Provence, part 1

It’s hard to play favourites with places that you visit on holiday; each one stands out in its own way, bringing you find memories and tastes that keep calling you back. One such place is Provence, a region in the south east of France. It was once the first area taken over by the Romans outside of Italy, their first province, thus its name. They no doubt had to bash through hordes of Celts and Gauls to establish their neat little towns, and on our journey we were faced with similarly obstreperous natives; the French rail network.

A quick search to confirm the name shows that there is another strike underway, though I imagine that the many people who are staring at timetables in stations and angrily calling helplines won’t be as lucky as we turned out to be. We found out our pre-booked tickets had been refunded on the morning of our departure, and as she had to rush off for work and say her goodbyes, our host advised us to just turn up at the station and see if another train turns up, or in the worst case hire a car and drive down. So off we went, and lo and behold there was a train leaving in 5 minutes, so a sprint and a scramble around later and we were in first class, on seats left open by friends of travellers who had not turned up. We left a few hours earlier than intended on a faster train, for free, so in all, the strike worked out pretty well for us.

Avignon in the evening

Avignon in the evening

Upon our arrival in Avignon, the temperature rose from the foggy, jumper-needing 15 in Paris to shorts and t-shirt weather. Driving through the twisting streets, past the warm coloured walls and wide river, it felt almost like another country. Our accommodation itself was also very different. For a bit of a difference, we’d rented a gypsy caravan for our stay, which sat in someone’s chicken-ful yard and was bright yellow and purple. It had everything we needed, though in a reduced size and was definitely the most unique Airbnb place we’ve stayed in so far.

That afternoon we wandered around Avignon, admiring the Papal palace and views of the hills and valleys in the distance, as the sun set. For dinner we went to a restaurant that had been recommended online, which should serve as an example to not always believe what you read. After being told they were booked out, we were grudgingly taken to one of the empty tables almost on the street, left for ages, given different menus to the rest of the guests who gradually arrived, not offered anything to drink other than water and generally ignored. I’d have been less annoyed if the food had been decent, but I wasn’t, and on top of that felt disappointed that the stereotype for rudeness was true in at least one occasion.

The bridge of Avignon

The bridge of Avignon

So how do you follow such a day of ups and downs? You have a Roman holiday.

Our first stop was the well deservedly famous Pont du Gard. Since my partner’s last visit years ago, tourism around it had taken off, so it was only after crossing a huge carpark, paying a fee, getting through the shops and a walk through paths and gardens that we got our first glimpse of the aqueduct. It was awe inspiring, both in the size and craftsmanship, and purpose.

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

In the shadow of Pont du Gard

The Romans built menuments such as this to work, for a functional purpose, but also to impose themselves on the landscape so that wherever you were in the Empire, you knew that Rome was there. It was impressive from every angle, and dwarfed all of the tourists and staff and little shops built nearby, as it had no doubt dwarfed the slaves who built it, the legions who marched past it and the people centuries later who wondered if it had been built by giants.

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Pont du Gard, imposing itself

Next we visited Nîmes, which is a gorgeous town that I think puts Avignon in the shade in regards to elegance. Walking along its tree lined boulevards and past fountains, we saw the arena, which seemed almost entirely intact. Inside we saw that it was being set up to host a concert, the original seating, walkways and arena floor still serving the purpose they had been built for.

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

The arena of Nîmes, ready to go

From a vantage point in the top tier, there was a wonderful view over the city, with pigeons soaring and cathedrals and ancient towers rising up and beyond them the hills.

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Rooftops of Nîmes, from the arena

Not imagining this could be topped, we next found the Maison Carrée. Though long since stripped of the bright paint and gold, it looked almost intact, a beautiful temple that glowed in the afternoon light. It has been a house, a church, a stable and a granary, and still stands as if it had never been touched. Exquisite is a good word for it. If you think I’m waxing a bit too lyrical, I urge you to visit it, and then say I’m wrong.

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

It also made me wonder what else had been lost to history, what other beauty had been torn down and the sorts of people and situations that bring that about.

The ceiling of the outer collonade

The ceiling of the outer collonade

Out next stop was Arles, but as we drove I noticed something on the map that had inexplicably escaped my notice before. With a slight change of direction we went off the main road, and arrived at our destination as thunder began to roll on the horizon. Our destination was a replica Roman winery, built on and around an ancient winery, and which was still in production. We were left to explore the centre ourselves, taking in the info about amphorae, wine production and the history of the site. We then found the pressing room, which has a massive tree beam hung above a press, with winches and pulleys, basins for the wine and grape mush and huge amphorae buried in the ground. Every year there is a harvest on the site, with workers and volunteers in costume, who then press the grapes by foot, operate the equipment and create wine following ancient recipes.

The press at Mas des Tourelles

The press at Mas des Tourelles

It was all fascinating and I was giddy with the reality of it, even more so when we were offered tasting, which were included in all visits. Obviously tastes have changed over the millenia, but the herbs, spices, sweetness and saltiness were marvelous to experience, and we left with smiles and bottles of our own, glad we had the opportunity to try this completely unique experience.

Then to finish off our day, we had dinner in Arles, which for my was a plate full of crustacea. Though my partner’s face went white as I offered him meaty lumps of sea snail, I got through the whole thing – and the whole experience far exceeded our first night in Provence.

Seafood extravaganza

Seafood extravaganza

Walking through the town we saw another arena, a bit smaller but still imposing and many cobbled streets and a busker. What overlaid everything was the scent of jasmine, which hung heavily in the evening air, the flowers themselves growing around and into houses and walls.

Jasmine in Arles

Jasmine in Arles

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Two tales from Dubris

122 CE

Huddled in the rolling belly of the ship, Albinus re-read the message he’d been given in an effort to distract himself from the rolling in his stomach. Months on the road had inured him to travel, but for a man born and bred in a city where the land stayed still pretty much of the time, the road over the channel was not proving enjoyable.

A voice on the deck above called out a command, and Albinus felt the speed of the ship finally slacken as it began to tack in to the harbour. He rolled up and carefully slotted the scroll into its case, and tucked it into a bag under his cloak. With one foot he nudged the sleeping form on the low cot below the bench, which groaned and curled tighter into itself.
‘We’ve arrived,’ he announced, and at the sound of his voice the figure pulled itself upright and, wobbling, lurched to its feet, the thick sheaf of brown hair falling back to reveal the pale and green-tinged face of a young woman.

Other passengers began standing, green-faced or offensively sprightly, and gathered their luggage. The young woman, known since joining Albinus’ household as a child as Sasticca, shouldered a large pack, and made it up onto the deck, down the gangplank and onto the cobbled harbour square before dropping it to the ground and collapsing on top of it with a heartfelt groan.

Albinus gave his slave a few moments to gather herself together as he took in the last country on his journey, seeming at first glance much like any other in the Empire. Behind the familiar offices, inns and clustering apartments though was a new landscape. The hills shouldering the town were steep and mist topped, and behind them curtains of rain fell, even now blowing towards the sea in great gusts. To the right through the rain and mist he could make out glimpses of white, no doubt the cliffs he’d have seen on the crossing if he hadn’t been sheltering below decks.

‘Come on, we’ve got a job that needs doing.’ He commanded after a little while, and then strode up the main street through the town, followed by the woman trying to find a balance between carrying his travel pack, not slipping on the cobbles and not being sick. At any moment, she was sure, her stomach would come up and that would be it for her and her cleanest travelling cloak. The crossing had been worse than even the bar slave at Caletum had said; no wonder Julius Caesar had had such a rough time of it. And he probably hadn’t had to sleep on the floor.

They soon reached a fine looking inn, not far from the walls of the fort. Despite their knocking and calls, there was no answer however.
‘It’s not even a quiet time of year,’ Albinus ranted, as they stepped out into the rain and wind, which was coming now in regular fits and bursts.
A woman passing by looking up at them, and then shuffled over, ‘You’re trying to get into the Cliffs of Dubris, then? It’s closed today, been closed all week in fact. Strange business if you ask me,’ she added with disapproval, her odd accent lilting over the Latin. ‘If you’re looking for somewhere warm, you can’t go wrong with the inn at the lighthouse. It’s just up there, not more than 10 minutes.’ She pointed behind them, up one of the hills crowding over the town. At the top they could make out a glint of fire, almost lost in the daylight and weather.
‘Tell them Camilla sent you,’ she smiled, nodded and was soon lost around a corner.

Slave and master exchanges glances, and then turned on the path leading up the hill. As they crossed the small town, they could make out locals sheltering in the lee of bars, bakeries, food stalls, a furniture warehouse and even a small book store. They stopped at one counter to snack on cheesy bread and soup, where locals rubbed shoulders with other visitors and tried to warm up from the inside. As they climbed the hill, snatches of sunlight made it through the clouds, lighting up the trees and the sea which they could now see spread below them. The lighthouse, rather than a tiny colonial mound, was a tall and impressive structure, recently built enough for the bricks to shine slightly in the sun. At the top, figures moved around, tending the light and looking out to sea, and voices echoed inside its thick walls.

The lighthouse

The lighthouse

Less impressive was the brick building squatting next to it, probably the inn they’d been directed to. While Sasticca went inside to make arrangements for their stay and horses the next day, Albinus gazed up at the lighthouse wondering at the Fate’s decision to lead him to this backwater of the Empire, where even here the relentless energy of the old She Wolf could be felt. Though perhaps not forever, if the message he carried from the Emperor to the struggling commanders in the limitless north of the island reached them. For now, he thought, staring out across the narrow sea, I’ll enjoy the walls of civilization that will keep the foreign weather out and underfloor heating in.

1094 years later

‘Will, get back here boy!’

The boy in question didn’t pause in his breakneck dash up the castle steps. Ducking into an alcove on the staircase he just avoided a small troop of knights, heavily kitted out and liable to mow over any undersized servant brat that got in their way. As their footsteps faded overhead he ran up the last flight, and hid behind a wall hanging before anyone could spot him. From there he could hear the shouting of the knights that had passed, as well as a whole array of lords and dignitaries, each trying to make themselves heard over the raucous sounds of servants bustling, nervous horses in the keep and the usual life of the castle.

‘He has already taken London, and soon Kent will fall, we must move now!’ One voice rose above the rest, and then a silence fell as someone entered the main hall, their footsteps ringing on the stone floor.

‘The traitors in London may have allowed him in without a fight, but he was mistaken in not throwing all his weight at us first. That mistake will cost him the war. Yes he will turn here, and then we’ll make our move and show this invader that the loyal English will not fall so lightly.’

Muttering and some scattered applause followed these words, and then voices rose again as tactics and plans were discussed. It was high summer, and any day now the army of Prince Louis of France would arrive and crash against the walls of the castle.

The dining hall

The dining hall

Having heard all he needed to hear, Will peeked out from behind the wall hanging, ready to make a break for the stairs. The long tables in the dining hall, where he was hidden, where being scrubbed and set by a small army of servants, who also swept the floors and dusted brightly coloured banners hanging above the high table at the far end. To his right through the open arch connecting the rooms he could make out the crowd gathered in the main hall, where the thrones of the King and Queen of England waited, and where the worthies of the castle gathered to plan, argue and debate.

Paying homage in the main hall

Paying homage in the main hall

Beyond that was the room that the Constable had set for himself in the absence of the King. Will had never made it past the main hall, on a dare late at night, but other servants had spoken of a large, fine bed, warm furs all over the place, a special room just for treasure and everything done in the brightest colours you could think of. It sounded a world away from Will’s hay-strewn corner in the kitchen downstairs.

The royal suite

The royal suite

Just then a face turned towards him, and before the other servant could shout he’d escaped and charged down the stairs into the kitchens. Once there Rolf the baker grabbed him before he could make it outside and pushed him in among the other servant boys who were helping with odd jobs. He found himself fetching water, grinding barley, salting fish and soon lost track of what he had been doing before being caught.

Castle kitchens, looking neat

Castle kitchens, looking neat

It wasn’t till dusk was falling that he remembered. Looking around furtively, he saw that there was no one watching, put the butter he’d been patting into form in its box, and slipped out, up the stairs and into the keep. His cap was almost blown off in the strong winds, which blew the heady smells of the kitchen and the stables after him as he ran through the clusters of men and women finishing their tasks for the day and out through the gates. No one paid any attention to him, and he’d made it all the way to the old watch tower before someone called out to him.

The castle gate

The castle gate

‘Oi Will, what are you doing out here?’
He looked up the tower and saw his little sister Phillipa peering down at him, hair streaming out behind her.
‘What are you doing up there?’ He retorted. Her face disappeared and then reappeared around the door of the tower and she replied. ‘I’m watching for the ships from France to come, so I can be the first to know and will get a reward from the head cook.’
‘No, you’d just get into trouble for being out in the tower after dark. Get back, before Margery takes your sleeping spot.’
His sister turned back to the castle with a grumble, but before she ran away she asked, ‘What are you doing out then? You’ll get in trouble too you know.’
He nodded, and then said simply, ‘It’s Albina.’
His sister frowned, nodded and then ran back through the fading light to the castle.

The walls and the channel

The walls and the channel

Will turned back to the tower and the sea behind it, then ran and slipped down the wet grass of the hill and onto the path heading west. Carts and riders passed him, throwing up mud and almost trampling him a few times, so he stuck to the side of the path, covered in weeds. As he trudged the light faded and he felt sure he’d never make it in time. Then he finally reached the small turn off from the main road and followed the winding path up the hill to a grassy, tussocky, windy field overlooking the sea. As he climbed, he looked ahead and saw the great white cliffs, mottled here and there by greenery, but almost seeming to glow in the fading light. He remembered his mother bringing him here, in the few short years he recalled before she died, and telling him that no army that came across the sea to Dover could face the tall, ghostly cliffs, but would turn back in fear. He’d believed her, 3 years old and too in awe of adult wisdom and those mighty cliffs to imagine it could be otherwise. 6 years later he knew better, not trusting in adults or cliffs to keep him and his sister safe.

The white cliffs

The white cliffs

A nearby whinny brought him back to his mission, and he turned his back on the cliffs and scrambled amongst the bushes and shrubs until he found Albina. She was munching contentedly on grass, and seemed unsurprised to see him. She whinnied again, tossing her white mane about her short, furry neck.
Untying his rope belt, Will fashioned a halter and after passing it over her head began to lead her back down the path. Other ponies watched them go, ears twitching and then distracted by hunger returned to their own business.

Wild cliff ponies

Wild cliff ponies

‘You can’t stay out here tonight, girl, not with Prince Louis coming. Huw said the French would eat anything, so they probably wouldn’t be able to resist ponies, especially ones as pretty as you.’ So saying he patted the thick, white fur of her neck, burying his hand in the warmth.

The lights of Calais

The lights of Calais

If he was quick, there should be a back corner of the stables with enough space for a quiet, tamed wild pony, especially one that was so obviously lucky, with fur the white of the cliffs and the sense to come in when a French army approached. They had both been lucky, him and Albina, and Phillipa too, and even if the castle fell – which it wouldn’t, not with those huge walls and the old tower built by giants from long ago – there were ponies on the cliffs that they could hide among, and secret caves on the beach that their mother had shown them. In the distance ahead a light was lit on the tower, guiding him home.

799 years later again

This post is a little bit different from my usual reports of our travels, but the history and sense of place that I felt at Dover kept drawing these stories out and I couldn’t resist.

When we visited there were no Roman messengers wandering about, but there were the remains of what is thought to have been an inn, which we were unable to get into. A helpful lady directed us to the castle instead, and after the snack described in the first story, we eventually found the old Roman lighthouse. You can still go in, though the steps to the top are long gone. It was in use for a long time afterwards, when people had largely forgotten about the Romans, and in the meantime Dover castle was built around and behind it.

The castle in incredible, the largest in England and amazingly intact. The kitchens have been filled with models showing how it would have looked, and each floor had rooms fully furnished and decorated in bright banners, tables, chairs, chests and re-enactors. While we were in the great hall they put on a performance, making some visitors the royal family for the day, and leading us all in a dance to honour the king and queen. It was a lot of fun, and became yet another memory from a holiday full of wonderful memories.

By the time we left the castle it was getting dark, and so our walk to the cliffs, along the side of a road without a footpath, wasn’t the most pleasant but we made it in time to see them before the light entirely disappeared. They were tall and impressive, and someday I’d like to go back and climb down onto the beach to look up at them in full daylight. There were also many wild ponies.

So I hope you will forgive my indulgence in fiction and history and take my recommendation to visit Dover yourself one day, and see if you can find ancient foot steps as well.

Art, a Silent City and the problem of history

The first few days of our visit to Malta had been full; full of sights, tastes and bustling. As with any feast we needed a bit of a pause afterwards to digest and take a breath before we plunged on into dessert.
So on the Wednesday our first activity wasn’t running to a bus but strolling to the nearest beach. There we paddled, splashed, read, dozed and generally ignored the passing of time. Neither did we pay attention to the sunscreen that was washing away in the gently lapping water, though we certainly noticed it later.
The rest of that day, a reverse hump day, passed with grocery shopping at a van, a ‘beer-tail’ and views of the sea.

Cisk and chips

Cisk and chips

Having cleared our minds of stress and bother, we began Thursday with a bus ride and soon found ourselves waiting for a second bus, wondering after 45 minutes if it wouldn’t be easier to walk. Luckily, before the heat caused us to actually start this mad trek, the bus arrived and we gratefully squeezing among the other holiday goers and locals, heading to the old capital.
Mdina sits on a hill just above the neighbouring Rabat, looking down on the surrounding countryside from behind high, honey-coloured limestone walls. The bus took us up to the walls, but before venturing into the city we took a detour to a small and unassuming museum to find out more about a period of Maltese history that we’d missed so far.

The Domus Romana museum is, as the name suggests, located on top of the remains of an ancient Roman house and though it was small and the staff seemed almost comatose from boredom it was one of the most surprising museums I’ve visited. I was expecting the mosaic floors that I’d read about to be of the smiling masks and abstract patterned variety, and they did have those. But as I looked down at the largest mosaic, which had probably been the centrepiece of the peristyle, I thought I was seeing something modern. The mosaic had been done in a series of 3D maze like twisting patterns that looked as though they were coming out of the floor. I’ve seen Roman mosaics with chariot drivers, faces and animals, some of which looked almost lifelike and many with incredible detail and skill, but the modernness of these was amazing.

3D mosaic

3D mosaic

Just off from the peristyle was a room that might have been the study, decorated with black and white diamond shapes in a pattern that again seemed to lift out of the floor. In a corner damage had been fixed inexpertly, showing that the owners had fallen on hard times. I wondered why, and how and who they are and as usual wished for a time machine.

Old and often repaired

Old and often repaired

Outside were more remains, less well preserved, of other houses and streets which ended suddenly on the right with a large ditch. This had been built a few decades ago when they were building a railway, cutting through and demolishing part of the house and other buildings, not even leaving rubble behind. They had known about the remains, but had cut through anyway, which I guess isn’t all that surprising in a country where you can’t avoid history even if you wanted to.

It’s the same problem, if you choose to think of it as a problem, that lead to us having to walk across a construction site to reach the bus stop or run along a highway to get to the nearest town. The construction was part of a roadworks project that should improve the roads along the north-eastern part of Malta, and I’m sure will be appreciated by tourists and locals alike when/if it ever finishes. The problem is that there has been a major delay. While preparing for the roadworks someone found the remains of a Neolithic tomb, and after calling in archaeologists and doing excavations and studies the roadworks were delayed by 3 months, pushing it into peak tourist time and generally making life irritating for everyone except the archaeologists.
The same person who told us about the roadworks also mentioned that anyone building a house in Malta had better have a lot of patience and time on their hands, as all houses have to be in a set style, upgrading a house is fraught with paperwork and gods forbid you find anything historical lying around. Just don’t bother, she said, shrugging with a mix of pride and exasperation.
History, she seemed to imply, may be all very well and good, but we’ve got to live and how can we do that if it keeps haunting us?

Having gotten our fill of the Roman history of Malta, we walked through the gardens and along the moat and walls that surround the old capital. It’s been inhabited for about 6000 years, fortified by the Phoenicians in the 700sBCE and called Malet, then taken over by the Romans and named Melita and over time it was passed through the hands of the Saracens who gave it the name Mdina, followed by Normans, French and English until we get to today. They all left their marks with high walls, an impressive city gate and a maze of palaces, cathedrals and houses that add up to the almost unearthly ‘Silent City’. It has apparently also been a site for the filming of Game of Thrones where stood in for King’s Landing at one point, which I guess must have made it briefly a little less silent.

Mdina city gate

Mdina city gate

It’s called the ‘Silent City’ partly because no cars are allowed to enter, and possibly also because just under 300 people live there. It seemed to me though that the main reason for the silence, broken only by the quiet chatter of tourists, clip-clop of horse-drawn tourist buggies and bustle of small souvenir and craft shops, is the thickness of the doors and the height of the barred windows on all the houses. There is a definite impression of there being two cities, one passing by on the streets, and the other inside the walls of the houses, and never the twain shall meet.

Silent streets

Silent streets

After exploring the twisting streets and alleys, we found a cafe that had been recommended by our Bulgarian roommates. Fontanela sits perched on the city walls, overlooking the countryside to the north. From our table we could see all the way to the sea and beyond, even making out Valletta to the east and many small unknown villages in between.

View from Mdina walls

View from Mdina walls

Filled with pastizzi and ftira (a local tuna sandwich), all of course delicious and surprisingly cheap, we wandered some more and encountered no one who wasn’t a tourist or a shop keeper.

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Mmmmmm, pastizzi

Just out of the shadow of Mdina sits the craft village of Ta’Qali. While my fella went off to explore the nearby Aviation Museum, I wandered around the complex of former airforce huts, many of which contained the typical tourist fare. I soon found some that were more interesting, shops divided into the display area while at the back craftsmen and women worked away. Potters painted, carpenters carved, glassblowers blew and silversmiths twisted filigree. Near the back of the complex I walked into a glassmaker’s workshop, where a craftsman was molding something with the ease of much practice. I stayed to watch for a while, as he molded, coloured, blew, heated and pinched the blob of glass into shape, while the furnaces thrummed behind him and an industrial sized fan kept the temperature to a liveable level.

Making a swan

Making a swan

After I’d been watching with interest for a few minutes he gestured for me to climb over the rope dividing his workshop from the watching area, and indicated that I could choose a colour. I chose blue and then green, and he then explained and demonstrated the steps of molding, heating, stretching and pinching, which turned a pear shaped lump into a delicate swan. It was something like magic to watch him at work, and as the swan disappeared into one of the ovens to gradually cool I wished that I could have it myself, so I could be reminded of the fascination of watching a craftsman at work whenever I saw it.

Then he got a new lump on a long, hollow stick and held it out to me.
‘Blow hard and steadily,’ he advised and I tried to do so, watching light-headedly as the lump ballooned out into a clear bauble of glass, perfectly round. After saying that I may have blown a bit too long, but smiling, he gently tapped it against the side of the tray in front of his chair, where it smashed into shards unrecognisable from the remnants of sculptures and other tourist attempts.

The remains of my first attempt

The remains of my first attempt

Then another group of people wandered closer, curious, and I slipped out, glancing once at the oven where the swan sat as I went.
The last stop was a silversmith workshop, where the owner demonstrated the twisting, welding and beating involved in making the delicate and intricate works around him. There was a tiny grand piano, complete with strings and a stool and a Spitfire plane made of tiny twists of silver. I found a small Maltese cross and bought it, as my personal reminder of Malta.

Having both finished exploring, my fellow explorer and I met and waited at the bus stop, as bus after bus went past. After about an hour the bus we were waiting for arrived, and we climbed on, tired but satisfied with our day. The traditional rabbit stew and local wine that evening also helped.

Finding family and history in Copenhagen

The last two weeks or so have been busy, with a side of gangbusters. It started off innocently enough, recovering from a cold and preparing to return to work, plus a bit of socialising and a party that included at least 10 violinists (more on that in another post). It culminated in a house warming party, the sort of party we’ve wanted to hold since we moved to Sweden.

Homemade chocolates

Homemade chocolates

There were wonderful friends, the kitchen was too warm because of all the bodies, candles, baking bread and talking, drinks flowed non-stop, snacks were snacked upon and for once I actually got to talk to most of the guests. Much later, after the last guests had left, we kept the music going and danced and chatted for a few hours longer, drawing out the party buzz and fuzz of wine.

Rather than tidy and then ease back into a normal week with leftovers and finishing off opened wine bottles, two days after the party I was off to Copenhagen to meet someone I hadn’t seen for many months. I took a train via Malmö, crossing the sea and wondering what lay under the grey waves, and how often ships must have careened back and forth many years ago, carrying warriors and loot. I eventually arrived at the central station and stumbled around, seat-sore and tired. I spotted my mum and hugs followed, and we headed out into the city, switching between Swedish, English and Norwegian and chatting non-stop. After dropping my bags off at the hotel, we hit the town.

A queen on a cloudy day

A queen on a cloudy day

I have visited Copenhagen before, a weekend trip and a taste more than anything else. This time we wandered randomly, up the main streets and past landmarks. We saw the Amalienborg palace, the Mermaid, gardens, Nyhavn, children dressed as knights and peasants, shops and streets filled with locals and tourists.

Children or mighty warriors?

Children or mighty warriors?

We ended up at a glass-walled market, filled with fish, meat, vegetable, chocolate and tea stalls, smells mingling around us (though fortunately not that of the surströmning). We settled on a shared pizza and wine, and toasted to a week on Copenhagen, before making our slow and chatty way back to the hotel.

The next day, the first full day, my mum went off for a tour of a castle that I wasn’t able to attend, and so I had the day and the city to myself. I started by sorting out some business, and then walking around at my own pace. I passed a memorial to the Charlie Hebdo staff at the French Consulate, palaces, theatres and Tivoli, and ended up at the National Museum.

Flowers for Charlie

Flowers for Charlie

Last time there had been some confusion about museums and I had missed seeing it, which was a shame as it is very good. Plus, it was free.

There were exhibits about the history of Denmark, from the neolithic to the modern era, cultures from around the world and a lot of school children. As I tried to stay one room ahead of the mob, I saw the skeleton of an auroch, and understood why they were considered to be so dangerous and featured so often on ancient paintings. They were so unearthly large and impressive, that it seemed almost a surprise that the last ones only disappeared in 1627.

An auroch

An auroch

Further on were rooms and rooms of artifacts from early hunters, then farmers and traders, giant horns, helmets, swords and coffins. There were even plaits of hair, left in bogs for 2000 years, almost all a uniform auburn. There was a text describing how the sacrifice of hair was at the same time easy and difficult, as it is so commonly found but takes so long to grow. It made me wonder about what happened that caused those people to cut their hair and throw it away into a muddy bog, thinking it would never be seen again.

Ancient sacrificed braids

Ancient sacrificed braids

There were cauldrons made by the Etruscans, Roman coins and glasses and a long ship. One of the most wonderful things was the Gundestrup cauldron.

A face on the cauldron

A face on the cauldron

Aside from it’s size and the brightness of the silver, the artistry on it was amazing, and there were many figures I recognised, especially one antlered fellow with crossed legs holding a snake and a torque.

A familiar antlered man

A familiar antlered man

There were also a few rooms with Roman, Greek and Etruscan artifacts, including the painted faces of Alexandrian mummies, a flying penis statue and interesting comparisons between Greek myths and Disney.

The Romans did like penis figurines

The Romans did like penis figurines

I then wandered through the renaissance exhibition, past ancient microscopes and carved ivory sculptures, ball rooms and a series of exhibits about cultures around the world. Eventually I found myself in the main hall again, and left for the next part of the day’s adventure; the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek.

Renaissance room

Renaissance room

I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to the Glyptotek, which was probably just as well. After depositing my bag and jacket in a locker in the basement, which resembled a cheerful crypt, I followed a set of stairs into a room full of Impressionist sculptures of horses, people and unknown figures. Scattered among them were people sketching, drawing impressions from the art that I couldn’t see.

A goddess in the garden

A goddess in the garden

I then went into the main hall, in which a garden of palms, fountains, jungle flowers and statues sit under a huge glass dome. There was no other place like it in Copenhagen, or anywhere else I have seen. From there I found the ancient Roman galleries, full of unknown faces in marble, painted jars and countless other artifacts.

An unknown man

An unknown man

I also found a theatre that had been designed as a Greek temple, with columns statues of gods and ancient celebrities sheltering a colonnade. Yet again, I had never seen anything like it.

The theatre

The theatre

On other floors I found more modern styled art, paintings by Picasso, Van Gogh and Gaugin and enumerable others that I’d never heard of.

Sadly by this point I was approaching the artistic overload point, and so headed out into the snow and slush .

That evening I met up with my mum, who was full of stories about the castle tour, and after a wander and dinner, we slept. The next few days would be not quite as full of history, but instead ideas about the future, and we would need all of the  energy we could gather just to keep up.

The hallowed weekend

Growing up in Australia, Halloween wasn’t a big thing in my life. It seems often to have been associated with sniffs and ‘oh, that’s all a bit Americanised, isn’t it?’ which usually leads straight into a rant about how every year Christmas decorations are out earlier and earlier.
There was neither trick nor treat on my street, pumpkins were left unscathed and costumes were something you got for themed birthday parties.

An uncommon sight in Perth

An uncommon sight in Perth

Here in Sweden there’s a similar sense of not taking it too far, but in addition there’s another tradition underlying the new, and as with Jul it concerns light.

Halloween at our apartment started with a frenzy of baking, in which I decided that festivals are basically about food and on a cold rainy day, fiddling about with an oven and sweet food isn’t a bad way to go.
I started with a basic spiced cake, which didn’t turn out exactly right, and will have to be the subject of another go in future. The less said about it the better really.

Next was an ancient Roman delicacy, the awkwardly named Placenta cake, that originated as a religious offering. I found a great blog with heaps of recipes and did the modernised version and it worked well. As with Carthaginian porridge, there’s something about baked cheese and honey that I really like, and that the Romans apparently enjoyed as well.

An offering to the gods

An offering to the gods

Thirdly Soul cakes, which was what I found when I searched for traditional Halloween cakes. They were originally made to honour the dead, and were handed out door to door, and might possibly relate to the origin of trick or treat. There are certainly tasty and easy to make, and my partner amazed even myself with his ability to make them magically disappear. My lesson from this cake though was not to put the raisins on while baking. Cooked raisins aren’t especially raisiny.

Soul cakes

Soul cakes

Finally I made a pile of rolls for dinner, using a miraculous recipe that only requires 30 minutes from start to finish. All delicious and fluffy and perfect with a homemade burger.

Homemade burgers

Homemade burgers

Before you begin wondering where the normal blog went and why a kitchen-fancier has taken over, let’s leave the kitchen and discover another Halloween tradition. As I mentioned earlier, pumpkins were quite safe from the carving knife while I was growing up, but as part of our new life here in Sweden my partner and I decided to give the tradition a go.
Fortunately there were 3 pumpkins left from the wagon loads earlier in the week when we wandered down to the supermarket on the 31st, and 2 of those looked decent enough for our purposes. Some googling and pondering gave us designs and steps, and so after dinner we sat down with a few episodes of Buffy and began to carve. It was surprisingly easy and we were both pleased with our attempts. There will be more carving next year I am sure.

Our pumpkins

Our pumpkins

The next day was partly spent preparing for the Halloween party that night, during which time we realised how under-prepared we were. In order to use one of my favourite dresses I decided to be a witch, complete with a pouch of rune stones, a bunch of herbs, Freya and other suitable jewelry and my candle-lit pumpkin. My partner chose to become a ghoul, and was quite convincing, especially once he put on the cloak. We both did pretty well, considering it was our first time getting dressed up for Halloween.
The party was a lot of fun, with spooky food, friends, new friends, music and a very wide range of costumes.

Herbs and runes

Herbs and runes

And during all these adventures in and out of traditions, the cemetery below our window filled with flickering candles and wreaths of pine and flowers. All Hallows Eve is celebrated over a series of days here in Sweden, so everyday the candles would spread just a little bit more, and we could see family and friends tending the graves and standing vigil. These lights in the darkness, and the remembrance of the dead are a nice counterpoint to the fun and silliness of Halloween. I can imagine people up and down Sweden dressing up as ghosts, monsters or beasts, and then the next day, with the face paint perhaps lingering behind their ears, they head to the cemetery to light a candle for their grandmother and think about those who have passed, and the thin barrier between life and death.

Lights in the cemetery

Lights in the cemetery

A glimpse of old lives

I should start by saying that I feel very lucky that my partner knows me as well as he does. I know this because his present to me was a private tour around Rome.

The day of the tour didn’t start well, with rain threatening, but it being our last full day in Rome we couldn’t change the date so decided to take the risk. Thus we ended up running through the streets, avoiding (most of the) puddles and umbrella salesmen (who were legion) and arriving at the Baths of Caracalla only 5 minutes late. Our guide, Marisa, met us there, and after the introductions we got started on our exploration of everyday ancient Rome.

One of the things that had appealed to us about the tour guide was the option of a special tour entitled ‘Daily Life in Ancient Rome’. As my previous post about Ostia may have hinted, I am most fascinated by the traces of everyday life left by people going about their lives, from local bath houses to apartment buildings and bars. Yes, the basilicas would have been grand and imposing, but what about the little stalls in the shadows of the columns? The lawyers shilling for work from all comers, and the teachers trying to drum grammar into the heads of distracted children over the bustle of the crowds? If you look closely at the steps of the Basilica Julia in the Forum, you can see circles carved into the marble, the remnants of game boards made thousands of years ago. Perhaps someone had been bored, while waiting for an appointment, or while watching a speech from the rostrum? We’ll never know I suppose, but that’s why we write stories.

Paintings, perhaps from someone's dining room

Paintings, perhaps from someone’s dining room

The Baths of Caracalla are massive, and were apparently not even the largest complex in ancient Rome. The whole site would have covered 25 hectares, and the closest approximation I can imagine would be a massive luxury gym that was open for all members of the public, the sort of building I can’t really imagine existing now. The fact that anyone could go there for a low fee, and sometimes for free, was one of the things I liked about it, but it’s dimensions and the beauty of the remaining art and the construction are also amazing. Much of the roof has now collapsed, leaving arches and towering walls where domes and mosaic laden ceilings were once suspended over glittering mosaics and bathing pools brimming with the multitudes of Rome. As we walked through the halls and corridors, Marisa explained what it would have been like to visit, and about the engineering and labour that went on behind the scenes to keep the caldariums hot and the frigidariums chilly.

Baths of Caracalla

Baths of Caracalla

From the Baths we headed to the Caelian Hill, which I hadn’t even really noticed before. It overlooks the Circus Maximus, to the south of the Capitoline, and is dominated by churches. We went into one of the churches, under which lies part of an ancient neighbourhood. We entered a small domus, with paintings still intact, and proceeded to explore. Connecting rooms also featured paintings, figures and beasts, some of the figures censored by ancient monks. Then we were out on an ancient street, descending to another level, softly lit but for the dim corners and deep wells.

A garden feature

A garden feature

The houses and streets had been preserved as the foundations of the church, as with many other sites around the city. These particular ruins were of interest because of a theory about 2 skeletons that had been discovered there. They were found buried in what had been a garden, which was very strange for ancient Rome, where everyone was cremated or buried outside the city walls. It had been assumed by Christians that the bodies were those of two martyrs who were known to have been buried in a garden in Rome. Whether or not the skeletons really were John and Paul (though not that John and Paul), it was wonderful to be able to walk through ancient streets and ancient houses, only a few metres below the living city.

Part of an ancient street

Part of an ancient street

The final stop was the museum that accompanied the houses, and then we were out and walking together to the Colosseum, where we sadly farewelled Marisa and went off the have lunch.

I thoroughly recommend her tours, to anyone who is considering visiting Rome and it’s environs. She was able to answer all of our questions and give us endless reams of information and a sense of what it is like to live and breath Rome, both ancient and modern. If I ever visit again, and I reeeally hope I will, I’m definitely going to look her up again. Well, after following her recommendation of an early morning visit to the Pantheon.

Panorama of the Colisseum

Panorama of the Colisseum

After lunch we joined the queues for the Colosseum, eventually making our way in and then spending about an hour wandering around the huge ruins. It sometimes doesn’t feel like a ruin, with so much still intact and the scale still discernible, if diminished. Sadly the lower floors were closed due to flooding, and the upper floors were closed for an unspecified reason, but we were able to join the crowds for the full circumference, admiring the spectacle around us, and exhibits of the toothpicks, plum pits and knuckle bones that had been left behind by visitors thousands of years ago.

The new city through the old

The new city through the old

The last attraction was the Museum of the Imperial Forums, the highlight of which was yet more ancient streets, this time flanked by mostly intact rooms that once held shops, that tower over the street in multiple stories.
From the top stories we had a very good view over the Forum as dusk was approaching, and after a final stroll along the streets, imagining the area in the midst of ancient bustle, we went out onto the street.

A street from the Imperial Forums

A street from the Imperial Forums

Dinner that night was at the Tavern of the Imperial Forum, just around the corner from the museum, which not only featured an ancient Roman wall along one side of the room, but excellent food and wine. If there was only one thing I would take away from the tour with Marisa, it would be an ability to recognise ancient Roman brickwork. Perhaps a specialist skills, but I hope to put it to use.

Charioteer mosaic

Charioteer mosaic

The next day was the last one, spent packing and then whiling away the last of our time at the Palazzo Museum, which contained the most astounding mosaics and wall paintings that I have ever seen.

Mosaic of a girl

Mosaic of a girl

The triclineum of Livia was especially wonderful, featuring a riot of trees and shrubs, housing birds that seemed as though they would fly off at any moment. The room was lit in such a way that every hour it would cycle through the changes of light in a day, and I wish I could have experienced all of them.

A tree in Livia's triclinium

A tree in Livia’s triclinium

We also found remnants from the ships of Nemi, rudder clasps, railings and a face of Medusa in bronze, and some extremely fine sculptures. Next time I visit I hope to go to the museum again to give the items the time they deserve.

The beaten boxer

The beaten boxer

Then we went to the airport, said goodbye to the Italian sun and in a few hours stepped out into the wet chill of a Swedish afternoon, memories of warmth and sunlight on ancient stones still clear in our minds.

Goodbye to Rome

Goodbye to Rome

Downtown Ostia

On the 5th day of our Rome trip, we headed out of the city again, this time to the sea.
Our destination was Ostia, the ancient city that used to sit as the mouth of the Tiber and through which flowed all shipments to Rome (since writing this I discovered that Ostia comes from the Latin word for ‘mouth’. I swear I didn’t know this before I wrote the previous sentence). Even though the coast and the river have since moved, the ancient streets, shops, warehouses, apartments and temples remain, worn but in many cases amazingly intact.

A mosaic floor in the bath house

A mosaic floor in the bath house

Our journey to the coast took us through parts of Rome that we wouldn’t otherwise have seen, the outer edges beyond the suburbs, even including what looked like a bayou, complete with rotting trees and similarly decaying shacks. The trains themselves also got more graffitied as we went further from the city, until at last we pulled into the Ostia Antica stop and stepped out among a crowd of other tourists heading for the ruins.

Remnants of the Forum temple

Remnants of the Forum temple

Appropriately, the approach to the ruins is via the ancient road, which still has clusters of graves and memorials, more intact than the ones I’d seen on the Appia, though on a smaller scale. The paving stones throughout the town were the same that I’d seen in the Forum, along the Via Appia and around the Colosseum, and I wonder now whether that’s due to some more modern preservation work rather than all being ancient remnants. In any case, it does make it all nicely Roman and orderly.

The theatre

The theatre

We were soon wandering along the main street, with ruins of warehouses and a huge public bath complex on either side. Enough remains that we could imagine how it would have looked, as a visitor entered through the gates and peered around at the bustling hub of commerce. Not very far up the road we took a right and found the Forum of the Corporations, a large rectangular area with the base and pillars of a temple in the middle, with the ruins of arcades surrounding it. Along the ground of the arcades are intricate mosaics, mostly in black and white, with fix, ships, wheat and amphorae, perhaps illustrating the stalls that once stood there. Facing onto the Forum was the theatre, which is very well preserved, though sadly closed at time. It was interesting to see for myself the real heart of a Roman town, commerce and business gazing up to a temple and with a theatre backing onto it.

The sign of a businessman

The sign of a businessman

Further down the road, we managed to get lost among ancient streets, finding ourselves suddenly in the residential areas among fancier villas and street-side shops. Many still had mosaic floors and enough of the walls remained to make out the rooms and imagine what it must have been like living in them.

Lunch, when our hunger finally overcame our curiosity to explore every single house we came across, was basic and carby, just the sort of food that had been keeping us on our feet all day for the past week. Fortunately the carbs and exercise balanced out, else we would have returned significantly more spherical.

Re-energised and slightly heavier we headed back out, and soon found another eatery. It had an impressive marble bar, a nice area around the back to sit and enjoy a meal in the sun and some nice paintings on the wall. It would also have gone out of service about 1.5 thousand years ago. It was astonishing how intact it was, from the mosaic flooring, arched ceiling and broad bar, including a little shelving unit and even a fountain in the courtyard. We spent a bit of time posing on the bar as helpful and pushy bar-keeps, and then even longer just staring about at the place, as the space under the bar for washing dishes and the cosiness of it all.

The bar interior

The bar interior

It was a perfect example of what I love about exploring historical sites; an everyday place where people lived, relaxed and that we can recognise today. In the corner perhaps three labourers from the harbour, having enjoyed a show at the theatre, would have sat at a table snacking on olives and pastries. A barmaid brings them a top-up of wine and then continues to the next table, where a young couple sit close together, flirting and too preoccupied to notice the offer of a top-up. The bar-keep is watching from the bar, checking that a particularly rough looking customer, a slave extending the time given for an errand, doesn’t make off with the bowl he’s furtively emptying of lentil soup.
All imaginary lives, obviously, but standing there I could feel the echoes of lives like them, still chattering on amid the ruins.

A shelf in the bar

A shelf in the bar

Across the street from the bar stands an apartment building, which to my delight was intact enough to explore and climb. Three floors remain, each floor getting slightly less neat as you climb the stairs, until you find yourself on the open space at the top. From there we could see out over the whole town and beyond. We also had a good view of the bar. Perhaps someone living here could have watched the customers coming and going, smelt the food on sale and yelled down an order before descending down to the street. I suppose once more floors would have stood above, getting still more crowded but with better views if you could afford the rooms by the windows.

View from the apartment

View from the apartment

After this we tried to head towards the exit, with a brief attempt to enter a part of the city that was closed off, and much sidetracking into interesting sites we’d missed. As with Pompeii, or the Villa of the Quintilli, you need at least a day to properly explore Ostia.

A panorama of downtown Ostia

A panorama of downtown Ostia

Back in Rome we headed to the Museum of the Ara Pacis, the altar built by Augustus the celebrate the peace of his principate. I’d somehow missed it the last time I was in Rome and was looking forward to rectifying that. The museum building itself is grand and open, with glass walls and spotless white floors. The building almost seemed to dwarf the monument, huge though it is. It’s made of beautifully carved, white marble (the bright paint has long since gone), with details of tiny lizards among lush vines and processions of ancient VIPs.

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

VIPs on the Ara Pacis

Elsewhere around the museum there were other fragments of statues and altars, and reconstructions of the altar. It was all very grand and well presented, with a loop of an Einaudi tune giving the room a sense of mystery, but the sense I got was more related to the intention of the construction, rather than the beauty of the art. Both the altar and the museum that housed it emanated self-aggrandisement, the first of Augustus and the second Mussolini. Yes, pretty much all Roman monuments are a testament to someone, but the open, white space of the museum seemed somehow less graceful than the Pantheon and less laced with history than the Forum.

Menu or decoration?

Menu or decoration?

This isn’t to say that it isn’t a fine piece of art and history, but for me, there is no comparison between a masterpiece of marble and a bar in downtown Ostia.

A way from Rome

The day of my birthday dawned bright, and for once we were up early, rushing to catch a bus back to the airport. Going home already, you ask? Thankfully not, though we were about to have a change of scenery.

Soon after arriving at the airport we were leaving again, hitting the road quite carefully in a cute little Fiat 500, and managing to stay on the wrong side of the road. (I fear that no matter how long I spend overseas, the right side will always be the wrong side) We headed back towards the city looking out for the Porta San Sebastiano, from where the Via Appia Antica begins. After a bit of misdirection, we were pootling along, the vine covered walls of villas leaning over the old road giving the impression of a little country town. Soon the bitumen turned to cobbles, and bumped along though we were, could see now and then a plaque or worn slab of marble that had once been part of the forest of monuments that had lined the road. Though occasionally rising and falling, the road never diverged from a straight line, and though I’m not absolutely sure, I think most of the cobbles may be original or at least from Roman times.

The Appian Way

The Appian Way

They were the same wide, grey stones from the Forum, and I hope that they would have been better maintained in ancient times, because anyone regularly driving a cart or chariot up the road would have eventually lost their teeth or sanity to the jolting. Fortunately the traffic slowed as the land on either side of the road opened up, and we were able to roll along gazing around for landmarks. The first one that we found was the Circus of Maxentius, the most intact Roman circus in the world, which was probably only used once.

Starting gates

Starting gates

The park where it sits is mostly grassy fields with little white flowers, the perfect first stop on our first trip out of the city. For most of the time we were there, we were the only visitors, and so I was able to walk along the spina, occasionally surprising basking lizards.

The spina, in a field

The spina, in a field

We then made out leisurely way to the Mausoleum of Caecilia Metella, which is interesting in a number of ways. It’s the way of history to have very little pattern in the things that are preserved, so rather than a tomb to Cicero, Cornelia Africana or Vespasian, we were left with a towering monument to a woman known only as the daughter in law of Crassus. The monument is more a dedication to the Licinii and Metelli families than the woman herself, and any indication about who she was, if there ever was anything, is long gone. In the time since it’s dedication, the tomb had been looted, and converted into a tower from which to guard the road that passes under it’s shadow. If all the old mausoleums of the old families were this size, it must have seemed to travellers that they were passing through a strangely abandoned town, rather than graveyards.

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Remembering Caecilia Metella

Continuing onwards we came to a stretch that looked like the romantic pictures of the road, with tombs lining the sides and pines towering above. We marched up and down for a while, admiring the remains of mausoleums and fragments of tombs from which faces sometimes watched us. The sun gradually began to fade, so we climbed back into the car and rolled onwards over the ancient stones, imagining the sights that this road must have seen, from marching hob-nailed sandals heading out to the edges of the empire to a cart carrying a small family hoping for a better life in the world’s first big city. I forgot on the day that the road would also have seen the 6000 slaves caught when Spartacus was defeated, crucified along either side for miles. There’s no trace left of them, though I suspect Spartacus would have been a bit pleased to be known all these years later, if baffled at the justice, freedom and liberty heroics ascribed to him.

A not-forgotten family

A not-forgotten family

The final stop before we started climbing the hills to the south was the Villa of the Quintilli, a massive estate – no really, it’s huge. We only spent about an hour and a half, in which we only saw about half, and that while repeating, ‘no, we really must move on now,’ ‘this is the last little detour’ and ‘absolutely, the last one, yes.’
The estate is a large area of land with the Villa in the centre, perched on a hill. People used to think it was an ancient town due to it’s size, but apparently it was originally a Republican villa that was expanded by the Quintilli brothers around the 2nd century and was grand enough that the emperor Commodus decided he’d quite like it himself, actually, and had the brothers killed.

An ancient mosaic

An ancient mosaic

Even though we only have the ruins of the baths, dining rooms, servants quarters, halls, exercise arenas and other areas, I think I can understand why he did it. I’m surprised it isn’t more well known, actually, and though it doesn’t really compare to Ostia and Pompeii in terms of size, the impression of a grand villa, with mosaics and marble still lining the floors and giant arches above the baths have more of a sense of completeness and grandeur than many of the tenement blocks in those towns.

Bathhouse arches

Bathhouse arches

Unfortunately by this stage we were getting peckish, so we reluctantly headed back down the hill, and onwards on our journey.

Following the recommendation of the woman from whom I’d bought a painting, we were heading to Nemi, a volcanic lake nestled in the Castelli Romani region just south of Rome. To get there we wound our way up the hills, passing the beautiful Lake Albano and snatches of lake side towns and then further upwards through tree-lined roads, until a steep descending road to the right indicated that Nemi was close. We came through a small tunnel, and found ourselves in a picturesque town perched on cliffs above an almost perfectly circular lake. The sun had come out again, and the surface of the sheltered lake seemed completely calm, reflecting the tree lined valley sides. I could wax even more poetically, but I fear I have not the adjectives.

Nemi

Nemi

Having parked our cars we wandered along the main street overlooking the lake, looking for somewhere to eat and wondering where the sound of a waterfall was coming from. We settled on a restaurant that had a balcony sticking out over the valley, from which it was hard to draw out gazes away. Down by the shores of the lake we could see strawberry farms, and a few houses, but otherwise the hills seemed bare. I’d read something about a temple of Diana being built here (thank you again Lindsey Davis), and I can imagine why.

Nemi on the cliff

Nemi on the cliff

Another claim to fame were two giant pleasure ships that Nero had built there, which were then sunk after his death. Much later Mussolini had the lake drained to retrieve the ships, and they were moved to a nearby museum, which was soon after burnt down by Nazi forces, as if people needed further reasons to be annoyed at them.

A local delicacy

A local delicacy

There was no sign of emperors, ships or armies as we ate lunch and drank wine, and enjoyed local strawberries, soaking in the beautiful scenery. We eventually had to leave, buying a little bottle of strawberry liquor and mixed berries and staring at the view as we went.

Heading back to Rome we drove around the other side, passing the Pope’s holiday estate by Lake Albano and winding streets in the town close-by. Soon we were dropping off the car and catching a bus back into the city, where we had a stroll through the streets before a dinner at home, including some very tasty and fresh mixed berries.

Intrigue and amphorae

Day three of the Rome trip! Before I go into that though, I just realised that the titles of the Rome posts so far have been somewhat anatomically focussed, which was a complete accident. Luckily there were no days that merited ‘The spleen of Rome’. And so, on with the holiday…

Imagine a cafe in the morning sun, just around the corner from the Spanish Steps, from whence comes a constant rumble of chatter and occasional tourists. On a few of the tables set up outside sit couples, mostly tourists, including one couple from Australia that are enjoying a fresh breakfast and sunlight. They are also half-listening to a conversation at another table, where 3 men in suits are having coffee, and in the opinion of one of the listeners, are one step away from nefarious deeds. Some of the conversation went like this:

“Giovanni, I’m not saying they’re crooks, but they understand that sort of business, and we’ve got to work with them that way.”

“This deal just isn’t going to go through, we’ve got to be realistic.”

“What are you asking for bags of money?”

“…just go to the paper and say there’s been a huge theft.”

“I’m more than happy to walk away from 4 million rather than risk…”

Now maybe it was all perfectly innocent, and the Godfather was too fresh in my mind. In any case I am sure I have entirely forgotten the address and appearance of the men, if anything were to come up later.

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

Via dei Condotti, from the Spanish Steps

After the mysterious gentlemen had left and I’d almost stopped speculating about it, we headed around the corner to the Spanish Steps. Though overly touristy places can be a turn off, the steps are quite grand, and from the top there was a nice view over parts of the city which we used to plan the next destination. The plan for the day was to find a camera shop, as my partner needed a few rolls of film, and a circuitous loop would lead us to the Spanish Steps, and from there to the Piazza del Popolo. Another grand place, with nice statues and a fountain with an obelisk, from where we could then cross the Tiber and continue to the camera shop. As we neared it, the city around us seemed to drain of tourism and become more of a business and residential district, the first we’d been in since arriving. It was quite refreshing to be away from the omnipresent stalls, crowds and noise.

The Spanish Steps

The Spanish Steps

After a successful visit to the shop, we continued on and the quiet was suddenly overwhelmed. It seemed to change instantly as we turned a corner, and were confronted by hoards to tour-guides and souvenir stalls and lots of other tourists. As it turned out, we had just wandered up to the Vatican. We had both been there before, and had been to the museum, but as it was on our way we had a look at St Peter’s Square. It was swarming with visitors, with a long queue along one side and folding chairs being cleared from the centre. I have since found out that the day before had been the Pope’s regular visitation, for which modern pilgrims get a comfortable seat.

I had read in a novel set in ancient Rome (this one, if you’re curious) that there was a wonderful view of the city from the Janiculan hill, which sits a little south east of the Vatican. We headed there now, climbing up a backstreet that we soon realised sat below some sort of raised park, on which stood statues and from which would be the views I was after. We climbed the hill, hoping to find an opening, or perhaps loose stones in the wall that would allow climbing, but found nothing. We did however find a small valley on the other side of the road. After climbing through a convenient hole in the fence we were in what looked like an abandoned park, with a worn bench and overgrown weeds, and further down the hill cherry blossoms and a view of the Vatican.

A mysterous pastel church

A mysterous pastel church

Continuing on the road we finally made it to a gate, and turning back in the direction we’d come, walked along the raised park, lined with busts of important men and a giant statue of Garibaldi. We also found an amazing view of the city spread out below us and over the river. To the right we could see the yellow brick ruins on the Palatine hill, and to the left of that a hint of the Colosseum through tall buildings. To the left we could see the dome of the Pantheon amidst the apart buildings, and I could imagine how the view must have been 2000 years ago. Red roof tiles and whitewashed walls, the same warm tones as today and with familiar, worn by the years and still standing amid the forever bustling city.

Rome from above

Rome from above

From the height of the Janiculan hill we descended into Trastevere, a maze of colour, antique doors, locals and a more authentic feeling of Rome than any of the other areas. I suspect it’s becoming more and more well known to tourists, but I hope that the influx won’t take away the feeling of older days and independence from the area ‘beyond the Tiber’.

Trastevere

Trastevere

From Trastevere we headed back to the river, and continued south to Testaccio. As we crossed the river I saw a fountain on a round-about, decorated with amphora, a definite hint that we were headed in the right direction. The suburb of Testaccio is named after a hill, and not any ordinary hill.

The hill began it’s life around 100 CE, when the area was designated as an olive oil amphora dump, and Romans being Romans, each year more amphora were neatly stacked, until the dump was abandoned and gradually the bustle faded away. Soon it was covered in dirt and trees grew on the heights, roots pushing through the hard shards beneath. In medieval times people threw animals down in carts for festivals, and later a city was built around it again and with it came archaeologists who dug down into the strata of pottery to answer questions about the people who had created a hill from scraps. There was no access to the hill, but we walked all the way around it, spotting here and there fragments of pottery on the hill sides, and a bar that’s back wall featured a cross section behind glass.

A hill of amphorae

A hill of amphorae

Time was drawing on so we decided to head back to the hotel, feet now a bit sore from the almost non-stop walking. On the way we bought some supplies from an old-fashioned grocery store, where the till had a wooden drawer and the owner wandered around recommending the best pasta. Soon we were at the Circus Maximus, and not long after we were in the hotel, happily unloading our bags and jackets and having a rest before a home-made dinner of pasta and local wine.

The steps to Trastevere

The steps to Trastevere

The heart of Rome

Apartments in Monti

Apartments in Monti

Saturday dawned bright and sunny for our first full day in Rome.
Or at least I assumed it did, as our rented apartment was at the bottom of the lightwell, with one big window, so to get an idea of the weather we had to go outside and peer up past the many floored apartment buildings to the little square of sky. The positive of this is that, as a historical geek, I felt as though we were staying in an ancient insula, albeit one with very good plumbing. Out on the street the apartment buildings reared up above the cobbled streets, the buildings a mix of warm shades from red to yellow, with those lucky enough to have morning sun opening their shutters to let it in.

The colourful Suburra

The colourful Suburra

On the advice of hotel staff we headed to the local piazza, which turned out to be a neat little square with a fountain in the centre, and a church, and cafes facing on to it. In one corner a mother was playing a game of catch with her three daughters, and all the time locals and occasionally tourists were passing by, many headed to the end of the steet, where the Colosseum loomed. Before we could explore the ancient sights though we had a bit of shopping to do, mostly bits and pieces we hadn’t known to pack. A quick trip up the Via Cavour, peering down in the Suburra and avoiding the multitude of salesmen, and it was sorted, and then we set out for the heart of Rome.

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum, with the Curia to the right

The Forum sits in the valley between the Capitoline, Esquiline and Palatine hills, and though only remnants remain today (boo, Pope Julius II, boo) it’s possible to see echoes of what it must have been like. We spent a pleasant few hours wandering around the ruins, taking photos and pointing out our favourite monuments. Having more time and more knowledge than when I visited last, I was able to spot things I’d missed and enjoyed more little fragments of the past, such as the game boards carved into the steps of the Basilica Julia and an olive tree, a fig tree and a vine planted where the same had apparently stood during Roman times, mostly dwarfed by the monuments around them.

Olive, fig, vine

Olive, fig, vine

To my excitement the Curia, or Senate house, was open (it had been shut for some reason last time) and I almost ran up the stairs and through the thick curtains in the doorway. Inside I was surprised by how bare it was, and I had thought that it had been stripped while being turned into a church, but apparently it had been more or less the same originally. Aside from the exhibition set up around the sides and friezes standing around, it is mostly unchanged, the three low steps still visible, the original marble floors still intact, and its height dwarfing everyone inside.

What struck me most was how moved I was at being there. Even though it wasn’t the site of all of Cicero’s speeches, Octavian’s coup or the murder of Caesar, due to the somewhat infamous Clodius, it was the site of so much history before and after. So many important decisions were made in that space, and so much of the everyday running of the Republic and then the Empire, and for me the space felt almost sacred, and alive with history.

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

The Curia, behind cherry blossoms

We eventually left the Curia for the sunshine, and continued our explorations, admiring the temples and unwieldy cobblestones and making our way up to the Palatine. I hadn’t really had much time to explore this area before, so much of what we saw was new, and generally on a massive scale. The word palace comes from this hill, though the ruins and garden that are there now don’t convey the grandeur of the Forum. While we were searching for the ‘huts of Romulus’, the apparent location of the first settlements during the Bronze age which had been partly excavated by Augustus, guards began to blow their whistles and indicate that it was time to leave. We were all herded out, onto the now slightly darkening streets, and wondered what to do next.

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

The Temple of Castor and Pollux

In order to better fit in with the Mediterranean style of life, we decided to have a rest before heading out, and on the way back bought some groceries for a quiet night in. Also local wine, obviously. When we headed out again apertivo hour was in full swing, and we found a little bar that was just right. As we sipped beer and snacked on little pastries, olives, vegetables and tasty delights, it seemed like the Italians were certainly on to something with their whole eating situation. After a dish of pasta and seafood I was in absolutely no doubt.
Very full and very satisfied, we went back to the hotel to rest and prepare for another day in Rome.

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun

Temple of Castor and Pollux hiding the sun