Journal - Amazing Italy

Old Sep 12th, 2004, 01:05 PM
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Journal - Amazing Italy

Journal - Amazing Italy --by Marv

27 March ? 7 April, 2002

To set the scene:

You, the reader, may be inclined to run screaming toward the paper shredder after reading the first few paragraphs, as you may think that just simply throwing the unmolested remaining pages in the round file simply will not be enough. Or, if you are reading this on your computer, you may have a strong inclination to perform delicate surgery on your computer, with a hammer, to remove this journal from its obviously diseased innards. Perhaps you are fearful that continuing further will cause you to incur rather considerable costs in the services of a psychiatrist in order to repress the visions that you will find herein. The more heroic of you will continue on. But let it be known right up front, I am not responsible. If you continue, you take full responsibility. Don?t come whimpering to me, for I will turn a deaf eye and a blind ear. Scream all you want.

This is a ten-day, four-night ?Europe Winter Season? tour with Insight Vacations, with the first day being the day of departure from the USA and the last day being the day of return.

However, in order to spend time on our own in Rome, we leave on Wednesday, 27 March, three days before the start of the tour, which is due to begin on Easter Sunday, 31 March.

Several family members accompany my wife (Sue) and me (Marv) on this tour. Terri, my wonderful niece, and her terrific husband/our nephew, Tom, are with us as we depart the USA on Wednesday. Later, on Sunday, at the start of the Insight Tour, we will be joined in Rome by my sister-in-law, Nancy (who really is every bit our ?sister? ), and by my sister, Mary, who is just awesome and heroic.

The initial four of us (Terri & Tom and Sue & I), had elected to stay at the same hotel as the tour will stay at while in Rome, the Grand Hotel Beverly Hills. We have been at the hotel before and found it very nice, and while it is not completely centrally located, it is in easy walking distance to the Via Veneto area, and, if one wants to put out just a bit more effort, to many more sights. It is located at the southeast edge of Ville Borghese. We could have chosen a hotel a bit more central to avoid taxi costs or the time it takes to ride public transportation or walking, but we didn?t want the hassle of changing hotels to start the tour.

Day 1 ? Wednesday

We fly from North Carolina to Atlanta, where we have a lay-over of a few hours before catching our overnight flight to Rome. Terri & Tom are flying in from Minnesota to Atlanta to catch the same overnight flight to Rome.

While in Atlanta, we hear the big news. The US State Department has put out a warning to all Americans traveling in Italy over the next several days. They had received word that Americans would be targeted by terrorists in Florence, Venice, Verona and Milan, with Rome also being a possibility. We will be in all of these except Milan. The most likely period is right around Easter. Gosh darn! We hear the announcement just before the arrival of Terri & Tom, and break the news to them over coffee, after we meet them at their gate.

We are all of the same mind. (Figuratively speaking, of course, not literally. We didn?t all meld our minds into the same pot and stir. We couldn?t find a pot, actually, other then the restrooms, and felt it inappropriate to meld our minds in the toilet. Well, my mind is already in the toilet, but the others are more pristine). Terrorists are not going to dictate to us, and we decide we will ignore the warnings, just being mindful of our surroundings. Our main concern is the worry that the warnings would cause our families at home while we are in Italy. But, hey, if it comes down to our staying at home and our families not having to worry, or going to Italy and letting them worry out of their minds, they can worry! We are going to ITALY, for crying out loud, and nothing can keep us from that!

The overnight flight is uneventful. Delta even serves us acceptable (sorta) food for dinner Wednesday night, and for breakfast the next morning. I break out my trusty blow-up neck pillow, not caring if the uninitiated think it is dorky, and rest as well as I can.

Which is not well. I never can sleep well, if at all, on airplanes. Planes never used to bother me. In Vietnam, I used to hang out the door of helicopters, my feet dangling over the side, no seat belt. And I used to go up as an ?observer? in little two seater L-19 single engine rattletraps, looking to be shot at in order to call in artillery or airstrikes on those shooting at us. The greatest fun was doing loops in the L-19, or flipping upside down just feet off the ground, o
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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 01:07 PM
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Oh, I see there is a word limit. Well, before I go to the trouble to break up the journal into several individual posts, let me first find out if there is any interest in continuing.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 01:17 PM
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Absolutely, Marv - please give us the rest!
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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 02:15 PM
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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 05:09 PM
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What's up, Marv? You trying to make us beg? OK, pleeaase continue.
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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:17 PM
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No, I'm not trying to make anyone beg. Just making sure there is any interest at all before dividing up the journal to make it fit this boards requirements.

I'll post the journal, for the most part, divided by day, which will mean repeating some of what was already posted.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:17 PM
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Day 1 ? Wednesday

We fly from North Carolina to Atlanta, where we have a lay-over of a few hours before catching our overnight flight to Rome. Terri & Tom are flying in from Minnesota to Atlanta to catch the same overnight flight to Rome.

While in Atlanta, we hear the big news. The US State Department has put out a warning to all Americans traveling in Italy over the next several days. They had received word that Americans would be targeted by terrorists in Florence, Venice, Verona and Milan, with Rome also being a possibility. We will be in all of these except Milan. The most likely period is right around Easter. Gosh darn! We hear the announcement just before the arrival of Terri & Tom, and break the news to them over coffee, after we meet them at their gate.

We are all of the same mind. (Figuratively speaking, of course, not literally. We didn?t all meld our minds into the same pot and stir. We couldn?t find a pot, actually, other then the restrooms, and felt it inappropriate to meld our minds in the toilet. Well, my mind is already in the toilet, but the others are more pristine). Terrorists are not going to dictate to us, and we decide we will ignore the warnings, just being mindful of our surroundings. Our main concern is the worry that the warnings would cause our families at home while we are in Italy. But, hey, if it comes down to our staying at home and our families not having to worry, or going to Italy and letting them worry out of their minds, they can worry! We are going to ITALY, for crying out loud, and nothing can keep us from that!

The overnight flight is uneventful. Delta even serves us acceptable (sorta) food for dinner Wednesday night, and for breakfast the next morning. I break out my trusty blow-up neck pillow, not caring if the uninitiated think it is dorky, and rest as well as I can.

Which is not well. I never can sleep well, if at all, on airplanes. Planes never used to bother me. In Vietnam, I used to hang out the door of helicopters, my feet dangling over the side, no seat belt. And I used to go up as an ?observer? in little two seater L-19 single engine rattletraps, looking to be shot at in order to call in artillery or airstrikes on those shooting at us. The greatest fun was doing loops in the L-19, or flipping upside down just feet off the ground, or skimming the tops of the trees in the jungle, looking for ?Charlie.? It was great fun.

Now, if the airliner bounces a little, I need a change of underwear. Sue sleeps. I hate her. She rests her head on my shoulder, or sometimes props her feet up on me, her back against the sidewalls. I stay awake, looking at her dainty little feet in the dark. Terri & Tom are seated right in front of us. I want to jab them awake so they can help me look at Sue?s feet. But I am nice. For a change.

There are a couple large groups of teenagers, on spring break, on this aircraft, however; and they keep going all night long. They have their reading lights on, or they keep talking, or have pocket games going Ping! Ping! Only a few of them are wise enough to sleep. The rest, I just know and pray, will be dead (or alternatively, dead tired, a poor second choice) the next day, their young little butts dragging along the streets of Rome.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:19 PM
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Day 2 ? Thursday

We arrive in Rome and deplane. I?ve always wanted to say that word. ?De Plane! De Plane!? Just like on ?Fantasy Island.? Passport Control has a bit of a line, being a weekday, and it takes us maybe a half hour to get through. Then we wait for our luggage, which seems to take longer than usual. I begin to wonder if they found out I was lying, as I didn?t have full control of my luggage at the departure airport, since Sue, who is a very suspicious character, was in charge of it at some times. Also, I am starting to get a bit worried that our limo driver would not wait. Before leaving home, I arranged for a limo to pick us up at the airport and take us to the hotel. The cost of the limo for the four of us would only be a bit more than the express train from the airport to Termini Station then two taxis (since there are four of us with luggage, one taxi would not be enough) from there to the hotel. Also, the limo service would save us a lot of time, which is a major factor.

After finally getting our luggage, we slink through Customs. You don?t really have to slink through Customs, but I do anyway. I always feel somehow guilty, like I am going to get snagged; that the crooked nicotine stained finger at the end of the long arm of a Custom Agent will beckon me over for inspection. It never has happened; it always has been that I could just slink straight through with nobody stopping me. But I feel this time (as I feel every time) that somebody in Customs WANTS to snap on a latex glove and do a full rectal. Even if the Customs agent won the ?Miss Nude Italy? competition, no thanks. That is not for me. I?ll take my jollies in the gelati store. Ice cream over rectal exams any day, I always say! I say that at least once per day.

We slink through Customs without a rectal, without even a glance from them, feeling guilty as all get-out even though perfectly innocent, and we are out into the Arrivals Hall. There is our limo driver, holding up a sign with my name. Fortunately, nobody else came along and claimed they were me. Poor them if they did. Not that I would do anything, but just think of how that would ruin their reputation!

The driver helps us with some of our luggage, and we cross the street from the terminal into the parking area, where he loads it up into the van. To be on the safe side, to ensure room for our luggage, I had asked for a van, but a limo would have been provided if I had asked. All arrangements for the limo were done via email, and they required no up front deposit. They were there, even waiting for us despite our being late coming out of Passport Control, and we were charged the agreed upon price with no hassle. I would highly recommend these people if anybody has need of their service. They provide sight-seeing within Rome as well as excursions to many places within Italy, besides transport to and from the airport. Here is their web address, from which you can get info about them, to include their email:

As the driver takes us from the airport, which is southwest of Rome, to our hotel, which is in the northeast section of the city, he gives us a nice little mini-tour. Upon arrival, we pay him in cash, plus a nice tip for himself.

Grand Hotel Beverly Hills is a new hotel, having been built in the last few years. It is modern and clean, and the staff is courteous and helpful. Even though it is well before normal check-in hours, we present ourselves to the front counter, and they check us right in. They copy the information from our passports, and we are given our room keys. This hotel is like others in Europe. They do not waste money on extra space for the elevators (or ?lifts? as some may call them). There is barely enough room for four people without luggage, but somehow we manage to squeeze in our luggage as well. It is so tight that it is fortunate that we are all related. If any of the women had been any more well endowed, somebody would have been left behind. Or pregnant.

Our rooms are very nice. We have a double size bed, and the room is well appointed, and includes a room safe and a mini-bar. Next door, Terri & Tom have a fabulous room, with a private balcony. Their shower is about three times the size of ours. Ours is about the size of my two feet if I press them tightly together.

We stay in our rooms just long enough to take care of necessities and put some things away from our luggage and refresh a bit, then we meet, and go down in the lobby. We run across the street for a light snack (small panini?s) at a little place then back to the hotel. There are no taxis waiting outside, so I ask the desk to call one for us. They enter a code into a little machine and in a few seconds an answer comes back on a little slip of paper that prints out from the machine. Our taxi would be number so and so, and would arrive in four minutes.

In two minutes, our taxi is here.

The tour, we know, will take us to the Vatican, to the museums and into St. Peter?s Basilica; however, the normal schedule for the Insight tour would be for us to visit the museum on Monday, but that is Easter Monday in Italy, and the museum will be closed. We are not certain how long of a time we will have there Tuesday morning, and decide we want more. Also, one of our prime objectives in our three days of free time is to climb to the top of the Dome at St. Peter?s and we know there will not be enough time to do that once the Insight tour begins. We could take public transportation to the Vatican, but we also know that it would take us quite a bit longer to get there, and knowing how long lines can be, taking a taxi is a better option for us.

We have the taxi drop us off at the museum entrance, which is to the north (side) entrance of the Vatican. Taxi cost is about 8 € (euros), and we give him a too big a tip just to make it an even ten. Sure enough, there is a long line, so we decide to walk around to the front and see if we can climb the dome first. We go into the Basilica to discover the dome is closed that day, but could not find out why. We tour the Basilica, which is just awesome. It is the largest cathedral in the world. Michelangelo?s ?The Pieta? is more than awesome, it brings tears to ones eyes. Sue & I have been there before, but Terri & Tom have not, so we act as tour guides, pointing out this and that awesome thing, such as the foot on the globe, crushing England (the Pope who commissioned that sculpture was irritated at King Henry the VIII). We learn that the dome will be open in the morning at 08:00, so we determine to come back at that time.

After some time, we walk back around to the museum entrance, and there is no line at all. We walk right in, and pay our entry fee, and start our tour. We spend about two hours or more walking from room to room, just enthralled at all there is. There are dark tapestries, paintings, frescos, sculptures, just so many things. We are tired from a long day already, and find the museum?s cafeteria and have a drink and slices of pizza to refresh ourselves, then tour more. Finally, we enter the Sistine Chapel. Hush! No speaking, no picture taking, no video allowed. It is glorious. I cannot imagine what it must have been like to lie on ones back on scaffolding so high up, mixing paint pigments with plaster to paint those frescos on the ceiling, over the long years it took to do so. Michelangelo is indeed a genius, and it is inspirational.

We leave the Chapel and the museum, going down the famous double-spiral staircase, and exit. From the museum exit, we walk along the outside of the Vatican walls until we come to Via Cola di Rienzo, which leads east toward the Tiber River and the Piazza del Popolo, which is just a bit on the other side of the river. Piazza del Popolo is about one and ? miles from the Vatican. We wander along the street, looking into storefronts and examining anything that looks interesting. We cross the Tiber, and go up a circular path that leads into a piazza.

I am so convinced that we will get lost, which is an expected thing in Rome, that I am a bit confused as to exactly where we are, and think that perhaps we came a bit too far south of Piazza del Popolo. But, eventually, the view of the famous twin churches, the Egyptian obelisk, and the various statuary finally convinces me we did NOT get lost, we are exactly where we should be! Gosh! That is really WEIRD! It is almost obligatory to get lost. We tour the piazza, then we go into one of the twin churches. The other is closed. After viewing it, taking in its marvels, we leave and head to the Spanish Steps, nearly a mile to the southeast.

In the spring, the city of Rome puts out thousands of flower pots to line the steps and it is beautiful, according to pictures. We are a little disappointed as there are no flowers there. Okay, no flowers, so I start looking around for the Spaniards, which must be plentiful, otherwise why would it be called the ?Spanish Steps?? Hum? No Spaniards, either. Ah, but the Spanish Embassy is nearby, so that must be it, huh? There is a fairly small fountain at the base of the steps, sunk a bit into the street. It is fed by the same ancient Roman aqueduct that feeds the Trevi Fountain. This fountain is at the very end of the line, and water pressure is low, thus the fountain is just a tad below street level. We climb up the dozens and dozens of steps, how many I don?t know, but a lot, up to the top, to Trinita dei Monti church. The view up here is great. In the distance is the dome of St. Peter?s. Down below is Via Condotti, a famous shopping street.

At the top are various street artists, and Terri finds an original painting that she really likes and comes close to striking a deal, but then decides to think about it a bit. As we sit on the steps, Tom turns ghostly pale, then bites the bullet, and gets the painting for Terri. Tom is so nice! I could never live up to that. I have a nasty feeling that my time is coming, as Sue loves paintings as well, so I try to distract Sue with the view. It works. Whew!

We descend to the bottom of the steps, and walk a block or so south to find a taxi. We are all VERY tired after a long day. We could walk back to the hotel, about two miles away, but nobody has the energy. We load into the taxi. The hotel is straight east. The taxi driver heads straight west. And west. And west. I get out my trusty pocket compass to make sure my sense of direction is not deceiving me in this confusing city. It is not. We keep heading west. I figure soon we will be in the sea. I get the drivers attention and ask him if he is sure he knows where the hotel is. He laughs and says ?si.? He goes west. I tap him on the shoulder, and tell him that the hotel is EAST near the Villa Borghese. He laughs. We finally turn north, then he heads east, and he goes through the middle of Villa Borghese, and he laughs and says, ?See? Villa Borghese!? And laughs more. From the Spanish Steps, the cost of a taxi should be about € 6 euros. By the time we get to the hotel, the meter is at € 10 euros. We pay him, but refuse to give him a tip. He laughs. Such a funny guy.

We had previously decided that we would have dinner at a place near the hotel selected from my ?Restaurants of Italy? list. But it is too early in Italy for dinner, as they don?t generally start having dinner until about 07:30 PM (19:30) at the VERY earliest, and usually not until 8:30 or even later. While the women go up to Terri & Tom?s room, Tom and I go across and up the street to buy a couple bottles of wine. We sit on the balcony, looking out at Rome, drinking our wine, then we explore the hotel a little more, ending up in the bar off the lobby for more wine. Over the next few days, we get to be friends with the bartender, having at least a glass per night there. He calls us ?Boss.?

The place we selected for dinner is called Al Simeto. It is on Via San Simeto 34, around the corner from the hotel, and down a block and a half, then across the street. The recommendation from the original message board poster who first provided the suggestion did not say much, so our expectation is not high. We are just after a nearby place that would satisfy our basic hunger.

We walk in, and the staff is extremely friendly, even though they can speak very little English, and we are obviously tourists (duh). We are the first customers of the night. We are shown to a table, and given menus. We order pasta, three different ones, and the house white wine. The wine is just excellent and we want more. The pasta is eventually brought to our table, and it is out of this world! It is fantastic! I still drool thinking about it! So TASTY! After eating, we ask for the check, and it is delivered. I look at it and cannot believe my eyes. I call the waiter over, and tell him he must have forgotten to add something as the total is too low. It takes a bit to get the point across, but he assures me it is okay, that everything is on it. We pay, leaving a big tip. When we leave, the place is packed, but we are the only tourists there. All others are locals.

Back at the hotel, we set our travel alarms for the next morning, get out our duds for the next day, and take care of personal needs and settle into bed after a very long and exhausting day. I am dead tired, and it doesn?t take long at all to drift into sleep. It was more like slam into sleep. I am dead to the world, deep deep down.

Ring. Ring.

The phone wants us, and it is pitch black and I drag myself out of my deep sleep, not knowing exactly where I am, but thinking I must be at home. I reach over my head for where the phone is at home, but it isn?t there. Ring. Ring. Sue answers it, as it is on her side. What?s it doing over there? I stand up, unable to see a thing, groggy. I know that the hallway leading to the toilet at home is straight ahead. I must be at home. I step forward and crash into the hotel room wall. Unfortunately, I am not in any kind of ?excited? state, otherwise I would have had an appendage bobbing out in front of me (some considerable distance, I might add), feeling the way much like the antennae on an insect. I would have had plenty of warning that a wall was there. Lots of warning. Considerable advanced warning. Fortunately, though, I was not in an ?excited? state, or my new nickname would be ?Stubby? today.

Sue is talking on the phone as I shake off the sleep. She is assuring somebody we are okay and well be okay. After she hangs up, she tells me it was our Travel Agent, a very good and conscientious southern lady who called on behalf of one of our daughters who was very worried about us, due to the terrorist warnings. Back to sleep.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:21 PM
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Day 3 ? Friday

Our travel alarm does its job, and we awaken at the agreed upon hour. After shaving and brushing
and other stuff, I ?hop? into the shower. Actually, it is a half-a-hop, as there isn?t enough room for
a full hop. I pull the shower curtain around me and immediately the apparent vacuum caused by
the hot water pulls the shower curtain tight around me. Either that, or I have a magnetic personality
that the shower curtain is attracted to. I struggle to free myself, but it insists that it be my second
skin, sticking to me like it is super-glued to my sexy body (well, at least that is MY opinion). It is so
tight I figure I can cut arm-holes in it and wear it like a bodysuit. I might, but I am afraid that
women and small children would run screaming and have nightmares thereafter, so I give up on
the idea. I wash as well as I can, being careful to not drop the soap, as who on this earth knows
what could happen then?!

We meet Terri & Tom out in the hall and take the lift down to the lobby (when taking a lift DOWN, is it properly referred to as a de-lift? Or perhaps, un-lift?). At any rate, after de-lifting, we walk around to the stairs that go down to the lower level, where the breakfast room is. Here in the States, the ground floor is the 1st floor, and the next floor up is the 2nd floor. In Europe, the ground floor is Zero, and the next floor up is the 1st floor. If there is a floor below the Zero floor in Europe, it is labeled as minus one (-1). So, breakfast is on ?1. It is the typical European hotel breakfast buffet of sliced cold cuts, pastries and rolls, cereals, plus some scrambled eggs, sans hashbrowns. I live for hashbrowns. But, this is Italy, and we do as the Italians do, and we don?t eat hashbrowns. Since they don?t have them. After breakfast, we ask the front desk to summon a taxi for us, and it arrives in minutes, and we hightail it for the Vatican.

We arrive right at 08:00, and there is no line at all for going up into the dome. We purchase our tickets, to include the extra charge for the lift to avoid the first 179 steps. The lift brings us up to the roof of the Basilica, and we then find our way to the entrance at the base of the dome. We enter, and are then inside the dome, looking down at the floor of the Basilica, and then up to the top of the dome. Fantastic views. We walk part way around, getting the full effect from several angles, taking our quota of pictures and video.

Going up to the top of the dome is very interesting. There are 495 steps up, although we avoid the first 179 of them. It is one-way. Once starting, there is no turning back. As we go higher and higher, the steps become steeper and steeper, sometimes turning into tight spirals, sometimes the outer and inner walls (the steps are between the outer dome and inner dome) are so sloped that we must lean over in order to climb higher. We get to the top and step out of the exit, to the outside, on the ?veranda? that runs the circumference of the dome at the top. As we walk its circumference, it gives a beautiful 360 degree view of Rome and the Vatican grounds. We spend some time up there, as the view is so fantastic, and we take pictures of everything in sight. Off in the distance is the Pantheon; then over farther is the Vittorio Emanuele Monument (the modern founding king of Italy, from the 1870?s); there is the Tiber River winding its way through Rome; if one were to look carefully, possibly through a telephoto lens of a camera or through binoculars, there are the Spanish Steps with no Spaniards on them (that we can tell, unless they are in disguise as tourists); down below are the arching arms of the colonnade that hugs the Piazza S. Pietro in front of the Basilica; and behind and to the sides are the gardens and building of the Vatican, and then Rome and its suburbs stretching out from there. Beautiful.

When we are ready to go down, we look for the stairs that lead down. Since the stairs coming up are one-way, I am not too sure but that maybe the Pope expects divine intervention as we leap from the dome, and I am convinced that I would be the beneficiary of no such intervention. As I slide down the dome, picking up speed, my screams getting louder and louder, I would indeed pray? for a fat tourist to cushion my landing. Hopefully, the fat tourist would be prone, otherwise as I can see myself impaled on the head of the fat tourist, to be worn like a not-so-furry mink stole thereafter. Or worse yet, heaven forbid, I might land on the head of the tourist butt first, resulting in excruciating pain for me and surgical removal of his/her head from my nether chamber. The fact that the tourist would have nothing to breath but methane gas, fatal I am sure, would be of no concern to me at all considering my own predicament.

I am relieved to see that there are in fact stairs going down and jumping is not required. The ?down? stairs are also one-way, so once starting down, there again is no changing of the mind to go back up. We make it down to the base of the dome, onto the roof of the Basilica. Somebody, in their divine inspiration (since we are at St. Peter?s, I can only assume that all inspirations and interventions are divine) provided souvenir shops right on the roof of the Basilica. We ?rest? while we explore, then decide that we will not de-lift the rest of the way, but rather take the stairs all the way down. It empties us into the Basilica, and we explore there again just briefly before finding our way out.

In front of the Vatican, we hop into a taxi. Hopping into taxis in Rome is a dangerous occupation, as the taxis are small by US standards, where we have vehicles that guzzle gasoline like it is tap water. Taxis in Italy are smaller, more fuel conscious vehicles. For one who is 6 feet 4 inches tall, hopping into these smaller vehicles results in concussions. After riding in the back seat of one, and being almost unable to extricate myself from it, trapping me nearly forever, to turn into dust (or be recycled with the taxi when it finally expires), my tourmates decide that I should ride in the front seat there after. So, I hop into the front seat, and after regaining consciousness, we all head off for Piazzale Appio.

Prior to leaving on our trip, we had done a lot of research, and I had mapped out several possible walking tours of Rome. I used a plastic coated map, and for the different possible routes, used a different color of highlight marker for each. Some of the guidebooks also give excellent suggested walking routes, which we used as a base, but modified according to what we really wanted to see.

Piazzale Appio is just outside the ancient city walls at the south end of Rome. The taxi drops us off there, and we pay him approximately € 8 euros plus tip. We photograph the walls and the gateway, then walk inside the walls to Piazza Porto Giovanni, where there are some modern (I think) sculptures just outside the Basilica S. Giovanni in Laterano cathedral. This church, St. John?s, is the main church (or Duomo) of Rome, keeping in mind that the Vatican is its own city/state and thus not formally a part of Rome.

The inside is beautiful, and we are awestruck by the height and gilding on the ceilings, and the frescos on the walls. We depart the cathedral at the side exit, into Piazza di Porta S. Giovanni (as distinguished from the piazza in front, called Piazza Porta S. Giovanni), and we view the tall Egyptian obelisk, about 3500 years old, that the ancient Romans moved from Egypt. Many of the obelisks that were taken from Egypt in the days of the Roman Empire were later repositioned by the Popes to decorate the piazzas outside of the cathedrals in Rome. Always, the Popes added a cross to crown the obelisk. The original Egyptian hieroglyphs on this one are still very visible.

From here, we wander down Via di S. Giovanni in Laterano, going northwest in the direction of the Colosseum. Along the way, we discover a shop that has ?kinder-eggs? displayed in the window. We know that Nancy?s daughter (Nancy would join us on Sunday at the start of the tour) had requested kinder-eggs as a gift from Europe. Kinder-eggs are chocolate covered toys that are not available in the States. What? Aren?t they a bit crunchy? Actually, the toys are encased in a plastic egg, and the egg is covered with chocolate. Don?t ask me why. It just is. It?s one of those things we simply must accept without questioning, like what the meaning of ?is? is. We buy some kinder-eggs for Nancy and for our families, and get some refreshments, and go on our way.

We pass the Colosseum, knowing we will be coming back to it, and detour up the hill to the right and wind our way to the S. Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains) church. There are two attractions here. First, there is a beautiful sculpture of Moses done by Michelangelo. He had been commissioned by a pope to do a rather elaborate tomb for the pope, and had done only a small portion of it before being sidetracked to other projects. The Moses, although of a good size, was only to be a small part of the tomb. Despite his intent, the pope is not buried in the church, and the sculpture of Moses stands alone against the wall. The second attraction is the gilded or shiny brass box that contains what is purported to be the chains that bound Peter, the disciple of Jesus, while he was imprisoned in Rome, before being executed upside down on a cross. It is said that the chains that bound Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem were brought to Rome, and when the two chains were placed together, they fused into one chain.

The Moses, besides being a beautiful sculpture, has a couple interesting features. First, after he started the beard of Moses, Michelangelo decided that his head should actually be turned to the left rather than facing straight out as he originally saw it. Thus, half way to his chin, the long beard takes a sudden swerve to the left (our right as we face it) then continues up to the chin of Moses. Second, there are what appear to be horns coming out of the forehead of Moses. This is actually meant to represent rays of enlightenment, like rays of the sun, shining on his face. They still look like horns to me, so could it have been a subtle hint of how Michelangelo felt about that pope?

We leave the church and make our way back to the colosseum and pause above the Metro stop opposite the Colosseum to take pictures of it and the Roman Forum area from that vantage point. In front of/beside the Metro stop is a sidewalk café, so we have cappuccino while we relax in the shade a bit. I find this just awesome, having cappuccino while sitting across from the Colosseum, where tens of thousands of people and animals where slaughtered for the entertainment of others over a period exceeding three centuries. The Romans had to stop this practice after the Roma Trial Lawyers Association filed too many wrongful death suits, claiming product liability as the javelins and swords and whatnot were defective since they performed as specified. They also filed suits alleging violation of what we now call ?due process.? In the days of the Roman Empire, it was ?due (two) porco (pork),? which loosely means, ?to be stuck like a pig, twice.? Crowds would yell ?Due porco! Due porco!? Now you know the origin of the term ?due process.? Today, trial lawyers chase ambulances when they are not running for political office. In those days, they chased after the entrails of dead gladiators, sucking the life out of a very popular entertainment.

We know we are coming back to the Colosseum with the tour, but the tour will give us very limited time in the Roman Forum, so that is were we go. We hope to get a guide to talk us through the forum, but the kiosk where you hire the guides (they actually work for free, but expect a rather sizeable but well worth it tip at the end of their tour) has a long line, so we walk through on our own, relying as well as we can on our guidebooks.

There is the Arch of Titus, which marks the formal entrance to the Roman Forum area, and we pass by and go deeper into it. We come to the ruins of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins. It was a round temple where the eternal flame was maintained by a select group of virgins. The Romans believed that as long as the flame lasted, so would Rome.

The Vestal Virgins were a very select group of girls who were appointed at around the age of ten, if I remember correctly (no, I am not that old to remember directly, but rather from the guidebooks). It was considered a great honor for a family to have one of its daughters selected as a Vestal Virgin. Extra daughters not selected for this honor were later used for making extra virgin olive oil. It used to be that only one virgin was used for making olive oil, but then they learned that by adding extra virgins, the olive oil was greatly improved.

The virgins selected for the honor of being Vestal Virgins had to commit to remaining a virgin for thirty years. Today, the maximum commitment they could get would be six months, and so they had to give up on the Vestal Virgin idea in more modern times. The virgins who tended the vestal flame were considered high priestess? and were afforded great stature. They participated in important public ceremonies, and presided over various functions and sporting events such as the World Cup and the Superbowl. They were the only women who were allowed to own property in all of the Roman Empire. What ever happened to the good old days, huh?

There was a downside, though, besides having to remain virginal for 30 years. They were given pelvic exams by the local gynecologist/chariot maker, and if it were found that they violated their sacred vows by being violated, they were tied to an ornate chair and paraded through the streets of Rome, then they were enclosed in a dark tomb with three days of bread and water where they met their slow death.

I decide that I will not volunteer to be a vestal virgin, should anybody happen to ask me while in Rome. I don?t think I could pass the pelvic without a rather serious amputation first. What I have I need to feel my way in the dark. What other use is there?

After some time, we exit the Roman Forum area via the dozens and dozens and dozens of steps at the northeast corner. We come out near Piazza Venezia, at Piazza del Campidoglio near the beautiful museums, and make our way beside the Vittorio Emanuele II monument. We see some steps leading up the side, and it appears that the steps connect to the front of the monument. There is a sign at the base of the steps, but it is in Italian, and we have no idea what it says. We climb up the at least 200 steps, only to discover, at the top, that one cannot get into the monument from there. Back down the steps. I could swear that sign says ?Please do not tell tourists that these steps do not go into the monument. Leave it our little surprise to them.?

We go around to the front of the monument, which the locals hate since it is made of white marble rather than the traditional beige or tan stones most common in Rome. The locals refer to it as the ?Wedding Cake.? There is a wide expanse of steps that go up, so we climb up. We go up as far as we think we can, when we notice over at the side more steps going farther up. Again go as far as we think we can, when we turn a bend, and there are still more steps, then another corner, and still more! We finally make it to the top, and it is worth it. Down in front is Piazza Venezia, which was designed by Michelangelo, with some of his sculptures nearby. Off to one side, one can see Trajan?s Market, the first huge shopping mall built nearly 2000 years ago. That is the origin of ?Mid-Night Madness? clearance sales, and the ?blue light special.? At another angle, down a street several blocks away, is the Colosseum. Great pictures from here.

It is well after noon as we make our way back down and find a nice restaurant nearby. We all order pasta and I also order a side of artichokes. Artichokes in Italy are very tender. The stems are included, making the whole thing, with choke and stem, at least eight inches long. The stems are peeled, and cooked with the choke. The stems taste just like the heart. Two artichokes are served, floating in a great olive oil obviously made with extra virgins. I slice them up lengthwise so we each get a quarter artichoke. They are nothing short of delicious, just out of this world! The pasta is nothing to sneeze at either, so none of us sneeze.

After lunch we wander along Via d. Teatro di Marcello. It leads us west of the Roman Forum area, along the Capitolino and Palatino hill areas, where we see the ruins of those areas, a 2000 year old home of a Roman merchant still in existence, and a copy of the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, the copy being nearly as old as the original. We come out at the Tiber River, just south of Isola Tiberina. We cross the bridge, which is one of the original Roman bridges, OVER 2000 years old, then cross the island over into the Trastevere section.

There are several things we want to see, to include a monastery. We walk right past it without recognizing it. We get lost, but find our way back to it and look inside. It is mildly interesting.

By this time, we are getting pretty exhausted. Besides having walked for miles and miles, we also climbed at least a thousand steps. There is an exponential factor involved in climbing steps. The more one climbs steps, the more one thinks one climbed even more steps. If we climb 200 steps, we think we climbed 250 steps. If we climb 1000 steps, we think we climbed 10,000 steps. We think we climbed at least 10,000 steps, so we must have climbed about a thousand. Even though there are more things to see in Trastevere, such as the Santa Maria in Trastevere church, we elect to rest our legs at a sidewalk café and partake of refreshments. After the refreshments, our legs tell us that they need a longer rest. It is late afternoon.

We walk across the Isola Tiberina again, and as luck would have it when we reach the other side, here comes an empty taxi. We hail it down, and it is good enough to stop, and we hop in. As un-luck would have it, we go only a block before he pulls over and tells us to get out. It turns out that he had been summoned to pick up a fare right near us, and thought we were the party. When he rode by the other party, he realized his mistake, and was apologetic. We walk up a couple of blocks then turn northeast a couple blocks on Via Arenula, and find a taxi which brings us to our hotel.

We let our legs rest while having wine, cheese and enjoying ourselves, then at dinner time, have the hotel summon a taxi for us, to take us to the place we have selected for dinner.

On my ?Restaurants of Italy? list, someone had recommended a place called Al Gran Sasso. It was described thus: ?Typical Roman dishes, all great, and cooked by Momma in her blue apron and slippers. Leave room for the homemade apple pie.? We really wanted to see Momma in her blue apron and slippers and the food sounded good too, so that is where we go.

If Momma is there, she has a mustache. And a deep voice. The pasta and other dishes are only so so. Terri and Sue each order a side of artichokes, remembering how good mine were at lunch. The artichokes are mediocre at best. We pass on the apple pie, figuring we might finally see Momma?s slippers in the pie. We leave and walk up to Piazza del Popolo where we find a taxi back to the hotel. We stop in and say hello to the bartender, and partake of more wine, then it is sleepy time.

I am prepared this time for the phone to ring in the darkness, but it doesn?t. A waste of effort, it is.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:25 PM
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Day 4 ? Saturday

We know the market in the Campo de? Fiori is a morning affair only, and it is the farthest point of our planned walk for the day, so we make our way there first thing in the morning. In the days of the Roman Empire, it was a field of flowers, and thus its name, which means ?field of flowers.? For many centuries, however, it has been cobbled or blacktopped over, and has been surrounded by inns and trattoria?s, and it is lined with various kinds of merchants for equally as long. It had been a hub of anti-Pope activity for centuries as well. In the center is a monument to the philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake, at the instruction of the Pope, in the year 1600 for having the audacity to suggest that the Earth orbits the Sun. It is reputed that while he burned on one side, he said, ?I believe I am done on this side, perhaps I should be turned over.? I know I didn?t get the quote exactly right, but I didn?t have paper and pen in hand at the time, and after all, 400 years is a long time to try to remember something exactly. I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast this morning. One question: when did they apply the Bar-B-Que sauce? There is a special technique for it used in North Carolina, and I have to wonder if it was done properly. The statue faces in the direction of the Vatican as a symbol of defiance.

Today, the piazza is a farmers market in the mornings. There are stalls of fresh produce and meats where the locals in the area do their daily shopping. We wander the stalls, looking at the delicious produce, the strawberries so large and red and delicious looking. The artichokes with their long stems. The onions, and so much more, all top notch in quality.

As we wander, we are stopped by an old thin man who is manning a table on which is a variety of kitchen gadgets. He pegs us for Americans before we open our mouths, of course, and talks to us in broken English. He is quite a character, and gets our attention as he demonstrates his various wares. All are cheap looking and things we will likely never use, but we each buy some things, as he entertains us for at least fifteen minutes. He is happy and we are happy. We make our way over to the perimeter where some sidewalk cafés are in the morning sun. The women sit at a table while Tom and I go inside the ?Bar Fiori de Campo? and order coffees. We go back out and sit, and the waitress brings them out to us. Tom forgets about Italian coffee and when he places the order for himself, simply specifies ?coffee.? The rest of us have either cappuccino or caffé latte (coffee drowned in hot milk). Tom?s coffee comes in a small cup, with about a tablespoon of thick black coffee in the bottom. It is so strong that as he takes a sip, his teeth pucker and his eyeballs start to melt and his hair shoots straight out much like a cartoon character. He asks the waitress for a ?caffe Americano? instead, and she gives a knowing smile, and gets it for him. Caffe Americano is the same amount of coffee, but watered down with about two gallons of hot water to make it equivalent to our coffee. Tom is happy now, and we sip our coffee in the cool morning sun, watching the activity in the market as the locals do their produce shopping.

We detour southwest for a block or so to see Piazza Farnese, which is home to Palazzo Farnese, and then back through Campo de? Fiori and further north about three blocks to the south end of Piazza Navona.

Piazza Navona still retains the original oval shape from its days as an athletic stadium during the Roman Empire. The stadium that surrounded the field could hold more than 100,000 people. The back walls of the stadium are today the back walls to the buildings that surround the field. Some chariot races were held here, but mostly it was other athletic events. Today the perimeter of the piazza is lined with sidewalk cafés. There are three fountains in the piazza. The one in the center is phenomenal. It is a Bernini designed fountain named, ?Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi,? or Fountain of the Four Rivers, after the four known great rivers of the world at the time, the Nile, the Plate, the Ganges, and the Danube. They didn?t know about Hogwash Creek, then, of course, or it would have been included. The piazza is considered the social center of Rome, with activity going on almost all day and night long.

We wander around the piazza, drinking in the wonder of the fountains, offering the scattered peddlers money for the taking, usually in exchange for a t-shirt or some sort of drawing or painting, and have a nice time in this very pleasant place. We then follow the route marked on my map, and leave the piazza from the center exit to the east, and after about four blocks, we find the Pantheon.

The Pantheon is the best preserved of all the Roman Empire buildings. It is nearly 2000 years old, but has been a church for the last 1600 years. Many people are surprised to learn that its massive dome is made of concrete. The ancient Romans had mastered the art of forming concrete. When the Roman Empire fell, the recipe for concrete was lost and wasn?t rediscovered until the last couple of centuries. I believe it was Martha Stewart who rediscovered the recipe when she was trying to make cookies without the help of her staff.

The inside of the dome had been stripped of its ornamentation over the centuries, but the lower portion of the building, below the dome, embellished as a church, is very ornate and beautiful, and we marvel at it all as we gaze up and around. The sun comes through the giant opening left in the center of the dome. When it rains, it rains inside, too.

We make a detour down the east side of the Pantheon to visit the Santa Maria sepra Minerva church. The little piazza in front of the church has a small Egyptian obelisk, but what makes this one interesting is that it is mounted on an elephant designed by Bernini. We visit inside the church, which is very nice, then decide we are in need of both drink and toilet. There is nothing obvious immediately around the church, but we know of a McDonalds just a couple blocks south on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II. We wouldn?t dream of eating at a McD?s while in Europe, but their restrooms are great.

On Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, we stop to view the diggings at Largo Argentina, where still more ancient Roman ruins are being unearthed, then west to the McD?s. After taking our refreshment break, we head across the street from it (and a little bit east), to where we had noticed a cathedral while we were looking for the McD?s. Remember, in Europe, it is very often worthwhile to at least stick your head in any cathedral you come across, as you never know when you will be surprised.

So, we stick our head inside the Sant? Andrea della Valle cathedral. WOW! It is just fantastic. Simply unbelievable. It is just totally awesome! The frescos on the ceiling are out of this world. While the outside is non-descript, the inside is in a baroque style that is very ornate, if not bordering on gaudy, but nevertheless is beautiful. It is well worth a detour of several blocks.

We wander back past the Pantheon, heading north toward our next destination, some of the best gelato in Rome. We pass the La Maddalena church but duck inside it first, and are glad we did, as we soak up its coolness while organ music plays sweetly to us. Outside again, we find the Gelateria della Palma, on Via della Maddalena 20, about two blocks north of the Pantheon on the left side of the street. It has something over 100 flavors of gelato. We walk along the cases with the tubs of gelato, having a hard time deciding on which flavors to try, or even how big of a cone or cup to get. There are so many flavors that I would not be surprised to learn that ?toe jam? is one of them. We decide and pay at the cash register, then take our evidence of payment to the people who scoop it out. Sue is a coconut nut, and she has a combination of coconut something or other, and another flavor. I have two flavors as well. It is traditional in Italy to have at least two or three flavors in one cone or cup. It is SO good! We all four sit on benches inside while we finish our gelato.

Outside again, we backtrack just a block, then turn east, and head in the direction of the Trevi Fountain. We go past the Piazza di Montecitorio, which is a big piazza surrounded by government buildings, with a large Egyptian obelisk in the center of the piazza. Then we head farther east, to Piazza Colonna, where the Column of Marcus stands, erected in 180 AD. Spiraling down its face are reliefs showing the exploits and victories of the day. We cross Via del Corso into Via Sabini, which leads us into the little piazza where the fabulous Trevi Fountain is.

The fountain is large, but being in a small piazza gives it so much dominance that it is indeed powerful. It is beautiful. We must throw the obligatory coins in the fountain, of course. There is a certain technique to it, from what we hear. With back to the fountain, take the coin in your right hand, and throw it over your left shoulder. My understanding is that if you throw one coin in the fountain, you will return to Rome. If you throw two coins, you will return to Rome with the same person. If you through three coins, you will return to Rome with somebody else. Sue won?t tell me how many coins she threw.

It is mid-afternoon, and lunch-time and we are famished. We look for a place on my list called Trattoria della Stampa, which is highly recommended, and is right in the Trevi Fountain area. We finally find it, but it is closed, and looks like it has been closed for some time. We select another place from the list, Piccolo Aranico, on Vicolo Scanderberg 112, a block east of the Trevi. It takes us a bit to locate the street, as it is so small. It heads south from the street that passes in front of the Trevi. The street starts out as nothing more than a small alley, then widens out into a small piazzale, then narrows again. Piccolo Aranico is right at the point where it starts to widen out. There are several small tables in front of the trattoria, each just large enough to seat four people. Just inches away is the street. Actually, the tables even leak into the street, as there is so little room. The tables, inside and out, are all occupied mostly with locals, except one, and we jump at it. It is outside, right near the door

We have wine and all order pasta. My pasta with chucks of salmon in a creamy sauce is so incredibly tasty. Everybody is happy with what they ordered. We sit for some time, drinking in the locality and the locals, watching the little three wheeled Ape?s (which are 3 wheeled pick-up style vehicles in which goods are hauled through narrow streets. I believe they are powered by motorcycle types of engines) scoot by, and people meandering around.

We, eventually and reluctantly, leave and head east from the Trevi in the direction of the Palazzo del Quirinale. It originally was a Papal palace and is now the home of the Italian President. It is a ?secure? location and is closed to the public, sadly. Security is very heavy, with truck loads of soldiers and police going buy, and sentries with sub-machine guns looking upon us with suspicion. We walk along its length, on Via del Quirinale, until we get to Via A. Depretis, which we take heading southeast, our destination being Santa Maria Maggiore cathedral.

Santa Maria Maggiore is a very interesting cathedral, to include some fifth century mosaics, and is an example of an extremely early Christian church. It does have some additional things of interest. It is large, and it has, beneath the high alter, a gilded box that contains fragments from the manger of Jesus, reportedly. The cathedral was actually built to house these fragments. We wander around, taking in the high ceilings and decorations.

From here, we stop for a soft drink at a little place on the corner nearby, then walk in the direction of the Piazza della Repubblica, several blocks northwest of Santa Maria Maggiore. The piazza has a fountain we wish to see, the Nymphs of the Naiad. Despite my fantasy, none of the naked nubile naiad nymphs spring to live to ravage my body. They remain impassive as they cast their stony cold gaze upon me. We are surprised to see the vast ruins of Roman baths here, then even more surprised to see that a church has been built into the baths. We enter the church, looking for more surprises, and view its beautiful decorations and mosaics and high ceilings. No pictures are allowed, unfortunately.

We finally leave, and again being on the tired side after our long walk, find a taxi in the piazza to take us back to the hotel, where we rest and refresh and have wine on the balcony.

For dinner, we ask the hotel for a recommendation nearby, and we are sent off to a place a few blocks away. As we enter, we discover it is the exact same place we had our farewell dinner with the ?Country Roads of Italy? tour the year before. Before we can back out, we are grabbed by bony hands and seated at a table, and large carafes of both red and white wine are placed on our table, and a big basket of meats are placed before us. So we stay. The meats are in huge sticks and chunks, and much of it is very tasty as our anti-pasto. Bowls of olives are placed before us, and breads. Then we are served a pasta as our primo piatto, which is decent, then our secondo piatto (second or main course) is served, then desert. All without a menu or asking what we want. It is all decent, but not excellent. This place is a Sardinian restaurant, and doesn?t use a menu, as all get the same thing for a flat rate. The check is about € 25 per person, if my recollection is accurate.

We go back to the hotel, wishing that we had gone to the nearby Al Simeto on San Simeto instead. At the hotel, we stop in to say ?hi? to the bartender in the hotel?s bar and share a bottle of wine, then up to bed.

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Old Sep 12th, 2004, 06:26 PM
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To be continued.....
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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 12:54 PM
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Marv -- What a wonderfully detailed account! It has made me relive my trip to Rome, and want to go back. Before I do, I will read your journal again for all the details. Can't wait to read the rest.
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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:09 PM
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Day 5 ? Easter Sunday

It?s day five of our trip, the day that begins the official start of our motorcoach tour. We role out of our bed and get ourselves ready for our planned walk. Our sister, Mary, and sister-in-law, Nancy, are due to arrive in Rome today, but knowing their flight schedule, we figure they will miss the first Insight provided transfer from the airport but will get the second, and will arrive at the hotel around 1:00 PM (13:00) or so. So our walk this morning is designed to see some things close by while we wait for their arrival. We meet up with Terri & Tom, and after breakfast, start out.

We walk southwest from the hotel, until we come to the grounds of the Villa Borghese, and we skirt along the very southern edge of it, on Via Pinciana. When we come within sight of the villa itself, we stop in to see if by any chance there are tickets available for that morning. Perhaps we are lucky and some unwitting tourists stepped out into traffic and they are now nothing more than a large wet spot on a Roman road and their tickets are now available to us. I would hate to use such ?blood? tickets, but hey, tourism is a rough game. If you can?t stomach it, stay at home, man. Surprisingly, there are tickets available for an entry time of 09:00. Usually, reservations must be made weeks in advance. It is 08:30 so we have about a half hour to wait.

When outdoors, I wear hats to keep my rather delicate brain from frying in the sun, or to keep rain from washing it away. That has happened on more than one occasion. A sudden rain when I am caught without a hat, and there goes my brain. Once at home I had to have the city Sewer Works come out and help me retrieve it from a storm drain. Another time, it washed away, and before I could get it (do you realize how hard it is to find your brain when it is NOT where it belongs?) a cat found it and dragged it along an alley into a hole. It took me literally HOURS to coach my brain out, telling it that I would be nicer to it in the future, that I would try to screen thoughts so that it would not get all cluttered up, telling it I would give it more gelato, and any other lie I could think up without a brain. It finally worked, and my brain came crawling out from the hole, and I grabbed it and put it back in. So ever since then, I simply don?t chance it. Rain or shine, I wear a hat.

But, I digress. I have a couple hats I wear. This Easter Sunday morning, I wear my stupid hat. No, the hat itself is not stupid, but it causes ME to act stupid. I am not stupid, I just ACT stupid, so lets get that straight right off. Wearing my stupid hat, I must do something stupid. So I do.

I am convinced that the building from which we bought the Villa Borghese Gallery tickets is not the gallery itself. No. Instead, the gallery is up the road, at the north end of the grounds. So we trek up there, a bit less than three-quarters of a mile. We walk fairly fast to ensure we get there in plenty of time for our 09:00 entry time, since if you are more than 15 minutes late you do not gain entry. We proudly present our tickets at the gallery. They look at me, and I look stupidly back at them. They say something in Italian, and I look stupidly back at them. They say something else in Italian, and I look even more stupidly back at them. A guy comes over and looks at our tickets, and says, ?These-a tickets-a are-a not-a good-a here-a.? Naturally, he adds an ?a? at the end of each English word, as is required by Italian law. I look stupidly back at him, and ask him why not, we just got them. He looks at me as if I am stupid, and says, ?Because-a they-a are-a for-a the-a Villa Borghese Gallery-a, and-a this-a is-a the-a Galleria d? Arte Moderna.? The ?stupid? at the end of his sentence wasn?t spoken, but it hung in the air so obvious.

Oh crap. That damn stupid hat. I just want to ring its stupid freaking scrawny neck right then and there. I want to throw the stupid thing down and just stomp the living crap out of it. Stupid stupid stupid HAT!! I come close to doing it, but then I think of the possibility of the policia being summoned and hauling this crazy American with his stupid hat off to the psych ward for beating the crap out of the stupid hat. They probably would have to put my hat in protective custody. (When we got home, however, I chopped the stupid thing up into little pieces, then burned each piece, one by one. So much for that stupid hat. But I got a stupid replacement for it.)

We bee-line it back the nearly three-fourths mile to the place we got the tickets, and make it just in time, and tour the gallery. There is some interesting stuff, some very nice sculptures, some beautiful paintings, and the building itself inside is nicely done. There is a Bernini rendition of David that is not as good as Michelangelo?s, but another Bernini sculpture, of a king who is carrying away the wife of another man, is fantastic. You can see the intense emotion in her face, and see the give of her flesh as his fingers dig into her. My hat decides we can live here. If invited, that is. We aren?t, so we leave and make our way back the short distance to Via Pinciana and continue our trek southwest toward Via Veneto. We come to the old Roman walls, and cross through, after taking pictures, then walk along Via Veneto.

Via Veneto is a street that was highlighted in the movie ?La Dolce Vita.? It is indeed the sweet life, an extremely upscale street, with five-star hotels, and fancy places to eat, and lots of upscale sidewalk cafés, some enclosed in glass or with canopies.

The US Embassy is on this street, right where Via Veneto curves to the west before continuing south again. This is the day, however, that the terrorists are supposed to strike. Security is incredible. The portion of the street right in front of the embassy has barricades up, with several police vehicles parked, and heavily armed sentries. They don?t like anybody stopping and gawking, and they especially don?t like anybody taking pictures on this day of all days.

I stop and gawk and take pictures.

The security people start pointing at me, and machine guns swing around in my direction. I think they think: ?here is this guy, across the street, standing right in front of the Hard Rock Café, an obvious terrorist target, gawking and taking pictures of the American Embassy, another obvious terrorist target.? They are distressed at my stupid hat, I am sure. Perhaps they want to shoot it off my head and just be done with the stupid thing. They are welcome to it. I just hope they are good shots. In case they aren?t, I end the gawking and the picture taking, and we all start heading down Via Veneto again. But, I have to stop and think a moment. Why is it that Sue and Terri and Tom kept their distance from me when I was gawking and shooting pictures?

We round the next bend in the street, and find our major destination, the Santa Maria della Concezione church/monastery. The crypt under the church has the bones of the monks, most of whom have passed on before their bones where put on display. The ones who haven?t passed on yet are a tad upset. Avoid those monks if you can. We go in the side door under the church. A silent Brother is there collecting donations from behind a small wooden table. It is strictly voluntary, the donations. But he will kill you if you fail to donate. He will do it silently. I dig in my pocket for a donation, but keep an eye on the Brother. What if they need more bones? If he comes out with a wooden mallet and a boning knife, to hell with the crypt, I am running like the wind! Sue can fend for herself!

We make it into the crypt without getting de-boned. There are about five or so rooms, small, all in a row down the left side, behind a wrought iron fence to keep bone pluckers out. Each room has a different theme. Here are a bunch of leg bones arranged in a nice pattern on the wall. There are some finger bones?wait, what is that middle bone doing? Here are some skulls stacked up in a high pile against the wall. Here are some hip bones and other bones done up in a beautiful chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Some of the rooms are very dark, but a couple rooms nearer the end are lit brighter by a small window or two. Pictures and video are strictly forbidden under penalty of being bonered. Nobody is in front of us, and my group is behind me, blocking the view of the Brother watching down the hall. I whip out the trusty ole video camera and shoot away. I know I am going to hell for this, and without my bones. I will just be a blob of jelly, crawling from one hell hole to another down there like some giant ameba. But hey, it is worth it. Besides, I?ll have my stupid hat with me, although it may be on fire. Stupid thing.

I think that, perhaps, when I die, I will have my bones done into a chandelier and I will watch over members of my family, pointing a bony finger at them when disapproval is indicated. That should scare the crap out of them all.

We make it out of the crypt and take a quick look at the church above it. All the bones upstairs are fully dressed in their Sunday best flesh. Easter services are underway. We walk down the street to the end of Via Veneto, and view the Fontana dei Tritone in Piazza Barberini, then start heading back. We stop at a sidewalk café along Via Veneto to quench our thirst.

We arrive back at the hotel a bit before noon, confident that Mary and Nancy would arrive at the hotel about 13:00 on the second transfer. We are in the lobby only a few minutes when they come walking in the door. The Tour Director with the first transfer had waited for them, since their plane was a bit early, and Mary and Nancy had been out walking near the hotel for the last couple of hours. After hugs and kisses, I keep my distance in case they feel the need to bitch slap me.

Terri & Tom and Sue & I had previously thought about what we wanted Mary & Nancy to see once they arrived. We knew some of the places the tour would go to, and didn?t want to cover those same things, but it needed to be something interesting to keep them awake and interested after their long overnight flight. The night before, we had decided to take them to the Spanish Steps, then walk up to Piazza del Popolo.

Mary had knee surgery a few months before, and was still having some pain, so we needed to take it reasonably easy for her sake. (Throughout the tour, however, Mary kept up with everything that we did, and opted out of absolutely nothing on the tour, even though she sometimes was in obvious pain. She was a real trouper, and a genuine hero.) With six of us, we needed two taxis (unless we were lucky enough to get a van taxi at a higher cost, but they are more rare). The hotel called us two taxis, and we had them drop us off at the TOP of the Spanish Steps, at Trinita del Monti church. We viewed inside the church with them, then walked down the steps. After futzing around at the bottom of the Spanish Steps for a bit, and looking at the fountain there, we headed down Via della Croce (a street that runs a block north of the Spanish Steps), in order to have lunch at the Otello trattoria. It comes highly recommended and is on our restaurant list. It is closed for the day, Easter Sunday.

Across the street and just up, however, we find another nice place, Ristorante Bierreria Viennese (at Via della Croce 20/21). All the tables are full downstairs, but there is plenty of room upstairs, and we have a nice lunch. Thus, Mary and Nancy?s first meal in Italy is at a nice Austrian restaurant that serves food with a combination Austrian and Italian flavor. Interesting.

After lunch, we meander north along Via del Babuino to Piazza del Popolo. By the time we get there, the famous twin churches are closed, but the piazza itself is very interesting, with its sculptures along the east side, its fountains, and the tall Egyptian obelisk.

The welcome drink for the start of the tour is set for 5:00 PM (17:00), so we catch a couple taxis in the piazza and head back to the hotel. There is time for some wine and cheese on the balcony of Terri & Tom?s room, then we head down to the lobby in time to meet the rest of the tour group.

We knew before we left the States that the tour had been sold out, and in fact had been so popular that Insight had added a second motorcoach, and when that filled, they were trying to add a third motorcoach. We are on the first motorcoach, but Insight offered us room on the third motorcoach, which we refused, as often second and third coaches stay in more out of the way hotels, and Insight refused to guarantee us that we would stay in the same hotels as the first coach. We learned that there were not enough seats sold for the third coach and it was cancelled, so we are very glad we had not transferred to it.

There are two Tour Directors, one for each of the two coaches, of course. Belinda has the second coach, and our TD is Alison Gatt. The two are almost twins: attractive young women in their late 20?s or early 30?s, and each wearing black skirt-suits. Both are outgoing, and seem to know their business.

They divide the combined group up according to the coaches we would be on, and we are sent to our separate orientation rooms for our welcome drinks and tour explanations. We seldom see the people on the second coach again. I begin to suspect they were taken to the church of the monk?s bones and somehow were, um, detained there, probably now boneless like the boneless chicken parts in our favorite grocery stores.

Inside our orientation room, there are punch bowls of ?welcome drinks? set up. I have difficulty figuring out what it is, as it looks like nothing I have ever had to drink before, except in some dark nightmares. Alison starts in by explaining the workings of the tour, where we will go, the importance of being on time, the importance of keeping the name of the hotel and her cell phone number on our persons in case we get lost, the importance of squeezing tight instead of using the emergency restroom on the coach. She explains how the optionals work, and other mechanics of the tour. She answers questions, sometimes answering the same question from differing people three or four times (it is amazing how people don?t listen when they need to, and ask a question that was just answered. I could never be a Tour Director. I would feel a compelling need to start bashing people over the head just to maintain my own version of insanity).

After about 45 minutes or an hour, we are released for a little bit, but are to meet in the lobby for loading onto the motorcoach to go to our highlight dinner. At the appointed time, we board the coach, and head off.

The highlight dinner, which is an included dinner, is in a very nice restaurant in Rome. It is a modern place, and is brightly light, so bright that we have to ask the waiter to tone it down a bit. The meal is delicious, starting with anti-pasti, then a nice pasta dish, then the main entrée, then desert. Entertainment is provided, and consists of a troupe of singers. There is a daddy singer, a daughter singer, a brother singer, all of whom are of Japanese origin, and a boyfriend singer (I am guessing boyfriend to the daughter and not the brother, but who knows these days?) and an older friend singer. They sing beautiful Italian songs and some opera (I don?t have a clue about opera, so what sounds like opera to me may be something else entirely, like perhaps a song about a lonely pig with a boneless chicken girlfriend). The daughter singer has a beautiful voice that projects out and wraps around you and grabs you by the ears and makes you listen.

After dinner, we are taken on a little motorcoach nighttime tour of Rome, then we head to the hotel. Nancy and Mary especially are ready to let their heads hit the pillow. My head hits the pillow right after I hit my stupid hat.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:10 PM
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Day 6 ? Easter Monday

Women are inherently deficient. Hear me out before you whap me, but I?ll get back to that in just a bit.

It is Easter Monday in Italy, an important holiday. We arise and have breakfast, then we all meet in the lobby before boarding our motorcoach to start our tour of Rome. In addition to the six of us, there is a group of about 32 teachers, and a few smaller groups or family units, plus couples and singles to make up a full motorcoach.

The teachers group, consisting of teachers from around the States, was organized by one of the teachers. The leader is a rather small middle-aged woman who in a prior life was obviously a Marine Drill Sergeant. Sarg keeps her group organized and on time, checking to see who isn?t in the lobby yet, calling their rooms, checking their hands to see if they washed after going potty, making them stand in line at attention, giving them short-arm inspections and the like.

Now lets get to the inherently deficient part. To produce a woman you need two sets of chromosomes, just like when a man is produced. But in the case of a woman, the sets of chromosomes are exactly the same. Each set of chromosomes are called the ?Ex? chromosome. From this chromosome we get terms such as ?Ex-wife?, ?Ex-tra? spending money for shopping, ?Ex-treme? headache, ?Ex-pensive,? ?Ex-plosive,? ?Ex-pectant,? ?Ex-cruciating,? ?Ex-acerbate,? ?Ex-acting? and so many more. The list is nearly endless, but you get the point.

Men, on the other hand, have the Ex chromosome set, but we have a counterbalance set called the ?Why?? chromosome. It is from the ?Why?? chromosome that we get terms such as ?Why do I have to take out the garbage?? and ?Why do you need more money?? and ?Why do you have such an Ex-treme headache just when the kids aren?t home?? and ?Why do you have to buy the most Ex-pensive thing?? There are a few more but they are hardly worth mentioning.

Besides not having the ?Why?? chromosome at the start, women are unable to manufacture it within their bodies, leaving them (and we men) at the mercy of only the ?Ex? chromosomes. Men, on the other hand, are able to reproduce the ?Why? AND the ?Ex? chromosomes in an efficient little factory called ?The Twins.? When ?The Twins? reproduce these two sets of chromosomes, they put them in special little Sport Utility Vehicles (SUV?s) called ?Swimmers.? The Swimmers are kept segregated, with the girl ones (with the Ex chromosomes) kept to one side of the playing field and the boy ones (with the Why? chromosomes) kept to the other side of the field. When it is time to come out and play, the ?Ex?s? and the ?Why??s? are in competition, and the Swimmer SUVs that carry them go into full four-wheel drive to get to the goal line first, where they score.

As an aside, sometimes the Swimmers get misdirected, and instead of rev?ing up all four wheels to make the scoring touchdown, they head upstream rather than downstream. They refuse to ask for directions, of course. Most of these misdirected Swimmers will peter out long before they come to a conclusion in any way that can affect an outcome. But some, however, make it all the way up to the brain. Usually this is not cause for concern, but if the Swimmers are of predominately one persuasion or the other, that is to say, predominately Ex?ers or predominately Why??ers, it can have an effect. If the predominance is of Why??ers, it can cause a medical condition known as ?Macho-ism.? If the predominance is of Ex?ers, it can cause a medical condition known as ?Gay-ishness.? But I digress.

A few women are jealous that men have both the ?Ex? and ?Why?? chromosomes. But more than that, a few of the few women are jealous that men can REPRODUCE both sets of chromosomes. These few women see the culprit as being the efficient manufacturing plant, ?The Twins.?

Sarg, it appears, is not especially fond of anyone with ?The Twins.? Sarg sees no useful purpose for ?The Twins.? I am very fearful that Sarg has a large spool of very fine piano wire, so fine that it is nearly invisible. I fear that if she gets too close to ?The Twins? she will put a loop of piano wire around them, and take them under her control. Too much of a yank, and ?The Twins? are homeless. I am so fearful of it that I keep my distance. In fact, ?The Twins? are so afraid that they shrivel and bunch up and try to take refuge at a higher elevation, which causes a great deal of discomfort. To talk ?The Twins? down is not like talking a cat out of a tree. You can?t say, ?Here kitty, kitty? and tempt it with a bowl of milk. Oh no. ?The Twins? are more sophisticated than that. ?The Twins? must be calmed and soothed; they must be convinced that they are safely protected from harm; they must be provided a warm and safe nest. This cannot be done in public. It is a very difficult situation, indeed.

Sarg, lacking in ?The Twins? department, makes up for her deficiency by yelling her group into order while Alison, our TD, gets all the rest of us rounded up, and we march out to our motorcoach. There are three coaches out there. Ours, our sister tour group, and a third from a different tour company. We need to get to recognize our coach so that we don?t get on the wrong one and end up in Syria or someplace really nice and friendly like that.

I know about seat rotations, so I tell our little family group of six to sit on the side of the driver, about half way back. It is a short tour of ten days, so I figure the TD will do seat rotations clockwise, skipping three seats per day, with some days being no rotation at all due to little time on the coach. By sitting about half way back on the driver?s side, as we rotate clockwise, we will be near the front of the motorcoach for the whole trip. The TD, seeing that I am thinking, which frightens her, announces that seat rotation will be clockwise and will skip FOUR seats each day. Drat! The dreaded FOUR seat rotation.

The first full day of the tour should include the Vatican Museum with the Sistine Chapel, but it is Easter Monday, and the Vatican Museum is closed. Instead, we head out for a little tour of Rome, then the motorcoach stops by the Colosseum and we all pile out. Our local guide walks us down hill from the parking area to the Colosseum and Roman Forum area.

We tour the outside of the Colosseum while our local guide explains its features. We buy a cool little book from a vendor that shows pictures of the Colosseum/Forum as it is today, with overlays as to how it was. That helps a lot.

We bypass the long line of slack-jawed ?let?s do it on our own? (slow-trav) tourists, who have been waiting in line for God knows how long, and go right through the turnstiles into the Colosseum. As we go through, the ?go it alone? tourists in line, with drool dripping down their chins, throw darts at us with their eyes. Since most eyes have no arms, it is not easy for these malcontents to throw darts, but they manage it somehow. But we are all in Kevlar dart-proof tour-suits, and they just bounce right off us. You must be tough to be on tour.

We wander inside the Colosseum, walking the wood partial floor to look down into the pits and rooms below, and climbing the high steps to get to upper levels. We look out from the upper levels at the Roman Forum for a bird?s eye view. Actually, it is not real high, so it is more like an ?I?m afraid of heights? bird?s eye view. Almost like the bird?s eye is standing on a really tall ladder and looking down. I don?t know where the rest of the bird is. All I know is I didn?t eat it, so don?t ask, please. I recommend everybody keep a couple bird?s eyes in a glass vial when traveling, so that you, too, can have a bird?s eye view whenever you need it. It is also good for frightening away runny nosed little children. ?Hey, kid, wanna see some BIRD EYES?!?? Ha ha, it is great for a laugh, seeing the little buggers run and scream to their mommies.

We wander from the Colosseum and over to the Forum. The local guide cannot go beyond the Arch of Titus. I could make some jokes about that Arch, but I am already in trouble, so I will refrain. Only certain guides, ones you hire at a booth or kiosk right at the Forum, are able to go in and explain what you see. Otherwise, you are on your own with your own guidebook and map and imagination. We have little time before needing to meet with the group to then make it back to the motorcoach.

We make it to the Vatican a bit before noon, the motorcoach parking in the underground lot near the Vatican. There are a few minutes for a toilet break, so we all break for the toilets. The ladies room is rather crowded, so some use the men?s. Suddenly a female voice SCREAMS out from one of the stalls in the men?s room. The stalls are floor to ceiling. When she went in, she failed to notice that the knobs to open the door were missing. She shuts the door, and it locks, with no way to open it again. Now, she visualizes herself being locked in a stinking toilet stall in the men?s room in Rome, being left to die from the vapors that are obviously present. She pounds and screams and pounds some more. Several of us try to use whatever we can find to break her free of her prison. I try to explain to her that it is not as bad as it seems, at least she has a place to ?go,? right? The local guide finds a maintenance worker, and he uses his tool (NO!! A screw driver!! For heavens sake, GET YOUR MIND OUT OF THE GUTTER, PEOPLE!) and frees her. She comes out all red-faced and breathing hard, so hard that I look inside the stall to see if maybe somebody else is in there with her. There isn?t. I don?t ask if she ?went.? If she didn?t, I think, she probably doesn?t have to any more.

We make our way out of the parking garage and down the alley to Via della Conciliazione, the major street immediately in front of Piazza S. Pietro in the Vatican. As you stand facing St. Peter?s Basilica, while standing in the Piazza, the Pope?s apartments are to the right. A window is open, and the red cloth that signifies the Pope will appear hangs from the window.

Within minutes, he appears. He sees me and waves. I don?t know how he could see me in that crowd of a few thousand, but he does. I wave back. He begins to talk to me, in Italian, which I don?t understand, but he knows that I know that he knows, so it is left to me to interpret what I believe he is saying. He is so sneaky, as old and frail as he is. He says, ?You remember that young lady, in the little tight mini-skirt who sat on the wall across from you? You remember how you dropped your guide book and had to stoop to pick it up, but it was just an excuse for a better view of the young woman?? I think ?How does he know about that??? Then I remember, he has ?connections.? The BIG connection. Then he says ?Got any pictures?? He must want me to destroy them, I think. He scolds me, waving his hand in front of him in obvious irritation at my more recent transgressions, the countless ones just in the last few days. I pledge to be better. Yeah, right.

I look over at Nancy, and tears are streaming down her cheeks, as she never dreamed she would see the Pope. Terri sees Nancy crying, and Terri starts to cry. Mary sees Nancy and Terri crying, and Mary starts to cry. Sue sees Nancy and Terri and Mary crying, and Sue starts to cry. Tom and I see Nancy and Terri and Mary and Sue all crying, and we think, ?What the hell?? and laugh. I video tape them all crying, blubbering like babies. I want to make sure everybody see this!

The Pope continues, pointing fingers at me in warning, but he finally gives up in disgust and leaves the window. The crowd applauds his effort at redeeming me.

We leave the rest of the group in the piazza. There is a touristy lunch place on the north side of Via della Conciliazione, about a half block from the Vatican. We each get a tray and waltz down the line, selecting what we want, then paying for it at the end of the line. Most of us get something sensible, but Nancy gets a seafood salad. I prefer to not eat things with legs and heads attached. Nancy discovers that she does too, and lets the seafood salad sit. When asked, people say that such things taste like chicken. Like snails: ?Oh, it tastes just like chicken.? Or squid: ?Oh, just like chicken.? Okay, so I will eat chicken. Why eat something that TASTES like chicken when you can get the real thing, huh?

After lunch we go back the short distance to the Vatican and go into the Basilica, which Nancy and Mary have not yet seen. A dead Pope is on display. Naturally, we have to look at him. He has been dead for who knows how long, decades, certainly, and he still looks as fresh as the day he got all waxed and polished up. I can?t poke him to make sure that he is really dead, not just paying possum, as he is in a glass box. We roam around looking at the wonderful things inside, like Michelangelo?s ?The Pieta? again, and Mary and Nancy are blown away by it.

After exploring extensively, we discover that the crypt under the Basilica is open for viewing, the first time we have seen it open, so we make our way down. In the crypt, we pause at the box, heavily protected behind glass, that contains the remains of Peter. Then we go down the long hall, lined on both sides by the vaults containing the prior popes. After coming out and making it outside, we see that the Swiss guards are in their appointed places, and Nancy is so taken with them that she wants to date one, but cannot speak the language. She uses hand gestures, but he misunderstands them, and does a pirouette, his arms forming a circle as he gracefully does his orbit.

We leave the Vatican, notifying Alison, our TD, that we are leaving the tour at this point, and will not see them again until in the morning. Since it is Easter Monday, the included tour is nearly over anyway, as the visit to the Vatican Museums will not occur until next morning. There is an optional this night, but the optional is a pizza party at something like 53 € euros per person. That just seems pricey to me for pizza. Sure, you get all the wine you can drink with the pizza as well as entertainment, and there is a walking tour after, which goes to the Pantheon and the Trevi but for 53 € we decide to pass it up and do it on our own.

We walk from the Vatican along Via della Conciliazione to Castel S. Angelo. It was originally built as Hadrian?s mausoleum (a Roman emperor), then was fortified in the medieval times to serve as a fortress for the popes. When trouble was afoot, the popes would make their way, via underground passages, to Castel S. Angelo, which could be much better defended than could the Vatican. Today it is a museum, and is interesting as such. The bridge that is at its front, Ponte S. Angelo, is lined with gorgeous statuary, many by Bernini. The view of the bridge, the river, and of Rome from up on top of the Castel is outstanding, and is worth the admission price of about 6 €.

We spend a lot of time inside, where there are frescos, paintings, sculptures, medieval artillery pieces, cannon balls, etc., then, when fully worn out, we leave and walk back to the Vatican to catch taxis back to the hotel.

At the hotel, we partake of more wine and cheese and snacks until dinner time. We decide we will have dinner at Trattoria Al Simeto, our favorite place near the hotel.

We are welcomed like long lost American cousins, and the six of us are given a nice table. Nancy decides that our waiter is especially cute. I think it is in the eye of the beholder. As we eat our outstandingly delicious pasta dishes, our waiter, whom we christen as ?Giovanni? poses with Nancy while pictures are taken. Nancy wants to take him home with her, but he has other commitments. Everyone else in the place are locals, and they think ?crazy Americans.? That?s okay. We have fun, and Giovanni has fun with us too. Once again, the food is nothing short of fabulous. Just delicious. I salivate as I write this. Pardon me a moment while I wipe my chin.

Okay, I?m back.

After dinner, it is just a hop, skip and a jump back to the hotel, where the desk calls us a taxi. This time we get a van taxi that can haul all six of us together. I tell the driver, ?Piazza Navona? and he knows instantly how to go. No no, not the most direct route, of course. I expect that we will be dropped off at the very north end of the piazza, as that is what makes most sense, being the closest. No. He winds around back alleys, dark streets, way out then back again, and we are dropped off at the SOUTHERN end of the piazza. That wouldn?t be bad, but I THINK we are at the northern end. We walk around the piazza, looking at the nighttime sights. The fountains are dimly lit, the sidewalk restaurants are busy, there is music playing in the background from one of the restaurants, and it is truly a beautiful sight at night. There are more people in the piazza than there were previously during the day, and the later it gets, the more people come.

We finally leave the piazza to walk to the Pantheon, going out the exit from the piazza that is in the center on the east side. BUT, remember, I think that we were dropped off at the northern end, which would make it the exit to the right, when facing north. Because of that confusion, I lead our group out the exact opposite exit. Yes yes, I have my trusty compass right in my pocket, but hey, I am a guy, and there are a lot of ?Why?? chromosomes that wiggled their way to my brain in their sport utility vehicles, so ?Why?? should I look at my compass, tell me that, huh? So, we go WEST when I think we are going east. In the dark, we go down some lovely alleys with beautiful sidewalk cafés, looking at the locals having dinner and a good time. It is enjoyable for while, but I cannot figure out ?Why?? we have not come to the Pantheon yet. My will to know where I am finally overcomes my masculinity, and I dig out the pocket compass. A check of the map, and we make our way back to Piazza Navona, then leave by the correct exit.

The Pantheon is closed this time of night, but there are tons of people in the Piazza Rotunda in front of it. The sidewalk cafés in the piazza are all very busy, and it is a beautiful place. After looking and walking around a bit, we walk north to find the gelato place, Gelateria Della Palma, at via della Maddalena 20. We capture our desired flavors and make our way from there to the Trevi Fountain. It is beautiful, and we take pictures and throw our coins, and listen to the locals and tourists alike.

When we are satisfied, we walk up Via del Corso and find taxis near the corner of Via del Tritone. Back to the hotel we go, and call it a night. It is nearly 23:00, and it will be an early morning on Tuesday.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:12 PM
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Day 7 ? Tuesday

We are due to leave Rome this morning, so we pack our suitcases and put them out in the hall as we go down to breakfast. After breakfast, we hike back to our room for a potty break and a last room check, to include the safe, to ensure we leave nothing of value behind, then head down to the lobby where we turn our key in to the desk. Our luggage is already on the motorcoach. Sarg already has her troops barked into order, a pack of teachers counted and at attention, waiting for the TD to give the orders to load?em up and head?em out. Upon seeing her, ?The Twins? begin to bunch up and shrivel, trying to imitate old dried prunes with the life sucked out of them. It is a delicate situation, and I make the appropriate soothing sounds that eventual relax them, but others look at me rather oddly.

The Vatican Museums were closed the day before, on Easter Monday, so we make up for it this morning, and get an early start. Our first destination is there. The motorcoach cannot go on the street where the entrance to the museum is, so we are dropped off a couple blocks away, and we follow the TD (Tour Director) up the long flight of steps that leads to the street bordering the Vatican walls and the entrance.

While we get there well before the big new doors into the museum open (it is a new entry built after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, in order to provide increased security for entry into the museum), we are not the first tour group in line. There are probably three or so groups there before us. Our local guide, the same one we had the day before, hands out our tickets as we wait. When the doors open, the line goes quickly, but security is very tight, with metal detectors, and inspections of hand bags and back packs, etc. When a grouchy looking guard slips on latex gloves while looking suspiciously at me, I get nervous, but manage to escape without a search.

Our local guide has a pointer stick with a black and white scarf tied to the end. We follow the scarf and her shrill voice as we head off into the depths. Even though her voice gets ones attention much like fingernails on a chalk board, she is still a bit hard to understand, especially with several other tour groups competing for the same space. I notice that some of the guides for the other groups are speaking into little microphones, and each member of their herds have earpieces to allow them to hear much more easily. That is an excellent idea, but our guide relies on her birdcall voice to carry the tune. She is not a song bird, but rather like a doodoo bird screeching out in heat.

After our allotted two hours, we say goodbye to the local guide and give her a decent tip, and board our motorcoach. We leave Rome, and make our way to Orvieto.

Orvieto is one of my favorite cities in Italy. It is perched atop a mesa or plateau, the sides of which are steep and were a natural defense for the citizens of the city during the medieval times. While there is a road that goes up to it, it is narrow and steep, and our motorcoach is not allowed up there. Instead, we park at a coach park down below, and go up long escalators and through a train station, then across a piazza to the funicular. A funicular is a cable car railroad and is used for steep climbs. We all board the car, and make our way up the side of the hill and into Orvieto.

From where the funicular stops in Orvieto, there is a very quaint and interesting street that goes farther up into the center of the village where the Duomo is, and it is a very nice walk. But to save our legs, our TD has arranged tickets for a municipal mini-bus, and it takes us up some uninteresting side streets to the Duomo. We are dropped of in the piazza near the Duomo.

The Duomo is the major cathedral in Orvieto. Its claim to fame is its front façade, which is made up of millions of little ceramic tiles done into mosaics. Vast areas are gilded, and when the sun hits, it just sparkles. It is beautiful. The beauty of this church is outside, not so much inside, but we also tour inside, which is in alternating horizontal stripes of white and black. There are other things of historical significance to see in Orvieto, such as a deep well that one can climb down into, Etruscan artifacts, etc., but we decide to explore the streets, and come across some very quaint little streets with interesting shops. It is lunch time, actually, late lunch time, and we find a nice place off on a side street. We sit for nearly a half hour before our order is taken, and we begin to worry a bit, as we are due back soon to meet our tour group for the descent back down. But, our order is eventually taken, and we settle in with our Orvieto Classico white wine (a very nice wine) and our pasta.

We make it back to the meeting point in time to take a few more pictures of the façade of the Duomo, and duck into a couple shops with their gorgeous Italian pottery, then we take the mini-bus back down to the top of the funicular. We load up, and down we go. Back at the bottom, there is time for a potty break, then Sarg and the TD load us all onto the coach, and away we go to Florence.

We arrive in Florence a bit after 5:00 PM (17:00). The hotel is the Mediterraneo. From descriptions I have heard, I was not expecting much of this hotel, but I was pleasantly surprised. It is an old place, and it is large, but it is comfortable, and it is close in, nicely located right next to the Arno River and within walking distance to the major attractions in central Florence. It has a large, comfortable lobby area, with a couple shops and a bar/lounge, and a large restaurant.

We get checked in, and have a little time for relaxing, unpacking, etc., before we meet in one of our little family groups room for wine before departing for dinner. At the appointed time, we meet the tour group in the lobby, and we board the motorcoach for transport to the optional dinner, the Medici Banquet in the Borghese Palace.

This palace is in central Florence and is huge inside. It doesn?t look like much from the outside, but inside, it is beautiful and huge, with several banquet rooms. All the staff are in period costumes, from the 15th or 16th century, and the entertainment is from that period as well. We are served our dinner as the entertainment progresses. There is a stage where the musical instruments are being played, but the dancers are at our floor level, and it is impossible to see their intricate footwork from our vantage point. We have all the wine and food we wish, and it is a lovely evening.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:13 PM
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Day 8 - Wednesday

After breakfast, we board the motorcoach, which takes us across the Arno River and up into the hills on the other side. We go past some beautiful hillside villas on our way up to Piazzale Michelangelo. Up here, in this broad plaza, there is a view overlooking Florence that is nothing short of spectacular. Over there to the left is Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge that crosses the Arno River. Moving toward the center, rising up taller than the surrounding buildings, is the famous Duomo of Florence, then farther to the right, closer to the river again, is the Santa Croce cathedral. On the same side of the river as we are, near the plaza, are Italia cypress trees and houses and villas and gardens. Beautiful. We are organized for our group picture and have ten or fifteen minutes to wander on our own. I notice the women are giggling as they walk by a street vendor, so I go see what they are giggling about. There are men?s boxer shorts, with the appropriate section of the torso of Michelangelo?s ?David? screen printed on the front of the shorts. Haha funny. Now, if it were Mrs. David, that would be much better, no?

Down we go again, crossing back over the Arno, and we are dropped off and walk with our TD a couple blocks to Piazza di Santa Croce, right in front of the Santa Croce cathedral. We have our obligatory leather demonstration at a place just up from the piazza. Tom and Nancy are both chosen to model some of the leather fashions. I half expect to see Nancy get outfitted in a black leather, studded dominatrix outfit, complete with whips and handcuffs, but no, they slip a gorgeous red leather coat on her, and it does look great on her. She models it while the store?s pitch person tells us about the quality of the Florence leathers. Tom models a waist length men?s jacket, in a medium brown, and it too looks great on him. They both end up buying the items they modeled, but they are good deals, I suspect. Several leather jackets and other items were sold to our group. The store delivered them all to the hotel later in the day.

After the leather demo, we had a bit of free time, so our little group (of Tom, Terri, Nancy, Mary, Sue and me) make it the few blocks over to Ponte Vecchio. Nancy had been trying to get pictures of the local police, in their colorful uniforms, but had always been refused. On the bridge, however, police are constantly either walking by or are on horseback, and we all get several pictures.

Alison, our TD, had previously shown us, upon our inquiry, her ?nomination? bracelet, a very nice bracelet with links that you select yourself to make the design you desire. She had pointed out the place that, according to her, was best to buy them, which was in the piazza, and we made our way there before needing to meet back up with the tour group in front of the Santa Croce cathedral. The nomination bracelets are much cheaper there than they can currently be obtained in the States, especially after refund of the VAT is considered, and the opportunity, of course, could not slip by. Of course.

We meet the tour group and our local guide on the steps of the Santa Croce cathedral, then we are led into the church. Michelangelo and Galileo both are buried inside, and there is a memorial to Dante, the famous Italian author, who is given credit for developing the modern Italian language.

After touring inside the church, we are led outside, and we walk the few blocks to Piazza della Signoria, the piazza outside the Uffizi Gallery. In the piazza, there are several sculptures, including a copy of Michelangelo?s ?David? as well as renditions of ?David? by several other sculptors. Michelangelo?s is best, in my view. There is an interesting fountain called ?Neptune? with a giant Neptune cavorting with some little people, one of whom is right between his legs. It looks rather suspicious to me. Nearby in the piazza a wedding has just concluded, and the bride and groom are having pictures taken. Beautiful.

Our local guide leads us up back streets and alleys, stopping periodically to point this or that out to us, and we reach the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore). It is a very interesting cathedral on the outside, with alternating stripes of white and dark green stone. The Baptistery, a smaller building to the front of the cathedral, is in the same style, but has gilded doors, in a relief sculpture, that are exquisite. When Michelangelo first saw those doors hundreds of years ago, he called them the doors to Paradise, he was so taken with them.

After spending time here, we then are led to the Galleria dell? Accademia. We walk right in, right past all the ?do it on our own? tourists who have been waiting to get in for hours. Many people think that once you have seen the copy of ?David? outside, near the Uffizi, that is enough. Wrong. The original, inside the Accademia, is breath taking. In addition, there are several other of Michelangelo?s sculptures in various stages of completion, and on each one, his chisel marks are visible. Going from one to the other, one can see his progress, and see the sculptures being broken free of the stone that binds them. It is enthralling.

After spending time exploring the Accademia, we are on our own, and we find a place near the Duomo, just down the street a bit, for a late lunch. In addition to simple pasta dishes, they have sandwiches and pizza, but as a surprise to her, I buy Sue, for dessert, a large dish of fresh strawberries topped with whipped cream. The strawberries are sweet and delicious. Sue just can?t help but love me after that. I am so sweet. I usually have to fight women off.

We had signed up for an optional to go to San Gimignano in the afternoon. Alison had gotten a lot of requests instead to go to Pisa, but she explains that it would take too long for the short period of time we have, and talks them out of it. Tom and several others really want to see Pisa, but it just is not in the cards for this trip. Another trip is required.

We meet the tour group at the appointed time and place, and we leave for San Gimignano. San Gim is a Tuscan hill town, with a medieval wall that surrounds it. It is most famous for its towers, of which 13 are still left. In the medieval days, wealthy families exhibited their wealth by building towers as part of their homes. The taller the tower, the more wealthy the family was thought to be. Many are ten stories or more, tall, which was quite a height to build in those days.

San Gim is very quaint, with many pottery shops that exhibit Italian pottery. The plates and bowls and vases and urns are all decorated in bright colors of blues and yellows, reds and greens, with lemon or grape or olive or sunflower or strawberry motifs. Really beautiful stuff. In addition, there are butcher and other shops that have every imaginable Italian sausage on hand, together with dozens and dozens of cheeses and wines to go with it all. Boar sausage is a big item.

For those that wish, Alison buys us tickets to go into the major cathedral, where there are some beautiful frescos. Afterward, we have time to explore on our own. We find the gelato place that Alison mentioned had the best gelato around, and we test it out. She is right. It is great. We wander the shops, and step into some side streets. While the women are in some shops, Tom and I find a little street that offers a great view of the valley below, and we admire it for some time. We slowly make our way back down the main street and outside the gates to the village.

When we were dropped off by the motorcoach when first arriving at San Gim, it was in a parking lot attached to a supermarket at the bottom of the hill. We make our way to the supermarket, but pass by a little stand next to the supermarket that has all kinds of candies and drinks. Tom is a licorice aficionado. He can easily go through a pound of the stuff a day. This little stand has some thick ropes of Italian licorice, and Tom buys several. He says it is some of the best licorice he has ever had. While we wait for the rest of the tour group to catch up, the rest of our little family group goes into the supermarket to look around. We buy some stuff that looks good for later, and Nancy also finds and buys more Kinder-Kids.

We make it back to the hotel in Florence in time to refresh before dinner. We have a little time for wine and snacks, then go down to the assigned room for the included dinner. I am expecting a mediocre dinner from this hotel, but it is surprisingly good. The pasta is very good. After dinner, it?s close to 9:00 PM (21:00), and a walk into central Florence is very tempting, but I frankly had not been feeling all that great during the day, and elect to just retire early.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:15 PM
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Day 9 - Thursday

Today is the day we leave Florence and go to Venice, with a stop in Verona. We put our luggage out in the hall then go for breakfast, and board the motorcoach after breakfast. Our seat rotation plan worked well, as our little group of six is now all in the front rows.

We arrive in Verona before lunch. We drive by the Arena, which is a smaller version of the Colosseum in Rome. The Verona Arena was also built during the Roman times, and was used for gladiators and similar shows. The Arena, however, is still very much intact, and remains in use today. Instead of gladiators, however, today the shows consist of the bashing of husbands who came home too late or who ?dallied? around too much. There is little that is more entertaining than watching an Italian woman, screaming in a language I cannot understand, sausage grinder in hand, running after her naked husband around the floor of the Arena. Between these productions, the Arena is used to put on plays or operas during the season.

We don?t get out here, though, unfortunately. We just drive by it. We are dropped off several blocks away, and Alison guides us up the street to the entrance to the REAL Juliet?s house, with the famous balcony. She gives us a meeting time and place, allowing time for lunch and exploring. We go into the courtyard to Juliet?s house, and there it is, to our right, the balcony on which Juliet stood and looked down on Romeo.

When I was a little boy, my rather large family had only one bathroom, and it was downstairs. In the middle of the night, it was much easier to pee from an upstairs window. I have to wonder, did Juliet pee from that balcony? Perhaps we will never know. Yes, I know, the house and balcony are only ?purported? to be that of Juliet, but just how romantic is that, huh? We want to believe it in our hearts, and believing it makes it true, for us.

At one end of the courtyard is a statue of what I think is supposed to be Juliet. She is a wanton wench, for she has no top on. People take turns having their picture taken with Juliet, always one hand on a nude breast. Even the women pose this way, with one hand on Juliet?s breast. My my!! We need to leave before this gets out of hand (so to speak).

We walk up the street to a market place. There are several sidewalk cafés lining the street and the piazza. It is nothing short of lovely. We select a place for lunch, and we all order pizza. One must have pizza at least ONCE in Italy. We all order individual pizza?s. Mine has artichoke hearts and a bunch of other stuff, and an egg. When it arrives, the egg is nearly raw, very runny, and sits right in the center of the pizza. I am not fond of runny eggs at all. In fact, they make me gag. But, hey, when in Italy, do as the Italians do. Italians apparently like runny, gaggy eggs. So, I eat it. The pizza is very good, even with the runny egg, and I am able to keep my gag reflex down.

It is a bit chilly, and we have our jackets on, and the cafe we selected is in the shade, but we selected it because, being a bit in the shade, it was not as busy (most of the other places were). It turned out to be a delightful lunch. Before leaving, we take turns going potty in the café?s toilet (since all the windows to the inside of the café are closed). The toilets are downstairs on ?sub 1, and are some of the nicest toilets we have seen in Italy. We are in a narrow street that leads from the market piazza to another piazza.

After lunch, we browse around this second piazza. On the far side to the left is an arch which is known as the Liar?s Arch. It is said that if one lies then passes under the arch, some really bad things will happen to you, like you will die an agonizing death, or Mother-In-Law will visit for a week, or you will be inflicted with kids like the neighbor has. We don?t risk it. Not a single one of us. Doesn?t that tell you something? It tells me a lot about Sue.

Straight down, through another arch, are tombs and buildings that are purported to be of the family of Romeo. Some of the tombs are very elaborate, built a couple stories high, with grand sculptures of horses or an important personage on top.

We make our way back to the market piazza, and look at all the produce. There is some really delicious looking stuff. Finally, we wander down the street to our pick-up point. We wish we had time to walk the several blocks over to the Arena, but there isn?t time.

The motorcoach comes and we all load up, everyone being back to the appointed spot on time. Venice, here we come.

One of the major rivers in Italy is the Po River. As it and other rivers flow toward the Gulf of Venezia and the Adriatic Sea, over the eons, they deposited a lot of silt. Thus, that area is a broad delta with few hills, and is an excellent farming area. The BBC had at one time, many years ago, reported that this is where the best spaghetti plantations are. You see, spaghetti grows on trees. It is primarily a winter crop, with most of the harvest coming in April, they reported. Here we are, passing through this area in April, so we are hoping to see the huge numbers of spaghetti trees, with the people out in the orchards with their baskets and tools, cutting the spaghetti strands from the trees. Or perhaps, if we don?t see that, we will see the fields where the spaghetti is laid out in the sun for drying. Ahhh...nothing like sun-dried spaghetti.

I would rather imagine that they would always be planting new orchards of spaghetti trees, as spaghetti is getting more and more popular throughout the world, and more productive trees would be needed. I look for lines of peasants, hunched over, planting the cans of spaghetti in tomato sauce from which the trees would sprout. Sadly, however, the road is too far from the fields and the orchards, and we never see them. It would be a very worthwhile side trip for readers of this report, however, and I would recommend you do it on your next trip to Italy. I didn?t make this up. This is all from the BBC, and you can believe anything they report.

When I am not looking for spaghetti trees, I look across the aisle at Mary and Nancy. They are both sound asleep, their mouths wide open, drool shamelessly dripping from their chins. I, of course, cannot resist video taping this.

We get near the end of the mainland, about to take the causeway that crosses the water to get to the outskirts of Venice, but the motorcoach takes a detour. Here, we have to pay the visitor tax that the city of Venice is now charging organized tours. We all pay up instead of being left behind, and we tool down the causeway in our sporty motorcoach. After a few miles, we arrive at the end of the line, as far as land vehicles can go. At a turn-around point, we off-load from the motorcoach, and our luggage is removed by the luggage porters of Venice. Only certain people can handle luggage in Venice. I think you have to go to Luggage University. The luggage porters load our luggage up on a little open barge, stack upon stack. It goes well above the side rails of the barge, and I suspect that even a little wave will send some of the luggage plunging into the deep murk of the canal. Even if rescued, there would be no way one could wear anything in that luggage again. The barge takes off toward our hotel as we walk, with our carry-ons, across first one bridge, down and round some sidewalks that run along the Grand Canal, across another bridge over a smaller canal, then finally over a long bridge that crosses the Grand Canal . Once on the proper side of the Grand Canal, we are right in front of the Venice train station. We walk along the Grand Canal, passing in front of the train station, then past the Principe Hotel (right beside the Principe is an Internet Caf&eacute were we stayed previously in Venice, past a little piazzale, then to our hotel, the Continental.

We arrive mid-afternoon, and our rooms are not quite ready, and we have a motorboat to catch immediately that will take us to Piazza San Marco. The hotel stores our carry-ons in a storage area under the stairs, then Alison leads us all to where we will catch the motorboat, a few hundred feet away. The motorboat takes us all to San Marco. Those who signed up for the optional gondola ride, which I think is everybody, follows Alison to just past the opening to San Marco Piazza, to where our gondolas are waiting for us.

There are six to a gondola, so the six of us all make sure we are in the same one. We are just behind the gondola with the singer and accordion player. For Sue and I, this is our third gondola ride in Venice, but it is still exciting. Each time, the gondolier takes us down different canals. The others in our little family group are just beaming, smiling from ear to ear. This is a lifelong dream for many people, something that is truly romantic. My back is to our gondolier, but I know that he is young and very handsome, and very Italian. I am not sure if the women are smiling due to the gondola or the gondolier. But, for whatever reason they are smiling, I video tape them, and I video tape the lines of laundry hanging between the buildings over these small canals.

As we are pushed down several small canals, we pass under bridges, and each time, tourists are lined up, watching us, and listening to the Italian music from the singer and the accordion player. As we drift toward a building to make a sharp turn, the gondolier sticks out a foot and pushes against the building to help make the turn. The gondolier in front of us starts to beep, and he pulls out a cell phone and talks into it as he pushes the gondola along. The funniest thing. Such modern technology contrasting with such ancient technology.

After about 45 minutes to an hour, be are taken back to our starting point, and we disembark. Alison leads us inside San Marco Piazza, were we sit in the chairs outside at one of the famous cafés, and we are given our wine or cocktails that go with this optional. We sit and listen to the music from the live orchestra, and we see the setting sun reflecting off the gilded tiles of the beautiful Byzantine cathedral, the Basilica di San Marco. The view is just incredible. The sun just glistens off those tiles. It is totally awesome. Outstandingly beautiful.

Finally, it is time that we must leave. It is getting chillier, the sun is going down, and we have an included dinner at the hotel. Alison has us board two water taxi boats. She is in one, but she has a microphone set up so that everybody in both boats can hear. She is in the lead boat. The six of us sit outside in the second boat, but everybody else in our boat is sitting inside, as it is a bit chilly. But we figure we can take a little chill in return for a much better view of the Grand Canal of Venice.

As we come to things of interest, Allison points them out, giving us some history or interesting facts. We pass under the Ponte Rialto, the most famous of all bridges in Venice. Lining the Grand Canal are grand palaces, now mostly redone as hotels or apartments or shops. After slowly cruising the canal for a half hour or 45 minutes, we come to our hotel, and we off load at the dock between it and the Principe Hotel.

We retrieve our carry-on luggage from under the storage area and are given our room assignments. Terri and Tom?s room is right next to ours, at the back of the hotel, over looking the Grand Canal. Nancy?s single room is on the other side of us. We are very pleased with the rooms. Mary?s single room is located more in the center of the hotel, with a view that is not as good. The rooms are simple, as is the hotel, as this building is a former monastery from the 16th or 17th century. But even though it is plain and simple, the hotel is very adequate.

We have time to freshen up a bit before dinner, then we meet down in the lobby, and when the doors open to the hotel?s restaurant, we are led out into a side area that is covered in canvas, with plastic windows at the sides. The plastic windows interfere with the view of the canal, but it is dark now anyway, and it is chilly out. The meal that is served is really great, one of the best included dinners of the entire trip. The pasta is really great.

After dinner, we go for a nice walk around that part of Venice, then we call it a night.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:17 PM
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Day 10 - Friday

We are starting to feel sad, as we know the tour is fast coming to an end, and it has been a great tour.

After breakfast, Alison leads us to the dock where we catch our boat to San Marco Piazza. After off loading, we are taken across the piazza and through a store front, and up some stairs for our glass blowing demonstration. Murano glass is actually made on the island of Murano, of course, but most of the major glassmakers have a furnace in their showrooms in order to give demos. As touristy as it is, a glass blowing demo is interesting if not previously experienced.

The glass blower, truly an artisan, first makes a lovely vase with handle. It takes him maybe 15 minutes, if that much. He gets a big round of applause. He then extracts a small blob of red-hot molten glass from the furnace, and pulls and tugs and pinches and pushes it with his various tools, and in less than five minutes he has made a very cute little glass horse, capable of standing on its hind legs, balanced by its long billowing tail. An even bigger round of applause. It is the ?obligatory? horse that every tourist who comes to Venice and goes to a glass demonstration sees being made, but nonetheless, I think that if I were to try to do the same thing, it would take me better than two years to make that horse, if even then.

After the demo we go into the show rooms where there is a sales pitch. It is beautiful glass, and many people buy various items. After the glass demo, we have free time.

There is an optional for lunch on Burano island. Burano is a very quaint island with a fishing village. The houses are all pastel, the seafood is great, the 45 minute boat ride to the island is very interesting. Everybody who has ever taken that optional is very pleased that they did. But we believe that time in Venice proper is much more valuable, so we do not take the optional, and thus have lots of time to spend. If we wish, we can meet the boat for a ride back to the hotel after the others are done with their optional, but we elect to not even do that.

We first go into the Doge?s Palace, purchasing our tickets for entry. It is a large place, and the central courtyard of the Palace actually abuts the Basilica di San Marco. There is little or no furniture in most of the rooms, making it feel a bit lacking, but the frescos and ornamentation of the rooms themselves more than make up for that. Some rooms are rather plain in comparison, but some are just fabulous. No pictures or video of any kind are allowed, but whenever I see that the attendants are not present, I take out my video camera and start shooting. I am able to capture several rooms, but I am caught before we get to the really great rooms. I am threatened with amputation, so I put my camera away. The ceiling and wall frescos in some of the rooms are just unbelievable.

We tour the Palace for better than an hour, then we find the Bridge of Sighs. The Bridge of Sighs, as everybody must know, is the connecting bridge at the uppermost level of the palace, that goes from where trials where held for criminals, across the small canal, and into the prison. The bridge is completely enclosed except for a couple of very small windows. It is called the Bridge of Sighs, it is reported, because once a prisoner went across that bridge, he was not likely to see freedom again, and thus, as they cross over and look out the small window, they sigh. It is reported that only one person ever escaped from the prison, and that person happens to be Casanova. He was helped in his escape by some women. Of course. That is what they say, anyway, and why should we not believe it, in this romantic city? Paintings of Casanova do not present him as being a very attractive man, so how did he do it, all the women? It must be technique. Listen up, women. Technique. Not looks.

We cross the Bridge of Sighs and go into the prison. It is cold and dark, with lots of small rooms that were cells, and some larger rooms that held large numbers of prisoners. We stepped into one of the large cells, and shut the iron door. Clang! Dark and damp. We got out of there quickly. We finish touring the prison, then go back into the Palace, and find our way out.

We next go to the Campanille (Bell Tower), which is in San Marco Piazza. It is the tallest structure in Venice. The line is reasonably short, and it takes only about ten minutes or so to reach the ticket counter to buy our tickets for the lift up to the top. When our turn comes to board the elevator, we all get in.

At the top, there are several very large bells that would be deafening if they clanged while we are up there. We hope they don?t. The sides to the bell tower, up where the bells are, are open except for thick wire mesh. The openings are plenty large enough to get ones hands and arms through, but are thick and close enough to prevent someone from leaping or falling.

I have heard that it was intentional, that Venice was designed by its builders, so many centuries ago, so that an invader could not see the smaller canals from the top of the bell tower, and thus would not know the best routes to certain destinations, nor would they see the people of Venice arriving in boats to defend their territory. Whether intentional or not, it is true that one cannot see the canals from the bell tower. They are obscured by buildings except for the very opening of the Grand Canal, and of course, the very large canal that passes in front of San Marco Piazza, the Canal de San Marco. Nevertheless, the view is gorgeous. It is a clear day, and the buff and sand colored buildings of Venice, with their red tiled roofs, and roof top gardens, and their courtyards and patios are wonderful. To the south, we see dozens of gondolas in the Canal de San Marco, and just across the very wide canal, the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore and Isola della Guidecca. To the east we see the islands of Venice stretch on until they end in the sea, and down below to the east, we see the Doge?s Palace (Palazzo Ducale), and the Basilica di San Marco.

To the north we again see the islands of Venice stretching out. Straight down below is the Piazza San Marco, where we had cocktails the night before. To the west, more islands of Venice, ending at the train station, then the automobile/train causeway that connects Venice to the mainland, barely visible off in the distance.

We spend some time up there, enjoying it greatly, but it is getting toward the end of lunch time, and we are all hungry. We know that eating in San Marco Piazza is very expensive, so we head in the direction of the Ponte Rialto, and look for something that looks decent along the way. We look into several places, then about half way to the Rialto, we see a sign high up that points to the left, down a small alley. The sign says ?Osteria N 1.? We follow the alley, and it quickly opens up into a quaint little piazzale, and the café is in this little plaza. It has outside tables, but they are in the shade and it is on the chilly side, so we elect to sit inside.

The waitress who shows us to our table is of Japanese ancestry, and she speaks no English, Italian only. The café inside is very nice and interesting, and of a good size. We can detect no tourists at all in it, only locals, with it being obvious that many if not most of the locals are regular customers.

The menu gives us hints in English, and by pointing or making attempts at sounding the words out, we all get across to the waitress what we want. When it arrives, every single thing ordered is very good, and none of us are disappointed in the least, and it is very reasonable in price. To find a restaurant in Venice that is not crowded with tourists is a rare treat, and this one is good. Even though we were not locals, whom this place obviously catered to, we were treated very friendly.

After lunch, we walk back to San Marco Piazza, as we had not yet seen inside the Basilica di San Marco. We stand in line, but it is a short line and moves fast. Once inside, it is dark, and pictures/videos are not allowed, but it is very interesting. The inside is nearly all mosaics, even the floor. Mostly dark mosaics. The basilica is built on wooden pilings that were sunk down through the water and into the mud centuries ago. It and the piazza outside are not on dry land, but rather on these pilings or piers, even though one could not otherwise tell it. However, over the centuries, some of the pilings have sunk deeper than others, and thus the floor is very uneven. Take a step and it is a few inches lower. Another step and it is a few inches higher. One has to really watch his step while walking around inside the basilica. The basilica is very well worth viewing inside. The outside, of course, is spectacular, with the gilded mosaics that glisten in the setting sun, and the intricate Byzantine architecture.

After we have exhausted ourselves inside, we exit, and make our way to Ponte Rialto. While the bridge is famous, it certainly is on the grungy side. There are shops that line the bridge, and some of them are closed, and there is graffiti. But over look all of that, and instead concentrate on the view from the bridge, and on the very romantic fact that you are standing on the bridge, and it is awe inspiring. Looking up and down the Grand Canal, seeing the buildings that line the canal, some grand old palaces, some restaurants, the motorboats that ply up and down, the gondolas that take tourists on life long dreams, the barges that haul in the produce and construction material, the romance of it all. This is truly Venice. This is what Venice is all about. It is grand being on the Grand Canal.

It is getting to be later in the afternoon, and we could meet the boat (the one returning from Burano with those who took that optional) near San Marco Piazza for a ride back to the hotel, but I don?t even remind the others of that, as I know we would all rather walk through Venice to get to our hotel.

We start out from Ponte Rialto, following the signs that provide direction to the train station, since our hotel is on that same street. There are a lot of twists and turns, and we cross canals at several points, but it is easy, and we never get lost. But we take our time, and the women look in nearly every shop along the way. We look around at the various neighborhoods as we pass through. We pause for some refreshments along the way, then walk again, taking our time, talking, sight seeing, shopping and having a great time.

The distance is maybe about a mile and a quarter from the Ponte Rialto to our hotel, but we take our time so effectively that it actually takes us a couple hours or more to make it the distance.

At the hotel, we refresh ourselves, then meet in one of our rooms for wine and snacks, then when it is late enough, we walk up the street to find a restaurant we can have dinner at. We had hoped to find one of the recommended restaurants from my list, one near by in the Cannaregio, in the old Jewish Quarter, but we cannot find them. So we eat at a place in a little piazzale, the Campo San Gerimia. That is the name of the plaza, not the restaurant.

The service in the restaurant is very slow, slower even than is standard for Italy, which traditionally is slow, and the food is okay, but not noteworthy by any means. Nothing more than just plain okay. After dinner, it is late, and after peeking into some shop windows, most of which are now closed for the evening, we find our way back to the hotel and end the night.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:17 PM
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Day 11 - Saturday

This, even more sadly, is the last full day of our tour. And it is a long day, as well, as we leave Venice and drive to Rome all in one fell swoop. We put our luggage out in the hall before going down for breakfast. As we eat, our luggage is collected, then it is loaded onto the luggage barge by the University of Luggage certified Venice luggage porters.

With our carry-ons in hand, we walk from the hotel back to the point where the motorcoach first dropped us off, retracing our steps exactly. When we arrive at the pick-up point, our motorcoach is waiting, and the luggage is being loaded. We shortly take off, leaving the romantic and incredibly unique and sinking City of Venice behind us.

Along the way, we stop at an Autogrille for a break, then much later at another for lunch. The food at the Autogrilles are always surprisingly decent, much better than American fast food in comparison. I wish we had similar places here.

We arrive back in Rome in late afternoon. We are bumped from the scheduled hotel (the Hotel Beverly Hills, the one we stayed at upon our arrival), however; and so instead are taken to an alternate hotel which is better located. The hotel is the Visconti Palace Hotel, via Federico Cesi 37. It is on the Vatican side of the river, just a couple blocks from the river, and adjoins the Piazza Cavour. It is in very easy walking distance to the Vatican, or, going the other way, to all the major sights in central Rome. I have no idea what the room rates are, however.

We are able to spend just a short time in the room to refresh ourselves before having to meet down in the lobby for the optional Catacomb tour and farewell dinner. All of the catacombs are outside the city walls of Rome, as burials were not allowed within the city walls. Most of the more famous catacombs are south of the city, on Via Appia Antica (the famous Apian Way). Instead, our motorcoach heads northeast. In a nice residential neighborhood, we disembark and Alison takes us onto the grounds of an old church, St. Agnese. We go into the cathedral, and meet a local guide, who takes us down under the church into the catacombs. It is dank and the walls are dirt or rock, as is the floor. One member of the tour group decides she cannot do this, and goes back up.

Sue and I have previously been to one of the catacombs south of the city, but we find this one to be preferable. While there are twists and turns and levels and layers, this one is actually a bit better lit, with bare bulbs, and the ceilings are just a bit higher (I don?t have to stoop over most of the time) and in some of the cutouts where people were buried, there are still some bones, and occasionally, an entire skeleton on display. This one is smaller than the ones south of the city, however.

After we go back up into the church, we go into the baptistery, a separate building up a nice walkway from the church. It is very nice inside, and there is organ music playing in preparation for a wedding that is due to take place shortly. We saw the bride as we went up the walkway.

There is some time to kill before we must be at the restaurant for the farewell dinner, so we wait around for the wedding, but some of the guests think that we are imposing, and it gives us an uncomfortable feel. We prompt Alison into leaving rather than staying around.

The farewell dinner is at an excellent place. It is a place generally for locals only, but the owner has recently decided to let a few tour groups use it, but just one group at a time, and only during the earlier hours. He will not allow most tour groups into the place. Alison has asked that we keep the place a secret.

While there is no entertainment as is usually the case with optional dinners, the dinner itself more than makes up for it. The food is nothing short of phenomenal. The anti-pasti is excellent, the pasta is excellent, the main entrée is excellent, the desert is excellent, and then we are served a green after-dinner drink. We ask the waiter what it is and he says ?Atomic Bomb!? He speaks very little English, and is unable or unwilling to give us the real name. But, his nickname for it is apt. It is truly ATOMIC! WOW! Powerful stuff. It shakes you to the core, and warms up your entire insides.

We sadly leave the place, and we motorcoach it back to the hotel. Our last night in Rome. It is late, and we are tempted to walk around the neighborhood, but we know we have to arise very early in the morning for our airport departure, and Sunday will be a very long day anyway.

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Old Sep 13th, 2004, 03:18 PM
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Day 12 ? Sunday

We are up about 04:30 AM for the first transfer to the airport at about 05:30. Alison will not be with us, as she had to leave even earlier for a flight to Milan, where she will catch up with her next tour group, so we made sure she got her tip the evening before. We also gave the coach driver his tip. He is very quiet, but has done a great job.

We bring our own luggage down, rather than risk the hotel being late with it, since the departure must be exactly on time or some will risk missing their flights. Our luggage is loaded, and we depart the hotel. It is much too early for the hotel?s restaurant to be open so we are unable to have breakfast until we arrive at the airport.

Upon arrival, the check-in counter for our family group flights are closed, but eventually they open and we check in, then make it to the concourse where our gate is. We do some duty free shopping, and have breakfast, then board our flight. Nancy and Mary leave Rome on a different flight, one that stops in Paris.

Back in the States, we make it through Passport Control and Customs with no problem, and we all make our connecting flights to our separate destinations. Home again, but oh, how we ache for Italy.

----- THE END -----

You can breathe a sigh of relief.

But wait for the sequel.

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