The Best Hot Chocolate In Rome

Looking for the best hot chocolate in Rome? Look no further! It's not on Piazza Navona. It's not opposite the Colosseum. It's actually hidden away in a student area to the east of Stazioni Termini. It's SAID.

SAID, or SAID - Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato, to give its full name, has been turning out stunning chocolates since 1923. There's a reason they have survived so long. As I entered, I knew instantly I was going to like it. Chocolate. In every form. Available to take-away or eat/drink in. We opted to ignore the many chocolate pieces on display and walked past the myriad antique chocolate-making tools that litter SAID straight to their seating area. Replete with a fully stocked bar and indeed, operating as a fully fledged restaurant, SAID can cater for all tastes.

As we were there to meet friends, rather than have a full meal, we opted for hot chocolate. Coming in at €6, it wasn't cheap, but I have to say, it was worth it. Out of a choice of milk, dark (70%) extra dark (90%), cinnamon or peperoncino, I opted for the spiciness of the fondente with peperocino. With extra cream of course. It was like a meal. Thick, perfectly heated, and absolutely delicious.

As I say, they don't just do hot chocolate and food. They're also the perfect place to pick up a gift or a treat for later. Or for a friend. Or a blogger-friend. Or me, for example.

For the best chocolate in Rome:
SAID - Antica Fabbrica del Cioccolato
Via Tiburtina, 135 (Via dei Dalmati), Roma, RM 00185
+39 06 446 9204
Google Plus

(Some photos were borrowed from the SAID Facebook page).

Italian Ways - Tim Parks - Book Review

Italian Ways - On And Off The Rails From Milan To Palermo, is Tim Parks latest entertaining travel journal take on Italy. Following on the heels of Italian Neighbours, An Italian Education, and A Season With Verona, this is Parks taking on the great Italian railway system.

Railways have played an important part in Italian history. As Italy is a relatively young country, and many Italians still indulge in Campanilismo, that is, they feel closer to their home town or region than to the country as a whole, the development of the Ferrovie dello Stato (literally 'state ironways') has been important for unification. Not just geographically of course, but mentally. Sadly, over the years, both the stations and the trains themselves have fallen a little into disrepair. A little like Italy as a whole. However, with fast new trains that can connect Rome to Milan in just over 3 hours, and fancy new station renovations such as Roma Tiburtina (which I hate, incidentally), are Italian railways experiencing a revival, or is this just smoke in the eyes and papering over the cracks. After you've read Italian Ways, you'll know the answer.

Italian Ways - On and off the rails from Milan to Palermo

In the first part of Italian Ways, Tim Parks recounts his commute from Verona to Milan. Unfortunately, this is as exciting as it sounds. It's not that the day-to-day stresses and frustrations of the commute aren't well written, it's just that they are well... like listening to a friend moaning. Thankfully, as that friend is Mr Parks, he still manages to eke out an interesting factoid or intriguing story to keep you turning the pages. After the weak introduction, we go on to discover more about the politics behind the railway, both historically and present day. Bear with me. It's actually fascinating. Thanks to his position as a long-term Italian resident, and a combination of his compassion and eye for detail, Tim Parks manages to extract real cultural understanding and meaning even from the positioning of ticket booths and walkways. Honestly, you'll never look at a train station (and Milano Centrale in particular) in quite the same way again.

Italian Ways isn't all about trains and train stations though. It's the people that make a country, and this is never more so the case than in Italy. Drawing on his 30 years of experience, Tim Parks litters Italian Ways with witty anecdotes and discussions with fellow passengers on topics such as why they don't buy a ticket, or why they are so against the trains, yet love to take them every day.

In the second part of Italian Ways, Tim takes to the rails. It's this part of the book that really takes off. Travelling down through Rome to Sicily, and then across to Otranto, the book turns into a travelogue with more twists and turns than Murder on the Orient Express. I couldn't stop turning the pages, I wanted to be there with him. He even takes a train that's off the map, on the little known, and even less used Ferrovie del sud est. Visiting deserted stations and exploring parts of Italy well off the tourist trail, this is where Tim Parks is most captivating.

Granted, a book about travelling by train isn't going to be to everybody's taste, but Tim Parks is a good observational writer. Part time chronicler, part time anthropologist, Tim Parks provides a glimpse into Italy and Italians, through travelling through it and with them, on the train. Despite my comments above, I want to make it clear that I really enjoyed this book. Admittedly, I like Italy and I like trains, so I may be a little biased, but I think there's enough there for everyone.

Predictably then, I can recommend Italian Ways. While it starts slowly, and can drag initially, it picks up speed like a Frecciarossa and you'll have arrived at the end it before you know it. My version of the book was printed in 2013 by Harvill Secker (UK). A copy can be picked up from the LazioExplorer Amazon store here.

Chestnut sagre in Lazio

October is a wonderful time of the year. The summer heat has well and truly dissipated, but there are still nice days to be had and any quarrel with the weather is perfectly offset by nature's bounty. Lazio, and northern Lazio in particular, is a hive of activity at this time of year. People are busy. Tending olive groves, heading to sagre, and, when they get the chance, collecting hazelnuts and chestnuts. Indeed, northern lazio is famous for its nuts...

Book review: The Prince of Clouds by Gianni Riotta

I know. I've been a bit shoddy with my book reviews. My last one was the excellent Vino Italiano, all the way back in January. Anyway, despite the lack of reviews, I didn't stop reading, and here, finally, is my second review this year. Coming in at 287 pages, here's my review of this poetry and war-packed epic, The Prince of Clouds, by Gianni Riotta.
Click here to be taken to the UK Amazon store
Set just after the second world war, The Prince of Clouds follows the fortunes of one Colonel Carlo Terzo, a reluctant soldier, but a brilliant military strategist. Having never fired a shot in anger, the colonel has spent the war documenting the Italian campaign, detailing the troop movements, describing the battles, and explaining both the reasons for victory and the despairing ineptitude of certain Italian generals. He's a thinker, an academic, and is the same in life as in war. He's quiet, slightly awkward, always needing a plan, a system with which to keep the outside world at bay. That's not to say he's a loner though. In the chaos after the war, he finds himself retired in Palermo, with a beautiful, intelligent Russian aristocratic wife, and teaching a young poet some of the strategy of war in the hope of instilling some military discipline. This is just the beginning though, with Terzo slowly being pulled into a local clandestine love affair and even having to finally put his military theory to the test.

It's Sagra time! Sagre and Feste in Lazio in September

Sagra!! Sagra fresca! The nights are drawing in, there's the smell of an open fire in the air... summer is closing with beautiful sunsets all over Lazio. It's harvest time. There's never been a better time to head out of Rome and check out a sagra.

For the uninitiated, according to wikipedia, a sagra (plural: sagre) is a local food festival, that often ties in with a historical pageant or sporting event, such as a joust or a horse race (where it is called a palio). Essentially, it's a chance to get out and see somewhere you've never been before, while eating something local, with the locals. I love sagre and feste. I think they are one of the best things about Italy. They combine local food, history and culture, and moreover, they are a great day out.

Here's my selection of the sagre and feste happening in Lazio over the month of September. There are many more happening throughout Rome and Lazio. Check out the LazioExplorer twitter feed and facebook page for updates on other sagre and feste this month.

5th Sagra degli Gnocchi
14th-15th September - Castelnuovo di Porto, Prov. di Roma

Castelnuovo di Porto, a short distance up via Flaminia (SS3) from Rome (and on the Roma-Viterbo train line as well) plays host to 5th Sagra degli Gnocchi this coming weekend. Starting on Saturday at 2pm and with food starting at 8pm with music and dancing at 9pm, this promises to be a carbohydrate fuelled party late into the night. Be careful not to burn those gnocchi off too quickly though, as it all begins again at 10am on the Sunday with the market and then salsa dancing (and more gnocchi) in the evening.

Festa della Birra - Oktoberfest
19th-28th September - Rieti, Prov. di Rieti

A festival of beer? No, not in Munich, but in Rieti, from the 19th to the 28th September. In its 9th year, this festival, which is one of the largest beer festivals in central Italy, will play host to over 15,000 people, with music, DJ sets, authentic Bavarian dishes (roasted piglets and pretzels), and, most importantly, certified 'augustiner munchen' beer. What's more to like? All this takes place in the Edelbier pub, which is actually housed in a palace that was built in the 1700s.

10th Sagra del fungo porcino
14th-16th and 21-23rd September - Oriolo Romano, Prov. di Viterbo

Oriolo Romano, about 40km northwest of Rome, 30km south of Viterbo, is the place to be for mushrooms. Head to the splendid setting of Piazza Umberto I° for olive oil, wine, meats, cheeses, and homemade pasta, all accompanied by locally-foraged mushrooms. There will be live music and street performances every evening, so get there early to get a good seat. More information (in Italian) can be found here, with the menu here.

Sapori di Mare
20th-22nd September - Sperlonga, Prov. di Latina

Three days of fish. I love that. OK, OK, you may not like fish like I like fish, but, if you're in the area and you fancy a cheap, locally-sourced meal, you could do worse than heading down to Piazza Fontane for a taste of the sea. As usual with sagre, it's not just about the food. There's also stalls with local food and wine, plus, a little randomly, a salsa band playing Cuban and Latin beats, a blues night, and events to keep the kids entertained. What's not to like, unless you don't like seafood that is. More information, and the full programme (in Italian), can be found here.

OK, so there you have my hand-curated picks of the best sagre and feste coming up in September. There are many, many more. Please leave a comment below if I've missed your personal favorite or if you know of any other sagre or feste that are worth mentioning.

Buone sagre a tutti!

Buona vacanza! Blogging break

Suuuummmmmertime, and the living is easy.... well, not for me actually. As avid readers will know (hello Mrs LazioExplorer's family!), I haven't posted too many articles here lately. Indeed, it's already been a month. Why? Too much fun frolicking on the beaches of Italy? Am I absorbed in writing that novel? No, sadly, I'm simply too busy with the day job.

This chap in Bomarzo is shocked I'm not going to be around for the next few weeks.

Hence... this post. No, no, this isn't goodbye. I'm just taking a break. It's not you, it's me, you see? I need a little time. A little space. To think it over. Not to find myself, simply to tick a few things of my ever-expanding non-blog to-do list. The day job is getting more demanding, plus I can't keep putting off all those odd jobs around the house... I know, it's a boring excuse, especially since I'm not even going on holiday. Still, needs to be done, and it will only be for a short time. I also plan to take some time off twitter, although this may be a little harder... 

I want the bird suit.

Rest assured though, normal service (or something approaching it) will be restored pretty soon. I've got plenty of posts planned, some even half-written, and I know I won't be able to stay silent on twitter for too long ;-)

Until then, buone vacanze, and don't enjoy yourselves too much without me!

Image credits:
Bomarzo - models own.

Tarquinia and the Etruscan Necropolis

Tarquinia is a charming city of about 16,000 souls, about 54miles (86km) north east of Rome. One of the original 12 cities of the Etruscans, Tarquinia is a disarming place filled with churches, a market, and, despite being a touristy town, the feel of a real working town that's just getting on with life. A lovely city that's worth a visit in its own right, but we were there for another reason, the 6000 Etruscan tombs....

Etruscan tomb

Long-time readers will know of my fascination with the Etruscans. Sometimes though, life gets in the way and I don't get to see as much of them as I would like. This time though, I managed to squeeze in a trip to Tarquinia. So, like a modern day D.H.Lawrence (he of Etruscan Places), here's my account of the trip. Etruscans, un caffé, and a spot of getting lost on the way.

A real Palio, Il Palio del Velluto, this weekend in Leonessa

Il Palio del Velluto is on this weekend in Leonessa, in the province of Rieti, near the borders with Umbria and Abruzzo. This annual "Velvet Contest" is an historical eight day commemoration of Saint Peter (the Fiera di San Pietro). The Palio del Velluto takes its name from the local weaving style and was held from at least 1464 until 1557, when the event was abolished by the local Governor after a dispute that resulted in four deaths. Mercifully though, things are a little more civilized nowadays, and the games are back on.

A guided tour of the Vatican and the Vatican Museums

I know. I'm a heathen. I've only been to the Vatican once before. It was early. It was the last Sunday of the month (so it was free!), and I was hungover. Heathen. I rushed through the museums to the Sistine Chapel, loved the Last Judgement, and then wandered through the Basilica feeling smug that I'd beaten the crowds, and indeed, missed everything on the way. So when Through Eternity tours offered us a guided tour of the Vatican and the Vatican museums, I figured I should atone for the error of my ways. Add into this mix of contrition and youthful ignorance the fact that Mrs LazioExplorer, despite being a local, has never seen the Sistine Chapel and you can see it was time to do things properly. Time to put things right. How about a 5 hour guided tour of the museums and Basilica?

San Pietro, vaticano

Bomarzo - Il Parco dei Mostri

Bomarzo, a sleepy little Laziale town just a few kilometers from the Tuscan and Umbrian borders, has a lovely little secret. The most un-renaissance-like of the renaissance gardens, the Monster Park (il Parco dei Mostri, also known as the Sacred Wood/il Sacro Bosco). It's hidden away, as the name suggests, in a wooded area in the valley around the town. Hidden yes, but not hiding, as it still attracts visitors from far and wide.

You can see why. Perfect for kids, with plenty of allegorical and historical layers for the most cultured of adults, the park is a pleasure on a sunny day. Built in the 16th century by the Duke of Bomarzo, Pier Francesco Orsini, the park is like no other Italian garden. Perhaps designed by Pirro Longorio and Simone Moschino to astonish and shock, the entrance gives way to a fantasy world, with surreal interpretations of ancient texts and sometimes, frankly weird sculptures. It is a good way to spend a few hours.

Giro d'Italia 2013

Aah, it's that special time again. When hundreds of lycra-clad men hurtle through beautiful countryside in the chase for pink. What am I talking about? The Giro d'Italia of course!!

Twenty-one stages, starting in Napoli, tracing the sole of Italy, migrating up the Adriatic coast, before traversing the cooler climes of the northern regions. Finishing in Brescia three weeks later, the Giro d'Italia is a grueling cycle race that pushes the very best. Unlike the last two years, there won't be a stage in Lazio or Umbria (see my previous posts for the routes and cultural highlights on the way). However, there's still plenty to look forward to!

La festa della Montagna - Sant'Oreste

Sometimes you just 'drop on', and everything falls into place. This was one of those times. My parents-in-law invited us to a festival. They said it wasn't a big deal. They said no one usually goes. They were wrong.

Apartment for sale in Sant'Oreste

Ever dreamed of owning your own piece of Italy? A bijou apartment in a historic hilltop town? How about a view of Rome? The cupola of St Peter's on a clear day? All this can be yours...

Sant'Oreste Apartment Balcony View

My parents-in-law are selling their apartment. Downsizing. Helped by the property tax and the passage of time. It's time to let the family home go. As a favor to them, we're advertising the apartment here.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio

The most photographed town in Lazio (outside of Rome, of course). The dying town. The fairytale Italian hilltop town. Civita di Bagnoregio. Fantasy land Lazio. It had been on our 'hit-list' for a while and as soon as friends suggested a trip out, we jumped at the chance to exploring this fascinating town.

The Italian Beach Experience - Rimini and Riccione

The beach in Rimini? In winter?

Well no. I want to tell you about our summer vacation to our holiday home in Emilia-Romagna, in between San Marino and Rimini. In August. It was my first Italian beach holiday experience. Ever since we met, my wife has pestered me to go away with her on the classic Italian family vacation. The  Italian beach holiday. Indeed, she hadn't gone herself since we met, so last year, I caved in.

The beach at Rimini

Initially, I wasn't keen. The thing is, I'm simply not built for this kind of holiday. I'm a trekking up mountains, tea and cake, maybe a museum-kinda guy, not a laying by the beach then more laying by the beach one. I'll be honest, I was dreading it.

I shouldn't have bothered. It was lovely. We're very lucky, in that we have access to an old house, nestled on a small hilltop, with views to the sea in one direction, and the republic of San Marino in the other (which I blogged about here). We arrived after a long drive from Lazio, with two short stops - the obligatory caffeine stop at a mountaintop cafe bar, and the charming Umbrian town of Gubbio, which I will blog about one day. Arriving at the house was like arriving in paradise. The rolling fields, the swallows swooping overhead (hopefully hoovering up all the many, many zanzare that were waiting in ambush), and of course, that lovely breeze coming all the way from the sea.

You can just make out the Adriatic in the distance

We didn't have much time to take all this in though, as I'd forgotten one thing. Italy isn't the charming, relaxed place one reads about in those books where people move to Italy and find themselves. Laissez-faire is a phrase borrowed from the French, not the Italians. We had a schedule, and it must be respected. Even if you're English, have no idea of the schedule, and fancy yourself as a bit of a Montalbano, enjoying a moka cafe on the balcony overlooking the (albeit distant) sea. We had a schedule. We were off to the beach at Riccione. We were off to the sea.

The Italian Seaside is fascinating. Honestly. It's like a David Attenborough special about human behavior. We arrive at the beach. Bagno 130/131, the usual spot. The one my in-laws go to every year. Of course, they know the lifeguards, who, it turns out, also run the place. They rent parasols and sun loungers, and know everything about everyone. Pleasantries exchanged, we set off with our chaperone lifeguard to pick our spot. Would we go for a space right next to the sea? No. We went for one that was near the cafe, almost as far from the sea and its cooling breeze as you could get. Nevermind. The reasons for this choice would soon become clear. From then, no time to hang around as it was time to head to the supermarket and then home for a simple yet delicious pasta.

The next few days blurred into one. One regimented day, that is. Why? Because Italian beach holidays have a routine. We get up early, showered, ate, and then head down to Riccione and our Bagno. We arrive, hours after everyone else (it seems), and take our positions at our parasol. After dumping our bags and arranging sun protection (only for the youngsters, the old generation didn't believe it was necessary on a 39 degree cloudless day), I was initiated in the first (and frankly most important) ritual of the day. It was time for a coffee with papa`. We tiptoed over the scorching sand to the bar (every bagno has a bar, serving coffee and cornetti by day, and more salubrious treats by night), and ordered our coffees. While waiting, we check the sport newspapers, catch up on the olympics, the soccer, and generally lower the tone of the place....

After coffee, we lay in the sun for a few hours, before, come 11:20, we head for a walk down the beach. One day we walk up to Rimini, the next day, we walk down towards Cattolica. Then, 12:30, we heed the call over the loudspeaker, that the sun is dangerously hot, and head for lunch. We pack up, get back in the car, and head back home. Once home, we shower, change clothes, eat a delicious pasta, and then have a snooze. Then, come 3pm, it's time to head back to the beach. We go to our parasol, deposit our things. Then it's time for a drink. The same bar. This time a Becks. Come 6pm, it's time to go home. The next day? Well, maybe we can vary it a little, do you want to walk the same way up the beach as yesterday, or the other way?

The beach at Rimini
Rimini is this way. Obviously.

Once you get the routine though, you're golden. I relaxed into the schedule, let it wash over me. I now know that you shouldn't go for a swim until it's at least three hours after you've eaten, and that Italian kids really can do whatever they want at the beach. The beach is great fun, and there's always something going on. So, my advice? Don't just bring a book* and lie on the beach. Wander around, people watch, and simply go with the routine. I mean flow. I mean flow.

Rimini, Riccione, Cattolica - I will be back. To the same Bagno, at exactly the same time....

Salvataggio at Riccione

So what else is there to do besides the beach? 

Well, in Riccione, not so much. There's a lovely promenade along the beach, and two pedestrianised wide boulevard nearby, Viale Dante and Viale Ceccarini. This is where all the teenagers come for their summer romance. What's nice though is that, whatever age or nationality you are, you don't feel out of place. Plus of course, there's that wonderful Italian habit of it never being too late for Ice Cream. There's plenty of shops for late night shopping, events and shows on the streets, plus a water park for the kids. Outside of the strip, there's Rimini old town, the many lovely towns and villages of Emilia-Romagna, and of course, 30 miles from the coast, the Republic of San Marino.

There are plenty of places to eat on the coast, many of which specialise in (excellent) seafood, but here are our two favorites:

Pesce Azzuro - a small cooperative, set-up by the fishermen themselves, serves basic yet excellent seafood in Rimini, Riccione and Cattolica (the one we went to). It's self-service, and set-up essentially like a canteen, but for 12euros you get a tray filled with about 6 different seafood dishes, and unlimited wine. More information (in Italian) can be found on their website: pesceazzuro

Pesce Azzuro plates

La Greppia - about 5km from the Adriatic just outside the town of Coriano, my better half's family have eaten at this restaurant for over 40 years and after one mouthful you'll know why. Tasty Emilia-Romagna specialities (and not just seafood) combined with great service. Book ahead if possible. More information (in Italian) can be found on their website: La Greppia

*If you did want to take a book, I can recommend An Italian Education by Tim Parks (see my review). I was reading while on the beach and it really captures the Italian beach experience, as well as providing a great intro into Italian family culture. Perfect for reading on the sun lounger...

Vino Italiano - The regional wines of Italy - book review

Want to learn about Italian wine? I do. One of the wonderful things about Italy is that every region, every town, in fact, practically every bend in the road, seems to have its own local specialty, its own take on an Italian classic. Wine is no exception. This can make understanding Italian wine, other than in 'Chianti is good, Lambrusco less so'-style terms, pretty difficult. The fact that many regions borrow grapes from other regions and other countries makes the whole thing pretty impenetrable. Thankfully, that's where Vino Italiano comes in.

Vino Italiano book cover

This hefty tome, coming in at just over 530 pages in my edition, goes through every region of Italy, detailing the grape varieties, the geographical conditions and the type of soil. It's pretty comprehensive. More than that, it also provides that all-important context for the wine, with each chapter opening with a vignette taken from the author's experiences and capturing their sense of the region (for example, the Lazio chapter starts with a story about the derby della capitale between AS Roma and SS Lazio). At the end of each chapter there is a small section about the food of the region, about which food goes best with the wines from that region, along with a few recipes to try at home. I feel this works well as these two sections, along with a handy 'key facts' section, sandwich the 'meat' of the chapter, about the wines themselves.

It's a big book, not one to read cover to cover, but more as a reference book, picking a region every night and then reading about the wines from that region. It works well like that. I don't think I'd be able to read it straight through, but I have enjoyed reading about those regions of interest (and other regions I've never thought of in wine-terms - a glass of Chambave muscat from Valle d'Aosta anyone?) and learning more about why each wine has the characteristics it does. Obviously, the wine buff may know many of these details, but I still feel the book is comprehensive enough so that even the most learned sommelier will pick something up. 

Initially, the US-centric nature of the book grated on me. Obviously the authors, Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch (with recipes by Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali) are American, and the target audience for the book is American, but it would have been good to have more information on where to get the wines in Italy rather than simply relating everything back to the states. However, this is a minor complaint as overall the book is well-researched and it's obvious that the authors have a great passion for both Italy and Italian wine.

It's easy therefore for me to recommend this book. Comprehensive enough for the wino, yet accessible enough for the casual quaffer. I've learned a lot from Vino Italiano. Every time I think I should put it down and move on to another book, I hesitate, not wanting it to end, and I decide, maybe just for tonight, just one more chapter, just one more re-read...

Vino Italiano - The regional wines of Italy, by Joseph Bastianich and David Lynch, is published by Random House and my version was from 2005. I'm not sure how widely available it is outside of the US, although I managed to get my copy from Amazon UK pretty easily. Of course, there is a copy in the Lazio Explorer Amazon Store.

Rome food tour - Trionfale with Tavole Romane

What better way to explore Rome than to be taken round by a local...

Just before Christmas, we had the pleasure of being invited on a Tavole Romane food tour around the Prati district of Rome (just next to the Vatican). Guided by the irrepressible Giovanna (also known as @burroealici), we were taken to the very best off-the-beaten track places Rome has to offer. We ate a lot (and I mean A LOT) and had a great time as Giovanna led us around like an old friend taking us to her favorite spots.
Giovanna, tour-guide extraordinaire