Europe diary, day 15: Secret Rome and generous wine bar

Saturday 18 November

It was time for another sleep in this morning. I got up a bit after 08:00 and M. snoozed a bit longer. We had lazy breakfast and left for some leisurely strolling around Rome on our last full day here. M. wanted to go by the Trevi Fountain so we could toss coins in before we leave, and I went through my Secret Rome book to end some interesting things that we could see in the rough vicinity. I found a couple of things over near the Spanish Steps plus a couple near the Mausoleum of Augustus, and figured that would make a nice loop to walk.

The Trevi Fountain was packed with people, as usual most of the time. Most of them were jammed in the front though, so we had room to go down the steps on the left side and approach the water easily on that side. We tossed a couple of small euro coins in and took a selfie of the both of us. Sometimes you just have to to the standard tourist things!

From here we walked over to the Spanish Steps, approaching up the hill from the south side towards the top of the steps. Just before reaching the church of Trinità dei Monti is the Palazzo Zuccari, which has an interesting facade with giant stone faces carved around the main doorway and adjacent windows on either side with gaping mouths where the door and windows are.

We passed by the church and continued north to the Villa Medici, where a fountain stands in front of the main door, the fountain centrepiece being a cannonball which has been drilled through to provide the water spout. There are cannonball marks on the front door of the villa, and multiple legends about what exactly happened to cause them, all involving Queen Christina of Sweden, who was staying in Castel Sant’Angelo in 1656. One says she fired a cannon from the Castel deliberately at the villa to wake up Cardinal Carlo de’ Medici to go hunting. A second says she had promised the painter Charles Errard to knock on the door of the villa, where he was staying, at a certain time of day; but she was late for the appointment and kept her word by firing a cannon to “knock” on the door. A third (perhaps the most likely) says she simply fired a cannon at random from the Castel and it happened to hit the front door of the villa.

We descended the hill and walked west across the city towards the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Tiber, where there were two other points of interest I’d chosen to see. One was a vertical marble strip on the exterior wall of the Chiesa San Rocco all’Augusto, which marked the heights of various floods of the Tiber River over the centuries. This would have been very interesting and a good photo, but unfortunately when we arrived there the small street that the marker faced was fenced off for works, and we couldn’t get close to it, and could only see about the top half of it over the fence. SO that was a little disappointing.

Nearby is Piazza del Porto di Ripetta, where there are two ancient stone columns near a small fountain. Again, these columns record flood levels. Ripetta was an ancient port on the river where ships would lade and unlade goods for the city of Rome. We found the columns and could get right up to them, but the upper parts were obscured by thick foliage from adjacent trees, so we didn’t get a great view of the entire columns, but it was good enough.

From here we walked back to our apartment to have a rest and make some lunch. Rather then buy lunch out, I made us grilled cheese sandwiches, using the bread and Parmigiana cheese we’d bought a few days ago. The bread had dried out a bit, but nothing that a good dose of olive oil and time in the frying pan wouldn’t fix! I sliced some fresh tomato to top mine. It was very crunchy, but good with good quality cheese.

After resting a bit after this lunch, we went out for another stroll, in a different direction. I’d lined up some more interesting sights for us to see from Secret Rome: a water clock at Palazzo Berardi, and the Fontana delle Mammelle opposite the Galleria Spada in Piazza Capo di Ferro.

The water clock is one of only two functional water clocks in Rome, using the aquifer water pressure that drives the many fountains and public water spouts across the city to move the clockwork. It’s inside the Palazzo and when we arrived the front doors were locked. I said, “This is the place – it’s inside this door,” and M. went over to the keyhole and looked through and said, “I can see it!” And indeed there was a decent view of the clock, although several metres away. I tried several times to take a photo of it through the keyhole, but the multiple lenses on my iPhone frustrated me by constantly switching, which meant that the lens I’d been using was aligned through the keyhole but the one it switched to had just a view of the door around the hole. I had to try every cardinal orientation of the phone to get it to work audit only managed to focus correctly on the last attempt. While making this fuss of looking and photographing through the keyhole, some strangers walked past. One pair had a woman who obviously knew what we were looking at, and told her companion to take a look, while another pair of people were just curious and came over to see what we were doing, and we told them to have a look. This is the cool sort of thing I love finding in different places – something that you’d never notice if you didn’t know it was there.

The Fontana delle Mammelle is a small fountain in a wall niche on the outside of a building, surmounted by a sculpture of a woman. But the interesting thing is the optical illusion trompe l’oeil painting around it, which makes it look like it’s on a wall with strongly shaped stone blocks, despite that fact that the wall is perfectly flat. The Secret Rome book had a photo of this from inside the door of Galleria Spada, but when we got there someone had parked a large car right between the fountain and the door (clearly in a no parking area). So I had to content myself with a photo from closer. We did go inside Galleria Spada briefly, since the ticket office was deep inside the complex somewhere and we could go in the front door and walk around the courtyard without having to pay. In fact I couldn’t even see where the ticket office was supposed to be.

From here we walked back to our apartment and rested some more. We really wanted to take it easy today before our flight tomorrow. About 17:30 we ventured out to the wine bar Vinoteca 900 again for an aperitif. M. wanted to try some limoncello, while I had a glass of pinot grigio wine. The owner of the place brought us complementary nibbles again – taralli biscuits, peanuts, and olives. We expected this as it was the same as last time. But then a bit later he brought us two small wooden boards with bread and meat one them, one with salami, the other prosciutto, dressed with balsamic vinegar. I asked if this was complementary and he said yes.

This made us feel like we should give the guy one of the koalas we’d brought from Australia to give to people who were nice to us. But we’d left the remaining two at the apartment! I dashed back to get one while M. waited – luckily the place was only about 200 metres away. We ordered another wine each, red this time. And he brought us another plate of bread and salami! This was really generous. Other people in the bar were getting food, but they were ordering off the menu and having platters with cheese and stuff – it seemed like we were the only ones just having a drink and getting free food. As we left to settle the bill at the cashier, M. gave the owner the koala and he was delighted and gave her a big hug!

Back at our apartment, I cooked us dinner in tonight, using the leftover groceries from a few days go. I made another frittata, with the eggs and vegetables and Parmigiana cheese. It felt good to have something simple and not as rich and heavy as all the dinners we’ve been having this week!

Then we showered and packed our bags for the flight home. It departs at 10:50, so we need to be out of here by 07:00 and walking over to Spagna to catch a metro train and then the airport express from Termini. So it’s a bit of an earlier night tonight, and a much earlier start tomorrow.

This may be my last chance to post before I get home to Sydney on Monday evening, since we only have a 1:25 change of planes window in Singapore! Hopefully there won’t be any issue with that. In fact I may not post until Tuesday, since we’ll be very tired and want to get to bed quickly.

Europe diary, day 14: Testaccio and the Baths of Caracalla

Friday 17 November

This morning we slept in, with no need to be up and no alarm set. After a leisurely breakfast we set out for the day. The only prior plan we had was a dinner booking at Felice a Testaccio, which I’d booked online before we left home because I’d found sites claiming it had the best cacio e pepe pasta in Rome. We decided to make a day of it in the area around this southern neighbourhood.

Leaving our apartment, we walked to Spagna, the nearest metro station, and caught a train to Termini, then changed to Metro Line B for a train to Piramide. Here we alighted. The station is named Piramide because it’s right near the Pyramid of Cestius, a 37 metre high pyramid built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius around 12 BC. It’s quite impressive and bigger than I thought it would be. From here we walked over to the heart of Testaccio, where our first target was the Mercato di Testaccio.

This is a covered market in a modern-styled building with about 100 stalls. When we entered and walked down the first aisle, all the stalls we saw seemed to be clothing and homewares. But this changed as we covered parallel aisles until it was all a mix of fresh produce, meat and fish, cheeses, other pantry items, and food ready to eat. Out the back of the covered section was an open-air laneway lined on both sides with sweets of various types: torrone nougat, chocolates, truffles, cakes, pastries, and other goodies. A couple of the stallholders encouraged us to try some of their wares, which we did, but we didn’t buy anything as we’ve been having too much sweet stuff throughout this trip.

Instead we found one of the stalls selling pizza slices and grabbed a piece each: M. had one with zucchini and I had one with mushroom, Italian sausage, and fennel seeds, which was really good. I was ordering in Italian and the guy was speaking back to me in English, and at one point he asked (in a good-natured way), “Why are you speaking Italian when I’m speaking English?” I replied, “Sto imparando italiano,” and he gave a smile and a chuckle. At another stall a man was making ravioli by hand, visible through a window in the stall, and I asked (in Italian) if I could take a photo, and he nodded yes, so I got the photo of him crimping the edges of the pasta. I also bought an apple to eat and M. got a napoli-like biscuit which she said tasted like it had liqueur in it.

After this lunch, we left the market and walked over to the Terme di Caracalla, or the Baths of Caracalla, which was a few blocks on the other side of the Pyramid of Cestius. The Baths are an enormous archaeological site, with huge ruins that tower above the ground and sprawl over a large area. There was no queue at the ticket office and we paid our entry fee and walked in, just two of about maybe 30 or 40 people who were visiting the complex at the time. Obviously it was a good time to go, avoiding the high season tourist crowds.

The baths complex includes a large garden, which we explored first, although mostly it was just walkways between grassy areas that gave different viewpoints to the ruins of the enclosing walls and the bath complex building itself. After doing a tour of the garden area we entered the main part – the baths building.

The original building was enormous, with an immensely high ceiling and an upper floor. The upper floor has all collapsed, but part of its mosaic floor survives in large fragments that are arrayed on display around the site. The upper floor mosaics were whit marble and black basalt. The ground floor on the other hand had mosaics in four colours: white marble, yellow Numidian marble, red porphyry, and green porphyry. The floor plan was divided into two large gymnasia, one each on the east and west end of the building. In between, at the front, was the natatio (swimming pool), a large rectangular pool which would have been filled to about belly height with water. At either end of this were large changing rooms. Behind the natatio was the frigidarium (cold water baths), a huge central hall with four large niches containing cold water pools. Being this was the tepidarium, with warm water baths, and behind that the caldarium with hot water baths. And to the sides to the caldarium were multiple saunas. Although partly ruined, the building was still very impressive and awe-inspiring, with the sheer size of the walls with their arched vaults indicating how high the ceiling was.

We left the Baths close to 16:00, when they had stopped letting people in, and a staff member at the gate had to open it to let us out. We walked back towards Testaccio via a different route that took us past the Circo Massimo. Along the way we stopped at a coffee bar for a sit down and a pre-dinner drink. M. had a coffee while I had an Aperol spritz, as one does in Italy. We sat for a good while, resting and relaxing, and making use of the WiFi there.

Eventually we continued walking into the heart of Testaccio, where we did circuits of many of the blocks, looking at the shops and restaurants and parks and other sights, passing the time until our 17:00 dinner booking. We arrived at Felice a Testaccio a few minutes early, and there was a queue of people waiting at the door for it to open. A minute or so after the hour the door unlocked and out stepped a group of waiters. One brandished a tablet and asked people for the reservations and pointed them at tables set out on patio erected along the street, with a tented roof. Other waiters bustled to deliver menus. Within a few minutes they had twenty or so tables of people seated and ordering food. It was a precision dance of activity. It almost seemed that everyone who had arrived at this time was a tourist, although there were a couple of tables sitting near us who seemed to be speaking Italian among themselves.

Waiters took orders efficiently and food started arriving quickly. We began with involtini di melanzane, or what I thought was going to be slices of eggplant rolled up with cheese and tomato sauce. But what arrived was just slices laid flat on the plates. Never mind, it was delicious. And for the main course we of course had to have the tonnarelli cacio e pepe. This was brought to the table with the pasta on the dish topped by grated cheese. The waiter placed it on the table, picked up our fork and spoon, and proceeded to mix the cheese into the pasta, tossing it for about 30 seconds. The result was amazing, really delicious and cheesy with a strong hit of black pepper. I liked it much better than the cacio e pepe that M. had had at da Robertino in Monti before we left for Finland.

We were full after that and left to have a leisurely passeggiata back to our apartment for the night. We walked north through Testaccio, across the Ponte Sublicio bridge to Porta Portese in Trastevere, then wended our way through the streets of that neighbourhood the Ponte Sisto, and back across the Tiber to the Centro Storico. I grabbed some gelato at a place called Elisa in Trastevere, getting mango and choc-mint flavours. A “brave” combination as M. pointed out, but I felt like those flavours.

Eventually we made it back and turned in for the night.

Europe diary, day 13: Orvieto back to Rome

Thursday 16 November

I had real trouble sleeping during the night, I think because my stomach was a bit too full of all that good, rich food from dinner. We got up about 08:30 to have showers and then go out to grab some breakfast before returning to check out of the room. We found a coffee bar just a few steps from where we were staying. M. had a cappuccino and a cornetto with apricot jam, while I just had a plain cornetto. Then we returned to the room to clean up and pack our bags before checking out. Check out time was 10:30, and at 10:20 a woman came up and knocked loudly on our door and when I opened it she reminded us of the time. I said we were nearly ready. A few minutes later we left.

The plan today was to try to visit a few places I’d looked up last night: the Labarinto di Adriano and the Pozzo della Cava, two more underground attractions in various parts of the town, the Torre del Moro, the main clock tower in the centre of town which you can climb to access views from the roof, and the view from a northern lookout at the cliff edge. But the morning was very foggy, with tendrils of mist flowing along the streets of the town and a cold chill in the air. Any views would be unlikely to be any good, so we decided to go to the Labarinto first.

Walking to the marked spot on the map revealed a restaurant called Labarinto di Adriano, which was a bit confusing until we discovered that the caves were beneath and entered via the restaurant! Although the restaurant itself looked closed, we pushed the for open and a man sold us tickets to the cave system beneath. He pointed us down a staircase for the self-guided tour. This took us through 20 separate rooms dug multiple levels deep below the restaurant (and probably some of the adjoining properties). The cave system was only discovered in the 1970s by the owners. It was very interesting in the caves and showed different sorts of uses to the ones we’d visited last night, with many of them being used for wine cellars. There were racks of hundreds of bottles of wine, covered in dust. It wasn’t clear if these were actual bottles for use by the restaurant above, or some sort of old historical bottles that they’d found down there, or if they were prop bottles filled with coloured water for the look of it.

From here we walked over to the lookout spot to the north. On the way we passed through the Piazza del Popolo for the first time, to find a market in full swing. There were fresh produce stalls, cheese and meat trucks, a fishmonger, and several stalls selling cheap clothing and other random household goods. We paused here to get a snack of biscuits at a coffee bar and M. had a coffee. While she was sitting at a table I walked up the steps of the Palazzo Del Capitano Del Popolo to take some photos overlooking the pizza and the market.

After finishing our refreshment, we walked north to the lookout spot over the plains below, but the fog was thick outside the city and we had no view of anything below the level of the hilltop. Given that one of our other planned activities was climbing the tower for the views, we decided to leave this until later in the day and headed to the Pozzo della Cava, another underground cave open to the public. This one had a huge well dug into the cave system, which had two components: an old Etruscan well, narrow and rectangular like the one we saw in the Orvieto Underground yesterday, and intersecting this was a large cylindrical well dig in medieval times. Much of the construction of these medieval things was ordered by various Popes in the 12th and 13th centuries, as they lived much of the time in Orvieto, instead of Rome, and wanted the place to be self-sufficient in terms of water, and also impenetrable to attackers. One of the things Cristiana had told us last night was that the residents of the town had been in the habit of simply tossing any garbage over the side of the cliff, and it had built up to form a slope that attackers could actually climb up to gain access to the hilltop. So one of the other things the Popes ordered was that every house had to dig a garbage pit for its own use. it was fascinating putting all this history together to get an overall picture of how and why all these caves and wells and pits were dug below the town.

By now it was time for lunch and we decided to go back to the same bakery where we’d had the pizzas yesterday, they were so good. M. had a simple tomato slice this time, while I had one with cheese and porcini mushrooms. we also bought some grissini breadsticks to tale with us. They had five savoury flavours: sesame, olive, rosemary, tomato and onion, and cheese. And they also had three sweet varieties! Pistachio and chocolate, raisin and cinnamon, and fruits of the forest. We got one of each savoury one and one of each of the first two sweet ones. We ate the sweet ones straight away and saved the savoury for the train ride back to Rome.

After lunch, we visited the Torre del Moro. There is a small entry fee and you get to climb the tower. There is a lift that lets you shortcut the first couple of floors, but from there it’s stairs all the way to the top, about another 8 or 9 floors by my estimation. It was worth it for the view though. The fog had finally lifted and we had clear views to the horizon in all directions. Also, we were the only ones up there when we arrived, and only after several minutes of walking around the small square rooftop did two groups of two other people arrive.

By now it was getting close to time to head back to the station for our train to Rome, which was scheduled to depart at 15:27. But M. wanted to have a last look at a leather shop near the Duomo, and we also passed a gelato place where M. decided to have a chocolate fondant gelato to help soothe a slightly sore throat, and I chose to try the whisky cream, and ricotta and cinnamon flavours, which were very nice.

So by this circuitous route we eventually found our way back to the funicular station. We expected that it would still be buses replacing the service, but the funicular was operating! A car was leaving just as we arrived, so it would be a few minutes until the next departure. We bought tickets and were the first in the queue to get on, though it wasn’t very full. The ride lasts about two minutes and was a fun experience, sliding down the hill as the other car came back up, passing each other in a section in the middle where the track splits into two to allow the two moving cars to pass one another.

At the station we found our train departure platform and went over there to wait. Orvieto doesn’t see many trains, so despite waiting 20 minutes there were no other services to get confused with. We boarded and found seats, but the train was partly full and there weren’t any pairs of seats facing forward so we sat across an aisle from each other. Later on the man opposite me moved to look out the open doors at one of the intermediate stops, and M. moved over. He came back in but sat somewhere else.

We arrived at Tiburtina in Rome about 16:50. From here we braved the metro to ride to Termini on a crowded peak hour train, then switched to the other line to Spagna, which was a bit less crowded. We walked back to our apartment, stopping at the supermarket on the way to buy some more muesli and milk for breakfasts for the next few days.

After eating a bit we ventured out for dinner. We had a booking at Da Gino Al Parlamento, a small trattoria near the Parliament building. One of M.’s co-workers had recommended this restaurant, so she said we had to try it, and we made the booking a few days ago. When we arrived there was a queue of people waiting for tables and bustling waiters telling them they only had tables outside, where it was fairly chilly tonight. But when we got to the front and said we had a reservation, they showed us to a table inside. It was against a wall and had another table for two up against it, which they pulled apart by about 3 centimetres, and filled with another couple soon after we sat down. Since they were so close we ended up having a bit of conversation with them. They were an older couple from Manchester in England and said they travelled to Rome twice a year and frequently ate in this restaurant.

After last night’s heavy dinner, we ordered a simple mixed salad to start, followed by ravioli with ricotta and spinach for M. and a spaghetti carbonara for me – a dish I’d wanted to have while here, and today was my last chance, since our meals for the next two nights are planned. The salad came split between two bowls for us, and at first we thought we must have gotten two salads instead of just one to share, but at the end of the meal when we got the bill we saw that we were only charged for one salad, so it must have been a really big one and they just put it in two bowls for us. The pasta was really good. And having learnt our lesson with dessert last night, we stopped there. The bill came to 40 euro, which was possibly the smallest we’ve had since we arrived in Europe, though with the current exchange rate that’s still a lot of Australian dollars.

We adopted the Italian passeggiata (leisurely evening stroll) and walked back via the Pantheon to get some night photos, and grabbed a light dessert at Giolitti. I got a lemon and strawberry gelato, which is basically just water, and M. got a small occhcio di bue biscuit with chocolate. And then we walked back to our apartment. The plan is to sleep in without an alarm tomorrow and just get up when we feel we’ve had enough sleep, and then plan what we’re doing for the day after that. We have two days free now to do anything we think of, without pressure to get any specific sightseeing done.

Europe diary, day 12: Orvieto

Wednesday 15 November

It’s been a very busy day. We began waking up with an alarm at… 06:54. I said last night we should get up at 06:55 and I set an alarm. But when morning rolled around, M.’s alarm went off and mine didn’t. The reason: she set hers a minute early just to get in before me!

We got up and had showers and breakfast. We finished off the first batch of muesli and milk, so will need buy more when we come back to Rome tomorrow. Because today we were leaving early to get a train to the town of Orvieto, in Umbria. A train left from Roma Tiburtina station at 09:12, and we had to walk to the Spagna metro station, get a train to Termini, then change metro lines for a train to Tiburtina. We were only carrying overnight bags, leaving our main luggage in the apartment in Rome. At Tiburtina, I used a ticket machine to buy tickets to Orvieto and return tickets for tomorrow. They were cheaper than I expected at about 8 euro each.

We were at Tiburtina with time to spare, so M. got a coffee there, and then we went down to the platform to wait for the train. The one before was going to Venice, and ours was destined for Florence, but we were only going four stops to Orvieto. The train took us out into the countryside around Rome and north to Umbria, eventually to Orvieto. Along the way, first the ticket inspector came to check our tickets. Then later three police officers walked through the train, checking everyone’s ID. I saw them looking at other passengers’ driving licences, and when they got to us I said (in Italian) that we were from Australia and spoke English, and the officer asked in good English to see our passports. He took photos of them and handed them back. We have no idea what they were doing, if it was just a random patrol or if they were actually looking for something.

Orvieto is a medieval hilltop town, built on the remains of an ancient Etruscan settlement, on top of a large plug of volcanic tuff and pozzolanic ash, rising about 160 metres above the surrounding plain. The best way to get from the station into the town, up the hill, is via a funicular railway that operates every 10 minutes. Or at least it does normally. When we got there it was out of service and they were running buses to replace it. We bought tickets and crammed onto a bus with about 70 other people for the 7 or 8 minute journey up the hill. The bus dropped us at the top funicular station.

From here the first thing we did was walk over to the nearby lookout, which gave panoramic views across the Umbrian countryside. After taking several photos, we walked into the centre of the town to find our accommodation. It’s a B&B called Sant’Angelo 42, easy to find since the address is Via Sant’Angelo 42, behind the church of Sant’Angelo. A woman greeted us at the door and took photos of our passports, then showed us to the room. It’s a very nice room, large and with a very large bathroom, all tiled with red clay tiles.

After dropping our bags we went to explore the town, walking down the main street to the piazza and then through to the western end of town, where there was another spectacular view. The town was very quiet, with very few people about. A few locals, an occasional tourist or two, and that was it. It was obviously a good time to come here, out of peak season. Compared to the bustle of Rome, it was a peaceful breath of fresh air. M. spotted a small bakery called La Nostra Terra, where we bought lunch: a zucchini pizzette for M. and a slice of pizza with some sort of ham for me. We also got some biscuits, one with almonds and raisins for me and a couple of tazzetti for M., chocolate and orange. She said the orange one was really good.

We walked west to the medieval quarter of the town, where there were many old houses and walls, built on different levels as the narrow cobbled streets diverged up and down hills. There was another spectacular lookout at the western end of the town, at the top of a medieval wall that led us around to the south, over the top of one of the only two roads that led into the town.

In this area we stumbled on the restaurant Le Grotte del Funaro, which was one of the Orvieto restaurants that Debora had recommended to us. And just a few metres around a corner we found Mezza Luna, another one she recommended. M. liked the look of this one, which was lively with people eating a late lunch. I went in and asked if we could have a dinner reservation, but the staff said they were fully booked for the evening. The place was small, a single room down a set of stairs, with room for maybe 20 cramped diners. So we went back to Le Grotte del Funaro and asked there, securing a dinner booking for 19:30. This place was also downstairs from street level and looked a lot bigger inside.

We walked around the old medieval wall to the south, getting more views and picturesque medieval buildings along the way. We ended up in the Piazza del Duomo, approaching the huge Duomo di Orvieto from a narrow street directly in front which revealed ever more of the enormous facade as we approached. The Duomo is simply stunning, ridiculously large for such a small town, and decorated with rich paintings and gold all over the front facade. The sides are horizontally striped with alternate layers of white travertine and blue-grey basalt, which is repeated in the interior walls and columns. Entry was 5 euro each and worth it to see the magnificent interior with amazing paintings in the chapel. Many of the windows were thin layers of translucent marble instead of glass, letting in some light but opaque from the outside. While here I checked the time for guided tours in English of the Orvieto Underground. The only one in the afternoon was at 17:15, so we said we’d come back and get tickets later.

We continued walking around the southern side of the town, heading to the Pozzo di San Patrizio, the Well of Saint Patrick. This was not far from the upper funicular station where the bus had dropped us. The well is a spectacular circular shaft descending 53 metres straight down into the rock to reach the water level. Twin staircases descend into the well in a double helix, designed that mule teams could go down one staircase, collect water at the bottom, and ascend via the there staircase in a continuous loop. We walked down 248 steps to the bottom, and back up 249 steps to the top. I guess the builders were a little irregular in their step spacing on the two spirals. The views from the arched windows between the staircases and the well shaft were amazing.

After experiencing the well, we walked around more of the town, exploring some of the northern parts this time, although they were a bit more modern and not as interesting as the central areas. This was on the way back to the Piazza del Duomo to get tickets for our 17:15 tour of the Orvieto Underground.After getting ticket, we took a few minutes walk to the nearby lookout to the south. The tour group gathered outside the ticket office to wait for the guide as the sun went down, bathing the Duomo in sunset light.

Our guide appeared, a lively woman named Cristiana, who led the tour group of 23 people towards the same lookout and there through a gate to a path below the top of the cliff. She opened another gate into one of the caves, leading into a large room where she explained the basics of the Orvieto caves. The rock that Orvieto is on is a mixture of volcanic tuff and pozzolanic ash from ancient volcanic eruptions. The Etruscans first built a town on top of the hill around 500 BC, excavating many caves below the surface for use as cellars. It was easy to dig in the soft ash. The town was abandoned for some time and repopulated in medieval times, and the occupants then excavated further caves, digging cellars below their houses for various uses such as crushing grapes and olives for wine and oil, storage, and so on. She said there were around 1200 known caves, and people kept finding more.

Cristiana led us through a series if connected caves, which had been used for a very particular purpose. They were just inside the cliff wall and had open windows which could see out the side of the cliff. Inside the walls were lined with small niches – literal pigeonholes, where the residents would get pigeons to nest. The pigeons could fly out to feed themselves and would return to their nests, giving them free meat. Only the wealthy residents of Orvieto could raise pigeons like this, and they sold some of the meat to the poorer people. More modern passages had been dug through to connect several to these caves, and there were also other rooms used for pressing olive oil and raising and slaughtering livestock.

We went out of this cave system and along the path a bit further to another cave system, this one larger, and with more levels. She showed us an Etruscan well, which was a narrow rectangular shaft, dug by a single worker, with another worker hauling up the loose ash. The worker cut niches in each side of the shaft so they could climb with one foot and one hand each on opposite sides of the shaft. They had to dig these well shafts 90 metres down to reach the water level, which was just amazing to think about.

After this very cool tour, we returned to our room to rest for a little before heading out for dinner. We returned to Le Grotte del Funaro and were led through a system of caves very similar to the ones we’d just toured, although in this case decorated nicely as a restaurant. We were shown a table in one of the interior rooms, which had a small window looking out the side of the cliff. The restaurant looked pretty classy, very different from the noisy vibe of Mezza Luna.

We ordered appetisers of panzaretti—a sort of terrine of fresh vegetables and breadcrumbs, dressed with balsamic vinegar and a “special” olive oil described as having won a 2023 competition for best tasting olive oil—and a dish described as bocconcini di crepes, which was a crepe rolled around a selection of finely julienned vegetables dressed to be something like coleslaw, then cut into bite-sized morsels. These were both good, with the panzaretti being really fresh and crunchy. For our main courses we both selected the ombrichelli pasta, a sort of thick, rustic spaghetti with some variation in cross-section. M. had pesto sauce and I had mine with Orvieto black truffle. M. described hers as the best pasta she’s ever had in her life! I tried a little and it tasted like it was loaded with pecorino cheese. The truffle pasta was good, but not the best I’ve ever had. After this we decided to have dessert. I had apple strudel, which came with whipped cream and caramel sauce – unusual, but the caramel suited the apples. M. had tozzetti and vin santo, the classic dessert of Italian biscuits and a glass of sweet dessert wine to dip them in. Although she really just wanted the biscuits and let me have the wine.

After dinner we walked slowly back to our room for the night, very full but very satisfied with an excellent dinner.

Europe diary, day 11: Trastevere market tour

Tuesday 14 November

This morning we had a market walking tour booked at 10:30. So we took the chance to sleep in a little, then got up and had muesli for breakfast, showered, and got ready for the day. We walked slowly over to Trastevere, where we’d be meeting our tour host. This is another thing booked via the same website as last night’s dinner with Debora.

Before leaving the apartment we dropped in some laundry to be washed at the laundromat next door. We found it there when we arrived and it’s very handy being so close. Then we made our way slowly towards Trastevere. M. stopped for her morning coffee at a bar along the way.

We arrived at Piazza di San Calisto and found the correct door and intercom buzzer. But ringing it didn’t produce any results. We tried again a couple more times with no luck. The door was actually open, so we ventured inside, found the correct door and buzzed there, but again no answer. After eating for a bit, we decided to call the phone number that came with the booking. I had to activate my mobile roaming to do so, but it was worth it as our tour host answered and immediately asked if it was David. I said yes, we were waiting at Piazza di San Calisto, and she apologised and said she’d made a mistake and was waiting at another location! She said she had two places where she did market tours and had gotten mixed up, and she’d come right over if we would wait 15 minutes. So we waited in the piazza while two men got set up with guitars and an amplifier and began playing, and many other people walked to and fro.

After a while our host Michela showed up, and again apologised for the delay. We got right into it and walked over to… the small produce market that we’d visited ourselves here in Trastevere at Piazza di San Cosimato on Monday last week! Not that this was a problem, because this time Michela stopped at several stalls with us and explained the various Italian vegetables and when they were in season and how to cook them and so on. In particular the artichokes are not quite in season yet, and there’s been problems with tomatoes and porcini mushrooms this year because the summer was so rainy. She explained about broccoletti – a leafy green related to the broccoli family, with a slightly bitter taste, that goes well with pasta and cheese. We also watched as the stall holders cut and prepared various vegetables, such as peeling outer petals and washing artichokes, stripping leaves off broccoletti, and using a wire mesh tool to slice things into sticks. Michela grabbed a bag of cherry tomatoes for herself and got us to try one each. She also grabbed us some clementines to try. She helped M. peel hers while I struggled a little. After eating the sweet, tangy fruit my hands were covered in the fragrant oil, and Michela rubbed hers into her own hands and smelled them and declared it beautiful.

From here she led us down a street. She said she’d take us to the best cheese shop in Trastevere. We stopped at a delicatessen, where we got to try small pieces of Roman-style pizza – not too big because she didn’t want to fill us up just yet! M. had one with just tomato sauce on it, while they sliced fresh porchetta to put on mine. It was salty and delicious. Lastly was a piece of coppiette, a type of cured pork jerky with chilis. It was very tough and chewy and very spicy, with a chilli hit that lasted for quite a while. Not bad, but not really my kind of thing because it was so meaty. But we were wondering if this was the cheese shop – it had some cheese, but was mostly meats.

But then Michela took us further along and we walked into what was definitely the cheese shop. The aroma of strong cheeses hit us as we walked in the door and there were dozens of huge wheels and balls and wedges of cheese arrayed all around the shop. There were giant cylinders of pecorino, stacked on steel trays with tall lips. Michela said we could tell they were true pecorino by the black wax coating, and the steel trays. As the cheeses mature, water drains from them into the trays, and the cheese loses some weight. So the amount of cheese you get for the weight varies with the age of the pecorino. She ordered us a tasting plate of cheeses and salume. There was a mild cheese, some pecorino, and Parmigiano Reggiano. And for me there were samples of a mild salami, prosciutto, cinghiale (wild boar) salami, and truffle salami, all of which were pretty nice.

I told Michela I was learning Italian, but having trouble thinking of what to say quickly, and listening to people speaking rapidly. I needed them to slow down so I could understand the words. So she very patiently conversed with me several times throughout the tour in nice, slow Italian, which made it much easier to understand.

Next we stopped in at a suppli shop called Suppli Roma, selling several varieties of these deep fried rice balls that are very typical Roman street food. They also sold pizza slices, but Michela said we had to try the suppli. For M. there was a choice between cacio e pepe, or cacio e pepe with lemon. I was intrigued by the carbonara, but Michela recommended the classico, which was filled with mozzarella and ragu. I also got to try a little of the cacio e pepe without lemon because Michela had one of those and a piece fell off and she said I should try it. And then she urged me to try the carbonara as well! She was covering the costs of all this food, by the way – presumably she had a budget taken out of the price we’d paid for booking the tour with her. So I tried the carbonara suppli as well, which was good, with gooey egg yolk in the middle, but honestly I think I did prefer the classico. By the time we were done here M. and I were both quite full enough for lunch.

But we weren’t done yet! Michela asked which option we preferred to end the tour on: tasting some wine, or visiting a gelateria. I knew M. wouldn’t want gelato, so we chose the wine options. Michela took us to Trapizzino, which is a newish place serving Roman food with a twist: they make fresh focaccia-like bread, then cut a corner and stuff it with various traditional Roman dishes: chicken cacciatore, eggplant parmigiana, meatballs in tomato sauce, beef tongue in salsa verde. Michela snagged a table for us and recommended some wines, a red Sangiovese/Syrah blend and a white Malvasia. Too full to try a trapizzino each, we ordered one eggplant parmigiana one and shared it. The bread was really delicious, with a thin crunchy crust, and the filling was rich and hearty. The wines were nice too.

And here Michela wished us well and said goodbye. We sat and watched the world pass by as we finished our glasses of wine. Very relaxing and a nice way to end this marvellous food tour. From here we had nothing else planned until our dinner booking at 19:30. So we slowly wended our way back to the apartment. We first went back to a clothing shop that M. wanted to revisit in Trastevere, then made our way to the Ponte Cestio and across to the Isola Tiberina island in the middle of the Tiber River. There’s not much on this island – a hospital, and the Basilica di San Bartolomeo all’Isola. We’d gone inside this church on a previous visit and I recalled there being some worthwhile decorations inside, so we walked up to see it again, but it was closed.

So we continued on across the Ponte Fabricio, the oldest extant bridge in Rome, built in 62 BC. Then we walked slowly back north, stopping a few times to look in shops, churches, and for M. to get a coffee. An item on our to-see list was the Galleria Sciarra, an Art Nouveau courtyard little known to tourists, despite being just a few steps from the Trevi Fountain. It is in fact a private courtyard and so looks like a place you can’t enter, but it is open to the public during business hours as a passage between two streets. It was beautiful inside, and indeed empty, with nobody else there to admire the view while we were there. Exiting the north side we could see the crowds of tourists just a short block away on the heavily trod trail between the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon.

We made our way back to the apartment and rested for a bit before dinner. We had a booking at Ristorante Laganà, just around the corner from our apartment. We ordered vegetable antipasti, which was a plate of marinated eggplant, zucchini slices, red capsicum strips, thinly sliced fennel, cauliflower florets, and I think what might have been cabbage, though it could easily have been something else. The waiter brought a pepper grinder and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil for us to dress the vegetables, or the bread which came with it. There was a warm flatbread with the starter, and when we’d finished that they brought a basket of slices of a loaf plus grissini bread sticks. M. had linguini with tomato and basil sauce, and I had the mixed grilled seafood, which had a piece of white fish, a large prawn, a scampi, and a chunk of calamari, cooked very nice and tender. I ordered a side of boiled green leaves (a mix of chicory, spinach, and something else) to go with the seafood. It was all nice and a good change from the heavier food we’ve been having a lot of on the trip so far!

We skipped dessert and came back to the apartment for bedtime. I finished off the crostata that I’d started a couple of nights ago, and which was big enough for two desserts! Tomorrow we need to get up a little early because we have a train to catch to Orvieto!

Europe diary, day 10: Trionfale market and Italian home cooking

Monday 13 November

We went to bed a little early last night and got up this morning around sunrise at 07:00. It was muesli for breakfast again. It’s good to have something with some fibre in it and not so much sugar. The Italian breakfast of a sweet pastry filled with jam or Nutella is nice for a day or two, but gets too much very quickly. We didn’t have solid plans for the day, so figured out what to do.

First up we decided to catch the metro from Spagna to San Giovanni to take a look at two things: the Mercato di Via Sannio flea market, and the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano. We’ve seen these before last time we were in Rome in 2014, but M. wanted to have another look to reinforce the memories and also check out the market to see if there was anything food there. We tried the market first, but it was a little empty and not busy, as though half the stalls were still yet to set up, despite it being an hour after the market opening time. Maybe some of them take Monday off. Overall it was a bit disappointing and not as interesting as M. remembered from last time. M. stopped to have a cappuccino in the same coffee bar that she’d had one last time.

The Basilica on the other hand was impressive all over again. It’s a huge church, spacious and with a very high ceiling, and splendid marble floors in intricate designs and multiple colours. We arrived early enough that it was virtually empty. We had to pass through a security check to get in, but the x-ray machine wasn’t even switched on and the lady police officer there just lazily waved us through the metal detector without giving us a second look. As we wandered around inside for some time, a few more people arrived, and we left just as a large tour group arrived, so our timing was perfect.

We quickly looked in at the market again on the way back to the metro station, in case more stalls had opened up, but it was only a few if any, with several still closed up. So we hopped on a train and rode north again, this time across the Tiber River to the Ottaviano stop in Prati, north of the Vatican. Here we explored the neighbourhood briefly as we made our way towards the Mercato Trionfale. But on the way I had to stop to use a toilet and so we stood in a coffee bar and had drinks and a small bite to eat: cappuccino and a bite-size occhio di bue with apricot jam topped with cereal grains for M. and a spremuta orange juice and occhio with blueberry jam for me. Then after using the toilet we headed to the market.

The Mercato Trionfale is a large covered market with about 200 stalls selling fresh produce, meats, fish, cheese, bread, pastries and cakes, pasta, spices, honey, and other foodstuffs, as well as a few businesses like tailors, shoemakers, pharmacists, hairdressers, and so on. It was really good, with lots of interesting and delicious looking things to see. We tried several types of pecorino at one stall, with truffle, pepper, chilli, and so on.

We bought several things to eat! We got a small bag of toasted almonds and a bag of vegetable chips. We tried these back at our apartment later and the chips were delicious – dried slices of potato, pumpkin, carrot, square fingers of sweet potato, and dried green beans, all very crispy. We also bought a couple of apples for later too. But then there were the things we bought to eat right away! We got a few little biscuits and sweets: shortbread biscuits with jam or Nutella, bite-sized pastries, a pastry filled with mozzarella and chicory for M., and little pizzette topped with tomato paste or potato, and I had one topped with caramelised onion and pulled pork which was really delicious. And after we’d browsed around to see everything the market had to offer, we stopped at a bakery for some pizza al taglio. We selected a slice topped with potato, which the woman warmed up in a mini oven for us. We sat and shared it on stools against the wall, as a queue formed and the place bustled with people ordering slices non-stop. There were a few other places in the market selling pizza but this one was clearly the busiest, so presumably it was a good one. The potato pizza was really delicious.

From the market we began walking back to our apartment. We chose a different route, passing through St Peter’s Square at the Vatican again, since it was close and my walking tracker app hadn’t registered that I’d been in the Vatican City last time. I wanted to make sure it did so, because that unlocks a traveller achievement for another whole country! What a reason to make a detour.

We rested back in the apartment for a couple of hours before heading out for our dinner booking. I’d organised a surprise for M. by booking a dining evening with a local host, who would cook dinner for us in her own home. The address was in the Prati area, just north of Cipro metro station, not too far from where we’d been this morning at the Trionfale market. We walked towards it by a different, shorter route, through more of the Prati shopping area. At the Ponte Umberto I across the Tiber, we picked up a large group of young people, early 20s, maybe university students, all walking together in the same direction as us. We were stuck in the middle of this cloud of students for several blocks, and wondered where they were all going. I said they must be going to a rave, and M. said I sounded like an old person!

The main street of Prati looked like a very nice shopping area for fashion and things like that. M. stopped in at a place called Be Curious and bought a sparkly dress with a geometric pattern in shades of brown. Everything here in the fashion stores is brown at the moment. Clearly the fashionistas have decided that this season’s colours are brown, brown, and more brown. We had left with plenty of time to get to our dinner destination, so we dawdled a bit and browsed in shops, yet still found ourselves near the area around Cipro with almost half an hour to spare. So we added a few extra blocks to our meandering.

M. noticed that the area was getting distinctly less commercial and more residential, with apartment blocks everywhere. She started to get concerned about where I was taking her for dinner and asked me to spit the surprise. I told her about the dinner with a local host and she was excited. We showed up at the address a few minutes early, and didn’t want to commit an Italian faux pas by buzzing the door any earlier than the appointed time, so we waited a few minutes. Then as we approached the door, another couple walked up and asked if we were doing the EatWith dining, and we said yes. The booking said it could be up to ten people dining, so I expected we might have some others joining us. It turned out they were the only ones and there were four of us plus our host.

We went up to the fourth floor of the apartment building in a tiny lift that barely fit the four of us inside. Debora, our host for the evening, welcomed us at the door and took our coats, then we had introductions. The other couple were Chester and Mary from Korea, on their honeymoon. They’d arrived in Rome at midnight less than 24 hours before, were fighting jet lag, and tomorrow they had to be up and at Termini station by 06:20 for a gruelling day trip to the Amalfi Coast! We said that one our first trip to Italy we did crazy stuff like that, but now we were a lot more relaxed.

Debora’s home was beautiful inside, very spacious, with a large kitchen along a wall facing a large dining table which was laid at one end for the four of us. But first she asked us to sit in the lounge area, and brought nibbles of focaccia with tomato sauce and offered white or red wine. After a bit of an introductory chat we moved to the dining table, where Debora alternately chatted and turned to the kitchen bench to prepare the food for us.

The first dish was eggplant caponata, chopped with olives, lemon, and perhaps something else, left to develop flavours overnight, and topped with a sprinkle of chopped almonds to serve. Next was ravioli, filled with a pecorino stuffing, and served with pepper and diced pears – a fresh twist on the classic Roman cacio e pepe pasta. The main dish was a swordfish terrine, made with capers, raising, and breadcrumbs, topped with a spicy sauce made mostly of red capsicum, with romanesco broccoli on the side. For M. Debora made a vegetarian zucchini flan instead. And to finish, there was tiramisu for dessert, except for me she made a lemon cream topped with pistachio for me as I don’t do coffee at all.

During the meal we learnt that Debora had worked as a chef for a few years before giving up on working in a restaurant and moving to this home dinner hosting thing. All of the food she made was very good. She made the ravioli herself, with a mix of half flour and half semolina. She said it didn’t need a sauce on it because ravioli is all about the stuffing, and she didn’t like it when people put loads of tomato sauce on ravioli. She was an excellent host, serving the for, explaining the ingredients and how she made it, and why she chose those dishes, using seasonal ingredients and her own twist on classic Italian cooking styles from various regions of the Italy, and topping up our wine glasses. And she talked about the differences in food culture between countries, and was very fascinated with insights on Korean cuisine that Chester talked about. Debora said that breakfast was very different in Italy: people stand at the counter in a coffee bar and have a coffee and a cornetto and it costs 3.50 euro and it’s very quick: “Italians have breakfast in four minutes! Maybe three!”

The dinner was leisurely and enjoyable, but that meant it went fairly late. Debora’s adult son came home later in the evening and said hello to us. He apologised that he hadn’t been able to join us for dinner because he’d been playing a soccer match. It was approaching 23:00 when Chester said that they needed to leave so they could get up for their day trip in the morning. We said our goodbyes and M. presented Debora with a little toy koala that we’d brought from home.

We had earlier thought we’d have the option of hopping on the metro from Cipro to Spagna and having a shorter walk home, but the metro is stopping at 21:00 every night at the moment because of maintenance. So we walked all the way, choosing the most direct route. We got home and it was almost midnight by the time we were ready to sleep.

Europe diary, day 9: food shopping, walking tour of Monti

Sunday 12 November

I woke up a bit early but M. slept in until after 08:00. We had leisurely breakfast (the muesli we bought yesterday on the way to the apartment) and showers. The shower stall is so narrow that I couldn’t raise my leg to wash my foot like I normally do, and had to kneel down on the floor instead.

First up this morning we went to the market in Campo de’ Fiori to buy some fresh vegetables for cooking our own dinners. I searched for other farmers’ markets or fresh produce markets, but all of the ones near here were closed on Sunday. We walked down to the Campo via Piazza Navona, which wasn’t too busy that early in the morning. At Campo de’ Fiori we found a vegetable stall and selected a romanesco broccoli, an eggplant, an onion, a couple of tomatoes, and a couple of apples. The woman looked askance at the tomatoes and pinched off some stalks of fresh basil to add to the bag, free of charge. Clearly you can’t buy tomatoes in Rome without getting basil as well! We looked for fresh chilis, but none of the stalls seemed to have any. I also bought a small chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from a cheese vendor. I tried asking if he could cut a small piece, explaining that we’re only in Rome for a week and will only be cooking two or three times, but it seemed all the cheese was pre cut and wrapped and they wouldn’t cut chunks to demand. But the second cheese seller I approached had one smaller chunk wrapped in cling wrap in the display and I asked if I could have that, so he sold it to me.

M. stopped to have a coffee at a cafe-bar and said it was really good. We walked back past the Pantheon, and I tried again to duplicate the photo of M. standing in front of it that we took in 2001:


and again in 2012, eleven years to the day later:

Pantheon, 11 years exactly

We’re here again eleven years later again, but not to the day, alas, as those photos were both taken in April. I used the old 2001 photo on my phone as a reference and think I was standing in pretty much exactly the same spot. It was difficult in 2012 because they’d put giant concrete flower boxes in the spot to act as traffic barriers, but this time they were gone again, so that was good.

I popped into a supermarket near the Pantheon to get some eggs and also some shower gel/shampoo for use in the shower. I looked again for chilis, but they didn’t have any either. Very weird. That was all we needed because I’d checked the kitchen cupboards before we left and found some essentials: olive oil, salt, pepper, white wine vinegar, Nestlé Quik chocolate powder, and… a can of tuna for some reason. I dropped the food at the apartment while M. went back to a clothing shop to buy the vest that she had her eye on before we went to Finland. Then she brought that back to the apartment as well and we decided what to do for the day. We wanted to take it a bit easy, and I found a walking tour of Monti in the Lonely Planet guidebook of Rome, which we thought would be good.

We set out walking over that way to the south-east, taking streets we hadn’t explored before and enjoying the sights along the way as we meandered across the city. On the way we stopped at Antica Trattoria Due Colonne for lunch, getting panini. M. had a caprese filling while I tried a sausage and chicory. The caprese had heaps of mozzarella and she removed a bit to share with me, and I added it to my sandwich. The sausage meat was a flat patty, served hot with wilted chicory leaves. They were pretty good.

We continued on to Monti, passing behind the back side of Trajan’s Forum on the way. The walking tour took us along streets in the blocks east of Via dei Serpenti (the Street of Snakes!), where there were many shops and food places and interesting things to look at. Some of them were closed for Sunday, but enough were open that it was interesting to stop and check them out. I grabbed some gelato from Gelateria dell’Angeletto. I picked a cup size that I thought would be good for two flavours, and chose the cheesecake with raspberry and the ricotta and chocolate. But the guy insisted I choose a third flavour, even when I told him two flavours would be fine. So I quickly picked banana and he added a third spatula-load on top. They were all very good.

We stopped in at Antico Forno ai Serpenti (Ancient Oven of the Snakes!) and grabbed some sweet bites. M. had a biscotto with chocolate chips, while I had a sfogliatella, with crispy layers of pastry around a custardy filling. We ended up finishing the walking tour at Bookàbar, a book store hidden inside the lower level of a huge building, the Palazzo delle Esposizioni. This is a strange place, with exits from the book store leading into a basement warren of square tunnels that house a cafeteria and toilets and exhibition spaces. M. felt like another coffee so we explored around a block to find a likely place and stopped at a small cafe-bar that we stumbled across. M. said it was fine, but not as good as the morning coffee.

We were near the Quirinale Gardens, and decided to see if we could go have a look at those. We’ve never seen them on previous visits, and it’s never been clear to me how to get access to them, as they are on a hilltop and all of the surrounding streets seem to be many metres below the garden, facing impenetrable walls that give no access to the garden above. We walked around about 75% of the perimeter, but found no way to get in. Looking it up after we returned to the apartment I found that the only way in is through the Palazzo Quirinale, which we didn’t go past. But it’s not open on Sundays or Mondays, so we wouldn’t have been able to go in today anyway.

We wended our way back to the apartment slowly, taking different streets to explore more. On the way past the Antico Forno bakery I stopped in to get a loaf of bread to have with out dinner. They were big loaves but the price was listed per kilo and I saw one cut in half, so I asked for a half loaf, which the man was happy to give me. We arrived back a bit before 17:00.

M. suggested we could find a wine bar or something to have a drink before cooking dinner for ourselves tonight. I searched and found Vinoteca 900 just a few blocks away, which opened at 17:00. We actually went about half an hour after that, and found the place empty. Clearly that’s too early for pre-dinner drinks when most of the restaurants don’t even open until 19:30 or 20:00. We had a glass of red wine each. M. requested something light and dry, and the server suggested a wine and had me taste it. I asked M. if she wanted to taste it, but she said she trusted me. I thought it was good and the sort of wine she’d like, so had the server pour her a glass. I chose a Nebbiolo for myself, which was also pretty good. The wines came with a complimentary plate of nibbles: taralli, olives with small pieces of preserved lemon, and salted peanuts, all in tiny bowls on a long oval plate, with another empty bowl for the olive pits.

As we nibbled and drank, one of the staff put on a live soccer match, Lazio versus Roma. All the staff plus some men who just seemed to hang around outside the bar watching the TV screen were transfixed by it, and cheered when Roma apparently scored a goal, but the referee disallowed it for some reason that was entirely unclear to me. Three ladies sat at a table outside and ordered wine as well, the only other customers to arrive before we left to head home. On the way we stopped in at Antico Forno once again to get some dessert for me. We got a slice of the crostata, which the sign said had frutta secca (dried fruit).

At the apartment, I chopped up the vegetables we’d bought this morning and cooked a frittata, with fresh basil leaves and shavings of Parmigiano on top. It took some preparation and was tricky juggling the minuscule amount of kitchen space to organise. When it was ready I had to call M. to come grab her plate to make space, while I had my hands full serving my own plate with no flat surface left to put it down on. The result was pretty good though, with lovely fresh bread sliced and drizzled with olive oil.

Later as I typed up this diary entry I tried the crostata. I’m not sure about dried fruit as such, but it was rich with walnuts and had a layer of raspberry jam on the bottom and apricot on top of the nuts. Very sweet, but delicious. I only ate half and will save the other half for another night.

Europe diary, day 8: travel day, Tampere to Helsinki to Rome

Saturday 11 November

I’ve figured out why Finns like saunas so much. It’s not for the heat, it’s for the humidity. The cold air outside is humid with the rain, but the temperature is so much warmer indoors that the relative humidity is very low, and it’s playing havoc with my sinuses and mucus membranes. I was sniffling with a scratchy nose during the night and it’s a bit uncomfortable.

Today was another travel day. We got up about 06:30 and had breakfast, then prepared to leave our apartment accommodation in Tampere. We washed the dishes, stripped the bed linen, and placed all the linen and towels on the bathroom floor as instructed. We also had to take the garbage out, and the instructions said the bins were found in the apartment courtyard. I went out to find them and had to search a bit to locate the courtyard. I out plastic into a recycling bin, but the paper and general garbage were supposed to go into huge rectangular things like giant garbage skips – except they had heavy metal lids and were hooked up to power, apparently to open and close the lids hydraulically. There were a series of buttons on the side and instructions… in Finnish. I tried a few things but nothing worked. Eventually I noticed a handle on the general bin and tried using that to force the lid open, which managed to do the trick. I tossed the rubbish in, but then had to figure out how to close the lid as it was now too far away to reach. But I spotted a rope attached to it and used that to pull the lid down and closed again.

That task done, we checked we’d packed everything and left the apartment, leaving the key on the dining table. We walked over to the train station and bought tickets to Helsinki. I tried using the ticket machine to select seats next to each other, but every single window seat on the train was booked, except for some in the first class cabin which would have cost extra. So we ended up with seats across the aisle from each other again. But when the train pulled out, the window seat next to M. was still empty, and the first stop was over an hour away, so I moved over. But I noticed a weird smell there, which was unpleasant. I went for a walk around the carriage, going downstairs to a section that was for passengers travelling with dogs. Down there were plenty of seats free. M. checked them out and suggested we move down there, which we did, and it was much more pleasant away from the weird smell. M. said she thought it was the guy sitting in the seat in front of us. Anyway, I’m glad we moved.

The trip was just over 1.5 hours long, with only a couple of stops in the suburbs of Helsinki before depositing us at Helsinki central station. We found a luggage storage room and left our bags there for a few euro. The lockers were self-operated using an electronic system, and we had a ticket with a QR code to open the locker when we got back.

We walked out of the station and down the main street towards the park. The day was very dim and grey, but thankfully no rain, and a few degrees warmer than Tampere but still very cold. Shops were just opening as it had just turned 10:00. Many were decorated for Christmas, and there were many trees with lights in the streets. On our way back to the station later we saw workers hanging large wire-frame baubles with lights on cables above the street.

After turning the gentle corner into the park and walking down that a bit we decided it was more interesting to walk along the street shopfronts. M. stopped at a patisserie and we got some snacks. She got a gingerbread pastry and I had one with lingonberries. Both were delicious. We continued walking to the end of the park, where there was an open plaza on the waterfront, with several market stalls selling wooden and fabric crafts, souvenirs, clothing, and so on. There were some stalls selling hot food, and these had small marquees erected with tables and chairs inside so people could eat out of the cold. I went into one to have a look and it was warm inside. One stall was selling salmon soup, which M. said was a Finnish specialty and that I should try it somewhere, but we were full from the pastries, so I didn’t, even though it sounds good.

It started to rain lightly and we put our umbrellas up. We walked back along the other side of the street, stopping in a souvenir shop to get out of the cold for a bit. Among the usual sort of souvenir stuff they had a display full of amber jewellery, and also some amber dice. They looked cool, and not too expensive, so I bought half a dozen to use for games. M. stopped in a craft shop to look around and bought some small souvenir items to give to people back home. The whole time we were in that shop, several minutes, there was a lady serving a customer, sitting in front of a mirror, with multiple layers of cloth of different colours laid over her shoulders. The assistant was talking rapidly in Finnish, presumably about the colour matching with the customer’s complexion and eyes and hair or whatever, and then switching the coloured fabrics to show how they coordinated.

Further along we stopped at a cafe for M. to get some coffee. It was busy with people having late breakfasts and there was a huge buffet of stuff. We realised this cafe was part of a hotel. We went to use the toilets one at a time, and finding them a maze of navigation, going along some corridors, downstairs, and through more twisty corridors. After finishing her coffee, we left to walk back to the station and reclaim our luggage. Then we just had to work out how to get to the airport.

We found some green ticket machines, and I searched for the airport as a destination, only for the machine to tell me that tickets to the airport could be bought from the blue ticket machines. The green machines are for long distance trains and the blue ones for commuter services. The problem was there were no blue machines anywhere in sight. We had to search for them, and found some out near the platforms. We got tickets and then walked out to the platform for the next train to the airport. It stopped at several stops on the way, taking just over half an hour to get there.

At the airport we went straight in through the security check, which had no queues. Then we stopped at a cafe that had some nice looking sandwiches and other things. M. got a rye sandwich with cheese and egg and salad, while I had a spicy falafel bowl, which included some fruit salad on the side. When I bought them, the woman behind the counter asked if I’d like dressing for the falafel bowl. I said yes and she said they had peanut butter, tahini, or lemon dressing. I chose the tahini, and she poured some from a container into a fancy porcelain milk jug for me. In fact, the whole decor of the cafe was a bit grandmother’s living room, with my falafel salad in a fancy porcelain bowl, and lots of flowers and frilly things around. They also had some amazing looking cakes, with mounds of pink icing and stuff like that.

To pass the time we both went off individually to look around for a bit. Eventually we moved over to the departure gate for our flight to Rome. The plane was parked outside the windows and it looked even smaller than the one we’d come to Helsinki on. It’s an Embraer ERJ-190. On the previous flight we had seats in row 40-something, most of the way down the back. This time we are in row 13, and I thought we’d be right up the front of the plane, but it turns out we’re about halfway back. Once again we enjoyed the complimentary blueberry juice on board, and had a pack of Pringles that we’d brought all the way from Australia to snack on during flights.

The sun went down as the plane crossed Europe towards Italy. We landed, exited the airport, and once again got tickets for the Leonardo Express to Termini Station – after wrestling with a recalcitrant ticket machine in the airport terminal that refused to give two people in front of us tickets, and also refused to accept my credit card for payment. I tried again at a machine closer to the station and that worked smoothly. The train to Termini ran pretty slowly, and arrived something like 15 minutes later than it should have.

This time, at Termini we went down to the Metro lines and caught a train three more stops to Spagna, the closest stop to our new accommodation. From here we walked down Via dei Condotti towards our apartment for the next week. We tried to book the same apartment that we stayed in when in Rome in 2012, but it didn’t seem to be available any more. But I managed to find another one just a block or two away, in the area north of the Pantheon.

We located the door on a small, dark alley, and had to use the torch on our phones to see the labels on the door buzzer to find which one would let us in. Inside was pitch dark until we located the light switch, again using the torch. At the apartment door was a lock box with the key inside, and I entered the combination in our check-in email and after some fiddling with the metal gate that is in front of the wooden door, managed to get us inside. The apartment is nice. A little rustic, but in a nice antique sort of way, rather than tired and run down. There’s an ornamental electric fireplace that just looks pretty and apparently doesn’t provide any heat at all.

After dropping our things, we ventured out for dinner, it being just after 20:00 by now. It turns out that one of the restaurants we grabbed a business card from earlier in the week, thinking we should go there one night, is literally just around the corner from where we are staying! So we tried that first, Ristorante Laganà, but got rejected without a reservation. So we continued the half block or so to Ristorante Pizzeria La Segrete. Here we got a table right away in the tiny dining room – they also had many tables set up on the street outside.

We ordered some bruschetta semplice (i.e. garlic bread), a pizza margherita for M., and a pizza “La Segrete” for me, which had Italian sausage and mixed vegetables on it, mainly zucchini, eggplant, red capsicum, and mushrooms. The pizzas were pretty good, with paper thin crusts. After paying the bill we went for a walk to Gelateria della Palma. I got a cup which I assumed would hold two flavours, but the guy serving me kept asking me for more flavours until I had four: sesame and honey, crunchy black cherry, hazelnut, and pistachio.

From here we walked back slowly to our apartment. Passing by Laganà again, I popped in and made a dinner booking for us for Tuesday night. Once back in the apartment we prepped for sleep. We’ve moved an hour back in time zones again, so it feels later than it is, and perhaps we’re likely to wake up early tomorrow, although we feel very tired so hopefully we can use the time to grab an extra hour of sleep!

Oh, and the weather in Rome is thankfully warmer and more humid than in Tampere! My nose feels much better.

Europe diary, day 7: Museums and brewery

Friday 10 November

We woke up around 04:00 but went back to sleep. I was wake about 07:00 but M. snoozed until almost 08:00. I got up and had breakfast before heading out to this morning’s meeting session. The weather had changed overnight, getting a couple of degrees warmer with a light rain and some wind. Still chillingly cold though!

The meeting began with technical sessions on low light camera performance, digital camera specifications (a revision to update definitions of pixel-related terms), ISO DNG, and autofocus repeatability. After these we moved on to the closing administrative material, discussing the exact dates of the next meeting on Tokyo. This was complicated by the desire to have an International Colour Consortium meeting in conjunction the days prior to the ISO meeting, which pushed things into the Emperor’s Birthday holiday in Japan, making the Japanese delegates very upset. So there was some schedule juggling to be done. Then it was into summaries of all the ad hoc discussions, action items, and editing and adoption of meeting resolutions.

The meeting paused for lunch and I just grabbed a cheese sandwich on a type of rye bread roll from the restaurant downstairs in the conference building – something light because I knew I’d be meeting M. soon afterwards and we’d go to the Tampere Market Hall so I could experience it, and try some of the snacks on offer there. Also I didn’t fancy venturing outside today in the rain.

For dinner tonight I tried booking the brewery Plevna, which only accepted bookings by phone or email. They emailed back and said they only had a 20:00 slot available, which was a bit late for us. So I fell back to our other possible choice, the bistro Kattila, and booked that online for 19:00.

The meeting wrapped up a bit before 14:00. I headed back to the apartment, via the shoe repair guy. Again I used Google Translate to prepare a message for him, saying that my other shoe had suffered the same fate and that I thought it must be the cold weather doing it, because it never gets this cold in Sydney. He nodded sagely and took my shoe to repair while I waited. As I sat, with one bare sock on my right foot, a man walked in and started talking to the owner in Finnish as the owner worked on my shoe. He paused his work to come and speak to the man, who took of his own right shoe and showed him. His sole was peeling off just like mine! The shoe man took the shoe and told the customer to sit on the seat next to me, then returned to finish working on my shoe. The other customer spoke to me in English, saying that the owner had told him I was from Australia. So we chatted for a few minutes until the cobbler reappeared with my fixed shoe. Today he charged me 15 euro, probably because after I gave him my shoe he applied minimal effort and the entire sole peeled away, resulting in an even worse state than yesterday’s shoe. Anyway, now at least my shoes are fixed and should hopefully survive to the end of the trip.

M. met me at the apartment and we walked off together through the light rain to the Tampere Market Hall, where M. showed me around, pointing out her favourite stalls where she had bought snacks and meals in the past three days. One of the stallholders recognised her and M. said she’d brought me to try some of the things. I was hungry because I only had a light lunch. I chose a small potato-filled pastry, a rounded bun filled with meat and rice, and a kind of cross between a Danish and a bagel, filled with quark cheese and apple jam. I ate the savouries, then we wandered around the whole market hall so I could see everything, and then we paused to eat the sweet pastry, and M. grabbed one with just apple jam as well from a different stall. The place had dozens of food stalls, selling bread, pastries, cakes, chocolates, fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, cheese. And there were also small cafes and restaurants scattered among them. It was a nice place and you could easily spend an afternoon there grazing on things.

We decided to set off to a museum to spend the rest of the afternoon. I’d located what looked like a complex of six different museums in one area and thought that would be good. We walked north and over a new bridge across the river, this one showing off a torrent as water spilled from the lake to the north of the city down some rapids towards the lower river near the bridge further south. Across here we found the Museokeskus Vapriikki, which turned out to be multiple small “museums” in one building, covered by a single entrance fee. Normally it cost 15 euro, but on Fridays after 15:00 entry was free! And since it was about 15:20 when we arrived, this was great!

We left our coats and hats and gloves and scarves and umbrellas in the coat room area, putting the smaller things in a free locker which had Marilyn Monroe on the door. Most of the lockers were plain, but about one in every twenty or so had an interesting picture on it. We made our way through the various exhibits, the first being the Postal Museum, a historical museum tracing the development of the Finnish postal service, from runners and horse-drawn carts, through boats that crossed the Gulf of Bothnia from Finland to Sweden by a combination of sled runners across the sea ice and sailing where the ice broke up, to modern day postal services.

Next was the Finnish Museum of Games, which concentrated on the history of video games, but also included board games. One room held about 20 vintage arcade game cabinets such as Pong, Defender, Donkey Kong, all rigged up for free play, plus a couple of pinball machines. I played some Defender and a pinball machine. There were several displays of Finnish origin games, including Mordheim, Eclipse, and the roleplaying game Lamentations of the Flame Princess. There were dozens of other video games including hand-held games and console games, all rigged up for play. There were also a series of rooms decorated like teenager bedrooms in various decades, with decade-appropriate video games set up in them – these were pretty cool.

Upstairs on the 3rd floor was the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame, which contained lots of ice hockey memorabilia, including three World Championship trophies that Finland had won, and several Finnish national championship trophies. There were a lot of uniforms and gear from famous players. And there was an area walled off with plexiglass which you could go inside and play a virtual ice hockey challenge. There were sticks and a puck, and a screen with video of a goal and goalkeeper that you had to try and hit the puck into to score. In five attempts, I didn’t score any goals! Next was target challenge, where you tried to hit a target on the screen. M. had one of the shots and managed to hit the target! But I failed in all four of my attempts. And finally there was a single shot speed check, where you had to try to hit the puck as fast as you could. I scored 38 miles per hour, which is probably measly compared to anyone who had ever held an ice hockey stick for the first time more than 3 minutes earlier like me.

Next was Finlayson 200, a history of the Finlayson company which produced textiles and fabrics in a factory in this area of Tampere from 1820. It showed many samples of patterns and textiles produced there, plus historical weaving machines and a very cool scale model of the factory building, through the small windows of which you could see models of the workers and machines and video projections of some of the workers moving around doing their jobs.

Downstairs again to the second floor and the Natural History Museum, a small series of displays of wildlife from the region. Next to this was a small exhibit called Fantastic Failure, which was mostly about the Nokia N-Gage, a failed attempt by Nokia to market a hand-held gaming device to rival Nintendo’s offerings around 2003. This was pretty col in a seriously retro way. And the last exhibit was about the history of radio and audio, from crystal sets to podcasts.

Done with this fascinating museum, we decided to head to the Plevna brewery where we’d tried but failed to make a dinner booking for tonight. M. was keen to try their blackcurrant cider, while I wanted to try Finlands most awarded beer, their Siperia stout. We walked in and grabbed a small table near the bar which was designated for self-bar-service, as opposed to the waited tables elsewhere. I grabbed the drinks, and also a bowl of peanuts to snack on as we drank. Both of the drinks were very good. We relaxed and passed the time until it was close to 19:00, and time to walk over to dinner.

Our booking was at Kattila, a stylish and cozy bistro, across the street from the cafe Kaffila where we’d had hot chocolate and cake last night. The ambience was a little bit French, but M. went Italian with a limoncello spritz and pappardelle pasta with pumpkin puree and seeds, while I had some French Syrah wine and the reindeer shank with root vegetables and potato mash with gruyere cheese. We also started with some focaccia sticks with beetroot dip and creme fraiche. The food was excellent.

After eating we walked home in the steady drizzle and turned in for the night. We pack in the morning and check out before heading to Helsinki for our flight back to Rome.

Europe diary, day 6: technical topics and imaging demos

Thursday 9 November

I have terrible luck with shoes overseas. Yesterday the pair I brought here developed one sole in the process of peeling off from the heel. It’s been making a rubbery flapping noise every time I take a step, and was slowly getting worse as the sole progressively peels away from the rest of the shoe. This exact thing has happened at least twice on other overseas trips.

I woke up a bit early this morning, but not as bad as yesterday. M. got a better sleep. We got up just after 07:00 and had breakfast. At 08:30 we left, me heading for my meetings and M. for a cafe for her morning coffee.

Today’s meeting was packed with diverse technical sessions, after yesterday’s marathon on HDR images. Today we discussed image information capacity (using Shannon information theory to measure the signal to noise ratio across an image), depth metrology (characterising depth image cameras), angle-dependent image flare (measuring lens flare caused by light sources outside the field of view of the camera), removable memory (revising a current standard to deal with the fact that camera technology has moved on from removable memory), and vocabulary (revising the list of technical camera-related definitions to update old definitions and add new ones as technology changes).

For the lunch break, I went back to the same Turkish place as yesterday since it was so good. The woman remembered me from yesterday and welcomed me back with a hearty greeting. This time I had the falafel plate instead of the chicken, and it was just as good.

Despite the load of topics, the meeting wrapped up just before 15:00 today, because we had a special event planned for the afternoon. We had to make our way to the Finlayson neighbourhood, which is all old warehouses and industrial buildings, converted into restaurants and tech companies. One was hosting a mini imaging industry event, to which we were all invited.

But on the way back to the apartment to pick up M. I stopped off at a shoe repair place that I’d found by searching online. It was right next door to the restaurant where we’d picked up the key to the apartment, and so on the way. I had some stereotypical idea of an old Finnish cobbler who didn’t speak English, so I prepared by translating a few sentences explaining my predicament into Finnish using Google Translate. It was fortunate that I did, because the shop was indeed run by an old Finnish man who didn’t speak English. I showed him the translation on my phone, which explained that these were the only pair of shoes I had with me on this trip, so I needed either to buy some glue or to get a quick repair done while I waited. He examined my shoe and held up two fingers, saying “two minutes”. It ruined out to take maybe 10 minutes as I waited, thinking we were going to be late for the industry event. He did a bang-up job on the shoe though, for 10 euro.

I collected M. from the apartment and we headed to the event. We got a little lost in the building, climbing the stairs from the ground floor to what we thought was the first floor, but turned out to be the second. So we rode back down a floor in the lift. I think ended up on a kind of mezzanine level, half a floor above the ground level. From there we were confused as to where to go until we spotted signs pointing to an imaging event, which sounded right. Following these we entered a conference room area, where women at the door asked us to sign in on a list if invitees. I couldn’t find my name there, and we had to explain that we were ISO delegates invited by Ari to this event. This got an “ah!” of understanding and they handed us a blank sheet to write our names and affiliations on.

I hadn’t quite known what this event was going to be, and was a little surprised at all this. We entered room with about a hundred people sitting watching a presentation, and hovered near the back until someone brought us a couple of high stool chairs to sit on. The presentation was a series of 5-10 minute presentations given by people from various local imaging tech companies and university institutes here in Tampere. Most had brought demos of their technology, which were set up in a series of small rooms off the main room, and where we could go play with the demos after the talks were over.

But when the talks were done they first had some entertainment! An improv comedy group named Okay 10 performed for about half an hour, doing a series of 6 or 7 different improv pieces. The group was two men and a woman, with one man playing guitar for a few of the skits. He did a whole improv song, using title and word prompts from the audience – the song was named “Nimble Swimming” and when they requested a musical style someone yelled out “jazz!”, so the guy said, ah yes, he’d do it “in the well-known jazz guitar style”. He started singing and the woman occasionally called out audience words that she’d collected while the singer wasn’t listening. He was really good and the song was hilarious. This was the highlight of several good sketches.

After the comedy, we had a stand up buffet dinner, with mixed vegetables, potato rösti, braised beef cheek, braised pork, and falafel patties with spicy tomato sauce, along with beers and wines. The food was pretty good, with the beef cheeks delicious and tender. We filled up, and also went and tried a Microsoft HoloLens at one of the demos, which was fun.

Full of free food, we departed to head back to the apartment. But M. suggested stopping at a cafe for cakes and hot chocolate. It was still very early, just after 18:00, as the buffet had started at 17:00. M. led us to the cafe Kaffila. We passed three or four other cafes on the way which I pointed out, but M. said they didn’t “look cozy”. I saw what she meant when we arrived at Kaffila, which definitely had that “cozy” vibe. I ordered M. a large hot chocolate and asked the woman behind the counter about the cakes. I had my eye on what looked like a lemon cheesecake, but the adjacent cake with layers of cream looked intriguing too. She said the first was a pear cheesecake, which sounded good and I wanted to try it, right up until she said the other was a carrot cake and “that’s my favourite”. Well, the staff favourite had to be tried, so that’s what I had. It was indeed a very good carrot cake, with layers of cream filling.

Now truly stuffed, we headed back to the apartment for the night. The only issue outstanding is that when in the shoe repair place the man asked about my other shoe and I assured him it was fine. But… as I was leaving with my newly fixed left shoe, I noticed the heel on my right shoe starting to peel off… M. cracked up laughing when I told her this and said I’d have to go back and get the guy to fix the other shoe tomorrow.