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A walk in the park

19 Jan
Sometimes a park is just a park. Sometimes it is Italian. Sunday we took a long walk in Villa Ada, Rome’s second-largest park (Villa Doria Pamphilj is the largest) and happened upon some photo-worthy sites.
To look at a map, Villa Ada is close to our home, but it’s a bit of a PITA to get into on foot. We’ve walked along the periphery many times and waded into the shallows, but finally, we had time and good weather on our side so we ventured a bit farther.
One of the busier paths, Villa Ada. We stuck to the woodsy ones, while most of the Italians embraced the sun.

One of the busier paths, Villa Ada. We stuck to the woodsy ones while most of the Italians embraced the sun.

The grounds and house were once owned by the House of Savoy, Italian royalty. From this family sprang four kings of Italy and also beloved Queen Margherita. Eventually, the estate was purchased by a Swiss gentleman, Count Tellfner, who named it for his wife, Ada. The Savoys bought it back again in the early 20th century turning it into the royal residence until they were ousted in 1946. In the 1950s, it became a public park.
Today Villa Ada is a sprawling landscape of paths, frequented by dog walkers and runners, but it also contains some surprises.
Egyptian Embassy, Villa Ada.

Egyptian Embassy, Villa Ada.

The Egyptian Embassy occupies the old royal residence. It was given to Egypt by the Savoys as a token of their gratitude for the assistance provided during their exile in 1946. Imagine walking through Forest Park in Portland and coming across armed soldiers guarding a foreign embassy. Yeah, it’s that weird.
Rounding a corner in a distant end of the park, we came across an equestrian center, 3C – Country Club Cascianese. There were riding lessons in session in the lovely January sun, and it has an air of exclusivity about it, although I always think that when horses are involved. Quite a contrast to the Egyptian Embassy.
Equestrian center, Villa Ada.

Equestrian center, Villa Ada.

We’ll have to go back to explore a few more paths, and there’s an entire quarter of the park we didn’t get to. Much like our beloved Hoyt Arboretum in Portland, after a few visits we should know our way around. 
In the category of NOT a walk in the park, we had an interesting visit to our bank this week. In fact, we had three visits in two days. Ric’s debit card was cracked and required replacement, so we ventured into the main branch of BNL on Via Bissolati. We had to wait about 25 minutes to be served (there’s a take-a-number machine), but the teller was able to give him a new card and PIN on the spot. We were impressed! No waiting for the mail to deliver it to our flat! Who says Italian systems are inefficient?
All’s well until we stopped at the market on the way home. With a huge line at the cashier, my BNL card wouldn’t work.  We trotted down the street to the Parioli BNL and tried my card in the ATM. The ATM took my card! Said it was deactivated! A very nice teller in this branch retrieved it only to tell me my card was no good, that I had to go back to the branch in the center to get a new one and that she needed to destroy my card. She cut it up. 
So off we went the next day to BNL on Via Bissolati. Here the teller told me that my card was perfectly good, according to the system. “It didn’t work yesterday,” I said. He asked to see it. “No, I told you, the woman on Viale Parioli took it and cut it up.” He told me she was wrong, and since I did not bring the card to him, we should file a denuncia (a formal complaint about the “lost” property) with the Carabinieri!
I was doing this in Italian, and I hate it when they tell me “no” because then I have to enter into the realm of the Italian argument, and my skills really suffer. I am just not that eloquent and my pre-rehearsed sentences collapse in a useless heap around me. But one has to push back. If you take the first no and walk away, you absolutely will make things harder for yourself. So I pushed back. “Just because his colleague at the other branch made an error, it should not be my problem,” I told him in grammatically incorrect Italian. Much to my surprise, he agreed and said “Well next time, bring the card here if it doesn’t work,” and he went on to issue me my new card and PIN. Thank God he backed down because I am no match for an Italian who is up for an extended negotiating session!
I am pleased to report that both of us now have access to our funds, but it certainly was not a walk in the park.
Click on the photos below for a better view.

Out and about

5 Dec
So what do we do every day here in Roma? Surely every day cannot be like a vacation. We have to run errands, do laundry, go to the doctor, clean the cat box, drink wine and exercise, just like people everywhere.  But one of the things we do is intersperse the mundane with field trips. We might go to a museum with a special exhibit, to a movie (in English with reserved seats), or revisit a site we saw a few years ago. Such was the case yesterday.
San Giovanni in Laterano's magnificent facade only dates to the 18th century.

San Giovanni in Laterano’s magnificent facade only dates to the 18th century.

We headed out into weak December sun to return to San Giovanni in Laterano, one of the four Papal Basilicas. We last visited in October 2010, so it was about time. 
San Giovanni was the first Christian church established in Roma, by Emperor Constantine in 318 A.D., and it is the home church of the Bishop of Rome, Papa Francesco. In fact, it was the home of all popes until the renovation of St. Peter’s and the expansion of the Vatican during the Renaissance. It is not Italy, it is part of the Vatican State.
Internal view with the Naval service in progress.

Internal view with the Naval service in progress.

On arrival at this magnificent basilica, we found it thronged with military personnel, primarily from the Italian Navy. They were commemorating their patron saint, Santa Barbara. In the U.S., if this were a military event at say the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., it is unlikely we would have been allowed to wander in and play tourist. But this is Italy, with no separation of church and state by the way, and the only price to entry was having a Carabinieri officer look in my purse to ensure I was not carrying anything explosive.
Renaissance ceiling of the basilica. Stunning!

Renaissance ceiling of the basilica. Stunning!

Instead of an empty church with tourists wandering through, we were fortunate to observe the basilica being used for its intended purpose, a service. Here is a link in Italian about the observance. On land and sea, the Italian Navy celebrated Santa Barbara yesterday, inviting their colleagues from the army, Carabinieri, Vigili del Fuoco (firefighters), and others who share the patron saint. There was an orchestra and chorus that opened the service with a captivating rendition of Handel’s “Thine is the Glory,” sung in Italian. I can only assume that is a piece with some tradition and meaning for the Italian Navy.
Close up of the doors, originally from the Curia. The acorn "studs" date to the 3rd century.

Close up of the doors, originally from the Curia. The acorn “studs” date to the 3rd century.

Though little remains of Constantine’s original church (mostly rebuilt after 1600), the art and architecture are definitely worth a visit. There are massive bronze doors from the ancient Roman Curia (Senate House), moved here in the 17th century, and the golden columns from the Temple of Jupiter which used to stand on the Capitoline Hill. The enormous statues of the 12 apostles stand guard over the nave with a fabulous Renaissance ceiling overhead.
Columns from the Temple of Jupiter.

Columns from the Temple of Jupiter.

The baldacchino over the alter. See the little statues in the upper cage? Those are silver, and are of St. Peter and St. Paul, which contain pieces of their heads.

The Baldacchino over the altar. See the little statues in the upper cage? Those are silver reliquaries of St. Peter and St. Paul which contain pieces of their heads.

Bigger than life St.Matthew.

Bigger than life St.Matthew.

Big big doors, appropriated from the Senate House. The purple smudge is me.

Big big doors, appropriated from the Senate House. The purple smudge is me.

We took our leave as the solemn Mass began. There was another church on our itinerary: Santo Stefano Rotondo.
The sanctuary at Santo Stefano Rotondo. The ancient walls wtih frescoes surround the sanctuary.

The sanctuary at Santo Stefano Rotondo. The ancient walls with frescoes surround the sanctuary.

Santo Stefano is an eerie little church built, as the name implies, in the round. Why eerie? This 5th-century church built on top of a Roman Mithraeum and named for the first Christian martyr, Santo Stephano is decorated with frescoes depicting the martyrdom of some 34 saints. No one could describe this scene better than Charles Dickens did:
“To single out details from the great dream of Roman Churches, would be the wildest occupation in the world. But St. Stefano Rotondo, a damp, mildewed vault of an old church in the outskirts of Rome, will always struggle uppermost in my mind, by reason of the hideous paintings with which its walls are covered. These represent the martyrdoms of saints and early Christians; and such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken…. So insisted on, and laboured at, besides, that every sufferer gives you the same occasion for wonder as poor old Duncan awoke, in Lady Macbeth, when she marvelled at his having so much blood in him.” Pictures from Italy (1846)
Please click on any photo for a larger view and caption. Warning: some rather gruesome images!
Still Santo Stefano Rotondo is a peaceful site and from what we saw this day visited by few. Off the beaten path? You won’t find many people wandering here, but it is not all that far from the Colosseo, and perhaps a 15-minute walk from San Giovanni in Laterano. Also in the neighborhood, which we visited a couple of years ago, the Case Romane del Celioan extraordinary archeological site of 2nd and 3rd-century Roman houses with vivid frescoes. (Don’t worry about the language on the web page. Just go if you have the chance.)
So this is some of what we do with our spare time. As they say “Roma una vita non basta.” (A lifetime is not enough.)

The Pope doesn’t sleep here

27 Oct
At least the current pope, Papa Francesco, does not sleep in the Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo. He has abnegated the luxury of a vacation residence and opened the doors to the public; At least to anyone willing to pay €10.00 for entrance.
The Apostolic Palace dominates the square in Castel Gandolfo.
The Apostolic Palace dominates the square in Castel Gandolfo.
In September we visited the Gardens of the Pontifical Villa, thinking we were in Castel Gandolfo. In actuality, the gardens are part of Villa Barberini in Albano Laziale and when we exited the garden tour we were a long walk from the little town of Castel Gandolfo. So we vowed to return while the weather was good.
Pope's view of Lago Albano.
Pope’s view of Lago Albano.
Early in the morning the flow of commuters from small towns storm Stazione Termini like an invading horde. The incoming trains are packed with briefcase-toting-suit-wearers and women tottering on impossibly high heels, and it seems everyone is puffing on a post-commute cigarette. We were blessed with an out-of-Roma trip, against the onrush of workers, accompanied by a very few Romans who actually get to leave the city for work.
A quick 40-minute ride through the countryside, passing Ciampino Airport and a handful of small towns, brought us to Castel Gandolfo. Then a 15-minute slog walk up the hill landed us in the town square where any number of little bars awaited our arrival. We found seats and a cappuccino in the 15-degree Celsius sunshine with a full view of the Apostolic Palace, aka, Papal Palace, aka Pontifical Villa or most commonly in Italian Palazzo Apostolico. Take your pick.
A Bernini least the audio guide claims it is his work.
A Bernini angel…at least the audio guide claims it is his work.
Writing set of Pope Pius VIII. Sorry about the glare. It is under glass for its protection.
Writing set of Pope Pius VIII. Sorry about the glare. It is under glass for its protection.
As instructed, 20 minutes before our tour time of 10:00, we approached the guard who welcomed us warmly and sent us up a flight of stairs to enter the museum. We were equipped with audio tour devices and sent on our way to self-guide, well before the clock chimed 10:00. We were the only people in the entire museum!
Now before you get to thinking that we ran giddily through the papal vacation home, jumping on the beds and checking inside the refrigerator, the public is not allowed in any area that would be considered an apartment. The museum consists largely of select papal portraits along with some special accoutrements, and the accompanying audio guide tells some of the fascinating history behind these powerful men.
The portrait of Papa Francesco is in a very different style from his predecessors.
The portrait of Papa Francesco is in a very different style from his predecessors.
We enjoyed the tour very much, even if we did not get to see the Papal bathroom. There’s one of those at Castel Sant’Angelo anyway.
Papal throne and entourage.
Papal throne and entourage.
In 6 1/2 hours we went from our home to Castel Gandolfo by bus and train, had coffee (always on the agenda), took the tour, and were back home in time for lunch. If one wanted to have lunch in CG — and why not with that view of the lake! — I would actually recommend the 11:00 tour followed by a leisurely lunch. Trains back to Roma are frequent. Would I spend an entire vacation day doing this on my first trip to Roma? Absolutely no. But when you have been here as long as we have, or visit annually like some of our friends, it’s fun to find new places to explore.
There are many restaurants that take advantage of the fine lake view.
There are many restaurants that take advantage of the fine lake view.
Info on tickets for the sites in Castel Gandolfo and Albano Laziale can be found here.

Castel Gandolfo: Vatican by train

13 Sep
One of the goals we have in staying in Italy for some time to come is to continue exploring our own backyard, i.e., Roma and environs. We’ve enjoyed some less-visited sights over the past three years, and continue to look for new ones. Afterall, una vita non basta!
St. Peteràa from the inside. A view from the garden, where the Pope takes his daily walk.

St. Peter’s from the inside. A view from the garden, where the Pope takes his daily walk.

Early last week a new tour was announced in the Italian press: Vatican by Train. That got Ric’s interest pretty fast. According to the press, the tour, called “Vatican by Train Full Day” would run only on Saturdays and the first run was September 12. We could be on-board for the maiden voyage!
Here’s what the Vatican website had to say
With the exceptional opening of the Barberini Gardens and of the Museum of the Apostolic Palace, the Pontifical Residence of Castel Gandolfo welcome the public at large.
Visitors who book the Vatican by Train will have access to the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Vatican Gardens and to the botanical and architectural wonders of the Pontifical Residence, known by as the “second Vatican”.
Further exploration revealed an ambitious schedule and the likelihood of a 13 hour day away from home, but we have time…. The schedule for the day broke down like this (wording from the Vatican website)
8.00 am: Avoid the queue at the entrance. Tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel with an audio guide;
10.00 am: Walking tour of the Vatican Gardens with an audio guide;
11.00 am: Departure from Train Station of the Vatican City State to Albano Laziale and transfer to the Pontifical Villas by shuttle;
12.30 pm: Tour of the Pontifical Villas (Villa Barberini) by tourist train with an audio guide;
1.30 pm: End of the tour and exit from the Pontifical Villas.
Free time
4.45 pm: Transfer from the Pontifical Villas to the train station of Albano Laziale by shuttle;
5.18pm: Departure from the Train Station of Albano Laziale to the Roma San Pietro Station
Beautiful lawns fall away toward teh train station. Hard to imagine all of this is inside Vatican City.

Beautiful lawns fall away toward the train station. Hard to imagine all of this is inside Vatican City.

Leaving home about 06:30, we arrived at the museum entrance a few minutes before 8:00, fortified by cappucino e cornetto at a nearby bar. It was clear lunch would be a long way off and we had miles to go before we ate. We were admitted quickly, as promised with our voucher. Exchanging it for tickets and an audio guide took a few minutes, but by 8:25 we were outside the Pinacoteca, which we had decided would be our focus.
There is no way one can “do” the Vatican Museums in less-then-two hours. A few people we spoke to later in the tour tried a mad dash to the highlights such as the Sistine Chapel and Hall of Maps, but everyone eventually realized this was not a best-of-the-Vatican tour.
Fountain in the Vatican Gardens, reminiscent of Villa d'Este.

Fountain in the Vatican Gardens, reminiscent of Villa d’Este.

Our decision to focus on the Pinocateca was fortuitous: We were completely alone for at least 20 minutes. Just Ric and me, fabulous works of art, and a dozen guards hunched over their smartphones. (Whatever did museum guards do before they had smartphones?) Some tour groups arrived, stopped at major works then moved quickly on. We took our time, saw the entire gallery, then had a brief rest before the garden tour. If you ever want to be alone in the Vatican Museums, head for the Pinocateca at opening.
Under clear blue skies and warm-not-hot sun we were escorted through the Vatican Gardens by a group of uniformed guides and a number of “suits” and journalists. The museum officials were shepherding the inauguration carefully, ensuring it went smoothly. And it mostly did.
Bougainvilla still in bloom, the Vatican Gardens.

Bougainvilla still in bloom, the Vatican Gardens.

Our garden tour was also audio-guided, and we had a wee map with audio points described, but it was difficult to know where our group of about 100 people was and when we should punch up each number. Still it was beautiful, not at all what I expected, and while not encompassing the entire tour (which according to the website is 2 hours long) it was a good overview.
We ended at the Vatican train station, a seldom-used and closed-to-the-public relic of a prior era. Thanks to Papa Francesco, more of the Vatican properties are being opened to mere mortals and the chance to take the train out of this station was a strong motivator for us.
Not the steam train the media portrayed....

Not the steam train the media portrayed….

We expected a steam train. All the news media featured a vintage train, but on arrival we found a modern Trenitalia train of the type used on the FR lines. It was fine, comfortable and air-conditioned, but not the historic experience expected. I have to wonder if there was another train that day, but all of the articles I’ve found were written before the 12th and so I think the pictures are “file photos” and certainly not from the event we attended.
We had a nice ride to the station at Albano Laziale, where buses met us and ferried us through narrow streets and up the hill to the entrance to the gardens. There, we boarded a trenino to tour the estate, again with audio guide. Absolutely stunning is all I can say. I had no idea Domitian had a summer palace here, but then why wouldn’t he? The history is, as with almost any grand villa in Italy, long and complex. What remains is a place of beauty comparable to Versailles. Some is wooded, some planted in formal gardens, and there is a farm. Did you know the Pope has a farm? Chickens, white goats, cows, bees: everything one needs in a self-sustaining estate.
Click on any photo to enlarge it or for a slideshow.
Wrapping up about 14:40, we had three hours of free time. We set off to find a restaurant along the lake, where we had lunched a couple of years ago. But wait, where the hell was the lake? Pulling up Googlemaps we found we were in Albano Laziale, not Castel Gandolfo. Duh! Not close to the lake, we started wandering the town, which was mostly closed for la pausa. Not a lot of restaurant options we could see, but peeking down a little alley Ric spotted a trattoria. From where we stood it looked closed, although someone was inside sweeping up. “Siete aperti?” I asked. “Sí! Accommodatevi!” We took a cute table on the patio just as a group of Americans we knew trooped in. They, too, had been surprised by ending in Albano Laziale. They had a reservation for lunch 3 km away in Castle Gandolfo! Feeling slightly less stupid for misunderstanding, we relaxed and prepared to enjoy lunch. We were fortunate to have a little family from the U.K. join us at a neighboring table and engaging in conversation we discovered they had expected to end the tour at the Apostolic Palace in Castel Gandolfo. Surprise!  Perhaps all of the English-speakers misunderstood? Maybe the Vatican website was less-than-clear? Nonetheless, I can highly recommend Trattoria Rosmarino should you make the trip to Albano.
Cin cin! At Trattoria Rosmarino. Highly recommend!

Cin cin! At Trattoria Rosmarino. Highly recommend!

A long lunch ate up the free time (pun intended). There are a number of ruins and sites in Albano for the more industrious tourist, but we had been on-the-go since dawn with not much energy left, so a luxurious lunch was perfect. Back on the shuttle bus before 16:30, we arrived at San Pietro Station just in time to get a train to the tram to go back home, another adventure in public transportation for us.
Isaac, our dining partner at Rosmarino.

Isaac, our dining partner at Rosmarino.

We were very confused about the relationship between the estate we toured in Albano and the Apostolic Palace at Castel Gandolfo. A little map-based research showed they are on the same property, but the gardens are accessed by the public through Albano, and the Apostolic Palace is at the other end, the north end, closer to the lake. One can visit the Apostolic Palace, any day but Sunday, and only in the morning, and apparently only through the month of October, presumably to be revived in the spring.
I suspect another day trip to the area is in our near future.
For more information on all of the tours, go to the Vatican’s Online Ticket Office. 

How I spent (the rest of) my summer vacation

29 Aug
Do children still have to write essays about summer vacation when they return to school in the Fall? It occurs to me I wrote about some of our vacation when I posted about the time in the Dolomites (see Cooling off in the Alpe di Siusi and Good Morning Ortisei), but I never wrapped up with the fine time we had with our flock of visitors in Rome.
Elisabetta loved touching the water of the many fountains. Here Mamma Susan indulges.
Elisabetta loved touching the water of the many fountains. Here Mamma Susan indulges.
We were blessed with visits from the Seattle Bravenecs, also known as JSWE, for our time in the mountains and then 4 more days in Rome. We hit the Parco dei Mostri and Lago di Bracciano, entertained the kids while J&S went to the Vatican, shopped in Via Cola di Rienzo, celebrated Susan’s birthday at our favorite trattoria, and then welcomed the Omaha Bartons for their week in Italy.
We were so lucky at Lago di Bracciano. Morning rain in Rome scared off the people who had reserved space on this beach, so we were able to claim some sand. Otherwise they would have been fully booked. It was 82 (F) and sunny for us. Perfect!
We were so lucky at Lago di Bracciano. Morning rain in Rome scared off the people who had reserved space on this beach, so we were able to claim some sand. Otherwise they would have been fully booked. It was 82 (F) and sunny for us. Perfect!
We crammed all 10 of us in our little Roman apartment for a family dinner the night the Bartons arrived. It was fun to see everyone together: older cousins that had not seen each other in too many years (18?), and younger cousins who had never met.
When Susan and the littlest travelers headed off to Bratislava on the night train to Vienna our house felt ever-so-empty. Luckily Trevor, Andrea, Eli and Cade spent a few more days with us to ease the  transition to dining alone with cats after they all left.
We had looked forward to these visits for the better part of a year, but they were over too quickly!  Thanks Bartons and Bravenecs, for coming to Italy. We were happy to spend Our Summer Vacation with all of you!
Click on any image to start a slide show.
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