Our side of London

Dear travellers,

One year ago, we were just coming back from New Zealand and for me it was finally the chance to show my London to Mr Wander. There were a few places that I loved and a few from where I used to chat to him while relaxing on a stroll. Little by little, we managed to tick the list and we want to share our favourite spots with you. London is so big and full of offers for things to do to suit everyone, and you can find countless lists. If you are visiting for the first time, you may still want to do the usual things and I am not going to tell you not to, although in all my years here I still haven’t been to some of the not to miss places and I don’t feel like I am missing anything.

Museums

The main museums in London are free and you can spend hours in them. The temporary exhibitions are separate and you have to buy the tickets. The Natural History Museum is my favourite because of all the animals and natural things to learn. The building itself is nice and, when at full capacity, the main entrance is mind-blowing, with the giant skeleton of the diplodocus welcoming visitors before they meet Darwin on the main staircase. Dippy, as it is called, went on tour for a while and the building is undergoing some refurbishment, so at the moment the visit may be slightly disappointing. Also, there were talkings of replacing Dippy with the skeleton of the blue whale that is currently in one of the rooms. The plan is to sensibilise visitors on the species that are in current danger of extinction. Maybe, this will be what will greet you when the refurbishment is over. The section with stuffed animals is interesting although slightly disturbing. Due to the change of laws since taxidermy started, most of the specimens on display are fairly old and faded because of the long years on display under strong lights. One of the most recent is the panda near the cafeteria, a famous guest of the London Zoo, Chi Chi, that was stuffed when she passed away in 1972. 

If you happen to be in London on the last Friday of the month, do not miss their Lates. After regular closing time, part of the museum opens again at 6 p.m. and you can enjoy a drink while walking around the rooms in a dim light and have a slightly quieter experience. Another chance to see the museum under a different light is Behind the scenes tour. This visit will take you through the Darwin Centre and you can see some of the specimens not on display, such as the giant squid and specimens collected by Darwin. You need to book for this visit but it is definitely worth to do it.

The NHM is in South Kensington together with two other major museums, the Science Museum and the V&A. I am not a science geek, therefore I have never enjoyed the Science Museum too much, but I would still dedicate it a bit of time if I were you, most of the people I know love it and totally recommend it. The V&A is a difference story. I have not visited for the first three years, I was not curious at at all, and when I finally did, I regretted my previous decision. The museum is incredible, with splendid artwork from Asia that will totally seduce you. I had the chance to be invited to a talk after closing hours and those ceramics and silverware in dim light are incredibly beautiful, and so is the building itself.

I am not a big fan of the British Museum and I know that it is a debatable opinion, but I can’t think otherwise. The building is beautiful from outside, but once inside it feels completely different, too open, modern, and too similar to a warehouse. The collections are impressive, that is not the problem, but something is not right, those high ceilings give an idea of openness and space that is not actually reflected on ground level, the museum is too crowded, constantly, and feels oppressive. The Rosetta Stone is not to miss but easily missed. The symbol of translators, it is always surrounded by so many arms with phones trying to focus from every angle that it is almost impossible to see the stone. The same is said for the Egyptian section, it is hard to walk through and it feels as we were about to knock some precious artefact on the floor. They are basically all behind glass but the feeling is there nonetheless. If you have seen the Egyptian Museum in Turin you won’t miss too much.

The National Gallery is probably the most accessible because it is in Trafalgar Square. It is absolutely worth the visit. It covers some of the main artistic currents and it is a pleasure to walk in, both for the building and for the art exposed. Some paintings are the most famous and are always surrounded by many people with smart phones again, but most of my favourites are not among the most wanted, so I am lucky. One of my favourite paintings of all time is Leonardo’s Virgin of the rocks and for that there is no chance, cornered as it is in a small room, it is luckily big enough to overlook smartphones and reaching arms. The same can be said for Van Gogh’s section. I have often claimed Raphael as my ancestor, a bit joking but not with a bit of hope that the common surname and region of origin may mean something. Well, uncle’s paintings are often surrounded by enough quiet for me to always enjoy at least Pope Julius II’s portrait. As I love Caravaggio’s work and it is too dark and gloomy, I usually don’t have to fight too much so pop in to enjoy his masterpieces and say hi to Saint Jerome in the same room. You know, he is the patron saint of translators, I feel a visit is the least I can do when I am there. 

On the actual square, there are a few permanent things to see and a few that change, like the sculpture on the fourth plinth. For a long while, I remember a ship in a bottle, then a blue rooster. Currently, it shows a sculpture called Really Good by David Shrigley.

Walks

Embankment is my favourite spot, for a long time I went back there in the evenings to walk along the Thames and relax. It was a sort of therapy to reconcile with the city because, no matter how hard the day had been, the immense beauty of the landscape could soothe me and would remind me of why I loved the city. Start at Westminster station or Charing Cross and walk along the river on the north side, seeing the London Eye on the other shore. Reach the boundary dragons and then walk back a little to then walk up to Strand and pop in to the Twinings shop in 216 Strand, a narrow shop that has been there since the XVIII century and offers a wide selection of teas and coffees, tasting and recipe ideas, and some classes to be booked in advance. You can buy single bags of many varieties and find some exclusive ones that are not available in shops. You won’t regret it!

As I said, I love walking along the river, and the other shore is equally good, just more crowded. If you prefer, instead of starting at Westminster Bridge, walk a bit along Embankment before and cross on the following bridge to avoid the crowds around the aquarium and the London Eye. You should arrive just in front of some of the restaurants and, if you keep walking, you arrive at Waterloo station. There are so many things to see and beautiful spots to capture in your photographs along this side. You can walk up to Tower Bridge and get a few good shots of all the landmarks around there: HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge itself, and the Tower of London. At the moment, you also have some open bars near the bridge and if the weather is good you can enjoy a drink there. You will always also find a soft ice cream van and the little kiosks that sell caramelised peanuts, my favourite treat during the long London walks. 

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I have to admit I walk a lot, so maybe you don’t have to follow all my suggestions if you get tired very easily. If you are an explorer, instead, remember that it is said that you can walk around all London just hopping from one park to the other. Well, I have done a fair bit of that starting in Hyde Park, from Marble Arch or Wellington Arch, and ending up either in Hammersmith on one direction or in Vauxhall on the other. If you want more ideas, check out this article with some great walks. I have done most of the Diana, Princess of Wales, Memorial Walk and I love it.

Walking or not, there are two things I would tell you to visit in Earl’s Court if you are a fan:

Doctor Who’s Tardis is just outside the station, behind a kiosk. It is not open to visit (you would get lost), but you can take a picture before the Doctor leaves again;

– Freddie Mercury’s house in Logan Place. You cannot visit it, you can just see the wall with the love messages and the flowers. I cannot explain why, you just need to have grown up with Queen and will understand. I have been there several times and met nice people and bitter neighbours, but I love going back. As last time with Mr Wander we didn’t take a picture, here is a shot from 2015.

Tower of London and Ceremony of the Keys

The visit to the Tower of London is definitely worth it despite the high price of the ticket, but it takes a long time. If you decide to go, give it priority because it will take up most of the day. I am not a fan of jewels at all, and all those displayed there, all at once, are quite disturbing, but there are so many more sections of the tower that have so much story behind them, that it makes up for it. An alternative visit you can do is the Ceremony of the Keys. You can do both, as they are pretty different from one another, but you really need to plan the second one a lot better and in advance. The first time I went, it was not that known and the waiting list was three months, but last time I checked it was over a year!

It is something that stayed as it has been for hundreds of years, which means that photography is not allowed but that you can enjoy it fully. The Tower used to be a castle, then a prison, and is now a museum with incredibly valuable items to be preserved. Every night, the tower is locked by the guards and a small group of people is allowed to watch from a small distance and escorted by one of the Yeoman Warders. The protocol hasn’t changed apart from the monarch’s name and it is humbling to witness it. Before and after, the guide will explain a bit about the history of the tower and of the main (free or forced) visitors. That part is the same that you also have for the day tour, but the rest is nothing similar to it or any other tours. 

Check availability and save your confirmation because you will lose it if you have to wait one year before you use it! The ticket is free and there is just a small booking fee to pay online.

Food and drink

Don’t worry, this section won’t be an all Italian list, not only I am not a big fan of Italian cuisine over the rest, but I am able to cook fairly decently myself, therefore I prefer to have Italian food at home or in Italy and to enjoy other flavours when in the big city. If you follow my Instagram, you will know that I am a big fan of British pubs and their food, therefore I will give you my top three places in London.

It is no surprise that my favourite pub is along the Thames and near Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the views are among the most beautiful you can have (and London is not short of them), the food has always been good, and they even accept bookings for groups. I never had problems when I tried to celebrate something there. Oh, wait, I haven’t given you the name yet! I am talking of the Founders Arms. On the side of the Tate Modern and a short walk from St Paul’s through the Millennium Bridge, the pub has an interesting menu that has changed a few times since the first time I went, and a good choice of beers; you won’t find my favourite, but their stout is not bad either. If you book, the table will be inside, but if you find available tables outside just go for them, few things beat relaxing with a pint looking at the beautiful skyline. Even I willingly sat outside for dinner in winter, that says it all!

If you are in the centre and fancy a bit of Irish atmosphere, my second favourite pub is your place: Waxy O’Connor’s. Just next to Piccadilly Circus, this pub is a huge wooden maze with several levels, countless steps, and furniture that recalls a gothic cathedral (including a confessional!). I booked there a few times as well, and it takes a while to find your table when you arrive, both because no one has any idea and whomever is sitting there usually takes the signs away hoping to be able to keep the table. The pub usually gets pretty busy and you will struggle to enjoy your drinks if you don’t have a table. The prices are what you can expect in central London and the food is average, I just love the actual ambiance and decor of the place, especially the huge tree climbing several levels along the staircase.

If you are going for a more elegant night, the Madison is the place for you. It is the sort of place where you won’t be allowed in if you are wearing trainers, so plan your outfit accordingly if you are thinking of going there. The prices are not scary as you can imagine for a rooftop bar overlooking St Paul’s. You have the main bar and restaurant with sofas in front of floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, the terrace with the incredible views, and another bar with no seats inside mainly to serve the terrace.

Now a few tips before leaving you:

– Register your Oyster card (or your contactless card if you pay with that instead) on the TfL website or you are likely to be charged extra. I have used my Oyster all the years I have been living in London, but now I only go once every 6-7 weeks and I use my contactless card. Before registering, Mr Wander and I got charged different amounts a few times, but the refunds were immediate when we finally remembered to register.

– Walk or use the bus when you can. At peak times, some stations are so crowded that it takes ages to even reach the train, let alone getting on it. Also, some stations are so huge that you may end up walking for almost ten minutes inside the station itself, so you may as well do it outside.

– It may seem obvious but few people seem to keep these two things in mind: use bags that you can close and remember to fasten them against rain and pickpockets, and stand on the right and walk on the left in escalators.

Looking forward to our next trip to London to discover more places, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

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Dear readers,

When we were originally planning our return to the UK, it seemed like the obvious choice that we would return where Ms Lust had been living previously, London. As it turned out, this wasn’t to be the case, and we ended up living in Cambridgeshire instead, but we still travel down to London regularly to see friends. I’d never been a fan of London, it has always seemed too crowded for me, but I have to say that I have enjoyed it a lot more having Ms Lust to show me around her favourite spots. So, here are some of our favourite places that we have visited in the past year in London, in no particular order.

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National Gallery

This was the most recent of our visits, and was only decided upon in the spur of the moment, on the tube on the way there to be precise! We were travelling to London for some chores and to meet friends, but we had a few hours spare in between to fill. As we were going to be near Trafalgar Square anyway, the National Gallery seemed like a good choice. I’m not much of an art aficionado and I honestly didn’t think I would enjoy it that much, however I was very mistaken and the two hours we spent there just flew by. I’m glad I had Ms Lust with me to act as my guide as the place is like a maze, I would definitely have been lost in there for days if I had been on my own!

I’m not going to try and describe the works that are there, as I would only end up embarrassing myself and it’s probably better if you look it up or, even better, go and see it for yourselves. Anyhow, I’m sure Ms Lust will provide a brief commentary on the main masterpieces. To begin with, it seemed to be just portrait paintings, mainly of a religious vein, which were not too dissimilar to those that we had seen in the Vatican City and not really my taste in art. I’m more of a landscape art fan and happily these types of paintings began to feature more and more as we worked our way through the museum. The museum is set up so that if you follow the suggested route, you will be working your way through history and the associated periods and styles of artwork. We missed the first section and possibly a chunk in the middle, but we still managed to see at least two-thirds of the museum in the couple of hours that we spent there. I was also quite glad that it wasn’t too busy, despite it being a rainy Saturday during the school summer holidays, and there was only a few crowds of people near the most popular artworks, such as the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci. Elsewhere there was plenty of visitors, but it was quiet enough that you could still make your way around the museum in comfort. If you’re looking for something to do for a couple of hours, whether on a rainy day or just to fill some time, I’d definitely recommend giving the National Gallery a go. Who knows, you may even surprise yourself like I did!

Natural History Museum lates

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The Natural History Museum has always been on my wish list of places to visit in London, and when I found out about their late night openings I was even more determined to go. Occurring on the last Friday of every month, the museum stays open beyond its usual closing time and the doors aren’t shut until 10pm. I’m still yet to have visited the museum during the daytime so I cannot make any comparisons between the two, all I can say is that it was a lot more relaxed and quieter than I would expect it to be during the day. Drinks and snacks are available for the evening session, which adds to the relaxed atmosphere as people stroll around the exhibits whilst enjoying a glass of red.

Our visit was just a little too late to be able to see Dippy the Diplodocus before he embarked on his nationwide tour, and his temporary replacement, Hope the Blue Whale, had not yet been given her new home. Nevertheless there was still plenty to see and do and we ended up spending a good couple of hours exploring the museum, and we now have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit! It isn’t quite Night At The Museum, but it’s close, and it’s a fantastic way to meet with friends for a drink or two and hopefully learning a few things along the way.

Ceremony of the Keys

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Until only recently, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you where in the city you would find the Tower of London, so I certainly had never visited before. Almost as soon as we had decided that we would be leaving New Zealand and returning to the UK, Ms Lust jumped on the internet and started looking into booking tickets for the Ceremony of the Keys. This ceremony is an ancient tradition that has taken place here since the 14th century, in which the keys of the Tower of London are brought out for the gates to be locked for the night. Nowadays it is possible for members of the public to witness the ceremony taking place, and a limited number of tickets are made available each day. The tickets are free (with just a small booking charge applicable) however it is necessary to book well in advance, especially if you are planning to include it as part of a holiday to London. We booked in July 2016 and the earliest tickets we could get were for February 2017, the website currently advises that the ceremony is fully booked for almost a year!

The ceremony is not particularly long, the entire event takes just over 30 minutes and includes some storytelling about the tradition, and it takes place entirely outside, so it is necessary to wrap up warm and to be prepared for rain (this is the UK after all!). I won’t go into describing the ceremony itself too much, photography is not permitted in order to preserve its heritage and uniqueness so I think describing it in detail would be just as damaging, all I will say is that it is a wonderful experience and a taste of true ‘Britishness’. Reputedly one of the oldest surviving ceremonies of its kind, having been enacted every night for over 700 years, you won’t find many more chances to witness history like this.

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As we had booked tickets for a weekday and had to come to London after work, we only had time to arrive in time for the ceremony itself. Due to the nature of the ceremony, all the guests are subsequently escorted out of the Tower of London via a side gate at the end so I still need to come back one day to visit properly!

Hyde Park

We’ve been here together a number of times now, for a variety of reasons, but the most important reason for mentioning Hyde Park comes before any of those. It was a photo that Ms Lust took in Hyde Park, while enjoying a day off work, that really ignited our existing friendship and led us to where we are now. I was still living in New Zealand at this point and it was from this photo that we started chatting a lot more and I eventually convinced her to come and join me. The rest of this story has already been told, you can find it here if you need to fill in the gaps!

Ever since my first trip to London with my family when I was young, Hyde Park has always been my favourite of London’s parks. I’m not sure if it’s the size that impressed me, the variety of landscapes, or both, but whatever it was has stayed with me and, if anything, is stronger now than it has ever been. The park is vast and provides an excellent area for walking, running, cycling etc., while the kiosks beside The Serpentine are great places to grab a quick lunch to enjoy by the water. There really is something for everyone here, it’s the perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city for an hour or two.

Battersea

Battersea always conjures up two images in my head, the power station that became a national icon after the campaign to save it from demolition, and Battersea Dog’s Home which found fame as one of reality TV’s early stars. Despite this, I had never been to Battersea or even seen the power station from across the river, so when Ms Lust asked me to choose where we should go in London one day, Battersea sprung to mind. After a bit more research we discovered that Battersea Park is also well-renowned, so we added that to the list as well.

After getting off of the tube at Vauxhall, and taking a few clandestine photos of James Bond’s London office, we opted to walk along the river to Battersea. This turned out to be a mistake, as the power station is currently being redeveloped and a lot of the walkway has been closed due to the associated construction work. Forced to walk through back-streets and housing estates instead, I have to say that I was very disappointed with the power station. Swathed in scaffolding and construction site fences, while the famous chimneys battle with cranes for air superiority, it’s certainly no longer the symbol of industry that it once was. Destined to become expensive apartments and a swanky new shopping complex, a small part of me wishes Fred Dibnah had had his way all those years ago. In my mind this wonderful building should have been turned into a museum, preserving its dignity and honouring its past, not degraded into becoming a showpiece for the privileged few.

We continued on to Battersea Park, however after our long walk to get that far we weren’t in the mood for exploring too much more. So we sat for a little while by the lake and had a bite to eat before catching a bus back across the river. The park was pleasant and seemed to be a popular place to visit, but Battersea had already been ruined for me and I won’t be hurrying back there any time soon.

Waxy O’Connors

We’ve been to a number of pubs in London but this is the one that has really stuck in my mind. An Irish bar located in Soho, this place is truly unique. The inside is a maze of bars, rooms, and staircases, all appearing as if they had been carved out inside a tree. I would not have been at all surprised to have seen a few Hobbits or Goblins enjoying a drink, it really did give the impression that it is straight out of a movie. I’m again thankful for having had Ms Lust as my official guide, it is possible I could have been lost here for days as well! We only stopped for a quick afternoon drink, however I would love to come back here for St Patrick’s Day, the atmosphere must be incredible.

Tardis

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For all the Doctor Who fans out there, London is home to a must-see. Amongst all of London’s quirky police paraphernalia, such as Britain’s smallest police station on Trafalgar Square, remains one of the last few surviving police call-boxes. That’s right, if you want to see a real-life Tardis all you have to do is pop over to Earl’s Court, and take a short walk out of the tube station. I was expecting it to be more popular than it seemed, anticipating a small queue of fans waiting for a photoshoot, but we were the only ones there that seemed to be even vaguely interested in it. Definitely worth a quick stop or a detour if you are in the area.

That’s all for now, but with more trips to come there’ll be additions to the list in the near future.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Stately homes and castles – part 1

Dear travellers,

We were planning this post for a while, but we were not sure how to shape it. As we have several visits still planned and we didn’t want to cramp too much information all in one post, we decided to split it into a series and to post as we go so to say.

I guess you have already seen our general post with the links to all the openings. I have to admit that we didn’t go to any of the first openings as these usually are very crowded, and also we have been busy on other trips for most of the spring, so we are now trying to fit in as much as we can before some of the homes close for winter. But let’s go back to our main subject and start with our first visit, for this post we will have little paragraphs divided as usual in two points of view. Please, follow us in our tour!

Kimbolton Castle

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We’ll start with the closest to home, which for us is Buckden Towers, located in Buckden, Cambridgeshire. Replacing a previous wooden structure from the 12th century, the current brick building dates from as far back as 1475 although some parts have been added more recently. Looking like a cross somewhere between a castle and a stately home, it must have been a formidable fortress when it still had its original moat.

There have been many notable visitors to this site, many monarchs included, and this area has a lot of connections with Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. This is where she was first held during their famous divorce before being moved to nearby Kimbolton Castle, which we will get to shortly. Unfortunately the building is not open to the public, however the grounds are open every day during daylight hours and it is free to enter. The coaching inn next door, The Lion Inn, dates from a similar period and it is entirely possible that King Henry VIII may have stopped here for a drink during one of his stays at Buckden Towers! Still providing accommodation and refreshment to travellers and locals alike, I would highly recommend The Lion Inn for lunch, dinner, or just a drink if you are in the area.

Kimbolton Castle, Catherine of Aragon’s next and final home, is unfortunately not as accessible. Currently owned and used by Kimbolton School, the building is only open to the public on two open days held during the year, usually one in March and the other in November. As it spends the vast majority of the year as a school, the interior of the building is understandably lacking in the fine art and treasures that you would normally expect to find in an English stately home. However that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth a visit, as the volunteers that organise the open days provide some very interesting insights into the history of the house, both through guided mini-tours and informative displays. Some of the rooms of the house also warrant a visit even without any artefacts to bolster their appeal, most notably the chapel, the courtyard, and the Headmaster’s Office (originally the room that Catherine of Aragon was kept in). Unfortunately the weather wasn’t being too kind when we visited, and we weren’t able to fully explore the grounds without risking an unexpected shower. I’m sure we’ll be back for another one of their open days to finish off the tour!

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This stately home, as many of them do, has an interesting history. It was originally built as a Norman castle but nothing of that remains today. The actual town of Kimbolton was built as a marketplace for the castle and still thrives. The Tudor castle that was built afterwards had some famous guests, Catherine of Aragon being probably the most known. The current building partly saved the building the queen lived in but has mainly been rebuilt and is now a school. It usually opens a couple of times a year and the volunteers are eager to tell you everything about the history and the ghosts!

On the left of the entrance, where is now the Headmaster’s office, were Catherine of Aragon’s chambers. The Queen, who was married to Henry VIII for 24 years, never accepted to be called “Dowager Princess of Wales”, the only title that the King would accept for her as his brother’s widow. Before being confined to Kimbolton, she stayed a few months in another building very near to us, Buckden Towers.

Going back to Kimbolton, as I said, the building is quite modern and keeps evolving with the times in order to provide an adequate environment for the students, and several of the rooms have been modified. The old servants area still presents some of the old features, including some old windows, although some that were external are now part of the internal walls due to the extensions added to the building. In the internal court, some of the hooks for the buckets used to extinguish fires are still visible but are now just part of the decorations.

Do not miss one of the next opening days:

Sunday 5 November 2017, 1-4pm

Sunday 4 March 2018, 1-4pm

Burghley House

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The first true stately home that we visited, Burghley House is a grand mansion just north of Peterborough. Built during the Elizabethan period of the 16th century, it is a very good example of the large homes of this period. The house is still lived in today by the Cecil family, so not all of it is open to the public however there is still a large number of rooms that can be viewed. The tour of the house starts in the kitchen, which has been recreated into a scene of life in Tudor times. From here you are taken upstairs and through the main body of the house. The rooms that are open to the public are mainly state rooms used by guests, most notably the rooms that Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria used on their visits to the estate. As would be expected, the rooms are furnished beautifully and filled with many fine artworks and artefacts, although it has a more functional atmosphere than more extravagant places such as Waddesdon Manor.

The tour of the house didn’t take as long as expected, as not all of it is accessible, and we then went to explore the grounds. Originally designed by Capability Brown, a famous landscape designer of the time, the grounds are extremely vast and impressive. The highlight for me was the river and bridge at the rear of the grounds, a very pleasant setting which would have been perfect for a picnic. We didn’t explore the grounds as much as we would have liked, so we’re already planning a return visit! Fortunately a ticket for here is valid for the calendar year, so it gives plenty of opportunities for visits.

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One of the most incredible examples of an Elizabethan house is definitely Burghley House. Built in the XVI century, it still conserves its original exterior. The family who built it, the Cecils, still live in the house but a big part of it is accessible for the visit. While you walk through the rooms, called by their colours, you can learn about the famous visitors who stayed in them, including Queen Victoria, both when still a princess and after her coronation, and Queen Elizabeth I.

The works of art in the house are incredible: Hundreds of paintings by great European masters such as Caravaggio just to name one, frescos that cover entire rooms floor to ceiling, ornaments, furniture, everything has an inestimable value. What I can say, and you can understand by looking at the pictures, is that it feels quite cramped, as if the room were to fall on the visitor. Of course, I had that impression especially in the kitchen, which is full of copper tins everywhere and, after living in my Sardinian home, I am immediately disturbed by these objects. The fact that there was a real-size copper turtle as well definitely didn’t help.

One thing that I definitely loved was to see all the bells for the servants. As a big fan of Downton Abbey (we will come back to that soon), I can’t help but remember the opening every time I see the panels with all the wires and bells. They are not just in Burghley House, of course, but they were in such a peculiar position in this case that they stay in my memory as iconic. Walking out of the kitchen, we are soon in a small, dark room that then leads upstairs; the walls are covered with wood panels, and the bells run all around the walls just over the wood. Standing under there makes you feel amazed and trapped at once, as if they could start ringing and you were forced to start your day of work. A few flights of stairs, the first one still covered with wooden panels and then more elegant, all stone and with round arches, take you to the chapel and then all the main rooms.

As one who doesn’t like gardens, I have to admit that Burghley House’s gardens are beautiful. Not just walking along them to see the beauty of the building from outside, but the gardens themselves. there is a river along them and they are immense. They were originally built by Capability Brown, an eminence of the time, and now include also the Garden of Surprises with fountains, sculptures, water shows, and a little maze. They are something not to miss.

The ticket gives you access to the House for the whole year and a 50% discount on some other listed buildings, which is not bad. The Christmas market is very famous, so we are looking forward to go back again a few times before the end of the year!

Hedingham Castle

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This one is slightly different to the places above, as the purpose of our visit was not for exploring. My cousin had her wedding here in the spring, and in my mind she couldn’t have chosen a better, or more interesting venue. The most well-preserved Norman keep in England, it is the embodiment of all those castles we used to draw when we were kids. Four square walls with some battlements on top, this is a true castle that was built for function rather than show. Still a formidable fortress to this day, it’s easy to see how it has managed to survive for so long.

As I said, the exterior is fairly plain. The few windows it has are small and give little insight into the goings-on inside, and the only real feature is the steps up to the entrance. Once inside however, it is a completely different story. Obviously it has been dressed up a bit for the wedding, yet I could see how it would have been impressive nonetheless. With the exception of a few modern amenities such as flushing toilets and a bar, it still feels like a Norman castle inside as well. There are three floors that are still accessible to the public, each containing a large, singular room. We would be using all three during the course of the day, much to our delight! The first room you enter is the reception room, which is the middle room of the three. This is where we found the modern creature comforts, the other two floors are purely medieval. A large room with chandeliers and a few artefacts here and there, it is a good introduction for what is to come. For the ceremony we went upstairs to the Great Hall, which is like something out of a movie. A huge fireplace, a balcony at the rear (from which the ring-bearing barn owls came from), and ancient weaponry on the walls, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Robin Hood himself had gatecrashed proceedings! It really is a beautiful setting for a wedding ceremony, but my favourite room was yet to come.

After the ceremony, we made our way down to the bottom floor which is home to the banqueting room. This room is everything you would expect a medieval banqueting room to be, right down to the metal goblets provided for our drinks. There was none of the usual round tables dotted around a room found at most weddings, here there are three long tables stretching the length of the room. As such there is no head table either, and it was a really nice touch for my cousin and the rest of the wedding party to be seated in the very centre of the room. The darkness caused by the small, high windows only added to the atmosphere, and I’m glad that the artificial lighting was also kept low. Again, I couldn’t think of a better place for a wedding, and I thoroughly enjoyed my first medieval banquet (of many I hope!!).

The castle isn’t just used for weddings, and it is possible to visit when there isn’t a function being held here. I would thoroughly recommend it, especially when one of their many medieval-themed events are taking place.

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A bit of a different experience has been our time in Hedingham Castle, as we were invited there for a wedding. The difference in this experience is not just due to my personal opinion on wedding ceremonies, although it is part of it. This castle is a private property that is owned by the heirs of the family that bought it in the XVIII century. The family lives in the country house also in the grounds and the keep is the only surviving part of the castle that was built in the XII century. Visits are limited, on their website it seems like they open on Wednesday and Sundays or, as in our case, you have access when the building is hired for events. These help financing the building maintenance, which is not supported by any institutions and it is paid for by the owners.

Going back to the building, it is surrounded by wonderful gardens and a lake. The tower has four levels:

– The lower level, where the banqueting hall was installed in this case. This part has access from one side of the tower through a huge portal which made it easy for the catering to install the marquee and reach us at the tables. In the case of the wedding, all the table was dressed in style, with metal goblets and Venetian style masks, which was a detail that completed the picture.

– The two levels above were probably the Guardroom and the Great Hall. An external staircase grants you access to the Guardroom, where seats and the bar were installed. From here, access to both the lower and the upper levels is granted by my nemesis, the spiral staircase, which is even less loved when wearing a tight dress and 10 cm high heels. I guess I am glad I didn’t drink too much!

The Great Hall is dominated by a majestic chimney. Although all the rooms follow the same plan, the fireplace in the Great Hall, with a cuirass and two axes over it, is quite a sight. A balcony runs along the sides of the rooms at another level granting a privileged position to those looking down at the Hall. In our case, the ceremony was officiated in this room and we had the plus of a bird of prey diving into the hall to entrust the rings to the best man. It was a perfect fit to the surrounding and an incredible surprise.

The location is impressive, definitely worth a visit, and we wish we had more time and more comfortable shoes in order to wander around the gardens, but the ceremony added some details that made the visit quite exquisite, definitely not what I was expecting by a wedding. Due to the restrictions on visiting days, plan your visit wisely but definitely give it a shot!

Lyveden

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Ah, the stately home that could have been! The dream of Sir Thomas Tresham, Lyveden New Bield was designed as a summerhouse for entertaining his guests. Unfortunately the construction was hindered by his poor financial credentials, and the fact that he spent a lot of time in prison due to this. However construction continued until Sir Thomas’s death when, realising that they would now never be paid, the workers downed tools and the estate has been left in this unfinished state ever since. This makes this building rather unique in that in original inspection it would appear to be ruins, however it doesn’t take long to realise that the building is actually in very good condition despite never being completed. This was the first National Trust home that we visited, and I have to say that they have done an incredible job preserving this site. Every single thing about the house and the grounds is in such good condition, it feels like the workers stopped work only a few days prior to your visit. It really is incredible that this building has remained so intact despite not even having a roof or floors, and that it has stood for so long without damage. Most complete stately homes and castles of this age aren’t in such good condition!

As I mentioned, the construction was halted before walls had been completed, and the roof and floors had yet to be started. From the outside it is easy to see how the house would have looked if it had been completed, but it is a different story once you head inside. Entering through what would have been the servants’ entrance (the main entrance required steps which hadn’t been built yet), it is hard to imagine where you are and what each room was designed for. The house was designed in a cross shape which means that a lot of the rooms are very similar to each other, and their lack of furniture or other adornments means their functions are not obvious (with the exception of the kitchen where the fireplace and larder were obvious features). This is why I would highly recommend the audio tour that the National Trust provide as part of the entrance fee. Highly informative, it gives a fantastic insight into the history of the house and explains what each room was intended for. This makes it a whole lot easier to imagine how it would have looked if completed, and Sir Thomas’s dream starts to come alive.

After exploring the house, it was time for a walk around the grounds. Again these have been preserved to the exact state that the workmen would have left them in. Seemingly closer to completion than the house, yet there are still obvious signs that it was abandoned. The most obvious of these is the moat. Three sides of the moat had been finished, which then ends abruptly where the fourth side should have been. Strolling through the grounds, with the help of the audio guide, really gives an insight into the mentality of Sir Thomas Tresham and the motives behind his dream. As with all stately homes, it was driven by ego and showmanship. The summerhouse was to be his masterpiece, and every aspect of the grounds had been designed to showcase the house for his guests’ admiration.

I really enjoyed exploring Lyveden New Bield, as it gives you the chance to admire the building rather than being overwhelmed with all the treasures inside. It was really interesting to find out the story behind it as well, and to be able to see Sir Thomas’s vision. If you do visit here, make sure to bring your imagination with you! Oh, and also leave some time for a cream tea at the National Trust café on-site, you won’t regret it!

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The start of our National Trust membership in June was celebrated with a hike in the Peak District and a visit to Lyveden New Bield. This building is unfinished and yet the visit is extremely interesting. Not too far from us in Northamptonshire, the estate was the dream and ruin of the Tresham family. Ruined by the taxes requested from the followers of the Catholic faith and by the participation of some members of the family to the Gunpowder plot, the Treshams never finished the construction of this home.

Although inside it was never completed, the external walls are still perfectly standing as they workers left them when they abandoned the project after hearing of their employer’s death and understanding that they were never going to be paid for the job. The audio guide takes you through the rooms and makes you imagine what is missing and how the house, once completed, would have hosted guests and parties.

The walk through the grounds is both interesting and pleasing, with the guide explaining the projects of the original owner through the messages to his workers. The National Trust has recreated what was in the original design, planting the same fruit trees and keeping alive the decorations that were thought for the amusement of the guests. We went on an extremely hot afternoon and some comfortable shoes and insect repellent are a good idea, but even with ballerinas you can enjoy the visit without struggling.

Two highlights of the visit: The red kite flying over us during our visit and the National Trust café. They seem two bizarre things to list together, but it was a sweet sight to see the bird of prey cutting through the perfectly blue sky while we were enjoying our cream tea in the garden surrounded by little finches that were trying to make the most of all the crumbs left on the tables by the scrumptious scones. After this visit, we already thought that our membership had paid off, and we still are on the same page!

Waddesdon Manor

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The most recent of our visits was to the National Trust owned Waddesdon Manor, a Rothschild family home which is truly unique. Commissioned and built in the late 19th century, it was purposefully designed to be reminiscent of a French château. Perched on top of a hill in the Buckinghamshire countryside, it manages to look completely out of place yet perfectly presented all at once. This really sets it apart from all the other stately homes in the UK, most likely the reason why it is one of the most visited National Trust properties. It is recommended that you book in advance as tickets are numbered, and each is allocated a specific entrance time to the house. We only booked a day or two in advance and there was plenty of time slots left to choose from, but I would suggest booking as far in advance as you can to avoid disappointment.

The house is on top of a fairly steep hill, with the visitor car park situated at the bottom. There is the option to take a free shuttle bus up to the house, or to take a walk along one of the many walking tracks through the grounds. We opted for the sensible option, and decided to take the bus up and then to take the downhill walk back! The shuttle bus drops visitors off at the North Fountain, with an incredible view of the house through the grounds. We had arrived a little early to enter the house, so we took a short walk around the grounds and discovered the aviary. This building is more reminiscent of the period in which it was built, a very Victorian style structure housing many species of birds that I had never heard of before. The most famous of these is the Rothschild’s Mynah, named after Lord Rothschild. Most of the species here are critically endangered and some are even extinct in the wild, and although it isn’t ideal for them to be in captivity it is reassuring to know that the birds here are being used in breeding programmes to help reintroduce them to the wild.

After our short walk it was time to enter the house, and it doesn’t take long for the decadence of this place to be apparent. Starting in the Oval Hall, there are three options for which route to take. There are volunteers to help lost visitors and to keep everyone heading in the same direction, and fortunately we had an audio guide to direct us as well. The audio guide can be purchased with the tickets, or it can be downloaded for free onto a smartphone (although it would seem that it does need to be smarter than my phone!). Every single room is chocked full of treasures in the form of artwork, fine furniture, pottery, and many other very expensive artefacts. Most of the furniture and collections are from the French Renaissance period while the artwork is mostly of English origin, combining in what has become known as the Rothschild style. As the house is no longer lived in, the vast majority of the rooms are open to the public. There are many drawing rooms, bedrooms, and dining rooms, all filled with precious items. This was a place built solely for entertaining and as a showcase of their wealth, and this is evident everywhere you look. The house is so extravagant that Queen Victoria actually requested to stay here on numerous occasions. She was also taken by the fact that Waddesdon Manor was quick to install an electricity supply, and she was fascinated by the electric lighting in the house.

After exploring the rooms, including those favoured by Queen Victoria, Winston Churchill, and other notable guests, it was time to head back outside to continue exploring. There are a couple of other buildings that are open to the public and included in the entry ticket, the stables and the powerhouse. The stables feature a courtyard with a cafe and ice cream stall, and at the time of our visit part of the stables were open for an art exhibition. The powerhouse was originally used to control the electricity supply of the house, and the original equipment is still in place along with the small electric elevator that had also been installed in the house. Now the building is also used to show short videos explaining the background of the property, worth ten minutes or so to view them if you have time. After this our explorations were finished and it was time to head back to the car park. As we had walked quite a long way around the house and through the grounds, our original plan was abandoned and we opted to take the bus back to the car park. They are very frequent, and just too convenient!

On the way to Waddesdon Manor we had noticed signs for a number of other National Trust properties nearby, so we decided to try and fit one more in while we were in the area. The perfect choice seemed to be Ascott House, a Tudor building that had also been a Rothschild family home. Unfortunately we didn’t quite make it in time to enter the house, but we were able to view it from the outside and to explore the grounds. Certainly not as grand as Waddesdon Manor, Ascott House has a more homely feel to it. Reminiscent of all those houses we imagine from Shakespearean plays, it is also very well-preserved. The grounds are large, yet not grand with only a few sculptures and fountains located in hidden gardens around the periphery. The main area of the grounds is a large open space more familiar to parklands rather than stately homes. I would love to be able to tell you more about it, but you’ll just have to wait until we can go for a more timely visit, or visit for yourself!

Well, that’s all the visits we’ve managed so far, but you can be assured they will be plenty more in the best future. So stay tuned for part two!

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Another beauty in the list of the National Trust, Waddesdon Manor has a completely different story. This building was created from scratch at the end of the XIX century by Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild who wanted his own French château in the middle of the British countryside. Thought to be a showcase for his art collection, the manor grew with the times, both with additions to his original plan and with improvements to adapt with modern times, being one of the first places to install electricity (for great amusement of Queen Victoria when she visited) and to have a lift. The collection keeps growing with more additions in the present time, and Waddesdon Manor goes through deep cleaning every winter when closed, a cleaning that follows the rules established by the Baron’s sister.

The tours follows a very organised path and is easy to follow, and when you buy your tickets online you are suggested to download the app with the audio guide. We followed the suggestion and it is a great idea, you can choose what you listen to and see the images and videos on your phone in a very handy app with lots of extras. The furniture is incredible, with real art pieces in every room. The care for the objects is extreme and many pieces of furniture and fabrics in general are covered with fine nets to preserve them from further deterioration. The paintings and the clocks, in particular the big musical clock in the conservatory and the elephant clock, are definitely the most beautiful objects in the collection for my taste, but you can find many fine porcelain objects and full sets of plates that will astonish you as well.

The gardens around the manor are definitely reminiscent of the ones in Versailles, often cited as an example. In the grounds you also have a few interesting diversions. First of all, the Aviary, with cages with different birds, all set in a semi-circle with a fountain in the middle. Another interesting part is the Power House, a small building with a screen with information about the activities such as the wine nights and the foundation activities, the old power units and the original lift. About the wine nights, the manor produces some fine wines and organises dinners and wine tastings for all tastes and prices, have a look at their website for the dates scheduled up to the end of the year. Further away in the grounds are the Stables. You know my issue with horses, but this place is not used as stables anymore, it is instead partly a café and partly a small exhibition centre for modern art. I fell in love with these dresses showcased there!

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The carpark is located at a certain distance from the manor but shuttle buses run every 7-8 minutes to take you to two stops, the actual building and the stables. You can also choose to walk back, but you will have a fair share of walking in the actual house and in between places through the woods if you want. That’s what we did and we were glad for the bus there and back.

Near Waddesdon there is another National Trust place, Ascott House, a Tudor house with extensive artistic grounds. Unfortunately, we arrived late for the last entry (or on time to be more precise) and we didn’t get in, but we had a walk around the grounds to enjoy the views and the fountains. I guess we should plan a wine and cheese escape to Waddesdon Manor soon and combine it with this visit.

There are so many other splendid buildings in the UK, symbols of luxury and squanders of the old times, but many of them are living a second golden age thanks to foundations and trusts and are actually working in different ways for the community. This second half of the summer should be pretty busy again and we can’t wait to tell you more about our next visits, we have some special ones already booked, stay tuned!

Ms Lust

WPC – Bridge

Dear readers,

It’s time once again for the weekly photo challenge, and this week’s topic is ‘Bridge‘. Having just come back from our trip to the Isle of Skye for Ms Lust’s birthday (which you can read all about here), it seemed too much of a coincidence not to include a photo of one of the many beautiful old bridges that are to be found on the island.

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However, it’s unlikely that anyone will be going to Skye just to see the bridges, as the landscapes themselves are the main draw and the bridges simply add to the aesthetics. 

That’s not quite the case for my next subject, which is also my favourite bridge. The Sydney Harbour Bridge may not be the main attraction in Sydney Harbour, as it is next to the famous Sydney Opera House, but it certainly was for me. 

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This is the first photo (of many!) that I ever took of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, after having walked through the city in order to see the Sydney Opera House. I hadn’t even given the bridge a moment’s thought, but as soon as I saw it dominating the views of the harbour I was instantly awestruck. Ever since then, this has become my favourite place in Sydney and I always try to visit no matter how short my stay in Australia is. 

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This photo was taken during Vivid Sydney, a light festival which sees many of the city’s famous sites being lit up at night. At this time of the year, the bridge really does live in the shadow of the opera house, which is lit up with colourful artwork projected onto the famous sails. However, the bridge does get a light show of its own and it is still a part of the festivities. The bridge’s time to shine comes at New Year’s Eve when it becomes the showpiece of Sydney’s New Year’s firework display, and then it really does get a light show to be jealous of!

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I couldn’t find any good quality photos of the bridge during the firework display, so I chose this one of the last sunset of 2012 forming a beautiful backdrop for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I never get tired of this wonderful view, and I can’t wait for our next visit to Australian shores and to this fantastic piece of engineering.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

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Dear travellers,

As a translator, the concept of the bridge is something important. For those of you who don’t know, the etymology of the word “translation” is the latin for “bearing across”, and a bridge is the perfect image of what a translation does, because it bears the meaning of a text from one language to the other. It is not surprising then that, when I needed to clear my thoughts while living in London, I would go walking from Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge and just make sense of things, or at least try to.

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Tower Bridge is impressive both from a distance and from up close. If you are lucky enough to be walking on it when a tall boat is passing, you can see it opening in front of your eyes. You can also visit it and walk through the history of its construction. I enjoyed the visit a lot and I even managed to look like I am not regretting standing on the glass floor on top of the road!

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In our post about Rome, you may have noticed not only my love for the city, but also how strongly I feel the internal contrasts of this capital. There could be many examples of this, but just think of how the metropolis, capital of the Italian State, contains in itself another capital city, actually a city-state, the Vatican City. Many bridges are famous and impressive in the Eternal City, but the sunset starting to paint Saint Peter in pink behind Ponte Sisto makes this spot and this bridge one of my favourite sights of our trip.

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Thank you for travelling with us, see you soon!

Ms Lust

 

 

WPC – Order

Dear readers,

As our regular readers will be aware, we like to include some of our own photography in our blog posts. So when I came across a weekly photo competition by The Daily Post, it seemed like a great opportunity to exhibit more of our shots.

This week’s topic is ‘Order’, very relevant during a general election week but we’ll leave the politics to the newspapers. In keeping with the spirit of our blog, all of the photos that we post for the competitions will have been taken on one of our trips together, whether locally or further afield.

As soon as I saw the topic for our first week, the image that immediately spring to mind was the columns at St Peter’s Square in the Vatican City. There are 142 columns on each side, which were placed in such a way so that they all appear to be perfectly aligned when viewed from a particular spot in the square. You can check out our post about our trip to Rome here for more details.

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After a little more thought, and with the current events in the UK playing on our minds, we then remembered a photo taken of the EU’s Berlaymont building in Brussels on our trip there in October last year (more details to come later in the year!). The façade of the building is a very utilitarian affair, constructed of a mass of identical looking offices made up of nothing but straight lines. Outside there are 28 flagpoles flying the EU flag to represent each member state, orderly standing evenly spaced in a row. We couldn’t think of anything that would represent ‘Order’ better than this, especially when considering the purpose of the building as well!

We hope you have enjoyed our first entry for the weekly photo competition, as there will be plenty more to come!

Mr Wander and Ms Lust

Egypt – Luxor

Dear readers,

We left you last time with a gap about what happened on Friday. Well, Friday was the day we booked for Luxor. Before we go back to our trip, a few notes in the interest of housekeeping: As I only did half of the visits, this time my post is exceptionally preceding Mr Wander’s, so I could give you some historical details before you enjoy his photos and his stories from the temple; also, there is a slight change in colours in Mr Wander’s post to create some contrast and hopefully make your reading easier.

Now, back to business! With our private car picking us up at 4 a.m., it was obviously going to be a hard day. Almost five and a half hours drive before we met our guide, and a lot of different sights, from the confusing roads in the middle of the desert with police check points from time to time, to the lively towns along the Nile and scenes that, with different outfits, seemed to be straight out of De Sica’s movies such as Pane, amore e fantasiaWe left the hotel when it was still dark and we drove along the coast for quite a while, with the sun that slowly rose on the sea creating beautiful strokes of orange and pink on the horizon. It is that kind of thing that you don’t even try to capture in a photo from a moving car, or maybe just we don’t. We chose not to, it was too early and we were too sleepy, we just wanted to take mental images because real pictures cannot be that beautiful.

We arrived to our last town before turning inland, El Quseir, to pick up our second driver, and we started our way into the desert. It is a lot of the same scenery and yet it is incredible, hypnotising, to see how empty it is. I don’t say quiet, New Zealand is quiet and you can drive for hours without seeing another car. Our road was surrounded by the emptiness of the Egyptian desert, but it was not quiet. Many buses were going towards Luxor, and trucks were going both ways. We started encountering several police check points and we almost got used to them. In the end, although we could not understand the conversation between the driver and the policemen, we started hearing the same words repeated and we got what they meant: a quick check of the papers and the confirmation that we were British.

Once we reached the Nile, the scenery changed completely, with little towns one after another. It was already past 9 a.m. and everywhere was extremely lively. As in all places that have such a hot weather and where the main activities are related to field work, life starts early in order to avoid the heat of midday. Egypt is not different, and this last part of the trip was a real window into day-to-day life in the country. With speed bumps every 200 m, the last 30 km took forever, and we had time to catch a glimpse of the little shops by the road and the colourful driving rules that are a mystery to us but that everyone seemed to respect by following a code of flashing lights.

We arrived to the city at about 10 a.m. and we had to find our guide. I was surprised because our drivers had no idea where they were going, but I got to see later that it was their first time there as well, and the guide ended up explaining many things about the ancient history and the monuments to them as well. We met the guide and we were immediately immersed in history and symbolism with all his explanations along the way. We were still on the east side, the City of the Living, and we were heading towards the west, the City of the Dead, where the sun sets literally and figuratively. Crossing the Nile by car, you can appreciate the surrounding fields mainly of banana trees. The presence of the Nile is the main reason behind the greatness of Ancient Egypt, but the dam now prevents the flooding that used to provide the soil with all the nutrients, and now the agricultural production is not enough for the population.

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When we arrived near the Valley of the Kings, we started seeing how things were different from what we were expecting. A big fan of Agatha Christie, Wilbur Smith, and more commercial Christian Jacq in my teenager years, and with my best friend who wrote a novel about Tutankhamun’s wife, Egypt has always fascinated me. I have always admired many aspects of the culture of Ancient Egypt and I had a very romantic image of the diggings and everything about them. It is quite different from that. Before entering the Valley, there is a stop to admire the Colossi of Memnon, two impressive sculptures that were made of one single block of stone (one cracked during a earthquake) and represent Amenhotep III. The name Colossi of Memnon,  was given later because of the sound that is sometimes heard coming from the statues at dawn. When the guide explained this, he was quite vague, so I had to look this up when we got back, and I found this page that gives a clear explanation. Driving further, leaving on a side the alabaster workshops, is the entrance to the Valley of the Kings. The most surprising thing about the Valley is that people are still living there, with their houses built on top of the pharaohs’ tombs and with little wish to move. Apparently, there is a relocation plan that hopes to move everyone to new houses in five to ten years but it is encountering a strong resistance by those who have always lived there and who feel that it is their home.

The entrance to the Valley feels like a long way to visit a mine, and the site is pretty much that, a huge mountain in which the ancient Egyptians have been digging their tombs and the archaeologists have been digging again to uncover them. Arriving to the site there is nothing to see, just slopes of stone and Carter’s house on the top of a hill. It is only after passing the gates and walking a short distance towards the entrance of the tombs that we were presented with a beautiful sight, a mountain the shape of a pyramid that may be the reason why they chose that location, which reminds of the actual pyramids in Giza, or so our guide said. Photography is not allowed in the Valley of the Kings, you are kindly asked to leave your cameras in the bus and not to take pictures with your smartphone either. It seems fair, those paintings have survived millennia and need to be preserved; also, the official photographer somehow needs to sell his photos+DVD. Again to preserve the paintings, the guides are not allowed to give explanations inside the burials in order to avoid excessive breathing and condensation, so they do it outside, using the same photos+DVD that, to be honest, are very cheap. Bear with me while we visit the three tombs included in our ticket and we see the beautiful paintings of Nut, the starry sky, the Book of the Dead, and the Pharaohs cartouches, all seasoned with a bit of history. The three tombs we visited were those of Ramses IV, Merenptah, and Ramses IX. We decided to skip Tutankhamun’s tomb, which is only £3 extra but apparently very disappointing, in our guide’s words. The child pharaoh didn’t have time to build a majestic tomb in his year of reign. Again in our guide’s words, the paintings are just sketches and the treasures are mainly in Cairo. What is sure is that Tutankhamun only reigned for a short period of about ten years and died when he was 19, suddenly, of what is probably a complication of a fracture worsened by his constant health problems, and that the burial was hurried, in a tomb originally built for someone else. His father was Amenhotep IV, also remembered as the heretical pharaoh, who abandoned the old gods to worship a single deity called Aten, changed his name to Akhenaten, and moved the capital to a new city called Akhetaten. Tutankhamun’s wife was his half-sister Ankhesenpaaten, daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti (here you can see a picture of their statues taken by Mr Wander). At the beginning, he was called Tutankhaten (Living image of Aten) but changed his name to Tutankhamun (Living image of Amun) when he abandoned the cult of Aten to go back to the old deities. In the same way, his wife Ankhesenpaaten became Ankhesenamun. These changes meant that the short interlude in Akhetaten was also terminated and the capital moved back to Thebes. Due to Tutankhamun’s young age, it is possible that Ay, grand-father-in-law and Grand Vizier, was actually the one ruling the kingdom. Tutankhamun died without an heir and Ay married Ankhesenamun, becoming the next pharaoh.

Going back to Tutankhamun’s tomb, KV62, we have to say that this one is the only one ever discovered sealed and untouched. Worshipped as a god on Earth while still alive, that was not the reason: Thieves could not find the tomb because it was buried under the debris caused by the construction of KV9, the tomb shared by Ramses V and Ramses VI. Of course we should have visited it, but now, in the tolerable heat of a British spring, everything seems a lot different. Back then the heat was affecting us quite a lot, I am not sure I was making too much sense at that point and I definitely was not making any sense at all by the time we arrived to the restaurant two hours later. I found myself too unfit for Egyptian spring. Born in hot Mediterranean, I am now too used to British weather and I didn’t resist an afternoon in the Valley of the Kings and Queens.

Although it may seem obvious, I should maybe say that what we call Luxor is actually Thebes, capital of Ancient Egypt. During the First Intermediate period, Thebes was the capital of Upper Egypt while Lower Egypt had Herakleopolis. When the two kingdoms were reunited, Thebes became only capital. Probably, the best known time of Egyptian history is the New Kingdom (XVI-XI century BC), also the time in which the Valley of the Kings was used.

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Going back to what we visited, Ramses IV’s tomb (KV2) is a wonderful example for paintings. Beautifully preserved, they feature all the traditional images: The sun and the scarab, the starry sky, the curly snakes that would prevent a dirty soul to cross the river and achieve peace, and Nut, goddess of skies. It is said that the sun would travel over her starry body during the day, to be swallowed by her at sunset, then travel down her belly during the night to end up being born again every morning. Her image was often painted on the vault of tombs over the sarcophagus. There is an interesting virtual reality video here that shows you KV2 if you want to have a look.

Merenptah’s tomb (KV8) has a different structure. The corridor is extremely steep, with the first chamber half way down. This room was probably sealed and laced with traps to prevent grave robbers. Apparently, skeletons probably belonging to thieves have been found in the pit surrounding this chamber. Going further down, we reach the burial chamber and its four annexes. Paintings are more damaged in this case and there is not too much to see in the burial chamber, while the ones on the walls of the corridors are still pretty well preserved.

Ramses IX’s tomb (KV6) has a simple structure, if I may say so, compared to many others, a wide entrance, and beautiful paintings according to the tradition: Rituals, life of the king, litanies, the books, and so on. The colours are incredibly lively, as if painted recently, although often a lot darker than those found in the previous tombs, especially in the case of the starry sky and the painting of Nut in the burial chamber. You can appreciate them in this video.

After leaving the Valley of the Kings, we drove a short distance to the Valley of the Queens. What we visited here is basically only Queen Hatshepsut’s Temple, an impressive building that is undergoing a huge restoration by Polish workers but that already gives an idea of the beauty of the original structure. The second female pharaoh in Egyptian history, Hatshepsut reigned for a long time and gave the kingdom stability and peace. Her temple is majestic, the structure that we can appreciate outside is just part of it. Badly destroyed, with a handful of columns still standing, it is now going back to its ancient glory thanks to the restoration process.

The country has limited funds and relies mainly on foreign countries and associations to finance the works needed to discover more tombs and to restore what time has damaged. Of the over 150 pharaohs buried there, only about 60 tombs have been found. According to our guide, the EU and Japan funded some of the works in the Valley of the Kings, while the UK donated machinery for the works needed in Karnak temple. An interesting project is the mapping of the Valley by the Theban Mapping Project, where you can also find technical information about each tomb as well. The codes I indicated for the tombs will help you find them in there, KV stands for Kings’ Valley while the number corresponds to the order in which the tombs have been uncovered. As I said, over half of the Valley has not been uncovered yet, and the projects aims to protect this treasure from natural and human destruction.

After leaving the valley, we were forced to take a little detour to an alabaster workshop with the most abusive, annoying salesman encountered to date (and in these ten days we had plenty to choose from!). Just before arriving to the restaurant, we did a quick stop at the Nefertari Papyrus Institute, where we had a demonstration of how papyrus sheets were made in ancient times and still are (although many souvenirs are instead just banana leaves that crumble very soon) The guy there was extremely friendly, which felt quite refreshing compared to the horrible experience at the alabaster workshop. We arrived to the restaurant shortly after and at this point I was completely dehydrated and sick, and I didn’t touch anything. I had to lie down on our boat trip on the Nile and I called it a day. I could not risk visiting Karnak Temple and feeling even worse. So I stayed at the visitors’ centre while Mr Wander and the guide went exploring.

I left Luxor with a bittersweet feeling for not visiting something that I dreamed of for so long, but it is always like that, even completing that visit we would have still missed Luxor Temple because one day is not enough. Nonetheless, it was an incredible experience and it left me with a desire to visit more, although maybe not that soon. When I heard about the cruise on the Nile down to Abu Simbel I had already decided that we had to go back in the future, so I left with a bit of sadness but knowing it is only a goodbye for now.

Ms Lust

***

Dear readers,

Following on from our last post about our trip to Egypt and the Red Sea, we now bring you the final piece of the puzzle – our day trip to Luxor. Barely into the day following our quad-biking tour, we awoke in the early hours and waited for our 4 a.m. pickup. Luxor is a considerable distance from Marsa Alam, taking approximately five hours to drive there, so the early start was necessary to give us enough time for exploring once we were there. The journey itself was fairly boring and uneventful, just a lot of desert broken up by a lot of checkpoints along the way. Once we got nearer to our destination, the road turned and run alongside a river which seemed too small to be the Nile. Now this part of the trip really did seem to go on forever. Every crossroads with a road coming from over the river, and they were incredibly frequent, was accompanied with speed bumps on both sides. Egyptian speed bumps really aren’t like anything I’d seen before, they are absolutely everywhere and more like speed mountains than bumps, so negotiating them requires a lot of care, time, and patience. Eventually we arrived in Luxor and, once our drivers had figured out where to go, we picked up our Egyptology guide and set off for the Valley of the Kings.

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Any of our regular readers will know that I’m a sucker for ancient architecture, especially if it’s particularly grand, and Luxor was the perfect place to indulge that side of my personality. Not only surrounding the city but within it as well, there are huge statues, obelisks, and temples everywhere. Bearing in mind that most of the statues and obelisks were carved from single pieces of stone, the craftsmanship and ingenuity of their creation is just as impressive as their enormity, if not more so. Our first stop was at the Colossi of Memnon, two huge statues of Pharaoh Amenhotep III that have been standing in the same spot for 3,400 years. Admittedly they are a little weathered and earthquake damaged, but hugely impressive nonetheless. The statues are 18 m tall and are estimated to weigh approximately 720 tonnes each, bare that in mind when considering that the blocks used to create them were transported overland from a quarry near present-day Cairo, a journey of around 420 miles. Mind boggling isn’t it! With my archaeologist appetite suitable whetted, we were back on the minibus and about to discover another equally impressive feat of Ancient Egyptian craftsmanship and construction.

After passing the home of Howard Carter during his discovery and excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, we entered the Valley of the Kings. Dug into a natural pyramid, over 60 tombs have been discovered although there are estimates of up to 150 tombs possibly having been created here. We were able to visit three of these tombs, after deciding not to take up the option to add on a visit to Tutankhamun’s tomb as well. We were advised by our guide that the tomb is small in comparison to the others we would see due to his short reign, and also that all of the treasures found within it have now been removed and are housed in museums. The tombs themselves are tunnels dug into the mountain, with numerous chambers along the way to the burial chamber where the sarcophagi were placed. Two of the tombs we visited still had the sarcophagus inside, although almost all of the tombs in the valley have been victims of grave robbers over the years. The things that really caught my attention in all of the tombs were the carvings and paintings that covered every inch of wall and ceiling, and how well they had been preserved. Unfortunately photography isn’t allowed in the Valley of the Kings, so you’ll have to go and visit yourself to see them!

It was beginning to get very hot, and our exertions exploring the valley were starting to take their toll. However there was plenty of places still to visit and no time to rest, so we made our way to the Valley of the Queens and the Temple of Hatshepsut. In a completely different style to the tombs we had seen just previously, this was a temple designed not only to house the dead but to worship them too. The temple is currently being excavated and reconstructed by a Polish team of archaeologists, who have been working at the site for over 50 years. As a result of all their hard work, the two lower levels are now near completion and work has started on the third, top level.

As soon as you disembark the small tourist train that brings you to the temple, the view is simply awe-inspiring. The temple is greatly impressive just on its own, even if it has not been fully reconstructed yet, and the backdrop of the mountain it was built in front of adds even more magnificence. Most of the statues in the grounds have yet to be excavated or replaced into their original positions, so the temple itself really is the main draw. The two huge ramps provide a focal point (and a decent workout on a hot day!), splitting the temple down the middle. As was most often the case we didn’t have a lot of time to linger at the temple, in hindsight a two-day trip may have been a better choice, but we were able to have a look around the upper level, which is still under reconstruction, and to admire the architecture of the two lower levels on our way up. As would be expected, the temple is full of an incredible array of statues, obelisks, and columns, many of which are in extremely good condition for their age. On the way back down the ramps our guide pointed out to us what looked like an Ancient Egyptian scrapyard just over to one side, a collection of statues and pieces of the temple that have been excavated but have not yet had their original location discovered or decided.

It was now time to leave the temple and, despite our guide’s best efforts, we made it through the obligatory market parade unscathed. He told us at the start of our tour not to talk to or even make eye contact with the market vendors, as we didn’t have time to get stuck negotiating with them or trying to get rid of them. There seemed to be different rules for particular vendors though, and our guide corralled us into a shop where we were forced to go through the usual motions of being offered almost every single item in the shop before being allowed to leave. This was annoying, that our guide had done the complete opposite to his advice just to get a few extra tourists into his friend’s shop, but what was to follow really made my blood boil.

On the way to the Valley of the Kings, our guide had shown us some of the local alabaster workshops as we drove past. Now on the way back, we were told that we would be visiting one of these workshops to see the traditional methods that are still being used today. After an awkward sideshow purely intended for tourists, with old men demonstrating various parts of the process on command like puppets, we were ushered into the shop for what would be the worst experience of the entire trip (including getting food poisoning!). The workshop employee quickly turned from a reasonably amicable, informative guide to the pushiest, rudest, and most aggressive salesman I’ve ever met. At this point, Ms Lust was starting to feel the effects of having been walking around for too long in the heat, and my main focus was making sure that she was ok. This was made especially difficult by our salesman friend constantly trying to drag me away to look at his wares, with absolutely no regard or compassion for the fact that she obviously wasn’t well. It soon became apparent that I was going to have to either get very rude and aggressive or cave in and buy something, otherwise we were never going to be allowed to leave! I was also starting to feel exhausted from the heat and was in no mood for a confrontation, so in the end I purchased a small item so that we could escape. Still not satisfied, the salesman still kept dragging me away from tending to Ms Lust to try and coerce me into tipping him, needless to say he remained empty-handed. Eventually, once he felt I was adequately angered and annoyed, we were allowed to go and we set off for our lunch appointment at a local restaurant, and I have to say that my excitement for the rest of the tour was really beginning to wane.

The lunch isn’t really worth writing about, a simple all-you-can-eat buffet with similar offerings to the resort, in a back-street restaurant overlooking the River Nile. Neither of us really felt like eating at this point but I forced myself to one plateful, a decision I was going to regret later that evening as I spent the next few days being incredibly unwell. We had been told that we would be taking a boat across the river to return to Luxor, and we could see the small jetty just at the end of the restaurant’s grounds. Soon we saw a boat ambitiously named Titanic and made jokes that it was probably for us knowing our luck, and as we finished lunch we found out that it was in fact waiting for us and the jokes started to seem a lot less funny! So, boarding the Titanic, we hoped and prayed for an uneventful crossing of the Nile, and that we wouldn’t end up like the many sunken boats that were visible on both banks. Crossing the Nile wasn’t as romantic as it had originally sounded, however it was a nice change from being driven around in the minibus. It was surprisingly quiet, I don’t remember seeing any other boats crossing nearby, and quite possibly the most relaxing part of the tour. Happily we made it across without incidence, and made our way back to our minibus for the journey to our last stop, Karnak Temple.

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Unfortunately by the time we got to Karnak Temple Ms Lust was really suffering with the heat, so it was decided that I would go for the guided tour while she stayed behind in the air-conditioned visitor centre. Karnak Temple is one of the largest ancient religious sites in the world, second only to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, so it’s really not the kind of place to explore if you’re not feeling 100%. Unfortunately this does mean that you’re going to have to rely solely on my memory for information here, so I will apologise for that now! Building at this site went on for approximately two millennia, with each pharaoh adding their own temples and monuments, and as a result the area covered by the temple site today is around 200 acres, depending on the source. This is split into many smaller temples dedicated to various gods and pharaohs, surrounding the great Hypostyle Hall. This is a 5000 m² room filled with 134 columns, all of which are completely covered in hieroglyphics carved into the stone. The most impressive of these are the 12 central columns, built to resemble the papyrus plant.

Before you even enter the temple itself, your way is paved with incredible statues and the larger monuments from inside the temple are already visible. The entrance way is lined with an avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, leading up to the impressive, yet unfinished, first pylon. Each sphinx holds a miniature statue of Ramses II, who ordered their construction, and this is a good introduction to what awaits inside. Once there, everywhere you look there are statues of pharaohs and their wives or other family members. This even went as far as Ramses III building an elaborate temple, lined with statues of himself on both sides. Two fine examples of these are the statue of Ramses II and his daughter Bent’anta, and the statues of Tutankhamun and his wife Ankhesenamun (see Ms Lust’s post for a photo of these ones). To be honest, I was just happy to have seen a likeness of Tutankhamun that isn’t his famous golden funerary mask.

Obelisks

After exploring a couple of the temples here, we progressed through into the Hypostyle Hall. The largest, and most impressive, area of the whole temple, this room really does highlight their dedication and skills in constructing such an awe inspiring place. As I mentioned before there are 134 columns making up the hall, with huge blocks placed on top. These blocks weigh approximately 70 tons each and there is still speculation over how they managed to place them onto the columns. Areas where the carvings have been protected from sunlight have kept their original colour, although not as bright and impressive as the paintings in the tombs at the Valley of the Kings it is incredible nonetheless. We moved through the hall to an area behind where three great obelisks once stood. Unfortunately only the base of one of these remains, but the other two are still intact. For me, these were the most impressive monuments in the temple. The largest of these two was constructed for Queen Hatshepsut and still remains in excellent condition. Originally two obelisks were constructed (the other one has fallen with only the base still in situ, as mentioned above) and they were the tallest obelisks in the world at the time of their construction. Standing at over 28 metres and weighing over 340 tons, the one that remains intact is the tallest surviving ancient obelisk on Earth. Carved out of one piece of stone and likely to have been quarried in Aswan, it is still a mystery how the ancient Egyptians would have transported and raised this huge monument.

As we made our way further through the temple, we came to the Sacred Lake. This is a man-made lake used by priests for ritual washing, and still remains in the same condition today as it would have been when it was first built. Daily sound and light shows take place in this section of the temple, in various languages to satisfy most visitors. This was the point at which we turned around and started to head back through the temple. One interesting fact that our guide explained on our way back was that after the Romans conquered Egypt, many of the temples were used as stables or barracks as a way of demeaning and eradicating ancient Egyptian religion and traditions. Karnak Temple was no exception, and there are sections of the temple where evidence of this is still apparent. Holes drilled into columns to be used for tying up horses and deep grooves carved into blocks as soldiers sharpened their blades, are all reminders of this disrespect.

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Walking back out of the temple, I was still in total awe of everything I saw. This place is so huge that it’s impossible to see it all in one go, so we have a perfect excuse for a follow-up visit so Ms Lust can also see it for herself. Our guide and I hurried through the obligatory marketplace (I think at this point he had realised how irritated we were getting) and I was reunited with Ms Lust, who I am glad to say was already feeling much better. As I said before, Karnak Temple was the last stop on our tour, so all that was left to do now, after driving around for what seemed like ages to find water and an ATM, was to make the long drive back to Marsa Alam. Again this was fairly uneventful, especially as there were not too many hours of daylight left. Arriving back at the resort, tired and incredibly weary, I think I was still trying to take it all in. With so much history and magnificent architecture all crammed into or around one city, it becomes easy to imagine what it may have been like when it was originally constructed but still so difficult to comprehend how it was achieved in the first place. So on these thoughts we drifted off to sleep, and that seems like the perfect place to leave you now as well.

Happy travels,

Mr Wander

When in Rome…

Dear readers,

When Ms Lust asked me to make a list of places I would like to visit for my birthday, and knowing that we would be going for about four to five days, Rome was an obvious choice for inclusion which came to me without any need for thought. I’ve wanted to visit Rome for a long time, it just never seemed the kind of place to visit alone. So, now that I’ve found my perfect travel and life companion, I couldn’t think of anywhere better to go (Paris came in joint first place). I was drawn to Rome by the rich history of the city and the legacy of the Roman Empire, and the romantic atmosphere added another element I was sure to enjoy.

Castel Sant'AngeloWith that in mind, all the bookings were left for Ms Lust to make, and she did an excellent job. Our hotel was within easy reach of the city centre, which made exploring and reaching the main sights a breeze. She even managed to find a great restaurant in the neighbourhood which provided an excellent birthday dinner, but more on that later.

With my birthday being in the middle of winter, the weather was an important factor for Ms Lust when deciding where we would go. Being Sardinian she naturally didn’t want to go anywhere too cold (Bratislava had burnt that bridge already, more on that later in the year!), which is one of the reasons Rome was chosen over Paris. Unfortunately, as is often the case, the weather didn’t play along and we found ourselves once again exploring a city in the freezing cold. And when I say it was cold, I don’t mean that it was cold for Rome, it was during the ‘big freeze’ that caused so many problems in Central Europe and it was cold for pretty much anywhere! Most of the fountains were frozen to some degree, and the Sun did little to provide any respite from the biting wind. And there is the silver lining, yes it was very cold, but it was also sunny and dry for most of our stay and this allowed us to explore to our heart’s content (well wrapped up of course!).

When visiting a place as famous as Rome, it’s often difficult to deviate too much from the main tourist trail and therefore our itinerary was mostly chosen for us. Places such as the Colosseum and the Vatican City, albeit very crowded and touristy, just have to be included in any first-timer’s plans. So the places we would try to visit were more or less decided, however there was more to Rome that I wanted to experience than just the buildings. The first World Cup I can remember was Italia ‘90, and the sound of Pavarotti belting out Nessun Dorma will always bring those memories flooding back. I just had to experience my own slice of Italian culture first-hand, and I started looking for operas or concerts we could watch while we were in Rome. I also wanted to indulge in some true Italian dining experiences, and with my own personal guide there was no time like the present! So I guess this is how I’m going to split this post up, with my experiences of Roman attractions, culture, and cuisine.

Attractions and architecture

Most people would be able to name and describe the main sights in Rome, without even having to visit there. This is true of most major cities and tourist destinations, but I firmly believe that no amount of photographs or videos can compare to seeing these ancient wonders with your own eyes. As I have mentioned in previous posts, thinking of how these grand, ancient buildings were constructed all those years ago really does astonish me. In Rome, I felt like this from the moment the airport shuttle bus took us to the city centre right up until the moment it brought us back again. Everywhere you look there are buildings and ruins from the days of the Roman Empire, interspersed with magnificent Renaissance artwork and architecture. No matter how modernised and commercialised Rome may get, I don’t think it will ever feel very far removed from the Rome that the great emperors once knew. There is history in every street, and I wouldn’t be surprised if every building in this city has a fascinating story to tell.

The first major attraction that we visited was the Vatican City, and the Vatican museums. Unfortunately we were unable to visit the Sistine Chapel due to an early closure for the day, but it was incredibly impressive nonetheless. I haven’t visited very many art galleries previously, and I am far from being knowledgeable about anything art-related, and the galleries in the Vatican museum have probably ruined the experience of any I may visit in the future! The walls and the ceilings are absolutely covered with fine paintings from the most famous artists, accompanied by Greek and Roman sculptures and finished with more gold than I have ever seen in my life. Whilst a little extravagant for my taste, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale, history, and magnificence of their collection. I truly recommend it to everyone that visits Rome, and I’m sure we will come here again to finally see the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s masterpiece. The exterior is no less impressive, with St Peter’s Basilica dominating the square. However we had arranged to have lunch with one of Ms Lust’s friends, so this would have to wait until another day.

Via della Conciliazione

The following day was dedicated to the ancient Roman part of Rome, namely the Colosseum and the Forums. I am so glad that these places, although major tourist attractions, have not become too commercialised and have managed to remain authentic. With the exception of a few educational boards at the entrances and directional signs to stop too many tourists getting lost, very little seems to have been added to these ancient constructions. Even though they are obviously in a worse state of repair now than when they were first built, it really is easy to imagine yourself in ancient Rome while exploring here, especially in the Forums. I’m very glad that the institutions that look after these sites have decided to let the buildings themselves do the talking and ignite imaginations, and I sincerely hope it remains this way. Whilst the Colosseum didn’t take a huge amount of time to visit, the Forums were another story. You really should set aside a whole day just for this part of the city, to avoid the risk of missing out on the whole experience.

On our last day in Rome, we really only had the morning for further explorations before needing to head back to the airport. After some deliberation, we decided this would be ideal to return to the Vatican City in order to see the interior of St Peter’s Basilica. Despite not being religious, I couldn’t help but to be impressed with the rich history of this area. Added to this is the fact that everything looks so pristine and well-preserved, certainly not as you would expect for their age! This really isn’t like any other church or cathedral you may have visited, and worthwhile even if you are not that interested in the spiritual aspect of it.

But this was by no means the only places we managed to visit in Rome, just the major attractions that took the most time. The Trevi Fountain was the only fountain we saw that wasn’t frozen to some degree, and we fulfilled our tourist obligations by tossing a coin over our shoulders in accordance with tradition! Whilst it wasn’t too busy at the time we were there, I have been warned that it can become quite crowded and to be wary of pickpockets in this area. However it is well worth a visit, just be sure to take some coins with you!

The Spanish Steps were completely different to my perception of how they would be, and I was glad for that. Based on descriptions from friends that had visited previously, my imagination conjured up images of a grand, wide, outdoor staircase, so crowded with street traders shoving roses in your face and men proposing to their partners that you may not even be able to see they were there. Maybe it was due to visiting after dark, but fortunately this was not the case. Sure there is a grand staircase, and there are many couples embracing each other in one way or another, but it wasn’t too crowded and had many other beautiful features to compliment the steps as well. There is a lovely, small fountain resembling a boat at the base of the steps, which themselves lead up to a wonderful looking church that unfortunately we didn’t have time to venture inside.

I could go on a lot longer about all the wonderful things we saw in Rome, but this post is already becoming incredibly wordy! My advice is this, take some time to just wander around the city and take in the sights as you go. Even if you don’t plan it at all and just walk aimlessly around, there are amazing things to see absolutely everywhere and you will be astounded at every turn.

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Culture

If you’re looking for an in-depth cultural analysis of Rome, I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed. Ms Lust’s post is likely to be a lot more informative, as her knowledge of Italian culture is unsurprisingly a lot better than mine! However as I have mentioned already, another part of the reason I wanted to visit Rome is to experience some authentic Italian music. After a bit of researching on the internet, I came across a church called St Paul’s Within the Walls which hosts musical concerts frequently. The concert that really caught my eye was called Tre Tenori, and if you visit Rome I would highly recommend it if it is still playing. As the name suggests this is a Three Tenors styled concert, with an accompanying string quartet, and in an amazing setting. The venue is small so you won’t have to worry too much about getting a good view or being able to hear, however my advice is still to arrive early to secure the best seats, and tickets are not expensive either. With regards to the show itself, these guys certainly do not disappoint, and you’ll be listening in awe to some well-known classics in no time. I’m not going to spoil it by listing all the songs that were performed, I’ll just say that my wish for some Pavarotti themed entertainment was most definitely fulfilled.

After this I couldn’t help myself not to check their website to see if any other concerts were playing while we were in town, and as a result we ended up returning to the same venue a couple of days later. This time it was for Luminaria, a piano recital and soprano performance which was equally as impressive as the Tre Tenori concert and the church was made even more impressive when lit by candlelight. However the songs were less famous (to me anyway!), and I can’t help but to favour our first visit overall. It would seem that any concert in this fine setting is worth seeing, so even if neither of these concerts are running I’d still recommend seeing what’s on and giving something a go.

The other stars on the cultural front were the Italian public themselves. I don’t mean to make fun of them, but in certain situations they are so entertaining! I had heard about the Italian style of driving before, so I was already expecting to be run over at least three times during our stay and to hear nothing but the sound of car horns for the entire trip. But I didn’t expect them to be so innovative in their driving practices. What should you do if there is a left lane and a right lane, but you want to go straight ahead? Well you simply drive half way between the two and create a lane of your own of course! And if you ever have to chance to witness Italians queueing for a bus, please do not pass it up as you won’t find anything more entertaining elsewhere!

Cuisine

With all this exploring and sightseeing we certainly worked up an appetite, and you don’t have to ask me twice when Italian food is involved so this naturally became a bit part of our trip. It began in a small restaurant near our hotel with a coffee and a sfogliatella (a lobster tail shaped pastry), and I was already hooked. We ended up coming back to this restaurant for my birthday meal, not only for the food but for the great service and friendly atmosphere as well.

Obviously pizza and pasta were the main dishes of the holiday, and there were good ones and some not so good ones. Unfortunately some places in Rome cater solely for tourists, and as such are less concerned for the quality and authenticity of their food and their establishments. My advice for choosing where to eat in Rome is this, avoid the city centre and take advice from locals if you can. With the exception of the restaurant I mentioned above, all the good restaurants we visited were suggested by friends that either live or have lived in Rome, and they were all outside of the main city centre. Try a small, back‑street trattoria, you’re more likely to find a true Italian experience here than anywhere else.

Also, don’t be scared to try something new. A margherita or a pepperoni pizza isn’t going to taste all too different than it does at home, neither will spaghetti bolognese, they will just be made with fresher ingredients and in the traditional way. Take the opportunity to try some traditional Italian recipes, you’ll be surprised what can be good as a pizza topping (I even had one with salad on it!!). I also discovered a wonderful, new dessert as well, forming a new love for pannacotta. So much so I even managed to find a recipe and recreate it myself back in the UK. I also had the chance to have breakfast as the Italians do (imagine a French breakfast, but with a complete disregard for diabetics!), which although it hasn’t convinced me to change my normal habits, it’s an experience I am grateful for and would recommend.

I had an unbelievable time in Rome, and every moment was filled with discovery and wonder. There is so much to see and do here that we just couldn’t fit it all in, but that just means we have a great excuse to go back! We already have another long weekend’s worth of places to see and things to do on the wish list, so stay tuned for our return visit at some point. But for now, I’m going to leave it here and I hope you have enjoyed reading about our experiences in the Eternal City.

Happy travels!

Mr Wander

***

Dear readers,

Have you ever had any dream places to visit? That kind of places that make you decorate your room with posters and have a piggy bank with stickers of the city to save money and go? Maybe not, maybe I am that kind of weird, but I did. I had two places that were like that in my dreams. When I was a kid, that place was Rome, while as an adult the dream city was New York. There is a big risk in doing that: You end up idolising the place so much that it will be utterly disappointing once visited. It is what happened to me for New York, but then the company was the reason for that, so I am looking forward to going back to make up for that. As per Rome, it seems strange to think that I made a big deal of it considering how close it was to me. Well, I said already in the introduction that travelling was not a thing at home.

Anyway, for a long while I dreamt of visiting the Eternal City but I didn’t have a clear plan to do it.  The culture, the ruins of the ancient civilisation, the allure of a capital city were extremely seductive but I never managed to visit properly until now. I had the chance to go twice before, always for one night, once on the way back from Tuscany, and another time for Pope Johann Paul II’s funeral. They were both very peculiar experiences, but none of them allowed me to enjoy the city at my pace. The first time I stayed in a mansion with one wing all to my parents and myself, because there is where my aunt was staying at the moment, but a lot of ceremonies would not allow for too much time out. The second time, having graduated a few days before and with a huge need for a change of air even if just for a few days, I just booked the boat ticket and went. That time, I slept on the cobblestones of Via della Conciliazione with thousands of other followers and tourists that converged there in an extremely surreal atmosphere. With this as a background, you can imagine why, when Mr Wander shortlisted Paris and Rome for his birthday, the reduced budget directed me to an obvious choice: We were going to visit Roma Capoccia!

Rome

As it was all on me to plan as a treat to Mr Wander, I had some flexibility. Not happy about that, I planned very little. It doesn’t make sense to go to a place like Rome for four days and have a tight schedule that falls into pieces if one time slot moves. We downloaded a Rome in 4 days itinerary to have an idea of what we could include, but we immediately decided to discard the general idea of ten minutes slots for lunch and mad ideas like that.

Things you absolutely want to plan ahead:

  • Book your bus to/from the airport, queueing is a nightmare in Italy and, even with a booked seat, you will be scared of not getting on the bus on time!
  • Book your visit to the Vatican Museums and allow at least 4-5 hours before closing time, we ended up in one of those last minute tours because everything was booked already (we went on a Bank Holiday weekend!) and we missed the Sistine Chapel, epic fail! Nonetheless, we saw so many masterpieces that have been covering the walls of my room in ancient times, The School of Athens by uncle Raphael above all.
  • If you go in winter, pack extra layers, we ended up there on the coldest week of the year, with frozen fountains and sights that were uncommon for locals and tourists alike, but in general the buildings are not planned for a cold weather and everywhere is chilly and full of drafts, restaurants and bars in particular.
  • Walk as much as you can, we got four 90-min bus tickets to start with and we used them the last day to go back to the  station; it may sound like a stereotype, but there is so much to see in every corner and every street that the vast majority of works of art would be missed if travelling by bus.

Food in Italy is a must and we had awesome lunches and dinners everywhere apart from the first night. I never thought Rome could be so cheap but, trust me, we ate scrumptious meals and paid ridiculously cheap bills. The Roman specialties are so many that we could not even cover a tenth of the basic list. If you are staying near the UK embassy like we were, two places are not to miss: Da Gianni (Via Montebello 130), not only is the food amazing, but the staff are incredibly nice, you are not a customer, you are immediately part of the family, and the waiter will tell you want you want to order… trust me, let him do it, he knows his stuff! Pizzeria Bella Napoli (Via Alessandria 13) was suggested by a local and we are glad we gave it a shot, superb pizza, a full belly when walking out, and only the regret of not having ordered the chard like the couple next to us did! Also not to miss is Trastevere, the neighbourhood across the river that made the Roman food scene so famous thanks to its trattorie. We were lucky enough to have a local showing us around and taking us to a delicious hidden place called Dar Poeta. This was a special treat for us, Jenn, our local guide, is one of the best persons I have ever met, and to have the chance to spend a few hours with her and to  introduce her to Mr Wander would have been special enough without adding all the rest. After the meal we just wandered in the little streets of Trastevere and breathed in a little of the Rome that Cinecittà celebrated in its works of art. As it was January, the sunset was early enough and we managed to see it when while crossing the river again.

In a way, we tried to follow a path that was related to movies and TV series, or at least I did. We went to Fontana di Trevi to throw our coin, but we didn’t get in like Anitona did in La Dolce Vita; we went to Trinità dei Monti and Piazza di Spagna to see the famous place that gave the name to an Italian TV series that may have had only me as an audience when I was a kid; we visited the Colosseo and the Fora to see the Circo Massimo from Ben Hur. Of the things in our list, we left out the Mouth of Truth from Roman Holidays, which will be the first one next time.

Main suggestions on what to be prepared for:

  • Chaos, everywhere, it is in our genes, from boarding a bus to defiantly crossing the street in front of an ambulance with sirens on;
  • Disturbing breakfasts, from croissant-inspired pastries that taste more like stale bread than actual pastry, to tea and juices that don’t help you start the day with the right foot;
  • Uneasiness, with tank-looking military cars and two soldiers with rifles outside every metro station, the city seemed more like a war-torn territory than a peaceful city celebrating the end of the Christmas season.

I could spend hours talking about the sculptures, the fountains, the monuments, and the ruins, and maybe I will in another post, but for this time I just want to tell you one thing that is easy to miss and you should not miss at all. You may know what a genius Bernini was, and that nothing he would do was casual, every piece of art is charged with symbolism and is mathematically perfect. When he planned the colonnade of St Peter’s, he wanted it to look like the arms of the basilica reaching out to the believers and enclosing them in a hug. When he laid out the columns, he lined them so perfectly that if you stand in a specific spot you don’t see them all scattered as they usually do, you just see the rows all perfectly aligned. People always stand on that spot without knowing what it is and they miss out something incredible. When we arrived, a group of guys were standing on top of the tile and had no idea. We told them and they were amazed when they saw what we meant. Next time you go, watch out for this:

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A presto,

Ms Lust