Ruthless, Chaotic Rome ~ Part 1

Beware, a history lesson awaits. You have been forewarned.

Continuing our Italian journey, we hopped on the Circumversuviana train (a bit of a rattle trap) to Naples, then connected with the high-speed ItaliaRail to our final destination, Rome.  I had ordered our Roma Passes and scheduled pick-up at the train station upon our arrival.  If you intend to spend a few days in Rome and want free admission and/or discounts at some of the more popular sites, this pass is a must.  And perhaps the best feature of the Roma Pass is that it allows you to move to the front of the line instead of waiting with the throngs of tourists.

The massive, spectacular Victor Emmanuel Monument
The massive, spectacular Victor Emmanuel Monument

We road-weary travelers were wondering how much energy we would have for our last full week in Italy, after almost two months of perpetual motion through France and Italy.  But as the taxi driver carried us across Rome to our apartment, all my worry dissipated like a wispy fog as the city and her history unfolded before me.  I became a wide-eyed child as we passed ancient ruins entwined with modern buildings and monuments.  I couldn’t wait to get started.

I had chosen an apartment outside the center of the city in Trastevere (trahs-TAY-veh-ray), Rome’s bohemian neighborhood, and some would say her most charming.  We were thrilled to find a beautiful apartment awaiting us and have the tram just outside our door.  It was the perfect location to explore this magnificent city.

Caesar Forum
Caesar Forum

Rome is ruthless and grandiose, an imposing chaotic urban maze.  I loved her many layers.  But let’s be real, isn’t Rome really Caesar, gladiators, chariots, wild animals, and trumpets blaring?  With that lingering thought in mind we stepped back in time to A.D. 79, to the core of ancient Rome, the Colosseum.

The Colosseum was where Rome’s thirst for violence was quenched, where men and wild animals alike fought to the death in unimaginable ways.  Killing was a spectator sport back then and on any given day 50,000 roaring fans could be seen giving a thumbs-up or down to the blood lust in the amphitheater below.

Looking at her bones, the Colosseum is an amazing engineering feat, with 3.5 million cubic feet of travertine stacked into the shape of an arch, sans mortar.  It took four straight years of daily work and 200 ox-drawn wagons traveling back and forth from Tivoli to bring the stone to Rome.  Once the travertine was stacked, a keystone was wedged into the top to keep the stones from falling.

This grand amphitheater saw four centuries of grisly use.  When the gladiator games were banned in A.D. 435 the Colosseum sat eerily silent, with just the haunting echoes of the wretched cries of man and animal carried on the wind.  Today only one-third of this historic building remains.  Earthquakes consumed some of her, but most of the stone was carted off for use in other buildings across the city.  When you look down into the Colosseum today you see where the gladiators and wild animals were kept. Atop these underground passages a wooden floor was placed, sprinkled with sand, which became the killing field.

We remained in ancient Rome as we stepped away from the Colosseum to see two impressive arches, the Arch of Constantine and the Arch of Titus.

The Arch of Constantine marks an important turning point in history, the coup led by Emperor Constantine in A.D. 312, which resulted in the legalization of Christianity.

The Arch of Titus honors the military accomplishments of Titus and stands at the head of the Forum.  It has been the inspiration for many arches to follow, including the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  The Via Sacra (Sacred Way), once Rome’s main street, leads up to the arch.

Walking through the Arch of Titus, we found ourselves in Rome’s political, religious, and commercial center, the acclaimed Forum.  Anything important that took place in ancient Rome happened here.  It is said to be the most revered meeting place in all the world, throughout history.  Today the crumbling ruins of many of the oldest and most important buildings of ancient Rome can still be seen on this sacred spot.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux is the most photographed site in the Forum.  Built in the 5th century B.C., it is one of Rome’s oldest temples.  This is where the senators met and its front steps served as a platform for free speech.   This shrine was raised to celebrate victory over the Etruscan king, Tarquin, who had once oppressed all who lived here.

The Temple of Antoninus and Faustina was dedicated to Emperor Antoninus Pius and wife Faustina the Elder by Marcus Aurelius.

This is the plaque that commemorates the man who exemplified the greatness of Rome more than anyone else – Julius Caesar.  On this spot he  was cremated after being stabbed 23 times by political conspirators and his adopted son – ‘Et tu, Brute?”.

Entrance to the Temple of Saturn, the Forum’s oldest temple, erected in 497 B.C.

The Arch of Septimius Severus, with reliefs that celebrate the African-born emperor’s battles in Mesopotamia.

This unusual structure, even older than the Temple of Saturn, was named Umbilicus Urbis (Navel of the City).  It was considered the center of the universe and all distances in the empire were measured from here.

The Column of Phocas celebrates the pagan Pantheon’s transformation to a Christian church.  It was the symbolic nail in ancient Rome’s coffin.

Next Up:  Artwork and Engineering Masterpieces of Rome

Volcanic Onslaught ~ Pompeii and Herculaneum

As we stood on our terrace in Sorrento, looking across the Bay of Naples, billowy clouds suspended in a cerulean sky draped a majestic peak.  It’s hard to imagine that such a serene backdrop was once the setting of a volcanic onslaught so massive that it is classified as one of the worst eruptions in all of human history.

The volcano that wrought such fury is that of Mt. Vesuvius, still considered to be one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world.  She is hundreds of thousands of years old and has erupted more than 50 times, but the most famous of her outbursts was that of August, A.D. 79, when she stopped two cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum (Ercolano in Italian), soundly in their tracks, quickly and decisively frozen in time.

A visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum is like taking a journey back in time to see what life in ancient Rome was like. As the archeologists began their meticulous unearthing work in 1748, they found two cities still very much intact, especially Herculaneum.

Pompeii, founded in 600 B.C., was once a thriving commercial port of about 20,000 residents.  This was a middle-class community, an example of quintessential Roman life.  Streets would have been lined with shopping stalls jammed with customers.  Chariots rivaled shoppers for street space.  Rich and poor rubbed elbows as grand homes stood alongside simple abodes. Pompeii was rowdy, raw, the place for action and shopping, with more than 40 bakeries, 30 brothels and 130 bars, restaurants and lodgings.  In contrast, nearby Herculaneum was a more dignified place to live, with traffic-free streets, lavish homes and better drainage.

August 24, A.D. 79, a fateful day in history, Mt. Vesuvius erupted, raining hot ash down over Pompeii,  burying the city under 30 feet of volcanic soot.  One witness wrote that the volcanic dust “poured across the land like a flood”. Of her 20,000 people, 2,000 stayed to ride out the “storm” and 2,000 perished.  

No one had any idea they were living literally right under a volcano, as Vesuvius had slept for over 1,200 years.  Imagine the confusion, then the horror as small rocks and volcanic dust collapsed roofs and crushed those who chose not to flee.

Herculaneum was initially spared, thanks to the direction of the wind, but about 12 hours after the explosion began, she was slammed by a deluge of superheated ash and hot gases that came roaring off the volcano.  Eventually Herculaneum was buried under 60 feet of ash, which hardened into tuff, perfectly “freezing” the city until 1748.

Archeologists initially wondered why there were so few victims found at Herculaneum.  But during their excavations in 1981, hundreds of skeletons were unearthed in the boat storage area, a sign that some of her 4,000 residents attempted to escape by sea and were overtaken by fumes and ash.  Chilling reminders of this can still be seen today.

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Some experts believe that, although Mt. Vesuvius has stood quietly since 1944, another similar eruption is inevitable, due at any time.  This would be catastrophic as almost 3,000,000 people live within 20 miles of her crater.  For now she sits silently on the horizon, smoldering.

For those who are interested in seeing how this fateful day may have played out, an interesting re-enactment can be found here.

Next Up:  Rome

I Believe

I have agonized over writing this post for the past couple of days, a post that many will view as political, a post that may prolong the vitriolic conversation.  Although it is being written on the heels of a rabid political campaign season, that is not the intent.  So, if you don’t agree with, find fault with, or take offense with anything I have written, don’t read it.  All I ask is that you don’t use this platform to continue the hateful rhetoric.  That is not me, never has been, and I will delete those comments.

Ok, (deep breath), where to begin?  After much reflection, I believe this post was born out of a need to right a wrong, a flaw in my character if you will.  I feel the need to point out some of my deficiencies in a public forum, to hold me accountable for changes I plan to make.  More on this in a moment.

I, like over half of those who voted in this insane election, did not vote for the President-elect.  I will also admit to breaking down and having a good cry when I saw what was to be.  This had nothing to do with my need to be on the winning team or my desire to see the first female President in office (but as a woman how great would that be).  It had everything to do with me succumbing to my fears.  And not my fear for what this change in office would mean for me personally, but the fear for our planet and a potential move to a far less inclusive country, one now filled with diverse thoughts and peoples, one I greatly love.  This fear is based on rhetoric I so often heard during the campaign, and I believe it is the fear of many from around the globe, based on what I have read during and since the election results.

I have read some cringe-worthy comments from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike, and many I believe stem from two emotions, fear and hatred.  Anger is a by-product of both.  I have seen many of these while on Facebook, and I’ve hovered around Facebook more these past two days than is the norm for me.  But I have also seen beautiful, thought-provoking, touching reflections, thoughts that buoy me and give me hope for a brighter day in this country and in the world.

Click below if you’re in need of some lightness and comforting words right now.

Who do I want to be in this situation?

The parade of horribles

A Trump Presidency need not be the end times.

I embrace friends across the political spectrum, because I believe our diversity makes us stronger, if we choose to have the openness and strength to give thought to viewpoints that extend beyond our small world.  So, for those of you who have ridiculed others for their comments since the election, I believe this is what grief looks like.  We all grieve differently and who are any of us to criticize one style over another?  We still all believe in free speech, right? Unfortunately, with the advent of social media, it is all out there for everyone to see, much as this post is. When emotions are so raw and people are scared, they say and do things at times that extend beyond their normal.  I believe now is the time for patience and kindness, not criticism.  If you don’t want to hear any more of what is being said, don’t read it, including my thoughts.

I believe there are always lessons to be learned during difficult times.  As I continue to reflect upon what this new country of ours may look like, I have had to look in the mirror and admit a hard truth about myself.  Although I take pride in the fact that I believe in a diverse world, where everyone is viewed as an equal, and do my part to help keep this a healthy planet on which we, and future generations will live, I haven’t been doing nearly enough. I give voice to these ideals but have not done enough to allow them to flourish.  Although volunteerism where I have my winter home is promoted and encouraged, and I do my part, I must move beyond those borders, as I did so often when I was in the work force.  If I had time then, I certainly do now that I am retired.  So, I am putting down on paper those causes I feel passionate about, and vow to do more to help those in need, in a real way.  I believe this is what we are all called to do to heal this great country of ours, to make us a kinder nation again, to give voice to the impoverished around the world.

The Grand Balcony Between Sky and Sea ~ Amalfi Coast, Italy

“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.” ~ Giuseppe Verdi

We headed to the Rome airport from Tuscany, where we were set to part ways with Winston, our leased vehicle.  He had served us well, but after doing a little reading, we all felt it was time for someone else to be doing the driving for the rest of our journey.  Given there is only one overland passage on the Amalfi Coast, the 25-mile Strada Statale 163, a winding, narrow road of 1,000 bends, this seemed like the perfect place to cut our ties with Winston.  Sorry old chap.😦

Initially I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend time on the Amalfi Coast, but since many consider this stretch of coastline to be Italy’s most scenic, I acquiesced.  After wandering through the hill towns of Tuscany, five sun-kissed days ogling soaring rock faces, pastel-brushed villages tumbling to the sea, forested hillsides, and the azure waters of the Mediterranean sounded rather enchanting.

Artists have been drawn here for centuries, from the 14th-century writer Giovanni Boccaccio, the 19th- century composer Richard Wagner, to the 20th-century playwright Tennessee Williams.  In spite of its glitz and glamour there is a rural side here also.  Farmers still work small plots of steeply terraced land to eek out a living and their wives make cheese.  All different sizes and shapes of lemons are grown, some that become part of the famous digestif, limoncello, a blending of lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and water…quite tasty.

View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento's main square
View to the sea from Piazza Tasso, Sorrento’s main square

We chose a hotel in Sorrento for our base, a funky little inn perched atop a cliff, with sweeping vistas of the sea and Mt. Vesuvius.  The entire town is clifftop, looking down on its two marinas, filled with narrow alleys lined with tiny shops and restaurants, and tenants living above.  A 15-minute walk got us into the heart of Sorrento, where we spent most days exploring and sampling the local fare.

Here’s a glimpse of our time spent on the Amalfi Coast:

1)  Sorrento 

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Sitting on a clifftop, balancing above the Mediterranean, Sorrento is an attractive place to spend several days. This town of 20,000 doubles in size during the summer, and was still quite active during our visit in October.  The main drag changes depending on the time, allowing vehicles to move through, then becomes a pedestrian walkway later in the day.  And just off this main drag is a street that goes back centuries before Christ…hard to get my head around such history.

“Sorrento’s name may have come from the Greek word for “siren”, the legendary half-bird, half-woman who sang an intoxicating lullaby.  According to Homer, the sirens lived on an island near here.  No one had ever sailed by the sirens without succumbing to their incredible musical charms…and to death.  But Homer’s hero Ulysses was determined to hear the song.  He put wax in his oarsmen’s ears and had himself lashed to the mast of his ship.  Oh, it was nice.  The sirens, thinking they had lost their powers, threw themselves into the sea, and the place became safe to inhabit.” ~ story told in Rick Steves’ guidebook

This same Rick Steves’ book suggested taking a day tour of Positano, Amalfi, and Ravello with Mondo Tours.  It was great letting someone else worry about losing a side mirror trying to pass other vehicles on this winding, seriously narrow stretch of road that hangs off a cliff face like a grand balcony.  But you exchange stress-free driving with little time in villages, making for a whirlwind day and finding out you may have missed the very best some of these villages has to offer.

2)  Positano

In days gone by, Positano was famous for its fleet of ships and heroic sailors, but a tsunami in 1343 and Middle Age pirate raids zapped its power and wealth.  It flourished again in the 1700’s and in the 20th century Positano became a haven for artists and writers wishing to escape the ravages of Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Today this village is a mass of cafes and women’s boutiques, with a broad beach at her base.

It’s been almost impossible for Positano’s residents to get a building permit for the past 25 years, resulting in endless staircases that have become a way of life for her 4,000 residents.  There is only one street that allows motorized vehicles, so this village has been spared the influx of big bus tourist mobs.

3)  Amalfi

This town of 5,000 had its heyday back in the 10th and 11th centuries, when it was a major maritime republic, rivaling Venice and Genoa.  The tsunami that struck in 1343 almost wiped her off the map, and today Amalfi relies on tourism.   Her waterfront continues to be the coast’s biggest transport hub.  Amalfi’s most important sight is the Duomo, begun around 1000 A.D., and is certainly worthy of a tour.  The beautiful bronze doors, as old as the cathedral, were cast in Constantinople in the year 1066.

4)  Ravello

Sitting on her lofty perch 1,000 feet above the sea, Ravello is considered one of the most romantic small towns in southern Italy, attracting celebrities for generations.  Those who have fallen under her charms and called Ravello home are Gore Vidal, Richard Wagner, D. H. Lawrence, M. C. Escher, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Greta Garbo.  Visitors come here to visit her two magnificent gardens and estates.  Unfortunately we had time for little except lunch and a quick walk through town.  And I learned just last night from friends that Ravello’s flatware and beautiful hand-painted dinnerware were not to be missed.  Darn!😦

Next Up:  A Cataclysmic Eruption – Pompeii and Herculaneum

A Blending of Ancient History and Culture ~ Tuscany, Italy (Part 2)

Our little farmhouse was well positioned for trips into the Tuscan countryside to explore quaint hill towns, as well as a day trip into Florence.  I had read about the Crete Senesi, which refers to the clay soil containing sediments that date back 2.5 million years.  The landscape within the Crete Senesi has been described as lunar-like, which fascinated me, so I knew a drive through that area was going to be on the agenda.  And it just so happened that a Benedictine monastery I had read about, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiorewas a stone’s throw away, so you know the expression “two birds with one stone”, and our day was planned.

I found the starkness of the landscape, with only a single villa, a few cypress, and a spot of green among rolling hills of clay quite beautiful.

In contrast, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto Maggiore, although still considered part of the Crete Senesi, sat tucked within a forested area.  After parking our vehicle in the lot above, we took a 10-minute wooded walk  down a long line of cypress to a medieval palace of red brick, the abbey.  In the courtyard a large statue of Saint Bernard Tolomei greeted us, holding the book of rules for the notably strict order to which he belonged.

In the year 1272, Bernard Tolomei, founder of the abbey, was born to an aristocratic family in Siena.  He had a distinguished career as a lawyer until he was called here to become a hermit monk at the age of 40.  He founded the Olivetan order of the Benedictines and in 2009 was made a saint.  This complex is the order’s mother abbey.

The beauty of the abbey and the simplicity of the Benedictine lifestyle is seen in the paintings, murals, and statues displayed throughout the monastery.

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We had spoken to those who enjoyed Florence more than Rome, but since we were flying back to the states through Rome, we decided to explore her in detail and give Florence more of a passing nod – a quick day trip.  So on another rainy day Terry and I drove to the hill town of Poggibonsi and caught the train to Florence.  With limited time to visit, we made the most of our day and tested our patience as we maneuvered through the hordes of tourists at the Duomo, then moved on to the Accademia and Uffizi Galleries.  Luckily I had made reservations for the galleries before our visit (truly a must) so didn’t have to stand in the longest of lines, but once inside, there was no escaping the crowds.  We just had to jump in and start swimming!

A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.
A shot of the Duomo from afar as we braced for the crowds.

Florence is Europe’s cultural capital, so culturally rich that it has more artistic masterpieces per square mile than anywhere else.  It is the birthplace of the Renaissance and the modern world, and produced the likes of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Dante, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.  As I write this I’m thinking we should have spent more time here, then I remember the mob of tourists, which outnumber the locals from April to October, and I shudder.

All sights in Florence diverge out from the Duomo.  The exterior is extravagant, covered in white, pink, and green marble, and in need of a good scrubbing. Brunelleschi’s lavish dome was the model for those that followed, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and the U.S. Capitol building.  The inside, which I’m not sure yet how we managed to enter given the crowds, is underwhelming and felt empty to me.

If one must brave the Florence crowds it would be a tragedy to miss Michelangelo’s David, the shepherd boy with the perfect physique, armed with only a slingshot and five stones, who took on the giant Goliath.  All 17 feet of him is standing in naked glory at the Accademia Gallery, in a halo-like dome.  For me, seeing  David was worth the price of admission and the train ride to Florence.  Some of Michelangelo’s unfinished work, which looks to be trying to free itself from the slabs of unworked marble, line the hallway leading to the Renaissance man.

From here we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, which houses the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere, one of Europe’s five top art galleries.  This is where the famous Botticelli’s Birth of Venus can be found.

From a window in the Uffizi Gallery you get your best views of the Arno River, second only to the Tiber River in importance in the Tuscany area.  Spanning the narrowest part of the river, the Ponte Vecchio can be seen, Florence’s most famous bridge, lined with shops since Roman times.

It seems famous statues can be seen in every plaza in Florence, and although I could regale you with so much more, I will stop here as I feel my head is about to explode!  I am not an art aficionado but it was thrilling to see works of art I had only seen in books or online.

Next Up:  A little less culture, a lot more sun…the Amalfi Coast