Thursday, October 28, 2010

Water watching: Roman edition

Water seems more abundant in Rome than in most large cities. There are many wonderful fountains besides the enormous Trevi fountain. I liked the Seahorse fountain commissioned in 1791 by Prince Marcantonio Borghese when he renovated the Borghese gardens. Fountains like this combine two of my loves: art and flowing water.
There are many small fountains throughout the city and amazingly for the thirsty tourist, the simple ones provide drinkable water.
Rome has a tradition of good water delivery starting in ancient times. The ancient Romans built many aquaducts to provide water to a city that reached a million inhabitants. There were many public baths; the Baths of Caracalla were the largest and by one estimate could accomodate up to 6000 people at one time.
  Any water watching enthusiast visiting Rome should try to make the day trip to Villa d'Este in Tivoli.
 It's a very easy trip that only costs a few euros. Take the B line of the subway to the Ponte Mammolo station. There, buy tickets to Tivoli on the regional Cotral bus. (You might as well buy one ticket to go and one for the return trip. This will save you from having to buy a ticket at the bar in Tivoli. Just validate one in the bus's machine and keep the other one for the return trip.)
 Villa d'Este, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was built in the Renaissance by Cardinal Ippolito II d'Este after he tried and failed to become pope. Water is everywhere; the cardinal really got carried away. The fountains are all fed by gravity; no pumps are used. Part of the water comes from a river that is partially diverted and some of it comes from a spring.
In one part of the garden there is long row of fountains and each of the many heads that spout water seems to be different.
 Villa d'Este is  often called a fantasy garden. It would certainly be my fantasy of where I would like to stroll whenever I wanted or what I could listen to from my bedroom.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Romans friends

I love to meet people when I travel. It may be someone who helps me with directions, a kind waiter or waitress, or a museum guard who is seems thrilled to have a tourist finally say something to her. We appreciated the man I asked for directions walking us way out of his way to a restaurant he recommended. I enjoyed meeting the guy at a fruit store who learning we are from near Chicago greeted me in cheerful English thereafter. (While it is rare in small towns in Italy, a lot of Romans answered me in English. I can get peeved when people switch languages on me but in Rome it seemed to come not from thinking that my Italian wasn't good enough but a genuine desire to meet me half way on the linguistic playing field.)
  On our recent trip we met up with one of my "imaginary friends" from Ravelry, the knitting and crocheting social networking site. Alice is a talented and smart thirty year old. Besides speaking flawless English, she knows much more than I do about American popular culture. One of her avocations is subtitling American TV shows, mostly ones I've never heard of. (I admit it, I don't know what is going on around me sometimes.) We spent an afternoon together and she took us to a yarn store.
We have a slight disparity of height and age but a shared love of yarn...and gelato—Alice took us to an amazing gelato place. Then we spent a long time sitting around in a beautiful square just talking about life, the universe, and everything.
  One of our favorite people in Rome worked at the bakery we frequented. There was a mind boggling array of bread, cookies, fresh pasta and other comestibles. Our guide to it was this ebullient guy who gave us samples, recommended kinds of bread, sliced it by hand, and cheered us on our way.
Apparently selling to foreigners is his favorite thing in the world. Typical exchange:
Him: You want some sweets, too?
Me: You are a genius.
Him: Yes, I am the genius of love too!

Friday, October 22, 2010

They're all good

A major reason we love the Italian culture is the food.
After traveling quite extensively in Italy, I rarely consult guidebooks for help on choosing restaurants. For one thing, many of our travels in Italy have been by bicycle and a guidebook that covered the small cities we stayed in would be far too heavy to carry on a bike.
  There is also a more important and better reason. Once, we were questioning the guy at the front desk of our hotel in Pavia about good places to eat. He described several places and finally said, "Well, really, they are all good."
 The wonder of Italy is that it's true. In many months of traveling and hundreds of meals, we can recall only one really bad meal. (It was in Venice. One does need to be careful in Venice. There are very few Italians actually living in there because it's so expensive and the restaurants don't depend on regular customers.)
Our method of finding good places to eat in Italy:
1. Avoid any restaurant that has big photos of the food outside, large and prominently displayed tourist menus in English, or has a person encouraging you to go in.
2. Walk a little ways from a popular tourist site. Unless you are inside a tourist site, such as a major museum, which might have a quite decent restaurant which can be a good place to have lunch or a snack so you can see more art without fainting.
3. Look at the general appearance of the place and if people already eating look happy.
4. For a special night out, ask someone local. People working at hotels are excellent sources of info.
5. Don't worry about it too much. With very few exceptions, they are good.
For lunch, search out bars. A bar in Italy is a place not just for drinks and coffee, but for wonderful sandwiches. You can check out a bar by walking in and looking at the sandwiches and desserts in the glass case. If they don't look delicious, just keep walking. In small towns, bars don't always have sandwiches prepared in advance so go to the nicest bar you see, whose vibe attracts you. Or go to the only bar. It will probably be just fine.
Some bars require you to pay for your food first and give the receipt to the person at the counter who gives you the food. Don't worry if your Italian isn't up to the challenge. Bars in Italy tend to be staffed by cheerful people that want to unite you with food and drink. Many bars have someone who will help the bewildered tourist and many will have you pay after you have your food so you can create less confusion. If you want to sit down and eat, rather than at the counter, you will be waited on and pay at the end. If you need to, you can go point out what you want to eat and then go back to your table. If you are a tourist with tired feet, having a good sit down isn't really that expensive. Indulge yourself. If you are your feet don't hurt, stand at the bar and enjoy going native.
Italians are excellent hosts and usually very adaptable. You want to share a pizza even though Italians never do that? You only want a first course and a salad but no second course? You want your salad first instead of at the end of the meal? You want a cappuccino after dinner instead of at breakfast? Most Italian restaurants will accommodate these deeply strange requests without any fuss or comment. Or, as my Italian tutor told me, commentary will occur only in the kitchen.
  There are a couple of points of etiquette that non-Italians may not be aware of.  Meals are served in courses. So if only one person in a large group orders an appetizer all the other diners will probably wait until that person is served and has eaten the appetizer. Secondly, almost all food in Italian kitchens is cooked to order by a small staff. (If any frozen ingredients are used in a dish, it must be indicated on the menu.) Give the kitchen a break and do as the Italians do: if you are in group, order the same thing or at least limit the number of different dishes you order.
   Buon appetito and don't forget the gelato!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Slow travel

Mr. Rududu and I like to explore places in depth. This month we took that idea to its logical conclusion and stayed in Rome for over two weeks.
It was a vacation full of adventures with massive doses of history and art that left us wanting to go back.  I have enough photos to make anyone's eyes glaze over—including mine—and this week's project is to edit them mercilessly. Oddly, it's a lot easier to choose the best few photos of the Colosseum than to decide what to keep of many less famous places and things. I'm working on it...but I certainly need to keep this one.
The weather was ideal. The few days with rain predicted always had their predictions improved by the time they arrived; usually the weather was sunny and warm but not hot.
  That September and October may be the nicest months for visiting Rome is no secret judging by hoards of other tourists. If you are looking at something famous in Rome, you probably won't be alone. Here for example are the crowds approaching the Sistine Chapel. (Being in the chapel was better. Most people don't stay very long.)
We usually managed to find the crowds festive rather than annoying. We kept in mind that they were there out of a mutual interest. We alternated places that are on everyone's wish list with places that are not as well known. Museums and ruins that elsewhere would be on the top of lists are often quite uncrowded and having time to explore them is surely a major advantage of slow travel. Since we were on a more relaxed schedule than tourists with just a few days in Rome, we also found that letting tour groups pass us in museums was a good tactic. Instead of following along in a large noisy group, we often had rooms of fabulous art pieces all to ourselves.
  We rented two different Roman apartments through a site I just read about this summer: airbnb. It's a combination of B & B agency and social networking site. Renters rate the places they stay and owners also rate the guests. Some people rent just a room or even just a sofa and there can be back and forth communication setting up a rental. One pays in advance but the money is kept in escrow until 24 hours after arrival, providing some protection against scams or misrepresentations. We opted for entire apartments and loved both places that we stayed. One was near Trastevere and is owned by David, a very helpful guy that walked us around the neighborhood to orient us and gave us printed instructions for using the public transit system to get to all major tourist areas. The owner of the second place, Luca, was charming and his apartment was centrally located and very spacious. Here is a photo of its living and dining area.
I loved being able to cook and eat at "home" some days. We had a very happy experience renting through airbnb and will do it again. In fact, I find looking at places on the airbnb site and fantasizing about different trips quite addictive. (How about a castle in England for $2000 a night?) As I digest my Roman holiday and get my photos in order I will share a few other highlights of our trip. Arrivederci!