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Familiar Sites-Fresh Reviews: Just Back from Rome, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice

Familiar Sites-Fresh Reviews: Just Back from Rome, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice

Old Jul 29th, 2003, 12:58 PM
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Familiar Sites-Fresh Reviews: Just Back from Rome, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice

Our two-week trip to Italy was fabulous, thanks to friends and Fodorites who generously shared their own travel experiences. I spent countless hours on this forum and ultimately organized my notes by subject on index cards (a different color for each town/region) for easy access to info on Restaurants, Things to Do, Shopping, and Miscellaneous. This method worked well for me and was more convenient than shuffling through trip reports and guidebooks each day. To conserve space, I only brought two general Italy guidebooks (Rick Steves and Eyewitness) but I wish I had brought the regional books instead that provided more detail and weren't so bulky. I ended up buying a small Tuscany guide for a little more history on the hill towns we visited. Hardly any museums/galleries provide pamphlets or brochures and we didn't see any freebie tourist info like we have in the U.S., so you need to bring your own.

I will enjoy writing this trip report and remembering the wonderful sites and people we visited during the last two weeks (actually I'm avoiding getting back to the real world). Hopefully, our experiences will help others in planning their trips as well. Our trip was well researched and planned but, of course, we had "surprises." The best advice, oft repeated on this forum, is to enjoy the adventure! I love to discover how and maybe why other places and people are different than what I'm used to. Italy is Italy. We got lost many times! Signage is terrible and directions are vague. Some of this must be due to the fact that street names change almost every block. Most public places, even with A/C, are CONSIDERABLY warmer than what we're used to. Being July, it was crowded and hot, over 100 degrees for 12 of our 15 days. I'll mention the toilets later. Customs, dress codes, and foods varied from place to place. Most women wear short dresses and sandals, not shorts and definitely not athletic shoes. Sit-down restaurants generally expect you to eat several courses. Every restaurant charges a cover charge that usually includes bread. Service is included but we often left a small tip in addition. Dinner is late. Not everyone speaks English and knowing key Italian phrases or even some Spanish (some vocab is similar) helps a lot. Definitely be respectful, give a greeting, and say "grazie" often. A smile is always understood. We tried to be flexible, keep a sense of humor, and relish each day. Next time I will do a few things differently, but we had an awesome time. Thanks again to the folks on this forum.

Rome
Our family (mom, dad, and 2 college-age sons) flew via Lufthansa. We packed light: one small suitcase and backpack each. The Sonata sleep aid our doctor prescribed did nothing. After 19 hours, we arrived in Rome and were greeted by our driver from LimoserviceRome. Unfortunately, he spoke almost no English so we didn't have much conversation or understand what he was pointing out on the way (Cost=52 euros +3 tip). When we pulled up in front of our hotel, Albergo del Senato (right in front of the Pantheon), our oldest son's girlfriend was sitting at the outdoor café next door in a gorgeous red dress, sipping a glass of wine. I hope my picture of their reunion turns out! Her study abroad program had just ended so she joined us on our family vacation.

We loved the del Senato! It is a very classy hotel and the location is incredible. The lobby, meeting rooms, and roof terrace are very elegant. The breakfast buffet had a good variety and the coffee was great. The staff was professional, helpful, and friendly. Our rooms were comfortable (good A/C!) but not large and the bathrooms were all marble with brand new fixtures. Our double did not have a balcony but a big window overlooked the Pantheon. Our triple had a huge bathroom with a side view. I would definitely stay there again. The windows are well insulated, so we heard no street noise despite the large number of people out at midnight, but did fall asleep to the muffled sound of a saxophone playing. Awesome. (Double=216 euros, Triple=249 euros/night).

We spent a few hours walking around the Pantheon, Piazza Navona (lots of construction going on there & lunch at the Ristaurante La Domiziana was terrible), Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and had our first gelato. The hotel recommended Ristaurante Clemente for dinner and we had a lovely table inside but with huge French doors open to the patio area, so we could get a breeze and see the white lights all over the piazza. The food was outstanding (Cost=220 euros for five).

The following morning, we met Johnny, our tour guide from Through Eternity. I had booked their private "Essence of Rome" tour but since we had already walked the city, we went directly to the Vatican (lunch in their cafeteria was very good and relatively inexpensive) and later to the Colloseum and Forum. There is no way we could have incorporated more into the day. We spent nine hours with Johnny and still wanted more. He was absolutely FANTASTIC. For the rest of our trip, every time we passed another tour guide, one of us would remark, "I?m so glad we had Johnny!" He is from Dublin and was so interesting. His knowledge about art and history seemed endless, he related so well to the kids and to us (my guess is that Johnny is in his late 20's), and had a lot of enthusiasm. So many tour guides sound like drones but we felt like we were getting a tour by a good friend who was so excited to have us visit. I had only booked two days for Rome because we're not "city people" and, quite honestly, after walking in the heat and crowds the previous day, I thought it would be enough. Because of Johnny, we fell in love with Rome. We definitely could have stayed a few days longer. Though he didn't ask us to, we paid him for his extra time and included a tip (total=430 euros).

After drinks on the roof terrace, we had dinner at an outdoor café called Pizza and Champagne on a small piazza a few blocks from the hotel. Though it has a touristy name, the food was authentic and pretty good. There were many cafes on the piazza in front of the Pantheon and our hotel, so when we walked home, things were lively. About 20 people at one large table were singing in Italian with the roving accordion player. Very cool.

The next day we walked back to Palatine Hill, since we had bought the combo ticket with the Colloseum the day before, and toured it on our own. Be sure you buy the Rome Past & Present book from a street vendor (10 euro) before you visit the antiquities (we didn't and wished we had). On the way back to the hotel, we bought train tickets from a travel agency and grabbed a delicious panini sandwich from a take-away place. Two taxis took us to the train station (no more than 4 people are allowed in a taxi at one time). The ride to Florence was approximately 1 1/2 hours on the Eurostar. With a ticket from an agency, we didn't have to validate it at the yellow meter box.

Final thoughts on Rome: we will definitely go back and revisit the sites we saw plus others. People were well dressed and all women wore dresses (I wish I had brought a few more!). The city was clean and we felt safe. There were lots of vendors but few beggars. The streets are incredibly crooked and the drivers are crazy. It was unbelievably hot so we carried water bottles everywhere. We didn't do any shopping.

To be continued: Tuscany & the Cinque Terre
Lina is offline  
Old Jul 29th, 2003, 02:55 PM
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Lina...what a wonderful report! I can see all the sights you are describing and cant wait to hear more!

Jamie
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Old Jul 29th, 2003, 06:36 PM
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Great report Lina, I just came back last week from Italy and France...I was in Rome also and spent a week in Cinque Terre..Great place...
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Old Jul 29th, 2003, 06:58 PM
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I can't wait to hear more! We are going on a similar trip in September and I am thrilled to hear that you had a good time. Please send more information soon!
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Old Jul 29th, 2003, 07:41 PM
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Hi-Thank you thank you for all your helpfull information. We are going to Italy next June & will be in Rome our last week. I have written down your suggestions. Thanks Chris
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Old Jul 29th, 2003, 09:08 PM
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Sounds like you really got a lot out of your trip. I hope your family enjoyed it as much as you did. Loved all the detail in your report. Looking forward to reading about the rest of your wonderful trip.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 03:59 AM
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ira
 
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Thanks for your report, Lina.
Look forward to more.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 05:09 AM
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Hi Lina,
What a great report. We will be ending our 2 week trip in Rome in October and I can't wait. I like skirts when I travel, so I was happy about your comments. Looking forward to your report on Tuscany.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 05:29 AM
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donnabee
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Great idea about the index cards. I was tired of flipping through all of my 8 1/2 x 11 pieces of paper!
 
Old Jul 30th, 2003, 11:58 AM
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Lina...how did you secure this rate for the del senato. they are quoting me $295 in late october.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 02:04 PM
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Eccomi: I booked the del Senato through venere.com but I think it was equal to the rate on their own website at the time. Perhaps the fall has become "high season" due to better temperatures.
My Tuscany/Cinque Terre report will be posted by tonight.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 04:33 PM
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I was always under the impression that summer is high season and the prices would be up there. I'll check venere.com. thanks.
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 06:00 PM
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Tuscany & the Cinque Terre:
After arriving in Florence, the kids went to the tourist desk next to the McDonald's in the train station to get bus schedules and were rudely told to go ask a bus driver. Later we found out (in Rick Steves book) that the tourist info place is actually a private hotel booking agency. We headed to the AutoEurope location (actually Avis) to pick up our car. It took a while, but we found it. For five adults, I had reserved a midsize wagon. The Renault Murano was very roomy and accommodated luggage better than a sedan. Good decision. (Cost=$475 euros/4 days)

My husband had not driven a manual shift car in 20 years so we had a hilarious ride heading out of town. Despite stalling a few times, terrible signage, traffic circles, Italian drivers, and incomplete directions, we made it to San Casciano in Val de Pesa, 17km south of Florence. After buying essentials (beer, wine, cheese, crackers, and water) at the grocery store and getting sign-language directions from a local man, we found our villa.

The Villa Il Poggiale is a new B&B in a historic villa just outside of town. The property is beautiful and we had a 2 bedroom, 2 bath apartment with a kitchen. The staff is wonderful and a large new pool just opened. Breakfasts were very good with homemade baked goods. Unfortunately, the A/C was not working but I would definitely stay there again. It proved to be an excellent location to have as a base for traveling through Tuscany. You can view the property at www.villailpoggiale.com or through Tuscany.net. There is also a review on Karen Brown's website and in her 2003 book. (Cost=270 euro/night)

Our younger son's girlfriend was also staying at the villa with her family. We were now a group of 8! After a swim and shower, we headed to dinner at the nearby Locanda Barbarossa, a 10-minute walk. Our table was set on the patio and the food was great. Highlights were homemade pasta with pesto and tomatoes and the turkey carpaccio. I didn't like my shredded beef with pepper because it had 14 million peppercorns in it, so I avoided any dish with the word "pepato" in it for the rest of the trip! (Cost=250 euros)

We took two cars to San Gimignano the following day and didn't get lost! It wasn't too crowded and we enjoyed the basilica, tower, pinacoteca, and shopping. It is a "tourist town" but worth a visit. The kids went to the Torture Museum and were totally grossed out (hard to do with 18-21 year olds!). Our carload headed on to Volterra. The road was very windy and took about an hour. Parking was tough. Unfortunately, the Alabaster Museum was closing, but we visited the cathedral, baptistry, Roman ruins, and shops. Alabaster was cheaper here and we bought a chess set, vases, picture frames, and bottle stoppers at a great store called Scali. We had dinner that night at Caffe del Popolano in San Casciano. The food was good, especially the homemade ravioli with buffalo mozzarella and tomatoes, grilled steak, and osso bucco, but the service was a tad bit rude. One couple's steak arrived before any of us had even had our pastas because the chef wanted to close the grill. (Cost=220 euros)

The following day, one carload headed to Lucca to ride bikes on the ramparts. Everyone enjoyed that and a winery tour later in the afternoon at the Antinori winery back in Chianti. They had a good dinner in San Casciano at another restaurant. Our carload went to Greve (nice piazza with shopping but not much else), Montefioralle (a very quaint TINY walled town just outside Greve, just residential), Castellina (a very nice town; we liked it very much. We visited the La Castellina winery, had lunch in a café, and enjoyed the BEST gelato at L'Antica Delizia), and Siena (which has a wonderful cathedral but is not as charming a town). We had dinner in Monteriggioni, another SMALL walled town on a hilltop with absolutely amazing views. Il Pozzo was recommended to us but they had no seats in the garden, so we went across the road to Il Piccolo Castello and actually liked it much better. The garden was lovely and service was excellent. The pastas were delicious but the lamb and duck were not (later we found out that you shouldn't order lamb and duck in Tuscany since they are not specialties of the region). We thoroughly enjoyed visiting the different towns because each had a particular charm and flavor. Some of the roads are basically one lane for two-way traffic but very picturesque (only quick peeks allowed for the driver!). We scratched plans to visit Volpaia because the route looked terrible. Also, because of poor signage, we totally missed a frattoria we intended to stop at.

Prior to the trip, I had posted a question about whether it's possible to visit the Cinque Terre in one day. Most replies advised against it. Our four energetic college kids were determined to go anyway and since my husband and I had already seen many hill towns, we all headed off the next morning. It was a 3 hour drive to get there due to traffic around Florence and in La Spezia, but we finally parked in Riomaggiore. The last 10km of road is treacherous, but by then my husband was a pro at driving! The parking attendant told us that we must be out of the garage by 10:00 pm or we will "lose" our car. Too funny. We strolled the easy section of the trail to Manarola and had lunch at Marina Piccola, overlooking the swimming area. The pastas were fabulous and we had some wine to prepare for the more strenuous sections of the trail.

Without a doubt, hiking the Cinque Terre in 100 degree heat with our sons and their girlfriends was a highlight of our trip. No kidding. We found the views to be stunning and each town to be interesting. We are still arguing whether there are 382 or 383 steps up to Corniglia. In the village (Corniglia is not on the water but rather on a hilltop), we watched two little boys play with SuperSoaker water guns. They were delighted when we asked them to "shoot" us too! The trail was not crowded but we met many Americans, mostly young people. Maybe we're the only ones who choose to punish our bodies in this way! We stopped in the cliffside bar between Corniglia and Vernazza to stock up on water and Gatorade. We didn't have time to hike the last part of the trail so we had pizza in Vernazza and took the train (which was running late) back to Riomaggiore to claim our car. We couldn't see a thing from the train so I would not recommend going to the CT unless you can hike at least some of the trails. The boats were not running on this particular day for some reason. The drive home to the villa took 2 1/4 hours, so it was a long day (time in CT=8 hours) but very worthwhile. The other couple in our group stayed at the villa all day and enjoyed the beautiful pool and surroundings. We could have used a day of that too, but were scheduled to be in Florence the next day for a tour. That night we sat at the pool and polished off the wine and cheese and talked about how much we loved Tuscany.

Final thoughts: we were glad to see a variety of hill towns and particularly liked the smaller, less touristy ones. Almost everyone goes to Siena, so I highly recommend at least stopping in Monteriggioni, which is close by. Some villas and agriturismos are in very remote locations; we were glad to be at the Villa Il Poggiale. The free map of Chianti available at www.monterinaldi.it was the best. We are looking forward to our next trip to explore more of the southern part of Tuscany and Umbria. We'll try to go during a cooler month even though we got used to having our clothes plastered to our bodies with sweat.

About toilets: you have to pay 20-50 cents to use most public toilets. The attendants take their jobs very seriously. In some places, we encountered "eastern toilets" which are basically a drain in the floor. I would think these would be a problem for heavy people who can't do a deep knee bend. Some others were "half-squat" toilets and no public toilets had seats. Just so ya know.

To be continued: Florence
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Old Jul 30th, 2003, 07:25 PM
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Lina - Thank you so much for your report. It is so much fun to travel vicariously. We stayed in Manarola in early June and also enjoyed a couple of meals at the Marina Picolo. Glad you went to The Cinque Terre. Happy travels! CJ
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 05:45 AM
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ira
 
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great report, Lina
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 07:18 AM
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Good stuff--I am glad you took the time for the CT--you will not soon forget it.
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 08:01 AM
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Even if a toilet have a seat I will never sit on IT......
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 08:21 AM
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Thanks for the reports Lina. Can't wait to hear the rest. We're just back from Tuscany and Rome and decided not to try to squeeze in Cinque Terre (mostly because we had two small children in strollers with us). Can't wait to go back ... won't miss it next time! We too loved Monteriggioni. You sound like very cool parents travelling with sons, girlfriends and "inlaws"! I hope your boys recognize how lucky they are.

Tory
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 08:45 AM
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Lina-
We're going in October but I love hearing about your report and picturing everything. Thanks for the report and can't wait for Florence. What other Tuscan towns do you recommend from your past travels?
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Old Jul 31st, 2003, 06:23 PM
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Tory: thanks for your sweet thoughts! Actually we are the lucky ones, to have great sons who want to spend time with us. They have great girlfriends too. We just got over 300 pictures back and are having fun reminiscing!
My Florence report is coming soon.
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