Sudden cranes

I had four classes this morning, which ate up half the day. At lunch time I took Scully for a walk to get some fish & chips. We walked past the construction site of the new apartment complex that is being built and I was surprised to see that three giant cranes have sprung up over the weekend.

Three cranes

I also popped into the post office to get a box to pack an old unopened Lego set that I’d sold on eBay. It was a 1999 Star Wars X-wing set that I’d bought back then because it was on sale. I bought two of them and never bothered opening one of them. I checked recently, and unopened copies of this set sell for several hundred dollars! So I auctioned it off, and got $310 for it. So I had to get a packing box to mail it – to Switzerland! Back home I packed the set up with lots of bubble wrap. And then had to trek out to the post office again to send it.

In other news, we’re planning a trip to Tokyo next February, to coincide with one of my ISO Photography meetings. My wife wanted to go to Japan again, so she can do things while I’m in the meetings. And she invited her mother and sister to come too – they’ve never been to Japan before, so they were excited and we all booked tickets on the same flights.

New content today:

Day trip to Berrima

With the week off work, we decided to spend the day taking a drive out into the countryside. My wife and I took Scully for a drive to Berrima, a nice little “day-tripper” village a couple of hours south-west, in the Southern Highlands region.

We arrived about 11:00 and spent some time looking at the various handicrafts and foodie shops.

Berrima Village Pottery

Many of the buildings in Berrima are very old and heritage listed. There’s an old sandstone courthouse and a prison where they kept convicts back in the early 19th century. To go along with this old-timey feel, there are a couple of antiques shops. We went in one and looked around. There were rooms full of stuff older than me. And then in one room I spotted something a little incongruous for an “antique shop” – see if you can spot it:

Sticky Beaks Vintage Emporium

We stopped in at the Berrima Vault House for lunch. This is a restaurant housed in a heritage building built in 1844 by convict labourers, originally to house convicts. A waiter gave us a guided tour of the place before we had lunch, showing us several basement rooms with barred windows, that were used to house convicts. There was also a tunnel leading from the basement directly to the old courthouse across the road.

Besides the history, the food was good! I had a baked red snapper fillet for lunch:

Crumbed red snapper

followed by elderflower pannacotta with poached pears:

Elderflower pannacotta

After lunch we drove back home via a different route, heading east to the coast through Macquarie Pass, which is a beautiful scenic winding road down a steep mountainside through lush forest. We got home just before dinner time, after a total driving distance of 320 km. A great day out!

New content today:

A day out on the Parramatta River

Friday night was online board games night, so I was too busy to write up a blog entry. But yesterday was very busy!

My wife and I got up early. She went to the gym, while I took Scully out and had breakfast. When she got back we prepped to head out for the day. We drive down to Greenwich Point Wharf and caught a ferry over to Cockatoo Island.

Cockatoo Island

We weren’t here to explore the island, but to change ferries and catch another one up the Parramatta River. In fact, dogs aren’t allowed on Cockatoo Island, but we were only with Scully on the ferry wharf, and didn’t exit to the actual island. The second ferry took us to Meadowbank, where we alighted to meet Luna, Scully’s best buddy who used to live next door to us. They moved about six months ago and we’ve only seen them once since then. The two poodles went bananas when they saw each other and were so excited and jumping all over the place.

Luna’s owner took us for a walk around her new neighbourhood. We walked under the John Whitton Bridge:

John Whitton Bridge

This is two bridges side by side, one for pedestrians, and one carrying two train lines. (There’s a road bridge a couple of hundred metres downstream, behind me as I took this photo.) We followed a walking/cycle track along the river shore, between mangroves on the river side and several playing fields on the right. The destination was a dog park, where we let both Luna and Scully off leash to have a run and play in the grass.

The day was very nice, not too hot, and without the rain of the previous few days. After letting the dogs play for a while, and catching up with our former neighbour, we walked back to the wharf and past it to her new apartment, where her husband was busy working. They have a very nice new place.

We left just before lunch and walked up to Meadowbank station to get something to eat at a cafe, but when we got there they said the kitchen had closed and they were only serving coffee! So we walked back down to the ferry wharf, where there was another cafe. We had lunch there – I got a Korean fried chicken burger, and my wife an eggs benedict with halloumi. Then we hopped on a ferry back down the river towards home.

We passed under the Gladesville Bridge:

Gladesvile Bridge

This was the longest concrete arch bridge in the world when it opened in 1964, until surpassed by the Krk Bridge in 1980. And here’s a view of the city as we got closer to Cockatoo Island again:

River ferry view

We changed ferries again on Cockatoo Island, and I got a shot of Scully, although it was a bit windy!

Scully at Cockatoo Island

After returning to Greenwich, we went on a bit of a drive, getting home after 4pm. I went for a 5k run in the evening and then it was straight into board games night. I played games of It’s a Wonderful World, which I lost in the last round by just a few points after taking a big lead into that round, and Viticulture, which I won.

This morning, Saturday, I went for another 5k run! Then just rested at home for much of the day, before the mad two-day scramble for Christmas begins tomorrow. I went for a walk in the early evening to drop off two Dungeons & Dragons books at Professor Plums, for the DM who runs games there on Saturday nights. I’ve decided I want to get rid of a lot of the 5th edition adventure books that I have, since I’m never going to use them. I asked if she’d like them and there were two she didn’t have already, so I took them up and gave them to her. (Storm King’s Thunder, and Princes of the Apocalypse, if you’re curious.)

New content yesterday:

New content today:

Tidying up travel writing

Today I knocked off a couple of travel-related chores. Firstly, I wrote up my report on the ISO Photography Standards meeting that I attended in Tampere a couple of weeks ago. I need to summarise the entire meeting and any significant outcomes for Standards Australia, and submit the report to them, within 4 weeks of the meeting.

That took up until lunch time. The weather was a bit rainy and miserable again, so I couldn’t be bothered going for a run today.

In the afternoon I decided to tackle a less urgent travel issue. I still hadn’t finished processing photos and adding them to my travel diary for our trip to Germany and the Netherlands last year! I was partway through the last day in Amsterdam, so there wasn’t a lot to do, but I figured I better get it done, now that I have another whole trip backed up, along with the trip to Japan in June this year. I didn’t want to have three old trips that I hadn’t completed photo diaries for!

For dinner tonight, my wife and I went out for the first time since getting home from Italy. We didn’t want Italian food, so we went to a French crêpe place. Almost every time I go there I don’t have anything off the regular menu, because they always have a couple of specials, and they always look really good. Today was no exception – they had a chilli prawn galette and a butter chicken one! I would have liked to try both, but I decided on the chilli prawn. Normally I’d follow with a sweet crêpe for dessert, but I had that salted caramel tart I bought yesterday still, so I saved my dessert for later.

New content today:

Europe diary, days 16, 17: The journey home

Sunday 19 November

We set alarms to get up at 06:15. We had a quick breakfast and completed packing the last few things such as toiletries. I went out to take out all of the garbage, separated into paper, plastic bottles, food waste, and mixed waste. The apartment instructions said we had to take it out to a public collection point in the nearby piazza by 10:00 for collection there. We’d seen large waste bins there when walking past in previous days, but when I went this time there were none! I thought I might just have to dump the bags on the footpath and hope someone collected them, but then I saw some smaller bins a little way down a side street. The first one I tried was locked, but fortunately the others weren’t and I managed to put the food and bottles in appropriate bins. I didn’t see a paper bin, so ended up putting that in with the mixed waste.

We left the apartment just before 07:00, walking with our luggage along the street to Spagna metro station, where we caught a train to Termini. There we bought tickets for the Leonardo Express to Fiumicino Airport, but saw that the next departure wasn’t until 07:50! So we had about 25 minutes to wait. We decided to go to the platform, where several of the express trains were standing end to end, but then we spotted signs saying that the train wasn’t running today and there was a replacement bus. Following the signs took us outside where a worker in a red uniform vest told us to walk down the street a hundred metres or so to where his colleagues in red vests were loading the buses. We got there and put our large bags in the bus luggage compartment then climbed on board. The bus left about ten minutes earlier than the scheduled train time, so that was okay, and we got to Fiumicino about 08:15, earlier than the train would have arrived.

We checked in, went through security and passport control, and then went to relax a bit in the Plaza Lounge before boarding. This lounge wasn’t as nice as the Singapore SilverKris lounge, but it was okay. M. got a couple of coffees and some small cornetti for her last Italian breakfast, while I ate the last of the apples that we’d bought a few days ago. Eventually we went to the gate and boarded the plane. It was delayed pushing back from the gate by about 15 minutes before departure due to flight congestion. Hopefully that won’t cause us to be too late into Singapore, as our connection time is tight there.

Monday 20 November

Our first flight landed in Singapore just before sunrise. We only had 25 minutes before boarding began for our flight to Sydney, so not much time to do a lot. We both tried to snooze on the flights. We arrived back in Sydney about 17:45. We had a dream run out of the airport, thanks to not having to wait for any checked luggage. There were no other flights arriving and the arrivals areas for immigration control and customs were completely empty. Many people went to wait for luggage while we just waked straight out.

We caught a train and were home before 19:00. Then we had to drive over to our friends’ place to collect Scully!

Tuesday 21 November

I went to bed about 23:00, read until I fell asleep, and slept until about 05:00 before becoming wide awake, so that wasn’t too bad. Mostly I took it easy, because I wasn’t feeling great. I did go for a run, the first since before the trip. I thought I’d do an easy 5k, but by 2.5k I was utterly worn out and stopped there.

I basically just spent time unpacking and cleaning up all the stuff around the house. I revived the sourdough starter and made a loaf of bread. Oh, and I went through maybe 100 emails that I had to deal with in some way. Hopefully I’ll get a good night’s sleep and be back in the correct time zone by tomorrow!

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!