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A taste of Italian heritage.

Most people have heard the expression 'When in Rome do as the Romans do', but I can honestly say that doesn't help you decide what to do considering the vast options available.

AFTER a smooth inaugural Gulf Air flight to Italy's capital city I stepped off the plane only to be greeted by an overcast and bitterly cold morning. Although, to many holiday-makers, that may seem like a disappointment, for me it was a welcome break from the heat that permeates the kingdom for most of the year.

This trip was very special to me for two reasons; firstly my family heritage is Greek-Italian and secondly, the timing of the trip meant I would spend my 27th birthday in one of the most stunning cities in the world.

A few years ago I asked my mum (who speaks fluent Italian) why she never bothered to teach me how to speak the language. Her answer: 'We don't live in Italy, it wouldn't be handy for you, bambino'.Well, guess what mum, it would've come in very handy last week!

As we arrived at the RaddissonBlu Hotel the sun was just about rising over the breathtaking mountains.

After a power-nap to recover from the marginal jet-lag, I was refreshed and ready to explore one of the world's most ancient and culturally-rich cities.

The problem is that Rome's complex and remarkable history spans over 2,500 years and I only had four hours to see it. Thankfully, I was in the very safe hands of an extremely friendly and knowledgeable guide, Roberto.

Roberto began the tour by taking us on a walk of the surrounding area. The hotel is very near to Termini train station which means easy access to most of the city, but we split our time between a minivan and on foot.

After a short drive we reached arguably one of the most impressive derelict buildings in the world, the Colosseum. Its construction started in 72AD under the emperor Vespasian and was completed in 80AD. Capable of seating 50,000 spectators, the Colosseum was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles.

I'd seen this majestic building in movies before but nothing can prepare you for the sheer magnitude of its brilliance up close. The worn columns, arches and pillars rest almost transcendentally after centuries of glory.

Next, we took a trip to the nearby Palatine Hill, which is the centre-most of the Seven Hills of Rome and is one of the most ancient parts of the city. The view from the top was awe-inspiring and I felt the most bizarre sense of irony as the sun began to set over the ruins, much in the same way the sun eventually set over the empire itself.

After a short walk we arrived at the Trevi Fountain, a real marvel of the city. A traditional legend holds that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain, they are ensured a return to Rome C* so that was a euro well spent for me!

We headed back to the hotel to freshen up before dinner hosted by Gulf Air CEO Samer Majali. When we arrived at the restaurant the venue reminded me of a scene from The Godfather.

It was so traditional it was almost cliche, with Parma hanging from the walls which were also adorned with rustic paintings of fruit. The warmth from the dancing flames of the open fire slowly returned the sensation to my frozen finger tips as I came in from the cold and I was greeted by the intoxicating aroma of freshly-brewed espresso.

What followed was a four-course marathon of Italian cuisine. For me, the hard part wasn't eating all the dishes; it was trying to order them without sounding like a Monty Python character (thanks again mum).

The next morning we awoke bright and early to have one last touristic trip around the city. The phrase of the trip (instigated by yours truly) was 'when in Rome'. This phrase was repeated countless times as other members of the media representatives joined in. 'When in Rome, let's eat pizza', I said. 'When in Rome let's see the Tiber river' came a voice from the back of the minivan. Roberto picked up on the gag and said 'When in Rome, visit the Vatican'. Everyone agreed with him.

When we arrived, Roberto reminded us that the landmark is actually a sovereign country in its own right. Although the Vatican City is the world's smallest state, just 110 acres, it still houses the biggest church in the world, the Vatican.

As soon as you step foot inside the monumental structure it feels like you've been metaphorically grabbed by centuries of culture and history.

When in Rome, and it is lunch time, it would be rude not to sample one of the fine local eateries. A quick walk down the cobbled path and we stumbled upon a little trattoria tucked in a side street.

Since I'd had my fill of pizza by this point, I ordered spaghetti and it was a taste sensation just like mama used to make.

After lunch we took a train ride to Milan, Italy's second largest city, which is regarded as a world fashion capital and is essentially 'heaven' for every female with a credit card and a penchant for expensive shoes.

Luckily for me, it is also an important centre of the international arts and musical scene. As if that's not impressive enough, the city holds several renowned institutions, theatres and museums, as well as monuments, including Santa Maria delle Grazie.

We walked around the Piazza del Duomo, the main and most central square, which is surrounded by several palaces and important buildings such as Milan Cathedral, the Vittorio Emanuele II Gallery and the Royal Palace of Milan.

On our last night, which also happened to be my birthday, we went to a Brazilian restaurant (well, when in Rome, right!). The fantastic food and beverages were free-flowing and before I knew it, the evening was coming to a close as the waiter brought out a small cake just for me and serenaded me with what I can only assume was 'Happy Birthday' in Italian.

When I arrived in Italy, although I enjoyed the winter scenery the cold weather disagreed with me. However, when I knew it was time to leave all I wanted was to soak it in.

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Publication:Gulf Weekly
Date:Dec 6, 2011
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