Actually, Monday morning was so beautiful and sunny, I decided I should stay inside and do a few apartment-related chores, such as change the sheets and towels, and empty the Undead Dishwasher (which was STILL running when I got up this morning. Again. What the H does this thing do all night?) Despite my dawdling, the day was still clear and gorgeous when I finally set out at noon to see the Lateran area of Rome, just to the west of the Coliseum and part of the historic pilgrimage trail that once and still stretches across Rome, from the Vatican to San Giovanni in Lateran.
I was waiting for the bus when Natalia, my landlady and newfound friend, called with an interesting offer -- did I want to join a small group that had the latest, hottest archaeological ticket in Rome? That would be to see the Palazzo Valentini, where a major find had recently been excavated and opened to the public. It included a reportedly great multi-media show to illustrate how the domus, or homes, which had been excavated, may have originally appeared. A friend had fallen ill, said Natalia, and so she had a free ticket for the 1:30 p.m. (Italian language) tour.
Thank God for Slow Travel -- at least I knew what Natalia was talking about she invited me to see the Palazzo Valentini, but only because there had been some recent discussion on the travel board about this new exhibition and how tough it seemed to be to get tickets. (Otherwise, given my history with the very chic Natalia, I would have assumed this had something to do with the fashion icon Valentino and perhaps his huge show at the Ara Pacis last year.)
To heck with the bus and the historic pilgrimage trail. I had just enough time to stop for a cold drink, then made my way to the Palazzo Valentini, which essentially backs onto the Piazza Venezia and is now a Provincial Government of Rome office building. But its roots clearly run much, much deeper than that.
Archaeologists have revealed two extremely beautiful, wealthy domus or homes -- villas, really -- which date back to roughly the second and fourth centuries A.D. Much has been preserved from that time, in part because of the Roman practice of building over top of existing buildings. Kind of like an engineering lasagne. This has preserved some really lovely areas of mosaic floors, marble steps and flooring in luxurious thermal baths, along with other standard features of an important Roman family home.
A computer-generated multimedia show, operated in different ways at different stages of the tour, reconstruct what the rooms must have looked like, based on the bits of mosaic and pottery found at the site, plus a certain amount of imagination drawing on what is generally known of wealthy homes from this period. This particular tour was entirely in Italian -- naturally, since my hosts are Italian! But Natalia translated as we went along, and with the light and sound show recreating the scenes, it was quite understandable and quite amazing to see.
Besides casting static images of how the rooms must have looked as they were organized around a central, internal garden, one small segment of the multimedia show reminded me of the HBO mini-series Rome. This segment speculated on how life must have been in those first few hundred years after the birth and death of Christ. The violence, the congestion on Roman streets and the efforts of the wealthy to protect their privacy and their prime real estate are all brought to dramatic, albeit brief, life in this Palazzo Valentino exhibition. The two sprawling villas were located next to Trajan’s Forum and in one virtual reconstruction, a second-story window opens onto a view of Trajan’s Column, the 125-foot-tall testament to Trajan's victories in the Dacian Wars in the second century B.C.
Still, the public exhibition site is actually fairly small and our tour group of about 20 people was tightly packed along some stretches of the glass catwalk that overlooks much of the excavation. I imagine that the authorities will likely need to keep the tour groups small and limited in size, to avoid modern-day congestion.
The tour ended on a rather bizarre note -- as we worked our way back up towards the present street level, the guide explained that in 1939, Rome's provincial administrator turned the basement of the Palazzo Valentini into a Second World War bomb shelter to protect officials. Reinforced concrete was used to create thick walls and ceilings that could protect against a direct bomb hit, or the collapse of buildings above. Interesting to see a Mussolini-era bomb shelter, and further evidence of that Roman tendency to continually add to layers of history in the wonderful city.
The exhibition really is extremely impressive and I was very grateful to Natalia and her husband Walter for inviting me and translating as we went along. Since the tour lasted just over an hour, it was only mid-afternoon when we emerged from the bomb shelter. I still had time to grab a bus outside the Palazzo, and head over to San Giovanni in Lateran, the city of Rome's main cathedral (since St. Peter's Basilica is, of course, part of the Vatican States). I have to say, I was underwhelmed by Lateran. Not much great art, except a lovely little Giotto fresco, and while the cloister was absolutely delightful, that was pretty much the highlight of the visit for me.
I trudged back towards the Coliseum, stopping in San Clemente, which offers another fascinating look at just a few of the many layers of Rome's history. I love the mosaics in San Clemente, and the rich frescos by Florence's own Masolino da Panicale in the Cappella di Santa Caterina. As well, there is a great Annunciation fresco above the chapel, which I added to my collection of Annuciations. (Hey -- a girl has to collect something besides petty grievances)
The one downside of visiting Rome in winter is the fact the sun sets soon after 5 p.m., so by 6:30 I was back in the apartment, feeling as if it were bedtime. Except I was ravenous. I made a quick call to my Mom to make sure she is well (and very preoccupied with her coming move to the seniors' home) checked a few emails, and headed out for dinner.
By 8 p.m., the wine bar Cul de Sac near the Piazza Navona was hopping. There was even a small line. But thank God for the Italian tendency to reward loyalty; since this was my third visit to Cul de Sac and I am memorable because I tower over everyone (even the very cute little waiters) they immediately gave me a table for four and all the pecorino I could stuff down my throat. And I can stuff down a lot of pecorino, especially the local version which seems to be particuarly nutty-tasting. Along with it, I had some great local hams, and a wonderfully crisp pinot grigio from Northern Italy.
All in all, Monday was a better day than Sunday, when I took on the Italian trait of queue-jumping. After six visits to Rome, this was the day I finally lost some of my Canadian reserve, gave up on trying to keep to an orderly queue and began nudging elderly ladies out of my way to get to the front of the line. (By the way, I'm not as much of a beast as that sounds. Elderly ladies everywhere in the world can take care of themselves when it comes to waiting in lines. That is to say, they don't. They just shove to front in defiance of all decorum, smug in the knowledge there's not a damn thing you can do to retaliate. They're old ladies, after all!)
But Sunday, at the purse check at the Galleria Borghese (the management is absolutely clear; this is NOT a coat check. Just leave all your valuables) I lost my cool in an enormous crowd of mostly elderly Italians, all fighting to be the first to check their purses. I entered the fray. Well, kind of. I'm too tall and dangerous to really get my elbows up with the ladies, but I was hip-checking and butt-pushing with the best of them. Same thing later, when I needed to buy cookies at a crowded Forno Campo dei Fiori.
I blame my complete loss of decorum for a shocking accident in the middle of the previous night that shook me. I stilll don't know exactly why I decided to leap out of bed and run to the window (I think there was a fight in the street outside Vino e Olio, right across from me) I don't think I was drunk. But I apparently tripped over a footstool or maybe the little carpet by the bed, and crashed to the floor with an almighty loud bang. I can't remember the last time I actually went sprawling like that, both elbows scrapped and chin bruished. What the H?
So Sunday morning, I was still sore, dazed and looking for a fight at the Borghese. However, after the melee at the purse check and two hours with the fantastic Borghese collection, I was soon soothed, and a day of rage was nipped in the bud.
After I left the Borghese, I walked across the Piazza di Spagna over to the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Gusto complex -- wine bar, cafe, restaurant, cooking store. Impressive. I couldn't find the inexpensive pizzeria, wound up in the ultra-pricey restaurant, and had an amazing mid-afternoon lunch. (For 35 euros, I was paying particular attention to the meal!)
I started with a crunchy, almost meaty salad comprised of narrow strips of hard cheeses and shredded artichokes that almost resembled flaked tuna. A revelation, to see artichokes that weren't marinated in oil. It was almost delicate. I followed that with a fritto di vegetali e formain pastella di farina e ceci. I think I got that right. Essentially, there were all kinds of lovely fresh vegetables had been very lightly coated and fried in a manner that made me think of Japanese tempura vegetables, yet something even more light. Really lovely and unique.
That meant a late supper of salad with chickpeas, tiny tomatoes and (of course) some pecorino, washed down with a few little glasses of limoncello. Eaten on the sofa while I watched a movie on my laptop. When it's time for me to leave, Natalia will need to remove a window and lower me to street with the kind of winch used by piano movers. Ah well, I'll diet when I get back to Ottawa.