Having completed the retracing of my family's footsteps, and feeling energised from my recent cortisone injection in the rear end, we were keen to return to our touristy ways and soak in some of Italy's most memorable sites. With that in mind, we made our way to Pompeii for a two day stint, and then to Rome for the remainder of the week.
Visiting the ruins of Pompeii was one of those moments where you finally come face to face with something about which you have heard so much, and you find your mind trying to reconcile the reality with your previously held perceptions. Jess had visited Pompeii once before - so for her, this trip was a chance to refresh her memory and allow her to act as a quasi-tour guide for me. For me, Pompeii was much better than I had imagined. It was huge - I never realised how huge the ruins were. It is exactly what it's billed to be - an entire city that was buried under 6 metres of ash and soot and lost to humanity for more than 1500 years.
Thanks to Jess' previous experience and knowledge, I was able to bypass the riffraff of tourists and was ushered through to all the good parts of the ruins such as the Roman baths, the best villas containing some amazing frescos, and the remains of citizens who have been encased in a shell of molten ash for thousands of years. As an added bonus, we happened to walk into the smaller amphitheatre at the same time that a Japanese tour guide was leading his group of tourists through the site. He then sat his group down in the stands and proceeded to sing an Italian opera song. At first we thought he was just hamming it up for his tour group but his voice grew louder and he began to belt out every single note perfectly. A crowd gathered and began to applaud him - not quite sure whether what they had just witnessed was a regular occurrence at the Pompeii ruins. It was one of those "right place, right time" moments. Check out the video section of our blog to see the Japanese tour guide in all his operatic glory.
From Pompeii we made our way to the Eternal City: Rome. We were excited, and also a little scared, to be back in a big landmark city and ready for lengthy days of endless walking and sight-seeing. We decided to use the hop-on hop-off bus to make sure we didn't miss any of the must see monuments. And we kick-started the tour of Rome with the grandest monument of them all: The Flavian Amphitheatre (better known as the Coliseum)! The Coliseum was, and still is, the largest amphitheatre in the world. We decided to pay a little extra and take the guided tour of the Coliseum so that we could learn a little more about this magnificent building - and it also meant we could skip the queue that was growing longer than St Kilda's premiership drought!
On the tour we found out that the Coliseum was built on the site a villa of the former Emperor Nero (who fiddled while Rome burned). As typical Roman games began to seen as barbaric, and the gloss of the Roman Empire faded, the Coliseum was basically abandoned. It became Rome's most famous quarry as locals visited the site to take chunks of rock from it for use in their own constructions. At one stage, members of Rome's famous Frangipani family used the Coliseum as a Castle, fortifying parts of it and living in the ruins of Ancient Rome's most awesome construction.
After a fantastic experience at the Coliseum, we experience mixed fortunes with Rome's other famous monuments. Both the Fontana di Trevi and the Spanish Steps were undergoing renovations and looked more like a CFMEU site (minus the union thugs) than any kind of glamourous monument to the beauty of Rome. That's typical Italian thinking for you - let's shut down our major tourist attractions right in the middle of summer when the place is teeming with tourists who pay a fortune to visit them, and most Italian working crews are on holidays anyway! No wonder this country is a debt-riddled basket case. And yet we still can't help but love it!
We had better luck at the Vatican, the Roman Forum and Piazza Venezia. It was a spine-tingling experience to overlook the remains of the Roman Forum and stand in the shadows of what was the greatest empire that the world ever knew. But facing a pile of ruins made it difficult to imagine what the Forum looked like in its heyday. Luckily, I found a handy book that superimposes drawings of the original Forum with the ruins that remain.
At Piazza Venezia - the monument to King Vittorio Emmanuelle II and also the sight where Mussolini delivered his famous speech in 1936 to announce the birth of the new Italian Empire (how did that work out for him?) - we were blown away by the sheer enormity of the site. However, I couldn't help but chuckle as I read "timeline of events" plaque on one of the walls inside the monument. The timeline covered the construction of the building from 1880 to 1925, and then suddenly fell silent from 1935 to 1948, before continuing on with other notable dates from 1948 to present. Gee, I wonder what could have happened in that 13 year period...
And what can we say about the Vatican? St Peter's Basilica is a spectacular looking church. It's one of the most impressive that we have seen on this trip (and trust me, we have seen PLENTY). But it didn't manage to outdo St John's Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta. Also, I couldn't help but notice that something was amiss inside St Peter's. I walked around for a while before it dawned on me - there weren't that many paintings or sculptures of Jesus. Most of the artwork and side altars were dealing with Popes. This was very much a shrine to the Popes, rather than a shrine to the bloke who is alleged to have founded the bloody religion in this first place and saved the souls of all humanity. I found that an odd pill to swallow.
In spite of all the amazing things to see and do in Rome, the highlight of our visit came in the form of some pleasant and friendly company. When Jess studied in Italy in 2008 she made a life-long friend in the form of Nicole - an Italian who worked at the university where she studied. Nicole now lives in Rome with her husband Morgan, an American, and we met up with them a few times. We had dinner at one of their favourite local restaurants which combines Italian style cooking with Middle Eastern cuisine (two Aussies, an Italian and an American eating Middle Eastern food cooked in an Italian way - talk about United Nations!). And on our final day in Rome, we had lunch at Morgan and Nicole's apartment. What a feed it was - caprese salads, mozzarella burrata, mouth-watering prosciutto and capocollo and lots of wine and beer. What a fitting way to sign off from this crazy, beautiful and wonderfully chaotic city - with a typical Italian Sunday lunch with the finest citizens Rome has to offer.
Next stop: Perugia