Italy 03 p4

Further afield

Thursday April 24
I visited Domus Aurea, Nero's house, in the morning. It must have been incredible, but unfortunately there's not much left of it. In order to preserve the very few traces of frescoes left, they maintain the inside at a temperature of 6°C.

Nero was so greedy that a Carthagenese fooled him, swearing that he knew a cave filled to the brim with gold. Nero immediately sent a whole fleet to search for it. When it became evident he had been deceived, he had the man killed, but it was too late -- everyone knew by then how naive he had been. Despite the fact his villa was a splendor, his successors rejected his heavy inheritance and buried it under a mound that was meant to be covered with grass and profit to all. This is what it is to this day, and the villa itself was only re-discovered in the 15th century: for the first time painters of the Renaissance were able to discover antique painting (unfortunately the frescoes deteriorated and disappeared within a few years). In the place of the lake that was part of Nero's vista, the Colosseum was built.

Friday April 25

Konrad was off work again and we decided to spend my last two days checking out medieval cities outside of Rome. We found Cività Castellana on a map, which looked promising and wasn't too far. Off we went.

When we got off the train we found out that we weren't in Cività, but in a godforsaken place called Borghetto. Cività was 9 km away. We bought tickets for a bus that turned out not to be running on holidays, and the idiotic clerk who hadn't told us refused to reimburse us, so we started walking...
After 7 or 8 km of trudging through the dullest part of the country, I was ready to assault a driver and make him drive us back to the station from where we could catch the first train back to civilization. Italians just don't take hitchhikers. We stuck our hands out again without much hope, but someone stopped! He turned out to live right outside Cività Castellana's historical center, which would have taken us another hour or so to reach. When we inquired about a place where we could eat, he invited us over. So it was that we found ourselves in his family house where his sister and her boyfriend were making lunch. We had a fun afternoon with the three. We also found out that C.C. does have a railway station, with a train to Rome, but it's just not listed. Thanking all the gods for the fact we wouldn't have to find a way back to Borghetto, the first thing we did was go and secure a ticket for the evening train, and then we went to finally check out the town. It was a medieval town all right, that hadn't even outgrown the original walls. There was a Dragon Fountain, a wonderful church with intricately wrought mosaic facade (in a style called cosmatesque, consisting of colorful marble motifs), and a much less interesting fort with the worst guided tour on the planet. All in all about half an hour's worth of sights, so we returned to the station and eagerly waited for the train -- an ancestor of all trains, as it were. We were never this happy to be back to a big city...

Fontana dei Draghi in Cività Castellana

Duomo di Cività Castellana

Detail of a mosaic
Saturday April 26

This was my last day in Italy, and Konrad had arranged for something special: a guided visit of a millenary abbey, including parts of it that weren't open to the public. We met up with a friend of his who lives near the abbey, and waited for the rest of the group and the guide to start the visit.

The church with its belltower
The abbey is that of Grottaferrata, unique in the fact it depends directly from the Pope, that its church and monastery are Greek Byzantine Catholic (the only ones in all of Western Europe), and that it is fortified. It was founded by St Nilo, helped by his follower St Bartholomew; they had arrived in this village, the story says, and were praying in the small Roman crypt called Cryptaferrata (the "iron crypt", because of the iron grills on the window) when they had a vision of the Virgin Mary telling them to build a church on this place. This they did, integrating the original crypt as one of the church's chapels. This was the year 1004; the church and monastery are known as Grottaferrata. The church's wooden door is original, a thousand year old next year! Luckily for us, just as we went into the church to visit it, the iconostasis was open (it's an ornate screen that completely hides the altar from the rest of the church in Greek church-types). It was the first time any of the regular visitors ever saw it open, and probably the last time I'll have a glimpse into that part of a Greek church (Konrad: "It's not that you're lucky, you're disgustingly lucky.")

At the end of WW2 the German troops that occupied the village made a hasty retreat, but as a parting gift they set up their mortars one last time and shot 3 shells at the abbey, aiming to destroy it in revenge. But they didn't stop to check the shells had reached their target, and something very strange happened. There is a palm tree in the abbey's garden in which you can still clearly see today, the three holes made by the shells that all lodged themselves into the tree's trunk and didn't explode. The abbey was spared, and the trunk of a palm tree is not exactly broad...

Last sight of Italy: the monastery's olive grove as we stroll around the fortified walls