Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

With lockdown making us all wish we could be somewhere else, I am reblogging this 2013 post about a short trip to Rome. David and Jude have seen it before, but it may well be new to most of you.

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I had never been to Italy. Despite a lifelong interest in all things Roman, as well as a passing regard for Marco Polo, Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and a fascination with the nefarious exploits of Brigate Rosse during the 1970’s, I had never set foot on the land that also produced the wines I loved so much; Barolo, Barbera D’Asti, and Chianti.

Julie was well aware of my love of Roman History, and my somewhat morbid obsession with the arenas, and the gladiatorial combats fought within them. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, in March 2002, she arranged a ‘short break’ holiday to Rome, as her gift to me. It remains one of the best gifts that I have ever received, and this is the tale of our trip to the Eternal City.

Even the chosen hotel was to be a delight. The Art Deco Hotel, close to the Central Station, so…

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Book Review: Clash of Empires

Ben Kane is a best selling author in the Historical Fiction genre, but this is the first time I have read one of his books.

At 448 pages, it took me a while to read it, but that is no reflection on his lively and authentic writing, which at times had me staying up far too late to finish a chapter. Kane interweaves real historical figures with fictional characters, setting them in and around actual recorded events. In this book, he deals with the enmity between the Macedonian Empire of Philip V, and the might of Ancient Rome. As well as those two main players, we have the various Greek states involved on both sides, and allies who can turn their coats for the right reasons.

Kane deals with the style perfectly. He uses some main characters from each side, and we follow the same events through their different viewpoints. Whether a new member of the fearsome Macedonian phalanx, or an experienced Roman legionary, the story is at all times completely believable, and feels very authentic too. We get the view from the nobles at the Macedonian court, and the behind the scenes political machinations of Roman senators and Consuls vying for power and wealth.

There are detailed descriptions of the training of the soldiers, the composition of the various regiments, and the fighting tactics. The effect of total war on the civilian population is covered too, as well as the incredibly harsh punishments inflicted in the armies. With the action switching from Rome, to Athens, then up to Macedonia, all locations are genuine, and maps are supplied too. We visit the camps of the different soldiers and see what they do when they are idle, then follow them to taverns and sporting events.

But it is without doubt during the battles and sieges that Kane’s skill excels. With compelling descriptions of formations in combat, the use of catapults and missile weapons, and the courage and fear shared equally on both sides, he delivers an edge of the seat experience that at times makes you imagine you are there. This shows real writing skill, and reminded me of the books of Bernard Cornwell and Steven Pressfield.

I wasn’t aware of it when I bought this Kindle version for just £1, but the book finishes leaving no conclusions, as it is the first in a series. The second one, featuring many of the same characters, and continuing the events from the last page, is now available.

I will certainly be buying more of his books, and this one is unreservedly recommended.

Holidays and Travel: Kenya 1983 (Part One)

After the early death of my then mother in law, my ex-wife was left some money in her will. It was a generous, if not life-changing amount, and she decided to spend it on a holiday. As it was enough to be able to choose somewhere sufficiently exotic, we could examine the possibilities of travel further afield. The short list was soon drawn up. India, Egypt, South America, and Kenya were all at the top. I was quite keen to visit the USA at the time, and to explore the battlefields of the Civil War. However, it was my wife’s legacy, and only right that she should make the final decision. She settled on Africa, and a trip to see wildlife in Kenya. It would be a two-centre holiday, with time spent in Nairobi, before moving on to the coast at Mombasa. Some excursions would be arranged beforehand, and others chosen after arrival. We would have to visit during the summer, as my wife was a lecturer, so had over six weeks off at that time. We settled on mid-July, and made the booking. We were going to fly to Nairobi (via Rome), and stay in a nice hotel on the edge of the city. We included an overnight stay at The Ark, a purpose-built hotel and animal viewing area, similar to the more famous ‘Treetops’. After eight days in this region, we would fly on to Mombasa, to enjoy the coastal area, and warmer weather found there. It was all arranged, and we began to get quite excited about our forthcoming safari adventure.

We lived in Wimbledon at the time, and our next-door neighbours were from a Kenyan Asian background. Their brother still lived in Mombasa, where he owned a large car dealership. We were very friendly with them, so naturally chatted to them about the holiday, and they were happy to give us some tips and pointers. Back then, Kenya was not a very democratic country. Daniel Arap Moi had declared himself president for life, and the currency was not traded; so the Kenyan Shillings were only available in the home country, at rates inflated for tourists. Our London neighbours devised a plan, where we would be able to get much better rates, and help their family into the bargain. On our arrival in Nairobi, we would be met by a business acquaintance. He would come to our hotel, and give us a substantial sum of Kenyan money. For the sake of appearances, we would change up some of our travellers cheques at the hotel too, so that we had a receipt for a transaction. On our return to the UK, we would give our neighbours the amount of money agreed. In this way, their brother was able to get some money out of Kenya, and have some savings over in England. It was illegal in Kenya, but the UK government were not at all interested. So, we agreed to help out, knowing that it would make our holiday very cheap in terms of spending money once we were there.

The flight was long and tiring, mainly because of a long delay on the ground in Rome, waiting for the time when dozens of noisy and excited Italian passengers were to board the aircraft. As we were flying due south, there was no time delay to deal with, and we arrived as expected, in the mid-afternoon. Although we had booked with a large company, our trip was mainly as independent travellers, with a guide arranged for some trips, and the services of a representative on call, if we needed them. We were met by a driver at Nairobi airport, and we were the only passengers in a small mini-coach. The hotel was modern and comfortable, with the city in sight some distance off. The reception advised us that it was dangerous to walk into the centre, and recommended that we take a taxi at all times. We changed up some travellers cheques, booked a table in the restaurant of the hotel for later that night, and retired to our room for a nap, as we were both very tired after the journey. We were woken about two hours later by the telephone. The reception said that someone was there, asking for us. He had thought this to be most unusual, and asked if he should be allowed up. I asked them to show him to our room, and as I suspected, he was the ‘money-man’, a salesman from the local branch of the car dealership. He introduced himself, and handed over a small zip bag. Once he was sure that we were satisfied, he said his farewells, and left. He was visibly uncomfortable, and seemed unhappy doing this task. We counted the bagful of cash, and were surprised to find just over £1,000 worth of Kenyan money. We had been asked to give £200 for this in sterling, once back in England. This meant that we had a rate of five to one, instead of less than one to one exchanged by the hotel. We were cash-rich, for the first time in our lives. The meal in the hotel that evening was surprisingly good, and compensated for the overcast weather; hardly the blazing African sun we had anticipated. It was to turn out to be indicative of many very good meals during the whole holiday. Kenya remains as one of the few places that I have visited, where I never once got an upset stomach, despite eating in a wide variety of places, including open-air restaurants, and small cafes. Flush with our new wad of cash, we paid for the meal immediately, and even left a generous tip.

The next morning, we decided to take in the sights of Nairobi. As advised, we took a taxi, as there were always plenty waiting outside the hotel. The reception also told us the approximate cost, as the meter was either not switched on, or unreliable. The driver first told me not to lean my arm on the open window. He said that if he had to stop, there was a good chance that someone would steal my watch, by ripping it off my wrist. He also told us to keep our camera slung at the front where we could see it, and suggested that my wife sling her bag around her body. On the short journey into the city, he drove straight through the first red traffic light, causing us some alarm. Realising our concern, he said that he would not stop at any lights or stop signs, in case someone came out of the bushes to rob us. We had only been in the country a short time, and we were becoming very worried by all these warnings. When he dropped us at the main shopping street, he went on to say that we should not offer large denomination notes, or produce any wallets. He said that we should carry small amounts in our pockets, and never accept the offer of tour guides, or go off with anyone who wanted to show us something. As we got out of the cab, we were wondering what we had let ourselves in for.

Holidays and Travel: Rome 2002

I had never been to Italy. Despite a lifelong interest in all things Roman, as well as a passing regard for Marco Polo, Garibaldi’s Redshirts, and a fascination with the nefarious exploits of Brigate Rosse during the 1970’s, I had never set foot on the land that also produced the wines I loved so much; Barolo, Barbera D’Asti, and Chianti.

Julie was well aware of my love of Roman History, and my somewhat morbid obsession with the arenas, and the gladiatorial combats fought within them. With my fiftieth birthday coming up, in March 2002, she arranged a ‘short break’ holiday to Rome, as her gift to me. It remains one of the best gifts that I have ever received, and this is the tale of our trip to the Eternal City.

Even the chosen hotel was to be a delight. The Art Deco Hotel, close to the Central Station, so also close to many of the best sights to be seen. Small and friendly, liberally scattered with Art Deco features, both old and new, with a buffet breakfast, served in the bar. We needed no more, as the short trip was all about getting out, and seeing the place, not relaxing in the hotel. The weather was delightful, considering the time of year. Warm and sunny, with pleasant evenings for strolling too. We had a good guide book, and had done some research before leaving England. Having been fortunate enough to have visited many places before this, I was prepared for the possibility that it would not be all that I had so eagerly anticipated. I was more than pleasantly surprised, when it turned out to be in excess of all expectations, and became one of the best places I had ever seen, and one of the highlights of my life, up to that point.

The first destination had to be The Colosseum. I had seen representations of it in so many films, as well as the real thing on travel shows, and films like ‘Roman Holiday’. I had read so many books about it, I felt I already knew the place inside out, and I couldn’t wait to actually stand inside it. Walking there from the hotel, I could feel my pace quickening as we got nearer, finally reaching a spot where we could see it from an elevated position, across the road. The feeling that swept over me was one of awe. In an age where the word ‘awesome’ has become almost meaningless, this place took me back to the real meaning of the word. How it must have looked to a simple Roman, when it could still take my breath away, over 1900 years since it opened. Once inside, I was like a delighted child, almost scampering over and around the parts still accessible to visitors. I took countless photos, and could barely contain myself. Simply one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I could have spent all four days there. Even typing this now, I can recall that feeling, of seeing something so much a part of history, so well-known, yet still mysterious. I could imagine those toiling in the warren of tunnels and rooms beneath the floor, preparing animals for combat, or dragging the dead from the sand. This was a culture and a time almost incomprehensible to us, yet it laid the foundations of modern Europe.

Until I was actually standing there, I had been unaware how close the Forum was to the Colosseum. The whole area we know so well from films and books, is actually all interwoven, and leads off of a long avenue, that must have appeared truly magnificent, in the heyday of the empire. It is hard to make progress, constantly turning to gaze, and marvel at, the remains of buildings and statues once passed by Trajan, Caligula, Nero, and all those other historical figures. I could hardly take it all in, this veritable feast for the eyes. Not far off, the remains of the Emperor’s Palace, and the grassy outline of the once magnificent Circus Maximus. What a morning, a time to treasure, and to look back on always. Almost by accident, we discovered Trajan’s Column, as we stopped for a coffee, during an unexpected shower. This has been restored, and the carved reliefs, celebrating the victories in Dacia (Romania), are a sight to see; so clear, and easy to interpret.

The next day, we decided to get a tour bus, one that stopped off and picked up, so we could choose to go a little further afield, and have a look at The Vatican, on the other side of the River Tiber. On the way to the bus,we noticed a small cemetery, behind some vendors’ stands. Inside and outside this unprepossessing building, were the gravestones of soldiers and gladiators, some dating from dates B.C. They were lined up along the walls, some with translations of the inscriptions. This small diversion was in some ways, one of the most impressive parts of the whole trip, and I found this small area incredibly moving. The bus took us off to St Peter’s Basilica, and the Sistine Chapel, both sites we considered essential to visit, during the short stay. I was unprepared for the sheer size of St Peter’s. It is simply enormous. I had expected something like St Paul’s, in London, but I believe that you could fit that cathedral inside the one in Rome, with plenty of room to spare. This high temple of Catholicism is so much larger than it seems on TV, or in pictures, little wonder it staggered the 16th century mind. Inside, the wonders continue, including statues as big as houses, carved from marble, and the overall effect of the place is to leave you slack-jawed and speechless. I actually became quite uncomfortable, at the contrast with this display of wealth and majesty, against the poverty in so many places where Catholicism is the main religion and power.

We later joined a long queue to enter the Sistine Chapel, part of the official residence of The Pope, The Apostolic Palace. This long line snaked a circuitous route around the building, passing many beggars, mostly elderly women, who lay in the street, as hundreds of clergymen and nuns passed by, oblivious to their presence. The crowds inside the chapel are significant, and it is not a place for anyone suffering from claustrophobia. The paintings on the ceiling are, once again, so much more powerful that you could ever imagine, from seeing them anywhere else. The sheer scale, and the vibrant colours, it is almost too much splendour. You also have to keep moving, so there is no time to linger on any particular feature. Despite the short time allowed, and the uncomfortable crush that has to be endured, I am very glad to have seen this. We later took in the Spanish Steps, eating in a marvellous restaurant near there that same evening. I threw coins into the Trvei Fountain, and managed to get a photo of Julie doing the same, with all three coins still in the air.

Rome is a place that has almost too much to see. The imposing Castel Sant Angelo, and the modern monument to King Victoria Emmanuel ll, The Arch of Constantine, The Pantheon, in Greek style, and the incredible Santa Maria Maggiore, the list just goes on and on. Outside of the tourist trail, we did not really encounter much of Italian life, as time was too short. We did eat some marvellous meals, in some of the most atmospheric restaurants I have ever visited. My fiftieth birthday was celebrated in the elegant Grappollo D’oro restaurant, near our hotel, and it was excellent. Julie almost destroyed her poor feet, as walking in the heat gave her terrible blisters, but she never complained. There was a lot we never got to see, as time and distance made it impossible. The famous catacombs, much of the other side of the river, the artistic district, and many other sights outside the limits of the city, all had to be neglected. In the short time available, we had a marvellous trip, and almost twelve years later, it feels as if I was there yesterday.

I don’t know if I will ever go back, but I doubt it. I do urge you to see it though, if you have never been. I cannot imagine anyone being disappointed, by this most magnificent of cities.