on the tracks and in the sky

Roma to Venezia
And so we left Rome on a fast train from Termini station, speeding through the Italian countryside (and what countryside!) on one of the nicest trains we’ve been on. I once spent a summer travelling Europe on the trains and this was nicer than all of those as well (that was in 1998 mind you, and most of them were overnight trains in central Europe). It took us over 3 hours to reach Venice from Rome, stopping in Florence on the way (but not getting out and looking around, we’ll save that for next time). My son was proudly sporting his brand new AS Roma shirt that he bought with money his Nanny in England had given him (it’s by far his favourite souvenir from Italy!) (when I say Nanny I mean my Mum, not a Nanny like in someone who looks after kids for a living) (international translations here). I wore my Sampdoria shirt so we were the Serie A Boys. The Calcio Kids. On our way out of Italy, flying back to London, we were both wearing our Tottenham Hotspur shirts and the border guards immediately called out to us with big smiles, “Eh, Harry Ka-ne! Totten-ham!” We had to wait while they looked up something, it turns out they were just trying to look up the name of Tottenham’s stadium, but were confused to see that it was now Wembley. They were very excited about Spurs.

Speaking of airports, while I am showing you my in-train sketch of Trenitalia Frecciarosso 1000, here are the other transport sketches from our summer trip. First off, Oakland to Gatwick, which started with a 3.5 hour delay, which was fun. On mt left was a woman who when I first got on board hurriedly picked up a bunch of items from my seat before I sat down, I assumed they were her things. Then when she just sat there holding them I asked, are those mine? (Blankets, headphones) “Yes, I picked them up for you,” she said, “and you are lucky, I don’t usually do nice.” Which was an odd thing to say to a complete stranger. She was British. “Ok, thanks,” I said, taking back the blankets in a bit of a puzzle. I’m not really one for conversations with fellow passengers. I noticed as we sat on the runway she was reading through not only the Daily Mail but also the National Enquirer, which I’d never seen people actually read before, so you see something new every day I suppose. We were in Economy Plus – these BA flights from Oakland to the UK are so much cheaper than we usually pay that we upgraded for a bit more legroom – but still it was a long and hard-to-sleep-on flight. I did at least get my sketch in. I had time…
Oakland to Gatwick

We flew Ryanair to Italy, from Stansted to Rome. As you may remember I call Ryanair “Difficultjet”, and this time the difficult bit was that they don’t let passengers from the US (or non-EU at least; good luck Brits, in a few years) use paperless boarding passes, unlike for example Easyjet, who do. Which means if you are travelling and need to print your boarding pass a day ahead (because you have to check in online nowadays, no other choice) and don’t have access to a printer, as we didn’t, you have to pay loads of money to Ryanair for them to print it out for you, at least fifteen quid a ticket. So that’s annoying. In the end we did find someone with a printer, but most travellers wouldn’t necessarily have that option. Otherwise though I don’t mind Ryanair, they fly to a lot of places and are cheap. It was exciting flying over Belgium, Germany, Austria; my son asked if he could check these off and say he’d been there now, but no, flying over is not the same as being somewhere. If it were, then we’ve been to Greenland loads of times.
Stansted to Roma
Venice to Luton was on Easyjet, which was pretty easy. My son’s hair in this sketch looks red like mine, bu it really isn’t, it’s more light brown/blond. However my paints were very much stuck in the Easyjet colour scheme. Boy we were tired after that trip.
Venezia to Luton

And the final flight of the vacation! This was a trip in which we went through SIX different airports (Oakland, Gatwick, Stansted, Roma Ciampino, Venice Marco Polo, Luton) which of course is my favourite thing, I love airports, SOOOOO much. This was a decent flight home. I had no stranger with a Daily Mail next to me (although my son put the brown BA blanket over his head, making him look like a Jedi). This little Miquelrius sketchbook/random notebook, which I’ve had for five years now, has a lot of in-flight travel sketches in now. Lots of Bon-Voyages.
Gatwick to Oakland

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wherever i lay my hydrant, that’s my rome

Hydrant in RomeRome Hydrant sm

Almost there with Rome! Rome wasn’t blogged about in a day, but this will be the last one, much shorter and with less complaining. Above are a couple of fire hydrants! I was pleased to discover some in Rome, add them to my collection. Not many, but here they are. Rome is also well known for its fountains, not just the grand ones in the piazzas, but also the smaller ones dotted around the streets with drinking water for anyone who gets thirsty in those heavy, hot Roman afternoons. So I sketched the one below, the man with the barrel and no nose, in Via Lata. Next to that is a very quick perspective sketch just off of that street.

Rome noseless fountain sm

Now one fountain I did not sketch, you will have noticed, was the world-famous Trevi Fountain. It was very crowded there, and the surrounding streets thick with tourist-tack. Beautiful fountain, but not my favourite spot in Rome. We did nevertheless each throw a coin into the fountain, ensuring, as the legends and all the guidebooks say, that we will return to Rome. And I’m sure that we will, and I can’t wait. Arrivederci Roma!

nice one centurion, like it, like it

roman soldier (playmobil)
And so, a couple more Rome posts before moving on to Venice. There is an endless supply of Rome puns and Life of Brian references to draw from yet. Above is a little Playmobil Roman soldier I picked up near the Forum, goes nicely with all our Playmobil knights and pirates. So one of the things we did in Rome was the Gladiator School, which as I’ve mentioned before, was not worth it. It’s listed in  lot of magazines and guides and tourist videos about Rome as a fun activity with the family, but I must say I wasn’t impressed. It’s quite expensive to take part, and I took part with my son so it was twice the cost. On top of that, it’s outside the center of Rome so you have to take a taxi there. Our taxi driver from the Forum fleeced us with a 30 Euro ride (his meter was not running, tellingly). The taxi back on the other hand was 17 Euro, but we had to wait 45 minutes for it to arrive. Now when we got there the place is pretty small, it’s a space for a group that does Roman re-enactments, and they go full on with the costumes and put on shows and things I guess. There were lots of photos of the Roman guy who runs it with various celebrities who had gone there in the past, Arnold Schwarzenegger and so on. The Gladiator School is for kids really but it was like, well it must be good, famous people come here. I was wearing my Sampdoria shirt and the same guy spoke to me, saying that Sampdoria are just a bunch of drug users and miming someone taking an injection. Hmm, okay, I said. We ended up being in a fairly large group of around twenty or so adults and children, and then we were given a history lesson with a whole bunch of Roman helmets and weaponry, which was interesting enough, except it was in a very hot room on a very hot day and went on for an hour. The guy taught us a lot of history, and some got to wear very heavy helmets, but all of the kids were getting quite anxious to get out and learn swordplay. When we finally did get to move into the practical space, the instructor gave us costumes – red tunics for the adults and white robes for the kids. Massive white robes that didn’t fit kids at all, and tiny red tunics that we adults all barely squeezed into. Hmmm. Some of us laughed about it, but at this stage one family had had enough, I’m not sure exactly why but I heard that the instructor had made some comment to their son, a tall lad, which had upset him, so the instructor spent the next 10-15 minutes off talking to the secretary while we waited around wondering what to do next. Finally the instructor reappeared and introduced a small obstacle course which we had to run around five times, while he went off again, distracted. Then he showed us a wooden structure which gladiators had to learn how to put together quickly which was supposedly used in battle, and so everyone took turns, while everyone else watched, because there is only one. We spent a lot of time watching. In the meantime the instructor would wander off, or just chat to the mothers seated on the benches (“Americans and British today,” he said to one, “No Australians thankfully, the Australian women are very rowdy because they are all descended from violent criminals.” He actually said that. Hmmm. When finally we got to learn swordplay, which was with the wooden practice swords, we all lined up and he told us to copy certain moves, then he would go around to each of us and maybe show us how to do that one move, or in the case of my son, just say one dismissive sentence and move on without showing him anything (his only words were, “Too much Jackie Chan,” whatever that is supposed to mean). It seemed like there were far too many in the group for anything more, though he didn’t seem particularly bothered. The sword practice was about ten minutes at most, and then we got to sit and watch while two kids or two parents at a time were able to fight each other. Kids couldn’t fight parents however, which disappointed my son who wanted to battle me. It was only simple gentle battling, and again the instructor barely took any notice, preferring to go and chat to other people instead, or ask that the mothers get up and fight because he “wanted to see two women fight”. And that was it. He gave us all certificates, and then thanked us as a group for funding their Roman re-enactment society, and then he went into a tirade that they get no funding from the Roman city government, who prefer to fund things “for gay people and foreign migrants”, mincing about as he did so. Eh? Stunned confusion from everyone. “Hi, can we have our money back?” I said, knowing that was not a battle worth our time fighting. As we waited for our cab home, a 45 minute wait, I peeked in to see the group after us, which was smaller, and who had a different, more enthusiastic instructor. They seemed to be having a great time. We and the rest of our group however all felt a bit underwhelmed. However. We got back and had a gelato, and still loved Rome, and in the end, you get to see this picture of me squeezed into a very, very tight tunic, fighting a duel. I guess it was worth it for that…

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a rome with a view

View from Rome Apartment sm
This was the view from our Rome apartment living room. I’m not exaggerating, this isn’t a collage, I’m not condensing a lot of different spires and domes into one, this was the actual view. I left this uncoloured because it was actually my favourite sketch in Rome, and definitely my favosuite view in Rome. I could look out of that window all day. Except for the fact I wanted to look around the city itself. The dome in the distance, behind the bigger dome, that is the Vatican. The church with the stag on top is the Basilica di Sant’ Eustachio. The stag’s head is a reference to St. Eustace, who was a roman general back in the 2nd century who was out hunting when he saw a stag with a crucifix in its horns, and he saw this as a sign and converted to Christianity. I had to look that up because I did wonder what it was for. It looks cool though. The most dramatic steeple though is the baroque church of Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, that spiraling corkscrew tower on the left hand side. It’s so eye-catching. The church was designed by the legendary architect Francesco Borromini between 1642-1660.

Our apartment on Via Della Palombella was pretty big, and the owner was really nice; I’d definitely stay there again. The only thing, those stairs! Four huge very steep flights, over 120 steps I think my son said it was, so I got a good work-out every day. I went up and down a lot, to go sketching in the morning, come back with breakfast from the nearby Caffe Sant-Eustachio, back again after sightseeing, then again after dinner and if I went for an evening stroll then I would be up them again. I got my 10,000 steps in before lunchtime! But look at that view. That view is worth every step, and then some. Below I sketched the view at sunset, which was stunning to say the least.
Rome Sunset sm

And from the bedroom window is the dome of the Pantheon!

big dome in a little country

The Vatican sm
We didn’t see the Sistine Chapel. We didn’t see the Pope on his balcony. We didn’t look inside St.Peter’s, and we didn’t climb up the Basilica’s massive dome. But the Vatican City State was still pretty great! We walked there from our apartment, crossing the Tiber, my son super excited at the possibility of checking another country off of his list of visited countries, and the smallest recognized one at that. Sorry Sealand! Ok, so before I tell you all about the Vatican, I’m going to say that I promise not to make any puns or word-play jokes, not out of any reverence (careful now, that was nearly one) or respect, but because pope-based puns are just too easy, even for me. I’m not promising but I vill see Vatican do (dammit, promise broken). So, approaching the Vatican, you can always tell how close you are by the number of people coming up to you offering you special deals to beat the line, look at that line, I can help you beat the line. By the time you get up to the little boundary that is the border between Italy and Vatican, it becomes unbearable. You only have to turn your head and look at the big line and someone will notice and pounce, “I can help you beat the line! Don’t you want this special deal?” So many of them. They would not leave us alone. I expected devout Catholics everywhere praying n the street (no idea why I had that impression), but it was mostly aggressive unofficial tour-guides with tricks on getting past the big line. So, what I love about the Vatican – as soon as you reach that frontier, they vanish. Like cursed ghouls they are unable to cross the invisible holy line. It’s incredible actually. Now I’m not religious, I don’t believe in God or any of that stuff, but being able to banish all annoying tour-guide-line-jumping-irritants with one magic line is pretty much magic in my book. So we went into the Vatican City-State, no passports or visas required, but we did not enter the Vatican building itself (if only there was a way to beat that line! Why didn’t I listen?), and I took in the experience by sitting and sketching it. I love to sketch a cathedral, big church, basilica etc when I can, and like, dudes, this is the big one. It is massive. The dome of St. Peter’s! My name-sake. (The ‘r’ is silent in my name, as is the St.) We bought postcards, and sent ourselves a postcard from the little Vatican post-office (and by the way, it arrived very quickly, unlike the one from Venice which I am still waiting for, so score one for Vatican Mail. I was disappointed to see that it wasn’t called the ‘Holy Post’ though). I’d like to go back and see all of it some day, but reserving tickets ahead of time is the way to go. We had a lot more sightseeing in Rome planned, so we moved along.
The Tiber sm

Easy, Tiber. I did come back to the river early the next morning to sketch the view of the Vatican, along with the Pont Sant’Angelo, from the Ponte Umberto I. That bridge you see actually dates from the Roman Empire (it is also known as the Pons Aelius) and was built in 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian. Ok wait what, 134 AD? Rome has a lot of ancient buildings, but a bridge that old?? Remember how I said the Romans built London Bridge? Yeah that one didn’t survive obviously (there is a famous song you may have heard about the problems you get with different building materials, but I don’t know how true to reality the song is given that at one point they suggest building a bridge across a wide river in a major metropolitan centre by using ‘silver and gold’, though to be fair they do concede that the people of London may be inclined to strip the bridge of its valuable metal). Well anyway, back on point, this bridge was also built by the Romans and there it is still, to this day. That is impressive. It leads over to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where the Emperor Hadrian has his tomb. The early June morning light reflecting against the waters of the Tevere was so gentle, serene, despite the buzz of mopeds on the street behind me, and the morning tourists posing for selfies. I miss Rome already. I did throw a coin into the Trevi fountain, which means I will definitely, absolutely return to Rome. By the way I still have more Rome posts so don’t go away. Rome wasn’t sketched in a day.

“People called Romans they go the house”

Piazza Navonasm
While I love an early morning when travelling, I also like the night. Depends where though – I’ve never really liked Venice at night, but Rome’s piazzas, lined with warm streetside cafes, are a pleasant place to be. I didn’t go to the Trevi fountain at night, that was crazy enough during the day that I didn’t want to spend too much time there, but Piazza Navona, a short walk from our place, was much more pleasant. Doing as the Romans do is the thing to do, so I went to a cafe and bought a beer and sat on a bench near the fountains. Actually it was mostly French students doing that, but I assume they were doing as the Romans do. Actually what is funny is that since I was there, the Mayor of Rome has brought in a new local law forbidding people from drinking alcohol in those public squares and places after 10pm at night, effective July. So the Romans aren’t doing that now. We also noticed that, during the day, anybody sitting down on steps or by fountains and monuments and eating anything, even a gelato, were being quickly moved on by local wardens. Apparently this was a new law as well, enacted just a week before I got there in June, and you can get big fines for breaking it, a fact completely not signposted anywhere. I sketched the above scene, as best as I could see. Piazza Navona is in the shape of the ancient Stadium of Domitian, which used to stand on this spot in Roman times. Well I suppose these are still Roman times, this city being still called Rome. It is the Eternal City after all.

Rome People sm

A bit closer to home now. Right outside the front door of our apartment, which was itself about 120 steps up four steep flights, was a little trattoria/bar in a narrow lane just off the Pantheon. On our last night in Rome, after la famiglia had gone to bed, I walked down the stairs and sat at a table with a beer and my sketchbook, drawing Rome at night. The street is Via della Palombella, and that church, which has a stone head of a stag on top, is called Sant’Eustachio. The little Piazza before it is called, of course, Piazza Sant’Eustachio, and the cafe of the same name just across he street is where I would get my pastries in the morning. There were people strolling about, as they do, tourists and Romans on their nocturnal promenades. I sketched some of them (above), Romans going home. “Romanes eunt domus“.
Via Della Palombella sm

“The Romans? I’m all forum!”

Colosseum and Arch of Constantine sm
A couple of days before our trip to Italy, we went to the Museum of London. London’s history was always a great interest to me, the story of one of the world’s greatest cities, from the chaos of the Blitz, the Restoration period of Plague, Fire and Rebirth, the medieval city of tightly packed lanes and Bow-Bells, the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Lundenwic, right back to its origins as the Roman city of Londinium Augusta (and even farther back, into the area’s British past). Outside the Museum of London we marvelled at a decent stretch of the old London Wall, built by the Romans to surround Londinium, a piece of the Ancient World that we can see and feel. It’s an impressive history. And then we went to Rome. Suddenly I felt like Americans often do when going from New York to London. Right, now this is old. Two days after looking in wonder and imagination at a segment of the Wall of Londinium we were standing inside THE COLOSSEUM. It is a surreal experience, stepping back into big history. Rome is not insignificant in any sense. What have the Romans ever done for us? Rome is the father of London. They built our first London Bridge. So as a Londoner, as with many cities with Roman origins, coming here to Ancient Rome I felt a connection, and a sense of coming from the provinces to the capital.

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The most breathtaking site of all, of course, was the Colosseum. I first saw it from the plane, this huge oval amphitheatre, testament to the Roman love of spectacle, entertainment, power. Definitely power. There are species of animal that were brought to near-extinction by their use in the gladiatorial arena over the course of a millennium. It was a hot day when we went, but the crowds were not as impossible as we had imagined. Booking your tickets ahead of time makes a huge difference too. There is not a lot of shade in the main open area of the Colosseum, but in the passageways leading in, and in the areas with the history on display, it is much cooler around the old stones. I drew some old marbles (below). I didn’t sketch the inside of the Colosseum itself, due to time, sunlight, people, but I did draw it when we got outside. The sketch at the top of this post was done in the bare shade of a tree – there is not much shade in the grounds around the Colosseum either. That sketch includes the Arch of Constantine – oh, nice arch, wonder what it is, I said. This arch inspired the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, Marble Arch in London, and the Siegestor in Munich, so it’s kind of important. As I sketched I noticed a car nearby with a couple of people taking notes and making reports. Undercover police, for sure, keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary. There were a fair number of cops on patrol, and the road leading up to the Colosseum was blocked by a couple of armoured vehicles, positioned to prevent a random vehicle speeding towards it. There were a lot of those around the main sites and piazzas in Rome, which was reassuring. You always have to be watchful and mindful everywhere, always, but I felt quite safe in Rome.
Colosseum Marbles sm
After an exhausting and thirsty walk around the Colosseum, gladiatorial spectacles swimming through our imaginations, we had lunch and then walked over to the Forum. The grounds of the Forum are huge, filled with ruins and rubble and centuries of stories. We didn’t stay too long, for my son’s feet were starting to get Rome-fatigue, but I did a quick sketch of this structure that reminded me of cricket stumps. Owzat! This place bowled me over, hitting me for six, and I don’t know any other cricket terms so we’ll leave it at that. We wanted to visit the Palatine Hill, but the day was getting away from us, and we had an appointment to go to the Gladiator School, which was a short and expensive (yeah, we were ripped off) taxi ride from the Colosseum (and again, future Rome visitors, don’t bother with the Gladiator School, it was a waste of time and a waste of money). The Forum though, that is somewhere I want to return to, with a sketchbook (and a lot of sunscreen).
Roman Forum sm
I did walk back down to this area the next day though, while la famiglia rested up at the apartment. I wanted to draw Trajan’s Column, standing above the ruins of the ancient Trajan’s Forum. Emperor Trajan was one of the greatest of all Roman leaders, being one of the Five Good Emperors (that would be a good name for a soul band). Under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. It was his son Hadrian, also a Good Emperor, who decided to start building walls around it such as the one in the north of Britannia. Trajan’s Column dates from about 113 AD and is decorated in a spiraling relief  of Trajan’s victories against the Dacians (I do not know how many times I said the crap joke “phew, that’s a relief” while in Rome but it was a lot, it was definitely a lot). The statue on top is of St. Peter; the statue of Trajan that used to be on top was lost in the Middle Ages (bloody Time Bandits). The large dome behind is of the church called “Chiesa Santissimo Nome di Maria al Foro Traiano”. This took the best part of two hours to sketch; I kept stopping and speaking to those people who come up and try to sell you little trinkets and stuff, or going to watch the marching army band outside the huge Il Vittoriano, which was opposite, across the Via dei Fori Imperiali.
Trajan's Forum sm