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Cooking In Umbria, Romance in Rome: A Trip Report.

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We’re back from a successful trip to Italy, and as I’ve done with previous trips, please find the latest trip report of Eric & LaNita Hazard detailing our 10-day journey through Umbria and Rome.

I’m a bit wordy. The report will be posted in sections as they are completed. So sit back and enjoy. Feel free to ask questions along the way, I’ll try my best to answer them as they come up, though their may be answers in forth coming report sections.

Ok, housekeeping out of the way, let’s begin, and at what better place than at the beginning.

The first day of Italy began in the early hours of Sunday in the chaotic ring road of Rome. Being New Yorkers, we wanted to start this trip as far away from the city as we could get, and the rural roads of Umbria fit that bill perfectly. To get there though, we’d need to put ourselves behind the well of a five-speed, Italian subcompact Fiat. Sure the train runs to Assisi, but Assisi was not what we were looking for. Instead we were searching for a rural, forget-all-of-your-worries, hideaway. Thanks to Lonely Planet’s Tuscany and Umbria guidebook and Trip Advisor, we found what we were looking for in Alla Madonna del Piatto, the inn-cum-cooking school run by Letizia Mattiacci and her Dutch husband Ruurd de Jong, two entomologists who threw off a life of bugs to open this agiturismo, or farmhouse for those not versed in Italian hotelier lingo, in the hills above the pilgrimage site. A few e-mails, and a mailed deposit check to Letizia later, we were all confirmed.

To answer some basic questions that are asked about renting a car in Italy. The international driving permit is a waste of $15. The rental car counters could care less and if you are pulled over, Italian police officers are smart enough to figure out what address to mail the ticket to. As for insurance, we knew our American Express would not provide coverage in Italy, after reading through the very fine print on the insurance Web site. We ended up purchasing supplemental insurance through Hotwire when we rented the car. I think it ran us about $65, and provided up to $40,000 worth of coverage should I have crumbled our tin can on the Italian speedway. And yes, the drivers are as crazy as advertised. It is not so much that there is a blatant disregard for the rules of the road, it is just the sense of road etiquette is different than in the U.S. Close following of slower drivers is the norm and passes are executed within feet of your bumper on both ends. The speed limit in the left hand lane is merely a suggestion, while the right hand lane can be a gantlet of hard charging traffic entering the highway. In short, be ready to be terrified.

Navigation through Italy was done through a combination of resources. At home I purchase the Michelin road map of the Rome/Umbria/Tuscany region, which I marked with our main destination and key spots we may wish to stop at along the way. Supplementing this purchase, I logged onto and printed out point-by-point driving directions to each of our main stops along the auto tour portion of our vacation (Rome to Assisi, Assisi to Civita, and Civita to Rome). These in turned were three-hole punched and shoved into the three-ring binder which would hold all of our confirmations, directions, suggestions, notes, etc. It is a system that has served me well for our trips.

But I digress; please allow me to return to our first experiences of Italy on the motorways of death around Rome and the first stretch of the A1. I was tired. Leaving JFK at 5:00 pm the previous day and arriving in Rome at 7:00 am the next morning lent itself to nary a moment of sleep on the flight. Like it or not, I’d have to drive around for a few hours as we made our way to Umbria for a 4:00 pm check in. This was the least fun of the trip.

Despite the drivers of Rome’s best attempts to eliminate me from the roadways, we made it around the Rome ring road and onto the A1 toward Florence. We’d spend about an hour making our way north before veering right to the Umbrian countryside. Forty-five minutes into the drive and the weariness crept in. What I needed was a jolt and what better place to find it than on the ubiquitious roadside gas and cafes along the way. We picked with the one represented by a fire-breathing demon.

To those unfortunate souls who find themselves on the small side of noon, jet-lagged, disoriented, and in need of caffeine on the Italian A1, here’s how the systems works at the road side cafes. First, line up at the register. Well, perhaps line up is not the best phrase to use in described how the Italians queue for caffeine. Rather, crowd, push, glare and sneak your way to the register and before the guy next to you has a chance, shout your order to the clerk. Dua cafés will buy you two motor oil thick espresso shots, so perhaps café Americano will be most familiar and fitting to your palate. Or cappuccino, if you are one that takes your milk with a bit of coffee.

Two espresso shots later, and like an Eddie Rabbit, we were shot up, jacked up and flying back down the highway on our way to Umbria. As I said before, I had made notations of a few places to stop on our way to Assisi. The first stop along the way would be the waterfalls at Marmore. After death defying driving through the barely signed streets of Terni, we found our way to the narrow, winding path to the cascading cataracts in the southern fringes of Umbria. We arrived early enough to find ample parking and a free flowing waterfall. The latter statement may seem a bit odd for those unfamiliar with the waterfalls, but the artificial Niagara is switched on and off during the day. It is best to arrive early for the full-on effect, and a nice effect at that, because the afternoon sees the spigot turned down to allow for rafting on the lower reaches, before it is cranked back up to satisfy the viewing habits of those in the later afternoon. For five euros apiece, we then took a couple walks through the waterfall park, finding a nice vista at the top of the falls, and some well-shaded paths with quieter streams in the lower fringes. This being a sunny Sunday in latest summer, we were joined by a gaggle of Italian families, which tended up slow the hike up the hill a bit. But otherwise, it was a pleasant detour.

Our location lent itself to back roads travel from the waterfalls to Assisi, where we would spend the next few days cooking, hiking, relaxing and photo taking in the picturesque setting of the medieval Italian hilltown. The back road drive was pleasant, scenic and an all together more enjoyable experience than the speed limit be damned A1. We took our time, seeing no reason to rush and enjoyed the clinging to the top of a hill towns which this region of Italy is famous for.

Assisi was not hard to find, but Alla Madonna del Piatto did not exactly have neon signs pointing to the check in desk. With help from the inns Web site, I had directions. But directions go only so far when you don’t really have road signs once you’ve arrived, so we made a few mistaken turns in our honest attempts to find Letizia’s house. For starters, we didn’t arrive directly from the A1 the road from Peurgia as suggested by the driving directions. Rather, we came at Assisi from the other approach, throwing the whole thing out of whack. Then, there is manner of trying to find the place even with the best laid plans.

The hills above Assisi are life done in second gear. Steep and narrow roads lend themselves to cautious driving. For a New Yorker, getting used to operating a clutch again can prove tricky, so it was no surprise when I smelled the tale-tell sign of burned clutch while ascending the wrong dirt road path up the main street.

Eventually we found the road to Pieve, as Letizia’s directions say; we passed the yellow building, and then the dirt road on the right hand side. A downshift into first gear, the laboring of the engines up the dirt road, squinting for numbers on a road with no name, then into reverse, and we found our way to Alla Madonna del Piatto, our home away from home for the next five nights.

And indeed, this place deserves the cliché too often subscribed to places that provide lodging rather than a hearth and a heart. From the moment we arrived, we were not simply staying at some hotel, or even something as anonymous as a bed & breakfast, we were staying at Letizia’s, as the inn would soon be referred to by us. It was like staying at someone’s home in every sense of the word. Need a glass? Feel free to use on from the pantry. Have something you’d like to store in the fridge? No problem, we’ll make room. Need anything, just ring the buzzer.

We opted for room Number One, having our choice between that one and a room on the upper floor with a bit better view. Rather, we like the history of the 500 year old tower-turned-living space and the timber beam ceiling. It reminded us fondly of a converted monastery we stayed in a few years back in Antigua, Guatemala, which to date is the most relaxed we’ve ever been on vacation. Who wouldn’t want to recreate such a feeling?

All checked in, unpacked, settled in and breathing easier after the first part of the trip on the road, it was time for us to think about getting something to eat. Rather than a dinner at a restaurant, we opted for nibbles from the local terroir. We were tired, and knew a bottle of wine would most likely do us in. Thus, we wanted to remain close to home. Plus the view is, in a word, outstanding, so why not watch the sun descend in the western sky as we nibble on pecorino cheese, local salamis while sipping native vino.

To satisfy these cravings, we wound our way back down the hill, through the southern end of Assisi into the bedroom community of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Anyone staying in Assisi for any length of time beyond a package bus tour will no doubt find themselves in this pleasant little town. There is a large cathedral of some importance to Catholics and services such as a supermarket and internet café. We would get to all of this soon enough but for tonight we were interested in a few vittles to tide us through the first evening. One half of our hosting duo suggested Terra Umbria in Santa Maria. We found this little shop without too much difficult on the main drag, where we purchased a representative sampling of local food stuffs. A thirty minute drive back up the hilly terrain, pop the cork, slice the cheese, oh and ah, and that was the first night.

The trick of us to beat jet lag is to try and outrun it. Stay up to a reasonable hour the night of our new location and sleep through until the morning. The idea is to get a good night’s sleep, which slingshots you into the next day, and the rest of the trip. This trip put that theory to the ultimate test. Normally, we arrive in our destination at a reasonable hour in the afternoon and have only a few hours to survive until the early evening. This time, we had essentially 8 hours to fill before we could check in, and then a few more before it would have been acceptable to go to sleep. Thank goodness for second winds, and third, and fourth. We made it, but it wasn’t easy. Thus, after arriving at Letizia’s, we managed to make it until 7:30 and slept right on through to the next morning.

Installment number 2 coming on Monday.

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    Hi travelbear. Always enjoy your reports! Could I please suggest that this time you keep them in a single thread? It is easier to follow and read in the appropriate sequence. I will read along anyhow you decide to post. :)

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    Hello travelbear, I am so enjoying your report. Driving after the over the pond flight is difficult. How lovely you so enjoyed the inn you had reserved. It sounds lovely. Having stayed at similar out of the way places in Italy where one is immediatly made to feel at home I sure understand your delight with your lodging.

    I would like to comment however as in that the Italian law requires one to have a International Driving Permit imo opinion the $15.00 fee to acquire one is not a waste of money. If for any reason you are stopped by the police or involved in any accident having the IDP plus of course one's own US states driver license makes one in compliance with the Italian law.

    Looking forward to your next installment!

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    Mea culpa! I didn't realize the IDP was required by Italian law, so please strike earlier comments to the contrary. Our experience in France the year before was it was not necessary, and again this year in Italy. But the experience is only based on who asked, and/or requested proof.

    As to your other question, this was our first trip to Italy, so we have not stayed at any other out of the way places on The Boot. We have stayed at similar places in France, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Armenia, Thailand, and throught the US. We tend to seek these kind of locales out when traveling.

    Thanks for reading. More to come next week (and I'll post in the same thread, so folks don't have to search all over for the continuation).

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    Hello travelbear, yes adding all your installments to this thread you started is a good idea as that way we can all follow your journey and adventures.

    Well I am glad that I mentioned the Italian law regarding the International Driving Permit. I almost didn't but thought it would be a good idea to do so for others that plan to drive in Italy. Italy and Austria law requires the International Driving Permit. I do not know about the other European Countries however. But my opinion is (based on other people's experiences) is that even if one is driving in an European country that does not require the IDP it is still a good idea because as you know the IDP translates ones driver's license information into something like 15 languages so if one does have an encounter with law enforcement for whatever reason it makes the sitution a bit "easier" so to speak.

    I so enjoy your style of writing travelbear, and your style of travelling and consequently look forward to reading more when you have time to post! Best regards.

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    Saint Frank

    Why Umbria? This seems to be the most common question we received from our well traveled friends and folks who are kept abreast of our vacationing habits. The short answer is because it wasn’t Tuscany, which is where I thought I wanted to see originally. But, the more I read about the Sienna, the less I wanted to see it. Assisi seemed to be a bit more off the well traveled path, plus the photos of Umbria were beautiful, and I enjoyed reading about the outdoors opportunities in Mount Sibillini national park. Lonely Planet then sealed the deal for us, after reading about the agiturismos in the area, generally, and Letizia’s place specifically.

    One restful, jet-lagging combating night of sleep behind us, and I could see this was the place for us; quiet and comfortable, with just the right mix of folks who like to meet other folks. Our inaugural breakfast provided us an opportunity to meet some of our fellow travelers. With us were Zeke and Halley, an Earthy couple from Maine, Cecil and Donna, the semi-retired folks from Fresno on a six week grand tour of The Boot, Jennifer from Seattle traveling with her mother from Berkeley, who was scouting out possible living arrangements in the area.

    Letizia’s feed a communal atmosphere of sharing, and experience. Where are you headed? Where have you been? Any recommendations in Rome? Florence? Orvieto? These were the questions which fueled our conversations, oiled by the flavorful café mocha flowing from the kitchen and fresh bread and granola on the table every morning.

    As well planned as this trip was, I hadn’t counted on how tired we’d feel after a 36-hour no-snooze fest. So with our first full day, our ambitious schedule was dialed down a notch. Gone were grand dreams of a 10 kilometer hike through Mount Sibillini national park, or even a hike up the face of Mount Subiaso lurking behind Assisi. Rather, we took this day to be a day of rest and headed for a relaxing stroll through Assisi, famously the former home of a guy named Francis who decided all his wealth would be better distributed to those less fortunate than him. You may have heard of him.

    Please allow me up front to offer a little more color about LaNita and me. We are not Catholic. We both grew up in Protestant households. The stories I know of the saints come vis-à-vis a childhood in South Texas, something like, if you loose your baseball glove, pray to Saint Christopher and he’ll help you find it. Or I suppose you could just pray to Saint Nick and he’ll bring you a new one. LaNita grew up in an even more Protestant religion. Thus, when I show indifference toward certain Catholic religious icons or figures, I mean no disrespect; it is perhaps that they mean less to us than someone of the faith.

    So here we are in the town of deep religious importance to those of the Catholic faith and we are left to say…well this is nice, but it isn’t great. Let’s face it, if you are going to travel all the way to Assisi, you’re going to go into the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Catholic or not. The same way you go to Notre Dame in Paris, or Westminster Abbey in London, mostly because it is there.

    The problem, perhaps problem is a bit harsh, so rather the difficulty, is that unlike Paris, or London, Assisi doesn’t really have a place to put all the people who travel there to see the Basilica. They motor in on a bus, get dumped off at the front steps and just kind of linger there. After lingering, they then crowd into the church, where they are struck by a momentary dumbness about things like no photos, and silence. Thus, all the monks are left to “sssshhhhhh!” the crowd and repeat “Silence!” and “No photos!” every 30 seconds or so, when the next Babel Tower of language barges through door. Not really my idea of enjoyment.

    Like I said before, perhaps if we were Catholic we would have enjoyed the Basilica more, but to us, it was too crowded, too noisy and not very respectful. Please, don’t take this as an indictment on the whole town. Once you get past the bused-in crush around the Basilica, Assisi turns into a peaceful, quiet little town. And we like peace and quiet. We started at the top of town, and wandered our way through the little back streets, finding a stop for coffee along the way and some adorable photos which needed taking. After our rush through the church we headed to the top of town, to explore the Rocca Maggiore castle, the highlight of the town for me. A five euro entrance fee per person allowed us unfettered access to the ruin, with fantastic 360 degree views of the surrounding countryside. While we may have spent 30 minutes in the Basilica, we spent a solid two hours poking our noses in the nooks and crannies of the fortifications. My inner 10 year old really enjoyed running through the darkened rampart to climb the hexagonal tower on the north end of the compound, while LaNita enjoyed the history and peace of the place. Gone were the crowds.

    So what is my summation of Assisi? We found it to be a bit too crowded for our tastes and at the end of the day, there is a certain sameness about it. Is it an adorable hill top town with a rich history? Yes, absolutely. But you know what, so is just about every other town, on a hill, in Europe. After trips to a lot of these towns over the years, the stories and the history begin to run together.

    Sorry if I sound a bit jaded. We knew this on the outset, and so this trip was less about seeing these little towns and more about different experiences. Cooking classes and hikes were more in order. And we’d get to those soon enough, today was our recharge and reorient day. A full day in the town, and we made our way pack up the corkscrew road to the inn.

    If our experience during the morning was ubiquitous, we made up for it that night at dinner. Staying at Letizia’s is a bit like living on the sixth floor of a walk-up building. By the time you get up there, you better have some place to go if you plan on leaving. So, when it came time for dinner there are really two options in the immediate area. The kitchen at the bed & breakfast down the road or the restaurant down the other side of the hill known simply as “the farmhouse,” the directions to which are given like this:

    Drive down the dirt road until you come to the pavement. Make a right, and drive for about five kilometers. You will see two buildings facing each other that look identical. The restaurant is in the building on the right.

    Really? How can you go long with a place like that? If we need any other assurances, they were given to us by Zeke and Halley, the couple from Maine we met that morning. They had gone the night before, and stumbled into a local wedding. After some deliberations between the kitchen staff and the wedding staff, which I took to be mutually inclusive, they were allowed to stay. And they said the dinner was worth the effort.

    So we were off around 7:30 and believe it or not, managed to find the place exactly were the direction said it would be. As we pulled up, the quiet place sprang to life, with the local youth stopping in for a few drinks, and shortly the table of locals and the owner were to join us for dinner as well. In no time, the quiet restaurant we arrived to was filled with life.

    For dinner we started with a pecorino and pear antipasto, followed by a tortellini in broth, and entrees of scaloppini and lamb. Dessert was a tiramisu I have seen heard described as “to die for” and “the best I’ve ever had,” depending on which dreamy-eyed diner tells the story. Washing dinner down was a litter for local red wine. Total bill: 50 euro. So, if anyone happens to be in the area, it is highly recommending stopping by for dinner at this place one night. It sits in the town of Valfabbrica, in the building on the right.

    Back to Letizia’s and another quiet night in the hills high above Assisi. We needed to rest up, for tomorrow would be a hands-on experience in Letizia’s kitchen.

    In the meantime, if you promise not to jump ahead, here are a few photos of Alla Madonna del Piatto, aka Letizia’s.

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    Lonely Planet told us one of the big draws to staying at Letizia’s was to partake in her cooking classes. So did a write up in Food & Wine magazine. Classes are taught on Tuesday and Thursday, only, so when I initially started e-mailing with Letizia, I ended up extending our stay by one day to sign up for two classes. She agreed the courses would be different enough. At 110 euros per person, per class, they are not exactly cheap, but we considered the experience, the recipes and the knowledge we’d bring back to be part of our souvenir buying budget. Some folks purchase knick-knacks for their walls, on this trip, we purchased souvenirs for our stomachs. Upon returning to New York, I claimed exactly $40 worth of purchases: chocolates and olive oil.

    We signed up for two cooking classes; today’s installment is an amalgamation of the two separate and distinct experiences. Letizia did a good job of mixing up the curriculum for us. The first course was focused on pasta, while the second course we worked on two vegetable dishes and a saltimbocca, little pork cutlets with sage. Both classes began off site, one day at Terra Umbria in Santa Maria, where we sampled local cheeses, olive oils and salamis. The second tasting was exclusively for LaNita and I at a small store in Assisi. This time we focused on chocolates, wines and coffees, only to rejoin the main group later back at Letizia’s.

    The courses are taught in small batches of about six people. This provides everyone a chance to get their hands dirty. Both times we had a great mix of people, from mother daughter teams on Italian heritage tours, to retired couples, to a 10-year old boy in the class with his mom.

    Letizia focuses on class on making traditional Italian cooking simple. As she will tell you, she likes gadgets, and gadgets when properly used can make the kitchen experience so much better, so why not take advantage of modern convenience. Pasta dough is prepared in food processor, and then rolled out with a hand-cranked pasta maker. The end result is simple, good pasta. Since returning, LaNita and I whipped up a batch of fresh pasta based on her recipe, and were pleased with the result.

    The cooking classes are about the lessons, here are some of the key points we picked up on:
    • There’s no such thing as Italian seasoning. Pick on herb and tear it into the food before serving. Note, my Italian friends in New York don’t see anything inherently wrong with using two herbs, but everyone can agree that the idea of Italian seasoning is an abomination.
    • Who would’ve ever thought to cook potatoes in a salt crust? They come out deliciously stemmed.
    • Pannacotta is my new favorite Italian dessert. Simple to prepare with a result that will wow your dinner crowd. Try it with a sour cherry topping for a nice mix of tart and sweet to compliment the creamy flavors.
    • Traditional Italian cooking does not have to be complicated.

    Perhaps the best result the class is the end result: the food. Having spent the better half of the day in the kitchen, it stands to reason there would be a meal awaiting us on the flip side and sure enough there was. As we were working on the latter half of the preparation, Letizia arranged for a helper to arrive and begin the set up. During our first cooking course, Letizia’s help set out the local cheeses and meats we had sampled at Terra Umbria and we slowly found our way to the dinning room to begin the first courses as the pasta quickly cooked. Then settled into our chairs, the various preparations of pasta were brought to us, wine was poured and eventually dinner was served.

    How’d we do? Magnificent! The pasta was the best we would have on our entire Italian trip. Before our trip and class, I’m not sure I could have identified Umbrian pasta versus a non-Umbrian variety, but I could see how the local noodles tended to be thicker than what we in the States are used to eating. The distinction was particularly easy to see compared to the more traditional fettuccine noodles she prepared to the satisfaction of the American palates.

    As for the second class, the saltimboccas we prepared on the second cooking class were out of this world. Overall, I couldn’t point to a single food item we cooked that I didn’t enjoy. Pannacotta was the perfect mix of creamy and sweet with just the right helping of sour cherry topics, while the crustada was the toast of Umbria. Aside from the tiramisu we had at the restaurant down the street, the crustada we prepared was our favorite dessert of the trip.

    After the first meal, heavy on the pasta, lubricated with local red wine, I was in need of a stroll to help the digestion process. We decided to wander down the dirt road in front of Letizia’s to see what lies on the other side of the hill. The hillside was quiet, save for the clanging of the sheep bells in the distance, and the sun set peaceful in bright hues of oranges, magentas and purples. After about a kilometer, we found our previously unpaved road soon to be topped with asphalt. I’d like to report what was beyond this discover, by cannot, as the sheep dogs were there to meet us, and notify us in no uncertain terms that we were suddenly encroaching on their flock.

    Seeing no need to tussle with the canine protectors, we ambled back to the cozy confines of our room, taking in the fleeting sunset, anticipating another bottle of whatever red I had picked up at the supermarket, and getting ready for a change of pace. Gone would be the lazy first few days. Tomorrow we were tackling the mountains.

    And for those of you interested in the photographic record of our cooking classes, those pictures are here:

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    This is a wonderful report! I almost feel as if I'm in the class with you. We are headed to Turkey come February and are considering a cooking class in Istanbul...after reading this report I think we may have to go for it.

    Umbria is beautiful. We loved Assisi, but we were there in March and crowds were, luckily, nonexistant.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Hello travelbear, I love your photos! And the food, oh the photos make me wish I was having dinner in Italy tonight. And some good Italian wine too of course. Thank you for sharing your adventure in cooking. Everyone looks so happy and relaxed.

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    Nice report, Eric! And great photos.

    I'm also a big fan of Letizia's (and I see you got a shot of Google, the family dog, and a glass of Letizia's home-made limoncello!)

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    Thanks sac for the kinds words. I was proud of the way the photos of the cooking classes came out. It was just the right combination light diffusion, and the right lens on the camera (85 mm f/4.0). I gave Letizia copies of my photos before I left and I think they may find their way to her Web site in the near future. We'll see.

    Again, I cannot offer a high enough recommendation for Alla Madonna del Piatto. This was the best 85 euros a night we spent on the entire trip. Anyone looking for an agiturismo in Umbria should give this inn high consideration.

    I'm working on the next installment now. Check back soon.

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    Wonderful report! Thanks for the amazing pictures. The cooking class certainly looks as something I might want to add to our trip in May.

    I must apologize as I had you confused with ExplorerBear who does his reports on individual threads which get a bit troublesome to read.

    Please continue....

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    Marigross, High, high recommendation for the cooking class. Great experience and an incredible setting.

    Anyway, onward and upward as they say....

    Ribbon Roads Through the Mountains

    Before I dazzle you with tales of Italy’s own purple mountain majesties I have a, I’m-sure-it’s-happened-to-everyone, tale from the road. Sometimes it is the little stories that make travel fun. Here’s one of those.

    It came that time in the trip when I had to do my best to figure out the refueling situation. So I pulled into the gas station represented by the fire-breathing demon (as an aside there is no greater gas station logo in the world that Agip’s) to pour some petrol into the belly of our Fiat.

    Come to find out, our five-speed gas can with wheels came equipped with a locking gas cap. Why? Not really sure.

    Perhaps the more important question to ask is, how, because I couldn’t quite figure it out. It wasn’t as simple as turn clockwise, with the key inserted. Nope, instead, I had to put the key in one way while turning the cap the other way. This took me a few minutes to get the hang of it, all the while my fat fingers are punching all the door unlock, trunk opening, horn honking buttons on the key fob, creating a circus cacophony of noise and lights at the gas station.

    Ok, gas cap is off. Diesel pump is on. Nozzle is inserted. But the pump wouldn’t just pump gas directly into the tank. If I depressed the handle all the way, it would immediately click to a stop. Rather, I had to squeeze the handle just so, while simultaneously holding the nozzle about 1/8 of an inch out of all the way, taking me a really long time to pump a full tank of gas.

    But I got there eventually. Time to put the gas cap back on, should be easy enough. Nope. Again, something to do with turning the key before the cap is on the car, then turning the cap a certain way.

    Mind you, this whole spectacle has taken at least 20 minutes. Seeing me struggle putting the cap back on, the attendant finally had enough. Something around my tenth try at putting the cap on and locking it into the car, again with lights and horns going off, I feel a tap on my shoulder, only to turn around and see a disgruntled Italian gas station attending motioning me in the international language of frustration to hand over the gas cap. With one fluid motion of key and cap he had it back on the car and I was on my way. No doubt, on Fodor’s Italia there the tale of the idiot New Yorkers who could figure out how to put gas in the car. At least I wasn’t wearing a sweat suit and fanny pack.

    Gassed up, we resumed our journey. Today would take us about an hour and a half southeast from Letizia’s in the Mount Sibillini National Park—Monti Sibillini as it is spelled in the linga Italiano. A mountainous park where one doesn’t expect to find a mountain park. Mountains this soaring, this beautiful, this majestic and this remote are only in the Alps, right? They surely aren’t a two hour drive away from Rome.

    If that is your thought of mountain parks in Europe, you are wrong. Don’t feel bad, I had some ideas that were very similar until I began doing my research for this trip. As I said in a previous post, initially I thought our trip would be Tuscany, but the more I read about Umbria, the more I loved the thought of a holiday here. Soaring mountains, cascading waterfalls, ancient towns, wonderful food and the same distance from either Rome or Florence. I don’t understand how this area remains as unpopulated as it does. But for at least this one moment, I’m glad that it is.

    When we travel, we like to do at least one big day hike. The exercise is always welcomed after a few days of feeding our fat faces, and let’s face it, sometimes to see the cool stuff you have to wander off the pavement. Today, I decided on a hike through the Piano Grande region. This is a large grassy plain carved out by a glacier and surrounded by impossibly high mountain peaks of the Northern Apennines. We learned of this hike through the book 50 Hikes In and Around Tuscany by Jeff Taylor. When describing the hike we were to take today, he said it reminded him of the Brooks Range in Alaska, rather than a mountain range in the middle of Italy. He was some smitten by the beauty of Mount Sibillini; he devoted a number of hikes to this park alone, vowing to return again soon in the near future. He was far from alone in heaping mounds of praise on the mountains park. Lonely Planet put it thusly: “This area is really, really, really beautiful. Really. Go.”

    The base of the hike is Rifugio Perugia neatly placed on the road between Norcia and Castelluccio. Not that road signs will do you much good here, as there isn’t room for them on the mountainside, but to reach this road, take the SS685 out of Norcia for about 5 kilometers. You’ll see a turn-off for Castelluccio. Then head straight up.

    Even if you are not the walking type, the drive on this road is worth a trip. Imagine all those cool car commercials where a little ribbon of asphalt is sliced in the rock. In the foggy scene, a sleek car emerges. An announcer's voice comes on “The new Car 1000 is so advanced, it can sense the road before it turns.” Cue the racing sound of an engine. Maybe a downshift now. There’s a seductress in the passenger seat giving the camera a certain stare. Her hands grip the side of the leather seat ever more tightly as the engine revs higher and higher around ever bend. Cut to vapor rising off the road as the only evidence of a car having been there.

    Yeah, it’s one of those roads. And it’s in Italy. Is there anything cooler?

    Now imagine how incredible the hike was.

    For those of you who are so motivated by my prose as to strike out and look for the trailhead, a few words of advice. In all of the hairpined, barely guardrailed, narrower than politician’s mind, turns on this sliver of pavement stapled onto the mountainside one may begin to wonder if you already passed Rifugio Perugia. Italy is not exactly known as the best signed country in the world, so it may enter your mind that the base camp has passed. But believe me when I tell you couldn’t miss Rifugio Perugia if you tried. Just when you think the views can’t get any more stunning, just when you think your car can’t possible climb any higher, you emerge on a treeless landscape crowned by a cattle pasture. On your left, in gigantic façade lettering is Rifugio Perugia. Park your car in the back and start the walk.

    Our hike was 11 kilometers round trip, about 7 miles. We figured on five hours for the trek, and packed a day pack accordingly, filled with fruit, nuts, plenty of water and a treat for the end. This being the end of September, it was a wee bit nippy up on the summit. We were both dressed in a couple layers and were plenty comfortable.

    Following the red and white blazes from Rifugio Perugia, proved to be tricky at first. The instinct is to walk across the cattle pasture on the only distinguishable trail you see. Rather, walk up the road about 300 meters and you’ll see a large trail descending from the mountain top toward your left. Our walk took us to the right.

    After a kilometer or so the trail leads right to a ski resort, Most of the next kilometer of so of the walk is through the off-season ski trails. Only instead of two-planked speed demons, we were joined by a herd of sheep and a couple guys thinning the trees ahead of the first snow fall. After a mostly level first half of the walk, the trail switchbacks down onto the floor of the Piano Grande.

    And it is grand. Really grand. As deer raced through the alpine meadow, and hawks soared above, we realized how remote we were. When I’m telling you there was no one around, I mean no one. Not a soul. We had God’s cathedral all to ourselves, save for a few flocks of sheep and one lonely paraglider at the end. This entire glacial expanse was ours for the taking. For about four kilometers, the trail meanders along the grassy alpine floor of the valley, eventually connecting to a large circuitous route around the entire mountain park. Our hike ended at a grassy hill, which Taylor said in his book, is just begging to be scaled. We faced this hill to sit atop with the mountains to keep us company. An hour of soaking it all in, and we were went back the way we came.

    As is the case with most long hikes, it definitely seemed like it was uphill both directions, but upon further review I realized we started mostly at the summit had more down than up on the way to the valley. This led to a slightly exhausting trek back to the car. Gone was the flock of sheep, but the cattle were there to greet us, complete with the clang-clang of their alpine bells. What a great trip.

    The skies grew ominous as we finished the hike, so rather than drive over the other side of the ridge toward Castelluccio; we instead wound our way back down the spiral pasta road of the mountain, through Norcia and back to Assisi. As we reached the halfway point of the descent, we broke free of clouds, giving us a beautiful view of the valley floor below, with a ceiling of cloud shield the mountain peaks above.

    And to see why God gave us wide angle lens, take a look at the photos:

    That evening, we opted to stay in for a “cleansing” meal, read: we wanted to put some greens into our system. The day before, we had found the grocery store in Santa Maria and stocked up on easy to assemble salad items: bag lettuce, tomatoes, vinegar, oil, and walnuts. Combined with the local cheeses and salamis from the first night, and the ubiquitous bottle of wine, we were all set. It provided a nice refresher meal in the land of cured pork products, and it helps us save money. Some folks may find this hard to believe, but we were able to stay on a budget of $100 per day throughout the trip. Most places we stayed offered breakfast, and we could get a quick lunch on most any street corner. That left only dinner. Some nights we’d go out. If we exceed the budget, we’d do a simple bread/wine/cheese/salad dinner the next night. This was one of those spending buffer days which allowed us to enjoy nice meals in Rome later in the trip.

    Is there any greater feeling in the world that settling down in a comfy, just cool enough room after a long days hike and the shower that comes after? Not for us. Tonight would be our last night at Letizia’s and in Umbria. But we done what we set out to do, and we did it right. Umbria is incredible. Go. Just go.

    Now, to see what sits between us and Roma.

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    Orvieto and the Dying Town

    For those folks planning on staying at Letizia’s (and let’s face it, who wouldn’t) please note, you’ll need to have cash on hand. She doesn’t accept credit cards. We were prepared. That morning we handed Letizia a wad of well traveled bills and made our way to Orvieto.

    I had deliberated whether or not we should stop here. On the one had, there was much to be said about the town’s location, and its large cathedral received rave reviews. But, I also read about large tourists crowds, owing to its proximity to the A1 and I just didn’t know if I had the wherewithal to endures hordes of flash-popping, tourists in a town really too small to hold them.

    LaNita convinced me we should go to the see the town. It was smack dab in the middle of our route and we heard so many great things about Luca Signorelli’s fresco cycle The Last Judgment, located in a chapel attached to the main cathedral.

    Orvieto is easy enough to find and it took us about an hour and a half to reach the town proper from Letizia’s. Once there, we parked in the first signed parking lot we came to and ascended a series of subterranean escalators until we reached the town situated on the tuffa rock plateau above. Turns out, we were in a pay parking lot. Apparently there is free parking if we had continued to the town. Oh well, I think we spent 2 euros or so, not that big a deal.

    Much to my surprise, we found a town not overrun at all, but surprisingly quiet and really enjoyable. The cathedral, generally, is interesting and Signorelli’s frescos, specifically, are awe inspiring. The guidebooks like to draw a comparison between this work and the Sistine Chapel. Having seen both, I enjoyed Signorelli’s work immensely more. One reason owes to the peace and tranquility of the chapel and the other is the sheer artistic force of the work.

    In addition to access to the chapel, our admission ticket also got us into the onsite Papal museums. I’m glad we didn’t pay extra for this. The museum felt more like rummaging through your grandparents trunk of old knick-knacks, rather than a curated display of artifacts.

    The rest of our time in the town we spent walking along the rampart walls, taking in the nice scenery, enjoying a leisurely pizza lunch and noting how, yet again, we managed to find a town “known for its ceramics.” This has become an inside joke for LaNita and I, as we think “known for its ceramics” is international lingua for “tourist trap.” More than 30 countries visited, and amazingly, every single one of these has a town, or district, “known for its ceramics” or even better “internationally known for its ceramics.” I mean, if you’re going to be known for something, why not footstools? Look what that recognition has done for Blaine, Missouri. But enough of that, let’s carry on.

    The whole reason we found ourselves in the western fringes of Umbria was an intriguing report I read from Rick Steves about a town on the verge of death: Civita di Bagnoregio. Steves had a lot of great things to say about the town and its inhabitants, all 14 of them, and suggested it would make a wonderful place to stop and see if you are in to that sort of thing.

    Over the past five years or so, LaNita and I have found our way to the some really remote locations (here’s an example, Google Khor Virap, Armenia); one thing we love is remote. So, Civita was on the list. If it was remote we were looking for, it was remote we found. Tethered to the world by a narrow bridge, Civita sits defiantly above the crumbling volcanic rock which surrounds it. From a distance, it would appear almost impossible that this little town would have ever sprung up. But a reading of his history reveals a long, intriguing story of rushing against the forces of nature. The Etruscans lost the battle, as did the Romans, as did subsequent civilizations. If it is not erosion, it is an earthquake, something always seems to get the best of Civita. Despite the hardships, the town was always rebuilt. Until the most recent, devastating plague: convenience of modern life. Today the residents are the hard-core old timers, or folks with weekend places from the city. I wouldn’t say it is dying. But it’s definitely in need of a blood transfusion.

    Being about an hour from Rome, and close to Orvieto, it is not that it is geographically remote; more it is spiritually removed from the mass-tourist infested Italy so many once charming towns have become. Civita is the Italian hilltop town in Godfather Part I, preserved in amber and wrapped in prosciutto. You know the one. Mike, in exile in Sicily after revenging his brother’s death, is walking through Sicily with his two companions. There ahead of them is Corleone, the name sake of Mike’s family. This being a hot day, they stop by for a drink, and make chit chat with the bar keep about the local town women. Unbeknownst to our wayward tourists, have insulted the owner by referencing his daughter. He threatens to kill them all before Mike coolly, calmly takes control of the scene, making a request to court his daughter in the traditional Italian ways.

    That scene etched into my mind, walking through the lonely streets of Civita, I couldn’t suppress whistling the first few bars of “Speak Softly Love.”

    Fortunately that is where the similarities end. There were no horse heads, car bombs, or Sicilian messages. But, that town, dying, perched on a cliff, seemingly a part of the world that no longer exists. That’s Civita.

    When you are in a town of 14 people, balanced on a pinhead of rock in the middle of volcanic badlands, there isn’t much to do, so you are left to explore, quite literally, ever nook and cranny. Civita is blessed with lots of interesting tid bits around town, including the home of Saint Bonaventure, the original, not the school of the same name which plays A-10 hoops. We also enjoyed tasting locally pressed olive oil besides a fire warming the elderly backside of 14% of the population and poking our head into the most authentic looking knick-knack shop you are likely to find.

    LaNita observed that even though the total population could be counted on one’s fingers and toes, the homes looked really well maintained. Indeed, the town feels more lived in than its remoteness and lack of services would suggest. It is a very interesting experience one definitely worth a stop over if you are traveling between Rome and Orvieto.

    For those planning on staying in Civita, you have exactly one option: the Civita Bed & Breakfast. I’ve read there are three rooms available here, but I think one room is served for staff, leaving only two rooms really available for the night. We had no trouble booking a stay through the Web site.

    At 68 euros a night, it is more affordable than places in nearby Orvieto, but it is definitely down in the heels. The room basically looks like the illegitimate love child of a wild affair between the worst parts of 1980s and 1970s interior design. LaNita flat out refused to take a shower there, deciding to wait it out until Rome. But the view down on the square is lovely and the door locks, so it fit the bill for one evening. And if you are going to Civita, one evening is more than enough time.

    With two guest rooms in the inn, and really only one restaurant, dinner is served at whatever time you want it to be served. So we ate at 7:30. That evening we had a discussion that was much better than the meal with the other couple staying the night: Sol and Lara. The wine flowed freely and frequently, to the point where the kitchen and hotel staff, and by staff I mean both of them, gave up waiting, changed into their pajamas and asked us to lock the front door before we turned in for the night. It may have been because I had A LOT of wine that evening, but I don’t remember having any trouble sleeping in the room.

    The next day we’d have the complete opposite experience. We’d be in Rome.

    Of course there are photos, first my Umbrian collection:

    Next, Civita:

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    Still loving your report!

    Okay, I must ask two questions. First, I've seen the bear turn up in several pictures so I'm assuming there is a story there. Would love to hear it!

    Second, I am intrigued by your trip to Armenia and curious what your overall thoughts were? This is a country I would love to visit one day, and definitely doesn't get much mention on this board.

    Keep up the good story...anxiously awaiting the rest!


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    That is Franklin the Travel Bear you are referring to. We purchased him duty free on a flight from Paris to Chicago in 2002. Since then, he travels with us all over the world and we take his photo. I recently made the switch to Picasa to display photos, but if you look at my Webshots page, you'll see all the places he's been.
    I count 25 countries he has visited, but I may have missed a couple.

    As for Armenia, I don't want to distract too much from this report, but I'll offer a few comments. One, I have never met a country full of my accomodating people anywhere else in the world. The Armenians are simply incredible and it is worth spending time in Yerevan just to make new friends.

    Two, if you are not Armenian, then the country is really off the tourist trail. For me, this was a good thing. You are unlikely to run into many other tourists there, particularly when you start doing day trips out of Yerevan. Granted, I went there in February, so it was way, way, way offseason. But I landed on Saturday and did not see another tourist, period, until Thursday. Most of the sights I had completely to myself.

    Three, the sights you'll see will blow you away. Armenia was the world's first Christian nation and there are a lot of very early Christian relics. Plus, even though technically in Turkey, Mount Ararat dominates the Armenian pysche and is an awesome mountain to behold. Yerevan is a bit run down, but in an unsantized way, I really enjoyed my time there. The people had a lot to do with it, but it feels authentic in a way major European cities don't. If you stay there, you'll feel like you've actually gone somewhere different.

    Perhaps it is not for everyone, but if you are someone looking for a different kind of travel experience, Armenia should be high on the list. I loved it.

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    I'm impressed...that bear certainly does get around! ;)

    Armenia sounds fascinating. We will be in Turkey in February (we too tend to travel during off season) and considered Mt. Ararat but were concerned about the weather so we decided to head to the coast after leaving Istanbul. I find that the more I travel, the more I prefer being off the beaten tourist path. My husband and I have talked about visiting Georgia and Armenia one day. I appreciate your thoughts!


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    Rome Where You Want To

    Today is a transition and travel day. We’d be returning our chariot, hoping on a train, and rely on our bipeds to maneuver through Rome.

    Civita doesn’t exactly wake up with the sun, so we left town about the same time the locals were walking up the bridge from civilization. We are in absolutely no hurry today, needed only to drop our car off at the airport sometime in the afternoon and then check into our hotel. I had made notations on the maps of some Etruscan sites between Civita and Rome, and had some other recommendations along the way, but perhaps it was the hang over talking, we were ready to get into the familiar loving arms of a big city. We decided to head straight for Rome and start the next leg of our trip.

    This should have been the most straight forward part of the trip thus far. Any road of note in Italy has a blue sign with Roma printed into a big arrow. Simple enough, follow the arrow. To say nothing about the old saying, “all roads lead to Rome.” If there is a destination on this planet which cannot possibly be missed, overlooked or otherwise incorrectly navigated, it must be Rome…right?

    So it is surprising to me that we had such a hard time finding the place. As a crow receives directions from, Civita to Rome is an hour drive. Furthermore, we were driving in the mid to late morning on a Friday, so there shouldn’t have been traffic to speak of. But from the moment we retrieved our car and wound our way through Bagnoregio, we had trouble finding the proper roads to say nothing of the fact we saw no signs to Rome.

    Absent the obvious Roman direction marker, we made our way to Vitterbo, which was along the way, and figured we’d pick up the main Roman highway there. And sure enough, shortly before we arrived in Vitterbo, signs began to appear for Rome, which we followed, as one is want to do with signs pointing to their destination. Yet somehow, we failed to find the highway, as the signs kept leading us into small downtown areas, followed by pig trail roads all the way to the city. And each sign was more frustrating than that last. One would say “Roma 33” indicating 33 kilometers until the city, followed one kilometer later with something like “Roma 55.” Huh?!

    Retracing our steps, we ended up getting to Roma on the SS2bis, but only after going through every little town along the way. If you are in Civita and you are planning on driving to Rome, here’s a tip. Drive back to Orvieto and follow the signs to the A1.

    If not, you will see very agitated drivers, on a narrow roadway. It was shortly before we made our way to the ring road around Rome that the craziest thing we had seen on the Italian roadway happened. For some reason or another, I found myself in the left had lane of a four lane road. As a rule, we tried to stay out of the “passing” lane, because a) we didn’t have anywhere to get to fast and b) we didn’t want to die. But anxious to get off the pig trails and be rid of the car, I was hustling. Just not hustling fast enough for the motorcycle behind me, as the bike proceeded to pass me on the left that is between my driver’s side mirror and the concrete barricade. LaNita freaked out, I just laughed the nervous laughter of someone who had just seen a vision of death pass before them. Crazy.

    Car drop-off went smoothly and we found the Leonardo express train without any problem. This took us straight into Rome’s Termini station, where the new reality of our trip was realized. We’re no longer alone.

    I have not hid my discomfort and distaste for mass tourism on this trip. We live in a heavily touristed part of Manhattan and commute through tourists every single day. Thus, to do the same in a place like Italy is not our idea of fun, or relaxation, or vacation.

    But, when in Rome….there’ll be tourists. Kind of hard to escape that. Talking with folks before our trip, the overall opinion I got was that both Rome and Florence are heavily touristed, but at least Rome has the capacity to spread them out, whereas Florence tends to be tourists on top of more tourists. Thus, why we decided on Rome/Umbria for this trip. We’ll make Florence/Tuscany the focus of a trip for another time. For all the people that like to post questions about the “must sees” and “best way” to see Italy, here’s my suggestion. Pick one major city and one region. Do what you can to see the entire city, and then the big highlights of the region. We ended up spending four full days in Rome and six days in Umbria. If I had it to do over again, I’d probably have spent an extra day in Rome, but otherwise it was just the right mix of countryside and city life.

    But I digress…so we’re in Rome!

    First the logistical questions. I picked a hotel close to Termini station because it offered access to all the transportation options and the hotels tend to be a little bit cheaper. After arriving, we saw why they are a little cheaper as the neighborhood has a rough-around-the-edges feel to it. We had no problems the entire time we were there, and our hotel, Hotel Domus Prateoria, was a great place at 160 euro a night. The room had soaring ceilings, acres of space, and the staff was wonderful. If you don’t mind being a few metro stops away from the historic center, this is a good option to consider.

    Having shed the burden of a car rental, and back in the comfy confines of a big city, we set out to discover Rome the best way to discover any major city: on foot. It was mid afternoon by the time we settled in, took showers, organized maps, etc, so we decided to get our bearings while making our way toward a few sites of note. Walking south out of our hotel, we aimed for Piazza Repubblica, stopping into Santa Maria d. Angeli where we happened upon an Italian wedding. Then over to via Settembre XX, a stop in Santa Susanna, which was my favorite church in Rome, and down to Via delle Quattro Fontane and the gorgeous four fountains which adorn this block.

    Our bearings pretty well set, and our tolerance for the incessant whine of the ubiquitous motor scooters already low, we ducked into a few back alleys in the general direction of the Trevi Fountain. Rome’s back alleys are what make a walk through the city magical, as the loud boulevards are silenced and you get to see actual residences and local shops. It took us about two hours in the city to realize this; I hope others don’t spend too much time on the crowded, polluted main streets.

    The Trevi Fountain was chalk-block full of tourists. Everywhere, just crawling with them. So while it is pretty, and the water looked refreshing, it was tough to enjoy. We finally found a spot a hop, spit and a jump over Neptune’s left shoulder where we could take it all in, but at some level, it was just too crowded. Unfortunately, the walk over the Spanish Steps was more of the same and even making our way to the top was challenging. Again, we knew this going in; I was just surprised exactly how crowded these sights were. Being the last week in September, I figured we would miss the gigantic summer hordes. I shudder to think that perhaps we did.

    So that was our first taste of Rome. Don’t worry, it gets better. It doesn’t take too long to find out where the crowds are, and are not, in the Eternal City.

    That night, we decided to eat at one of the local restaurants, selected on no other bias than its visceral, curb side appeal. The biggest mistake we made in our Rome planning, really our entire trip planning, was not doing a better job researching restaurants to eat at in Rome. I’m not exactly sure how it is we overlooked this part of the planning, but I have a few ideas. One, often times when we ask people for restaurant recommendations, we end up disappointed. After receiving bad recommendations over the years, we just stopped asking. Two, well I just overlooked it. I was a very bad travelbear on this front, shame on me.

    Properly prefaced, I can tell you we had a terrible meal our first night in Rome at a completely forgettable trattoria in the Termini neighborhood. I should’ve known better when we sat down and were handed a menu printed in six different languages, with vegetarian and gluten free suggestions. We deserved what we got.

    It was hard to be upset with the meal. We were back in familiar city confines. Gone was the strange, eerie silence of the countryside, replaced with the city din which makes us feel at home. Tomorrow, we’d show this new city a thing or two.

    Final three installments coming next week. Have a great weekend folks.

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    Romano Antica

    If you go to Rome, you’re going to see Roman ruins. It’s just the natural order of things. But even though that may sound like a statement of the obvious, what we were unprepared for is how many different types of ruins we’d see. There was the big, impressive ones with capitalized proper names like the Coliseum and the Forum, there are the distinguishable ones, like the statues along Via Emmanuel, there are the imagination-required ones, like Circus Maximus and then there are the “hey look what we found,” undistinguished and undescribed ruins which litter the city. Random bits of column sticking out the ground, brick huts surrounded by fencing, city walls, aqueducts, everywhere are just bits and pieces of ancient Rome.

    So when thumbing through our guidebooks, we decided for walking sweeps of the city rather than point by point precision ruins targeting. Helping us out on our quests were two books, Frommer’s (yeah I know…boo…hiss…) 24 Great Walks in Rome and Lonely Planet’s Italy guidebook circa 2002. The latter was interesting, because even though the ruins haven’t gone anywhere, the restaurants sure have. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up a more updated copy for Rome; I just didn’t think it was necessary. In hindsight, this was a decision that was less than wise.

    For our Sunday, we decided on a leisurely stroll through the countryside. The Frommer’s (boo…boo…) book suggested strolling along Rome’s ancient Appia Antica road, where we could be free of car traffic as the road is for the exclusive use of pedestrians and cyclists on Sundays. With the large concentration of catacombs exhibits and other interesting sights, it seemed to be just the kind of attraction we are…uhm…attracted to.

    Taking a bus to Appia Antica is not as straight forward as it should be. On the metro, the Appia Antica stop is clearly labeled, but once above ground, you have to search around a bit to find the proper bus stop. This being Sunday, we then had a few anxious moments waiting at the bus stop before we even knew for sure the bus was running. It was. And the last stop was the far end of Appia Antica, plotting a perfectly straight course up the cobblestoned street.

    The guide books tell us the Appia Antica is closed to traffic on Sundays. The guide books lie. Rather, the Appia Antica does not have as much traffic on Sundays, but there are still plenty of cars weaving around all of pedestrians who think the road is closed to car traffic on Sundays.

    An accident of history placed us in Rome during “cultural weekend,” meaning every site which normally charged admission prices were free. Perhaps every weekend is “cultural weekend,” but had we known this the day before, we’d done more to see the things people usually have to pay for. As it was, we took advantage of the freebie to stroll into a couple sites on the Appia Antica, the most impressive of which were the catacombs underneath Saint Sebastian’s church.

    I am not a fan of tours, but the only way we were going to see the catacombs was to line up for the tour, so we waited until English was called and joined the muddle. Much to my surprise, I found the tour to be very enjoyable. Sure it was crowded, but it was manageable, and seeing as how we would only see the catacombs this way, well I suppose it was worth it.

    The rest of the daily stroll was not as enjoyable, as the other catacomb sites closed for the afternoon and we wound up on a busy thoroughfare following the suggested walking tour outlined in the Frommer’s book (yeah I know….this is why I should have used the Fodor’s book).

    After Appia Antica, we took the bus to the front steps of St. John of the Lantern and toured nearby Scala Santa and Santa Croce in Gerusalemne. Scaling the holy steps was an interesting experience, definitely one which will not soon be forgotten. Saint Cross of Jerusalem was not as busy as it perhaps should have been, given the significance of the relics: pieces of the true cross, thorns from the crown of Christ, and other pieces from the crucifixion.

    Afterward, we headed to the Coliseum, Roman Forum duopoly of sites. What could I possibly type that has not already been typed hundreds of thousands of times before about these two? The only unique experience for us was that they were both free on the day we went. Even though the Coliseum had lots of tourists it didn’t feel too crowded. The same could be said for the Forum.

    Even though the summary of the days events may be read as breezy, for us, it was one of those “*wow* did we really do all of that?” kind of busy days. Just the kind of days that really get us going on vacation. It also imparted upon us exactly how massive Rome really is. By the end of our second day in Paris, I felt really comfortable there, almost as though it was a second home. For the most part, we had crisscrossed it enough to be familiar with many landmarks.

    But Rome, we hadn’t even scratched the surface. I was beginning to fell, dare I say it, overwhelmed by the city. Perhaps four days wasn’t enough time. Could this be the end of the Hazard Power Tourists Doctrine? Did we finally meet a city which would have too much to see in our too short of a time?

    Those are some heavy questions. Definitely need to think about them over dinner.

    Dinner was a really exciting time, but it wasn’t because of the food. We decided to try our luck at Al 34, which was unfortunately booked solid, so we settled for the bistro across the street. Antipasto, pasta, entrée, wine, blah, blah blah. Found the metro, made it back to the hotel, no problems, yadda, yadda, yadda.

    Here’s what made it exciting. As we approached Al 34, we noticed a bottleneck of traffic as the already itsy-bitsy via Mario de Fiori is further constricted by the sudden proliferation of outdoor seats. We were intrigued. New York has sidewalk cafés, because there are sidewalks. In Rome, where dining al fresco is not speaking a foreign language, rather than sidewalk dinning, you’re out in the street. In the faceless bistro we ate at, sitting outside meant some really close encounters with traffic.

    But nothing as close a call as the woman we heard scream as we approached Al 34. The road may have been a tight squeeze, but the cars weren’t going to let a few pedestrians get in their way. One driver got a little too close to the line out the door at Al 34, and end up running over the foot of the woman at the back of the line. Let me say that again: HE RAN OVER HER FOOT. Not all of her foot, but the entire back of her heel was under the car’s tire and her scream left no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was more than just a simple fright.

    What happened? This was the interesting part. There was the usual yelling and screaming between affected parties. The woman’s husband slapped on the hood of the car, pointing to her foot, and making threatening gestures to the driver. The driver did one of those half-in, half-out of the car door open routines, yelling across the roof of his car. The driver’s wife, got out of the passenger side, to attend to the ailing woman, urging her to remove her laced up shoe to properly assess the damage.

    Oh, and everyone else? Just went about enjoying dinner.

    Which is exactly the ultimate outcome of this imbroglio. For perhaps 30 minutes, the run overs, and the run overees, sat at a table outside and hashed through the specifics. Gone was the yelling and screaming. Then, in a flash, the woman’s shoe was back on her foot, everyone was standing, hands are shook, and the run overs are shown to a table waiting for them inside the restaurant. You got to admit, this is something you don’t see everyday.

    Another day in Rome loomed ahead. Back to our room to plot the next adventure.

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    Rome on Foot

    Anyone who visits us in New York, particularly if it is there first trip to New York, gets aquatinted to the city via their feet. We love to wander all over New York, so it stands to reason we’d enjoy a similar experience in Rome.

    The aforementioned Frommer’s 24 Great Walks in Rome was our primary resource today, as we stitched together a number of different walks. We’d finish one suggested path and just pick up where the nearest one from there started or finished, so on and so forth for most of the day. Some people may ask my thoughts on the walking book. It is good, but definitely far from great. The itineraries themselves are well thought out, but the execution is awful. Roads are not where they say they are, and the included maps are functionally useless. Simultaneously, this is a good thing, as it offered us every opportunity to wander through the back streets of Rome.

    The sum total of our day’s walk followed a large circle from the Coliseum, to Piazza Farnese, through the Ghetto, Isola Tibernia, to the Mouth of Truth, across Circus Maximus, back up to the Coliseum.

    We began at the Coliseum metro path, walking up Via dei Fori Imperiali stopping at Vittorio Emanuele II Monument. From here, we angled ourselves northwest, aiming for the Pantheon stopping for a coffee along the way.

    Our third day in Rome, now more than a week into Italy, we finally grew comfortable with the conventions around ordering coffee in the numerous caffeine gp-go joints sprinkled all over the city. We found “café Americano” to be to our liking, as opposed to a simple “café,” with LaNita preferring her “con latte” rather than saying just “latte.” The Italian coffee shop owners seemed to understand the former order meant just a little bit of milk, rather than the milk heavy concoctions we would normally have been served.

    The Pantheon was wonderful, of course. I haven’t read a negative review about it yet, and for little wonder. Lonely Planet says the building is the type which inspires people to be architects, and anyone who has stood underneath its oculus can understand why. It is simply impossible to believe the Romans built this structure (or perhaps even more impossible to believe the Vatican City didn’t find a way to steal it, but that’s another story) and that it looks as incredible as it does after all of these years. We also enjoyed watching all of the activity going on in the Piazza della Rotunda, where I took the best series of photos of the entire trip:

    In old town Rome, it is impossible not to get sucked into the side streets, and one should not resist the pull. On our way down through the Camp dei Flori and Piazza Farnese, we’d wind along whatever street caught our fancy, eventually finding our way to the picturesque Via Giulla. Before we knew it, we were in the Roman Ghetto and facing the Tiber River at the ancient Ponte Fabricio.

    As busy as we had been, as much of Rome as we (thought) we’d seen, it was hard for us to believe this was our first view of the river. As with every other major European city we’d been in, such as London, Paris and Prague, we figured the Tiber would become ubiquitous as we saw the sites. Not so it turns out. Rather, it seems elusive. We’d see it again tomorrow returning from the Vatican, but again, that was only in passing, not like the intimate relationship one forms with the Seine for example.

    But even if the river was not immediately made available to us, its pleasant Isola Tibernia was a welcomed respite for our aching paws and a great place to watch people move from one side of the city to the other.

    A handful of pistachios later, and we were back on feet, looking to see more of Rome. Making our way back across the Ponte Fabricio, we picked up the tail end of another walking tour at the ancient Teatro di Marcello complex. This tour we did in reverse, which is to we saw its sites in the opposite order not that we did it while walking backwards, ambling down the via Lungi Petroselli, to see the world’s most famous drain cover: the Bocca della Verita, or Mouth of Truth.

    The required photo taken, both of the lovely LaNita and of Franklin the Travel Bear, we traversed the desolate wasteland that is Circus Maximus, looking at the ruins of the Roman Forum to our left and the ruins of various junkies’ lives to our right. After yet another hair raising adventure doing something silly such as trying to cross the street and not get killed, we worked up the Caelian hill, past the church of Saint Gregory to the Basilica of Saints John and Paul.

    Caelian hill is one of the famed Seven Hills of Rome, the lot of which I found to be completely indistinguishable as either a) hills or b) of any real significance. Outside of the obvious stuff stacked atop the Palatine hill, it wasn’t until we were back in New York that I realized we walked all over five of the seven (Palatine, Caelian, Capitoline, Quirinal and Viminal), most likely touched on the Esquiline, missing only the Aventine. Given how prominent the seven are mentioned in the study of antiquity, it was odd to me how flattened by history they had become. But as a general rule, if one were looking to see most of the highlights of Rome, try and follow a “seven hills” path of some sort, which leads you through some really fascinating stuff.

    We descended down what is left of the Caelian hill, making our way back up the Via Claudia, along the wall of the ruined Temple of Claudius, and once again through the Coliseum’s general grounds. We ended up exactly where we started that morning. At the Coliseum metro stop. Yes, it was a lot of walking for the day. I don’t recommend it for anyone that is not in fairly good shape.

    But it was also a good amount of walking, offering us an amazing contrast of modern Roman, Catholic Rome, Christian Rome and ancient Rome.

    Dinner this evening was at Mario’s. My date for the evening was lovely. The meal was forgettable.

    One more day in Rome. Since we are off to see the Vatican tomorrow, here are the photos from Rome so far:

    Tomorrow should be the last installment.

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    I Love It When You Call Me Big Papa

    Last installment folks. Thanks to everyone for reading along. Ask any questions you may have.

    For our last day of vacation we decided on the Vatican. By and large, we saw all of the highlights of Rome (though like many great cities, it would take a lifetime to see everything) so the Vatican felt lie a great way to wrap it all up.

    As we had done every morning since arriving in Italy, we rose early to get a jump on the rush. Arriving at the gates of the Vatican museums, and seeing the line snake around the corner and out of view, we could see that once again, we had been foiled by the crowds. So in line we stood. About an hour later and 16 euros per person poorer, we found ourselves in the hallowed, crowded halls of the Vatican museums.

    Anyone moving through Rome will see lots of ruins. One is left to their imagination to picture what this great city looked like during its height. I imagine it looked like the halls of the Vatican museums, seeing as how the plundered all the good stuff.

    For all the talk about how beautiful and grand the halls of the Vatican museums are, I couldn’t help but feeling a little put off by how badly the Vatican has completely ripped off Rome and Italy. I can understand needing to protect treasures from hordes of Visigoths and the like. But those days are long past. Why does the Vatican still house all of this stuff, when it is treasurers that belong to the history of Italy?

    Perhaps it is because Mousselini lost the right to renegotiate for the return of the artifacts in a card game. Or most likely, it is because that’s where all the people are.

    Anyone going to the Vatican is sent into a crush hurtling towards the Sistine Chapel. Crowd surfing our way through the museums, we did the usual, passing along the various halls, seeing the Rafael rooms (which I enjoyed more than the Sistine Chapel), down into a more post-modern exhibit of art and finally into the Sistine Chapel, which is famous for some reason. I think they once played a bingo tournament there or something.

    We had the fortune to see the Sistine Chapel twice (as we were searching for the exit to Saint Peter’s). The first time our experience went something like this:


    *massive crowd moves, there’s an elbow in my ribs*

    “No photos”

    *more herding of the crowd, I’m shoved in the back*

    “Move off the steps”

    *the wave of peoples crowds to the back of the chapel*

    Ugh. I hate these experiences. Why do people in mass tourism forget all manners? How is a universal appeal for silence and the restraint of photo taking so difficult to understand? And why do people forget they are in a church?!

    Fortunately the second time through was not as crowded and we were actually able to admire the ceiling and the frescos on the wall. We did this as part of a whirlwind run through the museums a second time, looking for a passage to Saint Peter’s Bascilica. This proved difficult. It would appear as though the Vatican wants you to enter and exit the museums separate from St. Peter’s. But, we noticed the exit on the right hand side of the Sistine Chapel, leading to St. Peter’s, reserved for “tour groups only.”

    If there is one thing the Sistine Chapel has plenty of, it is tour groups, so we just folded into the next German group to go through the door, muttering “ja, ja, ja….danke, danke, danke…” all the way through. Down the steps and into the Bascilica. Ta da!

    St. Peter’s blew our minds. The sculpture, the architecture, the artwork were amazing. And because it is so massive, the din of the numerous tourists didn’t reach deafening levels. In addition to the interior loop around the church itself, we also climb to the top of the dome. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole experience was spending time on the roof, walking amongst the many domes, sipping coffee we bought at the café, being eye levels with the famous statues which line the lip of the cathedral.

    All-in-all, we spent about six hours working our way through the Vatican. Even though the crush of the crowd inside the Vatican museum is almost unbearable, because of the wealth of treasure inside its walls, it is a must do.

    As for our photos of the experience, they can be found here:

    Anyone reading this report will no doubt note an absence of any real problems. The simple answer is there weren’t any. The trip was well planned and well executed. Reservations were held as they said they were, driving times were as planned, time in Rome was good. And our budget held.

    As I said before, this was an all cash trip for us. Everything was paid for in Euros we exchanged before the trip. Yes, I know, this is unpopular, but I don’t care. It worked for us.

    However, our last day in Rome, we began to run low on Euros, so I decided to cash in USD at one of the numerous exchange booths along the road to St. Peter’s. This was a huge mistake.

    I approached the window, handed them $100 and said I’d like to exchange this into Euro. We had already conducted a similar exchange at a bank branch, which only charge a five euro fee, so I didn’t expect too much trouble. However, in this case, the exchange counter offered a terrible rate, charged a 17% conversion charge and a five euro fee!

    “Wait just a minute,” I said the minute she handed me the Euros. “I didn’t realize I was going to be charged a 17% fee on top of a five Euro fee.” Please imagine my surprise, seeing as how I wasn’t offered a term sheet to sign before the transaction was completed. With every other foreign currency transaction on this trip, we were offered a sheet clearly laying out the rate and the fees, which we had to sign, before the conversion. No such sheet was offered to us, rather we were given the Euros and a receipt. This was unacceptable to me, so I demanded a refund. I’ll give you back the Euros, you give me back my $100, we’re even.

    She flat out refused, explaining she was unable to offer refunds, and the only way I could get US dollars back would be to convert them (with all of the fees of course). We were absolutely livid, demanding to speak to a manager (she refused our request), and explaining in no uncertain terms that she had ripped us off (to which she said “my rates are disclosed on the board below”). So as we continued to argue, we told everyone entering the booth about our recent experience. Driving away as much business as we could until we finally saw our protesting was futile. So please learn from our mistake, don’t exchange money at any of the booths on the road to St. Peter’s. Use a bank branch instead and demand an accounting of the fees before handing over any cash.

    The upside is that this was the worst experience we had. And if this is as bad as it was, then overall it must have been a good trip. It was.

    The next couple hours, we walked back from St. Peter’s toward the historic center, killing as much time as we could until 7:30. We had made reservations at Maccheroni and seeing as how this was our last night in Rome, we were really hoping for at least one good meal.

    Again, the lack of good restaurants on this trip is entirely my fault. I didn’t plan this part well, or for that matter, at all. We heard about Maccheroni from the couple we dined with in Civita. She said this was by far her favorite restaurant in Rome. After the first couple nights of not so good meals, we found this place’s Web site. Contacted them through e-mail and made reservations.

    We loved it. Quite simply, it was our best meal in Rome (admittedly, the bar was set kind of low on this one) and rivaled our best meal in Italy. The location just north of the Pantheon is excellent, the service was wonderful and at 60 euros for the two of us, it was very affordable (after the bill arrived, I thought for sure it would have been more, I was surprised it was only 60).

    There is a review about the restaurant here on Fodor’s as well:

    Count us in as another satisfied dinning experience.

    That evening, our last in Rome, we took a long, leisurely stroll through the old city to the metro. It was magical and we were euphoric with the pleasure of the city. The streets were well lit, but deserted, leaving us with only the clip-clop of our feet and the muted giggles of pure joy we let out at random intervals. For reasons explainable only by Cupid, we’d sneak kisses on the corners waiting to cross the street, or at the next fountain we came upon. Whoever says Cupid is mythical is wrong. He floats above Rome.

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    travelbear, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your report. It sounds like you had a wonderful Italy adventure!

    As for the food in Rome, I have been three times and yet to have a meal that I would highly recommend with the exception of perhaps the pizza at da Buffetto. But, like you, this is our fault because we eat when we feel like it and thus don't do too much research beforehand.

    Thanks for sharing!

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    Travel bear - impressive report.

    I thought two of your comments about the Vatican interesting:

    1)"[re:Pantheon]..or perhaps even more impossible to believe the Vatican City didn’t find a way to steal it, but that’s another story)"

    Actually, the Pantheon exterior was once full of bronze on the exterior. When you come out front door and look up all that wood is the result of the bronze being taken over to the Vatican. But, don't forget, the Vatican did not "steal" this, the movement was encouraged by those with power then - just like today's leaders may sell your highway...

    2) "...I imagine it [Rome] looked like the halls of the Vatican museums, seeing as how the [Vatican] plundered all the good stuff.

    ...I couldn’t help but feeling a little put off by how badly the Vatican has completely ripped off Rome and Italy....
    ... Why does the Vatican still house all of this stuff, when it is treasurers that belong to the history of Italy?

    I do not understand your logic or facts.

    First, Italy became a country in 1876... for the previous 3000 years there was no central government. Everyone plundered from everyone - the spoils of war. City states existed and to this day towns and cities hold incredible animosity toward one another.

    Second, the entire country is full of art that was mostly commissioned by the Church and the Medici's, who were the bankers for the Church.

    The Vatican in fact commissioned the art and then SAVED many of these items so you can see them today rather than hidden away in some Royal's home or banker's mansion.

    There are not many insitutions around that could actually maintain all that loot, for thousands of years without it being stolen by occupants, such as former occupants of the White House who walk off with we the people's artifacts a tthe end of the term as if they own it.

    So I see it differently - I say thankfully there is some institution that commissioned art, that saved the art, that valued the art, and encouraged man to achieve the best.

    I am not arguing that the Vatican is a good or bad force. Jsut that the art does not all belong to "Italy and Rome".

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    Thanks for reading the report. I'm just offering my opinion. I believe the Italian government has set a very powerful precident for the return of artifacts of Italian origin.

    Seeing as how the Vatican is a seperate, independent nation, I believe the Italian government should similarily go after the Vatican for the return of the art treasures which rightfully belong the Italy. Ancient Roman sculptures were not commissioned by the church. And being the custodian of these treasures during previous times of turmoil is hardly reason enough to allow them to stay with the Vatican. Italy is a stable country capable to protecting its ancient artifacts.

    I believe spreading around the riches will give more people access to their cultural history. At the root of the problem, as I see it, is that the Vatican is hording these artifacts as a way of increasing the wealth of the church. This is disengenious and morally wrong, in my opinion.

    The church cannot own the cultural history and identity of the Italian people. That is what many of the statues and sculptures represent.

    But as I say, this is just one man's opinion. Thanks for reading along.

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