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Trip Report An Afternoon in Amsterdam, an Overnight in Assisi, and a Mad Dash Through Rome: Photos with Report to Come

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Hi Fodorites and good evening to you lurkers,

I went to Rome and Assisi (planned) and got to spend few hours in Amsterdam (unplanned; thanks but no thanks Alitalia), Dec. 26-Jan 4.

It was a trip of soaring highs, plummeting lows, laughter and tears (thanks, Mom), some museums I'd never visited, a gazillion churches, a few rather unsettling creches, and of course lots of food. As with all my vacations, I am left with this conclusion: too short! I want to go back. Help me. Anybody. help...I'm the one in the back with the candy bars and the box of wine.

I will start a quickie trip report this weekend, but for now here are some photos. I am just okay as a photographer, but always enjoy viewing the pics of other posters, so I thought I'd share.

http://www.pbase.com/leelygoes/dec_2008jan_2009

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    I enjoyed your pictures. We were in Amsterdam in October, and I'm going to Rome in March. How far is Assisi from Rome, and how close to Orvieto, if you happen to know.
    I'm into photography, appreciate the nice framing and angles you did. Thanks, and more please!

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    Challiman,
    I've been to Schipol many times but had never made it into the city, despite one reallllly long layover on the way to Kilimanjaro. So I was almost glad to be delayed this time.

    And Amsterdam was beautiful! Especially the hipster men.

    We had wanted to visit Orvieto rather than Assisi this trip, primarily because I have never been there, and also my mother prefers white wine. Turns out there's a gigantor jazz fest late December-early Jan in Orvieto--no room at the inn. So I don't know.

    From Rome to Assisi we took the train and it's about 2 hours. There's lots to see in Assisi IMO. Some folks don't care for it, but the frescoes and the basilica are, to me, worth the tourist shops. Plus Umbrian food, especially in winter, is fantastic. We had a great taxi driver on our way out of the city this time, and he decided we had time to see (finally! finally!) Santa Maria degli Angeli in the lower town. On New Year's Day, which is when we visited, between masses, it was amazing.

    By the way, I've been to Rome late Feb-early March in the past and we had chilly but gloriously sunny weather. If you get the same, you are in for a treat! Although I'll take Rome and its treasures any time of the year...

    maybe not July or August.

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    I enjoyed looking at your photos. I've been to Rome (during Easter), and Amsterdam several times (one of my favorite cities), and hopefully someday will get to Assisi. I look forward to reading your report.

    Robyn :)>-

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    Leely2, we'll be in Rome March 19-26, so our time is pretty tight. We're hoping for decent weather, but we'll take whatever, always prepared. This is a trip with long-time girlfriends, we go every year in March on some European trip. One year in Vienna it hovered around mid twenties and snowed. I live in Indiana, so I was fine but the other women were from So California and they had to really scurry to find coats, hats, gloves and shoes.
    Thanks for the information and I'll be following along.

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    Thanks for the compliments!

    I'll try to break this up so people can skim and find what is useful to them. I do a lot of writing for work, so unfortunately the joy of composing trip reports has been sucked out of me. I especially hate self-editing because I'm a lazy jerk. However, I know I use these reports quite a bit when planning my trips. For that reason, I'll try to cover the basics and the weird stuff.

    Background:

    About a year and a half ago I made a career change--much for the better. The downside is that I now have very little vacation time. So while I am happier in general, I haven’t been able to travel nearly as much as I have in the past, making do with long weekends here and there rather than full-fledged trips.

    By last summer I was primed, panting and ready to get away. When I saw flights to Rome from SFO on KLM during the holiday season for under $800 all in, I jumped, knowing that I wouldn’t have to take that many days off work because several were office holidays. Yes, it’s come to that kind of plotting for me.

    I invited my mother, who had been making noise about returning to Rome for several years. She had only been once in the past for a few short days. We asked two good friends, also a mother and daughter, to join us.

    I did pretty much all the planning (no surprise, I’m bossy and controlling). It’s a lot harder to do when you have a job that drains you mentally day after day. I started to miss my old do-the-work-with-eyes-closed-and-Fodor’s-on job.

    Accommodations:

    We rented the Bramante Penthouse from Rental in Rome.

    http://www.rentalinrome.com/bramante/bramante.htm

    It is definitely old and has that um, what have we rented vibe as you go up the stairs. Vicolo della Volpe is tiny and atmospheric in a junky-old-alley kind of way. If you haven’t been to Rome before and are not accustomed to the ambience of some of the tinier little alleys, you may not care for this. I’ve been there, done that and so wasn’t surprised. It may have given my mom pause at first until she got used to it. She is probably the hardest to please out of the group, or perhaps I just worry about her opinion the most (likely).

    The apartment itself is true to the photos, although some of the furniture has been updated; the sofas in the living room are red now and the seating in the music room is white, for example. Tatty but classy and old as dirt, with nice antique pieces of furniture, lots of books, umbrellas, crockery, wine glasses, maps, etc. There’s pretty much everything you need there. Warning to real cooks: the knives are dull.

    We loved it but it is definitely not for everyone. The stairs from the dining room and kitchen to the first floor with bedrooms, sitting rooms and baths are a little tricky, especially that first step. We didn’t have problems; however I wouldn’t bring young children to stay here.

    I chose it because of the terraces, central location, and because I thought this group might want space to be alone and away from each other occasionally. It was almost too big. We scarcely used the sitting room and mostly hung out upstairs in the dining room, which has a sofa and a number of comfortable chairs, as well as the dining table, tv, etc. And the views from upstairs make you feel as if you're truly in Rome. As you make your coffee in the kitchen you are surrounded by rooftops, some rather decrepit; there's no way you could think you were anywhere else.

    By the way, they are putting in an elevator. It’s there but not yet closed off and running. But we saw it. I have no idea how long it will be before it’s operating.

    I had read mixed reviews of Rental in Rome here, but we had a positive experience with them. Nothing was wrong and everything went as planned. The owners’ representative, not a Rental in Rome employee, was the person we dealt with in the city, and she in particular was delightful. We had fun chatting with her when we checked in and checked out.

    Hotel Il Palazzo, Assisi

    We planned, rather at the last minute, an overnight in Assisi for New Year’s Eve (my birthday). Guess what? Assisi is booming during the holidays! All the usual suspect hotels were fully booked. I dug deep until I found rooms via hotels.com at Il Palazzo, which I didn’t know anything about. We paid 280 USD for two standard twins.

    It’s a great little place, elegant and calm. My only caveat is that sometimes we could hear doors opening and shutting occasionally, so if you are very, very noise sensitive this might not be the hotel for you. I would definitely stay there again and try to get a superior room.

    My tripadvisor report is here, and I have photos in my pbase gallery as well, link above.

    http://tinyurl.com/96sbc6
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/96sbc6

    Next up: restos, rain and random perambulations

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    Some restaurant notes

    I'll start with my longest restaurant "review." Don't worry, the others will be far more brief.

    I do a good amount of restaurant research ahead of time but don’t make many—if any--reservations before leaving. I don’t like to commit that far in advance. As much as I'd like to eat and eat and eat on my holidays, I find sometimes I do so much sightseeing that I just want to grab a quick bite at a pizza joint nearby or eat bread and cheese in the apartment.

    However, this trip I made one reservation before leaving: Antico Arco for the Monday evening after we arrived. I figured by then even my mom would have recovered from jetlag and want to go somewhere good.

    Wrong. Mom got sick and spent most of the week in the apartment. Poor lady. She was able to go out a bit most days and see some sights, but generally in the evenings she stuck close to home and ate a lot of soup.

    Antico Arco
    http://www.anticoarco.it/

    J, K and I set off in a taxi for Antico Arco about 15 minutes before our 9pm reservation. Because Mom wasn’t there and we knew it was something she’d never consent to, we decided to try the tasting menu (70E).

    I can’t remember the wine we chose, but it was moderately priced and good, married well with most of the courses and if it didn’t, we didn’t care because we liked it so much. Maybe a red from the Piedmont?

    There was an amuse of some sort of cheese and radicchio, a little fried thing over a very thin mozzarella sauce. Good, good, good.

    Next up was a papery puff pastry (perhaps someone can help me out here) stuffed with mozzarella, roe, mullet and maybe a little sun dried tomato; there was something more piquant cutting the richness. J and I liked it, but K wasn’t so thrilled; she said hers had a lot of roe in it and was too fishy.

    Then they brought plastic sacks which were cut open upon service at the table. Inside: calamari and beans, I cannot recall the herb, but this was absolutely delicious and we all loved it, even those of us who normally don’t enjoy squiddy dishes. Each of us ate every bite, every tentacle, every drop of bean-y sauce.

    Okay, then the first pasta. This was bucatini, I think, with a saffron sauce and mullet. Incredible. I could have eaten pounds of it.

    Second pasta. Short macaroni all’amatriciana. I order pasta all’amatriciana pretty much everywhere I go in Rome, every time I go to Rome. To me it’s a perfect dish. I make it at home and it’s never as good. This was a great rendition, quite al dente getting softer as we dug in. High-quality guanciale and plenty of it. Great balance of flavors.

    So we all loved both of the pasta courses, no question, and very hard to pick a favorite.

    The second, or in this case the fifth, was pork tenderloin, little tender rounds faintly pink held together by skewers made of pork cracklings, or as we say out west, chicharrones. Wow. Also a light drizzle on the plate of faintly sweet sauce which the restauant called sweet-and-sour, but I couldn’t taste the sour. Very good; a light hand was used. Also a soft, grilled green onion that married well with the pork and the sauce. And a mini herb soufflé; we thought it was rosemary but now I’m not sure because I know at some point we changed our minds. And I’ve forgotten. I didn't eat all my soufflé but J and K did. We all finished the pork. :)

    Then a pre-dessert of something. I cannot remember but it was delicious and we managed to eat it all.

    For dessert I chose some kind of soft-centered vanilla cake with a strawberry sauce, very good and I’m not a big dessert person. J went with a mango sorbetto. And K chose the trio of chocolate mousses--dark, milk and white--served between cookies.

    Incredibly, I think J and I followed all this with grappa! And they probably served chocolates and some sort of petit fours and we ate those, too. Oink.

    So, in short we enjoyed this meal. We ended up going back to Antico Arco later in the week. I suspect they segregate the foreigners. Both times we were seated in a small room off the main dining room. There were Italians in that room as well, but also a table of Americans, some Germans and a French-speaking party. However, if this is Siberia at Antico Arco, you wouldn’t know it from the service, which was extremely professional and gracious. When young, attractive people compliment me on what I’m wearing and my butchery of the Italian language, I cannot help but like them. We had the same server and busser both visits, a cute young woman and a cute young man.

    Yes, I liked it! Was it the most Roman or even Italian restaurant we visited? No, but it’s a very good place, serving very good food in a calm, pretty and relaxed environment. Not inexpensive by any stretch of the imagination, but again we decided to splurge.

    Aside: Has anyone noticed how many of the young people in Rome have small tattoos on the back of their necks? I’m going to ask my Italian tutor, who is rather hip, about that. She'll probably look at me like I'm crazy. Again.

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    Restaurant notes, cont'd.

    Cul de Sac
    http://web.tiscali.it/culdesac/

    Wine bar with convenient location near Piazza Navona. Good, busy, crowded. Lasagna, olives, some kind of red lentil dish, onion soup and a side of eggplant Calabrese were the standouts as was the wine, of course. We all ordered a couple of glasses over the course of lunch (yep, lunch)—all were great.

    Go inside and they’ll give you a number. Then you wait.

    Because it’s a wine bar they have extended hours, so if you need a late lunch or an early dinner it’s a good option.

    Ristorante Montevecchio

    http://tinyurl.com/8s82wq
    http://preview.tinyurl.com/8s82wq
    Sorry, cannot find a website for this restaurant.

    We ate here twice, the first time because it was near the apartment and open on Sunday, the second because everyone was tired, wanted to eat early and they had an open table (well, just barely; they remembered us from the previous visit and set up a makeshift table).

    The food is quite good--although not great--but it's a nice little place with a small menu and a very small dining room.

    On both visits, almost every single diner was either American or English. Despite this and the location right in the tourist thick and throng, you can tell they're not just sending anything out of the kitchen. They care about what they serve and how they present it.

    I had a puff pastry stuffed with vegetables and abbacchio scottadito on the first visit. K had ricotta and spinach ravioli in a tomato sauce followed by beef filet in a red wine and peppercorn sauce. We split a chocolate and mint dessert. Had two bottles of wine and two liters of mineral water. Bill was 107E for the two of us.

    Second visit I think I had a raw artichoke salad and bucatini all’amatriciana, which I enjoyed of course because I almost always do. K had the veg puff pastry and lamb chops, which she had coveted on our earlier visit. J had a pasta and a veal chop (she thought it was too big…hmm). We all enjoyed our meals.

    We shared one dessert and were virtual teetotalers with only one bottle of wine and two bottles of water. Bill was around 137E.

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    Oh, there was a cheese course at Antico Arco as well. Just because I forgot doesn't mean it wasn't good, especially the fig compote that was served.

    Restaurant notes, cont'd.

    Checchino dal 1887

    http://www.checchino-dal-1887.com/

    This was the other true standout. In fact, I might say I preferred this to Antico Arco. Quite different, but everything was top-quality.

    Very long narrative aside:
    First off, because I don’t really speak Italian I made a reservation for what I thought was Friday night. I was calling on a mobile in the street while trying to find San Crispino. I said we would like a table either for Friday or Saturday at 8pm—early on account of Mom. Prego! No problem, etc., etc.

    As we were getting ready to leave the apartment on Friday evening, I asked K to check our notes for the address. She looked in one of our books and said, “Are you sure you made the reservation for tonight? It says here they’re closed through the 2nd of January.”

    I became uneasy. When we were walking by Colline Emiliane, we saw a sign saying they were closed for the holidays, either through January 3rd or until January 3rd, we couldn’t really tell which. So seeds of doubt—not to mention confusion--had already been planted. I had asked for a reservation for either Friday or Saturday. WT…?

    Adding to my sense of stress was the fact that my mom was finally feeling well enough to go out to dinner and this was going to be her “big night out” at a traditional Roman restaurant.

    Regardless, that evening the four of us trundled into a taxi and headed on up to Testaccio. When we arrived about 7:50, it was completely dark, shut up, empty. J hopped out of the cab to peer in. “They are definitely closed,” she said.

    With that sinking feeling of personal failure, I asked our taxi driver to take us back to the apartment. My mom, J and K were all saying, “Well, how were you to know?” etc., etc. And I was saying, “I must have made the reservation for Saturday and got mixed up.”

    While in the cab, I managed to think for a sec and get my mom’s phone to call Antico Arco. Could they seat us at 9pm? Certainly, Signora. Safe!

    And that’s the story of how we ate at Antico Arco twice (not that we wouldn’t have, anyway).

    Next night, Checchino Dal 1887.

    We arrive right at 8 by taxi. I’m wondering do we or don’t we have a reservation for tonight? But am going full steam ahead as if we do. The restaurant is pitch black inside again, door locked, no staff to be seen. But this time outside people are milling around, obviously waiting for the restaurant to open. I know right then what happened. Still, proceed as if normal. My name, our reservation. Oh but no, we were expecting you last night. He shows me in the reservation book where my name had been for the previous evening, never crossed off like all the others were. Me: Why oh why did I doubt myself? I had it right the first time!

    After a lot of looking at the tables, the reservation book, the layout, of the restaurant the darling man said he could seat us but only if we would be out by 9:30. 9:30? Only an hour and a half? No problem, we’re Americans!

    And it was delicious…

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    I'm really enjoying your report, Leely, and loved your pictures!

    I'm noting all this for when I return someday. I was very unadventurous on my trip and didn't go to any restaurants (I hate eating alone).

    Sorry to hear about your mom getting sick. That's always tough. A couple of years ago, I went on a trip with my parents and sister- we were in Germany, Bern, Florence, and London. Both my mom and dad got violently ill with a terrible stomach flu, they were vomiting for days. Good times.

    More, please! (and I have't forgotten about doing my report, I keep gettin distracted is all...reading your report is putting me back in the Rome mood, though. Sigh. I wish I were still there)

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    Apres,
    Thanks for reading. I've been taking a little time off the celebrate change but will get cracking on this report, including some notes about what we actually did rather than what we ate while there.

    I've never dined alone in Italy but have done so in France and it doesn't usually bother me. In fact, I kind of like it and find the only bummer is I cannot really justify drinking an entire bottle of wine so I have to stick to by-the-glass offerings.

    I'm looking forward to your impressions of the Scavi tour. You went, right?

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    Hi Leely,

    I guess what I don't like about eating alone is I get bored. If I'm on my own, I eat for fuel but my mind's usually on other things. There's nothing I love more than having an excellent meal with good company, though.

    I did do the Scavi tour and I really enjoyed it. I felt a little bit like Indiana Jones. The guide on my tour was a very nice guy, a history academic from Romania. Did you do the Scavi Tour on this trip, or on a past trip?

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    Apres,
    I love to eavesdrop and then build elaborate narratives in my head based on what I've heard--even better if it's in a language I don't understand--so dining alone is a lot of fun for me. At times.

    Scavi was new to me. So were Palazzo Barberini and Galleria Doria Pamphilj. Rome has so much to offer. Even to those who don't care for the Baroque (not that I'm that idiosyncratic).

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    End of dining notes!

    The best food at Checchino, according to those of us who do not really enjoy 4th quarter meat, was carciofi alla Romana, tonnarelli with some kind of braised meat, perhaps oxtail, and lamb alla cacciatora, which had a nice kick.

    We all really enjoyed this meal and wished that we had been able to linger, have a cheese course, etc. I wouldn't hesitate to go back. Even with the rush, the service was great, the food great, wine was great. The whole deal. We didn't have time for dessert so we had our taxi drop us at San Crispino where had I begun the series of errors that led to our short meal.

    Gelato note: This trip I decided my favorite gelato is the honey from San Crispino. But I'm open to more recommendations.

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    Report, cont.

    Random thoughts
    Other than some two- and three-hour meals, most of my time in Rome did feel like a mad dash. I hadn't been in three years, when my sister and I went during her first trimester. So I was really trying to cram my days and nights with as much Rome as I could.

    I'm reading Apres_Londee's report while I'm writing my own and I can't help but notice how differently we experienced this city. Perhaps solo travel, which I have done in France but never in Italy, leads to a more relaxed pace. Or just feeling relaxed.

    I know that my mother being sick for most of the trip was not relaxing (for her, either!). She did wake up with conjunctivitis one day and I marched down to the farmacia and said in Italian, "My mother, she has the sickness of the eyes." At which point Mom lifted up her sunglasses for a visual effect.

    But it's great that you can get antibiotic drops OTC in Italy. Her eyes were better in 36 hours.

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    Transportation, tickets, etc.

    Air travel was fine except for the one leg cancelled by Alitalia. Otherwise, all the other legs were operated by KLM. I fly KLM fairly frequently for reasons mysterious even to myself and think they're pretty good. Last time I was in Rome I flew American. What a fright that was!

    My traveling companions are 25% accustomed to flying business or above and complained quite a bit about our flights (cough Mom cough). However, for those of us who normally fly cattle class, KLM is great. Got to see the new Brideshead and Pineapple Express, which I thought was hilarious. Highlarious, I suppose.

    And although the Alitalia leg from Schipol to Rome was nonexistent, this did afford me the opportunity to head into Amsterdam for a nice walk in the Canal District, a salad and some wine. It was lovely and I'm dying to go back for a real visit.

    It is as easy and as quick (and as worthwhile!) as everyone on Fodor's says to take the train from Schipol to Centraal Station. No problems whatsoever although we had to hunt for a machine that would take our CCs to buy the tix.

    Rome Cabs ( romecabs.com ) did our airport transfers, 55E for 4 people with a lot of luggage. I had seen them recommended here and couldn't recall which service I'd used in the past. Now I'm a Rome Cabs convert.

    I had made my reservation via email and confirmed with the wrong date--oops. When at AMS I realized that we were going to arrive over in Rome two hours late, I called Rome Cabs to let them know. It was another confusing conversation but they were at the airport when we finally got to Rome.

    This impressed me, as I didn't realize until a few days later that I had been giving them the wrong date. Somehow they figured that out.

    The drivers were great, especially the guy who took us back to the airport. He was a font of information, very charming and funny. I will definitely book with them again.

    Train tickets to Assisi
    We bought these at a travel agency we happened to walk by after our Scavi tour. I've done this before; it gives me a little flexibility. Even a control freak enjoys that every once in a while.

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    Borghese Gallery and the Scavi tour were the only things I booked from home other than hotels.

    I had made reservations for the Scavi tour below St Peter's for the Monday after our arrival and the Borghese Gallery for the following Friday. For us, this was just the right amount of pre-planning. My cold/flu-d out mom was able to rally for both those and enjoyed them immensely.

    I have been to the Borghese a few times before. Those who have visited know it is sublime. Those who haven't should go and give it a whirl, especially if you like sculpture. I got all misty-eyed while looking at Bernini's Apollo and Daphne--yes, again. I just can't believe it. I cannot.

    The museum was a bit of a madhouse this trip, partly because it was raining, so no one waited outside in the park. Instead, everyone crammed into every available inch of the entry on the ground floor. Very personal. But because they limit the number of people in the gallery at any given time and time the entrances, once we were actually in I wasn't too freaked.

    For those who haven't been, reservations are mandatory.

    As an audioguide aficionada, I give the Borghese's ten enthusiastic thumbs up. However, for those who are actually slogging through this report, my audioguide reviews figure somewhere around the same reliability level as my amatriciana reviews. I always love an audioguide. Especially in Italy.

    Warning: out of 4 audioguides rented, one was a dud.

    I'll hit this in the highlights, but we walked up to Palazzo Barberini and visited the musuem there before going to the Borghese. For us this was manageable and not too museum-y. Of course, my mom did just taxi up and meet us at the Borghese. Everyone has limits.

    Borghese:
    http://www.galleriaborghese.it/borghese/en/edefault.htm



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    Scavi tour
    I did everything as instructed-both on the Vatican website and on Fodor's ;) --and felt pleased to get four tickets to the excavations below Saint Peter's for the Monday after we arrived in Rome. This is something I hadn't done before and had read about eagerly. Perfect.

    The whole thing made me nervous: the will-we-or-won't-we aspect to getting a reservation, the sending my CC to "the Vatican" (yeah right), the Swiss Guards, etc. And then to top it all off I read several disappointed reviews of the experience.

    Not to mention my notoriously difficult to please mother. Would she be pissed at me for signing her up for something like this? And she a very, very lapsed Protestant?

    We arrived to the left of St. Peter's square as instructed (and memorized). We were early because I was so anxious about being late. Of course no problems. Swiss Guards were almost Oscar-Wilde-languid about the whole thing, although perhaps my anxiety is coloring my perceptions. Just a little.

    Our guide was a young priest from San Diego. When he heard we were from California his face lit up. He misses home. I spend the first half of the tour worrying about him, about how difficult it must be to go and live in Rome for a few years, as a priest, at the Vatican, all the while thinking longingly of taco trucks and the surf at La Jolla and Mom and Dad and the Del...

    I won't explain the tour. I just want to say that in in spite of all my worries--about my mom, the priest, the "worth" and advisability of arranging all this ahead of time, I hate to commit, yadda yadda--the longer we were under ground, the more I got sucked into the whole story of the poor man's grave, locating St. Peter's bones. I really found the experience amazing. And we all teared up at the culmination. None of us are Catholic or even religious. It was just so fascinating, so riveting, all that man can and cannot do, will and will not do--for the love of god. I have similar hyperbolic and deeply hokey sentiments about Rome in general.

    But I'll spare everyone the gory details.


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    Hi Leely,

    I'm glad everyone enjoyed the Scavi Tour. I was smiling while reading your lead-up, because I was really nervous beforehand too! (almost like a soup nazi thing- I was worried I was going screw it up somehow)

    It's interesting how different the various Scavi tours sound, depending on the guide. The man who the led my tour was an academic, not a priest, so the emphasis was on history and architecture rather than the story of St Peter. In fact I don't remember any discussion about St Peter at all, other than the archaelogical evidence that indicates the remains may belong to him.

    I would certainly like to take the Scavi Tour again someday, it would be interesting to hear a different perspective.

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    Apres, all the Scavi guides I saw the day I was there were priests. Or anyway they were dressed as priests.

    Hmm...

    Things we saw and did, cont'd.
    Our first evening was spent poking around Roma after dark, which I've done many times and hope to do again and again. I'm a big fan of illuminated fountains. We had a just-okay dinner at some trattoria on via delle Copelle above the Pantheon.

    The carousel in Piazza Navona was a surprise. La Befana, as discussed on other threads currently, was not. For some reason I had read about the Christmas witch before, how slowly Santa Claus is creeping into the culture, etc. So I really wanted to buy a La Befana ornament or something for my little niece who is just three, but I never found one didn't think would scare her. Next year.

    The following day was Sunday, designated as a no-pressure day in my antic, frantic Fodorized brain. We shopped, we lunched and we visited churches. Many, many churches.

    My church highlights this trip:
    Santa Maria del Popolo -- Wow, I loved it. I had somehow never made it to this one before but had always wanted to see the Caravaggios. I think my mind hadn't imagined the rest of the church, somehow not taking in the Pinturicchio frescoes which I (a fresco-lover) found magnificent. The Chigi chapel was closed for restoration or something, unfortunately.

    This church was extra-extra-great because we tromped, lost, wet, muddy and sort of cold, through the Borghese Gardens in the dark, in the rain, to reach it. We did happen upon some interesting (in many sense of the word) parts of the Gardens during this walk. Throughout this journey we kept remarking to each other, "Thank God we sent your mother home in a taxi!" Later, when we told her where we had been and she saw the state of us, she said the same.

    We had a map--or two--but they didn't seem to be working.

    For our troubles we were rewarded with a spectacular view of a wet, glistening, illuminated Rome from the Pinicio hill and gardens.

    Down the many stairs to an energized, holiday-atmosphere Piazza del Popolo: Rome in full throttle.

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    La Befana is scary looking! I know now she's supposed to be smiling in a friendly sort of way, but to me the expression on her face is like the witch from Hansel and Gretel- like she's about to eat you!

    I was so sorry I missed Santa Maria del Popolo. Can't wait to hear about the Piazza del Popolo- is that where they have the huge nativity displays?

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    I think there was a big nativity display in Piazza del Popolo but we didn't walk over; and the mother of all nativity displays we saw was the one in front of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi--verything else pales in comparison, although we saw many beautiful/interesting/unusual creches.

    After viewing Santa Maria del Popolo, we wandeed down via di Ripetta on the way home. Stopped at Enoteca Buccone and picked up a few bottles of wine for the apartment. Saw the Ara Pacis -- again only from the outside, so another reason to return.

    Other churches:
    San Pietro in Vincoli
    This was crowded--many people there to see Michelangelo's Moses and the chains. After not seeing this church a number of times, I was glad to finally arrive when it was open with no mass in session.

    San Clemente
    Great! Go. 12th century mosaics, 11th century frescoes, catacombs, a Temple of Mithras and more. Well worth a stop.

    We visited San Clemente at the end of a long day of walking and sightseeing, after going to San Pietro in Vincoli and still managed to stay for nearly two hours. But I'm a glutton for churches.

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    Sights, sites and sits, cont'd.

    Because this was not my first--or my second or my third--trip to Rome, I tried to balance revisiting places I have been that my traveling companions had not with new sights. I'll admit this report, such as it is, focuses on those things new to me. For that reason, it may be less helpful for the first-time visitor.

    Although I stand by my restaurant reviews...

    I really enjoyed Palazzo Barberini, where everyone lies down on the benches to look at the ceiling frescoes. They also have some pretty nice paintings on the walls. Caravaggio's Giuditta che taglia la testa a Oloferne is rather heady...

    For convenience we had a quick lunch in the tea room on the first floor. Nothing special, but easy and relaxing--once the wine was flowing.

    http://www.galleriaborghese.it/barberini/it/default.htm

    Also new to me was Galleria Doria Pamphilj. We went on our way to Palazzo Venezia and never made it into the museum at Venezia. Of course I got the audioguide. Excellent per usual.
    http://www.doriapamphilj.it/home.asp

    MORE CHURCHES
    For the dedicated, we rounded out our church visiting with the following.*

    GESU, on Piazza del Gesu, the first Jesuit church built in Rome, ultra Baroque and really quite fantastic. Enjoy the ceiling; you can see it better via the mirror they've kindly set up.

    Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, pretty and the elephant in the piazza is not to be missed. This is easily combined with a visit to the PANTHEON, which has alot to offer (understatement--still takes my breath away afer all these visits and all those people trundling through)

    For not any real reason other than that it was there, something della Pigna right near sopra Minerva, next to the cortile della Pigna.

    Another day, on the way to the Campidoglio and the Jewish Ghetto, Santa Maria di Campitelli.

    San Giralamo della Carita on via di Monserrato, street of Pierluigi where we wanted to eat and/or maybe rent an apartment (http://www.rentalinrome.com/monserrato/monserrato.htm ) .

    SANTA MARIA DELLA PACE next door to our apartment and home to the Bramante chiostro. There is also a museum. Despite my best intentions, I never made it inside. My mother did. Her review: "Nice but very small. Uncrowded." They were having a material culture exhibit about the life of Caesar when she went.

    Also, the cafe there has free wireless. You don't have to pay for admission to the museum to go to the cafe. I wish I had known that the first few days of my trip.

    Santa Maria della Anima Also right near our apartment, so why not?

    SAN SALVATORE IN LAURO which we enjoyed, especially because the museum attached (to the left of the church) was having an exhibit with painting from the Hermitage about the Grand Tour--primarily scenes of Italy imagined by the rest of Europe.

    *N.b. This list is non-comprehensive because we basically just poked into any church that looked interesting, had a nice creche, etc. As long as a sevice wasn't in progress, in we went. I know I'm forgetting some, but in Rome...well, there are certainly many churches.

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    Some family drama
    Well, I've been skirting around this because it was the source of happiness and disappointment.

    My mom had been to Venice, Rome and Florence before. She had never been to a hill town. So my friend K, her mom J and I thought it would be nice to do an overnight during our trip, especially because my mom, for whatever reasons, had been saying "This will probably be my last trip to Europe."

    [If you think I got all involved in trying to make this the "perfect" trip for Mom, well, you're right on.]

    I had asked my mother if she would prefer Orvieto or Assisi, and she chose Assisi.

    December 31, my birthday and the morning we were to leave for Assisi, Mom, who was on Day 2 of pink-eye and Day 3 of bad cold/virus, told me she wasn't going to go. She said, quite reasonably, "If I were to go, I'd just take the train, get tired, spend most of the time in the hotel, train back and still be tired. I would rather rest here and possibly feel better for the last few days of our time in Rome."

    This made perfect sense but I still got a little teary-eyed and whimpery as I said, "But I wanted you to see a hill town ..." Then I said I wasn't going to go. K said she wasn't going to go. J looked perplexed. Mom was too exhausted to engage but did say, "Go. I'm fine. I'll be fine."

    Mom spent New Year's Eve on the terrace and I was so glad I had found an apartment with a terrace.

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    Assisi
    As mentioned above, I had checked the trenitalia.it site for the schedule and then we just popped into a travel agency while in Rome to get the tickets, no big deal. I think it was around 72 Euros for four r/t 2nd class tix, Termini-Assisi.

    We took a taxi from the apartment to the train station. There is a taxi stand at the end of via dei Coronari, where it hits Zanardelli, and we made use of it quite a bit during our stay in Rome.

    The train takes just under two hours and several run each day. The train station is in the lower town of Assisi. This was my second visit and both times I walked out of the train station and directly into a cab. I cannot remember how much this cost--12E or thereabouts?

    We stayed at Il Palazzo, mentioned and reviewed above.

    After checking in, we hurried down to the Basilica di San Francesco. Even though we had all been previously, we still spent nearly two hours in the church, mostly looking at the fresco cycle in the Upper Church.

    Much to my dismay, I was unable to get an audioguide (where do you get them in the church? it's so dark I couldn't tell). However, there are a number of those dial-up info phones that cost a couple of Euros and of course I used them and loved them. Clipped British accents talking about frescoes--what is not to love?

    Assisi was booming Dec. 31, by the way--people everywhere, mostly Italians it seemed. There was going to be a concert in the church, but we were just jammed for time and--horror of horrors--had failed to make a dinner reservation. In Assisi. On New Year's Eve.

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    Assisi, cont'd.
    The town itself is beautiful. Just walking around is a joy, and even though there were so many people, once we got off the main roads, we were frequently entirely alone with all those stunning views. We were also fortunate enough to catch a spectacular sunset as we left the Basilica.

    The Mother of All Nativity Scenes
    While there were many, many, many creches in Assisi--and in Rome for that matter--for my money the life-size one in front of the Basilica di San Francesco was the most amazing. First off, it was huge. And secondly, it was pretty scary looking. The beasts all looked good, but some of the human figures appeared...well, disfigured. Anyway, it was a sight to see, especially as the sun sank down in the valley.

    http://www.pbase.com/leelygoes/image/107924456

    http://www.pbase.com/leelygoes/image/108098684

    [The second shot doesn't even capture one-third of the scene. I would have needed a wide-angle lens.]

    That evening we searched madly to find a place that would seat us for dinner. Everything was booked, of course. We finally got space at a pizza joint, La Lanterna; they said we could eat if we came right at 7 or 7:30. Of course we said yes.

    At La Lanterna they were obviously turning tables more frequently than they usually do, but we managed to to enjoy our dinner. For a pizza place, it was good. I am a huge fan of Umbrian food. We all three stuck with the basics here and were not disappointed. Complimentary prosecco to start, lentils and sausage for good luck in the New Year. Then I had penne arrabiata (terrific) followed by stewed/braised cinghiale--excellent! My friends liked their meals too. We had been preparing ourselves for something really awful, so were pleasantly surprised.

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    Assisi - NYE Concert in the Piazza del Comune

    To clarify, I don't think anyone should rush to eat at the pizza place I mention in the above post. There is much better food to be had in Assisi (we wanted to dine at La Fortezza or Medio Evo or even La Pallotta but no dice). Still we were satisfied. I didn't pay the bill, but I think this was around 100 Euros for three and we had a couple of bottles of wine too.

    Then we wandered, took photos, bought some more wine, put on warmer clothes and headed to the piazza for the big concert.

    What can I say. It was an experience. But fun. You have to be in the mood for that kind of thing: bad live music in beautiful surroundings with a bunch of strangers in a touristy hill town, the sky filled with stars, pictures of saints (I guess ) projected onto the walls of the buildings.

    Weird. That was my birthday!

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    Ciao, Assisi

    The next morning I took a long walk around Assisi while my friends slept in. It was misty and quiet. I came across a tiny church up, up top of town with an equally tiny piazza in front of it. As I enjoyed the view, the New Year's mass was going on in the church; I could hear the murmurings of those inside mingled with the cries of birds as I viewed the Basilica below me and the Umbrian valley rolled out before me. I didn't want to return to Rome.

    Nonetheless, we had the hotel call a taxi and down we careened toward the train station.

    Our taxi driver lived (lives) in the upper town and absolutely loves Assisi. If I need a guide in or around Assisi in the future, I would definitely book him. He gave us quite a bit of historical background. And he also let us know the reason the upper town had not had a big fireworks show the evening before. "Assisi is the town of St. Francis. It's the town of peace. Because of the war right now [Israel and Gaza], the town voted not to have fireworks."

    He asked which train we were taking and decided we had enough time to see SANTA MARIA DEGLI ANGELI, which is near the train station and where St. Francis died. We agreed. I had wanted to visit this church the last time I was in Umbria.

    This was another highlight for me. First of all, it was great to see the lower town, buzzing with people getting ready to attend the New Year's day mass. The church itself is huge, build above and around the miniscule Porziuncola which St. Francis himself restored. It's a bizarre combo which fascinated--and yes, touched--us.

    Giovanni Corridoni was our driver. His English is great. I highly recommend him. His email is corridonigiovanni AT hotmail.it

    I entertained a brief fantasy where I sent my mom back on the train and hired Giovanni to tour her around so she wouldn't get tired or feel uncomfortable.

    This was not to be and we arrived back in Rome to find Mom feeling much better, conjunctivitis almost gone and ready to get out and about.

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    Correction
    Looks like Giovani also has an email account @gmail.com, so I would probably try both to contact him.

    For those who want food info
    I recently came across this blog post. The writer had almost the same tasting menu at Antico Arco as we had. He has photos and far more knowledgeable descriptions, although some of our courses were different.

    http://epicures.wordpress.com/2009/01/27/antico-arco-rome/

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    Mad dashing through Rome

    We arrived back in Rome in the early afternoon on New Year's day. The remainder of our time there was a frantic gulp--how to squeeze everything in? Only a few days left in this city with so much to see.

    As this report, such as it is, hasn't been in chronological order, I'll just a few other highlights.

    Castel Sant Angelo
    I had been before but no one else had, so we went. If you've been, you know the audioguide can lead you to rooms that are closed. It's quite a puzzle. Might as well enjoy it.

    The book store here where you get the audioguide--walk down away from the entrance once inside is a good place to pick up gifts for kids. We did our souvenir shopping here. I bought some coloring books for my niece.

    Campidoglio
    Mom hadn't been there yet, so we hoofed it over via Campo dei Fiori and the Jewish Ghetto. Of course we had to include poking around Teatro Marcello and the Portico di Ottavia.

    Another mad dash day involved Piazza Montecitorio, Piazza Colonna, Trevi and the Spanish Steps.

    One rainy evening concluded with extremely expensive drinks and snacks in one of the restos facing the Pantheon. My mom has to do something like that on each trip. For her it's worth it to sit and take it all in. Luckily she treated! And it was lovely.

    I tried to include as many fountains, obelisks, churches and other items of interest on every walk we took. Not always appreciated when it was raining.

    Because it was the holiday season and because it's Rome, there were quite a few special events going on. When possible, we took advantage.

    There was a very small photo exhibit in Trastevere about the Italian-American immigrant experience, focusing on Ellis Island. As I've been to the Ellis Island museum, this was interesting to me.

    via Giulia is celebrating its 500 hundredth birthday. I believe this was one of the reasons the churches there had not only special creches but other contemporary artistic displays in them. Of course my Italian is not good enough to tell you for certain.

    http://www.viagiulia500.net/

    Next up: final thoughts, last bites and some receipts that I've found

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    Hi Leely, I just finished catching up with the rest of your trip report. I loved hearing about Assisi and I've got so many more ideas for the next trip to Rome.

    The nativity figures in Assisi look like they've spent too much time under the knife with Jacko's plastic surgeon!

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    Apres,

    Your report has me wanting to return to Rome pronto! There are so many things I still haven't seen. And I really love Rome. I hope I can get back there soon. I have to admit that it's been difficult to finish this report while I'm simultaneously trying to get psyched for my Paris trip.

    Not that I'm complaining.

    The thing about those nativity scene people in Assisi is that I had a facial the weekend before we left with a new facialist. She gave me a lactic acid peel and *completely* burned the left side of my face. So I sort looked like those disfigured nativity figures while I was on this trip.

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    I am going to finish this report come hell or high water--hope all this info, rambling though it is, can help someone some day.

    Arrivederci, Roma

    Retrospective faves
    I polled my traveling companions last week and these were the favorites:

    Mom: Scavi tour
    She answered without hesitation.

    J: Scavi tour

    K: Tie between Scavi and San Clemente, said she just loved the itineraries both those days (you are welcome, K)

    Me: Wandering lost in the rain in the Borghese Gardens after visiting the Galleria, down through Pincio hill to the belvedere and steps to Piazza del Popolo and Santa Maria in Piazza del Popolo. This felt like a real adventure and the payoff was the view of a glistening Rome.

    So I suppose the takeaway here is my group likes going underground. Next time Catacombs!

    Other tops

    Our apartment, especially Michael from Rental in Rome who dutifully answered my many, many questions. And because I’d read here that Rental in Rome had let down one or two posters in the past, I made a point to check in with Michael a few times in advance of our trip, making sure our apartment was still booked for us, would be ready, etc. They don’t own the apartments they rent and are just booking agents for many, so I did lots of double- and triple-checks.

    Charlotte of La Casa Roma, who met us in lieu of the owners at our apartment for check-in and check-out, was a delight. She is a German expat living in Rome, speaks excellent English and runs her own tourism/apartment business as well. My mom kept running into her during the week on walks and we all liked her a lot.

    lacasaroma.com

    Risotto with white truffles at Antico Arco

    This turned out to be very pricey primi that the two people least likely to be extravagant ordered (my mom and the other mom) on our second dinner at this restaurant. Got the bill: 41 Euros each for the their first courses. But so, so delicious and lots of truffles. My mother couldn’t finish hers so I did—thankfully.

    Probably the staff at Antico Arco should have told us how much this was as it was a special, but we were all so glad they didn’t because the moms probably would not have ordered it otherwise. As we had dined big-time at the restaurant earlier in the week, I think they were under the false impression that we were huge spenders who wouldn’t bat an eyelash at a $60 first course. Ah well, a minor quibble; it was totally worth it.

    Carciofi alla romana at Checchino dal 1887
    I will return for sure. Everything here was good, but I am an artichoke lover.

    Enoteca Buccone
    19/20 via di Ripetta

    We found some Umbrian wines here we really liked. Convenient location, great selection, nice and helpful staff.

    http://www.enotecabuccone.com/

    Confetteria Moriondo e Gariglio
    21 to 22, Via del Pie' di Marmo

    When my mom was sick and pretty much bedridden for a day and a half, we stopped here to get her some chocolates to cheer her up because she is a chocoholic. Luckily she didn’t feel well enough to eat them all and shared with us.

    The shop is very old-fashioned and the women who run it gracious, pleasant and serious about their chocolates. Stepping into the shop is a bit like stepping back in time. Candy time.

    We stopped by again a few days later. This place is not cheap. But not really speaking Italian combined with ordering chocolates you’re unfamiliar with yields some tasty joy.

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    Bills and skills
    For whatever reason, I had gotten it into my head that Rome is exorbitantly expensive. I think a few trips back I ran out of money while there and had a couple of very lean days before my next direct deposit.

    Did that ever leave an impression!

    So this time I gave myself a generous spending money budget of $225/day food/spending. This included train and hotel in Assisi, car service to and from airports and my portion of long-term parking bill at SFO (split between the four of us); I also included travel days in my "per day" planning.

    I splurged as much as I could but I'm not a shopper so I couldn't come close to spending it all. We always had breakfast in the apartment but only cooked dinner once on New Year’s Day. We tended to skip lunch because we were usually sightseeing. Then we had snacks and wine before dinner each night (!).

    I used my Capital One card as advised on this board to pay for whatever I could and then paid the balance upon my return. Based on my bill, this was the way to go as my bank charges me $5 for each foreign cash withdrawal. I will definitely try to charge whatever I can and pay the bill in full when I get home from now on. The exchange rate hovered between $1.34-1.40 USD to 1 Euro during our visit.

    Dinner for 2 at Ristorante Montevecchio: $148
    This included two bottles of pretty nice wine, one liter of water, two primi, two secondi, two desserts, two caffes.

    Dinner for 3 at Ristorante Montevecchio: about $185
    One bottle of wine, two liters of water, three primi, three secondi, one dessert, two caffes.

    Dinner for 3 at Checchino dal 1887: $157
    We wanted to indulge more here but were on an unfortunately tight schedule. One bottle Sangiovese, one liter water, three primi, three secondi, one contorno.

    Dinner for 4 at Antico Arco: $490
    This included three prosecci, a kir, a bottle of wine, two liters of water, the two truffle primi, two normally priced ☺ primi, four secondi, two desserts, two coffees.

    Dinner for 3 Antico Arco with tasting menus: @$375
    This is an estimate; J paid and insisted on treating so it’s been hard to get an exact figure out of her…I think we may have had two bottles of wine here. Definitely finished with grappa. Why not? Hic.

    This list isn’t anything close to comprehensive, but just to give others an idea of what a not-strict budget might look like. I'd say I probably only spent about $125/day average including Assisi (some days more, some days way less)--and I was not cutting any corners. Never ordered house wine, only had pizza once, etc. And it wouldn't have felt like a sacrifice to do those things.

    Ciao, ciao!
    This was a fantastic adventure, in many ways a dream trip, but very, very exhausting for me. Working right up to Christmas Eve, cooking dinner on Christmas, driving to the airport the day after, etc., and then returning straight to work—not to mention the added stress of traveling in a family group.

    But Rome is worth it, of course. We all love the city and its history. And if I haven’t made it clear enough, I’m personally pretty wild about the food and wine.

    I had saved up for this trip and came home with quite a bit of extra money. So when I got a fare alert for late May for just under $700 SFO-CDG, I bought a ticket.

    Some alone time in Paris: the perfect coda to family time in Rome.

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