25 June 2013

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

My lack of updates and blog posts recently has been due to moving and renovating a new home. Now everything is more or less in place, I finally found time last week to pay my first visit to the blockbuster British Museum exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. It's a must-see for anyone interested in Italy, history and the Romans. If you are likely to visit the Naples area in the future, this is a valuable introduction, and if you don't have plans to visit, you might change your mind after seeing the show.

Visitors to the exhibition find themselves touring a Roman home. The visiting route begins with a 'Roman street', and leads through areas dedicated to the different spaces within a typical Roman home, from courtyard garden to kitchen  (where you'd find the privy). Finds from the two towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum are mixed together and range from famous frescoes to humble figs, carbonised in a lasting record of the Roman diet. Among the most memorable displays is a frescoed 'room' decorated with garden scenes, which would have brought the outdoors into an elegant Pompeiian villa.

Exhibits range from a haunting carbonised wooden cradle to a tavern sign (the Phoenix). One of the most scandalous sculptures from the Naples museum's 'Secret Chamber' of pornography is included: an eye-popping group of Pan and a goat which would probably have been an unremarkable garden ornament to Roman eyes. Another fascinating exhibit is a dormouse jar, designed with a run for keeping this culinary delicacy healthy while being fattened. (Dormice are still illicitly reared for eating in parts of southern Italy).

There are many good reasons to see the exhibition, and one important one is simply the chance to see the objects. Although many belong to the archaeological museum in Naples, its fabulous collection, like Italy's other museums, is not always accessible, well-presented or open and visitable. (One of the problems, of course, is that exhibits are sent away to shows such as this one). This is a chance to see a great cross-section of important finds, displayed together with a presentation that brings them to life. On a larger scale it is a great way to learn more about the Roman way of life, and everyday existence two thousand years ago.

The main drawback, as usual with big shows, is that the exhibition is busy and crowded (book ahead), with queues to look in glass cases and read small information signs. Many of the boards contain quite basic information, so if you have read up on the history in advance, you can skim through these and focus on the exhibits themselves. You will also benefit immeasurably from reading a good book before you go (such as Mary Beard's book on Pompeii), which will provide additional context for what you'll see. Even a little  background knowledge will really help to bring the exhibits alive and vice versa.

If you're interested enough to visit more than once, it is worth considering membership of the British Museum which offers free entry without booking, a nice members' cafe/lounge and supports the museum's work. The exhibition runs until 29th September 2013.

> British Museum
> Visiting Pompeii

Crater of Vesuvius

13 February 2013

Romantic places in Venice #3

After a couple of romantic secrets, here's a romantic outdoor spot ideal for a proposal on a sunny afternoon.

#3 A romantic bench with a view

On the island of the Giudecca, just a couple of vaporetto stops from San Marco, you will never find more than a handful of tourists exploring the long waterfront. At the end of the island facing San Marco, near the posh Cipriani hotel, there are some public benches which have one of the best views in Venice. What's more, they are nearly always vacant - most visitors are too busy or too focussed on the big sights to make it here.

Close by is the restaurant I Figli delle Stelle, which also offers great views from its waterside tables (not a viable option in February, but lovely in summer) and also has a smart interior.

There's a guide to exploring the Giudecca in the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice for Kindle and other e-book devices.

Romance in Venice
More about the guidebook

12 February 2013

Romantic places in Venice #2

The second of Venice's romantic secrets, for Valentine's Day visitors.

#2 A passionate embrace

The second romantic secret of Venice is a very romantic kiss on discreet display in Venice's archaeological museum. As I am very dutiful about obeying "no photography" signs in museums, you can see a photo of the kiss here.

The object is the Grimani Altar, which comes from the Renaissance collection of the Grimani family. This collection became one of the world's first public museums. Some of the ancient sculptures were 'restored' and adapted in the Renaissance era. I have no idea of the authenticity of the altar, but it is said to be a Hellenistic work dating to the 1st century BC, and the Dionysian scenes carved onto its sides are quite compelling. The kiss is one of the most passionate you will see in art.

The archaeological museum is now part of the Museo Correr, accessed up a grand staircase in the Napoleonic Wing at the rear of St Mark's Square. Walk through the Museo Correr's historical rooms and into the adjoining Museo Archeologico. The Grimani Altar is in Room 6.

You can find a detailed visitor guide to the Museo Correr in the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.

Romance in Venice
More about the guidebook

11 February 2013

Romantic places in Venice #1

In the run-up to Valentine's Day I'll be posting some romantic secrets of Venice.

#1 A secret heart

This small brick heart is set in a hidden archway near San Giovanni in Bragora. It supposedly records the doomed love between a Venetian fisherman and a mermaid. It's said that if two lovers touch the heart together, their love will last for eternity. (Another version of the tale says that if you touch the heart, a wish will come true within the year, which could be handy if your romance is looking rocky).

You can visit the romantic heart on the walk Castello Contrasts from the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.

> Romance in Venice
> More about the guidebook
> Read about the fisherman and the mermaid in Venetian Legends and Ghost Stories; a Guide to Places of Mystery in Venice

5 February 2013

The ultimate insider guide to Venice

Last year I began making reluctant plans to leave the city where I had lived part-time for five years. I love Venice and through www.italyheaven.co.uk I have shared my knowledge of the city with travellers, hoping that others will get as much out of their stay as I have. I made the decision to go further, and to spend my last months in Venice creating a guidebook which would take advantage of e-book formats to include as much information as the visitor could want, without the burden of carrying a heavy volume around all day.

Venice is a city best enjoyed in leisurely walks off the beaten track. So the centrepiece of the guidebook is a chapter containing seven walking itineraries. Based on lots of exploration and my favourite scenic routes, these walks all have different characters, and they pass almost all the city's finest sights, while avoiding the crowds. The walk directions include some background information on the sights you pass, and links to full descriptions of the museums, churches and galleries on the walk. Each walk can be enjoyed simply as a pleasant ramble, or as a basis for an in-depth exploration of the city and its attractions. If you spend a week in Venice and follow all seven walks, you will really get to know the city in a way that few outsiders ever achieve.

It is always a sad sight to see tourists being fleeced in bad tourist restaurants, or arguing about the bill with waiters on the lanes outside. No-one wants a good holiday experience spoiled by the bitter feeling of having been ripped off. So a listing of reliable, good-value restaurants was a crucial part of the guidebook. Along with practical advice and tips on dining in Venice, and eating on a budget.

I wanted to create the ultimate guide to Venice. A book that could be a quick handbook for enjoying a leisurely weekend, with easy itineraries and suggestions - or a reference volume to be dipped into and used again and again by repeat visitors or new residents. The book I would have found invaluable myself, during my first couple of years in the city. And beyond that, I wanted to share my love for the city, for its people, for its secrets and for the Venice so many tourists fail to discover. I want to introduce other travellers to the charms of real Venice - so much more than the crowds in St Mark's Square - in the hope that they will come to know and love the city too. To share all the most fascinating hidden corners, the most curious stories and the cheapest, most homespun eateries.

I thought I knew the city well, but I discovered a world of fresh, interesting facts, anecdotes and histories when researching the book. Several of these were new even to lifelong Venetians. Seeing the surprise on a Venetian face: " A Madonna with a gun? In St Mark's?" "There's no Carpaccio on San Giorgio!" or simply "I've never noticed that before, thank you," was a great compliment. I hope that whether you are visiting Venice for the first time, or know it well and want to discover even more, the guidebook will be a helpful and entertaining companion.

> Venice: Italy Heaven Guide (Kindle, Amazon.co.uk)
Venice: Italy Heaven Guide (Kindle, Amazon.com - US)
Venice: Italy Heaven Guide from Kobobooks (Epub format) icon
Epub format from Smashwords

(The cover photograph, incidentally, is one of my favourite views in Venice, from Ponte Trevisan in Dorsoduro, visited on the walking itinerary "A Dorsoduro Ramble")