This is a trip report that I thought I posted years ago, but which I don't see anymore. Note that since it is several years old, prices listed have probably gone up.
TRANSPORTATION FROM THE AIRPORT
We booked 3 days before we left by emailing [email protected] 37 Euro included airport to hotel transport with luggage and service charges included. Considering that it would have cost 18 Euro for 2 on the train, plus 7 Euro taxi from Termini to the hotel, this was well worth it for the convenience after 15 hours of travel. Giuseppe was waiting for us outside of baggage claim when we arrived at 7am, no problem.
Hotel Santa Chiara: We requested a large standard double room on an internal courtyard so as to have quiet at night, and that is what we got. The room will not win any interior decorating awards, but it had what we wanted: firm mattresses, large bathroom with good plumbing, A/C that worked well, and very quiet at night. Location was perfect: 1 minute walk to the Pantheon, 5 minutes to Piazza Navona and the Trevi fountain.
The reception desk was helpful and professional. We arrived at the hotel at 8:30 in the morning, expecting to have to wait until 3pm to check in; however, they told us to come back at noon and the room would be ready. We checked in our bags and walked around for a while, and when we came back at noon, the room was ready as promised.
The continental breakfast buffet was ample, with a large selection of baked goods, fruit, ham, hard-boiled eggs, fruit juice and coffee. TIP: If the brewed coffee is not to your liking, you can order a freshly made espresso or cappuccino by getting the attention of one of the kitchen staff, just off the breakfast room.
We arrived on June 2, which is a newish Italian holiday. It celebrates the day that Italians voted to abolish the monarchy and create a republic. The area around Piazza Venezia was closed off and we watched a military parade march in front of the Vittoriano monument, while jets flew overhead and released plumes of red, white and green smoke. Not something you see every day.
Since this was our 4th time to Rome, we made a point to see some of the sights we had missed the first 3 times. We made reservations from the U.S. via the Internet for the Domus Aurea (http://www.selectitaly.com), the Borghese Gallery (http://www.ticketeria.it/main-eng.htm) and the Scavi Tour ([email protected]) under Saint Peters.
TIP: Hypothetically, if you have 9am reservations for the Domus Aurea on a Monday, DON’T go to the Borghese Gallery by mistake; however, if this should happen to you, a 7 Euro taxi ride will get you to the right place in 20 minutes. Unfortunately, the 9am group may have already gone inside, and you may have to wait until 10:20, and then have to use a cassette recorded tour instead of a live guide, which may be a bit difficult to follow when the disembodied voice says, “Look above the cornice in the transept opposite the apse for the intricately carved stucco work”…but of course, this is all hypothetical.
The rooms at the Borghese Gallery are incredible, with the frescoed ceilings as much of a draw as the painting and sculptures. Your time inside is limited to only 2 hours. To make the most of it, I suggest you rent the digitally recorded audio tour (much better than the cassette at the Domus Aurea, so I’m told), which will direct you to the most important pieces.
Don't walk, RUN to the Scavi tour. This was my favorite organized activity. It was absolutely fascinating to see the pagan tombs on which San Pietro was built, as well as learn the history of the Vatican. We chatted afterward with our guide, Father Marino, from Alabama, who gave us a great restaurant recommendation for dinner (see below).
There was one more museum that I particularly want to mention because I was so blown away. It is the Museo Nazionale at the Palazzo Massimo (in Largo Di Villa Peretti, on your left as you come out of Stazione Termini).
On the top floor they have rooms that were taken from various Roman villas and reconstructed as they were in their original locations. We are talking entire frescoed walls and ceilings painted from 1700-2000 years ago. They are in great condition and the colors are so vibrant. Almost as great as the reconstructed mosaics, which are so detailed, they almost look like paintings.
When you buy your ticket to the museum, it will be printed with a time that you can enter the top floor. You can explore the ground and first floors at your leisure, but the top floor is only by appointment with limited small groups and a guide. The tour is in Italian and English. If you are at all interested in seeing how some of the rooms in the now barren Roman ruins looked in their original state, this is the place.
BEST VIEWS: Without a doubt, go to the top of the Vittorio Emanuale monument (the giant white building next to Piazza Venezia on the Capitoline Hill). I can’t believe it was my first time up there. The views from the Pincio and the Gianicolo hills are classic, but the views from here are unsurpassed.
Also, check out the rooftop garden of Hotel Minerva. We had an aperitivo up there at about 6pm one evening and the views are excellent. In one direction you can see the Gianicolo hill (you can just make out the statue of the horse and rider high on the hill); in another you can also see the dome of St. Peter's and various other churches, one that is kind of wedding-cakey in the shape of a spiral. The coolest thing is that you can see the dome of the Pantheon from behind. I found it interesting to see how the dome was designed from the outside, not as a smooth curve, but as a series of steps that follow the curve of the internal dome.
Over all, restaurant prices seemed to be about 30% higher than when we lived in Italy from 1997 -1999. This was confirmed by friends we visited in Bologna and Milan, who mentioned that this increase occurred during the transition from lira to euro.
Osteria del Gallo - Vicolo di Mentevecchio, 27, in the area west of Piazza Navona. This was probably our favorite meal in Rome. Small, modest family run osteria, with simple food made from fresh ingredients. Excellent fiori di zucca (squash blossoms filled with cheese and fried); tagliatelle (wide flat pasta) with porcini; strozzapretti all’amatriciana (homemade pasta, like fat spaghetti, with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, pancetta and a dash of red pepper); fresh berries for dessert: total for 2 with wine, water and coffee, about 40 Euro.
Antica Taverna - Via di Monte Giordano, west of Piazza Navona. Also small and casual. This was a close second to Osteria del Gallo, marred only by the solvent fumes wafting from next door where someone was refinishing some furniture. Rigatoni with sausage and mushrooms was excellent. 3 courses for 2, about 40 Euro including wine, water and coffee.
Dino and Tony - Via Leone IV, 60, near the Vatican. No English spoken. This was the restaurant recommended by our guide at the Scavi tour. A real hole-in-the-wall run by, you guessed it, Dino and Tony. It’s completely off the tourist route, filled with locals whom Dino greeted by name. When we mentioned the priest’s name, Dino refused to give us menus, saying only that he would choose for us. He then proceeded to practically bombard us with food.
Dino’s mother is from Le Marche, which is the region east of Umbria and south of Emilia-Romagna, so he made us specialties from the region. He started us off with a thin crust pizza divided into 4 quarters, each with a different topping, like herbs, or asparagus, and a sharp sheep’s milk cheese. Then he brought a calzone filled with spinach and a béchamel sauce; Olive Ascolani, which are green olives, stuffed with meat, breaded and fried; Crème Fritta, the kind of crème you’d expect to get in a pastry for breakfast, in a crust and fried, and potato croquets.
When he said he was bringing out pasta, we begged him for small portions. We were very happy to see reasonable (although not small) portions when he brought our pappardelle in a sausage sauce. Of course, he failed to mention that he also was bringing us ANOTHER different pasta dish to sample. When the second one arrived we thanked him profusely and explained that we could not possibly eat a meat course after this. He said he understood, but still insisted that we have dessert. We finished with some wonderful ripe berries topped with sugar and lemon juice. Total for 2: 40 Euro, but worth much more.
La Carbonara - We ate here 3 years ago in the winter and it was excellent. In the warm weather the emphasis is on the location, outdoors in the Campo dei Fiori, with great people watching and lots of action. We had good, brisk service from our waiter (we speak Italian, which helps) although I did notice that he was less attentive to the (non-Italian speaking) family next to us. He seemed surprised when, while taking their dessert orders, the mother ordered a plate of peas and a cup of tea. He brought the peas but the tea never materialized. She seemed annoyed but didn’t pursue it.
For fresh vegetables, do the self-serve antipasto bar, with excellent stuffed eggplant, zucchini and red bell peppers, the aforementioned peas, and a frittata and meatball selection for some protein. This could be your meal; however, I followed this with the well-seasoned (if slightly dry) lamb: 3 courses with water and wine for 57 Euro.
Sabatini – It’s not that it was a bad meal, just overpriced for the mediocre food and indifferent service, although in an admittedly fantastic location, right in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere. 3 people, 3 courses, 130 Euro. Ouch. Fortunately, we had the pleasure of spending the meal with our friend Tony from Los Angeles, whose last night coincided with our first. We even ran into a friend of his from L.A. in the piazza. Small world.
RENTING A CAR IN ROME
We decided to rent a car at Stazione Termini in order to do a day trip. When I had lived in Bologna, it was very easy to pick up car in the center of the city (by the train station) and return it in the same location. I had never had any problems. Driving in Rome, however, is a special kind of hell. There is a reason why Dante chose to arrange the path to Inferno as a series of circular paths- he was obviously commenting on Rome’s street pattern. Without going into too much detail, getting out of the city was not too bad; but trust me when I say that, when you want to return your rental car, do not drive into Rome. Return it to another town and take the train in, abandon it by the side of the road and walk, or just do anything to prevent yourself from driving back into the city. Did we follow this advice? Noooo; however, we did survive to tell the tale of our trip…and it goes something like this.
DAY TRIP FROM ROME - PIETRAVAIRANO, CAMPANIA
In 1998, we had the opportunity to go to the town in Molise where 3 of my grandparents were born. At this time we met 2 of my great uncles and their children, and their children’s children. Anyway…I never knew where my father’s father was from until last year when my cousin, Santa, researched it and went to the town of Pietravairano, in the Caserta province of Campania. While in this town, she befriended a wonderful woman named Rachele, with whom she has kept in touch. We had decided to rent a car and drive to Pietravirano, so I sent an email to Rachele saying that we would be there and would like to meet her if she was around. In her enthusiastic reply, she invited us to spend the night with her and her family, to have dinner with them, and to show us around. Although we already had a hotel room in Rome, I gladly accepted her other offers.
On our way there, we stopped at the abbey of Montecassino. I had previously seen this huge white fortress of a monastery sitting on the hill above the A1 between Rome and Naples on previous trips, and have always wanted to stop there. I am so glad that we did. In all my travels, it was one of the most beautiful and harmonious abbeys I have seen. It was bombed in WWII and since rebuilt, and they did a phenomenal job. If you are in the area it is worth the stop. The views are great from there as well.
20 minutes south of Montecassino, Rachele met us at the off ramp of the autostrada so that we could follow her into town, but first she wanted to stop at the store to buy some mozzarella di buffala. By “store”, I mean the factory where the cheese is actually made. We walked in and the room was filled with huge vats of water, with freshly produced softball-sized globes of mozzarella bobbing around. They merely scooped up 4 into a plastic bag, along with some of the water, and we were on our way.
As we had arrived about noon, Rachele’s mother had lunch ready for us, and what a lunch it was. We started with the mozzarella unadorned. That’s right - no salt, no pepper, no olive oil. It was quite simply, the freshest, creamiest, most amazing cheese I have eaten. It was even still warm. It was as if the cow had plopped it right into our plates! (OK, that is a weird image. Scratch that.).
This was followed by a selection of marinated vegetables, a kind of rice salad, and something that translates more or less into “pizza-cake”. It wasn’t a pizza, as it was shaped like a Bundt cake, but it wasn’t a cake, as it had salami and onion and such in it. It was kind of like…pizza-cake.
I was already full when she brought out the main course, a chicken breast that had been stuffed, cooked and refrigerated, and then sliced. It was beautiful on the plate (and even better in the mouth) but I felt like the man in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life right before he explodes. Fortunately they asked if we would like to walk around town before dessert and we tried not to look too relieved.
As with many towns in Europe, the old town was built on the hill, with newer, post-WWII town down below. Because this was a very poor town in the first half of the last century, most of the inhabitants either moved away (many to the U.S. like my grandparents) or to the newer town below. As a result, the old town here was almost deserted.
Rachele had located my grandfather’s boyhood home with my cousin, so she was able to drive us up pretty close to it in the old town, before we had to get out and navigate the tangle of tiny pathways and stairs by foot. The houses were all 2 stories, and situated in a jumble, which followed the rising and falling contours of the hillside. There was something very beautiful about the decayed state of the old stone buildings, but you could see why someone living there would want to move to a newer area.
When we arrived at the house, there was a woman, probably in her 90’s, sitting on the balcony of the house above. Yes, she remembered the Iadevaia family, and would be happy to let us into the house, which had been abandoned and she was using as storage. It was oddly moving to be there. This was the room where my grandfather had dinner with his family over 100 years ago.
Afterwards, walking the old town prolonged the surreal quality of the experience. Here was the church where he was baptized. We even saw a Via Francesco Iadevaia street. The sign said that he was a General in the Italian army. I’ll have to research how we are related. The whole experience was kind of like when Michael Corleone goes back to Sicily in the Godfather, but without the Academy Award winning soundtrack, or the gunfire.
Anyway, we went back to Rachele’s for dessert, where we were plied with amazing fresh cherries, picked right off their tree. We then each had a piece of tiramisu the size of a laptop computer. Then, Rachele’s mother started to pack us a doggie-bag, which was slightly larger than our carry-on luggage. As I knew we would not be able to eat anything else that evening, I had to negotiate her down from a three day supply of leftovers, to one.
We rolled out the door, with promises of return visits and reciprocation in the U.S. Although, we had brought a thank you gift upon our arrival, that did not even begin to repay them for the incredible hospitality that they had shown to us.
This brings us to the central section of our trip called,
HOW TO SEE 5 GROUPS OF FRIENDS IN 4 DIFFERENT CITIES IN 4 DAYS (Without killing each other)
ROME TO BOLOGNA
We waited to buy our Eurostar tickets until the day we arrived in Rome. We bought the tickets at a travel agency near Piazza Minerva called Pantheon travel. Cash only. I don’t know if they spoke English or not, but being so close to the tourist epicenter, I would think so. The 2 hour 39 minute ride was comfortable and scenic. I will never get tired of the view of distant towns clinging desperately to the hilltops of central Italy.
Any guidebook can give you the Bologna sightseeing highlights: the 2 towers, Piazza Maggiore, the hike to San Luca, museums, etc.; however, if you are ever in Bologna, be sure to explore the narrow streets to the east of Piazza Maggiore, still laid out in the original Roman grid pattern. Also, see the Piazza Santo Stefano, an unusual triangular shape; it is my favorite piazza in the city.
Since I had lived in Bologna from 1997-99, the highlight sight for me on this trip was the recently restored Sala Borsa. This is right next to the Palazzo Comunale, and was behind closed doors and scaffolding for the entire time I was in Bologna. It has since been turned into a library, but they did a phenomenal restoration in the process. The Sala is built over Roman ruins, so they have installed a glass floor so you can see them below. The frescoes on the ceilings look like they were painted yesterday. It is so nice to see a beautiful building put to such good use.
This stop was more about visiting than sightseeing, so the real highlight was getting together with friends. It was great to see our friends Martin, Henry and Raul. They made us a delicious dinner the first night and the second we ate out. I had the very good rigatoni with sausage (usually this is made with a curly pasta called Gramigna) at Trattoria La Corte in Corte Calluzzi, 7, off of Via d’Azeglio. 4 people, 80 Euro.
We also enjoyed spending a too brief lunch with my ex-colleagues from Johns Hopkins University in Bologna. We ate at Anna Maria on via delle Belle Arte. The tagliatelle with ragú was excellent, and the company even better. It made me homesick for Italy.
SIRMIONE, LAKE GARDA
We picked up a car in Bologna (much easier than in Rome) for our next leg of the trip, which would take us to Sirmione, on the southern shores of Lake Garda. While it’s the northern end of Lake Garda that has the eye-popping views, we were meeting friends at the south end in Desenzano for dinner, so we thought we would stay down there and make a day of Sirmione.
This was our first time and I was pleasantly surprised. The town is located on a peninsula, and the historic center has a great castle, and lots of charm. We found a restaurant on the water right next to the castle to have lunch. It was very peaceful watching the male swans chasing after the female swans, and the female swans ignoring them (pretty much the same behavior you can see between teenaged ragazzi in piazzas throughout Italy).
After lunch we walked to the end of the peninsula where you can explore a rather large complex of Roman ruins and enjoy views across the water to the nearby shores and the distant mountains. It may not have the drama of the northern lake, but it was still a worthy destination for this view alone.
That evening, our friends Andy and Antonella took us to a very small village about 10 miles south of Sirmione called Castellaro Lagusello. It is really tiny, the closest town being Pozzolengo. This is the kind of village that makes you contemplate moving to Italy. Before dinner we took a stroll around, admiring the towers and the small lake, after which the town takes its name. It is clear that everyone takes incredible pride in their homes and businesses, as they have all been beautifully restored, with exposed stone or brick, or new stucco and terracotta roof tiles. You can tell that it is a place just on the verge of being discovered.
We ate dinner at La Pesa (www.lapesa.it) and it was the cheapest meal of the trip, with pasta at about 4 Euro each. Particularly good were the tortelli di zucca, a pasta filled with a mix of pumpkin and crushed amaretto cookies in a butter and sage sauce - slightly sweet, slightly salty, very delicious. This meal blew away anything that we had in Rome.
CERTOSA DI PAVIA
The next day we were visiting friends outside of Milan, so we decided to make a detour to another place we had never been, the famed Certosa di Pavia. This is a monastery designed to put all others to shame. Where Montecassino had only a little exterior adornment, this was a riot of shapes and designs. Think the duomo in Milan …on acid.
When you get inside, you have to wait by a gate that separates the transept and apse from the rest of the church. Every 20 minutes or so they will let in the group for a guided tour in Italian. You are welcome, however, to explore without the group at your leisure. Be sure to pay your respects to the tombs of the Visconti family. After all, they financed what you are there to enjoy. Also not to be missed are the 2 cloisters, the second is the biggest one I’ve seen, with hundreds of slender and intricately sculpted columns.
That night our friends picked us up to take us to dinner, but first we stopped at a wonderful town south-west of Milan called Vigevano. The town is most famous for the Piazza Ducale, a Renaissance square reputedly designed by Leonard da Vinci. After briefly exploring the piazza and the castle, we headed out to yet another excellent dinner at Antica Trattoria del Gallo in nearby Gaggiano. Simply put, amazing. Specializing in regional cuisine from Lombardy, I had the vitello tonato, veal with a sauce made from tuna, which was out of this world. We worked off dinner with a stroll around the charming village of Morimondo, with its picturesque abbey of the same name.
The next day we had left unstructured. We were turning the car in at the Milan Stazione Centrale train station that night, so we decided to explore a town in Piemonte called Alba, famous for its truffles and in the zone where Barolo wines are made. After 2 hours driving through the mostly very flat and (to me) not very visually stimulating Po plain, we arrived at Alba, a respectable town, laid out in a medieval plan, a few towers, quaint, but not quite what we were looking for on our last day.
The weather was sunny and gorgeous, and I knew we needed to stay within striking distance of Milan. So out came the map and it was decided: Lake Orta. What a gem the town of Orta and Lake of the same name turned out to be.
We arrived about 1pm, annoyed that we had wasted 2 hours driving to Alba, but happy with our eventual choice of day trip. Lake Orta is much, much smaller than Lake Como, Maggiore, and Garda, so it has a very intimate feel. There is an island in the middle of the lake called Isola San Giulio with a collection of buildings including a still operating monastery. As it was lunchtime, we grabbed an outdoor table with a great view of the lake, the island and the swans. We were in heaven. Afterwards, we explored the small, narrow streets of town and then took one of the boats over to the island: round trip 2.80 Euro each.
I don’t think we took more photos of any other town on the trip. We took the island from the shore, the island from the boat, the shore from the boat, each other on the boat, the shore from the island. Whew! When we finally decided it was time to leave the town, we made one last stop on the Monte Sacra, just above town. This is a hill on which 20 chapels were built. While interesting enough in their own right, the real point is the breathtaking view of the lake and Isola San Giulio. Of course, more photos. We can edit later.
We stayed our last night in Milan at the Hotel Vecchio Milano. At 2 stars and 100 Euro, it was clean and central. Meeting our friend Raffaella who came into town from Novara to meet us, she suggested dinner at a place called Osteria del Binari.
First of all, to call this an “osteria” is a misnomer. An osteria is a place that specializes in wine and maybe beer, and then has a few items to eat as well. Think tavern, or even pub. This was a serious RESTAURANT. The restaurant is located in an area of Milan near the navigli. These are canals that connect the city to the Ticino River, and eventually the Po. We sat outdoors in a very verdant garden. I didn’t give the name of the place much thought at the time, the word “binario” means railroad track, but we understood the meaning very clearly a few minutes after arriving when a large train slowly pulled up 30 feet away. We were right next to a train station, but you would never know it, so cleverly had they hidden the tracks with plants. It was the only train of the evening, so it was obviously a very minor station for such a large city.
The menu is ‘prezzo fisso”, and at 37 Euro each it is worth it. The first thing they do when you sit down is give you a glass of sparkling wine as an aperitivo, along with a delicious, small nibbley bit, and a platter of excellent mortadella to whet your appetite. From the menu you can order from a selection of primi. We all ordered variations of risotto. Mine was made with porcini, with an extremely creamy texture. The others ordered Risotto Saltato, which is the typical Milanese risotto seasoned with saffron; however, it is then cooked in a pan until crisp and flipped to crisp the other side. The secondo and dessert were less unusual, but just as good, and we left sated and happy.
We strolled awhile along the canals, slowing to go around large groups of people spilling out of clubs and bars. In one of the canals they had a couple of floating restaurants on docked boats, something to try on a future visit. This is an area I would call “up and coming” - a little seedy, but funky and fun. If you were on Melrose in Los Angeles 25 years ago, as compared to today, you’d know what I mean.
After a brief taxi ride, we ended the evening with a walk around the Duomo, which brought back memories of our first visiting there, after staying in Milan in 1997. Lit up at night, the detail was very beautiful. We went to bed before midnight, as we had to take an early train bound for Paris!
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TRIP REPORT: Rome, Bologna, Lake Garda, Milan