Chapter 2 Italy
We arrived in Rome at eight am but according to our internal clocks it was just about bedtime. I insisted on showing the children some of that wonderful city, the Colosseum and Roman Forum, which were within walking distance. It is eleven years since I was here with Bill, but I had a very clear picture of how to get to the Colosseum. The children were just as impressed with the remarkably preserved ruin (considering the way the stone was removed for other buildings) and the many cats which have made it their home, with encouragement from well-meaning old Italian women who feed them. Many other remains of Ancient Rome have been excavated and restored in the nearby Forum, which was once the centre for legal and public affairs.
Inside the Colosseum
After several hours, everyone went on strike, and we returned to our pension to bed. At four am we were awake and wondering what to do until the banks opened. I was armed with a phrase book as I thought it a proper gesture to attempt the language.
Unfortunately the banks chose that day for a 'go slow' strike and it took me three hours to get some money to pay for the hire car I had booked. Meanwhile, the agent brought the car and left the keys with the office girl, so that when I arrived I was faced with learning to drive on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car, with a trafficator where the gear-stick should be... in one sudden 'do it yourself' lesson, in the very heart of the craziest traffic organization imaginable.
Perspiration poured from me, although it was mid winter, before we had escaped from that bedlam onto the Autostrade to Pompeii. Vesuvius and Pompeii were unforgettable, well worth the effort of climbing and walking. A guide offered his services, and I drove us all up the mountain to the parking area, from where we walked up the gravelly path, which led up and into the crater. With each step, the view of surrounding mountains, the excavated city below and the blue ocean beyond, became more extensive.
"What are those boxes for?" David wanted to know.
"There are instruments which measure underground activity," our guide told us. "If the volcano gets active again, we will have plenty of warning."
As we approached the rim, and looked down into the crater, we could see a group of young men climbing far below.
"I don't fancy that," I commented.
"We won't go so far, " he assured us. "The path goes a little way into the crater. Come over here. I show you something."
He lit a cigarette, and blew smoke into a crack in the rocks. Instantly we were enveloped in a cloud of vapour.
"What's that?" said Jacqueline, a bit alarmed. "It's alright," he said. "The fumes from the volcano come up all the time, but you can't see them."
I set my camera, he puffed again, and he took a photo of us, half lost in the clouds he produced.
"Let's buy some cold meat, cheese, bread and milk for lunch," I said, when we had returned to the car. "That looks like the sort of shop where locals do their shopping."
We entered the shop, phrase book in hand. Searching for the items we wanted, I indicated the quantity I wanted, Peter calculated the cost, and we said "Grazia" in our best Italian.
Strengthened, we set about seeing the ancient excavated city of Pompeii, the roofless shops, houses, temples. We walked along the narrow cobbled streets and observed the ancient wheel ruts, stood on the theatre stage, sat in the seats of the amphitheatre, examined the baths, villas, the forum, and the wall and gates which surrounds all. Some of the buildings are closed, but will be opened by the guide upon request. These are especially well presented, with painted walls, ornaments, mosaic floors, statues.
"Unfortunately most of the treasures are gone," I read to the children from the guidebook. "Some were taken by the people when they fled, others by the early excavators, who sent them to museums. It is only recently that its value as a site has been appreciated."
We were sitting in the temple of Apollo, trying to regain some energy. Still not used to the sudden time change, we had gone to bed in Naples straight after tea the night before, had woken very early, and were now exhausted. There was much left to explore, but our feet were objecting, so it was back to the car and the Autostrade to Rome.
On the day of our arrival we had walked to the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Every street and lane in Rome contains something of interest, but with our limited time, priority had to be given to St Peter's, to many people, the most magnificent building in existence. Its size, its history and its beauty combine to make the viewer feel overcome.
"We leave from Rome at the end of the year, so we'll make a point of coming here again. We'll climb up to the Dome if possible. I think you would have to come here many times to begin to understand and appreciate it."
I had been to Rome and Pompeii on my previous trip to Europe, and so had an idea of what to see and how to get there. Florence was a place I had long wanted to visit, but our time there was almost a fiasco. From our hotel, we set out in the car to get our bearings and some food. Completely bamboozled by the labyrinth of one-way streets, I finally drove into an underground parking area, near which we found a shop selling barbecued chicken. I divided it into four and we devoured it unceremoniously as we roamed around the busy street stalls, and markets. After an hour or so I realized we were going around in circles, and had to ask directions back to the chicken shop, in order to find our car. Much to my chagrin I discovered we were parked one block from the hotel.
"I'm so disgusted," I said. "We must come back to Florence or I'll kick myself forever. At least we have to see the statue of David."
"David?" they chorused.
"Yes. David in the Bible, by Michelangelo. It's famous."
David by Michelangelo
The Duomo, Florence
(These two photos were actually taken at the end of the year but are appropriate to put here)
The next day we set out for Venice, arriving at the car park about lunchtime. Cars are left on the mainland, and passengers travel by waterbus to the city. In winter there was an absence of the smells for which it is famous. We found it delightful. The shops, churches, palaces, crooked lanes, the canals on which were the barges bringing goods to the shops and hotels, and the barges taking the refuse, the bridges and colourful street stalls. But best of all we liked the old clock tower, which we climbed, viewing the simple but large mechanical workings from the inside. At different levels can be seen a statue of the Virgin and the Magi which bow before her, the huge clock with the signs of the zodiac, and on the roof an enormous bell against which two Moors sound the hour. While waiting for the thunderous gong, we observed that the panorama of rooftops was incongruously punctuated by countless television aerials.
St Mark's Square, the Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge provided a vivid impression of the way of life of a by-gone age, when works of art, gilded domes and carved marble were status symbols. Of these treasures. Venice has a seeming endless number. No city we saw is so different. In one area such a wealth of art and architecture. The children did not understand or really appreciate it. The were perhaps confused and I did not know enough to explain. Italy in five days was a crime, but I wanted to be in Germany for Christmas. We would be back this way for a second nibble.