Italy

Even though it’s early July, it’s dull and damp here in London and I’m in a ‘and now for something completely different’ mood with regard to blogging. So I’m taking you to the Villa Giulia, just outside Rome, once a summer residence for Popes and, nowadays, it is the Etruscan Museum with some spectacular objects dating from the 6th century B.C.

An eye-catching terracotta statue of Apollo, still retaining much of its colouring. 

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If you visit Pompeii, you find the ruins of a sophisticated town, with a number of seaside villas depicting a luxurious lifestyle. If you visit the Ostia, on the mouth of the River Tiber, you will find  buildings which are impressive in quite a different way. This was once a successful commercial port with warehouses, shops and offices, as well as the usual urban amenities: bath complexes, public latrine, temples and so on.  It is well worth a visit.

The Decumanus Maximus, the well-preserved main street in Ostia Antica

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We are getting towards the end of January; the temperature on Thursday slumped to 4C and the wind was bitter. My fingers turned white, even with my Alpaca wool gloves on, and the forecast shows that it will remain 6C at best for God knows how long. I’m not a winter person; cold just makes me want to hibernate.

The gardens at Ninfa

I long to be somewhere warm and Italian; somewhere with flowers, trees, shade as well as sunshine, flowing water and romantic ruins. Ideally, I want to be transported to the gardens amid the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. I cannot think of anywhere nicer – especially when, back in England, it’s so cold and wet.

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It’s been a chilly, damp week and I’m longing for a bit of sunshine, so today I’m revisiting sunny Sardinia, a fascinating island, full of interest. And it’s a beautiful country, especially up in the mountains.

View at Serra Orrios. Note the cork oak with its bark stripped in the foreground

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Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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Ever since Roman times, the rich and powerful have built villas in the hills surrounding Rome to escape the summer’s heat. Some, like Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli, still survive. Others, like Castel Gandolfo, built in the 17th century for Pope Urban VIII as a summer palace, were built on top of Roman villa sites. And why not? The land was already levelled and useful top quality building material was there for the taking.

Castel Gondolfo Pope's palace

Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer palace

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One thing I love about travelling is suddenly seeing that unexpected something which sends shivers down your spine and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: the beautiful gardens of Ninfa in Italy; local fishermen dancing in an old waterfront warehouse in Crete; or a small ruined temple set amidst olive groves full of spring flowers in Turkey. And at Agrigento in Sicily, I saw the telamon.

Agrigento museum telemon

The telamon in Agrigento Museum.; c0mpare his height with that of the women standing by his feet.

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This is one of the first things that greets you at the Park of Monsters, a.k.a. the Park of Wonders or the Sacred Grove at Bomarzo, in Lazio, Italy. It is so huge that when you stand up inside the gaping mouth you have to reach up to touch its teeth!

2 Mask of Madness

The Mask of Madness

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What happened to the Roman temples and public buildings after the fall of the Roman Empire when they suddenly became redundant? The answer is simple: they were robbed for building materials.

C Castellana mosaic

Cathedral church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Civita Castellana: exterior Cosmati decoration (note the gold for added glitter)

Just think how much material there was to take! All over the Roman Empire there were thousands of temples, expensively clad in marble – some of it carved, and with marble or stone columns supporting pediments and roofs of dressed stone. And that was just the temples. Every Roman town would have had its forum, with colonnades, amphitheatre, public baths, and dozens of other public buildings, all made of expensively cut stone and marble.

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