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nnolen Dec 26th, 2012 05:46 PM

La Vacanza (quasi) perfetta - Rome and Barcelona Trip Report
Almost one year had passed since my last trip to Italy when that old familiar feeling started to grow again - you know, the one that tells you it's time to book the plane ticket. So book the plane ticket I did - but not just to Rome this time. I have an ongoing love affair with Rome, as anyone who has read my trip reports already knows. I still love Rome more than any other city in the world and always will, but I didn't want to grow old having only really seen one European country, so I decided to add a second destination to my trip.

Barcelona was that destination. I stumbled upon Carlos Ruiz Zafon's books a few years back in Italy, having never really heard of them in the United States. His descriptions of Barcelona, his sweeping story lines and his compelling characters were enough to make the city of Daniel Sempere and Fermin Romero di Torres my next choice. Zafon's Barcelona is full of mystery - I wanted a dash of intrigue in my vacation.

And so the destinations were set. Round trip flight from Philadelphia to Madrid (one day in Madrid), flight from Madrid to Rome with five days in Rome and a flight from Rome to Barcelona with three days in Barcelona before taking the train back down to Madrid for the flight home.

Next: Madrid on Jet Lag

nnolen Dec 26th, 2012 06:23 PM

Before you read any further, I want to be sure not to disappoint you. In the past, my trip reports have grown increasingly more heavily focused on restaurant details - and I'll give them to you, no question about that. But I have recently become (shhhhh....I have to whisper it) vegan. I decided to relax my restrictions during the trip to a purely vegetarian diet because I knew it would be virtually impossible to find vegan food while dining out in restaurants.

So there will be no duck or foie gras or beef or anything else animal in this report, but I think I still found some really good places to eat and some very good dishes that even meat eaters will enjoy. And I'm pretty sure I ate at a few places that are 100% off the tourist radar by complete accident...but we'll get to that later.

Madrid. I had hoped to sleep on the plane ride over since I only had one day in the city, but a wailing newborn kept me from that, so I am afraid I arrived in Spain in what can only be described as a serious mental fog. The flight landed at 7:15 AM Madrid time and it was still completely pitch black outside, no hint of a sunrise. This threw me and my internal clock completely off as I thought I'd be arriving to at least partial sunshine. Even after disembarking, getting a cab and getting to the hotel (Melia' Barajas), it was still totally dark outside. Very unexpected.

Speaking of arriving at the hotel, the Melia' Barajas was perfectly adequate as a one-night stop. Near the airport and within easy walking distance of a metro stop, it was clean and reasonably priced at around $90 a night in December. I was able to check in at 8 AM and went to my room to drop my things, take a shower and get ready to go back out for the day, sleepless as I was.

The helpful front desk workers helped me navigate to the subway system (really easy - one street to the metro stop) and from there it was a few short line changes before I got off at the Tribunal station in downtown Madrid.

The plan was to walk from Tribunal down Calle Fuencarral towards the Gran Via and Puerta del Sol before cutting over to the Paseo del Prado. (not looking at my notes so I could be messing up these names). Well, I got off at the Tribunal stop, but could not find Fuencarral very easily, so I spent a good 30 minutes enjoying a random wander through the neighborhood surrounding the metro stop.

Guidebooks and even the forums say lots of things about the extremely high amount of petty crime in Spain, so I was extra vigilant, but I have to say I didn't find Spain any different than Italy in terms of taking advantage of tourists. Anyway, I generally try to avoid taking out maps in public for this very reason, but that also causes me to wander aimlessly around neighborhoods for 30 minutes out of sheer stubbornness. :)

After making it down to the Puerta del Sol, I found a place for some churros and chocolate for brunch. According to the sign, there was a "master churro maker" on staff, and the tables were all full with some nice little heaters, so I took all these things as a good sign. I ordered the plate of churros and a cup of the standard hot chocolate (madrileno) and it came quickly. It was quite tasty, but also very sweet. I wasn't able to finish, but I enjoyed the taste and the time to sit and people watch in the plaza. Churros and chocolate were 4,70 euro. While at the table, I took the time to consult my map in secret.

Back on track in terms of direction, I walked toward the Plaza de Cibeles on the recommendation of a friend to go to the Bank of Spain building and also to go up to the overlook of the city. From above, you really get a sense of how huge and sweeping the city truly is. After my panoramic view, I walked down the Paseo del Prado. I hadn't actually PLANNED to go to the Prado museum (even though I'm a museum lover), but the timing seemed good and it was a little chilly and rainy, so I decided it was worth the 12 euros for the ticket.

The Prado has an amazing collection of art, but do you remember how I got absolutely no sleep on the plane the night before? Well, I had so little sleep and so much jet lag that Velasquez paintings started to look like Dali. The faces were all melting and drooping. I took that as a sign to leave the Prado and hunt down some lunch.

Let me tell you, Fodorites, this was not easy. Yes, there are a million restaurants in Madrid. Trying to find one that had something (anything!) vegetarian on the menu was a bit of a challenge. I must have consulted the menus posted at at least ten different restaurants before I decided that my only choices were going to be Spanish tortilla and patatas bravas. I finally entered a nondescript little bar and ordered just that. And my tortilla came with ham in it (I don't think that really surprised me) but the albarino wine was very good and the potatoes were enough to fill me up.

With enough sustenance, I walked back to the Puerta del Sol, doing a little window shopping on the way. I took the metro back to Barajas and walked to the hotel in a now steady rain. Given the gloomy weather, my inability to hunt down food and my now overwhelming exhaustion, I fell asleep at 6 PM. After all, my wakeup call would come at 3:30 AM...

Next: Rome on slightly less jet lag

kimhe Dec 27th, 2012 02:40 AM

For the next time in Madrid, here is a list of some vegetarian/vegan restaurants. You'll find a couple of the most popular in atmospheric Plaza de la Paja.

Viva la Vida:
El Estragón:

nnolen Dec 27th, 2012 03:49 AM

Thanks, Kimhe!

jmct714 Dec 27th, 2012 04:10 AM

I always enjoy your trip reports, Nnolen, and I'm very much looking forward to more of this one! You were a trooper to see as much of Madrid as you did with no rest. It's hard to rally once you start getting that Dali feeling.

Btw, not sure where in PHL you are, but if you have the chance you must try Blue Sage in richboro (bucks). It's vegetarian but they always have lots of vegan choices, too. It's a great little place.

SashieZ Dec 27th, 2012 04:29 AM

Looking forward to reading more. Rome is my favorite city as well - big, noisy and beautiful. It is also where my parents met - my sister and I were very close to being Romans as opposed to New Yorkers.

bardo1 Dec 27th, 2012 06:29 AM


nnolen Dec 27th, 2012 05:19 PM

Arriving at the airport at a ridiculously early hour is never particularly fun, and Madrid was no exception to that rule.

I was flying RyanAir from Madrid Barajas to Rome Ciampino (for 19 euro - love cheap airlines) and the flight was set to leave at 6:30 AM. I already knew I'd have to get my boarding pass stamped since I wasn't a EU citizen. Of course, Madrid had the lovely idea of making two separate lines - one to get my passport checked and one to drop off my luggage. Sigh.

Regardless, I made it through the check-in process and then proceeded to ingest the worst cheese sandwich in the history of ever, accompanied by a not-bad cafe con leche. It was enough to get me going at 4 AM.

Nothing of import happened on the flight, and I landed at Ciampino at 9:05 AM, a little early I think. After collecting my luggage, I walked outside to get a taxi. Still a little tired, I didn't even notice the taxi had no meter, but when the taxi arrived at the Campo dei Fiori the driver only asked for 35 euro, so I didn't feel too badly extorted. (I looked it up later and 30 is the norm from Ciampino to the centro storico).

I had called the apartment owner from the airport, and she was waiting when I arrived. The apartment I rented (called Cappellari on was so, so wonderful. Absolutely the best apartment I'd rented so far. Besides its incredible location on the corner of the campo, it was up only ONE flight of stairs and it was very cutely decorated and furnished with every single thing you could want. I highly recommend it.

After going through the business of keys and wi-fi, I unpacked my things and had a good look around. From the windows in the bedroom, I had a direct view out to the Campo. It was a little rainy that morning, but it didn't change my plans or my appreciation of the sight. Finally I was ready to go down to the campo to buy some provisions.

From the very last fruttivendolo at the back corner of the campo, I purchased clementines (in season), pomodorini from Sicily, bananas (okay, not very Italian), and cicoria. From the little market that's in the corner building right behind them, I got some espresso and milk. And from the forno on the opposite corner (near the entrance to via cappellari), I got some ciabatta and a few cornetti alla marmellata. After my sad cheese sandwich at 4 AM, this food was like a revelation. Cornetti, fruit, and caffelatte.

After my first substantial repast, I headed out into rainy Rome, dodging the umbrella sellers along the way. Nevermind that I was holding an umbrella...when I pointed this out to one of them, he ingeniously said "this one is bigger." Touche', umbrella man. Touche.

Down the Via del Corso it was for my first passeggiata. I really like wandering this section of Rome, especially around Christmas time. First, all of the streets are strung with brightly colored lights and there are beautiful Christmas trees in every piazza. Second, the street is completely ruled by pedestrians. People are out and about and either window shopping or shopping for real. The stores are crowded and the smell of roasted chestnuts hangs in the air. A delight for all the senses.

I made my first stop at Calzedonia. This was not unusual for me. It could perhaps be considered a little strange to make a pilgrimage for tights part of your visit to Rome - but they have so many colors! And patterns! Anyway, eleven pairs of tights later, I was back out on the Corso. The walk took me up to Piazza del Popolo before I turned around, headed down Via Babuino and took a look at the Spanish steps before crossing down Via Condotti back to the Corso.

I knew I'd be going out later with a friend of mine from Rome (post dinner - around 10 PM), so I decided to pick up a few things for dinner at the apartment. I had a lovely dish of pasta with red sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese and an escarole and tomato salad, along with a nice white wine from Lazio. (I also found soy milk at the supermarket, so I was very excited!)

After dinner, I went out for some gelato. I decided to finally, FINALLY, try San Crispino. It's in Piazza della Maddalena, right near the Pantheon. I had the San Crispino flavor (honey), and the walnut and dried fig flavor (small cup, 2.30 euro). I put the first little spoonful of honey in my mouth and wanted to cry. Why had I been wasting my time at lesser gelaterie these past few years!?!?! You must try it if you haven't.

At 10, I met my friend at "the toy shop on the corner" in the Piazza Navona. Well, there are two toy shops on corners in Piazza Navona, so after wandering around for about 30 minutes looking for each other, we finally managed to meet. We spent a little time in the piazza looking at the bancarelle di Natale (the christmas stands), and then we went off the piazza to a little place called Tapa Loca to have some sangria and to talk about the few years that had passed since we'd last seen each other. It was quite nice. Another walk around the Piazza Navona and it was time to double-cheek-kiss and say goodnight.

As I walked home through the Campo, I watched the drunk youngsters and thought about how happy I was to not be doing THAT. :) I slept well that first night in the apartment. The windows in the bedroom (which basically overlook the campo and a fairly rowdy bar) were double paned. I still probably would have heard external noise, but my lovely little white noise app on the iphone managed to drown out any residual drunken yelling, and I had a great night's rest.

Next: Movies and an unexpected free concert

nnolen Dec 28th, 2012 05:30 AM

Sunday was absolutely the best day that I had in Rome. It was one of those days so magical that you briefly hallucinate about finding a job and moving all your belongings halfway across the world just so you can have more of those magical days. (Then, generally, you realize that vacation is much more likely to be magical than daily life).

Today I finally made it to Sant'Ivo alla Sapienza! This small church, only open Sundays from 9 AM to noon (and part of that time is taken up with mass, and they won't let you in during that, as I found out) is supposed to be one of the jewels of Baroque Rome. It was built/designed by Borromini (who made the baldacchino at St. Peter's) and the crowning glory of the church is the cupola, which is not round but incorporates other geometric shapes. It's definitely worth a stop if you are in the area at the time (it's very near Piazza Navona). The courtyard is very idyllic and the inside of the church is clean and white and stunning.

Giddy at finally having seen Sant'Ivo, I wandered down Corso del Rinascimento. I was heading towards the movie theatre in Piazza della Repubblica, but along the way I found the BEST bookstore. It was called Libreria Serendipity. I loved the name, but also the feel of the shop. Tiny, with only two "rooms" to speak of, books were crammed and stacked absolutely everywhere. Admittedly it was probably not smart to buy 8 books knowing I'd have to carry them around Rome for the rest of the day, but I did it anyway.

I window shopped up the Via Nazionale with the Romans, ending at Termini (where I swear things have gotten shadier over the past few years) and looping back around for lunch at Cotto. It's open on Sundays and is near the theatre, but I'm not sure I'd tell you to go looking for it. I had pumpkin gnocchi with sage gorgonzola sauce, a glass of Frascati wine, water and coffee. The gnocchi were a little gummy, the sauce was decent, the wine was divine. Not a terrible deal at 23 euro, but again...not my favorite.

After lunch I still had a little time to kill, so I wandered around the Nazionale. Passing by Saint Paul's Inside the Walls, there were some guys handing out flyers. Normally, I avoid these men like the plague, but the guy talked to me and said "free concert" tonight and I stopped and talked to him for a bit. He said the church choir was going to be giving a Christmas concert at 6:30 PM and I should come back. I said I would and really meant it.

Then, the movie. I have to say, I wasn't overly thrilled by the choices in the theatres this time, but I picked the best of the worst and saw a movie called "La Famiglia Perfetta" - premise is that this lonely guy hires a group of actors to be his family for Christmas. It was relatively mindless, but cute.

Being over of the other side of Rome, I decided to find Santa Maria della Vittoria in order to see the famous Bernini statue "The Ecstasy of St. Teresa". Coming out of the Piazza Repubblica, it was a short few minutes on foot to locate the church, which was itself beautiful. Bernini's statue is located in the front, and was everything I thought it would be and more. Sometimes a piece of art just takes you in and you can't move - you must absorb absolutely everything about it - that was this piece.

Walking out into the late afternoon sunshine, I was so blissfully happy to be in my favorite city on what was turning out to be a perfect day. With still two hours before the concert at St Paul's, I went to the Palazzo dell'esibizione on Via Nazionale. I had been REALLY looking forward to the Robert Doisneau exhibit they have on display, and it did not disappoint. Doisneau of course captured the iconic kiss photograph that so many college girls have hanging on their wall, but there was so much else to the exhibit. If you happen to go, I don't want to give anything away - but as you first walk in, there are a series of photos along the front wall. Try to guess what the people are doing before you look at the placard. :)

Finally it was time for the concert. I have to admit, I wasn't expecting much. The words "church choir" conjured up memories from my childhood that were not musically pleasing. However, the church was lovely and quiet, and as it got closer and closer to 6:30 I noted that the pews were completely full. The program included a series of Argentinian Christmas hymns which were punctuated by a few Brazilian pieces for accordion and percussion. The musicians were incredible! I so enjoyed listening to all the pieces and was happy I'd taken time earlier to talk to the man with the flyers. (Side note: St. Paul's Inside the Walls is also known as the immigrant church in Rome, which I thought was neat.)

After the concert I was good and hungry, so I decided to find Open Baladin. I'd looked at their menu online (on the suggestion of a Roman friend) and they had a few vegetarian options as well as an AMAZING selection of craft beers. This is one of those places that I don't think the tourists have found yet. I don't think it's for them and I don't know if it will become such a place. Menus only in Italian, everyone in the place Italian. When I arrived there was a huge crowd outside the door and I asked the doorman how long the wait was - he said probably an hour or more. When I indicated I was alone and would happily sit at the bar (where I could see an empty chair), he let me in. (Advantage of traveling solo!)

I wanted to try some of the beers produced by Baladin, and I was stuck between the Noel and the Noel Vanille. I asked the bartender which was better, and he said that the Vanille was a rather strong vanilla flavor, so I tried the regular Noel. Dark and rich, the beer tasted like figs. It was also a dangerous 8% abv (well, dangerous because it didn't taste like 8%). I ordered the veggie burger, visions of Boca Burgers dancing in my head. When it came, it was perfection. A fluffy bun, a thick slice of breaded eggplant and an equally thick slick of buffalo mozzarella, with a light coating of basil aioli. So good - time for another beer! Again I asked for a recommendation, and ended up with Winterlude, a lighter beer than the Noel but still packing a punch and tasting (to me) of cardamom. Completely satisfied for 18 euro. Really, I can't say enough good things about this place. (on Via degli Specchi)

My stack of books also opened up a conversation with a gentleman who recommended I check out Libreria Fahrenheit 451 on the Campo dei Fiori. Sometimes I forget there are shops behind those fruit stands! I vowed to check it out before I left. After that, it was home for a little slice of panettone before falling asleep for the night.

Tomorrow: Vermeer and the Bello ma Scemo (handsome but dumb)

SashieZ Dec 28th, 2012 06:41 AM

I'm loving the way you spend your days. Do you speak Italian?

nnolen Dec 28th, 2012 06:50 AM

Hey SashieZ,

Thanks! Yes - I speak fluent Italian. This is the sort of luxury you get when you've been to a city a million times and you know you'll be back a million more...

goldenautumn Dec 28th, 2012 07:43 AM

>>"bananas (okay, not very Italian)"<<

They're a lot more Italian than pineapples, which Italians eat by the ton, or beer, which is becoming all the rage in Italian tourist destinations. There is some banana cultivation in Sicily and Calabria, but it is most likely the ones you ate in Rome were imported.

nnolen Dec 28th, 2012 08:27 AM

jmct - thanks for the heads up on blue sage. I'm not too far from bucks county - and I'll drive for good food! :)

johnnyomalley Dec 28th, 2012 12:16 PM

Loving your report so far. Can't wait for the next installment

willowjane Dec 28th, 2012 01:48 PM

What a great trip report! I too love to wonder into bookstores when traveling.

annhig Dec 28th, 2012 01:55 PM


sarge56 Dec 28th, 2012 03:29 PM

great start! I love Rome and cannot wait to read more!

denisea Dec 28th, 2012 05:30 PM

I want to get to Sant'Ivo alla Sapienzo. I recently read The Genius in the Design and I am looking forward to a day of Borromini focused sites!

Enjoying your report.

rhkkmk Dec 28th, 2012 05:54 PM

oh the meats you missed...

kimhe Dec 29th, 2012 04:13 AM

Great report!

Here's a full BBC documentary about Bernini's masterpiece The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.

Her standing in Spain speaks tons of the people and Spanish catholisism. And at least some 60 barefoot carmelite monasteries/convents around Spain. The nuns are among other things known for making fabulous cakes which can be bought through a revolving wooden door that hides the sisters from the customers. I can at least recommend the baking skills of the carmelite nuns in wonderful Antequera (Málaga)...

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