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Strolling Through Rome

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This was a book I jumped at the chance to read and review. I have visited Rome many times and, though my tours largely focused on the ancient sights of the city, I have long-since devised a number of walks of my own that cover the best sights to visit. I might, therefore, be the most critical type of reviewer possible for this book. I’ll give an overview at the end, but concentrate on the various tours contained within first.

Tour 1 is, sadly, largely pointless. It is a general ‘best bits’ tour that by its very nature leaps around and fails to make the best of anything, the text of the tour almost constantly referring to other tours, the phrase (see tour x) appearing repeatedly. I feel that if this tour had been put at the end to finish off the book rather than as an introduction, it would have worked much better. Simply, if you intend to use this book to tour Rome, I would ignore tour 1 entirely and start at 2.

Tour 2 concentrates on St Peters and the Vatican. No0t much strolling through Rome in 2. More fighting through crowds in a relatively small area. The text goes into great detail of what is to be seen in the Vatican museum and reads a lot more like a very specific and detailed museum guide book than a walking tour of Rome. That being said, it is interesting and made me want to revisit the museum and use the book, so it has value.

Tour 3 deals with the Borgo area between the Vatican and the river, including the Castel Sant Angelo and the Tiber and Janiculum hill. This was the first time that I felt I was ‘strolling through Rome’ and I enjoyed that feeling. The information imparted is fascinating in places and delivered well. There is a tendency again once the tour takes us into the Castel to turn into the detailed museum guide again, though as I noted earlier, that has a use too.

Tour 4 takes us to Trastevere and the Ghetto area on either side of the Tiber. This was, for me, when the book really hit its stride. The tour is a sensible route, taking in the best the area has to offer, allows for a real soaking up of the feel of Rome, and the facts and anecdotes given within are fascinating and useful. Next time I go, I shall make use of tour 4. There is a growing feeling at this point of ‘baroque-oholism’, which is a common theme in Rome guides, but a number of the details here had me scrambling for Google Earth to check them out, which is an excellent sign.

Tour 5 takes us to the Capitol and the Capitoline museums. The outside stroll here is atmospheric and interesting, which is impressive, given that the area in my experience is mostly busy, fraught, covered with buses and tourists taking selfies, and smells mostly of carbon monoxide. When the tour climbs the hill and focuses on the museums (some of the best in the world, by the way) it falls back into the by-now-familiar detailed museum guide. However, in contrast to the earlier parts like this, the fun and fascinating incidental background notes and anecdotes prevent this from simply becoming a list and make the museum tour excellent.

Tour 6 is my most familiar area, the forum and Palatine. The attention to detail here is impressive, given that the author focuses throughout the book on every era of the city, yet his knowledge of the ancient ruins is pretty impressive. I noted no glaring inaccuracies, and even found myself nodding approvingly as he relates a little-known detail that is more commonly ignored or even plain wrong. The tour is nice and again feels like it lives up to the book’s title. In fact it coincides quite nicely with my own version of that walk, which I found pleasing. One odd hiccup I noted (real nerd stuff here, so feel free to ignore) was the author’s assertion that the emperor Maxentius’ son Romulus died in 309 at the age of 4. Given that the year of his birth is uncertain and highly contested, his age at death is dubious and almost certainly wasn’t 4. More irksome, though, is that on tour 14, he claims that Romulus died in 307 (309 is right, by the way.)

Tour 7 takes us through the busy Piazza Venezia and out to Campo de Fiori. Again this tour is nicely back into the ‘strolling through Rome’ rhythm. It tends to concentrate heavily on the renaissance and baroque palaces and churches, and will thrill those who love that era. Even for me as a classical historian, I found odd ancient bits and pieces well related and interesting.

Tour 8 covers Campo Marzio, including some of the most famous sights of Rome, such as the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. It is something of a mixed bag for sights, covering baroque churches and palaces, as well as Museum tours and ancient ruins. And again it hits the mark for strolling. I learned things I didn’t know here, particularly in relation to the Trevi Fountain. So spot on!

Tour 9 takes us north from there to the Piazza del Popolo. This feels a lot like a follow-on from tour 8 (which is reasonable, since they are largely two parts of the same area of Rome. The feel is similar, and so is the mix of eras and types of sight. It does, for the first time, start to include more concentration on later times, such as the 19th-20th century. Again, it is a stroll.

Tour 10 takes us from that area over the hills in Rome’s northern area. It is an interesting mix, with the whole familiar ‘Baroque Church’ thing slowly giving way to urban parks and gardens with Renaissance mansions. This is probably the quietest and most peaceful area within the walls where a visitor can stroll, and definitely makes a good tour.

Tour 11 concentrates on the Quirinale hill. This is, in my opinion, something of a less-visited and oft-overlooked area of Rome, and so it was nice to see this tour. The area is rather complex and tough to navigate for the uninitiated, so at this point the guide becomes more or less essential. Wandering around here can get you hopelessly lost. It was well handled, even the side-visits it recommends being sensible and well-placed, and again I even learned something important to me. I had not been aware of the remains of the Serapeum on the hill, but that is now noted for my next visit.

Tour 12 heads through the area of Termini station and the Esquiline hill. Again this is familiar stomping ground for me. In fact my own favourite walk starts here and heads out towards the walls at Porta Maggiore. Instead, though, this tour takes in the great basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (another Museum-guide in detail) and then heads down into the heart of the ancient city once more. I felt that some of the more obscure but fascinating sights were bypassed or glossed over on the way past in favour of the bigger ones, but again that is a common thing with guides.

Tour 13 covers the Lateran and Caelian hills. I found this tour very odd indeed. It covers many of my favourite parts of Rome, but seems to do so in a haphazard, random route, zipping about and doubling back, when it could easily have been done in a more sensible circuit. Indeed, a different circuit would have included some excellent locations that are completely missed here, like Nero’s nymphaeum, or the great Severan fountain head in Piazza Vittorio Emanuelle II. All in all it felt a little rushed and incomplete. Essentially, the southern third of the city seems to be covered in one tour, compared with the best part of ten tours covering the north. The south feels neglected.

Tour 14 begins the same way, with a nice little circuit around Porta San Paolo area, then nipping out to take a bus to the Via Appia. In my opinion tour 13 and the opening section of 14 could easily have been detailed out into half a dozen more sensible and in-depth tours which would then have matched those in the first half of the book. However, on a bright note, once the tour heads into the Via Appia, we are once more strolling with detailed and fascinating notes from our guide. I was even impressed at the level of detail on even the lesser monuments here.

Tour 15 was an interesting tour. It is well-described and interesting. However, I think it has no real place in this guide as it details the ancient city of Ostia Antica away on the coast, a train ride from the city. Moreover, Ostia is such an amazing place (akin to Pompeii and Herculaneum) that is deserves (and has) its own guides in far more depth than this walking tour. I feel the space and time in the guide would have been better used doing justice to the southern regions of the city.

And there we go. 15 tours in detail.

Overall, I enjoyed the guide and found it a good read and an informative one, which is quite hard to do with me and Rome. I am very picky and choosy here. If you are familiar with the city, you could read it at home, like I did, and picture almost every street. If you are not familiar with the city, and are not actually going there, don’t buy it as you’ll get very little out of it that way. If, however, you are heading to Rome, especially if it is your first time, and you want to squeeze every drop of history and culture into your visit, buy the guide and follow it well. It will take you to amazing places and show you wondrous things. I was disappointed at the things the guide missed (most of which are in the east and the south.) The author has pretty much mapped the north, west and centre to the point where there is nothing you won’t see, but in the south and the east you completely ignore some amazing places. With respect to the list of opening hours and prices, my advice is do not take that as gospel. Such things change with every tide, and even if they officially match the notes in the book, the chances are that for no readily apparent reason they will be different on the day. There is no hard and fast rule about when things are open in Rome. It seems often to be decided daily on a whim.

The upshot? A good buy if you want to go to Rome and be guided around. A few things are missed, but for the general visitor there is an absolute wealth of stuff here that will keep your week’s holiday busy and teach you things along the way. I hope to see a future second edition that pays more attention to the south.

Written by SJAT

June 11, 2015 at 11:55 am

Istanbul, not Constantinople

with 6 comments

So, after 6 years we just made it back (this time with 4 of us rather than 2) to Istanbul. And confirmed that it is still our joint favourite location on Earth along with Rome. It is somewhat hard to beat. And so for those of you who’ve not considered visiting or who are wavering as to whether to go, here’s my top tips…

0016 Blue Mosque

  1. Most important of all: do not be put off. Do not allow rumour or uncertainty to put you off. When we went this time, we happened to time it (yes more than a year after the park riots) but only a week after the hospital riot following the poor young lad’s death. A number of people expressed concerns, and we could understand them and expected to have to be wary. The simple fact is that we felt safe everywhere and more than that: welcome and encouraged. Even with some political problems, the Turks are a friendly people and Istanbul is a relaxed, pleasant place.
  2. Go off the beaten track. Istanbul has maybe a dozen major historical sites that are thrown at you constantly (eg Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Topkapi palace.) There are lesser sights. And then there are the unusual ones. And then there are the astounding ones. Istanbul is packed with sights like a pomegranate with seeds. Some of them require a bit of walking or extensive tram use. Go for it. It’s cheap, you’ll see things you’d regret missing, and exploration is half the fun of the city.
  3. Do not book a short trip. The girls behind us returning to the plane said that next time they were only booking a one-way ticket so that they can choose when to come back. They were right. Istanbul sucks you in and tries to keep you. If you want to immerse yourself in it stay for a week minimum. If you’re wanting to see whether it’s for you, do 4/5 nights, but take it from me: it is. Book longer.
  4. Get yourself in the mindset. Istanbul is a meeting of worlds but also a meeting of ages. It is the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance, the new and the modern as well as just east and west. Read C C Humphreys’ A place called Armageddon, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, or Christian Cameron’s Tom Swan series (or might I suggest my own Ottoman Cycle!) Having a good historical context for the place will give you something you might not see otherwise. Oh, and if not a reader (why are you here again) you could watch Topkapi or From Russia With Love, or play that Assassin’s Creed game.
  5. Keep your eyes open. Istanbul is absolutely chock full of odd fragments. There is every chance that when you walk down a side street you will see a wall with layers of bonding tiles. It’s Roman/Byzantine. Or early Ottoman stolen style. It might be the back wall of a garage which was a monastery 1200yrs ago, or a couple of 3rd century columns supporting a doorway, or a 17th century watchtower. Nothing in that city is what it seems.
  6. Plan in advance. Search out everything you can find and make sure you don’t miss something just because you don’t know about it. If necessary, mail me and I will send you a fairly comprehensive list. Rank things. And go. Do it. But take maps. Be prepared. PPPPPP as they say. 🙂
  7. Try the foods and drinks. It’s not Turkey without Koftas, good Kebabs, coffee like sweet silt, and of course yogurt and sherbert. Do not buy a fez. Only a feckin’ idiot buys a fez… like the muppet we watched wearing one while sucking face outside a mosque at a cafe table.

Given that, here are things (not necessarily the top ones you get pointed at) not to miss:

  1. Spend a day walking the walls. Start at the Yedikule fortress, walk the land walls, and then the sea walls via Golden Horn and then Marmara. It is a stunning journey full of wonders. It’s long, but it is more than worthwhile and you will see Istanbul from every angle.
  2. Go and visit the monastery of the Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) and explore Fener and the area around it. It is the most truly local and real area you will find and that church/museum is one of the most amazing places in the city.
  3. You will visit the Basilica cistern. You might visit the 1001 column cistern. There are a hundred of these water tanks in the city, but do not miss dinner at the Sarnic restaurant. Dinner in a Roman cistern among the myriad of columns is a special thing.
  4. Walk the Blachernae area. Some of it has been horribly reconstructed and some is under current work, but everywhere from the Chora to the Golden Horn… walk it just inside the walls. You will see a side of the city you would otherwise miss!
  5. The Hippodrome is hard to miss. You will find a thousand tourists being herded round it every hour. Go past the end of it and trace the Sphendone – the curved end – down and back up. If gives an idea of scale you would fail to see any other way.
  6. When you visit the Aya Sofya, realise that this was attempt #2 of Justinian’s church. The first version on a small scale was the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii. Try to get there. It’s beautiful.
  7. Istanbul is full of Roman honorific columns. Track them down and visit for a fun quest: Hippodrome columns x3. Goth’s Column, Cemberlitas, Column of Marcian and Column of Arcadius. And then look for the REALLY obscure ones.
  8. Take the boat trip up the Bosphorus. It’s cheap. It’s relaxing. It’s fun and it’s educational. Take the short trip for a 2hr rest. Take the long one if you want to get as far north as Anadolu Kavagi, but be prepared to eat seafood for a while then.
  9. Go for dinner at Palatium restaurant on Cankurtaran. It was a stunning atmosphere, an amazing meal and an all round great evening. But even more, in their courtyard you can descend into the rooms of the Byzantine Imperial palace.
  10. Simply: stroll. Enjoy the city. The more you wander and meet the people and find the unusual unexpected sites, the more you will fall in love with the place and the people.

And with that now in the bag, here are another 10 reasons to visit:

Arch of Theodosius Fragments 5

Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius

Aya Sofia 14

The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian

Basilica Cistern 01

Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)

Blachernae - Palace of Porphyrogenitus 2

Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)

Bosphorus - Rumeli Fortress 9

Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe

Chora church 10

Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)

Column of Marcian 2

Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian

Land Walls 14

Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius

0041 Hippodrome

The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.

IMG_2513

The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…

Written by SJAT

March 22, 2014 at 12:24 am

Scots invade Hadrian’s Wall…

with 10 comments

Well, sort of.

I have just spent a magnificent long weekend in Gilsland on the Northumberland/Cumbria border with my lovely wife and children and with Gordon Doherty (of Legionary and Strategos fame) and his wonderful better half.

Gordon’s current portfolio:

 

Now the weekend was a particularly good one for three distinct reasons:

Firstly: Location. Our holiday cottage was close enough to Hadrian’s Wall (or at least the turf ridge that marks its passage) that I could have hit it with a thrown weasel, had I had one to hand. That kind of proximity to the ancient always gets my blood and imagination going. It also meant that in our available time we had the chance to visit a number of Roman sites (Birdoswald, Chesters, Poltross Burn, Willowford, and the Greenhead Roman Army Museum. Now that in itself is superb and worthy of pictorial memoirs and so here we go. Time to clog up your browser, broadband and memory with a run of photos:

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1. Two JAFRAs (in-joke term for a Roman Author) posing in their place of work. Do ya think we’re sexy?

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2. In case you didn’t get the details! Heh heh heh

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3. The Eastern wall and main east gate of Birdoswald (Banna) Roman fort in glorious sunshine.

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4. Marcus investigating every crevice of the Roman world.

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5. Tracey, Marcus and Callie taking in the view from the walls of Birdoswald.

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6. Simon (me) and my poser of a boy Marcus at Birdoswald. Future catalogue model in the making, you think?

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7. Poltross burn milecastle at Gilsland. One of the most sloping, geographically-challenged of all British Roman sites. Bet they never played dominoes or tried to eat soup from a shallow bowl!

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8. Renowned author of late Roman and Byzantine novels Gordon Doherty surveys his domain from the top of the wall. He is clearly uninspired by the railway fencing and the other tourists!

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9. Marcus tries to recreate Willowford’s early 3rd century Roman bridge by dropping stones into the river one at a time.

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10. Gordon appears to like Willowford.

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11. A detail shot of the three stages of bridge abutment at Willowford for those interested in real historical things rather than just posturing or…

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12. Pictures of WILLIES!!!!

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13. Chesters museum hasn’t changed much since Victoria was on the throne, but that just makes it all the better for me. Great, isn’t it?

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14. Marcus and Callie seem to like it anyway. I think Marcus just squeezed one out, looking at that…

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15. Too cool for school. Gordon Doherty and S.J.A. Turney trying to look normal among the barrack blocks of the cavalry fort of Cilurnum (Chesters)

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16. Callie and Marcus making no attempt to look normal and yet still beating us at the game…

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17. Deep in discussion. Come on, ladies… two Roman fiction authors in a hot baths together… phwoooaaarrrhhh!!! Or… not.

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18. Callie tries to work out why her boat won’t float.

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19. Gordon Doherty being tour guide and discussing the relative heights of original floor level in a Roman bath house.

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20. Simon and Gordon take a seat in the apodyterium (changing room). It was too cold for just a subligaculum and wooden clogs!

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21. The underfloor heating of the Commanding Officer’s baths. Now if only they’d been working. Oooh that chill wind….

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22. The ancient military meets the modern. Love this shot that wifey took: Chinook helicopters over Hadrian’s Wall. Bet the Caledonii would have been a pushover had Agricola got his hands on a couple of those…

The second reason the weekend was good? Well, because of great friends and family. Gordon and his wife are excellent company and the weekend was just comfortable and great fun.

But the third reason: It was not all fun. In fact, only half of it was having a beer and gallivanting around the Roman sites. The rest of it involved Gordon and I sitting in a room surrounded by laptops, pads and pens and reference books while we took the bare idea of a plot we had a while back and hammered it out before folding it and adding a keen edge and turning it into a fully fledged story right down to a chapter plan. Yes, as you may have noted on Twitter or Facebook, Gordon and I will shortly be embarking on a collaborative project and the story we have so far is fabulous. I mean, it’s going to knock your socks off, so you’d best send home to mummy for more with the next delivery (Vindolanda joke – sad, I know.) But it really is a stunning idea. We will start to release occasional teasers once we’re properly involved in the writing, which will being some time after the release of Gordon’s Strategos II and my Marius’ Mules V. I will simply leave you with these images to give you something to chew on….

bust  bridge building

Have a really nice week, folks. Will be back the day after tomorrow with a book review and then something else at the weekend.

Written by SJAT

April 23, 2013 at 4:49 pm