European travels, part 3: Rome

The next stop on my travels around Europe this year was Rome. I took Latin and Italian in school and had been to (Northern) Italy countless times, but for some reason never made it all the way down south to Rome. Fortunately I had the chance to visit the city for a conference in June, and the trip turned out to be one of my favourites of 2012.

Despite being a large city, the central areas of Rome make it feel relatively small compared to other European capitals – considering there’s about as many people there as in Paris, seems a lot more walkable. Many of the streets, especially in the city centre,  are narrow and despite the heavy traffic it’s generally quite easy to get around by foot (which is good, since there’s only 2 metro lines anyway and bus services in unknown cities are always a bit of a mystery to me). I stayed at a room at the ‘Roma Vintage B&B’, an apartment which is conveniently located near one of the rare metro stops, and only 20 minutes walking distance away from the Colosseum. I shared the flat with 3 other guests and a fantastic coffee machine, which made up for the otherwise lacking breakfast – well, I suppose biscuits already count as breakfast in Italy.

The first day took me right to the Colosseum – it being a Wednesday afternoon in term time, there happened to be hardly any queues, and within a few minutes a was inside what is probably one of the most famous ancient buildings in the world, fully equipped with an iPod touch as video guide. I’m a sucker for audio guides, so I paid for one when I bought my ticket, only to find that I had accidentally paid for a video guide, which the rather flirtatious Italian at the audio guide booth was more than happy to hand over and explain to me. It turned out that the video guide was actually pretty awesome, with an interactive map and little movie snippets of Spartacus playing at the right locations in the Colosseum. I also met the official Colosseum Cat which had either fallen over or just fallen asleep in the sun.

After my trip to the Colosseum, I moved across to the Roman Forum (they do a combined ticket) and spent several hours wandering around gardens and ruins of old temples on a lovely sunny afternoon, which was pretty amazing. I’m wondering what today’s equivalents to the Roman Forum – a crammed area full of temples, statues, government buildings and memorials – would be. Probably something like the Printworks. Another thing to note in Rome is that there are drinking  water fountains everywhere (even on the side of roads – there was one right outside my apartment), so save your money for bottled water and just keep an eye out for a free refill.

I only just realised that I spent most of my time in Rome outdoors (well, expect for the conference days) without paying a lot, since a good number of the attractions are temples, squares, churches, or ruins thereof, which are often freely accessible. I also paid a visit to the “Torre Argentina”, a cat sanctuary located in – what else – the ruins of an old temple, had a wander round the Vatican, went up the Gianicolo hill, went on a open top bus tour down the Via Appia (organised by the conference), and visited countless churches from the past few centuries.

In the evenings, the focus shifted quickly from ancient ruins to the one other thing Italians are pretty good at: Food. Luckily we even had a native Roman tour guide – well, one of my fellow PhD students – who was happy to take us to some of the nicest pizzerias around. Having said that, they’re probably all nice. We gatecrashed a pizzeria opening where I had some of the most amazing pizzas I can remember eating (and I mentioned I’ve spent practically every summer of my childhood with my family in Northern Italy), went to another pizza place where we placed our orders on iPads, visited what is said to be the best tiramisu place in Rome – twice (man, that pistacchio tiramisu… THAT PISTACCHIO TIRAMISU!!!), and went to a family run trattoria (this time without our Italian speaking guide) where we communicated with the incredibly friendly host via gestures, pointing, random words, and a lot of laughter.

Am I glorifying Rome a bit? Maybe. It’s quite dirty. We are actually surprised to see how much rubbish there was around and how run down some areas look. The traffic is insane – in order to cross a street, you basically just walk and hope for the best while cars are swerving around you. Some people are rude and give you funny looks when they notice you’re foreign. But then again, I get funny looks all the time. But, well, I can live with that. Can I come back to Rome now, please?

European travels, part 2: Oslo

Part 2 in my “European Travels” series is the most expensive city I’ve ever been to: Oslo, the capital of Norway.

I travelled to Oslo in April 2012, as part of a spontaneous “let’s do something fun” trip with my best friend, which took me from Manchester to Berlin to Oslo and back to Manchester within less than a week. The first thing I noticed on my way to Oslo was the ubiquitous wifi. Have you ever made a FaceTime call on a plane, showing your friend who’s sat on his desk in Berlin a view of the landscape from 10,000 ft altitude? It’s possible with Norwegian Air – they offer free wifi on their flights, which is not particularly useful on short flights but definitely fun to play around with. Next stop was the shuttle train from the airport to Oslo city centre with more free wifi, and our hotel with, yes, more free wifi. We stayed at the Comfort Hotel XPress which was cheap and cheerful, and by cheap I mean “real cheap”, not just  “cheap for Oslo cheap”.

Oslo is a lovely little place and absolutely perfect for a short city trip. We went to quite a few places during our stay: The Viking Museum, which I really enjoyed, the Jewish Museum, the modern art gallery, and my favourite, the Vigeland Sculpture Park. Since there is so much water around Oslo, water transport is simply part of public transport, so we took a boat across the fjord to Bygdoy, a peninsula in the west of the city which houses several museums. Another nice part of Oslo is Grunerlokka, a trendy quarter with plenty of restaurants and bars, alongside some reasonably priced cheap eats.

I even managed to find some vegetarian food, which, given that it’s all about fish and seafood in Norway, was fairly difficult. HappyCow pointed me to “The Fragrance of the Heart” just behind the town hall, a nice little cafe that serves affordable vegetarian food. I can very much recommend the omelette and their quiche in combination with several pots of hot coffee!

If you’re visiting Oslo be prepared: It’s expensive. Not just a bit pricey, like, say, Paris or London, but everything is practically twice the price of what you would pay elsewhere. So if you’re not on a Norwegian income, eating out or having drinks hurts a little – after the first day we just stopped converting prices from Norwegian crowns into Euros, which made us a lot poorer, but also a lot happier.

European travels, part 1: Berlin & Potsdam

Here’s a confession: I am a carbon pig. Thanks to my travels, my carbon foot print this year is probably the size of a small Eastern European country. I am not happy with this, but I just can’t help the fact that a) travelling home to see my parents in Germany would take days by train, and b) flights are just so much cheaper than train fares. Anyway. This year, I have been extra busy with various conferences around Europe, which meant a) a lot of work, but also b) I got to see some amazing places! As my life in Manchester is currently restricted to writing a thesis, I’m going to post an n-part series (for n somewhere in the interval between 3 and 8) of my “European Travels”. Sit back and enjoy.

This year’s first trip took me to Berlin, to see some friends I hadn’t seen in over a year. We all know that Berlin is awesome, and I’ve written a 2-part post about it before, so I’ll just tell you about my trip to Potsdam this time. Potsdam is a small(ish) city just south-west of Berlin, about a 20-30 minute train journey from the main station. It’s a student town, but in German that’s usually a good thing, meaning green, loads of cyclists, culture, and hippie-ish people/places. Suits me. Potsdam is also known for various castles and lakes surrounding the town, including the very famous “Sanssouci” palace, which used to be the summer residence of the King of Prussia. I went to visit the town and Sanssouci on a rainy day, but despite some heavy showers I couldn’t help but spend quite some time in vast gardens surrounding the castle.

The palace itself (accessible via guided tour only) is nice, but… well, I’ve seen a lot of castles, and they all begin to look the same at some point. The gardens (free admission) and various little buildings (such as the “Dragon House” in the photo above) are definitely worth a visit though, and you should save some time to have a wander around the lovely city centre of Potsdam.