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Trip Report The Venuto: 30 August to 5 Sept 2015

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Part 1: Six Days in Naples
http://www.fodors.com/community/europe/trip-report-naples-venice-florence-.cfm

I was feeling pretty good about this trip after a fantastic week in Naples. I saw so much, and yet I still left feeling like I had also missed so much.

It was a pleasant train ride from Naples to Padova, with a change in Bologna. It was nice seeing the countryside change from the dusty browns and golds of Campania to the deep greens of northern Italy. I ran into my first hustlers in the Bologna station. They had two scams going. In the first, they would jam a vending machine so that it wouldn't take euro notes. They would offer to change your note for coins, but would only have 4 euro in coins for a 5 euro note. In the second, they would point out your train (even though you would be standing on the platform and could very well see that a train had just pulled up), or walk ahead of you to your seat & then demand a tip. This was super irritating.

Padova: 2 days

I picked Padova because it was close to Venice, where I was going to meet friends in a couple days, because I didn't think I could afford to spend the full time in Venice, and because I thought it would be nice to spend a few days in a smaller city.

I stayed at B&B Casa Mario, which was a short walk from the train station and a fifteen to twenty minute stroll into the old town. Nice host, nice room, great breakfast, & a large shower - this was a good choice for two nights. The neighborhood itself wasn't super exciting, but it wasn't bad either.

The main city was super quiet. This was my first stop where I truly understood that what chiuso per ferie (closed for the holidays) meant. There were almost no cars on the road, and very few pedestrians outside the historic center. The center had a lot of activity, and seemed to be a mix of Italian, American, and English tourists.

I meant to take it easy the first day day. A site or two, lunch, and nap. Instead I wandered all day, always thinking, there's just one more thing ...

I saw Giotto's frescoes at the Capella della Scrovegni, got lost in a maze of Tintorettos, saw Roman miniatures carved out of precious gems, and visited a shrine built around the uncorrupted tongue, la lingua incorrotta, of Sant' Antonio (as well as his vocal cords and lower jaw, all encased in crystal and gold).

I wasn't as blown away by the Chapel as I thought I would be. I understand how important Giotto was to the history of art, but his work feels (to me) like a prelude of the greater things to come. Most tourists do the Chapel tour and then leave; there were only a handful of people in the attached museums.

The Basilica surprised me. I thought I had had enough of churches in Naples, but this one really was magnificent, and truly felt different than all the churches I had seen in the south.

Where I truly went into geek love overdrive was at the Museum of the History of Medicine at Padova. In 1414 the first modern hospital was founded here, and the museum is an interactive walk through six centuries of western medicine. There were no other kids, so I got to play with the toys all by myself.

Tourists are strange things: there are lots of them here, hundreds all queued up for a few sites - while there were amazing sites around the corner that were completely empty.

I also did an evening tour of the Osservatorio Astronomico di Padova on the second day. It was interesting, though I was tired from walking all day & wish I had done an earlier tour.

Food time - I took my time choosing restaurants, and ate well.

I stopped by La Folperia da Max e Barbara twice. It's a seafood cart on the Piazza della Fruta that specialized in octopus. It's intimidating at first, but my Italian was good enough by this time to say "this is my first time here. I don't know what I'm doing." The owners were cool with that, and talked me through how to order an octopus. From the cart you could take your plate to the tables on the piazza, order a spritz, and people-watch to your hearts content.

I had a nice lunch at Antenore, a small restaurant that focuses on local, organic ingredients.

I cannot for the life of me recall where I had dinner. I'm sure I ate ... I do not skip meals in Italy, ever ... but I'm drawing a blank.

In the end, Padova was a nice interlude. It's a pretty city, and there was more here than I realized. And while I thought I was getting off the tourist circuit, but this town is definitely popular. Two days was enough. I think it could even be done as a day trip from Venice if people were so inclined.

There was a cool gay vibe - this is the center for gay life in the Veneto region. I hit some bars, and everyone I talked to was from a neighboring town or village. And their gay pride is a whole village (Padova Pride Village), every weekend for six weeks, that goes all night long.

Seriously- midnight to dawn, all summer long. There are drag shows, dj's, and cabarets.I stopped by to check it out, but I'm past the age where I can wait until 2 am for a party to really start.

And here's a difference between solo and group travel. Solo: I walk and walk and walk, I don't care that it's 93 degrees, I explore all the random corners, I get lost a lot, and I end the day exhausted & not feeling super social.

If I were with friends I would have seen less, maybe, but I would be more likely to do the festivals, or hit the village and dance til dawn.

Next stop: La Serenissima.

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    Venice: Five days

    There are people who say that two or three days in Venice is enough. For me, ten days might have been enough. I seriously loved Venice.

    I originally wanted to take the boat from Padova down the Brenta Canal, but it was expensive, and didn't allow you to take luggage. I'm glad I took the train - it gave me more time in the city.

    I booked a room for the first two nights at Hotel Tiziano. This is a budget hotel on the western side of Dorsoduro, and I booked early and got an amazing rate - $80 a night. That was higher than I was paying in other cities, but much lower than anything else in Venice. And it was a perfectly nice hotel with pleasant staff, a big breakfast, and a nice quiet square out front.

    I really liked staying far away from the tourist crowds, though sometimes it was a long walk home after dinner or touring the sites. I got lost a lot, mostly from trying to make my own way through the maze of San Polo rather than taking the easy route along the Giudecca Canal. If you come to Venice bring a good map, or splurge for a lot of data and use Google maps!

    For food I had one simple rule: I would only eat at restaurants that Michela Scibilia recommended. It turned out to be a very good rule - I've read that Venice has a poor reputation for food, but I had absolutely fantastic meals.

    I had 2 1/2 days on my own, then met a group of friends for 2 1/2 days.

    A lot of the time I just wandered with only a vague destination in mind. Most streets were quiet except around the main sights. Outside the center there were always bàcari, small local bars, where you could stop for a snack of cicchetti and an ombra (a small, 90 cent glass of wine) or a spritz.

    It was the 56th Venice Biennale, and there were exhibits all over the city. I had read some pretty poor reviews about the bienalle, but I'd never been to a major international exhibition, so I didn't have anything to compare it to.

    I stumbled on two great shows at the Guatemala and Azerbaijan pavilions. And I saw a lot of junk - both private shows and tragic country pavilions. And I mean junk. One "exhibit" was a pair of loafers. Another was a pile of coats. It was tragic.

    It was a full moon the first night, and I spent a couple hours walking through the center. The city was stunning in the moonlight.

    The first full day I went to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco. This was the guild house for the Fraternity of San Rocco. Tintoretto, a brother of the Fraternity, decorated the halls and meeting rooms between 1564 and 1587.

    The rest of the day I just wandered, ate, and drank. It was a very good day.

    My second full day I went to the main Biennele exhibits at the Arsenale and Il Giardino. Most of it was artists gazing in wonder at their own navels, and exclaiming how revolutionary it was in long texts accompanying the work.

    Il Giardino had large installations, so at least the art had some drama to it. The Arsenale was 99% awful. The Giardino was only 75% awful, and there were were three pavilions that I really liked. One was a dark maze made up of glowing, flickering plastic flowers. The Korea pavilion had a futuristic, Cloud Atlas feel. Bolivia had an interesting take on indigenous art. The cafeteria was also super cool.

    England, by contrast, had sculptures of women with cigarettes sticking out of their private parts. Classy. Five countries had exhibits that were just monochromatic rooms. I quit after I walked into the third pavilion where the art was a white room.

    Overall, the Bienalle was so bad I started to enjoy myself. The reviewers have been vicious about this year's show, so I feel a little less pagan in my opinions. And I really enjoyed being out in the Sant 'Elena neighborhood.

    _______________________________________

    Facebook post: August 31

    This city isn't just sinking, it's warping the actual fabric of space-time. Basic laws of geometry don't work. Parallel streets run tangent to each other, alleys end behind where they started, and the shortest distance between two points is a double helix.

    I have become completely disoriented three times already, and each time it's taken me ninety minutes to do the twenty minute walk back to my hotel.

    Today I got stuck in the tourist vortex. It was bad. It took me 2 drinks to recover (so honestly, it was a mild (expletive removed), as (expletives) go).

    First the good: I broke down and went shopping. I now have adult shoes and a nice jacket, both hand made in Italy. I wouldn't forgive myself if I passed this by: the end of season sales are incredible.

    Then I entered the vortex. It started at the Rialto Bridge area, which was packed tight with people. I figured it was a discrete point in space and time, and enjoyed it for what it was.

    Then I veered off to explore a new neighborhood, Cannaregio. And became trapped: the main run is a long shopping street connecting Rialto to the train station. It was 2 km of non-stop selfie sticks, Hard Rock t-shirts, and fake Gucci bags, restaurants with cheap food and expensive drinks, and kiosks selling made-in-China "Venetian" trinkets.

    And there was no escape: no bridges to cross the Grand Canal, no traghetto that I could find, no side streets leading in the direction I needed.

    I guess it's clever: trap the hordes so they don't bother the rest of the city - there are tourists everywhere, but it's a much more pleasant group of travelers in the neighborhoods.

    _______________________________________


    When my friends arrived we moved to an apartment on the border between Cannaregio and Castelo. I thought we would be outside the tourist zone, but we weren't far enough for my tastes! We had to cut through the masses to get anywhere, and I did not like the parts of Venice dedicated to mass tourism.

    The first day as a group we took a long vaporetto ride along the north side of the city, then switched at the train station to ride a vaporetto down the Grand Canal. My friends really wanted to do this, and were intending to read from the Rick Steve's guide as we went along. I knew that we'd be packed in like sardines on the vaporetto, but figured sometimes it's just better to go with the flow. I also knew that the gang would be following my lead for the next two days.

    After the Grand Canal we hopped another boat to San Giorgio Maggiore. The view from the campanile was fantastic, and as most reviewers on TA note, there were very few people there. I'm amazed that this isn't on every visitor's itinerary.

    Our next stop was a wander through Dorsoduro, with many stops for ciccheti.

    That night we got dressed up and went to La Fenice to watch La Traviata. We had the cheap seats at the very top, but had a clear view and the sound was great. I noticed that every level had two rows of seats. If you go make sure you don't get stuck in the second row, or you'll be watching the opera between people's heads.

    The next day was our tourist day. We started with the Secret Itinerary at the Doge's Palace. We had one mean & sour guide, and I did not enjoy this. By the end we were too tired and hungry to explore the rest of the palace in any depth, or to enjoy the special exhibit of works by Henri Rousseau.

    In the afternoon we took a tour of the Torre dell'Orologio. This, by contrast, was excellent.

    That night we took rowing lessons with Row Venice. We learned how to row Venetian style, and then took the boats through the side canals of Cannaregio into the Grand Canal. We only did the 90" lesson - I could have easily spent twice hours doing this. It was one of the highlights of a trip full of highlights.

    _________________________________________

    So that was five non-stop days. If I had more time I would have done a beach day on the Lido, visited the Academy and the Peggy Guggenheim museums, taken a boat over to Torcello, rented a bike for a ride along the Brenta Canal, gone kayaking at night, and maybe done a day trip to Vicenza. I felt bad that my friends only had 2 1/2 days. That was poor planning on their part!

    _________________________________________

    Restaurants I can recommend:

    San Basilio, Dorsoduro. It doesn't look too promising from the outside, just a bunch of tables on the square with plastic chairs. But I had my first (but not last) spaghetti nero di seppia (spaghetti in squid ink sauce) there, and loved it. I also tried sarde in saór (sardines in a marinated onion sauce with polenta), which was fine.

    Muro Frari, San Polo. We ate here twice, as it was open late and big enough that we could always find a table. The pizza was great. It wasn't as tasty as in Naples, but there was a lot more variety in toppings. The tartare was amazing, and had a lot more spices in it than the French style.

    Frary's, San Polo. Venice was a Latin Christian empire whose focus was always more on the East: Byzantuim, the Ottoman Empire, the Arab dynasties. So a Persian-Greek-Turkish-Venetian restaurant makes sense. I had a wonderful fish couscous with a saffron broth.

    Osteria Alla Staffa, Castello. A small seafood restaurant a short walk from the madness at St. Mark's. The seafood appetizer was a work of art in itself.

    Al Diporto, Sant 'Elena. A small family-owned restaurant on the far eastern end. Basic northern Italian fare, and very affordable. I went for a simple gnocchi with tomato sauce and a glass of prosecco.

    Lazzarin Giuliano & Giovanni SNC, San Polo. It's a typical "typical down-home style cooking" says Michela Scibilia. Yeah. Only if typical down-home for you means outdoor tables along the canal and dishes like cappellacci ripieni di branzino in salsa di scampi e rucola (cappellacci pasta stuffed with seabass in a sauce of shrimp and rucola).

    As I said before, I ate well in Venice. And the prices weren't too bad - in fact, the prices were downright fantastic given the quality of the food. I aimed for small, family-owned places where meals were under 20 euro. There are some left, if you are willing to take the time to look for them.

    Venice prices can also be extreme. For a example, an cappuccino in the neighborhood was €1.50. A cappuccino at St. Mark's Square was €9.00.

    The city takes some planning if you don't want to break the bank, or be stuck in a commodified version of "Venice." But the planning really pays off.

    Next stop: Verona

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    Michael

    What a great trip report! I just discovered it and will go back to read about your Naples experience.

    I'm so glad you took the time to search out the quiet and so very interesting places of Venice. It's an amazing and beautiful place!

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    Verona: Two days

    Our main reason for stopping in Verona was to see Nabucco in the Roman theater. And it was fantastic - this was my first time seeing an opera performed on an epic scale. We splurged on seats near the front, and it was worth every euro.

    I was worried that I would fall asleep during the performance when I read that the opera could last four hours. Luckily, there were breaks between every act, and there were bars placed around the arena where it was easy to grab a quick drink. In the end I was totally transfixed by the performance, and staying awake was not a problem at all!

    There are no surtitles at the Arena, so I invested a fair amount of time studying the libretto in Italian and English, an in listening to podcasts about Verdi. I think that this made for a much deeper experience. I printed a copy of the libretto to bring with me, and it was nice to review it between sets.


    We "splurged" for dinner before the show on a restaurant out of the Michelin Guide, >u>Ristorante Arche. It's been in the same family for three generations, and had a certain classical, elegant feel that I loved.

    I put splurged in quotes, as the appetizers were under 15 euro, and the main plates under 25 euro. You'd have to triple those prices to get a seafood meal of this quality in my hometown.

    Otherwise, I used our first day in Verona as a rest day. We had rented an apartment through Air B&B, and after two weeks on the road I was ready for a day of laying on the couch and reading. I walked around the historic center with the gang, but didn't do any sites per se. The town was pretty, it was far more affluent than any place I had been so far, and the people we met were pleasant. I wish I could tell you more about Verona, but I didn't really get a chance to know her.

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    Post-script - Florence: Three nights

    My friends wanted to "do Florence" in two days. Foolish things. I'd spent a week there in 2014, so didn't argue with them too much about there not being enough time.

    There is so much out there about Florence already that I'm just going to add some random observations here rather than do a full blown trip report.

    I absolutely adored Florence in April. There were a lot of tourists (I went during Holy Week), but I didn't feel like they overwhelmed the city except in the very center. I have more mixed feelings about Florence during peak season - the package tour groups seemed to be everywhere. And maybe because it was the tail end of the season, but I felt that people were a bit grumpier, a bit more aloof, just a bit over it all & ready for the season to end.

    But our group had swelled to seven, and that also changes the dynamic of travelling. When there were five of us we were focused outwards; when there were seven it seemed that we were focused more inwards.

    I took a pass on visiting the Piazza dei Pitti and Uffizo for a second time, and used the first day to shop in the revamped Mercato Centrale. I was worried that it would be too tourist-focused, but I found that the products were similarly priced to what I saw at other shops. I came back to Hawaii with a nice bounty to share with my friends: finocchiona (salame with fennel seeds), prosciutto Toscana (with black pepper), lardo di Colonnata (prosciutto made out of pig fat), crema di balsamico di Modena (delicious), and a variety of truffle pastes, including one made with chocolate.

    It all sounds so very high end, but it was comparable to what I'd pay for average products at home. And I found the shopkeepers to be helpful. One in particular cautioned me away from the crema in the pretty glass bottle, and showed me one in an average looking plastic bottle that was twice the volume, half the cost, and, he said, much higher quality.

    (By this point in the trip I could manage basic interactions in Italian with some confidence. My vocabulary and grammar were limited, but no one switched to English on me or gave me blank stares, so I think I was doing pretty good.)

    Highs and lows of Florence:

    High: The Secret Passages tour at the Palazzo Vecchio trhough Cosimo Medici's private chambers, and then above the Hall of 500 to see the architecture from the inside, was extremely well done and interesting. I'd highly recommend it. In addition, the views from the top of the Palazzo were wonderful, and worth the extra cost.

    Low: The process of buying tickets at the Palazzo Vecchio. Incompetence abounded.

    Low: Visiting Santa Maria del Fiore on the Natività di Maria. The church was mostly roped off, and you basically walked through the building in a line with other visitors. This was in stark contrast to when I visited for Easter mass, which was a spiritually powerful experience (and I'm very much a lapsed Catholic).

    High: Basilica di Santa Croce. I was surprised just how interesting and cool it was to see the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, & Machiavelli.

    High: The Bargello. It has a couple Michelangelo pieces, but you really come here for the beautiful Donatello marbles and bronzes. The tour groups skip this one, and so you have more space to admire the works with other art lovers.

    Mixed: I dragged everyone up the hill to hear the Gregorian mass at San Miniato al Monte, but they switched schedules and it was a Latin mass. This was nowhere near as interesting as the Gregorian. Still, it's a beautiful walk with gorgeous views over the countryside.

    Low: Pizza. I tried to explain to some of the guys that Italian food was regional & that Tuscany really wasn't the place for pizza, but they insisted: we are in Italy and we are going to have pizza. For the record, they did not find good pizza in Italy.

    High: It was truffle season! Let's put truffles on everything!

    Highs: Restaurants that the foodies among us chose.
    Lows: Restaurants that the non-foodies chose. More on this below.

    Mixed: Drive through San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, and Chianti. On one hand, it was cool to see these places. On the other, I'm not a fan of long days in a car.

    Low: Following Rick Steves' recommendations for food. His recommendations are totally fine; the problem is that everyone seems to want to eat at the gelato place in his book, the pizza place in his book, the sandwich place in his book, etc. And so we waited in line 30" for a gelato at "the best gelateria in Italy" (not my idea). It was good, but not sure that it was worth standing in the 90 degree sun for that long.

    Super High: The Accademia del Buon Gusto in Panzano in Chianti. This was a last minute choice, yet it was one of the highlights of the trip - and possibly the best wine tasting (or wine education) of my life. The Trip Advisor reviews are accurate this time.

    Quick notes on restaurants:

    Note di Vino, Santa Croce. The Tuscan sampler plate was full of interesting crostini, with an emphasis on truffles. Yum.

    l'Brindellone, Oltrarno - We chose this place for our Bistecca alla Fiorentina night. The decor is basic, the food excellent.

    Alla Veccha Bettola, Oltrarno - A bit further out from the center, but still walking distance, this place focuses on traditional Tuscan cuisine. Highly recommended.

    Peruca', San Gimgigniano - Traditional Tuscan food, including rabbit and wild boar. Also excellent.

    One to avoid: Acqua Al 2 - A corporate restaurant. They're famous for their "pasta sampler" plate. If you ask for anything else they will try and steer you back to the sampler plate. If you note that you don't want the sampler plate they will remind you that that is what they are famous for. If you ask any other questions the manager will come over and ask the waitress why she is taking so long & to hurry it up, probably not realizing that I can understand every word he says.

    Disappointing: apertivo at Negroni. The spread was ok - not bad, but not exciting. I can cook better. The neighboring bars didn't look that great either. It certainly wasn't "the place to be" that I had read about. I would have liked to explore apertivo places on other evenings, but the gang wasn't interested after this first experience.

    Final Facebook post

    It feels like it's been forever, and suddenly it's my last day here. We grew to seven this week, when ...'s husbands joined us, but I'll be the first one to start flying back tomorrow.

    This is the first trip where I've really noticed how different the regions are here. Everyone told me Naples was almost a different country, but so was the Veneto - it was Mediterranean, but a bit more formal (the taxi driver wore heels and the train stations had signs warning tourists that beach wear was not appropriate street wear) and a lot more efficient on every level.

    The formality was a change - my own style blended totally with Napoli style. In Venice my style totally marked me as a tourist.

    It was good being A List for a few days, though! We had great seafood at a Michelin restaurant, met the chef, and saw an epic opera performance at a Roman arena.

    Florence is ... Italy again. The actual schedules don't match the posted schedules, special events are advertised but don't exist, restaurants take reservations for nights they aren't open, and ... on and on. And I've been getting my info from the official websites! I didn't notice this last time, but I was solo, it wasn't peak season, and I had a whole week.

    This summer Italy turned over the management of their state museums to German, French, and American professionals. I'm sure this was a blow to national pride, but it's needed.

    (For the record: I would turn over the management of most of Hawaii's state and county governments to the Germans in a heartbeat. I'm not singling out Italy)

    Showtime: the 'secret passages' tour of the Palazzio Vecchio was amazing, the city in summer is beautiful, the food is excellent when we take our time to pick the right place (and sub par when we don't), and the men on the street are hot.

    ___________________________________________

    Next year: Maybe Sicily. Maybe the Greek mainland. I have some time to decide!

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    Post-script - Florence: Three nights

    My friends wanted to "do Florence" in two days. Foolish things. I'd spent a week there in 2014, so didn't argue with them too much about there not being enough time.

    There is so much out there about Florence already that I'm just going to add some random observations here rather than do a full blown trip report.

    I absolutely adored Florence in April. There were a lot of tourists (I went during Holy Week), but I didn't feel like they overwhelmed the city except in the very center. I have more mixed feelings about Florence during peak season - the package tour groups seemed to be everywhere. And maybe because it was the tail end of the season, but I felt that people were a bit grumpier, a bit more aloof, just a bit over it all & ready for the season to end.

    But our group had swelled to seven, and that also changes the dynamic of travelling. When there were five of us we were focused outwards; when there were seven it seemed that we were focused more inwards.

    I took a pass on visiting the Piazza dei Pitti and Uffizo for a second time, and used the first day to shop in the revamped Mercato Centrale. I was worried that it would be too tourist-focused, but I found that the products were similarly priced to what I saw at other shops. I came back to Hawaii with a nice bounty to share with my friends: finocchiona (salame with fennel seeds), prosciutto Toscana (with black pepper), lardo di Colonnata (prosciutto made out of pig fat), crema di balsamico di Modena (delicious), and a variety of truffle pastes, including one made with chocolate.

    It all sounds so very high end, but it was comparable to what I'd pay for average products at home. And I found the shopkeepers to be helpful. One in particular cautioned me away from the crema in the pretty glass bottle, and showed me one in an average looking plastic bottle that was twice the volume, half the cost, and, he said, much higher quality.

    (By this point in the trip I could manage basic interactions in Italian with some confidence. My vocabulary and grammar were limited, but no one switched to English on me or gave me blank stares, so I think I was doing pretty good.)

    Highs and lows of Florence:

    High: The Secret Passages tour at the Palazzo Vecchio trhough Cosimo Medici's private chambers, and then above the Hall of 500 to see the architecture from the inside, was extremely well done and interesting. I'd highly recommend it. In addition, the views from the top of the Palazzo were wonderful, and worth the extra cost.

    Low: The process of buying tickets at the Palazzo Vecchio. Incompetence abounded.

    Low: Visiting Santa Maria del Fiore on the Natività di Maria. The church was mostly roped off, and you basically walked through the building in a line with other visitors. This was in stark contrast to when I visited for Easter mass, which was a spiritually powerful experience (and I'm very much a lapsed Catholic).

    High: Basilica di Santa Croce. I was surprised just how interesting and cool it was to see the tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Dante, & Machiavelli.

    High: The Bargello. It has a couple Michelangelo pieces, but you really come here for the beautiful Donatello marbles and bronzes. The tour groups skip this one, and so you have more space to admire the works with other art lovers.

    Mixed: I dragged everyone up the hill to hear the Gregorian mass at San Miniato al Monte, but they switched schedules and it was a Latin mass. This was nowhere near as interesting as the Gregorian. Still, it's a beautiful walk with gorgeous views over the countryside.

    Low: Pizza. I tried to explain to some of the guys that Italian food was regional & that Tuscany really wasn't the place for pizza, but they insisted: we are in Italy and we are going to have pizza. For the record, they did not find good pizza in Italy.

    High: It was truffle season! Let's put truffles on everything!

    Highs: Restaurants that the foodies among us chose.
    Lows: Restaurants that the non-foodies chose. More on this below.

    Mixed: Drive through San Gimignano, Monteriggioni, and Chianti. On one hand, it was cool to see these places. On the other, I'm not a fan of long days in a car.

    Low: Following Rick Steves' recommendations for food. His recommendations are totally fine; the problem is that everyone seems to want to eat at the gelato place in his book, the pizza place in his book, the sandwich place in his book, etc. And so we waited in line 30" for a gelato at "the best gelateria in Italy" (not my idea). It was good, but not sure that it was worth standing in the 90 degree sun for that long.

    Super High: The Accademia del Buon Gusto in Panzano in Chianti. This was a last minute choice, yet it was one of the highlights of the trip - and possibly the best wine tasting (or wine education) of my life. The Trip Advisor reviews are accurate this time.

    Quick notes on restaurants:

    Note di Vino, Santa Croce. The Tuscan sampler plate was full of interesting crostini, with an emphasis on truffles. Yum.

    l'Brindellone, Oltrarno - We chose this place for our Bistecca alla Fiorentina night. The decor is basic, the food excellent.

    Alla Veccha Bettola, Oltrarno - A bit further out from the center, but still walking distance, this place focuses on traditional Tuscan cuisine. Highly recommended.

    Peruca', San Gimgigniano - Traditional Tuscan food, including rabbit and wild boar. Also excellent.

    One to avoid: Acqua Al 2 - A corporate restaurant. They're famous for their "pasta sampler" plate. If you ask for anything else they will try and steer you back to the sampler plate. If you note that you don't want the sampler plate they will remind you that that is what they are famous for. If you ask any other questions the manager will come over and ask the waitress why she is taking so long & to hurry it up, probably not realizing that I can understand every word he says.

    Disappointing: apertivo at Negroni. The spread was ok - not bad, but not exciting. I can cook better. The neighboring bars didn't look that great either. It certainly wasn't "the place to be" that I had read about. I would have liked to explore apertivo places on other evenings, but the gang wasn't interested after this first experience.

    Final Facebook post

    It feels like it's been forever, and suddenly it's my last day here. We grew to seven this week, when ...'s husbands joined us, but I'll be the first one to start flying back tomorrow.

    This is the first trip where I've really noticed how different the regions are here. Everyone told me Naples was almost a different country, but so was the Veneto - it was Mediterranean, but a bit more formal (the taxi driver wore heels and the train stations had signs warning tourists that beach wear was not appropriate street wear) and a lot more efficient on every level.

    The formality was a change - my own style blended totally with Napoli style. In Venice my style totally marked me as a tourist.

    It was good being A List for a few days, though! We had great seafood at a Michelin restaurant, met the chef, and saw an epic opera performance at a Roman arena.

    Florence is ... Italy again. The actual schedules don't match the posted schedules, special events are advertised but don't exist, restaurants take reservations for nights they aren't open, and ... on and on. And I've been getting my info from the official websites! I didn't notice this last time, but I was solo, it wasn't peak season, and I had a whole week.

    This summer Italy turned over the management of their state museums to German, French, and American professionals. I'm sure this was a blow to national pride, but it's needed.

    (For the record: I would turn over the management of most of Hawaii's state and county governments to the Germans in a heartbeat. I'm not singling out Italy)

    Showtime: the 'secret passages' tour of the Palazzio Vecchio was amazing, the city in summer is beautiful, the food is excellent when we take our time to pick the right place (and sub par when we don't), and the men on the street are hot.

    ___________________________________________

    Next year: Maybe Sicily. Maybe the Greek mainland. I have some time to decide!

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