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Tales from Venice, Bologna, Pienza and Rome

Tales from Venice, Bologna, Pienza and Rome

Old May 15th, 2013, 07:23 PM
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Thanks for reading along everyone!

Willowjane - I would NOT recommend Cafe Florian. In my opinion, it was a total ripoff and not even that cool. We only even considered it because it was raining. Assuming the weather was nice, I would recommend just hanging out in the Square and doing some dancing on your own! If I wanted to overpay for a drink, I would probably rather get a bellini at Harry's Bar, not that I would recommend that either.

Pepper - Good tip about bathrooms at Scuola San Rocco. We asked about bathrooms at the Frari Church and they had none, so didn't even think about that option. And yes, we thought about bars, but thought we were being clever to use the public toilets since we had seen WC signs in various people. I was wrong!

AndrewDavid - love your comments and stories! The Lakes is definitely high on our list, especially because we love the outdoors and nature. And yes, I think I can enjoy almost anyplace. It's what you make of it!

Will try to post another installment in the morning...
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Old May 15th, 2013, 07:34 PM
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*various places, not people!
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Old May 16th, 2013, 07:10 AM
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Our last day in Venice and I guess the day really started at 1AM for me, when I woke up wide awake after sleeping for three hours. I tossed and turned in bed for almost two hours trying to go back to sleep, but eventually gave up. I sat on the floor of our bathroom, taking the opportunity to jot down trip notes and read a book (Unbroken – totally recommend it!). After another two hours, I went back to bed and successfully fell asleep around 5AM and slept until about 8AM. Not ideal, but I managed. After another great breakfast, we got all packed up and checked out of the hotel. We were able to leave our luggage with Lorenzo, and we headed to the vaporetto stop at the Rialto bridge.

I hadn’t planned much for this morning, knowing we might not get to everything yesterday, so now we were going to try Rick Steves’ Grand Canal vaporetto tour. We bought 12-hour vaporetto passes (18E each) because we also planned to use the vaporetto later that day to get to the train station. We took the fast line up the canal to the Piazzale Roma bus station stop where we got off. This is the first stop on the slow line back down the canal, and we wanted to be sure that we got seats up front. There was quite a line to board the next vaporetto that arrived, so we just pulled back and let it go so that we were first in the line for the next one. We were thrilled when the “old style” pulled up next that still has the seats up front (and after our experience, I would say keep waiting until the old style does come). Since we were first in line, we beelined it to the front seats and had perfect views for our little tour. We were also insulated from the jostling of people getting on and off at each stop. We had perfect weather, and listening to the descriptions while peacefully cruising down the canal was magical. My husband said that the trip felt timeless, as though it could have happened years ago because the buildings haven’t changed much. Truly a highlight of our trip.

Side note: the podcast described the Guggenheim Museum as we rode past and we both felt a little regret that we hadn’t seen it. We love modern art and didn’t get any throughout our trip, plus it seemed cool that Peggy had actually lived in the building. For me, I might have swapped the Doges Palace for it if I did it again. But not a big deal…something to see next time!

After our cruise, we were approaching lunchtime and I was eager to get to Dorsoduro and away from the crowds. We took the vaporetto back to that area and found a restaurant with outdoor seating. Just pasta and pizza, but my pesto spaghetti was excellent and my husband enjoyed his margherita pizza. We loved watching the local kids play soccer and frisbee in the square. The weather was great and it had been a fantastic day so far! With one beer, a bottle of water and the coperto, the cost of lunch was 29E. I decided to get my first gelato of the trip (2.5E) and then we took off in the hopes of metaphorically getting lost. We wandered the backstreets of Dorsoduro, eating gelato and enjoying the fact that we saw virtually no one.

After awhile, we knew we needed to start heading back to our hotel to pick up our luggage. Of course, then I literally got a little lost and wound up near the cruise ship area, but eventually we found our way back to a vaporetto stop. We cruised back to San Zaccaria and walked through the hordes of people one last time back to our hotel. We grabbed our luggage, said a fond farewell to Lorenzo, and went back to the vaporetto stop. We took the 5.2 line that goes around the island to the train station. I hightailed it to the bathroom (1E – which actually turned out to be the last time we paid for a bathroom) and we got on our regional train to Bologna at 3:50PM.

Venice was great. A perfect way to work off jetlag and such a unique place. Today really made it for us; if we had only had our busy day yesterday, I might have felt pretty mediocre about it. So it just proves that (at least for me) the best thing about Venice is simply wandering around without too much of an agenda. That and a great cruise down the Grand Canal! That said, I don’t know that I needed to spend too much additional time there. For us, I think our schedule/timing worked out well. The only other thing I would have liked to do was visit the lagoon islands, particularly Torcello for a hike. Next time!
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Old May 16th, 2013, 07:40 AM
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My dream trip. Such an awesome thing to be able to do. How did you feel coming back?
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Old May 16th, 2013, 08:10 AM
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2 right: if u don't see it on your first visit you can see it when u return sometime. the architectural and art biennales are an interesting time to visit. torcello ( as in murano, burano, torcello) is a peacefule beautiful place.

have you come across donna leone's guido brunelli detective series, accurately described venice and venetions are the backdrop to the stories

dolce fa niente
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Old May 16th, 2013, 08:14 AM
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Wonderful report so far! I'm looking forward to your Bologna section as I am thinking about it for a trip next year.
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Old May 16th, 2013, 08:16 AM
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Great report, caze. I'm very interested in your impression of Bologna. Somehow the city has eluded me. We'll be in Italy this September and might add Bologna to the list.
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Old May 16th, 2013, 01:40 PM
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Thanks for the tip! I am really enjoying your report. I can't wait to hear of Bologna as I have a nephew going in a few weeks for a "film studies" program for June and July.
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Old May 16th, 2013, 02:38 PM
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I too am interested in reading about Bologna. We will only be there for a day on a day trip from Florence. Thank you for such a detailed report, it's much appreciated!
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Old May 17th, 2013, 09:32 AM
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Glad so many of you are interested in hearing about Bologna because that is up next!


So we were on our train to Bologna, which was about a 2 hour trip. We could have taken a faster train (advanced fares for that were only 9E!), but the schedule didn’t work with our plans for the day. I figured that an extra half hour on the train was worth it to maximize our time in Venice but still get to Bologna in time for dinner. Because we took a regional train, the tickets weren’t available for purchase until 7 days before. So I waited and then bought 2 tickets online for 10.50E each. I couldn’t believe how cheap the train travel was! Or what a pain the Trenitalia site was, even in English! It took three tries for me to achieve success. For other newbies, note that you need to create a user account before you purchase your tickets. My credit card did work fine, though.

It was an easy train ride with more Unbroken reading on my part and my husband snoozing since he can fall asleep anywhere – a nice, relaxing break. We arrived in Bologna about 6PM and walked 10 minutes to our hotel. To compliment myself, all of the detailed logistics planning really paid off. I had printed out google maps of everything, including small details like how to walk from the train station to our hotel, and that really prevented a lot of frustration. Right away, we liked the feel of being in a decent-size city – though we live in the mountains, we are definitely city people, too!

We stayed at the I Portici Hotel which was on Via dell’Indipendenza about a 10 minute walk from Piazza Maggiore.


I think that I originally found this hotel when it was recommended in a New York Times article. I liked the look of the hotel and emailed them for a rate quote since of course, I was planning too far in advance for the rates to be listed on the website! They came back with a rate of 120E per night with breakfast for 2, plus the city tax of 4E per person per day. I emailed back that I wanted a rate without breakfast, not trying to negotiate, just trying to get the “no breakfast” rate. What a pleasant surprise when they emailed back with a new rate that was 85E per night and the city tax had also mysteriously dropped to 2.5E. That made the hotel within our budget (my goal was an average of $120/night throughout the trip which we succeeded in doing), so I booked right away. Frankly, this was a much nicer hotel than we usually stay in, so I was thrilled to get such a good rate!

When we checked in, they said that they upgraded us to a bigger corner room which was also a nice surprise. The room was great – corner room, high ceilings, chic furniture, coffee maker. Italians don’t seem to like bathroom counter space, though, because it was hard to come by on our trip! It was also a room where you had to leave your key card in a slot in order to keep the lights on. This is a great idea to save electricity, except that we weren’t able to charge our kindle and laptop when we weren’t in the room which was a little annoying. While we are on the subject, we brought our new Chromebook with us and it was awesome to have. Super cheap (I’m sure you’ve seen the commercials for $249) so we weren’t too worried about it getting stolen or lost, small and lightweight, and the best thing was being able to look up last minute directions or restaurant recommendations or whatnot. Everywhere we stayed had free wifi. Two other notes on the hotel: The concierge was very helpful and made several restaurant reservations for me prior to our arrival. The street noise was a little loud, so I would recommend earplugs if noise bothers you or request a room that doesn’t face the main street.

As I mentioned before, we came to the region because we love food. I did a lot of research and decided that I wanted to do a one-day cooking class and visit some of the factories that produce the famous local products. Once I found the class and tour I wanted to do, I decided it was best to base in Bologna for logistical reasons, even though I had heard that the restaurants in the city were past their heyday. Many say that you need to venture out of the city for the region’s best. I spent hours researching on Chowhound, TripAdvisor, Fodors, etc to choose restaurants, always knowing in the back of my mind that we shouldn’t necessarily expect mind-blowing meals.

Unfortunately, I was right. (But have no fear, that comes in Rome!)

Today was a Sunday, so it was difficult to find a restaurant open. But of the limited options, we settled on Ristorante dal Nello at Montegrappa.


I put on one of my “Euro” outfits for the first time and we walked about 10 minutes to the restaurant. In my broken Italian, I told the host that we had an 8PM reservation (prenotazione was one of the 20 words I learned during the trip!). He offered us either outdoor or indoor seating, but since the weather was a little iffy, we sat inside. He led us downstairs into a brightly lit, but cozy room. We had a really fun waiter and with his help, ordered a bottle of red wine. It was delicious so our meal was off to a good start. Since we like to share everything, my husband ordered for both of us – polenta with mushrooms, lasagna verde, and veal Bolognese. My husband really confused the waiter and the waiter got the impression that we wanted everything at once, but really we would have preferred at least the polenta to come first. We learned that for future meals, we would just each order something and worry about sharing once it came to the table.

We received the food, and I would say that it was good. Totally fine. Just not “I specifically chose this destination to eat well” good. Again, I was glad that I had lowered my expectations a bit as far as the restaurants went because that allowed me to enjoy the meal without feeling disappointed. If I love something, I will find room in my stomach, and in this case, I was happy to take very reasonably-sized portions and leave it at that. We opted for the cheese plate for dessert which was quite good. With one espresso for my husband, a bottle of water, and the coperto, the cost was 75E. Don’t worry – our food tour and cooking class were phenomenal and we loved the city itself, so Bologna was a hit! Just be careful of your plan hinging on restaurant meals.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel since we had an early wakeup the next morning for our food factory tour. All in all, a great day – to think it started all the way back with a Grand Canal tour in Venice!
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Old May 17th, 2013, 09:56 AM
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hi caze - love the hotel - what a great rate! I see that the restaurant has a michelin star - did you eat there? their tasting menu starts with an artichoke which I would find difficult to resist - anything featuring artichokes is fine by me.

shame about your first restaurant - i couldn't read the menu as I couldn't get it big enough to read! but the specials looked good.

looking forward to more!
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Old May 17th, 2013, 01:33 PM
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Old May 17th, 2013, 04:03 PM
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grazie caze...this report is perfect for me...
my style of travel and I will be traveling to Venice, Southern Tuscany and Rome in about 3 weeks(my first time to Italy).
I made by reservation to St Marks using your link.
We will be going to the Guggenheim-sounds like I made the right call.
Thanks for the tips on the Grand Canal tour.
Looking forward to more of your report.
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Old May 17th, 2013, 09:15 PM
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I've eaten at I Portici and I'd be very surprised if it still has a michelin star. In general, I don't care for michelin-starred food in Italy, so perhaps I'm not the best judge of this kind of restaurant, but I can think of half a dozen better places to eat in Bologna, and where the decor isn't so spare as to make the room feel unfurnished. I also did not care for my meal at da Nello (where caze17 ate, although I think in autumn, they might do better because they specialize in mushrooms). Artichokes are seasonal in Italy, and the season varies from north to south, but it is good to find out if it is artichoke season in the locale where you are before ordering artichokes.

Many of Bologna's restaurants rely heavily on business travel diners, and the food tends to be safe and uninteresting, rather bland menus. The other big group for dining out are students, and they tend to eat food that is not good but just cheap. The thing to remember in Bologna is that one should only eat when one is truly very hungry, and as much as possible, sample the city's unique pasta dishes. Everything else on a Bolognese restaurant menu is often ho-hum, but the pastas are crazy good, and most are generally unavailable elsewhere.
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Old May 17th, 2013, 11:07 PM
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Can't wait to hear about your factory/food tour. We have a few days in Bologna to plan for this fall.
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Old May 18th, 2013, 12:44 AM
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I presume you tolerated the street noise due to the corner room upgrade? I Portici is known for their noisy rooms in the front. You were fortunate that they didn't have a late night party inside the hotel, otherwise it would really sound like party central, the music could get so loud that one could dance to the beat a block away on weekend nights.

I agree with you & Stevewith, unfortunately food in Bologna has become rather stale & boring, totally lacking in creativity, but all the old restaurants don't have to try hard anymore since they are relying mostly on tourist crowd who come to eat only once anyway. I wished they would at least give a bit more presentation effort instead of just plopping everything on their tired old plates. That said food is still edible and comparatively better quality/price ratio than in Rome in general. I also appreciate the friendly personable service that I received anywhere I ate in Bologna. I thought I was smart to avoid Da Nello, but I only ended up in other tourist trap restaurants. Oh well, as you said, we'd enjoy everything more if we just lower our expectations. Can't wait to find out where else you ate after Da Nello.
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Old May 18th, 2013, 03:10 AM
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One thing to note about those hotels that need the key card to make the electricity work is that any plastic card will do. An old room key card or library card, etc...
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Old May 18th, 2013, 06:39 AM
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Cant wait to hear more! Planning a trip summer 2014 with 18 year old and 16 year sons. All four of us first time to Italy! Friends traveled to Pienza hoping to spend some time there.
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Old May 18th, 2013, 07:01 AM
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Love the trip report so far! Planning my first ever trip to Italy and this was a great way to gain some helpful tips and insight! I am also the planner in my family! Great report!!
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Old May 18th, 2013, 07:15 AM
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Just to be clear, I personally am not interested in creativity in Bolognese restaurants, nor do I care much about presentation. Most great Bolognese pasta dishes are not fashion plates, but very homely to look at. Passatelli in brodo, lasagne al verde, gramigna alla salsiccia (curly pasta tubes with a bit of sausage and cream), tortelloni al gorganzola, tagliatelle in a tomato sauce with onions (no meat) are dishes I could eat over and over and over again without wanting anything creative, and plain white serving dish is fine.

But many of the business restaurants at a middling price point have a stuffy atmosphere and serve rather predictable versions of these dishes. They lack the personal quirks that the smaller family run places have when they hand roll their own pasta using their family secrets, and cook it just right. But whose pasta you prefer is rather subjective after a certain point, and if you've only got one or two meals there, you can't conduct much of a search.

By and large, most people don't go to Bologna to eat or explore the food scene, despite what they say, They go because of the rail connections, and spend almost every day outside the city, returning only for dinner, often after they have spent the entire day eating a lot in places like Parma or on food tours. Because they are tired, they pick middle price restaurants with table cloths that are close to the hotel areas for dinner. Most of these places offer serviceable food, but that is it.

if you want to spend a lot of time exploring food in Italy, Bologna is hardly the only choice, and depending on what you like to eat, Naples or Padova or Milan might give you more exciting food. But if you do go to Bologna to explore food, go to the fresh food markets and sample some of the raw food, buy some herbs to nibble, experience the quality. Check out the mostarda, either in jars to take home or in baked goods , visit the chocolate makers, the pasta makers. And for dining, go to more than one place serving handmade pasta and try a variety of local historic pasta dishes.
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