The Great Ocean Road, Victoria


After attending our friends’ wedding in Geelong, we took the opportunity to head along the Great Ocean Road and see the 12 Apostles. It’s one of those things that we probably wouldn’t have done if that hadn’t been a reason to be out of Melbourne so we took it.

We left Geelong on Saturday morning, warned that part of the Great Ocean Road was closed due to landslides. However, we’d been given directions on how to get around the dangerous bit so were not too phased about missing out on a stretch of it.

It rained most of the day so it was with some ambivalence that we left our apartment and headed south, already rearranging our upcoming plans. The original idea was that we’d drive south, stop along the way, go for some walks in the forests, check out the beaches, and then end up in Apollo Bay where we’d spend the night.

The next day we’d drive to the 12 Apostles, which is about an hour and a half from Apollo Bay, then head back up to Melbourne for our flight at 5:30pm. Not having done this journey before and expecting we’d do more than we actually would, we soon realised that the amount of time we’d set aside was too generous. This is also because we didn’t keep in mind the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’.

What is the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’?

The ‘Dan and Glen Factor’ is two-fold. The first is that if there’s something we’re really keen on seeing that everyone else has seen, then it is likely we won’t see it, either at all or in its entirety.

This has occurred on multiple occasions, specifically when seeing Antelope Canyon, Grand Canyon, Northern Lights and moose. While others are almost assured seeing these things, when it comes to us, some sort of caveat kicks in so we miss out on it.

The second part of the ‘Dan and Glen Factor’ is the speed in which we see things.

‘Oh, you need two hours to see that.’

Really? We’ll be done in 15 minutes.

‘You should really take three days there.’

Thanks for the suggestion but we’ll have finished after a day and a half.

So when we think we’re going to take a whole day to travel a couple of hundred kilometres and go exploring, we should really know that, when combined with a hell of a lot of rain and wind, we’re going to be done by lunchtime.

Zooming down the Great Ocean Road

We got out of Geelong, zoomed through Torquay, attempted to see a lighthouse but the rain got worse, then headed onto Lorne where we chucked a right and went inland, away from the road.

The Great Ocean Road wasn’t as pretty as I imagined it would be. It’s certainly atmospheric when there’s a storm ranging but at least on the stretch we saw, there wasn’t really much that truly grabbed me.

What did strike me as we continued our journey from coast and then inland was the variability of the landscapes. That really impressed me. We went from rocky coastal forest into stringy bark forest where all the bark was peeling off. That amazed me. It was so beautiful. We also went through farmland and then ferny forests shrouded in fog. I loved it.

And, one of the real highlights, was stopping on the side of the road to look at a koala and her joey in the tree above. That’s right. We saw a WILD koala with a JOEY. I couldn’t believe it. How lucky were we?! She seemed unfazed by the crowd below taking their photos and the joey was very big.

We continued on to Apollo Bay, having taken the detour inland, and got to one of their Chinese restaurants were we had a big lunch. We’d booked accommodation in the town but as it was only lunch time and we didn’t really see the need to hang around, we headed for the 12 Apostles.

The 12 Apostles

An hour and a half after leaving Apollo Bay, we reached the 12 Apostles visitor centre with a million other people. We got out of the car, and were thankful that by now, at least for a little while, the rain had stopped and the skies cleared.

We had a bracing walk to each of the lookouts, navigating around clumps of people who were stopping to take their selfies with some of the Apostles in the background. There aren’t 12 anymore as a few of them have been excommunicated.

You can actually see how the erosion is taking place, with the water eating into one edge of it and the strength of the wind blowing away the upper layers. It’s an impressive sight and a great place for a biology lesson (though I was surprised at how little interpretation there was. One sign and even that was small and uninteresting).

We went from the lookouts at the top to the sea level, seeing a washed up blue-bottle jellyfish and watching the clouds roll in again. We piled back into the car and the rain came down heavier. We bypassed seeing the other natural rock formations along the way, and instead took the road back up to Melbourne.

Impromptu Melbourne Visit

One of the reasons for returning to Melbourne on Saturday night was so we could go to Ikea the next morning to buy a sink. We’re getting the kitchen renovated next week. We had to pay for all the stuff on Friday/Saturday but when they rang on Friday it was to say that they didn’t have the sink we wanted and they didn’t know when it would come in. What would we like to do?

We didn’t want a different sink but WA operates separately from the eastern states so even though there was one in Richmond, Victoria, they couldn’t get it shipped across the country. So we decided we’d get it ourselves.

We possibly could have squeezed it all in on Sunday – seeing the 12 Apostles, returning to Melbourne, buying the sink at Ikea and then catching the plane – but we felt it would be too much of a rush and having seen what we came to see, we could spend a night in Melbourne and see some friends.

Glen drove us back to the city (I’d done all the other billion hours of driving) while I searched for accommodation for one night. There were only three rooms left in the whole of the Melbourne CBD. I’m not joking. Something to do with some bloody horse race.

We ended up staying at Pegasus Apartment Hotel, which was nice and did for what we needed, but we couldn’t believe how limited the choice was. We got into Melbourne in the evening, then went out for dinner with Julian, Deanne and Albert, before we caught up with Simon and Shih-Ern and a few us went dancing after.

All in all a packed but fun day (oh my god, we saw two koalas!), and going to bed never felt so good.

Return to Roma

Friday was a travel day. After a restless night’s sleep, with some pretty weird and dramatic dreams, we had breakfast at the hotel, finished packing and then walked down the road to the station.

Yesterday’s guide told us about the express train – the Campania Express – which only takes 50 minutes to get from Sorrento to Napoli and is a nicer train than the Circumvesuviana.

We got into Napoli just after 11, bought our tickets to Rome, had some food and then hopped on the train. We were in Rome about an hour or so later and then catching the Metro down to Piramide.

The pyramid is initially a bit of out of place in Rome but considering Egypt was part of the Roman Empire at one point, perhaps it’s strange there aren’t more Egyptian influences here. We were staying at an AirBnB place near the station owned by two guys called Fabio and Massimo.

Fabio let us in, showed us around, gave us coffee and then he went back to work. Meanwhile, Glen and I took the opportunity for a mini-stroll around this part of Rome.

We walked up the nearby hill which sported a number of old churches, looking very picturesque on their tree-covered hill. They looked more suited to the Tuscan hills. The great thing about them though is that even though they’re still in Rome, they’re relatively under visited.

There are some great views from this part of town and a beautiful garden too – Giardino degli Aranci – that, as the name suggests, has a lot of orange trees. It’s enclosed behind old walls and would be a lovely place to have a picnic or read a book.

From the garden we walked down the hill to the Bocca della Verità – the mouth of truth – probably made most famous from the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie, Roman Holiday. When I’d visited in winter many years ago, I was the only one there and the monument seemingly ignored.

Today it had a line out the front that would have taken about 20 minutes to get to the front of. Glen was pleased to get to see it but was happy to not have to wait to put his hand in the ‘dirty’ mouth. We had a quick look at the nearby fountain and temples and then crossed the bridge into Trastevere.

Hungry again we stopped at Akbar which was offering a €10 aperitivi, with a small buffet of salads and cold foods with water, coffee and I think a drink (which was never offered). It took the edge off our hunger and we found a cool little bar in the process. (They have a glass-topped table that’s really a garden bed for succulents.)

We walked through a bit more of Trastevere, stopped into the basilica to hear a bit of singing and look at the gold mosaics again, then decided to head back to the apartment.

We did laundry, I updated my blog and then at 7:30 we went to a local restaurant called Da Bucatino recommended by the host. We managed to get a table – ours was reserved but they weren’t due in until later – and we ordered far too much.

There was the obligatory bread, and we ordered a pasta each, thinking they’d be small. They weren’t. And then Glen had steak, I had pollo alla romana (cooked to perfection) as well as asparagus and green bears.

We were full after the pasta. I finished the chicken and got through half of the beans. Glen couldn’t finish his steak so we asked for it to takeaway which the waiter, a nonno it seemed, did take away but also picked up the plate of unfinished vegetables and plopped them in front of Glen with a gesture that roughly translated to ‘eat your greens’.

We failed on this score too. ‘Non posso finire,’ I said. The waiter repeated it with a bit of good humoured derision. No dessert for us that was for sure. We waddled home.

Then we packed and we’re ready for our flight home tomorrow. The holiday hasn’t felt like it’s gone quickly; we packed in a lot. Work and our lives in Perth seem a million years ago. I suppose that’s a good thing. Looking forward to giving Smudge a cuddle, that’s for sure. Hopefully she won’t be too annoyed at us.


Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii

On a friend’s recommendation we booked a private car to drive us to Vesuvio, Herculaneum and Pompeii with our own tour guide at the two ruins. Despite the fee, we thought this was a good choice after our train ride the day before and how long it would take to get to all the sites, a near impossibility if we wanted to do them properly.

The driver – Igor – picked us up at 9am and we joined the insane traffic, adding yet another car to the road, as we drove around narrow and winding streets, catching glimpses of seaside towns. It was indeed picturesque.


Our first stop was Vesuvio, approximately an hour and a bit away from Sorrento. The road up the mountain wound around and around, so much that I had to stop reading or else I’d be ill by the time we got to the top.

Igor dropped us at the start of the trail and then drove off. Unfortunately, he’d neglected to drop us off at the ticket office about 300m back down the road. Without the ticket we weren’t going anywhere. So we trudged down, bought our €10 per person ticket, and then set off properly.

Within about ten metres the side of my left calf started cramping. And then the other side. I was not getting up the volcano very fast at all. Nevertheless, I made it after we went up the criss-cross path and then to a rest stop where we could join a guided tour.

The tour wasn’t so much a guided tour as a 2-minute chat standing still. And it turns out that much of the information he gave us was incorrect. For example, I was surprised to hear that Vesuvius wasn’t the volcano that wiped out Pompeii and Herculaneum but rather the volcano next to us which was called Mount Somma. This was in fact wrong and Mount Somma had erupted tens of thousands of years before 79AD and was now extinct.
Vesuvius, however, is alive and well. It’s last ‘little’ eruption was in the 40s. Another is due sometime soon and it’s predicted to wipe out a lot of the surrounding area. Visit Napoli while you can.

After the non-guided tour, we walked half the perimeter of the volcano, taking pictures along the way. It’s not as wide as Sierra Negra in the Galapagos but it’s got more cache for sure. There was really only one place with the gases come out, but lots of little lava lizards running around.

We spent about an hour and 45 minutes all up getting up there, walking around and then down again, and our driver was waiting for us when we got down so we could zoom off to Herculaneum. With it being just about midday I was ready for some lunch but we pushed on through.


Our guide, Andrea, met us at Herculaneum and then took us inside to see the ruins and learn a bit about them for two hours. Herculaneum was left a bit more intact after the eruption so there are two and three stories buildings still standing. Unfortunately only about 25% of the site is excavated and the rest lies under the ‘ugly’ (the guide’s words) new town of Ercolano.

What struck me was how much it got covered – it’s about 10 or 20 metres down – and the sea came in a lot closer. We were in fact standing at the edge of what was once the shoreline. This was also where about 300 bodies had been discovered. Andrea’s theory is that when the earthquake hit, the people remembered the earthquake from 17 years prior, and headed to the ocean to avoid the buildings collapsing on them.

There they slept but when the eruption came the gas was so hot – about 400°C – it killed them instantly. The children and the women at the back of these cave-like structures, the men in the middle, the slaves at the front. The skeletons we saw were reconstructions but they’re in the positions the originals were found in. It all looks terrifying.

We wandered through the city with Andrea pointing out different features such as water pipe systems, the gymnasium, baths, fast food shops and other ancient things. I asked where Hercules was represented, considering it’s a town named after him, and he showed us a few things.

One was a hydra statue-cum-fountain, another the ‘dumbo ears’ Hercules on a public water trough, and another of a fresco on a wall. Each time, before we saw another one, he called us ‘fans of Hercules’ which was starting to sound like a euphemism.

Herculaneum was also less visited than Pompeii so we didn’t have to battle the crowds too much. I really enjoyed this small site, especially as much more of it was intact. Andrea sounded very disheartened that so much of it was still underground but it looks like they’re digging tunnels underneath the town to uncover more.

Pompeii via Pizza

When we finished, I said I needed food or else I wasn’t going to last a two-hour tour around Pompeii. This prompted a rather tense discussion between our guide and our driver. When asked what we wanted, we just said something quick like pizza so we zoomed off.

The driver took us to one of the entrances of Pompeii where there was a roadside pizza restaurant where a friend of his works. We wolfed down our large pizzas and then got back in the car to be taken to the other entrance to Pompeii where our guide had wanted us to go. There were food places there and it would have been better for the driver to have done what the guide asked but he was young and arrogant and knew best.

This created tension between the two and also made us a little later than intended. The guide was visibly annoyed with the way that things had turned out and probably thought we were going to complain to the company.

He brought it up twice before we could really get going. Nevertheless we got our full two hours worth, probably more, and I think that was more to stick it to the driver than anything. I’m sure there were words later, especially as Andrea had been with the company for 17 years.

Anyway, we moved on.

The first thing we saw were a selection of the bodies they’d extracted. These were kept in two semi-circular sealed glass rooms. They were in their death poses, one of a child and mother, another of someone covering their face to keep the gases out. Some we could even see their skulls and teeth. Unlike Herculaneum, where death had been swift, in Pompeii it had been slow and agonising. It was a sobering start to the tour.

Pompeii looked different from when I saw it 16 years ago. Then it had been overrun with vines and weeds and I think a lot of cats or dogs. Now it was almost sterile in its restoration. The city had been just about flattened from the eruption so the buildings weren’t as tall as those we saw in Herculaneum.

As with Herculaneum, I was surprised at how brightly all the walls and floors had been decorated. It seemed odd to think of it being so colourful because now we see so many bland representations but really the place must have shone.

We went into a number of buildings, check out a lot of mosaics and frescoes, graffiti, a brothel (including the penis carving on the road that acted as a signpost to the brothel), and gardens. Some of the gardens had been restored and were growing plants that had once grown there (they’d done soil tests etc). There were lots of pomegranate and quince trees, all bearing fruit, all rotting on the ground.

We checked out the amphitheatre and then the arena as well as the large gymnasium. Inside the gymnasium were large solid concrete structures in the ground. They were to represent the sycamore trees that had once grown there. When they were destroyed they were about 100 years old. The size is staggering. Also in this area we saw carbonised food – lentils, beans, peach stones, walnuts, pomegranate seeds and bread.

We had visited at the perfect time of the day as it was getting closer to 5pm, the sun was getting lower, it was cool, the crowds had thinned. And after about two hours, we were ready to head home.

Andrea took us back to the entrance, we said our goodbyes, and then Igor drove us back to Sorrento through the insane traffic. Again we got to see the towns hugging the cliffs and it was indeed beautiful, and a welcome distraction from the cars. Not for the first time I was very glad I had decided not to drive in Italy.

Fancy-pants Dinner

I was ready to eat by 7:30pm even if Glen was still a little full from our late lunch. Perhaps my stomach has expanded on this trip. I’ll get it stapled when we return. I decided we’d go to Il Buco, a Michelin-star restaurant in Sorrento. I rang and was lucky to get a reservation for 8pm for the two of us.

We strode into town, got a little lost trying to find the place, and then took our seats. We ordered the fish tasting menu, which came with six courses plus a couple of small extras throughout. I also ordered the matched wine.

The food was delicious and the portions, though small, were an adequate size. Glen got full a lot quicker than and struggled on a couple of course. I managed to wolf mine down, aided by the large glasses of wine they served. I couldn’t finish two of them and at the end was rolling drunk and had begun to feel woozy.

After the three-hour meal, we wandered (stumbled?) back to the hotel and climbed into bed, staying awake long enough to make sure I wasn’t going to be ill and then went to sleep.

The Pope and the Train to Sorrento

Wednesday morning started with me doing a phone interview for a job back in Perth. I banished Glen from the room so he could have breakfast and I could have some quiet to focus. The interview lasted an hour and then I joined Glen outside, sensibly taking a jacket with me to keep warm on the terrace. After breakfast we hit the streets to see a few more sights before our train to Sorrento.

The Pope


I wanted to get a look at St Peter’s Square, if not inside the basilica itself. Glen wasn’t fussed about looking inside the church either and finds the ins and outs of the Catholic religion, or much of Christianity, baffling. Even if he’d wanted to see inside what is no doubt an impressive church, we wouldn’t have been able to until 1pm anyway.

On the route to the Vatican we were asked by about 20 people if we wanted a tour of the museum or the basilica and told that the church was closed. I ignored them because mainly I didn’t want to go into the church but after about the tenth I got concerned and told them this. They said the square was open (of course) while the Pope was giving his address. The last bit of information was only grudgingly given.

The square was indeed open for visitors, and probably actively encouraged so this head of state and head of the church could address the masses and lay his blessings upon them. We went through security and then got a bit closer. The Pope was a speck in the distance, seated beneath a shade sail.

Screens dotted around the edges showed either him speaking, another priest speaking or the crowd. The audio was terrible and inaudible, and I imagine you could only hear him clearly if you were standing within a certain part of the crowd. Nevertheless people waved or clapped or generally looked with adoration.

We stayed for about ten minutes, got our photos then got the hell out of there. We walked towards Castel San Angelo and then crossed Ponte San Angelo, one of my favourite bridges, before heading towards the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Again

Glen’s interest had been piqued by the Pantheon and he wanted to see inside it so we headed south and got a look inside the old temple. We watched the sun tracking its way around the inside of the dome, its light cast on the wall. We could actually watch time pass.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a little paninoteca, a simple place with only two tables but easier than finding a sit-down restaurant and it really offered all we wanted. We got another ice-cream at Grom, the same place we’d been to in Siena. I had trouble deciding which flavour to finish last as they – peach, raspberry, and cookies & cream – were all so delicious. In the end it was cookies & cream.

Then it was back up the Via del Corso, into the Moleskine store so Glen could have a look, into the Piazza del Popolo and to our hotel where we collected our bags. The subway took us to Termini and we booked our tickets to Napoli.

Roma – Napoli – Sorrento

It was another few hours of travelling in the afternoon to reach our final destination. We caught the high speed train to Napoli and then the local Circumvesuvian to Sorrento. Unfortunately we took the rickety subway-style train that stopped at every stop getting out of Napoli, then all the stops in between there and Sorrento. We stood the whole hour and a half journey, and at times I feared we’d crash and die. It was not a fun train ride.

In Sorrento we walked up to our hotel, walking up the Corso Italia, a two-lane street that seems to be the main thoroughfare cutting through the village. It’s hell, crammed with cars, bikes, mopeds and buses. The pedestrian sidewalk is only about one and a half person thick so meeting people coming the other way requires risking life and limb to step onto the road and into chaotic traffic.

As always, it baffles me that there aren’t major traffic accidents (at least if there are they’re not more frequent) on streets like this as there’s very little give and take and much swerving and near missing. The traffic also doesn’t gel with the nice image you have of the picturesque seaside town of Sorrento. Perhaps it’s only picturesque from a distance.

We checked in and went walking, mostly along back streets which were quieter and calmer, until we reached Sorrento proper. The place was crawling with tourists but at least corresponded a bit more with the image in my head. There were plenty of narrow streets for pedestrians only where shop after shop sold lemon-everything (except actual real lemons I think).

We stopped for an early dinner at a place down one of the streets but really we should have kept looking. It was a last minute, oh-god-can-we-stop-now decision and the food was edible but definitely nothing to rave about. Probably our worst meal in Italy.

We walked home along the busy – but direct – street and were in bed by 8pm. So much for wild nightlife in Sorrento.

Trastevere and the Vatican Museums

Tuesday morning Glen went off to the conference while I got to sleep-in, though it wasn’t for long. Up for breakfast on the terrace again, getting some work done and then planning what I was going to get done for the day. I hit the streets by 10am.

The Cats of Rome


Even though I’ve been inside it before, I wanted to get another look inside the Pantheon. I find it such an odd mix, the ancient dome and temple exterior, the marbled Catholic church decoration and altar, along with the tombs of Italy’s two kings and this throng of people looking at the hole in the roof and taking perspective photos.

In all the hustle and bustle there was an Italian man, probably in his fifties, standing to attention in front of the tomb of one of the Italian kings, Umberto I, and his queen, Margherita. Dressed impeccably in a blue suit, he took this moment of quiet to pay his respects to a king long dead.

Then, when he’d given his dues, he walked over to the guard on duty, saluted him, shook his hand, wrote his name on the ledger, saluted the guard again and walked out of the Pantheon and up the street. I know, because I followed him for a bit and was tempted to ask what he was doing and how often he came to complete this ritual. There was something beautiful and sombre about it all.

I’ve since learned that the soldiers (there is one for each of the tombs, the other being for Vittorio Emanuelle II) are the Honor Guard to the Royal Tombs of the Pantheon. For 136 years, the Honor Guard have stood beside the tomb to honour the kings who did much to unify the country. I wonder if the man in blue had been one of them.

After the Pantheon I headed south to see the four temple ruins and their stray cats who have found sanctuary there. It’s a cat haven that invites people in to help care for the city’s many, many cats, but it wasn’t open when I arrived, with me being too early. The temples themselves were impressive and just sitting next to a busy intersection in Roma.

From here I walked through the Campo de’ Fiori where I bought a substandard peach (I’ve had a few really good ones on this trip so this one was disappointing), and then onto the river, crossing the Ponte Sisto and into Trastevere.

Tramping through Trastevere

I’d read a short itinerary of things to explore in Trastevere, an area across the Tiber with cobblestone streets, narrow arrows and a bit of a hip and rough feel. It was a beautiful day and wandering through these winding and shaded streets was a treat.

First main stop was the Basilica di Santa Maria. I took a seat inside this church which is heavily decorated in gold Cavillini mosaics. The light is subdued so it exudes this warm, earthy feel. Definitely worth a visit, and one of the few churches I’ve been in on this trip. Even better was that there were hardly any tourists, perhaps ten or so, the rest of the small group being locals come to pray.

Too early for lunch, I took the hike up some steps to the Gianicolo, the eighth hill of Rome. I walked along the Passeggiata del Gianicolo to get an excellent view across the city of Rome. The area is also filled with sculptures of heads, presumably of important people during the Risorgimento, as the hill also sports a giant Garibaldi sculpture.

After a look over the city, I then took a different path down the hill. I’d hoped I would be able to cut into the gardens below but they were gated. Instead, I walked through an area that I would have been terrified to walk through at night, and was a little uneasy about during the middle of the day.

The path was a dirt track, cutting through undergrowth littered with bottles, shoes, other bits of rubbish and a couple of spots where homeless people had slept. I could hear the people above so if anyone did leap out and attack me, they’d hopefully hear me. I only felt marginally better when I saw someone coming the other way. Of course, I survived with no problems what so ever and came out back at the top of the stairs for my climb down.

I tried to find a palazzo next, which I think I saw but didn’t go in. There was another villa nearby and the botanic gardens but I was done with much of the sightseeing and keen to try a recommended restaurant nearby.

I walked past John Cabot University which had soldiers posted out the front, something that is common for most, if not all, universities and government buildings in Rome. Are universities really such a target that they need armoured guards and gates and constant checks? The same happens at the Sorbonne in Paris. As if university isn’t (sometimes) stressful enough.

The main restaurant strip in Trastevere was beginning to come alive, though there was definitely a distinction between the more ‘authentic’ places that opened at 1pm, and the others for tourists which opened earlier. The place I wanted to try – Pianostrada Laboratorio di Cucina – was one of the authentic that didn’t open until 1pm. It was only just after 12 and I didn’t feel like hanging around.

Instead I wandered the streets, guided by TripAdvisor reviews (which is a surefire way of making yourself doubt every decision and come out feeling even more anxious about buying lunch), until I finally settled on a place that looked good enough and was serving.

I ate a fairly simple but decent pollo alla romana with some green beans, downed a bottle of water, and then continued on my way out of Trastevere and to Isola Tiberina.

Isola Tiberina

This little island in the middle of the Tiber is connected with two bridges and is so small you can walk across it in about five minutes. There are some restaurants, a church, probably a few places to visit but otherwise there’s not much. It nevertheless intrigued me enough, this island in the middle of the river, for me to stop on. A man was also sunbathing on one end of it.

I think I was again mistaken for being Jewish, a semi-regular occurrence wherever we are in the world. This time by a waitress outside a restaurant who at first tried to encourage me in but when I declined she said, ‘There is no kosher on this side of the bridge.’

I couldn’t tell whether she was being insulting, i.e. ‘we don’t serve your guide here, piss off’, or helpful. I later learned that the Jewish area is in the vicinity so perhaps she was being helpful, if presumptuous.

I had a quick look at some more ruins that were nearby, a great example of ancient Roman architecture at the bottom, with Middle Age architecture in the middle and modern on the top. Pretty cool.

My travels then took me up through the city, walking the busy Via del Corso, and back to the hotel. I think I fell asleep on the bed.

A(nother) Sinner in the Vatican

As part of the conference, the committee organised an after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel. I met Glen at the entrance at 7pm and we joined a couple of hundred other medical professionals on a tour through the Vatican’s junkyard (as a lecturer once described it to me).

We were in a group of about 20 people, our guide taking us through a selection of the rooms, some of which I remember from my visit here about 16 years ago. We went through the room of maps, which looks even more brightly decorated and stunning than I remember. Then there were tapestries and statues and various other bits of art (including all the male statues which had their penises chipped off) that the Vatican had collected over its 2000 year history.

The Raphael rooms were an interesting stop along the tour, the way Raphael had included figures such as Leonardo da Vinci (not the only homosexual in the Vatican, I’m sure), Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo and even Raphael himself in the paintings. Nice to see these more humanist elements sneaking their way into supposedly sacred works. The room then got hot with all the people in there and we were glad to get out.

The Sistine Chapel still puts me in awe. I remember the first time I saw it, on a school trip, and it had recently been cleaned. The room shone. And I couldn’t believe that the other kids on the trip would rather sit down than look up at this amazing work of art. Then we weren’t allowed to take photos, but tonight, we were.

And of course we gazed on the Day of Judgement on the wall and heard about the skinned saint holding his skin (which had the face of Michelangelo on it), and the rest of the interpretation of the painting. We looked at it and above our heads for a while, relishing the sight, before moving on and setting a cracking pace through a few more rooms until we were back at the entrance/exit.

A quick bite to eat near the hotel and then we collapsed into bed at about 11pm, surprisingly one of our latest nights on this trip.

Roaming Through Roma

With Glen headed off to the conference at some ungodly hour, I had a lovely lie-in and then got up for breakfast sometime after 8am on Monday morning. I ate it on the terrace, which was nice albeit a little chilly in the shade. Suitably fuelled, I then set off to explore Rome.

Nothing Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum

I caught the subway to the Colosseo and was greeted by a horde of people as they tried to cram into the building. The entrance aisles were about five people wide and went for what would have been hours. I was so glad we’d gone the night before.

Our tickets were valid for two days so that meant I could get into the Forum and Palatine Hill without having to pay again. I’d been to the Forum when I was 19 and loved it, especially as at that time it was largely devoid of tourists, what with it being January. While it was more crowded today, I still loved exploring the sprawling site.

I headed to Palatine Hill first (I needed the loo) and this was by far the most empty of all, yet still so fascinating. The sheer scale of the buildings and of the excavation work required to reveal all the buildings on the hill is staggering. The garden complex, where well-to-do Romans were carried around on litters for the afternoon constitutional is huge and goes down about ten metres. I wandered through the ruins with one of the highlights being the sighting of two wild rabbits munching on the grass near Augustus’s house.

I rambled from site to site, making my way back down to the Forum and visiting the temple ruins and the House of the Vestals. Lots of rocks, lots of columns, lots of fun. I spent a couple of hours there before moving on.

Getting in Touch with Nature

I spent most of the afternoon wandering through the Villa Borghese, a large parkland that’s also home to art galleries, museums and the Rome zoo. What was lovely about this place was that even though it’s fairly central – it’s next to Piazza del Popolo, and close to our hotel – it’s largely ignored. This means you can enjoy a bit of nature without jostling with the crowds.

The first main site was the Temple of Esclepius, which is mostly a facade with some fountains set on the edge of a lake. Two groups of people were enjoying an afternoon boat ride on the little lake. I then traipsed around, going the wrong way at first before finally heading in the right direction to the zoo.

The Rome zoo – or Biopark – isn’t a bad inner city zoo. It’s got a good selection of species, though some of the exhibits could really do with being modernised (or torn down altogether). There was some modest zoning in place – for example some South American species were housed together – but overall it’s fairly disjointed and animals are housed wherever the room is available for them.

My main interest was in seeing species I don’t usually get the chance to see so on this occasion I spent a while with the wolves (there was a quite a good sized and good looking pack there), as well as the tapir (who was extremely close and who’s nose was going wild to see if I had any food with me), and the red ruffed lemurs. The reptile house is also quite good and includes a wide representation of species. I finished seeing everything after an hour and a half.

I then took a long and rambling journey to get from the top of Villa Borghese down to a shop near the Piazza di Spagna. Fortunately this took me to lovely view overlooking the Piazza del Popolo, and an easy and peaceful stroll down the hill to the top of the Spanish Steps. Lining the street were fruit trees laden with an orange-type fruit that people were eagerly trying to rest from the branches.

The Spanish Steps weren’t as busy at the top, perhaps because so few people can actually be bothered to make the journey up there. I know I wouldn’t if I’d been at the bottom. The steps did indeed look whiter and brighter than I expected so they’d done a good job on the cleaning.

I found the shop I was looking for – Moleskine – but didn’t buy anything and then returned to the hotel, again through the Piazza del Popolo, to await Glen’s return from a long day of professional development.

Dinner for Three

When Glen returned we organised to meet up with another radiologist from Perth, Narelle, at the Pantheon. We had to get there fast as it closed at 7:30 and Glen was keen to get a look inside. Unfortunately, they were not allowing anybody else in when we got there at 7:25 so Glen missed out.

Narelle arrived soon after and we headed west to Piazza Navona, checking out the Fountain of the Four Rivers, before going for a pre-dinner meal at a highly recommended charcuterie place that Glen had found. We ordered a platter to share between the three of us and grazed on that for a couple of hours.

Dinner was at a nearby restaurant that was alright but was nothing special. We should have known not to go there based on the checkered tablecloths, but it looked decent enough (the waiter was cute and they served artichokes, which Narelle had been graving). The drinks were good though.

After dinner we had a cheeky ice-cream – mine was grapefruit sorbet and black fig sorbet – and strolled to the Trevi Fountain. It was past 10pm so the crowds had thinned and we were able to get to the edge of fountain without jostling people. We threw coins over our shoulders, took some photos and then bid our farewells. So ended our first full day in Rome.

All Roads – and Trains – Lead to Rome

Friends of ours arrived in the countryside of Siena the day before and we’d hoped – though knowing it unlikely – we’d be able to meet up with them on Sunday morning but it was not to be. Instead we packed up our stuff, checked out and walked through the gradually filling streets of Siena towards the train station.

A quick stop at a bar for breakfast – my croissant had so much nutella in it – and then we picked up a few supplies at the supermarket before getting to the station early and waiting to head to Florence.

I’d prebooked these tickets so I could be sure we could get seats – the route between Firenze and Roma can get busy – but unfortunately this meant that we couldn’t leave any earlier without forfeiting our tickets. Next time, I think I’ll do it differently.

Our train to Firenze took about an hour and a half with a 20 minute change over to catch the high speed train to Roma. It was nice to sit back in the comfy seats, well worth the slightly higher price point.

In a State of Constant Anxiety

As we got off the train at Termini, I started to get worried about pickpockets. When I was in Italy on a high school trip, we were on a packed subway train and the teachers wallet was stolen out of her bag (and this was on the first day of the trip). When I came to Rome a few years later by myself and stayed at a hotel near the station, my aunt nearly had a conniption when I told her as the area was ‘not safe’. That fear and apprehension was alive and well on Sunday, however, it was thankfully unnecessary.

Glen and I maintained a death-like grip on our luggage and positioned our bags – and ourselves – so we were well clear of everyone. We managed to arrive at Flaminio station unscathed and still in possession of all our belongings.

I thought one of my zips had been opened a bit in the jostling to get out of the train but that might have just been me (yet it still added plenty of fuel to the paranoia). Turns out though that soon after checking in at the hotel, the guy at the desk warned us about pickpockets, ‘especially at the Termini’ and the ‘gypsy girls are a lot better dressed these days.’ Benvenuto a Roma.

We stayed at Vico Rooms, a hotel that has about four or five rooms and is built in an old converted apartment inside an apartment building. The lift up is a rickety contraption that has two doors and a floor that doesn’t feel like it’s going to last the next year. It beat climbing four flights of stairs with our luggage (and me with blisters on both feet).

The rooms were nicely decorated, modern and the booking came with breakfast. It was also close to the train station so it was a good choice (even if I do say so myself).

Whistle-stop Tour of Roman Sites

With Glen at a conference for the next two days, that didn’t leave him much time to see some of the classic Roman sights so we caught the train to the Colosseo and arrived at 6pm. The sun was getting close to setting so that cast a lovely orange glow on the outside of the building – as well as over the crowds in the area. Luckily the queue to get in wasn’t too long (it closed at 7) so we hurried inside.

Unfortunately we couldn’t hire an audioguide so we were left to navigate our way around, backtracking thanks to inadequate directional signage. I’d been to the Colosseo before (a couple of times in fact) so I didn’t feel much of a burning need to see it but I was sad that Glen didn’t enjoy it.

The crowds inside (even though there weren’t many people really – especially not compared to how many people I saw there the next morning trying to get in. Holy mother of God, I wouldn’t have even bothered.) made it difficult to enjoy, the light was dying and Glen didn’t like the ‘restored’ look of it.

Still, I think it’s an impressive structure and considering the ancient Romans could flood the floor and stage ship battles on it, it’s a staggering testament to human achievement at the time (even if it was just for shits and giggles – and death). We were done in less than an hour.

We walked up towards the Wedding Cake, the monument to the unification of Italy, and took some photos of this recently restored (i.e. cleaned) building. It’s impressive in its size and I was glad that on this trip I was able to get more of a look at it (though we didn’t go in or climb the tower).

From the monument, we headed towards the Trevi Fountain, stopping on the way to eat Chinese food at a restaurant tucked away in a little piazza. Glen had had enough of pasta and pizza for a day so we attempted this Italian-style Chinese food. It was adequate. They had noodles and some green vegetables.

The Trevi fountain was next. Absolutely packed. Hard to enjoy the recently renovated fountain with the hordes around and street sellers trying to get you to buy selfie-sticks of blue-light things that you throw into the air.

We forewent the coin throw (this time) and then hurried through the streets up to the Spanish Steps, again covered with people, before heading home. We went through Piazza del Popolo, which was playing host to an Animal Aid music event. There were fewer people here than on the Spanish Steps.

Considering the crowds and the feeling that it ‘wasn’t like Lucca’, Glen didn’t feel too bad that he’d be in a conference for the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I was considering what I could do that would involve seeing as few people as possible.