Chapter 19: Last visit to Rome before sailing to Australia


Barcelona,  25th November, 1960

Dear Mum and Dad

The few days in Andalusia were wonderful, but getting  to Barcelona from Granada was rushed,  I was hoping to unravel all the knotty complications surrounding my plans to sail home and also my finances once my mail arrived. Unfortunately, no correspondence had arrived here either, so once I cleared my head and steadied my nerve, I realised  that the first thing to do was write to you post haste, and accept your loan offer, Daddy, as I am very close to broke!  

I thought it wouldn’t be necessary — a long story, and I’ll let you into the secret as soon as I get to Rome. – so could you please cable me an order of payment to the head office of the Banco di Napoli, Roma so it will reach me well before the Arcadia leaves on Dec.7th.  £100 should cover all contingencies — I don’t expect to spend it all, but best to have too much than too little!

A first and last glimpse across Barcelona at Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia Basilica – still under construction!

I had expected to return to Italy by train, but time is running short to get everything sorted, and hopefully that will happen when I get to Rome, so I’ve decided to return there by plane tomorrow afternoon – very extravagant, I know, – double the cost  of the two train fares, as well as  breaking with backpacker tradition!

On arrival I’ll go first to Thomas Cook’s to check for mail, then to the Calvary hospital, where the nuns have kept my room in the nurses quarters, and then I will bring you up to date with my departure plans.  

Next, as soon as I get my breath back, with my good temper and sanity restored, I will write all about wonderful Andalusia and Barcelona. All this has put me in a spin but I assure you, it has been worth every minute of it.

Meantime, there is still time to explore a little of Barcelona before I take off for Rome tomorrow.

 In haste, but with lots of loving wishes




  C/-Thomas Cook and son. Via Veneto. Roma. 27/11/ 60

Dear Mum and Dad,

Stop Press! Here comes another rushed letter. I am hoping the one I wrote from Spain asking you to send money has just arrived, and that you haven’t had time to act on it, as I have finally received the critical news I’ve been waiting for and I will no longer need it.

Flying back to  Rome proved the right thing to do, and everything has now fallen into place regarding my return to Australia. Explanation!   When Uncle George was here some weeks ago, he suggested that I apply for a passage back on one of the migrant ships working as an assistant escort – a really exciting idea, and an opportunity for unique experience very different from the trip over, What’s more, I’d be earning my keep instead of having to pay for my fare.

I applied five weeks ago and until today had received no reply, and had virtually given up hope of travelling this way. I now know that I have been accepted, and will sail on a ship leaving from Genoa on 15th December and arriving Sydney about 11th of January.

I have said nothing of this before now to avoid worrying you yet again as to when my arrival would be. It will only be a little later than the Arcadia’s arrival, but worth it money wise! My work contribution on board is to assist in giving English lessons to the migrants as well as general supervision duties. Should be interesting!

So now, no money top-up needed!  I will write straight away to the Bank of England, cancelling my passage on the Arcadia, and asking for an immediate fare refund.  I hope this turn around will work OK at your end.  I am excited by the change in plans, and time will still go quickly till I see you all again.

 Such a relief to find two letters waiting here from you, Mummy.  

Much love to everyone…


Lewisham Hospital.  Via San Stefano Rotondo. Rome. 29th Nov.1960

Dearest Jan,

This letter is to add my voice to all those wishing you a wonderful birthday celebration on Dec.6th. and congratulating you as you ‘come of age’!  and hoping that it will bring you abundant health and happiness and everything that you would wish for yourself.

I wish I was there in person – let’s do something special together to celebrate once I’m home. I hear that Leonie will arrive home from boarding school just in time — she would have hated to miss all the fun. What do you have planned? You did say the house was looking a bit too run down for a party, but mum seems to have done quite a lot of renovating since then. and I read that you’ve done a great job of kalsomining the basement. What a job! Is the ping-pong table still down there? I’m looking forward to hearing all the details. Uncle wrote that he gave the present I chose for you to mum. I do hope you like it.

It was so good getting back to my little room in the nurses quarters of the hospital, which by the way, is the Mother House of the Calvary order of nuns.)   Everyone was very welcoming and interested about my adventures, and they, in turn, helped me catch up with general news about Italy and Australia.

Right now I am busy getting sorted for the big take-off, and feeling very excited, if a little apprehensive about my final choice of travel, working my passage on a migrant ship! Thankfully, my suitcase of winter clothes has finally turned up from Paris,

 I loved the flight coming across from Barcelona to Rome — what a luxury it was, even if it did cost twice as much as by train – such a novelty being able to look down upon both cities from such a height. The Mediterranean water is intensely blue, and the boats and ships below seemed so tiny.

Flying the expensive way proved interesting for other reasons as well. As I was getting on to the plane, an Italian man insisted on carrying my hand luggage for me, and somehow managed to get the seat next to mine!. He wanted to know all my comings and goings, told me that he was a ‘widower’, his name was Roberto, and had a daughter my age, and of course I reminded him of her. Being a father made him worry for my parents not having heard my voice for over two years, and he would like to pay for me to phone them, to assure them that I was okay!  or even better, that I should simply fly back directly to Australia at his expense, and give my family the joy of having me home by Christmas, so avoiding all of this fussing around with ships!!   Assured me that it would be no problem for him to help in any way he could as he was a millionaire!

He was disappointed when I said no thank you. He swore that his intentions were entirely honourable — he just loved helping people – Italy’s philanthropic version of Edward Hallstrom  perhaps, except that he made his millions selling coal, not refrigerators! I was sceptical of his claim to so much wealth till I later checked the telephone directory, and found that whereas most people in Rome have one phone number, there were six listed under his name ! 

The Sisters at the hospital loved hearing the story, and were amused when he turned up next day with a magnificent assortment of cakes and pastries for them, and asked me out for an afternoon’s sightseeing.  

That turned out to be quite interesting in spite of all the Blarney. He wanted me to see the best of modern Rome, so we drove southwest to a new business and suburban area known as the EUR, an abbreviation of Esposizione Universale di Roma, where a massive World Fair had been planned by Benito Mussolini in the 30s to celebrate the beginning of the Fascist era. The Fair didn’t eventuate — World War II intervened, but building continued after the war, and the great white marble halls became government offices and business centres, as well as an interesting museum displaying a huge model of Rome as it was in Constantine’s day.

The Palace of the Civilization of Work in the EUR. western Rome

The most outstanding landmark, which we had already glimpsed coming in by train from the airport, is the Palace of the Civilization of Work, better known as the Square Coliseum, a grandiose sample of Fascist architecture built using white travertine marble — very impressive in a rather stark sort of way, the style and general atmosphere reminding me of the Memorial of the Valley of the Fallen near Madrid, both built by modern day Caesars at about the same time!

On the way home, my philanthropic friend said that I shouldn’t be leaving Rome without experiencing the delights of its high society, and offered to escort me to all the elite high spots, and he also felt it wasn’t right that I should be living in a hospital — said that he could find me something cosy and more suitable!

By now, he was becoming less “father-like”  and found it astonishing that his plans for me didn’t seem to be winning me over! So the friendship ended as quickly as it started. – I’m going to put it all in a book someday!

 I’m off to the post to make sure you get this in time. My stories of southern Spain will  have to wait.    Many many happy returns and very much love from your big sister….


 Via san Stefano Rotondo. Rome. December 7th.1960

 Dear Family,

Only another week to go and I will be in Genova, ready to board the Conte Grande. I understand that she has been a well-known tourist ship from the Lloyd Triestino line, usually sailing between Italy and New York and is soon to retire, but for now, has been requisitioned to make one or two trips carrying European migrants from Italy to Australia. The Arcadia will be sailing out of Tilbury today; I am so relieved not to have to make the long journey overland to England before setting out for home. Once back from Spain, I would have had to get everything together very rapidly and set out almost immediately for London.

As it is, I’m happily getting myself organised and doing some last minute shopping and final sightseeing without too much pressure. In spite of having spent quite a lot of time over the last couple of years in Italy, I have barely managed to scratch the surface when it comes to getting to know Rome. I am very grateful to Mother Bernadette, who has assured me that it is okay to stay on here till it’s time to go north.

Pope John 23rd in the Vatican  circa 1960

Breakfast time in the visitors’ dining room continues to be interesting. Cardinal Gilroy has just returned to Australia. He would sit at the head of the table at breakfast, excited as a young schoolboy, regaling us with stories – discrete ones of course – of what was happening at the Vatican as plans progress for the Ecumenical Council. The consensus seems to be that the elderly Pope John 23rd was intended by the Curia and other conservative cardinals to be an interim Pope, not expected to live too long, and certainly not seen as a reformist. It is now apparent that beneath his gentle self-effacing manner he was a man of great purpose and courage, and perhaps, not a little wily.

An Irish priest is staying here at the moment – Father O’Rourke – his first visit to Italy. He is quite a character — dresses simply in a grey suit with an open collar. He lives in South Africa. His work is in the heart of Durban amongst the Indian population there. He has lots to tell about the oppression of the ”Cape -coloureds” who are confined to restricted areas, forbidden to intermarry, women losing all legal rights and children often declared illegitimate — another very ugly aspect of apartheid that we hear very little about. Many Indians had originally been imported as indentured labourers in the 1800s. Mahatma Gandhi has done much to encourage passive resistance there as well as in India.

The Church of San Stefano Rotondo   Roma

He and I decided this morning to do a little sightseeing together, so we started with the Church of Santo Stefano Rotondo, which is just at the end of the street. (In Rome there is a church on every corner).

This is one of the oldest churches in Rome, built in the fifth century in a circular shape with a drum shaped dome on top supported by internal Ionic columns. You may gather that it’s the Church that is rotund rather than St Steven! 

Unfortunately the charm of its simple design was marred in the 16th century by adding lots of frescoes on the internal walls graphically detailing different methods of torture of  Christian martyrs – very off-putting!

 We quickly moved on to the next church at the other end of the street – the great Basilica of St John Lateran with its imposing façade, its beautiful cloisters and gardens, all adjoining the mediaeval Lateran Palace, and which look out over a huge piazza, with Rome’s oldest Egyptian obelisk in its centre.

The whole vast complex butts onto the 3rd century Auralian Wall, and nearby parts of Emperor Nero’s Aqueduct and the aqueduct of Claudius are visible from here.

The history of the wall surrounding ancient Rome including its seven Hills and the aqueducts built to provide the city’s water supply deserve a story on their own. Much of the 11-mile long ancient wall is still standing, and the city can still be entered through most of the gates, including Porta Maggiore which is nearby. The Romans used large slabs of basalt — a hard volcanic rock — to seal their roads, and some of the original worn surface can still be seen on the road coming through the arch of the gateway nearly 2000 years later.

I find the aqueducts extraordinary. At Porta Maggiore alone, water from different sources beyond the city came in through six aqueducts. The Aqua Claudia was built in A.D. 52, was 43 miles long, and 9 miles of it were constructed above the ground supported by majestic arches. My first glimpse of them earlier on was when I came in to the city by car along the famous Apian Way.

The original church and baptistery was Rome’s first Christian basilica, built by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. Popes were crowned there up till 1870 in the Lateran Palace. It rivaled St Peters until after the popes moved to Avignon when Rome went into decline, largely as a result of war and disease. Today it is listed as one of the four great Basilicas of the Church in Rome, the others being St Peters, St.Pauls beyond the Walls, and Santa Maria Maggiore.

On the opposite side of the piazza is a famous pilgrimage site, the Scala Santa or Holy Steps, reputed to be the staircase Jesus climbed for his meeting with Pontius Pilate and later brought from Jerusalem to Rome! Tradition forbids anyone from walking up the holy steps but many thousands of believers have climbed them on their knees.

We were both feeling a little sceptical and reluctant to join in, but did attempt to do so. We didn’t get very far before my stockings began to ladder, and a couple of very severe looking old Italian ladies dressed in traditional black hissed and shook their fingers at us for talking. It was hard to take it all seriously and not

Magnificent gold and blue mosaic ceiling in the church of St. Mark the apostle – 9th century.

to start laughing and this made things worse, so we were forced to retreat. They would have been even more disapproving if they had realized my friend was a priest! Not my best pilgrimage experience!

Just next door, we noticed an unusual facade with a large recess decorated with a beautifully restored mosaic from the eighth century depicting Christ with the 12 Apostles, and showing a Pope and the Emperor Constantine to the left of them, and the next Pope and the Emperor Charlemagne to their right — a fine example, I thought, of how strongly blended the powers of church and state have been over the centuries.

Father John had only seen St Peter’s and the Vatican so far, and was fast becoming as bemused as I was when I first arrived here by the grandeur and ceremonial and wealth of much of the Church of Rome. He is finding that it is such a long cry from his modest little parish in Durban and his early life in Ireland. I have been cheering him up with stories of Pope John who has promised ‘to open up the windows’ and let the winds of change blow through the institution.

Imperial Roman ruins in the Parco di Colle Opio Roma

 Next, we set off down the Via San Giovanni Laterano towards the Coliseum and were beginning to think about lunch. We were directed to Cafe Opio up on the hill in the Parco di Colle Opio where there is a great view overlooking the Coliseum. It was a perfect spot and the food was delicious. I suggested a Rome specialty — spaghetti a la carbonara – a pasta in a rich creamy sauce made with eggs cheese and bacon. Visitors who are missing their traditional bacon and eggs love it. It’s a bit rich for me, so I had pasta alla marinara which has a sauce with a great mix of seafood.

Then it was time to take a break and relax there in the park for a while during the siesta hour.

Remains of the Roman Forum – once the seat of a great Empire

We had come right into the heart of what remains of imperial Rome. Nearby were some old ruins — a tiny part of Emperor Nero’s notorious palaces, the bits that didn’t get burnt, and further on was the ancient Forum, but that would have to wait for another day.

As we came down the hill, we were just opposite the church of San Clemente, my favourite church so far — the best place to see layers of Roman history built one on top of the other. I had seen it when I first came to Rome last year.

We entered the 12th century church at street level, explored some of the fine art treasures still preserved there including a beautiful spiralling Paschal Candlestick covered in sparkling mosaics — I have discovered that the gold effect amongst the little coloured tiles of mosaics is achieved by fusing gold leaf to small pieces of clear glass. Just imagine! – The art of using mosaics on walls and paved areas for decoration and illustration developed in ancient Rome and continued to be used in Christian churches during the first millennium as well as in Moslem architecture..

Irish Dominican monks were given charge of the church in the 17th century, and in the middle of the 1800s one Father Mullooly began excavating the site, and this work still continues today. One of the Friars here was very happy to meet another Irish priest and offered to take us to the level below to the fourth century church where there are still frescoes illustrating St Clemente’s life, and also a catacomb from that era containing wall tombs.

The really interesting part below that level again was the Temple of Mithras, containing an altar in a ceremonial room, showing Mithras slaying the Bull. The Mithrians came from Persia in the first century at about the same time as the Christians arrived and their religion also became popular among the Romans. The more the excavations have gone on, the more ancient Roman buildings continue to be uncovered and the monks are very proud of their work. 

From there, we only had to walk around one more corner and head off on one more long road to finally arrive full circle back to San Stefano from where we had set out some hours ago. It had been a great day!

 I have just received your latest letter Mummy, and I was upset to read that Jan was quite unwell again. I do hope she was able to recover and enjoy her birthday. You have done so well with all the house renovations and have everything looking spick and span for Christmas, and I’m really looking forward to seeing the results. Time now for you get as much rest and relaxation as possible — not that easy for you, I know!

I have been able to get an address for forwarding mail to me during the voyage. It is T/n Conte Grande/– Volkart Bros.Prince St.Colombo.You would probably miss getting a letter to Suez in time. Our first stop will be at Naples where we will be taking on more migrants and I will post the next letter to you from there.

It is all beginning to feel really exciting now and I have been fortunate to fit in one last week of exploration around my beloved Rome.   Wish me luck with my new adventure at sea!   I’ll write again when I am on board.

   Much love, see you all soon!