When It’s Great to be a Woman in Italy

Yes, there might be sexism in Italy — even up to the highest levels of government. Yes, it might be so bad that primetime news shows routinely show half-naked women, that the country lags behind in every statistic from the gender gap in wages to the number of female politicians, and that a million women protested in a nationwide demonstration last month.

But at least this Tuesday, March 8, women get a break: For Festa della Donna, the traditional Italian holiday for women, all nationally-run monuments and museums will be free for females only. In Rome, that includes sites like the Colosseum and Palazzo Massimo.

Hey, it’s something. Ladies: Take advantage!

Hidden Underground, an Ornate, 2,000-Year-Old Sepulchre

I’ve done a lot of cool things in Rome — but visiting the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas is one of the coolest.

And it’s one of Rome’s best-kept secrets.

First off, let’s debunk the idea that Christians were the only ones who got neat underground burial chambers in Rome. In fact, the practice of interring the dead below ground went back to the pagan Romans. One popular way to do this was with a columbarium — an underground chamber built and decorated to hold the urns of Romans’ ashes, either for one family or many. (Later, around the time of Trajan in the 2nd century, pagans would stop incinerating their dead and start burying whole bodies in catacombs. The Christians took up the same idea and, along with continuing to bury their dead side-by-side with pagans in mixed catacombs, also started building catacombs just for Christians).

Needless to say, every once in a while, a new columbarium is discovered below Rome’s ground level. This one was found in 1831. And it dates way back — back earlier than the Christian catacombs — to between 14 and 54 A.D. The incredible thing? Many of the frescoes and decorations still look fresh. And lots of the burial urns are still there.

The columbarium likely was founded by Pomponio Hylas for his family in the 1st century B.C. How do we know? The extraordinary mosaic that faces you as you descend down the stairs into the space.

The chamber itself is small. But it’s filled with beautifully-detailed, and preserved, frescoes and decorations, from mythological scenes to delicate, winding vines.

There’s nothing quite as extraordinary as standing in the small chamber designed, so intimately, by a family for its dead, seeing the frescoes that they hired artists to paint, viewing the inscriptions with their individual names — and the urns that once contained their ashes. If it weren’t so beautiful, it would give you the shivers.

And you’d never guess any of this from the outside.

To book, you’re supposed to have a group of at least 10 people. Book by calling 060608. It costs €3 per person. Just promise one thing: If you go, you will not touch the frescoes, or anything else in there. That’s what destroys the artwork.

The columbarium is located in the Parco degli Scipioni, nearest to Via Latina 10. For a map, click here.

Want to find out about Rome’s other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!

An Empress’s House Opens… Only Through March

Rome’s just unveiling all kinds of incredible ancient sites. Case in point: the House of Livia — a gloriously-frescoed, 2,000-year-old structure thought to belong to Emperor Augustus’ wife. After being closed to the public for years, then open on Saturday mornings only last fall, it’s reopened this month.

But go quickly. Because, so far, it’s only open this month.

Why is it worth visiting? Well, two reasons. First, if you’re wandering around the ruins of the Palatine and curious how any of these ancient houses actually would have been decorated, here’s your chance. The House of Livia still boasts (fragments of) mosaic floors and beautiful frescoes — not quite as pristine as those in the House of Augustus, but almost. (Below, the well-preserved frescoes of the garlands that symbolized Octavian Augustus’ victory — you can see them on his Ara Pacis, too).

Secondly, the house is thought to belong to Livia. Augustus’ wife. The woman that Octavian fell in love with so immediately he divorced his wife the day she was birthing his child in order to marry Livia. Who he remained married to for 51 years, even though she never bore him a child, and even though she was the daughter of a man who had been killed in battle fighting against her now-husband. Who was, herself, the mother of the second emperor Tiberius, the grandmother of Claudius, and the great-grandmother of Caligula.

And who was so powerful, the Senate tried to bestow her with the title of Mater Patriae (“Mother of the Fatherland”) — and, supposedly, such a powerful meddler that her son Tiberius retired himself to Capri just to avoid her. In short? She was a bad-ass.

How could you not want to see where she lived, loved, and plotted… or the decorations that she chose? (Note: The tour guide said the frescoes were chosen by Augustus. Why this has been assumed, I’m not exactly sure. I doubt a woman who was powerful enough to make the emperor retire would have let somebody else pick out her home’s decor.)

So, go. And go now — before the House of Livia shuts once more, to open who-knows-when.

As per the Pierreci site, the House of Livia is open only for tours that run, in English, at 9:30am and every hour thereafter until 3:30pm. That said, I was there yesterday and the house was very clearly simply open, with people wandering in and out, at 3:15. The tour guide did come in at 3:30 and gave a 15-minute tour, but it didn’t seem to be necessary to view the house’s offerings. The price of entrance is included in your 12 euro forum/Colosseum/Palatine ticket.

The Week of Free Museums Across Italy… Is Here!

From now until April 17, Italy’s state-run museums and sites are free. (Yay!) In Rome, that includes the Colosseum, Forum, Palazzo Massimo, Galleria Borghese (where you can find Raphael’s beautiful “Entombment,” above) and Baths of Caracalla… to name a few. Take advantage!

Here’s a complete list of sites with free entrances this week, from Pierreci (click on the drop-down beneath the map on the right to choose your region — Rome, of course, is Lazio).

Revealed Rome’s 12 Most Popular Posts in 2012

As we approach 2012’s end, I was pretty curious about which blog posts were the most popular on Revealed Rome this year. A little stats-checking proved to me that my readers are (unsurprisingly) big fans of Rome, especially when it comes to food, Christmas, shopping, and more!

Without further ado, here’s the list of the 12 most popular Revealed Rome posts in 2012… a couple of which surprised me! Do any surprise you?

#12: 5 Favorite Places for Food Near the Vatican: Oh lists, how I love thee. This one, on where to grab lunch in the food desert touristy area around the Vatican, was one of my first (semi-regular) “Five for Friday” posts—and one of the most popular.

#11: Rome’s Best Shopping Streets: Via del Boschetto: It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Rome’s shopping… when it’s done far, far away from chain-store-choked Via del Corso. One great alternative is this little street in Monti, near the Roman forum, which is chock-a-block with fantastic artisans and boutiques.

#10: How Safe is Rome, Really?: A question readers found even more pertinent in 2012 than in 2011 or 2010, when it was first published. Not sure what that says about Rome’s reputation. Or about crime in the world in general.

#9: In Rome, Shopping for Vintage Clothes: I love vintage clothes—and, from the looks of it, so do travelers coming to Rome. Make sure you also check out King Size Vintage, a new addition to Rome’s vintage shopping scene.

 #8: Is Anything Open During Christmas and New Year’s in Rome?: A good question… and one a lot of people wanted the answers to this year.

#7: 5 Frustrating Things Somebody Coming to Rome Can Say: I wrote this post in a fit of, well, frustration. (For example: Yes, it’s frustrating when you say you booked a hotel way out of Rome’s center to save money, and yes, it’s frustrating that you rented a car to use in Rome… to name just two pet peeves). Luckily, it looks like it resonated with a lot of people—and hopefully steered them away from making some first-time-traveler mistakes.

#6: Underground at the Colosseum: How Do You Get There?: Two years after I wrote this post, people were still checking it out (and yes, the information has been updated several times since). Looks like the Colosseum underground, which includes the hypogeum where gladiators waited for their turn to fight, is still a big deal—although slightly less exciting than last year, when it was Revealed Rome’s #1 most popular post.

Lots of people wanted to know where to go to the beach near Rome…

#5: Rome’s Most Convenient Beach (And It’s Pretty!): Not going to lie, this one kind of surprised me, especially with the yawn-worthy title. But many readers seemed bent on making it to the beach this year, which got this post a lot of play.

#4: 10 Things to Do This Christmas in Rome: Yep, yet another Christmas post. And here I thought the summer was high season in Rome.

Want to nosh on something this delicious near Rome’s touristy areas? You’re not the only one…

#3: Where to Eat in Rome’s Most Touristy Areas: I’m really glad this post got so much play, because, as I’ve pointed out before, there’s a huge misconception about eating in Rome—that you can eat at any restaurant (even in the super-touristy parts of the city) and still eat well. False! Readers avoided the tourist traps by checking out these recommendations for where to eat near the Spanish Steps, Colosseum and Pantheon.

#2: The Best Gelato, and Best-Kept Secret, in Rome: Apparently, a secret no longer! My post on I Caruso, my favorite gelateria in the city, was the site’s 2nd most popular post in 2012. So if it’s a little more crowded now than it was when I first discovered it, back in 2009… I’m sorry.

And (drumroll please…):

My #1 post in 2012: 


11 Etiquette Mistakes (Not) to Make at an Italian Meal
: From ranking at #5 for my most-read post in 2011, this fun-but-oh-ever-so-important list shot its way up to the single most popular one on the site in 2012. I’m very glad I’ve gotten the chance to save so many people from the crimes of ordering a cappuccino after noon or asking for parmesan for their pizza.

What was your favorite Revealed Rome post in 2012? And what would you like to see in 2013? Let me know in the comments!

Where to Find Rome’s Christmas Markets (Updated for 2016!)

Christmas markets in Rome just aren’t as much of a thing as they are in cities elsewhere in Europe, especially further north. For years, when it came to mercatini di Natale, as Italians call them, the main event really was just the Christmas market at Piazza Navona.

Today, the Piazza Navona Christmas market (which runs daily, and until 1am, from November 25 to January 6) remains the largest in Rome’s center. Every Roman (and visiting) family stops there at some point during the Christmas season. Stalls sell Christmas decorations, gifts and sweets and street performers juggle and dance, all under the gloriously-lit fountains and Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. For atmosphere and convenience, the 100-year-old Christmas market is a good bet. (Update, 1 December 2016: After being called off last year, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is back!) Update, 18 December 2016: Psych… despite earlier news to the contrary, the Piazza Navona Christmas market is not running this year. There is, however, the market’s traditional carousel running at the piazza!).

But. Most of the gifts for sale there are mass-produced, made-in-China items — and a far cry from the kind of artisanal gifts you can so easily find elsewhere in Rome.

So here are some other top bets for the season. (And for more information on Rome during the holidays, don’t miss my full guide to Christmas in Rome!). Although some of these other markets are slightly out of the heart of the center, if you’re looking for a truly authentic Christmas market experience — one full of Roman families and locally-made goods — they’re worth the trip.

Buon Natale!

New for 2016: Mercatino di Natale a Piazza di Spagna 

For the first time this year, there’s a Christmas market at the Spanish Steps. Featuring the usual craft, gift and food stalls, it runs on December 18 only, from 10am to 5pm; entrance costs €2 and the proceeds will go to Italy’s earthquake victims.

Arti & Mestieri Expo

Although it’s definitely not central, this market features several hundred stalls selling artisanal goods and foodstuffs, from ceramics to leather to olive oil to chocolate. And since all of the products are made in Italy, it’s a great place to find local, one-of-a-kind gifts to bring back home.

The market, which is free to enter, is at the Fiera di Roma, about a 20-minute train ride from the center of Rome; just hop on the same regional train that you can take from the Trastevere or Ostiense train stations all the way to Fiumicono Airport (the Treno FR 1) and get off at the “Fiera Roma” stop.

For 2016, the Arti & Mestieri Expo takes place from December 15 to 18.

Villaggio di Natale al Parco Egeria

Located in Piazza della Radio and hailed as the largest Christmas fair in Rome, this “Christmas village” opens with a sagra (if you’re not familiar with this fabulous event, check out my explainer on sagre) of chickpea soup, chestnuts and porcini mushrooms on Friday, followed by another sagra of handmade gnocchi on Saturday and Sunday. If that weren’t enough, there are also artisans (including those who do Christmas cribs), games, elves and Santa Claus himself. (You may just have to warn your wee one that this Santa speaks Italian).

In 2016, the Villagio di Natale takes place at Parco Egeria (look for Via dell’Almone 105), best accessed via bus from the center, from December 8 to 11 and the weekend of December 17 to 18.

Natale all’Auditorium Parco della Musica

Every year, Rome’s Auditorium puts on a seriously spectacular Christmas event. There’s a big ice-skating rink (one of the city’s few), a small Christmas market with some 30 stalls selling food and gifts, and plenty of performances and concerts, from gospel choirs to the Rome Orchestra — so make sure to time your visit with one of the events going on. From the center, one of the easiest ways to get to the Auditorium is to take the #910 bus, which leaves from Termini.

In 2016, the Natale all’Auditorium takes place from December 8 to January 8.

Mercatino di Natale di Emergenza Sorrisi

Want to make a difference with your Christmas shopping? Head to this Christmas market — which has stalls selling food, children’s clothes and jewelry and accessories — to support the Gruppo Sorriso Roma Onlus, which helps at-risk and disadvantaged children. It’s located on Via Salaria 95 in Parioli, a 10-minute bus ride on the #360 from the Termini train station.

In 2016, the market takes place until January 6 on weekdays, from 9am to 5pm.

Also: five overrated things to do in Rome (and what to do instead), and a visual visit to see Rome’s spectacular Christmas lights.

If you liked this post, you’ll love The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon or through my site here! I’m also free for one-on-one consulting sessions to help plan your Italy trip.

 

The Finest Gifts from Italy

Looking for that perfect gift from Italy? Even though I’m always a fan of tracking down artisanal gifts in person, these days, you can find some pretty great Italian gifts online, too. And I don’t mean gift baskets where the “parmesan cheese” hails from Wisconsin.

Because it’s that time of year again, I spent some time scouring the interwebs to find the best gifts from Italy — as in, the finer things: from perfume to leather journals to olive oil.

And don’t miss this year’s best gifts for travel to Italy; all of my previous Italophile gift guides can be found here).

Here are just a few of the finer Italian experiences you can give — no airplane required!

An Italian wine tour

Got someone on your list who loves Italy, loves wine — but isn’t necessarily a wine expert? Introduce them to some of Italy’s most popular (and characteristic) wines with a six-bottle collection (above) that tours the peninsula, from a full-bodied Barbera d’Asti from Piedmont to a crisp white Vermentino from Sardinia. Each bottle retails in the US for $10 to $15 or so, so this might not be for the super-picky sommelier on your list, but personally, I’d be happy to drink any of these. Give it with this fun, informative wine map of Italy for the whole experience.

If you’ve got a serious wine-lover, on the other hand, they’ll definitely know Barbaresco, one of Italy’s most famous wines. While it’s easy to find a great one, finding a great one, abroad, at a good price, is pretty difficult. Enter the Produttori del Barbaresco 2010 Barbaresco, at $34, this is one of the best-value Barbarescos out there (and made by a group of Barbaresco winemakers that got their start as a 19th-century co-op). Of course, if you want, you also can impress the vinophile in your life with something just a bit costlier.

Food from every region

Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man… well, you know the rest  of the saying. Which is why any foodie or aspiring chef deserves to have The Food Of Italy (left), a collection of essays by food journalist Claudia Roden, on their bookshelf.

One of the few books out there that covers Italian cuisine region by region — which you already know is key — each chapter comes both with recipes and a section on each region’s wines. Bonus: It’s got my last name on the cover! (Just in case you, you know, forgot who recommended it).

The fragrances of Florence

The lovely soaps by Florence-based artisan Alighiero Campostrini are free of EDTA, dyes and titanium, but come with pretty packaging and yummy, Tuscan-inspired scents (like iris and cypress pine, rose, or even silk). The handmade soaps by La Florentina, another artisanal, Florentine soap-maker, also look, and smell, luscious; this set of three soaps (right) comes up with such a gorgeous box, you won’t even need to wrap it. La Florentina makes candles (like this one in Tuscan violet), too.

Or go for a perfume. The Terenzi family has been making scents in their workshop on the Adriatic coast of Italy for 40 years. Maremma Extrait de Parfum (left), which they created to be sold exclusively at British department store Fortnum & Mason, smells like the wild, Tuscan stretch of coastline for which it’s named; top notes include bergamot, jasmine, black currant and oak.

But for Florence- or Tuscan-inspired fragrances, there’s nothing like those by I Profumi di Firenze: the apothecary’s hand-blended perfumes are all inspired by original, 16th-century formulas that were commissioned by Catherine di Medici herself (the Caterina dè Medici perfume, ordered by the benefactress, is the original, with rose, iris and lily).

And speaking of perfume…

The scents of Capri… and Lake Como, and Amalfi, and Sicily

 

They say memory lives in the nose. It must, because each time I sniff one of the scents in Acqua di Parma’s Blu Mediterraneo collection, I feel transported — I don’t know how they do it (although the fact that their craftsmen have made scents in Italy since 1916 probably helps). The first time I ever smelled Mirto di Panarea, with its myrtle, basil, lemon and “sea breeze accord” (whatever that is), I felt like I was right back on the Aeolian island of Panarea, frolicking with friends. Just as eerily evocative are the Bergamotto di Calabria, with the southern Italian region’s bergamot, red ginger and cedar wood; Ginepro di Sardegna, with the island’s juniper, bergamot and spices; the Mandorlo di Sicilia, which incorporates Sicilian almond and orange; Fico di Amalfi, with lemon, grapefruit and fig; and Arancia di Capri, with orange and mandarin notes.

I became obsessed with a convert to the Magnolia Nobile perfume after trying it in Naples last year, and it’s the closest thing to a signature scent I’ve ever had. The scent includes notes of Italian citron, bergamot, lemon and magnolia, and — not that I knew this at the time I fell in love — was inspired by the palazzo gardens of Lake Como.

If it’s an Italian scent for him that you’re looking for, Colonia Leather incorporates Mediterranean (but masculine!) notes like Sicilian lemon, Italian orange, and birchwood, while Colonia Intensa has notes of Calabrian bergamot, leather, and ginger.

Rome’s best cup of coffee

Caffe Sant’Eustachio has the reputation of having the best coffee in Rome. And you no longer have to be in the Eternal City to get your hands on it. (Brave new world out there…). Give the gift of Italian coffee with one of the cafe’s signature roasts and a Moka coffee maker (you know, the kind every Italian has in their kitchens. I may or may not have two). Or, for the sweet-toothed coffee-lovers out there, there are always their chocolate-covered coffee beans.

A luxury Italian yacht (for the living room)

No, really. For that boat-lover who’s always dreamed of taking on the Mediterranean, there’s the Riva Aquarama 1/15E Model Boat, hand-crafted with every little detail — right down to the brass rudders and chrome accessories. Sure, sure, it’s a hefty £885… but when the real thing goes for £250,000, it’s practically a steal!

And if you want to go a step more luxurious (because why not), you can always spring for the £1,500 Riva Aquariva 1/12E Model Boat(left) instead).

The fresh pasta of a Roman trattoria

Earlier this year, my mother introduced me to the art of making fresh pasta at home. It was a revelation (thanks, Mom!). I knew how simple some pasta dishes were to make at home, but I couldn’t believe how easy making their most important ingredient was, too. Plus, it feels a little bit like being a toddler again, up to your elbows in Play-Doh. (Actually, I think that’s when I had last used the particular machine in question). So give the pasta-lover in your life the ultimate gift with their very own pasta-maker; with one, you can make everything from fettuccini to lasagne.

Pair it with this super-cute apron, printed with dozens of different pasta types and their names (farfalle! cassarecce! rotelle!) (although if you happen to be a guy giving an apron to a woman in your life, tread lightly). Bonus points if you can spot the apron’s spelling error.

A handcrafted leather journal

A classic, handmade-in-Italy leather journal, like this one, never went unappreciated. Although I’m an even bigger fan of this chocolate-brown leather journal (left) with gold-gilt writing (in Italian, of course!) on the cover.

A note from Florence

Writing a note by hand (never mind receiving mail) seems to be one of today’s most decadent pleasures, especially when it’s on nice paper. I love this elegant stationery set with its gold-edged Florentine fleur-de-lis pattern, all designed and printed in Italy. (Poke around the Florentine Shop’s other offerings — they have lots of other pretty patterns, too).

An education in liquid gold

This extra-virgin Italian olive oil (left) is legit. That alone is rare. But even better, the D.O.P. oil, by well-respected oil-maker Frantoi Cutrera, has won lots of awards, “best in the world” included. At $40, it’s also a good price. (No, really. That $10 grocery-store oil you bought isn’t even the same species). And, as a devastatingly low 2014 harvest means olive oil prices are on the rise, it’ll seem like an even better one soon, sadly. Stockpile now!

Or go a step further with a set like this, which has six extra-virgin olive oils by Frantoi Cutrera. Since each is produced from a different olive, it’s a great way to give the gift of not only olive oil, but learning about oil.

Give either one with Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil — easily the best nonfiction book I read in 2013 — by investigative journalist Tom Mueller. Seriously, it will upend how you think of that slippery little substance. (And give new meaning to the word “slippery”).

Organic olive oil… for your face and hands

I swear by olive oil soap (and lotions, and…). But, just like when you’re eating it, you want to make sure that what you’re putting on your body is only the good stuff. Which is why I like Perlier Olivarium, which cultivates its ingredients on 150 acres of land outside Turin, all with organic, pesticide- and insecticide-free farming. Their paraben-free hand mask, ultra-rich body butter and hand soap, all made from their own (organic) olive oil and lycopene (from tomatoes), are the perfect gift (even just for yourself!) for fighting off moisture-sucking cold.

An Umbrian clay beauty treatment

Even the ancient Romans flocked to the natural hot springs of Tuscany and Umbria. The reason wasn’t just that the Romans had a serious thing for baths. (Although they did). It was also for their healing and beautifying properties, which came from the minerals in the water… like those found in the clay in the Umbrian town of Nocera Umbra. A little beauty company by the name of Fresh snapped the clay up as its proprietary ingredient (apparently you can do that?); for those with acne-prone or oily skin, the Umbrian clay collection, including the treatment bar (right), mattifying mask and oil-free lotion, are like a little Italian treatment at home.

Gifts for the Italy-Bound Traveler

Looking for the perfect gift for a traveler headed to Italy? (Or maybe for yourself?). I’ve got you covered!

And don’t miss this year’s guide to the best Italian gifts on the web this season, or the 2012 guide to the best gifts for travelers to Italy!

The perfect airplane read(s)

When it comes to bringing history to life, Ross King is a wizard, telling rollicking tales of Renaissance scandals and assignments gone awry. And he’s done it with not one, not two, but three Italian treasures: Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture (on the Duomo of Florence); Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (on the Sistine Chapel); and Leonardo and the Last Supper (at right).

Conveniently, each book is on a different city (Florence, Rome and Milan). Talk about the perfect gift trifecta for someone headed for the Grand Tour.

A super-duper camera… the size of a smartphone

I adore my 6-year-old-but-still-fantastic Nikon D90 DSLR and my little waterproof Sony digital camera. If I were looking for something in the middle of those two, though – not as professional (or big or heavy) as the DSLR, but with more options and flexibility than the point-and-shoot — I’d be looking at what’s called a “expert compact” camera. In particular, I’d have my eye on the Olympus XZ-2 (left).

The camera is smaller than a Galaxy smart phone, but comes with the kinds of bells and whistles you usually just can’t get in a camera that size — like ISO up 12800, sensor-shift stability, an SLR-quality image processor, and HD 1080 video recording. In layman’s terms, that means that you can shoot crisp photos in conditions that just won’t work with a lesser digital camera or an iPhone, like an indoor restaurant dinner or the floodlight Colosseum at night. For anyone who loves taking photos but isn’t a professional photographer (and even for some of us that are), this would be a seriously sweet gift.

A hedonist’s guide to Tuscany

Not your usual guidebook, Tuscany for the Shameless Hedonist includes tips on everything for making a stay in Florence or Tuscany pop with the pleasures of Italian life: where to find romantic aperitivi and relaxing spas, the top wine tours and finest local artisans, the best cooking classes and antique markets, and more.

A streetwise stocking stuffer

The Streetwise Rome map remains the most usable one of the city I’ve seen. It’s laminated, so you don’t have to worry about spilling wine getting rain on it. And the map has much more detail than you’ll find on the free tourist maps in the city, but is still pretty easy to read and use. Let’s just say it got me through my first 3-plus years of never knowing where I was.

A travel journal that gives you tasks (great for kids and creative adults!)

I love this. In the ingenious, interactive I Was Here: A Travel Journal for the Curious Minded, travelers aren’t just encouraged to jot down tips, reviews, and notes. They’re also asked to do things like, say, go to a local pharmacy and buy a toiletry brand they don’t recognize (I always say going to a pharmacy or grocery store is one of the best ways to get a sense of the local culture!), or ask a local to draw a map to one of their favorite neighborhood spots (I can just imagine what kind of crazy drawings you’d wind up with in a city where the streets are as confusing as Rome!).

I can imagine how much fun this would be for kids to do. Or, let’s be honest, for any adventurous adult.

An airplane wake-up

The kind of thing you’d never buy for yourself (aka a great stocking stuffer), this little jet lag kit (right), which is given to first-class passengers on Emirates Airlines, has two “sniff boxes”. Get a whiff of “sleep,” with lavender, chamomile and neroli, to unwind; “focus,” with bergamot, lemon and cinnamon, energizes and refreshes. Perfect idea for those otherwise torturous overseas flights.

The best conversational Italian course around

There are a million and one Italian-language software programs out there. While many people swear by Pimsleur for learning the basic, conversational Italian you want when you go abroad, the newer Living Language Italian has the edge: it’s currently the number-one bestseller on Amazon for Italian learning products, and the reviews are stellar. It’s also more bang for your buck, since the $30 complete edition has 46 lessons, with nine audio CDs and three books, that take learners from beginning to advanced.

For anyone who wants to, say, order food at a restaurant or get directions in the local language, this seems like the new way to go.

The gift of Rome, revealed

In my one-on-one travel consulting sessions, folks get an hour to pick my brain about all things Italy: what’s open in August, the best day trips from Florence, how to skip the line at the Colosseum, whether to get a water taxi to their hotel in Venice. Or we can spend that hour whipping a trip itinerary into shape. Or brainstorming where in Italy they should even start to think about going. Or… pretty much anything else.

New for 2014, I offer gift certificates that can be e-mailed directly to the gift recipient (or to you, so you can print it out and pop it in a card). For more, email me at revealedrome@gmail.com.

A hilarious guide to Italian quirks

Both entertaining and beautiful to look at, Italianissimo: The Quintessential Guide to What Italians Do Best will whet anyone’s appetite for Italy. Its 50 mini-essays explore all of the quirks of Italian culture: patron saints and pasta, hand gestures and gelato. It’ll also prepare travelers for the little things that might seem particularly annoying odd on arrival — like why Italians don’t queue, or what floor number won’t exist (nope, it’s not 13!).

The cutest (and most functional) travel containers around

Finally, travel bottles that you… can… squeeze! (And that are BPA-free, PC-free, food-safe, leak-free, and virtually indestructible. Not to mention adorable). Give these GoToob travel tubes to your favorite giftee-on-the-go to fill up with shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, or anything else (ketchup, anyone?). They’re also useful to throw in a backpack: Instead of carting a whole bottle of suntan lotion around the Roman Forum, just fill one of these guys up. Smaller and (take it from me) much more spill-proof.

Organic beauty on the go

If your Italy-bound traveler hates decanting all of their favorite lotions and face washes into different containers (even ones as cute as the GoToob), make it easy on them with Juice Beauty’s Organics To Go. The travel set has all of the skin essentials: cleansing milk, moisturizer, even a mini-face peel. The hydrating mist would be especially nice to have on a moisture-sucking plane ride. Juice Beauty’s items are all made sans  parabens, animal testing, pesticides, phthalates, or artificial dyes or fragrances, so it’s the perfect skin care set for even those with sensitive skin.

A guidebook, notebook, and map in one

I know people swear by Moleskine, but I’m (even more) old-school — when I’m on the road, you can bet I have a few spiral-bound reporter’s notebooks on hand, instead. Even so, I scooped up a Moleskine City Notebook when I headed to Lisbon last year, and wow! I loved it. Having different sections to pop my various lists into, plus plenty of room for random thoughts, made me much more organized. And having a thorough map of the city’s different neighborhoods embedded right in the notebook’s pages was unbelievably helpful.

The Rome City Notebook comes in hardcover-only, so it’s more of an indulgence. (The soft-cover Milan, Venice and Florence versions are much cheaper). But I could see it doubling as a nice keepsake post-trip, couldn’t you?

Happy holidays, everyone!

Also: where to eat in Rome’s most touristy areas, and a guide to Rome’s neighborhoods.

Pope Benedict XVI Resigning February 28

Big news from Rome: The Vatican announced this morning that Pope Benedict XVI is resigning at the end of the month.

The last time a Pope resigned, it was in 1415—and the purpose was to end the Western Schism. (Three men were all claiming to be the Pope simultaneously. Things got confusing). This time, the 85-year-old Pope’s reason for his departure seems a little more personal. It’s most likely because of his health, which seems to have been deteriorating in recent months. You can read the Pope’s declaration of his resignation here.

The conclave will be held in March. For visitors to Rome, that means not only the excitement of the usual media hulabaloo, but also, of course, a chance to see the Sistine Chapel chimney puff out its famous white smoke, the famed sign that a new Pope has been elected.

How long will pilgrims, tourists and the merely curious have to wait in St. Peter’s Square to see white smoke? Who knows. But the past couple of conclaves have been relatively swift: Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978 after just two days, while the conclave for Pope Benedict XVI started on the evening of April 18 and finished the next day.

March’s conclave also means pilgrims will be coming from all over the world for the chance to be in Rome during the election of a new pope. So, a word to the wise: If you’re planning a March trip to Rome, book your airline tickets and hotel reservations now!

Where to Catch the Pope This Easter Weekend

Here in Rome, all eyes have been on Pope Francis I since his March election. Curious about the new guy in charge of the Vatican? This weekend, there are plenty of chances to catch a glimpse of him—from the Good Friday Way of the Cross procession at the Colosseum to the papal mass at St. Peter’s Square on Sunday. For more (and on more events going on this Easter in Rome), check out my latest piece for BBC Travel.