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Trip Report 2001: A Maitaitom Italian Odyssey - "The Lost Trip Report"

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Last week while rummaging through my drawers (my desk drawers, so you’re not confused about my personal habits), I found a notebook that contained incredibly extensive notes from our May 2001 trip to Italy. I don't even remember us taking them since I was not on a travel board at the time…but we did, and they’ve been sitting at the bottom of my desk for 12 years (doesn’t say much for my organizational skills).

This was the FIRST European trip Tracy and I went on with Kim and Mary (although we had done a short test trip the year before in Northern California to see if we could co-exist for a long period of time without killing each other).

Of course, some of the elements from this trip are not relevant today, especially prices, since everything was still in lira. However, cities and hill towns don't change that much, and most of our hotels still get fairly stellar reviews (except for the Rome one), although the prices have gone up substantially (the dollar was damn strong in 2001). Plus, some of our exploits along the way were pretty funny (at least to us). We even got through the journey without putting the wrong petrol in the car.

Our nearly three-week trip took us to the Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice, Siena, San Gimignano, Volterra, Montalcino, Montepulciano, Pienza, Orvieto, Todi, the Amalfi Coast (Positano), Pompeii and finally to Rome.

I assume most of you will not be interested, since this trip was so long ago, but for the few who might want to follow along I thought I would post it (hey, I'm in between real trip reports…I need something to do…and can you really ever have enough Italy). I will put the first few of days up on my website soon, just because I can't believe we were ever that young (or that my hair was ever that short). All our pictures were scanned 12 years ago from slides and prints (no digital cameras back then for us), so some of the quality is not as good as it would be today.

The first few days that I have posted detail our usual conundrums, errors and fun we always seem to have on our vacations, including an airline strike, lost luggage, a toll gate faux pas of major proportion and a restaurant sing-along that today ranks as one of my all-time favorite travel moments.

What's truly amazing to me is how I can look at my notes that are 12-years-old and remember each day like it happened last week. Hell, I don't even remember what I watched on television or had for dinner last night.

So in case you are interested in the Fearsome Foursome's first joint European adventure, here is 2001: A Maitaitom Italian Odyssey…The Lost Trip Report.

Days 1 and 2 – Where’s Kim, Sorry But Your Air Carrier Is Now On Strike, Stuck In Munich, I’m Not Getting On This Little Plane…Oh Wait The Flight Attendants Are Gorgeous, Saying Hello To Julie Andrews, Luggage…What Luggage and Cinque Terre We’re Finally Here

It definitely was an ominous portent of things to come when Kim and Mary called in the morning to tell us their flight from Carlsbad to LAX had been canceled.

The original plans were to meet Tracy and me at the airport, and then the four of us would get on a lovely Lufthansa jet headed for Munich, Germany, where we would change planes and take the short flight down to Milan, Italy. In Milan, we would rent a car and head for the Cinque Terre for a couple of nights. We would then travel to Florence, Venice, towns in Tuscany and Umbria, the Amalfi Coast and Rome.

Luckily, Mary was able to catch an earlier flight to LAX, however Kim was not scheduled to arrive until after 1 p.m., and our flight was at 2:25, cutting it much too close for comfort.

As it turned out Kim could have walked from Carlsbad to catch our flight since we ended up taking off more than an hour after our scheduled departure time. This delay presented our foursome with our first (but not our last) dilemma of the day, because our late arrival would now mean we would miss our connecting flight to Milan.

On board our flight, we asked the flight attendant if there was a chance the Munich to Milan flight was delayed, too. Although my German is not very good, her expression when talking to another flight attendant said (in any language), “These poor folks are s**t out of luck!”

It wasn’t long before the pilot gave us our next piece of wonderful news. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said as we were approaching Greenland, “I am sorry to announce that Lufthansa has just announced a strike, and this is the last flight that will be arriving or departing Munich.” Great, I thought, I hadn’t even packed any lederhosen.

Arriving in Munich, we received some good news. We, along with three others in the same predicament, were now booked on a flight from Munich to Bergamo, Italy, on an airline called Air Dolomite. We would then be bussed to Malpensa and be reunited with our luggage. All was right with the world…almost.

As we walked out on the tarmac, my worst airplane fears were realized. Air Dolomite’s plane was about the size of a Tonka toy, and my motto, “If it doesn’t hold a 100, I don’t fly,” would be put to the ultimate test.

Without even time to down an alcoholic beverage to calm me, we were on board, and our Air Dolomite experience turned out to be wonderful. The dual prop plane ascended in record time, and soon we were flying over the Alps, although I was a little concerned we might fly into the Alps.

At one point, we were so close that I was certain I saw the Von Trapp family trying to escape Germany, and I swear I heard yodeling.

As for Air Dolomite, the service was great with meals served on real china by some incredibly gorgeous flight attendants. “Hey, I kind of like these small planes after all,” I said to Tracy after chatting with one of the flight attendants for a bit. I instantly got my first “look” of the trip.

The “Magnificent Seven,” as I now dubbed our group of stranded tourists, were transported by bus to Malpensa, and soon we would pick up our luggage and the rental car, and we would be off to the Cinque Terre.

As an aside, two of the Magnificent Seven turned out to be neighbors of ours who only lived two blocks from us. Yes, it a small world, however right now it was a world without suitcases.

None of our luggage was at Malpensa, but the lady at the counter said not to worry, it would be coming in on a later flight that evening, and they would send the luggage to our b&b in Levanto.

Satisfied that we would eventually have clean clothes, we hopped in the car and drove 2 hours and 15 minutes to the town of Levanto. Levanto is located just outside the Cinque Terre, but proved to be a great place to stay and was only a few minute train trip to the first Cinque Terre town, Monterosso al Mare.

We passed some nice scenery and quaint towns until we reached the forested coast. Our VW Passat took us into Levanto, and our b&b host Federico at Villa Margherita had given us perfect directions.

Villa Margherita had cute gardens, and the rooms were clean, albeit small, but the price to stay there was small, too…only about $70 a night. We all showered, and then Federico told us about a place in town where we could get some good pizza.

We wandered through Levanto to the Taverna Garibaldi (via Garibaldi 57). It was a great choice. Both the Quattro Formaggio pizza and the Italia pizza (basil, mozzarella and pomodero), hit the spot. We washed that all down with some beer and a large carafe of wine. The total bill came to 41,000 lira (or about 20 bucks).

On the walk back to the Villa (yes, it was now a Villa), we passed by an old cemetery where numerous graves and crypts were illuminated by electric candles. In the distance, we could see a castle and a church lit up on the hillside.

Who needs clean clothes when you have all this, I thought? We got back to the Villa a little after 11 and we all passed out shortly thereafter with dreams of tomorrow bringing fresh clothing and spectacular scenery. Some dreams come true…some do not.

NEXT: Day 3 – A Walk On The Beach, Your Clothes Are In Switzerland, Short Cut To The Train, Harboring Four Tourists, Sock It To Me, Getting Tanked, Manarola Lunch, Take A Hike, The 300 Stairs To Corniglia, “You Betcha,” Dinner In Vernazza and A Nightcap to Cap An Interesting Day

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    Day 3 – A Walk On The Beach, Your Clothes Are In Switzerland, Short Cut To The Train, Harboring Four Tourists, Sock It To Me, Getting Tanked, Manarola Lunch, Take A Hike, The 300 Stairs To Corniglia, “You Betcha,” Dinner In Vernazza and A Nightcap to Cap An Interesting Day

    At home, it takes an act of Congress to get me out of bed. Not so on vacation. Even though we got to bed late, I was up by 6 a.m. and just before 7, while Tracy, Kim and Mary were getting in the last of their beauty sleep, I was walking through Levanto scoping out our new hometown.

    I strolled through Levanto down to the sea and saw a huge mansion on a hill that had a park-like yard. On the way back, I attempted to be a local and stopped in the Bar Levanto for an espresso and a cappuccino. I stood at the bar with a bunch of guys who were speaking Italian, and for 3,500 Lira, just for a moment, I was one of them…well, except for that speaking Italian part.

    I sat in the Villa Margherita garden to jot down some notes and soak in the morning sunshine before I went inside and joined our group for breakfast. Mary was still a little sleepy, as the church bells had awakened her a few times.

    Federico provided a nice spread for his guests, and he had already been on the phone with Lufthansa, who had given him no definitive as to the whereabouts of our luggage.

    No problema, I thought. I was in vacation mode, plus I had brought an extra pair of underwear and pants in a carryon bag, so at least I had a couple of fresh pieces of clothing to start the day. My traveling companions had no such luck and were wearing their airplane clothes.

    Some guests at Villa Margherita gave us a tip about the short-cut walk to the train station that they said would allow us to not have to climb any stairs (we would need that strength later in the day). At the station, we bought an All-Day Ticket for 5,500 Lira ((about $2.75).

    Our first stop was the second Cinque Terre town, the incredibly beautiful Vernazza. Vernazza’s harbor was full of colorful boats, and we made friends with some of the neighborhood felines who were scrounging for food.

    The four of us walked around town, and then Tracy and I climbed the medieval Belforte Castle with its cylindrical tower. The views were great. I think Kim and Mary are down there waving to us.

    We started to take a hike toward Corniglia, but after we had arrived at a point where the view back to Vernazza was astounding, Tracy informed us she was a bit worried about the hike, because she did not have any socks.

    Getting blisters on Day One would be bad, so back to Vernazza we walked, and since the day was getting progressively warmer, we all decided to buy some clothing to get us through the day and night just in case our luggage was still in limbo.

    Tracy bought socks and a shirt; Mary got a new shirt while Kim bought a shirt. I was daring and purchased a manly tank top because it was getting so hot. No one confused my spaghetti arms with Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, but what the hell, I was comfortable if not stylish.

    We hiked back up a bit for a group photo with Vernazza in the background, but by now we were starving!

    We hopped on a train to the town of Manarola, another picturesque Cinque Terre town. We gobbled down some seafood, pasta and pesto (not to mention a little Cinque Terre vino), and then it was time to take the hour hike to Corniglia.

    The views back to Manarola as we started along the trail were stupendous, and the trail wound itself along the coastline with vistas that blew our minds at every turn.

    One thing we didn’t know until we neared Corniglia is how high it is. Navigating more than 300 steps, we finally made it to town and promptly found a spot for libations that afforded great views back toward Manarola. We again sampled the local wine that actually tasted like it was carbonated.

    We took the 300 stairs back down and caught the train back to Levanto. We stopped by the graveyard that had been illuminated the previous night for a quick visit. After walking all those stairs in Corniglia, I was happy that I didn’t have to stay here permanently.

    When we got back to the Villa Margherita there was a note saying our luggage was on it’s way to Genoa. It seems it had spent most of the day in Switzerland. This was the first trip where my luggage visited more countries than I did.


    Just as we were walking out the door, the phone at Villa Margherita rang, and it was a Lufthansa representative stating that our luggage would be delivered the following morning. That was a good thing since we were leaving for Florence the next morning.

    Back in Vernazza we first stopped by the Ristorante Belforte, which is built into the castle, for some vino. Our young server asked Mary a question, and her answer then started a routine that Abbot and Costello would have been proud performing. She answered his question with the words, ”You betcha!”

    Obviously, our young friend did not know English very well, and for the next ten minutes Mary attempted to explain its usage and meaning, further confusing him (Kim, Tracy and my laughter probably did not help the situation). Mary’s explanation was to no avail, and he finally left perplexed at what these crazy Americans were talking about.

    We enjoyed a beautiful sunset and some pretty good tasting wine, while our server could only shake his head.

    For dinner, we dined at a place overlooking the harbor, Taverna del Capitano, celebrating its 35th anniversary. To be truthful, it was not very good, although their mussels were ok (but not as good as my muscles in a tank top), and the views of the harbor made the evening even better.

    We topped off the evening with cocktails at the Blue Dolphin, then caught the last train back to Levanto and walked to Villa Margherita.

    Our very short stay in the Cinque Terre was complete, but Firenze awaited. Hopefully we would have something to wear.

    NEXT: Day 4 – Clothes Encounters Of The Third Day, “Take The Ticket And Go Away,” Stolen Drugs, Umbrella Policy, It’s Just Like The One In Vegas, Wine With A View, A Dinner Feast and When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie…That’s Amore!

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    Day 4 – Clothes Encounters Of The Third Day, “Take The Ticket And Go Away,” Stolen Drugs, Umbrella Policy, It’s Just Like The One In Vegas, Wine With A View, A Dinner Feast and When The Moon Hits Your Eye Like A Big Pizza Pie…That’s Amore!

    Considering we had such a slow start to this Saturday, it turned out to be one of the most memorable days we have ever spent on vacation, so much so that the four of us still remember it like everything happened yesterday.

    I was up early again wandering the streets of Levanto, downed a couple of cappuccinos and chocolate pastries (a man has to eat before breakfast) before walking back. The four of us met at the Villa Margherita breakfast room, and somehow I was able to partake in some delicious coffee cake and very strong (exactly how I like it) coffee with steamed milk.

    We then did one more walk through of Levanto, with me as the guide since I had already done the tour twice. I think Levanto makes a terrific base for the Cinque Terre. It’s more of a “real” town, but it is only a few minutes by train to the Cinque Terre (there is also a trail that leads to Monterosso al Mare if you want to walk).

    Back at the Villa Margherita, just as Federico had told us, promptly at 11 a.m. a Lufthansa van pulled up with our missing luggage. We all changed clothes, bid arrivederci to the generous Federico and were on the road to Firenze.

    I was worried about driving in Florence proper, but as it turned out, I should have worried a little sooner. On the road from Levanto to Florence there are tollbooths where you pay and get a ticket for the next booth.

    It seems we (well, I was driving so I guess I better fall on my sword here) screwed up and must have been in an incorrect toll lane. I inserted the ticket, and the machine said we owed some money. There was just one minor problem…there did not seem to be any place to insert the money.

    As we looked for a slot to pay, a voice (a rather disgruntled voice) came over the speaker and gave us the directions on how to pay (we think) in Italian. Since none of us speak fluent (ok, we really don’t speak any) Italian, this presented quite a quandary.

    To make matters worse, as we fumbled around trying to figure out what the hell to do, cars were lining up behind us, and the line was getting longer and longer and longer.

    Once again (only a little more irritated and louder) the voice came over the speaker attempting to instruct us on what to do…in Italian, of course.

    Our newly fresh clothes were now full of sweat. We couldn’t pay, we couldn’t understand the voice trying to instruct us and we were now the cause of a giant logjam of automobiles waiting at an Italian tollbooth.

    It was then we were given the catch phrase for the rest of the trip. As we sat there, feverishly trying to figure out what to do in this increasingly embarrassing situation, suddenly a ticket popped up out of the machine. A second later a voice said (very loudly…and in perfect English), “Take the ticket and go away!”

    And away we drove (laughing at our stupidity) heading for Florence, a town where five years before I had backed up down a one-way street when it seemed there was no way to get to our hotel the correct way. I was hoping I wouldn’t run in to (literally or figuratively) any Florentine citizen who might remember that fateful day in 1996.

    Today we got to within two blocks of our hotel, but once again a one-way street (not going in our direction, of course) stopped our forward momentum. As pedestrians, people on vespas and others parted quicker than the Red Sea on a Moses afternoon, we (I) drove maniacally (yet under control) through the streets of Firenze.

    We navigated the streets, crisscrossed the Arno and before too long we were at our appointed destination, Hotel Hermitage. As Mary stated in her notes, “Tom did a wonderful job and actually got us right to our hotel after an amazing u-turn mid-span on a bridge over the Arno.” I hope my insurance company doesn’t read my trip reports.

    The folks from the hotel came down to help Tracy and Mary with the luggage, while Kim and I dropped the car off at the rental office. When we returned Tracy and Mary appeared more harried than they looked at our tollbooth experience, “What happened,” I asked?

    It seems that when they deposited the luggage in the lobby of the hotel, someone stole our little blue ice bag. Usually an ice bag theft would mean nothing, except that this particular ice bag held the arthritis drug Enbrel in pre-filled syringes (the drug needs to be refrigerated) that I injected once a week (my rheumatoid/psoriatic arthritis was really bad in those days, and without Enbrel my knees would have swelled up like a bowling ball within 9 or 10 days, and I would have been rendered a virtual cripple).


    Tracy, Mary and the housekeeper (or as I called them…Charlie’s Angels) gave chase to the thieves, looking underneath parked cars in search of the stolen drugs. Luckily for us, the scoundrels must have opened the bag, seen there was nothing exciting to steal and left it behind. The hotel employee apologized profusely, but it was really no one’s fault. They all took their eyes off the ice bag for just a few seconds. In any case, there was no harm done.

    Both couples checked out our lovely rooms that overlooked the Arno, and a few minutes later we were on foot ready to explore Florence on this very hot and humid day.

    Tracy and I wanted to introduce Kim and Mary to the place that serves the best chicken sandwiches on earth, Caffé Giracosa, but sadly they were sold out for the day. We had originally been here in 1996, and they were the most incredible chicken sandwiches I have ever eaten (still to this day, I might add).

    We started to walk toward the Accademia to see the David when the skies opened up. As we were pelted with rain, Kim came to the rescue and bought two umbrellas from an enterprising fellow. However, we only needed the umbrellas for about another two minutes when the rain promptly stopped as quickly as it had started.

    The Accademia was surprisingly uncrowded, and after a short wait, we stepped inside to look at the big guy. He was quite impressive, although Tracy said, “It looks just like the one in Vegas.” That sound we heard was Michelangelo turning over in his grave.

    On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Uffizi to pick up our timed 9 a.m. visit the following day. Now it was time for relaxing, and the Hotel Hermitage was perfect for doing just that.

    The roof top terrace at our hotel had stupendous views of the nearby Ponte Vecchio and the Arno, not to mention other Florence landmarks. The four of us celebrated a now beautiful evening with a couple of bottles of Chianti.

    I had decided that on our first night in Florence we should be real Italians and dine late. While preparing for our trip, I had read about a restaurant called Da Il Latini (Via Palchetti 6/r) that reviews said was both good and fun. There were basically two seatings, and the late seating’s tended to have more locals than tourists, so that’s what we did.

    Looking back, this was probably the most memorable meal I have had anywhere in the world, and it really had little to do with the food, although the meal was very, very good.

    At 9:30 we were lead to the second of three rooms at Il Latini. This rustic restaurant had prosciutto hanging from the ceiling at every turn, and on each table was a seemingly bottomless, huge bottle of Chianti. Walking through the restaurant to our table, the sweet smell of ripe melone was beckoning me.

    There really wasn’t a menu, so we just had the waiter order for us. We started with prosciutto e melone (the melon tasted like candy), brushetta and foie gras on crostinis. Next came a tomato bread zuppa, an incredible vegetable bread soup and a white bean soup.

    The group then shared raviolis stuffed with spinach and ricotta plus some rigatoni in a spicy meat sauce. But wait…there’s more!

    Next up, I had a great grilled filet, served rare just like it should be. My three companions opted for a very good roasted chicken.

    Life is not complete without dessert, at least for the guys. Kim had the tiramisu sprinkled with chocolate chips. The tiramisu was made with a sponge cake. I had the vanilla gelato with fresh strawberries. Both desserts were winners.

    We all washed down our dinner with some dessert wine (Vin Santo) and plenty of biscotti for dipping. I then had a cappuccino (yeah, only an American does this, but the waiter did tell me you can only order this after you have completed eating).

    Now as I mentioned, when we sat down there was a giant, straw covered bottle of Chianti (from the owner’s estate we found out). This bottle was huge, and you drink kind of on the honor system. Well, this group never met a huge bottle of Chianti we didn’t like, so we certainly put a dent in the bottle as our meal took a long time to consume.

    When we were first seated, there were a lot of Americans finishing their meals, but by about half way through our dinner, the Americans had all left, and the entire room was speaking Italian, except for us, of course. The room was noisy and everyone seemed to be having a blast.

    After all the Chianti and Vin Santo, the four of us were feeling no pain, including yours truly. We were having such a great time and in such a great mood that for some reason (ok, perhaps inebriation could be a factor), out of the blue I sang out, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…” Before I could sing another note, a large group of Italians at the table next to us, belted out, “That’s Amore!”

    Well, that sort of opened the fun floodgates. For the better part of 90 minutes the four of us, along with about 20 of our newest Italian friends, sang a variety of Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra tunes, took pictures of one another and laughed the night away. They all spoke English pretty damned well. It was the coolest night.

    Finally, about 12:30, the owner came back to our room and reluctantly said that he had to close up, and it was time for us to go. When we were handed the bill, we could hardly believe it. The total cost for one of the most fun evenings I have ever spent came to a total of 120,000 lira per couple (60 bucks)!

    We all laughed more as we walked through the rest of the restaurant that was now pitch black because the rest of the patrons had left about an hour previous to our departure. Damn, what a night!!

    NEXT: Day 5 – A Major Museum Disappointment, Incredible Stained Glass, A Walk In The Garden, It’s A Pitti, Tracy Gets A Workout…Tom Gets The Look, Home Of The Dominicans, Don’t Be A Phony Try The Negroni and Leo Makes Our Night

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    On our first trip to Florence, probably in 2000, we had a similarly memorable experience at Il Latini, on a Sunday at lunch, where we were actually among very few Americans in a sea of Italian families. A waiter in a Venice trattoria told us to go there. It was a different time. Thanks for the memory.

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    Maitaitom
    Your hilarious renderings only improve with age. When I see your name on a TR I start to laugh in anticipation. You are one witty critter! Once again, a giggle a minute. So glad you unearthed this one. Can't wait to read the rest.

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    Geez... just when I was about to log off to watch Frasier reruns...there you were.
    Such fun. Memories too. My husband and I stayed at the Hermitage... recommended by a friend who's a cardiologist. Just when we were leaving my husband tipped over the luggage stand.. a very heavy bench... on his toe. Which promptly swelled and bugged him for several days after.(Til he soaked it in a bidet in Siena -:)

    Anyhow he threatened to sue our young friend for malpractice (for her hotel recommendation)... something she and I still laugh about even tho
    my husband has gone to that wonderful Venice in the sky.

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    Even after all these years, Il Latini still gets mostly positive reviews. Detractors call it "too touristy," but it seems that most people whose reviews I read still think it's a fun place with good food. I've been back to Florence a couple of times since this 2001 trip, but did not return to Il Latini because I figured we could never duplicate that experience. The other amazing thing about that night was that we didn't get to bed until about 1 a.m. Ah, to be young again!!!

    ((H))

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    My husband and I are sitting in the airport as I type waiting for our 25th anniversary trip to Italy. I've loved reading your T.R. So funny and informative even if it is 12 years old!

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    NEXT: Day 5 – A Major Museum Disappointment, Incredible Stained Glass, A Walk In The Garden, It’s A Pitti, Tracy Gets A Workout…Tom Gets The Look, Home Of The Dominicans, Don’t Be A Phony Try The Negroni, Introducing Dr. Mary and Leo Makes Our Night

    Four weary Americans, all nursing slight (some maybe more than slight) hangovers awoke groggy on a glorious Sunday morning, but somehow we were able to drag ourselves to the Hotel Hermitage rooftop for a nice breakfast. Kim and Mary were extra tired as they had trouble sleeping.

    The staff at Hotel Hermitage was both friendly and accommodating and, after a nice breakfast, the four of us trudged over to the Galleria degli Uffizi (Uffizi Gallery) at about 8:45, where we had 9 a.m. reservations. As there were no lines, they told us we could go in early.

    We bought audio guides for 8,000 lira apiece and went on the Uffizi Greatest Hits Tour. I must say this museum was a disappointment.

    It wasn’t so much the paintings as it was the way they were displayed. The lighting and open windows with the sun shining in made the art very difficult to see properly. It took us about two hours to go through the Uffizi.

    Next stop was the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St. John) on the Piazza San Giovanni. The stained glass was marvelous as was the mosaic ceiling. Ghiberti’s Gates Of Paradise Doors are not the original, but a replica of the one housed at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Original or not, they were spectacular and there was always a large crowd around it whenever we walked by during our three-day stay.

    Next we headed across the Arno toward the Boboli Gardens and The Pitti Palace. I told our group that we should round up some friends and have a soirée at the palace. “We could throw a Pitti party.” Before they could throw me in the Arno I added, “You know, if they ever remove the palace, Florence would be A Town Without Pitti.” Kim, Mary and Tracy walked faster to get further away from me.

    A couple we had met at the hotel told us if we went to the Pitti Palace to be sure to see both the Galleria Palatino and the Royal Apartments. We did, and we all acknowledged that we actually liked the Pitti Palace better than the Uffizi. Viewing the art here was much better suited to the eye.

    Next we headed to the Boboli Gardens, which I hear in 2013 have fallen on rough times. That’s too bad, because when we visited in 2001, they were beautiful.

    We started at the Amphitheater and walked up the hill to the rose garden that was full of roses (although not in full bloom) and some pretty peonies. Not only were the flowers gorgeous, but also the views out onto the Tuscan landscape gave us a glimpse of what we might expect later in the trip when we were to travel through the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside.

    By now, Kim and Mary were hungry and tired. Kim (being the gentleman that he is) told Mary they would look at some street art near the Pitti Palace, go grab a bite and take a little nap back at the hotel.

    Tracy, on the other hand, was with Mr. No-Nap (aka me), and although hungry, we went off in search of another historical Florence sight. Right before we started our walk, I saw Tracy out of the corner of my eye, and her Spock-like “look” at me made me happy she couldn’t do that “grab-your-shoulder-and paralyze-me” Vulcan Death Grip Spock does so well.

    The Basilica Santa Maria Novella’s construction began in the mid 1200s. Thankfully the church was so nice that Tracy momentarily forgot she was mad at me.

    Back at the hotel, Tracy phoned her mom to wish her a Happy Mother’s Day, while I went up to the rooftop and tried a drink I had never had before…a Negroni. Before my motto of, “You’ll never be sorry with another Campari,” there was “Don’t be a phony, try the Negroni.”

    A Negroni is made with 1/3 Campari, 1/3 sweet vermouth and 1/3 gin. They throw in the orange slice to make it look healthier. Shortly thereafter, I was joined by Tracy on the rooftop. Kim and Mary, who were now sufficiently refreshed to begin cocktail hour (which for this group sometime stretches to hours), came out a few minutes later.

    While enjoying our vino, we met a couple from St. Louis (Ron and Martha) who would become involved in one of our adventures later in the trip. It was at this moment on our debut trip together that we all got to see, for the very first time, Mary spring into medical mode.

    Ron had a cold, and before you could say antihistamine, Mary was offering him Dayquil, Nyquil and even some antibiotics.

    A little after 7:30, the four of us went in search of dinner. We had nothing planned, so we went over to the Santa Croce area looking for Acqua al 2, which has a sister restaurant in San Diego. The place was jammed, but we remembered that Franco at our hotel had recommended a place nearby called Ristorante Leo, Via Torta 7r.

    Although there was room downstairs, we were lead up to a rather sterile room where there was just one other couple, also American. We then waited for our server…and waited…and waited.

    I was getting antsy and we were just about to take a hike from Ristorante Leo, when this guy grabs a chair, puts it at our table and plops down to chat with us. It turned out his name was Marco, the owner of Ristorante Leo, who also happened to be Leo’s grandson.

    He regaled us with stories about his grandfather who was the White House chef for 20 years, and that JFK ate at Ristorante Leo just a couple of weeks before his assassination. Whether any of his stories were true at this point made no difference. Marco was charming, and our dinner was fabulous.

    Kim and Mary started with a salmon carpaccio. Tracy had the antipasto Tuscano (bruschetta, cucumber & cheese) a delicious salad with pine nuts. I, as usual, had some prosciutto e melone (you just don’t get melons like these in the U.S., so I had to take advantage).

    Second courses included Ravioli Leo (ravioli stuffed with spinach and cheese in a velvety sauce that Tracy said was ”divine” topped with small Italian shrimp that were “bursting with flavor”).

    We all guessed the delectable sauce was a red pepper, lobster sauce, which is why we don’t work for the Food Network. Marco told us it consisted of Pomodoro and Cream of Asparagus. The funniest thing about that is that Kim hates tomatoes, yet loved that sauce.

    Kim ordered a great grilled swordfish, Mary had chicken, Tracy went for the veal scallopini with artichoke hearts, Gorgonzola and fennel, while I savored a veal chop smothered in Porcini mushrooms and the sauce from the Ravioli Leo.

    (Note: Sadly it looks like Ristorante Leo is no longer in existence in 2013)

    In the biggest upset in history, we all passed on dessert, even Mr. Bottomless Pit (that would be me), but our sweet tooths would be satisfied shortly thereafter. Walking off our huge meal we passed by the famed gelato store, Vivoli. Since it would be closed the next day, we felt an obligation to give this place a try.

    I tried the riso (rice) gelato (damn that Rick Steves), which turned out to be an error in judgment, but I’m not one to dwell on my mistakes so I quickly tossed the rice gelato and tried the Mousse Café (much, much better…light, airy and tasty). Kim ordered a plain café gelato that he quickly exchanged for Mary’s Chocolate-Orange gelato that tasted just like candy. Tracy’s banana gelato, she said, “tasted just like a ripe banana.”

    We kept on wandering and eating our gelato and then walked some more so we could all fit in our clothes the following day. We finally got back to the hotel, but despite our best intentions to not stay up late, by the time we made it back to Hotel Hermitage it was nearly midnight.

    NEXT: Day 6 – Tower Flashback, Mary & Kim Escape The Taskmaster, The Real Gates Of Paradise, Chicken Sandwich Nirvana, Tie One On, Fabulous Firenze Viewpoint, How Did He Carry His Head That Far, In Chanting, Iris Eyes Are Smiling, Santa “Don’t Call Me Jim” Croce, Head For The Hills, I Only Scraped That Other Car and We Don’t Serve (But We Secretly Love) California Wine

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    I feel as if I've gone to the library and discovered an unread book by a favourite author! Thanks so much for taking the time and trouble to post this report, looking forward to reading the rest!

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    What's so sweet about this one, Tom, is you're going to be sucking in some new Fodorites. :) I'm taking notes, though disappointed that some of these places are now closed.

    My favorite restaurant from my first trip to Italy was in Florence, and was closed by the time I returned 2 years later. :(

    The upside... I will have more time now to discover new ones. (Don't know if you found my post.. I'm moving to Italy! 8 days to go!) Do expect me to insist on dinner/vino if you and the lovely Tracy get back to Italy while I'm still living there. :) Ciao!

    Looking forward (MUCH) to the next installment!

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    sarge, first of all congrats on the news! Very exciting. After reliving this trip, Tracy and I are talking about a 2014 "Best Of Italy" trip. That, of course, includes vino. Looking forward to hearing about your new home when you settled in.

    ((H))

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    It's fun reading this. My husband and I just got home yesterday from a trip to Italy. We visited Lake Como, Cinque Terre (stayed in Monterosso al Mare), Tuscany and Rome. I frequently refer to your trip reports for advice on restaurants and villages to visit. I will try to write up a trip report (and finish it!)to post for this past trip.

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    I am so glad I found your trip report! I love all of your writing and am so tickled you have taken the time to post (truly tickled, because I am laughing and grinning about your adventures).

    Please continue to post! You have a true gift!!

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    NEXT: Day 6 – Tower Flashback, Mary & Kim Escape The Taskmaster, The Real Gates Of Paradise, Chicken Sandwich Nirvana, Tie One On, Fabulous Firenze Viewpoint, How Did He Carry His Head That Far, In Chanting, Iris Eyes Aren't Smiling, Santa “Don’t Call Me Jim” Croce, Head For The Hills, I Only Scraped That Other Car and We Don’t Serve (But We Secretly Love) California Wine

    Tracy had already seen the Florence Duomo and climbed Campanile di Giotto on a prior trip, so she decided to sleep in after two late nights. After another nice breakfast at Hotel Hermitage, Kim, Mary and I headed over to the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori) and Campanile di Giotto.

    The highlight of the Duomo is, of course, Brunelleschi’s Dome, which we were hoping to climb up on this morning. The line was too long, so after wandering around the Duomo, we went next door to revisit my 1996 climb of Giotto’s Bell Tower, which, after navigating a mere 414 steps or so, affords one great Florence views, including a stupendous view of the nearby Duomo.

    As we reached the top, I suddenly had a 1996 flashback. Tracy and I had seen the David on that trip, too, and that’s when Tracy first uttered her, “Looks like the one in Vegas” quote. A few minutes after Tracy and I had reached the top of Giotto’s Tower, we were joined by a tourist from the U.S. We all chatted for a bit, and I asked what her favorite Florence moment was so far.

    She became rather emotional and answered, “When I was at the Accademia and first saw Michelangelo’s David, I fell to my knees and wept…it was so overpowering.” Suddenly the words “Las Vegas” jumped into my brain. I quickly glanced over to Tracy who looked like she might say something she would have regretted later. I whispered to her “if you say anything, I might have to kill you.” Instead we just nodded in agreement.

    After our Giotto’s Tower tour, I went to roust Tracy from her sleep-in, while Kim and Mary must have felt like they received a reprieve from the governor and went on their own way for the day, free from the evil taskmaster, “Mr. 1,000 Stairs-A-Day.”

    First, Tracy and I stopped at the museum where the real Gates Of Paradise are stored, but after climbing and descending more than 800 stairs, I was starving so we took a quick look, and we went in search of Florence’s most famous highlight…the chicken sandwiches at Caffé Giacosa (I misspelled it in my post from Day 4).

    There were three chicken sandwiches left, and we bought all three of them. They were just as delicious as they were in 1996 (and also in 2005 when we went again). Sandwich heaven is simple: roasted chicken slices, light on the mayo and lettuce on a round flaky biscuit that basically is light as air. It sounds crazy, but I can still taste those sandwiches today in my mind.

    We walked over a bridge to the Oltarno in search of a Napoleon engraving we had decided to pass on in 1996. The store was closed until 3:30, so we stopped in next door and bought a couple of really nice ties. I wonder if I still have those?

    Next, we walked along the Arno heading ostensibly for some stairs that hopefully would lead us to the International Iris Festival (not to be confused with the International Retina Festival) that had been recommended by some people from New York, who we had met the previous evening at Ristorante Leo.

    Up the stairs we climbed and climbed to the Piazzale Michelangelo, where we had some beautiful views back over Florence. We found the Iris Festival, and sadly it was not open. Before we could ask, “Who’s running this damned festival,” I told Tracy we must not be too far from San Miniato al Monte. “What’s that,” she asked?

    I told her this is the spot that in 250 A.D, a man named San Miniato, who had recently been decapitated, took his severed head, ran across the Arno (no easy task in itself…head or no head), sang I Ain’t Got No Body and proceeded to lay down and die so they could build a really cool church. Keeping our heads about us, we walked to San Miniato. It was worth the effort.

    There were more wonderful views of Florence from here, we visited the graveyard outside and then walked into this very lovely church. If memory serves me correctly (and Tracy’s notes), the church is run by Benedictine monks and even had a shop that sold Benedictine liqueur.

    We really lucked out, because as we got there the monks began chanting. We sat on the chairs soaking in the sounds and the sun. We wanted to go to the church/convent next door (supposedly one of Michelangelo’s favorites, but it was closed.

    Speaking of closed, back down at the Piazzale Michelangelo, the stupid Iris Festival was still closed to the public. We finally found a place where we could peer over a wall to look at the collection of Iris’s and were glad we didn’t pay anything, because it was a pretty pitiful display. But it did get us to the Piazzale Michelangelo and san Miniato, so I owe those crappy flowers my undying gratitude.

    Trekking back down the hill, we stumbled (knowing us, probably literally) upon the Giardino delle Rose. This small garden, open for only six weeks in May and June, meandered down the hill back to Florence. It made up for the “International Lack Of Iris Being Open Festival.”

    Crossing back across the Arno, we came upon Santa Croce. Since Tracy was wearing shorts, I had to go inside alone, while Tracy worked on her Florentine tan.

    Coincidentally, Kim and Mary had visited here earlier in the day where they saw the Tunic Of St. Francis, who happens to be Kim’s favorite saint (his middle name is Francis). Hopefully, they’re not reading this, because a study in 2007 said the apparel at Santa Croce was made some 80 years after his death (spoilsports).

    I wandered inside for a while and saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Dante and others, including that of Galileo, which made me want to sing from Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, but it seemed everyone was pretty quiet, so I left.

    By now, wherever they were, I’m sure Kim and Mary were happy they weren’t with us because Tracy and I had some burning feet, but not enough to keep walking even more. We walked back to the Oltarno over the most famous Bling Bridge on earth, the Ponte Vecchio, where unbeknownst to us at the time Kim and Mary had purchased their daughter a ring. Tracy bought some jewelry on the Ponte Vecchio in 1996, so I blindfolded her and led her to the other side without having to spend any money.

    Unfortunately, we soon parted with more lira at another antique store that had a very nice colored engraving of a German battle from hundreds of years ago. I guess I had lira burning a hole in my pocket, because we also had it framed and shipped. That engraving resided in a prominent niche in our living room until last moth when we had the room painted. Anyone interested in an engraving?

    Then it was back across the Ponte Vecchio (by now Tracy was too tired and I was too broke to buy anything) to the Hotel Hermitage. After one of our famed 15-minute power naps, we showered and met Kim and Mary on the rooftop for our last Florence Happy Hour. By now we were well known by the staff, the patio pigeons that were hoping for a little discarded bread from their new American buddies and even nearby neighbors who waved to us from their apartments and wondered about our wine consumption.

    On this evening, we would take a taxi to the hills above Florence to Trattoria Omero. Little did I know it might have been wise to purchase life insurance before our taxi ride.

    Our cabbie made Steve McQueen look like a safe driver in Bullit as he sped through the streets and hills of Florence (think Gene Hackman in The French Connection), yapping on the phone and blowing through stop signs with abandon. He was the first guy I had ever seen who had more traffic violations than myself on a short drive. At one point, I kept thinking about San Miniato and worried we might suffer a similar fate.

    As we neared the restaurant, I thought, “What can this guy do for an encore?” Fortunately he was up to the challenge as about five minutes from the restaurant he clipped a parked car.

    Not surprisingly, he got us here early for our reservations (stop sign violations make for a quicker trip), so we walked around the area replete with expensive homes and high-walled gardens. The restaurant was charming with exposed brick walls, stone floors and beamed ceilings. I had requested the terrace that had beautiful views of olive groves.

    It also had a familiar look to it. It turned out our St. Louis friends from Hotel Hermitage, Ron and Martha, were just about finishing up their dinner. Ron looked much better and didn’t seem to need anything on this night from Dr. Mary. They gave us some menu recommendations and casually mentioned they would be going to Venice next.

    “Where are you staying,” Mary asked? When they answered Pensione Accademia, Mary said, “Wow, that’s where we’re staying, too.” At this point, Ron and Martha began checking out the Italian stalking laws.

    Dinner at the Omero was as not as good as the views, but still some of the dishes were really good. I had my last Prosciutto e melone to start while Tracy tried some Baby artichokes drizzled with olive oil and slices of our new favorite cheese pecorino (foreshadowing alert).

    Kim and Mary shared a salad of with greens with pecorino. Kim said he was in heaven. I added, “Our cab driver almost got us there first.”

    Digression: I think it was more of a custom in 2001 to eat all the courses (or maybe we were just stupid and did that because we thought that was what we were supposed to do), so we ate lots and lots of food. Luckily I was skinnier in those days.

    Next up was Tortellini stuffed with a meat and cream sauce for Tracy and me, while Kim and Mary opted for the ravioli topped with sage butter sauce (I think I still remember how good that was…yes, I stole one).

    For the main course, three of us decided to go for the Specialty della Casa, which was fried chicken (Floentine style). Carlo, our very friendly waiter, recommended this dish (more on him later). Kim decided to go for the Veal Della Casa, a breaded, fried veal chop.

    Unfortunately, the main course was the disappointment of the night. They were all pretty plain and devoid of much flavor.

    The side dishes were better; fried veggies of baby zucchini and artichokes with some pommes frites, and a Tuscan special of white beans.

    We’d come this far, so why not dessert? I had a very good Tuscan cheesecake topped with raspberries.

    After dinner, scared that we might be killed on the taxi ride back to Florence, we decided to chat with Carlo a bit. It turned out he was studying to be a sommelier. He spent two weeks each year in Napa at Robert Mondavi. Although they didn’t have any California wines on the menu, he confided to us that despite that fact, Europeans have great respect for California wine. “Especially the zinfandels and cabernet,” he added. I hope he followed his dreams.

    There were no near-death experiences on the way back to Florence, and when we entered the Hotel Hermitage, our main man Franco handed both couples a complimentary bottle of Chianti. I’m surprised the hotel had any left after our three evenings on the hotel patio.

    Tomorrow morning we would be taking the train to Venice, a place I despised on our 1996 trip. To be fair, we had only spent the day there (I called it “Disneyland on speed”). People had told me that in order to enjoy and love Venice one has to spend and savor the nights after the crowds leave. That turned out to be very sage advice.

    NEXT: Day 7 – First Class Baby, An Oasis In Venice, Don’t Drink At Lunchtime, Hey I Like This City After All, On The Mark, Cocktails In The Garden, Fancy Seeing You Here, Sardinian Specialties, Yes Sir That’s My Baby and Mary Tries To Horse Around At Dinner

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    Love the belated trip report. We have been to these places and my memories return. we're off to levanto for the month of sept. looking forward to the rest of your adventures.

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    Maitaitom,
    I have read your tp's over the years and have been to many of the same places. Over the last 40 years I have been to Europe 30+ times. Mostly France but many to Italy etc. I joined the forum today after several years of wanting to comment on requests by posters I can now do it. Your tp's are truly entertaining. I am retired from the wine business. My first job was in 1958 at Italian Swiss Colony at Asti in Nothern Calif. So it is great to follow a trip by a fellow wine drinker.

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    Tom,

    I too missed the irises abut 10 years after you, but I suspect that it was for the same reason that you missed them - if the roses are open, the irises are over.

    but weren't those roses worth it? just fabulous. i even did a thread about them:

    http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/rose-lovers-hie-thee-to-florence-rose-gardens-open-15-may-to-30-june.cfm

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    maitai, thanks for mentioning the surprise garden and Annhig- thanks for posting that more detailed "map". I'll be in Florence on the 19th of May and I'm going to go looking for that garden! And we may stop to have a refreshment, too! Grazie!

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    prego, sarge. there's another garden nearby - which I think may be the iris one - called the gardino bardini:

    http://www.bardinipeyron.it/ab/cont__11.phtml

    the ticket covers the Boboli as well, AND a few minor museums.

    are you going to Florence before Rome?

    Where are you staying?

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    ann-flying into Venice. Four nights there (I'm going to be at a Verdi concert in Venice on my birthday. :D). Staying in my fave apt. Then 3 nights Florence, staying at Hotel Casci. (One of those days, we are training to Bologna/then bus to Lamborghini factory). Then on to Rome. :)

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    Day 7 – First Class Baby, An Oasis In Venice, Don’t Drink At Lunchtime, Hey I Like This City After All, On The Mark, Say The Secret Word And Win $100, Cocktails In The Garden, Fancy Seeing You Here, Sardinian Specialties, Yes Sir That’s My Baby and Mary Tries To Horse Around At Dinner

    On our 1996 trip, Tracy and I took a daytrip to Venice (we were staying in nearby Padua), and to be truthful, I couldn’t figure out what the allure was of this city. When we disembarked the vaporetto near Piazza San Marco, there were hucksters selling crap of all kinds. “This is Disneyland on speed,” I said, as we looked out onto the incredibly overcrowded Piazza San Marco (and that didn’t even count the pigeons).

    We had a terrible lunch (it was the last time we ever took a Rick Steves’ restaurant recommendation), tried to escape the maddening hordes at every turn, and after about five hours we (and the other couple we were with) decided we couldn’t get out of Venice fast enough.

    Returning home, I went on an AOL Travel Board and posed the question “Why Would I Ever Want To Go Back To Venice?” and listed what I did not like about it, and if someone could give me some reasons to return since I knew it was a favorite of many posters. Of course, I got the usual idiotic kneejerk answers from jerks, “Well, if you didn’t love Venice, don’t go back you moron, and leave Venice to people who love it.”

    Fortunately, there were some people on that board with an IQ higher than a centipede who answered intelligently. Those responses persuaded me that we gave Venice short shrift (“spend the night and experience the magic of Venice”), so I booked a couple of nights for us in Venice on this trip to give it another whirl.

    I had purchased first class tickets for our train journey. The tickets didn’t cost much more than second class, so “what the hell,” I thought. While on board, we checked out the dining car that sort of reminded us of North By Northwest, but fortunately the Italian police were not after us.

    Mary remembers us being served “great tea, strong coffee and little cookies.” I would have to assume most of that strong coffee was consumed by me.

    Upon arriving in Venice, we hopped on a vaporetto (yes, we paid) that would take us near our Venice lodging, the Pensione Accademia on Dorsoduro. Getting off at the Accademia stop, within seconds we began walking and were headed toward the hotel (so we thought). In what is common for this group, we missed the little alley we should have gone through, asked a very nice person for directions, and within about 5-10 minutes were safely at the hotel. I must say, it was love at first sight.

    Pensione Accademia was lovely, complete with beautiful, quiet gardens in front and back and canals on either side. Situated in front of the hotel was a nice outdoor breakfast area, as well. Our room had beautiful inlaid hardwood floors, beamed ceilings and a 4-poster bed.

    The guy at the desk gave us a lunch recommendation on the Fondamenta delle Zattere that runs along Canale della Giudecca. It was a Tuesday, and when we reached the restaurant we saw it was closed on Tuesdays. At this point Tracy and I noticed something different from our last trip; there was a noticeable lack of tourists over here (that’s why we became so enamored with Pensione La Calcina on our next two trips in the 200os).

    Instead, we decided on some pizza and beer for lunch at a place located on the canal. Once again the alcohol at lunch proved to be a bad idea, as we were all tired afterward. However, we pushed on to explore a little of Venezia.

    Needless to say, Venice made quite a different impression upon us on this trip, and the location of our hotel was definitely a plus. Across the Ponte dell’Accademia we walked, and in about ten minutes we were standing in the middle of Pigeon Poop Square (aka Piazza San Marco). Although I find the charm of pigeons flying in your face to be somewhat perplexing, the square wasn’t as crowded as our first trip, the weather was really nice, and suddenly I found myself getting into a Venice groove. I even posed for a (very quick) pigeon picture, and then carefully checked my shirt for any fecal evidence after the photo op.

    After perusing items that fortunately we didn’t buy at a few nearby shops, we visited the Basilica di San Marco. The cathedral had been spruced up in the past five years, so the mosaics stood out much better. I regretted that we didn’t spend a few extra lira to go up and see the horses (not real ones but bronze replicas of the original bronze ones). Come to think of it, I still haven’t done that…another something for my “to do” list.

    Exiting the cathedral, Kim and Mary ran into acquaintances of theirs from San Diego. Then, at some point, according to her notes, I began following Kim around the square “like Groucho Marx.” There are times I even frighten myself.

    It was unlike me, but I relented to the pressure of the group to relax back at the hotel. Kim and Mary had once again had trouble sleeping (Mary blamed it on the Chianti), and Tracy said a little rest never killed anyone.

    Back at the Pensione Accademia, we were served complimentary lemon ice tea and limoncello in the garden (it’s possible that might have been my first limoncello experience). We sat with some Brits (who we understood about as well as the Italians) and enjoyed a lovely afternoon. The Brits had been coming to Venice for the past 14 years and coincidentally were spending a fortnight on this trip.

    I also had my first-ever Bellini, which is a cocktail that incorporates Prosecco and white peach purée. Supposedly the founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice invented this drink sometime in the 1930s or 1940s. It was quite refreshing and complemented the limoncello rather well. I immediately asked the hotel if they had a spare liver.

    Having been overcome by the beer (and limoncello), Tracy took a short nap afterward. Don’t tell anyone, but I might have dozed off, too.

    On this night the two couples would split up for dinner. No sense hating each other less than a week into the trip! Departing the hotel, Tracy and I ran into Ron and Martha (even the Italian Tourist Witness Protection Program could not save them from our group’s clutches). We agreed to meet up the following day, and maybe do a gondola ride the next evening with the six of us.

    For some odd reason (except for the fact it had been recommended) I wanted to try Sardinian food, which was interesting since I knew absolutely nothing about Sardinian food. So, after a nice walk, we ended up at L’Incontro (Dorsoduro 3061, Rio Tera Canal). By the way, it is still around in 2013 and garners mostly positive reviews.

    My motto had always been (or at least since we stepped inside that restaurant), “When at a Sardinian restaurant, do what the Sardinians do,” so we left our meal up to the server. Results were decidedly mixed, but mostly positive

    We started with a meat platter, or as Tracy called it, “Fat with herbs.” I have no idea what it was, but one of the meats looked like bacon, and it was damned good. So was the salami and what we remember to be Parma ham (aka prosciutto).

    The second course for Tracy was a tortellini with gorgonzola and pesto and what Tracy classified was a “weird looking pasta with pomodoro and pecorino” for me. Tracy recalls that my pasta was better than her dish, although her dish sounds much better to me.

    I followed with a main course of thinly sliced beef with rosemary, while Tracy had a delectable pork chop in brandy sauce. We split a dessert of panna cotta with fresh strawberry sauce. Oh, I do remember that one. This restaurant was the start of my future panna cotta addiction.

    As we ate our panna cotta, we spied a nice couple at the next table struggling to get through their dinner due to a rambunctious, but cute, child. We found out (none of the four of us are shy about conversing with strangers…kids, don’t try that at home) that the couple was from Brazil and living in Philadelphia, where the husband attended school. Their little kid, 5-month-old Luca, was, to say the least, a handful.

    Most of my experience in life with little children has been to avoid them at all cost, but we were relaxed, and I sort of felt sorry that this nice couple could not enjoy a few minutes of dining. Soon, little Luca was sitting on “Uncle Maitai’s” lap, and they were able to eat in peace, and I was able to confirm that we would never, ever have children.

    Meanwhile, across town, Kim and Mary were having a dining adventure of a different sort. She said the restaurant offered “typical Venetian food.” Mary looked at the menu, and saw that they served “colt,” which she assumed was a type of fish (perhaps a seahorse).

    When the waitress stopped by their table, Mary asked if “colt was a fish.” The waitress did not speak English, so Mary pointed to the word and made a swimming motion with her hands. Damn, I wish I’d been there for that!

    The waitress laughed, shook her head back and forth and “neighed” while pawing in the air. Mary said, she didn’t feel like “horsing around” (I have a negative effect on people’s humor even when they’re not around me), so they decided on a couple of nice pasta dishes to start and fish for their main course.

    They then hoofed it back to the hotel and ran into us after about six furlongs. She related the near horse dining experience to us. I said she should have tried the horse. “It’s the perfect Mane course,” I told her. Well, that’s our pony tale, and we’re sticking to it.

    We all slept like babies (except probably for Luca and his parents) in the quiet comfort of the Pensione Accademia. This good night’s sleep would get us ready for a full day in Venice and a night where we would once again witness Dr. Mary spring into action…although on this night she would not be a doctor, but a dentist.

    Day 8 – Eggscellent Breakfast, This Place Blows (in a good way), Cemetery At Sea, One Of My All-Time Favorite Museums, Small Bites, Presenting Jackie-O, ‘O Sole Mio, Near Decapitation, Fish Feast and You Look A Little Down In The Mouth

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    Tracy just emailed me a correction (a small correction): It seems little Luca (Luka) was around 2 years old, not 5 months. Just another reason I never became a parent...I wouldn't even know how old my kid was.

    ((H))

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    Day 8 – Eggscellent Breakfast, This Place Blows (in a good way), Cemetery At Sea, One Of My All-Time Favorite Museums, Small Bites, Presenting Jackie-O, ‘O Sole Mio, Near Decapitation, Fish Feast and You Look A Little Down In The Mouth

    I had to reread my notes a dozen times today, because I did something on this Venice morning I never do on vacation…sleep in! By the time I meandered down to the lovely Pensione Accademia breakfast room a little after 9 a.m., Mary had already run into Ron and Martha and confirmed we were all going for a gondola ride that night.

    Kim, Mary and I had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, cereal, fresh kiwis, yogurt, orange juice and strong coffee with warm milk. There were also menu items if you wanted to order anything else. It was quite a spread. Tracy joined us later and after a delicious breakfast, it was time to go.

    It was an incredibly beautiful day, so we decided to grab a water taxi (booked through the hotel) and travel out to the island of Murano. We loved the water taxi. We got a quick suntan as our hair blew in the wind on the ride over (well my hair didn’t, since I had some weird short cut in those days).

    I was humming Heart of Glass by Blondie as we docked near the main square. Murano has been a glass-blowing mecca since the 10th century, or so our guide who greeted us upon arrival told us.

    We were directed toward the furnace (well, not inside of it) and watched as the glass blowers went about their delicate work. It was pretty fascinating. Our guide told us that the material used to make the glass is imported from France. Who knew?

    There were a number of generations working at this factory, and the factory is closed in July and August…too hot. Then it was time for our guide to take the suckers (excuse me, four savvy travelers) to the showroom filled with beautiful vases, stemware and other glass products.

    Even our group, known to overspend at the drop of a glass champagne bucket, realized that $800 for a set of stemware was a tad above our meager budget. Yep, a service for eight would have cost a cool $6,4000 (hard to remember back to the 2001 exchange rate, but I believe at the time $6,400 was about a hundred zillion lira).

    Our guide then made the observation that only East Coast people and people from California buy this stuff. “Tourists from the U.S. Midwest never buy much,” he said. We then told him we were from Kansas (hey, we flew over it on the way to Italy), so that pretty much ended his hard-sell spiel.

    The group didn’t get out for free, however, as we did splurge for a couple of bracelets and a necklace. We didn’t want to give Kansas too bad a name.

    Not wanting to splurge for another water taxi, we hopped on the Vap and took it back to Venice. We looked out onto what looked like an island oasis, and we were told that it was actually a cemetery called Isola di San Michele, which was once a prison.

    Back in Venice, we walked the back alleys and streets, and got lost a few times until we reached Piazza San Marco. Tracy and Mary were in the mood to buy things (I think that Murano salesman had done some subliminal selling), so they did a little shopping before it was on to our next destination, which turned out to be the first of three visits we have made to this museum in the past 12 years.

    The Palazzo Ducale (Doges Palace) was home to the Doge Of Venice, or the Big Pecorino. The audio guide at this museum was one of the best (and still is), and our visit lasted about two hours. We finally hit the Bridge of Sighs, where I believe I said for the first time, “Sighs Matters.” Kim, Mary and Tracy have heard that joke now on three trips, so I believe I will have to let it rest in peace.

    After our Doges Palace tour, the two couples split up and had a late lunch. Tracy and I found a wine bar (yes, how shocking) and had some cicchetti, local appetizers found all over Venice and now prevalent as “small bites” at dozens of Los Angeles area restaurants.

    We munched on crostinis topped with crab, cream cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs and asparagus, whipped cheese and almonds. Crab was the winner. Some vino rosso washed down those small bites perfectly.

    Tracy and I detoured to another spot on the canal and had a glass of Prosecco soaking in the late afternoon sun as we looked out on this beautiful sight. Tracy had her big sunglasses on, and with the sun beating down on us on a perfect Venice afternoon, it inspired me to call her “Jackie O” as she raised her glass of Prosecco.

    I was ready for a nap, but Tracy realized we had to hurry back to the hotel for our next adventure.

    We scurried back to the Pensione Accademia, where we met up with Ron, Martha, Kim and Mary in the lobby. It was time to head over to San Giglio, where the six of us would share a gondola on the Gondola Concerto Tour. Kim and Mary brought a bottle of Prosecco, Tracy and I a bottle of vino rosso, while Ron and Martha had bought some delicious cookies to take aboard. We were happy to share all of this with our gondolier, Marco (lots of Marcos over here), and he was happy to partake.

    There were about a dozen or so gondolas zigzagging across the canals on this 45-minute excursion, and the gondoliers took turns showing off their singing skills. Tragedy was narrowly averted when Marco, singing loudly while not paying close attention (hmm, could it have been the vino), headed for a bridge that had little clearance for his noggin. Fortunately Marco knew what the word “duck” meant when we said it, or he might have had to retrieve his head and run to a spot where they would build an expensive cathedral.

    The whole tour was a blast! People in the other gondolas were shocked that we had brought wine on board, and told us later they were mad they hadn’t thought of it. Ours was definitely the most fun of the gondolas.

    Afterward, the six of us headed for dinner and wound up at Cantinone Storico located fairly near the Ponte dell’Accademia. Once again, we placed ourselves in the waiter’s hands.

    Although not really a fish aficionado, I started with the antipasto misti, which consisted of a platter of fresh scampi, raw sliced ahi tuna, anchovies and onions in lemon, all served with a delicious grilled toast.

    Tracy opted for the shrimp with lettuce and lemon olive oil. Ron and Martha shared fresh asparagus and followed that up with scampi and artichoke risotto and some grilled salmon.

    Our first course was spaghetti with spicy pomodoro and shellfish sauce. The heat of the dish was cooled of some by some vino bianco.

    Kim and Mary began with the shrimp/lettuce combo and spaghetti accompanied by garlic and olive oil. Then Kim dined on the grilled salmon and Mary went the sea bass route. Damn, we ate a lot here!

    For dessert, we all had a dish that consisted of gelato, limoncello and grappa. It was spectacular. Oh, and during dinner the waiter would just bring some extra things for us to try, including free glasses of Prosecco.

    Although we had downed a substantial amount of wine and Prosecco on this evening, Dr. Mary still was on call, although I would have not wanted her to operate heavy machinery. In real life, Mary was a dental hygienist, and she noticed our headwaiter rubbing constantly at his jaw. Not believing he was posing as Rodin’s The Thinker, his actions were enough for this modern day Clara Barton to spring immediately into action.

    Sure enough, the waiter admitted he was suffering from a terrible toothache. Kim was afraid Mary might extract the tooth right there in the restaurant, but fortunately she just pulled some drugs from her medical bag (aka purse) and told him what to purchase at the pharmacy the following day. It all added up to quite a night.

    This was the trip when we all fell in love with Venice. “Disneyland on speed” was now but a distant memory. We knew we would return (and we have…twice…in 2005 and 2008).

    Weighing about 25 pounds more than when we had woken up about 13 hours before, the four of us bade farewell to Ron and Martha who were staying on in Venice. Our group had to wake up early the next day, because it was back on the train to Florence, where we would pick up our rental car, frightening Italian citizens from the Tuscan and Umbrian countryside all the way down to the Amalfi Coast for the better part of the following week.

    Next: Day 9 – Did I Run Over That Nun, Charming Chianti Countryside, Time To Greve, Mona Lisa’s Home Winery, Afternoon On The Campo, You’ll Walk Those 500+ Stairs In 2005, Hotel Fantastico and “Don’t Worry We’re Not Going To Kill You!”

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    Unbelievably, I have been busy working (I know, very unlike me, but we have to pay for these trips). I'll get back to it soon, because Tracy and Mary have been on me, too. Tuscany here we come. Thanks.

    By the way sarge, you are my hero. Hope you're having a great time. Enjoy your journey!!!

    ((H))

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