Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Into Rome forthe final week in Italy, and a short return visit

(click on photos to enlarge)

That last stretch from Tuscany to Rome was full of expectations.We stopped at Lake Vico, a small lake that appears to be in a volcanic crater, reached via roads that are overhung with trees, making is seem very remote. There were lots of picnic places in the forested areas but we dropped into a bar on a beach and had fettucini funghi, sitting at a table covered with a white starched cloth. A few families sat in the shade or wandered into the water. It was all peaceful and quiet. Just lovely.

Lake Vico from our table

From there to the bustle of returning the car at Fumicino, where you need to follow the route to the covered parking. There are no longer signs telling you this. Then we took a limousine to our apartment which turned out to be a real highlight. Up one floor in the tiny Vicolo Orbitelli, it was beautifully designed and had everything one could want for a stay, including unlimited internet access and a washing machine. (I get rhapsodical about having a washing machine. Italy has far too few laundromats and anyway, who wants to spend holiday time in a laundromat?)

The apartment

The apartment was a decent walk from Campo dei Fiori and we quickly learned to take the little green Trambus if we wanted to go any distance. The E4.00 daily transport pass did us very well for what we wanted. The campo had lovely markets each morning and a lively crowd in the evening.

Fruit and vegetables

Gotta have coffee

Someone said pre-packed herbs were for tourists. Don't think so somehow.

We followed some detailed directions to get to the aqueduct park, a huge open area towards the southeast corner of Rome that still has great lengths of aqueduct, some at least still carrying water as it spilled out into a nice pool at one place, beautifully clean and clear. The water of Rome flows out of taps and fountains everywhere and is great for refilling water bottles.

Aqueduct Park

We enjoyed wandering Rome, Ponte Sant'Angelo was very close, the markets at Campo dei Fiori, Piazza Navona and of course my beloved Pantheon.

Pantheon dome and oculus

The crowds were thicker than I remember from previous visits. However, this time we had planned some particular attractions, and Monday saw us meet up with a guide, Daniella Hunt, for a tour of the Forum. She was so good at putting the geography and time-line in place, also making us rack our brains for things we remembered from our reading and history lessons. This was an expensive tour but we felt it was worthwhile to get the most out of an area we had seen before but maybe not really appreciated.

Detail, Triumphal arch

The churches of Rome hold endless fascination. This time we had planned few that we really wanted to see, rather than wandering in on the off-chance of finding something beautiful. We re-visited the church of SM in Trastevere with its grand coffered ceiling, Byzantine apse and mosaics around it and Cosmatesque floor mosaics, always a lovely place. We had to see the Bernini sculpture of St Teresa in ecstasy, in SM della Vittoria, so that was on the agenda too. The sculpture fits rather well into a church decorated in the baroque style; it is flamboyant in the curve of draperies and of course, rather shocking, as Teresa appears to be in the throes of orgasm, and her words describing the experience would seem to confirm something like that.

Bernini's St Teresa in Ecstasy
I had a bit of a Bernini fest actually, photographing most of the angels on the Ponte Sant'Angelo, a few sculptures in churches, the fountains in Piazza Navona, some other fountains and of course seeing his sublime sculptures in the Villa Borghese.

Bernini Angel

Detail, Fountain of the Four Rivers

SM Maggiore wasa huge church and a huge surprise to me. I didn't expect the size nor the beautiful gold mosaics in the apse, the wide main nave giving the whole church a spacious look, and the ceiling clothed in gold. It is a papal church, the largest devoted to Mary, and had "fashion police" at the doors all done up in elegant suits with red stripes down the leg. Italians like a nice uniform.

Nave of SM Maggiore


A real highlight was the excursion to Tivoli to see Villa d'Este, not the bus trip which was tedious to the extreme, nor the particularly bad toasted sandwich we had in the town, but the villa itself and its glorious gardens, filled with greenery and fountains. These cardinals sure knew how to live. The villa is set high above the plain and is on several levels, the rooms decorated and painted, a number with grottos and fountains internally, a real gem in itself. But the gardens are extraordinary. They are gradually being restored, to the extent now that the organ fountain, powered by air mixed into falling water, is now in working order again. I expected dancing fountains to go with the music but you don't get that, just a few short pieces of music at set times.

I loved the terrace of 100 fountains and took about 100 photographs, sometimes stopping the water drops with a short exposure and at others making creamy flows with longer times. A great deal of fun! Everything is green and cool and mossy, just a lovely excursion.

Terrace of 100 fountains

The water drains away through his mouth

Pools and fountains

Weather in Rome was cooler, thanks mainly to afternoon and evening storms that often dissipated by morning. However, they made some spectacular sights at times and there was a lot of thunder and lightning.

Storm over Bernini's Colonnade

The planned visits to the Vatican necropolis under St Peters, and to the Villa Borghese, were excellent. No photos allowed in either, which is understandable. The Scavi was with a small guided tour, quite hot and dank, through the old necropolis (open air burial ground) which was covered up to build St Peters and which contains the bones of St Peter (fairly good archeological evidence for this by the way). It was interesting to note the change from pagan to Christian burials and the "family plots" that were so beautifully decorated. The tour ended at the burial place of current popes.

I am not a fan of St Peter's Basilica. I find it too grandiose, too boastful (it lists the lengths of other churches down the nave "I'm bigger than all of you") too cold, too over-the-top. There are a few things, such as the dome and the holy spirit window, and of course the Pieta, which I do like, but I won't be visiting again.

Dome, St Peter's
Holy Spirit window


The Villa Borghese was filled with the most beautiful treasures, especially sculpture but also paintings, and the story goes that the Scipione Borghese would stop at nothing to get a piece of artwork that he liked, a bit of stealing, a bit of bribery to the artist to get someone else's commission for himself, and so on, so the collection is quite amazing. You get admitted for two hours then everyone has to leave and they let the next group in, so bookings are virtually essential. The Apollo and Daphne sculpture, in particular, was just glorious. They say that the leaves on the tree are carved so thin that they ring like crystal. How he made Apollo's flowing cape that floats behind him is impossible to imagine: marble flying like silk. The stars of the collection are so grand that it is easy to forget the beautiful rooms in which they are housed, each also a work of art and often designed to express the theme of the main artwork. Memories to treasure.

I usually hate street artist "statues" but this one took my fancy, and much easier than standing still on a pedestal looking like Marie Antoinette or a Pharaoh. Though it never fails to amaze me when people crowd around to get a good photo, then don't leave a coin.

Just loungin' around

Foodwise, we had several meals at Antonio's Trattoria, including one of peeled figs and Parma ham then pasta with black truffle shavings, and another with fried zucchini flowers stuffed with mozarella and anchovies. This restaurant often puts the special produce near the front door. They had a box of enormous porcini mushrooms and one tourist stopped, picked one up and held it while a friend photographed her, then put it back and walked on. Ye gods! No wonder tourists get a bad name. The daughter of the house was beside herself with disbelief and fury.

Antonio's Trattoria, Pantheon

And with all these grand things to see, the charm of Rome often lies in the simple street scenes; the fading paint on houses, the vespas, the plants in boxes or hanging in swathes of creeper or vine, the cobbled streets, the umbrellas of the cafes. the more hidden fountains.

Street corner

Bernini's Bee fountain in a corner of Piazza Barberini
(the bee was the Barberini family symbol)

Romecabs, reliable as ever, picked us up for our early morning trip to the airport to continue the holiday into Spain. This trip I really felt that planning a few very special things paid off in a fascinating visit.

The return stopover
We flew back into Rome from Madrid to stopover for about 24 hours before tackling the long journey back through Dubai to Australia. Romecabs were there to pick us up after waiting some time for us and delivered us safely, if with some difficulty with location, to very near the accommodation. This time we chose to stay at a B&B just opposite the Italian Senate building and in a tiny street leading into Piazza Navona. The only sign for the residence Relais al Senato is the bellpush. The B&B is on the second floor, with five rooms, but we were accommodated in the apartment on the fourth floor which also had cooking facilities and a living room and a lovely terrace. Above the terrace was a lookout with views into Piazza Navona and over the rooftops of Rome towards a gathering thunderstorm, which struck with great ferocity and continued until about dinner time.

Gathering storm

Cold and wet

Now that it was both wet and cold it seemed prudent to eat locally, so we went to Domitizano which has a bar on the piazza and a restaurant with a wood fired pizza oven on the street. The door to the B&B is between the two. We ate well, breasola and rocket, ossobucco and the famous tartufo of the house.

In the morning after an Italian breakfast with the other residents we set out to see a few things we had missed in our earlier week. First, passing through my favourite, the Pantheon, to Trevi, not just for the fountain but also for the shoe shop. Alas, my feet have spread from twelve weeks in Merrell shoes and no longer fitted into fashion shoes. The gentleman reprimanded me for wearing "pantouffles" but those Merrells had walked about 600km with nary a blister. But no new shoes for me. Luckily I had found a cute pair of shoes that did fit in Madrid. Trevi fountain itself is as lovely as ever.

Trevi details cast shadows

Then we walked Via del Corso to Piazza del Popolo, skirting the large grouping of Forestry Police parading in the square, to revisit Santa Maria del Popolo. This holds a special place in our hearts. On our first visit to Rome in 1997 we stayed nearby and I visited the church for Sunday mass. I was bowled over by the treasures, dragging husband and son inside to see. So a re-visit was in order. From the unassuming Bernini facade you don't expect the interior. Rich people had private chapels made for them, so Raphael designed the Chigi chapel, for example. Caravaggio paintings are found in the Cerasi Chapel and Pinturrichio frescoes in others,and there is a dome decorated by Raphael.

Caravaggio's Crucifixion of St Peter

Pinturicchio Nativity

I was also taken with this "memento mori" or reminder of death.

From there, back to get our luggage and be picked up in style by our Emirates limousine (I could so much get used to this). He even got to park in Piazza Navona to pick us up, given that the street near the B&B was occupied by many caribineri guarding the surrounds of the Senate, so no stopping there. That must be one of the safest addresses in Rome.

The Business and First class lounge at FCO is operated by a number of airlines, and suffers from that. No one airline takes responsibility. The facilities are tired and run down, things like toilet doors not locking, no easily available magazines or newspapers in English, and a small selection of food, some of which was decidedly tired, like salad leaves going brown in their plastic cups. Not a patch on lounges run by Emirates in Dubai or Sydney. However, on the cheery side, we were upgraded to First class. The advantages seemed to be meals on request and more seat space. On the other hand there was no storage space to put books or toiletries. I wouldn't find it worth the additional money that you would pay, at least on the 777 Rome to Dubai, but then Business class is a stretch for us.

Inflight entertainment included Angels and Demons. I watched in amazement so many places we had visited this trip were included, Santa Maria del Popolo, the Pantheon for the tomb of Raphael

Santa Maria della Vittoria for the angel in the sculpture

the Scavi under St Peters, Ponte sant Angelo, and finally the dove of peace on the top of the obelisk in Piazza Navona, which I had photographed that morning from our lookout on the roof.

Dove of peace on the obelisk
(Calling it an angel was a bit far-fetched)

Amazing, like reliving the trip in a few hours. Silly story but nice scenery.

So Rome...fantastic, beautiful and endlessly appealing if you take the time to plan what it is you want to see. We don't find it a city to wander aimlessly in the hope of finding something interesting, as you can do in Venice. It is a city where you select from among the tastes and offerings those that appeal to your palate, whether it be in art, history or food.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tuscany the beautiful

(click the photos to see a bigger view)

As we moved from the Cinque Terre into Tuscany we made sure to go via Sarzanna to see the castle. In a funny way Sarzanna Castle started us exploring Italy, after I saw a magnificent photo of it in the evening light. We couldn't recapture that but we did get some glimpses and a few photos.

Sarzanna Castle


This pretender to being a castle was over the road from the mighty Sarzanna fortress. It took Nick's fancy.

What is it about this part of Italy that gets me right in the gut, a really visceral reaction to the countryside? Don't know, but it happens every time. Tuscany is just so very beautiful. I find it a very organised landscape, the land is well tended, the soil is ploughed and cropped and always seems fruitful. We passed our old friend the Capella Vitaleta on our way into Pienza, surrounded by the turned earth almost ready for the last autumn crop.

Capella Vitaleta
We stayed just the one night in Pienza to experience the lovely Il Chiostro hotel and its restaurant with the view over the stunning Val d'Orcia. We were upgraded to a valley view room so we could look out and take in the view at any time. The restaurant was lovely but it was windy on the terrace and we had to move inside.

View from the window...nice!


Both the evening and morning light led to stunning photos of the country from our window, but also to some nice shots as we wandered the town.

Evening light

Morning shadows

Street scene, morning

Pienza Duomo

Cheese shop, Pienza is famous for its Pecorino cheese

We spent some time the next day searching for the famous cypress drive to photograph, and found it. However, I think our vantage point was probably not the best to get the whole sinuous road into the photo. Still very beautiful though.

Cypress road

We visited local towns such as Chuisi which has Etruscan remains and a truly lovely cathedral complex including a peaceful loggia,

Loggia, Chuisi

Interior Chuisi Duomo

and Castiglione del Largo on Lake Trasimeno with a triangular castle tower and a duomo with distinct Palladian architectural style, including an enormous pillared portico, incongruous in the narrow streets.

Triangular tower

Montepulciano was to be our home for the next four nights. The hotel was just inside the walls and had parking, a rather old fashioned place with a reading room and billiards table and rooms where the ensuites had obviously been added later. However, it was hard to fault the view from our room out over our private terrace, festooned with vines. Just lovely! I am getting addicted to rooms with views.

Our terrace and views

Montepulciano is a very steep town and it is a long way to the main piazza at the top where you find the Municipo and cathedral as well as some nice cafes and wine tasting rooms. There is a little bus but we only went up once.

Walls and rooves of Montepulciano

We attempted a visit to Mt Oliveto abbey but forgot to arrive early and it closed at midday. Set in very pretty countryside. We compensated by having a light lunch at the cafe and taking some photos.

Gateway to Mt Oliveto abbey

We visited St Antimo abbey near Montalcino the next day and actually got to go inside this time. Very peaceful with a high nave and a beautiful and ancient crucifix above the altar, similar to the Santa Volta in Lucca.

San Antimo Abbey

Nave and apse

11th Century crucifix

The countryside is given over to grapes which are grown cordon style, very neat and in flat rows with all the higher grapes pruned off so the grapes all hang at the bottoms of the vines in neat rows for harvesting. The Chianti grapes are deep blue.

Chianti grapes

Brunello vines

In Montalcino we tried one glass of the 2004 Brunello at a cafe, and the best bruschetta ever, thick Tuscan bread drizzled with green olive oil and ripe red chopped tomatoes and green olives, a few sprigs of basil, a few leaves of rocket. Sitting in the sun it all felt just perfect.


Olive terraces and Crete Senese country

That night we had a truly memorable meal at Le Logge del Vignola, one of those fine dining places that treat you so well with little extras like a welcoming glass of prosecco and a little cheese puff. We were amused by the really witty dessert, a Tuscan sigar, a rolled chocolate biscuit, filled with chocolate cream, blowing a puff of what we call fairy floss "smoke" and with a glass of rum on the side. It tasted great too.

Tuscan Sigar dessert

We also revisited Cortona and again had lunch on the loggia on the square where we lunched with my sister and husband three years ago and raised a glass to our mother, who has since died. It was a poignant reminder, around the time of her birthday, and I rang my sister while we were there.

Il Loggiato Restaurant, Cortona

As we left for Rome past San Quirico d'Orcia and across the Crete Senese I got a last, misty, morning photo of Capella Vitaleta. Tuscany is just beautiful and we don't tire of exploring it.

Capella Vitaletta, morning light
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