Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The story of Luigi and the Remote Control Plane

Sorry for the long absence but I have been knee deep in work over the last few weeks which is no easy thing to come by here in Italy, so I am taking it as it comes. Anyway I have returned to give you a brief account of my boyfriend's first attempt to fly his new remote control plane that I bought for him.

Luigi is a plane enthusiast and it is his dream to fly. He travels to air shows and almost crashes the car when we drive past the airport as he studies the skies. I spent the first three months of this year dodging a small remote control helicopter that he got for Christmas as he flew it around the apartment without pause. Dodging it became an art as I moved from room to room, did the ironing or sat watching TV. Sometimes the urge to swat it was overpowering but I resisted and swatted him instead. Anyway it all ended badly when I decided to fly it after drinking one too many red wines. A crash into the ceiling followed by a vertical plunge to the tiled floor meant the end of its flying life.

Guilt set in after enjoying several evenings of silence (both from the helicopter and the boyfriend). During a trip home to the UK I bought him a remote control plane (for beginners and for outside). Taking it back on board BA brought some sniggers from the crew and a more than unhealthy interest from the captain but needless to say Luigi was quite pleased.

It sat in its box for several weeks as we searched for a suitable zone in which to fly it. We staked out fields, beaches, hillsides and parkland until deciding on the spot most suitable for the grand event. Then we waited for the weather conditions to be correct. Not too windy, not wet, not too hot.

At last the day came.

We drove to the field we had chosen and Luigi carefully took it out of the box. Its gleaming white paint glinted in the sunshine. I held it as he pressed the remote to listen to the roar of the engines. It was fully charged. He held it up to check the wind direction. I was ready with my camera.

Finally he ran across the field launching the plane into the open field for its maiden flight. After a moment's hestitation the plane grabbed the breeze and took to the skies. It bounced on the air currents with its rotors powering it up and away with my man at the controls. Just as out my camera out however things took a literal turn for the worse. Less than five seconds after take off a gust of wind took the plane into a perfect 180 degree turn and into the waiting branches of a nearby tree where it became jammed.

Far too high for us to reach it, and no chance of it falling down by itself, and me only falling about laughing, it was the end of the little planes maiden voyage. And the biggest regret? Not catching it on camera. Poor Luigi was crestfallen. We gathered the instructions, the remote control and spare propellor back in the box and went home minus the plane.

We did manage to return a couple of weeks later with stepladders and long sticks and retrieve it, but it has never flown again.

Still sat in the box waiting for the right weather, field, day etc

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shopping for food in Italy ...At the Supermarket

Italian food is wonderful. There is no doubt that the best meal you will ever taste is cooked in a hidden away Trattoria, that usually looks closed from the outside, with paper tablecloths, and packed to the roof with ravenous locals. But trying to buy the ingredients is not a matter to be taken lightly.

Unlike the UK which has completely been taken over with large supermarket shopping, life here is relatively old fashioned. The three main choices are supermarkets (think corner spar shop rather than tescos), local shops and local markets. Here is my part one survival guide to shopping - at the supermarket.

In Italy, supermarkets only sell food . You may find a pile of strange goods near the entrance on sale including a broken plant pot, a light up nativity set or a nose hair plucker, but do not expect to be able to buy your cigarettes, shop for a TV, buy your life insurance, exchange travel money or visit the website.

Expect a maximum of two brands for each item on the whole. Chick peas are chick peas, and there seems no need for twenty different varieties on sale, and quite right too. For bread and cured meats however there is a bewildering choice. Expect to stand in line for at least twenty minutes to buy these items (you cannot just buy bread off the shelves, you have to fight for it and be mean) and be prepared to justify why you have chosen any particular thing, and have answers ready relating to which varieties of wine would go best with it.

And whilst you are at it, why not taste some of this cheese, have you tried that ham with this bread, and how is your aunty? Ok, so maybe this is an exaggeration, but it is more or less the prolonged conversation I hear between the surly cashier and the customer in front of me.

Then its the checkout. There will be a queue, and the cashier may close or disappear randomly at any time. She will ask each and every person if they need a bag, if they have a loyalty card and if they have the correct change. Hardly anyone pays by card here. In turn, they will look shocked at the notion of paying, hunt long and hard for their purse, and proceed to count out small change that would fuel an amusement arcade on Blackpool prom for a month, and then realise that they do not have enough to be of assistance. Not one person will anticpate this questions, even if they come everyday, instead patiently wait to be asked one by one.

Unloading the basket or trolley is also fraught with danger. It is done here on a one at a time basis. No matter how long the queue. So even if the conveyor belt is empty, do not even think about starting to unpack, especially if there is no 'next customer' plastic thingy. You will cause upset and distress. Instead wait patiently for the customer before you to unload items, one at a time, checking once again for freshness, going to fetch something they have forgotten, and then try and stack the basket into the overflowing pile for at least two minutes.

Then they will need to wait for the cashier to empty her till of notes into at least five different envelopes that all have a form to be filled in by hand, take a phone call, and then go outside for a cigarette before reluctalty returning to her work. The items will be processed one by one, at not great speed I promise, and then the customer will be asked if they want a bag, have a loyalty card or the correct change (see above for shock at being asked this difficult to anticpate questions...).

Then, and only then, will the cashier pass the bags and the customer start to pack their things away. Now you can start to unload your shopping and so the cycle continues.

The main difference is that the notion of food shopping is one of pleasure for Italians. It is not to be rushed. Many women still stay at home, especially the older ones, during the day, yet all choose to shop at lunchtime or around 6-7pm. There is no notion of the ten items or less. There is a notion of social interaction, of this being a task that should take you half an hour even if you only want a pint of milk and a white bap for your chip butty. Time in the queue is time to evaluate other people's shopping. Listen to conversations. Often the one the cashier is having on her telephone.

I am not sure if our habit of seeing the weekly shop as a chore, that is more and more frequently being given over to an online list and delivery service, is the right one. It is good to smell, touch and taste what you buy. To enjoy the process of making a meal. But not when I have half an hour for my lunch and just want to buy some bread.....

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Buried deep down in the catacombs on the Appian Way, Rome

A short distance away from the historic centre of Rome, you will find the Appian Way, a Roman military road that was built to connect Rome with the south of Italy. Visitors to Rome can escape the city centre chaos for a few hours and enjoy a walk in the fresh air, or take the opportunity to explore some of the ancient catacombs to learn more about Italy’s ancient history.

Stand on the oldest parts of the Appian Way, or Appia Antica, and the straight path of ancient uneven flagstones stretches far in front of you as far as the eye can see. Try and imagine the Roman soldiers marching off to war as they founded the empire around 300BC, or even more, consider the people who built it. Today the historic tree-lined Appia Antica is a haven for walkers, cyclists, horse-riders and dog walkers, escaping the noise and chaos of the city for a few hours.

The road starts at Porta San Sebastiano, where there is an interesting museum dedicated to the ancient city walls. Once on your way, there are plenty of monuments to see such as the circular tomb of Cecilia Metella and the small church of Domine Quo Vadis? where a fleeing Peter met Jesus and was persuaded to return to Rome and meet his persecutors. Also take time to peer past the private gates of the lavish villas that belong to some of Rome’s more elite residents.

As well as being the main route from Rome to the south of Italy, the Appia Antica was one of the places that ancient Romans came to bury their dead. In ancient times, it was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls, leading to the creation of a network of catacombs around the periphery. There are 60 catacombs altogether in Rome, stretching for hundreds of kilometres under the ground, with 5 open to the public. Two of these are on the Appian Way with the biggest and oldest being the Catacombs of San Callisto, where it is recommended you pause for an hour and take advantage of one of the guided tours down to the tombs.

The Catacombs of San Callisto are a labyrinth of tunnels stretching for 20kms and built on 4 different levels deep under the ground. Dating from the 3rd Century, the walls are covered with hollows that once housed the remains of the Roman citizens wrapped in a simple white cloth and laid next to their possessions, before being sealed forever.

Rows and rows of empty rectangular tombs line every corridor, some only big enough to hold a small baby. Then there are the triangular-shaped family tombs with their frescoed walls, given to families who donated large sums to the church during their lifetimes. All silent, and now, all empty. At one time, there were even 9 Popes buried here although these were later moved to St. Peter’s Basilica. It was also the original burial place of Santa Cecilia, who was later moved to Trastevere.

The tombs did a brisk business until the 9th Century when they were ransacked by Barbarians. The tombs were unsealed, the possessions stolen and a trail of bones and earth left scattered on the floor. Following this almost complete destruction, the catacombs were abandoned, and left forgotten until being accidently rediscovered in 1849 when a local historian tripped over a hole on the Appian Way.

A restoration and excavation project of the tombs was started following his suspicions of what lay beneath, a project which still continues as much of the catacombs remain unexplored. Today you can take guided tours around the tombs which last around 40mins. But be warned. As you descend down the deep, dark, damp staircases to the second level, and are surrounded by empty graves and displays of bones, this is not a tour for the claustrophobic or squeamish.

The Catacombs are closed on Wednesdays and during February, Christmas Day, New Years Day and Easter. Guided tour 6 euros.

How to Get There
Reach the Appian Way and the Catacombs by taking the 118 bus from just outside the Pyramide Metro Stop (Blue Line). This bus stops at both the Porta San Sebastiano, and the Catacombs, so you can walk one way, and then catch the bus back. The really energetic, or those on bikes, can continue along to Lake Albano, a journey of around 14km, and then take the train back.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

See Caravaggio for Free in Rome

There is something about Caravaggio that fascinates people. Even those who would normally prefer to cross a street of hot coals than spend time looking at paintings seem happy to make an exception for this rebel of Counter-Renaissance Art. To celebrate the Rome exhibition that has just opened at the Villa Borghese to celebrate his work along with Francis Bacon, it seemed timely look at this bad boy of the paintbrush and send you around Rome to see some of his masterpieces for free!

So just who was Caravaggio?
Whilst most artists of the Middle Ages were more soft ruffles than tough scuffles, Caravggio was not afraid of a fight, a drink and the odd murder to boot. Commission happy, the taste of luxury did not bring out his lighter side. As well as pushing the Catholic church to the edge with his dark religious paintings, he eventually lost his temper once too often. After killing a young man who beat him in a tennis match in the Campo Dei Fiori, he fled Rome with a price on his head. He finally died in exile, never learning that he had been given a Papal Pardon.

Where can I see Caravaggio for free?

Sant’ Agostino Church, Via Sant’ Agostino
The Madonna di Loreto (1605) is hung in the first chapel on the left. The church is close to Piazza Navona, and also includes a Raphael fresco. Currently under restoration but don’t be fooled. Under the scaffolding, it is still open so you can see the paintings. For those who pregnant or wish to be, touch the statue of the Madonna del Parto near the door as you leave for luck.

San Luigi dei Francesa, Via Giustiniani
In this church you get three for your non-existent entrance fee with the Matthew trilogy, including The Calling of Saint Matthew, St Matthew and the Angels and The Matrydom of Saint Matthew. This church is close to the centre, a short walk from the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, and next to the French institute with its wonderful bookshop.

Santa Maria Del Popolo, Piazza Del Popolo
This church is around a 20 min walk from the historic centre, or you take the Metro Linea A to Flaminio. Here you can find two paintings, the Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter, so well worth the journey.

And if I want to pay?
Well if you are at the Santa Maria del Popolo, it is just a short walk up the hill to the Galleria Borghese, and its wonderful park. Here you can see three Caravaggio works, Sick Bacchus, Boy with Bag of Fruit and Madonna dei Palafrenieri. Entrance will cost you 8.50 but you also get to see the amazing Bernini sculpture of Daphne and Apollo amongst many other treasures. At the moment, you can also access the Caravaggio and Bacon exhibition on until January. Lastly, you can see Gypsy Fortune Teller at the Capitoline Museums, entrance fee 6.50. Don’t forget that both of these museums are included in the Rome Pass Scheme (see last blog).

What else do I need to know
Please note that many churches are closed during the afternoons between 1-4, but usually stay open in the evening until around 7pm.

For the Galleria Borghese, you need to book in advance as only a limited number are allowed in at any one time. Details here http://www.galleriaborghese.it/nuove/emostre.htm

The Roma Pass is a 3 day pass that gives you free access to two museums, free travel on Rome’s public transport, and discounts to other museums and attractions. Cost 23 euros. http://www.romapass.it/p.aspx?l=en&tid=2

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A weekend of cultural training in Rome

Whilst I like to conjour up images of weekends spent dashing around the ancient city, eating long lunches at various trattorias, and romantic walks along the Appian Way, the reality is often much the same as it was at home in Manchester. Except it is usually a little sunnier.

Visits to the supermarket, cleaning the kitchen, ironing and falling asleep on the settee in front of a film on Sunday afternoons are the same no matter where you are. And it is surprising how quickly you lose the urge to head to the centre and jostle with the crowds, to see Rome's finest attractions, after those first few europhic weeks of admiring churches, ruins, faded frecsoes and old stuff.

However I have been getting a little frustrated with myself as I am so near to all these wonderful momuments and parks, that I decided that it is time to get out there and see a few more of them, for pleasure rather than just for research. Anyway, here is a summary of the weekend so far...

Friday evening was my boyfriends birthday so we went out for a family meal at a wonderful little place in Fiumicino, with his parents and brother. Just under the flight path of Rome's main airport it has to be said, but they serve fantastic fresh fish or pizza. Anyway as usual I ate too much. I picked at everyone's starter, half a plate of pasta with fish, ate a huge steak and managed to drink the best part of a bottle of wine, and after protesting that I could not eat anymore, tasted just about everyone's dessert as well.

Saturday morning I woke up with a little bit of a headache but driven onwards by the fact that I had something really important to do. As I am now working from home travel writing and editing, I needed some new desk items (pretty files, pen holders, candles, plants etc). Needed is possibly a little strong, but accessorising ones desk is important for inspiration. Now whether you are in Rome, London or the muddle of the Sahara Desert, there is only one destination for any self respecting accessory seeker - IKEA! Yes, we battled the crowds, kneed old ladies, trolley bashed young children and fought for not only what we needed, but loads of other things as well. And you can just never have too many incense, cushion covers, and wicker baskets. And plants. Luigi hates plants. I swear that when I go away, he shouts at them.

Saturday evening was time for a visit to the pub and a Beatles tribute band. They were great. The main difference is that is in a bar here, people eat rather than drink themselves into a silly stupor, and singing along is limited. This is partly because they are in the middle of hamburger and chips, but also as they struggle with the words. 'She loves you yeah, yeah yeah', is pretty much universal, but come the verses and people look at the floor, remember to sip the half a lager that lasts them all evening, or check their mobiles nervously before the long awaited chorus returns.

I was impressed with the singer's mastery of english and his pretty authentic accent so complemented him afterwards in my best Italian. Turns out he was born in Crewe which could explain it.

Sunday morning and 7am sees the daily alarm call of the neighbours upstairs, not only the habitual seventeen laps of the bedroom above in heeled shoes by the wife, but the husband shouting at her as well. Its not just us that would prefer it if she relocated somewhere else then. I would definitely like to relocate her shoes somewhere.

Anyway 1st November and the sun is shining, and its around 25 degrees. So we decided to go for a walk around the Via Appia Antica which is near the house. We stopped at the Catacombs of San Callisto as I want to write an article on Underground Rome. 20km of underground tombs, on 4 levels. Fascinating even if it was cold down there and a little claustrophobic at times. Half a million people were buried here around 3rd Century, and that is to say nothing of the other 59 catacombs across Rome.

We ended the walk with a look around the Fosse Ardeatine Memorial for 335 Italian people shot in an undergound cave by German soliders at the end of the second world war. Italian renegades has attacked and killed some German soldiers the day before and as a reprisal, 10 Italians for every German killed were shot at point black range. The group should have been made up from prisoners on death row, but the short deadline meant that many civilians were rounded up off the streets including one child. A poignant moment in an otherwise frivoulous weekend, and as tomorrow Italy has a national day of Remembrance, one I am pleased we took.

Now it is Sunday afternoon. We have just eaten another huge lunch, drunk too much wine and Luigi is asleep in front of the Grand Prix. Showing as much action as Ferrari this season in fact (ha ha). Facing us is a huge pile of ironing and cleaning the bathroom, with maybe a DVD for later. And of course, I must rearrange yet again my new purchases from the world of flat pack storage.

So all in all, a nice weekend, a good mix of Rome stuff and ordinary things. I wonder what I would have done had I been still in the UK. Many people who read this blog are from the US as well as the UK and around Europe.

I wonder what you did this weekend? Would love to hear about it!



Thursday, October 29, 2009

Idiots Guide to Italian Wine Classifications

As Autumn draws near and the harvest and festival season is underway across Italy in the vineyards, I thought I would write a short guide to Italian wines to help you on your merry way. This guide offers a not so serious look at what those labels mean ..

DOCG - Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita
The best of the best. To be sipped seriously and served on very special occasions such as marriage proposals, or sampled freely and without discretion at wine tastings.

DOC wine - Denominazione di Origine Controllata
Good stuff. Wine that has passed a strict set of tests to ensure its provenance. Probably one to bring on a first date ensuring date in question can see the label at all times.

IGT - Indicazione di Geografica Tipica
General wines that are suitable for the table. Some DOC wines fall under this to avoid the paperwork for DOC status, so worth tasting them all to check. Works well also if drunk as a second bottle and useful for third dates and beyond.

VdT - Vino Da Tavola
A table wine that is vague about its origins. Fine in an emergency but most suitable for unwanted house guests or to give at Christmas to colleagues and distant relatives you only see duirng the festive season.

So hope that helps. Best advice really, is just to try as many as you can!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Three Top Roman Museums and a discount card

A short guide to 3 museums included on the Roma Pass Discount Card
The Capitoline Musems
With their spectacular setting designed by Michelangelo, overlooking the Forum and Colosseum, these are some of the most visited museums in Rome. Browse the bronze statues, sculptures and Renaissance paintings including Caravaggio’s ‘Good Fortune’. http://en.museicapitolini.org/

The Ara Pacis
The Ara Pacis monument dates back to the 13th Century BC, a peace monument put in place by Emperor Augustus. Surrounded by a controversial new modern white building, it is hard to miss this museum on the edge of the river where you can enjoy a regular programme of art exhibitions. http://en.arapacis.it/

The Centrale Montemartini Museums.
This museum of industrial archaeology contrasts imposing electricity generators against classic Roman sculptures which found during excavations at the end of the 19th century. Housed in the enormous first electrical plant in Rome, the combination of classic art and modern machinery is strangely haunting. http://en.centralemontemartini.org/

The Roma Pass
All the museums above are part of the Roma Pass scheme. This 3-day pass costs 23 euros, and includes admission to two participating museums, free access to public transport, a map, an events guide and a whole host of discounts to exhibitions, shows and events round Rome. Included in the scheme is the Colosseum, and pass holders can use a special turnstile so you can avoid the queues.