Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Café Les Deux Magots and Jardin du Luxembourg

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Café Les Deux Magots and Jardin du Luxembourg

Whenever Therese and I return to Paris, France – which is rather often in our traveling life, seeing as how I have been to Paris on four trips in seven years with her – I usually try to see something new, something I haven’t seen before.  However, the pull to re-visit some places I have already been to can be very strong.  At the end of our week in Strasbourg, we had a day-and-a-half to spend in Paris before flying back home to Charleston, and we had ample time to pursue a mix of the personally old and new.

In the summer of 2016, when we did our three-week stay in Rouen, we passed through Paris several times, staying at a Hilton “curio” hotel called Astor Saint-Honore that was a short taxi ride from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station where trains from Rouen terminate.  After we had already made our reservations, we found out about Hilton Paris Opera, which was even closer to the train station and had better reviews as I recall.  Therese entertained the idea of switching to this other hotel, but I reasoned that we should give Astor Saint-Honore a chance.  We did, and it was not bad, but not good enough to persuade us not to stay at Hilton Paris Opera the next time we were in Paris.  So on this visit, that is where we stayed, and we enjoyed this hotel.

Hilton Paris Opera apparently had an arrangement with Lego, with the result that there are a couple of Lego creations displayed in the lobby.  The one above evokes the bustle of the big city.  The view from our window was directly on to plaza in front of the train station, complete with the Consigne á Vie sculpture (that stack of bronzed suitcases on the left).

After dropping off our luggage, my idea was that we spend most of the day in the Sixth Arrondissement.  Specifically, I wanted to see the Abbey Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.  We had been there on my first visit to Paris in 2010, but for some reason I took not pictures (maybe because the interior can be a bit dim and gloomy).  I wanted to have another shot at maybe capturing a bit of its Medieval glory.

The church was under renovation, but we still managed to see so much of what makes it a singularly beautiful church – the early stained glass windows, the painted columns, the sea of stars on a blue background that covers the ceiling.

Directly across the street from the church is the famous Cafe Les Deux Magots, and while we intended to eat lunch there, it was a bit early for lunch, so we explored a little bit.  Namely, we walked the few blocks to the Church of Saint-Sulpice.  Therese knows it because of its connection to Dan Brown’s “DaVinci Code.”  I had heard it to be one of the largest and most glorious churches in Paris.

Big it is, yes, but it did not impress as much as Saint-Germain-des-Pres.  My favorite detail was the two shell sculptures by Pigalle that serve as holy water receptacles for the faithful to cross themselves with as they enter the church.

Now it was time for lunch at “Deux Magots”, and though it was a Saturday, we got an outdoor seat pretty quickly.  Our lunch was decent, but Therese could remember more than one place in Paris where she has had better omelets.  My salad was nice, but a bit on the pricey side.  Not to quibble, though – we were there to drink in all the famous-ness (fame-osity?).  And in that regard, it was a very nice time.

I had to remind myself now and again that Therese had been cooped up with work most of the week, while I had been sightseeing.  With that in mind, I thought her idea to make our way toward Jardin du Luxembourg, keeping our eyes open for good shopping along the way, was a great one.

La Joie de Vivre Boutique

This little boutique called “Joie de Vivre,” for example, was a lucky find.  Therese found a table cloth (similar to the one hanging in the window that you can sort of see above) and a couple other pieces to bring home.

The day was feeling a bit hot, so when we got to Jardin du Luxembourg, my first impulse was to find somewhere to sit down in the shade.  Luckily, there were a couple empty seats next to the pond in front of the Medici fountain.

After refreshing ourselves watching the ducks swim in that pond, we explored the northern sector of the park.  We passed by the Delacroix fountain, and the park’s Orangerie (mainly an art gallery – I don’t remember any orange trees).  When we had had our fill of the park, we found a taxi stand and headed back to the hotel, where we ordered some room service for our dinner and settled into a quiet evening of lovely relaxation.

Posted in Cafes, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Food, France, Lunch, Paris, Parks, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Antico Caffé Santamaria and Olive Dolci on Mosaic Day in Rome

Antico Caffé Santamaria and Olive Dolci on Mosaic Day in Rome

I am totally burying the lead on this post, but it’s because I don’t want the food – the dairy free aspect of the narrative – to get too lost in the shuffle, as it too often does.  You see, on this Friday, our last full day in Rome, we were going on a tour, inspired by a guided walking tour of Rome’s mosaics contained in the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Rome (Amazon link).  In the process, we encountered two of Rome’s most celebrated sacred edifices, the Basilicas of Santa Maria Maggiore and San Giovanni in Laterano (or Saint John the Lateran, if you prefer).

The day began with the first of these two monumental buildings.  When we walked through the front door, we were asked if we wanted to pay a little extra for a special tour.  Honestly, my “this is a rip off!” sense kicked in, but this time, I ignored it and a little while later, we were going to places that are usually off-limits to the public.  This included some papal apartments where the most interesting thing for me was a large antiphonal full of chant.  Therese always loves hearing me sight-read my way through a chant responsory.

Before we got to those apartments, we spent some time gasping with wonder at the mosaics on the wall of the front terrace or balcony.  The large mosaic of Christ catches the attention most readily, but the many other sections depicting things like the day it snowed in Rome which led to the basilica’s founding are also marvelous to see.

Both before and after our private tour, we joined the rest of the visitors to the basilica in gaping in wonder at this incredible building.  In Rome, there are levels of artistic wonder to be experienced, and certainly my experience here at Santa Maria Maggiore was at one of the highest levels.

If you eat right across the street from a huge church that is a tourist draw like Santa Maria Maggiore, you can usually expect to pay a lot for some mediocre quality food.  Our lunch at Antico Caffé Santamaria thankfully deviated from that norm.  I ordered just one course, a pasta with seafood.  It arrived wrapped in an aluminum foil that had been formed into some kind of animal.  The dish, once extricated from its animal foil form, was lovely – the kind of high quality pasta that was simultaneously toothy and succulent that we encountered at many of our best meals in Rome, with mussels and shrimp and a nice not-too-spicy tomato sauce.

Sort of on opposite sides of the great basilica are two small churches that are no less impressive than their big sister – Santa Pudenziana and Santa Prassede.  We visited the former first.  If I didn’t know better, I would think that Santa Pudenziana was an abandoned building that has been slated for destruction.  From the outside, it really looks pretty decrepit.  But we have to cut this church a break, for it has been operating since the 4th century, and is considered to the be oldest church in Rome.

And certainly the mosaics over the apse are wonderful – they have a freshness to them that makes it hard for me to believe that they were created in the late fourth century, when the building was new.

Santa Prassede’s Church is a bit larger on the inside, and offers art from a mixture of time periods as is usually the case with ancient European churches.  But for me, by far the most interesting part of it was the earliest, the Chapel of San Zeno.

As you might have guessed, that is where the most impressive mosaics reside, from the 8th century (similarly-aged mosaics are found above the altar as well).  Perhaps it is the light issue that partly makes them so compelling – the small room, with no window, is naturally quite dimly-lighted.  If you put a coin in a box outside the entrance, it lights up so you can see the amazing mosaics.  But even then, you might need to really squint a bit to make out some of the extraordinary details.

The plan had been to maybe visit a couple more of the churches listed on the walking tour I was following – if we had done so, that would’ve led us on foot directly to San Giovanni in Laterano.  But the day was speeding along, and we were getting tired, so we knuckled under and just got a taxi to take us right to the great basilica.

And once again I was in awe – because let’s be honest, if you can’t be awed by such beauty, the epitome of earthly perfection, what can you be awed by?  This is a magnificent building.  I was focused on the mosaics of course, over the altar at the far end of the church.  But there is so much else worth of my attention – the Baroque sculptures standing in the niches along both sides of the center aisle, the floor tiles, and so on.

To finish the afternoon, I went in search of the basilica’s baptistery, where two chapels filled with mosaics reside.  But one chapel had a service going on, so it was forbidden for us tourists to enter.  And I never figured out where the other one was.  Oh well.

By this point we were really feeling a bit weary.  But I thought having some afternoon refreshment might sustain us until we returned to our hotel.  A bit of Google searching revealed a place that might have some vegan desserts not far away called Olive Dolci.

Calling this “a place that might have some vegan desserts” is a huge understatement.  Olive Dolci is one of the coolest vegan dessert shops I have ever seen.  First of all, they have many many varieties of vegan frozen desserts, in all the flavors you expect to see at a gelateria, like stracciatella.  I tried one, I don’t remember what it was called but it was chocolate based, and it was first-rate, creamy and rich.

In addition, they sell baked goods.  I nearly lost my voice when I saw the individually-sized sacher tortes on display.  Yes, once again, completely vegan.  I took one back with us, and ate it the next door during our train ride to Venice – it was extraordinary.

So there you have it.  On a Friday in Rome, I enjoyed some very good pasta and seafood for lunch, and a stupendous vegan dessert for an afternoon snack.  And oh yeah, in between I saw some of the most incredible sacred spaces anywhere.

Posted in Cake, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Dessert, Food, Ice Cream, Italian food, Italy, Lunch, Rome, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Eglise Temple Neuf and Chez Tante Liesel in Strasbourg

Eglise Temple Neuf and Chez Tante Liesel in Strasbourg

My Thursday in Strasbourg in July finished up with a visit to one more church, Eglise Temple Neuf, and meeting Therese for a little shopping and ice cream, followed by dinner at Chez Tante Liesel, a small charming restaurant on Rue des Dentelles.

That morning, after visiting the Petite France district, I had made a stop at one of the small neighborhood churches in Strasbourg.  For the afternoon, I wanted to pay a visit to one we had seen off in the distance while walking through the town earlier in the week.  That turned out, upon checking Google, to be Temple Neuf.  Temple Neuf, the “new” church, has been rebuilt a few times after calamities, most recently in the late nineteenth century when it was given its current look, that of a Neo-Romanesque structure.  However, the set-up of the interior gives it a modern feeling.  The pews filling the nave have been removed, and movable light-colored wooden chairs have been arranged in a circular pattern, a rather democratic look.  And when we were there, an artist’s installation of paintings representing Jesus and his disciples was on display in the front of the church.

In the wings of the church, the side aisles I should say, there is a free lending library and a place for children to play.  I found this a very friendly church, one where you could hang out and not feel like you were intruding.

I had hoped that by the time I was done exploring this church, Therese would have returned to Strasbourg.  Unfortunately, she and her work-colleagues were still on their way driving back to the city.  So I wandered a little more.  I found the Nouvelle Douane, formerly a customs house but now a small brightly-lit attractive grocery store.  I bought some very fresh-looking cherries for Therese and a chocolate bar for myself.

Finally, it was time for our reunion to take place.  One of Therese’s colleagues had to catch a train, so she was dropped off at the station along with him.  I walked in that direction to meet her, and it was just a block from the station that I saw her walking down the street toward me.  Oh, free at last!  We would make the best of the rest of the day.

First, we went to have some ice cream, at the shop of the same name – yes, it is really called Ice Cream!  I selected three from the list of 17 different kinds of sorbet – coconut, rhubarb and banana.  Very very good sorbet.

Then we just wandered for a while.  Therese had made a dinner reservation for us at a restaurant almost across the street from Ice Cream, but we didn’t want to kill the time just sitting there, so we walked a bit.  I took her to the Rue des Vieux Marche aux Poissons.  That street with the long name has a string of shops that I thought Therese might enjoy exploring.  Then we walked along the river, where the sun was nice and warm (Therese gets easily chilled).  Either before or after this, I forget which, I took her to St. Thomas Lutheran church, where I had been earlier in the week

Houses Next to the River South of Strasbourg

When the time for our reservation approached, we headed back toward the little restaurant Chez Tante Liesel.  Dinner there was very straight-forward but also quite satisfying.  I had a choucroute with a slice duck breast and potatoes fried in duck fat (scrumptious!), and then for dessert the usual sort of thing happened – no regular desserts for dairy allergic me, so they made me a bowl of lovely fresh fruit.

Well, at that point it had been a long day for both of us, and we looked forward to a full day the following day in Colmar, so we decided to just catch the tram at the nearby Alt Winmärik stop, and head back to our hotel.

Posted in Alsatian Food, Cafes, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Dessert, Dinner, Food, France, Sorbet, Strasbourg, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Villa Farnesina, Santa Maria in Trastevere and Hotel Forum Restaurant

Villa Farnesina, Santa Maria in Trastevere and Hotel Forum Restaurant

With just a couple of days left in our week in Rome, Thursday found us visiting a somewhat out-of-the-way neighborhood, that is, Trastevere, on the west side of the Tiber River.  We would visit one of the private-home art museums, Villa Farnesina, in search of its frescoes by Raphael of Cupid and Psyche, and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest churches in Rome.  From there, we would finish the day by traveling to the Capitoline Museums for a recreating of a photo from a trip to Rome long ago, and then have dinner at a restaurant Therese also visited several decades earlier.

And oh, before we move on to the narrative of the day’s events, what exactly is going on with the photo above?  Truly, I have no idea.  But it was posted outside a restaurant we passed, and I would guess that they are simply saying that they are against war, AND against catering to tourists.  To which I say “power to you!” – I personally like eating food of a style and in the manner of the city/country I am visiting.  No one needs to design menus to make me feel comfortable.  Moving on…

Villa Farnesina Sign

So we took two buses, and arrived right in front of the sign just above.  I thought, yay, we’re here.  But then I discovered there was no entrance on that street, Lungotevere Farnesina (shouldn’t there be an entrance on a street named after the museum?).  Oh well, we walked around the corner, and even saw a sign with an arrow.  But still, we walked and walked down the street and no villa.  No further sign.  So when we saw a grand building on our left that was obviously a museum, I figured, this must be it, and we bought a ticket and entered.

And sure enough, there was an incredible art collection in this building, and the building itself was elaborately decorated.  But slowly it dawned on me that we were not in the right place.  Still, as long as we were there – and “there” turned out to be the Palazzo Corsini – I thought it made sense to see what there was, before retracing our steps in search of Villa Farnesina.

Taking our time in Palazzo Corsini wouldn’t have been an issue, were it not for the fact that we had gotten a late start (I think we left our hotel a little before noon), and I knew that the Villa Farnesina was only open until 2pm.  Well, Palazzo Corsini had a fairly small collection, just filling several rooms on one floor, so once we were done there, we asked someone for directions to Villa Farnesina.  Sure enough, it was right across the street!

But now it was about 1:30, and the people who worked at Villa Farnesina, as we entered, were very clear in letting us know that they intended to get us out of there before 2, so that they could actually close the building and leave at 2.  I skedaddled, trying to take in as much as I could in just a few minutes.

Somehow, I was expecting a much more elaborate layout, something more like the Borghese Museum, I guess.  But here, there are just a couple of rooms within the building, covered with Renaissance frescoes, and that is the extent of the attraction.  There were like maybe two rooms on the top floor, which is where I went first, and then I think just one large room on the main or lower floor.

Of course, the question in my mind was “where are the Raphaels?”  And on the top floor the style didn’t really look like Raphael, BUT I did see up high on one wall a painting of what I took for Cupid and his mother, Venus.  Close, but no cigar.

So I headed back to the first floor, and after staring at the ceiling for a while, I finally found Cupid and Psyche.  Beautiful frescoes, but I think we saw all there was in fifteen minutes.

By now we were starving for lunch, and I had picked out a terrace where we could sit outside (the weather was gorgeous) and have lunch, at Tonnarello, which was on the way to Santa Maria in Trastevere.

The waiter motioned over to a table.  As usual, things looked a little cramped, so I started to move the table and a chair to give us more room, and another waiter loudly came over to us to tell us not to do that.  I guess regulations require that they keep their terrace within certain square footage.  Anyway, I explained I was only giving us room so we could shoehorn ourselves into the little chairs.  After that, all was well.

Simple fresh ingredients treated with care can make the difference between a pedestrian eating experience and a memorable one.  My lunch of a prosciutto and melon appetizer and handmade pasta with onions and eggplant was lovely, because everything looked and tasted like it was handled with love.  The melon was ripe and full of flavor, contrasting nicely with the salty ham.  And the eggplant was creamy and smoky, and the pasta had just the right amount of tooth to it.  Good meal.

Just around the corner was the piazza where the Basilica stands.  I first got a glimpse of the large fountain – the previous day we had explored many fountains, especially those created by Bernini, and while this one was redesigned at one time by Bernini, it has also been worked on by several other artists, so it is hard to say how much Bernini is left at this point.

The Fountain in Piazza di Santa Maria in Trastevere

Santa Maria in Trastevere is under renovation, so the exterior was mostly covered.  However, inside was glorious.  The 13th century mosaics are bright and fantastic.  I love the floor tiles with their design that looks to me more classical Roman than Christian.  And the ceiling, which is from much later, the early 17th century I believe (and I am guessing was made using gold brought back from the New World explorations), gives it the feeling of a fortress of a very wealthy family.  In total, a splendid church.

A few block’s walk from the church, we encountered the tram stop that would get us back across the Tiber to the staircase that would take us to the Capitoline Museums.  It was just a short ride to Piazza Venezia where we got off.  This was our third time passing through this square – while nothing there was especially of import to us, it just seems to be strategically located where without meaning to, you can find yourself passing through it with some regularity.

Piazza Venezia

To the west of the huge commemoration of Italy’s king, Vittorio Emmanuel, is a staircase that takes you up, not that far, to Piazza del Campidoglio.  The story is that in the early 16th century, this square was a shambles, so that the Pope asked Michelangelo to design a new square.  The geometric pattern of the flooring and the equestrian statue in the center make it very attractive, although as Roman piazzas go, this feels like a rather small one.

Anyway, on either side of the square are buildings that contain the Capitoline Museum collections.  We entered the main one, on the east side of the square I guess, checking our jackets and bags in at a desk before receiving our audio guides and tickets.

Rome has so much incredible art, covering pretty much every period of Western history.  So I shouldn’t have been surprised I guess to see the works contained in this museum going back all the way to classical Rome.  Still, it was pretty stunning to think that works of such incredible beauty were created so long ago – and to be reminded that the artists of the Renaissance, when they created their sculptures, for example, by whose wonders we define the Renaissance period, were actually trying to COPY the art that had been created so many centuries earlier.

In addition to exploring the museum, we had a mission in mind: to find the great marble foot of Constantine next to which Therese had had her picture taken when she was in Rome with her family in 1973.  An internet search had told us it was at this museum.  It is part of a massive statue of the first Christian emperor that was created in the Middle Ages, but now only several pieces of it remain (in addition to the foot, the head and one hand and maybe a forearm are all that’s left on display now).  Our museum map directed us to a courtyard on the first floor, and when we walked through the doorway, there it was.

After that, I felt like we had seen enough.  But we did have some time, more than an hour as I recall, before we needed to head to dinner (the Capitoline Museums are open until 7pm I believe, which make them a great afternoon destination).  So we looked over some of the other incredible ancient art there, like the bronze sculpture of the wolf nursing Romulus and Remus that nobody knows exactly how old it is.

Our dinner restaurant was another part of our trying to recapture Therese’s memories of her visit in the 1970’s.  I didn’t have much interest in exploring Rome’s ancient Forum (readers may recall that when we visited the Colosseum, we had the chance to also visit the Forum and I did not hesitate to pass that up), but the Hotel Forum that overlooks the ancient grounds at the center of the city had a rooftop restaurant with great views, and I thought we should definitely go there.

We had a reservation, and the table that might have been the actual table where Therese and her family had eaten all those years ago seemed to be available.  But then the host tried to seat us a table far from there, claiming that all the tables near the edge with the great view were reserved for a party or something.  Being a superior negotiator, Therese talked to the host, and before long, he changed his mind and put at that perfectly-located table.

What followed was a very special dinner.  It wasn’t so much the food – while very good, it didn’t blow me away necessarily.  It was just the whole thing of being there, reliving maybe the dinner Therese had enjoyed so many decades earlier.  And it was being able to bring that to life for both of us.

And while the hotel is in the same spot it was all those decades ago, things are different for sure.  There is glass enclosing the restaurant, protecting the diners from wind and whatever else.  And there has been some renovation.  But it was close enough.

We would have just one more full day in Rome at this point.  And two weeks in Venice would follow.  But it was somewhere along the week – maybe it was during this day in Trastevere – that I marveled at all we had done, all we had seen, in Rome already.  The amount of mind-blowingly impressive art and monuments and so on is just astonishing.  I have seen many of Europe’s greatest cities, but I have to say, in terms of the wealth of art and ancient splendidly adorned churches, all contained within a completely modern city, Rome is in a category all its own.  Now, does Venice equal it in splendor and quantity of cultural riches?  That is a question we will have to consider as I immerse myself in the posts about that city to come.

For now, on that day, I felt so privileged to enjoy that visit to Italy’s capital, and so happy to be revisiting Therese’s earlier visit from another lifetime.

 

Posted in Art galleries, Churches, Countries, Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, Italian food, Italy, Lunch, Museums, Pasta, Restaurants, Rome, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gare Centrale, Petite France and l’Artichaut in Strasbourg

Gare Centrale, Petite France and l’Artichaut in Strasbourg

Thursday of our week in Strasbourg, France was a mixed bag – part practical, part leisurely, part on my own, and part with Therese.  As for that last one, I hoped that Therese would spend the entire afternoon with me; but that was a matter of how quickly her business with her client (in nearby Haguenau).  We would keep in touch by text during the afternoon to figure out when and where we would meet.

Ah yes, roaming.  On many trips, I don’t activate my phone at all, but for this one, I decided that, since the two of us would be in different places, it would be important to both be in touch; therefore, I contacted Verizon and had them put me on a long distance plan.  It cost me $10 a day for every day I used it – they have other plans available, but this one sounded the best for me.

I began the day by taking the tram to our usual stop in the middle of the city, Homme de Fer, and then walking a few blocks northwest to the train station, or Gare Centrale.  I wanted to buy some tickets for the next day’s trip to the city of Colmar – there are lots of trains every day there, but I just wanted to be careful, to make sure we had a reserved seat and so forth.  I was delighted to make the trip, since the train station building is very interesting.  The inside is an old building, with stained glass windows, etc.; but the exterior is all polished glass and metal, very modern looking.

With tickets in hand, I proceeded to the leisurely balance of the day.  I began by exploring an area of Strasbourg known as Petite France (the reason why it is called that are complicated, but have something to do with the area once being occupied by a hospice).  It is a neighborhood that features some of the most medieval-looking half-timbered houses in Strasbourg, and also is known for its channels (with beautiful tall defensive towers) and bridges.

After spending a good deal walking through the Petite France area, drinking in the quaint atmosphere and admiring the views, I headed a bit northeast to see a small church, Eglise Saint-Jean de Strasbourg.  This one wasn’t on my list, but it came up on Google as a church that was near me, so I thought, why not?

The church is rather plain, but its white interior with minimal decoration and stained glass windows is rather charming.  One of the first things I saw when I walked in the door was a small window that depicts how the church was destroyed by bombing during World War II.  I gather that, while it took a couple decades for the church to be rebuilt, it has been recreated exactly as it was.

By now I was getting hungry, and the previous day’s walking had told me that there were many good food options on the Grand’Rue, so I went back there to find some lunch.  The first place to catch my eye was l’Artichaut, a cafe and bar that has an extensive beer list.  I ordered a lunch special of linguine bolognese which came with a free tea.  And the tea (I asked for mint, which they had) was accompanied by a complimentary Speculoos cookie, one of my favorites, so that was a fitting conclusion to a satisfying meal.

At this point, having enjoyed a lovely morning and a good lunch, I was hoping to meet Therese soon.  But in exchanging texts, I discovered that she was still tied up with her job, so I would have to entertain myself for a while yet.  In the next post I will tell you all about how the day concluded.  For now, I will leave you with a couple of wood carvings from the delightful half-timbered houses in Petite France, Strasbourg.

Posted in Countries, Dairy Free, Food, France, Lunch, Pasta, Strasbourg | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Pane e Salame and Mastro Ciccia Frame Bernini Day in Rome

Pane e Salami and Mastro Ciccia Frame Bernini Day in Rome

You might say it was a risk entrusting me to plan our trip to Rome (and then on to Venice).  I had been to Venice for one day, and Rome never – and Therese had visited Venice many times and Rome at least twice. Luckily, I did have an inspiration for our visit to Rome.  Several years ago, when Therese’s mom Eileen visited us in New York City at Thanksgiving, we took her to an exhibit in the Metropolitan Museum that displayed drawings sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini made in preparation for public fountains he installed in Rome.  Seeing those drawings made me want to visit Rome and see the fountains Bernini created.

A guidebook I purchased, namely the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide Rome (Amazon link) had some excellent ideas for self-guided walking tours (always a favorite of mine), including one for a walk around “Bernini’s Rome” – just what I was looking for, and I determined we should spend a day on this walking tour.  Our Wednesday in Rome was that day.

In my view the walk started at the top and coasted from there.  Which is to say that our first stop was the Church of Santa Maria della Vittoria – the one in-door venue we would visit that day, where Bernini’s celebrated sculpture “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa” is installed in one of the chapels.

The sculpture itself is justly famous – the folds of the saint’s fabric, the intense expression (and body position) of the saint, and the odd cupid-like angel (complete with arrow) all create a piece of art that has made more than one religious person’s jaw drop over the years, I am sure.  I love the theatrical setting, with the two galleries of old men gawking at the saint’s very private moment – just bizarre.

I do think that the notoriety of that sculpture overshadows another wonderful sculpture installed in this church, that of “The Dream of Joseph” by Domenico Guidi.  Very much worth spending some time on, in my view.

Fontana del Tritone Rome

A short walk found us somewhere we had already been – at Piazza Barberini, where we had started our bus ride on the first day in Rome.  Here Therese was decidedly underwhelmed – why would we waste our time on something we had already seen, just because it was on the tour?  Aha, I explained, while we had seen the Fontana del Tritone already, we had not focused on its neighbor just across the piazza, the delightful Fontana delle Api.

Fontana delle Api

Just a couple blocks from Piazza Barberini is one of the more curious intersections in the city, where the four corners of the city block contain Le Quattro Fontane, four fountains created around the theme of bodies of water.

It is difficult to appreciate these fountains and their sculptures, since cars are constantly driving through this busy intersection.  Therese wondered aloud why they don’t make this corner into a pedestrian-only zone.

Just a few blocks down the Via del Quirinale was the first of several obelisks/columns combined with a fountain we would see that day, the Fontana dei Dioscuri.

Fontana dei Dioscuri

The plaza in which this fountain resides has a winding road around it that descends rapidly – when you get to the end of it, you are right near, you guessed it, the Trevi Fountain.  I did my best to avoid it, but since it was along our route, we spent a minute peeking at it.  The mass of humanity trying to get close to it was utterly ridiculous.

Trevi Fountain

I did stop for just a second to get one photo of it – and then we were off to our lunch stop, Pane a Salame.

Nothing terribly fancy here – just fabulous fresh-baked crusty bread and excellent cured meats, just like the name suggests.  And it is a hold-in-the-wall sort of place, so you might have to wait a minute for a table, but we thought it was worth it (we didn’t personally have to wait more than a minute).

Our next stop sculpture-wise was at the Column of Marcus Aurelius.  I know this column has tons of amazing stone carving all over it, but we didn’t get close enough to see those.  There was some sort of protest going on nearby, so I just snapped a pic from across the street and moved on.

Column of Marcus Aurelius

We next visited the piazza in front of the Pantheon, a Roman temple converted to a church.  The Fontana del Pantheon has some lovely dolphins, but it also looks like it could use a good scrubbing.  At this point I was starting to feel a bit weary – I had come down with a cold the day before, and the effects were feeling their worst that day.

Fontana del Pantheon

We decided to abandon the Bernini tour for a bit and just follow our noses.  Just a block or so from the Pantheon was a paper store, Il Papiro, where Therese bought a lovely portfolio and I got a book with covers decorated with Florentine print.  Therese thought it might be the very same store she had visited on a trip to Rome when she was a teenager, but it wasn’t.  From there we walked a little further and ran into a neighborhood that seemed to be where the French culture in Rome resides, highlighted by the Chiesa San Luigi dei Francesi.

As Therese always says, the harder you work, the luckier you get.  This church has a chapel decorated with paintings by Caravaggio.  I enjoyed these paintings much more than the ones we had seen at the Borghese Gallery the day before.

From there we walked a little further, searching out another art store that might be the one Therese remembered.  Before arriving there, we passed the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, with the curious Elephant and Obelisk next to it.

Just on the next corner was the store, Ditta G. Poggi.  This one turned out not to be the one Therese remembered either.  Oh well!

Ditta G. Possi

By now Therese could tell that I needed a break.  She hunted for vegan desserts in the area, and found a very interesting place called Bibliothé.  It is a kind of Ayurvedic center that apparently has classes in one room, while the second room is a cafe.  We had a spiced tea that seemed to restore me quite a bit, and the vegan lemon tart I ate was very yummy, infused with a flavor I couldn’t quite identify.

Leaving there, I felt much better, at least for a while.  It was just a few blocks to our last fountain of the day, in Piazza Navona.  The Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is one of Bernini’s most famous, and a second fountain in the piazza, the Fontana del Moro, has a central figure contributed by Bernini as well.

But for Therese, the main joy of being here was that this was a place where she had been with her family – her parents, brother and grandmother – in 1974.  I did my best, looking at a photo from then, to take a new photo from the same vantage point.  A police barrier and some unknowing tourists got in our way a bit, but this is what I came up with:

The more I explored Rome, the more I discovered how true the idea that, while a big city, everything seems to be pretty close together in Rome.  Case in point: just to the south of Piazza Navona was the little street we had explored two days earlier where we had amazing sorbetto at Frigidarium.  There were also a couple of intriguing restaurants there, and we decided to visit one of them for dinner on this night: Mastro Ciccia.

The food here was just good – not amazing, but it offered sustenance and some good taste.  I had two courses – first, some shrimp with pasta, then grilled squid and sauteed broccoli rabe.  A nice end to a long day of walking and exploring.  And I had gotten what inspired me to want to visit Rome several years earlier – to get to know the Bernini fountains that give Rome so much of its beauty.

Posted in Countries, Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, Fountains, Italian food, Italy, Lunch, Monuments, Restaurants, Rome, Sculpture, Seafood, Travel, Walking tours | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MACRO, Galleria Borghese and Ristorante Il Viaggio in Rome

MACRO, Galleria Borghese and Ristorante Il Viaggio in Rome

Over our first three days in Rome, we covered all the ultra-touristy attractions: we rode the Hop-on, Hop-off bus, and saw the Colosseum and the Sistine Chapel (and the Vatican Museums).  With that under our belt, it was time to explore further afield, and maybe visit some attractions that were not quite as popular, but nevertheless equally worth seeing.

My first thought in this direction was that, while Rome is so well-known for its antiquity, and its wealth of art and culture going back through the Baroque and Renaissance periods all the way to the days of the Roman Empire, it would be fun to see some contemporary art.  And luckily, not far from our hotel, just three stops on the Tram #3 and then a couple block’s walk, was MACRO, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome.

The current exhibit was of street art, and we very much enjoyed seeing the galleries of this often irreverent and iconoclastic paintings and sculpture.  For example, the sculptures by Ron English of Charlie Brown with his skull showing through his smile and Ronald McDonald looking like he had eaten way too many hamburgers were by turns hilarious and disturbing.

Upstairs in the museum was a special exhibit called “Cross the Street” which focused on graffiti – particularly, how subway trains in New York City and elsewhere were covered with layers of graffiti over the decades.  A short film focused on how the look of the same subway car could evolve over time, as earlier spray-painted names and logos might fade and then be supplanted by newer more colorful ones, in rather a fascinating way.

In the middle of our exploration of the museum, we paused for a light lunch in the cafe.  We each ate over-sized triangle sandwiches of tuna fish and mayonnaise washed down with orange Fanta sodas.

After concluding our walk through the museum, we walked 10 minutes northeast to our next destination, the Borghese Gallery and its surrounding park, the Villa Borghese Gardens.  Regarding the former, I was warned by my nephew, artist Neil Bender, that you have to buy timed tickets at least a week ahead of time to insure that you can get in to the see the collection, which includes some very famous sculptures of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, that giant of Roman art and architecture and probably the greatest Italian artist after Michelangelo.  Tickets are offered in 2-hour intervals, and we had reserved ours for 5pm.  When we arrived, we were about an hour early, so we spent some time exploring the gardens.

We got into line to enter the Gallery/Museum about a quarter to the hour, and we were let in probably a few minutes before the hour – the whole thing seems rather flexible.  We climbed the twisting staircase to the second floor and began our exploration of the Gallery’s collection with the room centered around Bernini’s extraordinary Abduction of Proserpine (the Italian title for this sculpture translates into an ugly word that I have chosen to avoid).

The next Bernini sculpture displayed is the earliest one the sculptor created for his patron Cardinal Scipione Borghese, a group sculpture of Aeneas carrying his father Anchises with his son Ascanius alongside him as the three escape from Troy.

A room that featured some beautiful Roman floor mosaics followed – I particularly enjoyed the one depicting Neptune’s head.

Following that is the room displaying a number of paintings, including several by the artist Caravaggio.  I am not a huge fan of this artist – while his talent is evident in his paintings, there is a rather sinister, clinical aspect to his art in my view.  Look for example at this Self-portrait as the God Bacchus, where Caravaggio leers at us from his painting.

Caravaggio’s Self-Portrait as Bacchus

Focusing on the many incredible pieces of art in the middle of the rooms through which we walked (and on the walls), it was easy to overlook how gorgeous the rooms themselves are.  Here, for example, are two of the ceilings.

The next Bernini we viewed was his David.  I was fascinated by the string of his slingshot – how can you cut marble that thin?  Or is that made out of some other material and made to look like marble?  I also love the way he is biting his lip as he carefully aims his shot for Goliath’s head (presumably).

I lingered in David’s gallery just an extra second, knowing that the luminescent sculpture in the next room was already drawing my attention.  Everyone talks about Apollo and Daphne, and with good reason – it is just amazingly beautiful.  Us mere mortals can only gaze in jealousy, knowing that we could never match the glorious perfection that these two immortals depicted represent.

The large gallery next houses a mixture of paintings and sculpture – the most noteworthy of the latter probably being Bernini’s early sculpture the Goat Amalthea with the Infant Jupiter and a Faun.  When we arrived in Venice later in our trip, we would be deluged with many fabulous paintings by Giovanni Bellini – his Madonna and Child in this room gave us a taste of what we would encounter in a handful of days (the Virgin and Child tondo by Botticelli in this room was also quite wonderful).

On our way from MACRO to the Borghese Gallery, we had passed a couple of promising restaurants that we assumed would be open for dinner by the time we returned.  So upon leaving the Borghese, we walked back the way we had come.  The most promising of the restaurants we passed was called Il Viaggio (coincidental it seemed to me, since we had just been to Libreria Il Viaggiatore the day before) – promising I say, because they proudly announced on their sign that they specialized in gluten free menu items.  I thought, where gluten free leads, dairy free may be sure to follow.

We were a bit early – their dinner service began at 7pm, and it was only like 6:30 at that point – but their host saw us lingering outside, and waved that we should come in and warm up (it wasn’t that chilly, probably high 50s fahrenheit, but with evening approaching, the temperature was only going to continue to drop).

What followed was one of our most original and satisfying meals in Italy.  It all began with an Amuse Bouche of yellow tomato soup.  Then I had an antipasto of breaded fried calamari and vegetables – not amazing, but still a good way to begin.  Then came the star of my dinner, homemade pasta with mushrooms and shaved white truffles.  The truffles were so delicate and subtle, rather different than the usual pungent flavor all the ubiquitous truffle oils provide.  Finally, my main course of veal and ratatouille was very nice – although it was a bit of an afterthought, following the wonderful truffled pasta dish.

Our waitress spoke a decent amount of English, and was receptive to my entreaties regarding my allergy.  But like many, I think she confused my allergy for lactose intolerance.  For dessert, Therese opted to take a slice of cake back with her.  The waitress assured me that their flourless chocolate cake was safe for me – but I think it probably had butter in it (which of course is lactose free, thus her misunderstanding again).  So I took the safe course and went home dessertless.

Therese and the Trumpet Lily Tree

From there, we had only to walk about 5 blocks, and we were back to the tram stop, from where we would get home in less than 10 minutes.  Such a perfect day that was!  I will leave you with just one more delight we encountered along the way, a huge pair of Trumpet Lily Trees we passed on our walk.

Posted in Countries, Dairy Free, Dinner, Food, Italian food, Italy, Museums, Parks, Restaurants, Rome, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment