé sign from their own website}

My drink came with my snacks (in portions clearly meant for at least two people; I guess they don’t expect many customers to be doing such a social thing on their own), and I nibbled, sipped, and soaked it all up. Wishing Kyle was there to share with me; maybe next time.

Since my visit I’ve found a couple of great links on the internet that help me understand things a little better, so I’m hoping to be braver next time! (Kyle, that’s homework for you!): The Aperitivo Tradition and Guide to Italian aperitivo

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


[Maryanne]By some fluke of luck, Kyle actually made it home. Flights to Rome were all way overbooked, but he managed to squeeze in on a flight to Milan, and then take the 5 hour train/metro/bus journey from there to home. Ideally he wanted us to move on to the next port, but luckily the winds were against us and he agreed to have a day of sightseeing in Rome instead (whew!).

Now Rome is a pretty big place and there is enough to keep any tourist busy for a Month. We had just one day, and needed to have Kyle rested at the end of it for him to return back to work - so we decided on a relatively easy day of a very limited number of sights. #1 on Kyle's list was the Colosseum and somehow we made it there before 9am in the morning (despite the hour long commute into Rome).

{Kyle: The weather, apart from having winds going the wrong way, was gorgeous. The skies were blue with only a little puffy cloud here and there and the temperature was just barely on the hot side of comfortable in the high summer sun. That, combined with Maryanne's enthusiasm, made it unthinkable not to make the most of the day.}

A sight that needs no introduction; somewhere in Paris Kyle joked.

Apparently the name Colosseum is a relative new, and not technically correct, but if I said we went to the Flavian Amphitheatre you wouldn't know what I was talking about, now would you? {Kyle:The name arose because it was near a colossal gold statue of the Emperor, later modified to represent Apollo, that towered over the city.}

It's very.... BIG

Being anywhere near the Colosseum stuns you with it's size, with a seating capacity of 50,000 and over 2000 years old, it compares well with Wembley (75-90,000) and the Old New York Giant's Yankie Stadium (55,000 - only that isn't even standing any longer).

Evidence - we made it! (and I need a different conditioner).
You'll have to take my word for it that we were BOTH there at the same time

The central floor area, which was wooden, filled with trap doors, and covered with a thin layer of sand to make it look like the ground now lies exposed, and you can see the workings of some of the maze of pulleys and systems that would lift gladiators, lions, etc., on to the arena floor (oh, and did you know arena comes from the Roman word for sand that they used to soak up all the blood?). Our audio guide explained that the system was way more impressive than just raising the occasional animal, at one point it was recorded to raise a giant model whale, which once at the surface opened it's mouth to have 50 live wild bears traipse out into the arena. Apparently whole hills and forest scenes were sometimes part of the set that would appear and disappear during the productions. Oh, and all the shows were free to all (you just had to sit in the right area for your 'type' and in the seat assigned by your ticket; all very organized. {Kyle: The shows basically were of three types: Punishing criminals (i.e feeding them to the loins, or bears or anything else vicious and handy, Gladiatorial fights to the death, and hunts of wild animals. Often, all three would be taking place simultaneously on multiple sets. When Constantine came into power, the first two were banned. The hunts continued, but over time through attrition, it got hard to find good animals and hunters. The quality of the shows declined, attendance went down and the great amphitheatre was closed, falling into disrepair.}

Arco di Costantino - One of the many giant commemorative arches around Rome stands right outside the Colosseum

Our entrance ticket to the Colosseum included a couple of other nearby ancient sites, so this helped dictate our day. From the Colosseum we headed off to the Beverly Hills of its day, THE address for the elite of ancient Rome - Palatine Hill. This is a large site of temples, and homes, more stadium, and beautiful gardens (and lots of hill).

Palantine Hill - Rome

....And then on to the once covered market place - the Rome Forum. {Kyle:Most of the structures have crumbled away or been rebuilt over several times, now buried, but the height and placement of the remaining columns give a sense of how enormous this place was. The roof was perhaps ten stories up and covered an area of several modern city blocks.

Roman Forum Area

Additionally, The Forum area was home to the house and temple of the Vestal Virgins of Rome. A High priestess group tasked with keeping the sacred fire burning (among many other things). They were expected to be chaste, and if believed not to be would be buried alive (with food!).

It is also the site of Shakespeare's 'Friends, Romans, and countrymen' speech by Mark Antony in the play Julius Caesar. So there is plenty to ponder as you wander around.

Exiting the Forum, we had a few ideas where we might go next, but were soon sidetracked by the impressive (and modern - 1920s) building - the National Monument to Unified Italy's first King (Vittorio Emanuele II). It's hard to comprehend but Italy is a relatively new country (only unified in 1861). This monument hosts a number of functions, but at first sight is a very impressive blazingly white marble building, with grand staircase and giant columns, and with humongous statues on every available corner. It's simply impressive. A closer look shows it is also the home to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and 2 eternal flames protected by armed guards, while being perfectly accessible. I wonder if the guards are buried alive if the flame goes out? The building is open to the public and holds a museum of Italy's history and fight for unification. Apparently you either love it or hate it, and it has many nick-names including the wedding cake and the type-writer. We loved it. {The building gave us a sense of what ancient Rome must have looked like in it's day. Almost all of the massive stone and brick ruins were once also covered completely with marble. The bricks remaining now were just the studs in the walls, so to speak.

Italian National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II

We considered going up the glass elevator to the very top for 360 degree views of Rome, but decided to call it a day and start to head home. Naturally we stopped for ice cream on route to beat the heat of the high sun; Rome will still be there another day and we are hoping to have plenty of time to explore it, in the mean time Kyle had to get back to work.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Roman Ruins - Ostia Antica

[Maryanne]Given the high likelihood that Kyle would be absent for up to a month, I decided to venture out as a tourist alone. I have been lucky enough to already spend time in Rome in the past, and I’m secretly holding out that Kyle will be able to join me on any future sightseeing trips to the 'top sites', so I wanted to start with something a little more off the beaten track, and ideally something local.

After some research I decided a trip to Ostia Antica was in order; an ancient Roman harbor town (and Port of Rome), now several miles in land and long ago silted over to 2nd floor level. Various excavations have uncovered plenty to see of a fully functioning Roman town of say 400 BC – 400 AD. To me this is just as impressive as any of the more famous sites of Rome itself, but much less populated with tourists so it’s easy to sit and ponder how life must have been all those years ago.

But before I could get there, I first had a long walk to collect my bicycle I'd deposited for repair the previous day. For just €10 I had a replaced gear cable, and a little TLC from a fantastic Italian 'Mario Brothers' type character; I engaged in some mime of extreme appreciation, and set off on my way.

From my map it seemed Ostia Antica wasn't too far to go. It isn't, but unfortunately the compound is really big (think major Airport size plot of land) and fenced in - and the entrance was on the opposite side. I had to try and skirt the edge but have suspicions I was on a motorway, and going the wrong way in order to do that... A few police passed and nobody honked, but I was very scared. There were lots of nasty bends and recent evidence of plenty of cars leaving the road - right where I was walking (since it was way to frighting to cycle in the road).

15th century Castle and town of Ostia Antica

EVENTUALLY I peddled into the current town of Ostia Antica. Just across the road from the entrance to the ruins is a small but impressive castle, but first I was exhausted and went looking for food. I walked/cycled a little further into the town to avoid the tourist traps and found a little shop that sold pizza by weight - I ordered myself a slice and a couple of biscotti type biscuits (they had a name beginning with T) and waited for the total - €1 - brilliant! At the next shop I brought some fruit and was set for the day with my water I was already carrying (plenty of water taps are also provided in the towns and even the Ruins for tourists, so it's easy to top up your bottle).

Closer up and the movie set 'Alimentari' or Grocery store!

Around the 15th century castle is a town that grew (presumably in it's protection) that was very picturesque and seemed to have a film crew breaking down the set of a fake shop. The castle seemed private, but I ventured towards it and noted on the door that it opened at set hours for a guided tour.. The next tour was in just 15 minutes time, so I waited while enjoying the activity of the square.

The tour itself was one of the strangest I've ever undertaken. It was a guided/supervised walk through the castle, but in silence (at least the guide didn't speak, even to the Italians in the small group). We were not allowed to take pictures (even of the views from the castle ramparts). The castle is triangular in shape with a central courtyard and 3 circular towers. Inside there was an active team working to clean up some of the many frescoes on the remaining plasterwork; but the most impressive thing to me, was in one of the basement rooms, we were shown a bathroom with sunken marble bath-tub/jacuzzi. I've never seen that in any castle I've ever been to. The Italians were just a cleaner kind of people that my own forefathers I guess.

So by 1pm I was at the Roman ruins and not quite sure what to expect. Audio tours advertised don't seem to exist any more (??) but you can buy a book or a map (both very overpriced) – so with an expensive and flimsy map off I went wandering.

Grand public buildings - The Capitolium and Theatre

You first enter the oldest area - an avenue of a cemetery - with cremation earns all long evacuated, and pretty soon come across the 'new town' which you can still see was impressively grand. Almost every 3rd building appears to be some kind of baths, and I was feeling particularly jealous, as I'd love a bit of pampering right now.

A 'normal' ancient street in the commercial area of town

I can't quite understand why the town was abandoned and the inhabitants are all believed to have simple moved out; maybe the changes in the river course, who knows? (some reports suggest malaria and other outbreaks of sickness).

Fishmongers and bar/restaurant

It's quite difficult to navigate your way around (even with the map), and much of the area has no information boards, or is still (or has become) overgrown and inaccessible. The site seems so much bigger than the caretakers can manage to keep; they are clearly losing the battle with nature, it's (recently) overgrown and crumbling in places, and not supervised to prevent tourists climbing on things they probably should know better than climb on, etc.

There is only one toilet block in the whole place (remember I said how big it was), but it was baking hot and with little shade, so I was trying to use my water carefully. There were a few people, but mostly I could get photos of great avenues or theatres without anyone to interfere with the view. Amazing!

Natty 'machines' for grinding grain into flour

Naturally there are mosaics aplenty, along with amphitheatres, guild schools, temples, and shops. I especially loved the fishmonger shop which had appropriate mosaics and it’s original sink and cutting table still in place. There was also a giant building set aside for the town bread making industry, complete with original contraptions for grinding the grain. I spent about 5 hours at the site left through exhaustion (and an approaching closing time) rather than boredom or any sense of having fully understood the town.

On the way back to the boat I got lost (trying to leave the “motorway”, I managed to take a wrong turn and double back on myself practically!) - so it took about 1.5 hours of cycling... I really was exhausted by the time I got home.

It amazes me how well built a structure can be from 2000 years ago! It also makes me realize how fragile our current ‘’civilization’ might be when I ponder the fall of the Roman Empire – which for the UK plunged us backwards again for many centuries. I found so many emotions and questions evoked from a simple visit. Wow is the best word, just wow.

Some of the many views of Ostia Antica