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I’ve been unwell for about a week now. Just a sore throat and a cold, nothing serious, but for the first time last night it brought up fears about the future, and grief over the loss of our beautiful home in Vancouver. So some tears on both counts. Hopefully the release of these feelings will help the body heal. Don also has been feeling yucky. He probably got the grot from me.

It all gets a bit overwhelming at times. Every day there is so much to see and to do, so much to take in. We take rest days, but at the same time we don’t want to be in Italy, living our dream, and sit and veg in a hotel room, so there’s a kind of pressure to get out and see all there is to see in whatever place we are in. And it’s all so interesting, and compelling. At the same time it’s a lot to take in, and sometimes feels like too much. We’ve slowed down somewhat from the beginning, and by choice don’t cram too much into each day. We like to be home in the evenings, to write, to work on the blog, to surf the net, to read, to rest from the continual newness of environment no matter how fascinating it is.

Our arrival in Rome was less than auspicious. The hotel we’d booked seemed to be in a reasonable location, was a good price, and had good reviews. Unfortunately we’d forgotten to research Rome taxis and paid 30 euros for what was about a ten minute ride from the train station, to be delivered to a hotel that had no lobby on the street, just a locked metal gate and an instruction to buzz number four, in a neighbourhood of closed metal roller doors, and walls all covered in graffiti. The first saving grace was the buzz was immediately answered and we could get in, then someone helped us with the antique elevator. In the lobby, if you could call it that, we were greeted by, presumably, the couple that owns the hotel. She dealt with taking all the relevant info from our passports. He was totally sweet. He spent a long time showing us on a map of Rome where everything was, and how to get there, and a long time showing us our room and all the little things we needed to know, and pointing out all the facilities in the neighbourhood like the supermarket across the street and the gelateria kitty corner – the first gelato factory in Italy! And for all you Vancouverites it is Italy’s answer to Casa Gelato. Simply spectacular.

So we were starting to feel a little better about it, and then we remembered that it was a public holiday and that maybe there would be stores behind all those graffiti covered metal roller doors and that it wasn’t really a completely abandoned and unsavory part of town. But then, after we’d unpacked, and turned the room into our little home, and got out our computers, we discovered there was no wifi in our room. We had to go sit in the reception/breakfast room area to get on the internet. So the first thing we did was to start researching for another hotel.

By the next morning everything had sorted itself out. We were moved to a different room where the wifi connection works, and most of those metal roller doors came up to reveal little stores, and we discovered that although we may not be in the poshest neighbourhood in Rome, it is not as bad as we feared, and just fine for our needs. And we found a Laundromat where the girl there will do our laundry for us for the same price as if we did it ourselves. Sweet.

Our first day out in Rome we went to the Pantheon, a building that has been in constant use for 2000 years. The ground the Pantheon sits on is about eight feet lower than the street around it. It’s in a kind of trench. Apparently that eight feet is 2000 years of garbage, and that once upon a time the street and the building were at the same level. The Pantheon was a pagan temple that survived because in about 600 AD it was converted into a Christian basilica. It’s very beautiful and an astonishing engineering feat. Apparently Brunelleschi, who designed the dome for Florence’s Duomo, about 1400 years later, was allowed to cut a hole in the Pantheon dome to figure out how they built it.

Then we wandered over to the Trevi Fountain and on to the Spanish Steps, two iconic Rome landmarks, both, in their grandeur, deservedly so.

The Trevi Fountain

Along the way to the Spanish Steps we found this

And this charming little street

That felt like enough for one day so we came home, had a cup of tea at the neighbourhood bar, had a rest, delivered our laundry, and went grocery shopping. This hotel room has a fridge which is great because since it’s still warm enough to eat salads we can make our own lunches and dinners.

We spent one morning going to the Borghese Gallery to make a reservation and get tickets to see the gallery the next day. That took pretty much all morning. Rome is not easy. Everything is spread out, and the metro only has two lines. Years ago they started to build a new line but it very quickly became an archeological dig and that was the end of that. There’re lots of trams and buses and we’ve managed mostly to figure it out but it takes concentration and focus to find the right bus, and then to get off at the right stop. A challenge.

We are not in love with Rome. I love Paris and would go back in a heartbeat. Some cities just make my heart sing. Rome is not one of them. There’s a myth that if you throw a coin in the Trevi fountain you will return to Rome one day. Neither of us felt inclined to do so.

We packed a lot into our third day starting with the Coliseum. It really is amazing. From various reports we read it seated 55, or 73, or 80 thousand spectators. Either way it is HUGE. Truly monumental, and really worth seeing, really worth wandering around inside it, even if you don’t give a toss about the ancient Romans and their empire.

So…..um…..we really don’t give a toss about the ancient Romans and their empire so the Forums and the Palantine Hill were a bit ho hum for us but no doubt exciting enough for ancient Roman lovers.

In the afternoon we went to the Borghese Gallery, a collection of paintings and sculptures, mainly 15th to 18th century. Only 300 people are allowed in at a time. Given the size of the spaces it’s not crowded, and no bags, backpacks or cameras are allowed. We were free to wander at will completely unencumbered. So different from the Vatican museums. The absolute highlight of the Borghese was the Bernini sculptures. There were several, and all are stunning. He was a true master at turning a big chunk of marble into something exquisite and magical to behold. Our favourite is the life-size Apollo and Daphne. He’s a god chasing after her, and as he catches her she turns into a laurel tree. According to the Gallery website, Cardinal Borghese justified having a sculpture of a pagan myth in his villa by a couplet written by Cardinal Barberini – Those who love to pursue fleeting forms of pleasure, in the end find only leaves and bitter berries in their hands.

We went to the Vatican Museums, an enormous and astonishingly rich collection of art through the ages, and the Sistine Chapel. Even in November it was still quite crowded. We were allowed to keep our backpacks but had to go through airport-type security. It’s arranged in such a way that you have to pass through many of the galleries before you reach the Sistine, a chapel that has no outer entrance. Part way through there is a short cut to the chapel that most people took. The galleries are in what used to be the papal palace and it is as rich as any palace or major cathedral we have seen in Europe. As usual it is the ceilings that are particularly astonishing.

And then we got to the Sistine Chapel. Here are my photographs of the Sistine Chapel.

This is how it looked

And this is what the energy was like

There were signs at the entrance asking for silence and no photography in this sacred space, both of which were being completely ignored for obvious reasons – there were so many people it was impossible to control. There must have been five to seven hundred people in there. I can hardly imagine what it would be like in the summer months. The noise level was just about deafening, and as you can see there were many many people with their cameras out, and pointed at the ceiling.

You enter at one end of a long rectangular space and leave at the other end. Don and I found ourselves a space after entering and just stood there. This is when I took the photos of the crowd. We also did take time to look at the paintings high up on the walls, and Michelangelo’s astonishing and magnificent ceiling. It really is worth seeing even in these conditions. And like everyone else I took a few photos. After a while we slowly started to make our way through the crowd to the other end. About half way through Don stopped to take a photo and was suddenly rudely accosted by a large man shouting at him to stop taking photos. This in a room in which he is completely surrounded by people taking photos. Don said something about why him, why not everyone else, and the man became even ruder, even at one point calling Don a dwarf as he walked away. He was completely rude and disrespectful. Of course everyone was being disrespectful, with their noise and their photographing when asked not to.

However, if the Vatican wishes to have their space respected then they themselves must respect it. How do they do that? It’s simple. They do it the way it’s done at the Borghese Gallery. All bags, backpacks, and cameras are handed in at a cloakroom and only a limited number of people are allowed in at any one time. For the Borghese it is 300 people, for two hours, but the space is huge so there’s never a feeling of it being crowded. For the Sistine it would be about 50 people, for half an hour, which would be plenty of time as it is a quite small space with really only one major work to view. Like the Borghese they could take reservations. In my opinion it’s the Vatican that shows the least respect of all for the chapel by allowing unlimited numbers of people in at a time without any way to control what those people take in, or do in there. Since they themselves show so little respect for their space why would anyone else show respect for it? I’ve been to many many churches and cathedrals in various parts of the world and never seen anything like the cattle pen of the Sistine. What I’ve seen almost universally is people at least being mainly quiet, in some places completely silent, and mostly respecting the no photography rule where requested. It wouldn’t even have to mean a loss of revenue. They could just charge an extra fee to see the Sistine over and above the fee for the rest of the museums. People would pay it. I would hazard a guess that half the people who paid to get into the museums only wanted to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and took the short cut to it as soon as they could. I feel both sad and angry – that Don was treated so disrespectfully, that the chapel is treated so disrespectfully, and that everyone is deprived of the chance to view one of the great works of art of the world in a peaceful and contemplative way should they wish to do so.

And my illicit picture of the ceiling. It really is extraordinary.

After leaving the Sistine Don was ready to leave altogether but I pointed out there were still some galleries we hadn’t seen, and this is where we found, in almost empty rooms, some beautiful works from the 13th and 14th centuries – our favourite period of religious art. For me there’s an innocent faith in it that’s not there in later works, especially the Renaissance where it all got a bit overwrought for my taste. And then along came Botticelli, bless him, who dared to paint about something other than the Christian religion.

After leaving the Vatican we passed by the great St Peter’s Basilica, saving that for another day, and wandered along by the River Tiber to the area known as Trastevere. It is the only part of Rome where the medieval buildings and streets are still intact. Time for a cup of tea, and a wander through the streets of this utterly charming part of town, and then home for the evening.



Rome day five – we went to the Basilica di San Clemente, which was built in the 12th century. It was absolutely fabulous and fascinating. In 1857 Father Mullooly started digging under the church and found the 4th century basilica that had been there before the present one had been built. I think it had got beyond repair so they just filled it in and used it for the foundation for the 12th century one. I guess Father Mullooly liked digging because he kept on going and under the 4th century basilica he found a pagan Mithraic temple and school, and a 1st century Roman house complete with spring water, which flows to this day.There is a hole in the wall for access to the spring. It was just amazing, literally walking back in history, down and down and down. The floor of the 1st century house was made of carefully placed small stones in a zigzag pattern that was thought to have been added in about the 6th century. No photographs were allowed in the basilica so I bought some of their post cards and photographed them.

12th century basilica

4th century basilica

1st century house

The next day we walked all day – first to Campo Dei Fiori to see the market – not as much fun as the Rialto market in Venice, but it is getting very late in the year. I bet it’s a whole different experience in the summer. And there’s a wonderful statue in the middle of the square.

Then to the top of Janiculum Hill where we found a big statue of Garibaldi and some fabulous views of Rome.

And then to St Peter’s Basilica. Like the duomos and basilicas of Orvieto, Florence, Sienna, Venice and Milan, St Peter’s is breathtaking.

The basilica is seemingly full of murals, but I was lucky enough to overhear a guide swear to his group that they are ALL mosaics. We’re not big on research so wouldn’t have known this, and looking around us I simply didn’t believe it, so I took some close-ups of a couple of different “paintings” hoping to capture some detail in a photo. It’s quite dark in there, and you’re not allowed to use flash, and anyway the murals are way too high and far away for a flash to do any good. But look what I got on camera!

Detail of one of the “murals”

Even closer. It is ALL mosaic! The detail and scale is astonishing.

One of Michaelangelo’s Pietas is in the basilica. Having seen three of them now I think this one is the best of them , capturing acceptance, love, gentleness, serenity, sadness, melancholy, and peace, all at once. I stood and stared for a long time.

We climbed up to the balcony around the dome

And out onto the roof – for some great views.

The front of the basilica

This tourist was not as impressed as we were

And then there are the Pope’s Swiss guards, who all must be Catholic and Swiss. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a job where you’re dressed up in silly bright coloured tunics, bloomers, and spats, and stand around all day with a big stick, while people take pictures of you, though I admit I have seen male figure skaters in sillier outfits.

Our final day in Rome we wanted to go back to the Trevi Fountain. I wanted to sit around there for a while and take it in. It really is an extraordinary sculpture/monument/work of art and deserves more than a passing glance, even if it is always crowded there. But torrential rains sent us scurrying back to our hotel to read, write, and pack for the next leg of our journey.

The next morning we left for Milan, arriving at 1pm and being met at the station by a fellow figure skating fan who I’d met online. We had a wonderful afternoon with her as she showed us around her city. The first stop was another astonishing duomo. We stepped out of the metro and there it was right in front of us – so unexpected and magnificent. We both went WOW! at the same time.

Then we climbed up onto the roof of course. If there’s something to climb Don and I will climb it! It was amazing to be able to walk around and in amongst the spires of a cathedral instead of just looking up at them.

We walked through a beautiful shopping arcade – Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We ate fabulous gelati at Laura’s favourite place, and walked around the fashion district.

We thought these might be nice for Don 🙂

Milan was having a rash of elephants – here’s three of about twenty that we saw, all different. Don has a picture of every one of them, and the first two photos are his.

We found laundry. It’s actually a sculpture hanging in the lobby of a cinema. It continually changed colour because of the revolving lights above it. It never ceases to amaze me how creative people are! Whoever would have thought you could make a sculpture from a bunch of knickers? Not me, but obviously someone thought way out of the box.

We also walked to a castle but by then it was getting late and we couldn’t get in, and it was time to head back to the station to get our overnight train to Barcelona, and that will be the story of the next blog.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted.
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2015.