Monthly Archives: July 2013

Day trippers

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With the luxury of a month in Rome, it seemed that a day or two out of the city might be a good idea.  So we scanned the 200 Day Trips App, and chose Orvieto.  We then heard from a friend that he and his wife had loved this place, so figured we were on the right track.  The fact it was only about a €7.50 one-hour train ride from Rome was a real advantage.

The major effort was in fact getting up early (yawn), getting to the train station, and finding the train itself (at the far reaches of the station, considerably adding to our km tally for the day).  Orvieto itself was a breeze.  It is an old town, perched on the top of a rocky hill, reached by a funicular (or for those of you who are in Wellington, a cable car similar to ours).  We got there early, thankfully, because it meant that for just a few blissful minutes, we were free of tour bus groups.

The town itself was charming – one of those old, Umbrian/Tuscan hill towns built out of stone centuries ago, with window boxes and winding streets, and a lovely tree-lined street heading into the town.  These are the towns you think of when you think of Italy.  I know the travel-writing rules state you should never use the word “charming” but I have to in this case.  Because I feel a little in love with Orvieto, and it took me back to our first Italian trip 15 years ago, when we explored Spoleto, Assisi, San Gimigniano and Volterra, to name just our favourites.

Orvieto was cooler than Rome by several degrees – blissfully so in fact.  It made sightseeing easy, and as we had decided we weren’t going to rush around seeing all the sights, we felt very relaxed.  The cathedral is the key attraction, dominating its large piazza, but entrancing because of its decoration –mosaics, and some gruesome figures outside, and stunning Signorelli frescoes of the Apocalypse in the chapel (where unfortunately we were not supposed to photograph anything).

We broke our rule about tourist traps, and decided to have lunch in the square looking onto the cathedral, but at a wine bar rather than café.  So the fare was rather plain, but the wine was in fact very enjoyable.  Orvieto is known for its white wines, and we ordered a “superiore” wine from their list of Orvieto Classico wines (on the advice of the waitress).  So if I sound surprised that the wine was good, it is because I was, previously having had a rather poor relationship with Italian white wines (the occasional Vermentino excepted).

We couldn’t muster enthusiasm over a museum, and whilst we were somewhat attracted to exploration of the caves the timing of the tours wasn’t ideal, so instead we simply explored the streets of the town.  And in doing so, we found some places and views that reminded me just how beautiful Italy can be.

Feel like taking a stroll through Orvieto?  Only sorry I can’t provide you with the “limone” gelato.  It was to die for.

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Duck!

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We are, quite simply too tall for Italy. We have to dip our heads going up and down the stairs to our bedroom and bathroom. Clearance is less than 1.7 metres! (Until you get to the top of the stairs, when clearance is even lower jutting out over half the stairway.) Likewise, the staircase to the laundry has an even lower clearance. It’s hazardous negotiating the stairs at night, holding the laundry, trying to turn off the light, and remembering to duck. Once I forgot. Did I mention the stairs are concrete? Ouch.

Our apartment is described in airbnb as a torretta – the tower bit is actually the laundry, shared with two other apartments. But our bedroom is still in the roof-line  and it slopes down to the sides, quite low, with beams, even lower. I can sit up safely on the bed, but can’t stand straight up. Of course, the first day we hit our heads several times. Then I had a week or two free, then bashed my head on the beam the other day. I am being extra-cautious now. And I have to admit to a few close shaves too.

Okay, that’s our heads taken care of. Ouch again. But it doesn’t finish there – the stairs are steep and the steps are narrow, built for smaller feet than ours. We ascend (remembering to duck – mostly), with relative ease. We descend much more carefully, coming down sideways, because that’s the only way our feet fit. We descend as if we were children, leading with the same foot –  left foot down, right foot meets it, left foot down, right foot joins it, left foot down, etc.  

However, I don’t want to complain, because our next stop may be even worse.  

Papa

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Well, we’re in Rome, and it was Sunday, and it was the only Sunday in July we could do this, because our target was waltzing around Lampedusa and Brazil the rest of the month, and we thought why not, and walked the two kms to the metro, paid our 1 euro fifty, and rode the four stops necessary, getting out with hundreds of others, and together we followed the signs, and walked up the wide streets, spilling off the footpaths and onto the roads, and as we got closer, the crowds grew, the police presence became more noticeable, and baby-faced young men who have barely begun shaving watched us as we walked past the gates they were guarding, and their comical harlequin-style uniforms just cried out to be photographed, but we couldn’t linger, as we were on a mission, and so walked on, with the crowds, the tourists, the locals – because they were curious too –  the couples on vacation, the noisy teenagers on a summer break, the families trying to keep track of all the off-spring, and the large groups getting in everyone’s way, a myriad languages swirling about us, until we finally made it to our destination, only to find that about ten thousand people (or maybe more – who can count that far?) had got there before us, and as we were finding a place to stand, the crowd gasped and cheered, and we hurried to get to a good viewing spot, where we could see him, but then realised that we found the crowd just as interesting as whatever it was he was saying (though at the end he departed from his ritual script and spoke simply, clearly, in Italian – which is after all his second language too – and I was proud that I could understand much of what he was saying, or at least the gist of it anyway), and the crowd cheered and crossed themselves, and we took photos, and here they are.

Swiss Guard

Swiss Guard

A crowd waits in anticipation, in front of St Peter's Basilica

A crowd waits in anticipation, in front of St Peter’s Basilica

Who/what are they taking so many photos of?

Who/what are they taking so many photos of?

Snap happy

Snap happy

A window opened, and the crowd gasped

A window opened, and the crowd gasped

And he spoke to the masses

And he spoke to the masses

Tick tock

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“We’re going to spend July in Rome,” we casually told friends and family before we left. We didn’t really think about what we might want to do, but that was okay, we had a whole month. That was plenty of time. We’d be able to get to know people in our neighbourhood, become locals at local restaurants, and feel at home. We could go off and explore new neighbourhoods, as well as touch base with all major must-see sights again. The possibilities seemed endless.

But so is Rome. No sooner had we got here, than we realised that the timer was running down. The truth is that Rome is bottomless. There are of course the major sights – the Vatican, the Colosseum and Forum, the Pantheon, and Trevi Fountain. There are dozens of museums (or so it seems), and more churches and cathedrals than you can imagine. Then there are the neighbourhoods – our own Primavalle, Trastevere, Testaccio, and others. The markets, the shops, the parks, the restaurants. We want to spend time in all of them.

So, there is a lot to do in Rome. But in Rome, we are also in the centre of Italy, and that makes it very easy to get to other places. Why not?  Just for a day?  We downloaded an App – 200 Day Trips from Rome. Mamma Mia!

So we’ve had to be very selective about how to spend our time, at the same time recognising that

a) the heat is exhausting and so we can only spend so much time outside before we will melt away and slither down a drain (or my toes will fall off – a story you do not want to hear),
b) we actually want to relax and enjoy ourselves, without feeling that ridiculous tourist pressure to see everything, and
c) we’ve still got a long time to go on this trip, and we need to pace ourselves.

So we’re learning to pick and choose, learning to cull certain sights, to make sure our tourist euro is well spent. But it doesn’t happen without a little regret.  And still, time is ticking on … 

Tasting Testaccio

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No, this is not a report of erotic adventures with sexy Italians.  It is simply a report of a walk through a relatively unknown – to the rest of the world – part of Rome.  It took over four hours, 5 kms, and a lot of food tastings, as well as some historical information about the quarter.  Of course, you will see that our motive for taking the tour was entirely educational.

And this is what we learned at Food School (aka Eating Italy Food Tours):

  • Testaccio is next to the river, and even 2000 years ago, this was Rome’s port.  Almost all produce came through this area. Even over the last hundred years or so, still 85% of the city’s food made its way through Testaccio, establishing an amazing food tradition in the district.  This explains why the streets are lined with mainly food shops, and why Romans will travel to Testaccio to shop, and to eat.  And of course, when in Rome …
  • The large slaughter-house that was next to the port provided employment for 5000 workers, when it was established in the late 19th century.  They weren’t paid much, so they were allowed to take meat home.But not the good cuts.  They were paid in the bits no-one else wanted.  The workers took the scraps home to their wives, who probably sighed, rolled their eyes, and had to be inventive with it.  And so, much of traditional Roman cuisine was born – with a high concentration on offal, oxtail, heads, and any other bits no-one else wanted to eat.
  • Thin-crust pizza is Roman, thicker crust pizza is from Naples.  In Rome, the thinner crust the better.  Pizza has only been eaten regularly in the last hundred years or so, the first shop opened in Naples in 1889.  Pizza should be baked in wood-burning ovens.  But wood-burning ovens can only be used after 7 pm, by law.  So those round pizzas you get for lunch?  Fake.
  • Parmaggiano Reggiano is to the rest of parmesan cheeses what champagne (from Champagne) is to the rest of the sparkling wines).  Anything else?  Fake.
  • More bad news.  Buffalo mozzarella has a higher fat content than regular cow’s mozzarella.  It always seemed lighter, more like ricotta or cottage cheese, and so I assumed it was better for us.  It’s not.  So that caprese salad – maybe not quite so healthy after all.
  • There is however good news.  We all know that pasta should be cooked al dente.  I’ve never quite understood why, but apparently, al dente pasta has a lower glycaemic index than over-cooked pasta.  In fact, al dente pasta has a lower glycaemic index than rice.  Ergo, eat pasta!
  • Gelato is gelato, whether it is made with dairy or is dairy-free (we would call it sorbet).  Gelato is made with milk – not cream – and so has about 67% less fat than typical ice-cream.  (This is why the flavours are so intense, whereas cream with its higher fat content can mask other flavours).  It also has very little sugar – only about 80 grams for an entire commercial tub.  Which is why giving up gelato, or rationing it when you are in Italy, is pointless.  Good-bye, then, to our “gelato only every second day rule.”

And that’s what we learned in Food School.

Here’s what we ate in Food School:

    • A cornetto (Italian-style croissant, though we must never ever call them croissants here) that is flavoured with vanilla, and a cappuccino.  Actually, the cappuccino was really a tiramisu in a chocolate cup.
Tiramisu for breakfast?  Why not?

Tiramisu for breakfast? Why not?

  • Prosciutto di San Daniele.  This most delicious prosciutto impressed us so much that after the tour we went back to Volpetti’s, the gourmet deli where we sampled this (and the next three items), and bought some for dinner, along with a few other gourmet goodies.  They used to have a bottle of aged balsamic that cost approximately 1400 euros (give or take a euro).  But they’d sold out!
  • Salami made with Borolo (a red wine) – meaty and strong
  • Parmagiano Reggiano, salty deliciousness
  • Pecorino – a sheep’s milk cheese in this instance flavoured with truffle.

    Cheese salami prosciutto

    Cheese salami prosciutto – sometimes the eating meant we forgot about the photography

  • Pizza by the slice – crispy, light, almost crumpet-like dough, with my favourite, cherry tomatoes on top.  Ranked #3 out of all Roman pizza by the slice, at Volpetti Piu just around the corner.
    Perfect rustica pizza - this isn't thin crust, because it is pizza by the slice

    Perfect rustica pizza – this isn’t thin crust, because it is pizza by the slice

    Point at how much you want, they'll cut a slice and you pay by weight.  Two small slices with filling faced inward are the perfect "to-go" snack

    Point at how much you want, they’ll cut a slice and you pay by weight. Two small slices with filling faced inward are the perfect “to-go” snack

  • Bruschetta, with lightly toasted (but twice-toasted) bread, tomatoes, olive oil (but not too much) and rocket, made for us at the Testaccio market, built over 2000 year old food warehouses
  • 10 hour old buffalo mozzarella with caprese (tomato) salad
  • Cannoli – a crispy sweet tube (sometimes made with red or white wines), filled with a creamy ricotta cheese with chocolate chips, dipped in chopped pistacchio (spelled the Italian way) nuts.

    Cannoli should always be filled in front of you, so the pastry tube doesn't go soggy

    Cannoli should always be filled in front of you, so the pastry tube doesn’t go soggy

Delicious cannoli, from an old Sicilian family recipe

Delicious cannoli, from an old Sicilian family recipe

  • Three pastas at lunch – rigatoni carbonara (eggs, cheese and pancetta – absolutely no cream, that’s a French addition), tonnarelli cacio e pepe (the sauce is simply cheese and black pepper), and rigatoni amatriciana.  All this in a restaurant built into a mountain of ancient amphora shards, and named Flavio al Velavevodetto, which apparently means Flavio (the name of the owner who finally reached his dream at 50) I-told-you-so!
    Cacio e pepe tonnarelli (Cheese and black pepper pasta)

    Cacio e pepe tonnarelli (Cheese and black pepper pasta)

    Rigatoni Carbonara - no cream in the Italian version

    Rigatoni Carbonara – no cream in the Italian version

  • Suppli – risotto flavoured with meat and stock, crumbed and deep fried.  Divine.  But no photo.  That’s how divine it was.
  • Gelato at one of the oldest gelaterias in Rome, Giolitti.  Yes, we were full, but there’s always room for gelato.  We were warned – the owners might disapprove of our combinations, so we had to choose carefully.  I had chocolate fondant (dark chocolate), and black cherry.  Darryl had milk chocolate, and pistacchio.  I also really wanted to try the fig, the apricot, the lemon.  Maybe we’ll have to go back.
Gelato - and in Rome, by law, the whipped cream is free

Gelato – and in Rome, by law, the whipped cream is free

The company also runs an evening tour of Trastevere, with wine tasting, which sounds appealing.  We’re thinking we might have to do that.  But we’re running out of time!

Eight things you can do on a Vespa

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This morning, walking down Via Pineta Sacchetti to do some shopping, there was the usual noise. Lots of tiny cars, being driven very fast. Though unusually, no sirens this morning. And of course, lots of Vespas.

It is amazing how much life can be conducted while riding on a Vespa:

  1. Picking noses
  2. Romance (with pillion passengers)
  3. Arguments (with both passengers and passers-by)
  4. The usual Italian gesticulations when having a conversation
  5. Whistling happily
  6. Taking your pet out for a jaunt (the dog sitting happily between the driver’s feet)
  7. Talking on a cellphone, and
  8. Texting on a Galaxy Note (or something of similar size), whilst riding handsfree

An apartment in Rome

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So here we are, in our apartment in Rome. We’re not in a fancy area, or the famous and romantic (apparently, we have yet to visit) Trastevere, or very close to anything. We’re in Primavalle, an area that distinguishes itself by not having anything to distinguish itself with. But it is full of normal, Italian life, and that’s what we wanted.

The apartment is as expected small, but not outrageously so, and we have a decent-sized dining room/ kitchen, a separate living room, and in addition to our blissfully air-conditioned bedroom, there is a mezzanine bedroom that is useful for drying clothes when the rack in the laundry in the tower is full.

We’re in a small, three storey apartment building, in a street full of slightly large 4-5 storey apartment buildings, surrounded by many more streets full of 4-5 storey apartment buildings. Outside our door, about 100 yards up the road, you can find, in order of proximity, a bar (bar/café), a pizza place, two dentists, a bar/gelateria where locals sit with gelatos in the evening, the small piazza or square where the locals congregate, a women’s clothing store, a busy sports bar, hardware store, pharmacy, tobacconist/magazine shop, a pizza/deli place, a pasticceria (pastry shop), a deli with good cheeses and artisan pastas, and a supermarket, amongst a few others.

Across the busy road from the supermarket there is a park, full of pine trees and dry long grass, with a view of St Peter’s Dome in the distance. We keep meaning to head over in the evening, when the sun is at the right angle, and take some photos. We’ve never quite got there yet, despite walking past it every day on our way to and from the metro.