Bonjour Paris – Champs, Metro, Musee et des Macarons

Returning to Paris after 3 years away has been a really interesting experience. I mentioned in the Lyon posts previously how comfortable we feel in France generally, but returning to the familiar Canal area of Paris has been wonderful.image

We were determined to try and get our previous apartment – such a funky mix of styles, comfortable and most importantly close to the best Boulangerie in Paris “du Pain Et Des Idees” and really close to metro stations and a bunch of great restaurants.image

Sadly this will probably be our last stay here, as our hosts are thinking of selling up and moving to Spain (…so how much would a pair of apartments in Paris cost us Jo????) which is a real shame but I guess memories will have to do (…no, seriously Jo, I am ready to drop everything and move???). Speaking of memories, our first trip to Paris, first evening in the city was the perfect meal in a little restaurant around the corner called “Les Enfants Purdus” and we decided not to go back, our memory of that meal is perfect, and we do not want to sully it with another visit. Read more »

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Lyon – Pain, Fromage et Vin

It is a difficult thing to talk about French places without talking about bread, cheese and wine. These above all else seem integral to the way French people live their lives. We came to Lyon because it is said to be the gastronomic centre of France but we really did not know what to expect.image

Much of our research suggested that offal (those squidgey secondary cuts of meat that both Jo and I are a little squirly about) was the main plat du jour but, thankfully, that has not been our experience.image

It is a rare treat to stroll through a morning produce market on the banks of the Rhone, noticing the staggering number of types of cheeses, breads, sausison (a sort of French salami) and cuts of meat. Confronting to walk past a tripier, a butcher that specialises in offal, and comforting to sort through mounds of fresh asparagus (white asparagus is prized here, not sure why as I think the green tastes nicer but my palette is not French, so go figure) in the peak of season, surrounded by an abundance of spring veg all locally grown. Read more »

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Lyon – Place and Space

After a late evening flight from Santorini to Athens, and a strategically brilliant night sleep in the airport Sofitel, we emerged bright eyed and bushy tailed (ie. shagged and fragged) for our flight to Lyon. The flight was uneventful (even though people had said Aegean Air was sub-par we found it a very smooth ride and oddly plenty of legroom).image

On arriving in Lyon airport, we took a train/tram thing that took us into the heart of the new city. After leaving our luggage in a lockup, we set off in search of lunch and provisions for the evening. Jo had researched a foodie spot associated with Paul Bocuse, so headed for Les Halle de Lyon – a large ground floor food court selling high end food both fresh, cooked and served depending on what you wanted to do. We sat and had ‘plat de jour’ which turned out to be the most delicious chicken breast cooked in butter and then served with fresh egg pasta and a glorious mushroom sauce – totally delicious with a glass of house wine. We then searched for ingredients for dinner- a couple of confit duck legs and a baguette …… ahhh, baguettes, I will wax lyrical about food in another post.image

We walked back, much fortified and collected our luggage, then caught a metro, changed lines and ended up at Vieux Lyon station, adjacent to Cathedral St Jean, near our new digs for the stay in Lyon. Read more »

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Santorini – A World Away

Relaxed about the ferry ride – these sorts of ships go through the waves rather than over them, and consoled by the fact that there was little wind and the ocean was calm and flat, we had a good trip, albeit 8ish hours (when a plane from Athens takes 1/2 hour). image

The ship is a small suburb on the water, with multiple vehicle layers (to my amazement I saw a huge articulated semi trailer drive in front first and come out the right way round???) and passenger decks above, with cafes and seating of all types. We opted for ‘airplane type’ seats which were allocated and comfortable but you could take pot luck and commandeer one of the many bench seats as seasoned sleepers did.image

We chose to travel this way because we wanted to gain a view of Santorini from the ocean, the island is the remnants of an exploded volcano, with most of the townships on Santorini clinging perilously to terrifying cliffs on the inside of the caldera, and one of the few ways to gain an appreciation for its shape and scale is by sea.

The 8 hours seem to pass pretty quickly to our surprise, there were a couple of island stop overs along the way which were interesting. You never get used to the colour of the ocean here – such an intense aqua blue, and so clear you can see at the shore line the islands plunge down to the depths really rapidly. Read more »

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Athens – a room with a view (and some flu)

The go go go of travel and the wildly changing weather conditions had finally taken its toll on us and Jo’s sniffle turned into coughs and temperatures. Fortunately, due to some good advice (from the lovely Mrs Noisy) we broke out our travel antibiotics and we had the good sense to slow down in Athens.

Our playboy apartment was a short walk from Syntagma Square, a train line meeting point and there were lots of things to do and see in the local area so it was not a loss really.image

I was sent on food raids, found hidden kebab and gyros shops off the tourist path, pie shops (Greeks like pastry and bread) and were well sustained during the day.

On our second last day in Athens, there was something I really wanted to explore – the Archaelogical Museum, and the prospect of going solo concerned me a bit. I could see the headline now : “And that was the last she ever saw of her husband”, but with a mud map in tow, I caught a red line for a couple of stops getting me to Omonia Square and after an initial bewildering walk around the square and heading off in entirely the wrong direction (those who know me would not be surprised by this) until I ran into a street that was on my map, and realising it was the wrong side of the map.image

Once I got my bearings I was off and before too long arrived. It was open until 8, Jo said she would not start worrying until after 5 so it was all good as I casually meandered in and out of some astonishing collections of artifacts. Read more »

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Athens – It’s All Greek To Me

After a strenuous but well planned transit day from Rome, we arrived at the train station near the airport, negotiated tickets like a pro and headed to find a train luggage in tow. Our home station is Syntagma Square but the bloody Greek alphabet has s’s as sigmas, Rs as Ps, and more bizarre symbol combinations which I am told are phonetic, with sort of English under them, well, most times(ish) a shift in brain function and signs started to make sense.image

Our new digs (can’t make this shit up) is plumb between Guy Laroche and the Playboy shop in the posh part of town. 7th floor caused a heart flutter until we found a lift (well, in truth a single person carrier that both of us and our luggage just about fit, bugger the weight limitations right, they are just guidelines not laws) and were soon making sense of the apartment.image

We looked at maps, they were free and seemed to be great until we started using them to discover that only main roads were indicated – great for gross navigation, less so for finding a particular place if you only have a vague idea where you are to start with. All through this holiday, Jo had made Google maps of the areas and attractions, capturing them on the iPad so we can use them offline and they have been a lifesaver.

We were tired, it was late, we headed to the supermarket for some basic supplies (milk, butter, bread etc) then returned to the apartment to settle in. I had been feeling fluey for a couple of days and Jo had a cough we attributed to the pollution and second hand smoking we are doing being amongst natives but I was running a temperature, dosed up and after an interesting restaurant meal had an early night.

Awaking seemingly refreshed, we headed out on foot via a number of vague map directions to the Central Markets which was an eye opening experience. We needed lamb, fish and chicken, and saw chunks of each freshly slaughtered. Negotiating with market stall owners, and avoiding the slippery floors underfoot was interesting and although I think we only sort of knew what we were buying, we managed to get our meat. On to the vegie stands for staples then back to the unit to store them in larder and fridge.image

After a rest and restorative cup of tea we headed out on the metro one stop away to grab some lunch – we wanted to try both Kebabs (a skewer of spiced lamb mince bbqd wrapped in a pita with salad) and a gyros (sliced meat much like a doner kebab wrapped in a pita with chips – yeah, I know, weird hey- and salad and yoghurt and garlic sauce). Both were delicious. The pita was thick, puffy, warm and utterly yummy. I could easily do lots of them.image

Feeling suitably fed, we headed off to explore Agora – an ancient city under a part of Athens that had many periods of occupancy. We bought multi-site passes that let us into the major areas so we could do them in an order that suited us.image

The first site, called “Roman Agora” was difficult to visualise – piles of rubble, lines of column bases and neat stacks of stones earmarked for reconstruction sometime, possibly. It was originally a roman market place and you could sort of get it, temple one end, colonnades and stalls around.image

We then headed to a larger section of Agora, dating to 400BC and before, which breaks my brain. We wandered through remains of buildings, courtyards, temples and roads. We went through a reconstructed stoa (colonnaded pavilion) which now houses a museum containing some lovely pottery and lots of decapitated statues – heads seem in short supply on Greek statues it seems.

We wended our way up the gentle slope, a clearly tantalising Acropolis over our left shoulder, towards an intact temple that was first used in 428BC, converted to a Christian church in 7AD and later used to bury Protestants in the 1800s. It nestles beautifully into an olive studded hillside and is the very model of what I think of when someone says Greek temple.image

Last stop was a gravesite that had been used by many ages. Robbed artefacts were housed in a museum adjacent and showed grave goods stretching back to Egyptian times.

Tired and fluey, we returned to our accommodation for some rest and a home-cooked fish supper. Considering the micro kitchenette I think it turned out really well. On our tiny stove I managed to brown and cook the fish cutlets through, served with a Greek salad and dinner was done.

After a restless sleep and continued flu symptoms worsening for Jo we opted to move our rest day (we had one scheduled for Athens, so it was fine) so we could take it easy.

I had an outing, I was sent with a mission to locate and purchase Greek pies from a certain shop not far from us – chicken and bacon filled one and feta and spinach the other, delicious and a filling lunch.

We did go for a brief walk in the afternoon through the central gardens, emerging at the site of the first modern Olympics – a massive horseshoe shaped arena that was used first in the 1800s.image

I am not sure what sports that stadium could host as it was nearly all searing, nearly no track.

Re-entering the gardens on our way home we got a little lost and nearly joined a large and vocal political demonstration that was heading for the palace and Houses of Parliament but managed to skirt around them eventually.

We have noticed in Greece (and to an extent in Rome) that public trees in the streets are often citrus. At this time in the season they are laden with fruit and all the easy to reach ones are already picked. We found a mandarin tree, plucked a fruit, peeled it and attempted a segment – sour as anything which was annoying as it looked lovely and ripe – perhaps it is just that variety.

Lemon and garlic chicken was expertly sizzled in our micro kitchenette for dinner, with braised Mediterranean vegetables, making a yummy and satisfying meal to top of the day.

Our next day started early, as we arose, breakfasted and headed to the Metro to go one stop on the red line towards the Acropolis. We took our time, ascended the hill to be greeted with astonishing views of the hand built plateau that tops a hill – clearly they had augmented the existing hill with huge walls. Once the centre of religious life in Athens, the scale of the site is staggering, and the approach imposing.image

Many ages of development have left remnants. Some have been demolished to make way for more recent buildings, existing buildings are being painstakingly reconstructed using original and new materials (I like that you can tell the original from the new) and repaired from old attempts at restoration.image

It seems early attempts to ensure there was something spectacular atop the hill have damaged those somethings to the point where some have to be dismantled and rebuilt. Materials, science and techniques have improved and much of the Parthenon are now intact – such an awe inspiring building.image

After climbing through the entry gate (Propylaea) we wandered the plateau, amazed at the remains. I liked the side temple, (Erechtheion), I named it the temple of the perpetual headache because one of its porticos was held up atop the heads of a row of woman statues.image

It is clear this is a long term restoration project, piles of stones are catalogued awaiting their relocation and reconstruction, much of the feel of the latest buildings has already been effected but the reconstruction project has been going on for decades (Jo says it is just a giant jigsaw puzzle, why do they not just get on with it).image

On one of the long sides of the Acropolis, down hill and inset into the hill are a pair of gigantic amphitheatres – the neatest one (the Odeum of Herodes Atticus), has been tidied up and looks ready to host performances again but the other (Theatre of Dionysus) is little more than a ruin. It is clear that both Roman and Greek loved their theatre And understood acoustics because the design is nothing short of brilliant.image

We made the right decision to come early, as we were climbing down waves of tourists (yes, I know we are tourists also) were coursing uphill, selfie sticks in hand. We wended our way down the side of the Acropolis to the Acropolis museum, built specially to house and display remains of the site. Built in levels, there is an amazing array of pottery, statues and fragments (a head gallery – perhaps this is where al the heads ended up), coins and other objects used to live and pray.

I was particularly interested in the pigments, minerals fixed in solvents and still visible on some of the better preserved pieces. I did not realise that the temples on the Acropolis were once richly coloured as well as covered with scuplture. The top level of the museum showcases the top levels of decoration of the Parthenon, indicating clearly how spectacular it once was just from an adornment perspective. Deep relief sculptured panels along all sides tell many tales of victory, anguish and the involvement of gods and mythical animals.image

Of particular interest to me were the pediments – the triangular areas each end under the slab roofs. Proper statues, carved in the round as opposed to slab reliefs seems to me excessive. Even though the fronts were only ever partially visible from afar at ground level, they needed to be perfect in the eyes of the gods.

They depict a jumble of gods, legends and dazzling collections of tits and arse. Oddly, as seems to be the culture here, male statues are usually naked, female statues are usually fully clothed. The originals were transferred here, well, that which remained after a destructive Christian cleansing and centuries of trophy hunters looking for just the right thing for their front garden. Up on the Parthenon we could see fragments of the pediment statues (well, copies of bits) to give you an idea of space, place and scale.image

Some of the most precious and complete statuary from this site is funnily enough in the British Museum – apparently they said they would look after it until there was suitable display space in Athens, and now there is they are still looking after it.

Back to our apartment for a rest, we shall see what we are up to on the morrow.

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A Slice of Rome (or 7 coins in a fountain)

Roma is a varied and vibrant city with so much to offer the eager tourist and our last day was an easier day so naturally we had some simple things we wanted to do.

An early start and we were off to the Metro station, an underground train network of 2 lines that meet only at Termini, a transport centre of sorts. The metro is separate to the train, bus and tram network but you can use the same tickets for most. We had pre-purchased a day pass so were free to jump on and off as we liked.image

We headed for Vatican City, an odd (in my opinion) section of the city that is sort of like its own country. We had heard the queues can be horrendous, but we arrived pretty early (opening time) and were pretty well straight in.

This visit we planned to look at St. Peter’s Square (which turned out to be round – so I am already confused) and the Basilica.image

After a frisk and bag X-ray we were in and wandered towards the Basilica. The surrounds of the square have unusual proportions, the curved colonnades dwarf people but from a distance create the sense of a space which for many is a holy place that the Pope appears in. When we were there they were setting out sections of seating, we presume it was for the Popes audience tomorrow but we are not sure. Huge video screens and a massive sound system elevate the pontiff to rock star status, making it easier for the faithful to see and hear their leader. There was a papal stage with nice white awning and further up the building a balcony that could be used for orations.image

Although I work in a catholic school, much of the pageantry and spectacle still remains a mystery to me.

We entered the vestibule and then the basilica and were struck with the scale and ornamentation.

The space is huge, like really really big, and every surface is adorned by coloured marble, gold, statuary, pope tombs and inlay.image

One of the things I really wanted to see was Michelangelo’s “Pieta” – a single block of marble breathed into life as the tragic scene of a dead Jesus slumped over the lap of a grieving Mary (at least I think that is the subject). At its simplest it is a mum grieving her son and as such is a definitive study in posture, facial expression and composition. The artistry of this work is breathtaking – regardless of the symbology, the marble has flowing fabric, live flesh and a real sense of tragedy and despair. It was difficult to get close to this work (much like the Mona Lisa) which is a real pity, but it was stunning none the less.image

Walking around in the basilica you notice that each nook and cranny is a separate chapel, most running services but the ambience of the whole space was remarkably quiet. Each nook was elaborately decorated with either altar or tomb, the floor was marble mosaic in large geometric shapes. The morning streamed in to the auditorium elevating its grandeur and scale.

Each dome interior, and there were lots, outdid the next in terms of decoration and sheer eye candy. Gold, mosaic and fresco combined into a huge and awesome space.

The funniest things we saw were nuns and priests with selfie sticks (a modern cancer that has surely reached saturation point – we were pestered by street vendors all over Europe trying to sell us one) grinning like maniacs in front of holy relics – I can imagine the Facebook posts of “I prayed here” and the like.image

We went to the Vatican post office and bought stamps for postcards for the mothers back home and posted them in the city, we are hoping the Colosseum postcards find their way home.

After another stroll around the square we headed home for a rest, dismissing “beat the line” scalpers that came out in force in the area around the Vatican City entry, noticing to our surprise the size of the queue now waiting to get in. It is clear we did the right thing coming early.image

After lunch and a rest we decided to head out and “do the sights”, using a guided walk thing we had, taking us through “the heart of Rome” pointing out important landmarks.

The walk was really interesting, and it started in a piazza called Campo di’Fiori which, when we were there hosted the remnants of a huge open air market. In the centre of the piazza is a huge statue of a depressed hooded figure Giordano Bruno, an intellectual who was burned here for speaking his mind (the heretic!).image

We wended through old streets, visiting gelato and lolly shops, leather and jewellery shops (Jo got a lovely pair of leather gloves). We arrived in Piazza Novono, an oblong open space now with 3 fountains in it, huge gauche marble fiascos that are all very lovely but apparently this piazza was originally a racetrack – Romans loved to gamble and racing was a favourite money waster. The level of the ground is much higher than it used to be – building upon buildings; in past ages they used to flood the piazza with water to make a free pool for cooling off in the summer – viewing an archaeological dig on the side of it and seeing where the original roman floor is it is easy to imagine how flooding it would be possible.image

From here, via a convoluted but interesting set of side streets we emerged at a bustling piazza full of people listening to a brass band, behind them rose the Pantheon (not to be confused with the Parthenon in Greece). This marvel of engineering built by Hadrian in 120AD is still a working church, a service was about to get underway at the main altar when we visited (over the PA we could hear, in 7 different languages, requests for silence that were almost completely ineffective). Based under a huge vaulted dome with an open operculum (there is a central hole in the roof- open to the elements), the marble floors and elaborate carvings all around are most impressive.image

When we were there a circular patch of sunlight was working its way down the inside of the dome- just amazing. Around the inside of the cavernous space were chapels and tombs, marble and gilded wood, quite lovely. We even found the tomb of the guy (and his wife) for whom the “margherita” pizza was named – at last a pilgrimage I can relate to.image

The building was clearly mostly really old, the portico was beaten up and the columns at the front look like they have survived many a siege. What an interesting place.

From the Pantheon, we again wended our way through streets that led past the Houses of Parliament, outside which there was a noisy, flag waiving demonstration that we skirted around. They were grouped around an obelisk that apparently Augustus liberated from Egypt in 6BC.image

In the piazza on the other side of the parliament was a column that dated back to 2BC carved ornately to celebrate Marcellus’ victories – amazing to think it has been here so long.image

Continuing on with our journey, we wove among busy streets, turned a corner and were at the Trevi Fountain. Although it was closed for repair and cleaning (years of lime scale are being cleaned off), we walked over a gantry erected over the fountain and threw coins off it, even though there were signs saying not to do . There was a portly police officer mid way keeping coin tossers to one side, non coin tossers to the other. Clearly they realise people want some symbolic “we will return to Rome” memory so tolerate the behaviour. We managed to get rid of the annoying tiny change Schapelle that had accumulated, thus guaranteeing we will be back.image

From the Trevi Fountain, we wended our way towards The Spanish Steps – oddly covered in potted azaleas in full bloom. We joined couples on the steps, cuddling, canoodling and telling “selfie stick” vendors to bugger off. This was our last stop on the path before finding our way to the restaurant we had booked for dinner – a tiny 10 table place that featured modern spins on ancient roman recipes. The food and wine were delicious and we left with full tummies and empty wallets.image

Returning to our unit, we did a final pack, set the alarm for ridiculous o’clock and slept solidly. The next day was a transfer/transit day with a taxi to the train station (we could have walked, but it was early and we were still tired) and a train trip to the airport, then a little wait before boarding Aegean Airlines for the 2ish hr flight to Athens (where we also, due to the vagaries of timey-wimey wibbly wobbly, lost an hour) meaning our arrival at the unit (a maze of train and mystery alphabet street names) was late afternoon.image

After finding our apartment nestled between The Playboy shop and Guy Laroche, on the 7th floor (gasp) with a lift (huzzah), we deposited bags and headed to the supermarket for basic supplies before settling in and seeking dinner.

We have both developed coughs (we think from the pollution and second hand smoking) but mine matured into hot/cold achey flu symptoms so after some Panadol I had a relatively early night.

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Pompeii and “real” Pizza in Naples

We could have taken a tour, we know, but we decided to organise the day ourself and it turned into a corker. Having sussed out the local trains, metro and tram system, we woke early and briskly walked to the train station, taking an intercity service to Naples, going downstairs to the metropolitan station at Garibaldi and hopping on a service out to Pompeii excavations. It was a bit of travel, but interesting to see the country side contrasted with the inner city sprawl and high density living outside the city.image

Arriving at Pompeii, we successfully navigated the insistent ticket scalpers and bought entry tickets to the ruins at the gate, found free toilets and had morning tea (some crunchy ricotta filled pastries we picked up at the Rome train station supermarket- yeah, I know, weird right. Interestingly our experience of train station food in Australia is miserable, in stark contrast to the fresh and delicious food and drink offerings in Europe – when did Australians and The English stop caring about quality and value for money for travellers?) before heading off to explore.image

We entered the site, along a basalt boulder street into a bathhouse come brothel. We began to appreciate a number of things about Pompeiians – they loved life and liked to party. We saw elaborate painting, heated floors (hypocaust) and baths and bedrooms, as you would expect.image

Due to the rapid and catastrophic nature of the fall of Pompeii (a volcano called Vesuvius adjacent erupted and buried it in meters of ash – you knew that right?) and the amazing state of preservation this ancient and extensive city was afforded by the thick volcanic blanket we were blown away by how much of the city is left.image

Both Jo and I had vague understandings of the town but were amazed and surprised by how much of the working city was so well preserved. Wandering the streets, entering buildings you really got a sense that people lived, worked and played here.image

A well developed road network existed, paved streets and pedestrian walkways, when the streets got manky (markets and animals make a mess) they were sluiced clean, stepping stones allowed people to cross without getting feet or cloths dirty.image

The stepping stones were wide and low enough to allow wagon wheels between them and we saw lots of wear tracks left by well used wagon trails.image

The city had a well developed water system, delivered by aqueducts and lead pipes, using springs and cisterns to allow a relatively water lush lifestyle to evolve. Many of the houses still had the original plumbing intact.image

The city had a well developed market economy, we strolled though piazzas and courtyards that were so obviously markets and shops, vivid frescoes illustrated what was for sale (both in the food/drink markets and in the fleshpots).image

It was easy to imagine bustling food and wine vendors, we encountered marble countertops with holes to warm pots of stew and soup, amphorae to chill wine and vats for oil and vinegar.image

Religious life was clearly important as there were many temples, to all sorts of gods from discrete to monumental, in market squares, in private residences and atop hills overlooking public squares. Most the the statuary has been robbed (for Naples Archaeological Museum) and most of the ornate marble and mosaic floors and decorations have also been relocated but the traces that remain are amazing.image

We wandered main streets, back streets, in and around residences, noticing the minutiae that go to make a working city. We saw a urinary (a place were urine was collected, a tax was paid apparently and the urine was used to tan leather and it had other public works applications – how practical and icky)  and also noticed a number of plaster casts of citizens – eerie echoes of people who had collapsed, been covered in ash and decomposed leaving a skeletal air pocket that archaeologists then filled with plaster before excavating.image

One can only imagine the horror suffered by such a lot of citizens busily praying the gods would calm down but the looming Vesuvius, ever threatening even today, had other ideas. It is clear from what has been dug up that they did not stand a chance and had very little warning of the impending eruption.image

We lunched in a lovely shady garden. We had brought picnic fixings then explored beautiful and newly re-used amphitheaters and other public buildings. Looking at our maps it is evident how little of the city has so far been uncovered – it was a vast metropolis and I am sure it will keep archaeologists busy for years uncovering well preserved clues about life in the roman lifestyle.image

Imagine what would have been had the disaster not occurred. We conjectured that this city, being so centrally located in terms of trade, would have been a major modern force, giving Rome and Florence a run for their money in terms of size and importance.image

We learned about building techniques, how to save money on a roman style build- marble columns are expensive but if you make them from brick and then render them with marble dust stucco they look like marble without having to negotiate a fair price from the Carrara traders. Brick walls filled with concrete make strong buildings but few roofs survived the weighty bombardment and burial.image

By mid afternoon our feet were sore and legs tired out, so opted to return to Naples and visit the archaeological museum, our short stay let us see some of the most amazing mosaics rescued from the diggings and statuary from many places.image

I was really interested in the Roman emperors, and was surprised how flattering 2 statues of Claudius were, given my readings suggested he was a hunchback club footed cripple. Perhaps history has been kind to him as I think he, and Augustus were the best of the lot.image

Before returning to Rome, we had planned to try Napoli pizza, apparently different but the original deal and trip advisor had suggested a little pizzeria not too far from the train station so we trudged there.image

We watched as an old man delicately made the pizza and pan handled it into his wood fired oven. After a few minutes baking on the searing hot stone floor of the oven it emerged cooked to perfection.image

I have a new favourite thing – marguerita; a celebration of tomato and a small amount of mozzarella with some basil to finish – simple delicious.image

Unlike the Florentine pizza we had that was thin and crispy, the dough had a little chew and it was almost soupy in the middle – mmmmmm.image

Jo also had prosciutto on hers but we ate till we were full. I would drop everything and go back again, it was so good. Along with drinks it cost nearly nothing, the shop was not flashy and a little out of the way but wow, just wow.image

Exhausted and a little sozzled we wearily trudged back to the train station to catch our intercity back to Rome. We caught a taxi from the train station to our apartment because the though of more walking was dizzying. We arrived back just after 9pm – a huge day but wow it was interesting.

In no time we were asleep, a relatively easy day tomorrow (our “rest” day in Rome) before we fly out to Athens.image

Postscript 1: I was actually looking for the arena that Pink Floyd played live back in the 70’s, thought this might be it only to discover subsequently that a second site, named “Villa de Mysteri”, has the arena they used – still, I felt suitably close to what was an important musical event for me and a much loved album by Winston O’Boogie and myself (waves to Michael).

Postscript 2: Generally I blog about the day before, so the blog is usually a day late in terms of when we actually do it, if that make sense. This post, for instance, has been the result of a lazy lunch and a third of a bottle of chianti (well, I cannot travel with it and it would be a shame to waste it, and it goes so well with the lunch…). Often it will post the words before I have vetted and edited the photos. My iPad client will not let me post full sized photos so I have invented a rather torturous but successful workflow for cropping / resizing that works but miss my full computer and its file system.

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A Colossal thing happened on the way to the Forum

After a welcome night sleep on a wonderfully comfortable bed we breakfasted and headed out down the road to the Flavian Amphitheater (literally our home base is on the road that leads to it, 5-10 minute stroll).image

Getting there we also walked past the recently excavated section of an adjacent Ludus – a gladiator school, which was connected to the arena by an underground passage. The story goes that there was once a “colossal” bronze statue of Nero outside, the stadium complex inherited the name “Collos-aem” or Coloseum more modernly.image

You do not get a real feel for the colossal scale of the building until you are up close and personal, on one side much of the original outside facade exists (minus the marble and Travertine stone cladding) not on the other most of the outer wall, which had collapsed in the Middle Ages, has been robbed out and forms building materials for many buildings all over Italy.image

We had a guided tour booked and our first challenge was identifying which queue to join to exchange the Internet voucher for tickets, once inside the bottom level a further challenge to find the appropriate ticket office – there were signs, they did not correspond to the function of each window which we were supposed to be able to work out, apparently.image

Armed with tickets and tour stickers we had a small amount of time to browse before our scheduled meeting so wandered the structure in awe, mouth open, more amazed with each twist and turn. We noticed that all the pillars (the structure is a collection of pillars and arches – Romans really perfected these) were pockmarked with holes at major stone junctures – apparently originally most of the stoned in the pillars and some arches were further secured with iron clamps and in the Middle Ages these clamps were robbed as iron was valuable. The resulting instability lead to many collapses and continues to be a challenge for conservators today.image

Inside the stadium you get the sense of the raked seating, 5 or more levels of it. The lower marble levels reserved for the bottoms of rich folk (even a supposed place where they thought the royal box was) leading to the higher seats, wood bleachers, designed for women and poor people. It seems the social class stratification started here.image

The arena floor, now a tangled maze of stone tunnels once was covered by a wooden stage, then covered with sand. You get a very real sense of the brutal spectacles that took place here and the howling mob craving more and more violent blood letting.image

Our tour took us onto the partially re-constructed stage level – from here looking up I can only imagine the terror of contestants battling for their lives for the pleasure of a screaming public. They had also re-constructed a sample trapdoor – as part of the arena stage spectacular, combatants, wild animals and scenery “magically” appeared through a series of 60+ trapdoors and ramps built in to the floor. You do not credit such genius stage mechanics with something so ancient but if you can get past the blood and guts it must have seen many astonishing shows. Certainly all of the emperors, mad or otherwise, loved a good show and their citizens were dying to be in them. Something tells me also that working “backstage” would not be something anyone would have chosen as a career, but I guess it was better than starring in the show.image

We then went below stage level to the stone corridors and tunnels under the arena. When this was a working building this must have been an horrific place to be. Teams of 8 slaves manned floor mounted winches that did the moving and shaking of cages and traps, animal transport and corpse remains schlurping. It was dark, labrinthal and must have smelt putrid – so much so that apparently above ground slaves would splash perfume around for the pleasure of the expensive seats close to the arenaimage

There are, apparently, anecdotal records of earlier under-arena structures made of demountable wood. There are records of the arena being flooded with water and symbolic mock naval battles taking place inside- a number of historical writers mention this but there is no archeological evidence to support it.image

After exploring the “bowels” of the building, we climbed up to the second level and then the third- an amazing viewpoint that seemed to dwarf the stage. We were told of a 100 day spectacle where 6000 animals and countless people were brutalised for entertainment. At the end of the tour we wandered for a while (again with our mouths open) then returned to our apartment for a welcome sit down and some lunch.image

After lunch we returned to the general area we had spent the morning, it is just down the road from us. We walked around the Coloseum towards Palantine Hill- the home of roman emperors. Up the hill and we were amongst substantial remains of houses, piazzas, temples, gardens and more. image

For me, so many names sprang to mind, Augustus’s house, Livia’s garden and private temple, Tiberius’s apartments, Claudius’s Library and Caligula’s palace – all still present, some in remarkable condition, most complete enough to get a sense of the space and purpose of the parts of each building.image

We strolled through recreated gardens, on original surface pavements and were generally overwhelmed by the place.image

We refilled our water bottles from a bubbler that would have originally been fed by an aqueduct through lead pipes, found viewpoints that showcased the Coloseum and below us the Forum and associated buildings and noticed remnants of wall plaster decorations and mosaic floors. You can see clearly why the nobility chose this area as a residence far from the madding crowd – one side of the hill you had the sports arena that was the Coloseum and the other side of the hill was the clearly visible remains of Circus Maximus – the chariot race track that was one of Augustus’s favourite time wasters and must have been awesome in its day.image

When we had had our fill of Palantine Hill, we followed one of the oldest roads that exist still in the original surface (now a fairly rough basalt boulder street, made difficult to walk on by tree roots, earthquakes and a vast amount of time). The road wends its way down from Palantine hill, past temples, basilicas, public works buildings, fountains, gardens and springs, towards the forum.image

The area is littered with marble column bases, laying out rectangular building blueprints and stray beautiful marble fragments left after robbing. Romans are a practical lot and when this area was abandoned (the aqueducts were breached, residents fled almost completely as siege after siege finally spelt an end of an empire), materials that were valuable (marble, bronze etc) became part of other building projects, reducing the cost of having to mill from scratch.image

What was left was a confusing jumble of columns, carved marble decorations, arch fragments from once great basilicas and ancient annexes to more recent churches, Christian and pagan iconography, statues in various states of dismemberment and this jumble came from a really long time in history because the area was used for such a long time. I am not sure how you could better show it off as the combination of signage, audio guides and spoken tours made it a bewilderment of history amongst a microcosm of madness and excess.image

The area in the lower section deteriorated into a jumble of remains and column bases and our feet and legs were in worse shape. Walking on hard uneven stone is hard work, worse on our legs, knees and feet. We reached “ruin overload” or as we prefer to call it, we got “ruined” so decided to head for a restorative gelato at a niche gelato shop called ‘Fatamorgana’ that specialises in ‘odd’ flavour combinations, but our choices were nothing short of delicious, providing the rejuvenating fuel necessary to get home.image

A simple dinner of mushroom tortellini with a fresh tomato sauce, accompanied by some wine we had picked up the previous day was a perfect end to a ruinous day.image

Early to bed because we have a huge day tomorrow in Naples and beyond

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Pisa (it’s just a tilt to the left) and on to Roma

imageAfter a lovely rest day in Lucca, we reluctantly packed, slept solidly and awoke for a dreaded transfer.image

We say dreaded because they are hard work – our suitcases are awkward up and down stairs, in and out of trains and we had a bit of that to do. We called a taxi and in broken italian managed to explain where we were and that we wanted to go to the train station.image

On time he arrived, helped us in the rain get the bags in and headed off. In nearly no time (or money) we were at the train station.image



We opted for a regional service to Pisa, they are cheap, reliable(ish) and we managed to purchase tickets from a machine so all was ok. I think we were probably rude in that we stacked our suitcases but there was no where really that offered an option. Arriving at Pisa Centrale we found “left luggage” and stowed both suitcases and the biggest backpack, opting to travel light to the Tower.image

From the train station, we took an easy to find local bus to the site of the tower and began the ritual of taking photographs that each were more amazing than the next – you approach the tower by walking a piazza that starts at the Baptistry and right away something about the Baptistry seems not quite “right”.image

Pisa subsoil is very wet apparently, foundations are a problem and the lovely domed Baptistry has a slight lean on it when referenced by the adjacent cathedral which seems to have spread its weight a little more evenly over its foundations. The leaning side of the Baptistry has a lighter roof (zinc or lead) than the other side (terracotta)image

Walking further along the Tower, which is actually supposed to be just the bell tower for the Cathedral but has taken on a life of its own, pokes its head around the far end of the Cathedral. The closer you get the more eccentric the lean becomes and the more hilarious the tourists are also. Taking a photo trying to “hold up the tower” seems something we need to do. It is almost more entertaining watching people do it but we moved on towards the tower.

Originally we had decided not to climb. Since the year our legs broke, Jo has has an uncontrollable irrational fear of slippery surfaces and all research suggested the way up the tower was bannister-less marble. Given our recent escapades up towers of all shapes, sizes and difficulties, the 400 steps of the leaning tower seemed simple, so we headed off to buy tickets and stow our backpack (no bags allowed in the tower).

Managing to secure tickets that let us climb at 10, we headed off the a cafe for breakfast – deliciousa italian hot chocolate and jam-filled croissants. Suitably fortified, we girded our loins, joined the then short 10 o’clock climb line and waited as the sky lightened and the sun fought to come from behind the clouds. Although it had been raining that morning in Lucca, it had stopped by the time we reached Pisa and continued to fine up for the rest of the day.image

When our group was let in we were briefed on history of architect, design and phases of building. Apparently by the first few levels it had started to tilt, architects resigned citing the building an embarrassing mistake only to be resumed later. Adding the heavy bells (oddly the heaviest bells are on the lean side – madness) the tower was complete and continued to lean more eccentrically until it was closed as a hazard.

Relatively recently, structural engineers have slowed the towers lean, reworking the foundations but it is nuts and looks like it will fall over any moment. The tilt it so eccentric that when you climb the steps there are sections where although you are walking up steps, you are nearly getting lower, more obvious on the way down where down steps go uphill. It is a little twisty Turney and you get a little seasick as you climb the stairs that run the outside skin of the hollow tower.image

The view from the top is is wonderful, panoramas of Pisa, the people,on the ground look like models, all contorting while others photograph them helping to hold up,the tower.

We visited the cathedral, a grand and beautifully decorated church and were once again reminded of how these old churches seem to dwarf people, their scale seems to render us unimportant. The roofs were richly decorated as were the altars, niches and other associated parts of a working church.image

Returning by bus to the Pisa train station, we bought a warm drink (and got free wifi for doing that) then retrieved suitcases and found the correct platform for our train to Rome. Our experience of italian trains is that they arrive but so far never on time (retardo 10′ to ’25 meaning 10 to 25 minutes late). We has 2nd class tickets, heaved our bags aboard and collapsed into our seats for a 2ish hour journey to Roma. We both dozed, it is tiring being tourists when you want to,see lots and experience as much as you can in the time away.

Arriving in the late afternoon in Rome, a taxi ride to our apartment, home for the next 4 nights. We were greeted by our host, shown around and given maps and local advice, then we set off in search of the supermarket for supplies and the makings for dinner. We had picked up a fantastic jar of pesto while on the Liguarian Coast and decided simply to toss that through some fresh egg pasta, a deliciousa dinner.image

After dark we set off again, just for a walk around this section of Rome, first stop the Coloseum lit at night in very dramatic ways. We will tour the building as part of a tour we pre-purchased off the internet but seeing the scale and majesty of the building at night was breathtaking. image

We then made a pilgrimage to a gelataria for a frozen fix- properly made the fruit gelato here is simply delicious, with such variety in flavour we are continually spoilt for choice.image

Tomorrow we begin our touring of Ancient Rome – a couple of ruins exploring ancient ruins, we are looking forward to it.

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