Loving Rome

On our way home we spent the night at a Holiday Inn Express on the outskirts of Heathrow.  In the cattle call breakfast room the next morning I looked around and knew for sure that I was not in Rome.  These folks were not Italian and the breakfast certainly was not!  Eggs–hadn’t seen them for two months!  Coffee–undrinkable.  Where was my chocolate cornetti? I missed my baristo at Barnum’s and his delicious cappuccino?  The freshly squeezed orange juice. The brilliant Raphael-blue sky. This was not Rome.

Rome is a mystery. One day you hate it and the next day you love it. It is annoying and then delightful. You are repulsed by the crowds, and then, in the process of avoiding the crowds, you stumble on a new street and an unseen treasure appears. This is exactly how our two weeks in Rome went. Sometimes my feelings about Rome changed from hour to hour, but finally, in the end, I succumbed to the beauty of the place and the charm of the people, and yes, the food!

We spent two warm and sunny weeks visiting one splendid, wrecked site after another. We spent whole days strolling through marvelous, decrepid old palaces full of spectacular treasures.  We walked endlessly on dirty cobble-stoned streets carpeted with cigarette butts and garbage only to arrive at a restaurant with such delicious food I salivate at the memory.

Then there were the annoying aspects of Rome. Arriving at the post office laden with packages, waiting an hour and a half, finally reaching the head of the line, smiling and trying to please a surly mandarin at the desk and at the end, being told all the forms must be completed in Italian and the charges must be paid in cash–lot’s of cash. We definitely felt we were being held hostage but didn’t really know what our crime was. I think it was wanting to mail three boxes out of the country. Lot’s of extra work for the clerk.

Yes, it’s very annoying when the stores all close from 1-4. Very annoying! Yes, it’s a capitol city and it should adopt the efficiencies of modern business practices such as ours. But Italy hasn’t and probably won’t.

Yes, you should be able to eat dinner at 6 p.m. But you can’t. You can have a sandwich or a pizza anytime, but you can’t have dinner until 7:30 or even later.

more lunch in Rome more lunch in Rome

Yes, I know children need 8 hours of sleep but Italian children eat dinner with their families and stay up late and somehow get to school the next day. They may nap all afternoon–perhaps they even nap at their schools, I don’t know, but no one seems to go to bed at 7 p.m., that’s when they eat dinner.

High flyer at Barnum's High flyer at Barnum’s

At Barnum’s, our favorite coffee bar, we are greeted warmly by the baristo.  We sit and savor our cornetti and cappucino.  “Bonjour!”  It’s our friend, Alain, the antique store owner we like so much.  He introduces us to his daughter; calling us his  “amichi,” his friends.

Barnum's coffee bar on via Peligrino Barnum’s coffee bar on via Peligrino

Heart warming.  You cannot imagine how good it feels to be recognized and warmly greeted after being gone from home for three months.  Alain is French. He married a Roman; they are raising two daughters in the center of Roma.   He and Ken developed a friendship of shared interests and sensibilities.  We hope to see Alain again.  A man who speaks English, French and Italian.  (His daughter speaks only Italian!)  He is a talented man and an interesting person who is eager to share his thoughts and feelings. It is unusual when a native shares his observations and concerns with “tourists.”

I realize that the a secret to enjoying a place is to stay there long enough to know your way around and be comfortable moving about without a map in your hand.  The other is to make some friends–even if you never see those friends again. It is important to reach out, warm up, do your best to speak their language, enjoy their way of doing things.

I read a few lines about Romans in one of Rick Steves’ books.  He says there is no word for privacy in Italian. He was commenting on the close, overly emeshed lives Italian families lead. Each morning as we walked to Barnum’s we passed a very elegant antique store and each morning a well groomed, very petite, and neatly dressed woman in her 80’s walked slowly down the street, leaning on a cane and the arm of a handsome man in his 40’s. Her thick gray hair was coifed in a perfect bob. It was so perfect it might have been a wig! Her pants suit was well cut for her tiny frame. She and her escort did not speak. They made their way to the store nearly every morning just as we were on our way to Barnum’s. There she was at the end of the day standing in the doorway waiting for her escort to walk her home!

One morning getting a later start, we glanced into the antique shop and saw the man with his shirt sleeves rolled up. He was busy re-merchandising the store. Hot and hard work. I’ve done it many times! The lady was facing him speaking to him. Suddenly he advanced swiftly toward her with his arm out in front of him, finger pointing at her. His face betrayed frustration if not barely controlled anger. We heard him say in a loud voice “Mama!” The rest was lost to us. We walked on. The stories you’ve heard about Italian men and their mothers and their lives together is real. When will her son leave home? Hard to say.

Now I’m home writing and reflecting on our remarkable journey: from Shakespeare to Hadrian; from cave men to the Etruscans; from mosaics to painted villas. We saw the treasure and history of centuries of human endeavor. For me, the single most important aspect of these three months abroad is the realization that seeing new things and learning about them is what I most enjoy. The visual stimulation, especially in Rome, is what thrills me.

Basilica San Vitale Ravenna Italy Basilica San Vitale Ravenna Italy

Two gasp-inducing places, Basilica San Vitale a 5th C church emblazoned with mosaics and marble in Ravenna, and Villa Farnesina in the Trastevere in Rome built in the 15th C where every wall and ceiling is hand painted are my touchstones. They are so visually spectacular–each in its own way–that I will never forget the moment I stepped over their thresholds and lost myself in wonder. Seeing the work of artists and crafts people who lived hundreds of years ago whose work can stop you in your tracks–bring you to your knees–will always remain with me.

The Perspective Room Villa Farnesina Trastevere Rome The Perspective Room
Villa Farnesina
Trastevere Rome

A Cautionary Tale or Two or Three

View of Firenze from Villa Barzini
View of Firenze from Villa Barzini

Most of my blogs have focused on the physical beauty of the cities and the land, or the art or the history of all the places we’ve seen, but before you all book your tickets. I want to give you a heads up.

The European Union has erased long-time state boundaries.  There is almost unlimited possibility to move from country to country with or without means of support or income.  Over the past several years, thousands of individuals have left the poor and less developed countries in eastern Europe and Africa and the middle east and moved to Italy, France, Belgium, Scandanavia and so on.

During our trip we have had serious and passionate conversations with native Europeans none of whom could be labeled “racist.” They are uniformly very unhappy about two things: taxes and the vast influx of people from the “east” and from Africa who have no skills and no job when they arrive.

Sadly, at least in Italy, we are told there is no social service structure which would ease the transition of the immigrant and assist with acculturation: no food banks, job training, language instruction, help with housing, and so on.  I don’t know if the foreigner is eligible for health care or public education for their children either. Like most immigrants, the newcomers rely upon friends, family and often unsavory lines of work to get them money for a place to sleep and something to eat.

Italians speak of three groups: those from Africa, the Albanians, and the Pakistanis. They identify the Africans as those who commit violent crime (muggings, break-ins, etc), they say the Albanians operate in trained, organized gangs to steal and pick pocket, and the Pakistanis sell roses at every restaurant, trattoria, and bodega all day every day, or peddle packets of tissues outside church doors, and then there are just the plain old fashioned panhandlers, usually with a dog, that can be found all over the world including Seattle.

Lesson 1.
So we take the train to Firenze from Arezzo. It costs about $15 for two round trip tickets. Takes about an hour. We step off the train both with backpacks. Nothing in mine but water, an umbrella, a coat and scarf. I do have a small handbag that goes over my head and straps across my chest with my credit cards, driver’s license, some money, and my Iphone. Ken has his Ipad, Iphone, his wallet, his change purse, and an umbrella in his backpack.

I suppose we look healthy and prosperous (possible elderly); we don’t look Italian. We don’t look Japanese or Chinese. Could be German? No, Ken has on sneakers and a Northface jacket. French? No, Northface jacket and Nikes. American? Sure. By appearances alone we have become targets but we’re not thinking about that at all. We sit on a bench and pour over the map.

Santa Maria Novella train station is very crowded. Firenze is a major hub for tourists and students visiting the art and the monuments; Dan Brown fans, and tour groups. The bench is a rare find and very crowded. Lot’s of jostling at our backs; I move my backpack to my lap. Ken remarks on how crowded it is and suggests we move on. We’re heading over the Arno and up the hill to an art show at Villa Barzini near the Boboli Garden. The streets are so crowded that we decide not to walk across the city but to take a taxi up the hill and spend our time and energy on the exhibit.

The taxi takes us to Barzini and when it stops Ken reaches for his wallet and can’t find it. I pay the taxi driver. We get out, Ken begins to pull everything out of his pack, checks all his pockets, finds his Iphone and his Ipad but no wallet or change purse having put them both in the outside small zipper pocket on the backpack. Gone! He is devastated.

He freaks out! Calls to the bank, the cards are blocked–already having been used up to the daily limit. How? We don’t know. Ken spends two hours in the police station at the train. I return to Arezzo. He returns to Arezzo later with a written police report. I don’t think it means a thing to anyone but Ken felt it worth doing. More hours on the phone. Business account must also be blocked. Yikes!

We’ve told this story to every Italian we know. They universally respond that organized gangs of eastern Europeans are responsible and that they are very skilled. Theft and pick pocketing is constant and the police cannot do anything about it. So DO keep your valuables strapped to your body and leave your passport in a safe place in your room.

Lesson 2.
Arriving at the Ravenna train station with all our luggage (two suitcases–one large and heavy–and a small roll-aboard with laptop–two packbacks and two handbags. We’re huffing and puffing and preparing to go down the stairs to take the “tunnel” to the correct Arezzo-bound binario. There are no lifts. (If there is one, it’s usually out of order.) Easy, kinda’, to bump the suitcases down the marble stairs. (By the way, Ken can’t lift or carry anything heavy.) In a flash, a young man steps up to us and says something in some language I cannot understand but by gesture indicates he’ll help us. He quickly takes all the suitcases. He’s about my height but obviously strong. He walks very quickly up two flights of stairs to the platform and then deciphers the schedule and goes to the correct binario. I’ve kept up with him–a little concerned about the small roll-aboard with the MacBook inside–and stand with him. I have three euros in my hand to give him. Ken arrives and the guy turns to Ken and holds out his hand and says 50 euros (that’s about $65)!! We both laugh; the guy’s not laughing at all. In fact, he looks quite threatening. Ken adds three more euros to mine and firmly says “This is it. Six euros.” The guy looks furious and continues to demand 50 euros. We remain adamant. He eventually walks away but looks very angry. Was it all an act? Who knows. We certainly planned to tip him and we did (about $13). So don’t enter into a contract without stating the terms before you allow anyone control over your possessions.

Lesson 3.
We’ve learned that there is no way to rely on “common sense.” By definition, customs common to your culture are just that “common in your culture.” That’s very tough to internalize because you think “Well, I’ll just use my common sense to (fill in the blank).

Very few apartments or B&B’s provide a washer, never mind a dryer. Electricity is VERY expensive. By the time we got to Arezzo we had so much dirty laundry the bidet could no longer handle the job of wash tub, so we asked where a laundry was. We were directed to a combination laundry and cleaners. We left a pile of laundry and a few pieces to be dry cleaned. Our land lady called the owners and asked them to expedite. Three days later, having worn the same clothes every day, I picked everything up, paid the 70E ($87)–after I got up off the floor–and staggered to our B&B.

When Ken got in he was delighted to see the cleaning and then opened up the laundry which was packaged in a tightly sealed plastic bag. He nearly fainted. Everything was perfumed. I don’t mean just a light whiff, I mean PERFUME1 The underwear, socks, jeans, shirts and so on reeked of cheap perfume! Our sinuses began to swell and Ken broke out in hives. Back it all went into the bag to be delivered to the laundry the next day for a redo. Did the perfume smell go away–not entirely.

Guess what, all laundries perfume everything, we’re told. “Why didn’t you say, no perfume?) “Gee,” we say, “common sense would indicate that many people have fragrance allergies so never perfume unless asked to do so.” Wrong! We can only assume that Italians have no allergies to fragrance.

So always clarify especially if you’re going to be paying for something. If you don’t speak the language, get a translation app or a native speaker!

All this said, we’ve had a great trip and almost everything has been wonderful!

Ravenna Today

St Appolinaire in Classe
St Appolinaire in Classe

OK, no more history–well just a little.  We need to spend just a moment in the 13th CE and remember that Darante degli Alighieri, better known as Dante, (1265-1321) spent the last five years of his life in Ravenna exiled from his beloved Firenze. Dante poster The Florentines have tried over the years to get his bones back home but have failed to do so.  They finally built a beautiful cenotaph for him in the late 19th CE which remains empty because the Ravenna caretakers won’t give him up.  There is a very pretty little chapel in Ravenna and a sarcophagus where he lies near the church where his funeral was held.

Dante's mausoleum in Ravenna
Dante’s mausoleum in Ravenna

Ravenna, like Dante, was treated rather badly after its heyday in the 6th CE.  First annexed to Venice in 1440, then sacked by the French in 1512, it then it became a Papal State and was left alone to molder in the boonies which had one positive effect: the mosaics and the churches and other monuments were left alone as well.  In the early 17thCE there was a big flood in the area.  In its aftermath the city fathers drained all the canals and swamps and opened the newly available fertile land up to farming.   Ravenna became a city self-sufficient and isolated but muddling along.

Ravenna today is lovely.  Everyone rides bicycles.  They say Ravennans don’t have thumbs which prevents them from ringing the bell on their bike as a warning.  There were numerous times we were almost hit or changed our pace or direction and almost collided with a cyclist.  Still it’s wonderful to have so few cars in the small town with narrow winding streets.

herd of bikes in Ravenna

The stores are well stocked and trendy.  Prices are modest.  The environs are clean and relatively graffiti free.  Ravennans love their city.  It is a pleasure to visit.  The sights are clean and well staffed by polite people many of whom speak English.  You can get a pass to the six in-town sights for 9.50E which is good for two days.  The walk out to Theodoric’s mausoleum is an easy 20 minutes and along the way you’ll see the old walls of the city and the fortress with a pretty park and playground which families and tourists enjoy.

Walls of old fortress in Ravenna
Walls of old fortress in Ravenna

The bus ride to St. Apollinaire in Classe runs frequently (#4 or #44) and costs about $5 for a round trip.  It runs from the center of town to Classe about 20 minutes away.

The train station is within easy walking distance or a short taxi ride from any part of Ravenna.  There are a few modest hotels, some 3*** and two 4**.  All very fairly priced.  And many excellent restaurants.  Our favorite was Ca’ de Ven; we also liked Temp Perso and Alexander’s.

We stayed eight nights at Palazzo Bezzi a freshly renovated hotel in a pretty room with two big windows with a view of the interior garden.   It was quiet and pretty and one of the nicest of all our accommodations since leaving Seattle.  The staff was superb, the breakfast lavish, and the price more than fair for the value received.

I guess I have nothing bad to say about Ravenna.  After two months of travel, that’s huge.

Teatro Alighieri Ravenna



Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze
Sta Maria Novella train station in Firenze

Ravenna is not easy to reach. It’s a small town in Emilia-Romagna–90 miles south of Venice and 45 miles east of Bologna. There are no direct trains to Ravenna. You have to transfer at Bologna or Florence to a regional train which will deliver you to the train station in Ravenna only a short walk to the center of town. Ravenna is about ten miles from the Adriatic. It developed much as Venice did by early settlers–perhaps Etruscans–building houses on stilts on top of many small islands in the bay. Those islands eventually filled in and were connected by solid land until a village grew up on firm but swampy land. Ravenna, Venice and Trieste were connected by trade and eventually by Byzantine culture which was seated in Trieste.

Bear with me while I relate a bit of history. In 89 B.C.E. Ravenna became a federated Roman town. Forty years later Julius Cesare, stationed in Ravenna, gathered his troops about him, made his fateful decision, and crossed the Rubicon. Twenty years later, his nephew and heir, Augustus, now emperor, built a strategic harbor at Ravenna stationing 250 warships there to protect Rome from attack by Mediterranean-based enemies, principally Marc Antony who had the might of Egypt (that would be Cleopatra) at his back.

Augustus outside St. Apollinaire in Classe

Ravenna continued to be subject to the ups and downs of political life but remained a key city. During most of the 5th century it was the capitol of the Roman Empire. It had become the surviving remnant of once mighty Rome–largely as a result of its isolated location and its valuable harbor. The papacy in Rome, and the Goths to the north fought over control of Ravenna for the next 50-75 years. Ravenna eventually became the capitol of the conquering Ostrogoths in the late 5th century.

Remnants of Theodoric's Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna
Remnants of Theodoric’s Palace on Via Roma in Ravenna

Theodoric, an Arian Christian and Ostrogoth, became emperor in 493. Italy was under their control and Ravenna was their capitol. Theodoric was a very interesting man; though an Arian Christian, he accepted the members of the Latin Catholic church, welcomed Jews, and when a mob burned down all the synagogues in Ravenna in the early 6C he required the citizens to rebuild the synagogues at their personal expense. Arian Christianity differed from Latin Catholicism in one important way: Arian theology proclaimed Jesus a mortal with prophetic and unusual attributes but not a god. Latin Catholicism proclaimed Jesus to be not only the son of God but one with God. Over time, the Latin Catholic version prevailed. Theodoric died mysteriously in 526 and by 535 his grandson and daughter were also dead. In 540, Justinian I conquered Italy and Ravenna became the seat of the Byzantine government in Italy and Arianism was denounced and fell into disfavor.

original church built near Theodoric's palace is depicted in the mosaics
original church built near Theodoric’s palace is depicted in the mosaics

I know that by now you’ve either moved on or fallen asleep! I apologize. I find the history of this town fascinating. Prior to arriving, I knew nothing about Ravenna except that it had world class UNESCO designated world heritage sites–eight of them. Its astonishing mosaics which date to the 5th century have miraculously survived and are as brilliant now as when they were installed. In addition to the spectacular mosaics in the basilicas, mausoleums, and churches, floor mosaics dating to Roman times have been discovered and preserved. I am in awe that a town as small as Ravenna can maintain these numerous sites, staff them, and develop new ones. I’m not sure how it is accomplished but I am grateful and impressed that it is

Placidia's mauseleumOne of the most lovely sites is the mausoleum of Galla Placidia. This 5C building is so stark on the outside you could easily walk by and not even consider entering. That would be a mistake. The domed ceiling is a flower and star filled wonder of lapis and gold and white. Scenes on the walls are brilliant greens, oranges and purples. Sometimes the subject matter portrayed–saints about to be roasted alive on hot grills–and so on disturbs me, but you get used to the thematic material and become consumed by the gorgeous colors, details, and brilliance of the artistic wonder you are seeing. I honestly cannot grasp how these artisans working with chisel and mallet, wooden scaffolding, inadequate lighting–sun and candle?–created this work. Not just here but in five other momuments as well as others which date to earlier times.

Galla is another powerful woman you’ve never heard a word about. She was Honorius’–Rome’s last emperor–sister. After her husband, the Visigoth king died, she became ruler of the Western world and regent for her young son Valentinian II. Although her marvelous mausoleum was built in her lifetime, she is buried in Rome where she died in 450 C.E.

The Arian Baptistry was built at the end of the 5C during Theodoric’s rule when Arianism was the official religion of the Court. The mosaic on the dome depicts St. John baptizing Christ with a white dove suspended over Christ’s head. The principal colors are gold–real gold backs the tiny clear glass pieces. We learned from a scholar that one of the properties of gold is that it does not tarnish or lose its brilliance over time.  One aspect of this scene that is very interesting to me is the portrayal of the river god as an old man.  This is not an image of “god.”   Here we see an odd blend of “pagan” and Christian iconography in the early 5C.  Jesus is a slender beardless young man.  His cousin, John is wearing an animal skin as he pours the water from the Jordan over Jesus.

Neonian Baptistry Ravenna

We stayed at Palazzo Bezzi on via Roma. You can always recognize a former Roman city because it will invariably have a road which is as straight as possible and traverses what was the Roman city. Via Roma is exactly so and Emperor Theodoric built his palace on via Roma and his personal church (now St. Apollinare Nuovo) next door. This large church has wonderful mosaics. My favorite is the terrific scene of The Three Kings scampering to deliver their gifts to the Baby. I love their clothing. The patterns are so “now” especially the leggings.

closeup of 3 kings

We spent the better part of one day visiting the Domus Dei Tappeti di Pietra “the home of the stone carpets.” Amazing mosaic floors were discovered when a large parking lot was planned and digging began. Once some of the floors were uncovered, an archeological excavation took over and the parking lot plan was abandoned. In some areas, materials older than the stone mosaic floors were discovered which are partially revealed. Another very impressive installation with excellent descriptive plaques.  (To be continued.)

St. Francesco underwater crypt and Domus dei Tappeti 2013-10-01 057

mosaic floor
mosaic floor