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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Leaving and landscapes

So we’re going, and as with any big decision it seems that the most overwhelming aspect is not the looming of the event itself but the minutiae of preparing.

What do we take, what do we leave, when do we leave, who do I leave my fledgling lemon trees to – these questions keep overwhelming the importance of the move itself. We’ve started sorting what we’ll take and have gone so far as to arrange for the transport of what we’re taking by shipping freight and started to throw out or donate what we don’t need. Casual glances around the house while sipping tea or picking a book to read become considerations of weight and packaging, mentally packing my teapots with the handmade pottery, or browsing through friends to find someone who could adopt one of them.

It’s a strange thought that in 2 months and a day there will be no trace of us having been here, aside from memories and those things of ours that we leave with friends. This more or less sums up my feelings about this at the moment.

image

I have also started to get teary at landscapes. While on the bus home yesterday I looked out of the window at the sudden, sheer granite faces that loom over the road, moss covered and only just shedding the frozen curtains of water and melting snow. On their peaks stood pines and leafless birches, around their feet the bushes and shrubs that in a few months will be carrying berries. Then we pass a lake, a coral pink sunset and a severe line of pines reflected on its surface, rippling from the lines being cast out by a group of old folk getting in some fishing before the sun disappears.

Growing up in the bush I used to love visits to a nearby pine plantation, where I’d pretend I was in the forests from the fairy tales, where wolves, hobbits, dragons, elves and adventurers lived. I do love the Australian bush, wild, rough and with its own beauty, but some part of my heart lives in the secret corners and high reaches of northern forests. And I suppose that’s one thing at least that I’ll leave behind when we go.

2015: Travels and moving forward

So 2015 is now in the past, and while like any year it creeps along at walking pace while living it, looking back it seems now to have been very full and sometimes reaching a sprint. It has been a year of travelling (7 different countries!), big steps forward (my own business) and important decisions.

It started, as all years do in Sweden, with fireworks and then a trip to Stockholm. Later in the month I met my mum in Copenhagen and traveled around with her, as we showed each other our lives in the North, both past and present.

As the darkness and cold continued to set in, there was a trip to sunny Malaga, a brief inoculation against the winter that has also left me in love with Spain.
Time passed, fear came to my home town, and then Easter and the turning of the seasons. I continued to work, relief teaching at schools and gathering private students, learning as I went. That fear seemed to grow throughout the year, rising from under the surface and at least right now it doesn’t look as though it’s going to recede any time soon.

More trips around the Nordic regions followed, including a cruise across the Baltic and a short stay in Aarhus, Denmark. Summer arrived, and with the holidays I left a beloved school, experienced my second Midsummer picnic and attempted indoor gardening. Other hobbies included joining a flamenco choir, trying to make it to a language café in between teaching and tasting the brews made by my partner.

As summer passed we flew to Malta, experiencing long sunny days, chaos, sea and incredible history. Back at home work continued to increase, with more and more private students and work through a consultancy. I found less time for writing and reflection, and for the first time since I started this blog, the gaps between posts became 2 weeks or more rather than 1. As my focus shifted, I set about making the most of the change, and formally set up my business, including a website and a business plan.

With the end of the year almost upon us, we visited London, a place I’ve long considered as a home that I’d not yet got around to visiting. It met, surpassed and left my expectations far behind, giving me yet another place that lurks invitingly in the back of my mind whenever I’m feeling restless.

Finally we returned to Australia for family, christmas and a holiday of sorts. It was intense, as any trip home to family, friends and real life is bound to be. As well as the various pressures and commitments, the days of the festive season were for the most part relaxing and enjoyable, filled with food and love. I also got a bit of a tan, though you wouldn’t think so if you asked the repairman who came to fix our dryer. I’m fairly sure I let him down a bit.

Then the year came full circle, with fireworks in the cold, cheering and friends, and a return to the long, dark wait until Spring. 2016 is still new and fresh and full of potential, and no amount of guesswork can tell what might happen. A few things are certain, and will be shared in their time, but mostly the year is unwritten, and we shall we what we shall see.

A year/ett år

A year ago today I was somewhere over the earth on the last leg of the trip to my new home. Today I am firmly in Europe, sharing a suburban valley with a 700 year old church and forests that overflowed with berries not long ago. 2 years ago today I would have been pinching myself. I still find it odd that I ended up here, even after all the years of planning and hoping to live in Europe. A year ago I stepped out of the airport and breathed in fresh Swedish air for the first time, bags and partner beside me and a taxi-ride to a new home ahead. Tired and jet-lagged? Oh yes, but it’s also fair to say, pretty damn excited.

Reading my first blog entry from a week after we’d landed I can almost hear the shuffling as I tried to find my feet, drifting as I was between gazing at the new world around me and trying to find out where I fit in. At some point a routine set in and life returned to normal and the new city began to feel like home. I’m not sure when it started, but perhaps it was on our first return from an overseas trip, as I stared out the window at the swathes of green below us, and felt that we were going home.

A rainfall in the forest

A rainfall in the forest

Our new home wasn’t exactly as I had thought it would be either. I knew about the language barrier, colder weather, berries in summer and a fondness for interior design. I didn’t know about the increased personal space, widespread use of English or stylishness that made me feel like a bush-pig. I didn’t know about ‘En svensk tiger’, lagom or how much the entire country changes when summer arrives. Or that I would finally understand why summer is actually a good thing. No doubt in a year I’ll know even more, och jag hoppas att jag kommer att vara bara om att flytande i svensk. Kanske.

A Swedish-ish pie

A Swedish-ish pie

So what has happened in the past year?

We’ve flown to 3 different countries, caught buses and trains to 3 others and made many little journeys around Sweden.

We’ve punted down the Cam, stared up at the dome of the Hagia Sofia and sipped hot cocktails late at night in Copenhagen.

We’ve eaten strawberries by Nemi, stood on a 1700 year old top floor apartment and itched to run our hands along the bows of Viking ships.

We’ve walked on a frozen lake, ridden a steamship past an island called Boo and crowded into an Ice Age cave.

We celebrated the new year with city-wide fireworks and champagne, watched flights of black cockatoos and had dinner with family both here and in Australia.

We’ve experienced a full cycle of seasons, from late summer to early autumn, and I have both played in snow and basked in summer days that seemed as though they would never end.

Cycle of the seasons

Cycle of the seasons

I have learnt that when you leave your home country it doesn’t lie dormant while you’re off exploring the world. People move on as they should, their own stories continuing, and while you can put in a guest appearance once a year or so you gave up your starring role when you chose to leave.

Now I’m making guest appearances and perhaps starring roles in other stories, and meeting an amazing cast of people who not long ago I couldn’t have imagined. Before coming here I had hardly ever met anyone from Iran, Turkey, Syria, Bosnia, Serbia, Jordan, Bulgaria, Poland, Spain, Brazil, France, the Czech Republic, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Portugal, Ukraine, Greece or even (of all places) New Zealand, yet now I can count people from all of these countries as friends. Plus of course a few Swedes.

A rainbow in the valley

A rainbow in the valley

What will my story look like by this time next year? Who knows, but no doubt I will blog about it.

Impending things

So changes are afoot in little old Göteborg. Or to be more precise, in the little part of old Göteborg that my partner and I inhabit. Sadly our lease for our current apartment is coming to an end soon, so we have been questing all over for a new place. The trip to Australia caused a bit of a delay (note to self and anyone reading this: never plan a trip overseas within 2 months of moving) and put and end to some offers that may have turned out well. In any case, last night we signed a contract for another apartment and in a month we’ll have removed the last traces of our stay from our current home.

The search for a home has coincided with another important event for me, which was also slightly embuggeranced by our recent holiday. Yesterday morning I completed the majority of the final Swedish test that will decide whether I can continue to SAS and if so which level. Once SAS is completed I will be qualified to study at a Swedish university and be at a level where I can more easily be found suitable for jobs here. So there’s a lot riding on it. I will have the final part this morning, and the results at the end of the week and then after the summer holidays hopefully I will start the next level. I’ve been stressing about it for a while, so it’ll be a relief to have it done, for better or worse.

A sunny perspective at 9.46PM

A sunny perspective at 9.46PM

Meanwhile my partner’s parents arrived from Australia on Friday and our spare time has been taken showing them around and helping them to settle in. Fortunately they are very low maintenance, and seem happy to wander around the city and explore, and they have somehow managed to snaffle the only 3 consecutively sunny days that I can remember in a while. It’ll be Midsummer on Friday, which I have repeatedly been assured is a guarantee of poor weather, so we’ll see how long the Swedish summer can hold out.

Glad sommar!

Glad sommar!

While they’ve been here I’ve quite enjoyed the role of tour guide, showing off the pleasant and interesting aspects of my home town, and enjoying their enjoyment. Thus far we have been on a brief walk around Liseberg, stuffed ourselves at our favourite restaurant and picnicked by a lake. There are many things that they have done that I will have to hear more about, but suffice it to say that they seem to be enjoying their visit and we’ll miss them once they continue on their trip.

Fun at Liseberg

Fun at Liseberg

In two weeks we’ll be joining them for part of the journey, when we all go to Norway to visit some fjords. I haven’t really done much research about the area we’ll be visiting, but I think no amount of imaginary grandeur will be able to match standing by a fjord. We shall see, and those reading this will see pictures.

For now the sun is out and plans are coming into place, and a final test is looming.

A tourist at home

I am writing this from my apartment in Göteborg, as outside the sun shines the the flowers continue to bloom in every possible hue. It’s a contrast to the overcast chill of my last day in Perth, an irony that is definitely not been lost on me.

The morning choir

The morning choir

Though it has resulted in this post being a few days later than usual, I thought I’d wait till I returned to Sweden to write the final post about the trip to Australia. Now that I’m back I have a different perspective than what I had when I was sitting in my old bedroom, listening to the magpies in the trees outside the window. Sitting here in the apartment, listening to the cars roar past on the highway outside the window, the whole trip seems almost unreal. It’s the feeling I was somewhat expecting when we arrived in Perth 3 weeks ago, as though the months in Sweden had been a passing fancy, and we were now back home at last. Instead I felt off balance for about two weeks, a mix of jetlag and an unsettling feeling that the familiar was foreign. I tried to explain this to family and friends, and I’m not sure now whether it made sense, or whether I inadvertently sounded as though I was gladly clear of our home town. Although, the only way to really sound like a native is to knock it, right?

A black swan

A black swan

One part of the trip that I very much enjoyed was getting to spend time in by myself among trees. I do that here as well, but it’s different when it’s the types of trees and shrubs I grew up with and can name. There were walks around the home, including finding half of a smashed bee hive in the empty trunk of a fallen branch that still smelt of honey and visiting one of my favourite parks.

A pearly eucalypt

A pearly eucalypt

The pine plantation that surrounds the park was my childhood image of a fairy tale forest, and I spent hours there acting out adventures with friends or just wandering by myself and staring up at the towering pines and pretending I was in a forest in a far off land.
My family had bbqs in the curve of a creek, under a tree whose leaves turned gold in Autumn, and one of my favourite photos of my dad was taken there, as he supervised the wood-fire bbq.
Also in the park is an old oak, planted in 1870 which from a distance looks dense and no taller than the eucalypts surrounding it. When you walk along the raised platform and step underneath, it’s as though you’re inside a dome of leaves, sheltered by branches that reach almost to the ground that are in turn held up by an immense trunk. I’ve seen karri trees over 70 metres tall in the south of WA, and old olive trees in Italy, but for me they don’t compare to that old oak.

A 144 year old oak

A 144 year old oak

In addition to walks in the forest, I spent most of the final week driving around to last-minute catch ups, and eating a lot. I just looked at my calendar and Sunday through to Thursday are back-to-back lunches, afternoon teas and dinners. I also managed to see my grandma, who I haven’t seen in many years. It’s impossible to replace nine months of casual meet ups with a few hours over tea or a meal and surprisingly surprising to remember that time passes at the same speed across the world. People move on to new jobs, try new things, change plans and go about their lives, irrespective of any imaginary pause buttons. Hearing of new plans and ideas, I’m looking forward to seeing how much change another year will bring.

Dinner at Little Creatures

Dinner at Little Creatures

So what have I learnt from the trip?

That a holiday and visiting an old home are not the same thing.

Nothing beats good food and good company.

It takes a few days for my native accent to cease being hilarious.

Something can be both familiar and foreign at the same time.

Home doesn’t have to be one place.

Magpies and old places

I would be interested to know if there exists in any language a word for the feeling that something is both familiar and strange at the same time. It is a feeling that I have discovered since arriving in Australia on Sunday night. Driving up into the hills, seeing the old and newly greened bushland, and my parents’ house, it seems as though I never left. Perhaps the whole thing was some Eurovision induced fantasy.

Whether or not the months in Sweden have been a dream, the long flight over here couldn’t have been faked. As anyone who’s made long-haul flights will know, the only thing worse than 10 hours tightly packed into a cabin is the queues, waiting, security checks and sudden rush before and after the flights. The reward of course is arriving, and for us being able to see our families for the first time in months. Thanks to skype we never feel too far away from them but the internet is no substitute for a hug.

The Indian Ocean

The Indian Ocean

That first night we slept like the dead, waking up mid-morning to a strange feeling of warmth. While it’s been mostly cloudy with occasional showers since we arrived, it is much warmer than what we left behind and I am right now indulging in a pair of shorts, which I have not worn since we left last year. Though my mind is slowly adjusting to being on holiday and being in Australia, my body is still finding the warmth and humidity strange, and noticing more than ever the scent of eucalyptus, the soil after rain and the din of all the birds calling in the bush.

The sun behind a grasstree

The sun behind a grasstree

I went for a walk on Wednesday afternoon and felt a bit like a tourist, amazed by the cries of the various parrots, cockatoos, magpies, finches, mudlarks and other unknown birds, and the strange shapes and colours of the plants lining the gravel path. I was reminded again of the contrast between soft and hard shown in the Australian bush. The parrot bush, with its sharp edged leaves and downy yellow flowers, the prickly moses with buds not yet in bloom and an unknown grass the blades of which twist like calligraphy.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy

Another new experience was the other people cycling, walking or running on the path. Without exception, they smiled, nodded or said good morning and we passed each other. One fellow shooting past on a bike even said thank you when I moved to the side of the path in response to his bell ringing. I suppose people in Australia, or at least those who live out beyond suburbia, will probably shrug and wonder what I’m talking about. You see, in Sweden, if you meet someone on a path, or on a road, be they walking, cycling or running, the most acknowledgement you can expect is a nod. Mostly I get the briefest of eye-contact, if that. There are a few ladies who are an exception, as I pass them every day and one of their dogs generally chases me, so I get a semi-apologetic smile and ‘hej’ as I outrun the little ball of fluff. I am now experiencing the reverse of what I got used to months ago, as I blink in surprise at friendly greetings from strangers.

Prickly Australian natives

Prickly Australian natives

Further proof that I am in Australia came on Wednesday night, as I pulled aside the curtain in my bedroom to close the window. Perched on the sill, looking just as surprised as me, was a little gecko. It turned out that the top of the window screen was slightly open, so I climbed up and pulled it out so I could set the gecko free (no double glazed windows in Australia) and as I did so a big black spider scuttled across the screen. Thinking it was a redback, I may have sworn a bit, waking my dad up and startling both the spider and the gecko. It was just a plain black spider, and with a bit of shaking I got it off the screen and then tried to coax the gecko out of the window. It decided instead to scamper into a gap under the sill and as far as I know is still there. I have made sure that the screen is closed, so hopefully I won’t have any more surprise guests. On the fluffy side, I have also seen a bandicoot and two rabbits. I’m sure a kangaroo will be along at some point too.

The reason for the trip, or at least the reason for the timing, was a wedding. One of my partner’s closest friends set the date for his wedding shortly after we’d left for Sweden, so the plan to pop over had been in place for a while. The wedding was on Thursday, at a very nice venue right next to a river. It was relatively small, around 60 guests, and beautifully planned. The ceremony was short and sweet, the bride looked lovely and the groom slightly nervous but pleased. There were garden games while photos were taken, and I first beat my partner at giant-connect 4, and then we drew at chess. Well we reached an impasse so I distracted him, stole the king and made him forfeit. After which we had a reception in a very elegantly decorated pavilion, with tasty food, slightly embarrassing and sincere speeches and then dancing. The night ended as the bride and groom were driven to the airport and the guests who had lasted stumbled off to cars or taxis. I’ve only been to a few weddings, but in terms of planning, calmness and sincerity, it was the nicest.

This week has otherwise been spent recovering from jetlag, resting, spending time with family, talking, watching my brother and his girlfriend play netball (their team won), seeing friends and planning for the coming weeks. Already my days are filling up, and the first week is nearly over. Soon there will be more people to see and plans to make, but until then I’ll sit in my old room, listening to magpies and the rain.

A gravel trail

A gravel trail

Home

In 2 days I will be in Australia, breathing in the familiar air and absorbing the broad accents of home. I can picture the dry earth, gangly eucalypts and somewhat more casual dress of the people, more accustomed to endless sunshine than months of drizzle. What I can’t imagine is whether it’s going to feel more like a home-coming or a holiday. A homliday?
However, the more I think about it, I realise that what I think of as the most yearned for aspect of the trip is seeing family and friends, who are home in one way or another.

The past week has flown past, in a mix of teachers tactlessly making a joke about Putler (Putin + Hitler) in front of a Ukrainian who supports Putin, watching a live-streamed interview with Hilary Mantel and for the most part preparing for the oncoming trip. As such my mind is casting itself forwards rather than backwards, which makes for a brief update. Short and sweet, is what I hope readers will take out of it.

I feel as though ever minute is being ticked off a list at the end of which is our arrival, tired and relieved, at the Perth airport.

There goes another minute, and another, and another.

Sunset in the hills

Sunset in the hills

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

A city of stories

As many of those who read this blog will know, I have something of an interest in ancient history and ancient Rome in particular. As with all cultures in human history they had very different perspectives on some things, and in others were like a mirror to ourselves. Satire, roads, incredible engineering, public baths, the manumission of slaves and a dogged refusal to surrender all fascinate me. Their traces can be found all over Europe and beyond, but the heart of society was in their old, smelly, beautiful and lively capital, spreading down from the 7 hills into the former marshes below and over the river.

Why am I waxing lyrical about Rome, you may ask? Well my first answer would be because it’s a day ending in y, and the second is that Rome was the destination of the mysterious trip last week.

Actually Rome.

I had suspected it, as I’d come up with a list of possible locations try though I might to avoid guessing. Rome was in the top three, so my reaction when we arrived at the airport and looked at the destination of the next flight was a mix of excitement and my suspicions being confirmed. Also being unable to speak very much due to said excitement. Eventually words did return to me and we were able to begin to plan the week ahead.
We had both been to Rome before, myself once 6 years ago and my partner twice, the last being in 2009. We had seen the well known locations and had favourite highlights, so we decided this would be the perfect opportunity to see the other places, that we hadn’t had time for or hadn’t known about, and re-walk our favourite streets and gaze at our favourite monuments together.

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

Walking the Via Sacra in 2008

For the flights out and back my partner had pre-booked seats, right at the front, so we got priority check-in and a front row seat to the goings on of the cabin crew. Heading out we were entertained by a very Italian airhost and the fact that the co-pilot’s surname was ‘Ace’.

By the time we’d landed, got to the city, walked to the hotel and been shown to our apartment, we were pretty tired, though not enough not to want to start the explorations and hopefully eat something. Our rented apartment was in Monti, between the Viminal and Equiline hills, right in the centre of what many years ago was the Subura. In ancient times the Subura was the slum of Rome, the dangerous, dirty mess lurking in the shade of the Imperial Forums and the more middleclass areas on the surrounding hills. You didn’t got there unless you had no choice or had a death wish. Nowadays it’s a maze of twisting streets, tiny piazzas, cars and scooters hurtling around corners and boutique shops. Plus wonderful cafes and restaurants. From the door of our apartment we could stare down the long street to the Colosseum, buttressed with scaffolds but recognisably huge.
It was to this immense and familiar monument that we headed, after having the first of many pasta dishes that we would enjoy that week, at a glittery street restaurant around the corner. Carbed up we continued towards the ancient amphitheatre.

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum at night

The Colosseum is huge, and the size is generally the first thing you notice as you approach and crane your neck upwards to take it all in. Up close you can’t fit it all in your line of sight, despite half of the outer wall being lost to an earthquake a long time ago. I don’t think it’s only the size of the building that draws people, but the precision and grace of its construction. Each arch is identical, the even layers piled neatly on top of one another with the confident grace that for me characterises the best Roman works.
I have to confess that while I’m impressed by the Colosseum, or Flavian Amphitheatre, I don’t like it as much as other buildings in Rome. I’ll hopefully get into that when I describe my visit to the Pantheon, in the next but one update.

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

The moon peeking from behind the Colosseum

So as we wandered around lit-up monuments, I got a request from my mum to wave to a webcam she had found near the Colosseum. As the directions got a bit confused we wandered some more, staring at security cameras and looking for men in red jackets, until we had to call in a night, it being about 2 in the morning by this stage.

With a last look at the hulk of the Colosseum we turned our backs and heading into Monti, to get some rest before we properly launched our explorations of Rome in daylight.