Ostia and The Colosseum

Tags

, ,

Brett’s stomach was still in a bad way this morning and, although he drank a little at breakfast, he didn’t eat very much. Nevertheless, he still wanted to come along to Ostia Antica to see the ruins there. So we set out at a gentle pace to the Metro station to go find Ancient Rome-by-the-Sea.

It is actually really easy to reach from central Rome; you take a Metro a couple of stops down from Colosseo, change to a suburban train (Piramide, for Roma-Lido) which drops you off an easy walk from the gates of the archaeological site. The Metro travelcard takes you all the way there.

The theatre at Ostia

The theatre at Ostia

Once again, despite them being advertised, no audio guides were available, so I splashed ten Euros on a guidebook for the site. It had a somewhat useful map but, despite listing “itineraries” around the ruins, turned out to be largely one archaeologist’s musings on the significance of it all and a not-terribly-clear route around the excavations.

Still, it did help us navigate and get something from what we saw. Ostia was a small port town for much of its existence. The scale of it is much more approachable than the bits of old Rome you can visit. It was eventually abandoned and, unlike Pompeii or Herculaneum, was buried quite slowly and, as a result, is relatively poorly preserved. However, unlike the city of Rome itself, the site has not been built on, so the ancient floorplan and much of the material is still there to be reconstructed and you can easily visualise the town as it once was.

We had a pleasant morning (the sky was partly overcast, so the day was quite temperate) strolling through the necropolis along Via Ostiensis to the gates and then along the Decumanus Maximus through to the heart of town.

There are a number of substantial ruins in evidence amongst the everyday shops and apartments. The auditorium of the town’s theatre is still largely intact and there is a large mosaic floor in the Baths of Neptune which made me recall the frequent refrain of the audio guide in the Vatican’s Rafael Apartments; “The mosaic floor is Roman, from the excavations at Ostia.”  I wonder how much more there was to see here before the architects of antiquity came along.

A tiled niche in one of the shops near the Forum

A tiled niche in one of the shops near the Forum

There are still little flashes of what the colours and artistry that might once have been visible; an elaborately tiled and carved niche in a shop near the forum, the partially reconstructed statue of a youth near the baths, much ornamental brickwork along the main road.

We didn’t get down to the port side of town as Brett was beginning to run out of steam so, having done a circuit of the area around the forum, we retraced our steps to the station. At Piramide we broke our journey for a light lunch in a café near the station and then took the metro back towards home. I got off at the Colosseum to take advantage of my still-valid entry ticket (it allows a single entry at each gate over two days) while Brett went home to put his feet up.

As expected, the queue for entry was several hundred metres long but I noticed there was no queue at the parallel “Ticket Purchase” entrance. Sure enough, once through the bag-check at the gate, the two lines are only separated by a rope, so I ducked under and got through within a couple of minutes, avoiding what would otherwise have been a half-hour queuing in the now bright sunshine. Terribly un-British of me, I know, but as one ancient Roman wrote, “Fortune favours the brave.”

I’ve struggled with what to write about the Colosseum though. It’s the single most iconic image of Ancient Rome. It’s on every tourist’s “Must See” list. Yet I found it oddly anticlimactic.

The audioguide (yes, finally!) talks about the construction, the games and the back-stage workings but, for the premier historic attraction of Rome, it felt dry and perfunctory. There were none of the interpretation and visualisation aids that you’d find in major attractions elsewhere, no opportunity to pursue some detail that caught your interest. There were plaques around the site with basic explanations (in English as well as Italian – I’m grateful for small concessions!) They have even reconstructed a section of the arena floor, along with one of the lifts and trapdoors used for bringing scenery and animals up from the holding pens below – but you can’t go down there as a regular visitor.

A selfie at The Colosseum

A selfie at The Colosseum

I may have been expecting too much. I came having watched a couple of documentaries on Ancient Rome and listened to a lengthy podcast on the Empire’s history. I probably arrived better informed and with more background context than the large majority of tourists. However, I’d hazard a guess that someone who had seen the movie Gladiator would already know most of the information in the commentary.

I think the Colosseum lets down even the uninformed tourist who wants to broaden their horizons. Once you have marvelled at the undeniable engineering skill of building the place, once you have been horrified by the number of people and animals slaughtered for entertainment, there is nothing else to explore. It all feels like a missed opportunity for both the visiting tourists and the Roman authorities alike.

They could get so much more from this site!

The Palatine

Tags

With the singing all done, today was about sightseeing on our own. The hotel required an early checkout for groups (10am!?) so we took our luggage along to the hotel we had booked nearer the centre of town and walked from there down to the Colosseum. A little bit of internet research had revealed that the ticket for the Colosseum included entrance to the Forum and the Palatine Hill – and could be bought from any of their ticket offices. So we skipped the massive queue at the Colosseum itself and headed down the road to the entrance for the Palatine Hill where, sure enough, there was no queue at all.

Brett with the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Temple of Saturn

Brett with the Arch of Septimus Severus and the Temple of Saturn

They did not, however, have the promised audio guides in stock and suggested we try walking to the Forum entrance to get them there. It sounded simple enough, but… Once inside the Forum/Palatine area (which is one large site) there are very few maps or signs to help you find your way around. We got lost several times and ended up asking a tour group’s guide for directions.

When we found the Forum ticket office, they didn’t have audio guides either – or maps of the site. I grumped a little, but then used my phone to take a photo of the map plaque they had at the entrance and we got on with it.

I wondered whether there might be some collusion with the tourist guides who work the city. As mentioned, the internal wayfinding is dismal and there are only informational plaques on some of the ruins. You definitely need to have either brought a good guidebook – or a tour guide – if you want to get much out of this site, redolent with history. As a result of us not having done these things, our tour of the Forum areas was necessarily cursory; using the map on my phone to identify where we were, taking a few pictures and absorbing what we could from the explanatory plaques.

The temple of Antoninus & Faustina and the Temple of Vesta

The temple of Antoninus & Faustina and the Temple of Vesta

Even without detailed information though, I found I was able to visualise something of what this area must once have looked like. Having seen the Pantheon and the shining, colourful marble finishes of the Vatican – and knowing that some of that marble was pillaged from these structures – helps you visualise the temples and public buildings as the bright, colourful edifices they must once have been, rather than the tumbled, dusty piles they are today. And it’s easy to forget that the Romans built big. At an intellectual level, I know that the Roman Empire was a complex and skilled culture that achieved great feats of engineering and, yet, subconsciously, when I imagine “Ancient Rome” I see single- or two-storey buildings around a courtyard in some idyllic agrarian setting – not the multi-storey warehouses and tenements that crowded the city of Rome. Hadrian’s Market had five floors: it can’t have been that different from the shopping centres of today. It’s a sobering thought that we lost a lot of that in the Dark Ages.

After completing a circuit of the Forum areas, we climbed the side of the Palatine Hill itself and found a much more tranquil (and delightfully shaded) space on top. One side of the hill was the site of the Imperial Palace, the other side seems to have been largely gardens and remains so today. Although you can stand on the terraces and look down on the ruins of central Rome below, you can also step back and relax on the grass under the shade of the trees to avoid the heat of the midday sun.

Me chilling in the shade on the Palatine Hill

Me chilling in the shade on the Palatine Hill

One thing I did learn today; because it was the site of the Imperial residence, the Palatine Hill, Mons Palatinus, is the source of our modern word palace, via the Medieval Latin, palacium.

The ruins of the Imperial Palace are extensive; another multi-storey complex built up the side of a hill. You can stand where the Emperor Augustus might once have stood and look down to the Circus Maximus or in the gardens and look out to the Colosseum. Anyone who has seen Ben Hur or Gladiator, can’t help but get a little frisson out of doing that! If you are a fan of I, Claudius, there’s something for you too; you can visit the Domus Livia, the ruins of Livia’s Palace…

After all that, though, it was getting on for 2pm and time for lunch. We dropped down from the Palatine and headed away from the crowds, finding a small restaurant near Circo Massimo. The heat seemed to have taken its toll on Brett though and, although I ate heartily, he hardly ate at all. We took a taxi back to the hotel. A nap and a shower didn’t improve things, so we had a quiet evening and an early night.

Singing for Mass at The Vatican

Tags

,

As we had a free morning, some of the group took the opportunity of visiting more of the city sights. Brett and I slept-in and had a relaxing start instead; we have a couple of extra days to do the sightseeing. Part of the relaxing morning was prepping clothes for the Mass at St Peter’s. We had to request both the iron and the ironing board specifically – initially they only brought the board – but when it did arrive, it was a comedy of errors.

The steam iron had a badly frayed power cord and was partly held together with gaffer tape. (I kid you not!) The ironing board was little better; the cover, the padding beneath it and the board itself being handed over separately and the legs on the board not really wanting to stay in any of the housings. Kind of a self-assembly challenge. I don’t mind a challenge, but the iron did not look like something I wanted to fill with water and then plug into mains electricity, so I decided my shirt would do un-ironed and gave the whole thing up as a bad job.

The coach ride to the Vatican was time-consuming, but necessary – you don’t want a choir about to perform, walking through the heat of a Roman afternoon dressed all in black – but it took us at least twice as long to reach St Peter’s than if we had walked it.

The Swiss Guard keeping watch

The Swiss Guard keeping watch

At the Vatican it was the usual performance-day story of “hurry up and wait!” We hung about in the shade of the colonnade around St Peter’s Square for a while – and nearly lost a few people who had wandered off when we were suddenly escorted towards the cathedral. Then there was the waiting under the stern eye of the Swiss Guard while the Roman Police checked everyone’s bags, a walk to the next check point where we waited some more until clearance was given, then finally through a courtyard and into a back door of the Basilica.

I don’t know whether it has been renovated or cleaned recently, but the south side of St Peter’s Basilica looks so clean and fresh compared to the slightly weathered east front, the view you usually see from the square.

Once inside, we had an hour free to visit the cathedral before the chorus needed to gather ready to sing for mass at 17:30, so Brett and I strolled around to see what was to be seen. The building is remarkably well lit by natural light inside: Those Renaissance architects knew what they were doing.

From the outside, you perhaps don’t appreciate the scale of the building; it is truly monumental architecture. Standing beside the plinth of one of the columns on the familiar East Façade gives you a sense of it. It helps you gain perspective as you look upwards to the completely decorated interior ceilings and the great carvings which line the basilica. Every surface of the interior is adorned with some work of art, whether it is the polished marble designs which cover most surfaces, the sculpted tombs and saints, or the painted scenes in the chapels. Everywhere you look there is outstanding craftsmanship.

The interior of St Peter's Basilica

The interior of St Peter’s Basilica (Image © Patrick Landy)

Towards the end of our free time, Brett and I were sitting in the South Transept and all around us the faithful were praying. Not being a religious person myself, I found myself wondering what the experience of prayer is like for a believer. Are they looking inwards through meditation, or outwards, actively asking questions or worshipping in their minds? Do they believe they receive direct responses or some immediate divine inspiration – or are the deity’s mysterious ways more deep than that and, having cast their question or request into the void, they walk away and look for signs in the world around them to give them an answer? I would have loved to have asked – maybe conduct a survey of the people around us – but that was not our purpose for being there.

The chorus duly gathered at the appointed hour… and waited around for another twenty minutes before moving to an area to form up into rows. It turned out that Italian (dis)organisation was in full flow again here; they had “forgotten” how large the chorus was and so had not reserved the front pews for us. As a result the singers were squeezed into the choir stalls around the organ keyboard, which resulted in a good section of the chorus being unable to see Jo, the musical director, conducting. Luckily, Constanza can think on its feet and one of the singers on the edge of the sightline took on the role of watching her and beating time for those out of view.

Constanza squeezed into the Organ Stalls

Constanza squeezed into the Organ Stalls

I have never been to a catholic mass before and I suppose I was surprised how informal it was compared to what I had expected. Despite being presided over by a Cardinal – the Archpriest of St Peter’s, no less – there was very little incense in the air and a shorter procession than the preceding service, which we had watched depart. Two of the three altar boys arrived late, slipping into position after the mass had begun and then fidgeting in the corner behind the priests’ lines of sight throughout.

Nevertheless, the movements of the cardinal and his attendant priests were all quite ritualistic. After the blessing of the communion wafers and the wine, they all bowed low before them – I had forgotten that Catholic doctrine is that the wafer actually becomes the body of Christ – and there was chanting and genuflecting aplenty.

I found myself sitting next to an elderly Italian lady. She did not look to be of great means, but was certainly devout. Apart from when the service required us to greet our neighbours, we did not exchange more than a wordless enquiry about the availability of my seat, and yet I found myself imagining her life story and wondering at the role her faith played in it. Looking quite careworn, she did not seem joyful in her service to heaven, rather that she was going through a familiar, possibly comforting, ritual; more of a routine or habit. Did it bring her happiness? Or was she just keeping up her dues in this world to ensure her the promised happiness in the next? How would her life have been different if she had been raised to question and seek one’s own truth?

I skipped donating during the collection; looking at the magnificence of the building, I didn’t think the Catholic Church was much in need of my contribution. Being interested in novel experiences though, I did go forward to take communion from the Cardinal. As a gay atheist, I don’t expect my soul can be any further damned from the Catholic perspective by participating unbaptised in the ritual. Sure enough, there was no lightning bolt to strike me dead – nor any divine revelation after accepting the host, merely a tasteless, somewhat chewy wafer that stuck to the roof of my mouth while I returned to my seat. It was, perhaps inevitably, anticlimactic.

Outside the Basilica after singing for Mass

Outside the Basilica after singing for Mass

The pieces the chorus were expected to perform differed from those they had been told they would need, which resulted in an entirely ad hoc Alleluia, signed to the chorus as intervals by Jo in her conducting, and the skipping of the last piece they had prepared. Once the mass was over, there was some applause from the congregation and the chorus came forward for pictures in front of the altar. Unfortunately my chosen seating worked against me as I ended up right at the front of the aisle where my lens wasn’t wide enough to capture the entire group in one shot. Uh-oh, #PhotographerFail

When that was all done, the group trouped back down the nave and, after a little bit of dickering with the security guards, got to sing the final piece they had prepared on the steps of the basilica – again, too far forward for me to capture them in song, but surrounded by cameraphoning tourists in awe. They do make a very nice sound, after all.`

From there, it was back to the underground car park to wait for the coach and then the halting trip back to the hotel to change ready for dinner. Most of the group had been booked into a restaurant someone had found and liked earlier in the trip (ironically not far from St Peter’s Square…)

We rather overwhelmed the family-run restaurant, with what looked like a father-and-son team running front-of-house and momma supervising the kitchen. Consequently service was not the fastest, but the food and drink were good and there was much enjoyment had. A fair amount of alcohol was consumed by some and, late in the evening, there was inevitably singing. Unlike the LGMC though, Constanza can still hold a tune when drunk, so it wasn’t nearly as painful an experience as I’d feared!

St Peter's by night

St Peter’s by night

Towards 11pm we left those of the group who still had energy to party and walked back to the hotel. We went via St Peter’s Square for me to get some night-time pictures of the Basilica. It turns out the square is closed to the public (and patrolled by police) at night. Well, I suppose you wouldn’t want all those homeless sleeping under the nearby porticos to mess up the centre of Christ’s mission on earth by seeking succour there…

Sta Maria del Popolo

Tags

,

So the hotel breakfast buffet turned out to be a bit mono-thematic; there were options other than pastries and breads, but they were limited and, really, with twelve varieties of patisserie to choose from (including sugared ring doughnuts), why would you?

That said, they have a sheltered terrace adjoining the dining room and we enjoyed scrambled egg, sausage, fruit and yoghurt and, yes, pastries in the cooler air out there. We couldn’t linger over the coffee though as we had a three-line whip to be at the Colosseum by 10am in order to join the group walking tour.

A contingent of us arriving at the Colosseum

A contingent of us arriving at the Colosseum

Brett had to remind me in the Metro that I was no longer a tour guide and that this wasn’t my group. I eventually suppressed the desire to direct and shepherd people along.

But then I spent three hours gritting my teeth as old Giuseppe randomly droned on about this and that in a monotone without giving people any context or framework into which to place what they were seeing. While it was certainly a walking tour, it wasn’t at all informative.

Without learning much more about any of them, we took in The Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, the various Roman Forums, the modern Italian Parliament, the Capitoline Hill and the Pantheon, ending up in the Piazza Navona for lunch with a small group from the chorus.

We couldn’t have timed it better because, within fifteen minutes of sitting down, there was a massive crack of thunder and the heavens opened. The crowded square rapidly emptied as the tourists ran for cover, the street artists covered their wares and huddled under their awnings and the pervasive selfie-stick vendors suddenly transformed into umbrella-and-poncho salesmen (where do they keep their stock to switch so quickly!?)

So we had a leisurely lunch, covered by the restaurant’s awning and mostly untroubled by the thunderstorm. When it eventually abated and the sun came out again the streets dried incredibly quickly and the square resumed being a mass of happy tourists and associated industries.

We headed through the now very humid air to a nearby bus stop and thence back to the hotel. Brett had a quick shower before joining the rest of the chorus for a mid-afternoon rehearsal while I had a bit more leisure and spent the afternoon going through my photos and preparing the first few blog posts. We met up with the group again for an 18:30 coach transfer to the Piazza del Popolo, ready for Constanza’s evening concert in the church of St Mary.

We had some time to kill before they were ready for us in the church and it was nice to be able to hangout in the evening sunlight in the square for a while. The central obelisk was curtained- off for restoration but there was some attractive statuary and terracing around a fountain at one end. The guy doing electric-guitar-karaoke covers of Pink Floyd and Queen was a bit incongruous, but on the whole it was a pleasant half-hour.

Rehearsing in the Basilica

Rehearsing in the Basilica

The Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo is a beautiful piece of architecture; quite grand, carved and gilded and it turned out to have a lovely acoustic; supportive but not overwhelming. The choir got themselves organised in front of the chancel, rehearsed a few points in their programme (see a brief video excerpt here) and then dispersed to the waiting area while the audience got themselves settled ahead of the performance.

There seemed to be a fair number of family and friends along for the concert, but there were also locals in evidence, both seated and passing through. The sound of the choir was excellent throughout, although I did notice a moment of confused timing during The Lamb.

Afterwards, we were back to the coaches (partly alongside the route of a 10k run which had kicked off outside the church during the performance!) and on our way to a buffet supper being provided for us by a Roman choir. No-one seemed entirely sure why this choir was hosting us to dinner or what their relationship with the group was but, hey, free food and wine!

The venue for the supper turned out to be a pleasant garden on the side of the Aventine Hill in the grounds of the church (convent?) of San Alessio. There were some panoramic views north-west to St Peters and the Vatican. Our hosts had a buffet of pasta, rice salad, cheese and pizza laid out for us and a selection of wine – which, in fine choral style, we soon finished.

Buffet dinner in the garden of Sant' Alessio

Buffet dinner in the garden of Sant’ Alessio

It was a really lovely conclusion to the day; a temperate evening, an enclosed garden with a pergola to one side covered in fruiting grape vines, a low wall along the long side looking down on the Tiber and into the heart of the city, as much food as we could eat and a relaxed sociable atmosphere. There was even music audible from what we assumed was a wedding party in a nearby building.

It only lasted an hour or so though, as the hour was getting late and we needed a good night’s sleep; tomorrow is reserved for the Vatican.

The Vatican Museum

Tags

Soooooo…, you know that something is wrong when your alarm wakes you as planned but you’re parked in Aigle, Switzerland, and not approaching Milan, Italy.

I wandered down to the buffet car, which was supposed to be serving breakfast, but it was dark and no-one was around. Quite a few people expecting to disembark in Milan turned up and we exchanged information. It seemed there’d been some kind of a problem and there’d be a delay while they fixed a cable, or brought a new engine, or waited for a clear path, or something. I went back to bed.

A drizzly morning at Aigle, Switzerland

A drizzly morning at Aigle, Switzerland

Around 06:30, one of the train crew came along with solid information and compensation forms. Apparently the engine had failed and we were waiting for a new one. It should be here in an hour or so and that meant, in all, a four-to-five-hour delay. Without an engine we were without power, so she pointed out the station’s branch of Relay (a European convenience chain) for coffee and croissants.

Just after 07:30 we pulled out of Aigle. It was a bit stop-start as the train had lost its route because the delay and had to give way to other traffic. As we crossed into Italy, Trenitalia staff came round with snack packs – plus the buffet had reopened and there were free coffees and pastries to be had. It was a bit of a croissant-overload this morning!

Lovely views as we crossed the Alps and rounded Lake Maggiore

Lovely views as we crossed the Alps and rounded Lake Maggiore

The real upside of the delay though was that we got to enjoy the Alps as we passed through to Italy and had beautiful views of Lake Maggiore in the morning sunlight.

We reached Milano Centrale station around 11:40 and there were Trenitalia staff waiting on the platform with reserved seats on everyone’s connections, so we ended up on the 12:00 departure for Rome – which turned out to be half-an-hour faster than our original train. So, in the end, we lost about four hours in Rome, but got to sleep some more and enjoy more varied scenery than we otherwise would have.

We had an evening ticket for the Vatican Museum booked and so, once settled into the hotel, we headed over towards St Peter’s. It’s a good job we left in plenty of time as the entrance wasn’t the most obvious thing. There’s a very grand Exit from the museum in the back wall of the Vatican City, but no obvious entrance. After some confusion and unnecessary walking, we discovered the entrance was actually the unmarked bronze gate near the exit. This rather set the tone for the evening in the museum; not the best signposted museum I’ve ever visited…

That said, the buildings which house the collection are magnificent; huge gilded palaces with craftsmanship as great as the grandest of cathedrals. The collection itself seemed to overwhelm the space to the extent that, in some galleries, items were crowded in and just standing around haphazardly. The Vatican could definitely benefit from a more professional approach to collection curation and interpretation; Very few of the pieces had any information on them at all and there was no sense of theme or chronology as you walked through the museum.

Miscellanea: unloved statuary in the Vatican Museum

Miscellanea: unloved statuary in the Vatican Museum

Later in the tour, I think in one of the Papal Apartments, or the Rafael Rooms, the audio guide would go on and on about the art on the walls and the allegorical meanings and then just note that, “The mosaic floor is Roman, from the excavations at Ostia.” At which point I would look down and marvel at the massive thousand-year-old, wall-to-wall image that pretty much everyone was ignoring. I wondered how they manage to conserve those floors with so much traffic over them every day.

Periodically throughout the museum there were impulse-purchase gift stands selling museum postcards and memorabilia, such as crucifixes, saintly iconography and pictures of the pope. I wondered what the biblical Jesus would have made of this, what with the Mosaic Commandment forbidding worship of images and Jesus himself turning the businessmen out of the precincts of the temple…

The signage in the museum is based around the highpoint of your trip being the Sistine Chapel; it’s the item in bold on all the route directions, almost like it’s telling you not to worry too much about what you’re looking at now; that painting of God and Adam on a cloud is just a little further along!

The Chapel itself is almost an anti-climax when you reach it; beautifully frescoed, though it is, you’ve seen lots of great art already (at least if you didn’t rush through the Stanze di Raffaello) and would get better views from a guide book. Like the Mona Lisa, it’s a victim of its own fame and the Chapel is a scrum of tourists, a constant hum of conversation frequently interrupted by the museum staff shouting(!), “Silencio!” and “No phones!” The rebel in me wished we’d thought to organise a flashmob to sing something inappropriate back to them.

Brett at the Vatican Museum

Brett at the Vatican Museum

After the Sistine Chapel, it was a bit of a rush to the exit to find somewhere to sit down and have a lemonade to rehydrate. In retrospect, I suppose like the Louvre or the British Museum, the Vatican’s collection is simply too big to do in an evening; to do it justice, you need to allow time – probably several days, along with a certain amount of pre-planning. Still, I’m glad we did it; it’s another place on my list of things to come back to.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 70 other followers