Saturday, 24 November 2012

Florence + The Gap Yahs

On our previous trips to Nannini's, we had admired the exciting pastries, so that is where we headed the next morning for breakfast.  Cannoli e crema and an espresso later, we were ready for the bus to our next Tuscan destination: Florence.

As Florence is the favourite city of B's sister (so much so, she told her now-fiance to propose there - he didn't by the way) we had high hopes.  Founded (probably) by Julius Caesar as a strategic garrison along the afore-mentioned Via Flaminia, it has exerted great influence over the politics, religion, finances and culture of Tuscany over the years, not to mention being the birthplace of the Renaissance.

During the Middle Ages Florence spent a lot of time being ruled by the Medici family.  First they were in power, then their banks failed and they were ousted, in favour of the Dominican monk Savonarola.  He is my favourite monk, because he was completely bonkers.  He burned many paintings by important artists such as Botticelli, and priceless sculptures, on his 'Bonfires of the Vanities'.  He had a lot of good stuff to preach, and was opposed to things such as the exploitation of the poor and corruption in the ruling classes.  But he also claimed to be a prophet akin to Moses, and when a rival challenged him to a 'trial by fire', in which he would be able to walk unscathed through fire as God would help him, he was not able to, and lost his followers.  Later, he confessed to having invented all his visions and powers.

Around the same time Machiavelli (of 'Machiavellian' fame) was busy in Florence's political circles.  Widely credited as having founded modern political science, he was quite an interesting bloke who wrote some heavily praised and criticised political works.  Nowadays 'Machiavellian' is used to denote someone who remains emotionally detached from events in order to manipulate and deceive others for their own gain.  Machiavelli himself was a proponent of the idea 'the end justifies the means', or 'it's for the greater good'.

Now, to put that into a context I can understand, lets consider the complex political treatise of J.K.Rowling's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  At the end of this book, Dumbledore is shown to be highly Machiavellian; he manipulates people and events so that they will all end up dying at the right time, to ensure the downfall of Voldemort.  The end justifies the means.  And the fact that Grindelwald's motto was 'For The Greater Good' shows Dumbledore really didn't change his moral views that much from his youth, despite what he wanted to believe.

Anyway, after that particularly apt and useful political discussion, let's continue with our holiday in Florence.

Nowadays, Florence is a big tourist city.  By day, churches, art galleries and designer shopping.  By night, restaurants, wine bars and clubs.  First stop for us was our hostel, which had been surprisingly cheap.  We soon found out why.

Designed specifically for gap year students, hen/stag do's, and less rigorous university field trips, the hostel was huge, and boasted swimming pool, bar and own restaurant (which served up cheap British and American versions of Italian food).  If you ever want to suddenly realise you are no longer a teenager then I would recommend this hostel.  Being in my mid-twenties, all the young 18yr olds (when you could stop them running around in their bikinis and talking really loudly about the amount of cheap alcohol they put away the night before) seemed a little baffled by mine and B's desire to get up while it was still before midday, see some culture, and spend a few quid on some authentic Tuscan cuisine.

They were all very nice though, and did try not to disrupt us when they came in in the early hours.  Except when two of the girls came back with two boys from another room, collected their mattresses, and left again.  There's no sleeping through that, really.

After dumping our bags, we headed off to grab some food in Caffe Gilli on the Piazza della Repubblica (savoury brioche with mozzarella and tomato, and a ricotta e pinoli pastry).  It was here I got my first proper sunburn ever.  Through the Factor 50 suncream.

Ah well.

Having suddenly realised i was beginning to roast alive, we set off on a little walk around Florence.  We had already had a quick peek of the Duomo (more on that later) and the Basilica di Sante Croce (more on that later too) we wandered to the River Arno.  From the Ponte alle Grazie, the longest bridge in Florence, we gazed at the Tuscan hills to the East, and the Ponte Vecchio to the West.

The Ponte Vecchio was the infamous home of the city's butchers in the Middle Ages, and believed to be the site that Julius Caesar first set up what would become Florence (as it is the narrowest crossing over the River Arno, and thus strategically a good stronghold).  In the 16th Century  member of the Medici family, in an fit of unknowing hygienic wisdom, got sick of the butchers chucking their leftovers and gone-off meat in the river, and ordered the butcher's stands to be replaced with jewelers.  These jewelers are still there to this day, but now have shops that have been kind of tacked on to the back of the bridge.

If you have come to Florence with your lover/spouse/beloved/pet tradition has it that you are meant to buy a padlock and lock it to the statue of Benvenuto Cellini, then throw the key into the river, thus locking you together for eternity.  However, because the city officials were getting sick of continually having the cut off padlocks there is now a 50euro fine for doing so.  Also, there is a nasty rumour the 'tradition' was brought in by the owner of the nearby padlock shop.

Me and B didn't do that, not being lovers/spouses/beloved/pets.

Now feeling rather sweaty and weary, we headed back to the party hostel for an afternoon break on the roof top terrace with our books/Kindles.

For tea, we declined the offers of the girls in the dorm of joining them for mac 'n' cheese, and went to find a nearby restaurant.  It had a rather interesting menu; while I didn't opt for the 'fried balls of grandmother', I did go for a pizza which was just described as being topped with raw ham.  Which, indeed it was.

After that, it was time for a little live music on the Ponte Vecchio, mouosse di pistchacio e nutella and crema gelato, then to bed.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Desiccated heads, and the balsamic conspiracy - a day in Tuscany

For our second day in Siena, we decided to do something a bit different.  Having planned all our adventures so far, we thought it would be nice to let someone else make the decisions.  And drive us around.  In an air-conditioned bus.


So we booked a wine tasting experience in the Tuscany countryside that also included a visit to the town of San Gimignano, which we had heard good things about.  This was an afternoon trip, so we started the day with wander towards the Fortezza Medicea, via the Basilica di San Dominico.

This particularly imposing church was visible from our hostel window, and in comparison to the marble-laiden facade of the Duomo looks boxy and boring.  However, it houses some exciting artifacts we wanted to see: bits of dead people.

San Caterina, or St Catherine of Siena, was a bit of a child prodigy.  She had her first vision of Jesus at the age of six, and swore chastity at the age of seven.  As a teenager she managed to avoid marrying her sisters husband by refusing to eat or drink until her father relented.  Later on, she conveniently became sick when her mother banned her from becoming a nun, and when her mum gave in, she made a miraculous recovery.  She joined the order of San Dominico, but remained living with her parents and (as legend has it) her 24 siblings, ignoring her family but giving away all their possessions to the poor.  Later in life, after travelling the country saving the needy, she developed anorexia and died.  Miracles were said to have occurred at her grave, and she was later canonised.

Inside the Basilica are St Catherine's head and thumb, which looks pretty creepy (images available from Google if you want to see).

After freaking ourselves out a little, we headed up the hill to the Fortezza Medicea, or Medici Fortress, built by the Medici family to prevent the Sienese people from recovering their independence.  Nowadays it holds a winery, a jazz club and a dance troupe.  The walk up afforded us with some very impressive views over Siena, and then we headed back down to Il Campo for some pizza bianco with salami and olives.  Then it was time for our coach trip!

The bus was a very nice reprieve from the hot sun.  In a group of about twelve people, we set off through the gorgeous Tuscan countryside to our first stop: Castellina in Chianti.  This was the birthplace of the chianti classico, the original Chianti that we now enjoy with fava beans and liver.

Immediately upon entering Castellina, we entered the Via del Volte, a medieval street that was originally just a normal street until people started building over it, creating a tunnel.

We wandered through and back out into the blazing sun, taking in the gorgeous colours and sights of this countryside town.

After Castellina, we headed to one of the many wineries in the area, Casanova Sant'Agnese.  Here we were greeted by a British ex-pat with a confusing Cockney-Italian accent.  She has been living in Italy so long she had forgotten lots of English words, like massage.  She showed us around the vineyard, then we headed down to the cellars.

Sant'Agnese is not a big commercial winery, and only has two small cellars.  The first housed barrels of wine, but the second housed barrels of balsamic vinegar.  The smell as she opened the door to the latter was just wonderful!  We also got to taste some of the vinegar they produce there, which was like heaven.  I cannot describe how good it tasted.

Turns out, the 'balsamic vinegar' we buy in the shops in the UK is not true balsamic.  Aceto balsamico tradizionale di Modena is made from a reduction of white grape juice, and has been made since the Middle Ages.  This was the one we tried in the winery, and had been aged for thirty years.  In comparison to this, the balsamic available in the UK, misleadingly named aceto balsamico di Modena, and lacking the key word tradizionale, is a cheap modern imitation made of wine vinegar, colourings, thickeners and sweeteners.  Imagine the taste of a decent quality UK balsamic, that you got from Sainsbury's or M&S or somewhere.  If that is pleasing to the palate, the 30 year old tradizionale is like an explosion of ecstasy in your mouth [insert innuendo here].

After having our minds blown by the balsamic cellars, it was time for our wine tasting experience.  I wasn't too fussed about this - I choose my wine based on strict criteria:

  1. Does it cost about £5?
  2. Was it previously more expensive, and has been reduced to £5?
  3. Does it have a nice picture on the label?
The wine they gave us was lovely, but I certainly wasn't getting hints of rosewood and hazelnut.

What was more exciting to me, however, was the food.  To go with our wine, we had beans with eight year old balsamic, bread with olive oil, crisp bread with truffle oil, chestnut honey with cheese, and ice cream with the 30 year old balsamic.


After tearing ourselves away from the exciting but expensive products, it was time for the trip to our main destination: San Gimignano.

Sat right in between Siena and Florence, San Gimignano is full of tourists on coach trips from either destination.  Often called 'San Gimignano delle Belle Torri' ('of the fine towers'), it is famous for just that: towers.  It is a medieval walled town, like many in Tuscany, and during it's prosperous years it was full of rival families.  One guy built himself a big tower, then a rival family built a taller tower, then another rival built yet another tower...and so on until there were 72 towers dominating the skyline.  One guy finally recognised it was getting ridiculous, and passed a law preventing anyone building a tower taller than his own.  No one did, but people continued the tower competition by simply building two shorter towers instead of one.  Nowadays fourteen towers remain, more than in any of the neighbouring cities.

San Gimignano flourished during the medieval period due to it's location on the important Via Francigena.  This was an ancient road connecting Canterbury, in England, to Rome, via France and Switzerland.  Unlike the traditional Roman roads, this Via Francigena wasn't a set, defined road.  Rather, it was a recommended route, which may change slightly depending on the political situation in the regions it passed through.

We walked through the winding roads to the Piazza Duomo, with ongoing commentary from our tour guide.  He showed us some frescoes in the La Collegiata, the town's main church, that we wouldn't have found otherwise.  Then he left us to wander, so we walked up to the Rocca, what is left of the fortress.  From here we were awarded with a view of the famous skyline, while a woman played the harp in the olive grove just below.

After the climb up the Rocca, it was definitely time for some gelato.  We were spoilt for choice - one shop boasted 'The best gelato in the world', which the other claimed to have won lots of competitions.  We decided on the former, and were rewarded with the creamiest, richest pistachio gelato.  I also had the saffron option, which was delicately flavoured to perfection.

The trip back to Siena was a quiet affair, all of us enjoying the slight wine buzz and the happy gelato-induced slump.  We lounged around for the evening, then set off to find this little restaurant we had come across the day before when we got lost in the backstreets.  The waiter didn't speak English, the menu was only available in Italian, and we were the only tourists in the place.  I had a starter of crostini with a topping made of, we discovered later, spleen.  I followed this up with gnocchi made with truffle oil, which was easily the best dish of the holiday.  B went for bresaola with rocket, tomato and pecorino, with gnocchi with gorgonzola sauce for main.

Happy, sated, and about half a stone heavier, we were asleep from the moment our heads hit the pillow.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Siena, and our failure to see cultural events

Siena is a beautiful Tuscan city, a UNESCO world heritage site dominated by Gothic architecture.  It is perhaps most well known for the Palio, a frantic horse race around the central square held twice a year.  On July 2nd and August 16th.

What day did we go to Rome?  July 2nd.

What day did we go to Siena?  July 5th.

Really should have planned that better...

Despite missing the cultural event of the year, this was my favourite city we visited.  After the madness of Rome, stepping off the bus onto narrow cobbled, winding streets was very refreshing.  Siena is still a tourist trap, but a beautiful, historic one so it is worth it.

Legend has it that Siena was founded by the son of Remus, Senius, though in all likelihood it already existed by Roman times, and was named after the Etruscan family Saina.  Regardless of it's true origins, the image of the twins suckling the she-wolf is as ever-present as in Rome.

There is an intense rivalry between Siena and Florence, and this has gone back to the 12th century AD, during which several wars broke out between the two provinces.  In 1230, Florence lay siege to Siena and catapulted donkeys over the walls!  When I read that I recalled that Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene with the cow and the chickens...I imagine it was similar.

Siena passed between many rulers over the years.  It prospered under the Council of Nine in the latter half of the 13th century, which was when the majority of the great public buildings sprung up, and became important as a money lending city.  It also enjoyed a good period in the 16th century, under the Petrucci family.  However, the family that left the most lasting impression was the Medici family, despite this takeover prompting a decline in prosperity and power.

The Medici were a banking family; the Medici Bank was widely known throughout Europe, and the Medici family themselves became the richest in the continent.  When they took over Siena, they banned the city's residents from operating their own lending services, and when the Medici Bank fell, Siena fell too.

But this was a blessing in disguise.  Unlike in other, wealthier cities, Siena could not afford to undertake any major construction or demolition works, and the city's historical buildings remained untouched.  During World War II, Siena was unable to mount a strong army, and the French were able to take it without causing too much damage to the town centre.  This has resulted in an almost entirely preserved walled city, complete with pristine Duomo and intact churches.

After dropping our bags in the excellent Casa di Antonella, we set off to see the sights, but first we had to make a very important stop: it was espresso o'clock.

If you want coffee in Siena, the place to go is Nannini's.  This pasticcerie is a Sienese institution, serving excellent espresso and wonderful cakes and traditional spiced Tuscan panforte.  The Nannini family are an important family in Siena - not only do they own the oldest pasticcerie, but one of the family members is a rockstar, and another previously worked for Gucci (before coming back and taking over the family business, obviously).

Having knocked back our espresso in authentic Italian style (hot, strong, and with at least one sugar), we set off to the Duomo.

Built in the 13th century, the Duomo di Siena is a magnificent black and white striped affair, reflecting the black and white flag of the city.  Inside, the entire floor is covered by a mosaic (many of which are kept covered at various times of the year to preserve them.

Then, it was lunchtime.  We felt very refreshed after a salame toscane di pecorino sandwich and some panna cotta and straccitella gelato, while we sat people watching in the Piazza del Campo (more on that later).

Our ticket for the Duomo also gave us access to five other sights in Siena.  Unlike the other major Tuscan towns, the Battistero de San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) was built in the same construct as the Duomo, though it does have a separate entrance.  After that, we went to the crypts, the walls of which were covered in 13th century frescoes depicting Jesus's life, and only discovered within the last decade.  Finally, we walked through the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana and hauled ourselves up the narrow 131-step spiral staircase to the Panorama del Facciatone, which offered fantastic views across the city.

After our allocated ten minutes at the top of the cathedral, we walked/fell back down the staircase and headed back to the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo) for some grub.

Il Campo is the centre of Siena.  The building at the bottom is the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall), with it's 100m high Torre del Mangia, and the paving of the square in front is split into nine, to represent the Council of Nine from the 14th century.  This is the site of the aforementioned Palio race.

Surrounding the edges of the piazza are various restaurants and bars, with menus and prices aimed at visiting tourists.  However, we decided to dine here to soak in some of the Il Campo atmosphere, which is almost carnival-like.  I chose some of the local delicacy - pici all'aglione.  Pici is a thick spagetti-style pasta, so even when drenched in sauce the pasta taste comes through.  It is rich and intensely satisfying.  We washed this down with a half litre of bianco toscano while some local kids marched around the square banging drums, waving flags and, inexplicably, sucking dummies.  We never did work out what that was about.

Then it was back home to bed (via the nearest gelateri, of course!).

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Taking my trousers off in The Vatican

After causing myself great foot injury the day before, I was not that enthusiastic about visiting the Vatican on our third day in Rome.  We had pre-booked tickets, but had heard the museums were large and there was a lot to see.

It was true - the museums are large and there is an awful lot to see.  Fortunately, by the time we'd gone fifty yards down the street from the hostel I had perfected a kind of arched-foot hobble that took the weight off the blister on the ball of my right foot, and gave me an only slightly perceptible limp.

One of the other reasons I was not full of the joys of summer was that it was the hottest day we were there (approx 40degrees) and you are not allowed to have your knees or shoulders uncovered in the Vatican.  As I am a devout member of the Stereotypical Gay Team and would rather suffer dehydration and heat rash than wear a summery floaty skirt or cover my shoulders with a light shawl, I had to battle on with jeans and t-shirt.

More on this later.

Despite the foot and trouser situation, I was quite looking forward to going to the Vatican Museums.  Religion aside, my guidebook reliably informed me the museums were very extensive, housing art from many notable artists throughout the ages.  And that it definitely did.

Started in the 16th century by Pope Julius II with the purchase of a statue of Laocoon (a priest who advised the Trojans not to accept the Greeks gift of a wooden horse) from a vineyard owner, the Vatican Museums contain many of the vast number of pieces of art amassed by the Catholic Church.  You simply have to see it to believe it; the wealth and opulence in that little country state is astonishing.  Marble statues from Ancient Egypt and Greece, jewelled artefacts from previous Pope's, ceiling frescos impregnated with gold leaf, and an entire wing of one building painted by Raphael...  This museum was the beginning of my realisation of how extensive and rich the Catholic Church is, how it has shaped culture worldwide, and how much influence (politically and religiously) it still has.  Regardless of my personal feelings about the Catholic Church, you can't help but be impressed by its longevity and power.

I'm not going to recite the entire list of galleries and collections we saw, as that would take ages and, frankly, bore the socks off you and me, but there are a few worth mentioning.

The Galleria delle Carte Geografiche (Gallery of Maps) was my personal favourite.  This was a long corridor with colourful topographical maps of Italy in panels along the walls, and one of many painted ceilings from which light glinted off the gold leaf.

The Stanze di Raffaello ('Raphael's Rooms')is always worth a mention.  This is a series of four rooms, commissioned by Pope Julius II as a way to outdo his predecessor.  Three of the rooms, the Stanza di Eliodoro ('Room of Heliodorus'), the Stanza della Segnatura ('Room of the Signatura') and the Stanza dell'Incendio del Borgo ('The Room of the Fire in the Borgo') were painted by Raphael himself, while the entrance hall, the Sala di Costantino ('Hall of Constantine') was completed by his assistants after his death.

The above picture is the Disputation of the Holy Sacrament in the Stanza della Segnatura, and depicts various Popes and important folk debating transubstantiation (the idea that wine and crackers transforms into the body and blood of Christ during communion, while still tasting rather similar to wine and crackers).

We also saw works by many famous artists and sculptors, such as Giotto, da Vinci, Caravaggio, Bellini...maybe one day I'll do a 'Who's Who in Renaissance Art' blog post.  There were also many Greek, Roman, Etruscan and Egyptian statues and monuments, including these rather impressive colossal statues of Hercules, holding the skin of the lion, and Meleager, a Greek hero who looks rather like a girl to me:

Maybe I should do a 'Greek/Roman Mythology for Dummies' post too...

As well as all the old stuff, there is also a large Collezione Arte Contemporanea ('Collection of Modern Art'), which includes religious-themed artwork from the much more familiar Matisse, Dali, Picasso etc.

Finally, having worked our way through 53 galleries, we had reached the highlight of the museums - the Sistine Chapel.  Possibly the most famous chapel in the world, it contains the most celebrated of Michelangelo's painting achievements: Genesis on the ceiling, and the Giudizio Universale ('Last Judgement') on the end wall.

A true testament to Michelangelo's dedication, Genesis took four years to paint, and most of this he will have spent in an odd half-lying, half-standing position on some scaffolding.  Considering he was a sculptor, and didn't want to do the painting in the first place, this is pretty impressive and/or idiotic (though he probably had no choice but to obey the Pope at the time, the aforementioned Julius II).  The ceiling is a fresco, which means the paint is applied directly onto fresh, wet plaster.  His assistants applied the plaster, and Michelangelo scaled up his small drawings onto it, as evidenced by the faint grid apparent in the background of the lighter pictures.  Then he painted onto it in a variety of techniques to give depth and texture.

The panels in Genesis were painted in reverse order - he started with 'The Drunkenness of Noah' and ended with 'God Separating Light from Darkness'.  You can actually see the development of Michelangelo's painting style as you move backwards through the sequence; in fact the final panel was painted in a single day.  'The Creation of Adam' panel contains one of the most famous icons of Renaissance art - the hand of God reaching and almost touching the hand of Adam, as he gives the spark of life to his creation.

Cameras are forbidden in the Sistine Chapel, so the above picture is added thanks to Wikipedia.

What is widely considered Michelangelo's masterpiece, 'The Last Judgement', covers the entire end wall of the chapel, and has a quite funny history.  It depicts the souls of the dead rising from their graves to face judgement in the Second Coming of Christ, and was meant as a warning to Catholics to behave as the Reformation swept Europe.  Michelangelo painted lots of naked, writhing, tormented figures, which offended the sensibilities of the Church, in particular the Master of Ceremonies Cesena.  Michelangelo responded by incorporating the face of Cesena into his depiction of Minos, the god of the underworld, with donkey ears to depict foolishness.  When Cesena complained to the Pope, the Pope jokingly said the portrait would have to stay, as his power did not extend to Hell.

Later, after Michelangelo had died, an artist called Daniele was commissioned to paint loin cloths and fig leaves over the exposed genitals and buttocks of the figures.  He also redid the figures of Saint Catherine and Saint Blaise behind her, because people thought the originals looked too much like Blaise was looking at Catherine's naked derrière.

But anyway.  Enough about the historics of the Sistine Chapel.  My opinion?


After all I'd read and heard about the chapel, and Michelangelo's brilliance, I thought it would be breathtaking.  Instead the chapel was smaller than I imagined, and while very beautiful and technically brilliant, just really not that spectacular.  I suppose when you think about how it was painstakingly painted, every inch of ceiling and wall, it becomes more impressive, it just didn't quite reach the level of wonder I was expecting.  However, it is still not a sight to be missed by any visitor to Rome.

After leaving the Sistine Chapel, and then the Vatican Museums, we stopped for a quick lunch of bucatini all'amatriciana, meat and potatoes, and gelato, then headed to St Peter's Square, and the title subject of this post.

Designed by Bernini, an artist, sculptor and architect, St Peter's Square is a very large space with 284 columns, 140 statues of saints, an Ancient Egyptians obelisk, and two fountains.  It contains the Basilica di San Pietro, the second largest cathedral in the world, another building that Michelangelo had a hand in creating (he designed the dome, as well as contributing several pieces to its internal decoration).

After having finally seeing everything in the basilica, we made our way back out into the scorching heat, and I suddenly reached breaking point.  I had been baking in the excruciating heat, and my legs were now more red than white thanks to the spreading prickly heat.  I just HAD to get my trousers off.

So I ducked down a little alley between some of Bernini's columns and whipped my trews off, sheltered from nosy nuns by B's helpful shoulder shawl.  Didn't even make it to the privacy of the toilets.

Oh well.

Sighing in relief as the air hit my stewed shins, we made our way to the shady streets of Trastavere, a region just south of the Vatican, and the home of the real Romans.  Here we met actual Italian people going about their own business, and not the business of the tourist industry.  There were old Italian men sitting on deck chairs in the middle of cobbled, winding streets, smoking cigarettes and talking really loudly to each other.  It was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of central Rome which, lets face it, looks like any other city except for the ancient structures interspersed between the H&M and Gap stores.

After a brief stop off for some more granita di caffe con panna, we ambled across the river and decided on primavera pizza for tea opposite the Forum, followed by healthy amounts of cocco (coconut) and tiramisu gelato.  Yum yum.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Custard buildings, Jewish ghettos, dead poets...

On our second day in Rome, we decided to do walk described in B's guide book, that would show us the delights of medieval Rome.

It did do that, but it also gave me an enormous blister on the ball of my foot.  Ouchie.

First sight we saw on our sight-seeing tour (heh rhymes) was the Vittoriano, officially known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland).  In a city of medieval grandeur and debilitated but beautiful ruins, this rather garish marble monstrosity looks quite out of place.  Roman's often refer to it as the 'typewriter', referring to its boxy shape, or the 'zuppa inglese', after the custard-style Italian dessert.  Built in 1885 to commemorate King Vitorio Emanuele, the first king of unified Italy, nowadays it holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and so is policed by scary guards preventing you from sitting down anywhere on the site.

Opposite the Vittoriano is the Palazzo Venezia, the official residence of Mussolini.

From the Vittoriano we walked down the road to the Teatro Marcello, or Theatre of Marcellus, an open-air theatre completed in 12BC.  The upper storey was rebuilt in medieval times, and has now been converted into expensive apartments.

Next to the Teatro are three lone columns, the remains of the Portico d'Ottavia, which stands in the centre of the Jewish Ghetto.  In 1555 a papal bill forced the Jewish population of Rome to live in this area, surrounded by walls with gates locked at night.  When the Jews left the ghetto they had to wear yellow accessories to identify themselves, and they were forced to attend Catholic sermons on the shabbat.  Every year the Rabbi had to petition the city counsellors for permission for the Jewish people to stay another year, and every time he was literally kicked up the backside.  The laws requiring the Jews to live in the ghetto remained until 1882, and the walls were finally torn down in 1888.

Cutting through the backstreets, we wandered past Piazza Mattei, with it's Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) centrepiece, and sat for a few minutes in Piazza Caircu.  There are many fountains in Rome, which were built to provide drinking water brought from the aqueducts.  Indeed, weary tourists still surround the fountains and taps around the city, filling up their water bottles and washing the sweat and grime from themselves.

We then got a little lost attempting to find the Gelateria Alberto Pica, which was named in my guidebook as one of the five best gelateries in Rome.  I had riso (rice) and torta omana e pinoli (ricotta cheesecake with pine nuts), while B had limone (lemon) and anguria (watermelon).

Refreshed, we walked to the Campo de'Fiori, via the Palazzo Farnese, a very imposing palace revamped by Michelangelo when Alessandro Farnese became Pope Paul III in 1534.  Apparently we also walked past the Palazzo Spada, but didn't notice it.

Campo de' Fiori, which means 'field of flowers', has housed an open air market every day since 1869.  In the square is a stature of Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk who was burned alive in 1600 at the exact location of the monument.  Bruno was a philosopher and astronomer, who proposed the theory that the Sun was actually a star, and that there were infinite 'Sun's in the universe, with infinite worlds populated by other intelligent beings.  He was a pantheist, believing that the Universe and God are the same.  This was not in keeping with the Vatican's view of a personal God, and so he was condemned to death for opposing the Church.  The statue was erected in 1887, facing defiantly in the direction of the Vatican, as a symbol of freedom of speech.

From the Campo we walked towards the river Tiber, and sat for a little while on its banks looking out at the Castel Sant'Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).  Originally built to house the tomb of Hadrian in 139AD, it was subsequently converted to a fortress for the Pope in 401, and a secret underground passage built from the Vatican to allow safe flight for the Pope when under attack.  Bruno, the chappie mentioned above, was imprisoned here for a while.  It also featured in Dan Brown's atrocity Angels & Demons, as a secret lair and church.

Continuing through the backstreets, which contained some very nice shops, including one dedicated solely to compasses, we ended up in Piazza Navona.  A spectacular open space (which completely lacks shade), it used to hold the city's market, but now mainly hosts street sellers peddling sun umbrellas and 'original' art work to tourists.  In the centre is the rather extravagant Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), depicting the Nile, Ganges, Danube and Plate, surrounded by a palm tree, lion and a horse.  As if that wasn't enough, it is then topped by an obelisk.  There are two other fountains, but they do not compare to the extreme sight of the Four Rivers.

Next stop on our walk was the Pantheon.  Now a Catholic church, the current building was erected in 126AD by Hadrian, on the site of an earlier building, and was originally a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome.  When you consider it is almost 2000 years old, it is astonishing that it is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.  I cannot imagine how they built it.  The hole in the centre of the roof admits the only light, and the floor is slightly slanted to allow rain water to run into the near invisible drains in the floor.

Then it was lunchtime!  Our first Italian pizza from Zaza was very tasty, though we did have to endure a crowd of American teenagers as we ate.

After our first pizza experience, it was time for our first coffee experience, at Caffe Tazza d'Oro, widely regarded as having the best coffee in Rome.  As it was a boiling 36degrees, we went for the Roman speciality granita di caffe con panna option - frozen sugared espresso, served as ice chips with whipped cream underneath and on top.


En route to our next stop, the Trevi Fountain, we passed the Piazza di Montecitorio and the Piazza Colonna, which contain a very impressive obelisk and column respectively.  The Fontana de Trevi is one of Rome's most famous landmarks, and is really quite beautiful.  It's quite surprising in its size - its difficult to appreciate how big it is because the surrounding buildings are so close that it almost feels claustrophobic.  It lies at the convergence of three roads (tre vie, hence the name), and heralded the end of a great Roman aqueduct.  Neptune's chariot rides the stone waters that tumble from the walls of the Palazzo Poli, led by two Tritons on horses - one wild and one tame, representing the moods of the sea.

Traditionally you are meant to throw a coin into the fountain to ensure you will return to Rome, so obviously we did that.  Every day it is estimated about 3000 euros are thrown into the fountain, which are collected and given to charity.

From the Trevi Fountain we attempted to go to the Mausoleo di Augusto, got lost, eventually found it, were disappointed, and then went to the Spanish Steps, or Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti.  Designed by a French man, the steps are named after the nearby Spanish Embassy.  At the bottom right of the steps is the house John Keats died in, on a holiday to improve his health.  Clearly didn't work very well.

After washing my very sore foot in the fountain at the bottom of the steps (Fontana della Barcacciai, Fountain of the Old Boat, based on a sunken boat that washed up on the Piazza Spagna when the Tiber flooded in 1598), we ascended the steps and walked to the Villa Borghese gardens.

After the crowds and traffic of central Rome, stepping into cool tree-lined paths of Villa Borghese was heaven.  The Borghese family were very powerful, and started the gardens in 1605.  They were bought by the commune of Rome in 1903, and opened to the public.  The Villa Borghese Pinciana (Borghese villa on the Pincian Hill) was used by Scipione Borghese as a 'party villa', and to house his extensive art collection.  The collection was first opened to the public in the 18th century, and is thought to be one of best art galleries in Rome.  It is so popular when we got there they were only accepting pre-bookings for the following week, but fortunately a large group had cancelled so there were a few spare tickets for that day.  We took two of the last three.

Sadly, no pics, as you have to check in all your bags and cameras before entering.

After the gallery we wandered through the park, stopping for a short while by a shaded fountain.  A couple had also stopped there, and were very very close.  We continued on to the Pincio, where you can look out onto the skyline of Rome, towards the Vatican.

We descended from the Pincio, and headed to the nearby Piazza del Popolo, which contains the obelisk of Rameses II from Heliopolis, brought to Rome in 10BC.  It was overlooking this we sat and ate our dinner, washing down a spicy penne all'arrabbiata with a nice glass of vini di casa bianco.

Then it was home on the metro, to soothe my sore blistered foot :(

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Roman Adventures Part 2

In case our brains haven't recovered from yesterday's factual overload, I shall complete my tale of my first day in Rome with slightly less history.

After rehydrating, refueling, and re-UVB-protecting, we set off down the road to the Foro Romano, or Roman Forums.

A forum was a type of plaza, which was the heart of Ancient Rome, and the Empire.  It served as a marketplace, venue for public events, and meeting place for politicians and businessmen, as well as housing some of Rome's most important and religious buildings and statues.  It evolved naturally over the years, expanding as various structures were added, which is very different to later forums which were rigidly copied from Greek plazas.

Nowadays, it is a jumble of assorted ruins and bits of marble, and almost entirely impossible to navigate.  Sadly, Italians don't seem to believe in labelling things.  However, my guidebook reliably informs me I saw some very exciting ruins, such as:

  • Tempio di Saturno (Temple of Saturn), which dates from 42AD (an earlier temple standing there from 500BC).  This was very important as Rome's early power was attributed to its success with agriculture, Saturn's particular field of interest.  He was also seen as the god of wealth, so the city's treasury was housed here.
  • Tempio di Antonino e Faustina (Temple of Antoninus get the picture), built in 161AD by Antoninus for his wife Faustina.  Faustina less choosy about who she lay down with, but Antoninus was besotted and seemed to be the only person in Rome who did not know his wife was a bit of a floozy.
  • Tempio di Giulio Cesar, built in 29AD on the site of Julius Caesar's cremation.
  • A 1937 reconstruction of the Curia, the meeting place of the senate.
  • Arco di Settimio Severo, an archway dedicated to Professor Severus Snape...I think.
  • The site at which 'all roads lead to Rome' actually referred to, the Millarium Aureum.  This was a monument built in 20AD from which all distances to other city's was measured.  All Roman roads across the Empire converged here (in theory).
However, my personal favourite ruins was the Tempio di Vesta and the Atrium Vestae.  Vesta was the goddess of the hearth and family, and the Vestal Virgins were her priestesses.  The Virgins were selected from the wealthiest, most influential families of Rome at the age of between 6-10, and they served for 30 years; 10 years learning, 10 years performing rituals, and 10 years teaching new Virgins.  

They had two main jobs.  The first, was to keep alive the sacred fire, which burned in the temple.  This fire was so important that is was regarded as fundamental to Rome's security and the continuation of the Empire. Any Virgin allowing it to go out would be whipped by Rome's high priest, the Pontifex Maximus.

The Virgin's second job was exactly that: to remain a virgin.  If their cherry was popped, they were buried alive, as it was sacrilege to spill a Virgin's blood.  The man who popped their cherry for them was flogged to death.

In payment for their service/chastity the Virgins had special rights within Roman society, and could intervene in sentencing of criminals (in fact, they secured a pardon for Julius Caesar when he was younger, and saved him from execution).  They had right of way on all streets, and any injury or attack on them was punishable by death.  They were paid by the state's treasury, and upon completing their service they were awarded a pension and allowed to marry.

After the Forum, we climbed the hill to the Palatine, the oldest settlement of Rome.  It is supposedly the site at which the she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the founders of the city of Rome.

Romulus and Remus were fathered by either Mars, the god of war, or Hercules, that well-known Disney actor.  Interestingly, their mother was a Vestal Virgin, and had been forced into this life of servitude by her uncle, to prevent her having male heirs who could overthrow her dastardly uncle and take their place as rightful ruler the city of Alba Longa.


After R&R were born, their great-uncle abandoned them to die at the side of the river Tiber.  However, the river bore the twins to safety, and they ended up on the top of the Palatine hill (yunno, because rivers are well known for flowing up hills).  Here they were suckled by a she-wolf and fed by a woodpecker until a shepherd found them and took them in.  When they had grown up, they discovered the truth about their birth, and killed their evil great-uncle.

Whoops again.

However, they wanted to form their own city rather than take over Alba Longa, but couldn't decide where to form it.  Romulus wanted the Palatine Hill, whereas Remus the nearby Aventine Hill.  They quarrelled and, as so often happened in those days, Remus was killed, and Romulus set up Rome on the Palatine Hill.  Even as Rome expanded, the Palatine remained the site of the grandest and most spectacular of palaces ( get the gist).

As a side note, myth says that Romulus and Remus were descended from Aeneas, one of the princes of Troy, who fled when the Greeks jumped out of the Trojan Horse and killed everyone.  It is this flight of Aeneas which is recounted in Virgil's Aeniad, the first example of political propaganda in history.

We managed to get quite lost in the Palatine, and couldn't work out where the exit was.  However, our increasingly fraught wanderings did lead us to some sprinklers, where we joined another tourist in an impromptu shower.  Eventually we escaped, and set off home.

For tea it was rigatori cacio e pepe (short pasta with cheese and pepper), a rather biscuit-like focaccia and gelato - our first ice cream of many.  I had pistacchio Iranicchio (pistachio and Iranians) and ciacocchio fondente (the chocolatiest substance in the world).

And so began the creation of my newest layer of stomach fat...

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Buongiorno Italia! / Roman Adventures

Having gone literally to the other side of the world for last year's summer holiday, I decided to go a bit closer to home for my 2012 jaunt.  Hence, the beautiful country of Italy - home of pizza, pasta, the Renaissance, and smarmy Italian men on Vespa's.

Before I talk about the actual holiday, however, I would first like to mention how stressful it is to plan a holiday when you are a doctor.  First, you have to get hold of your rota for the rough time period you want to go.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of the rest of your team.  Then you have to get hold of the rotas of everyone else on your ward, as they cross-cover when your team are all absent from the ward (annual leave, sick days, on call duties, nights, study leave, teaching etc).  Once you have identified possible dates for annual leave based on your own rota, you then have to cross reference it with everyone else's to make sure there will be adequate ward cover at all times.

The trick to this is to make sure you get your leave requests in before the rest of your team gets the chance to snatch the dates you want.  In the case of this particular holiday, there was a week of frantic texts and emails to swap an on call shift (with someone who subsequently broke his heel AFTER I'd booked the flights and accommodation, panicking me for a short while) and get everyone concerned to sign my leave forms.

You need annual leave to get over the stress of trying to organise annual leave.

So, after gaining a few grey hairs, I flew to Rome to start my summer adventure.

Most of Rome is like any other big city in Europe.  It has lots of traffic, lots of people, lots of the same high street stores, and plenty of street traders who will wander up to anyone looking vaguely touristy and attempt to sell you remarkably cheap Rolexs.  However, it is very different to any other city I've been to, as you can be wandering down a busy, shop-lined street, turn a corner and BAM!  Two thousand year old historical building.

The first stop on our rather packed Rome itinerary was the Colosseum, the largest surviving structure from the Roman Empire.

The reason for this impressive feat of architecture is purely political.

Commissioned in 72AD by Emperor Vespasian, the first member of the Flavian dynasty that ruled Rome for the next quarter of a century, it was placed on the site of Nero's palace.  Nero was the Emperor before Vespasian, and is on the whole considered to have been a bad guy (if you believe all the ancient texts recovered from the period).  As well as making weak Vanilla Lattes, Nero also executed his mother, poisoned his stepbrother, and possibly started the Great Fire of Rome to clear space for his palace.  He is widely associated with tyrannical ruling and civil discontent, but he also invested in Roman culture and promoted diplomatic relationships with other nations.

After Nero's suicide-to-avoid-assassination, there was a year of political uncertainty, before Vespasian emerged as the new emperor. Then began a programme of damnatio memoriae, or 'condemnation of memory', in which Nero's name was erased from monuments, statues of him had their appearances changed to look like other people, and his palace was demolished deliberately for Vespasian's Colosseum.  Being forgotten was believed to be the worst insult possible.

One such statue is responsible for the current name Colosseum.  Next to his palace, Nero had a giant statue of himself built, called the Colossus of Nero.  When Nero died, a sun-ray crown was added and the statue converted into one of the sun god.  Over the years the head was replaced a few times to one of the current emperor, but the statue remained called the Colossus.  It was in early Medieval times that the Colosseum developed it's current name, believed because of a shortening of 'the theatre next to the Colossus'.  It is a bit more roll-off-the-tongue than it's original name, Amphitheatrum Flavium.  

Sadly Vespasian died in 79AD, before the Colosseum was finished, but the new Emperor, his son Titus, inaugurated it in 80AD with a massive 100-day games killing 5000 animals and who knows how many gladiators.  The final touches to the building were completed by Domitian in 81-96AD.

The amphitheatre was the first of it's kind in the world, and showed extraordinary engineering.  The Ancient Greeks could only build semicircular theatres into the sides of hills; the Romans could build two theatres joined together and free-standing! (Amphi = double, hence amphibian meaning double life on land and in water.)  It was made with a base of light volcanic rock and cement, and surfaces were guilded with marble held in place with iron brackets.  The marble and iron was subsequently plundered from the structure in the Medieval period, to build new monuments and melt down for weapons, respectively.

A day of games at the Colosseum followed the same order:  firstly, the animal hunts, which included animals from all corners of the Empire, some of which had never been seen by your average Roman. This was followed public executions, preceded by a nice bout of torture, and often playing out scenes from Greek and Roman mythology.  Lastly, the gladiatorial games for which the Colosseum is most well known.

A series of understage tunnels, pulleys and lifts allowed dramatic entrances of contestants and animals.  There were even aquaducts to flood the arena for naumachi, or re-enactments of famous sea battles.  When not fighting in water, the floor of the Colosseum was covered in sand to reduce slipping and to soak up all the spilled blood.  Indeed, the Latin for sand has given us the term arena to mean any site of entertainment/sport.

The Colosseum could hold 50,000 spectators, and entrance was free, with free provision of food and wine (after all, what better way to control the masses and feed political propaganda by inviting them to spectacular events?).  There are four sections of the building - the average Roman pleb sat at the top, the citizens on the next tier, the knights the next, and at the bottom the senators.  There were special sections of this tier at each end of the amphitheatre, one for the Emperor, and the opposite for the Vestal Virgins (more on these exciting ladeez later).

There were 80 exits, which are rather hilariously called vomitoria.

The Colosseum was probably used for its original purpose well into the 6th Century.  After that it was used for many purposes, including cemetary, castle and rented housing.  At one stage it was proposed to be turned into a wool factory to employ the cities prostitutes, but this never came to pass.  It sustained significant damage from centuries of fires, earthquakes, and plundering.

In 1749 the building was consecrated by Pope Benedict XIV as the site of execution of many Christian martyrs.  There is no historical evidence that any Christians were executed there, but its sudden consecrated status was the Colosseums saviour - subsequent Popes restored the building and protected it from further plundering.  A cross still stands in the arena, and this is the starting place for the Pope's annual Stations of the Cross on Good Friday.

After a guided tour of the Colosseum by a very nice Italian archaeologist who told us very little of the above, we sat in the shade of the trees now standing at the old site of the Colossus and ate a very over-priced parma ham ciabatta.  We rallied our energy, reapplied our sun cream, and moved on to the Roman Forum, conveniently next door to the Colosseum, and the subject of my next blog post.

There's only so much history one can absorb before requiring a break.