Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wednesday, 1st November – Rome

Our last day in Rome and the last day of our holiday! We are ready to come home (especially our feet are) but sad that this wonderful time is coming to an end. We had planned a day out of the noise and crowds of Rome, but woke up to pouring rain. We spent a while looking through the guide book for a plan B and by the time we finished the rain had stopped, the sun was peeking through the clouds so we went back to plan A, which was to visit Ostia Antica – an excavated 1st century ancient Roman town, similar to Pompeii but a lot closer to Rome (and without the volcano).

It was a bus, metro and train trip (less than an hour) and when we got off the train the rain was pelting down. Undeterred, as intrepid travelers, we opened our umbrellas (and waded through minor flooding by this time) and pressed on. It was the best thing we could have done because the rain eased within minutes of our entering the site, but it kept the tourists (mostly) away.

Ostia Antica was a working class town, the main port for Rome, at its height home to 100,000 people. It’s a huge site (10,000 acres) and we thoroughly enjoyed exploring it. It had everything you could want in an ancient Roman town – houses, temples, tombs, a theatre, baths, shops, frescos, mosaics, statues (mostly without heads), even a forum, plus a few things we didn’t expect: apartment buildings, a bar, and a public toilet. It was even well signposted! You could wander freely over the site and we loved just poking around and exploring. One of the most fascinating sections was the Forum Delle Corporazioni (the Square of the Guilds), a monumental square lined with more than 60 offices of ship owners and traders. Along the pavement 2nd Century AD mosaics advertised the services offered by the various shops – shipping merchants, grain dealers, even ivory traders. It transported us back 2 millennia – it felt like a real town, where real people lived and worked and died. Very evocative and a great way to spend our last day.

Tuesday, 31st October – Rome

No surprises from the landlord today so we headed off earlyish to Vatican City. We were warned there would be a queue, and given the crowds at the Forum yesterday, we were a bit trepidatious. So when we arrived at the Vatican Museum we were not surprised to see a very long queue snaking around the corner. However it moved very quickly and we were inside within 40 minutes. Somehow queueing never seems as bad if you’re actually moving. We went to the Vatican Museum first, which is a huge museum (4 miles of corridors) containing the collected artworks of the Vatican through the centuries. As with everywhere else in Rome, the labeling was a bit sparse, but we enjoyed admiring Roman statues and reliefs, Egyptian antiquities, tapestries, maps and paintings. You follow a set course through the museum (with lots and lots of people, including large tour groups) and finish up at the Raphael rooms (rooms with huge frescoes by Raphael – sorry, impressive but not our taste) and the Sistine Chapel, which is, of course, magnificent, but our enjoyment was somewhat depleted by the crowd (huge room, with wall to wall people – literally) and the security guards' constant calls of “SSHHHHH” and “No Photos!”

From the Sistine Chapel, Rick had told us of a secret shortcut straight to St Peter’s Basilica (saved us about a 15 minute walk), so next thing we knew we were there. It is an amazing building, by far the largest church in the world. You can climb the dome (300+ steps) but we decided we just couldn’t face another steep, narrow, crowded climb). Tomorrow (Nov 1) is All Saints Day, so the church was getting set up for a big service, which meant we were only allowed to skirt the edges, so we had a distant look at the dome, the sculptures and the enormous altar by Bernini. We were intrigued by what looks like huge paintings to discover they are in fact all mosaics. Actually the most interesting part of the visit was watching the staff on little electric cars wildly gesticulating at tourists who strayed into the forbidden zone.

After a quick look at the Piazza San Pietro (also getting set up for the festivities) we decided after a grueling day we’d head back to our room for a siesta. We had well and truly had enough of the crowds, and figured we had done the “must-sees” so the rest of our time we’ll just have fun. After a well-earned rest we headed to Campo dei Fiori, which is a fresh produce market by day and a lovely open space for strolling by night. Nearby is a restaurant which Rick had recommended which was quite an experience. They have no menu – their motto is “You eat what we want to feed you” – and we had a very enjoyable, tasty and huge 4 course meal including wine for €21. It’s quite funny to sit down and just have food brought to your table.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Monday, 30th October – Rome

Well, today started fairly badly, improved slowly but finished up very pleasant.

We got up early to head out for a big day in Rome. As we emerged from our room, there was a man in a suit waiting for us, saying he was very sorry they had made a mistake they should not have put us in that room. He didn’t seem to know the whole story of our multiple room changes so we filled him in. He promised us a much better room but said there were builders arriving today to convert the room we were in into an office, so we didn’t think we had much choice. So we walked to the new room which turned out to be the smelly room from yesterday! At that point we said forget it, we will find somewhere else to stay (and a few other things) and suddenly it was all OK, we could stay in the room we were in, the office would wait. A very dodgy operation, it seems, but this room is quite comfortable, and it would cost us half a day to find somewhere else & move so we stayed. But we worried all day whether our belongings would still be in the room when we got back (they were).

We were still laughing (or maybe it was hysteria) when we finally headed out for our somewhat shortened day of sightseeing. We planned to do the “Caesar shuffle” as Rick calls it – a day in ancient Rome. So we started at Palatine Hill, where the palaces of the Roman emperors used to be, and also the site of the earliest settlements in Rome. We were not willing to spend €9 on a guide book, and there were no maps or signs or information of any kind. Much of the site was closed for maintenance, so we wandered around for a while, with no idea what we were looking at, and gave up.

The Roman Forum is one of the most famous ruins in the world, and with all the movies, books and even Shakespeare, it was really exciting to actually be there. Unfortunately we weren’t the only ones who thought that, and it was absolutely packed. And really hot! And the audio guide was really boring! We grumbled for a while, then found a shady corner, cooled down (literally and metaphorically), gave up on the audio guide and decided to ignore the crowds and try to get a feel for what it was like during the glory days of Rome. In the end we enjoyed our walk in the footsteps of the past.

Right next to the Forum is the Colosseum. We found it easier than the forum to imagine it in its heyday - full of cheering crowds, blood sports, lions, slaves and gladiators. It’s such a familiar building, it is a thrill just to be there. We lingered for quite a while, just trying to cement the images into our memories.

Next stop was Capitol Hill, location of the government in Roman times and still today. The main attraction was the views you get over the Forum, and when we got there it was late afternoon and the light was just right. Rick showed us a short-cut from there to the top of the Victor Emanuel Monument (the huge, white building that dominates the Rome skyline) for great views of Rome.

We walked down the hill to the Pantheon, a remarkably well preserved Roman building and a marvel of Roman architecture. We would have been impressed with it on its own account, but were particularly interested because it was the dome which inspired Brunelleschi in his design of the Duomo in Florence – the first dome to be built in 1,000 years. In fact you can see a small square hole in the Pantheon ceiling where Brunelleschi was allowed to remove some material to analyse it.

By now it was getting quite dark, and we soon found ourselves on Piazza Navona. Sadly the Fountain of the Four Rivers was covered with scaffolding, but the Piazza itself, which is quite large (it used to be a race track and is still shaped like one) was buzzing with street artists, buskers, hawkers, tourists and cafes. Quite a lively scene. We pressed on towards the Trevi Fountain. It is unusual for such a large fountain because the square it is in is small and no roads lead directly to it, so you just wander along small lanes and then, suddenly, there it is in all its magnificence (and a few thousand tourists too – at least 6 deep all around the fountain). We managed to manoeuvre our way to a good viewpoint and then sat in awe and just watched – the fountain and the people.

Our feet were telling us they had had enough for one day, but we had to get to the Spanish Steps. We walked past some very smart shops, and classy restaurants till the crowds told us we had arrived. Again a lively, energetic atmosphere, with people just enjoying themselves, and sitting on the steps people-watching. We had been recommended to go to a restaurant nearby, so we obeyed – and were very glad we did. They do an antipasto buffet which is fabulous, so we piled our plates high and had a very agreeable meal to end the day.

We were very relieved to find our room intact when we returned, so the day ended up on a much more positive note, and we are looking forward to our last 2 days in Rome.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sunday, 29th October – Siena to Rome

Well, what a day! Just when we were congratulating ourselves on how well we were managing and how smoothly everything has gone, pretty much everything went pear-shaped today. Let me tell you all about it!

10am: We had identified a bus right outside the hotel that went to the railway station so we thought we’d save the taxi fare and catch the bus. The bus stops in Siena have electronic indicators telling you which buses are coming next, and giving the whole day’s timetable for each bus and the closest place to buy tickets – very helpful. So we checked out the #13 to the station – next bus 1.30pm. You can’t hail a cab in the street, you have to go to a taxi rank, but there was none nearby, and the next bus to the city centre was a half hour away anyway (tip for next time – don’t try to travel on a Sunday in Italy). Fortunately the tourist map we had had a phone number for a taxi so we rang & one came quite quickly. OK, we thought, a bit more expensive but otherwise back on track.

10:30am: We queued for a train ticket to Rome – first train (the slow one) was at 12.30, and the fast train wasn’t till after 2pm. (We had gone online to try to prebook our train ticket to Rome, but the only option for ticket collection was “self-service” but Siena station has no self-service machine – there were trains every 30 minutes so we figured it was safe to just turn up – but apparently not on a Sunday morning!). There wasn’t time to go anywhere before the train came, so we sat at the station reading the Rome guidebook.

12.30: Got on the train which was very punctual. Though not without some anxiety as we were the only ones in the carriage and weren’t sure it was the correct train. However it was, and we had the carriage to ourselves to Grosseto, where we had to change for the train to Rome. (No wonder they have so few trains on Sunday – no passengers!). We had no idea what time we were due at Grosseto, or where it was (or where we were, for that matter), and there were no announcements. Shelley managed to emerge from the WC in the nick of time.

1:45: Sat on the platform at Grosseto for 45 minutes waiting for the 2.30 to Rome. We had booked seats for the second leg, in carriage 1, but had no idea which would be the front end of the train. Made an educated guess, which was correct, except carriage 1 was at the back of the train! Had to run the full length of the platform with our luggage, and as soon as we were on the train it departed – we have never held up an inter-city train before! The train trip itself was very comfortable and uneventful.

4.15: Arrived at Rome’s Termini Station. What a hectic place, very modern, lots of lights, shiny shops, and people. Rick had alerted us to pickpockets so Keith’s head was spinning trying to watch his back, and mine. Tried (and failed) to find the tourist information but bought a map and a weekly bus/train ticket and worked out where to catch the Metro to our B&B. Battled with throngs of people but managed to get on & off the metro at the correct place.

5:00 Wheeled our bags over cobbled roads to where we thought the B&B ought to be – no such luck. Wandered up & down for about 45 minutes, eventually found it (we had walked past it in the first 5 minutes). The quaint building has 2 separate staircases, so of course we chose the wrong one. Then the manager came down to find us and said he was sending us to a new B&B, much better for the same price. Sent us off with a woman who spoke less English than we speak Italian. She insisted we pay cash up front. Long “discussion”. Manager on the phone, said no problem, pay later. Took us to the room. Very nice except smelled like a toilet! We complained but she showed us how to open the windows. Didn’t help. Complained to the manager, very long story, 3 rooms later, several trips back and forwards, (by the way these rooms were in different buildings, a block apart), suddenly found us a very nice room, private bathroom, fridge, TV, all mod cons. Phew! About 8pm by this stage.

8.45pm: By this time we had given up our plans for an evening stroll through Rome, and thought we’d settle for a Pizza at a café we’d seen in the same street – of course it was closed. But ended up having a nice dinner at a restaurant just below our room. But in the end, we are in Rome!!

Saturday, 28th October – Siena

Like the seasoned travelers we are by now, we managed to figure out the Siena bus system (we think) and caught a cute little bus into the Campo. Another glorious day with clear blue skies, so we queued up to climb the Torre del Mangia (City Tower) which promises “one of Italy’s best views”. After waiting half an hour and still not getting up to the ticket office (they only let 25 up at a time) we decided we could cope without it – considering Keith’s crook knees and Shelley’s altitude aversion we also decided we aren’t really tower climbing types really. (Like that ever stopped us!) Instead we had a wander around the Campo taking in the atmosphere.

The Cathedral in Siena, also referred to as the Duomo, dates from 1215, and unlike Florence’s Duomo is packed with art, inside and out. Sculptures by Michaelangelo & Bellini, stunning frescoes, wonderful inlaid marble floors, towering green & while marble columns, painted ceilings, a spectacular carved marble pulpit by Pisano, medieval stained glass – it’s quite an overwhelming sight. We were fortunate to see the inlaid marble floors, because they are covered for most of the year, and are only opened in September & October. Some of them were still covered, much to our disappointment, but the ones we saw were extraordinary enough. One of the most beautiful features is called the Piccolomini Library. Piccolomini was a Sienese-born Pope (Pius II) and the library, a large room tacked on to the side of the nave to house his extensive collection of books (now lost), is a feast for the eyes. Brightly coloured frescoes cover the walls and ceilings, which are just superb. The detail in the pictures is amazing, and the colours are so rich it could have been done yesterday (actually 1502 – and not cleaned or retouched since).

We dragged ourselves somewhat reluctantly out of the Duomo (the rest of Siena’s “must-see” sights awaited). Next door is the Duomo museum, housing the treasures from the Cathedral. Some incredible objects, notably a large painting of the Madonna from 1311 (a masterpiece of medieval art), the original stained glass window from the cathedral made in the 13th century, sculptures by Donatello & Pisano. The building itself is interesting. The Siena cathedral was intended to be much bigger, and one wall and some columns of the planned building were completed before the plague stopped the work. Some of the columns were filled in with later brickwork, and that is the home of the museum. You can see part of the columns in the corners of the walls. There is also one wall of the abandoned building (the facciatone) which you can climb on for great views (so much for avoiding steps and high places). Actually it was very safe but really scary – maybe something to do with it being only the thickness of a wall (well, a thick wall, but still …) but the views were really great.

Across the Piazza from the Duomo is Santa Maria della Scala, which was a hospital and almshouse from the 12th century until the 1980’s. The main attraction is a huge hall filled with frescoes from 1442 detailing medieval Siena’s innovative health care and social welfare system. By now we were getting pretty tired, but we had bought a combo-ticket so had to get our money’s worth. We visited the baptistery, unusually situated under the end of the cathedral (because of the steep site, the entrance is at street level). Sumptuously decorated, with striking font including bronze relief panels made by Donatello & Ghiberti (he did the famous panels on the door of the baptistery in Florence).

We thought we’d end the day with a little splurge by having dinner on the Campo, which is lined by restaurants on one side. But 5 minutes of snooty waiters was enough to send us away and we found a restaurant nearby recommended by Rick (no view but great atmosphere and delightful owners) and had a very tasty and inexpensive meal (Papardelle with wild boar sauce!)

Friday, 27th October – Florence to Siena

One last morning in Florence and one more “must-see” museum – the Museum of San Marco. This museum is in a Domenican monastery built in the 14th century, and decorated with dozens of frescoes by Fra Angelico (and others) a Dominican Friar who was one of the most important painters of the early renaissance. The theology & chronology of the work is a bit of a worry (St Dominic features in every scene, even the crucifixion) but the art is wonderful and it’s great seeing it in the place it was created and intended for. We bussed back to the centre of Florence and walked back to our hotel, after a quick perusal of the Mercato Nuovo (markets). This is the location of Il Porcellino, the bronze pig of which there is a copy outside Sydney Hospital.

Caught another bus (they have these really cute short electric buses which are great except they make no noise so can sneak up on you when you’re walking on the so-called pedestrian friendly streets) to the Bus Station, where we caught a bus to Siena. We felt like temporary locals, using public transport – and the bus was hot, crowded and bumpy - I think we’ll stick to the train in future. When we arrived in Siena, we were dropped off in the street (no bus station, tourist info or anything) so we had fun trying to figure out how and where to catch a taxi. (We had to get a taxi to the hotel because we had no idea where it was). At the hotel no-one seems to speak English, so our 3 words of Italian are getting well and truly tested.

We walked into the Centro Storico (historic centre) to see the Piazza del Campo (it was about 7pm and dark). One of the most famous “squares” in the world, it is a huge fan-shaped space set on a slight slope, which is the centre of social and political activity in the city. It was full of people – students, tourists, families, people sitting, strolling, playing soccer, and taking photographs. We found a nice restaurant and had dinner (off the Campo) and had an early night – with only one day to “do” Siena, it will be full on tomorrow.

Thursday, 26th October – Florence

Today we realized we only have one full day left in Florence, and set ourselves an agenda to “do” the rest of the must-see sites – the Piazza Del Duomo with its Cathedral, Baptistery, Cupola (the Duomo) and Museum – plus the Bargello Museum, and other sites. And we succeeded, despite sleeping in till 9am (we love shutters)! In fact we managed to finish the day with night-time views over Florence, followed by a very nice dinner.

So - in the order we visited:

Piazza della Signoria. This is an outdoor terrace attached to the Uffizi Gallery, which holds a number of Renaissance sculptures. Some large and very impressive works.
Bargello Museum – showcases Italian Renaissance Sculpture, including one of the most famous of all, Donatello’s David. Excellent collection, and slightly off the main tourist agenda, so not crowded at all.

The Baptistery – once the building where all Florentines were baptized, it is a Romanesque building that dates from the 11th century. It’s an elegant building in the “Florentine Style” – green and white marble in geometric designs, but has two striking features – its doors, with their 3-D bible stories, and a dazzling mosaic dome ceiling, which we really loved.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore (usually referred to as the Duomo, because of the spectacular dome). The exterior is stunningly beautiful, but the inside is relatively plain. It is huge (the second largest church in the world, after St Peter’s in the Vatican) and imposing but mostly unadorned.

The Duomo – it was time to climb the dome itself. All 463 steps to a tiny cupola on the top. It certainly got the heart pumping, but was well worth it. You get to access a gallery inside the dome, which gives a great view of the church, the fabulous painted ceiling inside the dome and the stained glass windows. Then you keep climbing, up increasingly narrow and steep stairs, to the cupola, for superb views of Florence. Wow!!

The Duomo Museum. After sitting on a bench in the Museum’s air-conditioned interior to recover from the dome climb we had an enjoyable wander through this excellent museum, which contains treasures from the cathedral dating back to its early days. Fortunately with each change in the cathedral décor, someone had the foresight to keep the discarded items and they are now preserved for us to enjoy. These include choir galleries (including one by Donatello), sculptures, stone reliefs, and the actual tools used by Brunelleschi (who designed the dome).

Piazzale Michelangelo, an elevated terrace with superb views of Florence. (The only problem with the view from the Duomo is that the Duomo, Florence’s most recognized landmark, isn’t in it). We got there in time to watch the sunset and the lights come on – wonderful.

Dinner – we headed to a restaurant recommended by Alessio but when we got there it looked a bit posh (ie expensive). Instead we went to one nearby which turned out to be excellent, really great food, quite upmarket but not expensive. We lingered over our meal and then walked back to the hotel.