The ability to walk is such a simple pleasure…


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Firstly I must apologise for my absence. I’ve been off the radar for three weeks now, as I had to have surgery on some bones in my foot. I thought I’d be laid up on the couch post-recovery, researching and writing lots ~ and its not that the foot has particularly prevented me from writing, but the painkillers have prevented me from thinking very clearly at all. Many hours have been spent just dozing in front of the TV while the pile of books I was looking forward to reading went unread. Anyway, thankfully now the foot is on the mend and pain has subsided and the brain-fog is clearing.

Being denied the simple pleasure of walking anywhere at all for the last couple of weeks has made me realise this morning how much I really like to walk, and to hike, and how much a part of every trip away it is. Whenever I’m in any old world city I’d much rather walk everywhere, just to take in all the lovely little streets, to people-watch and so on, than take any form of public transport. One of the things I really love about European cities in particular is that they were built pre-car, so usually everything is usually within reasonable walking distance from anything else. Stumbling across local bars, trattorias or artisanal workshops are just as much of a joy as the final destination to me. As a result I feel like I know the streets – of Rome in particular – fairly well, even though I’ve never quite made it to all the tourists sights yet. I don’t mind that at all.

So I’m always on the lookout for an interesting and unknown walk or hike, and I recently came across this one that circumnavigates Florence. Its called the L’Anello del Rinascimento, or Renaissance Ring. It’s been created from little-used roads and trackways, and it includes sections of paved roads that go back to Roman or Medieval times. Its 178km’s crosses hills, woods and ploughed fields, and according to the Florence Tourism Authority the walker encounters “monasteries, castles and hospices to welcome pilgrims, ancient walled communities, country churches, and ideally the eye is always on the old centre of the city whose focal point is the dome of the cathedral, the masterpiece of Filippo Brunelleschi, which identifies Florence.” Sounds great to me!

Map courtesy of FirenzeTurismo.

Map courtesy of FirenzeTurismo. see link below.

Since I find about 12km’s a day (give or take) is an easy day’s walk, I recon it would take me a couple of weeks to complete the whole ring. To me, thats enough to get into the rhythm of a long walk without too much possibility of feeling like its an arduous penitential task. Of course if time allowed, I think it would be great idea to rest or maybe only walk a small amount say, every fifth day, so you’ve got time to rest and recover a little from any little injuries or strains.

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According to the Florence tourist authority there are signs to guide tourists along their way, and since each section of the walk has a public transport link with Florence, its quite easy to get back into the centre of Florence when you’ve had enough. They have comprehensive downloadable documents on their site that you can use to guide you along each segment of the ring, describing the terrain, difficulty and places of interest in each section along the way. You can download them here:

photo courtesy of

Many of the pathways have a beautiful view back into Florence.

The fact that I’ve never heard of this walk before is an added bonus. I don’t know anyone who’s ever heard of it either ~ hopefully that means it won’t be teeming with tourists, all jostling for position. If you’ve done this walk or know anything more about it, I’d love to hear from you.

Dreaming about a walk like this one helps me to tolerate the frustration of not being able to walk right now. Short term pain for long term gain. It won’t be long before I’m up and about, wearing proper shoes again. Can’t wait! Non vedo l’ora!


Outlet shopping


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If, like me, you go to Italy and dream about owning a beautiful Italian-made handbag or wallet by Gucci, Fendi or Ferregamo but can never quite stretch to spending those outrageous sums of money, then allow me to let you in my big lux secret: The Mall.

The Mall is located just north of Florence, Tuscany. Last October, I was lucky enough to go there for the second time. Do you know it? Its not really a secret ~ but I’ve never met anyone else who has heard of it, certainly not any fellow Aussies. I don’t know why. It’s definitely the best designer label outlet centre I’ve ever been to, bar none.  And I’ve been to quite a few outlets. Who doesn’t love a bargain?

Its an outdoor mall located about a half an hours drive north of Florence, nestled in beautiful open countryside. I have to say the setting is just beautiful. According to their website there is a special coach that picks up and drops off from very close to the Santa Maria Novella train station in the centre of Florence, on Via Santa Caterina da Siena 17… although I’ve never taken it.

Both times I’ve visited we’ve hired a car and driven there, in order to be able to do it on our own schedule. The first time we went was perhaps six years ago. We hired a cute little Fiat Punto, and managed to navigate our way from Florence into the car park… and we were stunned because the carpark was like a super car showroom. There were Lamborghini’s, Ferrari’s, Porsches, one after the other in the car park! My first thoughts were “oh no… we can’t afford this place…”

…and then we walked up the perfectly manicured street into the Mall itself. It was gorgeous… and the people! the customers! Oh my goodness…. just as stunning! they all looked like supermodels or pouty Victoria Beckham look-alikes. I thought well, if nothing else, it’ll be a great place to people-watch. Having hired a car and navigated our way there, we pressed on.

Just about every high fashion label is there; Dior, Ferragamo, Prada, Armani, Tods, Burberry, Fendi, Bottega Veneta, Diesel, Alexander McQueen, the list goes on and on. I would suggest allowing a good few hours to look through them all. Most of them are larger than your average city-centre label shop would be, but the building (temple) dedicated to Prada and the one dedicated to Gucci are huge. The Prada shop is more like a department store. Its over two levels and the shoe department alone is huge. Of course there’s ladies and gents perfume, handbags, wallets briefcases, satchels and so on, and up the sleek shiny escalator is clothing… everything from jeans and T’s, to casual dresses and stunning evening dresses, mens suits, leisurewear and so on. It was quite busy both times I’ve been there, but not crazy-lady grabby-busy. Quite genteel and ordered.

It seemed to me that most of the stock is simply unsold or excess stock, and not necessarily out of season, as I was there late summer and there were summer and trans-seasonal pieces throughout all the shops. They say that the discounts are at least 20% off the original prices, but I can tell you right now, that must be the absolute minimum, because I bought a beautiful Balenciaga day dress reduced from €1300 to €175. Nowhere on the ticket did it say the original price, but that evening I did an online price check and found the dress had been listed two years before with a very well known pret-a-porter site for €1300. My husband picked up a fabulous hand embellished biker jacket at Alexander McQueen for €375. Definitely not super-cheap, but a one-off purchase… not something he’d ever pay full price for.

There are certainly some pricy things there. But there are definitely some incredible bargains there too. The first time we were there, my husband picked up a lovely Black Label Armani shirt with the faintest dirty fingerprint on the hem. It was the only one there, and it happened to be in his size. I think he paid for €10 or €20 for it. It wasn’t much. The tailoring and quality was impeccable, and he got so many compliments every time he wore it that when we got home to Sydney he sent me in to Armani in the city to get him another one. I told them what I wanted and in very hushed tones they ushered me into the private viewing area, handed me a glass of champagne and had a lovely male model try them on for me… That’s when it hit me that this must really be a very fancy shirt… so I asked how much they were… AU$500 each!!! Ouch. I didn’t buy another one in Sydney, but last year Armani had a whole rack of them. In mauve.

As a non-EU tourist we are also entitled to a (currently) 20% VAT refund for purchases above €155. It can be several smaller priced items – as long as they are are billed together in the same receipt at the same time and from the same shop and add up to more than €155. Don’t forget to ask the sales people for the receipt because they won’t do it unless you ask, and you must have your passport with you to prove that you’re not an EU citizen. Don’t forget the passport. For maximum convenience, you can even process your refund(s) at the designated office located at the foot of The Mall, although we didn’t bother as there was quite a queue, and we knew that we would have to go through the whole process at the airport anyway with other things we’d bought. I must say though, its a laborious and painful task to do at the airport, and you MUST show the items BEFORE you check in, so allow plenty of time to stand in those queues. There’s one queue to show the goods, and another queue to submit the paperwork…. we bought quite a lot between us, so it was worth the hassle, but if you know you’re not going to claim anything else then I would do the paperwork right there.

There’s a restaurant upstairs on the grounds too, very shiny and clean, where you can fan your poor husband who might suffering heart palpitations and feed him gelato and a nice cold beer, while you sip a glass of wine and work out your budget and buying strategy.

I bought a lovely little leather handbag in Prada for €300. With the VAT refund it ended up costing €240 — plus the exchange rate at the time was pretty good, so I think it ended up costing me about $315. Its not super cheap, but that is a whole lot less than some handbags I’ve seen in some Sydney chain stores. And my Balenciaga dress ended up costing me about $150 after the tax refund. Really. Bargain!


For more information, check out their website:


One of my favourite things to do on a quiet Friday night or Sunday afternoon to relax is to surf the interwebs dreaming of Italy. It usually goes something like this: I start by pouring myself a glass of vino rosso or an Aperol Spritz, and I choose an archaeological or historic site to research in greater depth. Then I switch between GoogleMaps and surfing various locations in that region where we could possibly spend a couple of months. This invariably leads me on to looking at properties to rent, and then I start dreaming of a country property to buy in Italy. I don’t know why I dream of a country property. Its irrational. I love everything the city has to offer, and it makes more sense to rent a place for a while first. I marvel and daydream a bit, and I make lists, and I somehow feel closer to getting there.

keep calm1

I read something just recently about how wonderful it is to anticipate a holiday. Not just dreaming about doing something, but the planning, the packing, the anticipation. How, even when we are trying really hard to save money for the trip, missing out on a coffee/new boots/takeout can seem worthwhile, as we aim for the greater goal.

One of my friends loves Italian opera, and her and her partner likes the great outdoors, so they decided they would combine both passions, first go to Verona to see La Traviata performed in the ancient amphitheatre, and then take the train south and then hike cross country to Assisi. She spent six months researching the ancient pilgrimage routes that go to Assisi. She made lists of local produce and dishes to try along the way. She made multiple playlists for her iPod ~ filled with her favourite Verdi works, and then other inspirational playlists for the long hike, with lots of new Italian music to try and so on.

However… nothing went to plan. She arrived in Verona only to find the performance had been postponed a month later because of illness amongst the cast. On the second morning of the hike, her husband slipped and hurt his ankle, rendering him unable to walk any serious distances. They spent their three week holiday in a tiny little B&B on the outskirts of Siena that they managed to book at the last minute instead. Nothing went to plan, but she came home and said they had a great time anyway. They sat on their tiny balcony and sipped italian wines and ate local food, listening to the music she’d prepared on their iPods. And she said she couldn’t wait to plan the next trip.

I guess it takes a certain kind of person not to get totally upset that their best laid plans were all for nothing. But my point is that there is still much pleasure to be had in the anticipation of a trip not yet taken. For us Aussies, who usually have to book and plan many months ahead, not to mention save up for a year to pay for those wretched long-haul flights… the anticipation and planning period lasts longer than the actual trip.

Sometimes that’s the best bit.

Keep calm seat

Falling down the grammar well.


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I just love this guys cartoons, particularly this one. It so neatly illustrates the brain implosion that happens when I’m trying to speak Italian. I know I should try not to think in English and then mentally translate but I invariably slip back into the habit ~ this is what happens to me when I do. I call it “falling down the grammar well”.

grammar well

Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.  🙂

Things to do ~ Le Vie Cave


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Just over the northern edge of Lazio the Vie Cave can be found. The Vie Cave are a loose collection of some 15 trackways, created by the Etruscans. They were cut deep into the tuffaceous rock of the area and provide safe passage ~ barely wide enough for two horses to pass, and up to 25 metres deep in places. Archaeologists think they were created to provide safe access between the settlements and cemeteries around Pitigliano and Sovana but they’re not really sure. Another theory says they were actually mining the tuffaceous rock, but I don’t find that theory convincing.

Photo credit:

One thing that is for certain is that they are dark and mysterious. Much later when the Christians came to use the passageways, they seem to have felt the need to banish the darkness and “baptize” many of these pathways with crosses or little votive shrines.

I’m told that the best starting point to access the most spectacular section of the Vie Cave is the town of Sovana. The entry to the archaeological park is about a 10 minute walk outside of town, or a couple of minutes drive out of town. Follow the signs for Saturnia and head along the narrow paved road. After going under a small tunnel, the entrance and parking lot is on the right hand side.

I’ve heard that they’re a great thing to visit in summer when it’s searing hot as the caves are always cool, but make sure you have some water and mozzie repellent handy. There are picnic tables dotted about the park too. I’m not sure if you can use the tracks to hike all the way from Sovana to Pitigliano ~ perhaps its not recommended… I imagine it could be quite easy to get lost there.

Or if you happen to be in the area in spring, on the night of the Spring equinox there is a torch-lit procession along the pathway of San Giuseppe which is on the Pitigliano side. How amazing would that be?

Learning Italian


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I’ve been learning Italian for just over 10 years now, on and off. I started learning it at university. In that first year we were required to attend classes for 4 hours a week and learn 50 words each week. That meant that by the end of the first semester I’d learnt 500 words, and 1000 by the end of the year. I had sticky notes with vocabulary all over the house and car, I recorded myself reciting words & vocabulary and I played those voice notes to myself on constant repeat in the car. It was hard at the time, but I’m so thankful now ~ those words really have been firmly cemented in my brain!

After I graduated, I took an adult class here in Sydney. I met a wonderful bunch of Italophiles who I’m still good friends with, and we all went right through to the most advanced stage they offered. The classes were great fun and very inspiring, but I still couldn’t really hold a fluent conversation or understand Italian spoken on TV. I remember arriving in Verona shortly afterwards and feeling so frustrated that I really couldn’t speak or understand as much as I thought I could.

Then, by chance, I was at a ‘going away’ party of an acquaintance who was retiring to Tasmania, and I was given the name of his Italian teacher. He told me I’d be lucky if I was taken on, as he only takes on a new student if one moves away. Only recently I discovered that my professore has had one student for 29 years! Seriously! I had been having weekly lessons with him for 6 months before he spoke more than a few words of english to me. He doesn’t make it easy, but that’s the point.

Here’s the thing about a private tutor. There’s nowhere to hide. You have to speak. You will make a complete fool of yourself. You’re going to make mistakes, and you’re going to get caught. There’s no avoiding it. We have conversations each week, he notes my mistakes or words I don’t know, and I have to learn them and then use them in conversation the following week. Each week we discuss a different topic, sometimes related to Italian history or culture, sometimes we discuss something interesting he’s found in the news, sometimes we simply discuss what we’ve done that week.

I notice that my Italian disintegrates when I’m stressed or nervous, and I really struggle to think in both languages at the same time. I’d be a terrible translator ~ if I’m thinking and talking in Italian, my English just falls apart. I also know that I have to work on it every single day; whether its reading, listening or watching something, or sitting down and doing some grammar exercises or learning vocabulary ~ I find if I don’t, the words just evaporate. I watch YouTube videos, watch Rai TV online, read the news, I listen to italian radio programs… sometimes actively, but sometimes I just listen while I cook or while I’m driving. If I’m tired or just don’t have much time, I don’t really listen, I just let it wash over me while I do something else.

I still wouldn’t say I’m fluent, but I feel I can hold a conversation fairly well. The last time I was in Rome I was able to go into an ottica (opticians) and buy new pair of prescription sunglasses and specify the tint and so on and have another pair for my husband delivered to us here in Sydney without a single word of English. Every time I put those sunglasses on I feel they mark a certain level of language proficiency for me… Better than any certificate of achievement.


Me passing my first Italian language proficiency level. (btw I didn’t buy those ones!)

I’ve almost finished reading my first book in Italian; Il Tempo Che Vorrei by Fabio Volo. I’m loving it. It’s very philosophical, and yet contemporary at the same time. As I read, I underline the words I don’t know, and then I write a translation in the margin. At the start of the book there were so many words I didn’t know I couldn’t fit them all in, but now I’m underlining about 5 words or less per page. It contains vocabulary that a student would never learn in any class, no matter how many classes you took!

I haven't yet quite passed level 2 proficiency...

I haven’t yet quite passed level 2 proficiency, but I’m almost there…

Reading my first book in Italian marks another level of proficiency for me too. I’ve spoken with many friends who are bilingual and not one of them had forgotten the name of the first book they had read in their second language. It seems to be an unspoken goal when learning another language.

Leggere mio libro primo nellla lingua italiana è anche un segno di un altro livello di conoscenza per me. Ho parlato con alcuni amici che sono bilingue e nessuno ha dimenticato il nome dello primo libro che è stato letto nella lingua seconda. Sembra essere un obiettivo tacito quando si impara un altra lingue. (I welcome corrections!) 

I wonder if other people feel the same way? What are the landmarks for achieving fluency?

What’s the next goal? I’m not sure ~ but I hope I’ll know it when it approaches.  😉


Things to do ~ Lazio


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One of the greatest things about travelling slowly through a place is being able to do things that not every tourist does, so I’ve started making a list of some of the things I’d like to do when we have time to spare in Italia. It’s a bit of a strange list, filled with things not usually frequented by tourists, and I haven’t come across lots of information about them. I’m hoping to learn more about them before we go next year ~ just having them on my radar means my ears are alert whenever someone mentions them.

The first is the Tomb of Cicero. Marcus Tullius Cicero was a great politician of the Late Republic and gave many great speeches around the time of Julius Caesar. I read a lot of Ciceros writing, both in English and in the original Latin when I was studying for my degree. I felt I’d come to know him quite well.

Cicero grew up in Arpino, which is a small hill town about 100km south-east from Rome, in the province of Frosinone. After becoming enemies with Marc Antony, he was hunted down and killed at his villa in Formia in 43BCE. I clearly remember the lecture where we were told how he’d died, first having his hands cut off ~ a symbolic gesture, since they were the hands that had written against Marc Antony ~ then his tongue was cut out and then his head.

The hill-town of Arpino, south of Rome. Source: jchip on PixDaus

The hill-town of Arpino, south of Rome. Source: jchip on PixDaus

I felt like someone in my family had died! Images of his death haunted me for days, and I recall sleeping very restlessly and weeping in the night ~ my poor husband wanted to know who Marcus was and what on earth had happened to him!

Anyway… Arpino is on my list, as is Formia. Formia is a pretty seaside town, with a well-built Roman port, it seems a lovely place to linger. Somewhere in the hills behind Formia is where Cicero had his summer villa and farms; its where he escaped to when he realised his days were numbered. Just outside of Formia on the ancient Via Appia is a monument traditionally attributed to be the Tomb of Cicero. Its not really known if it is indeed his tomb; there are no markings, nor is there any historical evidence to corroborate the story, but a little further along the Via Appia towards Formia are the remains of the tomb of his daughter, Tulliola. I’m not sure that this tomb is even marked ~ I’ve heard its difficult to find. Personally, I’d have thought they’d have been interred in the same mausoleum, and perhaps Cicero’s remains were first placed in his daughter’s mausoleum and then moved at a later date because of his fame. Who knows. I know Cicero loved his daughter very much and was heart-broken when she died in childbirth.

I could quite happily do a Masters thesis on this subject, but whether it would contribute anything to our knowledge of the Classical world is debatable.

The Tomb of Cicero on the Via Appia.  Photo credit:

The Tomb of Cicero on the Via Appia. Photo credit:

Have you been there? Do you know any more? Feel free to message me or leave a comment if you’ve been to either of these places ~ I’d love to know more about them.