Sunday, August 31, 2014

Military Maneuvers

 May 20

We took a different direction on Sunday morning, up the street away from the center of Rome toward a nearby square. We made a turn and passed through the ancient city wall. 

We were strolling there when we came across a monument with a bronze soldier on top. It commemorate the Bersaglieri, a corps of infantry in the Italian army. The monument is across from Porta Pia, which is a gate added to the old Imperial city wall in the 16th century by Pope Pius IV. The gate isn’t particularly pious, but is named for a guy named Pius. 

We learned shortly later that it was here, on Sept. 20, 1870, that the Bersaglieri’s artillery breached the wall of the city and the troops stormed in. Their successful entry into Rome completed the unification of Italy. 

The interesting thing about this soldier monument is the date, 1936, maybe around the time that Mussolini was speaking to the ten thousand. Certainly it was a time when Mussolini was speaking to someone.

There’s a quote attributed to him on the side of the base. From what I can make out, it says: “Just a century of history, yet how many sacrifices, how many battles, how much glory.”

The Bersaglieri were formed in 1836 by somebody named La Marmora, which may mean marble. 

The Porta Pia is closed to traffic. The street now called Via XX Settembre divides and goes around it. The gate originally let traffic in through a large wooden door (now locked) in the middle of the structure. There were small office buildings on either side. The old offices now house a museum of the Bersaglieri. One side is early stuff, complete with swords. Mannequins display historical uniforms.

Since I saw the monument, I have learned a few details about the Bersaglieri. They are a highly mobile, fast-moving infantry unit, created to serve the Piedmontese, who couldn’t afford cavalry. Their dress uniforms are topped by a wide-brimmed hat with black feathers. They put the feathers on their helmets.

The museum has a shrine to La Marmora. My Italian being what it is, my reading of inscriptions in the shrine telll me that he died of cholera during the Crimean War. Where was Florence Nightingale when he needed her?

I found out later that there is a tomb here, not for La Marmora, but for Enrico Toti, a one-legged Bersagliere who threw his crutch at the enemy before he died. He also became an accomplished bicyclist after he lost his leg. Don’t take my word for it. Look him up on Google.

The other side of the museum gets creepy, of course, because it is talking about distinguished service in places like the Russian Front and Spain. And we all know whose side they were on back then. This room contains automatic rifles and a mortar.

We walked down the via and started to see some familiar sights, a men’s store called Bac & Harry’s, for instance. We were lost here briefly on Friday when we first left the Hotel Priscilla.

Joanna wanted to go back to Pepy’s Bar for lunch, so get this—I actually found the way. We took Via Venti Settembre to an intersection with four fountains. Joanna noticed the fountains first. We turned right on Via delle Quattro Fontane, paused in the garden of the Palazzo Barberini (now a national museum), passed the notorious leather goods shop, and went into Pepy’s to say hello to our usual waiter.

We had to wait a couple of minutes for a table, and while we stood in front of the refrigerator case I noticed that they had some Italian craft beers, including an IPA called CarAibi. It was the first IPA I had in at least two weeks and went very well with the salad. 

When the rigatoni alla Amatriciana came, I switched to Montepulciano. Beer goes with almost everything. Maybe not corn flakes, but just about anything else. But wine is superb with pasta.

Nobody stole anything from us, so after lunch we continued walking in what Rick Steves calls the Heart of Rome. 

We were near the Trevi Fountain and decided to try to something different. A street passes a guard house. It looks like a dead end at a prison gate, but then we saw civilians going up. So we did too. There’s nothing up there but a right turn down a street of steps. So we went down.

We wandered some really charming Old World alleys that I may be able to find again in another life. I was someplace else, so I was happy.

After a while, we had to stop. I was thirsty so I ordered two Campari and sodas, pretending that Joanna was going to drink one of them. She did take some of hers, so I had maybe one and three-quarters.

While we were sitting at the sidewalk table, Joanna noticed a file of soldiers coming down a hill. What the hell? They’re in camouflage, so they really stood out in the city. they were marching down some steps and turning into a doorway at the top of the hill. They even had guns. But no black feathers, so they probably weren’t Bersaglieri.

All right, this looks interesting. So after we overpaid for our drinks, we climbed up the hill and came to the steps, which we climbed. And we discovered an imposing prospect of just about nothing. 

There were some public buildings. You can tell because of the Italian and European Union flags. There was an empty square paved with black blocks, like most of the old city streets. A couple of guys in what may be Italian navy uniforms stood by a door and shouldered rifles.

We’re at one fence full of people. There’s another fence full of people across the way. There’s nothing but smooth rocks in between. What the fu?

I do the natural thing for a stranger. I look at the map and guess. My best guess is that it’s the Quirinale Palace, the former home of the kings of Italy. The royal family, the Savoys, have run off to Switzerland. I’m not sure who chased them or why.

The Quirinale is now the official residence of the president of Italy. 

That leaves a question. What if the Savoys come back? Where will the president live? 

I can’t say. I don’t understand Italian politics.

We wound up back at Campo di Fiori for dinner. The place is ringed with great, and reasonable eateries. Joanna had a craving for tripe. Sounded good to me. We tried Baccanale, where we had eaten once before. We were seated and ordered. They had run out of tripe. 

We left and went next door. Apparently that place shares the kitchen with Baccanale. No luck. So we walked two restaurants over, to La Romanesca, where we were assured that the tripe supply was sound.

We had spaghetti carbonara. We had tried two previous dishes of the same name. One was made with tomato and thick pieces of fried pancetta, which was excellent. Another seemed to be a cream sauce, and was disappointing.

La Romanesca’s version had no tomato and was very good. It was yellow with egg. Indeed, a good breakfast pasta, with egg and bacon.

Joanna started to fall asleep after dinner, so we took a cab back to the hotel.

It was a good night, gang. As always, I hope yours is good too.

May 20

Carbonara and tripa a la Romana in one meal? How great does life get?

I made my own pasta for lunch, with leftover veal and rabbit meat, dried crepes, new local garlic (too much for most; just enough for me), and a tomato. Heaven with a white Vacqueyras.

Have a great trip back!



Saturday, August 30, 2014

Saints, Gods, and at Least One Thief

May 18

Lunch on Saturday was interrupted between the salad and the pizza. How the waiters knew where to go, I never did find out. But they came out of the handbag store and handed me Joanna’s purse. 

We had decided to go to see the Pantheon. This is an ancient temple devoted to all the gods. It has the largest dome built in Classical times. The current building dates to early in the second century A.D. and replaces an earlier one destroyed by fire. 

The original was built by Augustus’s son-in-law, Marcus Agrippa.

The dome was the model that Brunelleschi studied when he prepared to design the Duomo. Michelangelo studied the Pantheon and the Duomo before he did St. Peter’s.

The way was fairly easy to follow. We take our street and then walk to the foot of Via Veneto. At that point, we are on familiar territory—Piazza Barberini and the Triton Fountain.

We stopped for lunch at Pepy’s Bar. We had been there before, and sat maybe at the same table, in the open window looking out on the square and the fountain.

We put my hat and Joanna’s purse on an extra chair. The same waiter came up and recognized us. He even remembered that I had ordered Montepulciano last week.

We were almost through the Caprese salad when the man, possibly Australian, at the table next to Joanna said, “Lady, that man just stole your purse.”

A waiter standing nearby was first onto the street. The witness was next, and then me. The waiter ran up to an intersection and stopped. The witness couldn’t see the thief. Our waiter joined the group. They looked around, had a brief consultation,  and then went into a bag shop on the corner.

I saw them talking to a frowning woman who came to the door, threw a cigarette onto the street, and led them back inside.

They came out with Joanna’s bag and asked if it was the right one. Clearly it was, but I took it to Joanna so she could confirm that indeed it was hers.

They said later that they found the thief in there and he gave the purse back to them. Did they see the guy and guess he was the one they were after? Or is there a history with this store? After all, if you’re in the business of snatching purses, where better to conceal evidence than in a store full of hand bags?

A couple of zippers were open, but Joanna confirmed that nothing had been removed. Money was still there.

Given the brief time, perhaps five minutes, and the position of the wallet in the bag, there is little to suggest that her credit cards were compromised. Even so, she has to watch for unusual activity on the credit cards for a while.

The witness told us later that a man had sat at a table next to ours, and then had gotten up a minute or so later. “I was wondering why he had a purse,” the man said. 

I never saw the guy.

Joanna was clearly shaken, but by the time she finished lunch and a Campari and soda (with the bag on her lap), she felt better. The most important thing in the bag, she told me, was the camera. She had a few euros in a side pocket and credit cards in her wallet. 

If she could put them into pockets, she wouldn’t need a bag that had to be laid aside (or kept in her lap). So we stopped in a men’s store to buy her a jacket with pockets. So far, that seems to be working out very well.

The portico and plaza at the Pantheon were crowded. More so than usual, I guess, because there was a service in progress inside.

There were no sacrifices to Jupiter and Mars. The building was co-opted by the Christians and has been a church, Sancta Maria Ad Martyres, for more than 1,400 years. According to my guide book, the Pantheon has been in continuous use since it was built.

“Ad” is “to” in Latin. “Martyres” I believe is also a Latin form. The Italian is “martiri.” I think that the name means the church is named for the Virgin Mary and is dedicated to the Christian martyrs. But I’m not sure.

The wait didn’t matter much. After all, this is Rome. Right across he square was a place with a lot of tables outside serving wine and food to go with it.

We did get in, along with shoving hordes, mostly tours led by guides, which are a real pain in the ass. Tourists are bad enough, but the tours can have two dozen people that just plow in front of you. They have to follow the guy who carries an umbrella or some kind of symbol on a stick.


The tombs of the first two kings of unified Italy—Victor Emmanuele II and Umberto I—are in the church, along with Queen Margherita, for whom the pizza is named. 

The kings’ tombs are decorated with plaques, wreaths, and flags. There are guards standing watch.

Raphael is also buried in the Pantheon, but without garlands or guards, just a rather primitive looking stone Madonna and Child and a boast on his coffin that I am told says that when he was alive nature feared he would outdo her, and when he was dead, was afraid she too would die. I wonder if he composed that or if a fan did.

The floor, made of various colors of marble, has the maroon dots, like the one in St. Peter’s where Charlemagne was crowned. It is supposed to be the original design from pagan days. I wonder if the floor, as well as the dome, was an inspiration for St. Peter’s.

Not far from the Pantheon is another curious church, a basilica whose roof is topped by a stag’s head with a crucifix between the antlers. It is the Church of St. Eustace. He was an aristocrat who went hunting one day and saw a vision of a buck with the cross on its head. He became a Christian and, eventually, a martyr. There is a similar legend about St. Hubert. They are the patron saints of hunters and the inspiration for the Jagermeister label.

Inside the church, a half dozen nuns were singing hymns in front of the effigy of Mary in the Lady Chapel.

Then we wandered some more, winding up in Piazza de Minerva. This was the site of another church I had read about, Sta. Maria Sopra Minerva. It is a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and built over the site of a former temple of Minerva

We went in and found most of the nave roped off for a service. We couldn’t see much, so we went out onto the porch, where I sat down to read up on the church. Joanna took the Edward Hopper-like photo of the day, “Harry Reads Up on Sopra Minerva.” 

The body of St. Catherine of Siena, a nun who persuaded the papacy to return to Rome from Avignon, is buried under the altar, all except for her head, which is in Siena.

The church also has two Medici popes and a statue by Michelangelo, as well as frescoes by Fra Lippo Lippi. Wow, let’s go back in and see how much of it we can make out from the back of the nave. We went in and the ropes were down.

They even let visitors up by the altar to view St. Catherine’s shrine up close.

There was a cenotaph for a particularly avuncular looking cardinal that I found interesting.

The statue of Christ holding a cross is reminiscent of the muscular Jesus of “The Last Judgment.” Except this one has a piece of bronze or something added—I guess for modesty—that seems to defy gravity and is really weird. 

The frescoes are OK. They are about the life of St. Thomas Aquinas, who applied the logic of the pagans to prove the doctrine of the Catholic church. Are you convinced yet?

There is one in particular that is fun. This one contains a tiny St. Thomas in his Dominican robe. He is clearly interrupting the Annunciation—Gabriel, Mary, Holy Dove and all—to introduce the patron’s family.

Excuse me, Gabe, but this will only take a minute. It’s OK. I’m a tour guide. 

It was getting late, so lights were clicking off and bells were ringing to chase us out.

We hiked back to the hotel. On the way, we passed through Piazza Barberini, and Joanna wanted to take a snapshot of the crime scene.

While she was waiting for a bus to get out of the way, a group of young men, including a priest, thought she was trying to take a picture of them. So she did.

We were thirsty so we stopped for a bottle of water and a couple of Campari and sodas at a sweet shop on Via Veneto. The Campari drinks are all perfect here. Sometimes in the States the soda dilutes the liqueur, for a weak and salty flavor. 

This was the second Campari and soda I had taken on Via Veneto. I had one at Harry’s Bar last week. They don’t taste any better on this street than anywhere else, but it was kind of cool to sit at a sidewalk table and watch the people go by. 

Dinner was at the restaurant in the hotel. We had eaten pizza for lunch and decided to balance that with something lighter. We shared a mixed salad and plates of grilled vegetables and chicory in oil and lemon. Delicious combination, especially with the house red, Nobile de Montepulciano, a great combination of fruit, tannins, and spice from Tuscany. 

Dessert was not so light—tiramisu served in a parfait glass with layers of strawberries and champagne. 

After Sambuca and espresso and a little more wine in the room, I was ready to call it a day.

Good night, all.

May 18

Harry, this is fascinating, and fun.

In our beloved Firenze Alan had his wallet returned in the midst of a very crowded,  thronged with shoppers Piazza San Lorenzo. Alan hadn’t even missed it!

The vegetable-bread soup you described (in Firenze) I believe is ribollita. Once we discovered it we ordered it every time we was it on a menu.  We wish we were there.


Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ah, Lost at Last

May 16

One of the many things I enjoy about Renaissance painters’ work is that the portraits take place in the real world. The Uffizi has a pair by Piero della Francesca a man, the Duke or Urbino and his wife, the duchess,  painted in profile. The Duke is very recognizable. He has a hawk nose and a red stovepipe hat. It has been printed in numerous books.

Behind him, in the far background, there is an entire landscape with a river and ships under sail and distant hills. The lady’s portrait is backed by more hills and a walled city.

The Magi travel through Tuscany. The hills are covered with orchards, vineyards, villages, and churches. 

The train travels through Tuscany, too, and even today, more than 500 years after the Renaissance, you look out the window of the coach and say to yourself, “God, they got it all so right.”

I made a small miscalculation in booking the train. I reserved seats for a train leaving at one. Checkout time was 11. We probably could have left the bags at the hotel and gone for an hour’s walk. I was thinking even of walking to the station, but the bags are so damned big. We couldn’t stop anywhere or do anything with the bags in tow.

Instead we took a cab for the short distance to the station and arrived around 10:30. After a few minutes, I got an idea. Let’s see if we can change our reservation to an earlier train. I took a number and found there were at least two dozen people ahead of me. 

An old guy got his number before I did, and never stopped muttering to himself. He was pacing up and down. Every time a window opened, he would rush up and give the clerk a hard time.

I have to admit, the ticket counter at Florence makes the Spanish look efficient. They may have been having trouble with terminals. A supervisor would show up and look at the computer over a clerk’s shoulder. Some clerks switched windows, They had three windows open and managed to go through about eight or ten numbers in 45 minutes, largely because most of the people holding them didn’t show up.

It was 11:30. By then, even if I could take an earlier train, it would be after 12 and would save us less than an hour. So I, too, gave up. 

The trains themselves, in contrast to the ticketing process, run efficiently. Most of them run on time or within a few minutes of time. Unlike Penn Station in New York there was only one train that was listed as 40 minutes behind schedule. 

Our train was punctual. Of course, I had brought a sandwich and a half-bottle of Chianti for a picnic. The sandwiches are dry and uninspired. The filling is intended not to star but to add something extra to the bread. Like the sandwiches in France.

I have seen nothing resembling what we call an Italian hero back home. No sandwiches with tomato, onion, lettuce, oil, or vinegar. Not even oregano. Salads too tend to be low on garnish. One place didn’t even give us vinegar, just olive oil.

The cooked food is at least good everywhere, and often superb. We couldn’t get into one place that had been recommended by Rick Steves, Il Gabriello on Via Vittoria, not far from the Spanish Steps. It was packed and we had no reservation. 

We walked through an alley that took us into Via Della Cruce and were immediately accosted by a waiter. The place doesn’t look atmospheric, but hey we’re tired, so we’ll try it.

We started with maccheroni alla Amatriciana. The maccheroni is a short pasta, like thick bucatini, even with the little hole down the middle. But these were ridged and cut about an inch and a half long. The alla Amatriciana part is a tomato sauce that was supposed to include a type of bacon called guanciale, which is made from pig jowls. There may have been some guanciale in it.

We also had the pasta of the day, a salmon lasagna. If there was salmon in it, I couldn’t find it.

There was nothing wrong with the wine, a rosso de Montepulcino and a Chianti classico.

I was eating the food making a few comments like “It’s OK, but not all that good.” Then I realized how spoiled I was. If I had eaten this at home, it would have been fine. Sure, I couldn’t find the bacon or the salmon, but the flavors were pleasant nonetheless. And the food was cheap. 

We got out of the place for 38 euro, and half that was for the great wine.

Now let me reorient myself. I have little sense of real time and am therefore bungling the order of events.

When we first got to the Hotel Priscilla, it was about 3 in the afternoon. I may have been fleeced by the cab driver. He charged us 27 euro for a two-kilometer ride. Sure, it was through heavy traffic and he carried both bags into the hotel. But that was pretty steep.

I looked at the map and saw that the hotel is not far from Via Veneto and the Barberini neighborhood. We had seen those places, so we lit out for another that seemed not too far, the Piazza di Spagna. The Spanish embassy is still there, but of course, we didn’t find that out until after much travail.

According to the map, we could walk out of the hotel, go to the right, and after a few name changes, come to the end of our street. A right turn and a quick left would take us past the Villa Medici (yeah, the family had an estate in Rome, too) and then to the neighborhood of the Spanish Steps. 

Only that quick left wasn’t there, just a large brick wall. We followed the street, Via Porta Pinciana to the Pincian Gate of the old city wall, and found ourselves at the top of the Via Veneto, right next to Harry’s Bar.

I had no idea which roads were which. The convergence of streets where we were standing looked nothing like the map. I ask a guy who was unchaining his motorbike, “Per favore, Piazza di Spagna?” 

Turns out, he’s from Brazil and speaks English, He knew Rome well enough to point me in the right general direction. He showed me a sort of roundabout route in the map because the most direct roads don’t have sidewalks. 

I can’t understand it all, and I’m not sure what’s going to happen, so we head down the road. We stop at an intersection with a sign that reads “Piazza di Siena.” I think it was an access lane because the piazza itself is in the middle of a park, away from main roads. But of course, I was still relying on the map that helped me get lost in the first place.

Street signs are few and far between here. But I got sight of one for Viale delle Magnolie. Whoa. That’s actually on the map. So we go to a cluster of guys renting Segways and electric cars. Yes, we take the viale and turn left at the end.

That’s how we got up to the garden of the Villa Medici. The park up there is dotted with busts of historic people. Some—Aretino, Archimedes, Garibaldi—I had heard of. There were a couple of villas up there, and an overlook of the city. I was able to identify the Victor Emmanuel monument, and based on that and the position of the sun, was able to make a guess as to which dome is St. Peter’s.


This was perfect. Here I am, still lost, and I’m starting to feel that I know my way around town. Maybe I am finally traveling hard enough.

We came down to a narrow road leading out of the park and saw a sign for Piazza di Spagna. We get to the bottom and meet a road that goes both ways. There’s a little overlook across the street with a statue dedicated to two brothers. One of them is holding a pistol. They may have been heroes in the struggle for unification.

Lots of people are in the park taking pictures of each other with Rome in the background, sort of like Renaissance portraits. 

So I go up and ask everyone all at once, “Per favore, Piazza di Spagna?” One guy points the way and gives me more information, but all I can make out is “scala.” But the important thing is the way to take.

The street we were on brought us to Trinity of the Mountains church, which is connected by the 18th century stairs to the Piazza di Spagna below. The lower tier of steps is popular public seating, like the Metropolitan Museum on a Sunday and the 42nd Street Library at lunch time.

The photo of the day is the Spanish Steps. Where’s Joanna?

We decided to walk back to the hotel—in the dark, mind you—after dinner. I suggested a cab, just to be sure we got back, but Joanna said we should walk. Talk about a sense of adventure. 

We stopped at a wine store across from the restaurant. They were offering tastings. There was a good Sangiovese and a cabernet made in Tuscany, so I bought one of each. We also tasted a sweet sparkling wine that Joanna enjoyed. 

I had a route home marked out on the map. It was simpler with fewer detours than my failed effort out.

All I had to do was find Via Sistina, which of course I couldn’t do. We stopped at every intersection to find street names. No Sistina, but we did find Via Capo la Casa, which would take us to Via Francesco Crispi, which would climb to Via Ludovisi, which was the beginning of the street with our hotel at the other end.

We eventually connected with Via Sistina, but far from the beginning that the map showed. Then I realized: I couldn’t find it because it was at the top of the Spanish Steps, not the bottom. Duh.

We found Ludovisi just fine. It turns, somewhere around the American embassy, into Buoncampagni and at the very end becomes Via Calabria.

Lost (or almost) twice in one day. I’m getting the hang of this. But boy, I was glad that I had toted those bottles of wine. I needed a drink.

Good night, all.