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A few days in Rome

Sorry for the break in transmission for the past week, but I’ve got a good excuse. I’ve been on holiday in Rome. I joined a group tour run by Christopher’s and my favourite holiday company, Andante. They are rather an unusual company, owned and run by archaeologists, who run very interesting trips which are a cross between holidays and study tours, led by a guide lecturer who is an expert in the field. So I wouldn’t describe their holidays as totally relaxing, but we both enjoyed them. There was a reasonable amount of free time on this trip for independent exploration, but also evening lectures, walking tours, coach trips and group dinners with good food and plenty of wine.

The Colosseum

On Tuesday, our first full day in Rome, we went on a walking tour of some of the main Imperial sights – the forum, the Colosseum, and a fascinating church, San Clemente. That’s a rather beautiful 12th century church, but the real interest to me was in the basements. It is built on top of a fourth century church, which in turn is built on top of a  1st century  Roman apartment block. So many metres below the current street level are the remains of a block of flats put up soon after the great fire of Rome of AD64 (the one that Nero fiddled during). Even more impressive, preserved in some of the rooms of the apartment block was a Mithraeum, i.e. an altar to the god Mithras, which was a competing religion to the early church, with both religions appealing predominantly to the lower socio-economic classes. The theory is that one of the inhabitants of the block of flats was a prominent early Christian, possibly the eponymous Clement, who established a “house church” in his apartment, close to where a neighbour established a competing shrine to Mithras.

The Mithreum underneath San Clemente

I didn’t take any pictures inside San Clemente. Whilst I am sure that Christopher would have done a good job with his digital SLR, I didn’t think that my little point-n-shoot camera was up to the job in the semi-darkness. So here is a picture I’ve found on Wikipedia, so that you can see what I’m talking about.

We got a bus back from San Clemente to our hotel (in a superb location just behind the Pantheon) for an early dinner. Then all 25 of us plus the tour manager and the guide lecturer piled into a fleet of taxis for a visit to the British School at Rome. We were greeted by the Director, Prof Christopher Smith, who gave us a guided tour of the library and parts of the Lutyens-designed building, followed by a lecture on the history of Rome and some recent archaeological projects undertaken by the British School, notably at Herculaneum.

That was a very full day, and Wednesday was also busy. We went by coach to Tivoli, about half an hour outside of Rome. It should have been an easy trip, but our coach was delayed because the driver got caught in a massive grid-lock on the Rome ring road on the way to pick us up. Apparently there were public exams being held for entrance to the Rome Medical school, and 9000 applicants turned up to sit the exam for just 300 places! Desperate students were abandoning their cars on the ring road and running to the exam school to get there on time, leaving traffic chaos in their wake! It was all over the news that evening, with the police saying it was a wonder that no one was killed in the crush and mayhem.

Part of the huge Hadrianic villa at Tivoli

Once we finally got underway, we headed to the Villa Adriana at Tivoli, built by the Emperor Hadrian in the 2nd century AD. He didn’t like the people of Rome very much, and they didn’t like or trust him, so he felt safer and more comfortable in a massive villa outside Rome, yet still close enough to the city to govern it effectively.

The island retreat at Villa Adriana, Tivoli

The above is a snap of the “island retreat”, a self-contained villa on a circular man-made island that would originally have been approached via a drawbridge where the causeway is to the left of the picture. When Hadrian had had enough of ruling and being bothered by his subjects, he could retreat to the island villa, raise the drawbridge and have a Marlene Dietrich “I vant to be alone” moment!

After lunch in the dungeons of a medieval castle in the town of Tivoli, we went to the Villa D’Este, built in the 15th Century by Cardinal d’Este to console himself for never making it to be pope. It is famous for its water gardens, which tumble down a steep hillside in a sequence of cascades and fountains. My mother swears that when she went there many years ago it rained so torrentially that the ducks in some of the ponds drowned! As luck would have it, as I descended the rather slippery marble stairs to the first terrace the heavens opened. I decided that I really didn’t need to look at the gardens in a downpour, so beat a tactical retreat to the café where I had a slice of a rather good apricot tart while I waited for the rest of the group to come back drenched.

Then it was back to Rome in time for a lecture before dinner on the Emperor Hadrian, followed by a group dinner at a rather good pizza restaurant.  And so ended another full day!

{ 2 } Comments

  1. David | 16 April 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

    Villa Adriana! Was there last summer. It’s quite ridiculously big, isn’t it?

  2. Gillian | 16 April 2012 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

    You’re right – it is absolutely massive! I thought I’d seen some big Roman villas, but this is in a league of its own! We spent the whole morning there and that still wasn’t enough time to see everything in as much detail as I’d have liked.