Tag Archives: Europe

5 Magical Places in Tuscany you simply cannot miss!

Known throughout the world for its uniquely beautiful countryside, its green rolling hills, historical castles, medieval towns and villages, not to mention a wealthy patrimony of Renaissance architecture, paintings, sculptures and artistic treasures, Tuscany is a region found in central Italy whose artistic legacy echoes across continents.

Numerous movies and T.V series have further enhanced its popularity, not to mention its valid contributions to the viticulture and culinary sectors. Tuscany is also home to numerous archaeological and historical ruins spanning the pre-Etruscan era (roughly 1400–1150 BC), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, as well as the Roman period, the Medieval period during which Tuscany flourished under the Medici family, and the Renaissance.

View of Florence

Florence

Florence is the capital city of the region of Tuscany. Known as the center of the Renaissance movement. it holds a plethora of artistic and cultural treasures, all conveniently gathered into one special wonderful city. Visiting Florence is a must when travelling to Tuscany. From the Medicis to Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, it was ‘fortunate’ enough to have a number of cultural patrons who valued its historical significance. No wonder therefore that so many renowned artists chose to live there. From Giotto to Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio, Botticelli, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci – all these artists and more showcased their works in Florence, also known as the ‘Art Palace of Italy’.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The historic center of Florence centers around the Piazza del Duomo where one can find the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. When I visited Florence, I made the big mistake of thinking that entering the Cathedral would be as easy as strolling into a park – boy was I wrong. The Cathedral is a World Heritage Treasure. Entrance is not free and moreover there are HUGE queues waiting to go inside during every hour of every day. After waiting outside in the scorching sun for a couple of hours, I realized it was hopeless and went for a gelato instead. Don’t make my same mistake, purchase your skip-the-line ticket online before you go.

Inside the Uffizi Gallery

Also in the Piazza del Duomo one can find the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, which is well-worth a visit, as well as, in my opinion, the jewel in the crown of Florenze, the breathtaking Uffizi Gallery. Again, prepare yourself for MASSIVE queues. At least I was smart enough to purchase the tickets online beforehand for this one! A word of advice – I suggest you also purchase the tickets to Boboli Gardens while you are at it (these beautiful gardens appeared in the movie ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There wasn’t a queue to the gardens, but the combo-ticket is financially worth it. Make sure to leave at least 3-4 free hours to visit the Uffizi Gallery which is huge and contains such precious paintings as Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and his Primavera, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio’s Bacchus, and Rembrandt’s Self-portrait as a Young Man, amongst others.

Admiring Botticelli’s ‘Primavera’ (Springtime)

A few steps away from the Uffizi Gallery one also finds the Palazzo Vecchio, home to another amazing museum of the arts. Don’t forget to walk a bit further on to the Academia Gallery to view Michelangelo’s sculpture, David – the perfect rendition of the perfectly-proportioned man!

In front of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ at the Academia Gallery

Pisa

Known far and wide for its curious leaning tower, Pisa is another site one should not miss when travelling to Tuscany. While Florence takes a number of days to appreciate properly, I can personally admit that perusing the historical center of Pisa will not take you more than half a day. This is because all the architectural sites and monuments can all be found within the same small area. The Piazza del Duomo, also known as the Piazza dei Miracoli, which contains the famous Tower of Pisa, is also home to the Duomo (the Cathedral), the Baptistry, and the Campo Santo. This complex of four religious medieval buildings crowds close to the Tower of Pisa itself, in fact you can get magnificent photos of them all from atop the leaning tower. Purchase the combo ticket as soon as you get there and you can enter all the sites. There are also so many souvenir vendors that you can safely buy all the souvenirs for the people back home in one go.

The Piazza del Duomo in Pisa

Lucca

Lucca, surrounded with its Renaissance walls and enriched by architectural facades and (very uncomfortable) cobble-stoned streets, is another must-see.

In Piazza San Michele – Lucca

Founded by the Etruscans, later becoming a Roman colony, Lucca holds not only traces of an ancient Roman forum in its iconic Piazza San Michele, but also an Amphitheatre in the aptly named Piazza dell Anfiteatro. The Lucca Cathedral, the Basicila of San Frediano with its uniquely painted facade, the Palazzo Pfanner Museum and its serene gardens, as well the Ducal Palace and the Clock-Tower, take at least a full-day to visit. There are also a myriad of other arhaeological and cultural treasures peppering Lucca, not to mention beautiful fountains, gardens and squares in traditional Renaissance fashion. For a panoramic view of the city, make sure to visit the Guinigi Tower.

The Basilica of San Frediano

Villa Gorzoni, a Villa on the border of Lucca, offers a unique experience due to the unique layout of its water-garden constructed at the foot of a series of balustraded terraces and a suite of grand symmetrical staircases and complete with water cascade.

Siena

Like Lucca and other Etruscan towns, Siena too was a settlement of the Etruscan later claimed by the Romans. Siena’s beautiful medieval cityscape is home to the Siena Cathedral, a masterpiece of Romaneqsue-Gothic architecture. In the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s principal square, one can find the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) and its Torre del Mangia. The frescoes in the Palazzo alone make these very worth visiting – prepare to crane your neck! The Torre del Mangia, symbol of secular power, as opposed to the power of the Church (these two were built exactly the same height on purpose) with its rich sculptures, gothic architecture and marble loggia, offers quiet a tight fit (there is no lift), however the effort made to climb all those stairs is all forgotten once one sees magical Siena spread beneath you at the top.

The amazing frescoes at the Palazzo Pubblico

Make sure to leave some time for wandering around the wonderfully atmospheric alleys and winding streets – small chapels, villas, fountains and parks abound at every corner!

Walking around Siena

San Gimignano

Tiny but simply marvelous, San Gimignano must be one of the most perfectly preserved wholly-medieval towns I’ve ever visited (though the French Carcassonne, and the island of Mont San Michel in Normandy are two other serious contenders).

Surrounded by 13th century walls, this small hilltop town is to be found around an hour of driving away to the South West of Florence. Let yourself admire the gorgeous Tuscan countryside surrounding San Gimignano while trying not to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys and walkways. The heart of the town can be said to be the Piazza della Cisterna, where one can purchase a block ticket for all the most popular attractions from the cute tourist center found in one of the medieval houses surrounding the square. Personally my favorite building in San Gimignano was the San Gimignano Bell Tower (il Campanile della Colleggiata) where one can take a look at the most beautiful 360 degrees view in Tuscany. The climb is long, slippery and tortuous (there is no lift in the medieval building) but the spectacular view will remain with you forever.

On the San Gimignano Bell Tower

The block ticket also covers a number of museums, small chapels, and historical towers. At 177 ft, Torre Grossa is the tallest tower in San Gimignano, while Torre Rognosa (167 ft) is the oldest. The churches house a number of Renaissance works and are worth exploring. Make sure to take a full day to explore this serene town. Needless be said, if you choose to eat your lunch in San Gimignano, try to find a restaurant with a view (there are a few). They may be on the expensive side, but it will surely be the highlight of your day.

View of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi Gallery – Florence

Gothic Prague – City of a Hundred Spires

Having heard for a long time that Prague is the most Gothic city in Europe, last year I finally decided to ignore the nagging feeling that I would be disappointed, and took the plunge.

To give you an idea of the architectural richness of Prague, although this European hub is known as the ‘City of a Hundred Spires’, it was actually estimated that the city enjoyed 500 towers and spires until a few years ago. So, once there, be prepared to look up!

First day exploring the City of a Hundred Spires!

The capital of the Czech Republic is a mish-mash of medieval Gothic architecture, Romanesque basilicas, Renaissance interiors and Baroque sculptures and statues. The ‘old town’, or historical centre of Prague, is a real treasure trove, straight out of a sultry ‘underworld’ movie – no wonder it has been included in the Unesco list of World Heritage sites for more than 25 years.

Even if your trip to Prague is limited to just a few days, there are some experiences that are simply unmissable. The heart of the old town is certainly Prague Castle which, unlike the name suggests, is not just one castle but a complex of historical buildings, monuments and sites around a large square. It’s like a city within a city, comprising three courtyards, the lush royal palace with its famous Powder Tower, the magnificent St Vitus Cathedral and St George’s Convent, which houses a number of historical artistic pieces, not to mention a number of other palaces, such as the Lobkowicz Palace, that contain artistic exhibitions and private collections.

Saint Vitus Cathedral

If you haven’t realized yet, a couple of hours are certainly not enough to visit. I dedicated a whole day to the exploration of this landmark. Be prepared to walk, gawp and crane your neck. I urge anyone who visits to wear comfortable shoes. And don’t worry, in between bouts of climbing stairs and taking photos of the amazing views and architectural wonders, one can always take a break and relax in the beautiful Royal Garden, the Belvedere or the South Gardens.

Be warned, however. The Castle complex is on top of a hill, which means that in order to get there you have to walk up many steps or up a long, steep road. On the plus side though, this means that there are some very beautiful panoramic views.

Personally, my favorite part of the Palace complex is the so-called ‘Golden Lane’, where a conglomeration of small, medieval shops and tiny houses belonging to noted historical figures are to be found, literally on top of each other. These tiny vintage nooks offer not only medieval and post-war exhibitions, but also a number of diminutive shops selling hand-made unique items.

Views of Prague Castle Square

Huts proclaiming to have been ‘the fortune-teller’s home’, or ‘the herbalist’s shop’ show you a slice of life during the 16th century, when the cramped street was most active. And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at the Prague Astronomical Clock, which can easily be found on the southern wall of the Old Town Hall in the square.

Although some areas of the complex are free, such as the gardens, most of the buildings are not. I would suggest purchasing a block ticket which would allow you to roam wherever you like.

Magical Charles Bridge!

Apart from the historic fulcrum of the city, perhaps the most iconic symbol of Prague is the Charles Bridge. Constructed more than 250 years ago, this enormous arching bridge is portrayed in many movies. The stone bridge, which crosses the Vltava River, is adorned by a surprising number of baroque statues portraying saints and knights. I crossed the bridge both by day and by night – two two very distinct memorable experiences.

This is another unique thing about Prague – at night it looks very different and magical. So, if you visit, make sure to stroll around the cobbled, winding streets at night too. I adventurously attended a four-hour walking ghost tour and, though my feet were falling off by the end of it, I would do it again if I had to revisit.

There is so much to see in Prague apart from the Old Town. If you take the underground or a bus and venture a few streets away, you will discover the Jewish Quarter, which is well worth the effort. Located between the Old Town square and the Vltava river, the Jewish Quarter dates back to the 13th century, when the Jewish population of Prague was warned to vacate their homes and settle in one area.

The Spanish Synagogue is a real jewel

This happened throughout Europe; however, Prague’s Jewish Quarter in particular is known to be the most well preserved of the ‘Jewish ghettos’ in our continent. Testament to the Jewish presence in Prague, the Jewish Quarter comprises six synagogues, as well as the Old Jewish Cemetery. One can purchase a block ticket to visit all these sites, which are to be found within walking distance of each other. The golden-encrusted Spanish Synagogue is something to behold; no wonder it is known to be the most beautiful synagogue in Europe.

At the Old Jewish Cemetery

Two other astonishingly beautiful attractions to be found in Prague are the Clementinum Library and the Strahov Monastery. A special treat for bookworms and book-lovers, these two historical baroque buildings are not as easy to find as other attractions, but again, they are well worth a visit. The baroque library hall at the Clementinum contains some of the oldest, most precious and most expensive illuminated world globes, not to mention unique first-edition, ancient books and tomes, and magnificent frescoed walls and ceilings.

Wowed at the Strahov Monastery

The Strahov Monastery, originally founded as an abbey in the 12th century, does not only contain a historic frescoed library, but also various exhibitions relating to different periods of Prague. The bad news? Both the Baroque Library Hall at the Clementinum and the Theological Hall at the Strahov Monastery, which are the fulcrum of both places, are actually out of bounds. One cannot enter inside. However, you can look at them for as long as you like from outside the cordoned doorway and take pictures from there.

One cannot visit Prague without carousing for one evening at the decadent Absintherie. A mecca for all cocktail and drink lovers, the Absintherie Bar and Museum is a historical landmark offering more than 100 types of absinthe, as well as many absinthe-based cocktails and products. Known as ‘the green fairy’, absinthe is an alcoholic drink containing wormwood, fennel and green anise.

Banned in certain countries, it was originally used in ancient Egypt for medicinal uses. Of course, its use and consumption changed over time. The Absintherie Museum contains a number of unique items on display and is features of the largest absinthe-related collections in Europe.

Drinking at the Absintherie

Just a suggestion, if you visit the Absintherie, make sure to have a safe means of transportation back to your accommodation – one which does not require you to drive or take any intricate decisions!

This article written by yours truly was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

A Hidden Paradise – Exploring the Zingaro Nature Reserve

No tarmacked roads in sight, no cars, no concrete houses, no telephone cables, no traffic noise-pollution. Just pure unmitigated peace, small pristine beaches amidst rugged countryside, spectacular sea-views, lush hiking trails, florid plants growing in the shade of rich trees while seagulls circle over picturesque grottos and hedgehogs peep at you from beneath a canopy of leaves. Heaven? Not at all, I found all this and more at the Zingaro Nature Reserve in Sicily.

Tired of the humdrum of everyday life, some months ago I decided to take myself off to Sicily for a long weekend. It wasn’t the first time I had visited the island, and this time I wasn’t interested in exploring cities, going shopping or even admiring historical architecture and art. I just wanted to take a deep breath, stay still and relax for a while. Which is why Zingaro Nature Reserve, located just an hour west of Palermo, near the small town of Scopello, was the perfect place to go. This little paradise opens daily from 7am to 7pm and sports two different entrances, the most popular one being accessible from the coast road that ends just beyond Scopello, while the other less busy entrance is close to San Vito La Capo in the north. We were staying in the village of Trappeto, so the Scopello entrance was the closest one for us. Also, this entrance has a free car park and an information centre, where the very helpful staff gave us a map of the Reserve and its possible trails.

The leaflet informed us that Zingaro Nature Reserve was actually Sicily’s oldest and first protected area, and that it was established as a reserve in 1981. This spectacular location stretches for 7km along the unspoilt coastline of the Bay of Castellammare and its mountain range, and offers hikers and explorers three main trails. The ‘easier’ one is the Coastal trail, which winds around the coast and bays and takes approximately 4-6 hours to traverse from one side of the Reserve to the other. The second one, which is described as ‘Moderate’, is the Middle Coast Trail, which is an 8.5 km winding walk in the middle of the landscape and rural scenery, with the coast on one side and the mountains on the other. The third option is the Tall and Middle Coast Trail, which is the longest route and goes straight through the Bosco of Sardinia, famous for its pine trees. Of course, stating a specific time for how long one will actually take to walk through each trail is very subjective, since this depends on the hardiness of the hikers, the weather conditions, and the terrain. It will definitely take longer if you opt to stop for a picnic. I recommend starting early if you plan on spending the whole day exploring the place, since you definitely don’t want to find yourself crashing through the undergrowth in darkness. There are no electrical external sources of light within the Reserve.

One enters Zingaro proper through a short tunnel. As soon as one emerges from it, the whole enchanting vista of mountains, woodland and coast opens up in a sudden magical light-burst. The main trail splits into a few others but they are very well marked. We chose the Coastal trail, which is a bit hilly and sports some ups and downs, but which is a very good choice particularly in summer. This is because of the 7 different natural beaches found alongside it, not to mention the picturesque craggy coastline. Perfect if you are an avid photographer, or if you just want a dip in the cool water. After a few minutes walking along this trail, we came across the tiny Museum of Marine Activities. I must confess, at this point the thing I found most interesting here was the bathroom, and boy was I fortunate in stopping there! A serious word of advice, toilets at the Reserve are very few and far between since they are only found at the four small museums interspersing the various trails. So, make the most of them!

Cala Mazzo di Sciacca

After around 20 to 30 minutes of walking in the scorching sun of June, we finally spied the first natural cove or cala. This was the Cala Mazzo di Sciacca, a small virgin-white sandy beach with not a soul in sight. The water sparkled as I gazed at it longingly, because yes, obviously, I had forgotten my swimsuit in the car. The temptation to just wade into the azure water au naturel was overwhelming, but thankfully I didn’t give in to it. No sooner had we taken our photos and decided to reluctantly continue to follow the path, than two whole families of tourists descended on us replete with towels, plastic toys and lunchboxes. Many people in fact visit Zingaro Nature Reserve for its unique beaches, so less crowded and so much cleaner than more mainstream swimming locations. Entrance to the Reserve only costs €5 for adults, which is very worth it considering the amazing experience.

Cala Capreria

We continued on towards the next bay on the map, the Cala Capreria. At this point the heat was quite intense, and I was very sorry that we hadn’t thought to bring some water with us. Another note of warning, don’t be as careless as I was. Take drink and food with you because there are no stops and nowhere to buy anything. It is pure unmitigated beautiful wilderness. I did at least think of wearing sturdy tennis shoes and not flip flops or sandals, which would have been terribly uncomfortable on the craggy terrain.

The Reserve sports seven beaches in all; one of which is only accessible by boat. In fact, for those who are not interested in hiking but just want to glory in the popular calas, there are a number of cruises available whereby one can buy a ticket and visit all these beaches and more by boat. Ferries are available from San Vito La Capo and other coastal resorts. Although one need not be a jock or professional athlete to brave walking around the Reserve, it is definitely not for the physically unfit or for those with special physical needs, therefore taking a cruise might be another way of experiencing another side to the location. The waters around the reserve are also excellent for scuba diving. The Zingaro Reserve is wholly pedestrian, meaning that one can only explore it on foot and that no cars may enter this safe space.

Moving on, we arrived at the Punta Leone, which is a natural rock formation supposedly in the shape of a lion. To be honest, I didn’t realise this until it was pointed out to me by a very friendly and helpful ranger. He also shared some of his water with us, for which at this point, I was profoundly grateful – thank you again Vincenzo!!

Image Source: www.eventitrapani.it

Vincenzo also told us that had we started walking from the northern entrance, the once closest to San Vito la Capo, instead of the southern one, the trail we would have traversed would have been less hilly and problematic. Also the four beaches closest to that entrance are closer to each other too, making the trail easier to navigate. He was very boastful of ‘his’ Reserve, talking non-stop about the 650 different species of plants, shrubs, palms and colourful flowers which dot the landscape, as well as mentioning  the local bird population which usually acts as a magnet to those interested in ornithology. These visit the Reserve to study the eagles, falcons, peregrines, partridges, kestrels, owls and seabirds found here. The grottoes and cavers along the coastline are also inhabited by eight different species of bats. Needless to be said, it is forbidden to take rifles or any kind of fishing equipment in the Reserve.

I must admit that at this point I was totally wound up as it was very hot and there was also the return journey to consider (since we had left our car at the parking lot near the southern entrance), therefore I admit that I only walked until mid-way of the coastal trail, that is, as far as the Cala della Disa. Funnily enough, even though the rangers and museum curators encountered along the track continued to tell us that such and such a location was ‘only ten minutes away’, each time the walk was markedly lengthier than that, so try not to take experienced trekkers at face value, especially if, like me, you generally prefer a cool drink and a good book on the couch to a laboriously sweat-drenching walk in the Sicilian sun. However Zingaro Nature Reserve was well-worth the effort. Seriously though, I won’t try to tackle such a track in summer again, as I’m sure the experience would be much more enjoyable in spring or autumn. Still, I will surely visit Zingaro again next time I visit Sicily, even though this time perhaps, I will traverse it from the easier and less hilly Northern side.

This article, written by yours truly, was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

Art and History – 7 Gems to Visit in Paris!

Paris is host to some of the most famous works of art in the history of Europe, many of them related to notable historical events or people.

Les Invalides, which is a historical building housing a number of museums and exhibitions pertaining to the military history of France, is definitely one of the most important places in Paris. It contains a large church where the remains of some of France’s war heroes reside, most notably, the one and only Napoleon Bonaparte.

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After viewing the historical landmark, I immediately made my way to another unmissable spot – Place Charles de Gaule, which in its middle features the well-known Arc de Triomphe, an honorary monument for all of those who fought and died in France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Inspired by Roman architecture, it has an overall height of 50 meters and it stands right in the middle of one of Paris’ busiest roundabouts.

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Another architectural and historical wonder is the Conciergerie, a former prison currently used to house the Law Courts and Palace of Justice. Part of it is still used as a museum to portray what the prisoners held there during the French Revolution went through, since these were usually taken here before proceeding on to Madame Guillotine. Queen Marie Antoinette herself was the occupant of one of the tiny drab cells, which has now been converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory and housing several artifacts previously belonging to her.

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The Conciergerie is situated on the same street as the Royal chapel of La Chappelle, which is where I went next. La Chapelle is a small, gold-encrusted gothic building sporting shrieking gargoyles, very intricately painted ceilings, pointy arches and an eerie atmosphere. A tiny jewel box of a church, which houses one of the most extensive 13th century stained glass windows in the world.

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After lunch, I grabbed the metro once more and made my way to the Picasso Museum, where I was immediately overwhelmed, not only by the artwork itself but also by the many interesting posters and political fliers representing the spirit of the turmoil prevalent in the 1950s. Pablo Picasso had given vent to his political opinions through his art work and was in fact, very much criticized for this.

His most famous painting, Guernica, impressed me not only with its presence but also with its portrayal of the agony and suffering brought about by war. It was, in fact, created in response to the bombing of the Spanish town of Guernica by Nazi Germany.

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Another painting which moved me was his Weeping Woman, one of a series of paintings depicting weeping women as a metaphor of the fragmentation, torture and pain prevalent in human beings.

Following the Picasso Museum, I visited the Atelier de Lumiers, which was hosting an immersive exhibition dedicated to one of my favorite artists – the Austrian, Gustav Klimt. This interactive spectacle was amazingly different from any other art exhibition I had ever seen. It took place in a whitewashed empty hall, devoid of any art or painting itself.

Art lovers and curious people sat on the floor or meandered slowly about, and gazed mutely around them in wonder, as a number of projectors seamlessly showed Klimt’s golden artworks around the four walls and floor. The ethereal music in the background complemented the feeling of awe and harmony perfectly.

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One cannot talk about art and France in the same sentence, without mentioning the Louvre Museum, which is actually the world’s largest art museum. Originally built as Louvre Castle, the building itself hosts and exhibits approximately 38,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century over an area of 72,735 square meters. It cannot be visited in an hour, two hours, or even half a day. I myself spent a full day gaping at its many treasures, and I freely admit that I probably saw half of them, and not as minutely as I would have liked. Prepare to meet people. Lots and lots of people. And cameras, phones, tablets, etc clicking away at every corner of every room.

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You will surely be one of them. You will also meet Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, together with many of his works, paintings by Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Giotto and all the ‘great’ master painters of any age. Not to mention enchanting unique sculptures like the Venus of Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Sleeping Hermaphroditus and tons of others. Seriously, how can one describe the Louvre and everything in it?

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I am aware that there are many other important locations which I did not include in this list – the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Royal Opera House, the Moulin Rouge, etc. I wrote previously about my visit to the Eiffel Tower here and will be writing more about Paris in future, so will be describing these attractions and more later on. So much to write about one city!

Roman Holiday

The wonders of Rome are legendary. I have yet to meet someone who has never heard about the majestic Coliseum, the Roman Pantheon or the Catholic bastion that is Vatican City. Perhaps it is this notoriety which tends to generate a sense of overwhelming panic whenever someone decides to finally visit Rome.

The capital city of Italy in fact is so chock-full of cultural treasures, historical icons, places to see and things to do, that most people tend to feel at a loss when they are about to start planning a trip there. This usually results in many of them taking the easy way out by joining a group tour, or renting a guide, rather than planning and exploring the city on their own. However, panicking is not the way to go, since planning a comprehensive trip to Rome is not as complex as it might seem.

The Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum!

First of all, there is such a variety of experiences to be savored in Rome, that any kind of trip – be it a one-day adventure, or a week-long visit, will definitely not be boring. Personally, I would suggest at least 5 days in Rome, since there is so much to see that any less would leave you with a whetted appetite and a sense of loss brought about by all the things you did not have time for.

Accommodation: Hotels in the city centre are expensive. That is a given. However, transport in Rome is so efficient that one does not really need to be in the city centre to be able to explore everything on one’s itinerary. In fact, finding accommodation at the periphery of Rome is much more preferable, since the traffic, smog and noise will be less, as will the price.

Transport: Renting a car in Rome is a no-no. Traffic and traffic-jams are a veritable nightmare, not to mention parking. The Italian capital can however boast of a very punctual and dynamic metro system, not to mention very organised bus and tram services. One can easily purchase a Travel Pass, or Roma Pass, which can be valid for a period of 24 hours, up to two, three, or even seven days. Passes include the metro, buses, and tram services and can be purchased at any metro station or convenience store.

Time Constraints: Be sure to check the opening and closing times of any attraction you are interested in visiting. Certain museums or shops in Italy may be closed on Mondays, others close on Sundays, while others still close for lunch and re-open again later. It would be pointless to spend thirty minutes on the bus, only to arrive at destination and realize that the place you wanted to visit is closed. Another thing to take into account is the possibility of security checkpoints. These are a fixture in places such as the entrance to Vatican City or the Coliseum, so if you are planning to see two or more attractions in one day, make sure to get an early start.

Trevi Fountain

Main Attractions: Prepare yourself for queues. Long queues. Queues where you will waste even more time. Especially at such main attractions as the Trevi Fountain, the Coliseum, Vatican City, the Roman Forum and the Roman Pantheon. The solution to this problem is to purchase entrance tickets online beforehand. This is usually not only cheaper, but also less time-consuming, since it offers you the option of buying ‘skip-the-line’ tickets which, as the name suggests, enable you to skip most of the queues. Make sure you purchase the tickets from trusted websites such as Isango or Viator (tried and tested personally many times over).

Keats-Shelley Memorial House

Other Unmissable Places: My favorite experience in Rome was a visit to the four main Roman Catacombs. Underground Rome is in fact, as mysterious and magical as Rome above-ground, and its history just as interesting. For literature-lovers, I would also suggest visiting the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, stationed exactly at the corner of the Spanish steps, where the renowned Romantic poet John Keats died. Those with an interest in the history of the Second World War, will surely be tempted to take a look at Villa Torlonia, better known as Mussolini’s Private Residence.

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Inside Villa Torlonia

Castel Sant’ Angelo, a beautiful round fortress located very near Vatican City is another bulwark of Roman architecture, as are the enchanting Villa Borghese and the Villa Medici, where one can admire a number of unique sculptures, painting and artwork. If you need a breather away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the beautifully landscaped gardens of Villa Borghese are a must.

Villa Borghese
Inside Villa Borghese
Zeus and Daphne – One of the beautiful works of art found in Villa Borghese

Better still is grabbing the commuter train and in less than forty minutes arriving at the sprawling ruins of Ostia Antica. This huge archaeological site still houses the remains of a number of historical buildings, including a huge amphitheatre, a number of public baths, taverns, inns, shops, various temples and shrines, and even a necropolis. Be warned though – you will need a full day to appreciate the remnants of this ancient Roman port.

The amphitheatre at Ostia Antica

What can I say? Rome cannot be explored in one week, much less one day, and it cannot be described in only one blogpost. Can’t wait to visit again sometime soon!

A version of this article was originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta.

7 Free Mobile Phone Applications which are vital when exploring Japan

Visiting a different country although great fun and a satisfying adventure, is not as easy as you might think, particularly if you are in the habit of booking your flights and planning your stay and your itinerary on your own, without any help from outside sources. There is so much to keep in mind! Not only does one have to book accomodations, tickets to events and festivals, etc in advance, but most importantly, one has to navigate, find actual locations and places, communicate with the locals and to a certain extent, even understand their culture and way of life, in order to fully enjoy the experience.

This is particularly true when crossing from one continent to another. Travelling from Europe to Asia was an adventure I would do over and over again, yet I must admit that the level of preparation for it was on a different level to my usual travels. Thankfully, I knew I would always have my mobile phone with me, which helped a great deal in that there were a number of programmes and applications which I could download on my mobile and always keep handy while in Japan.

Picture Source: wired.com

These few free apps made exploring so much easier! Personally I did not have internet access on my mobile phone (unless I connected with some free wifi I found randomly), so all the mobile apps I downloaded were designed to work offline. My boyfriend however had bought a sim card for his phone, which provided him with free internet access at all times. In this article I will therefore be mentioning both the apps I had on my own phone, and the apps he had on his, which need internet access to work. I would recommend that if you are travelling solo, you do get either a sim card or portable pocket wifi, as this is of great help while navigating and commuting in real time. If you are part of a group, it is enough if one of your party does.

Image Source: en.compathy.net

Currency

First of all, it is important to be able to understand the currency of the country one is travelling to. The official currency of Japan is the Japanese Yen. Even before actually boarding my flight, I had already started to appreciate the difference in value and denomination of this currency. When I exchanged my European euros to Japanese yen at the bank, I was pleased to see the cashier give me so many banknotes, then I realized that this was because ten euros are the approximate equivalent of 121 Japanese yen! So, two fifty euro bank notes transformed into a 10,000 bank note, a 1,000 bank note and some coins when it came to Japanese yen! (So basically, 100 GBP are equivalent to 13,563 Japanese Yen, and so on) This was quite confusing even when purchasing pre-booked train seats online from Japanese websites calmly from home and converting my payments through online calculators, so I knew it would be far worse in real time while hurriedly buying stuff from local street vendors and shop-keepers in Japan!

Offline App Used

Exchange Rates – Easy to use, quick, efficient with no frills, this exchange rate calculator helped me monitor and understand all my monetary transactions. You can find it in Playstore and, as are the rest of the apps mentioned in this blogpost, it is totally free to download on your mobile phone. You just set your two currencies – that is, choose from a list which currency you are searching for (in this case, Japanese Yen) versus your own usual currency (ex. Euro) and the converter app will immediately open up showing these two currencies, ready to use, each time you need it. There is also a very useful feature where you can choose the banknotes of any currency and the app will show you the different available denominations together with pictures.

Online App Used

Image Source: xe.com

XE Currency Converter and Money Transfers – if you have need of real time currency fluctuations, you can download this popular app, which also offers the possibility of making an account and sending/receiving money overseas.

Language Translation

Our first stop in Japan was the capital city of Tokyo. To be honest, although I was aware that not everyone in Japan spoke and understood English, I still thought that the majority of people did. Or at least that city people did. Boy, was I wrong. I think not even half the population of Tokyo has a good grasp of the English language. Not enough to make themselves understood or to understand you when it comes to the simplest of things. And why should they? English might be one of the most predominant spoken languages in Europe, but in Asia, this is certainly not the case.

Offline Apps Used

Minna – This basic, yet comprehensive Japanese – English – Japanese dictionary offers a wide variety of everyday words and their various possible meanings and uses in colloquial language. Although it is free, some of the most ‘sophisticated’ words are to be purchased at ‘premium’ level, however one can get by very well with the free version. There is also a ‘voice’ option where you can listen to the translated word with the original tone and stress on the words.

Image Source: appgrooves.com

Learn Japanese – This is not a singular word dictionary but a collection of very common phrases and questions which might come in useful. Grouped by theme, such as  ‘Greetings’, ’Numbers’, ‘Transportation’, ‘Eating Out’, etc, this application went a long way in providing some much needed context as well as handing certain phrases on a platter, ready-made into sentences, instead of just listing singular words which would then need to be strung together to ask a simple sentence.

Online App Used

Google Translate – I must admit that Google translate is so much better than the two apps mentioned previously! You just insert the phrase or question you need to ask a local, and voila, there they have it! Just show them your mobile screen and google translate does all the work for you.

Navigation

This is actually the most vital and important part of your planning and concerns your everyday sightseeing routine. If you do not have a way to check the streets, locations, not to mention train connections, bus numbers and circuits, etc, you will definitely get lost in no time at all. And since, as already mentioned, most Japanese people don’t know English very well (nor any other common European language such as German or Italian), unless you know Japanese, you will not be able to ask for directions.

Offline App Used

Maps Me – I admit I never knew Maps Me existed before this trip, but now that I do, my travel-life will never be the same again. Simply download the app, download the map of the country you will be travelling to, and add your destinations to plan a route from your current location (make sure that your location data is switched on within your mobile phone). Maps Me provides the most viable routes on foot, by car and using trains. However if you are offline, the route given for going on foot is more accurate, since road and train changes may occur in real time. Maps Me periodically updates your maps whenever you have an internet source available.

Online App Used

Google Maps – By far the best option both for finding your way around on foot, as well as providing real time information in relation to underground metro stations, trains, and bus routes, as well as relevant departure times.

Image Source: medium.com

These mobile apps will of course be of no use if you do not have a good working mobile phone or tablet. Since you will be using this device a lot and carrying it everywhere with you, I would suggest having a fully-charged portable power bank at your disposal in case you need to re-charge your phone and have no other available power outlet.

Are there any other free apps you’d recommend and which helped you through your travel-hurdles? Let me know by posting a comment!

Image Source: 123rf.com

Disclaimer: This blogpost is not an advertisement. No companies representing mobile applications, websites, or trademarks influenced my mentioning of these products or services. I wrote about the apps I personally used and would recommend while travelling based on my own actual experience.

Packing for Japan – Common Issues

During the exciting days leading up to my one-month trip from one continent – Europe, to another – Asia, I found out that packing for a longish trip to a country where there will probably be a number of communication issues due to the language barrier, was quite different from packing for a one or two-week trip to another European country, or a country which is predominantly English speaking. This is because being aware that you might not be able to communicate and ask for certain services and/or products in your target country, will result in you packing certain things which you might otherwise have purchased there instead.

Large Japanese cities such as Tokyo and Osaka see a huge influx of Westerners, leading to many of the locals being able to communicate with them through necessity, however having decided to explore Japan while visiting both the more popular locations, as well as those off the beaten track, I had to take into account that in certain mountain villages, small fishing towns, etc, one could not expect the locals to be able to communicate in your primary language. I kept all of this in mind while packing, as well as, of course, how many pieces of luggage I was allowed to carry with the air ticket I had purchased. In my case, I could take two large pieces of luggage weighing 23kgs each, a hand luggage weighing 8kgs max, as well as a handbag.

Image Source: www.esquire.com

First of all, I would have loved to take all of this with me, however practically speaking, I knew that I would have to lug that baggage around from one city to another, on bullet trains, regular underground trains, taxis, not to mention walk around with them quite a bit, so, seeing as I have only two arms, I decided to take two large pieces of luggage with me and a backpack, even though I could have taken another bag on the plane with me as well. Having decided that, I started to compile my packing list.

Pharmaceuticals/Medicines

Unlike other Asian countries, one does not need to take any mandatory vaccines before visiting Japan. That being said, I was routinely vaccinated for measles, mumps, chickenpox and rubella as a child. Make sure to get health insurance before take-off.

Image Source: www.wikihow.com

If you are packing prescription medicines for one or more health conditions for personal use, it is important to be aware of the rules which visitors to Japan have to abide by. First of all, your country may not have the relevant information about which drugs are illegal in Japan, so it is best to contact the Japanese authorities (such as the Japanese embassy) or research/ask online. Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis (marijuana), and stimulant drugs, including some prescription medications such as Adderall, are prohibited in Japan. There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items.

Up to one month’s supply of prescription medicine (that is allowed by Japanese law) can be brought into Japan. Travelers should take a copy of their doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. Those who must carry more than one month’s supply, or are carrying syringes (pumps) or a CPAP machine, must obtain a Yakkan Shomei, that is, a type of import certificate, in advance, and present the certificate with their prescription medicines at Customs. You can find the relevant import form here. It usually takes two weeks to be processed, sent and received. Make sure to apply well before you leave for your trip. Keep your medicines, together with your prescriptions and import certificate, together in order for you to show them to the customs official at the airport. Take a look at the official Japan Customs website for more detailed information.

Regarding over the counter drugs, according to Japanese law, up to a two-months’ supply of allowable over-the-counter medication and up to a two-months’ supply of allowable vitamins can be brought into Japan duty-free, unless of course, they contain substances which are illegal in Japan.

Clothes and Shoes

Your clothes depend on the weather you’ll be facing when you arrive in Japan. For example, if you are visiting Japan during June/July, that is, in Summer, (as I am) make sure to take light and airy clothing. Summer in Japan is also the ‘rainy season’, therefore apart from your t-shirts and cotton dresses, make sure to take at least one rain coat and/or hoodie. I also packed some sunscreen and insect repellent as I was told that mosquitoes are really fierce during the rainy season!

Whether you are staying in a city or trekking through the mountain regions, you will walk. A lot. Make sure to take more than one pair of comfortable shoes. Trekking shoes are preferable but any kind of tennis shoes, boots or sandals will do as long as you know you can walk long distances in them. Stay away from heels. Personally, I found memory foam soles to be a blessing.

Don’t pack your whole closet into your luggage! You won’t need it. Calculate the number of days you are staying in Japan, then divide the get-ups you’ll need by half that number. Laundromats are plentiful in any city. Having booked predominantly Airbnb self-catering apartments for my stay in Japan, I made sure they almost all had a washing machine (or ‘washer’ as they refer to it locally), so I actually packed only around 12 sets of clothing for my 30-day stay, since I know I will be able to wash my clothes regularly for sure.

Hand luggage

Wherever your country of origin, you will probably be traveling for long hours in order to reach Japanese shores. I needed to catch two planes, adding up to a total of 19 hours of travel, in order to reach Haneda Airport. Since I opted out of having actual hand-luggage, I only had one small bag with me on board, which I used to basically hold all the things I’d need with me in order to entertain myself/rest during that time.

These were the books I had packed for a 10-day trip to France… packing books for a month would have been too much!

Being an avid bookworm, I always carry a number of books with me to read on holiday. Since this time the trip was going to be a long one, I opted to download some ebooks on my tablet instead, in order to minimize weight. My tablet, together with my mobile phone and charger, ipod and headphones, went into my handbag. Since the flights were long and my first day in Japan was packed with activities, I was aware that sleeping on the plane was essential. This is why I also armed myself with earplugs and a small inflatable pillow. Chewing gum and some water went into my bag too, as did a bar of chocolate and some snacks. We were going to be provided with a meal on the flight, but still, 19 hours seemed a long time to me!

I never put on make-up for a flight (strange huh?) but this time round, I also included some basic make-up in my bag, in order to put it on just before we landed in Tokyo, since we would also be sightseeing on that day. If you do so, make sure to place any liquids in a transparent plastic bag and that any bottle needs to hold no more than 100ml.

Of course, don’t forget to pack your Japanese Yen, credit cards, passport and boarding pass too!

Thanks heavens for large handbags!

Image Source: www.123rf.com

Important Tip: Make sure you have a couple of a power plug adapters or voltage converters for the power sockets (outlets) used in Japan. You don’t need a power plug adapter in Japan, if you are coming from the United States of America.

If you have any questions re packing for a trip to Japan, feel free to ask! I will reply as soon as possible.