Steve

Steve

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

THE ROAD TO ROME


The town of Civitavecchia, which means “Ancient City” in Italian, is squeezed like a seaport sandwich between the blue-green Tyrrhenian Sea and the stubby brown hills to the north. Most of the architecture is nondescript and vaguely institutional.
Civitavecchia has a population of 57,000 and dates back 106 AD. It is the second largest port on the Mediterranean, handling 9 cruise ships every day. That translates into around 24,000 tourons a day and 3 million a year. It sits about 50 miles to the west of Rome, and is the capital’s main port and key maritime connection between Central Italy and the islands of Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta.  
As our cruise ship docked in Civitavecchia’s busy harbor there were several long white, red and blue Tirrenia high speed ocean liner-sized ferries, shuttling people and goods to the nearby islands. Container ships were being off-loaded by large blue cranes that looked like Transformers. Coast Guard and Italian Navy ships were tied up in a neat row near the cruise dock, their uniformed crews lazily scrubbing the decks and waving to our ship.  And colorful fishing vessels lined the western side of the harbor like toy boats. In its heyday, fishing was the city’s key stock and trade, but pollution and overfishing have diminished the industry. 
As I viewed the city coming to life on a cloudy Tuesday morning, I was drawn to a massive brown fort at the water’s edge. Forte Michelangelo (Michelangelo’s Fort) was constructed to defend the port of Rome. One of the four towers was designed by Michelangelo and the fort opened for business in 1535.  It is an imposing structure and with its 20-feet thick walls and big boy cannons, it accomplished its mission.  
It would have been nice to tour the fort and the rest of the old town – several of our cruise buddies did just that – but we were off to Rome.  As with Florence, we would have preferred to travel on our own, but we were spooked by the distance and didn’t want to take the chance of not getting back on time and missing the ship when it departed at 6:30. 
So, we signed up for yet another Royal Caribbean shore excursion called Panoramic Rome, departing at 9:15, lasting five hours, and costing $75 per person.

Overview: Enjoy the beauty of the Eternal City during a narrated drive that takes in some of the most impressive and famous monuments in Rome. This tour is designed for guests who prefer little walking. 
Notes: Travel time to and from Rome is about 1 1/2 hours each way.

Highlights:
-Photo opportunities from the coach include: Aurelian Walls, Circus Maximus, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Arch of Constantine, Venice Square, Via Veneto, Villa Borghese, St. Angel Castle, and Vatican walls.
-St. Peter’s Square: Enjoy 45 minutes free time

Full Description:
Those who prefer a less strenuous adventure, with little walking, can still realize their dream of seeing one of the world’s most historical metropolitan areas. You’ll enjoy a taste of Rome, beginning with a 90 minute drive, passing through the Etruscan countryside, with pleasant views of the Tyrrenian Sea. Once in Rome, pass by the Vatican walls, surrounding Vatican City, and the areas of Lungotevere and Ara Pacis. You will proceed towards the old Roman walls and the famous Villa Borghese, through Porta Pinciana and into the old town. You will see Via Veneto, the symbol of the Italian dolce vita, Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum, the Arch of Constantine, and Circus Maximus.

You will arrive at the St. Peter’s Basilica area where you will have approximately 45 minutes of free time to stroll around the famous St. Peter’s Square, or, time permitting, to independently explore the largest basilica in the world. At the appointed time, return to the meeting place and follow your guide to your coach for the return drive to your ship.


Taking this tour turned out to be a big mistake, primarily because it was really nothing more than a long bus ride with a brief stop at Vatican City.  And I only have myself to blame because it clearly stated that the tour was for those who didn’t want to walk. What was I thinking?  We love to walk. Something similar to the excursion “Florence on Your Own”, where they gave us a map and cut us loose for a few hours, would have been great. The problem is that Rome is friggin’ huge and you can’t just get dropped into the middle of it and start walking – maybe running, but not walking – because there’s just too much ground to cover and too little time.

Our guide for the day was the very perky Maria, and once again, we had a full bus load of grey hairs. Getting out of town was like winding through a rat maze because we had to do an end run around Civitavecchia in order to catch the A12 motorway. Tour buses can not drive through town any more after the locals rebelled against all of the tour boat traffic. With over 20,000 tourists each day I’m sure it was unbearable. The circuitous detour was actually quite interesting as we passed the dock where the local fishing boats were off-loading their catch.  Maria explained that after the fish market has bought what they want, the locals buy what’s left for 5€ a kilo (2.2 pounds).  A sweet deal indeed. 

The drive through the hills outside of Civitavecchia reminded me of the high desert landscape of the American Southwest, but interspersed with lush irrigated fields of rich brown soil. 
Most of the housing in Civitavecchia consists of pink, yellow, or brown high rise (4 story) tenements. There were very few houses. The average three bedroom home is about 1,000sf and sells for 240,000€. They don’t have air conditioning. Instead, they have fans and big sun screens over the windows.  And the balconies are primarily for drying laundry. 

I immediately noticed all the satellite TV dishes.  It turns out there is virtually no cable in Italy. There are only two dish providers, Rupert Murdoch and Italy’s former President Silvio Berlesconi. The TV monopoly is indicative of the general backwardness of Italy when it comes to new technology.  We noticed it immediately after coming from Spain. They have the latest technology, it just isn’t very widespread. 


As we followed the Aurelian Way along the west coast our chatty guide gave us the rundown on what it was like to live around Rome.

Let’s start with the fact that most men and women live with their parents until 40 – even married couples – especially married couples. This is because the cost of housing is so expensive in relation to wages.  So, young adults live at home and save their money in order to buy a house.  Once they buy their own home, they still don’t move away from mom and dad, but rather, end up renting their place in order to pay the mortgage.


The average Italian eats two cooked meals a day. And pasta is an integral part of their diet. They eat about ten pasta meals a week. But pasta is an appetizer. The entrée is usually some sort of meat or fish dish. Then it’s time for the salad, followed by dessert. Everyone, including the kids, drinks wine with their meal. A five liter bottle of wine at a local winery – not the liquor store – goes for about 1€.  That’s more than a gallon of vino for less than $2!
 
If you want to see the power of food in Italy, just look to the oils. Virgin olive oil is 2.90€ a liter and gas is 1.75€. 

And just like in America, where each state gets its biggest chunk of tax revenue from one primary source – in Maryland it’s through income tax, and in New Jersey it’s the property tax – Italy gets you with the Value Added Tax, or VAT, an insidious national sales tax on everything. In Italy, it went up to 22% on October 1st.
Italian kids go to school from 8-1.  School is totally free until a child turns 11, and then they charge 400€ for books each year.  And you have to go to school until you’re 16.  It’s the law.

As you travel around the globe, it's pretty obvious that America rules the world. This is reflected in the fact that Italian school children are required to learn English, starting at age three. It’s the same in most of Europe and the world.  It may only be so everyone can watch our movies without subtitles, but English is the lingua franca.
When school is over in the early afternoon, Italian school kids usually go to grandma’s house because their parents are working. They eat a big lunch and then do their homework, followed by organized sports, which are not affiliated with the schools, but rather, run by clubs and associations that charge a fee. Dinner with the parents is around 8, and that’s when the family bonds. There is no putting the kids to bed early; everyone goes to bed at 11.

Italian kids have to go to school on Saturday, and then on Sunday they do church, followed by a big dinner at each of the in-laws.  So they basically end up eating and drinking all day.

If you wonder why the Italians are so uniformly Catholic, you need only look at their school system. Kids get red crosses for going to the church so it is ingrained in their society and there is tremendous pressure – both institutional and cultural – to get with the Papist program. It’s essentially the national religion.
  
And lest you presume that it’s all just harmless genuflecting and fun, only one public hospital in Rome gives pain relief during child birth. This ensures that the mother suffers like the Virgin Mary. 

I find this interesting for a couple of reasons. First off, the non-ecclesiastical derivation of the word catholic is: liberal or inclusive.  Those two words seem to be the very antithesis of how I view the present day Catholic religion. The second thing I find amusing about all this is that my home state of Maryland was originally founded as a refuge for Catholics. And to this day, there are more Catholics in Maryland than all other religions combined.  So, while the wine thing hasn’t really caught on like in Italy, the Catholic pull is still going strong in the Free State. 

Driving has become one of the biggest social problems these days in Italy. It started when the government decided that Italian children could drive a scooter when they turned fourteen.  But now there are these little scooter cars – enclosed scooters that haul ass – and every school kid wants one. They go for about 2500€, putting a major strain on the family budget and flooding the busy roads with children zipping around in between tractor trailers and Fiats in tiny plastic toys with little or no protection. 

As in most of Europe, everyone can go to public university if they have the grades, and the average cost is about 1200€ a year. That, of course just covers the tuition.  Higher education is fraught with hidden costs no matter where you call home, but it’s still a lot cheaper to get a college degree from a major Italian university than at an American community college.
 
Italy has 60 million people, divided into 20 counties. Three million live in Rome. The Italians have an old saying, “All roads lead to Rome”. It is like the hub of a wheel with the road spokes converging from every direction. As you drive in from the west, you see an endless expanse of small pink, orange and tan villas. They sell for around 500,000€ and almost every one has solar panels on their roof to reduce the electric bills.

We tend to think of Italy as a very old country, but it didn’t become a unified nation until 1861, as the Civil War was ripping America apart. Up until that point, Italy – and a lot of the world – was ruled by Rome.
 
Rome was Italy, dating all the way back to the ancient days of the Etruscans around 700 BC. The Etruscans were pagans who gave us the wonderful tale of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the Capitoline Wolf, the seven kings wearing their golden crowns, togas, and an impressive assortment of art.  They were some very sharp people indeed and they set the foundation for the Roman Empire that swallowed them around 400 BC.  These are the folks who invented sewage and water works. I'm thinking their fascination with water diversion sprouted from their need to irrigate their high desert homeland and make it blossom and feed their ever-growing population.  It is an indisputable fact that the Roman mastery of water played an integral role in their ability to govern the lands they conquered.
 


Another popular phrase you often hear around Italy refers to the “seven hills of Rome”. What they don’t tell you is that these hills, famous in book and song, are only about seventy feet tall. They vaguely define the geographic boundaries of the city which are pretty muddled these days, what with all of the growth and development.  But there is no sprawl outside of Rome, it just suddenly turns to farms.

Traffic coming into the city is terrible – rivaling LA or New York, but without the four or five land freeways.  The roads are never more than two lanes and many are in need of repair.  How ironic that the people so noted throughout history for their mastery of road building can’t seem to get the job done today.  Once inside the city center, it’s like a damn parking lot.
 
Scooters rule in Rome. And most of the cars are those infernal smart cars, which by the way, don't get great gas mileage, but are easy to park. The big cars in Rome are the smallest economy cars in the U.S. – Golfs and Civics.  The most popular car color, as in America, is white.  
Rome is 500 square miles and the Vatican, sitting atop the highest point in the city at 354 feet, is the smallest sovereign nation on earth – a mere 110 acres, with a permanent population of 1,000 people.  Vatican City has been a country since 1929, when Pope Pious the11th and the brutal dictator Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty. There is a certain symmetry to this odd alliance.  I mean, the Roman Emperor Nero, in the year 67, killed St. Peter and St Paul. And St. Peter’s Basilica is built on the site where Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was decapitated.  Much of Vatican history aint pretty.

Vatican City was our destination and getting there in our giant tour bus was quite interesting, to say the least.   You can always see the Vatican in the distance – the majestic dome of St. Peters Basilica, rising above the city like the white gilded palace of the Titans – as you wind through the narrow city streets.
 
 
 
 
 

Tourism is big business at the Vatican – 4 million people a year visit the Holy See – and parking used to be a major pain.  But no more, thanks to the cavernous Gianicolo Parking Terminal built into the mountain beneath the city like something out of “Lord of the Rings”. The garage can hold over 800 cars and 115 buses and cost $45 million to construct.  They charge you 28€ to park for two hours, assuming you can even find a spot.

Visitation to the Vatican has increased by 50% since March because of the new Pope Francis who lives in a modest two bedroom flat in the Martha Apartment House.  Francis is the “People’s Pope”.  He has taken away the Vatican priests’ fancy Porsche’s, mothballed the Pope Mobile, and every Wednesday he ventures into St. Peter’s Square to mingle with the great unwashed.

The Tiber RiverItaly’s second longest river at 300 miles long – sluggishly winds around the eastern perimeter of the Holy City.  If you aren’t taking a tour, you will enter the city via the St. Angelo Bridge, which delivers you to Castel St. Angelo fortress where there is a secret connecting passage once used by Popes fleeing attack.

It is this sort of historic tidbit that invariably assaults your senses as you walk around Vatican City. It is a place of marvelous contradictions, starting with its size. The place is incredibly tiny. You can easily walk the whole thing in an hour.  After hearing about Vatican City for my entire life, I expected something bigger.
There are signs posted at the entrance to the Vatican stating: If you plan to visit St. Peter's Basilica, please note that strict dress codes are enforced. Short pants, tank tops and revealing clothing are not acceptable.  When I saw this warning I broke out laughing.  I mean, how pretentious and hypocritical that the Catholic Church, which is infamous the world over for its priests being sexual predators – primarily of little boys – has the audacity to require that visitors to the Vatican wear clothes that cover their legs and shoulders.
 


And speaking of irony, the first people who lived along the Tiber were Jews and Greeks because that was the nastiest, most polluted place to live. Now the Jewish Quarter is the most expensive real estate in town, at $2 million for a 1,000 square feet apartment.

The economy of the Vatican is equally amusing.  When they aren’t fleecing you in the parking garage, they are hawking an infinite variety of religious schlock that the tourists can’t seem to get enough of.  Many of the Chinese literally had shopping carts. The Vatican may be the largest museum complex in the world, with over 1,400 rooms, but most of the place is comprised of little hole-in-the-wall shops selling crucifixes, postcards, holy water, icons, paintings, potholders, books, napkins, coasters, scrolls, hats, and pretty much anything you could ever imagine with either the Pope’s smiling mug or St. Peters Basilica stamped on it.  And just like in America where the big corporations have their hands in the largest public pies – as part of their civic duty, of course – one of the large national phone companies is currently paying to clean all of the statuary ringing St Peter's Square.  Perhaps you will visit the Vatican one day and it will be called ENI Vatican City.








Visiting the Holy See is like the Catholic version of the pilgrimage to Mecca. There are lots of priests and nuns roaming the Vatican in packs. The ones who work there are all no nonsense, head down, I’m in a hurry black blurs – businessmen priests. The other men in clerical garb are all smiles, gaping at the stunning sights like children in a candy store. The nuns act like giggling little girls.

It is wall-to-wall tourons from all over the world almost everywhere you go inside the looming walls of Vatican City. The lines into the Basilica were incredibly long – even longer than Sagrada Familia in Spain.  And given that we only had about an hour to check out the whole scene, we didn’t have time to get inside the Basilica or the Sistine Chapel.
 




The audio backdrop to the controlled chaos of St. Peters Square was provided by the public safety vehicles constantly speeding around with their blue lights flashing and their tinny clown car horns bleating away.  And the Swiss Guard in their blue, yellow and red clown suits added the perfect public safety counterpoint.  It was like being at an open-air circus.

After about an hour of snapping pictures, checking out the religious trinkets, and basking in the truly spectacular architectural beauty, it was time to head back into the mountain and board our bus for a whirlwind drive around Rome as our guide Maria bombarded us with her canned spiel about the wonders passing by our tinted windows. The names of each of these romantic places so steeped in history had been planted inside my head way back in grade school and now I was finally getting a chance to see them – Piazza del Popolo, the Borghese Gallery, the Spanish Steps, the Barberini Palace, the St Maria degil Angeli Basilica, the Quirinal Palace, Trevi Fountain, the Termini Train Station, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo dei Fiori, Venice Square, St. Maria Maggiore Basilica, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, St. John in Laterna Bassilica, Circo Massimo, the St. Maria in Cosmedian Church, and the St. Maria in Trastevere Church – at 15 miles an hour from a goddamn tour bus – not even a tour bus with an open roof. It was profoundly disappointing.  And by the time we were finished with our hour long drive-by, Inna was steaming mad and ready to kill me for having selected such a lame excursion.
 
 
 
Ah well, live and learn. Rome isn’t like Florence or Venice. It’s too big to walk, even in a day. So, I told Inna to look at our short stopover as a reconnaissance mission.  We were just there to get the lay of the land.

One day soon, we will return.  And the next time we will give ourselves at least a week and do it right.
 
Next Stop – Salerno

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