Just a few bits of silliness I didn’t want to clutter the travelogue with.
First: you may not realize this, but Ottorino Respighi and I share a birthday. I know, I know, EXCITING. Well, exciting if you’re some kind of classical music nerd, raised on classical music. He’s best-known for his Roman tone poems; my favourite is Feste Romane (which is inexplicably the least well-known), but the other two are Fountains of Rome (of which there are many, check) and Pines of Rome.
The actual pines of Rome struck me pretty hard, is what I’m trying to get around to saying. They’re like something out of Dr. Seuss.
They were beautiful, and they were everywhere. They shed needles, as all pines do, which roast under the sun and smell amazing. Like pine toast, or pine coffee. Warm and welcoming.
I mean, the fountains were great, too. But the PINES! I was utterly enamored.
And now, a self-indulgent selfie at the Pantheon:
Moving right along, here’s an ancient Roman bridge – the Pons Fabricius – that my son knew existed, thanks to David Macaulay books, but my husband and I had never heard of. Thanks David Macaulay!
At the Capitoline Museums, we met that giant foot from Monty Python animations. Actually, it was from a colossal statue of Constantine.
We were missing our whippet, but luckily there were many classical depictions of sight hounds. This plinth was my second favourite. The best one, I didn’t get a picture of, alas. B got a good pic, and I’ll have to see if he’ll let me post it, otherwise I could probably find it online. It’s a pretty famous piece at the Vatican.
Here’s a famous little dude from Pompeii, the eponymous faun from House of the Faun. We also saw the famous Alexander and Cave Canem mosaics. It was like seeing old friends. Very old.
I wish I’d gotten pictures of the frescoes from the Villa dei Misteri, but the light was bad and I was too busy having chills. Brrr. Nothing like paintings that give you the shivers.
Naples was gorgeous, although it was a bit challenging to get around. It took us a while to find our hotel because we didn’t realize that dark tunnel was the street we were supposed to walk up. When we finally did walk up it, it turned out to be the secret dark alley of second-hand booksellers. I’ve been a second-hand bookseller. I know their mysterious ways.
Best Neapolitan dessert: eggplant filled with sweet ricotta and drizzled with chocolate. 3/3 voted it delicious. The more traditional Neapolitan sfogliatelle were also a delight.
I took a million volcano pictures, but this is my favourite. Who photographs the photographer? Me, apparently.
I didn’t take nearly enough pictures of Ortygia, which was made up of little streets like this. Streets from back before cars were a consideration. Ironically, it was one of the few places we drove. Not on this street, though.
Last, but never least, Roman latrine from Villa Romana del Casale. I mentioned my love of Roman plumbing. You should have seen the private baths on this place, friends. And who wouldn’t want to gaze upon frolicking gazelle mosaics in the loo? Nobody, that’s who.
I’m back from Italy, where I had the good sense to turn forty-five. Shall I inflict pictures upon you? Indeed I shall!
I need to start with a little caveat, which is this: I was very nearly a classicist, at university. There are some aged classics professors who probably still lament this in their hearts – how did we lose her? Where did it all go wrong? – but in truth they never lost me. I couldn’t quite get my head around Greek cases, alas, and that’s the shameful truth. (This is one of the reasons there are so many grammar jokes in my books; I have a lot of grammatical issues to work through). I’ve wandered far afield since university, but my first love was always the classical Mediterranean world, and that has never changed. My husband loves this stuff as much as I do, and so when we go on vacation, we’re serious about seeing the antiquities.
So, fair warning: I mostly took pictures of rocks, although many of them are shaped like buildings.
We started in Rome, with the obligatory Colosseum and Forum (I say “obligatory,” but they were glorious) :
And the Pantheon:
The next day we hit the Vatican museums and Castel Sant’Angelo:
Then on to the Baths of Caracalla, Catacombs of St. Sebastian, and Appia Antica the next day:
We spent the next day museum-ing and doing laundry, and then we were off to Napoli by train. Made it to Pompeii a little on the late side, thinking to miss the heat of the day, but we’re Vancouverites so that didn’t really help. However, Pompeii was everything I’d dreamed it would be, and more. Something I hadn’t quite thought through is that Pompeii was a city, and the ruin is, indeed, as big as a freaking city. It goes on and on.
The next day we saw Herculaneum, which was a more manageable size, more like I’d always pictured Pompeii to be:
We took an underground tour of Naples, which wasn’t too creepy (I love ancient plumbing – to a weird degree, honestly – but ancient cisterns creep me out. Not a believer in past lives, but… I was definitely a plumber. Who drowned in the sewers.)
We never sit still! The next day (my actual birthday) we flew to Palermo, Sicily, and then drove across the island to get to Mount Etna, the famous (and famously active) volcano, home of Hephaestus and prison of the monster Typhon. We took the gondola halfway up the next morning, and then hiked the rest of the way to the top.
We recovered over lunch, and on we went to Syracuse, site of one of the most memorable scenes from Thucydides, an ancient war crime. Seven thousand Athenian soldiers were herded into this quarry and imprisoned there for seventy days, given only a cup of water and a pint of grain per day, roasting in the sun, surrounded by ever-increasing piles of corpses and filth. I read this account in Greek, back at university, and never forgot it. We had to see where it happened.
In Syracuse, we stayed on the island of Ortygia, which was picturesque. Ate real Sicilian cannoli. And we saw the Duomo, which is Baroque on the outside and contains almost an entire Doric temple to Athena on the inside:
Finally, it was our last day in Sicily, so of course we had to drive across the entire island again, PLUS hit two more UNESCO Word Heritage sites on the way. The first one, in particular, blew me away. It was Villa Romana del Casale, and it has the biggest, most astonishing, best preserved Roman mosaics I have ever seen.
I don’t even know how to describe it. Every single room, the first of us into the room would gasp loudly, and the rest of us would be like, “What could possibly make you gasp, after all the mosaics we’ve already seen?” And then WE would enter the room and gasp. Pompeii was on my bucket list, but this place I’d never even heard of, particularly, was the most wondrous thing I saw on the entire trip.
Even the Valley of the Temples, which we saw later that day, couldn’t measure up. Here’s the Temple of Concord, which inspired the UNESCO World Heritage logo, and which on any other day would have been the coolest thing I saw:
So that’s the whirlwind tour. I have a few more amusing pictures to share, but will put them in a separate post, as this is already way too long.
It was a good place to have a birthday. Forty-five feels pivotal to me, somehow, like a halfway point. I’m sure it isn’t, literally, but it feels that way. I’ve climbed the volcano and looked around me. Onward, friends, toward wonders we haven’t even imagined yet.