Just a girl rambling around the globe and writing about it.

Musings from around the block and farther.

Monday, August 5, 2013

The Underground Bookstore

We are back from Europe, but I found this post waiting to be published. This was such a fun not-so-secret "secret" discovery... Enjoy!

Our apartment is located near Piazza Barberini, and just up the street from a super busy intersection and tunnel. The Romans drive as though they are in a race and it's a wonder anyone gets across the street in one piece. (This is a huge difference from Barcelona, where people respectfully wait their turns and pedestrians are allowed to cross before the mopeds, bikes and cars take over; we even saw a person assist a blind man across the street and then cross back over and go on his way. We haven't observed the same thing in Rome...)

Anyway, yesterday, Raf and I noticed a sign for an "underground bookstore" with free entry and were intrigued enough to investigate. It turns out there is a bookstore under the street, with four entry/exit points, so you can safely get across the street, or even diagonally across. 

Not only did we get through the intersection without fearing for our lives or pulling Marlowe's arms out of their sockets, but we browsed a variety of books in many different languages, as well as an assortment of travel accessories and sundry items. And when we were done, we found our passage up to the sunlit Roman streets and wandered back into the fray...

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Spa-mma Mia (Kami Spa, Rome)

Rome is filled with history and decaying beauty on every street corner. It's noisy and chaotic and full of modern life and rubbish on the streets. Romans race through cobblestone streets to have chimney-puffing smoke breaks and speak in rapid, angry bursts (when they may truly be saying sweet words to each other; it's a example of how the medium is the message). The food is heavy and delicious and cheesy and meaty. To say there is a lot of humanity, in all its forms (good, bad, ugly, beautiful, loud, brutal, pushy, funny, etc.) is an understatement.

On our first day, Raf and I took a walk around our apartment. We turned the first corner, onto a small alleyway, and as we passed an unassuming door, I noticed a familiar smell, like lemongrass and eucalyptus. 

A spa?

I stopped and stared into the calm void of basalt floors and sandstone walls. Sure enough, there was a highly rated ("Voted Rome's best day spa!") spa sandwiched between a ratty garage and a tiny wash-n-dry. 

A few days ago, I decided to finish off my Roman holiday with a massage and I must admit it was one of the very best souvenirs I could have gotten.

You don't realize - or maybe you do - that being gone from your regular routine can take a big toll on you. I don't speak Italian very well and we have stayed close to the more "touristy" sections of Rome, so there is a gruffness to the way we've been treated by the tourist-jaded Romans who inhabit those areas. No one has been outright mean or rude - I don't mean that at all - but there has been a lack of genuine sweetness and connection, except by our fabulous guide Grazie. 

Anyway, I didn't realize how much I needed to release the tensions of Rome until they were being knocked out of me via a blend of Oriental massage techniques. 

The actual spa was not what I'm used to. I've been to spas in Vegas and LA. I love the gritty Korean day spas where they scrub you within an inch of your life, until your skin glows. And most of all, I love the fragrant, luxurious Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, where you could spend an entire day and not remember there's a "real" world outside its Moroccan-tiled walls. In all of these places, the spa facilities are a sanctuary unto themselves, with steam rooms and saunas and beautiful baths and pools and jacuzzis and showers and fragrant amenities. There's usually tea and cool cucumber water and fresh fruit and cut flowers and a bevy of spa attendants and freshly laundered towels.

Kami Spa is not like that. For 30 Euro (the add-on cost to use the "facilities" if you have a treatment), there is a tepid pool (why?) and a steam room that smelled a little moldy. The showers are in that "facility" area, not near the lockers, and you have to walk through the lobby (where other clients are sitting and which faces the street) to get to the facilities and back. Weird. I was the only one in the "facility" area, too, which was odd, and they had to pull a curtain over the window that overlooks the lobby so I'd have some privacy. 

Okay, whatever. It's Rome, nothing is "usual." I'm game.

I took a quick dip in the not-warm pool and then went into the steam room. Once I got past the faint smell of mold, I found myself drifting away, my muscles relaxing into the warmth of the steam. The stress of the vacation literally melted away (you may laugh, but if you think about it, a vacation can be super stressful; this trip, I've been concerned about everyone getting enough to eat and having a good time and getting the right souvenirs and staying out of the busy streets of Rome so they don't get killed by a guy on a scooter who's smoking and talking on his mobile phone). I didn't want to leave.

Finally, it was time for my massage. The therapist (Nok) escorted me via elevator to her treatment room, which was beautiful and calm. For an hour, she kneaded my muscles and chased the stress away. I truly felt like a new person. An old, familiar feeling of calm contentedness came back... and I hadn't noticed its absence until it returned. 



So what if the facilities weren't up to snuff. The massage was the best I'd ever had - firm, thorough, muscle-relaxing... and exactly what the ring leader of this traveling circus needed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Campo de' Fiori

This morning, while the girls slept in, Raf and I trekked to Campo de' Fiori for a coffee and some vegetables (we decided to forego the pizza and pasta today in favor of sauteing up some veggies).  

We've actually spent a few evenings and dinners at Campo de' Fiori because the girls love a little cafe there (which serves all the typical Italian dishes and is likely just as yummy as any other trattoria, but they like what they already know). The afternoon and evening crowd is lively, with street performers and musicians filling the center of the piazza. Last night, we listened to a 4-piece band (complete with accordian and stand-up bass) and watched two ladies tap dance their hearts out. The ever-present toy peddlers shilled light-up toys that fly and squish and splat and squeal. There was even a guy blowing gigantic bubbles that floated above the crowds until they popped into sparkling droplets. Since there's no real rush for dinner, you can spend the time waiting for your meal by looking up as the orange sepia Roman sunset gives way to an inky indigo blue that covers the city in a thick night-sky blanket.

But today was our first time in Il Campo during its busy daylight hours. I've heard and read that "true Romans" don't shop there and that it's only for tourists, but hey! We're tourists, so wandered around, looking at the beautiful produce and souvenir stalls, stopping at a caffe bar for a "caffe shakerato" (espresso shaken with ice... basically, an iced coffee with a fancy name!). 

olive oil cans
espresso pots

caffe shakerato
The walk there was easy, effortless, took about 10 minutes (as opposed to 20-30 minutes with three girls to herd). The way home was crazy and chaotic, due to a strike or protest that crowded the streets with protesters and police of every kind (lots of different uniforms), as well as a helicopter overhead. Many streets were closed or blocked and we had to find a new route around the city to get back to the apartment. Luckily, it was a fairly peaceful protest (if it was, in fact, a protest), and we made it back only a bit later than we'd expected.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pixie Delights in Ojai

image from ojaipixies.com

We're still in Rome, but I just found this post about Ojai, which I never published. Please enjoy this little bit of California sunshine between posts about Italy.

My favorite scent in the whole world is citrus.  I'm a rabid fan of orange blossoms, but I am also partial to the fresh sugar-citrus smell of Meyer lemon rinds, the green-grass fragrance of lemon leaves, the tart kiss of a satsuma. Blood oranges, lemonade, greyhound cocktails, lemon squares, lime-laden mojitos... I love 'em all. 

It follows, then, that one of my very most favorite places in the entire world is Ojai, just 45 minutes north of my house. Not only is it beautiful, but the valley is full of citrus trees.  Driving along Ojai Avenue, past the pin dot of the main drag, Libbey Park and the arcade, the streets become tiny thoroughfares, winding travelers through a fairy land of Pixie tangerine trees.  

The famous Ojai "pink moment"
I wanted to jump out of the car, run through the trees wildly, throw a picnic blanket on the rough ground and eat as many tangerines as I could pick with my bare hands, standing on tippy toes to reach as high up in the trees as possible.  And when I sated my citrus cravings - for the moment - I would lie on the blanket and fall asleep under the green canopy of glossy leaves, my chin and arms sticky with tangerine juice, my lap overflowing with discarded peels. 

They call Ojai "Shangri-La"... and I'm a believer.

For the record, we stayed at Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, which is a magical dream of luxury and quiet.  We ate rich Italian food at Boccali's - ask for Starlet when you go, she's a doll of a waitress.  And if you're lucky enough to find yourself with time on your hands, I'd recommend a reflective hike at Meditation Mount, on the far east side of the valley, preferably at sunset so that you can witness the majesty of the famous Ojai "pink moment." Then cap off the day with a kuyam treatment at Ojai Valley Spa.  Bliss. 

The Art of What Is - Villa Borghese in Rome

Before we left, I remembered to buy tickets for the Borghese Gallery in Rome. It's an interesting ticket process: at least a week (or a few days) in advance, you reserve and pay for your 2-hour timeslot online (you can only go at 9 am, 11 am, 1 pm, 3 pm or 5pm); a half hour before your time, you line up in the ticket office with the print-out of your reservation, hoping you're in the right line and wondering if the clerk (who's on his phone the whole time) even knows you're there; and then, tickets in hand, you have two hours to explore one of the world's most beautiful art galleries. 

When I booked online - over a week ago, in California - I couldn't decide on the "best" time slot for our family of five. Would they wake up early enough for the 11 am slot, knowing we'd have to be there at 10:30 and thus would have to leave the apartment at 10 am (the girls are not early risers on a "regular" schedule, so vacation mornings are even more of a challenge)? Would 1 pm hit us right at lunchtime? Would 3 pm be too late because we'd be out exploring the city and perhaps reluctant to go and see art?

I had *thought* I'd booked 11 am, so we rallied the girls - not easy with an ice cold shower that never warmed up - and walked up Via Veneto past the chi-chi sidewalk cafes and stood in line behind a gaggle of American college-age girls and got our tickets.

At the ticket window, the clerk finally stopped his conversation with his co-worker and turned to me with my tickets in his hand, "These are for 3 pm. Next!"

The good part? We had hours to ride bikes and a surrey around the gardens again, caught a gorgeous view of Rome from above the Piazza del Popolo and had a nice lunch at a cafe within the garden (Marlowe had another minestrone soup and I had my first non-cheese, non-pizza, non-pasta meal since we arrived: spinach and white beans).

The bad part? We're back at the apartment and I think two of the girls are staging a mutiny. 

Chances are, it will just be a museum trip for me and Emme, which is fine, too. My expectation was to show my whole family this museum that I love so much, the place where I fell for Caravaggio and Bernini in a big way, but it appears that I have to let go of that expectation and practice the art of being with what *is* rather than what I expected.   I'll leave in about 20 minutes to hike back up to the Villa, but for now, here are some pictures:

The girls love these stands all around the Villa Borghese;
Emme ate two huge panini the other day and we've also had
cold water, Gatorade, Nestea, Oreos, gelati... It's awesome!
Sure beats a dilapidated ice cream truck in the Valley. 
A 4-person pedal-powered surrey. It goes way faster than you'd expect
(though still not as fast as a regular bike. So there's that...)
Serena overlooking Rome.
Emme and me above the Piazza del Popolo.
Yes, she's taller than me.
Marlowe, continuing her culinary tour of Rome, ordered a
strawberry granita with whipped cream at lunch.
Soo yummy!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Travel Tips - Erin's European Life Savers

Now that we've been living out of suitcases in Europe for over a week, I feel comfortable sharing a few of the things that have made our lives and traveling with the kids much, much easier. 

1 - laptop - Having a laptop has made it easy to look up various destinations and maps. I love typing as opposed to tapping on my phone or iPad (although we brought those, too, and have used them extensively). The kids like looking up YouTube videos of their fave shows, too, when they're tired and need to veg out. Some people might balk at that - they're in Italy, for god's sake! But honestly, I think they've earned it since they've been cool with walking all over Barcelona and Rome with us. It's a treat... and it keeps us just as happy (no fighting = good, quiet siesta times).

2 - dropbox - About a month ago, I signed up for Dropbox (www.dropbox.com) so that I could upload and store all of my pictures and music in "the cloud" and access them from any computer or device at any time. I had no idea how awesome it would be for traveling! Of course, I can access my travel docs on my phone and iPad and laptop, etc., but I can also upload the pictures from my phone and my regular digital camera onto my computer and Dropbox will automatically upload them to "the cloud" so they are safe and sound. No more worrying about losing my camera or deleting pictures before I get home. My memories are safely and digitally preserved.

3 - tour guide - I've said it before, but I'm a big believer in paying for a private local guide to help you get oriented in a city, especially if you have kids. Some people (and I used to be one of them) love planning a trip and taking out their maps and guidebooks while walking around a city, but now I prefer walking and talking with a guide whose job it is to answer my questions and customize a tour around my family's needs and interests. If we want to stop for gelato, we stop. If we have a question about the ruins, it's answered. If we need transportation, they arrange it. Bing, bam, boom. Even a 3-hour tour once during the trip is enough to get familiar with a local's-eye view of a city and glimpse into the life of someone who lives here. Because of our tours, we've been able to see cities from the inside out, learning about specialty foods and customs and festivals. Often, we'll find ourselves far from the crowds, in spots where the views are spectacular and there are no other tourists in sight. It also ensures that we don't wander in circles trying to find a landmark or a Metro station or a taxi when the kids are tired, which is worth its weight in gold!

4 - adaptors - Buy your adaptors on Amazon for a few bucks before you leave for your trip. We got three adaptors this time and they have been invaluable for keeping our phones, camera, laptop, kindles and hair straightener working. We're lucky that most modern US appliances can convert to both 110 and 220 electrical outlets, so all you need is the right adaptor. When my family moved to Naples, Italy, when I was a teenager (about 25 years ago), we had to have a small converter that plugged into the wall, and then we could plug our appliances into that... but still, we fried our fair share of hair dryers... Needless to say, I'm glad it's so easy nowadays!

5 - go grocery shopping - Even if we stay in a hotel, I like to go to local grocery stores to check out snacks and get bottled water, fruit and picnic items. We've learned that you have to weigh your own produce at most European markets and the machine will give you a sticker to put on the bag (and if you don't do this, you'll get a stink eye from the cashier and the long line of locals behind you!), and you often are required to bag your own items in your own bag. Plus, I love the brand names of foreign products (case in point: Horniman's teas... hmmm...) and it's reason enough not to bring your own shampoo to try something new.

6 - rent an apartment - Sure, you won't have a concierge downstairs, but you'll be able to feel more "at home" in a foreign city if you have your own space. The drawbacks are that you can't call downstairs if you run out of toilet paper or garbage bags, but it's nice to have your own entrance and exit, and to spread out a little bit more than in a tiny hotel room. 

7 - make yourself comfortable - We often find ourselves spending less on touristy activities and a little extra on the things that make our trip more comfortable or enjoyable. In Barcelona, we bought inexpensive beach towels, which we gave to the cleaning lady when we left; it may not seem like a big deal, but we used them over and over throughout the week! In Rome we've had mild weather, but even so, our apartment's A/Cs limp along. When I left the windows open at night, though, we got bitten by mosquitoes. The solution was to buy two cheap fans from an old guy in a little shop around the corner. We'll bequeath them to the apartment and to all the lucky travelers who rent it during the sweltering summer months, but the fans have made our trip that much better! And when I think about it, I'd much rather have a good night's sleep than a suitcase filled with cheap replicas of the Vatican or key chains.

8 - splurge-worthy souvenirs - Before I take a trip, I really think about the item(s) I'd love to bring home to remember my trip, besides pictures and these blog posts. In Barcelona, I took Emme and Serena to Lluis Manuel in the Gothic Quarter for espadrilles. In Rome, I found a beautiful leather purse and Raf bought a wallet. Emme and Serena asked to buy some make-up at Sephora, which they can buy in the US, but they wanted something they'd used every day that would remind them of Rome, so I said yes. Marlowe has gotten several toys and laser-lights to use at night. I also have my eye out for a gold ring to commemorate our 15th wedding anniversary. If it's a nice item that I will use all the time and makes an ordinary day feel special (like the purse I bought or Emme's new mascara), then it's worth the splurge to me. Boxer shorts emblazoned with the image of a marble statue's penis? Not so much.

9 - ziploc bags - I like to grab a handful of various sizes before I leave and tuck them into my suitcase. You never know what you'll need them for: protecting phones if it's rainy, holding the second half of a sandwich for later, carrying Euro coins, separating snacks, etc., etc. 

10 - get into it - If all else fails, just "get into it," one of our favorite lines from "The Darjeeling Limited." Raf and I say this when we don't quite know where we're going or what we're gonna do, but we want to get out and enjoy the city. The line from Darjeeling is from a scene in which the oldest brother (Owen Wilson) is getting a shoe shine and the kid steals his shoe. He hobbles after the boy, then stops and says something like, "I nearly died, Jack's heart has been broken and Rubby's having a child. Let's get into it!" as a sort of battle cry, like there's nothing left to lose. It seems to cover everything. 

Just get into it!

The Grand Tour

One of my best "tricks" for traveling, especially in a busy city in high season, is to hire a private local guide for at least a few hours. Not only will they buy your tickets in advance and navigate you through the crowds like a professional, but they can help you understand exactly what you're looking at (which is helpful when you're facing a pile of rubble that belonged to this emperor or that temple to some goddess we can't remember). They can also point you in the direction of a great trattoria or find the name of a shop that sells more comfortable pillows (if, like us, you're staying in a great apartment with cardboard-flat pillows). The other nice thing is, a guide can take pictures of all five of us!

Allora... The Grand Tour. We didn't go to all of these sights with our Roman guide Grazie, but she really helped us get a feeling for the ancient cities within Rome.
The Roman Forum with Grazie
Piazza del Campidoglio
The Coliseum
Trinita di Monti (top of the "Spanish Steps")
Piazza del Quirinale - the Italian version of the White House,
 where the Prime Minister lives. It's also a kick-ass place
to view the Roman sunset.