Witnessing ‘W’ Hour

Across the road from my apartment is the grounds of Krasinski Park and Palace.  Built in 1683 for the provincial governor of Plock, who was heir to a large fortune.  He set about building this residence in Poland’s capital to fulfil his political ambitions and show pride in his family.  It was purchased by the Polish state in 1765 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1783 only to be completed burned down and demolished by the Germans in WW2.  It was of course rebuilt and you’d probably never know, as with most of the restoration work undertaken in Warsaw.

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The gardens have been accessible to the public since 1768 and the space is enjoyed by young and old today.  Covering 9.2 hectares, there are different gardens, water fountains, ponds, deck chairs and places to lay.  Heck, there’s even free wifi!

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So it’s a really enjoyable stroll through the gardens on my way to meet my cousins at POLIN this morning.  POLIN is the Museum of the History of Jews in Poland – all 1,000 years of it.  And to be honest, that will feel exactly how long you will feel like you are in there for!

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It’s an extremely comprehensive museum covering aspects of Jewish life and the struggles of the Jewish people, including Poland in WW2.  There are lots of interactive displays and lots and lots of information.  I did feel a little overwhelmed upon leaving to be honest.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a great museum and if you have the time and the inclination to visit, you will enjoy it.  I just found it a little much.

After a brief morning tea stop in the cafe of POLIN, we make our way alongside Krasinski to the Supreme Court of Poland, where we are visiting our cousin Dorotka.  She’s an Under-Officer there and she’s agreed to give us the grand tour.  Here in this building they try both civil and criminal cases.  We start with a trip to the roof-top which has a lovely view over Dluga Street and across the city…

…before Dorotka locks us in a cell!

Lunch is served in the milk-bar style cafeteria, with a choice of 4 dishes.  I choose the cutlet with potatoes and soup with a glass of kompot.  It’s super tasty, as the simplest dishes are, and we chat a little about the family during the war, until the airport calls to say Katherine’s luggage has finally arrived.

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The building itself is rather modern, having been built in the mid 1990’s; green metal stairways throw their hue across large panelled glass walls and an outer corner of the building is held upon the heads of three large copper women.  It’s worth a look, even just from the outside.

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Wieslaw comes to collect us and briefly shows us the Field Cathedral of the Polish Army across the road before offering to drive the Pruski’s out to the airport to collect their missing luggage.  This is where Paula’s son was recently baptised.

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Walking inside, along the side walls are memorial plaques to all those in notable military units who have lost their lives, including those in the Smolensk air disaster.  Inside the cathedral you can see all sorts of decorative icons, including the headress associated with the legendary winged hussars.

Going our separate ways, I head back to my apartment to map out a plan of attack for this afternoon’s Warsaw Uprising Commemoration.  I planned this trip to make sure I was in Warsaw for this event but one thing I hadn’t quite nutted out was exactly which vantage point I would watch it from.  Paula had originally planned to come with me and we were going to head to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, but she couldn’t make it.  I knew I wanted to be where the action was, I just didn’t know where that would be until I caught a glimpse of a Facebook post that mentioned the Rotunda near the Palace of Science and Culture.  So that’s where I headed, stopping to buy an arm band along the way and pinning on a small brooch that some cadet girls passed me.

 

For those that don’t know about this day, the citizens of Warsaw spare a minute’s silence in which the whole city stops to remember those who made sacrifices during the Warsaw Uprising.  Before coming to Poland, I had seen a video titled There is a City, which not only made me cry, but sums it up perfectly.

Anyway, standing on the corner of the Rotunda, trying to find the perfect spot (when I’m not actually sure what’s going to happen or where), I hear the road of motorcycles.  Heaps of motorcycles.  Which scares me at first.  They roar up onto the middle of the Rotunda and wait.  Everyone’s waiting.  I have no idea what the time is, but then the chanting starts, so I guess it’s close to 5pm now.  I have no idea what the chanting is either, but it tapers off, Polish flags go up and one by one, flares are let go.  Smoke and red light fills the atmosphere.  It’s hot and red.  After the one minute of silence, the motorbike’s rev their engines.  It’s hot and red and loud.  And oh so patriotic and stirring.  I feel tears start to well.

W Hour

Then it’s over and the crowds disburse.

 

 

 

 

Bright Lights on the Wild Side

Praga has always been known as Warsaw’s ‘wild side’.  Think criminal underclass, dilapidated tenement buildings and black market trade.  At one time it was even known as the Bermuda Triangle.   And although the artists and musicians have now moved in and given the place an edgier feel, there’s no denying you can feel the shift when you cross the Vistula and arrive in Praga.

Today, this is where the Pruski’s and I will be exploring but I arrive about half an hour before our meeting point time to do some exploring of my own.  My Dziadzia’s (grandfather) war-time military documents note my Babcia’s (grandmother) last address in Poland as ulica Il Listopowde.  There’s no further indication of whether that was in Warsaw proper or in Praga, but seeing as the Praga version comes up on all my Google searches, I can’t miss the opportunity to see if I can find the building.

I walk up and down Il Listopowde, knowing where the building should be in the scheme of those around it according to the street numbers, but I can only find empty spaces. (Google-searching again later it seems I walked about 500m short of the destination, but unfortunately didn’t make it back there before I left Poland).

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Disappointed, I head to the Galeria Wilenska mall to wait for my cousins.  A few moments later, we are crossing the road to ulica Targowa 59 to see where my great aunt, Ciocia Ana, lived most of her life.  Ana spent the duration of WW2 living in Praga, after unsuccessfully trying to reach the rest of the family in Ostrow; though at a different address not far from here.  Praga was relatively untouched during the war – if you compare it to Warsaw.  For some reason it didn’t interest the Russians or the Germans, though I have no doubt life was seriously tough.  Dad was fortunate to meet her on his first trip to Poland, but she died a few years after.  I unfortunately never met her, which is a shame because I believe she would have had a book-load of stories to tell.

I have often wondered what it would have been like for her, sitting out the war here, not knowing what had happened to her family or whether she would ever see them again.

There are some other interesting things to see in Praga, but we need a fueling stop before we move on, so finding a Polish bakery we load up on pastries and lattes.  The cakes are really good.  On the whole, Polish cakes and pastries are not as sickly sweet as I’m used to, which is refreshing.  My niece Lola is in love with Sernik, Polish cheesecake.

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A short walk away lies the newly opened Vodka Museum and it’s been at the top of all our ‘to do’ lists prior to arriving in Warsaw.

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Housed in the old Koneser Vodka Factory which has been beautifully restored to bring you the incredible story of Polish vodka, this museum is definitely worth the trip to the gritty side.  Especially if you are a vodka fan.

First a short video is screened in the beautiful old cinema, outlining the history of Polish Vodka, and in particular the Wyborowa brand.  Wyborowa is one of the most popular Polish Vodka’s (it’s a rye vodka) and was the first to become an international trademark.

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Then you learn the even longer history of vodka itself, how it is distilled, how many types and brands there are and even partake in some little quizzes – including putting on some ‘alco goggles’.

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Now that was an interesting experience and I’m proud to say I have never in my life been that drunk that my world looks like what I saw through those glasses!

The tour concludes with three tastings of different types and brands of vodka.  The tastings included Wyborowa, Luksusova and Ostoya.  Wyborowa,as I explained earlier, is a rye vodka.  Luksusova is a potato bodka and Ostoya is a wheat vodka; the wheat is grown in the Bieszczady mountains (which I’ll visit later).  I simply had no idea that different vodka’s tasted so completely different.  I thought vodka, was vodka.  It was at this point that my new appreciation for vodka began and I vowed never to drink rubbish vodka again.

By the way, my pick is go with the Ostoya.  Can you guess which one was my least favourite.

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An Uber-ride away, lies the Soho Factory – an ‘avant-guarde space for culture and business’.  Soho seems to be a continually evolving space, but the one thing that has remained constant since the concept was created, is the Neon Museum.

This highly recommended museum is dedicated to the preservation of Cold War era signs.  It’s a small space with a lot crammed in.  Little placards explain the history of some of the signs here, advising which building the sign came from, which includes cities from all across Poland.  There’s a small gift shop on site for those who like to take home souvenir mugs and the like.

Also on the grounds of Soho is restaurant Warsawa Wschodnia, sooo posh the waiter’s place the food on your plate for you, portion by portion, throwing unamused looks at those who attempt to do so themselves.  In fact, it is one of Mateusz Gessler’s restaurants.  The food, I ordered the Risotto with Boletus (mushroom risotto) was fantastic, but I’ve never fitted into a place less.

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Warsawa Wschodnia is open 24/7.  Unsual for such a dining experience, but as Mateusz explains; “there is always a good time for good food”.  The restaurant is beautiful, with an industrial edge to it and I’d definitely go back – perhaps dressed a little better.

We bid our farewells at the tram stop, as the tracks differ for our journeys home.  I’m looking forward to a quiet one tonight because tomorrow will be busy.

Nearing my apartment, a crowd is gathering for a concert in memory of the Warsaw Uprising, tomorrow being the actual day of commemoration.  The concert is love songs from the Uprising.

 

 

Warsaw Through My Own Eyes

I was last in Warsaw about four years ago.  I was making my way through several European countries and agreed to meet Mum and Dad there on my way home.  They had also been travelling, though through different countries.  It was my first trip to Poland.  Mum and Dad hadn’t been particularly impressed by Poland on their first visit and I had wanted to change their opinion.  We did loads of fun things and had an awesome time in Krakow, but I still ended up feeling like Warsaw wasn’t open to the world.  Yet.

What would I think this time?

From what I’d seen on social media in the long lead-up to this trip, Warsaw had made great strides.  In fact, it now had way cooler looking stuff going on than Perth (though, you know my conflicted feelings about Perth by now).  Throwing away any notions from the last trip and being here completely on my own agenda, I couldn’t wait to explore every inch of the city and find out.

My cousins from Wales also arrived in Warsaw yesterday, though missing luggage has put them behind the 8-ball and I haven’t yet had the opportunity to catch up with them.  Today I’ll hopefully get that chance.

The sun rises early for my first morning in Warsaw.  My apartment is a small studio, basically one room with a bathroom and a loft. Two beautiful large windows open out to a courtyard housing nothing much except noisy people in the early hours of the morning.

Wanting Warsaw to myself for a little while, I walk to the Old Town.  The cafes and shops are yet to open, apart from the couple of Carrefourre Express stores hiding in the quiet.  The heat has already rolled in for the day and the sky is right blue.  There are only a few people out and about.  It’s hard to believe this is a city that was rebuilt almost from scratch over 70 years ago.

The weather in Warsaw is humid – just like a Perth summer in fact.  And it doesn’t take me long to realise I have not packed appropriately.  I mean, I knew it would be summer and I was hoping it would be nice and warm, but a conversation with someone prior to leaving got me second guessing and I packed thinking ‘oh it won’t be THAT hot’.  So, with little budget available for an extra travel wardrobe, I leave the Old Town and head to Marszalkowska Street to carefully select some clothes which are a bit more suitable to this heatwave.  I find a cool pair of cotton pants and am flicking through a rack of t-shirts when I hear ‘do you think this dress suits me?’.  I turn to see my cousin Chris, holding up a colourful summer dress to himself.  His daughter Katherine, who I’ve not met before (but recognise from Facebook photos) comes up not far behind him, then Chris’ wife Sharon wanders over too.  The four of us catch up quickly – I haven’t seen Chris and Sharon since my trip to Wales just before my trip to Poland, and head back to our shopping, agreeing to catch up later for a glass of wine at Cafe Sloik not far away.

Cafe Sloik is filled with colourful jars.  It’s an interesting choice of name.  Officially, it means jar.  But it’s also slang for a person from a small town that works or studies in Warsaw and leads most of their social life in their hometown.  The name is derived from the jars of cooked food which the stereotypical słoik brings back to Warsaw from their hometown to save money.   Scanning the menu for the cheapest items, I wish I had bought a meal from home!  Not that Poland is expensive, because it’s not, but my budget was based on eating at my apartment as much as possible.  I settle on carpaccio and a negroni and enjoy both.

A couple drinks under our belt, it’s time to head to Wieslaw and Dorotka’s for dinner – our first official family dinner.  I haven’t seen them since my last (and first) visit to Warsaw four years ago.  Dorotka is Dad’s cousin and mother to Paula, Zuzanna and Maja.  Paula and Maja are already there, along with Paula’s baby son Marcel, and Stan who is related by marriage to Chris’s mother.  Broken Polish-English conversations abound but between us we have a great old time.

Family Dinner with Pruskis

We enjoy an array of delicious dishes thanks to Wieslaw’s cooking prowess and there are plenty of drinks, hallmarks of Polish hospitality.  Plans are made to meet again in the next day or so.  It feels great to be here surrounded by the other side of my family, which I have not yet had the luxury of getting to know in depth.  I hope this trip will be filled with chances to do just that.

Welcomed in Warsaw

After flying forever, I can’t explain what it felt like to arrive in Warsaw for five whole glorious weeks of exploration.  Exploration of the city, exploration of my roots and exploration of what it meant to me to be Polish and proud of my heritage.  Five weeks of spending time with family, honing my language skills, travelling around and eating as many pierogi as possible.

I walked out of Gate 2 at Chopin International, only to find that my gorgeous cousins Paula and Maja were awaiting me outside Gate 1 with flowers, sparkling wine and welcoming signs.  I have never felt this kind of reception myself, though I’ve seen it at other airports and always thought that must be really nice!  And it was.  I felt welcomed the minute I saw them and knew that spending five weeks here in Warsaw getting to know my family was going to be just awesome.

We drove a short distance through Warsaw’s streetsto what would be my home for the next five weeks – an Air BNB apartment located in Dluga Street, very close to Warsaw’s Old Town and about 20 minutes away from my cousins.  It was the perfect location, and the perfect apartment (thank you Anna and Bartosz).

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The girls left, which gave me some time to shower, rest, unpack and check out the local area for groceries.

It’s been almost four years to the date since I was last in Warsaw (give or take a month) and I didn’t spend more than a few hours in the Old Town at that time, so I’m keen to start having a look around to explore just what it is that makes it every tourist’s No. 1 stop in Warsaw.  Firstly though I need groceries, so I hit the streets and find a little Zabka grocery store where I buy a packet of frozen pierogi (sacriligous I know), and head home to cook them up for dinner.

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Feeling guilty that I’m spending my first night in Poland with fake pierogi (OK, truth be told they actually weren’t that bad, fried up with a bit of butter I grabbed off the plane, but you know what I mean), I pull my tired self together and head out into the night air to soak up the atmosphere of the Old Town on a Saturday night.

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It was a great move because the evening is beautifully warm, the light is just gorgeous and the town’s restaurants are full of people enjoying Polish cuisine and hospitality.  Perhaps tomorrow, after a good night’s rest, I will be one of those people.

Who Saw Warsaw Coming?

Apart from that little long weekend in Singapore all the way back in February, I have only one trip planned for this year. But it’s a big one. Five weeks, yes five weeks, in Poland.  Well, mostly Warsaw.

IN THE SAME COUNTRY! I know right!

You know me, I usually like to tick off 5 or 6 countries when I visit Europe.  That way, it makes the super long flight worth it.  But this travel thing is about evolving.  And although I love getting to as many places as possible, on recent trips I’ve found myself really wishing I’d had more time in each place.

Well, this trip I’m giving myself plenty of time.  And with good reason because I am heading back to Warsaw, home of my paternal lineage.  It’s gonna be a kind of root finding exercise.  I will be searching for family birthplaces, possible new relatives and my lost pierogi-consuming, mushroom-picking, vodka-drinking heritage.

Dad’s family were part of a relatively unknown page of WWII history.  I say unknown, because many of the survivors were told never to discuss it.  They were ashamed to do so, just wanted to forget it or, even sadder, just didn’t think anyone would be interested.  I’ve done a lot of research into this period of history over the last few years and never realised the struggles my family faced.  Those who are interested are welcome to read about my geneology search at my website Looking for the Lukasiks.  For those who are not so interested, here’s a brief wrap up; because it forms the basis of so much of what this trip will be about for me.

World War II broke out in Gdansk on 1 September 1939 when the Germans swept into Poland from the West. The Russians swept in from the East on 17 September and deported the Poles living there to Siberia.  This area was named ‘Kresy‘, or borderlands.  Many thousands died and those who survived, spent the next decade, displaced and wandering the world, looking for shelter and safety.  New lives were created in new countries after the war; a new Polish diaspora.

I am lucky that the majority of my family survived, unlike others.  But I never really knew their story until recently.

My wishes for this trip?  That I can piece together a clearer picture of who my family was, gain a deeper understanding of my heritage and what it means to be Polish.

From what I’ve seen on social media, things have changed in Warsaw since my last visit.  I’ve been watching this city come alive with keen interest and looking back on the words I wrote after my last trip to Warsaw:

Warsaw – what can I say – I read recently that you have a face that only a mother can love. And it’s true. I know you want to open up, but I don’t think you can just yet. I’ll give you time and see how you go, but you are brave and you are a fighter and you have a fantabulous history that the world is waiting to hear about.

I’d say the buzz that was just starting when I visited in 2014 is now blooming and I can’t wait to check it out!  Let the count down begin.

So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

Wanderings

Neither of us are massive fans of the Catholic Church.  Even though my Dad is a Catholic (non-practicing) and I have attended a couple of Catholic church sermons in my life, I was raised in the Anglican Church like my mother, and attended until my late teens – at one point even teaching Sunday School.  I long ago decided that religion was not something I believed in or wanted to continue with.

Mum and I are, however, interested in the artwork and the concept of the Vatican City as a destination and that is why we decided to do an Express Tour of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Crypt.  Besides, we’ve seen a whole load of churches based on their artistic and architectural beauty on this trip so it would be a travesty to miss out on what is supposed to be the granddaddy of them all.

Meeting our Dark Rome tour guide outside the Vatican Museums before they have officially opened (our early Sistine Chapel access means we are entering 20 minutes before customers of other tour companies and almost an hour and a half before the general public), she gives us a bit of a run down on the history of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo was not a painter, he was a sculptor and his quick rise to fame threatened a lot of people.  The artistic community of Rome, which included Raphael and Bramante, decided on a plot to discredit and embarrass him, by persuading Pope Julius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  When he was first asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo declined.  He was already working on the Pope’s Tomb and wanted to finish it, not to mention that he didn’t consider himself a painter and had never actually painted a frescoe in his life.  But Pope Julius was insistent and Michelangelo was forced to take up the job.

He taught himself along the way using trial and error and it took him four years to complete, all the while standing (not lying down) on a purpose built scaffold.

Our guide leads us directly to the Sistine Chapel, explaining what to look for in the frescoes, from Michelangelo’s daring self-portrait in ‘The Last Judgment’ to the iconic ‘The Creation of Adam’ painted on the ceiling.  Of course, you cannot take photos inside the Sistine Chapel (though that doesn’t seem to stop some people), but it is quite incredible and you can stare at it for ages finding new things all the time.

The Sistine Chapel is where new popes are elected.

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After we have finished gawping at the roof of the Sistine Chapel, our guide leads us through St. Peter’s “Gate”, a special access door, not available to the general public, that opens directly into St. Peter’s Basilica.

Upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica, you are stunned by the extraordinary size of this building. You’ll also be stunned by just how much money the Catholic Church must have spent on a basilica like this and I can’t help but thinking about how the money could have been spent better on perhaps the poor and the sick maybe?….  Just saying.

The architecture and decoration is absolutely stunning, especially Bernini’s incredible altar (recycled from the Pantheon) but I felt a trace of disgust in my throat the more I thought about the amount of money that had been obviously poured into this place and it started to detract from the experience of the visit.  It was weird, I haven’t felt this way about any of the other churches I visited, but I was quite relieved when our visit to the Basilica was over.

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Below the Basilica is the Vatican Crypt, which is where the most important Popes in Church history, including Pope John Paul II, have been buried.  There’s even the crypt of St. Peter, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples and the first Pope, whose bones are said to be buried beneath the Basilica.

The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation, with 550 citizens (I can officially say I have now visited the world’s two smallest nations!).  The Sistine chapel and St Peters Basilica are within the Vatican grounds.

The current Pope is Pope Francis and he’s proved very popular to date – he has his own twitter account and, as of very recently, an Instagram page.  When the Pope is in town, he gives a mass audience on Wednesday mornings – you can get one of the 40,000 tickets by rocking up to St Peter’s Square, locating the bronze doors to the Apostolic Palace and request one from the Swiss Guards.  Easy!

Leaving the Vatican City we wander off in search of food and something to do for the rest of our last day.

On a whim, we decided to take a boat cruise down the Tiber.  It was a barely professional outfit.  The boat, which consisted of a deck strewn with plastic chairs, was tiny and to get to the ‘rooftop deck’ required quite a bit of agility and some faith that the tiny metal ‘staircase’ would hold you as you pulled yourself to the top.  But as we boarded, the sun was out (barely) and there were only four other people on board, so it was a nice quiet escape from the crowds.

The Tiber itself is no stunning beauty.  She looks as if she’s been long abandoned for more fashionable parts of the city.  With her graffiti lined walls, piss-stained staircases, half submerged wrecks of ‘stuff’ and murky green colour – she’s not very inviting.  If it weren’t for a batch of temporary stalls being erected on the banks, you would think that no-one came down here save for the homeless you see decamped under the bridges.

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I had heard of Trastevere and how it was an ‘off the beaten track’ area of Rome to visit, but I’d somehow come to doubt that and after my initial research I didn’t really think too much about actually making any real point to get there.  Then at dinner last night, one of our fellow diners was waxing lyrical about the beauty of it and how you just must go and see it if you have time.  I still wasn’t that keen on making time to see it, so it seemed kind of funny that it started to sprinkle just as we got to Trastevere, and with the boat having no roof, we decided to disembark.

We were both feeling a bit touristed out and were really just filling in time on our last day, the weeks of lugging suitcases up and down stairs and on and off trains setting in.

It poured as we got off the boat and headed up the pedestrian ramp to the road.  When the light turned green, we ran across the road and into the dry safety of a nearby restaurant to wait for some clear weather.  A can of soft drink and a half finished Caprese Salad later (Can you tell this is my new favourite salad?  It’s surprising how each one is so different!), there was no rain in sight and we took off to explore the streets of Trastevere, without any real direction.

Every street or alleyway is a picture postcard and I can’t help but think it would have been nice to stay here instead of near Termini Station.

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Although we wanted to head back to the hotel, there was no metro stops on our map for this part of town, so we thought better luck would await us back on the other side of the river.  Magically we arrived out of the maze of Trastevere’s streets at a bridge that crossed back over and led us on another alleyway jaunt.  Spotting the Pantheon on the map, we decided that we should probably check that out and that in any case, it should be easy to get to our hotel from there – some form of transport would have to be around.

To get there, we would have to go close to the Campo de Fiori.  What is the Campo de Fiori? I wondered.  I knew it was the name of a high end Italian restaurant that used to exist in Perth, but what was it actually here.  We were so close, we thought it would be embarrassing to not find out what it was, so we kept following the alleyways, which led to the square where whatever it was, would be revealed.

The Campo de Fiori was a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t realise this was a market, but it was like a puzzle, wandering the streets to get there to find out what it was!  Oh yay!  A market!

Campo houses all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables, local produce such as vinegar, oil, limoncello and other liqueurs, pasta, truffles, clothes, bags, flowers – all sorts!  It’s not a huge market – about the same size as all of those we’ve come across in France and Italy, but it had a nice relaxed feel about it and it was a nice place to stroll around for a while.

A few streets away, we find the Pantheon – with a line of empty taxis outside – so we head around to the front of it.  At first we see a line of people and assume that we’ll have to queue to buy a ticket to get in, but the line turned out to be a tour group, and once they disappeared, there was no line to get in at all.  In fact, you didn’t even have to buy a ticket to get in because it was free!

Emperor Phocas donated this pagan temple to Pope Boniface IV in 608.  It was designed by Emperor Hadrian who was an amateur architect in 118-25 and the dome at its centre is the widest masonry dome in Europe.  It’s dark inside save where the light pours in through the enormous domed ceiling.

That’s it.  We’re done.  Time to go home and pack and rest up before our long flight home tomorrow. One more dinner – what I would call a traditional Italian meal of bruschetta, lasagne and tiramisu – and that’s it!  The end of five weeks of travelling.

Roman Ruins

Have you heard the story of Romulus and Remus?  No?  Well, Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, thrown into the Tiber River as babies.  A she-wolf somehow found them and suckled them, saving them from starvation until they were then found be a shepherd and his wife, who raised them.  When they grew up, the brothers laid out a plan for Rome – which was then unnamed, but which was eventually named for Romulus after he killed his brother quarrelling over who should be the king of this land.

The Romans ruled most of Europe around two thousand years ago.  In 117AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to the Middle East.  Today the same area includes more than 40 countries!  The Roman Empire lasted nearly 500 years.

Is Rome really all about ruins?  Well?  Yes.  Mostly.  Of course there’s some great food and other stuff, but the ruins are why we are all here.

After a bit of a botchy start to the day, we arrive at the Colosseum.  Unfortunately there isn’t enough time to go in at the moment because of our next appointment, but we stand gaping at it’s immense size for a while, snapping photos, before ascending the hill behind the Colosseum to find the Domus Aurea.

Haven’t heard of this one?  Well, listen in.

Back in the day, wealthy Romans would own a large townhouse, called a domus.  The domus was plain on the outside, but super luxurious on the inside.  It featured a grand space in the centre called an atrium, with an open roof that let the light in.  At the centre of the atrium was a rain water pool.  This area was where guests to the domus were greeted.  These domus’ were well ahead of their times, containing running water and underfloor heating.

Today, we are visiting a domus – in fact it was the domus belonging to Emperor Nero – Domus Aurea, the Golden House.  Nero began building the incredible villa in AD54 (yes, AD54!!!!) by damming the Aniene River to create not one, but three lakes below his patio.  It featured a monumental bronze statue of Nero (103 feet high, only 7 feet short of the Statue of Liberty) and more than 150 lavishly decorated rooms and public areas.

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Domus Aurea was found by mistake in 1480 by a few excavators digging around Oppian Hill when one of them fell through the dirt and found himself looking up at stunning frescoes.  Upon further investigation, one can only imagine the wonder they beheld as they surveyed the ruins.  One historian described it like this:

“Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.  There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals.  In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adored with gems and mother of pearl.  There were dining rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes.  The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.  He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.  When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.”

Nero was a bit of a nasty fellow – ordered his first wife dead, kicked his second (and pregnant) wife to death, saw to the murder of his mother and, and not to forget, he also possibly murdered his stepbrother.  He forced his mentor to commit suicide, castrated and married a teenage boy and presided over the wholesale arson of Rome in AD64 only to blame the Christians for it.  That’s probably not all, but I’m not sure what worse of a picture you could paint of the guy.

After his death in AD68, the next few emperors reconfigured it, but after that, it lay forgotten for the next 1400 years.  The boating venue was drained shortly after Nero’s death to make way for the Colosseum.

Domus Aurea was closed to the public after a partial collapse of its roof in 2010.  In fact, I had read about the closure in an old copy of National Geographic some months back and was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see it.  But, by chance, I discovered that Domus Aurea had in fact recently reopened, although in a limited capacity (weekends only and only by guided visit) and we just happened to be in Rome on such a day, so we couldn’t miss this incredible opportunity.

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What you see inside the Domus Aurea today is somewhat of a mongrel version of it.  You see once the time of Nero was over, history was to be erased.  The Flavians wanted to build straight over the top of it, and to do so, they had to create walls within the rooms of the Domus Aurea to create foundations to backfill and do so.  So you see plain Flavian walls and also some of the decorative original walls of the Domus Aurea.  It’s unfortunate that much of the building was ransacked and raided, but incredible that some of the frescoes are still here to be seen.

Unfortunately what they thought was a rotating dining floor, is not as such.  It was found elsewhere in Rome.

You’ll notice big holes in the ceilings as you go through the Domus Aurea – these holes are where people – in particular artists such as Raphael and Michaelangelo – climbed through to check out the art and whatnot.  They never knew exactly what it was they were climbing into!

An absolutely incredible visit and if you happen to be there at the right time – make sure you book in to do the tour in advance!  Restoration work continues and your visit helps to pay for it.

Now it’s time for a squiz inside Rome’s most dominating ruin – the Colosseum.  Constructed in AD72-80, it was originally known as the Flavian Ampitheatre, as it was built by the Flavians.  It was possibly renamed after that giant bronze statue of Nero that stood where the Colosseum stands now.

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It was an incredible feat of engineering for the time, with elaborate pulley systems between levels for the use of transporting caged lions and other goods between the basement and the stage for entertainment purposes.  It surprises me that they let so many people in here to trample all over it, especially when a lot of tourists seem to have no regard for the magnificence of the building and the fact that it’s still here – rather more keen to get there selfies no matter what they are leaning or standing on!

A bus ride through the streets of Rome brings us to the back of the Spanish Steps.  I’m sure we’ve passed some amazing sights, but I’m guilty of having nodded off on the bus.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me today – I have no fuel left in my tank, so to speak.  Slightly revived with a banana cocktail and a caprese salad, we head off to find the steps, brushing off vendors trying to see us roses in the heat of the day.

The Spanish Steps are Rome’s most beloved rococo monument.  Francesco de Sanctis designed the steps in 1723-6 for King Louis XV, and their true name in Italian is Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti after the church at the top.

In May, they are supposed to be covered in azaleas, however the Spanish Steps have been closed for renovation since October 2015 as part of a restoration project funding by luxury jeweller Bulgari.  Expected to be finished by Spring 2016 (not finished at the time of our visit) at a cost of 1.5 million euros, the works include re-leveling of the steps, maintenance of the rainwater drainage system and restoration of the original lamps that light the steps at night.  I was that unimpressed that I simply took a photo of the crowd looking at the steps rather than the scaffolded steps themselves.  Oh dear!

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The repairs have taken place in response to the Italian governments plea for help to restore heritage monuments – Tod’s (luxury shoe maker) is financing works at the Colosseum an Fendi is refurbishing the Trevi Fountain.

Which, is a stones throw away.  Tradition holds that if you throw a coin backwards over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will ensure a return to Rome.  Well, there were so many people surrounding the fountain it was hard enough to get a good photo, let a lone toss a coin in there!

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That’s it.  All I can manage for today.  A late afternoon nap is calling me (yes, I know!  The nap on the bus didn’t help at all!) and I can’t resist, so I give in.

A couple of hours later, we find a little restaurant nearby to our hotel and take a seat on the sidewalk.  Amid the damned street vendors who are still following us with their endless selection of scarves, sunglasses and other stuff we are already wearing, we chat to fellow diners and laugh with the wait staff.  We end up having a lovely evening with a great meal and wine which is a great way to finish the day.

Ahhhh, one more day to go.

 

A Quick Roam Round the Streets of Rome

Today we are leaving Capri (sadly) for our last stop in this whirlwind tour of Europe.  We’ve really enjoyed Capri (more specifically Anacapri) and if we hadn’t been away so long, another few days here would have been heavenly.

But five weeks on the road is quite a bit and there’s a part of each of us that is keen to get home.  We pack our suitcases into one of the open top Capri taxis and head down the windy OMG Mamma Mia road for the last time wondering just what Rome will have in store for us.

To be honest, although we have met some absolutely lovely people that have made our time in Italy pleasurable, we have had enough of the rude attitude we have found from the majority of Italians we have come across and we are not exactly fired up about our next few days in Rome.

To fill in some time, we stop at a cafe along Marine Grande, a coffee here, a sandwich there, an icecream, a glass of wine.  It’s a great spot for people watching, and being a Saturday morning, it means one thing – the tourists are in!

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The busses, boats, taxis and funicular queues sport masses of people, growing in number then clearing, and then growing again.  It’s crazy!  I wonder how people feel about coming to Capri for just the day – I bet they end up wishing they were staying at least one night.

Finally, it’s our turn to depart on one of the massive ferries.  I’d like to tell you about the trip, but the truth is I fell asleep.  It may have only been a 40 minute ride, but it felt like I was asleep for hours!  We disembark the ferry and head to the waiting area to flag down a taxi to get us to Napoli Centrale train station, where we’ll be boarding our train to Rome.

I’ve heard the drivers in Napoli are absolutely crazy but to see it with your own eyes is incredible.  They just drive anywhere, whenever, no matter if there’s a car right there in front of them.  It’s no lie to say that every second car had a dent, or multiple dents or parts that would have been hanging off the car if it hadn’t been for the layers of sticky tape holding it together.

But we manage to make it safely to the station and after waiting what seems like AGES for our train (and encountering some more rude people along the way), we are finally on our train and heading to Rome.

It takes less than 1½ hours to get to our final destination and we aren’t sure quite what to expect when we get off the train.  On our way through from Florence to Naples, the station didn’t look very inviting at all, to the point where I was beginning to rethink staying where we had booked.  But we were quite surprised to find our way out into the streets easily and even found our hotel without too much trouble, which was quite the surprise inside.

It was quite early in the day, so after a freshen up, we decided to hit the streets to see what it was all about.  We were in need of another one of the Hard Rock Cafe’s famous steaks and a load more broccoli (we ordered an extra side of seasonal vegetables to which the waitress replied I’m really sorry, but it’s just broccoli, to which we replied that was exactly what we wanted – she must have thought we were plain weird!).

Rome has a similar kind of feel to Budapest (not as beautiful or awesome though in my books) – gritty, but you know you kind of love it.  You want to get to know her and explore her nooks and crannies because you know it will be worth it.

I just hope I can muster enough passion for exploring to get through the next few days because I’m really intrigued to check this place out!

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