Drink lots…of water. Beware Romans bearing gifts. Don’t go out in the noon to 4pm day sun. These are just a few random tips picked up from an amazing eights days in Rome and the Italian coast at Sperlonga.
I’ll start this anecdotal travel blog with the capital city, where we ended up staying in what felt like an Italian version of the Grand Budapest hotel – ornate ceilings, thick marbled enamel style doors, oil paintings above the bed in big gold frames. It was lovely but a slight touch of its condition being not what it once was. Also, some intriguing, chatty and quite unique staff on reception.
The Traiano was superbly placed too though for the sights. Having placed Rome at the start of the holiday, so the boys had the allure of the beach before them, we managed to persuade them to walk round from St Peter’s Square to the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel, as well as the Colosseum. (Having booked both online in advance, we also managed to avoid the long queues in the sun.)
The size of the Colosseum and the fact that so much still remains was something that only really hit me as I looked down on it from above. The remaining whitish stone like the fossil or bone remnants of some mighty creature. And the tourists as multi-coloured mites thronging over and around it.
Or a different analogy might be the remains of a seashell washed ashore after battle against many tides. The people not even hermit crabs, more grains of sand in comparison; the colour of their clothes, sand’s sometimes rainbow luminescence in the sun.
The wall of the Vatican seemed somehow reminiscent both of The Wall in Game of Thrones and the Berlin Wall, minus the cultural graffiti. I’m sure these analogies should say something, about the them and us of religion maybe.
It was a long trek around the Vatican Museums to get to the Sistine Chapel, but one that was very much worth it. I’ve always wanted to see Michelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’. But even I was surprised to find tears in my eyes as I looked up at the real thing. Maybe, it’s partly my religious upbringing (C of E not Catholic). Although, I no longer believe in the Christian faith as such, it’s hard to completely shed that from my cultural background. Also, I think it’s just that there’s something so human, so universal, and so poignant about the outstretching of two hands that don’t quite touch.
In complete contrast to this moment was the mass commercialisation, not just of Rome but the Vatican. Tour guides and street hawkers thronged us everywhere we went. White skin does stand out against olive/tanned, even in the capital, though very much more so in Sperlonga.
The Centurion in costume striking poses with us for photos was an not-unwelcome hawker.
Less pleasant was the bead and jewellery seller who persistently walked along the street with us when we were trying to move on. Although we ignored him initially, he kept walking along with us asking questions, telling us about his wife just having had a baby and wanting to give us gifts to celebrate this. Of course, we knew these gifts would have a catch to them and tried to refuse them, without success. We said bye, wished him luck and then he circled back to ask us for money. We gave him some, of course. It wasn’t a busy time at night and, if someone is that desperate to con you with words, then who knows if they’d draw the line at just words. It left a sad taste though, which wasn’t just the look in the man’s eyes, when my husband gave him some cash, saying I hope your wife really has just had a baby…. It was also the fact that this con was deliberately directed at us as a family – pick a man at his most vulnerable i.e. when with a wife and children to protect, and using a deliberately emotional ploy – the wife with new baby. Also, the fact that this makes one wary of even making eye contact with any other strangers, even (or especially) the most welcoming.
While Rome was the highlight for me, the beach at Sperlonga was for the boys. It is an Italian destination, with some Germans but very few English tourists. This was exactly what we’d hoped for, if the heat a little harder to deal with than we’d anticipated. We eventually ended up not going down to the beach until 4pm, then staying there till 7pm before heading back to change for dinner about 8pm. It was a completely different timetable to normal life but very relaxing.
Of course, holidaying without thought is impossible for me, no matter how relaxing the destination. Rome has been on my list of places I’d love to visit for years. Finally achieving this at 39, made me think about how different my experience must be to my boys’. At 11 and 9, and uninterested in history and culture, I suspect most of it will have passed over their heads.
In a way the boys have been spoiled on the travel front. I was 13 before I first holidayed abroad, and then it was to Majorca. I was lucky for the rest of my teens to have a French penfriend to visit near Lille, get a bursary to visit Vienna to practise my German and visit Russia on a school trip. Before that, most of our holidays were camping in England or staying with one set of grandparents in London (I’d been round all the major tourists spots by the time I was about 11) or my other grandparents on a farm.
On the foreign travel front, the boys, by contrast have been spoiled. With my sister living in the U.S., they got to visit Las Vegas and Lake Tahoe aged 6 and 8. Then Portugal aged 7 and 10. Now Italy too.
But, what they have gained on the foreign front, they have maybe lost on the English front. Although they get a lot of nature and smallholding life with grandparents, most of our family trips here have been to Haven, Butlins and Center Parcs – all very relaxing but highly artificial. My family no longer having a base in London, the boys have visited the National History and Science Museums and that is it.
Of course, partly this is temperament. While culture and history always interested me, the boys are more in tune with science and active exploration. But it also made me think that the world wide web effect of making the global world smaller/more reachable, does perhaps have a downside of distancing us from the local community and world more immediately around us, if we’re not careful.
And on that note, I’ll finish, except to add about one of the joys of being back home: waking to bird song. The absence of which where we were staying in Italy was loudly silent!