Winter Wonderland, Kiruna, Sweden.

In the far north of Sweden lies a little town called Kiruna.  A small town it might be, but it is home to the biggest iron mine in the world, and, more importantly for us, the staging point for three days’ worth of arctic adventures.

As the plane descends, the heavy cloud cover gives way to a magical landscape beneath us.  An endless white canvas, criss-crossed with black forests of trees huddled together in the cold.

IMG_9012We land on a snowbound runway and taxi up to the small red wood building that serves as airport.  A cab takes us along snow bound roads to the town centre for lunch. The driver is not local, apparently.  He’s only been here for 40 years.  First stop, some lunch at a café, where the menu board is hard to decipher and even google translate struggles.  But, the young staff behind the counter happily switch to English, and go out of their way to provide allergy friendly food to my son.   He gets tacos, which seems a bit ironic.

In the settling dusk (around 2pm), as the world glows pink, we walk back to our lodgings, a delightful B&B not far from the town centre.   This town has a unique feel to us, different to anywhere we have visited before.  The roads are wide, the buildings a mix of soviet-flavoured symmetrical blocks and more traditional two story wooden houses.  Everything is expansively spaced apart, and there is snow everywhere, piled on everything, mounds of it swept up into mini-mountains at intersections.  Remnants of Christmas twinkle in star-shaped candles in uncurtained windows.  It’s a cultural thing, these exposed interiors of people’s homes, a throwback to a puritanism that demanded people be able to see inside your house as they liked.  Apparently this helped inhibit sinful desires, like having sex on the kitchen counter.  Doors are kept unlocked for the same reason.

You might wonder what there is to do in such a place, out on the edge of the arctic, where the temperature dips to -26 degrees?

IMG_9027Firstly, you go dog-sledding.  This was by far our most delightful experience, and I suspect choosing your provider wisely makes quite the difference. We opted for a drive-a-sled tour with Husky Voice.  Stephanie takes out a maximum of four people – which meant it was just our family on this trip – the sort of tour we much prefer.  The kids ride up front with Stephanie, taking turns to stand with her and drive the sled.  Mike and I drive behind on the second sled, attempting to obey the two-second rule, which applies as much to huskies on the run as trucks on highways.

Before we begin, Stephanie suits us up in her utterly delightful wooden cabin, bedecked with fairy lights, heater roaring.  Thick overalls, even thicker boots, balaclavas, fur lined hats and gloves get added to the top of our existing ski gear.   This is despite her assurance that at -8 degrees, it is a warm day.  We look like blue marshmallows, warm and fat.

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The dogs and sleighs wait for us in the forest, a winter wonderland of snow drifts and Spruces, branches drooping heavily beneath the weight of the snow that continues to fall.   It takes a while to harness all the dogs correctly, there are a fair number of them, and they bark and yip incessantly with excitement.   The womb like silence comes as somewhat of a surprise once we set off.  The dogs cease their cacophony of howls as one, intent on their task and all we can hear as we glide through the forest is the slushing of the sleds and a rhythmic panting from the dogs.

There is something magical about this monochromatic, ethereal landscape of muted sound and diffused light, like we’ve stepped through the back of the cupboard and into the land of Narnia.   We travel through the forest on recently cleared trails, the snow thick on either side.  Near a lake, frozen, we pause to watch a distant reindeer, eyeing us cautiously.  We plough through deeper drifts that require us to help out our furry friends with a scooting push.  Towards the end of our run, we fly across the ice-bound river and come to a rest at Stephanie’s river hut – a clever invention pulled out onto the snow each winter, and returned home for the few months of summer when the river runs.  While she lights the fire and cooks some delicious sausages we commune with nature, play with the dogs, throw snowballs and wallow in the snow up to our knees.

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The dogs are magnificent beasts, gorgeously attired in their fur coats, intelligent, affectionate and patient.  They are the masters of this domain, and happily share it with us in return for pats and cuddles.  When we finish lunch, the sky is softly bruised with the mauve tinge of returning twilight.  This stark landscape feels the epitome of majestic beauty.

 

Next up, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi.  Despite being an utterly touristy (and breathtakingly expensive) thing to do, it too is a magically different experience.  The hotel itself is fascinating, with its “snice” (snow and ice) walls, towering ice-blocks and ice-chandelier, but the real magic lies in the artist-rooms.  It is a little like exploring a very cold art gallery.  In several of the rooms, artists have spent two weeks carving fantastical creations out of ice – from astronauts to an ice-queen, a bar of drunken block men to a bed in the arms of King Kong.   You can pay to sleep in the ice-hotel, but I can’t imagine how one would get any sleep at -5 degrees on a bed of ice.  The visit was enough for us, rounded off with a drink in the ice-bar.  Champagne ice-glass, with bubbles?  Don’t mind if I do.

Just down the road from the Ice Hotel, we visit the Sami Museum Sami are the indigenous peoples of this region, and this outdoor museum provides detailed information on the traditional Sami way of life.  In the dark, we tromp through the snow peering into various tents which have different functions depending on the time of the year.  I start to appreciate the value of reindeer skins, which are waterproof and warm as toast.  We learn about the reindeer rhythm to which Sami life adheres.  All the reindeer in the arctic belong to the Sami people, and life revolves around the reindeer and their breeding cycle.  They keep some reindeer in an enclosure, so we get a close up view of these comic looking animals who can sniff out food at a hundred paces and aren’t afraid to come and take it from you.

Next door, free to enter, is the Jukkasjärvi Church.  I love churches (although only when empty of preachers), and this one is storybook gorgeous.   The red, almost barnlike structure is simple yet striking against the whiteness of the snow.   Apparently it is the oldest church in Swedish Lapland.  The Sami religion, through the usual application of threat and coercion, is now mostly Christian.  Gone are the drums and ancestral rituals that were once used to commune with the dead, but a sense of that wild spirit communing with nature still resonates in the pictures on the walls.  No realistic European depictions of devotion, these are vibrant explosions of colour, cartoon-like.  They remind me of similar paintings in Cusco, Peru.

We also visited Kiruna Church, which is a spectacular building, beautiful, red and angular, apparently designed with a traditional Sami tent in mind.  It is a series of triangular shapes that converge into a central soaring apex, creating space and light inside.  There is an impressive organ, an abundance of dark wood and the smell of pine forests in the early morning.  We have it to ourselves, this calm and peaceful space, and end up in a deep and meaningful conversation with our children, about life and why people buy into beliefs that make no moral or logical sense.  A peaceful way to pass half an hour before heading out to dinner.

On the advice of Lynn, who runs the B&B we are lucky enough to stay in, we hire a car and spend a day driving along the frozen river towards Nikkaluokta in search of wildlife.  What a luck to encounter three clippity-cloppity reindeers trotting down the road on their multi-jointed legs.  They look just like Disney has sold them to us, and all that is missing is the red nose.

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We find a bridge across the only part of the river that doesn’t freeze over, and step outside the car to take a photo.  A quick photo.  Very quick.  Somehow, here were the water still runs, it is colder than further down the river.  I take my gloves off to take a photo of the distant mountains, and in moments cannot feel my fingers.   Back to the car post-haste, heater blasting.  It is easy to imagine dying from hypothermia.

Of course, the main reason we came up with the mad-cap idea of visiting this part of the world was the allure of the Aroura Borealis.  Although it is a low point in the solar cycle, and it was cloudy for two of the three nights, as luck would have it, on the night I booked us in for a snow-mobile adventure, the sky cleared.  We were lucky enough to get a glimmer of the aurora.  Just a shadow of its marvellous self, but enough to say we have seen it and we want more.  It is the only redeeming feature of the snow-mobile trip, which was our least favourite thing we did.  We did it as part of a tour with about 16 other people, the drive was slow and stop-start and it was utterly freezing.  To drive along with your nose peeking out of your balaclava at -26 degrees isn’t fun, and we all ended up with bright-red frost-nipped noses at the end of it.  Still, we saw the green glow in the sky, and for that it was worth it.

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Snowy lessons in Christmas.

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Christmas Day dawns quite unceremoniously in Cervinia, nestled in the outstretched arms of the Italian Alps.  While this quaint ski-town is bedecked with sparking white lights, and the odd decorative reindeer, the shops will be open today and people shall go about their business with, apparently, scant regard to the occasion.

This was the first year the kids have openly acknowledged us as Santa 1 and Santa 2.  But, they still wanted stockings (which we told them they weren’t getting for reasons of logistics) and a sense of seasonal specialness. The kids went to bed last night with a little less wide-eyed wonder, remarking that it doesn’t feel like Christmas. Happier this morning, waking up to the surprise of secretly packed stockings at the end of their beds.

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It is a lesson about the value of rituals, and the feelings of well-being they give us.  Rituals matter far more than beliefs in creating a sense of place and a sense of belonging.  In my pursuit of intellectual honesty, it is perhaps worth remembering that.

Still, here we are in this beautiful place, doing beautiful things.  The scenery is spectacular.  The village is covered in snow, which made arriving in our heavy cars without snow chains a somewhat farcical event.  The kids are caught in wonder, and immediately launch into snowball fights and snow cave making.  The food is, as one would expect, simply gorgeous.  We eat “typical products” (like cheese and smoked meats) by the bucketful.  For dinner one night we try a fondue specialist.  Yes, even with the dairy allergic son.  He gets to cook his own steak on a sizzler, declares this his favourite restaurant.  Excellent it was too.

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To get to the ski-fields, we have to take a gondola up out of the village, over the first range of peaks and onto the mountain itself, where sunlight dances off the freshly ploughed, brilliantly white snow.  Above us, the backside of the Matterhorn, Toblerone triangular all the same, rises into the bluest of skies, and just across the saddle of sharp peaks criss-crossed with ski lifts lies Switzerland.  All across the horizon, a sea of mountain peaks shimmer in the haze.  It is unbelievably picturesque.

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I am most definitely a beginner skier, and it is only on day three when I finally get the hang of it enough that a glimmer of pleasure overtakes the abject terror.  This is, of course, the moment I take a spectacularly inelegant tumble off a ski lift and twist my knee in a direction it definitely wasn’t designed for.  And that’s me, done for the moment, three days into a ten-day holiday in the snow.  So much for improving my rather shaky skills.  On the upside, I got attended to by the Italian Red Cross, and got a ride on a skidoo down the mountain – siren going all the way.

Today, Christmas Day, we are having lunch at a restaurant that is only accessible if I ski in.  It is going to be interesting.  Let’s hope the over-priced knee brace works, and I haven’t forgotten how to turn.  Snow ploughing down the mountain is going to be a painful endeavour to say the least.

Even without skiing, we are here with friends who are almost family, catching up on years of distance, sharing old memories and making new ones.  The kids form vibrant friendships, with giggles that overtake restaurants and dare my kids down slopes bigger and faster than they could have imagined possible.  And to me, this is what the spirit of Christmas is really all about – making time in our busy lives for family, friends and the small rituals that anchor us in our worlds.

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Merry Christmas, everyone.

London in the Sunshine

In the fifteen years I have been boomeranging back to London to see family and friends, never has that fleeting glimpse of summer the Brits get coincided so marvellously with my trip… until now.  And London in the sunshine is just glorious.

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The kids and I had a ball with family.  For the first time, we had all 8 little people together.  Not that we could get a photo where everyone is smiling or playing nice, but that is okay.  Memories were being made.

It is perhaps my deepest source of sadness, this irrefutable fact that I live, literally, on the other side of the world from most of my family.  Or, perhaps I should say, that they live somewhere I don’t really want to live.  How I wish they would come and live with me. We have great coffee guys, you are likely to get at least 8 months of good weather and the trains don’t stop running just because it is too cold… or too hot.  The sea sparkles, the beaches are made of sand, not stones and the place over-runnith with new world wines. Sigh.

Given London really is a city of grown up bankers, the variety of things you can do with kids  in and around it is amazing.  From theatre to farm animals we took in so much that Matt eventually declared he had had enough.  “I just need a day to relax,” he informed me.  Hysterical.  He sounded just like his father.

In galloping order, here is what we got up to:

1.  Park Life

Jet lag be damned, we weren’t sitting around waiting for sleep to get us.  No sooner had we landed (my beautiful sister came to greet us at the airport, darling woman, what an amazing site for tired eyes!) and decamped, we were off for a brisk walk, a last minute dash for the train and a gallop around Crystal Palace.  Football was played, animals were patted and the full gamut of playground equipment utilised.  The city farm here (more zoo, perhaps) had Arabella sighing enviously and expressing her desire to volunteer to muck out the animals. (Oh for the same attitude with unpacking the dishwasher!)

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2.  Farm Life

Christmas Tree Farm was a idyllic piece of country life in the same sleepy hamlet that Darwin lived in.  We picnicked in a meadow and fed ducks, pigs, sheep, cows, horses, bunnies.  Arabella almost adapted a sleepy pony and Matt photographed everything and chased the guinea fowl.

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3. Tower Bridge

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It is hard to believe just how amazing this bridge is.  For a paltry nine quid you can learn all about it and its place in history, see the old steam engine rooms (Matt was absolutely fascinated – we had to physically drag him away) and walk across the bridge from high in the sky, where a glass floored passageway lets you look down at the red double decker busses and ant-sized people scuttling about down below.  Or if you are like me, you can gingerly press yourself up against the wall and not look down too much for fear of being sick.  Irrational, but there you go.

4. The Shard

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Look, its not often the top of the Shard can be seen for the low-slung grey clouds but even so, I didn’t really want to fork out the fortune it costs to go right to the top just to feel like I was going to feint.  So, we went half way up and had coffees and drinks at  Oblix on level 32.    Friendly service, welcoming of kids and grandmothers alike and not fussed about what shoes you are wearing.  Avoid Aqua – we found them to be stuck up and snotty.

5. Palace Life

Well, not quite a palace, but appearing all the world for one – Penshurst Place has gorgeous Elizabethan walled gardens, one of those amazing adventure playgrounds the kids love and lots for everyone to do.  The big old hall, with fire pit and stone floors is reminiscent of something out of Game of Thrones.

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6. (The Making of) Harry Potter

A must for Harry Potter fans and general movie buffs.  The original sets, the props, the artwork, the great hall complete with flagstone floors and working fireplaces, the moving stairs, broomstick flights, wand lessons, Hogwarts Express, Daigon Alley, the night bus, the house on Privett drive… you name it, it is here.   The kids were most enamoured with the animatronics and the scale-built castle.  Worth every cent…

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7.  Hamleys

Do this.  Take your kids to Hamleys and watch their eyes light up.   Mike says it is one of his clearest memories from a trip he did with his mum to London and I suspect Arabella will say the same.  She spoke to every sales person, tried out every toy on display and could have stayed for three hours more!

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(Also M&M world… what fun!)

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8.  Southbank

I went up to this part of London to meet some friends, and managed to see it glistening in the orange glow of dusk.  With its quaint lights and bars spilling over with people… it was romantic.  What a pity I didn’t have my beloved by my side for a romantic stroll down the Thames.   It was also a place we found TWO Shaun the Sheeps… (all in all we spotted about 10 of the supposed 52…).  We jumped on a ferry and motored down the Thames.  We had planned to do the “cable car“, but Matt wasn’t feeling great, so we just sat in the sunshine (more sunshine!) while the kids ran through the fountains in great delight!

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9.  Theatre

Ah, the magic of Tim Minchin.  Or any musical theatre.  Or even non-musical theatre.  Perhaps this is another downside of not living in London.  Missing out on the easy access to a vast and vibrant theatre scene.  See Mathilda – wherever you are in the world.  Brilliant.

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10. Celebration

The most special part of the whole trip was, of course, being able to share special moments with the special people I have in my family tree.  Easter, family dinners, Ben’s birthday.  My family is large and chaotic, they spill over boundaries and fill up rooms and spaces, with their sheer energy and noise and size.  They are the most enjoyable part of being in London and the reason we return year after year.    Whether it is just taking a walk, having a heart to heart, watching the little people play, playing games (we love playing games, and I miss it greatly being so far away), hanging out with family is what makes London meaningful to me.  On our last day in London, my brother said, what shall we do, I know, lets just hang out and play games.  So we sat in the sun and played Uno.  Memories.

And Sheep…

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Magical Cotswolds

It is easy to forget, driving through the built up megalith of London, that England is in fact a patchwork of ancient villages, surrounded by fields of green, in shifting hues and shades.  In fact, barely two hours out of London, in The Cotswolds, it is as though you have been thrust into the scenery of The Game of Thrones.  Ancient and lush, all woods and fields and low stone walls covered with gooseberry bushes.  Green abounds, but now and then, a flash of vibrant yellow – fields of canola or rapeseed – catches your eye and it is as though a sea of sunshine is held back behind the trees.  

Burford
Burford

Burford, “The Gateway to the Cotswolds”, or so the advertising goes, is more Medieval town than village.  The bustlingly high-street of tightly squished together old buildings appear to be slowly sliding down the steep hill, towards the river Windrush.  A locally printed map points out buildings that have been there for half a millenium or more, but they are easy to see without direction, with their sagging roofs and  bulging, uneven windows.  Alongside the river, the church of St John the Baptist (built from 1175) is a highlight.  Beautiful, grand and brimming with history, the grounds surrounding it are grassy and verdant, strewn with gravestones that pre-date the colonisation of Australia.  Bluebells add contrast and ducks, shivering in the unseasonable cold, amusement.

St John the Baptist Church, Burford.
St John the Baptist Church, Burford.

After lunch in a local pub, we drive on, across the medieval bridge and into the countryside. We veer off the main approach, itself not overly large, and take the winding narrow roads, where we are hemmed in by tall trees and hedges grown head high.  I hold onto my seat and hope we don’t meet a car travelling too fast in the other direction.  In this way, we pass through villages that have probably been around for centuries.  Hedges give way to a handful of honey-coloured stone houses and the odd pub, before we are thrust back between the fields that surround these little habitats.  If you blink, you might miss them.  

Bourton-on-the-Water
Bourton-on-the-Water

Our next stop is the entirely picturesque town of Bourton-on-the-Water (“The Venice of the Cotswolds”).  Despite the obvious tourist bent, this is an exquisitely quaint and peaceful part of the world.  The town straddles the river Windrush, here shallow yet fast moving.  Ducks gather together and paddle like mad to stay in one place, hoping for some bread.  A path is laid out on either side of the waterway, beneath trees with leaves the colour of burnt umber.   A series of narrow stone bridges cross the river and bright red and yellow tulips peak out from gardens along the path.  Countless tea shops offer tea and scones, carrot cake and coffee.  We stop for a while and enjoy the peace and tranquility.

Bourton-on-the-Water
Bourton-on-the-Water

That night we stay in an old manor house, grand and full of creaking floorboards, rich dark wood, oversized fireplaces and oil paintings.  The gardens in this hotel are extensive, with croquet on offer on the terrace lawn.  A secret knot garden, an array of topiaried hedges and countless bunny-rabbits.  We eat a spectacular degustation menu in the high-ceilinged, richly adorned dining room and contemplate that this was once someone’s house!

The Manor at Weston
The Manor at Weston
The Manor at Weston
The Manor at Weston

Magnificent Kew Gardens

If there is one thing Brits excel at, it is green spaces, and the gardens at Kew are no exception. We spent a gorgeous day walking through this magnificent green space admiring the bursts of colour and the lush green surroundings, putting our heads into steamy glass houses and trying not to look down from the tree-walk.  Unfortunately it wasn’t quite the weather for a picnic blanket and some bubbles, but I can imagine that would be the perfect way to spend a day in this place.

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London Revitalised

I am not sure why it is, but for the first time in a long time, I found myself really appreciating and enjoying London on this recent trip to my old home.   I think I moved from “I used to live here, been there, seen that, done it all”, to seeing it again with fresh eyes. Granted, the weather was revolting but let’s face it, you don’t got to England for the sunshine.  It was still as crowded and grey as ever. Still wet.  But not as dirty as I remember it … I think the Olympics cleaned it up a bit.   But, what I started to really see for the first time since my first visit was what an incredible city London is.  The city is literally soaked in history, so much so that it is easy for it all to become background.  And yet, of course, it is a vibrant, modern megalith of first world proportions too.

St Pauls Cathedral, London
St Pauls Cathedral, London

 

I love the changing skyline of London.  The fact that, from the same position on the River Thames, you can see living history in the form of St Paul’s Cathedral (built in 1675), with its rising dome and sense of solid reliability and The Shard of Glass, the tallest building in the EU, a rising monument to modern technology and our love of science (and possibly of showing off).  I enjoyed wandering around the narrow alleyways and by ways, between the green-black buildings and under the old narrow bridges of Bankside, past Shakespearean style pubs and modern bars, as we made our way towards Borough Market.

The Shard, London
The Shard, London

Southbank, along the Thames, has become a veritable hub of gathering (even in the rain) with busy sidewalk cafe’s, food festivals and, of course, an outstanding theatre venue or two.    I loved our evening stroll, still light at 7.30pm despite the rain, down the wide streets of Piccadilly, stopping off for a moment in Fortnum & Mason for a giggle, on our way to theatre.  Real, west-end theatre, with proper British  accents.  Even Piccadilly Circus, teaming with tourists at midnight, feels revitalised.  The neon signs are modern and gleaming, casting their red green glow onto the wet streets.  

Brixton Village
Brixton Village

 

Further south, the bohemian slightly bedraggled and vaguely dangerous Brixton has also had a bit of a facelift.  Brixton Village bustles with incy-wincy little restaurants offering a range of global food delights,  coffee houses, funky clothing stores and pubs that over-flow with cheer.  Amongst it all, fishmongers and grocers and bakers have their place and you feel alive and part of something organic and real.

 

You know, the feeling of London has changed since the Olympics.  And perhaps the Queens Jubilee celebrations may well have had something to do with it too.   There is a great sense of optimism and positivity in the air, a sense of pride and excitement which has been lacking for a long time.  Things are coming together for the old lady of the modern world and I liked how it felt to be part of it, just for a while. 

Find yourself in Rome

When I decided to go to Rome, it wasn’t because I thought I needed it. That came later. It was because Rome is supposed to be the most romantic and wonderful of European cities, and I felt it was worth visiting at least once in my life. I can’t remember why I suddenly hankered to see Rome. I think there may have been a TV show involved. After Paris last year, Europe suddenly seemed magical to me and a need to explore this old world of rumbling ruins, this centre of history, felt an important thing to do. Of course, this drives TMOTH (the man of the house) nuts. Why did I wait until we moved from London to Australia, to decide the places I most wanted to visit were in Europe? I don’t know. I just did. Life is like that sometimes, all upside down and not quite as logical as we might want.

I tagged a weekend in Rome onto a longer trip to London to see my extended family. It was meant to be a break from mummydom – a trip with my sister, without kids in tow, to eat Gelato and pizza and revel in the glorious history of this ancient city. In the end, it was a break from the reality of watching my father slowly dying before our very eyes, cancer devouring his body from the liver outwards, although not his soul.

We arrived in Rome to hawkers selling dodgy umbrellas and cobble-stone streets slick with rain. None-the-less, we decided to walk to our hotel and soak up some of the atmosphere. Rome is glorious, even when it is raining. There is something about this small, compact city, with its maze of narrow streets, horn-blowing impatient drivers and beautifully dressed locals which warms the heart and makes you realise how wonderful it is to be alive and free, yet part of a continuous stream of human endeavour.

The city is steeped in history. There are impressive fountains everywhere and ancient columns hold up unremarkable buildings around many an unsuspected corner. You might, like I did, begin to think, “Can the Trevi Fountain really be so fantastic? After all, look at how many fountains Rome has got”. Until you come across it, almost accidentally, glistening in the wet evening. And its beauty and magnificence takes your breath away. And then, only then, do you truly begin to appreciate the grandeur of history here, the epic nature of what has been preserved through time, in this place that once ruled the world.

Of course there is a lot to do in Rome. You could spend a week just exploring museums. Another just to visit the churches. You’d need a month to go through every notable site. You could while away an entire weekend just shopping for leather shoes. Every guidebook I read warned that you couldn’t hope to see everything Rome had to offer in a weekend. That is, of course, true of anywhere. But a three day weekend is enough to enjoy some of the highlights. To soak up the history. To appreciate what it is to be in Rome.

I made a list of the places I most wanted to see: The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican Museums, Trevi Fountain, TheColosseum and Roman Forum (actually that wasn’t on my list but I am glad we included it), St Peter’s Basilica and the Pantheon. And things I wanted to do, which mostly consisted of eating Gelato and drinking chianti with every meal. I am pleased to say we managed to tick those all off (gelato at least three times) and have a nap on most days too.

Could I explain to you the wonders you see in The Vatican Museum? I wouldn’t know where to begin. The extensiveness of it all is overwhelming. The wealth, not only financially but also in terms of our history, that it represents and the insight it provides into our past is soul numbingly vast. The Sistine Chapel, when you get to it, is almost (but not quite) an anti-climax, having seen so much incredible artwork on the way there. It is impossible to take it all in. The Sistine Chapel is quite spectacular, the talent of Michael Angelo unsurpassed, but my lasting memory will be that we were squashed into that blue room with thousands of other tourists, with Guards repeatedly admonishing us to “shhhhhhh.”

St Peter’s is something else. Actually, in the end, the opulence of it all, makes me feel ill. The riches used to provide long dead Popes and saints and other heroes of the Catholic Church with legacies that must surely run close to idolatry, could feed the hungry and clothe the poor. I can’t help wondering where the money came from, over the past centuries, and how many poor peasants were mislead into believing they could buy their way to heaven or forgiveness. But then, I am just a cynic. For the view from the top of St Peter’s Basilica it was worth tackling the numerous steps, my heart-clenching claustrophobia and stomach-plummeting fear of heights. When we reach the top, the whole of Rome is laid before us, a tapestry of terracotta tiled roofs, interspersed with the off-white domes of multiple basilicas from the many churches in this city.

The Colosseum, as you would expect, is a remarkable feat of engineering with a history rich in bloodshed and suffering. I can’t help but feel the loss of so many lives on this great stage, wondering what that says about the human race, but I am in a melancholic place when I am in Rome, so perhaps that is all it is. There is so much history here, the air is thick with it. You can taste it. It seeps into your skin and coats you like dust.

By the time we get to the Forum, it is pouring with rain and my boots are leaking. We battle through rivers of muddy red water, unsuccessfully trying to avoid puddles. All around us lie the half restored ruins of ancient temples. We walk down the main road, and I can imagine life as it might once have been, a row of temples to a variety of Gods, each fronted with soaring columns, standing tall and proudly over its people.

To my mind, though, by far the most spectacular of all Rome’s sites is the Pantheon. We see it first from the outside, coming upon it unexpectedly on our way to Piazza Navona (for what turns out to be the most incredibly delicious and entertaining dinner. We are befriended by locals who ensure we get the “special menu”, and buy us Lemoncello at the end of the night).

The Pantheon is spectacular. Although it is not the original Pantheon, which burned down a couple of times, this building is nearly 2000 years old making it one of the only pieces of antiquity that has passed down through the ages largely unscathed – a feat of engineering and ingenuity that baffle even modern technicians. Outside, the building is fronted by a huge portico. With about 24 massive columns (shipped from Egypt – an amazing story in itself) towering overhead, it reduces us onlookers to minutiae. Each of the columns are over 1.5m in diameter and reach up 12 meters high. I feel as small as an ant, breathless with wonder, tiny in the face of such ancientness and significance..

Inside, I am even further awestruck. The shape of the building, the open roof which draws the eye towards the heavens, and the stark, beautiful simplicity of its interior, renders me to stillness. It is quiet inside, despite the crowds, as though we are all stunned into silence by the colossal nature of this building. There is a sense of the spiritual inside this round place (more than I felt at St Peters) and I feel almost renewed and refreshed having been privileged enough to visit it.

The best part of being in Rome though, was being there with my sister, eating fabulous food, playing scrabble in the afternoons and laughing at silly jokes, strange people and ourselves. For me, importantly, I leave Rome understanding that we are all part of a long, endless stream of humanity. That all who live die, and it matters not how we finally meet our end, but what we do with that small space in between our first and last breath, and the story we tell with our lives.