For €2, the traghetto combined a more interesting way of crossing the Grand Canal than one of the bridges with a much cheaper source of gondola fun. We crossed in a green, hazy morning, poled fore and aft by men in stripey black-and-white jumpers. The euro coins were just stacked on the gunwales, showing great confidence the boat wouldn’t list too much and dump a day’s fares on the bottom of the canal. In a rare display of Venetian machismo, the locals stood rather than sitting in the tiny, heaving boat. The traghetto put us off at the fish market, piled high with sad looking fish and things with tentacles, and we wandered through an entirely different set of winding passages to the Gallerie dell’Accademia.
This gallery holds da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”, although not actually on display (sadly), and a magnificent collection of largely religious art, although half the gallery was closed off (something they didn’t warn us about at the door; this was a recurring theme in Italy) and we killed some time with a set of mediocre nationalist statuary packed away in the basement. The early Renaissance saints and the terrifying baby-head-studded ceilings were high points, although not so high as the couple of genuine Hieronymous Bosches. A vaporetto took us all the way back to the railway station – Italian for railway is “ferrovia”, exactly cognate with “eisenbahn” or “chemin de fer”, just not with “railway”. Depressingly, the train down to Rome was already nicer, cheaper and more comfortable than pretty much anything on the rails in England.
In a touristy country, in a day and age where English is very much the tourist lingua franca, the train of course had English-language announcements alongside the rapid-fire Italian ones. They had a very clear, careful, neutrally accented voice, which would be excellent if they included the names of stations. Unfortunately, they just put in the Italian voice clips, leading to “The next stop is [avalanche of Italian syllables in a completely different voice]”, which was almost totally incomprehensible. A pair of rather fat Americans sat in the seat in front of us, one upbeat about the excellent landscape zipping past, the other generally moaning about Italy, but they got off at Florence.
Roma Termini station is about 70% boutique, 30% trains and 0% useful signage; it took about twenty minutes of increasingly sun-scorched irritation to find something which would sell us a bus ticket. Having done so, the bus journey was one of the worst I’ve had in a first world country, a packed, rolling sweat-dungeon with barely any seating or suspension which vibrated across the inexplicably cobbled streets like a tiny mobile hell. The suffering was slightly alleviated by two priests who got on next to us and gossiped for the entire trip. I couldn’t make out a word, but it was superbly entertaining.
Our airbnb was a little tucked-away flat in a 17th century block of flats, down a street which in most cities would actually be considered an alley; it had a lovely wooden ceiling, solid quarry tiles, and a bell in the courtyard that had probably chimed the same hours in the same way since the time of Good Queen Bess. Our host showed us the wifi code and indicated the location of some good restaurants, and we followed those directions across the orange-lit Tiber to Trastevere. There, after a good amble around the cobbled streets eyeing up restaurants, a man in plastic Roman armour finally snared us into a restaurant with a mascot which looked oddly like Ian McShane. It’s funny, I think the centurion was actually scaring a lot of punters away as an engineered touristy gimmick, though we couldn’t doubt that the guy genuinely and probably thought it was something people would like.
We went for the set menu: pickled mushrooms, salami in oil, spicy bruschetta and rubbery strips of salted pig skin. I feel every pig-based culinary culture has invented its own approach to pig skin: British scratchings, Ukrainian salo, the weird Romanian thing I had over there, whatever that Hungarian crackling spread is called. I also feel that, having grown up with one of these things, you will find all the others faintly disgusting. However, the pickled mushrooms were lovely. The vast second course (maccheroncelli and ragu; the proprieter gave me a bib) would have been worth the whole meal on its own, and the main (lamb chops and crispy roast potatoes in the local fashion) was absolutely divine.
It was a warm night, and we took a wandering journey home along the high bank of the low Tiber. Archaeology is absolutely everywhere, and every few hundred yards we would encounter a curiosity like a terrace of buildings plonked atop the crumbling remains of an ancient theatre, or a digsite showing the compound remains of a half-dozen ancient temples built on top of each other’s foundations, and we detoured away from the river a while to gaze down the moonlit vastness of the Circus Maximus, beneath a horizon contoured by the immense silhouettes of the Palatine Hill.