Italy Day 2: Rome – Bicycle and Book Shops (0 km)
When I awoke, the morning was hidden behind a dense sea fog, and the view from the hotel gave nothing away of our surroundings. I felt animated, being somewhere new and unknown. But unlike on the start of our journey through France, I was more serious, more respectful of the endeavour ahead.
After breakfast we booked seats on the hotel shuttle bus into Rome. We were looking forward to exploring the city and finding somewhere tasty for lunch, but we also had much to sort out. I’d bought two maps before we left, but we needed another and we wanted to find out more about the route.
Our driver dropped us on the southern side of the Colosseum. As we stepped our way through the wandering crowd, some Pakistanis passed us, holding out selfie sticks, head scarves and bottles of water, calling out their wares. Near the Arch of Constantine, we saw armoured vehicles and unsmiling military guards with machine guns. Beyond them, in the shade of the tall stone pines, modern day trophy collectors lingered, posing and taking pictures.
As we neared the Colosseum, we passed a group of bystanders gathered around three young Italians. They were executing an impressive synchronised leap. We watched them bemused, as they threw themselves into the air, over and over, in front of the monument, that ancient killing field.
We moved on. Orbited the skeletal stone structure. Above us, scores of tourists were admiring the view. The imposing height of the northern aspect, designed to give every spectator an intimate view, is truly extraordinary, and we stopped briefly to take pictures. After agreeing not to go in, we avoided the touts and headed towards the city centre.
Opposite the Roman Forum, under the shade of the fanned branches of more stone pines, we passed a group of Africans.
‘Hakuna Matata,’ said a young man starting to follow us, ‘don’t worry be happy.’
He offered us a bracelet made of green, red, yellow and black beads. We did not want one, but he continued to follow us anyway until we neared Piazza Venezia.
There we passed the Altare della Patria, a huge white marble monument of excessive columns and extravagant staircases, embellished with two bronze winged victories. I overheard an American say the locals called it ‘the typewriter’ and I asked him to tell me more.
‘It was built by Mussolini,’ he said flattered. ‘Behind lays the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.’
I turned to the others.
‘Apparently it was built by the fascists,’ I informed them, with newly acquired authority. Later I discovered this was not entirely true. It was originally intended as a tribute to the unification of Italy in 1871 and the first king, Victor Emmanuel. It was later on, near its completion, when it was adopted by the fascist regime as a symbol of their imperial ambitions.
By now it was midday. We needed to find a bookshop and looked up our options. Passing the sunken ruins of four Roman temples, we walked towards the river, down narrow cobbled streets, avoiding the odd moped. The day was at its hottest, and although it was relatively mild, being October, we were unused to the heat.
We found the friendly, independent travel bookshop, Fahrenheit, easily. Downstairs I searched the shelves looking for books on cycling in Southern Italy, but there were none. In the bike shop across the street, the owner knew nothing about cycling to Brindisi, but warned us to be careful in Naples and advised we shouldn’t camp in case the bikes were stolen.
We made our way to the main street looking for another bookshop. There, on the steps of the church of Sant Andrea della Valla, sat a homeless couple. They aroused my curiosity for they were wearing the same clothes: blue Italian tracksuit tops and green, fingerless gloves. But it was their quiet intimacy I found most interesting. The young man’s matted head rested meekly on the shoulder of the woman, who held him close, gently cupping his cheek.
In Feltrinelli, there were plenty of books about cycling in the Alps and Tuscany, but not Southern Italy. We spent a frustrating half an hour or more searching the shelves. As a last resort we selected a general map of Southern Italy, the scale too large to provide any useful detail. Still unsure of our route or how we would find our way, we agreed to make our way back to a restaurant we’d seen, close to the original bookshop.
An hour later, sated and mellower, we found the elusive Touring Club Italiano, number 10 map we’d been searching for. To celebrate, we strolled towards the Tiber with the intention of retracing the steps of Jep, in the film The Great Beauty, on his way home from a party.
We climbed the steps down to the river carefully avoiding the discarded syringes. For a short while we walked along the timeless path covered in weeds and autumn leaves, enjoying the sunshine and tranquillity there, before heading back to the bustle of the narrow streets.
In Regola, we passed the French embassy, elegant furniture shops, students returning to class. The plump, amiable woman who ran the second bike shop looked as though she rarely, if ever, cycled anywhere. When we explained we were heading to Brindisi, she puffed out her cheeks. Warned us about the traffic. She seemed to think we were heroic, and this reassured us she wasn’t speaking from experience.
Tired now, we agreed to try one more bike shop. We trudged back across the city centre. The owner of the bike shop was a tall, kind man, who spoke good English, but knew nothing of the route. Matt 1 showed him our newly acquired map and asked him about the road out of Rome. He showed us a route heading east, through Colonna, Artena, Colleferro, Angagni and Ferentino.
‘You know there is a big mountain range here you have to cross?’ he added, pointing to the map.
‘Yes we know,’ I said resolutely, feeling undeterred.
It was half past four. We agreed to visit the Pantheon before heading back to the hotel where we still had to assemble the bikes. After entering the church and admiring the 2,000 year old dome, we sat on the steps of the fountain opposite and amused ourselves awhile, watching the other tourists posing.