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Trip Report 2000 years, 2 countries, 2 passports: Rome & Madrid, Jan. 2015

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It was time to go back. I knew it by the tingle in my toes every time I heard the clinking of spoons on coffee cups, knew it by the number of times I thought I smelled Italy when I was simply walking down the street. So, with a whole lot of frequent flyer miles accumulated, it was time to book a trip to Rome. Since everyone else seemed to have the same idea (even 9 months in advance), the frequent flyer tickets to Rome were gone - but Madrid was still available. And so it was that my fiancee (let’s call him R) and I decided to go to Madrid and Rome in January of 2015.

January 16, 2015

We arrived at the Philadelphia airport only to find that the Cibo wine bar had been closed. Not to be dissuaded, we instead went to Chickie & Pete’s, where the crab fries were plentiful (no actual crab) and the music was awful. A couple of gin and tonics fixed the music - and they didn’t hurt the plane ride either. On the other side of the Atlantic, we disembarked at Madrid Barajas, quite possibly the largest airport in the free world. After dragging our luggage from T4 to T1, we completed our RyanAir visa check and then settled down to wait at the nearby cafeteria where we enjoyed a decent tortilla sandwich (tortilla being spanish tortilla - eggs, potatoes, and a lovely pepper), fruit, and cafe con leche. Breakfast cost: 36 euro.

I had planned obsessively for the Rome portion of the trip - R had never been to Rome and I wanted to show him the best parts - but had done virtually nothing to plan for the Madrid leg, so while in the airport we also purchased a Madrid guide. There was only one to choose from - as the salesperson in the bookshop rightly pointed out, we were in the Madrid departures section of the airport, so I’m pretty sure we may have been the only two people crazy enough to purchase a guide for a city we were leaving, but I digress.

Soon it was time to board the plane. RyanAir kept insisting that my carry-on was too large, but I’d traveled with it before and CLEARLY they do not understand how stubborn I am. They did not want to hear any arguments about equal cubic size - it had to fit IN THE BOX or 50 euros, so I pushed and stuffed and crammed until my suitcase fit into their little box. Triumphant and indignant, we made our way to our seats.

Two and a half hours later, we landed at Ciampino and walked into a scene that was so quintessentially Italian I couldn’t possibly have given R a better introduction to the culture. We called the apartment owner from a pay phone (renting again through Sleepinitaly) and then walked calmly outside to get a taxi…which is where the madness began.

(Picture the following exchange happening in Italian.)

“To the center, please,” I said. The taxi driver looked at me like I had three heads. “Downtown?” Still the look, this time punctuated by a hand which clearly said, “Are you nuts, lady?”

“There’s a protest downtown. Nobody is going downtown right now.”

“How can we get there?”

“You can take the bus.”

“How can the bus get there if the taxi can’t?” 

“They go all the long way around Termini.”

Okay…so we walked over to the bus line, where everyone else was in the same predicament. There was ONE bus going to Rome. There were TWO HUNDRED Italians outside the bus. The bus was already more than 3/4 full (this feels like a word problem). How did N and R get on the bus? Furbizia, ragazzi. Furbizia. There was yelling, there was pushing, there were accusations and love songs (wait…). Then, a man decided he was getting off the bus - he was Spanish and apparently just could not deal with the insanity. I bought his two tickets from him, and we got on the bus. I felt like I had just run a marathon and won. R and I got on the bus while the Italians continued to rage on outside. Whew.

The bus went to Termini - with no problems whatsoever. We saw the protest - near the university - and it was small. The taxi easily could have gone, but whatever. We were in Rome! We got off the bus and into a taxi which took us to our apartment near Campo de’ Fiori. The apartment we rented (Cappellari Beautiful) was on Via dei Cappellari. The apartment owner’s mother was there to let us in and show us around. After she gave us some directions and told us where the closest grocery store was, she left us to our own devices. We went and stocked up on the basics at Pam Local, which was literally right around the corner on Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. Basics are, of course: coffee, soy milk, olive oil, salt, pasta, tomato sauce, fruit, water, wine, salad, bread, and cheese. We also picked up some shampoo - total for everything 36 euro.

I had planned for us to eat dinner in the apartment that night, but one of R’s friends told him he should try da Baffetto. I’d eaten there before and thought it was okay but not amazing. However, it was early and there was no line, so we went for it. R agreed that it was “okay.” I promised to find him better pizza later. 2 pizzas (1 margherita, 1 fiori di zucca), a bottle of water and a carafe of wine was 26 euro. Though we were full, it really was necessary for us to go get some gelato at San Crispino on Via della Maddalena. R had the best combo they’ve got (San Crispino and fichi e noci) and I had crema and cacao (7 euro for both). Satiated and tired, we walked back to the apartment and rested up for the big day to come, our first full day in Rome.

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    Day 2, Sunday: Old Rome

    When I looked at all of the places I wanted to take R on this introduction to Rome, I realized I’d have to group things geographically in order to do it all. So, on this first day we would be going to the Palatine and Aventine hills along with the Coliseum and Forum.

    We woke relatively early (7ish) and since the Forno in Campo de’ Fiori wasn’t open on Sundays we made do with a sandwich made of fresh bread, mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes, salt, and olive oil along with a cup or three of espresso macchiato. Fortified, we set off walking past Largo di Torre Argentina to photograph the cats before arriving at l’Altare della Patria (aka The Typewriter, aka The Wedding Cake, aka the Victor Emmanuel monument where a ceremony was just getting underway for the Guardia d’Onore del Pantheon (http://www.guardiadonorealpantheon.it). A brass band played, complete with black feathered hats and high-stepping. It was one of those wonderful surprises that Rome can present to you when you least expect it. After watching a bit, we decided to press on to the Coliseum.

    Rounding the corner, suddenly there it was, monumental and breathtaking. The line at the coliseum was SUPER long already at 9:30 AM, so we headed over to the secondary Palatine entrance to skip the line. I have (knock on wood) never had a wait to buy tickets over there. We walked the Palatine, saw the original hut of Rome’s founder Remus, enjoyed some mozzafiato views and then walked down to the Forum. I’ve seen it a million times before, but it never disappoints. Knowing that there are no good restaurants right in that area (kind of close, yes, but RIGHT THERE? No.) we decided to bring some additional homemade sandwiches and some fresh fruit along for a mid-day snack, and that worked out really well - except for the pigeons who eyed us stealthily throughout and swooped in more like vultures when we finished to check for crumbs. After our snack, we moved on to the Coliseum. It was a rainy day, and it was actually perfect for Coliseum viewing as you could duck in and out of the arches to escape the rain when necessary.

    After the coliseum, we crossed through the Circo Massimo and headed up the Aventine hill to see the keyhole at the Priorita’ di Malta, Santa Sabina, and the Giardino degli Aranci. This hill has some of the absolute best views in Rome - don’t miss it! After heading down the Aventine, we passed by Santa Maria in Cosmedin and stuck our hands in la Bocca della Verita’ before heading to Bar Tartarughe for a late afternoon break. We actually were just heading back to the apartment and happened upon Bar Tartarughe by accident, in the piazza of the similarly-named fountain. It was just what we wanted - fabulous atmosphere - and a few glasses of wine, a slice of torta di carciofi, a portion of cheesy polenta, and a piece of pistacchio pie were just enough to take the edge off until our 8 PM dinner. (Bar Le Tartarughe, Piazza Mattei - 35 euro)

    We ended up getting back to the apartment a bit later than planned (Rome does that to you - has it’s way with you and takes you off course), so we had just enough time to change and sit for about five minutes before heading back out for the evening. We were planning to go to the Henri Cartier Bresson exhibit at the Ara Pacis, so since it was more or less on the way we stopped first at Cafe Sant’Eustachio for our first Grancaffe’ of the trip. R agreed that it was, indeed, magic. HOW DO THEY MAKE IT SO FROTHY? I will never understand and perhaps I’m not meant to.

    The Bresson exhibit was in its last two weeks and so was therefore packed to the gills with Italians who had waited unti virtually the last minute to see it. The exhibit was huge - much larger than I was expecting based on previous shows I’d seen at the Ara Pacis and we didn’t have time for much more than a skim before heading off to our 8 PM dinner reservation. Still, in spite of the crowds, the photos were lovely and I was glad we had gone. R was especially pleased given that we’d recently seen the Paul Strand exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the two shows fit nicely together.

    Our dinner reservation was for Il Margutta on via Margutta (not 51). We both decided to go for the Menu classico d’Inverno (http://www.ilmarguttavegetariano.it/files/MENUOK_stampa__INVERNO_ITA.pdf) which consisted of four courses:
    1st course: Almond encrusted organic pecorino with cicory, red wine poached pears and pink peppercorns (SO GOOD)
    2nd course: Kamut trofie with a winter pesto of pistachios and chestnuts with fresh ricotta and pecorino shavings (delicious)
    3rd course: Spicy walnut, raisin and broccoli fritters with an herbed caponata
    4th course: Rum nougat semifreddo with pistacchio bark and orange sauce
    I also had a glass of white wine. Total price: 80 euro

    Completely satisfied (again), we walked back home down Via del Corso and day two came to a close.

    Next: A day in the sun - the Orto Botanico and Doria Pamphilj

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    Day 3, Monday – Unexpected side trips

    Originally I had planned for us to go to Tivoli to see Hadrian’s Villa and the Villa D’Este on this day, but I just didn’t have the energy for four hours round trip of public transportation, so we opted to stay in the city instead.

    I was disappointed to not be going to Tivoli, but it didn’t matter too much because the FORNO WAS OPEN! We woke up early, not wanting to miss the sweet, wonderful taste of Forno’s cornetti alla marmellata. Walking down Via dei Cappellari you could smell the sweetness of freshly baked breads. Even though we got there at 7:45, there were only two marmalade cornetti left, so we ended up with two of those and 2 alla crema. When we got them back to the apartment, I watched R for his reaction. It was everything I knew it would be and more.  He actually preferred the crema to the marmellata (I’ve decided I’ll still marry him anyway) but was blown away by the flaky texture of the pastry. He was happy; I was happy.

    We went back out and planned to head straight to Trastevere and the Gianicolo, but we got sidetracked in the Campo de’ Fiori by round eggplants, tarocco oranges, and gorgeous greens. We bought so much we had to go back home again to drop it all off. We set out again, avoiding the Campo and its temptations, and walked along beautiful Via Giulia before crossing over the Tiber at Ponte Sisto.

    I had originally intended for us to walk up the Gianicolo, but we decided to go into the Orto Botanico instead – and I’m so glad we did! The tickets were 8 euros per person and there were some truly lovely gardens and plenty of gorgeous views – we didn’t even need to go a little higher up to the Gianicolo. My favorite part was the Japanese garden which was perched at the very top of the Orto Botanico. Waterfalls, ducks, a gazebo, and the Roman sun…can you ask for more? All in all we spent about 2.5 hours in the botanical gardens and it was lovely and relaxing.

    Afterward we were feeling a bit peckish, so we headed in the direction of Santa Maria in Trastevere and the suppli’ I knew were in the piazza. We took a look at the murals in SMiT before grabbing our quick snack of 2 vegetarian suppli’ and a limonata (delicious!) I don’t know the name of the place, but it’s right off the piazza where SMiT is located. Our appetites whetted, we headed back to the apartment to make some lunch (pasta con melanzane e ricotta and an insalata di valeriana).

    Though the orto botanico was relaxing, it was also a lot of walking and hill climbing, so we took a little siesta after lunch before heading out to the Galleria Doria Pamphilj (by way of Gelateria Grom on Via dei Giubbonari – delicious, but not as good as San Crispino). I’d already been to the Doria Pamphilj (as with many things on this trip), but I was excited to go again as I remember being really stunned by the amount of wealth this family had – and not in a good way. It was pretty much the same for R. The free audioguide recorded by one of the current Doria Pamphilj family members doesn’t really help this impression. Hilariously I think he’s trying to be relatable but it just comes off as so…poncy. He’s very Lady Mary Crawley.

    After the Galleria we went to the Trevi fountain only to find that it was completely under scaffolding. The fountain is under renovation. Drained of water and covered in metal it was missing all of its charm. You are allowed to shuffle down a walkway that goes over the fountain to throw your coin into the empty basin, but it is really depressing. I didn’t know this was happening so it was a major bummer – be forewarned; it’s going on through November of 2015.

    After a sad coin in the fountain, we headed off to dinner at Open Baladin on Via degli Specchi. I love this place – love the beer, love the food, love the atmosphere. It’s just great. We started off with their housemade chips and 2 beers – one fig beer and one Baladin Super – before moving on to their veggie burger and vegan burger with 2 more beers – one Isaac and one porter. Stuffed and a little tipsy, we ended up buying way too many cookies from Il Forno on via dei Baullari before crashing into bed to rest for day four.

    Next: Roma moderna

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    We awoke to a second morning of the Forno, this time we managed to snag four cornetti alla marmellata because we got there almost as soon as it opened. Yes, these are the things I feel triumphant about. We brought the cornetti back to the apartment for our breakfast of pastries, caffe latte and fruit. After throwing together a sandwich for a midday snack (which ended up being lunch), we headed out to walk to the Museo Nazionale d'Arte Moderno in the Villa Borghese.

    It didn't seem like it was going to be a terribly long walk - it was far, but not so far - but it was raining and by the time we arrived at the Museo we were pretty well soaked. We decided to place our jackets in the lockers and when we came back a few hours later to retrieve them they were still wet, which made it seem even colder outside. Lesson learned - maybe leave the jacket on so it can dry.

    Entrance fee to the Museo was 26 euro (for 2 people), and we spent an enjoyable few hours there. I will admit, I've typically ignored modern art in Rome because (this is going to sound silly) there's just so darn much ANTIQUITY that I can't find lots of other places. I feel like I can see great modern art in Philadelphia or NYC. At any rate, it's an interest of R's so we went, and I definitely was pleased by the experience. Yes, Rome is full of very, very old things, but it's nice to get a handle on what interests Romans in terms of contemporary art.

    After a few hours of wandering the rooms, we retrieved our still wet jackets and headed out to the museum steps to eat our sandwich before heading over to MAXXI (Museo D'Arte del XXI Secolo). It was quite a hike from the Museo over to MAXXI, being already tired from the morning walk and then from the walk around the museum itself, but it certainly wasn't undoable. When we arrived at MAXXI, we picked up a coffee from the nice bar inside (which I expected to have exorbitant prices, but it was super reasonable!) to refresh ourselves before tackling the second museum of the day.

    MAXXI had some special exhibitions going on, many of which I wasn't too thrilled about. Overall, I'd say this museum is a great place to go if you are looking for something new to do on an upcoming trip to Rome, but do your research about which special exhibits are going to be there before you go. I ended up looking at animals that had been stuffed and then had their heads cut off, followed by graphic images of war. All very well and good, but I might not have tried to tackle that at the END of a day, know what I mean? (MAXXI entrance fee: 11 euro per person)

    It was by then quite late in the afternoon and we were very tired of walking, so we caught a taxi back from the piazza near MAXXI which dropped us off near the apartment. We took a fairly long and (I believe) well-deserved nap before heading out later for dinner and gelato.

    After having tried Baffetto earlier in the trip (Roman pizza), I wanted R to try some Neapolitan pizza, so I took him to what was SUPPOSED to be Pizza Re' on Largo dei Chiavari. When we arrived, I noted that the "Re'" had been scratched off the nameplate. Dubiously, I entered and asked' "Is this still Pizza Re'?" Answer "It is pizza, but not Pizza Re'" I must have looked as dubious as I felt because the guy behind the counter assured me repeatedly that they still employed the same pizzaiolo and all the same staff and nothing had changed except the name.

    Still tired from a long day, I decided to take him at his word, but I was really worried about what might appear in front of us. Luckily, we were served two perfectly lovely pizze (both margherita) and, with a glass or two of Peroni, it was just what the doctor ordered. 2 pizzas, 2 beers, and water was 26 euro. (I believe the current name is Pizza Sant'Andrea della Valle because it's in that piazza right there.)

    After dinner, satisfied but still both agreeing we COULD squeeze in Gelato, we went to find Carapina just a little further down the block. Carapina (also on the list of best gelaterie in Rome) was a new addition in 2014. I had the dark chocolate and orange and R had pistachio and torrone. The pistachio was truly killer and the rest of the gelato wasn't bad, either. 2 small gelatos were 6 euro.

    We walked home through the tiny winding side streets of the campo, the cobblestones still damp from the day's rain, and breathed in the scent of a drowsy Rome.

    Next: Ops! and Oops!

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    Day 5 - Wednesday

    I don't really need to tell you what we had for breakfast, do I? ;)

    Today we were heading over to the Esquilino area of Rome. We were still pretty tired from the day before, so we decided to take a taxi over to Termini in order to save our energy for the actual museum viewing. The taxi dropped us off right outside the Palazzo Massimo, part of the National Museum of Rome. This building, full to bursting with statues, mosaics, frescoes, and the like is one of my favorite museums in Rome. As a bonus, we arrived to find a great exhibit on Augustus which took up the majority of the ground floor.

    As we began making our way through the rooms, I thought I heard the sound of a violin. After going through the Augustus exhibit, I was CERTAIN that I did. I walked around and saw a ballerina, skirted in tulle and wrapped in a white cardigan, pacing the halls. The violinist followed her. When I asked what they were doing, she explained that they were giving a performance from some local school children. Essentially, the students would come into a room and the violinist and ballerina would perform a short piece before moving on to another room in the museum. The students were meant to follow them around. She said that we were perfectly welcome to watch as well, and as we caught the first performance I realized we were experiencing yet another gift from Rome.

    After the palazzo Massimo, we decided to walk over to the MACRO (Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome) by way of the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. I had thought the church would close at 1 (why don't I check these things??) but instead it closed at 12, and we realized we'd have to come back later. Already famished, we headed to lunch at Ops!, a vegetarian restaurant near the MACRO.

    I had read some negative reviews on Yelp about the place, mostly based on the price, but I thought it was very reasonable. A completely vegetarian buffet with LOTS of vegan items. R and I both filled our plates with a reasonable amount of food and a good selection. We each ordered a glass of the house red wine, we had some water, and we ordered a dessert to share and coffee. The total for all of that was 39 euro, which I found very reasonable, especially considering the high quality of the food. It was great and a welcome respite from the heavier food we'd been consuming.

    Did I mention that before we went to the restaurant it started to pour? No? I didn't? Well, it did, and it was still raining when we came back out to head to the MACRO. Unfortunately, when we got to the MACRO we discovered that they were in the process of installing new exhibits and there was really nothing for us to see. (Again, I should have checked on this.) They nicely let us look around the building and then we headed out and back to Santa Maria della Vittoria. Still too early, we used our ticket from Palazzo Massimo to get into the Terme of Diocleziano. There was a great photography exhibit there and the baths themselves aren't too shabby, either. After that, it was off to see Teresa in the throes of...um...ecstasy.

    R had been waiting to see Santa Teresa, and I think for him this was the highlight of the trip. When you wait to see something, and then up close it is every bit as amazing as you thought it would be (if not more), it makes for a very memorable moment. Reading the excerpt from Teresa's life story made it even more memorable. The way she describes being pierced...well...ahem. That's all I have to say about that.

    After Bernini, we took a stroll down the Nazionale and did a bit of shopping, including an afternoon stop at the Forno for some pizza bianca and torta di carciofi with a can of chinotto.

    Later, a little tired and not wanting to stray too far, we walked to Al Pompiere to eat dinner. What a good choice!! I was worried about it being touristy, but it was fantastic. We had the fiore di zucca and the carciofo alla giudia to start, and then R had tonarelli cacio e pepe and I had the pasta with lemon sauce. HOLY CRAP this food was amazing from start to finish. We also shared a lovely bottle of red wine but both agreed we were too full to even contemplate dessert. Dinner for two was 49 euro.

    Satisfied with yet another amazing day, we called it an early night and went back home to our apartment to listen to the bells of the nearby church.

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    Day 6 - Thursday


    This would be our last full day in Rome and we wanted to take advantage of every possible moment. We were scheduled for the Vatican today and our scavi tour was set to start at 9 AM, so it was a fairly early morning. We had already planned to take a taxi to the Vatican since I knew we’d be doing lots of walking once we arrived. Since our walk to the taxi brought us past Bar Farnese, we stopped in for a cappuccino and cornetto. R really loved the atmosphere in Bar Farnese. The bar itself is tiny, tiny, tiny with just a small counter and a few tables. It was crowded every time we went in. And the coffee…oh my. Fabulous cappuccino for one euro - all told we had 2 cornetti and 2 cappuccini for 4 euro.

    Fortified for our morning, we grabbed a taxi to the Vatican and were dropped off right in St. Peter’s Square. We were a bit early, so we enjoyed the quietness of the square and took pictures of the life-size nativity underneath the obelisk. After a few minutes of Andrea Boccelli singing “O Christmas Tree” on a continuous loop, we hightailed it away from the obelisk and walked under the portico to the scavi. In a new turn of events since the last time, you must now show your reservation to the Swiss Guard and go through a bag check and security check before standing in a line far away from the Scavi office. After a bit, they let us in and we walked ot the office to get our tickets and wait for the tour.

    I was really, really hoping that the Transylvanian tour guide would once again be there so I could laugh like the Count from Sesame Street and entertain R, but alas we had an Italian guide. She was stylish and her grammar was excellent, but man her pronunciation was hard to follow. It was okay for me (I listen to non-native English speakers all day every day), but it was a little hard for R and I’m going to guess most of the rest of the tour, too. Still, going underneath St. Peter’s Basilica to see a Roman necropolis is breathtaking no matter how incomprehensible your tour guide is. You get to imagine walking on the streets at that level and heading into the area of ancient Rome where the burial grounds were. I get chills every time I go on the scavi tour.

    We exited directly into St. Peter’s and marveled at the interior for a bit before heading over to the Musei Vaticani for our 11:00 ticket time. Of course, on the way over we were hassled by about 600 people asking us to “skip the line, go with a tour” but we ignored them and proceeded to the entrance. We were heavily debating getting some food to take in with us, but decided against it since all that was in the area were a few sandwich carts. In retrospect, we probably should have gotten a sandwich from the cart.

    We wanted to eat something before starting our walk through the Vatican Museums because it takes a few hours if you really see everything. So, we went to the cafe in the museums. Oh, lord. It was so bad it wasn’t even funny. We had a salad (which was okay - had mozzarella and artichokes so it couldn’t be too bad) and literally the worse piadina I have ever eaten in my life. It was like Wonder Bread, Ragu’ and Velveeta had a lukewarm baby. Ugh. Salad, sandwich and a limonata cost 14 euro. I am still shuddering when I think of that sandwich. The best part of our lunch was the orange and lemon cookies we had brought in with us. Anyway, moving on…

    We picked up a few audio guides from the desk. We were hoping to use the earbuds with the guide, but the person working the desk helpfully advised us that the sound quality was crap (she let us try a pair - truly awful) and we should just save the extra euro that it would have cost us. I thought that was very nice - I mean, she could have just sold them to us and said nothing.

    Fast forward five hours (art, art, art…statues with fig leaves attached to their nether regions…sistine chapel…le stanze di raffaello…) and we left the Vatican completely exhausted and with our brains stuffed full of art. We took a cab back to the Campo and took care of some business (printed our Ryanair boarding passes) before grabbing some pizza farcita from the stand on Via dei Baullari (I think the place is called Baccanale). The signora working there very nicely made us four fresh pizze instead of giving us the ones in the case - guess she was saving those for the drunkards who’d roll into the campo around 10 pm. ;) We got one hot to eat as a snack and set the others aside for breakfast the following morning - we’d be having an early start.

    We dropped off our pizza, had a little bit of wine and started the tortuous task of packing. I always hate this part - I quickly go through the stages of grief, starting with denial. Why do I have to leave Italy? Maybe I don’t have to. MAYBE I can just never pack my suitcase and never leave. Anger: WHY DO I HAVE TO GO HOME!! THIS IS NOT FAIR!! Bargaining: Maybe we could find a way to live here half of the year…Depression: *crying in the bathroom* Acceptance: Okay, Italy. I have to leave you. But I will be back.

    After the roller coaster of emotions that packing elicited, we headed out for our last night in Rome (for now). First, it was a trip to Sant’Eustachio to pick up lots and lots of coffee to take home. 65 euros worth of coffee. (What? It helps me cope. I have to wean myself off of it slowly.) We had booked a dinner reservation at Da Fortunato near the Pantheon, partially because I had told R he HAD to try spaghetti alle vongole veraci. We started with the carciofo alla romana and the ricotta di bufala, followed by the spaghetti alle VV and an order of the squash ravioli. Everything was incredible. I highly recommend it. Even the bread was amazing. We shared a bottle of wine and our total was 71 euro. Wonderful location, great atmosphere, fantastic food. A little pricey, but totally worth it.

    We decided to forgo dessert at Da Fortunato in favor of trying another gelateria nearby. Ai Venchi, which was new to the Best Gelaterie 2014 list, was…shiny. And looked really fancy. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that their prices were on par with other gelaterie in the area. Since we were pretty stuffed, we shared a medium cup of gelato (and I’ve now procrastinated so long on this report that I forgot the flavors- I think pistachio was one of them) for about 3.50 and then proceeded to buy lots of chocolate because it was A) there B) delicious looking and C) necessary since we still needed gifts for some people.

    And then, sadly, there was no more time. We walked home, past the pantheon, through Piazza Navona and the Campo, and back to our little home on Via dei Cappellari. After rearranging the luggage to cram in the coffee, we slept away our last night in Rome.

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    Oh goodie! Thanks, nnolen for your TR. We experienced the same bus problem in Sicily. Pushing being OK is difficult for those of us raised to wait our turn.

    We searched for the Tartarughe Fountain several times before finding it when we weren’t looking. Indeed, Rome has its way with you. Sigh. I got pretty stuck on Stieglitz and his contemporaries after reading Katharine Graham’s autobio. Her mother knew those artists. Seeing Strand's name brought back good memories.

    The art and architecture of Galleria Doria Pamphilj were astounding but it’s easy to understand how you felt. I felt the same way about Versailles (“no wonder they had a revolution”) but neither should be missed, eh?

    I loved the idea of the violinist and the ballerina. We hunted down 3 Santa Teresa sculptures after seeing SM della Vittoria—astounding. Again, thanks for memories of one of my favorites.

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    You're welcome, TDudette. :) Where are the other Santa Teresa sculptures?


    Day 7 - Madrid!

    We woke early to get to the airport on time for our 9 AM flight. We had booked a car through Sleep in Italy, but some wires got crossed somewhere and at 15 minutes past our pickup time we decided it was best to just walk to the piazza to grab a cab. A few minutes later, we were on our way to Ciampino. As we drove through the city, we said our goodbyes and promised our return.

    We had some time to kill at Ciampino (which, by the way, has really stepped up its game in terms of food/shopping offerings - they’re doing a whole big remodel) and so grabbed a cappuccino for breakfast and a sandwich for the plane since we’d be arriving in Madrid around lunch time and would need some extra time to find our hotel.

    The boarding process went without incident, except for the Italian family behind me that kept inching closer and closer until the woman’s purse was lodged in my shoulder blade. They were trying to squeeze past us. Because, goodness knows, it’s going to help so much to get TWO PEOPLE closer to the front of the line. I rolled my eyes and just let them go. I mean, ultimately, it’s not worth fisticuffs.

    Two and a half hours later, we arrived in Madrid. And, let me just tell you, Barajas airport is HUGE. And also confusing. After following signs for the metro for about 20 minutes, we finally got on the blasted thing and made our way to the center of the city. We had to switch one time before finally getting off at Tribunal and walking to our hotel, the Hotel Liabeny. This hotel was great - fantastic location, nice staff, clean, well-appointed room - and also, since it was the off season, VERY reasonable. We stayed for less than $100 a night.

    After we dropped off our things, we decided to head to the Mercado San Miguel since it was close to the hotel and our hastily-purchased guidebook said that you could wander the market eating tapas and drinking wine or sangria. Sold! We sampled: the vegetarian paella, some sangria, a huge plate of olives, queso de cabra on toast, two glasses of wine, a cheese puff thingy, and some crocche’ for a total of 36 euro.

    In a food-induced state of euphoria, we saw a cathedral that I cannot remember before going back to the hotel for a much needed nap. A few hours later, it was back out into Madrid which, surprisingly, was much colder than Rome. Don’t know why I wasn’t prepared for that, but I wasn’t, so of course I had to buy a new hat. :) We had researched vegetarian restaurants in Madrid, knowing that the definition of vegetarian in Spain sometimes means it doesn’t have beef in it (although we’d had a good experience at lunch at the market after asking specifically about the food contents) and found one called Yerbabuena that was quite near the hotel, so that is where we decided to have dinner. We had a bit of time to kill before the restaurant opened at 8, so we took a walk near the Palacio Real and through the nearby gardens. Beautiful, beautiful sunset views of Madrid and the surrounding countryside.

    Finally we were ready for dinner and were really looking forward to it. Can I just say that Yerbabuena should be renamed to Yerbamala? First, we arrived at about 8:15 and the waitstaff looked irritated that we were there too early. I know that’s an early hour to eat in Spain, but if you don’t want us there until 9, then don’t open until 9!! We got seated, and it took forever to get menus. Again, I’m familiar with different standards of service, but Italy totally nails the hands-off, no-rush approach to service. Spain made me feel a little bit like there were no hands at all.

    They brought us a little amuse bouche, which was seriously the best part of the meal. It was a little salad which was quite tasty. We also got a dry bread roll, which I realized when I got the check we were charged for (1 euro each). I’m going to get charged for bread, I want you to tell me and I also want it to TASTE GOOD. I wouldn’t have minded paying 1 euro for decent bread, but this was like a dried up old shoe.

    We ordered soup first, since it was cold. We decided to try this local bread soup (sopa castellana), which was really quite possibly the most revolting thing I’d ever ordered in a restaurant. Tepid (at best), flavorless broth with two pieces of toasted bread floating in it - topped, inexplicably, with alfalfa sprouts as a garnish. (Which, by the way, were a garnish on EVERYTHING we ate. Apparently if it’s vegetarian it must have alfalfa sprouts, even if it makes no sense?) I would have sent it back to ask for it warmer if I wasn’t certain that it would have take four years to get it back.

    The second course came. R ordered the risotto with greens and I ordered…actually, I blocked it out. I had to look at the menu online for quite awhile before I remembered what it was. It was moussaka. The risotto was almost as bad as the soup. The rice was NOT the consistency of risotto at all and the greens were not blended in. Virtually flavorless. The moussaka was better than the risotto, but that’s not saying much. Too much béchamel and over salted and, in contrast to the soup, blazing, inedibly hot. Oh, and of course, both dishes had alfalfa sprouts on them.

    After we ate, it took another year to get the check and we left. 40 euros for the worst meal I’ve had in years. I do not understand why this place gets the high ratings it does. It’s the worst expression of vegetarian food. If I were a meat eater and I wanted to check out vegetarianism to see what it was like, this place would turn me off of the whole idea of vegetarianism forever. Yes, it was that bad. Maybe they had an off night, I don’t know, but all in all I would advise everyone to avoid this place. We had an easy time finding veg stuff at the market and it was a MILLION times better. And cheaper.

    In order to erase the memory of that unsatisfying and unfulfilling meal, we decided to find the chocolateria San Gines, which was literally right around the corner. Basically a historical monument to deliciousness, this place has been cranking out churros y chocolate for over a century. The line went out the door and we almost gave up, but it appeared to be moving quickly and boy did it. They have this down to a science. You wait in the line, you get your ticket, you find a table, and they bring you your churros and chocolate. We got two orders of both (churros and chocolate) for 8 euro.

    Oh my god. I was worried. The last time I had churros and chocolate in Madrid, it was too sweet and cloying and the churros tasted like oil. These churros were a revelation. Crispy, perfect, and not tasting or even feeling oily. The chocolate was smooth, creamy, and not overly sweet. I am basically drooling right now thinking about them. This experience was the exact opposite of Yerbabuena. Quick, efficient, and absolutely delicious.

    Finally satisfied, we walked back to the hotel, huddled up against the chill night air, and made our plans for day 2 in Madrid: the Reina Sofia.

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    Day 8: The Reina Sofia y mas churros

    We woke up at what was a late hour to us and, leaving the hotel at around 9 AM, we walked out to find the streets of Madrid almost completely deserted. This city stays out late at night and sleeps in late in the morning.

    We found a bar open nearby (Bar Reynar) and it was one of those old-school kind of places that is filled with only regulars. We got a couple of cafe con leche and a tortilla sandwich. The sandwich was absolutely delicious (and huge!) and the cafe was delicious. We ordered two more coffees and sat for a bit, soaking up the atmosphere. A gigantic sandwich and four coffees was 10 euro.

    Fortified, we headed to the Reina Sofia by walking along the Gran Via and down the Paseo del Prado. We arrived shortly after their opening time and the museum was relatively quiet for a Saturday. (16 euros for two tickets) After about four hours at the museum I was fading, so we called it a day on art and found a nearby spot for lunch, the Mercado San Anton. We arrived and I saw that the closing time had been 30 minutes earlier, but we walked in anyway and hoped for the best. Though the market stalls were closed, the little restaurants were still open so we felt very lucky. We found a Venezuelan spot (R’s family is Venezuelan, or half of it is) and enjoyed four glasses of wine, 2 orders of vegetarian arepas, the pisto manchego and a plate of olives for 22 euro. Yum!

    Afterwards we walked back to the hotel and did a bit of shopping on the way. We also might, just might, have stopped for more churros and chocolate. ;)

    We were going to rest up because we were meeting R’s cousin for dinner. They arrived at 8 and then had to look for parking for almost an hour, so that meant we were heading out to look for food during the prime Madrileno dinner rush. After looking at a few crowded spots with a wait, we ended up at Shi Shang, an Asian vegetarian buffet. It was…okay. Lots of fried stuff and meat substitutes and pretty low on actual vegetables, all things considered. But, I found enough and it was fine, just not what I would have wanted given my choices. It was 49 euro for all four of us - buffet and drinks. Meh.

    We grabbed a few pastries for breakfast on the way home and fell into bed, exhausted. Tomorrow would be the last day of our vacation and we needed to rest up.

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    Day 9: The Prado and Pimientos de Padron

    We again woke relatively late (was Madrid rubbing off on us?) and ate our pastries in the room before heading out on the search for coffee. We found a place open on the Gran Via and had a couple of nice cafe con leche for the not-so-nice price of 10 euro. Meh. It was worth it to sit and sip.

    We arrived at the Prado without incident and bought our tickets (28 euros for 2 tickets) and a couple of audio guides for the main museum and the special exhibits (12 euros for 2). After lots and lots of days of traveling and museum-ing, we more or less took the “highlights” tour of the Prado’s permanent collection before moving on to the special exhibits. We also had a lovely snack at the Prado cafe (a million times better than the Vatican cafe - wow). We had gazpacho, a pasta salad, some bread, some fruit, and drinks for 17 euro. Pretty reasonable and delicious.

    We headed back in for a few more hours of art before finally realizing we were both mentally and physically done for the time being. After heading out of the Prado, we went back to the Reina Sofia to pick something up from the bookstore, but on the way decided to pop into a little “northern” spanish bar for some tapas…and thus began our unintentional tapas crawl which lasted the rest of the day. At this bar, we had a couple glasses of white wine, some other food I can’t remember, and a plate of pimientos de padron.

    You guys. I can’t even with these peppers. Simply cooked by being pan fried with oil and then dusted with coarse sea salt, they were a revelation. We devoured the entire plate. I wanted to eat them every day. I dream about them now at night. (I’ve found a reasonable facsimile in Shishito peppers, aka Korean twist peppers, which I can make at home. You’re welcome.)

    Tipsy and peppery, we stopped by the bookstore before heading to the Cava Baja for some more tapas. Here, we had a few glasses of sangria, a plate of olives, some mushrooms (which had sneaky ham in them, darn it) and toast with goat cheese and caramelized onions. Holy cow you guys. That toast was amazing. 19 euros for all that.

    To keep the tapas train moving, we went back to the mercado San Miguel, where we ate more paella, drank more wine, and sampled a number of other tasty little treats before finally realizing we were stuffed to the brim and could handle no more. (32 euro)

    That sums up where we were overall in terms of the trip: Stuffed to the brim and able to handle no more. We crammed a whole lot into nine days. I don’t want to say that it was too much, because I would have struggled to leave any of it out, but it was definitely exhausting in the best possible way. This is what happens when you bring someone new to a city that you love - you want to show them absolutely everything. Editing yourself becomes and impossibility. And that’s how it was for me to take R to Rome. Madrid was new to both of us, so I think we felt less of a push to see everything, because we didn’t know everything. Which was probably for the best - if we’d continued the pace we had in Rome into Madrid, I think we both might have collapsed!

    Overall, the trip worked out very well for us. We headed back to the Madrid airport the next morning a bit early - and thank goodness we did! When we check in, we were advised that our gate was a full 30 minute walk from the ticketing desk. That airport is not for the faint of heart.

    Well, there it is. Another trip report - and I’m already looking forward to the next one!

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    Thanks for taking the time to write a report. I haven't been in Rome since 2008, but it's one of my very favorite places in the world. You brought back many memories for me!

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