April 27, 2009

The Next Two Days in Florence

On Sunday we had a guide who took us to the Galleria dell-Accademia where Michelangelo's David is. For some reason I got very emotional when I saw it - I have no explanation, but my eyes welled up with tears. It's quite stunning, an amazing feat, really, carved from one piece of marble. Maybe I was blown away by its beauty? Or perhaps there's just something wrong with me. (See the photo video at the end of this post.)
There were other beautiful sculptures at the Accademia (I particularly loved the bust of Michelangelo done, if I remember correctly, by a student of his) and paintings, and our guide was great, very knowledgeable. He took us to the Duomo, the Piazza Signoria and Santa Croce.
After the tour Bill and I went back to the hotel (walking, walking, walking) so I could change shoes, then we walked back to town and had a pizza and wine at one of the restaurants at Piazza Signoria. Then to Pitti Palace (walking, walking, walking), which is spectacularly ornate with painted ceilings, ceilings with sculptures, paintings on every inch of every room...quite enormous and overwhelming. Room after room after room.
We walked over the Ponte Vecchio to the open air market where I spent hours agonizing over the leather belts and bags. Bill was very patient.
After all that walking we were completely exhausted so we went back to the hotel and took a nap. For dinner (jeez...do you think we did anything other than eat?) we went to a little pizzeria that Jean-Paul recommended, which was very nice. We had caprese salad and a delicious fish stew, and stopped for gelato on the way home. BTW, I ate gelato every single day, sometimes twice.
On Monday we walked into town on the south side of the Arno River (instead of the north side, which is what we'd been doing) and it was a gorgeous walk. Went to the Bargello which is a wonderful sculpture museum in a former police station turned prison. Fantastic stuff.
Wandered through town after that (walking, walking, walking). Stopped for wine at a piazza (this was a regular occurence for us), then later got a sandwich at one of the numerous delis where they sell gorgeous sandwiches for not much money. Then we walked some more.
After a little siesta we went to Ristorante Baldini, a nice restaurant near the hotel. We had the house wine. They put a bottle on your table and charge you for what you drink. We had a couple glasses each and the wine portion of the bill was 10 Euros (about $14), the cheapest we paid for wine since we'd been there. We had a first course of Spaghetti Pomodoro which was heavenly, and a second course of roasted meats.
Florence was wonderful and beautiful - we loved it.

April 26, 2009

Rome to Florence - April 4, 2009

We took the bullet train to Florence and were met at the train station by Jean-Paul, our guide, who transported us to our hotel, the NH Hotel.
See the charming building on the far right in the picture? Well, that's not it. It's the third building to the left, the ugly, modern-looking one behind the trees. Not a bad thing that you can't really see it.

Actually, tho, it was much nicer than The Claridge, our hotel in Rome, where our last night was so incredibly noisy. There's apparently a casino or a gambling salon or something next door to the hotel and there were a bunch of guys playing cards all night and coming out into the courtyard to talk and smoke, right under our window. ALL NIGHT this went on, and they got rowdier and rowdier the later it got. Charming.
The NH Hotel was modern, like the Claridge, but had nicer amenities, a more comfortable bed and was, thankfully, quieter.
We took a walk into town, which was about 1/4 mile away, walking along the Arno River toward the Ponte Vecchio. It was beautiful.

The streets are narrow and winding with old, old buildings, some renovated to hold upscale shops. We found Piazza Signoria and had lunch on the square - a delicious seafood salad with a nice, crisp white wine.

Then we found the Duomo, the huge cathedral that was started in 1296 and finished in 1436. It's amazing. Rather gaudy, very ornate, but spectacular, covered in green, pink and white marble.

We wandered through the streets, found the open air market with stall after stall of leather goods and souvenirs, and bought a couple belts and a leather bag for Bill.
We loved Florence. Later we went to look for a rooftop bar that our friends Ron and Barb told us about. It was at the Continentale Hotel on this side of the river just before the Ponte Vecchio, and it was like someone's rooftop patio - white-pillowed banquettes, with 360 degree views of the city. We had cocktails there and then found a little trattoria in town that was nice. Decent food but not great. No matter. It was a fabulous first day in Florence.

April 21, 2009

Day Three...Continued

Well, we decided to put the Big Leather Rip-off behind us, and headed over to the Jewish ghetto. The ghetto was built in 1555 and was where the Roman Jewish population was forced to live for more than 300 years. It was a walled area with three gates that were locked at night, an amazing fact to learn. Jews have a very long history of persecution, much longer than I ever realized. The pictures are of the beautiful synagogue.

We ate lunch al fresco (did that every chance we got) at a restaurant in the ghetto area (it's not a ghetto like we think of ghettos here - it's just a term for this area) and had Jewish-style artichokes (Carciofi alla giudia), which is a specialty in Rome - the whole artichoke is flattened and then lightly fried - but was just okay to us. We also had goulash which was delicious.
From there we went to Trastavere, a Soho-like area, and wandered around, then got lost trying to find the bus home. We walked back and forth across this bridge about ten times but finally found our bus stop and got back to the hotel for a little siesta. We went back to Pizzeria Rossina that night for a light dinner of wine (of course), salad and white pizza (no tomato sauce). Excellent.

April 19, 2009

Day Three in Rome

April 3rd was a beautiful, sunny day in Rome. After breakfast we took a bus to the Capitoline area. Zsa Zsa had made us a little apprehensive about taking buses, saying they don't call out the names of the stops but you could ask someone to let you know when your stop was coming up. It was true but there are signs at every stop listing all the names and telling you where you are so it was much easier than Zsa Zsa made it sound, and it was a great way to see the city (and the grafitti).
We were walking around, working our way toward the Jewish ghetto, looking at the ruins all around. We were on a main street when a car stopped and a man called over to us. "Excuse me," he said, "do you speak English?" He told us he was in town for a fashion show, that he worked for Calvin Klein and he had some time and was looking for the Colisseum. Well, big shots...we knew that one and pointed him in the direction. He thanked us but kept talking, fast, with a pretty heavy accent. He was from Spain, he told us, and asked where we were from. "America," we said.
"Oh, my wife's American. She's from Ohio," he told us.
"Oh! I'm from Ohio," I said.
He was well-dressed, coat and tie, very friendly, very talkative but with a heavy accent. He showed us his Calvin Klein catalog, told us about the show. Finally we said goodbye and started to walk away when he said to me, "Wait. How tall are you?"
"5'3"", I said.
"You know what?" he said. "I have a jacket here that would be perfect for you." He showed me a red leather jacket. "Very nice leather," he said. "Feel it." I did. "You can have it. It's a sample and I can't sell the samples. Here, it's yours." He was talking very fast, cars were whizzing by. We weren't quite sure what was going on but were feeling quite fortunate. "Thank you so much," we said.
"And for you," he said to Bill, "I have one for you too. You're 5"10" - 5'11", right?"
He gave Bill a black leather jacket, told us they were very nice leather, worth about $1000 each. He couldn't sell them, he said, but asked if we could just do him a small favor. He had to drive a ways and was low on petrol and did we have a few dollars. So Bill said, "How much do you need?"
"100 euros?" he said. Now a dim bell went off in both our heads but it was happening so quickly we didn't have time to think. Bill opened his wallet and the guy saw a 50 and said that would be fine. So Bill gave him 50 euros and we all said goodbye. He did a U-turn to head over to the Colisseum, and waved to us as he drove off.
We pulled the jackets out of the bag to see our booty. Mine was marked XXL and when I put it on the sleeves came down to my knees. Bill's was marked L but he couldn't button it. Then it finally dawned on me and I looked at the inside of mine and found the tag that said "PVC." Well...duh. We'd been scammed. It was a good one, we bought the whole story (literally). It seemed so plausible. He seemed so legit.
So we were standing there feeling incredibly stupid and gullible when an English couple about our age come over to us and showed us their own bag of jackets. "He got you, too," they said. "Yeah," we said. "It was a good story. He told us his wife was American."
They said his wife was English for them and they gave him about 200 euros. All of us were amazed that we'd been duped so easily. It was a very creative scam, tho, I have to say.
We don't wish for anyone to be scammed like that, especially for 200 euros, but I have to say it made us feel a little better that we weren't the only ones who fell for it.

If it's too good to be true, the adage says, it is. We know that, we live by those words. And still...
We left our plastic jackets by a trash bin, hoping at least that a homeless person would find them and get use out of them.
A lesson learned in Rome.

April 18, 2009

Day Two in Rome - My Birthday

April 2nd, my birthday: We had a wake up call for 6 a.m. (yawn) cuz we had a tour that day. Zsa Zsa introduced us to Patricia and then thankfully left us in her capable hands. The weather was gorgeous that day - low 60s and sunny. We went to Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum and the Forum. Whew! Lots to see but it was a wonderful tour and Patricia was terrific. (See my previous post for lots of pictures from Rome.)

After the tour Bill and I walked over to the Piazza Navona. Rome is an incredibly beautiful city but there's an awesome amount of graffiti. You can't even believe what it's like. It's everywhere, on every wall, on many buildings...thankfully not anywhere near Vatican City, but everywhere else. There's no way they could clean it up without the cooperation of every single citizen. They've obviously given up on it. You sort of get used to it after a while but it never ceases to shock you. There's graffiti in Florence and Venice as well, but not as bad as Rome.
Anyway, we had lunch at an outdoor cafe on the Piazza Navona. It was a school holiday so there were hundreds of kids wandering around. Here in the U.S. kids hang out at the mall, in Rome they hang out at ruins that are thousands of years old.
After lunch we went to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, the Palace of Justice... walked, walked, walked. Stopped for a glass of wine and took a cab back to the hotel for a short nap.
We were too tired that evening to venture very far from the hotel so we asked at reception for a restaurant recommendation. The most unhelpful young woman at the desk waved her hand in some unspecific direction and said there were lots of restaurants. When I asked if she could give us a name she said, "Oh they're all good." Well, gee thanks, you little twit.
So we walked in the direction we thought she'd indicated, and walked and walked. Then we walked some more and a little farther on, voila, there we were on the Viale Parioli, a busy area with lots of shops and restaurants. We found a beautiful restaurant called Molto and asked to see the menu. They were gracious and helpful, and a waiter went over the entire menu with us and everything sounded fabulous so how could we not stay? It turned out to be an amazing meal; first the waiter brought us a complimentary shrimp lightly fried with shredded filo - yum! (they're big on complimentary dishes in Rome, which is a very lovely custom), then we ordered steak tartare on a carpaccio of zucchini with olives, delicate ravioli stuffed with ricotta in a sauce I don't remember, spit-grilled chicken with potatoes. The pasta in Italy tastes so much different from pasta here. I don't know what it is, fresher maybe, but it's delicious. It was all delicious. Of course we had wine. We were too stuffed for dessert but the waiter brought us something anyway, complimentary of course. Nice, since it was my birthday. He brought us little espresso cups with a little tiramisu-type dessert, which was heavenly.
All in all an incredible day. I have to say it was my most favorite birthday ever. Needless to say we were completely exhausted that night and slept like the dead.

Day One in Rome

We had a United flight out of Chicago on March 31st that left at 1:00 in the afternoon, a nice time to fly; we didn't feel rushed, had time for breakfast, and the airport was empty. Lovely.

Had a two hour layover in Dulles and had a snack and a glass of wine, and Bill went into the smoking room (above right - isn't that gross??) which is a disgusting place where I'm sure you don't even need a cigarette to get instant lung cancer.
We arrived in Rome on April 1st and were met at the airport by our guide, Ila, whom I later dubbed Zsa Zsa. A Sophia-Loren wannabe, late 40s, long hair (which got dirtier and dirtier as the days went on), dressed in tight-fitting jeans tucked into knee-high boots and a leather jacket (the "uniform" in Rome). Her English was pretty good and altho she talked a lot, she didn't say much, but she was moderately helpful.
Our hotel was The Claridge, near the Borghese Gardens, not a fabulous location, but it was rated 4-stars so I had high hopes, which were dashed when we walked into the room. Cheap-looking and tacky, and very warm with no air conditioning (not the hotel's fault - a national regulation where the air doesn't go on til June). So we had to sleep with the sliding door open to get some air and the street noise was deafening. Ah well...it was Rome.
We had lunch at Pizzeria Rossini (left), near the hotel, which Ila had recommended, and it was delicious. Pizza, of course, but Roman pizza. Then we went to the Galleria Borghese which is beautiful (we liked the sculpture better than the paintings) but I was falling asleep on my feet. Went back to the hotel (it was raining a bit) and took a short nap. Had dinner at Pescheria Rossini (same owners as the pizzeria) and ate too much but it was fabulous. They brought us a complimentary glass of Prosecco (we love Prosecco, thanks to our friends Sam and Karen who introduced us to it a few years ago) and a tuna carpaccio bruschetta for an appetizer. Yum. We had gnoccietti with tomato and shrimp and "particular" fish (at least we think that's what they called it) cooked in salt.
Everything was incredibly delicious. Afterwards we went back to the hotel and collapsed. We both woke up about midnight, wide awake. It was very hot and very noisy but we eventually went back to sleep.
But it was Rome.

April 16, 2009

Fashion in Rome

The weather in Rome while we were there was mostly lovely, 60s and sunny (one day we had a little rain) - the kind of weather that brings out flip flops, shorts and tank tops in Chicago.
In Rome they were still dressing for winter, with leather jackets and skinny pants or jeans tucked into knee-high boots. The only people who were wearing flip flops were American tourists (not me).
Also, when they're wearing skirts or dresses they wear hose or tights, no bare legs. Totally anti the trend in the U.S. where bare legs, even in winter, are the norm.
That's one of the things I love about traveling - seeing how customs and trends vary, not only in Europe but in different parts of the country.

April 15, 2009

Too lazy to write but here are some pictures...

These pictures are from Rome. I'll also post pictures from Florence and Venice, and when I work up some ambition I'll write about some of the highlights of our fabulous trip.
BTW, it's not so easy to load pictures in any kind of order here, so sorry for the random placement.