Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Month: October, 2013



Apologies for the lack of recent updates – I’ve been frantically busy, but in the best way possible. Dashing across Rome, searching for the perfect pizza/wine/gelato combination with a friend, meeting my conversation partner for drinks in San Lorenzo and attempting to talk about David Bowie in Italian, having lunch with the lovely Rachel, listening to Gregorian chanting at a church on the Aventine, trying to be patient with students who respond to my questions with “Boh”, reading, writing…

There are so many things in Rome I want to write about, but as I’ve just come back from a weekend in Naples, I’ll start with that. I’d only been to Naples once before, as a day trip from Sorrento on a family holiday. I had a few vague memories of fearing for our lives as we crossed roads, standing in narrow streets with lines of washing blocking out the sky, coffee at Gambrinus and searching for Teatro San Carlo. My great-great-grandfather (I think) was a conductor at the opera house and I might well have distant relatives living in Naples.

A friend commented that Naples made Rome seem pristine, and he was right. Arriving at Napoli Centrale after three hours on the slow train and trying to find a route across Piazza Garibaldi, I felt like an adventurer in some post-apocalyptic landscape, and Via Mancini, where my hostel was, is the most rubbish-filled street I’ve ever seen.

I can understand why some people don’t like Naples, and how the dirt and the noise and the constant fear of being run over or pickpocketed is a bit too much. Some of the negative reviews of my hostel were less about the hostel itself than the area, complaining that it was dangerous and there were suspicious people hanging around outside. When I returned to the hostel on Saturday night I was curious about the kind of people who would be in the street. Kids playing football and some teenage girls rehearsing dance routines in the car park, it turns out. Not very threatening.

In fact, I never really felt unsafe in Naples. I know some parts are more dangerous than others and that tourists often have their stuff stolen, but if you use your common sense and keep an eye on your bag, I think you’ll probably be fine.

And the dirt…well, the few street cleaners I saw are definitely fighting a losing battle, but the sheer energy of the city sort of compensates for the dirt. Somewhere else, that amount of rubbish might be depressing, but while I’m sure it’s a real frustration for the people who live there and try to clean it up, I don’t think it’s enough to ruin the experience of a visitor. And sometimes you just have to laugh. On Via San Sebastiano I saw a very creative example of littering – a chocolate cake stuck to the graffiti covered wall, which looked like it had been thrown with force. As if having rubbish on the ground wasn’t enough!

I mainly spent my weekend wandering around Via dei Tribunali, Spaccanapoli and the Quartieri Spagnoli. In the latter, I felt more like an outsider than anywhere else I’ve been, and I didn’t see any other tourists. It’s an interesting area to explore, avoiding the motorbikes tearing past as you walk past shrines and living rooms spilling on to the streets. So many of the ground floor flats in Naples are basically open to the street, so as you walk past you catch a glimpse of a family lunch or someone asleep in bed, just inches away from the street. My favourite sight was the room decorated conventionally with family photos, cabinets, pink walls, and then the handles of a motorbike which seemed to be parked in the middle of the room.

I mostly just walked around, ate some very good pizza and tried sfogliatelle. I wanted to explore the streets and get an idea of how the city fitted together rather than doing proper sightseeing, though I did go in lots of churches. I also visited the Capella Sansevero, to see the stunning Cristo Velato and the rather gruesome anatomical models downstairs. I really wanted to visit the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, but when I got there, the blackboard by the entrance informed me that about 80% of the rooms were closed. I asked a member of staff why they were closed, and he told me that due to shortage of staff, they couldn’t keep the museum fully open on Sundays. It’s really sad that a major national museum can’t stay open at the weekends, but at least it’s an excuse to come back another day.

So I’ll definitely be returning to Naples, and probably to the same hostel on the grotty but conveniently located Via Mancini. Next time, though, I’ll remember to bring my passport. The family who run the hostel were perplexed by my nationality and the provisional driver’s license I showed them as a form of ID. “You’re British? But you were born in Australia? And you live in Rome?” I was advised that they needed a copy of my passport so they could pass my details on to the police. I felt like pointing out that the Neapolitan police probably have more urgent problems to deal with…

La vista


Not long after arriving in Rome I was invited to lunch by a friend of a friend who works at the FAO. The building itself is a nondescript office block next to Circo Massimo, but the view from the eighth floor terrace is spectacular. When I remember my lunch breaks at my previous job, often just an M&S sandwich eaten at my desk in a stuffy office…The FAO workers who get to enjoy their lunches with a view like this are very lucky indeed. I never get tired of looking at the Palatine from any angle. I remember my holiday in Rome two years ago, before moving here, when my friend and I first caught a glimpse of the Palatine from the Circo Massimo side and didn’t know what it was. Obviously once we worked it out we felt stupid, because we’d actually visited the Palatine before, but standing on top of it and seeing it suddenly come into view as you approach from the south are very different experiences.

I think the best city views are the ones that are high up, but not too high. Eight floors up is about the limit. Skyscrapers don’t interest me, as the higher you get the more disconnected you feel from everything. Standing on a Roman hill or terrace, you feel like you can see the whole city while also feeling part of it.

Here are some other favourite views in Rome:


The Pincio

An obvious choice, but you can’t beat the sight of Piazza del Popolo from above. Those beautiful twin domes, the obelisk, and the Vatican in the distance…There’s an excellent novel by Friedrich Christian Delius called Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, which takes the form of a single sentence over about 100 pages. The plot is essentially just the thoughts of a German woman walking across Rome in the 1940s as she waits for her husband to return. Her journey involves a stop at the Pincio, and there’s a perfect description of the view which captures just what makes it so magical. Unfortunately I don’t have the book with me (I don’t have any books, just my Kindle and Keats and Shelley), or else I’d post an extract.

rome - view from aventine

The Aventine

The view in the picture is from the street winding down to the river which I can no longer visit, after the encounter with the flasher…But the Giardini degli Aranci is pervert-free, in my experience, and you can see right across the city. There’s also the famous keyhole view of St Peter’s nearby.


Villa Aldobrandini

This is an elevated park just off Via Nazionale. It’s rather shabby – lots of rubbish, benches that are falling apart. Whenever I go there, there are usually just occasional couples or men sleeping. Sometimes I don’t feel entirely safe, but it’s unfounded really, as nothing’s ever happened to me there. Compared to the other views I’ve mentioned, Villa Aldobrandini isn’t particularly high up, and you can’t see that far…but there is something special about it. If you go to the far end with the bust of a man stabbing himself in the chest you get an unusual perspective of the end of Via Nazionale, looking down towards Piazza Venezia and Trajan’s Markets. It’s a view I’ve always had to myself, and it feels like a secret.


The Forum from the Capitoline Hill

A view I love so much I’m getting emotional just thinking about it. The best way to experience it is to visit the Capitoline Museums and go to the Tabularium, as that way you’re right in the centre of the hill and you can admire the Forum and the shifting light over the columns and the umbrella pines of the Palatine without being disturbed by tour groups. In an ideal world my bedroom would be in the Tabularium, with a gigantic window and terrace, and the perfect view of the Forum to be enjoyed whenever I wanted.

Honourable mentions go to to the Janiculum and Piazza Trinità dei Monti. Any other views I’m missing?



(the Duomo)

Autumn has arrived. For a while I was in denial that it would come at all, and I couldn’t understand why Italians insisted on wearing jackets and scarves when it was sunny and 25 degrees. But yesterday morning there was a dramatic storm – thunder and lightening, and such heavy rain that I was drenched even after a two minute dash to Linari for coffee.

The weather didn’t really put me in the mood for a day trip, but I’d booked tickets to Orvieto, so I went to Termini and got the train, hoping that Umbria would be less rainy. About an hour and twenty minutes later, after arriving in Orvieto and getting the funicular up to the historic centre, I discovered that it was indeed less rainy, but also freezing. My cardigan suddenly seemed inadequate, and it felt like punishment for laughing at all the scarf-wearing-Italians, who were now appropriately dressed. But stopping off at a cafe for a cornetto warmed me up a bit, and I spent most of the day walking briskly round Orvieto, so I didn’t feel too cold after that.

My first impressions of Orvieto – yellow and grey buildings, cats and Americans everywhere. Too many Americans, as at times it seemed like they outnumbered the Italians. I’d expected Orvieto to be inundated with tourists, and it was, but it was easy enough to escape the crowds and find empty streets, lonely churches.

Of course, the main reason people come to Orvieto is to see the famous Duomo. I fortunately ignored all the signs and decided to find my own way there, which meant my first sight of the Duomo was a sudden appearance at the end of the street, approaching it head-on, rather than coming from behind. The facade is spectacular and wonderfully over the top, but the rest of the building is actually quite ugly.

I did a circuit of the food market next to the Duomo, sampling as much mozzarella and olive oil as I could, and then went on a tour of Orvieto’s underground caves. Apparently houses in Orvieto all have their own private caves, built in medieval times and generally used as wine cellars. In the past the town was really overcrowded, and it was more effort to go down to the valley than to use the space below them, so these caves were used as spaces for making olive oil or keeping animals. Underground donkeys! And pigeons – lots and lots of pigeons, which were one of the main sources of food. We were shown these pigeon caves and also an amazing, claustrophobia-inducing Etruscan well, 80 metres deep. There was a moment, going down a steep, narrow flight of steps, when I asked myself why I was voluntarily going so far underground when I’m really claustrophobic, but it was worth it. I knew very little about Orvieto’s history beforehand, and it gives you an insight into the strange, subterranean lives people had hundreds of years ago.

But I think my main memory of Orvieto – and it’s so often the case, wherever I go in Italy – will be the churches. Not the Duomo, but the small, dark churches that the tourists don’t seem to know about. One was San Lorenzo de’Arari, a church with a single row of pews and no candles. The paintings were peeling off the walls, and it felt like it might be haunted. The only sign that it was still used were the flowers by the altar, and the only information on the noticeboard was a sheet of paper in…Moldovan? The only words I could make out were “Air Moldova”.


The other church was (I think) on Via Corso Cavour, but I can’t remember the name. It’s a hexagonal building with an exterior so plain that you might not even realise it was a church, if you didn’t look closely. My favourite buildings are the ones that look like nothing special from the outside, but inside…


It reminded me of a theatre more than a church, and I loved the shades of yellow and pink, which gave it a sense of light and warmth that isn’t really evident from the pictures I took. I sat there for a while and was the only visitor, apart from a woman who came in briefly to pray.

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around Orvieto, walking around the outer edges for views of the countryside, and eventually running out of energy and ideas. I wished I’d brought a notebook or something to read. It’s not that there isn’t enough to do in Orvieto, just that I was tired, didn’t want to spend any more money, and wished I’d booked an earlier train.

During my weary walk towards the end of the day, I was moved to hear a busker singing I Giardini di Marzo. Not very well, but I’ve been on a Lucio Battisti binge recently and I’ve become slightly obsessed with that song. I can tell that years later, hearing it is going to remind me of my first few weeks in Italy, so it was nice to hear it unexpectedly while walking through Orvieto.

Arriving back at Termini was exciting, being back in the buzz of Rome. For me, Termini is one of the most exciting places in the world. I love big train stations in general, but in London, for example, the major destinations are spread out over several main stations. Termini, on the other hand, feels like the centre of everything. When I see “Venezia S. L.” on the departure board I’m overcome by the urge to get on that train, and I’m not sure how much longer I’ll be able to resist. I adore Venice, and as the novel I’m writing is set there, I really need to go back as soon as possible.

As well as the trains going all across Italy, there are also the international trains. After I got off the train at Termini I had a long walk down the platform past the sleeper train to Vienna. Seeing a train going to Vienna, and catching glimpses of travellers settling into their cabins, is enough to give me serious wanderlust. Train travel is much more thrilling than flying, though sadly I doubt I’d be able to afford tickets for a sleeper train to Vienna. I didn’t even enjoy my experience of a sleeper train that much, travelling from Madrid to Lisbon, as I didn’t get any sleep. Though there’s still some uncertainty about my dream/vision of Apollo in the middle of the night…but that’s another story. Anyway, I doubt I’ll be getting on a trans-European train any time soon, but Venice is a possibility.



(astrological fertility statue in the Museo Colle del Duomo)

I was determined to get out of Rome for a day during my free time before starting work, but the options were overwhelming. Florence? Naples? Somewhere nearby like Ostia Antica or Tivoli? But in the end I chose Viterbo, a town in northern Lazio. It’s a longer train journey than Florence or Naples – about two hours – but it seemed like a good day trip, as I could comfortably see the centre in a way that I couldn’t in a bigger city.

Ideally, I’d have gone with someone. I haven’t made up my mind on how I feel about travelling alone. I suppose it depends on my mood, where I’m going, how long for etc, but it’d be nice to have a friend (ideally with a car) to take me to Viterbo. I’ll have to go back one day for the famous thermal baths, which weren’t really an option when I went – alone, car-less and swimwear-less.

Viterbo was such a change from Rome. It just felt much more northern, somehow. Of course it is north of Rome, but not by much. It’s a rather grey, beautiful medieval town of narrow streets and hills. At first I was disappointed by how small it seemed, but that was before I discovered the area around Piazza San Lorenzo and was won over. Although I like the idea of small towns, I quickly grow impatient and start pining for a city to get lost in. Viterbo’s a good size, though – small enough that it’s reasonably easy to find your way round, but still with a lot to explore.

In the morning I walked round in circles and tried to find churches with unlocked doors. One of the few was the Chiesa di Santa Rosa, where the mummified saint is on display, surrounded by photos young Italians. It’s a strange contrast, the rather grotesque sight of the saint next to all these young faces. I wish I’d been in Viterbo on September the 3rd:

On September 3, the eve of the feast of St. Rose, the people of Viterbo follow the transportation of La Macchina (the Machine of St. Rose” ) a massive 28 metre high tower, illuminated with 3,000 tiny electric lights and 880 candles, and topped off with a statue of her, which is carried for 1,200 metres through the darkened streets of the old medieval town on the backs of around 100 volunteers called “facchini.” (Wikipedia)

Before checking my facts, I’d been under the misapprehension that they put her actual body in the macchina, instead of a statue!

In the Museo Colle del Duomo, which I visited without any expectations, I was delighted to find a collection of reliquiaries. I adore reliquaries. Any museum with a good collection (the Imperial Treasury in Vienna springs to mind) is likely to make me very happy indeed. There were also some fascinating sculptures scattered haphazardly in the garden, including the one pictured and a frieze with the charming description “vegetal tickling decorations devoured by monstrous beings”. I can’t think of a more pleasing combination of words.

I went on a tour of the Duomo and the Palazzo dei Papi, which is quite out of character. I hate tours. I hate tour groups. The segways of Rome deserve a rant post of their own. But Viterbo was refreshingly unclogged by tour groups, and there weren’t even that many tourists. I chose to go on the Duomo/Palazzo tour because it was the only way to see certain rooms, and I thought it would be good Italian practice. The very friendly tour guide seemed to appreciate my efforts to listen, even though there was lots I didn’t understand. Still, descending into the cold, dark depths of the palazzo and visiting the room where they elected popes, tuning in and out of the explanation in Italian, was an interesting experience.

The highlight of Viterbo for me was Piazza San Lorenzo itself, virtually deserted in the early afternoon apart from the occasional priest, lost tourist or small dog. As much as I love piazzas full of cafes and bars which act as the social heart of a town, there’s something to be said for places like Piazza San Lorenzo which serve no functional purpose for the majority of the town’s people but offer tranquility and a glimpse into the past. It’s certainly the most medieval place I’ve ever been. I sat on a step facing the palazzo and did some writing while waiting for the museum to open, sometimes pausing just to appreciate the silence. When you’re in Rome, sometimes it’s hard to imagine that there’s anywhere you can escape from the noise of traffic.

I also enjoyed the spectacle of some sort of military/carabineri parade in Piazza del Plebiscito, which involved patriotic singing and camp marching. I have a weakness for uniforms anyway, and with hats like this…


I spent a long time waiting at Porta Romana station, listening to repetitive and unhelpful announcements about an incident somewhere along the line which meant a delay. At the station there’s the usual sign telling you not to cross the tracks, but it seems like at the smaller stations you have no choice but to cross the tracks if you want to reach the other platform. A group of girls were flagrantly disregarding the warnings by sitting on the railway lines until they were told off by a policeman.

The train arrived late, and stopped for a long time at a station on the way, with no explanation. I had the top level of the carriage to myself and started to feel paranoid that everyone else knew something I didn’t, so I kept peering downstairs to check that I wasn’t the only person on the train. But it finally started moving again, and I was quite happy – shoes off, feet up on the seat, notebook in my lap and some leisurely writing while the countryside flashed past and the sun set. Somehow we made up the time on the way, and were only delayed by 10 minutes. That never happens in England – if you’re delayed by 30 minutes, you stay delayed by 30 minutes.

I’ve just finished reading Italian Ways by Tim Parks, which I’d really recommend to anyone who likes trains or is interested in travelling round Italy. My trip to Viterbo wasn’t quite as adventurous as his 11 hour journey from Rome to Palermo or his attempts to reach Otranto, but one day…