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Eddie Eagle

'Just another painted ceiling'
by Yvette Barnett

Vatican Guards Photo by Dan Heller

I'm not entirely convinced that Jubilee year is the best time to see Rome for the first time. Nevertheless, I found myself there on my maiden trip a couple of weeks ago. Like most cities that are unfamiliar on any first visit, Rome seemed huge and sprawling. But I've learned in recent years that with familiarity comes shrinkage. It happened with Paris, there was no reason why it shouldn't happen with Rome. I had a list of things I wanted to do with my time in Rome. All, I confess, very obvious for anyone's first visit.

The first evening I had the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain on my hit-list. My hotel was located in one of Rome's seedier areas - next to the Termini. Very convenient we thought - Rail/Metro and bus terminal right next to the hotel. To the outside eye it was the centre of all modes of transport in the city. However, under closer scrutiny, it turned out like most railway terminals in cities - it was the red light area and drug-haven by night. But we were told that we were ‘lucky' to be so central in Jubilee year - an event that occurs every 25 years. I bought my metro ticket at a newspaper kiosk in the underground metropolis of the Termini - a shopping mall packed with shops and eateries which went on for miles, and we headed off to ‘Spagna' the nearest metro stop to the Spanish Steps, which according to my map were just a short walk, from the Trevi Fountain. Rome's metro system differs greatly from any other I'd come across. Firstly, there are only two lines: A line and B line. What could be easier?

Secondly, because there are only two lines, it has the disadvantage of not going anywhere that you really want to. Therefore, for the most part you have to take a bus. The problem with buses in cities that you don't know is that you have no real idea of knowing when you have reached your destination unless of course, you have a friendly bus driver which alas, is a scarce commodity in peak tourist season. On a metro system it's easy - you can very quickly check that you are heading in the right direction as all the stops are clearly marked on the walls.

On my first evening I was lucky, the metro did go where I wanted to go. Perfect. I made a little mistake, but one which I believe anybody could make. I got on the B line, even though I had followed the signs very carefully for the A line. After about twenty minutes, I was heading back to the Termini and quickly found the correct line. I had missed a turning but
I had learned a valuable lesson; the B line is not as popular, or as frequent as the A line.
I eventually got the stop ‘Spagna' which, I couldn't believe, had all of its exits sealed off. ‘Jubilee Year,' I told my travelling companions with a shrug. We followed the signs for the alternative exits; after all there had to be some way out. The exit to Via Veneto and Villa Borghese were offered to us as the alternatives and as we had no choice, we went off in search of the street and daylight.

Via Veneto came first. Again sealed off. ‘Jubilee Year,' I echoed to my buddies. After walking for a further 25 minutes traipsing through derelict shopping malls, we came to the surface feeling like wombles who should have stayed on Wimbledon Common. In front of me was the Villa Borghese, famous for something, I guess. We had gone down in daylight but by the time we came up it was 9.25pm, and already pitch-black. We walked for what seemed like an hour, and very nearly was and finally came to the Spanish Steps illuminated before us in all their splendour by floodlights. Hang on a minute, floodlights? Yes, floodlights. There was to be a fashion show in four days time and they had closed the steps for four whole days to rehearse.

‘Jubilee Year' - my buddies said. They were getting the hang of Rome. Unable to see the Spanish Steps without wearing sunglasses, we walked the back-alley route to the Trevi Fountain. Sometimes, you go and visit something you've long heard about, and inevitably it disappoints. ‘Is that it?' springs to mind more often than not. But not this time. As you turn the corner from yet another back alley, there it is. Beautifully lit, people gathered eating gelato, and throwing their three coins into the fountain. Allegedly the coins are meant to bring you luck, love and the third is said to ensure your return to Rome. Complete twaddle if you ask me. However, I did throw my coins in, just in case there is any truth to this ridiculous ritual. Always best to keep your options open.

Unfortunately, today Rome is as notorious for its high crime rate as it is for the amazing wonders it has to offer. Pickpockets operate on every train; teams on scooters snatching bags and anyone looking like a tourist is a prime target. I had heard about the horrors of the train, and the old cliche ‘forewarned is forearmed' is a good one to remember. We were on our guard and pickpocketing really was as blatant on the trains as we'd heard.
The ‘teams' hold newspapers over their arms whilst their hand underneath ransacks your pockets looking for goodies. We came to no harm, although various attempts were made, and unzipped pockets were left as a stark reminder. I did feel sorry for one particular man who happened to be carrying a newspaper on the train. Perhaps innocently, but maybe not. I had a funny thought as we nudged, winked and nodded at one another up and down the train - what if he was just a commuter but who happened to have bought a paper that evening.

We ‘did' the Vatican - something that was again a sight worth seeing. Standing in an empty St Peter's Square with all the ‘papal ' paraphernalia - a tent to protect him from the midday sun in high summer, the balcony where he appears on high days and holidays. I'm not religious in the least, but there was something quite majestic and regal about the whole thing. The ‘holy door,' opened once every 25 years at the entrance to St Peter's Church, was open for the world to go through to be redeemed and forgiven for their sins - at least for the next 25 years anyway. I went through, naturally, just on the off chance that there is some truth in it. Keeping my options open.....

We finished our tour of Rome with a visit to the Vatican museum and the Sistine Chapel - where Michelangelo painted the ceiling whilst lying on his back. Somebody asked me when I got back if the Sistine Chapel and the ceiling were as amazing as one would expect. To be honest, and I hate to confess this, by the time I reached that point, my feet hurt so much from walking around Rome for two days, I had seen more museums than I would ever care to visit again, and to my eyes it was just another painted ceiling.

© Yvette Barnett. 08/2000.