Friday, 11 April 2014

Rome (or as I like to call it Wome!)

Ancient Rome is a sight to behold. The Colosseum is colossal, the Palantine and Forum areas are vast. The Pantheon is the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain is beautiful. If you’re detecting a `but’ coming then, yes there is.
A Giant Marble Edifice I still don't know the name of
Forum District

Forum and Palantine Hill
A Bit of Colosseum

I’ve seen Roman foundations and footprints in Egypt, Cyprus, Spain, London, Bath and France and that list is without one wit of thought. I have marvelled at the achievements of the Romans, Julius Caesar and Hadrian, their forebears and followers. It’s almost incomprehensible to modern man how vast the world was to these men and their sponsors, how truly staggering mind bogglingly the ambition, to conquer the known world and pave it with roads we still use today, to build monuments in stone that would stand another ten thousand years as a testament to the adaptability, and dexterity of our species  if we were to all drop down dead tomorrow. The achievement of their masons, both at home and abroad is breathtaking ... and a part of me has come to understand unutterably why the Free Masons exist, and why they above all others hold themselves apart, mysterious and aloof from the rest of us, theirs is a heritage forged from the very bones of the Earth. From the vast monoliths and edifices they created in stone we have shrunk their engineering, made it from new materials and meta materials and created the modern world.
The Only Two Pictures of the Whole Affair

Look at that Carving
The Colosseum is we think being cleaned in stages and proofed against grime. We perfectly well understand both the need and the method due to decades of vehicle fumes and deposits that have caked it prior to the area being fully pedestrianised in 1990. The deposits from vehicle exhaust  become acidic when it rains and dissolve the stone.  Given the magnitude of the task I think the section they have scaffolded off is generous to visitors, when London did Big Ben all you could see was scaffold and netting. The preservation and repair of the Colosseum far outweighs the grumpy comments from American tourists in my humble opinion ... after all without the work being done the there would be no Colosseum for future generations.,_Rome

My gripe isn’t with the cleaning or preservation; quite the opposite. My gripes and they are only little ones, are that they should have mocked up a small section and cleaned up the internal stonework in a section so you could see just a tiny bit of it in its glory, rather than having to look at drawings, that:
 A: aren’t big enough, for more than one or two people to view and read the annotations of at a time (the crowds even at 10am were enormous)
 B: aren’t enough of them to go round; repeating the message in several places would detract not one iota from the place
C: They aren’t placed where it’s light and or lit, or where it doesn’t block a corridor once you stop to read, which as above forces you to move on or move around constantly
 D: some are just a bit wafty and cartoonish, a kind of romantic, stylised happy place.

Let’s be under no illusion the Colosseum wasn’t a great place to be if you weren’t a spectator, the games or shows were in the main free for the viewer. One grisly fact I wasn’t aware of until we read the boards and help make the point of the generally gruesome nature of what passed for entertainment in days gone by is: To assist in the depicting the suffering of those condemned to hell during their final judgement and as part of the dramatisation of the horror of hell for the audience for the early Christians (gotta love old testament Christians). They used to take condemned prisoners  (separate from stage dancers) acting out the drama of hell, dowse them with flammables and at an appropriate moment during the festivities set light to them, so they could `contort and scream as would those not forgiven by the Lord God Almighty’ ... in the churches opinion ... just for a little realism.
Forum District (lots of Forums)

So it may seem contradictory, asking to see a section in its former glory, while acknowledging the fact that they used the place mostly for acts of barbarity and evil barely imaginable, in the name of entertainment (they did put on shows just for acrobats and jugglers and the like but they didn’t prove popular). However the structure warrants a section of seats, and the pull out covers, the murals etc.

Forums again
There should be models of the underground levels you can’t see (not just the open area you can see which was clearly subterranean in times gone by). There should be mock ups of the mechanisms that are described on other picture boards, to show how they raised the animals and people for the show (maybe some computer animations in parts set aside as auditoria to give you a virtual walk-through). It is big enough; vast areas lay just fenced off black and abandoned, stacked randomly with soot covered bits of architecture, broken display stands, temporary barriers and fences and blown in litter. Maybe with the advent of augmented reality things will improve, maybe the cleaning externally heralds and change in perspective.
I must sound like a terrible moaner, but the fact of the matter is, there are thousands of visitors trooping through this monumental edifice, spending millions of Euros, on a few rather crappy, hard foam picture boards that if you stop to stand and read you’re in the way, or constantly having to shift about so you can maintain your `reading continuity’. And inside the place the concrete hard caps that protect the ancient stone just don’t do the site (in light of this statement we went to Pompei a few days later and the difference in preservation and ambition is astonishing, but forms a separate post).
Horse and Carts
You’re in Rome, ancient Rome, the cradle of our Western European civilisation including America. A place that has affected the development of everything we know, for at least 2500 years, and the current Romans/Italians aren’t doing it justice. I’m glad we paid our money and saw what we saw. I’m just gutted that, having been teased by Roman everything since primary school and everywhere I’ve ever been in Europe and beyond, that when I finally came to the cradle to the heart, to the place where Hadrian set out from to build a wall across northern England and to Egypt to build his own gateway to the Delfi Temple, where Julius Caesar went forth to invade ancient Britain and most of western Europe, that the people in charge of preserving and showing our joint heritage are doing in my opinion a shit job, and being quite happy to collect the money with no imagination whatsoever.
A tiny bit of Palantine Hill
So that’s the showmanship,  and the archaeology gripe dealt with. Visit Rome you won’t regret it ... sort of.

Stadium Within the Palantine Hill Complex

Palantine Hill
Here comes the bigger but.

Beyond the problems which are just a lack of vision and imagination, there are far deeper troubles around the sites ... almost all of the Palatine hill area, Pantheon etc. Unlicensed and unwanted Hawkers and peddlars around the sites, lots of little Bangladeshi/Pakistani/sub Saharan African men selling tut, some is Roman souvenir material a lot of it is just any old shit they can sell. One after the other, they approach you in very close proximity. This is a problem because you are warned in tourist offices, at the campsite, in the guidebooks (everywhere really) to watch out for the ubiquitous pickpockets. How do you tell? Your only choice is to put a hand out to stop them approaching, and this can be seen as aggressive, but then do you risk being bumped by someone trying to sell you a knock off Burberry Scarf and loose your wallet or do you defend your personal space?

When it’s not them it’s the locals in what can only be described as really really crappy interpretations of what a Roman legionary dressed like, trying to get you to have your picture taken with them, and these buggers want to put their arm round you ... or your wife usually. Not a single one of these characters even vaguely looks genuine, the bloke outside the Colosseum dressed as Batman (yes Batman), spent more time and money on his costume than every phoney Legionary in Rome. Then there’s the wailing cup shaking beggars. And finally to top of the dross layer, you have the `Sightseeing tour pirates’. They can approach from up to a quarter of a mile away; they have `only five spaces left on the next tour so are selling them at the discount price of €45 instead of the usual price of €65’ ... after you’ve met four of these people on the approach, you do the sums, four touts, five victims each, twenty bodies per tour, €45 a ticket is just the price. So referring to imagination of the sites conservators above ... they used their imagination and subbed out responsibility for site seeing and guided tours to, private entities as concessions. But don’t `regulate’ the process. To balance that statement all the Big Red Bus tours have fully printed and disclosed price material up front, you know exactly what you’re getting and how much it costs. Hold on where are the police you ask if there’s such a problem with hawkers? Well they sort of saunter through now and again, the peddlars literally run like lunatics away from the area. The police leave, the peddlars come back. It was described by a fella we met as watching a shark pass through a shoal of fish, but he shark is literally passing through not feeding.

The Palantine hill area is vast and suffers from all the same sorts of woes, with regards to signage and definition. Once your inside all the hawkers and peddlars are way out of range, and the area is vast, like a huge hilly park with the ruins of an ancient city inside. There is a small museum with a model or two, some odds and end of statuary and a rough timeline, other than that your pretty much on your own. Even the Imperial museum that takes in the forum area is difficult to navigate. Sections are closed off, there are dead ends without explanation of why the area was open for you to walk in and look at what?  `what ... what the FF am I looking at what is there in this area that I’m supposed to be marvelling at, other than some brickwork? Excuse me clue required here’.   The map is only available in Italian, at €18 for two people you would expect a copy in your own language, especially when at each ticket booth you’re asked for your nationality and or home city. I have to re-iterate I’m glad we’ve came and have seen. I think I’m more glad that I’ve seen lots of Time Team, and I’m glad I paid more attention to history and classical studies lessons at school than I’d normally have given myself credit for otherwise a lot of what we have seen would have been a total mystery or waste of money ... I also found out where Ian M Banks got some of his ideas for Surface Detail (the book I’m reading).

There is one other thing we should mention and again it’s not going to be high praise. Food and drink, if you think London tourist prices are a liberty, then come to Rome, €9 a shot of Vodka, €6 two thirds of a pint of beer, €5 for a litre of water, €3 average a cup of coffee (these are restaurant prices), find a corner shop of the main drag and things improve, but as a general rule Italy is expensive. I was asked to pay €2 for a Marathon (that’s a Snickers in new money) I dropped it on the counter and the price dropped immediately to €1.50, I still walked away and the bloke still called after me. Be careful with deal of the day menu’s chalked up outside that don’t exist once you’ve sat at a table. So your fancied Penne Arabiata at €5 is now €15 ... we got caught out ... I had steam coming out my ears, but we were buggered ... ain’t no Trading Standards in Rome. We could have refused to pay and just walked out, but it’s a risk if the owners get militant, and the police, though around in vast numbers (the queen visited the day we were there), seem like a bunch of overly dressed and  fully armed juveniles, more intent on watching barely legal teenage girls in school or college groups, or messing about on their phones and smoking fags, than dealing with Hawkers, Peddlars and beggars etc ... what chance the English couple who did a technical runner.

We’ve asked ourselves if we’ve been spoiled by Spain. Yes some of the sites were not as well put together as they could be, but Spain is still effectively still recovering from fifty years of dictatorship and there are people six years younger than me born into the Spain of Franco; likewise Portugal, in a state of torpor since its heady days as master of the seven seas, still catching up after its decline and dictatorship.

Italy I believe has been free as have we since the end of the second world war, home of Ferrari, Maserati, designer brands by the bucketful, direct inheritors of the legacy of Rome, clearly wealthy in-spite of the Euro crisis, BUT!

In one of our videos I’ve said Rome is all surface no substance, sitting on its Laurels and raking in the cash, and spending it on who knows what? I think we’ve missed a lot because we only gave ourselves two days to see the ancient stuff (which is why we went). It’s too expensive and we aren’t able to say whether we would return either in moho, or just for a city break, to see the museums and galleries.

To finish: In the roughly two weeks we roamed around  Italy, we spent close on £2000. Amanda had a risotto on the day we got caught out by the deal of the day menu. The rice wasn’t risotto rice, it was just long grain with cream (I made a proper one in Moho the following day). The lobster with  pasta I had was from the freezer (some of the claw meat was still frozen). And yet the restaurant was full of locals, that’s one of the reasons we went in. Call me cynical, call me paranoid, but if it’s full of locals then the food must pass muster. The question is then: Is the food they then serve to tourists of lower quality to maximise margin, or are the palettes of the Italians so uncultured they don’t know quality? Apply that question to all Rome.

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