Category Archives: Travelling in Europe

Things I saw in Rome

It was a Wednesday evening when I found myself, around 10pm, after a great multi-course Italian dinner, sipping red wine beside a fountain in a square in Rome. I think I’m still trying to get my head around the idea.

I was in Rome for meetings, which took up most of the time I was there – a little sadly, as the days we sat in the meeting room were gloriously sunny. By Friday afternoon, however, we were done and, after the best spaghetti carbonara ever, a few of us headed off to do some walking.

It was great to be exploring with others. Instead of concentrating on where I was going, I could relax and follow someone else’s lead. We headed first, taking the Metro (which is worse than the one in Paris), towards the Vatican. From the Metro stop, we walked along a little road until we reached the imposing Vatican wall. One of the people I was with was determined to stop at what she had been told was the best Gelato shop (Gelateria) in Rome. Nutella Gelato. Try it. Seriously.

And then to the Vatican. With such an incredibly short time to see all of Rome (a day and a half), there was not time to go into places like the Vatican Museum. Instead, the plan was to wander around and simply look at things. I couldn’t have been happier. We entered Piazza San Pietro. The queues for the museum snaked around the corner. The fountains sparkled gloriously in the afternoon sun. Chairs had been set up beside the obelisk, ready for the Palm Sunday service. Around the edges, saints looked down from above the many, many pillars. Like so much of Rome, it is difficult to describe the grandeur and sense of history and amazement. It almost seems silly to try to put a description into words.

We walked on, heading, without any particular intention towards the Castel Sant’Angelo, a magnificent building surrounded by plenty of statues of angels. It is also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian and was constructed at the commission of Roman Emperor Hadrian on the right bank of the Tiber River between 130 and 139 AD.

My knowledge of Roman history is extremely limited, my studies having focused on modern history rather than classics. Yet the name Tiber has a particular resonance thanks to a book by my favourite author, Ursula Le Guin. The book is called Lavinia. It is set in Italy before Rome was Rome and it brings to life the voice of a girl mentioned only as the king’s daughter in The Aeneid. It’s a beautifully written book and Le Guin’s attention to detail creates a wonderfully eerie sense of this river flowing through time.

We passed on past sellers of books and curios and past what we thought probably wasn’t the Museo delle Anime del Purgatorio, which it seemed to be from one of our guidebooks. This macabre museum apparently contains a collection of “hand- and fingerprints left on prayer books and clothes of the living by dead loved ones, to request masses to release their souls from purgatory”. Actually – now that I’ve done a little more research, we were looking at the detailed, ornate and very impressive Palace of Justice.

Across a bridge and a stroll away from the river, we found ourselves in side-alleys, lined with tiny shops and bars and restaurants and set between tall, old buildings. Boutiques neighboured book stores and bars (my favourite called “Draft Book”). Down a side alley, a little restaurant sat beside an art shop, with paintings hanging and standing on the sidewalk. Scooters and cars and bicycles eased their way along the streets, forcing us to hug the walls. The colours and the shops and the building shapes fitted so perfectly to the winding alleys were so clearly what all those “Italian-style housing” developers are trying so miserably to copy, what Monte Casino would be like if it wasn’t fake and gaudy.

The bright sunlight was beginning to fade and one of our group headed back to her lodgings in Trastevere. We considered going that way but instead decided to wind a slow gentle path past several major tourist attractions before heading back down towards our hotel near the Colosseo (Coliseum).

Our first stop was the Piazza Navona. This piazza has two great fountains, one of which is Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers. Both have incredible detail and if, like me, you’re a sucker for fountains, this will take your breath away. The piazza wasn’t quiet. A group of musicians was setting to perform. An Indian man (perhaps a holy man, perhaps a con-man) was floating in the air above his mat, with a thick stick in in one hand. A young man was using spray paint and fire to create art (which appeared less dangerous than it sounds). A comedian or magician was entertaining a crowd. At a desk, an artist sat sketching with intense concentration. We eased our way through the crowds and moved on.

We reached the Parthenon as the sun was beginning to slide towards the horizon. This incredible spot had been recommended to me by friends who visited Rome last year. It is incredible. From the soaring pillars around the entrance to the domed and decorated ceiling and the stunning marble floors, the building itself is impressive. In addition, the historical artefacts, the sacred statues, the alter and the tombs need far more time than we had to enjoy. Unfortunately, perhaps particularly at this time of day, there were many people there, most of them, sadly, talking at the top of their voices (in spite of the signs and the regularly repeated announcements requesting silence) and taking happy-snaps of themselves in awkward positions that made it difficult to look at anything without stepping into a photograph. Still, it was fantastic and if I ever return to Rome, this will be the first spot I visit.

We worked our way through the crowds, narrowly avoiding the “roman soldiers” offering horse-and-cart rides and pictures in costume. Not far from the Pantheon, we entered a little square and found two people creating giant bubbles that floated across the square and burst on a wall of giant columns cemented into the side of a building. From there we wandered on, past official-looking buildings until we came to another square and another famous fountain.

Trevi Fountain is a staple of Rome and certainly popular – the crowds here were even heavier than at the previous spots. The fountain itself is gorgeous. The water so blue, the design so beautiful and everyone finding a chance to throw a coin in the fountain guaranteeing, according to legend, that they will one day return to Rome.

From Trevi Fountain, we turned north and walked through some more up-market, clearly trendy areas. The sun had still not completely set when we reached the Spanish Steps. The guidebook we were using seemed to suggest that the construction of the steps was a (successful) attempt to stop the French and the Spanish from fighting each other. It remains unclear how. It also contained the more useful information that the steps should more accurately be called the French steps as they were paid for by a French diplomat who objected to the muddy slope that led up to the church that had been built with money from a French king. To the right, adding a little British flavour to the mix is the Keats-Shelley Museum. There were plenty of people on the steps, including very determined rose sellers and young boys selling beers, but they were still lovely, particularly with the setting sun catching the Trinita dei Monti church and painting it a gentle sunset pink.

We walked up the steps and, after enjoying the view, started to head back. On our way, we passed through what must be a business district, complete with big bank offices. Up a hill, through a dip and we found ourselves back at Santa Maria Maggiore, the church near to our little hotel. It says something about how quickly one becomes at least a little bit accustomed to living in the shadow of history, that this beautiful fifth century church became more of a navigational tool for us than a tourist spot. She remains one of the most beautiful churches I saw in Rome, however. I’m sad I never got the chance to go inside.

The moon had come up and the evening was beautiful. Those of us not flying out early the next day wound our way to a little street-cafe and spent a delightful evening chatting and enjoying Italian food and wine.

Paris to Rome

A week ago, I woke up in Paris. The idea still makes me smile. I did some work and got organised, then headed down the precarious steps to check out. A quick breakfast of coffee and croissant (and sadness that I can’t do this every day). It had rained in the night and the morning was fresh. It felt more like a European city than the sunshine of the previous day. It was really pretty. I headed off to the meeting that was the official reason I was in Paris. The meeting ended sooner than expected and rather than remain at the office, especially as I had gotten a lot of work done that morning, I headed out again to enjoy Paris just a little bit longer.

I planned just to sit along the marina and enjoy the view, but I found myself walking back towards Notre Dame. I walked along the river, along the Seine, thinking about the history and the way people must have lived in those buildings and the people who lived and who live in those beautiful attic windows.

I didn’t go as far as the Notre Dame – it looked a little dusty and windy, so I decided just to enjoy it from a distance. Instead, I spent a happy 20 minutes picking out souvenirs. Yes, I realise that is terribly touristy but it’s one of the things I really enjoy about travel, choosing something to bring home. Besides, I wanted to remember Paris. My thought over coffee that morning had been that Paris seems an eminently liveable city. I could live here. Not something I normally say about anywhere outside of Africa, and a feeling that should be tempered by what I know about how expensive Paris really is. Still.

I walked back past the Hotel de Ville and along the river. Far below, beside the water, an old man and an old woman sat in garden chairs, she with an umbrella in case it should rain. On the ground between them was bottle of red wine. Oh, to grow old in a city as beautiful and convenient and bohemian as Paris.

The receptionist at the hotel, when I picked up my bags, looked a bit perturbed when I refused her offer to call a cab and instead said I would take the subway back out to the airport, but I had directions from a colleague in the Paris office, so I ignored her dismay. Into the Metro, where a very business-like woman helped me to buy a ticket – I didn’t really need help but I’d gone to the window instead of the machines, where apparently, which I didn’t know, it was only possible to use a card not cash, so she clearly felt I needed to be assisted all the way through the process on the now-English language machine.

Ticket in hand, I set off on the trek to find the right platform. The trains here worry me just a little, with enough light in the tunnel to show the expose wiring and the open doors providing a clear view of the lurching twists in the track and the run-down 70s decor. Such a contrast with the Gautrain. Just a few stops and then a train to the airport. Out of the window, I caught a flash of an old stone building with beautiful flowering wisteria around the wooden, top floor windows.

At the airport, I set off through the maze of passages and eventually found my terminal/gate and settled down with a delicious baguette, trying to ignore the soldiers with large guns who were, for some reason, patrolling the airport. Automatic check-in machines, find the right counter, through security and wander towards the gate. The airport – well, at least the bit I was in with the flights to  Europe, was crowded with people. Small children ran around, parents looked harassed and business travellers looked long-suffering.

photo (765x1024)I was flying to Rome. This was only my second trip ever to Europe. It felt so odd not only to have had the opportunity to explore Paris but now to be heading off to another European capital that has existed, for me, only in stories and pictures. I boarded the plane, realising with a sigh that the person in the seat next to me was a very small (admittedly cute) little girl with brown curly hair and
green, green eyes. Her vociferous objection to the seatbelt subsided once we’d taken off and I settled down to read. A little while later, I looked up and glanced out of my window. Far below, as far as they eye could see, were soaring mountain peaks, white with snow.

We land in Rome and the pilot makes the usual “Please remain in your seats” request. Before we’ve even come to a stop, everyone is up and out of their seats. I let them go – I was in no hurry.

Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci Airport of Rome. Another airport with poor directions and miles and miles to walk. I eventually found the baggage reclaim and then found myself wandering another good 10 minutes to find the train station. I asked for a ticket for Leonardo Express. The woman at the counter took pity on me and said there is a shuttle bus (mini-bus) leaving immediately. I just reached the shuttle in time and sit back, barely noticing the city as we headed towards Rome.

I got out at Termini, the main train station in Rome. The hotel would be nearby but I was nervous of getting lost – I have even less Italian than French and I didn’t trust the map I’ve been sent. The taxi driver I approach, however, was adamant that the place was just 400m up the road. Which is how I found myself lost in Rome with my all bags, at 10 o’clock at night, trying to figure out how I had accidentally misplaced a large, stone church that was supposed to be my landmark.

After wandering around for a while, I spotted some taxis (sitting, as it turns out, in the shadow of the church) and went up to them, determined this time to take a cab. The driver looked at me with pity and pointed to the hotel, across the road and a few buildings up the street.

The man at the hotel handed me the key to room 52 and cheerfully informed me that it was four floors up and no, there was no lift. I was too tired to argue. Not that I’m complaining now – in fact, it was the perfect option – I got to stay in one of those beautiful attic rooms, with double-door shutters opening onto a gorgeous rooftop in Rome.

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Paris in Springtime – A day in Paris, Part 2

From the Hotel de Ville, past a merry-go-round, ducking and dodging between tour buses, hurried traffic and far too many tourists, I headed back towards Sainte-Chapelle (which is on the same island as the Notre Dame), glimpsing the flower market (Marche Aux Fleurs) along the way. Had there been more time, I may have decided at this point to stop and visit these incredible places properly but with only one day, I pressed on.

Across the river, again, I found myself in the St Michel area and for the rest of the day had “Where do you go to my lovely” playing softly in my mind. A bookshop nearly lured me in. A cafe seemed too full to contemplate. Families and pigeons sat on the square across the road. I should probably, at this point, have taken the Metro the rest of the way to my destination but it was so pretty and the sun was shining and I didn’t want to miss anything. The walk along the river was a long one. By the time I found myself opposite the Musée d’Orsay, I was tired, but there didn’t seem to be anything to do but to go on. And, to be fair, there were magical things along the way that I would have missed, had I taken the Metro.

Like the book-sellers. Imagine living in a city where all along the river are people selling second-hand books. And not silly tawdry romances, but real books: poetry and philosophy and beautiful novels. Some of them were also selling paintings and sketches of Paris. A few stood with their Easels. Stop to wonder at the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of love-locks affixed to the bridge at Pont des Arts . Enjoy, disproportionately, the picture of Parisians picnicking along the Seine with cheese and bread and wine. Marvel at the Pont Alexandre III bridge, with its cherubs and nymphs and winged horses and its gilt-bronze shining in the sunshine.

By this stage, I was fairly exhausted but not long after I spotted the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The Eiffel Tower really is quite spectacular. Of course, crowded, with so many tourists taking pictures and queuing for tickets to go up the tower or buying curios. I wandered beneath the tower and into the gardens beyond, past a group of French teenagers surreptitiously drinking beer and settled on the grass to enjoy the view.

After resting for a while, with pictures of the great Eiffel Tower, I decided to head back. I was planning to find the first Metro station and catch it back or to take a boat, but I got distracted – too much to see. I crossed the river and walked back instead. Enjoying so much the avenues of spring-green trees and the incredible buildings.

Paris was still being ridiculously beautiful in spring when I turned into Jardin des Tuileries. The Gardens are persons some of my favourite highlights of this day in Paris. Comfortable-looking metal armchairs and decorative benches ranged around lawns decorated with statues. A boy sat hunched over listening to music. Another read a plain-coloured old-looking book with red-edged pages. A man sat sketching what he saw. I walked past and along the main walk. Around every pond and fountain and lawn were gathered Parisians enjoying the sun and reading or drawing or chatting on a random Monday afternoon. I had a moment of wondering if no-one in this city every works but truly it was a picture of a city committed to enjoying and appreciating the beautiful, the artistic and the springtime. Everything was spring-green leaves and flowers and blossoms and birds.

Beyond the statues and lawns and a small maze, I came to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel built by Napoleon. This is not the main Arc de Triomphe but still manages to be fairly impressive with its pink marble columns, its facade and figures, its gilt statues on top and the bas-reliefs.

Paris and Rome 242

Beyond the arch, is the Louvre, with the Grand Pyramide outside. The Louvre is definitely not at the top of my list to see (sorry art people – not my kind of attraction), although I may have visited it had I had more time in Paris. Instead, I finally found a Metro station (with ticket bought from a newsstand outside) and headed back to my hotel.

That evening, I headed out to find dinner. I know plenty of people who, especially when travelling for work, will not spend money dining out. I take the opposite view – when will I get the chance to go out to dinner in Paris again, after all? Bastille, where I was staying, is packed with fascinating little restaurants from French and Italian to Japanese, Laos/Thai, South Korean and Irish. I wandered around for a while, just taking it all in. Then I headed across the intersection where there were even more places to eat. I was most attracted by French Bistro-type restaurants. I passed one that seemed to focus on mussels and, helpfully, had English descriptions. A little more walking and I was ready to eat. I went back to the place with the mussels. It’s called Leon de Bruxelles. I ordered the mussels in mushrooms and cream. The waiter brought me a really nice glass of good, dry rose and I sat sipping it while I waited. In no time at all, the owner brought out a good-sized, steaming potjie pot of the best mussels of my life. Perfectly cooked in a delightfully flavoursome and delicate sauce, with firm mushrooms and a touch of freshness added by fresh celery. Magical.

Delicious Moules

I headed by to my hotel, exhausted after the long flight and the long day of exploring and having fallen just a little bit in love with Paris.