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Archive for June, 2012

Having failed, or rather given up, on our previous attempt to go to the Vatican Museums, we tried again on Friday the 4th of May, also known as Star Wars Day, also known as my birthday. We had a better experience this time. The queue was a lot shorter and moved more quickly.

As we passed into the lobby/ticket area, we had to go through a security check. Habiba, in typically pushy American fashion, got ahead in the line and through the check before I did. Despite the fact that there were dozens of people wandering around inside with backpacks of a similar size to mine, the guard told me I needed to go straight to the cloak room to check it in. He wouldn’t let me go and tell Habiba without leaving my bag by the X-ray machine.

We bought tickets and hired audioguides – each which required further queueing – and then we queued up to get inside and join the crowds of people slowly making their way through the museums. The layout of the place is a little strange: while there are lots of different ‘museums’ within the whole complex, each with its own distinct collection of artefacts and artworks, you don’t have much choice about what you visit. As a whole, the Vatican Museums are designed to be visited linearly; instead of going to Museum C, Museum F, Museum M or whatever, you mostly have to go from A to B to C and so on. The path branches in a few places, and there were several museums we didn’t get to – the coin and stamp collection being a notable omission.

We did, however, see various Egyptian relics, numerous Classical statues, a sprinkling of modern art, lots of frescoed chambers and – of course – the Sistine Chapel.

One of the other highlights was the Hall of Maps. This was a long room like a vast corridor; on one side were maps showing regions in the west of Italy, the maps on the other side showing the east of the peninsula. What I found really spectacular about this room was the ceiling. It was arched and decorated all along its great length with painted panels of various sizes divided by baroque frames and sculpted figures and designs.

The Sistine Chapel was packed with people, many in tour groups, standing around ogling the walls and ceiling, talking and taking pictures despite the attendants (who, I think, were mostly clerics) telling everyone to be quiet and the signs that prohibited photography. It’s certainly a sight to behold, but Michelangelo’s figures are a bit strange – they’re often overly muscular and tiny-headed, and the women have a pair of ugly lumps in the middle of their chest that are supposed to be breasts.

We were glad that we saw the place, but we were also glad to get out. It’s a huge place and no single visit can really do justice to it – and the crowds make it nearly impossible to enjoy. It’s also, understandably, quite dark in most areas, so it’s difficult to get good pictures. Once we escaped the mêlée, we had lunch at a touristy, but not too expensive restaurant across the road from the entrance. The queue for the Museums had diminished to practically nothing – which was a little annoying, especially given our experience a couple of days before. We cheered ourselves up with more ice cream from the Old Bridge Gelateria.

After that, we headed round the corner to St Peter’s Square and lined up for the Basilica. Unsurprisingly, this was probably the grandest and most ornate of the many beautiful churches we’ve been to on the trip.

And after that, we went for a walk along the Tiber, which is contained in a kind of manmade gorge, with wide paths on either side at river level. Looking down from road level we spotted an animal swimming about by the near bank. We went down for a closer look and found it to be a large rodent with a head and front teeth like a beaver, but a tail like an otter – I later decided it was a coypu. Habiba tried feeding it some of our food, but it wasn’t interested, although it was happy to climb up on to the foot of the wall right below us.

We walked along for a bit then headed back up to road level, through Piazza del Popolo and up Pincian Hill near Villa Borghese before heading back to Anne’s. For the previous couple of nights, Anne’s son had been away at a camp and she had taken in an extra couple of Couchsurfers, a pleasant pair of Dutch women. Dinners in the small kitchen were a cosy affair. They were gone by the time we got back.

And, the next day, we left Anne, got the tram back to Termini, took a very cheap (€4) bus to Fiumicino Airport (officially, Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport) and checked in for our flight to Gatwick. Up until getting to the airport, everything was mostly OK. I’d started feeling sick earlier in the day; I felt well enough to eat some lunch before going through the security check, but after, while we were waiting to board I threw it all back up again. I felt very nauseous on the flight and an attendant gave me sickbags – but I just rested and ended up not needing them.

In addition to all this, Habiba hadn’t realised that she would be able to have more than one check-in bag and one carry-on bag, so she had to pay extra for her third bag. It wasn’t the most auspicious start to a flight, but we got to the UK safely enough in the end.

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Arriving in Rome at around lunchtime, we had a bit of trek to our next Couchsurfing host, but, with some good directions, we had little trouble getting the tram out to the suburbs and finding Anne’s place. Anne lived with her young son and was another great host.

She had experience working as a tour guide and she mapped out a route for us that would take us to some of the sights in central Rome. So, later in the day, we went back and wandered by the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, St Ignatius’s Church, the parliament building, the Pantheon (unfortunately, this was closed for Labour Day – and we forgot to go back another time) and the Piazza Navona. The Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain were especially crowded – possibly more than usual because of the holiday, possibly not.

We went to a gelato place that was recommended by our guidebook – it was expensive, but I had a coupon for a free fancy ice cream from Habiba. We went to a restaurant for dinner on the same basis, but we didn’t manage to get in. When we reached the front of the queue, we were pointed to a small table next to the door that we would have to share with another couple. Perhaps naively, we said we wanted our own table. The man on the door proceeded to pretty much ignore us the rest of the time we were there. We went elsewhere.

We walked back to the main railway station, Termini thinking that we could get the tram back to Anne’s. A couple of trams came to the stop, but evidently they were terminating, as they didn’t pick any passengers up and the stop was blocked off by barriers. We walked to the next stop and found an area with people waiting for taxis and police and paramedics hanging around presumably waiting for situations involving drunken Romans. We weren’t confident enough to claim a taxi for ourselves and we realised that, it being a holiday, we wouldn’t be able to get a bus or tram after eleven o’clock. We decided to walk – which took about an hour, although it wasn’t hard to know where to go because we just followed the tram tracks.

The next day, we decided we would go to the Vatican. By the time we got to St Peter’s Square it was already afternoon and there was a massive queue for the Basilica that arced all the way around the square. We went round the corner towards the Vatican Museums – and found a similarly massive line. We waited for a bit then decided to give it up. We got ice creams from a place nearby, Old Bridge Gelateria. The cheapest cone was half the price of the tiny cup we had the day before (ie, €1.50) and they served a generous dollop of ice cream on top of it – even giving you two flavours.

After the sweet had stuff revived our spirits, we went to the Coliseum. The queue here was also substantial, although most of it was inside, so it looked deceptively short from the outside. Once we finally got into the amphitheatre, it proved pretty spectacular – it wasn’t bad from the outside, actually.

We did a couple of circumnavigations of it – one at a lower, one at an upper level. Then we set out for the nearby ruins of the Forum. The queue here was much shorter and we should have gone here first because you get one ticket for both the Forum and the Coliseum. We did see everything there was to see within the grounds of what is effectively a huge park, but most of what we did see was very pleasant – though not as breathtaking as the Coliseum.

The day after that, we took the train down to Naples – using our last day of travel with our Eurail pass. The train we wanted to take was cancelled (‘soppresso’), so we got there later than we intended. From the main station in Naples we took a local train – the Circumvesuviana – to the ruins of Pompeii. Here, we spent a couple of hours wandering round the ruined town. We didn’t get audioguides or even a map, so our visit was pretty aimless and, as there are almost no information boards anywhere within the grounds, we didn’t really learn that much. The most interesting part of the ruins was the villa near the exit, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its preserved frescos

We went back to Naples and headed for a pizzeria called Il Piazzaiolo del Presidente. Naples is, apparently, the home of pizza, and this particular restaurant is one of the most famous; Heston Blumenthal went there for tips on the perfect Margherita. The pizzas were good – and cheap, according to the menu. Two pizzas and two beers nonetheless managed to cost us €20.

The restaurant was in a part of town full of tall old buildings separated by narrow streets. Cars and mopeds sped down the streets, weaving through the pedestrians clustered by the shops. The shops were pretty touristy, selling fancy pasta and the usual range of souvenirs. The area reminded me a little of Paharganj in Delhi; although it was paved and much, much cleaner it had a similar grungy, bustling feel to it.

We spent some time walking around, down to the ferry port and the Castel Nuovo, to a big square, the Piazza del Plebiscito where the army was holding some sort of recruitment event, then round the corner to a Victorian shopping mall called the Galleria Umberto I. In the centre of this cathedral-like space there was a ring of zodiac mosaics on the floor. Even though I have nothing but contempt for horoscopes, I wanted to get a shot of the Taurus mosaic, but two women were standing on it for about five minutes taking pictures of each other. Habiba finally barged them out of the way and pretended to have her picture taken by me.

We then headed to the Duomo, or Naples Cathedral, another in a long line of beautiful churches. Habiba sat at the back while I explored and took pictures. After that, we went back to the station and got the train back to Rome.

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