Out and about in Rome

The Pantheon

The Pantheon

It is so easy to get stuck in Rome and not venture far afield. There is quite literally something amazing at every turn. An ancient ruin here, a church there and of course an obelisk always nearby. There is also some of the best shopping you’ll find anywhere.  The days whizz by with visits to the Colosseum, Vatican, Roman Forum, walking through the gardens around the Villa imageBorghese …

In our case this has meant that in previous visits to Rome we haven’t ventured very far, however this time we made a decision to venture a little further afield. This meant looking at the guidebooks for that section towards the back of the book that says something like Day Trips or Excursions. It will never say what to do when you’ve seen all there is in Rome as that is just not possible!

So with a steely resolve we ventured to the back of the guidebook and settled on Ostia Antica for our first foray out of Rome. It’s about 25kms from Rome and easily accessible by Metro and Train.

Ostia Antica is a port city that it is said dates back to the 7th century BC. A town whose fortunes rose and eventually receded just as the sea did, such that by the 9th century it was abandoned. It’s a port city that is now some kilometers from the sea!

With the entrance fee paid and our guidebook purchased at the site in hand we were ready for what turned our to be something very special. After just a few minutes at Ostia Antica we wondered why there is such an obsession with Pompeii. Perhaps it’s Vesuvius?  Continue reading

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Naples, Italy – Pizza

We were sitting in our hotel in Venice thinking about the last part of our trip, at that stage still a couple of months away, when I found a  post on pizza in Naples. That sealed our decision to go to Naples!

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We planned to stay 4 nights and stayed 6. It could easily have been more but that’s for another post.

Naples is a big city with attitude and that’s evident as you venture into the domain of the best pizza you’ll ever eat. Continue reading

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Palermo, Sicily – Take it slowly

Arriving in Palermo you quickly become aware of its relationship with the sea. It’s a port city and infact that is why it was settled by the Phoenicians in the first place. Wherever you are in Palermo you feel close to the sea.

You also quickly become aware of the North African influence. It’s evident in the date palms, architecture and the food.

Santa Maria dell' Ammairaglio & San Giovanni degli Eremita

Santa Maria dell’ Ammairaglio & San Giovanni degli Eremita

Through our two previous visits we’d seen the city highlights but with more time on this visit we were able to take it slowly. Walking the streets, seeing the people going about their daily lives is the best way to experience a city such as Palermo.

As you walk you quickly come to the realisation that traffic lights are really only guidelines and that you are taking your life into your heads each time you cross the road. I’m not even sure that the Nuns are safe crossing the roads in Palermo! You also realize that large cities with lots of cars can survive without traffic lights every 100 metres.

Taking the time to immerse yourself in Palermo allows you to build a picture of the city. It enables you to move past the perceptions you might have from the books you’ve read and stories you’ve heard. In three visits we haven’t seen anyone gunned down although the memorials, such as the city airport name, Falcone-Borsellino,  are reminders that the city does have a dark underbelly. Falcone and Borsellino were both judges murdered by the mafia in 1992.

We compartmentalised our visit. Arriving by bus lunchtime Saturday, we caught a taxi to our hotel. Being the only non Italians in our shared taxi, we were the last to be dropped at our hotel and were charged about 50% more than what we’d been told was the norm – that unfortunately is what happens in cities like Palermo. You can stress about it or shrug your shoulders – the latter keeps the blood pressure down. The hotels are wise to this and have arrangements with taxi companies or private drivers for fixed fares to the Train Station and Airport which help.

Our hotel was located in the more residential part of the city and a short walk to the main shopping boulevard , Via della Liberta which houses Prada, Max Mara at the upper end and becomes more mainstream as you approach the older part of the city. Visiting in sale time means there’s always a bargain to be had and with the effort the sales’ staff put into selling my favourite person a winter coat, I’d say things are pretty grim in retail! A walk down this street and a meal in one of the local restaurants is a way to gently ease yourself into Palermo.

We also went back to a favourite cafe Continue reading

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Piazza Armerina, Sicily – Oh, you mean Villa Romana del Casale

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The recently renovated  Villa Romana del Casale and its mosaics often feature on the itinerary when visiting Sicily and with good reason. What often doesn’t get included is a visit to the nearby town Piazza Armerina which in my view is another of Sicily’s hidden gems.

A day trip to Villa Romana from Siracusa by public transport involves an early bus or train to Catania and then a bus to Piazza Amerina. The general advice in Sicily is to take the bus option as they are generally considered more reliable. Once in Piazza Armerina it is necessary to arrange a transfer or shuttle bus to Villa Romana about 5 kms away.  We arranged for a transfer from Central Sicily Tours (the number one tour operator in Piazza Armerina and only one) to Villa Romano. As prearranged Roberto was there to meet us at the bus stop, a good thing as we timed our visit to coincide with a cold snap – it was 1.5C when we got off the bus and raining. The previous day’s snow was still on the rooves of the buildings.

image A web search of Puzza Armerina will probably tell you all about Villa Romana, as will a visit to Trip Advisor. They don’t in my opinion do justice to Piazza Armerina.

It is a town that doesn’t seem to have been afflicted with the Sicilan concrete obsession. The older part of the town was spared post WW2 concreting due to its being overlooked for development in favour of Enna. As a result a visit to Piazza Armerina provides a chance to see the old town as it was.

The town has many churches and piazzas. A number of the churches are not open but the works of art have been carefully removed and transferred to a gallery near the duomo.

There doesn’t seem to be a lot of tourist infrastructure with the number one Trip Advisor restaurant being a small family owned bar in the middle of town, Cafe des Amis which is “famous” for its arancini but should also be for having the cleanest toilets in Italy!

Piazza Armerina is a lovely town which will I’m sure eventually be discovered.

Duomo Piazza Armerina

Duomo Piazza Armerina

However, the true reason for our visit was to go to Villa Romana, Continue reading

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A second visit – Walking the Streets of Catania, Sicily

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Our first visit to Catania was to meet our daughter’s desire to  visit Mt Etna and had been to brief, so we decided on a second visit.  With it came more time to walk the streets.

Our previous visit, a couple of weeks earlier, had made it clear that observing the normal precautions of large cities meant Catania was a safe place to visit.  Sure Catania is a little chaotic and gritty but it has so much to offer the traveller.

Our first visit took us through Catania’s famous fish market and Piazza Duomo and a brief look at the baroque architecture, so this time we decided to venture further afield and fortunately the weather obliged.

Our hotel was a solid 15 minute walk from the bus station, a journey we took in the dark. The nearest we came to feeling unsafe was a reference to the “Ultras” graffitied  on a building. All of the buildings seem to have graffiti of some sort plastered on them, adding to the gritty feeling of the city.

This visit also gave us a chance to try some of the more typical food of the region that did not include horse! In our previous visit we had been looking for quick meals but with it just being the two of us, we had a little more time and were able to sample some amazing seafood pasta from the menu at Cantania Ruffiana. It offered enough choices that we wished we had time for a return visit.

As we sat down a couple of other tourists were surveying the menu. They were a little concerned about the prices, definitely higher than the norm and walked off. As so often is the case “you get what you pay for”. The cover charge, seemingly mandatory in even the cheapest Italian restaurant  included bread, bruschetta and desert, so at €12 for a plate of excellent seafood pasta and €5 for half a litre of house wine (see Travel Tip below) it was good value.

After weeks of Airbnb and boutique styled hotels we felt like we needed a change and  stayed in a well priced business hotel. Decent pillows, a proper double bed and satellite TV giving me a chance to watch a Third Round Replay of the FA Cup live, complete with German commentary! The trade-off was an average breakfast with ordinary coffee.

After our average breakfast and coffee, with our map of Catania and a little research we set out for a day walking the streets. Continue reading

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