There is a thing about European cities. A certain sound. I observed it in almost all cities that I visited on my backpacking trip. An echo that rebounds from stunning arty architectural structures. The imprint of renaissance arts is felt almost all over Europe.
I began my trip from Rome; after a stopover at Frankfurt- the gateway to Europe. Frankfurt is a sprawling airport; endless. Almost all major flights from Asia, passing over to US, Scandinavian and Canada, stop at Frankfurt. Changing my flight at Frankfurt, after I had a cup of hot cappuccino- I absolutely adore the smell at airport cafes, it just fills my senses of upcoming adventures; I was on board to Rome. It is said Rome is always sunny in its azure skies. The breathtakingly blue skies welcomed me too as I hit Rome early in the morning. I checked into my Air BnB accommodation, choosing a place near Roma Centrale- Rome’s major train and metro station. From here the Colosseum and Roman Forum were on walking distance. My first places to visit in Rome.
The construction of Colosseum began in AD 72 and was inaugurated in AD 80 by Emperor Titus, with a hundred days of festivities. For about 5 centuries on the occasion of anniversaries and military victories, the emperors spent vast resources on staging magnificent spectacles for citizens. The Gladiator combats were banned in the 5th century but combats with wild animals are recorded as late as till 12th century. It is quite remarkable to envisage what must have been the scene during the days of its pomp. Now what was lying before my eyes was a mural sketch of that era. I tried breathing some of its air. Tried imagining myself as one of the spectators back then, cheering the Gladiators. I met an old local Roman, who was aimlessly walking around the Forum. We got talking.
He was a tour guide. What he told me was fascinating. In the days of its glory in Colosseum, the spectacle used to begin early in the morning. During the lunch interval, executions and besties took place; the condemned, naked and unarmed, faced wild beasts, which would eventually tear them to pieces. During the interval there were performances by jugglers, magicians and acrobats. Finally Gladiator combats (munera) were held in the afternoon. The participants in these combats were usually prisoners of war, slaves and some free men seeking fame and fortune. The games were often financed by politicians who hoped to curry favor with public, but the intellectuals saw these spectacles as a means of swaying public from real issues and as a cause of spiritual decadence.
I sometimes think a city chooses me, rather than I choosing it. It is no accident that propels people like me to Rome. Rome is the cradle of previous births. You can read here on the walls where Raphael and da Vinci lived. Rome was existing since 700 years, when its most famous emperor Augustus took throne in 27 BC. According to a legend Rome was founded by twins Romulus and Remus, raised by a she-wolf. Over the centuries, Rome’s wealth had drawn people across the empire, creating a population of around 1 million, one of the largest urban population in the pre-industrial world. Yet the physical appearance of the city belied the military and political might of its ruling class. Rome was an urban sprawl grown without long term planning.
Under Augustus however there began a gradual development into a city worthy of world empire. The Rome of today has huge etch of the Augustus era.
The Roman Forum, the civic centre of the greatest city is an accretion of centuries of buildings. Laying in the shadow of the Capitoline hill, the Forum is flanked by basilicas (great halls for judicial business), political buildings and temples.
I loved walking on the streets of Rome. There is a sense of serenity in this ancient city that is not hard to miss. While modernity has its imprints, but Rome largely has retained its flavour. I spent my days in Rome visiting museums, bookstores, Vatican city, eating tasty crisp pizzas on many of its open restaurants; stopping over a corner bend and getting absolutely lost in the street music played by nearby musician: flutes, saxophone, guitar. Rome is delightful in that sense. A treasure for someone like me who loves lazing around aimlessly. I found many of my tribe in this city. Rome also is famous for stately gorgeous Piazzas (city centres). One of the most famous being Piazza Navona. There were artists all around, musicians, travellers, revellers. Rome accepts everything and gives you back a part of its own soul. I carry it along with me, now, always.
Rest of my backpacking trip in Italy included Napoli and Pompeii in south and Florence in north. For Napoli and Pompeii, I took a super-fast Trenitalia train from Rome. Napoli is a shoddy city more than anything; over populous, with residential building stacked over one another, hardly any air to breathe. There are tiny labyrinth lanes, with clothes left for drying from almost all windows. However, my reason to be in south Italy was to visit Pompeii, a major city during the glory of Roman empire.
From Napoli, Pompeii is an hour’s drive. The end of this great city in AD 69 was so sudden that it probably has no equal in history. The volcanic eruption on Mount Vesuvius, surrounding this city, completely destroyed it. The surprised Pompeiians had little idea what hit them, as the volcanic crystals showered on them for 2 days with the ash covering the city later. Perhaps, a reason why most of the city could be excavated; the volcanic molten preventing decay. There are charred bread crumbs, onions, other vegetables that were excavated by the archaeologists!
From one of the shops at the main Stabiana, coins were found in the baker’s oven. The owner perhaps had left them there, after the eruption, in hope of return. It took me over five hours to see the ruins of this once magnificent city; giving me endless memories to savor. I visited what is world’s first known Amphi theatre at Pompeii. The theatre held gladiator games with a capacity of twenty thousand people. Pink Floyd played here in 1974. There is a small memorabilia built in memory of that concert. Hair on my forearms prickled when I walked through the dark gallery; walls playing Echoes.
“Overhead the albatross hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves in labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant tide
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine.”
What is most remarkable about Pompeii is how the structures, at least most of the main casa’s- belonging to wealthy Pompeiians, have retained their glory. Murals on walls inside the houses are still visible. I walked inside these houses, feeling the walls with my hands. There was one very distinct memory that stayed with me. After being dead like a tired horse, I dropped my backpack and leaned against a wall, in one of the Pompeiian houses. It was a two storied cassa- with a beautiful garden in the centre. I must have stayed silent for a long long time, breathing the Pompeiian air. Few leaves flickered under a mild breeze coming from the Amalfi coast. A cricket bird chirped. It was the sort of moment for which in the hindsight when I lookback, I feel my purpose of life is achieved. Traveling across as a solo traveller, sitting here in a remote south Italian city, in ruins, with absolutely no one that I know- in complete wilderness of my thoughts. Alone. Yet connected to the larger purpose. It is the understanding of the difference between journey and goal; the awareness of the truth that the goal of life is the living of it. I was woken up by a fellow traveller, who perhaps saw me sitting quietly in a corner. He quipped in a rather hush manner, ‘mate, its beautiful here.’
My next stop in Italy was Florence — a quaint little city in North Italy. I checked into a hostel here. Hostels are cheap and allow you to mix with travellers of different countries. In my case I couldn’t have asked for more; they had an all-weather swimming pool and sauna bath. My tired limbs cried for it. Of course, my reason to be in Florence was to see the Michelangelo museum, where his most famous art work David stood. David is Michelangelo's most famous and celebrated art work. He began work on it in 1501 AD. Scholars believe that David is here represented after his victory over Goliath, the sling on David's shoulder is used to bring Goliath down. Thus emphasizing that David did not use any brute force, but his intelligence and innocence, to gain victory. It took Michelangelo four years to make David, grinding it from a slab of marble. When completed, the art work was carried on a carriage throughout the city, with people marvelling at it, finally finding its place at a central Piazza in the heart of Florence, where it stood for many many years. He had his critics though. It is said when Michelangelo was finishing David, the town mayor came to have a look. Michelangelo had put a canvas around David, so that no one could watch him work. The canvas scaffolding gave away and the Mayor had a look at David. Putting up the show of the art connoisseur, Mayor pointed out the nose was too thick, though from his vantage point it was impossible to judge the thickness of nose! Ever the smart he was, Michelangelo climbed up the scaffold, grabbing a hammer and pretended at chiseling the nose. ‘How’s it now Mr Mayor,’ he shouted from the top. He had not touched the sculpture, of course. “Now, it’s much better,” exclaimed the mayor. “Now you’ve put life into it.” The stupidity of some critics has stayed along years.
I went back to my room. Had another round of swim and slept early. Next day morning, I had to catch my train to Zurich. I was traveling to the land of Yash Chopra!