Days 1323-43, 14 Jan-3 Feb '18, Rome: Planning Central
Canale Monterano, Italy
In the blink of an eye, three weeks have passed - including a day in Rome and the last week being devoted to the avoidance of homelessness (AKA: travel planning). So - what have we been up to. Well to hear expats talk you'd think the Italian postal service was staffed solely by deviant snails who hate delivering mail on general principle. However, this would have to be offset by Italian pharmacies charging illicit drugs prices for vitamins! I require a couple of 500 mg vitamin C tablets per day, which is a couple of cents most places in the developed world (though not France from memory). So I trotted into a pharmacy in Rome and found that 2 weeks supply was around €18. Choke. Splutter. We then went into our little local pharmacy which is hugely helpful and has a 'live and let live' approach to pointless paperwork, like prescriptions - so a grand shop altogether. They were cheap (relatively) - only €8.30 for a two week supply (still choking however - that's €83 for 5 months). I ended up going online to an Irish pharmacy, ordering 300 Vitamin c tabs for €30 plus €10 for Europe delivery (grand total of €40 for 5 months supply). Now this is where the luck comes into the draw - fortunately I didn't read any reviews of the much benighted postal service before ordering. I had the parcel sent by Irish Post to our local village post office - 'fermoposta' or general delivery - which works fabulously around the world. Fingers and toes were crossed - yet within 7 days it was here... looked like someone had reversed over it at some point - but in one piece - score big time for Poste Italia - these little wins mean so much and are part of our myth-busting skills. A bit like... you can never go anywhere with frequent flyer miles/points and they're a waste of money (we love that myth... stops people clogging up the systems even trying). Which leads us to the next big win, Joan (James's mum) is coming to visit us in Spain in June-July - Yay!!! The best part is she's using her Qantas frequent flyer points to travel to us in style. The worst part is it took hours of head-banging globally to book the flights - despite several phone calls to Qantas, even with the dates, routes and flight numbers in hand, several staff insisted it wasn't possible - so with the aid of skype and the internet and Qantas's own website (go figure) we booked the 98% of it that was possible, in business class, and tacked on a 1 hour flight to Malaga at the end. But hey... making it difficult for people means flights are there for us folks who know there's many ways to de-fur a feline. (Note: no felines were harmed during the making of the booking.)
Speaking of bookings... Our own travel planning, well that's kept us occupied for the last week. We're due to leave Italian shores (and thus the Schengen zone) on 2 March. We plan to re-enter via Malaga on the Costa del Sol, Spain at the beginning of June. That means 3 months 'somewhere else'. We considered central and South American housesits... but there's a reason all the ex-pats are running for the hills for the six months of rainy season - Zika, Dengue, hurricanes - you name it. And it's a nuisance flight from Europe which doesn't help. So nixed the rainy season options. Actually got a sit in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, within an hour of applying - so that's our first stop for almost 3 weeks. From there we're getting a car and driver through to Belgrade, Serbia (which is only 5 hours and 2/3rds the price of flying - and door to door - so will end up being about the same time wise as the 1 hour flight... there goes the de-fluffed feline again). We want to enjoy a decent stretch in a city and do lots of walking and exploring so have an AirBNB lined up in Belgrade and then are off to Bucharest, Romania for May. One of our favourite 'Eastern but Not' cities - Bucharest is Paris on 10% of the budget - can't wait to book some €10 opera seats for our visit... though the final accommodation needs to be sorted out first.
The credit cards are obviously in shock due to planning our lives for the next 3 months - which means bargain hunting for anything else we fancy is paramount. We have been religiously frequenting our two local markets in Bracciano on Wednesdays with its stunning lake view and in Manziana on Thursdays (stunning carpark view that one). Sometimes we even need something... otherwise it's just for the thrill of the bargain hunt. On one such market day in Bracciano, the sun was shining, the birds were singing, the lake was blue (oh what a view!) then a massive black cloud covered half the sky and advanced upon us with a howling wind leading the way - at the time we just continued to browse but kept a weather eye on the stall awnings and poles. Once they started flying through the air we high tailed it back to the car - leaving behind a particular shirt I fancied. C'est la vie. The following week, with all the luck in the world, we returned to the dozens of tables mounded high with clothes and found it! Yay! Will be just perfect for Spain in the height of summer.
The bargains don't end in Bracciano. We can only presume it was because things got a touch damp... but the following day in Manziana, there was a super bargain, bargain table - everything 50 cents (instead of €1 or 2 or 3). We managed to replace James's jumper which was hanging on by a thread and a few other pieces - including some black, Italian leather boots in a wide fitting that looked superb with a coat of polish - almost impossible to buy James comfortable shoes from regular stores...stands to reason we can find his size, leather, 'Made in Italy' and in a wide fitting for 50 cents... can't believe we ever look anywhere else. Not to mention, the bargain-extravaganza of the day - a new 'vintage' sheepskin coat for James - saving him a whole kilogram of weight compared to his current winter coat.
Now even we know we can't just drink cappucino, eat pizza and cornetti and collect bargains all the time (though we adore doing all that). The weather was improving (then not and closing in again), but the sun came out as forecast and we made it into Rome on 20 January and had a huge day out. Thanks to James's extensive research we started in one of Rome's popular squares - Piazza del Popolo. We entered via the Porto del Popolo as would visitors in days of old. Back in the days before trains (planes and automobiles), this square was the traveller's first view of Rome - not to mention the site of public executions up until 1826. In modern Italian it means literally The Peoples' Square - but it was actually named because of the poplars that grew there, after which one of the square's churches is also named - Santa Maria del Popolo.
Within minutes of getting off the metro we were actually in Santa Maria del Popolo and gazing upon masterpieces by Caravaggio, Raphael and Bernini. As fans of Dan Brown novels, it was pretty cool to stand in the Chigi Chapel that featured in the movie Angels and Demons - the Bernini sculptures were superb. Leaving the church, we found the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the square itself a sight to behold - originally from Heliopolis it is the second oldest in Rome at 3200 years. It was originally constructed in honour of Ramses II and was brought to Rome in 10 BC. There were two beautiful fountains either side of the square and two, apparently identical, churches on the far side of the square. Due to lots of tricky architectural details the 'twin' churches are not identical at all - it's a trick of perspective. (Piazza del Popolo is pictured today.) We climbed the stairs to the Pincian Hill and stood on the balcony overlooking the piazza before strolling along the edge of the Borghese park to reach the Spanish Steps and enjoy even more views over Rome. Managed to avoid poking a particularly persistent rose-flogger in the eye with his own products (though only just) and then headed to lunch at our Japanese/Chinese joint near Manzoni.
After lunch we continued on via the Arch of Galieno (one of these sneaky ancient monuments scattered all over Rome) and visited the church of St Alfonso (Santa Prassede with its Byzantine mosaics will have to wait for another day when we collide more successfully with its opening hours). In St Alfonso's, I was standing in awe of the ceiling mosaics and the 14th century icon of the Virgin Mary (from Crete) when I heard a massive growl coming from a pew at the rear of the church - right near me. I thought I was about to monstered by a hungry Rottweiler but it was a homeless guy who just started to snore - big 'phew'.
We finally gave in and went through the security protocol to enter the nearby Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (St Mary Major). This is actually part of the Vatican state though fully within Italian territory - but Italy concedes to it "the immunity granted by International Law to the headquarters of the diplomatic agents of foreign States." The church and in particular the Borghese Chapel drips opulence. It's majesty has to be seen to be believed - the ceiling is gilded with gold initially brought by Christopher Columbus. One of the chapels also holds a reliquary that apparently contains a fragment of the crib of Christ. Just. So. Much. To. See. Our feet were definitely howling by this point so it was time to hit the train route home.
Our big day out was of course followed by a Rome Recovery Day (or two or three). Aside from market days, the highlight of our week is Monday whereupon Ernestina the Cleaner comes in for four hours and looks after us. We personally would never think to iron sheets - but when it's happening anyway, they really are a pleasure to sleep on. We leave her to it and nip to the village for a couple of lazy cappuccinos and cornetti (that's croissants and pastries, Italian style). We are now such regulars that the owner is almost a friend and just start pulling cappuccinos as we walk in - she even reserves a couple of our favourite pastries for us... as she knows we'll be there around 8.45 am (and the cornetti warmer empties fast some days). Usually takes a couple of hours to read the news online, write emails and edit photos and once finished we visit the bakery up the road. World famous (in this neck of the woods), the first time we went we were mildly alarmed at ordering a loaf of bread on a per kg cost basis, but it is phenomenally inexpensive and €2 usually covers a fresh fruste (long crusty roll) and some pizza bianca (crunchy with olive oil and salt). Plans for the foreseeable future? More of the above we imagine. Sunday 4 Feb is Free Museum Day in Rome and since that's tomorrow we'd better plan what to see and where. And that, as they say, is all she wrote.