Tag Archives: Art

Julie’s Highlights of Havana

Like most capital cities, Havana has a wide variety of things to see. Andrew has already written about his highlights, here are mine.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Cuba’s Fine Art Museum is spread across two buildings in Centro Havana, one dedicated to Cuban art and the other to international art. We visited the Cuban building first and I was blown away by the quality and variety of the works on display. The exhibits are arranged chronologically, the first few rooms are dedicated to colonial art with some arresting portraits, landscapes showing the countryside and life in the past with a few maps thrown in for good measure.

Fine Art Museum, HavanaOutside the Cuban building of Havana’s Fine Art Museum, sadly no photographs allowed inside

The rest of that floor (about three-quarters of it) shows how art progressed in Cuba from the late-19th to mid-20th century – this was my favourite part, I especially enjoyed the satirical cartoons of Rafael Blanco and Wilfredo Lam’s paintings which reminded us of Picasso. The second floor exhibits works from the mid-20th century through to the current day, also worthwhile but by that point we were starting to get museum fatigue (and hungry!) so probably didn’t enjoy them as much as we might have done.

El Tercer Mundo by Wilfredo Lam‘El Tercer Mundo’ (The Third World) by Wilfredo Lam [photo credit: Transregional Academies]

Having refueled in a nearby cafe, we spent the afternoon in the international building and found the display of mostly pre-20th century European and Latin American art to be a bit lacklustre after the Cuban works. The stained glass ceiling in the central stairwell was spectacular although we worried about whether it would survive as it was in desperate need of renovation and the building seemed to be crumbling around it. Also in this building was a temporary exhibition by Francis Alÿs, mostly video installations covering the time he spent embedded with the British army in Afghanistan, immigration across the Straits of Gibraltar and his attempt to create a ‘bridge’ of boats stretching from Cuba to Florida.

Outside Museum of Fine Art, HavanaFrancis Alÿs is known for creating trails of paint from art galleries out into the surrounding cities


In search of more art, one day we made the long journey out to Jaimanitas on Havana’s western fringe to visit the home and workshop of José Fuster. Our guidebook suggested we take a taxi but we were sick of haggling prices and still feeling like we were being ripped off, so we took a chance on a local bus. We perhaps should have been a bit better prepared with landmarks around where we were supposed to get off but we managed OK and after a one hour bus journey (total cost MN4 = £0.12) and a 40 minute walk along a shady road we arrived feeling slightly smug.

FusterlandiaWow! I guess we’ve arrived at Fusterlandia, José Fuster’s home and workshop

Fuster has turned not only his home but half of his neighbourhood into something reminiscent of Barcelona’s Park Güell (created by Antoni Gaudí) with lots of organic forms and bright tiles covering every surface. We loved wandering the nearby streets checking out the colourful buildings and decorated walls, there’s even a tile covered unicorn!

Granma tile mosaicA tile mural of the Granma yacht and some of the revolutionaries who sailed in her

When we arrived Fusterlandia itself was closed for lunch but at 2pm we were able to go in and explore. It’s an overwhelming experience with seemingly every available surface covered in tiles, and every time we turned we spotted something new. There are lots of animals, cockerels especially appear very often, as well as hearts, a mermaid and a pavilion in honour of the Cuban Five.

Fusterlandia detailsFusterlandia details (clockwise from top left): giraffes; a heart; the Cuban Five; and cockerels

Hershey train

We love travelling by train but it turned out to not be a straightforward way to get around Cuba – the rail infrastructure is not very good and the schedules are unreliable. In fact the only train that we travelled on was the electric line from Havana to Matanzas, though we got off midway in the small town of Camilo Cienfuegos (aka Hershey). I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, this electric line can not be compared to Japan’s shinkansen, or even the East Coast Mainline back in the UK, it’s an old interurban train – basically a very rickety tram!

Hershey trainThe rather dilapidated looking Hershey train at Casablanca station in Havana

The line was built in 1921 by American chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey to link his sugar mill (in the town then known as Hershey) with Havana and Matanzas. Before the Revolution the sugar produced here was shipped to the US to be turned into chocolate, but in 1959 the factory was nationalised (and the town was renamed after a revolutionary hero) and it feels as if there hasn’t been much maintenance to tracks or train since then, although actually the trains were replaced with second-hand Catalonian ones in the 1990s. It’s rusty and dilapidated and bumps and clangs along stopping at dozens of little ‘stations’ (imagine a concrete bus shelter next to the line and you’ll be about right) along the way.

Inside the Hershey trainThe one carriage train was pretty full leaving Havana and even more people got on at the next few stops

The sugar mill ceased production in 2002 and its rusting ruins dominate the sleepy town. We had a bit of a poke about and took some photos being careful not to cross the ‘Danger No Entry’ signs. While there we met an American father and son, Fred and Justin, who’d also travelled in on the train.

Hershey sugar mill ruinsThe huge sugar mill at Hershey is slowly disintegrating although its three chimneys remain intact for now

After taking photos of the mill we still had 3.5 hours to kill before the train back so we headed 1km north of town to the only other ‘attraction’ in the area, the Hershey Gardens, basically a rather overgrown pleasure ground with some woods, a pool for bathing and a couple of restaurants. We ate lunch with Fred and Justin swapping traveller’s tales over papaya juice while we waited for the food, before setting out to investigate the rest of the gardens only to discover that there wasn’t much to explore. The path wound along the river a little way to the pool where several local families were picnicking and cooling off in the water before coming to an end at a fence just a couple of hundred metres into the wood!

Hershey gardensA peaceful section of the river in the Hershey Gardens

Callejon de Hamel

Tucked away off a quiet back street in Centro Havana is the Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway covered in artworks and host, at 12pm every Sunday, to a live rumba session. We thought it might be a show for tourists but there were at least as many locals there and the first band of musicians and dancers performed for an hour and a half! The drumbeat throbbed and everyone was clearly having a great time. Absolutely superb!

Callejon de HamelArtworks cover the surrounding buildings along the Callejon de Hamel

Cigar factory tour

Think of Cuba and one of the first things that’ll spring to mind is cigars, from the iconic images of Fidel Castro with a cigar clamped between his teeth to the roll call of famous brand names – Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo and Juliet – and so we were keen to visit the Partagas factory in Havana to see how they were made (spoiler: they’re not rolled along the inner thigh of a nubile young woman…)

Partagas cigar labelsMany of the famous cigar brands are made at the Partagas factory in Havana

We thought the tour was a bit overpriced at CUC$10 (£7) each for a 30 minute visit and we were very disappointed that we weren’t able to take photographs of the factory floor, nevertheless our guide Marisela was very knowledgeable and we had a small group so it was easy to get a good look at what was going on and ask questions. First she explained how tobacco plants are grown, and the different types of leaf which are needed to make each cigar (for flavour, strength and burn quality) as well as leaves from shade grown plants which are more flexible, almost stretchy, and used for the binder and wrapper.

Partagas cigar factoryThe interior atrium of the Partagas factory

Next we were taken up to the third floor where we could see the cigars being made. The workers were a mix of men and women across a wide age range and seemed friendly, smiling and winking at us as we peered in from the doorways and Marisela dashed back and forth bringing us samples to look at and smell. It is a highly skilled job and each worker must pass a 9 month training program before they can begin producing sale quality cigars (the practice duds are sent off to a different factory to be chopped up and made into cigarettes). We were interested to hear that salaries are paid in national pesos with a bonus in CUC (dependent on their output) plus 5 cigars per day.

It was fascinating to see how the cigars are rolled and pressed in forms before being bound and wrapped. Different workers each producing just one grade, length and thickness of cigar. I suspect its one of those things that looks very easy when performed by a skilled worker but is extremely difficult to get right, especially as the tightness of the roll is crucial to the finished cigar – quality control have a special machine, developed in Cuba, which measures the airflow through a sample of the production to make sure they will burn well.

Napoleon museum

Havana seems a rather unlikely place for a museum of artefacts relating to Napoleon, but here we are, one of the best laid out museums that we visited in Cuba. The displays include everything from soldier’s uniforms to period furniture to Napoleon’s pocket watch and were amassed by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. Following the Revolution they were seized by the state and set out in a beautiful restored mansion near the university in Vedado.

Napoleon Museum Main HallThe stunning main hall of the Napoleon Museum

The museum was fairly quiet and a good way to spend an hour or so – I don’t think it’s on the itinerary of the bus tours – and the staff were friendly. The lovely lady on the second floor in particular spent a lot of time pointing out the various highlights set up in the bedroom and explaining to us the history of the museum collection.

Busts and statues of NapoleonMore busts and statues of Napoleon than you ever wanted to see, including his death mask in the bottom right

Library, Napoleon MuseumThe top floor includes this magnificent library and a roof terrace with views over the city

Using the Museumkaart in Amsterdam

Many of the big cities we’ve visited on this trip have some kind of discount card which is valid for many of their attractions. They tend to be a really good deal if you want to tick off three or four big name sights during a short visit. Unfortunately for us they’re usually only valid for 1-5 days and we want to spread our sightseeing out over a fortnight or a month rather than cramming it all into just a few days.

Amsterdam has this option too, it’s called the iamsterdam card and covers public transport as well as entry to attractions for 1, 2 or 3 days. But there’s another option here. If you’re not bothered about public transport (and it is very feasible to walk everywhere in the centre), the Museumkaart (Museum Card in English) is valid for a full year and allows multiple entries to around 400 museums across the country. It costs €59.50 and can be bought from museum ticket offices (we picked ours up at the Van Gogh Museum). It easily pays for itself after 4 or 5 visits as museums here are pretty pricey. In total we used it for €121.50 worth of visits during our month in Amsterdam, saving over €60 per person. Granted we wouldn’t have visited all of these places if we hadn’t had the card but it allowed us to just have a quick look whenever we were vaguely interested.

Here are the places that we visited using the Museumkaart:

Van Gogh Museum

Van Gogh Museum

You’ll never see as many Van Gogh paintings in the same place again as are in the galleries of the Van Gogh Museum. It’s laid out in chronological order and includes paintings by other artists to show how his contemporaries were working and those who were influenced by him, including Monet, Manet and Francis Bacon. We thoroughly enjoyed it and were happy to visit again with Dan, Clare, Scott and Emma.

Huis Marseille Museum of Photography

Photograph by Cor Jaring“Janus ‘the Polisher’ in café Hans en Grietje”, a 1958 photograph by Cor Jaring

Housed in two neighbouring canal houses the Huis Marseille Museum of Photography is host to a number of temporary exhibitions. When we visited one was a fascinating collection of pictures from a photographer who had visited North Korea, but over half the space was given over to a retrospective on the life’s work of local photographer Cor Jaring.

Nieuwe Kerk

World Press Photo at Nieuwe KerkI loved this series of photographs by Tomas van Houtryve taken from a drone in the US of events which are the habitual targets of drone strikes abroad – thought provoking and visually stunning

The Nieuwe Kerk (literally New Church) is a former church which is now used for art exhibitions. At the beginning of our month here it was showing a video installation by Bill Viola, and for our final week, the winning images from the 2015 World Press Photo competition. The video installations were quite hypnotic but maybe not something we would have paid to see. Whereas we knew we would enjoy the photographs as we saw the 2014 winners in Tokyo last year. Once again we were stunned by the ability of the photographers to capture the story in the images as well as often achieving something jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Museum Van Loon

The Bird Room, Museum Van Loon

After wandering beside so many of Amsterdam’s canals and admiring the architecture of the canalside buildings we wanted to have a look inside one. The Museum Van Loon is stilled lived in by the Van Loon family although nowadays they’re up in the former servants quarters and the house’s main rooms have been restored to their former splendour. It was also nice to spend some time in the small garden tucked away behind the house and entirely invisible from the street.



The Rijksmuseum is so huge that it deserved its own post.

Anne Frank House

Anne Frank House

The Anne Frank House is high up on many people’s to-do list when they visit Amsterdam and the length of the queue outside reflects this (seriously it winds all the way through a nearby square and around a church). We managed to avoid the queue by reserving places online the day before (timed tickets seem to be released sporadically so keep an eye on it). The museum is small but well set up for the huge flow of people, telling the tragic story of Anne’s life and how she hid with her family for over two years. It was fascinating to see the secret annexe and learn a little more about the ‘helpers’ who brought them food and news from outside, and one of whom managed to rescue and keep the diary after the arrest in the hope that it could be returned to Anne after the war.

Stadsarchief exhibit

Stadsarchief entrance

The main exhibit of the Stadsarchief (City Archive) is free to enter although it was of limited interest to us as all the captions were in Dutch only. However, the Museumkaart granted us entry to the special exhibit which was a different aspect of Cor Jaring’s work than we’d seen at the Huis Marseille Museum. When he died in 2013 he left his archive to the city, and the exhibit here focussed on his chronicling of the cultural revolution which took place in Amsterdam during the 1960s. The building itself is worth a look as it is a former bank and you can see the original vault doors as well as huge leather bound archives in the basement.

Stedelijk Modern Art Museum

Stedelijk Modern Art MuseumClockwise from top left: ‘The Parakeet and the Mermaid’ by Henri Matisse; Andrew admiring ‘Two Color Frame Painting’ by Robert Mangold; a 1920s clock by Jan Eisenloeffel in the design galleries; one gallery had dancers disguised as museum staff who took visitors by surprise when they entered

Hosting a special exhibition focussing on Henri Matisse during our visit the Stedelijk Modern Art Museum is the only museum that we had to pay a surcharge (€5) to enter with the Museumkaart. We both enjoyed the Matisse exhibition as it was well set up and liberally sprinkled with works from other major artists (Van Gogh, Picasso, etc.) to add context. The remainder of the upper floor was given over to a large number of works from the second half of the 20th century while the other half of the ground floor contained a selection from the museum’s large collection of design objects.

Our Lord in the Attic

Our Lord in the Attic church

From outside, the Museum Our Lord in the Attic looks like an unassuming canal house, but climb the stairs inside and you find the top three floors have been converted into a church! This dates from the 1660s when it was forbidden for Catholics to openly practice their faith and so secret churches like this one were built. Designed to accommodate 150 worshippers, it was used for over 200 years until the law was relaxed and a new church was built.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands National Museum devoted to art and history. It reopened in 2013 after a massive, decade long renovation project. The result is an excellent museum, where we happily spent a full day and still didn’t get round everything. Its precursor opened in 1800 in The Hague but that didn’t last long, within ten years it was moved to Amsterdam and in 1885 this custom built Gothic style building was opened in the south of the city.

RijksmuseumThe Rijksmuseum is housed in this magnificent building

The museum’s centrepiece is ‘The Night Watch’ by Rembrandt. I’d read that it gets very busy around the painting as the day progresses so we headed straight there after the museum opened at 9am. It was definitely the right strategy as we were able to get a good look at the famous picture without the jostling and crowds that we found when we passed back through the gallery a couple of hours later.

Honour Gallery and Night WatchThe Honour Gallery approaching Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ was deserted at 9.15am

We’d downloaded the Rijksmuseum’s free multimedia app onto our iPads (it’s identical to the one that you can rent at the museum for €5 so well worth it) and decided to begin by taking the 90 minute tour through the highlights of the 17th century galleries (basically the whole of the 2nd floor). This was the great Dutch Golden Age when the country was one of the world’s trade power houses with plenty of riches to finance high art.

Nautilus cupIn one of the first of the 17th century galleries is a display case filled with decorated shells including this Nautilus cup whose workmanship is of German origin

During the 17th century it was considered prestigious for groups of civic guards to have a portrait painted. ‘The Night Watch’ is an example of this but my favourite on display here is the ‘Banquet at the Crossbowman’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster’ by Bartholomeus van der Helst. The audioguide explained the significance of the painting and also details that we might have missed like the reflections in one captain’s breastplate.

Civic guards portrait‘Banquet at the Crossbowman’s Guild in Celebration of the Treaty of Münster’ by Bartholomeus van der Helst

Scattered amongst the art are artefacts which tell the history in a more personal way, for example, the cabinet of knitted hats which belonged to Dutch whalers who worked in Spitsbergen during the 1700s and were recovered during archaeological excavations of the graves in 1980 – the case’s sign explains:

The skeletons were still wearing their knitted woollen caps. Each cap was individualized; the men recognised one another only by the pattern of stripes on the caps. The men were bundled up so tightly against the fierce cold that only their eyes were visible.

Dutch whalers' woollen capsWoollen caps worn by Dutch whalers in the 1700s

The Rijksmuseum’s library contains around 450,000 volumes and acts as an art history research library. It is open to the public as a reading room and for academic research.

Rijksmuseum Research LibraryLooking down into the Rijksmuseum’s library

While the Dutch men were off trading and conquering the world their wives were left at home twiddling their thumbs. To counteract the boredom (and get through quite a bit of the gold that was piling up) wealthy Dutch ladies furnished doll’s houses which they would then show off to their friends. We were flabbergasted by the detail that went into these, including commissioning a doll sized porcelain dinner service from China!

Doll's houseOne of the magnificent doll’s houses, complete with working sink in the kitchen!

The 17th century was also the start of the Dutch obsession with tulips and cut flowers. These were very expensive and to show them off to their best advantage they were individually placed in the corners of huge flower pyramids.

Delftware flower pyramidFlower pyramid in the Delftware gallery

On the third floor is the museum’s small collection devoted to the 20th century. It was much less detailed than the 17th century galleries and heavier on the historical items rather than artworks, for example a Nazi chess set with soldier figures representing the pawns and planes, tanks and rocket launchers for the other pieces, is contrasted with the concentration camp jacket of a Dutch woman who was interred from 1943-45.

20th century collectionsHighlights from the 20th century galleries (clockwise from left): Dress by Yves Saint Laurent inspired by the work of Dutch artist Piet Mondrian; the F.K. 23 Bantam was designed by a Dutchman for a British aircraft factory during WWI; ‘The Square Man’ by Karel Appel

By this stage we were ready for a rest and so we retreated to the museum’s beautiful airy cafe for a sandwich and a much needed cup of coffee.

Andrew in Rijksmuseum cafeAndrew browsing the tempting sandwich menu in the Rijksmuseum’s cafe

The building itself is nearly as interesting as the exhibits it contains. The cafe, ticket office and shop are situated in a newly built underground area which was a complex engineering project as it is below sea level. Moving between the east and west wings of the museum necessitates passing either through this basement or through the Great Hall on the second floor as the ground floor is bisected by a cycle path. The renovation project team wished to close this off to link the two sides of the museum, but the bicycle mad public vetoed the plans.

Rijksmuseum Great HallThe Great Hall on the second floor has been restored to its former glory with wall paintings and stained glass

In the Asian Pavilion we found plenty of familiar looking items from our travels – Indian gods, Japanese inro and netsuke, Buddhist temple guardians and Chinese tomb artefacts.

Asian PavilionAsian Pavilion (clockwise from top left): Hindu god Shiva; artefacts from a tomb near Xi’an in China; Japanese inro, a small box which hangs from the kimono sash and is secured above by a netsuke; we liked this modern artwork by Indian artist, Subodh Gupta

'Grandfather Clock' by Maarten BaasThis ‘Grandfather Clock’ by Maarten Baas made us smile. Every minute the “man” inside wipes off the minute hand and draws a new one!

Dutch colonial history is represented throughout the museum but on the first floor is a whole room showcasing items from this aspect of the country’s past. I particularly liked the cannon with a dragon’s head and we both recognised the model of Dejima, the small island to which Dutch traders were confined in Nagasaki.

Five Javanese court officialsThese five Javanese court officials are notable for showing that some Indonesians entered into the service of the colonial government and their clothes are a composite of local batik fabrics and European style items

We spent the last twenty minutes of our visit speeding through the Special Collections section, a group of galleries with everything from model ships to dinner sets to fashion and jewellery.

Dragonfly combBeautiful dragonfly comb in the jewellery gallery

Although we spent a full day in the museum we could have stayed for longer. The variety of the exhibits kept us interested and the information about the displays both in the galleries and in the multimedia tour were excellent.

Florence, Italy

Florence is only a 1.5 hour train ride north of Rome but it feels very different to the capital, or any other Italian city we’ve visited for that matter. It’s very chic with lots of designer shops and the souvenir of choice appears to be leather goods – shoes, jackets and bags. The narrow streets and old buildings remind me a lot of my hometown of York – not to mention that it is also dominated by a monumental cathedral, albeit very different in style from York Minster.

Florence from Piazzale MichelangeloThere’s a beautiful view over the city from Piazzale Michelangelo

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (St Mary of the Flowers) is commonly known, as many cathedrals in Italy are, as the Duomo, the Dome. And you can see why. Construction of the church was begun in the 13th century but it was left incomplete with a big space at the end of the roof to accommodate a dome that they didn’t have the technology to build! In the early 15th century Filippo Brunelleschi stepped up to the task after studying the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. His design has been an influence for many others including Michelangelo’s dome on St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and the Capitol in Washington DC.

Florence DuomoThe magnificent orange dome above the green, pink and white marble-clad walls of the cathedral

Unfortunately the interior doesn’t live up to the glory of the exterior being for the most part a large, plainly decorated and empty space. Beside the cathedral stands the campanile, or bell tower, and opposite the main doors is the Baptistry, separate structures but in the same style as the main church so that they form a cohesive whole. We didn’t go into either of these but we spent some time admiring the relief scenes on the Baptistry’s bronze doors which are heralded as examples of early Renaissance art for their detail and perspective depth.

Campanile and BaptistryClockwise from left: the campanile; campanile wall decoration detail; bronze Baptistry doors known as the ‘Gates of Paradise’

On our first afternoon we did a walking tour of some highlights of the historic centre. From the Duomo we walked down the old main street Via Calzaiuoli to the Church of Orsanmichele. The unusual square structure of the church with no tower or dome is due to the fact that it was once a grain market whose arches were filled in to create a church in the 14th century.

Church of OrsanmicheleThe Church of Orsanmichele has two naves, I liked the right-hand side altar with its intricate tabernacle and painting of Madonna della Grazia

Evidence of the church’s former life are visible in the ceiling hooks which were used for pulleys and the former grain chutes in the wall columns which were used to move grain from the upper to lower floors. Around the church’s outer walls statues are displayed in niches, and upstairs is a museum with the originals of the statues, including one of ‘St Mark’ by Donatello.

Museum of OrsanmicheleAdmiring the original statues in the museum on the upper floor of the Church of Orsanmichele, open only on Mondays so we were lucky with our visit day

Just along the street from the Church of Orsanmichele is Piazza Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s former city hall and later home to the super-rich Medici family who by funding vast quantities of art were responsible for kickstarting the Italian Renaissance. It’s possible to go into the entrance courtyard without paying for a ticket and we’d highly recommend it for a look at the ornate decoration.

Palazzo VecchioPalazzo Vecchio

Beside Palazzo Vecchio is the famous Uffizi Gallery (which we didn’t visit having had a bit of an art overload just the week before in the Vatican Museums). We did however walk through its courtyard to the River Arno. Ponte Vecchio is the oldest of the bridges over the river dating to 1345. Its buildings were originally occupied by butchers and tanners who emptied their waste directly into the river but nowadays they contain the very fancy shops of goldsmiths and jewellers.

Ponte VecchioPonte Vecchio’s buildings overhang the River Arno

On our second day in Florence we were able to fulfil a hankering that we’ve had since our arrival in Sicily – to finally sit in, and even drive, one of the classic Fiat 500s, or Cinquecentos in Italian. As no one else had booked for the Classic Tour on that day we got a private tour with our guide Niccolo in the lead car, Giacomo, followed by us in bright blue, 54 year old Fernando. Of course the cars have names, how else would you be able to encourage them up the hills?

Jacopo and FernandoGiacomo and Fernando

Before we set off Niccolo showed us Fernando’s controls as well as giving us a lesson on the horn – one toot is angry, two to say hi, three or more if you wish to show your appreciation as you pass a beautiful lady – yep, this is Italy… We took turns at the driving and soon got used to the double clutch gear changes as we zipped (OK, trundled) through the beautiful Tuscan countryside surrounded on all sides by olive trees and vineyards which produce the famous Chianti wines.

Driving on the Fiat 500 tourDriving Fernando, our trusty Cinquecento, for the morning

Tuscan countrysideThe Tuscan countryside is dominated by vineyards

It was a lot of fun even if the brakes were quite terrifying – if you’re going downhill, even standing on the brake doesn’t seem to have much effect!

On the Fiat 500 tourUs with Fernando

That evening we had a very enjoyable dinner with our host Francesco and a couple of his friends. However, sitting down at the very Italian hour of 10pm resulted in our going to bed at 1am and wasn’t conducive to getting up for morning sightseeing. By the time we ventured out it was almost lunchtime so we went to the covered Central Market for a traditional Florentine sandwich of lampredotto, or tripe, specifically the cow’s fourth stomach… Somehow we seem to be eating more adventurously in Europe than we did in Asia. Not sure how that’s come about, but anyway with the parsley sauce and the top half of the bread bun dipped in the cooking broth the lampredotto was quite tasty.

Lampredotto sandwichLampredotto sandwich for lunch outside Florence’s Central Market

Afterwards we wandered through the aisles of the market hall enjoying the butchers, fishmongers and mounds of sun-dried tomatoes and fragrant porcini mushrooms. On the second floor under the roof were lots of quality looking eateries and a cookery school with a glass wall where we watched the students at work.

Central Market, FlorenceCentral Market (clockwise from top left): the market is housed in this impressive two floor building; lettuces; Florentine butcher; rays for sale at a fishmonger

As the stalls began to pack up for the afternoon we made our way to the Accademia Gallery. There’s really only one reason to visit this small art gallery, the statue of ‘David’ by Michelangelo. We’d already seen a couple of replicas of the famous statue, one outside Palazzo Vecchio and a bronze cast at the viewpoint of Piazzale Michelangelo, but we still wanted to see the original.

Versions of David in FlorenceVersions of ‘David’ outside Palazzo Vecchio and at Piazzale Michelangelo

The other rooms of this former convent contain various pieces of religious art, as well as a small museum of musical instruments, and then we rounded the corner to a sight we’d seen many times in pictures, the gallery leading to ‘David’.

Accademia GalleryThe gallery leading to the room containing ‘David’

Lining the sides of this gallery are some unfinished pieces by Michelangelo which are interesting as an insight into how he worked. Unlike most sculptors who make a plaster version first so that they can measure up the points on the marble, Michelangelo worked directly on the marble block from front to back believing that God guided him to reveal the figure which was already contained within.

Michelangelo's prisoners‘Prisoner’ sculptures in various states of completion

Michelangelo’s most famous sculpture depicts the biblical hero David as he prepares to fight the giant Goliath. It’s much bigger than I expected, standing 4.34m high, and dominates the room containing it.

Michelangelo's David‘David’ by Michelangelo

Details of Michelangelo's David‘David’ details (clockwise from left): the realistically bulging veins of his right hand; David gazes off into the distance; in 1991 a visitor attacked the statue with a hammer damaging the toes of the left foot

We were surprised by how much there is to do in Florence considering its small size. We’d definitely consider a second visit if only to have another plate of the local specialty T-bone steak which we had for dinner right before we caught the train further north…

Florentine steak

Hidden corners of Rome

There are some headline sights in Rome but staying for a month meant we were able to sniff out a few of the city’s less well known corners as well.

Mussolini’s bunker

Where: Villa Torlonia, eastern Rome
Good for: A little WWII history

Mussolini's bunkerClockwise from left: Andrew next to one of the sealing doors of an air raid shelter; air filtration system; gas masks displayed in the bunker

It’s impossible not to notice the ancient history in Rome, but it is also possible to find reminders of its 20th century history here and there as well. We booked a tour of the bunkers at Villa Torlonia where Mussolini lived with his family from 1929 until his arrest in 1943. The tour took us through two air raid shelters and a bunker which was still under construction when Mussolini was arrested. Each was built with three exits in case debris from bombing blocked the others, and some original features still remain, for example, one of the air filtration systems and some gas masks. We were surprised to see how small the shelters are, but of course they were only designed to accommodate one family with their servants, unlike the huge Soviet bunker that we visited in Latvia or the air raid shelters in Malta and Naples.

Quartiere Coppedè

Where: Around Piazza Mincio, north-east Rome
Good for: Art Nouveau architecture

Fairy Cottage, Quartiere CoppedèThe magnificent ‘Fairy Cottage’ on Piazza Mincio

About a 15 minute walk from the Villa Torlonia we found a whole neighbourhood of elaborate Art Nouveau architecture. Designed by Gino Coppedè and bearing his name it was a bit of a surprise in Rome, and reminded us of the Art Nouveau walking tour that we did in Riga. The most elaborate buildings line Piazza Mincio with its central ‘Fountain of Frogs’, but we found others tucked away in the surrounding streets.

Quartiere Coppedè detailsQuartiere Coppedè details (clockwise from top left): Entrance arch complete with iron chandelier on Via Dora; Frog on the fountain; Romulus and Remus decoration on the ‘Fairy Cottage’; the Palace of the Spider gets its name from the decoration over its door

Mouth of Truth (Bocca della Verità)

Where: In the porch of the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Central Rome
Good for: A fun photo

Mouth of TruthClearly Andrew tells more fibs than Julie…

OK this corner isn’t remotely hidden (there was even a 20 minute queue in the middle of February) but it’s a fun photo opportunity if you’re passing. The huge stone circle carved with the face of an ancient god originally dates to the 2nd century BC. In the Middle Ages it gained a reputation for biting off the hands of liars (possibly assisted by someone with a sword hidden behind it!), hence why everyone wants their photo taken with their hand in its mouth. You might also recognise its image from fortune telling machines at fairs, and if you haven’t seen the 1953 film Roman Holiday I highly recommend watching this clip of Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck visiting it.

Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

Where: Central Rome
Good for: Looking at more Caravaggio paintings

Contarelli Chapel, Church of San Luigi dei Francesi

Just a block away from the Pantheon, this small church has no less than three paintings by Caravaggio (the same number as the whole city of Naples!). The paintings here depict various episodes from the life of St Matthew and are housed in a side chapel, called the Contarelli Chapel, which is to the left of the main altar. The church itself is the seat of the Cardinal of Paris in Rome and, as with most of Italy’s churches, there’s no admission fee although they have cunningly left the chapel containing the Caravaggios in shadowy darkness so that if you want to see them you need to feed a nearby meter with a few coins to turn on the lights!


Where: Central Rome
Good for: Political dissent


This rather battered and unassuming looking statue fragment has played a fascinating part in Rome’s political history. The statue itself dates to Roman times and was erected in the current spot after being unearthed while the piazza was undergoing renovation in the early 1500s. Shortly afterwards anonymous verses began appearing on its base criticising the Pope (who ruled Rome at that time) and his government. These were quickly copied and distributed, much faster than they could be suppressed. It’s unclear how the statue got the name Pasquino, but along with five others they became known as the “Talking Statues”. The tradition carries on to this day, indeed when we visited it had a rhyming verse stuck to its base. Posted on 17th February, the anniversary of the death of Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for heresy, it read:

Children, use less judgement and more faith because the Holy Office (the Vatican) is boss,
Contain your thought and don’t reason too much because against reason is fire,
Keep your tongue in your head, as the Pope enjoys barbecue.

[with thanks to Francesco, our host in Florence, for the translation]

Centrale Montemartini

Where: South-west Rome
Good for: Classical statues and industrial architecture

Centrale Montemartini

This museum is a little way out of the centre of Rome though it’s easy enough to reach by metro. Basically it is a gallery of Roman sculptures but with a twist. When the main Capitoline Museum was renovating some of its galleries in the late 1990s, it moved the statues to a temporary home in this former power plant. The result was so successful that it is now a permanent museum. We loved the juxtaposition of the white marble figures against the dark industrial machinery as well as trying to work out the function of the various engines and boilers.

Muse statue, Centrale MontemartiniMy favourite statue was this ‘Statue of a Muse’

Hop Corner

Where: Pigneto area, eastern Rome
Good for: Craft beers

Stout and snacks at Hop Corner

This one is truly off the beaten path. Hop Corner is a tiny pub specialising in craft beers and is less than 10 minutes walk from the apartment where we stayed. We expected a range of good quality lagers and were bowled over on our first visit when we found five cask beers on tap including an excellent bitter and a stout, not to mention fridges packed with bottled options. Needless to say, we were back for more. We also liked that with each round of drinks the snacks served with them levelled up (1. tortilla chops and olives, 2. beef jerky and olives, 3. a plate of porchetta, Italian roast pork!). They also do a range of different Spritzes but we couldn’t pull ourselves away from the beers to try those!

Stadio dei Marmi

Where: Northern Rome
Good for: Fascist era statues

Stadio dei Marmi

The Stadio dei Marmi, or Stadium of Marbles, was inaugurated in 1932 and is part of the Foro Italico, formerly Foro Mussolini, a large sports complex containing swimming pools, tennis courts, a football stadium and the offices of the Italian Olympic Committee as well as this running track and sports field. The “marbles” of its name are 60 statues of male athletes in Italian Fascist style, each donated by one of the Italian provinces. The statues were interesting but we really enjoyed sitting in the sun in this quiet spot and it was good to see how many people were out on a Saturday morning exercising or playing football with their kids.

Statues, Stadio dei MarmiStatues around the Stadio dei Marmi. If anyone knows what sport is being depicted in the top right picture please leave a comment below!

Video Game Museum of Rome

Where: Northern Rome
Good for: Playing retro computer games

Video Game Museum of RomeVIGAMUS (clockwise from left): looking at the exhibition; Julie playing a Pac-man arcade; Andrew in the Oculus Rift headset

And now for something completely different… In stark contrast to all the art and history, we discovered that Rome has a Video Game Museum (VIGAMUS). The entry fee not only covered a surprisingly interesting exhibit telling the story of the birth of computer games but also as much time as we wanted playing the various free games that they had set up on all kinds of consoles as well as arcade machines. Playing on the games reminded us of the afternoon we spent in the arcades of the Akihabara district in Tokyo. The ticket also entitled us to a go on one of their Oculus Rift demo sets, this is an immersive type of gaming with a headset consisting of goggles displaying a picture which moves as your head does, it is touted as the future of video games.