If you cast your mind back to February, gentle reader, I was telling you all about a Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle, I, and several relatives embarked on just before Christmas. Since then, we’ve been to India, to South East Asia, we’ve seen lots of shows, and been generally very busy; and those two last days on our cruise have been ignored. So I’m about to put that right!
When the ship docks at Palermo, you’ve got a wide range of tours you can do round the island of Sicily, but we prefer just to get off and walk around. Although it was December, it was a beautiful sunny day; and maybe the sun just got in our eyes a bit too much because within fifteen minutes of walking around we were completely lost. My map was a bit rubbish, not to scale and it didn’t show where we started from, and I quickly concluded that we weren’t anywhere near where I thought we were. So it was by pure chance that we stumbled across the Politeama Garibaldi theatre, home of the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana, built in 1874, and looking extraordinarily like a mini Albert Hall. It faces a rather grand square, which features a statue of Ruggiero Settimo, Sicilian patriot and fighter for independence. The area has a jolly feel to it – tourists and shoppers mingling with local families and workers on their lunch break. What also impressed me was a display of civic art that you could use to keep fit – a row of static bicycles in multi colours, all mounted on a bright platform. Anyone who gets on and does a bit of pedalling becomes part of the installation, so in a sense it’s a constantly changing display. Clever, that.
We walked on, and eventually (after having gone in the wrong direction, again) found ourselves being growled at by a lion (not a real one) outside the Teatro Massimo Victor Emanuele, Italy’s largest opera house. We didn’t go in, but admired its grandeur and superbly stocked gardens. You get an excellent sense of space here – not only because the building is so imposing, but the road outside is wide and not too busy, and you feel as though commerce has given way to art. It’s nice when that happens.
Further on, and into a market area, just off the via Maqueda, full of the usual kind of stalls full of tat, but set alongside shops that are clearly top fashion – which makes for an interesting mix. Onwards to the junction with the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of my favourite spots in Palermo; a simple crossroads but the buildings on all four quarters have a concave shape to give the impression of a circle. From here you can enter the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini, with its stunning baroque ceiling, gorgeous dome and intricate statuary. Always a nice place for a fifteen minute rest and re-grouping.
From there it’s a short walk to the Vucciria district. This is a none-too-pretty, hard-working, historical market area, with some narrow warrens reminiscent of the souk. Shops overspill into the street and fight for space with pedestrians and motorbikes, awnings and scaffolding. Here you feel that you’re in the heart of the city, and that the opera houses, theatres and churches are the mere decorations on top. As you wend your way past fruiterers and fishmongers, the smells (not always pleasant) take over from the sights, and the alleyways get narrower so that the light gets blocked out. Eventually the column outside the church of San Domenico comes into view like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and you re-emerge into the modern day.
Heading back to the port, we took a route that led us past some modern architecture, and, imposing as it was, it looked really out of place. On closer inspection this tall edifice bore the inscription “”ai caduti nello lotta contra la mafia” and is a 1983 monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the fight against the Mafia. Quite a stark image before you leave Palermo for your onward journey.
From the sun of Palermo, the next day saw the rain of Rome. Isn’t always the way? Every time we come to Rome it rains. It’s as predictable as… well, the weather really. Virtually every umbrella we own was bought somewhere between St Peter’s (where the coach from Civitavecchia drops you off) and the Piazza Navona. We splashed our way across the piazza and considered joining the queue to go into the Basilica – as we haven’t been in for some time – but then saw how long it was and realised it would be the only thing we would have time for. So we pushed onwards, on our usual round trip of favourite Roman sights.
Those ubiquitous refreshment vans that you see everywhere in Rome look so drab in the rain. The promise of Bibite and Gelati looks woefully inadequate when what you really want is Bovril and broth. Over the Tiber we went, looking particularly gruesome in wet winter weather – the water is the same colour as a light green Morris Marina. When everyone else is wielding brollies you realise how narrow some of the pavements in Rome are, particularly when you are the only keen tourist wanting to make their way to the sights and not dawdling and taking photos of pigeons like everyone else.
On the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we nipped into the Chiesa Nuova, just in time to take a quick photo before the caretaker evicted us all for lunch. I always like to go in there to see its amazing ceiling and gold decorations – in any other city it would be revered beyond all measure, but in Rome it’s Just Another Church. We diverted off the back using the via del Corallo to take a look at the Santa Maria della Pace, and then dropped down into the top bit of the Piazza Navona. I’ve been here many times before – the first time was when I was 18 and there is a very embarrassing photo of me eating spaghetti al fresco, with it going everywhere. The prevalence of messy tomato sauce is not quite as embarrassing as the Rubettes style cap I was wearing at the time. Fashion is so cruel.
We’ve never been to Italy in December before and so I was surprised, but very delighted, to see that the Piazza Navona turns into one big Christmas market. It makes for a very lively clash of culture, with Giacomo della Porta’s fountains dominating rows of Santa hats and glass baubles. Continuing our normal route we crossed a few roads until we ended up at the Pantheon. Another of our regular must-see sights when in Rome. From the outside it’s majestic; from the inside it takes your breath away. Designed by Hadrian almost 2000 years ago, the height and diameter of the rotunda are both 142 feet and the only light is provided by the oculus hole at the top. The construction was an extraordinary feat, and to think that it survives today as well as it does is beyond words. Home to the tombs of, inter alia, Victor Emanuel, Umberto I and Raphael, it’s a building that keeps pace with modern life, and I think it’s a stunner.
From the Pantheon, it’s another short walk along the via di Pietra onto the via delle Muratte – a good place to buy books and calendars, and also home to an apartment where Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent a lovely week about ten years ago, so we always think of it as being “Our Residence in Rome” – and just follow the crowds to the Trevi Fountain. We could see the Trevi from our flat – and I can confirm, it never sleeps. Crowds are there morning, noon and night; and even in the darkest hour, when few tourists lurk, the city cleaners are out there maintaining it – noisily. Nicola Salvi’s dramatic horses are on a permanent mission to clamber over those splashy rocks whilst Tritons attempt to hold them back. I always find this such an exhilarating place – it’s a combination of the crowds, the noise, the water and the sculpture that I find hard to beat. You just have to gaze at it all for a quarter of an hour and lose yourself. Magic!
From the Trevi, you’ve basically got two choices. Do you head north and find the Spanish Steps? Or do you head south for the Colosseum and Forum? As we were accompanied by our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M, none of whom had been to Rome before, they were desperate to see the Colosseum. That was the decider. The route takes you down the via del Corso and its fashionable shops and its fashionable shoppers, and past the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which I always like to see; that controversial structure has been likened to both a wedding cake and an old fashioned typewriter, but its main source of controversy was that it blocked out the view of the Forum from the centre of town.
As we walked on, we looked over into the Forum area and thought it looked deserted. Odd, I thought, we’ll check it out on the way back. Down at the Colosseum, as it was Christmas, they had an attractive Christmas tree outside. It looked relatively appropriate in the December drizzle, but gave an additional air of bizarreness to the guys dressed as gladiators. No matter how many times you see it, the Colosseum is a wonderful sight. It looms so large at the end of the road, and its circular shape puts you in mind of a Roman gasometer; and then as your eyes follow it round you get the harsh reality of where its ancient beauty just stops and the wall falls away at 30 degrees from the top. It’s such a dramatic structure. The queue to get in was almost as long as that at St. Peter’s so we decided just to wander around it and drink in the atmosphere. Nearby is the stunning Arch of Constantine, which looks like (and of course is) an ancient monument but it’s actually 200 years younger than the Pantheon.
We thought we’d return back through the Forum, which is when I discovered why it was empty. They were charging to get in! I’ve never been charged to get in before. I think they now only have one free day a week or so. It’s a real shame, because, like nipping into a gallery for fifteen minutes to do one room really well, it was always nice to dip in for a short while and be at one with history. Now you have to plan your visit and give yourself enough time to do the whole thing, or else it isn’t worth the entrance fee. And we didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing. So we didn’t go in at all.
Just going to give a mention to our other favourite Rome sight, even though it’s one that we didn’t fit in on that day, and that’s the church of San Clemente, at the via di San Giovanni in Laterano. What’s incredible about it is that it consists of three churches in one, each built on top of each other, over centuries of use. In the basement is a pagan church from the 4th century; at street level there is a 12th century church and on top is a 17th century extension dedicated to St Clement. You feel as though, just by travelling a few feet, and going up a few stairs, you pass through eras. A memorable sight.
And that concluded our two days in Italy. We returned to St Peter’s using the subway system, and it worked like a dream. A slow coach ride back to Civitavecchia, but by taking the “official” unescorted tour, you know the ship will wait for you if you are delayed. There’s nothing quite like a cheeky Mediterranean cruise to excite the sightseeing buds and the MSC Splendida is a very beautiful ship indeed. Hopefully we’ll be back soon!