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.

Hill tribe village experience – Chiang mai, Thailand

In November 2011, as part of my Thailand trip, I travelled to Chiang Mai (located in Northern Thailand). The northern part of Thailand is regarded as very lush, culturally diverse and very chilled out.

On one of the days we ventured outside the city proper and travelled to the Maesa Region – Located just west of the city, past doi suthep lookout. We hired a driver for the whole day and visited an assortment of sights and other off the tourist trail places.

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I’ve visited the the Maesa area of the countryside twice (2009 and again on this trip in 2011). It’s very picturesque and includes well known attractions like Queen Sirikit Royal Botanical gardens, Orchid farms and also the Baan Hmong Maesa agricultural village.

We arrived at the village and as it was my second time I felt like the place was very familiar to me. The village hadn’t changed drastically and I recall some familiar faces, whilst I was strolling through. Entry to the village is allowed by paying the entrance fee – with the proceeds mentioned to help the villagers’ infrastructure (although many would argue that a large chunk of it ends up in wealthy pockets). The village is run as an initiative by the Thai government (part of plan to make the people self reliant and self empowered to create their own successes) and is well visited by tourists to Chiang Mai. Forgive me if the name is incorrect (my research and remembering the name is a bit sketchy), but the Baan Hmong Maesa Agricultural village although is not really off the tourist trail, but gives an interesting insight into the lives of the many different village minorities that make up the Northern Thailand area. Even though it is not regarded as 100% authentic or genuine, the people i met whilst strolling through the village are captivating and friendly, to say the least.

As you wander around the village, you pass through the areas of different ethnicities, represented by signage. At first it’s a bit awkward strolling through the villagers homes and feeling like you are intruding in their lives, but they seem to be well accommodating of the tourists that pass by each day. The villagers vary according to their cultural background and this is reflected in their clothing attire and goods they have to sell. This ranges from hand woven goods textiles, hand woven plant ware and also other trinkets and gifts – your purchase helps them to make a living.

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Passing each house in the village bring about an greater appreciation of living simply and living authentically. The villagers aren’t hindered by the temptations of the fast paced modern lifestyles and instead vary from growing their own crop to spending quality time with their family. How do they make a living you ask? When we were there we noticed a lack of male villagers and we were told that they had gone out to work, away from the village. It was mentioned that they return each day, bringing back the earnings of the day to their loved ones. Obviously they may have challenges to make a living, but really it comes down to what we need, rather than what we want. That’s’ the pitfall of our modern lives and what I admire most about my experience to the village.

With camera in hand, I went around and politely requested some photographs of the local villagers and their unique landscape. I was greeted with happy smiles and a ‘Linga Franca’ like understanding of the body language that was shared in our communication. No words were said, only some apprehension and the sense of respect.

The village is like a haven, where the kids walk around confidently and without fear. On our visit in 2009, we came across a young toddler who was roaming around by the rice paddies with a can of soft drink. The mother was nearby watching from a distance and as we approached the little toddler greeted us with a wai (Thai hand greeting) and we politely returned the same. We couldn’t resist a picture with the young toddler, as they were wearing the most elaborate attire in the village and they were fearless in their approach to us.

At the very same spot in our 2011 visit, we encountered grazing buffalo wandering the rice paddies, where they seem indifferent to the tourists that were passing close by them. For such a beast of an animal, it was surprising how placid and gentle they were. We wandered into the Karen tribe area – most notable for their metal coils around their neck. We were shown an example of the weight of the coils and they were definitely heavy! In their culture the long necks are a sign of immense beauty, so the coils act like a vice stretching the womens necks. We were told that young girls start this when they are very young and each year the coils are replaced and refitted to meeting the growth needs.

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We were shocked to find out that if the women suddenly decide not to wear the coils, that their necks are so reliant on the coils, it would make the necks collapse – creating major health issues and even death. So once the coiling process starts, they are pretty much held to at least maintain the lifestyle. It’s a very unique look (similar to how the African tribes have the giant earlobes) and very challenging for the ‘long neck’ women to have some sense of conformity if they are to go out to the bigger cities, in amongst the Thai locals.

At one of the Karen villagers’ huts, I was beyond surprised when they responded back in clear English to my greeting of hello. The mother of three proceeded to engage in a conversation with me so effortlessly and with such poise. Her children were around the hut and the youngest in a tub in front of her. I asked to the lady how she learnt to speak this excellent level of English and she responded in detail explaining that it was learnt by listening to the tourists (who would speak in English) who would visit. The lady didn’t know how to write in English but could read, and gained the skills by reading some English development books which were given as a gift. The resourcefulness and initiative of the lady was so inspiring and really makes you feel motivated to achieve more in life. With the little resources she had, they made the most of the opportunities that was presented in front of them to try and create a better life.

I felt compelled to have a lasting photo with this amazing lady, to remember this unique experience I had. Still to this day I feel compelled to help her by providing English language books – and I still look forward to making this possible by contacting the appropriate channels. I left giving her a hug and the gratitude of being in her presence – it’s one of those memories that will always remain with me.

Proceeding through the village, I then came across a busy female villager tending to their corn crop in the fields in close proximity to the path. They didn’t speak any English but again the body language was more than enough to build rapport and a connection. They showed me their flourishing fields of varying crops – helping to support their aim at being self reliant and maintain some level of food security in the village. The lady was very poised in her manner and encouraged me to take a picture of her lovely fields and what she has grown. They were not fussed at all and even offered some of their vegetable crop to me – ever so generous in their nature. I left them to tend to their fields and proceeded along.

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After this encounter, walking through the rest of the villages there were happy people relaxing in hammocks underneath their homes – taking retreat from the scorching heat. Many saw my camera and immediately knew that I was keen on capturing the moments within the village. They were all too happy to smile and show off their quaint homes and surroundings.

My experience at the village was very rewarding to say the least and there were definitely many memories from my visit there to inspire me into the future. My appreciation of living simply and especially to grow crops has grown immensely, and also seeing the rewards. Many life lessons which can be transferred into modern lifestyles – including mine for sure.

– Anth

Motor scooter riding in Chiang Mai – Thailand

I had the opportunity to visit Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand during my 2011 trip (which covered Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore. This was my second visit to this great city – where on my first visit I was lured by its relaxed city vibe and natural wonders which surrounded the picturesque city. Within the most recent visit I couldn’t resist the chance to hire a motorised moped / scooter and travel around the city. Risky business (I know), as you often hear in the news cases where tourists are injured and vendors taking advantage of the tourists (knowing that they are cash cows for their business). Knowing the risks, I decided to proceed as the chance as rising around and feeling a sense of freedom is too great to deny.

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Near my hotel (which was close to the old gate in inner western Chiang Mai city and near the night market district), I stumbled across what appeared to be a well organised rental business. As a surety they required me to surrender my passport (I was definitely hesitant at first, but I figured this was a consequence of being in a foreign country where you passport is the only main thing of value). After tentatively handing over my passport, I was given the keys to a well maintained and shiny motor scooter. The vendor asked me “have you ever ridden a motorcycle before”. Naturally knowing that if I said no, that I would face resistance to the vendor allowing me to proceed with the rental of their prized mode of transport – so I said ‘yes’. The funny thing is the vendor was not quite convinced and in a certain way tested me as to how I would manage.

Then afterwards after some false starts and accidently gripping back the accelerator, I was on my way to start my journey around this great city. The only condition of was that I had to return the motorised scooter in one piece and with a full tank of fuel (which was the way that the mode of transport was presented to me).

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I had no set plan on my travels around the city. This was the last day of my time in Chiang Mai, as my flight to Bangkok was around 6pm that evening. So being carefree and in a way naive, set out with the Nancy Chandler Chiang Mai map and just went out to see what caught my eye. I tried to ensure that I did not wander too far from the squared boundaries and the moat parameters of the city, so I would not end up in a foreign country in a compromised position (without fuel).

In saying this, i seemed to have immediately broke this pledge and soon found my way at a McDonalds in what appeared to be a Thai factory outlet on the outskirts of the city. After indulging in some fast food, I soon found out that I was headed away from Chiang Mai and was heading to Lampang (which is located heading south towards Bangkok). Lucky I stopped, or I could have found myself riding through the Thai country side, not knowing where or how long the fuel could last me – a very scary prospect indeed. After discovering the error of my ways, I made my way back towards the heart of the city and reoriented myself. Navigating the Thai traffic can be a challenge not for the faint hearted or those who are not comfortable riding on two wheeled modes of transport (which was my case for sure!). It is especially the case when you edge you way through the stalled cars at the lights, within the cramped spaces between. I soon learnt that in Thailand, space is a luxury and that applies to the road as well – where you won’t see any empty spaces at the front. This is why safety can often be compromised, with the cares and other modes of transport being within centimetres of each other and within a setting where infrastructure is not quite established as many nations have it.

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My travels continued through the city taking in many of the Thai temples, Buddhist centres, markets and other things that caught my eye. The feeling of having a mode of transport where you can simply wander around and whenever you feel like stop and have a look is highly rewarding. Not being restricted by public transport, 3rd party taxi drivers or other normal ways of travel makes you engage more with the locals and have a greater, more authentic experience. When riding around I would often see foreign tourists who also were compelled by wanderlust to explore the city by motorised scooter. Along my travels, some locals would giggle as they witnessed a ‘Farang’ (foreigner) trying to play it cool in their nation and trying to learn the ways of the locals. Riding around the locals are all too happy to provide guidance and assistance where needed and are more than friendly.

During my 4 hours riding around the city I must have circled the city 7 times and visited more places than my fingers could account for. The pictures below give a glimpse of the journey. With some disappointment, I returned back to the vendor to return the source of my freedom and exhilaration. Nothing compares to the experience had rising around Chiang Mai by motorised scooter. Enjoying the moment and having the wind lapping around as I ride is just magical – there is nothing like it in the world (well on that budget anyway). You only live once and whilst I don’t recommend rising a motor scooter without having prior experience, I would urge you to leave the comfortable confides that you put yourself in and do something that your future self will thank you later on for. Something as simple as rising around Chiang Mai on a motorised scooter is one of the moments that will echo in my mind for years to come. The world beckons to be discovered – so get out there whilst you can!

– 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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