Italy in Books - A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen

I'll be honest, I'd never heard of this book when I picked it up. I was in the local library, thinking about the Italy in Books reading challenge, looking for something different, when this book jumped out. I read it without any preconceptions or expectations. Was my impulsiveness rewarded or betrayed? Here's my review of A Time in Rome, by Elizabeth Bowen...
It's not a guide book, nor is it a love story, though in some ways you could say it's both. It's mainly a travelogue, written in 1960, following the authors ruminations over her four months stay in Rome. It's written in an interesting style, which is unfortunately rather dated. The book also has an unusual (for the present day) sentence structure, which can sometimes grate. This is my main gripe with the book, its grammatical style. For whatever reason (perhaps my own grammatical idiosyncrasies), I found it hard to read, not for the content, but for the strange, convoluted sentence structure. Another complaint comes from the over-embellishment and almost aloof superiority with which it appears to be written. Having said all that, once I'd trudged through the first 70 pages or so, either the style improved or I had adapted to it, as I found myself warming to the author and enjoying the book more.

There's no doubt that the author is well versed in the classics. The sections on ancient Rome, covering the foro romano and the palatino were fantastic, and would be a great accompaniment to a walking tour, as the author really brings the ruins to life. Indeed, I got the impression that, were she alive today, she would make a fascinating guide to the eternal city, and, one suspects, pretty much everything else as well. I've learned quite a bit of history from the book, not just of Roman times, but also of the changes to the city afterwards. I never felt like I was learning though, more as if I was listening to a knowledgeable friend. Rather refreshingly, I got the impression that the author wasn't in love with the city, but merely amused by it. This made for a more objective view. There weren't any charming lotharios or romantic swooning views, merely descriptions of feelings and moments. A Time in Rome is a personal portrait of the city. Occasionally it can be rambling, but overall, it transported me to the author's world and gave me a few enjoyable hours, which is all one can ask for in a book.

Overall then, despite my initial reservations, I liked A Time in Rome. The combination of seeing Rome in the 1950s, from a very different perspective, made for an interesting read. Would I recommend it? I would have to say probably not. However, if you find yourself with some time in Rome, I can think of worse books to indulge.

A Time in Rome by Elizabeth Bowen is published by Random House and is available on Amazon and in all good bookshops.

I read this book as my August entry for the Italy in Books reading challenge. The August reviews from the other participants can be found here.

La Macchina di Santa Rosa in Viterbo

Saint Rose, or Santa Rosa, born in the Northern Lazio city of Viterbo in 1235, didn't have a lot of luck. She died at the end of her teens, although not before having set in motion her canonization over 200 years later, due to her holiness and miraculous powers. Unfortunately, even the sands of time have been unkind to Santa Rosa, as many of the records of her acts have since been lost, although those that do remain detail her banishment from Viterbo due to being so successful as to be considered a serious threat to the holy Roman emperor. 

Thankfully though, Santa Rosa was allowed to return to the city of her birth in 1251, although it was just a year later that she succumbed to a heart condition called Cantrell's syndrome.

Santa Rosa is the patron saint of people in exile, people rejected by religious orders, and indeed, the city of Viterbo. To honor her, the Viterbese celebrate her feast day on the 4th September, with a large market and various festivities throughout the city. On the evening of the 3rd September, 100 men (the porters, or Facchini di Santa Rosa) transport a 28 meter high construction, the Macchina di Santa Rosa, through the streets of Viterbo, echoing the route her body took in 1258, from the former church of Santa Maria del Poggio to the church of Santa Maria delle Rose. The whole route is apparently a little bit more than 1km. If you want to see it, get there early as the surrounding streets fill up pretty quickly.
About an hour before the Macchina arrived, we were ready.  Apparently a few other people were as well.

The transport of the Macchina begins at the Porta Romana. Around 8pm (theoretically, although it seemed to start much later when we were there), the 800 candles of the Macchina are lit and the street lights along the route and nearby streets are switched off. At around 9pm, the porters begin the first leg of the route, usually signaled to the rest of the spectators along the route by raucous cheering. When we heard this, we knew we had another hour or so to wait before the Macchina would hopefully make an appearance. Just enough time to queue for another beer :-)

Always the shy one, La Macchina peaks out above a nearby building
Of course, the porters can't carry the Macchina all the way in one go. In fact, they stop at a number of places along the way. Most of the porters only carry the Macchina for some of the way, swapping with others for different legs of the journey. The porters take a break at:
  • Piazza Fontana Grande
  • Piazza del Plebiscito (in front of the guildhall)
  • Piazza delle Erbe
  • Corso Italia (in front of the church Santa Maria del Suffragio)
  • Piazza del Teatro.
Here, after waiting for about 2.5hrs, we get our view
As you can see from the photos, the Macchina is quite eye-catching. It's redesigned every 5 years. The construction's maximum height has to be 28 meters, with a maximum width of 4.3 meters, in order to allow it to pass through the narrow medieval streets. The last time we went was in 2009 (when these photos were taken), which was the first time the current Macchina, called 'Fiore del Cielo', or Flower of the Sky, was used. Designed by architects Artuto Vittori and Andreas Vogler, the design is characterized by three golden helices twisting skywards.
Yes I know this photo is so big it messes up the page but I wanted you to see Fiore del Cielo in all her glory

The last stretch up to the church of Santa Rosa is quite steep, so the Macchina stays there for quite some time. This is a good place to view if you can get there early enough to get a good position. If you can't get too close to La Macchina on the night itself, you'll get another chance in the following days as it is left in front of the church for viewings.

So, if you're in or near Viterbo around the 3rd September, why not head down there to check out this ancient festival? It's one of the more unusual and emotional spectacles in Northern Lazio and is a really great occasion as the whole city comes out to celebrate and take part in the festivities.

More on La Macchina di Santa Rosa can be found on Wikipedia and on the excellent News from Italy blog.

The BIRG pass - your gateway to Lazio (and Rome)

Imagine it, you've landed in Lazio, and you've got a few days to explore. You don't want the hassle of hiring a car, and you want the benefit of fully immersing yourself in Roman culture, through taking public transport. Perhaps you're staying outside of Rome and fancy getting the train in.

Which ticket do I buy?

The BIRG, or Biglietto Integrato Regionale Giornaliero, is an 'Integrated Regional Daily Ticket' travelcard that gives an unlimited number of journeys until midnight on the day it is activated. This is the one you need if you're heading into Rome (and back again) from out of town and want unlimited travel while you're there. For example, we often get a BIRG from Stimigliano to Stazione Tiburtina in Rome for 7€. It's cheap, convenient, and allows us to avoid the stress of driving in the chaotic traffic and looking for a parking space somewhere in Rome.

Where can I use it?

On public transport within Rome:
- on buses, trams, trolleybuses and Cotral coaches
- on metro lines within Rome

Within Lazio:

- on Met.Ro regional trains, e.g those from Rome to Civitavecchia, Rome to Viterbo or Rome to Fiumicino (with a supplement), plus many more, obviously
- on Trenitalia regional trains (travelling second class only), e.g. Rome to Orte

Cost per zone:
to cover 1 zone 2,50€
for 2 zones 4,50€
for 3 zones 6,00€
for 4 zones 7,00€
for 5 zones 9,00€
for 6 zones 10,50€
for 7 zones 10,50€

(at time of writing - 21st August 2011)

You'll notice that there are only 6 zones on the map, yet there are price tariffs for 7 zones. Why? Well, the central red zone of Rome counts as two zones. Plus, as noted in the comments below, Fiumincino is in zona B, so you need a ticket for three zones if you want to go on a non-express train from Rome to Fiumicino (as oppose to the leonardo express, which goes from stazione Termini direct to Fiumicino airport and costs around 10€).

Where can I buy it?

Many things in Italy can seem a little more convoluted than normal to outsiders. Where would you buy a ticket for the bus? In a local bar, obviously. All tickets must be pre-purchased before getting on board and are available for sale at ATAC counters, tabacchi (anywhere with the T-sign outside - the bars nearby a train/bus stop are usually also tabacchis) newsagents, and at automatic ticket dispensers (often found on the platform at busier stations). Tickets should be validated at the beginning of the journey, either on the tram/bus itself, or in the train station before departure. Failure to do this can result in a hefty fine. Trust me, they do come and check.

Validate or face a very stern revenue protection officer

If you're just traveling in Rome, and you aren't sure how many journeys you might do in that day, you should get a cheaper Biglietto Integrato a Tempo, or 'BIT' which costs 1€ and is valid for up to 75 minutes of travel on ATAC buses, or for one trip on the metro or suburban train lines. Likewise, if you plan to be out all day and know you are going to make a number of journeys, you're better off buying a Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG), which costs 4€. Weekly tickets, such as the Carta Integrata Settimanale (CIS) and monthly passes are also available, not just for in Rome but also for travel around Lazio. Further information on these and many more can be found on the ATAC website, in both English and Italian. See BrowsingRome for a great post on public transport in Rome. Happy traveling!

Roman Holiday

No, not the film with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, but August in Rome. Romans, as with many Italians, escape the suffocating summer heat of the city and head for the hills, or more commonly, the beach. Ferragosto, the 15th August, a midsummer Roman holiday, originally the Feast of the Assumption, marks the height of this summer exodus.

The Catholic church celebrates this day as the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but before Catholicism, Ferragosto was celebrated in the Roman Empire to honor Diana (the Goddess of the hunt), and the cycle of fertility and ripening. This is where, purportedly, the present Italian name of Ferragosto comes from, the Latin Feriae Augusti, the festival of the Emperor Augustus, although I'm not completely sold on that one (sorry Wikipedia, you can't win them all).

In the past, almost the entire month of August was taken as a vacation by Italians. However, this appears to be changing, especially in the North, with most Italians only taking a short holiday around Ferragosto, or using it to mark the start of a two week, rather than four week holiday.

But what to do if you stay?

Well, Rome doesn't shut down completely. All the usual monuments and museums are still open and on top of this, there is the great Estate Romana, a collection of both indoor and outdoor activities across the city, from the centre to the suburbs. They host events in the more obvious places, such as museums and nightclubs, to the more obscure, such as nursing homes, hospitals and prisons. There's always something going on most nights, which is good as many theatres, cinemas and nightclubs close between June and September. Some move to outdoors venues, while others relocate to the busy seaside of Ostia, just outside Rome. If you're in Rome over Ferragosto itself, you could head to the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, which happens across the whole of Rome, with a different dance style in each piazza.The advantage of the August exodus is that Rome is slightly quieter than usual. The metro is emptier and the streets a little less busy. One major problem in August (I find), is where to eat. Most restaurants close down for at least a few weeks and often only the very worst tourist joints remain. Thankfully, the New York Times has a great list of where one can eat in Rome in August. For a good list of what's still open in terms of shops, exhibitions and the like, check out Buzz in Rome. So while many Romans will be away, there's still plenty to do in Rome itself.

And in Lazio...
Many towns and villages in Lazio also celebrate Ferragosto with festivals and sagre. A good list of them can be found (in Italian) on the folclore website. Highlights include a Potato sagra in Grotte di Castro and a gnocchi sagra in San Lorenzo Nuovo, both in the province of Viterbo, and a day filled with theater, dance, art and music (among many other things) in Morlupo, just outside Rome on the via Flaminia (SS3). Of course, if you want to do as the Romans, head out to Ostia, on the Mediterranean coast, where there's not only a truly authentic Italian beach experience, but also a film festival in honor of Italian musical directors.

But wherever you are, take a day off, turn off the TV and relax. It's the middle of summer, ferragosto. It's there to be enjoyed...

Photo credits:
Roman holiday - Wikipedia
Beach - city-weekend breaks
Gnocchi - Travelpod
No copyright infringements intended.