Tuesday, 29 November 2011

From noon to dawn in Rome

Which is to say, from Piramide seen here at about 12.15pm to the Piazza del Popolo at 6.20am the following morning. What a serendipitous city it is. I'd been racking my brains for a Shakespeare connection in Rome to go with the Arts Desk piece on Abbado's Tempest/Lear programme I was due to see the night of my latest day in the city. And what happened? The airport bus, contrary to the promise of the ticket sellers, landed us quite a way from the centre, at Rome Ostiense Station (perhaps because it was a Sunday, and many of the main roads were blocked to traffic). But there was Cestius's pyramid gleaming in the autumn midday sun, and beyond it one of my favourite spots in all Rome, the non-Catholic cemetery outside the walls where Keats and Shelley's heart are encased. And there, of course, on Shelley's stone, are inscribed lines from Ariel's song 'Full fathom five'. I had my link among the tombs of this glorified cat shelter, its supremely indifferent living inhabitants still well fed by the charitable organisation so reliant on donations from English felophiles especially.

Better still, though, was such an auspicious start for walking the city from a place that isn't often open (and at 1pm the Roman picnickers and the handful of tourists were all very politely sent packing). Well, I'd better save a few discoveries for a separate cemetery piece, and trace my four-hour route as succinctly as I can. My options were to branch off for a lunch in an excellent little restaurant we know in Testaccio, or head up the Aventine, another relatively quiet glory of Rome. And as time was short, I wanted to be the all-devouring tourist again. So up it was from the park behind the Post Office where Russian ladies were all dining off tinfoil on the benches and past the relatively modern sanctuary of Sant'Anselmo where plainsong is still sung so beautifully and the little garden alongside the Romanesque campanile of Santi Bonifacio ed Alessio

to one of my favourite churches, Santa Sabina, strictly a basilica, with its beautiful prototype Corinthian columns - curiously not palimpsested from ancient Rome, but constructed specially for the occasion.

The Parco Savello next door leads down an avenue of pines

to one of the best views in the city, and as close as I wanted to get this time to St Peter's.

A quick lunch at a friendly cafe on the Viale Aventino, and then up to pay homage to the obvious, barging through the hordes of Chinese tourists, Indians touting identical forms of tripod-souvenir (do they ever sell any?) and South American panpipe bands. The old Romans would have seen auspices in the flocks of birds above the Arch of Constantine and the Colosseum

though apparently the migratory rush-hours at this time of year are seen as threatening by present-day citizens; men in white bodysuits stand on the hospital island making frightening noises through megaphones to stop the flocks from shitting on the earthlings. I was also surprised to see Italian twitchers down by the Tiber. But not before I'd headed via Largo Argentina to the three Tosca locations I know pretty well - though I've only been inside overdone Sant'Andrea della Valle (not on this occasion). Retraced old steps past the Campo dei Fiori, the Palazzo Farnese and the Fontana del Mascherone on handsome Via Giulia. The mask and the basin are ancient Roman objects re-used by the Baroque.

One thing I'd not done on previous visits was to step down to Tiberside and walk between the Ponte Sisto and the Ponte Cavour. Which in effect meant spectacular views from several angles of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Finally it was up the tacky end of the Via del Corso to the Piazza del Popolo, from outside which I made the big mistake of taking a tram northwards to the hotel near the Parco della Musica. I should have finished off the walk, but I wanted to check my route for the reverse journey early the following morning. Which meant that when I enquired of a local on the tram whether the stop I thought I wanted was indeed 'Ankara Tiziana', he must have misheard and thought I wanted 'Tiziano', three further on.

Which got me well and truly lost, since it was off my maps, in a rather interesting residential part of Rome. I even walked in ignorant curiosity past Zaha Hadid's amazing new MAXXI (Museum of the 21st Century) building, but was too flustered and time-conscious to stop and check it out. Including the two old ladies who sent me off in the wrong direction to Piazza Mancini when I was in fact nearly there, no-one I asked was able (or, in most cases, bothered) to identify the Largo in which the hotel was situated until finally a kind young couple walked me there. The Hotel Astrid, run by Best Western, was a convenience stop organised by the Accademia, but really I can't recommend it too highly: the staff were delightful, the rooms refurbished and (around the courtyard at least) quiet, the lift not working but the grand (Edwardian-era?) marble staircase splendid, the cafe on the top floor - though I had to leave too early to breakfast there - graced with superb views over the Tiber to St Peter.

And the Parco della Musica is spectacularly state-of-the-art, too, with a huge book/CD shop, fine cafe and outdoor space before Renzo Piano's three copper-domed halls which doubles as an amphitheatre in the summer.

The concert I don't need to recapitulate here, but I must also praise the simple, excellent restaurant I went to with Nicky Thomas afterwards, La Vignola, where the waiter apologised for the lack of porcini but showed us instead a basket of freshly gathered mushrooms. Another plus is that you can eat locally well away from the tourist trail, so good food is guaranteed.

One last bonus: as the tram got me back to Piazza del Popolo at 6.15 the next morning, I had enough time to skip the Metro and walk to Termini for the airport train. Which meant another stroll down (or up) memory lane, past the Spanish Steps with the rosy dawn and the crescent moon still showing behind the Virgin on the Colonne dell'Immacolata

and up past Bernini's Triton

as well as the four other water-figures by Borromini's fabulous San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, illustrated - 2/11 update - in a later 'Roman fountains' post.

Nothing had prepared me for the chaos at Fiumicino - at least 500 travellers waiting for a single x-ray baggage security check - or the one-and-a-half-hour delay when, in some panic, I finally got to my flight with an official five minutes before take-off. But that's all part of the authentic Italian experience, too: what is it they say? ALITALIA = Always Late in Takeoff, Always Late in Arrival. Anyway, I did get back to London with just time enough to stop off at home and pick up my teaching stuff for our fourth Tosca class at the City Lit. But I'd had my 18 hours of Roman vision, and really hadn't expected to be so smitten afresh by a city I thought I could almost take for granted.


Willym said...

Caro David, how homesick you made me with this post. I only wish I could have done the walk with you. Each place you named brought back a loving memory of one of the most frustrating, crazy, wonderful places I've ever lived in and that I still miss horribly. All that and you had Abbado too... you lead a charmed life caro.

Laurent said...

I am sorry we are no longer in Rome, it would have been nice to criss-cross the city with you. I know that tram line and the stop you were looking for. Lovely pictures like always. But you do walk a lot.

Gavin Plumley said...

The Orangerie on the Aventine Hill was where I wanted to propose... but I blew my own cover. A glorious place.

David said...

Yes, Will and Laurent, I was thinking what a shame it was that I never made it out there when you were living in that beautiful part of town. And remember, such an essentially unchanging place is never lost in heart and soul, if that doesn't sound a little glib.

When in Rome, it seems, walk...as in London, the pleasure of getting to know a city better is being able to join the dots of the different districts. I still don't quite know where everything is, but I'm getting there.

Gavin, I have a similar story involving a row about 'plate glass window restaurants' (zinc v perceived 'MacDonalds' brasseries) in Paris, four hours of separate ways and a surprise reconciliation in front of Ingres's 'Oedipus Questioning the Sphinx' in the Louvre involving a more than placatory present of a Proust watch...

Susan Scheid said...

With shame-face I confess I have never been to Rome, though a friend goes there often, and each time he returns I make another mental note to go. In the meanwhile, at least I have your whirlwind tour as wonderful compensation, so many pleasures from just this glimpse.

You did, though, send me scurrying back to something I wrote long ago, and from which I realize I still carry a vivid, but likely utterly inaccurate, set of images of Rome. This would be my novella about Florence Nightingale, who visited Rome in 1847. (Not destined for publication; as I was advised by an editor, well-written, but lacking any sex. But that’s just the point, I cried, she was highly and creatively repressed!)

The particular image I recall of my imaginary Rome, and which I realize on reading your post stays with me still, is of the Piazza di Spagna, and I'm afraid I can't resist sharing it with you now:

Florence and Sigma stopped at edge of the Piazza di Spagna and surveyed the view in front of them. All along the Spanish steps, gypsies offering out baskets of dried herbs laid out on branches of arbor vitae and groups of Roman women clad in peasant blouses and colorful skirts formed a series of lively and sumptuous tableaux. The air was alive with the music of Italian speech and redolent of lavender and green-sapped boughs. And above it all, the outline of the Trinità dei Monti’s twin cupolas was etched on the vivid sky.

So, there you have a glimpse of my own imaginary Rome!

David said...

And there was I, only yesterday, reading Kate Chisholm's Spectator radio review from July which said lovely pertinent things about the R3 Building a Library I'd done on Bizet's L'Arlesienne and in the same breath evoked Stephen Johnson's Discovering Music on Debussy's La Soiree dans Granade. This sentence especially for you:

'...artists, writers, musicians often create places better if they have never been there, using their imaginative empathy to seek out the essence, the essential truth.'

Which I'm sure you've done. Though I have to say that the reality in Rome can hardly disappoint anyone, ditto Venice - in both cases, away from the swamped centres of ancient/religious pilgrimage.

Couldn't you serialise your novella on the blog?

Susan Scheid said...

Ah, what a beautiful quote (and with it all, you've identified, just in the comment, at least three more things to pursue). Now, as to your last comment, I can only say, be careful what you wish for!