Hadrian’s Villa

October 21, 2010

Fiesole was my unplanned day-trip out of Tivoli. Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa, in English) was my planned day trip out of Rome. I’d even go so far as to say it was one of the major inspirations behind this entire holiday.

The word ‘villa’ today means something fairly modest. In Bangalore, it means a four-bedroom home with a pocket-handkerchief sized lawn which costs a king’s ransom even when located outside the outskirts of the city. Even if you expand your horizons a little, it only means something like a manor house – 15-20 rooms and a few acres of grounds.

The villas I studied about, of which Villa Quintili was representative, were much bigger and more productive. They employed hundreds of people and produced more than they consumed.

Hadrian’s villa took the term villa to another plane altogether. It was more of a town than a villa. In India, it would be comparable to Mandu or Hampi, but it predates those by more than a thousand years. It might have been more ornate than those monuments, but was thoroughly and systematically stripped both by humans and by the ravages of time.

Getting to Hadrian’s Villa was not as easy as getting to Fiesole. Even with my passion for walking everywhere, I didn’t intend to attempt the 27 km from Rome to Tivoli by foot. So I followed the instructions in Lonely Planet ant took a metro to some place called Ponte Mammolo, then a bus to Tivoli. This took about 75 minutes, starting at 7.45 a.m. I was pleased. I thought I’d get on the local bus from Tivoli to Hadrian’s Villa by 9.30, and be there by 9.45. The nearby cafe told me where I could catch the bus, just across the street, but neglected to mention that I needed to buy a ticket for that bus. When the CAT 4 bus finally rolled in around 9.30, he took one look at my ticket and threw me off the bus. The ticket I’d bought in Rome, which I’d understood would work in Tivoli, apparently did not work on this bus.

Great. Now I’d waste another half hour waiting for the next bus.

The bus driver, however, informed me that another bus would come along in ten minutes.

Ok, that was better, just enough time to zip across the road, get a ticket, and zip back.

Except, when I got in to the shop across the road, and waited an interminable couple of minutes while the person behind the counter dealt with another customer in a leisurely manner, I was told, bus ticket? Yeah, sure. Oh, sorry, we’ve jyst run out of them. Try the shop down the road.

I tried three shops down two different roads, but people kept pointing me back to this shop. One gentleman went so far as to take me by the arm and actually point out the exact shop to me, so I couldn’t miss it.

As I stumbled further down the street, I passed a grubby man doing some grubby repair working in front of a pizzeria that appeared to be closed. Without any real hope, I asked him for bus tickets. He didn’t understand me. He asked me if I wanted to go to Villa Adriana. I didn’t understand him. Somehow, a line of communication was established, money exchanged hands, and I became the proud owner of not one, but two bus tickets for the CAT 4. After all, I’d have to come back soon, and I didn’t want to face this same run-around for tickets at the other end again.

I charged back to the bus stop and waited impatiently. It took another half hour to get into the bus, get off ten minutes later, and march 15 minutes down a lonely little road to the ticket office. After I’d got my ticket, there was another 10-minute hike uphill to reach the actual entry to the ruins. It was 10.15 – two-and-a-half hours after I’d left home. And budgeting a similar time to get back meant I’d have to leave by 4.30; anyway, the site closed at 5. I didn’t have much time.

For the first time in my life, I took the audio guide. I hate taking guides, either live or recorded. They put me under pressure to go where they tell me to, when they tell me to. Besides, I don’t want to be talked at, not even by a recording. Give me written information, which is easier to absorb, retain, and carry away in the form of printed brochures. It seems I’m hopelessly old-fashioned.

I whizzed around trying to identify all the points on the audio guide’s itinerary and ingest all the audio-guide’s information. At 1 p.m., I marched all the way down to the main gate, returned the audio guide with a huge sense of relief, regained possession of my passport (which was kept as collateral against the audio guide) with relief, and headed back up to wander around the site at leisure.

There are way too many structures in Hadrian’s Villa to be worth describing at length here – I’d have to write a book to do it justice. But it was lovely because there was just enough of the structures left to imagine what might have been, and few enough tourists. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time. Still, by wandering around busily and happily, at the end of three hours I was satisfied that I had seen all there was to see of Hadrian’s fantastic villa, and by 4.30 I was on my way home. It had been a good day and the weather gods had smiled on me. It was the perfect end to my trip. On Saturday morning, I made an early morning (well, early-ish) excursion to the Pantheon to beat the crowds, ate one last gelato, and then I packed my bags and left.

Will I ever go back? I don’t know. There are, of course, things left undone. And I did throw a coin or two into Fontana di Trevi, so maybe, maybe…


Florence: A Few Photos

October 20, 2010

If you haven’t been to the Flickr photo album yet (or even if you have) here’s a visual feast (or at least I think so).

A panoramic view from the top of the Duomo, the heart of Florence.

The Duomo, seen from the faraway Piazzale Michelangelo

The front of the Duomo. It’s too big to fit in one picture, so this is the best I could do…

The river Arno, seen from across the river

David. The most fabulous nude male I have ever seen. (Ok, I haven’t seen that many…)

Fiesole, outside Florence. It’s a beautiful walk, I just wish it weren’t quite so long.

The Roman Theatre in Fiesole. This is why I study archaeology in my non-existent free time.

Arches, Fiesole. Aren’t they just lovely? I really like arches and columns.

Tomorrow… Hadrian’s Villa.


Rome: A Few Pictures

October 19, 2010

The photo gallery has links to the complete (shortlisted) set of photos that I’ve uploaded – 30, in all. Some of them are in this post.

The first and the best… the Colosseum

The inside of the Colosseum…

The hopelessly vast and ruined Roman Forum

Just one hopelessly vast and fascinating building in the Roman Forum

Fontana Di Trevi – hopelessly crowded but beautiful nonetheless

Terme di Caracalla – “Terme” means baths. Yeah, they needed this much building just to have a bath.

Catherine Somebody’s Mausoleum – a small but grand structure and the place near the catacombs from where I started to get lost.

Villa Quintili – The one that was worth the two-hour walk…

Florence and Hadrian’s Villa pictures coming up soon. If you can’t wait, go see the photos on Flickr.


It’s Just Around the Next Corner…

October 18, 2010

The other experience of getting lost was not exactly getting lost, either. This time, I knew where I was, where I was going, and how I was going to get there. I was walking from my youth hostel, a little outside Florence, to a hill town called Fiesole, a little more outside Florence. My trusty (by now) GPS told me it was only a mere 2.7 km walk – I could do that before breakfast.

So I set off at 8.20, the morning after the night before. GPS told me that I should be able to turn right at the youth hostel door, and there was a road there that looked promising, but the person at reception said I should go down to the main road, turn right, then turn right again. That should have alerted me right there. Still, all unsuspecting, I walked out.

After half an hour, I asked two girls. They said I was on the right track and pointed me to the nearest bus stop. But can I walk it?

Sure, they said, we’re walking ourselves.

They strode of, assuring me it would take about half an hour. I sauntered off in their wake. Fifteen minutes later, a bus roared past me and rolled to a stop just ahead of me. I decided not to take it, thinking I just had another 15 minutes to walk.

In psychology, there is a theory that once you make a slightly wrong decision, you will keep making stupid decisions in an attempt to justify that first wrong decision.

As I walked on an on and on, no less than six buses shot past me and I trudged despairingly past ten bus stops, but I didn’t reverse my decision to not take a bus. The result was that I reached Fiesole at 9.50, just in time for the opening of various monuments at 10. I wasn’t particularly tired, and it was a scenic walk, albeit uphill, but it was just mentally very difficult to set out on a 40-minute, 3-km stroll and find yourself walking an endless 6 km in 90 minutes instead.

But the other time that I got lost, I really did get lost. I’d gone to see the catacombs just outside Rome. I didn’t have a map of this region, but I thought the signage was good enough to get me there. It was. I took a bus, which dropped me on a lonely country road. I walked along a quiet, scenic, curving road with no traffic and huge villa estates on either side, and no people. After 15-20 minutes, I reached the catacombs. They were closed. No matter, I walked another five minutes and came to the next enclosure of catacombs. They were open.

After I’d finished with the catacombs, I asked for directions to Villa Quintili. They were complicated, involving two unspecified buses at distant stops. In any case, I would first have to walk to the first bus stop.

I set off briskly around 10.15, but soon got dustracted by a beautiful structure that turned out to be the mausoleum of some rich old woman. As I left that enclosure around 11, I asked the woman at the ticket counter for directions. She assured me that Villa Quintili was a mere 3 km down the road. That, of course, is an eminently walkable distance, and infinitely easier than finding multiple buses in this remote area where English-speakung people were difficult to find,

So I started walking again. It was a very pleasant walk now. It was Sunday morning and people were out in large numbers, walking, jogging, and cycling. No wonder Italians are all so slim – even very elderly people were walking faster than me – and I was already walking at a fairly brisk pace, I thought. Those who were jogging and cycling looked terrifyingly fit.

Anyway, after an hour or so of this lovely walk along the cobblestone road under shady trees and with no vehicular traffic… I began to wonder about the Italian measure of kilometers. Three?

After an eternity, I came to a road that had traffic. Hallelujah! Now I could get a bus.

Not so fast. I happened to be on a one-way going the wrong way. There were some women running some kind of stall. I asked them the way to the Villa and they said something like, oh, just follow the road for a bit and when you come to the intersection, take a right. How far, I asked in a worried tone. One km, they said, and waggled their hands to indicate ‘more-or-less. I have read XXX book, I should have known then, what to expect.

I followed the road for a good half hour before finding an intersection. Fed up and literally very foot sore, I looked for a bus. If I’d found one, I’d have taken it pretty much regardless of where it was going. The best I could hope for, by then, was a bus heading home. But at 12.30 on Sunday afternoon, in a remote little part of the countryside, buses were in short supply.

I limped along a little further, found a bus stop, and stopped. The sign was uninformative – none of the places on the route were remotely familiar. Now what should I do? Despairingly, I turned on GPS and searched for Villa Quintilli. No result was found. I tried again, with a single ‘l’. And GPS promptly told me that the nearest result was 850m away on the right.

I stared at it disbelievingly. Villa Quintili had become something of a holy grail by now, not because of any known intrinsic value but only due to its elusiveness. 850m? I could walk it, I suppose.

I would have been willing to give up at that point and if a bus had come, I would have got on to it. But… When I studied the classical archaeology module at the end of last year, villas were one of the things that I’d particularly focused on and discussed in my assignment. To come this close to seeing one and yet be defeated…

Tired and almost tearful, I turned my back to the bus stop and trudged on. The road curved ahead and merged with a very busy main road, with four lanes on each side and no pavement. In Italy, traffic drives on the right of the road. The Villa, GPS informed me, was on the right. But it was suicidal, so I crossed, rather dangerously, to the left, where there was a slip road that was a lot safer to walk on. A few minutes later, I asked one gentleman, who very sweetly in fluent Italian explained to me exactly where the villa was.

Actually, by this time I could see the ruins. It was vast and surrounded by wilderness. It was lovely. And it was really far away!

But the kind gentleman and the GPS were right about the entry to the villa, it was indeed just across the road from where I was now.

From the entry point, the ruins themselves were another 5-10 minutes’ stroll uphill, but now it didn’t matter. Now I was in the villa complex and I even had a very illegible photocopy of a map. Now I wasn’t looking, any more, I had arrived. My tiredness vanished and I spent two very happy hours scrambling around the ruins in solitary splendour.

Getting back, of course, was much easier. I crossed the road, got a bus, stayed on it till the end, then got off and took the metro. Simple.

The long, tiring hunt for the villa did not make it any sweeter when I found it, but I’m glad I found it, not only because I really wanted to see it and it really was very lovely, but also because it would have been very disappointing to spend all that time and energy looking for it and then leave without seeing it. As so often in life, it was just a matter of keeping on going. But in this case, at least I had the GPS to guide me. What a (corny) metaphor.


Female? Alone? So what?

October 12, 2010

Traveling alone in Europe, I’ve decided, is very easy. There are two parts to this. One, travelling is easy, because things are generally very well labelled, most things run on time, and crowds are generally not comparable to those in India (with a few notable exceptions). If you ask for help in obvious places and circumstances, you’ll likely find English-speaking people designated to help. If you are in unlikely places, people will try to help, but language can be a problem. Generally people are polite, but I did come across a few unnecessarily gruff people too, though it could be partly attributable to language problems.

One of the things that makes travel easy is the ‘lessness’ of people pressure. It’s quite normal for people to stand back and allow someone else to go while getting on or off a train, or even in some other queue, but it doesn’t stop at that.

Here’s an example. I spent a small part of Sunday evening on the Spanish Steps, Piazza Spagna. From the top of the steps, I could see a sea of humanity stretching all the way down the road. A couple of brave cars tried to thread their way through the throngs. There was no honking. After a while, I made my way to the metro to go home. The spillover from above ground had reached underground, and by the time I reached the platform there was no way to go forward. I was stuck there, at the mouth of the platform. For the first time in Italy, I was in a crowd (which I hate with an intensity tending towards phobia).

Then the train came. It was jammed, just like a bus at peak hours anywhere in India. A few people got off. Some squeezed in. The rest stood back, the doors closed and the train left. It was cool; nobody bothered, nobody pushed. There would be another train in a couple of minutes. This sense of security, this certainty that there will be enough to go around, if you just wait a few minutes, you will get your turn, this is not there in India. For how many generations or centuries have we known that if you don’t push, you will not get. There isn’t enough to go around. Now that behaviour is part of our unconscious. We do it even when there is enough, because you just never know.

The other part of travelling alone that’s easy is the ‘alone’ part. I have travelled alone in India. Tamil Nadu, Goa, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal, Ladakh, Uttaranchal. Everywhere, people look at you with curiosity. Some people are just frankly puzzled, but others assume you’re loose. You can still go ahead and do what you want, but you have to do it with a defiant, you-can-look-all-you-want-I’m-going-to-do-just-what-I-please attitude. It gets tiring after a while.Here, nobody could care less. As a woman travelling alone, you don’t even merit a second glance. Men don’t automatically make lewd advances, nor do they shy away. If you figure as anything at all, it is merely as a practicality: so does that mean this seat is vacant? Can you be slotted in along with that group there? Ok.

The only unwelcome attention I’ve had so far was from a Bengali who said he’d recognized me as a fellow Bengali and followed me from a few shops away. He wanted to know where the rest of my group was and warned me against strolling around on my own! I wasn’t sure whether he was trying to lech around me, or whether he was genuinely delighted in a pathetic sort of way to have found a fellow Bengali in this distant land. Either way, I shook him off without feeling even slightly threatened.


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