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Trip Report: Back from Bella Italia and Paris

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Dec 27th, 2005, 09:37 AM
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Trip Report: Back from Bella Italia and Paris

Having posted many questions and received lots of wonderful tips that enabled me to plan a perfect trip, I wanted to post a trip report so that others might get some of their questions answered. Rather than do a chronological report of what we did, I am going to try to group information by topic so that if anyone has a particular interest or concern they can perhaps more easily find what they are looking for. I don't know how long this will take, so there may be multiple chapters as determined by time available to post.

Pre-Departure:
Packing /Wardrobe - I had looked at lots of posts on this topic to try to figure out what to take so that I didn't have too much and also looked fashionable. Since I knew it would be cold I opted for layers and took only things that could be mixed and matched and layered. I knew that I wanted do some shopping so I wanted to leave room in my suitcase but I also wanted to be able to handle it without too much trouble. I opted for a 26" wheeled piece of luggage that I did not overstuff and packed a duffle bag inside it that could be used for new purchases. To give you an idea of how much room was available, I had succesfully put all of my clothing into a carry-on but when I realized that it was so full, I couldn't even put a postcard in I moved to the next size up.

Posters have wondered about jeans in Paris. Every where we went, people were wearing jeans- both in Italy and Paris. There is absolutely no problem at all. They dress up or down easily and you see them tucked into all kinds of boots.

I brought silk underwear- both top and bottom- and an second pair of a heavier long underwear called Chilly's. I definitely needed them and wore them, especially in Paris.

I had an assortment of black long sleeve, 3/4 sleeve and cotton turtleneck tops. Also, a black cashmere round neck sweater, a gray cashmere twin set and a chenille long sleeve shirt. I had jeans, black/grey herringbone wool pants, black slacks and a pair of dressier black knit pants and top that I could have left home. I brought several sweaters- a white turtleneck, black/grey cowl, and a orange rust wrap sweater. I also had a quilted sleevless vest and a long black heavy raincoat with zip-in lining. Sometimes I wore the sweaters over the silk undertop- sometimes layered over the shirts; sometimes I wore the vest over the long sleeve shirts; Sometimes I needed a sweater over the vest and at times I needed both a sweater and the coat. I had a wool scarf and a pashmina that I also used. They were not only a fashion accent but also necessary to keep warm. Basically, I had plenty of clothes and I never got bored and was able to adapt to the weather which ranged from clear and sunny to windy and quite cold.(Keep in mind that I am from Los Angeles and am not used to winters)

I have lots of problems with my feet and try to abide by the rule of the alternating shoe. That is, never wear the same shoe two days in a row- alternate between 2 or better yet three pairs. This way you reduce the liklihood of blisters. If you wear your heaviest pair on the plane, you only have to pack at most 2 other pairs- which is not a big deal. For shoes, I had 3 pairs- all black of course- 2 were for casual, walking types (no white athletic shoes for me) and were waterproof and low healed, the other were a pair of boots.

I took almost no jewelry- even leaving my diamond rings at home. I wore silver- earrings, necklace, bracelets. I brought another dressier necklace that I only wore once and could have left behind.

Flight Preparation or what do you do when you get sick 2 days before leaving?
I got sick 2 days before we left, probably because of all the running around I did getting ready. I went into vitamin c, zinc and echanacia over-drive. I knew I would feel better in a couple of days but was mostly worried that my husband would get sick after we left. At the risk of sounding like an ad, I convinced him to take Airborn 3 times a day for two days before we left and then again on the flight (as I also did). Thankfully, I bounced back after the first day of the trip (and a good night's sleep)and he never did get sick. Regardless, I took a hefty stash of vitamins with me and took them on a daily basis. Thankfully, he never did get sick, despite the re-circulating germs on the airplane and those he got from me.

Next up: Car rental and other reservations made in advance- a good idea that can make a trip go more smoothly.


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Dec 27th, 2005, 09:41 AM
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Car rental and other reservations made in advance- a good idea that can make a trip go more smoothly.

From the many others who have rented cars, the best advice I gleaned was COMPARE RATES! To do this in any meaningful way, obviously you have to know your exact itinerary. This is probably the trickiest decision because it forces you to do your research and decide what you have time to see and what isnít realistically possible. This was my husbandís first trip to Italy and reluctantly I had to delete many wonderful sights from the long list of wonderful places to visit. We were flying in and out of Rome and had 10 days in between. I decided to spend 4 nights in Rome, take a train to Florence and spend 3 nights there, and then spend 3 nights in Tuscany/Umbria driving directly to the Rome airport. In this way, we got time both in the countryside and in the city and wouldnít be saddled with a car in places where we couldnít drive. I checked on car rental prices several months out to get an idea of the cost but didnít actually make a reservation for the car until about 45 days out. Basically, car rental prices are pretty comparable to the US but carry a hefty amount of insurance and extra fees that really boost the price. When comparing rates pay attention to the details so that you are comparing apples to apples and try to compare an all-inclusive price. AutoEurope will match a competitorís price and I ended up using them. I had found a substantially better price (I think it was with Nova but I am not sure) and they agreed to match it. This saved me a fair amount of money. They had a toll-free US number with helpful customer support and it was easy to negotiate the price and provide the competitorsí pricing information. I pre-paid for the car and got a voucher (which was no problem). They assured me that they had 24/7 assistance available, which thankfully I never needed. The other important thing I learned was that it is not necessarily easy to find reverse and that you need to know what kind of fuel to put in the car. Make sure you get this information before you drive away from the rental office

Driving in Italy was not a problem. We picked up the car in downtown Florence and it was very easy to get out of town. I had brought with me very detailed Touring Club of Italy maps of Tuscany and Umbria that I had bought on-line. This was an excellent decision, as it showed all of the smaller routes and helped prevent us from getting too lost or wasting lots of time asking for directions.

The other set of more detailed reservations that I made (in addition to hotel/restaurants that will be discussed later) concerned specific tours. I mention this now because the topic naturally arises as you do research on an itinerary and make specific decisions about what exactly you want to see on a trip. Since there is never enough time to do it all, it is helpful if you get an idea of which attractions you donít want to miss. This is important because some of them, such as the Scavi Tour in the Vatican, or the Borghese Gallery are only available with advance reservations. If these are important for you to visit, it would be a shame to miss them because of lack of planning.
For Rome, I made reservations for the Scavi Tour for Tuesday, the Borghese on Wednesday and the 3 hour walking Roma Antica tour with ContextRome for Thursday. Monday was left open for unstructured, getting used to local time and general exploring. In this way, we had a framework to organize which areas to group together to visit based upon where we had reservations. We knew we were going to take the train to Florence on Thursday but didnít decide on what time to leave until after we were in Rome. For Florence, I had reservations for the Uffizi and the Academy- both for the same day. Although not critical in off-season, the reservations allowed us to avoid wasting time standing in line. This becomes important when you donít have lots of time to spare.

Reservations were easy to come by. I faxed requests to the Scavi Office and followed up once more before I got back a faxed confirmation. Having picked the date, that day was entirely set- aside for a visit to the Vatican. The Vatican Museum is huge and has a vast collection and you can spend as much time in the Sistine Chapel as your neck will permit. (After a while I felt like it was permanently crooked from all the looking up) The Museum closes at 1 and so we spent the morning there. Pay attention and donít go into St Peterís to get to the entrance. Walk around the wall and enter from the side- about a 10 minute walk from the square. After the Museum we went to wonderful restaurant with only locals that I had found from a fellow Fodorite. It was Trattoria Dino & Tony's at via Leone IV 60 and was about a 5 minute walk from the museum. We had a 3 course pre-set lunch with no menus that was delightful and allowed us to re-charge our batteries. Afterwards, we walked to St Peterís for the Scavi Tour at 3 PM. There were only 12 people in this English speaking tour and it was fantastic. Afterwards, we visited St Peterís.

The Borghese and ContextRome tours can both be booked online. Enough wonderful things cannot be said about each of these experiences. Much has been written in other threads about them and I would concur. They did not disappoint. At the Borghese you can join a guided tour in English for the same price as the cost of the audio-guide and I would recommend doing so. Our guide greatly enhanced our appreciation for the wonderful art in this beautiful museum. The visits are restricted to 2 hours so there is not a lot of time available and it is helpful to have an expert leading the way. We devoted a morning to the Borghese museum and gardens and spend the afternoon exploring other areas of Rome.

ContextRome offers lots of different types of tours, all conducted by graduate scholars. It seems like once you try them, you go back for other tours. I have seen postings where people participated in a different tour every day they were in Rome and on our tour, there was a couple who had previously done at least several other tours. Whichever you choose, I am sure you will not be disappointed. They are small, informative and really enhance your appreciation for what you are seeing. Again, I would heartily endorse any of their tours and am very glad we took this one. My husband cites it as the high point of the trip.

Next Up: How we handled pesky details like keeping in touch with the office, cell phones, and internet access.
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Dec 27th, 2005, 09:57 AM
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Thank you for such a detailed, informative trip report! I am going to Rome/Florence for the first time in Feb'06 and so was especially interested in your wardrobe!

Please continue . . . Like you, I am accumulating a wealth of information from everyone!
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Dec 27th, 2005, 10:30 AM
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Hi sharkmom, your trip sounds like it was well planned. And I like the format of your report. Believe it will be a tremendous help to a lot of travellers.
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Dec 27th, 2005, 12:14 PM
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Hi, Sharkmom, we leave for Paris-Rome-Florence in about a week and a half, so I thoroughly appreciate your report. I am really glad you described what you brought to wear. I have been thinking about all of the same issues. I actually am looking forward to packing for this trip, but first I have to make sure the kiddos get packed, and then sent packing back to school! Looking forward to more of your report. Bonniejean
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Dec 28th, 2005, 07:47 AM
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How we handled pesky details like keeping in touch with the office, cell phones, and internet access:

Unlike many leisure travelers, we could never be out of reach from the office. As part of the planning, all the hotels that I booked offered internet access. With one exception, it was all high speed and usually involved having to buy access time as a separate cost from the room. They were all wireless access and always worked well. We traveled with the laptop and found that it offered several advantages. Every night I would download my digital photos, so that I didnít use up my memory card on the camera. We also used it for free long distance calling to the office and home. We signed up for Skype before we left. The service is free to call other Skype subscribers and only about 3 cents a minute to call others. Calling over the internet proved to be easy and the quality was excellent. It involved installing some software on the laptop, as well as on the computers at home and the office. The laptop has a built in microphone and we provided head sets for the computers at home and the office. We used it to call in and found that it worked out very well. Best of all, it was free,

For cell phone service, I took my Motorola phone with me, as it works on both the European and US frequencies. I called my carrier (T-Mobile) here and had them ďunlockĒ the SIM card. When I got to Rome I bought a SIM card (9E with a CD thrown in as well for a promotion of some kind). Receiving incoming calls is free. Although I had an Italian number, I adjusted my long distance calling plan at home so that it would be a reasonable charge per minute, even though it always costs more to call a cell than it does a landline. The phone was up and running as soon as it got logged into the Italian (WIND) network and only required that I change one setting on my phone. When I got home, I restored my old SIM and reverted back to US frequency. This all worked well. I liked having an Italian number to easily call for reservations, etc.

Next: Hotels and Restaurants
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Dec 28th, 2005, 07:53 AM
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Sharkmom,
Thanks for all the details in your trip report. They are very helpful! Great job so far!
Dina
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Dec 28th, 2005, 09:09 AM
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Reservations: Hotels and 2 Restaurants that we reserved in advance

All of the hotels were selected because of location, the availability of high-speed internet access and price. We landed in Rome and spent 4 nights there. We stayed at the Hotel Portoghesi, Via del Portoghesi 1; tel 0906864231. It is a smaller hotel, near the Piazza Navona. There are not a lot of frills (bathroom was very small) but the staff was very helpful and the breakfast nice. Best of all was the location. We walked almost everywhere we wanted to go- only the Villa Borghese required a cab ride. The area was charming. The Piazza Navona was filled with Christmas booths, games and a merry-go-round. There are winding little streets filled with antiques and lots of wonderful white lights across many of the streets. The fact that everything was decorated for Christmas further enhanced the atmosphere. It was great! The rate for a standard double was 150E per night.

From Rome, we took the Eurostar to Florence- only about an hour and a half ride. The train goes frequently and we didnít decide until we were in Rome exactly what time we would go. Once we decided we just stopped into a travel agency and bought the tickets. (The one we went to is in Vatican City, right outside St Peterís Square on the left side of the street as you are entering).

For Florence, I splurged and was I glad I did! I had seen a posting about Luxury Link http://www.luxurylink.com/auctions/a...save=1&style=4

I found an auction that was for 3 nights at the JK Place that included tickets to the Uffizi and round trip transfers to the hotel. I probably never would have stayed there but for my successful bid and would have missed out on one of the nicest experiences I have ever had. The hotel is only several years old and is quite small (20 rooms). It was converted from an old house or set of apartments and is designed to feel like you are in a private home. There are always light refreshments available in the common area, a laptop with wireless access, and DVDs available. The rooms are large, the bathrooms huge (I think it had the biggest tub I have every seen) and all the amenities are first rate. The location is great- on the Piazza Santa Maria Novella. The service was impeccable and forever more, I will compare all hotels with this one. They made us dinner reservations and also made us reservations at the Academy (not part of the package and something they added a heft service charge for but what the heck) Needless to say, the rack rates begin around $ 300 and go upward from there. However, with the Luxury Link package it was well under that and I will definitely use Luxury Link again to check for similar deals. The JK Place is at Piazza Santa Maria Novella 7, Florence; tel 39 055 264 5181.

We left Florence via car and spent the next three nights in Tuscany and Umbria. We drove via the Chianti road to Siena for our next night. However, on the way we stopped at the only restaurant that I had pre-booked from home: Ristoro Lamole in the town of the same name in the vicinity of Greve. It sits high on the hill and offers not only fabulous food but a breathtaking view as well. We had 3 different types of wine, taglioni with white truffles (in season now) and a ravioli with pear and pecorino cheese stuffing. We then had a pork filet with cippolini onions, spinach and garlic and roasted potatoes. We followed this with a cheese course (hence the 3 different wines- one for each course) This meal was one of the best we had- maybe even the best but it is hard to say because as you will read later we had some other incredible meals as well. However, it was my birthday and the combination of factors made it unforgettable.

We stayed in Siena for the night at the Palazzo Ravizza. This hotel is located within the old city walls and offers the added benefit of a car park, so that there was no hassle or fear of parking tickets. We only had one night and the next morning to wander but it was enough to get a feeling for this beautiful city. Obviously if we had more time, we would have stayed longer. We asked for and got a room overlooking the garden at the Palazzo Ravizza. It was 180E per night. The room was large and the bathroom nice. Breakfast was good. We had difficulty finding our way in the dark but with my trusty Italian cell phone, the front desk was able to give us good directions and get us there without too much trouble. The address is: Pian dei Mantellini 34; tel 39 0577 280 462

The Brunello wines were calling and we had to get to Montalcino the next day. Wine Spectator recently had several articles on Brunellos and Italian wines and I had brought enough information with me, that we had a list of several wineries we were interested in. We went straight to the Fortezza and hit the enoteca. We tasted a number of excellent 1999s, bought several and called to make an appointment to visit Poggio Antica late in the afternoon. We did so and were treated to a wonderful tour. We paid the fee for the wine tasting and had a wonderful chance to decide what else we wanted to buy. We bought 2 more bottles so that now we were at our quota for what we could bring back to the US L No doubt we would have bought more if we could- the selection and prices were much better than back home.

Our hotel for this night and the next was in Orvieto. We stayed at the Hotel Duomo. Again, they offer location, location, locationÖ and a car park. The downside was that despite their claims to have high-speed Internet access, they only offered dial-up. This was a disappointment but we didnít let it affect our attitude, since everything else was fine. The staff was helpful (something we experienced everywhere) Our room was spacious and the bathroom was adequate. Breakfast was nothing special. It was a 2-minute walk to the Duomo and tourist office, so sightseeing was a breeze. The address is Vicolo Maurizo 7, Orvieto. Tel 0763.341887

After our 2 nights there, we dropped the car at the Rome airport and flew to Paris for 4 nights. We chose the Hotel Henri IV on Rue St. Jacques. We had room 301, with a fabulous view of the church St. Severin across the street. There is nothing like waking up and looking out on gargoyles and flying buttresses! The hotel is in a fabulous location and the price was 162E per night, excluding breakfast and the one-euro city tax per night. The hotel booked a shuttle back to Charles de Gaulle airport (we had pre-arranged all other transports) and re-confirmed our only other dinner reservation- Le Violin díIngres.

Le Violin díIngres was picked based upon my posting a question asking about favorite meals in Paris. The feedback turned out to be absolutely correct. This is a top notch, beautiful restaurant with excellent service and food. We had such a wonderful meal that I asked for a copy of the menu, which the chef also autographed for me. You can order a fixed price meal (50 or 80E depending) or off the regular menu. We both opted for ordering off the menu so that we could select exactly what we wanted. Since this was toward the very end of a trip filled with gluttony, I opted for 2 appetizer dishes; my husband was more traditional. I had foie gras and scallops; he had scallops and sea bass. We drank champagne. Needless to say, fine dining doesnít come cheap. This was the most expensive meal of the trip.

Next: Other meals or how we ate well based on Fodorites' recommendations

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Dec 28th, 2005, 10:17 AM
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Thrilled that you raved about JK Place. We have booked our 3 nights in Florence at this spot, as well, although we seem to be paying full freight. However, my other hotels are taken care of using hotel points, so I felt we could splurge. I will make a note, however, about the site you secured the auction from. Thanks again for the great descriptions.
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Dec 28th, 2005, 02:16 PM
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You will LOVE the JK Place.
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Dec 28th, 2005, 03:22 PM
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How we ate well: We Relied on Recommendations from Fodorites

We had many wonderful meals both in Italy and Paris thanks to research done on this site.
Every restaurant we picked was based upon feedback on this site, was wonderful. There was not a dud on the list. Here is the list, grouped by city.

Rome:
Pizzeria da Baffetto (the best pizza we ate the entire trip)
Antonio al Pantheon (we just wandered in- it was nothing special- near Pantheon)
Myosotis (excellent, upscale, lovely service- best meal in Rome)
Ristorante Dino & Toni (in Vatican City- described above- wonderful choice)
Ristorante Lagana Roma- (next door to our hotel-convenient and full of locals)
Duegi Alimentari Roma- (quick lunch counter- I think over-priced for what it was- wouldnít recommend)
Ristorante der Pallaro (frequently mentioned on Fodorís- good value- lively)
Ristorante La Pigna Roma (we found this ourselves- wonderful food- loved the place)

Florence:
Trattoria 13 Gobbi (fantastic- one of the top meals)
Ristorante da Marino (busy lunch place near Duomo)
Il Ritrovo (highly recommended- on a par with 13 Gobbi)
Coquinarius (wonderful wine bar/pasta near Duomo- very crowded at lunch- highly recommended)

(As a snack we had to drop into MaiTai Tomís Caffe Giacosa and try their chicken sandwich. They were indeed yummy, but I did covet the thick hot chocolate that others were drinking around me. As an aside Caffe Giacosa has changed names and is now known as the café for Roberto Cavalli. It is on the Via della Spada)



Tuscany/Umbria
Ristoro Lamole- Greve (see description above- fantastic!)
Pizzeria Due Archi, Siena (locals only- fun place)
I Sette Consuli, Orvieto (perhaps the best meal in Italy- very creative female chef- had multi course tasting menu)
Trattoria del Moro, Orvieto (recommended by hotel- nothing special- house wine was awful)

Paris (all were excellent):
Le Coupe Chou (very crowded- lucky to get in without reservations
Le Pre Verre (ate lunch here before visiting Cluny- full of locals for lunch)
Reminet (charming and delicious- small and reservations a must)
Relais d'Entrecote (we loved this place and stuffed ourselves on the steak)
Le Violin díIngres (best meal in Paris but also the most expensive)

Our last meal before heading to the airport was a fondue/raclette meal on the Rue Mouffetard. I canít find my notes on it right now. It was real comfort food.



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