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Rome For The Holidays: MaitaiTom's Eternal City Escapades & Christmas Caper

Rome For The Holidays: MaitaiTom's Eternal City Escapades & Christmas Caper

Old Jan 10th, 2010, 10:06 AM
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<B>Act VI: Cough Cured, Tiber Treasure, Hold The Bacon, Turned Into A Tree, Lunch With The Family, Outside The Walls, Under The Church and Reconciling With Panna Cotta At Armando </B>

I have no idea what the hell they put in the Brochenolo Tosse, but on this morning I am a believer. Miracoli, the cough was 100% gone and, outside of a slightly sore wrist thanks to the slippery poo, I was back in action.

The rain was coming down pretty hard, so we took a taxi to the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace, unless you were an animal that got sacrificed here). Consecrated in 9BC, the altar is now housed in a new, temperature-controlled building. The entry fee is 6.50€ and another 3.50€ for the audio guide, which we thought pretty useless. Actually, you can see the altar from the outside, so personally I would save that 10€ apiece to purchase a bottle of wine later in the day at Cul de Sac.

We were only in there about 25 minutes, because next on our agenda was one of our favorite museums in the world, the Galleria Borghese. We had 11 a.m. reservations and with our new Roma Passes (purchased only seconds before the “Fall Of The Maitai Empire”), the entry fee was free. The 5€ audio guides here are very much worth the purchase price.

The last time we had been here we entered into the gorgeous Main Entry Hall, but because of the rain, we were led up the stairs to the paintings that, frankly, we were not interested in seeing again.

Tracy and I were looking forward to seeing and hearing about that spectacular main entry hall again, so we hurried back down the stairs, through some rooms and came upon the main entry hall that was (gasp) cluttered up by a bunch of paintings. In the hall was an exhibition of paintings by Caravaggio and perhaps the worst artist in history, Francis Bacon. We were here for the sculptures.

At this moment we experienced a “Bad Art” flashback. It reminded me of the time in 2006 that we were forced to endure the huge “Sperm Exhibit” at the Paris Pantheon (I have no idea what the hell that was, except that it reminded me of a Woody Allen movie). We were also transported back to the completely tacky 2005 Valentino dress exhibit that turned the Medici Palace in Florence into Macy’s Women’s Department. Hey, I’m all for art exhibits, but don’t clutter up the places I want to see, dammit!

The Caravaggio paintings were fine to look at (although I would have much rather seen the lovely entry hall left uncluttered), but when I gazed at the first Bacon painting I thought I was having a stroke. As it turned out, it was just the figures he painted that looked like they were having a stroke. This guy’s paintings make some of Picasso’s pieces almost palatable. So instead of our beautiful, remarkable main hall, I was instead staring at faces of what people must look like to folks who smoke crystal meth.

Since returning home I have read all the reviews of the exhibit, and how Bacon was a tortured soul after his lover killed himself. My headline would have read, “Bacon Lays An Egg.”

Oh well, we were able to enjoy the commentary and could sort of envision what this magnificent entry hall looked like from our last visit in 2005. Then it was on to many of the sculptures that we had been dying to revisit.

Pauline Bonaparte by Canova and a David by Bernini are both spectacular, but then it was time for our favorite, Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, which has been mentioned many times on this board. This is another of those sculptures that we spent a lot of time looking at from all angles as Daphne is transformed into a tree. My assumption is that Apollo never really got to the root of the problem.

We spent a little over an hour with the statues and then back out in the rain, through the Borghese Forest to a long walkway that heads to the Metro Station at the Spanish Steps. After yesterday’s Pringles and panettone dinner, we were famished, so we headed back to the Barberini station and the Colline Emiliane.
Eight years later, and the family-run place does not disappoint.

It opened at 12:45 and we were there at 12:46. It’s lucky we were, because with no reservations we got a table. We sat at a table near the front, and the place filled up quickly with people with reservations. Any who didn’t was put on the waiting list.

Of course, we had our Prosecco to start. Tracy had an insalata mista with carrots, tomatoes and watercress, while my salami platter was devoured (the salami, not the platter) quickly. I had a “wow” dish, a delicious tortellini with pumpkin and ricotta. Tracy’s mushroom risotto was also very good. We washed this down with a 22€ bottle of 2007 Casale del Giglio Petit Verdot Lazio. I doubt you would be surprised if I told you I had a wonderful zabaione for dessert. Total cost for lunch was 76€.

When we left at 1:45 the place was packed with a number of people waiting. I would highly recommend this place as a lunch or dinner spot (make reservations).

Hopping on the metro, our goal for the afternoon was to visit a couple of places that we somehow missed on our previous trips. First up was Basilica di San Paolo Fuori le Mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls). It is a couple of blocks walk from the San Paolo Basilica metro stop, and it is quite an imposing church (the second largest in Rome after St. Peter’s).

From the alabaster windows and mosaics, St. Paul’s was everything I had thought it would be. The gorgeous mosaics on the facade overlooking the garden are really something to behold.

We were then back on the metro headed to the Colosseo stop. We walked a few blocks to San Clemente. First, we went into the upper church constructed in the 12th century, but San Clemente is two churches in one, and the best part still awaited us.

We paid our 5€ at the church bookshop and headed down another eight centuries into Rome’s past and the ruins of the old church from the 4th century. We had visited the ruins of Nero’s Palace on our last trip, and we found this to be much more interesting. There are frescoes that tell the story of St. Clement and a shrine to the god Mithras, who supposedly was born in a cave and hung around with some all-male cult eating meals on stone couches. I wonder if they ever had a Pringles and panettone dinner.

San Clemente was definitely one of the highlights of our trip.

Outside, the rain was coming down hard, so we grabbed a taxi (big error). Traffic was horrendous and as we sat and sat the meter went up and up. We finally had him dump us off wherever he could near the Tiber. We walked across the bridge and soon we were back at the booth where I had bought the Roma Passes the previous day. To say that I walked a leisurely (and careful pace) would be an understatement. Today, the poo was no match for Maitai, but I did feel that some birds were looking down at me laughing their beaks off.

To make up for last night’s fiasco of a meal, we had already had a wonderful lunch, and we were looking forward to dinner, because we had 8:30 reservations at Armando da Pantheon, who I guess is the cousin of Antonio al Pantheon where we had lunch a few days previously.

It had been only about two hours since we had come back from our day’s adventures, but exiting the hotel, we noticed something different. It actually felt warm outside. In a Paris Hilton minute we were back in the hotel jettisoning some clothing and shortly thereafter we set off for the Pantheon area.

Armando da Pantheon was packed throughout the evening, and sad-faced, would-be guests without reservations were turned away in droves that evening, so reservations for this popular dining place are a must.

The restaurant is good, but once again the meal was a little uneven, but I can’t complain because I received the best of the dishes. Tracy started with the Brushetta alla Romaine (a tad overpriced at 4€ for one piece of toast). Tracy then had her own “lamb-chop” moment when she ordered duck with prunes as her main course. The duck consisted of two legs only, and the duck must have been a Super Model, because there was not a lot of meat.

I, on the other, could not complain about my Gnocchi with blue cheese followed by beef with green peppercorns. But the “wow” dish came at dessert, and I am happy to inform you that I rekindled my affair with a former lover, Panna Cotta. The Armando da Pantheon’s Caramel Panna Cotta with Pistachios made me realize how much I had missed my former partner. I now had two mistresses, Zabaione and Panna Cotta. It was like being the star of Big Love, only with desserts as my wives.

Outside, it was like being in Southern California, only with old buildings and no drive-by shootings. The weather was downright balmy (well, the 50s felt balmy after so many nights of freezing our butts off). We walked through the flea market to get some night fountain pictures, and people everywhere seemed to have an extra bounce in their step.

Perhaps the cold weather had put a damper on everyone’s spirits. Perhaps it was the knowledge that within three days it would be Christmas Day or maybe, just maybe, they knew we would be leaving in three days, and the Roman civilization, as we know it, could get back to a sense of normalcy.

In any event, we needed to get our sleep, because first up on the agenda for Wednesday would be exploring the treasures at the Musei Vaticani. We would also be crisscrossing Rome as our time in the Eternal City was winding down to a precious two days.

<B>Coming Up: Let’s Get A Tan, Where Is Everybody, Yes We’re With The Television Crew, On Top Of The World, The Scene Of The Crime, Seeing Rome In A Different Light, What Dinner Reservations and The Best Dinner Of The Entire Trip</B>
maitaitom is offline  
Old Jan 10th, 2010, 02:24 PM
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"Tracy pointed at the myriad of colored scarves, sweaters and ties in many windows, and lo and behold, they all seemed to contain the color purple."

We noticed how many Italians were wearing purple when we visited Italy in June (no trip report from me yet). Men EVERYWHERE, as well as women in pale shades of lavender.

Keep up the great report!
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Old Jan 10th, 2010, 03:14 PM
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I'm sitting here laughing and nodding my head in agreement. I visited the Borghese in October and was so excited to be going back and showing my friend who had never been the (IMO) greatest sculputres ever only to find so much of the museum covered in Bacon's art...oh well, just another reason for me to return to Roma!
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Old Jan 10th, 2010, 04:04 PM
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I like Francis Bacon. But I also like this trip report. More please.
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Old Jan 10th, 2010, 05:27 PM
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How nice to get a weekend update! Glad the weather finally improved and that you reconnected with your old flame, ummm, I mean dessert.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 08:08 AM
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I remember a visit to the Guggenheim in Bilbao, it was covered with Central American artifacts. I thought it was very off putting.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 09:36 AM
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<B> Rome: Smoke Gets In You Eyes – A Digression</B>

In 2006, we joked about how the clouds formed an “Impressionist Haze” that hovered above the city of Paris during our Christmas trip. On our recent journey to Rome, we renamed that phenomenon “Smoker’s Haze,” due to the number of smokers in the Eternal City. I guess the reports regarding smoking being dangerous to one’s health somehow bypassed the citizenry of Rome.

Of all our recent visits to the European continent, nowhere have we seen more people lighting up than in Rome, and that includes Poland, which had held the unofficial record up until this trip. Of course, being from California, where you see someone smoking about as often as a Halley’s Comet or San Diego Chargers’ Super Bowl appearance (I do have hope, however), this was quite a departure from our norm.

Whether it was storekeepers huddling inches outside the entrance to their shops, people walking around town or just hanging in the piazza, it seems that cancer sticks still enjoy a popular spot in the hearts (and lungs) of many Romans.

As we would walk down the streets, puffs of smoke would emanate from people we walked behind. It was like strolling behind Pigpen from the Peanuts’ cartoons.

As mentioned in my report, the Spanish Steps area was like a Smokers’ Nirvana, where it seemed everyone had a cigarette dangling from their mouth. Nothing says suave and debonair like a cigarette protruding precariously from someone’s lips.

Fortunately, there is not smoking in restaurants or shops, so we were really never affected by it. I just thought it was interesting to observe the amount of smokers in Rome versus some of the other cities we have visited in the past decade or so. Friends, Romans, Countrymen: Lend me your lighters!
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 11:04 AM
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I was more aware of smokers in Paris than Rome. However, we did visit Paris during the heat wave of 2003 so with heavy humid stifling air, the smoke may have been more evident than during our trips to Rome which were during the September/October timeframe with crisp, cool weather and enough breeze to waft away the smoke.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 11:46 AM
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When the "no smoking indoors" regulations came into law in NYC, I think smoking was already on the wane, so you see smokers huddled outside places, but not as many as if this had happened 5 or 10 years before. In Italy the regulations came into law with smoking still incredibly popular, so now that smokers must all be outside it is very noticeable.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 12:05 PM
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Moving to Rome for the cough medicine! Keep the report coming, please.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 12:08 PM
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I expected to be bothered by smoking much more than I was while in Rome but maybe that's because of
1. rain
2. we live in the US tobacco belt where many people still smoke ... or dip snuff and spit!
3. rain
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 12:45 PM
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"Tracy pointed at the myriad of colored scarves, sweaters and ties in many windows, and lo and behold, they all seemed to contain the color purple."

Orange was the color of the season in Feb 2006. I needed a scarf to replace the red one (Paris 2001) that I forgot in the airplane overhead bin, so even though it is not a color I like very much, I bought orange because there was no escaping it (I did get a darker shade, not a neon hue). I remember Rome each time I wear it with my olive green raincoat.
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 02:38 PM
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"and something struck Tracy (a thought, not an Italian)"

Thanks, Tom, that really is the best line in a trip report EVER!
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Old Jan 11th, 2010, 04:11 PM
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I am loving this trip report and taking copious notes for our upcoming trip. I can't wait to see what happens in this great adventure next.
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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 12:41 AM
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I am so glad to hear that I was not the only Fodorite that was disgusted by the Bacon paintings! We were there on our honeymoon from this past December 7th-19th.

The area of the "bird poo" you described along the river was near my apartment. From 4:30-5:30 each evening we could not leave our apartment nor come back to our apartment if we were out in the city because of "Birdagedon" as I call it. God forbid if you actually tried to walk down bird $hit alley! We were slipping and sliding the entire way before we finally grew a brain and turned down a side street! We were both pooped on three times each.....still waiting on that good luck!

I have been trying to write my trip report but honestly after reading yours....there is no comparison!
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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 04:23 AM
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I am following your fabulous trip report and enjoying each and every entry. I have always read and enjoyed your trip reports. I dare say you must have some kind of literary gift to be able to write so amusingly, wonderfully, and articulately. I swear I have never enjoyed a report more. Thanks so much.

We recently returned from yet another trip to Italy, 3 days in Rome at the end. Although we did not have any of the experiences you write about, it was still a nice reminder of how great our own trip was.
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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 07:54 AM
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<B>Act VII: Let’s Get A Tan, Where Is Everybody, Yes We’re With The Television Crew, On Top Of The World, The Scene Of The Crime, Seeing Rome In A Different Light, What Dinner Reservations and The Best Dinner Of The Entire Trip</B>

We were up early, looked outside and saw blue sky, plenty of sunshine and, it was even warm. This is more like it. I didn’t even need a sweater or coat. We were so invigorated that we passed on breakfast…for now.

It was on to the Vatican, where we had reservations for 10 a.m. Arriving about nine and expecting to see huge throngs, we were surprised that only about 15 people were waiting in line. Since we already had reservations, we bypassed the 15, stepped inside, and by 9:05 we were touring the Musei Vaticani with our audio guides helping us along the way.

The last time we had visited the Vatican Museum, it was difficult to maneuver through the mass of humanity, but today there would be no such problem. Crowds were light, and it was more pleasant than our first trip here.

The museum really is overwhelming, and audio guides or a guided tour are a must, I would think. Our favorite area, once again, was the Map Gallery, a long hallway with various maps of Italy throughout. The ceilings are stupendous.

The Raphael rooms are also spectacular, and it was interesting to hear the stories behind the paintings in the relative quiet of the museum on this morning. One could spend an entire day here, but we have the “2 ½ hour rule” that makes museum overload virtually impossible.

Last stop, of course, is the Sistine Chapel, and truthfully after seeing so many incredible churches on this trip, it is just not as awe-inspiring to me as it is to many, but it is still a great way to end the tour. After walking back through the museum to deposit our audio guides, we grabbed a quick cappuccino and a couple of croissants at a neighbor hood joint and walked over to St. Peter’s Square.

Once there, the line to enter the basilica was stretched out to the square, so we decided to visit some other venues and come back around 4 p.m. when we knew we could get right in (well, that plan had worked for us in the past).

It was back on the metro and over to Piazza del Popolo to see the Santa Maria del Popolo. We didn’t count how many churches visited on this trip, but it had to have easily been 30 or more. Knowing how many times I have attended church back home, I am pretty sure God was shocked by this total. In any event, Raphael designed one of the chapels inside the Santa Maria del Popolo for his buddy Agostini Chigi, he of Villa Farnesina fame. There are also Bernini pieces in here.

By now, we were hungry and we walked down the Via del Corso, still awash in purple and with Christmas shoppers everywhere.

Walking in Rome, which we did a lot of, is really quite an art. When there are no traffic signals, and cars are scurrying by left and right, it seems the best thing to do is just fling yourself into traffic, all the while displaying a confident demeanor like you know what the hell you are doing. If you do, they will stop. It took a little while to get over the fear that oncoming vehicles would smash into us, but by the end of the trip Tracy and I had the ritual down to a science.

We ate at a little outdoor place pretty near the Pantheon, but we were back walking shortly thereafter to see yet another church, but one I was really forward to seeing. Although it was not supposed to be open yet, I had a feeling that because there would be lots of added attention paid to this place the following evening (Christmas Eve), we might be able to get in to a tad early if we played our cards right.

Back on the Via del Corso, we walked toward “The Wedding Cake” (Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II). When we’re tired, that’s when I turn to my old friend (and pain in the ass to some of you), Rick Steves. Say what you will about the old boy, but he has some good suggestions sometimes, especially for tired tourists with broken feet.

Instead of climbing the nearly one million (ok, about 240) steps up toward the Wedding Cake, we took his suggestion to go around it, find the She-Wolf statue (to the left of the mayoral palace), climb a “wide set of stairs,” make a left and follow the signs to Aracoeli.

The Santa Maria d’Aracoeli was not supposed to be open for another 45 minutes, but as I expected, the doors to this 13th century church were open because television crews were laying cable in preparation for the Bambino (no Yankee fans, not that Bambino).

At Christmas Eve Mass, it is tradition that Santo Bambino (a wooden statue of the baby Jesus) is brought out to a throne, and it is all shown on television. The original Bambino was carved more than 500 years ago, but was stolen in 1994 and has never been found. They now have a replacement Bambino.

As workers scurried about, Tracy and I went in and wandered the magnificent interior that includes frescoes by Pinturicchio. This was one of the few places that had a nativity scene that could actually be seen before Christmas.

Back outside, we climbed more stairs to the café and terrace area where we met a very photogenic seagull that seemed to be enjoying the limelight as he posed for tourists and locals alike. We walked around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and although there were good views of Rome from various vantage points, I knew there was a place where I could get even more spectacular looks over the city. Once more, we passed by Jonathan Livingston. He had not moved from his perch, and if I’m not mistaken, I think he had put out a tip jar.

For 7€, I purchased a ticket to Rome From The Sky, which would take me on a quick elevator ride to the top. Tracy stayed below opting to use her 7 Euros for vino a little later. Although a little hazy (I don’t think this haze had anything to do with cigarette smoke), the 360 degree views out on to Rome were fantastic. I was using my new, compact Panasonic ZS1 that seemed to be taking wonderful zoom shots of the fabulous Forum (Laker fan reference) and the Colosseum. I could hardly wait to see these photos when I got home to see how my new camera performed.

After descending, we talked about going through the Forum, but we have already done that twice and the Colosseum once, so we decided against that idea to do something else for the third time (logic pays no part in our planning). We walked back to the metro and headed back across town to St. Peter’s.

As expected, when we arrived at 4 p.m. there was no line and we strolled right in. We walked around St. Peter’s for the better part of an hour, and they too were getting ready for the giant Christmas Eve Mass (although I guess in hindsight they didn’t prepare for everything). After seeing Pope John XXIII, we decided to go down to the Grotto Of Dead Popes (not it’s real name), and then walked back to the metro.

It was now time to get a few night shots, so we stopped at the Spanish Steps metro station, strolled down to the Fontana di Trevi and took pictures with millions of other touristas and headed back to the hotel.

We had asked our hotel five days previously to make 8:30 p.m. reservations for us at Le Mani In Pasta, and at the appointed time we walked the less than ten minutes to this very popular Trastevere eatery. Rain had started coming down just about the time we arrived, so we ducked in the door, and the gentleman asked if we had reservations. “Si, Tom and Tracy at 8:30.” I’m not positive, but Tracy is pretty sure that he gave me “the look.” I quickly added that the Hotel San Francesco had booked the table.

He hurriedly conferred with another guy, said “Hotel San Francesco” in a not-so-wonderful tone and in a rather gruff manner sat us at a table. I can’t be sure, but I am guessing the hotel never called them. Either that, or he saw the remnants of bird poo on my overcoat. We’ll never be sure.

As the evening progressed, the service warmed up, and we were treated to the best dinner we had in Rome.

There is an open kitchen area at Le Mani In Pasta, so Tracy could see all the fresh dishes being taken out to the now very crowded restaurant. This was the last night it would be open for a while, as the restaurant would close down until after the first of the year.

We were given a complimentary glass of Prosecco (fortuitous since we would have bought one anyway). I started with a tagliatelle with cheese and pepper, which garnered the coveted “wow.” My main course of beef with orange and potatoes got a “mini-wow.”

Tracy also had a “wow” dish. After starting with brescola with figs, her veal saltimbocca all Romana with ham was wonderful. We also had a side of broccoli that was terrific, although we had never really seen broccoli that looked like this. It was lime green with little pointed crowns, not the dark green flat broccoli we are used to. In any event, with the olio drizzled on top, I bet even that noted hater of broccoli, Bush the Senior, would have liked this vegetable.

Complementing our dinner was a 25€ bottle of La Braccesca Vino Nobile di Montepulciano. Quite good!

I was now ready for another new dessert. Zabaione and Panna Cotta would have to wait for a future fling, because tonight my dolci consisted of a semifreddo Gorgonzola with caramelized lace cookies. I’m a sucker for anything in lace, and I loved this dessert.

It was at this point I realized I am sort of like Tiger Woods when it comes to desserts, I just can’t turn any of them down. Elin (I mean Tracy) had a delicious semifreddo Amaretto with chocolate. The meal came to 100€ even. We finally had the meal we were hoping for in Rome.

Now completely stuffed, we were soon back out in the rain heading for our hotel. There was only one day left to explore Rome. We thought tomorrow would be the end of our adventure. As it turned out, that could not have been further from the truth.

<B>Coming Up: Pyramid Scheme, Spock’s Head, Large Organ, Galileo Was Right, Goodbye To The Neighborhood Restaurant, A Walk Through The Hood, The Last Supper And Did I Just See What I Just Saw </B>
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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 08:27 AM
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You have authored a pretty awesome trip report. You have a gift for writing in a way that engages the reader and makes her snort out loud with laughter!

Looking forward to reading the rest.

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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 08:59 AM
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Damn, that's a cliffhanger if I ever read one! Keep it coming!
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Old Jan 12th, 2010, 09:27 AM
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Thanks everyone for the nice comments!

heartofthesouth, Loved the "Birdagedon." I'll look forward to your trip report, poo and all. Hope it was a great honeymoon.

amyb, yes. a cliffhanger to be sure. One I obviously did not foresee.

I'll finish this baby up in the next two days, and thanks again to all of you who have joined us on our trip (report)

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