‘La Crisi’ or why I love Italians

No one can miss the fact that there is a financial crisis in Italy.  “La Crisi” is spoken about on a daily basis and overheard in most street conversations.  Long after the rest of the world has stopped talking about it, Italy battles on, slowly sinking under the weight of ‘austerity measures’.

Friends of mine with young children, hunker down and hope to wait it out so that by the time their kids need jobs and to leave home, Italy will be prospering once again.

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Those with school or university leavers, say goodbye to theirs.  Young Italians, never big on a ‘gap year’ are fleeing the country in droves.  They go to Australia, UK, Germany and the US.  Many of them miss home, miss their country, are not looking for adventure, but their responses are all similar ‘What is there to do back home?  Sit at home and wait?  Do nothing with my life?’.  Many of them will never return and the loss of their skills, knowledge, university education and endeavour is signficant for Italy now and in the future.

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Daily life is affected by more than just the constant topic of conversation being about how hopeless everything seems and the absence of youth.  Shops and businesses are closing regularly, some of my favourite have already gone.  Jobs, always scarce in Italy, are even more so.  The last week of every month is very quiet as people stay at home due to the fact their household pay packet no longer stretches until the end of it.  Houses remain on the market, empty for years on end without selling, prices for everything have dropped, holidays are simpler and closer to home.

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But watching the morning news encourages and inspires me as I watch every day Italians innovate, struggle, embrace and respond in ever more creative ways to the constricts of their circumstances.  Three news stories have stood out for me over the past month that have made me so proud to call Italy one of my homes and have reminded me of the Italian spirit and tenaciousness in times of difficulty.

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1. A public school in the North of Italy was suffering so badly from government cuts, lack of funding to cover the amount of students requiring an education, and the inability of parents to contribute to buying school books or paying fees so the school could buy supplies, that they decided to produce their own.  The school produced their own text books by writing their own, downloading copy from the internet, printing and producing all the texts required to run the primary and secondary lessons.  Teachers and staff were gleely demonstrating their innovative approach and their self published texts.  Not a scrap of self pity, just shy pride at how they had managed to win against the odds.

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2.  There is one shop or chain of shops that are booming and opening up all over Italy.  Pawn shops and cash converters.  Where Italians used to queue outside shoe stores or designer clothing shops they now queue outside pawn shops.  Most Italians have a prodigous supply of precious jewellery – gold, silver and precious stones are collected from one’s baptism onwards and are seen as a sign of prestige and value on men and women.  But now items worth a couple of thousand euro are being sold for a couple of hundred.  These days three hundred euro can equal a weeks grocercies, petrol and bills for a family and is judged much more valuable than another peice of gold to be worn.  Jewellery can always be bought back once times get good again.

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3.  Yesterday a job was advertised in a hospital for a nurse.  More than three thousand people applied.   Young men and women turned up from all over Italy, travelling for up to a day to sit the entrance exam which constituted the application.  Special buses and excursions were arranged from the south of Italy to take applicants to the North of the country where the job was advertised.  The news report showed a jovial atmosphere of people greeting each other, laughing, and talking together while congregating outside the examination hall.

20130926_111910Viva Italia!

Top 10 things to eat in Rome!

As promised nos. 6 – 10 plus another one for dessert!  For context please read the intro to my last blog as this sets the scene for the precious food tips I am about to give.  All of these dishes can be found on the menus of the ‘Top 10 restarurants in Rome’ blog dated March, 2012.

6.  Saltimbocca alla Romana.  Veal done Roman style (literally means – jump in your mouth style).  There is a theme here……each of these dishes are called ‘alla Romana’ because of the fact that the dishes originated in Rome and are mostly not found outside of Rome.  Another reason to eat regionally and where ever you are, if you see something on the menu that ends in ‘alla the name of the place you are in’ then order it!

Saltimbocca alla Romana are thin, soft slices of veal sauteed lightly in olive oil and flavoured with proscuitto and sage leaves.  Any veal in Rome is divine and no matter how many times other countries’ butchers and restaurantuers tell me they have thinly sliced, soft veal, I’ve never tasted anything remotely like it outside of Italy.  The salty prosciutto and the strong pungent flavour of the sage work perfectly to bring out the subtle taste of the veal.  Highly recommened.

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7. Pollo all Romana.  Baked chicken Roman style.  This is a simple and humble dish and very traditional.  The flavours are amazing, subtle and sweet.  It is basically cuts of chicken (not breast) that have stewed most of the day with a variety of peppers (capsicums) of all colours, some wine, garlic, herbs and tomatoes and produces tender, fall off the bone meat surrounded in delicately flavoured juices that require Italian bread to soak them up.  If you like chicken or need some protein it is highly recommended.

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8. Fegato alla Romana.  Liver Roman style.  OK I admit I am a liver lover, even the shoe-leather type liver I grew up eating, so this liver dish is a real treat and I have often converted non-liver lovers to it.  The liver is very thin and delicate, and is fried using a bushel of white onions and olive oil so that it tastes almost sweet.  It is like eating a deconstructed pate.  Romans have been cooking offal for centuries and they have it down pat!

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9. Carciofe alla Romana.  Artichokes Roman style.  Vegetables are served as separate dishes in Italy and are not included as part of the main dish. They are worthwhile ordering just on their own though, perfect as a simple starter or instead of the main dish.  Carciofe alla Romana are artichokes cooked in Roman mint and garlic.  Roman mint can be found in any park or nature strip in Rome.  Just walking on a park or naturestrip disturbs the scent and you can then identify it.  It is different to other strains of mint and tastes a little sweeter and subtle than other varieties.  I am just intrigued by the fact i can have a local vegetable cooked in a local herb.  It is cooked by boiling it with the ingredients mentioned before and comes to the plate hot, soft and wet and flavoured with the squeeze of a lemon and some olive oil.  They are fantastic with a basket of bread as a light lunch with a cool glass of local Frascati white wine – yum!

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10. Puntarelle.  Little points (aka translation is useless just trust me).  This vegetable dish contains a riot of small green things that look and taste a little like celery, but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

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11. Torta della  Nonna.  Nana’s/Grandma’s cake.  This is essentially a custard tart topped with pine nuts and is found in every cafe and restaurant in Rome.  It is light and delicately flavoured with just a hint of lemon.  The pine nuts give it a crunchy texture and add taste.  If you really want to understand and appreciate the flavour of the pine nut I highly recommend the pinoli gelato, pine nut gelato, also found prolifically in Rome.

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I have now made myself so unbelievably hungry it is time to go!  Next week more about Francesca and less about food as we all give ourselves time to digest!

I will throw out a challenge though.  How many of you can make all of these dishes before my next blog?  Reports and photos required.  All recipes are found easily, and in English, by googling the names of them.  Buon appetito a tutti i miei amici.

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Antonio and Francesca – A love story.

Antonio and Francesca were my parents-in-law.  They are the charactors Renato and Checchina in my book Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasonshttp://www.amazon.com/roman daze.  They lived in Taranto, a small city right at the bottom of Italy on a beautiful bay.

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This blog is to honor them both, but today the story is mostly about Antonio, and Francesca’s stories will come next month.

This story begins around 1937.

Pa was 17 when he first set eyes on the 13 year old Francesca.  She was already working as a seamstress, along with her sister and mother, taking in sewing in any form to earn money in a family that had a choice between food or rent every month, unless there was enough sewing.

He saw her entering and leaving an apartment block every week on a Tuesday afternoon with her sister Nina who was 15.  He had a friend living in that apartment block and so took to visiting him every Tuesday hoping to get a chance meeting with her which he eventually did.  Not being with a parent emboldened Antonio to approach Francesca and a clandestine and innocent friendship struck up, aided and abetted by Nina who was already “spoken for” by a handsome young Carabinieri (a special squad of police that form part of the national miliatary) called Rocco.  Nina wanted her sister to have the joy of a boyfriend too.

It seems that every romance in the south of Italy begins with the parents of the female automatically hating her suitors until the very point of the wedding ceremony and Antonio was no exception.  He was aided in his meetings by Rocco who, being a Carabinieri was seen as vastly more acceptable than a worker from the local munitions factory (where Francesca’s father also worked).

But Antonio was approaching 18, the age at which all Italian males were obliged to do their military service.  This was a two year stint where Italy’s young men were trained as soldiers and could be called up to serve their country if war broke out any time in the proceeding 15 years.  Antonio didn’t have to wait that long.  It was 1939.  War broke out during his national service and he was swept up in it as a young and fairly untrained soldier.

Often when I used to look at Antonio smiling benignly over a plate of cream cakes (he had an enormous sweet tooth) or giggling over the Italian version of Benny Hill, or blowing raspberries into his wife’s stomach (at 91 years of age) or crying as he hugged his son goodbye after a weekend visit; and when I understood his character to be one of gentleness, trust, and contentment with his small lot in life, I found it hard to imagine him with a gun in his hand shooting at others his age.  And then I realised that probably his character, his ability to be utterly content with the simplest of lives and to have no fear of the things in life that I fear, was a result of what he had lived through rather than a pre-existing condition.

Pa was on the front line when Italy changed sides.  He was lying on the ground on his stomach alongside other Germans and Italians shooting at the enemies advancing through the top of Italy, somewhere around Trieste, the most Northern part of Italy.  There was a strange unrest and tension in the air that day.  None of the Italian officers had shown up to the war that morning.  It gradually became known down through the line of soldiers that Italy had changed its allies and was therefore an enemy of Germany.  The very men who were holding guns, side by side with Antonio.  He and another mate from the same home town, Taranto, dropped their guns and ran.  No formal discharge, no orders, no waiting for authority figures to tell them what to do and no fear of reprisals.  Their guts told them to get the hell out of there and so they did.

Trieste is at one end of Italy and Taranto is at the other.  It is a distance of tens of thousands of kilometres.  They walked home.  It took Antonio a month to get home and leaving the front line did not guarantee that their lives were now safe.  They were in uniform and therefore in danger of being picked up by the German military who ruled Italy.  Therefore they couldn’t use the roads or travel during the day.  Because of those same uniforms they were in danger of also being killed by the Italian partisans, the resistance, those who had opposed the war or deserted early.  This meant they were in danger at night, when the resistance travelled along the roads and paths of Italy.

So they followed the aqueducts.  The ancient system of water tunnels the Romans had built from one end of Italy to the other, at night, and only every second night.  They were tired, hungry, afraid, and needed to rest a lot.  They knocked on deserted farmhouses in the evenings and begged for food.  At that time in Italy thousands of men were making their ways home from this war, and resistors were making their ways out to fight it clandestinely. The housewives of Italy fed them all.  A knock on the door around evening time and all through the night was common.  They all needed food and it was always supplied.  The women didn’t care if they had uniforms on or not, whether they carried arms or not.  Most of them were hoping the next knock would be from their men and were relying on other women far away to be keeping them alive as they themselves were doing for the men of other women.

A month after Antonio fled the front line he arrived in Taranto.  No one there knew if he was alive or dead.  He walked up to his apartment building and greeted his incredulous mother who was on the balcony.  He washed and ate and then went to see Francesca.  She was coming along the street, arms laden down with two bags of food shopping and walking next to her mother, when she saw him coming towards her.  She dropped the bags of food (a serious crime in those days) and ran towards him.  There was never any question after that of whether he was good enough for Francesca.  He was a returned soldier who had fought for his country, been caught up in the terrible political machinations of the powerful and wealthy and had survived to come home.  That was good enough.

Antonio went on to father two boys, Hercole (yes that is a name) and Alfredo, and be the surrogate father of two more; the sons of his best friend, Alfredo, who lost his life early to cancer.  He and Francesca lived with other couples in rented houses and eeked out a living, often hungry, for nearly two decades after the war had finished.  Their financial highpoint was being able to afford a one bedroom apartment of their own, five stories up with no lift, in the centre of Taranto, with a view of the sea.  Hercole slept in a small walk-in cupboard at the end of the corridor.  When he went to military service at the age of 16, they had a second son, Alfredo, my husband.

Pa went back to work at the munitions factory after the war and worked there every day for forty years.  His life was unadventurous from my point of view.  He never travelled.  He spent his holidays with Rocco and Nina at their small plot of land about forty minutes away from where he lived and picked almonds for them each summer.  He never read anything except newspapers.

“What’s the point in buying a book?” he once said to me as I came home laden yet again with a half dozen of them.  “Once you’ve read it what do you do with it?” He then chuckled at me like I was a little soft in the head. I am known as a person who is addicted to buying books and never letting them go.  He spent his leisure time talking with his mates in the piazza below, watching TV, playing cards with his son and daughter-in-law, and talking with Francesca.

His first question to me when he saw me on the weekends we travelled down from Rome, was always “Have you eaten?”.  He enthusiastically embraced the introduction of Anglo-Saxon traditions such as Christmas crackers and the wearing of the hats that came out of them, insisting his whole family did too.  This was a vastly unfamiliar tradition to them but one that made my Christmases a whole lot better amidst all the pasta, ice-cream desserts and lack of alcohol that made up their typical southern Italian Christmas dinner.

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One day shortly before Pa passed away, Hercole came into the apartment to find Pa lying on the floor, the bottom half of his torso wedged under his double bed.  Francesca had gone out to do the shopping.  Pa was lying there calmly waiting for someone to come and find him and help him up.  Are you alright Pa, Hercole asked half concerned, half finding it funny (I told you they were quirky).  “I’ve been better”, was the reply.

So for his bravery, his contentment, his peacefulness and his fathering which produced an amazing husband (biased point of view) I say Vale Antonio, Vale xxxx

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It’s been two years since both Francesca and Antonio De Luca passed away.  Married for 67 years they weren’t able to exist, one without the other.

Franchy had a stroke when she was 89.  She was rushed to hospital from the 5th floor apartment they had both lived in for over fourty years.  She was away six weeks, floating between life and death and then rehabilitating and learning to walk again.  Pa couldn’t comprehend it.  He was almost blind, had difficulty walking and was in the advanced stages of dementia.  He could also not be consoled.

The person who had been the only constant in his grey and continually dimming world was no longer there.  He was living more and more in a world of fantasy where if he passed a mirror he often spent half an hour talking into it, thinking he was having a conversation with someone else.  He could also spend hours having a conversation with the television.  All he knew was that the person who prepared his coffee first thing in the morning, the person who helped wash and dress him, the person who helped him go to the toilet, who fed him, bought his food and went walking with him was gone.  The woman who, when he woke regularly in the middle of the night and started to get dressed, told him that it wasn’t time yet, the woman who laughed and joked with him at his eccentricities and still took him, and his needs seriously, the woman who even at 89 years old could still make him smile, grab her in a big hug and kiss her repeatedly on the mouth.  All he knew was that she was no longer with him, the concept of time, that she was somewhere else and could eventually come back, eluded him.

In her place were well meaning sons, grand children, neighbours, doctors and professional carers.  He struggled on for several weeks at home then in professional care.  Like Romeo at Juliet’s tomb, believing her dead, he just wanted to go with her.  One day he just stopped eating and died three days later. Francesca survived her stroke and came home to an empty house.  Francesca couldn’t walk very well and as their apartment was on the fifth floor with no lift, she was confined to it.  Her sister Nina and her best friend Maria visited every day, sometimes twice a day, along with neighbours, children and grandchildren. She lasted almost two months without Antonio and then one day another stroke killed her.

They were the kind of parents and parents-in-law that you really miss.  Funny, quirky, courageous, honest, tenacious, tender, unconditionally and endlessly loving to the full extent of their capacity and beyond.  They were two of the most selfless and endearing people I have ever met.  I wish the world had known them more.

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Free Download: Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons

Roman Daze-La Dolce Vita for all Seasons

Please feel free to try this sample!  The Prologue and first Chapter of my new book.

Early reviews describe it as “conjuring up people and place in a masterful way and having the effect of making you want to eat pasta and book a trip to italy”

“What a beautiful book, you start reading it and can’t stop!”

“The book is a quirky and perceptive cultural set of observations and decoding of the phenomena that is Rome, and her beautiful people. Brava Bronte”

The full copy can be bought from the below link in hard or digital copy, or from any major e-platforms

http://www.amazon.com/Roman-Daze-Bronte-Dee-Jackson/dp/192212933X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1386736705&sr=8-1&keywords=roman+daze

La Dolce Vita for all seasons

This post is to announce the publication of my book “Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons”!!!!  I am very excited.

What is it about I hear you ask?  Well………….Twenty years ago, Bronté Jackson won an airline ticket that thrust her into the heart of the Mediterranean. Recently separated, made redundant and evicted from her home, Bronté spent six months recovering in Greece and spending her redundancy package, before making her way to Rome. Roman Daze: La Dolce Vita for All Seasons is a book about living a personal and continuously surprising adventure. It’s about following your heart and what it’s like to live among people who continuously use theirs.

In Roman Daze, Bronté Jackson describes how the seasons, food, family, landscape, rituals and history combine to create and explain the Italian lifestyle and why, from the outside, it looks like La Dolce Vita.

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“It took only three days to fall in love with Rome. Like all infatuations, I expected it to wear off. I decided that I would leave when I no longer noticed the Coliseum. I am still waiting.”

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From December 10, 2013 it will be available on all major e-platforms as an e-book and hard copy (print on demand). I will provide the links as soon as I have them. Many of you will relate to the stories and lifestyle description in this book (and some of you are in it! – you know who you are;).

If you enjoy the book, please write a review of it and recommend it to your friends. More information on the book is on the page in this Blog “Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all seasons.

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How to enjoy a Roman Autumn (Fall)

Autumn is a great season to visit Rome in because the city is fresh, crisp and relaxed.  The weather is a perfect and steady 24 degrees with sunny, blue skies.  The blistering heat has finished, the colder months have not yet started, and the rain of spring is far away.  Romans have returned from their summer holiday months and are tanned, cool and refreshed; ready for work, and if that includes the tourist trade then the service is much better than you would get in the baking hot and crowded summer months.  There are also fewer tourists as most of the Northern hemisphere has taken their holidays and have returned to work.  Airline tickets cost less; everything is open, and the city is back to business.

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Here are my top ten tips for how to enjoy a Roman Fall/Autumn.

1.  Plan to walk a lot.

Autumn is perfect for walking (as is the city of Rome).  It rarely rains, is not too hot, and the sunshine and blue skies set off the rich colours of the city and its monuments perfectly.

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2.  Visit a park (Villa Borghese, Villa Ada, Villa Pamphili)

Sunshine will filter in through the green foliage of the summer growth making any park seem cool, lush and shady.  But there will also be evidence of the season, with colours changing to yellows and browns and crunchy leaves underfoot. Tracks will be dry and easy to walk on, summer mosquitos will have gone and the air still warm and balmy.  A Park is the perfect accessory for autumn.

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3.  Visit the Municipal Rose Gardens of Rome.

Internationally acclaimed and featuring over 1,000 varieties of roses they are still blooming ferociously in autumn.  Although not publically listed as open in autumn (they are only open officially for a few weeks in May and June), I was walking past the other day and they were definitely open and being visited.

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4. Don’t go to the beach.

As tempting as it maybe for some of you from colder climes who don’t get much opportunity to go,  the beach will generally be shut in autumn in Rome.  Romans are seasonal creatures and will finish going to the beach at the end of summer (21st September), no matter what the temperature.  Most beaches are privately run and are fenced in and will be closed due to lack of clientele.

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5. Don’t look as though you are going to the beach.

Likewise if you are still wearing shorts and sandals in autumn it will be noticed.  My summer clothes were noted and commented on a few weeks ago in my neighbourhood in an unfavourable manner by a fellow customer at my local café.  There is a season for everything in respectable Roman society, and in September to December it is autumn, and the attire that represents that (closed shoes, longer trousers, jeans, layers, light cardigans, cotton scarves, etc.).

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6. Shop for last season’s cloths.

Many shops, though not in the trendiest parts of town, will still have remnants of their summer stock, from cloths to bags.  As no self-respecting Roman would be seen dead in the colours, fabrics, or shoes of summer, the prices are rock-bottom and on offer to the tourists who are the only people that will buy them.  Stock up!  Rome’s last seasons’ stuff is what the rest of the world will be wearing in a years’ time.

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7.  Eat seasonal delicacies – Funghi Porcini, Puntarelle, Carciofi alla Romana, Roasted Chestnuts.

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Funghi Porcini are large flat mushrooms that taste earthy, nutty and quite unique. They are one of my favourite things to eat, made all the more special by the fact they are available for only a few months of the year.  I recommend eating them grilled and as a stand-alone dish. They don’t require any other accompaniment than bread and the fresh green olive oil, parsley and garlic they will be cooked with.  Most people are hooked after one taste.  If you are a bit shy and need to dilute your first experience then I recommend ordering the Tagliatelle ai Funghi Porcini, a thick egg noodle/pasta delicately flavoured with fine slices of Funghi Porcini.

Puntarelle (little points) is a vegetable dish.  They look and taste a little like celery but come in the shape of a small squid or octopus (the ends are all curled up).  They are served with olive oil and flavoured with a few anchovies, vinegar and garlic.  They are fresh, tangy and divine to eat.  They are found only in Rome, in autumn, and are the ends of a vegetable that no one, not even a large amount of Romans I asked, knows the name of.  They are notoriously difficult to prepare and are therefore best eaten at a restaurant where someone else has had to chop, scrape, soak, slice, and marinate them.

Carciofi, artichokes are a Roman speciality in general but prepared alla Romana is even more typically Roman.  Again it is ordered as a vegetable dish and will come as a single, large artichoke soaking in its own cooking juices of lemon, mint, garlic, parsley and boiling water and garnished with olive oil.  It is magnificent!

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Roasted chestnuts will be available on every street corner in the centre of the city.  Roasted over a coal fire you can buy them in small paper scoopfuls.  They are warm, nutritious, richly filling and slightly sweet.  They make a perfect snack or an excellent (and very cheap) breakfast along with a coffee.

8. Sit in the sun.

It is one of the best recreational activities of the year.  Winter it is too cold to sit still outside, summer it is too hot to sit in the sun, spring is unpredictable.  Autumn has long, lovely, warm days full of a sunshine that caresses without burning, stimulates and sooths, tans and smooths, gently washing away negative and stressful thoughts.

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9. Watch the sun set.

The sunsets of autumn fill the sky with brilliant reds, oranges and yellows that blot out clouds and pollution and linger on for hours.  It is as though the sun needs to go out with a bang in its last season of dominance; that it needs to remind us all of its majesty so that we don’t forget its importance and power as we live through the winter months.

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10. Go to a Vineria.

If Parks are the perfect accessory for autumn and sun sitting the perfect recreational activity then the Vineria is the perfect resting place.  The evenings that darken early, and the slight chill in the air when they do, force you inside at a time usually too early to eat but perfect for the partaking of a little wine, cheese and salami – the trifecta of the Vineria.   Vinerie serve only that (although some can also entice you with dinner once you have settled in), and from around early evening (just before sunset).  They specialise in an exhaustive range of wines and usually have shelves of bottles that line the walls from floor to ceiling as part of their decor.  Cheeses and salamis will be offered that match the wine you choose, and the small, cosy and intimate nature of these establishments will make you glad that you chose your sojourn to Rome to correspond with the magnificent season of autumn!

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