Vatican City (Città del Vaticano): Travels with my Mother

Confessions of a delinquent travel writer.

I have been traveling a lot which is quite possibly the only marginally acceptable excuse for neglecting my writing. And confessions are appropriate, as this post recounts Vatican City and travels with my Mother.

Arriving in Rome, the Eternal City evokes memories of the past mingled with a present-day chaotic vibrancy that imprints on you every time you visit. However this trip was more Rome adjacent as my uber-Catholic Mother marshalled us on daily excursions to Vatican City, yes daily, and size does not matter to the smallest sovereign state in the world, the mighty HQ of Roman Catholicism.

St. Peter’s Square: The plaza directly in front of the basilica can hold crowds of up to 400,000 people. Designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to illustrate the extended arms of Mother Church embracing the world, at the centre of elliptical-shaped square is an Egyptian obelisk flanked by two granite fountains. The massive semi-circular Tuscan colonnades, formed by four rows of Doric columns that optically converge into one when viewed from the foci (look for the marble disks in the cobblestones), are testament to Bernini’s architectural and geometric wizardry. The sculptor and his students also created 140 statues of popes, martyrs, evangelists and other religious figures that stand on top of the plaza. Sense the grander, wealth and power of the Church if you enter from Via Della Conciliazione, the wide avenue running from the River Tiber to St Peter’s Square.

St. Peters Basilica: With capacity for 60,000 worshipers, the basilica is bursting with thousands of pieces of art, including Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s four-posted, solid bronze canopy over the main altar. You will not find a single painting though, only mosaics, images created by arranging tiny pieces of glass. For a 360 degree view of St. Peter’s Square and the city of Rome, climb the 551 steps to the top of the cupola (dome) designed by Michelangelo. Don’t forget to descend into the grottoes, the vast underground crypt housing tombs of many popes including John Paul II.

Of course my Mom wanted to attend Mass, offered at many alters in the basilica, and celebrated in various languages including Latin. We opted for an Italian mass at the Alter of Saint Joseph.

The Vatican Museum: The museum is enormous with plenty to offer lovers of art, sculpture and history – Egyptian mummies, Etruscan bronzes, classical statuary and modern paintings. The collection is displayed in 54 galleries and along ornate hallways and corridors. Do not miss the Gallery of Maps with 40 topographical maps of Italy showcasing the art of cartography, or Raphael’s frescos, commissioned as wall decoration for the Papal Apartments, particularly the School of Athens depicting the greatest thinkers of antiquity. And then the Sistine Chapel, home to Creation ceiling and the Last Judgement altar wall, where the College of Cardinals gather and new Popes are made. Personally I prefer landscape art and nature scenes but a few man-made achievements you must see with your own eyes. Whether you label it genetic-genius or God-given talent, the frescoes of Renaissance master Michelangelo that adorn the Sistine Chapel make that list.

Pope Francis: Assuming the Pope is in residence, visitors may opt for Sunday’s Papal Blessing or Wednesday’s Papal Audience, both are free although the later requires tickets. On Pope-day, enter the Square with match-level security, anticipation heightens, chanting begins, “Padre! Padre!” until, from his private apartment, the curtains flutter and the Pope emerges. He opens with a greeting in multiple languages, and upon hearing your own “good morning,” more frenzied cheering. Hysteria befitting a pop star, the Holy Father carries on in Italian with the crowd drinking in every word, until he closes with the Angelus prayer and a blessing. You do not need to be Catholic to appreciate the experience, although if you are devout like my Mother, you may go delirious with joy.

Where to stay: One of the best hotels in Rome, Hassler Roma is located at the top of the Spanish Steps offering luxurious accommodations, 5-star service, beautiful rooftop views and a Michelin-star restaurant, Imago. Your own inner sanctum in the heart of the city; I do not want to stay anywhere else.

We did manage one evening stroll around Rome, and the obligatory coin into Trevi Fountain to ensure our return.

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Me: Take my picture? Mom: Ok [all photo bursts!].

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walking along Tiber River

That’s all for now, Ciao!

 

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For the love of motorcycles, joy-riding England

first time bikerDo you have any mental defects? Wait, what? That question was asked and answered when I hired a motorcycle in London. Something we’d all like to inquire during the course of our day, such a time-saving query. I’d never ridden a motorcycle. Bikes are dangerous. In fact, bikes rarely capture my imagination unless there are two people riding. Then I may wonder who they are, where they’re going and why they don’t have a car. So here’s what happened. I had a friend in town who’s pretty much Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycles. He suggested a ride to the coast, and since he has the required license which is an absolute prerequisite, I agreed.

open roadAs a novice biker, I’m compelled to relay some first impressions. Beware: either everyone around you is oblivious to your presence and therefore trying to kill you, or they are genuinely curious about what type of person is riding. Hope for the later, assume the former. Sunshine and warm days are preferable. On a motorcycle, you are at the mercy and whim of the weather. Closer to nature than usual. Feeling the glorious elements, without the deceptive safety barrier and comfort of a metal frame. You and the road, not a metaphor. Going fifty miles per hour feels like the wind is playfully trying to unseat you. Sixty-four and the bike is fighting the air, unclear if you’re being thrust backwards or hurled toward your destination. Why do those cars have their wipers going, is it raining? Can’t feel it. Can’t see either. Seventy-three miles per hour and the wind is gently but firmly punching your shoulders in rhythmic cadence, left, right, left. Every muscle is ready, awareness levels on high alert. Fatigue reminds you to rest, replenish your fuel-levels and maybe take the opportunity to investigate your locale.

ready to ride

Turns out, motorcycles are cool; they can take you to another world or offer a new perspective on this one. Off the motorways, beyond the A-roads, that’s where you find the extraordinary. The British Isles are beautiful, especially the countryside. Picturesque, quaint, charming. Inns and pubs, pastures and fields, plus endless opportunities to follow the little brown signs that indicate an attraction of some description. A road trip to Brighton turned into a stop-over in Bognor Regis. That is the beauty of the open road and having only an intention in mind.

My fluid itinerary started in Wandsworth hiring a Suzuki from About Town, taking some refreshment in Surrey at The Cock Inn Pub & Dining and then onwards to the walks and views of the National Trust’s Box Hill. Not just a scene location in Jane Austen’s Emma, Box Hill is a summit of the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills in southeast England that stretch from Farnham in Surrey to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent.

Box Hill

Carefully traverse the aptly named Zig Zag Road and cruise toward Denbies Wine Estate or Summer’s Place Auction Ltd, an auction house specialising in garden statuary and natural history. Don’t miss the pretty market town and civil parish of Arundel, situated in a steep valley in West Sussex. With an immense castle and lovely shops, Arundel offers an ideal setting for some respite.

Some may scoff at Bognor Regis, a traditional seaside town but the reasonably priced, no-frills restaurant in the Navigator Hotel is welcoming and surprisingly lively, and nothing compares to sunrise on the coast.

Moral of my story: Travel your path anew. Drive a different route to work, walk or cycle, take the train. Abandon your routine. Avoid the familiar. Experience the world in a way that’s unusual for you, and love the journey.

biker chick

 

 

 

 

 

Shall we summer on the Côte d’Azur?

Some Good LifeThe southeast coast of Provence on the Mediterranean Sea, known as the Côte d’Azur, is teaming with resorts and beaches from Bandol to Menton. The most glamorous stretch of the French Riviera extends to the Italian border and includes Monaco, Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez. Hire a car, rent a yacht, settle into a villa or bounce from town to town. Let me show you.

Thank you to our friends at Heliport de Monaco.

Heliport de Monaco

A taste of Provence, sweet France

Fly from London to Marseille in less than 2 hours and land in Provence, the idyllic southeast corner of France that is home to artists, lavender fields, lush vineyards, divine cheeses and relaxing sun-spashed days that define joie de vivre.

Only leave Marseille, the bustling port city Alexandre Dumas called “the meeting place of the entire world” after you’ve sampled the bouillabaisse, a regional classic, seafood stew. On to Aix-en-Provence, and stay in the 5-star Le Pigonnet located in the city centre.

Whilst in Aix-en-Provence (abbreviated to Aix, pronounced ‘X’), meander through century old streets in this colourful university town. Weekend markets, fashionable cafés and for art-lovers, follow in the footsteps of Aix-native Paul Cézanne for whom “art is a revelation of an exquisite sensitivity.”   

Just 15 minutes north of Aix, the remotely-situated Bastide La Valentine is a six-bedroom stoned-built house in the district of Puyricard, an ideal base for outings in the Provençal countryside. 

Wineries: If you only have time for one, visit Mas De La Dame or “the women’s farmhouse” which is managed by sister-team Caroline Missoffe and Anne Poniatowski and has produced wines and olive oils for four generations. Seductive, inviting and steeped in history – Nostradamus, Van Gogh and Simone de Beauvoir have connections to this picturesque vineyard. Also nearby – an estate worked by the Négrel family since 1813, Mas De Cadenet derives its name from the word “cade” a local juniper-like shrub. These winegrowers produce vintages under the prestigious AOC-appellation, Sainte Victoire. For an ultra-modern organic winery, Château la Coste practices biodynamic principles of agriculture; the vineyard has a wine shop, bookshop and several cafés. 

Perched Villages: Located mainly in the Lubéron region, villages-perchés are hilltop towns that were built around castles during the Middles Ages. Gordes is one of the prettiest and most popular villages.

One last stop before returning to Marseille, the port town of Cassis, nestled into limestone hills on the southern coast, known for excellent seafood and AOC white wine.

A taste, a glimpse, a fraction of a sliver of the region. I’ll soon be wanting more. Reminiscent of Peter Mayle’s bestseller, A Year In Provence, that would be a lovely start.

Great British Staycation; Fairy Cottage Weekend

If you are looking for a staycation in Britain and want to discover some less-travelled parts of the realm, I found an appealing alternative to holiday camps and hotels.

My usual accommodation preference is luxury boutique hotels but I wanted to try something new.

As for holiday camps and villages in the UK, like Butlins and Center Parcs, marketed to families as domestic vacation destinations, a definite no. Maybe they are strange to me because they don’t exist in the US; the closest equivalent would be timeshares, resorts with activities and entertainment available on-site. Or maybe strange because I’m not a packaged holiday enthusiast and always choose to do-it-myself over manufactured, seemingly generic experiences.

In searching for something different and wanting to combine local exploration with a comfortable weekend break, I happened upon Unique Home StaysLike many travel secrets, bountiful once discovered, I had no idea there are an infinite array of rental properties in all shapes and sizes, scattered across the country. I chose a cottage in Cornwalland so began my journey.

Destination: The civil parish of Warleggan on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England. Population: 203

Getting there, on the roads less travelled:

 Accommodation: The Fairy Cottage

Officially named Pixie Nook, this one-bedroom cottage whimsically decorated in floral pastels has a cozy fireplace and a private cedar hot tub. Whether you enjoy cooking your own meals in the quiet country kitchen, or prefer to patronise a local pub, there’s a perfect balance of accessibly secluded. 

Locale: Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Explore this amazing, picture-perfect landscape and create an adventure of your own. Take a walk in the woodlands, cycle the countryside or drive to the Cornwall coast. Other activities, culture and entertainment include: Bodmin and Wenford Steam Locomotive, an old slate mine and subterranean lake at Carnglaze Slate Caverns, Bronze Age stone circles known as the Cheesewring and the Hurlers, grand houses at Lanhydrock (National Trust) and the Georgian house of Pencarrow, plus miles and miles of footpaths and trails for both serious walkers and amateur hikers.

In short, private home rentals, luxury self-catering accommodation, regional local colour. I’m hooked.

To view properties and plot your own close-to-home escape, visit Unique Home Stays

Best of Berlin: Twenty-nine hours & 5 Must-Sees

June 26, 1963: “Ich bin ein Berliner” ~ JFK

Time for a weekend away, a mini-break, destination: Berlin. Here are my 5 must-sees in the German capital.

1. Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) – Modelled from the Athenian acropolis and topped with the Quadriga, this iconic symbol of Berlin was built as a monument to Prussian glory.

2. Deutsches Historisches Museum (German History Museum) – Located in the Baroque-style Zeughaus building (formerly the arsenal) with German history from early civilization to present day, and an adjacent exhibition hall designed by architect I. M. Pei.

Berlin has over 170 museums and several are situated on Museumsinsel (Museum Island), a pretty area on a narrow island in the Spree River. Here are three more of Berlin’s must-see museums: Pergamonmuseum (Pergamon Museum) named for the Pergamon Alter (the monumental structure excavated in present-day Turkey was part of the acropolis of an ancient Greek city there), the museum’s collection of antiquities also includes the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery) displays artwork of the German Masters and French Impressionists. The Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum) presents an unflinching look at Jewish history in a building resembling a shattered Star of David, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind.

3. Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral) – The Evangelical (Protestant-Reform) Church of Germany also located on Museum Island features an ornately decorated interior, including an elaborate alter, mosaics and sculptures, and a massive Sauer organ with 7,269 pipes (worth it to stay for service or visit for a concert). Don’t miss climbing to the top of the copper dome for beautiful views of the city.

4. Schloss Charlottenburg (Charlottenburg Palace) – Originally named Lietzenburg after the area and renamed after the death of Queen Sophie Charlotte, Elector Friedrich III (Kaiser Frederick I of Prussia) built this palace as a summer residence for his wife. Walking through the richly-decorated rooms, accompanied by the free audio-guide, imagine royal life amid the largest collection of 18th-century French art outside of France.

5. Die Berliner Mauer (the Berlin Wall) – Bernauer Strasse and East Side Gallery are the best places to see the symbolic remnant of the cold war that was once a 27 mile long (43.1 km) border between East and West Berlin. The total border length around West Berlin was 96 miles (155 km). On Bernauer Strassse you can see stretches of the wall, an observation tower, and the infamous “death strip.” At the East Side Gallery look at the colourful murals on the longest remaining section (0.8 miles/1.3 km).

A few honorable mentions:

Save your money to stay at the Hotel Adlon the address in Berlin located in the Mitte district and on the grand boulevard, Unter den Linden. From the glass cupola of the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, take in vistas of the city. If you’re after more panoramic views, head to Fernsehturm television tower, the city’s largest structure (368 m/1207 feet), an icon of communist East Berlin. Next to the Fernsehturm, visit Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) one of Berlin’s oldest churches. On to Bebelplatz, once named Opernplatz (Opera Square) and renamed in 1947 in honour of social activist August Bebel, this large open square was the scene of the infamous Nazi book burning on 10th May 1933 when some 25,000 books were burned. Here, find the bronze memorial with Heinrich Heine’s quote, “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” The imposing buildings around the square include Alte Bibliothek (Old Library), Altes Palais (Old Palace), Staatsoper Uniter den Linden (opera house), and St-Hedwigs-Kathedrale. Lastly, in the Kreuzberg district which is loaded with Turkish shops and cafés, discover a “Marianne” Stasse and Platz – it’s lovely.

To quote President John F. Kennedy’s inspiring speech from June 26, 1963, “Two thousand years ago, the proudest boast was ‘Civis Romanus sum’ ” [I am a citizen of Rome]. “Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ”

Stourhead House and Gardens, Wiltshire ~ Idyllic England

grounds of Stourhead

grounds of Stourhead

The National Trust is a UK conservation charity protecting some 567 historic houses and buildings, gardens and parks, coasts and countryside, sites and monuments throughout the country. If you live in Britain, you should become a member.

My favourite National Trust property is Stourhead, an 18th century landscape garden and Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. Designed by Henry Hoare II, the house holds treasures for period-lovers including the Regency Library with a magnificent lunette painted window based on Raphael’s Vatican fresco, The School of Athens, while the manicured lawns brim with temples and other elaborate follies that visually delight in any season. Enjoy Stourhead for the day just a few hours from London via the M3 motorway. View the great-house, gallivant the grounds at your leisure and imagine it’s your very own home-sweet-home (or perhaps that’s just me). Check out the gardens:

Palladian Bridge

Palladian Bridge

the Grotto

the Grotto

Pantheon

Pantheon

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Stourhead's colourful environs

Stourhead’s colourful environs

February 22nd: Post dedicated to my dear old Dad, Happy Birthday Pop!