When in Rome

My October trip to Greece included a three-night sojourn in Rome, which came about when my original travel plans changed. I had planned to meet a dear friend from the States and spend a week with her in Positano on the Amalfi coast. When these plans fell through I was left with a return flight from Athens to Rome and a question mark as to what to do next.

I didn’t want to be in Positano without my friend, but I love Italy and I didn’t want to just cancel the trip altogether. I sat on the decision of what to do with this flight to Rome till a couple of weeks before I flew out to Europe. In the end it was the accommodation that persuaded me. I found an absolutely delightful boutique hotel near the Spanish Steps called the Relais Donna Lucrezia. I booked three nights there – the perfect amount of time for a little get-away.

The last time I was in Rome was in 1991 when I was 21. I was young and naïve, and I was on a very tight budget. I barely had money for food, let alone things like tours. I travelled everywhere on public transport and crammed in as many touristy activities (that were free) as I could in five days, often rushing from one famous location to another.

the author at the Vatican in 1991

At the Vatican, 1991

I visited the Colosseum for no more than twenty minutes in 1991 as I was pressed for time. Yes – it seems ridiculous to me too! This time I spent two hours inside and took an audio tour (as the guides were booked out). The Colosseum is one of those places that people know about even if they’ve never stepped a foot in Italy or studied ancient history. But to actually be there and contemplate the reality of people being brutally murdered there for entertainment was quite an emotional experience.

Colosseum

The Colosseum – busy even in late October

St Peters Basilica exterior

St. Peter’s Basilica

St Peters Basilica interior

St. Peter’s Basilica interior

I also visited St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel when I was 21 and was awed by both. It was a no-brainer to visit again, but this time I took a guided tour of both the Vatican museums and the Basilica – and it was great. Our guide was fantastic, combining history with fascinating stories, saucy rumours and funny anecdotes. It was a three-hour tour in very, very crowded circumstances but our guide kept us constantly engaged with the art around us.

When we got to the Sistine Chapel it was standing room only, with very solemn guards instructing people to not take photos and to be silent. Despite this there was a constant hum of people talking – to be expected in a crowd of several hundred people crammed in together. Twenty-six years ago, however, the crowd was so sparse that I was able to get a seat on one of the benches along the wall and I remember sitting there in quiet contemplation for nearly an hour.

Of course, the Sistine Chapel had yet to undergo its restoration back then, so this time the colours of the frescoes were significantly brighter and the images more striking. Despite all the differences, the one constant is that the Delphic Sybil is still my favourite part of the chapel ceiling. I couldn’t take my eyes off her!

the-delphic-sibyl

Detail of Sistine Chapel ceiling – the Delphic Sybil

When I was still planning my side trip to Rome, I found a fabulous website called Romewise, run by an American now living in Rome. It has a heap of practical advice for visitors and through it I not only found a couple of really good restaurants but also some great ideas for what to do.

For example, taking a food tour. There were different types to choose from but I booked a three-hour street-food tour through Private Guides of Rome. It was affordable and looked like a great way to get to know the old part of the city. I was blessed with a small group and a wonderful guide. We not only tried delicious food we learnt about its history. Our guide talked about the different locations we walked through, such as the Campo de’ Fiori and the Pantheon (which is actually my favourite place in Rome). He also pointed out how much of Roman incidental architecture is created from a mish-mash of materials taken from other buildings, transgressing time periods. An ancient column from here, some medieval bricks from there, and voila – a new building. We joked that Romans were the originators of the re-use and recycle sustainability motto.

street food tour salamis and wine

A selection of salamis served with red wine

street food tour Roman Jewish artichokes

Roman Jewish artichokes (deep fried whole artichokes)

street food tour Il Forno Roscioli

Roscioli bakery

street food tour gelateria Punto Gelato

Punto Gelato serves delicious gelati in lots of different flavours

Another Romewise suggestion was to go to the opera. By sheer luck my favourite opera, Puccini’s Tosca, was playing at the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma on my last night in Rome. I decided to spring for a good seat and booked my ticket. It was expensive but so worth it! I actually gasped when I was ushered into my little booth and saw my view of the stage. I felt like royalty. The music was breathtakingly beautiful and the performances fantastic. I got so carried away by the emotional power of the music that I wept – three separate times! The whole experience was magnificent – the best thing I’ve done when travelling.

Teatro dell Opera di Roma

The view from my booth at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma

All up my little side-trip to Rome was a huge success. I was exhausted by the end of it – I calculated that I’d done nearly 20 hours of walking in three days – but also on a massive travel high. My short trip to Rome may have been a consolation prize for missing out on the planned trip to Positano, but I came away from it feeling like a winner.

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An outsider’s update on the Greek economy

I’ve been going to Greece every two to three years since 2001. I was in Greece in the European summer of 2004 when the city of Athens dazzled like a block of white marble in the sun. I was also there in 2013 and 2015 when I was shocked by the number of unemployed people, shops, factories and businesses closed, and people generally doing it tough. I’ve written about my observations of how Greece and Greek people were faring in the global financial crisis in both 2013 and 2015. On my return to Greece in October this year, I was eager to see what state I would find the country and its people in.

As the title of this post points out, I am keenly aware that I can only offer an outsider’s view. But, because I visit only every couple of years, I notice those changes that for locals have occurred so painfully slowly that they are missed. It’s like how you notice how much a child has grown if you don’t see them for two years, whereas those closest to the child, who see them every day, don’t realise how much the child has grown from year to year.

Things between 2013 and 2015 had quite visibly declined. There were more people out of jobs, more shops closed, and more homeless people in the streets. Back in 2013 the economic crisis was all people talked about. It was everywhere. Four years later nobody talks about it. Partially that’s due to crisis fatigue, but mostly it seems to me that people have accepted the severe changes that the GFC, and specifically Greece’s economic situation, has wrought on their lives. By ‘accepted’ I mean in the way that you go through all stages of grieving and eventually ‘accept’ the death of a loved one.

Of course, when prompted, people do talk about it. And being Greek everyone has a pretty strong opinion. I asked family and friends about how they saw the economy now and its impact on their life. Nearly everyone told me things had gotten worse since I’d last visited.

But that wasn’t what I saw.

I saw that there weren’t more shops closed this time – neither in the main retail centres of Thessaloniki and Athens, nor in the neighbourhood shopping strips I visited. If anything, there was an ever so slight increase in shops open for business. Just one or two extra shops open in each strip or high street.

I even personally came across a small commercial success story. One of the newest shops in Athens Airport is Anamnesia, an absolutely delightful gift and souvenir shop. They sell practical and fun gifts that centre thematically on typical elements of Greek life, traditions and mythology. Their designs are modern and full of good humour. Everything they sell is not only designed in Greece, it’s made in Greece.

After the success of their first store on the Greek island of Zakinthos, which opened in June last year, they expanded the business and now have another shop on the island of Mykonos, as well as a shop in the Plaka district of Athens and the Athens Airport shop which is open 24 hours a day. So this is a business created just over a year ago that has grown, employing not only more retail staff, but more staff in the manufacturing of their products.

Anamnesia Athens Airport

The Anamnesia store at Athens Airport

And that was another thing I noticed. I heard a few stories about people getting some work after being unemployed for over two or three years, or changing jobs to improve their situation. I’m not saying they were getting their ideal job or that they had many options, but two years ago you didn’t hear about people finding employment at all.

I also noticed a bit more advertising in public spaces, like on the subway in Athens. Okay, sure, there weren’t ads plastered everywhere as there had been in the 2000s, but neither was every space and every billboard bare, as they were in 2013 and 2015. More spending on advertising means retailers are regaining confidence that people will spend. Another small sign of positive change.

All this anecdotal evidence is supported statistically by Greece’s current unemployment and youth unemployment rates, both of which are at six-year lows (about 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively). Which is not to say that they’re not still high, but relative to the worst years of the crisis (when, for example, youth unemployment was at 60 per cent), things are ever so slightly on the up. Growth in GDP is also trending upwards and the forecast is that it will continue to grow. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Tourism is a big part of Greece’s economy and the indicators there are also positive. Both tourism revenue and arrivals are increasing. Greece is in the top 10 countries in the world for tourism arrivals and in the top 20 for tourism revenue. More tourists spending more money is good for the Greek economy. It certainly explains why a shop like Anamnesia, that offers high quality, original products, is flourishing.

This is not to say that everything is rosy in Greece. One of the reasons that people still feel angry and frustrated is because the austerity measures that have directly impacted on them – the increase in taxes and the reduction in superannuation, pension and welfare payments – is not translating yet into visible benefits for the country. Usually these things go towards things like public hospitals, roads, schools, etc. That’s not happening in Greece. Yet. But it will come eventually.

I spent a month in Greece and didn’t see or hear anything that made me pessimistic about its future. At first I thought things had simply plateaued, but by the end of the month I felt optimistic that things were starting to turn towards the better for Greece. Even if they’re just baby steps, they’re still steps forward. And to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, all these small steps for individual Greek people will eventually add up to one giant leap for their country.