M’s Fall of the Iron Curtain

Roman statue in Rome. This is probably Achilles, a Greek god.

As my time in Rome draws to a close, I realized that I had not visited many of the areas that were once part of the Roman Empire, especially those that were once behind the Iron Curtain. Back in August, I decided to make it the “Fall of the Iron Curtain” and draw back the curtain from the top in Estonia down to Albania. I did not succeed.

If you are a map geek like I am, try looking at Vox’s active map as it shows the rise and fall of the Roman empire. Rome was vast and when I did visit parts of the former Roman empire, I did in a plane ride what would have taken a Roman more than 20 days. That was in modern day Albania. In Roman times, modern day Albania was known as Illyria or Epirus, on the coast of Dalmatia and Macedonia. It was very Greek. One can visit Greek temples in Albania, and it seems like someone invested a lot of money on roads in the area around them.

Map is from Vox.com

One of the reasons why I visited Malta was a curiosity to see the influences of the Roman world. In modern times, it can be hard to recall that the Romans looked up to the Greek empire as an ideal. But, in places like Sicily which was part of Greece (Magna Greca) for hundreds of years, one can see the Greek influence in Italy. Italy has only been a unified country for 150 years. The Roman empire lasted about 900 years.

In places like Tirana, the modern capital of Albania, it is hard to see traces of the Roman empire. Except perhaps in the faces. In Montenegro, it seemed quick obvious that it was once a Roman area.

Statue of Mother Theresa near the airport in Albania.

The town of Budva looks much like towns in certain parts of Italy. In contrast, the people are giants compared to Italians.

But, back to Albania. The people there were not giants. The contrasts of rich and poor were quite apparent in Tirana. There were many non-touristy things about Tirana. But, if one escapes to the sea, then one can see why it is compared to northern Greece. Another odd thing I noticed were the men wearing headbands. Then I realized that they had hair implants. I guess this surgery is very cheap over here. The food was good in Albania. Fresh seafood and surprisingly good sushi. The most striking thing about Albania is that Mother Theresa was from there.

In terms of tourism, Albania has the potential, with Greek temples, good beaches, cheap bus and taxi options from the airport, and some English speakers. BUT, 90 percent of Albanians smoke. This will keep the tourists away.

In conclusion, I did not make it to all 20 (or so) iron curtain countries. Looking at the map, I realize that I have already been to many of the far edges of the Roman empire. More from my adventures next time.

M’s Adventures Rome Food Tour

After having more than 30 visitors in the last year, I thought I would share my “food tour” of Rome. This is an addendum to my “Tourist Information for Rome.” While I recommend going on a tour with a professional guide as they are worth it because it is a rigorous test and it takes two years to pass the test to be a licensed tour guide. Not sure what the regulations are for food tours. But, maybe you want to do one or two things, in which case, you can try some of my suggestions. Many of these places are mentioned in my list of Roman restaurants to try.

Go to three markets to see three different markets: where normal Romans shop, the touristy version, and zero kilometer (everything produced from within a 100 km/68 mile radius of Rome). I recommend going to Trionfale, Campo de’ Fiori, and the San Teodoro (Campagna Amica Circomassimo) farmers market. I wrote about local markets earlier. Trionfale is the large central market and you will experience real normal Romans doing their shopping. Campo de’ Fiori will bring you into a mix of what was once a real local market now overrun by tourist tat vendors (limoncello, spice mixes etc.), and San Teodoro (only open on weekends) will show you a yuppy farmers market where many social media influencers can be seen filming. But, ignore them and hone in on that fact that everything, from olive oil, cheese, meat, wild greens, bread, honey, pasta, and wine, was made locally.

Look at these beautiful “weeds” at the San Teodoro market.

Markets are open Monday-Saturday from 7:30-2, generally. The San Teodoro market is only open on weekends (closed all of August) from 8-3. If you want to go when it is quiet, try 9 am. If you love the crush of old ladies in housecoats cutting in front of you in line, go at 11:30 am. I do not recommend going after 1:30 pm, as the vendors are hangry at that point (they have been up since 4 or 5 so not in the best of moods at 1:30 pm). If you want to go to another “real” market, try a local one or Esquilino. For a market with a combination of local, touristy, and influencer plus with more restaurants, try Testaccio.

Trionfale, Via Andrea Doria (near the Vatican so you could do it on your way).

Campo de’ Fiori, Campo de’ Fiori (it is a plaza).

San Teodoro, Via San Teodoro 76 (near the corner of the Circus Maximus, around the corner from the Mouth of Truth, and behind the Palatine hill).

Sample spreads and dips at San Teodoro market.

Testaccio, Via Aldo Manuzzio 66B (but any taxi driver will know where it is — say, “mer-CAT-oh-test-AH-chi-oh”)

Grab breakfast at the market. Or explore and eat at a bakery or coffee shop. The “cornetto” (croissant) is a normal breakfast food, but so is pizza. Any “forno” sign you see is a bakery. Buy a piece of white pizza (no cheese and no toppings other than salt and oil) and enjoy that or get something more substantial.

Forno Monteforte is my favorite Italian bakery/cafe. Via del Pellegrino 29. You can sit down and people watch. This is the place for you if you like classy elegant types of places.

L’Officina della Pizza, Via Cicerone 22: Not only the most delicious and varied pizza “al taglio” (by the slice, but really by weight), but they also make fantastic house sliced potato chips. They only have high tables but you can take your pizza to Piazza Cavour which is nearby and eat your breakfast there. Or eat it while walking and let the olive oil run down your hand. Yummy!

Mushroom pizza in the front and a pumpkin pizza sandwich in the back, topped by a potato pizza at L’Officina della Pizza.

Stop for some gelato. Gelato can be eaten any time of the day from 8 am to after midnight. It is not dessert. It is a separate thing. I like Gunther’s but Neve di Latte is also good. Otaleg in Trastevere is one of the best in Rome and they make the best sorbetto (non-dairy sherbet/sorbet).

Osteria del Rione, Via Basento, 20 (near Villa Borghese): This place is a real local place located in a basement. They have an extremely limited menu (basically what Bruno, the owner, tells you he has), and a set menu for 10 euro. The food is always good and “on point.” The only downside is that this place is mostly a lunch place so go at 12:30 to get a table.

Fuoco Lento, Via Flavia 63/65: Old school waiters, outdoor seating, never had anything bad here (But I would avoid the proscuitto as it is house cut and too thick for my liking). It’s my “go-to” place. Open on Sunday night as well. Outside the touristy area so much easier to get a table.

Saltimbocca, Via di Tor Millina 5, is on a small street off Piazza Navona so if you find yourself down there, you could go here for lunch (even at 3:30 pm) for an authentic Roman experience.

Then do some food shopping. Go to a wine tasting. Or olive oil tasting. Or cheese tasting. If you go in to a cheese shop, they will usually let you try their cheeses.

Beppe and His Cheeses, Via di S. Maria del Pianto 9A (in the Jewish Ghetto so a good anchor for your visit to the area of Rome that had Jewish people 500 years before JC). This shop/restaurant will vacuum pack your cheese so you can take them with you. The last time I was there, I sampled seven cheese, including one they put on a piece of bread, and they gave us a glass of Prosecco… it’s a fun place. Also, sells pasta and many other delightful things. Take a sturdy bag with you.

Castroni, Via Cola di Rienzo, 196/198: Visit this emporium and buy gianduia gold nuggets. There are other branches of this store but I like this big one. This is also a place where you want to take a backpack or other sturdy bag as you will invariably buy many things.

Gold bars of gianduia (like fudge nutella) at Castroni.

Colline Emiliane, Via degli Avignonesi 22 (near Piazza Barbarini): This place makes delicious food. It is the cuisine of Emilia-Romagna (Bologna, Modena, Parma, etc.). Small and with no outdoor seating. But, they have a window where you can watch the pasta being made fresh every day. You have to call to make a reservation. It is a very popular place so I recommend walking past one night and making a reservation for the next night.

Tratteria Valentino, Via del Boschetto 37 (in Monti): great local place on a side street in Monti. Near Quirinale palace. Hidden in plain sight because they kept the old facade from when the space was a ice shop. (Not to be confused with Trattoria da Valentino on Via Cavour, which is also fine.)

MiVa, Via Ezio 23. This is a bit out of the way (although not far from the Vatican) and they make excellent food with modern offerings but NOT molecular cuisine. There may be foam but it will play a supporting role, not be the WHOLE dish.

I list other places but these places are currently on my “Rome in Two Days” food tour when people visit… which are doing a lot…

Also, check out my Instagram @madventures.me to see what I’m up to on the daily.

Budva, Montenegro’s Mini Dubrovnik?

The old town seen from top of the citadel, with the modern city in the background.

As my time living in Rome draws to a close, I decided to travel to see other parts of the former Roman empire. One such place was just across the water in Budva, Montenegro. Budva was part of ancient Greece and it became part of the Roman empire in 200 BCE (150 years before Caesar, 200 years before Jesus).

If you want to avoid the crowds of Dubrovnik, visit Budva in the off season. I recommend staying at La Villa boutique hotel. Be silly and enjoy yourself making your own Game of Thrones video clips. Even if you have never seen GOT, Budva will charm you.

The citadel. One has to pay an entrance fee but it was worth it for the view.

The old town of Budva is a walled medieval city sitting on a peninsula in the harbor of Budva. It’s a tiny walled town with paved streets that match the same taupe stone buildings. Most of what one can see today in the old walled town of Budva was build in the 15th century CE (500 years ago).

The old city at night. I highly recommend off season as it is very crowded in the summer.

Montenegro is part of the European Union. If you enter by land from Albania, the border crossing may take you over an hour. Once we got on the road, Budva was only a couple of hours away (if you land in Albania), mainly because there is a stretch of road that is not highway. One gets a nice “local” route, bumping through neighborhoods and increasingly beautiful views. It all seems like potential for commercialism. Budva seems to be all resort hotels and construction, which contrasts so nicely with the old walled town. The staff at La Villa gave us good advice to park in the public parking and pay for a day pass (minimum is two day pass at 20 Euro) because otherwise the rate is per hour!

Sveti Stefan from a convenient overlook along the road.

On your way in or out, visit the other towns of Sveti Stefan and Bar. Sveti Stefan is another tiny jewel of a town. It was bought by a private resort so no longer open to the public during tourist season. Can you imagine?

Real Roman Scenes Seen from A Taxi

The quality of the photos is not high as most of these are shot from the car. Rome is not always beautiful. It is also a place of beggars, homelessness, trash, food banks, traffic, and always, the one eternal thing is tourists.

A beggar. Some will approach you and talk to you.
Typical mode of transport.
For the tourists…
Always luggage.
Selfies…
Lots of dogs here.
A selfie at the forum.

Roman Holiday Advice

So you are visiting Rome for a vacation? And you want my advice? I wrote about tourist information back in May but here is a reminder of what I would tell you if you asked me, “Where should I eat? What should I see? What should I do in Rome?”

In Testaccio market. Photo taken by a friend.

Eat pizza by the slice.

Go to Fuoco Lento for spaghetti carbonara.

See everything. Take a billion photos.

Walk and walk. Then walk some more.

That’s what you should do.

Happy new year.

I’m a Sucker for Pea Shoots – Food in Malta

The shrimp and scallop agnoletti.

As the year draws to a close and the days are finally getting longer here in Rome, I am thinking about fresh snap peas and pea shoots. I love fresh peas and I look forward to them. But, I’m also a sucker for pea shoots. Perhaps partly because they look so artistic. Like edible dancing decorations.

While visiting Malta, we went on a traditional food tour which was interesting. The variety of foods in Malta is as mixed as their culture so we tried Japanese, Italian, Maltese, and fusion (well, it was all sort of fusion).

Soup.

But, then one evening, we found a really delicious restaurant. It is called Grana Bistro and woah was it yummy. I only include a few photos but we had soup, spaghetti alla vongole, salt baked fish, grilled vegetables, bread, and. those amazing scallop and shrimp agnoletti (big ravioli). There were lots of pea shoots used on the various dishes.

Spaghetti alla vongole.

I ate them too.

Malta, the Fantastic

One of the things to see in Rome is the keyhole of Malta. Visiting Malta is so much more than that glimpse into the world of the knights of Malta. The tiny central island just off of Sicily is as fantastical as one imagines it to be.

Upper Barakka gardens, Valletta.

I visited on a cold winter day with torrential rains bucketing down like biblical times. Yes, I still loved it.

Photogenic shop in Valletta.

Maybe because of the weather, it was a better experience — free of the millions who flood the island every year searching for Gladiator or Game or Thrones…

Valletta, tourist and native.

We did a food and cultural walking tour. It was a great introduction to Malta.

Lots of streets in Valletta are steep.

The island of Malta has a long history as a embattled island due to its central location in the Mediterranean. To borrow from the Visit Malta site, “the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, the Romans and the Byzantines” and then the Berbers, Knights of Malta, French, and British all had influences on the island.

Famous harbor seen from the Upper Barrakka gardens.

St. Paul was shipwrecked here in current era 60 (AD). This is a big deal. Christianity is a big part of the island. The Knights of Malta were a Christian order which is considered sovereign, but now they are a Christian humanitarian organization. They have had different names at different times in history but they ruled Malta from the 1500s (when they were given Malta as a territory after fleeing Rhodes after the rise of the Ottoman empire) to the 1800s.

This mall also has subsidized public housing, right downtown, for as little as 30 euro per month.

Valletta has been the capital for 450 years and has a uniform look to it because it was built in three years. The buildings of the old town are all made of the same pale yellow rock that was quarried from the exact place where the buildings were built. In some ways, Valletta reminded me of the towns of Apulia like Lecce, Bari, and Polignano a mare. Maybe that is why I liked it so much. The stone is the same color as the stone used in Jerusalem.

Another instagrammable shop and remnant of the British influence.

Malta had a capital before Valletta was chosen. The old capital goes back 4,000 years and is located about 20 minutes drive from Valletta. Mdina, not to be confused with Medina, is the old capital and right outside its gate is Rabat, not to be confused with Rabat.

Gate of Mdina, the former capital.
Mdina is crushingly quaint.
The eight pointed star is symbolic for the eight “langhe” or rulers of Malta.
Mdina is a perfectly preserved walled city.
Mdina has a few pops of color other than the sandstone color of the native rock.

The language of Malta, like the people and culture, is also a mix. It has many words that are the same in Italian but I did not understand Maltese at all. No matter as they speak English as well.

The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio is in the church in Valletta.

Another reason to go to Malta is to see a Caravaggio painting. The church is also beautiful but to be in front of a Caravaggio is a special moment. This brings a visit to Malta full circle. Many consider Caravaggio to be the first cinematographer for his use of dramatic light and shadow. Malta, with its dramatic history, seems most famous now as a movie location.

The Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour

Sandwich “lunch” stop. The drink was also traditional.

I rarely go on food tours because I prefer to wander around on my own. But the tour I took in Malta was an example of why one should take a food tour.

The tour is not just food. This is the view from the upper gardens where the tour guide explains a whole lot including which films were filmed here.

In Valletta, I joined a tour with the Valletta Street Food and Culture Walking Tour, found by my friend on TripAdvisor. This tour was great. Not just food, but culture, history, and movie locations.

The guide spoke excellent English (it’s one of the languages of Malta) and used a micrphone/headset system so you could always hear her.

It was good value for money, the walking was not too strenuous, and guide was great (guides must be licensed in Malta so they have to know their stuff).

Fried ravioli.

The cost is about $43 per person and for that you get four food and culture stops and three hours of information about Malta.

Horse meat stew.

The guide will ask you to pre-select if you want to try the horse meat.

Cheese and salami plate.

The amounts of food are not overly huge but enough that you will not need to eat lunch.

Coffee stop at a traditional bakery.

At the final stop, you get free beer, an appetizer slate, and a small main dish.

Dessert at the “dinner” stop.

Conveniently, the tour ends in a food hall so you can keep eating if you are still hungry or just want to sit for a while.

The God of Misrule – Farsinus

When I worked in Bangladesh, there were notices about being wary of mishap. One day, a local colleague came up to me and quietly asked me about the unlucky Mr. Mish Ap, as he seemed to be most unfortunate.

Ten years later, I find myself in a completely different world — in the Roman world of bureaucracy, calamity, inanity, and farce. For this, I’ve created a god named Farsinus. Yes, sounds bit like a fart (for the purile) and that other four letter F-word. I asked a Roman if there was a god of mischief, a cousin to the Nordic Loki, Lord of Misrule. I imagined it must be Bacchus, the god of wine and debauchery. I was confusing him with Faunus, or Pan to you G(r)eeks. Apparently, the Greeks had a goddess of mischief, Ate (“Ah-tay”). According to the great oracle in the ether, Wiki, Ate was “of mischief, delusion, ruin, and blind folly, rash action and reckless impulse who led men down the path of ruin. She also led both gods and men to rash and inconsiderate actions and to suffering. Até also refers to an action performed by a hero that leads to their death or downfall.”

Well, I may not be a hero, but I’ve been trying to become a devotee of the God Farsinus. To enjoy the calamity of life… and public transportation in Italy.

The chocolate fare was mostly about shopping.

The God Farsinus came to me when I was going to the Bastia Umbria (I’m told that if I don’t add the specifier Umbria, you might think I meant Sardenia — as if anyone has heard of Bastia, either one) for the Eurochocolate frenzy. I will start out by saying that, generally, it’s not like this. But, then, some days, it is, and the day will unravel like a standup sketch by Russel Howard. Or, Karl Pilkington. On the day in question, I needed to get to Bastia Umbria, but the train to Perugia did not stop there. So I had to take the train to Perugia and then take the train back to Rome which did stop in Bastia Umbria. I am not sure why I still think there is logic, but why do people from Perugia get to stop at Bastia Umbria but people traveling from Rome do not?

There was a small stall in the actual town of Perugia.

Next week, I’ll get back to talking about nice things.

Medusa

The water is so inviting in Salina.

“Help me! Help! A medusa!” The cries for help and “medusa” interrupted my hazy soporific sunny afternoon. I looked toward the sound of the cry for help. It came from the aquamarine water where bathers had been enjoying the warm water. The cries continued in a warbling plaintive and pleading cry as the swimmers splashed furiously to get out of the water.

The young woman pulled herself up on the ladder to the boat and the angry red striations were erupting across her chest, shoulders, and neck like wildfire.

Marco, the captain, on the sound of the cries for help, had raced to the back of the boat to help the jellyfish victim. While the husband of the victim dabbed her dry, Marco sprayed a medicinal tonic on the jellyfish bites. I do not have any photos of the bites as I was not taking photos of the victim. But the bites looked like long strings or red mosquito or wasp bites.

The spray that cools the sting.

This was last summer and I was enjoying the shade from inside the boat while the rest of the group were swimming off the shore of Salina island near Sicily. That’s when I learned that the Italian for jellyfish. Medusa.

Jellyfish in the Monterrey Aquarium in California.

In Search of Spicy Chinese Restaurants in Rome

There are many Chinese restaurants in Rome, but I like spicy Chinese food (like food from Sichuan). I have been to about 15 Chinese restaurants at this point and I am finding that most are the “same same” — so I do not want to continue. The first three are places where one can get spicy “Sichuan” style food. The rest are where you can get okay Chinese food. ***update December 2022 — I did finally find really spicy food at the hotpot restaurant called Tianci Chongqing.***

The spicy hotpot is sure fire way to make sure you eat something spicy!

Sichuan, Via di San Martino ai Monti 33: It was supposed to be spicy but I didn’t think it was. The food was good. I took a Chinese person with me so maybe the food was better because of that.

Xiao Shenyang, Via di S. Croce in Gerusalemme 91a: On a dingy thoroughfare but if you can speak Chinese to the owner and he does the cooking, then you can get authentic spicy Chinese food.

ChongQing Impresiones, Via Vicenza 10: Near the train station with a casual cafe feel but excellent cucumber salad and other vegetables. I’ll be back. Sichuan style food but not sure about it.

Mi Cucina Cinese, Via Giovanni Botero 31: Located quite a bit out of the city (five miles is a long way in Rome) with good dishes but not worth the haul. They fried rice with beef and fried egg served on a massive iron hotplate is straight up comfort food.

These were interesting, and not bitter.

MiFang, Via Firenze 30: In Monti, and a bit fancy inside. They have excellent special fried rice but the portions are small. The sweet and sour chicken balls are worth it just because they are served in a bowl of ice… and still are hot enough to burn the roof of your mouth.

Tea & Noodles fried dumplings.
Inside Tea & Noodles.

Mandarin Chow, Via Emilia 85: Considered one of the best. I thought it was good but not sure it was the best, but maybe I have a faulty memory.

Tea and Noodles, Via Conte Verde 38. It’s comfort food when you need it. Homemade noodles and dumplings. While it is a casual cafe, the menu is extensive and even includes Peking Duck. The homemade dumplings, fried rice, chicken crunchies (not sure what they are called but that is what they were), and pork belly were probably the best things but I love the garlicky cucumber salad and the sour pickled radish.

Tea & Noodles chicken crunchies.
Sichuan – Dumplings in spicy oil, chicken with chiles, and hot and sour soup.

Apparently this plum drink is what one drinks with spicy food. It tasted a bit like ice tea.

Chinese Tea House, Via Otranto 3 in Prati: This place has an all you can eat sushi offer that one orders through a tablet at the table. But, they also have a Sichuan menu which is really more generic Chinese food. Not bad for generic. I’ll go back for the shrimp.

Online reviews say that the Tea House is hard to find but it is not. It’s covered in flowers, which you can see in the background.

T’Ang Cout, Via Filippo Turati 54: The service is nice. The place is well lit and pleasant. The food is okay.

Coconut tapioca dessert at T’ang Cout.

Oolong, Piazza di San Paola alla Regola: Very fancy with a strict Chinese owner. Outdoor seating, a vast menu, housemade noodles and dumplings, oysters, and the best part were the desserts.

This dessert at Oolong was the best thing there.

Heji.

Heji, Via Daniele Manin 61: This is a newish place and they are not finished decorating. It has a hole in the wall feel, and it located on a busy street with a tram line chunting along outside. The folks are friendly and they seem to do a massive delivery service.

Water spinach, kang kong, is very popular and is in season in the fall.

I also went to some others, like Green T, but I don’t recommend them. Green T had nice decor, too pricey, food was cold, and too fancy with no flavor.

The Most Beautiful Town in the World

Castel Mole has a fantastic arrival area overlooking the bay.

Of course it is in Italy. It is a little town perched above Taormina and we accidentally went to see it when we were traveling in Sicily. I thought we were going to the outlook in Taormina but instead the taxi driver took us to the town that looks out over Taormina.

In reality, the view is much more impressive than this.

The town above Taormina is called Castel Mole.

“Belvedere” is literally “beautiful to see” but there are lots of stairs everywhere to get there.

I am not sure who votes in the competition but it seems like there are endless beautiful towns all over Italy.

One of the signs indicates the status of the town as the most beautiful.

If you are planning a trip to this area, I recommend a local car service. They also do airport transfers. I found them when I wanted a ride from Taormina to Catania. 100 euro for a van. Divided up by a group, the price was about the same as the train plus taxi. But door to door.

This is a good car service. Stefania speaks English.