Friday, July 27, 2012


Low clouds and mist enveloped Rome. It was cold. Even worse, the city was in chaos with demonstrations by flag-waving groups loudly protesting against the construction of a high-speed rail line in the north of Italy. Most of the demonstraters were dressed in jeans and sweaters but a group looking like monks with brown robes were standing around with cigarettes stuck in the middle of their mouths while waiting for their marching orders. Stores were shuttered and transit was tied in knots. We, my daughter and two friends, wound our way through back streets to reach the Via Cassia which would lead us to our destination: the late Renaissance-era Villa Farnese, famed for its frescoes and gardens – and we hoped quiet, sun and a good lunch.

 We headed north  through the usual depressing detritus of suburbia, shopping malls and outlet stores until we reached the real countryside set with groves of filbert and olive trees along with a few vineyards. Turning this way and that we came to the small town of Caprarola, the site of the magnificent Villa Farnese built for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese between 1559 to 1575. The sun suddenly appeared to highlight a pentagon-shaped building rising five stories above a long flight of terraced steps set at the top on a hill dominating the town.
The Farneses knew how to live in style. Their Palazzo Farnese in Rome is now the location of the magnificently-decorated French Embassy near Campo di Fiori and the Villa Farnesina in Trastevere hosts a science academy and print collection. The villa we were visiting was a country house built by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, grandson of Pope Paul III, over a partially constructed fortress begun by his ancestor in 1504. 

After we each enjoyed a restorative cappuccino and cornetto the gigantic sundial on a south wall told us that it was time to start our tour of the interior, the 44-acre park, and the Renaissance garden crowning the hill. We joined a group of Italians out on a sunny spring day trip like us. Room after frescoed room conveyed the power and the glory of the Farnese clan.

One room had romantic depictions of the towns and castles owned by the family;

another was called the Room of Farnese Deeds. Deeds, and there were a lot of them, were interesting but the Room of the World Map was the prize. The entire known world as it was in 1574 was depicted, some accurate and some wildly wrong.  

I was in fresco heaven with every wall and ceiling covered in disporting gods and goddesses alongwith flora, fauna and the family. Too much to possibly take in at one go.

As we descended the glorious spiral staircase to cross the moat into the gardens I noticed a woman staring at me intently. Curious, I stared back, wondering why she was so interested. Was my fly unzipped? Then she said in English: “I know you, you worked at the United Nations in the ‘80s. Your name is Judith.”

She was correct but how she remembered me I could not fathom. We chatted a few minutes before she turned back to her companions. Her parting words were, “How strange – this is the first time I have ever been to this villa.” Strange indeed.

We crossed the drawbridge into the warm sunshine, a pleasure after the cold and damp interior where the fireplaces seemed too few and only hooks at the top of the walls remained to hang the long-gone tapestries used to help warm the enormous high-ceilinged rooms.

The bridge took us to a parterre garden made of box topiary and decorated with fountains, and then uphill through a park of chestnut trees. Wild crocus blooms carpeted the ground. 

At the top we ascended the stairs flanked by a catena d’acqua, a  staircase with water running down the side, to arrive at the casino – a summerhouse now belonging to the President of Italy. A delightful perk of office.

The adjacent garden is lined by stone herms (Roman boundary markers) and ancient dark cypresses set against the blue sky.

The casino has terraces for al fresco dining which reminded us that it was lunch time. When our tour was complete we asked about restaurants and were directed to Tratorria del Cimino. The menu was posted outside: carpaccio with funghi porcini, fried artichokes, homemade pastas and gnocchi, grilled and oven-roasted meats. 

We opened the door and were welcomed by an agreeable host who brought bruschetta and local wine while we studied the menu. It was all tempting. I settled on the fettuccini followed by roast pork with rosemary potatoes. Biscotti and another cookie, rich with local filberts, for dessert arrived unbidden. With wine and coffee finished and our goal of peace, sun and good food met, it was time to head back to Rome. All was quiet, the demonstration was finished for the day and the sun was out. Our hotel terrace beckoned.
Ah – the never-ending delights of Italy.

Note: A version of this article appeared earlier on the site Sharing Travel Experiences,

Sunday, July 8, 2012


We were in Belfast, Northern Ireland and wanted to see a bit of the countryside. The Ard Peninsula seemed to be a good idea. It was a good idea until we were well on our way. It started to rain, then it rained harder, then the rain came down in buckets. We continued anyway along the grey windblown Strangford Lough, an arm of the Irish Sea, toward our main goal: Grey Abbey. The complex contains the remains of a Cistercian abbey and outbuildings founded in 1193 by Affreca, the pious wife of a nobleman, in thanks for surviving a dangerous sea passage. The monastery was dissolved in 1541 by Henry VIII and destroyed in 1572 during Elizabethan times. Although the abbey itself was partially rebuilt in the 17th century and used as a church until 1778 nothing except some gravestones now suggest that it had been touched since put to the torch and sacked in the 1500s.

The ruins, set in an extensive greensward, stand open to the weather with the leafy graveyard to one side – a perfect location to visit on a rainy day if one wants to contemplate the passage of time. To enter the grounds we strolled through a reproduction of a medieval physic garden filled with the type of plants the monks would have used for themselves and the surrounding community. The industrious monks were the equivalent of our pharmaceutical companies, cultivating plants that were said to cure many common ailments – a catalogue of the unending miseries of medieval life and a few of our own.

Rosemary for aches, bad heart, worms in the teeth and as a digestive; Fennel for indigestion, bladder stones and as a diuretic; Comfrey to knit bones; Stavesacre to get rid of head lice; Herb Bennet to ward off evil, venomous beasts and bad breath.

Spearmint was also a mouth freshener and cured dog bites; Feverfew relieved fevers and hysteria; St John’s Wort was for anxiety and menopausal problems; Vervain was a good luck charm and cured plague; Betony was protection against witchcraft; Mugwort was also magical as was Rue, to be used against witches. Tansy expelled worms and banished fleas and bed-bugs; Lily of the Valley helped a weak heart and Paeony seeds were for epilepsy and lunacy.

Passing through the dripping garden we entered the ruins. We roamed the grounds, umbrellas firmly grasped, looking at the stones, few in number but resolutely defying time. Interesting architecturally, the abbey was the first gothic-style stone church in Northern Ireland where every window arch and door was pointed rather than round headed. Squishing along we looked at the sodden graveyard wondering how many were there because the potions didn’t work against witches, broken bones or plague. If I was a poet I would have composed an elegy rather like Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard in honor of the dismal sight.

Half-drowned (and seeing no herb that would cast a spell against the rain) we headed for the little town of Donaghadee where Irish Coffee warmed us. The mug of strong coffee, laced with sugar and Irish whiskey and topped with whipped creamed warmed our insides. Our outsides were unexpectedly entertained by some impromptu local color:  an elderly man in a black suit hung with medals. He told us that he had just come from a funeral, but more likely it was a long and bibulous wake that prompted his ramblings about the past. Becoming more cheerful he finished up his narrative with a joke: Aer Lingus was over the ocean when one by one the four engines quit. Desperate, the pilot radioed for help. The controller asked for his height and position whereupon the pilot responded that he was 5 foot 7 and sitting in the front of the plane.

We laughed and went on our way. The sun came out.