A weekend in Rome

Taking a European city break in a pandemic

I thought I’d pause on recounting my memories of a pre-pandemic trip to New Zealand for a one off post on an unexpected trip I took to Rome last weekend. Not unexpected because it was unplanned – quite the opposite in fact – but unexpected because having had various other trips I’d had planned for this year cancelled, I never once thought this one would actually go ahead with the way things currently are.

On board my Jet2 flight to Rome

The trip had been planned many months ago as a long weekend away for my friend’s 40th birthday. We’d booked return flights from Birmingham airport and a hotel a just a few metro stops out of Rome city centre but as the situation with the global pandemic continued, we became less and less confident of the trip happening so decided against booking any tours or attractions in case we didn’t have time to cancel and get refunded.

As September came to an end, Italy remained on the UK’s travel corridor list, meaning we’d not have to quarantine upon return from a trip there. But in the week leading up to our Friday departure date, as Covid cases in Italy continued to steadily rise, rumours began to circulate in the media that it was sure to be added to the UK’s quarantine list when it got it’s weekly update.

As the list is updated on a Thursday evening, this would not give us much time to cancel or rearrange things and it was a stressful day waiting to find out whether our early morning departure the next day would go ahead or not.

Luckily, Italy was saved for another week and I had to rush to pack for a trip I never thought would actually go ahead!

Outside the Colosseum and below, going inside the Colosseum on a previous visit to Rome.

Friday morning we were up early and at the airport the standard 2 hours before our 8am departure. It was the first time I’d travelled abroad since the World began to lock down in March and only the third trip abroad I’d taken this year following two February half term trips, one to Milan and one to Disneyland Paris. Little had changed about the airport experience except for having to wear face coverings everywhere unless sat down at the restaurants and cafes and despite less flights meaning less people, the queues through security didn’t move any quicker as there were a lot less lanes open.

Once in the departure lounge, I just had about time to munch down a bacon sandwich from Costa and buy a bottle of water from Boots before we had to make our way to the gate for boarding.

We were flying with Jet2, an airline I’d never flown with before. We were all on the same booking but despite being sat in the same row, had been given the middle and aisle seat on the left of the row and the seat across the aisle on the right meaning my friend in the middle seat was sat next to someone she didn’t know in the window seat and I was sat next to a couple I didn’t know across the aisle. I was surprised that with things as they are, that more effort wasn’t made to seat parties in the same bubble together rather than next to random strangers.

Roman ruins at the Forum
View of the Roman Forum and below, visiting the Forum on a previous trip to Rome

Our masks had to be worn throughout the 2.5 hour flight unless eating or drinking and we were encouraged to stay in our seats as much as possible with queuing in the aisle for the toilet no longer permitted. I was surprised to see that there were magazines, menus and safety cards tucked into the pouch in front of each seat as usual for us to flick through during the flight especially as no sanitiser was being provided by the airline.

Luckily I’d taken my own bottle on board in my handbag which I used regularly throughout the flight.

Even though signs up around Fiumicino Airport said arrivals would be subject to temperature tests, we only had to clear passport control once we’d landed. We had had to fill in a declaration form on the plane saying that we hadn’t tested positive for Covid in the last 14 days but this was collected in by the flight attendants to hand in upon arrival on behalf of all the passengers.

Above and below, visiting Palatine Hill on a previous trip to Rome

We had booked a private taxi transfer to our hotel and the driver was waiting for us at arrivals. We had to gel our hands before touching the seat belts and like in the UK, our masks had to stay on for the journey. As we travelled, the driver informed us that due to rising Covid case numbers, from noon that day it had been made mandatory in Rome and the region of Lazio to wear face coverings at all times, inside and out, and it would be enforced by fine from midnight.

Throughout the weekend, we saw police and military out in force on the streets of Rome blowing their whistles and shouting at the few people who may have removed their masks but overall, there was 99% compliance everywhere we went.

The National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II and below, getting a bit closer on a previous trip

Our hotel was a bit of a hidden gem. A bed and breakfast hidden on the seventh floor of an apartment block in the Garbatella suburb, we were mildly worried when we pulled up to a slightly run down looking side street. But after following the instructions we’d been sent to navigate our way through the rather high-tech, keyless and contactless locking system, we found ourselves in a really lovely, clean and spacious hotel room.

The room lead out into a common area which we assumed would normally be where breakfast was served. Instead, breakfast was a selection of pre-packaged goodies in our room, such as croissants and cookies, which were topped up daily when our room was serviced. We had a coffee machine and coffee pods in our room and a kettle lay out in the common area next to a bottle of sanitiser and wipes although, despite teabags being provided, as I often find the case in Europe, there was no sign of any milk for my tea and I had to buy some from the local convenience store!

A quiet Trevi Fountain

After settling in and freshening up, we headed straight out for the afternoon walking straight down the main road to Garbatella station. The area seemed very authentically Italian with office workers and locals filling the tables at pavement cafes and shopping at the neighbourhood stores and market stands. It was a 10-15 minute walk to the station where we bought a 72-hour travel pass for 18 euros and then caught the metro just 3 stops to Colosseo, the stop for the Colosseum.

Crowds at the Trevi Fountain on a previous visit to Rome

As we exited the station, the impressive, ancient Colosseum building immediately loomed in front of us. Having been to Rome twice before, the first time spending almost a week properly exploring and the second time spending 24 hours just passing through, I had toured the Colosseum before. That time, we had walked to the quieter and less visited Palatine Hill to buy tickets allowing us entry to three sites (Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum) and were then able to skip the line upon visiting the Colosseum later that day. The building was just as impressive from the inside as the outside and I found it fascinating to find out about what it would have been like to be there all that time ago attending a huge event.

The Spanish Steps

This time, we admired the building from the outside taking plenty of photos and fending off ticket touts and tour guides trying to convince us to buy from them, eventually replying to them all with a standard “we’ve already toured it” in order for them to leave us alone!

Aperitivo in Testaccio

From the Colosseum, we walked past the ruins of the Roman Forum. Again, having visited before, we didn’t venture in this time. On my first visit to Rome, it had been an extremely hot August day when I had visited the Forum straight after spending a few hours wandering through the sun-drenched ruins of Palatine Hill. Tired, hot and in need of shade and water, I’m not sure I had fully appreciated what I had seen there with one ruin starting to look like the rest and I’d like to go back sometime and maybe tour both of these places with a tour guide rather than wander through myself. Today, we just took photos of the ruins from the viewing point before continuing on towards the Vittorio Emanuele II National Monument.

Cacio e Pepe at Felice a Testaccio restaurant

This monument is one of the buildings that stands out the most to me from my memories of my first visit to Rome. Taking the open top tour bus from our Termini area hotel, I always remember rounding a corner and suddenly seeing this white, marble building glittering bright in the sunshine and everyone on board simultaneously gasping at the sight of it. Relatively modern compared to the ancient Roman buildings scattered around the city – construction didn’t being until 1885 – it’s classical architecture and sheer size still stands out as a beautiful must-see building in the city. It is free to enter the building but with the current restrictions there was a long queue so we didn’t stay on this occasion.

Hugo Spritz cocktails

Next, we walked along Via del Corso, eventually turning off the main road to follow signs to the Trevi Fountain and grabbing a sandwich and drink from a small cafe along the way. The last time I had visited Rome, the Trevi Fountain was covered with scaffolding while restoration work took place and the first time I had visited, it was difficult to get anywhere near it with the huge crowds of tourists filling the square. Today, I was please to find it was a lot quieter and we were easily able to spend some time admiring the beauty of the sculpture and getting our photos.

Our final stop of the afternoon was at the Spanish Steps as we passed through to get to the metro station. Deciding not to climb the steps today, we took a few photos then caught the train back to our hotel to get ready for an evening out.

The Pyramid of Cestius

We began our evening by meeting with a friend who lives in Rome near her Piramide area flat, one metro stop from where we were staying in Garbatella. From here, we took a short walk to Piazza Testaccio, a small square surrounded by bars and cafes where locals would purchase their ‘aperativo’ – drinks served with bite size snacks – and sit out in the square socialising while their children played in the centre of the square!

There was a great atmosphere and the pizza bites, small sandwiches crisps we were served with our drinks were all a delicious appetiser before the meal we had booked for later!

Murals adorn the buildings in the Ostiense area and below, my friends’Sandwich of the day’ at Marigold Cafe and my gelato from Gelateria La Romana in the same area

For our main meal, our friend had booked a highly recommended nearby restaurant, Felice a Testaccio. Here, the most menu item, and the one ordered by us all, was the Roman pasta dish Cacio e Pepe which literally translates as cheese and pepper. Our pepper-sprinkled Tonnarelli pasta was brought out to us in a bowl absolutely covered in parmesan cheese. We then watched as the servers skillfully tossed together the contents of the bowl and a thick cheese sauce was formed. Delicious!

After dinner, we walked back towards Piramide station, stopping for drinks across the road at the Tram Stop bar, my friends particularly enjoying a ‘Hugo Spritz’ – an elderflower flavoured drink – as a change from the usual Aperol Spritz.

Another Aperol Spritz!

After a big night out the day before, we were late up the next morning. Walking back towards the Piramide area (so called because of a huge, first century-built Pyramid-shaped tomb in the area), we met up with our friend at her nearby apartment before going for brunch. She took us to a small cafe/micro-bakery called Marigolds in the nearby Ostiense. There was a half hour wait for a table during which time we wandered through the local streets before returning to be seated.

Pizza at Sorbillo

Marigolds bakes all its bread on the premises but despite this, I found it’s 11 euro charge for a tiny grilled cheese sandwich and 4.50 for a pot of tea to be a bit on the expensive side. My friends did really enjoy their orders of Shakshuka – eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce – and the sandwich of the day – a huge pork and coleslaw filled sandwich on sourdough.

An almost deserted Spanish Steps in the rain and, below, at St Peters Square in time for a Papal address.

After brunch, we stopped for dessert at Gelateria La Romana – I highly recommend the Biscotto della nonna (like a cookie and cream flavour) and Crema di nocciola al cacao (hazelnut and chocolate) flavours! – then walked from Ostiense to Circo Massimo. We wandered through the grounds of Circo Massimo, the remains of an ancient chariot-racing stadium and continued on to the Jewish Quarter, passing the ancient Roman Theatre, Teatro Marcello which influenced the architecture of the much more-famous and later-built Colosseum. After drinks sat out a a cafe in the Jewish Quarter, we walked back to the Colosseum and caught the metro back to our hotel to freshen up ready for the evening.

That evening, we had decided to dine at Sorbillo, a popular restaurant in the centre of Rome specialising in Neapolitan-style pizzas. I had eaten at Sorbillo’s in Milan in the past and really enjoyed it so was looking forward to eating at the Rome branch. Sorbillo operated a no booking in advance policy so we arrived early at 8pm, just half hour after opening. The restaurant was already busy and we were told it would be a 45 minute wait for a table to be available. Putting our name down, we went for drinks at a bar around the corner and returned to find our table ready.

For starters, we ordered a highly-recommended potato croquette each. When they arrived they were huge and did not disappoint in their taste. Mains was pizza’s all round and although I went for a basic margherita, it was one of the best I’ve ever had! We stayed at Sorbillos late, having drinks at our table after our meal and then walking back towards the Spanish Steps to catch the metro back to our hotel. It was pouring with rain as we left but this did mean that the Spanish Steps were almost completely deserted making for a rare photo opportunity!

Castel Sant’Angelo and, above, touring the Vatican Museums on a previous visit

We had one full day left in Rome and had decided to spend it revisiting, or rather whizzing past, the sights we hadn’t yet seen on this visit. We started in Vatican City where we planned on visiting St Peter’s Basilica. I had taken a tour of the Vatican Museums, which included access to the Sistine Chapel, on a previous visit to Rome, making sure I pre-booked to avoid the huge queues that tend to form there on a daily basis.

View of the River Tiber from Ponte Sant’Angelo

That time, we had arrived back at St Peter’s Basilica just as a mass started meaning I didn’t get to see as much of the church as I would have liked so I hoped to explore a bit more today. However, as we got closer to St Peter’s Square, there was a heavier than usual presence of security and police as well as large crowds of people. We were redirected to a front entrance to the Square where we had to go through a security check to be allowed into the Square itself.

Crossing the River Tiber

Moments after clearing security, we realised that with it being midday on the first Sunday of the month, the Pope was about to make an appearance on the balcony to say a blessing. This was a completely unexpected coincidence and we stayed to watch him address the crowd.

The Pantheon

With the square being so busy, we abandoned plans to stick around after to visit St Peter’s Basilica and instead walked from Vatican City back to Rome past Castel Sant’Angelo and across the Tiber River. On my first visit to the city, I had taken a river cruise along the Tiber which had been included with my hop on/off bus ticket but had found there wasn’t really a lot to see.

Pistachio Tiramisu from Pompi

Today, there seemed to be kayaks and boats for hire along the riverside which would have been fun to take advantage of if we’d had more time! Instead, after crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo, we wandered the back streets of Rome ending up in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Despite being hungry for lunch, I had learned my lesson from a previous experience of sitting out in one of the restaurants in the Piazza only to be met with inferior food and a hefty charge for service and bread so instead, we found a side street with some quieter tucked away restaurants and had lunch there.

Twin churches in Piazza del Popolo
Above, and below, views from the Spanish Steps

Passing the Pantheon along the way, we joined the short queue for the temperature check to enter and had a quick walk around. We had walked into a few churches for a look around over the weekend and it was always worth it no matter how unassuming they looked from the outside!

Next stop was Pompi, a tiramisu store near the Spanish Steps which we had been assured sold the best tiramisu in Rome. We then wandered along Via del Corso for some last minute shopping and down to another pretty square, Piazza del Popolo, flanked by its twin churches, one of which had it’s doors open so we wandered in for a look around.

Realising we’d not yet climbed the Spanish Steps despite passing them more than any other sight over the course of the weekend, we walked back to rectify this and visit the Trinità dei Monti church at the top. On my first visit to Rome, I had walked from here along to Villa Borghese, a huge and extremely pretty park with landscaped gardens, sculptures, museums and a boating lake and I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to walk there today.

The church at the top of the Spanish Steps, and below, walking from the top of the Spanish Steps to Villa Borghese on a previous visit

Instead, we found another back street bar for drinks before catching the metro to Cavour and walking to the Monti area. It was early Sunday evening by now and the cafes and bars in the area were already busy with tourists and locals out for drinks and aperitivo. We had drinks from Antigallery bar, where we were given complimentary tortilla chips and popcorn to munch on as we sat out in Piazza degli Zingari then moved down to Grazie a Dio è venerdi bar where we got a delicious pizza with every 2 drinks!

After seeing an almost constant queue at the neighbouring Fata Morgana gelateria, we decided to sample some for ourselves. The store offered some of the most unusual ice cream flavours I’d seen and while I enjoyed my scoops of chocolate chip gelato and Nutella swirl gelato, it wasn’t quite up there with the ice cream from Gelateria La Romana the day before.

The Colosseum at night

We finished our evening with a walk back to the Colosseum to see it lit up at night before retracing our steps from our first day’s sightseeing to grab photos of the illuminated Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and Trevi Fountain. Then it was time to wave goodbye to Rome’s city centre and ride the metro back to our hotel one last time before catching our flight back to Birmingham early the next day.

Despite the mandatory face coverings and general restrictions with travelling amid a global pandemic, our city break in Rome had felt like a breath of fresh air and a taste of normality in what has been a far from normal year. I certainly had my reservations about going ahead with our trip despite Italy remaining on the UK’s travel corridor list but if anything, my experience has made me more likely to plan similar breaks and, where possible, travel as I would usually.

Have you had any experiences of travelling on holidays or city breaks during the pandemic? Let me know in the comments!

Italy’s Best Kept Secret?

Exploring Puglia, a lesser visited region of Italy

Altamura’s Corso leading to the town gates

Italy is, without a doubt, my favourite European country to visit. I’ll never forget my first visit, taking a city break to Rome, my breath taken away each time I turned a corner only to be met by more beautiful buildings or ancient ruins.

Since then, I’ve been to many of the main cities and tourist destinations there – Milan, Lake Garda, Florence, Venice, Bologna, Naples and the Amalfi Coast…but when my friend moved to the country to take up a teaching position in a small town in the South, it gave me the opportunity to explore a lesser known part of this beautiful country.

My friend had moved to the town of Altamura which lies in the region of Puglia, known in English as Apulia, sitting in the ‘heel’ of Italy’s ‘boot’. To get there, I flew to Bari, the principle city of the area. Bari is mainly known for its port. It is possible to catch the ferry from here to a variety of other European countries including Greece and Croatia as well as there being a number of cruises departing from here. As the one of only 2 cities in the region with an, albeit small, international airport, it is also seen as the gateway to the stunning coastline of this part of Italy.

While I would spend time exploring the city of Bari during my visit to the region, today, after arriving early and with the rest of the day to spare, my friend was taking me to her favourite nearby seaside town, Polignana a Mare. For a small fee, I dropped my suitcase at Bari station’s left luggage and we hopped on a local train for the 50 minute ride down the coast.

Polignano a Mare

Beautiful sea views at Polignano a Mare
Cala Porto beach flanked by cliffs

Polignano a Mare is a charming seaside town perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea. We walked through the winding, narrow streets, visiting some of the small boutique gift shops along the way to the clifftop viewpoint offering beautiful views across the bright, blue sea. Looking back towards the town, we could see the small, white pebble beach of Cala Porto below.

Looking back at Cala Porto beach form the clifftop and below, enjoying an afternoon at Polignano a Mare

After drinks at one of the many cafe bars in the town, we took a stroll down to the beach enjoying the late afternoon sunshine before walking back to the station and returning to Bari.

Altamura

The cathedral in Altmura

From Bari, it was another 90 minute train journey on the local train to Altamura where my friend had a small apartment on the outskirts of the town. The following day, she took me on a tour of the area starting with a walk through the city gates onto the ‘Corso’ – the main street running through the medieval town. Along here, lies the beautiful Altamura Cathedral dating back to the 13th century.

After looking around the cathedral, we walked through the maze of back streets leading off the Corso to a small bakery at the Santa Chiara Monastery where we bought some traditional Altamura cakes. Tette delle monache – which literally translates as “nun’s breasts”! – are soft, filled cakes.

Pastries and cakes at the bakery

We tried one filled with nutella and one filled with pistacchio and went to sit in the park o the edge of the city to eat them before having a further wander around the town.

Meeting the baker!

Altamua is famous for its bread, so much so that it is often referred to as the ‘City of Bread’, so I couldn’t spend the day there without trying some. The bread, ‘Pane di Altamura DOP’ is baked in a ‘forno antico’ or antique oven, the oldest of which, Forno Antico Santa Chiara, dates back to 1423.

Visiting the Archaeological Museum

We looked inside the bakery to meet the baker and watch the bread being placed into the oven to bake before taking a seat out in the courtyard and ordering a selection of bread and cheese dishes for lunch.

That afternoon, we took a stroll to the National Archaeological Museum of Altamura. This small museum had a range of exhibits showing its collection of artefacts from the area dating back thousands of years. There was also an interesting exhibition on the ‘Man of Altamura’, the fossil of a neanderthal man found in a nearby cave.

The Cathedral at night and above, locals stroll up and down the Corso in the busy evenings

That evening, we returned to Altamura’s Corso which was now bustling with life as the locals visited the many shops, cafes and bars lining the street or paraded up and down the street deep in conversation with their family and friends. We called into a local restaurant for a delicious pizza.

Pizza!
Nutella filled croissants for breakfast

We began the next day with a ‘cornetti’ breakfast at Stile Libero, a cafe on the outskirts of town – possibly the best nutella filled pastry I had ever tasted! Then we walked the short distance to Altamura station to catch the train out to the city of Matera.

Matera

Spectacular view – my first glimpse of Matera’s sassi
A busy main square in Matera, and below, exploring the city

Matera is actually just across the border of Puglia, in the region of Basilicata. After a 40 minute train journey from Altamura, we arrived in the ‘new’ part of town and took the short walk down to the historic centre. The main square at the entrance to the centre was flanked by a variety of restaurants, cafes and tourist information centres all of which we initially bypassed to walk to the nearby viewpoint over Matera’s ‘Sassi’.

The Sassi di Matera, is made up of two districts of the city built into the caves. Once known for its poverty and slums, the area has been regenerated over the last few decades with Unesco declaring it a World Heritage site in 1993.

Exploring Matera

The first view of the ‘Sassi’ is absolutely breath-taking. Before going to explore further, we signed up for a tour of Matera’s Underground. We booked the tour at one of the tourist information booths in the square and had only a short wait until the next English-speaking tour. The tour was quite short and once down in Matera’s underground, there wasn’t a lot to see but it was interesting to hear about how the city overcame difficulties in supplying water to its residents and seeing parts of the system used.

Taking a walking tour of Matera

After dinner at a cafe bar in the main centre, I took a walking tour of the Sassi. This was a great way to see the area and learn about its past. As part of the tour we visited a ‘casa grotta’ reconstruction to see a cave dwelling which had been set up as it would have been when it was once lived in by large families 60 years or more ago and the tour also allowed us entry into some parts of the Sassi only accessible on a tour including an old church built into the caves.

Another beautiful view over Matera

Matera is a great place to just wander around and it is easy to lose yourself in the winding maze of streets built into the caves. There a are a variety of museums, galleries and churches to explore in the city and we visited a photography exhibition that we just happened to stumble upon as we walked through the city as well as taking a look inside the Cathedral of Saint Mary della Bruna and Saint Eustace.

Bari

A table with a view and, below, more views along the waterfront

We took another trip out of Altamura the next day, this time, back to the region’s capital, Bari. Bari is a charming Italian port on the Adriatic Sea and we began our visit with a stroll along the waterfront and along the old city walls stopping for drinks overlooking the sea.

Strolling by the city walls

The highlight of our visit to Bari was a walk around its Old Bari or Bari Vecchia with its maze of narrow streets winding past medieval buildings and opening out into busy squares and courtyards.

Bars and restaurant in the old town

We visited the Basilica di San Nicola then made our way back to the main square, Piazza Mercantile where we had dinner at one of its many restaurants and grabbed an gelato for dessert.

Gelato in Bari’s old town

Bari offers a great mix of the old and the modern and we made our way back to the main station along Via Sparano, the main shopping street in the newer part of the city where we found all the usual high street stores including Sephora, H&M, Zara and Pandora.

Gravina di Puglia

My final trip out from the town of Altamura was a solo trip to Gravina di Puglia. My friend was busy working and recommended I take the 10 minute train ride out to this town which, similarly to Matera, is built into a series of caves.

An evening trip to Gravina di Puglia for dinner at Sottofondo

We’d already been one evening for dinner at one of its restaurants, Sottofondo, which randomly specialised in oven baked potatoes with a variety of fillings. We had views of the caves from the restaurant terrace and it looked like an interesting town to explore further.

Filled jacket potato dinner

Gravina Cathedral

Unfortunately, and unknown to me, Gravina seemed to close down on a Monday and within minutes of my arrival just before midday, everything closed its doors – churches, shops, restaurants, cafes and museums, all closed!

Exploring Gravina and, below, a cave church of Gravina

Despite this shutdown, I was still able to happily spend a few hours just wandering around, seeing the Cathedral from the outside, wandering around the narrow maze of streets and enjoying beautiful views of the cliffs and caves surrounding the area.

On the viaduct across Gravina creek and, below, exploring across the creek

On my way back to the station, I took a detour across the viaduct at the entrance to the town which spans Gravina creek and leads to the ancient remains of the Madonna della Stella church. From here there were also amazing views of the town of Gravina built into the cliffs opposite.

It was a shame I had inadvertently visited this historic town at a time when many of its attractions were closed but it had still been worth a visit.

While the region of Puglia and its ancient towns and cities don’t get the publicity that major cities like Rome and Milan or regions such as Tuscany and Amalfi get, I’d definitely recommend visiting the region and exploring its less touristy and very much authentically Italian towns.