Leading up to Easter I was supposed to be in Syria with a friend, (GN). This was a planned return after a visit with my wife last October. GN and I were both intent on visiting the desert monasteries. I had found something special there and wanted to spend significant time in that atmosphere.
However, things were deteriorating in Syria during the lead-up to Holy Week. We therefore decided on Rome rather than Damascus and have banked the flights for when the country settles down.
It turned out to be a full week of full-on monument crawling and church gathering. The friend I went with has a degree in archaeology specialising in the Roman period. He is also a practising Catholic. So, when Syria fell through this seemed to be an obvious choice. I had no idea just how closely what was available in the city fitted his interests and priorities. No replacement destination would have been as satisfactory.
Of course, though it was a holiday, GN's academic discipline came to the fore and he was studying as against my mere visiting. This meant I had to slow my pace considerably and we would spend significant time staring at the bases of bridges over the Tiber to see where the Roman footings petered out and the Renaissance additions kicked in. Also; distinguishing amongst the various Roman construction methods to see whether sections of a site were pre-empire, early empire or late empire. We also spent a fair bit of time trying to track down the outlet of the Gloca Maxima.....the major sewer of the ancient city. Rome was not just glory seeking gladiators and marble columns.
In the Forum there is indeed a now obscure spot from which all roads to anywhere in the Empire were measured. In those heady days all roads did indeed lead to Rome. Roads from Syria through Rome and to Newcastle in England.
I learned a lot, but will forget it very shortly no doubt; the way my brain malfunctions unfortunately. The days were long and we viewed remaining walls, walked through the remaining gates and I viewed a high proportion of the extant standing column in central Rome, including a host that were incorporated in situ into subsequent buildings. Of course we did not have to stick together all the time; but it was clear GN liked having my bumbling Watson along to hear his Holmesean speculations and I gained significantly from those ruminations, though I destroyed my shoes in the process. As in Damascus the bedroom wastebin received a parting gift of disgarded, worn out footwear.
Then there was the collection of churches; of which Rome has an enormous number, most of them with obscure secret-code opening hours. We visited a lot on my recommendation and many more that I have never seen. GN had an in depth guide to the monuments and churches, so again I learned much more than from the superficial kind of guides I usually take. Mine are 50% pictures, his had only a few line drawings by way of illustrations. I have been inspired to the extent that I have ordered the Blue Guide to Emilio Romano for my impending visit to Bologna. But I also ordered one of my highly illustrated guides. So many times I have been inspired by a photograph to discover somewhere I would otherwise have missed.
We sought out the real site of the assassination of Julius Caesar; which was not where I had assumed. It was not in the Senate House which is in the Forum, despite which the position of the deed can still be found. At the time of the assassination the senate was meeting elsewhere. Although the building itself has all but disappeared, four newer temples were built in a line and most of three of them sit in a city square, cordoned off, but with the site of Caesar's death easy to pinpoint using a reliable guide book. It is surprising that it is not a site that is more prominently highlighted. Now, it is a safe haven for stray cats who have a sanctuary here and are clearly well fed and happy to sun themselves amongst the ruins.
There were a lot of laughs and good food, GN had abjured alcohol for Lent and to an extent I joined the drought. He dashed off to Mass on a regular basis and saw the Pope on Psalm Sunday from St Peter's Square. I vicariously enjoyed the observances which incidentally provided to us each some time apart. Always a good idea to have time away from each other with any travel companion. I think it helps to ensure there are no arguments, indeed there were none. We both look forward to Syria, though I am resisting the idea of a long detour to an isolated and rather puny looking intact Roman bridge.
One building I viewed alone was the Lateran Palace which is attached to St John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome. It had formerly acted as the home of early popes. When the centre of the Roman church moved to the enlarged Vatican at St Peter's, this palace was redesigned in contemporary style. A great shame, as the much more ancient palace was obliterated in the process. However, it was nevertheless impressive and I found myself rattling round this deserted palace in sole possession of a guide along with one American tourist. Possibly the most interesting snippet was that Mussolini signed the Lateran Pact here which provided the Papacy with status of an independent state within Italy.
Another theme of the week was exploring below churches the earlier evidence of Roman or even pre-Roman temples or places of worship. I knew of a couple and took us to them, but the Blue Guide took us to yet more. Right now Rome is excavating a third subway route to add to the two intersecting lines that exist. No doubt the work will be delayed as yet more ancient remains come to light. Dig down anywhere in central Rome and you are bound to hit evidence of ancestors and as with all the ancient and still lived in cities, the entire level of the streets is many feet higher than those trod by the ancients. It nevertheless always surprises me, from Edinburgh to Alexandria, people build on top of old buildings, seal them off and forget all about them.
We caught a small scale German rendition of St John Passion, wonderfully performed, but in the St John Lateran basilica. It is I think the third largest church in Rome and the height has to be 120 feet or more. We sat very close in and the performance was swift, but flexible. The soloists ranged from good: Evangelist, to the Bass aria soloist who was particularly fine. I imagine though that from 300 feet away, it must have entirely lost definition.
The Italian audience behaviour was interesting, lots of moving from place to place and quiet, muttered exchanges. One young guy kept up a dialogue with his girlfriend. I put up with it for a while then turned, pointed at him to get attention and said, 'Basta!'. That means 'enough,' but is a much better word as you can put a lot of expression into it. They moved off and it silenced the couple who were immediately behind me and had also been muttering occasionally.
Two days running I had on a black shirt and trousers with black shoes and cardigan. In the first church of the day I was twice addressed as 'padre' and many priests made eye contact and nodded or smiled. GN thought it totally hilarious. I wished I had brought more black shirts with me, nice to belong to an instant fraternity. I promised not to try to officiate in confession.
We ate well and inexpensively, though the bug bear is coffee. Although regarding themselves as world leaders in coffee, for our taste it was never really hot, nor was there enough in the very modest size cups provided. As in many cities in Mediterranean Europe, stand at the bar and a coffee is almost free. But the tired tourist pays in pints of blood, or the throbbing credit card equivalent, for the need of rest in a chair instead of throwing it back standing at the counter. Sit down outside and you phone your bank to prepare an overdraft.
The city felt safe, though we did encounter a demonstration and I have photos of police with riot shields blocking roads. However it was a very peaceful demo; ironic in view of the Foreign Office advice to avoid demonstrations in Syria. While we were away, there was increased violence in Syria and the FO changed its advice to restrict to only vital travel to the country. They sent me an E mail telling me to go to the airport to utilise commercial airlines to leave the country. I had registered with the embassy there which was thorough in gathering information of UK nationals, even to my blood group. I had informed them of my change of plans, but once on their list, I was clearly staying on it.
The apartment was ghastly; a dungeon of a place which we had to climb about 80 steps to find. Nevertheless, despite being half way up a steep hill it existed in almost total darkness, defended by very heavy metal shutters and in belt and braces mode, strong metal bars. The only place to plug in the kettle meant putting it onto the floor and I had red ants utilising my headboard as a highway. Our twilight existence there and the grubby condition of the place meant we left it early and returned reluctant and late. By contrast the second part of the stay in a B&B was simply great, Paradise Regained with the only drawback being two bathrooms between four rooms. But that worked out OK and it was only 55 Euros a night. We had a room each, but if I go back with my wife it becomes absurdly cheap.