Sightseeing and swimming
Friday – the alarm has been set and the trains, once again run like clockwork. We’re joined by the water polo guys, playing in the indoor pool. My 100m Backstroke is a couple of seconds slower – possibly caused by arguments with the lane ropes – one of the hazards of swimming backstroke out-doors. In the lunch-break, I help Federico with his backstroke finishes – counting from the flags and touching with one hand on a dolphin kick, or two. He’s got the 50m backstroke with me tomorrow. Meanwhile, my 200m Individual Medley is quite acceptable, but there is a Netherlander in his seventies who is faster than me. I guess I’m used to fast guys in their seventies back in the UK. He’s a strong breast-stroker and gets away with swimming fly and back with a breaststroke kick. At the end of day two, I’ve got four gold medals and the schedule has run so efficiently that there’s time for evening sight-seeing. Back in town, I head for the famous Spanish Steps. They are moderately crowded and tourists sit around the fountain in the Piazza. Whistle-blowing wardens are employed here to make sure no one sits on anything marble – posts or balustrades. They undertake their job assiduously, forcing exhausted tourists back onto their feet. The marble looks pretty worn and pitted by acid rain, so it’s good that they are trying to preserve the place. The other problem is that sitting on the steps would block the place up, making the climb up to the Trinita del Monti impossible. The pay-off to this climb is the panoramic view of Rome – the church itself is unremarkable inside but the external façade crowns the steps to dramatic effect. It’s closing time and the gate-keeper of the church shoos new visitors away as I descend and locks the gates behind me. To my right there’s an alfresco restaurant overlooking the steps and I wonder what their prices are like for this location.
I’m now heading, in a leisurely fashion for the Fontana Di Trevi (Tivoli fountain), but I’m seduced towards the Fontana di Tritone nearby. There’s no one here as it’s in the middle of a traffic Island – worth the diversion. It seems as if Rome has a fountain or three in every Piazza and there are drinking fountains with running water everywhere. I pass a theatre showing Mary Poppins the Musical. In Rome, Italy? Astonishing. I pass via Boccaccio and am reminded of this great medieval Italian story teller who influenced Chaucer. Rome is full of streets named after the famous, from Marcus Aurelius to George Washington. As I pass the usual tourist shops, found world-wide, there’s something different, Pinocchio.
Predictably the Trevi Fountain is crowded, though it is possible to get photos. A gap opens up on one of the iron barriers – a chanced to sit and look. I listen to the whistles preventing people from sitting on marble edges. At 9.00pm, the lights go on and there’s cheering. Two women throw coins over their shoulders into the fountain. It’s supposed to guarantee a return visit to Rome. It’s a recent legend created by the Hollywood movie Three Coins in the Fountain. The coins are collected at the end of each day and go to a charity.
My GPS directions home take me past the gigantic Vittoriano, a 19th Century white marble neoclassical gallery. It towers over everything else. My path is down the Via dei Fori Imperiale, and I suddenly realise that all of the ancient ruins can be seen from above. The views are magnificent and there is no need to pay to see the ruins below.
Saturday is the last day of swimming. Federico is once again trying to organise a relay. As a native of Rome, it’s best for him to do this. The judge allows us to enter four men in the 4 x 50m Mixed freestyle relay and we are able to co-opt James H from the water polo team. In the mean-time, we have the 50m Backstroke and Federico hasn’t warmed up due to organising the relay. He’s run out of time and I tell him to just do the race. He does and with a much better time than he entered. We’re waiting for James F to arrive and just when we think it’s not going to happen, he materialises. The Italian Mixed team are waiting for us – so are the officials. No one is in a panic and it all happens. We are faster than the Italians, especially with James H to finish. There’s talk of doing the 4 x 100 medley in the afternoon, but no one else can do fly and I certainly can’t manage 100 metres. The other option is the 4 x 200 freestyle and I don’t think our newbies would manage that either.
I’m off back to the tourist trail and there’s a bus number 118 from beside the Coliseum which will take me to the Appian Way. I get talking to an American family from LA – she’s done the research and knows what to see, but it is I who get us off at the right stop. The Apian Way is an ancient cobbled highway – only just wide enough for two cars to pass in opposite directions plus an occasional pedestrian. It’s only closed on Sundays, so we have to contend with traffic. A fork in the road looms and a driveway bisecting the fork, promises catacombs 1.6 km ahead. The sign says it closes in fifteen minutes but undaunted I and the family from LA set of at a brisk pace. We make it in time for the last group tour of the San Calisto Catacombs. Underground, it’s a delicious fifteen degrees, a relief from surface temperatures in the high twenties – our Monk-guide dons a jacket as we descend. There are over twenty miles of burial corridors in this complex at several levels. Spartacus, the gladiator and his rebels were all crucified along the Apian Way but it was during the early days of Christianity that the catacombs came about. Romans were cremated but the Christians looked forward to the resurrection and the restoration of the earthly body; they may have got that idea from the Egyptians. Christians were much persecuted in the Empire until Constantine converted and made Christianity the official religion. They came underground to pay their respects to their dead, to light an oil lamp. The lamp niches are still clearly visible. While they were down here, they held secret communion services. One early Bishop of Rome was caught and beheaded as were Saints Paul and Peter. At this site, many of the Popes were buried and when the barbarians invaded, looting and looking for treasure (The Christians weren’t buried with their possessions), all the important bodies were moved out to the Vatican and the others went down a level where they stayed forgotten and undiscovered for two thousand years. Many of the graves cut into the walls are short (the Romans were short people) and even smaller graves belong to children and babies. The very high proportion of children’s graves can be explained by the practice that early Christians had of saving the bodies of heathen children (innocents) in the hope of their salvation. That phrase ‘In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection’ comes to mind.
Back above ground in the heat, I’m determined to walk on past the St Sebastian catacombs and re-join the Apian Way and see viaducts. Alas, there’s a torrential downpour which goes on for thirty minutes. I take shelter under roadside foliage, but the water finds its way through the leaves. I’m very damp and reluctantly return to a bus stop for the journey back to town. We aren’t going the way we came, but It’s a circular route and I’m getting new view of Rome. It’s not until we’ve doubled back and are returning down the Apian Way that I realise that this bus is not returning to the Coliseum. Eventually it gets to the end of the run and I transfer and wait for the return bus, which rattles alarmingly over every cobblestone. I fear it might disintegrate at any moment as there are bits on the ceiling hanging by one or two screws. We are still not returning to the Coliseum and the driver tells me I have to walk from the Campidoglio. Sure enough, the road to the Coliseum is closed to traffic this evening.
I try my host’s recommended Pizza restaurant to cheer myself up. It’s around the corner and great. So far, in Rome, Pizza has been 100% OK – nice thin crispy bases. Unfortunately, my Italian is not good and I manage to say yes to a whole jug of the house red wine, which has to be finished. I’ve been on a beer ration all week, so it’s a bit of a struggle.