This is my Father's world, the birds their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white, declare their Maker's praise.
This is my Father's world: He shines in all that's fair;
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass;
He speaks to me everywhere.

- Maltbie D. Babcock

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Honeymoon is Over

In the interest of keeping an honest account of my observations on this trip, I must confess that after four weeks, the inevitable has happened - we are tired of each other. Not tired of travelling, mind you, not ready to go back to our predictable Canadian lives, but certainly ready for separate rooms. We are VERY different from each other; we have different ways of looking at the world, different body clocks, different sleep schedules, very different taste in food and drink. Throw in too much train travel and some bad weather, and you know that you're both in for some character development. The upside is, if you have to have your character developed anyway, you might as well be in Italy while it's happening!

Our idyllic week in Tuscany ended, as they say, not with a bang but a whimper. Woken up too early once again, I dragged my luggage to our rental car and said one last sad goodbye to San Gimignano on a fittingly grey and rainy morning. After dropping our car off in Siena, we climbed aboard what would be the first of four trains that day. Our third arrived in Pescara late, and we had missed our connection to Ortona. Fortunately, we were able to find another about an hour later. Ortona, while very out of the way, was not a random choice. Wendy's father had taken part in a battle here 65 years ago, and his friend was buried in a local cemetery for foreign soldiers, mostly Canadians. We were coming here so that Wendy could see the place where her father and so many other Canadians had fought, and to leave a momento at the cemetery.

Arriving in Ortona was a little like pulling into a station in the Wild West. Small building, no office, seedy little bar on one end, starving mother cats prowling the platform. To one side of the tracks, a seaport, apparently deserted on this Saturday afternoon. To the other, the town, some distance away and on top of a very high hill. No evidence anywhere of a way to connect these two points.

I stayed with the luggage, feeding cheese to the cats, while Wendy wandered off to look for help or direction. Well, it seems that God had gone ahead of us to this apparently God-forsaken place and prepared the way. Wendy soon emerged from the bar with the news that she had found a man who would not only use his cell phone to call us a cab from the town to take us to our hotel, but who would pick us up the next day and drive us out to the cemetery (don't faint, Mother). This was Carmine, a kindly middle-aged man with gout in one knee and no teeth to speak of. He may also have been the only citizen of Ortona with a working knowledge of English.

As promised, our "taxi" soon arrived, in the form of a distinguished-looking senior in a Jaguar. He helped us put our luggage in the trunk and off we went to our hotel. We tried not to be nonplussed by the fact that there was no meter in the car; when we arrived at the hotel, he made up a price which seemed reasonable.

I don't quite know how to describe Ortona. One some levels, it seems to be a place frozen in time. Some buildings and neighbourhoods look like the war just ended, but there are also designer clothing stores and girls in tight jeans and high heels. People eyed us warily on the street as if we were some alien life form, but when we got lost and asked for directions to our hotel, the woman we spoke to decided it would be easier just to drive us there in her car than to try and explain the way!

On Sunday morning, Carmine picked us up and drove us to the Moro River Cemetery. It was about 5 km from town, and I doubt we could have found it on our own. On the way, he stopped to show us Casa Berardi, a house on a ridge where Germans had encamped, picking off Canadian soldiers as they climbed up from the valley below. Many lost their lives there. We also met retired Col. Berardi, whose family home it had been before the Germans took it from them when he was five years old.

The cemetery was beautifully landscaped and immaculately maintained. 1,325 Canadian soldiers lie here, dead and buried in a foreign land. I wept as I walked along rows of white headstones of these men, most of them younger than my own sons, many only 19 or 20 years old. Each stone was engraved with name and rank, home town, age at death, and a personal message or verse obviously chosen by family members a continent away. It was very moving, and I'm glad we had a chance to see it.

Our guardian angel picked us up again on Monday morning to drive us back to the train station. He would only accept a little money for his gas expenses, insisting repeatedly, "I don't do this for the money." Carmine was a refreshing change from the many other men we have encountered in train stations who are eager to help, but only for the money.

The next train carried us across to Roma. Many people had raved to us about the beauty of Rome, but the Eternal City was not about to open her arms to us. Our visit began with a bus ride that took more than an hour and, unlike driving through Paris, offered no hints at any beautiful sights to come. We found our B&B with some difficulty, and our hostess basically greeted us with, "Here are your keys. We're available in our office from 10-5 each day. Can you pay now?" We had asked her to make reservations for our at the Borghese Gallery, and were told, "The Gallery is closed for a week. I don't know why. Sorry." Thud. No Bernini sculptures for us. Since we were located near the Musei Vaticani, we decided to walk around and acquaint ourselves with the area before visiting it the next day. We found the museum and walked around its walls. After a while, we came to a gate that seemed to lead into the Vatican itself, complete with uniformed Swiss guards. As we kept walking, we passed through an opening and realized that we had stumbled into the courtyard of St. Peter's Cathedral. It was huge and quite beautiful, surrounded by scores of massive pillars, and overlooked by a procession of huge statues. As we prowled the nearby streets and bridge that evening, it began to rain - an omen of what was to come.

Tuesday morning dawned grey and drizzly. We joined the line making its way into the Vatican Museum, and spent most of the morning enjoying the lovely rooms and artwork. We both found ourselves surprised by the Sistine Chapel. Somehow it wasn't at all what we'd expected from photographs. While it was immense and beautifully detailed, we felt that we could have passed through the room without realizing what we were looking at. We would have liked to be able to get closer to it to see it in greater detail.

When we left the museum, we joined the throngs making their way to St. Peter's. I was engaged in conversation with a woman from Ottawa, and Wendy managed to wander off on her own and got separated from me for about half an hour. Fortunately, I was wearing my bright yellow Paddington coat and we were eventually able to reconnect. Under threatening skies, we joined the line to climb to the cupola of the basilica. This time there was a lift that took us part of the way up, still leaving us with 310 steps to climb. When we reached the top, we had time for a few pictures in the high winds. Suddenly there was a tremendous crack of thunder directly overhead, and the skies opened. Dozens of people huddled back against walls and in crevices, struggling to find protection from the storm. An umbrella didn't offer much cover, and I didn't fancy the idea of acting as a lightning rod. It soon became apparent that this weather was not going to blow over. We made our way back down the narrow, winding staircase and descended, dripping, to tour the basilica itself. Although it was massive and very impressive, neither of us found that it impacted us as much as some of the smaller cathedrals we had visited.

The persistent downpour put an end to any plans for further sightseeing or a night walk of Rome. We were reduced to spending the evening in our room, fixing a quasi-spaghetti dinner in the kitchen of our B&B. The rain continued all night long.

Wednesday morning the rain stopped for a while, so we hit the soggy streets. We took a subway to the Spanish Steps. Nearby we stopped in at what I believe is the first and largest McDonalds in Italy, complete with gelato for Wendy and a very fine capuccino for me. The next stop on our walking tour was the Trevi Fountain, which I thought was magnificent. We joined the throngs of tourists snapping photos of each other tossing coins into the fountain. The city must make a fortune from that place alone! As we left that area, the rains returned and, apart from a few short breaks, remained for the rest of the day. We marched on in sodden shoes, our map gradually dissolving in our hands. By the time we found the Pantheon, we were drenched. We marvelled at its construction, austere beauty and remarkable history as a pillar of rain poured in through the opening at the top of the dome.

It was obvious that we were never going to find Santa Maria della Vittorio (?) church under these conditions, so I had to give up on my last chance to see a famous Bernini sculpture. We did manage to walk through Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and the Colosseum between showers - each remarkable in its own way. At that point, we had no idea how to find any public transportation that would take us anywhere near where we were staying, so we resigned ourselves to walking. I dragged Wendy to the Bocca della Veritas on the way, determined to at least be able to add another photo to my movie/book tour collection. We schlepped along the banks of the Tiber, across a bridge, through St. Peter's, and eventually back to our room, damp and exhausted. I have no idea how far we walked that day, but I think that when I return to Canada, I will look into having my worn-out, bunion-ridden feet removed and replaced with titanium ones.

Our very truncated tour of Rome left me, I'm afraid, with this general impression: big, dirty, unfriendly, many fascinating sights linked together by generally uninteresting city. Obviously, many have a much different impression and perhaps, in better weather, I would too. If my coin thrown in the fountain works its magic, I will return some day to give Rome another chance to win my heart.

Venice, on the other hand, had me at hello. But that is a story for another day.

1 comment:

Jesse said...

Even Rome needs rain.