A Design for Life: Tuscany

Friday 26th August
My alarm went off at 1.45am which I think was even earlier my normal early starts. I made my way to the bus stop and as I’m now used to the bus didn’t show which meant the buffer I’d built in evaporated instantly. I had to change buses at Marble Arch but no longer trusted them and as the minutes ticked by I decided to get an Uber Taxi to Liverpool street. My driver asked if I’d had a good night and I explained I’d only just woken up.

The journey to Stansted was fine and the Uber had meant I’d gone from potentially missing my flight to arriving at the airport with enough time to get breakfast. I found a free table at Wetherspoons and asked the couple next to me to save the table whilst I went to the bar to order. On my return to the table they seemed overly sympathetic that I was travelling alone and I had to reassure them I was meeting friends in Italy.

I was ‘upgraded’ to the emergency row because the people on that row were too young to be seated there unsupervised. Some probably like the extra space but I was the opposite, my short legs didn’t know what to do and because I had the aisle seat it took me longer than usual to fall asleep. We landed on time and my e-passport meant I avoided most of the long queues through the airport.

A shuttle bus arrived shortly after I joined the queue and I we arrived slightly early so Edwina and Lauren were still sorting out the paperwork for the hire car when I found them. During the time I’d been in the air they’d been on a whistle stop walk through Rome. Our hire car was bigger than expected and after a quick inspection for scratches we were on our way.

Lauren successfully navigated us through the 6 level multi story car park which can be daunting at the best of times but no doubt worse when driving on the opposite side of the road to usual. Fortunately most of Rome seemed to be one way and it wasn’t long before we had left the city and we were on the main road. We made fantastic progress using the toll road but then a quest to find a grocery store put us behind schedule.

First we missed a turning, then at the next town I caused us to double back on ourselves before we arrived at where the shop was meant to be only to find an empty space. Luckily the town had two coops and once we found the second store we were able to stock up on fruit, veggies, snacks, coals for a bbq, nutella and wine.

We started making our way back to a main road but whilst we’d been in the shop a lorry had caused an accident on a side street which blocked the road. We turned around just as another lorry came down the hill which for them was a bad life choice. Meanwhile we found another route and after a while we were on the final long twisty approach to our accommodation. There was a mixture of delight and relief when we came over the final crest and saw the swimming pool with two brightly coloured inflatable lilos.

Jess, Steph, Charlotte and Erin met us on our arrival as they had arrived the day before and Jess took us on a guided tour. The accommodation, an old tobacco factory looked amazing from the outside and maintained the rustic atmosphere inside. In total it was made up of 3 apartments, each with a kitchen, bathroom, dining room and bedrooms. Instantly it was obvious that Jess had found us somewhere pretty brilliant.

After a refreshing dip in the pool we opened a couple of bottles of wines so we could enjoy the peaceful surroundings (besides a fair few irritating flies). Then after a quick shower we regrouped on the balcony for various home made pizzas, more wine and to listen to some music. I automatically felt overly comfortable with “the girls” and at one point when we were talking inadvertently said without flinching “if I was a guy…” All in all, there are worse ways to end a day when you’ve been up for 20 hours.

Saturday 27th August
We had a relaxing start to the morning and all we really had to do was make sure we were ready to leave by around 10am to visit the wine cellar Jess had booked us in to. The booking included a 4 course lunch and so I just had a light breakfast. Charlotte wasn’t joining us however kindly offered to drive one car and Edwina and I were again incredibly grateful to Lauren.

We arrived at Avignonesi and had a glass of prosecco whilst we waited for the tour to start. This was my 3rd of the year after visiting Champagne and Bordeaux however it was perhaps the most interesting. Our guide told us that the vineyard was certified organic and that they used the patterns of the moon. I was impressed. The vineyard was also spread over two valleys. In Montepulciano they could only use a particular local grape however in the other, just across the road they could make international mixes.

We explored a couple of the parcels in the Le Capezzine vineyards and tasted the grapes. The first Vigna Tonda was in a circle with a tree in the centre and quite unusual however the layout of La Stella was slightly more orthodox. Next we were taken on a tour to the cellars where the barrels of wine are stored

I think we had all built up a bit of an appetite by the time we were seated at our table which provided a lovely view of the surrounding valley. We were given a glass of chardonnay to go with the “Chefs Welcome” which was a mix of bread and salad before the red wine flowed. Despite being from a wine region and living with Jess for over a year, Steph had never sipped red wine. Lauren captured the historic moment and ended up with the best sequence of photos from the holiday as a result.

We had a number of options for our second course and I opted for the home made tagliatelle with a glass of La Tonda and Grandi Annate. Steph had ordered a parmesan and tomato sorbet which I was allowed to finish. Whilst It was nice, it confused the taste buds because it looked like vanilla and strawberry ice cream.

Admittedly my third course “Patata Novella al cartoccio con fonduta di parmigianio” was a bit simple and was basically just a jacket potato filled with parmesan cheese. Whilst it was tasty (and I don’t think I can only have cheddar again) the chicken and lamb dishes also looked particularly good and the others were surprised by my choice. The Grifi, 50/50 and Desiderio red wines were also good though I still prefer white wine.

Finally the dessert was selection of sweet treats, such as flavoured chocolate and biscuits all thoroughly delicious. This came with two vin santo’s (one black and one white) a type of Italian dessert wine. I’m still not sure if I can claim to be any good at establishing what drinks (especially wine) suits what foods, but I certainly enjoy both!

Once we had paid, Lauren, Edwina and I travelled straight home whilst the others called in to a supermarket to grab some more supplies. Once we were back it was late afternoon and as it was still got we all had a refreshing dip in the pool. The others joined us and we lazed around until early evening.

Edwina, Lauren and I prepared bruschetta for the others with various toppings my favourite being Pesto with tomato and mozzarella. A few more bottles of wine were drunk as we listened to music without needing to worry about the neighbours.

Sunday 28th August
There were no plans, except to relax, but eventually I hauled myself out of bed so I could nap by the pool rather than in a dark stuffy room. I got up and made myself a banana, grape and yogurt breakfast before eventually bumping in to Edwina and Lauren who had both put me to shame by going on a short run. We then sat in the kitchen area eating the nutella we’d brought, though I had it with a fresh peach and watermelon in a feeble attempt to balance out the unhealthiness.

I spread out on a sunbed and tried to get a tan, rather than going straight from white to red as tends to be my normal experience in the sun. I’d put a “Soulful Sunday” playlist and whilst I only recognised the occasional song it felt quite appropriate. The hours ticked by and eventually I decided to get in the pool to cool off. I’d struggled to get on the inflatable lilo at first, looking like a rather humorous hippopotamus trying to climb on to a piece of wood and flipping over however by now I’d mastered it. Charlotte joined me and we decided to have a race whilst sitting on the lilos and agreed that it should be added to Olympics if not for comedy value alone.

Once we were done Charlotte tipped me in to the water but she misjudged her momentum which caused her to flip in to the water as well much to the amusement of Jess who had caught the whole event on camera. The three of us then relocated to the balcony where Steph, with a bit of help from Lauren and Erin had used up all the unused food to create a almighty buffet of burgers, sausages, pasta, mini pizza and a salad.

After a number of plates I waddled back to the deck chair where I felt like I resembled a beached Whale. Edwina had been napping but joined Charlotte and I back in the pool for more Olympic Lilo Swimming competitions before we used the go pro to try and get some underwater profile pics. I then used what was left of the sun to dry out and to check the football scores. In fact, whilst realising Watford had lost on the previous day it had had resulted in no impact on my relaxed mood.

Eventually we all made our way back to the balcony where we all probably over ate. More music and wine. There were no more days to drink the latter however I don’t think any of us were overly drunk once the final bottle was finally finished. Edwina, Lauren and I had brought some exciting looking ice cream on the first day and whilst Steph wasn’t looking (because she wouldn’t let us have dessert until we’d finished “all the dinner”) we quickly broke in to the tub. Despite it being a chilled day I was exhausted when I finally climbed in to bed.

Monday 29th August
We had an early start (compared to recent days) because we wanted to visit Siena before commencing the final leg to Rome. I was in my own annex and I wasn’t sure how early the others had got up but eventually I wondered over at 7am to grab a light breakfast and to help with any outstanding errands, which mainly included taking the rubbish away.

The drive to Siena was uneventful as Lauren successfully followed Charlotte however once we were in the city we had to navigate through small winding streets and narrow gates. Both did an absolutely sterling job and whilst it was no doubt stressful it was rather exciting. We thought we’d found a street car park however a local explained it was for residents however thankfully the multi story wasn’t far.

Siena itself was rather pretty. First we visited the cathedral (Duomo) built in 12th Century and considered a masterpiece of Romanesque Gothic architecture. We then continued on to the Piazza del Campo which is overlooked by the Palazzo Pubblico. On our way we each got a coffee at II Bargello, and I was impressed with the cafe latte I ordered. Once we arrived in the square I got a mix of berry and mango gelato.

Edwina, Jess, Charlotte and I then climbed the tall tower, Torre del Mangia, where we had a stunning view of the city and surrounding area. It was quite obvious why it is UNESCO listed and reminded me of Bordeaux which had also surprised me at its beauty. Afterwards we briefly stopped at the fountain, Fonte Gaia before we ordered some food from a restaurant in the main square and I had a pizza with a beer

Siena never a city I’d contemplated going to, my only knowledge coming from the football team, however it had been perfect for a half day visit to break up the long car journey. On our exit from the city there were a number of different routes and I inadvertently caused us to lose about 10 crucial minutes. Once we joined the main road the rest of the journey to Rome was uneventful and we successfully found a petrol station to fill up the hire car. Some of the Rome streets were narrow and smart cars kept cutting us up and despite a potential mishap on the final street Lauren successfully returned the car unscathed though rather dusty.

We made our way to airport and after reuniting with the others it was clear we were all rather exhausted. As Steph shortly leaves us all to move back to Australia the holiday seemed a fitting way to send her off and to make some final happy memories.


Living for the Weekend: Milan

Saturday 14th May

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jayde said “Hey Johno, do you wanna go to Milan for the weekend?” I couldn’t say yes quick enough even though it meant I’d miss the last Watford match of the season. During our first meeting in Athens I’d rather unsocialably cradled my phone as Watford hung on to beat Newcastle so it was slightly reassuring that travel can on occasions trump Watford.

The early morning journey to Gatwick was as painful as ever as I forced myself up at 3.15 and walked to the bus stop where I waited for a bus which never came. Whilst I wasn’t exactly running late it meant I could have had an extra 30 minutes in bed though as it was Jayde and I both arrived at the airport at a similar time. We even had time to grab a bite to eat. There was mild drama when as we boarded it emerged that the plane was smaller than expected (which meants our designated seats were outside) so we and a few others were both separated though thankfully weren’t put on another flight.

We caught the bus in to the city centre and as it was late morning decided to find somewhere for lunch. Trip adviser suggested a pizza place called Mister Panozzo which had a good rating, was cheap and didn’t appear to be that far. We had expected thunderstorms however the sun was shining so we decided on a walk which took us past the Piazza Duca D’Aosta near the Grand looking Central station and a small local market. We had a brief look around the busy market before escaping the crowds and continuing our journey.

Mister Panozzo looked like a chain with its mascot however it appeared to be one of its kind. The staff were really friendly and even gave us a free starter of cheesy garlic pizza bread. I ordered the chef’s special (chef decided what ingredients to use) which came with loads of mushrooms and whilst I ate a few, I picked the majority off and hid them under my napkin. It was however, despite the mushrooms, very good.

After leaving Mister Panozzo we made our way to the hostel. When we arrived we were told the room wasn’t ready but we were able to check in and to leave our bags in storage. We left the hostel and walked towards the part of the city centre that included most of the historical buildings.

First we arrived at the Duomo (Cathedral) and walked around the outside towards the Piazza del Duomo. The queue to go in to the Cathedral and up to the roof terrace was particularly long so we made a conscious effort to return early the following day. We walked across the Piazza and made our way towards the famous shopping centre Quadrilatero d’Oro. Near to the Quadrilatero d’Oro was a place called Cioccolati Italiani selling gelato which came in flavoured cones or in between a bun. We were still full from lunch but checked the opening times so that we could make time to return later in the day.

Next we walked towards the castle (Castello Sforzesco) however a combination of me and Google maps meant we didn’t quite take the most direct route. It was possible to walk through the castle grounds for free so we walked through the castle court yards and the Parco Sempione gardens to the Arco della Pace. We then took a slightly different path back to visit the Santa Maria seller Grazie which we believed contained the iconic “The Last Supper” painting.

It didn’t cost anything to enter the church so we entered and hunted around. The artwork and decorations were quite ornate however each was greeted with a underwhelming “hmm must be in the next section” reaction. Eventually there were no sections left to explore and asking in the shop realised it was in the building next door. We arrived at the ticket office and were told there was a 3 month waiting list to enter so made our way back to the hostel.

On our way Jayde noticed to a large crowd and pointed. I had somehow missed the mass of people and before I could respond the crowd were making high pitched screams in excitement. We wondered over and saw an elderly guy neither of us recognised come out of the shop but obviously realised he wasn’t why a huge group of school girls were so excited. Next we saw a sign saying Antony Di Francesco but were still none the wiser though when we googled him he appeared to be Italy’s Justin Bieber.

We returned back to the hostel and quickly realised that whilst the reception looked fancy and the website implied it would be as good as the 180 Hostel in Berlin the reality was very different. Firstly there were no locks on the dormitory doors but also building work meant our dorm was partially separated from the next room by a large net curtain. Our other room mates, a young couple from Canada who understandably freaked out when they realised their belongings would have no protection because the advertised lockers were also far too small for their luggage. I rested on my bed and waited for Jayde who advised the shower facilities were tight on space which I then discovered for myself.

We walked back in to the city centre to get gelato from the parlour we’d seen earlier and which just happened to be on a website I’d stumbled across when I was looking for recommendations. I ordered it as a kind of ice cream sandwich with Nutella, salted caramel and chocolate with hazelnut however I’d been severely tempted by the cone filled with melted milk chocolate.

After we’d gorged ourselves on the gelato we waddled to the underground and caught a train to the San Siro. Considering it was the last match of the season and a match between AC Milan and Roma two Italian heavy weights I was slightly surprised by the lack of numbers making their way to the ground though that did make it a more pleasant journey. I got goosebumps when I caught my first glimpse of the famous ground and brought a scarf as a memento. I think Jayde was excited for me though was no doubt bemused by my reaction.

We climbed many floors of steps and took our seats just in time for kick off. I had expected the ultras to generate an intimidating atmosphere but they were relatively placid and smoke bombs and flares were kept to a minimum. The match itself was pretty comfortable from a Roma perspective and AC were rather painfully a shadow of their former glories. Their defending was so calamitous they even gave away an indirect free kick after the goalkeeper foolishly picked up a back pass. It’s quite rare these days and as far as I’m aware not even Watford have done it in the past 15 years.

Totti came on and got a standing ovation from all 4 sides of the stadium but there was little for us to cheer and with Napoli winning Roma couldn’t sneak 2nd their small number of traveling fans were rather quiet. We decided to leave when Roma made it 3.0 around the 85 minute shortly after AC missed a chance to grab a consolation. As soon as we were outside the ground we heard a cheer followed by overly loud celebratory music considering. It’s a shame the “I Rossoneri” (red and blacks) hadn’t scored earlier in the match because it would have ignited the atmosphere.

After leaving the ground we followed the crowd and went slightly off course but found the train station. When the train came in the platform was busier than when we’d arrived and the we somehow squeezed on to the train. Fortunately the stops were close together and we were able to generate some space after the first stop. We walked back to the hostel via the Cathedral though both agreed it didnt look as spectacular as we had expected. We arrived back at the hostel and I fell asleep

Sunday 15th May
There had been occasional loud conversations in the corridor and the room next door, which was hardly a separate room because it was only partially separated. Both had woken me up and even though I’d had so little sleep the day before I just couldn’t get back to sleep so got ready and waited for Jayde who got up a little while later. After leaving our bags in the stored luggage area we had the free hostel breakfast before catching a tram to the city centre.

The queue moved quite quickly and we had a look around the inside. A service was taking place which gave it a moving atmosphere and it was grand as I’d expected however I was more interested in climbing the steps leading to the roof terrace. Unfortunately both of us had seen different signs and ended up walking around the Cathedral before finding the entrance. Luckily the queue was shorter than the one to buy tickets and we were quickly climbing the tower.

I had expected one viewing platform however instead we were able to walk all over Cathedrals roof and therefore got good views of the city from both sides though my attempts to spot the San Siro failed. It was certainly something I’d recommend doing and it was obvious why it is one of the highlights of Milan.

We took the stairs back down and as we were in decent time stopped to get a final slice of pizza from a nearby restaurant. The slice itself seemed as big as a normal pizza and I imagine i had the look of a kid in a sweetshop. We decided to walk back to the hostel and after collecting our bags caught the underground train to the central train/bus station.

Throughout the day we had done a good job of going at a relatively relaxed pace whilst ensuring we weren’t running late and preferably staying well in the Green, ahead of time zone as we were when we reached the bus. We were therefore able to catch an earlier bus to the airport and I napped on the uneventful journey doing the same on the flight.

When people asked what I’d done at the weekend, they probably didn’t expect me to say I went to Milan. It had certainly been an unforgettable weekend and did feel slightly surreal. I had 5 blisters on my feet and after walking 40,000 steps on the Saturday alone my legs were aching but I’d do it all again. It is so quick to get to some historic places in Europe from London and rather ludicrously some can cost much less than a train I once caught to Liverpool.

Wake up Boo: Rome

Wednesday 25th March
I’d spent at least an hour the night before planning different options depending on the weather. When I woke I could hear the patter of rain which is what every weather forecast I’d seen predicted. My phone has a app called Geo News to alert me if there are extreme weather conditions in my local area and for the first time it beeped but only to tell me there were high winds predicted.

It looked like the weather would improve in the afternoon so I decided I’d start by exploring parts of Rome that were covered and underground. First I headed to somewhere I’d been told about on my first trip in 2009 but which I hadn’t had time to see. The church the Capuchin Crypt is located in didn’t look that spectacular from the outside but I knew not to judge a book by it’s cover. The crypt has, since around 1641 contained the the skeletal remains of 3,700 bodies believed to be Capuchin friars some of whom had lived and died there.

I made my way through the museum but I wasn’t sure which displays to focus on and trying to read them all just left me feeling a bit overwhelmed and if I’m honest a bit bored. The subject matter was mostly religious and about the monks not about the display. The museum is fairly new and whilst it was well set out I wasn’t there to see a museum display I just wanted to see the crypt. I eventually made my way down the short flight of stairs in to the darkness. It was quite eerie seeing all the bones presented as art and it really did make me just go “wow”. It was visually impressive (if a bit macabre) and I can see how the display successfully challenges the perception of death and our own mortality.

Next I made my way to the Basilica San Clemente. I have to admit I’d known nothing about the place until the day before when I had looked at doing a half day tour to the Capuchin Crypt and the Domitilla’s Catacombs which included this. The Basilica of St Clemente shows how the city of Rome has been built up over many different levels over the centuries. There are areas of London where you can descend and see a glimpse of the old Roman street level (e.g remains of the Roman Forum at a Barbershop in Leadenhall Market). Obviously in Rome the remains are much easier to find with some “at street level” but nothing beats a bit of exploring underground to make it feel like you really are entering a lost world.

The current church was built by 1120 however descending down a level I came to the remains of a church built in the 4th century. Descending yet another level I came to a Roman street dating from the 1st century which contained a house (with a spring) and even a Mithraeum dating from the 2nd Century. To me it seemed to show how religious sites are particularly sacred in Rome and that even if the religion changes new buildings would simply be built over the top so the area was preserved for worship.

By the time I’d finished at the Basilica San Clemente it had just gone 11am so I didn’t have enough time to reach the catacombs which were closed for lunch. Instead I commenced the journey to Ostia Antica. As I made my way to the Colosseo station it appeared the rain had passed. I was walking down one of the streets when in the distance I caught my first glimpse of the Colosseum (on this trip). It gradually grew larger and I had a real sense of excitement. When I saw the queue outside however it reminded me why I wasn’t planning a re-visit quite yet.

It took about an hour to reach Ostia Antica which was the old port of Rome. I thought it had stopped raining but almost as soon as I looked at a map of the area it came down from my left side with even more fury. A German school teacher (in charge of a group of school children) and I had been trying to work out together where to go and quickly ran back to the train station for cover. I was drenched though the rain eased off just long enough for us to reach the entrance. The site was out in the open so although I’d brought a map the rain meant I couldn’t use it.

Unlike the main streets in Pompeii which were made of stone the path at Ostia Antica was mostly a dirt path perhaps because it had deteriorated more over the centuries. Luckily the the main street wasn’t to muddy and I managed to avoid most of the bigger puddles. As I walked past Neptune baths I realised it was possible to climb up the stairs to the top which I thought would give a good general view of the site. Unlike Pompeii it wasn’t very busy and not only did I have the roof to myself there weren’t that many people wondering around.

Without a guide or a useable map I wasn’t sure which directions to head in to see the buildings that I knew would interest me the most and the rain had dampened my enthusiasm. I read a few of the displays but it was only when I reached, the theatre that I really felt a sense of awe. After walking through the tunnel in the arena area I again climbed to the top but as I was taking in my surroundings the rain came down ferociously again.

Mercifully I saw a sign for the cafe and briskly made my way. After getting some food and looking round the museum I again started exploring the site with refreshed enthusiasm. I walked towards Forum and on the way saw a shop and what appeared to be a Roman Bar. Unfortunately I got slightly lost and by the time I found the Forum another sudden down pour caught me out and a tree offered little protection. I was now so wet couldn’t take in the part I felt was most important as it was ‘the centre’ and realising my camera lens was wet I gave up taking pictures.

2 hours wasn’t long enough to explore the site but it’s all I could face in the wind/rain. I later saw that ‘the Capitol’ was one of the best preserved buildings but I hadnt found it. If I ever find myself in Rome again in nicer weather I’d probably return. The site claims to be a better version of Pompeii and certainly seeing the height of some buildings is impressive but the rain and lack of a guide or map meant I preferred my day in Pompeii.

As I returned to the station I got stuck behind another school party which meant I missed my train and so began a miserable journey to the Catacombs. One I was finally back in Rome I saw my bus approaching and realised I was on the wrong side of the road. I should still have been able to get on but I didn’t realise the back door was only to let people off and so he didn’t open the door and went off without me. To add to my woe the next didn’t arrive for 25+ minutes by which time my umbrella was ruined and my feet squelched. I wasn’t impressed at my fortune and muttered a few choice words to myself.

Eventually I arrived at and found the Catacombs of St Domitilla. I had made it before closing time and was told a tour in English would be starting shortly. It was nice to finally have a guide and it was fascinating to explore the oldest underground burial network in Rome. Some of the early Christian artwork was interesting and whilst we were told some of the tombs had been ran sacked by thieves some still contained bodies.

Entry to the total network which is 15km on 4 different levels was via a church which was abandoned in the 9th century and only rediscovered in the 16th century. The tour was a bit shorter than I expected though this is because the ‘newer’ but deeper sections are not open to the public. We were exploring the oldest section and I was glad we had a tour guide because it would have been very easy to get lost as it all looked the same.

I made my way back to the hotel room and spent a couple of hours drying out. I tried to do what I could to my walking shoes but the hair dryer didn’t really help and there was no radiator. Luckily I had taken a smart pair so I put those on as I headed to the oldest pizzeria in Rome Est Est Est Pizzeria Ricci. It was opened in 1888 as a wine shop before the owner started selling pizza in 1905.

I ordered a white wine Vino bianco asciutto “frascati” which was recommended to me by the waiter. I had quite an appetite and noticed that Suppli (Fried rice balls) and fried cod both of which I had been advised to try were on the menu as starters. For a main course I eventually settled on the Calzone and ordered a refreshing Peroni Gran Riserva Doppio Malto to go with it. I knew I had to try a tiramassu so ordered that for dessert but I’m not the best judge of them but it was nice enough.

Thursday 26th March
For some reason I really struggled to get out of bed once my alarm had gone off and I had a bit of a headache. I had woken up about an hour before the alarm and spent it trying to go back to sleep without success. I wanted to explore the area suggested to me by my guide to Pompeii and after I was ready spent a bit of time planning a route so I could get there and back to the airport before my flight.

It was a lovely day and at one point I had considered walking to the top of Janiculum Hill where the Piazza Garibaldi is located. Instead using the excuse that I wouldn’t have time but that I’d walk back down I stayed on the bus. It wasn’t hard to miss my bus stop due to the big statue and I made my way over to the edge to see a wonderful panorama of Rome spread out below. Admittedly it would have been handy if I’d known which direction to squint in to see the landmarks but I thought I made out a few.

I made my way back down the hill to the area of Rome called Trastevere. Whilst initially I thought I’d stumbled down a Mafia street due to a load of Vespas parked outside a house I quickly fell in love with the little side streets. It had the atmosphere of a small but fairly busy picturesque town and it didn’t feel like I was still in the Italian capital at all. I suppose it was comparable to Hampstead Heath.

I made my way to Piazza Santa Maria where I went to Santa Maria Basilica which was quite grand on the inside due to a number of gold mosaics. Carrying on through Trastevere I arrived at the Piazza Cecilia and Basilica Santa Cecilia. I didn’t quite have enough euros in coins and the guy serving didn’t have change so he let me in as a student. This church had a smaller write up than Santa Maria but I preferred it. It had a spectacular crypt and then at a lower level the remains of a Roman house which is believed to have been the house of Saint Cecilia dating to the early empire.

It had just gone 12 when I finished so I made my way towards one of the most famous pizzerias in the area Dar Poeta. I sat outside on a table with a red and white pattern which reminded me of Bella’s restaurant in Fireman Sam. The pizza itself was Rome style so a thinner crust compared to the Neapolitan style but it was no less delicious. It seemed like a nice place to just sit back and relax and although I was starting to think about my flight home I still got sucked in to the no rush attitude.

Eventually and slightly later than planned I paid the bill and left though I knew I was alright for time so long as I didn’t encounter any delays. Fortunately I didn’t and I arrived at the hotel around the time I’d hoped. I collected my bag and found the coach terminal I needed and checked in.

I was told to wait outside and naturally when a coach came in around the time mine was meant to leave I and quite a few others started loading our bags on. When I then got to the guy checking tickets he kept speaking to me in Italian and sending me away. I used my I-translate app which only told me “Airport “. I was confused and a bit concerned eventually he said two words I understood “next bus”. I then had a bit of a scramble to grab my suitcase off the coach because whilst I’d been near the back it had been pushed further back and a huge push chair was in the way. That drama over I waited and boarded the correct bus.

I had priority boarding on the flight home which meant I didn’t have to join the large queue when we were eventually called. I had the window seat but a girl was already in the aisle seat and I felt a bit awkward when she had to move for me. We eventually got chatting because of the beautiful sunset and because she asked me for some ideas of some markets and other nice places to visit whilst she was in London. It was nice to have some company on the flight but we went our separate ways at the airports train station though we did exchange numbers on the off chance I went back to Rome or she returned to London.

You’ll Never Walk Alone: Pompeii

Monday 23rd March
Back in December I thought it would be nice to treat myself to a holiday to celebrate my 30th birthday. I had started exploring the idea of staying in Sorrento in order to explore Pompeii, Herculaneum Mt Vesuvius and the Amalfi coast. At the age of two this region of Italy was according to my dad my first trip abroad but I remember nothing except throwing my favourite red ball in to a river and watching it float away and being scratched by a cat. Since then I’ve fallen in love with Neopolitan Pizza (partly due to Santa Maria in Ealing 5 mintues walk from my house), been to exhibitions on Pompeii and watched countless documentaries. Over the past 5 years the significance of Pompeii has grown on me for personal reasons and it was always on the list of places I wanted to visit.

Other events took priority and planning for Berlin and Morocco meant by the start of March I’d not booked anything even though I had the annual leave confirmed. At the TNT travel show I tried to see if any tours of the area were running but they weren’t. I decided to leave the trip for another time and instead decided to try something completely different by using a company called “Mystery Breaks”. The general idea being you gave them the dates, your budget, the type of holiday and 3 cities you didn’t want to visit and they would book flights and hotel to a mystery city. It was exciting not knowing where I would end up and in the built up they gave a few clues which only added to my anticipation.

Eventually on my birthday I discovered it was Rome. I’d been before but who can possibly be disappointed with visiting Rome? As I said in my last blog Berlin is probably the city for modern European history and Rome is one of the best for ancient history. On a personal level I realised how perfect and symbolic it was. It had to be Rome. I love Italian food, I love Roman history and it was the city where I broke my arm on my first solo trip abroad. True I’d ‘ticked off’ the main sites but I had unfinished business with the city and knew there were many Roman archaeological sites, Catacombs and churches just waiting for me to explore.

I didn’t finish packing until midnight and so it wasn’t until the journey to the airport and the flight that I could start thinking about how best to spend my time. My trip to Stanstead whilst longer than Gatwick was simple enough and the flight uneventful though we did get an amazing view of the Austrian Alps. My rep had given clear and concise details for me to follow in order to find my hotel. It was centrally located and less than a 10 minute walk from the main coach and train station. I checked in, found my room unpacked everything (no sharing this time!) and crashed out on the bed as I still had about 2 hours until dinner.

I was still in two minds about taking a day trip to Pompeii as most didn’t spend much time and fitted in activities which were of little interest to me. I had asked my “Mystery Break’ rep out of curiosity not really expecting anything different and it was only at this point I checked the link. I was impressed. It had a local guide, didn’t go to Herculaneum but did include over 2 hours at Pompeii, traditional pizza lunch and a walk to the top of Mount Vesuvius. Whilst I knew 2 hours at Pompeii was still a bit on the short side I thought it would at least be a good introduction and so I booked it for the following day.

Eventually I got ready and followed the directions to Trattoria Coriolano for my ‘introductory meal’ which had been pre-booked for me by my rep. It had quite a rustic feel about it with antique furniture and white table cloths. The menu looked fantastic and eventually I settled on fried vegetables as a starter and spaghetti carbonara as my main along with a glass of white wine. When in Rome and all that. Shortly they brought a small plate out which had a breaded mushroom and a piece of bruschetta. Assuming I’d misread the menu I ate it feeling slightly underwhelmed.

Then another plate arrived which didn’t look like spaghetti carbonara and I realised it was my actual starter which contained various fried vegetables such as zucchini. It was enormous but delicious. I finished it and was thankful my bowl of spaghetti looked so small. But I had forgotten that appearances can be deceiving. It was incredibly rich and filling. I just about had room for gelato and thought a lemon sorbet may help. It didn’t and I realised I had over indulged like never before and never will again. When the waiter gave me some complimentary biscuits I could only stare at them with horror before smuggling them in to my bag as I figured they would make a good breakfast or snack on the coach.

I had a early start to get to Pompeii and knew I was already in need of catching up on sleep after two busy weekends with two more to follow. Unfortunately but unsurprisingly I had difficulty sleeping due to all the food i’d eaten and when the alarm went off the next morning I wasn’t full of energy despite my destination.

Tuesday 24th March
I made my way to the Piazza del Poplo and even though I was on time it appeared everyone was already there. Our coach had been split in to two tour groups and our two guides took it in turns to share their knowledge and local recommendations. I could tell instantly it was going to be a good day due to their enthusiasm and passion.

First they explained the significance of our meeting place the obelisk in Piazza del Poplo which was imported from Egypt by the first Roman Emperor Augustus in 10BC. It was originally located at the Circus Maximus however in 1589 Pope Sixtus V decided to place obelisks around the city to guide people. Piazza del Poplo was one of the locations chosen because it was the northern gate to the city. There is also a church in the square called Basilica of Santa Maria del Poplo. We were told the original was funded by Rome’s people because black crows were settling in a walnut tree on the site that Nero (the murdering Emperor who now has a coffee chain named after him) and his families tomb was located. Many of Rome’s citizens therefore believed he was still haunting the city and the destruction of the tree by the Pope and the building of the church was meant to exercise his ghost.

We stopped at a service station in a place called Cassino for breakfast and I ordered my first ever espresso and a cornetto (a chocolate pastry, not an ice cream). Leaving Cassino we passed the Abbey of Monte Cassino which is a perfect reproduction of the original. At the end of the 4th century Saint Benedict set up an order and wanted to build a abbey in complete isolation. This became the Abbey of Monte Cassino and he is buried in the crypt which is only original part. The original was completely destroyed by American troops in 1943 because the general was convinced German soldiers on the Gustave line were hiding there. They weren’t, they were hiding in the nearby mountains and instead mostly civilians and monks were killed.

Our guides had been testing us over the day but as I’d answered the very first one wrong I now remained silent when asked questions (I’d incorrectly named Caesar as the first Emperor in a “QI whaa-whaa/siren” moment. Caesar was according to the guides a dictator and not an official Emperor. It seemed none of us knew the story of the countries unification in 1871 and that prior to this there were 20 regions (separate kingdoms) in the area of Italy which included the territories of Sardinia and Sicily. Spanish berbers ruled in the south, the French ruled areas in the North and few if any parts were controlled by Italians.

The unification of Italy was started by Giuseppe Garibaldi (Risorgimento) in Sicily however as he was born in Nice I think we were all wondering how someone from France had been responsible for unifying another country. It was then explained that Nice and the surrounding region had been part of a region that is now in Italy however the residents had a referendum after Italy was unified and they opted to remain under French rule. Rome was eventually made the capital and there is a statue of Garibaldi on a horse at the top of Janiculum Hill south of the Tiber which the guides recommended had a beautiful view even though Janiculum Hill itself is not one of the ‘Seven Hills of Rome’.

As we entered Campania and passed Napoli/Bay of Naples the two guides told us that it is the mostly densely populated region of Italy. Naples means new city and it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world which was originally founded by Greeks who realised the soil was very fertile (due to the volcano). When the Romans arrived they called the region Campania because that meant countryside in Latin. The area is famous for food, the most famous obviously being pizza (and the word probably came from the greek word pitta). Legend goes that in 1889 pizza was still considered a street food however when the new Royal family came to Naples a pizza maker called Raffaele Esposito made 3 pizzas for Queen Margherita of Savoy. He named the most popular one after her and from then on it became a popular dish with all the classes.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius occurred on August 24 AD79. Historians and archaeologists are lucky that the writer Pliny the Younger sent letters to the historian Tacitus which recorded in great detail the death of his uncle Pliny the Elder. Pliny the Elder was the fleet commander based in Misenus across the Bay of Naples and is believed to have been killed by poisonous volcanic gases when his rescue fleet was stranded by winds during the eruption. Such was the level of detail in the writings of Pliny the Younger as he observed the eruption he is regarded as being the first volcanologist and the type of eruption that occurred is now known as a plinian eruption. Pliny records the explosion (20 miles in height) which formed a mushroom cloud (described by Pliny as a umbrella pine because he’d never seen a mushroom). Pumice and ash fell on Pompeii for 3 days and 3 nights and culminated in a pyroclastic surge which buried the city. No lava flowed which is why the cities were preserved under a deep layer of tephra.

There had been a large earthquake in 62AD and a series of small earthquakes after which meant Pompeii was still in the process of being rebuilt in 79AD. The volcano hadn’t erupted in centuries so the civilians had no idea ‘the mountain’ was going to explode. Unfortunately they didn’t heed warnings when the daily earthquakes began on 20th August, when the water levels dropped or even when animals tried to flee. Whilst Mount Vesuvius still towers over Pompeii experts believe that prior to AD79 it was originally double in height. The last eruption was in 1944 and it is regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in Europe because up to 3 million people live between the green zone and red zone. It is monitored regularly and experts believe they could predict an eruption up to 72 hours in advance but I have to admit I was skeptical about that claim.

We were walking to the top of the crater from the top car park which I thought would be easier. Very quickly my hamstrings and calf muscles were feeling the strain. I had 1 hour and 30 minutes to get up, walk around the crater and to get back. I wasn’t sure if the rest of the coach were behind or in front of me so I had no way of gauging how I was doing and no one to encourage me. Even though it was arguably out of season there were still quite a few coaches all of which seemed full so I can’t imagine how busy it must be in the height of the peak season.

Recently I’ve been seeing a chiropractor for my knee and I would love to use that as an excuse but the honest truth is I haven’t helped myself since my gorilla run. I am not currently at a respectable level of fitness and I had to take a couple of rest breaks which I disguised as photo shops. But I eventually made it to the top and actually in good time so I was able to properly explore the top. The views of the Bay of Naples were stunning and even though it wasn’t a hot day it was certainly clear. Steam was rising from gaps inside the crater which was a reminder that Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano and due an eruption (I admit I hadn’t expected steam). I met a German couple at the top who happened to be on my coach so we walked down together and we made it back to the bus with a bit of time to spare.

After the hike I was feeling quite hungry and I was looking forward to my pizza lunch. A drink was also included and I opted for a nice white Italian wine which surprised me because in the past it would have been in a beer. Perhaps it’s age but I actually like some wines now though and as I was in Italy it seemed appropriate. Victoria had asked me to grab a quick picture and I only remembered when I’d devoured about half of it. At the top of Vesuvius the German couple had been joking about how people take photos of their food and when they next saw me all they said to me was “We saw you” *wink* All I could do was laugh. I couldn’t deny it but I agree with Victoria that food abroad is part of the cultural experience and if it’s a special meal it’s worth recording.

After lunch I wondered around outside as it was still sunny and there was as nice garden with a view of Vesuvius in the background. Leaving the restaurant we made the short trip to the archaeological site where we had a 2 hour guided tour. The population of the town was around 12000 though it is unknown if this included slaves/prisoners as they may not have been on the census. To put it in a modern context that is roughly half the population size of my home town. 1/3 has not been excavated however I believe studies are still taking place, either way the current site is still substantial.

After entering the site our first stop was a four-sided colonnade which was the Gladiator training area. Whilst during the eruption most of the roofs had collapsed the roofs on one of the sides and been restored as had some of the doors to the various rooms. Pompeii had three theatres (including an Amphitheater) and the the gladiator training area was linked to one of these known as the big theatre which could hold up to 5000 people. It seemed quite well preserved and we had a few minutes to explore so I was able to climb to the top for a good view. Next we made our way next door to the small theatre which could be covered and could hold up to 1000 people. Both appeared to have been influenced by the Greek style of theatre though it is believed they were built before 1BC

We then walked along one of the main streets which had stepping stones because sewage would have run down the street so people needed risen crossing places. Later on we did see another street which didn’t have the stepping stones and our guide explained it would have been one of the newer roads which used the Roman drainage system. Along the streets we could see shops and a bakery before making our way to a Villa where the door had been preserved and which contained nice frescoes.

We carried on through the town and arrived at the Stabian Baths where two bodies that had been preserved using the plaster cast method were on display. This was quite haunting as it was clear the victim had been in distress and it brought the human element of the tragedy sharply in to focus. Shortly after we came to the Lupanar (the Roman word for brothel) which meant a wolf den (a prostitute was called a lupa). Our guide stopped us and pointed to an object sticking out of the the wall which allegedly was a penis to and it certainly looked like it could have been. There were pictures of different sex positions on the wall which have been interpreted by tour guides as being ‘a menu’ for people visiting and and graffiti on the walls leaves no doubt to the rooms function.

Eventually we came to the main forum which contained the Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Apollo. The Temple of Jupiter looked particulary impressive and still contained a bust of the God and there was a clear view of Vesuvius in the background. Around the outside of the forum were a series of storage rooms which I assume held the artifacts that weren’t currently in museums. The two hours was a good length of time and the guide had kept it interesting but really it had felt like an appetiser and perhaps one day I will get the opportunity to explore the site more thoroughly in future.

After arriving back in Rome I made my way to a restaurant called St Ana which was recommended to me by the coach driver of the tour and one of the guides. The restaurant itself was underground and had a really good atmosphere and unlike the previous evening I kept it simple with a pasta dish called ‘Strozzapreti’ (cheese and pepper with crispy artichokes) accompanied with another glass of wine.

This blog is dedicated to the victims of Germanwings Flight 4U 9525