Tag Archive | Italy

Rome

Foro Romano

“Is not possible.”

This could have been the slogan for our stay in Rome.

Wifi in our hostel? “No.”

Directions to a supermarket and Laundromat? “Sorry, I’m not from this area.”

We weren’t having much luck.

Foro Traiano

I first went to Rome three years ago. On my second visit, the impressions left by the first were still fresh – I remembered the graffiti (though Rome was sparkling clean in comparison to Naples), the dismissive attitude of sales girls and the persistent men. I remembered how relaxed life seemed to be here, and felt as though Rome was a coastal city. I fell in love with the city when I sat reading on a patch of grass in front of the Foro Traiano and a man told me I had skin like mozzarella.

Colosseum

I remembered being blown away by the size of the monuments – I’d never seen anything as large as the Colosseum, each of the arches in the walls at least three or four times my height, and the walls metres thick. Surrounded by parks and the Foro Romano archaeological site, I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t on an empty, sandy plain.

Saint Peter's and Piazza

This time we sat outside the Colosseum (the line was too long to go in, and we didn’t want to pay for one of those ‘skip the line’ tours) and an old New Yorker sat next to us. Apparently he and his wife visited Rome 45 years ago – back then the Colosseum was free, the arches were completely open (now bars line them) and there were about ten people there feeding spaghetti to 300 cats.

Pompeii scavi

Saint Peter’s Basilica was the largest church I’d ever seen, sitting behind Rome’s largest piazza, walled by a colonnade and with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk in its centre. Like Saint Paul’s on steroids, it was beautiful with elaborate mouldings of angels on the walls and ceiling, and light streaming in through the arched windows lining the top of the walls and circling the dome. The cavernous crypt below the basilica was like a maze – each pope’s tomb housed in a separate arch, and each unique.

I loved the history. Europe abounds in history, but this was the first time I’d seen ruins, both in Rome and a day trip I did to Pompeii.

Foro Romano

The ruins of ancient Pompeii cover an area of about 70 acres, which means some places have large tour groups standing around, and other places where I could be completely alone. I spent four hours getting lost there on my first visit, never before having realised that this was a fully functioning city with streets, houses, spas, arenas, a brothel, parks and a beautiful villa. I loved that I could get so much closer than in any museum – being able to walk around the houses and under the arches, to touch the marble pillars and the fossilised furniture.

So my favourite part of Rome was the Foro Romano, Rome’s own archaeological site.

I was curious to see whether D would be as awestruck as I was.

To be honest, he didn’t seem to be (though he might just express it differently – after all, we can’t all walk around with our jaws hanging slackly and our eyes as wide as saucers). Not having internet had put a damper on our stay, and in Italy we’d started feeling swindled by entrance fees and the limited access they provided (can we see the Vatican City? Is not possible. Can we skip the line to look at prices? Is not possible. Is there a youth price? No).

However, the main objective for this trip to Rome was to eat well, and that we did.

True, we had some unfortunate supermarket food, and an old Panini, but when we ate out it was always a pleasure.

I bought gelato at L’Ourso Bianco, where you can get three flavours for €2.50, catching dribbles of the melting ice-cream running down my cone on my tongue. The biscotti flavour was divine. It was so much better than Rome’s oldest gelato shop, Palazzo del Freddo di Giovanni Fassi, in business since 1880. There the flavours weren’t labelled, and I felt rushed by the impatient sales girl who gave me strawberry sorbet when I wanted strawberry ice-cream.

Piazza del Popolo

When we searched for a decently-priced restaurant near the Spanish steps, we walked past Piazza del Poplo and found a place near Flaminio, which didn’t seem to have a name.

Flaminio Restaurant

We entered and, immediately sensing we were tourists, the barista pointed us upstairs. We reached a restaurant filled with square tables covered in red and white checked tablecloths, the patrons largely Italian – a group of elderly ladies behind me, and a group of business men who could have been the mafia in a US television series behind D.

The bread was served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were seated on the second floor, surrounded by tables of locals. D ordered a mozzarella and prosciutto appetizer, a tomato salad, and a penne arrabiata. I ordered a spaghetti carbonara and decided to see how I was feeling afterwards before considering the home-made tiramisu.

I’m so glad I did – it was the best carbonara of my life. The bacon was salty, smoky and crunchy. The spaghetti was still chewy in the middle. And the sauce was scandalously runny, steam escaping whenever I stirred the pasta. My mouth sang as I ate, and I tried to decipher the recipe, wondering how something so simple could taste so good.

D’s mozzarella was wonderful and the tomatoes were a deep, sweet red. And his pasta served the same dilemma as mine – I dipped some bread into his sauce and tried to figure out the ingredients . . . “tomato?” I suggested weakly. “Salt, sugar, chilli?”

The tomato sauce was as sweet as the salad and, although I didn’t get any chilli flakes in my sample, the spiciness had bled through the sauce in its cooking.

Halfway through my dish and I was stuffed, and mournfully declined the offer of dessert.

Realising that the cheapest restaurants were near the Colosseum, on our final night we returned to a small restaurant called Luzzi’s. The first time we were drawn to it by the blackboard on the street advertising their €5.50 lasagne (I don’t recommend it – picture a stack of cooked lasagne sheets with a tomato and meat sauce poured on top). However, D had an incredible beef Carpaccio and we decided to try it a second time before we left.

“Can I get the Bacala?” D asked, the one dish he wanted that he hadn’t found so far in Italy. It was on the menu, but last time it hadn’t been available.

“Is not possible. Only on Tuesdays.”

“Okay, then I’ll take the minestrone soup and the beefsteak,” he said.

“The minestrone is not possible,” the waiter opened the menu and pointed. “Only the soup of the day – is a bean and pasta soup.”

“Okay,” D shrugged, “I’ll have that then.”

“And can I get the prawn and cream risotto?” I asked.

“Is not possible. There is no rice today.”

“. . . okay,” I frowned at D. “Then I’ll have the spinach and ricotta ravioli.”

The waiter nodded and left.

Later I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth, “isn’t today Tuesday?”

D looked up as he thought, “yes, you’re right.”

“I thought he could only do your fish on Tuesdays.”

D shook his head with a grin, “I think we can safely assume, is not possible!” he cried in an accent that was closer to French than Italian.

I later ordered a tiramisu and, despite the lack of possibilities, it was blissful. Instead of using sponge, like I’m used to, they used some sort of biscuit – cake-like in the centre and crisp around the edges, like Madeleines, but thinner. The contrast between the crispy biscuits and the creamy mascarpone was heavenly.

As D finished, the rain bucketed down and we schemed a way to stall as the people waiting for tables glared at us.

“Coffee?” I suggested, as I’d promised to try it before we left Italy (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a hot chocolate person.

But when we ordered: “is not possible. The machine is broken.”

We left laughing in the rain, me sheltering under my suede cap and D using our plasticised tourist map for cover, crying “is not possible!” at regular intervals.

An umbrella-seller approached us and sold D a baby pink umbrella for €5.

A few minutes later, the rain stopped.

So clearly, some things are possible.

View from the Spanish Steps

Naples

When we left Naples Central Station at 10pm, the soundtrack of my life played two deep notes of foreboding.

What have I gotten us into?

Before us stretched a large square. Half construction site and half dump, black rubbish bags piled against the inside of temporary wire fences like reinforcements. The streets were awash with trash – white shopping bags blew along the pavement as it started to spit and brown pieces of cardboard grew soggy around the edges. The ground was awash with foil and plastic food wrappers, cigarette butts lined the creases between concrete slabs, and dented cans lay in the gutters.

We waded through the sea of waste as I wondered what I’d done.

Unfortunately for Naples, the impression was made. Although I enjoyed walking through the old town and we visited Pompeii, the image that will stay with me is me dragging our suitcases past the transvestite prostitutes on the first night, hoping that my expression was one of polite indifference.

Holiday, first leg – Bari

Bari

I have been dreaming about going to Croatia for years. In January 2007, a girl in a hostel in Brussels told me Dubrovnik was magical. In 2008, one of my housemates in London couldn’t stop talking about Split.

I was determined to go. However, I didn’t realise that flights to Croatia are seasonal, and no budget airline was offering flights between Paris and Croatia in October. If I went with a ‘proper’ airline, my tickets would have been €200-€300 each way . . . no, not on my salary.

So the plan was: fly from Paris to Bari on Friday the 22nd, get an overnight ferry from Bari to Dubrovnik on the 23rd, then fly back from Zadar to Brussels on the 30th, and take a train from Brussels to Paris on the 31st. Easy.

The flight to Bari went to plan, though the hostel didn’t give me great directions (the directions from the port were quite good, but from the airport, Hostel World only said ’15 minutes from airport (by urban bus number 16)’).

Not to worry – I’d previously found destinations with less to go on, and this time I had the hostel’s phone number in case I got into trouble.

As I hopped on the bus, I said “Piazza San Pietro?” to the driver.

He nodded and beckoned me in. I relaxed; comforted by the thought that he would tell me when to get off. No such luck – I stayed on the bus until it reached the terminal at the central station.

I looked for maps on the bus stops. Nothing. I rang the hostel, but got a message saying that the person I was calling was unavailable. 17:00 on a Friday – everyone I knew in Paris would be at work or the pub. Everyone in Australia would either be in bed, or too drunk to help me. That left London.

“Hello,” D, my best friend and former housemate said, “how’s the trip going?”

“Okay,” I replied, “would you mind Google-mapping me?” I gave him my location and the name of the hostel, and my phone disconnected – I’d run out of credit.

Thankfully, he sent me a text: any road north of you will get you onto the peninsula. Have a good trip :)

North . . . I turned so the sun was setting on my left (the only reason I know that the sun sets to the west is because there’s a line in the Beauty and the Beast theme song that mentions the sun rising in the east). After about 30 minutes of wandering, I reached a castle. Across the road was a fence sealing off what looked like the parking area of the docks.

I couldn’t go north anymore – left or right? As a sign saying ‘Porto’ pointed to the left, I took that route. After about 10 minutes I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to turn north for some time, and that I was heading to an industrial area. After another 10, I decided that it was definitely the wrong direction and resigned myself to turning around.

Grr – I hate back-tracking. The official reason I give is because I don’t get to see anything new, but the real reason is because it will be completely obvious to any onlookers that I have no idea what I’m doing.

I returned to the castle and continued in the other direction. As no one I asked seemed to know where I was going, I recharged my phone and called D again.

“Hi again.”

“Hey, how are you doing?”

“I’m still walking. Can you give me some more directions?”

“Sure, where are you?”

I looked up at the street sign, “Corso Antonio de Tullio – it’s near a castle, if that helps.”

“Okay, if you keep heading up,” he named a street (not the one I was on), “you’ll end up on the peninsula.”

I pursed my lips, “but I’m not on that street.”

“Oh, where are you?”

“Corso Antonio de Tullio.”

“Oh good, that’s closer. You should have the water and a yacht bay on your left . . .”

My heart sank – I’d already been going in the right direction. I turned back the way I came. After a few minutes I stopped. Did he mean I should turn left (i.e.: west) at the castle so the docks were on my right, or turn east so that the water was on my left side as I walked?

I called again.

It was the latter option.

Tears of frustration started to well as I realised that I would have to turn around yet again.

About 30 metres past where I’d last called D there was a map of the peninsula. My mood picked up – I was going the right way! I suddenly started to appreciate the salty air, and a wave of gratitude rushed over me as I stared at the full moon hanging low over the sea – I was finally seeing somewhere new again.

With the assistance of an elderly gentleman who lectured the boy at the hostel about not having prominent signs up, I finally reached reception.

After paying for my room, the boy at reception took my bag and left the building. Clearly my room was somewhere else, or he was making off with my bag. I followed him as we came out of a small street in front of the castle.

My jaw dropped – I could have saved myself close to an hour of walking in circles! Unfortunately his English wasn’t good enough for me to complain, so I comforted myself pizza and red wine with the people in my room.

I spent Saturday wandering through Bari, as my ferry didn’t leave until the evening. It was lovely, though there wasn’t much to do. By 2:00 I felt like I was done, and I returned to the previous night’s restaurant to eat lunch/kill time. I tried to take my time with my pizza, but I was constantly aware of one of the guys in the restaurant staring at me. While I waited for my pizza to arrive, he gave me some chocolate covered shortbread. While I was eating, he approached me with a piece of paper with his phone number.

I told him that I was leaving Bari for Dubrovnik that night, but he spoke less English than I did Italian, so it took a while for the message to get through.

Stasera?

Si, si.

Oggi? Today?”

“Yes.” He then gave me a bit of paper to write my number on and said (I think) that I should give him a call when I’m back in Bari. I’m not sure what we’d talk about, but it’s nice to know I have options! :p

After lunch I walked through the old town, going in circles as I followed the same streets again and again. I was stunned by the intimacy of the old town – in the small, winding streets everyone hung their washing out to dry on their balconies. Many of the doors were open, revealing people cooking, cleaning and eating, as well as showing small courtyards with stairs leading up to private flats. On a Saturday afternoon it was astonishingly quiet and I felt as though I’d stepped back in time. Down one street, a group of elderly men sat on folding chairs watching a soccer match on an old TV, which also rested on a folding chair. A few streets away, a group of boys in their teens and twenties watched the same game, all huddled around a couple of iPhones.

After I picked up my suitcase from the hostel, I sat next to the water with a book as the sun set, happy to have had an excuse for this detour.