Category Archives: travel

Rome Defaced and Degraded: New Mayor Overwhelmed by Problems

I am happy to share with you my latest article just published on Impakter. I spent a long time on this article, after all, it’s all about the city I live in and that I deeply love. It’s so sad to see the state it’s in today. I sincerely hope things will get better as people take things in their own hands…

Is this still Rome, the Eternal City? On a sunny day in mid-April, a rat bit little Marco, a three-year old child, in the leg, near the ankle. He was playing in the park of Villa Giordani, once a lovely place, with some remarkable ruins that were restored in the 1960s, thereby gaining the enviable status of “archeological park”. He was rushed to a public hospital, Umberto I, to be medicated.


What happened next was an angry letter of protest from the Minister of Health Beatrice Lorenzin to Virginia Raggi, Rome’s young new Mayor, an attractive 39-year old lawyer and member of the populist Five Star Movement – fast becoming the largest party in Italy, most recently blamed by the Italian health authorities for a surge in measles (it proposed an anti-vaccination law in 2015).


Ms. Lorenzin did not mince her words: “After only one year in government, we do not expect Mayor Raggi to have solved the chronic problems of the budget or traffic, but the city should be at least clean and the urban décor restored.” According to Ms. Lorenzin, “the health emergency that I warned about two years ago requires immediate action against rats, seagulls, the tiger mosquito, not to mention lice and cockroaches.” Quite a list. And Ms. Lorenzin to conclude mournfully: “Who knows what awaits us tomorrow, with the summer at the door.”

Ms. Raggi lost no time to go on television the next day, taking the opportunity to request “special funding” and announcing she had prepared an “Agenda for Rome” that she would “shortly submit” to the government.

Romans, as might be expected, immediately expressed skepticism, asking what she had done with the funding that she already had. A week later, on the 2770th birthday of Rome (April 21, that’s the day Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded the city), she made a speech, doubling down on the notion of an agenda, saying “We have to make a pact with all the citizens, the institutions, tourists, entrepreneurs and the national government. We have to write an Agenda for Rome together.”

What there is in this agenda, nobody knows. And who is writing it is a mystery. But she is good with words: “We are all fully aware of our History, the extraordinary artistic, natural and archaeological heritage that has made Italy’s capital a unique heritage of humanity. We must preserve what has been handed down to us and make it available to the world.”

Meanwhile, Rome’s problems that have been long brewing, some of them for decades, are all coming to a head. And this spring, the Italian mainstream media is full of horror stories. One blogger, listing everyday the photos and news of Rome’s newfound decadence called his blog Roma fa Schifo (Rome Sucks). At least one foreign journalist, Frank Bruni from the New York Times took note as he walked around Rome, appalled by the cigarette butts and the piles of garbage. He called it the “filthy metaphor of Rome“.



Wild boars: At first, they went unnoticed, just four of them descending from the mountains two years ago. Now troops of wild boars are regularly spotted in city streets at the foot of Monte Mario, feeding on spilled garbage. The authorities are even considering sterilizing the boars after a motorcyclist met his death in a collision with the animals on the Via Cassia.

See the rest of a very long list on Impakter, click here


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Sometimes You Just Have to Let Yourself Go…

Sometimes you have to leave behind the pains of the world, the pressure of work, your responsibilities to all your loved ones and… take a walk! Breathe deeply, take a few steps outdoors and then some more, and yet more, for an hour or two, until, for a few heady moments, you feel FREE…

That’s exactly what I did a few days ago, it was a cool spring day on Lake Trasimeno, in the heart of Italy – a lake that straddles Tuscany and Umbria. It wasn’t at sunset (like on the cover of my book “Crimson Clouds”), it was midday. A cold wind was blowing but the sun shone bright, the birds sang, and horses happily grazed in the fields. Here are some of the images I took on my smart phone that I want to share with you, starting with the lake:

This is Isola Polvese – an island that is a natural reserve – and the shot is taken from high up. In fact, we had driven up to the small, medieval village of San Savino, with its characteristic tower:

You can glimpse the lake in the back, to the right. The tower dates back to the 12th Century and is part of a fortress – not a place you can actually visit, people still live in it. Here it is:

The castle was restored – or rather rebuilt – in the 14th Century. You can learn more about San Savino here, and if you want to spend sometime in the village, you can even rent small flats with great views – but be warned, the place is so small that there are no shops, no restaurants or cafés and that, in Italy, is very rare. Most villages have at least a café. But you’re very close to the Lake and the pleasant little town of San Feliciano, from where you can take a ferryboat to Isola Polvese.

We took a walk around the back of San Savino, going beyond the nice, old cemetery and found this jolly horse:

He quickly noticed us and came up:

After that encounter, we felt ready for lunch and drove back towards Perugia  – ten minutes – to the Osteria dell’Olmo, a Seventeenth Century villa turned restaurant. The setting is a pleasure, the dining room with a fireplace is particularly nice in winter:

Overtime, the food has had its ups and downs but now they have a new chef and we ate very well, a superb steak and fried spring potatoes with the skin on, very tasty. But more complex menus are available:

And they have a delightful coffee machine dating back to the 1920s (don’t worry, it’s not in use!):

Yes, the person in the mirror is me, bent on taking this picture…

In summer, you can eat outdoors, not the case that day (much too cold). But when we looked outside for the restaurant owner who had disappeared in the course of our meal, we found him busy taking care of a herb garden he had recently laid out on the terrace in neat white boxes:

Gardening is an Italian passion!

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France, Taking the Pulse

 I spent the past week in Paris and it has opened my eyes.  Several widely-held opinions and ideas struck me:
1. I am not Charlie
I met NOBODY who evinced support for Charlie Hebdo – now with the killings in Denmark, there has been a revival of that “let’s defend freedom of the press” mood, but it is sure to soon pass away. The Charlie Hebdo cover that came out a week after the murders caused everyone to tell me, with emphasis on the “not”, “I am not Charlie”.

You may wonder who I met and to what extent the people I talked to were representative of French people at large. I can’t prove it but I am convinced that they were in fact very representative.

First, everyone in the French opposition to the French President François Hollande felt that way. Even the most rabid supporter of the French government were upset that taxpayer money was used to finance what they saw as a “dirty sheet” (my opinion too, I never bought it) – one that just went ahead and produced yet another disgusting caricature in bad taste, profoundly disrespectful of another religion. And that means about half the French feel that way. If not more: you need to add all the Catholics of France who ave heard Pope Francis exclaim from the Philippines (where he was traveling at the time), that every religion should be respected.

2. The Légion d’Honneur is Not What it Used to Be

I discovered that the very people you’d expect to respect (even admire) the Légion d’Honneur, the top decoration in the country – and I am talking about top diplomats, lawyers, business managers – felt that the Légion d’Honneur was increasingly misused: in fact, the Légion d’Honneur is not what it used to be. They mentioned to me (with ill-disguised disgust) that it is given to athletes because they run faster or jump higher, to celebs because their smiles  go viral on Internet, but it is no longer given to “for the right reasons” to people “who deserve it”. In their view, Thomas Piketty was right to refuse it.

3. The United Nations No Longer Counts

This, to me, is very upsetting, considering that France has historically always been a great supporter of the United Nations since its inception – and France is one of the Five Big Powers at the UN Security Council with veto power (along with the US, UK, Russia and China). I came across this conviction when I listened to a conference given by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in a private circle – a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Levitte is a top French diplomat who was French Ambassador to the United Nations (2000-2002) and Washington (2002-2007) and served as Diplomatic Advisor to two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy. He talked knowledgeably (of course!) about world politics and the changes since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, evoking the way ahead, particularly in connection with the on-going Ukraine and Syria crises.
He sees the world as totally changed since World War II. In his view, the United Nations no longer counts. The way ahead, in his opinion, is through setting up  ad-hoc mini coalitions of committed and involved countries, preferably a mix of one or more of the UN Security Council Five Big Powers, the P-5,  plus interested countries.

For example, the way forward for the Syria crisis, he suggested, would be to get together the P-5 plus Germany and include those countries in the region that are most directly concerned: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He noted that, while they didn’t “like” each other, they ought to understand that it was in their best (and immediate) interest to see the Syrian situation resolved.

As to Ukraine, the mini coalition, he reminded us, is already at work: Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (Kiev) with the East Ukraine rebels on the outside and the US benevolently looking on. As he told us that night, he fully expected that when Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko met in Minsk, they would “stop the clock” to ensure they would reach an agreement for a cease-fire. Now we know he was right, and they did: they worked all night Thursday 12 February – a full 16 hours, something unheard of for heads of state and government chiefs.

4. Stopping the Clock

Now let me say something about this gimmick of “stopping the clock”. I know it well, because my uncle worked on the EU Common Agricultural Plan in the 1960s, and I remember he used to work all night long and I’d often meet him after breakfast, walking in his garden and musing about the future of Europe before returning to the (clock-suspended) meeting.  This gimmick was repeatedly employed by European high-level functionaries -including ambassadors – who thus hammered out all the basic agreements needed to build the European Union. Let me emphasize: Functionaries used to do this, not top level politicians. But diplomacy is no longer what it used to be either, and now diplomatic work has been taken over by the likes of Putin, Merkel and Hollande. Personally, I think it’s a mistake: if you discuss at top level you don’t allow yourself the chance of saying, “I must refer back to my capital” which is an elegant way of stalling and gaining time before figuring out the next best move.

Regardless of what the Four Big Guys said to each other in Minsk, Hollande and Merkel came back triumphantly saying (some sort of) an agreement had been (somehow) reached. Whether it will hold up is anyone’s guess. The first cease-fire back in September 2014, as we all know, didn’t last beyond a few days…

5. Mini-coalitions of “Willing Countries” Have Yet to Prove that they Work

As of now, and I am sure that if Mr. Levitte is reading me he would agree, the “mini-coalition” model has yet to prove itself. It works in the short run, but does it work in the long run? It allows for quick decision-making and fast on-the-ground moves, notably in Iraq when Bush and Blair steamed ahead in 2003 and more recently yet, in Libya, with the French-English attacks to dislodge Gaddafi. But what about the aftermath? Iraq, as we all know, dissolved in chaos with ISIS taking over a big chunk of both Iraq and Syria. As to Libya, it’s an on-going chaos, with militia vying for power. Libya, if nothing is done, is going the way of other failed states, like Somalia.

Mr. Levitte suggested that Libya should be “accompanied” on the road to state-building by yet another mini-coalition of willing countries – presumably, he was thinking of France and Italy plus a handful of Arab countries, maybe Qatar?

The question comes naturally: why not strengthen the UN Mission in Libya and give it (for once) the means to operate instead of resorting yet again to a phantomatic coalition of countries whose interests and commitments must necessarily waver with every new election at home and thus vanish overnight. Only the UN can ensure long-term commitment, provided it is given the means to function (i.e. sufficient budget and manpower – the UN has a proven track record of state-building in East Timor and Cambodia – and it has a long experience in electoral assistance the world over).

6. Paris in the 21st Century: the Louis Vuitton Foundation

After all these discussions, it was a pleasure to relax and visit Paris’ latest museum for Contemporary Art, Frank Gehry’s new, stupendous construction, the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s, on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. It occupies a corner of the old Jardin d’Acclimatation – a sort of rural, botanical garden with pigs, ducks and sheep and a Guignol show, great for children. And, seen from the Jardin, the Gehry building looks like a weird, disjointed, alien sailing ship that crashed from the sky:

Within that array of “sails”, there are some terraces you can walk on that give you surprising vistas on Paris – very much a 21st Century town with its skyscrapers of the Defense lining the horizon:

My only regret was the inside of the museum: big rooms, yes, but most without direct light. No attempt is made to take advantage of those “sails”. As a result, the rooms display art very much in the way other museums do, with flat walls and rectangular floor plans. So why bother so much with the outside and not the inside? I had expected to see weird-shaped rooms, things that would leave me gasping…Maybe another time, somewhere else, an architect will surprise us with both the outside and the inside.

I highly recommend that if you go and visit the museum, take your time to stroll in the Jardin d’Acclimatation next door (your ticket buys you entrance to both): a pleasant walk in nature after so much steel and stone…

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For a Happy, Special Day in Florence…

This is how you do it. I just did it a week ago – took three days off and went to Florence, boarding the Freccia rossa, the fast train from Rome, one of the fastest in Europe, we traveled at 250 km/hour, thrilling!And I wanted to share with you the best day I had in Florence, with my husband of 36 years (that too helped!)

First, consider visiting a monument few tourists ever get to see, yet it’s right in the center of the old town, five minutes from the train station, in Via della Scala: the old pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella, recently restored, called in Italian, Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica.

It has a long story, it began with the Dominican monks, shortly after their arrival in town in 1221. The friars cultivated medicinal herbs in their gardens to prepare medications, ointments and balms for the convent’s small infirmary. Then, after the fame of their amazing products had spread beyond Italy, they opened to the public in 1612. By the 18th century, they were known as far as Russia, the Indies and China. Eventually, in the 1800s, the pharmacy was bought by Cesare Augusto Stefani, the nephew of the Officina’s last director. Today, the Officina is in the hands of Eugenio Alphandery that has made it a center of excellence for the herbalist’s art, using the highest quality of natural, raw materials…Here is the entrance (unobtrusive on the street, look for for number 16):

And here’s the second room:

And here’s the third, where you can have tea, coffee or hot chocolate and a lovely, light pastry:

When the weather is nice, you can have your coffee outside (but I chose to stay indoors that day, hence the reflection on the window pane!):

And here is the dried herbs room, very artistic:

And here’s the heart of the pharmacy, where all the ointments and balms are carefully displayed:

This is what you can buy here:

But you also have more sophisticated displays in other rooms, like this one:

And what would be a pharmacy without its own chapel to pray God when nothing else works? Here it is, recently restored:

And look outside before you leave: you’ll see that the pharmacy borders on one of the wonderful Santa Maria Novella cloisters:

Next stop after the pharmacy: the Uffizi, restored back to the old splendor. The galleries full of sunshine are surely one of the more special places on earth:

The light can play wonders with ancient art:

And don’t miss out on the view over the Arno and the Ponte Vecchio, a fantastic angle on old Florence:

By now, time for lunch! The Uffizi terrace is the perfect place – with a unique back view of the Duomo:

To be honest, after the many hours spent at the museum, we went back to our hotel and collapsed for a well-deserved siesta. The evening was dedicated to roaming the old, narrow streets, and at the beginning of Via del Moro, entering it from the Arno river enbamkment, there’s a wonderful, old trattoria, Da Giovanni, on the right (at number 22). This is a classic restaurant that will serve all the traditional florentine dishes like the “ribollita” (a tasty bread-based vegetable soup) to “maialino di latte” (suckling pig). We shared both the maialino and “involtini di melanzane” (eggplant rolls stuffed with meat), with an excellent Chianti, a 2011 Badia a Coltibuono:

But what turned out to be most enjoyable at this place was Giovanni himself. He is short and vivacious, jumping all around his guests, looking after everyone, suggesting dishes, making sure you order the right wine. Here he is in full action behind the bar, a silver-haired elf:

Yes, it was an unforgettable pre-Christmas holiday.

And I hope that, wherever you are, dear reader, you have an equally enjoyable Holiday and a Very Happy and Successful 2015!

Update on my latest book: a new cover! See here:

Hope you like it! The book also exists in printed format from Create Space (here) and as an e-book here in the Kindle Store.

By the way, it’s not dystopian in the sense that it is dark, sad and hopeless. The world of “Gateway to Forever” may be going to pieces, and yes, that’s pretty dark but some people find a way to survive, there’s always hope. Find out how they manage and enjoy what one reviewer called “a thumping good read” for your holidays!

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