Why the Domus Aurea Tour is a Must-Do (Updated for 2017!)

Domus Aurea tour

For years, you were out of luck if you wanted to take a tour of the Domus Aurea tour — i.e. the famed “Golden House” of Nero. But in 2014, it reopened to the public (on guided tours only)… and the visit just keeps getting better and better. (More in my update at the bottom of the post).

I haven’t seen this much excitement over a site’s opening since the Colosseum’s underground was unveiled back in 2010. And you know what? Having toured both, the excitement over the Domus Aurea may be even more merited.

(PS: Don’t miss my article on the Domus Aurea in the Globe & Mail!).

First, the basics. Emperor Nero built his palace back in 64AD. (Yes, he’s the “fiddled while Rome burned” guy; although that’s an urban legend, you can’t deny his, erm, ingeniousness in using the land conveniently cleared by the fire for his dream palace). The property, which included open gardens and pastures as well as rooms and galleries, stretched all the way from the Palatine Hill to the Esquiline. Some scholars place it at 300 acres.

And let’s just say that the term “Golden House” doesn’t even begin to describe the property’s dazzle and opulence. “The vestibule of the house was so big it contained a colossal statue 120 feet high, the image of Nero; and it was so extensive that it had three colonnades a mile long. There was a lake too, in fact a sea, surrounded with buildings as big as cities,” Suetonius wrote. (Nota bene: The Colosseum later was built on the site of that lake). “Behind it were villas with fields, vineyards and pastures, woods filled with all kinds of wild and domestic animals. In the rest of the house everything was coated with gold and adorned with gems and shells. The dining-rooms had fretted ceilings made of ivory, with panels that turned and shed flowers and perfumes on those below. The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens. He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.”

In other words: Nero would have killed on MTV’s Cribs.

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Gifts for the Italy-Bound Traveler

Looking for the perfect gift for a traveler headed to Italy? (Or maybe for yourself?). I’ve got you covered!

And don’t miss this year’s guide to the best Italian gifts on the web this season, or the 2012 guide to the best gifts for travelers to Italy!

The perfect airplane read(s)

When it comes to bringing history to life, Ross King is a wizard, telling rollicking tales of Renaissance scandals and assignments gone awry. And he’s done it with not one, not two, but three Italian treasures: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (on the Duomo of Florence); Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (on the Sistine Chapel); and Leonardo and the Last Supper (at right).

Conveniently, each book is on a different city (Florence, Rome and Milan). Talk about the perfect gift trifecta for someone headed for the Grand Tour.

A super-duper camera… the size of a smartphone

I adore my 6-year-old-but-still-fantastic Nikon D90 DSLR and my little waterproof Sony digital camera. If I were looking for something in the middle of those two, though – not as professional (or big or heavy) as the DSLR, but with more options and flexibility than the point-and-shoot — I’d be looking at what’s called a “expert compact” camera. In particular, I’d have my eye on the Olympus XZ-2 (left).

The camera is smaller than a Galaxy smart phone, but comes with the kinds of bells and whistles you usually just can’t get in a camera that size — like ISO up 12800, sensor-shift stability, an SLR-quality image processor, and HD 1080 video recording. In layman’s terms, that means that you can shoot crisp photos in conditions that just won’t work with a lesser digital camera or an iPhone, like an indoor restaurant dinner or the floodlight Colosseum at night. For anyone who loves taking photos but isn’t a professional photographer (and even for some of us that are), this would be a seriously sweet gift.

A hedonist’s guide to Tuscany

Val d'orcia 3Not your usual guidebook, Tuscany for the Shameless Hedonist includes tips on everything for making a stay in Florence or Tuscany pop with the pleasures of Italian life: where to find romantic aperitivi and relaxing spas, the top wine tours and finest local artisans, the best cooking classes and antique markets, and more.

A streetwise stocking stuffer

The Streetwise Rome map remains the most usable one of the city I’ve seen. It’s laminated, so you don’t have to worry about spilling wine getting rain on it. And the map has much more detail than you’ll find on the free tourist maps in the city, but is still pretty easy to read and use. Let’s just say it got me through my first 3-plus years of never knowing where I was.

A travel journal that gives you tasks (great for kids and creative adults!)

I love this. In the ingenious, interactive I Was Here: A Travel Journal for the Curious Minded, travelers aren’t just encouraged to jot down tips, reviews, and notes. They’re also asked to do things like, say, go to a local pharmacy and buy a toiletry brand they don’t recognize (I always say going to a pharmacy or grocery store is one of the best ways to get a sense of the local culture!), or ask a local to draw a map to one of their favorite neighborhood spots (I can just imagine what kind of crazy drawings you’d wind up with in a city where the streets are as confusing as Rome!).

I can imagine how much fun this would be for kids to do. Or, let’s be honest, for any adventurous adult.

An airplane wake-up

The kind of thing you’d never buy for yourself (aka a great stocking stuffer), this little jet lag kit (right), which is given to first-class passengers on Emirates Airlines, has two “sniff boxes”. Get a whiff of “sleep,” with lavender, chamomile and neroli, to unwind; “focus,” with bergamot, lemon and cinnamon, energizes and refreshes. Perfect idea for those otherwise torturous overseas flights.

The best conversational Italian course around

There are a million and one Italian-language software programs out there. While many people swear by Pimsleur for learning the basic, conversational Italian you want when you go abroad, the newer Living Language Italian has the edge: it’s currently the number-one bestseller on Amazon for Italian learning products, and the reviews are stellar. It’s also more bang for your buck, since the $30 complete edition has 46 lessons, with nine audio CDs and three books, that take learners from beginning to advanced.

For anyone who wants to, say, order food at a restaurant or get directions in the local language, this seems like the new way to go.

The gift of Rome, revealed

Revealed rome travel planning gift_edited-1In my one-on-one travel consulting sessions, folks get an hour to pick my brain about all things Italy: what’s open in August, the best day trips from Florence, how to skip the line at the Colosseum, whether to get a water taxi to their hotel in Venice. Or we can spend that hour whipping a trip itinerary into shape. Or brainstorming where in Italy they should even start to think about going. Or… pretty much anything else.

New for 2014, I offer gift certificates that can be e-mailed directly to the gift recipient (or to you, so you can print it out and pop it in a card). For more, email me at revealedrome@gmail.com.

A hilarious guide to Italian quirks

Both entertaining and beautiful to look at, Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best will whet anyone’s appetite for Italy. Its 50 mini-essays explore all of the quirks of Italian culture: patron saints and pasta, hand gestures and gelato. It’ll also prepare travelers for the little things that might seem particularly annoying odd on arrival — like why Italians don’t queue, or what floor number won’t exist (nope, it’s not 13!).

The cutest (and most functional) travel containers around

Finally, travel bottles that you… can… squeeze! (And that are BPA-free, PC-free, food-safe, leak-free, and virtually indestructible. Not to mention adorable). Give these GoToob travel tubes to your favorite giftee-on-the-go to fill up with shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, or anything else (ketchup, anyone?). They’re also useful to throw in a backpack: Instead of carting a whole bottle of suntan lotion around the Roman Forum, just fill one of these guys up. Smaller and (take it from me) much more spill-proof.

Organic beauty on the go

If your Italy-bound traveler hates decanting all of their favorite lotions and face washes into different containers (even ones as cute as the GoToob), make it easy on them with Juice Beauty’s Organics To Go. The travel set has all of the skin essentials: cleansing milk, moisturizer, even a mini-face peel. The hydrating mist would be especially nice to have on a moisture-sucking plane ride. Juice Beauty’s items are all made sans  parabens, animal testing, pesticides, phthalates, or artificial dyes or fragrances, so it’s the perfect skin care set for even those with sensitive skin.

A guidebook, notebook, and map in one

I know people swear by Moleskine, but I’m (even more) old-school — when I’m on the road, you can bet I have a few spiral-bound reporter’s notebooks on hand, instead. Even so, I scooped up a Moleskine City Notebook when I headed to Lisbon last year, and wow! I loved it. Having different sections to pop my various lists into, plus plenty of room for random thoughts, made me much more organized. And having a thorough map of the city’s different neighborhoods embedded right in the notebook’s pages was unbelievably helpful.

The Rome City Notebook comes in hardcover-only, so it’s more of an indulgence. (The soft-cover Milan, Venice and Florence versions are much cheaper). But I could see it doubling as a nice keepsake post-trip, couldn’t you?

Happy holidays, everyone!

Also: where to eat in Rome’s most touristy areas, and a guide to Rome’s neighborhoods.

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Give the Gift of a Revealed Rome Travel Session

6a013483a13a94970c0167691793f4970b-500wi“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://www.revealedrome.com/italy-travel-consulting

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

“Whenever we were thinking outside of the box, we’d remind ourselves, ‘What did Mandy say about this?'” -Peter Graves, Phoenix, AZ, trip to Rome and Venice

Since 2012, I have helped more than 250 clients with my one-on-one consulting sessions on travel to Italy. And I’ve been thrilled to hear their post-trip feedback about what fantastic experiences they had — and, in particular, how our sessions let them discover hidden gems and avoid the kinds of issues that they wouldn’t have known about otherwise… all personalized to their needs and wants. After all, answers to questions like “Should I go to the Amalfi coast or the Cinque Terre?” or “What do you think about a Colosseum tour?” can’t be found in a guidebook or online — because they depend on who you are!

– See more at: http://romerevealed.typepad.com/italytravelconsulting/travel-consulting-italy.html#sthash.gFrBuIFW.dpuf

New this year, I’m offering the ability to give a classic or unlimited session as a gift. Purchase with the button below. Or read on to learn more about what each session entails!

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The Finest Gifts from Italy

Gifts from Italy
Looking for that perfect gift from Italy? Even though I’m always a fan of tracking down artisanal gifts in person, these days, you can find some pretty great Italian gifts online, too. And I don’t mean gift baskets where the “parmesan cheese” hails from Wisconsin.

Because it’s that time of year again, I spent some time scouring the interwebs to find the best gifts from Italy — as in, the finer things: from perfume to leather journals to olive oil.

And don’t miss this year’s best gifts for travel to Italy; all of my previous Italophile gift guides can be found here).

Here are just a few of the finer Italian experiences you can give — no airplane required!

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Where to Find Rome’s Christmas Markets (Updated for 2016!)

Christmas markets in Rome just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.

Today, the Piazza Navona Christmas market (which runs daily, and until 1am, from November 25 to January 6) remains the largest in Rome’s center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. (Update, 1 December 2016: After being called off last year, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is back!) Update, 18 December 2016: Psych… despite earlier news to the contrary, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is not running this year. There is, however, the market’s traditional carousel running at the piazza!).

But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.

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What to Eat in Rome — And Where

Carbonara-from-Da-Danilo

When in Rome, eat Roman food. (Duh). But to have the best possible culinary experience, go a step further: have the city's most top-notch traditional dishes… at the restaurants that make them in the tastiest, most authentic ways. And it's not always easy to know where that is, since a trattoria that serves up only mediocre meat courses might make the best pasta alla gricia in Rome, while a restaurant usually better ignored might actually be the number-one spot for carciofi alla giudia.

Luckily, here's help! Here are six of Rome's must-eat dishes — and my favorite places for trying each one — in my first piece for the Travel Channel. (Stay tuned for more!)

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Rome’s Underground, Beyond the Catacombs

San Nicola underground

Anywhere you go in Rome, you're walking on a buried, ancient world. Beneath your feet lie the remnants of the city that ruled an empire: temples and streets, villas and churches, monuments and tombs. And while we've all heard of the catacombs, there are many, many other underground sights in the city that are every bit as fascinating. If not more so.

I wrote about seven of my favorite hidden, yet accessible places for an underground Rome fix for the Globe and Mail, online here.

(Update,December 2014: After I wrote that piece, one of the coolest, and longest-awaited, underground sites in Rome opened: the Domus Aurea, or Nero's Golden House. Find out more about the Domus Aurea, and how to get there, here!).

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Italy in 30 Days

03-italy-scarf.w529.h352.2xThis month, New York Magazine is taking a little trip to Italy, with stories every day on the trials, tribulations, myths and magic of la bella vita. I'm excited to be contributing ten (count 'em… ten!) different pieces throughout the month. I'll be updating this post with the links as they publish. Enjoy!

Ciao, bella: 15 lessons from my life in Italy. How does living in Italy change you? Oh, let me count the ways…

Three pasta recipes to impress your Italian lover. Yes, you can recreate those amazing pastas you had in Rome, at home. How do I know? Because if I can do it, anyone can. Here's how.

From Italian nutritionists: Eat cookies for breakfast. In moderation, of course. That, and how to fit gelato, pasta and cappuccino into your diet, straight from the mouths of Italian dieticians. You're welcome.

To Rome with love: Six hidden-gem neighborhoods refreshingly free from tourists (for now). Even devoted readers of Revealed Rome will find some surprises. That's a promise.

Wild, medieval, non-touristy Umbria: A brief tour. It's my favorite region in Italy. Here's how to get started on exploring it — whether in a day or seven.

Naples: Less garbage, just as much to love. Not everyone falls in love with Naples, a city almost as maligned in Italy as it is abroad. I did. Here's why (and why it might deserve a stop on your next Italy trip).

Is your olive oil lying about its virginity? (It might not even be Italian!). My Q&A with intrepid investigative reporter Tom Mueller on an industry so scandalous, profits from fraudulent oil are on par with those from cocaine trafficking — and on why you should care.

Why won't Italians have cappuccino after dinner? Plus: can colpo d'aria (a hit of air) really give you a neck pain? And does a digestivo really help you digest? I talk to doctors to get to the truth behind eight rules that many Italians insist you follow — because otherwise, you might getsickandDIE.

Want real Italian food? Skip these seven dishes. From spaghetti and meatballs to fra diavolo, some of the plates most beloved by Little Italy neighborhoods across America are all but impossible to find in the motherland. Here's why, and what to order instead.

The mayor shouldn't have gone to Capri this summer. Here are five other Italian islands I'd have sent de Blasio that are every bit as stunning as the glitzy isle, but far more under the radar.

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The Most Idyllic Island Escapes from Rome

Island escapes from Rome

I love Rome in summer as much as the next girl. But usually, by the time June rolls around, I’m already dreaming of an island escape.

Luckily, Rome’s seaside location means you don’t need to set aside a whole week to enjoy some idyllic island time: even just a weekend will do. When I’m craving beautiful scenery, super-fresh fish, laid-back hamlets and those sparkling Mediterranean shores, but only have 48 hours to spend (or less!), here are the three islands on the top of my list.

Ponza

Ponza, a great weekend trip from Rome

I can’t believe I’ve gotten into year five of this blog (or my travel-writing career, for that matter) without having published a word about Ponza. For shame! When it comes to Mediterranean islands, it’s easily one of Italy’s best-kept secrets… from international tourists, that is. Romans know Ponza well: in fact, the well-heeled have been visiting the island for more than 2,000 years, drawn by its lush, volcanic greenery, striking cliffs and, of course, bright-blue sea. (Fun fact: the island gets its name from a local legend which holds that Pontius Pilate’s own family had a villa here).

Today, Ponza (also shown at top) is scattered with a handful of small, pastel villages. The main port town crowds with Italians fresh off the ferries in July and August. (It’s much quieter even in June, and when I went once in October, there was hardly anyone there at all—even though the temperature remained balmy enough for a swim).

Circe's cave at the island of Ponza

Although its villages are lovely, Ponza’s main attraction is, of course, the natural scenery. Don’t miss  the Chaia di Luna (above), a crescent of cliffs plunging into the sea where Circe, the sorceress, was said to have seduced Odysseus. In-the-know-Italians also flock to Spiaggia di Frontone, which you take a ferry to from Porto, and stay until the evening, hanging out at the laid-back bars and beach clubs.

Renting a car or scooter is, as with all three of these islands, suggested—but for Ponza, especially, it’s also worth renting a small outboard boat, which you can do right at the harbor, to toodle around. It’s the best way to get to those out-of-the-way coves and beaches that make the island so special. Taking a boat around Ponza

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Formia-Gaeta (one hour, €16.50 or 1.5 hours, €8.20), or to Anzio (one hour and €3.60). From Formia, Laziomar runs ferries to Ponza (80 minutes, €25.50 or 2.5 hours, €16.70); from Anzio, Vetor offers ferries to Ponza (70 minutes, €25 to €48).

Ischia

Ischia, a weekend trip from Rome
Capri isn’t the only island off Naples and the Amalfi caost. Ischia, its neighbor, is actually the largest island in the bay—plus is cheaper, less touristic and every bit as beautiful.

I’ve written about Ischia at length before, both in this post and in this story last year for the Globe and Mail, so I won’t repeat it all here. But let’s put it this way: Ischia has a ridiculously picturesque castle (that just happens to date back to the time of the ancient Greeks), tons of little villages and coves to explore, and some of the best sfogliatelle around. And it makes not only a fantastic quick trip from Rome, but a great day trip from the Amalfi coast or Naples, too.

Castello Aragonese in Ischia, an island in the Bay of Naples

Getting there: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Ischia. The fastest from the main port takes 45 minutes and costs about €28 each way.

Procida

Island of Procida

This picturesque little island is another of Capri’s lesser-known neighbors. It also measures just 1.5 square miles—leaving so little room for tourism buildup, both hotels and tourist crowds are pretty nonexistent.

That, of course, is part of Procida’s charm. Old men gather in the piazzas to gossip and smoke, fishermen repair their nets on the docks and centuries-old traditions endure—like the Good Friday procession of the Misteri, which parades life-sized, handmade floats through the town.

Procida, a day trip from RomeAside from the seaside life and spectacular scenery (this is where Il Postino was filmed), the island has a sense of magic to it I haven’t experienced anywhere else, a kind of Neapolitan mysteriousness that’s been transferred (and preserved) offshore.One local legend has it that, when Procida was besieged (hardly for the first time) by pirates on 8 Ma 1535, locals called on St Michael the archangel for help. He showed up, sword in hand, and the pirates fled, another anniversary that’s celebrated with a procession each year.

For more about Procida, and more shots of this stunning  off-the-beaten-path island, check out my slideshow for the BBC. Procida, an island escape from Rome

Procida’s size makes it more walkable than the other islands, so you don’t have to rent a scooter or car. But getting to some of the farther-flung beaches on the island can still be a bit of a hike (it’s a 2-mile walk from the town to the lovely, if crowded on summer weekends, Lido di Procida beach, for example); we found ourselves occasionally taking cabs, which were relatively cheap (but you will have to have some way to call them).

As an aside, the island’s manageable size and proximity to Naples makes it not only a great weekend escape, but a doable day or half-day trip from Naples or the Amalfi coast.

Getting there: For the most part, the ferries that run to Ischia stop, first, at Procida. So it’s the same procedure as above: Take the train from Rome to Naples (the fastest is 70 minutes, €43; cheapest is 2 hours, €19). From there, grab a bus or taxi to the port (10 minutes; a taxi costs €11) and one of a number of ferries, run by lines including Medmar, Caremar, Alilauro and Snav, on to Procida. The hydrofoil takes just 40 minutes and costs about €15 each way.

Also: Rome’s best beaches, the complete Rome summer guide, and lakes near Rome you won’t want to miss.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

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