Strange and wonderful, isn’t it, how when you’re travelling, unintended themes emerge.
The last few weeks, it’s been the Romans! Of course they’ve left their traces all over the place around here – Mani’s family home is on an old Roman road – but on our recent travels, there the Romans have been lined up, front and centre.
That always makes me feel very ‘new world’ and aware that our history of habitation in New Zealand is as shallow as our topsoil. In Switzerland the topsoil can be metres deep. And right through those layers, are layers of human history. The wonder works both ways of course. A well-educated friend asked me the other day “You don’t have Roman ruins in New Zealand, do you?” “ Uh, no. We didn’t even have formed roads until a couple of centuries ago.”
So, the first encounter was, naturally, in Italy. We’d gone to Sirmione, on Lake Garda for a few days.
Old Sirmione, on a narrow tongue at the foot of Lake Garda, has its sentinel castle, Rocco Scaligera, at the entrance to the bulbous end of the peninsula. Many photos were taken, but imagine my delight when a Tom Esplin painting of the castle came up at Dunbar Sloane’s auction this week and I managed to snaffle it! I’ve always liked his work, and this makes a fine souvenir. Better still, it will be waiting for me in NZ – no carrying!
Back to the Romans.
A little tourist-train ride up to the top of the Sirmione peninsula – just to see what was there – took us to the entry of the Grotte di Catullo, most important example of a patrician Roman villa in Northern Italy. The blasé Europeans of our party opted for more cool drinks, but I sweated my way around the huge site, some 20,000 square metres. Extraordinary – and perhaps the prime piece of real estate in the region; lake views on three sides, and a climate moderated by the water.
There’s a bit of a conflation in the name of the place: the poet Catullus did have a family villa up there, but his death predated the construction of this particular villa by perhaps a century, so it doesn’t do to picture him declaiming here. And the “Grotte” (caves) part of the name was because by the Middle Ages the buildings were largely buried by dirt and vegetation – so it’s better just to let the place speak for itself. As it does, of sophisticated engineering and society.
We got a really good look at that engineering later, in the Mosel Valley. There are a number of Roman villas there, and in the one at Mehring you can get a good look at the hypocaust, the system that provided under-floor heating through the villa, and hot water to the baths.
The other quite contemporary thing about it was the way the owners added on rooms as their establishment increased. Another child, more servants, perhaps a granny flat… ending up with 34 rooms by the time the Germanic peoples decided to take back their land in about 355AD.
But by then, the glorious foundations of the Mosel were well and truly laid … in the Roman Wine Road, which complemented the less-reliable river.
Bless the Romans desire to have wine wherever they went: we’ll tag along joyfully.
And this visit, we really sampled Trier, at the southern end of the Mosel Valley. The first time we went to the Mosel, we drove into Trier, the wrong way, up a bus lane. Inauspicious start. Found a carpark, enquired at a hotel and were quoted an eye-watering price. Out of there! The upside then was discovering Trittenheim, a small town dedicated to wine and good food in a hairpin bend of the river, to which we keep returning.
This time finally we risked Trier again, and loved it. The city was developed as the second Rome – the Romans’ ruling base this side of the Alps. Augustus established the original town in about 16 BC, and by the end of the 3rd Century AD it was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. A bridge built then still carries city traffic. The Porto Nigra stands sentinel, and huge bath complexes are still being excavated.
Much of the amphitheatre has disappeared, its stones being recycled over the centuries. But you can explore the cellars under the arena. A while back we’d seen a television programme reconstructing the underground stage machinery for lifting cages of lions, gladiators, and other entertainment into the centre of such arenas. Amazing to be able to visualise that. A couple of weeks before in Verona I’d just prowled around the outside of the arena, saving the excitement of being inside for when we go back there for the opera, maybe next year. But here in Trier, you could stand in the centre and conjure up the thunderous reality of roaring crowds and animals, the terror, the horror, and the exaltation.
Awe-inspiring, those ancient Romans.
And of course, you can’t help but wonder what the traces we leave will say about us.
The past is never dead. It’s not even past.