dance of the aurora

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Downtown Reykjavik isn’t exactly humming: a high street of hideously expensive hipster boutiques and tourist tat floggers, almost all in that earnest modern “artisan” style. Iceland is a curious example of how a country can have reasonable prosperity and opportunity for all without… actually producing anything. I mean, they have basically limitless free lava energy, but also they’re in the Arctic Circle and need it. But a side effect of this is that their currency is hilariously overvalued (and this from an Englishman). The first thing I saw in the window of an average-looking restaurant was bread, for £13; mains started at about £50.

Church looking very dramatic there.

We parked at Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik’s chief church, whose perforated spire looks somewhat like a decorated Christmas tree from a distance. The cathedral is a handsome, interesting piece of postwar architecture, with a bell-shaped dome at the southeast end of the nave, and buttresses that look like Giant’s Causeway basalt columns propping up its sides and sweeping down from the spire to give it a very distinctive silhouette. Amnesty International had some stalls in the courtyard and were projecting the names of donators onto the front of the church – it reminded me of nothing more than a video game livestream. THANKS FOR YOUR SUPPORT!

Prosperous, but generic.

The most distinctive thing about Reykjavik is that there’s nothing really distinctive there. There are basically no old buildings, no trademark style or trademark substance. They’ve managed to keep the chains off their high streets (mostly; there was a Subway, charging £9 for subs) but the less obvious components of globalisation are still everywhere. There’s almost nothing uniquely Icelandic about the rest – corrugated buildings, an ugly set of “Yule Lads”, stuffed puffins for a hundred thousand ISK. Take away the weird letters and the lakes you can walk on, and it could honestly be Islington.

The Tjörnin (it means “pond”) had iced up until all the waterfowl were paddling about disconsolately in the remaining liquid corner.

 

 

The National Museum is a pleasant place (though on the outside, an unfortunate combination of decently inspired Art Deco form, and vile grey pebbledash) and holds an extremely attractively put together collection. There are convincing reasons why, for most of its thousand-year habitation, Iceland hasn’t had much in the way of wars or architecture; life was so impossibly hard that simply living took up most people’s time and productive capacity. The museum’s collections are mainly wood carvings: communion dials, Christs and kings with long, mournful faces. Churches were built and maintained by farmers and chieftains, rather than an independent priesthood; a doughy-faced bishop and his three wives took up the frame of the only old painting. There were fish hooks ranging from “small” to “gigantic”, scrimshawed horns, a chalice made of a polished coconut shell which must have been impossbly exotic little brooches of bronze and gold. On one wall was what the museum half-proudly claims is the only weapon ever invented by Icelanders: a hook for cutting British trawl lines, like a many-armed nautical box-cutter.

 

We drove a little way past Thing to the edge of a semi-frozen lake, in hopes of the aurora. We were not disappointed. Long camera exposures showed it as the familiar bright luminous green, but to the naked eye it’s a little less impressive – gobs of washed-out grey-green ectoplasm, more like clouds behaving in weird ways than the emerald nebula it’s generally portrayed as. There’s a hint of green, but also a general vague chromatic uncertainty to it, like a half-seen waterfall haze. It moves in the most startling ways – whole sections suddenly drizzle into sight, like dust trickling through a projection; a great wheel of particularly bright light whirled and swirled around in an entirely random way; at one point a whole long section appeared and half-disappeared, like a curtain drifting in and out of reality. Less beautiful and less defined than the photos make it seem, but entirely unique and absolutely unsettling.

 

*

Iceland 2017
Waterfalls, glaciers & black beachesThingvellir, Geysir, GullfossGrindavik, Keflavik, Blue LagoonReykjavik, aurora borealis

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isk isk baby

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the road goes ever on

Another new landscape, another direction out of town. Snow had fallen overnight, was still falling as we retraced our tracks through the dock area. Here, rather than the Bauhaus suburbia, it feels like what all those despairing Siberian cities are aspiring to be – clean, functional, and prosperous in a narrow technical sense, though still quite bleak and set against an entirely hostile background. We tailed a yellow bus for a while, the first I’ve seen with actual people in it.

That is still the road, yes.

Abruptly, the black tarmac turned to a white gravel road, and the landscape washed-out white; we thanked our lucky stars for the studded snow tyres, and pressed on, up and down small hills, along the shores of the iron-grey Lake Kleifarvatn through sudden streaming snow. At no point was it actually scary – Ben is a highly conscientious driver – but it was certainly one of the more interesting drives I’ve had in a while.

blpblpblp

We pulled up at the Krýsuvík geothermal site (known to us as Steamy Boardwalks), alone in the car park apart from a carpenter’s van, which had presumably transported the distant hi-vis figure we could see doing something to one of said boardwalks. Krýsuvík was a bit disappointing after Geysir, because it basically is Geysir but less so, a rotten clutch of mucky mudpools blupping and farting listlessly into the swirling snow. Snow: it was everywhere, hiding the far side of the valley, blowing in ethereal streaks and snakes across the road, curling and swirling in eddies behind the few passing vehicles like their own tiny auroras. When we drove off again, it passed the windows in flashing warp-speed starlines.

Icelandic gothic.

Grindavik, on the coast – a scatter of despairing corrugated huts, a few modern and well-kept looking houses, a few empty warehouses, two giant radio masts striped red and white looming above it all. Christmas decorations on the traffic lights, modern art in the roundabouts, but empty lots full of discarded breezeblocks, a definite sense of wasteland. Some anchored metal pylons of uncertain purpose, behind high wire fences with dire warnings in several languages – NATO, presumably. Along this more benighted part of the south coast, the ruggedness of the black volcanic rock, the grey light and the shaggy feldgrau-coloured moss combine with rusty, run-down signs of human habitation to create a truly depressing landscape.

At a first glance these things are deeply tacky, but in such an entirely benighted (literally and metaphorically) landscape they have a strange charm. We saw a few from far off at night.

At a graveyard near the sea I confirmed the light-up crucifixes are actually run on mains power, with untidy great cables scattered across the neat cemetery (but to be fair, what the hell else are they going to use? Solar?) Several of the graves were fresh; they still bury people in this country, possibly for a lack of firewood. The cord at an empty flagpole beat out a regular rattle. We retreated to the warmth of the car.

The “Bridge Between Continents” was also a disappointment, but one we’d been readily expecting, as it’s just a small footbridge across a gully which claims to span the Eurasian and North American continental plates. You walk across it, and then under it, trying to stop the wind whipping too many sharp snowflakes into your eyes. Much more intriguing was the geothermal plant a little to the south, enhancing the sense of a blackened moonscape by resembling some sort of space colony – all intriguing stainless steel buildings linked by silver pipes – but police cars patrol it ceaselessly and the wind was bitter.

On up the coast, through rarefied little villages, to the northernmost point of the Keflavik peninsula, where a couple of lighthouses stand – a little old square Victorian one, and a much stouter, later round affair. A local had warned us that with wind chill we’d be feeling -20, and he did not exaggerate; the wind was so relentless that individual pebbles had snow built up in their lee, and we could scarcely cross the bridge to the older lighthouse (which was, it seemed, a café in the on-season). We withdrew, and had a (cheap, for Iceland) burger at a desolate little town, before heading back inland a little to the Blue Lagoon.

The Lagoon is one of Iceland’s chief attractions and, very much in the spirit of the country more generally, it is clean, modern, thoroughly artificial, eye-wateringly expensive and powered by volcanoes. Despite some vague pretensions at the traditional spa fraudulence, it’s actually an adjunct to a geothermal power plant and has only been around for a couple of decades; Iceland’s legit hot springs are more in the Geysir/Krýsuvík line. You book ahead, queue, are issued a wrist token thing, and pass through the surprisingly small changing rooms to enter a huge pool of milky blue water, hemmed in by volcanic rocks and open to the sky. The water is blood-heat, but the air is frozen cold, so great clouds of steam are excited off the surface by the wind, and when the snow intensified it led to the curious feeling of a body in a hot bath and a head catching flecks of snow.

The water is salt, and impregnated with a white silicate which gives it its colour; there are various bits round the side – a float-up bar, another float-up bar which smears mud on your face, some saunas, a fantastic sort of waterfall thing (the only part which smells of sulphur) which massages you with relentless hoses of hot water, to a sound like pebbles clacking together. We spent a merry few hours paddling in it as the wind and snow came and went, watching the sky darken and then clear, so that when we left – a clean, exfoliated trio of pink prunes – it was below the gleaming stars.

 

*

 

Iceland 2017
Waterfalls, glaciers & black beachesThingvellir, Geysir, Gullfoss Grindavik, Keflavik, Blue LagoonReykjavik, aurora borealis

the golden circle

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North and inland, a different landscape to the south coast, this one smooth and fully glaciated, green-yellow grass striated with snow. I once described the rolled-over Scottish Highlands as like a mite’s-eye-view of a camo jacket; this was the same, but a winter jacket. As we moved upland the white gained dominance, with the odd pathetic little spinney of tiny Christmas trees.

We were following the “Golden Circle”, the Grand Tour of southwest Iceland’s high-profile tourist destinations – all three of them. It’s shocking just how little there is in this country; the island manages to stay a pristine eco-paradise partly due to fairly strict anti-rambling policies (driving off the roads attracts a fine of half a million ISK) but also because, let’s be honest, it’s 99% wilderness which is lovely to look at from the inside of a heated car but unpleasant/pointless to interact with in any more meaningful (or destructive) way.

Thingvellir.

First on the Circle was Þingvellir, where the visitor centre was absolutely rammed with people trying to get in out of the driving cold. This Thing, even at the height of winter impassability, combines the usual highly interesting geology with one of Iceland’s few real historical sites: it’s a rift valley, with steep basalt trenches like the walls of some dark fortress overlooking the site of the “Althingi”, which they like to style as the oldest parliament in the world. The ancient site of the “Law Rock”, where chiefs and freemen assembled to hear the Lawspeaker recite aloud all the laws in force at the time (now wouldn’t that keep your statute book short?) isn’t clear, but it’s still very cool both historically and just as an incredibly striking site.

Down the rift, past signs which requested no underwater photography and talked in a rather deadpan fashion about the three fish you could find in Lake Thingvallavatn (“biodiversity in Iceland is limited”) stood a little corrugated church which could seat about sixteen, a tiny row of incredibly unimpressive houses which apparently comprise the summer residence of the Prime Minister of Iceland, and a graveyard which successive freeze-thaw cycles had turned into a bath of thick ice. Actually, all the pathways and most of the roads were covered in inches-thick ice, but the canny locals had scattered enough black grit over them all that they were more or less usable, although unnerving. The paths which hadn’t been gritted were horrifying rinks of deep translucent blue-green, as was one of the picnic areas we encountered. For some weird reason our breath, and the tea we bought at the visitor centre, produced no mist in that air.

A different landscape again as we headed east: a wilderness of small rounded basalt boulders, in tumbledown cairns rather than high big outcrops, shaggy with thick piles of grey-green moss, and everywhere low scrubby despairing outlines of bushes. Above it, the highest hills were pure snow white. The original Geysir, which gave the English language that word, doesn’t blow much any more, but its little sister Strokkur does, and draws great crowds. The whole thing is wonderful – bubbling pools puffing out eggy steam, trickles of water lined with oddly-coloured mineral deposits and signs warning “this is hot, don’t touch it, the nearest hospital is 62km away, DON’T STICK YOUR FINGERS IN YOU PILLOCKS.”One of the ponds wafted sufficient hot steam up to distract from the bitter cold; another had a worrisome-looking cave in its clear blue depths, as though a dragon was going to climb out at any moment. Every few minutes Strokkur exhaled, blowing out plumes of white steam as high as a house (a proper house, not an Icelandic two-storey cube).

Onwards, through another countryside again: a tremendously wide flatland of scrubby yellow grass, horizons rimmed by black and white peaks. We stopped to see some little fat ponies, and I admired the shelving of ice in the clear depths of a solid pond. Before long we had reached Gullfoss, a three-stage waterfall feeding a river from a wide meander into a steep basalt ravine; in its wintry setting of glistening pillows of green-blue ice it was immensely impressive, although I felt the noticeboards comparing it to Niagara were coming it a little high. The path to the overlook was solid ice, ungritted – but despite the lethality of the paths here and elsewhere I neither saw nor committed any pratfalls. I feel there’s a certain fairly pragmatic kind of tourist drawn to Iceland, not a cheap-thrill-seeker (the country being neither cheap nor thrilling) but inclined to dress sensibly, obey safety warnings, take small steps and gain proper enjoyment from a really good vista or huge frozen waterfall. Good company to be in.

 

Turning back west to Reykjavik: ahead, a long pink-bellied sunset, behind, mountains fading into a dark grey haze. Two stops remained on our journey back: the cathedral of Skálholt, tall and lonely, unremarkable but for its absolute remoteness, and the crater at Kerið, which we approached just as the sun was finally properly setting. This is a cindercone whose core solidified and then subsided, leaving a far larger and more dramatic crater than the volcano itself would have had. There’s a booth which would charge entrance, but the attendant packed up and left as we arrived, and I was free to walk down the steps into the crater itself, standing on the iced-solid caldera as the dark deepened around me.

 

Iceland 2017
Waterfalls, glaciers & black beachesThingvellir, Geysir, GullfossGrindavik, Keflavik, Blue LagoonReykjavik, aurora borealis

there are no rails here

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We arrived in darkness, passing without friction through the echoing eco-lodge of Keflavik airport. Our first sight of Iceland was made surreal, ethereal, by the combination of deep darkness, ground fog and strange assortments of electric lights. A lighthouse in the middle distance wagged alternating fingers of green and white across the horizon, over the blazing swoop of the runway path-lights. Streetlights made the weird undulating haze in the middle distance seem almost solid, and when another plane tore in its hull was concealed by the dense glare of its landing lights, like a backwards comet. The houses – low, square, mostly very modern-looking – had Germanic Christmas decorations, little peaks of coloured LEDs; beside a tin tabernacle, a cemetery was filled with light-up crucifixes, which would look gaudy and absurd if they were a little less spooky.

Hæ!

We dined at “Olsen Olsen”, a faux-authentic American style diner, done quite convincingly apart from the panels displaying Icelandic poems about the fair folk and the £65 bill for three burgers (!!!). We headed on, in an evening full of orange streetlamp haze-cones and the tearing bubblewrap sound of studded tyres in motion, to our hired flat, located in a district called Þing which, yes, is pronounced “Thing.” It was uncompromisingly modern and minimalist: smooth, uncreaking floorboards, a geothermal rain-shower which smelled of sulphur, and very comfy beds.

Alright, here’s the thing.

In the long pre-dawn of the next morning, Þing presented a weird science-fiction landscape: black soil, yellow plants, lakes of ice; the architecture entirely square-cornered ultra-modernist cubes lit up erratically by Christmas decorations. But it’s a clean, prosperous science fiction world, rather than a bleak retro used future. There is something weirdly Planned about the whole landscape here. The houses are almost all detached, which in such a cold environment would be ludicrously wasteful were it not for their unlimited geothermal heating (and I bet they insulate well, too).

Dawn lasted an hour, a gradual cranking up of the ambient light which did nothing to change the overall sense of dreary gloom. Through it, along Iceland’s #1 road (the country has not a single railway, although since it also has only one plausible town and doesn’t produce anything heavy, it makes sense) we entered an endlessly broken landscape of black, white and dark green; unweathered rocks, patchy snow and dense moss. Every few miles, high plumes of white steam and an eggy sulphur smell announced the presence of geothermal vents. Off to one side, an airstrip, a windsock, high black hills streaked with snow, a mysterious structure like a lighthouse – a single black finger of stone tipped with a radiant light.

“There’s three different designs of pylons there, in parallel, following the same route. Do they have privatised utilities?”

Our first really stunning vista came at an icebound viewpoint overlooking Hveragerði: painted houses and orange-lit polytunnels, trickles of steam coming from the town and the black cliffs above it, a vast haze creeping across the flat plains to the south. Then we were down among it all, and the cliffs that loomed above us faded to smoke-grey insubstantiality at their bases. The long horizontal jib of a tower crane floated in the mist like a ghost ship.

A long drive southeast, along flat roads that cut through a featureless yellow landscape: the occasional headlights of a passing car, the occasional skeleton of a waiting pylon. The only signs of life were little fat ponies and huge, slow-flapping ravens. Passing along through the tiny, functional towns, depressing signs of globalisation were everywhere – Subway, Domino’s, KFC (it’s svooo gott). But we’re not here for the culture. Narrow bridges crossed streams with black gravel banks; huge panes of blue-green ice, six inches thick, lay on them like stranded whales.

Towards the coast, the land becomes more dramatic, big scree-sided crags rising from the flat plain. It was hard to tell if Eyjafjallajökull was quietly fuming or just shrouded in low cloud, but we flipped it off vengefully anyway.

At Skógafoss, the satnav had some sort of brainfart and kept repeating the place name twice with different pronunciations. There, a great tall waterfall drops from the old sea-cliffs, drenching the tourists who trek over the ice to get closer to its base. Around its plunge pool, the overhangs are bearded with ice from fall-spray that sticks and freezes to their undersides. Drones soared high above the waterfall, the honesty-box toilets and the signs saying NO DRONES in several languages. Even at high noon, the sun could barely bring itself to creep much above the horizon.

Skógafoss, by Ben.

We came to the base of Sólheimajökull, the southernmost glacier in Iceland, a tongue reaching down from the huge Mýrdalsjökull ice cap (yes, I’m pasting all these names). The glacier was immense, silently threatening: a towering head of cold blue marble, filthy with black sand, feeding into a many-times-frozen cappuccino swirl of grey and black ice strata. Down by the rumpled shore, among the drumlins, sheets of ice had been shoved up into a jagged foot-high wall. Some had melted there, leaving a dry, crumbly fault line of muck.

Glacierorama.

Off in the distance, we would sometimes see individual long-armed excavators doing something or other – digging out ditches, shoring up a riverbank, building a breakwater at Vik. They were distant, lonely, alien. At the black beach of Reynisfjara we joined the surprising number of tourists freezing their faces off to the cry of the gulls and the roar of north Atlantic rollers. There’s a great finger of rock poking out of the sea, a whale skull outside a visitor centre, and most interestingly a little section of Giant’s Causeway basalt columns. Some arch off to form an intriguing cave, where underneath the regularity of the hexagonal prisms dissolves into a gooey fondue of dark stone.

“So I’ve been thinking – ReykjaVIK, KeflaVIK –“
“Vik is clearly just the suffix for town.”
“Right. So since we’re ging to a town which is just called Vik…”
“You wonder how boring it’s going to be?”
“Yes.”

Vik.

Answer: quite. A little red-roofed white church, with more lit crosses in the cemetery; a few shockingly expensive Icelandic groceries, and we headed back west-north-west in the slowly gathering dark. Towns ahead showed on the bellies of low cloud as islands of orange light as we stopped for Ben to photograph an enormous yellow moonrise. And then, looking up through the clear air above us, the strange strand of luminescence suddenly brightened into a hazy curtain of ethereal green, our first glimpse of the aurora.

*

Iceland 2017
Waterfalls, glaciers & black beachesThingvellir, Geysir, GullfossGrindavik, Keflavik, Blue LagoonReykjavik, aurora borealis

and when you’re this close to god, nothing you do is wrong

We found a place on Via Germanico to leave our bags for the day, an unmanned locker room where you pre-book a timeslot online and present a QR code to the computer terminal to pop open a door. There were no human staff, no coin slots, no keys, just a bunch of shiny yellow doors and a highly effective computer system. I expect I will look back on this fully-automatic service as completely normal, but in the autumn of 2017 it is still slightly odd.

From far off, or from photos, the Piazza San Pietro looks like a huge open space where Papa can address his spiritual children, ringed by saints standing on its immense double colonnade. The reality on the ground, however, is a bewildering mess of bollards and barriers, some to pen in the crowds for the blessing, some to delineate the queues for the basilica, some with no obvious purpose at all. We identified the correct (long, long) queue to get to the basilica; half an hour in, a small gang of smelly German teenagers shouldered their way a little way front of us and received ferocious tuts, death looks and murmurings of international contempt from all around. Some did at least look a little shamefaced. About an hour later (grr) we were finally in.

 

The basilica is, to give it its due, very impressive. It is quite stupidly big, and feels curiously unoriginal, possibly because it is the original, the masterpiece of counter-Reformation form and decoration that hundreds of subsequent churches riffed on. It’s also quite tasteful (with the incredibly strong qualifier “for a 17th century Catholic mega-cathedral”), with precisely the right amount of awe-inspiring polychrome decoration and sufficient breathing space for the various individual chapels and memorials.

It’s not boring, but the most interesting parts were the flourishes of proper Baroque weirdness: the brass skeleton of Time and/or Death suffocated by a blanket of red stone at one pope’s reliquary; the insane curly-wurly bronze columns supporting the centrepiece canopy; the magnificent, unnerving Chair of St Peter, a glaring golden window which bursts into waves of gilt sculptuary that spill out over the columns around them, throwing gleaming clouds and sunbeams crawling with angelic hosts to support a giant floating chair marvelled at by four gigantic bronze saints. (My pictures didn’t come out well, so here’s a better one. For scale, please note that the blokes at the bottom are around seven metres high.) Also rather original are the grottos full of dead popes underneath – a curious leftover-feeling space – and the Swiss Guards, a few in the tasteful but still very 17th-century blue uniforms, many in the eye-wrenchingly garish puffed-and-slashed tricolour ones, like Romanian flags put through a shredder.

 

The wrought iron bars of the Ponte Sant’Angelo (built as the Pons Aelius, eighteen hundred years ago) are too thick for the obnoxious love padlocks to infest it as they have so many other bridges. But a couple of larger loops had been attached in places, with other smaller locks latched onto them in clusters like weird brass tumours. I would love to be the man with the bolt cutter. The Gelateria del Teatra was a regular feature in the top 10 of on Roman ice cream blogs (I had no idea those existed) and I’d happily rate it the best place we found. Certainly it’s the most adventurous, with intriguing herbal flavours: raspberry and sage, chocolate and red wine, white chocolate and basil.

Castel Sant’Angelo combines almost everything I can possibly find cool in a building. It’s distinctive – a weird, towering drum sitting in a crenellated square like a militarised cake. It’s absurdly old, built almost two millennia ago to house the ashes of the most powerful man in the world. It’s a fortress, a slab-sided fighting tower ringed with gunports and set in a crown of triangular bastions, its ramparts crowded with catapults and cannon, its guardrooms with halberds and morions. It’s a palace, with exquisite interior decoration painted in an age of incredible artists. It is concentrated history: in its decline from imperial mausoleum, to source of building materials, to defensive keystone of a frightened successor state, to papal bolthole and shag pad, to otherwise purposeless tourist attraction, you can read the decline evolution decline of Rome in one building. It has secret passages, great views, and is crowned by a statue of a vengeful archangel. It is basically perfect.

 

You arrive across a drawbridge and tour the ramparts (armed with a tumbledown collection of dusty originals and rusty replicas) before ascending in a path that cuts through through the grand drum, through the columbarium chamber where Hadrian’s ashes were once kept. Even after a week of glorious interiors, the papal apartments are rather excellent, one glorious main hall featuring baboons, muses and a painting of Hadrian with an expession that clearly said “what the hell are you cockroaches doing to my grave?” We had a nice coffee under the leafy trellises of the upper drum, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a small but excellent armoury full of Risorgimento curios next door. The labelling is generally excellent.

In one treasure room, massive iron boxes once held the Pope’s ready cash if Rome looked likely to fall (“I wondered about hiding €20 contingency money in my bag, but thought it would be a bit unnecessary. This guy’s contingency money was a chest the size of an elephant.”), in one tower was the entrance to the fortified passage to the Vatican, used in war on two documented occasions. The lurid murals of the papal bedroom depict, among other things, “the story of Cupid and Psyche”, with an incredibly unconvincing label explaining the pious Christian justification for decorating the Pope’s sanctum sanctorum with pornography.

 

 

We descended the spiral used for the funeral processions of emperors, bare brick now, with only a plaque talking about travertine and mosaics to suggest its original beauty. On the way out (foolishly) there is a fantastic set of wooden models showing the castle through its various ages, which would have helped enormously. Out, onto the banks of the Tiber, where the touts roll up their blankets and peg it whenever the polizia roll by. As dusk began to settle, it was time: we recovered our bags from the inhuman locker room, wolfed a quick gyros and shouldered our way onto the metro for the sky, and home.

 

I got a house made of gold and a city to match

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At the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona I had my first in-the-stone encounter with Bernini, one of the greatest sculptors of his age and possibly more responsible for the “look” of Rome than any man since ancient days. The shining white unpainted classical marble Renaissance artists were so fond of, we now know, isn’t anything like what the fun-loving ancients actually had (though one hopes the painted originals looked slightly less cartoonish and bonk-eyed than current reconstructions). But the fanfiction version has almost completely eclipsed the original. Not that I’m complaining, because the Baroque aesthetic is absolutely fantastic. The fountain is an eerily organic creation, four legs of marble littered with flora, fauna and gods, surmounted by a genuine ancient Egyptian obelisk. The density of political and mythological allegory the fountain presents is too much to easily take in (Wikipedia it) and so I simply appreciate it as gorgeous.

We had gelato. Fran may have spent an entire evening reading gelato review blogs, finding a bunch of lists of the top 10 gelateria in central Rome and seeing which were on multiple lists. She might’ve noted their locations on a map and had me plot out our journeys so she could see if gelateria were en route or nearby. I might have asked if she was overdoing it a bit. She might have looked at me very seriously and said “this is important”. All I remember for sure is, we ate a lot of gelato, and it was very good.

The Pantheon is impressive in three entirely separate ways. One, that its monolithic, unreinforced concrete dome is something modern engineering still hasn’t equalled (the unbelievably complicated efforts of Brunelleschi in trying to create the same effect with Florence Cathedral’s dome, 1300 years later, are fascinating). Two, its basic amazingness as a building (gigantic and open-topped but oddly intimate; entirely unlike any other ancient building, but clearly from a classical mindset and ruleset; original Roman interiors from the second century). Three, that it has survived thousands of years more or less intact, saved from greater vandalism by consecration as a Christian church. Victor Emmanuel and his son are buried there, but their caskets are tucked in awkwardly behind the columns with an uneasy sense of being latecomers.

Through the packed alleys, the Trevi Fountain. Rome has more fountains than any other city, partly because they served as the delivery point for water (aqueduct or otherwise) for most of its history: they were public utility as well as public art. Photos do justice to the Trevi’s craftsmanship but not its scale, white marble swarming with nymphs and tritons pouring down as fluidly and convincingly as the gushing water. Even in this off-season, tourists gather like flies round a cow’s eye. As tourists, we had our fill of moisture and then buzzed off to the Piazza di Spagna. The Spanish Steps are really just a large and somewhat fancy staircase, turned into a large tourist park by dint of partial shade and relative benchiness, and we rested up a bit chatting about Romantic poets (Keats died in a house nearby.)

There are so many irritating touts about St Peter’s trying to flog queue-jumping tickets and guided tours to anyone looking remotely interested that we developed an active distrust and hostility towards anyone trying to be helpful, including the probably-legit city-run info booth which would have saved us fifteen minutes of traipsing around trying to find where the museum entrance was. The Vatican is massively fortified, the edges of its trace-italienne bastions coincidentally being ideal for lining up queues.

“There are so many women of the cloth here they should call it Nunsuch Palace.”
“Go away.”

And so, the treasure house of the richest and most powerful organised religion in the world.  Classical imagery everywhere, original and replica, heroes and monsters and muses, all with dicks and tits hanging out in something of a mockery of the strict dress code. There is, to me, a bizarre tension between the place’s status as the Holy See and the reams and reams of obviously non-Christian iconography (not helped by ads for a temporary exhibition on, of all figures, Sekhmet). I suppose it’s that spirit of the Renaissance thing: the scions of Rome obsessing with the ruins of the substantially more advanced, more creative and more all-around impressive civilisation all around them and striving to emulate it by imitation. It fits in the ever-popular narrative of the decline of Man: see the glories of a past age, see the debased state to which our race has been reduced, pay your indulgences and pray for a higher life everlasting.

I grew up among the half-dead leftovers of a humourless, flat Victorian Protestant godliness; the idea of a fun, inspiring, living faith filled with vigorous symbolism and sympathetic characters (saints seem an excellent way of getting the perks of polytheism without the concomitant lack of overall focus) is something I’ve only read about. Acknowledging that blind spot, I still find it hard to reconcile the head office of the theocracy being a museum of pagan idolatry. But it’s far, far preferable to the cold, ascetic Lutheranism of the north or the violent outbursts of iconoclasm that characterised both early and middle Christianity, and, let’s be honest, in a gigantic golden palace complex raised in the name of the messiah of the meek and the poor, it’s not the biggest hypocrisy going.

Simply naming highlights of a Greatest Hits of pre-industrial southern Europe would take a while, but: the map corridor, with all its rigorous depictions of forts and ports of the era; the sarky Raphael caryatid working a broom; the trompe l’oeil everything, better shaded than real life; the enormous painting of Jan Sobieski bringing the Polish-Lithuanian winged lancers to the field in 1683; and a set of vellum maps from 1530 which give a decent layout of Tenochtitlan but not Scotland. The Sistine Chapel was good, but too busy and too overwhelming to really be appreciated on its own terms. And, of course, there were about five thousand gift shops through the complex.

 

Rome feels oddly militarised, especially near St Peter’s; there are army jeeps everywhere guarded by pairs of handsome men with ugly rifles, as well as the beat cops and the gorgeously outfitted carabinieri on their motorbikes. We had already become wary of the modern Romans’ relaxed interpretation of street lights, dodging the clouds of scooters and smart cars. The Tiber is heavily silted and half dried up in early autumn, its ancient bridges seeming overkill for a dribble that couldn’t handle anything with more draught than a kayak. We found dinner at a lovely local where we were the only tourists (always a good sign) – deep-fried stuffed olives and a fantastic crisp pizza, scattered with meat and drowned with rocket, eaten under awnings as the trams sparked and rumbled by.

And then, of course, more gelato.

*

“time has filled it with eternity”

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We rose, not as mosquito-bitten as in Venice but still noticing a few little red bumps, breakfasted on apples and wandered out along the cobbled streets. Central Rome is littered with gigantic baroque churches, fitting almost seamlessly into the blocks of insulae, and we wandered some way into one (Sant’Andrea della Valle, if you’re wondering) before realising there was actually a service going on in one of its wings, and politely withdrawing.

We ascended the vast, cold, gleaming marble typewriter of the Vittorio Emanuele monument – a vulgar triumph of 19th century bombast over classical class, and the imaginary Italian concept over the concrete Roman one, stamped in blazing, incongruous white on the knocked-down rubble of archaeology and filled with a museum to Italy’s triumphs over the only people Italians have consistently beaten on the battlefield (other Italians). Down its slippery white steps to the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the Mussolini-era road running roughshod across the entire ancient forum, which is on reflection an even more offensive piece of nationalist vandalism than the “Altar of the Fatherland”. At least the typewriter is fancy.

Along the road, millennia-old bronze emperors look down on the African touts and the strings of fat tourists on segways with dark, empty eyes. Behind their plinths are great tracts of pure archaeology. Trajan’s column, as magnificent in person as expected, showed Romans building bridges and oppressing Dacians, and the Colosseum loomed vaguely in the hazy eastern sky. Rather than join the immense queues there, we slipped on past to the near-deserted ticket booth for the Palatine Hill, which conveniently also gets you into with the Forum and… the Colosseum.

Despite the clouds of fellow tourists and the hot midday sun, the Palatine was quiet and serene. We looked down on the weed-strewn but vast Circus Maximus, across at the dark humps of the other hills of Rome, and strolled through an enormous complex of ruined aqueducts and ancient palaces. The hill’s name casts a long shadow – palace, paladin, Palatinate – and so do the enormous ruined complexes that crowd its upper levels, less a single unified palace than a series of attempts to outdo each other by successive emperors, occupying the same space with a tightly-packed collection of megastructures. The ruins are mostly made of the wide, flat Roman bricks, rather than the “classical” marble they were once clad in; their skins were nicked by the smaller, lesser Christian successor states to build their smaller, lesser palaces. Here and there, the terracotta core of a column is still half-clad in white marble, a coffered roof retains gorgeous plaster detailing, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of carved marble lies on its side in the long grass – but most of the detail, and most of the grandeur, now only exist in illustration and imagination.

Someone had talked the Hill’s conservators into running a set of modern art pieces among the palaces, which ranged from the merely pointless (look, some umbrellas) to the pointlessly offensive (falling Jesus babies, a giant stuffed Goofy taking a shit). If anything, the total intellectual and artistic poverty the modern tosh showed made the palaces seen even classier. Some English-speaking tourist with a biro had said what we were all thinking, leaving notes of “what are you thinking of your work is crap” and “art??? NO” on the associated signs.

Down into the Forum, an eclectic mix of remains ranging from still-recognisable temples, forlornly standing columns and scatters of stone things that make sense only to archaeologists. Highlights included the absolutely staggeringly huge Basilica Maxientius (the only thing more impressive than its cathedral-sized trio of arches is the fact that it’s less than a third of the original building) and a catacomb marked with one of the best phrases in any language, the “Neronian Cryptoporticus.” Exit signage wasn’t good, and we spent quite a while frustratedly wandering the labyrinth of ankle-twisting cobbles before getting back out onto the streets.

Gelato revived our spirits; a restaurant offered me the choice of the €15 “Being A Bit Sick” or the €20 “Kill Yourself”, and as it was a hot day I went for the former. Then, to the Colosseum itself, now that the queues had abated a little – colossal, and even late in the day absolutely rammed. There’s only so much to say about the Colosseum – everyone has seen it, it’s painfully iconic and pretty much exactly the way you’d think. But bloody hell is it impressive.