Temple of Vesta, Rome

Temple of Vesta

“Rome living was the world’s sole ornament, and dead is now the world’s sole monument.” — Edmund Spenser, Ruins of Rome

via Sacra

The ruins of Rome lie scattered throughout the city, a few of their intricate details still in place, but mostly fragments of a once greater whole.

Temple of Saturn

Temple facades stand along the remaining streets of the Forum, proud and resolute against the passing of time.

Colosseum

Symbols, attractions, ornaments, marvels, wonders of the world…

sky above the Roman Forum

They will emerge with the dawn for another day, and another, long after we’re gone.

all good things

Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull’s ‘All good things: from Paris to Tahiti, life and longing‘ chronicles her journey from the City of Light to an island synonymous with paradise. The move is the result of a job transfer, but was eagerly embraced following a period of creative and professional stagnancy.

Perhaps because of her relatability, Sarah Turnbull’s previous memoir ‘Almost French‘ stood out from other “Anglophone moves to Paris and discovers great food, bewildering cultural differences, inner joie de vivre, and the secret of French style” tomes that were pretty popular a few years back. But ‘All good things’ is a different sort of book than ‘Almost French’. While it explores cultural differences from an astute and honest perspective, there’s less lightness and humor and, perhaps, deeper reflection. I admit that the sections detailing scuba diving and the natural wonders of the island had my eyes glazing over bit, but I was wholly captivated by the sections that dealt with longing: for inspiration, understanding, and new life.

I was moved by Sarah’s descriptions of the complexity of feelings that arise when facing what seem to be (and sometimes are) insurmountable barriers between herself and motherhood. She is also adept at capturing the isolation and claustrophobia that can be just as potent to life on an island as the dreamy sunsets and glorious flora. The Polynesians Sarah befriends are also vividly rendered; kind, generous, and open, they represent the beauty of Tahiti as much as warm breezes off a glimmering, turquoise sea.

London view

View from “our” flat in Chelsea

Vacation apartment rentals in Europe can be a great choice economically as well as practically: most units come equipped with kitchens and washer/dryer combos, so you can potentially save money on food by eating some meals in, and save space in your bags for souvenirs by packing less. But my favorite aspect of short-term vacation rentals is the local experience factor; whenever I’m in a cool city or town I like to play the ‘what-if-I-lived-here’ game, and renting a place makes that game come alive.

When I began looking for apartment rentals for our trip to London in June, I didn’t have much time. The trip was rather last minute (due to factors I’ll divulge in a later post), and while we wanted to see a few places in England, it would center around London, a notoriously expensive city. If I could find a deal on lodging, we’d have more freedom to indulge in other areas.

Pillows

Details that make a vacation rental a temporary home.

Short-term apartment rentals or private room rentals can be found via independent owners (airbnb, for example, lists over 5,000 places to stay throughout London), but I decided to start with an agency. There are loads and loads of good, well-reviewed short-term apartment rental agencies for London, and it was tough narrowing my focus down to just a few. It helped that I had an idea of where I wanted to stay (near Hyde Park or in or near Bloomsbury), so if an agency didn’t offer anything I liked in either of those areas, I would move on to the next one. Once I found apartments that I was interested in, I contacted the agencies with my dates and waited for a quote.

South Ken tube stop

Shops and restaurants abound around the South Kensington tube stop

All of the agencies listed below responded quickly and if they didn’t have anything for my specific dates, offered an alternative.

Rental agencies in London: 

Coach house rentals – They don’t have the flashiest web site out there, but they offer some really nice looking apartments in good locations throughout London, and the reps were great in getting back to me and in following up. Here’s a list of highlighted properties, and here’s the flat I was dreaming about.

London Perfect – I’d heard of Paris Perfect before, but didn’t realize until I started trip planning for London that they had a London branch as well. This agency seems to specialize in, well, special places for those with a generous budget. Still, I found a couple of nice looking studios that wouldn’t have broken the bank, and the staff were helpful and prompt in my communications with them.

The London Agent – Another agency with properties all over the city. When none of the properties in Bloomsbury I was interested in were available, the rep suggested a nearby flat at a reasonable rate as an alternative. They also followed up with me closer to my trip to see if I was still looking, and to offer a couple of other alternatives.

A Place Like Home – None of the properties I was interested in were available (I wasn’t booking completely last minute, but definitely not as far out as I normally would), but like The London Agent the Place Like Home rep sent a few flats a comparable price.

In the end, I didn’t rent through an agency but rather went with a private owner I found on Homeaway. Renting with Homeaway and VRBO can be riskier than using an agency, but you’ll also pay a little (or sometimes a lot) less. Our temporary home in London was a tiny, well-appointed and well-equipped studio in Chelsea, near the South Kensington tube stop. I had contacted the owner of this flat in the same building, but as it was booked, she offered another studio a floor or so higher up with a similar layout. The owner was attentive and readily available during our stay, and the price was just unbeatable, especially for the location.  I would easily recommend the flat to a single person or a couple that doesn’t mind being in close contact.

Mont-St-Michel

April 21, 2013

Mont-St-Michel

Mont-St-Michel is an occasional island in Normandy, France that is so stunning it’s worth battling the hordes inching their way up the Grand Rue to reach La Merveille (“the miracle”). The three tiers of thirteenth century buildings surrounding an abbey topped with a golden statue of Saint Michael, his posture combative, are indeed a marvel and a vision of strength and simplicity.

crowded Grand Rue

In summer, the Mont is crowded with tourists arriving by bus or car before making their way across the ramparts to clog the streets on their slow journey up to the abbey, whose spire dramatically crowns the Mont.

Hotel Croix Blanche

A cacophony of voices in innumerable languages mingle their way up and up. “Doucement, doucement,” French mothers advise small children and they climb the old stone steps: softly, softly.

DSCN7807

The Abbey moves closer into view.

from the abbey at Mont-St-MichelAlong the way are glimpses are calm, stark beauty.

abbey at Mont-St-MichelFinally, the abbey. The Eglise Abbatiale doesn’t impress with ornate stained glass or artwork. In fact, it is surprisingly sparse and simple and quiet and, like a sudden silence after constant, unrelenting noise it calls the pilgrim to attention and contemplation.

cloisters at Mont-St-Michel

The cloisters provide another opportunity for contemplation, and a welcome bit of green: lush life among all the stone and sand.

from the abbey on Mont-St-Michel Pilgrims, having earned a rest, gaze out at the bay and the ocean beyond.

evening at Mont-St-MichelAs darkness falls the Grand Rue slowly empties, the tourists retreating. Those who remain are treated to the magic of a medieval monument, a wonder, a miracle.

We stayed on the Mont, at the Hotel Croix Blanche, in August. The Mont was heavily, heavily touristed at that point, and our stay was only bearable because we had the Mont nearly to ourselves after dark. In the early morning, we again climbed up to the abbey, this time by ourselves, lingering at the bay views and admiring the tiny, winding streets.

Get that kid some gelato, pronto.

We ate well in Italy, and not by chance. I knew that ‘x’ amount of days meant ‘x’ amount of meals and desserts and because Italian is my favorite cuisine, I didn’t want to waste a single dining opportunity. I researched food blogs and forums, magazines and even guidebook reviews and compiled a list of recommendations. During the many months leading up to our trip, I developed great expectations for memorable culinary experiences.

Too often in Rome, though, our sightseeing schedule didn’t jive with the good restaurants, which are often far removed from touristy areas. Florence, however, is a much smaller city and because we were staying in Oltrarno, an area known for delicious and reasonably priced restaurants, it turned out that every place we ate was a place to which I’d gladly return. We ate well throughout the city, though, including at the place pictured above, called Vestri, just a short walk from the Duomo.

Vestri (Borfo degli Albizi, 11r) is a chocolatier that also happens to have excellent gelato.  The dark chocolate flavor was excellent, of course, as were the hazelnut and stracciatella. Another notable gelato spot was Carapina (via Lambertesca, 18r), which is all about quality, seasonal ingredients. We popped into the small outpost near the ponte Vecchio for some sustenance after an afternoon at the Uffizi and, cups in hand, joined the small crowd of people enjoying their own cones and cups along the small, cobbled lane. Grom (via delle Oche, 24r), a chain, proved a good alternative to the puffed up bins of unnaturally colored and flavored gelato throughout the city center.  The caramello al sale (salted caramel) was particularly tasty.

A panino at ‘Ino

I’m wild about French baguettes and the freshly pressed sandwiches that are common street food in Paris. I had imagined that Italy, being home to panini, would offer a similarly good rustic bread but until we visited ‘Ino, near the Uffizi, I had been surprised and bewildered by the inferiority of Italian bread. ‘Ino has a clean, modern design (tables are barrels topped with clear glass) and offers not only plenty of sandwich options, but functions as a tiny grocery as well–a great option for souvenirs of the edible sort. The freshly made loaf (pictured above) sandwiching a few slices of proscuitto tasted as good as it looks.

How fresh and colorful can you get?!

The San Lorenzo Mercato Centrale is, to use a well-worn but highly appropriate cliche, a feast for the eyes. As it turned out, that’s just what we did: our bellies still full from lunch, we walked all over the market, gawking at the fresh produce and browsing the sweet shops. You can have a sit down meal or grab a sandwich, fruit, cheese, wine, chocolates, and other picnic provisions from one of the many stalls. Note that the streets around the church of San Lorenzo leading towards the covered food market are filled with market stalls selling souvenir t-shirts, cheap clothes, and leather goods. This is the place to bargain for that ‘Ciao, Bella!’ t-shirt you’ve been eyeing.

  • For more tips on markets, wine bars, and restaurants in Florence, check out this Florence for Foodies post from the Divina Cucina blog.
  • Carapina and Vestri are featured in this post on doing a Florence ‘gelato crawl’, by Faith Willinger.

monp (3) Cemeteries are filled with dramas and tragedies, but mostly love stories. 

monp (5)On a sunny summer’s day at the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris, the memorials are evocative and only a little melancholy.  Two hands gently intertwine around a cross, fingers barely brushing. monp (7)Sun spills in through the treetops onto the neatly ordered, wide allées.  monp (10)A testament to the pain of crushing grief and sorrow is beautiful in its own right…

monp (9)…as is an image of soaring hope.

coffee

On my first morning in Rome I went to a bar on via Merulana for an initiation into the Italian-style colazione of capuccino e cornetti. There was a bustle of activity as patrons coasted in and out and staff plucked pastries from display cases to the tune of the gurgle and steam of the espresso machine. The coffee cups were diminutive in size, the coffee itself rich and strong and a little bitter.  I dropped a packet of sugar into my macchiato, stirred it up a bit, and took a sip.  Delizioso.

Over the course of our Italian journey, Matt and I sampled caffè and macchiatos and cappuccinos in Rome and Florence and Milan, and even a caffè freddo in a small bar in Assisi; this slushy iced espresso drink was the perfect jolt of caffeine on a warm, sunny day. In Italy the variety of coffee was relatively limited: you could get coffee, or coffee with milk, or coffee with foam, or coffee with a touch of alcohol, or chocolate, or con panna (whipped cream). Those were the choices, and you couldn’t go wrong because they were all good choices.

I wish that was true of life in general. Read the rest of this entry »