We had a rough ride on the Italian train system last night, whew!
My heart sank as the ticket seller at Avignon informed me there was no possibility of getting a train to Rome in time for our booked accommodation commencing on the night of the 26th. I had to find some Internet access to email the booked b& b and advise that we would not be able to arrive until the morning after our booking commenced. To add insult to injury, I would have to pay 50 euros extra on top of our Eurail pass to enjoy the pleasures of sharing a cramped, filthy compartment with random strangers overnight. The best that could be offered to us on the rail system was places in a four person shared couchette compartment, where they give you a crappy thin combination sheet blanket that appears to be made of tissue paper,and you try to sleep if you can. The early part of the journey was pleasant enough, travelling along the last of the French riviera, Monaco, Monte Carla, Ventimiglia and into Italy, with the coastal lights sparkling in the increasing gloom. Miriam settled down by 11 or so. Then when it was passport check time at the border the cops dragged away one of our travelling companions, together with his bag, and he was not seen again by any of us. He may have been an illegal immigrant or something.
Later, after most were asleep but I was having trouble getting there, I saw two young shady characters roaming up and down the corridor. Sure enough, after a while there were cops running around and a Canadian lady reporting her bag with passport and credit cards was gone.
Now I had seen one of the guys standing ten metres or so down our carriage corridor with a bag draped over his shoulder that looked like what she had described, and gave a description to the conductor. A few hours later, the cops found the offenders still on the train. They had slipped on the train while it was stopped at a station, one of the seemingly endless stops. About four o'clock in the morning a female conductor woke me up and told me they had caught the guys, and presented the missing bag to me as if I had the owner in my compartment. I pointed her down the corridor to approximately where I thought the Canadian might be found, who was of course much relieved to regain possession of her passport, her credit cards, and every essential item a traveller needs.
So all in all, a nerve wracking night. It took a long while for the adrenaline to subside. I managed a couple of hours of fitful nightmarish sleep before a freezing morning and being jolted awake by Miriam shaking me. In the confusion of having only five minutes notice from the conductor that we would have to get off at Rome, I lost my cosy windcheater that we had bought in Ireland, damn.
Also, by the time the journey was over, the railway toilets were in a condition more appropriate to a concentration camp than a contemporary democracy. The floor awash with urine had stunk from the start and grew steadily more horrific as the kilometres eked away. A strange suited gentleman who had stood at the end of the carriage looking out the window, pausing only to listen to what we think was a drag queen practising a little opera, changed into his pyjamas and climbed up into the couchette where our illegal immigrant had been. His feet proceeded to stink out the whole compartment, which we of course had to lock against the possibility of more thievery. The whole journey was an absolute health hazard. It had started like an Agatha Christie novel and ended like a failed Hitchcock movie.
We finally made it into Rome at 6.30 in the morning, where we found that the station we were at was a few km away from our b & b. A taxi driver was happy to rip us off with a fifteen euro ride including a massive service charge for lifting our two humble bags into the cab. No-one seems to give a stuff about anyone in this town, service with a snarl at every shop, but the b&b we are in seems ok and there is an english speaker on the staff , who is great and has given us some good advice.
We are told by him, look out for thieves and pickpockets constantly here,especially around the main tourist areas. And don't feel complacent on the trains, they are constant targets for thieves too.
After flaking out on the bed for an hour or so, we struggled out and tried the tourist bus that had worked OK for us in Barcelona. We were so tired that every time we closed our eyes on the bus we were instantly asleep, and unable to take in much about us. However, we did gain an appreciation of the strange jumble of the ancient, the not so old, and the plain bad taste of some of the more recent parts of Roma. With plans to tackle the city after a restorative sleep, we called it a day and hit the sack fairly early.
Advised by Pino, our part time (mornings only, brings our breakfast in his bag, lukewarm yoghurt, bread like paper, brioche and apricot jam, always the same....) that there was a snap transport strike again (happens every coupla months, he says)we resolve to strike out on foot to see Rome. At this point I am really glad to have with me my trusty compass, a reasonably detailed street map with major sites marked on it, and Miriam to watch my back and pockets while we walk. With the aid of these things, we navigated fairly smoothly to the Spanish Steps, accidentally found the house where John Keats, one of my favourite poets, died, the house now a museum devoted to he and Shelley. The Byron shirt shop is next door.
Onwards, and in a side street we found a pretty cool little fresh food market, bought some foccacia kind of things that were better than most of the horrible food we had been subjected to by the so called restaurants of Rome, good coffee at half the price, and a slice of real Romans going about their day.
Colntinuing on we made it to the Vatican, and round the back to the right, then to the left, and the left again to the Vatican Museums including the Sistine Chapel, one of Miriam's required sites for this trip. With a room of Raphael's frescos to compare, we argued the merits and issues of both, feeling that Michaelangelo's work was more inspired and grand in conception, but as some have commentated, his portrayals of women seem over muscular and quite masculine in appearance.
After several hours of touring the huge Vatican collection, we moved on to the Coliseum and walked right around it, as well as many other sites of great antiquity that were impressive and imbued with many ghosts of the long ago days. Particularly interesting was the site in the middle of town where it is believed the forum in which Julius Ceasar met his pointed demise once existed. It is now home to hundreds of feral cats that sleep on top of the ancient stone columns and are believed to be descendants of cats that were given by Cleopatra to Mark Antony; unfortunately he was allergic to their fur and dumped them. Now the cats are citizens of Rome and are not allowed to be harassed.
We enjoyed seeing the jigsaw of the old traces of Roman glory overlain with each new ages reworkings and renovations and additions. What was disappointing was the alarming indifference to such simple hygiene matters as refraining from urinating on every available surface. This seemed to be a popular practise among the natives of the city - and was not confined to men alone. If the scarce public toilets happened to be closed - a frequent case - the practise seemed to be to let fly in the very doorways of the toilet buildings. All this in broad daylight, with no shame displayed at all. All public buildings, such as the cafe in front of the main station Termini, had to be hosed down every morning to reduce the stench but never removing it. All in all, it seemed that the glory that was Rome is now a debased and self interested collection of opportunists out to take what they can from the visitors who surely sustain their local economy. We were pleased to be able to get tickets to get out of town and head to Florence the following morning.