Go Thou To Rome

at once the Paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness

Solitude and swimming spots in Favignana (Sicily)

Favignana was just what I needed.

Mention Favignana to most people outside of Italy and you get blank looks. Mention Favignana to Italians and you get wistful sighs. This island in north western Sicily (the largest of the Aegadian Islands) has some of the most beautiful sea in Italy, which is what I came for. 2020 so far has mostly been spent inside, in the city, in close contact and constant communication with other people. So what I wanted – what I felt I needed, or even deserved – was a solo trip to somewhere that was not a city.

Favignana has just a few thousand inhabitants. There’s not much of a “buzz”, unless you count the frenetic port, full of visitors disembarking from ferries, fishermen yelling in dialect, old men selling fichi d’india (prickly pears), and a constant, chaotic stream of bikes and scooters.

The squares in the tiny town centre come alive in the morning, with tourists and locals crowding the bars for breakfast (granita and pastries oozing with pistachio cream, if you’re feeling decadent). Then a hush descends until the wave of early evening returners, when everyone’s sun-soaked and ravenous after a day out and about on the island.

The food is sublime. Fish and seafood feature heavily on the menu – the Sicilian speciality of swordfish in particular, as well as tuna, which used to be Favignana’s main industry. One of the best meals I had was insalata di mare (octopus salad), followed by busiate pasta with swordfish, bottarga (roe) and pistachio, washed down with a glass of white wine. And of course an honourable mention has to go to pesto alla trapense. Unlike the better-known Ligurian green pesto (made with basil and pine nuts), red pesto from Trapani is made with tomatoes and almonds, and is even more delicious…

Everyone in Favignana gets around by bike or scooter. I rented a bike and cycled all around the island, from Bue Marino in the east to Cala Rotonda in the west. Although my main goal was to reach the sea, cycling was enjoyable in itself – in the golden morning light along the seafront, or through dusty roads lined by abandoned quarries, crumbling walls and flowering cactuses. I would often encounter other cyclists, on their way to or from a beach, but I sometimes had the roads to myself. On one remote road to the west my path was momentarily blocked by a herd of sheep. Another road led magically, mirage-like, to a giant orange. Inside the orange was a smiling woman – “BUONGIORNO!” – who sold me an iced drink made with freshly squeezed orange and lemon juice.

Favignana is not everyone’s idea of paradise, perhaps. While the sea is undeniably jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the island might seem too empty, too arid and rugged for some tastes. I kept thinking about “what used to be”. The ruins of the castle on the hill. The silent quarries scarring the landscape. The tuna factory converted into a museum. The name of a swimming spot, “Bue Marino”, which refers to monk seals that no longer visit. Signs of life and activity that have disappeared.

Of course, all of Italy is full of reminders of “what used to be”. I live in Rome, after all…But Favignana’s serene, subdued atmosphere and rugged landscape made me reflect on past and present, and on the contrasts between the vastness and ancientness of nature, and the human delusion of power and permanence. It all felt very Ozymandias.

The nearby island of Levanzo – population 200 – feels even more wild and ancient than Favignana, and in a cave known as “La Grotta del Genovese”, there are 12,000 year old paintings. When you’re alone, standing on a dusty road or swimming in the sea, looking at the rocks, it’s like you’ve somehow fallen out of time. Cities and modern civilisation feel distant and unreal.

I spent six days alone and never felt lonely. The solitude actually felt healing. Hardly talking, I basically stopped thinking. My internal monologue fell silent, and I found myself living effortlessly in the moment for perhaps the first time in my life. Instead of an anxious, frantic, overanalytical, self-obsessed mind, I was just a body. A body walking, cycling, climbing, swimming, eating, sleeping…absorbing sensations and experiences without analysing.

I came back from Favignana feeling completely refreshed, and with an altered perspective. A successful holiday, in other words…

*

Below is my guide to swimming spots in different parts of Favignana, including one on the nearby island of Levanzo. The reason I refer to them as “swimming spots” rather than “beaches” is because with the exception of Lido Burrone, “beach” is not really accurate. “Beach” makes you think of sand, sun beds and an easy walk into the water. If you want to go swimming in the clean, crystalline water of Favignana – the reason most people come to the island – you’ll have to clamber over rocks and accept the lack of comfort, facilities and life guards.

I’ve included some individual warnings for the different spots, but I’d also include this more general advice for anyone considering a trip to Favignana:

  • Most of these swimming spots are inaccessible or dangerous for anyone with impaired mobility. Not for the elderly, young children or weak swimmers (due to lack of life guards). Lido Burrone is the exception.
  • Again, with the exception of Lido Burrone (which has sun beds and umbrellas), there’s very little in the way of comfort or shade in these places. If you want a more conventional, relaxing beach holiday where you’re lounging on sand or a sun bed all day, maybe re-consider.
  • Bring or buy water shoes (scarpe da mare/scarpe da scoglio). I bought a pair for €12 in Favignana and they were a lifesaver. If you want to swim in places like Cala Rossa or Bue Marino, I really think they’re essential. Flip-flops are useless if you need to navigate rock obstacle courses to get into the sea.
  • Beware of jellyfish! I got stung while swimming near Cala Rotonda, but people have also reported jellyfish stings in other parts of the island. Just be aware that at some times of the year, some parts of the sea may have jellyfish. Watch out for them, and other swimmers who might spot them first. The Italian word for jellyfish is “medusa”, so be alert for any mention. If you get stung, keeping the skin submerged in sea water helps with the pain. No need for a Monica/Chandler moment…

CALA ROSSA

The most famous of the swimming spots in Favignana. According to legend, the “rossa” of the name refers to the red blood staining the crystalline waters of the cove during a battle between the Romans and Carthaginians in 241 BC. But it’s hard to imagine that this place was ever anything but serene.

The landscape is dramatic, the sea clean, transparent, turquoise. Actually getting into the water requires some careful navigation of slippery rocks, but once you’re in, it’s fantastic. You can see right to the bottom even when the water’s deep, and fish are clearly visible.

The “beach” is a rocky slope with no shade. Good for sunbathing or as a place to leave your stuff while you swim, but otherwise not very comfortable.

Cala Rossa gets busier as the day goes on. I’d recommend getting here early (before 10am).

Facilities: A bar at the top of the cliff called Egadiyo selling sandwiches and drinks. Not sure if there’s a toilet.

Getting there: About a 15 minute bike ride from town. It’s well signposted. You can park your bike at the crossroads, and then follow the path down to reach the sea. The most direct path is a steep, tricky climb down. If you go right and curve round there’s a less steep, slightly more accessible path.

Warning! No lifeguards. Reaching the beach involves navigating a rocky descent, while you need to walk carefully (ideally with water shoes) in order to get into the sea.

BUE MARINO

After Cala Rossa, heading clockwise round the island takes you to the even more dramatic Bue Marino, named after the monk seals that used to congregate here. This part of the island used to be a quarry, and the “beach” takes the form of various ledges of rock surrounded by yellow walls of rock. Most of the beach doesn’t have much in the way of shade, but you can shelter in the quarry.

Getting to the beach is quite straightforward, but reaching the water is a challenge. There are two main access points – one on the right, and one on the far left. You really have to watch your step as you climb over the rocks, taking care not to lose your balance. Then, when you reach the flat shelf of rock that leads into the sea, I recommend taking extra care – it’s slippery! – perhaps crouching and shuffling into the water on your bum.

The water is deep straight away, but it’s easy to float, and like Cala Rossa, it’s so clean and transparent that you can see right to the bottom. The waves and the current were stronger than at Cala Rossa, so unless you’re a strong swimmer, stay close to the shore.

Although getting into the water is a challenge, it’s worth the effort. The sea is magnificent, and the whole place has a wild, almost mystical atmosphere. There are these incredible contrasts between the rocks and the sea, sparkling in patches of light and dark blue. No photo can do it justice.

Facilities: Kiosks at the top of the cliff selling drinks and sandwiches.

Getting there: About a 20 minute bike ride from town. Follow signs for Cala Rossa and keep going. You can park your bike at the top of the cliff and follow the path down to reach the beach and sea.

Warning! No lifeguards. The beach is easier to access on foot than Cala Rossa, but the sea is harder to reach and dangerous due to depth and strong currents. In my opinion, this place is suitable for fit, mobile teenagers and adults only.

CALA AZZURRA

“Azzurro” means light blue – the magical colour of the water in this part of the island. This is the kind of water you expect to find in Sardinia, or the Caribbean. Limpid, cool, transparent…You don’t even need to swim – you can just wade, stepping on powdery white sand.

Almost as refreshing as the water is the fact that you don’t have to navigate a slippery stone labyrinth to reach it. Cala Azzurra’s accessibility makes it a popular choice for families, so it’s comparatively crowded. While some people spread out towels on the rocks, there’s no shade and very few comfortable places to sit.

This is a place for a quick dip, just to experience the water – not somewhere to spend all day. But it’s definitely worth a visit, and the nearby bar makes for a good pit stop.

Facilities: Bar Cala Azzurra is a short walk from the beach. It’s a proper bar (as opposed to a kiosk) with a toilet.

Getting there: About a 20 minute bike ride from town. Once you’ve parked your bike it’s an easy walk downhill to get to the beach.

Warning! No life guards. But the water is calm and very shallow.

LIDO BURRONE

A real beach, with a sandy stretch, sun beds, umbrellas and life guards. This makes it less exotic and less appealing in a way, compared to the other swimming spots in Favignana, but honestly, I liked it. If you have limited time in Favignana, skip it, but otherwise I think it makes a nice contrast to the wilder beaches. It’s much closer to the traditional Italian beach experience. Less memorable, but more comfortable – somewhere to relax with a book and a beer.

Facilities: This is a proper stabilmento with bars, shops, toilets, showers (I think), plus sun beds and umbrellas for hire.

Getting there: About a 15 minute bike ride from town. Once you’ve parked your bike, it’s a short, easy walk to the beach – no rocks or hills.

CALA ROTONDA

Located on the western coast of Favignana, Cala Rotonda offers a compromise between the wild but challenging swimming spots (Cala Rossa and Bue Marino) and the accessible but comparatively crowded beaches (Cala Azzurra and Lido Burrone).

Cala Rotonda feels very remote, and with the exception of the nearby bar Pura Vida, there are really no other signs of civilisation. But while it’s remote and rugged, it’s also accessible. An easy walk to the rocky beach, and then you can walk right into the shallow water. The only downside is that the water, while very clean and transparent, doesn’t have that spectacular blue colour.

Cala Rotonda must be one of the best places on the island to enjoy the sunset – sitting on the beach or at the bar, watching the sun go down over the island of Marettimo on the horizon. I only saw the very beginning of the sunset because I was nervous about my bike’s lack of lights and the possible lack of street lights on the roads back to town – something to keep in mind.

Facilities: A bar, Pura Vida, selling drinks and sandwiches. Not sure if there’s a toilet.

Getting there: About a 30 minute bike ride from town. It’s signposted and pretty easy to reach, as there’s only one main road. You’ll have to go through a big tunnel to get there, but if you’re cycling you can go on the pavement, which is separated from the road by a guard rail.

CALA MINNOLA (LEVANZO)

This beach is located on the south eastern coast of Levanzo, the smallest of the Aegadian islands. Levanzo is a 10 minute boat journey from Favignana. There’s a regular ferry service with Liberty Lines.

From what I’ve read, many of the swimming spots on Levanzo and Marettimo are only really accessible by boat. On Levanzo there are two main spots that are within easy reach of the town (on foot) – Cala Minnola and Cala Faraglione. I was tempted by the latter, but I read that there can be strong currents, so I opted for Cala Minnola instead.

The walk to Cala Minnola is stunning itself – winding alongside the coast, with steep cliffs on one side, and shimmering, pure blue ocean on the other. The whole area is gorgeous – unspoilt nature. It’s kind of how I imagine the islands in the Odyssey.

Cala Minnola was one of the highlights of my trip. It was so peaceful, with the most incredible water. If I’d brought food with me, I would have stayed longer, as there’s a grove of pine trees just above the beach offering some welcome shade, and I think I spotted picnic benches.

The water was calm and not that deep, but getting there involves crossing a slippery shelf of rock. While I was there a woman lost her balance on the way into the sea, fell and cut her head. She wasn’t badly hurt, but she gave up on her attempt to get into the water. I sliced my finger on a rock while I was slowly trying to ease my way into the water without slipping. So proceed with caution…

There are some submerged ruins of a Roman shipwreck near Cala Minnola, but obviously they’re in deeper water, so you’d have to go on a scuba diving expedition to see them. More information (in Italian) here.

Facilities: None.

Getting there: A 20 minute walk from the port/centre of Levanzo. Follow the signposted footpath around the south east coast of the island.

Warning! No life guards. The beach is in an isolated area – nothing nearby, and the only people around will be swimmers and the occasional walker.

Read more:

A Guide to Favignana (Along Dusty Roads)

Favignana: the challenging paradise (Verbalized)

Island of Favignana (João Cajuda)

Post-lockdown Venice

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(laundry and a face mask hung out to dry)

While I was cooped up in my small ground floor flat in Rome during the lockdown, I fantasised about a few different things. Having a coffee at the bar. Going for a walk beyond the end of the street. But in the long term, my main dreams were: move flat and possibly change neighbourhood (more on that another time), and go back to Venice.

I adore Venice. The only thing – literally the only thing – I dislike about Venice is how overcrowded it can be at times. There are ways to avoid the crowds, like visiting in January, or sticking to certain areas or times of year or day, but still, encountering hordes of tourists during your visit is inevitable.

While in lockdown in Rome, I decided that my next trip would be to Venice. As soon as trains were running, hostels were open, and I knew there would be no legal (or moral) objections to me being a tourist, I would book my trip. An impulse solo trip. Just me and the city.

When I fantasised about Venice, I imagined myself completely alone in a deserted city, with no other visitors. The reality was slightly different, but still, I feel so lucky to have had the chance to experience Venice at this strange moment in history, and at this exact moment in my life.

Saturday 20 June

I arrive at Termini to get the train to Venice. My first time on a train out of Rome since the lockdown ended. I can’t say I missed the chaos of Termini, but I love that buzz of excitement, looking at the departures board, waiting for the platform to be announced, and then half-running even though there’s no need.

Trenitalia are taking safety seriously. Before I board the train I’m handed a paper bag. For a moment I think it might contain a packed lunch – it’s like setting off on a school trip. But it contains a mask, hand sanitiser, a can of mineral water, a headrest protector, and napkins. So much plastic…

There are assigned seats on the train, and the other passengers enforce the rules before the staff get a chance to say anything. I momentarily sit in the “do not sit” seat next to my assigned seat, while I sort out my bags. It’s a group of four seats, and I’m the only person there. The woman sitting in the group of seats behind me is immediately indignant, and tells me to move. A man sitting at the opposite end of the carriage stands up to support her before I’ve even had the chance to say anything.

In normal circumstances, with my normal personality, I would apologise immediately and switch seat. But post-lockdown, I justify myself before moving. Part of me wants to start a fight. All of us – me, her, and Signor Fatticazzituoi at the other end of the carriage – are tired and irritable after the lockdown. Lascia perdere. (Let it go)

4 hours later and the train pulls up at Santa Lucia station in Venice. There’s only one other person in the carriage. Normally the train would be packed with tourists and suitcases, but it’s just me and one other woman, getting off the train and wondering what awaits us.

I buy the 72 hour vaporetto pass and hop on. Down the Grand Canal…

I’m deliriously happy just to be in Venice again, and the vaporetto ride is a wonderful welcome. The best public transport route in the world, I would say. So beautiful you feel like pinching yourself, and you have to resist the urge to take photos or videos of everything you see. I get window envy, thinking of people with views right over the canal. Looking through a huge ground floor window, I spot a father and his daughter sitting on a bed, just metres away from the water.

Just as I got a bargain with the vaporetto pass, I got a bargain with my “hostel room”. I’d originally booked to stay in a dorm room at Ostello Santa Fosca (where I stayed before, and would happily stay again). But due to the lack of tourists they called a few days before, and asked if I wouldn’t mind switching to a private room with an ensuite bathroom in a hotel. For the same price. €28 for a private room in Venice!

So I get off the vaporetto at Accademia, and find the hotel after encountering my first of many dead ends, leading to a narrow canal. I check into the Casa Accademia, hardly able to believe my luck – a private room overlooking a canal! – then immediately head out.

After one of the best plates of pasta I’ve ever had in my life (gnocchi with shrimp and rocket at Al Cugnai Dal 1911), I go for a walk to Piazza San Marco. I made a point of not doing to San Marco on my last visit to Venice, partly to avoid tourists, and partly just to prove to myself that I could enjoy the city without going to the most obvious, beautiful place. But this time I’m too curious to see what it’s like, post-lockdown, and go for a long walk to San Marco and back, looking at people as much as places.

Has tourism returned to Venice? Yes. I imagine that as soon as the lockdown was lifted in early to mid June, tourists started arriving. By the time I arrived, pretty much everything had opened up again, and there were plenty of other tourists. But they’re different tourists. A lot of northern Italians, Germans, and some French tourists. That’s about it. Hardly any other nationalities. No cruise ships. No big groups. No backpackers. If I had to characterise the average tourist in Venice in June, it would be “well-off middle-aged German couple”.

The streets around San Marco are full of rich people, or people who look rich, at least, based on their clothes. But the real luxury experience is being in Venice while it’s relatively empty…

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Sunday 21 June

I sleep well, lulled by the water of the canal lapping against the stone. I’m woken up at 5am by the birds. I complain about my noisy neighbours and the building work in Rome, but they’re nothing compared to the din of the birds.

I get up relatively early, as I’m planning to go to Burano. Coffee, vaporetto to Ca d’Oro, a walk to Fondamente Nove and then….I see the queue. A huge crowd of tourists at the vaporetto stop for Burano. This is the exact opposite of my expectations. For a moment I consider queuing up, thinking that I might as well, but then I think again. I still have a couple more days in Venice. I can try again tomorrow. Why put myself through the ordeal of a crowded boat and an island where the tourists outnumber the locals 20:1 when I could simply try again another day?

I don’t have a plan now, but it’s lovely to be in Venice without a plan. I just wander. An aimless walk through the backstreets of Castello, which are distinctly tourist-free. I have lunch in a quiet little square (ravioli with fish, tomato sauce and octopus at Osteria Ai Do Pozzi), people-watching, dog-watching. Then on to the Arsenale, the park, and a long rest on a beach overlooking the lagoon.

I’m too tired to walk back to the hotel, so I get the vaporetto. There’s an argument between two elderly passengers (northern Italians, maybe Venetians). An old man tells an old woman to put her mask on properly, as it’s not covering her nose. The current rule is that you have to wear a mask covering your nose and mouth when using public transport. He’s right, but the woman ignores him and tells him “Vai, vai” when he insists.

I’ve been surprised by the lack of mask-wearing in Venice. In Rome, 90% of people have been wearing them in 90% of public spaces. They’re ubiquitous not just on public transport and in shops, but also in the street. In Venice, hardly any locals seem to wear them outside. The German tourists don’t even seem to have them. When I mention this peculiarity to a shop-owner in Venice, noting the different attitude in Rome, she shrugs. “It’s not necessary outside. Anyway, the virus is basically over.”

Is it? She’s probably right that the attitude to mask-wearing in Rome is over-cautious, but even so….

After a rest at the hotel I head out again, walking to the Rialto for a spritz and a snack (mmm baccala’), before getting the vaporetto back to Dorsoduro. There are fewer restaurants in Dorsoduro than other neighbourhoods, but the quality is better. After a fish frittura at Taverna San Trovaso, I walk along the Zattere to watch the sunset, and gaze at Giudecca, reminiscing about my visit in January. Watching the waterfront where I walked in January from the opposite side of the canal…It could have been a lifetime ago, or yesterday.

Then I make the classic Venice mistake. You’re seduced by a backstreet (“I wonder where this leads?”), and it’s all so enchanting that you keep walking…and walking…and then it’s dark and your phone battery dies, and you don’t have a map, and you’re alone and hopelessly lost.

It’s difficult to get genuinely lost in a city these days. You have your phone, or a map, or someone else’s phone or map, and you can always ask for directions, or call a taxi.

Not in Venice. With no phone or map, lost in the tangle of streets where the neighbourhoods of Dorsoduro, Santa Croce and San Polo meet, you’re doomed. Main canals and the lagoon – my usual method of navigation – are no use when no longer in sight.

I contemplate asking someone for directions, but I know that there’s probably no point. They won’t be able to do much more than point me in the vague direction of a landmark, if they can give me any kind of directions at all. Giving specific directions in Venice is a hopeless task – something like “Cross the bridge, turn left, turn right, left, cross the bridge on your left, then after you pass the church on your right – not the church on your left – go down the street until see you a canal. Then cross the third bridge, go round the corner…” All to reach a place that’s technically a 5 minute walk.

In the end I’m forced to rely on the yellow signs. Every now and then you’ll come across a yellow sign pointing you in the general direction of a landmark, like the Rialto, Piazza San Marco or the train station. I begin by following signs for Piazzale Roma (the car park in the north western corner of the city). It’s not where I want to be, but at least it’s a direction, and I can get the vaporetto from there. Then the signs for Piazzale Roma disappear, so I start following signs for the Rialto, even though that’s a different direction. Then I start following signs for Piazzale Roma again. At a certain point I realise that I must be walking back and forth, or round in circles, a victim of random urban planning (or lack of it).

Eventually the signs to the Rialto become more consistent. I arrive at the vaporetto stop at 10:30pm and get paranoid that the boats might have stopped. It’s lateish on Sunday night. What if there’s no more public transport?

But then the vaporetto arrives, and I’m being carried back down the dark waters of the silent Grand Canal. Relieved, but also kicking myself for not enjoying the experience of being lost in atmospheric, empty backstreets of a post-lockdown Venice. Minus the anxiety and exhaustion, it would have been fun…

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Monday 22 June

A long, winding walk leads me to a relatively tourist-free Rialto, and Pied a’ terre, a shop so small that it’s difficult to maintain the safety distance even between the owner and a single customer. I buy a pair of pink furlane, also known as gondolier slippers, even though all the gondoliers you see today are wearing Adidas.

I’ve decided to make a second attempt at getting the vaporetto to Burano. This time, I’m in luck – no queue, no crowds. After a quick lunch at a bar near the vaporetto stop, I hop on.

Speeding over the lagoon is always a thrill. Some of my most vivid memories of my family trips to Venice, years ago, are of the water taxi journey to and from the airport. Dazzled by the sun, the wind in my hair, the excitement of Venice speeding towards me, or the wistfulness as it grows smaller and smaller on the horizon.

The vaporetto is nothing like a speedboat, but when it crosses the lagoon it goes much faster, compared to the leisurely pace down the Grand Canal. Part of me almost wants to go slower, to get a closer look at the smaller islands we pass on the way to Burano. Some islands in the lagoon are little more than uninhabited ruins. The same ramshackle building would be unremarkable in an urban setting, but put it on a tiny scrap of an island in the Venetian lagoon and it suddenly becomes mysterious.

I get off the vaporetto one stop early, at Mazzorbo. This small island (population: 250) is linked with Burano by a wooden bridge, and is mostly overlooked by tourists. The main draws are the Michelin starred restaurant Venisse and the ancient church of Santa Caterina. I visit the latter, and the garden/vineyard of the former, which is open to the public. There’s hardly anyone on Mazzorbo, and the peace is blissful. I’m also pretty exhausted, after a couple of days of non-stop walking in the heat, so I make the most of a couple of benches – one in the garden of Venisse, and another on a shady path with a view across the water to Burano. I sit, read, daydream. Relax, in other words. The problem with city breaks is that they inevitably involve too much doing and seeing. Sometimes you just need to sit and do nothing. It’s underrated.

There really is nothing to do in Mazzorbo. Not even a bar, so my coffee cravings will have to wait till I cross the bridge to Burano. But I’m enjoying the sleepy atmosphere, feeling so relaxed that I could almost contemplate retreating from the rest of the world, staying here to grow artichokes and mess around in boats.

There’s only moment that spoils the tranquil atmosphere. As I cross a bridge, the absolute silence is suddenly broken by a louse noise, which can only be described as a kennel of dogs barking. Not in excitement, but in something like pain. They sound agitated, mournful. It lasts for about 30 seconds, and then stops abruptly. Silence again. The only other people around are a group of Italian tourists on the other side of the bridge, who stop to listen to the sound and then seem to discuss it amongst themselves. Our paths cross, and I want to ask them about the sound, as if they could know. But instead they ask me how to get to the church of Santa Caterina, and then we walk off in opposite directions. The mystery remains unsolved.

I cross the wooden bridge to Burano. Coffee, gelato, and then a lazy afternoon strolling around, admiring the coloured houses and gloating over the fact that there are so few other visitors.

Burano is stunning – something from a film set, a fairytale or a dream. But the crowds of tourists who descend on Venice understandably want to descend on Burano too, and it must be a nightmare for the residents. Yes, a source of income too, but mainly a nightmare, I imagine.

Maybe I’m exaggerating. Maybe it’s not so bad, as tourists tend to arrive mid-morning and leave late afternoon. But it’s 7 days a week, all year round (unless there’s a pandemic). You can see the signs of the unhappy balance in the bar to souvenir shop ratio, or in the fact that the owners of some of these picturesque little houses have had to erect considerably less picturesque fences around their front doors. As you can see from the pictures below, there really is no separation between the pavement and people’s homes. In peak tourist season, it must feel like an invasion.

But on this particular Monday in June, the residents are in luck, and so am I. They enjoy their freedom while I enjoy my fairytale.

Heading back to Venice on the vaporetto, I’m so tired that I begin to feel faint, and move away from the edge in case I fall overboard. I catch another vaporetto to the Accademia and go back to the hotel for a shower and a quick lie-down before I go out again, keen to make the most of my last evening in Venice (without getting lost).

As I mentioned previously, the restaurants in Dorsoduro are relatively few and far between. For some reason, most of them seem to be shut today. The curse of Mondays in Italy? I walk along the Zattere and wind in and out of backstreets, until I’m so tired and hungry that I decide to stop at the next open restaurant I find.

It’s Osteria San Barnaba, and I’m the only customer, apart from a couple of women who are just about to leave. It’s around 9.30, which is a normal time to eat in Rome, but late in Venice. I order some wine, octopus salad and ravioli with sea bass and asparagus. Everything’s delicious, but what I’ll really remember is my conversation with the waiter, Leo.

It’s a little like having a personal butler – a Venetian Jeeves. I’m the only customer, so he just stands by my table, chatting, leaving only to get my food from the kitchen. He’s so nice – friendly and polite in a way that most people in Rome just…aren’t. We chat about everything…tourism in Venice, places I should visit in the Veneto region, his love of British culture (Aston Villa and Pink Floyd) and experience of Southampton while in the navy, the highs and lows of being in Rome…

As I get up to leave, he salutes me with an elbow-bump. I leave the restaurant, and turn into one of the narrow alleys. 20 seconds later, I hear someone calling me – “Alessandra!” I turn and see Leo rushing after me, holding the hand sanitizer I left behind.

Grazie Leo. I’ll be back.

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Tuesday 23 June

My last morning in Venice. It occurs to me that I haven’t been to any museums or art galleries, and I’ve only been in a couple of churches. Shouldn’t I do something more cultural? But I’ve been to many of the museums, galleries and churches in Venice before, and I know I’ll be back sooner or later. I’m not in a museum mood, so I’ll save it till next time.

The more I go to Venice and Naples (my two favourite places in Italy, apart from Rome), the more I’m convinced that repeat visits are an excellent idea. I know my way round (well, apart from when I got hopelessly lost). I’ve already ticked off the main attractions, so there are no sightseeing obligations. I feel free to enjoy my visit without lists, without plans. Just the pleasure of being in the city is enough. Besides, I always end up discovering something new – a restaurant, a neighbourhood, or an atmosphere. I’m so glad I chose to come back.

I spend my last morning in Venice walking, pottering around the streets where I got so lost the other evening. It’s a completely different sensation, walking around in the daylight. Hard to believe that those dark, deserted streets are now buzzing with life.

There’s just about time for an early “lunch” at Bancogiro near the Rialto – a Spritz and crostini while canal-watching – then it’s the vaporetto back to the hotel to pick up my bags, then another vaporetto to take me to the station, back to Rome, back to reality…I could have happily spent another few days (or the rest of my life) floating around Venice, but reality and responsibility await me in Rome. Work, flat-hunting, driving lessons. If only I could stay in Venice and learn to drive a boat instead.

Make me a Venetian in my next life, please.

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(waiting for the vaporetto to take me to the train station…)

Learning to drive in Italy: the theory exam

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At the age of 28, I’m finally learning to drive. I grew up in London and have never really felt the need to learn in Rome, but I can see that it’s a useful life skill. It also means that I can stop complaining so much about public transport. Every time I moan about strikes or smelly/crowded/on-fire buses, Valeriano is unsympathetic and says: “Prendi la patente“. Get your license. So that’s what I’m doing – in the process of getting my patente B, which will allow me to drive cars and scooters.

I spent approximately 100 years studying for my theory exam. Or at least, that’s what it felt like. I signed up at my local driving school in November, started studying seriously in January, booked my exam for early March (cancelled for obvious reasons), and finally did my exam on 8 June, the day the Motorizzazione re-opened.

The theory exam: practical information

The theory exam consists of 40 true/false questions, to be answered within 30 minutes. The exam is in Italian. Practice material is available in lots of different languages, but I think you have to do the exam in Italian (or possibly French)

You can make up to 4 mistakes. 4 mistakes or fewer and you pass. More than 4 mistakes and you fail (“respinto“). You get the results immediately after finishing the exam. You have to pass the theory exam before you get your foglio rosa – the piece of paper that allows you to start practical lessons, and to drive as long as you’re with a person who’s had their license for more than 10 years.

Driving schools offer theory lessons but you’re under no obligation to attend. You can study yourself (with the book, online, or through the official app), and when you’re ready, sign up for the exam through your driving school. I paid €75 for the theory exam.

Studying for the theory exam

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I was keen to attend proper theory lessons and to be a student again. I thought it might be fun, in a way. But that wasn’t really an option for me – the morning “lessons” at my driving school turned out to be optional self-study sessions on the computer. Perhaps the evening “lessons” were different, but I was never able to attend because I was at work.

This is how I studied for the theory exam:

  • The bilingual edition of the driving manual. I read the whole thing, trying to stick to the Italian as much as possible and consulting the English only when I didn’t understand something.
  • Quizzes and practice tests on the official app (SIDA) and on the computer at the driving school. So many quizzes. I must have done a couple of hundred in total (often whizzing through them in 5 minutes). I think there was an option to do them in English, but I always stuck with Italian. If you have to do the test in Italian, you might as well do the practice in Italian. Here’s an example of a practice test.
  • Video lessons on the official app, also in Italian. This was the next best thing to attending actual lessons. There’s a 15-30 minute video lesson for each chapter of the book, covering everything you need to know. The teacher explains everything very clearly.

Nothing is that difficult, but there is a lot of information to memorise, and you really have to familiarise yourself with the language and trick questions. The test is supposed to be challenging for native Italian speakers, so of course it’s a bit tougher for stranieri like me.

Some examples of challenges:

  • Difficult synonyms sdrucciolevole instead of scivoloso (slippery), fanciulli instead of bambini (children), autovettura instead of macchina (car). Those are just a few examples – there were so many. You just have to learn them.
  • Car maintenance and basic mechanics – an entirely new vocabulary for me. Examples: servosterzo (power steering), marmitta (muffler), spessore di battistrada (tread thickness). It’s a relatively short chapter and it never gets that technical, but still, you need to know the words.
  • Facts to memorise. Basic speed limits, ok. But having to learn the speed limit for a truck on a strada exurbana principale when it’s raining? Not so easy. There’s a long, long list of facts you’re expected to know. Having to know all the different kinds of vehicles, licenses and ages is tricky too. “La patente di categoria B con codice armonizzato 96, abilita alla guida di autosnodati con massa massima autorizzata superiore a 4,250 chilogrammi, ma non superiore a 7,500 chilogrammi.(false). These were the kinds of questions I got wrong most frequently.
  • Difficult wording, designed to confuse. Example: “Chiunque non abbia potuto evitare la caduta o lo spargimento di materiale pericolose deve, tra l’altro, esguire segnali manuali atti a segnalare il pericolo, solo dalla parte dove e’ stato posto il segnale triangolare mobile di pericolo. (false). Lots of the sentences are long and complex, with difficult grammar or linking words. Using allorché instead of quando (when), for instance. Or a long, messy sentence with an easy-to-miss solo or sempre hidden in there somewhere, making it false.
  • Stupid questions. There are trick questions, and then there are stupid questions. One I remember was something like “The state of shock can be caused by a strong emotion.” I responded “false”, because emotional shock and medical shock are two different things, right? And in a theory test, surely we’re talking about medical shock as a result of an accident? But apparently the sentence is true. Still not sure about that one.

It’s worth pointing out that some of the questions are ridiculously easy too. Like “Pedestrians are allowed to transit in pedestrian zones”. Or this one from my exam: “I conducenti di motocicli sono piu’ facilmente percepibili dagli altri conducenti di autoveicoli, perche’ piu’ rumorosi” (people driving motorbikes are easier to see than people driving other vehicles, because they’re noisier).

Or this gem:

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“When elderly people cross the road you must keep in mind that, having more experience and better vision, they’re better at recognising dangerous situations”

The day of the exam

I think pretty much everyone in Rome does the exam at the same place – the Motorizzazzione on the Via Salaria (outskirts of northern Rome). With so many beautiful buildings to choose from in Rome, I guess they just haven’t got round to making a postcard with this one:

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Distancing and masks were a must, as this was the first day of tests after three months of closure. We lined up outside, were called by name, and entered a big room filled with touch screen computers. We were called again, one-by-one, to show our documents (stuff from the driving school, identity card, and in my case the document from the Anagrafe that confirms that I have residency in Rome as an EU citizen – still valid for the moment, despite Brexit).

We were all told to start at the same time – enter your codice fiscale and confirm your identity on the screen, then begin. 30 minutes for 40 questions. When doing the practice tests I’d got into the habit of whizzing through them, finishing in 5 minutes, but obviously I took my time during the exam, triple-checking my answer. The touch screen was a bit glitchy, so that slowed me down too.

After we finished, the examiner read out our names and results, starting with the people who had failed, and the number of mistakes. Then she read out the names of the people who passed – promosso.

I was over-prepared for the exam, but it was still a huge relief to discover that I’d passed. One guy was particularly jubilant and practically screamed with joy, prompting a furious “SHHHHH!” from the examiner, behind her mask and face shield.

I was surprised that at least half – possibly more – of the people in the room failed the exam, some making 15-20 mistakes. I can understand failing with 5 mistakes – could happen to anyone – but 20? You must know from your practice test results that you’re nowhere near ready, so why put yourself through that, and waste €75?

After the exam I went home with Valeriano, and celebrated with a bottle of prosecco. The owner of the driving school sent me a copy of my exam later that day, and I discovered I’d made 2 mistakes:

Su strade extraurbane principali il limite massimo di velocita’ e’ di 70 km/h per autovettura che traina caravan da 900 chilogrammi. (“On main roads the speed limit is 70 km/h for cars towing 900 kg caravans.” It was true. I dithered over this one. Thought 70 sounded too low, and changed my answer a few times.)

Durante la marcia nei centri abitati e’ obbligatorio tenere accese le luci anabbaglianti da mezz’ora dopo il tramonto a mezz’ora prima del suo sorgere (“While driving in town centres it’s obligatory to keep low beam headlights switched on from half an hour after sunset to half an hour before sunrise”. I knew it was false! Obviously false! I clicked “false”! I’m so sure I clicked. I’m going to blame it on the glitchy touch-screen)

Still, I feel very happy with 38/40, on my first attempt, in a foreign language.

I now have my foglio rosa, which means I can start with practical lessons. Now comes the hard part – actually getting behind the wheel on the streets of Rome. Wish me luck!

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The new Rome: a city of solitary walkers

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On Monday I went for one of the most poignant walks of my life – a walk I had literally been dreaming about for weeks.

On Monday, phase 2 of the lockdown began. After two months of not being allowed to go outside for non-essential reasons, and not being allowed to go more than 200 metres from our homes, the restrictions were finally relaxed. We can now exercise in other neighbourhoods without risking a fine, as long as we respect social distancing rules.

I knew exactly what I was going to do on the 4th of May. I was going to walk 6 kilometres to Piazza Navona, buy a book from Otherwise, and then walk 6 kilometres back home to Torpignattara. I daydreamed about the walk. I actually dreamed about the walk. Fifty days into the lockdown and feeling the strain, it was the thought of the walk that kept me going. The exercise, the change of scene, the chance to buy a book, and the reunion with the rest of Rome. The streets I fell in love with.

*

I woke up early and excited. The feeling you get on Christmas morning as a child, or before a long journey. A little embarrassing, I thought, to be so excited and emotional for a simple walk, but perhaps it was understandable after weeks confined to a small flat and the same old streets. I downed the contents of a 4-cup Moka, made a half-hearted attempt to look sporty when choosing my clothes, so I could justify my presence far from home as “attivita’ motoria” if stopped by the police, put on my face mask, then set off.

The initial stretch was one I’d done many times before – pacing up and down the same backstreets by the railway most days of the quarantine, constantly searching for a new detail to appreciate, from wildflowers to graffiti. I even became interested in laundry drying on balconies, and rubbish in the vegetation. But seeing it as the beginning of a walk, rather than the entirety of the walk, I gained a new appreciation for the area. The weather helped – glorious sunshine, and the deep blue sky that hints at a long, hot, cloudless day ahead.

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The Casilina Vecchia has become one of my favourite streets in Rome. It’s an evocative tangle of houses, railway tracks and the aqueduct. Long grass, poppies, and quiet murmurs of life from the houses nestled between the ruins…Or not so quiet, in the case of the house called “La casa di glicine e musica” (“the house of wisteria and music”), where there seems to be a permanent party in the garden.

The beauty of the Casilina Vecchia is that it always feels peaceful. A little eerie at times, but peaceful. Hidden. During the first phase of the lockdown I enjoyed many illicit walks along the the aqueduct, knowing that the police were unlikely to spot me here. They did, once, but I avoided making eye contact and walked on. If you don’t see them, they don’t see you. Hopefully.

This time, I went further – beyond the workshop that makes replicas of famous statues (a garden full of nymphs and heads), past the fake Colosseum, under the arch, all the way to Via La Spezia – crossing the neighbourhood boundary.

La Spezia is a long, wide street that leads to San Giovanni. It’s usually choked with traffic, but there were hardly any cars – just a few locals going for socially-distanced strolls and queuing up at the supermarket. Almost normal.

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It was around here that I started regretting drinking the whole of the 4-cup Moka. I needed the toilet. Public toilets are virtually non-existent in Rome in normal circumstances, so I wasn’t sure what to expect during quarantine. Then I walked past a bar and remembered that as part of phase 2, bars and restaurants are now allowed to open (for takeaway only).

I entered through the designated “entrance” door and greeted the man behind the bar, who didn’t seem particularly happy to have a customer (though it’s hard to read expressions when everyone’s wearing a mask). I asked for a bottle of water, and then asked if I could use the toilet.

“Sorry, no. It’s against the law.”

What strange times we live in. Once, it was against the law for bars not to provide access to the toilet for paying customers (I think). Now, it’s apparently illegal to let customers use the toilet.

In the meantime, I bought the bottle of water. I only had 60 centesimi or a 20 euro note. The depressed barista shrugged and said I could come back later to pay the remaining 40 centesimi. I left, feeling inexplicably sad, guilty, and increasingly desperate to pee.

What were my other options? The metro station? No, there was a queue to enter San Giovanni and I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to use the toilet there. The newly opened tourist information centres with toilets? No, closed. Behind a bush? Not really an option.

Then, as I reached the twin landmarks of the Coin department store and the Basilica of San Giovanni, and felt moved to see these familiar buildings for the first time in weeks, I saw something even more exciting – a pink portaloo by the taxi rank.

There are no words to describe the horror of that toilet. Think Glastonbury toilets on the last day of the festival. Think plane toilets at the end of a long-haul flight where half the passengers have had food poisoning. Think the only public toilet in Rome, used by the entire population of Rome. I’ve never been so grateful for my face mask.

Moving on…away from my toilet trauma and onto the beauty of a silent San Giovanni….

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From here it was a straight line down Via di San Giovanni in Laterano, with a view of the Colosseum at the end of the street, getting ever closer. I’ve always loved this road, as a direct route from one monument to another. It’s shady and peaceful despite being so central, and not as thronged with tourists as you would expect. On Monday there were no tourists, of course. No workers. No groups enjoying a drink at the gay bars at the end of the road.

But the Colosseum, at least, is eternal.

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This was the most surreal part of my walk. There was practically no one. It makes you appreciate which parts of the city centre are shared by tourists and locals, and which are truly touristy. While other parts of the city centre were comparatively “busy”, the area around the Colosseum, the Palatine and the Forum was deserted. I felt privileged to be there, and to enjoy a tranquil atmosphere that would usually be unimaginable on a warm morning in May. No tourists, fake gladiators, or men thrusting selfie sticks in your direction. Just me and the monuments.

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Via dei Fori Imperiali was mostly deserted too. The only people were joggers, dog-walkers and cyclists. Ancient Rome transformed into a giant park. From this point on there was a heavier police presence, though they didn’t seem to be stopping many people. I’d been worried about the police interrogating me and interrupting my walk, but I clung to my old belief: “If you don’t make eye contact, you’re invisible”. It worked.

I walked on, across a disappointingly chaotic Piazza Venezia (the chaos of traffic replaced by the chaos of building work for Metro C), down Via del Plebisicito to Largo Argentina.

Then the Pantheon. A sinkhole opened up here recently, revealing Ancient Roman paving. Obviously there were no tourists here either, just some men at work around the sinkhole, and – very exciting – an open bar. In normal circumstances, I would never dream of having a coffee or cornetto in such a touristy location, but I couldn’t resist. Well, I resisted the coffee – didn’t want to risk another toilet dilemma – but I bought a cornetto to take away. The waiter came outside to take my order, and we had an awkward interaction behind masks, trying our best to maintain a distance while exchanging the money and cornetto. All social interactions have become awkward, fumbling dances, as we try to be polite and friendly while also respecting the rules. Still, I think he was relieved to have a customer, and I was happy to be purchasing my first pastry in weeks. When I first moved to Rome and lived in Testaccio, I would go to Linari literally every single morning for a cappuccino and cornetto. I miss it. I miss Testaccio. But that’s a topic for another time…

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From the Pantheon it’s just a two-minute walk to Piazza Navona – my goal. I think lots of other people must have had the same idea, because there were quite a few solitary walkers, gazing up at Bernini’s fountain, or gazing down at the grass growing between the cobblestones (a novelty). An atmosphere of subdued joy and wonder. Everyone seemed happy to be there, enjoying the sunshine in what is arguably one of the most beautiful squares in the world, and yet…everyone was alone. Walking alone. Sitting alone. Taking photos alone. The restaurants were all closed, as was the church and nearby museums. An unnatural kind of peace. A little bit like the sitcom The Good Place, set in a sunny, pristine afterlife, where everyone arrives alone. Or like the song “Heaven” by Talking Heads – “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens”. It’s beautiful beyond words, but not quite right.

Was that too dark? I can’t help myself. Lapses into reflections on death and the afterlife are inevitable when you’re writing a novel set in Purgatory. I was actually very happy to be standing alone in the middle of Piazza Navona. An ordinary dream come true.

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After savouring my cornetto on a bench by the fountain, I went to Otherwise on Via del Governo Vecchio and then Feltrinelli in Largo Argentina to buy books. Buying books is exciting at the best of times, but even better when you haven’t been inside a shop (supermarkets don’t count) in two months. The choice! The possibilities! I had the extra satisfaction of knowing that as a customer, I was helping local businesses. The same justification I used to order 6 bottles of wine from the enocteca Les Vignerons at the beginning of the lockdown. Buy books and wine! Save the Italian economy!

After this selfless act of charity, I began the long walk back. My feet were aching, my legs burning, but it was a good kind of pain. It’s a pain I associate with being a tourist – long, aimless walks in unfamiliar cities. The difference with this walk, though, was that it felt more like a pilgrimage. I know it’s laughable to compare myself to my friend Julia, who did the Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome on foot), but I thought of her when I arrived at Piazza Navona, wondering how she felt when she walked into Rome after her 10 week journey. Sometimes, there are no words.

(She says, after 2,000 words)

*

The closest thing to the truth – the best way I can explain it – is like this.

I often dream of Rome and Venice – two cities I love and know well. In my dreams, the cities have completely different architecture and geography, and are nothing like the real cities. They’re like Rome or Venice imagined by someone who’s never been there, or even seen a picture, but only read about them. My dream self knows that they can’t really be Rome or Venice, and yet I’m also convinced that they can’t be anywhere else. They’re parallel universes.

That’s how Rome feels at the moment. Beautiful but uncanny. Familiar but different. Eternal but changed beyond recognition.

Will Italy go “back to normal”? It’s hard to imagine it ever being exactly the same again. But Rome has been through a lot over the centuries. It even went through a brief phase (as a result of the Gothic Wars in the 6th century) when there were virtually no inhabitants. Rome’s history has been turbulent, to say the least. It’s survived plagues and invasions, fires and floods, and all manners of death and destruction, to rise again.

Rome is the Eternal City, after all.

 

“Look, girls – wisteria!”

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We’ve been in lockdown for nearly a month. It’s the 7th of April, but it feels like the 739th of March.

I went for a walk in a different direction for a change – one of the few things I have the freedom to change at the moment – and passed a house with wisteria growing in the garden. I took off my mask to breathe it in.

The scent was one of the highlights of my day – a symbol of spring and the contact with nature I’ve missed in the past month. It also brought back memories of a very different springtime in Italy – April 2006, and a school trip to Rome, Sorrento and Pompei.

I was 14 years old. Superficially interested in Latin and Italy, but mainly excited to be on holiday and having fun with friends. My main memories of the trip involve endless in-jokes, giggling, making fun of each other and of course the teachers. Now that I’m a teacher myself, it’s disconcerting to remember how we used to view our teachers – sometimes with disdain, sometimes with fondness, but rarely as fully human.

We kept a notebook full of memories and in-jokes from the trip, many of which have become mystifying with the passing of time. Some still make sense though, like #101 – “The joy of being able to go out in a 2.” I have a vivid memory of being given the freedom to walk down Via Nazionale, as long as we didn’t cross the road, or the greater joy of exploring Sorrento without teachers, in twos or threes. Our trip to Montecassino gets a mention in #80 as “The monastery where you can’t sit down”.

Many other notes relate to teachers, such as #8 (“Mrs Foster falling over. Mrs Foster loving everything. Mrs Foster loving everyone even the old man guide. General enthusiasm for everything.”), or #25, a summary of our Latin teacher’s commentary on the coach as we travelled from Rome to Sorrento:

“Mrs Hay’s voice blaring out to talk about Latin, occasionally interrupting herself to comment:

“Oh look some wisteria”
“Oh look a dog with its head out of the window”
“Oh look someone’s washing”
“Oh look some artichokes on your left”

Wisteria? Her commentary seemed worthy of light ridicule, at the time.

But now? I see things in a different light. Enjoying my short walk on a warm spring afternoon during lockdown, I was delighted to see the wisteria. I rushed towards it as though it were a nasone in August. If anyone else had been around, I might well have said, “Look, wisteria!”

When you’ve been stuck at home for a month, your world reduced to your small flat, the roof terrace, the supermarket, and nearby streets, you start to notice the details, and gain greater appreciation for them. It’s not just the wisteria.

Here’s a list of the little moments or details I’ve appreciated in the last few weeks:

  • Sheets set out to dry from balconies and roof terraces, blowing in the wind like ship’s sails. They feel hopeful somehow. Life goes on…
  • The colours of walls – burnt oranges, sandy yellows, terracotta reds, and so many other shades. The colours of the buildings in Rome used to seem exotic, but I’d been taking them for granted.
  • Voices. Voicing shouting, arguing, singing “Tanti auguri“, complaining, gossiping.
  • Dandelions growing by the roadside. The Italian name is dente di leone (lion’s teeth).
  • Blue hills in the distance – the world beyond Rome, which I’ll visit again when this is all over.
  • Hearing Don’t You (Forget About Me) on the radio as I stood alone in Acqua & Sapone (shop selling toiletries and cleaning products – feels sad and old-fashioned even at the best of times). Nostalgia and a slight sense of melancholy.
  • The shadow of a bird flying over an umbrella pine.
  • Buying flatbread from the Iraqi bakery and eating it while it’s still warm. Delicious.
  • Strangers waving from neighbouring roof terraces.
  • Catching glimpses of little madonnine (shrines to the Virgin Mary) that I’d never noticed before, as they’re slightly hidden from view – you have to stand in a certain position to be able to see them. But once you start looking, you realise they’re everywhere.
  • Watching a father help his daughter to set up a game of campana (hopscotch) on the terrace, making the numbers out of tape. Her excited cries of “Campana! Campana!”

They say that part of growing up is turning into your parents, but I didn’t realise that it also involved turning into your Latin teacher. I’m learning to appreciate the little things.

So, in addition to the advice from my last post on the lockdown, I’d add another tip –

Look.”

 

Lockdown coping strategies

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Since my last post, other countries have also gone into lockdown. Even Boris Johnson has woken up to the fact that letting people do whatever they want and shrugging off potential deaths is not the brightest idea. This is not the time to go the pub.

There are still ups and downs to life in lockdown, but I find that my mood is stabilising, and I’m even getting used to it. When I go back to teaching English, I’ll use this situation to teach grammar:

“Day 1 of the lockdown – we’re not used to it. It’s new and difficult.”

“Day 10 of the lockdown – we’re getting used to it. It’s becoming more normal, and so easier.”

“Day 50 of the lockdown – we’re used to it. It’s normal for us. We can no longer remember what sunlight feels like. Face-to-face interaction is a distant memory. The thought of going outside scares us.”

Anyway, in Rome we are currently at day 12. We’re getting used to it. If you’re in a similar situation, or think you will be soon, here’s some advice for surviving your time at home.

1- Have a routine. Plan your day.

Going to bed at random times, waking up in the afternoon and binge-watching Netflix is okay when you’re ill, or for a couple of days during lockdown, but I think the trick is to have a structured routine. It’s easier if you’re working from home, as work gives you something to structure the rest of your day around. If you’re unable to work, create a project (see #3).

Having a routine makes it easier to pretend that life is going on as normal. Wake up at regular times, think of activities (literally any activity) to fill the time, and plan what you’re doing next: “I’m going to clean the kitchen. Then I’ll have a coffee. Then Skype with a friend.” That way of thinking comes naturally to me, and I appreciate it may not be as easy for everyone else, but I’m convinced it’s the solution to keeping sane during lockdown. If you have endless empty hours, of course you’re going to end up getting bored and restless, and probably fall into the trap of constantly checking the news and social media. Not great for your mental health. Which brings me on to the next point…

2 – Limit time checking social media and the news

Resist the urge to spend hours reading the news, googling “do I have coronavirus”, and getting into arguments with conspiracy theorists. If you must check the news, choose a website that reports things more neutrally, like the BBC. Avoid the sites that tend to exaggerate news for clicks. The world isn’t ending, though it may feel like it at times. So restrict yourself to getting news from the same, reliable sources at certain hours of the day. Do the same thing with social media, if you notice that it’s getting you down.

Stick to memes and positive content like this page, which I won’t attempt to explain.

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3 – Create projects

Humans need projects. We’re happiest when we have a to-do list. I think that’s one of the facts I came across in Selfie by Will Storr, but don’t quote me on that. I don’t have the book to hand, because I gave my copy to a friend who’s currently quarantined on the other side of the city. Hopefully it’s helping her to pass the time.

A project can be anything. Examples of things on our to-do list (on display next to the calendar where we count the days till…whenever this finishes): do puzzle, make salame al cioccolato, sort out drawers, use exercise bike every day, try new wine and pretend to be sommelier. Not very thrilling, but you do get a sense of satisfaction when you tick something off. You feel like you’re making progress. Moving forward. Even when you’re stuck on the spot on an exercise bike.

But actually,  using the cyclette every day really makes a difference. To make it less monotonous I’m working through discographies of favourite bands in chronological order. It’s Talking Heads at the moment, starting with 77 and listening to a different album every day. I think we’ve lost the habit of listening to albums in their entirety, so it’s a nice change. I’m enjoying the combination of 45 minute bursts of exercise and the energising yet unsettling music of David Byrne. A road to nowhere indeed.

It helps to have some kind of creative project too. People who paint, write, make music etc are lucky. I’ve made a habit of going up to the roof terrace on sunny afternoons to work on my novel – something I never seem to have time for normally. I’m finally – finally making progress, because I can no longer make excuses about not having time. The general atmosphere of fear and paranoia also turns out to be conducive to my creativity.

If you’ve been online in the past week you’ll probably have seen people discussing the fact that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Isaac Newton discovered gravity while the plague raged. Let that inspire you, but ultimately, just do something. Whatever you enjoy, whatever you’ve been putting off for ages.

4 – Think of yourself as a Sim

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This one may need some explanation, unless you fit into the category “female who played computer games some time around 2000-2009”.

The original version of The Sims involves controlling the lives and looking after the well-being of people who can’t leave the house. True, you can build them a mansion if you want, but in the original game there’s no way to leave the house. Your Sims are stuck at home. They have “needs”, including hunger, hygiene, energy and social. If their hunger bar is going into the red, make them eat something. If they’re low on social, make them talk to their family members or have an inappropriate romantic interaction with whoever happens to be in the room. You get the idea.

In this period, we are essentially Sims. We can’t leave the house. We can only take care of our needs. So stop thinking about outside – for now, it doesn’t exist. The expansion pack that lets you go to the bar or the shops will arrive eventually, but forget about it. Live in the moment. Just concentrate on taking your care of yourself, and you’ll be okay. Get lots of sleep, eat well, and make sure you talk to people regularly. Maintain good relations with the people you live with. Look after each other.

5 – Listen to this song

 

It is literally impossible to feel sad while listening to this. Unless you start thinking about what happened to Michael Hutchence. Then Paula Yates. Then Peaches Geldof. Shh, brain. Just enjoy the music.

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Finally, if you’re in a position to do so, something that might make you feel less helpless is donating. I gave some money to a hospital in Bergamo that needs funds for ventilation units and other equipment and bought a gift card to support the Beehive in Rome. Keep an eye out for other fundraisers for hospitals and medical staff, and try to support small businesses in any way possible.

Be kind to yourself and others. Don’t panic. Non so se andra’ tutto bene, ma non puo’ andare molto peggio di cosi.

Keeping the safety distance: life under lockdown in Rome

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(People queuing to enter the supermarket, respecting the safety distance. I had to wait for 45 minutes.)

After 6 years of living in Rome, perhaps I was starting to take things a little for granted. Things that would have once seemed thrilling – a walk in the Forum, going for a drink in Trastevere, speeding through the streets on the back of a Vespa – were still enjoyable, but no longer quite as exciting.

Want to know what I get excited about now? The 3 minute walk to buy bread at my local bakery. It’s the highlight of my day. I take my place in the queue outside – respecting the 1 metre safety distance of course – feeling conspicuous as one of the few people without a mask. I enjoy my 30 second conversation with the lady in the bakery, as it’s currently the only face-to-face interaction I have with anyone (except for Valeriano). I buy the bread, then sneakily extend my walk through the Certosa neighourhoood, trying to absorb as much fresh air and sunlight as I possibly can before I have to go home. I’m living life on the edge, without a mask and without carrying the obligatory Autocertificazione, a form you’re supposed to take with you whenever you go outside, and show to the police on request, to prove that you have a valid reason to be outside.

All as a result of the coronavirus. Although it didn’t exactly happen overnight, that’s what it feels like. In the space of not much more than 24 hours, my life – and the lives of everyone in Italy – turned upside down.

Essentially, until 3 April – at the earliest – Italy is under lockdown. 60 million people are not allowed to leave the house unless it’s for work, to buy food, for medical reasons, or to take the dog for a quick walk. All shops are closed, apart from supermarkets (and other shops selling food), pharmacies and tabaccherie. Parks are closed. You must keep a 1 metre distance from other people, and gathering in groups is strictly forbidden. If you break the rules you risk a fine or even a prison sentence.

Some people are still working, but it seems like the vast majority of the population is being forced to work at home, or not at all. The school where I work has been closed since last week, and won’t open again till April. Online teaching has been ruled out for various reasons, so none of us can work for the time being. However, we’re some of the lucky ones. We have contracts and will be paid regardless. I also do freelance writing work that shouldn’t be affected by the lockdown.

In the moments when I’m not feeling self-pitying, I make a list of “What about…?” questions. What about people who live alone? What about everyone working in the tourism industry? What about people working “in nero” who won’t have any income for the next few weeks? What about people struggling with their mental health? What about drug addicts? What about people trapped in domestic violence situations? So many people in desperate situations. I think – hope – the government has made the right decision and that it will be worth it in the end, but it’s going to have catastrophic effects for huge swathes of the population. This is just the beginning.

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“What’s it like?” friends abroad ask me. I feel like one of the lucky ones – healthy, living in a comfortable flat with my boyfriend, a secure job contract. I’m also quite good at keeping myself busy. Little did I know that having a dull social life as a teenager would stand in me good stead for life under lockdown in another country, years later…

But what’s it really like? The most truthful answer is: “There are ups and downs.”

Downs

The claustrophobia. Our flat is on the ground floor, with no outdoor space and very little natural light. It’s small, too, but I don’t know if living in a bigger flat would make much of a difference. It’s not about indoor space. Having a terrace or garden is the dream. And even then…the claustrophobia comes from knowing that you can’t go beyond your home.

Not being able to exercise. Thank god for my exercise bike, but what I really want is to walk. I keep reading conflicting articles about whether you’re actually allowed to go for a walk for no reason other than wanting to go for a walk, but I’m erring on the side of caution. If only we had a dog, and the excuse of having to take the dog out. Some people are coming up with creative solutions:

fake dog walk (source)

The threat of boredom. After 4 days of lockdown I haven’t really got bored yet, as I’m always able to find something to do (reading, writing, cooking, cleaning, Netflix) but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before both of us get seriously bored and restless. We have to constantly make lists and think of things to do. It’s like a mental game.

Having to keep a distance. When I go out I’m careful to respect the safety distance, which means having to awkwardly swerve out of people’s way. Whenever I encounter someone wearing a mask I’m even more careful not to get in their way. I find myself avoiding eye contact too. It’s not that I’m scared of catching the virus, but rather that I don’t want to risk making anyone uncomfortable. We’re all trying so hard to follow the rules, but it’s hard, and lonely. Also, ironic. I’ve studied the importance of maintaining the distanza di sicurezza when driving, but my theory exam (scheduled for 11 March) has been postponed indefinitely. Instead of worrying about crashing into the car in front, I’m taking care not to come too close to other people.

Not knowing if/when things will go back to normal. I think this is the hardest part. We’re all clinging to 3 April as the date when everything might start re-opening, but there’s no guarantee. Who knows? Living like this for another couple of weeks is bearable, so I’m trying to believe that the situation will have improved by then, but if it hasn’t? Then what? We just don’t know. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Ups

Having time. I’ve been complaining for months about not having enough time. Well, be careful what you wish for, I suppose. Now I have time for everything. Everything that I can do at home, that is. So catching up on my reading and writing, sleeping as much as I want…I finally got round to learning how to play scopone scientificio (a Neapolitan card game). Valeriano made croccante alle mandorle (sugared almonds) today. It’s nice knowing that we have the time to experiment in the kitchen and learn new things. I’m especially excited about working on my novel. Boredom is good for creativity.

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Putting things in perspective. Yes, everything’s shit, but it could be worse. Other people have to live through wars. I have a roof over my head, food, water, and internet. And I’m not alone.

Appreciating the little things. Like being outside. We’re making a habit of going up to the roof terrace for some sun and air. Yesterday we had a “picnic”. It’s eerily quiet outside, but standing on the terrace and looking across the city I feel more connected, catching glimpses of life through windows, on distant rooftops and balconies.

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Wherever you are in the world, stay safe, and try to find whatever positives you can in a surreal situation.

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Apart from following the news, if you want to keep up-to-date with what’s going from a local perspective, I suggest following An American in Rome, Tiffany Parks and Gillian McGuire (Rome), Girl in Florence and Questa Dolce Vita (Bergamo) on Instagram. They regularly post news and videos from their stories. I’m also on Instagram here.

Scooterino: a solution for getting around Rome

Getting around Rome is often a nightmare. Here’s one of my recent Facebook posts:

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There is only one form of transport in Rome that hasn’t let me down – Scooterino. This app is essentially Uber but with a scooter instead of a car, and it’s been a lifesaver on multiple occasions. Given the state of Rome’s public transport, I’m surprised Scooterino isn’t more popular and well-known. Anyway, before you spontaneously combust from stress, here’s all you need to know about using Scooterino in Rome.

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How Scooterino works

  • Download the app for free and create a profile. Add your preferred method of payment (card or PayPal). It only takes a few minutes to get started.
  • When you want to book a ride, you can either request one immediately, or book for later, specifying the day and time. The app will suggest a price for the route. You can choose to offer more.
  • You’ll get a notification when a driver accepts your request. You can see the driver’s name, photo, rating/reviews and vehicle. You’ll also be able to contact each other directly.
  • The driver meets you at the pick-up point. You show the driver the code that’s appeared on your app. Then you put on the helmet (supplied by the driver), hop on the back of the scooter…then off you go!
  • Once you’ve been dropped off, you pay via the app (tipping if you like) and rate/review the driver. The driver also has the option to rate and review you.

It’s essentially the same as using Uber, Lyft or other taxi apps. The only real difference is the vehicle.

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PROS

  • It’s a lifesaver, especially on strike days. Need to get from A to B quickly? No public convenient public transport route? Scooterino saves the day. And it’s by far the quickest way to get around Rome. A journey that takes an hour with public transport (including changes and waiting) could take just 15 minutes with Scooterino.
  • If you request a ride at a normal time (ie: not 4am), and especially if you book in advance, you should always be able to find a driver. Again, more reliable than public transport.
  • It’s good value for money. I usually end up paying around €7-8 for a journey that would cost €20 in a taxi. When I’m travelling on my own, Scooterino makes so much more sense than a taxi.
  • It’s scenic and fun. Sitting on the back of the scooter is the best way to see Rome. I use Scooterino when I need to get somewhere in particular, but if I were a tourist I would use it just for fun. You haven’t truly experienced Rome till you’ve whizzed around the Colosseum on a Vespa.
  • It’s safe. The drivers and their vehicles all have to be approved by the app, and drivers are required to provide passengers with a helmet (and a hygienic hair net).
  • The drivers are great. Rome’s taxi drivers tend to be grumpy at best, and downright rude and incompetent at worst. Scooterino drivers are polite, friendly, punctual, and, unlike taxi drivers, don’t seem to hate life. I’ve given a 5 star rating to every Scooterino driver so far. Also, while all drivers should speak at least basic English, it’s a fun opportunity to practise your Italian. A lift and a language lesson!

CONS

  • There’s a limited number of drivers. You might get unlucky and not find a driver when you need one. As I said before, you probably won’t find a driver who’s willing to pick you up at 4am. Or perhaps there’s just a shortage of drivers at the time, or it’s not convenient for a driver to do that particular route, so no one accepts you request.
  • Obviously Scooterino is not really an option when it’s raining heavily. A driver won’t want to drive you, but you wouldn’t want to be a passenger either.
  • Again, stating the obvious, but you can only fit one passenger on the back of a bike! (We’re not in Naples, where a family of 4 somehow manages to squeeze on a scooter). You could try to co-ordinate multiple drivers coming to pick up one person each, but at that point you might as well just get a taxi.
  • I suppose if you’ve never been on a scooter or motorbike before, it could be a bit nerve-wracking. As I’m used to being on the back of a Vespa, I was slightly daunted when my first Scooterino ride turned out to be a big Honda Integra. But the drivers are nice and patient, and you can tell them if you want to slow down.

For €3 off your first ride, use the discount code “alexandratur“. If I remember correctly the code “sticazzi” gets you an even better discount. Download Scooterino and you too can say “Sti cazzi” when someone tells you there’s yet another strike scheduled…

More information:

Scooterino official website

The Best Way to Beat the Traffic in Rome

 

Venice in January

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I love Venice. I’ve always dreamed of visiting in the low season, when it’s cold and foggy and there’s a fraction of the usual crowds. 2020 got off to a good start – three dreamlike days (and two atmospheric nights) exploring the city on my own.

I’ve been to Venice six times. A summer family holiday as a child, where we all had such a good time that we went back in the spring a few years later. When I was 17 I was so keen to return and to have my first grown-up holiday (without parents) that I got a part-time job stacking shelves at Waitrose to save up for the holiday; I went with one of my best friends the summer after we finished school. Then again with another friend in 2014, to experience Carnevale for the first time. My first solo trip in 2015 – a couple of nights en route to Trieste and Slovenia. And then another solo trip on 2 January this year, booked impulsively just because I wanted to. I had the time and the money, and it had been too long since my last visit, so why not? Reading about the floods and the hotel cancellations were added incentives. If everyone else was cancelling their bookings, it was the perfect time to visit, making my own small contribution to the economy, while avoiding peak tourist season.

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Venice in January was both more crowded and colder than I expected. The crowds near the Rialto and Piazza San Marco are a permanent fixture, unfortunately, although there were plenty of quiet streets in Cannaregio and the backstreets of Santa Croce. I also spent a very relaxing day on Giudecca, perhaps the least touristy part of Venice. As for the cold…my advice for anyone visiting Venice in winter for the first time is not to get misled by degrees. 5-10 degrees doesn’t sound that cold, but in Venice it’s really cold. A damp cold that gets into your bones. I was baffled to see some tourists in shorts, and a girl take off her coat to pose for photos in just a t-shirt on the terrace of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi.

If I could afford it, I would visit Venice several times a year. Every season is beautiful in its way. But Venice is expensive, and I’m always aware that a trip to Venice means missing out on a trip to somewhere new. One consolation is the novel I wrote. When I was 22 I finished writing Hyacinth I, which unfortunately had no luck with literary agents. It’s the story of Hyacinth, the king of a fictional European country, who fakes his death and goes to live in peaceful, luxurious anonymity in a palazzo on the Grand Canal, until his world is turned upside down by an encounter with a woman who recognises him. Writing Hyacinth was the next best thing to actually living in Venice for a year.

The next morning, drowsy and disorientated, he found himself in a new world. Walking down the station steps, the blast of heat was like nothing he’d ever known. He walked without thinking, drawn into the maze of streets and canals where he would be lost for the rest of the day. It was like a picture in a book he’d read as a child, a kingdom by the sea in dreamy watercolour, filling the entire page. Only this was a kingdom in the sea, rising up out of the water. Crumbling buildings the colour of sunsets, of cakes, of death. He couldn’t decide what they most reminded him of, and so he gave up trying to make comparisons. Some buildings looked so old that he could imagine them collapsing and being reclaimed by the ocean. It was only an act of magic, or some optical illusion, that held the city together at all.

He was lost from the second he left the station. Ordinarily he would have been terrified, but he could not be afraid in the presence of so much beauty. The sun burnt him and the streets exhausted him, but he walked on and on, driven by a nameless compulsion. He reasoned that it didn’t matter where he went, because it was impossible to leave an island without knowing it. From now on, he would always be in Venice. Somewhere beyond this impenetrable labyrinth of walls was the open ocean. Hyacinth, who had never seen the sea, felt almost sick with excitement.

On my most recent trip to Venice I was happy to discover a street named Calle Giacinto Gallina (Giacinto is Hyacinth in Italian). Then I found Calle Santa Lunga Caterina (Caterina is one of the main characters in my work-in-progress). Shortly afterwards I eavesdropped on a conversation between a mother and her daughter, Caroline (the name of one of In Exiles main characters). Not a remarkable coincidence for anyone else, but it was nice – a symbol of what Venice and Italy have meant to me as a writer.

There was another good omen of sorts as I walked back to the hostel one night. Dark, cold, foggy, hardly anyone in the streets. On a backstreet I came across a group of Venetian men walking towards me, talking in dialect. The dim street lighting in Venice means that at night, you often only have a vague idea of the people walking past you. One of the shadowy figures turned to me, quite unexpectedly, and said “Buon anno signora.

Buon anno indeed. May the next year (and decade) be full of travel and inspiration!

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Tips for visiting Venice

  • Visit in low season (November-January). Unfortunately, with 30 million visitors every year, Venice is busy all year round, but it’s easier to get away from the crowds in low season. January is probably the quietest month. Visiting during Carnevale (February) is fun, but the city’s extremely crowded.
  • Stay overnight. There are so many reasons to stay overnight rather than doing a day trip. For a start, you can’t possibly do justice to Venice in a single day. Then there’s the atmosphere – Venice is at its best early in the morning and after dark, without the hordes of day trippers and cruise passengers. By booking a hotel room you’re supporting the local economy. And if that’s not enough to convince you, there’s the introduction of the tourist tax for day visitors.
  • Choose your accommodation carefully. Locals are unhappy about the number of “b&b abusive” – illegal B&Bs that don’t pay tax and occupy apartments that could otherwise be used as housing for locals. And while I’m a regular Airbnb user, I’d be wary of booking an Airbnb in Venice. I think the most ethical thing to do is stay in a hotel or hostel on the main island. My family loved Hotel San Cassiano and I was happy with my recent stay at Ostello Santa Fosca. Staying in Mestre (on the mainland) is another option if you want to save money, but personally I prefer being able to enjoy central Venice early in the morning and after dark, which is harder to do if you’re based in Mestre.

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  •  To escape the crowds, walk away from tourist attractions. This may sound obvious, but I think it’s worth pointing out, considering the enormous difference between the streets near Piazza San Marco and the backstreets of Cannaregio. If you’re getting sick of crowds and you see a yellow sign for the Rialto, for example, walk in the opposite direction. The tourists who complain about Venice are probably the ones who never managed to escape from the tourist scrum around Piazza San Marco. But it’s really easy to get away the crowds, just by walking in streets where there are no major tourist attractions. Also, if you have a choice between two streets, choose the one that fewer people (or no people) are choosing. It may lead to a dead end – so many streets in Venice are dead ends – but it may also lead to a peaceful piazza or a quieter, more residential area.

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  • Visit Giudecca. On a related note, Giudecca is ideal for getting away from crowds and enjoying a more peaceful side of Venice. Giudecca is an island to the south of central Venice, so it’s only accessible by vaporetto or water taxi. The absence of major tourist attractions means that the majority of visitors don’t bother going. I did see tourists when I spent a day on Giudecca, but refreshingly they were outnumbered by locals. More people speaking with a Venetian accent than speaking in English! Also, while not exactly a must-see, it’s interesting to visit Sacca Fisola (an artificial island to the west of Giudecca, connected by a bridge). This residential neighbourhood is completely different to the rest of Venice – airy and green with modern architecture.

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  • You don’t have to go on a gondola. I’ve visited Venice six times and don’t feel like I’ve missed out by not going on a gondola. The vaporetto is cheaper (and the journey lasts longer and if you do the whole route), and the water taxi is more fun – one of my best memories from a family holiday was whizzing across the lagoon in a speedboat. The advantage of a gondola ride is that you get to go down the smaller canals, but at €80 for 30 minutes…I would only go on a gondola if I really felt like splurging – some special occasion like a honeymoon, for example – or if I could split the cost with several other people. If a couple shares a gondola with two other couples, it’s just over €25 per couple. Not so bad.
  • Be a respectful tourist. Don’t make coffee in the street, or take your exotic bird for a walk. Just try to be as polite and unobtrusive as possible, keeping in mind that Venetians are really, really sick of mass tourism. Yes, their economy depends on tourism, but that doesn’t mean locals should have to put up with rude behaviour.
  • Get tips on where to eat. Eating well in Venice is tough. There are lots of tourist traps, and lots of restaurants that are just so-so. This probably sounds snobby, but you can’t even trust a high average on Tripadvisor or Google, because a lot of ratings are probably from tourists who don’t know the difference between ok Italian food and good Italian food. As a general rule, I’d avoid eating in restaurants located too close to tourist attractions, or eating pizza. Venice is not famous for pizza. On my latest trip I got some recommendations and ate well – paccheri with shrimp, tomatoes and courgette at Casa Bonita (Cannaregio), baccalà and polenta and bigoli alla salsa at Trattoria Casa Mia (Cannaregio), spaghettia al nero di seppia at Osteria Nono Risorto (Santa Croce), and baccalà and polenta at Osteria Al Pontil (Giudecca).


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  • Indulge in cicchetti at every possible opportunity. Cicchetti are snacks served in traditional Venetian bars, usually accompanied by an Aperol spritz, glass of wine, or another alcoholic drink. My favourite is the baccalà mantecato (bread with a creamed cod spread), but there all kinds of varieties. There are few things in life more enjoyable than sipping a glass of white wine and nibbling on cicchetti, watching the world go by from the side of the canal. There are cicchetti bars all over Venice – just look for signs in the window that say “cicchetti” – but I can recommend a few I went to: Vino Vero, Paradiso Perduto and Santo Bevitore, all within a 5 minute distance of each other in Cannaregio. I have mixed feelings about the fact that Santo Bevitore doesn’t serve wine (only beer and gin), but it’s a cosy little bar and both the G&T and the cicchetti were excellent, so…

For more recommendations, check out Spotted By Locals Venice. And finally, if you want to understand the problems faced by residents, here’s an article from the Guardian today.

 

Dark Naples

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There are many reasons why I love Naples – the chaos; the energy; the sea; the people. The pizza, obviously. I also love the dark side of Naples, which appeals to a certain darkness in myself.

It’s not that I’m dark or depressed in any way. But my tastes, interests and creative inspiration have always had a macabre streak. My grandmother was shocked when she read my novel, In Exile, with its scenes of bacchic violence. “But I’d always thought of Alex as such a cheerful person!” I am a cheerful person. I just happen to be a cheerful person who enjoys reading about true crime, listening to Bauhaus, visiting cemeteries, and writing about suicidal gods and Purgatory. I’m an optimist who looks on the dark side of life.

One of the myriad reasons why I adore Naples is that the city also seems to have a split personality. It’s beautifully, intensely alive – streets like Via dei Tribunali are pulsating with energy – but it’s also obsessed with death. Seemingly every street has its memorial stuffed with photos of the dead, or a dusty shrine dedicated to the souls in Purgatory. Naples is an extremely Catholic city, which partly explains the obsession with death and the afterlife. Then there’s the fact that Naples has been scarred by mass deaths – the plague in the 17th century that wiped out half of the city’s population, the deaths of more than 20,000 civilians during the Second World War. And then there’s the fact that for years, the dead were buried a little too close for comfort. During the 17th century there was a great flood that washed the bodies out of the Fontanelle Cemetery; horrified locals watched as corpses floated down the street.

On a trip to Naples earlier this month I explored a couple of “dark” attractions. You don’t have to be morbid to appreciate them, but it helps.

Catacombs of San Gennaro

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If you’re into underground death stuff, there’s so much to see in Naples – a city beneath a city. I haven’t ventured underground that much on my jaunts to Naples because I keep myself busy overground. I’m addicted to Neapolitan streets, and exploring all the neighbourhoods non-Neapolitans tell you to avoid, like the Quartieri Spagnoli, Montesanto, Forcella, Materdei, La Sanità. Then I have to do Spaccanapoli and Via dei Tribunali at least twice each. Not to mention the Lungomare. So normally I don’t have time to go underground.

But this time, it was time. I visited the Catacombs of San Gennaro, located north of the city centre towards Capodimonte. These vast paleochristian catacombs no longer have any bodies (you’ll have to visit Fonantelle if you want to see skeletons), but they’re fascinating to explore. There are guided tours in English and Italian that last about an hour, and the guides are great – enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and impressively patient with groups of over-excitable small children. They’re locals who are passionate about the catacombs and the role they play in the regeneration of the neighbourhood. From death to rebirth…very Naples.

I did the tour in Italian with Flora, who led us deep into the catacombs, then out into the Sanità neighbourhood (via a church, a frescoed courtyard and a hospital – not the way you expect to exit catacombs). The tour is a journey through the history through the city, from the burials of the earliest residents of Naples and their patron saint, San Gennaro, to the removal of the bodies, the transformation of certain areas into underground churches, and eventually the role of the catacombs as a tourist attraction and a path to a better life for some of the locals. Sanità is a challenging place to live, with high levels of crime and unemployment. The success of the catacombs as a tourist attraction has turned volunteers into paid employees, led to the opening of the Catacombs of San Gaudioso, and encouraged tourists to spend time and money in a neighbourhoood they would never have visited otherwise.

Hermann Nitsch Museum

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This museum was one of many discoveries I’ve made thanks to Secret Naples. The Museo Hermann Nitsch is owned by Giuseppe Morra, a modern art enthusiast who collects works by the Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch. If you’re unfamiliar with Nitsch and his gory performance art, here’s an interview with Vice (warning: graphic images) and a Guardian article. He’s fascinated with blood and the human instinct for violence. I read an article in Italian where he explains his philosophy, and it’s remarkably similar to what Dionysus says in my novel. So much so that I’m almost tempted to send him a copy of the book.

Nitsch:

“È solo passando attraverso i più bassi istinti dell’uomo che può avvenire la catarsi. Quando squartiamo un animale, sentiamo le sue viscere calde, beviamo il suo sangue, ritorniamo in contatto con qualcosa di primitivo che ci appartiene. È in questi momenti che esce fuori la nostra natura, che non è né buona né cattiva, è semplicemente il nostro istinto. Può essere anche violento, ma la violenza fa parte del mondo ed è meglio esorcizzarla in un rito collettivo che reprimerla. Viviamo in una forma di depressione latente, siamo anestetizzati. Le mie Azioni sono un modo per avvicinare la vita alla morte ed è da questa esperienza che usciamo più forti. Ecco perché la gente che partecipa mi ringrazia.”

A rough translation:

“Only by exploring our baser instincts can we attain catharsis. When we slice up an animal, feel its warm guts, drink its blood, we return to that primitive part of ourselves. It’s in these moments that our true nature emerges – neither good nor bad, but simply instinct. It might be violent, but violence is part of the world, and it’s better to exorcise it in a collective ritual than to repress it. We live with a kind of latent depression; we’re numb. My art is a way to come closer to death. After this experience, we’re stronger than before. That’s why the people who take part thank me.”

The Museo Hermann Nitsch occasionally has displays of work by other contemporary artists, but it’s mainly all about Nitsch. The museum is housed in an old power station high up in the Montesanto neighbourhood, with spectacular views across the city, the sea and Vesuvius. Even if you’re not interested in entering the museum, I’d recommend going for the view.

I have to admit, I very nearly didn’t enter the museum. I strolled along the terrace, took some pictures, and then contemplated continuing on my way. I wasn’t feeling that well, and I wasn’t sure if I was in the mood for photos and videos of performance art involving animal entrails.

My visit to the museum was thought-provoking and nausea-inducing almost in equal measure. I had the whole museum to myself. Unsurprisingly, most visitors to Naples would prefer to see the Michelangelo-rivalling “Veiled Christ” at Cappella San Severo rather than canvases smeared in blood.

The paintings (some of which you can see here) didn’t do much for me. What can I say, I’m old-fashioned when it comes to paintings. Gore isn’t a problem. I like Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith. But I need more detail, more technique – more to look at, to study. Nothing personal, Nitsch. It’s an issue I have with most late 20th century/21st century paintings…personal taste.

Nitsch’s themes do interest me, though. Religion; ritual; violence; sacrifice. I spent most of the time in the museum looking at the photos and videos of Nitsch’s performance art, including a recent one in Naples. Some naked volunteers are blindfolded, “crucified” and carried through the streets of the city. In a courtyard, volunteers dressed in white throw pig’s blood over the naked bodies, or arrange bunches of grapes, animal carcasses or octopuses. It’s meant to shock, and it does. The presence of the artist himself makes it even more surreal. He sits in the corner, dressed in black. He’s portly, elderly, with a big white beard. Imagine a goth Father Christmas directing a bacchanal.

“That’s me,” said a member of staff. We were the only people in the museum, and he sometimes joined me as I wandered through the rooms, explaining the art and telling me more about Nitsch. Now he was pointing at a figure in one of the photos – there he was, dressed in white, splattered with blood. “You can’t imagine the smell.”

He also told me that in the 70s, Nitsch had been arrested in Naples. “What for?” I asked. “Animal cruelty?” “No, blasphemy.” Very Naples, I thought.

Afterwards he told me to take the lift up to the rooftop. “The roof terrace was designed by Nitsch.” As there was nothing on the roof apart from some plants, I imagine that’s what he was referring to. I guess Nitsch likes giving orders: “Throw the blood over the naked blindfolded woman.” “The begonias a little more to the left.”

But once you’ve looked at the paintings and looked away from the video of the cow’s carcass, do go up to the roof.

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From the darkness to the light. I always think of something another tour guide said to me, on another trip to Naples, years ago. The Chiesa di Purgatorio ad Arco on Via dei Tribunali. Another private tour, because I was the only visitor. “Naples is Purgatory”, she said, and in that moment the idea for the novel was born. I’m still only halfway through writing it, but hopefully one day, The Living Cult will also come out into the light…