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Trip Report Pizza margherita, per favore. Three generations visit Tuscany, Rome and Venice, by ms_go and daughter.

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I was awakened from sleep (as deep as one can sleep upright in an economy seat, anyway) by the change in pitch from the engines as the plane began to descend. Glancing out the window, I saw that the pervasive cloud cover that had started near Zurich was now gone. The view was replaced by rolling hills, olive groves, small clusters of stone houses with red tile roofs'all bathed in sunlight. Ahhh'finally back in Italy!

Discussions about this trip began several years ago, as my brother and I pondered the possibility of an extended family vacation in Italy'once his children were old enough for transatlantic travel but while our mother was still able. Last year, we put the proverbial stake in the ground by booking a villa in Tuscany, and now the rest is history.

Some background

The participants:
-Me (mid 40s) and my 15-year-old daughter ('DD' in this report)
-My mother ('mom'), mid 70s
-My brother and his wife (B & SIL), both about 40, with their three boys: 'Podolski' (9), 'Del Piero' (7) and 'Dida' (turned 4 while in Rome) as per the football jerseys they acquired early in the trip and wore often

We sought a good mix of culture, history and relaxation, and after some study and discussion, settled on one week in a centrally located spot in Tuscany and five nights in Rome. After that, mom, DD and I continued on to Venice for four nights. B/SIL and kids flew to London to spend some additional time with her sister's family.

We are neither high-end nor budget travelers. With a group of our size, we quickly ruled out hotels (we would have needed four rooms), instead looking at villas and apartments. And while we ate well, for the most part we did not plan our trip around food; we ate when and where needs dictated'typically one meal a day out, with breakfast in and snacks and sandwiches to fill up at other points. Let's just say there was a lot of pizza and wine consumed! In fact, we've decided to name the trip report after the most commonly ordered item and the one Italian phrase mastered by all members of our traveling party (well, aside from 'grazie' and "gelato").

I should add that, with the exception of my nephews, all of us have been to Italy at least once. This was my third trip to Rome (mr_go, DD and I spent a week there a few years ago), my fourth trip to Venice and my third time in Florence. While we aimed to cover some basics, our goal was not to 'do everything.' With young children, we also didn't plan for a lot of time in museums. Essentially, each of us contributed some priorities to 'the list,' and we tried to fit those in to the extent possible.

I did not take detailed notes, so this report will probably end up to be more of a random series of thoughts to which I'll add as I have a chance. DD will contribute along the way.

As always, I gleaned much good information from this site and would like to give back what I can. A collective thanks to everyone whose posts helped in planning this trip!

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    Tuscany: Hundreds of wonderful possibilities; where to stay?

    I debated for awhile about where to recommend that we stay in Tuscany (I should add that I also researched locations in Umbria, which I like very much). The area southeast of Siena seems to be recommended most often, but I felt that a location closer to Florence would provide us with more options for day trips that would be of interest to all in our group. Let’s face it: four, seven and nine-year-old boys probably don’t have the same level of interest in gorgeous scenery, wine and vineyards, fine dining, and picturesque hill towns. We decided to look for a property with easy access to Florence and Pisa, as well as various other smaller towns.

    For awhile, I poured over websites—slowtrav, various agencies, many individual properties. I kept coming back to a property listed by Summer In Italy, through which we rented an apartment in Positano several years ago.

    “Villa Vesta” met all of our requirements. It is a stand-alone, two-story building on a larger property with four units. The other three units are in a separate building just a bit down the hill. Villa Vesta has its own private yard, ringed by oleanders and cypress, with a picnic table, chairs and umbrella and a large lawn that produced many exciting football matches between Podolski and Del Piero. The views were fabulous. We could hear a bit of traffic on the main road and an occasional tractor on an adjacent farm, but nothing that detracted from the experience.

    The house sleeps eight in four bedrooms (two rooms with doubles; two with twins). There are three bedrooms upstairs, along with a very large bath; and one smaller bedroom and a full bathroom downstairs. The kitchen is large and nicely furnished. Available technology includes satellite TV (great for watching Euro 2008) and wired high-speed Internet. Decorating is tasteful. There are screens on most all of the windows (good, because the bugs were coming out as the weather warmed up). The house doesn’t have air conditioning, but there’s good ventilation, and the owners have placed fans in most of the rooms. It stayed very pleasant inside while we were there.

    The four units share a very nice pool with views across the valley to Montaione, as well as a laundry area with two washers. The grounds are very nicely manicured with an abundance of flowers; one of the brothers who own the property spends hours each day on site. Perfect to come home to each day, or for just hanging out.

    And perfectly situated. This property sits about half way between the towns of Montaione and Castelfiorentino. Montaione is a very nice small hill town with most of the conveniences we needed (gas, ATM, post office, pharmacy)—most notably the Pam Express supermarket, which is open until 8pm every day, including Sunday. Montaione doesn’t have the star power of some of its neighbors, but that’s quite alright. It also doesn’t have the traffic and parking problems, either; that makes it great for a base town. We went into town for dinner a couple of times, but for the most part we fixed dinner in our villa and ate on the outdoor patio.

    Sightseeing from this location offers a lot of possibilities. We used the train in nearby Castelfiorentino to get to Siena and Florence (Pisa is also an easy trip by train). San Gimignano is about a 25-minute drive; Volterra, about 40 minutes. Lucca and Pisa are a little over an hour away, depending on traffic. The heart of the Chianti country is just to the east.

    The proprietors have a second property closer to Montaione, which also produces wine and olive oil. We did not visit the other property, but we did certainly enjoy their products!

    I really can’t say enough good things about this property. And, as per my previous experience, working with Summer In Italy was hassle-free. The week went too fast, and we were all sad to leave.

    Cost: about 2,100€ for the week. There were no extra fees (cleaning, electricity, mid-week change of towels, etc.) and no security deposit required.!italy_.htm

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    Driving in Tuscany: the V70s and the back roads

    I’m including a section on driving because, on our typical vacations, mr_go is the primary driver and I’m the navigator. This time, he stayed at home to work, and I would be playing both roles. DD is just learning to work with the detailed European maps; she has a pretty good start but needs some more refinement. I was a little nervous about how this would go…

    We obviously needed two cars. No one in our party was willing to drive van big enough for eight people and all our luggage …or worse yet, try to park one in a tourist parking lot in, say, San Gimignano.

    We agreed to fly into Florence, rent our cars there, and then drop the cars at Fiumicino airport in Rome at the end of the week. My brother and I both used AutoEurope, with the resulting rental agency being Europcar. We arrived an hour apart and, interestingly, we ended up with matching gray Volvo V70 wagons (although I’d only reserved a compact automatic). In fact, every morning, we had to remember whose was whose. Mine had a small dent in the back bumper—duly noted in the parking lot and documented on the rental agreement. His had a largish scrape on the front bumper. They were both diesel and offered sufficient power and space for our needs. I spent about $150 for gas for the week, including all driving in Tuscany and then down to Rome.

    My only complaint would be the rental facilities at FLR. We thought we were doing well getting out of the terminal quickly, only to find the long lines at the rental car windows in the parking lot. After about a 30 minute wait, I got my keys and the opportunity to relive one of my favorite travel moments—trying to back a Volvo station wagon out of a very narrow space in a very tiny lot (our Scotland trip report from 2004 details the last such incident). A few inches back, a few inches forward; a few inches back, a few inches forward…and a few other cars waiting patiently for me to finish my maneuvering.

    With the always reliable instructions from Summer In Italy and DD navigating, we made it to our villa in about 45 minutes with nary a wrong turn or moment of confusion.

    B/SIL brought a Garmin GPS, which came in quite handy on various occasions—except when leaving the Florence airport, when they mistakenly programmed their destination as…the Florence airport. After driving in a loop, they realized the error and were quickly on their way.

    The GPS was invaluable getting into Pisa, out of San Gimignano (to avoid festival traffic; more on that later), into and out of Lucca, etc. It did, on occasion, pick some odd back-road routes; a little too “back-road” for my mother’s taste in one instance—a little disconcerting for me, since she was in the back seat of my car (the one without the GPS) at the time and I simply could not answer all the questions about where we were, where we were going, and why we were going that way.

    The net of having a GPS was that I did not use a map as much. I never would have envisioned myself starting out on a drive to Volterra without so much as a glance at a map—but I did. I did have a TCI Tuscany map along and it served as an able back up; although when unfurled in the car, it took up most of the front seat.

    Really, we didn’t have any problems at all driving in the area and enjoyed the freedom of getting around on our own. We found the roads well marked. There were a few wrong turns, but we were able to use the GPS to correct them quickly. Parking was a bit stressful on occasion—for example, trying to decipher the parking regulation signs around Lucca (does that sign say the car must be less than two meters long…or high?). And, not surprisingly, many parking spaces and lots are a bit small for a V70…let alone two of them.

    For me, the most stressful drive was the three-hour trip to Rome on the A1, trying to navigate around the convoy of trucks while going 130+kph.

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    I am so EXCITED to read more. We just booked our hotel rooms in Rome for next March.
    We have not made any addtional trip plans and are excoted for ideas!!!

    Keep it coming!

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    Thank you, marigross, samsaf, annesherrod, bob and LowCountryIslander. I'll try to go as fast as I can!

    Experiencing Tuscany

    Well, to start with, you really can’t “see” Tuscany in a week. It’s simply too large and too varied. And, for many of the towns/cities, day trips really do not do justice. We had a nice variety of experiences during the week, but we really just scratched the surface of the area within an hour or so of where we stayed.

    There were a lot of possibilities, and we decided up front that we didn’t want to run ourselves ragged sightseeing. We also didn’t want our week to be a series of 12-hour day trips; we wanted some downtime and swimming time in the evenings. We knew we wouldn’t be able to see everything; we’d hit some highlights and enjoy everything we were able to do.

    San Gimignano

    At just 15km away, this was a natural first day out—well, afternoon really, as we were a little slow getting going on our first full day. I’ve been there before, but it was in very late October and we stayed right in the center at La Cisterna…and found it magical. I knew that a day trip in June wouldn’t begin to compare with that experience. Parking was a bit of a challenge. I had no map of San Gimignano, so we just followed the blue “P” signs and eventually found a pay lot after driving most of the way around the town. We entered through the Porta San Giovanni and walked up toward the center of town on the long Via San Giovanni, lined with shops and restaurants.

    Now, I’d researched “festivals in Tuscany” before the trip and somehow had missed Ferie delle Messi, the town’s annual multi-day medieval harvest festival, in my research. So, we were a bit surprised to see people walking around town in a variety of costumes, flags flying from facades along the main streets, and then, as we approached the center, to hear the sounds of drums and music coming from the Piazza della Cisterna and Piazza del Duomo. Unfortunately, the Duomo was closed, as the festival performances were taking place in the square in front of it; we wouldn’t be able to see the frescoes I recall from the previous trip. Instead, we scaled the Torre Grossa for views of the town and surrounding countryside—well, I did skip the very last part, which involved climbing a ladder (which I don't do well when already several hundred feet in the air). Entrance to the tower also includes the Palazzo del Popolo/Museo Civico. We chose not to pay to enter the performance area in the Piazza del Duomo, as our primary interest was in walking around. But, we did get to see various processions of drummers, oxen and other animals, and assorted costumes and props throughout the town and as the participants were queuing in the Piazzale dei Martiri di Montemaggio for the festival’s parade. We were also able to get a glimpse of the dances and skits from the top of the tower. DD enjoyed seeing all the reluctant teenage boys out in their tights.

    As I expected, the town was much more crowded than I remember, but the festival likely had something to do with that. It was a nice day out. The weather was nearly perfect. All in all, an interesting and fortuitous experience to be there for Ferie delle Messi.

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    This was near the top of my priority list and, at about 20k away, almost as accessible as San Gimignano. The drive there is very pretty, through farm land and with few other cars on the road. We used the GPS to get us there, but it wasn’t too helpful in finding parking. We more or less circled the entire town before asking a police officer where we could park. He pointed us down a road that led to a large, free lot near Porta Docciola. With a little luck, several cars were leaving as we arrived; otherwise, we might still be looking.

    It’s a long climb up from Porta Docciola, but the climb was well worth it. We loved Volterra’s narrow, medieval streets and its vistas across the area. We also liked that it was relatively less crowded than most other places we’d visit on this trip.

    We stopped to admire the fortified gate and fountain from the 13C before climbing several hundred steps to the upper part of town. From there, we pretty much wandered, visiting the Duomo and octagonal Baptistry; the Porto all’Arco, which has foundations dating to the 4C BC; and the Via dei Sarti lined with old mansions. DD had to stand under the clock tower of the Palazzo dei Priori, though not at noon like she wanted—this figures prominently in one of her favorite books, New Moon by Stephenie Meyer. We relaxed for a bit in the Parco Archeologico, in front of the Castello (which our book says is now a prison), so the kids could play in the playground. One of our few museum visits on this trip was to the Museo Etrusco Guarnacci, which houses a fascinating private collection bequeathed to the town in the 1700s. I've never seen so many varieties of ancient cinerary urns. Well worth the admission! Finally, we capped off our visit with a view of the Roman ruins near Porta Docciola.

    Again, the weather was perfect. Volterra was one of our favorites.

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    Thanks bardo1 and LCBoniti. I am going to try to finish up Tuscany by tomorrow. I haven't even thought about starting on Rome yet...lots to cover there!


    One of the nice things about staying where we did is the proximity to the Castelfiorentino train station, less than 10 minutes from our villa. The train goes straight to Siena (Florence and Pisa are also easy trips from here by train). Cost of the train ticket was around 6-7€ per person, round trip (on average; the kids were less expensive; Dida was free). We purchased tickets for the return at the same time, so there was no need to worry about standing in a ticket line later in the day (Florence, in particular, had some pretty long lines). Don't forget to validate tickets in the yellow boxes near the tracks before getting on the train. On our return from Siena, the American party behind us was being reprimanded by the conductor for not having done so. This was happening just as we were getting ready to get off, so I'm not sure of the resolution, but it appeared as though they were going to have to buy new tickets. Parking at Castelfiorentino was 4-6€ per day per car, depending on length of stay. The lot was good sized and capacity never seemed to be an issue.

    It’s a bit of a walk from the Siena train station to the historical center—and an uphill one at that. We took the bus on the way in, but even then we still had a 10-15 minute walk to the Piazza del Campo—made much easier once fortified with some cornetti. Again, we went in with a moderate agenda: to visit the Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico and the Duomo, climb the Torre del Mangia, and wander the medieval streets. That, plus lunch and the transportation to and from Siena took up the better part of the day (leaving our villa at 8:30am; returning around 6:30 pm).

    This was my second day trip to Siena, and I’ve come to the conclusion that I actually need to stay there to give it the time it deserves.

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    All the adults in our traveling party (except for DD, who considers herself to be one of the adults) have been to Florence and have stayed in town for varying lengths of time. We’ve all visited the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia, as well as many of the major sites. With young kids and a limited amount of time, we ruled out the Uffizi from the start and eventually did the same with the Accademia. They’ll all have opportunities to visit in the future, when they’re much more likely to gain something from doing so. Instead we plotted a clockwise walking tour beginning at the train station.

    Our first stop was San Lorenzo, which I haven’t visited previously (at least, I know we didn’t on the last trip, and I really don’t remember seeing it in high school). We spent quite awhile here, actually, in the church and Old Sacristy, cloister and crypt, admiring the work of Brunelleschi, Donatello and others. It’s very close to the train but I think a bit off the tourist track; there weren’t too many people there.

    From San Lorenzo we could see the top of the Duomo and its beautiful marble exterior a few blocks away. This is where we found the crowds! We spent some time inside the Duomo, but I have always enjoyed the exterior as much (trying to figure out how best to photograph it, for one). We circled the outside slowly and then spent some time studying the baptistery doors. We were tempted to make the climb to the top, but with the warm day and nearing need for lunch, we chose not to.

    Stop three, after a pizza lunch, was Santa Croce, one of my favorites from two previous trips. DD immensely enjoyed visiting the many tombs of the famous men she’d studied and being able to pay her respects; she even found the monument to Enrico Fermi (we live in the town that is home to the world’s second-largest particle accelerator, which bears his name). Even the older boys recognized a few familiar names. Unfortunately, the stately Piazza Santa Croce in front of the church was completely filled with grandstands for a temporary football “arena.” We also visited the cloister and made a quick trip through the adjacent leather school. I was tempted but decided to pass on the big sale item: 600€ leather pants :).

    From Santa Croce, we more or less wandered—along the Arno, across the Ponte Vecchio, through the Piazza della Signoria and Pizza della Repubblica, and in and out of various narrow streets, before stopping for our daily gelato fix and then heading to the train. If it hadn’t been so hot and if we’d had a bit more energy, we probably would have made the trip up to the Boboli Gardens.

    Certainly not enough time in the city. But, when it comes to Florence, any time is better than no time in my book! DD really liked the city, but wishes she could have had more time. I have no doubt she’ll be going back one day…

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    Pisa and Lucca

    Pisa—and the tower, specifically—was a top request from Podolski and Del Piero, and actually I’d never been there. Lucca was my top priority for our stay in Tuscany. Since they’re so close, and because our main objective in Pisa was to visit the Piazza dei Miracoli, we decided to combine the two cities into one day trip.

    We could have done this by train but decided to drive. Pisa is an easy trip from Castelfiorentino, but Lucca adds a bit of time and complexity. It’s not that long of a drive, but the time can be variable depending on traffic, train crossings, etc.

    We programmed the GPS for Piazza dei Miracoli, and it pretty much guided us right there. Great, but we still had to park. We actually had a bit of a difficult time finding and following blue “P” signs. Somehow, we ended up on a residential street, in front of a school, about a mile from the piazza. We were a bit nervous about this, but all worked out well. Mom was a bit nervous (scratch that, terrified) that we wouldn’t find our way back to the cars, but not to worry. We took the GPS with us, but in the end those mental breadcrumbs worked out just fine.

    If I haven’t mentioned it before, the weather had taken a turn toward the end of our week in Tuscany. The good news is that we had clear blue skies for the remainder of the trip; the bad news is that it was over 90F every day. By the time we walked from our car to the piazza, we were quite warm—and that was before joining the swarms of people and vendors. This was certainly not a surprise. We were visiting in the height of cruise season and well warned. We basically spent our time seeing the major sites in the piazza, took our obligatory photos of everyone holding up the tower, and then we left. I’d considered reserving in advance tickets to climb the tower. I almost had them in the shopping cart at one point, but noticed that the minimum age was eight. That meant Podolski would be able to go up, but not Del Piero and Dida (and, as we discovered, all three like to climb). Better to not go there.

    We often hear the question, is the trip to Pisa worth it? Our short answer is yes. While I won’t repeat the daytrip in peak summer season experience again, I thought that Pisa looked like an interesting town away from the piazza. Someday, I will go back when I can spend an overnight or two.

    Lucca, on the other hand, was a delight—that is, once we parked and were able to walk in. The GPS led us right to the old city walls, where we proceeded to circle. We saw lots of blue Ps, but no real evidence of parking lots other than the cars parked in spaces along the perimeter of the wall. We thought we’d found spaces near one of the gates, then we noticed the two-hour parking sign. We moved on and parked again, only to wonder whether our cars were too big (the sign said something about two meters and had a picture of a tow truck…). Finally, after making a full circle around the wall, I decided to take the plunge and drive through the Porta Elisa gate, and there, to my relief, were parking spaces. Buy your ticket at the meter for X hours, display it in the front window. I’ve done that many times and can handle that.

    We were now free to explore Lucca, and after a decent lunch, explore we did. Piazza Napoleone (named so because Napoleon’s sister Elisa ruled the town at one time) with its stand of trees and small cafes. San Michele in Foro, on the site of an ancient Roman forum, with its decorative columns, each one different. The oval-shaped Piazza dell’Amfiteatro, which today mirrors the shape of the ancient Roman arena on which it is built. Via Fillungo, with its abundant window-shopping opportunities. And so on. Lucca is perfect for my favorite vacation activity: wandering. We also climbed the Torre Guinigi for views. Interestingly, this tower, although not terribly high at about 225 steps (Podolski and Del Piero enjoy counting while climbing), has mature oak trees growing in planters on the top. The tower dates to the 14th century.

    Although there were many cars parked around the city walls, inside the walls the city seemed very quiet. With a bit more time, I'm sure some rented bikes and a ride around the walls would have been in order.

    We all loved Lucca.

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    Thanks, Tiff and TexasAggie.

    Moving right along....

    Other activities

    We attempted to visit the Sacro Monte at San Vivaldo, a collection of chapels dating to the 16th century (the “Jerusalem of Tuscany”). Our reference materials indicated that it’s open between 4-7pm but we found the chapels locked (several with “closed for restoration” signs) and the site nearly deserted.

    Our other small diversion was a detour through a bit of the Chianti area as we headed toward Rome. We took the very scenic road from Poggibonsi to Castellina in Chianti (SR429) and then the even-more scenic road from Castellina to Siena (SR222). Very nice! Rolling hills and many picturesque vineyards made the drive very enjoyable. This is fairly close to where we stayed; a daytrip into that area would have been very easy.

    There were a few other towns we wanted to visit, but we lacked the time. Certaldo Alta (very close by) and San Miniato are two that come to mind right now.

    Useful sites:
    Montaione and area:
    Train schedules:

    One small correction to the information above: the rental cost for our villa was 1,970€ for the week. Due to a potential health issue within the traveling party, I took the optional “rescheduling” insurance, which made my cost a bit higher.

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    Eating in Tuscany (and why I have yet to step on the scales at home)

    As mentioned earlier, given the range of tastes in our crowd--young kids who prefer some basics (namely pizza) and mom, who prefers very small vegetarian portions (but not pasta and pizza)--we did not plan this trip to be a culinary adventure. Which is not to say that we ate poorly; we just did not seek out the "best" places or plan our meal stops. Our main meals out where at lunch during our day trips. When the time was right, we surveyed menus wherever we happened to be and picked something that was suitable to everyone. Finding space for eight people was sometimes a bit of a challenge, especially at peak lunch time.

    In San Gimignano, we had some pretty good sandwiches from a bakery on the Via San Giovanni. In Volterra, we had a good lunch at a restaurant/wine bar, Web & Wine, including a local specialty: pappardelle with wild boar sauce. In Siena, it was pizza again, with our party occupying four two-person tables along the street at Pizzeria Quattro Cento. In Florence…you guessed it, pizza; near Santa Croce. The staff’s attention to the boys in their football jerseys (particularly Dida, who is just so cute it’s hard not to notice him) was more memorable than the name of the restaurant. The best lunch out was at Osteria Lucchesi in Lucca. Most of our lunches ranged between 80€ and 110€ for food, wine, sodas, water, etc.

    We ventured into Montaione a couple of times for meals. Our very first evening, right off the plane, was spent at the very casual Pizzeria L’Erasmus. Service was a bit slow, but the pizzas were good. Unfortunately, my order was never taken, but we had more than enough food. More notably, these were the first of many pizzas ordered throughout the trip. In hindsight, I wish I’d counted! I’m pretty sure Podolski, Del Piero and Dida had pizza at least once per day, with the exception of the day we had lunch at Der Pallaro in Rome, when there was no room for anything else.

    Our other local meal was at Carpe Diem, the nicest restaurant in town and recommended by many former guests of our villa. It was okay; the views were nice and the service good.

    It goes without saying that we made stops for gelato every day, beginning on day one.

    Other than that, we ate in, making use of the very nice kitchen and the lovely views from our outdoor patio. We hit the Pam Express supermarket in Montaione just about every day—with special emphasis on the tomatoes, peppers, apples, bananas, pears, grapes, cherries…you get the picture. Is it my imagination, or does the produce taste better here? There was a German brand of green apple juice (that was, by the way, bright green in color) that the kids really liked. And, everyone went nuts for the abbracci biscuits; we consumed about a half dozen bags of them (currently searching Italian specialty stores in our area for them--Barilla Mulino Bianco Abbracci—but not having any luck yet).

    And the wine…good, and very reasonable. Especially our proprietors’ wine!

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    Some final thoughts on our week in Tuscany

    Having had a couple of weeks to think back on it now, I’m not sure I’d change much about our week in Tuscany. Again, we loved the villa and the location. With one week, I might be inclined to take one less day trip and spend a bit more time closer to home; maybe substituting one or two nearby small towns such as Certaldo for a bigger one.

    We did take one “day off” from the excursions in the middle of the week and just hung around, doing laundry, relaxing at the pool, sipping wine, and soaking in the views. Having some down time is essential…after all, this was vacation for the adults. While we enjoyed all of our day trips, the transportation, parking, train schedules, restroom requirements, etc., all add a bit of stress—especially with eight people ranging in age from 3-73. I also think it’s important not to overload the kids on the cultural things. They did extremely well, but they also enjoyed the pool.

    A week seems like plenty of time, but it went too quickly.

    I’m already trying to figure out how I can return ;) With an Internet connection (existing) and a Skype account, and I could actually work from there! What do you say, mr_go??

    I think that's all I have on Tuscany at the moment (as if it isn't enough, already). I'll probably think of something else later, but for now I will get my notes together on Rome and post in the next few days.

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    Sounds like a wonderful time, just as I would imagine!

    I have to admit that I also had pizza just about every day I was in Italy. I am a pizza addict.

    I'll be looking for your Rome report. If possible, please post the link here so I won't miss it. :) Thanks!

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    Thanks, all. Rome is coming, I promise.

    socaltraveler--this was a different sort of trip, but still very enjoyable (except mr_go wasn't there). It was fun seeing younger kids experience these things for the first time.

    LCBoniti, I will continue posting the rest right here. I could go for a pizza right about now; they just aren't quite the same at home (and our pizza in Chicago is quite different).

    Grinisa, if you find the biscuits, let me know. I think we're long overdue for a GTG. I've checked Caputo's, since there's one up the road in South Elgin, but no luck (they did have something similar, but it doesn't have the very important chocolate half). I have a few other places to look around here when I have the chance. I did find a recipe online, so I may put the cook (DD) to work and see what she can produce.

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    What an enjoyable report! Thanks for sharing with us, I will keep this one for sure.

    And your photos!! Excellent.

    Your week reminds me of when I rented nearby your place for two weeks. We still didn't get in all that we would have liked to have seen. It remains a wonderful memory as yours will too, especially with three generations of your family together. What fun. (I loved your toned down descriptions of your mom's "concerns", ha, been there too!)

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    I am barely reading this - - I have always enjoyed reading other people's trip reports much less than I enjoy writing here (anything... trip reports, posts both long and short, you name it)...

    But I want to give a vote of admiration for the general organization and style of this (set of) trip report post(s).

    Good job...

    Best wishes,


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    Thanks for the kind comments, SeaUrchin, TexasAggie, Rex and Sue (and to echo Sue, it's good to see you here, Rex). I'm glad you're enjoying it. I truly enjoy writing these; I do a lot of writing for work, but this is more fun. I do go a bit overboard on the details, but that's in the spirit of (hopefully) being useful to others. I know a lot of us confront the same questions as we're planning.

    Our “home” in Rome: Palazzo Olivia

    We decided upfront to look for an apartment in Rome rather than four hotel rooms, for various reasons—not the least of which were being able to keep parents and kids together and having some kitchen facilities.

    My primary criterion, of course, was location; I wanted a place that would be central enough that we could walk to most sites. After that, I wanted air conditioning (fortunately!) and at least two bathrooms. Laundry would have been nice, but it wasn’t essential. I didn’t think I’d have much trouble finding options, but in the end this took some time as the choices seem to narrow considerably when you get up to eight people. I poured over all sorts of agency sites plus VRBO. I found a couple of options that looked like they might work, but then I read some less-than-stellar reviews of the agency listing them. I was starting to get concerned…

    And then I remembered Palazzo Olivia. It doesn’t have eight-person apartments, but it does have several floors—each with one apartment that sleeps up to six people and one that sleeps up to four. I rented Basilio and Bartolo, the two apartments on the third floor. From the common stairway/elevator area, there’s a big locking wooden door before you get to the two individual apartment doors. We could lock that and then open up the respective unit doors, making it seem almost like one big apartment—so this arrangement also can work well for a larger party.

    Basilio has one bedroom, one bath and a fold-out couch in the living room. Bartolo has two bedrooms, two full baths and a fold-out couch in the living room. Both apartments had nicely stocked kitchens with plenty of utensils, plates, and glasses, as well as a microwave, coffee maker and toaster. Both had ironing equipment and laundry racks, televisions and telephones, and most other conveniences we needed. The building has an elevator, albeit one that only holds 3-4 people, or one person and several bags. We were happy to use the stairs most of the time.

    The main concern I’ve seen in the past is lack of air conditioning. Well, Palazzo Olivia has added air conditioning. There’s a 10€ fee per day for using it, but let me tell you, when it’s pushing 100F outside, it’s worth it! We tried to go without for a few days, but we caved in on day three. We only used the AC in Basilio. Bartolo gets a nice cross breeze, and between that and the ceiling fans it did not feel as warm. In both, it’s helpful to keep the windows and shutters closed during the day when it’s hot outside.

    Now, about that fold-out couch. DD and I shared the one in Basilio, and I was a bit concerned about getting a good night’s sleep—and not just because DD kicks. I was pleasantly surprised; it actually was pretty comfortable. Not quite like my bed at home, but no less comfortable than the twin bed I used in the Montaione house.

    Via dei Leutari is ideally situated, running a short block between Corso Vittorio Emanuele II and Via del Govorno Vecchio—just a couple of minutes from Piazza Navona and about five minutes (if that) from Campo dei Fiori. Access is limited to pedestrians and vespas. This is not to say it is perfectly quiet, but what in central Rome is? We lived through a few loud, late-night conversations on the street, a few sirens on the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, etc. The first few nights we had to sleep with the windows open and it was a little noisy; when we closed the windows and turned on the AC; it was nice and quiet.

    Carla, the proprietor, is very helpful and provided suggestions for laundry, groceries, sightseeing, etc. While she doesn’t live on site, she is in the office there during most weekdays, and she provides contact information so that she’s always reachable.

    I could go on, but I’ll let you read the other details on the website if interested. We were all very happy staying here; it was a perfect property for us and I would definitely stay here again (hopefully, I will; I did throw my coin into the fountain!).

    Cost: 470€ per night. If we’d gone for hotel rooms, I figure we would have spent at least 600€ per night, maybe more, to stay in the center. There was a 70€ cleaning fee due in cash at check-out.

    Now, if only I knew which Fodorite stayed there shortly before us? We found your print-out of Fodor’s “The Best Pizza in Rome” article tucked in a drawer :)

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    Airport transportation: Rome Shuttle Limousine

    We dropped our cars at Fiumicino before heading into the city. This, by the way, was not difficult at all. The rental return is in one of the terminal parking facilities (I forgot which), but it’s well marked. The only hold-up was waiting for an agent to complete the check-in: he was busy dealing with a family picking up a car, and try as they might, they could not make all their stuff fit in it.

    I’ll take a brief moment here to mention that I turned in my car about an hour late (i.e., into another 24-hour period). That was noted on my final invoice, but Europcar did not assess any extra fee. Thank you, Europcar!

    Based on recommendations here, we booked transportation from the airport to Palazzo Olivia with Rome Shuttle Limousine; 60€ for an eight-person van. B/SIL also used them to return to the airport for their flight to London (not sure of the cost, but less). In both cases, the drivers were pleasant and punctual. Office personnel were responsive, both by phone and e-mail. I’m very happy add my name to the list of those who recommend this service.

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    Laundry and packing

    While I’m gearing up to write about what we did and ate, I will make a brief mention of laundry since I’ve seen a few questions about this since I returned. We made a point of packing light (most of us, anyway), so laundry was a must—well, also because everyone was sweating through their clothes in the heat.

    On Carla’s recommendation, we used a laundry service on Vicolo delle Grotte, just off the Campo dei Fiori. I don’t recall the number, but it was most of the way down the street in the direction of the river; look for the “Lavanderia” sign. Cost per load (18k max) was 7€, although really free for us as we had a coupon from Palazzo Olivia. We loaded our laundry into one of the washers and then came back about 1:15 later to find it dry and folded. That was easy!

    Even after attempting to pack light, with the heat I found myself sticking to the lighter colored items in my bag, or about half of what I brought. So for my punishment, aside from having to carry around unused clothing, I will now write 50 times: I will not pack anything black between June 1 and August 31…I will not pack anything black… Seems like I said the same thing two summers ago after our trip to southern France. Why don’t I learn?

    More to come a bit later, and maybe some photos, too.

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    YOur report was GREAT -- and it makes it SO clear why so many "Italy vets" post queries on the Fodor Greece section, asking "What Island to use as a base for seeing Greek isles??"

    In the right Tuscany/Umbria areas, one can easily jump in the car and do 6 or 7 day trips from a "base" without fuss or stress. That does NOT transfer to Greek Isles OR really to to the mainland either.

    In the Isles you can't just go at will, you are tied to ferry schedules --- and embarking and disembarking is much more time- consuming than finding a parking place. On the mainland, the mountainous terrain makes most day trips unfeasible.

    So, Italy-goers, enjoy your "base" strategy but when you plan a GReece trip realize that the only workable strategy is, every few days, pack up and move!

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    Thanks bob and travelerjan. And, travelerjan, I agree based on my very limited experience in Greece. We spent a week on the Peloponnese in March and did not use the base strategy--we moved from Nafplio to Areopolis to Monemvassia, and that worked out great (although we still need to go back to see the other half of the Peloponnese).

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    Thanks, twk. I'm glad our reports have been helpful. Scotland seems like a long time ago, but it has only been four years.

    I've done a little work on some photos from Rome. They're not in any particular order at this point and the captions are not complete (and possibly wrong in some places...), but I'll go ahead and post since I'm a little slow in the writing department.

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    ms go...

    Your photos are magnificent! Are you a professional photographer? I will be going back to Rome at Christmas this year and hope to capture half the number of great pictures you have! Thanks for sharing.

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    What brand/model # GPS did you use on this trip? We're getting ready to purchase one for our upcoming trip to Tuscany. Since yours worked very well, I'd like to know which one it was. Thanks!

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    I've been reading your travel report for a couple of days now, and I really love your writing style and your descriptions of everything! I always love trip reports for all the details(isn't that the point?), so the more details the better!

    I've often seen the Palazzo Olivia site recommended here - did you have to put down a security deposit or make half the payment in advance? Since you worked with the company before, I'm guessing you never had any issues of agents not meeting you at the apartment...which seems to be quite a problems in Rome.

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    Thanks, everyone!

    LowCountryIslander: no, it's just something I enjoy and would like to learn more about and use my trips as an opportunity to practice. Also, I don't do a lot of shopping on our trips; I kind of look at the photos as my primary souvenirs.

    SCFoodie: the GPS is actually my brother's and it was in his car; I was just following in my car most of the time. I believe it's a Garmin Nuvi, but I don't know the model number. I'll try to find out for you.

    Anna: I believe Palazzo Olivia required 50% at booking and the balance 60 days in advance (using PayPal). There was no other security deposit. I did not have previous experience with PO, but had no problems connecting when we arrived. Carla had asked me for an estimate of our arrival time and also provided her mobile number so I could contact her on the way in. I have worked with Summer in Italy (agent for the Tuscany rental) before. In both cases we had no problems; we were provided phone numbers for the owner/proprietor and called about an hour before arrival.

    Most of photos are taken with a Canon Digital Rebel XT, but there may be a few from mr_go's Canon SD630, which also made the trip as my smaller back-up.

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    Hi ms_go!

    Welcome back. I just found your report and haven't had the chance to read more than the first couple of entries, but I can't wait to get to the rest.

    I don't, however, feel that I can enjoy the luxury of reading your report until I get mine up - we returned from Greece 2 weeks ago, but I've been so swamped that I am still working on getting the photos sorted and organizing my notes. I promise to get going with it, but wanted to thank you for your Greece help - we had an amazing trip!

    I'll be following along and promise to start my Greece report in the next few days. :-)

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    Thanks fun4all4 and bfrac.

    fun4all4--I couldn't remember when this summer you were going to Greece. I knew you'd have a fabulous trip, and I can't wait to read about it (and see photos)!

    Rome: our sightseeing principles

    I’ll preface the next part of my report by saying that we decided up front to keep our objectives simple. It takes months to absorb Rome. Plus, we realized by the time we got there that it was going to be very hot and sunny for the duration. Trying to "see it all" in four and a half days is impossible and would lead to as much fatigue as it would enjoyment. Thus, our sightseeing was confined to a relatively small area in the center and the Vatican. We did pre-arrange some things to help in organizing our time, but we planned plenty of time for informal activities, wandering (my favorite part of visiting Rome), and some rest periods in between.

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    Icon Tours, Ancient Rome

    During our last trip to Rome (mr_go, DD and I spent one week, in August 2002) we visited the Roman Forum and the Colosseum on our own, with guidebook in hand and Gladiator as our short-term advance preparation (yes, we’d let the eight-year-old daughter watch Gladiator; insert bad parenting comments here). B/SIL visited about 12 years ago on a tour. Mom remembers looking at the Forum from the Capitoline Hill but not actually walking through (20ish years ago).

    This time, I thought it would be helpful for kids and adults alike to have a little context as we went along, so I looked at various options for small tours, of which there are many. Given the make-up of our group, I passed on the private tours (e.g., Context) in case someone would need to bail out in the middle, but I still wanted something smaller in size and manageable in terms of time and distance. I saw some recommendations here for Icon Tours, which offers a 2.5 hour tour of Ancient Rome departing at 3:45 every day (in summer) from the Vittorio Emanuele II monument. Its maximum group size is around 15, which is about what we had.

    This worked out well for us. Our guide was an American studying in Rome. She took us from the monument, up through the Piazza del Campidoglio, into the Mamertine Prison, through the Roman Forum, and finishing up in the Colosseum—in all, closer to 3.5 hours, as we finished around 7:15. There was a lot to absorb. I wouldn’t say it is completely geared to kids, but Podolski and Del Piero seemed engaged throughout and were talking about some of the things they learned days later; Dida did very well, too, but I’m not sure he was really paying attention. DD, who is always lukewarm on guided tours (she hated our guide in Pompeii a few years ago) gave this a thumbs up. It was very warm, and the guide did a nice job finding shade for us when she stopped to talk, as well as making sure everyone had water.

    Tour fees: 30€ for adults; 25€ for students; kids 11 and under are free. In addition, we paid site entrance fees of 11€ for everyone (except maybe Dida).

    By the way, I booked this tour about two weeks before our trip.

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    Pizza Margherita was invented in 1780 for Queen Margherita of Naples at Brandi Pizzeria

    To view modern-day Brandi Pizzeria visit

    For more shows on Naples visit,
    and click on the Campania button, then select Naples Channel.

    For more shows on all of Italy visit,

    Buon viaggio

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    ms_go, even though I am also just back from our two week vacation in Italy (using some of your Amalfi Coast notes), and even though I am off for the summer and not back to work like you are, I am totally enjoying your report and totally not working on mine. It's great reading, and gives me hope that I might actually be able to venture forth one day without my DH (chick trip in the works maybe).

    For someone above, we have used a Garmin Nuvi (not sure of the model) for our last two trips - it has truly saved our marriage while navigating roads in Italy - maybe this is why we can consider another trip.

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    Thanks, socaltraveler. It was definitely a different experience not traveling with mr_go; we make a great team on the road. But, I've traveled a lot for work, and I've also taken a few trips with my mother over the past few years, so I'm pretty well practiced at this.

    Scavi Tour, Vatican Necropolis

    We really wanted to do this on the last trip, but with the minimum age being 15, it was not possible. Fortunately, DD hit 15 earlier this year, so it was one of my priorities. Back in March, I requested three tickets, knowing that either B or SIL would have to stay with their kids and mom has a thing about confined spaces (which, after visiting, I don’t think would have been an issue). We were granted space on an English tour at 9:30am.

    Much has been written here about this tour, so I won’t go into the details. One of the largest pagan tombs, the Valeri family tomb, has recently undergone a long restoration project, and our group was one of the first to see the completed effort.

    It was a bit warm and humid, but it didn’t strike me as particularly claustrophobia-inducing. Perhaps being there in the morning, before it became too warm, helped? The tour lasted about 90 minutes.

    We thoroughly enjoyed this and learned a lot. Book early!

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    Icon Tours: Divine Inspiration (St. Peter’s, Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel)

    B/SIL wanted to at least introduce their kids to the Vatican. So, after the date/time for our Scavi tour was set, we decided to add an afternoon Vatican tour for all of us. To get the most out of the museum, I really do think you need to spend some time planning your course in advance (we did this the last time we visited Rome). With a little prep time, I would have been happy to map out a route and guide our group through, but the couple of months leading up to this trip were pretty taxing and I simply did not have the time. About a week before we left, I booked this tour with Icon. I got a small discount since we were using them for our Ancient Rome tour, and the length of time—2.5 hours—was about right.

    We met in the middle of St. Peter’s Square after our Scavi tour, had a quick lunch, and then joined the Icon tour at 1pm at the designated meeting point near the entrance to the Vatican Museum.

    In Piazza Navona the night before, we’d just been asking the question: where are all the people? Even around 8-9pm, it seemed relatively quiet. Well, we found them today, in the Vatican Museum. If the crowds had been moderate and manageable to this point on the trip (excluding Pisa), they were not here. I’ve been in the Sistine Chapel three times, and this time, we could barely move. The rest of the museum was pretty crowded as well. Our group was on headsets, which was absolutely essential.

    Nevertheless, I thought the guide did an excellent job in difficult conditions (in addition to the heat and crowds, she had to accommodate one member of the group in a wheelchair, requiring some alternative arrangements due to the many stairs). She selected a very good set of highlights, her delivery was interesting and she kept the group moving. While Dida eventually fell asleep (and his mom had to carry him), his brothers actually stuck right to the guide and seemed to be engaged all the way through.

    We spent about 2.5 hours in the museum and ended at St. Peter's, then we spent some time there on our own afterward.

    Costs: 30€ for adults; 25€ for students; kids 11 and under are free. In addition, we paid site entrance fees of 14€ for all (except the two youngest).

    I booked this about a week before our departure.

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    Wednesday Papal Audience

    SIL requested an invitation through her parish and picked up the tickets the evening before at the Bishops Office for U.S. Visitors to the Vatican (near Trevi Fountain). They were advised to arrive around 8am, although the audience doesn’t begin until 10:30.

    Although we had eight tickets, we determined it was best that mom not go due to the sun exposure and high heat (close to 100F that day). I stayed back with her, and DD, B/SIL and kids left about 7:45am armed with sunscreen, hats, snacks and water bottles. While they arrived early enough to get seats near the front, they chose instead to sit in the back row, which had some shade (not sure how) and a bit more space. It was also right next to the procession path, and they were thrilled that the Pope came within about 10 feet of them (DD has a short video, which I have not yet extracted from the camera and posted). Although it was a miserable day to be in the sun for several hours, they all appreciated the experience.

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    Rome: Other activities

    Those (above) comprised our formal agenda for our time in Rome. The rest of our time was spent in controlled wandering; over the course of our 4.5 days, we visited:

    * The Pantheon, twice actually.

    * Trevi Fountain for an obligatory visit, although we ended up in the area several other times as well. We tossed in our coins and then quickly got away from the crowds.

    * The Spanish Steps, although I really prefer the streets around that area to the steps, themselves. We stayed near here the last time in Rome, at Hotel Mozart on Via dei Greci.

    * Piazza del Popolo, one of my favorite squares in Rome, although there was a very large Red Cross exhibit and stage in place during this visit.

    * Campo dei Fiori; it was very close, and we went there a few times to wander through the market and then on to Piazza Farnese

    * A little dip across the Ponte Sisto into Trastevere

    * Various favorite streets, including Via Giulia and Via dei Coronari

    Needless to say, staying just steps from Piazza Navona, we were there every evening—whether lingering or passing through.

    We had intended to visit Castel Sant’Angelo. Both of our guidebooks indicated it is open until 8pm,with last admission 45 minutes before. We decided to make a short visit in the evening, and timed our arrival for 6:30—just in time to see them hang the big “chiuso” sign on the door. The website clearly does indicate that the ticket office closes at 6:30 and the Castel closes at 7; however, we did not have Internet access while in Rome (aside from one quick trip to an I-cafe to check email) and I failed to look this up before the trip. My bad for relying on a six-year-old Michelin guidebook (although in now checking, my Fodor’s Italy 2008 book also says it’s open until 8, as does the destination guide on this site).

    Dida burst into tears when he found out we wouldn’t be going in. Unfortunately, this was on our last evening, so there was no opportunity for a second chance. We’d enjoyed this on our last trip, so it was a bit of a disappointment. We did get some nice early evening light on the Bernini angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo—one of my favorites in Rome—and now a little extra time to admire them.

    We’re not big shoppers, so we didn’t spent much time doing so—although SIL, DD and I did browse some interesting clothing shops in our neighborhood and SIL and I made a beeline for some Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella products (how could we not; it was five minutes from our apartment!).

    All in all, this was a very manageable agenda for 4.5 days in Rome for a group ranging in age from 4-73. There are, of course, some important sites that we didn’t see this time around, but most of us have on previous trips (Borghese Gallery, Capitoline Museum, Catacombs, etc.).

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    Eating in Rome

    As I sit here contemplating where to have dinner tonight, I thought it would be a good time to write about eating in Rome. And, I'm pretty sure that means we'll end up going out for Italian food :)

    As noted much earlier in this report, we typically looked for restaurants that have pizza, as well as an acceptable vegetarian item for mom. This is not to say that everyone always ate pizza. We enjoyed a variety of pastas, salads, etc., while the pizza eaters got their fill. We happened to be staying in an area that has many choices, so almost all of our dining out took place within a 10-15 minute walk of our apartment. While I did bring along a list of recommendations for Rome, we almost always went with whatever was handy at the time.

    Da Baffetto, about three blocks down Via del Governo Vecchio from our apartment. We tried on our first night, and the line was about 20 deep at 7:15. Certain member(s) of our party don’t do lines at restaurants particularly well, so we came back another night. We arrived about 6:40 (it opens at 6:30) and got the last outdoor table. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I enjoyed my Pizza Capricciosa (with egg) very much. I wasn’t that hungry, but I ate it all, anyway. This was Dida’s birthday dinner. He celebrated with—you guessed it—Pizza Margherita.

    La Montecarlo, close to Da Baffetto, and I believe somehow related to it. This was a lunch stop prior to our walking tour of Ancient Rome. We thought the pizzas here were as good and the service friendly and fun. I had Pizza Fiori di Zucca—zucchini blossoms. Very good! By the way, this was one of our most reasonable meals; somehow, at about 70€, including a meal for everyone, wine, water, etc.

    Ristorante Pizzeria Pasquino, on Piazza Pasquino. We ended up here because Cul de Sac’s menu did not appeal to all and it’s right across the piazza and it had air conditioning. And frankly, it turned out to be just fine on this evening. The meals (some pizza and some pasta) were mostly pretty good and the service was great.

    There were several other meals that were fine but not notable in any way (other than they were still better than a meal out of the same price at home). I didn’t note the names. One was in our area; one was near the Vatican.

    I’ve saved the best for last: our lunch at Der Pallaro. This was on my “must” list, and on our wanderings of the first day we happened to walk by. In my best broken Italian, I confirmed a reservation for lunch several days later with Giovanni (I think that’s his name??). He concluded our conversation by holding up that day’s dessert and asking me to smell. Mmmm. I could have stayed for lunch right then and there.

    Many people here have written about Der Pallaro, so in the interest of length I won’t repeat all of it, other than to say we really felt like we were eating lunch in someone’s home. Giovanni doted on our table, with particular attention to the kids. The food was all delicious—from the lentils and arancini (I can’t believe this is the only time we had them on the trip) appetizers to the crostata di crema and fresh peaches for dessert. Everyone in our group loved it, even mom, who generally doesn’t eat much. I promptly went back to our now-air-conditioned apartment and took a two-hour nap (which I guess I regretted when I couldn’t then fall asleep that night until 2am).

    We used our kitchens for breakfast and for light meals in (we did have a few of these). There are plenty of grocery shopping options within five-ten minutes of Palazzo Olivia, including Di per Di, Di Meglio, Despar and, of course, the fruit market at Campo dei Fiori.

    And, with that, I think I'm done with Rome. It was great to be back there. Hopefully there won't be six years between now and the next visit.

    I will finish up in a few days with Venice, and I promise it won't be as long.

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    No, please make it long! This is a very enjoyable and informative trip report. I love the personal details, if you don't mind writing them I am sure a lot of us are enjoying reading them (the details!)

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    Loved your Rome food report. We stayed on Via Governor del Vecchio last month, at the Navona Gallery Suites, and made a beeline to Da Baffeto our first night, after dropping our bags and taking a shower (long, long flight from the West Coast). We got there shortly after it opened and there were no lines, unlike our last visit. Pizza and jug wine, a perfect touch for our first jet-lagged evening.

    I can see your nephews in their futbol jerseys, too cute, and how great to be in Italy during Euro Cup. My big guy had the best time watching soccer on tv in several cities on our trip.

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    Okay, twist my arm. I'll go for as many details as I can extract from my brain.

    socaltraveler--I was going to comment on Euro 2008 later, but it definitely factored into our trip. We were in France two years ago for the World Cup, too. It's a lot of fun. I could really go Da Baffetto about now, but I am looking forward to a nice Italian meal in a couple of hours.

    On to Venice!

    On our last morning in Rome, we parted ways with B, SIL and the nephews. They headed off to London for five days with family there. Unfortunately I can’t provide a report on their time in London, but I’ve heard that they had a great time—and that the weather was perfect.

    DD, mom and I packed up and headed for Venice.

    Now I have a little confession to make, here. I bought my train tickets in advance from RailEurope. I saw such action referred to in another thread the other day as “naïve.” In my case, I guess you could call it “lazy.” I knew exactly what I was doing and that I was paying a bit extra. But, let’s just say there are occasions where it’s wise to have certain details tied up in advance, and this was just one of them. I had a lot of balls in the air before this trip and a million details to attend to (personally and professionally). So, as I sat in a hotel room in California at midnight about 10 days before departure, I bought the tickets, checked it off the list, and didn’t think about it again until we hopped in our taxi for Roma Termini.

    It’s been a few years since I’ve taken a Eurostar train, and I’d forgotten about one important little tidbit: there are electrical power ports at each seat. Very cool; I plugged in my computer and was actually productive for about four hours. Now, why can't the airlines do this for those of us in steerage?

    I’ve taken the train from Rome to Venice before, and it sure beats flying. This train made only four stops: Florence, Bologna, Padua and Mestre. There were some empty seats from Rome to Florence, but our car was full from that point on. It was a nice, sunny day and the views, for the most part, were enjoyable.

    A few things about luggage and trains and Venice. I was surprised by the capacity of the overhead racks in the Eurostar trains; they hold fairly large bags (provided of course that you can lift them up there). We were able to get our 22” rolling bags plus mom’s expanded 24” rolling bag up with little difficulty. I saw some larger and heavier bags going up around us, although the lifting was sometimes a two-person job. There are also places to stow larger bags between the seats and at the end of each car. Still, you don’t want a gigantic and heavy bag on the train.

    At Venezia St. Lucia station, as I waited for the others to come out of the toilette, I watched four women come off our train and wheel their 10—yes 10!!—30+ inch suitcases (I may not have noticed, except that some of said suitcases were hot pink) through the train station on several luggage carts. Given our struggles to come on the vaparetto with relatively “small” bags, I sure hope they had an alternative mode of transportation.

    I’ll come back to the issue of Venice transportation passes later, but for now I just purchased one-trip tickets to get us to our accommodation near the Zattere (Dorsoduro). Not surprisingly, the boat was packed, and getting ourselves and our bags on and positioned out of the way of the traffic pattern was a bit of a trick. It was 90+F and humid and we were absolutely dripping by the time we made it four stops and off the boat. It was also high tide and the rocking of the boat against the pier made it even more difficult to get off—especially for DD, who was attempting to carry both her own bag and her grandmother’s.

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    I totally agree with you about sometimes it's better to take care of things ahead of time, like tickets, pay a little extra and check them off the list. We did some point to point care transfers this trip, rather than drag our stuff on the Circumvesuviana, knew it would be more expensive, but factored it against the costs of having a rental car and paying for parking for all those days. And in the end we were happy to have the option.

    Yep, Da Baffeto in my dreams.

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    Venice: staying away from the crowds

    On our last trip, we stayed on the Riva degli Schiavoni…in August…surrounded by crowds. In our walks around the city, we enjoyed the relative peace and quiet in the Dorsoduro, and I made a mental note to look into staying here when I returned to Venice.

    For this trip, I didn’t spend too much time looking. I started with one of Venice’s most popular hotels and a Fodor’s favorite, Pensione La Calcina. I inquired about two rooms (double and single) and was offered a double with view and single without for 325€. As an alternative, they offered one of the suites in a nearby building for about 100€ less. The suite is located a block off the Zattere, the waterfront along the Dorsoduro fronting the Giudecca canal. A waterfront location/view wasn’t important, and the suite looked nice from the photos. I decided to take it.

    The Giglio suite is on the second floor (in US terms) of a small building in a residential area about three minutes’ walk from the hotel. I believe the other two units in the building belong to the hotel, as well. Access is down a very narrow walkway and through a small courtyard. Most of those we encountered in the immediate area were locals. The view is basically of nearby buildings and rooftops; no water—nevertheless, we were surprised to look out one morning and see the top three or four levels of a cruise ship over the top of the adjacent building as the ship made its way down the Giudecca canal.

    The suite is very comfortable, with a double bed in the bedroom and a large fold-out couch (again, reasonably comfortable for that sort of thing) in the living room. Curtains can be pulled to close off the living room. The bathroom is reasonably sized. There’s a very small balcony with two chairs (although getting on to it requires opening a window and stepping up. Most importantly for us: air conditioning! There is no kitchen (although several of the other suites do have kitchens), but we squeezed a few things in the minibar refrigerator, and there’s a pot for making coffee. The suite has satellite TV but no Internet access. La Calcina does have free wifi in the lobby for its guests; I hauled my computer over a few times.

    Breakfast is included at the hotel, beginning at 7 in the hotel or 8 in its open, waterfront restaurant. We opted for the latter. The breakfast buffet includes breads, cereal, yogurt, and fruit, as well as cheese/ham plates and omelettes by order at no cost. We found the blood orange juice especially refreshing in the muggy weather.

    The suite feels more like an apartment than a hotel room. We found it very quiet and comfortable and were happy with the decision, location, everything. Add me to the legions here who love La Calcina.

    Cost: 238€ for three, including breakfast

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    Thanks kavey and bob.

    Doge’s Palace Secret Itineraries Tour

    We regretted not doing this last time in Venice and, in fact, we were unable to visit the “new” prisons and the Bridge of Sighs due to wet floors. So, I definitely put the Doge’s Palace and the Secret Itineraries tour on our agenda. Pre-booking the latter is essential. When we went, there was a line for regular admission to the palace, but we skirted right around it to pick up our tickets.

    This tour visits the administrative offices, the secret chancellery (which once stored key documents), the torture room and the “old” jail cells, including the cell from which Casanova escaped—all using some secret passages and doorways (for example, one accessed through what appeared to be an armoire). Many of these rooms are in the upper floors of the palace, right under the roof, so it does get quite steamy in the summer. Along the way, our guide provided context about magistrates were chosen, how tortures were carried out and, of course, exactly how Casanova engineered his escape. The tour lasted about 75 minutes, and we stayed on after to walk through many other parts of the palace, including those we’d missed on the last visit.

    According to my email, I booked in late May, about a month before the visit. I recall that some dates/times were already full or almost sold out. Highly recommended!

    Cost: 48€ for 3 people
    Note: I’m not sure how I ended up there but I booked through the Musei Civici Veneziani site, rather than a broker like Tickitaly and saved about 15€ in booking fees. The site is not as easy to use and some of the pages will be mostly in Italian, but my only problem came when Citibank blocked the transaction. I ended up having to call and pre-approve it and then re-book.

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    ms_go, have we been taking similar trips? Last summer we stayed at La Calcina, but in the main building - breakfast on their canal front dock was one of the highlights of our trip. And since we had not done the Secret Tour either on our first trip, we made sure to do it last year as well. Your description is right on.

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    socaltraveler--I was going to mention this when I get to the rest of my Venice report, but the only thing I liked better than breakfast on the water was early evening at the bar area in front of La Calcina with a glass of wine watching the traffic going up and down the Giudecca Canal.

    Bob, we lucked out this time with a nice sunny day in Burano; last time, it was overcast. Yes, you should go back--but not in the middle of summer.

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    Burano and Torcello

    We took a day trip to Burano and Torcello the last time we were in Venice, and it was such an enjoyable trip that I decided to repeat it on this trip. This time, we had sunny blue skies (important for photographing Burano), whereas last time it was cloudy. This trip also got us away from the crowds for a few hours.

    There are a few points from which you can set out; I chose to use San Zaccaria going and returning. We could have just as easily walked to Fondamenta Nuova; the distance wasn’t much farther, but the potential for getting lost along the way was probably greater, and mom gets nervous when we get lost. I bought 12-hour passes, and we set off. The ride takes about an hour with a stop at the Lido and one other outer location. The boat is bigger than those used right around the center of Venice; sitting in the open air part of the upper deck provides nice views and a nice breeze. This was a Saturday, and we passed many Venetian families taking their private boats out for a day on the water.

    Burano is the small island in the north lagoon known for its brightly colored houses, lace-making tradition (although I think a lot of what is sold there is imported) and leaning bell tower. It must be a bit odd having your house constantly photographed, but I’m sure they’re used to it. There are many shops and a few restaurants. We opted for slices of pizza and gelato while walking. While Burano is small and there were several boatloads of people walking around, it is delightfully peaceful compared to the madness around Piazza San Marco.

    From Burano, it is a very short ride over to Torcello on a smaller vaparetto. For many years, Torcello was home to 20,000+ people; however, little remains from that civilization today. The 12/13 Century mosaics in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta are an absolute must-see (IMHO). This was one of the primary reasons I wanted to come out here again. Some have said the marble armchair across from the basilica is the throne of Attila the Hun, although it is more likely to have been for local church or governmental leaders. There were even fewer people on Torcello; most of them part of two local groups arriving for private events.

    This makes for a very nice change of pace if you're spending a few days in Venice.

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    Venice transportation passes

    Venice transportation is expensive: for example, 6.50€ for a one-way ticket (more if luggage is large); 14€ for a 12-hour pass. It is helpful to consider this in advance and make the right decision up front based on your plans.

    In hindsight, I made a mistake by not purchasing the 36-hour pass right away. My thinking was that we would take a vaparetto to our hotel upon arrival but from there we would more or less walk everywhere. I also assumed we'd take the separate (not covered by the pass) Alilaguna transport back to the airport. Burano/Torcello would be a day-of call depending on the weather (I didn’t want to go if it was cloudy), so I did not assume we were going for sure.

    By the time we'd purchased one-way tickets to the hotel and a day-passes for Burano, however, we’d already spent 20€ per person for transportation. So, needless to say, I was hesitant to buy 14€ passes on the last day when I decided it might be nice to hop over to San Giorgio Maggiore or the Giudecca—so, we did not go, instead spending our time in areas we could reach on foot. Spending 21€ for the 36-hour passes would have been a much better idea.

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    Your photos are great, we took some of the same shots on Burano. I'm re-living our trip and hate for yours to come to an end. We didn't make it to Torcello so one more reason to go back.

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    Thanks, bfrac, I hated to see the trip come to an end, too. But since I didn't take very good notes, going through the process of writing this trip report is helping me remember and document some things.

    The rest of our time in Venice

    I really don’t have a lot more to report, really. We did quite a bit of walking through various areas of the city. Mom thinks she saw every street in Venice; not close, but "most streets in the Dorsoduro" might be accurate. We also spent some time in San Polo and Castello (another of my favorite areas). We peeked at the art in a few churches, such as San Zaccaria; it’s amazing how quiet Campo San Zaccaria can be, as close as it is to San Marco and the Riva degli Schiavoni. DD visited and enjoyed an exhibition of machinery based on Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings in San Barnaba, the deconsecrated church on Campo San Barnaba in the Dorsoduro. Of course, we did a bit of shopping for small glass items and gifts, but I’ve officially had my fill of seeing masks for awhile.

    We took the elevator up the campanile one morning for nice views across the area. We spent a little bit of time in Piazza San Marco, but not much. There’s construction going on there to mix with the crowds of people. We didn’t even go into the basilica on this trip (we’ve all been before, and the lines were long).

    On the subject of construction, Santa Maria della Salute was completely under scaffolding, and some additional construction means that you can’t walk around the tip of the island there. There was some scaffolding on the Doge’s Palace, but not a lot yet. The base of the campanile in Piazza San Marco was surrounded by construction fencing. But the view across to San Giorgio Maggiore was unobstructed; last time I was in Venice, it was covered in scaffolding. As always, there are various cranes across the skyline.

    I had the Peggy Guggenheim museum on my list, but mom doesn’t much care for modern art, so I saved that for another time.

    One thing I’d considered for this trip was the day trip on the Brenta Canal from Venice to Padua, visiting several of the Palladian mansions along the way. Not surprisingly, the heat and humidity was taking its toll, particularly for mom; walking to and fro in Venice was beginning to become a bit of a chore. I kind of wish I’d pursued the Brenta Canal trip. I think mom would have enjoyed it, and it wouldn’t have been as taxing.

    As noted above, ultimately what I enjoyed the most was sitting at a table in front of La Calcina with a chilled glass of vino bianco or vino rosato and watching the endless and varied water traffic on the Giudecca canal.

    Venice and the cruise ships

    Our last trip to Venice was in August 2001 and I frankly don’t remember the influx of cruise ships. I remember large Greek ferries, but not the Royal Caribbean and Norwegian behemoths. I guess they must have been there, but I’m wondering if the numbers have increased since? There seemed to be at least three in port every day.

    For one thing, they are taller than most everything in the city. From Burano, looking across the lagoon, they seem to tower over Venice. What was amazing is that one (RCI Brilliance of the Seas) just sidled right up to the edge of the lagoon, no more than a half mile down the waterfront from the Doge’s Palace. I didn’t realize the water was so deep there. Seeing them glide up the Giudecca Canal was a sight to behold; everyone (including the locals) seemed to stop what they were doing to watch.

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    One small correction above: the pier from which the Burano boats depart is Fondamenta Nove (not Nuova). I should not be allowed to post before finishing my first cup of coffee in the morning.

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    Eating in Venice

    The first thing I should mention is that, aside from a couple of slices consumed while walking in Burano, we had no pizza in Venice. On the other hand, here I was in Venice with two non-seafood eaters. So, my challenge was finding places that satisfied my appetite and theirs.

    By far, my favorite meal was at Ristorante Cantinone Storico at 166 Fondamente Bragadin. It has tables set along a quiet side canal, with ambience to match the food and wine. I did not have this on my list of recommendations; we just happened here because of its convenience to our flat, but now I’ve found various other positive comments. I’d have been tempted to go back on our last evening if we’d been up for a big meal.

    We also had lunch at Trattoria Sempione. Now, I know it’s touristy, but it’s become a bit of a tradition. Mr_go and I stumbled in here in November 1991, cold, wet and tired and enjoyed our meal in the window seat. We’ve had a photo of the restaurant (it’s on a particularly popular photo spot) hanging in our living room ever since, through three moves. It is now double the size that it was in 1991, or on our last visit for that matter. On this particular day, it wasn’t too crowded, and we again got to enjoy the window seat. The food was quite serviceable and not any more expensive than other places around the area.

    Our other regular meal worth noting was at the hotel restaurant, La Piscina, an open-air permanently moored restaurant on the Giudecca Canal. The setting is terrific. I thought my meal, fish ravioli in saffron sauce with peas, was good. DD was lukewarm on her pasta, but she’s pretty picky. Service was very good.

    There was a nice bar just up the Zattere which has good sandwiches and gelato. This, along with some snacks from the Billi grocery nearby, filled our food gaps.

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    Livin’ large: the water taxi

    I had planned to take the convenient Alilaguna water bus from the Zattere to the airport, but unfortunately we found that it started a bit too late to be useful for our 9:40am flight. Our other options generally started with a vaparetto ride; for example, to Piazalle Roma where we could catch a bus. With our sweaty vaparetto arrival still fresh in mind and her difficulties handling her luggage, mom said “no.” She wanted to spring for the 100€ water taxi. Who was I to argue?

    It almost makes you feel like royalty zipping through Venice, across the Grand Canal, through side canals and then across the lagoon at high speed in your own private boat. I may never do this again, so I just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. As we crossed the lagoon on the final approach to the airport, I could see the peaks of the Dolomites off in the distance… very possibly our next destination in Italy.

    And on that high note, our trip was over. I have a few more things to recap here and will do that early in the week.

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    Flying Swiss

    We flew Swiss via Zurich in both directions. Economy is economy, but overall we found this to be a pretty decent experience. DD liked the food better than I did (although the ice cream on the way back was nice). As the airline of the host country of Euro 2008, football was a big deal; even the chocolates that they hand out at the conclusion of each flight were specially prepared round chocolate balls with “football” wrappers.

    We were on A330s for the transatlantic segments. The movie selection is not as varied as on the A340s (and in June, the selections were pretty uninteresting; I watched nothing). But, the A330 has video games, and DD enjoyed many rounds of Tetris in both directions. Service was pretty good and wine is free. Notably, Swiss is one of the only European airlines that I’ve encountered that assigns seats for intra-European flights in advance (at least, for those in economy).

    I’ve become a bit spoiled flying with decent legroom on United (Economy Plus exit rows or bulkheads for most of my flights), so a seat with 32” pitch for nine hours is a bit of a shock to the system. The seat, itself, wasn’t uncomfortable, but it was a bit of a struggle to get to anything in my bag on the floor.

    My only gripe with Swiss is its proprietary reservation system. I prefer to book directly with the airline, and to book an open jaw itinerary with Swiss, you must do so through the call center. And, if you book through the call center, you can’t check your reservation on the Swiss site. Nor can you check it on sites such as Checkmytrip, Viewtrip, etc. (unless, for example, there’s a Lufthansa segment and you get the LH record locator number). I had to call periodically to make sure that seats were intact and that there were no schedule changes. I’ve read that Lufthansa will be integrating Swiss into its reservation system, which is probably a good thing.

    I’ve been to the Zurich airport before, but I’d never connected there. I’ll rate it along with Munich as a good place to connect (with the key difference being immigration, since Switzerland has not yet implemented Schengen procedures). We had about 1:30 on the way over; I wouldn’t call it tons of time but it was a comfortable connection. We had two hours on the way back and that was plenty of time.

    All in all, Swiss is a nice addition to the Star Alliance. I would fly with Swiss again.

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    Hi Ms Go
    We did the Brenta Canal trip from Padua to Venice two years ago. We did enjoy the slow pace and the opportunity to see some of the Palladio Villas. However, even though we only had 3 bags we found them difficult to manage at the first villa. The bus leaves you some distance from the entrance and you have to drag your bags with you to the entrance across loose pebbled surface for a long distance. This meant that we lagged behind the group considerably and missed the introduction to the villa. You then have to drag your bags through the villa to the back where there is a luggage storage and toilets.
    We enjoyed our visit to the villa and the gardens - could have spent some more time there. Then you collect your bags and drag them out across the somewhat busy main road to the boat.
    The cruise through the seven locks and viewing the towns as we passed was very pleasant. You need to pre book and pay for lunch at a restaurant on the canal or take your own or take pot luck in the town at the lunch stop, if you can find anything open. There are a few ice cream shops and cafes but nothing substantial. You do get one spritz drink on the cruise.
    The mosquitos at the last place (Villa Malcontenta) were awful. So much so, that after looking round the grden and the villa (not much to see) everyone wanted to get back on the boat, but the management of the villa had locked us in and it took a long time (pulling on the bell) for someone to put down their mobile phone and come and open up the gate.
    The cruise through the Venetian lagoon was also an experience. The boat arrives just before dusk, so you don't want to be dragging your bags too far or else you will be doing so in the dark (as we did). It is somewhat difficult to read a map in the dark.

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