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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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.
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.
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.
I visited on a cold winter day with torrential rains bucketing down like biblical times. Yes, I still loved it.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is such a well known expression. While “all roads lead to Rome” is an idiom, I don’t think it gets used that way as much these days. People seem to take it literally. Everyone wants to visit Rome. As an idiom, it actually means the opposite, that there are many ways to approach the same subject. No one seems to know if the Romans ever said this. The earliest example of its use in English is from Chaucer. If you want to geek out about this, read this article.
On a beautiful sunny day, it is hard to imagine the atrocities carried out along this road 2,000 years ago. The Romans crucifed people, famously Christians, along this road. But, this road was also used as a graveyard and many of the most famous sites today are the remains of mausoleums. This road was built more than 2,300 years ago. In 71 BCE, the famous Sparticus fought along here. Over 6,000 slaves were crucified as a result of that slave revolt. At that time in the Roman Empire, one in three people were slaves.
The Appian Way goes all the way to Brindisi in Apulia. I would like to see it down there too. But, closer to Rome, one Sunday, I decided to go walk on the most well preserved part of Roman road, near Rome. Today, this road is a park and tourist attraction. There seems no trace of the sorrow of the past. And the only armies one sees are joggers, walkers, and bikers.
One can get to the archeological park and join a bike or walking tour, or just choose a spot and go there. I took a 20 minute car ride out to a spot where a modern road intersects with the Appian Way. It seemed so far out. Cars are allowed on the Appian way but there are parts where most drivers choose the highway. The taxi service had no problem finding me when I wanted to return. One can walk from the center of Rome and walk out but the road is busy for the first five or six miles (8-10 kilometers). One can take the bus or metro as well. My taxi ride cost 29 euro each way. It was so far removed from central Rome that I saw bales of hay and chatted with farm hands.
Wonderful wine tasting tour and experience! Sally and Guido and lovely hosts and easy going. They make you feel like friends that they are showing around their magical valley of demi-umbria (the area was part of Umbria at one point). Just 40 minutes by local train outside of the mega-metropolis of Rome, is this secret otherworld of vineyards and olive trees. Book for Sally and Guido for a countryside experience to see how sweet life can be.
Sally and Guido pick you up from the local station and drive you around the countryside, max eight people or maybe ten? One can, of course, drive oneself, but then the designated driver would be… that just wouldn’t be fair! So, get picked up at 10 am at the station, taken for a fun jaunt from vista to vista on the way to a vineyard.
At the vineyard, you go on a tour of processing, bottling, and aging cellars, before tasting three wines. Guido speaks excellent English and will translate and explain everything. The wine maker, presents all three wines but then leaves you to enjoy while Sally fills up your glasses (no small sip here! If you want/need a full glass to evaluate the wine, you get it!). There is a bit of bread and local olive oil to line your stomach, and so that the wine doesn’t go strait to your head. Then, you have an opportunity to buy the wine, and not just the types that you tried. The wines are very different and some are made from local grapes that you will never have heard of… Even wine nerds will discover new things.
The wine is well priced at eight to 10 euro per bottle. For DOC! It’s kind of ridiculous how inexpensive it is to buy really good wine. The vineyard does ship (although not to the US yet) but it’s better to take it there and schelp it with you. You will thank yourself later. I bought four bottles of the yellow label wine because it was so zesty and fruity. A lovely white.
Then, another jaunt through a magical Tuscan/Umbrian/Roman landscape and you arrive at their home for two more wines and delicious local dairy and sausage. Oh, and bread. Yum. Yum. Yum.
To contact them, go to Wine Tours Rome or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sally and Guido also conduct cooking classes through their company, Convivio, and they have a B&B where you can stay while taking classes. The cost of the half day wine tasting is 79 euro (discount for groups so we paid 75). They also do tours in the countryside and olive oil tasting. Because they have these two companies, it can be a little confusing to find them on Google or TripAdvisor. I will be going again because I want to see the little villages and visit the linen workshop in demi-Umbria, the secret valley of Lazio.
PS. Yes, Sally and Guido know Johnny Madge and their tours are in the same magical valley.
Romans truly eat by season. They get excited by what is only available at certain times of the year. Of course, all year, there are imported vegetables and fruit in Rome, but the Romans still find joy in the seasonality of fresh vegetables. And, it seems like chicory is always in season…
Cicoria (chi-CORE-E-ah) or chicory is “Italian dandelion” and is a bitter green leafy vegetable that looks a bit like spinach. If you live in the U.S. and want to plant some for your self, this farm sells the seeds.
January: puntarelle (puhn-tah-R-ALE-eh), or cicoria di catalogna or cicoria asparago (although no one in Rome uses these names) is in the chicory family but looks more like a thick stemmed dandelion. The Romans eat the white stems, cut to curl up, in a salad with an anchovy garlic dressing — like a zero-carb caesar salad. No cheese. In other parts of Italy, puntarelle are cooked. In Rome, only the trimmings are cooked as part of a general vegetable stew. But, the white inner stems are the treasure.
March: agretti, asparagi selvatici (wild asparagus), fava beans, and artichokes. Wild asparagus are slimmer and have a stronger taste. Agretti (Salsola Soda, opposite-leaved saltwort, opposite leaf Russian thistle, Roscano, or barilla plant) is almost unknown in the English speaking world, although recently becoming a bit of a thing with chefs.
April: Strawberries, agretti (monk’s beard), peas, beans, and small artichokes.
May: Peas, beans, spring onions, garlic chives, etc.
June: Apricots, peaches, green beans, potatoes, etc.
July: Melons, peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, lettuce, etc.
August: This was hard to figure out as most of the markets close in August… but at the back of the Trionfale market, there are still some zero kilometer farmers who sell their produce. So it’s all about peaches, cucumbers, pears, walnuts, water melons, cantaloup melons (called so because they were grown in Cantalupo just outside Rome), lettuce, grapes, nectarines, plums, and apples.
October: pumpkin, potatoes, gourds, squash, nuts, cabbage, lettuce, and peppers.
November: potatoes, clementines, and nespole/medlars.
December: puntarelle, artichokes, and clementines.
Every restaurant will have “seasonal vegetable” on the menu and it will always be cicoria/chicory greens. Very healthy. One of the nice things about living in Rome is that it is possible to eat pesticide free food and in a perpetual “farmer’s market” all year round. I have to admit that I’m excited for artichoke season after not having artichokes for six months.
Empty streets in Rome, lots of parking spaces, and shuttered businesses. Ferragosto, started by Emperor Augustus in 31 BCE (2050 years ago!), is a holiday now celebrated on August 15. The name, Ferragosto, is a combination of the Latin for “feasts + Augustus” so not only did the emperor name the month after himself, he also named the celebrations after himself. Supposedly, it was started as a way to celebrate the end of all the hard labor done during the summer harvest. Things ripen earlier than I’m used to in Italy so harvesting can be done in the summer. For example, I always think of pears as a fall/autumn fruit. Not here. They are optimal in July and August.
I know this because I was thoroughly enjoying my fresh zero kilometer peaches and pears a few weeks ago. Then August started. My zero kilometer farmers’ market and many other businesses close for the whole month of August! I wonder what happens to all that ripe fruit?
Then one day, I was having a wine consultation with a wine expert and she gave me a great insiders’ tip — some of the zero kilometer farmers sell from their own farm at the back of Trionfale Market. While the stalls are not as pretty and they are back by the fishmongers, at least I was able to buy produce grown from within 68 miles of Rome. To identify these stalls, the price signs will have “prod. prop.” or something like that written on them. It translates to “our own produce” or “we grow it.”
Also, did I mention that it’s melon season? I’ve only seen cantaloupe, net, and watermelon. I was hoping for honeydew but have yet to see it. Previously I preferred the melon without the proscuitto but with the summer heatwave, I completely understand the salty sweet wet combination that is a very Italian way to refill your electrolytes.
As I have done in previous cities that I have called home, at some point, I write about the less than delightful things about daily life (Dhaka, Bogota, and Lima). For Rome, since the honeymoon is over (I’m no longer charmed), I’ve decided to write about a combination of surprising and annoying things. Mostly, it’s just surprising things.
Small breakfasts: Romans like an espresso and a croissant for breakfast. Or coffee with milk like a cappuccino. I’m surprised at how easy it becomes to getting used to drinking espresso (a “caffe” is an espresso by default), all day long. Most Italians use sugar so in a way it’s like a power bar every few hours. I prefer no sugar… just the bitter coffee…
Cookies: for breakfast. Even savory ones. It’s also easy to grow accustomed to eating a cornetto (croissant) every morning. Or a pizza, keeping in mind that pizza is not pizza as one thinks of pizza.
Pizza: pizza is doesn’t always have cheese, and pizza is a breakfast item.
Raw seafood and meat: on everything. Shrimp is the most “gringo friendly” but there is raw octopus, raw sea bass, raw everything on pasta. Even raw meat.
Greens: green vegetables that I’ve never heard of. And they all seem to be bitter.
Drinking fountains: are everywhere. They are called “nasone” (nay-so-neh) and most flow all day long. So you only need one bottle. The reason they flow all the time is to keep the pipes free of bacteria.
Cost of Internet: Under 30 euro for mine. Internet and cell phone service is not very expensive.
Bureaucracy: Getting service for anything from a bank account to setting up Internet and so on, can be a hassle.
Venetian blinds on the outside of the window.
Lack of public toilets: In Rome, you need to grab a coffee or eat at a restaurant to use the toilet. See my article about bidets to understand why you may find a bidet in every bathroom. One can flush the toilet paper in the toilet in Rome, but as you can see from the photo, sometimes, it’s best not to.
The crowds: Normally, there would be a few million people visiting Rome at any moment. If one lives in the tourist center part of Rome, one has to “go with flow” of the crowd when walking.
The customer service: one has to figure out how to navigate some places. The more touristy, the worse it is.
Tipping: One really doesn’t have to do it because it’s adding as a service fee. If you are American, they may expect you to tip.
Whipped cream: It seems like it’s on everything. But it’s not served in a pretty way, just applied with a spoon or spatula. I like that it’s offered at gelaterias.
So while the honeymoon period is over, it’s not all bad.
Traditionally the ides of March was the 74th day of year and it was the day to settle debts so as to be debt free by March 25, the start of the fresh year. In Roman times, the Ides of March marked the start of a holy week celebrating the finding of baby Attis in the reeds, later his death under a pine tree (they would cut down a pine each year to commemorate this), and his rebirth on March 25. Sound familiar?
Then, in 44 BCE, the Roman senators, afraid that Julius Caesar was going to make himself king of Rome, stabbed him to death. In modern times, we are aware of the phrase, “beware the ides of March” because of the play, Julius Caesar, by Shakespeare. The famous, “et tu, Brute” is probably not what he said as he was stabbed to death by his senators.
2,065 years later, the location is now called “Largo du Torre Argentina” and is more famous for the cat sanctuary located there. The spot where Caesar was killed is near the pine trees.
This year, the ides of March marks the start of a three week red zone lockdown.
Want to try Roman foods? Wish you had a Roman friend who lights up a shop when she walks in? Wish you were Stanley Tucci? Then try a food tour with Sophie Minchilli, on her tour called “Rome with Sophie”. It is a pleasant walk with some history but mainly food tastings. You may try suppli, cheese, wine, cookies, pizza, prosciutto, gelato, coffee, and visit old markets and neighborhoods of Rome. We chose the “three neighborhoods tour” of Campo di Fiori, Jewish ghetto, and Trastevere. Sophie has known some of the shop owners all her life and it shows. You get a real “insider’s” tour. It is clear that they love her. You might risk feeling the same way.
The tour cost 140 Euro but she gave us a COVID discount. The max group size is six people and the tour takes about three hours. She does tours starting late morning and also late afternoon. Ours started at 11 a.m., as she accommodated our schedule, but it’s better to start earlier to avoid the crowds. The food tour was a good intro. It’s more an array, rather than an in-depth lesson in food, but good if you are new to Rome or just visiting. As you fill up on food, Sophie will adapt the tour. Some can’t hack it to the prosciutto or gelato stop. The day we went, we forewent the gelato for a sit down with an alcohol-free aperitif. Along the way, Sophie will get you snacks, answer questions, and explain food in Rome.
In the Jewish ghetto, we learned about the brass markers embedded in the cobblestones to mark where once there lived a Jewish family, killed during WWII. But, we also sat outside at the only table at a 400-year-old shop, eating cheese, feeling the ambience of ghetto life.
Sophie is half American/Italian and much beloved in her neighborhoods. If you want a tour in English and with someone young, she’s the perfect person. She and her mom, Elizabeth Minchilli, run longer tours of Puglia, and Sophie is expanding to one-day outings in Lazio (the region that includes Rome). Elizabeth Minchilli is an author (and friend of Elizabeth Gilbert, for those who are fans of Eat, Pray, Love) and well connected to the other tour guides in Rome. Sophie offers three tours in Rome and accepts payment via PayPal and cash. With her mother, Sophie also does food tours in other parts of Italy so you can spend a whole week with them and really feel Italian!
My favorite part of the tour was the ghetto. I also enjoyed the spontaneous non-alcoholic aperitif discovery. I don’t know what it’s called but it was orange and bitter, yet refreshing, and slightly addictive.
If you want to binge on watching videos about Italy, here are some I’ve found. Mostly on food. Mostly about Rome. I will not list all of them as there are too many, but a few that will give you some leads to follow.
Rick Stein is one of my favorite TV chef presenters. The thinking chef’s chef. Here in Corsica and Sardinia.
Floyd was a chef who had a good time, this time in Liguria.
If you want months worth of binge watching, Rick Steves provides! Rick Steves has eight hours of free TV shows on Italy alone! He also has free audio tours, apps, books, etc. He is much raunchier on his audio tours! If you want a private guide in your ear, he has those! If you just want to watch him give good advice, watch him here.