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Trip Report 2 wonderful weeks in Italy

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Hi y'all -
We took a wonderful trip to Italy back in May 2010; I didn't know about fodors' community back then, but I just looked up our trip info for a friend so I thought I'd post it here too in case it's of use to anyone.

Here's the summary:
2 nights in Venice
3 nights in Siena
3 nights in Monterosso (Cinque Terre)
7 nights in Rome
= 16 days of the best trip we've taken yet :)

Hotels:
- Hotel Al Codega in Venice: very hard to find the 1st time: on an interior courtyard with a tiny entrance off a tiny alley! We must've circled it several times before we finally found a local shop owner who knew where it was. Very nice room, bathroom had full-size tub and shower, towel warmer, bidet. They do have a tiny elevator if you need it. Can't comment on breakfast since we slept through it both mornings!
- Hotel Santa Caterina in Siena: beautiful view from the courtyard where we ate a wonderful, peaceful breakfast every morning, but we would've preferred something inside the walls; however, that would be a big plus if you have a car (can't take cars inside the walls). They have an elevator.
- Buranco Vineyard in Monterosso: WOW! Outdated but HUGE apartments (with full kitchen) scattered around the working olive oil vineyards and lemon orchards. Stairs to almost all of them. Breakfast out on the veranda with the other residents, overlooking the lemon orchard - heavenly! Little Italian man met us at the train station when we arrived and drove us and our luggage to our apt. the first day, then offered us wine on the veranda. Amazing place!
- Hotel Paba in Rome: right around the corner from the Colosseum, but far enough away from the mayhem to be quiet and peaceful. The Cavour metro station is close by; when you emerge from the station, walk downhill to find Hotel Paba. Reception is on the 2nd floor (weird at first, you feel like you're invading someone's space). Large room for Europe, if outdated; cute lil Italian lady working reception - pop your head out in the morning and tell her what you want to drink for breakfast (coffee, tea, cappucino), a few minutes later she'll bring it and pastries and yogurt to your room. She appears aloof and curt at first, but that might be a language issue. She even noticed we had laundry hanging around the room and brought us a drying rack!

Experiences and advice:
_Overall:
- restaurants will usually bring you free tap water if you ask for it (rather than pricey bottled water). Also, everywhere in Italy a half carafe of house wine was cheaper than bottled water! Nice excuse to drink Italian wine at every meal!
- don't forget to request 'still' bottled water if you don't like fizzy. And don't try to cover up the taste of fizzy water with a packet of gatorade powder - it will explode like a volcano science experiment!
- everywhere you go you can split a pizza and house salad for a refreshing and relatively cheap lunch. They usually toss the salad with oil and vinegar, or bring out the o&v to your table.
- the Italian tomatoes are sooo good!! Such great flavor and freshness, unlike anything in the US. Even homegrown tomatoes don't taste that good here.
- Italian men really dress nicely! Even our tour guide/bus driver in Siena was wearing a tailored 3-piece suit, wingtips, and slicked-back hair. Yum! ;)
- no problems getting around with just English (and a little Spanish)
- I was glad I got to see all the sights in Rome, but I frankly won't mind if I never go back. However, I *loved* Tuscany and the Cinque Terre and would go back there in a heartbeat :)

_Venice:
we landed in Venice Airport and took the water taxi to the main part of Venice. What an entrance! Then we spent an hour wandering around with our luggage trying to find our hidden hotel; we saw several other couples in the same predicament, but they were all looking for different places. Navigation is tricky with all the canals and dead-ends - you feel like you're in a mouse maze, but somehow it's fun (once you've found your hotel and deposited your luggage) - I've never been anywhere else like that.
- Get reservations ahead of time for a tour of Doge's Palace, so you can skip the long queue. I think the tour was quite fascinating, probably more interesting than if we'd done it ourselves.
- One evening you should stand near the coast by the Doge's Palace and watch the sunset over the water - the lighting is so beautiful on the white walls of the San Giorgio church across the water! Other than that, take a look at St. Mark's square and get out - too crowded.
- Negotiate for a reasonable price and take a gondola ride - we hadn't planned to, but when else are you going to experience such a thing? Plus it's so peaceful on the water away from the tourist area, and you notice funny things like random doors right on the water.
- Watch the main canal for awhile and observe all the different kinds of boats - ambulances, laundry delivery, trash removal - it's like a Richard Scarry book of boats :)
- Take your pictures on the Rialto Bridge and get outta there - too many tourists and illegal street vendors selling knock-off goods whilst evading police.
- Food here wasn't particularly memorable, probably because we didn't get far enough away from the tourist areas. We did find good gelato, but the serving sizes were paltry compared to the rest of Italy.

_Siena:
We took a train from Venice to Florence, stopped in Florence for a few hours and saw David and the renowned bridge and cathedral (so tacky in real life - it looks like grandpa's old flannel pajamas!), then took a bus to Siena. We were glad to get out of Florence; it was filled with tourists and tacky shops.
- be prepared to walk up and down steep hills everywhere you go in Tuscany! My calves were aching every night. Make sure your shoes are broken-in.
- our favorite experience of the whole trip was a Tuscan wine tour our hotel arranged for us - a lil mini bus picked us and 4 others up from the hotel and took us to 3-4 lil towns where we enjoyed the wine and beautiful scenery. We even saw a double rainbow on the way back, so the tour guide stopped for us to get out and take pictures!
- the cathedral is worth the climb, especially if you can go to a mass there - very special. We noticed there are a lot of churches with horizontal black and white stripes in Italy for some reason. Do the climb up to the top of the unfinished wall - it's a lil scary but worth it for the views! The museum across from the cathedral is interesting as well.
- we never went wrong with RS' recommendations for restaurants. Places are tiny, and table reservations are for the entire night, so stop by early (even the day before) to make reservations.
- we noticed the Tuscan food was much different from the "Italian" restaurants in the US: it seemed heartier, with more meat and not much tomato. The pici was really good - I haven't found anything like that since. They also serve a lot of white beans, which we enjoyed.

_Cinque Terre:
We took the train to Pisa, stowed our luggage at the train station, and walked to the leaning tower to get the requisite pictures. Hubby waited in the line to go up, but I could see his fear from the ground as he tried to round the teetering balcony up top! He's not normally afraid of heights like I am, so I got a good laugh from that. We got back on the train and rode to Monterosso, exiting a tunnel to an AWESOME view of the blue-green water and lush green hills dotted with colorfully painted towns poured into the valleys - WOWOWOWOW!
- The towns are connected by frequent trains, so don't worry too much about which one to stay in - we wanted Vernazza but couldn't find reasonable accommodations, so ended up in Monterosso, and it was just fine.
- There are also hiking trails between the towns, some easy and some intense. But be aware that sometimes various trails are closed due to mudslides; there was a huge one in Vernazza in 2011 so I'm not sure what impact that had. We were only able to hike about half of what we'd planned, but what we were able to access was beautiful :) Our favorite was walking through vineyards high above Vernazza (on the way to the kissing gate) and looking down on the fortress out on the water.
- Go to Il Pirata bakery at the top of the street in Vernazza - if you're relaxed and friendly one of the identical twin brothers who own the place will come out and chat with you, and they're both quite funny! Just don't be an obnoxious tourist and ask for eggs and bacon for breakfast, or you'll get an earful.
- We ate at Michael's seafood restaurant in Monterosso and it was quite nice. Again, all RS restaurant recommendations were excellent.
- The beaches are beautiful, but up close you realize they're quite rocky and the water is coooold (at least it was at the end of May), so we didn't do any swimming.

_Rome:
We took the train to Rome, where we spent an entire week. After awhile we were honestly kind of tired of looking at Roman ruins and gilded churches; it became a joke to walk around the corner and say "look, more ruins" (a la Clark Griswald's "look kids, there's Big Ben"). When we got back we had to consult our guidebook to remember which church was which, because they all started running together in our heads!
- except for St. John Lateran, the official papal seat. That one was immense and somehow different from the others. And of course St. Peter's, since it's so iconic. We happened to be there while a wedding was going on in a side chapel one day, and later we heard a choir practicing - heavenly!
- the papal audience was tedious - you have to wait for the pope to greet every country's pilgrims, and some of them want to sing him a whole song. And all the while, the Italians are moaning that it's not their turn yet, and then they leave as soon as they get their acknowledgement!
- the whole area around the Vatican was mobbed with tourists and tacky shops. However, the Vatican Museum is glorious - I could've spent days there! It's so amazing to see the Sistine Chapel ceiling in real life, even if you're crammed in with 100s of people! I especially enjoyed listening to the RS podcast while I gawked; he directs you around the room and points out interesting details of the ceiling I would've otherwise missed.
- the Colosseum was awesome, but what I most enjoyed was the Roman Forum - walking on the same paving stones that Caesar walked - wow! It's more than just the old Forum facade; there are ruins of statesmens' mansions and a whole little town to walk around.
- the Spanish Steps area was mobbed with people; didn't really like this part of town.
- the Pantheon is an amazing feat of engineering! it doesn't take long to look around, but it's worth going to see what human minds can conceive without the aid of computers. There are also a lot of quaint restaurants and gelaterias all around, with happy people enjoying themselves over an al fresco meal or just hanging out in the squares.
- the famous Giolitti gelateria is crazy - you have to push and elbow your way up to the counter to order! we found other places around the Pantheon and all over the city which were much more enjoyable and just as tasty. We had gelato every afternoon; one day my husband had gelato three times in one day!
- again, we never went wrong with RS's restaurant recommendations. We especially enjoyed Est! Est! Est! pizzeria near the opera house and the Callabrian place near Trastevere fountain (can't remember the Italian name - it means something like "angels and demons" or "heaven and hell"?).
- there's a couscous restaurant, Enoteca Cavour 313, across the street from Hotel Paba that provided a welcome oasis from crowded, noisy, dirty Rome - they have a friendly, cozy atmosphere, great wine selection, and the couscous was a refreshing change of pace after all the pasta. They have different fresh menu items every day.
- traffic in Rome is as crazy as everyone says. Weirdly, though, if a pedestrian walks out into a crosswalk, everyone stops for them to cross. You have to do it that way - they won't stop unless you walk halfway out into the crosswalk first!

That's about all that stands out in my mind at this point, but if you jog my memory I'll probably remember more details. If you have any specific questions I can probably dig up the answers. Hope it's helpful in some way!
- M

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