Italy (2006)

Welcome to my first documented, international travel adventure: Italy!

Part I: Roma | Part II: Firenze | Part III: Venezia

Part I: Roma

May 12 – May 15, 2006

On Friday afternoon, we got a cab to Logan airport (prior to the tunnel collapse). Buddy, from Central Taxi, was very interested in our trip and was kind enough to arrange for us to be picked up post-trip. We excitedly boarded a plan to Frankfurt Germany. I had a difficult time sleeping at all, even with Chris’ noise canceling headphones. After a short layover in Germany (where the airport was very clean and industrial looking), we boarded another plane to Rome. During this roughly hour and a half trip I was dead to the world.


After claiming our luggage, we hopped on a little train to get to Rome Termini. It was our first experience having to stamp our tickets using the little machines on the platform. (More on this later.) The train was actually very nice, with air conditioned compartments. We were exhausted at this point. It was approximately 9:30 am Italy time. All the large bags had to be put at the front of the car, so we had some issues getting out. Because I could not lift my large bag down the train steps, I had to wait for Justin where there was no room to wait. A woman got impatient with me and started yelling something I didn’t understand (but did). Once out on the platform, we had a little “debate” over which way to go. Luckily Justin won (he was right), but I was feeling so physically and mentally tired I had to sit down and refuse to go any further! After a few moments sitting down I regained my strength and we started walking to Hotel Magnifico (which wasn’t too far).


When we arrived at Hotel Magnifico we weren’t sure exactly how to get in. There was an intercom on the door, but it took awhile before anyone buzzed us in. Once inside the dark hallway, we weren’t sure where to go. A young man came down and let us in through the courtyard gate, then helped us up the stairs to our room. (The lift was broken.) As I had predicted, we nearly instantly collapsed into a 2 hour nap. When we woke, we got dressed and went for our first Italian meal.The place (Zeus) was recommended to us by the staff of Hotel Magnifico. There we experienced having to pay for water for the first time, and I had an excellent rosemary gnocchi.

After this late lunch, we walked to Trevi Fountain and had our first gelato at San Crispino, which was recommended to Justin by his Italian buddy Antonio. I had some difficulty ordering, as this place was small, packed, and noisy, and of course everything was in Italian! But it was worth it. After this we walked a short distance to the Spanish Steps. I was amazed because you couldn’t really see any steps–they were so covered in people. After trying to find Antonio’s office and walking around the shops for a little bit, we went back to our hotel to plan dinner.


Before moving on, I should mention something that happened to me this first day that women should be aware of. As we were walking (to the bus stop I think)…well, I’ll just say it outright: a fellow grabbed my butt. We had been standing in a small group waiting to cross the street, when suddenly I felt this firm grab on my behind. I immediately looked at Justin and said, “Did you do that?” He said, “Do what?” When I paused, confused, he said, “Oh, did you get grabbed?” I said, “Yes, you know about this!?” Justin had failed to tell me that this often happens when Italian men see “a butt they like.” Well, quite frankly, I was flattered.

Dinner turned out to be quite an adventure. I still can’t believe it happened on the first day. We kept hearing that the food in Trastevere was the best, so we went to hop on a bus. Justin asked a group of college-age folks whether the bus we were waiting for would in fact go there. Yes, and it turns out they were going to Trastevere for drinks. They offered to show us the way. Once we all hopped off the bus, we ended up having to run for the little tram that went over the river. It was funny, Justin and I running with this local group! We made our “connection” and soon were in Trastevere, where the most vocal young lady and man told us in English where to go for the best food. Justin–being as he is–ended up making a joke in Italian about him being as old as the place we were going. They laughed and said “no no”, and I was amazed I actually got the joke in the first place. Unfortunately, the place they recommended was so crowded we couldn’t get in, so we went to Pancotto instead. This was our first pizza in Italy, and it was quite good.

On day 2, we had a lot planned. We were going to see the Colosseum, Forum, and Pantheon. We took the subway and got out at the Colosseo stop. Nothing can prepare you for getting out of a modern subway and then being faced with the Colosseum, right there in front of you!

colosseumBased on Antonio’s advice, we walked by the Colosseum and to Palatine Hill to purchase our tickets for the Colosseum and Forum (to avoid the long lines). What we found was that we were absolutely enchanted with Palatine Hill. (And this place wasn’t even on our itinerary.)


After a great tuna pizza at the place right outside the Colosseo subway stop (one of the top pizzas we had in Italy, and we had a LOT of them), we went inside the Colosseum. The cat we saw got a better view, but it was still spectacular.


Then we walked up Via Sacra to the Roman Forum. Below is a picture of me with a good portion of the Forum behind me.


From there, we made our way to the Pantheon. This was a real “wow” moment for me, somehow greater than the other things I had seen this day (though I’m not quire sure why).


A little ways from the Pantheon, we sat down at Pizzeria Napoletana and ordered dinner. The options looked healthy so we were excited, but it turned out to be small portions of so-so food. But the people watching was excellent. Later, after having freshened up at the hotel, we went out for a “re-dinner” at Ristorante Esperia. There we both had fabulous dishes and were quite satisfied. Plus, the place was just a short walk from Hotel Magnifico!

Our last full day in Rome, we first stopped at the Vatican Museum. The line looked incredibly long, but we learned how quickly it moved when Justin went to get us some beverages and by the time he got back I was nearly at the front door! Since we were primarily interested in the Sistine Chapel, we pretty much followed the crowd through the museum to that point. We were still suffering from jet lag on and off (which we affectionately labeled the “icky” feeling), and so sometimes being in this crowd was unpleasant as we got dizzy and had to stop and sit down. We had a particularly nice time just sitting in the Gallery of Maps, torn between whether to look at the ceiling or the walls.



We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the Sistine Chapel. We also weren’t allowed to talk, but everyone was, and we got “shushed” several times by museum workers. It is funny, but after seeing so many elaborate ceilings and walls, the Sistine Chapel was almost anti-climactic! After leaving the chapel, we dodged having to go back the way we came by leaving via the “group tour” exit. It was so nice to be outside again after having been herded like cattle for so long.

We planned on seeing St. Peter’s Basilica next, but we were starving, so we actually listened when a man standing outside plugging his restaurant gave us a card. Because we were interested, he walked us several blocks to Trattoria al Cupolone. We were impressed by his willingness to take us, but not impressed by the restaurant, nor it’s food. Plus, it was the only place that blatantly tried to rip us off, telling us that the service was not included when the menu said it was, and trying to charge more for Justin’s lunch than the menu (which was luckily still right in front of us) stated.



St. Peter’s Square was beautiful, and the cathedral equally so.

After that, I dragged Justin around on a souvenir and shoe shopping expedition that no man should have to ensure. He was very patient about it though. 🙂 Unfortunately, this last night, we had our absolute worst dinner in Roma, at a place across the street called La Cucina Nazionale (because it was convenient to Hotel Magnifico and seemed crowded). Without going into details, I’d recommend staying away from this place.

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Part II: Firenze

May 16 – May 18, 2006

The next morning we took a Eurostar train to Florence. We were a little early at the station because we weren’t sure where exactly we were going. This ended up to be a bit of a pain because there was absolutely nowhere to sit! Justin struck up a conversation with a woman from Milan, which I could barely follow. One of the officials was riding a Segway around the station.

The train itself was really nice, and the views even better. It was relaxing to be just sitting and taking it all in for awhile. (Although every time we went through a tunnel, our ears would get all blocked up like they do sometimes on a plane.) We were excited to get off at Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The bus we took to get to our bed and breakfast was really packed (with our luggage, even worse). I learned it is a bit unnerving to try and find your stop when you don’t really know where you’re going and you can’t see out. Luckily, a nice man told us where to get off (not like that, it was his stop too!). He also told us of a “cheap and friendly” restaurant on the corner.

We walked down via Cimabue and were really confused when #9 didn’t look like our little B&B. Turns out there are two #9s! So without too much fuss, we found it: Casa Cimabue. Giovanni was as marvelous in person as he was over email. He showed us to a lovely (and very large) room with a normal sized bathroom. (I was very excited to not have rounded shower doors.)


After we rested a little, we had most excellent pizza at the “cheap and friendly” restaurant (Justin’s veggie pizza had asparagus on it!). As we were freshening up back in the room–preparing for our walk along the Arno River–we saw a woman carrying a large animal that wasn’t a dog, or a cat. We were thinking it was a rabbit, but it was so large! We took a picture from our room (learning out the window), but when we got outside Justin got all up in her face and took the following photo of her pet.

The walk was ok, nothing particularly exciting, but then we got to Ponte Vecchio, which was very cool. My boss’s brother apparently has an apartment right above it, but we didn’t stop in. 🙂 Here we are at the lovers’ padlocks. (No, we didn’t do it. We actually didn’t realize the point at the time. Duh!)



We had a fantastic meal at Ristorante Alfredo Sull’Arno, and fun watching the Japanese tourists sitting at the next table who were taking pictures of their food with the tiniest digital cameras you ever saw. After that, we walked and stumbled into my absolute favorite place in all of Italy: Piazza della Repubblica. It had this surreal, magical quality to it that I can’t quite put into words, though I can tell you that during the day it isn’t quite the same. It was just what I imagined Italy to be. All along the square were restaurants; there was a carousel in the middle (which we rode for a few euros); and a group of street musicians playing some wonderful tunes.

We caught our bus back to the hotel at the Duomo (Cathedral) stop. It was all really pretty even at nightfall, but there was a building in front of the Duomo that looked as though it were made of cardboard; this really intrigued us! (More on this shortly.)

The next morning, Giovanni and Flora (his mother) asked us very kindly if we would move to a different room, as there was a family coming and they would benefit from the larger room. We took one look at the fresco on the ceiling of room #1 and quickly agreed. (Unfortunately, I was back to rounded shower doors.) However, Flora constantly amazed us by folding our clothes and being very motherly (in a non-annoying fashion), so we said we would move after our daily breakfast of cappuccino e brioche (frothed hot milk with coffee, and a pastry) at the Cafe Cimabue downstairs.

Since we had a 1 pm reservation to see Michelangelo’s David, we wanted to be sure to find the Accademia dell’Arte del Disegno. Since doing that was easier than we thought, we ended up at a restaurant in Piazza San Marco. I recall thinking/saying “this is it?!”, clearly confusing it with the Piazza San Marco we would soon see in Venice. Justin ended up getting a 13 euro (i.e. $25) pepperoni pizza and not liking it very much. (Note that photo is taken before we received the bill! 🙂


Once we got into see David, Justin was completely spellbound. Me, well after about a half and hour checking him out from all angles (David), and sneaking 2 pictures without getting in trouble (which was amazing because they were really strict about it, wanting you to purchase posters and such in the gift shop, I suppose) I was ready to move on.


After getting Justin the appropriate remembrance of David, we went back to really “take in” the Duomo as well as its facade.



We also learned that one could get a really good pollo (chicken) sandwich with lettuce at a little shop there for 3.50 euro, and that the baptistery was the building we had seen the night before that had looked so much like cardboard.


This night, we went back to Piazza della Republica and had dinner at a place called Donnini (15R). The waiter kindly told us what the specials were, and when he mentioned “roast beef” my entire body physically reacted. I had had too much pasta and pizza, and I was getting the roast beef! The roast beef was good, but what was amazing were the french fries! I had never tasted fries so delicious. Very strange.

The next day, we took a bus to Fiesole with the goal of seeing the Etruscan ruins. Given that I often think I should have been an archeologist, this was of particular interest. The views of Florence from Fiesole were marvelous, and after a very nice lunch at the Blue Bar, we bought our tickets to get into the Museo Archeologico. We spent very little time inside the walled museum, but hours outside in the archeological area. It really was peaceful and beautiful. You could sometimes (though I’m pretty sure you weren’t always supposed to) walk and sit and interact with the ruins. The theatre was more real to me for some reason than the Colosseum, and the Roman Baths were gorgeously landscaped. Beautiful red flowers also grew nearly everywhere you looked.

That evening, we dressed up and were the very first patrons of Il Cibreo, a restaurant (yet another someone) recommended to Justin. Apparently they have a very fancy and high priced version of this restaurant, and then a smaller, cheaper version (called Cibreo Trattoria) that serves the same food but takes no reservations. Justin had some kind of chicken dish I believe, and I had a calamari/spinach bowl thing. It was strange, but good. (The web says the restaurant serves food based on “traditional Tuscan recipes”.)

When we came back to Casa Cimabue from our last day of Florence site seeing, we were concerned to learn from Flora and Giovanni that the following day–the day we were to leave for the train station via a taxi–there would be a transit strike. Therefore, all bets on taxis were off. Buses wouldn’t be running either! So how in the world were we to get to the train station with all our luggage?


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Part III: Venezia

May 19 – May 20, 2006

Never fear, Giovanni went to get their car and PERSONALLY drive us to the train station! And although we left a bit later than we originally planned, we still made it to the train station to board our train to Venice on time. Justin and I didn’t even have to talk–we were going to give Giovanni the money we would have given the taxi driver, no question. However, after several (and I do mean SEVERAL) attempts at giving the boy money (which he would not take), we were reduced to saying “grazie molto” like broken records and incredulously walking away.

Like the one to Florence, the train to Venice was really nice. We spent the 2 1/2 hour ride taking turns writing in our journal about the trip, eating and drinking various delights from the restaurant car, napping, and looking out the window. We had no idea what Venice would bring, but we were a little uneasy about getting to our bed & breakfast. Turns out, we had reason to be.


Our B&B was near Piazza San Marco, but when we got off the train, the vaporetti (water buses) were not running! We weren’t quite sure what to do, but kept hearing rumors that they would take people in about a half hour to Rialto. Since our map said that was halfway to where we wanted to be, we decided to wait and take it. Most people were very confused, and we were no exceptions!


After waiting for a bit, we got on the vaporetto and saw Venice for the first time. It was really lovely. However, our ride was quickly over, and we were dropped near the Rialto Bridge and left to find our way. (No, we didn’t look much at the bridge at this point.) Justin had a map, and we tried to get our bearings, but every 5 minutes we ended up at a dead end, and no one seemed to be able to direct us! The only markings that seemed like they’d be helpful were signs to Rialto or San Marco. Since our place was near the latter, I suggested we just follow signs to there (our directions were from the Piazza anyway). After some convincing, Justin agreed and that’s what we did. Of course, this was easier said than done. Dragging heavy luggage up and down the angled staircases of countless bridges while groups of visiting school children and shoppers wouldn’t let you pass in the narrow streets was frustrating to say the least. When we arrived at Corte Campana (45 minutes or so after leaving Rialto), we were beat.


Ricardo, our host, was very understanding of our difficulties and recommended we go to a nearby restaurant called Planet Pub, where if we mentioned he send us, they’d give us a free drink. Given our adventure, we were all for that! The food was nothing great, but the drink definitely helped us calm down.

With renewed enthusiasm we decided to check out Piazza San Marco (this time without hauling lots of luggage). On the way there, we were able to see that every bridge, every building, was just beautiful.

When we arrived at Piazza San Marco, we saw a man covered in pigeons. I didn’t realize–until Justin bought a bag of bird seed for one euro, got attacked, and then promptly handed the bag to me and started taking pictures–that it wasn’t because he had a way with animals! It really was an amazing feeling, all these pigeons all over you, after food you can’t even distribute because you’re covered in pigeons!


After that experience, we walked around the square a bit more. Every direction you turned was amazing. Musicians were playing in a number of locations, and the Basilica di San Marco was breathtaking.

street_widthOn our way back, I saw a hoard of gondolas just parked (it was turning evening). We asked the men how much (in poor Italian). “One hundred euros,” he responded. Justin had been leary about paying so much for something, but I felt like, hey, we’re in VENICE, how often does that happen? And you can’t go to Venice without having rode in a gondola. But, I agreed that was too much, and we proceeded down a narrow “street” back to our hotel.


A few steps along this narrow, now getting dark street, a large man ran up to us and asked, “Do you speak English?” Justin replied (I love this): “A little.” I can understand his concern, as we were in what was really a dark alley, and had this been an American alley, we would have been scared for good reason! The man proceeded to offer us a 40 minute gondola ride for 80 euro. I said “70”, trying to bargain, but he said there were “rules” and he couldn’t do that. We looked at each other and decided that since it was a very peaceful time of evening and no one else was out, it would be a good idea. Caesar (sp?) was a great tour guide of Venice, pointing out various buildings along the way without being intrusive. We had a lovely time!


The next morning (or should I say, afternoon, after we had discovered we’d been bitten by a few mosquitos during the night), we were attempting to find a place without the dreaded “coperto” (cover charge) when we ran into a group of Italian women eating sandwiches, singing, and dancing to the guitar playing of an enthusiastic street musician. (Yes, they were doing all three at once!) Some of them even had shopping bags in their free hand, or hanging from their wrists.



Next we bought tickets for the Museo Correr, which would grant us entry into the Doge’s Palace. We walked the museum a bit but pretty much were intent on seeing the palace. (I was particularly interested in the dungeons.)

We also walked around to take in more of the city, visited the waterfront, bought some *perfect* fruit from a street vendor, and ate at Osteria da Alberto, which served traditional Venetian dishes.

Despite the good time we had, our second (and last) night in Venice was rough, and quite frankly we were very happy to be leaving. We’d become aware of the mosquitos from the few bites the night before, but there was no way of avoiding them. We were up until 4 am, alternating between suffocating with the windows closed, waking to kill a buzzing bug, or covering ourselves completely with blankets and sheets. When I “woke” the next morning, I had ELEVEN bites on my right hand alone, several on my face, and more everywhere else. Before the airport, we stopped at the only open pharmacy in Venice to get me some cream to stop the itching, but it didn’t help. I was nearly crazy picking at these bites, because scratching them until they bled seemed the only way to get any relief. It was horrible. They don’t tell you about these things in travel books, and apparently our host was shocked given that it “wasn’t the season”.




The vaporetti ride to the airport was fun–the drivers had some disco music blasting and they were singing out loud–and the ride gave us some spectacular pictures on the first leg of our journey home.

Note: Please visit my Yahoo Photos site to see my full photo albums of Roma, Firenze, and Venezia!

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