Technical articles, travel letters, essays, & translations
[home]         [about]         [links]

From Italia (Roma, Vaticano, Costiera Amalfitana, Napoli, Ercolano)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Rome II: Train strike

Dear Friends,

After a six-hour layover in Berlin (see "from Berlin II"), I arrived at Rome's Fiumicino airport on Friday afternoon. Some inspection of the local transit offerings revealed a two-train solution to downtown Rome. I unwittingly proceeded. After a few stops along the first train of my journey, the car grew impossibly dense with people, and, by the time I was one stop from my transfer point, I was lodged so deep within this crowd that I feared there was no route for my escape. By some miraculous contortions and the cooperation of my fellow passengers, however, I was able to pass my suitcase over the crowd and slide my body through to the train car's exit.

Here, I learned of the train strike and, like the scores of other stranded passengers, watched the departure terminals light up with foreboding red cancellations. I crawled around the station for nearly an hour in search of a solution. Taxis were nowhere to be found. I had no sense of how far I was from the city. The station attendants were unhelpful, bouncing drooping faces of resignation all across the floor from their despondent counters. After teaming up with a fellow stranded passenger, Chiara, who was making her way home after a day's work, were we able to intercept a taxi from a corner near the train station to deliver her, then me, to our final destinations. (I cannot stress how unfathomably improbable this was.) By the time I reached the hilltop Rome Cavalieri Hotel, I was hours passed due.

* * *

We are all tired from a long day and eager to get home to our families and to our rest. I lean over and ask someone who is sitting on the floor of the crowded and exhausted platform, "A chè ore arriva il tren?" I am asking this question passenger to passenger, person to person. This sort of interaction is special and, in this trip, it will be rare.

The Rome that is accessible to us is not the Italian city of Rome. It is a vast crowd of tourist attractions and tourists, and we are part of them. Every interaction since the train incident has been one between tourist and tourist or tourist and vendor. While I appreciate the monuments and history that this city offers, it is not the reason I like to travel. When I travel, it is for the hope that even for a moment I can experience a small part of life in a foreign place, that I can share that experience with people who do it everyday, that I can see how that experience differs from mine but also feel at the same time how similar it is in certain basic human ways.

When I stood in front of the Trevi Fountain today with a throng of other tourists just like myself and I looked at the incredible animation and complexity in the still sculptures that were so precisely and inconceivably carved from stone so long ago, I admit ashamedly that it did not move me. But packing into the subway train at Roma Termini somehow did. I'm not trying to be edgy or contrary or deep; I guess I'm just trying desperately to justify why I'm not so interested in seeing the things that many others who are more worthy would die to see but cannot for one reason or another.

I shared a taxi with a real Roman yesterday who told me about life in Rome, not as a hired guide, but as a fellow person, as someone who like myself at that very moment was "just trying to get through this." Sure, my plight was a little more contrived because, after all, I willingly subjected myself to this trip while Chiara was just trying to get home after work, but it didn't make the struggle any less real.

As such, the experience of the train strike paradoxically reaffirmed my devotion to mass transit. It also reaffirmed my understanding of the Mediterranean sense of time and how that sense of time differs dramatically from the Anglo-Saxon one that I experienced twenty-four hours earlier and a thousand-odd miles farther north.


from Rome III: Via Appia

Dear Friends,

On Saturday, we crawled along the Piazza del Popolo, climbed the Spanish Steps, gaped in awe at the Pantheon, and snaked south through the city until the Piramide metro station.

On Sunday, we rented bikes with a tour and soared along miles of the Appian Way, the conduit that connected the Roman Empire to its capital. We passed under ancient arches, over chariot-worn cobblestone, along verdant countryside, and past far-reaching aqueduct ruins.

I felt somewhat bad for the Ancient Romans since, while we had full suspension on our mountain bikes, the Romans were probably sporting some pretty rigid vehicles which would have made for some nasty carriage-sickness on the bumpy cobblestone path. (Not to mention that any male Romans on a wooden bicycle would definitely have their nuts sent clear up into their stomachs after a mile on that thing.)

The vast park along the aqueduct was filled with young people and families barbecuing and playing football. I think it is nice that the area around the well preserved aqueducts is a public park.

Tomorrow should be a relaxing day. My memories of Rome from six years ago are reforming. Aside from the ruins, I recall a particular day when I ventured to the Trastevere district to meet a friend who was living there and I stumbled upon a regal but quiet piazza. I want to find that piazza again to test my memory.


from Rome IV: Due diligence of the Roman basilicas

Dear Friends,

On Monday, we explored the seedy underbelly of Rome in the area around the central train station, Roma Termini. After a regrettable train-station grocery-store lunch, we visited several notable basilicas as well as the majestic Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, an architectural homage to the first king of unified Italy, built in the Ancient Roman style. We concluded the evening with a hearty meal in the refreshing residential Trastevere district.

Trastevere felt quite a bit different from how I remembered it. It was dark by the time we arrived after a full day of church hopping. It's certainly very different from the east side of the river. I had a specific image of the Piazza di Santa Maria in my head, but I could not compare it to reality today because it was too dark. I intend to visit it one more time. I enjoy conducting temporal studies of my perception of travel destinations.

For tomorrow, we are planning a trip to the Vatican after which we may attempt the Colosseum-Forum-Palantino hat trick if time permits. That would leave a full day of extra credit for Wednesday. On Thursday, we plan to take the train down to bella Napoli.


from the Vatican

Dear Friends,

Today, we executed a thorough traversal of the Vatican starting with the Vatican Museum and moving right into the Basilica di San Pietro and its corresponding piazza. On our march toward the Vatican, we deflected many persistent tour solicitors who oscillated between calls of "hello!" and "hola!" as they iteratively applied their Bayesian classifiers against the image of our swarthy family in Western attire. After ignoring the first dozen calls, I eventually responded to one of the "holas!" with genuine curiosity: "Really? Why 'hola?' Do we really look Spanish to you?" The touter, thrilled to elicit any response at all, replied, "Um, why not?"

I was reminded that San Pietro's Basilica is by far the most impressive church I have ever seen and very well may be the most impressive in the world.

I addressed my unfinished business of six years ago and finally saw the Sistine Chapel. I should take caution not to overstate my experience of it. Since my expectations of the Sistine Chapel had been lowered so much, I was pleasantly surprised in the end. All in all, the museum is an overwhelming and busy place, but I think most of it is probably not worth the time. Perhaps my favorite exhibit was Raffaello's School of Athens. After an hour in the museum, I was very happy to leave.

In fact, I think that represents my overall feeling toward Rome, too. Much of it was very interesting the first time through, but the marginal utility of seeing the sites again fell off very quickly for me. I am leaving the city quite fulfilled and in no need of returning to it soon.

Because we spent so long in the Vatican, we were not able to proceed to the Ancient Rome hat trick. In fact, I believe we may forgo the hat trick tomorrow entirely in favor of the extra credit assignments. I checked with the Rome registrar's office and they said that transfer credits from my earlier 2008 Colosseum and Forum visits would be accepted.


from Rome V: Trastevere, "the hard way," and a farewell

Dear Friends,

In the end, I had to take an incomplete on the four papal basilicas as we did not make it to the final and most remote one, San Paolo's. We strolled through Gianicolo Park instead, with nice elevated views of the city, and descended into Trastevere for a thorough perusal of its numerous alleys. On the recommendation of an acquaintance, we tracked down an excellent restaurant, Le Mani in Pasta, where we enjoyed a stellar carbonara.

At the end of the night, we took a cab back to the hotel. The reason I make specific note of this is because at one point the taxi pulled up along the leftmost lane of a busy four-lane intersection from where he had to make a very imminent right turn. We were all quite surprised, recognizing the impossibility of the task and questioning whether the driver intended to turn right at all. So, I said to the driver, "È dificile, no?" He agreed but seemed unconcerned. I do not know quite how to explain what happened next: not only did he make the turn but he did so with such unutterable elegance that it seemed effortless. After the turn, we issued several "bravos," to which our talented driver responded with something to effect of "Sometimes you have to take the hard way in life."

We departed Rome on Thursday morning by train, leaving the city with much fonder memories than from my first trip six years earlier. Arriving at Napoli Centrale in 70 minutes, we boarded a taxi to the airport to retrieve our rental car. The sobering drive along the highway took us through the sprawling poverty of the city's outskirts. From there, we drove 50 minutes to our hotel in Sorrento, our residence for the remaining four nights of our trip.

Sorrento is a peaceful seaside village with a slower pace. We ate some top-quality pizza in town and then retired to the hotel.


from the Amalfi Coast (Sorrento, Amalfi, Ravello, Positano)

Dear Friends,

Today, Friday, we drove to a few of the towns around the beautiful Amalfi Coast. Our first stop was the eponymous town of Amalfi, where my father, a donkey enthusiast, took us to a dealer of fine ceramic donkeys, an icon of the town. "The donkey is a good animal," he says, "for he works hard and complains little." I, temporarily transformed into somewhat of a donkey myself, managed to purchase two of these fine specimens. Having arrived with no donkeys, I departed Amalfi with three.

From Amalfi we drove up the mountain and further inland to Ravello, whose cliffside Villa Rufolo offers tree-laden vistas of the sea. We enjoyed a late lunch at an osteria that was recommended by an Amalfi donkey expert. I independently investigated the place and learned that many were fond of its kindly owner, Netta. So when I saw an older lady ask us if we were enjoying our meal, I asked if her name were Netta. Her face lit up and she brought us extra pasta and tiramisu.

Our last stop before home was the larger seaside village of Positano, a colorful patchwork of old buildings coating a cliff with an impossibly complex labyrinth of stairs and roads. We caught the tail end of the day as we descended along the main winding road to the beach whence we enjoyed the starry scene of the town above us.

Finally, we drove back to Sorrento along the tortuous and narrow roads and picked up a large pizza at another highly recommended establishment. We washed it down with some wine and San Pellegrino.

This has been my favorite day of our trip so far. I enjoy the small villages and the relative intimacy of the people in them. For example, the ceramic donkey proprietor in Amalfi opened his shop just for us despite it being closed and the shelves draped in plastic bags as it was being repainted.

I now prepare for the most anticipated part of our trip: my return to Napoli.


from Napoli II: Bella Napoli

Dear Friends,

We rose early on Saturday morning to fill up on breakfast and board the rickety Circumvesuviana train for Napoli. We arrived at the central train station around noon and walked through a mystical Arabesque neighborhood with a local flea market. It felt eerily like the old part of a Middle Eastern city.

From there, we snaked around the narrow grid of the Quartieri Spagnoli, passing by fish markets and green grocers, until we found a random pizza place and settled for lunch. The pizza was great.

Then we headed "up" via a funicular to the hilltop Vomero neighborhood where the Sant'Elmo castle has unparalleled views of the city and the bay.

Another funicular plopped us down right next to the Piazza del Plebiscito, the city's impressive and colorful main square. We walked along the water until the sun set and then navigated through some dark and sketchy alleys until we found a subway station.

Two stops had us at the Piazza Cavour and after some advanced maneuvers through spooky residential streets, we were on Via Tribunali, which is, according to various sources, the pizza capital of the world.

This is where we found the highly recommended Pizzeria Di Matteo, the best we have had and continuing an unlikely streak of pizzas where each is inexplicably better than the previous. We unabashedly devoured more pizzas than we were people and by some miraculous hustle were able to jog back to Piazza Garibaldi to make the 21:11 train back to Sorrento.

Napoli remains one of my favorite cities in Italy along with Genova. They are very different from each other but similar in the sense that they have extraordinary character, much to offer for those willing to seek it, and far fewer tourists than the better known destinations like Florence, Venice, and Rome. Between Rome and Napoli, I strongly prefer the latter. In the words of a great Sardinian ragazzo from my neighborhood pizza place in London, "For me, eet's better."

Tomorrow is our last full day. The weather is calling for rain. We will try to visit Ercolano and then possibly head to the Parco Virgiliano on the far side of Napoli for the sunset. We also want to spend a little bit of time in Sorrento itself.


from Ercolano and Sorrento II

Dear Friends,

Today it rained a lot so we did not attempt much. After a lazy start to the day, we drove to Ercolano, the smaller but better preserved Ancient Roman village that was buried by Vesuvius. The site was impressive with some vast mosaics and frescos almost entirely intact.

Much of the day was spent just driving to and from the town. It was about 80 km round trip but it took almost two hours in total because of unexpected rural Sunday traffic and narrow mountain roads. We will drive the same route tomorrow to get to the Napoli airport.

We spent the evening in Sorrento, which is well known for its citrus. In fact, the hotel is overrun with oranges, which grow on orange trees around the property. The hotel uses the intractable surplus of oranges as table centerpieces. The breakfast buffet features heaps of these oranges, which one can freely deposit into an automatic juicer for unlimited fresh orange juice.

Of course, the limoncello is renowned. I sampled many different kinds tonight at the lemon-themed tourist market. After several, I think that I could start to pretend to tell the differences between them.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
All rights reserved.