JOHN McNAMEE DISCOVERS MORE THAN ANCIENT GLORY IN THE ETERNAL CITY
AS we stood beside the swiftly-flowing brown torrent, the majestic loom of Castel Sant’Angelo towering above us and the heavy rusting barges butting at the steep stone river banks, my mind was cast back to my schoolboy Shakespeare days.
It was the monologue of Cassius from Julius Caesar and mysteriously, for it was almost half a century since I’d committed those evocative lines to memory in that far off country classroom of my youth, the scene came vividly back to me.
“For once upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing at her shores,
Caesar said to me: Durs’t thou Cassius,
Now leap with me into this angry flood and swim to yonder point?
Accrouted as I was I plunged in and bade him follow. So indeed he did.’’
The long and short of it was Caesar got into trouble in the torrent and called for Cassius to save him which he did.
The sad irony was not lost among the troubled conspirator who became tainted with the infamy of the foul murder of his once lofty companion.
I’d probably lived that moment many times in my mind as I pondered the vagaries of human nature over the years as a student of ancient history yet here I stood, at last, on the very banks of that river which not only inspired the powerful words of The Bard, but which had borne witness to centuries of Roman history, the reputed birthplace of founders Romulus and Remus.
We were alone on the stone cobbled embankment that day. It was blisteringly hot and we’d decided to buy some panini and mozzarella from a nearby deli and picnic by the Tiber.
Because of the heat we had to retreat into the shade of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, one of the most magnificent bridges along the fabled river.
Its towering arches were built in 134AD in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian and the bridge was once named after him.
It was constructed by the emperor as a route across the Tiber to his gigantic mausoleum, which is now the Castel Sant’ Angelo and it was also once used by pilgrims on their way to St Peter’s Basilica.
But as we sat on the stone banks and hungrily devoured our lunch, gazing up at all this ancient power and glory, I kept going back to the Tiber…to the thoughts of Cassius as he was bade to leap into the flood by his imperious master.
I suppose it represented in my mind one of those monumental challenges we all face in our lives…it also represented something which we men often confront..the dare, the challenge, the often foolhardy bravado to outdo your mates.
Thank God, all I had to do was navigate my way through the gargantuan panini and mozzarella and prepare myself for another afternoon’s sightseeing in the glorious city of Rome.
We’d started off the day wandering among the cool foliage-lined pathways of the gardens of the Villa Borghese.
There’s about 80 hectares of tranquillity, away from the hectic bustle of the streets of Rome and a short walk from the Spanish Steps. There are various entrances to the gardens, we accessed it through the Piazza del Popolo off the famous Via Veneto, not far from our hotel.
You can buy tickets on a quaint little train which will take you on a meandering journey through the gardens, past temple like structures, colourful flower beds and ornamental lakes.
If you have previously bought a Roma travel pass and museum pass, you can get into the elegant Villa Borghese museum without the long queue. It houses many collections of classical sculpture including the awesome Bernini masterpiece, the Abduction of Prosperina by Pluto.
Boy, the look of terror on that hapless young nymph’s face and the fierce, ruthless power in the abductor’s body, will haunt you for days afterwards.
But of course there are gentler works of art, including many more of Bernini’s genius on display and once you have wound around the Renaissance style corridors of the museo, there’s always the little coffee bar inside selling monstrously delicious cakes and creamy cappuccinos (not as hot as we like them served in Oz, but don’t get me started on that again!!)
We were spending a few days wandering on our own in the Eternal City before linking up with a group for a two-week tour of Italy.
They were wonderful days exploring the back streets and darting into little bars and restaurants for the occasional brimming plates of “ragus” and local red.
Our base was the elegant and strikingly furnished Grand Hotel Beverly Hills near the Piazza di Spagna and a short walk from nearby tram and train stops.
You might think any place with a name like Beverly Hills would be chock a block full with annoying Yanks bustling down the hushed corridors screeching about “taking in that Vatican place” and “how can I catch a cab to the Colosseum.”
But no…the clientele was mainly respectful Europeans with a smattering of our countrymen who like us were waiting to join their tour groups.
The average double rooms were about 200 euros a night..well worth it for the quiet and comfort. Unfortunately most hotels in European capitals these days don’t have tea and coffee making facilities so you have to venture outdoors or down to the hotel bars for any refreshment which can be costly on your bill.
But there’s so much grace and dignity about these wonderfully ornate buildings and listening to the rapid fire, excitable exchanges of the beautifully sonorous Italian language being spoken around you, makes it all worthwhile.
Just around the corner from the Grand, we wandered through a maze of vias and laneways and came across a quaint local restaurant which sold draught beer, huge pasta meals and Italian countryside vineyard red wine.
By the third visit, mine host Senor Luigi, who spoke not a word of English and looked delighted at our attempts at his language, leapt to greet us and show us to our favourite table.
For the several times we went there, we were the only foreigners in the place and when we told Luigi we were leaving the following day, he vanished into his tiny kitchen and returned with a stoppered bottle of some powerful home-made liqueur, one tentative taste of which had me singing Volare on the top of my voice (arms around Luigi’s ancient shoulders) and the wife doing a red hot imitation of a smouldering Sophia Loren.
We were much subdued and a little downcast the following day as we joined our noisy tour group of chattering Canadians, boisterous Americans and inquisitive Germans.
As we were bustled away by our tour leader and herded onto the air conditioned coach, where it was explained that we had to rotate seats every day to allow for a fairer sightseeing distribution, we were already missing the short taste of the “real” Rome.
However, it’s churlish to think this way when you are the next night heading to one of the great sights of the city, the ancient Forum, eerily floodlit and in its vast spread of tumbling columns and soaring archways, transporting you back to the glory of Rome and the grandeur of the Palatine and Capitoline Hills.
Some of Rome’s oldest and most important structures are contained in the Forum including the royal houses of the Regia and the temples of the Vestal Virgins.
There were public buildings on the site since the 7th century BC but it wasn’t until around the time of Julius Caesar, about 40 years before Christ, and later the early emperors, that the Forum became the significant public meeting place for the citizens.
Along with the Colosseum and of course the Vatican with its superb St Peter’s Basilica and Sistine Chapel, any tour of Rome is a breathtaking experience.
But for many people, including ourselves, it’s the little places that, despite the odds, you discover yourself that you treasure above all.
We’d followed the advice of an expatriate Italian friend and sought out the pedestrian-only Piazza Navona. Although one of the most popular spots in Rome, it was a relatively secluded cobblestoned square, as much off the beaten track as you can get in a mid-summer tourist crowded Rome, and it was a real gem.
It’s a short walk from the Trevi Fountain and described as one of the most spectacular baroque squares in Rome. It is situated on the site of a 1st century AD athletics stadium where vast public spectacles including mock naval battles were held.
More striking Bernini statues adorned the bubbling fountains including the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) but it was a magnificently carved Renaissance-style wooden doorway, with a sign indicating it was the medieval church of the Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore that drew us.
Walking into its cool marbled nave with mosaic floors and soaring columns, the highly decorated altar perched high at the end surmounted by the vivid Crucifixion scene, we were swept up into another celestial world.
Suddenly, the high-pitched clangour of the pipe organ burst out, sending shuddering waves of baroque music resounding around the basilica. We just had to stop in our tracks and plonk ourselves down on the nearest pew while we allowed this angelic and overwhelming chorus to engulf us.
After about half an hour, it stopped suddenly on a rising note…we looked up and coming down from the ornately carved gallery was the elderly male organist.
We were alone in the church and he tiptoed up to us: “I’m sorry, I hope my music didn’t disturb you,” he said apologetically.
We were dumbfounded. I shook my head muttering denials. I grabbed his hand and started pumping it vigorously.
“Senor Maestro, “ I said, “you have transported us to Heaven.”