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Trip Report Our 5-Week Italian Adventure - Part 6 (Rome, Toffia and Paris)

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We rented this 3-bedroom/1 bathroom apartment near the Vatican (the actual neighborhood was Balduina: for 1,360€ for 13 nights. The apartment was adequate, but the location wasn’t ideal. It was still a 20-minute walk to get to the Vatican and we always had to rely on public transportation to go anywhere, so we would have preferred a more central (historic center) neighborhood. However, we waited too long to secure our Rome accommodations and we just couldn’t find much availability in our budget.

On Saturday (September 29th), we left the sea (and hopefully the mosquitoes) and the rental car behind and boarded a train for Rome. We took a regional train from Sorrento to Naples, then switched to the national rail system there for our train to Rome (we purchased our tickets in advance online on Trenitalia’s website for 9€ each.

Although we certainly don't go out of our way to look like tourists (maybe it was my Dad's white socks and sneakers?), we kind of got scammed in the Naples train station. We were walking rather quickly on the platform towards our designated car when an older gentleman ran up to us and started telling us we had to hurry and began grabbing our bags. When he first grabbed my suitcase, I said "no, I don't need any help" and then I looked to see if he was an employee of the railroad. He grabbed my train ticket and examined it in an "official-looking way" and said "no, it's OK" like he worked there. So we let him escort us and our baggage (him doing the baggage escorting part) to our reserved seats. Interestingly enough, this train's second class seats were all in little compartments of 6-seats each, with baggage stowage above the seats.

He first gets my parents situated as they were in the "cabin" in front of ours, then gets our luggage stowed in our cabin, then as I suspected, demanded payment. Damn it, I knew I was getting scammed! So standing there like a stupid American who should know better, I dig out some money for him. This "gentleman" and I agree on a price (20 Euros for the 4 suitcases he hauled) and he tried to increase this price even more when he didn't want to give me change from my 50€ note. He finally gave me my 30€ change, but rather reluctantly. I just knew I should have been more insistent on the train platform and instead, I just conceded.

The trip to Rome was just a little more than two hours. The train was hot and sticky with no real air conditioning and little air coming through the windows. It was a rather miserable ride. We all were kind of spoiled by our first train trip from Venice to Bologna, which was on one of Trenitalia's "Eurostar" trains (same price of 9€ per ticket), but this train (and others before it) was on what I suspect is an older train.

When we arrived at Rome's Termini station, the other three ladies sharing our compartment didn't disembark and instead of perhaps MOVING so we could easily grab our bags from the storage above, they just simply sat there and stared at us while we tried to quickly get our bags and get off the train (the train was bound for Milan). This was proving a bit difficult as we were like salmon swimming upstream against a tide of new passengers boarding the train. You would think common courtesy would occur and NEW passengers would have stepped aside so we could get off that damn train! But no, why would they do that?

We had already agreed to take a taxi from the station to our Rome apartment as we didn't have an easy and direct route using public transportation. It was probably the best 20€ we ever spent. It was actually much cheaper than we were expecting, so I gave our very nice driver a 10€ tip for his help with our luggage. Within a couple of minutes of our arrival, Paolo, the owner of the apartment had arrived.

Situated in a 1950's era apartment building, our apartment is a 3-bedroom, 1 bath apartment with multiple balconies on the first floor (second floor for us Americans). My parents were happy there was an elevator! After a brief tour of the apartment and exchange of monies, Paolo offered to take my sister and I on a driving tour of the neighborhood to show us important points of interest (like supermarkets, best gelato stores, bus stops, etc.). That was very nice of him and we appreciated the nice introduction to our new neighborhood that we would call home for the next 13 days.

We all get our things settled, Dad gets his ice cube tray filled (thinking ahead to cocktail hour) and my sister and I do some meal planning so we can head off to the supermarket. We were looking forward to doing some grocery shopping as the market was actually quite large, especially compared to the markets we had been shopping at the previous 3 weeks. I was really craving Mexican food and I was hopeful that I might find somewhat of an "ethnic" aisle there.

The supermarket was marvelous. Funny to be so excited about a supermarket. I almost cried when I found flour tortillas. I was hoping for corn tortillas, but flour would do! I also found salsa and fresh jalapenos! Oh joy!!!! Together with some ground beef, red chile pepper seasoning, onions and garlic, I was able to pass off a pretty decent soft taco for our dinner that evening. It was a wonderful change of pace from our steady diet of Italian food.

After our day of travel, a belly full of soft tacos, we all just wanted to sit around and be lazy, so we did. We'll start our exploration of Rome in the morning.

We were going to spend most of the day on one of those hop-on/hop-off buses so we could get an overview of Rome and reduce the amount of walking for parents, but the weather outside was threatening rain. By the time we got off the Metro, it had started to rain outside. We were hoping that the bus would have available seating "down below" but that didn't happen. So we were forced to sit in the open top part, where the seats all featured nice puddles. I had no choice but to use my map as my seat cushion, but I still got wet and probably looked like I had peed my pants!

Our plan was to do a "lap" on the bus, then decide where we wanted to get off to do some exploration. Unfortunately, the weather never cleared up, only rained harder, so that wasn't going to happen today.
By the time we had finished the bus loop, it was really pouring, so we got off the bus and found a nice, indoor trattoria for lunch. As a nice change of pace, their daily special was roasted chicken with potatoes, which we all ordered and it was delicious! And that was pretty much all we did that day.

Having read about the crowds at the Vatican Museum, we had purchased our tickets in advance and reserved a 1:00 PM entrance time. Although the line to enter (without a reservation) was almost non-existent, every single room of the museum was filled almost to capacity. It was so crowded you could only be herded through like cows, barely taking a moment to snap a picture. Forget about reading the placards about the art or statues you see. A good percentage of the crowds inside were comprised of tour groups. Large groups with very pushy leaders, often carrying a flag or some other annoying distinguishing beacon for their worshipers to follow. Did I mention that these people were pushy? We were actually pushed aside when admiring some piece of art or statue, so that they could place themselves front and center and then address their followers. This really pissed me off.

I try to be a considerate tourist. This isn't my home, often these are not my customs, but I try my best to blend in, not stand out, and mostly, I try very hard to be nice to people. I wish the other 3.9 million people visiting the Vatican that day felt the same. Seriously people - have some respect and consideration!

The Vatican Museums broke attendance records in 2011 with just over 5 million people. I'm pretty sure 2012 will also break records, if this Monday afternoon in October was any indication. While I'm bitching, I have to mention that it's become a regular practice for almost all of the museums we visit to not offer any type of map. You must purchase a book on the museum in order to understand WHAT you're looking at, or which room you're in. It's very frustrating for me and my greatest regret about this particular scheduled visit is that we should have spent the money on a private tour. There are several companies/individuals whereby you can pay for a tour in which your tour has access to the museum an hour before it is open to the general public. Imagine viewing the Sistine Chapel with only a dozen people inside instead of 1,000? But we didn't want to spend the money and felt it wasn't a good use of our budget. Boy, were we wrong. So, I guess that's another trip!

The Gallery of Maps was one of my favorite rooms on our visit. It features 40 panels that map the entirety of the Italian peninsula in large-scale frescoes, each depicting a region as well as a perspective view of its most prominent city and the most magnificent ceiling. Finally, it was time to see the “piece de resistance”, the Sistine Chapel. "Seeing" the chapel isn't exactly the correct word. There were hundreds of people in the chapel. It was impossible to stand in one place as the crowd was continually pushing us towards the back of the chapel (and exit). It was astonishing how many people had a complete disregard for the rules of the chapel, which included NO TALKING and NO PHOTOGRAPHY. Even the "tour guides" were talking into their little mini microphones to describe Michelangelo's work. We really didn't see the chapel at all, which was a huge disappointment. So I've had to rely on Google to see what I missed.

There was so much to see and learn about in the Vatican, it was almost overwhelming. It's one of those places, similar to the Louvre in Paris where you really need multiple visits in which to absorb everything. After doing some research on the Vatican Museums, it seems that many of the rooms were not currently open, such as some rooms featuring Etruscan and Egyptian artifacts, jewelry, statuary and art. I would have been interested in seeing those items. So as the saying goes, "that's another trip." And on that second trip, I fully intend to include in my budget a tour guide, in a small group, before normal opening hours, if possible.

Even though it's now almost mid-October, the city is still crammed full of tourists, which has been somewhat of a frustration for us. But it's unrealistic for me to expect that we're going to have Rome (and it's beautiful monuments, churches and statues) all to ourselves. But it would be nice to have a few pictures WITHOUT a bunch of people standing around them. My parents decided to stay back at the apartment and my sister and I spent the day exploring several of the sights of Rome. I wish I had brought my pedometer as we were really logging some serious miles on foot. We saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Trajan’s Column, Piazza Navonna, the church of San Luigi dei Francesi, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church, the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (including the changing of the guard for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier), and the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. I highly recommend taking the elevator (7€) up to the viewing platform at the Victor Emmanuel II monument as the views from there are quite stunning. We ended our last day with our parents enjoying a leisurely dinner at a local restaurant recommended by our landlords.

ROME DAY 5 – 13
You might say that our Italian Adventure truly began after our parents departed for home. Although it was fantastic to have such quality time with them, we were just as ready for them to leave as they were to get home. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but our last 10 days in Rome were pretty busy. We visited the Borghese Gallery (purchased tickets online in advance), the Pantheon, The Coliseum, The Doria Pamphilj Gallery, took the Scavi Tour at the Vatican, which was absolutely fantastic! and toured St. Peter’s. We also did a lot of wandering around Rome, checking out various neighborhoods, enjoying the culture and soaking up the lovely weather while sitting at café’s. We also enjoyed a couple of cooking-related activities. Our very kind Roman landlords invited us over for dinner and a cooking lesson where we would make Pasta Carbonara and Tiramisu. They picked us up at the apartment on a Friday morning and we went to the Trionfale Market, where our landlady has shopped for more than 30 years, to purchase our supplies for dinner and dessert. I wished we had learned about this market sooner as we would have loved to shop here instead of our local Carrefour market. We had a lovely time that evening with Adriana and Paolo, who are the most gracious hosts.

Our second food-related activity was a day trip to Toffia, a small walled village in the Sabina region to take a cooking course with Convivio Rome. Our daylong adventure in Toffia is probably one of my favorite things we did/experience on our entire trip. To quote Liz Lemon, "I want to go there."

Toffia is a small hilltop village with a current population of about 350 people, although their population swells closer to 900 people during the warmer months as many Romans like to keep summer homes there. Located in the ancient Sabina region, the area is an agricultural-rich area with primarily olive oil and wine production. My sister and I were joined by two more cooking "guests", a mother and daughter from Canada, so it was a nice small group. Convivio Rome is ran by a sweet couple, Guido (8th generation Roman) and Sally (Australian who fell in love with Guido while visiting Rome) who live in Toffia. We were all picked up at the Fara Sabina train station, about 45 minutes outside of Rome, and driven to Toffia, about 20 minutes away. Sally met us at the entrance to the city and as we walked towards their home, gave us a bit of a tour along the way.

During our walk into the center of the village, one of the local "wine growers" passed us several times with his bounty of just-picked grapes. All of the wine produced by the villagers is for "local-use" only, meaning that all of the residents basically bring their bottles and containers to be filled up after the harvest. They do a similar thing with the olive oil production with residents basically acquiring their year-long needs shortly after the harvest and production. I think that they actually pay for the wine and olive oil, but the amount is quite minimal.

Toffia features a community garden and we stopped there to pick some fresh herbs to use during our cooking lesson. We arrive at Sally and Guido's home and after a brief introduction to Guido, our lesson begins. I think one of the reasons why I enjoyed our day so much here is that Sally and Guido were instantly like old friends. And the food we prepared was amazing! I loved that we were kind of thrown back into an era where you actually knew all of the people that produced your food; they personally know (and are friends with) the butcher, the guy who grows the vegetables, the cheesemaker, the olive maker and the wine maker. I suspect they also acquired the flour from someone they know who mills it.

First up, we learn to make tagliatelle pasta (your basic egg noodle). My sister and I have made pasta many times, but this recipe varies slightly in that the ratio of eggs was a bit higher, and instead of using just all-purpose flour, it was a mixture of 50% all-purpose flour (European 00 flour) and 50% semolina flour. This was the first time we had learned to make pasta entirely by hand, meaning that we didn't use a sheet roller to create the thin pasta sheets. After the pasta was completed, it was time to start the Ragu (a basic meat sauce). This is a basic staple sauce in most Italian kitchens and Guido told us that on Sundays, you can smell various wafts of Ragu from most kitchens in the village.

The sauce begins with a basic mire poix of celery, onions, carrots, then flavored with pieces of pork cheek (kind of like pancetta, but the cut of pork comes from the pig cheek) and fresh bay leaf. There was also a generous amount of olive oil. After this mixture was cooked down for a few minutes, we added some ground beef and wine. Finally, the Italian version of tomato sauce, as well as a can of "San Marzano" tomatoes were added to the mixture and set aside to simmer while we prepared the rest of the dishes.

Next up was the dessert, Ricotta cake. I loved how everything we did was made entirely by hand; no blenders, food processors, or mixers. Even the pastry dough for the cake was done on the board by hand. Spread on the bottom of the cake was a locally-made (naturally!) cherry preserve that was more similar to a currant (the cherries are tart) then our sweet bing cherries. The ricotta filling was simply sheep's milk ricotta, sugar, eggs, chopped chocolate (which was also made locally) and some fresh lemon zest. And voila! In a matter of a few minutes, it's ready to bake and you have a very simple, but delicious dessert.

Next, we learn to make Veal Saltimbocca. It's amazing how something so simple to make can be so delicious. I definitely think it's the olive oil! Paper-thin slices of veal are layered with a slice of prosciutto and skewered together with a fresh sage leaf. That's it! No salt, no pepper. It's then quickly sautéed (fairly high heat) with some olive oil (but of course!).

Paired with a simple arugula salad and an orange reduction sauce (which we also made), it was very delicious. Guido told us a funny story about how he tried out his idea of the "orange sauce" to pair with the Saltimbocca on his Roman friends. Their basic response when tasting his version was "it's not like Nona makes." Apparently you can't teach a dog new tricks and they only want to eat something that's exactly what they're used to, and in this case, whatever their beloved grandmother's made. Hopefully my grandchildren will feel that way about my cooking!

It was now time to eat, so we all retired to their "taverna" which is kind of "cave-like" and very cool. What a great place to entertain! Sally told us that they're often asked by fellow villagers if they can host a party in their taverna! It's the perfect spot for a party.

Our meal, complete with a generous amount of local wine was one of the highlights of my trip to Italy. The day was perfect! It was warm and sunny, the class was fun and engaging and I am completely in love with Toffia. Remember the movie "Under the Tuscan sun" where Diane Lane's character is on vacation in Tuscany and she falls in love with the village and buys a villa there? I can see that happening! Seriously, this place is fantastic! But obviously, not very realistic for me, but one can dream!

It's now getting to be late afternoon and sadly it's time for us to go. Sally and our cute Italian driver accompany us to another nearby village of Farfa for a quick tour before we drive back to the train station. Along the way, we had some amazing views of Toffia. The Farfa Abbey is one of the most famous abbeys in Europe. Farfa Abbey played an important role in the history of the Sabina area, having controlled, during its "golden age", nearly all the nearby towns and villages. The monks of Farfa owned 683 churches or convents; two towns, Civitavecchia and Alatri; 132 castles; 16 strongholds; 7 seaports; 8 salt mines; 14 villages; 82 mills; and 315 hamlets. They even had their own army and navy. It's hard to imagine this fairly small abbey run by monks to have risen to that level of power.

Farfa also became a focal point for trade with an important weekly market. After the reconstruction of the monastery by the Orsinis during the Renaissance, new shops were built around the monastery to accommodate the merchants, giving birth to a twice yearly fair lasting 15 days. These shops and the urban structure of which they are part can still be seen today and the street names reflect the original uses of each street, for example "via di droghe e cere" (street of medicines and waxes), "via di panni e sete" (street of cloths and silks) and so on. You can still see the characteristic stone slabs at the entrance to each shop which were used as counters by the merchants. The signage in the village is really lovely too; of course I loved the sign outside the bakery. While we were visiting the church, a wedding was start about ready to start. We've actually seen quite a few brides during our travels in Italy.

It was an idyllic day. In addition to their one-day classes, Convivio offers 3 and 5-day courses, combined with accommodations in Toffia, either in a shared environment (room of local villager) or sometimes they rent out entire dwellings for the class participants. I'm pretty sure one of these options (3 or 5 days) will be worked into the planning process for a future trip to Italy.

We rented this 1-bedroom, 1-bath apartment in the 5th Arrondisement from Homelidays: for 510€ for 4 nights. The apartment was nice and located across the street from Gare d’Austerlitz. At first, we were concerned about the train noise, but honestly, it didn’t bother us at all and we loved being so close to the Metro. I will definitely rent this apartment again.

We didn’t really have much of an agenda in Paris except to just eat and shop. I was pretty burnt out on Italian food so I was looking forward to eating at some of my favorite places in Paris. We enjoyed meals at Les Pâtes Vivantes (amazing hand-pulled Chinese noodles) and La Rotunde. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t too great while we were there; LOTS of rain and we looked absolutely ridiculous in our capris and sandals. First order of business was to shop for some more appropriate attire. But in our defense, we’d been traveling now for almost 6 weeks in very hot and sunny weather, so fitting Fall-appropriate clothing into our suitcase wasn’t on the top of our list of priorities. Besides eating and shopping, the only other thing on my wish list for Paris was a visit to my favorite gallery, the Museé D’Orsay. Unfortunately, my motivation to stand in the very long line (3:00 PM on a Sunday) was squashed by the steady rain. So, I guess “that’s another trip.” As always, Paris was wonderful and I am always reminded when I visit how much I truly love Paris. It was great to be back after our great trip in September 2011 and I look forward to planning a longer visit soon.

By this time in our trip, I am pretty homesick and although the trip home will be long, I’m ready to go. I think this trip was just a tad too long for me. I think we had a great overview of Italy and I know there will be future trips, so I will look forward to re-visiting some of the places we only had time enough for a glimpse. I’m not sure how to overcome to issue of the crowds though – perhaps going more “off-season” is the answer, but I sure enjoyed the sunshine. We’ve been back in rainy Seattle now for two weeks and my tan is fading! It’s kind of weird to leave while it’s still Summer and return home to a different season. Just writing this trip report has been fun as I’m reliving some of the highlights of our trip, so I hope I wasn’t too long-winded for you.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, so please let me know if I can be of any help. Once again, thank you SO much all you great Fodorites! I’ve enjoyed reading these forums now for almost 15 years and would never ever think of planning any trip without first checking in with all of you for your much-needed expertise.