A Brief Trip to Rome

A Brief Trip to Rome

Rome is now toted as one of the world’s most exciting places to visit…according to Trip Advisor. Their recent reviewers have urged readers and prospective visitors to put it on their bucket list instead of by-passing it as many tend to do. It fact, it came in as the second best place to visit managing to beat out Paris! I suspect that one of the reasons for this is because it’s cheaper. For example, a cappuccino is usually 2 euros compared to five in Paris. Of course, Rome has many other lures,too… history, art and architecture, location, good public transit, Roman ruins everywhere, and the food!

This was a second visit for me having made my first in 1970. With that trip rapidly becoming a fading memory, I was eager to take a few days at the end of our stay in Gaeta and have Hubby act as my tour guide. He has returned to Rome at least eight times so I knew I would be in good hands.

Three days didn’t give us much time to see all I wanted to see. Not keen on standing in line ups to see the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica, I was content to settle for a quick visit to the square to take some pictures and feel sorry for all those who were enduring the line ups. I may live to regret it unless I can return again.

St. Peter’s Square

Because we happened to be there at Easter…one of their busiest times of the year… I agreed to attend a performance of the St. John Passion on the outskirts of the city in the Parco de Musica, a park with three modern theatres devoted exclusively to the arts. We attended this event on our first night, to be followed by an overly long, two hour Easter service next Sunday morning. This was enough for me, so from then on it was primarily my choice of what to do and see.

The performers for St. John Passion taking their bows.

Rome is a terrific city for walking. The centre of the city with its numerous piazzas, churches, and famous Roman ruins can easily be done on foot. Places to see are clearly signed and, wonder of wonders, I didn’t find the traffic too chaotic. If you tire of walking or want to go to the outer parts of the city, you can take an easy to manoeuver subway, or a tramcar that runs from one end of the city to the other, or tons of buses which all seem to end up at the Centro Termini where all the trains throughout the country meet up, too. Our hotel was near the station which was convenient for us to get anywhere in the city and out to the airport.

A good deal of our remaining time was spent simply walking and sight-seeing, and most importantly, lapping up the ambience of this eternal city. When our feet and legs began to protest, we had no trouble finding a cute cafe for a drink or for a sample of that delicious Roman food. A favourite ‘pick-me-up’ was an Aperol Spritz in the afternoon. Romans don’t drink cappuccinos after ‘noon’ so feeling obligated to ‘do what the Romans do’ we opted for the spritzers.

One of our first stops was the Spanish Steps…a wonderful Baroque masterpiece designed by that prolific sculptor, Bernini, and constructed in 1726. Next to it, was the one-time home of those two famous English poets…Keats and Shelley. At the top of the steps, I was rewarded with a great view of the city spread out before me. In case you didn’t know Rome is built around seven hills and the Tiber River with no high rises in the centre…. they are all out in the suburbs. There are over 3 million people in all of Rome with over two million in the burbs. The centre has only 80 thousand residents. The crowds of people you encounter are tourists.

View from the top of the Spanish Steps.

Rome has over 336 fountains which can be found in every piazza, large or small. The Fountain at Trevi is one of the most famous. Immortalized in song and movies, it’s here where visitors flock to throw in a coin or two to ensure that they will return again. I heard that they can haul in up to 2,000 Euro a day!

Another beautiful fountain crafted by… you guessed it…Bernini that great Italian sculptor appears in the Piazza Navona. There are two fountains here, but the more significant one is his Four Rivers masterpiece with an Egyptian obelisk in the centre. This plaza dates back to the 1st century A.D. when the early Romans congregated to watch their games. Later on in the Baroque period, they went to see theatrical events. Now it is used for a Christmas market and, of course, for tourists and residents alike to simply rest and have a drink at one of the numerous cafes. It has been featured in many movies: for example “Angels and Demons” written by Dan Brown and starring Tom Hanks.

The Piazza Navona

Bernini’s masterpiece.

Next to the piazzas in large numbers are the churches. There are many and they are all beautiful. Most of them are now a blur in my mind, but the one which stands out for me is the St. Louis de France boasting three Caravaggio paintings.

Inside St. Louis di France

Caravaggio painting.

The building which most impressed me was the Pantheon, founded in 27 B.C., destroyed in 80 A.D., and restored by the Emperor Adrian in 118. In the 7th century it was converted to a church. The ancient Romans used it as a meeting place. Over the centuries it became a burial spot for the remains of the Italian kings. Today it can proudly claim to be one of the finest preserved buildings in our modern world. Not only this, it’s one of the few famous pieces of ancient Roman architecture that you can visit for FREE…and there wasn’t a huge line up! Once inside you will be awed by its structure. The huge domed roof with a hole in the centre is made of unreinforced concrete to let the rain in. But where does the water go, and how does this help explain why it is so well-preserved today?  The answer is thanks to the foresight and clever thinking of the builders who put in a sloping floor with small holes for proper drainage so we can enjoy this wonderfully preserved building today.

You can’t visit Rome and not visit the Colosseum, if not to enter at least to go and gawk at it. It is the largest amphitheatre ever built. Construction began in 72 A.D. and was completed in 80 A.D. In its day it could hold up to 80,000 spectators who would come to witness drama, concerts, games of all kinds, animal hunts, and the ever popular gladitorial fights.  Again we opted to forego the line up and the crowds to simply admire its grandeur from the outside. Both of us had seen it on our previous visits when it was mostly under construction. Today it is all spruced up and looking awesome. One thing we noticed here, as is true for most of the important ruins and piazzas drawing huge crowds, was the soldiers and sometimes tanks standing guard just in case….

Nearby the Colosseum is the Forum with ruins of temples and monuments scattered here and there. Both of these famous spots are located in what we know today as Ancient Rome. Construction is ongoing and what has been accomplished so far is truly commendable….and it helps bring the tourists! Tons of money has been poured into these restoration projects over the years, not only by the Italian government, but by organizations around the world. The question is how much is enough?

At the Forum with Temple of Minerva.

This mosaic wall looks like a recent find and still is in great shape.

The Temple of Peace built in 70 A.D. after a succession of wars.

In between the piazzas, churches, and ruins, we found time to visit two villas both housing wonderful collections of art. Our first one was the Farnesina Villa. To reach it, we had to cross the Tiber River. The Tiber is a beautiful river which the Romans don’t give enough credit to. Like the Seine in Paris, it’s spanned by numerous small bridges… all walkable… with a bike/pedestrian path running along it. Strange that not many people use it. Could it be that the steep stairs leading down to the river are a hindrance? Our walk to the villa took us to small cobblestone streets and a world far removed from the frenetic pace of the centre. This area definitely had a village feel to it. The Villa de Fernesina and grounds were absolutely lovely. Antonio Chigi owned this villa and to satiate his passion for the arts became an avid collected of fine paintings by Raphael, Peruzzi, and Baldassairre.

Ralphael’s “The marriage of Psyche and Cupid”

Our second choice was another small gallery in the Villa Doria Pamphily facing the Piazza Navona…back to the centre again. This villa was once the home of Innocent 10 who was proclaimed, not only the pope, but the king of Italy in 1644 or thereabouts. He was one powerful man as was his family. In fact, the family to this day is still involved with running the gallery. Innocent’s cousin, Camillo, was the avid art collector so it’s thanks to him that we can view sculptures by Bernini, and, once again paintings by that very famous artist, Caravaggio, who broke all the rules of his day by insisting on using prostitutes for his models. He really pushed the envelope by using one to portray Mary Magdaline!

Here she is.

A room in the Pallazzio Doria Pamphily.

Rome is facing the same problems, if not more, as most large cities these days. Parking and transportation are and always have been a huge problem, as is housing. There is a whole city underneath the city above waiting to be unearthed. The question is does more money go into that, or should it go towards building a present day city that will provide for the needs of the people living there? Romans seem to be divided on this. The one thing we kept hearing was that they don’t much like change, yet they like to complain about all its ills. It remains to be seen just which direction they will head in. They hated their previous mayor so have elected a young woman. Could she be the answer to helping wake them up to what is facing them down the road? Rome has faced many hard times over the centuries yet it has managed to endure. Surely it will continue to  live up to its reputation as ‘the eternal city’.

In and Around Gaeta, Italy – Roman Ruins and Beautiful Beaches

Spending a month in the town of Gaeta in central Italy has catipulted me back to my high school studies in Latin. At that time, I questioned my choice to study a dead language but was encouraged by the fact that with it came the revelation of how our English language was built on it, and my discovery that Roman history was far from boring. These past few weeks have certainly sparked a renewed interest for me in all things Roman.

Overlooking the harbour in Gaeta.

In their hey day, the Romans spread their empire to many parts of Europe, Asia Minor, and Northern Africa. Most historians today would agree that they were master builders as evidenced by their remains which people have been flocking to for centuries. The Coliseum in Rome, the Pantheon, and the ruins of Pompei and Herculaneum are a few of the notables which have been well-preserved and draw hoards of tourists every year from around the globe.

You could say that the legacy of the Romans is broad enough to cover almost all facets of our life today. Its influence can be traced to the spread of Christianity, the basis of our law system, and our democratic form of government. Other things which come to mind are roads, aqueducts, baths, temples to various gods and goddesses, forums or sports stadiums, coliseums, amphitheatres, and beautiful homes with their *atriums and *peristiles. And, let’s not forget to thank them for a myriad of smaller necessities such as, our newspapers, our calendar, and our public toilets, to name just a few.

In the atrium of a Roman house.

Rome and its environs were the centre for this ancient civilization. However, it was the towns and cities further to the south on the western sea coast sheltered by the Aurunci Mountains, which provided valuable places for trade and places of refuge for emperors and those of the upper class who wanted to escape the clamour of the city. All have their Roman remains with stories to tell of their time spent here.

The Tyrranean Sea and the Aurunci Mt. range.

Gaeta was one of those towns, along with Sperlonga, Formia, and Terracina. These are coastal towns located midway between Rome and Naples. Picture the Almalfi Coast…Capri and Sorrento. This will give you an idea of what this area has to offer: sandy beaches, weird and wonderful rock formations, grottoes, and mountains. No wonder the Romans loved it! Modern day Italians and northern Europeans still flock here in the summer months. March and April are ideal for visitors like Hubby and me because we can not only avoid the crowds and get cheaper prices for just about everything, but also enjoy the sun with moderate temperatures. Nights are cool but days are usually around 18 degrees centigrade.

Overlooking Gaeta

Gaeta, with a population of about 40,000, is divided into two areas: the old and the new which is typical of all the towns we have been….Sperlonga, Terracina, Formia, Itri, and Naples. If not situated on the coast offering beautiful beaches, they can be found further inland on a hilltop in the mountains. All of them have an old and new part, and all of them have Roman ruins scattered here and there. The old parts of town often reveal their Medieval influences with narrow, cobble stone streets, and piazzas or squares usually dominated by a cathedral, town hall, or museum. Larger towns and cities are linked by bus or train running at an affordable cost. A rental car would be the best bet to get to hard to reach places in the mountains but is more expensive. Gasoline isn’t cheap in Italy. We have relied on the bus to get to most places except for Naples when we took the train.

The highlights of our travels in and around the area have been Itri, a small mountain town which lies on part of the Appian Way, the Archeological Museum and the Cavern in Speralonga, the Circeo Promontory and the Temple of Jupiter in Terracina, and Herculaneum near Naples.

The Appian Way was built by the Romans beginning in 312 BC to give their capital a link to the south extending as far as Brundisi. Cutting the rocks, paving the road, and constructing the temples and cisterns must have required careful planning, great expertise and super human endurance. Over the centuries reconstructions have been carried out making it still a viable road even today for automobiles, bikes, and pedestrians. We stopped near the town of Itri to walk on a part of the Appian Way dating back to its beginning. The thrill of our walk was slightly marred by the hordes of mountain bikers who were using the road for racing, a popular sport in Italy.

Watch out, the race is on.

Our walk along the Appian Way.

Itri was the only town we visited that wasn’t on the sea. It’s a small village sitting atop a mountain 170 meters above sea level dominated by a Medieval castle. Being fairly remote from any discernible public transport, we were thankful to have friends with a rental car and an excellent driver to manoeuver the incredibly narrow streets of the Old Town. Here we witnessed the bonfires which are set every year on March 19th to honour St. Joseph. People come out in droves from all over the region to dance, sing, and prepare “zappole di San Guieseppe” a fried dough made of sugar, eggs, and coated with honey. We would have liked to have joined the fun and sampled some of their food, but because there were so many cars leaving no spots to park, we decided to head back to Gaeta for a bite to eat.

A narrow street in Old Town Itri.

This house is for sale.

Sperlonga’s Archeological Museum and Cavern was my top choice for a delightful tour of Roman ruins. The museum portrayed sculptures and artifacts depicting the mythology relating to the battles between Ulysses and the Scylla, leading archeologists to believe that the discovery of this collection in 1957 actually dates back to the Greeks. Over the centuries most of them were reconstructed by the Romans during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Not far from the museum is the remains of a village, the villa where Tiberius lived in the summers, and the cavern where his sculptures were hidden. With such an idyllic setting by the sea and the mountains , no wonder Tiberius fled Rome’s heat to spend his summers in Sperlonga.

Sculpture of Ulysses and his men fighting the Scylla.

Ruins of the village where Tiberius lived.

The Grotto where the sculptures were discovered.

Terracina is another coastal town situated near a gigantic rock promontory jutting out into the Trryhanean Sea with the Aurunci Mountains on one side and a fertile plain on the other. The rock was split in two for the construction of the Appian Way, and there are remnants of Roman rule everywhere. On top of the promontory sits the ancient Temple of Jupiter. In the Old Town on the slope of the mountain, narrow, cobblestone streets lead to a piazza which is built on a Roman forum. Presently, the site is undergoing more excavations to unearth an amphitheatre.

The Temple of Jupiter on the Promontory overlooking Terracine.

Unearthing more Roman treasures.

Formia is the closest town to Gaeta. Bus service runs on a regular basis every hour so we took advantage of this for a change of scenery…to try a new cafe for coffee and pastries… and to explore. Formia claims to have a several notable ruins but we discovered that some simply were not accessible. For example, Cicero’s villa is located on a private property. However, we were successful in finding his Mausoleum located near the Appian Way. Cicero was one of the better Roman Emperor’s; however, his reign ended because he was too outspoken, resulting in his death which was common in those days.

Cicero’s Mausoleum

Another indulgence!

Herculaneum was well worth another trip back to Naples for us. Since we had both visited Pompei many years ago on separate trips, Herculaneum was our undisputed choice. Both of these ancient cities were destroyed when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD. Pompei gained its notoriety from the body of the little boy covered in a coat of lava. This image, becoming so embedded in our minds over the centuries, caused people to flock to Pompei and bypass Herculaneum. However, in recent years Herculaneum has been gaining popularity because it actually reveals a closer look at ancient Roman life. Their almost intact buildings, pottery, and art are in much better condition. Apparently reconstruction was started soon after an earthquake in 63 AD. It has been ongoing so the whole site is much better preserved. Moreover, Herculaneum was a more compact city with narrow streets and layered buildings ….their version of our present day high rise…which makes it an easier site to walk and do in a day. I remember how spread out Pompei was with its wide streets making it difficult to see everything in one visit.

Ancient Herculaneum with Mt. Vesuvius in the background.

A pub and eatery with the pots used for cooking.

A two layer boarding house.

Many school groups visit to learn their history.

An excellent example of Roman artwork.

The men’s bath house.

The peristile at the House of Argus.

  

Gaeta is the last place on my list for finding Roman ruins because it seems to have the least amount that are visible. Bits and pieces are scattered around the Old Town in the columns of some of the churches reconstructed during Medieval times. The Italians are very proud of their Roman heritage so wanting to preserve some of it, they became masters of incorporating pieces of what was left into their reconstruction efforts.

An arch in Old Town Gaeta which has some parts probably dating back to the Romans.

The most complete Roman structure in Gaeta is a mausoleum located somewhere on top of Mount Orlando, overlooking the beautiful Serapo Beach. It’s not visible from down below. It was built by the Romans in honour of Munatius Plancus, a Roman senator who spent time in Gaeta. We tried walking up to see it but never made it. The path wasn’t clearly signed, and we had no way of knowing just how far we had left to go. However, what we accomplished was worth our effort. On the way, we got a close up view of the Turco Grotto which comes with a religious story mentioned in the book of Matthew. The story goes that the rock jutting out to the sea was split into two pieces forming the grotto at the exact time of Jesus’ death. We also stumbled upon some rocks, which upon closer look, resembled a small Roman bath and some type of fortification. Our third reward for this strenuous walk was a fabulous view of Serapo Beach which is the longest (1.5 km) and most beautiful beach in this area. This is the beach that is only a 10 minute walk from our apartment, and where we have been working on our tans on those sunny days when the breeze was warm enough.

The split rock named the Turco Grotto.

Can you guess what these ruins are?

Gaeta and its environs are primarily noted as a tourist area today….as a place to escape from the larger cities… as it was in the time of the ancient Romans. That much hasn’t changed, thank goodness. The beaches we have seen are clean with crystal clear waters. There are ample apartments and hotels to stay for as long as you want. Fish, artichokes, strawberries, pears, olive oil, buffalo cheese made from the milk of water buffalo, rustic sausage, and chickling peas (like beans) are some of the foods the area is noted for. All are readily available at good prices in the numerous markets to be found in every town and village. Gaeta’s location between and not far from both Rome and Naples is another plus if you want a reprieve from small town living and fancy the buzz of the large city for awhile. Most importantly, if you are at all interested in the history of the Romans and how it has impacted our present day life, this would be an excellent area to brush up on that, as I have discovered.

That’s Gaeta and its Serapo Beach.

Watching the sun set over the Gulf of Gaeta.

*atrium – the open area of a dwelling surrounded by rooms on all sides as in Roman days. The concept is very popular today.

*peristile – an open garden surrounded by a colonade of porticos.

*triclinium – a formal dining room lined on three sides by reclining benches familiar to the Roman house a wealthy family.

 

Naples – You Can Love It or Hate It

Before you make up your mind on what your impression of Naples is, you should either read what I am about to write or go and visit it for yourself. If possible I would suggest the latter.

When I was back- packing my way around Europe with my girlfriends, we decided to bypass Naples because of the rumours we had heard and read…”Watch out for all those men who hassle women on their own and be careful of pick pockets.” There were other negative comments I’m sure but this is the one that stuck in my mind. It was definitely not on the ‘bucket list’ of most travellers back then and, unfortunately, not so for some even today. I must confess that I would not have chosen to visit Naples this time around while in Italy if it hadn’t been for Hubby and some friends who lived there in the ’80’s. At first, I met their enthusiasm for this great city with scepticism, but thankfully my open mind and curiosity won over. Here are my impressions of this controversial city which will hopefully give you some idea why people either love it or hate it, or perhaps fall somewhere in between.

The Architecture

The proliferation of fine old buildings reflecting a mix of architectural styles including Baroque, Gothic and the more modern art deco designs introduced by Mussolini before the second world war are outstanding. In fact, Naples was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. There are hundreds of beautiful churches, castles and palaces, and famous piazzas commemorating the city’s heroes in its historical centre.

Its Setting

Naples has been gifted with an ideal setting. The beautiful Bay of Naples provides it with one of the world’s busiest ports as well as gorgeous sunsets. It is the launching pad for ferries travelling to one of Europe’s most glamorous regions: the Almafi coast, Sorrento, and the islands of Capri and Ischia. The mountains of Vesuvius and Campi Flegrei provide another lovely back drop. Surrounding all of this are miles of fertile land which produce fruit and vegetables year round due to the mix of Mediterranean and tropical climates.

The Narrow Streets

It’s famous for its one-pedestrian, cobble stoned streets strung with lines of laundry and hanging off balconies. Everyday life is highly visible and can be chaotic but that’s Napoli. I never felt unsafe or encountered any rude behavior. Shops with mouth-watering pastries and cafes serving up the best coffee from the region, abound. It’s almost impossible not to stop and sample some of this so why not indulge? As we discovered, a coffee and a delicious pastry will cost 2 or 3 Euros… about 3 to 5 Canadian dollars.

The National Architectural Museum

This museum is a must see. It houses one of the world’s most complete collection of  sculptures reproduced by the Romans from their older  Greek compatriots, as well as mosaics and paintings from the cities of Herculaneum and Pompei which were devastated by the Mt. Vesuvius eruption in 79 A.D. The first floor of this magnificent building is devoted to sculptures depicting Roman heroes both real and mythological. You can’t help but be mesmerized by the beauty of both the male and female anatomy…especially those male bums! Another sculpture which should not be missed is the “The Torture of Dirce” or the Farnese Bull carved from one solid piece of Italian marble. Michelangelo worked on its restoration. The second floor is filled with lovely mosaics and paintings rescued from the ruins of Pompei. Apparently you can see more of how life was lived at that time than if you went to visit Pompei itself. In recent years a little room portraying the sex life of the citizens has been added. Now dubbed the ‘porno room’ it has drawn considerable attention. My thoughts on this display were that it’s not so different from the tantric sex motifs one can view in India. Good for Napoli for daring to portray the reality of their past life.

The Torture of Dirce sculpture built AD 212 to 216.

Teatro de San Carlo

The ornate Teatro de San Carlo was built in 1737 making it the oldest working theatre in Europe. We were fortunate to hear one of the best symphony concerts I have ever heard, not only because of the wonderful acoustics but also the program conducted by Leonard Slatkin from the US. His excellent conducting skills, the appearance of Alexi Volodin, a Russian pianist who received two encores and could have had more, and an interesting modern piece composed by Slatkin’s wife, Cindy McTee, made this a memorable evening. The icing on the cake was accidentally meeting Slatkin and McTee at the Architectural Museum the following day where we had a great chat about the previous night’s performance and other things musical. Hubby was in his element sharing stories of great conductors and musical performances he attended during his employment at Roy Thompson Hall in Toronto.

The Cappella Sanservero

The Sansevero Chapel Museum is a sepulchre located in the heart of Naples. Created by Giueseppe Sanmartino, its prime focus is the Cresti Velato or Veiled Christ. People of strong faith, or not, can’t help being moved by the intricate realism of this sculpture where every nuance of Christ’s suffering is vividly portrayed in his body shrouded with a thin veil so real you can almost feel it. Many other masterpieces can be found in this chapel making it one of the ‘most impressive monuments ever conceived by the human mind’.

Neapolitan Food

As all Neapolitans would like us to know, pizza was invented by them, but did you know that the Margherita pizza is named after Queen Margherita and that the ingredients for a true Neapolitan pizza are regulated by law? Since 2004 only a special kind of flour, yeast, and mineral water can be used so only those restaurants who meet these requirements can claim they make the ‘real thing’. Patrons of these restaurants will know because each restaurant must display a special logo at their entrance. The Neapolitans also lay claim to being the masters of spaghetti especially the seafood dish. Then, as I already mentioned, there are those yummy pastries which again they are masters at producing. Napoli’s signature pastry is called a sfogliatelle….light layers of flaky pastry filled with sweetened ricotta cheese.

Art and Culture

Their art and culture, which goes back centuries, is still very much in evidence today especially in their churches and major museums. After admiring the Duomo, the largest and most significant of Naples’ churches, we visited the Misericordia where Michelangelo Caravaggio’s famous art piece …”The Seven Acts of Mercy”…is housed.  Another major undertaking exposing the culture of the Romans is ongoing. An underground city under the present day city is slowly being unearthed and giving us a close up of early Roman life.

Caravaggio’s “The Seven Acts of Mercy”

There are numerous other sites for which Naples is noted, but I would need at least a week or more to see them all. They are all the things that people love about this city. Now for the things that some people hate about it so much that they have vowed never to return.

Garbage

A few years ago, Naples made the world news when the garbage collectors went on strike for more than a year. You can imagine the problems this created which didn’t do anything to help the city’s already negative image. I hate to say that even though the strike is over the city is still having some problems. Although some garbage bins were visible, there were not enough as garbage was usually spilling out  around them, not to mention everywhere else. Nevertheless, I don’t think their problem is much worse than many of the cities I have seen in South East Asia, such as Phnom Penh in Cambodia and the country roads in Viet Nam. Proper garbage disposal and the citizens’ concern for keeping their cities or towns litter free simply aren’t a priority in many parts of our world. For Italy it has always been Naples and many contribute this to the poor choice in municipal government influenced by the Camoura, an organized crime network.

Graffiti

Yes, there is a good deal of graffiti in Naples, which I don’t think is worse than some other European cities I have seen. I remember that Lisbon and Athens both had problems with it as I suspect many other European cities have. Walking around the historic centre of Naples, I spied one shop keeper painting over some of the graffiti on his storefront. It is a shame that the city hasn’t been able to stem the tide as it does contribute to its overall grungy, dirty appearance.

Begging, Touts and Pickpockets

Naples is one of the poorest places in Italy so there is bound to be begging with desperate people looking to make money any way they can. I noticed some begging around the Central Train Station but none on the trains or the subway. We were approached by one tout who wanted to help us purchase our tickets, but he backed down fairly quickly when we stated firmly that we didn’t need his help. We experienced much worse in the medinas of Morocco.

Lying, Cheating, and Thieving

Over the years Naples has been accused of them all. During our two-day visit, we encountered only one incident: lying. This happened where we least expected. After finishing a delicious Neapolitan meal of antipasta, seafood spaghetti, red house wine, and frizzante (fizzy water), and of course, the crusty bread served at every meal, we were presented with our bill which totalled 55 Euro…about $80 Canadian. We were astounded! Hubby had eaten at this restaurant last year and paid much less. This was our reason for returning…good, authentic food cooked up by the family who run the place and at very good prices. They had no real menu other than a set price for whatever they were cooking for the day and another higher price if we chose what we wanted. He told us they had seafood pasta so we thought, why not, if that’s what is on the menu for the day. He didn’t present any other options. When Hubby picked up the bill the whole place heard a loud, “What”? Immediately our waiter left our table and returned with a new price of 45 euro! Having looked at their pricing for the two sets (with or without choice) as we were entering the restaurant and seeing that the counter offer still wasn’t good enough, I jumped in and pointed to the sign at their door. Realizing again that he didn’t have a strong rebuttal, he brought the price down to 40 euro. Allowing for the possibility that prices had gone up from last year, we stopped at this point and paid our bill. If we hadn’t been so savvy, he would have gotten away with it. Too bad as this is the sort of thing that Napoli has been known for and why people are reticent to go back.

Neapolitan seafood spaghetti.

My conclusion on Napoli is that like many cities it has its good and bad points. If you go looking for the good, with an open mind, and some common sense, you will accept it for what it is and leave on good terms. However, if you buy into the negative hearsay and look only for its bad points, you will come away with the wrong impression and never want to return. If you choose the latter route, then I think you will have missed experiencing a city which is vibrant and real. Beneath the layers of grime you will find beauty and the remains of a storied past.

A gallery of additional images of Napoli. Click on each picture for the caption.

A Greek Pictorial

  • Friendly people
  • Ancient history
  • Sheep, goats, and cats
  • Olives and lemons
  • Blue sky and water
  • White-washed buildings

These are the primary impressions of my most favourite country in the world – GREECE.

Last year I revisited this beautiful country on my way home from the Far East where I met up with my husband after three months of solo travel to Thailand, India, and Nepal. This was a return visit for both of us having each landed there what seems like eons ago in 1969. However, we were not together then. Young and still single, I had contacted the travel bug after two years of teaching elementary school and was travelling with a group of girlfriends, while he was travelling with his former wife and two small children.

My second time around last year was far more rewarding since I now had the opportunity to see Greece through more experienced eyes and truly fall in love with it all over again. As an added bonus, we arrived in April before the cruise ships and hoards of tourists on board, so we often felt like we had the country to ourselves, at least on the islands we visited. It also meant that accommodations and meals were within our budget which they most certainly would not have been later on during the peak season.

The following gallery of slides is meant to give you a bird’s eye view of the impressions that my second visit to Greece left with me. I know I will return again should the opportunity present itself.

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Paris in Three Days

I love Paris in the spring time. I love Paris in the fall…..” These words are dancing in my head as I put together this last post for the end of our winter getaway. We  began our odyssey in Thailand, spending over two months there, mostly in Chiang Mai, where I shopped for my small import business and had some dental work done. From there, we flew over  to Cambodia to explore this small but fascinating country for a month, followed by another couple of weeks back to Chiang Mai dealing with some unfinished dental work. We began to wend our way westward and home taking a one month hiatus to visit Portugal for the first time. There we managed to meet up with my brother and sister-in-law in Lisbon for a few days. Since we had a connecting flight from Paris to Montreal, we seized the chance to spend three days in this beautiful ‘city of light’  knowing we might never have such an opportunity again.

We managed to cram in many of  Paris’ highlights in our three days and would have liked more time but were just as glad we didn’t for this is one of the most expensive cities in the world to visit, especially for travellers on a budget like us. Instead of taking in all the museums and historical sites that charge huge entrance fees, we spent much of our time just walking around and enjoying the parks. I also devoted much of my time trying to capture the beauty and spirit of this city with my camera. The result is a short story of what we saw and experienced in those three days. I hope you enjoy them as I take you through the picture gallery I have attached to this post. To view each photo up close, simply click on the first picture and take the journey from there. Please feel free to make any comments or ask any questions you might have after viewing them.

Beaches, Oranges, and Fado

If I had to sum up my most memorable things about the Algarve region in the south of Portugal, these three things are it – the beautiful beaches, the abundant orange trees, and the soul moving music of known as fado.

The number one reason why the Algarve draws so many tourists is for its beautiful beaches. True, there are scads of beautiful beaches in this world, but the ones here are exceptional for their sandy beaches, rocky cliffs, little coves hidden beneath the grottos, and outcroppings of rocks which seem to pop up everywhere. Even though they are influenced by the cold Atlantic, they are, nevertheless, a whole lot warmer especially on the leeward side towards the Spanish border. Since we have been comfortably settled in Portimao for the past two weeks and now that the sunny weather for which this region is known has returned, we have been visiting some of these nearby beaches. In fact our favourite, the Praia da Rocha about a kilometer away from our apartment, has won some kind of award for being the most beautiful beach in Europe.

Sandy beach at Lagos.

Sandy beach at Lagos.

Rock outcroppings on Praia da Roche

Rock outcroppings on Praia da Roche

One of the many grottos.

One of the many grottos.

On my first days here in the Algarve as we walked around getting to know the town of Lagos, I couldn’t stop smelling the loveliest aroma imaginable. I soon realized it was the delicate aroma of the orange blossoms from the trees which seemed to be everywhere, from everyone’s back yard to the trees lining the boulevards. Interspersed among the orange trees were the lemon trees just dripping with huge lemons. Seeing this started my quest for getting the perfect photo of the orange tree…and the orange! I wasn’t too enamored of the lemon tree because once I had tasted one of those oranges I was hooked on them! Oranges and fresh orange juice have been a part of our daily diet. However, not to exclude those luscious lemons, we have been using them to enhance the flavour of our cooking.  I just wish we could bring home bags of them, not just for the taste, but for the cost which is a third of what we pay in NS.

Orange trees everywhere - a farmhouse near the town of Silves.

Orange trees everywhere – a farmhouse near the town of Silves.

Oranges and blossoms in spring time.

Oranges and blossoms in spring time.

Orange blossom.

Orange blossom.

The Algarve's perfect orange.

The Algarve’s perfect orange.

Fado shouldn’t be on the list of memorable things reminiscent of the Algarve, but of Portugal as a whole and especially Lisbon, since that is where it had its beginnings. However, I had to include it here because this is where we heard the most heart-wrenching singing and music ever, right here in Portimao, making it my third most memorable thing about this beautiful region. This type of singing, sung only in Portugal, evolved from the taverns and brothels of the port of Lisbon in the 1820’s. It’s taken from the Portuguese word saudade meaning nostalgia. The story behind the mournful singing by a fadista (female singer) is one of bittersweet longing for some kind of loss, usually a lover or death of a loved one. The fadista is accompanied by a Portuguese guitarist, a classical guitarist, and in more modern times as we experienced last Saturday night, perhaps a set of drums or other modern instrument. Of course, the whole performance was sung in Portuguese; nevertheless we could pick up the drift of the theme just by the tone of utter angst and the actions of the fadista. She and her backup band were absolutely sensational at pulling in their audience (the encore went on for at least half an hour) leaving us with an unforgettable impression of a genre of music that was almost new to us. We had both heard it before on a CD which was recorded in the 1960’s probably by Amalia Rodriguez, Portugal’s diva of fado, which would have been very traditional without all of the modern backup.

Portugal is of course known for many other things too numerous to see or even mention.  However, I would be very remiss if I didn’t pay tribute to the the cuisine and architecture we have encountered. Portugal is a maritime nation like Nova Scotia so it’s cuisine is defined by the fish that come from the sea. Unfortunately like us in NS, the Portuguese have over fished so now most of their fish come from Norway. However, this doesn’t mean that fish don’t play a big role in the kinds of dishes which are at our disposal. We have sampled delicious creamed cod, grilled bass, grilled sardines (their specialty), hake, salmon, and shrimp, but no lobster. They fish very few lobster here.

The market in Loule.

The market in Loule.

Reproduction of the sardine packers at the Portimao National Museum.

Reproduction of the sardine packers at the Portimao National Museum.

We have explored castles built by the Moors in the 1200’s and admired the Moorish architecture which is still evident today in the homes and buildings as in their chimneys and the tiles. The strange looking chimneys resemble small minarets and can be seen on almost all homes.  The tiles or azulejo for which Portugal is famous can be found in many of the churches, train stations, homes, and public buildings.

Typical chimneys on the homes in the Algarve.

Typical chimneys on the homes in the Algarve.

A completely tiled house in Lisbon.

A completely tiled house in Lisbon.

Tiles from a church in Loule.

Tiles from a church in Loule.

There is still so much to see and do in this country so it’s with regret that we have to leave soon. We needed to put down roots for awhile here in Portimao, but now that the end of our stay is near, we are feeling compelled to squeeze in a couple of remaining places on our ‘must see’ list. The first is the lovely seaside town of Tivara very near the the Spanish border, and the second is the town of Sagres in the opposite direction at the furthermost tip of the country reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean. After this, we are scheduled to leave by train for the city of Porto, the capital of the northern region and centre for the vineyards producing the best port in the world. Hopefully, my next post will be about what we encounter in our travels to these three places.

East Meets West

It seems like an eternity since we left Thailand but really it was only a little over a week ago. Having to go through so many changes such as climate, culture, and time zones, has put our minds and bodies totally out of sync. However, now that we are settled in Portimao in the south of Portugal for the next two weeks, I am at last beginning to feel a sense of satisfaction and some anticipation for what lies ahead.

I must confess that it’s taken some getting used to being back into the western way of life again. It’s always comforting to be back in the midst of the orderliness and cleanliness of life in this part of the world, but it’s been tough dealing with the high prices and the cool temperatures. It’s a real challenge to keep within our budget when the cost of each Euro is now $1.60 Canadian. Moreover, with the temperatures hovering around 15 degrees and our fair share of rainy overcast days, which we are told is unusual for the Algarve this time of the year, adequate clothing can be a problem if one doesn’t relish wearing the same thing every day. Truth be told, I am missing those hot, humid Thai days where sandals and shorts were the order of the day. The one thing I don’t miss though is the dirty air in Chiang Mai which is becoming more of a problem for me every year. I can now revel in Portugal’s clear, crisp air wafting in from the Atlantic Ocean, a little reminder of home and Nova Scotia.

Now that we have put in roots for a while, I’ve had time to reflect on just what we have accomplished in the past ten days since we left Chiang Mai. We flew down to Bangkok and stayed at a hotel near the Sukhumbhumavarni Airport where we prepared for our twelve-hour flight via Air France to Paris. Graham always manages these long hauls with lots of wine which puts him to sleep. I don’t fare so well since I can’t drink lots of wine, and I don’t sleep. My choice is to either read or watch movies. I always opt for the latter as I find this much easier, and it often gives me an opportunity to catch up on some of the latest flicks. I was delighted to see 12 Days a Slave, which I had heard so much about, and another recent release with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts titled August: Osage County, a fairly heavy drama about a very dysfunctional family. After all of this and just one meal, I even managed to squeeze in those old favourites Annie Hall and The Graduate. Whew, by the time we landed, I was exhausted and famished as we only got one full meal during that whole 12 hour trip!

Since our flight to Lisbon wasn’t scheduled to go until late in the afternoon the next day, I had booked us into another airport hotel near the Charles De Gaulle Airport in the suburb of Mesnil-Amelot, a fairly quaint little French village with large cathedral and all. I loved our brief time there. Not only were we treated to some sunshine, but clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds, something we hadn’t seen for a while. Every thing was green and spring flowers were popping up everywhere.  Unfortunately, all the pictures I took were lost somehow in my travels.

My one and only picture of the village of Mesnil-Amelot in France.

My one and only picture of the village of Mesnil-Amelot in France.

We arrived in Lisbon that night after a short two-hour flight. Casa Santa Clara, the place where we stayed, couldn’t have been in a better location. It’s an old Lisboan house which has been totally renovated and sits next door to a huge cathedral not far from the Tagus River. We were in the old part of Lisboa known as Alfama, which is noted for that soulful type of singing called Fado.

Entrance to Casa Santa Clara in Lisbon.

Entrance to Casa Santa Clara in Lisbon.

We spent three days in Lisbon just getting to know this beautiful city built on seven hills on the Tagus River with the Atlantic Ocean looming in the background. Thus, it has a distinct Maritime feel. Our first day was last Sunday, and since museums all have free entrance on that day, we decided to take advantage of their generosity. There are numerous museums to choose from in this historic city, but we decided on the most significant, the Calouste Gulbenkian, named after an Armenian oil magnate, a passionate collector of artifacts encompassing the entire history of both eastern and western art. His collections begin with ancient Egyptian art, then on to Classical Greek and Roman art, to the great treasures from the Islamic and Oriental cultures, and finally the great masters of European art. Never had we seen such an extensive collection of art all in one building! The Portuguese are very lucky to have had all of this bequeathed to them.

Wooden sculpture from the early Egyptian period.

Wooden sculpture from the early Egyptian period.

A piece of gorgeous Persian pottery.

A piece of gorgeous Persian pottery.

A Manet masterpiece, one of my favourite artists.

A Manet masterpiece, one of my favourite artists.

Our second day presented us with some very iffy weather (rain and sunny periods) so we decided to take a tour on one of those ancient tram cars for which Lisbon is so famous. In fact, we took tram No.28 which our guidebook told us was a ‘ must do’. So we did and got to experience what a really bumpy ride up and down very steep hills is like and to see just how narrow the streets are in the Alfama district.

The No. 28 tram car - a Lisboa landmark.

The No. 28 tram car – a Lisboa landmark.

Our third day started off sunny, so we opted for another touristy activity that had been recommended not only by our guidebook, but everyone we met, and that was a train trip out to the town of Sintra which was once the summer residence of the kings of Portugal. It’s now a UNESCO site meaning that entrance fees and transportation costs require that you take lots of Euros with you.  By the time we got there, the weather had changed and not for the better. Due to weather and the horrific prices, we decided to limit our sightseeing to the castle which dominates the town and just one of the many palaces. The one we chose was the last to be constructed in Portugal by Ferdinand II who pulled out all the stops in having his German architect make it the most fantastic of palaces. There were gargoyles, and chandeliers galore in addition to beautifully landscaped gardens. The whole place had a definite fairy tale aura to it.

Graham and me in front of the Palacio da Pena in Sintra.

Graham and me in front of the Palacio da Pena in Sintra.

One of the many gargoyles adorning the doorways of the palace.

One of the many gargoyles adorning the doorways of the palace.

The palace living room with chandelier.

The palace living room with chandelier.

The following day, we travelled by train down to Lagos. The trains here are wonderful: fast, efficient, extremely comfortable, and cheap! This, we decided, will become one of our chief modes of transportation while here in the south. We stayed two days in Lagos at a hostel/hotel with shared bathrooms. We aren’t big on sharing bathrooms, but in Portugal in our price range private baths can be difficult to find. Lagos turned out to be a  pretty little seaside town near the Atlantic Ocean making it a prime resort area for Europeans, mostly Brits. For this reason, I found it difficult to find a small studio apartment with kitchen facilities to fit our budget, so began to look elsewhere. Fortunately, I lucked in to just what I was looking for: a clean, fairly new one bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen, big bathroom, private balcony, and all that we need to make some of our own meals. This little gem is in the small city of Portimao once the sardine capital of the world. Portimao isn’t so touristy as Lagos or Albufeira as it caters more to the working class rather than the tourist ,but it still has its own charm, such as a nice older part of town, extensive ocean frontage, and a beautiful beach just 2 km. away. I still can’ believe that it isn’t even mentioned in our tour guide-book! To make life even easier, we have a shopping centre with a huge supermarket nearby. An added bit of interest is a nearby camp of gypsies who were here long before the apartment buildings that are starting to crowd the hill.

The beach at Lagos.

The beach at Lagos.

Our apartment in Portimao.

Our apartment in Portimao.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this cold, wet front will soon pass over us so we can get out to explore some of the many smaller villages and towns along this beautiful coast. Since I am now feeling settled into some kind of routine, I hope to get a better feel for the people of this beautiful country and in future posts  be better able to give some impressions of the Portuguese way of life. At last, I am prepared to leave behind Thailand in the east and open up to Portugal in the west.