An easy day on the water relaxing and scuba diving they said. And it was, until that part I nearly died. Maybe that is a little overblown for the sake of drama, but when you are meters deep below the surface with lead weights strapped to you starting to fall unconscious, you might freak out as well. Everything began and ended fine, because I wouldn’t be writing to you today and showing you this gnarly video if I was dead, but there was an in between bit that I thought I was doomed.Read More
Ever since I was a wee little boy, Italy was the country I dreamed of seeing over everything else. It was probably the badass gladiatorial culture that fascinated me as a youngin’ but as I got older it was the history and impact on the world that drew my curiosity. I never thought I would see it, like it was a fantasy place from movies. But after I had to leave Thailand because of the military coup, Italy was my first choice to visit. Over the course of a month on and off I explored Italy, sometimes flat broke and scraping for cash, and other times on an inclusive tour with other bloggers. Here are some of the adventures.
10 Days of Paradise in Italy
From eating bread and ketchup completely broke in Rome, to a 10 day tour with a group of awesome travel blogger, I find myself swept away seeing and eating the best Italy has to offer. Come explore Rome, Umbria, Tuscany, and Ponza Island.
A Surprise at Campo Dalto Villa
Sometimes unexpected things happen when you reach a place. After a long late night drive from Rome to Umbria, I arrived at the Villa Campo Dalto under a full moon. Here would be my base for 3 days, and I didn’t think it would be like this.
Frontone Beach Villa on Ponza Island
After a 2 hour train ride from Umbria to Formia, and a 3 hour long ferry ride, we finally arrived in Ponza Island. We took a tiny van around the treacherous cliff roads to our accommodation for the week, Frontone Beach Villa, and I was in love.
Il Fontanaro Organic Estate in Umbria
Il Fontanaro estate in Umbria Italy is a place of passion and care when it comes to growing olives and grapes, and more so with hospitality. For the first few days of our 10 day tour of Italy, much time would be spent here learning Italian traditions.
Tantalizing Food Tour of Ponza
Once upon a time I could have been considered the pickiest eater alive. On Ponza Island in Italy we toured restaurants and tried some of the best seafood I’ve ever tasted. From octopus to calamari, anchovies to oyster. Warning, you may drool.
Video: Exploring Ancient caves in Ponza
Penza Island is unique geographically for the rock compositions and formations that make up this beautiful island. Settled by the Etruscans, caves and underwater passageways create fascinating labyrinths hidden around, and I take you there.
The moment I stepped foot in the backyard of Il Fontanaro, I knew I was going to quite enjoy myself. Maybe it was Bob humming along as he cut the lawn, or maybe it was the pool beyond the hedges the overlooked the green gum-drop dotted hills around, or maybe it was the hammock swaying in the breeze (after all, hammocks make everything better). Maybe it was the drive through the valley that did it, or the old brown dogs that greeted us after passing by the family vegetable garden. Even under the grey washed sky it was a beautiful place set in the valley above Paciano, Umbria, and there was much to gawk at.
It could have also been Alina asking if I wanted a glass of wine on arrival. It’s possible.
Oh, and meet Bob, well as I named him…
Welcome to Il Fontanaro Olive and Grape Estate, almost 100 acres of protected wood and land crawling with vineyards or sprouting with olive trees perched in the rolling hillside of Umbria, Italy. After arriving late night to our villa Campodalto where we would be staying during a 10-day blogger tour, day two introduced us to our base of operations in the area where super secret blogger pow-wows would happen. Or, in reality, where we would meet up for lunch or dinner and go over plans for the day and experience what the estate has to offer with its award winning wine and olive oils.
But before we delve into some of the experiences over 4 days around the estate (and my wine glass count which may or may not top 100) I want to share some of my first impressions in photos as I noted above, which are some of the details that made Il Fontanaro such a special place.
Everybody loves dogs. That is the only reason they are on here to get oohs and ahhs out of you. No, I’m kidding, Fontanaro brings out the big guns in first impressions with the welcome committee consisting of these two. I can’t tell you how many photos us bloggers took of them.
Hammock hung from an olive tree overlooking the hillside. Enough said.
Care for a swim in the secret garden?
All around Il Fontanaro life and color was bursting everywhere you looked. Beside the large family garden in the front of the property where the family gets the majority of ingredients they cook with, all over were lilac and flowers and even artichoke growing. By the way, the crazy awesome purple flower above is what an artichoke in bloom looks like! If you already knew that, go away. I didn’t, and it was exciting for me. Don’t crush my enjoyment.
Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil (Award winning at that!)
One of the days on the estate, we had the opportunity and pleasure of getting a tour of the olive orchard and mill where they make the award winning olive oils. We were led through the orchard and told of the history of the farm, the process of growing and maintaining the olive trees, and the process at which they produce the extra virgin olive oil. Our guide, the one and only true Mamma Lucia, told us of how the estate only had a small portion of olive trees growing on it, and now they produce some 2,000 liters of it annually.
Momma Lucia explains how the olives are harvested, carefully of course, and how the trees are decades old and they have used no chemicals at all on the farm.
Olives in growth, just beginning to pop their little green heads out into the world.
Our other guide, Ciccio, always followed us about the estate and knew of the best places to relax.
Some of the bees in the bee hives just below the olive trees. Not only to they produce olive oils, but also 300kg this year of organic raw honey.
The valley splitting open, revealing the rolling hills of Umbria and the town below. Quite a view from the mill.
Mamma Lucia takes a moment to show us photos of the estate and of baby Alina so we could embarrass her later by telling her how cute she was. Apparently, all throughout their childhood, the kids of the household were always eager to help with whatever they were producing.
Some of the machinery involved in the olive oil pressing.
While on the olive oil tour, we had a chance to take shots, of olive oil of course, to see if we could guess the cheap store bought brand versus their organic oil. Instantly I could see the difference; the store bought was a transparent golden color, whereas their olive oil was a thicker consistency and was slightly green. Alina told us how to sip the oil specifically, and doing so I could feel the oil triple down my throat and burn all the way to my stomach. Not in a painful way, but almost like I would sip a fine whiskey.
“I use it for everything. If I feel sick, or have a stomach ache, I take a spoonful of olive oil.”
Now that is something the United States won’t back — organic natural medicine? That would probably be deemed blasphemous. Yet, I believed it, and when she explained all of the benefits of olive oil, and the nutrients and vitamins in organically produced olive oil, it was something I would definitely be using back home.
Wine Tastings (and my new found love for it.)
Another part of the experience at Il Fontanaro is the wine tastings of their own wine produced from a small vineyard on the property. I can definitely say I love my wine, with their brand being called by the exact same name of My Wine, and no doubt there is reasoning behind it because I never wanted to give it up.
Alina, during the wine tasting, went through the history of wine in the region and the main types produced there, with Il Fontanaro’s stock being exclusive to the guests who stay there.
I remember asking Alina at one point a question that completely baffled me, “Why is it that I haven’t gotten a hangover yet?” I inquired. Truth be told, I get headaches from wine even if I only have two glasses, let alone the first day when I had upwards of ten. Exaggerating that claim or not, she filled me in on the blunt reason behind my lack of hangover, and with her thick Italian accent she retorted, “Because you aren’t drinking shit wine like America.”
We all laughed, but it is potentially true, given her explanation that organic wines from Umbria and Tuscany wouldn’t have preservatives in them, and more importantly, sulfates that cause headaches in wines. With a gulp of My Wine, I nodded and felt enlightened.
After the clanking of glasses and sipping of more wine, we were taken into the kitchen where we were to learn how to make authentic Italian pasta from scratch. To my relief, it didn’t appear that I was the only one lacking experience in this field as Alina instructed us each step of the way. And usually delegating the hand-cramping task of making the dough and folding and massaging it to the “strong men”. I think the girls just wanted to sit back and sip wine and laugh at our attempt at cooking.
Pasta Making (I learn how to cook! Kind of.)
Soon, the floor began forming a volcano…well, we formed it into a volcano to stir ever-so gently pesto into it to create the pesto ribbon pasta.
In Umbria, everything has got to be hearty. Raguout means hunks of meat chucked into a pan and simmered together in glorious carnivorous synchronization of flavor. The kinda’ food that will keep you warm during the cold winters there. I’m sure the red wine helps too.
Just as our dough was settling, we were taught two ways to slice them into pasta: Momma’s and Alina’s. There was a reason why both were never in the kitchen at the same time, since Alina refused to use a hand-crank pasta slicer whereas Momma Lucia snuck us out back to show us how.
Here around the table daily, us bloggers sat and talked and ate and drank and laughed, all in the good company of Fontanaro Estate’s family. Everything they do on that farm and around the other guesthouses they own is done with a long-lasting passion you can see in their eyes and hear in the enthusiasm in their voices. Though we were visiting for four days, four was not enough since I wanted to stay and actually help with a harvest. At some point I will. Or, mainly sleep in that hammock out back. But it was the perfect location to launch our amazing blog tour from, and a place that helped us all get familiar with the roots of tradition in the Umbria region and history of an ancient art like olive oil.
*Special thanks to Linnea of This Is Your Time and Alina of Slow Living Vacations for inviting me on this blog tour, and Il Fontanaro for hosting us. All opinions and use of the word “gnarly” are my own.
Family values are a big thing in Italy. And even bigger, are the enormous and lengthy family style dinners that Italy is famous for. And while staying at Campodalto in the hills of Umbria, I had my first experience which made a lasting memory.
Something happened to me during the five days of my stay in the hills of Umbria. On that hour or so ride from Rome late at night to Paciano where a 10-day blog tour of Italy would be kicking off, I could not have imagined what it would be like — and even if I could have, this sudden and unexpected occurrence wouldn’t have come to mind.
After a rendezvous with one of the tour hosts Linnea, a fellow blogger (DJ of Dream Eurotrip) and I hopped into Giovanni’s car and left the Eternal City in the rear view mirror. Giovanni, who is brother to our other tour host Alina and family owners of Fontanaro Farm where much of our base of operations would take place, told us of the area we would be staying in and bits and pieces about the region’s history.
Once we were off the highway, dark curving roads turned to gravel; smothered in dust kicked up from the car and lined with the dark walls of long grass dancing in the wind. The distant hills, monochrome in the twilight, surrounded the valley as we crept deeper into Umbria.
Under a full moon we arrived at our destination, Campdalto Villa, around midnight. There was a gentle breeze, and the sounds of crickets were the only thing stirring in the night. We passed under the silhouette of an ivy-lined archway to the villa which was completely dark besides a dim porch light illuminating the front door with a hand-painted “Welcome” sign at the center. Marlina greeted us, host and owner of Campodalto, who had a ginormous warm smile, so much so that it caused her eyes to squint just to make room for it, the kind of smile that makes someone feel like family at first meetin. Then, out popped the second blogger of the tour, Serena, who was already eager to gush about the villa’s secret in the garden.
We plopped our bags down inside of our room and Marliza gave us a tour of the house. Our room was large and cozy, a far cry from the crowded and uncomfortable hostels I had inhabited the past few months. And a bed! A real bed with real pillows and real blankets. Oh so marvelous. Our bathroom was bigger than my last apartment as well, with a walk in shower and decorated with handmade goodies. All around it just felt comfortable, but even more-so it felt like an easy place to call home for the week.
As much as I wanted to face-plant into the bed, Marliza and Serena both demanded that we go explore the backyard of Campodalto, for some super secret and amazing ‘something” awaited us back there. We wandered toward the back yard and into the blackness of the night, but soon, as our eyes adjusted, we were all “ooohs” and “ahhhs” at the sight before us.
The distant town lights glowed in the valley, but the sea of fireflies (or lightning bugs as I called them as a child) overpowered even that. There were thousands around us flaring up and fading black, like the visual representation of the heartbeat of the hillsides around us — and with the cloudy sky above, it was as if the stars had descended so wouldn’t miss them that night.
Somewhere in those hills a dog howled at the great moon above us. Something else in the darkness growled fiercely, which I looked down and discovered it was my belly. I guess I was quite hungry. I let out long sigh, it felt good to be away from the city lights and the noise. DJ and Serena both seemed to be feeling the same. I had been crashing in one hostel after the other, and with a nearly exhausted budget, had been living on bread and ketchup while waiting for some extra funds to come in. But here I didn’t have to worry about where to slept night and if I might eat. Here, I left the fireflies to mock the stars and went into the villa for a cup of coffee and a biscotti, and plopped into the lavender-scented bed, pulled the knitted blanket over myself, and drifted into a deep sleep.
In the morning under the Umbrian sun I could finally take in the sprawling views of the countryside and see Campodalto in all its rustic glory. Stone walls and pastel accents, ceramic tile rooftop and bright-colored plants all around. It was as if someone had dug into my mind and constructed my dream house. Or maybe that after-thought was a product of how much I couldn’t stop ogling over every itty-bitty detail of the house.
Though it was considered “home” for the 5 days that our blog tour would be exploring Umbria, the majority of the time spent here was just for sleeping. Most days, Linnea and Alina were taking us exploring all over the region from early morning to late at night, or we were around Fontanaro Farm feasting, cooking, and guzzling down wine. But even though we didn’t spend much time at the villa itself, I have told many people that of all of the awesome things done on this blog tour; from exploring sea caves in Ponza, to the day-long hike around Il Trasimeno Lake, and everything in between — an experience at Campodalto stood out to me above most else.
What was this unexpected experience?
Well, it was falling in love.
I fell in love in Campodalto in the hills of Umbria, fell in love with not a person or a thing or a scene, but of a concept. A tradition. I fell in love with Italian hospitality, but more specifically, the Italian-style dinners. How could this be one of the favorites of a trip filled with so many amazing things?
Well, besides Italian food in general making it easy to fall head-over-chucks, and surely good wine makes falling in love easy sometimes, it was something else.
When we all entered Campodalto after a day wine tastings and an in-depth tour of Paciano by the tourism leader in the area, aromas tickled our nostrils and rumbled our hungry stomachs. Again, Marliza and her warm smile invited us all in to the dining room — dimly lit with stained-glass lamps and polished wood furniture, with a great table in the center strewn with scrumptious finger foods. This was aperitivo baby, one Italian concept which is basically appetizers to snack on while you drink wine and talk amongst friends as you wait for dinner.
Marliza, after telling us all to drink and eat, went straight back into the kitchen and began crafting her Napoli-style pasta originating from her home town, and something she had eaten as a child. She had to have been cooking and preparing the spread all day, and everything on it from the flat bread with artichokes to the tomato and mozzarella was incredible. It just seemed like she was so passionate about having guests over and cooking for them, and as we all huddled around the kitchen at times to watch her create culinary masterpieces, we also just mingled and talked and laughed all night.
For three or so hours.
That is exactly why I loved the experience of Campodalto so much.
That is what I fell in love with.
As I was sipping my wine I thought about how great it was to have a huge dinner where everyone is talking and eating and enjoying the food and company…nobody was on their phones or watching television. It was a whole affair, an event, and it was something I hadn’t felt all too often.
When I was growing up, we would occasionally have family dinners on holidays, or I would go to family dinners of friends as well, but majority of the time when my brother and father and I ate dinner, it involved taking our plate to air respective areas (dad went to the TV, I went to my room, and my brother went to his). Family dinners weren’t a common thing for us growing up, and if we did sit together we were eating off fold out stands in front of the tube. So, though I enjoy family gatherings and dinners around the holidays, I’ve always felt awkward like I didn’t know how to be a part of the gathering.
But somehow inside Campodalto amongst the new friends and fellow bloggers, and with Marliza and her husband, I felt completely normal. I felt like I was experiencing this big dinner without a second thought to being out-of-place. And though I had already eaten my fair share of Italian food, it had never been what is one of the underlying fundamentals of Italian culture — being present with family and friends and enjoying the tastes and the company. Italian dinners (not all the time though) are typically an event where the food goes fast but the smiles don’t die. It isn’t a rush to leave anytime soon. And its a passion it seems.
With nearly three plates of Marliza’s pasta in my belly, and maybe about 4 glasses of wine, I observed her creating a work of art in the kitchen as the cap stone of the night. She drizzled caramel she had just made as the final touches over a desert only Dali could have conceived — sweet massive crackers with candied fruits, caramel, and homemade cream. As she presented it, nobody dared touch it as we all gawked at the construction. We didn’t want to destroy something so beautiful, however much our stomachs wanted us too. But, as she urged us to dig in, I was voted to make the first blow. Everything about it was fresh and unique and delicious, and though it took so much time to prepare, it was gone in seconds. I guess beauty doesn’t last, especially around hungry bloggers.
This crazy concept of cooking big dinners with friends over a few hours and enjoying company isn’t new, but it was somewhat for me. That dinner, the hospitality of Marliza and her husband, and the overall feel of Campodalto in general is what truly made the experience one of the most memorable from my time spent in Italy.
Now I’ve got to get my friends in the US to adopt this kind of concept. As long as they are the ones cooking.
*Special thanks to Linnea of This Is Your Time and Alina of Slow Living Vacations for inviting me on this blog tour, and Campodalto for hosting us. All opinions and use of the word “gnarly” are my own.
Up in the hills above the 15th century town of Paciano Italy and overlooking the countryside of Umbria sits the villa of Campodalto. At the beginning of my 10-day blogger tour through Italy, this sight was one of the more unexpectedly memorable ones — and it happened on day one after arriving late night to Campodalto where we would stay during our time in Umbria. I just remember wandering outside and into the back lawn that was pitch black. The distant town lights glowed, but the sea of fireflies overpowered even that. There were thousands around us flaring up and fading black, like the visual representation of the heartbeat of the hillside around us, and with the cloudy sky above, it was as if the stars had descended so we could still see them.
Read more about the 10-day blog tour around Umbria and Ponza Italy HERE!
Weekly Photo Mojo is about stimulating your cortex with retina rupturing and awe-inspiring photos from around the world to help you reach Terminal Vicariosity (The point where the mind reaches maximum capacity from living vicariously through someone else, and chooses to start actually living.)
There was a time when I could have been labeled the most picky eater alive. Anything with a weird texture, look, smell, or even name I wouldn’t go near. But I like to think that travel has broadened my tastes (and probably my ass too) and allowed me to break down the taste bud barriers — and now I am proud to say that I am usually up for trying most anything. Just keep Vegemite away.
During the 10-day tour through Italy with a group of bloggers I tried more types of foods, flavors, cooking styles, and cultural dishes in a short span of time than any country I’ve been to so far. And I put on more weight than any other I’ve been to. The best kinda’ weight possible — Italian food deserves an extra corridor in your stomach for excess.
While on Isola di Ponza (Ponza Island) I expanded my food adventures even further as the group every day visited a restaurant on the island to try their unique dishes, and met with the chefs/owners to learn more about the foods we were eating and what made them special.
I mean, after an entire day of exploring ancient Roman sea caves, scuba diving in underwater cave networks, and hiking around, you definitely work up a ravenous hunger. But besides the weight that stuck with me, one thing that was so amazing about the food in Ponza was the freshness of the seafood, and the fact that I enjoyed seafood there much more than I do in the States.
So grab your drool rag and come check out the food adventures I had in Ponza over the three days we were there and discover the best seafood I’ve ever had in my life. Most dishes I do not remember the names since they were given in Italian, so i will do my best, but this is a feast for your eyes!
The most memorable part of the first restaurant we visited in Ponza, Il Tramonto, was the view; clinging to the side of a cliff overlooking the sea. After a long day of trains and ferries to get to Ponza, and getting settled into our amazing beach villa, seeing this sunset painted over the silver ripples of the sea made the stress of transit drift away. Ivan Altieri, the owner of Il Tramonto, came and welcomed us at the table.
After we stopped taking thousands of photos and selfies with the sunset, we drank champagne as Ivan told us about his humble beginnings. He actually came into ownership of the restaurant after working as a waiter for years before the original owners decided to give it up. Ivan beamed stories, told jokes, and kept the appetizers, and eventually entrees flowing. Even when our bellies were full to the brim, out came a full range of deserts for us to try. I’m surprised we could walk after. Favorites included the mozzarella cheese rolls in pistachio crumbs and the molten cake.
Cheese rolls covered in pistachio crumbs.
A grilled white fish in a zesty tomato sauce with pine nuts.
Stuffed bread puffs.
A seafood pasta in a creamy sauce with basil and tomatoes. Sorry, I can’t remember the fish!
Molten chocolate cake covered in caramel.
Candied caramel topping a cream puff with sweet crackers.
After a full day on the open water cruising around the island and exploring caves, we were all fiends for food. We taxi boated into port and walked to Orestorante, once a night club, it now gives breath-taking views of the town and port. As the sun set, we settled into our table and immediately all of us were drawn to the amazing handmade plates adorning the table — brightly colored and vibrant, each dish that was served popped in contrast to the plates. It was as if each dish was its own art piece.
As each plate came out, we tried the various seafood native to Ponza and the waters around and admired the unique presentations of the dishes. Swordfish served on a hot rock to cook on, calamari pasta ringlets, and even special dessert goodies. Oreste Romagnola, owner and chef at Orestorante, came by the table to talk a bit about the restaurant and show us a book based on dishes he created and the restaurant itself. Just like Ivan above, he started off learning the ropes in the kitchens at the bottom and worked his way up to own restaurants around the island, including Oresteria down on the port itself.
Though most locals prefer traditional dishes and methods of cooking, Oreste Romagnolo decided to stand out and create interesting seafood concepts using the freshest and best catches of the day from the market just below.
Handmade and hand-painted plates on every table. Oh, and starfish.
Swordfish sizzles on skewers cooked over a hot rock. My favorite part of the experience.
White fish, grilled, over kalamata olive puree.
Calamari pasta ringlets in a light tomato sauce with dill. Something I thought I’d never like,a nd it was delicious!
More white fish sliced and served raw like a ceviche.
Chunks of buttery white fish over a risotto topped with cream sauce.
Oreste hanging out with our crew and telling us about himself and the history.
Adriano Bacchella’s book of recipes based on the restaurant.
My second favorite bit of the night, homemade strawberry shortcake in a glass jar!
Da Enzo al Frontone
On our last night of the blog tour and of our time in Ponza, we only had to make a short walk to Da Enzo al Frontone, located right near Frontone beach and ruins of an old grotto from ancient Rome. Tucked literally into the cliffside, the restaurant feels like you are dining in a cave, with sand at your feet, the breeze coming through, and the long melted candles around.
At this point, I didn’t think there would be seafood I hadn’t tried yet, but I was wrong. The owner of the restaurant, Enzo, came by and we got a chance to pick his brain. His main concept for the restaurant is “zero kilometers” which means that what they serve in the restaurant that day and night, is what they caught that morning.
You could taste the freshness of the dishes; flavors stood out like I had never had before. The swordfish, steaky and delicious. With the recipes, the ingredients tend to be minimal to let the flavor of the fish and freshness shine. Oh, and I can’t forget about the massive crawfish, which this species is only found around the Pontine island — it was naturally buttery in flavor and by far my favorite dish.
The bar, carved into the cliffs, with melted candles setting the mood.
The chefs whip up salads as appetizers for us.
This dish, packed with tons of different types of fish, was almost like a ceviche but not too overpowering on the acidity. I would normally avoid dishes like this, but I’m glad I didn’t!
Skewers of breaded white fish and grilled bell peppers, another favorite.
Anchovies. Whole anchovies. I NEVER thought I’d eat them. After learning how to remove the bones, I devoured one after another because they were so damn scrumptious.
The favorite…a filet of swordfish and the native prawns with an arugula and clementine salad. Just give me a bucket of the crawfish!
Cheers (now wipe the drool off)
Looking back on the time spent in Ponza, it will forever change the way I eat. Even though I am pretty adventurous when it comes to foods, I tend to fall back on things I’m familiar with normally, and often that doesn’t involve seafood. Plus, to have seafood like this — caught every day and served that night, with exciting blends of recipes from skilled and unique chefs, that makes the difference.
Which dish looked most delicious to you?
Ponza Island, just off the coast of Italy, is a unique and ancient island dating back pre-Roman era. Come explore the secret caves of Ponza Island.Read More
It’s not every day that you get to look out of your window and see the ruins of a 15th century palace. Or fortress. Or house of a wealthy family. Whatever it was atop that hill across from our villa on Isola di Ponza — that crumbling structure barely clinging to whatever historical moment in time it came from — it was a magical sight. Something out of one of my fantasies. I always dreamed of exploring ruins and castles as a young boy, but I had never thought I’d bee sleeping across from them.
Let alone have a hammock to relax in on the porch of a white-washed villa set in the rocky, green-brushed volcanic hills of Ponza Island.
Our crew of the This Is Your Time blog tour, all bags in tow, plodded along the winding pathways that snake through the hills of grey and orange rock, passing the white painted villas which seemed almost to be carved straight out of the hillside. This was after a winding truck drive down the small hairpin turns which rim the coastal cliffs that were incredibly treacherous and equally adventurous, with our whole blogger crew holding on for dear life.
Which made arriving all the more rewarding and the location even more fantastical.
After a brief hike (around Ponza, you definitely need to have good legs under you) we came up the hill and through the gate to our sweet getaway, our own bright white villa above Frontone Beach overlooking the sapphire blue Tyrrhenian Sea. A gentle breeze brought up the salty sea air and cooled our brows as we all heaved our bags down happily, ready to take in this beautiful place and relax.
All of us immediately went exploring the house. Or flopping down on our faces on the comfy beds. Maurizio Musella, owner of this villa and head of TuristCasa on Ponza Island, was nice enough to let us use both connected guesthouses while we were on the island. And wow, was it awesome. It had been a long day of traveling, leaving Umbria and the first half of our tour behind, taking a train 2 hours into Formia, and a ferry to the island over 3 hours. There was space to stretch out, plush couches and beds, and the setting sun shining through the doorways.
This felt like home away from home.
What I loved most was the décor; vibrant and lively and totally fitting for an island paradise, with fish painted on the walls, maroon and royal blue ceramic tiles, and handmade plate-ware.
I think I could sit there every morning for breakfast, couldn’t you?
Though we were all “oohing and ahhhing” at our accommodation for the next 3 days, it wasn’t long after arriving and dropping our bags that the beds and couches were enticing us it was nap-time for all.
For most of the time in Ponza when at the villa, besides having some family-style dinners cooked, or a few hangouts, this was mainly our spot to relax. And we were all fine with that. Of course blog tours are hectic, so it was nice to come back each day to such a homey and fantastical villa where we could all enjoy the views and decompress — whether it be from snorkeling all day, exploring the island, or waddling back with stuffed bellies.
Here is our villa above the pink house as seen from the ruins I gazed out at every morning.
Most of our blogger crew hanging out relaxing in the sun and eating lunch whipped up by Federico or Linnea. That table was our gathering spot when we all did work or just wanted to sit around and chat.
This is my “I’m going to destroy this plate of delicious pasta” face.
When I had heard we were going to be staying in a villa on Ponza Island, I couldn’t imagine it was going to be like this. The views alone were breathtaking, with panoramic scenes of the sea in front of you. But also the hospitality of Maurizio was stellar. He was kind enough to give us lifts to and from the port when possible, and even a day excursion by boat exploring the Island (much more on that to come!). And of course I can’t forget the company, with the other members of the blog crew really making it a fun place to stay. How often can you get a group of strangers together in a house and have everything be smooth?
Unless we had to ride into town, or if we didn’t bus it back, then we followed the path down the cliff-side to the beach and small port below the villa where we could catch a boat. That’s right, we could boat taxi from our villa! Since I was so fascinated by the ruins nearby I tried to do some sleuthing, and apparently it is called Fort Bentick or Fort Gable, built for defense of the port against raiders. But there isn’t much else. Now overgrown and a wind-swept shell of its former self, but still nonetheless nifty.
Long golden grass dancing on a gentle wind, bright yellow and purple wild-flowers peeking out of the hills, dark green-brushed mountains in the distance climbing out of the horizon and surrounding the turquoise lake shimmering under the summer sun.
This is Il Trasimeno Lake in the region of Umbria in Italy. Here, our blogger group on tour around Italy began a hike with UmbriAction that would take us through the hills around the lake, showing us the beautiful and unique agriculture and wildlife. Though we had quite a hike ahead, I had to pause and take a moment to admire the view. This was a place I could have seen myself spending an entire day on that very bench writing.
Read more about the 10-day blog tour around Umbria and Ponza Italy HERE!
Weekly Photo Mojo is about stimulating your cortex with retina rupturing and awe-inspiring photos from around the world to help you reach Terminal Vicariosity (The point where the mind reaches maximum capacity from living vicariously through someone else, and chooses to start actually living.)
*This blog tour was sponsored by Slow Living Vacations and This Is Your Time, but all opinions and stories are my own*
Oh how the adventures of backpacking can swing dramatically from lows and highs. Trust me, I would know, because for a chunk of my time in Italy and across parts of Eastern Europe I was living on bread and ketchup as my budget bottomed out and I was left pondering what to do next. Well, slightly freaking out.
And then, the next thing I knew I was on a blog tour around parts of Italy with a group of bloggers, dining on some of the best culinary traditions of Italian cuisine, and exploring the country in ways I wouldn’t have been able to afford. Luckily, I had met a person with a similarly adventurous spirit who was setting up her first blogger tour around the country based around the sole idea of living your life to the fullest.
We met on one of the historical tours I had taken in Rome, and after meeting up a second time to hear about her idea for her blog tour, she invited me to come along. To say I was stoked is an understatement, because what she had told me for the goal of her blog tour fully encompassed the sprit of adventure and inspiration.
That is where Linnea and Alina come in — the two who incubated the idea of a tour through Italy that would embody the ideas of taking advantage of every moment in life, to explore Italy into the deep roots of its culture by taking in everything in a slow-paced and relaxing way, and to get the real Italian experience by spending time with locals. And of course the would be our marvelous guides for the week and half.
With their powers combined, the Slow Living Vacations and This Is Your Time blog tour was formed! It would take us outside of the bustling Eternal City into the countryside of Umbria, amongst the rolling hills and endless olive orchards and vineyards, where we would discover the very essence of Italian cuisine by seeing first hand how hearty pastas, award-winning olive oil, and robust red wines are made. We would hike around the turquoise Il Trasimeno Lake learning from the locals how the flavors of Italy are grown in the fields around us, and what a fisherman’s life is like on the lake.
Then, we were off south of Rome to the Island of Ponza for a complete contrast of culture and flavor. Here the white wine and Proseco flowed, and meats and red sauces became fresh-caught seafood in spices and white sauces. We would explore the island by boat, taking in all of the geo-gasmic natural beauty, and underwater by scuba diving to see what lies beneath.
There wasn’t much mention about this tour on the blog as it happened in June because well, the majority of the tour we were busy doing epic things, and my hands were tied with copious amounts of wine. So for the next few weeks I will be sharing all of the tour on the blog.
But who is this “we” I keep mentioning? I can’t be rude and not introduce the rest, so without further ado I give you the gnarly blogger crew!
Roster of awesomeness in no particular order:
Ryan (why that’s me of course!)
DJ of Dream Euro Trip
Serena of Wishversilia
Anna of Green Holiday Italy
Diana of Browsing Italy
Claudia of Travel Stories
Gillian of Gillian’s Lists
Now let me introduce you to some of the delicious and adventurous tidbits we experienced that we took part in while on this blog tour as a teaser for what is to come!
Part 1: UMBRIA
It was such a contrast going from an uncomfortable and hot hostel, to a villa in the hills above Paciano that felt immediately like home. Though the home of my past never had views like those outside my window, nor did it look this nice, I instantly felt warm and cozy. The villa, Campodalto, is where DJ and I stayed while the other bloggers were split up into other locations around the area. From high up in the hills it overlooked the valley below, with fireflies that would light up the darkness at night, and our host Marliza with the biggest smile and sweetest heart. One of my favorite aspects of the trip happened here, which was the massive Italian style dinner she cooked up for all of us, which was my first true experience of Italian hospitality. Read about the heart-warming experience HERE!
One of first activities that we did, which was fitting since we were staying on or around vineyards, was to take a winery tour and tasting of Giacomo Mori. A historic winery set in the hills of Umbria, we were taken below the house into the brick-lined cellars where we learned about their process for making wine, how long their blends are aged, and a bit of the history. Then we went upstairs into the dining room where the table was lined with meats and cheeses — and of course wine! The view out the window was breathtaking, and the wine maker gave us tastings of their best wines, and even their reserve. This was the beginning of my love affair with wine, which I normally do not drink at all!
Marked as one of the most beautiful historic towns in Italy, Paciano, dating back to the 15th century, is an incredibly well-preserved town in the Province of Perugia in the Umbria Region. With the mayor and the head of tourism of Paciano, we were led around the cobblestone streets and learned about the rich industries of agriculture, metal work, and textiles in the region, while admiring the rustic architecture.
One of the blog tour guides, Alina, also helps run Fontanaro Farm which is owned by her family and the place she grew up — and was our main base of operations while in the Umbria region. Here, Aline showed us how their families award-winning olive oil is produced, and cemented my appreciation of Italian wine by letting us taste the delicious red wines produced on the farm. Also, a big perk for me seeing that I lack a bit in the cooking department, Alina taught us how to make homemade Italian pasta and how to stew up a thick Umbria argue that would easily keep you warm in the winters. The property was surrounded by the vineyard and olive trees, with mountains ranging being and the valley sinking below into golden fields. To be invited into someones house, whether she was our guide or not, was something very special.
Cantina de Redi
Deep below the stone street of the mountaintop town of Montepulciano was the wine cellars of Cantina de’ Ricci, which were carved into stone below the city by the Etruscans dating back before ancient Roman times. In the silent darkness, massive oak barrels lined the vaulted stone corridors which led us into the modern-day Cantina de’ Ricci where we tried fresh-cut prosciutto, cheeses, and other meat while trying their red wine selections. The building, inside of a historic Palazzo or palace, holds onto the traditions the now extinct Ricci family guarded hundreds of years prior.
What’s the best way to really explore a region? To hump it. No not that kind of humping ya’ pervert, but a real long hike or trek throughout the region to really experience it. On our last full day in the Umbria region we met up with the team of UmbriAction, a company specializing in eco-tourism and adventure tourism in the area. When we first me up with them, we were off to do some bird watching around the marsh area of Il Trasimeno Lake populated by tons of local and migratory birds. After, we went off for a hike into the hillside to see first hand the natural beauty sprouting in the region, and an ancient tower overlooking the lake. We hiked all the way to Azienda Agrarian, the farm of Flavio Orsini where he explained the agriculture in the region, showed us what is unique about his own farm, and gave us a taste of some local flavors. Then we headed around to one of the villages where we met up with local fisherman who took us out onto the lake to show us how they making a living fishing.
Part 2: Ponza
The second portion of our blog trip began. I was sad to leave Umbria and the villa that we stayed in, but as we left the harbor of mainland Italy 2 hours south of Rome and pulled into the port in Ponza, I was slapped by the incredible beauty of the island. Ponza greeted us with its dark blue waters, brushed green hills, rocky cliffs, and colorful villas sprouting about. We took a dinky van from the port to the villa where we were to stay, and to say that the route was treacherous would be a light statement. Treacherous but worth it as the roads on this island were snaking up and down cliff-sides.
It had been a long day of travel on the train and on the ferry, and after we were done unpacking in our terrace overlooking the harbor, we were all famished. It was grub down town and Linnea had something special planned for the dinner. We hiked into the hills rising above our terrace and to the highest point in Ponza to the restaurant Il Tramonto, where we were greeted with this breathtaking view from our seats. As the sun set the sky afire, we tried the specialties of the restaurant with buttery melt-in-your-mouth octopus and potatoes, white wine, and other amazing seafood dishes. Oh, and a full desert spread to top it off!
Boat Tour around Ponza
One way to truly see a region is to hike it like I mentioned in Umbria, but on an island, to truly take in the beauty is to boat it! Day two in Ponza we explored the island by cruising around, taking swims in the warm Tyrrhenian Sea, and had a chance to explore ancient Roman sea caves carved into rocks around the island. My favorite part though was when our boat guide took us over to a natural sea cave, where you had to dive beneath the water and swim under a rock arch to reach the interior cave, it was like something out of a movie!
It had been a long day at sea, so after a couple naps and showers it was time to feast again! We boated into town from out private dock and walked atop the hill to Orestorante, a restaurant hugging the cliffside and overlooking the port as the sun set. The restaurants brightly colored and hand-made plates immediately grabbed my attention, but later the seafood would grab hold of my taste buds. From calamari pasta to skewered fish cooked on hot rocks, we sat around enjoying the flavors of the sea we had explored that day while getting to know the owner and chef and hearing his stories about life on the island.
Ponza Diving Centre
Our last day on Isola de Ponza was an extremely special one for me, and I can’t tell you just how giddy I was. Because I was going scuba diving! For years I’ve dreamed of scuba diving and while in Thailand I figured I would get my certificate, but I never took the time to. After boarding, the crew of Ponza Diving Centre took us out into the sea, where the certified divers went down exploring depths we weren’t allowed to. But the sun was beaming and we were treated to some snack while we hung out and waited for our turn. Once they were done we cruise on over to an area with massive rock crags jutting out of the sea. I geared up and waddled to the edge of the boat and my destiny, and leapt in. At first, I struggled a bit to get acquainted with the gear, but with their help I was swimming 20 meters down with ease through underwater caves. And this has now become an addiction. See the awesome video HERE!
Da Enzo al Frontone
The last piece of our blog trip in Ponza was dinner at Da Enzo al Frontone, a candlelit restaurant carved into the rock face beside the beach. Here we were treated to the zero-kilometer style cooking of the restaurant, where they served us tastes of the sea caught that very morning. Now, I’m not huge on seafood normally, but Ponza had really changed that for me. We ate whole grilled anchovies, skewered of white fish that was breaded and served with sweet peppers, and so much more. We were all pretty bummed that the trip was coming to an end, but one last dinner on a beautiful summers night in Ponza eating fresh seafood and drinking wine, you can’t beat that.
And so it ended (sad face)
So, as we cruised back toward mainland Italy and Ponza shrunk into the horizon, our Slow Living Vacations and This Is Your Time blog tour came to an end, but those experiences that I have from it are forever engrained in memory. And of course the awesome people who I met on it! As my budget neared empty I feared that I wasn’t going to be able to experience Italy in an in-depth way, that I’d be stuck just seeing Rome and that’s it, but this tour gave me the opportunity.
*Special thanks to Linnea and Alina for inviting me on this blog tour. All opinions and use of the word “gnarly” are my own.
HAVE YOU BEEN TO ITALY? WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE REGION?
Someone once said, “The best way to experience a culture is to taste it“. As it turns out, searching all over the interwebs for this tastebud philosopher who said this turned up no results. So, I am claiming this quote, since it is truly the way to experience Italian culture.
And my backpacker belly definitely says I indulged…
Across the Tiber on the western bank of the river sits Trastevere, a neighborhood of winding corridors and a labyrinth of tight cobble-stone lined streets with deep-rooted history to Rome. Though the people of Trastevere will never say they are from Rome. Originally occupied by the Etruscans, after being conquered and taken over by Rome’s expansion, fisherman took up residence opening markets and bringing in the products from around the empire on the banks.
Soon, Trastevere became a literal melting pot of cultures and flavors, as no foreigner could own property in the city of Rome. Even Julius Caesar’s mistress, that sultry Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, had to stay in Trastevere in a villa they owned. With the fisherman and butchers and markets popping up in Trastevere with tastes from all over the world, it would survive to become one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in Rome and a place still known for traditional Roman recipes.
And this is where I am taking you today — on a tantalizing food tour through Trastevere, where I had a chance to try out local and traditional Roman style dishes that have survived the test of time.
DA ENZO AL 29
The first tasty stop on the tour was to Da Enzo Al 29, a family run hole-in-the-wall restaurant that feels more like a home. Our group walked in and the table was already set with Proseco and bread, with one of the family members in the background making homemade tiramisu. “I hope we are here for dessert first” said someone in the group, as we were all watching him make it. But no, we were not here for the tiramisu, but another house specialty — traditional Jewish fried artichoke.
I had never seen an artichoke in its entirety up until this point, and when fried it honestly doesn’t look that tasty. I really didn’t know what to do with it, as the others felt in the group as well. “Can you eat the whole thing?” another asked, and our guide reassured us it was all edible. And damn it was. I dove in and cut it up, trying fried artichoke for the first time in my life — it was smoky and crispy on the outside, crunching as you bit into the fried flower, then soft on the inside. I finished mine in about 2.5 seconds.
Another one of their house specialties we heard was an oxtail stew, though we wouldn’t be trying it this day.
Spirito di Vino
Deep below the cobbled streets of Trastevere is a historical secret, and one of the oldest wine cellars in Italy. In a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in ancient Rome, Spirito di Vino sits inside the shell of an old synagogue, with the original four walls remaining that makes it the oldest synagogue in the world with all four original walls. Beneath street level is their famous wine cellar with no alterations made to the original cellar besides bringing in free-standing wine racks.
The wine cellar is actually 150 years older than the Colosseum of Rome!
It was almost completely dark inside as out group crowded in the cold cellar, looking about in awe. In the entrance, old pottery shards sat in a tray that had been found during excavations. Hundreds of bottles off wine, some wrapped in plastic to preserve the label as they sat aging to perfection, lined the dark wood racks.
Before us was a spread of appetizers; lintels and succulent meatballs that were my favorite, alone with break and sliced meat. But the best aspect of all was drinking their red wine in the oldest cellar in Rome.
Who doesn’t love a mid-day sweet? In the United States, we think a biscotti is one very specific type of cookie, but ask for a biscotti at Innocenti in Trastevere, and Stefania will ask you, “which one?” That is because biscotti simply applies to a sweet or savory cookie. Stefania is the owner of the shop now, but it has been in her family since it opened in the 1920’s, and still uses the same custom 16-meter long oven to cookie these scrumptious morsels.
It’s okay to be drooling, because all of us on our food tour were salivating at it. We tried three different types of biscotti, and you could tell by the deliciousness that all of them were made with love. Nom nom.
Saying that Italy is a pretty cheesy place is an understatement. I really do think cheese is in the Italian DNA, and it is something that is somewhat of an art form. So much so that there is a Cheese Master that listens to the cheese when tapping on it to see if it is aged enough or cracked.
Now, I freakin’ LOVE cheese, though that dirty shoe smell still punches me in the nostrils when I enter a shop…
Inside a bustling meat and cheese shop down a side street that smelled, well, quite pungent, stood Roberto beaming ear to ear while serving locals and customers that specifically come to see him. And Roberto has been working there since 1963 starting when he was 13 years old, and works nearly 16-hour days. His philosophy, “You only work half the time when you love what you do all the time.”
In Antica Caciara, opened in 1900, all types of specialty cheeses and cured meats lined the walls, with the Italian favorite pecorino romano to be our sample. As our guide told us about Roberto, the shop history, and cheese, we indulged in the salty and tasty pecorino romano — made from sheep milk from Roberto’s Uncle’s farm, that they are known for.
No, it is not a new Apple i-food, but it is as traditional as you can get for Roman munchies. Inside one of the tiny grab-and-go style style shops in Trastevere is I Suppli, considered the best supplis in Rome, whipping up traditional style comfort food, and also slinging out these fried snacks. What the hell is a suppli? Though they are sometimes stuffed with veggies or meats, the real Roman style snack is a ball of rice with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese fried into a flavor grenade.
Best part of it? One will likely fill you up, and they are usually only 1-2 Euros.
Though Rome wasn’t the birthplace of pizza (that being Naples) it has definitely become the staple street food or meal around Rome. And with that, the concept of pizza has evolved to the all different types of toppings and thicknesses and flavors — all things that might seem to be the norm in the US (we do love our options and pickiness) but aren’t traditional.
La Renella is a local institution, known for having some of the best baked bread in all of Rome, as well as a brick-oven that dates back to the 1800’s. Stoking the flames and making their dough in the back is owner Massimo, still at it today cooking the same way his family did when it was opened in 1860. You might not know, but at one point in the history of Rome, nut shells were used to fuel that fire in ovens all over the city after a ban on cooking with wood. It was the cheapest and most available fuels, and added a very unique flavor to baked goods. A flavor lost otherwise, except at La Renella, which still uses shells to this day in the oven.
When the group entered through the back door of the bakery, immediately you could feel the heat of the flames on your skin. In the hall, stacks of flour, with Massimo in a side room using a massive machine to home-make their dough. He led us into the oven room, where flat-bread pizzas lined the wall cooling off. In the corner, a container filled with shells that fueled the fire before us. He opened it, showing just how hot it was and the fresh baking bread inside.
When we were done checking out the back, we had a chance to try some of their famous pizza, and only the classic mozzarella. The crust was slightly charred, and had an amazing flavor I had never tasted to the bread from the shells, with molten cheese and a slightly bitter tomato sauce.
I couldn’t help but have seconds.
Osteria der Belli
Inside Osteria der Belli, traditions from Sardinia are apparent as this family-run restaurant in the heart of Trastevere serves up some of the freshest seafood dishes in Rome. This was our dinner portion of the tour, where serious chow-down was to happen with pasta and wine. Though the pasta was phenomenal, especially their penne pasta, it was gobbled up too fast to take a photo. But I did manage to snag one of the fried zucchini, equally tasty, with fluffy breading.
Gelato is serious business in Rome, and it is such a popular dessert that locals have it at least once a day. Sometimes twice. Or three times. It’s popularity also comes at a dire price — nearly 85% of the hundreds of gelato places in the city serve of fake gelato. True gelato is dense and made with fresh ingredients. Most “gelato” places in Rome serve up gelato my with cream and not milk, and it tends to be artificially sweetened and fluffed. Otherwise meaning its crap.
Want real gelato? One of the most famous gelato shops is Fata Morgana, where the gelato is made with the freshest (and sometimes whackiest) ingredients out there. Take the chocolate flavored with Kentucky tobacco, or basil, or black rice. Even rose-buds.
This culinary spectacle was nearing to a close, but not before stopping at one of the favorite gelato shops of Romans. When we entered, I noticed how this gelato sat in smaller pans than other shops, and that there wasn’t crazy designs or elaborate fruit stuck into it to make it look schzazzy. An indicator that this was the real deal.
Even though there was a plethora of flavors, I can’t help but get coffee flavor anytime I go. But, along with the coffee and homemade whipped cream, I got a scoop of tiramisu flavor. Which now has become my favorite.
After my Eating Italy Trastevere tour ended I waddled full-bellied back to my hostel, but I’d find myself in Trastevere many times after just for a snack — it is truly a haven for traditions still surviving thousands of years.
*This food tour was offered by Eating Italy, but all options and scrumptious views are my own*
Have you ever been to Trastevere? What is your favorite traditional Italian food?
Atop Aventine Hill there is a door with a secret keyhole that looks across Rome at something profound and amazing. Here’s what’s hidden behind the door.Read More
The Roman Colo-freaking-sseum. It was finally about to happen. I had waited almost 18-years of my life after the fateful day when I picked up one of those ginormous glossy “History of Ancient Rome” books bigger than my torso that, in all honesty at age 8, was fascinating only because of the nifty section chock full of weaponry. My eyes were dazzled by the scenes of brutal arena combat, the fascinating architecture, the kick-ass photos of armor and weapons, and the perfectly executed warfare of the Romans.
Oh, and of course the pages that would show a cut out comparison of the exterior and interior, with the ever hilarious images of a person on an ancient toilet going #2.
Hey, it was funny to my immature miniature-self ages ago. It also made Ancient Rome and the colosseum a fantastical obsession. Not the poo part of course, but the combat and architecture. Now, mind you, to my 8-year old brain it didn’t seem possible that I would ever lay eyes upon the real deal, even if my imagination would take me into the center of the blood-stained arena to battle it out against ruthless gladiators and vicious tigers to the roars of thousands.
Mainly, it was lil’ Ryan in the woods leaping and jumping and slashing at make-believe warriors with a stick. And after a long day of being the hero of the Roman world, I would return home to normal life where none of that really existed.
Just a young boy’s silly fantasy.
Until fantasy became reality 18 years later, and my Walks of Italy tour group was standing under the tall archway of one of the 76 entranceways into the Colosseum of Rome. We had just explored the Roman Forum in its entirety, but all the while I was thinking about the second half of the tour.
I had unknowingly stumbled across the Colosseum by accident days before while lost in Rome, trying to find a hostel, until I glanced up from my phone’s map and saw the towering structure silhouetted by the setting sun behind it. The child-like giddiness struck me, and no matter how tired I was from wandering lost all day, I couldn’t help but walk around that ancient wonder at least once before moving on. I had already set up a tour for the Colosseum before I arrived in the city, but it finally hit me once I found myself standing beneath the arch.
So, come with me as I take you through my own childhood dream come true on my tour from the depths of the hypogeum, to the apex of the Flavian Amphitheater below!
HISTORICAL NOTE: Each one of the entrances into the Colosseum was marked with numbers above, and shards of pottery which acted as tickets marked which entrance you would enter to make seating 50,000-80,000 spectators fast. Construction began in 70AD by Emperor Vespasian and completed in just 10 years by 80AD by Emperor Titus. Though it is known as the Colosseum, the actual name is the Flavian Amphitheater. It was referred to later on as the Colosseum because of the Colossus, or gigantic statue of Nero which once stood beside it.
After we entered through the entrance archway, one of only a few still open to enter through, we bypassed the line that stretched nearly a hundred yards inside (hehe, suckers) and since we were on this VIP tour, we went straight through the interior gate past everyone. Once through, we were led outside again through another gate specifically for out tour and into a small clearing near the entrance that gladiators would pass through.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Those gaping holes in the columns and arches above you see we actually made from pillaging the Colosseum after Rome fell and the invaders striped everything precious, including the iron brackets that used to wrap around all of the supports. In the later years, those wretched and greedy Popes (sorry, but they were greedy) stripped whatever marble was left in the Colosseum to outfit their own structures.
Before entering the Colosseum we halted to get a brief lesson (though I was anxious like a little kid) and it was explained that after a massive earthquake, parts of the exterior wall collapsed which is why it now stands incomplete, or that it was also used as a stone quarry itself and stone was stolen from it. What punks. The massive brick triangle was added to support the walls and prevent further collapse.
HISTORICAL NOTE: Sometime around 1789, a swell guy by the name of Pope Benedict XIV decided to slap that big ole’ cross above onto the Colosseum. At first, I assumed it was just the church claiming everything as their own because they liked to do that back then, but plaques like these marked a building to pretty much state, in words like MC Hammer used, “Can’t touch this!”
I will admit — as I walked though the tunnel and onto the platform the stretched out like the original arena battlefield, my imagination got the best of me. Though I did’t start fighting off throngs of blood-thirsty imaginary gladiators where the rest of the group would think I’m a lunatic, it played out in my head as such. From the outside, the Colosseum is quite something to behold, but you don’t experience just how freakin’ big it is and just how overwhelming it is until you stand inside.
We were on the arena floor. I was in the Colosseum. I couldn’t believe it.
This is my I-know-those-people-wish-they-were-on-the-arena-floor-too selfie.
Imagine 50,000-80,000 rabid spectators screaming as you entered the arena — screaming for blood and battle. Your blood. Through the coin-sized sights in your helmet, which baked your head like a kiln under the heat of the high Roman sun, you might have seen any frightening scenario waiting before you. The
HISTORICAL NOTE: Colosseum held events of large-scale re-enactments from famous Roman conquests, to full-scale ship battles, to the parade and slaughter of even 9,000 different exotic animals in one day. However glorious it was to stand on that platform of sand, it was also a heavy experience knowing that the ground that once stood there glistened with the blood of thousands. As a gladiator, this was hell. Though some, whether it be from owed debts or to seek fame, chose to fight in the largest arena the world had seen.
And I thought getting on stage to play trombone in elementary school was terrifying.
Soon we were led out of the arena and descended into the underground and through dimly lit stone hallways. Unlike the fine craftsmanship that would have gone into the architecture above and the portions adorned with marble, here the structure was crude and uneven.
We had entered the Hypogeum, the labyrinth beneath the arena, the underworld of gladiators and animals. There was no need to make it look pretty down here or to worry about what it looked like, most of the time it was pitch-black, besides an occasional lamp passing by as the gladiators awaited combat. There was no constant flame light here since it was filled with animals and with gladiators and would most likely suffocate them.
Our guide sat us all down on the ancient stones beside massive wood columns, now which support the mock aren floor, but previously were a part of an elevator that could bring you into the arena. As she explained what life was like in the hypogeum, all information I gobbled up of course, I also couldn’t help but wander off.
And yes, I wandered off a bit past those ropes that you are supposed to stay behind…
As I walked around, the voice of our guide faded and I found myself wandering alone. The noise from above the Hypogeum was barely noticeable, and I was in complete awe passing thought the maze of crumbling passageways in this sprawling underworld.
Birds here and there sipped water trapped in circular cut-outs — which used to hold the wooden beams of elevators that could bring up animals, props and set pieces, gladiators, and even special effects.
Rome had special effects for their spectacles. Kinda’ crazy to think about.
I explored a bit more, losing my place and my time in the experience. I leaps over a deep crack in the ground separating one of the outer chambers which may have once been a stream, and found myself almost in darkness. It was light in the hypogeum now, though once it was covered and completely dark, with the sounds of animals in the blackness from the 32 animal pens beneath.
Here is an excerpt from a description of a photo I shared previously, which was some of the scenes that the hypogeum evoked:
Imagine yourself as a gladiator of Rome, a slave warrior, deep under the enormous Flavian Amphitheater awaiting battle. The thunderous noise of 50,000 rabid Romans rumbles the roof above. You cannot see a thing. Their stomping and shouting sounds the exact same as a storm rolling toward you. It is pitch black, besides the brief and fleeting light of a dim lamp that occasionally flickers on the uneven stone walls, casting long and ghastly shadows which crawl over the ceiling like demons from the underworld.
Somewhere in that darkness, the feral roars from hungry caged lions and tigers echo, haunting that blackness. You cannot see who sits beside you, but you can smell them. You can smell the sun-burnt olive oil on their skin slathered on everyone to make them glisten in the sun. You can smell the sweat beading and dripping from yourself and the warriors around you.
That immense stench of sweat, a salt smell like a vast ocean as if you stood on a beach with your eyes shut — yet no cool breeze to cool your brow or culls from seagulls to calm your nerves. Just blackness and sweat. And in that blackness is the smell of death. Even though none have died yet, many have before you after leaving that blackness. The smell of death is of the piss and the shit and the sweat that happens before battle — the fear takes hold of some more than others and they lose their bowels and minds before being released into that sand-pit of death.
Soon the ceiling will crack open, raining dust and sand onto our heads. Light will pour through the opening and we will rise up to the cheers of thousands. And with that light, we do not rise up to meet life, but death.
Sometimes the darkness is better.”
My imagination broke when I realized I had been wandering around for a while and suddenly spotted that my group had gone. Whoopsies! Another tour was entering the Hypogeum, so I ran off through the hall and up the stairs where I was able to catch up to my group.
We were now heading back up above ground, but not just to one of the upper tiers, but to the very top tier of the Colosseum that was restricted access! We were let through a locked iron gate (oh yeah, I felt special) and were led upstairs after locking it behind us.
It was mind blowing to be walking through a hallway more the 4-stories up in a structure over 2,000 years old, naturally lit by the sun beaming through windows. As we ascended another staircase and came out into the light, the sheer height and scale of the Colosseum hit everyone in the group. We all quickly ran over to the edge (okay, I ran) and looked out over the entirety of the arena.
You really don’t realize it’s vastness until you see it from above. Just look at the people in the distance for reference! It was crazy to think that an ancient civilization, without modern machinery, made something so huge that still stands 2,000 years later. And seated more than most sporting arenas do now.
HISTORICAL NOTE: The people below on the mock arena floor are sitting on marble blocks to show what seating for the upper-class and important Roman citizens sat on. The higher up you got, the lower the classes. Since the Colosseum sometimes held battle with fierce animals like lions and tigers, the arena floor was ringed with a high wall topped with stone rollers that, if something let up to grab hold and escape, would just spin and throw it back down.
Cheesy GoPro selfie was a must.
HISTORICAL NOTE: At one point, the Colosseum was said to have had a retractable “roof” constructed of wooden beams over the seating with sails that could be extended to provide shade from the sun. Of course this didn’t cover up the arena floor, we wouldn’t want the gladiators to cool off.
We had a decent bit of time up there, but after about 10-minutes, and to my dismay, the tour came to an end and we had to leave the top tier. After everyone parted ways, I stayed a bit longer on the main level of the Colosseum that is general access just so I could take in a bit more of this fantasy. Even with the Colosseum teeming with tourists, none of that mattered because it all dissolved away.
The architecture and perfection of the brick-work of the Colosseum fascinated me.
Old remnants of statues or marble pillars lay scattered about. Ones that weren’t stolen.
Though the tour was over and I was about to exit the Colosseum, that experience will forever be one of the most gnarly and memorable attractions I had been to. Even if thousands of people wait in line to see the Colosseum, being on a VIP tour through the hypogeum and top tier made it feel as though you were only with a small number of people inside of it. And of course if you wander off by yourself like me…
*This tour was sponsored by Walks of Italy but, as always, my thoughts, reactions, and use of the word “gnarly” are my own*
INFORMATION: The Walks of Italy VIP Colosseum tour gives restricted access to the arena floor, the hypogeum underground, and the top tier. Prices for the 4 -hour tour are €89 and include the Roman Forum tour as well. Make sure to bring sun-glasses and a hat, and plenty of water and snacks. Street vendors are plentiful, but plenty expensive as well.
Have you been to the Roman Colosseum, or dreamed about a visit?
It had only been a couple of days since I had arrived in Rome and fulfilled a childhood dream, and even though I had been in the city for a relatively short period of time, I had already managed to get hopelessly lost in the Eternal City. After taking it easy that night, and doing some light exploring the next day, I figured it was time to get to know the history and the city a bit better.
I very rarely take tours in cities.
Wandering a city with no predetermined destination or sight is my typical method of discovery, but with a city like Rome packed with rich history dating back 2,000+ years, I thought it best to experience some of it by the deep knowledge of a guide. Now, if you have been one to take a guided tour of anything in the past, you may agree with me that some tours are either way too boring, way too detailed, or that the guide straight up knows nothing.
Back in 2013 when I attended the Travel Blog Exchange in Toronto I met some representatives of a tour company called Walks of Italy, and promised I’d check them out when I finally reached Italy. Travelers and bloggers I knew had already heaped praises upon their tours, so I reached out to them before arriving and they were excited to help me get to know Rome a bit better.
The first couple of days in Rome I had passed by the Roman Forum numerous times — a sprawling complex of ruins in the center of the city about 2-3 stories beneath the modern-day Roman roads. Each time I couldn’t help but pause and scan across the ancient square at the tall chipped pillars, the old and crumbling brick walls, the carved marble blocks scattered about — and I was trying to re-imagine what everything was and how it may have looked in Ancient Roman times.
This tour helped me do just that.
We met up across the Via dei Fori Imperiali, the main road the runs past the Colosseum and to the Forum complex. After brief introductions and linking us all up with headsets so we can always hear him (something I hadn’t seen on other tours), we were on our way. Descending down a ramp into the Forum brought us to the street level which ancient Rome had been built upon, and over the couple of thousands of years had been buried.
“The most celebrated meeting place in history” — The Forum Romanum, or Roman Forum, stretched out before us — littered with broken pieces of a time long past, and at times forgotten. This was the heart of ancient Rome; where a bustling marketplace met politics, triumphant processions paraded and news from around the empire was announced. It was a beautiful and chaotic square where the heartbeat of the empire was felt, where monuments of great men stood, and where great temples stood reflecting the awe of the gods.
Long grass swayed in an otherwise barren patch of land with the Capitoline Hill (City Hall) towering over the Forum. On the right, the Arcus Severi, or Arch of Septimus Severus still stand proud in triumphant marble, with the pillar remains of the ancient Temple of Saturn on the left.
A closer up look at the Temple of Saturn, the god of the Capitol, of wealth, and of time — yet as the empire faltered and crumbled, so too did Saturn’s reign of time end. Originally build in 497BC, this is the remains of the third incarnation of the temple that had once held the statue of the god in the interior which was veiled and equipped with a scythe, almost as if the Reaper. It would also become the treasury for Rome.
Our guide walking us through historical stories and showing us recreations of the Roman Forum itself, while we sat on the ancient stones that once were apart of that period.
In the forum the Roman Cyprus Trees climbed into the sky.
Stone walls of the buildings which once populated the square, remnants of the beautiful white plaster swathed in colors, still standing as if it had never known the rest of Rome had fallen.
The brick skeleton of the Imperial Palace overlooking the Roman Forum.
The Imperial Palace stands atop Palatine Hill, the supposed birthplace of Rome where Romulus and Remus had come upon the she-wold Lupa who kept the babes alive after they were sent to their deaths down a river from a fearful and superstitious King.
Views of the Temple of Castor and Pollux, built in 495BC and named for the twin sons of Zeus.
The Temple of Antonius and Faustina, built for Emperor Antonius’s deceased wife and later turned into a Catholic Church. Probably the only reason it had survived so intact throughout history
As we walked past the temple, our guide explained that the big scars seen towards the top of the pillars were made from an apparent attempt to pull the pillars down. One which failed.
Large marble blocks populate the path traveling up toward the Palatine Hill, carved with various animals like bulls and horses.
The Triumphant Arch of Augustus, the model for the two other remaining arches in Rome built in 29BC originally for Octavian and later changed to commemorate the battle of Actium against Mark Anthony and Cleopatra.
Fierce war-horses pull a chariot forth in one of the carved scenes in the arch.
After passing by the Arch of Augustus we snaked up toward Palatine Hill and the Imperial Palace. Olive trees lined the old stone Roman road, with flowers bursting from cracks in the stone walls lining, and the Roman cyprus and umbrella pines towering above. It was shaded and cool, a nice contrast from the hot sun of the day, and made for a beautiful fit for a palace.
A regal seagull rests atop a crumbling pillar in the Imperial Palace, almost as if to greet our procession once we reached the remains.
The thin bricks stacked perfectly and once formed the high and astonishing walls of the Imperial Palace, where Emperors such as Augustus and Flavian called home. It had been plastered neatly and painted ornately, and was a place where Roman rulers would meet representatives from other countries to entertain and awe them with the grandiose dwellings fit for a god.
Our guide had painted a picture of the palace for us as it once stood. It had been covered in marble, cold to the touch and perfect for the hot days of summer, with rare marbles like the yellow marble from Africa above. As history wore on, and the empire fell, Palaces like this were stripped of its beauty by raiders, and also Popes whom wanted to decorate their own churches and homes with such rarities.
The open Stadium of Domitian, gardens of the Imperial Palace and private sporting events which were held in the Palace.
In the distance from Palatine hill, the Flavian Amphitheater, or better known as the Colosseum, was our next destination on the tour. At this point my allergies were destroying me, with Mother Nature attacking my face. Though I was miserable, the thought of exploring the Colosseum in parts most don’t get to see drove me to fight on.
The tour so far had already beaten my expectations, with our guide filling each ruin with history and bringing us into the time period, without causing us to age from boredom in the process. I was shocked to have the thought cross my mind that I was enjoying a guided tour, and extremely excited for the next half.
Exploring the Colosseum, something I couldn’t have even imagined doing as a young boy, is going to be a completely different article because the experience was just that damn gnarly.
Have you ever been around the Roman Forum? What guided city tour surprised you?
*Disclaimer* This tour was provided by Walks of Italy to review, but in no way influences the opinions, descriptions, experiences, and use of the word “gnarly” on this blog.
There I was, frumped down on a gum-covered curb, arched backward by the gravitational pull of my now encumbering backpack, with my tech bag (which weighs a hefty amount on its own) sagging down my chest and in between my spread out legs — not much unlike a fat and floppy baby.
A bead of sweat crept slowly from beneath my fedora, one which I had purchased in Thailand as my shining new adventure hat, now bent and beaten and grimy. That bead of sweat made its way across the squished ridges of my forehead, up and over the furrowed hills of my brow, took a swift dive down the crest of my nose onto the plains of my cheek — where it seems to pause a moment, as if to admire some sort of unique feature on the landscape of my face, then decided to scurry forth into the thicket of my scraggly backpacker beard where it was lost.
When it had given that pause on my cheek, I imagine it was probably looking back over the plains and furrows and the ridges at the agony on my face under the hot Roman sun — and in its tiny sinister saltiness, it probably laughed at me.
I was utterly lost in the Eternal City after bumbling along for what seemed to be an eternity in itself, hauling about my human mobile home which nearly weighted 40 kilos, searching desperately for some place to lay my head at night, until my dragging feet and aching back begged me to stop. On my left was a sour-smelling dumpster, on my right a typical Roman patio café with Italians sipping their second or third or fifth espresso of the day, and ahead of me triple parked cars blocking most of a main road — which come to find out is just the nature of Italian drivers in the city who tend to establish a parking lot where they’d like.
All I could mutter was a pathetic, “what the fuck” under my breath as I wiped away more sweat that raced down my face before it could pause and mock my stupendous stupidity like the other. I must have been some form of impressive from the way Romans passed by me and gawked at the presence of this sad and sweaty blob slouched on the curb.
It was all chaos and madness flying at me that first few hours the moment my train had pulled into the Termini train station and I waddled off the hissing steel behemoth with the eagerness of fulfilling a childhood dream. But instead of trotting off happily with a hop in my step and confidence of where to go, the realization occurred that I had no clue where the hell I was.
People scurried about like frantic ants. Motorbikes bobbed and weaved and zipped around as if they were in a race. The homeless and the hawkers both hankered for money I didn’t have. And most of all, it dawned on me as I scampered across the cobblestone street after dodging honking cars, that a travel sin had been committed.
After spending almost 8 months in Thailand one might think chaos would be incomparable in most other countries — if you’ve experienced (and survived) the ebb and flow of Bangkok traffic on the back of a motorbike you’d think you could go forth head on into most things. But each busy city has its own unique kind of chaos, and the kind felt a few moments of arrival wasn’t Rome’s fault, it stemmed from being utterly unprepared.
The travel sin committed? Not booking a hostel before I arrived in Rome.
Not just that, but for the sake of a bigger and better whammy I did not look at a map of potential hostels preemptively, and I did not look at the layout of the city.
Sometimes you can wing it and things just work out. Other times, you’ll find yourself between a café and a smelly place like myself. It was only a few days prior that I had been forced to leave Thailand and book a last-minute flight. Rome, my childhood dream, was somehow the cheapest flight into Europe from Thailand as if the travel fates urged me to fulfill that dream. There was no way I couldn’t leap at the opportunity presenting itself. And with the arrogance of my go-with-the-flow attitude, I decided that I would arrive and see where the next adventure would take me.
Oh, how that turned out to be an amateur decision to make.
I started off downhill from the train stain with the momentum of my mass carrying me forward, stopping every so often to admire an old piazza or unique architecture. Each cross street passed seemed dedicated to businesses and pizzerias, and on occasion I would veer off course and trudge halfway through a side-street thinking I had spotted a hostel sign, only to be fooled by the mirage of a low-quality hotel sign.
This is when the chaffing began.
And so did the blisters begin to poke up their translucent and annoying heads on the bottom of my feet.
You might ask, “Why the hell didn’t you stop someone and ask them for directions?” and I will tell you, “dammit I tried!”
It must have been the end, or beginning, of the Italian lunch hour because as I stood there, wearing my best puppy face (which doesn’t work with a big beard and a sweat-drenched shirt) everybody that passed by seemed to be in a gallop as if they were late to some important meeting. With a wave or a “Ciao!” I hoped someone would pause for a moment, but nobody did. There was no escape from the high-noon sun cooking me so I trudged on, determined that something, somewhere would pop up. The road that literally carried me downward seemed to stretch on into a hazy infinity, yet I marched on.
A few times I ventured into what seemed to be a café, odd to me at the time that they called it a “bar“, in hopes of finding a place proper enough to throw off the bags and charge my phone. Except all of these “bars” I was poking into, usually by squeezing through a compact doorway, instantly went silent when I entered. The locals would stop their shopping or chewing or sipping and stare, and the staple Italian elder behind the counter, with a sudden and disapproving glance at the clumsy monstrosity strapped to my back and chest, always seemed ready to spatula me over the head and out the door.
This was a whole new jungle I was lost in, a jungle where no touristy shops were located to plead for directions and the cafés weren’t for sitting around on a laptop, but for grab-and-go quickies. Just old-school locals that gave me weird looks. Hell, I’d give myself weird looks at that point too since the twisted wedgie that had formed gave me an awkward walk. This was exactly the type of neighborhood I’d love to explore, local and not touristy, yet it wan’t the neighborhood I needed at the time to find accommodation.
Demoralized and with thoughts flooding through my head like, “fucking idiot, you should have looked up a hostel first” I sank down onto the gum-covered curb and sulked. And though the sun still cooked me, there was no way I could keep wandering. It had been at least a couple of hours for all I knew, so I plopped down.
Then, before me, I saw something shimmer across the street.
It may have been the heat mixed with the decaying food in the dumpster or that I hadn’t drank water all morning, but it appeared to me — “free Wifi here!” I hadn’t seen a single sign for Wifi around the city yet, but I knew that my laptop had a bit of a charge and possibly my iPad, so I jolted upright and swiftly made my way across the street.
Okay, who am I kidding…
It took about a minute to build up momentum to rock back and forth enough to sit up. To anyone else watching it probably looked like a turtle on its back attempting yoga for the first time. Why I didn’t unstrap it from my back and just stand up will forever be a senseless mystery. Finally upright, I squeezed through the scattered parked cars in the middle of the street over to the small panino shop which potentially held and end to my self-inflicted misery.
But alas, that would not be the end just quite yet, because of course more “excitement” had to be juiced out of the day.
An empty table with an outlet seemed to be waiting just for me to flop into, so I quickly scurried over and took it. As I rummaged through my bag, a sudden fear grasped me — I couldn’t find my European adapter. Of course the waiter approached asking for my order, and in my craze I blurted out “latté” and kept digging. Nearly emptying my entire pack onto the table of this tiny panino shop, I discovered that I must have forgotten the plug adapter in Thailand. When I pulled out my laptop, it was down to almost 15% battery left, and my iPad was at about 3%.
The waiter returned and set down a frothed glass of milk. At that moment, confused, I stopped him and asked if it was coffee. The waiter replied, “you order latté” and shook his head as if to end an argument that had never even begun and walked away. I don’t need to type out the amount of fuckity fucks that flew through my head at that moment as everything was dying and my comfort was a warm milk, so immediately I got to work trying to find hostels nearby.
Dammit man, at least give me some cookies with the milk!
My phone was charging off of my laptop, so as it suckled battery I watched the percentage on my laptop quickly tick down like a time-bomb. As the results came in for the cheapest hostels, it was something new that slapped me in the face. Europe would surely be more expensive than Thailand, though I never expected the cheapest hostel in the city to be 25 euro.
Talk about a different kinda’ culture shock.
But there was no time to waste and I booked it. The life of my laptop and iPad exhausted, so I looked up quick directions on my iPhone to the hostel, and with its measly 8% battery I hauled my packs on, chugged the latté, and went forth — milk mustache and all. Since I had been in such a panic to look up directions, I completely missed the fact that there was a blaring and obvious monument on the way the the metro station I needed to go to. And the fact that “Colosseo Metro” didn’t quite compute at that moment. I reached the bottom of that seemingly endless hill I had been barreling down all day and rounded the corner, where I paused for a moment to get my bearing.
The I noticed something in the distance.
There it was, something I had only seen in books and online, and something I had dreamed of as a little boy to see. Only, I didn’t realize it immediately. The sun was beaming down into my eyes, and below the brim of my hat I could only see the base of a stone structure in the distance. So I tipped the hat up to see what was in the distance, and gazed up and up and up.
Suddenly all of the nonsense of the day was gone: the mocking bead of sweat, the chaffing, the blisters, the wedgies, the sticky shirt, the smelly dumpster I sat by, the spatula terror, the awkward stares, the self pity of being unprepared, and even the warm cookie-less milk all disappeared from my thoughts — I was looking at the Colosseum of Rome.
I stared in awe at the ancient stone structure climbing out of the grounds ahead, and though some may not be impressed by this tourist attraction, I had waited for a very long time for that moment. Nothing could ruin it. Well, for a few seconds at least, until the hawker with some squeaky gelatinous toy shoved it my face with a “5 euro only, come on.”
Truth be told, I was still a quite bit cranky and eager to get the hostel, but before I hopped on the metro I had to get a closer look.
It was as if I was drawn to it, pushing through the throngs of hawkers — the hat guy trying to sell me a hat when I already had one, the creepy faux gladiators wanting me to take selfies with them, the guys trying to sell me silk scarves like I was some sort of hipster, the souvenir guy trying to sell me rocks that he said were pieces of the Colosseum, and even the terribly cheesy floating guy that all easily distracted tourists flocked around.
After admiring it for as long as I could stay upright, I made my way onto the metro and to my hostel. Unlike Thailand, I discovered after the hours of waddling that hostels in Rome aren’t as numerous and way less obvious than some other countries I’ve been to. In Thailand, you toss a Baht in any direction and it will hit a guesthouse. It wouldn’t be until after this ordeal that I realized hostels and guesthouses in Rome are tucked into apartment buildings with the most frustratingly discreet signs, making it nigh impossible to just stumble onto one.
And though my lack of forward thinking and planning before arriving in a completely new country with a vastly different culture sent me on a half-day long miserably mission, seeing the Colosseum made imagination into a reality — and everything else was forgotten.
Oh, and yes, I made up the word frumped =P
Have you ever had an experience like mine from not planning ahead? Tell your fail-tale below!
On a recent blogger tour around Italy, we visited the island of Ponza, about two hours south of Rome and a three-hour ferry ride. While there, I had the chance to go scuba diving for the very first time and took along my GoPro to capture the moment. And one such moment was with this little octopus that we found under a rock at the sea-bed.
Now, personally I’ve never met an octopus, but it seemed much obliged to meet me. Given the uber cuteness and subtle hilarity of this photo, I want you to come up with a fitting caption for this photo!
CAPTION THIS BELOW!
Weekly Photo Mojo is about stimulating your cortex with retina rupturing and awe-inspiring photos from around the world to help you reach Terminal Vicariosity (The point where the mind reaches maximum capacity from living vicariously through someone else, and chooses to start actually living.)
What feeling does this photo evoke for you?
And so the lost boy arrived in the Eternal City. But I hadn’t actually arrived yet. Having an aisle seat made me envious of the red-shirted woman with the views out the window. But the worst part of that envy wasn’t because her face was smushed against the window and she was wide-eyed at the Italian landscape below — it was because that woman was dead asleep as we began our descent. Oh how I was tempted to just lean right over her to peer out the window. But I suspected that if she were to suddenly wake up, I might appear to be sneaking a smooch instead of my simple desire to see Italy unfold below.
She’d be wrong though, I’m not quite into stealing a secret kiss from a drooling elderly woman with a slight mustache and a snore worse than mine.
We arrived on a reasonably smooth landing, with only a few jolts and shakes exciting my fear of flying before screeching onto the landing strip. After that mad rush subsided that happens when all flights come to an end and people scramble for their luggage, I was waddling with my bags toward the exit door.
Finally, I was staring out at a land (which arguably didn’t look different from most airports) that I had waited all of my life to see. I took a deep breath, my nostrils full flare and filling up my lungs with as much of the brisk Roman air as I could take in. It smelled more like burning rubber and jet fuel than fresh air, but it was still marvelous. Then I realized I was causing an annoying jam while exiting the plane, so I continued on waddling down the stairs. Though there was a slight anxiousness in me that I couldn’t explain. Stark shadows of our figures cast long across the tarmac from the early morning sun just beginning to peak over the Roman umbrella pines in the distance.
I stopped into a bathroom once inside the Fuimicino airport terminal to change out of my spiffy clothes and throw on something much more normal for me (leather jacket, jeans, boots). Reading about a trick online that says it’s possible to get upgraded to first class if you dress nicely, I decided to give it a shot when checking into the airport in Bangkok before leaving for Rome.
Did the dress-nice-for-an-upgrade trick work?
Well, with a button up shirt on, a vest, dress pants, and schnazzy shoes, I approached the Sri Lanka air counter with confidence.
At first it didn’t seem like I was making any leeway with the girl at the counter. I was smiling. I complimented her. I asked her how her day was going. But all I received in return was business attitude. She went through the standard routine of asking me for my passport and credit card. She really didn’t even look up at me after the initial greeting I received. But, after putting my backpack on the weighing machine and cracking a few jokes, the barrier broke down finally.
“You look like a rock star.” she said and smiled.
I laughed, “I get that a lot.”
“Are you in a band” she asked.
“No, just a writer”
“Oh wow, so you have a book or something?” she asked.
“Not yet, but I write a blog though”
“Maybe I can read it sometime” she said.
So, of course feeling like a cool cat, I pulled out my wallet and I passed her my blog business card.
“This is my website if you want to read it”
“Okay I will. By the way, I moved you to seat 20H” she responded and flashed a smile.
With a thank you I walked away — a small bounce now in my stride. I had no clue what my seat was changed to, but she told me she had changed it. Could it be to first class? I’d only know when I boarded the plane.
Ultimately, it was not first class.
It was an aisle seat that allows you to just peek past the curtain and see the happy people donning suits in first class. I wondered whether first class seats while wearing dress pants gives you less of a wedgie.
So, either this was a failure at the attempt at an upgrade, or a victory. Though I was teased by seeing the “greener grass” ahead of me in first class the whole flight — she had also placed me in an exit row which gave me more space to stretch out my legs than I’ve ever had on a prior flight. And there was nobody in front of me to flop backward and crush my laptop.
After I was out of my stuffy suit I headed eagerly for the train that would take me into the heart of Rome. A great big green and white and red colored beast huffed and puffed on the platform waiting to take people into the city center. I nearly missed the train as I stood in front of a door waiting for it to open sesame, until someone pushed past me and pressed the button on the door to enter.
I would have totally missed that train otherwise.
We pulled out into the rural Roman countryside. Small farms and more Dr. Seuss-esque “truffula” pines flashed by while the occasional graffiti that was rebelling against the bland concrete buildings it was sprayed on broke up the views. An Italian flag flapped in the wind , except unlike the American flag in the United States, it would be the first and the last I saw that day.
As I sat on a fold-down seat by one of the doors, I scribbled observations in my leather journal. One observation was someone who I deemed The Man with Overblown Expectations. It can get exhausting having expectations about places you visit. Sometimes a city or a country can exceed expectations, and sometimes the expectations are crushed by disappointment. So I try not to have expectations, just an excitement from the mystery of a new and unknown place.
This is why I don’t read guide books about places I visit. It sets expectations for the place to be sunny and beautiful and that going there will be flawless. That isn’t really how travel is. So, instead, I wait until I arrive to really begin the experience, and whether or not it is good or bad, it isn’t influenced by an outside force. Usually at least.
Standing over me was The Man with the Overblown Expectations; flowy white buzzed hair, bushy eye-brows, tan pressed slacks and a golf shirt, giant Nascar-like glasses dominating he face. He had a gold watch on, alligator skin shoes with little gold plates on them. He looked uncomfortable standing in the crowd of strangers on the train. He had tucked himself into the corner near the doorway and strategically place his absurdly large rolling luggage as a barricade between himself and the rest of the car. His wife sat on her luggage with what seemed to be a permanent frown that had hardened over some years.
“Gardens. Gardens everywhere you look. Do you see these gardens?”
The train was now passing by older apartment complexes or smaller houses alongside the tracks that had little patches of flowers or vegetables sprouting in their back yards.
“Gardens. Do you see these?” he asked his wife.
“Gardens, yes, I see them” she said without looking, and obviously not as amused as him.
“We finally made it to Rome” He said with excitement.
It seems those small and not-so-Roman gardens had triggered it. And it made me glad I had not waited until I was much older to visit, even though I most likely had 1% of his budget to explore with.
I was excited as well, but peering out at that window I was observing something much different.
Life; the beauty and the bad. It seemed as though he was blind to this. Blinded by his expectations I believe. Everything had to be the way he imagined it to be. And however cookie-cutter perfect that may sound, that can take away from the unexpected joys and surprises. He refused to see anything in the landscape other than what he wanted, which I think takes away from the actual soul and life of a place. Its reality.
We passed through an area now lined with small tin-roofed shacks close to the train tracks; half rusted or half collapsing but fully occupied. Stained and tattered clothing hung on the clothes lines outside. Rusted bicycles lay unused and overgrown with weeds. Trash strewn across their yard which was a 5×5 patch of dirt surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire. I guess there wasn’t much neighborly love there. The tin shacks were half hidden by infertile corn stalks growing all around them.
“Oooh! Little balconies! Look honey, everyone has little balconies!” He said.
Apartment complexes with exteriors of faded paint rose up beyond the tin shacks which were hidden from view, except by a passing train like ours. They did have balconies, but had nothing distinctly Roman about them. Nothing out of the ordinary. The area more resembled pulling into Bangkok train station which had the same tin shacks lining the sides of the tracks with the dated high-rises behind.
“Balconies…wow. Beautiful” the man said under his breath.
The train screeched to a halt into the Roma Trastevere station. The station was shaded by a massive metal awning; pieces of the cracked and aged black paint has chipped away to show the rust beneath. The wrought-iron construct was adorned with twisted metal, spiral designs, and intricate hammered iron leaves — beautiful in its day surely, and beautiful in its decay still.
The Man with the Overblown Expectations seemed to quiet after a while as his wife was ignoring him and wearing her seemingly standard frown. But he still would whisper to himself in amazement at the cute hanging laundry and balconies. He didn’t ever mention the graffiti, or the people living on the side of the tracks, or how this landscape had shown centuries of the numerous rises and falls of this region.
After all, Rome is one of the most war-torn cities of the past 2,000 years.
We left the station and passed more embankments covered with the same infertile cornstalks like the ones that had hidden the tin houses before. Not producing anything, yet still growing. It made me think about how this region may have been a vast farmland in ancient Rome before the urban decay that has sprouted up all around.
It reminded me of when I was a little boy and would help my mother with the gardening.
We used to grow corn in a small patch of flat land at the bottom of a hill in our yard, and I used to help my mother tend to them. More like I would sneak newly ripened cherry tomatoes into my mouth. Over time after my parents split up, nobody planted anything there. Weeds grew, but still even without care those corn stalks sprouted each year to the dismay of my father. But infertile still, the only thing they could bear was the memories of a time past just like these alongside the tracks.
It began to seem as though we were passing through different decades as the train continued to close in on Rome. Through the 1920’s to the 1980’s, buildings with distinct styles for their era rose up around us. Some with the pre-war pastels, some with the cold-war staunchness.
We had been leaping forward through decades shown in a timeline of aging apartment complexes, and then history unraveled before me and we plunged back centuries.
Above us towered an ancient aqueduct, the first of its kind I had ever seen. Bricks nearly a third of the thickness used in modern construction, stacked perfectly upon each other and held together with mortar to a height above most buildings in the surrounding area.
We passed under one of the archways holding up this aqueduct and I marveled at how old the structure was, yet how dominating it was to the modern buildings around. That arch towering above was our gateway to the Eternal City as we crept into the Termini station.
Though I had stifled my expectations that had been building up since I was a very young boy, I couldn’t help but secretly hope that it was just as the books had made it look when I flipped through them at age 8.
Years and years of wandering the history sections of libraries and always finding myself pausing at the books about Rome. Years of hearing stories about Italy from other people who had visiting and thinking of Rome as a fantasy place. Something only in imagination and on pages. Years of that feeling of fernweh, the longing for a place I had never been.
Even though the train had just pulled into the city, the sight of that ancient aqueduct made it unbearable to hold back the excitement. I had a big ole’ cheesy smile on my face.
No longer was it just for books and stories and photos, for I had arrived in the Eternal City.
*The next part of my Rome series will be landing soon, so make sure to keep stopping by, or sign up for my weekly newsletter!*
How was it when you first came to the place you always dreamed of? Did it live up to your expectations, or like me, did you try not to have expectations? Share your story and your place of your dreams below!
Here is an immersive photo bubble of the Pantheon in Rome — one of the most important and best preserved structures from the ancient empire dating its construction back to between 118 AD to 125 AD. This temple was dedicated to the pagan gods of Rome and is one of the best examples of Roman engineering and architecture with the massive and detailed dome and oculus at the top.
*Ignore the partially dismembered people, creating a bubble in this busy of an attraction was a tad difficult!*
What feeling does this photo evoke for you?
Imagine yourself as a gladiator of Rome, a slave warrior, deep under the enormous Flavian Amphitheater awaiting battle. The thunderous noise of 50,000 rabid Romans rumbles the roof above, but you cannot see a thing. Their stomping and shouting sounds the exact same as a foreboding storm rolling toward you. It is pitch black, besides the brief and fleeting light of a dim torch that occasionally flickers on the uneven stone walls, casting long and ghastly shadows which crawl over the ceiling.
Somewhere in that darkness the feral roars from caged lions and tigers echo, haunting that blackness. You cannot see who you sit next to, but you can smell them. You can smell the sun-burnt olive oil on their skin slathered on everyone to make them glisten in the sun. You can smell the sweat beading and dripping from yourself and the warriors around you.
Salt smell like a vast ocean, yet no cool breeze to cool your brow or culls from seagulls to calm your nerves. Just blackness and sweat. And in that blackness is the smell of death. Even though none have died yet, many have before you after leaving that blackness. The smell of death is of the piss and the shit and the sweat that happens before battle — the fear takes hold of some more than others and they lose their bowels and minds before being released into that sand-pit of death.
Soon the ceiling will crack open raining dust and sand onto our heads. Light will pour through the opening and we will rise up to the cheers of thousands. And with that light, we do not rise up to meet life, but death. Sometimes the darkness is better.
Here is a photo from my recent restricted access tour with Walks of Italy beneath the Colosseum, called the Hypogeum. Here is where the gladiators awaited battle and 32 pens held animals for the fights. Though on this day light illuminated the ruins, showing colorful brick and moss growing, it was nothing light this in Roman times. A pigeon sips water out of a hole that once held timbers supporting the arena floor.
Here is a slightly edited photo that adds to the underground feel.
*This tour was sponsored by Walks of Italy but, as always, my thoughts and reactions are my own*
What feeling does this photo evoke for you?