Rome trip

January, 2015. The high-speed frecchiarossa train from Florence to Rome sped through the Italian countryside. As the train reached the outskirts of the city I noticed camps with huts and bonfires by the railway track. These could have been the homes of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, or those of some of the roughly 8,000 Roma people who live in poor conditions on the fringes of the city. Upon leaving the station we headed for our accommodation. It was in the Piazza di Spagna by the Spanish Steps.

The Spanish Steps, or Scalinata di Trinità dei Monte, is a grand polished stone stairway which cascades down the Pincian Hill to Piazza di Spagna.  In the piazza is a fountain, the Fontana della Barcaccia, designed by Pietro Bernini. Sandy-coloured buildings with shuttered windows surround the square. While we were staying here the front of the church at the top of the steps, the Trinità dei Monti, was covered by a huge poster advertising Bulgari. The luxury jeweler funded a project to restore the Steps later that year.

Piazza di Spagna and The Spanish Steps. The Keats-Shelley House is on the right. Source: http://www.romewise.com

The apartment we stayed in was inside the Keats-Shelley House, above the museum. It had lovely high ceilings and wooden furniture. The kitchen had a decorative blue and white tiled floor. From my bedroom window I could hear the running water of the Fontana della Barcaccia and the clattering of horses’ hooves on the cobblestones of the piazza. The coachmen would arrive early each morning with their bottichella (small barrel) horse-drawn carriages and wait to take tourists on rides around the city.

On our first morning in Rome we visited Piazza del Popolo, which was the main entrance to the city during the time of the Empire. In its centre is the Flaminio Obelisk, carved from granite during the reign of Eygptian Pharaoh Seti I. This was later brought to Rome from Egypt on the order of Emperor Augustus. A group of four small fountains (Fontane dell’Obelisco) surround the obelisk.

The Flaminio Obelisk, Piazza del Popolo
Guitarist with Fontana dei Leoni in the foreground
One of the Fountains of the Obelisk (Fontane dell’Obelisco)

We continued our walk, stopping outside the Museum of the Ara Pacis. The concrete and glass structure houses the Ara Pacis Augustae (or Altar of the Augustan Peace), a monument built in honour of the emperor Augustus.

Ara Pacis Museum
Ara Paris Augustae

We visited the Pantheon, the best-preserved building from ancient Rome. It was completed during the reign of Emperor Hadrian and is thought to have been designed as a temple for Roman gods. The Pantheon was the first Roman pagan temple to be consecrated as a Christian church, which it continues to function as today. The building comprises three sections: a portico with sixteen granite columns, a massive domed rotunda and a rectangular area that links the other two sections. At the top of the dome is an uncovered oculus, or opening. This allows light in to illuminate the rotunda. Being uncovered it also lets rain in, which falls on to a convex floor and drains in to the still-functioning Roman drainpipes underneath. The Pantheon is the burial place of the Italian kings Vittorio Emanuele II and Umberto I as well as the Renaissance painter Raphael.

The front of the Pantheon with Fontana del Pantheon in the foreground
Light pouring through the oculus into the rotunda

In front of the Pantheon is the Piazza della Rotonda. This takes its name from the building’s informal title, the church of Santa Maria Rotonda. In its centre lies a huge Renaissance fountain, the Fontana del Pantheon, which was designed by sculptor and architect Giacomo Della Porta. On top of the fountain stands an Egyptian obelisk, the Obelisco Macuteo, named after its previous location in Piazza di San Macuto.

Fontana del Pantheon, Piazza della Rotonda
Detail of Fontana del Pantheon

In the popular tourist areas there were men trying to sell roses and selfie sticks to passers-by. Street vendors were selling roasted chestnuts (caldarroste), a popular delicacy in Italy during the winter months.

After visiting the Pantheon we wandered into Piazza Navona, a lively square with street performers and painters. It was built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian which once hosted around 20,000 spectators for athletic games. The piazza boasts three fountains: the Fountain of Neptune, the Fountain of the Four Rivers and the Fountain of the Moor.

Fountain of Neptune (Fontana del Nettuno)
Fountain of the Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi)
Detail of the Fountain of the Moor (Fontana del Moro)

Having seen it on on a travel documentary, we decided to visit the Caffè Greco, the oldest coffee bar in Rome. It has red velvet seats and walls that are decorated with portraits and landscape paintings. The waiters are smartly dressed in black and white suits. I ordered a Marrocino, a mixture of espresso, cocoa and milk.

Sunken twenty feet below street level is the Largo di Torre Argentina, a complex of ancient temple ruins that was excavated in 1929. Since then it has been a haven for stray and abandoned cats. For decades they were cared for and fed by the gattare, or cat ladies, up until 1993 when an official cat sanctuary charity was established. The cats can be seen running, jumping and lying amongst the ruins. I found Largo di Torre Argentina a relaxing and uplifting place to visit.

One of the residents of Largo di Torre Argentina
Largo di Torre Argentina

We spent some time in Villa Borghese Gardens which was just a short walk from our accommodation. It is one of the largest urban parks in Europe and has tree-lined avenues, museums, fountains, statues and villas.

Fountain of the Seahorses (Fontana dei Cavalli Marini), Villa Borghese Gardens

We went to see the Mouth of Truth, or Bocca della Verità, which is housed in the portico of the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin. The Mouth of Truth depicts the face of a pagan god which most Romans believe to be the ancient god of the River Tiber. It is carved in to a giant marble disk. Medieval legend has it that if someone was to put their hand inside the mouth and tell a lie, it would be bitten off! There was a long queue of people waiting to have their photo taken with the sculpture. This is common as the Mouth of Truth is world-famous and featured in the Hollywood film ‘Roman Holiday’ with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

Bocca della Verità (The Mouth of Truth)

One night we went to Gregory’s jazz bar, which is tucked away on a quiet street that runs up to the top of the Spanish Steps. Mirrors and pictures of famous jazz musicians and singers adorn the interior walls. The shelves behind the bar are well-stocked with a wide selection of drinks. We went upstairs to a busy room where a jazz trio was playing, comprising a pianist, a drummer and a bass player.

On our last day in Rome we left the apartment and headed to Termini train station via the Metro. I was disappointed to find the walls of the Metro were covered in graffiti and the chipboard hoardings that lined the corridor we walked along had been kicked in.

On the train a Roma man and woman played music while a little girl stood in front of them holding a tin for people to drop money into.

Writing this post has involved delving into Rome’s rich history and has given me a deeper appreciation of the landmarks, fountains, buildings and sculptures that I saw. I wasn’t able to see Trevi Fountain during my stay however, as between June 2014 and November 2015 it was closed for a major renovation. I would therefore especially like to see this fountain, Rome’s largest and most famous, when I visit again.

Southend trip

It was a cold day in late February. I stood opposite the Tower of London in the snow and took some photos before heading to Fenchurch Street station to catch the train to Southend.

The first part of the journey passed through the densely-built landscape of east London and places whose names I’d heard of but had never visited like West Ham, Upton Park and Barking. I noticed there were lots of buildings covered in cladding which was a worrying sight in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower fire.

East London accents filled the train carriage. Most people got off at Upminster, which marks the end of London’s urban sprawl to the east. Beyond Upminster the landscape becomes rural, vast and flat.

Of all the places I had passed through on my outward journey it was clear that Southend and the surrounding area had been the most affected by snow. Looking at a car roof I guessed there must have been about three inches of snowfall here. After arriving at Southend I had to tread carefully walking down from the station to the High Street.

I made my way down to the Esplanade. Ahead of me I could see the pier and the Adventure Island Fun Park. Amusement arcades and pubs lined the road to the Premier Inn. The weather was very cold but sunny.

After checking in to my hotel room I lay on the bed and fell asleep. Later on, after sunset, I headed back out in search of something to eat. There were a few other people out walking despite conditions being slippery underfoot. I noticed two ambulances parked at the side of the road. The compacted snow and ice glistened under the street lights.

In the town centre I passed The Last Post, a Wetherspoons pub. It is housed in a grand old Victorian stone building. Nearby was a bar called the Railway which I thought looked good. Posters of bands due to perform there were displayed in the windows.

I walked up a quiet, tree-lined road called Cambridge Avenue. The houses here are very nice and look expensive. I imagine this is the most desirable location to live in Southend. I passed a large church and then a car park, where some people were providing food for the homeless. The snow underfoot was covered in footprints and sledge tracks.

On the Esplanade the Electric Avenue and Monte Carlo amusement arcades were alive with flashing neon lights. And the sign on the Kursaal, once a concert venue where the band Dr Feelgood performed https://youtu.be/GzF0AETdRF8, was lit up. These days the Kursaal is a multi-use complex housing a bowling alley, a kids’ soft play area and a supermarket.

The pubs along the Esplanade look old-fashioned, the decor probably unchanged for many years. I couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable as a lone ‘outsider’ in one of them, although there aren’t many pubs I’d feel comfortable drinking in alone.

Back at the hotel, looking out the window I could see the lights of the pier leading all the way out into the estuary.

The next morning I set off on foot from the hotel towards the pier. The snow was thick and powdery. I think it had snowed again overnight. Most of the businesses I passed were closed, their shutters down. Some people were having a snowball fight by the estuary wall.

I arrived at the pier entrance but found the doors were locked. Looking through the glass I saw staff stood behind a reception desk, staring back at me and telling me the pier was closed.

I continued up the road, past the snow-covered rides of Adventure Island. There were a few other people out on foot, some friendly, some not making eye contact or saying anything. “You must be mad!” said a woman walking her dog. Seabirds were bobbing up and down on the water. The tide was in and waves were crashing against the shore wall. On a frozen lagoon, birds huddled together for warmth.

To my right some people were taking advantage of the snow to go sledging on a hill.

I passed one cafe which was open and looked busy. Most of the others I saw were closed. As too was the cliff railway lift.

I pressed on. In the distance I could see some large buildings that looked like hotels. This was Westcliff-on-Sea, the next town along from Southend. I continued towards a large boat that was docked by the Esplanade. On the way I passed Chalkwell train station. Thankfully the trains were still running as I had started to worry about how I was going to get back after having trudged so far already through the snow. I crossed a bridge over the railway and followed a path up a hill on which children were sledging. At the top I joined a road that took me back to the train station.

As I waited for the train to Southend Central I caught sight of a weasel. It was small and brown with a white belly. It leapt across the railway and then ran alongside it. It was fast. I didn’t have time to take a photo as it passed me and made its way up a bank and through a fence.

Once back in town I visited Southend Museum where I learnt about the wildlife that inhabits the estuary, as well as the history of cockling, oyster growing, and fishing in the region. I also read about Southend during World War One and how it was one of the places most badly hit by German bombs dropped from a zeppelin.

My final night in Southend was the coldest I’d been since my arrival. It was freezing, biting, the wind cutting. For extra warmth I put on my neck warmer and covered part of my face. I was already wearing a hat and scarf. The bus timetable told me there was a 25 minute wait for the bus I wanted. I decided it was too cold to hang around so I caught another bus which, although would involve a longer walk back to the hotel from where it dropped me off, was preferable to waiting in the freezing cold.

The next day I caught the train from Southend Victoria to London Liverpool Street. On the way it was delayed at Shenfield station due to the doors being frozen shut. I’d never known this to happen before. The train driver told passengers needing to get off to give the doors a kick but even this didn’t work. Station staff on the platform poured warm water on the doors to melt the ice.

Eventually I arrived at a crowded Liverpool Street station. I walked through the main concourse and found my way down some stairs to the Underground where I ended up getting a train in the wrong direction. I got off at Aldgate, where it terminated. Here I was stuck for about fifteen minutes. Eventually a train arrived which was heading to Baker Street, where I needed to alight to get another train to Marylebone. Arriving at Baker Street I ran to get my connecting train. At Marylebone I strode up the escalator with all my bags and then raced to the platform. Luckily the Chiltern train back to Solihull had been delayed so I was able to catch it. But the stress and energy involved in rushing had taken its toll. I was exhausted.

I’m pleased that I was able to visit Southend. And even though, due to the weather, I didn’t get to walk along the pier or visit the local nature reserves, it was good to visit the coast and see somewhere new.