Zagreb – Croatia

Our next stop was Zagreb in Croatia 🇭🇷 .

Zagreb is the capital of Croatia. Croatia is a country situated in the western Balkans. It is to the east side of the Adriatic Sea, to the east of Italy. It is also bordered by Slovenia to the northwest, Hungary to the north, Bosnia and Herzegovina to the southeast, Serbia in the east, and Montenegro to the south. Croatia is geographically diverse; flat agricultural plains along the Hungarian border (Central European area), low mountains and highlands near the Adriatic coastline and islands. There are 1,246 islands and it’s highest point is Dinara, at 1,830 metres. Northern Croatia has a temperate continental climate whereas the central and upland regions have a mountainous climate.

We arrived into Zagreb at lunchtime on Sunday and it was raining – two cool days in a row was a bit of a shock to the system after months of sunshine and hot temperatures! It was very straight forward clearing customs and collecting our bags – in fact our bags beat us out – a first 👍🏻. When you travel with golf bags you become accustomed to waiting for your bags. We had booked a private transfer to the hotel which was convenient.

Our studio apartment was really centrally located. The staff were great and after checking us in proceeded to give us some information on places to see and eat. It was Sunday so not a lot was open. We found a food hall though and had the most delicious Asian dishes – they were hot and filling – great comfort food on a dreary Sunday.

Monday was business as usual though – cloudless blue skies – a little chilly to start with but it soon heated up. I did an early morning walk around the city which was nice. I had my map in hand but it is a very logically laid out city.

We went and had some breakfast before perusing the shops and then checking out rental cars and Segway Tours. Next stop after Zagreb is Split so we decided the best option for getting there was to hire a car for the day – we could then see the Plitvice Lakes National Park enroute.

I then made a call to the Segway City Tour Zagreb to book a tour – they could fit us in at 12.30pm which was perfect. While I was on the phone this couple started walking towards me – I was focused on the call but thought why are these people coming at me. It turns out the couple who were coming towards me were friends from NZ whom we used to play golf with in Auckland – Colin & Lee. What a coincidence to bump into them all the way over here. They are in Croatia to do a bus tour which started the next day.

After catching up on all the news and making plans for dinner the next night we went in search of lunch before our tour. There are so many nice bakeries with great selections – I love the quality of the bread they bake – my true weakness in life!

We met our Segway guide Anamarije at Hotel Esplanade. Even though we had used a Segway before she still put us through our paces and tested our competencies. Once we had passed her tests we were on our way.

Our first stop was opposite the Railway Station in one of the parks that forms the Lenuci Horseshoe. The Lenuci Horseshoe is the 19th century patchwork of squares and parks which are home to numerous scientific and cultural institutions and they represent the high point of Zagreb’s urban planning by Milan Lenuci. The Horseshoe connects seven parks including the Botanical Gardens. This area is part of what they call the Lower Town which was established in the 19th century to attract more people to live and work in Zagreb.

The park opposite the Railway Station is called Trg Kralja Tomislava after the first President of the Croatian Kingdom back in 925. The statute of him on top of a horse sits at the entrance to this park.

Getting back to the Railway Station – Anamarije advised us not to use the railway services in Croatia as she doesn’t believe they are up to standard. It was a nice looking building though.

Anamarije then told us she would give us the shortest history lesson about Croatia and how it came to be – she did well because according to my research Croatia has had a complex history being part of many different dynasties over the years.

See below the simplest history I could find 😊. I am currently reading Goodbye Sarajevo which is set in the early 1990’s in Bosnia and Croatia – it is hard to believe that these events happened in my lifetime and continue to happen in some parts of the world today 😔.

We rode alongside three of the parks and stopped at the entrance to Zrinjevac Park to see the Meteorological Post. This was erected in 1884 to collect weather data. It still collects weather data to this day but it is not used in official records although it is still accurate. The vintage weather instruments are wound up every Monday. You can see it plotting the humidity, temperature and pressure – this tape is also replaced weekly.

We then arrived at the town square. The square has existed since the 17th century. Its first name was Harmica.

In 1848, the square was renamed to its present name – Ban Jelačić Square. A large statue of ban Josip Jelačić on a horse, created by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominik Fernkorn was installed on 19 October 1866 by Austrian authorities, despite protests from Zagreb councilmen. It also caused unease amongst Hungarians, who see Jelacic as a traitor. Count Josip Jelačić von Bužim (16 October 1801 – 20 May 1859) was the Ban (Noble) of Croatia between 23 March 1848 and 19 May 1859. He was a member of the House of Jelačić and a noted army general, remembered for his military campaigns during the Revolutions of 1848 and for his abolition of serfdom in Croatia.

A horsecar line passing through the square’s southern side was introduced in 1891. In 1910–11 horses were replaced by electric trams.

In 1946, the square was renamed Trg Republike (Republic Square). Jelačić’s statue was removed in 1947 as the new Communist government of Yugoslavia denounced him as a “servant of foreign interests”. Antun Bauer, a curator of the Gliptoteka gallery, kept it in the gallery cellar.

After World War II, car traffic through the square intensified. In 1975, the square became a car-free zone.

On 11 October 1990, during the breakup of Yugoslavia and after the 1990 elections in Croatia, and Jelačić’s historic role has again been considered positive and the statue was returned to the square but on the north portion facing the south. The name of the square has again been changed to his second name, after Josip Jelačić.

Jelačić Square is the most common meeting place for people in Zagreb. There is an insignificant clock at one end of the square which the locals use as a meeting point – ‘meet you at the clock’.

We then rode through Ribnjak Park which isn’t part of the Horseshoe but sits below the walls to the Cathedral which is in the Upper Town. What an awesome park – it was set up for a kids festival with all sorts of cool activities. It was fun doing a bit of off roading on the Segway.

We then headed further away from the city to see Mirogoj, Zagreb’s largest cemetery. We had been told by a couple of sources that it was worth visiting and they weren’t wrong – it is like an open air sculpture park. The 500 metre long Neo-Renaissance arcades, designed by Herman Bolle, are one of the finest examples of historicist architecture in Croatia. It is a burial ground for people of various faiths and a testament to the religious tolerance where segregation of graves is strictly forbidden. The first funeral held here was in 1876. It is the final resting place of many famous Croatians.

We then went to visit the Upper Town which is actually the coming together of two rival neighbouring villages Gradec and Kaptol.

In 1242 King Bella IV of Hungary and Croatia proclaimed Gradec a free royal city allowing its citizens a higher degree of autonomy, including the right to choose a mayor. In return, they delivered on the promise to fortify Gradec with walls and towers, creating an urban landscape still recognisable today. The 13th century design also included several gates, although the Stone Gate is the only one to survive into the present day. From the very beginning the main square featured St Mark’s Church, even though the original was smaller than the one built in it’s place later on.

At the peak of Ottoman expansion in the late 15th and early 16th centuries Zagreb was an important line of defence. Fortified walls and towers were also built around Kaptol which is where the cathedral sits.

The city grew into an important mercantile and craft centre, attracting settlers from all over the Hapsburg Empire. The population mushroomed and new schools and hospitals were opened, establishing Zagreb as the economic and cultural hub of Croatia. The unification of Gradec and Kaptol in 1850 served to confirm its growing status. Infrastructure developed fast; the first railway to Zagreb was opened in 1862 (you would have thought they could get it right by now 😉), the city gasworks were established one year later, and by 1878 Zagreb had its own water supply.

In 1880 Zagreb was struck by a catastrophic earthquake which destroyed much of its historic core, including Zagreb Cathedral. As devastating as it was, the event pushed the city toward an unprecedented modernisation. The development of the Lower Town mentioned above began. From 1917 to 1925 several universities and colleges were established. And in 1926 Zagreb became home to the first radio station in this part of Europe.

Zagreb became the capital of Croatia when it declared independence in 1991. It is home to about 1 million people now which is just under 25% of the total population in Croatia.

The Zagreb Cathedral is the tallest building in Croatia. The earthquake in 1880 saw the main nave collapse and the tower was damaged beyond repair. As part of its restoration two spires of 108 metres were added. The stone used at the time was of poor quality so extensive restoration works began 30 years ago and they’re still not finished. It is a bit of a joke with the locals and Anamarije wonders whether she will see the scaffolding around the right tower removed in her lifetime – she has only ever known it with the scaffolding

We also visited St Mark’s Square which is in Gradec. On one side of the Square is the Parliament buildings and on the other is the Governmental buildings. The Church of St Marks is also in the square – it has a mosaic tiled roof which is quite unique. The tiles are laid so that they represent the coat of arms of Zagreb (white castle on red background) and Triune Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia and Dalmatia.

The Parliament buildings were bombed by Serbia in 1991 but fortunately no one was in them so there were no casualties. The President is now located in another part of the city.

The President of Croatia, officially styled the President of the Republic, is the head of state, commander in-chief of the military and chief representative of the Republic of Croatia both within the country and abroad. The President is the holder of the highest office within the Croatia’s order of precedence, however, the president is not the head of the executive branch (“non executive president”) as Croatia has a parliamentary system in which the holder of the post of Prime Minister is the most powerful person within the country’s constitutional framework and within everyday’s politics.

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is a Croatian politician and diplomat serving as the 4th and current President of Croatia since 2015. She is the first woman to be elected to the office since the first multi-party elections in 1990. At 46 years of age, she also became the youngest person to assume the presidency.

The Croatian Parliament or the Sabor is the unicameral representative body of the citizens of the Republic of Croatia; it is Croatia’s legislature. Under the terms of the Croatian Constitution, the Sabor represents the people and is vested with legislative power. The Sabor is composed of 151 members elected to a four-year term on the basis of direct, universal and equal suffrage by secret ballot. Seats are allocated according to the Croatian Parliament electoral districts.

The Government of Croatia is the main executive branch of government in Croatia. It is led by the President of the Government or prime minister. The prime minister is nominated by the President of the Republic from among those candidates who enjoy majority support in the Croatian Parliament; the candidate is then chosen by the Parliament. There are 20 other government members, serving as deputy prime ministers, government ministers or both; they are chosen by the prime minister and confirmed by the Parliament (Sabor). The Government of the Republic of Croatia exercises its executive powers in conformity with the Croatian Constitution and legislation enacted by the Croatian Parliament. The current government is led by Prime Minister Andrej Plenković.

We then went back down to the Lower Town where we completed the horseshoe via the last three parks and then past the Botanical Garden which closed at 2pm that day.

Once again we had thoroughly enjoyed our Segway tour – we covered about 11km in three hours and learnt so much about Zagreb. It really is a lovely city and although it is busy it is hard to believe it is home to one million people.

After the tour we went up to what they call ‘culture street’ to have a drink – there are lots of bars and restaurants up this alley behind the town square. The area has a great atmosphere but again the smoking in public is a real downer. In Croatia, you can smoke in almost every bar and night club 😬.

The next day I visited the Botanical Gardens and Steve wandered around the shops. The Botanical Gardens were well laid out with lots of species and information on the different plants. They weren’t super attractive but I liked the giant Lilly pads.

We then met up for lunch at La Struk – this restaurant serves a local specialty called Strukli. Zagorski Strukli is a unique traditional Croatian dish served in most households across Hrvatsko Zagorje and Zagreb. It is made from special dough and fresh cottage cheese. There are two types – kuhani Strukli meaning boiled and peceni Strukli meaning baked. We shared a baked one and it was yummy. They make them fresh so your wait time is about 20 minutes but we both agreed it was worth the wait.

We’re not big Museum people but the Museum of Broken Relationships had come highly recommended and it was something different. Its exhibits include personal objects left over from former lovers, accompanied by brief descriptions.

The “museum” began as a traveling collection of donated items. Since then, it has found a permanent location in Zagreb. It received the Kenneth Hudson Award for Europe’s most innovative museum in 2011.

The museum was founded by two Zagreb-based artists, Olinka Vištica, a film producer, and Dražen Grubišić, a sculptor. After their four-year love relationship came to an end in 2003, the two joked about setting up a museum to house the left-over personal items. Three years later, Grubišić contacted Vištica with this idea, this time in earnest. They started asking their friends to donate objects left behind from their break-ups, and the collection was born.

In the years that followed, the collection went on a world tour, visiting Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Germany, Macedonia, the Philippines, Serbia, Singapore, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Between 2006 and 2010, the collection was seen by more than 200,000 visitors. Along the way, it gathered new items donated by members of the public; more than 30 objects were donated by Berliners alone during the exhibition in that city in 2007.

In the meantime, after unsuccessful attempts to interest the Croatian Ministry of Culture in finding a temporary location for the museum, Vištica and Grubišić decided to make a private investment and rent a 300-square-meter space in Zagreb’s Upper Town, making it the city’s first privately owned museum. The museum, finally opened in October 2010, proved popular with foreign tourists in particular, not only due to its original subject matter.

The museum encourages discussion and reflection not only on the fragility of human relationships but also on the political, social, and cultural circumstances surrounding the stories being told. The museum respects the audience’s capacity for understanding wider historical, social issues inherent to different cultures and identities and provides a catharsis for donors on a more personal level.

It was quite interesting reading all the stories and seeing the items that symbolised the relationships. Some were a little disturbing like the axe but others were quite amusing like the soft toy centipede – this couple had a long distance relationship and they would rip off a leg of the centipede’s each time they were together. The plan was once all the legs were gone they would be permanently together. Only three legs got ripped off and “the centipede was not left an invalid” 😂.

To get to the museum we rode the Funicular – at 66-metres, the track makes it one of the shortest public-transport funiculars in the world.

Next to the Museum is the Lotrščak Tower. Each day at noon they fire a cannon from the tower. Legend has it a cannon shot from the Lotrščak tower soared over the river Sava and landed in the Turks’ encampment, right on a platter of chicken that was being carried to the Pasha for his lunch. The Pasha decided against attacking a city of fearsome sharpshooters so Zagreb escaped invasion. Since this ace shot was fired at noon, a cannon has been fired at that time from the same tower ever since. Sited in the Upper Town, the tower originally was part of the city’s defences, and later served as a prison.

That evening we had dinner with Lee & Colin at Vinodol – this was recommended by our hotel and it was a good recommendation 👍🏻.

Zagreb had been a great city to visit and a good introduction to Croatia.

History of Croatia

Ancient Croatia

Before 5,000 BC the people of what is now Croatia learned to farm although they only had stone tools. Later they learned to use bronze then iron.

After 390 BC Greeks settled in colonies along the coast. Then after 229 BC the Romans gradually took control of Croatia. By 12 AD the Romans ruled it all. The Romans divided up the area into provinces. The coast was made the province of Dalmatia. Part of Croatia became the province of Noricum (which included part of Austria). The rest of Croatia became the province of Pannonia (which included part of Hungary).

In time the Croatian adopted the Roman way of life. The Romans founded new towns and they built roads. However Roman control of Croatia collapsed in the 5th century.

Croatia in the Middle Ages

Early in the 7th century a Slavic people called the Croats migrated to the area. At first they settled in Dalmatia. However in the 8th century they expanded northwards and inland. Two separate Croatian states emerged, one by the coast, the other inland. In the 9th century the inland Croatians became subject to the Franks, a powerful people who ruled most of Europe.

Meanwhile in the 9th century Croatia was converted to Christianity. However the Croats became part of the western Catholic Church based in Rome rather than the Eastern Orthodox Church based in Constantinople.

Meanwhile in the 8th and early 9th centuries trade and commerce grew in Croatia. Roman towns were revived and new towns were created.

Then in the eleventh century King Petar Kresimir (1058-1074) managed to unite the two Croatian states.

However in 1102 the Hungarian king Koloman conquered Croatia.

During the Middle Ages trade and town life flourished in Croatia and many towns grew large and important. However Venice coveted parts of Croatia. In 1202 Crusaders agreed to take the town of Zadar to repay a debt they owed to the Venetians. They captured it in 1204. In 1205 the Venetians captured Dubrovnik and Istria.

In 1358 the Hungarian-Croatian king defeated the Venetians and took back Croatian territory in Dalmatia. However in 1382 Dubrovnik bought its independence. It remained an independent republic until 1808.

Meanwhile the Venetians still had designs on the Croatian coast. In 1409 after a war the king of Hungary-Croatia sold Dalmatia (except Dubrovnik) to Venice. So the Venetians were left in control of Istria and most of Dalmatia.

In 1493 the Ottomans defeated the Croatians at the battle of Krovsko Poje. In 1526 the Hungarians were crushed by the Turks at the battle of Mohacs. The king of Hungary-Croatia was killed and his kingdom passed to an Austrian, Archduke Ferdinand of Habsburg. However the Turks continued to advance and by the late 16th century they controlled most of Croatia.

Yet in the late 17th century the Turks were pushed back. They were driven back from Vienna in 1683 and in 1716 they were defeated at the battle of Petervaradino, which led to the liberation of Croatia.

The 18th century was a relatively peaceful one for Croatia. However Croatian society changed little.

19th Century Croatia

In 1797 Venice was forced to hand over its territory in Croatia to Austria. However in 1809 Napoleon formed the territory in the area into a new state called the Illyrian Provinces but the new state was short lived. After Napoleon was defeated in 1815 the old order returned. Austria took all the territory that once belonged to Venice. The Austrians also took Dubrovnik.

Yet the ideas of the French Revolution did not die out in Croatia. In the early and mid-19th century Croatian nationalism grew and Croatian culture and literature flourished.

Then in 1847 the Croatian parliament, the Sabor made Croatian the official language. It also abolished feudalism.

In 1848 a wave of Revolutions swept across Europe and rebels took power in Hungary. However Hungarians and Croats fell out and they went to war. Yet the Austrian monarchy soon regained power and both Hungary and Croatia became firmly a part of the Austrian Empire again. Still in 1867 the Austrian Empire split into two halves, Austria and Hungary. The Austrian monarch remained the king of both halves but otherwise they were largely independent. Croatia was split. Dalmatia was ruled by Austria while most of Croatia was ruled by Hungary.

In the late 19th century Croatian nationalists were divided into two schools of thought. One wanted a new state uniting all Southern Slavs. The other wanted an independent Croatia.

20th Century Croatia

In 1914 the First World War began. Even before it ended in November 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire was breaking up. Croatia declared its independence in October 1918.

Nevertheless on 1 December 1918 the Croats agreed to join with Slovenes and Serbs to form a new state called the kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Croats soon became disenchanted as they wanted the new state to be federal whereas it became a unitary state. Demands for autonomy were led by Stjepan Radic, who was shot in 1928.

In 1929 King Alexander suspended parliament and introduced a royal dictatorship. The state was renamed Yugoslavia.

In the 1930s there were 2 extremist parties in Croatia. The Communists and the Fascist Ustase, which was founded by Ante Pavelic in 1929.

In 1939 the Yugoslav government gave in to demands for Croatian autonomy and created an autonomous region called the Banovina.

The same year the Second World War began. At first Yugoslavia was neutral but in March 1941 a coup was held by pro-British officers. As a result the Germans attacked Yugoslavia on 6 April 1941 and they quickly conquered the country.

The Germans set up a puppet state in Croatia with the fascist Ustase in charge. However Croatia was liberated by partisans in 1945 and afterwards a Communist regime was imposed.

However during the 1960s nationalism re-emerged in Croatia. Some people demanded more autonomy but in 1971 Tito, the Communist leader put a lid on all demands for reform. However Tito died in 1980.

Communism collapsed in most of Eastern Europe in 1989. The same year non-Communist organisations were formed in Croatia. In May 1990 elections were held. The Croatians sought to leave Yugoslavia but there was a substantial minority of Serbs living in Croatia. In May 1991 the Croatians voted for independence. However on the pretext of protecting Serbs living within Croatian borders the Yugoslav army invaded and a long war began.

Meanwhile the EU nations recognized Croatian independence on 15 January 1992. The war ended in 1995 with the Erdut Agreement. Eastern Slavonia was administered by the UN until 1998 when it was handed over to Croatia.

21st Century Croatia

Croatia joined NATO in 2009. Then in 2013 Croatia joined the EU. Meanwhile tourism is flourishing in Croatia. The population of Croatia is 4.3 million.

The Croatian War of Independence (1991 to 1995)

The Croatian War of Independence was fought from 1991 to 1995 between Croat forces loyal to the government of Croatia—which had declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY)—and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and local Serb forces, with the JNA ending its combat operations in Croatia by 1992. In Croatia, the war is primarily referred to as the “Homeland War”.

A Brief Timeline of events 1989 – 1995 (1998)

1989 – June – 2,000,000 Serbs listen to Milosevic’s speech in Kosovo, where Milosevic threatened the other Yugoslav republics that “armed conflict” is not ruled out by Serbs to achieve their goals of the centralisation of Yugoslavia.

1990 – May – Serb-led Yugoslav People’s Army seize the arms caches of the Territorial Defenses of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina, redistributes arms to Serb “defense committees” and other paramilitary and terrorist groups – violence against Croats and other non-Serbs in mixed areas of Croatia increases, thousands flee to other regions of Croatia for safety.

1990 – June – Serbs in the Dalmatia and Lika declare the: Autonomous Municipalities of Northern Dalmatia and Lika” in Croatia.

1991 – March – Serbia declares the mobilisation of Serbian special forces, Slobodan Milosevic declares on television that “Yugoslavia does not exist anymore.”

1991 – March – Croatian police are ambushed in Plitvice Lakes Croatia, one police officer is killed – attacks against Croats in mixed Serb-Croat areas drastically increases – Serb police and Yugoslav People’s Army troops do nothing to prevent or prosecute it.

1991 – April – Serb terrorists disarm Croatian police in the town of Pakrac – the Yugoslav People’s Army, after distributing arms to Serbian terrorists there, moves in to Pakrac to “separate the warring factions,” essentially consolidating Serb territorial gains – Yugoslav People’s Army begins openly siding with the Serb terrorists in Croatia and ethnically cleansing non-Serbs and Croatia-loyal, democratic Serbs from areas that Serb ultra-nationalists claim to be part of “Greater Serbia.”

1991 – May – Ultra-nationalist Serbs hold a sham election in Croatia and declare union with Serbia.

1991 – May – In response to Serb attacks and the terrorist activities of ultra-nationalist Serbs, 86% of eligible Croatian citizens take part in a referendum on independence, with 94% favouring it.

1991 – June – Croatia declares independence from communist Yugoslavia immediately after Slovenia did the same.

1991 – August – The siege of the Croatian city of Vukovar begins as Serbian armed forces, along with the Serb-dominated Yugoslav People’s Army, begin an open scorched earth and ethnic cleansing policy in areas under their control, and begin savage attacks against free Croatian towns, villages and hamlets, in an attempt to cut Croatia off at four strategic points, and force Croatia to cede over 70% of its territory to Serbia.

1991 – November – The siege of Vukovar, which destroyed most of the city, ends – Serb forces massacre 261 hospital workers, and wounded soldiers taken from the hospital – Serb forces are filmed singing “Hey Slobo send us salad, there will be meat, we will slaughter the Croats” – no Western news agencies translated the song even after there was a complaint to BBC regarding this.

1992 – January – European Community peace negotiators are killed in Croatia after being attacked by a Serbian jet after a cease fire is declared between Croatia and Serbia and Croatian Serbs loyal to Milosevic’s regime in Croatia – Serbs violate the agreement and every subsequent agreement until Operation Storm by continuing ground, artillery and air attacks against Croatia – a total of 10,000 Croatian civilians were killed, 30,000 disabled (4,000 of them children) and almost 300,000 were ethnically cleansed with another 100,000 displaced by fleeing to areas out of Serb artillery and mortars. An additional 400 sick and elderly Croats were killed by Serb police, paramilitary and civilians in areas occupied by Serbian terrorists during the UN presence – not a single investigation was launched by Serb authorities. Croats are barred from returning, and Serbs repeatedly refuse peace negotiations that stipulate non-Serbs returning.

1995 –  May – Operation Flash/The Croatian army captured the self-declared Serb enclave of Western Slavonia in its first major bid to retake territories occupied in 1991. In reply the Croatian rebel Serbs launched a rocket attack on Zagreb, the Croatian capital. Milan Martic, Croatian Serb leader of rebel Serb forces, ordered the shelling of Zagreb, killing six people and wounding many.

1995 – June – Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia falls to Bosnian Serb and regular Serbian army forces – about 8,000 Bosniak (Muslim) men and boys are slaughtered.

1995 – August – Operation Storm/After over four years of endless Serb attacks, with Bihac on the verge of becoming the next Srebrenica, Croatia began this liberation campaign of the Serb self-proclaimed “Krajina” region of Croatia (the US takes action and provides intelligence to Croatian Army as Serb aggression is obvious beyond a shadow of a doubt). This liberating offensive captured in days a region that Serb rebels had held for 4 years. Most of this Serb-occupied area was taken in a 3-day offensive.

1998 –  January – Eastern Slavonia part of Croatia was peacefully reintegrated into Croatia.

From the time of this reintegration Croatia has been faced with a different kind of war – the transition into democracy from the communist Yugoslavia totalitarian regime. Battles are and have been many in this sphere, often strewn with misinformation and anti-Croatian propaganda within Croatia and internationally. The future – self-determination, democracy and freedom – that Croatians defended at overwhelming costs to human life and living during the 1990’s war has not yet arrived. With truth and justice gaining their rightful place it will arrive eventually but not without determined pursuits of both, by all who truly want it.

Some other images from Zagreb….

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Prague – Czech Republic

Prague was one of those places I had heard a lot of people talk about but never really knew much about. Prior to arriving I did some reading and was intrigued by the history – it was one of those lightbulb moments when you start piecing bits of history together that have wafted vaguely on your horizon over the years. The history goes back thousands of years but the history that I am referring to happened in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s when I was of an age to be aware of world events. I have included some information on the Czech Republic below which outlines some more information on the history of the country.

Prague is the capital and largest city in the Czech Republic, the 14th largest city in the European Union and the historical capital of Bohemia. Situated in the north-west of the country on the Vltava river, the city is home to about 1.3 million people, while its larger urban zone is estimated to have a population of 2.6 million. The city has a temperate climate, with warm summers and chilly winters.

Prague is home to a number of famous cultural attractions, many of which survived the violence and destruction of 20th-century Europe. Main attractions include the Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge, Old Town Square with the Prague astronomical clock, the Jewish Quarter, Petřín hill and Vyšehrad. Since 1992, the extensive historic centre of Prague has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

The city has more than ten major museums, along with numerous theatres, galleries, cinemas and other historical exhibits. An extensive modern public transportation system connects the city. Also, it is home to a wide range of public and private schools, including Charles University in Prague, the oldest university in Central Europe.

Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Prague has become one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. Prague suffered considerably less damage during World War II than some other major cities in the region, allowing most of its historic architecture to stay true to form. It contains one of the world’s most pristine and varied collections of architecture, from Romanesque, to Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic, Art Nouveau, Cubist, Neo-Classical and ultra-modern.

As of 2017, the city receives more than 8.4 million international visitors annually. Prague is the fifth most visited European city after London, Paris, Istanbul and Rome.

The Czech name for Prague is Praha which is derived from an old Slavic word, práh, which means “ford” or “rapid”, referring to the city’s origin at a crossing point of the Vltava river. The same etymology is associated with the Praga district of Warsaw.

The English spelling of the city’s name is borrowed from the French. Prague is also called the “City of a Hundred Spires”, based on a count by 19th century mathematician Bernard Bolzano, today’s count is estimated by the Prague Information Service at 500. Nicknames for Prague have also included: the Golden City, the Mother of Cities and the Heart of Europe.

The Vltava river is 430.3 kilometres (267.4 mi) long and drains an area 28,090 square kilometres (10,850 sq mi) in size, over half of Bohemia and about a third of the Czech Republic’s entire territory. As it runs through Prague, the river is crossed by 18 bridges (including the Charles Bridge) and covers 31 kilometres (19 mi) within the city.

After a full days travel we finally got to Prague about 10.30pm – we hadn’t had dinner and although we weren’t super hungry we thought we better have something so we didn’t wake up at 3am ravenous! Most of the restaurants were closing so ham and cheese from the local minimarket did nicely.

We had booked a Segway tour for Thursday morning. We had read that the locals did not like Segways and they were banned from the inner city. Our driver the night before had also expressed his dislike for Segways in no uncertain terms. Apparently they used to just be hired out without guides and with the number of stag parties that frequent the city you can imagine the carnage they caused. We knew our tour was a more panoramic one from the outskirts of the city and we were happy with that.

Our guide Martin was a university student on his holidays – he was very well travelled and was off to do a six month stint at the university in Granada, Spain next.

First stop was the Great Strahov Stadium which was built for displays of synchronised gymnastics on a massive scale with a field three times as long as and three times as wide as the standard Association football pitch. When it was an active sports venue, it had a capacity of around 220,000 spectators, making it the largest stadium and the fourth largest sports venue ever built. Today, it is no longer in use for competitive sports events; it is a training centre for Sparta Prague, and is used to host pop concerts.

The stands are all in varying states of disrepair. It was let go because it was not practical given it’s size. The building of this stadium was an example of how the Russians flexed their muscles to show their dominance back in the communist days. Another example we saw was the TV tower which blights the skyline – it is big and ugly!

We rode through some residential neighbourhoods – there are some grand old houses. The architecture is detailed and the houses solid.

Martin pointed various things out that we could see over the city and gave us some good information as well as tips as to what to and what not to visit. He also wrote down the names of some restaurants for us to try.

We visited the park where the Petřín Lookout Tower (Czech: Petřínská rozhledna) is located. I opted to climb the 299 steps to the top to get a view over the city. Steve & Martin went off to sample the local beer. It appears that it is very common to drink on the job – the guy in the ticket office took a swig of his beer just before he served me. See below some information about the Czech’s and their love affair with beer.

The Petřín Lookout Tower is a 63.5-metre-tall steel-framework tower which strongly resembles the Eiffel Tower. In 1889, members of the Club of Czech Tourists visited the world exposition in Paris and were inspired by the Eiffel Tower. They collected a sufficient amount of money and in March 1891 the building of the tower started for the General Land Centennial Exhibition. It was finished in only four months.

Petřínská rozhledna is often described as a small version of the Eiffel Tower. In contrast to the Eiffel Tower, Petřínská rozhledna has an octagonal, not square, cross-section. Further, it does not stand, as does the Eiffel Tower, on four columns of lattice steel. The whole area under its legs is covered with the entrance hall. It is also five times smaller.

That evening we tried out one of Martin’s recommendations for dinner – Kozlovna – it was a gastro type pub and served lots of the local dishes like pork knuckle, goulash and dumpling soups. Meat features prominently in the Czech’s diets.

We ventured to the Old Town Square which is full of beautiful architecture – coupled with the history, Prague would have to be one of the most enchanting and fascinating places we have visited.

Old Town Square is a historic square in the Old Town quarter of Prague. The square features various architectural styles including the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, which has been the main church of this part of the city since the 14th century; the church’s towers are 80 metres high. Prague Orloj is a medieval astronomical clock located on the Old Town Hall. The clock was first installed in 1410, making it the third-oldest astronomical clock in the world and the oldest one still in operation.

There were street performers and restaurants all around the square along with a lot of tourists.

On Friday morning we walked to Prague Castle which was across the river from where we were staying. I wanted to time our visit with the changing of the guard which we managed to do 😊. Changing the Guard takes place in the first courtyard of Prague Castle at 12pm daily. This is the formal handover carried out with a fanfare and banner exchange. The sentries at the gates of the medieval castle are changed every hour from 7am. I bet they are pleased about that – it must be incredibly boring standing perfectly still while everyone looks at you and takes pictures. Like the Swiss Guards at the Vatican these guards have to be between 178 and 188 centimetres tall too.

Records indicate that Prague Castle is the largest castle area in the world. Its three courtyards and a number of magnificent buildings cover over 7 hectares (18 acres).

The Prague Castle (Pražský hrad) was founded around 880 by prince Bořivoj of the Premyslid dynasty. The first stone building in the castle area was the Church of the Virgin Mary of which only remnants can be seen today. In the 10th century, St. George’s Basilica was founded and the first Czech convent was established there – St. George’s Convent, which now houses a gallery. St. Vitus Rotunda, also from the 10th century, was replaced by St. Vitus Basilica in the 11th century, and it is where St. Vitus Cathedral stands today.

Starting in the 10th century, the Prague Castle served as the seat of Czech princes and later kings, and the seat of the Prague bishop.

The Prague Castle experienced one of its greatest periods during the reign of Charles IV (1346-1378) when it became the seat of the Holy Roman Emperor. The Royal Palace was rebuilt, the fortifications were strengthened, and the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral was initiated, following the style of Gothic French cathedrals of the time.

The expansion of the Castle continued during the reign of Charles’ son Wenceslas IV, but the Hussite wars (1419 – 1437) and the subsequent decades during which the Castle was abandoned lead to its deterioration.

King Wladislaw Jagellon moved into the Castle after 1483 and the complex grew once again. New fortifications and guard towers (the Powder Tower, New White Tower, and Daliborka) were built. The Royal Palace was further remodeled and expanded by the grandiose Wladislaw Hall, one of the first demonstrations of the Renaissance style in the Czech lands.

By the time the Habsburg dynasty took over the Czech throne in 1526, the Renaissance style was in full swing in Europe. The seat of power moved to Vienna and the Prague Castle served mainly for recreational purposes. The Royal Garden was built and entertainment sites such as the Belvedere and Ballgame Hall were added in the 16th century. The Cathedral and Royal Palace were modified. New residential buildings were built to the west of the Old Royal Palace.

The reconstruction of the Castle culminated during the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II who became Czech king in 1575 and moved his court back to Prague. He wished to turn the Castle into an elegant center of power that would attract foreign artists, scientists and diplomats. The north wing of the Palace and the Spanish Hall were added to house the emperor’s vast collections of art and science.

The Prague Defenestration of 1618 initiated a long period of wars during which the Prague Castle was damaged and looted, rarely serving as the seat of power.

The last large reconstruction of the Castle took place in the second half of the 18th century when it took on a style of a chateau. However, the seat of power was again in Vienna and the Castle continued to deteriorate.

In 1848, emperor Ferdinand V moved to the Prague Castle. The Chapel of the Holy Cross on the Second Courtyard was rebuilt and the Spanish Hall and Rudolf’s Gallery were remodeled.

With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918, the Prague Castle welcomed the first president of independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Some needed remodeling was commissioned to the Slovenian architect Josip Plečnik. The construction of St. Vitus Cathedral was finished in 1929.

After 1989, many areas of the Castle were made accessible to the public for the first time in history, including the Royal Garden, Ballgame Hall, the south gardens, or the Imperial Stables. Today, the Prague Castle is the seat of the Czech president and the most important National Cultural Monument of the Czech Republic. A number of priceless art relics, historical documents, as well as the Czech Crown Jewels are stored there.

We wandered back along the river and enjoyed some soup with dumplings at Marina Ristorante which is moored on the Vltava river. This was another of Martin’s recommendations and although a bit pricier than other places we had seen, was very pleasant and a nice setting. There are a lot of boats on the river offering scenic cruises, jazz and meals.

After lunch I spent some more time exploring the old town square – I wanted to find the seven foot tall Sigmund Freud who was hanging from a building somewhere.

This unique sculpture, situated in Prague’s Old Town, is not easily noticeable, as it requires passers-by to look up to the tops of the houses around them. It depicts the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud hanging by a hand, pondering whether to hold on or to let go. It is an unexpected and eye-catching sight, though quite disturbing at the same time. ‘Man Hanging Out’ has often been mistaken for a real suicide attempt and has prompted calls to the Czech fire station and police. Sigmund Freud was born in Freiberg, which is now part of the Czech Republic. During his life Freud suffered from a number of phobias, including the fear of his own death. Artist David Cerny chose to depict the psychoanalyst in his constant struggle with this trepidation.

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We also did some people watching and were highly entertained by the groups of guys who had rolled into town for weekend long stag parties. We saw a couple of groups of hens but the stags are more prevalent. The cheap beer is the big pull and it is a party city at night. Apparently lots of hotels have banned groups of guys booking rooms due to the carnage they cause 🍻 🍻 🍻 😡.

That night we went to a traditional Czech restaurant and shared the pork knee – it was really tender and very tasty. A traditional Czech accompaniment is sauerkraut which is incredibly good for you. Steve took a liking to it too so that will be going on the menu when we get home 👍🏻.

On Saturday morning there is a Farmers Market near Vysehrad alongside the river so we walked down to check that out. It was great with many local delicacies on offer from cheese, meat, cakes, bread, honey, fruit, veges, coffee and of course beer. There were a number of people, including women, walking around with their glasses of beer as they perused the market and this was before 11am. I said to Steve, wow you must be in heaven here and he said “I have my standards – not before 12pm”. Well, who knew 😂 .

We then wandered up to Vysehrad. Vyšehrad (Czech for “upper castle”) is a historic fort.

The history of Vyšehrad is closely connected with the evolution of Prague districts and the history of the Czech nation. The massive rock looming high over the Vltava river was a tempting location for settlements since the most ancient times and became a subject of many legends. However, the first reliable documents of the existence of a hill fort at Vyšehrad only date back to the mid-10th century as the site where denarii (coins) of Boleslaus II were minted. Since then, Vyšehrad has changed its function and appearance several times. It was a royal castle, even the seat of a monarch for a short period of time. It became a city and later, a Baroque fortress the appearance of which it has retained to these days. At the end of the 1800s, Vyšehrad became a national symbol and the cemetery of the most famous Czechs. Today, Vyšehrad is a popular destination for walks with breath-taking views of the city and a number of major monuments.

We were there to witness a bride being escorted into the Basilica of St Paul and St Peter.

I then dragged Steve back up the river to have a look at The Lennon Wall or John Lennon Wall. Once a normal wall, since the 1980s it has been filled with John Lennon-inspired graffiti and pieces of lyrics from Beatles’ songs.

In 1988, the wall was a source of irritation for the communist regime of Gustáv Husák. Young Czechs wrote grievances on the wall and in a report of the time this led to a clash between hundreds of students and security police on the nearby Charles Bridge. The movement these students followed was described as “Lennonism” and Czech authorities described these people variously as alcoholics, mentally deranged, sociopathic, and agents of Western capitalism.

The wall continuously undergoes change and the original portrait of Lennon is long lost under layers of new paint. Even when the wall was repainted by some authorities, by the next day it was again full of poems and flowers. Today, the wall represents a symbol of global ideals such as love and peace.

We crossed the river on the Charles Bridge which was heaving with people and artists.

Prague flourished during the 14th-century reign (1346–1378) of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and the king of Bohemia of the new Luxembourg dynasty. As King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor, he transformed Prague into an imperial capital and it was at that time by the area the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople).

The Charles Bridge, replacing the Judith Bridge destroyed in the flood just prior to his reign, was erected to connect the east bank districts to the Malá Strana and castle area. On 9 July 1357 at 5:31 am, Charles IV personally laid the first foundation stone for the Charles Bridge. The exact time of laying the first foundation stone is known because the palindromic number 135797531 was carved into the Old Town bridge tower having been chosen by the royal astrologists and numerologists as the best time for starting the bridge construction. In 1347, he founded Charles University, which remains the oldest university in Central Europe.

It was back to the Old Town Square for some lunch and people watching – it had actually been a chilly day (one of the first we have had for some months 😲) but the sun was starting to appear again. We had lunch at Mincovna – goulash and cauliflower fritters 😋. Mincovna means coin mint and the restaurant is the site of coin minting back in the 18th century.

We had thoroughly enjoyed our time in Prague and I had learnt a lot. My curiosity had also been piqued on a few other bits and pieces…….

Skoda

Škoda Auto more commonly known as Škoda, is a Czech automobile manufacturer founded in 1895 as Laurin & Klement. Its headquarters are in Mladá Boleslav, Czech Republic.

In 1925 Laurin & Klement was acquired by the industrial conglomerate Škoda Works, which itself became state owned in 1948. After 1991 it was gradually privatized and in 2000 Škoda became a wholly owned subsidiary of the Volkswagen Group.

Škoda automobiles are sold in over 100 countries and in 2017, total global sales reached 1.21 million units, an increase of 6.6% from the previous year, and the operating profit was €1.6 billion, an increase of 34.6% over the previous year. As of 2017, Škoda’s profit margin was the second highest of all VW Group brands after Porsche.

The perception of Škoda in Western Europe has completely changed since the takeover by VW, in stark comparison with the reputation of the cars throughout the 1980s described by some as “the laughing stock” of the automotive world.

Škoda cars are now made in factories in the Czech Republic, China, Russia, India and Slovakia. A smaller number of Škoda models are additionally manufactured in Öskemen, Kazakhstan and Solomonovo, Ukraine through local partners.

Škoda also produce trams and won the contract to supply the Prague Transport Company with 250 new trams between 2011 and 2018.

Beer

Beer or pivo in Czech has a long history in what is now the Czech Republic, with brewing taking place in Břevnov Monastery in 993. The city of Brno had the right to brew beer from the 12th century while Plzeň and České Budějovice (Pilsen and Budweis in German), had breweries in the 13th century.

The most common Czech beers are pale lagers of pilsner type, with characteristic transparent golden colour, high foaminess and lighter flavour. The Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption per capita in the world at 142.6 litres per person per annum (2014 data). NZ’s consumption for the same year was a measly 62 litres per person apart from Steve Thomas who I believe far exceeds this number 😂.

The history of beer in the modern Czech Republic, historically Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, goes back further than the creation of Pilsner Urquell in 1842. Beer was made in the Czech lands even before the Slavic migration in the 6th century, although the ingredients used often differed from what we are used to today.

Hops have been grown in the region for a long time, and were used in beer making and exported from here since the twelfth century. Most towns had at least one brewery, the most famous brewing cities in Bohemia were Budweis, Plzeň, and Prague. Other towns with notable breweries are Rakovník, Žatec, and Třeboň.

Much of the early brewing history of Bohemia is centred on various monasteries, although today there are very few Czech monasteries brewing and selling beer to the public.

Pilsner Urquell was the first “pilsner” type beer in the world. In 1842, a brewery in Plzeň employed Josef Groll, a German brewer who was experienced in the Bavarian lager method of making beer. Beer in Pilsen at the time was not of very good quality and they needed to compete. Groll developed a golden Pilsner beer, the first light coloured beer ever brewed. It became an immediate success, and was exported all over the Austrian Empire. A special train of beer travelled from Plzeň to Vienna every morning. Exports of Czech beer reached Paris and the United States by 1874.

Castles

The Czech Republic is the castle capital of the world. Given its location in the center of Europe, there were armies from all sides who always wanted to come through what is today the Czech Republic. As such, they built a lot of castles. Over 2,000 of them are in the country today which is the highest density of castles in the world. As mentioned above, Prague castle is the largest castle in the world.

Inventions

The Czech Republic invented contact lenses (1959), sugar cubes and the word robot 😯.

Religion

The Czech Republic is the least religious country in the world – only 19% of Czechs believe in God.

Education

90% of all Czechs have completed secondary school – the highest percentage in the European Union.

Famous Tennis Players

Martina Navratilova & Ivan Lendl come from the Czech Republic 🎾

The Czech Republic

The Czech Republic known alternatively by its short-form name, Czechia is a landlocked country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west, Austria to the south, Slovakia to the east and Poland to the northeast. The Czech Republic covers an area of 78,866 square kilometres (30,450 sq mi) with a mostly temperate continental climate and oceanic climate. It is a unitary parliamentary republic, with 10.6 million inhabitants; its capital and largest city is Prague, with 1.3 million residents. Other major cities are Brno, Ostrava and Pilsen. The Czech Republic is a member of the European Union (EU), NATO, the OECD, the United Nations, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe.

It is a developed country with an advanced, high income export-oriented social market economy based in services, manufacturing and innovation. The Czech Republic is a welfare state with a “continental” European social model, a universal health care system and tuition-free university education. It ranks as the 6th safest or most peaceful country and is one of the most non-religious countries in the world, while achieving strong performance in democratic governance.

The Czech Republic includes the historical territories of Bohemia, Moravia, and Czech Silesia. The Czech state was formed in the late 9th century as the Duchy of Bohemia under the Great Moravian Empire. After the fall of the Empire in 907, the centre of power transferred from Moravia to Bohemia under the Přemyslid dynasty. In 1002, the duchy was formally recognized as part of the Holy Roman Empire, becoming the Kingdom of Bohemia in 1198 and reaching its greatest territorial extent in the 14th century. Besides Bohemia itself, the king of Bohemia ruled the lands of the Bohemian Crown, he had a vote in the election of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Prague was the imperial seat in periods between the 14th and 17th century. In the Hussite Wars of the 15th century driven by the Protestant Bohemian Reformation, the kingdom faced economic embargoes and defeated five consecutive crusades proclaimed by the leaders of the Catholic Church.

Following the Battle of Mohács in 1526, the whole Crown of Bohemia was gradually integrated into the Habsburg Monarchy alongside the Archduchy of Austria and the Kingdom of Hungary. The Protestant Bohemian Revolt (1618–20) against the Catholic Habsburgs led to the Thirty Years’ War. After the Battle of the White Mountain, the Habsburgs consolidated their rule, eradicated Protestantism and reimposed Catholicism, and also adopted a policy of gradual Germanization. This contributed to the anti-Habsburg sentiment. A long history of resentment of the Catholic Church followed and still continues. With the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, the Bohemian Kingdom became part of the Austrian Empire and the Czech language experienced a revival as a consequence of widespread romantic nationalism. In the 19th century, the Czech lands became the industrial powerhouse of the monarchy and were subsequently the core of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, which was formed in 1918 following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I.

Czechoslovakia remained the only democracy in this part of Europe in the interwar period. However, the Czech part of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germany in World War II, while the Slovak region became the Slovak Republic; Czechoslovakia was liberated in 1945 by the armies of the Soviet Union and the United States. The Czech country lost the majority of its German-speaking inhabitants after they were expelled following the war. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia won the 1946 elections and after the 1948 coup d’état, Czechoslovakia became a one-party communist state under Soviet influence. In 1968, increasing dissatisfaction with the regime culminated in a reform movement known as the Prague Spring, which ended in a Soviet-led invasion. Czechoslovakia remained occupied until the 1989 Velvet Revolution, when the communist regime collapsed and market economy was reintroduced. On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia peacefully dissolved, with its constituent states becoming the independent states of the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004.

Czechoslovakia, or Czecho-Slovakia – Czech and Slovak, was a sovereign state in Central Europe that existed from October 1918, when it declared its independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until its peaceful dissolution into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on 1 January 1993.

The Prague Spring was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ), and continued until 21 August 1968 when the Soviet Union and other members of the Warsaw Pact invaded the country to halt the reforms.

The Prague Spring reforms were a strong attempt by Dubček to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel. After national discussion of dividing the country into a federation of three republics, Bohemia, Moravia-Silesia and Slovakia, Dubček oversaw the decision to split into two, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic. This was the only formal change that survived the end of Prague Spring.

The Velvet Revolution or Gentle Revolution was a non-violent transition of power in what was then Czechoslovakia, occurring from 16 November to 29 December 1989. Popular demonstrations against the one-party government of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia combined students and older dissidents. The result was the end of 41 years of one-party rule in Czechoslovakia, and the subsequent dismantling of the planned economy and conversion to a parliamentary republic.

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Magical Menorca – Menorca, Spain

After dropping our little car at Pisa Airport we caught the PisaMover back to Pisa Central station. From here we caught three trains to Malpensa Airport in Milan. We were headed for Menorca which is one of the Balearic Islands off Spain in the Mediterranean Sea. We were going to stay with our Scottish friends David & Audrey who have a place in Son Parc on the northern part of the island.

After travelling most of the day and getting to the airport with plenty of time to spare our flight was then delayed. There had been a flash storm which had caused some surface flooding on the runway so our inbound plane couldn’t land – it was diverted to Turin about 150km away. The EasyJet staff were doing their best but really they had no idea what the state of play was – the storm had passed, so theoretically they could land and then get us on our way.

This eventually happened and instead of departing at 4.15pm we eventually left at 7.30pm. Meanwhile I had misplaced my hat somewhere in the airport. This hat was purchased in Portugal in 2014 for 5 Euro and was well used during that nine months we were over this side of the world. We had left the hat in Switzerland at Karin & Elvis’s when we came home in January 2015 and didn’t expect them to keep it for 3.5 years but they did so I was reunited with my hat when we visited in July.

I was a bit sad but it wasn’t life changing. I had a thought that I might see someone else wearing my hat in the airport and when we went to our new departure gate there it was on the head of a little girl. She looked so happy that I didn’t want to spoil her joy so I was happy to let her keep it. Next minute her Dad was wearing the hat too so the joy was spreading 😂. Cest la vie 😊 🎩.

We arrived in Menorca at about 9pm and David was there to greet us 👍🏻. It was about half an hour to Son Parc where Audrey had prepared some solid as well as liquid 🍷 refreshments for us. We had left the hotel in Tuscany at 5.30am that morning but rather than crashing we got a second wind and next minute it was 2am! We had last seen David & Audrey in late 2014 so it was a good old catch up. It seems that all houses in Spain have a name and David & Audrey’s place is called Las Amapolas or The Poppies 🌺. We were looking forward to our few days at Las Amapolas 😊.

As you can imagine it was a bit of a slow start the next day before we took a drive to Mahon which is the capital of Menorca. Because we had arrived in the dark we didn’t see much on our drive to Son Parc so we could now get a feel for the landscape. It reminded us of our time in the Algarve in Portugal and then in the south of Spain in 2014.

Mahon is also where the Port is and that area reminded me of the Caribbean. It was a Sunday but there a few things open and a cruise ship in. We wandered around and then decided on a lovely little place called Bar a vins for lunch – we took the set menu option for 10 Euro each – bread, main, desert and a drink 😊. We went back to the car and headed for the supermarket – enroute some muppet realised he had left his phone behind at the restaurant 😬. David turned the car around and then was kind enough to walk back up all the steps with said muppet to the restaurant where said phone was retrieved. I really shouldn’t be so mean 😜.

That night Steve and David fired up the coal BBQ and cooked some steaks – not as successful as Steve had hoped but it was nice to have a home cooked meal. A case of déjà vu followed and the 🍷 flowed. It wasn’t quite as late as the previous night but it wasn’t far off.

On Monday we went for a walk along the cliff top overlooking some of the bays on the northern side of the island. It was quite windy which is unusual for this time of the year. The colour of the water was amazing. We had a nice lunch at a cafe at the beach before walking back via the touristic side of Son Parc.

That evening we caught the bus into Fornells which is a quaint little town with a marina – very picturesque. We had a drink at Es Tap and the boys enjoyed a little tapa each that had a quails egg on top.

Dinner was booked for 8.30pm at Sa Proa which was amazing 😉. For my entree I had their take on the Menorcan Bomb – little roast potatoes with black and red sausage covered with scrambled eggs and some basil pesto – 😋. The traditional ‘bomb’ is similar but has a fried egg on top with a runny yolk so when you cut into it the yolk gets mixed in with the potatoes and sausage. I couldn’t resist the desert either – a chocolate coulant (soft centred moist chocolate cake) and tangerine sorbet. Heaven 😇.

On Tuesday we dusted off the golf clubs (it had been about 15 days since they were last used) and went to have a game at Golf Son Parc Menorca which is about 5 minutes from Las Amapolas.

The course was opened in 1977 with 9 holes and today it has 18 holes a high quality competition course redesigned by the late well known course architect Dave Thomas (creator of many prestigious courses such as San Roque and Brabazon, where the Ryder Cup was held at The Belfry). The Par of the course is 69 and is comprised of 6 Par 3’s, 9 Par 4’s and 3 Par 5’s.

The golfing rivalry started in Scotland in 2014 carried over to Menorca – David had won the Scotland game and Steve wanted to even the score. It was a close game with the lead bouncing back and forth. David had a two shot lead at one stage but Steve bounced back to win one up until they revisited the shot holes – Steve was to give David one shot so it turned out that they had halved the match. Steve had originally said that there shouldn’t be any shots as David had home course advantage. Technically they halved but David said that Steve could take a moral victory out of it 🙄.

That evening we visited another great restaurant called Cann Marga – they specialise in steak, cooking them the Argentinian way over hot coals. Given Steve’s fascination with this cooking methodology he made himself known to the chef who was a jolly Spanish man. David & Steve shared a Menorcan ‘bomb’ to start. Again the food was exceptional and we finished off with a chocolate texture desert which was amazing but a quarter of it would have been ample. There is no doubt that our visit to Menorca was a culinary delight. It is great to be able to benefit from inside information from the ‘locals’.

Wednesday morning came around and it was time to leave David & Audrey in peace and to give their livers a break 😂. I revisited the cliff top walk we had done on Monday – it was much calmer and the sun was just rising over another beautiful day. Menorca is a beautiful island and we can see why David & Audrey have chosen it as their second home. We feel very privileged to have spent a few days in their company and to share some of their favourite spots around the island 🙏.

Menorca

Menorca or Minorca is one of the Balearic Islands located in the Mediterranean Sea belonging to Spain. Its name derives from its size, contrasting it with nearby Majorca – Insula Minor, later Minorica “smaller island”.

Menorca has a population of approximately 91,170 (at 1 January 2017). Its highest point, called El Toro or Monte Toro, is 358 metres (1,175 feet) above sea level.

The island is known for its collection of megalithic stone monuments which indicate very early prehistoric human activity. Some of the earliest culture on Menorca was influenced by other Mediterranean cultures, including the Greek Minoans of ancient Crete.

Invaded by Britain’s Royal Navy in 1708 during the War of the Spanish Succession, Minorca temporarily became a British possession. Great Britain took possession in 1713, under the terms of Article XI of the Treaty of Utrecht. Under the governorship of General Richard Kane, this period saw the island’s capital moved to Port Mahon and a naval base established in that town’s harbour.

In 1756, during the Seven Years’ War, France captured the island after the Siege of Fort St Philip and a failed British relief attempt. Thanks to the Treaty of Paris of 1763, the British returned to the island again following Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War. In 1781, during the American War of Independence, the British were defeated for a second time, in this instance by a combination of French and Spanish forces, and on 5 January 1782 the Spanish regained control of the island, after a long siege of St. Philip’s Castle in Port Mahon. On the feast of the Epiphany, as an expression of joy, King Charles III of Spain ordered the viceroys, captains general, governors, and military commanders to bring together the garrisons and to extend his greetings to army commanders on the so-called Pascua Militar. The British ceded the island back to Spain the next year in the Treaty of Versailles. Menorca was invaded by the British once again in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, but it was finally and permanently repossessed by Spain by the terms of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The British influence can still be seen in local architecture, with elements such as sash windows.

As with the rest of the Balearic Islands, Menorca was not occupied by the French during the Peninsular War, as it was successfully protected by the Royal Navy, this time allied to Spain.

In October 1993, Minorca was designated by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve.

Wine production has been known on the island since ancient times, but it went into a heavy decline over the last century. Now, several new, small wineries have started up, producing wines locally.

Lingering British influence is seen in the Menorcans’ taste for gin, which during local festes honoring towns’ patron saints is mixed with lemonade (or bitter lemon) to make a golden liquid known as Pomada. Gin from Menorca is not derived from grain alcohol but from wine alcohol (eau de vie de vin), making it more akin to brandy. It has the distinction to have geographical identity protection. Probably the best known gin is Gin Xoriguer which is named after the typical Menorcan windmill which was used to make the first gin. One of the reasons it is also known as Gin de Minorca or Gin de Mahón.

Also famous is Mahón cheese, a cheese typical of the island.

One origin story of mayonnaise is that it was brought back to France from Mahon, Menorca, after Louis-François-Armand du Plessis de Richelieu’s victory over the British at the city’s port in 1756. The story goes that Richelieu stopped to eat in a tavern in Mahon. He was served this sauce which he liked so much he took the recipe back to France, where it became known as mayonnaise or is that mahonnaise 😜.

Cami de Cavalls

The Cami de Cavalls is a walking route which goes around the island’s coast. It stretches for more than 160 kilometres and was originally used to connect Menorca’s watch towers and fortresses. The island is about 48 kilometres long and 16 kilometres wide. There are seven lighthouses on the island.

Wooden Gates

I kept spotting these funky wooden gates on our travels – they are traditionally made from olive wood.

Avarcas

Menorca is well known for producing high quality leather shoes and they still manufacture an individually styled sandal called the Avarcas or Menorcan sandal.

Avarca is a traditional sandal originally developed in Menorca. They were originally made from a leather upper and with the sole made from a recycled car tyre. Nowadays however the soles are made in the style of a car tire but from a purpose made mould. These are hard wearing and much lighter in weight than the original car tire sole. Only original avarca manufacturers are granted with the label ” Avarca de Menorca “. This label is granted by local Government and guarantees that avarcas accomplishes minimum quality standards and avarcas are really manufactured in Menorca island.

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Under the Tuscan Sun – Tuscany, Italy

We re traced our steps back across the 2000 year old cobble stones dragging our golf bags and suitcase behind us. Today’s train trip would take us to Pisa in the heart of Tuscany.

There was not a lot of room for our golf bags so we commandeered a single seat at the back of the carriage and hoped like hell no one had booked that seat. We had window seats facing each other – Steve had a good view of the bags so could keep an eye on them. Unfortunately half way through the trip someone got on that had booked that seat. The conductor told us we could lie the golf bags by the doors to exit the train – no problem when we were moving but every time we stopped at a station Steve had to get up and make sure people could get out! Not the most relaxing journey we have had.

We had booked the second class tickets back in NZ and after our experience in first class on our trip from Switzerland to Rome and then our experience to Pisa we would recommend booking first class going forward – a lot more space for you and your bags!

We arrived into Pisa at about 3pm and caught the PisaMover to the airport which took about 6 minutes. We then followed the signs to the car rental depot to pick up our little car 🚗 and little it was. I did wonder how we were going to fit all our luggage in but once we put the seats down it was surprisingly easy.

We had booked a hotel off the Luxury Escapes website called Renaissance Tuscany IL Ciocco Resort which was in the Garfagnana and Serchio Valley region. It was about an hour and a quarter to the hotel during which time we got our first introduction to Italian drivers! Generally they drive very fast (the speed limit signs are a mere decoration), love to cut corners, tailgate, overtake at any opportunity and beep at you if you’re not going fast enough for their liking and can’t get past. Even with all this crazy driving, cyclists still choose to share the road with these maniacs – they must be crazy Italians too. We encountered a lot of cyclists and if they are coming towards you at the same time as a car is coming towards you the driver of the car will overtake the cyclist without any regard for you coming the other way so it is up to you to take evasive action. It was a harrowing first trip in our little car.

Our hotel was a couple of kilometres up a windy and steep road so our next challenge was to get our little car full of luggage up there. Our poor little car was working hard but coped admirably.

The resort was lovely and set high up above the valley so we decided to take the weekend to chill and relax – it was hot and the pool was a welcome way to keep cool. On Sunday night we took a drive to Barga which was about 6km away. They had a festival over the weekend and had some food trucks in the piazza so we enjoyed a few different dishes from those.

Barga is a medieval town with a population of 10,000. Pania della Croce, a mountain of the Apuan Alps, dominates the surrounding chestnut trees, grape vines and olive groves. Chestnuts are a local speciality although they aren’t in season at the moment.

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This Red telephone box was a gift to Barga from retired fish and chip shop owner Mauro Cecchini – who’s family were originally from Barga but who has been living and working in Edinburgh Scotland for many years.

Mauro bought the K6 cast iron telephone box in an auction back in 1986 and installed it in his garden where he had a working telephone connected to his house so that he could make and receive calls in the comfort of his own home. When he moved to a smaller house without a garden a few years ago he was forced to leave the box behind.

A chance meeting with the Mayor of Barga, Umberto Sereni and connections with an export/import company in Scotland who moved the 750kgs box for free was enough for the idea of donating the box to the city to pass from just an idea to being a concrete reality.

The iconic cast iron red painted box with its distinctive small window design, crown and telephone panel, was the idea of noted architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. He was commissioned to design the box in order to commemorate George V’s Silver Jubilee Year, which heralded a policy to install the so called ‘jubilee kiosks’ into every town or village with a post office. The design, which built upon various prototypes from the 1920s became known as the ‘K6’ and soon became a welcome sight at the roadside across the United Kingdom.

However, it is not used as a telephone box but a book exchange – the smallest library in Tuscany.

On Monday we decided to go and do a wine tasting at a family owned winery near Lucca in the hills of Mataraia. The winery was called Fattoria Colleverde. The drive down to the winery was interesting and we hoped we wouldn’t meet anybody coming the other way. There were olive trees everywhere and it was a beautiful setting.

We got set up for our wine tasting outside – we had opted for the five wines tasting – the pours were very generous so we took our time and enjoyed each one. Our hostess told us a lot about the winery and methodologies.

The land on which the vines are planted was originally in olives and although they still have 2000 olive trees they planted some vines about 35 years ago. The land was part of the wife’s heritage and when her and her husband moved onto the land they decided to plants grapes 🍇 – neither of them had any wine making experience but they have made a success of it over the years. The vineyard is certified organic and they use organic and biodynamic principals in growing and making the wine.

They have 4,500 vines per hectare and produce about 40,000 bottles annually. A lot of it is sold locally with some exports via people visiting the winery. The wine is made in oak or stainless steel vats but they don’t add any additional yeast – it is all fermented naturally. All the grapes are hand harvested.

A lot of the buildings were from the 16th century and they have been restored to their original state.

The main white grape varietal in the region is the Trebbiano. Their red blends were made with a high percentage of Sangiovese. They also make a 100% Chardonnay and their flagship wine called Sinopia is 100% Cabernet Franc.

They don’t have any irrigation so rely on nature. They have a twenty year cycle where they dig up the vines to uncover the soil that retains water – this is compressed and the vines replanted. The vines then take about five years to get back to full production.

It was a wine sort of day so after a lovely few hours at Colleverde we headed back to the hotel to join the complimentary wine tasting we had been invited to. We tasted a local red and a local white wine which were very nice. A lot of the wineries just produce for local consumption.

Although we didn’t taste any prosecco the sommelier gave us some background information. I find I am enjoying the sweeter wines more these days so am tending to go for a prosecco rather than a champagne so I was quite interested in what he had to say.

Prosecco is an Italian white wine. Prosecco controlled designation of origin can be spumante (“sparkling wine”), frizzante (“semi-sparkling wine”), or tranquillo (“still wine”). It is made from Glera grapes, formerly known also as Prosecco, but other grape varieties may be included. The following varieties are traditionally used with Glera up to a maximum of 15% of the total: Verdiso, Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera, Glera lunga, Chardonnay, Pinot Bianco, Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir.

The name is derived from that of the Italian village of Prosecco near Trieste, where the grape and wine originated.

Prosecco DOC is produced in nine provinces spanning the Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia regions. Prosecco Superiore DOCG comes in two varieties: Prosecco Conegliano Valdobbiadene Superiore DOCG, which can only be made in the Treviso province of Veneto on the hills between the towns of Conegliano and Valdobbiadene (north of Treviso), and the smaller Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG, produced near the town of Asolo. DOC and DOCG refer to the designated origin of control with the G standing for Government meaning that a wine with this label not only comes from the area but meets the quality standards as set by the Government.

Prosecco is the main ingredient of the Bellini cocktail and can be a less expensive substitute for Champagne. It is also a key ingredient of spritz, a cocktail popular in northern Italy.

I woke up very early on Tuesday morning to the sound of thunder and I could see lightening flashes through the curtains – it wasn’t a nightmare just a blip in our time under the Tuscan sun. It was definitely cooler with a bit of rain forecast throughout the day so we changed our plans to visit San Gimignano until the Wednesday and had a relaxing day at the hotel.

It actually came out quite nice in the afternoon so we enjoyed some sunshine before our complimentary cooking class at 4pm.

There were 9 of us and we all participated in making the dough for gnocchi, ravioli and tagliatelle. The chef did speak a little english but when he realised we had an Italian speaking guy in the class he deferred to him to translate. Luckily Matteo was a nice guy and enjoyed translating for us.

The chef and his assistant then took our finished products away to cook and add the sauces so I’m not really sure if that qualifies for a cooking class but a raw pasta making class. It was fun never the less.

We all enjoyed the local wines while we waited for our food to be cooked. Matteo and his wife Rosbella were from Torino in the north and although Rosbella didn’t speak english she could understand it. A bridge had collapsed a couple of hundred kilometres north of where we were so that was the big news of the day – Matteo uses this particular bridge regularly so was very interested in how the tragedy was unfolding.

We talked to Matteo about the Italian economy and it was very interesting. He said that if you work for the Government or a Government agency you can retire after 20 years of service and continue to be paid your full salary which is adjusted upwards annually for inflation. What a deal but what an unsustainable situation that the country finds themselves in. I had heard on the news that morning that Italy was looking to lower their retirement age which was going against what other countries around the world are doing. They too have an ageing population and issues with growth due to the reduced labour force.

After World War II, Italy was transformed from an agricultural based economy which had been severely affected by the consequences of the World Wars, into one of the world’s most advanced nations and a leading country in world trade and exports. It has an industrious and competitive agricultural sector (Italy is the largest wine producer in the world), is known for its creative and high quality automobile, naval, industrial, appliance and fashion design – it is the largest hub for luxury goods in the world and the country’s private wealth is one of the largest in the world.

Despite these important achievements, the country’s economy today suffers from structural and non structural problems. The late 2000’s recession hit Italy hard and the Government spent massive amounts of money to revive it which produced a severe rise in public debt. In 2017 debt was 133% of GDP. In comparison NZ’s debt was only 22.2% in 2017. There is a considerable divide in living standards between the north and the south with the south being the poorer cousin.

After our discussion on the Italian economy we enjoyed the pasta that we had helped prepare – it was delicious 😋. We enjoyed the company of our fellow pasta makers – Brian and Kerry from Australia, John from the UK and Matteo and Rosbella from Italy.

Wednesday the 15th of August was Ferragosto which is a public holiday in Italy, Ticino (the Italian speaking part of Switzerland) and San Marino. It coincides with the major Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary. By metonymy, it is also the summer vacation period around mid-August, which may be a long weekend (ponte di ferragosto) or most of August.

The Roman Catholics celebrate the Assumption of the virgin Mary into Heaven – the day when Catholics believe Mary ascended to heaven “body and soul” after the end of her life on earth. However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.

Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period – intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.

In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races, and the Siena Palio dell’Assunta, which takes place on August 16th, keeps these traditions alive.

Today, the holiday combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots; it also marks the semi-official start of Italy’s summer holiday season.

We took a trip to check out San Gimignano which is a small walled medieval hill town in the province of Siena, Tuscany, north-central Italy. Known as the Town of Fine Towers, San Gimignano is famous for its medieval architecture, unique in the preservation of about a dozen of its tower houses, which, with its hilltop setting and encircling walls, form “an unforgettable skyline”. Within the walls, the well-preserved buildings include notable examples of both Romanesque and Gothic architecture, with outstanding examples of secular buildings as well as churches. The Palazzo Comunale, the Collegiate Church and Church of Sant’ Agostino contain frescos, including cycles dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. The “Historic Centre of San Gimignano” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The town is also known for saffron, the Golden Ham, and its white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, produced from the ancient variety of Vernaccia grape which is grown on the sandstone hillsides of the area.

At the height of its glory, San Gimignano’s patrician families had built around 72 tower-houses as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano still retains its feudal atmosphere and appearance.

We enjoyed wandering around the many shops and art galleries. We enjoyed lunch at a restaurant outside the walls that had a great view over the valley. The landscape in this area was more like what we had been expecting in Tuscany – gently rolling fields full of sunflowers and grapes. The area where we are staying is much more mountainous but equally as picturesque.

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When we were planning our trip to Italy we had checked out staying at a golf resort called Castelfalfi but decided against it. Enroute back to the hotel we came across Castelfalfi so had to stop in to check it out – it looked Ike a great course with lovely scenery albeit a bit hilly.

The plan for Thursday was to visit the Cinque Terra which was a couple of hours from where we were staying. I had seen the pictures and it looked beautiful.

The Cinque Terre (five towns) is a string of five fishing villages perched high on the Italian Riviera (region Liguria) which until recently were linked only by mule tracks and accessible only by rail or water. An ancient system of footpaths is still the best way to visit the five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore.

The Cinque Terre is noted for its beauty. Over centuries, people have carefully built terraces to cultivate grapes and olives on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the Mediterranean Sea.

The breathtaking views of harbours far below the wild but hospitable coastline along with the medieval fortresses and plentiful vines and vibrant colours make this a memorable holiday spot.

The Cinque Terre, recognized in 1997 by the Unesco Mankind’s World Heritage, are today a National Park and Protected Marine Area with the aim of protecting this great cultural heritage and natural environment.

I did some research and decided it was best to park at La Spezia Migliarina and catch the train to the main La Spezia station which is the gateway from the south to the Cinque Terra. When we got to the main station at La Spezia we were greeted by hundreds of people everywhere and a big queue to get tickets for the Cinque Terra. You can buy a day ticket or a multi day ticket that lets you access the trains, toilets, hiking trails and wifi hotspots. I joined the queue and about an hour later I had two Cinque Terra day passes. Next mission was to get on a train – it was crazy busy but with a bit of jostling and sprinting down the platform we got on.

Due to how busy it was we decided just to go to a couple of the villages to get a taste of the place. We went to the furtherest village first – Monterosso.

Monterosso is the largest of the five coastal villages. The village is located on hills cultivated with vines and olives. The vegetation surrounds the built-up area like an embrace; its amazing beaches, its beautiful reefs and the sea’s crystal clear waters make this small village one of the most hospitable of the Ligurian Riviera.

The village is divided in two parts marked by the medieval tower of Aurora. The new part of town, Fegina, is full of life, it is the reflection of an area that tourism has made rich, as the great quantity and excellent quality of hotels and restaurants give evidence.

Fegina is dominated by the famous concrete statue of the Giant, built beside the terrace of a local villa. This statue was created at the beginning of the XX century by Levacher and Minerbi, an architect and a sculptor, and represents Neptune, the god of the sea. Now it has become the symbol of Monterosso.

The old town of Monterosso is dominated by the ruins of the castle and characterized by typical narrow medieval streets carruggi with multi-coloured terraced houses. The beach is the only extensive sand beach in the Cinque Terre and runs along most of the coast line and is well used by tourists and locals.

The beach was jam packed and the water looked so inviting. We strolled along the coastal path enjoying a gelato stop. We have become gelato snobs though after our Roman Food Tour in Rome looking for signs that the gelato is real and not fake – it is not as easy as you may think 🤔, especially in the tourist hot spots.

We then carried on to the Aurora Tower which is in the style of the 1500’s although it has been added to and renovated over the centuries. There is a really nice restaurant up there and we decided to treat ourselves to a Hugo. Everyone has their take on cocktails and today’s Hugo was quite sweet with minimal bubbles – I really enjoyed it and it was such a gorgeous spot.

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We decided to make our way back to the train station to check out the next village – we had chosen Vernazza but spoke to a couple at the station who were staying at Manarola who said they found it was the quietest of the five villages. I am not sure what planet they were on because when we arrived it was also jam packed. There is no beach here so people just lie on the rocks and jump into the water from there. We walked up to the high point and again the views were gorgeous.

We sat in the shade and ended up chatting to a lovely young French couple – the guy spoke english and told us that his english teacher was from Auckland, NZ. They were fun to talk to and I so love the way they translate English phrases. We discussed the fact that no one checks the tickets on the trains so you could easily ride them for free which they had done on a couple of occasions – they were staying at Monterosso for a few days so had been visiting the different villages. He was laughing and said ‘but I don’t want to be burnt by the fire’ – his take on ‘if you play with fire you could get burnt’.

Manarola, built on a high rock 70 metres above sea level, is one of the most charming and romantic of the Cinque Terre villages.The tiny harbor features a boat ramp, picturesque multicoloured houses facing the sea and a tiny piazza with seafood restaurants.

Along the main road the boats are pulled onto dry land every time the sea is rough. The Main Street down to the sea was lined with small boats. Although there is no real beach here, it has some of the best deep-water swimming around.

The village is all ups and downs, with steep narrow alleys carrugi, leading to the sea. Today the church serves as a religious and community meeting place, but in more ancient times, the bell tower was used as a post to watch for potential pirate raids.

Another peculiarity of Manarola is a pyramid in white cement whose peak can be seen rising between the taller houses and is used as a navigational reference point for all those at sea.

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We decided we had done our dash with the crowds so headed back to the train station to catch the train to La Spezia and another train back to our car at La Spezia Migliarina. We then had a couple of hours to endure with the crazy Italians on the road before reaching our sanctuary at Renaissance.

It was a worthwhile trip but I would recommend going when it is quieter so you could enjoy the villages without the crowds and the searing heat.

On our travels south we had spotted a cool stone bridge that I wanted to check out – the bridge at Borgo a Mozzano, called “The Devil’s Bridge” or the “Maddalena Bridge” is certainly the most beautiful bridge in the province of Lucca, and one of the most suggestive in Italy. Many legends were born from its myterious construction and its singular design, with one large arch flanked by three smaller ones, inspired the works of many artists. The bridge’s slimming profile, which continues to strike its admirers, must have been even more impressive in the past before a dam was built, in the years after the Second World War, which raised the level of the water in the surrounding area.

According to legend, the bridge was built by Saint Julian who, unable to complete the hard project, asked the Devil for help, offering him in return the soul of the first living being who would have crossed the finished bridge. Once the bridge was finished, Saint Julian threw a piece of bread onto the bridge, luring a dog to cross it, cheating the Devil.

There is little historical information about the building of the bridge. Nicolau Tegrimi, in the biography of Castruccio Castracani, attributes the bridge to Matilde di Canossa (1046-1125) and mentions a restoration made by Castruccio Castracani (1281-1328.) According to the hypothesis of Massimo Betti, during the Castruccio government the minor arches were constructed in stone, replacing previous structure in wood. This would explain the difference between the major arch and the minor ones.

In the 16th century the Hermitage of Maddalena was built on the left bank, providing a name for the bridge. In the following centuries the right bank was built up with factories. In 1889 the structure of the bridge, on the Borgo a Mozzano side, was modified to allow the passage of the train line which runs from Lucca to Aulla. A part of the bridge was demolished and a ramp was built over the train tracks.

We arrived at the bridge about 8.15am and the sun hadn’t risen above the hills so it was rather chilly with quite a wind which we hadn’t really encountered anywhere else. Our visit was short lived.

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Next stop was Pisa which is the capital city of the Province of Pisa. Although Pisa is known worldwide for its leaning tower (the bell tower of the city’s cathedral), the city of over 91,104 residents (around 200,000 with the metropolitan area) contains more than 20 other historic churches, several medieval palaces and various bridges across the Arno River which empties out into the Mediterranean. Much of the city’s architecture was financed from its history as one of the Italian maritime republics.

The city is also home of the University of Pisa, which has a history going back to the 12th century and also has the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, founded by Napoleon in 1810, and its offshoot, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies as the best sanctioned Superior Graduate Schools in Italy.

The Campo dei Miracoli in Pisa, the Square of Miracles in English, was proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The square is not located right smack in the center of the city as you might imagine but along the north western edge along the city’s fortified wall, almost out of the center. This is where space was available back in 1094 when construction was first started on the cathedral.

Since the times of the Etruscans, the three structures found in the piazza have been considered central to religious life, symbolizing the main stages of a human life: the Baptistery represents birth, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta life and the Camposanto, of course, alludes to death. The famous Leaning Tower of Pisa is actually considered a part of the cathedral since it is really its bell tower.

The square is surrounded by a beautiful green lawn which you are not allowed to walk on. As in most cities, the square was called Piazza del Duomo until Italian writer and poet Gabriele d’Annunzio described the square as the “prato dei Miracoli,” or “meadow of miracles” in his novel Forse che sì forse che no (1910). The square is now simply known as the Campo dei Miracoli, which is literally the “Field of Miracles”.

Construction of the Duomo began in the 11th century and, after many changes, was actually only completed in the 19th century when the architect Alessandro Gherardesca gave the square its final present appearance.

The Square first started taking shape in 1064 with the creation of the centerpiece of the entire complex: the Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. The cathedral symbolizes the maximum expression of Pisan Romanesque architecture influenced at the same time by various stylistic elements. At the time, Pisa was a Maritime Republic (from the 11th through 15th centuries), and sailors travelled around the Arab world and remained smitten by all the beautiful things they saw.

Years later the enlargement of the fortified wall began (the church at the beginning wasn’t inside the walls) and the building of the baptistery began only in 1152. The baptistery was located directly in front of the Cathedral with a diameter equal to the facade of the cathedral. About 20 years later, work started on the bell tower which is now known simply as the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa. In 1277, work stated on the graveyard, known as the Camposanto.

Before the Florentine siege in the 15th century, you could enter the square through the Porta del Leone, but this was closed by the Florentines when they built the current door called Porta Santa Maria. During the era of the Medici and Lorraine dominance in the region, the four monuments were surrounded by the construction of many other buildings: these were knocked down only at the end of the 19th century when the architect Alessandro La Gherardesca reorganized the square to give it its current structure.

The most recent changes were made during the Fascist era: the monument She-Wolf of Rome was added on the lawn north of the bell tower and 17 cypresses were planted east of the square, in memory of the soldiers that died in the war.

We had parked in the free parking about a kilometre from the tower and walked there passing all the souvenir shops. The tour buses had also started to fill the parking lot. We were pleased we had got there early because the place was really filling up as we left. I had spotted these hand painted t-shirts as we walked in so went back to have a look on the way out. I spoke to the woman and her husband who’s stall it was and it turns out they have a son living in Auckland – he has been there for 15 years and is a real estate agent. They have visited and loved it. The woman and her daughter paint the t-shirts and their main design is the sunflower 🌻 – it was only right I purchased a couple 😉.

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The closest large town to the hotel is Lucca and although we had driven past it a number of times we hadn’t stopped in so today was the day. I had googled where to park and ended up within the city walls – we were driving slowly through the car park with ancient walls either side and getting beeped at – bloody Italians! We ended up leaving the city walls and finding some free parking about a kilometre away. Some people we met in Rome had recommended we bike the city walls so we hired a couple of bikes and off went – it was only 4km to circumvent the old town so nothing too onerous.

Lucca has become a popular retirement spot for the British, French, and Germans in recent years. Although the city as a whole contains about 84,000 inhabitants, the old walled city, by far the most interesting part of town, has a population of only 7,500.

The walls encircling the old town remain intact, even as the city expanded and modernized, unusual for cities in the region. Initially built as a defensive rampart, once the walls lost their military importance they became a pedestrian promenade, the Passeggiata delle Mure Urbane, a street atop the walls linking the bastions. Each of the four principal sides of the structure is lined with a different tree species than the others.

The old walled city is commonly referred to as the city of one hundred churches for the large number of religious buildings which represent marvelous examples of architectural Italian styles.

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It was very hot so after our little jaunt around Lucca we headed back to the hotel for some R & R by the pool – our last afternoon under the Tuscan sun. In the evening we took our little car another 1.2 kilometres up the hill to Locanda Alla Posta for a lovely dinner. We were leaving the restaurant after dinner when Steve said hello to a little fella who was about 3 – he then proceeded to tell Steve in Italian that he had done a farto 😂. The little guys grandma came over to drag him away laughing as she tried to explain what he was saying. It is the same the world over – kids and farting 😮.

Some final thoughts on our trip to Italy…..

In hindsight we didn’t do enough research on Tuscany before coming here. The hotel we stayed at was lovely but it was probably a little bit removed from the action. When I thought of Tuscany I thought of fields of sunflowers, vineyards, local markets and an abundance of fresh produce. I think this would have been more prevalent a bit further south and we wouldn’t have had to travel so far each time we wanted to do something.

I am going to make a generalisation here – the Italian people as a whole are not particularly friendly. Of course we encountered some nice Italians but it wasn’t the norm to be greeted in a positive and friendly manner.

So many people smoke here and it still seems acceptable to smoke in public places although it was banned in 2005.

August is a busy time in Italy so it is probably not the best month to visit if you are not a fan of lots of people and queues.

I mentioned what we perceived to be crazy driving by the Italians above so I was curious to see what their road toll was as a percentage of drivers and cars on the road. It turns out it is about 2% lower than NZ’s per 100,000 population and about 5% lower per 100,000 cars so maybe what we perceive as crazy driving is actually highly skilled driving 🤭.

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Vatican City State

On Thursday we did a tour of the Vatican City which encompassed the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica. The smallest state in the world is one busy place! I had visited the Vatican City back in 1997 but thought it was worth another visit with Steve.

Our guide Ricardo was well versed in the history and art of the Vatican City but it is a lot to take in. We spent about 15 minutes in the Sistine Chapel which was packed. The paintings didn’t seem as vibrant as I remembered them being – the same with the tapestries.

St Peter’s Basilica was just as impressive though. Ricardo pointed out the Holy Door, the last door on the right into the Basilica. This door is bricked up on the inside. On the first day of the Holy Year the Pope strikes the brick wall with a hammer, and so opens the door to let in the pilgrims who come to make the most of the indulgence. It will be closed by the Pope himself at the end of the Holy Year. The Holy Door represents Jesus, the Good Shepherd and the gate of the sheep pen: “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me, will be safe. He will go in and out, and find pasture” (Jn 10:9). The Holy Year is celebrated every 25 years. In this century two extraordinary Holy Years of Redemption have also been celebrated on the anniversary of Jesus’ death on the Cross: 1933 and 1983.

Vatican City officially the Vatican City State or the State of Vatican City is an independent state located within the city of Rome. With an area of 44 hectares (110 acres), and a population of about 1,000, it is the smallest state in the world by both area and population. However, formally it is not sovereign, with sovereignty being held by the Holy See.

The Holy See also called the See of Rome, is the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, the episcopal see of the Pope, and an independent sovereign entity. It serves as the central point of reference for the Catholic Church everywhere and the focal point of communion due to its position as the pre-eminent episcopal see of the universal church. Today, it is responsible for the governance of all Catholics, organised in their Particular Churches, Patriarchates and religious institutes.

Diplomatically, the Holy See acts and speaks for the whole church.

The creation of the Vatican City State was meant to ensure the diplomatic and spiritual independence of the Pope.

The independent city-state came into existence in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy, which spoke of it as a new creation, not as a vestige of the much larger Papal States (756–1870), which had previously encompassed much of central Italy. According to the terms of the treaty, the Holy See has “full ownership, exclusive dominion, and sovereign authority and jurisdiction” over the city-state.

The Pope is ex officio head of state of Vatican City since the 1860s, functions dependent on his primordial function as bishop of the diocese of Rome. The term “Holy See” refers not to the Vatican state but to the Pope’s spiritual and pastoral governance, largely exercised through the Roman Curia. His official title with regard to Vatican City is Sovereign of the State of the Vatican City.

As the Vatican City is an enclave within Italy, its military defence is provided by the Italian armed forces. However, there is no formal defence treaty with Italy, as the Vatican City is a neutral state. Vatican City has no armed forces of its own, although the Swiss Guard is a military corps of the Holy See responsible for the personal security of the Pope, and resident in the state. Soldiers of the Swiss Guard are entitled to hold Vatican City State passports and nationality. Swiss mercenaries were historically recruited by Popes as part of an army for the Papal States, and the Pontifical Swiss Guard was founded by Pope Julius II on 22 January 1506 as the pope’s personal bodyguard and continues to fulfill that function. It is listed in the Annuario Pontificio under “Holy See”, not under “State of Vatican City”. At the end of 2005, the Guard had 134 members. Recruitment is arranged by a special agreement between the Holy See and Switzerland. All recruits must be Catholic, unmarried males with Swiss citizenship who have completed their basic training with the Swiss Armed Forces with certificates of good conduct, be between the ages of 19 and 30, and be at least 174 cm (5 ft 9 in) in height. Members are equipped with small arms and the traditional halberd (also called the Swiss voulge), and trained in bodyguarding tactics. The Palatine Guard and the Noble Guard, the last armed forces of the Vatican City State, were disbanded by Pope Paul VI in 1970. As Vatican City has listed every building in its territory on the International Register of Cultural Property under Special Protection, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict theoretically renders it immune to armed attack.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the 17th December 1936 is the 266th and current Pope and sovereign of the Vatican City State. Francis is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first pope from outside Europe since the Syrian Gregory III, who reigned in the 8th century.

Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bergoglio worked briefly as a chemical technologist and nightclub bouncer before beginning seminary studies. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1969, and from 1973 to 1979 was Argentina’s provincial superior of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). He became the Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998 and was created a cardinal in 2001 by Pope John Paul II. He led the Argentine Church during the December 2001 riots in Argentina. The administrations of Néstor Kirchner and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner considered him a political rival. Following the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February 2013, a papal conclave elected Bergoglio as his successor on 13 March. He chose Francis as his papal name in honor of Saint Francis of Assisi.

Within the Vatican City are religious and cultural sites such as St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museums. They feature some of the world’s most famous paintings and sculptures. The unique economy of Vatican City is supported financially by the sale of postage stamps and tourist mementos, fees for admission to museums, and the sale of publications.

Vatican Museum

The Vatican Museums are Christian and art museums located within the city boundaries of the Vatican City. They display works from the immense collection amassed by Popes throughout the centuries including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world. The museums contain roughly 70,000 works, of which 20,000 are on display, and currently employ 640 people who work in 40 different administrative, scholarly, and restoration departments.

Pope Julius II founded the museums in the early 16th century. The Sistine Chapel, with its ceiling decorated by Michelangelo and the Stanze di Raffaello decorated by Raphael, are on the visitor route through the Vatican Museums. In 2017, they were visited by 6 million people, which combined makes it the 4th most visited art museum in the world.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel is a chapel in the Apostolic Palace, the official residence of the Pope, in Vatican City. Originally known as the Cappella Magna, the chapel takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV, who restored it between 1477 and 1480. Since that time, the chapel has served as a place of both religious and functionary papal activity. Today it is the site of the Papal conclave, the process by which a new pope is selected. The fame of the Sistine Chapel lies mainly in the frescos that decorate the interior, and most particularly the Sistine Chapel ceiling and The Last Judgment by Michelangelo.

Between 1508 and 1512, under the patronage of Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted the chapel’s ceiling, a project which changed the course of Western art and is regarded as one of the major artistic accomplishments of human civilization. In a different climate after the Sack of Rome, he returned and between 1535 and 1541, painted The Last Judgment for Popes Clement VII and Paul III. The fame of Michelangelo’s paintings has drawn multitudes of visitors to the chapel ever since they were revealed five hundred years ago.

St Peter’s Basilica

The Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican or simply St. Peter’s Basilica, is an Italian Renaissance church in Vatican City, the papal enclave within the city of Rome.

Designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Catholic Church nor the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, St. Peter’s is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines. It has been described as “holding a unique position in the Christian world” and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom”.

Catholic tradition holds that the Basilica is the burial site of Saint Peter, chief among Jesus’s Apostles and also the first Bishop of Rome. Saint Peter’s tomb is supposedly directly below the high altar of the Basilica. For this reason, many Popes have been interred at St. Peter’s since the Early Christian period, and there has been a church on this site since the time of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Construction of the present basilica, which would replace Old St. Peter’s Basilica from the 4th century AD, began on 18 April 1506 and was completed on 18 November 1626.

St. Peter’s is famous as a place of pilgrimage and for its liturgical functions. The Pope presides at a number of liturgies throughout the year, drawing audiences of 15,000 to over 80,000 people, either within the Basilica or the adjoining St. Peter’s Square. St. Peter’s has many historical associations, with the Early Christian Church, the Papacy, the Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-reformation and numerous artists, especially Michelangelo. As a work of architecture, it is regarded as the greatest building of its age. St. Peter’s is one of the four churches in the world that hold the rank of Major Basilica, all four of which are in Rome. Contrary to popular misconception, it is not a cathedral because it is not the seat of a bishop; the Cathedra of the Pope as Bishop of Rome is in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran.

The visit to the holy land warranted a second visit to the holy food – Bonci Pizza! Well we were in the neighbourhood so it was only right. It was busy and we waited about 40 minutes to be served – it was so worth the wait though 😋.

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Food Glorious Food – Rome, Italy

On Wednesday we did a Roman Food Tour – I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. First up was a ride on the metro which was surprisingly easy to navigate – they only have two lines – A & B. A third line is under construction but due to all the ruins being discovered on a regular basis it is proving difficult to navigate underground.

We arrived at the meeting point with quite a bit of time to spare – we had been warned about the unreliability of Italian public transport so had built in a generous buffer. What to do with the spare time – have a haircut of course 😉.

We met our guide Luca at the Cipro metro station. Luca is Romanian – she came to study in Rome 12 years ago and never left. She has been taking the food tours for the past three years and I’m in love with her passion for food.

We were in the neighbourhood of Prati – this is a residential neighbourhood where apparently you find all the best places to eat as this is where the locals eat.

She explained that Italy has 20 regions and although it is one country it might as well be 20.

All of the regions of Italy are very distinctive and often the landscape and way of life changes quite dramatically between one region and the next. Although Italian is spoken throughout Italy, many of the regions have their own dialects, some totally unrecognisable from standard Italian.

There are often differences in appearance between people from different regions. Venetians can be taller and thinner than some of their cousins from Naples and the dark hair and brown eyes of the Mezzogiorno can look very different from the blonde hair and blue eyes of the regions in the far north. But the main thing that makes each Italian region unique is the attitude of the people. Italians are fiercely loyal to their own region, each believing that theirs is better than any other. There is even an expression for it: ‘Campanilismo’ (the love of one’s own bell-tower).

They love the landscape of their own home and think their region’s climate is the best and steadfastly hang on to every tradition and fragment of culture that is historically theirs.

Food and wine are the biggest differences of all, with people from one region almost refusing to eat anything from another. Recipes have been handed down for many generations and certain dishes that we have grown to love outside Italy are only eaten in one small corner of a particular region and are almost unheard of elsewhere.

One thing that all the regions thrive on is coffee. Introduced in the 1500s, coffee has developed its own culture in Italy.

The day is defined by coffee rituals: a cappuccino with breakfast, a caffè macchiato – or two – as an afternoon pick-me-up, and espresso after dinner. And like any culture, that of Italian coffee comes with seemingly mysterious laws. Order a latte, and you’ll receive a glass of milk (which is exactly what you ordered). Ask for a to-go cup or order a cappuccino after 11 a.m., and risk an instant tourist label.

BUONGIORNO! The morning begins with a breakfast comprising a pastry paired with a delicious, milky coffee:

Cappuccino: equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and foamed milk

Caffè latte: espresso with more steamed milk and less foam

Latte macchiato: steamed milk “marked” with a splash of espresso

To blend: Don’t order these drinks after 11 a.m. Italians only enjoy milky coffee in the morning – never in the afternoon, and especially not after a meal!

PRENDIAMO UN CAFFÈ! “Let’s get a coffee!” Appropriate anytime, a caffè (or caffè normale) is simply an espresso, a small but strong shot of black coffee. Italians often sip a caffè as an afternoon pick-me-up or after a meal.

To blend: While you can order a caffè doppio for a double shot of espresso, this is not typical in Italy. If you need that extra jolt of caffeine, just visit your favorite barista multiple times a day – you won’t be the only one.

MIX IT UP. Over the centuries, Italians have created a variety of alterations to the powerful punch of espresso.

Caffè macchiato: For the softer side of coffee, enjoy this espresso “marked” with a splash of frothy milk. Unlike the breakfast drinks, this lightly milky caffè can be enjoyed as frequently as caffè normale.

Caffè corretto: Literally translated to “corrected coffee,” this drink features espresso with a splash of alcohol, such as grappa or sambuca.

Caffè americano: After trying drip coffee in the United States, Italians decided to offer tourists a taste of home. Their interpretation: espresso diluted with plenty of hot water.

Caffè lungo: This “long coffee” comprises espresso with a splash of hot water but is stronger than the americano.

To blend: Since the coffee experience is designed to be enjoyed socially and in small doses, to-go cups are nonexistent in Italy.

THINK REGIONALLY. Each of Italy’s 20 regions boasts its own unique coffee culture. Espresso may be ubiquitous, but there are many regional twists to the caffè. In the northern Le Marche, enjoy a caffè anisette for an anise-flavored espresso; in southern Sicily, try caffè d’un parrinu, an Arabic-inspired coffee flavored with cloves, cinnamon, and cocoa.

To blend: Before ordering, research the region for local ingredients – or subtly listen to your fellow coffee drinkers at the cafe!

AL BANCO. In Italy, coffee is typically enjoyed al banco, or at the bar, with friends.

So you can guess what was first up on the food tour – COFFEE 😋 and a pastry.

The standard ritual is to go into a Bar (the sign Bar in Italy means coffee not alcohol) order an espresso and drink it at the bar. It is cheaper if you stand – the price is regulated by the government and for a standing espresso you won’t pay anymore than EU1.20. If you choose to sit the price goes up – the fancier the sitting place the higher the price.

Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 17th century. But it wasn’t until the invention of a steam-driven, coffee-making machine in the late 19th century that Italy gave the world espresso.

The pastry we enjoyed was a cannolo which is a Sicilian specialty – made from flour, cocoa powder and water – they are deep fried and rolled into a tube like a cannelloni. They are then filled with ricotta cheese and dipped in a topping like pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, cherries etc… I had candied orange – not bad although I’d take porridge any day of the week.

It was now 11am and time for pizza and not just any pizza but Bonci pizza. Rome’s esteemed pizzaiolo Gabriele Bonci (pronounced Bahn-chi) creates pizzas that are so delicious, so creative, and so visually stunning that he has developed a fanatical following not only in Italy, but around the globe.

His philosophy is simple – “I think good things are made with good things and produced by people who genuinely care for the well-being of those who eat them. We are changing the pizza game by embracing my artisanal Roman roots and these guiding principles:

• Quality without compromise

• Use only the freshest, natural ingredients available

• Agriculture as culinary art

We only use ingredients produced by people who share our beliefs and respect the true value of culinary and nutrition.

This is how we are … Simply Natural.”

In the words of the late Anthony Bourdain who visited this store in one of his programs – “It’s amazing … You want it. You want it bad. Your life would be so much better if you have this right now. Leave your family. Abandon your children … You know you want it.”

And he was right – after eating Bonci’s pizza I am unsure how any other pizza will ever measure up. The secret is in the dough – Bonci uses a 100% organic proprietary blend of heritage stone ground flours produced in Italy. Then they mix the flour with water, EVOO (EVOO is the natural juice squeezed from olives one day after the harvest. No heat or chemicals are used in extracting Extra Virgin Olive Oil) and salt. The dough is then left to rise for 48-72 hours and, when baked, the result is a thick but light and airy crispy crust rich in natural fiber. Bonci pizzas are cooked in special ovens that create the perfect crust and crunch. They also layer the toppings and cook them separately depending on how long each will take to cook.

The pizza base was light, full of air and crunchy. Luca explained that the lesser quality flours and shorter dough processes lead to a pizza base that makes you feel bloated. I think we can all say we’ve experienced that feeling at some stage in our lives before.

Gabriele has created 1,500 different pizza recipes. To date, no one has tried to eat them all at once. Vogue magazine’s food critic refers to Gabriele as “The Michelangelo of Pizza.” The toppings change daily and there can be up to 60 different flavours in one day – the shop is open from 11am until 10pm. There was already a queue when we arrived at 11am – the Italians are not good at queuing so you take a number and when your number comes up on the screen you’re up.

You tell the server what flavour you like and how much – they cut the pizza with scissors, weigh it and then heat it through in the oven. Most flavours cost EU26.50 per kilogram.

We visited the main store but there is a smaller store near Roma Termini and he has two stores in Chicago in the US with talk of expansion to New York also.

Each couple on the tour choose a flavour and we all tried each one. We choose the scrambled egg and pork belly one which was pretty good. Another flavour we tried was potato and onions with truffle oil which was my favorite.

The History of Pizza

Pizza in its most basic form as a seasoned flatbread has a long history in the Mediterranean. Several cultures including the Greeks and Phoenicians ate a flatbread made from flour and water. The dough would be cooked by placing on a hot stone and then seasoned with herbs. The Greeks called this early pizza plankuntos and it was basically used as an edible plate when eating stews or thick broth. It was not yet what we would call pizza today but it was very much like modern focaccia. These early pizzas were eaten from Rome to Egypt to Babylon and were praised by the ancient historians Herodotus and Cato the Elder.

The introduction of tomatoes to Italian cuisine in the 18th and early 19th centuries finally gave us the true modern Italian pizza. Even though tomatoes reached Italy by the 1530’s it was widely thought that they were poisonous and were grown only for decoration. However the innovative (and probably starving) peasants of Naples started using the supposedly deadly fruit in many of their foods, including their early pizzas. Since that fateful day the world of Italian cuisine would never be the same, however it took some time for the rest of society to accept this crude peasant food. Once members of the local aristocracy tried pizza they couldn’t get enough of it, which by this time was being sold on the streets of Naples for every meal. As pizza popularity increased, street vendors gave way to actual shops where people could order a custom pizza with many different toppings. By 1830 the “Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba” of Naples had become the first true pizzeria and this venerable institution is still producing masterpieces.

The popular pizza Margherita owes its name to Italy’s Queen Margherita who in 1889 visited the Pizzeria Brandi in Naples. The Pizzaiolo (pizza maker) on duty that day, Rafaele Esposito created a pizza for the Queen that contained the three colors of the new Italian flag. The red of tomato, white of the mozzarella and fresh green basil, was a hit with the Queen and the rest of the world. Neapolitan style pizza had now spread throughout Italy and each region started designing their own versions based on the Italian culinary rule of fresh, local ingredients.

A bit of lighter fare was up next – white wine, cheese and balsamic vinegar and a lesson about food certification in Italy based on origin, methods of production and quality. All of the acronyms associated with this can be a bit confusing, but they’re important to know about… they guarantee that what you’re eating is a local Italian delicacy, not an imitation!

DOP is short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (literally “Protected Designation of Origin”). As the the name suggests, this certification ensures that products are locally grown and packaged. And it makes a promise to the consumer: It’s a guarantee that the food was made by local farmers and artisans, using traditional methods. In fact, by law, only DOP products like balsamic vinegar can carry the word “traditional” on their labels, because they adhere to local traditions.

So the DOP label may bring a higher price tag with it. But it also promises the highest quality!

How does a product become DOP?

Italian specialties get DOP recognition by following a strict set of guidelines: Every step, from production to packaging, is regulated. Of course, not all local Italian specialities are recognized as DOP. Even more confusing, though, you have to always look for the DOP label to ensure the product is DOP. For example, mozzarella di bufala (buffalo mozzarella) is a DOP product. But only certain brands carry the seal. Other types of mozzarella di bufala, therefore, aren’t necessarily made in the traditional way, with the traditional ingredients; only the DOP varieties are.

What about IGP?

“DOP” isn’t the only label. You may also find the IGP, Indicazione Geografica Protetta (“indication of geographical protection”), label on Italian products. While also well-respected, this certification is less strict than DOP. It traces food specialities back to their geographical origin to at least one phase in production, but not to all phases, like DOP.

What are some famous DOP foods, and how do you find them?

Mozzarella di bufala (Campania, Lazio): Considered to be more creamy than mozzarella made from cow’s milk, buffalo mozzarella is a true Italian delicacy.

Balsamic vinegar (Emilia Romagna): DOP balsamic vinegar, from Modena and Reggio Emilia, has a thicker consistency and richer taste than most other vinegars on the market—and can be aged for over 12 years.

San Marzano tomatoes (Campania): Long in shape and bittersweet in taste, these tomatoes are harvested by hand. They’re later crushed, canned… and used to make dishes like pizza and pasta taste out of this world!

Olive oil (Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Emilia Romagna, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Puglia, Sicily, Tuscany, Veneto): This staple has the largest number of DOP varieties of any Italian food specialty, and it comes from many different Italian regions. Some regions even have multiple DOP oils from different areas!

Wine labeling is similar but they use DOC or DOCG.The letters DOC or DOCG on an Italian wine label mean Denominazione di Origine Controllata (Denomination of Origin), and Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (Denomination of Origin as assessed by the Government), the latter superior to the first. They refer to government guarantees of the wines’ origins.

About 300 wine growing regions in Italy have the DOC designation, while only 21 have a DOCG label. The DOCG wines conform to DOC laws and in addition are quality tested by government-appointed inspectors. However, this doesn’t mean that non-DOC wines are bad. On the contrary, some wine makers have broken away from the DOC restrictions to experiment with blends of grape varieties. These ‘new’and often very expensive wines in Tuscany have become known as “Super-Tuscans” even though they only bear a Vino da Tavola (table wine) label. Some of these Super-Tuscans are being produced in the Livorno Province in the Bolgheri area.

Another denomination, IGT, means that a wine is guaranteed to come from a specific wine-producing area.

Italy is home to some of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. Italian wine regions are known for their rich variety of wine styles. Italy, closely followed by Spain and France, is the world’s largest wine producer by volume. Its contribution is about 45–50 million hectolitres per year, and represents about one third of global production. Not only is Italian wine exported around the world, it is also extremely popular with Italians. Italians rank fifth on the world wine consumption list by volume with 42 litres per capita consumption. Grapes are grown in almost every region of the country and there are more than one million vineyards under cultivation.

Balsamic vinegar (Italian: aceto balsamico) is a very dark, concentrated, and intensely flavoured vinegar made wholly or partially from grape must, originating in Italy.

The term “aceto balsamico” is unregulated, but there are three protected balsamic vinegars: “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Modena), “Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Reggio Emilia” (Traditional Balsamic Vinegar of Reggio Emilia), and “Aceto Balsamico di Modena” (Balsamic Vinegar of Modena). The two traditional balsamic vinegars are made the same way from reduced grape must aged for several years in a series of wooden barrels, and are produced exclusively in either the province of Modena or the wider Emilia region surrounding it. The names of these two vinegars are protected by the European Union‘s Protected Designation of Origin, while the usually less expensive Balsamic Vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico di Modena) is made from grape must blended with wine vinegar, and produced exclusively in either Modena or Reggio Emilia, with a Protected Geographical Indication status.

Balsamic vinegar contains no balsam. The word balsamicobalsam-like” in the sense of “restorative” or “curative”.

Must is freshly crushed fruit juice (usually grape juice) that contains the skins, seeds, and stems of the fruit. This must is then aged in barrels to be used in the production of balsamic vinegar.

We tried some Reggio Emilia gold label which indicates the vinegar has been aged for 25 years or more. A red label means the vinegar has been aged for at least 12 years and a silver label that the vinegar has aged for at least 18 years. It was dark and rich and tasted a bit like maple syrup.

Balsamic vinegar is “a regional family tradition some have turned into a business.” These traditions are passed down through the generations. One hundred litres of grape juice is required to produce six litres of balsamic vinegar so this along with the time required to age it explains why the authentic stuff is so expensive.

Next up Luca talked to us about truffles – no not the chocolate ones but the wild mushroom ones 😊. We tried some truffle oil with the cheese – it has a very concentrated flavour, hence you don’t need a lot of it which is just as well as truffles are very expensive. It is very difficult to farm or cultivate them but it has been done – the initial investment and maturity delay (7 to 10 years) makes it a high risk business.

Pigs and dogs have been used to find truffles. Both the female pig’s natural truffle-seeking, as well as her usual intent to eat the truffle, are due to a compound within the truffle similar to androstenol, the sex pheromone of boar saliva, to which the sow is keenly attracted.

In Italy, the use of the pig to hunt truffles has been prohibited since 1985 because of damage caused by animals to truffle’s mycelia during the digging that dropped the production rate of the area for some years.

Our next visit was to the Trionfale Market. The Trionfale market is considered the first corner market in Rome and with its 273 stalls is the biggest in town, and among the biggest ones in Italy and even in Europe. Open on Giulio Cesare Avenue at the end of ‘800, for years it has been a transit spot for those going out of town or hunting and stopped with carriage or horses to refuel. At that time, it was countryside all around.

Then, in the 30’s, it moved to Andrea Doria Road, in what used to be a working-class neighborhood and has later turned into a stylish area. These two souls actually live together in the market as of today, making it very cheap on one side, but also refined thanks to a number of stalls selling early fruits and vegetables and other rare goods.

On March 11 2009, the new Trionfale market was officially opened in a huge glass and cement building, an underlying parking with 420 garages and 320 car spaces, including a post office and aiming at becoming a full services center, with a library, a nursery and some university facilities which still need to be opened.

The market was actually very quiet when we visited as a lot of the stall holders were on holiday – August is the month when the Italians go on holiday. The cheese stall was open though and we were able to sample buffalo mozzarella from Amalfi. Buffalo mozzarella should be eaten fresh and at room temperature – this means between 1 and 3 days after it is made. It is preserved in salt water. Quite unfortunately for the “buffalo mozzarella lovers” spread in the world, the diffusion of this specialty outside the production area is limited by a severe intrinsic constraint: “real” mozzarella loses its wonderful flavor very soon. People living within the production area would in fact typically refuse as “too old” a mozzarella made only two days before! For this reason, the taste of mozzarella must be enjoyed in the region where it is produced.

These water buffaloes are treated like royalty – they are treated to classical music, a buffalo wash not too dissimilar to a car wash and get milked when they want to be milked – demand milking. They are happy and endure no stress in their lives, hence they produce this magical product. And it sure was magical and paired with the sweetest tomatoes really was a match made in heaven.

We also tried some pork products at the market. Italy has been the worldwide pioneer in the techniques of curing meats since ancient Roman times. Curing is the age-old process of preserving fresh meat through salting, smoking and air-drying Italian Meats. Pork is the most common cured meat in Italy, although other meats such as beef, venison and wild boar are also cured. Each region of Italy is known for its own cured meats, known as salumi, based on local customs. Spice plays an important role in the curing of Italian Meats. Typically, Italian Meats from the south tend to be spicier than those from northern Italy.

Cured Italian Meats fall into two basic categories: cured meats that have been taken from whole cuts of meat, and cured meats that have been molded from ground meat and stuffed into casings. Cured meat plays a prominent role in the Italian antipasto, meaning “before the meal”. An antipasto is a first course, traditionally consisting of foods such as sliced cured meats, cheeses and vegetables.

Types of Cured Italian Meats:

Bresaola: This cut of air-dried beef originally from Aosta is deep red in color and delicately flavored. Bresaola is delicious when sliced thinly, coated with olive oil and drizzled with lemon juice and capers. Like most Italian Meats, its production has spread beyond its original area of development to other parts of Italy and is also made by manufacturers of Italian Meats around the globe. Cacciatore: This cured sausage, the smallest form of all Italian Meats, translates to “Hunter’s Salami”. These sweet, dry sausages are characterized not only by their small size but also their boisterous, spicy flavor. Cacciatore Salami are great for picnics or antipasto.

Capicola: This Italian Meat is perhaps more popular in the US than in southern Italy where it was first produced. Capicola is called for in most American recipes for an Italian Hoagie or Italian Sub. Made from pork shoulder butt that is brine soaked then cooked, Capicola is seasoned with hot pepper flakes, salt and garlic. Like many Italian Meats, it has a marbled appearance and a rich, bold flavor.

Coppa: This famous Italian cut of ham is a salted, seasoned and dry-cured thinly cut pork shoulder or neck. Coppa is a typical addition to an antipasto plate, served alongside other cured Italian Meats and enjoyed with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

Cotechino: An example of the best of northern Italian Meats, Cotechino is closely reated to a similar salami called Zampone. This boiled Italian sausage originated in Modena in the early 1500s, and its production soon spread throughout all of Emilia-Romagna and into neighboring Lombardy and the Veneto. Typically served with lentils as a celebratory dish at New Year’s, Cotechino is now enjoyed year round in Italy and by fans of Italian cuisine around the world.

Culatello: One of our favorite Italian Meats from Parma, Culatello is to Prosciutto as Filet Mignon is to steak. The most famous variety is Culatello di Zibello, hailing from the town of the same name. Culatello is banned from import into the US because of health concerns arising from its production methods. This prime cut of ham is first seasoned and salted, then it is inserted into a pig’s bladder and shaped with twine into an oblong form. This most elusive of all Italian Meats is then cured for up to 12 months in specially designated aging buildings near the Po River where the river mist stimulates molds on the walls and ceiling, imparting the meat with a flavor that simply cannot be duplicated.

Guanciale: Although not an Italian Meat that belongs on the classic antipasto platter, Guanciale excels as a cooking ingredient. Guanciale is made of cured pork jowl and is used like Pancetta to add flavor and richness to pasta, risotto and stews. This traditional Italian Meat has a good amount of flavorful fat with striations of meat running throughout. Guanciale is often flavored with black pepper, garlic and rosemary mixed into its cure. Cubed up and fried until crispy, Guanciale is most often encountered in the classic dish, Pasta all’Amatriciana.

Lardo: While not technically a meat perhaps, Lardo is a salt-cured cut of pork back fat, spiced with black pepper, nutmeg and other savory additions. Locally popular in the Valle d’Aosta and other regions of the northern part of Italy, Lardo is served in a similar fashion to salami – sliced and included in an antipasto course or on a sandwich.

Mortadella: Mortadella is one of the most famous Italian Meats worldwide. It was first produced in Bologna and is the ancient ancestor to what Oscar Meyer simply calls Bologna Meat in the US. Unlike ordinary Bologna meat, This cured pork sausage boasts the addition of pork fat and numerous flavorful spices to its recipe. In Italy, Mortadella is often used in sandwiches or as part of the antipasto course.

Pancetta: One of the most traditional Italian Meats, this salted, spiced and dry-cured pork belly is served thinly sliced or diced for recipes. An excellent substitute for bacon, Pancetta is perhaps best known for as a key ingredient in Pasta Carbonara.

Pepperoni: Pepperoni is type of Salami that is made from lean, coarsely chopped pork and beef. A quality Pepperoni should not be overly spicy, but still robustly flavored with paprika, a mildly hot, somewhat smoky spice. Pepperoni is great as a pizza topping and in sandwiches.

Porchetta: Originally cretaed in the Lazio region of Italy, home to Rome, a discussion of Italian Meats would be incomplete without addressing Porchetta. This boneless pork roast is salted and heartily spiced with garlic, rosemary, fennel, oregano and black pepper. Porchetta makes a great sandwich meat or can be served as an entree as well.

Prosciutto: Also known as Parma Ham, Prosciutto (technically Prosciutto Crudo) is a specialty dry cured (uncooked) ham that undergoes an intensive curing process. The dry curing replaces the need for any cooking. Prosciutto is a ham from the hind leg of a hog or boar, air dried for long periods of time (at least 210 days) under specific climate controls. Prosciutto di Parma is a specific type of Prosciutto from Parma. Another high quality Prosciutto is called Prosciutto di San Daniele. Among the most famous, and versatile, of all Italian Meats, Prosciutto is usually sliced thinly and served in sandwiches, as part of an antipasto course, or used in recipes.

Salame: In America, the word Salame is almost synonymous with the phrase Italian Meats. Just about every region of Italy lays claim to its own particular salame, but the most famous are Genoa, Calabrese, Milano, Varzi and Abbruzzi. This Italian favorite may be made from a one or more of a variety of meats (pork, boar, beef, venison, etc.) and seasoned with ingredients such as herbs, spices, salt, pepper, wine or vinegar. Salami (the plural form of Salame) is made by stuffing the ground meats and seasonings into a casing and then hanging it to cure. In addition to the Salami defined by regional heritage, some other popular variations of Salami include Casalingo (Salami of the House), Sopressata (Pressed and Flattened Salami), Piccante (Spicy Salami), and Cacciatore (Hunter’s Salami).

Sopressata: Sopressata is one of the most traditional cured Italian Meats. It is usually a flattened shape (its name incororates the Latin root for pressing), and can be any length from 8 inches to several feet long. Sopressata Salami are often shaped round today, but this flies in the face of tradition. Historically, Sopressata was only produced in the fall when the family’s hog was scheduled to be butchered. A classic Sopressata made use of all the cuts from the pig that were left over after the most expensive cuts had been sold off, thus its nickname “poor man’s salami.” Today, the name Sopressata is simply be applied to any coarse grind, moderately spiced Salami.

Speck Alto Adige: Speck is an Italian bacon from the South Tyrol region of Italy. This Italian Meat is rubbed with spice mix of salt, pepper, juniper berries and various garden herbs. To make Speck, it is first dry cured to preserve the meat. The Speck is then lightly cold smoked over beechwood chips, producing its signature flavor. The Speck is then stacked in aging cellars, where it is slow dried. This maturing is important for this noteworthy Italian Meat to become truly tender.

Can you believe after all the food sampled so far we were now off to have lunch – I knew I would be rolling back to the hotel after this tour!

It made sense though – we hadn’t yet learnt about or sampled Italy’s other staple – pasta! The restaurant chosen for this part of the tour has been around for about 80 years. “Al Giardino del Gatto e la Volpe” was  founded in the ‘40ies, getting to its maximum success a few years later, thanks to Nando and Angela, who decided to share their true passion for good food, with anybody who loved simple and healthy cuisine.

Afterwards, with love and experience, they involved their children, who refined their culinary and gastronomy art, by creating during the following years a very familiar and peaceful location, a pleasant atmosphere, also warm, welcoming, and marked by a continuous search of quality; a place in which customers can always taste typical Roman food, cooked with elegance and love, always by using genuine ingredients.

The restaurant is named after the cat and the fox in the story of Pinocchio – the restaurant was originally started by Nando and a male friend – the cat and the fox – before Nando’s wife Angela came along.

We enjoyed some gnocchi and spinach and ricotta ravioli – so good. When many of us think of pasta we think of Italian food, and most people believe that it originated there. While pasta is traditionally Italian, it actually has a very ancient history that makes it almost impossible to know who came up with the dish first.

The history of pasta is difficult to trace for several reasons. The word itself translates to “paste” in Italian. This is a reference to the dough, made from a combination of flour and water or eggs – all simple components that have been around for centuries. This makes it hard to differentiate pasta from other ancient dishes made from the same ingredients. In addition, since pasta has long been a food of the common people, it has not received as much attention as more extravagant foods… a pity, since it’s one of the most popular foods on the planet!

When we talk about pasta, we must first define the term. The word pasta is generally used to describe traditional Italian noodles, which differentiates it from other types of noodles around the world. Pasta is made from unleavened dough consisting of ground durum wheat and water or eggs. The use of durum wheat sets pasta apart from other forms of noodles. Durum wheat’s high gluten content and low moisture make it perfectly suited to pasta production. The durum wheat dough is pressed into sheets, cut into a variety of shapes, and cooked before serving.

While we do think of pasta as a culturally Italian food, it is likely the descendent of ancient Asian noodles. A common belief about pasta is that it was brought to Italy from China by Marco Polo during the 13th century. In his book, “The Travels of Marco Polo,” there is a passage that briefly mentions his introduction to a plant that produced flour (possibly a “breadfruit tree”). The Chinese used this plant to create a meal similar to barley flour. The barley-like meal Polo mentioned was used to make several pasta-like dishes, including one described as “lagana” (lasagna). Since Polo’s original text no longer exists, the book relies heavily on retellings by various authors and experts. This, combined with the fact that pasta was already gaining popularity in other areas of Italy during the 13th century, makes it very unlikely that Marco Polo was the first to introduce pasta to Italy.

A food tour in Rome just woudn’t be complete without a trip to the geletaria. Luca took us to one of the best geletaria’s in Rome – Fatamorgana’s. Luca taught us how to spot a real gelato versus a fake one – the key things to look for are noted below.

Fatamorgana was founded by Maria Agnese Spagnuolo. There are 8 stores in Rome and the first store outside Italy was opened recently in LA. A fatamorgana is an unusual and complex form of superior mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. You can just imagine being stranded in the desert and seeing a mirage of gelato!

All of Fatamorgana’s gelato is gluten-free and made without processed ingredients because Maria has celiac disease and wanted to make ice cream she could eat. Her dream was to become an actress, but her father insisted that she have a backup plan, so she studied food chemistry in college. Her acting career never took off and after a weekend where she found herself battling depression, she wanted to make herself a treat. Creating gluten-free gelato without thickeners, stabilizers or additives changed her life.

To create the authentic Italian gelato, artisans use much less fat in the mixture compared to ice cream, and churn it at a slower speed so that less air gets mixed in. This contributes to a denser texture and more intense flavours than fluffy, whipped ice cream. Gelato is also served at a slightly higher temperature than ice cream, allowing the flavours to shine through.

The key things to look for prior to indulging in this heavenly treat:

Containers

They say don’t judge a book by its cover, but you should absolutely judge gelato by the container it’s served in. Look for flat metal tins, which may have lids on them. Plastic tubs are a definite no, but metal tubs don’t always guarantee quality on their own.

Lids are always a good sign, as it shows the gelato is being carefully kept at the right temperatures – and that the gelateria is respected enough that it doesn’t need to draw in customers with bright colours and fancy decorations.

The denser texture of gelato as compared to ice cream also means that flat, metal ‘spades’ are better tools than curved ice cream scoops, so take a look at how the ice cream is being served.

Colour

For a quality gelato, you want one with a high proportion of natural ingredients, and that means no (or very little) added colouring.  A quality gelato will never have very vibrant colours, but natural ones, for example, pistacchio should never be green like you might think, but brownish. For berry colours, look for deep, muted reds rather than shocking pink, and lemon should be white rather than yellowy.

Gelato should also never look shiny – that means there are too many sugars, or that it’s oxidized, which means it’s old.

Texture

Remember how a key difference between gelato and ice cream was that the former has less air and a denser texture. Consider the height of an ice cream in the container; if it is piled up too high and doesn’t melt, it means it is rich in vegetable fats and emulsifiers.

Flavour

Even if you know exactly which flavour you’re going to order, it’s worth seeing which other options are on offer, as this can give a valuable clue to the gelato’s quality. Tourist favourites such as cookies and cream and bright blue bubblegum (usually called ‘puffo’, which means smurf) are generally a bad sign – though good gelaterias might still offer them as a crowd-pleaser in addition to quality flavours.

You might also spot the exact same flavours and labelling in several different stores, which is a giveaway that this isn’t artisanal gelato but mass-produced, either delivered in bulk or made from a mix. Fruit flavours which are out of season show that they probably aren’t using fresh ingredients. In a good gelateria, you won’t find any fruit that can’t also be found at local market stalls that month.

We were now well and truly stuffed! It was time to say goodbye to our fellow foodies and go and have a lie down. This tour is one of the best tours we’ve ever done – we learnt so much and Luca was superb. If you’re in Rome we can’t recommend this tour highly enough – go forth and eat!

Luca recommended a roof top bar near by so the lie down was postponed 😜. The view over the Vatican was pretty good from the Atlante Star Hotel 👍🏼.

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Rome by Segway – Rome, Italy

We arrived in Rome on Sunday afternoon after catching the train from Switzerland – it took us just under six hours and the time just flew by. We arrived into the main train station in Rome – Roma Termini. It was about a 15 minute walk to our hotel – the cobbled streets made for interesting suitcase and golf bag travel 😬.

We are staying at Hotel dei Borgia which is really nice and well situated from the historic sites and the Metro station. We spent the first day and a half checking out our neighbourhood and planning our next few days in Rome.

First up was a Segway tour – we decided to do the full day option so we could really get a good lay of the land in the ancient city. We met at the Eco Art Travel offices for a training session – we had been on a Segway before in Chicago and it’s just like riding a bike 🤭. Well not quite but it all came flooding back – we just had to factor in the cobbled streets and navigating the curbs – Segway’s can’t go up curbs so the guides are well skilled in finding the best ways to navigate the city.

Flavio was our guide for the morning and he was a born and bred Roman. He was well versed on both Segway riding and history.

First stop was the Circus Maximus. The Circus Maximus (Latin for greatest or largest circus; Italian: Circo Massimo) is an ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium and mass entertainment venue. Situated in the valley between the Aventine and Palatine Hills, it was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome and its later Empire. It measured 621 m (2,037 ft) in length and 118 m (387 ft) in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. In its fully developed form, it became the model for circuses throughout the Roman Empire.

After the 6th century, the Circus fell into disuse and decay, and was quarried for building materials. The lower levels, ever prone to flooding, were gradually buried under waterlogged alluvial soil and accumulated debris, so that the original track is now buried 6m beneath the modern surface. In the 11th century, the Circus was “replaced by dwellings rented out by the congregation of Saint-Guy.” In the 12th century, a watercourse was dug there to drain the soil, and by the 1500s the area was used as a market garden. Many of the Circus’ standing structures survived these changes; in 1587, two obelisks were removed from the central barrier by Pope Sixtus V, and one of these was re-sited at the Piazza del Popolo. Mid 19th century workings at the circus site uncovered the lower parts of a seating tier and outer portico. Since then, a series of excavations has exposed further sections of the seating, curved turn and central barrier but further exploration has been limited by the scale, depth and waterlogging of the site.

The Circus site now functions as a large park area, in the centre of the city. It is often used for concerts and meetings. The Rome concert of Live 8 (July 2, 2005) was held there. The English band Genesis performed a concert before an estimated audience of 500,000 people in 2007 (this was filmed and released as When in Rome 2007). The Rolling Stones played there in front of 71,527 people on June 22, 2014 for the Italian date of their 14 On Fire tour. The Circus has also hosted victory celebrations, following the Italian World Cup 2006 victory and the A.S. Roma Serie A victory in 2001.

Today

Artists impression of what it would have looked like

Aerial view – current day

Next up was the Theatre of Marcellus (Latin: Theatrum Marcelli, Italian: Teatro di Marcello) which is an ancient open-air theatre built in the closing years of the Roman Republic. At the theatre, locals and visitors alike were able to watch performances of drama and song. The theatre was 111 m in diameter and was the largest and most important theatre in Ancient Rome; it could originally hold between 11,000 and 20,000 spectators. It was an impressive example of what was to become one of the most pervasive urban architectural forms of the Roman world.

Nowdays the upper floors are divided into multiple apartments, and its surroundings are used as a venue for small summer concerts.

After a little altercation with a curb (ST not me) Flavio showed us how the Romans have recycled the ruins over the years. Statues have been re homed all over the city.

The famous Trevi fountain was next on the itinerary – as you can imagine it is a very popular spot and it was impossible to get up close and personal. I have been to Rome before and they say if you throw a coin into the Trevi Fountain you will be sure to return to Rome in the future so 21 years later here I am 😊.

An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain each day. In 2016, an estimated €1.4 million (US$1.5 million) was thrown into the fountain. The money has been used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy; however, there are regular attempts to steal coins from the fountain, even though it is illegal to do so.

The fountain stands at 26.3 metres (86 ft) high and 49.15 metres (161.3 ft) wide, it is the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world.

We enjoyed a break at Campo de Fiori which translated literally from Italian, means “field of flowers“. The name dates to the Middle Ages when the area was a meadow.

Executions used to be held publicly in Campo de’ Fiori. Here, on 17 February 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burnt alive for heresy, and all of his works were placed on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Holy Office. In 1889, Ettore Ferrari dedicated a monument to him on the exact spot of his death: He stands defiantly facing the Vatican and was regarded in the first days of a reunited Italy as a martyr to freedom of thought. The inscription on the base reads: A BRUNO – IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO – QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE (“To Bruno – the century predicted by him – here where the fire burned”).

Today the square is the home to a market by day and a restaurant and bar scene by night although in the years after 2000, it became one of the most dangerous nighttime places of the city due to assaults and affrays by drunk tourists and soccer supporters.

We then visited the beautiful Piazza Navona which has three elaborate fountains. Defined as a public space in the last years of 15th century, when the city market was transferred there from the Campidoglio, Piazza Navona was transformed into a highly significant example of Baroque Roman architecture and art during the pontificate of Innocent X, who reigned from 1644 until 1655, and whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced the piazza. It features important sculptural and creations: in the center stands the famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi or Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, topped by the Obelisk of Domitian, brought in pieces from the Circus of Maxentius; the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone by Francesco Borromini, Girolamo Rainaldi, Carlo Rainaldi and others; and the aforementioned Pamphili palace, also by Girolamo Rainaldi, that accommodates the long gallery designed by Borromini and frescoed by Pietro da Cortona.

At the southern end is the Fontana del Moro with a basin and four Tritons sculpted by Giacomo della Porta (1575) to which, in 1673, Bernini added a statue of a Moor, wrestling with a dolphin. At the northern end is the Fountain of Neptune (1574) also created by Giacomo della Porta; the statue of Neptune, by Antonio Della Bitta, was added in 1878 to create a balance with La Fontana del Moro.

Apparently it is a very expensive place to eat and drink.

The Pantheon or House of God is a former Roman temple and is now a church. It is one of the best-preserved of all Ancient Roman buildings, in large part because it has been in continuous use throughout its history, and since the 7th century, the Pantheon has been used as a church dedicated to “St. Mary and the Martyrs” (Latin: Sancta Maria ad Martyres) but informally known as “Santa Maria Rotonda”. The square in front of the Pantheon is called Piazza della Rotonda. The Pantheon is a state property, managed by Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism through the Polo Museale del Lazio; in 2013 it was visited by over 6 million people.

The Pantheon’s large circular domed cella, with a conventional temple portico front, was unique in Roman architecture. Nevertheless, it became a standard exemplar when classical styles were revived, and has been copied many times by later architects.

As I mentioned above Segways don’t do curbs so we did a spot of road riding which was fun – the Italians are generally passionate people but this does not extend to stopping for pedestrians or other forms of transport so you have to be alert. To be fair it wasn’t particularly busy on the roads but they have a knack of appearing from nowhere and usually at a rate of knots 😂 .

We saw the Altare della Patria ([alˈtaːre della ˈpaːtrja]; English: “Altar of the Fatherland”), also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II (“National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II”) or Il Vittoriano from the road, which is a monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy.

The eclectic structure was designed by Giuseppe Sacconi in 1885. Established Italian sculptors, such as Leonardo Bistolfi and Angelo Zanelli, made its sculptures nationwide. It was inaugurated in 1911 and completed in 1925. It effectively took 40 years to construct – quite amazing when you compare it to the construction of the Colosseum which took 8 years to build but as Flavio pointed out they had the use of 20,000 Roman slaves. The construction of II Vittoriano was a costly business.

The Vittoriano features stairways, Corinthian columns, fountains, an equestrian sculpture of Victor Emmanuel and two statues of the goddess Victoria riding on quadrigas. The structure is 135 m (443 ft) wide and 70 m (230 ft) high. If the quadrigae and winged victories are included, the height reaches 81 m (266 ft). It has a total area of 17,000 square metres.

The base of the structure houses the museum of Italian Unification. In 2007, a panoramic lift was added to the structure, allowing visitors to ride up to the roof for 360-degree views of Rome.

The monument, the largest in Rome, was controversial since its construction destroyed a large area of the Capitoline Hill with a Medieval neighbourhood for its sake. The monument itself is often regarded as conspicuous, pompous and too large.

It has been described as being “chopped with terrible brutality into the immensely complicated fabric of the hill”.

It is clearly visible to most of the city of Rome despite being boxy in general shape and lacking a dome or a tower. The monument is also glaringly white, built from “corpse-white marble” imported from Botticino in Brescia, making it highly conspicuous amidst the generally brownish buildings surrounding it. For its shape and conspicuous nature, Romans have given it a number of humorous and somewhat uncomplimentary nicknames, including la torta nuziale (“the wedding cake“), la dentiera (“the dentures“), macchina da scrivere (“the typewriter”) and la zuppa inglese (“English soup” dessert, which refers to a trifle).

We finished the morning part of the tour at the Colosseum. The Colosseum is an oval amphitheatre in the centre of the city of Rome, Italy. Built of travertine, tuff, and brick-faced concrete, it is the largest amphitheatre ever built. The Colosseum is situated just east of the Roman Forum. Construction began under the emperor Vespasian in AD 72, and was completed in AD 80 under his successor and heir Titus. Further modifications were made during the reign of Domitian (81–96). These three emperors are known as the Flavian dynasty, and the amphitheatre was named in Latin for its association with their family name (Flavius).

The Colosseum could hold, it is estimated, between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators, having an average audience of some 65,000; it was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as mock sea battles (for only a short time as the hypogeum was soon filled in with mechanisms to support the other activities), animal hunts, executions, re-enactments of famous battles, and dramas based on Classical mythology. The building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. It was later reused for such purposes as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, and a Christian shrine.

Although partially ruined because of damage caused by earthquakes and stone-robbers, the Colosseum is still an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. It is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions and also has links to the Roman Catholic Church, as each Good Friday the Pope leads a torchlit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum.

We then enjoyed a typical Italian lunch- bruschetta, pasta, wine and coffee 😋.

The afternoon tour was more about the vistas of the city than the places. Our guide in the afternoon was Dimitri – he was also a born and bred Roman but one of his parents was German so he was extra tall.

One thing we have noticed in Rome is the state of disrepair that the streets, parks and train stations are in. There is a lot of graffiti, rubbish, weeds and areas that look like waste lands. I spoke to Flavio about it during the morning tour and he said it is all about the money. There simply isn’t enough money to go around and in a city of so many monuments, sculptures and historical sights they tend to be taken care of first.

On the afternoon tour, however we did visit a park that was green and well taken care of. Dimitri told us that when we turned left and walked towards the Vatican and St Peters Basilica we would see an optical illusion and he was right. As we walked closer the dome actually got smaller – you would think it would get bigger. But is it really magic? Probably not, and it is generally agreed that it is a trick of perspective caused by the position and height of the buildings on the horizon. When you walk towards a focal point, such as St. Peter’s dome, one would expect it to get bigger the closer you get. But in this case it, on the contrary, the cupola appears to become smaller as we approach the space between the buildings gets wider and our brain adjusts the dimensions perceived automatically.

Next stop was Capitoline Hill. From the founding of Rome until its fall almost one thousand years later, the Capitoline Hill symbolized the epicenter of Rome’s might and many of the city’s most important buildings stood on this hill.

Later, during the Middle Ages, the site continued to play an important part in Rome’s history. The senate of Rome assembled here and even today it still has some political significance since the city hall is located here. Apparently this is where the Mayor of Rome lives. The mayor of Rome – Virginia Elena Raggi – is the 65th Mayor of Rome and the first female mayor. She is a lawyer and politician and she share my birthday although she was born 7 years later.

One of her first acts as mayor was the withdrawal of the 2024 Olympic bid stating that “with 13 billion euros in debt, Rome can’t afford taking on more debt to make cathedrals in the desert”. Under her tenure both public transport and waste management have been subject of criticism due to poor quality of passenger service and waste collection: as for the former to date (July 2018) more than 30 buses caught fire since January 2017 because of poor or absent maintenance. The event has become so common that the press reports that every time a bus explodes in Rome the first thing people think of is a lack of service of Atac – Rome’s public transport company – rather than a terrorist attack.

When Emperor Charles V planned a visit to Rome in 1536, the muddy Capitoline Hill was in such a derelict state that pope Paul III Farnese asked Michelangelo to design a new square, the Piazza del Campidoglio (Capitoline Square). The project also included a redesign of the existing buildings surrounding the square.

Michelangelo came up with an original, trapezoidal design for the square with an intriguing oval shaped ground pattern. He rebuilt the Palazzo Senatorio, seat of the Roman senate, and redesigned the facade of the Palazzo dei Conservatori.

Additionally a new building, the Palazzo Nuovo, was to be constructed just opposite the Palazzo dei Conservatori. Both palazzos were positioned at a slight angle so that it changes the perspective in such a way that the square seems larger than it actually is.

Finally, Michelangelo’s ambitious plans for the square also included the creation of an elegant staircase, the Cordonata.

Construction of the square started in 1546 but only the staircase at the entrance of the Palazzo Senatorio was realized when Michelangelo died in 1564. The project was finally completed in the seventeenth century according to Michelangelo’s designs.

There is so much history in this city it is mind blowing and also a bit confusing. Dimitri reckons you would need at least two years to see everything in Rome.

Rome

Name & Symbol

The origin of the city’s name is thought to be that of the reputed founder and first ruler, the legendary Romulus. It is said that Romulus and his twin brother Remus, apparent sons of the god Mars and descendants of the Trojan hero Aeneas, were suckled by a she-wolf after being abandoned, then decided to build a city. The brothers argued, Romulus killed Remus, and then named the city Rome after himself. The symbol of the city of Rome is the wolf suckling the twins.

Periods of Roman History

Roman history has been among the most influential to the modern world, from supporting the tradition of the rule by law to influencing the American Founding Fathers to the creation of the Catholic church. Roman history can be divided into the following periods:

▪ Pre-historical and early Rome, covering Rome’s earliest inhabitants and the legend of its founding by Romulus.

▪ The period of Etruscan dominance and the Regal Period, in which according to tradition, Romulus was the first of seven kings.

▪ The Roman Republic, which commenced in 509 BC when kings were replaced with rule by elected senators. The period was marked by vast expansion of Roman territory. During the 5th century BC, Rome gained regional dominance in Latium, and eventually the entire Italian peninsula by the 3rd century BC. With the Punic Wars from 264 to 146 BC, Rome gained dominance over the Western Mediterranean, displacing Carthage as the dominant regional power.

▪ The Roman Empire: With the rise of Julius Caesar, the Republic waned and by all measures, concluded after a period of civil war and the victory of Octavian, the adopted son of Caesar in 27 BC over Mark Antony. After the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, Rome managed to hang onto the empire, still known as the Roman Empire but long centered on the eastern Mediterranean, until the 8th century as the Duchy of Rome. At this time, the city was reduced to a fraction of its former size, being sacked several times in the 5th to 6th centuries, in 546 even temporarily depopulated entirely.

Medieval Rome: Characterized by a break with Byzantium and the formation of the Papal States. The Papacy struggled to retain influence in the emerging Holy Roman Empire, and during the Saeculum obscurum, the population of Rome fell to as low as 30,000 inhabitants. Following the East–West Schism and the limited success in the Investiture Controversy, the Papacy did gain considerable influence in high medieval Europe, but with the Avignon Papacy and the Western Schism, the city of Rome was reduced to irrelevance, its population falling below 20,000. Rome’s decline into complete irrelevance during the medieval period, with the associated lack of construction activity, assured the survival of very significant ancient Roman material remains in the centre of the city, some abandoned and others continuing in use.

▪ The Roman Renaissance: In the 15th century, Rome replaced Florence as the symbol of artistic and cultural influence. The Roman Renaissance was cut short abruptly with the devastation of the city in 1527, but the Papacy reasserted itself in the Counter-Reformation, and the city continued to flourish during the early modern period. Rome was annexed by Napoleon and was technically part of France during 1798–1814.

▪ Modern History: The period from the 19th century to today. Rome was under siege by the Allied invasion of Italy and was bombed several times. It was declared an open city on 14 August 1943. Rome became the capital of the Italian Republic (established in 1946), with a population of 4.4 million in its metropolitan area (as of 2015; 2.9 million within city limits)—is the largest city in Italy. It is among the largest urban areas of the European Union and classified as a “global city

Kingdom of Italy

Rome became the focus of hopes of Italian reunification when the rest of Italy was reunited under the Kingdom of Italy with a temporary capital at Florence. In 1861, Rome was declared the capital of Italy even though it was still under the control of the Pope. During the 1860s, the last vestiges of the Papal States were under the French protection of Napoleon III. And it was only when this was lifted in 1870, owing to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, that Italian troops were able to capture Rome entering the city through a breach near Porta Pia. Afterwards, Pope Pius IX declared himself as prisoner in the Vatican, and in 1871 the capital of Italy was moved from Florence to Rome.

Soon after World War I, Rome witnessed the rise to power of Italian Fascism guided by Benito Mussolini, who, at the request of King Victor Emmanuel III, marched on the city in 1922, eventually declaring a new Empire and allying Italy with Nazi Germany.

The interwar period saw a rapid growth in the city’s population, that surpassed 1,000,000 inhabitants.

This Roman Question was finally resolved on 11 February 1929 between the Holy See and the Kingdom of Italy. The Lateran Treaty was signed by Benito Mussolini on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III and by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri for Pope Pius XI. The treaty, which became effective on 7 June 1929, and the Concordat established the independent State of the Vatican City and granted Roman Catholicism special status in Italy.

During World War II, Rome suffered few bombings (notably at San Lorenzo) and relatively little damage because none of the nations involved wanted to endanger the life of Pope Pius XII in Vatican City. There were some bitter fights between Italian and German troops in the south of the city and even in sight of the Colosseum, shortly after the armistice between Italy and Allied armed forces. On 4 June 1944 Rome became the first capital city of an Axis nation to fall to the Allies, but was relatively undamaged because on 14 August 1943, a day after the last allied bombing, the Germans declared it an “open city” and withdrew, meaning that the Allies did not have to fight their way in.

In practice Italy made no attempt to interfere with the Holy See within the Vatican walls. However, they confiscated church property in many other places, including the Quirinal Palace, formerly the pope’s official residence. Pope Pius IX (1846–78), the last ruler of the Papal States, claimed that after Rome was annexed he was a “Prisoner in the Vatican“.

Economy

As in ancient times Rome is a center of transportation. It is the focus of international traffic by road, rail, sea (at the port of Civitavecchia), and air (at Leonardo da Vinci international airport at Fiumicino) and is as well a cultural, religious, political, and commercial center of international importance.

Public transportation in Rome is provided by an elaborate bus system. A subway, the Metropolitana, was opened in 1955. Rome’s large number of automobiles has caused serious traffic congestion, and in the 1970s and 80s various attempts were made to deal with the problem, including the banning of traffic in certain parts of the city. The economy of Rome depends to a very large extent on the tourist trade.

The city is also a center of banking, insurance, printing, publishing, and fashion. Italy’s movie industry (founded in 1936) is located at nearby Cinecitta.

The economy of Rome is characterized by the absence of heavy industry, but commercial activities especially banking and the development of tourism are extremely important to its economy. Universities, national radio and television and the movie industry in Rome are also important parts of the economy. A phenomenon particular to Rome is the widespread incidence of double employment, people working two jobs.

All roads lead to Rome….

The idiom, “all roads lead to Rome,” was being used as early as the 1100s. It was based off of the ancient Roman road system where roads radiated from the capital of Rome. The road system resembled spokes of a wheel.

Rome wasn’t built in a day…

Important work takes time. This expression functions as an injunction or plea for someone to be patient. For example, You can’t expect her to finish this project in the time allotted; Rome wasnt built in a day. This phrase was a French proverb in the late 1100s but was not recorded in English until 1545.

When in Rome…

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. When visiting a foreign land, follow the customs of those who live in it. It can also mean that when you are in an unfamiliar situation, you should follow the lead of those who know the ropes.

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