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MRand Jul 3rd, 2005 04:04 AM

Family of 5 Italy Trip Report
We are a family of five just returning from a 17 day trip to Italy. In late May my work schedule suddenly cleared for the last two weeks in June. I decided to try to put together a last minute trip to Italy for our family, including our 17 year old daughter and 15 and 11 year old sons. My wife and I had been to Rome, Florence, Siena, Pisa, and Santa Margherita when we were first married 25 years ago and I had been to Milan in the 1990s on business, but our children had never been to Italy. A good friend who had taken a similar but longer trip with his wife and their two teenage boys eight years ago suggested an itinerary possibly including Cinque Terre, Florence & Tuscany, Rome, Amalfi, and/or Venice. I had serious doubts that we could plan any such trip at this late date, but after spending several hours with reservations agents at American my wife was able to book our tickets using frequent flyer miles with somewhat unusual routing. The itinerary was for seventeen days (including travel days) and required a same day transfer from London Gatwick to Heathrow for a British Airways flight into Milan and a British Airways return out of Venice to Manchester, UK to connect with our American flight back to the U.S., but at least we could get there and back.

My misgivings about the wisdom of planning such a last minute trip began to grow after I spent a week receiving e-mail rejections for hotel reservations from a number of hotels recommended by our friend, various guidebooks, or this forum. Plus part of the adventure of travel for me is the months of detailed research, planning, and anticipation involved in a trip of this magnitude, but because of our time constraints that was simply not possible. On the verge of chucking the whole idea of the trip, I returned to this forum for suggestions on last minute planning. Thanks to many helpful comments, including those by Elaine, bobthenavigator, Vetty, Dayle, and Statia, I decided it was “now or never” and redoubled my efforts. With the invaluable assistance of my daughter, who spent hours researching while I was trying to wrap up work projects, we were able to book accommodations directly by e-mail or through in Milan (1 night), Cinque Terre (2 nights), Tuscany (San Gimignano environs) (5 nights), Rome (4 nights), Venice (3 nights), and on the return in Manchester (1 night). Regrettably, Amalfi / Positano and Pompeii would have to wait for another trip. We were able, for several hundred dollars, to expedite passports for the kids that arrived—whew—several days before our scheduled departure.

Wednesday, June 15 at midnight before our departure, our daughter’s new passport suddenly went missing. This can’t be happening---we’ve worked too hard to put this thing together. A frantic one hour search of the house turns up the passport in the copier of my home office! I had read it was a good idea to take photocopies of the passports but had been distracted in mid-task. I felt like I’d had a double shot of espresso and now I couldn’t go to sleep. Is this trip a good idea after all? I’m not sure it’s feeling like a vacation yet. Nevertheless, on Wed., June 15 the five of us were winging our way eastward to Italy via London. We are now back and what follows is our trip report that I will have to write in installments as time allows. It may be of more interest to those who are travelling with families, but hopefully Italian travel veterans will also find some nuggets of interesting or useful information.

Climate, Packing, and Dress

First a few words about climate, packing, and dress. We are used to hot weather but everywhere we went in Italy was really HOT! Thank goodness we followed the advice in this forum and elsewhere to pack lightly. My main bag, when fully packed, measured 9 x 14 x 22. My wife had a slightly larger bag that required checking. The kids had identical black duffel bags with dimensions of 12 x 14 x 24 when fully packed. Thank goodness all were of the rolling variety. We also each carried a light backpack / daypack on to the plane. This turned out to be the appropriate mix of luggage and allowed us to travel quickly and efficiently in airports, train stations, and to and from hotels. If we had carried on board all of our luggage, it would have shortened some waiting times at airport baggage claims, although 15 or 20 minutes at Milan Malpensa was the longest we had to wait on bags at any point in the trip.

Although I packed lightly, four pair of long pants and two pair of long shorts were the wrong mix for our itinerary. I should have reversed those numbers. Did I mention that Italy was HOT? Because of the heat, I wore knee length shorts almost exclusively and only wore long pants on two or three occasions. I packed six shirts that included five dark colored short sleeved golf or tennis type shirts and one nicer dark T shirt. I should have substituted another T-shirt. I had two pair of shoes---nicer Asics running shoes that I ended up wearing almost exclusively (with short tennis socks) and some Timberline low top hikers that can double as dress shoes in a pinch. My wife and daughter were extremely pleased with what they packed---several ankle or knee length linen skirts, several cropped Capri style pants, and nice short sleeve or sleeveless cotton tops. (Note: They packed and DID need sweaters or shoulder wraps to enter churches on a number of occasions.) They packed and wore hiking shoes, Birkenstock sandals, Chaco sandals, and one dressier pair of cushioned sandals. None of us ever wore the light windbreakers we packed, except for two of the kids on the return flight.

I saw a lot of questions in this forum before our departure as to whether shorts are appropriate dress in Italy. I questioned this myself because I recalled from our trip in the early 1980s that Italians wore long pants or skirts and not shorts or jeans. Things have changed---everywhere we went, we saw many tourists and locals alike wearing nice knee length shorts. I do not think short shorts are appropriate and in any event you should be aware that many churches will not permit men or women wearing shorts that clearly expose the knees to enter (in addition to the exposed arms and shoulders described above).

Wed. June 15

I am a frequent flyer and not a nervous one, but I think it is slightly unsettling while scanning the in-flight entertainment guide before takeoff to notice that the musical offerings include---I’m not making this up---“I’m Going Down” (Springsteen), “If Tomorrow Never Comes” (Rowan Keating), “We Both Go Down Together” (The Decembrists), and “Bury Me” (Dwight Yoakum). Doesn’t American think about stuff like this when choosing its on-board selections? Maybe not. Nevertheless, our American flight to Gatwick is comfortable and utterly uneventful.

On arrival at Gatwick we quickly collect our bags and debate whether to take a taxi cab or the National Express bus to Heathrow. A taxi driver quotes us a rate of 95 pounds for the trip so we decide to take the regular National Express shuttle bus that runs between the two airports every thirty minutes during the day (72 pounds total for the entire family). We have about four hours between our connecting flights so the 90 minute bus ride between the two airports gave us plenty of time to catch the connecting British Airways flight to Milan. We arrive at Milan Malpensa airport about 5:30 pm on a beautiful afternoon, get our bags in about 20 minutes, and easily locate the seven seat Renault Espace mini-van we are renting from Sixt. The mini-van even has a GPS navigation system (!), which turns out to be a godsend as the trip evolves. My middle son immediately deciphers the GPS programming and within 45 minutes we pull up to the curb at Hotel Berna (booked through and listed there as a 3 star hotel) a block or two from Statzione Centrale. The hotel appears to be nothing special on the outside. Nevertheless, the lobby public area wis pleasant and the small, but two clean modern rooms with good showers and sufficient air conditioning (stay tuned, this becomes an issue later) are more than adequate for the five of us. In fact, the included breakfast we have the next morning is excellent and turns out to be the only included hotel breakfast on the trip that offers scrambled eggs as well as the usual Continental fare (assorted meats, cheeses, pastries and breads, cereals, and beverages).

We are all fatigued, but since we are spending only one night and the next morning in Milan, I urge the family to take the twenty to thirty minute walk to Piazza del Duomo for dinner and to take in the central square and massive Duomo in center city Milan.
It is a warm but pleasant walk along the Via V. Pisani and Via Turati to the ancient Roman gate at Piazza Cavour. Although we are starved, we take a quick detour down Via Monte Napoleone so Mom and daughter can window shop along that famous street, then past La Scala opera house and its complements, the stunning square Piazza della Scala and the monumental Galleria arcade that leads directly into the central square. Walking through the Galleria, it really starts to sink in---WE ARE ACTUALLY IN ITALY!. Pizza, red wine, and gelato in the nearby Galleria quickly offset my disappointment that the remarkable façade of the Duomo is entirely covered with scaffolding. We then zip back to the hotel on the efficient Milan Metro subway (1 Euro per ticket), which seems safe even at 11:30 at night. Every thirty minutes or so, it actually sinks in that we are actually, really, in Italy and this trip may come off after all.

fun4all4 Jul 3rd, 2005 04:16 AM

Thanks for a great first installment of your trip. I am reading with particular interest as we leave for Italy with our 11 and 14 year old sons in 3 weeks. You have already provided both good info and enjoyable reading. Keep it coming....
My only question so far is regarding what your sons packed. Are my boys' long cargo type shorts long enough to be considered "knee covering" or will they need pants? I know it will be hot, but they need to be appropriate for churches and such.
I eagerly await the next installment!

MRand Jul 3rd, 2005 08:14 AM

fun4all4 - Our boys wore the knee length cargo shorts (as did I) and we never had a problem getting into any cathedrals. We did wear long pants at St. Peter's in Rome just to make sure (I had heard they could be more strict there), but in restrospect I think even there we could've gotten in with longer shorts. It was also my impression that some inspectors were willing to cut kids a little more slack than adults. Now for intallment 2:

Fri. June 17 (Milan—Cinque Terre)

A good night’s sleep after 26 hours of travel over the two preceeding days. Up early for the good breakfast at the Hotel Berna then we take the Metro from Stazione Central to the Duomo stop in center city. My yougest son wants to go both inside and climb on top of the Duomo. Despite the scaffolding of its exterior façade, the Duomo is huge and impressive inside. The climb up the outside stairs to the roof and then walking along the roof with its unprecedented view of the spires of the cathedral and the skyline of Milan is well worth the effort, although by the top of the stair climb we are all dripping in sweat in the humid morning air. I don’t know how many cathedrals in Europe allow visitors to walk on their roofs, but it can’t be many and we consider this a highlight. It also illustrates how expensive Europe can be. A trip for the family from our hotel to and from the Duomo on the Milan Metro plus tickets for climbing the roof of the cathedral total about 40 Euros (about $48 US dollars based on June 2005 exchange rates). In retrospect, this sticker shock will be minor as the trip progresses. My father, who was very frugal, always said that vacation was the wrong time to worry about money. So I have a talk with myself on the Metro ride back that while we need to make sure we are sensible about our expenditures on this trip, we’re here and these family opportunities don’t come that often so I need to enjoy it (and make sure the family enjoys it) while it lasts.

We grab some panini for lunch, shower and check out of the hotel, and head for the Cinque Terre. One disadvantage of a last minute trip is that it is difficult to make reservations for museums, so we miss da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan. Although I didn’t recall it being that memorable on my business trip to Milan some years ago, I do regret that the family did not have the chance to see it.

We take the A7 and A12 autostrada to Cinque Terre via Genoa because the scenery is supposed to be better than taking the A1 and A15 via Parma. We are not disappointed. Beautiful fields and tree lines give way to spectacular precipitous green Apennine (?) foothills as we near Genoa. Cruising effortlessly at 75 or 80 mph (which deceptively seems to be about 55 or 60 on these fine roads), many, many cars still pass us. I’m thinking driving in Italy is a blast when I’m brought to my senses by two or three motorcycles zooming past us out of nowhere going at least 90+ mph and squeezing through an impossibly small space between our lane and the left lane occupied by a passing vehicle. I am amazed by the excellent condition of the roads and how curvy the major highway becomes as we approach the coast.

Suddenly we are treated to views of the azure Mediterranean, green mountains, and white and golden buildings as we pass out of tunnels along the coast road. Our mounting excitement as we near La Spezia (our leaping off point for the Cinque Terre) is palpable. We stop at a shabby Autogrill near the La Spezia exit that nevertheless serves excellent tasting sandwiches and we spend our first of what no doubt will be hundreds of dollars on cold bottled water, both of the naturale and frizzante (carbonated) varieties. The GPS leads us through La Spezia with one inconsequential detour and soon we are rising on the road to Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the Cinque Terre towns. We are looking for our accomodations at Borgo di Campi, which we booked through

We suddenly drive over the headland on to the ocean side of the mountain and there, over a sheer drop of perhaps one thousand feet, is the indescribably, jaw droppingly blue Ligurian Sea. Our amazement continues as we drive past Borgo without realizing it. The road narrows down to one-and-a-half lanes as the corniche doubles back on itself almost literally dropping down into Riomaggiore. By then we realize our mistake and climb back up the road to Borgo di Campi. The cordial owner who speaks good English checks us in, shows us where to load our bags on the outdoor lift, then directs us down the 200 bluffside stairs to our two simply furnished but picturesque adjacent apartments. He syas he converted vineyards into Borgo about 5 years ago. It is very warm, but a nice sea breeze is blowing off the Mediterranean and all we can do is gawk at the view. (For a taste, see pictures at: ) We change into bathing suits and sit outside in a semi-catatonic trance reading, snoozing, and generally vegetating in one of the truly remarkable settings I’ve seen (much less stayed in). This is a great opportunity to overcome jet lag so we while away the afternoon and early evening staring at the ocean and ditch our plans to drive down to Riomaggiore for dinner in favor of eating on the outdoor terrace at Borgo di Campi. The pasta and seafood, sea breeze, and view of setting sun are hypnotic, and we start to entertain thoughts of bagging the rest of the itinerary and just hanging out here for the rest of the trip. The air conditioning here is not quite as good as that at Hotel Berna, but the outside air cools quickly and we spend a comfortable night in our simple adjacent apartments.

Sat. June 18 (Cinque Terre)

Up early to catch the 7:30 am shuttle from Borgo di Campi down into Riomaggiore. It is 1.25 Es per person and a ten minute drive down to Rio. There we begin our Cinque Terre shuttle that goes like this:

We buy the hike, train, and boat combination Cinque Terre Card for 13.50 Es apiece (less for our 11 year old) at the Riomaggiore train station and hop the next train to Monterosso, the northernmost town of the CT. There we walk around briefly and have breakfast at BarDavi on Via Roma. The two sand beaches at Monterosso look inviting but the numbers of umbrellas and beach chairs suggest that large hordes will shortly descend, so we then hit the coast trail to Vernazza. It’s a tough, sweaty, hot stretch in the sun climbing lots and lots of stairs to rewarding views of ocean, coastline, vineyards, and ultimately after about 90 minutes, Vernazza itself.

We think Vernazza, along with Manarola, are the most picturesque of the CT. Vernazza is very crowded, so after great gelati at Gelato Amore Mio on the main street we hop on the train for a five minute ride to Corniglia to try to find some less crowded beach time. Unlike the rest of the CT towns, Corniglia is on the high rocks up above the sea and the beach is difficult to access and not impressive. I’d like to take the shuttle that meets the train up the hill to check out the village, but we are all hot and thirsty so we don’t go up into the town and take the train again a few minutes down the track to Manarola.

Manarola is a less crowded but appealing village that winds down to a small harbor with rocks. By this time, we are frying, but when we spot some locals jumping off the rocks into the ocean in the small but clean harbor. There are a lot of people laying out in the sun on the rocks and the cement ramp down into the harbor, but the water is blue-green and inviting. Within minutes, we’ve staked out a place on the rocks near a metal ladder the town has presumably placed on the rocks to facilitate access in and out of the water. We are mesmerized by the beautiful sea colors and this place seems just what the doctor ordered for some hot hikers. My sons and I’ve had this image for years of diving off rocks into crystal clear water and we are not disappointed when we leap into the cold refreshing water. The added bonus about climbing out on the rocks and drying off is that you’re not dirty or sandy like you would be on a sand beach. We manage to entertain ourselves here for about three hours, talking to several American students on summer break vacations that wander past in the course of the afternoon. Finally, we’ve had enough swimming and sunning so we shop for a little while in Manarola, then jump on the boat back up the coast to Vernazza for some refreshments at Ristorante Castello on the big rock above the harbor. Vernazza is now less crowded, so we explore it some more, then take the train down to our starting point, Riomaggiore. Shuttling back and forth between villages by boat or train is surprisingly easy.

In Riomaggiore, we exit the train station and immediately take the elevator everyone else is walking past (our CT Cards are good for the price of admission) straight up into the town. We stroll along the promenade above the sea, then into town. As we walk past a church, we hear a beautiful choir singing. At my urging, my wife sticks her head inside. Yikes, a funeral is in progress! Mortified at my error, we quickly walk to the CT shuttle bus meeting point at the top of town for the 10 minute bus ride back to Borgo di Campi. Unlike the trip down, the CT Card is good for the price up, making the card a no-brainer for transportation around the CT. Another great seafood dinner (grilled prawns and shrimp, linguini with pesto and shrimp) with local white wine and sunset at Borgo di Campi. Both nights I sample the delicious limincino liqueur (called limoncello elsewhere in Italy) and the liqueur di basilico (basil liqueur) that are unusual but very flavorful. Then to bed after an exhausting but tremendously fun day in the Cinque Terre. Tomorrow it’s on to Pisa and Tuscany, and in retrospect, we wished we’d spent one more full day and another night here.

motor_city_girl Jul 3rd, 2005 08:35 AM

MRand...thanks for the CT post. Brings back memories. Glad you decided to go and liked it!

ira Jul 3rd, 2005 08:58 AM

Great report, MR.

Looking forward to more.


KathrynT Jul 3rd, 2005 09:48 AM

Wonderful report. Your information about CT is particularly helpful as we hope to visit there someday. The sticker shock is certainly high in Italy but I bet your family will never forget climbing on the roof of the Duomo in Milan!

Looking forward to reading more of your report. It sounds like you had a wonderful experience so far.

LoveItaly Jul 3rd, 2005 11:00 AM

MRand, I am so enjoying your report. Thank you for sharing. Especially enjoyed your drive from Milan via Genoa and south. I too have always found this drive so beautiful and you brought back a lot of wonderful memories.

Sounds like you and your family travel well together and know how to do interesting adventures and yet take the time to stop and smell the roses! My favorite way of travelling.

BTW, love your sense of humor! I know the "lost" passport the night before your trip was horrible but your description of the incident and your reaction to it gave me a good chuckle as did your description of the song titles on your flight. Too funny!

I am sure looking forward to the next installment of your trip. Best wishes.

Patrick Jul 3rd, 2005 11:08 AM

Somewhere at American Airlines is a little devil with a mischievious grin on his face at having picked out the musical selections. I wonder how many other people have caught that -- but I have no doubt that it wasn't a mere accident that those were the titles.

MRand Jul 3rd, 2005 12:21 PM

Thanks for your positive comments. I need to start trying to shorten this, but it's great reliving the trip before the grind starts again in earnest.

Sun. June 19 (CT to Tuscany via Pisa)

Wake up early to clear blue skies and the spectacular view. It’s hard to get out of our lethargic gawking mode. Nevertheless, we reluctantly pack and depart Borgo di Campi for Pisa. On our way out, I express my disappointment at not seeing Corniglia--the one CT town we had skipped the day before. We decide on the spur of the moment to drive the coast road to Corniglia. We’ve heard it’s narrow, but how bad can it be? (Once while travelling with a business colleague in Colorado, we decided to take an afternoon off and explore high mountain back roads near Cripple Creek and Victor. Like the old Saturday Night Live skit about a jeans advertisement--it was a Bad Idea. Until now, this was the most heart-pounding mountain driving experience I had had.) Well, the drive to and from Corniglia can mildly be described as, say, harrowing? The road is paved and in excellent condition, but in many places it shrinks to about one-and-a-half car widths wide, often on a steep up or downslope with the mountain on one side and a steep plunge into a valley or ocean on the other. Fortunately we meet few cars on the drive (there’s probably a reason for this), but the views of the towns, the vineyards, and the sea are unforgettable. We have a good lunch in Corniglia and think that the single lane village, in its unique way, equals Vernazza and Manarola in appeal. We successfully extricate ourselves from the coast road and eventually join the A12 autostrada to Pisa.

It is a pleasant, pulse-restoring drive down past Carrara to Pisa. The marble there really does make the mountains look like they have snow on them. We are tempted to stop at the quarries but press on to Pisa, parking in the large public lot immediately northwest of the Campo dei Miracoli. Although my wife and I had been here on our early 1980s trip, we had forgotten how flat the land approaching Pisa is and that you can spot the Leaning Tower, Duomo, and Baptistery complex from miles away.

Our youngest has a book called “Wonders of the World” that has spectacular pictures and descriptions of many of the world’s great man made achievements. Four from Italy appear in the book—-the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Colosseum and St. Peter’s in Rome, and the Grand Canal in Venice. His desire to see these sites shapes some of our trip itinerary. His and the other kids’ astonishment to rounding the corner at the Piazza del Duomo and suddenly seeing the Leaning Tower were almost worth the price of the trip. On the way to Pisa, I had discouraged the kids from getting their hopes up that we can climb the Leaning Tower because it is a Sunday afternoon and I was unable to get reservations online in advance of our departure. Nevertheless, arriving at the ticket office at 2:30 pm, we are able to snag a slot for the 4:45 tower climb.

We wander two blocks down Via Santa Maria, the street that runs south and perpendicular from the Piazza del Duomo, and find a great inexpensive lunch spot at Café Fenice, a self-service (cafeteria style) trattoria that is one of the best value meals we have on the trip. My daughter’s pasta primavera is particularly good. We return to the Campo dei Miracoli and enjoy the green grass and coolness in the shadow of the Leaning Tower until the time for our climb. I think the climb is worth the 70 E price for our family (which also includes entry into the Duomo and Baptistery). I did not realize until our first trip to Pisa in the 1980s that the Tower was the bell tower for a cathedral and with the Baptistery wonderfully complement the Duomo as a three-building set that has to be among the most harmonious in Europe. The three white buildings in contrast to the deep green grass, green mountains in the distance, brown Tuscan buildings, and blue sky have to be seen in person to be appreciated. I’d also forgotten that the interior of the Pisa Duomo is one of my favorite cathedral interiors anywhere.

In thinking about this particular day of the trip ahead of time, I had hoped to possibly squeeze a visit to Lucca in as well, but our little morning Corniglia adventure changes the schedule and after Pisa, everyone is ready to get to our next stop---San Gimignano. While we had investigated the possibility of villas in the area, most of them rent for a week, so we opted for two rooms for five nights at a beautiful bed and breakfast. The property is called Il Casale del Cotone and its accompanying property across the road, Rocca degli Olivi, are about 2 km north of San Gimignano.
(See .) We arrive at 7:30 in the evening, and the proprietor Mr. Martelli shows us to our nicely furnished rooms at Rocca degli Olivi. He restored these properties from the former farm of his grandfather, who was a prominent citizen in the area. They include a beautiful pool and spectacular surrounding vineyards and olive groves (but San Gimignano is just out of view around the corner).

We ask for a dinner recommendation in San Gimignano, but Mr. Martelli discourages us because of the annual medieval festival that is winding down there. Instead, he recommends the “typical Tuscan cuisine” at Ristorante Latini, about ten minutes north on SP 1, on the southern outskirts of Certaldo. The meal is simply one of the best, or maybe the best, of many outstanding meals on the trip--gracious service, antipasta, pasta, steak, roast pork, fantastic red wine, dessert--an Italian dream feast. This restaurant should go on any list of culinary points of interest in the San Gimignano area. (See .)

On the way back, I suggest a quick spin into San Gimignano to see if the festival has wound down. Perhaps the family should start being wary of spur of the moment Dad Suggestions. The festival is over, but we quickly become lost. My wife, who is driving, starts slowly down a narrow single lane street. Halfway down, she is met by a driver coming uphill who drives slowly but surely right to our front bumper and begins honking incessantly (especially for the hour). My wife quickly backs up, with the other driver staying on our front bumper until we exit the roadway. Clearly we have missed some sign or signal on the road requiring us to yield to the other driver. Nonetheless, when the young woman driver then stops, rolls down the window, and begins to berate my wife, who is slow to anger but is intolerant of rudeness, a short but spirited verbal donnybrook ensues. The other woman shouts at my wife in Italian and my wife responds in kind in English that the woman doesn’t need to honk and doesn’t have to be so rude. I’m sure each has no idea what the other is saying. The woman drives away in a huff, and fortunately, this is the only slight rift in Ango-Italian relations we experience during the trip. We return uneventfully to Rocca degli Olivi for a pleasant night’s sleep.

Mary_Fran Jul 3rd, 2005 12:58 PM

Your trip report is so enjoyable! I love your writing style. Looking forward to your next installment!

Mary Fran

LoveItaly Jul 3rd, 2005 02:50 PM

Oh MRand, your wife and the other woman driver, too funny, although I am sure it was not for your dear wife! But good for her for holding her own! It reminds me of one time in Rome, my DH was attempting to get on the Via Veneto. You know how Italians don't really use "lanes". A car with two Italians tried to push us out of our lane. My husband wouldn't budge. These business looking Italians starting screaming at him and one actually stuck his arm out of the passenger side of the window and practically in front of my DH face. My DH threw his left arm out and into the other car. His fist WAS in front of the passenger side Italian. My DH was having a fit and a half and yelling at him in Italian. I thought I would die of shock, embarrasment and fear.

The two fellows in the other car looked at my husband, smiled, shrugged their shoulders and motioned for him to "go ahead". Funny now but it wasn't than.

Still enjoying your travel report - it is a great read!

Dayle Jul 3rd, 2005 03:27 PM

Hi MRand,

Really enjoying your report! Love the details, they bring back great memories. The music selection on American had me laughing out loud. did you eat lunch in the small piazza in Corniglia? If it was the same place we had lunch, I'm sure it was memorable! I agree, the duomo at Pisa is one of the most beautiful I've seen. A very pleasant surprise.

Waiting for more!

LoveItaly Jul 3rd, 2005 03:37 PM

Dayle and MRand, I too thought the Duomo in Pisa was spectacular. I will never forget it. It is strange because so many other Duomo's are mentioned but it sometimes is an unexpected place that can really touch your heart and the memory can stay with you forever.

MRand Jul 3rd, 2005 04:23 PM

Dayle - we did eat breakfast/lunch in the small piazza in Corniglia. It had a very intimate feel unlike any other on our trip.

Mon. June 20 (Tuscany/San Gimignano – day trip to Volterra)

We sleep in and enjoy a leisurely breakfast overlooking the Tuscan countryside at Rocca degli Olivi. When I first e-mailed the owner about our reservation before leaving the states, he said we had five nights in the Rocca degli Olivi. One of the amenities he listed was air conditioning. He subsequently e-mailed me to say a mistake had been made and the rooms at Rocca degli Olivi were only available for the first night and we would need to transfer across the street to the “main” house at Casale del Cotone. I failed to pick this up in the second e-mail, but no mention of air conditioning was made with reference to Casale del Cotone. I think if I’d had the opportunity to plan the trip more deliberately and at a more leisurely pace, I would have picked up the omission. In any event, we move to the “main” house, which is also very nicely furnished, have a swim in the beautiful pool there, and then leave for an unhurried afternoon trip to Volterra, the gorgeous Etruscan hill town about 30 minutes from San Gimignano. Volterra is uncrowded and we enjoy strolling the streets, eating an inexpensive lunch of Italian sandwiches, and viewing the remains of the Roman amphitheater there. Volterra seems less touristy than almost any other place we went on this trip. We take our time on the “northern” route back to Casale del Cotone, enjoying the characteristic beauty of the Tuscan countryside and continuing to marvel at the high quality of even the small Italian highways and rural roads. On our way back, we notice a beautiful property called Tenuta Quadrifoglio that would be well worth investigating for any future trips. It seems to be about fifteen minutes away from San Gimignano, but has a view of Volterra on the distant high hill. We return to Casale del Cotone for a cool refreshing swim before (in my opinion) the unreasonably early pool closing time of 6:30 p.m.

We decide to take the short drive to San Gimignano for dinner, the first time we are able to examine the town firsthand. The approach is breathtaking. I’ve read it’s overrun with tourists during the day, but we arrive about 8:00 pm and the town’s pace at that hour is calm, almost soothing. We eat one of our best meals for the value at Trattoria Chiribiri, a short very short block up and to the left of Porta San Giovanni, the main southern gate to the town. We then stroll to Piazza della Cisterna, the main square in the middle of the town. The evening ambience, while we eat gelato sitting on the steps of the well in the square, is some of the most enjoyable of the trip. We are surrounded by the towers in the cool evening light, and an a capella group informally begins singing some tunes in the adjacent Piazza del Duomo. This trek into San Gimignano becomes a nightly ritual for our remaining four nights in Tuscany. We reluctantly head back to our quarters for the first of four warm, restless nights without air conditioning at Casale del Cotone. In retrospect, we should have at least insisted on portable fans in the rooms. Nevertheless, cold showers immediately before bedtime and later nighttime cooling make the conditions bearable.

Tues. June 21 (Tuscany/San Gimignano – day trip to Siena)

Nice breakfast at Casale del Cotone, then off on a 45 minute drive for a day trip to Siena. Plenty of shaded parking at the Siena soccer stadium, then climb up the steps and past St. Dominic’s Church, where St. Catherine of Siena experienced her trances in the 1300s. We walk to the fabulous Piazza del Campo of Palio horse race fame. The kids agree it is the best piazza of the trip. We climb to the top of the Torre del Mangia on the town hall for its incomparable view of Siena and its surrounding countryside. Great lunch at recommended by bobthenavigator at Osteria le Logge, just off the Campo on Via di Scalicotto.

It’s really heating up, but we make it to the Duomo. I’m surprised at how willing and patient the kids are to make visits to such churches. They are all remarkable to me, but their distinguishing subtleties would have been lost on me at their age. On our way out of town, we stop to watch the entertaing film on the Palio that is shown daily at Piazza Tolomei. Even though the 4:00 p.m. showing is supposed to be in French, the projectionist graciously shows us the English version instead since there are no French speakers at that showing. We all enjoy this thoroughly, since we obviously won’t be there for the Palio. A final stop for me at an Internet Point to check e-mail for the first time on the trip (2 Euros for 20 minutes) while our youngest gets a MacDonald’s respite from non-stop pasta, pizza, or other Italian fare. We arrive back at Casale del Cotone in time for our afternoon swim, then to San Gimignano for a pleasant dinner at La Mandragola on the west wall of the town (which I’ve confused with La Mangiatoia, recommended in some guide books).

Take out or informal lunches are typically costing the five of us about 25 to 35 Euros ($30 to $43), while sit down dinners in restaurants are running us from about 80 Euros (about $98) to about 140 Euros (about $98 to $171). Fortunately, breakfast is included in the cost of all accomodations on the trip.

We return to Casale del Cotone for the night.

MRand Jul 3rd, 2005 06:15 PM

Wed. June 28 (Tuscany/San Gimignano – day trip to Florence)

Breakfast at CdC then an hour road trip to Florence. Every road trip to Florence, Siena, or Chianti from San Gimignano passes through the workaday town of Poggibonsi and even with GPS, it is difficult to navigate. This morning is no exception, plus when we get off the autostrada and reach the environs of Florence, the traffic becomes terrible. Florence seems much, much larger than I’d remembered from 23 years ago. Things are moving so slow I begin to be concerned that we will miss our 10:45 a.m. reservation at the Accademia, as we are all eagerly anticipating seeing Michaelangelo’s David. The maps in my well-worn twenty five year old Michelin Green Guide to Italy are supplementing the GPS navigation system nicely.

We finally arrive at the huge parking garage under the main stazione with minutes to spare and then sprint to the Accademia, negotiating a large, colorful parade along the way. We arrive at the Accademia at 10:55 and there’s no line! Suddenly we realize the colorful parade we just crossed is a general strike and almost everything, including the Accademia, is closed. I don’t pretend for a minute to know Italian labor politics, but the marchers by and large look way too affluent and happy to be striking workers. Plus we’ve come a long way to see David, so just what were they thinking scheduling the strike on our one day in Florence? I guess the cheap imitation in the Piazza della Signoria will have to suffice.

We glumly walk to the Duomo via the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata to view Brunelleschi’s Foundling Ospedale, one of the original architectural works of the Italian Renaissance. The crowds in the Piazza del Duomo, to get into the Duomo itself, and to climb the stairs to the top of the Duomo are stifling. Even Rome won’t seem this crowded. The crowds strangely neglect the Baptistery and its famous doors, so we savor those and then climb the stairs of the adjacent Campanile by Giotto (a Rick Steves suggestion). There is no line and we go straight to the top for a magnificent 360-degree view of Florence that includes the famous dome of the Duomo.

We grab a quick lunch at a cheap, chilly pizza place on Via Calziauoli and walk to Piazza della Signoria and the Palazzo Vecchio. Oddly, the Uffizzi is unaffected by the general strike and its perpetual two hour waiting line stretches towards the Arno. We enjoy extended viewing of the outdoor statue collection under the Loggia della Signoria, which unfortunately is also completely scaffolded. The view of the Loggia is one we enjoyed the most on our first trip to Florence. In the piazza, stands containing postcards and chef’s aprons that prominently feature certain portions of David’s anatomy amuse the kids, but despite their pleading, we refuse to buy them, even as joke gifts. We then walk to Santa Croce church with its fabulous courtyard, across Alle Grazia bridge for a view and photos of the Ponte Vecchio, back over the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio itself, then on to our car passing by Santa Maria Novelli church. It is a hot, hot day and after the disappointment of not seeing the “real” David, we are ready to get back to San Gimignano for our afternoon swim. But not too fast, and we drive up the the Piazzale Michaelangelo to soak up its famous vista of Florence and the Arno and to take pictures there.

Swim, then dinner at La Mangiatoia and gelato in the piazza in San Gimignano and to bed for another warm night.

Thurs. June 23 (Tuscany/San Gimignano – day trip to Castellina in Chianti)

Sleep late and breakfast at Casale del Cotone. Leisurely morning by and in the pool, then a short afternoon jaunt via Poggibonsi into the outer reaches of Chianti, hopefully for some wine tasting. The terrain and scenery changes dramatically from Tuscany as soon as we leave the eastern oustskirts of Poggibonsi. We stop at the wine tasting shop for the reknowned Concadoro winery, but it is closed. We wind our way on up to Castellina in Chianti, which while small with a medieval castle also seems disappointingly industrial. Moreover, the handful of restaurants in the village have all closed around 2:00 p.m. so we start back down the mountain to try to get lunch at a roadside ristorante we saw on the way up. It is open, and we have an enjoyable meal there. We pass Concadoro again and it is now open! We make a U turn and enjoy browsing through the shop and sampling their excellent Chiantis and posing for photographs with the enjoyable host who speaks little English but nevertheless communicates well and makes us feel right at home. My wife buys, as gifts for friends, a dozen small bottles of the olive oil Concadoro also produces. The Concadoro experience makes this short trip completely worthwhile.

Back to Casale del Cotone for a swim, then to San Gimignano for a trip highlight dinner at La Vecchie Mura on the eastern edge of San Gimignano. What a view! We are seated at a ideal table at the edge of the railing for a sweeping vista of the Tuscan countryside from San Gim to Poggibonsi and beyond. The food matches the view. If we had only one meal to eat in San Gimignano, it would be here. A final round of gelato eaten on the steps of the well in the fading twilight in the main square is our reluctant farewell to the town.

LoveItaly Jul 3rd, 2005 07:53 PM

MRand, again, I am so enjoying your descriptive trip report. I am sorry you did not get to view David, strikes in Italy are so annoying.

May I comment, you are obviously a wonderful father. I know that your three children will remember this trip forever. Beautiful family memories.

yipper Jul 3rd, 2005 07:56 PM

Fabulous report! It brings back a lot of wonderful memories. Also it is reassuring to know that all of us have bumps along the way when we travel. You seem to handel them with ease. The first time we went to Greece there was a strike for the 4 days we were in Athens and we never saw the Parthenon. How bad is that? Looking forward to the rest of your report.

MichelleY Jul 3rd, 2005 08:50 PM

Dear Rand:

Ditto - I am enjoying your report very much. Can't wait for the rest.


fun4all4 Jul 4th, 2005 05:27 AM

This is such wonderful reading. It has also brought up so many fond memories of our Tuscan trip last fall. We, too, enjoyed Volterra and found it very untouristy and quite different from the other towns we visited. I guess it was the alabaster. We found San G crowded and touristy even though we were there around 5 or 6 in the evening. Your late evening dinner experiences sound wonderful. I laughed out loud when reading about your navigational struggles in Poggibonsi - my husband and I stayed outside of Castellina towards Poggibonsi and had to go through there for all our day trips. We got lost every single time until the last day (we did not have GPS, but I'm not sure it would have helped). I remember cheering our last time through the area when we actually got it all right the first time!
You all also sound like the kind of travellers I love. You have a good plan, but take advantage of spur of the moment opportunites and changes. And, you were flexibe and handled your disappointments in good stride. I would have been disappointed over David, and it would have been hard to keep my "cool" over the AC.
Looking forward to the rest of the report. :-)

Dayle Jul 4th, 2005 05:50 AM


How devastating to miss David! Well, now you have a reason to return....

In Paris we missed the Louve due to a strike. In Rome, missed seeing the Sistene Chapel due to Palm Sunday. Ten years later, I'm going back to Rome and I will see it this time!

More, more...

MRand Jul 4th, 2005 05:59 AM

Thanks again for all your positive comments.

Fri. June 24 (Lake Trasimeno – Orvieto – Rome)

Today is departure day from Tuscany. After breakfast and checkout from Casale del Cotone, we head on the autostrada via Siena for Rome. It’s another beautiful almost cloudless day, not an ounce of rain or cloudiness so far on any day of our week in Italy. Our plan is to make stops at Orvieto and Civita en route to dropping off our rent car at Rome da Vinci - Fiumicino airport, hopefully by 7:00 p.m. to avoid additional charges on our 8 day rental.

Scanning the map for our route, we notice that it brings us near Lake Trasimeno. The northern shore of the lake is the site where over 2200 years ago in June 217 BC the Carthaginian general Hannibal destroyed a Roman army in his quest to bring the Roman Republic to its knees. (He almost succeeded. If he had, we’d probably be in North Africa on our way to Carthage instead of in Italy on our way to Rome right now.) The boys know about this from ancient history documentaries they’ve seen on The History Channel. Although it isn’t described in any guidebooks, Dad suggests we detour to see the battle site. (Uh-oh.) Sure enough, a village on the lake shore, Tuoro sul Trasimeno, has a small museum dedicated to Hannibal and the battle above its tourist information office. Unfortunately, we arrive at 1:00 p.m. and both the museum and the office are closed until at least 3:00 p.m. Waiting for them to open will seriously jeopardize our other plans and ability to return the car on time. However, we do drive out from the town to see the beautiful green hills from which Hannibal and his men charged down in the fog on the Romans as they marched along the edge of the lake. There also doesn’t seem to be any other tourists for miles around. It is also apparent that the local government, the Italian government, or some history buffs have laid out a multi-stop tour of the battle site, because every so often we see signs and maps describing the battle alongside vineyards. Too bad for us, though, because there is no English translation.

We drive over a few miles away to Passignano sul Trasimeno, a resort on the lake shore that is supposed to have a few Michelin-rated restaurants. We can’t find any, so instead we go to a restaurant that is on piers over the lake and has a great view. I don’t know what it is about restaurants on piers, but I should know from experience that they are rarely good. The proprietor appears to complain about our showing up late for lunch (about 2:00 p.m.) but seats us anyway in a nearly empty dining room at two tables with dirty tablecloths and then leaves us there without any attention for at least 10 minutes. We don’t like the situation and head out to grab panini and bottled water at a stand in the adjacent park on the lake shore. Looking around a little, Passignano seems to have the feel of a resort that’s seen better days. We finish our sandwiches and head back to the autostrada to Rome. Due to this Dad Suggestion, we are now off schedule by about two hours.

The drive along the A1 autostrada to Rome is highway driving at its best. The traffic is moderate to light, the highway is excellent, and we pass through beautiful countryside with hill towns on both sides of the road. We think we can make out Montepulciano high on a hill to the west and Chiusi on a hill to the east, but there’s no time now to stop if we want to have any chance to see Orvieto or Montepulciano.

Orvieto soon looms directly ahead of us, on a volcanic rock easily visible just a mile or two off the highway. We take that detour and it is well worth it. We drive up the rock, park near the famous duomo, and get delicious gelato and strawberry granita at a place that is in the piazza to the far left side as you face the Duomo. The colorful exterior of the cathedral is one of the most impressive anywhere and the interior is well worth the time too. Too bad we only feel like we have an hour or so to explore. I think Orvieto would be worth at least one overnight stop on another trip. My old Michelin green guide suggests there is a great overall view of the town on highway SP71 about 2 miles (4 km) to the west. Sure enough, as you start to climb there is a large pull out area for a spectacular view of Orvieto, highlighted by the cathedral gleaming brightly in the late afternoon sunlight. Super photo opportunity.

We return to the autostrada and very quickly heavy traffic begins to build up as we move south toward Rome. We reluctantly conclude or Hannibal / Lake Trasimeno misadventure has thrown off our schedule enough that we aren’t going to make Civita and be able to turn in the car at any reasonable hour. I don’t want to be messing with the car and going into downtown Rome at midnight, so we press on. The traffic becomes very heavy and frequently slows to a standstill as we approach the GRA freeway loop around Rome. The A1 intersects the GRA at about the 12 o’clock position on the map and the exit for da Vinci - Fiumicino airport is at the 7:00 o’clock position, so we get a pretty good view of the booming Rome suburbs as we drive around the loop in the evening sunlight. There is new construction everywhere. At the da Vinci – Fiumicino exit, there is a large Agip / MacDonald’s complex that appears to be the last gas stop before the airport. Our 11 year old is high-fiving his brother about the proximity of the MacDonald’s as we gas up the mini-van before returning it. The Renault Espace has been a good fit for the five of us and our luggage and I would not hesitate to rent such a vehicle again or recommend it to another family who is driving in Italy.

Directions for returning a rental car at da Vinci – Fiumicino airport that we have printed out before departure( ) prove to be invaluable. After dropping the car, we decide that taking a mini-van taxi directly to our Rome hotel will be more efficient and only slightly more expensive than the five of us taking the train from the airport to Termini station, then taking a taxi from there to the hotel. We are able to fairly easily flag a mini-van taxi for all five of us, and the driver quotes what seems to me to be a very reasonable rate of 50 Euros to take us directly to our hotel. He’s had to endure being berated by some guy in a suit who I assume is airport security reprimanding him for stopping for us outside the authorized pick-up zone (there was no room to load there). As we drive into Rome in the twilight, it is much prettier than I had recalled from our previous trip. The city seems cleaner and less chaotic and the public landscaping is much more impressive than before. According to the map I have in hand our driver take us directly to our hotel via, to our surprise and delight, the Colosseum, so I give him an extra 10 Euro tip for his trouble at the airport and his honesty. He seems very pleased. I think it is always a good idea in a large city, particularly a foreign city, for a traveler taking a taxi cab to have a map in hand, so the driver believes you have the ability to spot any circuitous routing he may be inclined to take. (I have no reason to believe that was an issue, however, with this particular driver.)

We check in at Hotel Hiberia, having reserved two rooms there on As with Hotel Berna in Milan, the staff has put us in two adjacent rooms and has honored our pre-departure e-mail request for quiet (tranquilo) rooms that are off the street. After unloading our bags, we unwind in our warm rooms, waiting for the air conditioners to kick in, and decide to call it a night so we can be up for our Context Rome tour of the Palatine Hill and Rome forum at 9:00 a.m. tomorrow.

yipper Jul 4th, 2005 06:18 AM

I was hoping that you would continue your report, even on the 4th of July. Thanks. Have a great holiday and I look forward to you Rome report.

faredolce Jul 4th, 2005 06:20 AM

This is one of the best trip reports I have ever had the pleasure to read. Thank you so much! I can't wait to hear about the Context Rome tour..

MRand Jul 4th, 2005 06:39 AM

Thanks yipper and and faredolce for your very kind words. I didn't intend the report to be anywhere near this long, but the recollections just keep flowing . . . even though we only returned Saturday night. Thank goodness I learned years ago to allow a one day buffer back home after a trip (preferably two days after an international trip) before returing to work. I need to try to finish this up today, because we return to the Real World from Travel World beginning tomorrow.

Although we love Italy it's great to be back home. Happy 4th to everyone!

LindaL Jul 4th, 2005 07:20 AM

I agree - one of the best trip reports I have ever read. This is must reading for anyone travelling to Italy with or without children. A big hug for attempting to make sure your son got to see the sights in his book. Your children will remember this trip all their life.

faredolce Jul 4th, 2005 07:36 AM

I think one of the things that I am most impressed with, and I must reference wliwl's report as well, is reading about teens, traveling with their parents and appreciating what they are experiencing. Even though I love traveling now, I remember myself in high school, and I would have been a pain in the neck to bring on a trip, and I would have not fully appreciated what I was seeing and doing. Hats off to you and your kids!!

Bailey Jul 4th, 2005 07:59 AM

Amazing report!!!
Yes it is a wonderful way for all of us readers to spend the 4th!!
I am taking notes....and now I'm going to check out Tenuta Quadrifoglio...I'll report my findings!!
You're report is marvelous...great attention to detail...many, many thanks for your hard work.

Bailey Jul 4th, 2005 08:09 AM


Tenuta Quadrifoglio

for additional photos:

*Haven't found any rates...I'll keep checking.

MRand Jul 4th, 2005 08:10 AM

Okay, I guess I'm now officially committed to trying to set the record for the longest trip report ever on this site.

Sat. June 25 (Rome)

The night was hot and we didn’t sleep well. Our rooms at Hotel Hiberia are very nice and clean and the bathrooms are some of the nicest we’ve had on the trip, but the air conditioning is completely inadequate. We debate whether we should check out and look for another hotel with better air conditioning, but taking time away from Rome to do that doesn’t seem to be an option at this point. My wife requests floor fans for the rooms and the hotel seems willing to accommodate her. Maybe combining those with cold showers before bedtime will make the nights bearable. That strategy has worked in the past for all of us at summer camps, so why can’t it work in Rome? The breakfast room and nice lobby area (with cheap Internet access!) seem to be cool enough and the breakfast is good, so let’s try to stick it out.

We walk to the uncrowded south gate at the Palatine Hill to meet our Context Rome guide Richard for our 9:00 a.m. tour of the Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum. There is no male remotely fitting a tour guide description in the area. Soon we realize that a last minute substitution has been made and our guide is actually a woman named Olivia, a young mother with art history training and a husband who is an archaeologist in Rome. She speaks good English with a nice Italian accent because her mother is English but her father is Italian and she grew up in Rome. She turns out to be a fantastic tour guide, not only for the adults but also for the kids. We all pepper her with questions during our four hour tour, and she patiently answers every one. Her knowledge of Rome is encyclopedic, and she has remarkable patience with all of us. The kids absolutely love her and my concerns that they could hold up for a four hour tour prove to be unfounded.

As we move down into the forum, another female Italian guide inexplicably challenges Olivia’s credentials when we apparently don’t move out of the way quickly enough at Julius Cesar’s temple. This leads to an amusing confrontation and debate in Italian. We can only imagine what is said, and our newly developed affection for Olivia makes us want to weigh in, but she appears to be more than adequately holding her own. After two or three minutes, the other guide appears to be placated (or defeated), and they smile and shake hands. Remarkably, Olivia maintains her composure and continues our tour unflustered, finishing with a flourish at the Colosseum. (We assume Olivia will report back to Context Rome and the official Italian guide association, and imagine that the other guide will be exiled to a boring desk job in some Italian tourist backwater in a few days.) My wife and I have seen the Colosseum before. In fact, in the early 1980s we were memorably almost struck by lightning there running for cover from a late September thunderstorm, but it is another jaw dropping moment for the kids. Perhaps Olivia and recalling the Russell Crowe movie “Gladiator” really makes the Colosseum come alive for them.

We have a great Roman lunch near the Colosseum at Hosteria La Piazzetta on an alley named Vicolo del Buon Consiglio just off Via Cavour. It was recommended by Olivia and in Sandra Gustafson's "Great Eats Italy." Against my better judgment, the guys order fried fish. When it arrives, it is not what they imagined, but rather six or eight small whole fried fish---heads, tails, bones, and all! That is a complete non-starter for our 11 year old, so I trade him my pasta and dive in with my more adventuresome 15 year old. The fish are a mixture, but most are (I think) of the sardine variety, but much larger than the canned sardines you buy in the store in the U.S. I don’t ordinarily like to work during my meal, so the bones are an annoyance, but the fish is truly delicious. Middle son and I devour two full plates, and wife and daughter rave about their pasta dishes. Most of the other customers appear to be Italian locals, so I think we’re at a pretty authentic place. We stretch the feast into a leisurely two hour affair. Then heat exhaustion begins to set in, so we conduct a strategic retreat to the hotel for the rest of the afternoon and early evening.

The hotel has honored my wife’s request for floor fans, so a combination of sitting in the small but pleasant cool lobby for drinks, using the fans, and taking cold showers relaxes us enough to venture out into the warm evening air for a walk to the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Unfortunately, the beautiful twin towers of the Church of the Trinity of the Mountains at the top of the steps are shrouded in scaffolding, substantially detracting from the overall impression. Wife and daughter enjoy window shopping on the Via Condotti, then we stop for average pizza and indifferent service at a place in the Piazza San Silvestro. We then try the gelato at the recently famous San Crispino gelateria at Via della Pannateria 42. I think it is fantastic, but the kids seem to think that while tasty, it is more like ice cream and less creamy than other gelato they have had on the trip. Then back by Trevi Fountain and a short walk to the hotel to renew our battle against the heat. Strategic use of the floor fans and minimal air conditioning allow us to lower the room temperature to 82 degrees (Farenheit, not Celsius) before bedtime, and with cold showers, we are finally able to get to sleep.

SusanP Jul 4th, 2005 08:30 AM

This is a wonderful report. Don't worry about it being too long, we love the details! Looking forward to the rest.

MRand Jul 4th, 2005 11:07 AM

Sun. June 26 (Rome – Day 2)

The floor fans helped, but it was still a restless night. We sleep in, so everyone but Dad misses the hotel breakfast. A little travel fatigue is setting in. We take our time until about 11:00 a.m., then gear up to take on central Rome. We’ve reserved tomorrow for St. Peter’s and our second Context Rome tour—this one of the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. We eat an early lunch of hot dog panini from the street vendor at Trajan’s Column. I’ll take a moment here to make a plug for The Teaching Company:
I suspect at lot of people who visit this site are familiar with this company. It locates and selects award winning college professors and tapes their course lectures on a wide variety of subjects. A year or two ago, my middle son and I bought and listened to their “Famous Romans” course by Prof. Rufus Fears of the University of Oklahoma, who is an entertaining lecturer. I am listening to the lectures again before and during this trip, and they are great background for Roman history (including Emperor Trajan) and a trip to Rome.

While we are at Trajan's Forum, an Italian wedding party emerges from a nearby church and we enjoy watching post-wedding festivities from a respectful distance. Actually, on this day we see a number of wedding parties. Apparently, Sunday is a popular day for weddings in Rome.

We visit the Mammertine Prison in the Roman Forum, where Sts. Peter and Paul were supposedly imprisoned, and Julius Cesar’s fierce Gallic opponent Vercingetorix was finally imprisoned and strangled. On to Michelangelo’s remarkable Campodoglio square adjacent to the forum, then to the Santa Maria in Cosmedin church where the kids stick their hands in the Bocca della Verite. We cross the Tiber into Trastevere and then double back, heading toward Piazza Navona and the Pantheon. En route, we stop at Ristorante (or is it Trattoria?) der Pallaro on the little Largo del Pallaro, a block or two off the major Corso Vittorio Emmanuel boulevard. This menu-less, family style restaurant has been recommended frequently on this site and in Gustafson’s “Great Eats Italy,” so we want to stop by to check it out and to make a dinner reservation. We are warmly greeted at the door by chef Paolo Fazi herself who invites us in. The restaurant is half-empty but they are still serving. This might be our only chance to eat here, so even though we’re not that hungry, we go for it. We are not disappointed. It is an amazing five course meal for a very reasonable price, even though we realize halfway through lunch they don’t accept credit cards, so I dash to Corso V. Emmanuel to find a nearby bancomat (ATM) to pay for the meal. Please check this place out if you are in Rome and your time and location allow.

Then on to Piazza Navona, where we soak our feet in the cold fountain with some American students and other tourists (not the Bernini fountain, but the smaller one on the south end of the piazza). We are stuffed after our der Pallaro lunch, but we force down a couple of delicious tartufi from Tre Scalini on the piazza (hey, we’re on vacation!), then go to the Pantheon. It is an amazing structure, the only Roman structure still standing essentially intact (I think). If you don’t have a guide, please do background reading on this wonder of the ancient world to do it justice. There we run into Olivia, our previous day’s Context Rome guide who is now giving a full day ancient Rome tour to another small group. This woman’s stamina and love of her city is admirable. We’ve about run out of gas, so we break down and spring for a taxi (7 Euros) back to the hotel for our siesta.

The family is pretty spent by now, so we take the remainder of the afternoon and early evening for a long respite at the hotel. The rest of the family is down for the count, but middle son and I catch a second wind about 9:30 and as huge baseball fans, we need a Major League Baseball and College World Series fix. Using the Internet in our hotel lobby, we identify Abbey Theater, a local sports bar of some repute among American college students in Rome. It is a fifteen minute walk away,back near Piazza Navona. Turns out it is also across the narrow street from the famous Roman pizzeria, Da Baffetto, at Via del Governo Vecchio 114. There is a long line at the pizzeria, but the sports bar is uncrowded. Unfortunately, only soccer is on at the bar, but the bilingual bartender graciously checks to see if he can get a baseball feed via satellite on one of the screens in the bar. He can’t get the feed until 12:30 a.m., too late for us, but he graciously allows us to use his Internet connection for free to check up on baseball scores and standings while I quaff a few Peroni beers. About 11:30, middle son and I are getting hungry, and the line at Da Baffetto has dwindled, so we head there. It absolutely lives up to its reviews and is the best pizza we have on the trip. We sit outside with Italian families and workers getting off their shifts and its total lack of atmosphere or pretense provides us with some of the best atmosphere of any eatery on the whole trip. Full and content, we wander back to the hotel about 12:30 for nightly cold showers and bed.

MRand Jul 4th, 2005 12:06 PM

Mon. June 27 (Rome – Day 3)

Breakfast at the hotel then a 17 Euro taxi ride to St. Peter’s. Daughter reads from various guidebooks as we walk through Bernini’s colannade, the square, and then into gigantic St. Peter’s. It is so immense, it’s really hard to take in. We have about a hour before meeting our Context Rome guide at the Vatican Museum, so we walk slowly through the perimeter of the interior to take in as much as we can.

The first thing I notice is Michelangelo’s Pieta, behind a plexiglass screen after being vandalized in the early 1970s. I enjoy art, but I’d have to say it doesn’t have much of an emotional impact on me. I’d seen the Pieta two decades ago, but when I see it this time it really moves me. Perhaps it’s life experience in the intervening years or being a parent, but I’m lump-in-the-throat overwhelmed by the delicacy and sweetness conveyed by this masterpiece. You know this is a masterpiece not by relying on a guidebook to tell you so, but because of how this exquisitely crafted piece of marble makes you feel when you see it. All I can say is “wow.”

Time has now flown and we’re going to have to make a 15 minute run to grab lunch and catch our Context Rome guide Brian for our 1:00 p.m. Vatican Museum tour. Everyone is holding up okay but it is real HOT. We stuff down some panini and bottled water and meet up with Brian. He is a former divinity-now-turned-art history graduate student from Iowa who has been living in Rome for about 4 years and is set to return to the state in August. That will be future Rome tourists’ loss, because Brian is every bit equal to Olivia in his patience with our family and the thoroughness of his knowledge of religious and art history. He conducts the tour like a friendly graduate seminar, but appropriately simplified for the kids, and we enjoy it immensely.

These Context Rome private tours are REALLY expensive, but I’ve honestly have to say we’ve gotten our monies’ worth and they have exponentially increased our enjoyment of the major Roman sites. My belief now is that if we’ve come this far and spent this kind of money, the added value the tours bring is worth it for our family. I can’t say anything more about the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel than thousands of others have said, but I appreciate it so much more this time than I did on our 1980s trip. The thing that amazes me is that our kids, even our 11 year old baseball playing son, are completely enthralled. Much of the credit goes to Brian. I suggest that if you book tours with Context Rome or any other group, ask for kid or teenage friendly guides. Olivia and Brian were simply excellent.

We reluctantly part ways with Brian, walk past the Castel Sant’ Angelo, which is closed on Mondays, then grab a taxi back to the hotel for siesta and Happy Hour. Appropriately revived, we walk a short way to have a pleasant outdoor dinner at La Laterne ristorante on the Via del Pilota. When we ask for “il conto,” the waiter takes an inordinately long time. He seems concerned, and I begin to wonder if our credit card has been declined for some reason. They call me back into the restaurant, and explain with distress that they have inadvertently charged my credit card 8,400 Euros instead of 84 Euros. The food and wine were good, but not THAT good. They provide me with a lot of documentation that my credit card has been appropriately credited, and I am satisfied they are doing everything in their power to correct the error. As a precaution, when we return to the hotel, I e-mail my secretary in the U.S., asking her to please check with the credit card company to explain the problem and alert the company to the error.

I have no doubt this was an innocent mistake, but I will say that this is the FOURTH error in a restaurant bill that I’ve noted on the trip. All four were graciously resolved in my favor and I’m virtually certain that all the errors were innocent, but I am also absolutely convinced based on these experiences that everyone travelling abroad should check their restaurant bills carefully and request explanation of any charges they do not understand.

Tomorrow is our train trip to Venice for the last leg of our trip. I hope that the advice we’ve received at the hotel that we do not need a reservation in advance is accurate.

feltoni Jul 4th, 2005 12:43 PM

4th of July, 90 degrees outside, and the World Championship Pillowfights are in high gear down the street, and here I am hooked on MR's killer family trip! OK! now to go get corndogs, etc's. ala Americana, but still dreaming of gelatos, and pizzas, and osso buccos, and antipasti, and panini! Was just there last month and feel like MR's just taken me there angain. Thanks!

Dayle Jul 4th, 2005 01:11 PM

Hi again M,

So, I am taking the same 2 tours with Context Rome that you and your family enjoyed. Did you tip your guide? What % did you consider apropriate?

skarnold Jul 4th, 2005 01:21 PM

MRand -

I've spent the last 30 minutes reading your trip report and it's very entertaining! I have a talented brother in many ways, but I think you have a new career ahead for you! Sounds like everyone had a great time and your descriptions are very detailed (which will be very helpful to others travelling to Italy). I liked your description of Dad on vacation.

Hope you all have a Happy 4th of July and I look forward to more reading!

faredolce Jul 4th, 2005 01:31 PM

Hey Dayle - I thought I would answer your question. I tipped my docent €20. I was a single girl in a group of wealthy retirees, whom I know tipped him more. But I wound up asking him later on, and he genuinely said that the tips run the gamut, and that you give what you can afford.

For me, it was well worth it. It was such a wonderful tour, very personal, very much unlike all the tours going on around me. Many of the docents are college professors, they don't make a ton of money as it is and giving tours is often a supplemental income. You don't become rich being an art historian, I guess. I felt good about what I gave him.

MichelleY Jul 4th, 2005 10:02 PM

Dear Rand:

Just in from shooting off our sparklers!! I am enjoying your report so much. A chance to relive my last trip and look forward to future trips with our daughter. Great info. Please don't leave anything out.


MRand Jul 5th, 2005 02:18 AM

Dayle - In reply to your question whether we tipped our Context Rome guides, we did tip them. On the set of confirmation and meeting instructions that Context Rome posted on its web site for our tours, the company said that "tipping is always appreciated but not obligatory" (glad to know that) and that "clients generally give anywhere from 5 to 50 Euro to docents depending on the quality of the experience and their tipping habits." We ended up tipping our guides about 30 to 35 Euros each because they were so good. I think that's in the range of 10% of the cost of each tour.

Well after a great 4th and fireworks, it's back to work today. We're almost back to normal sleeping patterns after our Saturday return. I'd really like to finish up the report by describing our Venice experience in the next day or so if time permits.

By the way, does anyone have opinions about the credibility of the reviews of hotels posted at It seems like almost all the reviews posted there are positive about the various properties and I've noticed in reviewing my e-mails on return that while on the trip I received e-mails at home through Venere requesting feedback for Hotel Berna (Milan) and Borgo di Campi (Riomaggiore) but I haven't received one from Hotel Hiberia (Rome), which is where we complained to the staff about the ineffectiveness of the air conditioning. Cause and effect or coincidence?

fun4all4 Jul 5th, 2005 03:46 AM

Good morning MRand,
Hope you have a smooth "rentry" into the real world today. As for, you probably just have not gotten the email yet because you stayed in Rome later in the trip; I believe it is simply an automatic email that follows up on reservations. And, unlike some other sites, you have to have stayed at the hotel to write a review which is good. However, I have noticed that almost all reviews are positive. When I wrote mostly positive reviews of 2 hotels in October they posted my ratings, but not my comments. I'm not sure if that was because they didn't like what I said or were just inefficient.
I have continued to enjoy your trip report. I know you will be busy this week, but we'd still love to hear about Venice!

Intrepid1 Jul 5th, 2005 04:18 AM

Great trip report and for many reasons.

As to the hotel review....I really hope you will take the time to write a review of the hotel and post it on TripAdvisor (and don't hold back about the air conditioning, either, since having A/C in a hotel is a MAJOR factor in whether or not it should be booked/overlooked fvor some of us here).

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