Next-to-the-last stop, Rome

3 02 2009

We arrived in Rome late at night on the 12th of September, 2006, and made our way on foot from Termini train station to our hotel, the Hotel Montreal.  It’s right by the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore…


and across the street from a coffee shop with “Illy” in the window (much to Chris’s excitement) and a barber shop where he later had the best shave of his life.

We spent five nights in Rome and I lapsed a bit in my note-taking.  I did manage to write down most of the highlights.  It was great to spend more time in one place…we did not feel rushed to fit in a million different things every day.  That being said, I’m sure I did not write down a lot of great experiences, but perhaps those gaps will be filled in by my photos.

On the 13th, we woke up, had a little breakfast at the hotel, then went to the coffee shop across the street and people-watched for a while.  The day was fairly relaxed — I even had time to find a laundromat and wash our clothes. 

That evening we set out on the “Dolce Vita” stroll (described in Rick Steves’ Italy book).  We walked from our hotel to the Spanish Steps, then to the Piazza de Popolo (the “starting point”) and walked down the Via del Corso to the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II.  It was fun to look in the windows of all the fancy shops. 

I took this shot not too far from our hotel.





We decided to fuel up for our walk by enjoying a little gelato in the Piazza…


By the time we made it to the monument, the sun was beginning to set.







We had dinner that night at the Trattoria der Pallaro and it was great — and fun.  They have no menu, they just start bringing you food and wine.  We had a white wine, lentils and prosciutto for an appetizer, arancini (fried risotto balls that I cannot get enough of), pasta with mushrooms and a fabulous eggplant, and then veal steaks and potato chips.  For dessert we had a ricotta tort and juice.  This place was comfortable, even homey…and I loved waiting to see what they would bring out next. 

The next day we went to the Vatican and met up with Raul, our tour guide.  We called a company from our Rick Steves’ book (we found this book invaluable in Italy) to find him.  At first I was very opposed to doing the tour guide thing.  I have been very tired of seeing those groups of tourists go by with all of their little headsets, blindly following someone with a flag, getting in my way…but I am actually very glad we did.  For some place like this with so much history, it was perfect.  He was able to point out all kinds of little details and tell us about them…and I actually learned so much.  First we toured St. Peter’s Basilica… 





I can’t resist photographing a member of the Swiss Guard.  I’m sure everyone does…but the uniforms are just too fantastic.


Then we toured the Vatican Museum…




I cannot remember the details, but this was, I believe, some of the original floor…




This really impressed me because it was just a painting…



Later that afternoon we went to the National Museum of Rome.  It has an amazing collection of ancient Roman sculptures, frescoes, mosaics and coins.  These were the highlights for me…















We had dinner that night at a place near our hotel (it had started raining and we did not want to go far) — Ristorante del Giglio.  It was…not so great.  Almost had an institutional feel.  I did not take notes of my meal.

The next day we decided to tour the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and Forum area.  Based on the grand success of our tour with Raul, we joined another tour group.  This tour guide — and I can’t recall her name — was not so good.  She was an American who had moved to Rome a few years earlier.  She was quite annoying, actually.  At one point she spoke one of my favorite lines of the trip:  “Look at this little crescent moon shape…a friend of mine always used to say it’s like a chessy cat.  I don’t know what a chessy cat is but that’s what he told me!”  Still, I learned a few things, and we did take in some amazing sights.  Chris, as usual, supplemented my history lessons with tidbits he had read.  These are sights we have all seen, but I would be remiss not to include at least a few…








Later that night we had dinner at Ristorante il Gabriello.  The small, cute dining room felt like a cozy cellar.  We asked for the chef’s menu and were treated to an amazing meal.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — two types of smoked fish and cold prawns, then an octopus and potato dish, a plate of asparagus and salamis, and then pasta with mushrooms and clams.  Next they brought us veal and a roasted fish.  Dessert was a chocolate tort served with a delicious cream or mousse of some sort.  Fantastic.

The next day, the 16th of September, Chris decided to spend a day filming, as he had forgotten to bring tapes with him two days earlier on the trip to the Vatican, and he forgot his camera all together on the trip to the Forum.  So, I went off to wander.  That night we had dinner at Ostaria da Giovanni ar Galleto on the Piazza Farnese.  The restaurant was in the corner of a quiet, peaceful piazza, and dinner was good — I won’t say it blew me away, but it was good.  Chris had the gnocchi and I had the carbonara.

In the six days we spent in Rome, we walked all over, we drank a lot of espresso and a lot of wine, and we ate well.  The sights were amazing, and the sense of age and of history was immense.  Our next and final stop would add a historical piece tied in many different ways to several stops throughout the trip — Istanbul, once the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.

And then we got to Florence…

30 01 2009

Florence was great.  What is really funny is that I actually had a little trouble adjusting when we first got there…I suddenly felt as if I was in a huge city and my nerves were quickly rattled.  I was completely on edge.  I blame the Cinque Terre.  I think I had been taken to such a nice level of calm relaxation I was not quite prepared for noise again.  For some reason this did not happen to me in Venice, but that was such a quick whirlwind that was shocking in other, different ways, perhaps I was too distracted…perhaps it was the lack of cars in Venice (it certainly was not the lack of people). 

Anyway, when we first arrived in Florence we set out on foot to find our hotel (all the while I’m jumping out of my skin any time a car speeds past or someone yells) and there has been another hotel mix-up, but this time it was our fault.  It’s really not easy to keep track of which day it is, and when you’ll be where, especially after spending a few days in complete relaxation (in fact, we stayed an extra night in the Cinque Terre because we didn’t want to leave).  So, somehow we arrived a day earlier than we had told the hotel owner.  Seems like it would have been later, right?  No…earlier…we counted wrong.  No big deal, though, as we were confirmed for the next two nights at that place, and the hotel next door had a room for us the first night. 

On our first night in Florence we had dinner in this little hole-in-the-wall spot — Trattoria Sostanza.  Oh my.  It was fabulous.  We shared the bisteca fiorentina and tortellini (stuffed with ham) with meat sauce.  We also had an artichoke pie — pretty much artichokes in egg with lots of butter, oil, and garlic (I think).  The steak was juicy — fantastic flavor.  And the meat sauce on the tortellini was rich, full of depth.  So delicious.  This definitely helps calm my nerves.

The next day, a Sunday, we poked around town.  We crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio and up to the Oltrarno neighborhood where we walked through beautiful gardens above town and found magnificent views in the Piazzale Michelangialo. 









The next morning we went up to the top of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori) — beautiful.  The mural on the ceiling was fascinating and the views from the rooftop were breathtaking. 




That night we had dinner at a place called Bibo…really, nothing to write home about.  So I won’t.  I don’t even remember what I ate.  The next morning we wandered through the Mercato Centrale.  I am in heaven here.  I make a mental note to return to rent an apartment next time we stay in Florence so we can shop here and do our own cooking.  Here are a few shots from the market.







Okay, that was more than a few.  But I was in heaven!  You would take a lot of pictures too.

We ate lunch afterwards at this wonderful place and I did not write down the name.  How could I have done that?!  I do know what we ate, however.  We started with buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer.  I had pasta with tomatoes and basil and Chris had the Florentine crepes (filled with ricotta and spinach).  We shared a carafe of the house white wine.  After a nice nap back at the room, we had a quick dinner at a wine bar and then went to an organ and oboe concert at a church not too far from the Duomo.  We had seen fliers posted for it that morning and we thought it would be great to hear Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in a church in Italy…it was really cool.

The next day we went to the Bargello then walked south of the river to another fabulous restaurant – Alla Vecchia Bettola.  We started with paté on crostini and a couple of different varieties of meats and funghi.  I had the special pasta of the house — penne with vodka, tomato, and red chile.  It was delicious (and now something I love to make at home).  Chris had risotto with gorgonzola and some type of squash…perhaps acorn?  We also had a carafe of the house white wine.  Delicious.  After lunch we walked over to a local park and sat on a bench and dozed off occasionally while watching a few little kids play soccer for over an hour.  It was a gorgeous day and the kids were so cute.  A lovely afternoon.

Once we roused ourselves from the park bench we walked around some more, ending up at the Accademia.  David is a perfect, beautiful masterpiece.  Later that we night we caught a train to Rome.

Venice in 24 hours

26 01 2009

On Friday, September 8th we began our hellish trip to Venice.  Let me start by saying that I had been to Venice one time, maybe back in 1999 or 2000, and I was not exactly looking forward to our return trip.  I found it overcrowded and touristy.  But, Chris had never been and he did not want to take my word for it.  I really can’t blame him, either.  I mean, we’re here in Italy, we’ve all seen images of Venice…he does need to see for himself.

From Vernazza we took a train to La Spezia, then to Bologna, then to Venice.  Once in Venice we took a completely overcrowded boat (I’m still not sure how it stayed afloat) from the train station to the Piazza San Marco and battled our way through the massive crowds to the hotel we had called two days earlier (the Hotel Riva) only to discover that had not kept our reservation.  Chris maintained a calm anger and we sat and watched as the woman at the front desk started calling hotels for us, looking up every so often and telling us how it is very crowded, no rooms, etc.  To top things off, there were no seats on any trains leaving Venice that night.  We actually passed people crying at the train station, stranded in Venice.  Mayhem!

Anyway, after about 45 minutes, she finally found us a room at the Hotel Vivaldi at €300 a night!!  I can tell you that was NOT in our travel budget!  But, what could we do…things were going down hill fast.  This was, according to her, the last room in Venice.  At this point it felt like that to us, so we took it.  And it was lovely.  It was too expensive and too fancy, but a fun change of pace.  It was right along the Grand Canal just a couple of blocks from the Piazza San Marco.  We battled back across the crowds and checked in and headed straight for the rooftop garden for a glass of wine.  This is the view from the roof of our hotel. 


After finally calming down and unwinding a bit, we headed out to the Piazza San Marco and went up into the bell tower where we encountered beautiful views.







After taking in the view in all directions, we started walking around.  I did enjoy this aspect of our whirlwind Venice trip — we were actually able to find quiet little streets and even got turned around a few times (not hard to do here). 


We had a great dinner that night at the Osteria de Mascaron, despite having to share a small table with another couple who looked to be enjoying a nice meal together until we joined them.  They were not speaking English, or Italian, Spanish, or French for that matter, so at least I wasn’t finding myself paying attention to their conversation.  We started out with the antipasto misto, which consisted of squid fixed two ways, conch, a white fish, and grilled vegetables.  For the main course we shared a delicious flat, wide, short pasta with crab and enjoyed a good white wine (house wine, of course) along with it.

After dinner we went to the Piazza San Marco again and sipped expensive coffee at Cafe Florian while listening to a quartet (accordion, piano, violin, and bass).  Apparently Woody Allen has sipped coffee here.  After coffee we got three gelatos — three, because my first one rolled right off the cone onto the ground.  So sad…

Saturday we had a huge breakfast at the hotel (included, thank goodness) and then toured the Doge’s palace.  It was very beautiful, though I’ll leave the history of this palace up to your own research.  Chris is my historian.  Here are a few shots from the palace.





After another cup of coffee, it was time to catch a train to Florence.  Venice was crowded.  It even felt a little like Disneyworld, not that I’ve been.  I’m glad we went — at the very least I’m glad to have tested my first impression.  I’m sure there is a much better way to do Venice, but we did not have the time to dedicate to this portion of the trip and I guess it suffered for it.  I need someone to show me there’s more to Venice to this.  I saw a few lovely sights, and I had some good food.  I could have done without the stress, but…what are you gonna do?  I did score lots of really nice shampoos, conditioners, soaps, stationery, and other Hotel Vivaldi goodies!

And on to Vernazza…where we slow down.

22 01 2009

We left Barcelona early in the morning on September 6th and spent the entire day on trains.  The first train took us from Barcelona to Montpellier, where I found an internet café and was able to get us a room in Nice and touch base with the families for the first time.  On the train from Montpellier to Nice I somehow ended up sitting in the backwards seat and I hate that (okay…I lost rock, paper, scissors), but either way you face, the scenery along the way is breathtaking.

Once we got to Nice and checked in to our hotel, we ate dinner at L’Ybane.  We started with a big salad Nicoise that probably could have been enough — but we ordered more.  I had spaghetti with shrimp and Chris ordered a variety of mezes.  The restaurant seemed quite trendy but the food really was just average.  It was nice sitting outside though…and getting to hear a little French on this trip.  We strolled around after dinner, down to the water, then up to a place called Pinnochio for ice cream.  The next day, after a café au lait and pain d’ chocolate we boarded our first train of the day.  We stopped for a bit in Genoa and boarded a different train to La Spezia.  In La Spezia, we got on our last train of the day — the Regionale train that would take us to Vernazza.  

We finally make it to Vernazza– and it is simply wonderful.  When we arrived, we walked around the Piazza Marconi and located each of the places I had checked off in my guidebook as good lodging options, but they were all booked.  However, one of the people who had no rooms hooked me up with someone else who did have a room and, after checking it out, we agreed to take it.  It was perfect — Catarina Rooms.  The room is just off the square, through a passageway, up many steps. 


When you open the door you walk immediately up a bunch of steps and there was a bed, a sofa, a table and chairs, a bathroom, and a window looking out into the carruggioor alley between the buildings.  No TV,  no AC, and I wouldn’t have it any other way — both of those would be completely unnecessary here. 

After setting our stuff down we put on our swimsuits and headed out to the water.  Even though there’s no real beach — just big rocks going down to the water — it’s full of people.  There are kids and adults alike lounging in the sun and playing in the cold water.






The first night we ate at Ristorante al Castello.  First, this is the most amazing view I’ve ever enjoyed at dinner, surrounded by the sea, on a cliff…the floor was even sloping a bit.  I took this shot from the table (made Chris get out of the way).


This is looking out to my right.


Here is a view of the restaurant from the piazza — the red and green at the top.


We had delicious DELICIOUS anchovies marinated in lemon juice to start and a fantastic Vino de la Cinque Terre (white).  Already at this point I know that life is good.  For my main course I devoured a plate of pesto spaghetti and Chris had spaghetti “on the rocks” (shrimp, mussels, clams).  For dessert we shared a tiramisu-like cake — not really sure what it was, but the waiter told us we’d love it and we did.

On our first full day in the Cinque Terre, we woke up and enjoyed a pastry and cappuccino on the Piazza Marconi then took the boat over to Monterosso.  We had read this town was great for lounging on the beach and it did not disappoint. 

I took this photo from the boat as we were leaving Vernazza.


Getting further away from Vernazza…the hillsides are terraced and covered with grapes, tomatoes, lemons…


I took this photo in the direction of the other three Cinque Terre towns.


And now we are approaching Monterosso…



We rented two chairs and umbrellas and planted ourselves on the beach for the day, getting up occasionally to take a dip in the cold water — so invigorating — or to walk into town for nourishment.  For lunch we got a few slices of pizza from Il Fronteio.  Simple, and absolutely fantastic. 

We hiked back to Vernazza along the trail that connects all of the towns.  The hike was long, hot, and a little strenuous (lots of steps!!) but absolutely beautiful.  I know I keep saying that, but seriously, it is breathtaking here.  Here are some shots from the hike.








And here we have almost made it back to Vernazza…


We had dinner that night at Ristorante del Capitano on the square, and not to sound like a broken record, it was fantastic.  I don’t know if environment can make food taste better, or whether spending the day on the beach and then getting in a good hike can do the same, but it was fabulous.  Our waiter must have been in his 80s – he was this adorable old guy who started us off with a carafe of white wine which, he told us, “I make-a myself.”  We started out with a fruti dimare plate — mussels, anchovies in lemon (I love what they do to anchovies here), stuffed anchovies, fried octopus, and seafood salad.  For the first time I realize I actually love octopus.  I have never liked it much before despite trying it many times — it has always been chewy.  Not this.  Not at all.  For my main course I had big raviolis filled with spinach and ricotta in a walnut sauce.  Chris had octopus with potatoes, olives, and butter and olive oil.  SO GOOD!  For dessert, we both had a sciacchetra, a local dessert wine (I must figure out how to get this here, oh my) and shared a panne cotta with strawberries and gelato with almonds and chocolate sauce (as the waiter said, “we make-a 2 times a day”).  Then the waiter, who would stop by every so often and say something like “You good?  You stay as long as you like” brought us two limoncinos — he said we had to try this as well because it was not so fancy and expensive as sciacchetra.  I like the sweet lemon too.    What a great dinner, and a great dining experience.  As we were winding down, we were lucky enough to catch a performance on the square — looked like all of the little girls in the town doing songs and dances for their families, including a song from the Little Mermaid in Italian.  It was great!  After dinner, we dragged ourselves up the many steps to our room and crashed, full and happy.

The next day started out exactly the same as the first day…after cappuccinos and pastries we took the boat to Monterosso, lounged in the sun, swam in the cold water, and ate pizza for lunch.  This time, however, we took the boat back to Vernazza.  After gelatos and a nap, we headed to Gambero Rosso for dinner, eager to see if our streak of amazing meals will continue.  Gambero Rossowas not quite as good as the other two dinners we’d had here, but in many ways I wonder how it could be.  The bar had been set really high.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — five separate plates (anchovies with lemon, stuffed mussels, fried anchovies, and two others I forgot to write down).  For my entree I had five different fried fish.  As I write that down now I wonder how that could have been true — but, it’s what I wrote down!  I also wrote down that it was really only so-so.  Chris had a short pasta with pesto.  Also so-so.  We enjoyed sciacchetras after dinner and Chris had a cake soaked in sciacchetra and lemon ice cream with chocolate sauce.  I got a gelato from one of the many gelaterias off the square for my dessert and enjoyed it while strolling about.  Tonight is our last night in Vernazza.  I must figure out how to spend about three months a year here.  I feel as if I have arrived at a level of relaxation I have never before known.

One last thing I love about Vernazza– the cats.  Of course I took photos of them!  If you look closely in this first one, you’ll notice a sly cat who thinks we can’t see him sitting on the other side of the door.


I just noticed…is this the same one?


Even the cats are relaxed here.



The Cinque Terre — you relax, swim, sun, eat, drink, stroll, nap, there are no cars, no loud noises…can life get any better?