Rome - The Eternal City
April 2000©Nigel Spiers

As our 767 touches down at Fiumicino I find myself humming the tune to that ridiculous song "When the sun hits your eye like a big Pizza pie.....". Our host Carlo meets us at the airport and whisks us to the northern suburbs of Rome. Our rented cottage turns out to be very homely although the Internet Web page, where I found it, didn't do justice to the sheer volume of traffic passing by. There is a 6 lane motorway a hundred yards away and a railway station right outside our door. Our hosts, Patricia, Carlo and his aged mother are so hospitable and generous that we decide to stay anyway and try and ignore the noise.

It's 4.30 p.m. in the Piazza Popolo and Romans are starting their daily ritual - the post siesta walk around the streets and piazzas. Over 40's stroll very slowly arm in arm or just sit and talk. Teenagers cruise. Everyone is dressed to kill in their very best clothes. The men in particular are spectacular with their Armani shades, superbly tailored suits and beautifully coiffured glossy dark hair.
A young man in Rome would rather go without carpet in his house than wear a shabby suit or cheap pair of sunglasses.
The women don't even try and compete. They don't have to because they have the most incredible manes of dark copper brown hair. In the warm bright sunlight their hair glows and with each gentle Mediterranean breeze an amazing range of colours and highlights emerge. Botticelli didn't do them justice.

We ask Patricia for her recommended restaurant in the local village. She tells us to choose any restaurant - "there is no such thing as a bad meal in Rome - Italians spend half their life cooking and the other half eating". We have practiced basic Italian words and phrases on the plane from London so we manage to order roughly what we want plus a couple of bottles of Chianti. Each dish is a full frontal attack on the taste buds and prices are very reasonable in the villages outside the city.
Italy is a matriarchal society similar to Ireland. The young women are shy and tend to coquettishness but once they mature are very confident. In the restaurants women sit at the head of the table and dominate the conversation while the older men look a little out of their depth and as if they would rather be somewhere else. The somewhere else is the village cafe which is primarily occupied by the older men who stand at the counter chatting, drinking impossibly strong coffee, a glass of Grappa and smoking. Italy has the lowest birth rate in the world. Over 50% of all women between 19 and 25 have decided not to have children and it is predicted that, on the current trend, the Italian people could be extinct within 200 years.

The next day is cloudy and muggy and there's a dusting of sand on the streets. We are told that this is the Sirocco - the hot wind from the Sahara which has unbelievably blown sand across the Mediterranean Ocean and dumped it on the west coast of Italy.

The Coliseum must have been a magnificent stadium 2000 years ago if you were a free citizen of Rome. However as a slave, chained in the cells bellow and awaiting your turn to be torn to pieces by a hungry Lion, it must have been terrifying.

All my life I have looked at pictures and films of St Peter's Square and Basilica. However you cannot prepare yourself for this experience. We are prepared to queue, pay and then be lead around as with all other major world sightseeing attractions. But no! - we simply walk through the four glorious rows of huge columns, that form the walls of St Peter's Square, and we are there. The sheer size and scale initially overwhelms you - simply breathtaking. The square holds hundreds of thousands of people and is so vast that even the many Spring tourists are barely noticeable. Then the questions start - who had the initial monumental vision, who had the power to authorise it's construction, who had the commitment to complete the work over 150 years and who paid for it?
You are naturally lead up the wide steps into St Peter's Basilica. It is eerily quiet inside as everyone who enters is struck dumb by the opulence, beauty and most fundamentally the emotion of the world's largest church. St Peters Basilica holds over 60,000 people. I glance to my right and f... me there's the bloody Pieta. I'm starting to loose it at this stage - it's just complete sensory overload.

The Sistine Chapel is unfortunately a disappointment. The frescoes themselves are magnificent and since their restoration over the last 10 years are splendidly bright, clear and colourful. However you can't just visit the Sistine Chapel, you are forced (understandably by the sheer volume of visitors) to go through a labyrinth of Vatican museum's and exhibitions to get there. By the time you get to see Michelangelo's works you are totally jaded by room after room of art treasures from the Etruscans onwards and including rooms full of gigantic Raphael frescoes. Somehow Michelangelo's paintings lack the conviction and emotion of his sculptures. His talent was so prodigious that these works appear to be just showmanship. You almost sense the duress under which he completed them when his real interests lay elsewhere in sculpture and architecture.

By now we have got to grips with the strange traffic rules, transport systems and lunatic drivers in Rome. Our local station is run by two Alsation dogs who decide who can get on and off the trains based on their smell. Every inch of the trains are tagged with graffiti and like the rest of Rome they run to a schedule not easily understood by foreigners. After one particularly frustrating journey a local explained to Roz that sometimes they stop at all the stations listed, sometimes they miss out some stops and sometimes you have to ring the bell. When Roz asked him "but how do you tell which one is which" he replied "you must feel it". We went back to our cottage and opened another bottle of Chianti. Our train has a resident Gypsy musician who serenades the passengers on his accordion. I give him 2000 Lira which is obviously way over the top because he spends the rest of the journey by my side. He moves into a ragged 12 bar and smiles encouragingly at me.
If you don't cross the street with attitude you don't get to see much of Rome. Every street has pedestrian crossings but these are totally ignored by all drivers. Everyone therefore has their own method of crossing. We find the best way is to put up your hand, stare down the nearest driver like a bullying dog and step straight into the traffic. The police are no help at all - they are all budding movie stars and stand around in groups ogling the girls.

Meanwhile Roz has decided that Italian is her chosen language - sooo theatrical and now insists we call her Rozalina.

The only thing Italian's know about New Zealand is Black Magic and The America's Cup. Apparently the finals series was televised live starting at 1.00 a.m. The whole of Italy went to work bleary-eyed. Now every young child in Italy wants a toy Prada boat.

The last day we decide to see the countryside. We take a train to see the hilltop Etruscan town of Civita di Bagnoregio (The dying town of Bagnoregio) in a very picturesque area of rolling hills and steep ravines a few hours north of Rome. Verdant spring pastures all the way and every spare piece of land is covered by gnarled Olive trees. Small, ancient towns cling precariously to the tops of ridges and hills in the distance. They still do "the stroll" in the afternoons but they certainly don't dress up and I have not seen a pair of sunglasses all day.

At about 3.00 pm each day we search for a Gelato. Italians eat huge quantities of Gelato and It's not hard to see why. They come in every imaginable flavour and you have to be careful not to faint at the initial onslaught of flavour. They are not for those without willpower as the icecream is light and fluffy and lacks that cloying fatty taste that could make you stop.

Rome - The Eternal City, City of the Senses.

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