Santa Maria Capuchin Crypt, Rome

Santa Maria Capuchin Crypt, Rome

Under an unassuming church on a wide boulevard in Rome (Via Vittorio Veneto, 27) lies a macabre crypt where the the skeletons of monks are lovingly arranged into works of art. The ossuary is open during odd hours (9-noon, 3-6, closed Thursdays), so time your visit carefully. Admission is by donation, and photography is not allowed (oops).

By: Sarah Landau

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Osia Antica, Italy

I had a super-long layover at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, so I took a bus and short train to Scavi Ostia Antica, the archeological site of the first harbour city of ancient Rome. When it was founded in 700BC, it was on the coast at the mouth of the Tiber River, but is now 2 miles from the sea. Under-rated and under-visited, I had the entire ruined city to myself one afternoon, for an hour and a half until it closed. I recommend giving yourself more time, as it’s really huge and there is a lot to look at and climb around in. There are gorgeous mosaics and statues, an amphitheatre and temple. The city was abandoned with the fall of the Roman empire. Much better than just going to the Leonardo da Vinci shopping mall (But I did that, too. It was a looooong layover.)

By: Sarah Landau

Adventures in Italy: Palermo’s Vucciria Market

Our day in Palermo began with breakfast on the Abasciatori Hotel’s rooftop terrace. After the previous day’s rain, the skies had partially cleared, leaving the air clear and fresh. From the hotel’s deck, the panoramic expanse of urban Palermo, tucked in between the hills and the sea and speckled by the domes of numerous churches, was ours to enjoy.

When planning the trip, Palermo seemed like a daunting, dangerous, and uncomfortable place to visit. We had yet to spend much time there, but this attitude was quickly changing.

With only one day in Palermo, we had a lot to see. We headed up Via Roma to the open air Vucciria market. Tucked into a side street near Piazza San Domenico, the small market offers an amazing variety of food items. In the valley created by the gray, city-soot coated buildings that line the alleyway, the colors, sounds, and smells of the market filled the senses. The standard fruit and vegetable offerings that you would find throughout Europe were at hand. A wide variety of fresh fish, glistening, firm, clear-eyed, and smelling only of the sea, was in abundance. Meat markets spilled out on to the street from small shops that lined the bazaar. And, of course, cheeses, breads, pastas, olives, olive oil, capers, and pretty much any other ingredient you would use to prepare an Italian meal was available.

Most of the items in the bustling market were recognizable. Along with the familiar, were some unusual local specialties like snails, castrato, freshly boiled octopus, and Palermo’s ubiquitous pane ca’meusa (boiled spleen sandwiches). It was the first time we had seen many of these offerings.

We had to try something new. One vendor was serving small, freshly boiled octopus to a collection of tourists and locals that waited like chicks in the nest to be fed. The intensely purple colored octopus was pulled out of the boiling, salty water; the legs were sliced off with a knife and cut up into manageable pieces. The head of the octopus was quartered and all the pieces along with a slice of lemon were transferred to the customer’s plate. The food was then eaten by hand.

We watched this show for a while, and then we wandered around the market checking out the stalls. Before we left, we decided to give the octopus a go.

The octopus was excellent, slightly salty with a mild, fresh seafood flavor. The texture was somewhat rubbery and a little chewy. In its purest form, this was probably best octopus we have had. More adventurous was the head of the octopus, which had a crab and lobster innards like flavor, though milder. With healthy squeeze of lemon, I could definitely see the head as being an acquired, sought after taste. The jury on the head was still out for my traveling partner Becky. She wasn’t sure she liked it. Nevertheless, both of us would make a point of having another octopus prepared this way, even if I got all the head.

In the end, pictures and video can reinforce the visual memories of a place but another visit is often required cement the memory of the taste. That’s a trip we look forward to.

By: Dave Oare

Roma, Martedi: Villa d’Este

There are no Starbucks in Italy. This doesn’t have much to do with the day’s activities other than it seems that coffee drinks in Rome are better and much cheaper than at Starbucks in the States. It’s just one of those things that you notice, as you travel, as being different. Not that we go to Starbucks much in the States, anyway. Still, the Starbucks stores are so ubiquitous everywhere you go, abroad or in the States, that their absence is palpable. The only impact for us is that reliable, predictable internet access is not on every other street corner. For the coffee, we are better off with the choices Rome has to offer.

Even with the absence of Starbucks, we had plenty more sights to see in Rome, but Tuesday was our day to head out into the countryside. Our destination for the day was the small town of Tivoli and the gardens of Villa d’Este, another UNESCO World Heritage site. We purchased a Roma & Piu Pass for 25 euros each at the train station which covered the travel and entry fees for the trip and more. There are more details at the end of this section about the Pass. It turns out that this pass, unlike some of the other city passes we have purchased as we travel, is very much worth the cost and was convenient and hassle-free to use.

To get to Tivoli, we took the Metro line B to the train stop at the Tiburtina Station and connected to the train for the trip out to the countryside. To us, we will always think of this train as “The Vomit Comet” as one of the patrons aboard was looking pretty queasy from what likely was a hard night out and the predictable happened. I don’t want to relive the Technicolor details for this account, but I will say that the other passengers in the car left rather quickly and that there was significant collateral damage in a manner that evokes Linda Blair in The Exorcist. More joys of public transportation.

On reaching Tivoli, we worked our way up the hill with some directions from the locals and the TomTom. Maybe we look like dorks (or look dorkier, if that’s a word) with the GPS in hand, but it definitely does help. Villa d’Este is not particularly far from the train station, but the route is not well marked. The hike up the hill to the Villa gave us a chance to see a bit of Tivoli, a small town perched in the saddle of a ridge through which a river flows.

We reached Villa d’Este and entered for free using the Roma & Piu Pass. The tour of the Villa was interesting, but the real purpose for the visit, beyond the standard purpose of having yet another beer, was the extensive water gardens below the building.

Developed under Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the amazing water gardens of Villa d’Este date from the 16th century and provided the inspiration for many water gardens that followed later. The water for the elaborate collection of fountains and water works comes from the nearby river, some of whose waters are channeled onto the estate. Amongst the fountains, pools, and streams were an operative water powered organ and other, innovative features. You can get a better idea of what Villa d’Este is like from the pictures. But, for the full effect, with the sound and the cooling effect of the waters, you have to experience it in person. It is a very peaceful place.

At the base of the town, the water flows from the river and from the estate over a large water fall, the Grande Cascata. We walked to the top of the tunnel from which the water emerges just prior to dropping the 525 feet to the valley floor over the hard edge of the waterfall. From this perspective on the top of the tunnel, you could see that steps had been built into the water in the pool immediately above the edge of the falls. Going down these steps would let you get to the edge of the falls for what had to be quite an intimidating viewpoint. The access to the steps was now fenced off, not surprisingly, but the presence of the steps was surprising nonetheless.

Though we were careful to check which car on the train we took back to Rome (and where we stepped), the ride was uneventful. We made it back in time for a late but good meal at a nearby restaurant.

By: Dave Oare