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Trip Report Tales from Venice, Bologna, Pienza and Rome

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We are back! After over a year of planning, it’s hard to believe that our trip to Italy is over. We had a fantastic time, in no small part to the help that I received on this forum. So thank you to each of you who took the time to respond to my questions, and to those of you whose trip reports I read and gleaned millions of helpful tips. I found trip reports to be the best source of ideas, so I am writing one in the hopes that I can also be of help to others…and perhaps a few of you will find it entertaining as well. Because travel wouldn’t be the same without a few mishaps!

I am a detailed planner like many of you and also am overly verbose, so if you like details, this is the trip report for you! We spent two weeks in Italy (April 25 – May 10) and visited Venice, Bologna, southern Tuscany, and Rome. In addition to the day-by-day, I will try to give insight into my planning decisions because I found that really helped me to read about others’ experiences. So…let’s get started!

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    INTRO

    Many of you have read this several times when responding to my questions, but to recap: My husband (39) and I (34) are exhausted parents of an almost-2-year-old and wanted to take a big trip prior to having another child. I am fortunate to have wonderful parents who flew across the country to watch my daughter, while the two of us skipped away to Italy. Travel is our biggest hobby (followed closely by food and wine) but our travel has definitely slowed down in the last few years once we became parents. Together and separately, my husband and I have visited many areas of the world, but neither of us had spent much time in Italy. This was my husband’s first trip to Italy (notwithstanding a brief border crossing into the Italian Alps while he was doing the Haute Route), and I only briefly visited Rome, Florence, and Cinque Terre in college…where I did no planning (What? You can’t see the Sistine Chapel on Sunday? Fine…then we’ll just head to Florence…What? You can’t see the David on Monday? etc.) I had a great time on that college trip, but for all intents and purposes, this was a first-timer’s itinerary.

    We travel mostly to experience other cultures, which we find difficult to do when inside a museum all day. So while we certainly hit the biggest sights, we try to build in plenty of time for sitting in cafes and wandering around. For the most part, I succeeded in planning a trip tailored to our interests, though many people might find the items we skipped to be the reasons they traveled to Italy in the first place. You will find that this trip report is light on art museums and heavy on eating and drinking! We also really love to see new places by walking, so we did a lot of walking in each of our destinations.

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    Thanks for the encouragement - I need it! :)

    PRE-TRIP PREP

    I am an obsessive planner and enjoy the planning of my vacations almost as much as taking them. I had originally thought that we would do a pretty standard Rome, Florence, Venice trip, thinking a week would do it. Rome was a must for my husband and I didn’t do it justice the first time around, and I really wanted to see Venice because of how unique it is. We just assumed Florence because isn’t that what you do? But when I inquired on Fodors about places to experience food (one of our priorities), I realized that Emilia-Romagna was a place we shouldn’t miss, although it hadn’t even crossed my mind at the beginning. And after reading trip reports and other posts, I realized the value in mixing in some countryside time. Since we had especially enjoyed our countryside drive during our honeymoon in Spain five years ago, it made sense. My husband hates truffles (blasphemy, I know) so I figured Umbria was out, but southern Tuscany looked great due to our interest in wine and beautiful scenery. But now, I had way too many places that I wanted to go in a week. We were lucky that we were able to extend our trip to two weeks (which got us more bang for our buck out of the cost of plane flights anyway), but we would still need to cut things out. So with the idea that we would return, we dropped Florence as a base (in addition to already having eliminated Pompeii, Cinque Terre, and the Dolomites, which were all early contenders), and settled on Venice, Bologna, Pienza, and Rome over 14 nights.

    My advice – don’t book any plane tickets until you know where you are going, why, and what you want to see in each place. Because once you start looking into things, you might change your mind and you don’t want to make the mistake of booking plane flights that don’t optimize your itinerary. And remember, this is YOUR trip! Just because someone tells you that you can’t possibly miss the David or Pompeii or the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast (all of which well-meaning friends told us), doesn’t mean it’s the trip for you. I hope to visit all of those places some day, but we felt that the itinerary we settled on offered some good variety and fit our specific interests. And I only had to defend our choice of Bologna 50% of the time that someone asked about our trip!

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    MORE PRE-TRIP PREP

    We started thinking seriously about taking this trip one year prior, but booking our plane flights last October sealed the deal ($1250 each on United/Lufthansa). We booked flights from the US into Venice and out of Rome. Open jaw is the way to go (another great tip from this forum), and if you input it correctly on the flight websites, the cost is no different. I kept waiting for a fare sale because we were flexible on our dates, but nothing was happening, and in the end just decided to go ahead and book flights so that I could start planning everything else. Fast forward to January, and I was re-arranging our seats online, and noticed that the last leg from Munich to Venice was no longer part of my itinerary! After a mild panic, I called United and they told me that that leg had been cancelled. They had no options to re-book me within my existing fare code at that time (though assured me that it would be booked eventually once the schedules were re-posted). While on the phone, I was looking up flights on my computer and found better routing that was less expensive! So I asked to cancel; they agreed since my original flight was no longer available. Then I booked the new tickets for $100 less per person! Woo-hoo! Seriously, that never happens. I searched on kayak.com to find the fares, but was routed to vayama.com for booking, which I had never heard of before. But I had no problems with them and everything went smoothly. The new route was still on United/Lufthansa.

    I subscribe to the belief that doing a lot of planning in advance allows you to be more flexible once you arrive at your destination. Having all of the information up front let’s me make decisions on the fly once we are traveling, because I know what the options are or what the unintended consequences might be. I am certainly the planner in our family, so while I got my husband’s input on various decisions, I was pretty much in charge – just the way I like it! I swear he likes it that way too! I wound up with a pretty detailed itinerary where some days were more set in stone and others provided a variety of options depending on what we felt like doing. It was also a major goal to avoid overscheduling. Having a small child means we don’t get much sleep these days, so we wanted to have plenty of time to relax and were willing to sacrifice some sightseeing in order to enjoy afternoon naps and leisurely glasses of wine. And we have learned the hard way that overscheduling does not make a fun vacation, even if you aren’t exhausting from childrearing!

    We are scrimp/splurge travelers. I try to save money in areas that we don’t value (luxury lodging, for example), but will spend a lot of money on a unique experience or a fabulous meal. So you might find it odd that at times, we spent more on dinner than we did on a hotel, but that’s how we like it!

    One other challenge to planning is the exchange rate. How do you budget when you have no idea how the rate will fluctuate? I guess that is something that only overly-in-advance planners have to deal with! I just decided to plan for a 1.3 to 1 exchange rate and hope for the best, which luckily worked out well.

    To research the trip, I used this forum extensively, as well as Slow Trav, Chowhound, and a few other random websites like Ron in Rome and Venice for Visitors. I also checked out numerous guidebooks from the library, and purchased two Rick Steves guidebooks (Italy & Rome) to take with us.

    Okay…I’ve already written a novel, and we haven’t even gotten on the plane! But my next installment will detail the fun of flying during the sequester and our first days in Italy…

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    We started planning our next trip the day after we got home from one! We then kept a guide in the "reading room" for the next months and marked places that looked interesting. We generally had our tickets 4-5 months in advance.

    Eagerly awaiting your next post!

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    THURSDAY, APRIL 25 & FRIDAY, APRIL 26 – FLIGHT/VENICE

    The morning of our departure, I was already receiving notifications that our transatlantic flight (Denver to Frankfurt) was delayed. Hooray for the sequester! It looked like we would probably miss our connecting flight from Frankfurt to Venice. I did hope we would make up time in the air – and it seems like flight times are padded so much these days that if you actually leave on time, you always arrive early. But I knew when I booked our somewhat close connection (just over an hour), that there were several more flights later that day into Venice, so I figured it would work out okay. I emailed our Venice airport transfer and lodging that we expected to arrive late, so that no one would be waiting around for us.

    Our flight from Jackson Hole to Denver departed in the afternoon – great for getting a little more sleep that morning and not feeling rushed so that we could start off on a good note. We had lunch in the airport with a nice view of the Tetons and then our first flight went off without a hitch. We thought it was hilarious that they were making gate announcements to call your congressmen if you were unhappy with the delays. Once we arrived in Denver, as promised, we saw that our next flight was postponed. We spoke to the gate agent who told us that we had a good route and that we should make up a lot of time in the air and should make our connection – great news! So no need to go ahead and book a later connecting flight.

    I hadn’t flown Lufthansa in ages. I had looked up the plane in advance and knew that Lufthansa was retrofitting our type of aircraft with individual TVs in coach, but had only finished about half of the fleet. I had also booked my husband and I on the side of the plane with 3 seats – one on the aisle and one at the window, hoping that no one would book between us and we would get the whole row. As we boarded, we walked through Business Class with bated breath (First Class was upstairs so that we peons didn’t even walk through that section) and ta-da! Individual TVs! We were thrilled because we knew that would make the 9 hour flight pass a lot quicker. We got settled in, remarked on the couple extra inches of legroom compared to a domestic flight, and kept our fingers crossed that no one would join us in our row. Fifteen minutes later we took off with the whole row to ourselves! Our travel luck was tipping in our direction and we weren’t complaining.

    The flight itself was great. Plenty of food and drink and on-demand movies. European airlines are just so much nicer that US airlines. The little things, like offering brandy after dinner, just make it seem special. Of course, my husband feels that it’s necessary to accept every offer of booze – he doesn’t even like brandy but it’s free so why not! I declined except for one small glass of wine; I think he had 5 or 6 drinks. The food was even fine…my husband loved the tiramisu, but he can be pretty easy to please.

    We arrived in Frankfurt and I was feeling good about our potential to make our connection. But Frankfurt is the weirdest airport. I swear we taxied forever and then we got off the plane and had to wait on the tarmac for busses to take us to the terminal. The bus drove circles around the airport, teasing me as we drove right past the announced gate for our connecting flight where I saw our plane still there. By the time the bus got to where it was going and we wound around through various security and passport checks, I knew we were screwed. Oh well. They had already booked us on the next flight, and we just needed to head to the customer service desk to get our new boarding passes. I was bummed that we had to wait four hours because I was hoping to have a little more time in Venice on our arrival day, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it, so chin up!

    Now, you might be thinking, they are in Germany, Germans are known for their efficiency, I’m sure they will be through that customer service line in no time, especially because there are only about 10 people in front of us. You would be thinking wrong. I am not exaggerating when I say that we sat in that line for almost two hours, which especially given the short length of the line, was ridiculous. At one point, we did not move for 30 minutes. Maybe we should have gone ahead and rebooked while we were in Denver. But we made friends with our fellow line-standers and now I was grateful for our 4-hour wait! Once we finally made it to the counter, it took about 2 minutes for us to get our new boarding passes. Shouldn’t there be some kind of express lane for people that just need something quick?

    At this point, we were totally exhausted from our overnight flight, but struggling to stay awake in the hopes that it would help with our jet lag. My husband, who can sleep anywhere, took a catnap on the lounger chairs in the waiting area against my advice, and I tried to read a magazine with glazed-over eyes. (How appropriate that the current issue of Vanity Fair featured an article on Audrey Hepburn’s life in Rome!) I also took the opportunity to go to the ATM to get our first chunk of Euros.

    Our next flight went smoothly and finally – we were in Italy! We arrived on Friday around 6PM, about 5 hours late. This was excellent proof that you should not plan too many things on your first day because you never know what might happen when flying…and all things considered, we didn’t even have that big of a delay.

    It was kind of surreal to actually be in the Venice airport and starting to actually do the things on my long-planned itinerary. But in a good way!

    More soon...

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    Thanks again for all of your encouragement. A newbie like me really appreciates it!

    FRIDAY, APRIL 26 - CONT'D

    We had pre-booked a shared water taxi through Venice Link (27E each).

    http://www.venicelink.com/index.php?page=shop.browse&category_id=10&option=com_virtuemart&Itemid=43&lang=english&vmcchk=1&Itemid=43

    I had wanted to start our trip on a “wow” note and after some spirited discussion on this forum, I decided that a shared water taxi was the best compromise of a wow arrival and our budget. We had considered the Alilaguna and the bus/vaparetto route as well. We walked to the desk, showed them our vouchers, and waited about 20 minutes for the other passengers to gather. We then walked down to the boat dock (my husband was impressed that I knew right where to go because I had even looked up these minor details). I should probably mention here that we did carry-on only, which was the best decision ever. We had no trouble walking to the dock which took less than 10 minutes. There were 3 couples making various stops, and we were the first stop! The weather was dreary and threatening to rain, so we didn’t have the windows or the back sunroof open. So everyone just sat inside and tried to look around (with me occasionally popping my head out the front to take some photos). For that reason, it was a little less “wow” than I had envisioned. But we got to our stop in no time, so for efficiency alone, I think it is a good option.

    We were staying at the Ai Tagliapetra B&B, which I found through this forum, and I would highly recommend it.

    http://www.aitagliapietra.com/

    We paid 100E per night, including breakfast for two. Great location, the owner Lorenzo is friendly and helpful, the room was basic but clean, and most importantly, in expensive Venice, the price was right! We never even considered staying on the mainland – why travel all the way to Italy and then ruin your trip with a bad hotel location? I would much rather sacrifice the level of lodging for a good location. I’m not in Italy to see a hotel; I’m there to walk the backstreets of Venice once the daytrippers have left!

    We called Lorenzo from a payphone at the dock and waited less than 5 minutes for him to meet us. He led us to the hotel, enjoying our first look at the canals and small passageways winding back to our B&B. It was probably around 8PM at that point, so after quickly getting settled in our room, we got a suggestion from Lorenzo for a restaurant around the corner. We sat upstairs and the atmosphere was perfect to feel like we were really in Italy, which still felt surreal. We had a carpaccio and parmesan salad, grilled vegetables, and a pizza with artichoke, ham, and mushroom. You will find, as in this case, that my husband and I usually share everything so that we can try more things. We also ordered red wine – we tried to order a carafe of the house wine, but had some language barrier issues with the waitress. We knew the house white was sparkling and thought she was trying to warn us that the house red was also sparkling. Since I didn’t want that, we ended up ordering the slightly more expensive “named” wines by the glass. In retrospect, I think that she was trying to tell us that the house wine was on tap, which would have been fine with us. Oh well, no big deal. With 3 glasses of wine, a bottle of water, and the ubiquitous coperto (is it coperti when plural?), the bill came to 52E. It was now almost 11pm after a long two days of traveling, and we were more than ready to sleep! Our flight delay had actually made it easier to accomplish my plan of staying awake until a normal bedtime, to help with jetlag. So we walked 10 feet back to our B&B and went to sleep with visions of Venice dancing in our heads!

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    Hi Caze, I have made the same connection in Frankfurt to Venice with no trouble whatsoever, I think you were just unfortunate on that day, sounds like they ran out of gates for your flight plus getting a boarding pass at the understaffed transfer desks in many european airports is always a challenge. What a frustrating start, but I am glad you made it safely to Venice. Why did you have to get a new boarding pass for your connecting flight? I had a similar problem 10 days ago trying to get a boarding pass from the Air France transfer desk in Paris, almost missed my connection. I wished they had self service machines for people who only need boarding passes without having to get out of border passport control. Waiting to read the rest of your reports!

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    Great job, can't wait to read more. You sound so much like me. Question - isn't the water taxi a $100E? If you spit between 3 other couples, wouldn't it have been less? Just wondering if they cost more than I had previously read.

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    Working on the next installment, but wanted to answer your questions.

    DAX - Our transatlantic flight was postponed due to the sequester (not the airline's fault). I don't know the details but something like the number of air traffic controllers was reduced with the budget cuts, so they had to control flight takeoffs. So I knew we were delayed before we even left. That caused me to miss my original connecting flight, and I was put on the next one. Because it was a new flight, I had to get new boarding passes in Frankfurt. But though it was a little annoying to wait in a line that never seemed to move, it was only a little hiccup and we were doing just fine! But self-service machines sound like a much better idea!

    Travelmamana - I can't remember the exact cost, but yes, the private transfer is something like 100E or 120E. However, we didn't know anyone to coordinate with so couldn't have shared the cost. So basically, you are paying a premium to have someone else coordinate a shared trip - but still half the price of a private transfer. I suppose you could stand in the arrivals area and try to flag down a stranger to share with you, but I think that might be difficult (though not impossible).

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    SATURDAY, APRIL 27 – VENICE

    We woke up after a pretty good night’s sleep, around 7:30AM. I was pleasantly surprised that we didn’t have too much trouble with jet lag on this trip – especially because I’m the biggest sleep baby that you have ever met. I need 8-9 hours of sleep per night to be happy, and my husband jokes that I need a sensory deprivation chamber (no light, totally quiet) to fall asleep. But again, the jet lag really wasn’t too bad. We took showers and went to the little breakfast room when breakfast became available at 8:30AM. Nothing too fancy, but I thought it was delicious. Good coffee (the best we had on our trip), scrumptious croissants, rolls, juice, and yogurt. Perfect for what I wanted. We talked to Lorenzo a little bit about how he bought the building about 5 years ago and renovated the whole thing. There are three guest rooms (we had a private bath, not sure about the others), and he lives with his family upstairs in a separate apartment. My husband and I have a number of rental properties so it was interesting hearing about it from a Venetian perspective. I explained that I had heard about him on Fodor’s, which he found intriguing. The power of the internet!

    After breakfast, we headed out about 9AM. We only had 1.5 days in Venice, as it was the destination that got the short end of the stick once we nailed down our itinerary, so we had a lot to accomplish! For reference, our hotel was located in Castello, near the San Zaccaria waterbus stop and about 5 minutes from St. Mark’s Square. It was in quiet area and we appreciated how close we were to major sights, especially because we were there for such a short time.

    My plan for the day was to do a couple of Rick Steves’ self-guided walks, Rick Steves’ Grand Canal vaporetto tour, visit St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace and then get some dinner and visit St. Mark’s Square at night. I wanted to make sure that we left time to “get lost” as well so that we could discover some backstreets. Well, I shouldn’t have bothered planning to get lost, because it was the first thing we checked off our list when we immediately made several wrong turns as we left the hotel. It did make being lost less stressful, because I was thinking to myself “perfect, I had planned to do this later in the day anyway!” And it was really neat…the streets were pretty quiet because there weren’t many people out because it was still early, we saw trashboats picking up trash, and just generally felt like this was more of the “real” Venice. Of course, we wouldn’t realize the significance of the empty streets until later when we fought the throngs around St. Mark’s Square!

    Eventually, we made our way over the Rialto Bridge and to the fish market. I love to cook, so visiting markets is always a treat for me. We took photos of the fish, wondering what it would be like to actually buy cuttlefish or one of the other unusual options and cook it. Sure, there were lots of gawking tourists, but also plenty of locals actually buying fish to make it enjoyable. Then, we headed to the produce market around the corner. Wanting to get in on the action, I used a combination of the three words I know in Italian (I was up to about 20 by the end of our trip!) and hand gestures to purchase a half-pint of strawberries. They turned out to be mediocre at best, but we still enjoyed eating them right by the canal and watching the market.

    We continued walking toward the Frari Church, using good old Rick as a guide. When we got to the Frari Church, we wanted to go in but it turned out that a wedding was about to happen! I actually thought it was great because dressed-up guests were outside and it was a good reminder that real people activities happen in Venice too! (Though for all I know, it was an American tourist getting married there.) The ticket sellers told us that we could go in for 15 minutes now, or come back after noon. We were afraid that we wouldn’t make it back so we decided to do a quick look (3E each). We had downloaded Rick’s audio tour but we didn’t have time for the whole thing. So we skipped around a little, taking in what we could. Some pretty great art that is nice to see in the place it was meant to be showcased. And that’s about all of the art commentary you are getting from me, because I definitely do not have the art education to give further details!! We considered going to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, but my husband wanted to find a bathroom and didn’t want to go inside anything else at that point.

    So the bathroom adventure began. We had planned our self-guided walks a little inefficiently because we wanted to get to the markets first thing, so next on our list was to do Rick’s walk from St. Mark’s Square back to the Rialto Bridge. So I figured that we would just walk towards St. Mark’s Square (the starting point of the next walk), stopping wherever looked good for a bathroom. I was feeling very confident in where I was going, and felt extra cool that we used a traghetto (2E each) to cross the canal. Well, apparently, even those of us who consider themselves good at reading maps and possessing a good sense of direction, are no match for Venice. We wound up heading towards the Accademia bridge instead. And then we saw a sign for a public WC and decided to look for it. But not so simple. The signs did not really direct us to where we needed to go, but rather than give up and just go to a café, order an espresso, and use the bathroom, we decided to be cheap and hold out for a public restroom. Well, after turning in circles a few times and asking directions, we finally figured out that we had to actually cross the Accademia bridge to get to the bathroom. After what was no less than 45 minutes, we triumphantly found the bathroom, only to see that you had to pay 1.5E per person to use it! Lesson learned, just buy the coffee to use the bathroom in the cafe! I also realized at that point, knowing how much water I drink and the resulting consequences, that maybe I should have budgeted more for restroom use on the trip, whether paying for public use or buying coffee to gain access. :)

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    After what was no less than 45 minutes, we triumphantly found the bathroom, only to see that you had to pay 1.5E per person to use it! Lesson learned, just buy the coffee to use the bathroom in the cafe! >>

    you used to be able to buy a vaporetto pass that included use of public toilets but it wasn't much use when there wasn't one in the vicinity. Venice is one of those places where you just have to use the loo at every possible opportunity!

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    SATURDAY, APRIL 27 - CONT'D

    At this point, it was nearing lunch, we felt like we had already walked a million miles (and to think I was worried about gaining weight this trip from overindulging!), and were a little frustrated. Especially because I realized that I had lost our map that had been in my back pocket and we made several more wrong turns without making much progress towards St. Mark’s Square. Serious insider tip: do not walk around Venice without a map! ;)

    So we decided to stop for lunch before doing the next “walk.” Food is always my antidote to travel frustration! We were in a reasonably touristy area, between the Accademia bridge and St. Mark’s Square, but managed to find a somewhat quiet street with a restaurant that had no English menu (a good thing in our book) and specialized in fish. The table next to us was eating what appeared to be sampler platter of seafood, so we pointed to that and also ordered some pasta with tuna and red sauce. My husband wanted a glass of wine but I was going to pass. So my husband tried to order a glass, but we were presented with a carafe instead (his Italian is even worse than mine, if that is possible). Rather than argue with the waiter, I decided to take one for the team and enjoy a glass or two of white wine with lunch – the trials of traveling! Some of the fish was pushing the boundaries of what I like to eat, but my husband was all over it and then we enjoyed the pasta as well. Most fun was that a Norwegian couple sat down next to us and we started chatting. I love meeting random folks along the way. So interesting to meet people and learn why they are traveling and what they do in the rest of their life. I also noticed throughout the trip, that though we were constantly surrounded by tourists, I felt that a smallish percentage was American. In my American-centric world, I found that a little surprising. For some reason, I had expected to see more American tourists than we did, which now seems a little silly. So we wrapped up our enjoyable lunch – with a bottle of water, our total came to 45E. This was also the start of the trend where we would wait forever for a check. And not because we wouldn’t ask. It seemed common that once we received our food, we waited forever to be checked on again…to see if we wanted dessert, the check, etc. Oh well. We weren’t in a hurry!

    Now the crowds were really picking up and on some of the main streets to St. Mark’s Square, we were elbow to elbow. But we carried on and got to the Square. It was still possible to find a little step and enjoy the sights around us. Following Rick’s guide, we walked back towards the Rialto bridge looking at various points of interest along the way.

    We brought an unlocked cell phone with us and wanted to buy a SIM card. I had looked up the location of a Vodafone store that was right next to the Rialto bridge. But once we went over the bridge, I could not locate it. We asked a shopkeeper and she seemed to tell us to go back over the bridge, but I knew that wasn’t right. So with more asking, we eventually found a TIM store – just as good! The woman in the shop spoke English and was very helpful in getting us all set up. Our card had some amount of storage that was plenty since we were just texting and making phone calls (and not using smartphone capabilities) and cost 23E. After that, we started home, where once again, I got confused on what side of the canal we were on. The snaking turns of the Grand Canal really seemed to throw off my sense of direction. So we walked over the bridge and ran smack into the Vodafone store I was originally looking for. Hmmm…maybe I should not assume that I know more than the locals regarding directions!

    We found our way back to St. Mark’s Square (by now, we were getting the hang of things) and wanted to use Rick’s audio tour of the Square itself. At this point, our headphones broke. We had been sharing one pair, so that meant we had nothing. Fortunately, we found a camera shop right on the square, where we overpaid for headphones (18E). Then we did a shortened version of Rick’s tour before heading to the Basilicia for our timed entry at 4:05PM. We reserved online in advance (entry is free, but reservations cost 1.5E each), which was the best suggestion ever! There was a huge line and as I explained to my husband that we would get to walk right in, I think he really started to appreciate all of those hours I spent pouring over Fodor’s threads.

    http://www.venetoinside.com/en/saint_mark_s_basilica/

    We walked in and enjoyed Rick’s audio tour. The Basilica is beautiful and grand, though I’m glad that I saw this one before St. Peter’s in Rome, since that one is even more amazing. At this point, I will say that sharing headphones and walking around like Siamese twins really left something to be desired. I have no idea why we didn’t bring two phones (or another ipod or whatever). I think it just escaped me that we would be able to use the audiotours without having phone capability, so it’s not like we would have had to buy two SIM cards. That is something that I would definitely change for future trips, because we would get annoyed with each other when one person would start walking one direction or turn their head too quickly, ripping the earbud out of the other person’s ear. Oops!

    Next we headed to the Doge’s Palace next door, where I had also prepurchased tickets (16E each) online.

    http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/pianifica-la-tua-visita/tickets/

    Again, we sailed past a large line at the entrance. But once inside, I was confused because everyone was lining up again. Using the mantra that you should never get in a line unless you are sure you know what it’s for, I went around it to see what was going on. Turns out that line was only for a special exhibit that we weren’t interested in seeing, so we skipped past that line too, causing a cascade of people to follow us who realized that they didn’t need to wait either! We walked through the Palace using our guidebook for descriptions. To be honest, I thought it was just okay. I think that was partly because we were tired from walking all day and had a little jet lag, but also because the building itself wasn’t as impressive as some that I had been in. Since it was a “palace,” I expected the building to be really grand. Compared to something like Versailles, it wasn’t at all in my opinion. It was interesting reading about the Council of Ten, seeing the weaponry, and walking through the prison, but for some reason, I wasn’t totally enthralled. I will say that I got totally claustrophobic going over the Bridge of Sighs because everyone was stopping to take photos, and it was so crowded I couldn’t move at one point. Yikes!

    One note: I had planned to see the Square, Basilica, and Palace in the late afternoon in the hopes of missing some crowds, but I don’t think that I was successful. It was great that we skipped the lines, but everything was still pretty crowded. If you had a longer stay, I would follow others’ advice and go first thing in the morning.

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    SATURDAY, APRIL 27 - EVEN MORE!

    It was about 5:30PM at that point so we headed back to the hotel to change clothes and have a few minutes of downtime. The weather had been ominous all day, but so far, had held out. We headed out with a plan to barhop and eat cichetti, instead of having a sitdown meal. We walked towards the Rialto Bridge area and were trying to use some Rick Steve’s suggestions. We found one in a back alley that was perfect. We got some wine, ate a plate of delicious meats and cheese, and sat outside, happy to be in Venice! It started to drizzle, but we had an umbrella, so we braved on, trying to navigate to the next suggested place. Eventually, we found it and it was a younger scene, with beer for 1E and wine for 1.5E! We grabbed drinks and a couple of bites to eat and stood outside under a covering with college-age kids. We were enjoying people-watching, and my husband went for a second drink to take advantage of the prices. At this point, it started to rain a little harder, and I wondered what I was thinking when I chose to put on a too-long maxi skirt and flip-flops. Between holding up my skirt, holding the umbrella and trying to navigate, it wasn’t working, so we bagged the recommendations and just looked for places on our own. We stopped at another couple of places for drinks and food, and while not quite as interesting as the first two places, we were happy.

    Feeling satisfied with our pub crawl, we headed back to St. Mark’s Square hoping to catch the “orchestras.” I would call these quintets or small ensembles, but that is beside the point, I suppose. The rain had definitely put a damper on things because many of the groups were not playing and of the two that were, they were facing the buildings and playing towards tiny crowds. My husband really wanted to sit and get a drink, and I explained that it was very expensive. In his inebriated state, he decided that it was worth it, so we sat down at Café Florian, ordered one drink for him and a dessert and enjoyed the music for a bit. We sat inside but the windows were open to the music. After 20 minutes or so, we were caving to exhaustion, so we got the bill. I think it was only then that my husband really understood what I meant about the prices, because for our one drink and dessert (plus the 6E each cover charge), the bill came to 48E! We laughed about it the next day. Part of the experience!

    We had a fantastic, if exhausting, day. Because of our short time in Venice, it was scheduled as one of our busier days and was easier to manage mentally because we knew that our trip schedule took on a slower pace the longer it went on. Tomorrow, we would finish off our Venice sightseeing and then head to Bologna…

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    Caze: I was cringing when I read your decision to sit at Cafe Florian! I have heard worse traps in Italy costing hundreds for a couple of drinks.

    Willowjane: your husband will feel better if you tell him that a couple years ago Venice passed a law forbidding people to drink from their own bottled water inside the St Mark square (for trash reasons), police were handing off tickets to unsuspecting tourists who drank their own bottled water while sitting/walking inside the square when the law was just passed.

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    caze, i wonder if you are the child i gave away when she was born. nice to find someone who plans as obsessively as i do but is flexible enough to deal w/ break downs.

    i differ from you in that since i feel any dining space i walk into that has no trilingual picture menus will give me a good meal, i splurge on lodging. but hey i'm an architect, living in a self designed and built house.

    the best meal i've had in italy hands down was about @ emotional break down time 3;30 pm, near starvation. my ex and i walked into a cafe and had freah gnocchi con crema and insalata mista , i've ever had. pre euro probably L20,000 = 10/11 $C.

    as far as i'm concerned i can be happy anywhere in italy: venezia is my favourite one of a kind; sicilia ; italy @v40% off cmplete w/ active volcanos. the lakes one of the most stunning landscapes in the world w/ an ideal climate. i'm a ferry slut: love being on the water..
    great movie "il megio d'gioventud' " 6 hours of italy 1950- 2000+/-.

    dolce fa niente literally sweet doing nothing sums up the experience.

    i speak decent italian: couple of community college classes; 2 two week stints @ language school in florence. think of it as vacation w/ college credit has opened some amazing doors as in meeting a principessa veronese @ her daughter's palladian villa and invited to lunch the next day at the old palazzo, because her travel wet dream is the pyramids of mexico which i've visited often. great pay back eh

    i learned in my 50's mainly , it would be a laugh for you if you want even greater access to that food. maybe you did but if you didn't a stay @ an agriturismo can sometimes be like your private restaurant

    looking forward to more

    ciao bella
    AndrewDavid

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    Thanks for reading along everyone!

    Willowjane - I would NOT recommend Cafe Florian. In my opinion, it was a total ripoff and not even that cool. We only even considered it because it was raining. Assuming the weather was nice, I would recommend just hanging out in the Square and doing some dancing on your own! If I wanted to overpay for a drink, I would probably rather get a bellini at Harry's Bar, not that I would recommend that either.

    Pepper - Good tip about bathrooms at Scuola San Rocco. We asked about bathrooms at the Frari Church and they had none, so didn't even think about that option. And yes, we thought about bars, but thought we were being clever to use the public toilets since we had seen WC signs in various people. I was wrong!

    AndrewDavid - love your comments and stories! The Lakes is definitely high on our list, especially because we love the outdoors and nature. And yes, I think I can enjoy almost anyplace. It's what you make of it!

    Will try to post another installment in the morning...

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    SUNDAY, APRIL 28 – VENICE/BOLOGNA

    Our last day in Venice and I guess the day really started at 1AM for me, when I woke up wide awake after sleeping for three hours. I tossed and turned in bed for almost two hours trying to go back to sleep, but eventually gave up. I sat on the floor of our bathroom, taking the opportunity to jot down trip notes and read a book (Unbroken – totally recommend it!). After another two hours, I went back to bed and successfully fell asleep around 5AM and slept until about 8AM. Not ideal, but I managed. After another great breakfast, we got all packed up and checked out of the hotel. We were able to leave our luggage with Lorenzo, and we headed to the vaporetto stop at the Rialto bridge.

    I hadn’t planned much for this morning, knowing we might not get to everything yesterday, so now we were going to try Rick Steves’ Grand Canal vaporetto tour. We bought 12-hour vaporetto passes (18E each) because we also planned to use the vaporetto later that day to get to the train station. We took the fast line up the canal to the Piazzale Roma bus station stop where we got off. This is the first stop on the slow line back down the canal, and we wanted to be sure that we got seats up front. There was quite a line to board the next vaporetto that arrived, so we just pulled back and let it go so that we were first in the line for the next one. We were thrilled when the “old style” pulled up next that still has the seats up front (and after our experience, I would say keep waiting until the old style does come). Since we were first in line, we beelined it to the front seats and had perfect views for our little tour. We were also insulated from the jostling of people getting on and off at each stop. We had perfect weather, and listening to the descriptions while peacefully cruising down the canal was magical. My husband said that the trip felt timeless, as though it could have happened years ago because the buildings haven’t changed much. Truly a highlight of our trip.

    Side note: the podcast described the Guggenheim Museum as we rode past and we both felt a little regret that we hadn’t seen it. We love modern art and didn’t get any throughout our trip, plus it seemed cool that Peggy had actually lived in the building. For me, I might have swapped the Doges Palace for it if I did it again. But not a big deal…something to see next time!

    After our cruise, we were approaching lunchtime and I was eager to get to Dorsoduro and away from the crowds. We took the vaporetto back to that area and found a restaurant with outdoor seating. Just pasta and pizza, but my pesto spaghetti was excellent and my husband enjoyed his margherita pizza. We loved watching the local kids play soccer and frisbee in the square. The weather was great and it had been a fantastic day so far! With one beer, a bottle of water and the coperto, the cost of lunch was 29E. I decided to get my first gelato of the trip (2.5E) and then we took off in the hopes of metaphorically getting lost. We wandered the backstreets of Dorsoduro, eating gelato and enjoying the fact that we saw virtually no one.

    After awhile, we knew we needed to start heading back to our hotel to pick up our luggage. Of course, then I literally got a little lost and wound up near the cruise ship area, but eventually we found our way back to a vaporetto stop. We cruised back to San Zaccaria and walked through the hordes of people one last time back to our hotel. We grabbed our luggage, said a fond farewell to Lorenzo, and went back to the vaporetto stop. We took the 5.2 line that goes around the island to the train station. I hightailed it to the bathroom (1E – which actually turned out to be the last time we paid for a bathroom) and we got on our regional train to Bologna at 3:50PM.

    Venice was great. A perfect way to work off jetlag and such a unique place. Today really made it for us; if we had only had our busy day yesterday, I might have felt pretty mediocre about it. So it just proves that (at least for me) the best thing about Venice is simply wandering around without too much of an agenda. That and a great cruise down the Grand Canal! That said, I don’t know that I needed to spend too much additional time there. For us, I think our schedule/timing worked out well. The only other thing I would have liked to do was visit the lagoon islands, particularly Torcello for a hike. Next time!

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    2 right: if u don't see it on your first visit you can see it when u return sometime. the architectural and art biennales are an interesting time to visit. torcello ( as in murano, burano, torcello) is a peacefule beautiful place.

    have you come across donna leone's guido brunelli detective series, accurately described venice and venetions are the backdrop to the stories

    dolce fa niente
    AndrewDavid

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    Great report, caze. I'm very interested in your impression of Bologna. Somehow the city has eluded me. We'll be in Italy this September and might add Bologna to the list.

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    Thanks for the tip! I am really enjoying your report. I can't wait to hear of Bologna as I have a nephew going in a few weeks for a "film studies" program for June and July.

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    Glad so many of you are interested in hearing about Bologna because that is up next!

    SUNDAY, APRIL 28 - CONT'D

    So we were on our train to Bologna, which was about a 2 hour trip. We could have taken a faster train (advanced fares for that were only 9E!), but the schedule didn’t work with our plans for the day. I figured that an extra half hour on the train was worth it to maximize our time in Venice but still get to Bologna in time for dinner. Because we took a regional train, the tickets weren’t available for purchase until 7 days before. So I waited and then bought 2 tickets online for 10.50E each. I couldn’t believe how cheap the train travel was! Or what a pain the Trenitalia site was, even in English! It took three tries for me to achieve success. For other newbies, note that you need to create a user account before you purchase your tickets. My credit card did work fine, though.

    It was an easy train ride with more Unbroken reading on my part and my husband snoozing since he can fall asleep anywhere – a nice, relaxing break. We arrived in Bologna about 6PM and walked 10 minutes to our hotel. To compliment myself, all of the detailed logistics planning really paid off. I had printed out google maps of everything, including small details like how to walk from the train station to our hotel, and that really prevented a lot of frustration. Right away, we liked the feel of being in a decent-size city – though we live in the mountains, we are definitely city people, too!

    We stayed at the I Portici Hotel which was on Via dell’Indipendenza about a 10 minute walk from Piazza Maggiore.

    http://www.iporticihotel.com/

    I think that I originally found this hotel when it was recommended in a New York Times article. I liked the look of the hotel and emailed them for a rate quote since of course, I was planning too far in advance for the rates to be listed on the website! They came back with a rate of 120E per night with breakfast for 2, plus the city tax of 4E per person per day. I emailed back that I wanted a rate without breakfast, not trying to negotiate, just trying to get the “no breakfast” rate. What a pleasant surprise when they emailed back with a new rate that was 85E per night and the city tax had also mysteriously dropped to 2.5E. That made the hotel within our budget (my goal was an average of $120/night throughout the trip which we succeeded in doing), so I booked right away. Frankly, this was a much nicer hotel than we usually stay in, so I was thrilled to get such a good rate!

    When we checked in, they said that they upgraded us to a bigger corner room which was also a nice surprise. The room was great – corner room, high ceilings, chic furniture, coffee maker. Italians don’t seem to like bathroom counter space, though, because it was hard to come by on our trip! It was also a room where you had to leave your key card in a slot in order to keep the lights on. This is a great idea to save electricity, except that we weren’t able to charge our kindle and laptop when we weren’t in the room which was a little annoying. While we are on the subject, we brought our new Chromebook with us and it was awesome to have. Super cheap (I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials for $249) so we weren’t too worried about it getting stolen or lost, small and lightweight, and the best thing was being able to look up last minute directions or restaurant recommendations or whatnot. Everywhere we stayed had free wifi. Two other notes on the hotel: The concierge was very helpful and made several restaurant reservations for me prior to our arrival. The street noise was a little loud, so I would recommend earplugs if noise bothers you or request a room that doesn’t face the main street.

    As I mentioned before, we came to the region because we love food. I did a lot of research and decided that I wanted to do a one-day cooking class and visit some of the factories that produce the famous local products. Once I found the class and tour I wanted to do, I decided it was best to base in Bologna for logistical reasons, even though I had heard that the restaurants in the city were past their heyday. Many say that you need to venture out of the city for the region’s best. I spent hours researching on Chowhound, TripAdvisor, Fodors, etc to choose restaurants, always knowing in the back of my mind that we shouldn’t necessarily expect mind-blowing meals.

    Unfortunately, I was right. (But have no fear, that comes in Rome!)

    Today was a Sunday, so it was difficult to find a restaurant open. But of the limited options, we settled on Ristorante dal Nello at Montegrappa.

    http://www.ristorantedanello.com

    I put on one of my “Euro” outfits for the first time and we walked about 10 minutes to the restaurant. In my broken Italian, I told the host that we had an 8PM reservation (prenotazione was one of the 20 words I learned during the trip!). He offered us either outdoor or indoor seating, but since the weather was a little iffy, we sat inside. He led us downstairs into a brightly lit, but cozy room. We had a really fun waiter and with his help, ordered a bottle of red wine. It was delicious so our meal was off to a good start. Since we like to share everything, my husband ordered for both of us – polenta with mushrooms, lasagna verde, and veal Bolognese. My husband really confused the waiter and the waiter got the impression that we wanted everything at once, but really we would have preferred at least the polenta to come first. We learned that for future meals, we would just each order something and worry about sharing once it came to the table.

    We received the food, and I would say that it was good. Totally fine. Just not “I specifically chose this destination to eat well” good. Again, I was glad that I had lowered my expectations a bit as far as the restaurants went because that allowed me to enjoy the meal without feeling disappointed. If I love something, I will find room in my stomach, and in this case, I was happy to take very reasonably-sized portions and leave it at that. We opted for the cheese plate for dessert which was quite good. With one espresso for my husband, a bottle of water, and the coperto, the cost was 75E. Don’t worry – our food tour and cooking class were phenomenal and we loved the city itself, so Bologna was a hit! Just be careful of your plan hinging on restaurant meals.

    After dinner, we headed back to the hotel since we had an early wakeup the next morning for our food factory tour. All in all, a great day – to think it started all the way back with a Grand Canal tour in Venice!

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    hi caze - love the hotel - what a great rate! I see that the restaurant has a michelin star - did you eat there? their tasting menu starts with an artichoke which I would find difficult to resist - anything featuring artichokes is fine by me.

    shame about your first restaurant - i couldn't read the menu as I couldn't get it big enough to read! but the specials looked good.

    looking forward to more!

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    grazie caze...this report is perfect for me...
    my style of travel and I will be traveling to Venice, Southern Tuscany and Rome in about 3 weeks(my first time to Italy).
    I made by reservation to St Marks using your link.
    We will be going to the Guggenheim-sounds like I made the right call.
    Thanks for the tips on the Grand Canal tour.
    Looking forward to more of your report.

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    annhg,

    I've eaten at I Portici and I'd be very surprised if it still has a michelin star. In general, I don't care for michelin-starred food in Italy, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of this kind of restaurant, but I can think of half a dozen better places to eat in Bologna, and where the decor isn't so spare as to make the room feel unfurnished. I also did not care for my meal at da Nello (where caze17 ate, although I think in autumn, they might do better because they specialize in mushrooms). Artichokes are seasonal in Italy, and the season varies from north to south, but it is good to find out if it is artichoke season in the locale where you are before ordering artichokes.

    Many of Bologna's restaurants rely heavily on business travel diners, and the food tends to be safe and uninteresting, rather bland menus. The other big group for dining out are students, and they tend to eat food that is not good but just cheap. The thing to remember in Bologna is that one should only eat when one is truly very hungry, and as much as possible, sample the city's unique pasta dishes. Everything else on a Bolognese restaurant menu is often ho-hum, but the pastas are crazy good, and most are generally unavailable elsewhere.

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    I presume you tolerated the street noise due to the corner room upgrade? I Portici is known for their noisy rooms in the front. You were fortunate that they didn't have a late night party inside the hotel, otherwise it would really sound like party central, the music could get so loud that one could dance to the beat a block away on weekend nights.

    I agree with you & Stevewith, unfortunately food in Bologna has become rather stale & boring, totally lacking in creativity, but all the old restaurants don't have to try hard anymore since they are relying mostly on tourist crowd who come to eat only once anyway. I wished they would at least give a bit more presentation effort instead of just plopping everything on their tired old plates. That said food is still edible and comparatively better quality/price ratio than in Rome in general. I also appreciate the friendly personable service that I received anywhere I ate in Bologna. I thought I was smart to avoid Da Nello, but I only ended up in other tourist trap restaurants. Oh well, as you said, we'd enjoy everything more if we just lower our expectations. Can't wait to find out where else you ate after Da Nello.

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    Cant wait to hear more! Planning a trip summer 2014 with 18 year old and 16 year sons. All four of us first time to Italy! Friends traveled to Pienza hoping to spend some time there.

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    Love the trip report so far! Planning my first ever trip to Italy and this was a great way to gain some helpful tips and insight! I am also the planner in my family! Great report!!

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    Just to be clear, I personally am not interested in creativity in Bolognese restaurants, nor do I care much about presentation. Most great Bolognese pasta dishes are not fashion plates, but very homely to look at. Passatelli in brodo, lasagne al verde, gramigna alla salsiccia (curly pasta tubes with a bit of sausage and cream), tortelloni al gorganzola, tagliatelle in a tomato sauce with onions (no meat) are dishes I could eat over and over and over again without wanting anything creative, and plain white serving dish is fine.

    But many of the business restaurants at a middling price point have a stuffy atmosphere and serve rather predictable versions of these dishes. They lack the personal quirks that the smaller family run places have when they hand roll their own pasta using their family secrets, and cook it just right. But whose pasta you prefer is rather subjective after a certain point, and if you've only got one or two meals there, you can't conduct much of a search.

    By and large, most people don't go to Bologna to eat or explore the food scene, despite what they say, They go because of the rail connections, and spend almost every day outside the city, returning only for dinner, often after they have spent the entire day eating a lot in places like Parma or on food tours. Because they are tired, they pick middle price restaurants with table cloths that are close to the hotel areas for dinner. Most of these places offer serviceable food, but that is it.

    if you want to spend a lot of time exploring food in Italy, Bologna is hardly the only choice, and depending on what you like to eat, Naples or Padova or Milan might give you more exciting food. But if you do go to Bologna to explore food, go to the fresh food markets and sample some of the raw food, buy some herbs to nibble, experience the quality. Check out the mostarda, either in jars to take home or in baked goods , visit the chocolate makers, the pasta makers. And for dining, go to more than one place serving handmade pasta and try a variety of local historic pasta dishes.

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    Sorry, but one more thing I keep meaning to say (and I don't mean to interrupt this trip report) but Caffe Florian serves spectacular espresso, and you can drink it at their bar for a nominal cost. If you like coffee, it is an outstanding brew, of extremely high quality and well made.

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    Very enjoyable TR, caze17.

    DH and I lucked into one of those family places in Bologna on our last night and had a really special meal. Not to mention that everyone had an arm out to catch the grand dad as he shuffled, wobbling, from the front of resto to the kitchen. In the few hours we spent eating there, he made 3 successful trips.

    More, please.

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    Interesting discussion you all are having on Bologna’s restaurants – good opinions for future travelers!

    @annhig: We did not eat at the I Portici restaurant. I read mixed reviews and decided against it, though I don’t remember the particulars of why at this point.

    @DAX: I wasn’t aware of the noisy reputation of our hotel, or I would have made a room request at check-in. I didn’t notice the noise until after we were settled in, so I decided it wasn’t worth it to move at that point. I had my trusty earplugs and my husband can sleep through anything so it worked out fine. In regards to the food presentation “plopping,” we had the same complaint by the time we left the city! But like you, we found reasonable prices almost everywhere and very friendly service.

    @eastave: I can’t believe that did not occur to me. Great tip for other travelers!

    @stevewith: I agree on all points. Great observations.

    Thanks to all for reading along!

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    MONDAY, APRIL 29 – BOLOGNA

    At this point, we were really getting into the groove of our vacation after two great days. We hoped it would continue as today was our food factory tour with Alessandro of Italian Days.

    http://www.italiandays.it/

    We woke up at 6:30AM, threw on some clothes and ran across the street to an open cafe to get a quick Americano and croissant for each of us to go (4E – so cheap compared to Starbucks or our local places). I swear the guy helping us sighed at my order – an Americano “va portar via” – so unItalian! We headed back to the hotel, where we were picked up at 7:10AM.

    I first learned about this tour on these boards from Low Country Islander. (Major thanks to her for documenting her travels to Bologna, and whether she knows it or not, I heavily plagiarized many portions of her trip!) Doing follow-up research on the tour, it seemed like something that would definitely interest us, so we booked it. (145E each)

    This tour was a great way to see the factories that produce the specialties of the region in a seamless way. You could certainly try to arrange these factory tours on your own, but I appreciated that the logistics were taken care of and that we had a personal guide. Alessandro is a hoot! He is knowledgeable and passionate about food and it really shows through during the tour.

    We were picked up in a minivan with others in the group. We drove about 30 minutes out to the countryside and met up with another minivan of folks (12 total were on the tour) at a parmigiano reggiano factory. The tour started so early to give you the opportunity to see the fresh milk being added to the vats, allowing you to actually see the cheese-making process. We were all a little groggy, but it was fascinating learning about the craft. And viewing the storage facility for aging was amazing – ceiling high rows of giant cheese wheels! If you are not interested in the actual production process, you may be a little bored in parts, but once you start the tasting, you should be fine. We tasted a few different types of parmigiano reggiano, and were also offered little sandwiches and lambrusco. Why not have wine at 8:30AM?!

    Next, we went to an estate where they made balsamic vinegar in the attic. For all of these products, learning about the regulations involved in qualifying something as DOP was incredible. You would not believe the detail involved! This was my favorite tasting that we did. We started with the type of balsamic vinegar that you probably have at home – which of course, we learned did not even resemble real balsamic vinegar. Tasting a few drops of that on its own was brutal. We then progressed through the various levels of the real stuff – all the way up to one that was about 50 years old and was as thick as honey. Then we tried the good stuff on ricotta and gelato. Amazing! Once you learn about the painstaking process, you don’t think the prices are unreasonable at all.

    Lastly, we went to a prosciutto factory. The smell was a little overwhelming, but I certainly loved the tasting. I did wish that I had brought a sweater because going into the meat lockers was no joke!

    Alessandro’s longtime girlfriend is German, so he liked to make jokes at their expense. A couple of times, Alessandro joked about German time (punctual) versus Italian time (always late and longer than you say), but I wanted to tell him – hey, I was just in the Frankfurt airport and Germans seem to be taking cues from the Italians now! He also said that they used to do the tours in German, but the German tourists would never laugh and joke like on the English-speaking tours, so they stopped because it was no fun.

    At every location, we were offered the opportunity to purchase the products, but certainly not pressured into it. We bought two 1lb wedges of cheese (I think they were 13E each), one for my parents as a gift for watching my daughter, and one for us to enjoy during the rest of our trip. We passed on vinegar due to liquid restrictions in carryons, and you can’t bring meats home at all, so no one purchased there.

    There were a few moments where the explanations got a little longer than my ADD-generation-brain liked, and my back (young but traumatized from carrying my daughter around) was hurting from standing in one place so long. But those small complaints were completely outweighed by the benefits. Especially because we were about to have an unforgettable lunch!

    We drove to a restaurant still in the countryside – though I have no idea where or what it is called. I *think* that we were in the Modena area. Unfortunately, the weather was drizzly and we could not sit outside, so we took one big inside table. We started with a platter of delicious sliced meats, followed by three pasta courses and then veal cheeks. We finished off with several desserts to try. The food was incredible, though my viewpoint might have been a little skewed by the copious wine and the good company. We really enjoyed speaking to our fellow tourmates; again, always a treat to meet new people from all walks of life. An older couple that we clicked with asked if we wanted to get dinner or drinks later that night, and we gladly agreed so we exchanged cards. At this point, I felt that we had more than gotten our money’s worth between transportation from Bologna, three factory visits with Alessandro as our personal guide, tastings at each location, and an abundant lunch with great company.

    We were such a gabby group that we took an extra long time at lunch and didn’t wind up back at our hotel until 4:30 (usual is 3:30). My husband and I were tired from getting up so early and completely stuffed, so we immediately crashed once we got back to our room. We slept until a little after 6PM, then did a little bit of reading, showered, and met our new friends for a drink about 8:15PM at a bar off of Piazza Maggiore. We were all so full from our late lunch that we split a small plate of bruschetta and that was it for food. They were great to chat with and we were glad that we met up.

    We walked back to the hotel about 10:30PM, and my husband decided to run out to a market for a bottle of wine, some beer, and a snack, which we enjoyed in bed. We went to sleep a little after midnight, having had a wonderful day!

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    @DAX - I'm looking at the package of cheese and it appears to be named Spilambertese. Its phone # is 059 798759. I don't know if tours are offered to the public at that particular factory, but I'm under the impression that you can certainly tour some of the factories on your own.

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    Thanks, it's good to have the name & number just in case. We're going back to take our friends in Sept, our agenda is already full, but who knows. Many of the Parmesan factories were severly damaged during the horrible earthquake when I was there last May.

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    Love reading the report! All the details are fantastic. Never met a long trip report I haven't liked. I tend to write tons of details as well, so greatly appreciate yours and the time it takes to write them.

    Very glad to hear the Steves tour of the Grand Canal worked out well.

    Thanks!
    Tammy

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    Still really enjoying this, caze17!

    @stevewith, da Bertino was the resto. We sampled from the boiled and grilled trolleys. We stayed in a Sofitel near the main station and it was about a 10-minute walk from there. Out of the center. Although we did use Bologna as a base for some other train travel, we loved it and would recommend Bologna as a place for tourists. We had a so-so meal at the type of business man's, tour bus place you mention above but I think those exist any place in the world.

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    Thanks, Tdudette. Da Bertino is in the historic center, actually, within the old walls. It is just in a direction most tourists don't walk toward, since most people are focused on the piazza Maggiore. I also very much enjoy Bologna and recommend it to all travelers interested in Italy.

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    Busy week at work and I've been slacking on my report. As this is my first time writing one, I now have a new appreciation for everyone that takes the time to do this. (Though I know that I'm doing myself no favors by writing every little detail!) But I will finish, not to worry.

    SUNDAY, APRIL 30 – BOLOGNA

    After an early morning and late night yesterday, we surprised ourselves by sleeping over 9 hours. Good thing I had set my alarm on a whim the night before, not thinking we would use it! Today was our market tour and cooking class with Raffaella of Bluone, and was the thing I was most looking forward to in Bologna.

    http://www.bluone.com/

    Again, I found this class through Low Country Islander on this forum, and after follow-up research, decided it was perfect for us. We booked “12 Hours in Bologna” at the cost of 180E each (though the price has since increased to 200E, just to warn you). I believe that Bluone’s primary focus is on longer vacation food tours, but this one-day class is great for those like us who were just looking for a taste.

    We grabbed another quick Americano and croissant and walked to the Two Towers to meet our group at 10:30AM. There were two other American couples in our group – two sisters who were each married to a man named Bob. We roamed the market area with Raffaella as our guide. We stopped in various specialty markets, hearing details about various products – pasta, cheese, vinegar, meat, etc. Because we had been on the factory tour yesterday, it was a little redundant, so I spent more of the time just poking around each shop that we were in. Raffaella’s descriptions weren’t as in-depth as Alessandro’s, which was good or bad, depending on your viewpoint!

    We stopped at a café for cappucini and to decide our menu. Raffaella gave us several choices for each course and we all decided together. For our pasta, she offered tagliatelle alla ragu or ricotta-stuffed tortelloni with butter and sage. For the main, we chose between stuffed zucchini and meat rolls. And for dessert, we chose between tiramisu, panna cotta, and zuppa inglese. For a variety of reasons, our group landed on the tagliatelle, zucchini, and zuppa inglese. I had really wanted the tortelloni but seemed to be the only one, so I just went with the group – no big deal! Next, we went to a few more shops and purchased a few of the items that we would need for dinner.

    The group went our separate ways for lunch. My husband and I stopped at a random place with outdoor seating on Via Clavature. We didn’t want to eat too much since Raffaella had warned us not to! So we just split some bruchetta and tortelloni with butter and sage (since I knew we wouldn’t get it later). The tortelloni turned out to be delicious, and was my favorite restaurant pasta dish of our time in Bologna. With a glass of wine for my husband, a bottle of water, and the coperto, the cost was 24E. Then, we went back to the hotel for a short rest.

    At 3:30PM, Marcello (Raffaella’s husband) picked us up in his minivan at our hotel. We drove a short distance away to their adorable apartment. One thing that drew me to this particular cooking class was the fact that it was in someone’s apartment. Many are in commercial kitchens, but one of the best things was feeling like we were just heading to a friend’s house for dinner. When we arrived, we were introduced to one of their sons, and well as the grandmother who lived with them. Later, we would meet their gorgeous and charming daughter Francesca, who helped with the class, and their other son. All three kids (ages 21-30) lived with them as well as the grandmother. It’s such a contrast to the direction that the US has gone, and again, I appreciated this little peek in Italian life.

    Upon arrival, everyone in the group was given a logo’d apron and a handmade cookbook with many recipes, not just the ones that we were going to make. I can’t wait to try a few more in the future! We started right in with the cooking, splitting into groups when needed, getting instruction from Raffaella and Francesca and generally enjoying ourselves. We had a ball talking to the other couples in our group as well. One of the couples had a college-age son studying in Siena and it was a running joke throughout the night that they were trying to hook up their son with Francesca.

    The ragu was surprisingly easy to make, as was the stuffed zucchini. Making the pasta was a little exhausting but very informative – I now know what I can do to improve the dough I’ve made in the past…and am even more grateful for the pasta-maker attachment that goes on my stand mixer. I did wish that we had a little more wine or appetizers earlier in the evening, though Raffaella commented that if we started drinking too early that we wouldn’t finish cooking! Eventually, we did take a break to enjoy prosecco and fried zucchini blossoms (which we also ending up making) on their small balcony. It was a gorgeous day and everything felt perfect.

    After our break, we finished up the pasta making. I was thrilled that we were shown how to make not only tagliatelle, but all different types of shapes and filled pastas. I was going to get a little tortelloni after all! We set the table for the 12 of us, including all of the family. Again, what a treat to be welcomed into someone’s home this way.

    We began the meal with a platter of meats and cheese from the markets that were delicious. Then we have tortelloni with butter and sage, followed by the tagliatelle alla ragu, the meat-stuffed zucchini in tomato sauce, along with extra meatballs made out of the stuffing, roasted asparagus, and we finished up with dessert. The wine was flowing throughout the night – I believe that we had four types, including a Piedmont wine produced by a friend of Marcello’s that was wonderful. Unfortunately, it is not available in the US or we would have already tracked down a few cases. There was so much food and wine but we couldn’t stop because everything was so delicious. The pastas and zucchini were truly out of the world. This is what we came to Bologna for!

    We were having such a good time, chatting with everyone, drinking too much. It was getting late, but then Marcello pulled out various digestifs that he insisted we try. So we pushed on but eventually, when it was after 11PM, everyone needed a bed. Marcello offered everyone a ride home (which the others accepted), but we wanted to walk since our hotel wasn’t far, the weather was nice, and we could use a little exercise after all that food. So we offered effusive thanks to Raffaella, Francesca, and Marcella, said goodbye to the Bobs and their wives, and took an evening stroll home. It was a great experience and one I would highly recommend.

    Because I was addicted to my book, I decided to finish reading it and didn’t go to sleep until 1AM. Since tomorrow was our “vacation from our vacation,” I knew that I could sleep in. Such are the pleasures of vacations with no kids!

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    This is why I love reading trip reports. I may never have found Bluone on my own, and now I'm sitting here drooling about the idea of their 5-night Bologna Tour! Could turn out to be part of our Fall 2014 vacation!

    Thanks for the great report Caze!

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    WEDNESDAY, MAY 1 – BOLOGNA

    After a busy start to our trip, today was just the opposite! It was a national holiday – Labor Day. When we originally planned our itinerary, I thought that we might take a day trip to Florence, Parma, or Modena during our stay in Bologna. But once I realized it was a holiday and that museums in Florence were closed, as well as the restaurants I wanted to visit in the other places, we weren’t sure what to do. We could have gone ahead to Tuscany. But we thought we might enjoy a break and then found out there were free outdoor concerts, so we just decided to enjoy the holiday in a lazy way like the locals. It turned out to be a fantastic decision.

    After staying up late the night before, we slept in. Seriously slept in. As in I did not get out of bed until 11AM. It is so nice to have some guilt-free days like this when you truly have nothing scheduled. I highly recommend giving yourself one or two when you are on a trip of 10 days or more. After we got up, we went to the café next door and sat outside enjoying coffee and pastries (4.4E). We were right on Via dell’Indipendenza (the main drag), and while we were sitting outside, a demonstration parade came by heavily guarded by police. I think it was a teachers’ union. Another interesting peek into the local life.

    We went back up to our room and lazed around for awhile, reading and such. We finally decided to motivate mid-afternoon and walked up to Piazza Maggiore. I was planning to go to Rossopomodoro to try a pizza slice, but they were closing right as we got there at 3PM. So we went to a place across the alley (Pizzeria Nettuno) and grabbed a slice there. My husband also wanted a soda so he opened the refrigerator to grab it, where he was promptly shooed away by the lady behind the counter. Apparently, it was not self-serve like you might think at some places in the US! For two slices and a soda, the cost was 5.10E.

    We ate on the steps in front of Basilica di San Petronio in the piazza. The church was being renovated and had scaffolding out front. It humored us that the scaffolding had an image of the church draped across it to try to convince you that nothing was obstructed. There were a lot of vendors and entertainers out in the square and the concert was just getting going. We enjoyed people watching for awhile.
    Next, we explored a little bit of Bologna using a combination of pages I had copied from a Fodor’s guidebook and the itinerary from the official Bologna tourism website.

    http://www.bolognawelcome.com/en/places-to-see/suggested-itineraries/params/Percorso_8/ref/Three%20hours%20in%20the%20heart%20of%20our%20city

    We walked through the university area for a bit, stopped by the Two Towers, and briefly went into the Santo Stefano church and the Basilica di San Petronio. This took us less than 90 minutes total because we weren’t spending too much time in any one place. It was great that I had researched some options, but that we didn’t feel obligated and were at our own pace.

    After walking around, we stopped by Tamburini (it was one of the few shops open on the holiday) to grab some sausage to enjoy during the rest of our trip. Then I got some gelato and we walked back to the hotel to shower and rest again. Like I said, it was a vacation from our vacation so there was lots of lazing around today!

    About 7:30PM, we ventured out again in search of a glass of wine before dinner. We ended up at a place on Via Clavature whose name I failed to note. We sat outside as the weather was finally on our side. My husband ordered a whiskey/ginger cocktail and I got a glass of white wine, plus we shared some bruschetta. In a role reversal, I got a second drink and my husband did not. My wine was excellent (probably why I got two glasses) and it just felt amazing to be outside enjoying our vacation. Our total was 20E.

    Then we went next door for our 9PM reservation at Da Gianni. I went around and around on this reservation, almost choosing Cesari or Serghei, but ending up here. I liked the dining room – smallish and rustic. The waiter helped us pick out a bottle of red wine (we always just ask for a recommendation whenever we eat out). We ordered tortellini in brodo and gnocchi with pomodoro sauce, and I enjoyed both. The pomodoro sauce was particularly good, showing off the fresh tomatoes. Craving something green, we got an insalata mista, which was standard. For the main course, we had braised (or roasted?) lamb, and it was excellent, falling off the bone and well-seasoned. The broccoli and potatoes that came with it were adequate. For dessert, we ate some type of chocolate mousse cake that was delicious. Overall, a very enjoyable meal. Not necessarily one for the record books, but quite good (and certainly much better than da Nello a few nights before). With a bottle of water and the coperto, our bill came to 80E.

    I was feeling the perfect amount of tipsy as we walked back towards Piazza Maggiore to head home. At that point, it was about 11PM and the headlining band of the night was playing on stage. It was an Italian band but they played Irish rock – think of the Pogues or the Dropkick Murphys. The square was packed and the music was fun, so we joined right in. It was a wonderful serendipitous moment of our trip. How fun to be dancing at an outdoor concert surrounded by mostly young Italian college students in the middle of Bologna? A memorable way to end our last day in Bologna.

    Tomorrow, we were headed to Tuscany. We had a great time in Bologna and the factory tour and cooking class were just what I had hoped. Perhaps unexpected was that we really liked the feel of Bologna itself. So much less touristy that any other place that we visited and just had a good city vibe going, without feeling too crowded. Plus the porticos were gorgeous (and would have been very practical in the rain). And because it is a university town and less touristy, we didn’t feel like we were getting price-gouged everywhere! Just felt like you could understand what it might really be like to live in an Italian city, since Bologna doesn’t depend on tourism for so much of its economy.

    For a longer trip not shackled by a holiday, I could see that people who don’t enjoy cities as much might consider basing elsewhere (Parma, etc). And if we went back, I would certainly take day trips, particularly in search of some of the allegedly better restaurants in the region. In fact, I would love to do a future trip focusing on E-R and Piedmont.

    At any rate, our time in Bologna was coming to an end, and tomorrow we would be braving Italian roads on our way to Tuscany!

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    Looking forward to the next part of your trip!

    We felt the same way about Pisa also and made it a base for travel. The university atmosphere and lower prices away from the one tourist area were very enjoyable.

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    We are currently planning our itinerary for May 2014. We're considering different areas as a base, then traveling by bus, train or tours for day trips. It is absolutely the most helpful to read what others have done and enjoyed. Thank you - can't wait to read about Pienza.

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    THURSDAY, MAY 2 – BOLOGNA/TUSCANY

    We woke up on our last morning in Bologna and packed up. We decided to hit the hotel breakfast buffet (10E each). It was in a beautiful room filled with other tourists, but I’m not sure that I will ever get real value out of that sort of thing. But it was easy and allowed us to fill up before hitting the road. We checked out and walked to the rental car office near the train station.

    We pre-booked through AutoEurope, a broker that uses many different rental car agencies. I used the Italy website ( www.autoeurope.it ) because it had cheaper options than both the US and the general Europe site by a longshot. Fortunately, we drive stick, had small suitcases and don’t mind little cars, so we went for the least expensive option available. For a 4-day rental, we paid 119E including additional insurance. The Italian site limited mileage to 100K/day, so I knew we might go a little over. What I didn’t realize until a few days ago, was that my rental did not include the one-way drop-off fee, which was charged directly by EuropCar (the rental agency used) and was 89E. Apparently, this was listed on my voucher in Italian, so I missed it. Since the one-way fees are included in the US site (or so I have since been told), I’m guessing that the prices wouldn’t have been too different. Something to keep in mind, though do your own research before you take my word for it! But in the end, 210E total still seems like a pretty good deal.

    Because I wanted to navigate (we didn’t spring for a GPS and just used the Touring Club Tuscany map that I purchased before we left home), I had my husband listed as the driver on our reservation. Just to be safe, I had made him get an international driver’s license back in the US (which was super annoying because we do not live near a AAA office and had to do it by mail). Of course, when we were in the Denver airport between flights, I double checked that he had remembered it…and he hadn’t. But then it was too late! So while we knew that we were probably fine without it based on others’ accounts, I was a little nervous as we approached the counter. But we had no problems, jumped into our little 2-door manual Fiat and off we went a little after 11AM.

    The first two hours were a little stressful because it was drizzling and we were driving on windy highway roads where everyone was going very fast. Once we got past Florence, the highway straightened out and things were a lot more mellow. We were staying in Pienza with plans to explore southern Tuscany, but planned to stop in Siena on the way there. Following Rick Steves’ excellent directions to park in the stadium parking lot, we made it to Siena. We walked through town to the main square. It was past 2PM and we were starving, so we just decided to stop at a touristy place around the main square. The food was adequate and overpriced (2 pizzas, water, and service for 29,30E), but we were glad that we sat where we could take in the action on the square, including cute kids chasing pigeons. After lunch, we walked up to the duomo and took some photos but decided not to go in. The crowds were not great. We walked back to the car and as instructed, had kept our parking ticket so that we could pay at the machine prior to getting back in our car and exiting the lot.

    I know that we did not do Siena justice, but my feeling was that if you were looking for time in the countryside during your trip to Italy or wanted to feel like you were in a tiny perched hilltown, Siena is definitely NOT the place to go. I was so glad that we did not base there.

    Soon after we left Siena, the scenery became breathtaking. I could not stop exclaiming to my husband – “This is so gorgeous! This is unbelievable!” I live in a beautiful scenic area (Tetons/Yellowstone) and I was still blown away. In my research, I kept thinking that there was no way that the area was as stunning as the photos, as they must be color-enhanced or Photoshopped. But in reality, I thought it was even more striking. My jaw was on the floor. And it is exactly what I envisioned when I planned time in the countryside. I highly recommend Val d’Orcia and am so grateful to the many of you that opened my eyes to it.

    With my excellent navigation if I do say so myself, we made our way to Pienza without a single wrong turn. This was the hilltown I was looking for! We found a free parking space without too much trouble, just following the blue “parcheggio” signs. We walked to our little B&B in old town, which was a perfect location.

    http://www.rossellino.it/

    Il Rossellino B&B was charming, clean, and priced well at 60E/night with a private bath. Once we checked in, we walked up to the small rooftop deck and took photos. Again, breathtaking! (I hope to eventually post some photo links on here from our whole trip.)

    We were ready for dinner, so I did some quick online research and decided that we should try Latte di Luna. We called and they didn’t have availability, so we settled on Trattoria da Fiorella instead. What a lucky break for us! This was one of the best meals of our trip. The restaurant was small and cozy. We ordered a carafe of house red that was excellent, as well as fantastic bruschetta. The dish that put the meal over-the-top was a risotto with in-season zucchini and pesto. That risotto lives in my memory and I will be trying to recreate it! We also enjoyed fried lamb chops, whole braised baby artichokes, and a side of white beans. Somewhere in there we ordered a second carafe of red wine, and finished things off with a panna cotta with raspberry topping and an espresso for my husband. Add a bottle of water and the coperto and it was only 60E! Amazing meal.

    We stopped by Latte di Luna on the way home to make a dinner reservation for our last night in Pienza. I went to sleep a little earlier than our Bologna nights with a happy belly, and ready to explore the Tuscan countryside in the days to come!

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    Ah! Trattoria di Fiorella and Latte di Luna ... two of our favourite restaurants in Pienza! Did you find walking through town after a wonderful evening meal a delightful experience?

    Can't wait to hear more about your stay here and then Rome!

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    We are doing a similar trip in September. We are from Denver and have the nonstop Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt. Good to know there are other options to Venice if we miss the connection! Thanks for all the good tips. We hadn't thought of stopping in Pienza, but now may give it a try!

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    Hope you all haven't abandoned me since I'm taking awhile to add updates! But here we go...

    FRIDAY, MAY 3 – TUSCANY

    Our first morning in Pienza, we were woken up by a jackhammer – the building next door was having some construction done. Not a big deal, as it was time to get up and explore the countryside! We sat down in the breakfast room, where we had the worst meal of our trip. The croissants and rolls were unbelievably stale and the coffee was thick and harsh…and I usually like strong, black coffee. So while I would still recommend our lodging, you might want to think of it as a B instead of a B&B. Just buy a croissant somewhere else, which is what I did after not eating anything. It was that bad.

    After breakfast, we hopped in the car and took the short drive to Montelpulciano. Again, absolutely gorgeous scenery. It was pretty foggy so it felt a little mysterious driving through it. Once we arrived in Montelpulciano, we found parking and walked through town, enjoying that the streets were still quiet around 10AM. This town certainly was a bit more hilly than Pienza, which might be a consideration for some when choosing a base. After a quick look around, we hopped back in the car because we were due for a wine tasting near Montalcino at 11:30AM. Knowing that most wineries are not equipped for walk-ins like many in Napa or similar areas, we had pre-booked one tour and tasting at Poggio Antico.

    http://www.poggioantico.com/

    We had also booked lunch, but several days prior, they emailed us to say that the restaurant had an emergency plumbing issue and was under repair. Since the restaurant would be closed, the staff offered to make us another reservation giving us several recommendations, which we took them up on.

    We found the winery with no trouble and parked by the main building for the start of our tour. As the tour began, we had a small group with just one other couple, but latecomers trickled in until we had 12 or so by the time we were finished. The tour was the perfect length for my tastes, with just the right amount of description of their winemaking process, about 30 minutes. After the tour, we took a few photos on their beautiful grounds. Then we walked to a small outbuilding for the tasting. I liked the format of the tasting. There were different flights and price points available, starting at 2E. Sharing was allowed, even encouraged. So my husband and I shared the most expensive flight (25E) that offered a taste of all six wines available. It was a little hectic because so many of us were ordering our tastes, but we just hung back and let the others go first and as we got each glass, we enjoyed them outside in the perfect weather. I thought the pours were pretty generous, so it’s a good thing that we shared, especially since my husband was driving! The wines themselves were good, not great. I prefer my wine a bit bolder and more complex than the options we tasted. I did notice that many of their high-scoring wines were the older vintages that were not available at the tasting, and I don’t think were available for purchase directly from the winery anymore either. So the wine itself was a little disappointing but still a nice experience overall. Had we loved the wines, we would have considered purchasing a case, but the expensive shipping costs didn’t seem worth it for wines we only liked.

    As I mentioned, their restaurant was closed, so after the tasting we ended up having lunch at Il Leccio.

    http://www.illeccio.net/

    When we booked, I thought that the restaurant was in Montalcino, but it turned out to be located in the nearby town of Sant’Angelo In Colle. This brought our understanding of tiny hilltowns to a whole new level! The whole town was about 200 yards across. For lunch, we had tagliatelle with ragu, which was pretty good but didn’t compare to the ragu we made during our cooking class in Bologna! The ricotta-stuffed tortelloni with butter and sage was seriously lacking. But we did have a delicious salad with mixed greens, endive, artichoke hearts and pecorino. With one beer, one glass of wine, a bottle of water and the coperto, our total was 46E. Overall our meal was somewhat mediocre, but I would still recommend it because of the wonderful setting and the opportunity to set foot in a town that was much more off the beaten path.

    After lunch, we walked to the edge of the town and enjoyed the views all by ourselves for about 15 minutes. We did not see one other person. So nice! Eventually, we walked to the car and drove back to Pienza. By now, my husband was more comfortable driving and really enjoyed zipping around the curvy roads in our little Fiat. We took a short detour on one of the white gravel roads, which allowed us to go a little slower to really take in the views.

    Back in Pienza, we parked and walked back to our room. Since it was still mid-afternoon, the daytrippers were out in full force and we felt a bit territorial about “our” town. (Of course we were completely aware that we were the daytrippers in every other town!) We couldn’t wait for them to leave, so that we could enjoy the quiet streets as we had the night before. We rested in our room for a bit and then took a walk to find some dinner provisions. Because it was late afternoon, we found it a little difficult to find a store open that sold bread and fruit. But eventually, we found a little shop where we were only allowed to purchase fruit by sight, which seemed to be common in Italy. Given that my usual fruit-selecting method relies on touch, I found this difficult. Once we got back to our B&B for our “picnic” in the dining room, I wondered if that was the method allowed because the fruit was rock hard! But we managed, enjoying our cheese and sausage purchased in Bologna, along with fruit, bread, nutella, olives, and wine.

    Afterwards, we walked through the quiet streets, taking photographs of the landscapes because the light was perfect. I was still a little hungry, so I got a pizza slice (that was delicious!) and my husband got some gelato. It just felt nice to have the town back to ourselves! After a wonderful day in the countryside, we headed back to the room for an early night before exploring the area on foot tomorrow.

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    I am pretty sure we had lunch a couple times at your lunch spot. We did wine tasting some place not too far and they sent us to this place. I think we had a better experience with the food, but as you note, the best part is that it is very quiet.

    We love the area, and keep going back. We took last year off, thinking we had done enough traveling, and really missed our time there. We are headed back the end of the summer. I love the scenery, the food, the wine, and the slower place of things.

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    Keep it rollin' Caze - sounds great! We're on our way to Venezia, Firenze, Amalfi,and Roma on July 5th and while we're all set with planes, trains, city / museum passes, and local tour bookings, we're hoping to pick up those wonderful little tidbits of local insight that you keep sending our way....keep it up!!

    Dave

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    I've been catching up for the past two days. The description you gave of your husband and yourslef, along with your vacation style, really caught my eye. It sounded EXACTLY like my wife and I (though we've got 6-8 years on you). BTW, bring kids next time. Our daughter (now 4) has been ti Italy twice and will probably go back next May (with her new sibling). It's different, for sure, but just as satisfying. Italians LOVE children.

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    Thanks for sticking around everyone! I appreciate your nice thoughts. And yes, uflecku, I can't wait to travel with my current and future kids!

    SATURDAY, MAY 4 – TUSCANY

    I woke up after sleeping for ten hours which was absolutely amazing. My husband and I went to the dining room for our breakfast and I got around the stale croissant by eating the prepackaged toast crackers with nutella. Somewhat of a shame in Italy, but was much better than the day before.

    When planning our trip, I wasn’t sure what we would want to do by the time this day rolled around. We love to hike, so we thought that would be a nice change of pace, but I wondered if we would feel like we were wasting the opportunity to cover more of the area by car and taste more wine. In the end, after getting a little burnt out on hill towns after two days, we knew that hiking was definitely the right choice. I tried to research various routes beforehand but there wasn’t much available on the internet, at least not as detailed from the national park/national forest hiking that I am used to. I should not have worried. This was more like walking on a wide gravel road that cars could also use. With few trees to block our view, we could see our destination before we even left so there was no way that we could have gotten lost.

    We hiked to Monticchiello. For others who may be interested, you head to the end of the main road through old town (Corso Rossellini), go through the archway next to Latte di Luna restaurant and you will hit the road that goes around Pienza. Just across the road, you will see a hiking directional sign and the start of a gravel road that goes downhill to your left. From there, you follow the gravel road with Monticchiello in your sights the whole way. There are a couple of intersections, but we just followed the signs to Monticchiello, always picking a “strada panoramica” if available. It was a little under 5 miles and took us about 1.5 hours to get there. It was great to be outside, enjoying the countryside at a slower pace, taking in the vistas, and snapping lots of photos. Plus it was nice to sweat a little since we had been eating so much food!

    Once we got to Monticchiello, we walked around the tiny town. A wedding party was gathering outside the church, which was fun to observe just like in Venice. By now, we were ready for lunch. I had read about Osteria La Porta in my research , but in the end, we decided to just eat a little picnic in the main square. It was nice to do this on occasion to mix things up a bit. And good for the budget! We sat in the shade on a bench and enjoyed similar items that we had the night before. After a bit, we headed back to Pienza along the same route.

    Back in the room, we showered and packed up a bit since we were leaving Pienza the next morning. We had our dinner reservation at 7PM at Latte di Luna that we had made a few nights prior, and I figured that we would just relax until then. But after two hours or so, it was only 4PM and we decided to motivate to head to Montepulciano in search of some wine tasting shops. This worked out really well, and was nice that we hadn’t planned too much. After a short drive to Montepulciano, we walked down the main street and tasted wine wherever someone was pouring. Never a bad thing! The best one was named Contucci if I am not mixing them up – it had an underground cellar to walk through and we wound up in a rustic tasting room. The young guy helping us was very knowledgeable and was fun to try a few wines with. We really enjoyed the wines and wish we had not already purchased bottles elsewhere, or we would have purchased more than the one that we did from Contucci.

    We loaded our new bottles of wine in the car (we bought bottles that were all about 13E each, but a variety was offered – tastings were free) and headed back to Pienza. We headed to dinner at Latte de Luna, where I was glad we had made a reservation. The front patio is in full view of the main street, making it very popular.

    http://www.portalepienza.it/Siti_commerciali/ristoranti_e_trattorie/Latte_di_luna/latte_di_luna.html

    The food was good, but wasn’t quite as memorable as our meal at Trattoria da Fiorella on our first night. We began with two pasta dishes, a cacio e pepe and a ragu. We followed that with their popular suckling pig which was excellent. We got two sides, but I didn’t take very good notes and don’t remember what they were! With dessert, a carafe of house red wine, a bottle of water, one espresso, and the coperto, the total was 53E. Not that our server was interested in letting us know. While we were used to waiting awhile for the check by this point in our trip, this time bordered on absurd. We mentioned it to a few people passing by, but after 30 minutes or more just hanging around (at least give me some more water or wine!), we went up to the front to ask for the check. At that point, the manager realized that we were tucked back in a room all by ourselves since the other tables had left, and I think that the server in that section had gone home. He was very apologetic and brought us complimentary limoncello which was a nice gesture.

    We enjoyed another short walk around Pienza…it really is a romantic place in the evening. Then we went to bed, ready to head to Rome the next day!

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    SUNDAY, MAY 5 – TUSCANY/ROME

    We woke up to drizzling rain on our last day in Pienza. We packed up, ate a quick breakfast (the croissant was actually edible this morning) and went to check out. I had checked with Carlos before arriving that it would be okay to pay by credit card, but we never saw him all weekend, and the older woman who had helped us all weekend either didn’t know how to let us pay by credit card or didn’t want us to. Her English was worse than my Italian so rather than try to get it figured out, we just paid the 180E in cash. After that, we were down to our last dollar. The first ATM we tried did not work with our cards, but the second one did – though the machine had a 250E limit.

    We walked back to our car, piled in, and got gas on the way out of town. We tried to use our credit card at the pump, but it wanted a PIN (which we only have on our ATM card, not a credit card), so we just used cash there as well. With our errands out of the way, we said goodbye to Pienza.

    We really enjoyed our time in Tuscany, as it is one of the most stunning places that I have seen, and I would like to believe that I have seen many. I don’t know how that would change if you visited in the fall, but during the late spring/early summer, it was remarkable. We enjoyed our tiny town of Pienza, as well as the other small towns that we visited (though didn’t see what all the fuss about Siena was). Especially because it was only the two of us, we were glad that we stayed in a town where we could walk around at night and go to restaurants nearby. If I returned, I think that it would be fun to go with a larger group including kids and rent a villa for a week outside of a town. We could explore during the day but cook big meals in the villa at night.

    So we headed out of town with easy highway driving into Rome. Initially, I thought that we might stop in Orvieto or Civita di Bagnoregio, but we were a little burnt out on hilltowns and the weather wasn’t great, so we decided to save those for another trip and head straight to Rome. About halfway, we stopped at a rest stop for some barely edible pizza and snacks (13E). The drive took three hours including our stop, not the 2-2.5 hours that I originally expected, though I’m also convinced that we drove way under the speed limit for most of the time because I swear that we never saw a speed limit sign once on the highway. Maybe it’s like the autobahn where there are no speed limits?! We decided 110 kmph was a reasonable speed, with Italian drivers whizzing past us regularly.

    Heeding advice in this forum, we decided to avoid driving in central Rome and dropped the car at FCO instead. Having returned a car in central Madrid on a previous trip, I knew how awful it could be and how difficult it could be to find a gas station. So while the airport was a little out of the way, it was absolutely worth it to avoid hassles. We found the dropoff with no trouble (again relieved that we were never asked for an international driver’s license), with no car damage and no wrong turns the whole trip! We were absolutely thrilled to have had a rental car for this portion of the trip. As long as you have two people (one to drive, one to navigate) and a little patience, I don’t think it’s a big deal and would recommend it to everyone. I don’t see how you could effectively visit southern Tuscany without one. Plus my husband loved to zip around the curvy roads! For reference, we paid a total of 18E for tolls and 60E for gas.

    Up next…we head into Rome, check out our Trastevere apartment and enjoy a great dinner!

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    SUNDAY, MAY 5 - CONT'D

    After dropping the car at the airport, we headed to Trastevere using public transportation. We could have sprung for a cab, but I wanted to save a little money (again, part of our scrimp/splurge traveling style). And honestly, sometimes I feel more comfortable taking public transit than dealing with cabs whom I have to direct in my crappy Italian and may be ripping me off. Having lived in NYC, Berlin, and DC for short stints probably helps. When we got to the train station, we had just missed the regional FM1 train, so we purchased tickets (8E each) and waited about 20 minutes. We didn’t take the express train because we were heading to Trastevere, not the Termini area. After validating our tickets, we boarded the train and rode for about 30 minutes to the Trastevere station. Once there, we went to a tobacco shop just outside the terminal and purchased a bunch of single tickets for the bus/tram/subway (1.5E each). Then we took the #8 tram for less than 10 minutes to the stop closest to our apartment. It sounds a little complicated, but I had researched a lot and it was pretty easy once we were doing it. And I was glad to have a practice run when we were under no time pressure, since we would be doing the reverse route to catch our departing flight several days later!

    We walked about five minutes to our apartment, once again patting ourselves on the back that I had printed out directions and that we only had carryon luggage. We were also very happy with our apartment:

    http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/rentals/rome/110408

    I found this place because an acquaintance stayed there about a year earlier and recommended it to us. The owner (Carlo) was responsive and helpful, the balcony was amazing to enjoy a glass of wine or morning coffee, we were thrilled to have more space than in a hotel plus a little kitchen, and the price was right (460E for five nights, plus we paid a 100E deposit that was promptly refunded upon our return). But most importantly, we loved the location in Trastevere. We stayed long enough that we weren’t rushing from sight to sight so it wasn’t as important to be in the historic center, but we were still close enough for sightseeing to be convenient. It just felt so much more “neighborhoody” in Trastevere and every time we crossed the Tiber back to our neck of the woods, it was like a sigh of relief. Far fewer crowds, more locals, amazing restaurants. Without even intending to, two of the restaurants that I selected were in our area. And honestly, with the Vatican and the Colosseum being somewhat outliers to the historic center, I’m not sure why that area is considered so much more convenient anyway. So if you hadn’t figured it out by now, I would recommend the apartment, as I would all of our lodgings. Certainly all of our choices were on the more basic side of things, but we were happy with them and liked the locations.

    Once we got settled into our apartment, we went for a walk to check out our neighborhood. We walked towards the main street (Viale di Trastevere) and happened upon a Conad grocery store that was on the lower level of a department store. Since we wanted to stock up the apartment a little, we went in and proceeded to get various items. We waited in line at the checkout and once it was our turn, found out that unlike in the US, you need to weigh your produce yourself back in the produce section – they do not weigh it at checkout. Oops! The very understanding checkout lady went to weigh our produce for us, while the very understanding people in line waited behind us. But eventually, we made it out of there with 30E of goodies and then stopped at an ATM on the way home, since we had to pay for our apartment in cash. Because we ended up arriving earlier than expected (as we did not stop in Orvieto), Carlo was not able to meet us, but had the cleaning crew wait for us with a key instead. We arranged all of this by text, so again, we were pleased to have the use of our phone. At any rate, that meant that we did not pay on arrival, so Carlo just trusted us to pay at some point later in our stay!

    Back in the apartment, we enjoyed drinks on our balcony. The apartment is on the corner of a building at an intersection so it afforded a great view of everything happening in the area. We people watched, felt like locals, and were thrilled to be in Rome! As in Bologna, the energy of the city really appealed to us.

    We had an 8PM dinner reservation at L’Osteria di Monteverde.

    http://www.losteriadimonteverde.it/

    We hopped on the tram, rode a few short stops to an outlying, decidedly non-touristy part of Trastevere, and got a little lost walking to the restaurant. I will mention that we forgot to validate our tickets on this ride, but were never checked for tickets on this or any other ride during our trip. But we always tried to validate going forward because we figured that it was the least that we could do to support public transportation. Anyway, after a short detour, we found the restaurant…which was completely empty. We had tried to be locals with what we thought was a late reservation, but it definitely was not. It was also a Sunday, so my impression is that restaurants are generally less busy with many choosing to have family time at home.

    Though the restaurant décor was pretty traditional, we were happy once we took a look at a menu. For the first time on our trip, we felt like we were somewhere with a more modern take on food. Not just giant bowls of pasta! As usual, we asked for recommendations and particularly at this place, I’m glad we did. We wound up getting dishes that I would not have ordered that turned out delicious. It was a great meal. Our amuse was a ricotta-filled zucchini blossom, which was fine. For our appetizer, we had beef tartare with onion slivers (it was on special) and it was amazing. We followed that with black ink squid ravioli with some type of fish filling, an incredible vegetable/phyllo-layered dish, and a potato-crusted bacala with a side of chicory. This was much more “high-end” food than we had eaten previously on the trip and we were in love. For dessert, we got tiramisu that was served in an adorable flip-top glass jar that my husband particularly enjoyed. He is the dessert man after all. With a bottle of red wine, a bottle of water, and the coperto, our total came to 71E. We did leave a small tip because we were so thrilled with the service and they did such a good job with the food recs.

    Of course, by the time we were leaving, the restaurant was almost full with locals – typical! We took the tram home (remembering to validate!) and fell asleep in our apartment after a great first day in Rome.

    Tomorrow, we will hit the Colosseum and Forum with Walks of Italy!

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    MONDAY, MAY 6 – ROME

    We did not sleep well on our first night in Rome because there was a huge thunderstorm that woke us up and set off car alarms. I will also note that our bed was a little harder than we would have liked (probably the only negative to the apartment), but we survived. Because we wanted a lot of relaxation time on our trip (and we expect to return), we had not planned to see too many sights during our time in Rome. This worked out really well for us, and we were able to sleep in on most mornings, including this one. We enjoyed a lazy breakfast in the apartment using our grocery store purchases, and after showering, took the bus to the metro to the Colosseum stop. We were early for our 12:30PM tour, so we oohed and aahed over the Colosseum (how crazy is it to come out of the metro stop and have it staring you in the face!), took some photos, and found a bathroom. When the time arrived, we joined our Colosseum/Forum tour with Walks of Italy.

    http://www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings/tour_all_listing/1/65

    The list price was 74E per person (now it is 79E) which included entrance tickets, but using the booking code “ricksteves2012” we received a 10% discount. As of March 2013, this code was still the current one. This tour was a splurge for us, but I thought we would appreciate having a more in-depth explanation of what we were seeing, and I heard this was particularly important in the Forum. Plus someone else would handle all of the logistics and ticket purchases, we skipped the line, and we got to enter “tour-guide-only” areas of the Colosseum.

    We started outside of the Colosseum, and went onto the Arch of Constantine, Palatine Hill and the Forum. The downside of a tour is that you can get stuck with some annoying people in your group (we had one, though he mellowed out after awhile) and it is really guide-dependent. Our guide was fine, though a little hard to understand, but mostly, I just wish that he were a bit more animated or better at really capturing our attention. Or maybe my attention span is just not well-suited for a 4 hour tour. Plus it rained off and on which was less than ideal when walking outside through the Forum.

    So I have to say that I was a bit disappointed in the actual content/guide experience and it was about twice as long as I might like. But if you are a big history buff, you might appreciate it more. I will say that getting the opportunity to walk on the Colosseum stage was very powerful and easily the best part of the tour. It was absolutely pouring by the time we entered the Colosseum, but managed to clear up right as we went on stage. We also got to check out the top tier and underground area, which was nice. And the guards are pretty strict about it because a lot of people saw others going to these areas and would try to come as well (not realizing we were on a tour), but the guards and our tour guides made sure that didn’t happen. So if you want to see those areas, you definitely need to be on a tour. But if I did it over again, I might just take the tour offered by the Colosseum itself that offers access to those areas but is much cheaper, and then just use an audio guide or guidebook to tour the Forum by myself. Please note that the vast majority on this board love Walks of Italy, so your preference really depends on your traveling style. And I don’t know that I would have felt any different about another company; I think it was more about the concept of the tour itself.

    After our tour, we decided to walk back to Trastevere to take in more of the city. Rome streets are pretty windy so our Streetwise map and our compass came in handy throughout our trip. By the time we got back to our neighborhood, we were thrilled to sit down in a neighborhood bar and rest our feet. My husband had a beer and I had a glass of prosecco, and we shared a couple of small appetizers. We were pretty tired when we got back to the apartment so we wanted something easy and nearby for dinner. We were tiring of pasta so we considered sushi, but the recommended place near us was closed on Mondays. So my weary self was very grateful that my husband offered to head back the grocery store. He bought 13E of items from the prepared foods section, which made a perfect dinner. Since we were getting up super early to tour the Vatican the next day, we were glad to stay home and turn in early!

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    I apologize that I am dragging this out so long! The busy summer seems to be getting away from me. I hope to finish up the last few days of our trip in the next week or two. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

    TUESDAY, MAY 7 – ROME

    Morning came too early but we forced ourselves out of bed as it was Vatican day! We had a quick coffee and roll in the apartment and then walked across the Tiber to catch the #23 bus. It was before 7AM so the busses weren’t running as frequently and we ended up waiting a full 15 minutes at the stop. I was just getting worried that we would miss our tour, when the bus pulled up. Because it was so early, there was no traffic and we zipped to our meeting point near the Vatican entrance in about 10 minutes, arriving right on time. We had booked another Walks of Italy tour – Pristine Sistine.

    http://www.walksofitaly.com/tour_bookings/tour_all_listing/6/43

    We primarily booked this tour because of the early access to the Sistine Chapel. The cost is 84E each, but again, we used the code “ricksteves2012” to get a 10% discount. The meeting point was a café and while the group was gathering, we had time to get cappucini and croissants. Then we were handed our headsets and walked with our group of 12 to the Vatican entrance, a short walk away. We stood in the entrance line with all of the other tour groups since the museum was not yet open. While we waited, our guide gave us detailed information about the Sistine Chapel, since you are not supposed to speak once you enter. I really enjoyed her description and was very much looking forward to seeing it in person!

    Once the museum opened, the tour groups filed in and we walked through the museum to the Chapel. We had 20 minutes inside the Chapel to take it all in. Incredible to be viewing the paintings that you have heard about all of your life! And the guide’s description from earlier really augmented my viewing experience. There is a sort of divider that splits the room in two, and I noticed that no one was on the far side, so I went in that part of the room and was by myself for 5 or 10 minutes gazing up at the ceiling. (Okay, I managed to look at the walls as well!) I was very glad I did this because the chapel was far from empty. So if you book early entry, be aware that there will still be 100-200 other people in the room with you. Of course, this was far fewer than the elbow-to-elbow that we experienced when walking through later, but I wouldn’t exactly call it empty.

    After our chapel experience, we took about 3 hours to tour the rest of the museum and St. Peter’s Basilica. At first, this was really interesting and I thought our guide was good (and much easier to understand than our Colosseum guide). But then, the crowds. And more crowds. And how it is possible that they let so many people into this place at once?! Isn’t this a severe fire hazard? Honestly, it was so crowded, that it was difficult to enjoy the guide’s description because we were constantly jostled about, had a hard time finding viewing space for the various works, and it just lost any sense of peace that I usually like to have when viewing art. If you are claustrophobic, I don’t recommend it. At least not mid-morning in May. And when we were in St. Peter’s Basilica, my headset was actually picking up another tour guide, so I just took it off and tried to look at a few things on my own without losing my group. By the end, both my husband and I were more than ready to go…I’m not sure if we would have felt that way no matter what because it had been many hours and we were tired and hungry, or if it was just because of the crowds.

    Just checked with my husband, and we agree that because we were first-time Vatican visitors that the tour was worth it – early entrance with fewer crowds in the Vatican, no waiting in line for the entrance (the line was HUGE later in the day when we walked by), and some good descriptions from our guide. As with the Colosseum tour, our attention spans (and crowd tolerance) would probably prefer a shorter tour, but I don’t know if those are even offered anywhere. One side note, we did take the shortcut exit out of the Chapel to St. Peter’s, and it was so crowded that this would have been super easy to do if you were visiting solo. At least the day that we went.

    When we left St. Peter’s, it was around 12:30PM and was raining a little bit. We didn’t have anything on our agenda until dinner at 9PM, so we decided to walk over to the renowned Pizzarium for lunch.

    http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187791-d941728-Reviews-Pizzarium-Rome_Lazio.html

    So glad we did! Pizzarium is actually pretty close to the Vatican entrance, but because we exited at St. Peter’s, we had to walk all the way back around which took 20 minutes or so. This pizza was easily the best of our trip. They serve all different kinds of rectangular pizza that are available at the counter. You indicate how wide of a slice you would like, and they cut and weigh it for you. We tried four different types and my husband got one craft beer (they had a great selection) – all for 16E. The pizza was truly out of this world. We loved the crust and the toppings were fresh and delicious. We had heard that this place could get pretty crowded, but we didn’t have too much trouble – perhaps the rain kept people away because there are no seats inside. We managed to find a place to stand outside and enjoy our meal. I would definitely recommend Pizzarium if you are in the area…and maybe even if you are not! Just be aware that it is an order-at-the-counter type of place and does not have sit-down tables.

    After our fantastic lunch, we took a metro/bus combo home. The streets were very crowded (the theme for our day!) so the bus sat in traffic quite a bit. We walked home and were completely exhausted. We had woken up very early, and had walked miles around the Vatican and then to Pizzarium. Sometimes tourism is a marathon sport! My husband napped and I tried to nap. As I mentioned, we had no afternoon plans, so we just relaxed in the apartment. We made ourselves some appetizers around 4:30PM since our dinner reservation wasn’t until 9PM. Around 7PM, we left the apartment in search of an aperitivo. One of our foodie apps (we used Elizabeth Minchilli’s and Katie Parla’s apps quite a bit) recommended a wine bar around the corner from us (Il Baccoco) but no one was there when we walked by. So we just walked to the other side of the Santa Maria church and stopped at a little place that had a more lively atmosphere. It was called Café Baylon but any place in that area would work for a drink. My husband had a Pilsner Urquell and I had a mojito and we sat outside, enjoying the street scene. We finished up and took the bus and metro to our dinner reservation near the Termini station for our 9PM dinner reservation.

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    TUESDAY, MAY 7 – CONT'D

    Tonight was our big blowout dinner. We had considered Glass and Metamorfosi among others, but after much angst, we landed on Pipero al Rex, the Michelin-starred restaurant in Hotel Rex.

    http://www.hotelrex.net/restaurant.htm

    Oh. My. God.

    It was mind-blowing amazing. While we are only in our 30s, we are fortunate to have eaten at so many excellent restaurants since we make this a priority when traveling. Daniel, Babbo, Momofuku, Komi, etc. So while we certainly haven’t eaten everywhere, you can take it for what you will when I say that this was easily one of the top dining experiences of my life (so far!). This was one of those times when everything just seemed to come together…the ambiance, the service, the food, the wine. With the prices that these restaurants are charging, it’s easy to have impossible-to-meet-expectations, but somehow, Pipero al Rex managed to fulfill on all accounts.

    There are only six or seven tables in this chic, modern restaurant. Once again, we thought that we were being local by reserving at 9PM, but there was only one other table when we arrived. By 10PM, they were full. And some tables sat at 11PM…I don’t know who these people are that can sit down for a multi-course tasting menu at 11PM on a weeknight (and they all seemed Italian). Don’t they have to work? But hey, lucky them!

    At any rate, when we sat down, we were greeted by Alessandro Pipero, the proprietor. He was so kind and welcoming, and didn’t seem to care at all that we were much younger than what appeared to be their typical patron. Zero pretentiousness. In fact, he took a great interest in learning where we found out about him (I told him Katie Parla, though we also read about it on Chowhound), and seemed thrilled that someone our age was so excited about food. He asked if we would like to see a menu or if we would just like him to bring us some food. I had read that we should just trust him, so we chose the latter. There is no official tasting menu; it’s just whatever they feel like I suppose! He did check to see if there was anything in particular that we didn’t like (we were game for anything), and I just requested that we definitely get the pasta carbonara because I had read so much about it. Then he asked about wine. My husband asked if he could do wine pairings and Alessandro said sure. At that point, I felt the need to mention that we were splurging on the food so needed to be more budget-minded on the wine. Alessandro said, “I tell you what. The food will be 100E per person, and the wine will be 25E per person.” I couldn’t believe it! The food prices we were expecting, but wine pairings for only 25E?! We happily agreed, though I figured we might have somewhat limited offerings.I could not have been more wrong.

    They started us with a sparkling wine that was delicious. We were already so in love with Alessandro at that point, and things were just getting better and better. We had five or six amuses, each one a delight. And then six courses. I can’t remember them all but we started with duck tartare “tacos.” Who knew that raw fowl could be such a revelation? We had two pasta dishes, including the amazing carbonara, as well as one with roe among other things. There was a zucchini-something in there, as well as another course I can’t remember. I’m sorry; I’m a failure of a food writer. :) We were getting so full, and Alessandro asked us if we wanted a meat dish or if we were finished. We told him that we would like a tiny portion just to try it. We were so glad we did, because we had a succulent piece of pork tenderloin to finish off the savory courses. It really seemed like we could keep eating or stop whenever we wanted, even though we were working off a set price. (Okay, fine, it was a very expensive set price!) I remember thinking that each dish was so different and so wonderful. Oftentimes when you are doing a tasting menu, there are a few standout dishes, with a few “whatever”dishes, and a few letdowns. Not so in this case. We really enjoyed everything. And it was paced so well, which can be tricky for a multi-course tasting menu. The service was excellent in all regards.

    The whole time, we were poured copious amounts of wines, trying several whites and reds. I’m sure we were not poured particularly expensive wines, but each one was fantastic, so we were in heaven. We finished off with three dessert courses, including the last plate of 5 different bites, one of which was the most incredible homemade marshmallow. At this point, we felt like we had gotten so much for our money that we were taking advantage of them! Even taking the expense into consideration. At 125E per person, it was worth every penny. We enjoyed the experience so much, we left what we thought was a pretty good tip. (Though I still am never quite sure what to do in a restaurant like that in another country. Do the usual tipping rules apply for Italy? Or because the restaurant is so high-end, is a larger tip customary?)

    We thanked Alessandro and his staff profusely and had them call us a cab. At almost midnight, we hopped into our cab to head back to Trastevere. Once we crossed the Tiber, the cab driver kept telling us that the street was “chiusi” and he clearly didn’t want to go any further, so we ended up getting out (I think we paid about 13E) and walking the last 10 minutes home. It made me glad that we didn’t take more cabs since the street clearly was not closed once we started walking! I think he just wanted to end at the taxi stand. Oh well, we needed the walk after our big dinner, and we were still on cloud nine from one of the best dining experiences of our lives.

    Restaurant scenes change quickly, but for now, I can’t recommend Pipero al Rex enough for someone who wants to blow their budget on a meal. I bet I will be looking for something that compares for years to come!

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    I swear I will finish this sooner rather than later! Thanks for hanging in there with me.

    WEDNESDAY, MAY 8 – ROME

    With our big sights out of the way, our remaining time in Rome was pretty mellow. We slept in and piddled around the apartment, enjoying coffee on our balcony with other snacks from our kitchen. It was a gorgeous day – finally! Around 10:30AM, we headed out and stopped by the market right nearby our apartment in Piazza San Cosimato. It was a great market with lots of locals shopping and no gimmicky tourist items for sale.

    After our quick stop in the market, our plan was to do Rick Steves’ “Heart of Rome” walk, which encompassed the major sights in the historic center. We walked across the Tiber and started at Campo di Fiori. The market was huge and bustling, but it was mostly tourists and the amount of touristy items was over-the-top (penis pasta, anyone?). From there, we walked through Piazza Navona and then went to the Pantheon. I had been there before, but it was just as amazing this time. Trying to comprehend the architectural and construction skills necessary to create that building hundreds of years ago is staggering. There were quite a few people there, but it is free to enter and there was no line. We didn’t have a problem enjoying our short visit.

    Afterwards, we went next door to Tazza d’Oro so that I could try the famed granita di caffe con panna (2.5E). It was a little disappointing in my opinion. Served in a plastic cup and nothing particularly special. But at least it was a cool treat on a hot day, and we used the bathroom. We continued on to the Trevi Foundation and Spanish Steps. Hordes of people making the same walk and made us so glad that we did not stay in the historic center. Trastevere was really more our speed, though of course, we were glad to have seen the major sights.
    I really wanted my trip souvenir to be a brightly colored pair of leather gloves, so I went into the Di Cori glove shop right near the Spanish Steps.

    http://www.dicorigloves.it

    It is the tiniest little shop with the most beautiful gloves that I thought were well worth the price, with most pairs around 40 or 50E. Alas, my man-hands did me no favors and I could barely squeeze them into the largest ladies’ size. So I walked out of the shop empty-handed. Oh well.

    At this point, we were pretty hungry and walked around looking for a place to eat lunch. We strayed far enough away the Spanish Steps and Via del Corso to find something slightly more reasonable. We wound up eating outside in a nondescript, touristy place in a random piazza. We ordered a margherita pizza and a caprese salad which were fine. I seem to have lost the receipt so I can’t tell you what we paid!

    We took the long walk home, just enjoying the nice weather. Once we were back in the apartment, my husband napped and I just relaxed and watch a little TV. We had no plans for dinner and didn’t feel like cooking but also wanted something totally different – we were getting pretty sick of pizza and pasta. So we found an Indian restaurant nearby on the internet, and it turned out to be just what we were looking for!

    http://www.ristorantejaipur.com/

    We ordered way too much of our typical Indian favorites and thought it was excellent. With one large Kingfisher beer, our bill came to 44E. The perfect way to end our lazy day!

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    THURSDAY, MAY 9 – ROME

    It was our last full day in Italy and we didn’t have much scheduled in advance. We had another lazy morning, sleeping in and enjoying coffee and melon on our balcony. The weather was beautiful – it was nice to end our trip with a few nice days, since we had definitely experienced spotty weather throughout the trip.

    We left the apartment about 10:30AM. We decided to walk through the Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere, using Rick Steves' audioguides. In Trastevere, we saw two gorgeous churches including the Santa Maria. Other people had already put in the coins to light up the ceiling so we were fortunate to enjoy the view on their dime! We really enjoyed the opportunity to walk the streets at our own pace and in places that were not overrun with tourists.

    For lunch, we stopped at Dar Poeta, which someone recommended to me on this forum. In the Jewish Ghetto, I had considered eating at Sora Margherita, but it wasn’t yet open when we walked past so we skipped it.

    http://darpoeta.com/

    We sat inside because the sun was blazing hot on the sidewalk (and all umbrella seats were taken), and were happy to rest our feet after a lot of walking. Their pizza was quite good. For a pizza, a calzone, one beer, and a bottle of water, the cost was 23E.

    After lunch, we walked into a tobacco shop to purchase a couple more bus/tram tickets that we would need the next day for our return to the airport. We paid cash, as we were trying to strategically whittle down our remaining euros so that we wouldn’t have too many left upon departure…though of course, we didn’t want to have too few either!

    We went home to have another relaxing afternoon. Once again, my husband napped while I piddled around reading and watching TV. Then it was apertivo time! And of course, since we were leaving the next day, we were obligated to finish all of the prosecco and beer that we had bought for the apartment. So we enjoyed drinks on the balcony before heading out to dinner. The balcony really added to our enjoyment of the apartment!

    We had an 8:30PM dinner reservation at Cesare al Casaletto.

    http://www.parlafood.com/cesare-al-casaletto-rome-best-trattoria/

    We took the #8 tram to the far reaches of Trastevere, and the restaurant was right next to the stop. We thought the tram was really easy to use. When we arrived at the restaurant, it was already pretty full, including lots of families. This was clearly a locals’ neighborhood joint , and was the first time that we had really seen Roman families eating out. To start, we ordered a couple of the fritti that we had heard so much about. We got the fried gnocchi with cacio e pepe sauce, as well as the polpette di bollito (fried veal meatballs) with pesto. They were both delicious but were a little heavier than I might have liked. Of course, I ordered fried food so you would think I would be okay with it! Mostly, I think that these plates were clearly meant to be shared by more than two people, and instead of exhibiting some restraint, we ate way too much of our appetizers. We were stuffed before we even got our entrees! We ordered two entrees, including the bucatini al’amatriciana. I don’t remember the other entrée or side dish. With a bottle of wine, dessert and service, our total came to 74E. It was an enjoyable meal, but I think it would work better with a larger group, so that you could really sample the different fritti that they are known for, without either stuffing yourself to finish or wasting an abundance of food.

    We took the tram home and enjoyed our final walk home to our apartment.

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    FRIDAY, MAY 10 – DEPARTURE

    We woke up on our last morning in Rome. We were lucky that our flight wasn’t crazy early, but we still didn’t have time to linger. We quickly packed up, said goodbye to our wonderful apartment, and headed out. Ever the users of public transportation, we walked to the tram stop and took the tram to the Trastevere train station. We then took the regional train (8E each) to FCO, arriving in plenty of time for our 10:10AM flight. After checking in and getting through security, we enjoyed two cappucini and croissants (5.4E) and marveled over the fact that the airport food prices were so reasonable. Unfortunately, our flight to Frankfurt was delayed so we started to worry seriously about missing our transatlantic connection. When we finally arrived in the Frankfurt airport, we sprinted with several other passengers through various checkpoints to our next flight…only to find that it was also a bit delayed. So we spent the last of our euros on some snacks (11E), including a surprisingly delicious mozzarella and tomato sandwich. We then boarded our flight, once again enjoying a whole row to ourselves since we booked the aisle and window, as well as in-seat entertainment screens. An uneventful flight landed us back in Denver, and with another short hop to Jackson Hole, we were home.

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    FINAL THOUGHTS

    We had an incredible trip. Doing so much research and planning really helped us to schedule our time appropriately, see lots of sights, but also enjoy lingering when we wanted to. I think that understanding your own travel style helps when reading others’ suggestions. You need to know if it is right for you, even if someone else raves about something. For us, we really wanted some relaxation time on this particular trip, and as you may have noticed, we slept in on many mornings and took many afternoons off from sightseeing. This enabled us to hit the ground running when we needed to. We loved how varied our destinations were as well.

    FAVORITE VENICE EXPERIENCE: Cruising Grand Canal

    FAVORITE BOLOGNA EXPERIENCE: Bluone cooking class

    FAVORITE TUSCANY EXPERIENCE: Enjoying the gorgeous views, wandering Pienza at dusk, and my husband loved driving the Fiat around the curvy roads

    FAVORITE ROME EXPERIENCE: Enjoying drinks on our balcony many afternoons

    BEST MEALS: Pipero al Rex, L’Osteria di Monteverde and Pizzarium in Rome, Trattoria da Fiorella in Pienza, Dinner during Bologna cooking class

    MOST DISAPPOINTING: Siena, hordes of tourists in Venice, Café Florian in Venice, restaurants in Bologna

    With that, my trip report is finished. Thanks to those of you who stuck with me; I appreciated your encouragement. I have gained a new respect for the writers of trip reports and value them all the more. Thank you again for all of the insight that I have gained from the contributors of this forum. Our trip would not have been the same without you! I look forward to planning my next adventure with your help!

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    caze - thank you for such a detailed and well-written TR. I'm glad you had such a good time and you have explained what worked [and what didn't] very well.

    a real boon to other travellers following in your footsteps.

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    <I know that we did not do Siena justice, but my feeling was that if you were looking for time in the countryside during your trip to Italy or wanted to feel like you were in a tiny perched hilltown, Siena is definitely NOT the place to go. I was so glad that we did not base there.>

    Not having visited Siena before, I was faced with the dilemma of choosing a hotel in or outside of Siena last weekend. Because of the August heat, we opted for "outside" and are so glad we did! After 4 or 5 hours among the throngs and the heat we retreated to our Azienda and its magnificent pool. I cannot recommend Villa Cambiat Azienda Castel Di Pugna enough, and the view from the vinyards of the setting sun over Siena from the Villa is spectacular. Winery tours for their guests start at 6:00 pm. The next day we day-tripped to Montalcino etc. It was ideally situation for this imo.

    www.castelpugna.com

    Thanks for the great trip report (don't worry how long it's taken to put it together!)

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    caze17...

    I can't believe I am just now finding this trip report. I'm really enjoying reading it (only about half way through but had to chime in!) and I'm happy that one of my previous trip reports helped in your planning process. I'm just like you when it comes to planning, do alot of it before the trip so that I can have plenty of options ready during the trip! ;-)

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    Caze - THANK YOU!

    I was finally checking back in after being gone for awhile and your report was wonderful - we visited Venezia, Firenze, Sorrento, & Roma and your many observations helped us along the way.

    Thank you - wishing you many wonderful travels.

    D.

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    Great TR, caze17.

    We visited Siena from Pisa once and from Florence another time. I wouldn't miss the Duomo or the amazing Piazza but we also were happy to make it a day trip.

    The Palio must be a zoo!

    Thanks again for your nice, nice TR.

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