Day Trip to Herculaneum: It’s Not Pompeii, But Its Ruins Pack a (Volcanic) Punch

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I love Rome’s ruins: the forum, the Palatine, the scattered bits of temple and theatre and bath. But I’m the first to admit that you need some imagination, and historical background, to look at “ruin” and see “ancient city.”

Not in Herculaneum.

Destroyed (or preserved), like Pompeii, by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum shows you more than the shape of the ancient town. It shows you the town itself. The site boasts two-story buildings, colorful frescoes, and near-perfect mosaics. And because it was dumped mainly with a dense, volcanic stone called tuff, rather than the ash that felled Pompeiians, it’s only here, not at its more-famous neighbor, that you can see remnants of actual wood. There’s nothing like seeing an ancient bedframe to feel uncomfortably close to the townspeople who died here nearly two millennia ago.

Even so, Herculaneum hasn’t managed to usurp the hold that Pompeii has in the international imagination. Why? It’s a lot smaller, for a start: about a third of the size. It’s also somewhat less grand. But with better-preserved buildings, less crowds, and a closer location to Rome, it’s also a rewarding alternative to its more-notorious neighbor. And don’t underestimate the site:  It takes the thorough visitor a good three hours to peek into each house’s nook and cranny.

To get to Herculaneum from Rome, take the train to Naples. The fastest train is 70 minutes and starts at €44 one way; the slowest, at 3 hours, costs €12.40. Go to Trenitalia’s website for times and fares, but remember to put in “Roma” and “Napoli,” not “Rome” and “Naples.” From there, grab the local train, the Circumvesuviana, to “Ercolano.”

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Ristorante Montevecchio: Tastes of a Grandparents’ Kitchen…?

DSC_0001 I had high hopes at Ristorante Montevecchio, a restaurant tucked into almost-impossible-to-find Piazza Montevecchio. Just a two minutes' walk from Piazza Navona, the place is in the center of everything — but thanks to the small, tranquil piazza, still feels off the beaten path.

But I wasn't there because of the location. I was there because the restaurant had been recommended to me, with lavish praise, and because when I Googled it, one of the first things that came up was this glowing review by NPR. (I hadn't even been aware that NPR did restaurant reviews). With visions of "Fresh Tastes of a Grandparents' Kitchen" running through my head, I went.

My first warning sign: the complete lack of diners. At 9:15pm — prime dining time. I should have listened to my own instructions. Instead, I gave it a try.

To be fair, the food was good. I started off with the timballo di parmigiano di melanzane, a little eggplant-and-ricotta concoction that was yummy, if not exactly €12 worth of yummy. For the second course, I took the waiter's suggestion and had his favorite, the ravioli Montevecchio-style — ravioli of the house. Big, plump pillows of pasta filled with ricotta and spinach, the dish was satisfying. But when I pay €16 for pasta in Rome, I expect something pretty darn fantastic, or at least seafood-based. This was not it. The same went for the €8 tiramisu, served, oddly, in what to all intents and purposes appeared to be a water glass.

The service was good, although I can't imagine that three waiters to three tables — the maximum the restaurant got to while I was there — could ever struggle. And the fact that they were closing down at 10:30, when most popular restaurants are just starting to get into full swing, made my dining companion and I feel awkward. "I'm worried the waiter's going to hit you in the head with a chair he's swinging onto a table," she whispered to me at one point. It was only 10:45.

Final verdict? The food's fine, but to get bang for your buck in Rome, skip Montevecchio — unless it's just the cute little piazza you're looking for. (In fairness to NPR, by the way, it looks like management has changed since the review was written).

Food: 3 of 5. Ambiance: 4 of 5. Value: 2 of 5.

Ristorante Montevecchio. Piazza Montevecchio 22a. Closed Mondays. See more details here. Click here for a map.

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The Janiculum, the 8th Hill of Rome

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If you asked the
average traveler how many hills there are around Rome, you'd get one answer: "Seven."

But there are more. And the second-tallest of all of them, the Janiculum — not included in the seven because it's across the River Tiber from the ancient quarter — boasts Bramante's lovely Tempietto and Pope Paul V's 17th-century Fontana dell'Acqua Paola. But more crucially, it also serves up some of the city's best views. (Just see above).

To get up there without your own car, you can hike (for a long time) or take the 970 or 115 buses. Rome's transportation website can map your route for you; just remember that in Italian it's "Gianicolo," not "Janiculum." ("Passeggiata del Gianicolo" is the best to put in).

A caveat: Some people go up to the Janiculum at noon, when a cannon is fired to mark the time. That I don't recommend, unless you have lots of time to kill in Rome. There's just too much else to do during the day, and even if you're an avid photographer, the midday light will be flat. But if you can get there and back in the evening, just as the sun is setting, you might find it's a good way to see the city the only way it's peaceful: from far away. Just ignore the teenagers making out in their cars.

Click here for a map.

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Weekend in Iglesias, Sardinia

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Last week, a friend of mine visited me in Rome. He'd never been to Italy before, and he asked if we could day-trip to Venice. I hedged. Venice is expensive, and touristy, and crowded, I told him. But I knew I had to come up with an equally-seductive alternative. Racking my brain — and asking everyone I knew — I finally came up with an answer: Sardinia.

A week later, we were on the plane. (If a Ryanair counts as a plane: Ryanair's rickety machines always strike me as much as planes as, when I was 4, a big cardboard box was an actual choo-choo train. It takes imagination. And faith.) We landed in Cagliari just an hour later. And from there, hopped on a train to Iglesias. Even for the directionally-challenged and even without renting a car — something we'd expressly been told NOT TO DO by most Italians — getting from City A to City B was a breeze.

And oh, were we glad we went.


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Sardinia gets packed in July and August, but in early June, we were the only tourists — including Europeans — that we saw. And since most Italians beeline for the northern Costa Smeralda, I'm not sure if the west coast's Iglesias, where we stayed, ever gets crowded. Take our bed & breakfast, "La Babbajola": Since we were the only guests there, for just €60/night, we had the whole palazzo — complete with clawed bathtubs, frescoed dining room, and antique armoires — to ourselves. Let's just say it felt more "baronial" than "B&B."

To be fair, there isn't a ton to do in Iglesias. (Perhaps part of the reason why the town didn't even make it into the Sardinian section of the Rough Guide we had with us). It's just a taste of Sardinia: Known for its mining and not much else, Iglesias doesn't boast any big museums or famous churches, and we didn't see the island's famed nuraghi. But I was exhausted of showing guest after guest around Rome, my friend was mending from a breakup, and for us, the town was perfect. Lovely. Quiet. Traditional. (Waiting outside our B&B, we were greeted by an elderly woman in a black veil who called from her balcony in Italian, "Who are you looking for? Are they not in?")

Iglesias was also close (without a rental car, close-ish) to some of Sardinia's most beautiful beaches. The photo above is of the famous cove at Masua, a 20-minute/€30 cab ride or €2.50 bus rideDSC_0192 away. (The "pullman" bus that goes back and forth to the beach starts running regularly on June 29. Before that, you're stuck with just one bus a day. Or, shh, there's always hitchhiking…) The closest beach is called Fontanamare. While more crowded and (slightly) less picturesque, it's also pretty darn lovely, and I think these babies (right) agree. (This took some embarrassment to realize. Read our shameful tale here.)

But the best thing about Iglesias was the people. I have never. Met such nice people. In my life. Sure,
I hail from the cold (in all sense of the word) clime of New England, but my friend's from friendly Alabama — and he agreed. From the woman who came up to us in the street and greeted us so warmly, with kisses on both cheek, that we thought it was our B&B owner (it wasn't), to the cosmetics-store clerk who took pity on our unwashed selves and gave us loads of free samples of moisturizers and perfumes (were we that smelly?), everyone was so darn nice. And they didn't expect a thing for it. Living in Rome, I'd forgotten what that was like.

If you go to the less-frequented side of Sardinia, including its western coast, be aware that very few people speak English. The town centers can be incredibly confusing, and public transport is slim to none. But I, for one, am going back.

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Basilica of Santa Prassede: 9th-century Mosaics, 1st-century Relics, and Nearly No Visitors

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Lots of travelers visit the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. Few know that, just around the corner, Rome boasts an equally precious, way older — and, in my opinion, more moving — church. Just don't be swayed by its unassuming exterior.

The Basilica of Santa Prassede stands on the site of St. Prassede's own house where, according to tradition, she put up martyrs including St. Peter. A church was first built here in the 5th century, although an oratory might have existed as early as 150 AD. The ruins of those earlier buildings haven't yet been excavated. Some day…

But in the meantime, you can explore the current church — which was built in the 9th century. And it has frescoes and mosaics from the same period,
Picture 623 something that (no matter how much really, really old stuff I see) still blows me away. Check out the glittering mosaics in the Chapel of St. Zeno, right. You can also descend into the crypt, which the famous Cosmati brothers decorated in the 13th century, to see the sarcophagi of Prassede and her equally-saintly sister, Pudenziana. The tombs have relics of the sisters, including a sponge they used to soak up the blood of 3,000 different martyrs.

But the most famous relic in the whole church is the Column of Flagellation. It's pretty safe to say this probably isn't the real deal… but then, that's not really the point with relics, is it?

The Basilica of Santa Prassede is open every day from 7:30am-12pm and 4pm-4:30pm. Don't forget coins to light up the mosaics. 

Click here for a map.

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Five Rules for Finding Rome’s Best Restaurants

How to find the best restaurants in Rome - don't eat here!
It can be tough to simply stumble across great restaurants in Rome, a city that's thick on the ground with mediocre, overpriced dining options. And so, to eat at the very best restaurants in Rome, it's always advisable to have a list of recommendations with you (and to make reservations in advance).

But what if you just want to eat well, avoid Rome's worst dining options, and not spend tons of time researching and booking restaurants? Then just keep these five rules in mind. With these tried-and-true ways to find yummy food, even without a guidebook, who knows… you might even stumble across a trattoria you never would have discovered otherwise!

1. Get away from the uber-tourist centers… or at least be aware that the closest you are to, say, the Colosseum, the harder it'll be for you to find top-notch nosh. There are some nhotable exceptions to this: The local favorite Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, for example, is remarkably close to the Roman forum for having such darn good food. But while the family that runs Taverna has the pride and business acumen to keep their food delicious and their prices moderate, not every restaurant so well-positioned will do the same. Especially watch out for the areas right around the Vatican and the Trevi Fountain, which are veritable food deserts.

2. Run, don't walk, away from that oh-so-friendly host trying to get you to come inside. He seems nice? He speaks English? He's telling you you're beautiful and your husband is a lucky man? That all means one thing: His food's not good enough for people — most notably Italians — to come in on their own.

3. A tourist menu can be okay. Yes, if it's posted on the door as "MENU TURISTICA: 10 Euros for appetizer, pasta, and wine!", you might be in trouble. But if you go inside and are handed an English menu, don't worry. Most restaurants do this these days.

4. Never look for a place to eat at 6pm. Or 7pm. Or anytime before 8. As a general rule of thumb, if it's open that early, it'll be catering to tourists: Italians never eat before 8:30.

5. Trattoria, hosteria, taverna…meh. Any difference there once was between these has pretty much slipped away. Just remember that a birreria is more a place for fried food and beer, and that most good pizzerias aren't open at lunch.

Finally, remember what you're looking out for: That hole-in-the-wall place that doesn't even look like a restaurant on the outside, but when you walk in (remember, at 9pm), it's bustling with Italians. Eat only at gems like these, and you're guaranteed to have some of the best food in Rome.

You might also like:

Crimes and Other Nefariousness: Rome's Top Scams 

Where to Eat in Rome's Most Touristy Areas

Can You Drink from Rome's Water Fountains? Really?

 

 

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Galleria Borghese: For the Art Lovers, Bernini, Caravaggio, and More

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Rome's Galleria Borghese is one of Italy's best art museums, filled with pieces by Raphael, Rubens, Titian, Caravaggio and Bernini… to name a few. But it tends not to be on most first-time tourist itineraries. Even though skipping the Borghese is like visiting Paris and dismissing the Musee d'Orsay. If that's you, stop here: maybe art just ain't your thing. And that's okay.

For those who love this kind of stuff, though, you can't miss it. First, there's the building itself. The Villa Borghese, built in the 17th century by Cardinal Scipione Borghese, is a rare gem: Never used as a home, it was built with the express purpose of showing off Scipione's art collection. With art and architecture intertwined, taking in the collection itself is a pleasant, unified experience. Look above you, and frescoes echo the themes of the pieces beneath. Look before you, and ancient and 17th-century sculptures of the same subjects intermingle.

013490_0320 But if there's any broad generalization you can make about the collection, it's that it was certainly borne out of passion: Borghese was such an avid collector that he had Domenechino jailed so he could get his hands on "Diana Hunting," sent henchmen to steal Raphael's "Entombment" from Perugia in the dead of night, and bargained so hard with Caravaggio in a game of 17th-century papal justice known as "Paintings for a Pardon" that he may have helped cause the artist's death. And it has the masterpieces to prove it.

Love Bernini's supple sculptures? Then you'll be blown away by the pieces here, some of the earliest and  Bernini2most famous from his long career: the "Apollo and Daphne," then thought impossible to render in stone (and so beautifully done that, I'll admit, it brought tears to my eyes); the "David," a self-portrait of the artist as he takes on critics and, perhaps, even Michelangelo's own world-famous "David;" "Aeneas and Anchises," done when Bernini was just 21 years old; the "Rape of Proserpina," so realistic you can see how Pluto's fingers indent Proserpina's plush skin — and feel her fear as he carries her to the underworld. Except that it happens to be marble. Right.  

But Bernini's not the only hotshot at the Borghese. Caravaggio, that 17th-century scofflaw who split his time between brawling, barfights and Baroque art, has gotten renewed attention this year with the 400th anniversary of his death. But at the Borghese, he's always been a big deal. One of his earliest patrons was Scipione Borghese, and the villa has his "Sick Bacchus," "Boy with a Basket of Fruit," and "Madonna of the Snakes," among other pieces.

That's not to mention the collection's pieces by Rubens. Raphael. Correggio. Lucas Cranach the Elder. The list keeps going.

The Borghese: There's a reason why it's my first post. It's fantastic.

Just remember that if you go, you must (must!) book in advance, as entrances are only on every odd hour (9am, 11am, 1pm, and so on). Do it a couple of days ahead of time as slots fill up quickly, especially in the high season. You can do it online here for an extra booking fee, or call 0039 06 8413979. A slight hassle? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

The Borghese is located at Piazzale del Museo Borghese, 5.

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