Saturday, 30 June 2007

Jayne's Birthday ~ Rome & Milan

24/06/07 ~ Rome

Sunday saw an early start for us, with a check-in time at London Gatwick of 5am. I had accidentally let slip that we were going to Italy, but at least had managed to not reveal exactly where we were going. Jayne guessed quite easily though ~ Rome. We flew Easyjet to Rome Ciampino and enjoyed a quick flight. On arrival, the next shuttle bus in to the city centre was at least 40 minutes away. We took a taxi to the nearby train station and were shocked to be charged 20 Euros for a 2 mile journey. The train at least was cheap at 1.30 Euros for 10 miles.

The hotel that I had chosen was convenient for some of the historic attractions as well as the central rail station. After a short walk, we found the Hotel Guibileo. We were too early to check in, but left our back packs in their care and set off on foot to start sight seeing. We got as far as a pavement cafe a few doors along the road and sat in the blistering sunshine downing a few beers, admiring the facade of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.
Next we set off toward the Roman Forum. Our expectation was a few remains, but instead we found the remains of many temples, arches, streets and houses. It is incredible that so much is still standing after two thousand years. The heat reached 35 degrees Celsius and we kept stopping to refresh ourselves at public drinking fountains. Nearby we could see the Colosseum, but would save that visit for another day.

After seeing all there was to see, we strolled off further across Rome to the Pantheon. This ancient church is 142 feet wide and 142 feet tall and all original except four exterior pillars. It was built by Emperor Hadrian, but the facade is emblazoned

The top of the dome is left open, the circle supporting the rest of the roof.

Next, we walked across town to the Trevi Fountain and sat on the edge of the fountain pool, cooling our feet in the water with about a hundred other people. Unfortunately, the fountain police turned up. Whistles blowing, everyone was ordered to take their feet out of the pool. Having stamped their mark of authority on us, they then continued the whistle blowing until everyone had put their shoes back on too. A very dull job, but they seemed to find it fulfilling...

Another stroll took us to the Spanish Steps. I had hoped that this flight of steps would be as romantic as I had heard, but with scaffolding hiding the building at the top, it was not a very spectacular sight. We climbed to the top and took photos and had a drink.

The walk back to the hotel was punctuated with drink stops, the four fountains cross-roads and our evening meal at a pizza parlour adjacent to St Maria Maggiore. Our waiter bore an uncanny resemblance to one of our friends and provided a source of amusement that lasted the evening.

25/06/07 ~ Rome ~ Vatican City

Our day was to be dedicated to visiting the smallest country in the world, the independent city state of the Vatican. With 550 residents and the lowest birth rate for any state (not a surprise when you think about it) we were yet again to be amazed by the wealth of the Roman Catholic church and the good that all that money could do if it were realised.

It took an hour to walk the three miles across Rome to reach the River Tiber and enter the badly named St Peter's Square, which is very much an ellipse. It was however an amazing feeling, with the columns reaching around the square, in an embrace as it were. The queue to get into St Peters Basilica was enormous though and it took 40 minutes or so to clear the security check point, only to be refused entry to the Basilica as Jayne's top was too revealing (for them anyway). Not to be beaten, my trousers had removable legs, so I unzipped them and carefully positioned a 'leg' under the front and back of Jayne's top suitably covering her up. This did the job nicely and we were admitted! Another queue saw us climb 330 steps to reach the roof top of the Basilica and we admired the view in all directions. Descending took us into the Basilica itself and we found that it was truly enormous, although still second to the cathedral in Seville in terms of size. We ventured in to the crypt beneath where numerous former Popes are buried, including the late John Paul II.

Back outside, we stopped for an ice cream and a beer before following the outside of the city walls to gain the entrance to the Vatican Museum. The heat today reached 36 degrees and more in the sun. It was now quite late in the afternoon and if we had left it 15 minutes later, we would not have been admitted. The gardens and statues, paintings and ceilings were amazing. The route through the rooms and corridors lead to the Sistine Chapel, where alongside several hundred other people, we strained our necks to admire Michael Angelo's painting. This was incredible and far larger than I had thought it would be. The word 'chapel' suggests a small place of worship - not in this case.

Our route back into central Rome took us through Piazza Navona, where we stopped for a beer or two and watched the street painters and performers. We carried on, passing the Pantheon again and stopped at a nice looking restaurant for Jayne's birthday meal. We enjoyed primi and secondi plates and three bottles of Pinot Grigio. A couple on the next table were good conversation and having paid our bills, accompanied us to the Trevi Fountain where we were treated to gelato and coffee. They were very pleasant company and like-minded travellers. We walked back to our respective hotels, parting company in Via Nazional. We don't even know their names.

26/06/07 ~ Rome

Our last day in Rome, we were to spend most of it at the Colosseum. After queuing for an eternity we were admitted to one of the most spectacular sights we have ever seen. I did expect to see more restoration, but it had been almost entirely left as it was a thousand or more years ago. A lot of stone had been removed over the years though for building efforts elsewhere. The structure and scale of everything though was very impressive. The floor of the arena was wooden and the under floor passages are all visible. It was not hard to imagine the wild animals and gladiators waiting beneath for their time in the arena.

After, we again strolled though the adjacent Roman Forum and stopped for a drink.

As we were starting to run out of time, we headed back to our hotel, visiting St Maria Maggiore at last. The church was just as impressive inside as out and seemed pleasantly simple in design and appearance. We checked out and caught the train back to Ciampino rail station, sharing a taxi the last two miles with two young guys who were travelling overseas for several months.

Our Ryanair flight to Milan was the grottiest plane we had been on, with chewing gum on the seats and cabin crew that were neither interested in the passengers or pleasant in their demeanour. The only amusement was the bumpy ride. The captain kept turning the seat belt sign on and off and the cabin attendant lost track of whether it was on or off. The captain would turn the sign off and the attendant would tell everyone to return to their seats... At least it was a short flight.
We landed at Milan Bergamo, having been treated to spectacular aerial views of some of the Italian Lakes. We caught the airport shuttle coach into town and walked the mile or so into the town centre. We stayed at the Hotel Star, which was very pleasant and efficient, although the decor was a little tired. We promptly went out to see the Duomo (cathedral) in the evening light and ate at Restaurant Al Mercanti, recommended in a guide book. The food was excellent, but the service was deplorable. Locals were very obviously preferred over tourists.
27/06/07 ~ Milan

Milan was such a contrast to ancient Rome. Most buildings either dated from the 1800s or the 1920s. The town was a maze of tram routes and shops. We visited the Duomo, the third largest in the world and were impressed by its Gothic style and many spires. We followed a self-guided walk through the city centre, taking in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and the Scala opera house. Jayne selected some very Milanese silver jewellery at Berlesconi's for her birthday present. We continued northwards to see the Napoleonic castle. The castle had been built over many centuries, but had been completed by Napoleon. With a threatening sky, we retreated to a restaurant and enjoyed a very nice pizza for lunch. The clouds passed without any rain falling and we settled at a cafe in front of the Duomo where we shared a bottle of wine before catching the metro back to the central rail station. Unable to take a train for some reason, we took an airport shuttle bus, this time to Milan Malpensa, where later we flew back to Gatwick.

We had spent four days away in baking sunshine, where the lowest temperature we experienced was 28 and the highest 36 degrees. At home, England had experienced torrential rain for four days with many towns completely flooded. Great Britain finally had a new Prime Minister and we were glad to have missed both events!

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