Our original plan was to trek south to Naples so we could see Pompeii, but time and money did not allow for such a journey. One of my co-workers, Helen Park, suggested that if we couldn’t make that trip, we should visit Ostia Antica instead. It’s only about 30 miles from central Rome and easily accessible via the suburban rail lines. So, we took her advice.
Smart move. The place is actually hard to describe – you’re walking on streets that don’t seem to have changed much in 2000 years. I won’t bore you with a long history (you can find that here), but the gist is this: Ostia was the main harbor city for Rome during the late Republic and Imperial eras. The fall of the Empire, coupled with environmental issues, led the city to be abandoned gradually and covered with layers of silt. Looting and invasions occurred, but they were minimal compared to what went on elsewhere, especially in Rome itself.
Now, it’s a massive archeological site, where you can climb on most of the structures, unassailed by a crush of tourists. Ostia should be much better known than it is, but it’s also nice to wander around without being rendered immobile by the crowds (hello, Vatican Museum!).
You enter through the necropolis, which is where Romans wisely buried their dead (or stored the ashes), outside the city proper. As you pass through the gates, you see remnants of a busy, working-class community’s daily life.
There are insulae, the apartment buildings average people lived in, stacked up along the stone streets. Shops, warehouses, and taverns are everywhere, including one where you can still sit at the bar.
Since public baths were popular places for business transactions, there are dozens of them, complete with elaborate mosaics. The amphitheater is still in good shape. Even the temples can be made out pretty well, although they’re generally less intact than other structures.
We spent four hours there, and I was ready to move in. We ate lunch at the visitors’ center and checked out the gift shop, then ventured to another beautiful spot, looking down over what we thought might be the western boundary of the city.
We were quite mistaken.
By this time, it was nearing sunset, and we were both tired. I could have gone on until we got kicked out, but Mom’s feet were not responding well to the pavements (or lack thereof). Plus, she wanted to go to the beach, which we had assumed we’d be doing by this time.
So, the other half of Ostia is on the bucket list for my next trip to Rome, and we will be spending more time at the beach. It was a little chilly for a full day there, but after Mom kindly indulged my historic (heh) nerdiness, the least I could do was make sure we walked along the shore for a while.
Exhausted as we were, we hopped on the train and went to Castel Fusano, the next-to-last stop on the rail line. The station was three blocks from the water, and since it was off-season, we had free run of the place. We admired the dark sands and tiny, shiny black seashells that cover the beach there. We wrinkled our noses at the jellyfish carcasses that had washed ashore.
And we saw the sunset. It may not have been the seaside excursion Mom was hoping for, but it was a lovely, peaceful way to end our last full day in this extraordinary place.
That night, we finally ate at the little restaurant a block away from our apartment, where the staff had invited us in every day since we arrived. We turned in early, and headed to the airport at waytoodamnearly o’clock. on Wednesday. We changed planes in Munich, which meant getting German stamps on our passports (although l don’t think it really counts if you never leave the airport). We arrived back in D.C. that night, physically destroyed, but absolutely thrilled.
The next day was a cold, rainy Halloween, so we stayed in our hotel room, watching horror movies on cable and ordering in our meals. Mom was still in pain from all the walking, and I had inexplicably gotten sick on the flight from Munich, so it took a full day to recover. We flew home Friday, ready to share our experience – and plan our next trip. Because we are definitely not done.
Final round of pictures below….
Monday was the day we finally stopped walking past the Colosseum and walked into it. We had reservations for a tour, one of the few times we didn’t just go the self-guided route, mostly because we were hoping to visit the underground areas (the hypogeum). Alas, they had suffered some recent water damage and weren’t safe, so we had to admire them from above.
Our guide, Patricia, was very nice and informative (and kind of short – we lost her for a bit as we moved from the Colosseum to the Forum). We climbed up to the top accessible level, which had incredible views, and marveled at what utter geniuses the ancient Romans were. Ever been to a sports stadium with numbered entrances, sections, and rows? Thank the guys who designed places like this. The tiered seating, the breezy walkways, the fancy sections for rich people – you can see the genesis of that right there at Il Colosseo.
They’ve built a half-floor out over the hypogeum, so you can get a sense of what it looked like before gladiators, animals, etc. popped up through trapdoors for their dramatic entrances. The hypogeum itself is quite elaborate, especially when you discover that it contained at least one tunnel that emerged at a nearby gladiator training facility. We passed the ruins of this place daily, so there must be some significant artifacts buried under the neighborhood’s busy streets and buildings.
The Colosseum is in remarkably good shape when you consider how many times it was attacked, looted, and hit by earthquakes over the years. The Forum Romanum, which is right next to it, is mostly rubble, although you can still see traces of its former grandeur.
My favorite structure in the Forum is probably the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, dedicated to a deified emperor and his wife, which was later turned into a Christian church. The columns and some other decorative elements are still there, which makes it look like the church has been pushed up into the middle of the temple. Ironically, this appropriation of pagan sites is the only way many of them survived – being turned into a church meant not being obliterated when Christianity came to dominate the region (see Pantheon, The). The Christians were determined to either wipe out or overwhelm every pagan site they could find, which meant not only turning temples into churches, but making sure the new churches were bigger and more elaborate than their competition. Then they started building other churches that were bigger than the previous ones.
The same phenomenon is at work in the triumphal arches, built by various emperors to commemorate their military victories. The Arch of Titus, from the 1st century, is 50 feet tall. Septimius Severus built one in the 3rd century that was 68 feet tall. When Constantine built his in the 4th century, guess how tall it was?
Basically, the architectural history of Rome is one epic dick-measuring contest. This continued into the modern era, with the Victor Emmanuel monument (1925) and Mussolini’s Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana (1943) both towering over the city. The locals criticize their gaudiness, but they’re just continuing the time-honored tradition of “my giant structure is bigger than your giant structure”.
Anyway, the Forum is catnip for history aficionados. You’re walking the same streets as Julius Caesar, looking at statues of actual Vestal Virgins, sitting on the steps of the Temple of Saturn. Even in ruins, it’s thrilling.
We did all this before lunch. Click to read about the Pantheon and why I want to be reincarnated as a stray Roman cat. Also, more pictures!
Yeah, this happened:
Sunday was probably the least active day of our trip – we needed time to rest before climbing on ruins for the next 48 hours. The first stop was just around the corner at the Basilica di San Clemente, one of the most fascinating examples of Rome’s “layer cake” architecture. It was another place where we couldn’t take pictures, but the link above has some good ones, and so do Wikipedia and Sacred Destinations.
The top level is a beautiful church, still in use, that dates to around 1100. It’s been touched up and added to over the years, and there is some truly gorgeous artwork – including (naturally) on the ceiling. Below that is a late-4th century church, which would have been established not long after Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. You can still see some altars and traces of paintings, including this remarkable piece, which suggests that Christian and pagan worship co-existed peacefully at some point here. There’s a lesson for us all.
Go down another level, and there are two buildings dating from around the second and third centuries. One may have been the Roman mint. The other was a private building, owned by a (likely wealthy) member of the Mithras cult. Mithras was a Persian deity, adopted and syncretized by the Romans, whose worship centered around underground temples called Mithraea. There is one in this building, complete with carved altar. It’s dramatic and mysterious, which was the point – it was a “mystery” cult, after all, with initiation rites and lots of secret practices.
Although you can’t touch the frescoes or go inside the Mithraeum, there is very little off-limits in San Clemente’s lower levels. We wandered around, sat on the stone benches, flipped over the Christian/pagan altar, touched a second Mithraic altar in one of the long hallways. You just feel enveloped by history in a place like this.
After venturing back into the sunlight, we had lunch at an outdoor cafe, enjoying yet another beautiful day. We saw a chunk of an old aqueduct, just standing next a modern building, a common experience in Rome (we also saw columns sticking up in random places). We also had that “turn the corner and….WOW!” moment again, thanks to San Giovanni in Laterano. We only saw the facade, but that was awe-inspiring enough.
On the other side of the piazza was this lovely thing.
We walked through the gates of the ancient city wall and took the Metro to the suburbs, emerging – literally – at the entrance to Cinecittá.
This was our one concession to modernity, as I could not be this close to Europe’s greatest movie studio without making a pilgrimage. Unfortunately, Italy’s “fall back” clock re-setting was the night before, which screwed up our plans to take the full studio tour (it was getting too late). We did, however, walk around the entrance grounds, which contain statues from movies like Gladiator and The Fall of the Roman Empire, plus the giant head from Casanova.
There was an exhibit on the studio’s history, so we got to see (and in some cases, touch) props and costumes from various Cinecittá productions. We also walked around the exterior sets for some Italian sitcom whose name I can’t remember. So, the trip out there was still completely worth it, even if we only saw the studio itself from a distance. After that, we tried to visit the old Appian Way, but it was almost dark, so we headed home instead.
I got to see where Fellini and Leone made their magic, and it was only the 5th or 6th coolest thing we did on this vacation. That says a lot.
More pics if you click
Director: George Clooney
Writers: George Clooney & Grant Heslov; based on the non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Cast: George Clooney as Frank Stokes, Matt Damon as James Granger, Bill Murray as Richard Campbell, Cate Blanchett as Claire Simone, John Goodman as Walter Garfield, Jean Dujardin as Jean-Claude Clermont, Hugh Bonneville as Donald Jeffries, Bob Balaban as Preston Savitz, Dimitri Leonidas as Sam Epstein
Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes
IMDB page: www.imdb.com/title/tt2177771/
Plot: In the final months of World War II, a group of art experts attempt to retrieve and protect priceless works stolen by the Nazis.
The Monuments Men occupies an odd space in the continuum of World War II movies. With its old-fashioned style and combination of humor and drama, it’s exactly halfway between Saving Private Ryan and Hogan’s Heroes.
We talk cult movies (and what that term even means), and I offer reviews of Her, August: Osage County, That Awkward Moment, & Lone Survivor.
The KCFCC is co-sponsoring a screening of director John D. Hancock’s work-in-progress, Swan Song, on January 30th at the Screenland Crown Center. Hancock has had a long career in film and television, but I just plan to talk to him about Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, one of my all-time favorite Friday Fright Night discoveries.
Anyway, go here for the full press release.
We covered a lot of ground on Saturday, including some we hadn’t planned on. Previously, Mom & I had gone to specific sites that were close together, so everything was easy to navigate. On this day, we visited several locations within walking distance of each other – but only via the twisting, poorly marked, random street layout of Rome.
It started off easy, with a visit to the crypts of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini. From the outside, the church is pretty nondescript, but once you get inside, it’s among the strangest “tourist attractions” in the city. At some point in its history, the church’s Capuchin friars decided to start arranging the bones of their dead brethren into elaborate works of art. We weren’t allowed to take photos, but there are some online here, here & here.
Being our morbid selves, we assumed this would be dark and creepy, but it wasn’t. It was beautiful. There was something so peaceful and spiritual about it, we were both taken off guard. That was one of the more pleasant surprises of our trip.
From there, we got sidetracked by the shops as we headed toward Trevi Fountain. You have to go to Venice to see Murano glass items being made, but you can buy them cheap all over Rome (and we did). We also found lots of cool souvenirs and a woodcarver’s shop where you could watch a guy make little Pinocchio dolls. We bought one for my nephew, straight off the workbench.
The fountain was just around the corner, and it’s another one of those remarkable, giant structures that just appears out of nowhere as you walk through Rome. It was crowded with tourists, but we were able to get near the water pretty quickly. We threw our coins in to guarantee a return visit, per tradition, then got out of the way so someone else could do the same. Then we just stared at it for a while.
We walked down the very ritzy Via Veneto, with its expensive designer stores, to the Spanish Steps. Sitting on the steps is another odd little Italian tradition, and one of those things you just have to do (despite no one seeming to know why). As we headed away from the piazza, we stopped to listen to a street performer playing what appeared to be a modified steel drum. It definitely added to the ambiance of the place.
From there, we headed to the Piazza del Popolo, a crowded plaza with the usual bustle of activity. Our real destination was the nearby Villa Borghese, home of the Villa Giulia, home of the National Etruscan Museum. We didn’t have time to take day trips to the Etruscan archeological sites north of the city, so this was the next best thing.
You have to be a huge history nerd to walk through an entire building full of Greek and Etruscan art, so…..hi, nice to meet you! Mom was interested, but I think she was also humoring me. We didn’t take photos, but the museum link above has some nice ones.
My favorite piece from the collection is this:
It’s a scene from the “Seven Against Thebes” myth, and yes, that guy at the bottom is trying to eat the other guy’s brains. The figure on the far left, with the WTF?! expression, is Athena. Even the goddess of war thought this was a bit much, and she withdrew a previous offer of immortality from the cranium-muncher. Of all the crazy stuff depicted in Greco-Etruscan art, this may well be the most awesome.
By the time we left the museum, it was dark, and we realized we no longer had our street map. No telling where it ended up, but thankfully, there was a big “you are here” map nearby. Thanks to Mom’s human-compass sense of direction and my photographic memory, we were able to get to the right cross street.
We were also hungry, so we stopped at a little neighborhood pizza place, where the phrasebook Italian came in handy. In the touristy areas, most people speak at least a little English, but once you get into the “real” Rome, the locals’ English is about as good as my Italian. We managed to order, eat, and pay successfully, and I got (and understood!) directions to the nearby subway station. I even got a “Brava!” from the lady at the counter when I understood her instructions for finding the restroom. That felt good.
So did finally getting home that night. And buying a new map.
Friday was our day to visit the Vatican Museums, which entailed riding the subway. I’ve ridden the New York subway, and I can’t find my way around without the help of a local. Rome, on the other hand, has an incredibly easy system to navigate. Its builders have had to dodge 3000 years’ worth of historical artifacts, yet still created something efficient and practical. What the hell is Kansas City’s excuse?
Anyway, the Vatican is in an actual, medieval walled city-state (although they don’t stamp your passport, darn it). Just sitting on a bench outside those walls was pretty remarkable for an American. It was also a fun opportunity for people-watching, especially when the illegal street vendors scramble for cover upon sighting a police car. Those guys can fold up their stuff and run fast – they’ll hide behind cars or dumpsters while the officers of the Guardia di Finanza park, look around, and drive away. Within a few minutes, the vendors have set back up, like nothing happened. Considering how obnoxious those guys are – they practically shove their souvenirs into your hands, no matter how many times you say “NO” – I was unsympathetic, I’ll admit. At least the street beggars stay out of your face.
Once inside the museums, you quickly realize that maps and directions are useless. The place is a huge, crowded maze, and only about half the signs have English translations. The only thing you can’t miss is the Sistine Chapel, as signs pointing to La Cappella Sistina are all over the place (it’s basically the last stop). Until then, the best option is to just wander around, taking in as much of this breathtaking collection as possible. We looked at enough ancient statues to make me happy, and seemed to find another beautiful painting or tapestry every time we turned a corner. They even let you take photos, which is unusual in museums (and churches), given the damage flash photography can do. It’s well-lit enough here that no one needed their flash, so that may explain why it was OK.
The Sistine Chapel is smaller and darker than I imagined, but once you adjust and look up, it hits you that Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” is right above your head. Then you notice how much detail covers every inch of the place, how some of the figures are so brilliantly designed, they seem to be climbing out of the walls and ceiling. Suddenly, size doesn’t matter.
We ventured out to a courtyard to rest, then realized we had no idea how to get out. Granted, there are worse places to be trapped, but we were tired and wanted to see St. Peter’s Square before we headed home. A nice security guard pointed us in the right direction, and we walked down the neat spiral staircase, out the main exit, and around the wall (past the Swiss Guards). We stood in the huge expanse of the Square, gazing at St. Peter’s Basilica……and at the ridiculous line to get in. This may be one of the world’s great structures, full of art and history, but there was no way we were standing in that line. So we admired the outside, which was impressive in itself (did you know there’s a 4000-year-old Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the Square? You do now!).
We hit up a couple of souvenir shops, knowing this would be the ultimate place to buy Christmas gifts for our Catholic friends. Pope Francis is really popular – there is “I ♥ Papa Francesco” stuff all over the place. We like him too, and there does seem to be a fairly upbeat spirit around the Vatican now. I don’t know what it was like before, but it’s hard to imagine this many smiling faces during
Emperor Palpatine Pope Benedict’s rule.
Another train ride, another gelato stop, another noisy night in the neighborhood, and we were ready to tackle Day 4.
More photos if you click
My colleague Michael D. Smith has an article at KC Metropolis about film criticism in our fair city. I’m in it. Here’s the link: http://kcmetropolis.org/issue/january-15-2014/article/film-criticism-alive-and-well-in-kc
I don’t generally get too upset about the Oscar nominations. It’s an industry award, so it’s more about film people recognizing their peers than it is about the absolute best of the year. There are also a limited number of slots in each category (something I wish they’d change for everything, like they did for Best Picture). It’s inevitable that some of the best films and performances will get left out, and 2013 is no exception. So, let’s just say I’m annoyed on behalf of these movies.
What Got Robbed:
1. Inside Llewyn Davis – This is the most egregious omission, since it was considered a contender by many observers. The Coen Brothers’ portrait of a folk musician navigating the early ’60s New York scene wasn’t exactly a crowd-pleaser. In fact, it turned off some viewers, mainly because it’s a comedy that doesn’t always seem like one, and its lead character (Oscar Isaac) is kind of a dick. But Isaac is terrific in the role, the music (including a few original songs) is great, and the script is witty and complex. But all it got were nods for cinematography and sound mixing. WTF, Academy?
2. All Is Lost – In any other year, Robert Redford would have a Best Actor nod locked up. His performance as a sailor stranded alone in the Indian Ocean is the very definition of “tour de force” – especially since he’s 77 years old and hasn’t been in front of the camera in years. It’s also a one-man show with very little dialogue, and a masterpiece of directing (by J.C. Chandor) and editing (by Pete Beaudreau). All it got from the Oscars was a sound editing nom.
3. Enough Said – Nicole Holofcener’s sweet, funny romance may have descended into sitcom tropes, but it still delighted me (and many others). Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late James Gandolfini are a surprisingly, genuinely adorable couple, and Holofcener’s script is full of smart observations about the challenges of love, especially after a certain age. And what did it get for being this awesome? Zippo, that’s what.
What Robbed Them:
1. August: Osage County – This adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play is shrill, oppressive, and melodramatic – and that’s in its better moments. The fact that Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts got acting nominations just proves that Streep will get nominated for everything she does (it’s the law), and Roberts can always count on accolades for playing against type. Those slots should have gone to actresses who weren’t directed to swallow the scenery whole.
2. Dallas Buyers Club – In this case the acting nods are justified, although Matthew McConaughey is still playing a variation on his usual persona (just a very effective one). But the movie itself is muddled and heavy-handed, and would not have been on anyone’s radar without McConaughey and Jared Leto.
1/2. American Hustle – I really liked David O. Russell’s fictionalization of the ABSCAM scandal. It’s a fun movie with first-rate performances by the appropriately-recognized Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s hardly Russell’s best work, however, and Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper aren’t in top form either. It deserves nominations, just not so many of them.
Thursday was orientation day, which involved a fairly quick bus trip. It was crowded, but efficient, which turned out to be true of the Rome’s entire public transportation system.
Our stop was in front of Santa Maria in Vallicella, also known as the Chiesa Nuova, or “New Church.” It dates from the late 1500s, but it was built on the site of an earlier church, hence the nickname. In Europe, time is measured in centuries, not years.
We walked through some of those famously narrow, angled streets until our destination, the Chiostro del Bramante, was in sight. We had 45 minutes to kill, so we accepted the offer of a table at a nice little pizzeria. Every sidewalk in Rome has these small restaurants, where employees stand outside and try (usually in several languages) to get you to eat at their establishments. This particular one was run by an older man whose family had owned the place for ages. We thought, “Real Italian pizza, why not?” and took a seat. We ordered and gladly accepted the free wine. Then we waited…..and waited. Half an hour.
Meanwhile, our Untours liaison, Mary, happened to walk by on her way to the Chiostro. She informed the proprietor that we had a meeting to get to, which he seemed to take as an offense. It did finally light a fire under the staff, who brought us our food with barely five minutes to spare. The owner tried to make it seem like slow service was a typical Italian thing, but our experience at every other restaurant on our trip proved otherwise.
There were four other people in this Untours group – a couple in their 60s who are longtime world travelers, and a pair of older women from California. And by “older,” I mean one of them was 91, and the other wasn’t much younger. They travel together a lot, and every time Mom and I started to complain about being tired after a day of sightseeing, we reminded ourselves of our extreme relative youth and shut up.
Next came a short walk to the Castel Sant’Angelo. A pedestrian bridge across the Tiber, lined with angel statues, leads to a building that epitomizes Rome’s “layer cake” history. It was built as a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian, and years of looting have exposed the detailed brick work and other engineering feats. Over the centuries, it also served as a fortress, a prison, and a hideout for the Pope during attacks on the city.
That last use led to some spectacular artwork, especially on the ceilings. I don‘t know what it was about Renaissance artists and ceilings, but if you ever go into a building in Rome, look up. It’s totally worth the neck strain.
We wound down with some free food and wine (everyone has a glass of wine handy in this country). When we emerged from the cafeteria, we saw the the sunset from the Castel’s balcony. It had been overcast and drizzly all day, so this vision was a lovely way to cap off our first real sojourn into la Città Eterna.
More pics after the jump (click any photo to see the large version)
Director: John Wells
Writer: Tracy Letts; based on his play
Cast: Meryl Streep as Violet Weston, Julia Roberts as Barbara Weston, Julianne Nicholson as Ivy Weston, Juliette Lewis as Karen Weston, Ewan McGregor as Bill, Chris Cooper as Charles, Margo Martindale as Mattie Fae, Benedict Cumberbatch as “Little Charles”, Dermot Mulroney as Steve, Abigail Breslin as Jean, Misty Upham as Johnna, Sam Shepard as Beverly Weston
Running time: 2 hours
IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1322269
Plot: When writer Beverly Weston disappears, his family gathers at the home he shared with his volatile wife, Violet, in rural Oklahoma.
I haven’t seen Tracy Letts’ play of August: Osage County, but the fact that it won a Pulitzer indicates that it’s probably pretty good. Given the source material, the skills of director John Wells, and the ridiculously awesome cast, it’s hard to figure out why this film adaptation is so godawful.
I know this is a movie blog, but there was no other good place to post this, so enjoy! (We did make a stop at CineCittá on Day 5, so it counts. Sort of.)
In 1962, a lovely, mysterious actress appears in the tiny Italian seaside town of Porto Vergogna, and the young proprietor of the local inn, Pasquale Tursi, immediately falls in love. He can’t begin to imagine the tangle of Hollywood gossip and glamour that’s about to surround his dreary world. All he knows is that this woman, Dee Moray, needs him, and he needs her.
What follows is a gorgeous romance that follows its characters through decades of good times, bad decisions, and the constant, wistful sense of “what might have been.” Besides Dee and Pasquale, Jess Walter follows studio executives, an aspiring screenwriter, and a young man who may be the offspring of a famous (and famously debauched) movie star.
Walter has a writing style that could be described as very literary, full of dense sentences and observations, not to mention constant jumps in time and place. Beautiful Ruins is the kind of book you read carefully, not casually, because you will miss something important if you’re too distracted. Those important things aren’t always plot points, either – sometimes, Walter’s insights are so piercing, they overwhelm any concerns about narrative. This is one of the best books I’ve read in years, and it left me emotionally satisfied in a way that few works of fiction can.
Read It If You Like: Old-school Hollywood scandal; studio machinations; melancholy romance; Italy.
Would It Make a Good Movie?: Only if someone could untangle the complicated storyline and multiple character arcs. It’s almost unfilmable, which may not be a bad thing. Some books just don’t lend themselves.