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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To Market, to Market

Where I come come from (Melbourne, Australia), fresh food markets are generally set up every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday under cover in set buildings. There’s the enormous Victoria market at the top of the city, the equally huge Dandenong market in the southeast, and in the suburbs there are the South Melbourne, Prahran, Preston and Camberwell markets to name a few.

In Greece, the fresh food market or “laiki” (pronounced la-ee-kee) is an open air affair that pops up in each neighbourhood on a specific day each week. Over the years they’ve grown to include everything from fish and vegetables to curtains and underwear and everything in-between. Produce from Greece is clearly labelled with a Greek flag and the name of the town or area that the produce is from.

I went to a couple of laiki markets during my recent stay in Thessaloniki. It was a great way to taste a slice of everyday Greek life and participate in a weekly ritual. These photos are from the laiki in Bouboulinas Street in Kato Ilioupoli.

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A Feast for All Senses

I think it’s pretty obvious from my last post that with its beautiful cities and magnificent sites, southern Spain has been one giant visual feast. But it hasn’t just been a treat for the eyes; all my senses have been stimulated on this trip.

Let’s start with taste. I love the gastronomic adventure of eating the local cuisine in a country for the first time. I’ve eaten such great food this last week that it’s impossible to pick just one highlight. Everywhere we went there was amazing food. I ate the most amazing paella at Las Lapas in Seville, followed up with a fresh pear for dessert which was quite simply the crispest, most delicious pear I’ve ever eaten. At Bandolero, a tapas bar/restaurant in Cordoba we tried the salmorejo, a traditional cold soup made of tomato, bread, garlic and olive oil and served garnished with small pieces of ham and boiled egg. Loved it. They also served us the most amazing oxtail in broth with roast potatoes; the meat falling off the bone, the potatoes cooked perfectly, the broth so addictive that I couldn’t stop mopping it up with my bread.

The other tapas we had was at Los Manueles in Granada. Their spicy beef strips and potatoes were melt in the mouth divine, while the thin slices of fried eggplant served with a sweet sauce that was halfway between honey and a thick maple syrup was a taste combination that sounded strange but worked perfectly.

Right to the end of my trip there were little surprises that made my tastebuds sing with joy. The buffet breakfast at the NH Porta Barcelona, the hotel at which I stayed on my last night in Spain, included pears poached in red wine and cinammon that had a subtle spicy sweetness; in short, to die for.

My ears were treated to a feast of sounds in Spain, from the flamenco guitar and accordion played by buskers on the streets to the loud roar of the Mediterranean at the beach in Marbella to the sounds of people speaking Spanish all around us. A treat for me was in the cab ride I took from the airport in Barcelona on my first day. The Girl from Ipanema was playing in the cab when I got in. This was followed by Pink Floyd’s Welcome to the Machine, and that was followed by a traditional gypsy flamenco piece with a strong female voice plaintively singing the Spanish blues. It was such an eclectic mix that I knew even when I asked the driver if it was his iPod and not the radio that the answer would be yes. I told him it reminded me of my own wide and varied musical taste and it was a special little moment of connection.

For the sense of touch my highlights ranged from the simple pleasure of feeling the warm sun on our faces as we ate lunch outdoors in Seville and Marbella to the luxury of being treated to a pedicure and a massage at the resort spa before we left. I also managed to get a 45 minute swim in at the resort’s indoor pool and it felt fabulous to be in the water again. I used to swim every week once upon a time but realised as I did my laps in the small pool that I hadn’t swum like that for 15 years. There’s something about being in water that makes me feel very, very relaxed and happy. Maybe I was a fish in a previous life.

And lastly to the sense of smell. Everywhere we went there were orange trees full of fruit. In every town the main square was called Plaza des Naranjos and there’d be dozens of trees, but they also lined the main streets, and appeared in courtyards big and small. Not only were they extremely pretty to look at but the scent they gave out was just lovely. When we came out of La Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba, there was a small team of people collecting the oranges in huge plastic bags. The scent in the air was so strong. We were told that the sour oranges are not edible fresh but were given the impression that they’re used to make marmalade for the English. I like to think that’s true.

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