A Travellerspoint blog

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The heat is on

The comfortable and speedy Eurostar train got us from Florence to Rome in under 1.5hrs - but as we arrived we were hit by steamy mid-30s temperatures and glistening sun. Summer had arrived early in Rome.

Our B&B was a good 20 minute hike in the sun, in an area called San Lorenzo near Termini (main train station). San Lorenzo is a student area nearby the university, accordingly not as clean or as pretty, but charming in its own way.

Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona

In our first venture into the Centro Storico, we decided to walk the 3.5km into town and covered the Fontana di Trevi, Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and the tiny piazzas and narrow alleyways in between. Rome really is a beautiful city to walk around despite the heat - although the dilemma is solved particularly well by the abundant gelaterias, of which we naturally took full advantage.

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The centre is even more beautiful at night, (despite having to wait until 10pm for dark), with fountains and monuments like the Pantheon lit up. There is a buzz around town with tourists and al fresco diners, and we did head into town a few times to take it in and grab a bite.

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Angels & Demons

The film adaptation of Dan Brown's 'Angels and Demons' is in theatres here and all around Europe (It's actually been quite amusing to see the posters around different cities in various languages - e.g. 'Angeli e Demoni', 'Angels et Demons', 'Angeles y Demonios', and strangely 'Illuminati' in German). We, of course, found a theatre playing it in English - with the setting mainly in Rome, it was pretty cool to check off the sights with those we had and hadn't seen already!

Colosseum & Palatine Hill

We swung by the Colosseum for a fly by visit, thinking we'd check it out from the outside, and come back another day. Lo and behold, we were offered a tour and with an attractive offer of an English speaking guide and very reasonable price, and we headed in.

The Colosseum itself is a grand monument, and its inconcievable how they must have designed and built it in ancient times. It took 10 years and around 70,000 jewish workers (slaves) to build, completed in 80AD, used for entertainment of the Roman masses - who all received passes for free entry, seating allocated by nobility and status. It was the largest structure of its kind for many centuries.

The 'entertainment' on offer was of course of the gladitorial kind, and in its time, over 2 million people were slayed inside the stadium, either in team battles, man vs exotic animals (elephants, crocodiles, lions, tigers etc), or man vs man. Gladiators were slaves, criminals, or "idiots" - i.e. free men who chose to become gladiators in search of fame and glory.

A couple of cool facts - "arena" is the spanish word for sand, which was used to cover the battle area, in order to soak up the blood. Also, Romans were paid in salt, which they used to preserve food - thus stemming the word "salary".

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After the Colosseum, we also had a tour around the Palatine Hill - the area in which Rome was first settled, and remained the seat of power for the Roman emperors for centuries. On it, they constructed a number of grand palaces, an athletics stadium, a temple, and a vast garden. It overlooked the Roman Forum (Forum = "Meeting Place"), which was the 'main street' of ancient Rome, of which ruins remain and have been excavated to its original ground level.

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Trastavere

We made a couple of trips to Trastavere, a funky part of town across the Tiber river which is home to numerous restaurants and bars, housed in a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, and packed with tourists, and locals, young and old. Our favourite restaurant was 'Dar Poeta', a pizzeria serving what many consider to be Rome's best pizza, all topped off with a Nutella and Riccotta calzone - which Sumathi thought was just bliss.

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Spanish Steps & Villa Borghese

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, we decided to do as the Romans do and wander around the 'eternal city' - in particular the Spanish Steps, which (my guidebook tells me) were used by renaissance artists and the 'beautiful people' to meet up. In all honesty, the steps themselves are less than spectacular, and the area is crawling with thousands of tourists, mostly shuffling along in little groups, led by hankerchief-on-a-stick waving tour guides, all looking decidedly puffy and sunburnt. With some time to kill, we found a shady spot on the steps and took some time out to stretch our legs and catch up on some reading.

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At the top of the Spanish Steps, is the entry to the large city park known as Villa Borghese - the hilltop location and tree lined avenues providing welcome relief from the swelter. Near the entrance we discovered a stand hiring out bikes, as well as this two person, four wheeled contraption. We couldn't resist and hired our very own "pedalo", and whizzed and weaved around the park (and, despite an off-road detour, requiring assistance to push the pedalo up a hill) we came back in one piece, in time to take some really nice evening shots of the view across Rome.

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Vatican - The Holy See

Whats to say about the splendour, wonder and history of the Vatican? Nothing that I can properly write up in a few lines, thats for sure.

Arriving mid morning, we knocked back a quick cappuccino, joined the first offered English speaking tour group and headed straight into the museum (well, a 10 minute line wasn't too bad).

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The "Pinacoteca" was our first section covered, with art dating back to the 13th century, leading into Renaissance with Raphel's "Transfiguration" and Caravaggio's "The Entombment of Christ". As we moved into the main part of the museum, we passed rooms of sculptures, busts, tapestries and maps, and led into the Sistene Chapel.

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The ceilings and walls covered in Michelangelo's fresco, it truly is a magical place and the "Last Judgement" wall is as haunting as it inspires curiosity. Photos being banned from inside the Chapel, it didnt stop at least 60% of visitos snapping and flashing away, despite repeated announcements. As our guide noted, its just disrespectful.

St Peter's Basilica was reached through a small door beside the chapel, and the sheer size of it, and grand splendour, considering when it was built, is indicative of it's place as the centre of the Catholic world. Michelangelo's "La Pietà" sculpture was definately a highlight, showing the grieving Madonna mourning the loss of her son, laying across her lap.

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Near the Vatican is the not so famous Castel Sant Angelo, previously a tomb for the Emperor Hadrian, more recently a museum, and also used as a fortress for the Pope in case of security threat! Its featured in "Angels and Demons", with a tunnel linking it at the Vatican. Across the Tiber river, leading to the Castel, is a number of ornate bridges.

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The Spanish invade Rome?

Our final evening in Rome coincided with the final of the UEFA Champions League, being held in the city, featuring FC Barcelona (who we watched win their semi-final over Chelsea whilst we were in the city), and Manchester United. Over the previous few days, hordes of football fans have descended on the city - in fact it was a Spaniard invasion! Surprisingly, the Man Utd fans were drastically outnumbered and outvoiced, and in the end, it wasn't just the fans that were missing - the score: FC Barca 2-0 Manchester United.

During the heat of the day, we witnessed a congregation of Catalan fans singing their songs and dancing around the Trevi fountain - a site to behold. The evening however was strangely and eerily quiet in the centre - an alcohol ban putting paid to any street parties.

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Posted by deepaksuma 01:32 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Cooking in Firenze!

A wander around Firenze

Florence is a very picturesque town, buzzing with people, bikes and small cars (some very small!) scurrying around piazzas and narrow streets despite the heat. A cappuccino and brioche under our belts, visited the Pontevecchio, a bridge connecting the two north and south of town, which is exclusively (by order of the Medici Grand Dukes) the domain of gold and jewellery shops (although the odd gelato shop seems admissable).

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The town's main square, 'Piazza del Duomo' contains a replica statue of David (held in the Accademia), and is also home to the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral, also known as the 'Duomo' - the largest such dome ever constructed.

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Cooking in Tuscany

The heat and high pollen levels affecting us, we took a timeout and embarked on a journey out to country cottage for a Tuscan cooking class, where we learnt to make pasta (from scratch) - both a spinach and riccotta ravioli, and tagliatelle. Our host, Christina, then whipped it all into some basic sauces (butter and sage for the ravioli, pesto for the tagliatelli), and with a few supplements (cauliflower souffle, grilled tomatoes, and a tiramisu fruchato and espresso - and loads of Chianti Classico) we had a sumptuous meal with some cool and interesting people.

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Tonight we went to a well known pizzeria (Osteria Caffe Italia) near Piazza del Santa Maria Novella. Using the principle of serving only a few high quality dishes (rather than lots of dishs of varying quality) they serve only 3 types of pizza (margherita, marinara and napolitana), all excellent. The meal topped off with some exquisite gelato on the walk home (can you get bad gelato in Italy?), we said a sad farewell to Alex and Darsh, with a morning train ride to Rome on the cards.

Posted by deepaksuma 01:15 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Chianti Classico

San Gimignano

Another quaint little stonewalled town, up on a hill, perhaps the prettiest of the lot, but overrun with tourists, and standard fare of trinket shops and gelaterias. Once we got away from the beaten track, the tiny town was lovely to walk around, spending an hour or so to wander and explore the narrow lanes and avenues.

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Pisa

Not a whole lot to say about Pisa. We stopped by to see the Pisa's Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), better known as the complex that houses the "Leaning Tower of Pisa". We spent our brief picnic lunch watching, bemused, at hundreds of people posing for cheesy photographs with hands parallel, 'holding up' the tower, some with even more creative photos.

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Wondering what all the fuss was about, we gave it an (embarrassing) shot.

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Enter the Ufizzi

Onto the Autostrade, we made quick time to Florence to meet our 4pm timeslot for entry to the Uffizi, the famous art museum holding many of Italy's great renaissance art. Except we arrived at 5pm and, by all accounts, were lucky to get in.

Like the Louvre, the building itself is old, grand and famous, but this is where comparisons end. Audioguides in hand, we attempted to make our way through the galleries, but with many rooms undergoing restoration, the heat, and the audioguide itself proving less than satisfactory (to put it nicely - I was tempted to throw it out a window or against a wall..), we meandered amongst the crowds, seeing most rooms, including the "The Birth of Venus" and the "Primavera", both Botticelli. From the museum windows, we also had a nice view of the Pontevecchio bridge.

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Posted by deepaksuma 13:49 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Siena, in the heart of Tuscany

This historic town is best known for its annual historic horse race, "La Palio", in which various local teams race around the town's main piazza (del Campo), with thousands packed in to witness the affair. The town itself is a historic site, although it's still a living, breathing city with 50,000 odd residents.

Rising above the Piazza del Campo is the Torre del Mangia, offering a pretty spectacular view over the city and surrounding hills, red tiled roofs contrasting with the green countryside. The city also has its "Duomo", a cathedral built with black and white marble and red domed roof.

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We picnicked in the square and with obligatory gelato in hand (melting rapidly in the 30C+ heat), we headed back to the car with a view of heading out into the Chianti hills.

The regions namesake wine is a blend containing mainly sangiovese grapes, with additions of merlot and cabernet sauvignon. You can visit a local "Enotece" (En-O-Tek-ey) to sample some of the wines and also purchase - although despite a long drive through the scenic hills, we struggled to find one open and willing. Until we randomly came across this fine establishment - the wine centre of Barone Ricasoli. The company proudly displays that it has remained in the same family since the 12th century, and offered us a pretty decent wine tasting for 5 euro each - waived after we bought two bottles of the Chianti Classico.

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We finished a great day by heading up to another historic stonewalled small town, San Gusme, taking up a very good recommendation for non-flashy Tuscan dining at a place called "Da Sira e Remino", the meal topped off with a generous spot of local Grappa.

Posted by deepaksuma 13:34 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

A smooth ride

Today we headed from Nice to Siena, in the heart of Tuscany, to spend a few days checking out the countryside, vineyards, hills, and the quaint towns perched high upon them. To get there from Nice, however, was a journey that required changes and brief layovers in in Genoa, Pisa, and Empoli. Luckily, we managed to hit all of our connections and all trains were clean, on time and reasonaby comfortable. We watched as coastline became countryside and we wizzed past marble quarries, fields and estates.

Once in Siena, we met up with Alex and Darsh, who had arrived in Milan a day before and were spending 12 days driving around Tuscany, and with whom we were to spend the next couple of days. After an evening meal in Piazza del Campo, we headed out to our accomodation in Colonna del Grillo, Castelnuovo B.ga.

Posted by deepaksuma 13:33 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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