Saturday, May 3, 2014

36 Hours in Paris

The Sorbonne University of Paris
We returned our rental car to the Bari Airport in southeast Italy, and flew Easyjet back to Paris, where we would ready ourselves for the trip back to America.  This time we stayed on the Left Bank in a hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens and the Sorbonne University.  It rained when we arrived, but other than a few very brief showers, the weather for our short visit was perfect: sixties and sunny.

The Parthenon
On our first evening, we took a walk in the crisp night air, passing by the Pantheon, a grand-pillared structured where many of the Parisian elite are buried.  The Pantheon was impressive enough, but the monumental buildings surrounding it were bathed in warm golden light.  This is what Anne loves so much about Paris: it is drop dead gorgeous even where you don’t expect it to be.

Place Contrescarpe on rue Mouffetard
We continued on to rue Mouffetard, one of our favorite haunts in Paris.  Rue Mouffetard is a popular shopping street, and, in the past, we had always visited during the day.  Now after dark, we noted that the patrons were considerably younger and the streets were humming with youthful energy (lots of that ubiquitous French testosterone permeating the air, LOL).  Oh! To be young and in Paris!  (Actually, it’s not too bad at our advanced ages either!)

Enjoying the Iranian music at Cafe Colbeh
For something different, we ate dinner at an Armenian/Iranian café called Café Colbeh.  The food was good and quite different, and our hardworking Iranian waitress flew around the small space waiting on all the customers.  We hadn’t even noticed the sound system squeezed into a far back corner, but soon the room was filled with haunting Iranian music; everyone was swaying to the exotic rhythms.  What fun!

Souvenir Shopping

With just one full day in Paris before our return to America, we didn't try to accomplish too much, but we managed to do some of our favorite things.  We grabbed a quick lunch at a favorite crepe stand near the Cluny museum that we had frequented years ago, and ate our yummy crepes on a park bench in the secluded park right next to the Cluny.  We also did some souvenir shopping, found a new fine chocolate shop called Michael Chaudon (although he is no competition for Anne’s "choco-throb", Jean-Paul Hevin), and even watched some old men playing a springtime  pick-up game of petanque in one of the parks. 


It was spring, and Paris was in full bloom!  We walked past sparkling tulips, luscious roses, and fragrant lilac bushes.  

Rodin's "The Thinker"
We ended our day with a visit to the gardens at the Rodin Museum where the combination of sunshine, flowers, fountains, and amazing sculptures offered a perfect Paris-in-springtime treat.

This brings us to the end of yet another travel adventure.  Tomorrow we go home.  We hope you have enjoyed reading our blog, and as always, we thank you for sharing this experience with us!

At the Rodin Musee

Monday, April 28, 2014

Six Nights in a Trullo

The trulli at our B&B Fontana Vecchia
When we finally got our rental car, we needed to make the trip to our next B&B in Valle d’Istria in the southern Italian region of Puglia.  If you look at a map of Italy, Puglia is located in the heel part of the boot.

Some of you may recall, that Anne had become quite frustrated with navigating in Italy during last year’s trip, so this year we brought our own GPS (a Garmin updated with Italian maps).  The GPS actually worked quite well initially although it did not recognize the exact address of our B&B, so we had to ramble around a bit but finally found our way.  

The strange cone-roofed trulli homes of Valle d'Istria
We are staying in a wonderful B&B in a strange limestone structure called a "trullo".  This part of Puglia is known for their unique buildings called trulli (plural of the word trullo) with their cylindrical bases and cone-shaped roofs that look like something in which the Keebler elf might raise a family.  Trulli date back to the 1500’s and no one is sure of their origin or exactly why they were devised.  One popular idea is that they were designed as a way to dodge property taxes.  Trulli were built without mortar, and skilled trulli builders could put one up in a matter of hours, so the theory is that the peasants would dismantle their trulli homes before the tax man arrived and put them back together after he was gone.  Pretty clever - no house, no taxes!!

Our trullo during the April cold & wet spell
Now here is the thing about trulli.  In the summer, trulli are very comfortable; the thick stone walls keep them nice & cool without the need for any air conditioning.  However, if you arrive during an April cold spell (like we did) with 40-degree temperatures and driving rains, the trulli tend to hold the cold and damp conditions.  Our trullo was adorable, but we would have enjoyed it much more during warmer, dryer weather.

Low arches made Frank feels a bit like Gulliver
 (from "Gulliver's Travels") as he tries to fit
into our Lilliputian accommodations
We have to be honest and admit that Puglia has been somewhat of a disappointment.  Of course, the bad weather has not helped, and we have both been battling miserable colds.  But we can’t help comparing Puglia with other parts of Italy that we loved, like Sicily and the Piedmont, and although the people here are absolutely lovely, the overall experience has not been what we hoped for.  However that is not to say that we didn’t have fun.

Trulli-lined streets of Alberobello, Italy

The village of Alberobello, known as the Capital of the Trulli, is pretty much “trulli central” with street after street of these fairytale-like structures.  Many have been transformed into souvenir shops and the town is definitely touristy, but it is still a unique & great place to roam (and shop). 

Antonella teaches us all about Puglian wine

In one shop, enthusiastic Antonella gave us some generous wine pourings along with samples of all kinds of Puglian specialities like crispy chocolate treats made with fried rice, an onion relish, and biscotti with almonds.  She was so lively, and so much fun to joke around with since she spoke just enough English to understand our humor, and we hers!

The beautiful town of Locorotondo
Locorotondo and Cisternino

Locorotondo is considered one of the most beautiful cities in Italy.  We have to admit that our first impression was not good, but the old historic center is completely different from the drab modern city.  The old section sits on a hill and all the buildings are almost blindingly white, with architecture like some city in Morocco.

If you look carefully, you can see the witch
hanging overhead between buildings

In one street we saw what looked like a doll dressed up like an old woman hanging directly over the middle of the street. We learned this was part of a Puglian tradition -- Puglia still has some strange (almost pagan) customs.  These witch dolls are strung up in many of the villages on Ash Wednesday.  The witch represents the sins of the village, and after mass on Easter, the people burn the witch to symbolize washing away their sins and making a fresh start.

A toast to "Vinella" made by Alessia's father

From Locorotondo we continued on to another lovely village called Cisternino.  We ate a delicious pasta lunch here sitting at an outside café, so happy to be out in the sunshine.  Our waitress Alessia was such a doll.  She gave us free glasses of a liquor called “Vinella” that tasted like cherries and an even better, wonderfully nutty liquor called “Nicciolina” made from hazelnuts.  Alessia’s Dad concocts these delightful potent drinks himself, and we felt honored to get a sample.

Mimmo pours the cream into his gelato machine
But the highlight of our visit was a stop by the local gelateria called “L’Era Glaciale” (means "The Glacial Age") where the congenial owner, Mimmo, chatted with us for a while and then asked if we wanted to go in the back and watch him make some gelato.  Frank was thrilled – no way were we going to turn down this opportunity! 

Frank enjoys the freshest gelato ever
 (thanks to our new friend, Mimmo)
Mimmo explained that he uses only the best cream and fresh milk as ingredients, and he showed us how the liquid is turned into ice cream in a special multi-paddled mixer.  Next he put the paddled & thickened cream in a heavy duty refrigerator (cost him 9,000 euros) that froze the gelato to a very low temp to prevent ice crystals from forming.  It is very important that you do not have ice crystals in the finished product, as they ruin the otherwise-smooth "gelato eating experience".  The mixing only took 7 minutes, after which Mimmo rewarded us with some super-fresh, right out of the gelato maker, super creamy Italian vanilla gelato -- what a cool experience, no pun intended!
Mimmo proudly displays
his marvelous gelato

Polignano e Mare on the Adriatic Sea
Polignano e Mare

On Easter Sunday, the sun was shining, so we decided to head for the beach, to the town of Polignano e Mare located right along the Adriatic Sea.  The old town was quaint with piazzas positioned on craggy cliffs overlooking the blue sea, and it felt heavenly to be out in the warm sun!

The wonderful baroque "Pumo de 'Fiuri"

Frank bought Anne a very Puglian souvenir: a ceramic egg called a “Pumo de ‘Fiuri.”  These Baroque-style eggs dating back to the 1700’s are considered to be good luck charms.  And since it was Easter, what could be a better gift?

Buona Pasqua (means Happy Easter!)

Imposing, fortress-like walls of Ostuni

On Easter Monday, known as “Pasquetta” (meaning "little Easter"), we drove to the town of Ostuni, another famous white town with a real Greek feel to it.  Lots of other people had the same idea, and the ride over was fraught with crazy, aggressive Italian drivers doing things that made Frank use words that Anne never knew existed (and won’t repeat here)! 

Ostuni's impressive central piazza
When we finally arrived, the parking lot was very tight, and it seemed as if we would be spending the afternoon cruising for an open spot.  Suddenly an Italian man ran over to our car and somehow got through the idea that several spots would be opening up in a few minutes.  We pulled over and waited; sure enough, this kind gentleman returned in a few minutes and gave us his space!  We weren't exactly sure what was happening, but later determined that he and his family were all leaving (3 cars worth of Italians!), and we had our choice of any one of his family's spots.  What a nice guy! He also explained (in Italian) that parking was free – saving us from feeding money into the payment machine unnecessarily. They told us that parking was free at this time of the year because it was so “tranquilo.”  Wow – if this is tranquilo, remind us to never come back in the middle of summer!
Atmospheric street in Ostuni

But here is the thing about Italians: one minute the crazy drivers pull antics that make you want to shout some very nasty things, and then a few minutes later, you encounter someone who goes out of their way to be incredibly kind and helpful.  You never know if you want to strangle them or give them a kiss!

We had been concerned that shops might be closed on this National Holiday of Pasquetta, but everything was open, and the shopping streets were filled with families enjoying the day off.  This was one of the prettiest towns we visited with an impressive main square, a maze of narrow side streets in which to get lost, and a happy energetic vibe.

Our hosts and new friends Biagio and Maria
People of Puglia

We have been so fortunate with our hosts on this trip.  Once again, we are staying with the nicest couple at our B&B called "The Fontana Vecchia" (means - The Old Fountain).  Biagio greeted us with a bottle of “eccellente” Barbera wine when we first arrived, and his wife Maria presented us with sumptuous breakfasts every day that included bacon and eggs that we know she made just for us.  On Easter Sunday, Biagio made us frittatas and proclaimed himself “the frittata king.”  ( A frittata is similar to an omelet but served in a pie-shaped wedge, similar to a crustless quiche.)  The B&B is gorgeous with a large swimming pool and grounds covered with olive, almond and cherry trees – we can just imagine what it will be like a month from now when the cherries are ready to pick.  When it was time for us to leave, we all felt sad and there were lots of hugs and kisses all around.   Biagio turned to Frank with glassy-eyes, and said sincerely, “I will miss you, my friend.”  These were some very lovely folks.

As we remember all the people we have met here and all the different conversations, two things stand out.  One is that these are some of the most genuinely friendly people we have ever met.  We have only recounted a few of their many acts of kindness. Every day, people went out of their way to give us a helping, welcoming hand, teach us a new Italian word, or just laugh with us to make us feel at home.

Main piazza (square) in Polignano e Mare
The second is that these people are very worried about their country.  They love Italy; but they believe that government corruption and irresponsible policies are destroying the country.  They see many places going out of business because of the ridiculously high taxes (70% with everything included!), and young people end up leaving the country to find employment elsewhere. 

Our neighbor, Clif, sent us a recent New York Times article bemoaning the state of Italian tourism.  The Times article stated that once upon a time, Italy was the number one most visited country in the entire world by tourists. Now, it ranks down at number five, behind France, America, China, and Spain.  We love Italy and only hope that they can get their act together and make better use of their incredible resources.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mystical and Marvelous Matera

In front of an incredible view of the Sassi!
We took the Trenitalia high speed train south from Rome to town of Bari, located in the "heel" section of Italy. The countryside zipped by at over 100 miles per hour, thru grape vineyards, olive groves, and small no-name burgs with ancient crumbly buildings that time has forgotten.  From the high speed ride to a slo-mo regional train, we switched trains in Bari to get to Matera where we have entered a truly otherworldly place.  Matera is a city with roughly 3,000 caves and is the third oldest inhabited place on earth (after towns in Jordan and Syria).  We are staying in a lovely B&B right on the edge of the “Sassi” which, in Italian, means stones and is used to describe the oldest parts of the city made entirely of stone.  

The Sassi after Dark
In fact, we have a great view of the stone dwellings from our balcony, which overlooks almost all of old Matera.  When the caves were dug out, the people used the removed sandstone to create entrance ways to the cave houses making them look less like caves.  The overall effect is some of the most unusual architecture we have ever seen.  The Sassi are especially alluring at night, and we were mesmerized by the lighted views after dark.

Caves on the far side of the ravine where Matera's
first residents the hermit monks lived

History of the Sassi

On our first full day, we took a private walking tour to learn more about this fascinating place.  The area was first discovered by hermit monks who lived in caves carved out of the far hillside across a ravine.

Inside an original Sassi home looking from
the first level down to the second and
third levels carved out below

When more people arrived, the cave city was formed on the other side of the ravine by building from the top down into the sandstone with one home on top of another.  Most typical Sassi homes have three levels with each one going deeper down into the sandstone.   As we wandered around, we were constantly encountering working chimneys in our path because we were actually walking on the rooftops of the homes below us.   Everything in Matera is made of stone: all the houses, roads, walkways, stairs, and walls.

Inside the cramped quarters of a Sassi home -- imagine
ten people trying to eat our of one bowl on this little table!

In the early 1900’s, the Sassi became a place of extreme poverty where peasant families lived in the dank cave homes without electricity or plumbing.  We visited two restored Sassi cave houses to get a better idea of the living conditions.  The first floor was a living space for the entire family. Typically 8 – 10 family members were crammed in here. For their one meal a day, everyone gathered around a small table and ate out of the same big bowl.  The next level down was for the animals (believe it or not, people actually relied on animal manure to keep them warm), and the third level down was for the wine cellar (another necessity of life!). 

Plaintive face of a young peasant boy
from Carlo Levi's painting "Lucania 61"
Malaria and other diseases were commonplace in this unhygienic environment, and the childhood mortality rate was 50%.  Our guide, whose father grew up in the Sassi, told us that when food was really scarce, parents would give their children ground up poppy seeds (i.e. opium) to knock them out for three or four days as a way to keep them alive, but not have to feed them, or listen to them cry.  Finally in the 1950’s, the government forcibly evicted all 30,000 residents.  Unfortunately, this caused a great deal of pain and disruption (even though it was for their best). The government never adequately explained the reasons for evicting people from the only homes they ever knew.  These Sassi inhabitants were totally isolated for hundreds of years with no communication with the outside world, so they didn't realize how impoverished they were.

Lovely entrance to a Sassi home
After the evictions, the area was totally abandoned until residents realized the uniqueness of the Sassi, and the area was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993.  Today, the Sassi is being transformed with hotels, restaurants, and shops, but the original stone appearance is still faithfully retained; the government has established firm reconstruction rules for the Sassi, and each refurbished building must adhere to certain codes, like stone type, shutter color, and door style. .

Altar in one of the Sassi cave churches

The Sassi also includes 150 cave churches with ancient frescoes adorning the walls, many of them built by Turkish immigrants from Cappadocia (an area in Turkey also known for its caves).  Another odd thing about the ancient churches is that they were later used as homes and even turned into wineries.  People actually used the altars, which had deep hollow stone spaces inside, as wine vats.  Women and children stomped the grapes right inside the former altars!

Primitive conditions portrayed in a restored cave home
(See the poor guy in the back using the chamber pot!)
Carlo Levi

Carlo Levi is quite a big name in these parts.  He was a political dissident who opposed fascism and was sent to this area (along with many others) to live under a kind of house arrest in this isolated part of Italy.   Carlo, who was also a painter, wrote a book called “Christ Stopped at Eboli” (which Anne has read) that described the extreme poverty here in Matera.  He is credited with drawing attention to the problems and eventually forcing the government to act.

More of the Carlo Levi painting "Lucania 61"

We visited an art museum that contained several of Carlo Levi’s paintings including a lengthy mural painting called “Lucania 61” (Lucania was the Greek name for this region).  The powerful painting depicts the hard life in Matera at that time.  The faces of the men, women, and children in the painting are very moving and poignant.  An old Italian man tried to talk to us about the painting.  Sadly, we could not understand much of what he said, but he was quite emotional, and we wondered if he might have grown up in the Sassi himself.
"Meat Cleaver Head"

On a light note, this art museum also covered medieval art including this poor martyr we dubbed "Meat Cleaver Head."  Looks like he might'a pissed off a former wife, or husband of a lover?

Climbing the man stairs in the Sassi
Hiking among the Sassi

We spent two days wandering through the Sassi on our own, finding our way through a maze of walkways, up and down lots of steps, and hundreds of feet of vertical terrain.  This is one of those places with a photo op at every turn.  One minute you are standing in front of an upscale stone hotel or restaurant, and the next you are looking into an abandoned cave with no amenities at all, and some yapping dog outside barking at you for invading his Sassi turf..

"The Rock Church"

We were especially fascinated by what we called “The Rock Church,” a church looming above the town that appeared to be carved out of a giant boulder.  Of course, we had to hike up to it and scope it out.

Tina's incredible breakfast table
-- all for just the two of us!

The Food of Matera

Matera has the most delicious cuisine; we were constantly amazed by the variety.  Anne’s favorite dish was veal rolls filled with cheese and bacon topped with greens, cheese, and the sweetest tomatoes. Unbelievably buonissimo!  (We wish we had pictures, but the food was so good, we kept forgetting to get out the camera LOL)

This area is also famous for its bread, and the bread is indeed phenomenal – almost cake-like, fluffy and delicious.  At the B&B, our host Giuseppe and hostess Tina put out an incredible spread every morning:  amazing warmed-up croissants filled with almond cream and raisins, homemade cakes and jams plus fruit, yogurt, bread etc.  And Giuseppe generously served us homemade cherry liquor that was so smooth and delightfully fruity (made from their own cherries).  We had to do some serious hiking in the Sassi to work off the calories!

Frank, Tina, Anne & Giuseppe
(along with Tina's amazing sponge cake!)
Casa di Ele

In addition to the marvelous breakfasts (and the cherry liquor), our stay at the B&B Casa di Ele was a pleasure.  Giuseppe and Tina were the most wonderful hosts.  Even though they spoke only some English (and we speak little Italiano) we managed to communicate and have such fun interacting.  This is what travel is all about, making friends like these all over the world!

We REALLY appreciated Giuseppe on our last day.  He volunteered to drive us to Europcar in the new part of Matera to pick up our rental car.  Well, we got to the location and discovered that Europcar had closed up shop – it was gone!  Now what?  Well, Anne managed to get on the phone with Auto Europe our agency in the U.S. (via our Global Mobal phone that we carry for emergencies).  The Auto Europe rep named Nixon, was initially incredulous about the disappearance of Eurocar, but soon confirmed that the Europcar rental agency in Matera was kaput. 

Frank with our precious Citroen rental car
While Giuseppe patiently waited with us, Nixon eventually managed to get us a car at the town of Bari at the Airport about 1 hour away.  Giuseppe saved the day once again by lining us up with a taxi cab driver who drove us to the Bari Airport where we finally got our car.  What an ordeal!  Travel is full of unexpected challenges, but this one was a first for us.  We are so grateful to Giuseppe for staying with us until we got it all sorted out!

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Return to Roma

In front of just some of many Roman ruins on the Forum
 (notice the pine trees aka "broccoli trees" in the back)
We have not been in Rome since our first visit almost 20 years ago.  It’s strange how things look so different.  Rome hasn’t really changed, but we certainly have.  We are staying in a great little B & B not far from the Colosseum.  They have only three rooms, so it is very friendly and homey.  Our kind host welcomed us with biscotti and a bottle of Roman wine -- ciao Roma!

Roman "villas" at twilight
On our first night, we took a stroll through our new neighborhood, marveling at the impressive villas glowing in the late afternoon light.  We particularly wanted to see the Colosseum after dark – what a spectacular sight and what a wonderful way to begin our return visit.

Colosseum after dark!
Rome is known as “archaeological lasagna” because of all the layers of history here.  In Rome, the past is always with you – around every corner is an ancient column or a portion of a 2,000 year old wall.  We devoted much of our time here to learning more about the history of this Eternal City.  Here are some highlights:

Vittorio Emanuele Monument
also known as "The Wedding Cake" or the "Typewriter"
2700 Years of Scandals

We took an excellent walking tour, “Love and Death: 2700 Years of Scandals,” with a company called 'Through Eternity'.  We were fortunate enough to be the only people on the tour, so we had our guide Thomas all to ourselves for a three hour walk covering 7 ½ miles and thousands of years of history.  We began at the marvelous Vittorio Emanuele Monument and walked through many areas we had never seen before, including the Jewish Ghetto and Castel St. Angelo.   Thomas really knew his stuff, and we especially enjoyed his philosophical take on how things haven’t really changed very much since ancient times.  

Remarkable view of the Roman Forum
Some of the highlights included magnificent views of the Roman Forum and a Renaissance Palace that was originally a theater whose construction was started by Julius Caesar.  The palace is for sale if you have an extra $16 million lying around!  Rome is such a delightful hodgepodge with ancient ruins, Renaissance Palaces, and 19th c. villas all mixed together.

Castel St. Angelo
A couple other tidbits:  We saw the site where Giordano Bruno, a brilliant astronomer, was burned at the stake in 1600 for suggesting that other suns and other universes might exist.  We also learned that unlike Hitler, Mussolini was not an anti-Semite – in fact, no Italian Jews were deported until after his death.  For fans of the Showtime series, “The Borgias,” we also saw the building where the Borgia Pope Alexander attended clothing-optional parties with his brothel owner girlfriend.  Our tour ended at Castel St. Angelo, originally constructed as a tomb for Hadrian but later used as a safe house for the Popes to hole up in if they became too unpopular. 

Tiber River from Castel St. Angelo

The roof of the fortress at St. Angelo's provided magnificent views of the Tiber River, St. Peters, and all across Rome.

Colosseum on a sunny day!
The Roman Forum and the Colosseum

Another walking tour covered the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill, and of course, the Colosseum.  We had seen all of this on our last visit, but never with a guide, and at that time, no one was allowed inside the Colosseum. 

Inside the Roman Forum

Our guide Alessia explained the Roman Forum was the center of Roman life, political (with the Senate), legal (with the courts), and religious (with the temples).  The forum was the equivalent of "downtown Rome" back in the days of the Caesars.  Of course, the most famous temple was the Temple of the Vestal Virgins.  The virgins were the only people permitted to live in the Forum, and it was considered quite an honor for a wealthy patrician family to have a daughter serving as a Vestal Virgin. Even the Caesars lived a few miles away from the forum. These young girls were appointed to the post of Vestal Virgins when they were only 6 years old and served until they were 30 (when surprisingly enough they could marry, but by then they were too old for child-bearing).  

Homes of the Vestal Virgins
The virgins spent their sequestered lives within the Roman Forum, but occasionally a girl would break the rules.  If she was discovered with a man, or even worse, if she became pregnant, the man was beheaded and the former vestal virgin was buried alive after being put on a diet of bread and water for a few days!

We also strolled high up to the Palatine Hill where the wealthiest families built their villas.  The air was fresher and cooler, and the many trees and green spaces gave it almost a rural feeling.  The wealthy patricians had a good life up here with everything they needed including their own private entertainment area for watching various games and chariot races.

Center stage on the arena floor of the Colosseum
At last, we entered the Colosseum where our tour gave us access to several restricted areas.  Our first “wow moment” came when we stepped out onto the arena stage in the center of the Colosseum.  As impressive as the Colosseum is from the outside, the inside takes your breath away!  We also toured the recently opened underground labyrinth where we saw the chambers that housed wild beasts, and where gladiators waited for their time on stage.  The underground had an elaborate system of winch-activated “elevators” with pulleys to lift up beasts/gladiators/special props allowing them to pop out of trap doors in the arena floor – a sure crowd pleaser! 

Top down view of the inside of the Colosseum
When the Colosseum first opened in 80 A.D., they celebrated with 100 days of games involving 5,000 beasts.  Interestingly, the gladiators, who were mostly slaves, but could be Roman citizens looking for glory (and women), signed 10 – 15 year contracts.  If they survived, these slaves became free men.  By the way, the games were held primarily for propaganda purposes – people were able to attend for free, and the intention was to keep them happy (and keep the current Emperor in power!).  Our tour also took us to a restricted terrace on the top level of the Colosseum with spectacular views of the levels below and also the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. A surprising note that we learned: very few gladiators were killed in the Colosseum.  Gladiators were highly trained sports figures, and heroes of the day; Rome had invested gobs of $$ in their training, their care and upkeep, maintenance, etc. Killing off a gladiator would be the equivalent of killing off Babe Ruth or Peyton Manning after investing many dollars and time in bringing them up to speed.  It just wasn't done under ordinary circumstances.

Note: This was a Viator tour and we have contracted to provide an article about our experience, so we will send you the link for the full scoop later when the article is published.

Ruins of the ancient town of Ostia Antica
A Day in Ostia Antica

Our excellent tour guide, Rebecca, described Ostia Antica as the “better Pompeii” which is not an exaggeration.  The story of Pompeii is certainly more alluring with the tragedy of the volcanic eruption of  Mt. Vesuvius, but the city of Ostia Antica actually does a better job of presenting a typical Roman town. Why?  Because Ostia was never destroyed by a rogue volcano; the inhabitants voluntarily left their dwellings to avoid malaria and a dwindling economy, and Ostia became a ghost town.   Eventually, it got buried and forgotten beneath tons of silt from the Tiber River.  The buildings were therefore kept pretty much intact.  Ostia Antica is just 20 miles outside Rome, so our tour began with an easy 30-minute train ride to the site.  Rebecca was everything we like in a guide: knowledgeable, organized, and personable with a great sense of humor.  And she just happened to look very much like our daughter-in-law Michelle.

Frank gives a demonstration of
life on the communal toilets!
Rebecca led us through the ruins of this 9th c. town which was originally the port of Rome.  It was abandoned when better ports were built nearby.  In her heyday, Ostia Antica had a population of 50,000 people and we got to see lots of the town including:  The necropolis with a columbarium where niches would have held ashes of their deceased relatives in urns.  Interestingly, slaves were buried with their masters, even if they had been freed.  A communal toilet room where men would socialize as they used the facilities.

Our guide Rebecca (Michelle's doppelganger)
describes the theater at Ostia Antica

And a theater where the dramas were so realistic that when a character was going to be killed, they would switch out the actor with a criminal (sentenced to death anyway) and actually kill them on stage!  (And we thought our reality TV was bad!)

At Ostia, we also visited a cafeteria-style restaurant with a marble counter-top still intact and elegant apartment houses (the Romans actually invented the apartment as a way to house their burgeoning population).  Most intriguing was the laundry with large tanks for rinsing laundry and clay pots where it is thought that young children provided the agitation function by stomping the clothes (sort of like stomping grapes).  These poor children had terribly working conditions especially because the Romans used urine to bleach some of their clothes and keep their togas sparkling white!

Ostia Antica apartment house
One last comment: Rebecca explained that the Romans were known to be very tolerant of other people’s religions, and when they conquered another country, they would just add the foreign gods to the long list of Roman ones.  What got the Christians into trouble with the Romans was that they only had one God, and they refused to do any animal sacrifices like all the other religions did.  So when bad things happened, it was easy to blame the Christians, the ones who weren't pulling their weight with the extra animal sacrifices to the other gods!  It was the fault of the Christians because the rain god wasn't getting his due, the harvest god wasn't getting his cut of sacrifices, etc., etc. 

Note: This was another Viator tour that we are contracted to provide an article, so a full article will be published after we return home.

Gallerie Borghese
Gallerie Borghese

Anne has wanted to visit the Gallerie Borghese for years, so it was worth all the hoops they put you thru:  making time reservations online months beforehand, picking up tickets onsite before the tour, paying for audio guides at a separate window, and turning in everything you carry (even purses) at a third location.  We were exhausted before we began.  Actually, we were worn out because in addition to all that, we had the female taxi cab driver from hell.  This woman talked on her cellphone nonstop as she drove, and then she could not find the Borghese Gallery (only one of the top museums in all of Rome!).  After taking a look at Anne’s map (?), and trying to use her GPS, she finally stopped and asked some other cab drivers for help.  What a wacky nerve-wracking ride we had on a day we had an appointment!

The incomparable "Apollo and Daphne"
by Bernini
Anyway, the Gallerie Borghese was well worth all the stress.  This art museum is now one of Anne’s favorites.  The palace formerly owned by at art-loving cardinal is small enough to feel intimate and is surrounded by beautiful flowering gardens.  Every room is eye-popping with colorful paintings covering every square inch of the walls and ceiling (like custom wallpapering) in addition to the incredible works of art on display.  The highlight of the museum was a Bernini sculpture called “”Apollo and Daphne.”  This sculpture tells the story of Daphne who turns herself into a tree to avoid being captured by the ardent amorous Apollo.  Roots grow out of Daphne’s toes, and her fingers sprout leaves.  Even Frank was left speechless by Bernini’s amazing feat.  Who would ever think that marble could be carved in such a delicate graceful way?  Our audio guide told us that if you lightly brush the leaves at the top of the sculpture, they ring like chimes!  But how were those leaves carved without breaking?  This is an astonishing feat of engineering that puzzled Frank, who unfortunately has a limited strength of materials background. But, marble fractures when bumped against, or hammered upon, or chiseled against.  These are facts.  Especially these ultra wafer-thin configurations of the leaves that Bernini created in this sculpture.  And I said leaves - MANY of them!!  Not a single fracture that we could see.  Wow - just moving this behemoth statue would risk breakage of any/all of these little delicacies.  Frank is impressed beyond words, and can only conclude that aliens cut these tiny breakable leaves with space-age laser beams, not chisels and hammers! 

Back to the Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain and “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa”

When we visited the Trevi Fountain almost 20 years ago, we threw coins in the fountain since the legend is that if you throw a coin in the fountain, you are sure to return to Rome.  Well, it must have worked because here we are!

Bernini's "Ecstasy of St. Teresa"

We also returned to the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Teresa.”  By now, you probably know that Anne is a Bernini freak, and this was the sculpture that started it all when we saw it 19 years ago. The statue is magnificent, but it is also quite odd for a religious work since it is known for its sensuality and for the sculpted figures on each side leaning out of balconies as if they were at the theater. 

Food and People

A word about the food, and the word is salty.  Seriously.  Rome was once known for its salt deposits, and salt was a commodity as valuable as gold.  Our first guide warned us that Romans still love their salt, and he wasn’t kidding.  We had to be very careful with our food selections and keep our water bottles handy!

Our favorite waitress, Maria

The people in Rome have been lovely to us beginning with our friendly hosts here at the B & B.  Almost everyone in Rome has been very accommodating and often times lots of fun.  We had so much fun with our waitress, Maria, at a restaurant the other night (called Trattoria Vecchia Roma) that we went back a second night, and Maria took good care of us again!  (Anne thinks Maria would like to take Frank home with her LOL).

Although Rome will never be our top favorite city, we are so glad we returned.  We covered a lot of ground here averaging over 6 miles a day walking, and we are looking for a little R&R at our next destination, the cave city of Matera in the south of Italy.  But we can't leave Rome without mentioning the most popular guy here, and that is Papa Francesco.  Everyone seems to love the new Pope here in Rome, and products with his picture are top sellers at all the souvenir shops.  Even the beer openers sport the Papa's picture on them. 

The very popular Papa Francesco