Culture and heritage in alluring Rome – Italy

In June 2012, I had the pleasure of gracing Italy and all its bountiful pleasures with spectacular scenery. Most notably, we first stopped off in the capital Rome to take in the entire vista of heritage, food and also the rich art culture which was behind every corner.

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We arrived to Rome late in the evening (around 8pm) from our stopover in Dubai on Emirate airlines. From the plane we could see the dusk skies with the sun just about to set in the horizon. The landscape reminded me a lot of Melbourne with the bronzed land parched by the sun and country farmsteads lining the land as were landed. Rome airport is quite dated and not exactly and airport which you would want to spend a lengthy time in. We could see other flights from South America land at the same time too. Apart from the long passport control queues, we faced a dilemma of how to travel into the city proper. There is a train service but would make stops along the way and end up in Termini station – and with our luggage it was not ideal, especially at night. We settled upon taking a private shuttle bus service into town, where you are delivered to you hotel doorstop (that was the plan anyway). We set off from the airport and pass through some countryside and then emerged into the city metropolitan area. The residential properties reminded me exactly like houses owned by Italians here in Melbourne, Australia. The concrete columns, vegetable gardens and metal fencing – for a second it was a moment of déjàvu.

After some other paying tourists were dropped off their hotel, we started to head into the vicinity of our hotel. Our hotel was located 10 blocks from termini station and we had been warned that at night the surrounding areas are notorious for pick pocketers and just shady people giving naive tourists a hard time. We were not far away, then suddenly our driver mentions to us to get out and walk, due to the traffic jam we were in and the fact that many streets are one way only. Our faces dropped and faced with this predicament, left the taxi and took refuge in a hotel across the road. As we had never been to Italy before, we freaked out and called the hotel to come find us at the location where we were. With our luggage and the cobblestoned streets, it is a challenge for rolling luggage (as we found out).

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A little embarrassed and weary, the hotel representative came and chaperoned us to the hotel in the dark of night, passing some fancy eateries along the way. Upon arrival to the hotel we were warmly greeted and ushered to the old fashioned style lift. And when I mean old fashioned, this was the type with the metal mesh and required the two manual doors to be closed, before you could go up. Our room was more than accommodating and even included framed baroque artworks with tasteful decor. Out the window we could see other residents across the courtyard, with random cats jumping from balcony to balcony. The residents in Rome seem to live on top of each other, as though space is a luxury.

The following days after we settled in ,were inspiring to say the least. We went to all the major touristy places (as one would do) and also get off the beaten track and explore the various alleyway shops and sights. I vividly recall the moment we walked into the forecourt of the Trevi fountain. On the way there it was narrow streets and commercial shops, bounded by heritage buildings and we wondered ‘is this the right direction’, as the space appeared lacking for such a grand water feature. Then wham in one go the Trevi fountain comes into sight. Such a spectacle and elaborate designs within the fountain are memorable. We had seen that the fountain was undergoing a restoration phase, funded by as I recall the Italian design house ‘Fendi’.

With the economic crisis still reeling in Europe, the municipal forms of government seemed to have sought the funds from fashion design houses, in return for advertising material being allowed in close proximity to the famous locations around Rome. Nether-the-less in light of the economic issues the streets are well maintained and feel alive with the rich history at every turn. We didn’t really travel outside of the Rome metropolitan area proper (due to time constraints of four days) but this was sufficient to feel the flavour of the city and the local culture. We ventured to the nearby pantheon, with its unique skylight and moody feel inside, with impressive artwork around the inside walls. The unique part of Rome is that you talk a stroll around the streets and simply walk into such opulent and character packed landmarks with little or no cost. The alley ways have quirky shops and unfortunately some have taken the opportunity to graffiti on buildings around – not to a major extent. One notable sight was “I was born to love you” graffitied on to a roman wall. Illegal this may be, I did appreciate the thought of what was written especially in the climate of Italy being under social pressures of the economic crisis.

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Of course in Rome a visit to the Vatican is a must (that alone is another blog post), but the Spanish steps with the people chilling out and watching the city pass by with the various gelato shops scattered around is unique.

When you think Rome, the first thing many people think about is the Colosseum. The ventured in the morning to see the obligatory landmark in the historical section of the city. We thought we arrived at a time sparing the hordes of tourists, but appears that a convoy of tour buses beat us to it! After braving the long queues to get in, we roamed around inside to take in the sheer scale and think about the many stories that the walls could tell if they had a chance. Part of the inside arena flooring has been recreated with modern-day timber, to give tourists an idea of what it looked like and showing how the labyrinth below would have worked. Tourists are free to roam all around the entire radius of the structure at their leisure. Spectacular yes, but after one and bit hours, we took our leave to visit the nearby war memorial – passing the ancient roman forum area along the way.

You could be forgiven to think that this white marble war memorial was a seat of parliament of other major significance, but this was solely to remember the Italian lives which perished in the early 20th century wars in Europe. Stern military guard monitor the entrance to the huge structure and many tourists were stopped for bringing in food and for wearing in appropriate attire (e.g. not covered their shoulders). The view from the top of the memorial building is spectacular – the vista of the roman city is amazing and you can see all the way past Vatican City and admire the sheer scale of the environs.

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Continuing on, our map alluded to a majestic piazza close by called ‘Piazza Navona’. Strolling through the street leading into the piazza, we were greeted by various artists showcasing their various artworks in various mediums. The spectacular vista of the piazza soon came into focus as we ventured closer. The fountains which are grand and opulent dot the piazza and the artists located in the centre add to the feeling of the rich culture and curiosity. Quaint cafes and restaurants line the perimeter of the piazza, with bougavilleas and assortment of coloured planting varieties complementing the infrastructure of the area. Passing the noticeable Brazilian embassy (you can spot their Brazilian flag waving around a fair distance away, you eye is drawn to the works of the artists showcased on easels and other props around the area. The artworks generally reflect the Italian landscape, but varies from portraiture, baroque style art and other contemporary style oil paintings. The opportunity to pick up such great art at relatively accessible prices as too much to resist. I just went for some small prints due to the travels we had upcoming. The artists all show that their talents with many painting in front of curious tourists right in the piazza. Viewing them in action is truly mesmerizing and challenges my idea of the human capacity. I must say that the piazza was a highlight of the trip, more so than the Colosseum and even Trevi fountain – for being more relaxed, authentic and the space to explore around.

These were just some of the amazing sights witnessed and experienced in the enduring city of Rome. There’s that well used saying that ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ certainly applies with its intricacies of art, architecture and lavish style appearance making it an infectious place to visit. Apart from annoying lingering pickpocketers (which are spotted with distinction from others), I highly recommend a visit. Ideally next time I’d like to spend more time in the city but I guess once you pull on a string, it leaves you wanting more and more.

– Anth.

The heavens atop Mt Pilatus – Switzerland

Any visitor to Switzerland will know that the mountainous Alps beckon to be seen. On our visit to the country in 2012, we too were enticed by the image of Switzerland being a nirvana of lush greenery and purity in the heart of Europe. And we were not disappointed at all.

Specifically during our time in Switzerland we travelled one of the days to Lucerne (to the east of Zurich, one hour away by fast train). Within this fascinating and picturesque city, we decided to pay a visit to Mount Pilatus (which is only a 20 minute public bus trip from the main SBB station). The amazing thing is how the locals live in such close proximity to the mountainous areas. The bus leaves us in a shopping strip in a relatively sub-area of the city and then it’s only a short 15 minute walk up the road to the entrance of the mount Pilatus cable car. The cable car is three tiered and leads you right up to the summit of the mountain. The first leg is the mountain takes in the first two tiers from the ground level to 2/3 of the way up. This modern craft effortlessly floats above the pine trees, lush green fields below and the many cattle which roaming below in the farms (you can hear the bells ringing – which are tied around their neck). This is authentic Switzerland at its best and really your breath is taken by the beauty and purity of this land. As we went up we could see the panorama of Lucerne across and with each meter you go up, it feels like you are inclining to heaven.

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Sometime afterwards we arrived at the 2/3 point of the mountain. You arrive at a transitional point where the main cable car ends and a smaller cable car starts to take you up the last 1/3 to the summit. At this level you are reminded how high up above ground level you are with the many signs and maps strategically located around. We took the time to take in the scenery and brace ourselves with our anticipating growing.

A short time later we were ushered onto the smaller cable car and were elevated through the lower lying cloud masses which surround the mountain. The feeling is beyond surreal – thick cloud masses like chunks of cotton wool lapped the cable car we were in so effortlessly. I was more adventurous and opened up the window in the cable car and put my arms out, challenging what my eyes were seeing and the wonder I was witnessing.

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Upon arriving to the summit, we arrived to a modern and well developed building with tinted windows, cultural displays and the history of this majestic mountain. We were joined by other tourists from faraway lands like China, the United States and Singapore, who like us were in awe at the spectacular setting we were in. The open promenade setting outside invites the visitors to explore further. We were there in early June and you could still see remnants of the winter season that had just passed – large iceberg like chunks of ice around and scattered areas of snow around. As far as you look the crisp white snow areas contrast starkly against the lush greenery of the emerging plains, with the cloud cover steadily making its way around the summit. It was truly a sight to see and I had a moment of reflection that this might be the closest thing to heaven on earth (from the stereotypical appearance as society knows of).

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I was standing there gazing out to the scenery that unfolded before me and just listened to the whistling of lapping winds across the summit. I was joined by the native mountain birds who (like a jet steam lap pool does) were flying on the spot with their wings out, suspended in the air without a care in the world. I then noticed that further up at the very peak of the mountain there was a cross and a gathering of tourists, taking the opportunity for happy snaps. I couldn’t resist and climbed the steep steps, with admittedly many moments of vertigo and clasping at the rustic wooden hand rails (too many to count). Standing at the peak, makes you appreciate the natural resources we have in our world and how amazing our world truly is. At this very peak was where i had taken some of my images. I must mention that the temperature at the ground level was 20 degrees and at the summit it must have been 5 degrees – yet here I was with just a thin t-shirt (Not the best choice I know). So don’t let the images deceive you into thinking it was warm weather at the summit (The elevation of 1,128m above sea level).

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The summit also has a hotel and restaurant, built i believe back in the 1940’s and is situated precariously between the summit rock face and the promenade. It’s extraordinary that such a building exists at this location (let along thinking how the materials have been brought up to the summit). There is even a souvenir shop and other amenities too. It may sound kitsch and well within the tourist trail, even if it is so, it does not diminish the specialness of this place – and having the sense of aloneness in enjoying the scenery.

After taking the time to explore the entire summit, by walking through the many walking trails and lookouts, we took our leave. You could spend all day at the summit just standing there in awe (it is just that spectacular). We left with a heavy heart, wanting more but realising that there was more of Lucerne to see. The images taken on Mount Pilatus reflect my unique experience I had and the amazing scenery which I was fortunate to have seen. The images of ascending through the thick cloud masses and also at the summit with the clouds caressing the mountain will always stay with me as life changing experience. If you are ever in Switzerland (or specifically in Lucerne), I highly recommend visiting Mount Pilatus (or at least one of the other mountainous peaks that line the country).

– Anth

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The wonder of Burano – Italy

During our time in Venice (Italy) we came across the most unique and colourful island we’ve ever come across. Situated within the Venetian lagoon and a 40 minutes ferry ride from the main area of St Marco square is the quaint island called Burano. The island is actually a set of four islands which are connected by various bridges, like how Venice is considered one island – yet is made up of several sub islands. The name is almost similar to the other Venetian island of Murano (note the M instead of the B), which is world famous for its artisan glass works. The ferry on the way to Burano takes in the bask expanse of the lagoon and the other islands that are just a stone’s throw from the main Venetian island.

Upon arriving into Burano, we were immediately impressed by the vista of the colour spectrum of the houses from the arriving ferry into the port. Each of the buildings on the connecting islands are strikingly painted in an assortment of colours and each house has a colour which is different to the next. From what I’ve read the colouring of the houses dates back in time when the island was home to mariners and the colourful facades of the island assisted them to find the island easily (especially when there would be less than ideal weather). The colours would also identify their homes, as each of the homes colour are mandated to be the same to in the same precinct so one would not confuse their home with another. This practice still occurs even up to now, where the Italian municipality of Venice mandates the colouring of the buildings and also overlooking the maintenance of recolouring of the buildings on the island.

Being summer (we were there in Mid June), there was many a few tourists wandering the island and exploring the many shops that were open. The locals understand the compromise of a loss of privacy and at time intrusion by the visiting tourists, so to curb this they put sheeting over their doorways and utilise privacy blinds in their windows. The locals are beyond friendly though and when we had some questions as to what were the recommended sights on the island, they were all too happy to share some of the insights into their way of living and what made the island so special. As you walk around the island, the picturesque panorama just grips you and you are left wanting just to sit down and take it all in.

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Space appeared to be a luxury on the island as the home are wall-to-wall style with a small from garden for some with a possible quaint backyard to suit (this depends on the home layout). The occupants of the houses which had their entrance straight off the walking avenues, had taken the liberty of arranging a lush and striking garden setting at each of their front entrances. All the pants would be potted colour of geraniums, edible vegetable plants and other drought hardy Mediterranean plants. As an avid gardener and appreciative of garden design, the way of how the residents have complemented the colourful buildings with their plant selection is inspirational. The home owners have great pride in the places they live in and whilst they have not had many of the commercialised material goods in larger mainstream cities, they make up for it by living an enriching and rewarding lifestyle (from what it appeared to seem like in the summertime we visited anyway).

There are many shops which line the so called more retail areas of the island ranging from quaint eateries, clothing stores, gelato stores to the islands most famous lace creations. Like how Murano is famous for their glass artisanship, Murano is equally as famous for their lace crafts and other lace creations. Lace came to the island when Cyprus ruled the Venetian area in the 16th century and women on the island started to take up the fine needlework craft. We browsed through one of the lace stores on the island which was owned by a Latin American man and his wife. They mentioned that life in spring and summer on the island is quite lively, but come winter the inclement weather puts the island into hibernation (that’s how it was described to us anyway). This could be one of the pitfalls of living on Burano, where the seasonal cycle can create some challenges for the locals. The man mentioned as well that the lace creations are quite time consuming to create and this would be why the lace creations we came across had a premium price assigned to the goods. The craft has become in a way reliant on the tourist dollars that come in the warmer months of the year, which is why it is advisable to support the artisans and make a purchase to support the history of the island into the future. This is especially important with the competing importation of cheaper mass produced Chinese made lace goods (similar to how there are cheaper mass produced Venetian masks streaming into the island from China, in direct competition with the more premium locally made masks).

Another shop we came across the island near the ferry wharf, where the artist has many of their vibrant artworks becoming the arriving tourists. On our first time we travelled to the island, we were negligent in making a purchase at the artists store, but then afterwards past closing time , we soon realised we made a poor decision. This allowed us an excuse to revisit the island for a second time the day after, which turned out to be a pleasant consequence. My recommendation is if you see something on the island which catches your eye – buy it before you regret!

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As mentioned before, Burano is technically made up of four sub islands all connected to each other. This creates the wonderful canals which pass straight through the heart of the considered island. The locals utilise the canals as a vital life line to bring in household goods from nearby Lido or the main Venice Island. The canals are service as a convenient access point for the locals to moor their small boats, where many of the locals’ boat use its vital to maintain a connection to the mainland. The island’s canals can appear to be congested at times and it was quite interesting to witness them manoeuvre around each other, like a real life game of Tetris. With some friendly communication and an understanding of the setting they live in, traffic in the canals is managed effectively. Living in such close proximity to one another the locals who live on the island appear to have a great support system and a great sense of community. You see many neighbours inviting each other for lunch and also having their doors open, letting the cool sea breeze through their homes – with little worry for security.

The island of Burano is truly special and when we arrived to Venice, we heard little of the island or had later noticed that the island was not promoted as well as it could be. It definitely paid to take the 40 minute ferry journey to the island and get off the well worn mainstream Venetian commercial trail. Looking back at the photos and my experience of visiting the island, it reminds me that simple living and close communities are most often overlooked in our busy lives. We could learn a thing or two from how the residents of Burano live, play and work.

Happy travels
– Anth

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