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.