Rome Review And The Return

30th August 2015

It’s hot as Hell here, the city lies in ruins and the Pope’s not taking my calls.

Rome was great 🙂 (ya get it?), but I have to tell you the principal memory I will retain is of us being thrown around in the crowded and hot old trams on our way to and from Roma Termini (Central Station) and the suburb in which we stayed. The drivers braked, accelerated and threw their vehicles around the tracks with a clear lack of consideration for their cramped contents – Tch tch, such reckless abandon, while all around were ancient ruins. There are ruins everywhere around Rome, each in various stages of decay.

Rome Ruins Italy

Rome Tram to Central

Curiously, we saw nobody paying any fare whatsoever for their tram rides (nor on buses). There is a coin operated, single-ticket machine on board, and also a validation machine for those who carry pre-purchase tickets (we bought one each for seven days’ use – tram, bus, or Metro – at 28 Euros each); we seem to be the only suckers. At the Metro I saw a young Italian (taller than me) nonchalantly leap the ticket barrier; obviously paying public transport fees is for tourists. There is certainly no way a conductor could force their way through the crowd of passengers to check tickets anyway.

But, this subsequent lack of revenue for the city is perhaps symptomatic of an evident, visible decay in such simple things that one takes for granted in other cities. Take the upkeep of footpaths: around the central hub of the Rome’s rail, bus and Metro area, ‘Termini’ – a hub where millions of tourists as well as locals and migrants perambulate – the footpaths are in a woeful state. Actually, where we are staying, which is two and a half kilometres away from there, the footpaths and paving are also in a woeful (and very dangerous) condition – and let’s face it, the streets are dirty. It is as though the councils have given up.

Around Vatican City, St Peter’s, the Colosseum and the other extensive areas designated ‘tourist-worthy and revenue collecting’ however, the footpaths are as immaculately maintained as the fable of Mary’s conception to produce that bloke Jesus; a glossy face of Rome presented to the tourist world.

Rome Vatican City Italy

But the real Rome, out in the burbs where people live ain’t that pretty – it’s gritty. It has, however, plenty of excellent bars and restaurants if you can avoid the obvious tourist sucks. Our suburb out on Piazzale Prenestino 15 had a really good food-and-drink scene going.

Rome Explained
Overall, Rome is a vast, sprawling and (in summer) dirty city. We have heard many people speak in awe of central Rome and its ‘wondrous sights’, expounding its beauty and fabulous buildings. Well, I think these people are either ‘believers’ under the spell of the Pope, or they have not been to Italy’s other ‘fabulous’ cities: Cities like Florence, Assisi, Pisa, Milan and Sienna, all more manageable, cleaner cities with absolutely stunning architectural gems. As for the remains of Roman structures, towns and cities – why, they exist all around the Mediterranean shores and even further afield in diverse conditions, some almost intact. Of the many we have seen, four spring to mind for their stunning location, integrity, or for their unusual reach: beautiful Taormina’s theatre on Sicily’s eastern shore; Itálica (near Seville – a near whole Roman city); Mérida, also in southern Spain; and Lixus, just north of Larache in Morocco (mostly ‘ruins’ but you can see the whole city’s foundations and comprehend its function).

Yet the extent of Rome’s ruins exceeds all we have previously witnessed, they are spread over hectares.

Ancient Rome, the city, was huge, and much of its walls, buildings and edifices have been saved, resurrected, reconstructed, built-upon, or at least uncovered. Vast as its spread is and big as some of the remaining parts are however, it is impossible to get a full impression of how grand it once really was – to contextualize it. Two or four times a day on our trips into and out of the city, our tram looped in and out of the Porta Magggiore, one of Rome’s ancient outer ‘gates’. These massive and still decorative portals joined to large parts of the associated walls are still quite intact but, like all the other large monuments, walls and bridges here, the busy streets and the modern buildings crammed around them distract and detract from any possible understanding of how grand this city must have been. You’d have better understanding by looking at a tiny, scale model of the old city.

I recently saw Rome’s more modern and grand buildings presented as architecturally beautiful (but sterile) on a local TV programme. But then, they spent ten minutes praising the architecture of the new, ultra-modern Sheraton Roma hotel – something that didn’t endear me to their presentation. The reality, when you have your feet on the ground and in the grime, is a lot different. There are many poor souls sleeping on the streets (even a regular on Termini’s tram platform), and large groups of Italians (not migrants) are sleeping on the banks of the turgid Tiber River under the shelter of the city’s many bridges. Their sanitary arrangements leave you in no mind as to the quality of the Tiber’s water, but its condition is exacerbated by the long summer’s placement of fashionable ‘temporary’ bars along its city stretch. Rome’s Tiber has some beautiful bridges spanning its city reach, but then, many, many other European cities can boast the same.

The Chinese have taken over masses of shopping space along Rome’s portico-ed central streets around Termini – masses. After having seen them in their small shops in the remotest and strangest of places throughout Spain and wondering what the hell they were dong there, I posed the question to Bernard Lima, a relative of mine in Gibraltar. He laughed, and explained that there had recently been an exposé on TV. Hundreds of Chinese were arrested in Madrid and shopping trolleys full of Euros were wheeled out as evidence of an apparent money-laundering scheme of massive proportions – ex drug money. Well, that makes sense, perfect set-ups to launder money, but the media ‘bust’ must have just been a political jack-up, because these Chinese shops are clearly here to stay and continue to proliferate to the extent that, here for example, there is very little Italian left of the whole shopping district of which I have mentioned – and that is a major, central district.

I’ll leave you to ponder it all and come to your own conclusions. I do enjoy Chinese food 🙂

‘The Church’ and Art – a little philosophising
Rome Catedral Italy

Rome Italy Catedral

I am equally awed, disgusted and bewildered by the stupendous (and fabulous) artistic creations inside the ‘churches’ we have entered in these Mediterranean countries – artworks of both the Grotesque and Phantasmic styles. But I am forced to wonder if such artistic talent (in stone, wood, plaster and/or with brush and paint) would ever have found an outlet if it were not for the support of the ill-gotten gains of the religious orders of the day.

As always, artists need patrons: the wealthier the patron, the more the artist is permitted to express his or her talent in their own medium. This, I can applaud (until I ponder the source of ‘the church’s’ fabulous wealth).

But, would these/those incredible artists (and it would seem there were many in their day) have found a means of expression were it not for this wealthy patronage? And it also begs the question – were it not for ‘the church’s’ patronage and artistic direction, how would their art, their talent have evolved?

We know how the Renaissance artists’ works evolved, freed from religious bounds (and patronage). How, I wonder, would such awesome talent of that early period of religious bondage have expressed itself? There were stunningly talented sculptors in both wood and stone; painters like Michelangelo; architects and stonemasons of immense talent; and let us not forget the splendiferous plaster and paint works of the Muslims and Hindus. The Muslims even turned their religious prose, in script form, into wondrously decorative architectural art.

So, what if . . . no religion . . . no patrons . . . just more starving artists? And would the artists just have created art forms and designs without ‘direction’ . . . or at all?

On the matter of patronage we need only look to the cathedral or basilicas’ stone masons works with marble: the marble cut, split, turned, polished, carved, and mounted in your average church (not even in a ‘glorious’ cathedral) would have cost in today’s terms millions of dollars. Stunning amounts of finance would have been required to create these marvels we travellers and tourists gawk at these days. Food for thought?

Roma Termini Station to Bologna Centrale Station by Frecciargento High-speed Train
Impressive, and it’s almost all over . . .

Oh How We Hate Long-haul Flying
The airports are mainly in out-of-the-way places requiring an hour or so’s travel; we are subjected to interminable waits in boring terminals in which prices seem to be universally hiked; the flight itself – where one is deprived of any actual sense of forward motion and during which the only excitement is derived from exterior natural causes which can frequently be ‘quite disturbing’ (has the planes trajectory taken on a sharp decline . . . that lightning is beautiful and dramatic, but what if it strikes the aircraft?); and then, upon landing, the baggage wait and officialdom and a long ride to where you’re going. Buses and trains are much more preferable.

We usually do Europe via Singapore and take a good break there both ways; this time there were no substantial breaks and the return trip, especially, was a drag and a drain:
Up at 0330hrs in Bologna to catch 0735hrs flight to Rome (only 1 hr flight). 3 hours in Rome airport then 2 hour flight to Abu Dhabi then 2 hours in their transit hall awaiting 11 hour flight to Perth. But we were fit and healthy from our travelling lifestyle. It’s just a shame we tried to burn the candle at both ends in the last few days and didn’t have sufficient sleep on the planes (so many movies :).

We landed back in Perth shaken, but not stirred, (I’d watched another Bond film on board) and still in good shape only to be struck down a couple of days later. Rachel now has a bad case of shingles (very ugly blistered rashes on chest and neck plus neck and nerve pains) and I’m struck down with some male fluey thing – the worst kind. Bugger, eh. Thank you all for your understanding and sympathy.

Electric cars being charged in Rome

Ohhhh, and I must get this final GRUMP in . . .

On Solar Farms
I have commented on Spain and Italy’s inspirational uptake of Solar Farms as a renewable energy supply before. You will also have heard me lament the lack of direction, foresight and downright pig-headed rejection of wind and solar as renewable energy sources in that “Lucky Country” – Oz.

But what I haven’t commented on yet was that while driving about a relatively limited area of England – Buckinghamshire, on our recent visit to the UK (that country so traditionally beset by greyness and wet that we know its countryside well by its very greenness) I was shocked to see several large Solar Farms.

In fact, I couldn’t help but comment to my Uncle, “That’s a bit optimistic, isn’t it?”

But no, Britain’s government is not stupid – it is conservative but very progressive – and apparently you don’t need a great deal of sunshine for Solar Farms to pay their way. Germany led the way in using solar as a renewable energy source many years ago and I can still remember our getting out of an aircraft on the tarmac at Munich Airport to board a bus to the terminal only to find ourselves walking in deep snow.

For christ’s sake, doesn’t Australia have any sunshine or enough non-productive land on which to erect Solar Farms? You know the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand – blind to all about it? Well I picture an Aussie Emu with its head stuck down a coal mine!

I know, I know, I’m banging the same old drum. But jeez, when are Australians going to wake up.

Rome Electric Car Charge Point Italy

Messages From Beyond

2nd May 2015
“Can You Hear Me Mother?”

Europe Flight 2015

I really must work out the perfect pre-flight diet to eliminate, or at least minimise, internal gaseous build-up on long flights. Still, wafting odours assure me I am not alone with the problem and trying to restrain oneself leads only to gut pain. And what did the in-flight meals contain? Oh, chick peas, lentils, broccoli and onions: all good gas-producing constituents. Apart from that, the flight/s (one more to come as we’re on a train into Rome Central to kill a few hours before the third leg of this marathon 19 flight-hours journey ) were mundane. The additional two and a half hour transit time in Abu Dhabi was far too long in our tired state, but the 8 hour stopover in Rome gives us plenty of time to take a train down town and to wander its early-morning bustling streets.

Etihad isn’t a bad airline and their staff are wonderful. And, I must say, what gorgeous gels they hire, what!

The flight from Rome to Bologna is on a domestic Italian carrier. The airline is based in Genoa, north of Rome, and is called Genitalia.

Heheheheheh. I’m choking. This was but a joke told to me recently by brother Tom and I have had great fun retelling it to all and sundry. The reactions have been interesting too, including shock-and-disgust from those who believed me.

OK, it was really Alitalia.

In Rome we remind ourselves through trial and error of how to get the best priced coffee. We had forgotten that we shouldn’t sit down at a table and/or get table service, but to order and consume the coffee at the bar (otherwise the price goes up fourfold). Later, Rachel resisted buying some great Italian-made fashion sandals at a great price, and I didn’t resist buying a casual jacket at another shop. Oh, Vatican city? The Cistine Chapel, etc.etc.? Hey, gimme a break. Italy is full of such architectural wonders.

European Flight 2015

On the leg from Abu Dhabi to Rome I sat next to a rangy, long-flaxen-haired and bearded middle-aged Australian. I noted his forearms looked particularly strong. He duly revealed that he was a shearer. I suggested that he could probably shear 100 sheep a day. He replied that his best is 340 in a day – that is a commendable physical feat – but admitted that one of his team could shear 400. The shearing season is coming to an end in Oz, so he and his gang come over to Italy to shear a rural circuit for the northern summer. They earn 1 Euro per sheep sheared – cash – accommodation and food all found. I mention the fact that these sheep retain their tails as opposed to Aussie sheep; it seems this breed is mostly the Sarda – a milking sheep – and they must not nick them while shearing as the flies will immediately bite and infect them. He and his gang usually finish the season by spending a week or two in Amsterdam followed by a couple of weeks in Thailand before heading home. Clearly, it is exclusively a masculine-type lifestyle, yet, though I am physically well past it, it still sounds enticing.

Ultimately, and typically for Europe, we breeze through Immigration and Customs and are in and on our way. The seemingly light treatment by both these departments does have us wondering once more about the OTT and precious attitude Australian (and NZ) authorities have to visitors.