In our series of blog posts, we are getting up close and personal with the guides, the staff and other people you may know from Peter Sommer Travels’ website and brochures, and some whom you might never have heard about before.
In our third instalment, we would like to introduce you to Sophy Downes. Sophy has travelled and studied extensively in the UK, but it is her vast Mediterranean and Near Eastern knowledge that makes her such a wonderful guide for us. She has recently returned to live in Rome, and Sophy cannot wait to introduce our Peter Sommer Travels' guests to the cuisine, culture, history, art, architecture and archaeology of Italy.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an Oracle. It is true. I don't really know why, maybe it had something to do with the fact that I liked the idea of people speaking in tongues and in verse, and I have always liked temples and beautiful architecture. I would have been happy to have been a priestess too.
What first started you on the path to history and archaeology?
It seems to me I was already on that path from a young age. When I was young I enjoyed reading Rosemary Sutcliff's novels. She writes about Roman Britain, and her book “Eagle of the Ninth” is one that I really enjoyed; it features a young soldier, Marcus Aquila, who sets off into the unknown north to find out what happened to the lost legion. The books are dark, but also quite sweet some of the time.
Later, I was really interested in the Romantic Poets (e.g. Shelley and Keats), and I noticed that they had all studied classics, so I wanted to have the same kind of education. I think anyone who is interested in studying English should start with the classics, to enable you to understand how literature developed. My interests also moved sideways into archaeology when I realised that this would allow me to do more travelling, and that I would get to see the places I had read about.
After my degree I moved to Rome, where I am living now, and I left my CV at the Keats-Shelley House. They gave me a job at the Protestant Cemetery, where Shelley and Keats are buried. (This was set up, in part, to deal with the various German and English visitors who died in Rome whilst on the Grand Tour. Most were non-Catholic, and it was a problem at the time that there was nowhere to bury them).
My job there was to open the gate when people wanted to come in. After a couple of weeks they fitted an electronic arm, so I didn't even have to physically get up and open it, just press a button. It was a ridiculous job, but I learnt a lot of Italian in my extensive spare time.
What does your usual working day look like?
At the moment I am working freelance, so every day can be different. However, it usually starts with an espresso in the sunshine, and is the best thing about working freelance.
What is your favourite Italian dish, and why?
In Italy they make a drink made from lemon sorbet, vodka and prosecco which is really delicious, especially in the heat. It is called Sgroppino.
If I was going to have to choose something to eat instead it would be a delicious dish they serve at this little place in Venice; tagliatelle with a ragu of wild duck. It is not a very fancy restaurant, it is more like a greasy spoon, but the food is gorgeous, the location is amazing. It is on a little cold island called Mazzorbo in the middle of a lagoon.
What is the weirdest/yuckiest thing you have ever eaten when travelling?
It was a food I ate when I studied Farsi in Esfahan, Iran, which I cannot remember the name of anymore. I had a fellowship at the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran at the time. It looks like fudge, so your taste buds are prepared for something delicious and sweet, but it actually has an incredibly sour, bitter and salty taste. It is unbelievably revolting, and tastes like boiled intestines. Unfortunately, it is supposedly rich in iron, so when you are there as a young woman you will be offered it a lot (to help with period induced iron losses - or so I was told).
Which historical person do you most admire and why?
I’m tempted to say I admire Cyrus the Great just because he is very under-rated. Everyone talks about Alexander (the Great/of Macedon), but really all the area that Alexander conquered was just the empire that Cyrus had conquered two centuries earlier – the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Moreover Cyrus’ empire stayed in tact for almost 200 years, whereas Alexander’s fell apart almost immediately.
I also admire Mary Wollstonecraft (born 1757). She is really high on my list. Highly principled and an inspirational feminist, she was also a great writer, and is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers. I’ve just been reading a new double biography of her and her daughter, Mary Shelley, the author of "Frankenstein".
And finally, generically I admire whoever was first brave enough to sail around the Mediterranean and out to the open sea!
If you were to recommend one book to ignite an interest in history/archaeology, which would it be?
Part of me wants to be purist about this and say Herodotus’ “The Histories”. This is the “ultimate” book.
I also like the archaeologist, Leonard Woolley’s, autobiographical book, “As I seem to Remember”. It is full of lovely anecdotes and has a slow easy style that is very enjoyable to read.
Another favourite is “The Dorak Affair” by Pearson and Connor. It is a journalistic investigation into James (Jimmy) Mellaart, a Dutch archaeologist known for discovering a Neolithic town in Turkey. The books reads more like a spy adventure novel. It starts with Mellaart encountering a girl on the train to Istanbul who is decked out in ancient gold bracelets and necklaces. The whole thing escalates from there – it was probably a sting operation and the gold was fake, but it makes a great read.
What one object could you not live without?
I am entirely dependent on my contact lenses, I am very near sighted. I also rely heavily on my smartphone.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
For some reason, what comes to mind is a Cavafy poem called "The City". It says ‘you can escape from the city, but you can never escape from yourself.’ And I think that is true.
"It is always a good time for an adventure".
"Never throw coffee grounds to windward".
If you would like the opportunity to travel with Sophy, she is leading a lovely tour for us along the Amalfi Coast in September.