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Rome, Italy -- a weekend getaway, February 2010


Having survived, or nearly survived, monumental sneezy colds for the past three weeks, we need to head south for a few days.

You may not find this terribly rewarding unless you're included here, so this is a good time for casual and random browsers to turn back before they get too caught up in the sweep and majesty of the proceedings and can't let go.

We booked FlyBaboo but ended up, without explanation, on Alitalia, no complaints about that, and here we are peeking out of our hotel window at the Piazza de Santa Maria in Trastevere, 25 February 2010.

The hotel was brilliant and the location perfect, though -- it's true -- the festivities in the piazza are pretty much 24/24 non-stop, even in winter. Since this is the first sunlight we've seen in a month's time, a lot can be forgiven.

The front door of the Villa della Fonte, in the Via della Fonte d'Olio -- a 17th century building with five rooms, all fully fitted out (including WiFi) and graced with the friendliest and most helpful staff ever assembled under one Roman roof. Reasonably priced (in the off season, anyway) and a real joy.

The lane from the hotel out to the Piazza, festooned, like all Roman lanes, with truly ignorant spraypaint graffiti.

The hotel Villa della Fontana -- quickly unpacked, we're off for a late afternoon walking tour to some of Kristin's old neighborhoods.

Trastevere back streets, heading towards the Janiculum hill

We're strolling up memory lane, the Vicolo de Cedro (that's the cedar tree right there on the left), past our old digs and up the stairs towards the Janiculum, where Kristin lived for a decade or so.

Outside the apartment we rented for a week a few years ago, now bolted up tight, evidently.

Rome from its best vantage point, the Janiculum

The view northwards. The Janiculum hill was outside the city, not one of the fabled seven hills of Rome -- it was Trastevere, "trans-Tiber", across the river from the city itself.

More dead bishops. Don't grieve -- "For us Good People, both life and death are okay!!"

Soldiers lounging about in front of the Spanish embassy with machine guns. The camouflage uniforms are just meant to show that they're really serious, warfare-wise. (In January 2010, Defense Secretary Gates ordered military officers working in the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., to stop wearing combat camouflage gear to work. Which may mean that they're getting soft on terrorism.)

Byzantine-era mosaics in the church of Sta Maria in Trastevere, on our doorstep almost

More mail for the Holy Bambino

Santa Maria in Trastevere, and Kristin with a load of specialités of the terroir in the bag

It's still daylight. In another hour or so, the south-asian vendors will show up with laurel wreaths and devil's horns on their heads made of flashing lights and plastic disks that they can shoot flashing on-and-off up 200 feet or so and catch them when they fall back down to them for another go at it. All for sale, in fact, though over the years I've never seen anyone pay the slightest attention to them.

Kristin's leading us back to the hotel, already contemplating a snack.

We can't wait for dinner. It's time for a prosciutto interlude!

Virtually a shrine -- over there on the far left -- a newspaper kiosk that can always be relied upon for the Trib and the Guardian.

The Ponte Sisto with a debris backlog

Down the brown river towards the Ponte Garibaldi and the Tiber Island behind it

The common elements of Roman life -- in every piazza, a church and a restaurant. At least one of each.

Campo de Fiore for the vegetables

The farmers' market. The Campo de Fiore inherited the market functions in the 1860s when they were moved here from the Piazza Navona.

Kristin could probably identify all these churches for you, but when you're checking out 20 or 30 a day, round every corner and bulging out onto every piazza, and just following along to the next one, well . . . I can't.

I enjoy all the visual effects, the medieval and baroque equivalent of 3-D Hollywood movies, but normally prefer a certain simple Norman dignity over the sentimental overkill of a lot of Roman churches. You don't have to agree with me.

This one, for example -- awe-inspiring in its own way (which was the point of it all), but when you're done admiring it, you may step back for a moment and wonder how many people could have been fed instead. Probably, whilst starving, they were all just very glad to be able to participate in something so much gildier than their own miserable lives. It's that kind of religion.

ANOTHER Sacred Bambino. Send him a prayer letter. Or her!

We've just been for a thirty-course lunch at Kristin's friend Ewa's house, and now -- Here we are! On the Quirinale hill, and that building behind the awful monuments is the Scuderie del Quirinale, which is hosting the Caravaggio exhibition that's the main reason we've come to Rome this time (besides the sun).

I play a private tourist game, walking round Rome, trying to guess whether the monumental heroic statues are Trajan/Hadrian or Mussolini. These look a lot like Mussolini to me.

The Quirinale area hosts many of the Italian government and judiciary buildings -- maybe that explains some of the bombastic overstatement.

We booked our Caravaggio tickets on-line, for an extra euro-and-a-half or so, and were able to prance straight in ahead of the lines right round the block out front. The exhibition was completely fantastic -- nearly all of the best Caravaggios, and a brilliant audio guide tying them all together with only a generous hint of the overstretched art-historians' jargon. Now we're finished and heading downtown.

The Trevi fountain, pretty hideous in its own right but always overcrowded anyway.

Rome's borrow-a-bicycle racks

It's an annoying reflex, but I can never pass a kiosk without checking if they've got the IHT and the Guardian, even when I've already got them in my pocket. Note the advertisements for the Edward Hopper exhibition -- we didn't go to that, as I'm convinced that I don't like Edward Hopper, but probably we should have, because I'm normally wrong about what I like and don't like and easily persuaded otherwise. Except about eating octopus and squid; that stands.

We're out on our restaurant quest for tonight -- we hit two nights in a row of extremely bad food and service, and another of pretty bad food and service, but we got lucky on our last night (see below). Kristin says this never would have happened in the old days.

Try to invest in a new parking lot and whoops! Another temple, and you've lost your investment.

Ancient temples strewn underfoot

The Museo Nazionale Romano-Crypta Balbi. Very strange place. Originally a Trajan/Hadrian era theatre, and that would probably have been the stage down there, but stratified on top of that were a couple of hundred subsequent uses, including ancient insula tenement flats, public toilets, a temple of Mithra of the 3rd century, a 4th century aula, a limestone kiln, burial plots, 11th century baths, and by the 16th century, the convent of Santa Caterina della Rosa.

Kristin's gone off to visit friends and I'm wandering along towards the Piazza Venezia, thinking about maybe a panino.

The Piazza del Campidoglio on the Capitoline hill

Back ends of horses at Campodoglio

The fake Marcus Aurelius equestrian bronze. (The original is in the museum next door.)

A giant poster to free Gilad Shalit, one of the 10,000 young Palestinian men still illegally imprisoned by the Israelis without charge or trial.

A view off to the left of the Capitoline, northeast towards the main train station

The Roman Forum

More Roman Forum, with the Palatine hill. I'm going back to the hotel now for a well-earned nap.

The Shadow is lengthening!

Tiber in an early springtime rage

Nodding off in the Villa della Fonte

More churches, and an unsettling bit of Catholic BDSM

Nightly search for congenial restaurants

Kristin driving a hard bargain at the Sunday morning flea market

A quick and comprehensive vision, with a concentrated focus when needed

-- The price is right, but what is it?

It's impossible to foretell where you'll find the perfect something.

Next stop back into town, the Villa Giulia off the Via Flamina, built in the 1550s as an artsy pleasure getaway by Pope Julius III, now the National Etruscan Museum, filled with great old stuff from a rather mysterious Italian civilization.

The back of the main house, a semicircular portico giving out onto three courtyards, great for parties.

- Who mentioned parties?

A profoundly contemplative mood, or looking for forensic evidence?

Past the second courtyard and the semicircular casina, looking down into the nympheum for leisurely lunches and all-day picnics on a hot day, with big statues and what not in niches everywhere.

The two-story nympheum, out of the heat of the summer sun

The old Roman way of bullfighting, hooking your fingers in its nose

Busty babes holding up the roof (the pools are fed by the same spring that supplies the Trevi Fountain. Small world.)

Back out on the street, and gravitating towards the Piazza del Popolo

Last time we were here, the fire department was out all over the piazza with games and exercises teaching the kids how to fight or escape fires. Kristin with her sack of flea market loot.

The della Porta Neptune Fountain (1574) in the Piazza Navona, with all the muscular nudies; the lady on the lower left was not part of the original.

The Piazza Navona, with the Sant'Agnese in Agone church by Borromini and Rainaldi (where once we caught a great counter-tenor show in the crypt). The Four Rivers fountain by Bernini, built in 1651, beneath the obelisk, has been surrounded by renovation hoardings every time I've been here, so I've never actually seen the thing except in my H.W. Janson and E. Gombrich.

After three nights of dreadful dining experiences, we finally scored a good one.

We're looking for San Stefano's, with all the saints' atrocities, and we've just leapt off the tram near this expansive old wreck of a building.

We're off up the hill on the Via Claudia to the park with all the parrots and turtles on Celimontana. The San Stefano Rotondo is closed up tight, the nun scurrying past snarled "chiuso, lunedi. Lunedi, chiuso!" so we bagged it, oohed and aahed over the parrots in the park, and went down the road to see the ancient Roman house.

The Roman house is just down here on the right, at the back of the Santi Giovanni e Paulo church. Fantastic. You can walk round in the excavations, with knowledgeable young students answering your questions and watching to see that you don't take photographs, through an original insula of tenement flats overbuilt by a wealthy family's domus.

The Palatine hill, from the far side -- the Forum is over the hill.

Kristin in the Circus Maximus. 'The chariots don't stop here anymore.'

The San Giorgio church in the Velabro neighborhood, between the Palatine and Capitoline hills. This is the one that the Mafia blew up in 1993, all nicely shored up now.

Kristin recalling that our airplane leaves in about three hours.

Now we're hurrying as best we can past the Theatre of Marcellus back to Trastevere to retrieve our laundry and laptops at the hotel and run to the tram.

Over the Tiber Island bridge, with no moments to spare

After a tram ride to the Trastevere train station and the train out to Fiumicino airport, we're still not ready to go back to work. And we missed the Edward Hopper.


Feedback and suggestions are welcome if positive, resented if negative, . All rights reserved, all wrongs avenged. Posted 9 March 2010, revised 10 August 2013.


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