Sunday, January 24, 2016

A Brush with History in the Roman Forum

Rome is a crazy, busy, noisy city. But step onto the ancient Via Sacra, past the Arch of Constantine and into the Roman Forum, and you will leave all of that behind. If your imagination is active enough, and you choose one of the side paths not trampled by the hordes of tourists, it is almost like taking a step back into time. The sprawl of ruins before you are returned to their original glory and you can pretend to rub shoulders with stately matrons doing their shopping or senators paying their respects at one of the many temples.

Gareth and I wandered up the Palatine Hill where, legend has it, the cave was located where the she-wolf raised the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome. We enjoyed the shady trees and the fountains in the gardens overlooking the Forum. The view over Rome was pretty amazing too.

Back along the Via Sacra, we strolled lazily past palaces and temples in various states of dilapidation, including the House of Tiberius, that seemed to imitate the Colosseum with its many arched windows, the tranquil House of the Vestals where virgins had once tended the sacred fire of the goddess of the hearth, and the Temple of Castor and Pollux, twin sons born to Leda and Zeus in the guise of a swan.

At the northwest corner of the Forum we found the Umbilicus Urbis, an ancient shrine that served as the symbolic centre of the city and was believed to be the site of a crack in the ground that allowed access to the underworld. Can you imagine what a scary place this must have been for the ancient Romans? Did they come here to commune with the spirits of the dead, or did they avoid it all costs?

Eventually we reached the end of our exploration and had to make our way back to the bustle of the city. But as we climbed the steps up to the Theater of Marcellus, we couldn't help but take a minute to stop and look down upon the Roman Forum again. A haven of tranquility, an ancient sanctuary, a piece of history in the midst of so much modernity, the Roman Forum is forever one of my favourite places in Rome.

Have you walked the ancient Via Sacra and visited the palaces and temples of the Roman Forum? Is this one of your bucket list items? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Conquering the Colosseum

Our first experience of the Colosseum left much to be desired.

It was the very first thing we went to see when we arrived in Rome. At 10:00 in the morning, the queue already stretched outside and around the building. Not having bought prepaid tickets, there was nothing for it but to go stand in the sun and hope the queue moved quickly. It didn't, and what was more, people were thronging and pushing and before we knew it, the two of us had been shoved out of the queue and left staring exasperatedly from the side as people streamed past us and refused to let us back in.

Hot and bothered, my fuse was too short to stand for it. We left in a huff, got onto the red Hop-On-Hop-Off and spent the rest of the day sitting comfortably as we toured around the streets of Rome. We returned much later that day, around 16:00 in the afternoon, to find that the queue had shortened considerably and that most of the morning's crowd had come and gone, leaving the ancient arena relatively quiet, or as quiet as you can hope for on a sunshiny day in June.

We were not disappointed.

I've visited the Colosseum twice before, but both previous times visitors were not allowed inside and only onto a little balcony from which you could look down into the exposed belly of the arena. This time we could go in and walk through the arena itself, up onto the first floor and along the walkways around the whole circumference of the building. If we had arrived sooner, we could also have taken a tour of the hypogeum, the underground area where the wild animals and gladiators were once kept. Maybe next time.

It was an amazing experience. Construction of the Colosseum was completed in 80 AD and it was as if every stone in the building was layered with ancient history. Just imagine the sights it must have seen... the bloodshed, the mock naval battles, the death of so many martyrs. It sent goosebumps up and down my arms the whole time we were there.

No wonder the Colosseum was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Have you visited the Colosseum? Were you as awestruck as we were? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Book Review: Venice, Pure City - Peter Ackroyd

Peter Ackroyd's sumptuous book Venice: Pure City is both evocative and mesmerising. It is a masterpiece of intellectual writing that manages to entertain and inform at the same time and is a wonderful read for anyone interested in the history of the iconic lagoon city.

Starting from its very origins when Venice was nothing more than a desolate marsh, Ackroyd paints a brilliant picture of the city from its earliest settlement, its rise in prosperity to its heydays as an empire of trade that dominated the surrounding seas as far as Constantinople, up until its current state of decline and status as a tourist's haven and mecca. It is not a dry history book that bombards the reader with dates and facts and the names of political leaders, but rather the loving memoir of a city that fills the imagination with wonder and a nostalgia for times gone by.

Venice was never a paradise on the water, though, and Ackroyd delves deeply into the details of its more sordid, and colourful, past, too. He explores the city of masks and the psychology of its inhabitants with their penchant for keeping secrets, mostly their own, and their tendency to spy on their neighbours. He leads us down into the duke's dungeons and out again hot on the heels of Venice's most famous son, Casanova.

We explore Venice as a living city, a city of art and language and learning and faith. A city that gave us renowned explorer Marco Polo, artists Titian and Tintoretto, and composer Vivaldi. A sacred city that draws pilgrims to its hallowed halls from all over the world.

I was in love with Venice before I read this book, but now I feel intimately acquainted, as if it is a part of my own history. It is a magical, thoughtful, read and one that will stay with me for a very long time.

Note: This post contains an affiliate link. It doesn't cost you extra, but it helps to fund my reading addiction if you choose to purchase something by using it.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

It's that time of the year again when people tend to sit back and ponder the inevitable passing of time, where we wonder where 2015 went in such a hurry and why we never got the time to do anything we had planned for the year. Inevitably, we still make lists about things we want to do in 2016. With a new year comes new resolutions and new optimism. What can I say, I'm generally a "glass is half full" kind of person.

Although I've been incredibly blessed, 2015 was emotionally a rough year for me. You'll notice that my blogging habits left much to be desired throughout most of the year, and that it stopped abruptly in August. Gareth and I received some rather unexpected, life-changing news: a little traveller will be joining our family early in 2016.

This has momentarily put a damper on our international travel plans. We wanted to visit Madagascar or Mauritius at the end of 2015, but since I'm not allowed to fly at the moment and because baby accessories cost a small (medium?) fortune, we are currently rooted close to home for the near foreseeable future.

Of course, that just won't do. So I've decided that the focus of this blog will change a little bit. We have been on a few local holidays and excursions in the past year (and yes, I'm guilty, I haven't written a word about them - this will be rectified soon) and it reminded me of what a wonderful country South Africa is. There is so much diversity and so many things to see and do right here that we tend to overlook when we plan trips to Finland and Italy instead.

So, as you read this blog post, Gareth and I have already spent a week recuperating from this hectic year on the beaches of Cape St Francis and are currently living it up at a little boutique hotel near the Hluhluwe Game Reserve. I'll have some posts to share about both, especially the latter, and I will also need to recount our wonderful April holiday in the Western and central Cape region.

The plan is to see and do more local things, as and when the baby allows, and to showcase the beauty that is South Africa. We have a saying here: "local is lekker", and 2016 will be all about making that saying come true.

In other blogging related news, I am also planning to (finally) change to a private domain and hosting and move this blog to a Word Press account. I want to blog more frequently (twice a week is what I will be aiming for at first) and I want to add some opportunities for collaboration with local tourism. More to follow on this in the new year.

For now, I wish you all a prosperous, happy and healthy New Year. May 2016 be the year in which we all make our wildest dreams reality!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Inside the Doge's Palace

The Doge's Palace, or Palazzo Ducale, is one of the iconic landmarks of the Piazza San Marco in Venice. For years I've been appreciating its Gothic architecture from the outside, but this year Gareth and I finally toured the interior as well.

If you don't mind queuing, you can buy tickets at the entrance on the day you want to go, but if you'd like to get a more in-depth look at the palace with a guide, then you need to book the Secret Itineraries tour months in advance. We opted to walk through the palace on our own and listen to snatches from tour guides as we passed them, which was good enough for us, along with my Top 10 Venice guide book, but doesn't really give you a clear idea of the history and an appreciation of the beautiful art inside.

Some of the highlights of the palace for us were the maps and globes, the armory, the lavish ceilings, the view over Venice from the windows on the top floors, walking across the Bridge of Sighs and feeling claustrophobic inside the dark and dingy dungeons.

Have you been to the Doge's Palace? Would you consider it one of the must-sees of Venice?

Note: This post contains an affiliate link. It doesn't cost you extra, but it helps to fund my reading addiction if you choose to purchase something by using it.

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Following in Indy's Footsteps and Meeting Da Vinci in Venice

What does wold-renowned fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones and Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci have in common? As it turns out, the church of San Barnaba in Venice, it seems.

Gareth and I, film buffs that we are, wanted to find where X marks the spot in one of our favourite movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so when we had some extra time in Venice we set out in search of the church (or library as depicted in the movie) from which Indy descends into the sewers and discovers the knight's rat-infested tomb.

We were both delighted and disappointed to find that the church was playing host at that time to an exhibition of the works of Da Vinci. It meant we would not be able to experience the setting as seen in the film, but since we didn't get the opportunity to visit the Da Vinci museum while in Tuscany, which was actually on our to-do list, we didn't mind too much to pay the entrance fee and kill two birds with one stone, figuratively speaking of course.

A large part of the exhibition was interactive and it was both fun and interesting to wander from one invention to the next, pulling on ropes, testing out pulleys and generally being amazed by the inventiveness of this man that had been so ahead of his time, and to whom we owe so many scientific discoveries.

He recorded his ideas in journals written in mirror-image cursive - I wonder why?

Da Vinci is probably best known as a painter and copies of some of his most celebrated works were also on display. We had the opportunity to have a closer look at the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, the Vitruvian Man and a famous self-portrait.

The morning's outing had turned into a classic case of travel serendipity. Have you had such moments where time and place collide to present you with a pleasantly unexpected discovery?

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Three Lesser Known Venetian Islands

Most people who visit Venice also take the time to see Murano (the glass island) and Burano (the lace island), but few venture further than that. Since Gareth and I had decided to make it our mission to see a different side of the lagoon city this time, we hopped onto a vaporetto and explored a little further.

San Michele - The Cemetery Island 

I’ve mentioned before that I have a strange, morbid fascination with cemeteries, the older the better. I like to read the names and dates on the graves and wonder about what kind of lives these people had lived, how they died, see if the family still honours their memories with flowers. The tiny island of San Michele is a dedicated graveyard. There are also two churches on the island, but a funeral was taking place when we visited, so we decided not to impose on the family’s grief and rather wandered through the rows and rows of graves, keeping out of their way. Apart from us and the mourners, there were only one or two other tourists around and a reverent hush hung in the air, disturbed only by the zoom of bees hovering from flower to flower.

It seems that life in Venice must generally be safe and healthy, since we saw very few graves whose inhabitants had not led a long life of at least seventy or eighty years. Their time on this island is much shorter, however. Because of the limited space, the dead do not actually rest in peace here for very long, because after a period of no more than ten years they are exhumed and their remains are stored elsewhere in an ossuary. A highly disturbing thought, I think, and also the reason why the graves were modern and did not make for very interesting reading material.

In respect for the deceased who do remain here, however, tourists are not allowed to take any photos on San Michele. I did take one, surreptitiously, rebel that I am, which serves as a poignant reminder of a morning spent in the company of the dead.

Lido - The Beach Island 

Blinded by the canals, one tends to forget that Venice is actually a seaside city. I wouldn’t recommend trying to swim in the Grand Canal, however. That’s why locals and the occasional tourist in the know head for Lido instead. Of course, you have to pay to gain entry to the beach itself, and then you have to pay for a reclining chair and then pay even a little bit more if you want an umbrella too, but once you’ve found your spot, you can spend the whole day just lazing about, watching the water ripple to shore. We were there in June and the beach was not very crowded at all, nothing like the sea of human bodies that crowd the KZN coastline at the height of a South African summer. And, also unlike our local beaches, topless tanning is not only allowed but seems to be encouraged. Just be warned that not all exhibitionists are as young and pretty as you’d like them to be...

Torcello - The Cathedral Island 

It takes a good hour or so to travel to Torcello, and once you’re there, do take note of when the boat comes again, because if you miss it you’ll be stranded on the island for another hour or two until the next one arrives, as we found out. But the trip was totally worth it to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It was built in the 7th century, which, if you think about it, is pretty ancient. We’re talking the year 639 AD ancient. As such, the cathedral itself is not in very good condition and is in desperate need of restoration, but this is exactly what makes it so attractive. The interior contains mosaics from the late 11th century that depict, amongst others, the twelve apostles. Mind bogglingly, I think they might have been done at a time when people may still have known, or remembered in some fashion, what the apostles had actually looked like. Again, you’re not allowed to take pictures in here, but you can buy postcards at the cathedral’s shop to keep your own memories fresh.

These three islands may be off the beaten tourist track, but if you're looking for a day away from the crowds and are in search of something different and interesting to do in Venice, then they are the ideal getaway and a wonderful way to learn a little more about the history and culture of this amazing city on the waters.

Have you visited San Michele, Lido or Torcello? What did you like most about these islands and would you recommend them to other visitors?

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.