Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Nan Quick’s Travel Diary, the Fourth Chapter

Villa d’Este, Tivoli.
Rome; Tivoli’s Villa d’Este; & Samuel Johnson’s London as I’m headed home.

Sunday, 5 June 2011


Since yesterday evening, when I settled into my monastic room at Hotel Santa Maria in Rome’s Trastevere section, I’ve been studying the City map, trying to organize what I want to see during the coming week. Rome, like London, is an incomprehensibly vast sprawl.

There are treasures on every corner and Rome’s 2.7 million inhabitants zip past them all at frantic speed. I’ll simply have to take deep breaths, and accept that during this visit I’ll only be able to continue surface-scratching.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
After the opulence of Venice’s Bauer Hotel, I feel positively virtuous about Hotel Santa Maria’s modesty. But Hotel Santa Maria (www.htlsantamaria.com), in a renovated 16th century cloister, has its own charms: gravel courtyards with heavily-fruited orange trees; delicious breakfast buffets; and an always-helpful staff, most of whom I recognize from my 2007 stay. I’m glad to be back, but with one qualification.

Of the 20 rooms at the Hotel, #s 2 through 7 should be avoided; those have apartments overhead which are not part of the Hotel, and are thus vulnerable to noise. When you’re in Trastevere, you’re not cosseted; you’re in the thick of a closely-packed part of town. The warm air carries sounds of the Basilica di Santa Maria’s bells chiming every quarter hour (the 12th century mosaics inside the Basilica are jaw-dropping), seagulls squawking (a reminder that Rome isn’t too far removed from the Tyrrhenian Sea), motor scooters buzzing (cross streets carefully, because the traffic is bonkers), and people chattering (a Babel of languages) ... a nice mix that’s quite soothing.
Hotel Santa Maria.
Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.
How to park in Rome.
On a rainy Sunday morning, I crossed the Tiber at Isola Tiberina, and headed
to the Campidoglio and the Musei Capitolini (en.museicapitolini.org), the world’s oldest national museums, which are perched above the Forum.
View of the Roman Forum from the Tabularium’s Gallery at the Capitoline Museums.
My calf muscles objected as I climbed the steep steps of the Cordonata, the graceful staircase that leads up to Michelangelo’s Piazza, which is centered on an enormous replica of the Marcus Aurelius bronze.
Michelangeo’s Piazza del Campidoglio, designed in 1538.
Of the thousands of objects on display in the Museum’s three buildings, I was most moved by the hundreds of life-sized marble busts of luminaries, from the time of the late Roman Republic to the Early Roman Empire. In gallery after gallery: images-in-the-round of men long-departed, who, by sitting for the artists who recorded their likenesses, seemed to be saying “I know life is short; I hope not to be forgotten.” But those tidy seams at the necklines of many of the busts, separating shoulders and chests of alabaster from the white marble heads above, are reminders of fleeting power, and of Roman practicality.

Disgraced personages, condemned to “damnatio memoria,” would have all public images of themselves removed, and those costly statues would be then recycled with NEW heads depicting the currently-favored. Pragmatic folks, those Romans. And images of real women ... not just of idealized goddesses? After the death of Julius Caesar, portraits of important women related to the imperial family appeared everywhere, celebrated as symbols of dynastic power; as guarantors of continuity and thus of the empire’s stability and peace. But what I found greatly entertaining were how these images set and changed fashion in hair-styling throughout the dominions! In a gallery tucked behind the original statue of Marcus Aurelius ...
I was a naughty tourist and clicked a forbidden photo.
... a display of ladies’ heads—from 50 B.C. to 395 A.D.—was a virtual beauty-timeline, demonstrating mind-bogglingly complex and various hair arrangements. Daily care of their appearance was of great importance for Roman women of high rank. Specialized maidservants—armed with wigs, hair extensions, curling irons, clips and jeweled pins—took hours to arrange the hair of their noble ladies. Extreme hair colors were preferred: blond, red or raven-black could be obtained with dyes, but also with wigs and extensions of hair cut from captives: blonde from Barbarian women of the North, and black from the heads of Indian women, brought to Rome in the luxury goods trade with the East.
Gravity-defying hairstyles.
After my hair-extravaganza, I found the Museum’s Terrace Café, where I quickly realized that being seated at a table for one during a busy lunch hour wasn’t going to happen. Ahead of me in line was an observant lady who insisted I join her group to make a table for six, which the Café manager was suddenly happy to provide. Fellow West-Coaster Louise McCarthy, her daughters Ann and Kathleen, and granddaughters Kimberly and Alyssa then treated me to a good meal and lively conversation. Just goes to show what the kindness of strangers and the power of numbers can accomplish.

Monday, 6 June 2011

On the days before my Wednesday excursion to the uber-gardens of Tivoli’s Villa d’Este, I decided to warm up with visits to two gardens in Rome, at the southern and northern extremities of the old City. Orto Botanico (open Monday-Saturday, 4 Euro fee, times vary with the season), on the eastern slopes of the Janiculum Hill, makes no claims to being a top-notch botanical garden, but is nevertheless a wonderful escape from Rome’s often-polluted air, and was my southern-extremity choice; an easy 10-minute walk from my hotel. A bamboo grove; a conifer forest; a Japanese garden; herb plots; greenhoused Tropicals; mossy fountains and noisy streams ... except for a few Nonnas doting on their grandkids, I had the gardens to myself.
Trastevere’s Orto Botanico ...
At lunchtime (yes, everything always comes back to the food), I faced my usual challenge. How does a wheat-allergic and almost-Vegan get the food she needs in the Land of Pasta, Cheese and Cured Meat? My Colorado-based friend, the physicist Anne Kidder Smith, had planned the solution. She arranged for me to meet a friend of hers who summers in Rome, and assigned her the task of feeding me.

So, Mia Thomas-Ruzic, who knows Rome from infancy, ushered me to the Consorzio Casa Internazionale Delle Donne, on V.Della Lungara 19, in Trastevere. No street sign indicating a courtyard restaurant within, nothing to hint at the platters of roasted vegetables or the bowls of gorgeous salads inside; only a local would know to come here. On top of hitting a food-jackpot, it felt like Mia and I had known each other for years. The Travel Gods continued to be very good to me!
Nan and Mia.
Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Despite a one-day taxi strike in Rome, I was determined to use my long-before-purchased ticket for admittance to the Galleria Borghese. (www.galleriaborghese.it. Note: order tickets on the web, and at least a month in advance; spontaneous visits won’t work.) But the taxi drivers’ work-stoppage complicated things. A round-trip trek from Hotel Santa Maria to, and then through, the Borghese Gardens (my northern-extremity garden choice, and one of the most magnificent public gardens in the world) would be at least 8 miles—and with hills—but my desires to explore the enormous Gardens and to revisit Bernini’s sublime Apollo and Daphne statue were so great that I set out early, and in the rain no less. Who sloshes that far to see a single piece of sculpture and a bunch of trees?

But rain was a blessing; the Rome I passed through was empty (most Italians aren’t early-morning enthusiasts); I began to thank the cab drivers for taking the day off and for forcing me to learn their City with my feet.
Piazza del Popolo in early morning rain.
Galleria Borghese.
Above: Bernini’s Apollo & Daphne ... worth any amount of walking.

Right: Salvador Dali bronzes.
View from Gardens, with Vatican in the distance.
Roman Pines.
Giant equestrian statue.
Base of statue.
Piazzale Napoleone.
Descending from Borghese Gardens to Piazza del Popolo.
Wednesday, 8 June 2011

For all the glories of Rome, what I’d really been dreaming about was returning
to the hill-town of Tivoli, 30 km to the northeast. I’d first spent time in the gardens of the Villa d’Este (www.villadestetivoli.info/storiae.htm) in 2007, and had ever since plotted my return. As I passed through the former monastery that serves as entry, I held my breath, hoping four years of anticipating the gardens wouldn’t have inflated my expectations. But when I looked down from the Villa to the gardens below, reality exceeded memory. Here was another place worth traveling a third of the way around the world to be.
Entry courtyard.
First views from the Villa d’Este over the gardens below.
What kind of nut would plan a semi-flat garden for a steep mountainside, one that was already built up with houses and churches? Who would—or could—reroute a river to fill up the huge pools and power the hundreds of fountains needed for such a fantasy? Gardeners differ only in degrees of lunacy and solvency. Apart from growing one’s own food, there’s nothing practical about imposing a design-vision upon the Earth. But in 1550 Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, son of Lucrezia Borgia and Alfonso d’Este, was fantastically wealthy ... and fantastically frustrated.

Thinking he’d wrangle his way into being Pope, but failing at that, he was given the mediocre consolation of becoming Governor of Tivoli, and so poured his enormous energies into creating a showplace meant to inspire awe. And Ippolito, with the help of the architect Pirro Ligorio and legions of the best craftsmen and engineers, along with the successive Cardinals of the d’Este family to whom Ippolito bequeathed his property, did indeed build and refine the gardens into something that generates both astonishment and deep calm; feelings that are elicited only by the finest works of art. The gardens that are today a UNESCO World Heritage Site survived a diminution of d’Este fortunes, neglect from the House of Hapsburg, several WWII bombs, and many changes in garden-design fashion. The Italian State now owns and lovingly cares for this treasure, although many of the original murals, structures, statues and mosaics are lost.
Plan of the gardens.
Having paid the 8 Euro entry fee, I began my garden-hike. The scents of jasmine blossoms and just-clipped boxwood filled the air, and walkways were cooled by the mists from hundreds of fountains. A young couple stood on the uppermost terrace, gaping down at the steep stairways and paths. They’d brought their bambino in his large baby carriage and were realizing that pushing him down those long and sometimes slippery inclines would be unsafe.

The Villa’s gardens require some of the stamina and traction of a mountain goat. Visitors today enter the garden at its summit; it was originally entered from its lowest point. Travelers on the old road from Rome were compelled to climb through the wondrous gardens as they regarded the Villa that capped the spectacular display. You can imagine Ippolito muttering “are you impressed yet, you ingrates?” We should all be glad for his thwarted career in the Church.
Massive structures supporting the garden.
Working my way down from the Villa’s terrace, I marveled.
Courtyard of Palladorda.
Uppermost staircases.
Villa and Gardens.
The Hundred Fountains.
Ovato Fountain.
Fountain of Neptune.
Fountain of the Bicchierone. Fountain of the Organ.
The Fish Ponds.
Rotunda of the Cypresses
Diana of Ephesus. Fountain of the Sphinx.
Fountain of the Mete.
Central Stairs.
The Rometta.
Fountain of the Owl.
Bollori Stairs.
Fountain of the Emperors.
The Island and the Tiber.
Water everywhere.
Thursday, 9 June 2011

How to top Villa d’Este? Wandering the streets of Rome without agenda for the next two days was the most my brain could plan. But of course, revisiting the Pantheon snapped me back into a properly Rome-appreciative frame of mind as I considered that today’s engineers, with all their technology, cannot figure out how the 2000-year-old dome still stands ... humbling to consider the superiority of Emperor Hadrian’s architects.
Changing light at the Pantheon.
And tourist-traps though they are, I still wanted to see Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers at Piazza Navona:
And Castel Sant’Angelo:
And Bernini’s angels on Ponte Sant’Angelo (my next visit to Rome will include a two-day Bernini-hunt throughout the City):
The challenge, with a place as famous and filmed as Rome, is to forget all the pictures you’ve seen beforehand; don’t think you actually know a place until you’ve climbed its steps, touched its stone, dodged its traffic, and felt its air. Ignore the hucksters who swarm around the City’s landmarks. Each of those places is ancient and amazing evidence of what power, and money, and skill ... and under-paid labor ... can build. Stunning and sobering: the great things human beings can accomplish when they’re not busy killing each other.

Via Margutta.
Friday, 10 June 2011

A serene day of museum-visiting seemed in order. Here are my favorites: quiet, uncrowded jewels.

Villa Farnesia in Trastevere (5 Euro fee, open Monday-Saturday, 9AM-1PM).

Palazzo Spada, near Campo di Fiori (5 Euro fee, open Tues-Sun, 8:30AM-7:30PM).

Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Altemps, just north of Piazza Navona
(7 Euro fee, open Tues-Sunday, 9AM-7:45PM).

After Museo Nazionale, I worked my way north toward Piazza del Popolo, meaning to find Rome’s oldest and most elegant vegetarian restaurant; highly recommended by Ann and Kathleen, my Sunday-lunchtime companions.

Ristorante Margutta, at 118 Via Margutta was superb (www.ilmarguttavegetariano.it) and, to make my long walk there even more satisfying, I discovered that Federico Fellini and his wife Giulietta Masina had lived next door to the Ristorante, at 110 Via Margutta; a huge find for me, since my favorite movie is Fellini’s 8-1/2.

Ten minutes south of Fellini’s home, I stopped for dessert at Babbington’s Tea Room, by the foot of the Spanish Steps. Babbington’s has a fusty atmosphere, and serves fusty main courses which you should decline. But their iced peach tea and fresh orange cake with lemon icing can’t be topped.
Fellini’s apartment.
Commemorative plaque.
The Spanish Steps.
A long stroll returned me to the gates of Hotel Santa Maria, where my suitcase needed packing. On Saturday: my Alitalia flight back to London.
Hotel Santa Maria gate.
Monday, 13 June 2011

After the sunshine and splendors of Italy, London and the Sloane Square Hotel seemed as prosaic as home: funny how several weeks of travel can skew one’s perceptions! Sunday was rainy, and thus the perfect time for another long visit to the National Gallery. On this Monday before my Tuesday flight to San Francisco, my only goals were a Cheapside visit to Christopher Wren’s church, St. Mary-le-Bow, (www.stmarylebow.co.uk)
Spire of Wren’s St. Mary-le-Bow.
And then a walk up Fleet Street to find the home of Samuel Johnson, at 17 Gough Square. (www.drjohnsonshouse.org)
Dr. Johnson’s house at Gough Square.
The greater part of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was compiled during the 12 years (1748-1759) he lived and worked at Gough Square. In its restored condition the house is believed to look much as it did during his tenancy. Six scribes worked with Johnson in the home’s garret, so the £1575.00 he was paid to produce the Dictionary was insufficient to cover the costs of maintaining helpers and living comfortably, or even of paying his milkman. Johnson’s life was a nightmare of bill-collectors.

A heavy chain secures the inside of his front hall door, which Johnson further buttressed by wedging his bed against the door. The transom overhead is barricaded by barbed wire which kept angry merchants from hoisting small children with nimble, door-unlocking fingers up and through that window. Despite enormous fame and a multitude of friends, Johnson’s life was punctuated by arrest warrants and his plaintive letters to friends:

“Sir, I am obliged to entreat your assistance. I am now under arrest for five pounds eighteen shillings. Mr. Strahan, from whom I should have received the necessary help in this case, is not at home; and I am afraid of not finding Mr. Millar. If you will be so good as to send me this sum I will very gratefully repay you, and add to it all former obligations. I am Sir, Your most obedient and humble servant, Samuel Johnson, Gough Square, 16 March 1756.”

From the time of its publication in 1755 until the appearance of the Oxford English Dictionary in 1928, Johnson’s Dictionary was the most commonly used book of its type; far more than a lexicon, the work is entertaining and idiosyncratic proof of the vitality of the English language. The mere presence—or absence—of the words that Johnson chose to include in his Dictionary tell a rich story about the commonplaces and culture of his times, and about the psyche of the compiler. The world was fascinated by the brilliant scribbler and intellectual, while his publishers were quite content to allow his financial distress to continue. Johnson said “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” but I don’t believe for a minute that he could NOT have written, regardless of pay.

Fascinate: To bewitch; to enchant; to influence in some wicked and secret manner.

Brilliant: A diamond of the finest cut, formed into angles, so as to refract the light, and shine more.

Scribbler: A petty author; a writer without worth.

Intellectual: Intellect; understanding; mental powers or faculties. This is little used.

Distress: To crush with calamity.

Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.
Johnson’s parlor.
Johnson’s bedroom.
View from bedroom to Gough Square.
Leaving Dr. Johnson’s house, I was delighted by the statue of his beloved cat Hodge at the opposite end of the Square ...
Hodge’s plaque.
Which reminded me that my extraordinarily fulfilling travels are a necessary spice, but not the substance of life. I too had “A Very Fine Cat Indeed” to tend, and so readied myself to fly home to Oregon, and to my beautiful, one-eyed, Toots.
Nan’s Toots.
Johnson’s Hodge.
For Nan's first three chapters:

May 19th-June 16th, 2011 Travel Diary (6.22.11)
Nan Quick’s Travel Diary continues (7.6.11)
Nan Quick’s Travel Diary: the Third Chapter (7.19.11)