Thursday, January 23, 2014

22 January 2014 – A whirlwind tour of Rome & Vatican

Various sources gave us varying estimates of time to reach airport from the hotel ranging from 30 minutes to an hour. Vinod and I had to reach the airport 90 minutes prior to the flight and so we decided to check out by 5 am. There were many taxis waiting for a fare just outside the hotel. The traffic on the road being sparse we reached the terminal in less than 20 minutes and checked in. no customs or immigration despite the fact that we were flying to another country – the impact of EU. The single currency is also such a blessing for those who travel in the EU. Early onset of hunger made us move into a snack bar for a tuna sandwich and a cup of coffee. While awaiting the gate opening I updated the blogs and had another round of coffee. The Alitalia flight was on schedule – I was apprehensive of the airline which is notorious for strikes and poor punctuality. When the flight landed in Rome it was raining; meant that the day would be tough outdoors. The checked in bags were retrieved and we moved quire rapidly to the train station attached to the airport to travel to Roma Termini, the station closest to the hotel where we had bookings. At the station we bought train tickets and went to the tourist counter to check what we could do in a day in Rome. He then suggested that we travel by the Airport Shuttle bus as it would take us directly to the hotel instead of the railway terminus. We thought it a good idea and opted for it paying a euro extra per ticket. The travel by bus also gave us to appreciate the landscape better. For the first time we encountered pot holed roads. The rain was thicker and it dampened my spirits. The hotel was about four blocks away from the rail terminus. For the tariff that we had paid the facilities were excellent; large bedroom with a larger bathroom.

Breakfast at the hotel had closed by the time we put the bags in the room and came down for it. The reception clerk suggested an itinerary which we thought ‘do’able. The first task was to obtain a day pass that is valid for the metro bus and tram. It took us much time to scout for the nearest metro station. In the meanwhile, we approached many shops for the day pass – they were most unhelpful. Even at the metro station the person in charge was peremptory and rude. Finally, we discovered the kiosk vending machine. The metro is not visitor friendly; for those who use it daily it is another matter. This was not the case in Spain. However, we adapted and soon got used to it. Despite the weather, which was not conducive to outdoor activity, we decided to roam in Rome.

Since the Coliseum was located close to the hotel we decided to visit it at the end. It turned out to be a mistake for by the time we finished with the Vatican the Coliseum was closed. This was the second time I had missed it – in 1999, when I visited the city the last time, I could not afford the entry ticket! Despite the steady drizzle we got down at the Spagna Metro and walked the short distance to the Spanish Steps and climbed them to reach the Villa Medici and the Trinita del Monti. The admirers of Shelly have set up a museum near the Spanish Steps. A massive scheme for restoration of fountains is underway in Rome with help from the public. This is a city which is being continuously excavated and restored.

We stepped into a cafeteria to service the growls that were getting more strident by the minute. The voluble Salvatore, from Sicily, in between undisguised negative references to Italy and praise for Indians, took our orders for a ham and cheese Pizza. He also promised a surprise at the end of the meal, which turned out to be small helpings of gelato in cone. The Fountain of Trevi was not too far by foot from the cafeteria. The popular attraction was full of tourists. Many of them threw coins over their shoulder into the fountain; the belief is that you will return to Rome in due course and that it also brings good luck.  The grandest Baroque fountain is the work of Salvi and is arguably one of the most famous fountains in the world.

A visit to Rome without appreciating the Pantheon is blasphemous for the Pantheon was the first recorded temple to move from Pagan to Christian worship. This fact also makes it virtually intact from the BC times of Rome with worship continuing in it at all times. Thus, the Pantheon remains the best preserved of the Roman architectural examples for generations to be inspired form it.  The Piazza Novona, which is literally a stone’s throw away from the Pantheon, was the Stadium of Domitian. In the ancient times it could seat 30,000 spectators. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, by the master Bernini, at the centre of the Piazza has a reference to India – one of the rivers depicted is the Ganges, apart from Danube, Nile and Rio Plata. A person assuming statue positions of a cowboy hogged more attention in the Piazza, however! Via the Tiber Ara Pacis and the Mausoleo Augusto, one a victory commemoration and the other a grand funeral chamber, we wend our way to the statuesque Piazza del Popolo. One of the most famous of the Piazzas in Rome, the ubiquitous obelisk and the fountains mark this out as a wonderful place to explore in admiration of architectural finesse.

The Metro from Flamino was close by and we took that to Ottaviano from where we walked to the Vatican. A sense of awe overtakes you from the walls of the Vatican. However, the piazza had been decked up for some function and the Christmas tree was still there. These somewhat diminished the jaw dropping effect the piazza had on visitors. Long queues of tourists and increased security meant delay in entering St. Peter’s Basilica. When I had visited the Basilica in 1999 with my wife we were fortunate to be part of the public blessing by Pope John Paul II. The piazza had been full then with tourists from all over the world with placards in their languages seeking the blessing of the Pope. The polyglot that John Paul II was, he addressed many in their tongues during the blessing bringing immense joy and happiness to all around.  The magnificence of the Basilica is too grand to be addressed in words. The marble statues, prime among them being the Pieta of Michelangelo, the canopy and altar by Bernini, the ornate high ceiling and the enormous cupola, the chapels and the organ all contribute to the stature of the Basilica. I find it difficult in such places of worship to offer prayers, but the exclusive chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was displayed provided the solemnity to pray without being disturbed. There are many shops near the Basilica selling religious articles. Sadly, we did not have any time to visit the Museum, particularly the Sistine Chapel, which boasts the inimitable paintings of Michelangelo.

The more than steady drizzle by the time we emerged from the Vatican and the need for a hot cup of coffee sent us into a cafeteria just outside the wall of the Vatican. The hotdog arrived in quick time and I seasoned it with liberal doses of ketchup, mayonnaise and mustard. The coffee was accompanied by a soft doughnut. After the much needed rest we took the Metro to Termini station. We checked out the train timing to Formia-Gaeta and informed the Agent in Gaeta about our expected arrival there the next day.

What surprised me most in Rome during the day was the almost omnipresent status of Bangaldeshis. Turn wherever you could and your eyes fell on them. It looked as if they conducted business in the city – all street vending was theirs. Most corner shops belonged to them. Loading and unloading operations were almost exclusively done by them. Salvatore, the bubbly Sardinian, told me that they were good people who were useful to work with their hands. Sometimes you feel that time stands still and nothing changes, even though change is the only constant. When I was walking in one of the Metro tunnels a Bangladeshi advised me not to sling my backpack with the wallet behind me. He said that roving gangs of displaced Europeans were experts at dispossessing you in a trice. The very same advice was given to me in 1999 near the Roma Termini train station by a Bangladeshi!

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