Back to Bled; A sudden change of plan; Killing time in Jesenice; Night train to Rome; Cat sanctuary; Gelato at last; The impossibility of finding cheap food in Rome; The Vatican; The Sistine Chapel is hideous; Cat sanctuary again; The Roman Fora and the Colosseum

As luck would have it, the bus to Bled stopped right outside the hostel. We were back there inside an hour and picked up our things at the Triglav Park information office. It was raining still from the storm the night before (and never quit all day) so we found a place to hide under an awning that had a convenient power outlet and a wifi network, and planned our next steps. We’d originally planned to go to Austria after Slovenia, but Austria, on reflection, just didn’t seem very exciting. We realized that we were really just passing through the country in order to drop by and see our fried Sabrina. So we decided to change our plans and go to Rome instead, via an overnight train, and then circle clockwise through France, maybe Belgium and the Netherlands, Germany, and maybe Austria after that. Sorry it didn’t work out this time, Sabrina.

In order to catch the train to Rome we had to get just across the Austrian border to Villach, and in order to get to Villach we had to get to Jesenice via bus. The last bus, unfortunately, was at 2 and the train to Villach was at 10pm, so that left us with seven incredibly boring hours to kill in a dead-end town in the rain. Jesenice is really nothing - Sheryl and I both walked all through the town and found nothing open except a couple of bars, one restaurant, and the train station. It was wet, cold and miserable. We went to the restaurant and lingered over a late lunch for as long as we possibly could, until a party of about 25 incredibly loud and boisterous Austrian hikers invaded and drove us out again. We hung out in the train station until we saw them pass through, and then went back for a drink which we somehow made stretch until it was time to catch the train.

The train to Villach was uneventful until the end - no passport check, I hadn’t realized Slovenia was a Schengen country. As we were crowded at the doors of the car waiting to pull into the station, we were chatting in French with a very drunk Slovenian (I think) man who was headed to Lyons where he was working. He kept jovially forcing pastis, a horrible anise-flavoured liqueur) on us, which we kept drinking because it was so awful it was funny. Strange man. I’m not sure if it was his bad French, my bad French, or his advanced drunkenness that was the problem, but our conversation wasn’t very coherent.

In Villach, we had an hour and a half to kill until midnight when our sleeper train to Rome was due to arrive. It was cold and windy on the platform so I mostly retreated to the tunnel underneath. The train was only a couple of minutes late, which was nice. As we boarded we passed empty sleeper compartments one after another, and I began to get my hopes up that we might have a compartment to ourselves. That was stupid - of course when we arrived at ours there was a couple in it already, and that couple had a baby. I was horrified. The thought of spending all night in a tiny enclosed compartment with a shrieking baby made me want to cry myself. We’d somehow ended up with second-class tickets again, so there were six bunks in the compartment, and every chance that the other two would fill up as well. Couchettes sound like a good idea in theory, and I usually sleep well in them, in practice, getting into them and getting your baggage stowed, bedding assembled and yourself changed and settled in is a gigantic pain in the ass and combines all the bad features of a hostel dormitory with all the bad features of a train. No fun at all. And all this for the low, low price of €27 (about CAD$45) - twice the price of a hostel. Sheryl prefers couchettes and I have to admit that I do feel better the next morning, but they’re really expensive and annoying. Anyway, my alarm about the baby was premature. She was probably about two years old and slept through the night quietly, for which I thank her from the bottom of my heart.

We arrived in Rome mid-morning. Rome’s central train station is gigantic and swarming with people everywhere. We needed to find our hostel, but the neighbourhood it was in wasn’t considered important enough to have a map in our guidebook. Nevertheless we made it there with a minimum of fuss and without getting lost, though it was half an hour’s walk. Traffic in Rome is appalling in its noise, volume and unrulyness. The air is nearly unbreathable from the fumes and we were instantly coated with black grime inside and out. The hostel was on the wide, shady via Merulana, where the traffic was only deafening rather than horrifying. It was in a block of building laid out in the architectural style common in Rome of an interior courtyard ringed with tall buildings on all sides, and a flat, unadorned wall street-side with a large set of double doors. The hostel, we were surprised and displeased to discover, had a lockout policy from 11 to 3 - the first hostel in all our travels we’d encountered with such a policy. Many of the hostels in Rome were strange and old-fashioned in their rules, though - when we were searching for one the day before we’d had to reject easily twenty of them because of their too-restrictive upper age limit. Many of them wouldn’t allow guests over 35, and more than a few over 30 - or even 25. It was partly insulting and partly reassuring to know that we wouldn’t be stuck with a bunch of kids.

Rome is haunted by hawk-faced nuns stalking through the streets with habits flapping, intent upon their missions of unknown purpose. We must have seen a hundred in the first hour. They aren’t shown the deference I would have expected - the Romans seem to regard them as features of the cityscape - albeit moving ones like scooters and tourists. Tourists, tourists, tourists. Nearly everyone we saw who wasn’t a nun was clutching a map of Rome and pointing at something (and even some of the nuns were too). I was mystified as to how anyone manages to live in Rome , but one afternoon was enough for me to discover that nobody does, really. The entire central city is, depending on your perspective, either a vast archaeological site; a huge theme park based on the Glories of Ancient Rome; or a massive demolition derby for cars and scooters. Bolstering any of the three viewpoints is the complete unavailability of food;, except as served in overpriced restaurants. In most of our time in Rome we weren’t able to find a single supermarket or even a corner shop. The closest thing we found - until the last day, aided by diligent web searching, were a few late-night liquor shops where you could buy milk and biscuits. We finally did find a supermarket on the last day - too late to do us much good - hidden in a back alley with a recessed doorway and with no sign advertising its presence to passers-by. We were forced to find the cheapest, nastiest restaurants and food stands, and since even these cheap places started at €5 for nothing, we were hungry most of the time we were there. In this way (and many others) Rome is very carefully engineered to maximize visitor spending.

All that said, Rome is still pretty cool. Everywhere you look there are fragments of ancient architecture embedded in walls, or come upon in surprise when turning a random corner. Our first stop, which will be no surprise to anyone who knows us, was the gelateria. It was truly worth waiting for. Our guidebook recommended a place which had, it claimed, the best gelato in Rome, but when we got there none of their flavours appealed to us so we went to the humbler place next door. Their dark chocolate gelato was the best I’ve ever had.

The gelato made me feel better. I was depressed because I thought I’d lost or had stolen the little black bag with all the memory cards for my camera. I couldn’t understand how - normally I guard it with my life. It wasn’t a disaster since the photographs are all duplicated in two other places, but it would be very expensive to replace them. I had been feeling like I was due a stroke of bad luck and had been waiting for the axe to fall, but losing the memory cards was quite a blow. All could think was that they’d fallen out of my satchel in the couchette on the train the night before. (I was wrong, as it turns out - I’d just mis-packed them and they were hidden away in a spot in my pack where I normally never put them).

Scholarly antiquarian reasons aside, my main reason for coming to Rome was the cats. Rome is legendary for its feral cat colonies, and I was hoping to find the place crawling with cats desperate for a petting and a fresh victim for bloodshed. I hadn’t seen a single one so far, though, and I was getting disappointed. To assuage my disappointment, Sheryl proposed a visit to the very people responsible for the decline in the feline population, the Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary. The Sanctuary occupies a few small rooms beside the sunken Largo de Torre Argentina, a complex of four ancient temple ruins. The cats - and there are a few hundred of them there - roam at will all over the temples. The Sanctuary mainly concerns itself with rehabilitation of injured cats, and with spaying or neutering any cat they can. Sterilization of animals is frowned upon in Catholic Italy, which is the reason both for the former level of the cat population and for the low profile the Sanctuary must keep. Their low profile is doubly important, in fact, because they’re technically squatting on city land - they have to lease and are allowed to stay only of sufferance. The purely volunteer-run Sanctuary takes care of the injured, provides food to the gattari (cat-ladies and cat-men) in exchange for them bringing the cats in for sterilization, and tries to arrange for adoption of as many cats as possible.

The place was full of adorable fleabags, all with tattered ears, and some missing eyes, tails or legs. The volunteers took us around and let us play with all of them. I forget their names (except Tino the stumpy-tailed attention-whore who jumped on Sheryl’s back). There was another one we called Licky who had one eye and no teeth, and an uncountable sea of young cats who’d been caught before they’d had a chance to be chewed up by their elders or by Rome’s traffic. The volunteers really push the adoptions to the visitors (understandable) and it would have been impossible for me to resist walking out of there without two or three mangled cats, if I weren’t travelling. They’re good people and deserve support, though, so I made a donation instead.

The Pantheon, I have to say, was a bit of a disappointment. I knew it was very well-preserved, and that it had been a temple to the ancient Roman gods - hence the name. But nobody told me it had been converted into a Catholic church! It’s still a magnificent building, with its perfect concrete dome, open at the top in a round hole, and its circular floor plan - but its lovely clean stone is crusted with the trappings of Catholicism. Golden shrines and bleeding saints everywhere. I had to remind myself that it is, after all, Roman Catholicism, and a Catholic use of an ancient Roman temple is just as authentically Roman as the older gods are… but it still seemed like an intrusion to me.

Continuing in the vein of traditional Roman sights, the Trevi Fountain was something we happened on accidentally while looking for gelato. It’s bizarrely over the top in that High Baroque style, a huge greenish marble fountain the width of a city block, full of horses, fish and human figures in frozen action among carved waves. The legend is that if you throw one coin backwards over your shoulder into the fountain, you ensure your return to Rome, and if you throw two, you can make a wish. Sheryl wouldn’t let me do it because she says I always wish for stupid things. I prefer to think of it as wishing for things that are easily fulfilled - if I wish, for example, that the coin will hit the water or that the sun will come up tomorrow, then my wishes come true all the time, which is surely a nice thing, yes?

The Tiber River is filthy with trash and green algae everywhere, and its banks - at least where we were - aren’t landscaped but paved and concreted and industrial. The city is so built up that the river is more of a canal, in that it’s sunk far below street level. Crossing one of its many bridges, you look down onto cracked utilitarian pavement and construction debris. At one point we saw a little spot where the water runs down a short ramp that stretches from bank to bank, and makes a circular undertow where a lot of plastic bottles, all of different colours, were bobbing endlessly in a loop - under water, back up and around and down again, forever. It was absurdly beautiful in its way.

In the morning of our second day in Rome we went to the Vatican. We should have taken the subway, it was a long, noisy walk with nothing much interesting on the way. St. Peter’s Square was massive - much bigger than I’d imagined - and the curving marble colonnades enclosing it are very elegant. It was awash with people, of course. The wait to get into St. Peter’s Basilica was long and boring and culminated in an airport-style security checkpoint. The Basilica was very crowded, so we decided against joining the line to climb to the cupola - Sheryl had been before and said it wasn’t so interesting. Instead we descended - to the Tomb of the Popes. The name made me think that they were all down there, but really it was only a few. Nearly all of them were gaudy and overdone, with gold mosaics and marble effigies of their… owners? residents? contents? The single exception was the tomb of John Paul II, most beloved of popes, which was a simple marble slab in a recessed niche with white lilies to either side.

We emerged blinking into the Square again and headed for the Vatican Museums, to see the Sistine Chapel. The Chapel is at the very end of the Vatican Museums, through room after interminable room of statuary, tapestries, mosaic floors and the tackiest ceiling paintings imaginable. I enjoy museums as much as anyone else with a scholarly bent, but there are only so many statues you can look at before they blur into a haze of boredom. It didn’t help in the least that the place was filled from wall to wall with tour groups. There were so many people packed in like sardines it was hard to breathe at points. At €14 a head (€8 for us students, haha) I began to wonder if this, rather than tithing, is now the main source of income for the Catholic church. The line for the Sistine Chapel was long, through narrow twisting corridors. To be honest, if I’d known what was waiting I’d never have bothered. The Sistine Chapel is ugly! I don’t know how much of the ugly is restoration and how much the original paintings, but the colours are garish and tacky, the facial features of the figures are distorted and staring, and every scene looks stilted and awkward. Amateurish, even. In fact it put me in mind of a particularly hideous Portuguese church near Ossington subway station in Toronto, which has giant horrible wooden cutouts of cherubs all over it, all with creepy doll-like faces and unnaturally pink skin. I’m glad I saw the Sistine Chapel in person, but it’s certainly far from Michaelangelo’s finest work. I can imagine that it did present a unique set of artistic challenges - and latitudes. I can imagine him up on his scaffolding, smirking to himself that he could make all the mistakes he wanted because nobody would ever see the paintings closer than fifty meters or so.

While trying desperately to find our way out, we came across the carriage museum (the Italian sign for which, amusingly, I’d read as car park) and so we got to see some neat examples of early carriages, right up to a gold-leaf six-horse monstrosity with leather suspension - the original Popemobile, I suppose. In the end we did find our way out. The long trudge back (and a side trip to visit the cats at Torre Argentina again) made us too late to visit the Colosseum and the Roman Fora, and we resolved to see them the next day before departing for Naples. That we did - the Colosseum was actually very cool. It was the archaeological site in Rome that I’d thought would interest me least, actually. But when I saw it from above, on the second rank of seats, it wasn’t difficult at all to imagine the roar of the crowds and the spectacle on the floor below. There weren’t very many places to explore in the Colosseum, only the upper and lower circuits and a couple of stairwells, but we must have spent more than an hour inside. We found out by eavesdropping on a guided tour that the arena was actually only flooded twice, and both times it was a huge mess and required a giant cleanup effort. Apparently it didn’t even go over that well with the public anyway. The Roman Fora were interesting too, but I think by that point we were suffering a bit of monument-fatigue (or possibly heatstroke) and were only really able to wander dazedly around the site staring at the ruins. We took that as a sign, and after one final stop for gelato made our way to the train station to catch our train to Naples.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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