Rome Journal

Andrew moves to Italy. Hilarity ensues.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006


Okay, in honor of July-- Sicily Month-- here's a post about the rockinest ancient in all of Sicily. PANTALICA is in eastern Sicily, not too far inland from Syracuse, on the limestone plateau that rises up from the sea. It's most famous, of course, for having inspired the names of the bands Pantera and Metallica (though some rogue metalologists claim Matelica, in le Marche, as the origin of the name). And it ROCKS, DUDE!

Literally, as it turns out. The archaeological site is an isolated canyon with really dramatic limestone cliffs, into which are carved thousands of tombs:

This isn't such a great picture, but trust me, it's one of the most beautiful sites in Sicily. And one of the oldest: the oldest tombs date from the Bronze Age. As in, pre-Greek, pre-Roman, pre-just-about everything. I know basically nothing about Sicily at that period. Fortunately, I'm in good company: there's a structure there (not a tomb, a building) that either dates from the Bronze Age or the Byzantine period. Which gives you a good idea of the mystery that is Pantalica.

But even at that early date, the Pantalicans had a good idea of the majesty that is Pantalica, and the majesty that IS. ROCK. AND. ROLL. And to those who were about to rock, we salute you!

arrivederci, Roma

I've been putting off this post for two weeks- the two weeks since I got back from Rome. The year's over, and I'll end it as I've mostly spent it: as the man said, no hugging, no learning. Italy won the World Cup, I've eaten some good Vietnamese food, and there you go.

I'll keep the blog up for a while; heck, I've still got several thousand photos to sort through, and maybe I can write something semi-coherent about Italy, for at least the rest of the summer. Rock!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

El Jem is truly Outrageous.

(Okay, I admit that I've been waiting to use that title since I visited the place. Sorry. Though if you recognized that, you're the one who should be sorry, probably.)

El Jem is not much of a town nowadays. But in Roman times, Thyrsus was a wealthy place, wealthy enough to build a truly huge amphitheater. It's something like the third largest in the empire (after the Colosseum and Capua) and is very well preserved. You can see here how it dominates the teeny tiny modern buildings:

And a view of the inside of the amphitheater:

It's big! Really big! And what's cool is that, like so many Tunisian sites, they just don't really care where you go: climb all you want, they figure...


Kairouan is, according to the Tunisians, the fourth holiest city in Islam. That's maybe a debatable point- while everybody agrees on the top three cities, there are evidently a bunch of places competing for the #4 spot. Still, it's been a pilgrimage center for a long time, and I figured I'd pay it a visit.

It's okay. The Great Mosque is very interesting: its courtyard is filled with hundreds of mismatched columns taken from various Roman places around Tunisia. There's even one incongruous column whose capital has a big ol' cross on it: presumably taken from a church somewhere.

The medina is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It's actually quite nice: it's walled, and filled with twisty little streets. It's also, unfortunately, a good place to get hustled. Kairouan is the center of the Tunisian carpet industry, and everybody will try to get you into their store to buy a carpet. They have all kinds of ways of doing this: letting you know of a very very special exhibition of Berber carpets, which is ending (surprise!) today! Or you'll be invited to the roof of a building to get a view of the Great Mosque or the medina or whatever... the roof, of course, belongs to a carpet store, and as long as you're there anyway... This last one worked on me. I didn't buy a carpet, though, which didn't endear me to anybody.

Anyway, here's a less hustling-and-bustling shot of the medina. This is the street of the leather workers:

Just one other picture from Kairouan today. This one is a little odd:

I saw these signs in a few different places in Tunisia. I presume it means that cars can overheat and explode? But I'm not really sure.

the 'burbs: Carthage and Sidi Bou Said

It's sort of funny to go visit Carthage and discover that the capital of a world-spanning empire is now a suburb of Tunis. You get there by taking the local train; it takes about half an hour. Unfortunately, there's not all that much to see there. It's worth it to go to the museum up on Byrsa Hill, if only for the wonderful view. And the Antonine baths (oh those Antonines with their baths) are pretty cool.

But my favorite site was actually the tophet cemetery. It's a small place, filled with these stelae (tombstones to you and me) marking the graves of infants and small children that were sacrificed. The tophet, and the question of whether the Carthaginians practiced human sacrifice, is somewhat controversial. There are a lot of people who want to ascribe it to anti-Punic propaganda on the part of the Romans (who preferred to watch humans getting killed in the arena). But if you look at the evidence, it's pretty clear that it was a real deal.

Anyway, here's an Indiana-Jones type shot from the tophet:

Most of the stelae aren't in a tunnel like this, just outside and sort of crammed together. But this one is piu suggestivo, you know?

The tophet also had some cactuses that were in bloom, something I hadn't seen before:

Getting back on the train, I headed out to Sidi Bou Said, a lovely little town up on a rocky cliff overlooking the water. It's all very quaint and Mediterranean. Everywhere you go, there are views:

I had a late lunch at Au Bon Vieux Temps, the fanciest place I ate in Tunisia. Even so, it was pretty laid back; the food was good (fish couscous, yum) and the view was just tremendous:

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

taking the sbeitla

This set of photos is from Sbeitla, yet another of the sites that's an hour or two away from Le Kef. This one I actually visited from Kairouan- it's not too far from there, either.

Sbeïtla is a beautiful site, and very well maintained, with gardens and a great visitor center. The Tunisians have clearly made the decision to invest in the site... do I need mention that there wasn't anybody else when I was there? Too bad, because it's terrific.

It's the spot where the Byzantine army first met up with the Muslims in the West. (You can guess how that went.) Anyway, it's a great place for getting a sense of what life in North Africa was like under the Byzantines. Mainly, it was somewhat... less than pleasant; "nasty, brutish and short" comes to mind. Evidence for this sense comes from the fortified houses on the site that look like bunkers: thick walls, cramped quarters. They also built a ton of churches, most of which haven't survived too well; the main draw are the remains of the classical city.

Here's the arch of Diocletian, at one entrance of the city. I really dig the columns- it's surprising that they managed to last so long without getting nicked for some mosque:

The forum complex, seen from a ways off. At some point, somebody put a wall around the forum- I presume that this was another example of late antique things falling apart:

The Byzantines went so far as to build a new bath complex in the city (bless their little hearts); here's a detail of one of the mosaics there:

The fish motif is a constant in Roman baths, but I kind of like these particular fish. They're a little cartoony, but I think they're kind of charming.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

makthar daddy

Mactaris (the modern Makthar) is another of these sites that's an hour away from Le Kef. It's up very high (3000' or so) and was the only place I felt chilly in Tunisia.

I visited from Kef, as a stop on my way to Kairouan. My bright idea was to take the first bus there... which left at 5:30 AM. I took it, and arrived at 7:10, almost an hour before the site opened. Such an eager beaver, I am.

I was hoping for some nice morning light, but as it turned out, I just missed the rain. Here's the forum with its monumental arch of Trajan at one end:

One of the bath complexes at the site:

This is the schola iuvenum, a building I've seen alternately described as a place for educating young men in Romanness, and as a "paramilitary headquarters". Take your pick:

And finally, the other baths in Mactaris. I'm pretty sure that they haven't been fully excavated; this big arch should be a lot higher than it is:

The modern town of Makthar is pretty grim, and I wasn't too eager to stick around any longer than I had to. Unfortunately, after an hour or so at the site, I'd missed the next louage out of town and the next bus wasn't until midafternoon. But I persuaded another louage driver to drop me off in Kairouan: he charged me 8 dinars (about $6), which made everybody standing around snicker about how the American was getting ripped off...

everything's happy underground

Bulla Regia isn't far from Le Kef; it's a Roman city notable for its underground villas. They're not completely underground, but they have underground courtyards with bedrooms leading off of them: basically a standard atrium layout, moved ten feet lower. They're warm in the winter and cool in the summer; I could feel the temperature drop by a few degrees as I went down into them.

This is from the House of the Hunt. Check out the cool hexagons:

This is another site that was pretty much empty except, oddly, for a couple making out in one of the houses.

tunisian high plains drifter

I spent two nights in Le Kef and really enjoyed it. It's a small- to medium-sized town with a great location, about an hour away from a good half-dozen sites, including Dougga and Bulla Regia. There's not all that much to do there, and so it's pretty empty of tourists, just a relaxed, laid-back kind of place.

Le Kef is on a ridge that overlooks the high plains of the northwest. When the sun goes down, it gets all purty and stuff: here are some photos I took then.

It's a very steep walk up to the casbah:

The main mosque in the old part of town. The piazza in front has a nice cafe and as you can tell from all the people, is a pleasant place to hang out in the evenings:

These kids were playing soccer, but when they saw me taking pictures, they switched immediately to showing off their ninja moves. A dangerous bunch:

The mosque at sunset. You can see the fields in the background; this part of Tunisia has been the breadbasket of the country since Punic times, growing grain and all kinds of fruits and vegetables. (When I was there, watermelons were in season, and everywhere I went, there were huge piles of melons for sale. They looked really good, but I was backpacking; what was I going to do with a watermelon?)

Dougga-E Fresh

So I'm back from Tunisia, basking in the cool cool air-conditioned goodness of my office, and enjoying food that I know won't send me to an all-afternoon session on the john. Hooray for the First World!

A great trip, one that I'm still processing a little bit. I've got some notes that I'll try to write up into something coherent, but in a meantime, I want to post a big ol' mess of photos from the trip, beginning with Dougga. It's a crazy-cool site, up on a ridge in the hill country of the northwest. Most of what's there is second century CE; the place did very well for itself under the Antonines and Severans. Later on, not so much.

I got there mid-morning, spent about four hours there, and had the place almost completely to myself: for the first three hours, I saw one other visitor. After that, a German tour group showed up and I had to share the place; sigh. But it's really shocking just how empty a lot of these sites are, especially after coming from Rome (or Florence, or Venice) in June... rock!

Anyway, here are some photos, with minimal commentary:

This is the temple of Juno/Tanit, which to my eye looks like a crazy mix of Punic and Roman architecture: it's peripteral, and on a platform. But the columns just seem to have enclosed a sanctuary, with only a little teeny tiny cella, something that (I think) is more Carthaginian than anything else. Anyway, it's cool:

The scaena of the theater:

This arch is from the Antonine baths (built by Caracalla). They're very well-preserved, down to the access tunnels running underneath. I think that this is the palaestra, but I'd have to check:

And the capitolium:

It's definitely the most impressive building at Dougga, parked right in the middle of the forum at the top of the hill. The city is sort of bracketed between two temples to Carthaginian gods: the Tanit/Juno temple I showed above, and on the other side of town, one to Baal/Saturn. They're both kind of non-standard Roman temples; but right here in the middle is as canonical a Roman temple as you could ask for:

Only the finest for Jupiter and the symbol of Romanitas...

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Thugga Life 4-evah

So here I am in Tunisia (and wrestling with a Tunisian keyboard; apologies in advance for typos). Tunisia couldn't be more beautiful, and the Tunisians couldn't be more friendly. I,m having a blast.

So far, the visits have been just about all Roman, all the time; today I went to the city of Dougga (the ancient Thugga): an absolutely amazing site sort of in the middle of nowhere, in the hill country of north-central Tunisia. I should have some good pictures when I get back; in the meantime, here is one of the highlights (not my photo), the 'Libyan-Punic' tomb:

This bad boy is pre-Roman, probably the cenotaph of a Numidian king. Outrageous Hellenistic architecture (I love the chariots and lions) even if it's not so subtle in its message...

Lots more cool stuff at Dougga, and the best part wqs that the site was almost completely empty. In fact, I've seen hardly any tourists at all outside of Tunis; I asked the caretaker at the casbah of Le Kef, and he said that it wqs because of the World Cup... the only people traveling are old people, folks who don't like sports and Americans...

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

send lawyers, guns and money

Italian intellectual property laws seem to be... somewhat more flexible than in America. Or at least they aren't enforced with the same vigor and enthusiasm that you see in the US. Lots of products over here are advertised with the unofficial help of various fixtures of American pop culture; for example, there's a brand of orzo espresso (a nasty drink made from grain) that has Bugs Bunny on its machines. Somehow it seems unlikely that Warner Brothers okayed that...

Anyway, here are a couple of examples that I thought were particularly interesting. First, on the side of an orange truck that we passed on the road going through Calabria:

Because nothing says oranges than turtle ninjas. Though if I remember right, they preferred junk food: still, we're all watching our health nowadays.

Here is another one, seen on the street in Naples:

Okay, this is maybe less a case of trademark violation and more one of WHAT THE HELL CAN THEY POSSIBLY BE THINKING? The O' Talebano (that's either Neapolitan dialect or an Irish affectation) snack bar? It's unlikely that Osama is going to file a cease and desist order any time, but really... My favorite part is that they deliver to your house; because who wouldn't want a visit from O' Talebano?

Sunday, June 04, 2006

a tale of two fish markets

I've been thinking a lot about fish lately, prompted by a project I'm beginning on fish in Roman culture and literature. It's not a bad thing to work on here, since it gives me the excuse to do some research on fish in modern Italy. By "research", of course, I mean mostly "eating"-- but I've been looking into fish in other ways as well.

You wouldn't think it from visiting coastal Italy (or, for that matter, an inland city like Rome), but the Mediterranean is actually relatively fish-poor, at least compared to the ocean. Modern fishing techniques mean that it's not too hard to get a variety of fish to market. But some parts of the peninsula have historically had better access to fish than others, and that access is reflected on a consumer level by the presence of large fish markets. I'm going to look at two of these, from opposite ends of Italy.

The first of these is pretty famous, the Rialto fish market in Venice. Venice's lagoon, with its shallow, brackish water, is a great environment for attracting the wide variety of fish that are the hallmark of Venetian cuisine. The importance of fish for Venice is highlighted by the elegant architecture of the market.

The structure, built in 1907, is a wide portico with room for two rows of stalls, facing onto the Grand Canal. It's easily the loveliest fish market I've ever seen (okay, not that much competition there...) The column capitals along the outside are all in the shape of different fish, boats, etc.:

I didn't see any turtles for sale at the market! But these guys are pretty cute. The architect (whom my guidebook lists as the painter Cesare Laurenti) was clearly having some fun, while maintaining a traditional Venetian appearance.

As the city of Venice has shrunk (there are about 60,000 people in central Venice, down from 200,000 a century ago), the importance of the market has decreased. Restaurants buy a lot of fish, of course, but they mostly get it from the wholesale market, and while tourists might buy an apple or cherries, a whole mackerel or bag o' shrimp doesn't tend to fit well into a suitcase! As a result, when I was there (late May), the market was only about half-occupied by stalls, and many of the people walking around were (like me) tourists with cameras, rather than shoppers.

Too bad, because the seafood there is absolutely gorgeous. I'm pretty bad with seafood names (in English or Italian)- so please feel free to help me out in comments... Here's one I do know, some nice looking red mullets:

They're particular favorites of mine, both because the Romans loved 'em (as pets and as food), and because, hey: "red mullet". hee!

There's a lot of care put into displaying fish (it helps that I arrived at around 8 AM, when things were just starting to gear up):

Here are some canocce: alien-looking crustaceans that are very characteristic of Venice. I don't know if they live elsewhere:

I love those "eyes". This is a close-up, obviously, but lots of the vendors stack them up like so much fishy cordwood. We had canocce for dinner that night (at Alle Testiere); they're sweet and tender, sort of between really fresh Gulf shrimp and crab.

Here's a bucket o' eels:

Still alive: that one in the center was flapping its gills and glaring balefully at me. I have to admit something here and say that eels squick me out a little, and this guy didn't really change things for me...

The fruit and vegetable market is right next to the fish market. There's a nice selection, but it didn't strike me as especially distinctive:

Hey you! Get back to the piazza San Marco! (And memo to shoppers: be sure to wash that eggplant well!

The other fish market I've visited that really impressed me was way at the other end of Italy, in Syracuse. Sicilian seafood is of course famous, and rightly so. Like Venice, Sicilians have been able to exploit their environment to get access to lots of different kinds of seafood. In this case, the straits of Messina provide naturally good fishing grounds. The small space creates a difference in temperature between the western and eastern Mediterranean, something that attracts fish. And the narrow straits funnel fish, making them easier to catch.

The market in Syracuse is on the island of Ortygia, steps away from the temple of Apollo and next to the small harbor. It stretches for about two or three blocks on a small street. Not as picturesque as the Venice market, but with at least as good a selection of fish, and with a more vibrant atmosphere.

Here are some anchovies. Or maybe sardines. I'm not really sure, actually:

To misquote Maurice Chevalier, "thank heaven for leetle feesh!" I've really come to love the miniature members of the scaly tribe: alici sott'olio? Oh yeah. It's a real shame that Americans are so fixated on steak fish (salmon, tuna, etc.); I'm sure whether I'll be able to get them back in the US. Anyway, it's an excuse to eat as many as possible now...

I don't know what this thing is. But it kind of scares me. Probably it's delicious, but I wouldn't have the faintest idea what to do with it. Other than back away slowly...

Again, not really sure what these are. I just think they're really beautiful. As with these:

Let's just call those last photos "two studies in stripes."

Finally, the biggest fish in the market that day, a nice-looking tuna:

Everybody is impressed (and rightly so), even that kid in the corner. Yum!

I love Syracuse; it's a beautiful, friendly city with wonderful food and a fascinating history. One of my fantasies-- once I win the lottery, you know-- is to move there and just cook fish every single day. Someday, maybe...