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

***

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

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

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