Rome visit, 1951

A note by A. Margaret Jefferies (1912-1992)

"All roads lead to Rome"

Flight to Rome via Tripoli and Malta.

1951, Monday Oct 8th.

Lunched at the airport. The doctor from the Rest House was there to inspect the kitchens and insisted on standing us a sherry. Took off according to schedule, and had pleasant if somewhat noisy flight, owing to boisterous small children. Delayed for a few minutes to wait for 2 missing passengers, a Mr. and Mrs. Evans who are the only other people taking the Malta-Rome route. They had been sent to the hotel to wait, and had been forgotten.

Arrived at Castel-Benito in the middle of the night. The London passengers were told they would have to wait there until the morning owing to fog. Poor Mr and Mrs Evans had been forgotten again and no hotel reservation made for them, so they were parked in the R.A.F. camp which was far from luxurious, and I was driven in a shaky little bus with an Irish and Cockney sergeant 20 miles into Tripoli. The Irishman saw me safely into the hotel and I got to bed at 3 am.

Tripoli.. Albergo del Mehari.

1951, Tuesday Oct 9th.

The Albergo del Mehari (Hotel of the Camels) was a grandiose place. The bedrooms were small, and were arranged around several square or round courtyards with gardens and fountains in the middle. These were very attractive. The place had been built at the order of Mussolini for the Italian equivalent of the “Strength through Joy” movement. It was disorganised at this time because the kitchens and restaurant were being decorated and they would serve no meals but breakfast.

Mussolini had done his best to develop Tripoli as a holiday resort. The waterfront was beautifully laid out with gardens and avenues of palms and flowering trees and fountains.

It was about a mile and a half from the hotel to the centre of the town. I went in an Army bus by stint of attaching myself to some British Army wives. I wandered round the shops and came back in a horse cab, called a garri, all along the Front.

The garris are drawn by horses wearing scarlet plumes and tassels and driven by Italianate Arab drivers in red fezes and jackets. My impression of Tripoli was coloured red, white, and blue. The red of the Arab fez, cona everywhere in the streets, the white of the buildings of the ex-Italian empire, and the blue of the sky and sea. The quality of light was far more intense than anything we see here.

In the afternoon I got a garri driver to take me all around the town for 100 MAL. (1 MAL – Military Authority Lira = ½ d), and met the Evans again who said they had paid 200 MAL for a similar journey.

I didn't like the Arabs as well as the black West Africans. They do not laugh so much and seem more sinister. They are also dirtier and keep their poor womenfolk in utter subjection. Despite the heat, the women in the streets were muffled up in voluminous off-white wool burrowses, covering even their faces. They looked like bundles of rags.

Met some very pleasant English people in the evening who were glad to see some compatriots as the hotel was overrun with Yanks and their camp followers.

1951, Wednesday Oct 10th.

Left at 10:30 am for Malta. Should have left at 3pm on the previous afternoon, but plane was delayed by weather. As we were nearly a day late, I decided to go straight on to Rome so as to have as long a time there as possible, hoping to visit Malta on a future trip.

We stopped at Malta for refuelling. The day was beautifully clear and we got an excellent view of the island as we flew over. It looked as though it might be a bleak wind-swept place. The Evanses elected to spend the night at Malta at the Hotel Phoenicia. We had lunch as we flew over Sicily on the last stage of the journey to Rome.

At Rome

The drive from the Ciampino Airport into Rome was along the new Appian Way. This was rather spoilt by huge advertising signs all along its length. These looked incongruous against the nearby remains of the Roman aqueduct and other ruins.

Arrived at the Hotel Esperia in the Via Nazionale in time for afternoon tea, which I had with an English couple who travelled from Malta with me.

Spent the evening studying maps and guides to plan where to go in the next 2 days. Had an excellent dinner of minestrone, veal cutlet with very crisp chips and beans, cake and fresh fruit. Had a comfortable bedroom with a most palatial bathroom attached, which was larger than the bedroom itself.

The receptionist and waiters can all speak English. The liftman and chambermaid have taught me a few words of Italian. The manager sits in an office with glass doors opening immediately out of the hall. Most of the time he leaves the doors open and comes out to greet each guest personally in its own language, hopes they are comfortable and urges them to ask for anything they wish. The manager of a comparable English hotel would be too busy and too high and mighty to waste so much time merely on being polite to his customers.

1951, Thursday Oct 11th.

After breakfast, went to a local hairdresser for a shampoo and set. He couldn't speak a word of either English or French, but did a very good job. The set was perfect while it lasted but was rather ephemeral because of my lack of perm. Spent rest of the morning in buses and on foot getting a general idea of the town. The shops are all small. There are no large department stores. They have a very Bond Street air about them, and very Bond Street prices for the most part, though decorative pottery and basketwork were comparatively cheap. There seemed to be very few ready made clothes for women, but lots of shops selling nothing but materials by the metre. Roman women must have all their clothes made to measure. Walked the length of the Via Condotti, the Bond Street of Rome, described as “a perfect paradise for ladies, a perfect hell for gentlemen” and bought an ashtray in pottery ar a present for T. because of its appropriate motto “Casa senza donna, barca senza timone”

“A house without a woman is a boat without a rudder”.

Rome is a very beautiful city. Every principal street seems to end in a square surrounded by decorative buildings and containing a fountain. The fountains are all in action and look very clean and well kept. I liked especially Piazza di Spagna, which has the inevitable fountain, a low built one, Fountain of the Baraccia, backed by the flower market with its stalls shaded by huge white umbrellas. Behind the flower stalls a very wide flight of stone steps leads up to a rather Eastern looking church with two domes. St Trinita dei Monti.

We went in the afternoon to the Colosseum to a concert of operatic and orchestral music by Mascagni. We sat down in the arena opposite the door through which the lions came to eat the Christians. The choir and orchestra, decorous black clad men and women, were arranged on a platform to be a little bit higher than the audience, but still below the level of the tiers of seats where the Emperors, worthies of Rome, and the Roman proletariat used to sit to watch the show. Round these circles where the seats of the audience had once been, flares were lit and the only other lighting was from electric lamps floodlighting the performers.

It was more a feat for the eye than for the ear, as the Colosseum is not acoustically perfect, being open to the sky and very large. Some of the softer passages of the orchestra were almost lost. The choir and soloists had powerful Italian voices which came over well. As we listened, the sun set in shades of coral and blue-green, behind the mellow old Roman brickwork and the yellow circles of flares, at first almost unnoticeable, seemed to grow more intense. As a finale, just as choir and orchestra reached their last chords, coloured Bengal lights were lit in the tiers above them so that they finished against a curtain of rose, purple and green smoke.

1951, Friday Oct 12th.

Went in a sight-seeing coach to the Vatican. On the way we stopped to look at the Pantheon, the old pagan temple of the time of Hadrian, now used as a Christian church. It is a round building with a dome having a 30' wide opening at the top to let in light and air. It also lets in the rain, so the floor is made slightly convex with drainage holes to let the water run away. The dome of St Peter's is said to be a copy of the Pantheon dome.

We passed more beautiful squares and fountains. I would have liked to stop and throw a coin in the Fontana de Trevi as this is supposed to ensure returning to Rome, but the coach did not stop and I thought I would miss if I aimed it out of the window.

I was disappointed we did not have time to join St, Peter's. The Vatican Palaces are so vast and so full of treasures it is impossible to describe them. The things that I particularly remember are

  1. the spiral staircase in the entrance hall. This is quite modern and is made of pale green marble with bronze decorations. Although it looks all in one piece it is really two staircases and the ascenders and descenders never meet.

  2. A model of the Good Shepherd and his sheep in solid gold, presented to the Pope of the time by the Emperor Franz Josef of Austria. The little gold sheep were charming.

  3. The Sistine Chapel. because it seemed so overwhelming. Every inch of the ceiling is covered by famous paintings by Michael Angelo and others. I would have liked an area of plain distemper round each one in order to take it in, but no doubt this would ruin the general effect.

  1. A tapestry designed by Raphael, one of a series depicting scenes from the Gospels. It showed the Supper at Emmaeus with Christ and the 2 men sitting at a table covered with a white damask cloth, and a cat and dog waiting for scraps in the foreground. Viewed from one side the table seemed to point straight towards you. As you walked by it seemed to turn with you and viewed from the other side still seemed to be pointing towards you.

There were miles of museum galleries, intrinsically beautiful apart from their contents, and rooms decorated for Popes by famous artists of the last five centuries.

After lunch, not feeling like more concentrated sight-seeing, strolled along to look at the remains of the Roman Forum in a leisurely manner. A Mr Aarons, a butcher from Cricklewood came with me, pleased to find someone who talked his own language, and we finished up at an orchestral concert in the Theatre Argentina.

Last of all, after dinner, we walked around to the Station. Rome Station is a most attractive modern building all white concrete and plate glass – Mussolini's influence again.

1951, Sat Oct 13th.

Pleasant flight home only marred by travelling companions – Yanks, who were swearing at British Airways and everything English. B.E.A. got us in through dense cloud 10 minutes ahead of schedule despite their swears.

1950 Christmas card of St Martha on the Hill, Guildford by W Karn

“With every good wish for a very happy Xmas and peace and prosperity in 1951 – from Doris and W Karn”.

Copyright © by David Jefferies

D.Jefferies email
5th March 2005.