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September 2011 Trip Report - Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Rome

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Hello folks. First time poster here, and I’m finally getting around to posting information about the 2 week trip we had to Italy (Venice, Florence, Cinque Terre, Rome), back in September. I did a lot of research prior to the trip, and I’m hoping some of this might be useful to others. We – my wife and myself - are not regular travellers to Italy so we won’t have the in-depth knowledge and insight that others here have. For a one-time try at a great vacation though, we did pretty well. What I came up with in preparation for the trip was a compilation of information and ideas from several forums (the most useful one being right here) and books, and for the most part it worked great.

We are in our mid-50’s, and we both do a lot of walking. We used trains to get between cities, but once there we didn’t use public transportation. With just a few exceptions to take a taxi, we walked almost everywhere we went. In both Florence and Rome we took taxis between the train stations and our hotels. We never had any problems finding the taxi stands and were always charged fairly for the trips. For the most part the drivers were helpful and most spoke decent English. I tried what little Italian I know, but I usually got spoken back to in English. Shows how good my Italian is I guess.

We traveled carry-on. We each have a suitcase with backpack straps, and thought that would work well for getting through airports and train stations. It did work fine and I’m glad we did that, it was much easier to get around. It was easy to keep track of the luggage and especially easy to get in and out of trains.

Since we came from the Seattle area, we had several hours of time difference we had to adjust. The schedule we ended up adjusting to had us getting up at 5:30-6:00am and then getting to bed at a reasonable time at night. That didn’t always match up to Italian dinner schedules, but it worked out most of the time. We often went for early morning walks before we even had breakfast, and it was good to be out and around before the crowds.

Trains:
Venice to Florence (purchased about 3 weeks ahead of the trip). €86 for 2 2nd class tickets on one of the fast trains. Trip took about 2 hours.

Florence to Monterosso (purchased day before trip at the Venice train station). €22 for 2 2nd class tickets on regional trains. Trip took about 3.5 hours if I remember correctly, there was about a 45 minute stop in La Spezia to change trains.

Monterosso to Rome (purchased about 3 weeks ahead of the trip). €118 for 2 1st class tickets on one of the fast trains.There was a mini fare at the time that made 1st class tickets about the same price as 2nd class. The trip took about 4.5 hours, including a 50 minute stop to change trains in La Spezia.

Hotels: All the rooms had air-conditioning, and all had breakfast included.
Venice :Hotel Al Piave – This was a great place. Not much more that a 5minute walk to either St. Marks or the Rialto Bridge. The workers were friendly and helpful. Couldn’t ask for anything more. €141 a night.

Florence: Hotel Hermitage – This was the most expensive place we stayed, but it was for just 1 night. I selected this place due to the location and our limited time in Florence. You can look down on the Ponte Vecchio from their roof-top terrace. The place was fine, and the location was great for what we needed. €173 a night.

Monterosso – Manuel’s Guesthouse – A truly memorable spot. An amazing view and really nice folks who run the place. I would love to be able to come back again someday. €120 a night.

Rome – Hotel Smeraldo. An excellent location at a decent price, with a good breakfast included. We had a problem with an electrical buzzing noise in our first room – they did let us change rooms though. By chance I heard somebody else complain to the front desk about that same room the day after we moved so it seems to be a continual problem. If I could find a similar place for the same price I might think about checking it out, but I’m not sure one exists. I would be fine with staying here again, as long as I don’t get room 312. €150 a night.

More information to come...

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    Restaurants:
    We are not really foodies. I actually did a fair amount of research on restaurants before going, but we did not use much of it. We found that the location was far more important to us that the quality of the food. We would much rather eat average food in a nice location outside, than high quality food sitting inside at a nice restaurant. The weather was great so being outside as much as possible was important to us. Lucky for us, we found even the average food in Italy to be just fine. While some meals were better than others, I don’t think we had a bad meal anywhere. We ate decent breakfasts at the hotel, and snacked on pastries, gelato and maybe a pizza slice throughout the day. By about 6pm we were ready for dinner. Sometimes we had to wait awhile to order, but most times our schedule was fine. If we had to wait, doing so with a glass of wine was a perfect way to do it.

    Venice: This was all about location. One dinner was eaten at Accademia Foscarini (I think that’s the name, feel free to correct), which is just on the Dorsoduro side of the Accademia Bridge. A nice view of the Grand Canal from here, along with decent pizzas. I don’t remember the name of the place we ate our other 2 dinners while in Venice. Just after crossing the Rialto Bridge, on the north side of the bridge, take an immediate right and head to the Grand Canal. There is a small plaza there with tables from 3 (I think) small cafés, and we ate at one of these cafes. It was warm for us when we were in Venice, so this small plaza by the water with a slight breeze and a cool drink was the perfect spot. The food was reasonable, and for us, the location was perfect.

    Cinque Terre: The 1 dinner I remember was at the Hotel Belvedere in Monterosso. We both had spaghetti with pesto, and they brought us a platter with enough food for 4 people. It was really good, and we felt guilty letting as much as we did go to waste. We did have a lunch at a small place in Corniglia when we hiked between towns. I don’t remember the name, but I think it was the 2nd place on the left as we arrived from Vernazza – it had some vegetation blocking the tables from the street. We had a really good focaccia bread sandwich and a cold beer. I wish all the hikes I went on had a restaurant along the way.

    Rome: We ate at a few places in the Piazza Navona/Campo de Fiore area that I have seen mentioned, and all were fine. Hostaria Farnese had good food, but it was windy that evening and the small street it was on kind of created a wind tunnel. Not the most enjoyable meal because of the weather, the food was good but not memorable. Navona Notte (just west of Piazza Navona) was really good. Probably our favorite food from the area was at Il Forno, a small bakery/pizza-to-go place next to La Carbonara restaurant in Campo de Fiore. We had a slice of pizza there for 3 different lunches and I can still taste them (I mean that in a good way).

    What we did:
    Venice: See St. Marks, the Doge’s Palace and do a lot of wandering. We tended to get up early in the morning to go out to walk and take pictures, and then go back to our hotel for breakfast. It was interesting to see all the deliveries, etc. that had to be done early in the morning to keep the town running. It was so much easier to walk around then, by 9:30 to 10:00 the St. Marks area was packed.

    I had made reservations ahead of time for 2 different times on different days to go into St. Marks, one of which was at 11:45 when the church is lit up. It definitely saved us time, and at the cost of only €1 a person it was worth it. Due to some art classes, this building was of special interest to my wife. It is truly an amazing building, and it was great to see it. Like so many things, if at all possible, try to get into the church early. It is certainly less crowded, and that includes the terrace area upstairs with the original bronze horses. For you Catholics out there, when we were there, weekday masses were held hourly from 7am – noon. Masses at 9am or before are held in the main altar area. We entered for mass through a door on the north side of the church, just behind where the marble lions are located. Sitting through mass, looking at the mosaics and the altar was inspiring. Also, the 9am mass was only 25 minutes long since they had to rearrange the area before tours started. I had a small backpack with me wherever we went to carry my camera, water bottle, etc., it really isn’t much different from the size a purse might be. We were turned away from St. Marks one of the 3 times we entered. We turned it in at the nearby bag drop they have and were back in just a few minutes, but be aware they do pay attention to what you are carrying with you.

    We took the Secret Itineraries tour of the Doges Palace. I had made reservations ahead of time, and it saved us a long wait. While it was interesting, I would have been fine to have not taken the tour. What was most interesting to me was the part of the building that we could see on our own anyway, not so much what was included in the tour. I don’t regret that we did it, but I wouldn’t go out of the way to take the tour if my time in Venice is extremely limited. Almost every other comment I have seen on the tour has been very positive, I guess different people have different interests. I'm kind of a history buff, so I was surprised I didn't enjoy it more than I did.

    We went to see the Frari church one day, and we also took a gondola ride starting on the canal right next to the church. The gondolier quoted the usual €80 rates, and he gave us a ride through the small canals in that area that lasted about 45-50 minutes. We only encountered 1 other gondola on the ride, and that was so much better than the gondola gridlock we often saw in the St. Marks area. The church was also really interesting. Walking to see the church also caused us to see other areas of Venice that were not very crowded. Seeing Venice when it is not so crowded, either early in the day or just an area that is not covered by the usual tourist crowds gives you a different view of things.

    Florence: We went to do 3 things: See the Accademia & Uffizi museums, and go to the Santa Croce church. We managed to do all 3 just fine. I made reservations ahead of time for the museums through Tickitaly. The official websites for the museums only allowed for reservations between 12:00pm – 4pm, and that was not the time period we wanted to go. I think that we ended up paying about €6-7 per ticket above what the official rate was, not a bad surcharge for getting the times we wanted I guess. Both museums were excellent, and David at the Accademia was great. Just sitting and looking at the statue was amazing. The stand-by lines for both museums were really not very long. I don’t know how long the actual wait times might have been, but in both cases there were probably not more than 20 people in the lines. The time was at 5pm on a Thursday for the Accademia, and 9:30am on a Friday for the Uffizi.

    Having a hotel almost right next to the Uffizi was useful, but probably not necessary. We walked from the hotel to the Accademia at a slow pace in about 15-20 minutes. The main area of Florence that contains the sights we wanted to see was very compact. I wouldn’t worry so much about a specific location in the future, although I’m not sure we will ever go back again anyway.

    Monterosso: Doing this report after the flooding has occurred seems kind of sad. We went to Monterosso to do the hike between towns one day, and to see what we felt like doing the other full day we had there. We did the hike one day and it was just great, but harder than I expected. I don’t think the elevation gain was all that far, but it was mostly up and down steps rather gradual changes on the trail. It wasn’t a bad experience, on the contrary it was a great experience – just a bit harder than I expected. We started in Monterosso and stopped in Vernazza for coffee and a pastry. Then went on to Corniglia where we had a great sandwich and a beer. Then a train to Manarola and the walk to Riomaggiore. We took the boat back to Monterosso which was a great way to head back. This was probably the best day of our entire trip. The next day it rained, so we did some e-mails, got caught up on laundry, took a nap, etc.

    Rome: Where do I start? We had been to Rome for a few days on a previous trip, so some of the things we saw then we didn’t see this time. So if you are wondering why didn’t they go to the Vatican Museum or see the Colosseum, that is why. We did see several churches, walked through the Forum and Palatine Hill, wandered through much of Rome including Trastavere, drank lots of espresso and ate too much gelato (if there is such a thing). We did what most tourists do, I guess. We got to the Forum first thing one morning and there were only a couple people in line in front of us which was great.

    When we first arrived at Termini, we checked our bags and walked to Santa Maria della Vittoria to see Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy sculpture. Wow. Another morning we took what Rick Steves describes as the “Pilgrim Walk”. We went San Giovanniin Laterano > San Clemente > St. Peter in Chains > Santa Pressede > Santa Maria Maggiore. So much history on this walk, but we were most glad of all to visit San Clemente. It is so easy to miss on the outside, but the 3 different levels on the inside are really interesting.

    We went to St. Peters late one afternoon. There was no wait at the metal detectors, and we did see some people turned away because of inappropriate clothing. I have seen it mentioned that going later in the day after most tour groups have left is a good time to go, and that was true in our case. We have been to the Vatican Museums before, so we did not go on this trip.

    About 1800 pictures later, that’s our trip!

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    Thanks for this. Most informative. We will be there in May. I particularly liked the gondola tip and will try this. Last time we visited Venice I had intended to take a ride but viewing them from Ponte Rialto put me off. It was like a freeway (without the blaring hip hop music)! I liked your expression "Gondola Gridlock" :)

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    A few final thoughts:

    Every train we took was on time, almost exactly to the minute. Do not show up late to catch a train!

    To get from the airport to our hotel in Venice we went the shared water taxi route. We thought this might be the best of both worlds: cheaper than taking the taxi on our own but faster and more fun than the vaporetto. Unfortunately for us, our driver saw things differently than we did. We were the only ones going past the Rialto bridge stop, so he made us get out at that stop. While our hotel was about as close to the Rialto Bridge as it was to St Mark’s, all the directions we had to the hotel were from the St. Marks area and that is where we told them we wanted to go. I had no idea we were not going there until we were told we also had to get out while at the Rialto stop. Just looking at a map it makes sense in some ways that this could happen, but when your directions are from a different area it can cause some problems. Just be sure that your expectations match to their plans, their view of the appropriate stop for a hotel might be different than yours.

    We used Romecabs to get from our hotel to the airport in Rome. This is the 2nd time we have used them, and both trips they were on-time and very helpful. I definitely recommend them highly.

    If you are planning on seeing a busy tourist attraction and you can make reservations, do it. We saved lots of waiting time by having reservations ready to go for places we really wanted to see.

    Thanks to everybody who posts on the forum, your information helped a lot with our planning.

    If you have any questions, please ask!

    Next Europe trip in a few years, Paris and the Berner Oberland.

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