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Category: Weekend breaks

Sevillian Festivals – The Holy and The Wild

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Gateway to the Seville Fair (Feria de Abril)

Festivals in Seville set the bar for Spanish festivals generally – they are intense and unforgettable. Just make sure you book your travel and hotel or accommodation well in advance, as they get really really packed.

Semana Santa

Important throughout Spain, Semana Santa, or Holy Week (Palm Sunday – Good Friday), is celebrated in intensely passionate and flamboyant style in Seville. Over a 100 incredibly intricate canopied pasos, or religious floats, each decorated with swathes of silver, candles and white flowers and bearing the figure of the Virgin, are carried through the city by hooded penitents. Many Sevillianos, especially the men, are visibly overcome, and the cries of guapa! (beautiful) echo through the early hours of Good Friday, when the final procession travels towards the Cathedral.

Feria de Abril

And two weeks later they’re at in again, but this time in celebration of dancing, drinking and having a wild time…yes, it’s the Seville fair, when flamenco dresses are worn by every local woman (and some visitors), the local men get to show off on their horses and carriages as Sevilliano society parades around the city each afternoon, and everyone stays up all night drinking rebujitos and dancing..and what dancing! If you thought you knew what dancing was since Brucie bought it back to our screens, think again! This is a revelation.

The Feria de Abril runs from 24-30 April and is centred on the barrio of Los Remedios on the far bank of the river. Book your hotel well in advance as the city gets packed!

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Dublin – Let There Be Light

River Liffey, Dublin, copyright Claire Burdett

River Liffey, Dublin

The Art of Light in the City of the Black Stuff

Dublin is full of light; a clear, luminous light that is the result of all the moisture in the air, otherwise known as the weather. And the weather is something that affects the national character as well as the light. When it rains as often as it does in Ireland, when you can have all four seasons in a day, and sometimes in an afternoon, you have two choices as a culture – either you become dour and miserable, or you shrug and make the most of what you do have. And the latter is thankfully what they do in Dublin.

And what they have to make the most of in Dublin is a lot of pubs, the wonderful black stuff (aka Guinness), fabulous raw ingredients within easy reach, their friendliness and sense of humour, their cultural and intellectual inheritance, and, of course, the marvellous light.

It’s quite a lot to be going on with.

Dublin doesn’t feel very cityish, to be honest, not like New York, for example, or Paris. It’s small and rather scruffy, a city that seems to be continually in the midst of reinventing itself. You can be in the centre of the city and see beautiful Georgian houses that are still run-down tenements, look up and see cranes on the skyline in every direction, and turn a corner and have to gingerly pick your way past a derelict building about to be spruced up.

It’s like there’s a city-wide “How clean is your house?” meets “What’s your house worth?” television programme going on that you haven’t been told about, and somehow you keep expecting God to appear in a blinding flash, booming “Let there be light!” and “ta da!” suddenly the freshly-minted and shiny city of Dublin will appear from behind all the plastic sheeting.

In the meantime, while you are waiting for that blinding revelation, there is much to enjoy. Dublin is fairly compact and so entirely do-able in a weekend. And it is best to walk because not only will you want to take advantage of the fabulous hostelries for pit stops, but also because Dublin’s jewels are for the more discerning, those with time to look and find, because they have to be sought out, unlike Oxford, Bath, or Rome, say, where they are massed densely in whatever direction you look.

For a Catholic city stuffed with churches, the ecclesiastical architecture isn’t in your face. The cathedrals look more like churches and the statues are all of (important, inspirational, but still ordinary) people rather than angels, Madonnas, Emperors, Kings or cherubs. And while this could be disappointing if you were hankering after grand and awe-inspiring extravaganza, it actually forms part of the city’s appeal. Dublin is on a human scale, which is entirely as it should be because the real gems of this city are its friendly and chatty people who are rightly most famed for their way with words (blarney starts right here!), their wit, and their hospitality, rather than their history or their pomp and ceremony.

And it isn’t an urban myth that Dubliners are welcoming and talkative. Everyone here has an opinion, and often many more than one, and no Dubliner seems to have taken on board their Mother’s warnings about stranger danger because they talk to everyone and anyone about everything. And everyone knows how to drink, And dance. And argue. And tease. And laugh. So if you are of a sociable persuasion it’s almost impossible not to have a good time, even if you are on your own. Perhaps especially if you are on your own.

The creative and intellectual inheritance of Dublin is phenomenal, especially considering its diminutive size. Some of our foremost and most popular intellectuals and crusaders, authors and musicians originated here, including U2, Bob Geldof (and his Boomtown Rats), Thin Lizzy, James Joyce, W.B.Yeats, Elizabeth Bowen, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, Oliver Goldsmith, J. M. Synge, Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Roddy Doyle, Maeve Binchey, Basically if there’s something relevant to the human condition that needs commenting upon or expressing, in whatever form, you can bet a Dubliner won’t be far away.

Nowadays the city hosts a huge amount of music from big rock concerts and top djs to classical events and the Eurovision. On a more personal level, the city has a tradition of making music that, unlike many Northern cultures, it has retained, so nobody will complain or be upset if you’re listening to someone playing in a pub and you decide to join in for the ‘crac’ – in Dublin it can be live karaoke every night.

Put this all together and you have a social culture that is second to none. Because of the weather, no one in Dublin expects it NOT to rain, so the whole brave expectation you get in so much of England, of tables set out on patios and in courtyard with the hope that it will be warm and sunny, is missing. The Dubliners expect it to be moist, breezy and possibly a tad chilly, and they are rarely disappointed – and isn’t it a nice surprise when it isn’t? But like all Northerners they crave the light, so here you get a neat solution – nearly every café, restaurant, or bar you go into of any size either has walloping huge glass doors and windows to bring in the light, or glass atriums, or lots of skylights, or all of them together, plus walls of mirrors that reflect the light and make the most of every ray.

It occurs so often that it becomes a noticeably Dublin feature, a design signature if you like. Add the reflective and metallic vases and surfaces that they use everywhere, plus the retro furnishings combined with funky modern Irish designs, and you have a very stylish, inside kind of city that is dazzlingly full of light and luckily doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Getting There

Whenever you go it’s almost certain to rain, although it tends to be a soft kind of nothing rain in the summer, hardly enough to bother getting your umbrella out, unlike the storms that can blow up from the sea in winter. There’s something major happening most months, depending on your personal taste – August sees the Temple bar Blues Festival, September brings Dublin’s answer to the Edinburgh Fringe. In October you can sample the delights of the Dublin Theatre Festival, November sees the start of Opera season, while March is all about St Patrick and the black stuff, with parades and fireworks.

Following the introduction of cheap flights (see below) Dublin has rather turned into a weekend Stag and Hen land, with an influx from the UK on a Friday afternoon through to Sunday, and it gets crammed and somewhat messy. So if that’s not your bag, go midweek.

Flights go from Bournemouth, Bristol, London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Blackpool, Leeds, Durham, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Aberdeen, and cost anywhere from £20 up to £170 return, depending when you go and which airport you fly from (it’s worth checking the ones within striking distance). The most popular airlines are Ryan Air and Aer Lingus. Make sure you wear your walking shoes on the plane – Dublin airport is, like so much of the city, being refurbished and improved and the walk to the baggage area is very very long.

Where to Go

At the centre of the Dublin lies College Green, and this is a good place to get your bearings.

Here the main 18th century promenade, O’Connell Street, leads down from the north of the city, punctuated by the Spire of Dublin (see below) and numerous statues of influential and significant people, to cross the Liffey and arrive at College Green between the Bank of Ireland (the old Parliament building) and Trinity University. Here the north to south road, now called Westmoreland Street, meets Dame Street, which travels west from College Green up towards the Old City, and College Street, which heads off east along the flank of Trinity and ultimately leads to the City Quay. The southern route travels on as trendy Grafton Street towards the Georgian splendour surrounding St Stephen’s Green.

In the centre of College Green stands the statue of Henry Gratton, Prime Minister and a supporter of Catholic Emancipation (see box), caught declaiming one of his ringing speeches towards the front of Trinity and the statues of two of Trinity’s famous alumni, Edmund Burke and Oliver Goldsmith.

Bank of Ireland
The 18th century, curving, colonnaded building that is now the Bank of Ireland began life as the Houses of Parliament. The House of Commons is now the bank’s cash office, but the House of Lords is relatively untouched and can be visited. There are guided tours – don’t miss the fabulous 1,233-piece chandelier and splendid Huguenot tapestries.

Trinity
The university was founded by Elizabeth I in 1591, and only Protestants were admitted until 1793, with Catholics only really attending in any numbers after 1970. Trinity now has over 5,000 students and is considered a close third in preference for students after Oxford and Cambridge. The famous Book of Kells is housed here in the Treasury, while Brian Boru’s Harp (the one that appears as Ireland’s icon) is displayed in the breathtaking Long Room.

Grafton Street area
Grafton Street is the city’s main social and shopping artery, with numerous alleys and streets and shopping areas leading off and situated around it (Dawson Street, Wicklow Street, South Grafton Street, Powerscourt Townhouse Centre), all filled with a wide selection of shops, bars, cafes, and pubs. At the entrance of Grafton Street stands a very buxom statue of Molly Malone, she of the city’s most famous song “In Dublin’s Fair City” and who, in typical deadpan manner, is known in Dublin as the “tart with the cart” (told you they had a way with words). The street itself is constantly filled with buskers and street performers, as well as flower sellers, and although it seems buzzy, it is a street along which to amble, not power walk.

St Stephen’s Green
At the end of Grafton Street you will find the Fusilier’s Arch that marks the entrance to St Stephen’s Green, a nicely informal park that is a very pleasant place for a stroll or a picnic, especially on weekday lunchtimes when there is always a band performing in the bandstand, regardless of the weather.

Marrion Street area
At the far end of St Stephen’s Green, beyond the Shelbourne Hotel (see below) lies the Marrion Street area, famed for its beautiful Georgian houses, and home to Dublin’s political and government life. Here you can visit Newman House, where you can see the finest examples of Irish 18th century craftsmanship, as well exquisite furnishings from the period.

The Old City
Take a westerly walk up Dame Street from College Green, and visit St Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral, and Dublin Castle for a taste of Dublin’s most colourful period of history. The guided tour of the castle takes you through sumptuous state apartments from where English rule held sway over Ireland for seven centuries, while in the basement are the interesting remnants of Viking settlement. Outside in the courtyard you can check out the statue of Justice holding her scales over the archway “with her face to the Castle and her back to the city” as disgruntled Dubliners were wont to remark.

Guinness Storehouse
Everyone should visit this temple to one of Ireland’s greatest exports. It’s no showroom or factory outlet, but a full-blown, creatively-conceived and craftsman-built installation that explores every layer of the history, creation and marketing of this most famous drink and brand – quite literally as its all arranged on ascending floors. The entry ticket also includes a complementary pint of Guinness straight from the factory and enjoyed at the top of the building in the *8 bar, which gives you a 350° view of Dublin (you can play Spot the Crane) and the beautiful Wicklow mountains, 30 minutes to the south of the city.

The Guinness is, of course, excellent.

Temple Bar
Quirky artisan and arts area that despite having been ‘discovered’ and becoming a Mecca for Stag and Hen parties still retains much of its charm (look for the engravings in the flag stones) and is a popular student hangout. The pretty Ha’penny Bridge (that was the toll to cross the river) crosses the Liffey here – go through the Merchant’s Arch on the north side of Temple Bar.

The Custom House
On the north side of the river lies the French-inspired 18th century ‘palace’ that was commissioned by the chief taxman of the time. Topped by the Statue of commerce, the Custom House now houses the Department of Environment and Customs and Excise. There is a visitor’s area where you can appreciate the neo classical design and interior.

The Four Courts
Also on the north side of the Liffey is the Four Courts. Designed by the Gratton, the architect responsible for the Custom House and the Bank of Ireland’s façade, the circular and colonnaded Four Courts houses Ireland’s High Court and Supreme Court.

The Spire of Dublin
Casually referred to by Dubliners as the “Spike”, this was erected in 2002 on O’Connell Street, and is constructed of rolled stainless steel, rising 120 metres with a luminous tip. Its shiny form reflects the weather and the light in a wonderful way, the whole of it glowing in the setting sun and the tip seeming to disappear in the cloud on overcast days.

Where to drink

Nearly every pub is a gem in Dublin, but here are a couple of particularly choice ones you really shouldn’t miss.

The Old Stand
Exchequer Street

One of the oldest pubs in Dublin, with the original charter thought to have been granted in the 15th Century, The Old Stand is on the excellent Literary Walk, which tells the tale of writers and their drinking holes (get details from the Tourist Information Centre, St Andrew’s Street). The décor is unspoilt (you step down into a flagstoned interior), the food is good, and the bar staff friendly and knowledgeable.

The Horseshoe Bar
Shelbourne Hotel, St Stephen’s Green

Horseshoe-shaped bar in the Shelbourne Hotel (see Where to Stay, below) that sees an influx of politicians, government bods and media types in the early evening, Has a “clubby” décor (the owners retained it’s original design when the hotel was recently refurbished) and the standard of people watching is superb.

Where to Eat

The food in Dublin is good. The mix of Mediterranean influences and fresh local ingredients is a winner, and you will be hard pressed to have a bad meal here, whether you eat in a café, a pub, or a restaurant.

Café en Seine
Dawson Street

The Café en Seine is a beautiful light-filled place designed with a funky Art Deco theme and filled with eye candy is every direction, including a Louis XIVth bust, brass chandeliers, ornate mirrors, and 40ft palms. Like many Dublin establishments, it is a café by day (go for Sunday brunch, when some of Dublin’s best jazz bands play) and a happening pub by night, complete with bands and djs.

Dakota Bar
South William Street

By day a bistro filled with light and congenial chat, by evening a social hot spot with cocktails and food for the young crowd. The food is local produce with a Mediterranean twist, and is excellent – try their spicy fish cakes with lime crème fraîche or pan-fried fillets of wild Irish salmon, or their Irish bangers and mash if the weather has you craving comfort food.

The Cedar Tree
St Andrew’s Street

Lebanese restaurant that is always full and always has people waiting (best to pop in early and book ahead, or ring). The menu is comprehensive, with everything you’d expect including lots of vegan and vegetarian options. The service and ambience is fabulous (they will cook something specially for you), and although it is quite pricey it’s probably one of the very best vegetarian options in Dublin.

The Port House
South William Street

Candlelit cellar Spanish restaurant with masses of ambience and appeal: they run a waiting list for tables, it’s that popular – and rightly so. The food is good and there’s a great wine list – try any of their pinchos (means on a stick) or cold tapas while you are waiting for a table or as a starter, and then try their Galician octopus with smoked paprika, or spicy lamb stew with paprika, peppers and garlic, or Pisto manchego, a vegetable slow-cooked stew topped with cheese.

Bad Ass Café
Crown Alley

Studenty haunt in Temple bar, the Bad Ass is a typically Irish café/bar that is perfect for a pit stop – the light floods in through the huge windows, the orders whiz down to the kitchen and bar on what looks like a home-designed pulley system, and the menu is littered with puns on its name. The food isn’t bad either, although not in the gourmet stakes. Try their The Bad Ass Got Your Goat salad (goat’s cheese and pine nuts) or their Pesto We’re Impressed-O pizza – or ask for the DIY list and create your own.

The Lemon Crepe and Coffee Co.
Dawson Street & South William Street

Funky little coffee and crepe cafes, with huge selection of pancake fillings on offer, from their lemon breakfast crepe with maple syrup and lemon through to the creamy pastrami filled with Irish Cashel blue cheese, pastrami and caramelised onion. If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss their Choc Ice Baileys crepe, which is pretty much what it says on the packet. Perfect!

Butler’s Chocolate Café
Wicklow Street

Butler’s chocolate is the ‘other’ dark stuff of Dublin, and their first (and still the best) chocolate cafe is situated on the corner of Wicklow and South William Street. The coffee is good, the hot chocolate even better, and their handmade Irish chocolates sublime. Odds on you won’t be able to leave without buying a little souvenir – for yourself, obviously, why waste such delights on philistines?

Where to Stay

It’s not a cheap place, Dublin, but the quality of the hotels is good, the breakfasts substantial, and a central location really does mean that here.

Shelbourne Hotel

St Stephen’s Green
Dublin’s finest and the sort of place you feel the need to whisper when you are talking to the reception staff. Has huge amount of old world appeal. Home of the horseshoe bar (see above).

The Morgan
Fleet Street
Cool boutique hotel near Temple Bar where your every comfort is catered for.

Drury Court Hotel
Lower Stephen’s Street
Popular 3-star hotel with large comfortable rooms near St Stephen’s Green.

Trinity College Accommodation
Trinity College
Accommodation in student quarters, with a lovely setting on campus, Available June-September only.

© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife Magazine 2008

Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you. The accompanying photos to this article can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/sets/72157622165222865/

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Rome – City of Emperors, God and la Dolce Vita…

RomeAlthough 21st century Rome is a living museum of centuries of history and culture, it is a modern city that is as much about the people who live here now as it is about those who lived here in the past.

So whether that’s the hip dude in his sharp suit and Armani sunglasses with his pretty amore in her Dolce e Gabbana outfit, staggering heels and toy dog tucked under her arm, or  the duo of elderly matrons with their wheelie shopping bags, gossiping on their way back from market, or a flock of nuns in their white habits stopping for refreshments at the local café, they all typify Roman life against a backdrop that seems straight out a movie set.

Of all European cities, Rome is the ‘one stop shop’ of the entire history of Western civilisation, a layer cake if you like, with each era added on alongside or on top of the previous one, and all in the space of a few square miles. The sheer amount of history and culture, from Emperors and God to incredible art, sculpture, and architecture would weigh down the communal mindset if we were anywhere but Italy, causing the locals to take themselves seriously and reverently.

But it doesn’t.

Instead, Rome is a city of fun and passion, light heartedness, in your face fashionistas and good living (la dolce vita to be sure). It’s a city of immense depth and beauty and significance, but it’s also a manageable city, a city you can easily explore on foot without losing yourself.

The periods butt up against each other good-naturedly, forming an architectural pattern that is reminiscent of a patchwork quilt created over a long lifetime: that piece of Imperial Roman Villa in the wall of that beautiful 15th Century palace, that pagan temple cut and adjusted to accommodate that Baroque church, and that gorgeous picture window and roof garden cut into the roof of a medieval tenement overlooking that fabulous landmark, all with shining gems scattered throughout, such as the Trevi fountain, the theatrical stage set that is the Piazza Navona, and the beautiful Pantheon.

In fact, absolutely everywhere you look there is something amazing, so plan on ambling between key points of interests so you don’t miss anything… that roof garden above your head… a fabulous fountain… cherubs carved into a street corner… an alter to the Virgin Mary tucked in a tiny archway… a view through a doorway into an oasis of a courtyard. And luckily some of the most amazing are all within a relatively small area, so getting your fill of incredible art and architecture is easily achieved just by strolling your way through a long weekend.

Piazza NavonaThe History of Rome

According to legend, the twins Romulus and Remus founded the City of Rome in 753 BC. The city was the cradle of Roman civilization, producing the most enduring empire in the known history of the world, and responsible for the spread of Greco-Roman culture that endures throughout much of the world to this day. Rome is also the home of the Catholic Church, and the State of the Vatican City, lying within the boundaries of Rome, is the smallest independent nation in the world at 44 hectares (108.7 acres), and has it’s own radio station, publishing house, newspaper, and postal service.

Spread across its seven hills, and buzzing with life and activity, 21st century Rome is thoroughly modern and cosmopolitan. As one of the few major European cities that escaped World War II relatively unscathed, central Rome remains essentially Renaissance and Baroque in character, through which you can catch glimpses of the other eras that have shaped it.

Etrusan Rome

Collections of artifacts from Rome’s earliest period of settlement from 800-500BC, including fabulous jewellery, can be seen in the Vatican Museum. Most famously, the bronze statue of the She-Wolf who legend tells as suckling Romulus and Remus after their evil uncle tried to drown them in the Tiber, can be seen in the Capitoline Museum, as well as in replica on signs and buildings throughout the city. The 16th century Villa Giulia in the Campo de’ Fiori area houses an amazing collection of Etruscan tomb artifacts, and the detail and craftsmanship of this artwork from 2,800 years ago will absolutely astonish you – you’ve never seen stuff so old looking so good!

Roman Republic 500-44BC

During the Republican period, Rome’s troops conquered the surrounding tribes and her skilled engineers developed the city itself to accommodate the increasing population. While most of what remains lies underground, like the Tomb of Scipios in the Caracalla district, you can also see remains above ground at the Area Sacra at the Largo di Torre Argentina, the square on the corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area at the top of Via Arenula.

The Ponte Fabricio, located at the edge of the Ghetto on the far eastern corner of the Campo de’ Fiori area, also dates from this era. This bridge was built to link Rome to the Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island), where the sick were sent in to quarantine. There is still a hospital, as well as a beautiful medieval church, St Bartolomeo all’Isola, on the island, and from here you can carry on across to medieval Trastevere, so it’s a great place to see the different layers of Rome all together, including modern Romans sunbathing and playing frisbee.

Imperial Rome

Caesar was assassinated a mere month after he became dictator in 44BC and so began a civil war that ended 17 years later with the formation of Imperial Rome, headed up by the first Emperor, Augustus.

By the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was immense, spreading from Britain in the north to Africa in the south, and this richness and diversity was reflected and celebrated in lavish buildings throughout Rome, as well as in the proliferation of goods and jewellery.

The Colosseum, Rome

The Colosseum, Rome

There remain relics of the period throughout the city, such as in the Jewish ghetto quarter where you can see the remains of the Porto of Octavia, but the sheer magnificence of the time of the Emperors is undoubtedly best conveyed by the Pantheon and the Colosseum.

Early Christian Rome

From the 1st century onwards, Jesus’ teachings of a religion based on ‘One God’ rather than ‘Many Gods’ spread slowly from the outskirts of the Roman Empire. At first Christians were persecuted, yet slowly the new religion gained in converts until it had permeated right to the top of Roman hierarchy by the 4th century, when the first Christian Pope was appointed as Head of State. There are many beautiful churches from the period, many of them converted Roman temples or built on the site of martyrs, such as that of St Cecilia in Trastevere. St Cecilia, patron saint of music (because she sang throughout the hours it took to kill her), was an aristocrat who was martyred here in AD230, and her house can still be seen beneath the gem-like church that was built in her memory in the 4th century.

Medieval Rome

As power shifted east from Rome to Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) in the 4th century, Rome’s population plummeted to a few thousand inhabitants. Throughout the Middle Ages, the importance of the papacy kept the city alive, although violent conflicts and invasions throughout the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries took their toll, resulting in the papacy moving to Avignon in France in 1309. Regardless of the conflicts, many fine churches were built, including Rome’s only remaining Gothic church, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon.

Renaissance and Baroque Rome

The Middle Ages saw a shift back towards wealth and power for Rome, but this time it centred on religion rather than political or armed force. The papacy inspired some of the finest artists and craftsmen to work for the glorification of God, leaving an amazing legacy, such as the Sistine Chapel and its frescoes, plus many other fabulous works by such giants as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Botticelli.

Unified Rome

The civil war in Rome in the 1820s centred on the fight to make Rome the capital of Italy and unify the country as a single entity. The rebels eventually succeeded in storming the city wall near Porta Pia, the Pope retreated and Rome was made the Italian capital. Italy’s first King, Victor Emmanuel, was crowned in 1861 and the Victor Emmanuel Monument was completed in 1911. Known rather insultingly as the ‘wedding cake’ or ‘typewriter’, this austere white marble building is one of modern central Rome’s landmarks – there seems to be no point in the City where you can’t spot one or both of the white winged charioteers on top of its two columns, which is great for orientating yourself.

Getting there

There are daily flights to Rome from all the major UK airports: check out Air Alitalia and BA for direct flights; the flight takes about 2.5 hours and you can expect to pay about £150 return. Once you arrive, you can take the train into the centre of the city (€11 euros; takes nearly an hour), which is a great way to get the feel of Rome, although the bustle and confusion of the main train station once you arrive can be off-putting, especially if you don’t speak Italian.

A taxi from the airport to the city centre will cost about €50, with extra charges for lots of luggage and Sunday pick ups, although it does have the advantage of taking you door-to-door and can actually be the cheaper option if there is more than one of you.

If you book in advance you can arrive in style in a Mercedes, as well as it often being a little bit cheaper than an ad hoc taxi – try U.A.R.A. (www.limousineuara.com) or Nando Cese (he speaks decent English) at Limousine Service (Italy +347 8200487).

Tips and recommendations

It’s a friendly place, Rome. The people smile a lot and most will go out of their way to help you. It’s generally clean and extremely civilised, with few of the usual beggars or menacing gangs of youths you can come across in the centres of other cities. The roads are fast and furious, for sure, and the average Italian driver does seem to have a death wish on first glance, but even this is more part of the bravado of the Roman psyche than any desire to do you real harm (even the police ride around on their bikes with their arms in the air!). Act as confidently as they do, swagger your way across the road when you have every right to, and all will be well.

The bus service is okay and once you’re familiar with where you are staying it can be a great way to get ‘home’ if you are fed up with walking at the end of the day, although they can be crowded and when they arrive can be more down to personal whim than the timetable! The metro system is limited and somewhat chaotic, as ancient ruins keep getting unearthed every time the city tries to build an extension!

Many guides include a bus and metro map, which is helpful, and bus and subway tickets are interchangeable. These can be purchased at tobacco shops (tabacchis), news stands, and some bars. Ticket vending machines are also located in stations, on street corners, and at major bus stops. Keep an eye out for the ‘ATAC’ logo. Tickets cost €1 and are valid for either one Metro ride or unlimited bus travel within 75 minutes of validation. A Biglietto Integrato Giornaliero (BIG) ticket allows for unlimited bus or train travel within one day and costs €4. A Biglietto Turistico Integrato (BTI, or a three-day tourist ticket) costs €11.

Taxis are everywhere and very convenient, but will cost you more – there’s a minimum charge of €2.50 during the day and roughly €5 after 10pm, plus a 10% tip as standard.

At most of the major attractions you will also find horse-drawn carriages (carrozzelle) patiently waiting. These will take you from site to site, or can be hired for an hour, half days, or full days. They carry up to five people and the price can be negotiable, especially for longer trips, but do make sure you understand whether it is per person, per hour or for the full trip before moving off.

You can also hire scooters if you want to pretend you’re starring in ‘Roman Holiday’! They, and the helmets, can be hired by the day, and they can be delivered to wherever you want – try www.scooterhire.it for further details.

However, if you are staying in the centre you are unlikely to need to take any transportation at all. Everything major is situated so cheek-by-jowl that walking is the very best way to get around. It also means you get to see the hidden gems and immerse yourself in Roman life.

One word of warning – the entire centre of Rome is cobbled, but the infilling between most of the cobbles has worn away over time, which makes them deadly for walking on in any sort of heel. You will see the diplomatic wives and fashionistas slowly tiptoeing their way down the streets in their stilettos, but it’s not a good move if you want to cover more than one street per day! So ladies, ditch your heels in favour of flat boots, pumps, or trainers.

Walking boots are practical but look so out of place given the overall stylishness of Rome that you may want to give them a miss. And if you haven’t anything flat, funky and comfy in the footware department, don’t worry, Rome has loads of shops specialising in just that type of footware (how else do you think the locals cope?) – try along the Via Giubbonari in Campo de’ Fiori for starters.

So what are you waiting for?
Grab your most stylish clothes and funkiest shoes, pack your guidebook and your sense of adventure, and make an appointment with yourself and a significant other to go on the most passionate, lighthearted and cultural weekend of your life.

Just one word of warning: Once you’ve been to Rome you will want to visit again and again and again because, yes, it truly hold the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

© Claire Burdett.

First published in Citylife magazine, 2008. Photos taken by myself and Frank Tyson to go with this article can be seen at http://www.flickr.com/photos/funkyangelclaire/sets/72157622213506899/

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And So To Bath

Weekend breaks - Bath

View of Bath from the rooftop pool at Thermae Spa, Bath. Credit: Thermae Bath Spa

There’s something timeless and yet thoroughly cosmopolitan about Bath.

Perhaps it’s the mix of Roman remains flanked by the Medieval Abbey and surrounded on all sides by stately Georgian architecture. Perhaps it is its situation, nestled in a basin of green hills.

Maybe its just down to the honey-coloured stone that is used everywhere.

Whatever it is, you certainly get the feeling when you arrive that this is a golden, summertime city, comparable in its way to many Italian cities, such as Rome or Venice. Visitors throughout the centuries have felt the same. As Cecil Roberts says right at the end of “And So To Bath”, which was published nearly 100 years ago:

“From the windows of my hotel, as I looked out on the quiet crescent of houses, a glowing sunset made Bath a city of gold. I began to wonder about the many famous figures who had walked these noble pavements, whose sedan-chairs have been set down in many a stately doorway…”

Jane Austin was one of those famous figures, living here for six years in total at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. She made Bath the setting of two of her books, ‘Northanger Abbey’ and ‘Persuasion’, and the life she led while she was here is reflected in both stories, and much of what she would have been familiar with still exists today. However, Bath’s history is much more complex and lengthy than Jane Austin would have even started to imagine, and it starts right back with in Celtic time with the goddess of the hot springs, Sulis.

The History of Bath

Celtic Bath
Legend has it that Bath was founded by Bladud, the eldest son of the legendary King Lud. Bladud discovered the miraculous hot mineral springs when he saw that when pigs rolled in the mud they were cured of their scurvy. Although Bath was, in fact, founded nearly 1,000 years after Bladud, it was without doubt a major centre of power in Celtic time, with Celtic forts situated on the surrounding hills and a Druid’s sacred grove, dedicated to the goddess Sulis, in the valley below near the hot spring.

Sulis is a diety who is unique to Bath because the Celts saw her as the very embodiment of the essence of the thermal spring-water, which gushes out of the ground at a rate of a quarter of million gallons/million litres a day, at a constant temperature of 46°C/120°F. The Celts saw this miraculous phenomenon as being nothing less than the nourishing, life-giving waters of the Mother goddess herself. And so Sulis was born.

Roman Bath
Once the Romans arrived, they lost no time in honing in on the potential of the hot springs and a significant and revered town, Aqua Sulis, was established, and the springs were controlled and channelled in to a sophisticated system of baths and the great temple of Minerva was founded. Aqua Sulis was one of the most one of the major therapeutic centres of the Roman world and by the 3rd century its stunning temple and five luxurious baths attracted significant numbers of pilgrims. An elaborate hypocaust heating system serviced a series of hot sweat rooms, with swimming pools and cold rooms afterwards. At the centre, in its own hall and lined with 14 massive sheets of lead, was the Great Bath. Surrounded by the gods, whose statues would have emerged mysteriously from the swirling steam, it must have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.

Water always attracts wishes, and the springs of Aqua Sulis were no exception. Over the centuries, pilgrims inscribed dedications, vows and curses on thin pewter sheets that were then usually rolled up and placed in the water. Typically each curse stated a lost love or piece of stolen property, and there was usually an appeal that the guilty should meet some foul end!

Medieval Bath
In the Middle Ages the benefits of the hot springs were once again utilised after the ‘dark ages’ that followed the departure of the Romans and the invasion of the Saxons. Saxon Christians dismantled the sacrificial altar to use as paving stones for their new monastery. Before long the hot spring had returned to marsh and the site of Minerva’s great temple became a dumping place for town refuse and, in later times, a Saxon graveyard. However, the benefits of the hot springs were recognised by the monks of medieval England, and the monastery that flourished here later in the 14th and 15th centuries offered hospitality for people coming to take the waters of the spring for their health. Begun in 1499, Bath Abbey is the one of the last surviving great English medieval churches. The West Front is unique as it depicts the dream that inspired the Abbey’s founder, Bishop Oliver King, to pull down the ruined Norman cathedral and raise the present building on its foundations, and depicts angels ascending and descending to heaven.

Regency Bath
In 1702 Queen Anne came to take the waters, and a whole new era in Bath’s history was launched as fashionable society followed her lead and within a century the population had risen from 2,000 to 30,000 and Bath became the eighth largest city in England by 1801. The Bath revival in the Regency period had three main figures at the helm:

• Richard Beau Nash – Bath’s Master of Ceremonies, (organiser and leader of the social scene), as well as self-confessed dandy and gambler. He was responsible for much of the levelling of polite society, which meant it was much more acceptable for women to go out on public, and for people to mix across social classes, something that is clearly shown in the novels of Jane Austen. In this way, Nash became a significant architect of social change.

• John Wood Senior – architect of much of Bath’s Georgian splendour, including Queen’s Square. He was later succeeded by his son, John the Younger, who added the gorgeous Royal Crescent as the feather in their joint architectural cap.

• Ralph Allen – post master and Mayor of Bath who decreed that all new buildings in Bath should be made of the distinguished honey-coloured Bath stone, mined from a nearby quarry, which coincidentally belonged to him. However he was also a benevolent man, giving money and the stone for the building of the Mineral Water Hospital in 1738.

Where to go

The Royal Crescent
This is John Wood the Younger’s masterpiece and is a piece of architecture unmatched anywhere else in Europe. Number One, Royal Crescent was begun in 1767 and was built for a certain Mr Thomas Brock. It is a fabulous Georgian town house and today it is furnished exactly as it would have been in the 18th century, which gives you an authentic feel for how life was in Regency Bath. The rest of the Crescent is now apartments, apart from the two central houses that form the Royal Crescent Hotel.

At the time when the Crescent was built it would have faced open farmland, complete with sheep and cattle. This was taken advantage of in the design, which incorporated a ‘haha’, a low wall in a ditch that kept the animals on the other side but was invisible when viewed from the Crescent, thus giving the coveted 18th century impression of an endless vista of open parkland. The haha can still be seen, and the lawns in front of the crescent are the most fabulous setting for a picnic – get your provisions from Chandos in George Street, their smoked marsh lamb is incredible!

The Assembly Rooms
Commissioned by Beau Nash, in Regency times the Assembly Rooms consisted of The Ball Room, Octagon, Tea Room, and Card Room, and were a place where guests ‘assembled’ for balls, to drink tea, play cards, listen to music, or just to talk and flirt. The balls were extremely popular throughout the Season, and less than 1,000 guests was considered a poorly attended event.

The Museum of Costume
In the basement of the Assembly Rooms is situated the Museum of Costume, which is celebration of all things fashion for both men and women dating from the Elizabethan period through the Regency fashions to the present day. They have really good exhibitions, including the humorous ‘Corsets Uncovered’, where you can try on a corset like the one your great, great grandmother might have worn – if you are tiny enough to get into it that is!

The Pump Room
The Pump Room is a beautifully proportioned salon and the place where the hot spa water was, and still is, drawn for drinking, or as the Georgians put it “where you took the waters”. People seeking a cure would drink up to eight pints of spa water a day as well as bathing in it first thing in the morning. In Jane Austin’s time the Pump Room was the central point of the upper classes social scene, where people met and mingled, men talked politics and economics and women talked marriage and fashion, and all sampled the waters. It is best summed up in the following passage taken from Austen’s ‘Northanger Abbey’:

“They set off in good time for the pump-room, where the ordinary course of events and conversation took place; Mr. Allen, after drinking his glass of water, joined some gentlemen to talk over the politics of the day and compare the accounts of their newspapers; and the ladies walked about together, noticing every new face, and almost every new bonnet in the room.”

Sally Lunn’s House
In 1680, Sally Lunn, a refugee baker from France, arrived in Bath, bringing with her the recipe for a type of sweet bread, like the French brioche today, and the rest, as they say, is history. The famous buns are still served on the premises, made to the original recipe, and the kitchen that she used can be seen in the museum. Sally Lunn’s is one of Bath’s few remaining medieval houses.

Pulteney Bridge
Crossing the River Avon, Pulteney Bridge was built in the 18th century to link Bath with the ancient estate of Bathwick, which was owned by the Pulteney family at the time, hence the name. The bridge is unique in Britain as being the only one which still has shops built upon it, much like the original London bridge (of the nursery rhyme) and similar to existing bridges in Florence and Venice.

American Museum in Britain
Situated in elegant Claverton Manor just outside Bath, the American Museum is the only museum of Americana outside the United States. The Manor is set in 120 acres of gardens, which include Mayflower Garden and a replica of George Washington’s American garden at Mount Vernon. The museum uses period rooms imported from Stateside to show how Americans lived from the time of the early New England settlers to the eve of the Civil War. Their summer exhibition, ‘Dollar Princesses – American Heiress to Peeress in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain’ is well worth a look.  In the 1870s, London was recognised as the social capital of the world and ambitious bourgeois American mothers looked to British high society to satisfy social aspirations and claim a title for their daughters. Perhaps the most well known ‘Dollar Princesses’, a term adopted by the ladies themselves, was society belle Jennie Jerome. She famously became Lady Randolph Churchill and the beloved mother of Winston. The exhibition features period costumes, including a sumptuous white, fur-edged evening coat worn by Winnaretta Singer (Duchess of Manchester). Equally as sumptuous and somehow more touching is the museum’s extensive collection of American quilts, while if you have a yen for travel and love maps, the Museum’s collection of maps, some dating from the 12th century, is wonderful; the hand-painted illustrations are particularly amazing. Downstairs in the basement you will find the American Heritage Exhibition, complete with Wild West and Native Indians, which the kids (both large and small) will adore.

Wells Cathedral
The cathedral was begun in 1180 and is one of the most impressive of all the English cathedrals, not least because it is one of the few to have survived with all its associated 13th-15th century buildings, including the Chapter House, the Vicar’s Hall and Close, and the Cloisters. Wells is the site of natural springs, and remains show it was also settled and used by the Romans. In Medieval times the springs were harnessed to drive mills, flush drains, and provide a piped supply of drinking water for the needs of the cathedral from the late 12th century onwards. The water still flows under the cloister, where the remains of the medieval ‘dipping place’ (drinking basin) are preserved.

© Claire Burdett. Please only reproduce this article with permission, in its entirety and with a hyperlink to www.claireburdett.com. Thank you.

First published in Citylife magazine 2008

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