Italy in Books - Rubicon by Tom Holland

It's that time of the month again... I've left it late as usual and now, late in the evening on the 29th May, I'm finally squeezing in time to write the book review for my 'Italy in Books' May entry. I'm really happy to find the time to do this though, as my chosen book this month is really one to savor. This month, I've gone for something about the Romans. In fact, I've gone for a book that covers the entire history of the Roman Republic. As it was for the Romans, I don't seem to do things by halves...

Rubicon is a narrative history book that covers the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. It's ambitious certainly, but also quite bewitching. It covers the entire history of the republic, but is written in a style which is anything but dry and academic. This style means that even those with little previous knowledge of Roman history (such as me, rather embarrassingly) can soon find themselves totally engrossed in the story of the Republic's rise and fall.

Over eleven chapters, with additional maps, timelines and photos to help you along the way, the book details 750 years of the Roman Republic, from it's formation, the destruction of Carthage, the Gracchi brothers, the silver-tongued Cicero, the wars in the East, Caesar, Cleopatra and finally, the death of Augustus. This may sound like a lot, and, well, it is, but it's an engaging read and probably my favorite this year.

The book title is taken from that fateful decision by a young Julius Caesar to cross the Rubicon river into Italy, some 750 years B.C. The preface of the book covers this pivotal moment so well that simply, from that moment on, I was captivated. This is a stunning book, bringing what is admittedly a soap opera of characters to life in a way that I've never seen before. It reads like a film, covering great moments in history as if they're happening in real-time. I've learnt a bit of history from the book, but I've also enjoyed it immensely.

Rubicon comes in at around 400 pages, so isn't for the faint-hearted. However, it's very well written, and it can feel as if one is reading a thriller rather than a history book. Sometimes, I found it a little confusing, what with all the strange names and places, but at the same time it was fascinating and really made me want to learn more about the Roman empire (above the usual stuff about aquaducts that I've learnt at school). For that alone, I can heartily recommend this book.

Rubicon. The triumph and tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland is published by Abacus and should be available in all good book shops (or can be bought from Amazon here).

The other May reviews in the Italy in Books challenge can be found here

A weekend away - Sorrento

Over Easter, we took advantage of Trenitalia. I know, it sounds bad. The offers were too good to resist. We took an intercity notte down from Rome for only 10 euros each, and arrived, fresh faced in Napoli centrale station three hours later (while on the Frecciarossa it takes 1hr 10 mins). Missing an opportunity for one of those intense incredible espresso's one finds in Naples, we headed straight downstairs to the circumvesuviana for the 1 hour train journey out past Pompeii to Sorrento.

Aaah, beautiful Sorrento, I hear you saying... well, I won't lie to you, it's OK. I mean, sure there's beautiful views*, but only if you pay through the nose to stay in one of the cliff-top hotels (e.g. the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria for 500EUR a night), and the views from the train passing through Meta and so on were fantastic. But Sorrento, you disappointed me.

It's over-touristy. It felt a bit fake. It, unlike many of the coiffured woman snootily walking round town, felt like lamb dressed as mutton. I don't want to go on holiday to find an English pub. I can see premiership football at home. I don't want to drink Strongbow (although that's just a life-rule) and I definitely don't want to try the pub's 'fish and chips'. So yeah, we came, we saw, and sadly, we got a little disappointed.

However, over the next three days Sorrento did grow on us. We stayed at the Hotel Ulysees, defined as a budget option on It's a 20-30 minute walk from the train station and a bit hard to find at first, partly as the roof doubles as a car park, partly as it's on a road underneath the main street. However, it was comfortable, the room quite spacious, and there was free Wi-Fi in the lobby (which led to the bizarre sight of around 30 people in complete silence checking Facebook every morning). The breakfast, baring the coffee, was excellent, with lots of local cakes, meats and fruit. We can heartily recommend it, but having said that there aren't really any views to be had and it didn't feel like a treat, so if you want a special weekend away, maybe you should look elsewhere.

Sorrento itself is pretty. It's quite well developed, with matching prices, but isn't without charm. It seems a strange cross between a quiet backwater fishing village and Cannes. The main street, Corso d'Italia, has both coffee bars frequented by locals and Gucci store. The view over the Bay of Naples, with the menacing presence of Vesuvius, is stunning. We didn't expect Sorrento to be perched on a clifftop, you can see the sea, but it's a long way down (and consequently, a long way back up again).

There are lots of tourist traps, both as bars and restaurants. We tried to avoid as many as we could. One place we can recommend though is Il leone rosso, which, along with friendly service, does a mean pasta dish. 

Of course, Sorrento, and indeed, the whole of the Amalfi coast, is famous for it's lemons. Now, I'm no lemon expert, but if life gives you lemons, there's only one thing to make... Limoncello, and Sorrento is pretty good at it.

Here's a recipe for authentic Sorrentine Limoncello, as told to me by a friend of ours from Sorrento:
  • 7 lemons from Sorrento (or your local market)
  • 1 litre of pure alcohol (usually around 95%), or standard vodka
  • 325 grams of sugar
  • 500ml of water

  • Remove the zest of the lemons, taking care not to include any white pith.
  • Add the zest of the lemons to a bottle containing the alcohol but with enough space for the water.  I usually make two bottles, so I split the mixture between them.
  • The mixture should be left at room temperature in the dark for approximately one month. It will gradually turn yellow as it takes in the flavors from the lemon zest.
  • After a month, prepare a syrup by boiling the water with the sugar, and stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Let the syrup cool down before adding equally to both bottles.
  • Close the bottles and place them back at room temperature in the dark for another 6 weeks.
  • After 6 weeks to a month, you can filter the liquid to remove the zest, or keep it in to give that rustic feel.

    So was Sorrento worth it? You know, funnily enough, we enjoyed it and would quite happily go back. It's a bit touristy, but then most places are, and you can still find enough of what feels like authentic Sorrento to make it worthwhile. It's an interesting place in an absolutely stunning part of the world. I was desperate to go off to explore the peninsula further, or to take the boat across to Capri. Despite my initial misgivings, I actually like the place. The Limoncello isn't bad either :)

    *Oh, and for a view over the bay of Naples for free, just go to the Villa comunale (off Via San Francesco). It's practically the only place (without a car) to get a free view within walking distance of the main square.

    Giro d'Italia - coming to a village near you!

    Italy's version of the tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, started yesterday with a ~20km team time trial through Turin. It's impressive stuff. The full 3,524km route is composed of 21 stages, taking in 17 of the 20 regions of Italy. During the three weeks of racing there are 40 major mountain climbs and seven mountain finishes (such as on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily) before a grand finale under the duomo in Milan. It's an incredible race, taking in some stunning scenery and breathtaking climbs.

    Click here for a bigger version on La Gazzetta dello Sport
    La Gazzetta dello Sport has a great Giro d'Italia section (in Italian), which details each of the stages, with maps, distances, altitude etc., plus all the latest news. If you're watching at home, you may want to accompany the cycling with a delicious Italian wine grown on the very slopes the cyclists are puffing up, you could even do your own Giro dei vini, if you like.

    Since I write a blog called Lazio Explorer, you won't be surprised to learn that I'm particularly interested in Stage 6 of the tour (on Thursday 12th May). This is a grueling 216km trek from the beautiful hill town of Orvieto in Umbria, through northern Lazio, to the spa town of Fiuggi Terme, located to the south-east of Rome.
    Click here for a PDF of the route (from Gazzetta dello sport)
    Going to watch the Giro d'Italia makes a nice day-trip out of Rome. Obviously, you'll need to choose where to watch it quite carefully, as you may want to do something else when the cyclists are not passing. In the following section I've highlighted with links some of the interesting places on the trek. The route takes you through some beautiful scenery and past or even through some lovely towns and cities. Soon after entering Lazio, the cyclists will pass the parco dei Mostri in Bomarzo, a very surreal non-Italian style garden filled with strange sculptures and bizarre images. They then pass nearby the papal city of Viterbo, and climb up the 450m Soriano nel cimino before cutting through the hill top city of Civita castellana, with it's stunning ravine and precipitous climbs (trust me, I did some of the route last month and it gets pretty hairy in places). Civita is a lovely city, about 71km (44 miles) north of Rome. There's a castle, Forte Sangallo, and nearby, there's Nepi, a charming little town also with a castle, and where my favorite bottled water, Acqua di Nepi, comes from. That area makes a nice day trip from Rome, and can be reached by train from Piazzale Flaminio.

    After a steep descent from Civita castellana, the cyclists then follow the SS3, also known as via flaminia, one of the roads that lead to Rome, past Sant'Oreste, perched high above the plains on the characteristically serrated Monte Soratte, with it's nature reserve, monastery and stunning views, before heading south via Fiano Romano and Monterotondo. Rather disappointingly, the route then continues a little futher to the finish line to the east of Rome, instead of through it. Can you imagine how cool it would be to cycle through the streets of Rome past the Colosseum? (with all the traffic stopped of course!)  Maybe next year...

    *All maps taken from

    Driving in Italy - an ode to my SatNav

    This short post is an ode to my SatNav, a Nuvi Garmin called Guido. Driving in Italy can be testing at the best of times, more often that not though, it's not the other drivers that are the problem but the road signs.

    Apparently, more than one road leads to Rome

    It sounds silly, but if you're planning to drive in Italy (and it is the best way to see the country outside of the main cities) do give serious consideration to buying or at least borrowing a SatNav. There are a number of reasons why:

    • Signage in those little mountaintop villages can be misleading. I've seen signs pointing to two roads, which one do you take?
    • A SatNav takes away some of the stress of driving in a strange place. It removes any uncertainty over which direction to take, leaving you to concentrate on the driving, rather than map reading.
    • Commercial properties, such as B&Bs, agriturismos etc., have to pay to put signs up, so often, many don't. We once spent 30 minutes trying to find a B&B only to knock on the door of a random house to find that, by chance, we were knocking on the door of the B&B! A SatNav can search for nearby accommodation or, if you have the address, direct you straight to the (right) door.

    Having a SatNav has really set us free. We've been more relaxed driving around Italy, going to new places etc., as we don't have to guess which way to go nor deal with guessing how far along a road we need to go!! We use a simple SatNav by Garmin, the Nuvi 275 (that link takes you to our new Lazio Explorer Amazon store). Of course, if you plan to do a lot of driving in Italy, you may want a more expensive model, but to be honest, ours does pretty much all we need, including telling us where the nearby petrol stations, restaurants or car parks are. Plus, it comes with maps for the whole of Europe (plus North America), so we don't need anything more.

    Trust me, if you plan on driving in Italy, take a SatNav. We don't leave home without it!