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Trip Report Ciao Bella! DD’s 1st Italian Trip or How we ate our way through Italy

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The Hard Facts (for those who don’t like long, winded, detailed trip reports)

The Itinerary
Rome - 5 nights
Gualdo Cattaneo (Bevagna) - 3 nights
Pienza - 3 nights
San Gimignano - 1 night
Vernazza - 2 nights
Florence - 3 nights
Venice - 3 nights

Summary of Accommodations

Rome: Falegnami Apartament http://www.sleepinitaly.com/files/apt_falegnami.html
(130Euros/pn for three persons + cleaning fee)

This was our first experience with an apartment rental. It worked out very well. The apartment had a lot of pros but one big con. The location was great and I thought that it was accurately portrayed in the website. It was quiet, well lit and comfortable. The problem was that the small bedroom stank of sewage. This was not a disaster because we closed the room and DD slept in the living room sofa bed.


Gualdo Cattaneo (Bevagna): Le Case Gialle http://www.lecasegialle.it/indexGB.htm
(110 Euros/pn - Il Giardino Apartment)

This is a beautiful little place. It is very well kept and the apartment was immaculately clean. The garden was gorgeous. Bread and Newspaper delivered in the morning. One bedroom apartment with a sofabed on the living room. Has a neat little terrace on the side. The pool was a big plus as the area was experiencing unseasonable heat. The only con is that it’s still a drive to go anywhere. I thought that I would cook, but I did not so that added a bit of driving for dinner.


Pienza: Piccolo Hotel La Valler http://www.piccolohotellavalle.it/index_uk.htm
(130 Euros/pn for a triple)

Loved this place. The triple room was a tad small for us plus luggage, but other than that the place was perfect. The view from the terrace was breathtaking. The breakfast buffet was the best of the trip (possible exceptions the ones we provided for ourselves). Hotel is just outside the walls of Pienza, 2 minute walk to the gate, and has parking and very easy access by car. 100% Recommended!

San Gimignano – Hotel Bel Soggiorno http://www.pescille.it/belsoggiorno/spedisci_en.php
(150 E/pn for a two-bedroom triple)

I had always wanted to stay in San Gimignano for a night, to see if the magic of the place really came alive after the tourists left (you will have to read all the TR details to find out if it did). The room was very basic but large and comfortable: one room with a double bed and huge closet, another room with two singles and the bathroom. It wins the #2 spot for best hotel-room-window-view ever. (#1 is in Ronda, Spain – but that was another trip report). It is the first hotel once you enter the gate so the walk from the #2 Parking is not bad (less than 10 minutes).

Vernazza – Gianni Franzi http://www.giannifranzi.it/index2.html
(120 E/pn for a triple, minus 10% cash discount)

There are 99 steps (we counted twice) from the piazza where you check-in to Room #41 – 3. This includes a spiral stair with 18” wide steps. Try to get luggage up those! The room was small with three separate single beds. Bathroom was recently renovated but had only lukewarm water in the shower. This is the type of room that would be considered luxurious by backpacker standards. No breakfast. I would not stay here again.

Florence – B&B Peterson http://www.bedinflorence.it/home.htm
(72 E/pn for a triple)

Good value for the money. The best part of the location is that it has a bus stop in front and a bar next door. The neighborhood feels safe but is not inviting. Not inviting at all. I would walk it (quickly) by myself late at night but would not let DD do it (all you moms know what I mean). Double bed (two singles pushed together) and a folding bed. It was spacious enough to lay our luggage comfortably. Bedspreads are really worn and were a turn-off for me; actually the overall room is beginning to look pretty worn too they need to do something soon. Bathroom had great pressure and lots of steaming hot water. It was quiet. No breakfast, but the bar next door makes great coffee.

Venice - Corte 1321 http://www.corte1321.com/en/sent_request.htm
(177 E/pn for a triple, minus 10% cash discount which we inquired about, it was not advertised, they were surprised at being asked and accepted after a brief consultation)

Considering the current prices of hotels in Venice and the fact that we were there during the Biennale opening weekend, this was the best hotel value of the trip. We stayed in the Yellow Room and LOVED it. Big double bed (two singles pushed together), a single bed and a day bed (sort of a futon). We were able to put the luggage over the spare bed. Best bathroom of the trip. Breakfast was included: coffee (not cappuccino), rolls, jams, yogurt and juice. It was an easy walk from the San Zacharia vaporetto stop (no bridges to cross) and the instructions were easy to follow (but you do need to pay attention). I would certainly and gladly stay with them again.


Summary of Restaurants

I will briefly list the restaurants, I will discuss them in great (read: too much) detail further on. For those that will not go through the details the prices I list are for three persons, usually include a primi and secondi for each, at least a liter of water and house wine, no dessert and sometimes coffee.

We did not have a single bad meal in 21 days, a few could have been better, some had a single amazing dish while the other plates were ho-hum. There were occasions were I was too tired to seek out a specific place which resulted in what I call ‘okay’ meals and a few slightly overprized one (in one predictable instance, very overprized).

Rome

Pizza Ré - great pizza, but what can be bad on arrival day to Rome. 45E

Ditirambo – Very good meal, would certainly eat there again. 77E

Der Pallaro – Most entertaining meal of the trip. Food was solid, hearty and abundant. I was not crazy about the dessert. Fixed price of 25E pp =75E.

Osteria del Pegno – One of the best meals of the trip, certainly on the top 5. 88E

Da Baffetto – Really good pizza. Seeing the waiter manage the crowd was an experience. 43E.

Montepulciano

L’Alchimista – Variable quality and taste over the meal, great primis, somewhat disappointing seconds. The ambiance was not vibrant (or maybe we were a bit tired). 69E

Le Coccorone – Solid meal, interesting amouse bouche and prosecco included with the coperto. The terrace did not have a view but was very cozy. Did not have a few of the things in the menu but that is almost common on a Tuesday evening. Would return. 88E.

Norcia
Locanda del Teatro – This was one of the very few sit-down lunches that we had. Great antipasti platter. 42E.

Bevagana

La Farafalla – The rain decided this restaurant for us. We had lunch so were not too hunger, adequate Pizza. 42E

To be continued…….

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    marigross...

    Great start...I'm looking forward to the detailed portion! :-)

    I've been to 3 of the 5 restaurants you went to in Rome...have to agree about Der Pallaro. As one Roman resident told me..."there, they tell you what you will eat"! ;-)

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    Summary of Restaurants – Continued

    Pienza

    La Fiorella – Recommended by the hotel. Decent food but a bit overpriced compared to the other dinners we had. 105E.

    Latte di Luna – No question, the best quality/price meal of the entire trip. Everything was excellent. We were sorry that they were closed the following evening and could not return. Reservations required. 81E

    Il Rosselino – Prosecco served with coperto. Started with low expectations (hotel had not been very encouraging and thought it overpriced) and proceeded to have one of the best meals of the entire trip in this restaurant. Definitely worth returning to! Reservations required as they only seat 12 persons per night. 112E.

    San Gimignano

    Bar Firenze – Again, selected by the cold rain. Completely forgettable light lunch worthy of tourist (trap) area: one pizza, one primi and a few drinks. 27E

    Le Vecchie Mura – Very good meal for a decent price, some dishes were better than others but all were at least above good. We made a reservation in the afternoon because it was raining and the garden tables would not be used, significantly reducing their capacity. I would go back. 77E.

    Vernazza

    Gambero Rosso – Excellent entertaining from the owner. Solid but a bit more expensive (when compared to our meals in Pienza). Regretted not returning the following night. The seafood risotto was excellent. 119E.

    Da Sandro – Started out great but quickly petered out. DD’s dish was inedible. Should have gone back to the Gambero. Horribly overpriced at 112E.

    Florence

    Trattoria Zá Zá – We wound up in the area and were hungry, all other places on my list were closed. Very tasty in an ‘Outback’-kind-of-way. I would eat there again if someone wanted to try it but would be willing to try an unknown place before (don’t know if that makes sense to anyone but me). 100E.

    Pork’s at the Mercato Centrale – Light lunch. Tried to go to Nerbone’s but it was a mob scene. I probably would not have sat down if I had read the name of the place first. Surprisingly good, servers were bending backwards trying to please the customers. I would have returned the next day if we had been in the area. 26E.

    All'antico Ristoro Di Cambi – Excellent value. Food was very good but my dishes were unfortunately cold which subtracted a lot from my enjoyment. Would definitely give it another try. 74E.

    Il Guscio – I was somewhat skeptical and would have chosen another place (Alla Vechia Bettola was on my list) but DH saw a few things on the menu that he wanted to try. Wow! My main dish got voted the best single-dish of the trip. Place was empty until 9:30 on a Saturday night and then had people waiting outside by the time we left. Have to look for the ticket but it was not much over 100E.

    Venice

    Trattoria alla Madonna – This is somewhat of a tradition for DH and me. Solid food, DHs secondi was excellent. Overall a good performance and the price was right for Venice standards, 96E (a 12% service charge in addition to coperto was added).

    Unidentified pizzeria in San Apolinare campo – I was having a meltdown so nothing would have seemed really remarkable to me at the time. Must admit that the pizza was OK. DH’s rather unusual selection was very good. I thought the it was very overpriced considering our meal the previous night, 77E (a 12% service charge in addition to coperto was added).

    Ruga Rialto – Had lots of chicchetti, some better than others but all worth returning for. Great ambiance. Don’t have the ticket but it was in the 80E range.


    And now, THE STORY......

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    Thanks to all! I tend to write epic trip reports so this will take a while to complete.

    Leely, yes, it was not nice. It was OK while the door was closed and the A/C on so it was manageable. I will talke about it some more.

    LCI, the Der Pallaro place was a blast, but only because we were seated promptly and not being the objective of the owners attentions. ;) The people waiting for tables did not find it particularily funny.

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    ditto, marigross. more please!

    PS - ref annother thread, it's cichetti, or cicheti, or cicchetti, but NEVER chicchetti - "ci" in italian is pronounced "chi"; "chi" is pronounced "ki".

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    BACKGROUND

    The Cast

    DD, 16yrs old (going on 28 in her mind), only child, high school sophomore, artsy chick, very appreciative of the male physique, fiercely independent, rather pleasant to be around, does not whine (too much) and can read maps. The big questions for this trip: Could she stand her parents uninterruptedly for three weeks? Could she live an electronics-free life with an I-Touch as her only lifeline for this extended period?

    DH, 62yrs old (going on 28 in his mind), Swiss-born but has lived in the US for more than 30yrs, 10 of those in Puerto Rico, where we reside. He was a traveling service guy for manufacturing equipment all his working life so he is Road Warrior Extraordinaire. He can drive for hours without getting sleepy or bored, read maps, carry heavy stuff, open bottles, hike relentlessly, endure in silence my marathon museum sessions and hold my hand when I’m scared.

    Me, 40 yrs old (and very happy with them, thank you!), Puerto Rican born and raised. Lived all my life in the island, have a History of Art and Architecture background and a passion for Italian Renaissance, avid reader, love food in all its forms and must confess that I am an obsessive-compulsive vacation planner. I do not consider myself a trip Nazi -but I’m not asking what my victims think just in case!

    Our Travel Style

    I get 18 vacation days per year which I hoard and spend only when absolutely necessary. I am at work every day and very seldom call in sick. I am a very reliable worker but my boss knows that there is a personal interest in this. The condition for my unflagging presence and commitment is that I will go on vacation for three weeks every 1.5 years.

    I want every day spent on vacation to be utilized to the max. I have unlimited lists of Things-To-Do-And-See. Big museums, small museums, countless churches, one more hill town…I am fully aware that I’m guilty of the travel sin of cramming too many activities/sights in a single day. This does not work for a lot of people but it does for us (most of the time). When I grow up I want to be a Slow Traveler, but while I’m still part of the rat race I have to make do with moving around quickly.

    Note: This is the first time in a European vacation in which I have taken an unplanned full day of down time. Maybe I am growing up after all!

    We prefer small, convenient hotels and are definitely not resort people. We will not spend big bucks on hotels which we will only visit to sleep.

    We eat a decent breakfast and very seldom have lunch. DD gets hungry early in the afternoon and she usually has a slice of pizza or a sandwich from a street counter. I am usually content with having a bite or two of whatever she is eating. DH does not do lunch, even when at home. So we have only a single sit down restaurant meal per day.

    If you are looking for shopping tips, this is not the trip report for you. I am not a shopper. In fact, in this trip I did not buy a single thing. I missed my chance to buy a few pretty scarves and little things in Florence and afterwards I could not find them anymore (not that I was looking very hard). I usually bring home a few food items bought at the last destination but by that time I was not feeling so well so this time I came back completely empty handed. DD bought a few clothing items, bracelets and charms. That was it.


    The Timing

    This trip has been scheduled for last year as a 15th birthday trip for DD but some major expenses and teen drama got in the way. Fellow Loungers will most likely remember the school change trauma!!! We postponed the trip first to spring break this year and then to May in order to have the full three weeks available. Bottomline, I had a lot of time to plan this trip.

    We left the evening of the day in which she took her last end of term exam. We were –ahem- unsure of the results of one of these tests and her passing grade depended on it. Summer school would start before we returned from the vacations so this caused a bit of tension and lots of login into edline whenever wi-fi was available. (BTW, the grade was not posted until after we returned, when we found out that she had miraculously passed the class and now has a free summer.


    Spinning the airfare roulette

    Traveling from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Europe is never easy or cheap. We mostly have to go to Miami (hate that airport!), Newark or JFK to catch a connecting flight to Europe. This invariably adds at least 6 hours of travel time. Iberia runs a few flights from SJU direct to Madrid but they tend to be very expensive and sell out almost as fast as they are opened.

    I started watching the prices nine months before the trip. Prices started out at around $1000 pp for Rome roundtrips, Venice roundtrips and for the preferred alternative -flying into Rome and returning from Venice- it floated about $200 above. Monitoring the prices turned into a daily pastime. And then, one day in early February, it happened! Iberia posted SJU-MAD-FCO / VCE-MAD-SJU for $850. Three weeks, from Tuesday toTuesday, May 19th to June 9th. YEAH! With trembling hands I pressed the buy button and a few minutes later, victory! We were committed and trip planning / reservation making could start in earnest.

    And its counterpart: the car rental roulette

    We wanted to rent a car for a week. Pick up in Rome and dropping it either in Pisa or in La Spezia as our next destination at that point would be Vernazza. I read multiple Fodor’s threads recommending Pisa over La Spezia so we settled on the first.

    After multiple searches I was ready to reserve with Hertz for something around 230E. For some silly reason the Travel Gods were smiling on me and my (very slow, dial-up) home internet crashed and I could not buy. Well, next morning at work (yes, I sometimes use my work internet for personal things, shoot me) I tried again. And lo and behold! The same schedule was posted for 71E, including standard insurance. I was shocked. I did not even try to modify the times to pick and drop off the car in fear that Hertz would discover an error with the price. Well, the reservation went through, confirmation was received, and Hertz never tried to add anything on when we picked up the car in Rome.

    Note: After experiencing the car return in Pisa, I will take my chances with La Spezia any day, but more on that later.


    Getting There

    The flights were boring, which is always a good thing in my book. I was rather surprised to find that the Iberia food was edible and wine was still free. We had a window and two aisle seats, DD and I sat next to each other and DH sat on the other side with an empty seat next to him so he had a little space to spread out. He dozed, I slept a few hours and DD fell asleep two hours into the flight and woke up when they served breakfast before landing.

    We had to fill out some forms about the A1H1-whatever-its-called/swine flu. Where we had been, if we had been ill, if we had a fever, or sneezing….

    After a 2.5 hour layover in Madrid we boarded our connection and promptly fell asleep. Two hours later we woke up in Rome. Plane reached the gate, the door opened, we waited, and waited, and waited. About 20 minutes later we hear about 5 names called, naturally 3 of those were ours. They had handed out some more swine flu forms during the flight while we were sleeping and the Italian port authorities would not allow disembarkment until every passenger was accounted for. Anyway, after scribbling at top speed our forms we were finally allowed to leave the plane.

    The Transport

    I had entertained the thought of using public transportation to reach our apartment; the agency had provided detailed instructions which seemed easy to follow. After calculating the cost of the trains and compared it to a shuttle service and added the intangible cost of jetlagged aggravation, I decided to reserve with Rome Shuttle Limousines. 40E for three passengers (cash). Best decision ever!

    http://www.romeshuttlelimousine.com/FiumicinoE.htm

    The driver was waiting for us outside baggage claim and drove us directly to the apartment without asking any questions. I would recommend this service.

    The Apartment

    The owner (maybe?) was there when we arrived. Showed us the apartment, explained the A/C and hot water, took our money, and promptly left. Afterwards we had a few problems lighting up the gas stove and using the coffee machine so I would include these questions for a future rental.

    The apartment was exactly as pictured in the website. Two rooms, kitchen/living space, nice comfortable bathroom. Water pressure was excellent and we never lacked hot water. It appeared to be perfect in every way…. until we returned from our first walk through gorgeous Rome.


    Next: Is this the same city that I hated the first time around? and, What the #$# is that smell?!?!?

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    Marigross...

    Love the format of your report...very easy to read.

    I have a very similar work situation/travel style...some years I horde my vacation days so I can take 3 or 4 weeks off...that just about sends my boss and co-workers into tail-spins! ;-) Or if I don't take the days all at once, I'll spread them out over a couple Europe trips in one year. Lucky for me I get a pretty nice chunk of time each year.

    Rome is one of my favorite places...can't wait to hear more about your adventure!

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    Another happy reader! Have been considering staying at Le Case Gialle on our next trip to Italy, but also worried it's too far to venture out to restaurants at night, as I'm getting a bit older, I don't like to drive far in strange places at night (especially after a few vinos).

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    May 19th - Day 1: Our First Evening Savoring Rome

    After completing all of our arrival routines we were free to go at around 6:30PM and we headed into nearby Campo de Fiori with the intention of following (more or less) Rick Steve’s Night Walk (I will talk a little more about my experience with Mr. Steves’ books later).

    The apartment is in the Ghetto and though it’s advertised as Campo de Fiori, the 90-second walk and crossing of a street into the ‘official’ Campo area is not enough for me to claim being misled. Actually, it worked out better because this area is a lot quieter in the evening than the rowdier Campo.

    As we walked through the Campo I began to have a generalized feeling of well-being (who am I kidding, I was doing the internal happy dance!), I was in ROME! Furthermore, I was LIKING ROME. Then we walked into Piazza Navona in the golden sunlight of early evening… there was no trash, minimal hawkers, it was not too awfully crowded and had a vibrant but relaxing ambiance. Was this the same city I had hated the first time around?

    Let me go back 10 years for a moment. DH-to-be and I were having our first extended vacation together, 21 days winging-it in Italy. We had been traveling through the Tuscan countryside, staying in small cozy hotels and having quiet dinners in unnamed restaurants when, bang! We drove into Rome. Only kilometers of warehouses, hookers and truckers to be seen coming into the city. We had no hotel reservations and we had a car. We managed and still had a great time, but my impression of Rome was that it was chaotic, dirty and most certainly, not user-friendly. Needless to say, this was in the p.F. age (Pre-Fodor’s).

    With that experience I had specifically planned to go to Rome first on this trip so that there would be not be a let-down after a place we really liked, it should only improve from there, right? My impression was that the city had been pressure-washed from top to bottom and armies of garbage collectors hired. There was some debris on the street, but not more than in other place. This will contrast with my experience of Florence, but I digress too much.

    I still think that Rome is not user-friendly but this time I was READY. I was armed with the knowledge and misadventures of countless Fodorites!

    From Piazza Navona to the Fontana di Trevi

    We enjoyed the 4 Rivers Fountain and since the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone was open, we went in. I had just finished reading ‘The Genius in the Design’ a book about the rivalry between Bernini and Borromini so I was able to appreciate what I was seeing at a more profound level.

    We wandered through the pedestrian area towards the Pantheon. It was just as magnificent as I remembered. The sun was shining through the oculus and casting beautiful shadows on the coffered vault. What a wondrous building!

    Our walk continued to the Trevi fountain, it was still daylight which steals a little of its thunder, but DD was properly impressed. There were a lot of people (is it ever empty?) but it was manageable. I gave her a coin and told her about returning to Rome. She replied the she was not throwing it in; she did not want to return to Rome, she was simply not leaving.

    We people watched for about half and hour. There was a young girl, maybe 6 or 7 years old, hitching up her dress and walking into the fountain. She jumped in from the stones in the back next to the water, waddled around for a few moments, jumped right back up and waited to see if anyone would tell her not to do it again. No one did so the cycle was repeated multiple times. It was rather hilarious to watch.

    Well, in the end DD did throw her coin in, she said it was cheap insurance in case she could not run away from us and we forced her to return home. And then it was time for one of our all-time favorite activities…Cocktail Hour! Nothing beats sipping a drink while watching the world and its people go by. This activity will be referred to hence fore as WUI and will be repeated on a daily basis for the next 20 days.

    Watching under the Influence

    Disclaimer: We drank a lot on this trip. A lot. Possibly too much for the health of our livers. But once one is embarked on vacation, health concerns get thrown into the wind. There is always time for temperance when we come home (NOT!). Funny thing was we never, ever, got anything resembling a hang-over.

    As we wandered back towards the Campo area we saw this little café with tables on the street. A table was available and we sat in Camiei di’ San Eustachio. I was debating whether to order a glass of white or red wine when DH had the most brilliant idea! He ordered a spritz. ‘But we are not in Venice!’ I thought (as if drinks were limited to be had in certain places), but somehow it seemed just right. Two beautiful (they were not that great, really, but they looked damned nice at the time!) stem glasses filled with golden orange deliciousness were (not very promptly) brought. A coke for DD and sparkling water to share were also ordered and a plate of little dough fritters topped with tomato sauce was brought. I’m pretty sure they were nothing special but when one is jetlagged, is having a drink on an empty stomach and feeling pretty good about life in general, they tasted really good. 20E.

    Our first dinner in Rome: pizza, why not?

    We were doing pretty well with jetlag but were not in the mood for a huge meal and I don’t think we would have been at our most receptive for a high culinary experience so we all agreed that a pizza would be about perfect.

    We had seen Pizza Ré earlier in the afternoon so that was an easy decision to make. This is what we ordered:
    - One pizza Forte (olives, fresh mozzarella, and a lot of other stuff)
    - One pizza Montanara (arthichokes, prosciutto and things I cant remember)
    - One pizza Prosciutto Crudo
    - One bottle of wine – Casa del Giglio Merlot
    - One liter of sparkling water
    - Two cokes

    The crusts were tasty, thin and crunchy, the pizzas had just the right amount of ingredients without being overpowering, the knifes provided actually cut through the dough, the wine was pleasing…yes, life was good.

    DD got her first Italian gelato (Vanilla and Strawberry) from Blu Ice (2.50E) as we walked back to the apartment. Her eyes widened as she had her first taste: What is this texture? How do they manage to do creamy and light? Why does it taste like actual fruit? She asked. (Have I raised that girl properly or what?!?!)


    The first whiff of trouble

    It was almost 10:30 when we made it back to the apartment. I noticed a slight smell but did not pay much attention to it. DD had first-called the bathroom so she had her shower while we settled into the apartment and unpacked a few things. By the time DH and I had had our showers, DD came out of her room and told DH that she thought there was something dead in her room.

    DH went over and proceeded to half dismantle the built-in closet without finding where the smell was coming from. Since the door was open the smell had sort of dissipated and he mostly thought that DD was exaggerating. She eventually laid down to sleep.

    Next: Why is she sleeping the living room? Is this heat seasonable? Three churches and ancient Rome

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    "Needless to say, this was in the p.F. age (Pre-Fodor’s)." Very clever! :))

    We've also had a sewage issue in a Rome apartment. Our smell was coming from the shower drain, so clever DH simply covered the drain with a cup when it wasn't in use. Hope yours resolved just as easily.

    "Her eyes widened as she had her first taste." Nothing beats that first taste, does it?

    Delightful reading, marigross!

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    Thursday, May 21 - Day 2: Ancient Rome and a few Early Christian Churches

    But we are not in Denmark….what IS that smell?!?!

    We had no alarm clock except for DD’s Ipod and throughout the trip she was in charge of waking us up. I know that this might sound bizarre to most parents of 16yr olds but she is a light sleeper and pretty good about waking up so it worked out (about 85% of the time).

    The alarm was set for 8:00. I must honestly acknowledge that I indeed heard a faint ‘Maaaaaawkup’ which I mostly ignored. An hour later I finally got the connection between mind and body to work again and told DH to wakeup (with the expected result that it would give me at least 15 more minutes to sleep while he was in the bathroom). As he walked out of the room I could hear him ask, presumably to DD (who else would it be) ‘Why are you sleeping in the sofa?’ which immediately jolted my brain-to-feet connection and got me out of bed. I heard her reply ‘It stinks in that room’. Thanks to my prompt transition to the vertical position I was able to see when he opened the door to the small room. And quickly closed it. OMG. It was a sweet, sickening smell that was really unbearable.

    The first reaction was naturally: Call the owner! But there was no available phone so we agreed to take DDs clothes out of the room, keep the door closed, and see to breakfast. We would call the owner when we found a payphone (yeah, right…but hindsight is 20/20).

    We walked to the campo and got breakfast supplies (13.40):
    -prosciutto
    - salami
    -taleggio
    - 3 small breads
    - milk
    - pear juice
    - water

    Tre cafe, per piacere.

    The next step into our leisurely apartment breakfast was to make coffee. We took out the coffee maker and when we tilted it to find out how it worked spilled water all over – the tank had been full. Yuk. Ok… we were not using that coffee maker. We looked around the cabinets but here was no traditional coffee maker (the always reliable kind where you unscrew the top and bottom). OKAY. Lets then make Turkish-style coffee (the kind where you pour the hot water over the coffee flour and try your best not to stir the bottom).

    Good plan, but that requires turning on the stove. We turned, and poked but could not hear the pilot click. Do we need matches? Is the gas on? We found and fumbled with the gas key (we are not complete inexperienced idiots – just unlucky ones). Twist and push, push and twist, turn without pushing…Nothing!

    A thought occurred to me at that point, twisting my stomach with anxiety and fear of failure: Maybe this apartment rental was not such a good idea!

    Abandon coffee plan, we’ll have some on the street (now that was much better idea anyway!).

    We then proceeded to demolish two-days worth of cheese and ham. The taleggio cheese was divine: creamy, not quite runny but learning to crawl, salty and very slightly peppery. The prosciutto was hand-cut and had those thick little borders than you can chew into. The salami was spicy and did not have a greasy feeling. We were full and so pleased with our brunch –by that time it was close to 11:00- that I was ready to forgive all the hardship and frustration.

    The Plan for today

    I make ambitious daily plans. Sometimes I succeed and other times I don’t. I am willing to accept that. I try to balance things geographically and chronologically so that the if-we-have-time-and-energy things are at the end of the day. So this was The Plan:

    1. San Pietro in Vincoli
    2. Santa Maria Maggiore
    3. Colosseo / Foro
    4. San Clemente
    5. San Giovani Laterano

    The Plan execution

    The late start threw my plan into immediate disarray. I had thought to go to the two churches first and then go to the Foro but now I was not sure that I would have time to do everything I wanted! Humm… immediate reprogramming, compiling and a modified version of The Plan was created: Tackle the Foro first, Colosseo second, then go to San Pietro in Vincoli and at point assess the rest of the day.

    We walked out of the apartment and almost immediately (less than 150 meters) walked past Piazza Mattei and the Turtle Fountain. Somehow it made me very happy… I was in ROME! Everywhere you go you stumble into marvels great and small.

    Ten minutes of walking through delightful little streets and peeking into interesting courtyards and we were by the steps to the Campidoglio and our first street-crossing (otherwise know as playing-chicken-with-drivers event) came up. A quick evaluation trying to establish which route would result in the least possible crossings was performed and we set out.

    When I detected a small, almost negligible, break in the traffic I stepped into the street. I was not-so-surprised to see at the same time DD walking past me into the street with the supreme confidence and inherent perception of immortality of a teenager. Most cars stopped (naturally), others just veered around us (inevitable) and then it happened… the very first of many to come! I barely heard it as it was only intended for the recipient…I’m sure only another mother would have heard it too: Ciao Bella!

    DD was grinning, but only after the guy had passed, he only received a slightly aloof glance in return. Damn. She is good at this. Really good. I know because I might have called myself a flirter in my single days. OMG. Was going this trip a smart thing? Taking a slightly boy-crazy, pheromone exuding, and flirtatious 16yr female into a country of extremely handsome, vespa-riding, cool-dressing, appreciative males of all ages? As all mothers know, at this point you can only pray.

    Once we were safely on the other side we climbed the gazillion steps up to the Piazza del Campidoglio and on to the back where there is a picture-perfect view of the Foro below.

    We went into the Mamertine Prision (no formal fee but there is a manned collection box at the entrance). Vercingetorix was beheaded here after Cesar’s triumph. Legend has it that St. Peter and Paul were imprisoned here. Good for trivia, definitely not a place we need to return to. We all enjoyed the cool air inside more than anything to be seen in the place.

    A side note about the weather

    It was hot. Very hot! Hot as being in the upper 90ºF’s. At least in our perception it was dry, but that is only because we live in Puerto Rico where the humidity is never below 80%. Romans were suffocating. This pattern was sustained for more than a week and I must admit that it made a dent on our stamina.

    I made solemn promises to myself: I will do my best never get into a situation where I find myself in Rome in August. I will not be tempted by low airfare or great discounts on accommodations. Because if this was May…August must resemble Hell’s Waiting Room.

    The sun was blazing and there was not a cloud in the sky. I had only applied basic sunscreen but this was akin to a full day on the beach. Even though I’m an olive-skinned, Caribbean mutt my skin gets burnt just as if I had been born in a Nordic country from 100% pure Caucasian parents. Not even Swiss DH burns like I do! I hate to be in the sun so this did not fare well.

    The one good thing about the heat: Even though we drank tons of water during the day, we evaporated most of it through the skin so the Bathroom Quest in which we women are perpetually engaged on did not take precedence over The Plan as it often does.

    The Roma Pass

    In the I-should-have, I-could-have world, I would have bought my Roma Passes in the airport or even ordered them online. Well, I didn’t. Since The Plan had been reshuffled we found ourselves by the main entrance to the Forum without passes. In the original plan I would have gotten them by the Palatine entrance.

    There were about 20 people in the line in front of us. We saw a couple walking out with their passes and we asked how long it taken. He said about 30 minutes because the line was short but very slow. But not to even consider going elsewhere because it was really bad at the other locations he had tried.

    OK, we would have to wait in line. No need for all of us to stand in the sun, so DH got the first shift while DD and I sat in the shade. 15 minutes later I went so that he could rest. The sun was blazing and I did not have an umbrella to use as a parasol. Not good.

    You know what I absolutely love about being 40? I don’t care if I look foolish, unstylish or just plain weird. Not that I ever cared much, but now it is not even a consideration. Don’t take me wrong, I much prefer to look good but I am not willing to undergo pain or suffering to achieve it. So I took out my scarf and half wrapped it around my shoulders and head to make a tent. Much better.

    The line was really slow. It was the same line to get audio guides and they had to explain to everyone how to use them and the changes to the numbering code when they went over to the Palatine.

    Finally, it was my turn and bought the three passes. 23E each, only cash. I could not make the best possible use of them over the three consecutive days because I had to move the ‘Vatican Day’ in between because they would be closed on Thursday May 21st. This had completely screwed up my plan, but I don’t think the Vatican authorities took that into consideration. They still turned out to be a great investment.

    It did take 30 minutes and the line behind us was a lot longer than when we started. I would estimate about 50 people. My recommendation: don’t procrastinate and get these beforehand.

    Into ancient Rome

    I had endlessly debated whether to arrange for a guided tour of the Foro Romano or if I would be okay on my own. After all I was armed with tons of info and two guidebooks. A guided tour would have forced us to stay on schedule – which is a good thing but a bad thing too. I had decided self-guide. The result? It was okay. Not excellent or memorable. We saw, I read aloud from the book, they listened and asked questions. To some I knew the answers but to many I did not. Next time I will get a guide.

    After following the recommended walk on the Rome Green Michelin Guide (which is exactly the same as in Rick Steve’s Rome book) we climbed up the steep hill to the Palatine Hill. Thankfully there was a fountain at the top and we could drink our fill of the deliciously cold water and refill our bottles.

    Even though I had been here before, I thought that this time around it was a lot nicer and with many more things to see. Still, I think that a guide would have improved the experience significantly. On the other hand, the heat and sun were taking their toll so we cut the visit short and headed of to the Coloseo.

    We walked past the dressed-up gladiators with their swaggering/hawking stance. Photo? Foto Signora? Ciao, fotooooo?!?! You and me? Me and You? Us? Altogether? It was hilarious and became a much repeated phrase throughout the trip.

    Boy, did that Roma Pass pay off! The line was long (not quite horribly, impossibly long; but it was in the sun). After showing the ticket we were able to completely bypass the line.

    We walked around a little, did the full circle, took some pictures, read from the book but DD was visibly wilting. And I must confess that since I had been there before, I was ready to call it quits. We were done in less than half an hour.

    Once DD had extracted a firm promise to be sat and fed before we went into any other place, she was willing to walk in the general direction of the next destination listed on The Plan: San Pietro in Vincoli.

    First, we stopped at the aptly named Café S. Pietro in Vincoli. DH secured an outside but shady table while we ordered inside (10E):

    - mozzarella and pomodoro panini (rather large, very good and perfectly toasted)
    - 2 peach-flavored water (could have doubled as aromatherapy, they were so fragrant!)

    I suddenly realized that I had not had my morning coffee and had a slight headache. But it was too hot for coffee so I decided to take my chaces.

    Emerging into the Renaissance

    After resting our weary feet and cooling down in the shade we were ready to continue. Along the way we had consulted the map but the steady stream of umbrella-led tours between the Coloseo and the church was enough to guide us.

    To the non-devout the main attraction of San Pietro in Vincoli is Michaelangelo’s sculpture of Moses made for the tomb of Pope Julius II, the bane of the artist’s life. For the average pilgrim the jointed set of chains which allegedly bound San Peter in Jerusalem and in Rome would be the main event.

    In preparation for this trip I had read –I will post the rather extensive reading list separately- The Agony and the Ecstasy and The Pope’s Ceiling in both which this tomb was featured prominently. Visiting this statue was a must-do for this trip.

    Moses barely sits on his chair, ready to jump into action. How can an inanimate object shimmer with pent-up energy and vitality? This is a true leader, a man at his prime, an alpha male and no question about it. Where he leads, I would most likely follow. The skin! Why am I almost ready to believe that it would be soft to the touch? Thousands of books have been written on this subject so I will not elaborate except to say that it did not disappoint.

    The rest of the church is rather interesting too. The chains are displayed under the altar. There are a few tombs featuring statues of winged Death, sickle and all. Cool in a morbid kind of way.

    Let’s try for one more church…

    It was barely 4:00 in the afternoon and the cool church had been a revitalizing oasis. I assessed the group and determined that they did not look ready to collapse within the next few seconds so I decided to carry on with The Plan.

    We walked over to the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. The back of the church is impressive enough that when we got there I mistook it for the front and panicked that it closed. DH popped into a hotel and asked the concierge who immediately re-directed us to the front. WOW. This was DDs first big-time church. It opened her eyes to an entirely new architectural world! It remained favorite church for almost the entire trip but towards the end it fell grudgingly to the #2 place (more on that later).

    If you have not been in this place, dig up your old Rome guide books or google it up. This is certainly worth a detour. We walked around in amazement while the gorgeous afternoon sunlight poured in from the clerestory windows illuminating the golden interior. Breathtaking.

    On the trivia side, the gold used for the coffers supposedly comes from the very first incoming shipment from Peru gifted by the Catholic king to Pope Alexander VI. I guess this is the equivalent of blood diamonds. But dwelling on the ethical issue subtracts from aesthetical enjoyment so I will let the matter rest.

    The church was not packed with people so we were able to move comfortably around. We visited Bernini’s tomb and then took a quick look under the chancel to see the urn with fragments from the Nativity crib. There were a couple of persons actually praying (an activity almost unheard of at the more popular churches) and this little space did have a sense of specialness to it. The almost overpowering statue of pope Pius IX kneels in perpetual adoration.

    To quit or not to quit?
    It was 5:30 in the afternoon. Churches remain open until 7:00PM. Perhaps we had time for one more church. DD looked energized, DH looked as if he would survive. This time I actually verbalized the question: One more? The response: Okay, as long as we don’t have to walk too much.

    The Metro map came out and we saw that we were rather close to the Vittorio station (Red Line) which would take us all the way to San Giovanni in Laterano. The matter was settled and we took off.

    The Roma pass includes a transportation pass which is valid for three days. We made good use of it. I don’t know why we had not used the metro on our prior visit! Less than 15 minutes later we were in the San Giovanni stop.

    If one excludes Saint Peter’s on account of sheer grandeur and status, San Giovanni in Lateranois a strong contender for the most impressive church in Rome. But I am somewhat biased because I particularly like the early Christian basilica style. This was the first seat of the Holy Mother Church. It stands tall and proud, with clean lines and luminous interior.

    It was remodeled by Borromini but heavy restrictions –had to keep the ceiling- were placed by the pope to ensure that it retained some of its character. At that time people were still scandalized over the ‘desecration’ of the old Saint Peters.

    We walked around admiring the art until we were kicked out at 7:00. I could have spent some more time in there!

    So it was way past Cocktail Hour, we were tired, still jetlagged and knew that we would crash shortly after dinner. We preferred to find a place to eat close to apartment.

    The Apartment. Oh! Have we seen a payphone today? Not a single one.

    We went back into the metro, rode to Termini station, squeezed into the #40 bus (it was slightly less full than the #64 buses which passed by) and got off at Campo de Fiori.

    There is always time to WUI

    We arrived to the Campo shortly before 7:30, early to eat by Roman standards. We were tired but knew that we must push to stay awake so that we could get over the last few shreds of jetlag. Naturally the best way to pass the time is to WUI also known as people-watching while comfortably imbibing.

    A quick look around revealed that most places in which we could sit were setting up for dinner and drink-only guests were not being welcomed. We walked a few more steps and found a place called Baccanale where we quickly and ungraciously plummeted into the chairs.

    Cool white wine does wonders for my mood! DH had a glass of red, DD had a coke. We watched kids play, dogs run after pigeons, couples meeting, regular people taking a little passagiata…. Until 8:00 when we knew that we must get moving or risk falling asleep in a bar without having dinner.

    I pulled up my carefully compiled list of Fodorite-recommended restaurants and after a brief triangulation established that our best bet was Ditirambo so we headed that way.

    The First ‘Real’ Meal

    We found Ditirambo after a few false starts and a walk-in-circles-around-the-target. We had no reservations and I think we took the last available table at 8:20. This is what we had:

    Primi

    DD- Tagliatele with Seafood: Served in a thick white wine and sauce. No cream but very velvety. It was clearly the winning dish of the night.
    DH and I – Asparagus risotto, served over a cheesy creamy sauce. Delicious

    Secondi

    DH – Osso Bucco: He was expecting a red tomato sauce and got a lemony, creamy sauce. Could be a summer version of the dish. It was good, but it was not a fall-of-the-bone Osso Bucco. He was rather disappointed.

    Me – Trio of Bacala: Grilled Fresh Codfish Filet served over a tiny salad, Dried Codfish on a tomato sauce and Fried, lightly battered Codfish filet. Grilled one was the best, the tomato sauce was a bit too acidy and only lukewarm. The fritto was good.

    House Red Wine (Open Carafe) 1.5L, Acqua Frizzante 1L, two café machiatti.

    At 77Euros I found the meal to be a great value.

    The Return to the Apartment

    We opened the front door with some trepidation and took cautious whiffs. Not bad, a very faint smell could be detected if you know what to smell for. DH made the mistake of opening the door to the small room. Bad Idea. DD setup to sleep again in the living room sofa bed after we all agreed that the door was to remain closed for the duration. We would attempt to contact the owner in the morning.

    Next: The Long March, the German Invasion of the Vatican and the Search for Dinner on a Reservation-Less Friday Night.

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    Thanks to all for the encouragement!!! This is getting a little longer to write than I expected but then, this is a trip I want to remember every detail of.

    ___________________________________

    Friday, May 22 - Day 3: From Trastevere to the Vatican by the way of Gianicolo

    Reverse Jetlag

    I opened my eyes at 4:00AM. Am I crazy or what? This would be my natural going to sleep time at home and here I was, wide awake. What can I tell you? I’m just weird. A little too much vino and café machiatto? Plausible. But reverse jetlag sounds a lot more interesting.

    I tossed and turned but there was nothing wrong. The apartment was completely quiet. The bed was sufficiently comfortable. I was not hot but I certainly was not cool either, the A/C in the bedroom did not seem to be quite up to speed. That at least gave me something to do. I cautiously opened the big bedroom door and smelled. Nothing! OK, this was not so bad. I cranked up the A/C in the main living room and left the big bedroom door open. Within a couple of minutes the temperature was cool enough to snuggle up to DH.

    Making Pretty for the Day

    DD woke us up at 8:30 this morning. I had run them a bit ragged the day before so I was not going to push for an early start. DH went for supplemental breakfast goodies while we showered and made pretty. Well, if truth be told, DD made pretty because at that moment I made an unprecedented decision which will forever haunt me in the pictures taken but allowed me to survive in relative comfort the rest of the day: I put on a light blue Gap T-Shirt, dark blue Gap skirt (same T-shirt material) and sneakers. Yup. I did that. My only defense: it was seriously hot outside and we would walk many miles this day.

    Allow me to elaborate. Even though I’m not a fashionista, I try to dress on the classic side. When I’m on vacation I aim at achieving a look that will not make me stand out in the crowd but will still get me seated at any restaurant I walk into.

    I only wear sneakers when I’m exercising (read: not nearly enough) and had only brought a pair because of the walking that we would do in Vernazza. I had packed two other skirts but they were certainly not suitable to wear with sneakers. This particular skirt had been packed on impulse to perhaps wear during long car rides or to have something to change into in the evening. But my sneakers are gray and blue and these clothes were the best possible combination (and I use the term ‘best’ very loosely here).

    DD looked at me when I came out of the room dressed as The Tourist and asked if I was going out like that. I said ‘Yes’. She immediately followed up with: ‘With those shoes?’ My quick reply (on a rather flat, firm and final tone): ‘It’s hot and my feet still hurt from yesterday’. She sort of rolled her eyes and did not utter a single word more. Bless her soul. There is hope for this girl!

    Side note for the ladies: This is a tip I learned from fellow Fodorites! Lots of ladies refrain from wearing skirts because of inner thigh rub. If you apply antiperspirant to the area which rubs no chaffing will occur. Works great!

    Second attempt at coffee-making

    DH arrived with all the goodies and we setup for breakfast. We had finally figured out how to turn on the stove (push and hold without turning until ignition) so we boiled some water for what we thought was instant coffee. Wrong. After all the grains finally settled we wound up drinking Turkish-style coffee. Not very good but at least killed the caffeine need. Addiction is a BAD thing.

    I figured I would have decent coffee somewhere along the way. Probably in the place where we found a payphone to call the apartment owner to see what could be done for the stinky room.

    The Plan for Today

    Another very ambitious day had been planned:

    1. Villa Farnesina
    2. San Pietro in Montorio (The Tempietto)
    If-we-have-time:
    2a. San Francisco Ripa (Bernini’s ecstasy of Ludovica)
    2b. Santa Maria in Trastevere
    2c. Santa Cecilia
    3. The Vatican Museum (pre-purchased tickets for 2:00 PM)
    4. St. Peters

    I will only say that it looked OK on paper. It actually might have worked if we had been by the gates of Villa Farnesina when they opened at 8:00AM. Needless to say, that was not the case. We walked out of the apartment by 10:30.

    The Revised Plan

    1. Villa Farnesina
    2. The Vatican Museum
    3. St. Peters

    The Unexpected Neighborhood

    I intended to go to the Trastevere loosely following Rick Steve’s Jewish Ghetto Walk. This itinerary starts by the Turtle Fountain, goes thru the Portico d’Ottavia and ends going over the Ponte Fabricio into the Isola Tiberiana. This area was a complete surprise to me. It was bustling with activity and lots of interesting-looking restaurants. I would have browsed through the menus but that 2:00 pre-purchased entrance to the Vatican Museum was already looming over my head.

    I wonder why this area is not more actively discussed – well, I know why… when a 4 star location is completely surrounded by 5 star sights it is easy for the place to go unnoticed. To me it seemed that the area was just as browsing-worthy as the Campo de Fiori.

    As we walked by the The Portico d’Ottavia ruins I wondered if Romans even truly see these marvelous things or if their eyes become so accustomed to the evidence of history that the mind just filters it out.

    We veered off our walk so that we could go through the little passage next to the Teatro di Marcello. The top floors of this ancient theater were turned into a palace a couple of centuries after its construction. I thought it was pretty cool and I was rather disappointed with the Green Guide for giving such a brief description of this place.

    We finally walked past a public phone but it apparently require some type of calling card which we obviously not had. So, no call to the apartment owner could be made.

    The Beautiful Palace

    Once we were on the other side of the river we decided to hop on the bus to try to get as fast as possible to Villa Farnesina. This was a must-do for this trip. I wanted to see the palace of renaissance banker Agostino Chigi and the art he had commissioned Raphael to produce for him.

    I also wanted DD to see this before she went to the Vatican because, really, after you see the ceilings in the musei and the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, Villa Farnesina might not be that impressive after all.

    Entrance was 5E pp and is not covered by Roma Pass. DH asked if he could use the phone to call the apartment owner but apparently it was an out of town number and the clerk refused.

    The palace is beautiful. And I was pleased to see that the frescoes were impressive enough. Once again I could have stayed a bit longer but two things did not make it possible: it was 1:00 PM (in the ‘low’ –ha!- season the Villa closes at 1:00PM) and I only had an hour to make to the Vatican Musei. I had –still don’t- no idea of how strongly they enforce the entrance time so I was not willing to be late.

    The Long March

    There are multiple transportation options between Villa Farnesina and Vatican City but I thought of a possibility that had been on my wish-list: let’s walk up the Gianicolo Hill, past the Garibaldi monument and we’ll come straight down into the Vatican City.

    This walk did not look so challenging on the map. Why? Because the map does not show elevation. I thought it could easily be done in an hour. I’ll only say that it seemed like a good idea at the time.

    We asked at the nearby business if it was possible to walk through the Orto Botanico up to Piazza Garibaldi and she replied no. I was dubious but I didn’t really have the time to walk up to a dead end so we decided to go the long way around.

    Somehow we messed up and wound up walking by the street. Up, up and more up. Naturally it had to be that way, what the hell was I expecting??! It’s the Gianicolo HILL. Duh! It was hot and getting hotter as the afternoon progressed. DD was not doing the happy dance by the time we reached the Fontana Paola.

    The fountain was pretty impressive and the view was magnificent. Took But it was not to be fully enjoyed, I was in a time crunch. After a couple of pictures it was time to keep walking. Double time.

    I was second guessing myself all the way to Piazza Garibaldi: Should I just ditch the Vatican tickets (48Euros)? Should I slow down and just come in late? Is it even feasible to arrive on time? Should we stop and wait for a bus? Why are there no buses coming through? Why the #$%$% did I not take a bus from the Villa to the Vatican? Or even better, a taxi?

    So I committed the capital sin of travel, I became a true tourist and not the traveler I yearn to be: I did not savor what I was seeing. I rushed through the sight at hand in favor of the one to come, thus wasting the time and effort invested in order to get here in the first place. Live and learn.

    To spare you the full extent of my racing thoughts, we kept walking at fast pace and we made it to the Vatican Museum entrance by 2:20.

    BTW, there was a trailhead by the Gianicolo passagiata identified as Villa Farnesina, so I guess that there is a way through the garden. There has to.

    The Wealth of the World

    Even at the late hour the line to enter the Musei Vaticani was still considerable. I would estimate it at least to be an hour-long wait. Not too bad. Except –and a very considerable exception- that it was in the full sun.

    Happy to by-pass the line, we had show the printout of the reservation to several Men in Black along the way before we reached the door. We were directed towards the group counter. I handed over the paper to the ticket seller and, not really surprising and almost disappointingly, he did not say anything about our tardiness. What can I say? I’m a sucker for punctuality, I guess it can be included as one of the many reasons I married a Swiss.

    Once we were in we collapsed the Cortile della Pigna and tried to recover our breath while willing ourselves into having a second wind.

    While DD was still melting on the floor an elderly woman handed her a camera and ordered: YOU. Sit. No Stand. Take Picture. And proceeded to pose with one of the biggest grins I have ever seen. It was hilarious but I guess you had to be there.

    There is nothing like laughing to bring the energy level up so we scraped ourselves from the floor and tackled the museum.

    A Brief Digression to Address the matter of Guidebooks

    I spent countless hours at Borders browsing through guidebooks trying to make a decision of which books were worthy of weighing down my daypack during this vacation.

    In the past I have used a combination of Fodor’s, Frommer’s, Lonely Planet, Let’s Go, Eyewitness Guides and the Michelin Green Guide (this one I always get). Each has its own virtues and lacks. The ones which I had never, ever used where the Rick Steve’s guides.

    I only became curious because of all the RS bashing that occurs in Fodor’s. I looked a few of the books over and did not dislike what I saw. I first bought the Rome guide to take a closer look at home. Yes, he has a silly/sarcastic sense of humor. Yes, some of the diagrams are stupid. But much to my surprise, the guide book was pretty good.

    In the end I took two Green Guides: Rome and Tuscany, and two RS Guides: Rome and Venice. A few days before the trip I found at Marshall’s for $3.99 RS’s 2008 Italy book. This one I tore apart and only took with me the relevant sections.

    Throughout this trip I found that the Green Guide was to dry for DD and DH and I would sometimes lose their interest while I was reading out loud. DD liked the RS books, laughed at the silly jokes and would often read the descriptions herself.

    On the practical side of things I found the RS ‘walks’ to be a lot easier to follow than any other guidebook I had used before. On top of that I found them to be very accurate regarding opening hours and other details.

    I will certainly use this combination again in the future.

    Countless Riches

    I was aiming for a basic tour of the museum mainly for DD’s benefit. DH and I had been here before and while I can see masterpieces time and time again and be excited every time, he gets rather bored. One day when I grow up, I will go in there by myself and spend at least a week looking at beautiful things.

    I will not go into the details of everything we saw, it has been described in countless guides. We basically followed RS’s tour but bypassed the Egyptian section (DD had not shown much interest at the NY Met so I was saving our feet).

    For the first part of the visit we were mostly able to place ourselves into the gaps left in between tour groups. There was space enough that it did not become a single mass of humanity moving in unison. Still it felt a bit like cattle droving. We had to wait a little to get good looks of handsome Apollo Belvedere and of the impressing Torso which was a big influence on Michaelangelo.

    It got a bit more crowded when the available space was compressed in the Round Room. We had to go through here almost in single file and were not allowed by the Museum Dictators to linger.

    By the time we reached the tapestries DD was beginning to look uncomfortable. She has a touch of claustrophobia. She deals with it rather well but I could see that she was not happy. Thankfully it was not stifling hot, that might have thrown her over the edge.

    She perked up a bit in the Map Gallery as we looked out the windows to admire the dome. I don’t know where everyone went but we had a lot more space around us in the papal apartments. We even found seating space once in a while! Giving our feet some rest enabled DD and I to discuss the amazing lighting of Raphael’s Liberation of St. Peters and to try to match the Renaissance characters depicted as Greek philosophers in his School of Athens.

    Silence, Please!

    We somehow missed the shortcut to the Sistine Chapel and wound up going through the Modern Art gallery. Nothing perked up our interest so we moved along rather quickly. The Sistine Chapel was naturally filled with people but since there was still space to maneuver DD was ok. Eventually we even found space to sit.

    I love this place for two reasons. First and foremost, Michaelangelo’s art is unbelievable and I will never tire of admiring it. But second, I love watching people experience the chapel. The range goes from those who couldn’t care less, its one thing to check-off the list. Been there done that, to those who work themselves up to hysterical ecstasy.

    The Museum Dictators provide a lot of entertaining too. No FOTO! NOOOOO FOTOOOOO! Immediately interrupted by the prerecorded message to remain silent in this holy place.

    There was a Portuguese group that got a severe scolding (at a very high volume) from one of the MDs. He asked her which language she spoke, she answered Portuguese and then he yelled: In that case Spanish is good enough so that you UNDERSTAND that this is your third and final warning, no photos!’. A plain clothes guard was posted next to them. They left soon afterwards. Walking rather quickly I thought.

    Once we had had our fill of the marvelous ceiling (and rested our feet a bit) we went out by the Group Exit door (the guards did not even blink) and went directly into Saint Peters.

    A dome which stretches all the way to heaven

    There is nothing comparable to the experience of walking into St. Peter’s Basilica. One can picture a constant stream of pilgrims, feeling tiny and insignificant, overwhelmed by the Holy Mother Church only then to be pulled into the endless space beneath the dome, the true gateway to heaven.

    Boy, did they know how to put on a good show!

    I had recently read The Splendor and The Scandal: Building St. Peters and found that the book added tremendously to the experience of being there. I would strongly recommend it to anyone visiting the Basilica. You can barely fathom to the long, dramatic, traumatic and political processes that resulted in this church.

    I was disappointed that the areas behind the Baldachin were cordoned off and would not open for the rest of the evening. It was nearing closing time so declared the day to be over and slowly emerged into the embracing arms of the Piazza and the roman afternoon glow.

    Lederhosen in this heat?

    Earlier in the day I had seen groups of Germans fully dressed in traditional Swabian costumes. I had assumed that they were going to a papal audience. When we exited the museum we heard what I assumed to be firecrackers of some sort but DH immediately recognized as cracking whips.

    He pulled my arm and said, you have to see this! We almost ran (considering the miles walked that day perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we hobbled quickly) over to the opening in time to see a group of nine leather-clad men whipping away in perfect unison across the piazza.

    As we came out of the basilica we saw two groups playing German music and hymns at opposites sides of the piazza. Hummm… why were the Southern Germans were invading the Vatican? We would find out the next day.

    The pursuit of sustenance for the body

    After laying around the base of the obelisk for a while we finally picked ourselves up and started to walk in the general direction of home. DD got some Crema gelato (2E) to carry her over into dinner time. We passed Castel Sant’Angelo and over the bridge of angels into Rome proper.

    We wandered through the pedestrian area in Via dei Coronari, looking into the windows of all the antique stores. We detoured from the main street and suddenly saw this really appealing restaurant. We looked at the menu posted outside and they listed a few things we would like to try. That’s when I noticed the name: Osteria del Pegno. This place was on The List!

    We asked to make a reservation for later in the evening but they were full for the night. They could accommodate us the following evening so we made a reservation for 8:30. Well, at least tomorrow’s meal was setup.

    Time to WUI

    The task at hand was to find a place to sit down and have a drink. We did not need to seek far. After a few twists and turns we found ourselves by Café de la Pace. A quick movement by DH secured us an outside table where we could rest our weary feet while we watched the world go by and people jockey for tables.

    We had walked a lot in the heat and completely skipped lunch so we knew that this was not vino time. We ordered two big beers and a coke. We should have ordered one and shared because by the time we were done they were completely warm. I’m not that big on beer anyway so DH wound up drinking most of my tepid beer and then we shared a third one.

    DD was briefly released from parental surveillance so she could wander up and down the street on her own until we were ready to move on. It was 8:15 by the time we paid our bill (20E) and I knew that by then we could have some trouble finding a place for dinner.


    Where Does One Eat on a Reservation-Less Friday Night?!?!

    I’m always optimist so we walked over to Armando al Pantheon. No luck. All tables were accounted for and they would not take reservations for second seating.

    The prospects for the evening were beginning to look bleak when our wandering feet and guardian angels took us straight to the front of Der Pallaro. We asked for a table and the waiter told us about the style of the place: basically you don’t have a choice. You get what they cook and that’s it. I asked what was being served and was handed list of items. I did not see anything offensive and knowing that the options were limited by that time, we promptly agreed. We were seated on the next to last available table.
    Within minutes food started coming out of the kitchen:

    Antipasti:
    - Lentils dressed with oil and vinegar; very good
    - Huge platter of prosciutto; cannot go wrong!
    - Fennel Salad; not my favorite thing in the world but still good
    - Fried Rice Balls; really creamy and smooth on the inside, crunchy on the outside. Really good!
    - Unidentified croquette – my guess is that it was somewhat related to eggplant
    - Olives; the single one thing I don’t eat in this world. Just cannot swallow them.

    Primi: Rigatoni in tomato sauce; wonderfully al dente, the sauce deliciously stuck to the pasta, tons of grated cheese were dropped over it.

    Secondi: Roasted Veal au jus with potato chips and a green salad; The salad was forgettable, the potato chips would have been perfect for my taste if they had been just a little crunchier. The veal was delicious.

    Dolci: A concoction of citric juices was brought with an almond tart. The juice was really good and each took not more than two bites from the tart. We were full and did not have a taste for dessert.

    Red Wine and a Coke

    (75E)

    The great thing about this place was the entertaining. The owner came out of the kitchen periodically and inspected her domain. She was not shy about telling people to eat up. As the evening progressed the line of people waiting to be sat constantly grew.

    I was getting the impression that the seating process was completely arbitrary based on the owner’s whim. The waiters would only sit a group when authorized by The Queen. This was confirmed a hopeful dinner questioned the process and she replied in a loud voice: ‘this is MY restaurant and people will be seated as I tell them to’. No more challenges came forth.

    As we got up to leave she patted DH’s cheek. I had never seen such a boyish grin on his face!

    Waddling home

    Once again we opened the apartment door with some trepidation but the smell only very faintly noticeable. No one attempted to go into the small room. Once the A/C was on it was only a matter of minutes before it disappeared completely. Quick showers for everyone and crashing into bed.

    Next: Why are we watching butterflies?, Lots of Bones and The Germans Mobilize

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    I do a lot of WUI on my vacations too, especially when it's warm. Your daily itineraries are very ambitious!

    Really enjoying your report. I've visited Rome many times and reading about others' trips just makes me want to go again.

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    This is a magical review. Perhaps you were watching us the first and only time we entered the Bascilica? I was the one standing shell shocked, slack jawed and tears streaming.

    I hope there is a visit to Santa Maria Trestavere later on. It was one of the best experiences of our trip. We were tired and hot and grateful to enter the church. There was a luminous sound echoing off the walls of the church. It was a high school choir from the US singing Negro spirituals. These are the reasons we travel.

    Looking for more from you. What a treat!

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    Marigross - I'm loving this report, too. Add me to that long list of admirers here; your planning, your organization, and your writing are amazing! Looking forward to more! Loving DD as well (Ciao bella! indeed!)

    Paule

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    love your report, particularly the way you summarize the housing/restaurants at the beginning. I was just going to copy that portion, but then started reading the report itself.

    Now I'm hooked!

    :-)

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    Cara marigross, I am half way laughing and half way crying. I can't tell you how much your trip report is touching my heart. We took our daughter to Italy at that age too..oh my, keeping an eye on her thanks to the gorgeous Italian men had her dad worn out. Btw, years later she married a gorgeous Roman man. Just saying, lol.

    I have walked through Rome with you, smelled the sewer smell (although that was in Venice not Rome) and smiled at all of your comments dear one.

    I love the format of your trip report but mostly I love that your trip report is from your heart. Again, it has sure touched my heart and brought back a flood of memories when we were in Rome with our teenage daughter. And Moses, I truly think of everything in Rome, Moses was always my late husband's greatest joy.

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    Hi Marigross!

    I usually see you in the Spain side of the board, I am so glad to see you here. I am enjoying so much your report, I'm getting ready to go to Rome in a couple of weeks.

    So sorry about the experience with the smelly bedroom! Your DD was a real trouper, not complaining about sleeping in the sofa bed.

    I will think of you everytime I indulge in some WUI!

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    Marigross,

    As so many others have said, your report is a joy to read. Well organized with bold headings, and your descriptions of the day make all of us feel we are walking with you...without the blisters of course :) I think this is an excellent report for first-timers to read!

    I feel your pain about jet-lag. It takes us about 16 hours(not including stop-overs) to get to Europe, and I'm pretty sure I got that whole reverse jet-lag also.

    I've never heard that tip about putting on antiperspirant when wearing skirts! Got to try that next time. Like your family, we also were in Rome during the month of May. Isn't the heat crazy? We're also from a humid climate, and I was not at all prepared for the weather in May - I swear it's global warming because on our second trip, the heat felt 2x as bad.

    I'm guessing at least one of you can speak Italian since you never mentioned dealing with the language barrier. I've been to Florence twice now at the same time you were there, and I can almost guess what your reaction was!

    Can't wait for more!!

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    Marigross,

    Your writing is a joy to read!!
    I look forward to the continuation of your adventure.
    Thanks for sharing and especially for all the wonderful helpful information. I will be traveling to Italy in Sept-Oct. with 3 friends and appreciate learning from the experiences of others.

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    While the next instalment is in the works, here is my pre-trip / let's-get-in-an-Italian-mood reading list. Please remember that this trip was postponed twice so I had a long time to read up.The star rating is mine.

    "The Agony and the Ecstasy" ****

    "The Pope's Ceiling" *** by Ross King

    "Brunelleschi's Dome" **** by Ross King

    "The Passion of Artemisia" ****

    "The Birth of Venus" * by Sarah Dunant

    "Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal: Building St. Peter's" by R. A. Scotti ****

    "Roma" by Steven Saylor ****

    "City of Falling Angels" ** by John Berhendt

    "I, Mona Lisa"* and "The Borgia Bride"** by Jeanne Kalogridis

    "Galileo's Daughter" *** by Dava Sobel

    "The Sixteen Pleasures" * by Robert Hellenga

    "The Lost Painting" *** by Jonathan Harr

    "April Blood" *

    "The Enchantress of Florence"** by Salman Rushdie

    "A Thousand Days in Tuscany"* by Marlena di Blasi

    "Under the Tuscan Sun"** by Frances Mayes

    "The House of the Medici, Its Rise and Fall" * by Christopher Hibbert

    "The Pope's Daughter, The Extraordinary Life of Felice della Rovere"*** by Caroline P. Murphy

    "The Genius in the Design" ***

    "In the Company of a Courtesan ***

    "Lavinia" *** by Ursula K. LeGuin

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    I am swamped at work and have a Date Night with DH today so no installment tonight. DD is staying over at her friends, still in Parental Detox I guess. Poor girl.

    Anna1013 inquired about the language issue so I'll expand:

    DH is Swiss German but had to take Italian in school. Afterwards he had some exposure working and vacationing in Italy. He is very far from fluent but can get by. The problem is that now all his Italian is jumbled up with his Spanish as we live in Puerto Rico.

    DD and I are native Spanish speakers. The language is close enough to Italian that if you (1) have a broad vocabulary (2) do what I call 'listening with your mind' and most importantly (3) are willing to look stupid while trying to communicate, you can certainly get by.

    I would not want to go to a doctor or talk to a lawyer, at that point the language barrier would be huge as many details and all nuances would be lost. But for everyday touristic communication and asking for directions we did okay.

    In addition, we were in very few places in which English was not spoken and we found everyone very willing to work with us in order to reach an understanding.

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    An extremely enjoyable trip report. I love it, bring on more. I loved our experience at Der Pallaro, and look forward to stopping in this October. Our other favorite in Rome is Du Buffaoto. Looking forward to reading mroe.

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    Saturday, May 23th - Day 4: From the Borghese to Castel Saint Angelo via the Baths of Diocletian

    Getting Started…Jump Started

    We were supposed to wake up early but DDs alarm did not ring. I decided not to inquire too deeply to find out if it had been a fortuitous incident or not. My eyes opened up by 7:45. Not good. I had a reservation for the Borghese Gallery for 9:00AM (8:30 for checkin). Well, we are not going to make it! I did not panic because…. I had a backup reservation for 11:00 AM.

    We decided to go for it anyway. If it was too late we would just use the backup reservation. We had a quick breakfast, including some of the fabulous (NOT!) Turkish coffee. We were out the door in record time by 8:20.

    In case you are wondering, I did not have a single decent cup of morning coffee in Rome and a real decadent cappuccino had to wait until we were in Pienza.

    The Plan for Today

    1. Borghese Gallery
    2. Santa Maria della Vittoria (Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa)
    2a. If-we-had-time: Capuchin Crypt
    4. Baths of Diocletian
    5. Castel St Angelo

    I made the Borghese reservation by phone (011) 39 063 2810, English well spoken, very easy and did not take more than three minutes. http://www.galleriaborghese.it/info-en.htm

    When I plan trips I tend to cram the absolute-must-do’s at the begging of the trip, that way if something goes wrong I have a little space to maneuver. Therefore the days were getting less hectic (I know that this is relative). The only absolute-must-do for today was the Borghese Gallery so the rest of the day could be taken as it went. At this moment there was no need to come up with a Revised Plan (YES!!!), even when considering the later start.

    The Half Empty Bus

    We had seen in the bus map what we thought was an electric tram that went from Campo de Fiori all the way to the Borghese gardens and decided to try and see how it went. After a few inquiries we realized that it was a bus, located the correct stop and proceeded to wait.

    The first bus to come by was a 6-seater van equipped. It was full and we were not picked up. The second bus came about 10 minutes later it was empty and we went in.

    It seemed like an awfully big vehicle to have only five regular seats, we then noticed that is had latches dock in wheelchairs. We wondered if we were somehow transgressing by using this service. Was it only intended for the elderly and handicapped? We had no idea and the driver never stopped talking on his cell phone so we could ask him.

    A few more people, with no apparent handicap, were picked up along the way so we thought it might be ok after all. The bus went through tons of tiny little streets. It seemed to me that he braked and looked into a few buildings, as if he was looking for regular customers.

    Bottom line, we were dropped off in the Borghese Park by 9:15 with instructions from the driver to walk to the cross roads, turn left and we would see the Gallery at the end of the road.

    Beautiful Daphne turns into a Tree

    There we were, at 9:25, in front of the doors to the Borghese Gallery. Should we go in? Should we wait for 11:00? Well, there was nothing to lose (except money), we could go in now AND back in at 11:00 if we were not done.

    The timed entrance rush had passed, there was no waiting to check-in the handbags (no bags, regardless of the size, are allowed inside), handed out our Roma Passes with the reservation number and within a couple of minutes we were inside.

    I had read so many raves about this Gallery. It had been listed as a favorite museum in Rome by many Fodorites whose I opinion I value. Naturally I had high expectations for this museum, something I fear because it often leads to disappointment. I should not have worried. What a magnificent place!

    Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte must have truly been a scandal when unveiled to the public. She has such an ‘I’m-so-pleased-with-myself expression’! But Bernini’s Daphne… What can one say about this beauty? There are not words. The tears streaming down her face, the hair delicately turning into leaves, her body being enclosed by the bark, her toes digging into the earth while morphing into roots…

    It was the first time ever I saw DD being truly moved by ‘old’ art. She wanted to hear Daphne’s story. Why was she being pursued? Why did her father do such a cruel thing to her? (Being a tree must be terribly boring) Wasn’t there a better way to protect her? Why would she prefer death to submitting to glorious Apollo? (Hummm. Beep on the Mother Radar) Over the rest of the trip she made several free-interpretation drawings of Daphne.

    Bernini’s David was suitably impressive but in my book it cannot stand next to Aeneas or even less, next to The Rape of Proserpine.

    I must make a confession: I talk to sculptures and paintings. Not to all, only to those dear to my heart. It is not very loud; in reality it is not more than a low mumble, but I still look like a madwoman. This is why I love going to museums by myself! I don’t want to embarrass anyone. So if you ever see me in a museum, please, be kind. In this trip I refrained from this practice in deference to DD but it left me with a strong desire to have a good conversation with Proserpine. Oh well, there is always next time. Maybe I buy her a drink then.

    The came the Caravaggios! My absolute favorite was Mary and Jesus stepping over snake. Such a luminous and sensual skin! WOW! No wonder this painting was deemed inappropriate to be placed in St Peters. Thankfully Cardinal Borghese had a lecherous soul and rescued this beauty.

    With less than a half-hour left to the visit we went to the second floor. It was very interesting and I could have spent a little more time but it did not justify a second entry. One the way out we spotted the gorgeous aviary outside and thought it was pretty interesting-looking. We proceeded to collect our stuff and headed that way.

    Butterflies and Tea in the Aviary

    We found the entrance to the aviary and saw that it was the last day of a special exhibit of butterflies. Should we go in? Sure, why not, I like butterflies, DD likes butterflies and DH raised butterflies from eggs when he was a child. The LAST DAY part in an exhibit strongly dependant on the finicky life-cycle of an insect should have pulled a trigger in our minds but it didn’t. It was 7E pp and the biggest ripoff of the trip.

    There were some butterflies but none truly spectacular. Most of the butterflies had died off, which is why the exhibit was closing down. DUH! The aviary doubled as a hothouse for orchids and was (obviously) steaming hot. The exhibit entrance included a serving of tea on beautiful china. But who really wants to drink hot tea when its 95ºF inside the hothouse? Only DH who cannot bear to see anything wasted.

    Did you know that silk cocoons are very hard? They need to be soaked in water before the silk thread can be spun. It’s rather logical when one thinks about it, otherwise it would not protect the pupa but I always thought that they were –ahem- silky smooth. See, not all is wasted when you learn something.

    The forgotten date with Theresa

    I don’t know why it slipped from my mind. Perhaps I was still swooning over Daphne. But it finally hit me! The next step on The Plan was to visit the biggest swooner of them all, the grand dame of ecstasy: Bernini’s St. Theresa. It was 11:40AM. Damn! We were going to fall into the Dreaded Lunch Void.

    Almost all of the smaller churches in Rome close for lunch from 12:00 to 3:00PM. This creates a big logistical problem when creating a plan. Not only do the sights need to be geographically close but viewing of church art is restricted to morning and late afternoon. This had been incorporated into The Plan, but then I got distracted with the ripoff butterflies. Double Damn.

    A quick consultation with the Green Guide listed Santa Maria della Vittoria, the church which houses St. Theresa, closing for lunch at 12:30. This was highly suspicious but would give me enough time to salvage my itinerary.

    For the second time in the day I was wondering: Should we run for it? We were close enough to be there by noon. It was a very small church so half an hour would be almost enough time to see it. Well, we went for it.

    A brisk 15 minute walk later we found ourselves in front of the church, just in time to see the door firmly closed and the attendants walking out the parish door. It was 11:55 PM. It was unavoidable; The Plan had to be reshuffled.

    I consulted again the guidebooks and both –RS’s and Green Guide – listed Santa Maria degli Angeli as not closing for lunch. OK, in that case we would head in that direction. It was close enough that we could backtrack later to see Theresa.

    The Unexpected Meridian

    If one has not been into St. Peters, walking into Santa Maria degli Angeli a.k.a. the Baths of Diocletian would be a jaw dropping experience. We had been to St. Peters already so the gap in our mouths was barely big enough to let a fly go in. What an impressive place. What a sight it must have been in its heyday! Those ancient Romans knew how to live in style.

    Mass was being said but no one was restricting the tourist from walking around. We sat down on a bench towards the back and I begun to read about the church from the book. In less than 30 seconds DD was deeply asleep. We gave her a 15-minute break to power nap, woke her up (read: got her to an upright position where she was able to walk where led) and toured around the perimeter of the church.

    To one side of the church there was a Galileo exhibit which seemed a bit weird to me until I realized that in the floor of the church is a very large meridian line and an astronomical map. Rather cool and completely unexpected. There was a guy explaining the marks and measurements but it was going over our heads and we decided to move along.

    A Nap at the Museum

    It was just over 1:00PM and we were still within the Lunch Void. I looked around for things to fill in the gap and saw the Museum of the Bath next door. It was not in The Plan, did not list any major piece of art, but it was covered by the Roma Pass so it would not be such a bad deal and would shelter us from the sun and heat for a while.

    A quick walk around the block and we found the entrance. A gorgeous pergola (I’m a sucker for those things!) covered the walk way. We handed out our Roma Passes to the ticket lady and she waved us in. Now, we had already spent our two ‘free’ entrances with the Foro/Coloseo and the Borghese, we were supposed to get only a discount. Before I had a chance to open my mouth to clarify the situation, DH instantly and firmly pulled me by the arm into the hallway (this is almost a routine between us).

    We walked towards the entrance and there was a turnstile to put the tickets in. Obviously they did not work. The guard came over but before I had a chance to explain that we were attempting an illegal entry, he opened the side door and let us in.

    This is the kind of place where one goes only if one is a devoted fan of ancient art or maybe after staying in Rome for over a month and begins to run out of first-line places to go to. There were only two other persons to be seen in this museum. They were drawing vases so I guess they must have been in some sort of scholastic assignment.

    I will say that if I had paid the full price I would have been very disappointed. At the reduced price it was okay. Since we had it as an unexpected freebee it was enjoyable. There were a few very interesting things to see, fertility artifacts are always bound to perk up almost anyone’s attention! The courtyard is pretty cool too.

    We walked into the side wing and saw this wonderfully long bench, running along the cool wall and suddenly, it called my name: Come! Lay Down! There is no one here to see you! I did not resist very much before I answered its siren call. We all dropped down and napped for a few minutes.

    Reinvigorated, we headed down towards the exit when we heard some strange electronic music coming from a room. A small amphitheater had been setup and had a large screen which showed a stream with a 3-D reconstruction of the bath complex. There were four separate small screens and joysticks were placed in front of each. DD immediately started messing around with them and found that you could do a virtual tour of the Baths. The coolness factor increased when a few minutes later we found out that we could chase each other in this virtual world.

    A Rare Lunch

    We still had some time until 3:00 PM so DD put in a request to get some lunch. The expression on her face obviously revealed that there was a second part to this. She had seen a sign for McDonalds by Piazza della Republica and wanted some.

    We very seldom eat fast-food; I just think that it’s a waste of calories that could be better used towards delicious food and copious amounts of wine. But I have nothing personal against MickyD so we walked over. DD had a chicken sandwich on focaccia bread with was rather good and I had a cheeseburger. DH cleaned up the fries. 9.10E and a chance to go to a clean bathroom.

    Can we see Theresa now?

    A short walk brought us back to Santa Maria della Vittoria. The doors were not open yet. I guess it’s only natural that people are prompt to close and not in a hurry to open. A crowd was assembling around the entrance but we still found a shady spot to sit on the stairs. A few minutes later the doors opened up and all the followers of the Angels and Demons trail stormed into the church battling it out with the diehard Bernini fans.

    Seeing the Ecstasy of Santa Teresa was my last absolute must-do in Rome. I had tried but never made it in my last visit.

    I did not know much about the church itself but while everyone scrambled to see Theresa I had time to admire the ceiling. Why is this not mentioned anywhere?!?! This small church is a masterpiece of Baroque. The gilded walls rise towards the heights of heaven, the organ pipes are integrated into the upward movement. The frescoes are within a frame carried by sculpted angels. Breathtaking.

    Once the initial rush passed we were free to approach the chapel in which St. Therese is laying in her cloud. I had seen countless pictures of her, full body and face closeups. Yes, her mouth is open in ecstasy as if a soft moan had just escaped. Her head is thrown backwards in a swoon but her shoulder gently pushes forward indicating that she is still receiving the –ahem- Holy joy. Her body almost disappears under her habit.

    What I had never noticed before in pictures and firmly places this statue within the erotic realm is her foot. It peaks out from under her disarrayed robe and slightly hangs out of her cloud. The foot is limp but her toes are curled. If there is somewhere out there, in this big and diverse world, an art tour for foot-fetishists this would be the ultimate destination.

    This is one statue I would never attempt to have a conversation with. I would not presume to disturb her. It would be as when the phone rings just after you have had mind-blowing sex. Now, the angel standing over her is another story…he must have some good stories to tell!

    A morbid visit

    The next destination was in the if-we-have-time category. With my newfound freedom and sense of accomplishment gained once all the must-do’s were done, I decided to make the small detour to the church of Santa Maria dell Imacolata Conzecione. It was very close to the metro station anyway.

    If the name does not wring a bell, don’t worry, it is much better known as the Cappuccin Crypt.

    In this place the bones of over 4,000 monks are assembled (disassembled?) into artistic forms. It was bigger than I expected and rather more interesting too. It was morbidly fun to try to identify which kind of bone was used to shade a certain lamp shade or frieze.

    When the book said that donations were requested they meant it. We did not see the ‘collection box’ initially and walked straight in. A loud ‘HEY!’ was immediately heard. The attendant requested a 1E pp donation. No big deal. I was going to make the donation anyway, they might even had gotten more than that. I would just prefer that they call things by their true name. This was an entrance fee.

    I think that it’s more of a boy thing. Been there, done that, curiosity has been satisfied and there is no need to go back.

    Is it the boat what makes this place famous?

    Our general direction was Castel Sant Angelo. A consultation with the map did not yield many obvious public transportation options, I’m sure there must have been, we just didn’t see them. We dropped into the Barberini metro station and promptly emerged from the Piazza de Spagna. Since we were there, I said, ‘Why not? Let’s show DD the (in)famous Spanish Steps’.

    To say that this place was packed would be a crass understatement. There was some personal space to be enjoyed, but not much. I looked up the stairs and much to my surprise, there was not a single flower to be seen! Considering the season I expected a riot of magenta bougainvilleas to grace the area. But there was nothing. Zilch. Nada!

    DD looked rather perplexed and asked why we where here. I said ‘these are the Spanish Steps’. Still confused, she asked again: ‘the Steps are famous? Not the boat fountain? Why is it really that we are here? My response: ‘Just so that you don’t have to waste any time on a future trip coming back’.

    BTW, I think that the fountain is really nice and deserves the trip by itself.

    My intention was to walk by Augustus Mausoleum but we were trying to lose the crows as soon as possible and we somehow missed the street. No problem, next trip. See! Once The Plan is accomplished I can be carefree and wild.

    The German Invasion

    As we crossed over the river we began to see that a more and more people were assembling on the side of the road. Once we were close enough we could see that a parade was getting ready to start marching. After a few inquiries we finally found out the reason for the lederhosen invasion: St. Benedict’s Day.

    It seemed that every able-bodied Catholic Southern German owning lederhosen and a musical instrument had mobilized to Italy to celebrate their homeboy’s naming-saint day. Well, for purposes of veracity this statement might be a slight exaggeration, but there were a LOT of them.

    We watched the marching band parade for a while. At least 20 bands went by, playing considerably in tune all dressed in traditional costumes. In reality DD only watched the German boys, which even though they did not shout ‘Ciao, Bella!’ at her were still considerably cute, even in lederhosen.

    The Angel on Top

    We still had one more destination for the day and it was getting late so I wrestled DD away from the Germans so we could head towards the entrance.

    The first time we were in Rome, in the p.F. age, I did not even realize that one could go into that big chunk of rock next to the Vatican. Once my education had been greatly increased by Fodor’s I knew that I wanted to visit this place. On top of that, this fortress had been featured prominently in a book I had greatly enjoyed, The Borgia Bride (ha! I bet you thought I was going to say The Da Vinci Code!

    Castel St. Angelo begun its life as Hadrian’s Mausoleum and it shows. It is a dinosaur from a different age. Discounted entrance with Roma Pass was 16.5E for the three of us. The walk up the ramparts was not bad (could it be that we were getting in better shape from all that walking?!?!?)

    This place is really interesting and deserved a longer, more attentive visit than what we were able (or willing) to give it at the end of the day. In addition, I think that the views from the top are the best to be had in Rome. If it is not on your list for your next trip, add it.

    We walked by the place where the papal apartment and marveled at the contrast from the stark outside to the luxury inside. We saw where the treasure (at least the main cash deposit) was kept. Following the visit route you finally emerge into the sunlight and the terrace from which there is a 360º view of the city. I was surprised at how close one comes to the angel sculpture that crowns the fortress top. I adore anything to do with St. Michael or St, James (yeah, I know it’s the big swords!) so I thought it was uber cool.

    There is a café on the top which looked really tempting but the tables were full and considering that we were running out of steam, we preferred to relax (read: imbibe) closer to our dinner destination and gloat over the fact that 100% of The Plan for the day had been accomplished.

    WUI with the Regulars

    Our wandering feet led us almost directly to the place we had been the previous evening, Café della Pace. This time we had to stand around (and pay attention) for a few minutes before we managed to score a table. The place was packed! It seemed to me that a lot of people were greeting each other and the place had a vibe of a neighborhood joint.

    I had many read comments about how the customer is received in bars and restaurants once they realize that they are a repeat customer. I thought that it was a complete exaggeration. Well, let me tell you that it is not. We were welcomed enthusiastically by the exact same server, drinks were promptly brought and our chips and pretzel bowls were refilled.

    We had 4.5 glasses of white wine, a bottle of water and coke, 30E. It is a cool and hip place but not cheap! Maybe it was 6.5 glasses and then the price was not so bad after all. The 0.5 glass of wine was lost to a very accurate pigeon which dropped its load over my glass. It was hilarious, but only because I was not splattered. The waitress almost fainted when she saw the glass and immediately changed it without charge.

    Dinner on a Reservation-armed Saturday Night

    When we arrived at the restaurant at 8:25 there was only another party seated but as we walked inside we noticed that all the tables were reserved. If we had tried again to walk in like the previous night they would not have been able to seat us either. By 9:30 all the tables were full and the vibe was good.

    The best way to describe this place is: pleasant. It is nicely decorated but not ultra hip or chick. The music was nice and played at the perfect volume where it can be heard but does not interfere with conversation. It just looks like the kind of place where one will be fed well. The image matched its reality and we proceeded to have one of the Top 5 meals of the trip in the overall category.

    Antipasti:
    DH - 1 Mussels on White Wine and Garlic Sauce

    Primi
    DD - Mussels on White Wine and Garlic Sauce (listed as antipasto)
    DH – Risotto with Pesto and Prawns
    Me - Spaghetti alla Norma

    Secondi:
    DD – Risotto with Pesto and Prawns
    DH – Rabbit stewed with Olives
    Me – Roasted Lamb with Potatoes

    1.5 liters of rosso de la casa, 2 liters of water.
    2 café machiatti
    I would be hard pressed to pick a winner plate for the night. Everything was perfectly cooked – texture and taste, served warm (this turned out to be an issue as the trip progressed). The portions were generous. The service was attentive without being overpowering, answering questions, recommending DH to wait until his primo to order a secondo because they thought it might be too much. Ha! That will be the day, but they did not know DH’s appetite. 88E plus tip as the service truly deserved it.

    DD picked a gelato (biscotti and crema) on the way home where we happily crashed without noticing any smell or remembering to complain to the owner.

    Next: What to do with a ‘free’ day in Rome????

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    I'm sorry for the omission!!!! On Saturday night we went to Osteria del Pegno

    ______________

    Sunday, May 24th - Day 5: From the Borghese to Castel Saint Angelo via the Baths of Diocletian

    What to do with an Unplanned Day in Rome?

    Believe it or not, I had no firm plans for today. Fear not, I had TONS of things I wanted to do but they were all in the if-we-have-time category so I was having a real hard time choosing. The options were:

    - Ostia Antica, possible adding San Paolo Extramuro on the way back
    - Via Appia / Catacombs (limited traffic on Sunday was a plus)
    - Trastevere (to see all we had missed on the second day)
    - Doria Pamphilj museum

    My personal choice would have been the Trastevere but I could see that DD and DH were over-churched and not really enthusiastic. Via Appia and the catacombs sounded OK but I felt that I should have researched them more.

    DH said that he would follow where I led. DD never had any kind of input to The Plan (before and during the vacation) and only found out that we were not going to Pompeii on this trip when I said that Ostia Antica was a somewhat comparable option.

    That left Ostia Antica, the matter was settled. In addition, I somewhat thought that getting out of Rome would result in cooler temperatures.

    Getting There or Where are all these people going!?!?

    The temperature had risen again and I unashamedly, once again, donned my Ugly Tourist t-shirt, skirt and sneakers outfit. In my defense I must say that once we departed from Rome and temperature went down I did not show myself in public like this again.

    I was armed with Walter’s (ParadiseLost) detailed directions to get to Ostia and had no trouble whatsoever following them:

    - Bus from Largo Argentina to Termini (bought ticket at Tabacci as our Roma Pass had expired the day before)

    - From Termini take the Blue Metro Line and get off at the Piramide stop

    - Using the underpass change from Metro to Train following the Lido signs

    - Get off at Ostia station

    - Cross the blue pedestrian bridge and follow the signs to the entrance.

    I thought that early on a Sunday morning the metro would be empty. It was not, the level was similar to a regular workday at a non-peak hour. Still, quite manageable. We might not have needed the signs to complete the transfer to the train line, we only could have followed the constant stream of people carrying folding chairs, big sun umbrellas and all sort of beach-gadgets.

    We did not get seats on the train but there was space enough to sit on the floor. Until we reached the EUR stop and the gates of Hades opened, unleashing every single Roman under the age of 25, in beach-going attire, into the train.

    Now, I’m sure you have seen those pictures of trains in Japan, where they forcibly squeeze the people into the cars and then push on the doors to get them to close. It was not THAT bad. But not by much.

    I have mentioned before that DD has some issues with claustrophobia. Thankfully she maneuvered herself into standing next to a window where she could get some fresh air on her face, cranked up her i-pod volume to levels she will regret when she is old and was able to endure the trip without major problems – aside from the obvious discomfort.

    Once we were uncanned from the train at the Ostia station I assured DD that the return trip would not be so bad. It was only rush-hour to the Lido, right? People would space out on the way back, logical, no? DD believed me (surprisingly I have somehow managed to hold onto some vestiges of credibility through her growing years) and visibly relaxed.

    She started perking up when we went into the café just outside the Ostia station, got her a panini and a coke. I had my first real cappuccino (yes, I know its only proper to drink them for breakfast, but it was before noon….as if I would care, LOL) of the trip and DH had a machiatto. 6.60E.

    The Abandoned Port

    We followed the signs and trickle of people to the entrance of the Ostia Antica excavation without trouble, a short walk from the station. 13E, DD was free. Ostia was a thriving port city, population at its peak was estimated at 60K which was abandoned due to the retreat of the ocean and the collapse of the Roman Empire.

    Looking at the ruins it is easy to imagine this port city at its zenith; busy and diverse. Port brokers lining up the big loggia behind the amphitheater. Apartment houses, barracks, single-family luxury homes, baths, temples. Everything was there at a much more manageable scale than Pompeii.

    The houses we saw are not as opulent as the ones in Pompeii. There are not nearly as many domestic frescoes and decorations; in fact, we had to seek them out a bit off the beaten path.

    The site is huge and the people completely disappear once you step away from the main street. I would have enjoyed this daytrip tenfold if it had been cooler. But at over 90ºF and not a lot of shade we got tired a lot quicker than we had hoped for even though we were interested in what we were seeing.

    DD started out climbing over everything not fenced-off but after an hour she began to slow down and by the second hour she was clearly dragging her feet. If the weather had cooperated, we could have easily spent the entire day there, as it was we wandered around for more than 4 hours looking at the wonderful mosaics.

    We went into the cafeteria hoping to snack and drink something to cool down.

    Let me give you some background: I’m not big on ice. I don’t even have an ice maker at home!. On top of that, I usually dislike things which are too cold (possible exception would be ice cream) but I was ready for a tall glass full of ice and sugary drink that would kick my energy level up and my internal temperature down.

    There was NO ice to be had. I don’t sulk often but I must admit that I was not a happy camper at that moment. I will never, ever sneer when I read about people complaining about not being served ice in Europe. A lesson in humility.

    I picked a room-temperature Lemon Soda, DD had a coke and then we shared a plate of polpetti (meatballs, very tasty) and tortellini on a butter sauce (surprisingly al dente and well seasoned). 16E.

    The Train ride from Hell

    We walked back to the Ostia station, purchased our tickets and waited for the train. The station was fairly empty and within 10 minutes the train arrived. As the first cars went by I watched in horror; they were even more packed than they had been in the morning!!!

    DD went very pale just looking at them, but there was nothing to be done. We pushed and shoved until we were inside the car. I tried (not very gently) to maneuver her into a position in which she was only pressed against DH and I, as close as possible to the window.

    This is when I began using my Super Nanny voice (DD says it is the same body language, tone and pitch used by the Dog Whisperer, and I agree). ‘Stand up straight’, ‘throw your head back’, ‘look only at the ceiling’, ‘Concentrate on your breathing’, ‘Sing along with your I-pod’.

    To my absolute horror, a few more people pushed at the next stops. About 30 minutes later we arrived at the EUR stop and about 50% of the people left. Big sigh of relief. We transferred to the Metro and in Termini we changed to the bus. The #64 bus. Some of you might see where this is going…. Another confined space. Ughh. On top of that we could thought that two guys in the bus were looking for an easy opportunity to pickpockets. At least it distracted DD from the crowd. Fifteen minutes later we finally arrived at the Campo de Fiori and were DONE with mass transpiration for a while.

    Let’s drop the W and just be UI for a while

    We collapsed into a bar in Campo di Fiori and ordered a big beer (we are quick learners; if you share it is consumed before it gets warm). I was so out of it that I did not record the name of the place. It was non-descript but had tables outside which were on the shade. The first sip of beer was ambrosia directly imported from Olympus and we began to pick ourselves up from the floor.

    By the time we ordered the second beer, we were beginning to feel human again. When we were done with that one we were beginning to notice the kids running around, dogs drinking from the fountains, the outrageous way some people were dressed (as if I was in a position to critique anyone, being dressed to win the Ugly Tourist Award). We were WUI, after all.

    It was only 5:00PM so for once we headed back to the apartment to shower, nap and repack for our departure tomorrow in the morning.

    Let’s Redefine Fast Food

    Around 7:00PM three persons, which would never had been recognized as the three wretches that walked in two hours before, emerged from the apartment into a beautiful Roman evening.

    We had looked at several dinner options but we were not in the mood for a big meal. Several sources all coincided on the fact that Da Baffetto was only open on Sundays during the summer. Since we had been revived by our naps we were willing to go check in person if this ‘fact’ was true.

    I was not surprised to see that first, it was open and second that there were about 50 people in the line in front of us. I left DH in the line to peek into the restaurant to assess if there were any empty tables and if the people were already eating so that tables would be freed within a reasonable timeframe.

    I headed back to the entrance to give DH the bad news, no empty tables and no one eating yet, when I was surprised to see DH at the front of the line and gesturing wildly for me to hurry up.

    It seems that they were still filling up the upstairs room. Also, the head waiter came out and asked in Italian how many people to the party, if they delayed a bit in answering he skipped to the next group. The second that DH raised his hand and indicated ‘3’ he was immediately told to go upstairs.

    Now, I would not have preferred to seat upstairs but then we would have missed on one of the best demonstrations of Waitering-Under-Pressure (is waitering a word?) we have ever seen.

    We were basically on our own to find a place to sit and the setup was rather confusing. Once we settled the only apparent available space for three, The Waiter arrived and handed out menus. By the time we raised our eyes, he was already handing out pizzas at the next table. We flagged him down and ordered a liter of rosso della casa and a coke, it wasn’t hard to get his attention but this is a place where you need to be assertive.

    A few minutes later we were ready to order:

    DH – 1 Pizza Da Bafetto
    DD – 1 Pizza Prosciutto e Funghi
    Me - 1 Pizza Capricciosa, without the fried egg on top.

    1l water, 1.5l rosso, 2 cokes.

    Again, a brisk movement of the head and The Waiter came over. He took our order without writing a single thing down. This guy was serving –by himself- at least 50 people in that room. I wondered if we would get anything closely resembling what we ordered.

    We marveled at the way he handed out pizzas left and right without skipping a beat. The change over of a table was masterful. Not a single movement wasted! Drinks were brought, bills written and presented…it was amazing. In most of the places I go to regularly this would have taken at least a crew of 5 waiters.

    The order arrived perfectly, even the capricciosa did not have the egg. The crust was thin, with crunchy, slightly charred edges. The toppings were delicious without being overpowering. I wish I was there right now. I thought the price reasonable at 43E.

    Curious note: a group of ladies sitting behind us were lingering over their drinks. At one point The Waiter asked if they would move to the table next to us so that he could turn over theirs and the empty one next to them to a large group. The were surprised but moved over. The Waiter brought them a round of after dinner drinks on the house.

    But we are not ready to pack it in for the night yet!

    Even though we enjoyed our food –and the entertainment- tremendously this was not the place to relax over coffee. We decided to look for a place to sit down in Piazza Navona. DD picked up some gelato from Frigidarium (Melon and Passion Fruit, 2.5E) as we leisurely walked and enjoyed our last evening in Rome.

    After a walk around the piazza we settled into Café Domiziano and had two café corretti (with Sambuca, not grappa, to my slight disappointment). We watched the world go by and reviewed our wonderful time in Rome.

    Finally it was time to head back but not before we spent another half hour looking at a fire dancer show.

    Next: Driving into the countryside

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    The cafe probably made the caffe corretto with Sambuca because it is assumed that the sweeter Sambuca is more agreeable to the tourist palate than grappa. Many cafes will ask how you want your caffe corretto, and any cafe will make it with grappa if you ask.

    That said, I just had one with Sambuca because a) I hadn't had dessert after dinner; b) I had Sambuca in the house.

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    marigross-
    I am loving your report! You may even lure me away from Spain for a trip to Italy. I haven't returned to Italy since 2000, (I've been visiting Spain for the last 9 years) but this report is so well written and enchanting you're managed to capture my attention. I look forward to reading more on your adventures as you leave Rome.

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    Marigross,

    Enjoying your report so much! I'm only disappointed that you are now leaving Rome - did DD get any more "Ciao Bella's" along the way? I told that story to my sister(along with many others) and I loved your reaction to the whole incident!

    I have to say, the sewer smell is no small thing, and I really think it shows that your family rolls with the punches. Did you ever let the owner know about it?

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    Sorry I have not replied to each and everyone of the responders, I appreciate all the lovely comments!

    -----------------

    Monday, May 25th - Day 6: Driving out of Rome, visiting Hadrian and the Green Hills of Umbria

    Let’s get Out of Here!

    We woke up before the alarm went off. The owner was supposed to come by at 10:00 to pick up the keys but we were packed and ready to go by 9:00AM. She had given us instructions in case this happened so after writing her a letter explaining the situation with the stink in the small room but also stating how much we had enjoyed it otherwise, we left.

    I cannot stress enough how well located this apartment is. After a short 3 minute walk we were by the Largo Argentina taxi stand.

    We had walked past this area a few times and I was yet to see more than two or three cats. I don’t know if it was too hot and they were hiding in the shade or if something else had happened but we never saw them, even this day, still in the morning.

    After an exciting/adrenaline-inducing taxi ride (16E) through the small streets of Rome we were safely delivered to the Hertz-Villa Borghese office. Now, I knew that this office was inside an underground parking, sort of knew general directions how to get there, we even might have eventually found it ourselves but certainly not in the first five tries.

    We were 3 hours early from our reserved pick-up time but the car was ready. We handed out our papers and they did not even bat an eye over the ridiculously-low price at which we were renting (74E/wk). Credit cards were given and DH suddenly decided to add on a pre-purchased tank of DIESEL (we had recently had a hard time filling up a rental in Las Vegas before returning it at 4:00AM) for what we later noticed to be an additional 90E!

    The guy asked us where we were heading and we said Tivoli. He proceeded to give us detailed driving directions. As we left the office he said that he hoped not to see us back in three hours after endlessly driving in circles around Rome. Something about the ways he said it made me be believe that this actually happens once in a while.

    Note to Rental Newbies: The rental agency will never ask for the International Driver’s License that they tell you is required to rent. They don’t care about it. The IDL is for the cops in case you get into an accident, so don’t think that you wasted $15 and precious time going to AAA to get it, just be thankful that no one ever had to ask you for it.

    We did a full inspection of the car, called the guy out to show him two bumps in the car (I took pictures while DH and him went over them) and he dutifully recorded them in the contract. After we had pressed every button, turned on the A/C, switched the lights on, adjusted seats and mirrors and played with the windshield wipers, we still had to call out the guy a second time. We could not figure out how to open and close the gas tank (it was in the same circuit as the door locks).

    Note to Maitaitom, if he is reading: You will be pleased to know that since a certain incident involving the dispensing of gasoline into a diesel car, rental agencies across Italy have placed stickers over the gas tank covers stating ‘Diesel Only’ in large, red lettering. You have done a great service to your fellow travelers! BTW, we did try the reverse gear before leaving the parkhouse.

    Let’s get this party really started

    Let me give you some background on my navigation skills. I have a really good sense of direction. I can read maps very well. The only drawback is that I have a problem VERBALIZING left and right. I have found this to be very common among left-handed persons, believe me, I have asked!

    Over the years, DH and I have devised a system of ‘this way’ and ‘that way’ which substitutes for what normal people simply call ‘left’ and ‘right’. We had not had a need to seriously navigate for some time and we were a bit out of practice.

    We made it past the exit and two roundabouts before a gap in communication made us miss the correct street and we went down Via Veneto instead of the way leading to the highway. A stop for map consultation was made; we recalculated a course and proceeded to see some interesting residential areas of Rome which had previously not been on The Plan.

    Once we found our way back to the main avenue we had previously missed, we had no problems following the rest of the directions given to us by the friendly Hertz guy. After all, he would not have to see us coming back to his office in shame!

    The Plan for Today

    The plan was short and concise. We would drive from Rome to Tivoli in order to visit Villa Adriana (Villa D’Este is closed on Mondays) and then, make our way to Case Gialle (Gualdo Cattaneo, Perugia) through a combination of country roads, freeways and high ways which would be selected totally depending on available time. Our target was to be at the agro by 4:00PM.

    Let’s talk about maps for a moment

    Our main tool for the next week of driving was the Michelin Map of Tuscany and Umbria. I had studied it for endless hours before departure, highlighted the preferred routes, stuck endless post-it notes over it and finally got it folded in the perfect pattern that would allow me to open it like a boot to see all the area of Umbria on two ‘pages’ and the same for Tuscany. This is something that will be appreciated only by someone that has had to fully open a huge map over the dashboard of a moving car.

    I had debated whether to get the more detailed Touring Club Italiano maps recommended by Stu and in hindsight, I should have. We really did not get lost at anytime over the next week but we mistook some streets because of lack of detail in the Michelin map. Once we were given a portion of the TCI map in Pienza, we realized that it would have been a good investment.

    The secondary tool was the driving directions I had printed from www.viamichelin.com for all the driving routes that we would follow during the trip. I found them to be somewhat useful but the full map was better.

    I should elaborate some more on this for the benefit Rental Newbies. Driving in Italy is an exercise on geography. Signage based on road numbers is very, very sparse and often confusing to the point where it is basically useless (unless you are on or searching for the Autostrada). All road signage show first the next town that you will come into if you follow that road followed by the next big town that the road will eventually hit. The same street over a single kilometer can easily be identified with three different road numbers.

    Successfully navigation requires that you have a very good idea of where you are, the upcoming town and the basic geographic location of the bigger towns or cities in the area relative to your location, as these names will substitute for North, East, South and West.

    I found that the Michelin driving directions were accurate but it was hard to confirm if we were indeed in the right place. Yes, we could have gotten ourselves a GPS but it would not have been as fun.

    When does a Villa turn into a Small Town?

    It took us close to an hour to reach Tivoli (counting the wrong turn in Rome) and another 15 fifteen to get to the parking of Villa Adriana. The driving in was not a problem but we could see that driving out in the same direction would be. The traffic backup in direction Rome went on for kilometers!!!

    We had departed from the Rome apartment without having much breakfast so we were in urgent need of sustenance. Our first stop was at the cafeteria by the entrance.

    - 1 pre-packaged Margarita Sandwich (like a pizza sub)
    - 1 pre-packaged ‘Tasca’ Sandwich (cheese, ham and mushrooms)
    - 2 caffe latte
    - 1 coke
    - 1 Kinder Egg

    The sandwiches were warmed in the panini press and taste rather good. When DD saw the Kinder Eggs –a chocolate egg shell with a little toy inside- her eyes sparkled. For many years we brought back these for her whenever we went to Europe. She immediately wanted one. This particular egg did not have the chocolate shell, instead it had a truffle like ‘yolk’ of chocolate embedded in the ‘white’, made out of creamy white chocolate. She pronounced it better than the older version. It came with a silly key chain which is still attached to the outside of my handbag.

    The entrance to the villa was 30E. We got some sort of reduction for DD but I did not write it down. We walked the steep hill up to the entrance and entered Hadrian’s realm.

    In my book this place should not be considered a villa, not even an estate, this place must have been categorized as a mid-sized town!

    We wandered around loosely following Michelin Green Guide Walk (Rick Steve’s barely mentions Villa Adriana). The place is amazing. I could not help but marvel at the sheer power the emperor must have yielded in order to gather the resources necessary to build an estate of this magnitude (and the Castel Sant’Angelo fortress, and…..)

    Once again I must admit that the heat did us in. We managed to find the strength and determination to keep going for almost three hours but by the time we made it to the grotto we were rather exhausted and couldn’t care less which marvel of the ancient world we were looking at. It was time to quit.

    I liked it enough to know that if in the future I had the opportunity on a cool day, I would like to return for a more comfortable visit - and finally make it to Villa D’Este as well! When we returned to the steaming hot parking, the car thermometer read 41ºC at 1:45PM. In May. I kid you not.

    Driving into the Umbrian hills

    I was still warming up into my navigator role and we made a few false turns over the next hour. This naturally consumed more time than we had estimated so we decided to hit the Autostrada from Terni to Todi (3.50E), where we had to go back to the smaller streets.

    Whoever decides which road segment of the Michelin map gets highlighted as scenic has a deep appreciation of landscape. The drive from Bastardo to Gualdo Cattaneo was absolutely beautiful. The hills of Umbria are covered with vineyards and olive trees. They are a bit more rugged than their Tuscan counterparts but equally beautiful, if not more.

    I was following driving instructions to Bevagna and missed the Gualdo Cattaneo sign so another short episode of driving around in a circle followed. Once back into the right road we saw the (small) sign for Le Case Gialle and went down the gravel path.

    This small agroturismo is sourrounded by an olive plantation and has four individual apartments combined in two buildings. Stone walls, slated roofs, cozy little terraces covered with pergolas. It is picture perfect.

    The property is beautifully maintained: the paths carefully kept, the bushes trimmed to the right height and the garden full of roses in bloom. Rosemary bushes perfumed the air.
    Our apartment, Il Giardino, was on the top level of the first building. It had a very comfortable and spacious bedroom with a double bed (not singles pushed together). The kitchen and living area were combined but big enough to have a good-sized dinner table and a large sofa bed where DD was to sleep.

    The bathroom was comfortable and had adequate counter space when including the wide window ledge. The shower had an unlimited supply of steaming hot water, yay! I have not quite figured out why, but as I have acquired birthdays this has become more and more important.

    The owner apologized for the pool water being so hot. They still had on their solar heaters plugged into the water tap as heating is normally required in May. No problem. We are tropical people.

    After we settled in we drove to Bevagna to get some breakfast and cocktail hour supplies. 23E and a large bag of groceries later we returned to the apartment. DH and I shared the large and deliciously cool peroni while we waited until dinner time.

    Montepulciano does not serve wine only

    The wine-Mecca of Montepulciano was the closest big(gest) town –consequently having the most dining options of the area. After consulting with the agro owner, Silvana, and my trusty Fodor’s recommendations we settled on L’Alchimista.

    Personally I prefer to stay in the general location of where I will be having dinner. I am not the most confident driver and try to avoid it whenever I can. If I had been in charge of driving and choosing to eat out every night, Le Case Gialle would not have been a good option. Thankfully DH does not mind driving after dinner, on small roads, in the dark or any combination of these.

    The drive from the agro to Montepulciano takes around 20 minutes. We had no trouble finding it but it was still daylight. I suspect that a first-timer could easily miss the turn in the dark.

    We parked the car for 0.50E just outside the walls; it was only 20 minutes until 8:00PM when parking in that area became free. Montepulciano is hill town, so once we entered past the city gate we walked up, and up and up until we reached the piazza on top where L’Alchimista is located. Well, at least after dinner it would be all down hill.

    This is what we had for dinner:

    Primi
    DH and DD – Lasagna Funghi; the clear winner of the night. Thin crepe-like sheets of pasta, cushioned in between with a layer of white sauce and mushrooms. The cheese top was deliciously caramelized. It was very light but still captured the essence of comfort food. DD considered ordering a second serving.

    Me – Tagliatele in an asparagus and tomato sauce; very good but nowhere near the lasagna

    Secondi

    DH – Stew of beef and pork on a brown sauce; tasty and filling. The beef had a bit of gristle.

    Me- Beef slices over a salad of arugula, pine nuts and pecorino; perfect for the still-warm evening. The salad was tossed with a light vinaigrette which went very well with the cheese.

    1 bottle of rosso di Montepulciano, 2 café machiatti, 1 coke. 69E.

    I think that the superb lasagna created such high expectations that the rest of the meal was a bit of an unjustified let down. The ambiance was a bit dry and touristy. I still gets a recommendation.

    DD had a gelato (yogurt and pesca, 2E) on our way down. The drive back home did not seem awfully long but I was still sleepy by the time we parked back at the agro where we happily crashed into our beds.

    Next: Snow mountains and planes. Lentils and Sausage on a sea of yellow flowers

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    You were so right to take a cab to the car rental place near the villa borghese! Last year we went by bus and wandered around, looking for the entrance, for what felt like hours.
    Of course, we promptly made a wrong turn as we left and got lost on the way to the autostrada. I'm not even sure a better map would have helped; it's very confusing.
    I too have left/right problems. Even though I know the right answer, often the opposite comes out of my mouth.

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    Marigross,

    My friend has problems with left & right - she says up(left) or down(right) when giving instructions. 74 euros is an amazing deal for a week - was it a promotion or just a computer error?

    I really appreciate all the information you are giving regarding renting a car in Italy, and how to read the road signs - really great information for those of us who have never driven there, but hope to one day.

    I agree about the viamichelin site - I printed out directions from the site, and I really feel the AA site did a better job with instructions.

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    Marigross...

    Looks like I'm in good company with being directionally challenged myself. Like you I have a great sense of direction and I'm terrific with maps...but once I have to say right or left I end up blurting out "this way" or "that way"...I have to be really mindful when being the navigator! :)

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    BIG CORRECTION!

    Zerlina, you are absolutely correct!!! Thanks for kicking my brain into gear. Maybe I need a break from writing.

    All references I have made so far to Montepulciano are mistaken>/u>, they should all read MONTEFALCO!!!! L'Alchimista and El Coccorone are both in Montefalco.

    Montefalco is on the Sagrantino road. The wine we had at L'Alchimista was the house rosso made with Sagrantino grapes.

    My apologies for the confusion!

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    Marigross, I am really enjoying your trip report. Le Case Gialle was on my short list of accommodations for a trip to Italy a few years ago, and remains on my short list for any future trips, so I'm always interested in hearing about it. We LOVED Pienza and the whole Crete Senese area of Tuscany, so I can't wait for that part of your report!

    Also, I'm so glad to find out that another person who has a great sense of direction and is an excellent map reader and navigator can't verbalize "left" and "right" either ... I didn't know anyone else like that ... my extended family all think it's bizarre, and I'm a bit of a family joke in that regard, so I'm very happy to hear I'm not alone. (And I'm the only lefty, so it is interesting to hear there may be a connection there). My husband and I also use "this way" and "that way", usually accompanied by gesturing with the applicable hand (mainly unconscious, since I talk with my hands a lot anyway), so it probably helps that he has good peripheral vision!

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    Oh, and we've used various combinations of all the guide books you listed, as well as Rough Guides, and we really like the RS guidebooks ... I'm even going to out myself and admit (in spite of the RS bashing on this board) that his guidebooks are, in general, my favourite for organization, ease of use, and the self-guided "walks". They're not for everyone, but they work for us!

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    Once again, thanks for the continued support! I feel very honored.

    I planned at least 95% of this trip reading Trip Reports. To see responses from some of the authors that indirectly helped me by posting their stories is extra special. The wealth of information (and entertainment) to be found within this forum is inexhaustible. I hope to pay some of that debt off.

    Kristina, we indeed considered taking the bus to pick up the car. I only desisted because of the horror stories I had read about the Borghese parkhouse. On paper and online it deceptively looked simple enough.

    I'll try to post some more in the afternoon.

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    Correction: All previous references to Montepulciano are incorrect. I should have referred to MONTEFALCO. The first is in Tuscany and will be addressed further along the story and the latter is in Umbria, where the plot is currently unfolding.

    Tuesday, May 26th - Day 7: The lentils and plains have to wait one more day because we have to go visit Francis first

    After sleeping beautifully for almost 10 uninterrupted hours (if you don’t count the couple of seconds it took us to go back to sleep the first few times the donkey brayed and the rooster sang) we were ready to have a slow, luxurious breakfast.

    The agro delivers every morning a fresh loaf of bread and a newspaper in the language requested (depending on availability). A little flask of olive oil and a small jar of honey are also left in the apartment as a welcoming gift.

    This was the morning in which I rediscovered the absolutely wonderful pairing of honey and cheese. Why had I forgotten this? Perhaps because previously I didn’t had not had this golden nectar that popped out the peppery taste of the cheese. The prosciutto was paper-thin, the salami bursting with flavor. The coffee was half decent as there was a manual coffee pot in the kitchen, humongous improvement from our Roman Turkish-coffee.

    We sat outside in the little balcony/terrace of the apartment and enjoyed the peaceful view over the olive trees and into the Umbrian hills. I will only say that we sat at the breakfast table for over an hour and a half.

    Once our stomachs refused to accept any more food, we gave up and got ready to go on the first real sojourn into Umbria.

    The Plan

    The itinerary for today was not (too) complicated:

    1. Visit Spello; estimated duration: 1hr

    2. Visit Assisi; estimated duration: 2hrs depending on the difficulty of finding parking (we had been there before but the upper basilica was still closed so this was the one thing I on my must-do list)

    3. Perhaps spend the afternoon in Perugia. I was still debating on whether to go to or not. I had not committed. There were lots of pros and cons in my mind. But mostly I thought that it deserved an entire day and I had my schedule full of other must-do’s.

    * The driving route between Spello and Assisi was to be established once the Perugia decision was made.

    Let’s go see why Tom raves about this little town

    We drove out Gualdo Cattaneo, past Bevagna, onto Foligno (S 316) until we reached our first destination of the day, the small town of Spello. We easily found parking along the walls, close to the gate. I was somewhat surprised to see signs directing to a Tourist Information Office. Hummm. These people were organized! Is this going to be a tourist trap?

    The very help-helpful TI lady loaded us up with maps and brochures. Then she offered us a Spello Museum Card. ‘A what?!?!?’ my inner-planner alter ego shouted. This was supposed to be a small town, I would have been surprised to see that they had a museum worthy of paying an entrance fee; but now they have a Museum Card??? The fear of being –gasp- Unprepared rapidly rose.

    Now, Spello is only briefly mentioned (as in a single paragraph) in the RS Italy book and for some dumb reason (well, penny-pinching if I’m honest) I never bought the Green Guide to Umbria, so aside from Maitaitom’s Vino report , I did not know very much about the town. There was nothing to do about it now so we walked into the town with a heightened sense of discovery.

    Maybe it was because Spello was the first real hill town of the trip, perhaps it was because the temperature was still cool in the morning or just because we were enjoying being out of the city and in the countryside, but we all found the town to be downright gorgeous. The cherry on top was that they were holding the annual Entrance and Window Decoration competition, so the town was loaded with flowers from top to bottom.

    The inherent beauty of the place I had fully expected. What completely surprised me was that the town had so much to offer art-wise. Thankfully I will peep into any church that I walk by; otherwise I would have missed out big time. And that was without going into any of the places covered by the Museum Card.

    Our first stop was beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria Maggiore. Once inside I was astonished to walk into two beautiful side-altar pieces by none other than Perugino, Raphael’s mentor. Only to be knocked-out-of –my-socks a couple of minutes later to see Pinturicchio’s masterful Life of the Virgin cycle in the chapel. The frescoes had been renovated and could be illuminated with the typical coin-operated switch. WOW!

    Time to educate DD on the Cuatroccento Renaissance (clink, .50E), the basic technical concepts of fresco-making (clink, .50E) and the challenges of manufacturing paint and dyes in the 15th century (clink, .50E).

    The rest of the church is rather neat too, it has very nice woodwork in the sacristy and chapter room and there is an interesting chapel dedicated to the Loretto virgin in which sculpted angels carry the virgin’s house on their winged backs.

    Spello has more than one church?

    Our stroll through Spello continued (can you actually stroll uphill?) when much to my surprise there was another big church. Surely it would be a small, unimportant one, right? Well, Chiesa di San Andrea is not tiny by any means and certainly not unimportant.

    This church was consecrated in 1258 and is a little dark when compared to later Italian Renaissance and High Gothic churches but once the eyes adapted, WOW! The walls were beautifully frescoed, the altar was graced with a crucifix painted in the style of Giotto. There were some paintings by Pinturichio and Dono Doni.

    The beauty of the church really came to life when someone went and got the priest to turn the lights on. Double Wow!

    At that point I looked at the map we had gotten at the TI and counted 16 churches among the 30 places of interest listed. And RS says in his single paragraph dedicated to Spello that this is a town recommended for die-hard hill town fans? Well, count me in.

    Spinning the ATM roulette

    When we finally reemerged from the church we continued our walk along the florid main street. We passed by the Piazza della Republica and saw a sign for ATM. We were in need of cash so we went for it. I prefer to use ATMs that are attached to banks during the hours in which they are open. If the card gets eaten you have the option of going in and getting it back. What can I tell you? It has happened and it has happened to me.

    Once I was in Paris, on my first truly solo trip, when I was almost reduced to tears over my inability to get some cash, but that’s another trip report. Experiences like that leave you scarred.

    First try was for 400E it was unsuccessful because it put us over the $500 daily withdrawal limit established by our bank. Second try was for 300E, it should have worked but didn’t. Third try using the fast-cash option (instead of entering the amount) for 250E worked. We then hit a different account to get a total of 500E.

    I had been wondering if our regular ATMs would work or if we would need to use the ‘International’ cards (the ones with the Visa logo) that the bank had given us. They worked without problems throughout the trip and the backup cards remained in the money belts.

    Should we talk a little about Money Belts?

    There have been trips in which I have worn money belts and others in which I didn’t. Most of the times when I have worn them are not for fear of being robbed, but to ensure that I don’t lose important things. I’m not the most absent-minded person but in a moment of distraction credit cards get left behind, wallets fall from the day pack and handbags stay in cabs. I don’t need to spend precious vacation time trying to replace lost documents or cards.

    On this particular trip we opted for money belts because we would initially be transporting a substantial amount of cash to pay the apartment. Second, we would be ridding on trains and buses with our luggage, times in which there would be a lot of things to pay attention to.

    In my wallet I carry copies of passports, a single credit card, an ATM, my driver’s license as ID and not more than 150E. If anyway require a place to store passports, backup credit card and ATMs and a stash of cash, so why not a money belt? Aside from the days in which we moved around with our luggage (and one more location) the money belt stayed tucked away in my luggage.

    The one I wore was bought at Brookstone and its very light but sturdy, lays very flat against the body and the straps are stretchable (like bra straps). I liked it very much and will use it again in the future if needed. DH has a custom-made one from his backpacking days.

    BTW, looking at the credit card bills that have started to arrive, we made out significantly better with cash than with plastic. So I see an increase in cash-transactions for us in future trips.

    Back to the subject, singing the praises of Spello

    I decided to forget about visiting Perugia and continued to follow the walk recommended on the freebie map. We wandered (backtracking a lot) through the little streets. Drop-dead, picture-perfect, gorgeous views of the countryside, the old roman walls and little alleys were observed from almost any point along the perimeter. The view is particularly spectacular from the Belvedere Panoramico in front of Chiesa di San Severino.

    The temperature was going up and it was already 2:30 PM! We had spent almost four hours in what I thought would be a less-than-an-hour stop. And we had not even scratched the surface. If the Upper Basilica in Assisi had not been on my absolutely-must-do list, I would have happily spent the rest of the day in Spello.

    When I think about how I would redo this trip if I had a chance, I would stay in Spello instead of Gualdo Cattaneo. It would have made sense logistically considering the two drives we had planned and it would have given us the opportunity to do some more exploring in town. OTOH, Le Casa Gialle was really, really nice. I guess you can’t have it all. There is always next time.

    I picked up a coke and a really scrumptious rice and cheese croquette (1.90E) from a no-name bar for DD and we were off to our next destination, visiting Francis.

    Up, up and up inside a cloud of gravel dust

    Once the Perugia side trip was eliminated from The Plan, we were free to take the scenic road to Assisi.

    We exited Spello in direction Collepino. After a few kilometers the paved road turned to well-maintained gravel as we approached the Monte Subiaso reserve area. They are actually in the process of building curbs along the road and I’m sure that by next year it will be fully paved.

    Initially it was a bit disappointing because we drove through planted forests and there were no views to be had. But I had faith in the guys that mark in scenic-green the Michelin maps and finally the road opened into meadows. What happened? We cannot be above the tree line, its only 1290m elevation! But there it was, unobstructed views of the Umbrian countryside, the blades of grass rippling in the wind and the car thermometer finally showing a reading below 30ºC, it went down to 28ºC.

    After driving past all kinds of telecommunication antennas we were confronted with the obvious fact that what goes up must come down. And down, and down we went. I thought that there were more switchbacks along the descent towards Assisi than the ascent from Spello. If I was driving, I would have preferred to have done it in the reverse direction. For some stupid reason I am more comfortable in driving and hiking going up than down.

    Suddenly, in what seemed to us to be the middle of nowhere, there was a long line of taxis. After the next switchback we saw that we were by the Eramo delle Carcere / Hermitage when we saw a throng of people gathered around a gated entrance. This is the place where St. Francis and his followers retreated into solitude.

    Since we were not in a spiritual pilgrimage, we did not stop and continued another 10-15 minutes until we saw lots of cars parked at the side of the road and the Porta Capuccini gate into Assisi perhaps 500m ahead. We found a spot and parked. The car thermometer was back up to 35ºC at the time.

    DD slept all the way from Spello to Assisi. Once we parked and woke her up I told her that she would regret all these naps when she grows up. I never thought that the following day I was encouraging her to fall asleep, but that was still in the future.

    Have I really been here before?

    My main goal was to reach the Upper Basilica which was exactly at the opposite end of town. We walked down towards Piazza Matteoti and continued down to the Piazza Comune. We were in need of refreshments and bathrooms so we plunked down at an available table in restaurant. This was the first and only truly yucky bathroom of the entire trip. DD decided to hold it (isn’t it grand to be young and have a strong bladder?!?!?) but I had no choice. DD decided she did not want to eat anything after all (that 1.5-hr long breakfast could also have had something to do it).

    We were still thirsty and undecided about what to drink when I had a flash of inspiration. I told DH ‘I know exactly what I want to drink. Remember those half-and-half’s we have in Spain?’ (Half beer and half lemon soda). A quick inquiry with the waitress resulted in an ‘Of course, a mezza-mezza’. It was very cold, perfect for the weather.

    DH insisted that we had been in this part of town before but I could not find within my brain a single memory of this Piazza or of our next destination, the Temple of Minerva. This is an ancient roman temple that has undergone multiple recappings as a Catholic church. Interesting but not worth a detour.

    Let’s stop moseying around, Francis is waiting!

    Even though I’m non-practicing, I’m Catholic born and raised. I would –if forced- define myself as mostly Buddhist, a little New Age and a splash of Wiccan. But regardless of my views of the church, I will always have a soft spot for St. Francis.

    We finally reached the Upper basilica and I was shocked when both DD and I were pulled aside by the dress-code police. I had specifically dressed this day with modesty in mind. I was wearing a skirt (well below the knee) and a loose blouse with a square neck front and back. Well, apparently the back was too low-cut. I swear it was not more than 6-inches from my neck. DD was also wearing a skirt and an overshirt which was deeply cut in the back but she had a tube top underneath so the net result of exposed skin was possibly less than mine.

    We were handed square, silk-like scarves printed with commemorative logos of big Catholic youth encounters to wear over our indecently exposed backs. I guess you win some and lose some. The scarves turned out to be ours to keep. Maybe they were just trying to get rid of them.

    The Upper Basilica was everything I expected it to be. You can pick up any art book and read better descriptions than those that I can give. It is a true Gothic church, light and spacious, designed to awe. And Giotto’s Life of St. Francis cycle…wow. I found RS’s descriptions very easy to read and follow. DD asked endless questions, about Francis, the church, The Church, life in the middle ages….

    We went down to the Lower Basilica to admire once again the frescoes. As much as I admire Gothic, Romanesque buildings are always appealing to me. I find the Lower church to be more intimate, built on a more human scale.

    Of all the religious spots where I have been, the crypt holding Francis tomb is the only one that feels like truly, really hallowed ground to me. A place where the faith of millions is poured into. It’s the one place where I want to bend down on my knees and pray.

    As I walked around the crypt and saw all the baby announcements posted as ex-votos I was ready to burst into tears. When I saw all the pictures crammed through the grill onto the tomb, the tears really started. I could not help but imagine the story of each picture, who they were, why they needed prayers, who brought the photo. Sick children, teens fallen prey to vices, soldiers gone to war, daughters gone missing.

    It’s time to go back

    After the visit was completed we went to the bathrooms by the lower piazza, (0.30E) pp and then it was time to haul ourselves all the way back to the car. We made it but it was not fun. DD and I had some gelato along the way to try to muster some energy (caramelo/straticcella forDD and nocciole for me, 4.90E).

    The car thermometer registered 39ºC and the water we had left in there was only fit for tea. Close to an hour later we were sitting by the pool at Le Case Gialle, enjoying some cheap Sangiovese that DH had bought the day before and pleasantly chatting with some other guests.

    A very fine and refined meal in MONTEFALCO

    Our dinning destination for the evening was Coccorone. I had read good reviews and was also recommended by the agro. We drove to Montefalco, again parked for 0.30E. There were only ten minutes left until parking was free at 8:00PM but that was the minimum time and the cop was hanging around close by.

    The restaurant is upstairs and has a terrace that even if does not have a view, is very cozy and inviting. We had a good feel about this place. The meal started with a round of prosecco, always a good thing in my view and immediately after ordering we were presented with an amouse bouche, the signs kept getting better and better. This is what we ate:

    Amouse Bouche: Pork Sausage/Paté drizzled with an orange and vinegar reduction and dusted with orange zest. I’m not particularly fond of fruits in food but this was delicate and did not overpower the pork. It was good and the expectations kept getting higher.

    Primi:

    DD and DH: Porcini Rissotto for 2. It was deliciously al dente, creamy and perfectly seasoned. This was a refined and subtlety flavored dish.

    Me: Funghi Crepes. They were really good but not nearly close to the ones had the previous evening at L’Alchimista.

    Secondi:

    DD and DH: Agnello Scottadi (Lamb Steak). Deliciously flavored.

    Me: Arrosto Misto (Mixed Grill). It had a little bit of everything. Leg of lamb, pork, sausage, ribs. Olive oil had been drizzled over the plate. It was delicious and I wish I could have it right now.

    Contorni:

    Mixed Salad
    Carciofi Arrosto (Grilled artichokes)

    1l house wine, 2l water, 2 coffees. 87 well-deserved Euros (9E coperto).

    When we ordered the risotto the waiter told us it would be over 30 minute wait for it, we said no problem. He interrupted the order-taking to tell the kitchen to get it going. It saved at least five minutes of waiting and the dish presented was certainly worth the wait.

    I ordered coniglio (rabbit) but they did not have it. I hate it when that happens but know that Tuesdays are not the best days for restaurant eating so I was willing to let it go by without a second thought.

    I could have eaten a second time in this restaurant but the following evening we were too tired for a big meal. We slowly rolled down the hill back to the car and drove back to Gualdo Cattaneo .

    We went down by the pool to enjoy the night sky and the lightning bugs all around us. After about half-an-hour we began nodding off and returned to the apartment for a good night sleep.

    Next: The Scenic Drive that would not end.

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    Thanks for telling me about this on my Rome post. Don't know how I missed it (except those 25 posts on the left go quickly). I guess I better get a bottle of vino (or two) out and read this cool report. Looks like I have a terrific read this weekend. Great job!!

    ((H))

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    marigross,

    I am so loving your trip report. Lots of great memories. Your meal at Der Pallaro was EXACTLY the same menu we had there 4 years ago! I wonder if they serve the same thing on certain nights of the week or just the same menu every night!
    For our dinner, it was Signore Fazi who was out at the tables and flirting outrageous with the ladies.

    I'm glad you like Spello. It was probably my very favorite of my last trip. I debated between La Casa Gaile and Palazzo Bocci in Spello. I went with Spello because I wanted to be able to walk to dinner after vino! Plus I was traveling solo and didn't want to be stuck to far out in the countryside.

    I found the views and flowers in Spello just gorgeous and always recommend it as a place to stay!

    Do continue!

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    I'm so enjoying this - we stayed in Spello several years ago, and loved it as much as it sounds you did. We liked Assissi, too, but in a different way.

    And Coccorone was definitely my favorite restaurant in Umbria - I've been trying to figure out how to make a return trip (in amongst all the other places to visit).

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    Wednesday, May 27th - Day 8: A Scenic Drive through Snow Mountains, Plains and Kilometers(sssss) of Detour

    We were pleased to see that the haze we had been experiencing had somewhat cleared because it had drizzled a little bit during the night. Also the temperature dropped at least 10 degrees. Ok, this resembled more the way I had pictured Umbria in May!

    I will not go over the details of our breakfast, it was a replay of the day before. We ate as if there was no tomorrow, or in other words, we totally pigged out. What can I tell you? That’s the story or our lives.


    The Plan

    The high-level plan was simple and meant to be easily accomplished: Drive through the Piano Grande region, Castelluccio and Norcia.

    The detailed plan provided several alternatives to connect the dots. If you want to follow the events of the day you might want to dig out those long-forgotten maps of Umbria

    1. Gualdo Gattaneo to Foligno on S316
    2. Foligno to just before Spoleto on S3, a.k.a Via Flamina,
    3. Exit S3 on S395 direction Grotti
    4. Past Grotti change to S209 direction Cerreto di Spoleto
    5. Stay on S209 until Visso
    6. Change to unnumbered road and follow signs to Castelluccio, visit town
    7. Castellucio to Norcia on the same unnumbered road, visit Norcia, have lunch
    8. Exit Norcia on S396 until Serravalle where a decision point would be made

    Version A, to be followed if we were tired and wanted to head back home:

    9a. Hit S320, heading west-north west, direction Triponzo and Cerreto di Spoleto and backtrack our way back via S209. This section is marked as scenic.

    Version B, to be followed in case we were still in the mood to keep on going:

    9b. Hit S320, heading south , direction Cascia
    10. Continue on S 471 until just before Ruscio (marked as scenic road)
    11. Turn off at unnamed road, direction Anatolia di Narco
    12. Use the tunnels to return to S3 just north of Spoleto and head back home

    The Ascent, Part 1

    We loaded ourselves into the car at around 10:30AM and were close to Spoleto at around 11:30. DD slept the entire way. We easily found the next road on our route and happily drove along enjoying the view. If you have been to Estes Park in Colorado, this road is very similar to the drive between Denver and Estes (without the aspens): narrow valleys and gulley winding along the Nera river. Every couple of kilometers the valley would open up and we would see fish farms. Very scenic and highly recommended.

    Once we were past Triponzo, the slow uphill grade began to steadily increase. I told DD that it was time to wake up because the view was truly gorgeous. After Visso the forest got wilder and wilder. As we went up we began to see snow markers along the road. The valley began to widen until we could see it almost crumpling upon itself for form individual peaks. Tall and rugged, rising above the tree line.

    Up and up we went. And suddenly, we saw snow on the mountain tops. We got out of the car a few times to delight in this majestic landscape. We could see ski lifts in the distance. (Note to self: consider a skiing vacation in Italy.)

    Humm… how high are we? The town of Nera had been at 780m elevation but within a few more kilometers we were above the tree line and into what can only be described as an Alpine landscape: sparse, short, tufts of grass and tons of tiny purple and yellow flowers with the snowy caps in the background. Spectacular!

    As the road continued along the high valley, we would see livestock huts, hiker shelters and lots of little paths. Hiking in this area must be absolutely dreamy! We went past the Passo de Gualdo marker, elevation 1496m. Ok, we had almost doubled the elevation within less than 10km.


    The Plateau

    We noticed that the valley kept getting wider as we formally entered the area known as the Piano Grande (“The Big Plain”). One more curve along a little hill, and we could see the town of Castellucio.

    The town sits on top of a hill completely surrounded by the plain. Like a little island rising from the sea. Except that this sea was made out of yellow flowers.

    We drove up to the town and were rather surprised to see the parking full of RVs. Not the huge, bus-like ones, but still rather large. This was the only area over the duration of the trip that we saw them. But it only makes sense, hill towns and big cities are not very RV-friendly. There were two big buses unloading French and German tourists.

    After buying a bottle of water that nobody wanted in order to use the bathroom at the bar we went for a walk around town. It revealed that massive renovation was taking place. New sewer lines and pavement were being laid, stone fences were going up, houses were being remodeled. The signs were unmistakable; this area has been officially ‘discovered’. If you want to enjoy it while still reasonably unspoiled, hurry up! Even so, you might be too late.

    And go you should because the panoramic views from the town are absolutely gorgeous.

    We got back into the car and drove past Castellucio into the true Piano Grande. We noticed a few places offering horseback riding. DD immediately asked if we were going to go riding. ‘No’ I replied. ‘No? Not even in Tuscany?’ countered DD. ‘No’ I insisted. ‘But why?’ asked DD, rather perplexed. ‘Because no one put in a request for horse-back riding during the planning phase of this trip’ I stated using my final-answer voice.

    The Ascent, Part 2,

    The next kilometers took us into the Monti Sibilini National Park and another elevation gain of 267m over 16 kilometers. The area is absolutely beautiful and I cannot recommend it enough.

    The Descent, Part 1

    The segment of the road between the Sibilini and Norcia was full of sharp switchbacks at a steep grade. We descended 1115m over 27 kilometers. As the crow flies, the net distance traveled must have been not more than 10 kilometers.

    I don’t want to discourage anyone from doing this drive so I must say that the roads were not scary at any point. Yes, there were switchbacks but up they were pretty manageable. I could have driven this road (on an automatic car, don’t know how to drive stick shift, and this was not the area to learn) without too much anxiety. We were on the road by ourselves most of the time.

    Let’s Eat Some Norceleria in Norcia

    Norcia is known as the sausage-making capital of Italy and lends its name to the art of making sausage itself: Norceleria. Naturally we had to try some. We parked our car just outside of town and walked in just as 10,000 little kids were being released from school.

    The town was bustling for all of five minutes, when suddenly every single business shuttered up and the people went home for lunch, leaving the streets completely deserted of locals. A few tourists, including us, wandered around looking completely out of place. We walked the main streets and some little streets but there was nothing! Only tourist shops posing as delis were open.

    We resigned ourselves and found a place to have a little lunch. Locanda del Teatro was the liveliest place around and had a few outside tables under umbrellas. The temperature was finally pleasant enough to sit comfortably outside during lunch, yeah!!!

    We sat down and spied on the table right next to us. They had just been served this gorgeous platter of antipasti. ‘We want what they are having’ DH requested once the waiter came to take our order. DD wanted pizza but they were not making it, so she ordered a pasta dish instead. This is what we had:

    DD- Fettuccini al Funghi – Pasta was al dente, well flavored and lots of mushrooms. Very good and filling. DD stuffed herself but could not finish it up. This would become an issue afterwards.

    DH and I – Antipasti Platter: Three different cured meats, five different kinds of sausage, a cheese-topped bruschetta, a surprisingly delicious tiny slice of frittata, a little pizza pie, pickle, an unidentifiable paste of vegetable origin and a tiny mixed salad. Delicious and a steal at 7E per platter. I could have this dish every other day (and weigh twice as much as I do)


    Decision Time: Version A or Version B

    We exited Norcia and promptly came to the point where we had decide which route we would follow, heading back to Spoleto or continuing further south towards Cascia and Ruscio before turning home (an additional 30 kilometers of driving on a white-marked road). DH was enjoying the drive, I was happy as the navigator and DD did not have an opinion so we decided to keep going.

    The road between S. Anatolia and Ruscio was a bit more winding than I expected. The bad news was that now that DD was fully awake and had a full stomach, she started getting some motion sickness. Well, there was not much to do about it now but we had to keep going. She tried to go back to sleep but she had already slept too much.

    We found the road we wanted and turned towards San Anatolia di Narco. I saw a sign on my peripheral vision. ‘Was that a street closing sign?’ I asked DH. He was not sure either. Being the sensible man that he is, he turned around to check it out. Indeed, the sign said that the road we wanted was closed. Ooops.

    We returned to the road we had been following and stopped by a shop to ask about the closure. DD went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face trying to feel better. In a mixture of bad Italian (on his part) and bad English (on the locals side) we found out the road was indeed closed and would reopen at 6:00PM. Two hours from now.

    The map was consulted. Turn back and retake Version A or continue south on a new route? It looked to be about the same distance-wise and if we replotted at least we would be going through a new area.

    10. Continue on S471 past Cascia to Leonesa
    11. Take R521 past Rivodutri direction Rieti/ Terni until we hit R79
    12. Continue on S79 until just before Terni
    13. Hook onto S3 (Via Flamina) north of Terni and head back to Spoleto

    I estimate around another 100kms than what we had originally planned.


    The Detour or The Ascend Part 3 and The Descent Part 2

    I instructed DD to sit up and stick her head outside the window. She eventually began to feel better and after a while managed to fall back asleep. This still caused me stress and took away some of the enjoyment of what would have otherwise been a delightful drive.

    Past Leonesa we started going up again. Steadily up. Before Rivodutri I mistook the turnoff and we into a paved but small white-road. This was not the plan but it was somewhat of a short cut that took us by the town of Labro.

    After finally hitting S79 we went down, down, down to the floor of the valley. Yeah! We drove past the Lago di Pediluco. This area is very, very nice but I was also getting tired. Mountain driving is hard not only on the driver, but also on the passengers that get constantly thrown around with gear shifting and switchbacks.

    Finally, we reached Terni. We needed gas due to our unexpected detour so we went into the city outskirts. 42E for a tank. How much had Hertz charged us to pre-purchase the tank??? We were not sure of the exact number but it was a heck of a lot more than that.

    The trip home on S3 was uneventful. DD was mostly recovered. We exited S3 by Trevi, drove on an unnamed road to Montefalco and then back along the now-familiar road to Gualdo.

    Within 5 minutes of parking by the agro, DH and I were collapsing by the pool and DD went to take a loooong hot shower and wash her hair. It was 6:00PM, cocktail hour had arrived.

    Where should we go for dinner?

    By 8:00PM we finally decided to do something about dinner. If I had had any kind of groceries I would have stayed in, but alas, even the breakfast supplies left over were not enough.

    We drove to the actual town of Gualdo Cattaneo, up on one side, down the other on the same street for all of three minutes. Nothing to be had.

    We continued to Bevagna and parked outside. Rain clouds were getting threatening and the temperature was plummeting. We looked around a few places but we were in the mood for something light. Pizza would be OK. The first cold drops of rain decided the issue for us: La Farafalla would have to do.

    This is what we had:

    Disclaimer: I was not in the best mood, so take that into consideration when you read my comments.

    DH – Pizza Capricciosa. He was happy with it, I did not taste.

    DD and I – 2 Pizzas Prosciutto e Funghi – the crust was a bit too charred and the prosciutto was beyond salty. DH, who cannot bear to leave anything on the plate, ate most of it.

    2 Cokes, 1 bottle of house red, 1l of acqua. 41.50E.

    The night had definitely turned cold outside and the heat was turned on inside the restaurant for the benefit of the people closest to the door. We were at the other end and I found it to be too hot. They had a TV and everyone was watching some kind of soccer match. DD enjoyed it, I did not.

    By the time we were done with dinner the rain stopped long enough for us to return to car. We drove back to the agro where we once again crashed for the (last) night.

    Next: Let’s go Find the Tuscan Sun

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    Thursday, May 28th - Day 9: Is Civita di Bagnoreggio a tourist trap? Pienza, Love at First, Second and Third Sights

    We finished what was left of our breakfast supplies and went to pay for the hotel. DH tried the credit card multiple times and it did not go through. Silvana explained that they often have communication problems and that she could put in the entry manually later. We like to leave with a receipt in the hand so since we had the money available, we paid cash.

    We were on our way by 9:30AM.

    The Plan

    This was an easy one:

    1. Drive from Gualdo Cattaneo to Civitá di Bagnoreggio, visit town.

    2. Civitá di Bagnoreggio to Pienza (our destination for the next three nights)

    3. Visit Pienza

    A Little Background

    I learned about the existence of Civitá in a Fodor’s thread that started out with a few honest questions and quickly deteriorated into Rick-Steves-bashing. I did a quick search for the town and came up with only a couple of vague postings.

    During one of my gazillion trips to Border’s I was browsing through RS’s Italy book (the same one I would later buy at Marshalls for $3.99) and finally found the connection. The controversial Mr. Steves was raving about Civitá. Aha! So the issue was the recommender, not necessarily the recommendee. My curiosity was perked.

    From a logistics standpoint I needed to make a stop between the agro in Umbria and our destination in Pienza. The obvious stop was Orvieto, but DH and I had been there. When I set out to plan this trip I wanted to leave a few places for DD to ‘discover’ as an adult on her own, or perhaps on an Italian Honeymoon? Orvieto and Volterra fell into this category so they were not options.

    Civitá was just about in the perfect geographical position to fit the bill. It was a small town that would not take more than an hour to explore and the descriptions I had read seemed to be interesting enough. And that is how it landed in The Plan.


    Let’s go to Tuscany, by the way of Lazio

    We drove to Bastardo onto Due Santi and around Todi until we hit S448. The beginning of this stretch was not very scenic but it got quickly interesting once we approached the Lago di Corbara area.

    It was a pleasant drive, no tight curves or steep grades. The road was rather empty and it seemed that it was a sparsely populated area. I suddenly asked DH: ‘Did you see that woman?’ ‘Yes’ he replied. ‘Do you think she was a hooker?’ I asked again. I was unsure as the clothes she was wearing were on the threshold of acceptability for non-hookers: denim miniskirt and a yellow t-shirt. I guess modern fashion has reached the point were hookers are dressing more modestly than some girls at the mall. Oy!

    Just before he could answer we saw another girl reclining against he hood of the car, she was wearing denim short shorts and also a yellow cut-off t-shirt tied on the front to reveal her full abdomen and other assets. Yup, no doubt about it! We were in one of those areas. I mentally went over the clothes DD had packed, wondering if there was any yellow t-shirt that had to be confiscated for the duration of the trip.

    As we drove on we saw a few campers parked on little openings in between the trees one of them had a pair of legs sticking out the driver’s window. I thought it was hilarious in a sad sort of way.

    Anyway, the area does have some nice views of the reservoir.

    A Small Town with a Big Bridge

    We drove in circles around Bagnoreggio until we finally saw the signs directing to the ‘Old Town’. I wondered how the parking situation would be but as we had not seen big buses along the way we headed for the parking area just at the foot of the town.

    I don’t know if this area gets really crowded over peak season but the approach into the parking area is narrow and must be crazy if buses cross. We parked where we wanted without problems.

    Tiny Civita id Bagnoreggio (population 6, according to RS) is the minimum common denominator in the definition of a Hill Town. Though the ‘Town’ part is debatable: two streets, a piazza and church sit at the tip of a very steep hill made of tufa stone.

    Aside from the old path which from what I hear requires more mountain climbing than hiking skills, the only access into town is via a humongous bridge built after WWII to replace the one which was destroyed. There is no car access but we got some cool pictures of a service guy going up the bridge on a Vespa (‘I think I can, I think I can,…’).

    This town can be enjoyed from three different vantage points:

    1. From the restaurant at the bottom of the bridge where you can be entertained by look of complete disbelief on the faces of formerly unsuspecting visitors: ‘what do you mean that I’m supposed to go up there!?!??’

    2. From halfway up the bridge, where you can stand around pretending to take pictures of the countryside while recuperating your breath in order to tackle the second half of the incline.

    3. From the top, giddy from happiness caused by lack of oxygen to brain

    Well, it was not THAT bad. It looks a lot worse than it really is. But the effort is rewarded. The town is as cute as they come. The views of the surrounding rugged tufa mountains are absolutely gorgeous.

    Yes, every single business is geared towards the tourist. The old houses are being renovated at fast-track speed, possibly for artist studios or B&Bs. Authentic? Well, that is debatable. I don’t think its going to make it into any book of historical restoration. Worth the trip? Yes, at least to us.

    There were two groups of students on day trips. The smaller kids were in the 8-10yr old range, they were speaking English. I would have asked where they came from but one of the boys was getting a sound scolding from one of the teachers: ‘You cannot walk around without looking where you go and bumping into people. You are a KID, you cannot expect adults to move for you!’. D was astounded, ‘But that is a mommy-type scolding!’. ‘Yes’, I said, ‘and we would be better off if teachers could still impart civility and manners to their kids’. After thinking about it for a while DD agreed.

    The older group was composed of young teens, possibly 14-15, they could not have cared less where they were.

    The town is extremely photogenic and fun to explore. After poking our heads into every single garden and alley we sat down at La Cantina to have a little pick me up:

    1 Melanzzane (eggplant) bruschetta – tasty but the olive oil could have been of better quality

    1 Funghi (mushroom) bruschetta – edible, rather bland

    1 Prosciutto bruschetta – good, this would be hard to screw up

    1 rosemary-baked potato – it was the underdog item of the order and what a surprise it was! The potato had been rubbed with oil, coarse salt and rosemary and then roasted over the open fire. The skin was deliciously chewy. Delicious!

    1 coke. 1 beer, 1 glass of red wine. 14Euros. The bathroom was tiny but spotlessly clean.

    We returned to our car and as we drove out I noticed a sign saying that the parking was to be paid at the restaurant in town. Well, too late, my most sincere apologies, but there was no way I was going up that hill again.


    The Rugged Mountains turn into the Rolling Tuscan Hills

    It was time to head North into Tuscany. We drove on S2 (Via Cassia) along the shore of Lago di Bolsena, the view was magnificent.

    When I saw the signs heading off to Pitigliano, I was tempted to take the opportunity, it was early enough. But since I had it in The Plan for the day after tomorrow I figured it could wait. And wait it did! It’s still waiting and will continue to wait until the next trip because we never made it. I should have, could have….

    We drove past Acquapendente, saw Radicofani in the distance (Should we? No, we will do that on Friday!), drove past San Quirico and finally got our first view of Pienza. It sat like a tiara on top of a slowly sloping hill. I think I loved it from this moment.

    Our hotel, Piccolo Hotel La Valle, was just outside the city walls. We found it without problems and parked the car on the premises (included with room). The small hotel was pleasant enough from the outside but the surprise comes once you walk past the reception desk and you see the through the glass doors, over the garden and into the full expanse of the Val D’Orcia. It was breathtaking.

    I abandoned DH to complete the check-in process and stepped into the garden. The roses planted all along the low stone wall where at that precise moment when they are just over their prime, the petals have not fallen yet and the colors are still bright. Kind of like a courtesan that knows that her appeal depends on her wits and experience as much as on her looks.

    The countryside was perfect. There are no other words to describe it. Perfect. It was the ideal combination of natural beauty and manmade artistry. Bales of hay were rolled in the golden fields. Rows of vines accentuated the curvature of the hills. Barns and Farmhouses distributed randomly across the valley. The golden sunlight caressing the air. Wow! Double Wow!

    I don’t know who is granting building permits in this region of Italy but it must be the one incorruptible agency in the entire world, I can imagine millions of would-be hoteliers lining up to build and restore. Or perhaps it’s the complete opposite! Someone is bribing them high enough not to grant building permits.

    The triple room was small but adequate and did not have a view (curse my thriftying ways!) but I didn’t care. That view was only a staircase away. Once we settled in we headed out to explore Pienza.

    TO BE CONTINUED

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    'Kind of like a courtesan that knows that her appeal depends on her wits and experience as much as on her looks.' Lovely.

    I love your most expressive report!! I look for it first thin every morning, here in the Down Under. Thank you.

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    Like everyone else above, I LOVE your trip report and your writing! In less than 5 days, we are off to Italy - for our 14 year old daughter's first trip there - and I'm hoping for more installations of your report before we leave. Don't leave me hanging!

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    marigross,

    As I understand it, Tuscany is an agricultural preserve. That means there are very strict historical preservation laws when it comes to building.

    You will notice Umbria does not have the same laws and a lovely hilltown centro storico, even in tiny Spello or ancient Gubbio, is surrounded by more modern sprawl.

    Thanks goodness for these preservation laws!

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    CONTINUATION of Thursday, May 28th - Day 9

    Once we settled into our room it was time to go and see if the town really was as interesting as it looked from the outside. We asked at the hotel desk if they could make a reservation for us at Latte di Luna in the evening. It was cloudy and everyone thought it was going to rain, they said that were still not sure if they would be able to use the outside tables and were not taking any more reservations for the night. We were disappointed but made a reservation for the following evening.

    We left the hotel with two other restaurant recommendations. We would go find them and look over their menus before we made a decision.

    Is this love that I’m Feeling?

    It took less than 90-seconds to walk from the hotel into the walls. It just kept getting better and better. The streets were filled with tourist but did not feel overrun; it was more of a lively, busy feeling. There was a strong odor of cheese in the air –this IS the capital of Pecorino cheese after all- but we like cheese and were not offended. I can imagine some people being overpowered by it.

    Pienza, formerly known as Corsignano, is the brain child of its native son Aeneas Piccolomini, a.k.a Pope Pius II. He undertook a massive project to remodel his hometown to meet the highest humanistic and artistic cannons of his age, following the purest Renaissance ideals.

    We walked through the main street onto the piazza and went into Palazzo Piccolomini to inquire about the next English visit timeslot. It was only 20 minutes away so we purchased our tickets, 19E for the three of us; only guided visits are allowed.

    We sat in the stone benches that surround Piazza Pio II to wait for the time to go in. Tourists were moving around but here and there small groups of people having animated conversations, could they be locals? Was this a hill town in which people actually lived?

    I cannot explain it with words, but for me Pienza just had a good feel, something personal and intimate. I’m sure that others will not feel the same way about this town because to this day I cannot describe exactly what it made it so special. It just pleased me to be there.

    It was 5:30PM and time to go into our visit, the last of the day. There were four other parties in the group, perhaps 12 people. We were herded through the very interesting rooms, questions were very briefly answered. I inquired about a cloth and the guide just replied ‘Yes, it’s authentic’, then I asked about the books in the library, ‘No, these are just decoration’, no further information. It might have been a language issue but the guide spoke English very well. An elderly couple was asking questions in French without better results, DH thought the guide spoke decent French. This was DD’s first guided visit of the trip and was rather shocked at not having the time to examine things at her own pace.

    I took the opportunity to deliver my speech on the wonders of independent travel but also to drive home the point that she had enjoyed a ‘personal guide’ because of all the hard work, reading and planning that I had done. These things just don’t happen on your own.

    We discuss this often as she is convinced that spontaneity will always carry the day and that I live a too-structured daily life. I can certainly be spontaneous but I know that getting good results that way usually comes from grasping opportunities that come along by sheer dumb luck. Wonderful when it happens, but impossible to count on.

    I just took every chance I got to briefly point out whenever we had an advantage because of basic pre-planning. Yes, I was droning but that’s what mother’s do.

    Anyway, the palace was nice and the small garden was awesome. This is the first recorded palace to have been specifically designed to maximize the expansive views over the area it presided.


    It’s time to WUI in Pienza

    We were told by the guide that our ticket was good to go into the Cloister at the hotel next door. We went in to admire some more views from their garden. I didn’t inquire into the hotel prices but I would venture to guess that it’s not cheap. The restaurant looked very nice and appealing, several dishes seemed interesting enough, and it was not outrageously priced (but not cheap either). It could be a dinner alternative.

    We wandered the streets looking for one of the restaurants recommended by the hotel, La Fiorella. We all found something on the menu but it was still closed and we did not make a reservation.

    I cannot remember the name of the other restaurant but it was outside the walls. We exited town through the Porta al Prato and wandered into Piazza Dante Alighieri, the neighborhood park.

    We found the other restaurant but did not look as inviting as the one we had seen before. We decided to return only if La Fiorella did not have space available. We promptly returned to the park and found an empty table at Il Caffe. Within minutes we were happily sipping white wine and watching Pienza go by. The drinks were served together with a bowl of peanuts and something which looked like croutons on steroids but turned out to be deliciously toasted in garlic and good olive oil. They were replaced when we ordered a second round (or was it the third? The glasses were small.)

    As the stores starting closing up some of the workers exited town. This seemed to be the area where people met for a coffee or a drink before going home. There were certainly tourists mixed with the locals –well, WE were there – but it had a feeling of business-as-usual.

    For the first time in the trip we saw people sitting in the restaurant with their dogs under the table. This is so common in Germany, France and Switzerland that I had been surprised by the lack of dogs in bars. Well, Pienza had a lot of big, beautiful, well-behaved dogs. And babies, lots of babies and toddlers! The park was full of children running around.


    Time for Dinner

    It was 8:00PM before we finally got up from our table and headed back into the town for dinner. We returned to the restaurant where we looked in before, La Fiorella. They still had a few tables available and we were promptly seated. I think that they had at least one table free throughout the evening, I did not see anyone being turned away with the exception of a party of six.

    This is what we had:

    Primi:

    DD: Ravioli filled with Ricotta – very nicely al dente, the filling could have been better seasoned but good overall.

    DH: Dried Meat and Salumi Platter – Good variety of cuts, the one in Norcia was a lot nicer

    Me: Tagliatele in a Duck Ragu – Excellent, a bit on the salty side. There was only enough sauce to coat the pasta but a lot of ground duck. I thought it was very well balanced and certainly enough to be a meal by itself.

    Secondi:

    DD: Sliced Steak – Its good that DD likes her steak medium rare because I think that she was not consulted. It was more rare than medium and very good. Well seasoned and drizzled with oil. She enjoyed it.

    DH: Rabbit with Olives in a White Wine Sauce – It was tender and tasty. I would have ordered the rabbit but I don’t like olives, I asked the waiter if he thought if I would be OK just removing the olives and he said no, the taste would still be in the sauce. He was right. DH sucked on each of the gazillion little bones that have to be dealt with whenever eating rabbit. He liked it very much.

    Me: Pork Loin medallions wrapped in Pastry – I was full from my primo so I might have been nitpicking with this dish. The presentation was beautiful, the pork was tender and well seasoned but the pastry crust got soggy immediately. I ate all the pork with the herb rub, after the first few bites I did not eat the pastry. Perhaps if I had been really hungry this dish might be getting a stellar review.

    1 bottle of wine , 2 cokes, 2 machiatti – 105E.

    We stumbled out into the cool night with full, warm bellies. The walk to the hotel was just long enough to start digestion. We went happily into our beds wondering what more could Tuscany offer.

    NEXT: Can we follow Stu’s Directions?

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    I totally relate to the direction thing, I'm left handed, am always the navigator and starting to be the driver more and more...have a great sense of direction, but have trouble with the lefts and rights (which had caused a few hot works between DH and myself), I said this way (thinking I'm pointing left), he goes straight or right....must be a left handed thing :)

    Still really enjoying your report, this area will be our next trip to Italy, so thanks for all the detail, it will help!

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    Friday, May 29th - Day 10: Navigating Under the Tuscan Sun and a New Moon in Montepulciano


    The morning was bright, clear and just a tad on the cool side. We sat in the garden for breakfast and ordered ‘due cappuccino e un thé’. DH was having some problems with acidity in his stomach and favored tea for the rest of the trip whenever available.

    Breakfast was excellent in the style of German buffets. The selection of cheese and meat was not large but adequate to satisfy our need for savory foods in the morning. They had eggs beautifully fried over bacon, they were cold but if one steps away from the paradigm, were surprisingly good. The yolks were bright orange and not overcooked. Fruit, yogurt, cold cereal and granola were available. The most extensive variety was in the sweet rolls and tarts.


    The Plan

    Today’s plan was to follow what many Fodorites and Slow Travelers simply know as Stu’s Drive:

    http://www.slowtrav.com/italy/tuscany/sd_driving_tuscany.htm

    Basically you drive a figure ‘8’ with the town of San Quirico D’Orcia at the intersection.


    Are we good enough at following directions?

    As I mentioned before, I was using the Michelin #536 Regional Map of Central Italy (1:400,000) as my main navigation tool for this trip. Stu Dudly recommends using the Touring Club Italiano (1:300,000) map of Tuscany to follow his drive.


    I had been able to highlight the route on the Michelin map before going on the trip so I figured we were basically set. I will only say that he knows what he is doing and if you chose to follow his advice, do it completely and get the TCI map. It would have made my life easier this day.

    We set out of Pienza at around 9:00AM, about two hours ahead of his schedule. We decided to go visit the town of San Quirico D’Orcia until we caught up with the recommended times.

    The town is great but my heart had been given to Pienza so I did not fall in love with it. We walked around a bit and visited the church. We peeked into the Albergo dei Capitano, the hotel is lovely, the garden is great but I think that in a future trip I would still go back to Pienza.

    It was time to move on and we headed to Montalcino. We successfully followed Stu’s direction and parked the car outside the Rocca. It was way too early to engage in wine-tasting so we didn’t go into the Enoteca.

    It was market day and the town was busy. Tourist tend to get all excited about market days in towns, but we had seen this type before and mostly by-passed it.. These are not Christmas markets that have lots of beautifully crafted art, they carry things that people need and do not have readily available in small towns: power tools, underwear, consignment clothes, detergents, work boots, etc.

    We visited a few churches. Stopped by a pharmacy to get DD an ointment for her dried-out skin which was beginning to scab in some areas, 7.90E (the cream did not heal it but at least it kept the skin from getting worse). DD picked up a slice of pizza to go (1.80E)

    It was 11:15 and we needed to get going because I wanted to hear the monks chant at Sant’Antimo Abbey. To say that the abbey and its setting are picture-perfect could not even begin to describe the beauty. We parked and walked to the church. Inside we could admire the clean, stark lines of pure Cistercian Romanesque. The space designed to lift the soul towards heaven.

    DD and DH were wearing shorts. No one said a thing (including me), but DD thought she was inappropriately dressed and went back to the car to get a pashima to wrap around her waist.

    The sign where the times are posted is a little confusing. It said that the church would close at 12:00. What it means is that traffic in and out of the church should stop at 12:00 when the monks come to pray. There were a lot more people outside than inside, maybe they did not want to hear the chants but I thought they might be looking for the chanting somewhere else.

    The chanting was as nice as the ones DH had heard in Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain. We heard some really awful Gregorian chanting in Spain too, the monastery in Samos comes to mind. The Sant’Antimo service was sung by 10 monks, enough voices to bounce around in those endless walls. I thought they that the prayers were heartfelt and the experience was rather emotional, but I was raised Catholic and have always been interested in the history of the Church. DD had never heard it live so she was really moved. DH examined the construction of the walls and roofing the entire service. I still love him.

    I thought that the visit to Sant’Antimo was the highlight of the day.

    The next section of the drive took us past Castiglione d’Orcia, back to St. Quirico (completing the first loop of the ‘8’) and on to find the unpaved road between ‘nowhere’ and ‘nowhere else’ that was just before the town of Torrenieri. This is where having the TCI map would have helped. We took a few wrong turns and had a bit of a hard time identifying the correct road. But once we found it, it turned out to be one of our favorites segments of the day.

    This was the one place where we actually saw a big flock of sheep. Does anyone know where do they keep the flocks that must exist somewhere to make all that Pecorino cheese?

    We eventually returned to the paved road, direction Pienza. We bypassed the town and drove on to Montepulciano. I was not expecting this town to be so big, based on what I don’t know, but I just thought it was a hill town on steroids. Not only that but this town is STEEP. I had worn my cute ‘Let’s-go-for-a-drive’ shoes and halfway destroyed my feet walking through this town.

    Everyone was walking around schlepping half cases of wine. We walked around the piazza and went into the church. Nice but I have no recollection of it whatsoever, or pictures so it must not have been very impressive. We needed to find a bathroom so we followed the signs for the public facilities. The line was long but there was no choice but to wait. This is when we began to see an inordinate quantity of teen girls gathering around a storefront.

    We wanted to find the bodega Redi which had been recommended by the hotel to go for a little wine tasting and to see the cave underneath (or above, depending from which street you access). While we were searching for this place we saw more and more girls gathering. I wondered if there was some kind of CD signing event.

    The Redi place was eventually found, we had to ask twice. We saw the huge barrels and thousands of stacked bottles as we descended into the cave. Eventually we reached the exit (or entrance) where there was a sour-faced attendant pouring wine for those who she deemed worthy. We must have had our ‘We’re-not-spending-big-bucks’ faces on because she very reluctantly poured wine for us.

    We reemerged into the Tuscan sunlight to find the streets swarming with girls. Once I started paying attention I noticed a few wanna-be-a-Goth makeups, and three girls running around with capes. Aha! Once I knew what to look for I could see a bunch of Twilight t-shirts. They were filming the sequel to the teen-vampire movie, New Moon.

    The Italian scenes are supposed to take place in Volterra but I guess that any hill town can substitute for the other if needed. DD has a few friends which are die-hard Edward fans (no, not me, no, even if I did go -on my own and by myself- to the midnight release of the last book in the series) and wanted to get a few pictures. We finally ran into the filming crew and watched the proceedings for a while but they were only beginning to setup and looked like it would be a long time before anything actually happened.

    It was just after 4:00PM so we decided to skip Monticciello and return straight to Pienza. We returned to the hotel, DD went to wash her hair and DH and I took a bottle of wine to the garden and enjoyed the view while quietly talking. Sometimes we are happy with just looking at each other.

    It’s time for Dinner

    We had our 8:00PM reservation at Latte di Luna to attend to so we bundled up a bit and went into town. The cool wind was blowing but we still decided to risk sitting outside for dinner.

    The previous evening we had stopped by to inquire even if we had been told that there were no tables available. The waiter remembered us and apologized profusely and asked where we had finally eaten. He seemed genuinely interested.

    This is what we had:

    Antipasto:

    DH: Zuppa di Funghi (Mushroom Soup) it was basically a bread soup on a tomato-based broth with lots of mushrooms in it. Very good.

    Primi

    DD: Pici e Pomodoro Ragu – a thick hand cut pasta (like a fat spaghetti) with a tomato sauce. It was delicious.

    DH – Tagliatele al Tartufo – Pasta was tossed on a light buttery sauce with aromatic shavings of truffle over it.

    Me: Pici e Bascaiola (sp?) – Pasta was tossed with a light tomato and mushroom sauce. Delicately spicy and very subtly flavored. There were many layers of taste. This was a simple yet very refined dish.

    Secondi:

    DD: Maiale Bistecca – Grilled pork steak, I have never seen that cut in my local supermarkets but it was delicious and tender. Once again, the flavors were subtle.

    DH and I: Cinghale Cacciatore – Stewed wild boar. OMG. This was delicious. Could have it once a week for the rest of our lives and never tire. This was the purest essence of boar. The pieces were so tender they fell apart when touched with the fork.

    1 potato contorni, 1l house wine, 1l acqua, 81E..

    This place is solid. The quality was uniform throughout the meal. The was service attentive. DH and I agree that it was the best value:taste ratio of the entire trip. We tried to make reservations for the following night but they were closed to host the communion party of the owner’s daughter. Damn.

    We returned giddy with happiness to the hotel after having one of the most satisfying vacation days EVER.

    NEXT: The Plan calls for a visit to Tom’s towns: Sovana, Sorano, Pitgliano; but do we go there?

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    Thanks to all for the continued encouragement!

    About the left/right thing: Once I verbalized to DH that 'this way' is to the side I'm sitting and 'that way' is to the side HE is sitting we seldom have problems with it.

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    Saturday, May 30th - Day 11: There’s Always a First Time

    I chose not to setup the alarm to wake up this morning. I figured that we would cover as much from The Plan as we wanted without attempting to do all five towns. The morning was cloudy and blustery. We still could see across the valley but it was obvious that the weather was turning.

    DH and I woke around 8:00 and went down for breakfast. We let DD sleep while we decided how to tackle the day. We had to sit inside because the wind was cold and blowing too hard. We still could enjoy the view through the floor-to-ceiling windows.


    The Plan

    Drive through five towns: Arcidosso, Roccalbegna, Sovano, Sorano and Pitgliano.


    The Unprecedented Event

    I must confess that the thought first came across my mind the previous evening. DH and I were talking over dinner, reviewing the day, and he was confused about whether something we had seen was located in Montepulciano or in Montalcino. We were confusing hill towns on the SAME day we had seen them. My response had been ‘wait until we add five more towns tomorrow!

    If I think about it with true honesty, the decisions of first not setting up the alarm and second of not waking DD for breakfast were a clear indication that a decision had been taken in the far reaches of my subconscious mind.

    As I was sipping my second cappuccino and trying to get myself going for the day, I just opened my mouth and the words came out: ‘I like this place so much that I wish we could just stay here and not have to go anywhere’. I was shocked at myself. DH did not say a word, after 11 yrs he knows my pondering moods.

    ‘Hummm’ I thought, ‘And why not?’ This unprecedented thought took my inner travel-planner by surprise and could not come up with any good counter argument. I continued my train of thought, ‘I own The Plan, The Plan does not own me’ was immediately followed by ‘There is always a next time’.

    I looked at DH and finally said the words: ‘I don’t want to go anywhere today. I want to stay in Pienza. I want to read in the garden. I want to lazily walk across town.’. He smiled at me; I think he knew long before I did that this would happen. His response: ‘Whatever you want to do is fine with me. I don’t need to go see any other hill town’. I could have married him all over again.


    A lazy day in Pienza

    We left DD a message at the desk and took off for a morning stroll through town. We went past the Porta del Prato and the park, following the Passagiata signs. This led into a linear park bordering the newer part of town and overlooking the magnificent countryside. Walking very slowly it took us about 20 minutes to reach the end of the walkway and we turned back. I played around with the camera and found the panoramic setting. Naturally more playing with the camera followed.

    We walked back to the park and found a bookstore. If I was going to spend the day reading I needed an extra book as I only had about 50 pages to go on the one I had brought with me ‘In the Company of a Courtesan’. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a paperback copy of Ken Follet’s ‘Pillars of the Earth’. The 1008-page book would take me through the rest of the vacation and the trip back home. BTW, I finished it on Sunday and I absolutely loved it!

    As we walked across town we finally found a restaurant I had been keeping an eye out for, Il Rosselino. It was tightly shut and no menu was posted outside. We decided to ask the hotel to make a reservation for us anyway.

    DH wanted to have some coffee so we walked into a bar across the piazza, La Posta, he ordered a machiatto (yeah, right, he had had tea for breakfast because of acid stomach) and I a café latte. He had wanted to have it standing up at the bar but then a table opened up inside and we sat down. His coffee was good but mine was probably the best coffee I have ever had.

    It was served in a tall, thin glass with a long spoon. Half of the glass was filled with coffee and the other half with the frothiest, creamiest foam ever. I took a little coffee with the spoon and took a dollop of the foam. The foam held until the coffee was finished.

    The tour busses must have begun to arrive because suddenly the bar filled up. The group was Italian and they all crowded the counter, ordered coffees, gulped them down, paid and left within 15 minutes.

    We returned to the hotel where we found DD sleeping again. She had had breakfast by herself and was now napping. We informed her of change of plan and freed her to go into town by herself if she wanted.

    We stopped by the reception and asked them to make a reservation for us at Il Rosselino for the evening. The owner (or the owner’s mother) was less than enthusiastic about this place. She thought that it was a bit overpriced, she mentioned Il Chiaustro (at the hotel next to Palazzo Piccolomini) as also being in this category, and wanted to guide us towards La Fiorella. We told her we had been there already and we would like to try out Il Rosselino anyway. She made the phone call and we had our dinner set for the evening.

    The wind was on the cool side but I still managed to find a spot in the garden where I could pull a lounge chair and read. Every once in a while I looked around at the countryside and mentally patted myself in the back ‘Yup, you’ve done well girl!’.

    Around 3:00PM we decided to go around town once more. We had seen an interesting place during our morning stroll, Il Giardino and decided to check it out. They looked half-closed but we walked in and sat in the terrace. They were open for drinks but not for full meals, no problem, that’s what we wanted to have anyway. They might normally close over lunch but the owners were having some sort of family celebration (no one was in communion-age so it was not the same as the Latte di Luna family) and had setup a table for 20.

    We enjoyed the views, the people watching and the white wine. I ordered a plate of salami to carry us over the afternoon drinking and into dinner. The service was spotty but we were definitely not in a hurry. We must have sat around for almost two hours enjoying the beautiful countryside.

    There was a bit of controversy over the bill. The first two glasses of wine were charged at 2E each and the second round at 3E. Turned that when she had poured the second round the waiter figured that she didn’t have a lot left to the bottle and split the remaining wine between DH and I. This is common enough but it was the first time in my life that I have been charged for the ‘extra’ wine. With the 9E salami platter, the bill came to 23E. They charged coperto for the salami AND the sitting in the terrace.

    We returned to the hotel where we found DD also coming back from town. She had had pizza and gelato in between poking into stores over the afternoon. Around 8:00 we started getting ready to go out for dinner. Jackets and scarves came out of the suitcases because the temperature was going down.

    The perfect way to end the day

    When we walked into Il Rosselino we still had no idea of what they served. The tiny (only 12-settings) place was still completely empty. It became a bit awkward when DH asked to see the menu before we sat down, but then, it would have been worse if we sat down and could not find anything we wanted to eat in the menu.

    A quick scan of the menu revealed several good options so we sat down. The owner poured prosecco and brought out a basket with delicious slices of bread topped with wilted onions. This was looking better and better.

    A four-person group arrived around 8:30PM and a couple of minutes later another party came in. Both groups had reservations and that was it. 11 people for dinner and the restaurant was full. They turned away people several times over the evening so reservations are crucial of this place.

    This is what we had:

    Primi:

    DD: Ricotta Ravioli – tossed in a light tomato sauce. Forget about the ones she had had at the Fiorella, these were the real thing. The filling was light and perfectly seasoned. Very good.

    DH: Tagliatele in a Cinghale Ragu – The wide tagliatele seemed to be freshly made and were the clear star of the dish. Served al dente and very well seasoned. The boar meat was minced not ground. The sauce was just enough to coat the pasta. This was after all a primo piatto.

    Me: Porri Flan (Leek Flan) – Chosen from the antipasti section of the menu. Caramelized leeks were baked on eggy custard with pancetta wrapped around it. It was topped with a little béchamel and broiled until golden. The result was gorgeous! The texture was a bit quiche-like and I had expected a smooth flan, but I’m nitpicking, the flavor was delicious.


    Secondi:

    DD and DH: Pork Roast on a Chianti Vin Santo sauce, served with asparagus on the side. The outside was beautifully caramelized and the inside was moist and delicious.

    Me: Roasted ‘Faraona’ – Served with green beans on the side. I think that a Faraona is a hen, but I have not been able to find the translation. It was so good that it landed in my best single-dish list, tied for 1st place. The owner/server asked me if I wanted the breast of the leg and thigh. I prefer the darker meat so I chose the leg. WOW. The skin was crispy, the layer of fat underneath had been completely rendered, and the meat was moist. The true mark of a master chef is to take simple dishes like this one and elevate them into the culinary pantheon. A light balsamic vinegar sauce- spooned underneath, not drizzled over - complimented the taste of the meat perfectly.

    1l Acqua, 1 bottle and another half bottle of red wine, 2 machiatti. 112E.

    Considering the refinement and attention to detail of this dinner I did not think it was overpriced at all. A definite recommendation!

    It rained a bit over the dinner but it stopped long enough for us to get back to the hotel.


    NEXT: San Gimignano in the rain, do we feel the evening magic?

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    Marigross: I've just discovered this wonderful report, and now am very late to start dinner!! It's addicting. I was lucky enough to spend several days near Pienza, and we kept going back because it was such a favorite town,. Thanks for the reminder. You are an excellent conveyor of your experience!

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    Sunday, May 31th - Day 12: Its raining in the vineyards


    Dark clouds covered the morning sun. Okay, this might not be the best day for a scenic drive but we had no choice, it was time to move on. We had our last breakfast at the Piccolo and checked out. It was time to retake…..

    The Plan

    This day we would drive through the Chianti region, following a combination of suggested drives in the Michelin Green Book.

    1. Drive north, hook up to S451, visit Monte Oliveto Maggiore abby

    2. Continue north on S483 (direction Siena), get off on S73

    3. Head towards Castelnuovo Derardenga and find Take S484, direction Gaiole in Chianti

    4. Drive through S429 stopping along the way in Radda in Chianti and/or Castellina in Chianti

    5. Bypass Poggibonsi and arrive at San Gimignano late in the afternoon


    In the Footsteps of St. Benedict

    The Benedictine abbey of Monte Olivieto Maggiore is located at close to an hour’s drive North of Pienza. I had first read about this place as a lonely side note on an Italian Renaissance Art Tour itinerary. I found a few references within Fodor’s but no major raves (at least that I can remember) about it. Once I investigated, I knew I wanted to go there.

    The road leading to the abbey is beautifully forested and very scenic, even in a misty day like the one we were experiencing. We parked at the top lot and were a little disoriented as to where the abbey itself was until we found some signs pointing downhill, on a mossy paved road.

    I was wearing Mary-Janes-meet-athletic-soles kind of shoes. I had tried them out before the trip but obviously not enough. They had rubbed my heels all over, but that was not the problem at hand. Those #$#% shoes were slippery! If it had not been raining I would have taken them off and walked barefoot (no need to point out that if it had not been raining it would not have been slippery at all). What should have been a less than 5-minute walk took at least three times as much.

    The big draw of this abbey is a cycle of 38 frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict painted by Signorelli and Sodoma. It is one of the best examples of art-as-education for the illiterate. They start with Benedict going to war and end with some of his posthumous miracles. The frescoes are just above eye level the technical details are very easy to examine. Since it was Sunday, some people were arriving for mass, but I imagine that during the week this place would be basically deserted.

    Only die-hard fans would make this abbey a destination but I would encourage anyone that happens to be in the vicinity to stop by and take a look. The frescoes are truly magnificent and beautifully restored.

    We took a different path to walk back up to the car. It was less slippery even though the rain was really beginning to come down. Parking was 1.50€, weird to pay parking in a church.

    Under the Tuscan Rain

    I had great expectations for this drive. Under the Tuscan sun it would have been spectacular but under the heavy rain clouds and the mist, it was still beautiful. Kilometer upon kilometers of hills planted with vineyards. The rosebushes planted at the end of the vine rows splashed the landscape with tiny dots of color.

    Thin clouds of mist were floated between the ravines and the bottom of the tiny valleys. Had we been transported to Ireland? It looked like anytime the Fair Ones would open a gate into their hidden glades….

    All this mystical beauty had a down side: I get motion sick in the mist and fog. By the time we reached Gaiole in Chianti it was steadily raining. We didn’t stop. DD was fully carsick and I was not a happy camper. I had planned to stop in Castellina in Chianti but the rain was not giving us a break. Anyway, DD had finally fallen asleep and I did not want to wake her up only to make her endure more winding roads later on. We decided to continue and get out of the curvy roads ASAP.


    Let’s see if they turn on the Magic in the evenings

    During the planning phase of the trip I had looked around for a location in Tuscany to serve as a stepping stone between Pienza and Vernazza. I scrutinized the map until my eye fell on San Gimignano. Aha! We had been there during our first Italian trip but even though I had liked it, I had not fallen completely in love with it.

    It made geographical sense and after reading countless reports about how the town was transformed in the evening after the tourist left I decided to spend a night.

    The plan started slipping when we didn’t stop in any of the Chianti town. We arrived at San Gimignano at 2:30PM, way too early for the tourist to have left. The first step was to park the car. Easier said than done.

    The hotel had recommended Parking #2 as the closest. We saw the parking but it was full. We drove by and found the 2nd recommendation, Parking #4 but we thought it was too far to walk with luggage in the rain. We turned around and got into the queue for Parking #2. They were letting a car in whenever a car went out. We agreed to give it 15 minutes and see how much progress was made. It went faster than we thought; 20 minutes later we were able to park.

    The rain stopped long enough for us to walk over to the hotel, Bel Soggiorno. For once we were pleased to see that the walk was indeed as easy as the hotel had claimed- a mostly flat 5 minute walk entering through Porta di San Giovanni.

    The hotel was pleasant enough. Even though they have a lift you do need to go up around 10 steps to use it, I know this is important to a lot of people and it was not advertised in the website. The 2-Room ‘Family Suite’ was big but very bare. Nothing much to say about it, until you opened the shutters and then…. WOW. The Tuscan countryside opened up at your feet. Really, really beautiful.

    We dug our two raincoats and jackets out of the suitcases and went out to explore the town. DH’s jacket was not water-proof and he was soaked within a couple of minutes. The temperature was 19ºC, cold for us tropical folks. Not fun. DD wanted to eat something to settle her stomach. So when the rain intensified we ran into the first place with available tables: Bar Firenze.

    DH and I shared a prosciutto and funghi pizza, DD had tortellini al ragu. Water and 4 glasses of red wine: 27€. The food was edible but it fell into ‘tourist-fare’ category. The restaurant was warm and dry and that was all we needed. After an hour the rain finally stopped and the sun peeked out a little over the clouds.

    We were finally able to really explore. We walked by the Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo. DH saw a sign directing towards a restaurant I had in my list, Le Vecchie Mura. The menu looked interesting enough and the prices reasonable so we thought we would make a reservation. The door was closed and no one answered when we knocked.

    DD wanted to go back to the room for a while so we walked her over and asked the receptionist to make the reservation by phone. We were able to secure an inside table for 8:30PM.

    Our next round of wanderings took us up to Chiesa San Agostino, and the walk along the walls. The views were wonderful. We climbed the tower by the rocca and enjoyed the idyllic, misty landscape.

    Yes, the place is a major tourist ‘destination’ but since it does offer these marvelous views, it will never fully fall into the ‘trap’ category. The smaller streets above town had a few houses which looked well lived-in and planted vegetable gardens. These streets were mostly deserted, even when the main street and piazzas were still bustling with people.

    We sat by the steps of Santa Mari Assunta to see a truly awful talent show from some local school which was being staged in the loggia. Poor kids, they were so excited. Their squeals could be heard from one end of town to the other. By 6:00PM we started noticing the amount of tourist going slightly down. Around 7:00PM we relocated to Piazza della Cisterna and had to confront the fact that that was it. The town was not going to empty out in the night. It was certainly not overrun but empty? It was not.

    This might have been caused by the fact that this was a holiday weekend for Italians and they were out en force. Little did we know that tomorrow would rub this fact into our noses!

    There’s nothing left to do under the rain but eat

    When we made the reservation for dinner we specified that we wanted to seat inside because the weather was not showing much signs of improvement. This turned out to be a very good thing. The restaurant had a large outside terrace with wide views of the countryside, representing over 75% of their sitting capacity. It would have been lovely but the evening predictably turned out to be cold and wet.

    In a town where outdoor eating is sought after I can imagine that it is hard to come by an inside table on a rainy night. We were cozily seated under the stone and brick vaulted walls towards the back of the restaurant, as per our request. Later on we noticed that the dinners closest to the door kept their jackets on throughout their meal. I thought it was very drafty.

    The restaurant was decorated with a good mix of modern chic and old rustic. The kitchen is separated from the dinning area by glass panes. Lots of shiny stainless steel could be seen. The kitchen seemed to be well run, no apparent chaos even when the restaurant filled up by 9:00PM.

    This is what we had:

    Primi:

    DD and DH: Lasagna al Forno – Thin slices of pasta (not crepe-like as in Montefalco) layered with meat ragu. Deliciously golden topped. Perfect for the rainy evening. It was a good portion and DD has happy not to have ordered a secondo.

    Me: Tortolloni e Salvia e Burro – This is a deceptively simple-looking dish. There is not much to it but good butter and sage in which you toss the tortellini. For some dumb reason (I want to say lack of appropriate ingredients) I have never been able to master it. The plate which I was presented with this evening will be the standard against I will measure all my future efforts. The pasta had just the perfect amount of ‘bite’ into it. The filling was creamy and perfectly seasoned. The sauce was spooned over the pasta, just enough to fill the nooks and crannies in the tortolloni. It was velvety smooth with little strands of fresh sage tossed in and had many layers of taste. I thought it was a rather refined dish.

    Secondi:

    DH – Osso Bucco: He had been hankering for this dish for a while and had been very disappointed by the one we had had in Rome (Yes! We know it’s a winter dish, but still.). This one lived up to his expectations. He pronounced it ‘not as good as yours (mine) but very good’. If I may say so myself, I make a mean Osso Bucco, it’s actually one of my signature dishes. This one was not quite falling off the bone but the meat was very tender and the tomato sauce was good. No gremolata. Still a good dish.

    Me – Coniglio alla Verazzana (sp?): Finally! A rabbit not cooked in olives. This was not an appetizing-looking dish. DD almost refused a taste of it until she saw my face of pleasure. The roasted rabbit had been cut into pieces and rubbed with herbs. There was no cripy skin or sauce so the look was not really great. But the taste was wonderful and the meat tender. I usually never bother to fiddle around with the tiny little bones and pass my dishes to DH when the easy meat is gone, but this time I did. DH got only a few little tastes, I’m sure he has secretly hoping for a bigger left over. It was the winning dish of the evening.

    1 bottle of Chianti Classsico Rocca Castagnoli and half a bottle of Casina di Cortona. We had specifically requested a wine which they could serve in both full and half bottles because we don’t like to change halfway through the meal. Then they changed and said that they did not have half bottles of Rocca Castagnoli.

    Bill as 77€ for what I thought was a very good meal and very reasonable for such a tourist destination.


    A little night cap

    After dinner we walked back up to Piazza della Cisterna. It was almost 11:00PM and tables around the piazza were still very full. We managed to get one, DH ordered a café machiatto and I ordered a Vin Santo with Cantucci. It was one of the things I wanted to try on this trip but I was not crazy about it (9€). DD went over to the ice cream counter and ordered her gelato there, Caramel and Straticcella for 4€, the most expensive gelato of the entire trip.

    I pondered whether this one-nighter had been worth it and did not reach a final conclusion. Maybe if the weather had cooperated it would have been gloriously beautiful and it would have turned into a full-blown rave. But in hindsight I would have rather spend one more night in Pienza and done Tom’s Towns.

    DH had not particularly cared for San Chimichanaga (his name for the town) after our first visit and had not been overly enthusiastic at returning to it. He had agreed because it really made geographical sense within The Plan. The second visit did not improve his opinion of the town. DD could have been anywhere else for all it mattered. As pretty as San Gimignano is now I feel that we really don’t need to go back.

    NEXT: Adventures in Rental Car Return and the Vernazza Debacle

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    Monday, June 1st - Day 13: From the Field of Miracles to almost needing a Miracle

    The weather report indicated that the sun would be making an appearance later in the afternoon and that the following days would bring a definite improvement. We had a long way to go this day so we were down for breakfast at 7:00AM.

    They were almost finished setting up for breakfast and we had to wait a couple of minutes. The view from the restaurant is gorgeous and we enjoyed while the waitress brought our cappuccinos and tea. The food was heavy on sweet rolls and tarts but had enough savory items to get us going. Soft and hard boiled eggs were available. DD took a package of crackers and bread sticks to munch along the way.

    When we walked out of the hotel it was still drizzling and I stopped to take a picture of DD walking down the deserted main street. In the time it took me to dig out the camera, turn it on and focus, a herd of umbrellas was coming down the street. It looked like a tsunami was rolling in. They were heading OUT of town so they must have spent the night. It was 7:40AM.

    DH went and paid the parking, 20€ flat rate and we were off .


    The Plan

    We knew we were in for a long day:

    1. Drive to Pisa

    2. Visit the Field of Miracles (Duomo, Baptistery and Campo Santo)

    3. Return the car at the downtown Hertz office

    4. Train to Vernazza

    5. Decide if we still wanted to do something after checking-in.


    Getting to Pisa was not the problem

    I had sort of mapped out a scenic drive for this morning but we had not been very successful with the combination of mist and curves so we opted to go to Pisa via the main roads. We departed S. Gimi in direction Certaldo. We did take a few wrong turns around Certaldo and had to back track a little but on the third spin around town we finally saw the signs for R429 direction Empoli. From there we finally hooded up with the Fi-Li-Pi highway (Firenze-Pisa-Livorno) and followed the signs all the way into Pisa.

    Viamichelin.com had estimated the duration of the S.Gimi / Pisa trip at 1hour and 45 minutes. The Bel Soggiorno people insisted that we should be there in under and hour. It took us two and a half hour parking-to-parking.

    DH remembered his way to the Field of Miracles and we got to the same parking that we had used on our first visit without problems. This parking had a restroom but there were so many men hanging around the entrance that DD and I decided to skip it. It was probably nothing but it was just weird.

    On the way out of the parking we had our first encounter with the sidewalk vendors. The guys that sell fake designer bags and sunglasses. They had been everywhere we went to on our previous trip, but on this one they had been surprisingly absent. DH and I had even remarked about it. Well, now we know where they went. They all moved to Pisa (and Florence). The little blankets with merchandise took about 2/3 of the available sidewalk space, really blocking the way. I’m sure that it was not unintentional and they would have raised a racket if someone accidentally stepped over their wares.

    It was not even 10:00AM yet, it was slightly raining and Pisa was full to the brim with people. DD and I went to the restroom (0.50€ each) while DH purchased the tickets (24€).

    Our first stop was in the Baptistery. I love this simple and elegant building. We had to wait outside a couple of minutes to enter because the door was closed for the echo demonstrations (held every 30 minutes). We were able to hear it from the outside but we could not tell which the real voice was and which the echoes were. The harmonies the single singer was able to produce were beautiful.

    And then the Duomo…a glory of Italian Romanesque. The almost 1000yr old coffered ceiling never ceases to amaze me. The Pantocrator (God as the creator of the Universe) mosaic in the apse is a marvel. These beauties are almost lost within the treasure chest that is this cathedral and they are not even mentioned on the guidebooks which only focus on the better-known doors and the Pisano pulpit. I wanted to linger and admire, DD wanted to stay too but I still had one more place to revisit.

    Some day when I grow up and I’m finally able to be a slow traveler, I will spend an entire day just in the Campo Santo. How this cemetery is completely ignored by 99.9% of the people that go see the Leaning Tower is beyond me. The covered courtyard is always an oasis of peace and solitude. Perhaps 10 other people besides us were there.

    Each tomb is different and special in its own way. The restored frescoes of the Last Judgment and Hell are amazing. They really give you a glimpse of the spiritual terrors that haunted the minds of medieval people. The consequences of sin, the horrors of hell, the fear of plague... all these and more are frighteningly portrayed.

    Have you noticed that I have not even mentioned the tower? Well to me the tower is just icing on the cake. It’s there, it’s tall, it’s beautiful, and yes, it’s leaning. But it is only one among equals within the Field of Miracles.

    DD took pictures everywhere. Her black and whites are always good but the ones she took here are really noteworthy. She wanted to stay but we had move along. The rental office was closing at 1:00PM for lunch.

    I don’t know why but told DD that we were not climbing the tower. ‘Why?’ she asked, ‘I asked you and you said no.’ I replied. ‘You did no such thing’ was countered with ‘I asked you twice!’. I was pretty sure of the answer but I still asked it: ‘Do you want to go up?’ was sulkily responded with ‘No’. She was not having a great day with an unusually bad case of PMS and cramping. This, even if TMI, is significant for future developments.


    The Return of the Car

    I will count the decision to return the car in Pisa as one of the very few mistakes I made in planning this trip. I hesitated between La Spezia and Pisa for months. I read multiple reports stating that La Spezia was complicated and Pisa very easy. Perhaps in Pisa airport, or perhaps in one of the agencies IN the train station. But the Hertz office which I selected was not easy to find.

    To make matters worse I had printed driving directions to the Hertz office from the highway and not from the Field of Miracles. We walked over to the Tourist Information and asked for driving directions.

    The kind lady took out a map and carefully marked the way. DH thought that the way she suggested took us straight through town and he inquired about another route further away from town. She hesitated but agreed that yes, it looked like it was easier to follow.

    Armed with the map we returned to the car. DH used the restroom (he did not report any issue with all the men hanging around) and inquired as to how to turn around so we would head in the right direction.

    It took about three minutes out of the parking before we knew that we were not in the right road. After 15-minutes we knew we were completely lost. This would not have been too bad if the other side of the road, which we would have had to take in order to retrace our steps, was not bumper-to-bumper backed up as far as the eye can see. And not moving. At all.

    There was not a single road sign to be seen ANYWHERE. We could not place ourselves within the map. We knew we had to ask for directions but there was just no one walking on the street and businesses were beginning to close for lunch. Finally we saw a restaurant and DH pulled in.

    The first person he asked spoke no English and immediately took off to find someone before DH could tell him that he (DH) would be able to follow directions in Italian. The proceedings took at least 15 minutes but DH left with another set of detailed directions.

    We started out again. We both had our eyes open for signs and landmarks. Nothing. Within 10 minutes we were just as lost as we were before. Maybe a GPS was not such a bad idea after all.

    The stress levels were rapidly incrementing because the already-bad-enough traffic situation was really worsening. And it was 1:20PM. We were going to be stuck at the rental until 3:00PM when they reopened. Damn. My head was beginning to pound. DD was totally silent.

    We looked around for another place to ask but nothing. Then DH spotted a sign for Fi-Li-Pi and metaphorically throwing up his hands in the air in utter disgust said: ‘Screw this, we go on the highway and try again from the start.’. Brilliant man. When I get frazzled I tend overly focus on the problem and lose perspective of the macro. This was the obvious solution; I even had driving directions from the highway! Yeah! I probably would have driven around for hours before this alternative had occurred to me.

    Still, easier said than done. We got back into the highway without problems, took the right exit, found the most-likely-candidate-for-being-the-right-street (remember, no signs) and drove up and down this street without seeing a single Hertz sign.

    I wondered if this the Rental Revenge because we had escaped unscathed from the Borghese park house in Rome? Finally we found a gas station with someone pumping gas at it. All stations were closed for lunch and pumping was strictly pay-at-the-pump with cards.

    The kind gentleman looked at the map and confirmed that we were indeed in the right place. He looked down the street and that was when we all simultaneously saw a sign for Auto Club and Travel Agency. Hummm… even if there was no Hertz sign to be seen maybe that was the place. Many thanks to the man, we turned the car around and parked by the other building. DH finally spotted a tiny Hertz sign. YEAH!! Victory at last! He got out to see where the entrance was

    I turned back to DD and told her to pay attention a Life Lesson was going to be imparted: The day you find a man with whom you can go through situations like this without communication deteriorating into a screaming match, you might have Husband Material in front of you.

    You see, when you have teen girls, you spend a lot of time pointing out what makes boys not friend-worthy (usually very clear), what makes them good as friends but really not boyfriend material (usually unclear) and what makes a guy truly worth your time and energy (usually beyond comprehension of teens).

    DH came back, not only we were in the right place but he found the Hertz guy just as he leaving for lunch after giving up on us and he was willing to take the car back right now. YAY! It only got better: when DH asked if he could take the pre-purchased gas (85€) off the bill if the tank was filled up (40€), he wonderful Hertz man said yes!!!

    DH went to get gas (DIESEL, thank you) while the awesome Hertz man told DD and me about the Cinque Terre pesto. After DH came back the magnificent Hertz man called a taxi for us.

    I should have taken my chances with La Spezia, or even better, KEPT the car until Venice, even if we had had to pay parking in Florence. At the low rate and lots of inconvenience-still-to-come, we would have certainly made out better keeping the car. Hindsight is 20/20.


    What the heck have I gotten us into?!?!

    After the ever-so-exciting and thankfully short taxi drive to the train station we were ready to embark on our next adventure: The Cinque Terre

    We bought our tickets (14.85€ for the three of us, 2nd class) with only a couple of minutes to spare and had to rush a little to get to the binario. DD has hungry and was not happy to bypass the station’s McD. We loaded ourselves and our luggage into the train with little time to spare. The route we took required a train change in Sarzana. We were standing by the door and the train came to a complete stop before we noticed that the exit was barred. We had to run to the other exit, luggage trailing behind, to get off before the train departed. Not fun. The alleged connection time was 9 minutes which turned into almost 20. OK, not too bad. It’s just that I’m always nervous in transit.

    I will not nag-with a-‘b’ and moan about the Italian train system (at least not yet) but I will only state that Italy it is not Switzerland, where you can set your watch by the arrival of trains at the station. We are flexible people, no problem. Yet. The worse is still a few days away.

    We changed into the local train and were able to find seats without too much problem. The train goes through lots of tunnels and suddenly, the entire car went ‘AAAHHHH!!!’. There was the beautiful silver ocean, shimmering under the pale sun.

    After a few more tunnels we arrived at the first Cinque Terre town station: Riomaggiore. What seemed to be hundreds of people boarded the train. The next stop was Manarola, another wave of people came in. I knew the distances was now very short and began to worry about being able to maneuver the luggage and get to the train doors. When the doors opened up in Corniglia, I really began to panic. The train was officially stuffed. Images of Ostia Antica flashed before my eyes.

    We managed to elbow our way to the door in time. Still, I was not prepared for the arrival. What I had not counted on was the hundreds of people trying to get INTO the train in Vernazza while we were trying to go out.

    To say it was madness and mayhem in the station is an understatement. We had to push and shove to make way. Literally. The place was so crazy that we did not even see the elevators and we carried our luggage down the stairs. Well, if truth be told we mostly used the luggage as ploughs. I apologize to anyone that I might have pushed but I was completely bewildered. At one point I was shouting out to DD the name of the hotel and general directions in case we got separated.

    We made to down to the main street. It was still unbelievably crowded. DD was insisting on getting something to eat and I rather rudely told her to hold it until further notice. I was not at my best. I was deep in the ‘what have I gotten us into’ dread. There is a bottleneck point in the street just before it opens into Piazza Marconi where we had to flow back-to-back with the crowd, we had no control over our direction at this point. Yes, it was that bad.

    We saw the Trattoria Gianni Franzi bar where we were supposed to check in and had to battle the crowd again to retrace our steps a little. Ughh. The check in process was basically getting a key handed, being escorted up the first two flights of stairs and being directed to follow the signs up.

    I had the dreaded #47 key in my hand.

    If you are not familiar with Pensione Giani Franzi I would encourage to go to their website. They show pictures of the multiple flights of stairs you have to go up in order to get to the rooms. I had seen the pictures so I cannot claim ignorance. But it is one thing to see it and a completely different thing to EXPERIENCE going up those steps, with luggage and surrounded with people coming and going in all directions.

    Huffing and puffing but we made it up. DD had the keys in her hand. She opened the #47 door and stopped dead on her tracks. ‘You have got to be #$%^-ing kidding me!’ she said in a mixture of anguish and total despair. I was still oxygen-deprived and terrified that the room was absolutely awful so I let the cursing go by. ‘What? What? What’s wrong, is it awful?’. And then she stepped aside so I could see what she was seeing.

    It was not the room. Past the #47 door was a spiral staircase. But not an ordinary, normal spiral staircase. This has the narrowest, steepest one I had ever seen. The steps were not more than 18” wide. The center handrail was a hanging rope. I had seen pictures of this stair in the website but never in a million years did I think that this was the main access to the rooms in this building. DD was breaking down in tears of hunger, PMS and effort.

    To make the long story short(er), DH managed to get the luggage up the stairs and into the room. I swear that at point I would have bailed out of Vernazza if I had not had to carry the luggage all the way down.

    Well, after some time we recuperated enough to face the long decent into piazza so that we could feed DD. We got her a slice of cold pesto pizza and I got some barely edible focaccia topped with onions. We tried to walk (translate: up and down) around town a little but the constant stream of people made it very difficult and wearisome. It was after 5:00PM and this was not getting any better.

    We began to panic that all these people would soon want to go somewhere for dinner and we did not have a reservation. I saw the Gambero Rosso across the piazza and told DH to try that one, it had been recommended. DH made a reservation for 8:00 PM, just after they opened, he knew that we were beat and would not last long into the evening.


    Lets try to WUI

    By 6:00PM a few tables began to open up in the area run by Gianni Franzi and we plunked down to have a drink. They were beginning to setup for dinner and the waiter hesitated before agreeing to serve us. We were the last to be allowed to sit; later arrivals were told that they were closed until dinner. We must have looked desperate and I will be eternally grateful.

    A couple of glasses of wine later the world began to look better under the multi-colored umbrellas. Even DD began to perk up a little. Now, once you are removed from the tumult, Vernazza has amazing and endless people watching possibilities.

    We asked the waiter (who was doing an awesome demonstration of the art of Waitering-under-Pressure) if it was always like this. He said basically yes. The crowds were slightly worse because of all the Italians staying over the long holiday weekend but from May until September the Americans were flooding the town.


    The man in white wearing a beanie

    We stayed in the same spot until it was time for our reservation. We were most certainly NOT going to hike up to the room to freshen up. The way our day had gone I feared that I was not going to enjoy whatever meal we were served.

    We went into the Gambero Rosso and we sat down. The place is decorated with pictures of the owner, a picturesque guy that always wears a beanie and tonight was dressed fully in white, including linen trousers patterned with lace. OK. For some reason seeing this guy lifted my somber mood and I was ready to enjoy the evening. He unknowingly entertained us as he worked two tables of what I think were regulars. He had the art of looking-terribly-busy-while-really-not-accomplishing-much down to a science. He was masterful. The waiters were running behind him finishing up everything he started and left undone. It was hilarious.

    This is what we had:

    Primi:

    DD- Trofie al Pesto: Hand rolled pasta with a Pesto sauce. Very green. This could turn off some people but not DD. I was could not help to think of Kermit saying ‘It’s not easy being green’. It was delicious.

    DH and I – Sefood Risotto for Two: Wonderful. Nothing else needs to be said. Everything was right about this dish. It had marvelously strong taste and smell of saffron.

    Secondi:

    DH and DD – Cozze e Vongole (Clams and mussels in a light broth): Very good and abundant.

    Me – Mixed Seafood Salad: The mix was good. It was topped with a gorgeous king prawn. It lacked a little acidity and was undersalted. But still good overall.

    At 119€ it was the most expensive dinner of the trip but still felt that we got good food for our money. We actually wished we had returned to the Gambero the following night.

    Should we bail out or not?

    After dinner we bundled ourselves up and sat for a while at Café Annamasi to have our after dinner coffees. The night looked like it was clearing up and the crowds were definitely gone. It was almost quiet. I finally verbalized the dreaded question to DH: ‘Do you want to bail our of here? We could leave early in the morning and wing it for a day in Florence…’. DH (most likely thinking of hauling the luggage back down) just said: ‘Lets wait until the morning to make that decision’.

    I was not hating Vernazza anymore at that precise point but I was still not feeling the love.

    NEXT: Do we stay or do we go?

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    Getting of the train sounds wild! We had a similar situation with 2 busloads of Italians and us trying to get on one bus. Continued, gentle but unremitting pushing gets it done, eh?

    That is one big difference between USA and Italy-that sense of space.

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    I am enjoying your report very much, especially the section on Rome. My husband, then-16-year-old son and I spent a week in an apartment in the ghetto (no sewer smell) two years ago and did many of the same things you and your family did. We had a better time on our walk on the Gianicolo because we took a bus to the Piazzale Garibaldi from the Vatican area and walked DOWNHILL into Trastvere and across the Tiber to the ghetto.

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    Corniglia, Corniglia, Corniglia. Everyone says there's nothing to do, no direct ferry access, etc., etc. Okay, my only experience was over 9 years ago, but even then Vernazza seemed like zoo in late May compared to sweet little Corniglia.

    Looking forward to more of your terrific report!

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    marigross - somehow I just discovered your report, and though I only just left Rome with you, I'm loving it so far! I'm thinking about a trip next summer and this is giving me so many great ideas, as well as being so fun to read. Can't wait to catch up with the rest of you!

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    Hello everyone! I'm not quitting on the report, I'm just a little carpal at the moment so installments have to come at a slower pace.

    Tuesday, June 2nd - Day 14: When the world gives you lemons you can make lemonade….or limoncello

    We were in Vernazza and, as much as I tried to deny it, I had to accept that so far I hated it. I laid by myself in my single bed (room had three singles) with my eyes closed pondering whether to grab the suitcases and run for it or just stick it out. I spent the next few minutes making a whole hearted effort to wish myself back to Pienza or forward into Florence but my powers of visualization where not able to overcome the basic laws of physics.

    I finally reached a compromise with my inner travel planner: if the sun is out we will stay and make the best of it but if it is still raining we will find ourselves hotel-less in Florence in less than three hours. Deal. Let’s crawl out of bed and see what Lady Fortune has in store for us.

    It was 6:20AM and the sun was shinning. Dammit.

    Time to wake up DD and get ourselves going. She had stated last night that she did NOT want to hike. Why do we ALWAYS have to hike? Normal people don’t hike - unless they are rock climbers which makes them totally cool. She said she was tired and grumpy and in pain and not in the mood and….. But she is a trooper and dragged herself out of bed with minimal fuss. I guess she takes after her mom.

    We found ourselves down in Piazza Marconi just before 7:00AM.

    It was blessedly empty. No people whatsoever. The rain had cleansed out the pavement during the night and the town looked like it has just stepped out of its morning shower and was still in the process of considering how to tackle the day. The café umbrellas were all closed but still enlivened the piazza with their many colors.

    And it was quiet, completely quite except for the soft sound of surf on the tiny beach. The sea glittered deep blue with flashes of silver, not the ominous slate gray of the previous evening. The soft foam surged white as it kissed the still untrampled sand.

    (well…the sand was volcanic, coarse and dark, the sea was not bright indigo and the water was too cold to even consider putting the feet in, but hey, it’s not the Caribbean and we must have realistic expectations)

    Not bad. Maybe this would work after all!

    Most bars were still closed and we had to scramble a little to find something to savory to it. The few open places only had sweet rolls, brioche and chocolate-filled croissants, all of which I like, just not first thing in the morning.

    We finally found what we wanted at Burgus Café: 3 Cappuccini, 2 pizzetta, 1 crema brioche. (6.90€). This is a hallway-wide bar/enoteca. People dashed in, were magically presented with their coffees without exchanging a word and were out in 90-seconds flat. I guess the regulars have been regulars for a loooong time. The not-regulars had to wait. No problem, my mood was lifting as the sun was rising.


    When Mari goes hiking

    Let me give you a little background on my hiking abilities. Growing up a true and through suburban girl I was never exposed to this type of activity (aside from a very short period in which I was a Girl Scout) until I met DH. We started to do walks together and much to my surprise I found that I loved it.

    As I have grown into my hiking boots, DH and I have steadily increased the percentage of hiking done in each vacation over the years. From short little easy trails on Bryce Canyon and forested paths in the Rockies I graduated into alpine meadows in the Engadine and the beautiful trails above Zermatt. We then went on to a full hiking vacation in Spain. My enthusiasm is undeniable but I must confess that I have a few –ahem- shortcomings:

    - I have depth-perception issues which are mostly solved with the use of hiking poles. But a single, short hike like today’s did not justify carrying around the poles for three weeks.

    - I’m afraid of heights. I have been actively working with this fear for twenty years and the improvement is huge but that does not mean that I’m not afraid. I’m very afraid but as long as DH holds my hand, I’m OK.

    - I’m currently completely out of shape and could lose 20 pounds.

    For the first two I could take the easy road and blame my mother and her suburban, non-athletic upbringing. For the third one I have no one else to blame but myself. So take all these into consideration when you read my account of the day.


    The Plan

    I gave a lot of thought during the planning phase of this trip to how I would tackle the Cinque Terre towns. I read, and read, and read some more, searching for the ‘perfect’ hike.

    Start in Riomaggiore and walk it to the bitter end in Monterosso? Monterosso to Vernazza is supposed to be the most difficult segment regardless of the direction. I like to get the hard stuff out of the way first so perhaps start in Monterosso where it gets progressively easier until Riomaggiore? That would require committing to the full hike.

    Vernazza to Corniglia is the second hardest segment at 85% uphill. Some people might think that uphill hiking is hardest but I find that (1) its easier on my knees, (2) stepping up is better for depth perception (3) you don’t have to look into the abyss below as I climb. This seemed to be the best ‘fit’ for me.

    So The Plan turned to be: Hike from Vernazza to Riomaggiore, taking as much time as we wanted and then evaluate if we wanted to do the Vernazza-Monterosso stretch.


    Working the Stairmaster Up to Corniglia

    We started out the walk behind the train station in Vernazza. Actually what we started was our climb. Within the first 10 minutes we must have ascended 200ft. Probably not, but it felt like it. The effort is immediately rewarded by the widening views of the coastline. Then the town of Vernazza is suddenly revealed below in all its majestic guide-book-cover-worthy beauty. The castle tower rises fearlessly from the cliff, challenging the ocean to try its best against it.

    The Cinque Terre area is a National Park and permits are required to walk the trails. They can be purchased in many places apparently not before 8:00AM. When we reached the first Park stand it was still closed. We continued figuring that we would eventually find an open one along the way.

    Even though she had not been enthusiastic to get started, DD is a fast and fearless hiker so once she was all warmed up she took off and disappeared into the switchbacks. I can do fast and fearless too…. on flat surfaces, most certainly not on uneven steps. DH can hike with the best but he chooses to go slow with me.

    In the spirit of truthful, if dull, reporting I will say that the trail between Vernazza and Corniglia was clearly marked, reasonably maintained, physically doable without directly leading into cardiac arrest, not particularly frightening, and EMPTY. Gloriously devoid of people.

    I must say that it was not frightening precisely because it was deserted. In this stretch three other parties passed us by. That was it. I could take my time thinking about how I wanted to tackle a particularly nasty step (yes, I’m so uncoordinated that I have to THINK about how I’m going to step). We could stop and enjoy the grand view and tiny flowers at any point we wanted to without holding up other people. We did not need to bypass anyone on the drop-off side of the path. It was lovely.

    DD waited for us once along the trail, comfortably standing at the very edge of the cliff. She was happily admiring the view. I will only say that seeing her at with her foot on the lip raised my hackles. I’m very proud to say that I did manage to stifle my inner screaming and did not say a word. I try very hard not to pass on my fears onto the next generation. It did not take more than five minutes before she was off on her own again.

    Considering the crowds we saw later I am convinced that we made the right choice in starting with this stretch early in the morning.

    The guidebooks say that this stretch should take about 90-minutes. At my turtle pace it took us a little over two hours. We had the entire day to kill and were not in a hurry.


    What goes up, must come down

    The approach into Corniglia is absolutely stunning. As you come down and closer the tiny spec perched on the cliff edge slowly grows into a town. The path winds around the hill and you find yourself among the brightly-colored houses looking down at the cultivated slopes, winding down onto the ocean below.

    We found DD patiently waiting by the Park stand. She had been asked for the ticket and had to wait until we came along. She had begun to worry because we took so long and had been considering backtracking. We purchased our tickets (5€ pp for a 1-day pass) and could now legally walk on the trail.

    I found the town of Corniglia to have a nice character and a bit more individuality than Vernazza. Stores were opening up. Crates of fruit were being set at the grocer’s. We showed DD Italian lemons the size of grapefruits.

    There was a fish monger selling his wares from the side of the cleanest truck I have ever seen. The seafood and fished looked succulently fresh. If only I could find ingredients like that at home!

    DD got her first gelato of the day, mango and strawberry (2.50€). The tangy and sweet combination was fantastic.

    The town of Corniglia sits on top of the cliff but its train station is only about a fifty feet above the sea. As you exit the town you have two choices, find the shuttle bus or go down the stairs. We headed directly for the stairs. They are nicely built with handrails and small, even steps. I think that there were at least 25 switchbacks. I was glad we took these steps on the way down.


    Up and Down and Up and Down and Down and Down

    The amount of people on the trail began to steadily increase once we passed the Corniglia train station. It was still very comfortable to walk and the path was rather even for a while. Halfway to Manarola the trail starts to go up and down. Logic tells you that it should be impossible to see a climate change from one cove to another on the same coastline but somehow this stretch seemed a bit more arid than when we set out from Vernazza (probably the morning mist had completely evaporated by then, duh!).

    The views were still exquisite on this stretch and certainly worth the effort.

    As we got closer to town the crowds really began to thicken into a steady stream. We had to wait to let people pass on the narrower sections and to maneuver up the steep steps. Once againg I was soooo happy that we had gotten our early start and tackled the ‘hard’ segment first. Some people were already huffing and puffing, they did not look like they were going to make it to Vernazza. The temperature was perfectly fine for us (remember our tropical origins) but there seemed to be some overheated, blotchy faced hikers.

    As we descended towards Manarola we could see people sunbathing on the rocks and on the jetty. For the males the bathing suits ranged from tiny speedos to American-style knee-length trunks. The women almost uniformly wore bikinis regardless of their BMI.

    The tiny piazza was bustling with activity. We embraced our ‘we are not in a hurry’ mood and when we spotted an empty table at a bar we immediately grabbed and settled to people watch. DD took off to walk around town. She was finally getting a break from us.

    It was 11:00AM but what the heck…we were on vacation, it’s never really too early to drink. We ordered two ‘mezza-mezzas’ and the waiter stared blankly at us. Hummm…-I thought- with all those Germans walking through here they must be familiar with the beer/soda mix! When we described what we wanted he went ‘ohhhh, two Panachés, with lemon soda or sprite?’. DH ordered with sprite and I did with lemon soda. We each preferred the one we had ordered but the difference was not huge, lemon soda was slightly less sweet. The panaché term was successfully used for the rest of the trip.

    We started noticing for the first time a significant amount of Japanese tourists which I has already thought had been conspicuously absent in Rome, Umbria and Tuscany. I always love to see the sun hats worn by the women. The older ones were wearing fingerless, light gloves to protect their hands from the sun. I had seen these things before but this time I thought it was more common among the more affluent-looking women. Now I’m wondering if there is a socioeconomic component to sun protection.

    Manarola has a ferry landing and we were sitting just at the top of stairs that lead to the landing. To say that these stairs are steep is an understatement. We saw a lot of people struggling up. The handrails are ropes so they were not of much help for persons that really need to lean into them when descending steps. The slow movement of people caused significant backups on the access stairs.

    These towns are certainly not wheelchair accessible.

    DD returned, sat and ordered a thé freddo di pesca (peach iced tea). The bar had a tiny and clean bathroom which we used. Never pass the opportunity to use an already-paid-for bathroom.


    The Steady Slope

    We exited Manarola along the train station. This segment of the train is paved and, if not completely flat, the slope is very steady.

    Almost all hikers under 30yrs of age that we crossed on the opposite direction (heading towards Manarola) were wearing bathing suits underneath their clothes. I have to assume that they thought they were going to the ‘beach’. I hope they had low expectations because I would have been extremely disappointed, unless they headed towards the Guvano (nude) beach; the only area which seemed (from way up high on the cliff) to have a somewhat decent sandy beach. But I’m a Caribbean girl; I can admit to being biased. Along the way we saw people sunbathing on the rocks and sitting on beach chairs among the pebbles.

    This stretch of the path is called the Via del Amore. As you enter a covered gallery there is a bench with the back shaped as a kissing couple. In the railings all around it are thousands of padlocks closed around bars. Lovers bring them, swear ever-lasting love, close the lock and throw away the keys down the cliff. We did not bring locks but we did sit on the bench and kissed. DD took a picture of us while trying not to be too disgusted with us. But then she is kind of used to it, DH and I kiss a lot.

    The sun was shinning brightly on Riomaggiore when we arrived. The crowds were reaching the point where I didn’t really want to deal with it anymore so I was very happy to finish the hiking for the day. There would be no Vernazza-Monterosso walk for us. Fine; we can lazy around with the best.

    We walked around town and headed towards the port to inquire about taking the ferry back to Vernazza. The ticket office was already closed for lunch but we could see that the next boat would depart at 2:30PM, 10 minutes after the biglietteria open again. Okay…let’s find a place get some lunch and wait.

    We walked to the ferry landing to see how far it was and we saw an open table at Bar La Lonchiglia and dashed for it. The view was fabulous. We eventually managed to flag down a waitress and ordered: two panachés, one thé freddo, one mixed salad and two paninis The

    We settled down to watch the people go up and down the quay. A group of older teens struggled to properly tie a motorboat to the pier. I could imagine the parents trying to teach them how to do it correctly and the kids going yeah, yeah, blah, blah… We observed the family dynamics of the people sitting next down to us and tried to come up with wild background stories.

    DH went to buy the tickets (19.50€; more expensive than the train ride from Pisa to Vernazza!) once the booth opened and we settled our bill at the bar. 31€, which doesn’t look so bad in Euro but in dollars….well, we paid for the view. This was one of the very few places where we really had to put in an effort to get the waitress to bring the bill and collect the money.


    The Best Way to See the Cinque Terre


    We went down to the landing with a couple of minutes to spare. We sat on the rocks and saw how people began to arrive and arrive and arrive some more. Within moments the stairs were full and the way out was completely blocked. The unloading of the ferry was going to be interesting. The boat arrived within a reasonable delay from the scheduled time.

    The ferry pushed the walkway onto the landing and what seemed to be the entire population of La Spezia going on holiday started to come out. The arriving passengers had to indeed struggle with the ones waiting on the landing. Somehow everyone managed to exit without fist fights or broken bones.

    Since we were at the beginning of the ‘line’ (ha!) we were able to get seats outside on the ‘view’ side of the boat. If you have time to only do a single thing in the Cinque Terre or don’t want to mess around with hiking, do the ferry boat ride from Riomaggiore to Vernazza.

    The towns and cliffs raise straight up from the water, like Venus from her seashell. The colors of the houses are perfectly showcased between the bright sapphire sky and the deep azure ocean. The isolation of each village can really be understood from the perspective of the sea. The view was superb.

    I wished the boat was going slower so that I could enjoy the view a little longer.


    Back Where We Started

    We docked in Vernazza shortly after 3:00PM. OMG. I thought that the crowds were not as bad as they had been the day before but perhaps it was only because of the lacking element of surprise. Still it was almost overwhelming. There must be certain times of day when passengers arriving at the train station are pushing from one end of town while the ones coming from ferry boat push at the other.

    We did not feel like climbing the 99 steps back to the room just yet and once we saw an empty table at Gianni Franzi we grabbed it. Our attentive Moroccan waiter from the previous evening suggested if we were going to sit for a while perhaps we would do better to order wine by the bottle instead of by the glass. Hummm…we must look like lushes. We ordered the bottle. And drank it.

    ….there might be a 12-step program in our near future…..

    The waiter went to tend some other tables when DD came along and wanted a cappuccino. The new waiter said that it was not possible. The ‘regular’ waiter was on break but he still went and got her the coffee from the restaurant. Once again proof that being a repeat customer in Italy pays off big time.

    Eventually we were sufficiently fortified to face the climb and we took off. Showers and naps promptly followed (no kidding! 4 panachés, 1 bottle of wine, a campari that has not been previously mentioned….).


    A meal to forget

    We came back down into town at perhaps 7:30PM. The crowd had thinned out miraculously (well, tomorrow was a working day) and the town was happily settling down. The regular people were coming out to enjoy the cooling air and catch up with each other after another day of madness and mayhem.

    DD had gone down some time before and had sat on the wharf to draw. She said that it took no longer than 10-minutes before an older gentleman sat next to her and started to tell her how much she looked like his very beautiful and passionate first wife.

    In the midst of the previous evening’s chaos we had made a reservation at Trattoria Da Sandro for 8:00PM this night. The reservation was really not required because there were a lot of empty tables. We looked over the menu and this is what we ordered:

    Primi:

    DD: Spaghetti al Ragu – humdrum, nothing else to say.

    DH and Me: Seafood Spaghetti for Two – beautifully presented on a tagine, the pasta was at the uncooked edge of al dente, it had an adequate amount of seafood, the sauce was buttery and properly seasoned but served only lukewarm. It was the not-very-exciting best dish of the night.

    Secondi:

    DD: Stuffed Mussels – delivered very late to the table and the center of the stuffing was refrigerator-cold. Inedible.

    DH and Me: Grilled Fish for Two – again the presentation was very nice. DD got to see for the first time a fish being filleted at the table. She was impressed. We were not. It took so long that the lukewarm fish got completely cold. The batter on the fried seafood fell soggily apart. The taste was ok.

    For the first time in this trip, the house wine was bad. I mean, it was drinkable. But so far all the wine we had had had (3 hads in a row!) been at or above ‘good’. We did not finish the single bottle. We chose not to have coffee there.

    The bill was 112€. Does not get a recommendation. Vacation is too short to waste eating uninspiring food. I really wished we had gone back to the Gambero Rosso or tried out Da Piva which was also on my list. I’m sure the Gianni Franzi restaurant would have had a better quality:price ratio.


    One more toast before we hit the Road, we’re going for the record

    DH was not ready to pack it in so we went back to, where else, Gianni Franzi. Two more glasses of cheap good red wine, 1 machiatto and 1 café coretto (with grappa) later we came to the conclusion that even though we had enjoyed the hike and views during the day, the effort we had to put into getting to Vernazza, dealing with the crowds and going up and down the 99 steps (they had not been counted yet at that point) to the room was not worth it. Sorry. I guess we are just not Cinque Terre people.

    ...I can just see myself, walking into the room…Hello everyone, my name is Mari….


    NEXT: Florence is for Flirting or Take Two on my ongoing affair with the Renaissance Mecca

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    Marigross,

    Your descriptions are captivating as ever. I appreciate that you have often included parts of the trips that were disappointing, or that some days just aren't as great as others - no vacation can be perfect. Can't wait for the next part.

    As a side note, you mentioned wondering about the sun protection that the Japanese tourists used. Lighter, fair, and almost milky white skin is indeed prized by alot of Asian cultures. A bunch of my friends have often returned to the Philippines to visit family, and have often remarked that skin bleaching is a big deal there.

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    Mari, I'm still enjoying your report, especially the hiking. I also aspire to be a hiker and have the same traits as you, so thanks for giving me hope. Giacomo goes along with my plans as long as I keep him in the dark beforehand and he doesn't know what we are doing (or at least the level of difficulty). We are going to CT next trip to Italy, but he doesn't know it yet.

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    Thanks to all for sticking it out with me!

    bfrac, don't give up on hiking. I don't have an athletic bone in my body and I have found walking to be perfectly suited for me. Physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

    Vacations are never perfect. Especially long vacations where so many things can go wrong. Wait until you hear about our train ride to Venice! But then if our daily lives are not perfect, it sort of seems a ridiculously unrealistic expectation to have a perfect vacation. :D

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    I was so happy to login this morning and find another installment to your report. Every once in a while, we here at Fodor's are blessed with a REALLY GOOD report, and your story is definitely one of them. I have to admit I'll be a little bummed out when your trip ends! You have such a great writing style - I think you should write a book about your travels.

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    Wednesday, June 3rd - Day 15: Adventures with the Italian Train System and the 3:00 PM reservation

    We woke up at 7:30AM. A quick look at my trenitalia.com printout showed that there was a train to Florence at 8:19, if we rushed there was remote possibility of making it, and another one at 8:34, which looked a little more doable. I was tempted to run for it but that would put us too early in Florence and we had made arrangements with the B&B owner to meet at 1:30PM. So we decided to stick to the original plan.

    The other alternative –unknown to my fellow travelers- had been to hike the Vernazza to Monterosso stretch. After yesterday’s hike DD had announced that she had enjoyed it very much and asked if we were going to do some more hiking. When I said no she looked kind of disappointed. Go figure. But I was ready to go visit my favorite place and quickly disregarded the idea without saying anything about. What you don’t know won’t hurt you.

    Note to Newbies: I started searching for train itineraries from Vernazza to Firenze and got very few results at odd hours. I then modified the search first to Vernazza to Pisa and then separately Pisa to Firenze, this way I got a lot more options.

    http://trenitalia.com/homepage_en.html


    The Plan/

    1. Catch the 9:34 train to Sarzana, change train to Pisa, change once more and arrive in Florence at 1:03PM.

    2. Check-in at B&B Peterson

    3. Visit the Uffizzi Gallery in the afternoon with our 3:00PM reservation.


    But first we have to get out of Vernazza/

    We decided to leave our luggage in the room and go down for breakfast. That’s when we started counting the steps down. This is the kind of thing you should leave alone. The qualitative experience was bad enough, the quantitative data was really unnecessary. I mean, did we REALLY need to know that there were 99 steps from the piazza to the room? I don’t think so. But we counted them twice.

    We had breakfast at the Blue Marlin close to the station. Three panini, three capuccini and a bowl of strawberries with cream, 15€. We saw the steady stream of workers coming into Vernazza, including the Gambero Rosso guy with his beanie. Once we finished eating we headed back to the room to collect our luggage and face the fact that we had to bring it all the way down to the piazza and up to the station.

    I will not bother you with the details but it was not as bad as I feared (it usually never is, right?). We purchased our three tickets for 27.75€ and sat down to wait in one of the very few benches. People began to arrive and gather in the platform.

    The loudspeakers suddenly announced that the incoming train from Monterosso to Pisa was delayed by 15 minutes. Ok, no problem. Yeah, right. Every 10 minutes the pre-recorded computerized voice would announce 15 more minutes of delay.

    The announcements were always given in Italian and not always followed by an English translation. Naturally this caused a lot of confusion and anxiety in the platform. Well, there was nothing else to do but sit and wait while the platform was getting more and more crowded. We figured there was no use in trying to re-plan the connections since the office people’s guess at the train ETA was probably as good as mine. Swiss trains they are not.

    The train finally arrived with a 90-minute unexplained delay. We walked halfway down the tunnel to wait for it with the hopes of finding and empty car. Fat chance! The train was crowded with smelly hikers and delayed passengers. We had to stand all the way to Sarzana.


    And then we still have to make to Florence

    We got out of the train in Sarzana. DH tackled the long information line while I tried to figure out the printed schedules. This is where a little knowledge takes you a loooong way. First, a lot of people don’t know that Florence is Firenze in Italian. Always use maps printed in the language of the country where you are.

    Second, the schedule poster lists all the trains that will stop in the station during a 24hr period. Each train has in bold print the initial origin (redundant, I know but this is important), the ultimate destination and a theoretical ETA. Underneath all the towns in which the train will stop along its way and times are printed in what seems to be font size 3 – now that I’m forty I’m beginning to notice font size, something which never bothered me in the past. Oy!

    In the particular case we were trying to solve at the moment, there was no train saying Sarzana-Firenze, and a single listing for Sarzana-Pisa departing 4:00PM, travelers wailed in despair! But look, I said, this train which originates in Milano and ends in Livorno lists stops in Sarzana and Pisa. If it is on time it will depart in 10 minutes.

    Having done my good deed of the day to help my fellow travelers I took off like a bat out of hell to find DH, who was still queuing in the information line. We found the binario and much to our surprise, the train seemed to be on time. A few minutes later, the train happily rolled in. We were happy to find seats available.

    The sun was shinning and we were able to enjoy the snow-white marble mountains around Carrara. I could imagine Michaelangelo riding his mule form Firenze to Pietrasanta to visit the marble quarries where he could examine the milky blocks as they were cut.

    We had no information about the connection possibilities in Pisa but by sheer dumb luck across the platform from which we exited we (DH really, he is observant and I’m not) saw that the incoming train was heading to Florence. Out from one train, straight into the other. The best possible connection.

    A group of young gypsy beggar girls got into the train at the stop in Empoli and worked the train. First they delivered notes in 5 different languages to each passenger: ‘I’m a single-mom, poor and unemployed. Help Me’. 10 minutes later the girl came back to collect her notes and whatever money she got along with it. They got off the train at Firenze Rif. station.

    Another thing that train travelers need to know is that there are two big stations in downtown Florence. The first one is just outside of town center (but close enough to be confusing; you can actually see the duomo) and it’s called Firenze Rif. (can’t remember what the Rif. is short for right now!), the station which most tourists are heading to is in town and it is named Firenze SMN (Santa Maria Novella).

    As we got out of the train in Firenze we saw the ‘Help me, I have fallen’ distraction scam being played. We knew it was a scam because we had seen the guy in the train with his family. We were walking past the family when we heard the loud crash as the guy landed on the floor and started moaning. The family was all looking attentively at him but did not move at all to help him. We did not linger.


    The Bed & Bed

    As we walked to the hotel I took the chance to instruct DD on the warning signs of scams and go down the list of well-known scamming strategies. We were staying at Bed and Breakfast Peterson. In this particular case the B&B stands for Bed and Bed because they do not serve breakfast.

    The hotel is a 10-minute walk from the train station and we found it without problems, we stopped to confirm our direction once. We stopped by the door and saw a post-it note saying to call a number to check-in. Damn. We were an hour and a half late and they must have left. We didn’t have a phone with us so we would need to stop someone on the street and beg to use their phone. Double Damn. Just when we were going to start looking for a phone-donor the thought occurred to me… what if I press the bell anyway?

    The door immediately opened! The owner had been heading out at that precise moment. I did my internal happy dance. There was a tiny elevator and we used it to transport the luggage. DD took the stairs.

    The room was huge and clean (not immaculately but acceptably so) but it is seriously worn down. They need to do something soon if they mean to stay in the value/budget range. The double paned windows kept the street noise out. The A/C was working perfectly and the TV had the most channels of all our accommodations so far.

    A fresh coat of paint and new bedspreads would make a huge difference on first impressions. If I was going to summarize it in one word it would be ‘adequate’. AT 74€ pn for a triple you cannot have five-star expectations. If I was in a budget crunch I would definitely stay there again. DH would stay there anyway but he likes to hang on to his pennies as much as possible.

    We settled into the room and we were free to go! It was 2:50 and we had a reservation for 3:00 across town. We just don’t do well with reservations.


    We have an appointment at Cosimo’s Office

    Finally! We were in Firenze! Cradle of the Renaissance, birthplace of Michelangelo, stage for the Bonfire of the Vanities, foundation of Cosimo’s banking empire and recipient of the Medici patrimony. The place I had always considered the most beautiful city in Europe. But then I had been to many other European cities since my brief but passionate love affair with Florence had taken place. Madrid is dear to me…and Paris, who can rival Paris?

    Over the last decade Florence had remained firmly encased in my heart along with all the memories and feelings of my very first trip (1) with DH to (2) Europe. I can only describe my emotions for this city as –ahem- virginal. Now I was a grown woman, I had been around the block a few times; at least enough to know that old flames seldom burn as bright the second time around.

    Aside from the price, the next two best things about the Peterson B&B are the bus stop just outside the door and the bar right next to it. We were able to buy tickets and be on the bus in less than five minutes from the time we walked out.

    The first thing I noticed on the bus was the large amount of male attention DD was getting. Humm..the countryside was a bit more subdued! What the hell??!? Even I was getting an admiring glance here and there.

    From the bus I caught my first view of the Baptistery. Oh, how I love this building! A couple of seconds afterwards, there it was, rising in all its majesty, clothed in green and white marble, crowned by Brunelleschi’s masterpiece, the red headed beauty: Santa Maria del Fiori. I refrained from jumping out of the bus and embracing the building only because I was equally excited by our destination: Galleria degli Uffizi.

    We had a reservation for 3:00PM and we were late. I managed to walk past the Palazzo Vecchio without stopping and we headed directly to the regular line to see how bad it was. The estimated wait was an hour. Humm… pay the reservation price or wait the hour? DD was hungry and I knew that she wouldn’t enjoy the museum with her belly groaning. So we left DH in the line and went to get her a slice of pizza and something to drink.

    When we returned fifteen minutes later DH had not advanced much so we decided to go redeem the reservation. It was 3:40PM. By the time I had purchased the tickets (38€), gotten DH back, made the short line to go past the metal detectors, and came to the entrance, the guy that had been behind DH on the regular line was also coming in. Could have saved 9€ in reservation fees. Oh well, we were in!


    Primavera is ignored while all attention is showered on Venus

    The Uffizi (Offices) Gallery is housed in a building commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo I di Medici in the 1500’s to accommodate his family’s business and ever-expanding art collection. Depending on one’s interest in art, and state of own feet, it can be seen in less than an hour or just never have enough of it.

    You can pick up any art guide and read about the marvels that rest within this treasure chest so I will not go into details. But right from the first room when you see the three Maestá paintings (Mary as Queen of Heaven) you know that you are in for a trip through time, beginning at the end of the iconic Byzantine period in Italian painting and culminating in the adoration of the human spirit and the body which holds it.

    The museum was manageably full of people. If we bided our time we could enjoy the paintings in between waves of tours. The temperature was not cool but neither was it unbearably hot, as I remembered it to be from my previous visit.

    As I told DD the stories depicted in the paintings I once again wished I had brushed up on my Greek mythology and Lives of Saints. There were so many things that I just did not remember!

    I floated from Cimabue to Fra Angelico to Filippo Lippi and onto Boticelli. Getting a good look at the magnificent Birth of Venus was a challenge. You don’t want to mess around with those tiny but pushy Japanese ladies. They have a completely different sense of personal space and are willing to get physical to find a good spot from which to take their pictures. It must be all the practice they get in their trains!

    The rest of the paintings in the Boticelli room were basically ignored!! I could look at his Primavera without having to wrestle for space. I could examine Flora’s beautiful dress, admire the three graces in the back, and take a closer look at cupid. Few people spared a glimpse towards Boticelli’s Calumny, painted in the post-Savonarola period and though lacking the joy and sensuality of Venus and Primavera, equally significant.

    We slowly made our way through the rooms and admired Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Tintoretto, Ticiano and countless masters until I could see that my family had been over-arted. DD had stopped asking questions and DH had his ‘I will endure’ face on. It was time to go.

    As we made our way to the exit there was a special exhibit of baroque ceramics which looked absolutely fascinating but the long day and weary feet were taking their toll, even no me. I chose to keep walking.


    The State of Florence

    We emerged into the Piazza della Signoria, managing not to step over the street vendor’s merchandise. The hazy afternoon softened all the colors into shades of gray and silver. As we walked in the general direction of San Lorenzo, I pointed out the ‘fake’ David, told DD about the history of the Medici, the demise of Savonarola.

    DD wanted gelato to tide her over to dinner. Closer to the Signoria the price for single flavor cups was 4.50€, yikes! I told her to check further out and indeed saw the prices coming steadily down. I know it’s only a couple of euros, but I just hate to be swindled!

    The ‘vous compra’ vendors were everywhere, but not for long. There seemed to be a police task force dedicated to chasing them away. It looked like the vendors had a fifteen-minute window of opportunity to sell their bags and sunglasses before they had to pick up their blankets and run with everything. Not more than 90-seconds afterwards different sellers had occupied the vacant spot.

    Closer to the Cathedral DD finally bought a two-flavor cup (panna and vaniglia) for 2.50€. She was disappointed when she saw that the bottom of the cup was placed very high within, so she got very little gelato after all.

    I thought the Battisterio and the Cathedral façade are in deep need of pressure washing. Yes, I know that it’s not done like that, but still, the walls were grimy. Ten years ago they had been sparkling white and bright green accented with pale pink. The pink was almost lost.

    The San Lorenzo Market was still going and the crowds were thick. Vendors and prospective buyers were haggling, both trying to leverage on the last sale of the day. DD wanted to go through the stands but frankly I was not in the mood and I did not feel comfortable letting her go by herself yet. I needed to feel the city a little more before I let her wander on her own. Irrational, I know, but that is how my DNA works.

    Where I had found Rome to be clean and renovated I was seeing Florence rather dirty and neglected. The completed opposite of my experience before. Was I hating Florence? NO! But the old flame was indeed not burning as bright. I don’t think Firenze and I will be lovers anymore, but we can be good friends and look forward to having a pleasant dinner once in a while.


    WUI in Firenze

    I had casually looked at my restaurant map and seen that I had marked a few places of interest in the Mercato Nuovo area so I let my feet wander in that direction. The places around us were setting up for dinner so we kind of collapsed into –of all places- an Irish Pub which was accepting drinking-only patrons. It was DH’s choice, not mine. Oh well, a drink is a drink. 3 glasses of white wine amd a sparkling water set us back 19€. Florence was going to be expensive! Rome was beginning to look like a bargain.

    When I took a closer look at my map I realized that I had made a tactical mistake. Most of the places I had marked in that area were open only for lunch. The only alternative I actually had in the area was Zá Zá and it was not very high on my must-go list.


    A Where-Are-We? Dinner

    A quick look around the Mercato Nuovo piazza did not reveal any inviting restaurant. They all looked like tourist traps. We walked over to Zá Zá and browsed over the menu, we all found things we could try so we decided to go in. The waiters were a pierced, tattooed and hair dressed motley crew. The overall feel was funky in a good kind of way.

    Zá Zá is strewn across several tents built up on decks over the piazza. The inside was full but we had no interest whatsoever in being there, the first two tents were full. The head waiter of one tent handed us to the one in the next area. It felt like a relay race. We were eventually seated on the last tent, which had only three open tables left. The place was busy.

    This is what we ordered:

    Primi:

    DD: Pesto Spaghetti – They were not spaghetti, they were tagiatele, which was fine with us but still misleading. The pesto was thick and stuck to the pasta. The portion did not look huge but was very filling. DD was happy with it.

    DH: Fettuccini in Walnut Sauce - The cream sauce was heavy but very tasty. The pasta was not overcooked but was not as al dente as the ones we had had throughout the trip.

    Me: Spaghetti Carbonara – It did not look pretty but was good. Creamy and salty with lots of pancetta and without eggy taste. It would have made a meal on its own.

    Secondi:

    DD: Lamb Chops – Served with potatoes and lemon. Very well seasoned but overcooked. We like our meat medium-rare, this was bordering on well-done. She ate some and liked it but was full because of the pasta. DH happily ate the rest.

    DH: Mixed Grill Meat - Also served with potatoes and lemon. It had lamb, sausage and steak. He enjoyed it.

    Me: Rabbit Stuffed with Pistachios – My main problem with this dish was that it did not match what I had pictured. It should have been listed as Pistachio stuffing on a crust of rabbit. The overall medallion was about 6in wide, the rabbit made less than 1/2in of that. The rest was the stuffing. Which was tasty but just not the rabbit I wanted. The spinach served on the side was delicious.

    1.5L of open carafe non-descript house wine, 1L of water.

    The bill was 99.50€.

    If I would summarize this experience I would say that we could have been anywhere in the Americanized-world (with the exception of the rabbit, of course). The food was tasty in an Outback Steakhouse kind of way. Perhaps a level or two above Houllihans. Please note that I do eat in those places once in a while and enjoy them for what they are. It was just not an Italian experience.

    We walked back to the B&B which looked a lot closer on the map than what it felt. The streets were basically empty. A few homeless people were settling with their dogs around the train station to spend the night. The few people walking were definitely on their way to somewhere, this is not a neighborhood inviting to wander.

    We took deliciously warm showers (did I mention that the Gianni had no hot water?) and crashed for the night.

    NEXT: We visit Fra Angelico, David, Filippo and Lorenzo

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    Finally I've had the chance to catch up with your report, marigross. You're making me "homesick" for Florence and Rome! I agree with you about the Ghetto, I thought it was a wonderful neighbourhood and infinitely more interesting than the Campo di Fiore.

    You explained the connection with the Germans and St Benedict's Day, but what's the storey with the leather and whips? Is that connected to St Benedict's Day too? (maybe I missed it, I should go back and re-read)

    Looking forward to reading more!

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    Don't give up on me just yet! I will continue to post. I have a few days off from work and have had a lot of boring business to take care of. I will post some more in the afternoon.

    Apres, according to my husband the synchronized whipping is a southern Germany tradition. It was certainly impressive to look at (and hear the crackling).

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    Thursday, June 4th - Day 15: An Ambitious Day in Florence

    We woke up early enough to tackle the day. We walked into Café Viena at approximately 8:00AM. The counter was packed with locals shooting up coffee and we were obviously getting in everyone’s way. I happily saw that they had a large selection of small savory items. We ordered 3 cappuccini and three little sandwiches for 8.70€. In a separate counter DH bought three bus tickets for 3.60€. Thus fortified we were ready to carry on with…


    The Plan

    First the must-do’s

    1. Convento di San Marco – For Fra Angelico’s frescoes and Cosimo’s abode.

    2. Walk by Ospedale degli Inocenti – to see Brunesllechi’s revolutionary portico

    3. Accademia – to see David of course

    4. Medici Chapel – the Sacrestia Nuova had been in renovation during our previous visit and we had not been able to see Michaelangelo’s tribute to his patrons

    And then, the if-we-have-time’s

    5. Palazzo Medici-Ricardi – to see where my beloved Lorenzo lived

    6. Palazzo Vecchio – to walk on the stage where the history of Firenze was set.


    Entering the Convent

    We exited the bus by the Duomo. The sun was shining and the piazza was virtually empty. In the soft morning sun the walls did not look as gritty as they had the evening before. The ‘fake’ Doors of Paradise glistened in the light. But we had a busy day ahead and we had to carry on.

    Our first destination was the Convento di San Marco (4€ pp). The very simple building was commissioned by Cossimo the Elder (Lorenzo the Magnificent’s grandfather) and he kept a cell in it so that he could retire whenever he felt the need to meditate in solitude. Over the years St. Antonius and Savonarola presided over the convent as priors. Mismatched bunch!

    Some people consider San Marco slightly ‘off the beaten path’ but Oh MY! I would beat this path anytime. The decoration of convent was mainly the work of young Fra Angelico. We crossed the cloister, admiring the frescoes depicting of the life of San Antonious and went upstairs first to visit the decorated cells. As you reach the top of the stairs you come face to face with the blessed monk’s magnificent Annunciation. It gave me goose bumps, I had have tests on this fresco during my college years!!! Gabriel approaches Mary who sits under a loggia, clear perspective techniques are used. The archangel has a neutral expression on his face, but beautiful Mary has a ‘you are kidding, right?’ demeanor. I love it. The 43 cells are decorated with various motifs and are a joy to see.

    The last cells on the block belonged to Savonarola and a few of his personal items are kept there, mostly self castigation instruments. Still interesting. This man is a fascinating character in history of Florence.

    The beautiful library has an exhibition of old books and the art of producing illuminated manuscripts. It was the perfect introduction to the more extensive collection that we would see later in the afternoon.

    The Ospizio (where allegedly Michelangelo secretly dissected cadavers) is decorated with a huge Last Judgment worthy of a couple hours of examination. The Chapter House and Refectory are all worthy of a visit. One day when I grow up…..

    We left the building at around 10:00AM and there was still only a handful of visitors there.


    Admiring the Male Physique, and not only David’s

    Our next destination was less than a block away. Florence is wonderfully compact! I had made reservations for Galleria della Accademia for 10:00AM this morning. There was no line. None whatsoever, we walked straight in and paid our entrance fee, 10€ pp, and saved the reservation charge.

    A very pleasant surprise was to the opportunity to see a special exhibit of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographic work: ‘The Perfection in Form’. It contrasted nude silverscreen portraits of gymnasts/body builders with Michelangelo’s sketches and studies of body parts. It was a powerful study on the human body as sculpture.

    The exhibit had opened the week before and will be shown until September. Go see it if you have a chance. DD and I enjoyed it tremendously and spent almost as much time in this exhibit than in the rest of the museum.

    There were a few male and female nudes which might be considered inappropriate for children/young teens in some conservative circles. Nudity is not an issue in our non-conservative household and I’ll leave it at that. I even wonder if they could have an exhibit like that in the US or if they would have to set it up in a separate area and establish a minimum age requirement?

    People go into this museum to see David and walk right back out. Not me. Yes, David is wonderful, a glorious male specimen full of youthful vitality....but the unfinished Slaves! OMG. I’ll take those any day. The four statues were sculpted by Michelangelo for the tomb of Julius II and were never completed. There is something so compelling about how they seem to strain and push, all muscles bulging, trying to wrestle out of the stone. Beautifully contrasted by some more Maplethorpe pictures.

    The pinacoteca in the second floors also holds some mostly-ignored treasures, including some Botticelli paintings. The Gipsoteca we mostly ignored. Not my cup of tea. After a perfunctory loop we decided to move on.


    The Family Church

    One of my big disappointments on the previous trip, aside from what I later found out was lack of knowledge, was that San Lorenzo and the attached Library were closed for renovations. This trip would rectify the omission.

    We went first to the church were we were promptly directed to the ticket office next door. This was one of the few places where we had trouble communicating what we wanted. Well, what we didn’t know we wanted. ‘Three tickets, please.’ Was promptly replied with ‘For what?’. ‘How many tickets do we need?’ I asked, ‘what do you want to see?’ she returned the question. Okay… this had all the makings of a variation of Who’s on First. When in doubt, go for all. ‘I want three tickets for everything’ was only responded to with ‘18€’ and I was handed a bunch of tickets.

    In order to make a future travelers life easier, this is what we eventually figured out:

    - 1 ticket for the Biblioteca Medicea Luarenziana and Special Exhibit ‘La Forma del Libro’; 2.50€pp

    - 1 ticket for Opera Medicea Luarenziana – Visit to the reliquary of Clemente VII and Mirta di Leone II. 2.00€ pp

    - 1 ticket for the Opera Medicea Laurenziana – Contribution of the maintenance of the San Lorenzo Basilica, Old Sacristy and Treasure’s Museum. 3.50€

    The Capella Medici has a separate entrance and ticket office.

    Our first stop was the Laurentian Library. Marvel of Marvels! Michelangelo designed the monumental staircase that brings you up from the cloister to the library floor. This staircase alone deserves a chapter on any book of Italian Renaissance Architecture.

    And then the majestic library opens up. The floor is terracotta, laid to form complicated patterns. The Medici coat of arms is emblazoned everywhere: the wondrous coffered ceiling, the stained glass on the windows, the desks. I found it curious that the family crest was kept in company by a ram’s skull. I asked the very helpful attendant about the symbology, he replied that Lorenzo il Magnifico was born under the sign of Capricorn…ahhhh! Now it made sense.

    The attendant seemed excited to find anyone interested in the subject and he continued to explain how the precious books were stored under each bench and the library users just propped them up on the lecterns above. The wealth of learning stored in this place is almost incomprehensible by modern standards. That a single merchant family could amass wealth such as that….wow!

    A special exhibit was being displayed in the back rooms. A progression of ancient texts starting with clay tablets, moving to papyrus scrolls, leather, vellum and finally paper were beautifully presented. A 13th Century Chinese scroll in Grotesque style depicted a competition of who has the largest penis. It was hilarious.

    Our next stop was the underground room where Medici relics are kept. This is interesting only to die-hard Medici fans or cloth/embroidery aficionados. I’m both so I was happy to be there for a few minutes. Down there you can see the tomb of Giovanni di Bicci (Cosimo the Elder’s father), his epitaph? Pater della Patria (I wrestle with this translation… Father of the Motherland?). I bit full of themselves these Medici where, gotta love them!

    We exited the convent and went into the Basilica di San Lorenzo proper. The church is extraordinarily simple and elegant. Designed by Brunelleschi and tinkered-with by Michelangelo, it is pure Renaissance. The white stone is contrasted by the dark gray pietra serena. We admired the Sagrestia Vecchia and the adorable painted dome.

    The place I was dying to see was the Capelle Medicee, also known as the Prince’s Chapel. Every time I hear some expert discussing the obsession of the Egyptians with death, and therefore tombs, as if it was a foreign concept within the Western/Christian world, I think of this ‘chapel’. This is the outmost glorification of the importance of a single family and the assurance that their names be remembered for eternity.

    The unbelievable amount of labor and wealth that went into building this monument of semi-precious stone is just mind boggling. Considering the size of the Egyptian empire vs. the Florentine, I think this chapel is equivalent to at least one pyramid. A bit of Soberbia, IMHO.

    We entered the chapel, 7€pp, and went straight upstairs. What a disappointment! Almost 2/3rds are covered in scaffold. Well, I had seen it before. What I was reallllyyy looking forward was to see the Sacrestia Nuova. The sacristy was designed and started by Michelangelo, his first commission as an architect. He blurred the line dividing sculpture and architecture. The grandest tombs are of the lesser scions of the Medici, Giuliano and Lorenzo, son and grandson of Il Magnifico, posing as Thought and Action each surrounded by two allegorical figures, Dawn and Dusk in one side and Day and Night in the other. Words elude me.

    The dynasty maker himself (yes, I know this is debatable but please indulge me!) Lorenzo himself and his beloved brother Giuliano (killed in the Pazzi conspiracy) lie in simple sarcophagus adorned by a sculpture of Madonna and child.

    I was floating in Cloud Nine when I had to face the fact that my family had the glazed-eye demeanor of over-arted folks. I imaginarily planted a kiss upon Lorenzo’s grave and we headed out into the Florentine sunshine with the mission of finding lunch.


    The Lunch Madness

    Once again I told DD that she would have time to browse the market a little later. It was 12:45 and I wanted to go find some lunch at the Mercato Centrale. Like any good Fodorite I wanted to taste the wonderful foodstuffs put out at Nerbone’s.

    And then I saw the mob.

    I swear it was a mob. There was no approaching that counter. Even if we had been able to come near enough to order there was another complication: DH does NOT do standing-up eating unless it occurs in front of the kitchen counter at home while consuming a little snack. Within a couple of minutes I had to face the fact that this was not going to happen.

    A quick spin around the market revealed another stand with available seats. OK, one imperfect meal is not going to hurt. Gotta compromise somewhere. The unattractive mamma offered some very attractive lasagna and DD sat down as soon as she saw it. I did not even look at the name of the place until after we had eaten: Pork’s. With a cartooned pig’s face on the logo. It was good that I did not see it before or I might have skipped it. Prejudices hit you smack on the face!

    This is what we ordered:

    DD: Lasagna al Forno – Golden perfection. Just like little bear of Goldilocks fame: not too thin, not too thick, oozing just the right amount, the top was beautifully browned without being burned. The portion just perfect for a lunch.

    DH: Trippa – Those that like it know what it is, those which don’t probably prefer to remain ignorant, I’ll just say its coming from the fifth quarter. It was thick, tasty and unbelievably not-greasy. We considered getting a second portion. It was that good. It only needed a little spicy to take it to a complete new level!

    Me: Porchetta Panini – It was good. But Puerto Rico has a great history of roasted pork and pork products and I was not overly impressed. Where the island uses oregano to season the pork the one I ate was all rosemary. It was good but I’ll take a Cubano sandwich or a Media Noche anyday over this Panini.

    The meal with a big sparking water and a coke (See! We can have alcohol-free meals!) was 25.80€ and the services was exceptionally good. As we exited I inquired about something stewing in a pot. The cook said it was lampredotto. He asked us if we would like to try some. We gave an enthusiastic YES! It was delicious.

    DH asked if we would be in the area tomorrow for lunch. He was disappointed when I said no.

    We were well fortified to continue our Florentine wanderings…


    It’s all about Brunelleschi’s Masterpiece

    I had made a large omission on The Plan! I had not allocated time to dedicate our attention to the remarkable buildings located in the heart of Florence. Well, there was nothing to do but ditch the visit to the Medici-Riccardi Palance and head for the Cathedral.

    I will always remember the area between the Market and the Doumo as ‘Ciao Bella’ centrale. It was amazing to hear the things the passerby told DD. Even when she was flanked on both sides by her parents! I guess that they don’t see anything wrong with it and therefore do no refrain in the presence of the target’s elders. DD pretended to ignore them while basking in the admiration. It was funny.

    First on the list was the Battisterio, 4€pp. What can I say; I’m just a sucker for these big round buildings! I loved it the first time I saw it, loved it just as much the second time around. The mosaics are just mind-blowing. DD wanted to hear the story of every saint depicted in that cupola! It took a while.

    Then we went to see the Grande Dame of them all, the incomparable, and the pure essence of everything Fiorentine: The Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiori. And then I remembered that the interior is not THAT great. It is beautiful, don’t get me wrong! It is just that the exterior is so magnificent that the interior….its just pretty.

    The copula, Brunelleschi’s revolutionary masterful piece of engineering, is meant to be seen from afar. Not close up and personal. It’s somewhat like a beautiful model, everything is stupendous until you get to know her better and find out that she completely lacks a personality.

    We wandered around a bit until it was time to move on. That’s when I re-found out (which means that I had written it down at one point and never really remembered) that the Palazzo Vechio closes early on Thursday. Okay… nothing to do but declare our sight-seeing activities for the day over.


    The best time of the day has arrived: WUI

    I could not put it off much longer. We were not going to be in the area tomorrow. I had promised DD to let her take a spin around the San Lorenzo Market. I had no wish to be there and she really needed some alone-time. We walked back to the Mercato Centrale and sat down at Semi Divino to have a few drinks while DD explored the market. After many cautionary phrases and running over haggling runs we let her go into the sunset.

    Yes, sometimes I’m a bad, irresponsible mother that lets her under-age daughter wander off by herself in a foreign country where she does not speak the language and does not have a cell phone. I will expand on this at the end of the report. For now I will only say that San Juan, where we live, is not the safest area in the world and she knows how to deal with it.

    We entertained ourselves looking at the stores beginning to close up and the seemingly endless parade of leather-jacket-laden racks being wrestled into warehouses for overnight storage. The way the people strained to push those things must have weighed a couple hundred pounds.

    DD came back about 40 minutes later -sigh of relief- and wanted me to go with her to make the purchase. She had an iced-tea and we settled the bill, 15.95€ for four glasses of wine and tea. Much better than the Irish Bar across the piazza we had gone to the previous evening.

    After a little haggling we made DD’s purchases and we were off.


    The Search for Food

    Most of the places I really wanted to try for dinner were across the Arno. So after trying to decipher the Florence Bus Map we located a stop where we could board a bus that would take us closer to our Oltrarno destination.

    I had reduced my wish list down to three restaurants and I wanted to stake them out to take a look at their menus: Fiaschetteria Cambri, Antica Bettola and Il Guscio.

    We found Cambri in Piazza del Tiratoio without problems, the menu looked tempting and we made a reservation for 8:30PM. Our next target was Bettola.

    Here I will add a note: do NOT trust Google Map pins that you have not placed yourself. We did find the place, somewhat in the neighborhood of where Google placed it but it took a while. I also found the images to be rather distorted. It is a good tool but its not to be trusted blindly.

    The Bettola place looked interesting enough but DH did not seem to thrilled so we left without making a reservation.

    We did enjoy walking through the residential neighborhood with interesting tiny stores lining up the streets. In fact, we thought that we had discovered the most amazing, perfect little bar on corner of Piazza Torquato Tasso. People were relaxing outside, having little bites to eat and drinking wine and spritzes. It was just so…inviting. We were very disappointed when they said that it was a private community club, kind of like a coop. Very disappointed indeed! (As if we needed another drink, right?)

    The not-so-nice-lady (because she did not take pity on us, poor local-wannabees) kindly directed us to the Piazza del Carmine for some nice bars. Well, we just wanted to sit on HER place so we continued our restaurant search.

    We found Il Guscio within 100m of where Google had placed it. The menu looked really good. I thought the interior was a bit stark but the promise of gorgonzola and pear risotto won me over. We made a reservation for the following evening.


    Drooling over the Next Table’s Meal

    We returned to Cambri and claimed our reservations. It had been completely empty when we had come in earlier. There were still quite a few tables seemingly available when we returned. There was not a single table open by the time we left.

    We ordered a liter of house wine. I found it curious that only the persons ordering by the bottle got real stem glasses. We drank ours from the little glasses. I know its silly, but I love drinking from thin, beautiful glass.

    This is what we ordered:

    Primi:

    DD: Lasagna – yes, again. And while it was good, it was not as good as the one she had had for lunch

    DH and Me: short pasta with tomatoes, asparagus and mushrooms – It was good dish. A bit too much like the quick pastas I whip up at home. Nothing to write home about.

    Secondi:

    DH: Fried Rabbit, Vegetables and Flowers – the presentation was beautiful. The batter was light and the frying oil smelled perfectly fresh. The rabbit was delicious and moist.

    Me: Pumpkin and Zucchini flowers stuffed with beef. A bit of a disappointment. The presentation was pretty but the tomato sauce was just too acid for my taste and completely flat. It was overpowering and the delicate taste of the flowers was completely lost. The beef stuffing was barely lukewarm. I would not order this again.

    What we drooled over:

    The two tables next to us ordered Bistecca Fiorentina. OMG. Talk about a beautiful dish. A perfectly rare, huge steak, the outside charred, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt…. we shamelessly stared. We considered returning the following night to have it but we also wanted to try Il Guscio.

    One potato contorno, a coke, two coffees and water: 74€. Even if I was a bit let down by my dish I would still give this place another chance. If only to eat that beautiful bistecca.


    The walk back home

    We decided to walk back to the B&B, crossing over Ponte Amerigo Vespucci. DD picked some gelato along the way. These are the backstreets of the tourist center. Tons of little hotels, donner places, laundries, small bars. It was certainly not unsafe but it is not an inviting area.

    Good hot showers and we were off to blessed sleep.

    NEXT: The most ambitious day ever, if you can believe it!

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    I just got back yesterday from 2 1/2 days in Florence and Pisa with my 18yo daughter (who as part of her trip preparation dyed her naturally-golden hair a light brunette a couple of weeks ago, and she certainly attracted less attention than she did 2 years ago in Roma and Florence!).

    I was thankful to have read your Pisa chapter before we left on Monday, but would have loved to have had your Florence restaurant recommendations! Oh well, next time...

    And we adored the Campo Santo in Pisa too. Best part of the day, the hour we spent there...

    What a wonderful time you all had, and I'm looking forward to the rest of your report.

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    Friday, June 5th - Day 18: We started off easy, and then……

    We were out of bed and ready to go by 8:30AM. A quick breakfast at Café Viena (10.85€), into the bus (where DD was oogled multiple times) and off we were to tackle…

    The Plan

    The must do:

    1. Barghello Museum

    2. Santa Croce

    3. Santa Maria del Carmine to see the Brancacci Chapel

    The if-we-have-time:

    4. Pitti Palace

    5. Boboli Gardens

    6. Belvedere

    7. San Miniato al Monte


    Let’s go see some sculptures


    We were by the ticket office by 9:00AM and purchased our entrances (7€ pp) to the Museo Naionale del Bargello. The inner courtyard is beautiful; the walls are covered with the coat of arms of the officials that served as chief-of-police in this building and sculptures line the perimeter.

    We went in first to see the special exhibit, “The Live Marble, Bernini and the Birth of Baroque Portraiture” (extended until the 12th of July). It was superb!

    Then we went into the Gallery proper on the first floor. I don’t know what I was expecting. Well, yes I do, something similar to the experience at the Borghese Gallery. I was not feeling the love.

    The Donatello room is the highlight of the first floor but I was sorry to see that his ‘David’ had been crated up for transport. Bummer! We went downstairs, into the Michelangelo room where some of his earlier works are exhibited. Very interesting and certainly worth the visit.

    While I enjoyed it I don’t think that I need to return any time soon.


    The Plan Starts Falling Apart

    The Bargello is very, very close to the Palazzo Vecchio, where we had been unable to enter the previous evening. This was not on my must-do list but I hated to see the opportunity go by untaken. I mean, after all, how long could this take? Its not like everyone is raving about this visit, and we are not taking the Secret Itinerary tour… yeah right.

    We purchased our tickets (2 Full price 6€pp plus one reduced 2€; there seems to be an unlimited set of rules and restrictions for the reduced priced tickets!) and without having done much research, we went into the Palazzo della Signoria.

    Three words: I loved it!

    The Hall of the Five Hundred is impressive enough, but then you add the wonderful apartments!!! Wow. The views from the palazzo are also amazing. I was really sorry not to have booked the tour. This is a place where I want to return to. Almost three hours later we walked out. The Plan was certainly falling apart.


    What Plan are you Talking About?

    I had taken a quick visit to Santa Croce in our previous visit but it was undergoing heavy restoration and viewing was very limited. Once again I thought that this would be a short visit but I found that we just kept lingering on and on.

    Aside from the architectural beauty of this church, what really attract the crowds are the tombs. Vasari’s design for Michelangelo’s tomb is a perfect blend of painting and sculpture. Each chapel is more magnificent than the next. There is a wonderful Life of the Virgin cycle by Taddeo Gaddi.

    The Medici Chapel was open and we could admire the glazed terracottas. But the Pazzi chapel was closed, big time bummer! I had wanted to see Brunelleschi’s design. The cloister is absolutely beautiful. The Museo della Opera was also very interesting. The Cimbaue crucifix that became the standard image for the restoration of Florence after the huge flood of the 1960’s is housed here. Even damaged as it is, it is still very impressive.

    The clock kept ticking and The Plan was in serious jeopardy! And on top of that we were all hungry.

    I finally dragged myself out Santa Croce and we started looking for a place to eat. We plopped ourselves into an open table at Pizzeria La Colonnine, located at the very tip of Borgo Santa Croce. I steeled myself for tourist fare and prices but the food was good and the prices not too outrageous:

    1 pizza margarita with pesto
    1 pizza 4 stazzione
    1 pizza Napoli (capers and anchovies, delicious!!!!)
    ½ l open carafe red wine
    ½ l water

    36.50€, not bad (until you convert it to dollars….)

    I took a look at The Plan. Well, lets scratch the Pitti Palace of the list and focus on the must-dos. Eventually we felt strong enough to let our feet carry us over the Ponte Vecchio and across the Arno. I always love to admire this bridge.


    We take a spin around Oltrarno

    We crossed the Ponte Vechio and bypassed what should have been our next destination, the Pitti Palace and continued our walk past the Santo Spirito church where I had hoped to make a quick stop. It was closed for renovations. Damn! Brunelleschi was not smiling on me on this trip!

    We saw our first and only bum-fight in this trip taking place in the Piazza di Santo Spirito. Young skinheads were arguing and pushing each other. I realized that we had not seen many vagabonds on this trip. I guess that with the warmer temperatures they all headed north.

    Our next stop was the church of Santa Maria del Carmine where I wanted to see the frescoes in theBrancacci Chapel. Two full price tickets at 4€ and a ridotto at 1.50€. After this morning’s mild disappointment with the Bargello, I feared that I might have too high expectations for this chapel. NOT!

    We did not go in to see the introductory movie, but it had already started when we started. The room was a bit stuffy and we decided to skip it altogether.

    Masaccio’s Adam and Eve Expulsion from Paradise was just as powerful as I hoped it would be in person. The shame, grief and despair on their faces! Unbelievable for the times. Filippino Lippi’s work is also magnificent. Truly a must-do for any fan of Italian Renaissance.

    The rest of the church was cordoned off so we could not see anything else.


    The Plan Acquires a Life of its Own

    We left Santa Maria del Carmine around 4:30PM. It was too early to call it quits, but what to do? I had thought to abandon The Plan but suddenly I took another look at my printed copy. Hummm… Should we go to the Pitti Palace and at least see part of it? We certainly had the time, but did we have the energy?

    My feet were ok, I was wearing my Mary Jane / Semi-Athletic shoes enhanced by the addition of Dr. Scholl’s insoles for women. I was gellin’! Or so it seemed at the time. There would be consequences to pay, but that was still in the future…

    You know when people say they take seven-countries-in-ten-days tours so that they get a lay of the land and can decide where they want to go to the next time they go to Europe. Well, it was kind of like that. I said, what the heck… lets go see it. Then I’ll know if I want to return to see it calmly or not.

    DH said, well, we are here, let’s go for it. DD, as usual, did not have an opinion.

    We walked the 10-minute stretch back to the Pitti Palace and went to the ticket office. DD crashed in the parterre to wait. It was rather confusing as there are several ticket alternatives. We read the English, Spanish and Italian versions but were still equally lost. We stood like idiots in front of the ticket seller and told her we wanted just to see the palace. She looked disgusted, but then it was late in the day… we must not have been the only idiots she saw that day. We walked out with 3 tickets at 12€ pp.

    We started with the Pallatine Gallery. I really did this place a mis-service when I tried to cram this visit at the end of the day. The palace is big, really big. And filled to the brim with art. Just filtering out the huge amount of art pieces to pick the top few that you really want to see is difficult.

    This is Raphael and Titiano heaven.

    I got a particular kick out of seeing Titian’s portrait of Pietro Aretino as I had just finished reading In the Company of a Courtesan (recommended) and a few weeks before The Sixteen Pleasures (not recommended). Both books prominently feature Aretino’s work.

    Thankfully the museum was not crowded and we could sit in the benches to look at the paintings. If I’m to be completely honest, rooms without benches did not get much attention.

    By the time we reached the the Royal Apartments we were beat. They were nice but nothing different from other places I have seen before, and I’m not a big fan of baroque anyway. I think I even liked the lavish rooms at the Jacquemart-Andre Museum in Paris better. Disclaimer: I have not been to Versailles. It was time to call it quits.

    DD was tempted for about 30 seconds to go to the Costume Gallery but then declined. She was pooped. That was it. We were DONE. No more Florence for us in this trip, thank you.

    WUI with the Locals

    Since we had reservations at Il Guscio for the evening we started to walk in that general direction, with the added incentive of the tip the not-so-nice-lady that did not want to share that bar had told us that the Carmine area had great bars.

    We basically backtracked the path and when we walked past Santo Spirito, what did I see?!?! People walking into it for service! I made a beeline for the entrance. WOW. Brunelleschi did smile upon me after all.

    We were only allowed to step inside as the church was only open for prayers. The simplicity of the church is just beautiful. After a few minutes we were one our way.

    Where the nice bars in Carmine are, we never found out. We settled for a barely off-the-street bar in the corner of Carmine and Borgo di San Frediano where we had one of the most interesting people watching episodes of the entire trip.

    Two main things were going on in the bar (this is somewhat filled in by our lively imaginations). First, the old owner and the new owner were going over the menu. Things were being crossed out, added, prices were readjusted. Then a guy arrived to deliver the some new signs for the bar. Much discussion arose. The signs were lifted, presented, taped, removed, discussed and positioned in a different place. This was repeated multiple times.

    Then it seemed that the son of the old owner was getting married and the girl’s family was coming over to meet the family at the bar. The wife of the old owner arrived sporting what must have been a complete hair makeover. Everyone remarked on it. The husband made an indifferent sound. She was not happy. Then the bride and her family showed up. Lots of prosecco bottles were popped. It was very, very funny. We stared shamelessly until it was time to go for dinner. 1 prosecco, 3 spritzes, 1 coke 13.50€, what a deal!


    The Last Dinner in Florence

    We arrived at Il Guscio at 8:10PM. The place was empty. Completely empty. There was some confusion over our table and I noticed that indeed, most tables had reservation cards in them with the names of the guests. We were sat in the back, not a prime spot but fine.

    This is what we had:

    Primi:

    DH: Pappardelle in Ragu of Rabbit and Black Olives. He loved it. I don’t do olives so I didn’t taste. I was tempted though, it was so beautifully presented.

    DD and Me: Risotto with Gorgonzola, Pear and Black Pepper – The taste was wonderful but the technique was superb. The risotto consistency was perfect. OMG. I might try to reproduce it tonight….

    Secondi:

    DD: Steak Tagliata and Potatoes – Once again we were happy to be lovers of rare beef, this would have been considered inedible by some folks I know. The outside was crusted with pepper and rosemary. The steak was sliced to reveal the barely warm interior. It was melt-in-you-mouth tender. Much to DH’s disappointment DD ate most of it. Big recommendation.

    DH: Fried Calf’s Brain – It was so beautifully fried that DD even tried it. She did not like it very much. DH liked it but we both agreed that it was not the strongest dish of the night.

    Me: Seafood Padella – This was my favorite single-dish of the trip. It was brought in a skillet. The seafood was scrumptious: mussels, clams, king prawn, sepia…. I was in heaven. The broth! It was buttery and tasting of saffron. I soaked every little bit of sauce with the grilled bread. It was such a sophisticated dish, I could not even begin to list the layers of flavor.

    1.5 l of rosso della casa, 2l of water, 2 machiatto. 106.50€. Great price for such a wonderful meal. I would return in a heart beat and fully recommend this place. I could just be there right now.

    By 9:00PM people started to arrive. By 10:00 when we were ready to leave, the place was packed and they had a long line outside. People were rather nicely dressed, not formally but fashionably. I would say that reservations are required, at least on a Friday night.

    We happily wobbled back to the B&B to get ready for tomorrow’s departure to our final destination.

    NEXT: the never ending trip to Venice

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    Marigross,

    I've been checking everyday for an update - I'm pretty sure I've been getting trip report withdrawals from not having a new post in 4 days! Can't wait for the next installment, but I am really sad that your report will be ending soon :(

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    Saturday, June 6th - Day 19: The Endless Train Ride Eventually delivers us to the Waters of Venice

    Waking up in Florence and realizing that the moment had arrived to go to our last destination of the trip! We were running out of vacation… inevitable but still unpalatable.

    Still laying down in bed I once again almost kicked myself for not pursuing the Friends of the Ufizzi membership for 100€. We would have saved at least 50€ in museum entrance fees.

    But the first challenge was getting out of bed. Remember those fabulous Dr. Scholl’s Gel Insoles that kept my feet gellin’ throughout yesterday’s long march? Well something in the way my weight shifted completely shot my knees. I panicked thinking that now the end of the vacation would be lost. I remembered Maitaitom’s Parisian hotel-room minor surgery!

    I took a hot shower, rubbed a large amount of Feldene cream to the knees. BTW, this stuff is amazing; we buy it Switzerland over the counter. I finally figured out that the knees were ok while laying down, standing up or even sitting down – whoa! Big sigh of relief. The vacation was saved!!!!

    But the bending to sit up or down was pure hell for the next three days and lasted even after we came home.

    We had our last breakfast at Café Vienna, gathered our luggage, and let ourselves out of the B&B. There was no one there to check out and we had paid in full upon arrival at their request. I had thought the buses would be running emptier on a Saturday morning but I could not really see any difference.

    We maneuvered our luggage in and out of the bus without much troubles (at least to us, don’t know if we ran over people’s feet with the suitcases). DD discretely basked on the admiring glances being cast on her. A rather handsome Florentine gentleman even gave ME a glance or two.

    I just love the way they look at women. The expression on their faces in not leering at all! It’s not an open invitation to jump in the sack, well…they might be wanting to tempt you into having a coffee with them, you know…if you would be so inclined. I think they mostly seem only to want to let you know that you are looking mighty good on this particular day. Gotta love them!


    The Plan

    The main part was as simple as it gets: Get on the 10:30AM Eurostar and go to Venice. Almost three hours later, check-in at our B&B just before 2:00PM and spend the afternoon visiting:

    1. Frari Church

    2. Scoula Grande di San Rucco

    3. Basilica di San Marco

    It was important to see the Frari Church in this Saturday afternoon as their Sunday hours are rather inconvenient. Even though it was a must-do the San Marco Basilica was an if-we-have-time for this day so that could check it off the list and have the time available to see other things.


    Everything went well …..until Prato

    Since we had not made reservations for the train we were by the station at around 8:45AM. Firenze SMN was very busy but not crowded. We bought our Eurostar tickets, 37€ pp; 2nd class, DD counted as adult. Afterwards we noticed that the train was rather full so we might have cut it very close with being able to sit together.


    The train was in the station for 20 minutes before departure so there was no big boarding hassle. The typical discussions erupted all around us: Why are the cars not in sequential order? (they are not, just accept it) How do we find our car? (you need to walk the length of the train looking for it) Why are the seats not in sequential order? (they are, you just need to figure out the layout).

    We had bought a Sudoku book for DH, DD had her I-pod and charger nearby. I had my book. The train left the station with only a couple of minutes of delay. We were set for our 2’45” ride to La Serenissima, beautiful Venice.

    After perhaps half an hour of uneventful travel the train slowed down. When we reached the Prato station it came to a full stop. ‘We will be making an unscheduled stop’ the loudspeaker chirped. Ok, no problem. Maybe someone got sick on the train and has to get off.

    Fifteen minutes later the announcement was made ‘Due to a power outage along the train’s route we are not allowed to continue until the issue is resolved. We expect a delay of two hours.’ What?!?!?! Did I hear right? Two hours delay? The moans emitted throughout the car confirmed that I had heard correctly. ‘Mamma mia!’ one lady said, ‘Coglioni!’ the man behind us shouted.

    We were trapped and there was nothing we could do. Passengers started checking for other connections from Prato but there was nothing. The car doors opened and people started going out to smoke. The lunch car was mobbed.

    Thank God for Sudokus, Ipods (and chargers, and plugs), and 1,000-page long books! (The Pillars of the Earth, highly recommended)

    Once in a while updates were announced. The ‘Power has not been restored yet’ finally changed into ‘The power has been restored, we now await permission of proceed after all delayed trains are reprogrammed’. Apparently this was easier said than done. At the end the original two hours turned onto three and quarter.

    Just around that time we had been supposed to arrive at our B&B in Venice we were finally on our way!


    But that was not the end….

    Things proceeded smoothly until we were just outside Mestre where the train would be making a scheduled stop. The people that would be leaving took their luggage down and began to assemble close to doors. And then the train stopped outside the station. People started to fidget and grumble.

    Ten minutes after the stoppage the announcement came: ‘A train is blocking the station; we anticipate at least a 15-minute delay’. This could not be happening. The man behind us shouted ‘Vaca!’ this time. The passengers were MAD!

    Suddenly a couple of green-jacketed Trenitalia people came rushing through the car towards the back of the train. DH said, ‘I betcha they’re going to try to backup the train’. Sure enough, a couple of minutes later one of the guys came back and picked up the speaker phone: ‘We will back up the train until we can change tracks; at this moment we anticipate a 45-minute delay.’ Damn.

    Apparently they were able to move the train which had been blocking the station because about 15-minutes afterwards the train moved in the direction we had come in. YAY!!! About half of the passengers got off at Mestre. We proceeded to Santa Lucia Station without further mishaps.


    La Serenissima

    We bought our ridiculously expensive vaporetto tickets, 19.20€ for the three of us and boarded the #82 boat after a brief wait. I had debated many times about which kind of ticket I should buy. At the end we did ok with the single ticket because we did not use the vaportto at any other time during our visit, even though I did have a few islands on The Plan, but only in the if-we-have-time category.

    Those first sights of Venice are always magical. I took a deep sea-scented breath and force myself to look at DD’s face; I wanted to see her expression as she took in her first glimpse of the Grand Canal. But I had to wait until she pried her eyes away from the very –very- handsome vaporetto attendant who was certainly paying a lot of attention to her, I had to nudge her a little, ‘Look, you are in Venezia…’

    ‘Oh, yeah, right, Venice’ and then it happened. She really saw it. Her eyes opened wide in wonder. It was that precise instant, that split second that makes a person fall in love with a place forever; her face was illuminated. The boats, the gondolas, the canals, people everywhere, the palazzos, the sheer almost-eastern beauty…she took it all in. And loved it. I know that some people don’t ‘get’ Venice, and I had wondered how she would react to it. Well, I could see she was a true convert.

    DH had been in Venice multiple times, he likes it but he is not a Venice Lover and could have easily skipped it. I had been there once before with him and absolutely adored it. In fact, I think that I had been overawed by the city. That first time we did not do much in Venice, I basically just walked around and stared. We wandered, and held hands, and kissed, and…..well, you catch my drift. So this time around I had quite a few things I wanted to see.

    We got off the vaporetto at the San Silvestro stop and followed the detailed directions to the hotel: Down the calle, to San Aponal piazza, turn left on the Pizzeria, and the second calle to the left. The secret was to find a small tree at the end of the alley. Ha! Only in Venice would they call that tiny potted ficus a tree, poor skinny thing, looks like its halfway dead. It was really the ribbons tied to the scrawny branches that gave it away. They need to replace it soon, otherwise all guests will completely miss the entrance.


    A wonderful find

    During the planning of this trip I found Venice to be the most challenging city to find adequate accommodation. I must have sent out at least 50 emails to hotels. Either the prices were way –WAY- over 200€ (I know this is low for Venice but this was our target budget for this city) or they had no availability whatsoever. Two months before our departure I started looking into apartments but I did not even get responses from the agencies.

    I pored over hundred of posts until I found a single recommendation for B&B Corte 1321. I had given up on my favorite area, Accademia, obviously there were not that many options, and the pictures in the website looked ok. It was very close to Rialto so crossing over would not be a problem. Emails were promptly responded and the next day I had a confirmed reservation, yay!!!

    The door to the B&B, Corte 1321, didn’t look like much from the outside. Damn it, I thought, another so-so ‘value’ place. We walked into the courtyard and things began to look significantly better. A huge rosebush covered the wall, a little well in the middle of the courtyard was decorated with pretty flowers, and there were four tables with umbrellas to have breakfast and a few lounge chairs. Good!

    There had been no bridge cross-overs on our way here so that was a big plus after a long boring day of traveling. We would have to haul our bags over the Rialto on our way out but that was still in the future and did not seem like a daunting task anyway…you know, after Vernazza…Ugh! I still shudder when I remember those 99 steps.

    The attendant came out to greet us. I apologized many times for our almost five hour delay. I told him how I felt about it: ‘I will not say it was a disaster because we were comfortably seated, had clean bathrooms available and had had a decent breakfast’. DH said ‘The only thing we are missing now is some aqua alta in Venice to kill this day!’, the attendant said, no way, this is nothing to worry about in June. But alas! The Travel Gods were listening….

    He showed us to our room and WOW! It was lovely. A king size bed (two singles pushed together, not a good thing when you are used to snuggling up while sleeping), a single bed and a futon. The room had two windows overlooking a tiny canal (with good circulation so no smell!). The closet was not big but adequate. Since we were only three we had the fourth bed (DD picked the futon to sleep in) to lay our luggage open. It was DD’s favorite room of the trip

    The bathroom was huge and beautiful. It has two large sinks with adequate counter space, a glass shower stall comfortably sized, toilet and bidet. It could be a drawback to travel partners which are not comfortable showering while another one is prepping for the day in the sink. Under those circumstances it becomes a one-person bathroom because of privacy reasons, not because of size. This was not our case so we were not bothered by it.

    The TV had full satellite options and there was free wi-fi. Guests can store groceries in the refrigerator and prepare simple things in the kitchen. I highly recommend this place.

    After we had settled in we were ready to take off into the sunny but blustery afternoon. It was too late to tackle any of the things which had been in The Plan but when in Venice and in doubt, head towards San Marco.


    San Marco….reflected on the water

    We walked the Fondamenta del Vin and up the Rialto bridge, it was crowded, very crowded but passage was possible we took lots of pictures. DD picked up a slice of pizza on the go, 3.50€. It was not the best pizza of the trip, but the worst award still goes to the pesto mess she had had in Vernazza.

    DD and I looked into the store windows and admired the wonderful Murano glass collections. We saw gorgeous vases, delicate flowers, and the most adorable penguins. I know that some people can afford to spend 850€ for a 10-in high penguin, I’m just not in that income bracket and if I don’t hit the lotto I don’t think that at the rate I’m going, I ever will. Anyway, the prices for everything being displayed in Venice are unbelievable. Still, someone must be buying, otherwise they would not be offering.

    Wandering through the streets we finally reached the street which opens up to the side of the Basilica. It was the same way we had come in on our first trip. I could just see the mosaic over the recessed archways at the end of the covered passageway. I was there! Ten years since my last visit, the one place that invariably takes my breath away and brings tears to my eyes, San Marco.

    We emerged into the afternoon glow softly reflecting on the buildings surrounding what I still think is the most marvelous public square in Europe. Where I find St. Peter’s Piazza grand and solemn I find San Marco to be about the refined elegance and the joy of seeing and being seen. I just adore this place.

    But, what is that big puddle in front of San Marco!?!? We saw that the outdoor tables and chairs were all packed up and there was only a narrow dry walkway along the center of the piazza. Aqua alta, hah! In June. Thank You Very Much Dear Husband for jinxing us. There would not be any dueling orchestras tonight for us. Very disappointing.

    There was nothing we could do so we kept walking towards the Doge’s Palace and Riva del Schiavoni. The waves were coming in hard against the edge (Curb? Dock?) and splashing the people that walked to close to it.

    We stood by the Bridge of Sighs (mostly covered up by renovations) and observed two gondoliers maneuver their boat out of the canal and into the open water against the wind. Let me tell you something, if you think gondola driving (boating?) is easy, this was a task for able bodied, experienced people with serious muscles. At one point the one gondolier was leaning almost vertically against the row (pole?) trying to move forward without much progress being made. The other one was trying, and barely succeeding, to keep the gondola from being shoved against the walls of the buildings. Docking the gondola was another show of masterful skill and teamwork. Applauses all around. Seriously.

    Our walk continued past the San Zacharia church and this is where I started noticing very well dressed people going by. Cocktail dresses, evening clutches that either come from or are destined to go to renowned antique dealers, serious jewels (the kind that you go get out of the bank safe before the party), red heeled shoes, even a few extravagant hats.

    It was at that point that I remembered a significant piece of data that I had learned just before the trip and had explained the inordinately high prices and low availability of accommodations in Venice: opening weekend for The Biennale

    Needless to say, we were seriously underdressed for this crowd. Not that we were badly dressed or would be hanging out with them but the sheer numbers were enough to set the tone for the evening. It was a parade of beautiful people and beautiful people wannabes. Not evening gowns like in the Film Festival, Cannes or the Oscars but all in sexy cocktail attire. DH pointed out all the Wal-Mart sweatshirts being worn all around us, but still. You know.

    Since we did not have an invitation to any of the parties being held -apparently in every available space- we had to go find a place to have a few drinks on our own money.

    On the way back we did go into Santa Maria della Visitazione church which was housing the Morocco pavilion for the Biennale. Modern art is not for everyone, and that usually includes me. There were some horrible paintings involving gnashing teeth and some interesting installations with bugs. Worth the time and the free entrance.


    The well-heeled take off their expensive shoes

    We headed back to San Marco with the intention of going over Rialto and finding one of the chichetti places. Well, at this point this day was certainly not going to finally start going according to The Plan, right? By the time we reached San Marco there was no way to pass without getting wet feet. They were not setting up the high walkways either. We took this as a sign that the aqua alta was going to be short, but perhaps it was because it had not been anticipated and no one had been scheduled to it.

    Now, as much as I love Venice, there is no way I’m letting that filthy water touch my feet. I’m very sensitive about my feet. It was just not an option. It obviously did not bother a lot of people, some kids were even playing in the water. We walked back towards the water and set into a zigzagging random route across the Castello neighborhood. BTW, this is strongly recommended, even under dry conditions. Great little piazzas!

    As we wandered we came to several ‘dead ends’ into the high water. The beautiful people were beginning to look desperate, they were not going to be fashionably late to their parties, instead they were running the risk of missing it altogether! The beautiful shoes came off, the skirts were hiked up, the trousers rolled up and into the yucky water they went.


    WUI in the Land of Lo Spritz

    We found a cute little bar with an empty table, and after DH’s quick move we were able to secure it for our early evening enjoyment. Two absolutely perfect Spritzes and a coke were ordered. Sorry, for once I did not take down the name of the place or how much we spent, even the minor notes I take while on vacation were getting left behind.

    After we had been served, the acqua alta sirens started blaring. It was good that we already had our drinks because we were unable to get the waitress/owner’s attention after that. Justifiably so, if one is inclined to be fair. We did not mind, at least not until the drinks ran dry and we had to wait a long time to pay our bill. Nearby stores were setting up water barriers across their doors.

    I must say that one of Venice’s attractions is that it is the unsurpassed destination for people watching. All sizes, shapes, colors and styles. A good cross-section spanning the range humanity that can afford to travel at least once in their lifetime walked around that corner over the next hour: Beautiful people, Goths, hippies, flip-flopping university girls, honeymooners, solo travelers happy and sad, big families, old ladies in running suits, young girls in running suits, lots anorexic-thins, not so many over 400-pounders.

    The big absentee group was the mobility-impaired. I think Venice must be very, very hard if not impossible to tackle on a wheelchair. I thought that this was very sad, but the structural challenges are enormous and not easily tackled by simple engineering. .

    The owner finally finished her preparations for acqua alta and was able to come and bring us the bill. We paid and headed off to Rialto to find our dinner destination.

    We were able to get to bridge without problems but all the outside seating along the Fondamenta del Vin were flooded. I was surprised that people were actually eating there!!! With their feet in the water!!! I would not even remotely want to do that. I would abandon the meal if the water came in later, even if I had to pay in full for it. Sitting there in wet feet, my God! All the waiters were wearing rubber boots. There was only an 18”-wide dry path close to the buildings where we could pass. And it only stayed dry as long as the boats were not making waved in the Grand Canal.


    A dinner down Memory Lane

    We wanted to eat at Ristorante A La Madonna. DH and I had been there in our previous trip and loved the meal we had. He had picked the place because he had been there a few times before. Anyway, we had happily stared into each other eyes so the place held some happy memories. Isn’t food grand everywhere and anywhere when love is so new and fresh?

    So it was kind of a trip down memory lane. They didn’t take reservations when we had checked earlier in the evening so we had to wait in line.

    Once again we saw that customers really have to pay attention while waiting otherwise the waiter just jumps them over when he asks ‘how many’ and no one answers. We had been told it was a 20-minute wait but it turned out to be really just over 10 minutes.

    The place was full (obviously from the wait) and we had a table for two with a chair placed for DD on the aisle side. It was cramped to the point where the setup was more like a communal table than individual settings but we had known that beforehand and were ok with it but other patrons were unfavorably surprised.

    This is what we ate:

    Primi:

    DD and DH: Spaghetti Vongole – It was delicious, the pasta was a bit on the too al dente side but the sauce was very, very good.

    Me: Spaghetti Sepia – I always love this visually unappealing dish! I left me with a black tongue and very happy to be wearing a black blouse. The pasta was obviously pre-cooked and not very hot, the sauce was delicious and very hot so the overall temperature was compensated. It was not as wonderful as I had remembered it but still good.

    Secondi:

    DD: Vongole in Sauce – she was happy with it until she saw the people next to us having cozze (mussels) in sauce, a non-menu item. She prefers mussels to clams. It was still good.

    DH: Fegato alla Veneziana –This was the clear winning dish of the night. It was tender, sweet and totally delicious. The liver was served with polenta. I was sorry not to have ordered it.

    Me: Fritti mixti dei Adriati – Still within the Good category but bordering on Edible. I don’t think that it had been fried in the freshest oil and the batter was too heavy for my taste. I know I nitpick but, still, it was nothing to write home about. Or trip reports.

    1.5l of open carafe red wine, 2l of water, 2 cokes, 2 machiattos.

    92€ including a 12% servizio charge on top of the 3€pp coperto. This seemed to be standard across Venice. We did not see it anywhere else.

    When we exited the restaurant we peeked back to the Grand Canal to see how the water situation had progressed. Well, in this case it had regressed. There was no more dry path along the Fondamenta del Vin. A few people were bracing the water and the waiters were all trying to entice them to come inside but it was obviously not a good night for them. I was happy to be on the dry side already.

    We happily walked the couple of minutes to our B&B where we had deliciously hot showers and crashed into the very comfortable beds covered with very decent weight sheets. So happy with this hotel!!!

    Next: A whirlwind tour through Venice, immediately followed by Mari’s vacation-end meltdown

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    hi marigross,

    how lovely to read your description of your daughter's first encounter with Venice. we took our kids, then 20 & 17, last year for their first time, and they loved it too. Though I think i was the only one who cried!

    we were lucky that though there was aqua alta when we arrived, it went very quickly. On a previous trip i had found a "locals" type shoe shop on the strada nova which sold cheap wellies, so if push came to shove, we'd have been off there to get the waders.

    looking forward to more,

    regards, ann

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    Your trip report was excellent. But, are you saying that it was 90 degrees in May???? In Rome??? We are planning on going in May of 2010 and do not want to sweat. Thank you ahead of time.
    Jo Jo

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    jojuice - you can always hit unseasonable weather no matter when or where you go. We were in Rome in May 2007 for a week and had beautiful weather, sunny and 75-80 degrees everyday, but there's never a guarantee on what you'll get.

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    Marigross- My sister flew from San Juan and joined me in Milan Mid-May--- $548 RT!! You made it into Rome the day we left! The weather was unbelievably nice but could tell there was a scorching one coming! We ended up had an incredible Sisters' Trip!

    I am Loving your report! The aptm in Rome sounds nasty, but it seems such a minor thing in the context of it all! Great job in capturing this amazing trip!

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    Sunday, June 7th - Day 20: The Marvels of Venice and Mood Swings

    It was beautiful to wake up on the nice room, take a luxurious hot shower, peek out the window and see that the sun was shining and water level was wayyyyy down. We dressed for the day and went down for breakfast to the pretty little courtyard.

    The breakfast offerings included sweet rolls, croissants (from the bakery not the package), packaged spreadable cheese, yogurt, fruit juice and coffee (no cappuccino). It was good and suitable, nothing particularly delicious about it (well, the chocolate filled brioche was very good, but I’m not big on sweets in the morning).

    We had a very pleasant chat with the B&B attendant as we sipped our coffee, and before we knew it we had been there, lingering over breakfast, for more than an hour. It was at that point when I knew that The Plan was in serious jeopardy.


    The Original Plan

    This was the original version:

    1. Ca Rezzonico

    2. Go see the San Trovaso gondola workshop

    3. Accademia Museum

    4. Visit Santa Maria della Salute

    If-we-have-time:

    5. Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum


    But now, we had to catch up with yesterday’s delay! I took a long hard look at the plan. First thing to go was the Accademia Museum. It was the bigger chunk of time allocated for the day. Also, I had been there before, DD and DH could not have cared the least bit about seeing another pinacoteca and frankly, I was not dying to see it either. The day still looked busy but we would see how far we made it!


    The Revised Plan

    1. Frari Church – close enough to the hotel to walk by and see if for some dumb reason it would be open on a Sunday morning when it is listed as closed.

    2. Scoula Grande di San Rucco – This was on my must-do list

    3. Ca Rezzonico - This was also on my must-do list


    And then the if-we-have-time-and-energy:

    4. Go see the San Trovaso gondola workshop

    5. Visit Santa Maria della Salute

    6. Visit the Peggy Guggenheim Museum


    Carpe Diem

    An important trick when touring churches in Europe is to walk all around the church and try all doors before finally accepting the fact that a site is really closed. Places will look closed and you walk away only to find out later that the tiny, rickety door on the side sacristy was the right entrance.

    We did walk the perimeter of the Frari Church, there were no people around. The ticket entrance was closed. We walked to the front. I pushed the entrance door and much to my surprise…it opened!!!! The church was actually open! (and free)

    I did not know much about it beforehand, as I had somewhat cheated Venice in my researching efforts. Perhaps the lack of preconceived notions and unrealistic expectations set the proper stage for the drama to be unfolded before my eyes. I had no idea of what I was about to see, I only knew that it was a place of interest strongly recommended by Fodorites whose opinion I have come to value.

    This temple is the seat of the Franciscan order in Venice, it is the only Gothic church in the island (it is built with light brick, not stone), and it is the most intimately beautiful church I have ever seen. EVER.

    I realize that there is a lot of personal taste when statements like this are enunciated but DD and I just stood dumbstruck in the nave. Words escape me. The church has an intangible wholesomeness to it! This treasure chest of art is so simple when compared to other buildings of Byzantine splendor, but still rich enough to fully partake in Venetian riches and glory and stand on its elegant, sober own.

    Sure, there are grander, more intricate, more lavish, awe-inspiring churches. Beautiful little abbeys set in the idyllic countryside. But there was a ‘humanness’ to this place that I just cannot describe. (We are not going to go into past-life experiences). It has the feel of a well-loved place, something which often the big tourist-destination Cathedrals lack.

    There is a choir within the nave (had we even seen another choir in this trip?!?!), not many survived the counter-reformation. It was beautifully carved with intricate wooden inlays. I love choirs; they bring down the huge spaces into human scale.

    And the art…. Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, Donatello’s St. John the Baptist, Titian and Canova’s tombs. This church was never ransacked and its art redistributed through the great wide world. Everything is where it was designed to be. I found it to be perfect.

    After walking around in awe for less than 20-minutes we began to be ushered towards the exit, service was about to start. I found that this rule is rather strictly enforced in Italy, on this occasion we were almost escorted to the door when the attendant got fed up of our slow progress. I wished I had had more time!


    Venice’s Sistine Chapel

    Our next stop was only a few minutes away from the Frari church. Another place I might have completely missed without recommendation of fellow Fodorites, Scuola Grande di San Rucco.

    Once again, I had not seen pictures of this place in its entirety, only of some individual paintings which due to my lack of Venice preparedness, some of which I was not even aware that they were located in this hall. As with the Frari church, I came here because it had been recommended in Fodor’s (well, it IS in the Rick Steve’s Venice Book and the Michelin Green Guide too, so I would have found it on my own. I must learn how to give myself some more credit!)

    This building was the headquarters of a Christian charity organization and its decoration was the work of Tintoretto’s last 20 years. I will not even attempt to describe the particularities of the amazing art displayed here. It would be overwhelming. So I will aim for a general impression.

    I thought I was only coming to see a few Tintoretto’s masterpieces like the Flight to Egypt and the Adoration of the Shepards. And sure, I did, but that was only the beginning!

    The first floor has the Life of Mary canvases, they are beyond amazing! But the real deal comes when one enters the second floor Great Hall. OMG. Every available space in the huge ceiling and upper walls is covered in Art. Tintoretto took Michelangelo’s work and ran with it!

    Muscular bodies twist and turn in complicated compositions, the faces are those of everyday people but their skin… the skin is luminous beyond belief! Moses takes command of one end of the ceiling while Jesus presides over the other. Mary reigns simultaneously as Mother of God and Woman.

    The walls of the Hall are lined up with chapter stalls which are amazing carved. The illumination of the Hall is also notable. The Albergo with its scenes of the Christ’s Passion was only partially visible due to renovations.

    The space is so complex and yes, overwhelming, that it must require a few visit before one can even begin to feel acquainted with it. I promised myself that I would come here every time I visit Venice. We WILL have time.


    A Residential Take at Venetian Splendor

    Still dazzled by the morning’s sights we stumbled out into the cloudy afternoon. We walked past the San Pantalon and Santa Margherita campos until we found (not on the first attempt) the entrance to Ca Rezzonico.

    This Palazzo from the 1700’s has been restored to showcase the luxurious lifestyle of Venetians around the time when the island was truly Europe’s drawing room. It is beautiful and guaranteed to give anyone an intense case of house-envy (we had not been to Peggy’s yet).

    A few rooms had been taken over with exhibits associated with the Biennale. There was a remarkable series of ink ‘cartoons’ themed on Deep Sea Divers. The drawings and captions were absolutely thought provoking the moment one got past their apparent ridiculousness. As much as I enjoyed the palazzo itself, my memory keeps going back to this particular exhibit. I guess it made an impression, I finally continued the visit but I don’t think DD even saw the entire Palazzo she kept looking at the ‘modern’ stuff.

    Anyway, the Palazzo is beautiful, the Tiepolo frescoes and paintings were outstanding, the Murano glass chandeliers are remarkable and intricate enough make the entire visit worthwhile on its own. But by the time we reached the third floor and saw the art gallery up there, I had to face the unequivocal, irrefutable, and absolute truth: I could not look at another painting with full interest.

    After 20-non stop days of joyously engaging in art appreciation activities and after delighting in this morning’s glorious paintings, I was indisputably and undeniably Museumed-Out. That was IT….a change of mood could be felt in the air.


    Standing at the very tip

    We left the Palazzo behind and walked into the Dorsoduro neighborhood. Our steps took us past many little alleys and lovely canals. We passed the San Trovaso gondola workshop but being a Sunday there was no one there.

    till committed to my earlier decision, and having faced the fact that I would not even want to go in had it still been in The Plan, I completely ignored the entrance to the Accademia.

    I was still thinking of whether to go into the Guggenheim or not. For DD’s sake, not mine. We had to come back the same way so the decision could be postponed, and continued on our way to Santa Maria della Salute.

    What a beautifully different church! Its history is very interesting –yes, you can go look it up, I’m running out of steam here! I love the floor pattern and the incensory hanging from the tip of the dome smack in the middle. The overall look of the church is almost whimsical, but there is some serious ‘meaning’ to all the octagonal design and symbology.

    Past the Salute church is the Dogana, the customs building. It was being used as exhibit space for the biennale and had a HUGE line to get in. At the very tip behind the dogana, looking across the lagoon towards San Giorgio Maggiore was the 8-foot tall, completely white sculpture of a little boy holding a frog by its leg. It was the cutest thing ever. At one point I will need to find out what the significance is.

    And there it was where in the marina next to the dogana we saw The Yachts. I guess that is how all those beautiful people we had seen the day before came to Venice. Talk about lifestyle of the rich and famous. WOW. Some of those things were the size of small cruises. I always find private wealth of this proportion rather mind boggling.


    A Very Venetian Residence

    DD had seen the sign for the Guggenheim so there was no way I could avoid it. I told her not to expect the fabulous installations we had seen in New York, this would be a ‘classic’ take on Modern Art, read: more painting. She still wanted to go in.

    She had stuck it out by me throughout my marathon museum sessions so the least I could do was go in with her and show interest. I did want to see Peggy’s house anyway. DH refused to go in. He would wait on the first bar on the right hand side, wherever that would be, thank you. Can you see that we were ALL running a bit ragged around this point?

    DD and I went in and I must say that ASIDE from all the art, I thoroughly enjoyed being there. We sat by the grave of Peggy’s dogs under Yoko Ono’s wishing tree and DD stuck a paper wish to a little twig: ‘I wish I was a Fish’. How can planting a tree be considered an ‘Installation’ is beyond my understanding.

    We went in and looked at the paintings and artifacts. Some where more interesting than the others but even at my best, this is not my cup of tea. I appreciate Dalí, Miró and Picasso but I don’t feel the passion for them. I am not well versed in this type of art either so I did not have much to add to the experience. DD was not overly impressed and she missed having the personal guide she had had everywhere else.

    Nevertheless, the house is magnificent; the garden overlooking the canal would be anyone’s dream, including my own. I would move in with a 10-seconds notice.


    WUI in the land of the Spritz

    We went back to ‘the first bar on the right hand side’ and found DH having his second spritz of the afternoon. He was willing to have his third while I had my first so we sat around for a little bit.

    I was tired and over-arted. It was still early enough to pack a few more things into the afternoon but I did not want to. Anyway, Venice is unbeatable for aimless wanderings! We lazily walked past the Accademia area. There was a street artist doing his show with a monocycle. It was really very good and funny. The abundance of street entertainment is always a joy to me! On the down side, the bag vendors were really aggressive in this neighborhood.

    Around 5:00 PM the gondola parade was at its peak. I know that people dream of taking a gondola ride in Venice and save their precious Euros for it. But what we saw in daytime Venice was a joke. Even in the smaller canals it looked like we had been magically transported to the Las Vegas Venetian (minus the 110ºF in the evening). There were so many boats on the canal that the gondoliers had to push one another with their feet to try to maneuver successfully around each other. Entertaining as it was, it is possibly the most unromantic thing I have ever seen….

    Our feet carried out of the Dorsoduro as we poked around little shops, had gelato, and wound up in the San Marco piazza. No acqua alta tonight! I thought that we should come back after dinner to listen to the dueling orchestras and have an outrageously priced glass of Prosecco. Now, THAT is romantic!

    I was looking for a wine bar in the Rialto area to have drinks and cichetti but I just could not find it! We wandered and circled without luck. After the failed third attempt DH just plunked down on a bar with an open table and people watched for an hour whiled deliciously sipping spritzes.


    Too Much Vacation

    When DD was small I used to read to her every night when she went to bed. The absolute favorite was the Bernstein Bears series. In one of my favorites books Sister Bear has a birthday party. It was supposed to be a small, simple get together but Mama and Sister planned, scheduled, replanned, and added until it turned into a huge birthday bash. Halfway through the party everyone is having a blast but things start going downhill for Sister Bear.

    She didn’t win the prize, her friend didn’t let her win at musical chairs, and she didn’t get the right kid of candy from the piñata…..eventually she just breaks down in tears without knowing exactly why. Mama Bear in her calm, all-knowing way tells Sister Bear that she has just had ‘Too Much Birthday’.

    Well, I think that this afternoon in Venice I definitely had ‘Too Much Vacation’. It started out simple: the search for dinner.

    If truth is to be told, it really wasn’t even the restaurant thing. I was just tired of choosing restaurants, making decisions, carrying out plans, being the tour guide…I guess I was just tired (and coming down with the cold, wish I could blame PMS but that was not the case!). All I needed was a little resistance to take me over The Edge.

    Anyway, the way it finally unraveled was because we couldn’t find any of the restaurants on my map. None! Zero! Zilch! Nada! And then, to top it off, the ones we actually found were closed. Hindsight is 20/20 and one does not go for chichetti on a Sunday evening. It is a weeknight, after work thing, logical, no? Sometimes logic is an overrated concept.

    The place I reaaaalllly wanted to go to was Bancogiro. Fine, after walking around in circles trying to locate it (already a bad sign) we finally found it. It looked lovely! There were even two open tables. DH took a look at the menu and said there was nothing in there he wanted and he thought it was expensive. He was in the mood for a small dinner, most likely pizza would fit the bill. What?!?!? Are you kidding me? This was our next-to-last dinner in Italy and he wants pizza???? (Not that I have anything against it, but still….) He is going to start on expensive NOW?!?!

    If I’m to be brutally honest with myself and my readers I must say that I did not find anything particularly attractive at the time either. This fact infuriated me for some inexpressible reason. It looked so perfect! I just wanted to sit there and sip spritzes. Now, if I had done the ‘manly’ thing and actually verbalized this to DH, he most likely would have agreed to sit down. But instead I went uncharacteristically ‘girly’ and pouted. And sulked. Big Time! Very unattractive, I know!

    DH felt the change in the ‘weather’ and began to look at me out of the corner of his eye. He is a grown man, survivor of two long marriages. He knew that he had Done-Something-Wrong but also that his best option at the time was not to inquire as to what it was that he had done.

    On the other hand, DD was completely befuddled. She had never, ever seen me giving DH the ‘silent’ treatment. At one point she even asked if we could please ‘draw a map of the situation for her, just so that she would know who to be angry with’. That did not help the overall ambiance. She is not dumb so she eventually stopped asking and kept looking between DH face and mine as if we were a Tennis match on mute.


    We did have dinner after all

    I kept walking back towards the B&B. When we reached the pizzeria by Piazza S. Aponale I unceremoniously plopped into a table. We proceeded to have one of the most unremarkable, overpriced, silent and brief dinners of the trip.


    This is what we had:

    DD: 1 Pizza Margherita – had a lot of red sauce and was the most Americanized pizza of the entire trip. The crust got soggy.

    DH: 1 Pizza Frutto di Mare – it was LOADED with seafood. Halfway through it the crust got completely soaked, something which I absolutely hate.

    Me: 1 Pizza Capricciosa – it was OK. It kept the driest crust. Too much red sauce.

    1 bottle house wine, one coke, 1l water, 72€ with a 15% servizio added to the coperto. Very overpriced in my opinion.

    We probably could have eaten in the Bancogiro or in Nazaria for slightly more money. Did I mention that the waiters were singing the entire Italian-American repertoire throughout the meal? When the moooooon……

    I had somewhat recovered my civility over the meal but I was still not a happy camper (wet pizza anyone?). DH suggested we had coffee somewhere along the Grand Canal (I think he must have retraced the trigger of my bad mood to somewhere along there) but I was not about to relent just yet (yeah, as if I was not shooting myself in the foot as well). So we just headed back to our room, took hot showers and crashed.

    NEXT: The Last Day Cold in Glorious San Marco

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    Sometimes you just have to have a meltdown! DH and I both did the jaw-dropping ride down the grand canal. Such a magical city. I'm so glad you were able to take your DD and watch her fall in love.

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    Mari,

    Hope you are feeling better! Thanks so much for continuing your report. It seems like you just had trip fatigue,or too much vacation,as you put it. I think it's completely understandable since you were the major trip planner, along with the fact that just one day before you had that nightmare of a train ride to Venice - I so impressed what cool heads you all seemed to have over that incident.

    I think our trip was the same - I look back on certain days of our trip(usually the last days of the trip)and wonder why I reacted the way I did. But, I think it's just killer fatigue - you're halfway across the world, in a foreign country, and sometimes just thinking about dealing with something as small as dinner can be completely overwhelming.

    I hope the last day was much better for you!

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    I would say that an end of vacation meltdown is pretty common. We avoided it in Sicily in June but we did crash when we got to the last 3 nights in Palermo. We didn't feel like going anywhere & just relaxed in the sun - skipping many local sites. Enough was enough.

    Ian

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    Thanks to all that have stuck it out with me for 125-pages of Trip Report! I should post the last installment this afternoon or tomorrow. Then I'll do some general thoughts and summirze DD's favorites (I have a problem detecting when I should shut up for good! ;) )

    Regarding the meltdown, I think this time around I have been in enough 3-week trips to detect the pattern. Usually two or three days before we leave I get this meltdown. Not on short, relaxing trips but always on the 'big' trips. The one time I don't particularly remember having one would be our Switzerland trip, in which DH did the overall planning and I just did the detailing/refining. No restaurant research whatsoever for that trip!

    So I'm almost certain that the trigger is the combination of my aggressive schedules and the ending of something which has been my focus for such a long time.

    And I was coming down with a cold....

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    marigross - am anxiously awaiting your last installment. I need my fix and it's been more than a week now. Please come back - it's been such a pleasure reading your wonderful report, but I just gotta have more!

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    Marigross--I created a Fodor's account just to echo hazel1's sentiment and ask you to please continue. I read nearly the entire thread in just one sitting. You write wonderfully and I can't wait to read the final installment!

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    Thanks to all for your support! I'm not quitting but I have been very busy. The last day is 50% done but I'm going away for the weekend. I solemnly promise to post next week. Ciao!

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    So here it is, the last installment!

    Monday, June 8th - Day 21: The Last Vacation Day


    Not only did I still have stiff knees, I woke up with a stuffed nose, sore throat and low fever. GREAT! Just before going to the airport in the middle of the Swine Flu Scare! Well, I guess my list of things to see in Venice was not going to be getting shorter on this trip. I took a few cold medicines and a good look at today’s itinerary. It was going to get slashed.


    The Plan

    Slashed off:

    - Getting up early to see the Rialto Fish Market

    Still on the List:

    1. Basilica di San Marco

    2. Doge’s Palazzo


    3. Correr Museum – even this was demoted to if-we-have-time-and-energy

    Foggetaboutit:

    4. La Fenice

    5. San Giorgio Maggiore


    Immersed in Byzantine Splendor

    Once the cold medicines began to take effect and we had had a nice, slow breakfast we decided to set out into the Venetian sunshine. Our first stop was going to be the Basilica di San Marco.

    Disclaimer: I am NOT proud of what I’m about to tell you, I apologize in advance to all and anyone. I entirely blame unscrupulous DH and the effect of cold medicine on me.

    I had had two differently timed reservations for San Marco (easily done over the internet, no charge) but had not used them as we had not been in the area at the times. Well, now there was a line halfway down to the Doge’s Palace!

    Exactly when we approached the queue a group within the line stopped to take a gazillion pictures of each other. The three small groups of people walking in front of us just cut into the line within the large gap the group had left in front of them. I shamefacedly accept that we cut in too.

    Once the photographer realized that at least 15 persons had cut in front of them she threw a hissy fit (albeit justified!) in French. Her son -only offspring speak to their parents in that tone- calmly told her that she had stopped the line and did this to herself by not paying attention (I got the impression that he was already quite annoyed with her for other reasons). We pretended not to understand the conversation.

    I wondered how San Marco would impact me on a second visit; would I love it as much as the first time around? Would familiarity make it lose some of its splendor? Would it still feel like stepping into a genie’s golden bottle? Would the mosaics be illuminated to showcase all their Byzantine glory? Anyway, we were within the church in less than five minutes and all my questions were answered: Yes!

    I’m always at a loss to describe San Marco. I mean, the domes, the gallery, the architectural details can all be easily expressed but the experience of being inside this jewel box is beyond words. Perhaps tiny St. Chapelle in Paris is a second runner up, the León cathedral could go for bronze. But where these two are all stained-glass marvels, San Marco is a sheer gold tour de force.

    This is the church built by the Most Serene Republic at the height of its power to showcase the riches gathered by its fleet, the perfect combination of East and West. It houses the remains of St. Mark the Evangelist, the winged lion, obtained in the 800’s by dubious methods from the city of Alexandria and transported to Venice in a salted-pork barrel (or at least that is what they claim!).

    This is my favorite church in the entire world (at least the small part of the world I have seen so far). San Marco is a beautiful thing!


    The Church is Free but Everything in it…..

    Entering the gallery we were transported to another day and age. Since we had slashed the day’s schedule into almost nothing I was free to sit (mostly stand) and stare, taking notice of tiny little details that under my regular schedule I would not have had time, I reaaaalllly want to be a Slow Traveler when I grow up!


    There are three areas within the church that require the payment of an entrance fee: the Pala D’Oro (Golden Altarpiece; 2€ pp), The Treasury (3€ pp) and the San Marco Museum (3€ pp).

    Our fist stop was at the Pala D’Oro, an altarpiece made out of gold painted with enamel and studded with precious stones and pearls. The separate enamels were ‘freed’ in sack of Constantinople as part of the 4th Crusade booty in the 1204. We got in line, 95% of the people in front of us tried to peek in from the turnstile and then decided not to enter. The couple of Euros are completely worth it. Not only because they allow you to appreciate this marvel of craftsmanship up close but also because it gives you a rather spacious zone from which to admire the rest of the church.

    The walking space inside the church is really limited to rather narrow areas. It felt somewhat like the long corridor in the Vatican museum. Tour groups walked into the church, through the queuing walkway and out the door in less than 20-minutes: ‘This is the church, it was built in the 1200’s to house the remains of Saint Mark, the ceiling is gold mosaic, lets proceed towards the exit’. That was the extent of most of the tour group presentations.

    DD was shocked! She thought I should be a tour guide, or even better… SHE could be a tour guide if that was all that was required. The possibilities unrolled before her eyes. Standing in front of the church, offering tours in Spanish or English, living in Venice….it kept her entertained for the rest of the day.

    For some reason which I cannot recall right now, aside from the fact that we had been there already, we did not go into the Treasury museum. So after walking the first floor queue-like visit route we went up to the loggia.

    The very steep and narrow stair leads to the inconveniently placed ticket office. I saw some people seriously struggling with the stairs. There is an elevator in the back, back, back, of the museum so there IS a way for very large people or with impaired mobility to get up here. I realize that this is my personal taste, but from the loggia you get the two best views in Venice, indoors to the church and outdoors to the Piazza so I think it is worth the effort.

    We first went to the balcony to admire the wonderful views of the piazza and the Doge’s Palace. Wow! What a wondrous space. The elegant rhythm of the columns and windows surrounding the piazza is architectural poetry. The piazzetta is just as beautiful! Sided with the lacey ornaments of the Doge’s Palace. The two columns one crowned by the winged lion and the other by St. James killing the dragon (well, it really kind of looks like a crocodile) frame the far end towards the water.

    After drinking in the beauty of the Venetian day we went back into the church and went to see the mosaics up close from the second floor. One would think that there was no improving on this view but these majestic beauties were transformed into sublime splendor when the flood lights were turned on. The air glittered opulently.

    Once again I was unprepared for Venice but just got lucky! I found out that the lights are turned on every day 11:30AM-12:30. This might be the most crowded time to see the church but the illumination certainly compensates any discomfort.

    When we were done taking the gazillion photos of the mosaic and telling DD the stories depicted in what must have been the majority of them, we walked to the San Marco museum to see the original horses.

    Now, I had been in this place before and I’m not sure if I had missed the rest of the museum or if it was just not open 10yrs ago. Past the magnificent Quadriga there are some semi-interesting mosaic fragments and at the end of the room is the hallway that leads to the Sala dei Banchetti (Banquet Hall).

    This room is technically part of the Doge’s Palace next door and it was used in its heyday to as the duke’s banquet hall. It holds gorgeous burano lace ceremonial vestments, altarpieces, illuminated manuscripts. Certainly a worthwhile little ‘detour’.

    BTW, there is a bathroom in this area. I thought the line was long and decided to skip it, ignoring the wisdom of ages: ‘never miss a chance to use a bathroom’. Considering the looooong lines at our next destination I wished I had used it.


    If you ruled Venice you could Live here

    We exited San Marco and headed next door over to the Palazzo Ducale. My knees were still creaking after all the Vernazza climbing, my nose was running, I had a slight fever, but what the heck! We were in Venice and this was the Last Vacation Day so I better make the best of it.

    The line was not very long and we bought our tickets with some variation of the San Marco Museum Pass Plus. There are many pass options for Venice and it is very hard to assess what will be the best fit. At that point we just bought our tickets and did not even think if we had gotten the best possible deal.

    We entered the hallway where they keep the original columns from the outside loggia and you can observe up close the carved capitels. Very interesting. This visit is something I must do again when I feel a bit more energetic and enthusiastic.

    Then we headed towards the palace proper, but we first had to find a bathroom. The ground floor restroom was easily found, what gave it away were the 50 queuing women doing the peepee dance along the wall. Okay. This was NOT going to work. Thankfully I got the inspiration to ask an attendant if there were more bathrooms somewhere else. ‘Sure, just halfway up the stairs’. Yes! A quick walk up and there it was. Less than 100m away, a bathroom with only 10 people in front of me!

    It was a long hall of stalls, women to the left, men to the right. The restroom attendant allocated the middle stalls to whichever gender had most on the line. I don’t know if the people downstairs were uncomfortable with this arrangement or if they never thought to inquire about additional facilities. Anyway, I was ‘liberated’ from my suffering a few minutes later. I guess it was all those liquids I was drinking trying to curb my cold.

    Now that my bladder allowed my brain to function again we went up the Golden Staircase and into the Doge’s realm. Once again I was hit by reverse deja-vu. I knew that I had been there before. I remembered even liking this place but I just could not remember any of this stuff, I could not remember being here at all!!! And a forgettable space it is most certainly not.

    Dig out your old Venice guidebooks and take a stroll down these beautiful rooms. There is not much furniture but the rooms are definitely built and decorated to cause an impression. In the hall of maps you can follow Marco Polo’s journeys, in the Four Doors room you begin to see paintings of Venice depicted as Empress, a theme which recurs throughout the palace.

    The wealth of art in the palace is absolutely mind boggling. It was sad that my mind was already boggled and over-arted but still it was a journey of the senses (including hurting knees and throbbing feet). Tintorettos and Veroneses galore everywhere you look.

    We basically walked by the armory museum without paying much attention. DH stopped and looked at one or two halberds and a couple of pistols. DD and I just walked by.

    In a little room, tucked away where no one really pays attention to them, were two paintings by Hieronimus Bosch. Now, that is something to stop and scrutinize no matter where you are or how tired one is. WOW! That man must have truly been in need of anti-psychotic drugs. DD was somewhat familiar with his very famous painting, The Garden of Delights (which I visit at the Prado every time I’m in Madrid), so she was intensely curious about these paintings.

    What came as a shocking revelation to her was the period on which Bosch painted. She thought that he was contemporary with Salvador Dalí and the Surrealists. She had no idea whatsoever that these paintings had been done in the very early 1500’s. She was dumbfounded, but I think that his work is shocking no matter what your preconceptions about it are.

    The Hall of the Grand Council is impressive even without considering the technical engineering intricacies that went into building this huge, open space. What a joy it must have been to live in Venice at her peak! There are benches all around so we were able to sit down and read from the guidebook and observe the humongous painting by Tintoretto and Veronese’s Apotheosis of Venice.

    Eventually we dragged our feet out of the Palace, down the Scala dei Giganti, out and door, past the Tetrarch sculptures and into glorious San Marco’s piazza again.


    Unexpected Findings in Venice’s Attic

    We sat (crashed) on the steps by Florian’s and pondered what to do next. On our previous visit we had skipped the Correr Museum and I was debating whether it should go the same route or not. It WAS included in the ticket. We were there, just by the entrance. It was wayyy to early to call it quits (I swear that I’m really not an A-type personality!!!). But I still could not find any enthusiasm for it. After resting for 15 minutes I said, what the hell… let’s just walk through it and see if we scratch it off the list for our next visit or if it is worthwhile of returning on a future occasion.

    Now, I had read about this argument before and always found it ridiculous. And now, here I was, doing it myself. I will only say that this trip brought a lot of humbling experiences to my self-righteous inner-travel planner.

    DH made it as far as the door before bailing out. He would wait for us where we had been before. DD almost bailed out. Very nearly but she decided to show some solidarity with her mom and decided to endure the torture. Well, if I’m honest I almost bailed out too.

    The ball room had a few of Canova’s sculptures. I told DD the story of Orpheus and Eurydice while we walked past room after room without making much of an effort to look at any details. We stopped to look at a few books but nothing really captured our attention.

    My general impression was that this was Venice’s attic. The place where they store unwanted things which are really too valuable to throw out. I’m sure people must be saying: ‘but she is nuts! There are masterpieces here….’ But frankly, nothing particularly piqued my interest. Remember that I have already confessed to being over-arted.

    I thought about turning back but decided to go to the end of the first floor before calling it quits. As we approached the end we began to here some music. Humm… does that sound like chanting??? Yes, said DD, like Buddhist chanting, lets see where it comes from!

    And then, in one of the most incongruous moments of my traveling life -well, listening to a South American band play the Buena Vista Social Club and Gypsy Kings songs in the tiny Swiss town of Samedan was certainly weird and out-of-place too- we walked into a room and found two monks constructing a Mandala on a small dais as they prayed. A few seats were occupied with observers. We are not religious but Buddhism comes about as close to our nature as a family as far as organized religions go. I have undertaken several Buddhist initiations. I read multiple stories to DD as she grew up about the Dalai Lama, the story of Tibet, the meaning of Mandalas so this was particularly meaningful to us.

    I cannot even begin to describe the multiple feelings that went through me at that point. The chanting embraced me, filling me with peace and contentedness. I breathed in the many blessings that had been poured over us for the past three weeks; tears of gratefulness and sheer joy came to my eyes.

    DD wanted prayer beads so we bought them. We held hands while the monk blessed her necklace over the Mandala.

    I was overwhelmed for a moment. Thinking of all the forks I chose along my road which led to be in this precise moment. Standing with my daughter, my baby, an almost woman. I felt blessed to be able to observe her truly seeing The World around her in new ways, discovering herself to be the incredible person I know her to be.

    I can only say that this moment was truly the hinge on which this vacation swung into a journey of the soul. The fitting end to this stage and the perfect way to start new phases on DD’s life.

    I thought about the three weeks we had just passed together, in relative peace and overall well being, flowing with events even when the outcome was not perfect. Yes, we got annoyed at each other sometimes but we did not kill or even offend each other in the process. We had survived, no, not only survived; we had in fact thrived as a family.

    Once the blessing was done we sat for a while looking at the monk pour the colored sand into the drawing. His young face illuminated from within. But finally it was time to go. The Correr Museum turned out to be the perfect closing for us after all, even if for reasons unforeseen.

    As we exited I pointed out to her that we had almost not done this, that we almost quit before reaching this hall, that we could have so easily missed this ‘moment’ if we had not persevered only a little, that this was serendipity at best and that sometimes –or most times- we only have to follow our hearts and we will be led.


    The Sightseeing might be over but….

    We found DH sitting on the steps where we had been before. I informed him that I wanted a small lunch and I wanted to have it sitting down, so be prepared to pay. I was tired and slightly feverish so I did not want to go search the alleys and maneuver to get over canals seeking out a recommendation.

    So we took off and wandered a bit. We found a place to sit overlooking a small canal. I will not say I was disappointed because I knew before hand that this had all the markings of a money pit. But I always harbor the hope of being pleasantly surprised. I was not.

    We entered Anima Bella and ordered. Once the waitress took off we began to see the drama unfolding on the cash register. The customers were complaining that they had paid with two 50€ bill and the owner insisted that they had not. It went on, and on until the people stormed off telling the owner that she had stolen their money. Not a pleasant situation!

    This is what we had:

    2 pizzas – 6” deep dish (yup, deep dish!) type frozen pie ‘upgraded’ at the restaurant with sauce and vegetables. Completely forgettable except for the stomach burning tomato sauce.

    1 lasagna pesto – also coming from a frozen package but edible bordering on okay.

    2 small beers
    1 coke

    The bill was 50.92€. A 15% service was added to the bill. The price was just as outrageous as we knew it would be, but he had done so willingly and knowingly so we did not whine (too much).


    An afternoon to wander

    I don’t think that I have mentioned that I have a ‘thing’ for sculpted lions. I seek them out wherever I go and winged lions are a special treat worthy of a long detour. Well, last trip we had taken a picture of the most fabulous happy winged lion ever. We (DH) had unsuccessfully tried to find it again. This was bothering DH deeply at his hunter-gatherer core level. So we spent the next hours wandering seemingly aimlessly through Venice, but I knew he was looking for that lion.

    This town is amazing! Each calle has its own tiny little appealing detail, the canals suddenly lead you to unsuspected beauties. We passed a few residential campos. Whoever tells that people no longer live in Venice needs to take a stroll off the beaten path. Yes, a lot of people have moved away and tourism reigns supreme but there are little nooks and crannies where the most serene soul of Venice can still be felt.

    We looked into canals and laughed at gondola-jams. At one point we counted seven gondolas on a small canal not more than 300ft long. We wandered deliciously at random from one end of town to the other. Until suddenly I saw DH looking intently at me, a look of quiet triumph. Knowing him very well, I looked around and yes! There it was! My beautiful, goofy, happy winged lion! In the Campo di Manin within the heart of the San Marco district.


    One last chance to WUI

    During yesterday’s frustrating wanderings we had seen a great bar in the Rialto area. Since we were close by it was a no-brainer, that was where we headed for. Muro Venezia in the Campo di Cesari Batista. This place is just one ‘street’ away from the Rialto but it might as well be a 100kms, it is so different.

    We found the place and moved quickly to get an outside table. This place was GREAT. Yes, there were some tourists (obviously as WE were there) but there were lots of locals too. There was another bar on the campo but it did not have outside tables, still lots of people standing around. It was people watching at its best! Couples meeting after work, a girl doing math homework on the table with her father helping between sips of his drink and talking to his friends, a small group finishing up a contract, babies in strollers, kids chasing dogs chasing pigeons… lovely chaos all around. It had zero view but great vibe.

    DD took off for a spin around the Rialto while we had a couple of spritzes. I don’t know if it was because we knew they would be the last ones but they were really good.


    The Last Supper

    Well, the time had come. Our last dinner in Italy…and we were still stuffed with mediocre pizza. Damn it. We set out to search for something appealing (Bancogiro was closed on Monday so it was not an option). We had walked this route a gazillion times in the past days, I had even searched for this place yesterday without finding it but we suddenly found ourselves in front of Ruga Rialto. Perfect! Let’s have a few cichetti for dinner and call it quits.

    DD did not want to have a sit down dinner so for once I gave her a couple of Euros and she took off to buy pizza from the street vendor and eat it on the steps of San Aponal. Stories from this outing will follow….

    Walking into the Ruga Rialto is somewhat like coming into the Cheers bar. Full of neighborhood people, all knowing each other, constantly switching from one group to another. The music was pleasant, the volume high enough to create an atmosphere but sufficiently low that you don’t have to shout to carry a conversation. There were two dogs under tables. It was very, very casual but also very nice. The customers shooed away the flower vendors and did not even let them go inside.

    We walked by the bar and looked into the glass case where the kept the bar food, cichetti, somewhat akin to Spanish tapas. Everything looked beautiful and we immediately took over a table with a good view of the bar area and we prepared to combine our two favorite activities: eating and people watching.

    There was no table service so DH ran the table-bar shuttle for the rest of the evening: ‘one more service of calamari fritti’, ‘one more half a liter of wine’…. It went on for a long time! We had thought to eat something small, and we did. Just a very many lot of small things. This is what I think we had but it could have been more:

    The first round:

    ½ liter of open carafe red wine
    1 pear and gorgonzola bruschetta (big enough for two people to get a good bite)
    1 salami and brussel sprouts salad bruschetta
    1 shrimp with artichoke bruschetta
    1 salmon crudo bruschetta


    Each and every one of them was delicious! Therefore we went straight in to Round Two:

    ½ liter of open carafe red wine
    1 portion of Calamari Fritti
    1 portion of Sardines
    1 salumi plate

    This is exactly when we began to stuff ourselves like pigs, Round Three:

    ½ liter of open carafe red wine
    1 bacalá
    2 portions of Calamari Fritti

    Contrary to what I had posted at the beginning of this Epic Trip Report, the bill was only 42€ and worth every penny and then some.

    DD came back at the agreed hour. She was so excited. She had sat by the church to have her pizza and within 20 seconds a boy, Marco, sat by her and they started to talk. He was Italian and staying for a few weeks in Venice with his grandmother. So she came back all glittery-eyed and smiley. Ciao Bella indeed!


    Until the Next Time

    So that was the end of our Italian Vacation, the return trip was a non event. We took the Alilaguna into the airport. Marco Polo was madness and mayhem but we survived thanks to Business Class check-in privileges granted by DH’s newly acquired Million Mile membership. No one stopped me because of my cold on accounts of the Swine Flu epidemic. We made it home tired and jetlagged but without any incident to report.

    So that was it. We ate, we drank, we saw, we drank, we drove and drank some more. We got along for three weeks of uninterrupted contact albeit sometimes more successfully than others. It was wonderful to have DD nonstop for all this time, no cell phone, texting or friend interruptions. I got this one last chance to discreetly drill into her ear one more time every tidbit of motherly advice I could think of before she launches herself into adulthood. But truly, the best part of all was watching her face light up the first time someone on the street shouted towards her: Ciao Bella!

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    Marigross...

    What a fabulous report...I laughed and cried (especially reading about your last day in Venice!) and recalled all the great times my mom and I have had traveling.

    Speaking as someone who is probably about your age, you have given your daughter a gift she will remember her whole life...my mom did the same for me at about the age your daughter is and I will always be thankful for it...my first trip to Italy I will never forget and I'm pretty sure your daughter won't forget hers either!

    Bravo!

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    Brava, Marigross! A wonderful report that I shall re-read and enjoy just as much.

    Pear and gorgonzola is one of the best combos. We had in a crepe so filled in Montepulciano.

    So, where to next?

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    Thank you so much for sharing your wonderful story with us! I have recommended it to others for the vivid descriptions and delightful details you have included in every installment...you certainly have a gift for writing. Having just visited Italy (and gotten only just a taste of it) for the first time this summer, your story makes me more eager than ever to return....as soon as possible!

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    Awwww...Thanks to all!! I will post later a few thoughts and practicalities. Thanks for sticking it out with me for 131 pages (actually 57,176 words) of my thoughts and ramblings.

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    RANDOM THOUGHTS

    If I could Re-do this Trip

    - Forget about taking the train. I know we just had bad luck with the trains but with the low price of the rental we would have been better off paying for parking in Florence and not depending on the unreliable Italian train system.

    - Forget about the Cinque Terre – Way too much effort to get there, move around and get out. Add the first day to Pienza and the second day to Venice

    - Forget about San Gimignano – Add the day to Florence or perhaps even Rome

    - Probably get a nicer hotel in Florence (DH will disagree on this one), or even better, a two bedroom apartment.

    - Have a guided tour of the Forum / Palatine in Rome and visit late in the afternoon.

    - Schedule one more ‘down’ day


    Accommodations while Traveling with Teens

    Apartments and Family suites are the best way to go when traveling with teens. It gives the parents a little –ahem- privacy and the kids a chance to decompress from the parents. The extra money is an investment on piece of mind and overall wellbeing.


    My Top Five

    1. Watching my DD react to Italy
    2. Loving Rome the second time around
    3. Being in Pienza
    4. The Borghese Gallery in Rome
    5. The Frari Church in Venice


    DD’s Top Five

    1. Being in Venice
    2. Being in Rome
    3. Hiking in the Cinque Terre
    4. Monks making a Mandala in the Correr Museum
    5. The Borghese Gallery


    DH’s Top Five

    I’ll never really know. But he preferred the first half of the trip to the second part. So I guess the driving through Umbria and Tuscany is high on his list.



    PRACTICALITIES


    ‘Underage’ Drinking

    Everywhere we went we were either how many wine glasses we wanted or a glass for DD was automatically poured. Every couple of days she had a glass of wine or prosecco. I know this is controversial but I will post it anyway. Each family has to find what works for them.

    Note: The legal drinking age in Puerto Rico is 18. That means that there is a lot of legal (and illegal) drinking in High School parties. Since DD is exposed to drinking with her friends (and her parents) we have been on the responsible drinking crusade for a few years now.

    If you want to avoid this issue you should probably tell the waiter upfront and right away how many glasses you want on the table.


    Luggage

    We each had a small suitcase (next size over carry on) and I had an extra shoulder bag in which I could put in my handbag, books, water, and whatever else was needed while moving around without having to open suitcases. It slid over the retractable suitcase handle. It was almost more hassle than what it was worth. It was fine as long as the terrain was flat but rather unwieldy when the suitcase had to be lifted over something (think Vernazza stairs and Venice bridges). Next time I will try a backpack.


    Clothes

    This is the first trip in which I was very happy with my packing. I think I used 99% of the clothes I took with me at least once. This was my list:

    2 Jeans – one light blue and dark blue
    1 Slack – black, in between jeans and dress slacks
    3 Skirts – one slinky-ish black, one brown and the infamous navy blue
    4 T-Shirts – for layering
    5 Blouses – solid colors, all very thin cotton jersey, no major wrinkling
    5 pairs of underwear – handwashed on the hotel sink
    6 pairs of socks - 3 pairs of peds and 3 pairs of regular socks
    3 Pashimas – One light green, one brown, and a heavy black one.
    1 Long Sleeved Sweater – black, to be layered over t-shirts

    Everything was selected for compactability and not wrinkling. I tried to stay within a single shade but still wound up taking both browns and blacks.

    DD’s list was very similar with a hoodie instead of a sweater and reddish cargo pants instead of black. Before she packed we laid out the clothes and went over all the possible combinations. It was an excellent exercise and she was able to leave a few pieces she loves but would have been completely useless. During the trip she commandeered my pashimas. She was happy with the clothes she packed.


    Shoes

    1 pair of sneakers – I never use sneakers at home for other than exercise. I only tooke them because of the hiking in Vernazza. I never thought I would use them as much (they were crucial for Rome!) as I did and I was really happy to have them.

    1 pair of beige maryjane type shoes – They were intended to be worn with the skirts. I wore them mostly in the car and evenings. I thought I had broken them out before the trip but they still rubbed in the wrong places. They did not get enough use to justify carrying them around.

    Similar to: http://www.zappos.com/product/7565610/color/524

    1 pair of black maryjane shoes with an athletic, cushioned sole – they turned out to be slippery like soap. I put Dr. Scholl’s Gel Pads in them because the sole turned out to be a bit to thin and they were ok. The bad part was that the weight was transferred to my knees and they were shot.

    Similar to: http://www.zappos.com/product/7553762/color/203185

    1 pair of brown Clarks’s walking shoes – These are my Old Faithfuls still The BEST. I have had them for 10 yrs and only use them for travel. The soles fell apart in Switzerland and I had them fixed, they are still ticking and will continue to travel with me as long as they hold.

    1 pair beige flip flops – The nicer kind. I was surprised at how much I used them. I will confess that I even used them once or twice to go to dinner. Tacky, I know, but these people will never see them again.


    Handbag

    YES!!! I finally found a handbag that worked for me. I have bought countless bags for trips and always turned out to dislike something about them. It is a black leather with beige trimming shoulder bag. I wore it across the shoulder, like a messenger bag. I was able to fit my wallet, sunglasses, one guidebook and a bottle of water. Nothing else needed.

    - Somewhat similar to:
    http://www.travelsmith.com/jump.jsp?itemID=8722&itemType=PRODUCT&path=1%2C2%2C292%2C327&iProductID=8722&sortBy=0

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    hi marigross

    love the report, and the way you have drawn it all to a conclusion. your piece about San marco amused me - whe nwe visited for the first time 25 + years ago we never got inside due to the queues, so when we took our kids last year, we were determined they would see it.

    I duly made reservations, but guess what - we didn't need them - no queues at all. strange but true.

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