You must excuse the awful Sun-pun, but every journalist must have his day. And the Good Wife and I have just got back from a few days in the so-called Eternal City to celebrate 25 years of exceptionally harmonious marriage. (Vicissitudes? We spit upon them.)
Having studied Ancient History and learnt all my Latin gerunds and gerundives up to A-level, it was a trip down a very long Memory Lane. I often say that France looks after its patrimony with much more diligence than we do in the mother country, and wandering around some medieval village here is a thing of wonder. In Rome, however, you plunge into a deep bubbling Jacuzzi of history. There are ruins everywhere and Renaissance piles at every turn of the street. After a while you become quite blasé. Even all the Roman gladiators become just a part of the tourist landscape.
I came across my first gladiators on the second evening there. We were exploring some of the byways of the historic centre, just down from the overpopulated Spanish Steps. There was a crowd milling outside some vast domed rotunda and a few gladiators in plastic breastplates were up to something. Probably fleecing tourists rather than despatching lions. Debs remembered that she had stayed here once many moons ago during one of her theatrical tours of Italy with a small company of hopefuls. There it was: her stylish hotel, bang opposite what revealed itself to be the Pantheon.
Like the extraordinary churches and basilica, sometimes sandwiched between residential buildings, the Pantheon is free – for which we must thank the current civil civic descendants of Marcus Agrippa, because Rome is a very expensive city and there's a steep price to pay for excess sightseeing. What a monument it is, too. Less imposing and a lot less pompous than St. Peter's, I nevertheless wandered around its musty interior open-mouthed with hands clasped reverentially behind my back in an Anglo-Saxon attitude of our Royal Family.
Roman civic engineering never fails to astonish. With only slaves, ladders, pulleys and a whole lot of architectural sophistication, they managed to put up edifices that will last much longer than Mussolini's preposterous 'wedding cake'. The 43m diameter of the Pantheon is precisely equal to its height and the hole in the dome, though a mere pinprick from floor level, is 9m across. But it's the apparent absence of anything structural to hold it all in place that is so very impressive.
There were Roman gladiators everywhere the next morning when we went early after our meagre Italian breakfast to the Colosseum. Some carried short swords and one, I noticed, carried a chain and a net, but not a trident to be seen. It wasn't important because you can let your imagination run amok when you look down from the first-level perimeter at the arena. Those about to die, all the terrified men and wild animals, were winched up from below to the slaughter for the entertainment of the spectators baying in the bleachers. My wife, who is a portal through time, could smell animal dung strongly from the bowels of the monstrous building. Me, I smelt nothing, but felt the awe and the horror in equal measures.
Everywhere like the Colosseum and its appendices, the Forum and the Capitoline Hill (where I'm sure I heard the bellowing voice of Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius somewhere near the house of his poisonous mother, Livia) seems to provide one long portrait opportunity. Rome is Selfie City. The most popular merchandise peddled by the Asian street vendors seemed to be a 'selfie-stick'. It's an apparatus that looks a little like a device for opening unreachable windows. You put your iPhone in its prehensile claw, hold it out in front of you, smile at the camera and then do something like press a button or pull a little connecting wire – and hey presto, it's Facebook! Here's me in front of the Colosseum... and there's me standing underneath the Arch of Titus... Selfie, selfie, selfie sir? No thank you, squire. Feel free, though, to stick your stick up the parts that other sticks can't reach.
Actually, I felt very sorry for the street vendors. We made a point of declining their wares with a wave and a smile, because these poor guys are abroad from morn till midnight, trying to offload their tacky products on tourists with euros to waste in an attempt to earn some kind of living. I hope they manage it, because it's no life and, typically, it seems to be a life that only the much reviled immigrants are prepared to take on. I wouldn't last long. I'd turn into a close cousin of the wild-eyed barking man we spotted near the central station on our way to our Air B&B billet on the first evening.
From up on the Capitoline Hill, where the ghost of Brian Blessed broadcasts his imperial edicts, you can look down on the bewildering Forum and, with a heap of imagination, picture the madding crowd in togas and sandals. From another vantage point you can look down on the bewildering city of today and glimpse the dome of St. Peter's, locate the Tiber, speculate on the seven hills and generally fail to find any kind of topographical urban logic.
It is indeed a bewildering place. There are two metro lines and there are trams and a fleet of buses, but the destinations they display might as well be in Singapore. You have to be prepared to walk – and walk and walk. A map and a clean pair of reading glasses are indispensable. Even so, neither of us managed to orientate ourselves. I have a pretty good sense of direction, but Rome is a maze. We even got lost trying to find our way out of the Forum.
When the predicted rain fell in torrents on the Thursday afternoon, we decided to go in search of a vaguely advertised Chagall exhibition. The Italians, we were told by our B&B host – a charming man whose work as a costume designer for film and theatre does not appear to equip him for providing proper breakfasts to his guests – are not generally good at publicising cultural events. We asked at least six people where to find the venue. Although in the general area, we spent at least an hour circling it in the pouring rain. I felt a little like Donald Sutherland chasing the red dwarf in Don't Look Now through the alleyways of Venice. Always just out of reach... Until suddenly we turned a corner and there it was. At the ticket office, they promised a free trip to the shop and cafeteria if we paid the hefty admission. But it was worth the cheek; a marvellous exhibition that endeared me even more to the man who died at a great age in his adopted France.
Rome is bewildering and very expensive and scribbled all over by graffiti artists and littered by louts, but it's a rather wonderful city. An open city, in fact, as Roberto Rossellini's film suggested. Open like the buffets that a few establishments offer in the evening. A glass of wine and food on tap for €10, which helped keep us solvent till our rail trip to Tuscany at the weekend to visit friends in the kind of stunning verdant scenery that reminded me of the foothills of the Pyrenees. It was cold and wet, but they cooked like TV chefs and the weekend was a welcome respite from all our spine-jarring treks over asphalt and paving stones.
The sun shone brightly once more on the Monday and our train trip back to Rome was memorable for an encounter with a voluble globe trotter. He came over to sit with us to tell us about his life, his economic and political theories, the pamphlets on obscure subjects that he has written, his friends in high places, his artistic and philosophical contacts and the socio-economic history of the territory surrounding Rome. At first, we exchanged nervous glances, but any discomfort we might have felt was soon dispelled by the realisation that this wasn't a madman, more the kind of highly intelligent polymath whose teeming brain has little truck for social niceties. Neither of us will forget our train ride with a man who walks a tightrope between genius and lunacy.
We spent our final night in a hotel on the third floor of a building converted into a nest of hotels. One on every floor. This particular one was run by the most delightful diminutive dark-haired Italian signora who, for once, couldn't speak a word of English. We just about managed with our picco-piccolo Italian. She was most concerned that we were off before eight the next morning, since we would miss out on the breakfast that was included in the price. So she loaded up a plate from the kitchenette with those arid pre-packed biscotti that crumble upon impact with individual packs of butter and jam. I love Italian cuisine, but the breakfasts are not worth the plastic they're packaged in.
Our absurd journey back to Toulouse on Tuesday took us via Brussels with Brussels Airlines. All that way north to go all that way south again. So we spent too long hanging about airports, which is never a pleasure – although Munich airport on the way out offered an idea of what is possible. Lufthansa offers clients little stations where you can make yourselves coffee, tisanes, green tea and such like. The airport is clean and organised and redolent of a civilised country like Germany. Why didn't we choose to live there? I wondered. There's much to be said for order. On the other hand, there's just as much for the kind of ingratiating disorder that you find in somewhere like Rome. Maybe in France we've found a commodious plot of middle ground.