Tag Archives: Rome

Taboos and Twisters

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

In the end, the day I had dreaded worked out fine because I was willing to eat a ham sandwich.

I got off the boat from Capri, walked to the station and immediately caught the Circumvesuviana, then caught the train to Rome with only a few minutes’ wait. It all went so smoothly, but I hadn’t had any time to eat.  I arrived in Rome, entered the first café I saw, and ordered a veggie Panini.

“He will heat it for you,” said the guy in charge, motioning to his coworker, “while you wait outside.”  Clearly he wanted me to step outside, so I did, but I didn’t sit at a table because I wanted to make clear I was in a hurry.  The guy in charge stepped outside too.

“You from America?” he queried.  Almost before I could get the word yes out of my mouth, he was going on about politics. He was not wearing a name tag.

“I am from Latvia, a little country, maybe you have never heard of it.”

“I have, actually.  I had a boss who was Latvian—she and her husband immigrated and they both held high posts at our local university.”

He raised his eye brows, impressed.  “Usually Americans don’t know Latvia.” He launched into a lecture that he’d clearly spent hours formulating over paninis. It encompassed themes of the EU falling apart, staring with Brexit, rising fascism—symbolized by Donald Trump, and backlash against immigrants.

Where was that panini? I would have enjoyed talking with him if I hadn’t been tired and starving.

Finally my sandwich arrived and I walked toward my hotel.  Except that I didn’t; I took a wrong turn and got lost.  I stopped three sets of strangers to ask directions, none of whom had clue.  I tried the time-honored tactic of picking a direction and striding toward it confidently.  I don’t know if this got me closer or farther from my hotel, but I still didn’t recognize anything.

I started to whimper. I’m such a loser!  Why can’t I ever find anything?  I spied a couple with a baby in a carriage.  That’s about as safe as it gets for asking directions from strangers.  They were German, and they spent about 10 minutes rotating the map this way and that and conferring with one another.  I tried to tell them it was ok if they didn’t know, I could just take a cab.  But they were determined.  They were very kind, and more importantly, they could read a map.

Now that I knew I was on the right trail, I thought I should eat my panini before it was stone cold. I took a big bite and—it was ham.  No veggies, no cheese, just a huge pile of thin-sliced ham.

Damn!  I’m not a very observant Jew, but there’s one thing I do to remind myself who I am—I have not eaten pork in over 30 years.

“Fuck it!” I may have said out loud, as I gobbled down the sandwich.

I was back at the Hotel Italia for one night, then off to Malta in the morning.

The Indian-Italian desk clerk seemed eager to see me.  “You are from the middle west of America?  You have tornados?”

“Yes,” I replied.  “We have tornados; I’ve been in a couple, one where two people were killed.”

“We had one just outside Rome!” he declared, rattled.  “Two days ago—and two people were killed!”

“Wow, is that common?”

“I don’t think so.  What should I do when one comes?”

“Was there a warning siren?”

“No,” he replied, chagrined.

“Well they often happen so fast there’s no time to sound the siren. The sky will turn green and everything will get very, very quiet. Even the birds stop singing. Then you’ll hear what sounds like a freight train.

“Get to an inside room or a staircase, preferably in the basement.  Avoid windows; you can be sucked out or injured by the flying glass.

“Of course you’ll have to figure out how to warn your guests.”

He nodded, looking more worried than usual.

Trains Times Three

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I spent a day visiting all the sites I could in Rome: Piazza Navona, the Quirinale, Trevi Foundation, the Spanish Steps, and the Coliseum complex.  Everything took twice as long as planned because I got lost several times on the way.

I had read a lot about what went on inside the Coliseum—e.g.: the tens of thousands of humans and animals slaughtered there in gruesome entertainments, the clever pulley systems for lifting hippos and lions up from the basement to spring upon the hapless gladiators, the seating system that made it clear which of the 50,000 spectators were vestal virgins, senators, knights, or plebeians.


I ran into this Chinese volleyball team, who I had also seen at the Vatican Museum.


I had not known that the Coliseum was built using “the spoils of the Jewish campaign.”


You probably can’t read this, but I love how this is worded.  If you didn’t know better, you might think that the Jews had carried out the campaign, rather than the campaign being carried out against them.  This was about the only interpretive signage in the Coliseum, so I was glad I had rented an audio guide.

I have to say that my visit was spoiled by the swarms of self-absorbed selfie takers.  I wanted to just stand and take it all in, but they were literally thrusting themselves and their selfie sticks and their cameras in my face at every turn.  I gave them lots of withering looks and told them off in my head, but they didn’t pay me any attention.

I was most moved by the Pantheon—something about its austerity—and the fact that it was the first of many churches I would see that had been built on top of an earlier Roman, Jewish, or Muslim place of worship.


The hole in the dome is open to the elements, and I was excited to see rain splashing down on the marble floor, since it had been raining since my arrival.  Alas, this was the one hour that the rain ceased.  I wandered back to the hotel—I can always find my way back— feeling satisfied.  Tomorrow I would leave for Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

This part of my journey had given me the most of what I call “Kindergarten stomach”—that part scared, part excited anxiety I had before the first day of school every year when I was a kid.

My plan was to take a train from Rome to Naples, then another train to Sorrento, stopping halfway to spend the afternoon at Pompeii.  I had booked a hotel in Sorrento, which would be my base.  From there, I would catch the coastal bus and hop on and hop off in Amalfi, Portofino, and Ravello.  The following day I would take a boat from Sorrento to Capri and spend the day there.

The following day at 6am, I would take the train back to Naples, then another train to Rome, then a third train to the airport to catch my 11am flight to Malta.  “It’s so easy to zip around Italy by train!” claimed the guidebooks. And so I had planned this precision operation, with no room for train strikes, rain delays, or a leisurely breakfast.

Then I had an epiphany.  I cancelled my last night in Sorrento and booked myself back into the Hotel Italia in Rome.  I would spend the night before my flight to Malta in Rome so I wouldn’t have a heart-pounding relay race to the airport.  As a bonus, this meant the Hotel Italia was more than happy to store my suitcase while I went to the Amalfi coast with just a back pack.  So no lugging a case on and off and on and off and on and off of three trains.

I don’t expect you to follow all of this, especially if you’ve never been to Italy.  My lesson is just this: plan ahead, but be prepared to change your plans if you realize they’re ridiculous once you arrive.

Art and The Avocado

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As I exited the Borghese Gallery at exactly 2:00 pm I wondered, Why Caravaggio?  Why Bernini? Why did they become famous, while hundreds of other artists who had created most of the art in the gallery remained nameless nobodies?  How do some artists “break out” from the pack? Is it talent, connections, luck, or what?

I could appreciate how difficult it must have been to carve fingers out of marble.  Were no other sculptors able to do that—is that why Bernini stands out?  I could see how Caravaggio’s paintings were darker than his peers.  Is that why he’s considered so much greater than other painters?  Was “darker” a breakthrough in the 16th Century, like cubism would be in the 20th?  Even the worst artist in the gallery—if there was one—was infinitely better than I could ever be.  I felt like a philistine and resolved, as usual, to read up on what I had seen when I returned home.

I sat on a bench outside the gallery next to an elderly couple and pulled out my map so I could think about where to go next.  The man leaned over to me and asked where I was from.  He had never heard of Minnesota and his English was so-so, but that didn’t stop him from talking without interruption for 20 minutes straight.

He commandeered my map so I couldn’t walk away.  He was very nice but he made enough suggestions to keep me busy in Rome for a month.  “You must walk over to the other side of the river and see the Church of St. Celestine of the Bloody Hand,” he said enthusiastically.  “It’s like no other church you’ve ever seen!  It will only take you about a half hour to get there by taxi.”  I made up that church name, of course.

He paused, then sighed, “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

His wife leaned forward to peer around him at me with a look that said, “He always does this.”  She must have been 80 but she didn’t have a hair out of place and she was wearing a skirt and high heels.  He was wearing a black trench coat, open so I could see his tweed suit and silk tie.  They were both wearing boxy, trendy eyeglasses.

He said something that sounded like “I am an avocado.”  What?  “A lawyer—retired,” he said in English.  Ah, an avvocato—as in legal advocate— I nodded.

“You must see the Caravaggios in the Church of the Holy Martyrs of the Flagellation,” came next.  “Ah, that’s-a-Roma.”

“You are by yourself?” he asked.  “Alone?”  When I nodded he looked back at his wife and I couldn’t see their faces but I imagined they exchanged pitying glances.

Finally, I maintained eye contact and smiled while gently extracting my map from his hands, then walked off down the tree-lined lane.  They were such a sweet couple.  Why wasn’t I part of a sweet couple?  Why?  What had I done wrong?  Would I ever meet Mr. Right?  Why was I the Only One in the World who was alone?  Blah, blah, blah went my thoughts.  A few tears escaped, and I thought this would be a good time to sit on a bench, rest a bit, and gather my thoughts.  But counterintuitively, it’s often when I’m over tired that I have the urge to Press On No Matter What.  I was determined to find one of the things the old man had recommended—a church in the Piazza del Popolo which had two Caravaggios.

Despite it being close by, I got lost.  I consulted the map, then got lost again.   It was hot, I was hungry and tired.  The thoughts started again: What’s wrong with you?  You’re such an idiot.  No one else gets lost this much.  Finally I stumbled into the church and gazed at the Caravaggios.  Meh.  I think I had OD’d on art.  After three days of nonstop touring, I told myself I had nothing to prove.  I walked back to my hotel, polished off my complimentary prosecco, and slept for 12 hours.

Stories as Old as Time

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

The Borghese, pronounced borrrr-geh’-see-ah, was once a private estate originally owned by a cardinal who was the nephew of a pope.  There was a lot of money to be made in the Catholic Church 500 years ago, which is partly what sparked the Reformation.

The gallery is one building in a sprawling complex.  There was the villa itself, where successive owners lived before the last ones bequeathed it to the state.  There were parks filled with statuary and fountains, and then there was the gallery.  I didn’t see the villa, but I imagine it isn’t too shabby.  So if you were lucky enough to live here in the 17th Century, the gallery was your own private art museum.

My group of a dozen New Yorkers, Floridians, Hoosiers, Ottowans, and one Dutch couple were led around efficiently by our guide, Mario, who said he was an art student.  He was around 35, so I think he may have meant he was a lifelong student of art.

The first room featured a sculpture by Bernini, the Rape of Persephone (by Hades, the king of hell).  According to Mario, they “lived happily ever after.”  Really.


Despite the repulsive subject, I couldn’t help but marvel at the lifelike bodies carved out of a block of solid marble.  Look at Hades’ fingers sinking into Persephone’s flesh.


The Rape was the centerpiece in the room, but every inch of the room was covered with art.  Even the walls, floors, and doors were works of art because they had been painted to look like marble or other precious materials.  I wondered how much just one of the friezes above the door would be worth, and what anonymous artist had produced it.

In a hallway, there were these 3D murals on the ceiling:


The next room featured another guy (Apollo), who couldn’t keep his hands off a woman (Daphne) who had said “No.”  She pleaded for help to her father, the river god Ladon; and he turned her into a tree.  How did Bernini know where to start?  How did he carve the arms and fingers without cracking one off?


We passed through an enormous room that was closed for renovation, but we stopped to appreciate the ceiling; this is one small section:


There was a sculpture of Napolean’s sister Pauline, who was married to a Borghese for the political alliance. Note the wrinkles in the marble “mattress.”


Then there were the paintings by Caravaggio.  This one had been banned because it depicted Mary with cleavage and was unflattering of her mother, Anne.  Full frontal male nudity, I guess, was not a problem.


Continuing along the rape theme, there was this painting of Susanna being raped by the elders.


The painting below depicts a virtuous vs. sinful woman. It’s not what you think—the naked one is virtuous because she isn’t hiding anything.  You know us women–always keeping important secrets from men.


After an hour and a half, Mario said we could walk around by ourselves until our timed ejection at 2pm.  I had read about a statue by Bernini called The Hermaphrodite—female from behind, male in front. Mario had led us past it without comment and it was pushed against a wall—for modesty’s sake?  Was male nudity deemed unseemly when it was an adult?  But there were plenty of other statues of naked men throughout the gallery.  Was it because of the gender fluidity of the statue?


I had not expected to encounter these themes of rape, of women being objects for barter and use by men, and of the mixed attitudes toward nudity. Aside from The Hermaphrodite, I didn’t go looking for any of these works; they were highlights of the gallery featured on the tour. Mario didn’t interpret or make any sociopolitical commentary.

Open a newspaper anywhere, any day, and there will be stories about rape and human trafficking and women being killed by stalkers. I’m not one to say “nothing ever changes.” The world is safer and saner in many ways than it was four hundred years ago.  But art suggests that human nature, emotions, and impulses don’t change.


This Way to the ?

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.  I’ll be posting every other day for a while until the travel posts catch up with real time.

After five hours in the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Square and Basilica were anticlimactic.  The square was … well, a square, and it was filled with white plastic stacking chairs.  There were also plastic ropes demarcating lines this way and that like you would see at Disneyland.  I didn’t bother trying to photograph it because there was no way to capture how big it was without plastic paraphernalia in the way.  St. Peter’s Basilica was … huge, of course.  Maybe, after the glorious collections of the Vatican Museum, I was just beyond being wowed any further.

I did make tremendous progress on a census of nuns and priests I had started upon my arrival.  But it was the Vatican, after all, and I lost track when I reached 12 nuns and nine priests in less than an hour.  This was more nuns and priests than I had seen in the previous 30 years of my life.  Almost all of them appeared to be from the developing world.

The hotel desk clerk had been right, there did seem to be a lot of Argentinians around, drawn by the Argentinian Pope.  I could hear Spanish everywhere.  Its cadence was like a relentless rat-a-tat-tat, whereas Italian was more circular.

This may sound cliché and insensitive, but it’s true.  I didn’t see one obese person aside from a few Americans, who were clearly distinguishable by their sloppy sweats and athletic shoes.  Why are we such slobs?  You can’t even go to an orchestra performance anymore without half the people wearing jeans and sweatshirts with sports logos.

By contrast, the Spaniards and Italians were impeccably dressed—the men with flawlessly-shined dress shoes, women in heels and skirts, everyone in black finely-tailored overcoats.  The women had clearly made an effort to style their hair and accessorize.  Many of the men wore hats.  Not baseball caps—real dress hats like real men should wear.  Boy do I sound old.

What did I wear?  I compromised comfort and style by alternating between two black and grey outfits topped by a silver puffer vest with zip-able pockets, one of which was inside; a secure stash for cash and cards.  I switched my Dr. Scholl’s gel inserts between black boots and a pair of black Coach shoes that were really trainers but looked dressier.

I took the subway back to my hotel, thinking I would nap but I couldn’t.  I boomeranged back out into the streets and wandered around, eventually eating dinner in a tiny ristorante where the first of many waiters asked, “Only one?”

I had a ticket for the next day for the Borghese Gallery, which I’d never heard of until I started reading “Top 10 Rome” lists.  The ticket purchase required me to choose a seat, as if I were going to a concert.  Sometimes just buying a ticket is an adventure in itself.



My emailed ticket listed three different entry times and an exit time, so I wasn’t sure if I had booked a tour, a concert, a museum, or what.

I got to there early which was good because the place was run like a Swiss clock.  I waited in line to exchange my emailed ticket for a fancy one:


I never saw this passageway.

I got into another line to check my coat and bag, which was mandatory.  Then, being sensible, I waited in line for the bathroom, then got into line for the tour.  All of this took place in a cramped underground room with a hundred other people trying to figure out what they were supposed to be doing.

Finally it became clear to me that the tour was mandatory—you couldn’t wander through on your own and you were required to leave at the time indicated on the back of your ticket.  We all got radio receivers with headphones so the guide could talk at a normal volume.  At precisely 11:10 am, my group—Group 11—followed our guide to a fifth and final line where a guard scanned our tickets and then on into the gallery.

Bits n Bobs n Dogs n Gods

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As you might expect, the Vatican Museum contained hundreds of paintings of the Virgin Mary, crucifixions, and saints being burned at the stake, beheaded, and otherwise martyred.  I’ll focus on the non-religious treasures.

It was the off season, but still crowded.  Once inside, 99% of the visitors made a beeline to the elevator so they could get to the “main event”—the Sistine Chapel—asap.  My friend Lynn had told me that in their rush to get to the chapel, most people miss a splendid collection of art along the way.  I couldn’t remember exactly what she had written, so I just stopped and looked around.  Voila!  There was a massive spiral ramp leading to the same destination as the elevators.

None of my photos turned out, so you’ll just have to imagine a spiral ramp like in a parking ramp, maybe eight stories high, but instead of concrete it was made of marble, brass, and wood.  And it was lined with exquisite models of ships and boats.  I love maritime art, so I was happy although I was sure this wasn’t what Lynn had meant.

The display was meant to illustrate the world’s seafaring cultures over time, from the Phoenicians to Papua New Guinean headhunters, the Yoruba of Nigeria, Native Americans, the Vikings, the Chinese, the Spanish, the English.  The models at the bottom of the ramp were of birch-bark canoes with naked warriors holding spears, and as you walked up the boats became more sophisticated, their occupants wore more clothes, and they were armed with more deadly weapons.

I had it all to myself.  I felt lucky but a little sad.  Some anonymous team of historians, art curators, and skilled model builders had devoted years of their lives to telling this story, and hardly anyone knew it existed.

At the top of the ramp I rejoined the crush of visitors pressing on to the Sistine Chapel, but then I diverged when I noticed a room full of statuary.  Was this what Lynn had meant?  There were no placards describing who they were but they looked really old.  I know that sounds dumb—everything in the Vatican is old—but I decided to believe that these were the treasured works of art that everyone misses.  Everyone except me, ha ha.  There was nothing about them on the map, but I did notice that there were about 30 rooms between me and the Sistine Chapel, and suddenly I didn’t feel so smart.  I glanced at each statue for a couple seconds, then scurried on.

The map room was what its name implies: a room filled with maps of all the Italian regions.  My photos won’t do it justice, but you’ll get the idea. This was the room where they plotted empire.

map-room-vault map side-view

Next were the rooms I’ll call the “Bits and Bobs Collection,” room after room with cupboards full of ancient glass, pottery, coins, etc.  I could imagine some flunky saying to his superior, “Your holiness, what shall I do with this pottery lantern?  It’s only from the Roman period.”

“Oh, throw it in a cupboard in the back room with all the other bits and bobs.”

cupboards bits-and-bobs

This 1510 map was in the bits and bobs collection.  Do you recognize it?


There were rooms crammed with art depicting animals.


After several hours I managed to find the Sistine Chapel.  I would love to be one of the guards who stand on a platform and yell over and over, “No photos!”  You’ve seen art from the chapel a hundred times, so I won’t write about it.

Next up: the Egyptian collection.  My favorite was Anubis, the dog god and perhaps the world’s first palindrome.


Lastly was the Etruscan collection.  Not much is known about this civilization that founded Rome, and even less was provided in signage at the museum.  I learned that they were the “bridge between the Romans and the Celts,” but what does that mean?

etruscan-eyes etruscan-arm

It was 2pm; I took a break to enjoy the views from the windows, ate a protein bar, then exited and walked toward St. Peter’s Square.

view-from-vatican st-peters-dome

A Holy Look-See

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had never given much thought to the Vatican.  Did I want to visit it?  Not really.  I’m not Catholic, but maybe standing in St. Peter’s Square with tens of thousands of nuns and other Pope fans could be a scene to be experienced.  I could earn some points with my Catholic friends and family, maybe.  Sure, I would step inside St. Peter’s Basilica and it would probably be amazing, like the other 50 cathedrals and basilicas and churches I would see on my trip. The Sistine Chapel was in there, right?

It all began to come clear when I started reading the “Top 10 Things to Do in Rome” lists.  I learned there was something called the Vatican Museum, which is the fifth largest museum in the world.  Oh no, I groaned, imagining room after room filled with paintings of the Virgin Mary and crucifixion scenes.  But this was where the Sistine Chapel was.  The Vatican Museum also held collections of Egyptian and Etruscan art, and tapestries, and something called a map room.  I love maps.  I went online and booked my advance ticket, as all the guides advised.  I love how it has the fancy shield with keys in one corner and a QR code in the other.


I stopped at the hotel front desk to drop off my key, and the Indian desk clerk asked, “You are going to the Vatican today?”

The stereotypical Indian accent is sing-song, right?  The stereotypical Italian accent is lilting, right?  Now imagine an Indian speaking Italian, and you’ve almost got a one-man Broadway show.

When I confirmed that I was going to the Vatican he said, “We are getting a lot of Argentinian tourists here as a result of the Pope being Argentine.”

That explained why I had heard so much Spanish on the streets, even in the short time I had been there.  Spanish is the only language besides Hebrew I can identify with any certainty, although I can’t tell an Argentine accent from a Mexican or Spanish one.

I managed to not get lost in the two blocks between my hotel and the Metro.  There was a 10-foot-tall “M” above the entrance, too, so even I couldn’t miss it.  As metros go, Rome’s was unremarkable.  It wasn’t gleaming like the one in Washington, DC, or quirky like London’s Underground.  There were some clever ads, the cars were covered with graffiti, the signage was clear.  It was all in Italian, so my Spanish helped but even English would have helped.  For instance “Teatro”—anyone would know that means “Theater,” right?

metro-2 metro

It seems like a lot of people’s worst fears about travel involve getting on the wrong train/bus/boat and ending up in the wrong place.  That’s the beauty of subway systems.  Once you’re inside the paid fare zone, if you go in the wrong direction or get off at the wrong stop, you just get back on and keep at it until you get it right.

I zipped right along and found myself at the Vatican stop in 10 minutes.  There was about a 10-minute walk along shop-lined streets to get to the actual Vatican complex, and I enjoyed ogling the beautiful leather goods and clothes (all black, of course—this was Italy) in the window displays.

I followed the signs to the museum and was very glad I had bought my ticket ahead of time, because there must have been 500 people in line for same-day tickets.  I felt very smug and smart striding past them in the ticketholders’ line, although I was a little worried I would get to the entrance and they would tell me my ticket was a fake.  Didn’t I know about all those online ticket scams?  Get to the back of the line!

But the ticket was good; a guard scanned it and then I stood in line to exchange it for the fancy one below.  Then I got into another line to pick up a map and audio guide; then I was in.


I emerged five hours later and will write tomorrow about what I saw.