Ostia Antica: The forgotten city

At the city’s entry: Minerva-Victory

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.20160910_ostia-antica-street-best 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 20160910-ostia-antica-theater-costumesof 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

Altar to Mars and Venus

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.

Marble tragedy/comedy masks at the theater. 








Rick Steves has a chatty little post online about this site: A peek into ancient Rome at Ostia Antica.

Guild office
Baths of Neptune

Bernini’s genius: Making stone speak

Gian Lorenzo Bernini made sculptures that are simply astonishing. I look at his work and marvel that he lived more than 300 years ago, from 1598 to 1680.

The two most awesome fountains I experienced in Rome were designed by him: The Four Rivers Fountain and the Trevi Fountain. Oceanus absolutely bursts out of Trevi’s stone and I wish I had been able to return to make a better photo of the full magnificence of his figure, the horses and other figures. Bernini designed but did not build his glorious fountain; however, his style pours out of it. (Pictured above.)

One small section of the Four Rivers Fountain, with the Church of the Agony in the background

My shots of Four Rivers also do not do that fountain justice. We visited at night, which is how they should first be seen – it is an almost mystical experience to see them emerge from the dark, glowing like planets. Four Rivers stands in front of a tremendous building, Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, or the Church of the Agony in Piazza Navona. Visitors could spend an entire day in just this one piazza to fully experience the fountains and the church.

Two of my three favorite sculptures in the Borghese Gallery (itself a work of art) were Bernini creations: David and Apollo and Daphne. Another smaller figure – a rider and horse – was so full of his touch that I include a photo

Now THAT is a horse!

here, even though it is distorted from the glass cover. I loved David – so full of energy and purpose – and am convinced that he looks like someone trying to fell a giant. I did not care for the theme of Apollo and Daphne, as she only escapes being raped by turning into a tree, but was completely gobsmacked by the figures.

David about to fell Goliath

Bernini worked against the nature of stone and made it alive, made it speak, pulled the story out so it became breathtaking.

What would it be like to have all of that beauty inside one heart and mind? To have Oceanus awaiting release, swirling and calling through the stone. To have David’s feet thudding, his sling whistling, and perhaps hearing

Daphne escapes nasty Apollo by shape shifting

involuntary grunts as muscles strained for the throw, reaching out of the marble.

History suggests he was a little bit crazy. Perhaps a lot. But he made some of the most beautiful art I’ve ever seen.

Ecco Roma!

Next street over from ours

(Here is Rome!)

Staying in Rome is a full-on sensory experience. Any big city will immerse visitors in its own bold expression of life, but Rome was unique to my North American perceptions. It is just different from anything in my experience: the palette of warm colors; the buildings and architectural style; the exotic-looking trees; the hordes of

The Tiber River after a rainstorm

tourists intermingled with crowds of Italians; the streets, so narrow in old parts of Rome; the lava rock cobblestones; the traffic (crazy, wild free-for-all!); the language; the layers of history; the never-ending graffiti; the amazingly tasty food; the sound of the birds; the stylish clothes; even the sky hue and tone.

As a traveler I was submerged in another world.  Some of the photos featured on this page reflect my discoveries and delights. They don’t represent all of my experiences,

Cell phone break

such as riding on Rome’s bus and metro (subway) system, which I shall fervently avoid on any other trips. Nor riding on trains transformed by a complete covering of graffiti – even the windows – that made me feel like I was part of an angrily weird living art installation. Or trying to walk quickly on cobblestones that over the years have arranged

Camouflaged  doorway

themselves according to the whims of the heaving, changing earth below.

Around almost every corner was something stunningly old, beautiful or colorful. Our group had a rich and busy itinerary that took us to places that continually astonished me. I simply ran out of words to describe the impact. Toward the end of my visit, my senses were on overload, my feet ached and I was

People walk, bicycles ride, and scooters and cars drive up and down this lane. Really.

exhausted from the miles of walking in heat and humidity. But I came home richer as a traveler, a writer and a human being. And I made some new friends!

All of the photos featured here were taken within a few blocks of where I stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood of Rome.

Trees parade by the Tiber River
View from our kitchen at sunset

Curses, coins and hot water in Bath

I had never visited the city of Bath in England before this trip in 2016. Like so many British cities, it has old and new melded together. We walked through modern streets lined with honey-colored buildings made of a special kind of limestone. On the warm, mostly sunny day we visited, the buildings radiated a soft warmth.

20160907_bath-abbey-from-great-bathIn the old section of town, Bath Abbey stands in glorious aged stone. It was the victim of King Henry VIII’s pillaging and destruction, and lay in ruins until the early 1600s when it was repaired and has been in use since. It was not open for tours, so is on my list for the next visit!

The famous Roman Baths are next to the abbey, and they are in a class of their own, for their 20160907_great-bath-partialantiquity, engineering and level of preservation. We entered through an 18th century building with its own stunning domed ceiling that imitates the Pantheon’s dome and oculus. The Great Bath and other smaller baths are below street level and are filled with thermal spring water glowing a distinctive green. The water rises each day at the rate of 1,170,000 liters at a steady temperature of 46 degrees C (114 F).

The Romans built a temple to Minerva here and many of the faithful came by to toss in tiny curse tablets. (!) Apparently it appealed to their sense of justice to complain about such behavior as thefts and include a list of possible culprits. Also thrown in were a lot of coins and other objects, possibly as offerings. I ran 20160907_great-bath-actor-vendorinto an actor portraying a Roman vendor who offered to sell me one denarius (Roman coin) for the price of 2 denarius. He then offered me a curse tablet for 4 denarius. After I explained I was more inclined toward blessings, he offered to create one of those for 8 denarius, as blessings are far more work.

The water is not safe for people, but nearby spas offer a dip in the same thermal waters, which some of my fellow travelers say is hugely restorative. While they were soaking their tired tootsies, I2016-bath-roman-bath-upper-level1 went with two traveling friends for afternoon tea (a three-tiered tray of goodies) in the Pump Room and did my best to eat it all!

Fascinating and worth a visit. Only 90 minutes by train from London.

It is probably the Queen

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment in June.”

Outside Buckingham Palace, a soaring statue of Queen Victoria (right), who ruled for the first 20 years of Virginia Woolf’s life.

Note to self: Must read more Virginia Woolf. Reading through an excerpt from her novel Mrs. Dalloway, at first it feels a little dull. But this portion of the story does not give up its depth to quick eyes. It needs to be absorbed in its entirety, then considered again. It is about the gift of life; the hidden struggles of the spirit and emotion; regret and bitterness; the energy and weight of a city; and very much about the English class system.

Clarissa Dalloway lives in London and loves it. She trundles along with a mind full of busy questions that run the gamut from housework and entertaining to marriage choices and hatred. Her character’s thoughts, observations and actions slowly create an important backdrop for the city, its residents, commerce, poverty and the royalty: class distinction. Clarissa enjoys a privileged status, but not favored enough to know who is in the mysterious car that shows up on Bond Street where she is shopping.

“The motor car with its blinds drawn and an air of inscrutable reserve proceeded towards Piccadilly, still gazed at, still ruffling the faces on both sides of the street with the same dark breath of veneration whether for Queen, Prince or Prime Minister nobody knew.”

To me, the car is a trope for the mystery and inaccessibility of the ruling class. Everyone 2016-london-red-ddecker-busstops to stare and speculate – merchants, customers, the poor and the desperate. Even a wife trying to save her suicidal husband is distracted by the car, which offers no help, no answers. Just more questions.

“It is probably the Queen, thought Mrs. Dalloway, coming out of Mulberry’s with her flowers; the Queen.”


The grand dame of knowledge

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach…”

                Elizabeth Barrett Browning

A trip to London is not complete for me unless I can visit its grand dame of knowledge, the British Library. (Photo above: busts of some of its founders.)

As a writer, it is a hugely special moment for me to see original handwritten manuscripts of famed literature. On this trip I enjoy many such moments in Treasures of the British Library – a permanent and very spectacular collection of books, manuscripts, letters, music and more.

Photo: British Library collection

I hover before How Do I Love Thee, sonnet 43 in the collection entitled  Sonnets from the Portugese, by Elizabeth Barrett, written for her suitor, Robert Browning. Elizabeth’s actual writing captivates me.

Their love story was the stuff of novels. Her father had forbidden her (and her siblings) to marry. She was older than Robert and chronically ill. He was smitten. She had reservations, but wrote her way through them in the set of 44 sonnets that made her famous. Robert must have been very happy when he read sonnet 43. They finally married and lived happily for 15 years. The British Library says Elizabeth Barrett Browning “died in his arms after a long illness” in 1861. Sigh.

In another exhibit, I try not to laugh too loudly over a letter written by Michelangelo in 20160906_brit-lib-gate1550 to his nephew with advice on choosing a wife. The basic message was to be realistic and avoid being too picky because he was unremarkable in appearance. Readers could infer the august uncle might also have judged his poor nephew as ordinary across the board. To be a fly on the wall when that letter arrived!

The great dome across the Thames

“If evensong and matins will agree

Let’s see who shall be the first to tell a tale.”

       Prologue, The Canterbury Tales

One of my highlights during the London portion of our trip is a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. As we walk around to the front of the church, its great bells begin to peal, their resonance surrounding me. Listen on Instagram.

St. Paul’s during the blitz, WW2

I look up at the dome and think of how history stretches across this site. Three churches were built here between about 600 and 1087 – two burned and one was destroyed by Vikings. A stone cathedral was then built in the 11th century that later burned in the Great Fire of London in 1666. During the evensong service we attended, which happened to be on the anniversary of that terrible day, the minister said the embers burned for a week. After the fire, Christopher Wren designed the building that stands to this day, which was protected by civil defense brigades during the bombing blitzes of WW 2 and became a symbol of British resiliency. Learn more.

I always enjoy evensong, which has a tradition of sung prayer followed for some 500 years. Songs waft up where the angels and saints dwell in the glorious art and sculpture of the domed ceiling. It feels as though music and prayer have soaked into the walls. I see a man kneeling on the stone floor through much of the 45 minute service, his knees bearing his faith.

The minister’s words echo across the cavernous sanctuary. She speaks about the plight of refugees and how Jesus’ followers are called to take risks, to put others’ needs before their own. Do we hoard or do we give? Do we hate or do we trust? Perfect love casts out all fear. Such gentle words carry a lot of weight.

Queen Anne stands before St. Paul’s Cathedral in all her regalness. The building is so big, the dome cannot be seen from the front plaza.

Beyonce, Bollywood and the Bard

“The theatre is the home of the imagination or it’s nothing.”  Hugh Quarshie

Shakespeare’s Globe in London is not a theater for a detached, inattentive audience. Actors frequently launch scenes from the middle of the main floor, in front of the stage. Earlier in September, our study abroad group attended a sold-out performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Globe, which had a terrific Bollywood flavor. Characters spent a good amount of time bouncing around non-traditional acting areas, eliciting roars of delight for their saucier lines and gestures.

2016-09-21-globe-insideIt’s a mischievous play about runaway lovers, featuring a fed-up, then bespelled and beguiled fairy queen, a scheming fairy king and a wild and wily Puck, self-proclaimed “merry wanderer of the night.” They interfere with the human realm and love goes awry every which way! Adding to the mayhem is a play within the main play where inept actors pop up and practice their lines with dubious results.

This production offers the Shakespearean script with a spare set and mostly modern (Tasteless! Tacky!) clothing combined with bizarre fairy costumes. It’s a blend of classic and contemporary that emphasizes the pathos and hysteria of infatuation and love. Present-day humor pops up here and there – just enough to get a good laugh (and make a point). My favorite scene: lovelorn Hermia and Helenus break into a dance number to Beyonce’s song, Put a Ring on It. Hysterical. Another, when Oberon tells Puck to cast a spell on a young man and says, “Thou shalt know the man by the hipster garments he hath on.”  And all backed by music from a sitar. Ha!

Check out the play online.

Going underground in London

London is a city in a hurry. Pedestrians, cyclists, drivers, everyone is heading somewhere with great purpose. Many of those hurtling along its (often uneven) sidewalks are going to the subway system, which is universally known as the Tube, but is marked on signage as the Underground. The stations are tidy, well-lit and usually safe. Plus, there is a very nice English lady who politely asks you to “Mind the Gap” and announces all the stops in a lovely, reassuring accent.

Parts of the Tube are old and none of it is air conditioned. In the summer and early fall, hot yoga classes could make a killing down there. In keeping with its aged parts, some Tube stations have escalators, but other have stairs. Many, many stairs. These do not slow down Londoners, who heft suitcases and other loads with amazing dexterity while maintaining optimum speed. When I was unable to keep the pace, they flowed up the stairs and around me like migrating salmon. Woe to any poor soul who has lost her way (not mentioning any names) and turns around in this mass of humanity – she will have to fight for every inch of progress.

One tube station had a very old spiral staircase that I was descending with care. I came 2016-london-tube2upon a tiny, elderly couple dressed in their Sunday best who were moving even more slowly. The Mrs. was a bit more agile and so was leading the way. The Mr. was directly in front of me, turned sideways, hanging onto the handrail and moving methodically down one step at a time. Plunk, plunk, plunk. Around and down we plodded. Fortunately, there was room beside our little knot of slowpokes for others to stream by. (I shudder to think about the pent-up pressure should we have blocked passage.) There was a bit of muttering between the dapper couple, mostly from the Mrs., and I gathered the station was not familiar to them. Then, as clear as a bell, I heard her dry British voice, “If we go down much farther, we’ll see Satan.”

I could not stop chuckling as we finally got to the bottom, without injury or evil apparitions.

My hopes for this trip

To start a relationship with Rome and walk in the midst of her contradictions.

To reacquaint myself with London and discover more of her narrative and antiquity.

To better understand the subterranean connections between the two cities, the historical veins that continue to feed their identities. Two cities that have given and taken much from the world.

To have, as Doerr says, insatiable eyes.

To have my breath disordered by the glorious and the crumbling.

To encounter more of the classics and to be in or near places where they were created.

To breathe the air and stroll through the mornings and evenings on the other side of the world.

To encounter a bit more of my true self, as de Botton would say, and to perhaps see a little of the light in the hearts of others. To detach from the known in order to discover the unknown.

To experience it all not only through my own senses but also of my fellow study abroad travelers.

Through it all, I will make a lot of photos, enjoy the food, hug my family in England, and do everything I can to gather up a collection of unique experiences and pack them gently into each day. Oh, and post a few thoughts in this blog.

Photo: early in the morning, traveling from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C., the sky was a wonder. I grabbed my phone and snapped off one shot through the window before the light changed. The resulting blurry glory feels like a travel moment.