With Venice behind (and technically to the North of us) we began toodling our way down the coast to our villa in the province of Abruzzo. Chris noticed the price of Diesel was up in Italy (1.85 Euros a litre in case anyone cares), but the scenery, roads and sky looked a lot like Croatia. The further south we got, the warmer the temperature gauge in the van climbed to, and it’s quite a start to step out of air-conditioned Mercedes-Benz comfort to 38 degree heat. Europeans must not be able to drive far in a day, because there are gas stations with huge road side markets, restaurants and even hotels every 30 km or so. We enjoyed the free bathrooms at one we came across, a welcome change from Hungary and Croatia’s pay toilets.
Our instructions said to find the town of Castelli, which our beautiful little Tom-Tom did with no trouble. The road leading up to it however, was curvy and steep in a way that North-Americans outside of San Francisco would have a tough time believing to be roads. We were led to a little house where Fernando lived, who had the keys to our place, and would lead us the rest of the way. He spoke no English, and us with even less Italian, managed to shake hands, say hello, and follow him to the villa. I thought the roads we had been on were steep and narrow. The one leading up to the highest villa on this side of the mountain was what I historically would have called, ‘impassably steep’. However, we made it up, albeit in first gear. I had nightmares about driving down the next day, and wondered how I could convince the family to stay put for an entire week.
The house itself is quite livable. The bottom level has a comfortable kitchen and living area with a TV that supposedly has satellite, but only picks up Al Jazeera, a German news/sports station, a German news station and 20 Arab pornography channels. Even though we were alarmed at the names of the channels (ArabsexyTV.com and sexygirlsallday, etc) the gist of these channels is the photo of a woman with long hair (head shot only), some phone numbers and Arabic writing overlaid with very annoying music. Thankfully our kids’ innocence hasn’t been lost. And even more thankfully, we found the BBC channel. Their programming consists of broadcasting from the Olympic venues, but oddly not being allowed to actually show any video footage of the Olympics, and reporting on Libya, the Philippines’ flooding, and Egypt’s latest issues in the Sinai. Avery is convinced we’ll all be able to describe the Olympics and be experts on the Middle East by the time we leave.
One evening, the German channel was broadcasting Olympic footage, however they only follow their own athletes, and the athlete of the evening happened to be a ping-pong player. Wahoo. I will never take our amazingly excellent Canadian footage for granted ever again. How are the Canadians doing anyways?
Day trips from the villa (I’ll never get tired of saying that) have included a trip to a little sea-side town called Rosetto. The weather was hot and the water beautiful. It was tough to get to the beach, but once there, we found free parking – we think – and enjoyed an afternoon in the sun. The next day we tromped into l’Aquila. This is a large town, and according to our guide book, the highest city in Italy. What it didn’t say was that it was ravaged by an earthquake in 2009. Ravaged might be the wrong word, but as we were walking through the ghost town like old city-centre, we put the clues together: cracks in every building, scaffolding on every façade, wooden frames holding up every window, doorway and gothic arch, no people anywhere, and a giant poster about a 2009 earthquake – we would have made damn fine archaeologists.
Eventually, all roads lead to Rome, and that’s where we headed on Thursday. It wasn’t built in a day, but we managed to see as much of it as possible in 14 hours. The morning started with everyone waking up at 6 am., the earliest day of the trip so far. Chris, always the conscientious driver, was scared spitless about driving, worried he’d get eternally lost in the city. He had it in his head to park at the farthest Metro station, and make way into the heart of the city. Even approaching, Rome is impressive, a thick layer of smog can be seen from miles out. Home to 4 million or so people in the metropolis and surrounding area, Rome is a big one, and apparently no one there has what could be called an actual driver’s license. There are things like lights, signs and lanes, but none of them are obeyed or followed. Our Tom-Tom assured us that the parking lot we were after was 7 km from city center where things get really bad. Even our trusty ‘Europe on a Shoe-String’ which gives astonishing detail on all cities said about driving in Rome: “DON’T”.
We pulled in to Rabibbia’s parking lot (it’s a stretch to call what we found a parking lot), and to our astonishment, but not God’s, found one spot left. It was in the middle of an aisle and blocked a few other cars, but we took it. Most places have clear “Don’t Park” symbols, or pay parking machines, not this place. We hoped this wasn’t a place that we would be ticketed or towed.
Marg and Nick had been in Rome a couple of days earlier, and mentioned to head to the main train terminal downtown, where one could access hop on, hop off tours, as we did in Budapest, and this seemed like a fair idea. Metro tickets in Rome are very reasonable (1 Euro for an hour of riding), while a 24 hour ticket is 6. We opted for that option. Keep in mind we have to multiply everything by six, but still a deal. Our original plan was to head to main terminal, but we noticed Coliseum was a stop. We’ve done most sight-seeing as ‘luck would have it’ and that’s worked out so far so good (if you’re counting clichés or colloquialisms in this post, I’ve reached 5) and this was no exception. The minute we stepped, blinking out of the Metro station and into the sunshine of the heart of old Rome, a tour guide picked up our ‘new tourist’ scent and asked if we wanted to pay for a tour. Leery of anyone offering anything, we were cautious. But he promised English guides, decent prices and queue jumping. We were a little worried yet when only three others were on our tour, however it turned out alright in the end. Our guide was an Italian historian, who knew a ridiculous amount about the Coliseum. He talked for 15 minutes about things before we even got to the entrance, and he certainly could have kept us busy (although not necessarily entertained) all day. We did indeed skip the lines, and we would all recommend paying for the guided tour – line skipping and a guy who knows what he’s talking about. The ruins are magnificent, and no wonder that they attract as many visitors as they do. Unfortunately the arenas were all about murder, death and killing, but those Romans did it in style. We’ve romanticized the ideas of Gladiator’s fighting for and earning their freedoms, but in reality life was nasty, brutish and short.
After the Coliseum, we hooked up with a new guide for the Palantine Hills. This time, it was David, an Italian born to an English mother, with a clever wit, brilliant mind and acid tongue. He tricked and fooled us, entertained and informed us, and couldn’t tell anyone’s place of origin from their English-speaking accent. He is a lover of all things ancient Roman, and still holds a bit of a grudge (understandably) against the Catholic Church, who was largely responsible for why everything ancient Roman looks ancient and crumbly. Apparently the leaders of the church told people to use the precious metals, stones, ceramics, statues and even to grind the marble down to make into cement to build the churches. (The churches are astonishingly beautiful, too, but alas it comes at the expense of destroying the beautiful ancient buildings and temples – and I always thought it was due to erosion…)
We plodded over the hill and along the Roman Forum – still impressive in its dilapidated state. Our time on the hill was short, but we wanted to attempt a peek at the Vatican. We hopped back on the Metro and buzzed over. Again we were met by an English speaking tour-operator-seller who asked if we wanted a guided tour of the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Our answer was yes, and worth every penny. Covering our shoulders and knees, we entered the Vatican’s museums. Days and weeks and months could be spent here, pouring over the ridiculous wealth of paintings, and sculpture. We took the 2 hour tour. Entering the Sistine chapel was like a dream come true. The detail, colour and scope are simply breathtaking. I don’t know what qualifies a piece of art to be a masterpiece, but the size and breadth of the subject area undertaken by Michelangelo all of those years ago, using the plaster, brushes and scaffolding he had – this goes beyond anything that I could have imagined possible. I know some of the finer details of the ceiling: Michelangelo’s self-portrait on the flayed skin, the pope portrayed amongst the numbers of the damned, God mooning the pope, the one-eyed artist staring into the crowd and most of the Bible stories circling the room. However, when our tour guide pointed out the ring of people painted under each arch in pairs as the members of the lineage of Christ as recorded by Matthew, it was all I could do not to weep then and their amidst a crowd of Japanese tourists. The last thing I’d want is a photobomb of that.
It was tough to leave the chapel, but we did, and entered the equally impressive, although much less intimate, St. Peter’s Basilica. Built on the site where Peter was crucified in Rome in 64 A.D., The Basilica is one of Christendom’s most holy places. Certainly for the Catholics it is. It is the site of the conclave that announces changes in the papacy, the burial place of all popes, and of course also houses St. Peter’s remains. Another of Michelangelo’s works was the first thing we saw when we entered – La Pieta. Smaller than I thought it would be, Mary’s virginal youth and pained expression are all too real as she wraps her arms around the body of her recently crucified son. To me this has always been a strange icon for the church, but seeing it in person makes one’s own heart nearly melt, and the realization that this has been carved out of stone even more so. The Basilica was busy, but the place is cavernous. The incredibly high ceiling is detailed exquisitely, and the sculpted works are fantastic. The fact that the subjects are all popes doesn’t take away the grandeur and majesty for a staunch Protestant. Unfortunately the crypt where all of the Popes are buried closed at 4, so the Kooman’s hightailed it to the Vatican post office where we sent off a few letters by owl – oops, wrong story.
While tired and achy, we decided to catch Trevi fountain on the way back, even though the day was getting on, thinking we wouldn’t be back again soon. Trevi of course changed that, because amidst the enormous throng taking pictures of the aquatic wonder, we managed to make a wish as we threw our coins in – that we’d make it back someday. Rome shouldn’t be seen in one day. There are things here that we may never get a chance to see again: the museums, the Pantheon, Hadrian’s column, the list is endless in a living museum like this. My advice, spend a week, and don’t come in August. The boys all declared that even though they don’t necessarily love all of that Museumy stuff, this was the best day of the trip – so far. It ended with a two hour trip back to the house, and showers for the hot, sweaty travellers. Avery was trying to remember a quote from Gladiator to use when we got to Rome. It came to him just in time. When one of the characters sees the Coliseum for the first time, he says, “I did not know men could build such things” – our thoughts exactly.