A weekend in Bruges

 

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Oh, Bruges.

Definitely one of those cities that you can’t help reminisce about with a little sigh, a comma and its name. Oh, Bruges… (yes, feel free to add an ellipsis as well, for extra drama.)

Romantic European getaway, relaxing and unusual hen-do destination, family friendly location or lone traveller’s mind-clearing retreat, this Belgian gem of a city needs to be experienced at least once in a lifetime. First of all, it’s the perfect city to see in a two-days weekend (even better if you have three days, of course). Really, you don’t need more time than that to soak up all Bruges’ beauty. Choose springtime, because of the good weather and because it tends to be packed with tourists in high season.

Bruges oozes with character. Think of Venice meets Siena, with bold brushes of colour and a lot of chocolate. Tons of chocolate.

From London St. Pancras, Eurostar trains take you to Brussels (so, if you have time, you can combine these two very different cities in the same holiday and it’ll be totally worth it!); from there you can continue your journey on a national train and it’s only 40 minutes more. Although Bruges is not exactly cheap, visiting on a budget is still possible, taking advantage of the Ibis Budget Hotel (located just outside the station, a short walk to the city centre and a good abundant morning breakfast!) or opting for an Air BnB dig.

What to see –  Everything! Just walk and lose yourself, you’ll always find your way to beautiful views. One of the two main squares is Markt (Market Square), famous for its unique and colourful pointy roofed buildings and for the Historium, museum that offers virtual historical tours and a wonderful view from its rooftop. Burg, the other one, is more tucked away, but it’s home to the magnificent gothic City Town Hall. You probably have seen a place called Rozenhoedkaai in the pictures of all your friends who visited Bruges before: this famous photo-spot overlooking the canal, with a suggestive weeping willow and typical architecture as background, is the main area for cafes and restaurants, you are really spoilt for choice. You can also visit Saint-Janshospital, which is one of the oldest hospitals in Europe, with its own museum of artifacts not for the faint hearted. In the late afternoon (or at any time, really) don’t forget to have a long and relaxing stroll across Minnewater Park: expanding around what is known as the “Lake of Love”, this beautiful park will soothe your eyes and make you want to kiss a stranger on a bridge. Well, don’t. (Joking, follow your heart, sweetie).

What to eat  – You definitely should try the Flemish Stew (or Carbonnade Flamande), a stew of succulent beef chops slow cooked in dark beer and onions, served with crispy fries. Oh, so good. Or the famous Moules-Frites, delicious mussels cooked in wine, beer or cream and paired again with a rich side of fries. Fries and potatoes in general are massively present in Belgian cuisine, and you can try different kinds of mash as well as an alternative to the crispy sticks. Of course, being in Belgium, you have to indulge in the wonderful chocolate creations that this country provides. Go to Neuhaus (or to Elisabeth if you have time to kill when you’re in Brussels) and stock on the gorgeous assortment of lush pralines, truffles and bonbons that combine the finest Belgian chocolate with creams, fruit and nuts beyond your imagination. It’s pure sex. Another unmissable dessert in Bruges is Belgian waffles, fresh from the iron cast and topped with voluptuous mountains of cream, ice cream, fruit and/or flooded with thick melted chocolate. Delicious and quite filling. You can’t leave the Belgian border without having experienced a food baby from waffles. And of course be adventurous with the selection of crafted Belgian beers from the many beer bars in Bruges. I went for wine. I know: “Italians”.

What activities to do – Visit the many museums that Bruges offers! At the moment two big exhibitions of Picasso and Salvador Dali are snatching all the attention, but if you’re bored with Art you can find an Archeological Museum, a Chocolate Museum and even a Fries Museum! Pay a visit to the Brugs Biermuseum if you are fascinated by the whole process of creation of beer (and go wild on the sample tasting area!). Boat tours along the many canals in Bruges are another option that allow you to embrace the spirit of this lovely city. Or you can venture just outside the city centre and visit the windmills of Bruges, some of them still working and open to the public after three centuries.

What’s Instagrammable – Basically the whole city. But if we want to point out some highlights from Bruges let’s say that your Instagram feed can’t do without

  • the doors and the houses (with infinite colour combinations and quirky decorations);
  • weeping willows (really, they are so poetic);
  • strawberries dipped in chocolate;
  • the thousand small statues that you can spot on corners of buildings;
  • Tintin memorabilia;
  • waffles, waffles, waffles like there’s no tomorrow;
  • you on a bridge. And of course you and your loved one with the backdrop of Rozenhoedkaai (not going to share that one with you, hope you don’t mind 😀

I hope this post and my photodiary enticed you into visiting and discovering this precious city, that surely will stay in your heart much, much longer after the chocolate praline box from Neuhaus is finished. (Which usually happens on the way back to the hotel, it rarely survives one day. Mine didn’t, ça va sans dire.)

Have you been to Bruges? What did you love the most?

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[Video] My Dublin Days – What to see, to do, to look for in Dublin!

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Hello Wanderers!

I’ve just returned after my four-day city break to Dublin (actually to Dundalk first and then Dublin)! My first time ever in Ireland, which means I can add it to my list of countries visited so far, reaching the count of 39 (applause, epic Oprah music, confetti shower, hand waves with teary eyes).

Dublin, a capital that is so full of character and so human-friendly, with a pace of life distant light years from rat-racey London. A city that maintains a village feel, with its buildings that don’t aim to scrape the sky, its evergreen pub culture, its coloured doors. Oh those lovely doors! History says it was a way for the residents to put their personal flair to the strictly structured Georgian constructions; legend wants that it was an easy trick to be able to find their house when drunk, on the way back from the pub.

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Immersed in tradition, but at the same time a city that is undergoing a huge development, especially in the zone around the Grand Canal Docks: after a long walk surrounded by red brick houses and swans gliding peacefully on the waters we reach an area that reflects (still in its own particular way) the structure of London docklands, with modern buildings of multinational companies and mirror-windowed offices, flown over by flocks of seagulls. The feeling is that, after the surely risky and clumsily conducted Brexit manoeuvre, many important international companies are now transferring their operational headquarters from the UK to Ireland, setting up the country to a huge renaissance in terms of jobs and economic opportunities.

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I want to thank my wonderful locally based friends Herachya and Gianluca, that made me feel at home and made my Irish days memorable, helping me discover the best of places, food and things to do. So, would you guys know what I saw and did in Dublin and what I recommend? Cool, first of all…

Trinity College

You really shouldn’t miss this. The University’s green and cobbled internal yard is luxurious (especially on a sunny morning, and I was so lucky with the weather on those days, can’t believe it!) and you can breathe in the magnificence of the elegant buildings where Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett have studied. The College’s Library treasures original medieval gospel manuscripts (go and see the exhibition about the Book of Kells! Entrance is 13 euro, but you can see the incredibly detailed creation process of the book, from the stretch of calfskin to create the vellum, to the decorating work), and one of the most impressive book chambers worldwide: it’s called The Long Room (long indeed: 65 metres) and it houses two hundred thousands original books. You enter the room and you smell history. And the jawdropping arched ceiling, raised in 1860, will allow you to take stunning pictures!

The Spire

I’ve asked my friend Gianluca “where shall we meet?”, and he promptly replied “where all the people in Dublin meet: at the Spire!”. In O’Connell Street it’s impossible to miss this huge stainless steel monument. 120 metres high, like a gigantic whale tooth that rises to the sky (not really matching the style of the surrounding buildings, to be honest, but it’s an interesting contrast), the Spire replaced Nelson’s Pillar, destroyed by an IRA bombing in 1966. The monument illuminates the night sky in Dublin… and its tip swings when the wind is strong, sometimes up to 1,50 metres! (It’s perfectly safe, I just wanted to scare you a bit). Oh, don’t even bother trying to take a full picture of it, if not from a ridiculous distance (and even at that point, it will just look like a random lamp post).

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Temple Bar

Temple Bar is the area on the south bank of the river where the most of Dublin’s artistic and cultural life takes place: live music, theatre, cinema and multimedia institutes and events, and a vibrant night life. Hallmark of this gorgeous area is of course The Temple Bar Pub , another to-go place in Dublin if you really want to get the feeling of the city.

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Statues of Dublin

Dublin is literally full to the brim of statues! It could be a nice game to play, walking around with friends and trying to spot them first. The James Joyce statue seems to stare at the Spire with a skeptical face, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised to find Oscar Wilde chilling on a rock in Merrion Square. Fun fact: Dubliners love to give quirky (and sexual) nicknames to statues and monuments, so that the statue of Molly Malone (heroine of a traditional Irish song) is often called “the Tart with the Cart”, James Joyce is addressed as “the Prick with the Stick” and the huge Spire column is commonly known as “the Pole in the Hole”, “the Stiffy at the Liffey” or even “the Erection at the Intersection”.

The National Gallery

What a gem! I highly recommend to spend a couple of hours admiring this amazing collection of the finest artworks by artists such as Perugino, Rembrandt, Degas, Monet, and of course some real Irish masterpieces by Jack B. Yeats. I was mesmerised by the colour tones of two of the big rooms (one red, one teal), and how this precious gallery manages to merge a stunningly modern architecture and overall concept with timeless art from the past. Absolutely beautiful and FREE ENTRY (subscriptions are of course welcome).

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Embrace the pub culture to the fullest

Basically all the blogs and guidebooks list a visit to the Guinness Storehouse as a must-do thing in Dublin. Well, sure, if you are interested in seeing the whole process of preparation of this iconic beer it might be a nice experience, but tickets are quite pricey (around 18 euro) and it would take a chunk of your time in the city that you might prefer to use for other activities on a budget. What I suggest you is to scrap the Guinness Storehouse, and instead have your dinner meals at pubs that brew their own selection of beers: don’t miss for example the pubs of Galway Bay Brewery Company , that offer a delicious chocolate stout and vibrant red ales, along with finger licking pub food. If you have the chance (and if you feel young and reckless) sign up for a pub crawl. Pubs tell you a lot about the spirit of this city, the big heart of the people who live in it and the traditions of the whole country.

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And a few more tips:

  • Stroll in St. Stephen’s Park – it’s a gorgeous green space, and if you’re lucky with the weather it would be one of the most pleasant moments of your holiday.
  • Churches and Cathedrals – they are fantastic, I wish I had more time to visit all of them properly…
  • Enter Stephen’s Green Shopping Centre – the interiors of this mall look like a giant liberty style train station. Very Instagrammable.
  • Support local art – I already mentioned live music and theatre events, but if you want to bring home some exclusive pieces of Irish art & design I suggest you to visit the Jam Art Factory in Dublin zone 2, where you find fine art prints and decorative objects for a very affordable price!
  • Go for one-day getaways: Dublin is the perfect starting point to go and explore other marvellous areas in Ireland, reachable by train in one hour or so. The stunning Cliffs of Moher, Connemara and Galway City, Glendalough, Newgrange… If you have more than three days to spend in Dublin you might consider a day for one of these trips, you’ll be rewarded.

And this is all for now, but I can’t leave you without a little video-diary I’ve prepared for you while walking up and down the city. I’ve chosen to accompany the images with the voice of the extraordinary Dolores O’Riordan, Irish icon and one of the biggest idols of my adolescence, with a song that would give me the same shivers it gave me when I was 15, even if I listened to it thirty years from now.

Enjoy and… visit Dublin!

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Oh, you’ll love cozinha portuguesa, com certeza!

If anyone hasn’t noticed yet, everytime I talk about travelling I talk about food. It’s kind of an automatic reflex, I guess it comes from the fat kid trapped in my body. So, after talking about the magical Lisbon and before I dedicate another post to the stunning coast of Portugal, let me start a brief insight into Portuguese food. Fasten your seatbelts, these are my suggestions:

Lunch and dinner

Meals in Portugal usually start putting on the table various petiscossmall bites to open up your appetite. Usually it’s a basket of sliced bread along with butter and spreadable pâtés of tuna, sardines and/or cheese, accompanied by a pot of good olives. Often you can find quejo fresco (fresh firm cheese with a very delicate flavour) or other kinds of cheese (I’m a big fan of the cow and sheep milk one, which is still soft but cured and creamy).

As a starter I suggest you to try the appetising croquetes made with chicken or pork meat (or the gorgeous version with codfish), or the rissóis de camarão, deep fried satchels stuffed with creamy shrimps… an absolute delight.

The typical Portuguese dish is bacalhau (salted codfish) cooked in many ways. My favourite recipes are bacalhau com natas (baked with potatoes, onions and a delicious cream, with a layer of cheese gratin on top… My tastebuds just had an orgasm. A multiple one) and bacalhau à brás (prepared in a casserole with eggs, onion, a fine julienne of potato fries, olive and parsley).

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If you are visiting the coast of Portugal don’t forget to try cataplana de mariscos (a casserole with yummy seafood in tomato and garlic sauce) and the already mentioned (in my previous post) grilled sardines, and especially if you are in Portimão I suggest you the zapateira (a giant crab with a tender and juicy meat).

As an option for those who don’t like fish and seafood (really? why? have you tried to seek professional help?) there’s a very simple and rustic dish that I like to order, called bitoque: it’s basically a pan fried steak of beef or pork with an egg on top, served with chips, rice and salad. A full meal in one plate that will keep you going all day!

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Originary from the area of Porto is the francesinha, a cube shaped club sandwich with ham, meat and cheese, all coated in cheese and sitting proudly in a beef gravy. They certainly know how to make a sandwich sexy.

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Street food 

Portugal has a nice selection of street food that you can devour during celebrations, city fairs or summer seasons. If you’re particularly hungry try the bifana, a soft bread bun filled with grilled pork meat, or the appetising pão com chouriço, a roll of bread dough wrapped around the good Portuguese spicy salami: during the baking process, the chouriço releases juice that infuses the bread, maximising the flavour.

Sweet treats

My favourite paragraph! Portugal is famous worldwide for its pasteis de nata, custard tarts of crunchy puff pastry with a caramelised sugar layer on top, served sprinkled with cinnamon. It’s tradition, when in Portugal,to have at least one pastel de nata per day (it’s my tradition, to be specific). But the country has a whole rich array of pastries that are absolutely gorgeous. Bolas de Berlim are big balls of fried donut dough filled with doce de ovo (a custard made mainly with egg yolks and sugar) or chocolate, or, in some heavenly occasions, with doce de leite. Travesseiro is a puff pastry cilinder with icing sugar on top, typical of the Sintra region, and queijada is a baked little milk cake (also available in a version infused with orange juice, called queijada de laranja). Speaking of proper cakes, my favourite is undoubtedly pudim, a light flan made with eggs, sugar and milk, cooked in bain-marie or oven baked, in a caramel sauce. Ok, I need to have my glycaemia levels checked now.

Drinks

In Portugal, sangria seems to be the refreshing drink of choice, available in various versions (try the muscatel one!) all over the territory. Of course you can’t leave the country without having tried Porto, the characteristic fortified wine, or the Vinho Verde (young and lightly bubbly). But above all, what I strongly recommend you is to enter the seductive and magic world of Ginjinha. It’s a sour cherry liquor, sweet and voluptuous, served in little cups made of dark chocolate: you drink the shot and you eat the cup straight after. It’s pure sex. Tradition wants that everytime you see the word “ginjinha” written outside a bar you must enter and have one (again, it’s my tradition, of course).

I hope this little smattering of Portuguese food was helpful! Tell me about your experience, what are your favourite things to order when you’re in Portugal?

 

[Note about the pictures: the images in this post are pictures I took during my stay in Portugal, along with some other ones I found on Pinterest. If you own any of the latter please let me know and I’ll credit you properly, or remove them if you don’t want them to feature in my post 😉 ]

Lisbon: a tale of love and life portrayed on blue tiles

 

Lisbon is always a good idea. I’ve just come back from the third Portuguese holiday of my life and it confirmed my thoughts firmly. Lisbon welcomes you wrapping its warm and strong arms around you, then it takes your hands, looks into your eyes with a cheeky grin and spins you in a twirl, before taking you out for one of those fresh, magic summer nights that you would never want to end.

“It’s the weather. It’s always sunny and that reflects on people, people are nice” says Ricardo, who grew up in Lisbon before moving to London fourteen years ago. “It’s the display of the city, it’s old and new at the same time and these two aspects seem to cohabit perfectly with each other”. Like a song by Ana Moura, that’s what I think while he continues talking about his hometown. “Lisbon is a capital, but you can still relax… It’s not overcrowded with people in constant rush, numbed by their daily routines, and the pace is much slower than London…”.

That’s exactly the first impression that strikes when we get off the train in Cais do Sodré, once we manage to leave the station full of vacationers heading to the beach at this time of the year, and while we walk on the lush promenade along the riverside. The area has been renovated in the past five years and now it’s the perfect stroll path to enjoy the sun, the drinks and the suggestive view of the bridge, before arriving to the spacious and central Praça do Comércio.

Passed the Arco de Rua Augusta you are ready to see the core of Lisbon, walking on the beautiful cobbled streets and enjoying the colourful tiled facades of the buildings. The traditional Portuguese tiles used to decorate public and private spaces since the 13th century are called azulejos, from the word “azul” (the colour blue, dominant tone of the tiles).

On the left you’ll soon meet the imponent Elevador de Santa Justa, a big metal elevator designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel: it connects the “low” part of Lisbon to Largo Do Carmo, in the Bairro Alto district. Arriving to the gigantic square of Rossio you can see, on the right hand side from a distance, the beautiful Castelo de São Jorge. Rossio is paved with black and white cobbles in a wave pattern, which brings my mind back to when I was in Rio De Janeiro, walking along the coast of Copacabana. The decor of pavements and buildings in Lisbon is so unique, and it certainly plays a big role in making this city memorable, together with other elements like the traditional trams on railway, the radiant bouganvillea plants, the old shops selling salted codfish and sardines, the pastelarias (bakeries and pastry shops, pure heaven for a sweet tooth like me), the melancholic fado music that echoes from cafes in the evening… Well I could go on for pages and pages, but instead I will let some of the pictures I’ve taken do the talking.

One of my favourite places in Lisbon is surely Alfama. Probably the oldest part of the city, it miracolously survived the great 1755 Lisbon earthquake, managing to mantain all its pitoresque beauty: with its narrow streets and white houses and stairways it reminds you of some Greek island or South-Italian village, but still has its own special feel. One of the best areas to stroll and shop for wonderful pieces of local craft. The little shops and ateliers will delight your eyes with gorgeous pottery, azulejos, art prints and blown glass creations. Do like I did: buy yourself a beautiful red fish made of glass. (Don’t do like I did: don’t break it while you’re doing the dusting at home because you’re clumsy like an elephant smeared with butter on a crystal stepladder). Around the 13th of june, when Lisbon celebrates St. Anthony, Alfama’s streets are decorated with multicoloured buntings and you can indulge in lovely street food (don’t forget to try the grlled sardines, one of the typical specialities of Portoguese cuisine). This part of the city is ideal to experience the fascinating world of fado music. I suggest you to have a nice dinner at a “casa do fado” and even if you don’t speak Portuguese I’m sure you’ll go home at night singing a couple of those tunes you’ll hear, guaranteed! But before dinner, don’t forget to enjoy a stunning view on the city from the Miradouro da Graça.

My Portuguese holiday included some other places, at a reasonable distance from Lisbon, really worth seeing. Here we go!

Belem – It’s the area where you can have the most fresh and delicious pasteis de nata (see next post about Portuguese food)! Have a walk along the riverside and you’ll find the amazing monument called Padrão dos Descobrimentos. Take pictures from different angles, the results are always stunning! Climb to the top (there’s a lift actually) to take beautiful panoramic shots and enjoy the mosaics on the ground below. Don’t forget to visit the Tower of Belem and Geronimo’s Monastery if you have time between pasteis de natas. I barely had any. (Time, not pasteis de nata.)

Cascais – Take the train from Cais Do Sodré to reach this lovely summer retreat near Estoril. Visit the old Fortaleza and the Boca do Inferno (a cliff with an open cave in the rock formed by the ceaseless pounding of the Atlantic waves), enjoy the beauty of the views and stop in a cafe called “Sacolinha” for a lush breakfast with the best pastries and sweet treats ever! (Yes I know, sugary food again… Well, don’t forget to brush your teeth, kids.)

Sintra – Perched upon a hill, Sintra is a really fascinating city and UNESCO World Heritage Site: walking in its natural parks and gardens opens up your lungs and the views are spectacular. Visit the Moors Castle, and try a sandwich with presunto e queijo da Serra from the stalls of local products that you find in front of Palacio Nacional.

Obidos – If you have a car, go and visit this lovely village, home of the delicious ginjinha liquor (see next post)! Very suggestive especially in the evening, with an unmissable Medieval Fair occurring every summer between July and August, where you’ll see a real Palio at sunset, and you’ll drink sangria in characteristic clay mugs that you can take home with you! You’ll absolutely love the experience, guaranteed.

Well… I can’t wait for my Portuguese holiday number 4! This time, if everything goes according to my plans, I’m going to see the Eurovision Song Contest 2018 live! I will keep you updated with news! 🙂

Rome wasn’t walked in a day but…

Rome wasn’t walked in a day but f**k it I’m gonna bloody try.

Ready. Set. Go. Start having a good breakfast. Have a cappuccino or an espresso and indulge in croissants and pastries without worrying too much about the sugars (you’ll burn plenty of them and anyway holidays are not made for fasting). Take the A Line tube and get off in Flaminio, which will be the starting point of our itinerary. Cross the arches and walk through the beautiful Piazza Del Popolo, absolutely at its best in the early morning. From there you’ll notice in the middle the big Via del Corso, main street for shopping, but I suggest you to walk instead on the parallel street on the left hand side, Via del Babuino: this will lead you straight to Piazza Di Spagna/Trinità Dei Monti (the Spanish Steps).

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Once you took a lot of pictures in that lovely spot, walk along Via dei Condotti (if you already need another coffee pop into Caffè Greco, the oldest bar in Rome!) and admire all the posh shops that us poor mortal people could never afford, then turn left to re-enter Via del Corso. Soon on the right hand side you’ll find Palazzo Chigi and Piazza di Montecitorio, the headquarters of the creme de la creme of the current Italian political class… which makes them totally avoidable and unworth seeing. Cross the road instead and enjoy the fresh shade of Galleria Alberto Sordi. Exit at the back, keep on walking straight ahead in that narrow street and you will soon magically find yourself in front of the marvellous Fontana di Trevi, finally free from scaffoldings after its renovation and now whiter than white. It always takes my breath away.

 

Throw a coin backwards right into the water (tradition wants this is the ritual to assure yourself a comeback to the Eternal City) and walk back to Via Del Corso, turn left and follow the signs to reach the immortal Pantheon, colossal Roman temple lit by natural light coming from a circular opening on the ceiling. The area around the Pantheon is nice to have a lovely ice cream to refill your sugar levels after the walking. Three suggestions: the traditional and evergreen Caffè Giolitti, the exuberant Della Palma (150 different flavours of gelato!) and Venchi (specialised in sumptuous chocolate creations).

 

Now take the road on the right hand side of the Pantheon and walk all the way to Largo di Torre Argentina; after watching stray cats sunbathing on the ruins, walk towards Piazza Navona, where you can admire the wonderful works of Bernini and Borromini, and sit on a bench to give your legs some relief. Once you’re ready go back to the main street were you came from, cross the road and walk until you find yourself in the buzzing and coloured market of Campo De’ Fiori. Here you can find delicious Italian products (fruit and vegetables, but also cheese, cured meats, liquors, sauces and preserves… don’t be shy and ask to try some, they give free shots of Limoncello very often!). This can be a good area where to have a food pit-stop: enjoy some pizza by the slice, a focaccia with mozzarella and Parma ham or mortadella, or go for a mix of fried snacks as arancini, supplì, stuffed courgette flowers (I go crazy for them) or filetto di baccalà (battered cod fillet). Head back to Largo di Torre Argentina and enter inside the lovely area of the former Jewish Quarter.

 

Keep walking until you reach Portico D’Ottavia (it’s partially covered by scaffoldings but it’s always very suggestive). Dont forget to buy jewish biscuits or a cherry tart at the bakery near the restaurant before you head to Piazza Venezia. You are ready now to experience the core of Ancient Rome: from Piazza Venezia you can access Via dei Fori Imperiali, a long boardwalk that exhibits the ruins of temples and foras from the age of Caesar, Augustus, Nerva, etc…, and ends right in front of the famous Colosseum! The next stop from the Colosseum is Circo Massimo (if you’re tired you might consider taking the B line tube for a stop. But you will lose points on my walking challenge :D).

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Circo Massimo is a spectacular ancient stadium, once used for chariot racing and mass entertainment, with beautiful tall pine trees… On your way to the Lungotevere (the side bank of the river Tiber) don’t forget to pay a visit to the Bocca della Verità, location became famous for the movie Roman Holiday . Put a hand inside the mouth and be sure you say the truth or it will be brutally chopped off (no it won’t). Walk along the Lungotevere until you find Ponte Fabricio, cross that bridge and you’re on the Isola Tiberina, a real island right in the middle of the river, which lights up during summer nights with lively bars, restaurants and market stalls (and even an open air cinema arena). Once crossed the bridge on the other side (Ponte Cestio) it’s time for a very important stop: you are ready to be initiated to the Roman summer ritual of grattachecca. At this traditional kiosk called La Sora Mirella (which along with La Sora Maria in Prati represents the temple of Roman grattachecca) you can see these guys hand-scratch big blocks of ice in front of you, filling big cups with that ‘snow’ that will be topped with fruit syrups and chunks of fresh fruit as you desire (my favourite ones are the Preziosa and the SuperFrutta, I’m literally mouthwatering while I’m writing). Sit on the fence and enjoy this simple yet luxuriously refreshing thing, while you rest your legs a bit.

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At this point the evening is probably approaching, but before the sun starts to go down you can enjoy a stroll along the narrow streets of Trastevere, heart of what is called the “Romanity” and one of my favourite areas in Rome… If you feel like you’ve seen enough and you’re ready to sit down for a well deserved dinner or an aperitivo (the ritual of having drink and nibbles with friends) you can find plenty of places here, otherwise I have two more suggestions, depending on your energy levels:

  • “I still feel like Iron Man” – …then climb up the Passeggiata del Gianicolo until the top, where you can embrace an uphill view of the city, lovely at sunset;
  • “I can still walk but I’d rather french-kiss Theresa May than walk uphill” – …then keep following the Lungotevere until you reach Ponte degli Angeli and Castel Sant’Angelo (splendid setting of Puccini’s opera Tosca), another beautiful place where to savour the light of the end of day.

 

You may have noticed that I haven’t included in this itinerary St. Peter’s Square and the Vatican Museums. Well, that part belongs to Vatican City, so it’s technically not Rome, and the visit to the Vatican Museums would take a considerable chunk of your day, so I suggest it if you have more time in your hands, not if if you want to grasp the spirit of Rome in one day. But sure, both from Castel Sant’Angelo and from Gianicolo it’s very easy to take Via Della Conciliazione and reach the magnificient St. Peter’s Square in the evening, when it’s not packed with tourists and you can enjoy its splendour.

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An alternative lovely spot where to bathe in the Roman sunset is the Terrazza del Pincio of Villa Borghese. Take the tube back to Flaminio (which is were this tour has started, so it makes perfect sense!), climb the stairs and hug your beloved one watching the sun go down on Piazza Del Popolo.

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This itinerary has been consciouscly made very extreme: it covers an insane amount of kilometers, so you might consider skipping something or take advantage of the tube service. And there is still so so much I’ve left out of this list of places… You never finish to see Rome, that’s the truth. Born and bred there, I still haven’t and my eyes still widen with marvel at every corner. My final suggestion, if you have more than one day of time: just wander and lose yourself. And when you see something that looks like an ordinary church or a normal building from the outside don’t trust the book by its cover, go inside instead: Rome is full to the brim of beautiful surprises that you don’t find on the guidebooks.

Have you ever been to Rome? What’s your most amazing memory?

 

One weekend ago in Rome

Last weekend was quite intense. Everytime I go back to Rome I get assaulted by an army of mixed emotions… My hometown squeezes my heart in its hand, it seduces me, it scares and surprises me, it makes my blood race and my forehead sweat… It makes me cry for what I’ve left behind and makes me understand what I’ve actually never left… It makes me anxious because I would like to see the people of my family happy and with no struggles… Rome feeds me high carbs until my belly aches and then sings to my sleep, just to wake me up all of a sudden with rays of sun that sting my eyes.

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So, what did I manage to do last weekend in the tiny space of those three very sunny days? First of all I had the pleasure and honour to be best man at my best friend’s wedding! Fabio tied the knot with the beautiful and lovely Cristina in the gorgeous scenery of Borgo Le Grazie in Manziana, a countryside borough near Bracciano. The wedding was perfectly planned and curated by Serena and her team at Italian Event Planners, here are some pictures so you can have an idea of the wonderful and detailed job that made this day even more memorable!

 

When I visit Rome I usually try and see as many friends as possible, running all over the city and grabbing a coffee with each of them (which makes my liver beg me to stop), but this time the available hours were definitely not enough. I managed anyway to see a bunch of the loveliest people, with some newborn additions as you can see in the pictures, and it really warmed my heart. Although I love my independent life in London, my Italian friends and family will always be that missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.

 

My sister Silvia organised a brunch at her house for us three siblings and she decided to cook more than all the contestants of a season of Masterchef put together. Savoury muffins, baked pasticcio, gratin veggies, puff pastry twists, breaded chicken goujons, spinach and potato tarts, Ascolan olives… Carbs galore accompanied by prosecco, and after half an hour we became the humans of the last part of the movie Wall-E.

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Yes I’ve eaten a lot, but I’ve walked a lot too (oh, the sweet ethereal illusion that it could have possibly counterbalanced…)! It’s basically impossible too see Rome thoroughly in a week holiday, let alone having only one day and wanting to see the most of it, but if you are keen on walking until your Fitbit combusts spontaneously and enjoying practical and delicious street food instead of sitting down for lunch, then you’re ready to jump to the next post called…

Rome wasn’t walked in a day but f**k it I’m gonna bloody try.

The Rhodes I’ve walked

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“Now, immerse both your feet slowly into the tanks… You will feel a tickling sensation, like you have pins and needles…”, the long white-haired man said. As I followed his direction, I felt those little fish gather around and all over my feet, ready to binge on my skin cells, and my ticklish self was about to start laughing and twitching, but after a few instants I felt the tension of my body release, all of a sudden, and I dropped my shoulders. “Close your eyes, I want you to feel like you’re at home”.

I had never tried what they call a fish spa before. I was wandering in the Old Town of Rhodes and two friends suggested me to try this little place, where the old owner (he must have been a hippy, a backpacking adventurer, or simply somebody who knew a lot and learnt how to read people very well) would combine the exfoliating fish experience with an amazing foot massage, for just 10 euro.

“Keep your eyes closed, you don’t have to feel any hurry or pressure…”. As my breath eased and became deeper, I started flicking through my memories of Rhodes. It was my last day on that island and in that moment I realised how much of my personal story was associated with that place. The first time I went to Rhodes I was escaping. It was seven years ago, on a summer, I had just left an important relationship behind and I was dragging myself from a gig to another of a theatrical play I was in, without really being there mentally… I needed to clear my mind about a lot of things, but in order to do that I needed to take some distance from everything and everybody, so one day I impulsively stepped into a travel agency and asked what was their best suggestion for a short holiday by the sea for a solo traveller. “A Greek island”, the lady answered.

I’ve spent a week by myself enjoying metallic blue seascapes, beautiful beaches and clear waters… Kalithea is a small rocky bay, famous because of some magnificent Baths built by Italians and no longer active, with a restaurant and stylish rattan and wrought-iron sunbeds (be careful because the armrests can become easily incandescent in the sun, branding your forearm for life. Joking, only for a few days). Faliraki is a more commercial and young-vibey beach, it extends for more than five kilometres and it’s full of bars (with very affordable and good cocktails!) and clubs, with a vibrant night life. Basically if you want to find Faliraki just follow the yelling of drunk groups of Germans or Brits, you can’t go wrong. (Yes, ok, we Italians are loud too. But we go to Mikonos mainly). A great option is to opt for a boat cruise from the port of Mandraki to have a glimpse of all the best beaches that this island has to offer (including the lovely Anthony Quinn’s Bay , named after the actor starred in The Guns of Navarone, shot right on location), and if you have an extra day you can even consider a boat trip to the lovely Marmaris (Turkey).

While my mind was lost in the memory of swimming (well, “smimming”… more floating and splashing around with the grace of a baby hippo) in Greek clear waters, the relaxing feeling of those little fish had irradiated from my feet up my legs and I was experiencing a lightness I hadn’t felt in a while. “Now we take the feet out of the tanks and rest for a minute… then we can put them in again”, the man instructed me and guided my movement, drying my feet with a robust paper towel. There was such mastery in all that ritual… My mind went back in time again.

The second time I have been in Rhodes was on my seven month contract as singer on board Costa Victoria in 2011. We used to dock in Mandraki regularly every Friday and that was when I got familiar with the suggestive old part of the city, enclosed in medieval walls. The cobbled streets, the Palace of the Knights, the hundreds restaurants and cafes where to lunch al fresco under lavish pergolas, the shops selling handcrafted creations, olivewood utensils (there’s a weird trend of penis shaped bottle-openers, in various sizes and designs) and local natural products (don’t miss almonds and pistachios in honey or the little wicker bowls with a selection of spices to recreate the delicious Greek cuisine at home… and stock on olive oil soap bars, especially the ones with mint and argan oil, so nice and gentle on your skin and a convenient idea for small presents!). Walking through the Old Town of Rhodes you will find a little square with some sort of well in the middle, where you can take a picture of yourself with two big and colourful parrots. Don’t do it if you’re wearing a hoodie though, because those two little buggers would start munching on the straps of your jumper destroying them in a couple of milliseconds.

Another great memory of that time was when, with my friends Giangi and Vittoria, we rented a car to go and visit Lindos. Lindos is a village perched on a hill, where the typical Greek whitewashed houses alternate with cobbles and terracotta brick walls, with a lot of cute photo spots, and if you climb up to the top you will find the perfectly preserved ruins of the Acropolis and the archeological site, that shimmer like gold in the blinding sun. One of the options to reach the acropolis is riding one of the local donkeys available at the foot of the hill, but I honestly don’t endorse this practice, mainly because the conditions in which these poor animals have to live and work don’t seem to be very healthy. So no donkey, just move your bumcheeks and carry a bottle of water at all times. Hiring a car (or a quad bike!) is probably the best way to enjoy the island thoroughly, not only cruising along the coast but visiting the inside to get in contact with the local life and traditions.

I cherish a huge amount of memories from that season in Rhodes but a lot of them are very personal and I don’t want to sound too cheesy and romantic. I’ll just say that if you happen to be at the beach in Mandraki near the Casino, and you take a long walk on the shore you can reach the top point of the island… well, on that triangular stripe of pebble beach surrounded by the sea, somewhere there should be a piece of my heart I left while I was living one of the best moments of my life. (Ok, now we can play any random 90’s boyband tune you like.)

The white haired man finished my foot massage and used a warm towel to remove the excess of cream, suggesting me to use cotton socks more often instead of sporty acrylic ones, and to always make sure that my feet are perfectly dry even if I’m on a rush after a quick shower before work. I was feeling completely relaxed, like I was floating on air. He then added: “These are complicated times for everybody. It’s perfectly natural to worry about money, about the job, about the future… what is not natural is to let all these things affect us on a daily basis. As human beings we have a great power that we often don’t realise. We can always reach a mental state of peace and lucidity, we can always find our relaxation even in stressful times. We just have to connect with ourselves, we have to find time for ourselves. We have to listen to ourselves more.”

Sometimes life puts on our path random people that we probably won’t see ever again but they manage to say the words we needed to hear or make the perfect action to help us in that particular moment. That’s what I thought while I was walking back to the ship, giving one last look at the medieval walls of the Old Town, with the smile of the new beginnings finally back on my face.

(It’s hard to locate places in the Old Town, most streets don’t even have a name, but if you want to find the fish spa of that old wise man I can try and give you some directions: once you reach the square with the parrots keep on walking and turn right; you’ll see shops that sell leather bags on the left and watches on the right… a few meters onwards, on the right corner, you will find the place.)

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