Italian food without Borders?

While travelling across Russia one day, as you do, by train, on your way to Ulan Butah and then Beijing, one morning a group of shy, Mongolian, 19 year old medical students came and filled the doorway of my carriage.  We were about to cross the border from Russia into Mongolia later on that day.

Would you mind storing something in your carriage for us until we get across the border?

Every warning that the Department of Foreign Affairs website has ever hosted has contained some variation of “don’t take anything for anyone across any border ever”.

Seeing our shocked and doubtful faces they quickly added.

It’s orange juice.

Knowing that few people actually admit the true nature of what they are asking you to smuggle on their behalf, I wasn’t moving.  My unworldly travelling companion was quicker than I however and quipped that it would be fine then.

Within seconds the boys were back expertly lifting up our bottom bunks to reveal a storage container we had never even seen, and stacking paper carton upon paper carton of the orange juice brand we had seen all over Russia.

The fierce looking Mongolian immigration guards never even bothered looking in our cabin although they went through the one next door pretty thoroughly, revealing only the requisite amount of orange juice allowed to be imported, per person, to Mongolia.

Thanks, thanks so much!

The students came bounding into our cabin immediately afterwards, full of smiles and gratitude that lasted for the next few days, until they disembarked with their full load of contraband, enough to sell on the black market and make a handsome profit to further fund their medical studies.  Fresh fruit, vegetables and their derivatives are not produced in Mongolia (which is mostly desert) and so come at a premium price.

It isn’t the first time I have snuck food into a country.  Italy has fantastic food.  Italian cuisine is varied, fresh, simple, and consists of much more than pizza or pasta.  They don’t however import or make any of our food, none of it.  So there is no other food available in Italy than what makes up their indigenous cuisine.  Fabulous enough, however when one is facing Winter without crumpets, baked beans, stilton cheese, marmalade, and tinned tomato soup, for the umpteenth time, things can get desperate.

It is a little known fact and hard to explain in a culture such as ours (Australia) where you can get dozens of different countries cuisines, their ingredients, their desserts, their sauces and flavours, that nothing that is not Italian, made in Italy, or eaten by Italians can be had in Italy.  For example you will never, ever find sticky date pudding on the menu, an iced donut anywhere, a slice of cheese cake in a café, a mud cake, mushroom soup, a potato cake, a lamb chop two weeks either side of Easter, sliced bread in a packet, coriander, parsnip, rhubarb, passion fruit, the list goes on.  Like the French they are fiercely protective of their own nations’ producers and most Italians wouldn’t dream of experimenting with another countries food.  Indians eat Indian food, French eat French food, Americans eat their version of food, and Italians eat Italian food is their understanding of the world.

Hence my need to go to London every Autumn and stock up so I can survive the Winter ahead on my non Italian Winter comfort food.  Heathrow however is the centre of search and control practices for keeping airports safe.  You and your bags can be searched at any time and anywhere. Waiting in a boarding queue, one year, after stocking up, I got selected for a search of my hand luggage.  Up onto a large table surrounded by burly, male British air port workers went my small suitcase.  The large security guard, surrounded by all his mates, unzipped it carefully and found it hard to hide the surprise on his face as he encountered a suitcase full of crumpets, marmalade and tins of tomato soup which came tumbling out onto the table and floor.

Ey up!  What’s all this for then? He said as he and his mates were lining packets of crumpets up alongside my suitcase.

I…..I…..I live in Italy…….came out as the only response I could muster.

Even as I was saying it I realised how ridiculous it sounded.  Most Brits go to Italy to FOR the food, they don’t take theirs with them.  Sniggering and laughing into his sleeve, he winked at me knowingly while he zipped it back up again.

Oh, aye, luv, I get it, there’s nothing worse than not bein’ able to have yrrr bit o’ crrrrumpet when you want it.

I lugged away my weighed down suitcase with the sound of laughter in my ears, my face as red as the tomato soup I was carrying and just ordered on line from Fortnum’s and Mason’s after that.

Italy Standard, Poor & Negative?

Standard, poor and negative are three words not usually associated with Italy.  But last week they were, in the Economist news magazine.  The Standard and Poor (S&P) credit rater, downgraded Italy from a “Stable ” rating to a “Negative” rating.  It is concerned about Italy’s lack of economic growth.  That Italy appears to owe more than they earn, therefore alarming the credit raters about their ability to pay it back.  The Economist also reported that most Italians were happy with this situation as it meant that the government, weighed down with debt, wouldn’t be sticking their noses into individual Italians business, as they would be too preoccupied with fixing the country.

When I first arrived in Italy, 17 years ago, I read with alarm the economic reports concerning the financial health of the country that I was earning and saving money in.  I considered exchanging my hard earned cash into US$, or sending it all back to Australia, as it appeared that any minute the economy would collapse.  Italy has always looked different on paper than it does on the ground.

Like the stealthy, Sicilian peasant that only uses cash and looks like any minute his house will fall apart, Italy has a way of always appearing to have less money than it actually does.  Most Italians practice this, whether to hide their actual worth from each other, or from the government, I am not sure, but these are some of the ways that I was introduced into the “double” economy of Italy.

1. Less prevalent now, but many restaurants will offer you two kinds of bills, one cheaper bill written on a piece of paper, and another slightly higher on an official receipt that will need to go through the cash register.  Usually you will be offered the cheaper bill first, if you accept, everyone’s a winner baby!

2. When I paid my rent, part of it was by a cheque for which I received a receipt, part of it was cash with no receipt, which meant my rent was slightly cheaper in return for my landlord not having to declare all of it.  This was such a common practice amongst all my ex-pat friends that I had initially assumed it was actually part of the Italian (legal) system of paying rent.

I found banking hard to take seriously also.  Especially when while cashing my first pay check, the teller demanded, with a smirk, my phone number in return for cashing my pay check.  Or when I started to have enough money in my bank account to be taken seriously as a customer and I was called in for the “investment” chat with the bank manager who outlined the various products the bank could offer me.  When I asked which one he used, he replied that all his money was under his mattress.

So I don’t worry about my money any more when Italy receives a negative rating from a credit rating company on the other side of the world, based on faraway, first world, economic rationalist type data.  I just go and have a coffee with my bank manager, pay the Barrister cash with no receipt, and send my money to Switzerland before the government can find out anything about it.  Photographs by A.Verhagen.

Top 10 travel tips for a cheap Roman Holiday

The final 5 tips in this topic.  Sorry they took longer than expected!

6.  Drink the local wine

Carrying on our theme of economising on eating and drinking which will make up the bulk of your trip expenses next to your hotel, don’t worry about what kind of wine to order, just drink the local house drop where ever you are.  In Rome this will be a Frascati wine from the Castelli region, the cool mountainous area just outside of Rome.  In Tuscany it will be local Chianti.  You can’t really go wrong ordering house wine in Italy and it will be much cheaper than ordering a bottle with a name on it.  House wine comes in glass or ceramic carafes that are quarts (enough for two small glasses), half’s or litres and can be refilled upon request.

7.  Walk

 Transport is usually a big expense for most trips however Rome as a city has the luck to be quite small in distances, per sight you might want to see.  It is therefore cheaper but also quicker and easier to walk everywhere.  Small maps of Rome are available everywhere.  Be prepared to make your way by foot from sight to sight and you will not only save time and money but get to see the city that exists in between the monuments, as well as surprising and unexpected sights not listed in the Guide Books.

This means however that you can’t wear stilettos, in spite of the fact that many Italians will be.  As a woman who loves her stilettos all I can say is that you will severely regret wearing anything with a heel and without a serious soul, full of padding.  Italian cobblestones are really hard to walk on; footpaths are few, small and crowded, making walking difficult and painful.

All this is particularly important given tip number one about how much you pay in a café to sit down which you will need to do if you don’t wear flat, rubber-soled footwear. Save your fancy shoes for the evening when you alight from your taxi outside of your restaurant and for a short after-dinner passegiata (the traditional times Italians go walking to see and be seen).  If you are not Italian most people will expect you to be wearing Birkenstocks anyway.

8.  Expect not to pay

This follows on from the above point.  Rome as a city is in itself a sight.  Her streets, her piazzas, her buildings, the river, her shops, gardens and statues are all worth admiring, walking through and experiencing on your way to sights and monuments.  The architecture, the decorations of art and murals on every street corner, the people, the weather, the outdoor living of the city are all also sights in themselves, beautiful, unique, and awe inspiring.

In addition many of Rome’s monuments are simply part of the city and free – the Circus Maximus, Arch of Constantine, the Pantheon, the Orange Gardens, Spanish Steps, Trevi fountain.  Have a look at my blog on Top Ten Places to visit in Rome.  Nine of them are free.  Rome’s churches are also all free (including St Peters) and hold world heritage art works and sculptures by Michelangelo and Caravaggio just to name a few.

So don’t expect to have to put a lot of money aside to see sights.  Simply walking through piazzas, stopping for a coffee, eating a panino, visiting Dolce & Gabbana and Prada, a church, and a monument or two will be enough to fill your days with silent wonder.

9.  Take the airport train

The most costly transport that any visitor to Rome will pay for is always going to be the travel from the airports to the city.  From both the main airports a taxi will cost around 60 Euro to the centre.  Taxi drivers in Rome have a tight cartel and airport fares are fixed at around 45 Euro.  In addition they will charge you for each bag they load into the boot and there is a surcharge if it is night time………..

The train from Fiumicino airport in contrast will cost around 13 Euro per person.  Tickets can be bought on the platform, a train leaves every 15 minutes at least, to various parts of the city and it usually takes less time than a taxi.  The trains are comfortable, have large luggage racks and are wheelchair friendly.

Spend 60 Euro on a nice pair of stilettos instead.

10.  Buy from the locals – Prada, Armani, D&G

Labels such as these and Valentino, Versace used to scare the daylights out of me.  But here they are just the locals.  Shops are unpretentious, full of helpful yet discreet sales staff, who won’t mind if you are not wearing a label, weigh more than 40 kilos or are over twenty five.  Everyone in the world comes to look at these stores and admire the craftsmanship.  Italians bask in the homage and consider it only natural.  There is no pressure to buy, you can look, touch, feel and ask as much as you want.  They are also cheaper here than anywhere else in the world so you never know.  You might just be able to afford something in there after following tips 1 – 9!


Top 10 travel tips for a cheap Roman Holiday

1.  Stand up

Romans go to a café (called a bar here in Italy), two or three times a day to eat and drink cheaply.  Tourists go to the same bars and it costs more than three times the price.  Why is this?  Inherent racism?  No, it is because Romans stand at the bar and eat, tourists sit down and order and are waited on.  Hence the cost of this is added onto all the produce.  If you want to lower your eating and drinking costs by two thirds then stand at the bar and drink your coffee or eat your sandwich like the locals.  And pay like a local.  If you need to sit down (and I admit we all do), find a stone bench in a piazza, or some steps, or pay a visit to a church (don’t try eating in there though).

2.  Breakfast out

 There is a theme here.  Apart from your hotel, the biggest expense will be eating, and Rome, Italy in general, is not the place to skimp on this experience (let me know if you would like to know which European countries you could skimp on this experience J).  Therefore many of these tips will be how to lower this cost.  (And all tips are relevant for most Italian cities, not just Rome.)

If you are staying in a B&B or hostel, and/or your breakfast is not included, then head to your local bar (café).  There will be one within 100 metres of you, if you are staying in a city.  Order freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and the local breakfast pastries called Cornetti (they will be on display so you can choose the type you want) and eat it standing up at the bar, along with the locals.  It will usually cost under 5 Euro in a suburb and under 7 Euro in the centre of Rome.


3.  Find a Rosticceria

 A Rosticceria is a place that does a bit of everything – pizzas, pastas, roast meats, vegetables.  It’s the closest things Italians have to a take away, where they can pick up an entire meal, pre-cooked and take it home.  You generally can’t order the food as it is pre-cooked, ready, and on display.  You can however eat it on the premises, complete with drinks.  There is no table service and it is not for a leisurely or romantic meal, but the food is usually good and much cheaper than a restaurant for a hot meal.  If you are walking around the centre there is one off Campo dei Fiori on your way to Piazza Navona, on Via dei Baullari.

4.  Picnic in the parks

 As an alternative to a Rosticceria for lunch (I don’t recommend on skimping on dinner, I recommend treating yourself to a restaurant dinner as often as possible in Italy), any supermarket or local grocery store (Alimentari) will make you up a bread roll with cheese and/or prosciutto/salami.  You can ask at the bread counter for this.  Tell them (or point to) the type of bread you want and that you would like a Panino.  The cheeses and meats are usually on display next to the bread so you can also point if necessary.  They will charge you on the weight of the products that you order.  It is much cheaper than buying them ready made.  Beware though that cheese and meats are the extent of what they will offer (no salad) and usually only one of each before becoming impatient and putting you in the class of annoying foreigner to be ignored.

5.  Don’t eat near a monument

 On the subject of dinner…..walk up to and around monuments, touch and experience them, gaze at them and photograph them but don’t eat near them.  The rent is horrifically expensive in any place that is historically or artistically famous causing restauranters to recuperate their costs through their prices, in addition to economising on wait staff and food quality.  They also generally don’t need to attract customers with their food as they have a steady supply of daily tourists such as you.  Eat in quiet back alleys, pedestrian lanes, or main streets that have no sights to offer but the menu.

Next five, next fortnight.

Berlusconi, balls, and bouncing bimbos……

People often ask me (especially lately), how Italians could ever have voted for  such a ludicrous character as their current Prime Minister.   How do the makers of some of the finest food, fashion and racing cars in the world tick the ballot box next to the name of an ageing, sex crazed, buffoon?  And if they did unwittingly why don’t they do something to get rid of him now?

My favourite Berlusconi story is this.  At a formal State dinner to welcome the visiting queen of a neighbouring European country, the elderly queen, just after they had sat at the table, started off polite State dinner conversation by asking Berlusconi and his Cabinet how Italy was faring during the GFC.  What were some of the changes he had noticed and had to deal with as Prime Minister?  To which Berlusconi replied that the main thing he had noticed was that the price of his hookers had gone up.

So I too would like to know the answers to the questions that I get asked.  Just cos I lived in Italy doesn’t mean I understand the phenomena or that I can explain it.  But I do have some observations, from having been inside the country during the entire time that Berlusconi has been PM,  and then I’m gonna defer to an expert.

Berlusconi hasn’t burst onto a scene of perfect, unfailing, serene and upright democracy.  He has burst out of failing, corrupt, chaotic and barely there democracy.  Italy had one party (the Christian Democrats) that ruled for more than four decades almost continuously after the Second World War, one of the last Prime Ministers of which was charged with murder and Mafia membership at the end of his term.  The only time the reign of the Christian Democrats was interrupted by an opposing political party, that Prime Minister was later charged with some of the largest fraud and money laundering activities the country had ever seen.  He fled the country to live out his life in North Africa.

So they have never had much to choose from.  Questioning friends of mine at the time, one of the main reasons for voting Berlusconi in, at first, was the fact that he was one of the world’s richest men and therefore would be immune from the bribes that others had fallen foul to.  They didn’t foresee that the tables could be turned and that bribes could be offered, to change laws, get immunity from prosecution, and break the rules of the constitution, because he was one of the richest men in the world.

Italy’s political system has always been complicated and difficult to understand by most students of politics.  They don’t have a left and right, they have at least five parties at any one time all circulating around the left and the right (the centre left, the left, the centre right, the right, the centre etc.).   Usually a number of small parties have to reign together which means that most of the time is spent fighting about ideology and not getting anything done, and that often the government is dissolved (three times in the 1990’s).  I remember a flat mate of mine from the UK experiencing this for the first time and being afraid to go out into the streets.  How can you be safe when there is no government she asked?  What do we do?  Will there be anarchy?  The answer is you can, nothing, and no.  I had lived through this before and had come to the conclusion that Italy more or less exists separately to its political governance.  It continues on in spite of it.

Berlusconi is clever though.  When Italy changed its voting system in the 1990’s from Proportional Representation to First-Past-the-Post he was the one of the first to realise that this meant less of the incessant cronyism that had been the hallmarks of success previously, and more that getting out to the people and winning the popularity vote, would be the way to victory.  This is where his owning most of the Italian media came in handy, and still does.  From just before the ban on publicity for political campaigning begins, you can be sure that Berlusconi will be on every chat show and news report possible.  His biggest antics are usually during this period so that every day the headlines of all the newspapers have the words Berlusconi in them.

And what of his sexual indiscretions?  His buffoonery in that area?  Well…….without going into a huge debate on sexism, purism, church, state, family etc……. again there is context.  Italian public life has always had a lot more sexiness in it than what we would be used to in other countries.  The usual coupling of Compares on a family hour TV show would be an old, fat, ugly guy and a gorgeous, nubile, scantily dressed woman.  One of Italy’s most popular current events and entertainment show has, in between its news segments, two young, beautiful women who dance sexily, clad in mini skirts and cleavage enhancing wear.  The camera is often underneath them as they are dancing on the desks of the two guys who compare the show.   There is a fierce national competition held every year for the two places that these dancers hold.  When the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal broke many Italians shrugged their shoulders.  An “of age” woman giving a elected leader a BJ in his office…… so what?

When I went for my first professional job interview in Italy as an Associate Professor at a University, I was offered two jobs.  One where I would be available to sleep with my 65 year old Professor/boss (I was not yet 30) and get to travel all over Europe plus several other exciting perks, and one where I would not be available and be stuck at the University doing work.  At least 50% of the other women I worked with that year had taken the first option (I took the second one).  Some of them to get their degrees.  Sex, politics and sexual politics are all alive and well in Italy and are just another way of “getting along”.  Where Berlusconi has gone wrong is in making it too public, causing his wife to loose face and divorce him.  This is a cardinal sin.  He is now no longer protected by the “family man” image.  A vital part of the social fabric in Italy.

Lastly I will refer you to an expert.  Alexander Stille, an avid Italian watcher, has written The Sack of Rome.  How a beautiful European country with a fabled history and a storied culture was taken over by a man named Silvio Berlusconi. He warns us that any culture that reveres privately owned television/media as its main information source, candidate’s appearances over substance, sound bites over policies, and votes based on popularity and personality is in danger of a Berlusconi.  I couldn’t help thinking of that when I saw the National Opposition leader speaking on national television in front of a sign that said “Julia is bob’s bitch.”  It had all the hallmarks of a Berlusconiesque campaign.

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Top 10 travel tips for surviving Rome!

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Last week we had the first five, this week, five more!

6.  Don’t just look, cross.

Those of you who have visited Rome will have noticed the strange phenomena of the zebra crossings.  They exist.  They are there, but they don’t seem to work.  That is, you can stand at the edge of them forever without anyone stopping.  This is because Roman drivers expect you to take the first step…….Daunting as that may seem, once you put a foot on the crossing, the traffic will come to a stop.  They won’t slow which can be quite nervewracking as you watch them racing toward you, however they do always manage to stop in plenty of time to let you cross safely.

7.  Always have a plan B.

Museums, police stations, taxis, shops and restaurants open and shut based on a number of reasons besides the usual.  E.g. a football match, a strike (very common in Rome), mourning (also very common), a friend has dropped in for a chat, traffic jams, doctors visits, government decree, someone had a late night, too hot, too cold, and tiredness.   Therefore what is written in the guide book or online does not always correspond with the reality in-situ.  Owners operate and open things at will, Labour laws are not always predictable (grocers – Alimentari – are shut Thursday afternoons, Hairdressers all day Mondays, most retail shops are shut Saturday afternoons in the summer and Monday mornings in the Winter).  I once turned up at a cinema for a long awaited film, after having checked online, to be told that a completely different film was playing.  In response to my gentle questioning about the incongruency i was un-gently told that he didn’t write what was online so how was he supposed to know what was there……….

8.  Lunch like a roman.

In my favourite restaurant I was once observing an irate tourist couple who had come in for lunch.  They were becoming more and more enraged wtih the amount of time their meal was taking, making trips in to hassle the waiter and asking for them to hurry up.  They eventually left without eating, assuming that somehow they had been treated unfairly because they were foreign.  The owner came out shortly afterward with a huge, steaming plate of freshly cooked pasta, and lamenting nationalities that didn’t know how to take time over lunch.  Romans have quick and skimpy breakfasts (sometimes two to tide them over), and light and late dinners, so that due honor can be given to the sacred Roman lunch hour (or two).  Restaurants are packed at lunch time and therefore service is often long, however no Roman ever wants to rush over this minimum three course meal.  Expect to take your time, enjoy it, and when in Rome…….

9.  Siesta

This naturally follows on from Tip 8.  The city of Rome is very quiet from 2 – 4 pm, many places are shut, and in the summer the city is deserted at this time (of everyone except tourists).  You won’t miss out on anything by going home and having a kip.  City life will be buzzing and everything open from 5.00 pm until 7.30 – 8.00pm at night.  Having a rest in the middle of the day will help you survive Rome, and help you make the most of it during its most entertaining hours.  You will also understand where they get their energy from and why dinner is so late…………   

10.  Remember that ice cream is an anti-depressant

Why do think Romans are always eating it, any time of day or night, in any season?  Why do you think there is one every 200 metres or so?  Why are their always crowds outside of them?  Whatever happens in your life, whatever stress you are suffering, can all be alleviated by taking time out to have an ice-cream.  The Italian kind any way.  Make sure you have some every day you are there and all your ills will melt away.  I promise.

Top 10 travel tips for surviving Rome!

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Five this week, five next week!

1.  Don’t eat near a major monument.

If you can gaze out onto a major tourist attraction then the restaurant you are sitting in doesn’t need to do ANYTHING to attract trade.  That includes cooking well.  They also don’t need anyone to ever return, they have a steady supply of hundreds of customers daily.  The chefs are not usually Italian but a much cheaper paid nationality (this is an issue because after living in Italy for seventeen years and travelling to over 30 countries I can guarantee you that NO ONE knows how to cook pasta like an Italian), neither is the wait staff, and the ingredients are the cheapest and least wholesome available.  This particularly concerns me because GREAT, reasonably priced Italian food is usually just around the corner.  Go where there is nothing to rely on but the cooking itself.

2. Don’t sit down.

If you drink your cappuccino or juice at the counter, like all the other Italians, it will cost you roughly a third of the price than if you sit down at a table and get waited on.  I know its hard in a city that requires non stop walking to see the sights, but if you don’t want to get stung with exorbitant prices then eat/drink standing up and then go find some comfortable stone steps to sit on.  (I should make my next blog “Where to sit down in Rome”)

3.  Yes Rome gets cold.

Rome looks perennially hot to most of the world as it is usually sunny and does get very hot in the summer.  We had some guests from Germany last December who went out gaily in the morning without coats, to bask in the sun, and enjoy the delights of a much warmer country than their own.  They were back by lunchtime, crying and shivering, to stick their frozen heads under hot water showers.  5 degrees Celsius is cold, even when the sun is shining.  You will need a serious, natural fibre coat (i.e. not Polyester like the kind of coats you can get away with wearing in Melbourne – the bone freezing humidity will be on you in a second), the longer the better.  A hat will mean you can walk around for longer and still feel your ears.  Gloves and scarves are necessary for any evening jaunts.  Rome is a city where walking around and being outside is the only way to see most of it so you need to be insulated well.  Cafes are often open to the elements and therefore not great places to warm up in.

4.  Push back.

A lot of pushing goes on in Rome.  Usually it is just crowds jostling you in popular piazzas or shopping streets, or old ladies elbowing you out of the way.  But sometimes it is gypsies who use it as a technique, especially on public transport, to lean against you and feel where your wallet is, and then to take it.  If you are getting pushed in a manner which to you seems excessive then push back, hard.  It is the only way to keep them away from you and to send them the message that you are on to them.  Romans will support you in this.  Yelling is a good tactic too, even if they don’t understand your language, having the attention focussed on to them will stop them from pick pocketing you.

5.  Drink free water.

Rome has an abundance of free, clean, water flowing out of ancient fountains.  You will see these fountains on many street corners.  The water continually flows out of them into a drain below.  Fill up your water bottles or place your hands over the end of the spout so it comes out of the smaller hole further up and lower your head to drink as the Romans have been doing for over 2000 years before you. The water comes from underground springs, and is transported by aqueducts built by the Romans. Free running water for all Roman citizens was a gift from an Emperor to his people.  The gift that keeps on giving…..

Top 10 places to visit in Rome

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1.  Campo dei Fiori. Started off life as a medieval market place where executions also took place.  Last known guy burnt to death at the stake has his statue in the middle of the modern day Piazza.  Cobblestones, a food market that continues to this day, ringed with bars and restaurants, it makes this a great spot to eat, drink, and people watch.  Quite a small piazza, its architecture mostly medieval, makes a great back drop to soak up a bit of history in.  Located right in the centre of the city of Rome.

2. Piazza Navona.  A short stroll, preferably with ice cream in hand, from Campo dei Fiori is the much larger and grander Piazza Navona.  Started off life as a race track for chariots and entertainment for decadent Roman emperors, hence its oval shape.  It now houses some of Rome’s loveliest fountains, sculptures by Bernini, and is a permanent haunt of artists, who will paint your portrait, jugglers and other entertainers.  Also ringed with bars and restaurants that mostly look better than they taste.  Very romantic for an evening stroll.

3.  Trastevere.  Cross the river using the pedestrian foot bridge from Campo dei Fiori, (in the opposite direction to Piazza Navona). There lays the little neighbourhood of Trastevere.  Once a separate tribe from the RomansTrastevere means “across the Tevere”, the Roman name for the Tiber river.  A maze of tiny, pedestrian only, cobbled streets, packed with bars and restaurants, a great place to go for a wander of an evening and to eat or drink.  During the day explore the traditional, ancient Roman community who still hang their washing out of their windows and visit the church, Santa Maria in Trastevere.

4. The Orange Gardens.  On top of one of the seven hills of Rome (yes they actually existed) is a small, walled-in garden offering magnificent views over the river to one of the other seven hills and over the city itself.  Great for a quiet, refreshing sit down or to eat a panino.  Wander along next door to the early Christian church and further along, where the Carabinieri hang out, to look through a key-hole at a huge door, and see an amazing sight.  Don’t worry others will be doing it too.  Don’t go to the park on a Sunday when it is taken over by the local population of live-in nannies on their day off.  Located on San Saba hill, 25 mins walk south from the Colosseum.

5.  The Spanish Steps. So named because of the Spanish Embassy housed in the same Piazza as the steps.  Sit down and people watch for as long as you like.  They have been used this way for centuries.  Just make sure you don’t eat or drink anything while sitting unless you want a policeman to blow his whistle and point at you.  Wander down the Via Condotti afterwards, directly in front of the steps, one of Rome’s most expensive shopping strips.  Berlusconi pops into the jewellers half way down, regularly.  Don’t be afraid to go into any of the big name shops – Prada, Valentino, Armani, Versace.  They are all just local boys here and shop keepers are used the hordes of under dressed tourists that stream in every day.  Located right in the centre of town.

6.  Villa Doria Pamphili.  A gigantic, sprawling park, up the hill behind Trastevere.  Once the private grounds of the princely Pamphili family, walk amongst huge ancient pines, grottos, fountains, gravel paths and un-kept fields to your hearts content.  A great break from all that concrete and crowds, it is a haven for joggers, lovers, and kids.  A small lake, ducks to feed, and quiet paths to tread are included.  Not included are toilets or a café.  BYO everything for your picnic.

7.   The Pantheon.  My favourite!  Ringed in by McDonalds and tacky, over-priced cafes it is a magnificent example of world class architecture from over 2000 years ago.  It took another 1,500 years for those that came after this to work out what the Romans already knew, without the help of instruments or modern materials, – how to build a large domed roof without any columns to hold it up.  It was built as a church to “all/many Gods”.  Marble was stolen from the Colosseum to build it then stolen again from it to build St. Peters Church.  Marble pillars were imported from Egypt, twice, as the first time they were so heavy they sank the ship.  It has the world’s oldest and heaviest still functioning door.  Over a foot thick and it opens and closes like it’s on IKEA rollers.  The opening in the middle of the roof was to let smoke out from fires burnt to the Gods, note the 2000 year old drain openings in the floor, which is slightly sloped in the middle to let the rain out.  The good thing about it being so close to McDonalds is that you can sit there for free and look at it rather than paying the exorbitant prices to sit at any of the other cafes.  The other good thing about it being so close to McDonalds is that this McDonalds sells beer.  A few minutes walk from Piazza Navona in the opposite direction from Campo dei Fiori.

8. Via Monserrato (and surrounds). Just a stone’s throw from Campo dei Fiori, parallel with the river, this longish street is lined with lovely examples of renaissance houses (mini palaces), built by newly rich merchants and nobles, over 500 years ago.  Huge doors built for carriages open up into internal courtyards, some of which house lovely gardens.  Although private, try standing casually next to a door as it opens to get a glimpse inside.  Those that are open you can generally wander into for a quick look, although if there is a door man and you ask him, he will say not to.  The outside walls of these medieval palaces are sometimes decorated with murals or stencilled, look up to get glimpses of rafter-lined, top-storey rooms.

9.  The Colosseum. Really is still worth seeing.  For its sheer size and architectural ingenuity.  On really hot days, during the games that were held here over 2000 years ago, a shade cover was erected using sail cloth.  Thousands of , you guessed it, sailors (!) were on-call to erect it.  It was secured by the equivalent of concrete tent pegs, a few of which remain today and can be seen if you walk around to the right from the entrance til you are almost on the other side and below street level.  Don’t miss the ancient Roman graffiti of huge phalluses carved into the marble at the old exits, “pointing” patrons towards the closest brothels.  For photos see “Tourists & Residents” blog.

10.  Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St Mary of the Alter in the sky).  There has to be at least one church on this list!  Standing on the Capilotine Hill behind the big Vittorio Emanuelle monument in Piazza Venezia, this church has long been the church of the Roman Senators and people.  This was the hill from which Rome has always been governed and the church stands on the spot of the temple of Juno, the Roman Goddess who was protector of the State.  Inside it houses breathtaking frescoes, paintings, sculptures, and mosaics on roof and floor.  It is famous for housing a baby Jesus doll carved out of wood from a tree in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The doll is renowned for healing sick children.  Last time I looked it had been stolen.

N.B. This is not actually it but is the inside of the Santa Maria in Trastevere church.  It will give you a taste.

P.S.  These are not the ONLY top ten sights to see in Rome.  The obviously missing ones are the Vatican, Trevi Fountain and the
Roman Forum.  These are just my favourite.

The Roman summer is here!

My ‘runs’ around the neighbourhood are by now, languid walks amongs the deafening sounds of crickets, and accompanied by the strong wafts of jasmine, rose, magnolia and lavendar that haunt my paths.  I am almost entirely alone.  The children’s swings creak ominously empty, no old men oggle me as I pass by, no women stare at me incredulously (jogging is not a big activity here in Rome).  It is summer.

It is actually at the point in summer where the city evacuates.  Three quarters of the population left last Friday according to the news.  That is three quarters of Rome took to the autostradas of this tiny peninsula in order to “get away”.  What actually happens is that they all get away together and arrive at the beach side resorts en masse to spend their holiday with the same crowds that accompany them when they are not on holiday.  It is something an Australian can never understand.  The fear of being in a large, empty space.  The fear of not having any other humans close by, only nature.  It is something we aim for on our holidays, and something Italians make sure will never happen.

Of course not all Italians are like this.  My husband (who is Italian) and I are always at pains to stake a place on the beach or in a restaurant which is secluded and away from others.  But without fail, whenever another group come along they choose to sit right next to us, rather than choose another part of the secluded area.  My Italian friends who regularly camp in their motorhome were in Germany once, on the banks of a beautiful river, in a deisgnated camping ground.  There was lots of space and only one other camper.  They chose a space within yelling distance but respectfully away from the other camper, which was also Italian.  Later that evening another Italian group came motoring along.  They parked in the space between the two campers so close to my friend that they couldn’t shut their door.

Another Italian couple we know told us of the time they were on a beach in greece, miles away from the road, with nobody else in sight.  A group of Italians came down onto the beach, walked to within two metres of them and set up.  It seems that no one wants you to be lonely in this country.

Rome is so delightfully empty that we can park anywhere (this saves us nightly twenty minutes of circling our block) and we can sleep with the windows open as there is no traffic noise.  The down side is that there is no where to buy food or have a coffee.  The neighbourhood has shut down.  We had our last coffee with our remaining open cafe (called bar in Italy) on Saturday.  Like drowning people swimming towards whatever looks bouyant we had been changing bars every week for a month as our local closed down, then our next favorite closed down.  Now we are left with a choice of a bar run by non Italians (almost unheard of here in Rome.  In Australian terms it is like drinking beer made by Americans) or one run by an eighty five year old woman who takes so long to make your morning coffee its cold by the time you get it.   We are left to our own devices and must make our morning coffee ourselves.  The time honored tradition of going to a bar for our cappucino and breakfast brioche has come to a halt as everyone has left town.

There are some advantages to living in a city that has been deserted by most of its inhabitants though.  You can drive anywhere in half the time.  The city can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace without having to queue or be jostled the minute you want to stop and look at something.  Everything moves slowly in the heat.  Even the river flows gently.  And one is left to enjoy the monuments, museums, parks, squares in silent, spacious splendour.

Photographs by A. Verhagen

Spring has sprung in Italy

Spring in Italy is a soft, sucking kind of thing, full of moist greeness where ever you go.  Its like a great green monster exploded and her guts are everywhere, interspersed with delicate flowers, just so the colur green can be even more appreciated.  I come from a country that hardly ever sees the colour green.  And when it does, it is a grey green, not a pungent lime green, not a deep sea green, not a green so bright that it hurts my eyes to look at, and certainly not a green that has such an infinite variety of shades and textures.  I can stare at it for hours.

Just a few weeks ago it seems, twigs were on display, bare patches of sky seen between sterile brown branches.  Within such a short space of time it seems now to have been replaced by new life, new growth.  Waving, swaying fronds blot out the sky and provide luxurious, sea colored shade over a carpet of wild flowers designed especially to set off the verdant grass, by being white.  Italy does Spring in line with its culture, elegantly, luxuriously, and showing everything off to its best advantage.

Its hard to imagine that, in a country that does cities so well, that has a population of 65 million, most of whom live in close proximity enclosed in a thin peninsula, this country could also do nature so well.  But it does.  Like French women who always know how to use a scarf to offset everything to its best advantage, Italians know how to use contrast to its best advantage.  Proscuitto and mozzarella, Dolce & Gabbana, Ferrari and Fiat just to name a few, they know how to combine things to the best advantage for both of them.  It is partly why, I tell myself, they all live in apartments, one on top of each other, even in small country towns where they could, in theory, spread out and live one family per one peice of earth.  They always choose however to build, live in, and buy properties that have the opportunity for housing at least one or two other families in them.  Maybe the fact they always seem to choose the top of hills to live on partly accounts for it, but mostly I think it is because a town is a town and the country is the country.  Neither of the two should meet otherwise the spectacular contrast will be lost.   There should not be, for example, any opportunity for foilage to make its way into a town, no naturestrips, gardens, or trees.  It should all be made of stone or cement with the odd flower pot allowed on a balcony.  And, as there is little evidence of nature in towns, there should be little evidence of people in nature.

Which is why, only a short distance out of Rome, you can be in the middle of the most beautiful untouched parts of nature, complete with cows walking unhindered across your path.  Italy still has wild boar, wolves and horses, in short wild animals.  Roaming around.  Not miles away from civilisation but an hours drive from Rome.    I have been trained from youth to deal with deadly creatures that can kill me by stealth.  I know to make lots of noise when walking in long grass (to scare away poisonous snakes), to not sit on bare ground (to avoid being bitten by giant stinging ants), to not touch anything when outside (to avoid being bitten by poisonous spiders that hide in foilage, under the ground, in swimming pools, on toilet seats, in shoes, in short in anything that they think they can get their hands on you by), you get the picture.  However I am completely  unprepared for animals that may not be poisonous but whose danger is that they could be bigger than me.  Maybe that is why the Italians all live so close together.

It is not only between town and country but within nature itself that Italy recreates this spectacular technique of using contrast.  Amongst the soft, sucking green of new nature, sap rising, and foilage bursting out of every place, there is blossum.  Just one tree.  Like sugar dusting on the Pandoro (the Italian Christmas cake).  It provides a sharp contrast and says “look at me”.  “Look how clean and white I am amidst all this fertile decadence, look how special I am.  Look from me back to the rest and notice how special we all are.”