Traveling to London is like visiting an old friend – someone I’ve long wanted to get to know better. Each time I see the grand lady, I discover another aspect of her history and culture. Oh, I see her flaws, such as when her motorists yell at me for
daring to step on the crosswalk, or when I’m nearly mowed down by serious-faced, very fit commuters streaming into or out of the tube. In her midst I’ve had many days in September when she drops a load of heat and humidity on me and pretends she’s Rome. (Did I mention there’s no air conditioning in the tube? Oh yes, so I did.)
My first visit to Rome is like discovering a stylish and fascinating friend of the family who is somewhat unpredictable and who has a lot of skeletons in the closet. Some days he is so intriguing I love being with him, other days I
wish we’d never met. But in the end, I am fascinated and decide to keep him. He doesn’t believe in air conditioning either, but then I encounter another of his treasures or I experience one of his cleansing rainstorms and I forgive him.
Each city gave to me and took away. Both the gifts and the challenges added to my life because, as Robert Hughes says about Rome, “It makes you feel big, because the nobler parts of it were raised by members of your own species.” Amen.
I’m a rain enthusiast. Not a die-hard, in-your-face fan because there is such a thing as too much rain. More of a devotee of the finer features of rain. It probably comes of growing up in the Pacific Northwest in Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., and then living in both Portland, Ore., and the Seattle area. Most of us here understand the nourishing role of rain and all it does for our outdoor living rooms. Matt Love, an Oregon author, wrote a quirky, meandering little book entitled Of Walking in Rain. Naturally I bought it and splashed along with his writings, mostly based on life along the Oregon coast where the rain is prodigious and ubiquitous. Reading about rain or walking in it are what devotees of rain are apt to do when they are not perusing catalogues of rain-repellant and waterproof clothing and hats while sipping a hot drink.
Anthony Doerr writes in his memoir about his first storm in Rome when “the lightning lashes the domes of churches” and “hail clatters on the terrace.” After the onslaught, he notices what I do during my visit. “In the early morning, the air seems shinier and purer than I’ve seen it.” I suppose it’s the drama of rainstorms that appeals to my writer’s heart, bringing the humidity to a climax while the serene aftermath becomes a glowing denouement.
Rome offered me its own stormy rain encounters. Like the city, rain is a full-immersion experience. The rain performance is usually supported by two reliable character actors. The distant voice of thunder rumbling its complaints to the mountains. Lightning stabs the air with flashy whispers, startling the sky wide open. Then, flowing onstage, water descends from cloud to street, thundering along in its own running of the bulls along the cobblestones.
What I love the best is the Roman sky after the rain, a glimmering, glorious, fresh-washed blue still fraught with clouds of all hues from white to black. Standing in the lane I watch as the sun reappears and wakes the dark, wet stone. The air somehow sounds clean.
(Feature photo at top: Storm clouds gathering over Rome, as seen from Frascati.)
I have a complicated relationship with international plumbing. Being an optimist who lives in the U.S., I expect it to be predictable and reliable. When traveling, I am often deeply disillusioned.
Before arriving in Rome, my study abroad group spent a week in England. I did not anticipate or receive frills at our London student-oriented accommodations. However, the basics, I hoped, would include functioning plumbing. In this I was to be disappointed. (Here I must point out that one can be in far more upscale British lodgings and have unhappy plumbing experiences.)
The first shower stall I tried had a large button for the water. Being a practical optimist, I press the button before entering the stall and twiddle with the temperature control until comfortable. I hop in and suds up, only to find that the water is on a timer and stops after a couple of minutes. No problem. I hit the button again. Aaaagh! The restart blast is ice cold. The stall being a very economical size, I take it on the chin whilst the water slowly warms. Next day, I select another stall without a timer button. Progress! The water offers a bracing blast. I hop in, suds up, and realize the water is getting hotter and hotter. More twiddling with the temperature control gets it to a bearable point, but I exit feeling like a boiled fish. Never mind, I tell myself, things will get better.
In Rome, we stay in rental apartments. The bathroom is definitely a few steps up. Time
for a shower. On goes the water – I’ll be generous and call it a gentle stream. Temp is OK but the removable shower head is hanging precariously on its holder and any touch causes the flow to redirect unpredictably. Under the trickle, I suds up. Pffft … the water reverses course and splutters out of the back of the shower head while shampoo is dripping into my eyes. As I turn to investigate, bam, down falls the shower head, never to hang above my head again that morning. It hits my noggin on the way down and I nearly fall.
Happily, I do not end up wedged in the bottom of the nicely tiled but frugally sized shower, naked and unlovely as a 60-something jaybird, trying to communicate with Italian paramedics. A new shower head is later installed that points directly at the wall, and all is well.
Frascati is a 25 minute train ride from Rome and worth every minute. It is one of several historic towns in the hills outside Rome known as the Castelli Romani. We tour the medieval part of town with Dominique of The Old Frascati Winery, who is a delight. So much history packed into narrow cobblestone streets.
Then we hop into taxis and travel further up into the hills to the vineyard and winery. It is three acres of viney landscape perched on a ridge overlooking Rome in the distance. The grapes seem to be flowing everywhere and will be harvested the next day. It is late afternoon – the golden hour – and storm clouds are brooding over Rome. I cannot stop taking photos and thinking about Anthony Doerr’s soaring prose about the light in Rome: “It drenches, it crenellates, it textures.”
Our taste buds discover Frascati wine and are thrilled. Though I’ve never done it before, I buy two bottles to bring home in my suitcase, plus two bottles of the best olive oil ever. (All four make it home without breakage, much to my relief.)
Back down in the town, we have a chatty outdoor dinner, Frascati style. We buy hefty porchetta sandwiches from the local bakery then head over to the quaint outdoor bar to buy some liters of
wine. Locals are there too, grouped at wooden picnic tables, streams of Italian floating up above the cobblestones.
Heading back to Rome on the train, all our senses are satiated. My memory bank is full to the brim.
When I think of paintings as works of art in a museum, what comes to mind is something in a frame. However, I expanded my horizons on this point when in Rome. Many fabulous works of art live on walls. Through the ages in Italy, fresco was the chosen medium for many wall murals, including the Gallery of Maps in the Vatican. Of all the stunning art in the Vatican, this was my favorite. As I walked, in the guards opened all the windows through the hall allowing golden afternoon sunlight to spill in and mix with the blues and greens of the maps. I felt as though I was in an ocean of color.
One of our fellow travelers is an artist with a fine arts degree and she gave a presentation on paint types available to artists through history. Oil paint as a commonly used medium is relatively new, gaining popularity with artists in the 15th century. Before then, artists used tempura – made of pigment, water and egg yolk – or fresco – made of pigment, water and limestone. Both dry very quickly and fresco is an especially challenging vehicle for artistic expression.
The gallery came about because Pope Gregory XIII wanted to explore Italy but did not want
to leave the safety of the city. (Hmmm – wonder why?) So he commissioned maps to be painted at the Vatican, and got a glorious set as long as a football field. The artists who painted them had to be masters of the craft because of the short drying time.
If you ever go to Rome, don’t miss the Vatican and be sure to reserve time for the gallery. With the maps recently restored to their earlier glory, you might even agree with me that it’s more lovely than the Sistine Chapel.
Edith Wharton’s story Roman Fever packs a punch, but not until readers are floating quietly in the midst of a character study and the interior dialogue of one individual. The entire short story is woven together in such a way that when the last line arrives it is like suddenly seeing the design after all the rows of dominoes fall down. I love the plot structure, where the climax is at the end and blows the story out the window. It offers shadows of Flannery O’Connor without the in-your-face brutality.
Roman Fever is a tale of ruins and ruination, where two well-preserved women spend an afternoon at a restaurant overlooking the Forum. Our travel group also spent an afternoon at the Forum, roasting in the hot sun as we hiked around acres of remnants of a world power. In ancient times, it was the center of Roman life but now is a well-preserved archaeological site. A shadow of its younger self.
Alida Slade emanates energy and misplaced ambition while Grace Ansley is quieter and more traditional. Or is she? Alida seems to encircle Grace with her interior thoughts and judges her inferior. That’s the trouble with ego-driven thinking – it blinds the egoist to truth. Together yet orbits apart, the two women sit with the shadows of their past and the ruins of their dreams. It is not until the conclusion that I understand who is more at peace with her choices.
It seems no mistake that Wharton chose this particular setting for her story and I love it all the more because I’ve been to the Forum and understand the metaphors experientially.
“When you see the Pantheon for the first time, your mind caves in. You walk through the gigantic doorway and your attention is sucked upward to a circle of sky. A filtering haze floats inside; a column of light strikes through the oculus and leans against the floor. The space is both intimate and explosive: your humanity is not diminished in the least, and yet simultaneously the Pantheon forces you to pay attention to the fact that the world includes things far greater than yourself.” Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome
No description is adequate for the Pantheon. It is a first-person experience. Without a special lens, it is difficult to get a photo of even one half of the interior because of its scale. The Romans were able to build it, and many other structures, because
of their particular type of concrete. (See my earlier post.) Built in about 125 C.E. (A.D.) it replaced an earlier temple that burned in 80 C.E. It is thought to have been a temple to all of the gods, and was later the first Roman temple converted into a church. In 609 it became Sancta Maria ad Martyres, as rededicated by Pope Boniface IV, and remains an active church today. As I walked around and looked up, my awe was tinged with a spiritual hue.
“It is the form of the Pantheon that elicits one’s amazement: that huge dome, opened to at the top by an oculus which seems not merely to show but to admit the sky, is a landmark in the history of construction and, one might add, of architectural metaphor….This is truly Roman architecture.”
“No modern architect would dare to attempt another Pantheon using the same structural principles – nobody would insure it. But the Pantheon has stood for nearly two thousand years and shows no prospect of collapse.” Robert Hughes, Rome
Hughes says the dome design relies entirely on mass and is “the world’s largest in unreinforced concrete.” The dome has a diameter of 43 meters (143 feet), and the distance from the floor to the oculus is the same – visually, about the length of half a football field. The oculus – a round opening at the top of the dome – is the only source of natural light in the building. When I looked up, it appeared to be about 5 feet across, but in reality measures about 28 feet, the length of a double-decker bus.
The entry doors are 21 feet high. The outside granite columns are 39 feet tall and weigh in at 60 tons each. The inside columns are more than 32 feet tall and each has a heft of 25 tons. You get the idea: it is HUGE.
And yet … in this massive edifice at the foot of a saint I found a small, vulnerable lamb with an uncertain look on its face. A tiny symbol of vulnerability inside a giant metaphor of strength.
After we explored Ostia Antica, the forgotten city, we hopped back on the train and went a couple more stops to the modern Ostia, a seaside suburb of Rome. We wanted to stick our swollen, suffering feet in the Tyrrhenian Sea and eat wonderful Italian food. A few blocks from the train – with a quick stop for gelato, of course – it was a little weird to see the entire seafront fenced off and divided into sections, each portion controlled by a bar, a restaurant, or some other business that regulated access to the ocean. We found a bar, bought some drinks and wandered down through the cigarette-butt-infested sand to the water. (Did I mention that people smoke outside in Rome – everywhere – and toss their butts all over the ground? They do.)
Still, the atmosphere was much mellower and less crowded than Rome. Our group wandered up and down on our little patch of shoreline, sporting ever-larger smiles, watching cream puff clouds billow on the horizon. Once my feet were in the sea, all was well. Later, we feasted on pasta and seafood supplemented by sparkling water or wine as we felt inclined, and laughed our way through the evening.
The day bid farewell by treating us to the most glorious sunset. It went through several phases, ending in flares of purple, pink and grey that rivaled the art of masters. Following the sky show, I didn’t even mind riding back to Rome on a graffiti-blasted train.
One of my favorite stops on our itinerary for Rome was Ostia Antica, an archeological site very easy to visit on a day trip. It was, for a few centuries, the port city that supplied Rome, but went into a gradual decline and was fully abandoned by the 9th century. The Tiber River, a silting phenomenon, slowly filled in the harbor and covered up the city. The river took a few centuries to swallow everything, and in the meantime, marble was scavenged from Ostia Antica to be reused in cathedrals around Italy.
According to the official Ostia Antica website, treasure hunters, official and unofficial, rooted and dug through the mud and ruins through the 1800s while the site was still owned by the Vatican. In 1870 the city became part of the new Italian state, and scientific excavations began in the early 1900s and have continued so that now visitors can see much of the city, but apparently there is still more to discover.
Our group spent an afternoon at the site and barely scratched the surface. I found it to be restful because it was not at all crowded – we saw scattered visitors but our mighty dozen appeared to be the largest group of wanderers on the grounds that day. Around back of the partially restored amphitheater’s stage, costumes hung for a live performance that night were left without watchers, a stark contrast to Rome, where we were told be constantly on guard against theft.
While much was taken from this site, much still remains to astound and impress, such as the Piazzale delle Corporazioni, or guild offices, where the mosaic-adorned floors depict the type of business or service offered. Mosaics at
the public baths are a marvel as is the amphitheater, and a four-sided altar to Mars and Venus and more. Definitely on my must-return list, and only two train stops from the coastal suburb of Ostia.