Notre Dame de Paris by night…
from City of Light No. 2 by Clay Doyle
Notre Dame de Paris by night…
from City of Light No. 2 by Clay Doyle
A single candle burns in the 16th century gothic Eglise St. Merri.
Photograph by Clay Doyle
When Dresden celebrates its 800th anniversary with a year-long party in 2006, it won’t just be a celebration of centuries of history and culture. It will also be a birthday party for the new Dresden—a city that has, in a frenzy of reconstruction and renovation, recreated in a mere 15 years the historic city that was almost entirely lost, overnight, some 60 years ago…
Possibly Europe’s greatest Baroque city, the 18th century imperial seat of Augustus the Strong, capital of Saxony, Dresden had become a nearly mythical symbol of loss and of the destructive power of modern warfare. The city stood intact, virtually untouched by WWII—officially recognized as an open city—and filled with refugees from the collapsing Third Reich, when its historic center, the Altstadt, was completely destroyed in a single night of Allied bombing, February 13-14, 1945. With its splendid monuments then reduced to rubble, Dresden became most famous for its destruction—an event immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five. The sense of loss can still be felt, as large tracts of central Dresden are only now being redeveloped. Locked behind the Iron Curtain, forces that wanted to rebuild the ruins and those which wanted them replaced with a modern Socialist utopia collided in stalemate. However, with reunification came both the desire for reconstruction and a huge influx of public and private funding.
Today, most of the historic buildings fronting the Elbe have been rebuilt to give a breathtaking glimpse of what the city once was. The resurrected Frauenkirche—one of Dresden’s most famous monuments, largely completed and reopening on October 30th, is only the most visible symbol of a city of splendors finally rising from the ashes. With the Schloss to be fully reconstructed in time for the anniversary, and previously rebuilt monuments newly renovated, the baroque city of 18th century seems reborn. Dresden is now arguably Europe’s newest historical monument.
Simultaneously, across the Elbe, a different sort of rebirth has taken place. Without the benefit of EU funds or massive financing, local Dresdeners, with gays and artists leading the charge, have reclaimed and restored the city’s Neustadt. This neighborhood of 19th century apartment blocks was just outside the area of firebombing—with the consequence that its buildings are now among Dresden’s oldest. Under the communist regime, this was an undesirable area of crumbling buildings and cold-water flats. Now squats and crumbling buildings have largely given way to lovingly restored courtyard apartments with restaurants, bars, coffee houses, and hip, interesting shops—making the Neustadt Dresden’s liveliest neighborhood. Still, it’s far from gentrified; a Bohemian, even slacker, air prevails. The creation of the Kunsthof Passage (Alaunstrasse 70, Görlitzerstrasse 21, 23, 25), a renovation by local artists of a series of interlocking courtyards is typical Neustadt—a triumph of creativity and imagination over limited funds.
Despite the wholesale destruction of the second world war, the main attraction is the city itself. The Schlossplatz, at the foot of the Augustus Bridge, surrounded by the reconstructed riverfront monuments, is perhaps one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Likewise, the baroque folly of the Zwinger complex, perhaps Dresden’s most photographed monument, is a riot of sculpture and elaborate decoration surrounding an immense but perfectly proportioned courtyard. A number of rebuilt churches are likewise impressive, and with the reconstruction of the monumental Frauenkirche, and the completion of the reconstruction of the Schloss by 2006, all of the major monuments of the baroque city will be in place. It is worth the 8 euro fee to climb to the cupola of the Frauenkirche (be advised, the elevator only takes you halfway) for a magnificent view from the highest point in the city. Already the riverfront skyline is largely returned to its appearance in Canaletto’s famous 18th century paintings. These paintings occupy pride of place in Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery—while his celebrated views of Venice are confined to a small side gallery. This is perhaps as much a testament to the impressive quality of the museum’s collection as it is to local pride—the collection is large and positively stuffed with Dutch and Italian old master paintings. The galleries are remarkable too for the lack of crowds; you can really enjoy the artworks. All of Dresden’s famous museums will be open again by 2006, following various major and minor refurbishments. Well worth a visit is the Abertinum, for its New Masters Gallery—a comprehensive collection of German art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Newly reopened is the first phase of the famous Grünes Gewölbe or Green Vault, in new high-tech rooms in the reconstructed Schloss. The second half of the collection opens in 2006 in adjacent, restored baroque rooms. It is a vast—truly vast—collection of jewelry, precious metals, and fanciful curios elaborately constructed of gold filigree and gemstones assembled by the fabulously wealthy Saxon Electoral Princes. This is the only collection in Dresden where you’ll find a crowd—it’s on the top of the list for coach tours—and whether you find it to be a magnificent display of artistry and craftsmanship or a shocking excess of jewel-encrusted wealth, you will be impressed. Don’t miss it. And there are plenty more museums; depending on your interests you can explore Meissen porcelain, mathematics, transport, folk art, hygiene, history, Trabant autos and more!
The Semper Opera is famous both for its architecture and the quality of its productions. All of Dresden turns out for opera, ballet and the orchestral performances, so tickets can be hard to come by. In summer, outdoor concerts abound, with choices ranging from classical to contemporary—many with free admission. If you speak German, you may want to visit the very popular river-front open-air cinema. Do take some time to visit the Grosser Garten, Dresden’s expansive and lovely urban park. There’s a palace at the center and a charming miniature railroad to take you back when you’re tired of walking. Beyond the Altstadt, a walk through the Blasewitz district is worth it to see the elaborate 19th century villas built by wealthy Dresden bourgeoisie. The neighborhood escaped destruction in 1945 and the villas are now being lovingly restored. Though most tourists rarely venture to the Neustadt, you will definitely want to spend time there, with its lively cafes, gay scene, fun shops and bohemian atmosphere.
Don’t miss a walk along the banks of the Elbe. This wide, marshy river is unique among urban waterways in bringing nature right through the city center. The banks of the Elbe are excellent as well for bicycling—whether you take a leisurely ride through the city or a longer trip to a picturesque nearby town, the scenery is beautiful, the terrain flat, and you’re protected from cars. Indeed, bicycle paths extend the entire length of the Elbe, from the Czech border to the port of Hamburg! Even in the city, traffic is light and the drivers polite, making a bike a convenient and pleasant option for getting around the city. Rent a comfortable, modern bike from the pleasant folks at Engel Reisen (Wiesontorstrasse 3, somewhat hidden at the Neustadt end of the Augustus bridge; +49 351/281 9206; 8 euros/day) and they will even provide maps with suggested city and out-of-town routes. They also organize longer group bike tours in the region—enquire for tours in English. If all that sounds too strenuous, you can tour the Elbe in a vintage paddlewheel steamboat—you can’t miss the ships docked near Augustus bridge.
It is worth purchasing a Dresden City-Card (widely available at hotels, stations and tourist offices; 19 euros for 48 hours) upon arrival. Not only does the card get you free admission to almost all Dresden museums, it allows you unlimited use of the city’s public transit (love those yellow trams!)—allowing you to bypass the expense and hassle of individual tickets.
The Gay Scene
You’ll see plenty of gays in Dresden: in shops, cafes, walking the streets— looking handsome, and even cruising. You’ll find them rather less often in Dresden’s handful of gay bars. Gay people were so central to the revival of the Neustadt area (buying the old buildings as the post-communist government disposed of them; renovating them, moving in, and opening business) that the gay community is a more than integral part of area. Dresden my be a model for the “post-gay” city. Because they regard the whole of the Neustadt as their own (while happily sharing it with young straight couples and wide range of slacker youth types—the median age in the Neustadt is ten years younger than the city as a whole) there is not a strong tendency to congregate in exclusively gay venues. As one Dresdener told me, “We usually go where ever the nightly drink special is—and the gay bars never have specials!” That said, BOYS (Alaunstrasse 80; 8pm—5am; www.boys-dresden.de) with its front windows open to one of the Neustadt’s main streets, draws a lively crowd most evenings—it’s your best bet. The smaller, campier Queens (Görlitzer Strasse 3; from 8pm; +49 49 351 810 8108; www.queens-dresden.de), sometimes draws a younger crowd for its various theme parties. For the leather and fetish crowd, Bunker (Priessnitzstrasse 51; +49 351/441 2345; www.lederclub-dresden.de) is open Friday and Saturday nights only (and on Saturday dares to limit attendance with a strict dress code!) It has a friendly bar and a large darkroom, but I suspect many Dresdeners prefer the infinite variety of the Berlin cruising scene, only two hours away. The other “cruise” venues are barely worth mentioning. The relatively new Pick Up (Jordanstrasse 10) is a darkroom bar that has yet to find a clientele, and across the street stands Duplexx (Förstereistrasse 10; +49 351 65 88 999; 9 euro entry!), a branch of the Berlin sex shop, comprising a cavernous warren of deserted video cabins. The Showboxx (Leipzigerstrasse 31; www.showboxx-dresden.de), while no longer featuring exclusively gay nights, is one of several mixed discos popular with gays for dancing. In addition, the open-air “beer gardens” than pop up on vacant lots in the summer months are also popular. Lesbians can enjoy the aptly named frauen café and bar Sappho (Hechtstrasse 23; +49 351 4045136; www.sappho-dresden.de) open nightly for drinks and dinner and on Sunday for brunch.
Finally, what could be gayer, and at the same time more mainstream, than a drag show? Carte Blanche (Priessnitzstrasse 10/12; +49 351 20 4720; www.carte-blanche.de; 25 euros, reservations essential) is a relatively new basement cabaret hosting a very professional troupe of drag queens. Shows feature a mix of comedy, lip-synch, live performance, audience humiliation—and costumes worthy of a Las Vegas production. If drag is your thing, the show is a scream; though without a command of the language you are likely to miss a lot. And while the performers and cute waiters may be gay, the audience tends toward straight middle-aged German tourists.
Sleeping it off
The ultimate place to stay in Dresden is the Hotel Bülow Residenz (Rähnitzgasse 19; +49 351/800 30; fax +49 351/8003100; www.buelow-residenz.de ; 180—220 euros), a 30 room ultra-luxury boutique hotel in a restored 18th century palace. This place has everything: an historic building, luxurious rooms, and great location in the charmingly restored inner Neustadt—a short walk to the historic attractions and convenient to the to the gay area. It even features complementary mini-bars! The service is friendly and efficient, and it’s really a bargain for this level of luxury.
All the major international chains are represented in the old center of Dresden, from the modern yet inexpensive Mercure Hotel Newa (St. Petersburger Strasse 34; +49 351/48140; from 69 euros; www.mercure.com) to the ultra luxurious Kempinski Taschenbergpalais (Taschenberg 3; +49 351/491 2636; fax +49 351/491 2812; www.kempinski-dresden.de; 340—700 euros). Housed in a reconstructed Baroque palace adjacent the historic schloss, the Kempinski is arguably Dresden’s most beautiful—and most expensive—hotel. The Holiday Inn (Stauffenberallee 25 a; +49 351/81510; fax: +49 351/815 1333; www.holiday-inn-dresden.de; 100-150 euros), of all places, gets points for actively courting a gay clientele—though most of its guests are businessmen and women. It’s a generic, but perfectly pleasant property, and though its location at first seems somewhat remote, it’s actually very convenient to the Neustadt, and a nearby tram line offers a speedy connection to the city’s attractions.
For the independent-minded traveler, the best option may be the City Cottage Dresden (Louisenstrasse 11; +49 179/5228241; fax +49 351/442 4584; www.city-cottage-dresden.de; 41-62 euros), a gay owned rental apartment that sits inside a quiet, enchanted garden in the very heart of the Neustadt. It can be rented with one or two bedrooms and accommodates from one to four persons. Currently there is only one apartment available (so book early) although several more are being renovated.
Eating in the historic center of Dresden is far more pleasant than one would expect from an area frequented mostly by tourists. The cafés and restaurants offer good quality and surprisingly reasonable prices—along with some truly gorgeous locations. You can try traditional Saxon specialties like wurst and beer (do try the local Radeberger Pilsner) at Radeberger Spezialausschank (Terrassenufer 1; +49 351/484 8660; fax +49 351/484 8631; $3-12), which offers an unbeatable location with a umbrella shaded terrace overlooking the Elbe and the Augustus bridge. The terrace café at the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais (Taschenberg 3; +49 351/496 0174) offers both traditional and lighter, international fare in a convenient and charming setting (and at non-luxury hotel prices). Likewise, Café Alte Meister (Theatreplatz 1a; +49 351/ 481 0426; www.altemeister.net) with a terrace nestled in the shade of the Zwinger complex, is a nice option for either lunch or the German tradition of afternoon coffee and cake.
For the best selection of restaurants though, head over to the lively, untoursisty Neustadt. Here the streets are lined with local eateries, offering an array of international cuisines and everything from inexpensive cafés to moderately priced upscale restaurants. Here you can find just about anything: French, Italian, Indian, and salads and sandwiches in charming cafes, many with outdoor terraces. As a local resident remarked, “Only the tourists eat Saxon food!” which may be only a slight exaggeration. To start your exploration, try the local favorite Tiki Ice Cafe (Gorlitzer Strasse 21; inexpensive) in the charming Kunsthof passage. Or make for the nearby bar-restaurant Cigales (Aluanstrasse 68; inexpensive) on the bustling Aluanstrasse. For a more elaborate dinner, try the delicious, Mediterranean influenced Villandry (Jordanstrasse 8; +49 351/ 899 6724; www.villandry.de; dinner mon-sat; main courses 9—15 euros.)
For the dedicated gourmand, Dresden offers one Michelin-starred restaurant, the elegant Caroussel (in the Hotel Bülow Residenz; Rähnitzgasse 19; +49 351/80030; fax +49 351/8003100). As you might expect, you’ll find top ingredients exquisitely prepared, flawless service and a formal setting. It’s still rather a bargain for the Michelin star experience, with four course menus about 60 euros.
Shopping the Neustadt
A number of gleaming new shopping complexes have sprung up around the main train station (currently being rennovated in high-style by London architect Sir Norman Foster), offering the usual cornucopia of European and American brand names. But for the truly interesting shopping opportunities one must head across the river to the Neustadt. Check out the club-kid fashions at Men Only (Alaunstrasse 18; +49 351/821 0836), a fun, über-gay clothes shop where the friendly staff are also well informed about the local nightlife scene. You’ll find shops here selling everything from second hand clothing to expensive designer jeans; from skateboards to hand-made paper. The Alaunstrasse and the adjoining side-streets, and especially the Kunsthof passage, are filled with trendy and unusual shops. You can even check it all out online at the stylish website www.gappy.de.
As in most German cities, the Dresden Tourist office (in the neo-classical Schinkelwache, on the Theaterplatz; +49 351/ 491920) is a terrific resource. As well as providing maps, schedules of events, and guides to the museums and sights, they can also find you a hotel room or get you tickets to the Semper Opera. Scope it out in advance at www.dresden-tourist.de , where they also have an online hotel reservation service. Gegenpol is Dresden’s own free local monthly gay magazine, which can be scored at the bars and shops throughout the neustadt. They have comprehensive listings with addresses, which are also conveniently available on their website at www.gegenpol.net.
Story and Photographs by Clay Doyle
I had the pleasure of revisiting Dresden in August of 2005. This is an expanded version of an article written for gay.com Travel. You can find the short version at gay.com Travel at http://www.gay.com/travel/article.html?sernum=9544 .
“It would be easier,” I remark, “To have lunch with Jacques Chirac.” We are standing outside the Pilier Sud, at the entrance to private elevator to Restaurant Jules Verne. Our way is blocked by a pleasant but stern young man, clad in all black, with a radio headset. It is a near impossibility to make a reservation at Jules Verne, the luxury restaurant on the second tier of the Tour Eiffel.
“Three months in advance” is their standard reply…and even then…I finally had a friend who works for the French Tourist Office in LA make the reservation…to her slight annoyance, as even for her it required multiple phone calls and faxes. It’s somewhat ridiculous…Le Grand Véfour, Le Cinq—great, three star restaurants—booked with a simple fax on our last trip to Paris. Anyway, even after going to such great lengths to extract a reservation, and a fax from the restaurant confirming such reservation, the Jules Verne insists that you reconfirm the reservation the day before. OK, slightly annoying, but not unheard of. Except that they never answer their telephone. Call, call, and call again, and all you get is a multi-lingual message telling you that all lines are busy and please try again in a few minutes. At the prices they charge, you’d think they could hire someone to answer the phones…or outsource it to a call center in India or something. Finally we sent them a fax. But, of course something has gone astray…our table has been canceled (and given to who I wonder, considering the difficulty of making a reservation and the impossibility of reaching them by phone. Have they a list of stand-ins at the ready?) Calls are made from the elevator desk to the restaurant upstairs; someone comes to confer with us…I wave my confirmation fax (bearing the imprint of the French Tourist Office) and Logan explains the multiple unanswered phone calls. Still the young man in black bars our entry to the private elevator lobby, snicker though he did at my comment about lunch with Jacques Chirac. Clearly this is a commonplace occurrence. Someone in authority explains that they had tried to call our hotel, unsuccessfully, that morning, and then—finally behaving in the manner one expects from such a restaurant—says, but of course we will take care of everything, please come up…
From that point on, all is pleasant. A sweet boy lifts us to the second étage in one of the tower’s uniquely slanted elevators; we can see the young and the vigorous clambering up and down the stairs as views of Paris flash in and out of sight between the steel girders. We are offered an aperitif in the bar, but already they have a table ready for us. It’s a small table…too small really for the theater of food the restaurant requires, but it is right at the window, on the best side of restaurant. All of Paris is below our table: Sacre-Coeur on its hill, the Place de la Concorde, the Arc de Triomphe, the roofs of the Madeleine and the Opera, the expanse of the Louvre, and, in the distance, the distinctive towers of Notre Dame and the brightly colored tubes of the Pompidou Center. Directly under us, on the platform below the restaurant, tourists admire the view. It is spectacular, as promised. Inside, the restaurant is all black and grey and leather—very eighties. It seems a bit, well, too eighties, though in mint condition. Logan admires the china, white with black geometric accents, eighties too, but handsome. I find the black stemmed wineglasses less successful. We have glasses of Veuve Cliquot vintage rose (€29 a glass!) Logan promptly knocks his over—25 euros spilling into my plate and lap—fortunately protected by my napkin. Fortunately our only mishap. Service is efficient, professional, but no better than most Paris restaurants. Food is fairly excellent. The à la carte menu is shockingly expensive—50 starters, €90 entrees, and up. But there is a very nice “businessman’s” lunch menu for 55 (the only thing not translated into English—Logan finds this very cunning). He and I have a starter of haddock prepared three ways: a soup that is almost entirely fish flavored air—really good; haddock tartare, and a little spinach and haddock tartlet. Abbie has a terrine of foie gras and oxtail—terrific. They have lamb for the main course—they proclaim it excellent. I have quail—deboned for the most part, and stuffed with foie gras. It is excellent. We drink two bottles of wine, a white and a Bordeaux, neither particularly expensive. Dessert is a sablé with strawberries, with custard and ice cream; and a lemon thing that Abbie had. Various little candies and cookies and truffles are brought to the table, of course. The wine waiter is cute. After lunch, we wander downstairs and out amid the milling crowds for the view of Paris from the open platform. Logan buys another cheap souvenir Tour Eiffel to add to his odd little collection. We make a waiter open the back door to the Jules Verne for us, so we can take the private elevator down. We are about the last lunch guests to leave the restaurant. The crowd was largely American; a few French people. What can I say? The view: extraordinary. The decor: fair. The service: good but not outstanding. The food: very good. The price: the prix fix lunch is a good value. Otherwise for the money, I’d go to Le Cinq, hands down.
After lunch we caught a taxi to the Louvre. I felt such a tourist, taxi-ing from monument to monument. Everyone was over-tired in the Louvre…but we saw the remounted La Gioconda—or rather the crowds around it. It is better located and better lit. They have moved the Veronese wedding feast to the other end of the room. All and all, the room looks better. They have also finished refurbishing the rooms containing the grand format paintings. These galleries look quite good. We escaped the crowds though, for the Richelieu wing and the Mesopotamian art, the French sculptures in the sunlit courts, and the medieval objects tucked away on the floor above. These galleries are essentially deserted.
This spring, without really planning to, I ended up spending 24 days in France—nine in Paris and the remainder touring the towns and countryside in a wide arc around Paris from Reims in the Northwest to Chinon in the southeast. I made two separate trips to France; the first a last-minute press trip organized by the French tourist office to promote the “Gay Friendly” Loire valley followed by a long-planned trip with my business partner (Mr. Logan) and my mother (Abbie), AKA Nonna, which took us to Paris, Chablis, Berry, and again the Loire valley. The press trip focused on the cities of Orleans, Tours and Amboise, so the only real overlap was Amboise, which I visited on both trips. A detailed and chronological account of the trip would be lengthy and unnecessary, therefore I will recount only some of the more entertaining anecdotes, such as the one above.
Our first press visit was to the Parc Floral de la Source—a large garden of a former Château that now houses offices for the university. It was chilly, and just slightly too early in the season for most of the flowers, except the tulips. The most remarkable thing a about it is that it is the source of the river Loiret—hence the name. I don’t think I’d ever actually seen the source of a river before; so somehow I always imagined something rather grand—melting glaciers or something. Here the water bubbles up out of little hole in the ground and forms a small decorative stream that runs through the rather formal garden. It looks quite artificial really. When we dined a few nights later at Les Quatre Saisons, a beautiful inn and restaurant (with very good food) which sits picturesquely on the banks of the Loiret a dozen kilometers or so outside of Orleans, the decorative little stream had become a wide and rather impressive river. I still have trouble believing all that water comes out of a little hole in the Château grounds, but I’m assured by those with a more thorough knowledge of earth sciences that this is just the way these things work.
Our guided tour of Orleans took us to the old city hall, and the rather nice Cathedral of Sainte-Croix, and of course numerous statues of Jeanne d’Arc—patron and liberator of the city in 1429. The city was preparing for the annual festival in her honor on the 8th of May, taking place a few days after we depart. Apparently, each year a local girl—a virgin of course—is chosen to play the role of Joan, and she rides into the city on a horse and then much feasting and drinking ensues. Orleans is a pleasant and compact city of (newly) cobble stoned streets and quaint buildings. It’s easily explored on your own. Except for one thing you won’t see—and this is what I love about these guided press tours—the secret entrance to the excavated medieval gate and drawbridge. We were assembled on the main square, in front of the large equestrian statue of Jeanne d’ Arc when our guide from the Orleans tourist office takes out her keyring and presses something that looks like the little device that unlocks the doors on a car. She presses a button and a three meter square of cobblestone(!) in the place du Martroi, slowly, silently, and electrically opens like a huge trap door, and out of the ground rises a steel spiral staircase. Descending the staircase to some depth, we explore the foundations of the city wall, and drawbridge gate, and medieval moat. Rather impressive. It seems it was unearthed while constructing an underground parking garage. When we exit, the whole thing is closed up at another push of a button and the massive cobblestone trapdoor disappears seamlessly into the surface of the square.
Another guided tour—this of the privately-owned Clos Lucé, the final home of Leonardo da Vinci, in Amboise. Our guide is a completely charming young man with an endearing shyness and beautiful blue eyes. I would mention his name, but he seemed so shy that I think it might embarrass him. He keeps apologizing that he only gives tours to children—perhaps afraid that a group of fully adult homosexuals may be bored with his presentation. Actually I think he was an inspired choice. They run us from place to place on these press tours, so our (or at least my) attention span often grows rather childlike; plus the Clos Lucé is the perfect place for children. It is filled with reconstructions and models of Leonardo’s inventions that you can actually play with, and has lots of interactive exhibits, all of which seem more ideally suited to children, who may become bored with the don’t touch aspects of the Châteaux and Cathedrals. Again we got an insider treat—our guide unlocked the gate in the basement of the house that provides entry into the underground tunnel that once connected the Clos Lucé with the nearby Château d’Amboise. (So that Leonardo could be visited by his patron François I without the king having to go outside.) The tunnel has mostly collapsed but a hundred meters or so of dark, damp, off-limits passageway remain. It’s rather fun to explore, in a creepy way. Fortunately, I have learned a few things while traveling, and have a flashlight in my bag!
We meet up with our guide again, unexpectedly, at the bar La P’tite Chose in Tours, at a meeting of the local gay social group. Here we have a chance to chat with him and his friends over drinks. We discover that badminton is the group’s most popular sporting activity.
I’ve decided I really like the quirky Hotel de L’Abeille—the group is split, and this is the hotel I’m not staying at. The staff is gay, and friendly, and a few of them rather cute. The rates are really cheap, around 50-70 euros per room. The lobby is comfortable and has free wifi. (Why is it that the most inexpensive hotels are likely to provide free internet, while a in a room that costs several hundred euros, they will add an additional, sometimes absurdly high, charge?) The whole decor may be aggressively over the top, but the place has character and charm. The clientele is mixed. Gay and straight couples as well as one really attractive young man on his own! Breakfast looked good. My hotel, across the street (Hotel d’Arc) is just comfortably bland. And none of the other lodging in town seems very special at all.
Andrew, one of the writers, tells us a story about the gay sauna in Orleans—the brand new Savon—which I had declined to visit on a Monday night. He said he was in the steam room with a cute French boy—apparently there was a decent crowd of two dozen or so—and he started chatting him up—fluency in French, which I definitely lack, can be an advantage. Anyway he tells us, admitting it was a totally corny pick up line—he asks the boy if he has ever had sex with an American. The boy says no. So Andrew asks “Would you like too?” To which the French boy replies, “Yes…with a young American.” A hysterical story as he told it, and that he would tell it with such relish and amusement is a good example of his personality. You should also know that besides being charming, Andrew is extremely handsome, rendering it even more amusing.
Amboise, a small, almost too cute town straddling the Loire, is a real discovery. Two beautiful, luxurious manor house hotels, at very reasonable rates for such unrestrained luxury—the Manoir des Minimes and Le Clos d’ Amboise, and a restaurant that is so fantastic—and such a bargain—as to be almost beyond belief.
The amazing dinner was at the recently opened Pavillon des Lys—8 courses for €38 euros. I have no idea how they do it. Each course was amazing. The chef/owner, Sébastien, a gay guy (which is why they put it on the itinerary, I suppose), does all the cooking alone. There are two waiters. It is a small restaurant, about nine tables (with four lavish bedrooms as well.) Dinner consisted of…
Champagne and little snacks in the garden
1. a beet and parsley cappuccino
2. foie gras and potato tart with Coteau du Layon wine
3. smoked salmon with a local Sauvignon wine
4. roasted sea bass
5. medallion of beef with (Chinon wine, I think)
6. chariot of local cheese
7. pre-desert course of little parfait and cookies
8. a chocolate mouse thing
9. a green apple clafouti with calvados ice-cream
and a glass of poire William in the salon.
hmm…seems like more that 8 courses. It was fantastic! They serve only two multi-course set menus (one vegetarian, rather a rarity) which change daily.
I immediately made reservations for my return trip with Logan and Abbie, as we would be staying nearby. Our encore dinner was equally impressive. Logan and my mother loved it. It was a warm evening, so all the tables were set up outside in the walled gravel courtyard. The indoor tables with lamps and stuff…all as formal as if in the dining room. The weather was perfect for it. We were the first to arrive (at 7:40) and the second to last to leave (at just before midnight.) Well, we spent an hour on the upstairs terrace having our coffee (or verbena) with a tiny chocolate pot de crème and waiting for the check. From the terrace there we had a postcard view of the illuminated St. Hubertus chapel, with the Château behind, as dusk turned into night. Amazing. We were the only ones invited to have our coffee up there, so didn’t we feel special? Same waiter as before (and Sebastien said hello briefly at the end of the meal). Only nine tables, but all were full. And this time only 33 euros! So it went like this:
Aperitif: Kir Vouvray pettilant with little bites: a shrimp, a tapanade, a spoon of beet, and a little glass of melon.
1: a goblet of almost pureed vegetables and herbs; a parmesan cracker
2: Foie Gras with sel gris and a tiny lettuce salad
3: Crabmeat, tomato and avocado mille fiule with a crispy pastry
4: A small filet of fish on a bed of baby peas
5: A half quail with some mushrooms and tiny root vegetables
6: Cheese from the cheese board—a long plank that it took both waiters to carry to the table (actually the cheese is a supplement to the menu, but they comped us on it.)
7: rhubarb clafouti with strawberry ice-cream
8: a glass of fresh sliced strawberries with a glass of vanilla ice cream
9: a mango parfait, a little raspberry on a cookie, a tulle cookie
Then the delicious pot de crème with coffee on the upstairs terrace
We did not drink too much, just two bottles of wine and our aperitifs. We had a light red Menetou-Salon with the first 4 courses, and a Chinon with the quail and cheese.
Oh, the Manoir Les Minimes is fabulous. It’s a grand manor house; my room is extravagant—my bathroom even has a view of the Chateau. Owned by two charming gay guys (in matching pin-striped suits!) Everything in Amboise seems to be owned by homosexuals. Even the director of the Château d’Amboise, I’m told, is gay!
At the first dinner at Pavillon des Lys, after everyone had made their selections from the enormous Chariot du Fromage, one of the writers remarked that he had selected an particularly pungent (I believe his descriptions was stinky) cheese. Christophe remarked casually, not really as an explanation, that the cheese in question was from Alsace. Except that in giving a correct French pronunciation to that region of Eastern France, it sounded like “It comes from Al’s ass.” That got everyone’s attention, and much merriment ensued. It took Christophe a few seconds to understand what all the laughter was about.
A nice tour of Tours—excuse the obvious pun. It’s one of the larger cities of the Loire, and a big university town. Lots and lots of students. A cute half-timbered medieval quarter with lots of crowded sidewalk bar/cafes. The ruins of the enormous Basilica of St. Martin of Tours—now the city streets run right through the footprint of the giant church; only a couple towers remain. A new, much smaller, 19th century basilica was built during the religious revival to house the relics. I was the only member of the group who wanted to see his relics—so our guide took me to the reliquary under the alter while the rest of the group had coffee. Two interesting stops on the tour that I would have never discovered on my own: We visited a traditional silk weaving factory where they still weave fabric by hand on 18th century looms. For historical restorations I presume, as it is a tremendously expensive process. Apparently it is the only surviving weaver from the time when Tours was the Royal silk weaving city. The fabrics are beautiful—but even the spools of thread were astonishingly beautiful—they glowed with an almost internal light. We also visited an artisanal baker, where all the bread is made by hand and baked in a traditional, pre-WWII brick oven—one of the few surviving in France. Really good bread—in a country of good bread—but a dying artform in an age of more modern, mass production techniques. Anyway the brick oven is essential to the perfect texture of the soft interior and crisp crust of the breads at Veiux Four.
Christophe (our host from the LA office of the Maison de France) wore his “Sophie” (The Doyle/Logan Company logo and mascot) T-shirt to dinner last night. It was sweet. I had been wearing mine occasionally during the trip—I brought both, as they are black (I travel in black, it’s just one less decision to make.) The business card, I realize from this, is very successful—everyone remembers the dog logo “Oh I have your card, I remember the dog!”
Sadly the only word that adequately describes dinner is ‘ridiculous.’ Yes, you can have a bad meal in Paris—even an expensive bad meal. It was good that we were, by then, tired of eating. Christophe was a bit sad, because it was our last dinner, and it was a disaster; but really, the place was so absurd as to be amusing. It is a “trendy” restaurant. Well just that word is enough to set off alarm bells for me, and for Andrew too. Christophe says that some “trendy” restaurants in Paris are quite good, and fun, and I have no reason to doubt him. He’d never been here before. I’m rather sure he won’t be back. It was the Cantine du Faubourg…a very big place, in the basement of a building in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. Well, already it was trying too hard to be trendy. Orange plastic T-rex’s on the stairs going down. Gauzy curtains. Cool, modern, straight edged furniture and goofy lamps. Actually it was kind of pretty, in a sort of LA, sort of just past being trendy, way. And the clientele was not trendy—pretentious, plastic surgeried, breast enhanced, yes—but trendy, no. I thought they might all be people who made a lot of money in illegal activities. Mixed with just plain rich people from the neighborhood. Anyway, all this is forgivable…but as a restaurant, the place was a disaster. We were seated….early, 8pm, there was only one, maybe two other tables occupied in this huge space. We ordered drinks. They never came. We waited and waited. Finally the waitress came and told Cristophe that they couldn’t do drinks because “the computer was down” but we could have wine instead. We said “fine”…but got a good laugh out of that. Then, mysteriously and without explanation, our drink order (just slightly wrong) arrived. We were offered a very limited menu. Some kind of shrimp starter and chicken skewers or tuna steak for a main course. The little filo wrapped shrimp things were fine—they were served for no reason on long tiles, which didn’t really fit on the table. The mains they mixed up…I got chicken instead of tuna, but both were said to be equally insipid, so I didn’t miss much. The chicken on a stick was just that…coated with some kind of spice and served with noodles that Christophe aptly described as “bland”. The tuna came over-cooked (not very trendy!) and with a pyramid of instant rice! The harried, clearly unskilled waitress had to bring all the dishes to the table, two at time, unassisted, while dozens of staff did nothing but glide elegantly around the room, looking beautifully detached. Honestly, the place had an enormous staff—all very pretty, dressed in all black or all white outfits—but they did absolutely nothing but swan around the room, looking pretty. Dessert was decent; red fruits and lemon sorbet. The PR director—a fabulously dressed black woman, came over to greet us and deliver an obviously insincere “anything you need just ask” speech. The highlights of the restaurant it seems, are that they change the interior decoration twice a year, and that they will send a car to pick you up and bring you to the restaurant! It is probably the only way they can get anyone in the door. Yet it was quite full when we left at eleven. We had a good laugh about it, and as I said, as we were still full from our very nice lunch, it hardly mattered. Perhaps it was even better at that point to have an amusing story.
(That really good lunch, by the way, was at L’Ecluse St. Honoré, one of a small chain of wine bars featuring Bordeaux wine and simple, excellent food. As it was a very hot day, we were served two cold courses, both excellent, and a dessert. All the while we were entertained with amusing stories by Patricia Deckmyn, the exceedingly charming and witty ‘Ambassadress’—public relations director—of the restaurant.)
We sit in a café on the Rue de Rivoli, because my mother wanted a croque monsieur. It’s an inexpensive neighborhood café and tabac—The Jean-Bart—with nothing to call attention to it and consequently devoid of tourists. I’d been here before; the food is good and it is remarkably cheap for Paris. It’s pretty busy on a Friday night, and we’ve snagged a sidewalk table at the very end. Service is slow, but the atmosphere is festive. At the table next to us, separated only by the space of the doorway, are three French boys. They are drinking a bottle of rose from coca-cola glasses, smoking, talking on their mobile phones. They are dressed in the international style of youth: baggy jeans, an expanse of boxer shorts showing, one expensive designer accessory each, casually worn. The prettiest one—though it’s a close contest, sports a Gucci belt. One is rather hyperactive, always leaping up, leaving the table, going off for extended periods. The other two are far more languid. They slouch in their wicker chairs, opposing sides of the tiny cafe table, legs entwined. They might be gay. They might not. Clearly they are no older than 17, probably younger. Clearly they are enjoying their evening on the town; the wine, the cigarettes, the casual interaction with the waiter, the calls to friends on the mobile phones. It’s a scene I can’t imagine in America, and I can’t but feel that the lack of such casual, and innocent, adult fun is somehow detrimental to developing responsible, well-rounded adult personalities. The waiter, himself about 20, faux-hawked and cute mainly because he tries so hard, is friendly and funny despite the crowd and the frantic pace it demands. A young man stops at my table and asks for a cigarette—not for him, but for his girlfriend, who laughs and remains shyly in the background, clearly embarrassed. Her boyfriend is gregarious and clearly unembarrassed, or if he is conceals it completely with bluster and good cheer. I proffer her one of my Galois and light it and he kisses me on the cheek and she, laughing, says “merci, merci.” The boys, two now, abandoned again by their manic friend, stare languidly into each others’ eyes, whisper secrets, smoke their own cigarettes.
Logan, always the culinary adventurer, ate a pigs foot (deep fried and admittedly tasty, if bony) at Brasserie Flo in Reims, and a plate of horse tartar (which I declined to try, but which he declared the best tartare ever) at a sidewalk bistro in Bourges. I’ll refrain from the “I’m so hungry…” jokes.
Open ateliers in Belleville (an artsy Paris neighborhood). Very crowded. Too many children—not really the children I mind so much as the attendant strollers, chariots, etc. which consume so much space. Followed about the same route as we did two years ago. Saw perhaps ten percent of the open studios. A few very good artists…nice etchings, a few nice painters. I had the idea that it would be great to do an annual Belleville/LA show…bring the works of the ten best artists to LA for a group show. The work is cheap…the artists almost all unknown. Much of it would be hugely popular in LA. Some of the work is really good…and we saw only a fraction. Belleville is fascinating. Deteriorating buildings opening into magical, spacious courtyards. Wonderful restorations hidden here and there. A fascinating neighborhood of terrific, ungentrified, raw spaces. Dilapidated, but not at all dangerous (at least it seems so). Is there any place like it in LA, I wonder, or even in Amsterdam. Lively too, as there are shops and cafes; Chinese and Jewish restaurants. Ugly sixties high-rise housing too, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Hilly, unusual for Paris; an ancient aqueduct; an abandoned rail line. Secret courtyards and amazing raw space.
Renting the car in Paris (from Avis—the best choice I think in France) was more trouble and time consuming than renting at a provincial train station. The girl that helped us was obviously new, and took forever. She wanted to see out plane tickets! Said it was an Avis requirement…I had never heard that one before—the rental agency was at a train station, and I had arrived in Paris, as often, by train, I’m not sure what I would have produced! Fortunately I had my itinerary and my e-ticket computer printout with me, as they were in my passport case. I thought they might want to see my passport…but she didn’t ask for that. Rented many Avis cars in France and it always takes like five minutes…in Dijon or Orleans…but at Paris Gare de Lyon it was a big production. The staff not even bilingual…good thing Logan was along to help me with all their questions. Really, I have always just shown them my reservation and they’ve tossed me the keys! Surprisingly, driving in Paris was the easiest part. Drove back to the hotel, then out of town, with no problem, no getting lost, no real traffic. But I’d take the train out of town just to avoid the Paris rent-a-car location.
The Hotel Crystal, in Reims, is unchanged, and Madame Jentet seemed younger than ever. Surprised, when I greeted her by name…but quickly recovered and didn’t let on that she didn’t have a clue who I was…but I would not expect her to remember me from our brief meeting seven years ago! We visited the Cathedral, of course. Had dinner at the Brasserie Flo. The restaurant we had planned, and had been to before, Au Petit Comptoir, was closed on Monday. After dinner Logan and I had a walk and visited the tiny Lesbigay Bar! It was predictably dead at midnight on Monday, but kind of cute. A silly boy bartender sang along with the CD’s. I had gone into the tourist office in Reims earlier as a kind of test (are regional tourist offices gay friendly even if you are not on a gay tour?) and asked the girl at the desk about gay clubs. She didn’t bat an eye, tried to find some information and marked this place on the map. Turns out it is listed in the general tourist guide as well. She said from there I could find information on everything else. I guess there is a disco, but I didn’t bother asking about that for a Monday night!
The Hostellerie des Clos, in tiny Chablis, hadn’t changed much either. Comfy cheap rooms combined with fancy expensive dinners. Had a walk around the town, to the church that is always closed, then dinner in the hotel restaurant. Set menu for €52 euros…white and green asperges, salmon-trout, veal liver, cheese, strawberry and chocolate dessert. Two bottles of Chablis and one bottle of Banyuls with dessert and after. Quite drunk on the Banyuls; it has a very high alcohol content; delicious with chocolate though. Ate at the hotel restaurant the second night too…a la carte, so it cost twice as much! Oyster and crayfish terrine and then a pigeon. Logan had morels stuffed with foie gras and sweetbreads. Abbie had green asparagus with truffles and then scallops. I have no idea how much money we spent there…I don’t want to know…but the set menu is a much better deal; of course it always is. We were going to eat the second night in the restaurant in the village of St. Bris that we discovered on out previous trip, but found it is both closed on Wednesdays and under a new owner—so who know if it is still good…it couldn’t be as unique and special as before, anyway. A strange note though…everything in the Yonne region seems to be closed on Wednesdays! Both restaurants we wanted to go to, the market across from the hotel—it just seems a very strange day for everything to close. Also in the Yonne, the churches are never open…where as in the rest of France they just leave the doors open all day so you can wander in and have a look about. Anyway, spent our second day in Chablis driving around on tiny roads and stopping in cute tiny towns. Visited the Abbaye church at Pontigny…I didn’t remember it until we got inside; it is really beautiful in its starkness. I remembered it then, and recalled my photos of it. Ended the day in Auxerre, visiting the Abbaye there, St. Germain, a quite beautiful church and cloister done up with very high tech lighting and museum installations. Tour of the crypt with (9th? 10th?) century frescos…anyway, supposedly the oldest in France. Also visited the Cathedral of St. Etienne; strangely more impressive on the outside than in, even though the exterior was extensively scaffolded. They do have a reliquary with some bones of St. Steven (he of the stoning) behind the altar.
The Hostelerie des Clos is very comfortable with reasonably priced rooms. No-hassle, free wifi internet. Very beautiful public areas and courtyard. The whole town of Chablis seemed to be getting a makeover—restored streets of medieval buildings and a new fancy hotel and new fancy restaurant being prepared to open. It seems it has become something of a real tourist destination since our last visit. Logan theorizes that the magazine article in “Saveur” which led us there three years ago started a trend.
Drove today on very tiny roads from Chablis to Briare, to see the pont-canal. It is very impressive. A beautiful piece of very elegant 19th century engineering. Very, very long too, as it crosses an extremely wide section of the Loire as well as the 16th century shipping canal that runs alongside it. It’s very strange to see this long bridge of water crossing a river. Funny too, to think that when it was built, in the late 19th century, it was already obsolete. Canal shipping, so vital for centuries, had already been replaced by the railroads. Strangely, no one was at the canal itself, except a group of Dutch students.
Lovely here at the Château de la Verrerie, as always. Arrived in the early afternoon and walked around the grounds—it was quite hot today. Logan and I borrowed bikes (in rather poor repair) and cycled around the grounds a bit. Visited the chapel—which is more beautiful inside than I remembered, with lovely paintings on the wooden ceiling. I love it here, because it is like staying in a private home—albeit a very, very grand private home. They have wifi here now, too…the only problem is that it doesn’t penetrate the thick stone walls…so you basically have to go down to the office to connect. Also they charge 10 euro for the password to the network (good forever we are told…although how much time does one spend at La Verrerie!) which I think is just silly. Nice dinner at the restaurant on the grounds, La Maison d’Helene. More white asparagus, as it is the season. And strawberries, which are uniformly outstanding. Logan ordered the most expensive Sancerre on the menu (57 euros) justifying it by saying it would cost three times as much in LA. We had a red Fixin (burgundy) too. The wine bill for this trip is going to be huge…I don’t even want to know about it. The Chablis was very good of course. We played several games of Cluedo in the lounge after!
A Saturday morning visit to the pretty village of St-Aignan. It was very busy, and it turned out that Saturday was market day. A fun market in the center of town with meat, vegetables, cheese, etc. Really cool Romanesque church with a crypt full of medieval frescoes. Impressive hilltop (private) chateau. We drove from there to Civrey, to the pleasant Hostelerie du Château de l’Isle and settled in early. We switched Abbie’s upstairs room for the one she had before in the little woodshed annex. She likes it; no stairs and a stall shower. It’s the cheapest room they have, and only used, I think, for overflow. There is a nice new glass pavilion where they serve dinner. They only have one menu per night…I can’t say I remember exactly what it was…though I do remember enjoying it. I got a kick out of Logan asking our teen waiter for advice on which of the old Vouvray wines was best. (He had a definite opinion though.) We had a Vouvray and, I think a Touraine red. We were the last diners in the dining room—a sudden rainstorm had blown in during dinner, and the rain was drumming down on the roof.
Discovered Loches, a pretty little town with an impressive castle-like chateau (small manor house, interesting church, donjon, intact walls with only one gate) and saw the sights. Interesting in that there were basically no tourists. Churches were busy in the morning (surprisingly so, until we realized it was mother’s day in France). But it seems no one visits Loches. What a contrast to Chenonceau! An amusing sight: two carefully marked handicapped parking spaces closest to the foot of a long staircase leading up to the Château gate! We also visited a ruined Abbeye on the opposite side of the river. Then I drove to Montresor, just because it was nearby and Logan loves it so. We sat in that same café (Café de la Ville) and had a little wine and shared a gigantic salad of meat (it was just after lunchtime). Then Logan and I went for a walk…he saw an empty house for sale, right on the little river that runs along the village, so we noted the phone number! It is all very pretty. Visited the little gothic church that was built as a funerary chapel! Talk about a nice tomb!
No trouble finding our hotel in tiny Chinon, and got lucky with a legal parking place just across the narrow street. The Hotel Gargantua—after the character by Rabelais; it’s not that it’s so large. In fact it’s a rather quirky, family run hotel, in an old (16th century) renaissance house. Pretty cool actually. Right in the center of town. Great view of the Château de Chinon. Nice big room and very low prices. The other nice, inexpensive hotel in town, the Diderot, seems a bit swankier and a bit more professional; it’s bigger and in a 19th century building with a cute garden. A toss up perhaps. Dinner was good, we ate in the dining room because of the variable weather, though it had stopped raining and was warming up again. (The next night they were serving dinner on their terrace, which seemed really pleasant.) That night though, we ate at Au Plaisir Gourmand, for our gourmet meal. We got the best table. Abbie had a lobster salad which was great. Logan had veal sweetbreads and kidneys. I had a menu—crab terrine, lotte in verbena, duck breast, strawberries. It was good, as always, but not as good as Pavillon des Lys—where both the food and the setting (outdoors in the courtyard, with coffee on the upstairs terrace) were magical—and cheaper!
We drove to Candes St-Martin to see the old, partially fortified church. It’s been fixed up a bit. We just went for a drive after that…up the Loire to Saumur, and past, to a little town that Logan remembered—where we visited another church. Took a much quicker road, on the other side of the river, back to Chinon. Good luck in finding our same parking space. We spent the afternoon shopping in Chinon (shoes, pastries—langues des femmes, pates de fruits—an extra duffel bag!) We sat in the pretty square and had some coffee and water.
Last night in France, back in Paris. We did a bit of last minute shopping in the Marais—somehow the thought of leaving brings out the desire to buy things. We had dinner at C’Amelot on the rue Amelot in the nearby 11th. They have the one menu per night. It was a cold pea soup with mint (delicious); monkfish; and pigeon with polenta. Abbie wouldn’t eat the pigeon, though she declared the polenta excellent. I’m sure she had enough to eat, and Logan and I split her pigeon. The one choice you have there is dessert: she had the best, a strawberry granita with strawberries and cream; Logan’s was second-best, a warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream. And mine was good: warm cherries with a (fennel? very subtle) ice cream. We walked back to the hotel, the convenient and very inexpensive Sevigné, across from the St-Paul metro station. It’s actually a short walk. Logan was tired, but I wanted to visit the bar Andy Wahloo, where I had been taken once by my Parisian friend Mafoud, so I walked over there and had a glass of wine. I’m glad I saw it again. I really like it….fun atmosphere, comfortable, cute waiters. A nice end to the trip, as we won’t count the Aéroport Charles de Gaulle!—Clay Doyle
A pre- Holy Year visit to Rome and Vatican City, accompanied by my companion Rufus—my first trip to this city—and it seemed on the one hand an excellent time to visit and on the other exactly a year too early.
Part One: The Holy Year
The January weather was brisk but continuously sunny—and comparatively warm compared with our winter here in Northern Europe. Still, the city was delightfully free of tourist crowds and museums were empty and restaurant reservations easily made. Indeed, the only place in all of Rome where we encountered a crowd was inside the Sistine Chapel. It was, as expected, fairly wall-to-wall with visitors. Even here though, there was no wait to enter—we actually passed through twice, making a second, accidental visit, in our search for another part of the vast Vatican galleries!
This is all expected to be rather different next year, as the Catholic Church begins its Jubilee, or Holy Year, on December 24th 1999 and this once-every-twentyfive-year event coincides with the frenzy of the millennium. Record numbers of visitors are subsequently expected in the year 2000—but they will have an opportunity to see much of Rome that we could not. (Everyone has heard of the millennium of course—far too much at this point; but this was the first I’ve heard of the Holy Year. Even with six years in Catholic schools, I don’t remember any mention of it, but apparently it is quite the big deal. The Pope opens a fifth door in the façade of St. Peter’s—a door that is kept bricked up in the intervening 24 years—and those who make the pilgrimage to Rome and pass through it…well something good is supposed to happen, though I’m still a little vague on what. I believe you get an indulgence—and if I have to try to explain that we’ll never get to the trip!)
In preparation though for the Jubilee and the year 2000, many of Rome’s most famous ancient and Christian sites are undergoing cleanings, renovations or major restorations. For us this meant galleries closed, artworks off exhibit and dozens of facades, mosaics and church interiors buried behind scaffolding. It got to the point that when we entered a church, EyeWitness guide in hand, after a long trek only to find everything covered in plywood and accompanied by the roar of power tools, we would begin to laugh.
Still, there was plenty to see and do in this city whose monuments span more than 2 millennium, and we spent seven days being quite the tourists.
We arrived in Rome late on a Sunday evening. Checked into he Hotel Campo de Fiori—cute sixth floor room, but no lift. (our retribution for putting my mother in a similar room in Venice last year). It’s quite a hike! Adjacent roof terrace with nice views though—especially of the garishly huge Victor Emmanuel Monument. Arrived a bit after 10pm and had a walk around to the Pantheon, then a couple of pricey compari/sodas at the swanky Hotel Minerva.
Up early Monday morning: breakfast in the basement and off to the Vatican. The Vatican museums close at 1:45(!) so we had no choice but to get an early start. A short walk really from our hotel on the Campo de Fiori across the Tiber to St. Peter’s square. The Bernini colonnade had just been cleaned—they were just finishing the last few columns—but the facade of St Peters was completely hidden behind scaffolding. In the square, next to the obelisk, the pope still had his Christmas Tree and larger-than-life Crèche up! And it’s 24th night! I am a bit appalled. The tree looks pretty sad at this late date.
It’s a further, rather longish hike around the Vatican walls to the museum entrance (despite the fact that one end of the complex actually adjoins St. Peter’s.) Not too busy at the museums—we breezed right in and up the long spiral staircase. Stayed from 10am or so until the 1:45 closing—saw quite a bit, but still only a fraction of the galleries: The Sistine chapel of course, the Rapheal Rooms and the Pinacoteca galleries. Also a fab great long hallway with huge frescoed maps of Italian towns from the 16th century. Highlights included a fantastic Rapheal fresco of St. Peter being sprung from jail by an angel; An amazing Carravagio (deposition of Christ) and a last judgement from the middle ages. The last judgement panel was circular and had beasts spitting up the limbs of people they had devoured and angels waking the dead with trumpets! Of course the Sistine Chapel’s frescos are amazing—though one wishes for a catwalk so one could get a bit closer to them. We had the CD audio tour, which in addition to detailed art history, also managed to work in quite a lot of Catholic theology as well!
We had planned to have a long lunch as a reward for our Vatican tour; but instead just grabbed a slice of pizza, so we could take a guided tour of St. Peter’s at 3pm. Actually it was quite a good tour; an hour and a half and quite a bit of information. Our guide was Penny, a smart Englishwoman who has lived in Rome for 32 years—and has been conducting tours for 17 years! She was quite fun, in the manner of ‘English Lady’ tour guides and, it became evident, a devout Catholic, a fervent Papist and quite the fan of John Paul II. She even gave everyone on the tour cards with a picture of the pope on one side and the lord’s prayer in Latin on the reverse, which she apparently has printed up of her own volition! She’s also in the Vatican choir and a regular at mass at St. Peter’s. (We learned a lot about her.) We also learned a lot about the church, particularly about how huge it—and everything in it—is! It’s a behemoth; certainly an amazing construction feat for it’s time. I’m not sure how they managed it. It is also the most immaculately maintained church I have ever seen—it looks like it could have been finished yesterday. All the paintings were replaced in the 18th century with copies made of mosaic tile (amazing copies that are so finely detailed that at the distance one views them they look like paintings) so they would not crack or discolor! There is marble everywhere, and gold, and statues 22 ft tall! And all of it gleaming! I guess the façade will be as clean as the inside when the scaffolding comes down for the holy year.
Dinner was at a little place near the hotel recommended by travel writer Rich Ruben (as was the hotel)—Hostaria Giulio. We had a mixed antipasto (cold meat and vegetables), ravioli with ricotta , butter and sage; and I had grilled anchovies on arugula. Then we had an artichoke because they were having them at the next table and they looked so good—it was. Desserts were tiramisu and a really good flan type thing in caramel sauce. Of course we were starving after 10 hours of walking and standing! It wasn’t at all busy, but reassuringly, the other diners were all Italian.
Part Two: Christians and Lions
Rome offers irrefutable proof of the incompatibility of the automobile and the city. Here we have a large and vibrant urban center that functioned without cars for some 2500 years—and is now dominated by the internal combustion engine. Boulevards have been bulldozed through ancient sites; beautiful squares and courtyards turned into parking lots; and everywhere, at all hours of the day and night, there is a chaos of traffic with driving that borders on anarchy.
Drivers actually do stop for pedestrians, though in our seven days there I never came to accept this idea. The necessity of stepping into a traffic circle swirling with automobiles or crossing a six lane Via at an uncontrolled intersection continued to fill me with fear. We would often wait at the sidewalk until some unconcerned Romans stepped nonchalantly into the maelstrom of traffic and then cross in their shadow…following as closely as possible. We found the most effective escorts to be old women in fur coats and soldiers in uniform…they parted traffic like Moses at the Red Sea.
On our second full day in Rome, Rufus arranged for us to go on a walking tour which met at the Coliseum. We set out to toward it, but found ourselves trapped behind the excavations of the Forum. We walked all the way round the outside of the Forum, then down along the long grass covered oval marking the site of the long-vanished Circus Maximus, and back along the other side of the Forum to the Coliseum. Fortunately we were still about an hour early for the tour so—after several wrong turns—we located another stand-up pizza place recommended in the Cheap Eats in Italy guide.
The tour was amusing—actually rather interesting, and quite long—over three hours. The company is called “Enjoy Rome” and is owned, or run, by an American woman named Suzy. She actually accompanied us for most of the tour—checking up, I think, on our guide, a young, fun-loving Australian. The guides all seem to be young, just-out-of-college types who have drifted to Rome on a lark. We met a couple of the others before the tour. We got lots of information on the coliseum (and the bloody slaughter of men and beasts that constituted the entertainment there. There was a fair amount of Roman history and social organization as well. (The coliseum dates from 74 AD, well into the empire, and stands on the site of a lake in front of the hated former Emperor Nero’s palace. It takes it’s nickname, probably, from a colossus of Nero—and subsequent Emperors, they just changed the heads—that stood on a square adjacent the stadium. Things we probably learned in high school and have subsequently forgotten). Also got a bit of information on the Forum, The arch of Constantine and Hadrian’s Markets and Column, all nearby.
Mussolini built a huge boulevard thought the archaeological site to connect the Arch of Constantine and coliseum with the Victor Emmanuel monument; a place to parade his (briefly) victorious armies. We waked on to the V.E. monument and the adjacent papal palace that was Mussolini’s HQ. From there it was on to a more pleasant monument—both historically and architecturally—the Trevi Fountain. This is the fountain of’ “three coins in the fountain” fame; as the tradition goes, if you toss one coin in the fountain you will return to Rome, a second and you will fall in love on your return, and a third and you will be wed in Rome. It is one of the most pleasing examples of baroque architecture: a lovely grand fountain on a tiny, intimate square filled, even in January, with happy people—and many of the coin throwers were Italian!
We made brief stops also at the Temple of Hadrian—a surviving colonnade now embedded in the façade of the stock exchange, the Pantheon, and the Piazza Navona, laid out on the ruins of a Roman foot-race track. There is a rather impressive Bernini of fountain of the Four Rivers in the center. (Nile, Danube, Ganges, and one recently discovered in South America, FYI)
It was a particularly great day to be outside: striking deep blue skies, a few muscular white clouds and, to end it, a pastel sunset.
That night we had a delicious dinner at Al Pompiere, one of the Roman-Jewish restaurants near the Campo de’ Fiori. We had the house specialties as our antipasto—one of each, all deep-fried—artichoke, zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese and anchovies, and salt-cod. Next we had pasta e fagioli (it was good, but everyone else in the place was having a different pasta—and all were having the same thing.) To follow Rufus had saltimbocca (tasty!) and I had some lamb cutlets roasted in salt, also really good. And a simple, perfectly dressed salad. We had an assortment of pastries for dessert—but everyone else was having the lemon sorbet! I recommend: go a little late, and watch what comes out of the kitchen before ordering! Everyone seems to be in on what’s best—the place was obviously packed with regulars. OK, I confess, I sneaked back two days later for lunch so I could try the pasta and the sorbet—I hate feeling left out! Other favorites included the deep fried vegetables, oxtail (I think) and some kind of salad with slices like big celery that I never did figure out what it was.
After dinner we walked back to the Trevi fountain, to see it lit up at night and to toss in our coins—just one each of course!—and to walk off some of our huge dinner.
Wednesday we were up early again for our breakfast, and then walked over to see the interior of the Pantheon. It’s the place I most wanted to visit in Rome. It really is a magnificent building, if a bit unfortunately tarted up inside with Catholic iconography (it was given to the pope in the 6th century—which is though why it has been preserved in such good condition) and tombs of Italian kings. The dome is amazing—a perfect hemisphere in coffered cast concrete.
The Romans managed some fantastic architecture and engineering. The buildings are on a vast scale and the water system is apparently still in use today. Little spring-fed fountains run continuously all over the modern city. Rome, we are told, had the same population at the time of the empire as it does today—and covered a somewhat smaller, but still vast area. And the subsequent buildings—renaissance, baroque and modern, are largely built on Ancient foundations.
From the Pantheon, we walked on to the daily print market and then to the area of fancy shops around the Spanish Steps. There was one shop I liked that sold prints form 19th century photos of Rome—they even had very pretty little mass-produced prints on watercolor paper. We walked up the Spanish steps, with all the tourists and Italian youths lolling about on them, admired the view—of the city and the youths—and then walked back down.
We had made a lunch reservation at Fraterna Domus, an inn run by Nuns, who also serve lunch and dinner six days a week. This was written about with some enthusiasm by Sandra Gustafsun in Cheap Eats—and it seemed so charming as to be almost irresistible. (We also loved the fact that there is one seating per meal and one daily menu—absolutely no choices. Are we the only people who absolutely relish this absence of choice where food is involved? Sit us down, bring us food, ask us no questions—that way you completely avoid that nagging feeling that someone is feasting away on something far better than what’s on your plate!)
We arrived at Fraterna Domus and were seated at benches of highly polished dark wood at a table covered with a plain white cloth, two simple white plates, two simple wine glasses and a big pitcher of water. The room was plain, but very pretty, and possibly the cleanest dining room I have ever seen. The place began to fill quickly—primarily with neighborhood folk—shopkeepers, workmen, a few old people, mostly quite lively though. Wine was brought to the tables—a half liter for us, several liter bottles for some of the larger parties! It was cheap and screw-capped, but not at all bad. Lunch began with bowls of pasta: penne sparingly sauced with a tomato/pancetta sauce. It was delicious, and impossible to say no when the nuns returned with big serving bowls offering seconds! The secondi was a perfectly roast quarter chicken with absolutely heavenly (no pun intended) pomme frites. Then a simple salad of greens in oil and lemon, and a bowl of blood oranges for desert.
The workers, who obviously ate there all the time, had a great time. I noticed that they frequently went up stairs to the toilet; after lunch, the bowl full of cigarette butts explained why. This is probably the only restaurant in all of Rome where smoking is prohibited—the men had to sneak up to the toilet to smoke—undoubtedly just as they did when they were children in Catholic Schools!
Lunch was great, and cost (for 2 persons with wine) 43.000 lira—a grand total of about $26.50! The nuns were very sweet too, it’s enough to change my whole feeling about nuns—if only the ones that ran my elementary school alma mater St. Dominic Savio had been able to cook like that!
Well, we liked it so much we immediately arranged to return Sunday night. The atmosphere at night is less lively—guests of the inn (mostly American retirees) instead of workmen—but the food was no less tasty; a soup of tortellini in chicken broth, pot roast, green beans, and those french-fries—which must be the nun’s signature dish—and salad and fruit.
Oh, how I do go on. This installment is just all about food—are you hungry yet? After lunch, more browsing in shops. We climbed the Spanish steps yet again and then spent some time walking and sitting in a big park overlooking the city. It was once the grounds of someone’s villa of course. There were very many busts of famous Italians, mostly with their noses broken off. From the park we climbed down to the Piazza del Popolo, one of the entrances to the old city. We visited the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, which has two important Caravaggio paintings; of course they are located on the side walls of a tiny private chapel—not the spot for optimal viewing. The church also has a wonderful Bernini sculpture of Daniel in the lion’s den. Daniel is depicted as a nearly nude, very attractive youth with a lion licking his foot!
We walked back to the Piazza Di Spagna and had an exceedingly expensive pot of tea at Babington’s, a well regarded sort of English tea room in Rome (leaving aside the question of why one would want British food in Rome—they do have a full menu—it was nice to have a cup of tea). The place was (predictably, I suppose) full of Japanese ladies with bulging bags from the designer shops. Rufus mitigated the price somewhat by lifting one of their very cute ashtrays!
(Note from Rufus: I am such a bad thief. I was a nervous wreck. I fully expected to get busted and began imagining myself dragged down to police headquarters—which probably ain’t too pretty in Rome. I suppose my crime was inspired by reading too much Jessica Mitford on our trip. Her tales of her madcap British upper-crust upbringing—complete with the favorite nanny who taught the children how to shoplift—must have had undue influence on me. After getting the ash tray back to our hotel safely, I was struck with a raging fever that kept me in bed all the next day. I imagined I was being punished for my crime. Rome’s Catholic guilt must have rubbed off on me.)
Part Three: Scaffolds and Bones
Rufus, with his fever, spent a day in bed, with his Isherwood and a view of the rooftops of Rome.
I went out wandering alone that day, first down to the Tiber. I crossed the oldest bridge in Rome (1st century BC but completely covered in scaffolding of course, with just a narrow girdered passage to walk—or ride your scooter—across!) on to the little island in the Tiber, which has a church and a hospital. Not much to see really. I crossed back, walked around two intact temples from the Roman republic (well the round one was completely covered in scaffolding, but the other was quite lovely—a small, rectangular, well proportioned roman building.)
There were a several Romanesque churches in the area I had in mind to visit. (I prefer the Romanesque to the gaudiness and grandiosity of the Baroque—especially since the baroque is so ubiquitous in Rome; it seems most of the churches in Rome were built, re-built or at least redecorated in the baroque style during the Papacy’s time of great wealth and anti-protestant excess. I also love the layering of the very old churches—the way they incorporate parts of ancient buildings, and I think it quite interesting how technology vanished with end of the Roman empire and the buildings become smaller and less accomplished.) One church of course was completely covered in scaffolding—closed of course, and another was closed for a wedding; but I did get to go in one very old and dark church, and I had the place all to myself. It was gloomy and cold and deserted—but rather beautiful in its solitude. The roof of the nave was supported by mismatched columns, scavenged from various Roman temples. In a side room that might have once been a chapel, an old friar kept a lonely vigil over a small shop of plaster saints and extremely inexpensive postcards.
Though unplanned, my wanderings led me back to the spot where Rufus and I had been trapped behind the Forum excavations on. Today, being much earlier, the Forum was open and I found my way in through the back gate. One is allowed to roam rather freely through the excavations and the ancient site—and although all that remains for the most part are the merest fragments of the once massive temples and basilicas, it is none-the-less fascinating to walk through the site. and From the midst of the site, you really can get a feel for it’s enormous scale, the beauty and technology of the architecture—and the fact that it would take many centuries before anyone in Europe could build structures like these again.
I wandered some more, no real destination, and when I got hungry I got an irresistible craving for those deep fried artichokes and stuffed zucchini flowers. Of course, I was some distance now from the Jewish quarter, so I had a brisk march across town. I had a late lunch back at Pompiere—the above mentioned antipasti and the house pasta. Plus a half liter of wine all to myself! It was late afternoon when I returned to check on Rufus. He was feeling better—he had gone out for pizza—but still rather weak. We spent the evening reading and playing computer scrabble, took a short stroll and went to bed early.
Next morning Rufus was much better—up early and fairly energetic. We had to pack up after breakfast as we were being moved that day to a different room. We left the hotel and walked the short distance to the Gesu—the first Jesuit church. The exterior is unremarkable, but the interior is a spectacle of the Baroque—and this in spite of a good two thirds of it that was completely covered in scaffolding! (Rufus’ favorite part of the church was it’s nativity scene—a diorama behind glass that when you pushed a button real water flowed down a stream and s shooting star crossed the sky!) I was impressed by the sheer excess of the decoration, and a particularly bloody near life-size crucifix.
From there we crossed the terrifying traffic of the Piazza Venezia, and made our way to the other side of the Vittoriano. Here, behind this hideous and massive monument is a lovely little hilltop piazza design by Michelangelo. Flanking the piazza are the Capitoline Museums. Though one of them is completely closed for renovation the other was a dusty delight. A bit of a hodgepodge, the collections run the gamut from some very famous paintings and sculpture to a great many really kitchy porcelains. There is the famous Caravaggio of St. John the Baptist—St. John depicted as a nude and very sexy adolescent! In fact, there are quite a few teen John the Baptists and sexy young St. Sebastians in the Capitoline collections. (It may be possible to discern the sexual orientation of Italian artists by observing whether they depict St John as a youth or an old man.)
The museum has a wonderfully dusty, untouched for 50 years quality—and it is completely empty of visitors, which makes it quite fun to explore. No doubt it will get a modernizing in the not too distant future, as this is already underway at its companion across the Piazza.
We used the cheap eats guide to pick a little lunch spot on the other side of the Quirinal Hill, and wound our rather convoluted way through heavy traffic around the presidential palace. The little tratorria was pretty good…I had a big plate of gnocchi in tomato sauce. It was decorated oddly with these big lighted signs of puti pissing into champagne glasses….I’m not sure why. After lunch we walked into the Via Veneto area…a 19th century section of the city that is very Paris-like with grand boulevards and hotels. Apparently it was extremely chic in the 60’s but has now fallen out of favor with the truly hip. The main site here is the madly macabre crypt of Santa Maria della Consezione—where the Capuchin monks have decorated chapels entirely from the bones of dead monks. Bones, skulls and jaws are arranged on the walls in elaborate patterns. The overall effect is ridiculous and gruesome all at the same time.
We decide to walk back to our hotel via two churches we had yet to visit. The first of these was Santa Maria Maggiore—an enormous basilica famous for its mosaics. Naturally, the mosaics, and indeed most of the interior, were buried beneath scaffolding. Not only that, but all the interior lights were turned off, and the gloom was so absolute that one could see nothing of even those portions of the interior not covered up!
From ere we moved on to San Pietro in Vincoli—famous as the home of Michelangelo’s Moses. We found the church at the end of an alley, up a steep flight of stairs. The façade was covered in scaffolding and inside workmen were performing some rather loud and extensive renovations. Moses was in a little side chapel, behind a construction barricade. You could see him there, beyond the tour group crowds, who had to keep feeding lira coins into the meter that kept the light on! Such poor conditions for viewing an art object, one wonders how these things even become an attraction. An adjacent gift shop sells miniature reproductions—so poorly executed that you can actually choose from rather astonishing variations on the pose and facial expression of old Moses!
Returning to the Hotel Campo de Fiori, we were introduced to our new room. Though it had two french windows and a nice view over the city, by night it was a bit glum, owing to being covered in midnight blue wallpaper and lit by a few bare low-wattage bulbs. The most frustrating aspect was that there was no electric outlet in the room—not even one—so I couldn’t plug in the computer! Oh well, no guilt about not making notes!
(Yes, I too have become quite the pitiful slave to technology. No pencil and paper for me—no way. But I am hardly alone in my addiction to the marvels of the microchip. The rooftops of Rome are a sea of TV satellite dishes and in every café you hear the ubiquitous chirp-chirp of the mobile phone. At the sound, everyone within earshot begins rooting in unison in their bags. Outside the excavations of Hadrian’s Markets, boarding a school bus at the end of a tour, I saw a boy no older than eight pull one from his pocket.)
That evening we went to the Taverna Campo de Fiori in the square and drank prosecco (a very nice and rather inexpensive sparkling wine from the Veneto) and ate toasted sandwiches with the lively Italian crowd. We stayed there quite a while, then went next door to “The Drunken Ship” (yes, I know, the name says it all) where a crowd consisting almost entirely of American college students was drinking beer at prices exactly double that of the Taverna. We stayed for one drink, greeted our fellow hotel guests from USC, and fled.
Part Four: Saints be Praised (and Preserved)
The school I attended, grades one through six, was named for a saint: Saint Dominic Savio. Though he was an Italian saint, the unfortunate lad was born too late to be immortalized in the golden age of Italian religious art. He was a nineteenth century saint, and a bit of a country bumpkin too as I recall, living far from the centers of art and power. So alas, I have seen no paintings of young Savio. Had he been born a few centuries earlier, he might have been a popular subject—as I recall he died at the age of nineteen, and in a book at our school he was portrayed in dreamy watercolors. I don’t recall why he was made a saint—the road to sainthood has become a bit vague in the last two centuries; the requisite miracles become less impressive the nearer to our own era they occur. A patina of great age suits the miraculous. I recall only that St. Dominic Savio, son of a prosperous family, would trade the white bread from his lunch each day for the black bread of a poor peasant youth. This oft repeated tale was intended to inspire both guilt and gratitude as we all went out to eat our Wonderbread sandwiches. But I have to wonder now, was Dominic an unselfish, saintly child or a budding gourmet, ahead of his time? I also recall that he was the favorite pupil and special friend of St. John Bosco (namesake of the all-boy high school next door) who I believe, founded a religious order. Though for six years we studied the lives of these two very minor saints to about the same extent as we studied St. Peter, Charlemagne and George Washington, my memory of them is now rather vague, and I may have made a hay of their stories…alas, my volume of Lives of the Saints is in Los Angeles. But there are other saints in Rome, as you will see.
Saturday morning we strolled the Campo de’ Fiori market, a daily spectacle (excluding Sundays) just outside our hotel. The large square is lively with buyers and sellers: produce, fish, spices, flowers and counterfeit football jerseys. The vendors make bonfires from produce crates and shoppers retire to cafes for espresso. I wander the market, making still life photos of vegetables.
For our daily museum visit, we had selected the Palazzo Doria-Pamphilj, partly because the collection was housed in a Palazzo built between the 15th and 18th centuries, and partly because of a Caravaggio painting we wanted to see.
Interestingly, it turns out that the art and the Palazzo are still privately owned by the Pamphilj descendants, who still live, at least some of the time, in some part of the vast building. We learn this, and quite a bit more about the family, the ancestors, the Palazzo and the art collection from one of the cleverest and most delightful museum audio tours I have come across. The audio tour is included in the modest price of admission; its one of those nifty CD players that allow you to control the pace and the sequence of your visit. From the introduction we are hooked: the tour is narrated by a present-day Pamphilj heir and resident. He refers to it as his home, tells anecdotes about his family, recounts scandalous gossip about his ancestors and very quickly you get the feeling that Mr. Pamphilj is actually there, taking you through the house. We half expected him to pop out through a door and ask us to tea.
(Naturally the question arises, is this dashing Oxford accented voice on the English version of the audio tour really Mr. Pamphilj? Not outside the realm of possibility…and he does sound awfully sincere.)
Mr. Pamphilj takes us first on a tour of the 17th century public rooms of the villa, nicely restored and reopened in the late 20th century by his mother. There is a long series of these rooms, ranged in a row and culminating with my favorite—the private chapel. It’s a mini-baroque church which houses the Pamphilj family’s most sacred objects: the whole preserved corpses of two early Christian saints! These saints and many more were removed from the Roman catacombs, where they had rested for over a thousand years, and their relics handed out by the church to the faithful. According to our host and narrator, whole and intact bodies were rare and highly prized and it is a mark of the power and influence of the Pamphilj’s that they were given two such complete relics. One of the saints entrusted to the family is Justin the martyr, a relatively well known 3rd century saint. One of the female Pamphilj ancestors apparently prized the relic so highly that she obtained permission form the pope to allow the saint to travel, and took him with her on her journeys! The papal decree allowing the saint to travel is hanging on the wall; Justin gets out less these days I suspect, he and a female saint rest in glass cases in the chapel. (And all the nuns ever gave us were plastic saints!)
Beyond the public reception rooms is the wing of the Palazzo that houses the galleries. The extensive art collection dates from the 15th through the18th century. The current heirs have focused not on collecting but on restoration, and the galleries have been restored to their original appearance, the paintings re-hung salon style in their original positions. This approach to exhibiting art has been out of fashion for a century, so one really does get a feeling of being in another era. The context also, in some cases, becomes more important than the individual works: pictures were purposefully hung with and eye to contrasts and juxtapositions.
Of course there are some marvelous individual pieces in the collections as well: the aforementioned Caravaggio, Titian, Claude Lorrain.
There is a Velazquez portrait of Pope Innocent X that is considered by many to be one of his greatest, and two identical busts of Pope Innocent X by Bernini—when the original was chipped, Bernini himself made a copy.
Innocent X was the Pamphilj pope, and the source of much of the family’s wealth. Our host and guide takes us into his confidence and gives us the dirt on his most famous ancestor! It seems he was rather under the thumb of his brother’s wife (her rather formidable portrait hangs in the gallery) who rather likely was also his mistress. She made a fortune for the family by convincing the pope that it was immoral to collect taxes on Rome’s brothels—which she coincidentally owned! She finally become so powerful and demanding that poor Pope Innocent had to have her exiled from Rome.
There are plenty more amusing anecdotes, which make the visit to the Palazzo quite entertaining. The galleries are not at all busy—there couldn’t be more than a dozen visitors in the whole place—so viewing the art is a pleasure. There is also a collection of (heavily restored) ancient sculptures, and a suite of art and antique filled ‘private’ apartments that can also be toured.
The afternoon found us exploring Trastevere, an old and densely populated working class enclave on the opposite bank of the Tiber. It is district also recently popular for its restaurants and trendy nightlife. None of this was in evidence on a Saturday afternoon however—shops were shut, streets were deserted and an air of siesta pervaded the district. The main square is quiet too, save for a few boys kicking a ball around the fountain. The square is dominated by Santa Maria in Trastevere, a lovely Romanesque church. Inside, there are Roman columns supporting the nave, and real candles burning, not electric bulbs. The church is most famous for its 12th century mosaics; as the church was not currently undergoing a major restoration, and constituted our second scaffolding free site of the day we counted ourselves very lucky indeed!
Trastevere is reputed to have the most churches per area than any district in Rome—a city where there are no shortage of churches. We visited only a few; mostly they are Romanesque structures remodeled in the baroque style—and now quietly falling apart. Sad places in a lovely sort of way. The simple Romanesque can endure a fair amount of neglect, but the extravagant baroque ornamentation requires a level of maintenance that is quite beyond the resources of these neighborhood congregations. They are not being renovated. But each one has its works of art, its odd relics, and its stories to tell.
That evening, we had dinner reservations at Tratorria Checchino dal 1887, a restaurant famous for serving some of the best—and most unusual—food in Rome. The tratorria, sits on the edge of the wholesale food markets and established its reputation by preparing delicious food from the, well, discarded parts of the animals. It’s a tradition that carries on today. It gets rave notices, and we don’t mind a little adventure, so we had to give it a try. It was a longish walk from our hotel, through parts of town that were only intermittently interesting, and with plenty of Rome’s notorious traffic to deal with. The Testaccio markets, oddly are also home to a number of rather gaudy discoteques—meat market by day, meet market by night I guess. The restaurant itself is at the top of the hill, and inside it is another world; a small room of restrained elegance and smartly dressed diners.
We dined on headcheese—which I have never dared try before; and which I probably still don’t know want to know exactly what’s in it—two thin slices of a delicate flavor. Pleasant enough but not thrilling. The other antipasto was fantastic though—a salad of beans, carrot and shredded pig’s trotter. The pasta was even better—fettuccine with ewe’s cheese and pigs cheek—the cheek like tiny pieces of bacon. For main courses we passed on the testicles, hearts, and other organs on offer and had the less daring oxtail and the specialty of the house, chunks of lamb in a white wine sauce. Excellent and extensive wine list too—I know too little about Italian wines, so I had the waiter select something appropriate and affordable. They have a fantastic assortment of cheese as well—it’s expensive though, and I’d skip it next time; it’s a bit much after all that anyway. A good, and unusual meal—though not a place for vegetarians or even those leaning in that direction. We skipped the discos, and took a taxi back to the hotel.
On Sunday, our last full day in Rome, we returned to where we began our tour, the Vatican. We explored the Castel Sant’ Angelo, the Pope’s fortress.
The original building was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as his tomb. It was turned into a fortified castle by the Church and used both as a treasury for the church’s wealth and a refuge in times of siege. A corridor built into the city wall connects the fortress to the Vatican. As weaponry became more sophisticated, the castle’s fortifications kept pace; the partial remains of an elaborate star fort enclose its square medieval walls. The entire complex is open to visitors—even the Pope’s private bath—and there are great views of the city from the upper walls.
Spanning the Tiber in front of the Castle, the Ponte San Angelo is perhaps Rome’s most beautiful bridge. It is lined with a colonnade of Bernini angels—delightful baroque fantasies in stone. Each angel holds one of the attributes of Christ’s passion: a cross, the crown of thorns, the spear, the three nails and so forth. Never have the instruments of torture looked so beautiful! It’s the paradox of religion: the joy of suffering and the shame of pleasure. The saints do so enjoy their martyrdom.
We returned to St. Peter’s for a second visit. Finally the Christmas tree had been removed from the square. The Pope traditionally makes an appearance at his window on Sunday morning, but he was touring America.
We walked back across the river and had some gelato at Giolitto’s near the Piazza Rotunda. It’s a very famous place for ice cream, but this was January, and it was mobbed. Fantastic stuff though.
We left Rome the next morning, with a lot of sites still unseen: The Appian way, the catacombs, The Lateran and the sancta sanctorum and everything that we couldn’t see because it had been behind the scaffolding…but we did toss our coins in the Trevi fountain…so we’ll be back.