DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 9 - Rome in the rain

Sunday, 6 May, 2012

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We are having another afternoon rest, this time predicated by the weather, with Rome turning on the rain for us. It didn't spoil our morning though, with us rising with the alarm at 07:00 to have breakfast and head straight over to the Trevi Fountain to toss our coins in. We got there about 08:00, after a quick visit to our favourite bakery to pick up biscotti (lemon and chocolate) and little rolls with nuts in again. They only had seven of the nut rolls, so we substituted three with chocolate chips instead. As regular customers, they again rounded the total down to €5 for us. They also had amazingly good looking ricotta cannolis, but I resisted the temptation, for today. As we walked past the side of the bakery to head to the Trevi Fountain, we noticed for the first time the side window, which held amazing looking cakes on wire racks by the glass, and beyond those inside the building was a baker working on a batch of the mini pizza rolls. A bit further along was an open door, inside which was bakery machinery and stacks of large bags of flour.

Daily bread
Side window of the bakery

It was sprinkling with light rain as we left home, and it continued as we walked to the fountain. M. used an umbrella but I didn't need one. When we arrived at the fountain, we were pleased to see not merely a smaller crowd than usual, but virtually nobody there at all! We managed to get wide photos of us tossing coins in with the entire fountain behind us and nobody else in the photos. M. took shelter under a shop awning as I braved the rain to take a few more photos at this golden opportunity. While doing so, a Japanese bride and groom arrived with a photographer packing a Canon SLR and a 50mm f/1.2L lens. He took lots of photos of first her and then the both of them in front of the fountain, and I got a few shots with them in incidentally, to add a bit of interest to my fountain photos. A few minutes later, groups of tourists started to arrive, so it looks like we got there just in time.

Trevi fisheye
Trevi Fountain with nobody there!

From the fountain we walked south and cut west a bit, heading towards Trastevere. We stopped at a bar for M. to have a coffee and I ordered a cornetto con cioccolato. The guy held up a plate of croissants and said they only had jam or custard, so I ordered the cornetto con marmalata, which he put on a plate for me. Then he placed two saucers on the bar and I interrupted him making what looked like two cups of coffee to specify just one coffee. He sort of nodded, and I figured he'd got the message. Then a minute later he gave us M.'s coffee, plus a hot chocolate! Oh well, I had to have the hot chocolate then. It was rich and dark and really, really good; I was actually glad for the error!

From there we stopped at a nearby ATM to recharge our wallets with euro, then headed across past the Vittorio Emanuele II monument and down to the river to cross over to Trastevere. There we walked down small lanes parallel to the main street of Viale di Trastevere, heading for the Porta Portese markets on Via Portuense. I had no idea whereabouts on this long street the markets would be, so we planned to just walk down it until we found them.

Porta Portese
Porta Portese market

As it turned out, the entire street was the market, closed to traffic and with stalls lining both sides and room to walk about six abreast down the middle. It was a long street, and made a really long market. We walked along it for at least a kilometre, and still it stretched on down the street for as far as we could see given the curves and surrounding buildings, another three or four hundred metres at least.


We've just returned from another walk out to the Vatican, but more on that later.

The first impression of the Porta Portese market, after the sheer size of it stretching away into the distance down the road, was the chaos at some of the stalls where groups of women of all ages were busy tossing clothes around as they burrowed through large mounds of loose clothing to find something they wanted. Signs indicated ridiculously low prices for the articles, like €5 or €3 for everything on the tables full of shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and so on. There were stalls with baskets of underwear, bras, and pairs of socks, going for two or one euro a piece. We also saw several groups of nuns trawling through the clothes.

Ceramic stall
Porta Portese stall selling ceramics

The business spilled into the laneway between the stalls, which was bustling with people going to and fro. We walked down the right hand side and traffic coming the other way was on our left. Other stalls were selling all manner of things, from faux leather bags to real leather jackets, shoes to costume jewellery, to books - both new and antique - CDs, and DVDs, to kitchen utensils and handyman tools, to scooter helmets, perfumes, toiletries, and so on. There were a couple of stalls selling antique knick knacks, but they were vastly outnumbered by the ones selling clothes, shoes, and bags. There were several hot food places selling snacks and drinks to hungry market-goers, but we saw only one stall selling produce, a man purveying various cheeses and meats. On the way in, M. spotted the woman she'd bought the brown leather jacket off yesterday, and she spotted her, pointing M. out to a colleague, presumably to say, "Look, there's the woman I sold that jacket to yesterday over at Via Sannio!"

As we walked down the bustling market, we noticed several police patrolling in pairs, but we kept an eye and a firm hand on our valuables lest any pickpockets be lurking. M. spotted some harem-style pants she liked in brightly coloured patterns and filed the stall away for when we returned back up the street. She also kept an eye out for a small bag with a parchment map pattern, but at several stalls only found map regions on the pattern that didn't tickle her fancy. The initial asking price from several vendors was €15, but M. said she wouldn't pay more than €5. We couldn't bargain any quite that low, so didn't end up buying one. And the harem pants were asking €10, and the guy just laughed at me when I offered €4, hoping to start some back and forth. We walked away, expecting him to drop the price to keep us interested, but he was still laughing, so we left.

Dried tomatoes and stuff
Porta Portese stall selling jars of food

As we walked down the market, a small boy in front of us spilled some coins on the ground. We stopped to help pick them up, but only afterwards realised that it might well have been a pick pocketing scam, where anyone who stops to help gets "bumped into" by someone else working with the kid and ends up finding their wallet missing later. Thankfully that didn't happen to us because we were careful, and we decided if anything potentially distracting like that happened again, we'd keep walking and ignore it.

After walking a long way down the market, at least a kilometre it must have been, with no end in sight, we decided to turn around and start walking back. It had been spitting rain on and off, and now it started a bit harder, forcing me to start using the small black umbrella M. had brought from home, while she used the larger Rome one we'd bought the other day. It took quite a while to walk back the length we'd come, stopping to haggle over some bags and pants on the way. We emerged near the Ponte Sublicio and crossed here back to the eastern side of the river. This was a somewhat dodgy looking and decidedly non-touristy neighbourhood, with grungy buildings and dirty looking streets. It was still raining and we needed a break from walking so we stopped in at a small bar to sit at a table and get a cappuccino for M., while I had a freshly squeezed orange juice and a cherry crostata. That was delicious, with sweet fruity jam and a rich crumbly base. We also took advantage of the loo there before we left, which made us feel better for the walk ahead.

For we had decided to walk all the way over to Termini to catch the Archeobus that Tony had mentioned the other day to go to the Catacombs in the southern part of Rome. There were no train lines out that way, so a bus was the only option. We were guessing it would probably leave from Termini.


Back from dinner... but more on that later!

Returning to our plan to visit the Catacombs, as we walked north from the dodgy neighbourhood to and then past the church of the Bocca della Verità the rain began falling more heavily. And then we saw an Archeobus drive up to the stop outside the church! We thought if it stayed there for a minute we could dash over and get on board, presuming they'd sell us a ticket on board. But the bus only stopped for the few seconds necessary to drop some passengers and then sped off before we could get near it. We paused for a minute to consult the Lonely Planet and learnt that the Archeobus indeed leaves from Termini, but only runs once an hour.

We starting walking to Termini, heading up the street that led to the Capitoline hill, but the rain grew heavier still and we were forced to take shelter in an alcove about 1×2 metres in size. The back of it was a window which looked like it belonged to a cafe inside the building, but thankfully the cafe was closed so there weren't people inside peering out at us. We stayed there about 15 minutes, waiting for the rain to ease off, and decided that it was likely to hang around more or less intensely all day. This made the prospect of heading out as far as the Catacombs less appealing, given we had a long walk just to get to Termini. So we changed our plans and decided to head home, and stop off at the Chiesa del Gesù (Church of the Jesuits) on the way to look at the interior paintings and decorations which Tony had recommended to us.

Rainy day queue
Rainy day queue at the Capitoline Museums

Eventually the rain eased off a bit, and we took the opportunity to leave our shelter and climb the hill to the Capitoline Museums. Along the way we had another good view of the Forum below, with knots of people walking through it with umbrellas. At the Capitoline we were shocked to see an enormously long queue to get into the museums. It stretched out of the ticket office, along the building under the shelter of the colonnade, then out across the piazza where most of the people queuing were huddled under umbrellas, then into the colonnade of the second museum building on the far side of the piazza and along under the shelter of that for a bit. Obviously with the weather being inclement, the idea of staying dry inside a cosy museum appealed to a lot of tourists.

We stopped under the shelter of the colonnade beside the museum book store for a while to avoid the heavier rain again. I raced around taking a few photos of the insane queue, getting rather wet in the process as the rain was really quite heavy by now. Then it lightened off again in another five minutes or so and we decided to make the short walk to the Chiesa del Gesù. We stayed under the shelter of the colonnade by ducking across the queue. On the other side of the queue we ran smack into the middle of a wedding party, with bride, groom, and about two dozen formally dressed guests. As they posed for a photographer, we barged our way through he middle of them to get to where we were going. We probably ended up in the background of one or two of their wedding photos.

Chiesa del Gesù
Chiesa del Gesù

A couple of blocks north we reached the Chiesa del Gesù and ducked inside out of the rain. Being Sunday, there happened to be a service in progress, and we sat quietly at the back, merely happy to be out of the rain for a while. Looking up, we were stunned by the magnificent and mind-bending trompe-l'oeil ceiling fresco above us. The fresco paintwork looked like it was leaking out of the designated space in the centre of the ceiling and spilling over the gold filigree and ornamentation detail around it. The effect was quite startling to the eye, and it was not at all obvious if the painting was entirely confined to the two-dimensional surface of the ceiling, or if it somehow lifted off into a three-dimensional structure like some sort of painted sculpture. Even staring at it for several minutes didn't resolve the optical illusion satisfactorily. Beside that, it was also stunningly coloured and detailed, a real eye grabber.

Trinfo del Nome di Gesù
Amazing trompe l'oeil ceiling in the Chiesa del Gesù

The service was near the end and it finished within a few minutes of us sitting down. The attendees left and the priest wandered off into the sacristy. Then an attendant went around and started turning all of the lights off. While sitting, I'd read in the Lonely Planet that, besides the eye-melting ceiling fresco, the big draw in this church was the tomb in the northern transept, which contained the body of the guy who founded the Jesuit order. Apart from its historical importance, the tomb itself was a masterwork of gold and lapis lazuli. So we moved up to take a look at it, and the attendant announced that he church was closing! We got a quick peek in the looming darkness as the lights went off, and then hustled outside before the attendant could tell us off. As we were walking out, an American couple came in, obviously wanting to see the tomb. They saw everyone else leaving and asked nobody in particular if the church was closed. I told them yes, the guy was just closing up the church, and everyone was leaving. They sort of acknowledged this, but then went further in to go look at the tomb anyway. We left before we could hear the attendant tell them off, but I presume that's what happened.

Outside, the rain had stopped, so we used the respite to walk up past the Pantheon and back home. We ducked into the Pantheon quickly for another look as the rain started up again, before dashing home. We decided to rest inside for a while, listening to the rain fall outside the window. After a while we decided a quick walk, even in the rain, would be okay before dinner. I'd lamented earlier the fact that I hadn't thought to buy some rosary beads for my mother as a gift while we were at the Vatican, so we decided to walk over there and check out some of the gift shops. (We'd looked for rosaries at the market this morning, but hadn't found any. Maybe there's some sort of taboo against selling rosary beads at a discount market, or something.)

Pantheon fisheye
In the Pantheon in the rain

We left about 16:45 in a light rain, using umbrellas to keep mostly dry. We walked down to Ponte Sant'Angelo and crossed it once more, this time getting a view of Bernini's angel sculptures in a third type of weather. Despite the rain, there were still some knots of tourists walking across the bridge, as well as the inevitable hawkers trying to flog umbrellas and cheap, useless trinkets. People generally seemed to be heading towards the Vatican, and there was also a small queue of people waiting to enter Castel Sant'Angelo. We could see people on the upper level balconies of the castle, looking out over the city. That's another thing we still have yet to do despite now having been to Rome twice.

Angels in the Rain
Ponte Sant'Angelo angels in the rain

We walked down Via della Consiliazione towards St Peter's, looking for any shops where we could pick up some rosary beads. We found a bookshop that also sold souvenirs and it had some rosaries, but they were all cheap and a bit tacky looking. The best were some wooden beads for €5.90. We decided to look further afield and headed closer to St Peter's. A stone's throw from the Piazza San Pietro, we found another shop, this one specialising in religious items, with a few other souvenirs thrown in. They had a large selection of rosaries in a glass display under the counter. These looked much nicer, and had price tags ranging from about €30 to the most expensive I saw which was €190. I liked the look of some with turquoise beads and asked to have a look at them. The woman pulled them out, plus some others the same colour (probably since I'd asked to look at the azzurri ones) which were either agate or blue crystal (she said Swarovski, but I'm not sure if that was just because she didn't know the English word for crystal). I liked the one with large turquoise beads, but that was €190, while a smaller one was €45, which was about the range I was thinking. It had a silver crucifix and medallion and looked good. The lady said turquoise was a very unusual stone for rosaries, as it "wasn't possible" to make them out of turquoise any more. She said these ones were "old", in that when they set up the shop about 20 years ago, they found a bunch of old stock in a back room or something, polished them up, and offered them for sale. While I liked this one, we decided to go all the way to St Peter's to check the official Vatican bookshop and see what they might have.

We walked across the rainy Piazza San Pietro, noting the relative lack of tourists in the weather. Unfortunately, the Vatican bookshop was closed for Sunday, so we walked back to the previous shop and bought the small turquoise rosary. Then we wandered back home across Ponte Sant'Angelo again, getting home in time to have showers before dinner.

Rome street in the rain
Walking the streets of Rome in the rain

For dinner we'd booked a table at Obika, which was just on the next block south of us, only a minute's walk away, which was fortunate in the rain. This place, recommended by the Lonely Planet, is a "mozzarella bar", which offers a wide variety of dishes featuring four different types of mozzarella, as well a selection of dishes featuring several other cheeses from local regions around Italy. It was a bit trendy, with walls full of wine bottles, a modern decor, and jazzy music. The menu was intimidating, even given both Italian and English versions. A tasting platter came with a choice of two, three, or four different mozzarellas, each recommended for a number of people matching the number of mozzarellas. There were also cutting boards, coming in two types with meat, and one with cheese, then cold dishes, hot dishes, and finally pizzas using a selection of fancy sounding cheeses.

Obika cheese platter
Cheese cutting board, at Obika

We chose to share a cheese cutting board as a starter, followed by a pasta with grilled swordfish and pistachio pesto for me, and a Formaggi Morbidi pizza for M., which I translated as "death by cheese" (though I later learnt that "morbido" means "soft"). It had three types of cheese melted on it, plus blobs of ricotta placed on after cooking, which resembled little piles of meringue. We also selected a red wine based on a recommendation for something light and fruity by our waitress; I don't recall the details, but it was nice. A cutting board arrived, but it contained lots of meat, so I had to turn it away, saying we'd asked for formaggi. That arrived soon after, and contained a rectangular chunk of firmish ricotta, slices of a mild cheese with a thin crust, slices of a strong Parmesan-like cheese, and a small bowl containing stringy, stretchy curds of extremely fresh mozzarella in whey. Along with these were bowls of mandarin marmalade and a sweet red onion jam - at least it claimed to be red onion on the menu; it was sweet like fruit but no fruit in particular. We also had some slices of a variety of about six different types of bread. All of it was really good. My pasta was thin narrow strips about five centimetres long, with thinner strips of the swordfish, which really resembled nothing so much as strips of some sort of ham. M.'s pizza was on a base dusted with semolina, thin and crispy and delicious.

While waiting for the food we wandered around the interesting restaurant. They had a room you could walk through in which chefs were plating dishes. It had three fish-tank-like tanks of cloudy water, which I realised held balls of fresh mozzarella of different types. As I watched, a chef fished around in one with a pair of tongs to extract a ball of cheese and stick it on a tasting plate, which had two balls of differently coloured mozzarella on a bed of rocket leaves. We elected not to stay for coffee or dessert tonight, and left to walk home. The rain was light and we decided to have a stroll after dinner, down to the Pantheon and back, enjoying our last evening in Rome and taking some photos of the street scenes with the rain.

Window shopping
Rome on a rainy night

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