Saturday, April 08, 2017

3/23/17- A fitting end in Venice

That'll cost you 100 Euros

I guess it makes sense to spend the last chapter of our Italian journey in the town most commonly associated with this great nation.  Ah...Venice, the floating city that has become somewhat of a themepark.  I wonder what the  Doge would think of what his town has become.

I have admit that I've always been biased against this Venice.  Something about the contrived romance of this place and the thousands of cruise-ship day trippers have always tarnished the  incredible history and architectural beauty that is available for those patient enough to wade through the insane crowds.

The interior of the Basilica
My complacency towards the floating city, our exhausting pace, the potential crowds, and the fact that we had an early morning flight home had me thinking that we should just bypass the hassle of Venice all together. Fortunately my dad was insistent that we at least log half a day exploring its canals and sites.

We checked into the Courtyard at around 8am and dropped off the car around 9.  Both actions were handled with surprising ease. I was glad to be free the car and I was very glad for the US customer service that comes with the Marriott.  With those two tasks complete we set out on the vaporetto and headed to Saint Marks, our first stop.

Our plan was to start far out and make our way back.  We also figured that Saint Marks would be the busiest area and it made the most sense to hit that earlier rather than later. The crowds were bad when we arrived but they would be so much worse as the day progressed.  The big attraction for me?  The Basilica at Saint Marks.

Check out the details on these beauties
Since we didn't visit Ravenna this would be my only real chance to take in some Byzantine art and architecture that is captured within the Church.  Also inside were some of the finest treasures won/stolen during the various crusades.  A personal highlight was the famed Horses of Saint Marks.  These date back to Rome and were pilfered by Venice from Constantinople.  Napoleon also managed to steal these for a brief time for France.

The Church visit took us into lunch. We didn't have high expectations regarding dining so we just located the first trattoria off the square.  It didn't really matter because most of the places are the same.  They all offer moderately well executed menu containing the highlights of Italy.  They are smart and know that this is what the demands of tourism dictate.  The restaurant also featured a rare and very much in demand commodity, a clean bathroom.

                                                                                                    Refreshed and full we embarked on one of those Rick Steve's walking tours.  It promised to take us by some hidden gems and off the beaten path.  I was game so long as it offered the prospect of avoiding some of the crowds.  The walk took us through a few notable places like the Opera House, original Church, and ultimately the Rialto Bridge.

At this point of the day I had seen enough.  I was worried about making sure we could get things wrapped up for our departure and I felt like we had seen the best landmarks.  I wouldn't have minded to stay longer after the crowds had left but it would put my little plan in jeopardy.

We made our way back to Roma plaza but the closer we got the slower we walked.  We still had some afternoon moments left and we didn't want to prematurely leave just to assuage my anxiousness to keep my arbitrary plan.

We got back to the hotel around 5pm thankful that I gave the city a somewhat honest try.  Unlike many other places in Italy I think one visit to Venice was enough for my lifetime.  I enjoyed what I saw but not enough to tolerate what it has become.

As we finished packing it dawned on me that this trip really was coming to an end.  For the first time in several days I was able to replace feelings of Italian related travel stress and longing for my family with a true sense of gratitude for the opportunity to come back to Italy as well as a sense of regret and longing for not seeing more.  Dad and I had been planning this trip for over a year and it was astonishing at how quickly it passed by.  This trip be remembered for years to come with fondness and a sense of wonder for how amazing our little world really is.

Goodbye Venice and farewell Italyl

Thursday, April 06, 2017

3/22/17- A day of repose

Sorry Andrea, we'll hit this up next time

Our initial plan today was to head over to Vicenza and Verona to see notable landmarks like Andrea Palladio's Villa la Rotonda, the Teatro Olimpico, and the Arena di Verona.  A month ago if you would have asked me what day I was most anticipating it would have been this one.   But the rigors of the last several days had worn on us and we decided to bypass these sites for a more local option.

We did have a nice and more convenient consolation prize.  After a nice and long breakfast we hopped in the car and decided to take the scenic drive around Lake Garda.  A hazy fog was still our constant companion but we figured that we could still uncover some scenic views.

Our drive took us up the east shore. Most of the road hugs the shoreline with the notable exception being when you drive through the handful of towns like Garda, Bardolino, Pai, and Castelletto.

The view we would have liked to see
While the visibility didn't allow us to see much of anything what we did see was still worth the drive.  I could only imagine what this would be like on a clear summer day.  We drove by numerous hotels, restaurants, and other destinations that were quietly waiting to fill up during the summer months.

One highlight was to drive through the lakeside road tunnels that served as the setting for the opening sequence in the very underrated James Bond film Quantum of Solace. My favorite Bond flicks always seem to have a scene or two set in Italy.  (For Your Eyes Only- Cortina, Spectre- Rome, Quantum of Solace- Here, Casino Royale- Lake Garda/Venice).

We decided to stop at Riva del Garda for lunch.   It has all of the glamour, beauty, and sophistication as anything on Como.  We took a pleasant stroll around town, contemplated spending 10 euros at the local museum, and got a pretty average lunch at a local cafe.

Instead circling the rest of the lake we opted to turn around and revisit the Olive Oil museum back on the east side.  Unfortunately they were closed for a long lunch or something.  I was really looking forward to getting some good oil pressed from the Pendolino tree.  Disappointed but undaunted we pressed forward to our afternoon destination, Villa dei Cedri.

The healing waters at Cedri

The place is kind of a hotel resort slash thermal spa.  The grounds cover several acres, features multiple pools, and it is very popular with the locals. The waters are naturally warm and have a unique mineral composition that includes silicon, potassium, and magnesium.  Evidently this packs quite the healthy punch.  Good for your skin and good to drink.  We spent a few hours here simply relaxing in the various pools and quietly contemplating the amazing sites that we had seen on this trip.

Sirmione and Catullus at dusk
We eventually roused ourselves and headed back to Sirmione for some more of dad's interviews and our last sunset walk in this magical little town.  The skies finally started to clear and we were able to see a little more of our surroundings. I really love this area and would like to experience it in a future visit, preferably in the summer.

We capped off the day with a nice dinner back at the hotel.  We had an early day tomorrow in Venice and we had a tight schedule to keep if we were both going to wrap up everything logistically speaking and have some time to spend along the Grand Canal.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

3/21/17- The majesty of the Dolomites

How's that for rugged beauty?

We've come a long way humanity
We have covered a lot of incredible ground on this trip but for some reason both of us were extra excited for the opportunity to drive up into the rugged Dolomites.  For me it was the chance to explore an underappreciated part of Italy that is often overlooked by Americans.  For my dad it was the thrill of clean mountain air and a scenic drive.

Our journey first took us through Bolzano.  We wanted to soak in the essence of a town that is more closely aligned with Austria/Germany and visit Otzi, the world's most famous ice man.

Here's a few thoughts from the area.

Wait, is this Austria or Italy

  • There was a general sense of order here that doesn't necessarily exist in the rest of Italy.  
  • It is a thrill to drive on the Autobahn, or at least the Italian/Austrian equivalent.  The speeds are relatively intense but the system works.  Didn't catch any major traffic and saw no major accidents. 
  • For an 'alpine' town the city is at a surprisingly low altitude at approximately 800 feet above sea level.  As a result is a very mild climate.
  • It seems like there is more German spoken here than Italian.  Also the architecture seems very Bavarian.
  • The museum was fine but I'm not sure Otzi is a big enough draw to merit a visit.  As an alternative go find an old issue of National Geographic with the story of his discovery and consider yourself educated.

After a quick schnitzel we were on the road to Pordoi Pass.  The drive would only cover around 40 miles each way but we would be ascending to about 7,300 feet.  The switchbacks and climb would test the engineering prowess of our little Audi wagon.  We picked up some snacks, polished off the camera lenses, and braced ourselves for some scenery that would as magnificent as anywhere else in the alps.

We drove through a number of verdant and rugged villages as we made our ascent up the mountain.  We had to get to about 5,000 feet before we saw any snow.  These like towns with their bucolic beauty and quaint chalets were as charming as anything we saw in Tuscany.

We encountered our first ski resort once we started to see consistent snow. In fact for the next hour we would consistently drive by upwards of 20 ski resorts.  They were all located pretty conveniently off the road and many seemed to be closely integrated with whatever town we were driving through.  The towns became more sparse, terrain more rugged, and resorts more intense as we continued to climb.

At about 5,500 feet we were finally able to shake the incessant fog/overcast skies that had been dogging our last couple of days.  We were loving what we were seeing and wanted more.

We reached Pordoi in the late afternoon.  We were tempted to drive on to Cortina but we didn't feel comfortable with the weather or the possibility of driving on these roads after dark.  Instead we decided to make the most of the stay and walk around the area.  It was still pretty mild at this altitude.  These seemed like ideal conditions and an excellent location for a long ski trip.  You could literally spend two weeks up here conveniently bouncing between resorts.

We left very satisfied with the drive and grateful to experience this region.  Our only regret was that we didn't start the drive at an earlier hour so that we could have made it to Cortina.  I would love to return to this region some day with a set of skies, some hiking boots, and a mountain bike.

We made it back to Garda for dinner.  We logged a lot of miles in the car today so I was grateful for a chance to meander down the side streets of Sirmione.  We dined at the Trattoria La Fiasca.  The meal was good but the service kind of stiff.  Between the service and the looks we were getting from the locals it felt like we were witnessing the Italian dynamic of the 'bella figura' (them) and the 'bruta figura'(us) being played out.  I'll have to devote a whole separate entry on my thoughts regarding the Italian need to always maintain the bella figura.

We spent the evening with a cup of gelato and the opportunity to take in some more of the town.  I also was able to gawk at some more Italian men's clothes store windows.  Half the the stuff seemed down right offensive, the other half were works of beautiful art.  Don't even ask about the prices.

Other notes and highlights:
  • Italian Tip of the Day-  Do you really want to understand Italian culture?  Read Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini. Think of it as a more accessible version of Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude but with Italians instead of Mexicans as the subject matter.
  • Interesting tidbit- The city of Bolzano and state of South Tyrol is given a huge amount of autonomy and freedom from Italy. It was annexed by Italy after WWI and its inhabitants have never really felt part of the country.
One more photo from the mountains
Bookmark this for a ski trip down the road

Monday, April 03, 2017

3/20/17- On the road to Garda

So many tunnels!

Moving forward to the third stop on our journey.  Up to this point we had been operating at a pretty aggressive pace.  Today we were both looking forward to sleeping in, hopping on the autostrada, and enjoying a leisurely few hours driving through the Po River Valley and Emilia-Romagna.

Before we left we spent some quality time at the Piazza Michelangelo filming some of dad's life history.  I truly enjoyed this segment of the trip and, like the last visit, came to really savor the magic of this city.

The drive, like every drive we've taken, was scenic.  The terrain between Florence and Bologna was more mountainous.  No big deal, I was raised along the Wasatch front.  What was very surprising and pretty cool was the sheer amount of tunnels we encountered.  We like to drive along mountains in the US, they like to drive through them.  I guess I now realize why they are so serious about collecting revenue through their toll roads over here.

We arrived in Emilia- Romagna around noon.  This is both the breadbasket and industrial heartland of the country.  I was originally planning a sidetrip in Bologna (Culatello, Balsamico Tradicionale, Mortadella, Prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano, etc...) to take in this culinary mecca but the last few days had exhausted our sense of adventure.  We opted to avoid stops in Bologna, Modena, and Mantua in favor of an earlier arrival at our hotel in Peschiera del Garda.
The gold standard of cured meats

We arrived at the Hotel Ziba around 1pm.  The place is nice, spacious, and more on par with the boutique hotels we might find back home.  This was our first hotel with an adjoining restaurant, pool, and spa.  Our room wasn't ready when we arrived so we went the the Trattoria bell’italia for a late lunch.

The restaurant had a comfortable and rustic setting and the owners served both Italian and German dishes. It wound up being one of our best meals to date.  It also gave me a chance to try culatello.  It was cut thin and had the sweet musky flavor that it is known for.  I don't know if it was the best cured meat I've had but it was certainly unique.  We also had a very tasty veal shank.

There was a pretty intense fog that greeted us once we reached the Po River Valley. It would follow us all the way up to Garda.  We were originally planning to use our afternoon to drive around the lake and catch some of the scenic roads that were carved into the sides of the mountains that surround the northern portion.  The weather dampened our spirits and kept us closer to home.

This thing dates back to the 13th Century
Instead we drove to Sirmione. It is a small resort town located on a narrow peninsula on the southern end of the lake.    The highlight was the castle and the grotto of Catullus.  The town had a great vibe about it, part historical Italy and part beachside resort.

After leaving Sirmione we drove along some of the southern coast.  This place is built to be the summer family playground for Europe.  There's GardaLand, Hollywood Land, countless hotels, and a bevvy of fast food choices.  In fact, this was as close as we've felt to being in the States.  We were so caught up in the American nostalgia that we opted for a burger at the Steak 'n Shake.

All in all a pretty calm and low key day.  No stressful drives through narrow streets.  No crowded streets or medieval churches.  Just a pleasant day and some rest prior to launching the last legs of our trip.

Other notes and highlights:

  • Italian tip of the day- Take the time to stroll through a local grocery store.  It's exactly as you'd picture it and can help you understand why Italy has such a fresh and impressive food culture.
  • Food Highlight-  Naturally the cullatello. We also had a great Bolognese with fresh noodles and not dried.  I'm not an 'al dente' kind of guy.
  • Random Observation-  We didn't see much penetration of US culture in the cities we visited with the very notable exception of the south shore of Garda.  I wonder if it because this area is geared towards European families and it is just easier to peddle things like Disney, Burger King, and Southern California.  

Sunday, April 02, 2017

3/19/17- Assisi and more Tuscany

The narrow streets of Assisi

Decided to hit the road this morning.  We wanted to visit Assisi and we also had some unfinished business with  the Tuscan hills.

The weather was a little cooler and cloudier then previous days but nothing that could hinder our experience.  I was personally excited to drive by Umbria and Lake Trasimene.

Students of Roman history will recognize the lake as one of the key battles of the Second Punic War.  This was one of the early routs that Hannibal put on Rome.  We all know how the war turned out but at the moment of this battle Carthage really had Rome on her heels.

North shore of the lake, somewhere a battle took place
Just past the lake was Perugia.  This is yet another great town that gets overlooked by tourists facing limited time and an embarrassment of great Italian options.  All we managed to do was quickly drive through and briefly ponder the Amanda Knox story. A beautiful town and area that will have to be explored on a future visit.

Just as we were passing Perugia we could see the hilltop town of Assisi off in the distance. The hills of Umbria are every bit as magnificent as Tuscany and they even have some of the Apennine Mountains which bring a different kind of beauty.  

The view from the basilica
Our primary goal with this visit?  A chance to visit the region in which the great St. Francis preached as well as to catch a Sunday service at the basilica that honors his name and remains. If you have a moment you should spend time appreciating the life he led and the important reforms his example wrought upon the Catholic Church.  Experts posit that the reforms that resulted from Francis postponed the Reformation by a century.

We parked on the Northeast part of the town and walked through it to the basilica.  It was somewhat steep and difficult for dad but it offered the chance to see one of the most charming Italian towns in person.

The narrow streets and town were straight out of a postcard.  But the brown stone style of most of the homes and building seem to have set it apart from other towns we've visited.  A real highlight was seeing the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which was built out of the Roman remains of a temple built to honor the Roman goddess of wisdom.

Walking to the upper basilica
At the end of our brief pilgrimage was the grand basilica.  It has a prominent place at the end of the hill that the town is built.  The crowds were somewhat light and the entryway had been changed in light of the potential threat for terrorism.  We spent some time in the lower basilica where the remains of Francis are stored.  This is one of the best examples of Romanesque art and architecture.  The upper basilica, on the other hand, is larger, brighter, and Gothic.  Students of architecture must really appreciate the opportunity to savor these to styles side by side. Another highlight was conducting a
video interview with dad about his mission experience.

After a brief lunch we were back on the road returning to Tuscany.  Our hope was to visit Montepulciano and, time permitting Siena.  We felt physically and spiritually nourished with an appetite to get in a few more spots before our departure in the morning to Lake Garda.

View from Montepulciano
We had originally planned to just spend maybe 30 minutes at Montepulciano.  The real goal was Siena.  But our plans soon changed upon arrival.  We didn't expect to be as amazed by the views as we were and we didn't plan on stumbling upon a wonderful chocolate festival that was taking place at the town square.  This was too memorable to pass up.  We called an audible and decided to forgo the Piazza del Campo in favor of more time here.

The festival
We strolled the stalls and decided which chocolates to try.  I favored the pistachio crepes while my dad offered the old school options bathed in hazelnuts.  As we were savoring our treats we were greeted by the increasingly intense beat of drums.  Soon enough a group of young men and a few young women rounded a corner and began their rhythmic march to the rostra in the square.  They were dressed in some kind of traditional garb and were followed by flag bearers wearing something similar.   The event reached a crescendo with the drum beats signaling the ceremonial tossing and catching of the flags.  I don't know much about this ceremony.  I think something similar
was captured in the mediocre film, 'Under the Tuscan Sun'.

With dusk fast approaching we reluctantly decided to get in the car and leave this magical place.  We didn't want to navigate these roads after dark and we had hoped to visit one more site on our way back to Florence.  We didn't  get a chance to see Siena but we did get a nice consolation prize in the form of Monteriggioni.  Not much more than a small walled fortification it was once a strategic outpost in the centuries old struggle between Florence and Siena.

The day ended and our peaceful feelings were interrupted by some evening traffic outside of town.  Things got worse when our navigation system took us on an incorrect detour through some dark and narrow country and city roads somewhere on the outskirts of Florence.  That final 5 minute drive took about a half hour as we struggled to find a correct route home.  I will look on with great fondness many things from our time in Italy, driving these narrow streets will not be one of them.

  • Italian tip of the day-  Spend a few extra minutes planning your entry points into these cities and towns.  You will typically be prohibited to drive right up to the landmark so find a parking area that gets you access to your destination.
  • Food highlight-  Those pistachio crepes.  The white knuckle drive home kind of killed our appetite for dinner.
  • Italian point of frustration- No surprise here, it is regarding the Italian road system.  Things are fine on the autostrada but the moment you head off into town or on a country road things become unnecessarily complicated and confusing.  Many roads have multiple names and many navigation systems are confused by the many roads that can potentially get you to your destination.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

3/18/17- The streets of Florence

How's that for a view?

Dad has been sleeping in lately so I took advantage of his slumber and got an early start on Florence.  I loaded up on my Rick Steve's podcasts and headed down to the old city using the super scenic viale michelangelo.

Before I proceed any further let me drop a surprising tip.  If you're willing to make the minimal sacrifice of getting out the door before 7am in just about any Italian town you will literally have the streets to yourself.  This is amazing when you consider that three hours later you are literally drowning in a sea of humanity.

The lesser known and more effeminate David
After spending some good time savoring a peaceful view of the city from the Piazzale Michelangelo I was off to the Bargello museum.  This place doesn't have the volume of the Uffizi but it also doesn't have its crowds either.  It is a great place to quietly get up close to some amazing works from Michelangelo, Donatello, and Ghiberti.  My hour was spent in quiet solitude quietly contemplating their genius.  Another highlight was to see the bronze door entries from Brunelleschi & Ghiberti that were said to have launched the renaissance.

From the museum I headed west to the Piazza della Signoria the proverbial but much more cool 'Times Square' of Florence.  The place is much more magnificent and enchanting when you aren't shoulder to shoulder with tourists.  I had another hour to kill before meeting my dad so I decided to wander the nearby streets in search of some good pictures and a lampredotto sandwich.  I was about half way through my stroll when, like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the crowds emerged.

Starting to lose track of these buildings
I met up with my dad at the Ponte Vecchio and we were soon being shuttled around on a little golf cart by a local guide.  This was a good opportunity for my dad to cover a lot of ground and for me to get some local insight into some areas that I hadn't explored before.  Of particular interest was learning about the devastation caused by the 1967 flood of the Arno and the historical burials at the Santa Croce.

The tour was followed by a pleasant and solid meal at Osteria de’ Peccatori.  Between the two of us we played it safe with pizza, ravoili, and  wild boar tagliatelle. My dad is programmed to require sweets after each meal so he had me hunt down some gelato at Vivoli. It was there that I stumbled upon my new favorite flavor, rice.  

We managed to have a pleasant afternoon as well, crowds not withstanding.  I took my dad over to visit the gallery of artists selling their work outside of the Uffizi.  We spent some more time wondering how Brunelleschi got all of those bricks to cooperate on the creation of the duomo.  We even had a few nice moments walking down the Arno.  A very fulfilling if not somewhat exhausting day in the city.

The better looking David
We didn't have a lot of energy going into the evening hours so we played it close for dinner.  After consecutive nights at Da Ruggero we opted for another alternative down the same street, Cotta a Putino.  It was known primarily as a pizza joint but I was in the mood for something else.  They were
playing some old school US jazz which brought a smile to my dad's facce. I let the waitress talk me into their 'hamburger' which was essentially a beef patty with some tomatoes laid over some lettuce.  I made a poor decision and spent the rest of the meal picking at my dad's seafood.

  • Italian tip of the day- Don't exchange money at the exchange houses in these towns, make due with the foreign transaction fees on your credit card.  I tried to change in $100 and was blown away that the rate was about 25% higher than the current exchange rate going.  
  • Food highlight-  The rice gelato at Vivoli or the Wild Boar ragout.  
  • Things we regretted not doing today- I wish we would have visited the Eataly marketplace and I wish we would have gotten a custom belt made down in the leather district.

More information on the doors in the Bargello

Friday, March 31, 2017

3/17/17- In and around Tuscany

View from Lucca
We decided to rent the car for a day like today. We had an ambitious agenda set.  We wanted to see Lucca, Pisa, Volterra, Sienna, and San Gimignano. Difficult, yes?  But we wanted to see it all.

Our ignorance and ambition were soon put in check by the insanely challenging streets of Italy.  We ended up taking the route to Pisa instead of Lucca, our original destination.  We wound up taking a 45 detour through a series of industrial parks to locate the right freeway.  On the bright side we probably saw a side of Italy that not many tourists encounter.

Looks like a pretty intriguing music festival coming to Lucca
We pulled into Lucca around 10am, a good hour behind our anticipated arrival.  To top it off we hadn't really charted out the right parking zones and we soon found ourselves funneled into the historic center, a sure fire way to draw a ticket thanks to the ZTL madness that I mentioned in an earlier post.  We finally settled down and were able to spend some time meandering through the narrow streets of this medieval town.

We were glad we made the effort to drop by.  Lucca is often overlooked by visitors in favor of Siena or Pisa.  It is their loss.  The historic town is entirely walled in which adds to its charm.  A personal highlight was a climb up the Torre delle Ore where I was rewarded with a great view of the surrounding area.  All in all this was a great chance to get an authentic taste of Tuscany without the typical tourist artifice that is attached to so many of the bigger draws.

Meh on the tower and horray to everything else
We grabbed a quick lunch and were heading west to Pisa.  This time we did a little more advanced parking planning.  My expectations for this town were pretty low.  The Leaning Tower and the insane crowds it draws can really sour the overall experience.  We arrived and yes there were crazy crowds of people that only seemed to want to take a selfie with the tower.  But if you were able to see beyond that annoyance you'd discover some very intriguing architecture, a great museum and a rare grassy open space from which you can sit down and relax.

It was once again a headache to get out of town.  Our intrepid navigation system had us going in one big circle.  At this point in the day we realized that Siena would be out of the picture.  No worries, we still had time and I was very excited to visit the underrated gem of Volterra.

I wonder if Antigone was ever performed here

Soon we were driving through the bucolic and intoxicating Tuscan countryside on roads free from traffic and tourists. Volterra is situated on an isolated hill and has a history that dates back to the Etruscans.  Yes it had all of the charm and narrow streets of most other hill towns but the real draw for me was the Roman theater built into the side of the hill.

We arrived in the late afternoon with not much daylight to spare.  We did have the town to ourselves.  I meandered through the narrow streets in a hurry to the theatre.  I wanted as much time as possible.  I was rewarded with a site all to myself and plenty of time to ponder its history.  Afterwards I spent some time admiring the view and the original Etruscan walls.  As dusk was arriving I couldn't help but appreciate the quiet charm of this place.  I was beyond pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this out of the way and unheralded gem.

We left Volterra relaxed and appreciative of the beauty of this area.  That state of mind was tested soon after as we tried to navigate our way back to Florence with a fading sun.  We did manage to see the towers of San Gimignano from a distance which gave us a little comfort for not having been able to see them up close.  We also missed Sienna. but felt it was better to enjoy three towns instead of rush through five.

All in all a good day that was capped off by another good meal at Da Ruggero.

The view from Volterra

Thursday, March 30, 2017

3/16/17- On the road to Florence

How's that for ornate?  Don't overlook Orvieto.
Spent a somewhat sleepless night anticipating all of the different challenges we'd encounter with obtaining our rental car and navigating a route out of Rome. The tension heightened somewhat in the morning when our cab driver couldn't locate where the rental station was at Termini the main rail station.

Well we finally found the rental kiosk and much to my non-surprise we were rewarded with probably the worst customer service experience I've witnessed as an old.  The highlights?  Getting an invoice that was twice as expensive as the quote I reserved online.  A customer service agent who greeted me in fluent English when we arrived but suddenly lost all ability to communicate when asked why the invoice was so much more expensive.  A dismissive point in a general direction when he was telling us where to pick up the car.  All told it took 10 questions, 15 minutes, 5 people and a 1/2 mile walk through the busy streets of Rome to discover the car on the 7th floor of a nondescript parking garage.
Before I proceed any further let me make a confident declaration.  Customer Service, as we know it, does not exist in Italy.  It isn't part of the 'dolce vita'.  Nothing is easy in this country.  The simplest tasks are mired in traffic, red tape, negotiations, and uncertainty.  It's no surprise that they haven't
done anything of note in the past 50 years.  Really, ask yourself.  When you visit Italy are you visiting anything that was designed or developed in the past 100 years?  Food and fashion don't count. Keep that in mind next time you get swept up in some sun soaked Tuscan dream about living here.
The view from Orvieto, a true Umbrian gem

Anyways, after a white knuckled 30 minutes of navigating the streets and traffic we were out of Rome proper and en route to Florence.  We had originally planned to head out to Tivoli but it just seemed too difficult to change course and head in a different direction without really impacting our schedule.

I will follow up my criticism of Italy with a compliment.  The Autostrada is a vision.  It is a smooth running thorough fare that really does a good job moving traffic.  Yes you will pay plenty in the form of tolls and yes there are very few exits along the way.  But I felt at home driving at 95 in our rental car.   The sanctity of the left lane is preserved which is something I rarely see at home in the States.  I always got a lot of criticism for being an 'aggressive' driver back home.  I just realized that I am an awesome driver, I've just been honing my craft in the wrong country.

We did want to make one stop before Florence.  I've always been intrigued with Orvieto.  It is conveniently located, relatively speaking, off of the freeway and is a must stop for anyone wanting to experience an authentic Umbrian/Tuscan hill town.  The highlight is the view and the church, both featured in this post with pictures. The church, in particular, is as ornate and spectacular as the buildings in Florence or Siena.  90 minutes was more than enough time to take everything in and we were soon back on the road.

Nice work Brunelleschi
We arrived at the Hotel Villa Betania around 3pm.  It gave me the chance to walk down to the historic center before dinner.  We are located overlooking the city just above the Boboli Gardens.  This is the
perfect spot if you have a car.  We have a quiet home base tucked away from the hustle of the city yet we are only a 20 minute walk from the action.

Florence is an absolute gem of a city.  It's incredible that two of the most impactful periods in recorded history (Rome and Renaissance) took place so close to each other. I was able to make my way through the major landmarks (Duomo, Piazza de la signoria, Ponte Vecchio, etc...) with relative ease on foot.  I did notice a sizeable uptick in American patronage here, specifically in the manifestation of college girls.  Women love this city.'s what's rarely for dinner here
We were able to locate a good Tuscan trattoria for dinner, Da Ruggero.    First things first, we had to get our bistecca fiorentina.  Italians don't do beef very often but this an exception.  Yes, it was good but this is one area where we have the better product.  All in all the experience was memorable and this place would serve us dinner a couple more times.

So chapter 1 of our trip has come to a close and we are excited to open up the next adventure.

Other notes and highlights:

  • Italian tip of the day- Rent a car from a US based firm like Hertz or Avis.  You will have hope for customer service and potential recourse should you have any issues.  We got none of that from Europecar.
  • Food Highlight-  The ribollita at Da Ruggero.
  • Random Observation-  It appears that Italians love Westerns.  Every time we turned on the TV we were able to find something from Eastwood or Wayne.  I also noticed that Walker Texas Ranger is alive and well soaking up the syndication here.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

3/15/17- More Rome

View of Eternal City from Trastevere
Called a slight audible on today.  We had originally planned to do the Roman Forum, Capitoline Museum, and other sites in the area.  This would require a lot of walking and I was worried about dad's ability to keep up.  Our tour yesterday was successful so I enlisted our guide for a second day.  Our goal?  See some of Rome but take advantage of some sites outside the walls like the Appian Way and Tivoli.

Our guide called an audible of his own and showed up in a Fiat rental and a revised agenda.  I didn't have the determination or the Italian language proficiency to argue so I opted to let him run with his plan.

Under the Oculus 
The grand tour, as grand as a tour could be inside a car the size of a piano, started with a drive through some of the major city landmarks.  This included the Castel Sant'Angelo, Trastevere, Forum, and the Circus Maximus.  The two items that really moved the needle for me were the view, see above picture, and the Pantheon.  Let's spend a brief moment on that grandest of all buildings.

I've always been amazed at the precision, beauty, and uniqueness of this structure.  For lovers of architecture this is the pinnacle and sine qua non visit that needs to be made. The best preserved building from antiquity, thanks Hadrian, this structure has served as the inspiration for every building from St. Peters Basilica to the Hagia Sophia to our Capitol Building and everything in between.  Read this link and be amazed at the engineering brilliance of ancient Rome.

A bit of lunch
From there we headed back to Trastevere for lunch.  We were taken to Da Enzo, one of the must visit trattorias in the hottest neighborhood in Rome. Our intrepid Italian guide quickly proceeded to order a good portion of the menu.  I would have been more enthused if I wasn't the person picking up the check.  We sampled the typical Roman pastas (Amatriciana, Cacio E Pepe, Carbonara, and Gricia. To be honest I'm not a real 'al dente' kind of guy.  I know that makes me an uncouth American slob in the eyes of the pasta purists. The real highlight was the Fiore de zucca which is a courgette flower stuffed with mozzarella and anchovies.  We also enjoyed the artichoke (carciofo) and tolerated  their cod.  

We were soon south of Rome and visiting the Catacombs of San Sebastiano.  It was a nice change of pace but I was surprised and a little disappointed that they completely cleaned out the catacombs and relocated the bones.  I was expecting to see something like the Capuchin Crypt.  It did offer some interesting insights into the challenges faced by early Christianity as it was striving to establish a foothold within Imperial Rome.  

Now that's a road! Next stop Neapolis.
The real highlight for me was time spent along the Appian Way.  I've always had a vision of walking along the same road and stretch of land that was once used by Cicero, Caesar, Plutarch and others.  It is simply amazing that we have a road that is still functioning after 2 millennia.  And we can't even build a highway that lasts 15 years?  These days the path is popular with joggers and bikers.  We relaxed and spent some time there recording one of the videos for my dad's personal history.

We spent the rest of the day freelancing through other parts of the city.  We braved the tourist crowds to chuck some coins into the Trevi Fountain.  We sampled some Sardinian honey gelato at San Crispino.  We witnessed some African immigrants get very confrontational and angry with the local carabinieri just outside the Colosseum .  We even spent some awkward moments having to renegotiate the price of our tour as the day drew to a close.

All in all a solid day.  I was a little disappointed to not be able to visit the Capitoline, especially since they had a temporary DaVinci exhibit I wanted to see.  But we saw enough to make up for any loss. We were pretty spent at the end of the day and not wanting to expend the energy required to do a traditional Italian dinner we did what many tourists, facing similar circumstances, do.  We found the nearest McDonald's and got a cheap and predictable meal.

Other notes/highlights:
  • Italian tip of the day-  One more reason not to drive in the middle of Italian cities?  Town centers are usually designated only for local traffic and the Italians are very good at given unknowing foreigners tickets for accidentally venturing in there. They are known as ZTL's
  • Most offensive action of the day-  Surprisingly we were well behaved today.
  • Food highlight- Fiore de zucca

Love being a block from the Spanish Steps.  St. Peters at dusk.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

3/14/17- Naples and Amalfi Coast

Shh...don't wake the volcano

With day 2 we figured to turn up the intensity dial to 11.  In Italy that means Naples.  The pace in Rome is akin to Topeka when set next to old Napoli.  I didn't have the courage to take on this region by ourselves so I opted to hire a guide.

Our goal?  See as much of Naples and the Amalfi Coast in one day.  To help us reach the goal was our aforementioned guide, plenty of euros, and the high speed train.  (One of the few bright spots of Italian infrastructure)

One of the many spectacular rooms within the Certosa
By 930am we were driving through the mad streets of Naples in route to the Certosa di San Martino museum perched atop Vomero hill over the city.  Our first choice was the National Archaeological museum, where all the good stuff from Pompeii is, but it was closed.   This former monastery completely blew away our expectations and justified any effort made to reach it. This place was a virtual hodgepodge of awesomeness.  It included one of the most Baroque ornate chapels in all of Italy, an awesome nativity set, military/naval items, and one of the best views of Naples.

With the cultural component of the trip out of the way we were anxious to embark on the next quest- satiating our appetites with a famed Neapolitan pizzas.  Our guides rebuffed my desire to head off the beaten path to try something from the famed Pepe in Grani and convinced to get a pizza in a more close and scenic environ seaside.  I relented because I doubt it is possible to even get a bad pie in this city.    What we didn't anticipate was that this 6 mile drive from the hill to the beach would literally take us through the most traffic ridden labyrinthine urban path I think I've ever taken.  Our drive time for this 5 miles?  45 minutes.

My frustration quickly turned to tasty mirth as we sat down seaside to partake of this wood-fired bliss. I opted for my usual pie, quattro stagioni.  It was exceptionally executed and even allowed me to sample some of their famous local mozarella di bufala.  And the awesome kicker?  These pies were only 8 euros.  They are substantially bigger then any of the pizzas you'd get at one of the VPN places in the US and they were a noticeable notch better to boot.  Another highlight was a chance to try
some really good smoked mozzarella compliments of the owners.

Solid views from Positano
With lunch complete we were off to tackle the real purpose of our visit, the famed Amalfi Coast. This was something my dad really wanted to see and I wanted to ensure we had adequate time to take in its sun soaked splendor.   Fortunately traffic was more agreeable and we were at Sorrento, the typical entry point for the coast, within the hour.

Truthfully this segment began with an underwhelming start.  Positano was our first stop.There must of been a dry haze in the air because the scenery didn't seem as vibrant in person.  Undaunted we continued to press on to the subsequent mountainside towns of Praiano, Amalfi, and Ravello.

Even better views from Ravello
Things did pick up in the last two towns. Amalfi actually had a pier and town square that accommodated some shopping and walking around. It was a great spot from which to people watch and hunt for gelato.  For me the real treat was Ravello.  Unlike the others this town is perched at a higher elevation.  It was home to famed weirdo Gore Vidal and it hosts an exceptional music festival every year.  Our stay here corresponded with dusk so I think that lent to the magic of the moment.
The last of the great views today

We took the drive home via a back route.  We got stopped a couple of times by herds of goats and other pastoral activities.  We descended into the bay of Naples in time to capture a truly marvelous sunset.

Soon enough our day was over and we found ourselves back at the train station heading back to Rome. Naples is an exhausting and exhilarating experience.  Visitors who merely skip through in route to Pompeii are truly robbing themselves to experience Italy at its most authentic.

Other notes/highlights:
  1. Italian tip of the day-  This should go without saying but you should never try driving within Rome or Naples.  That is reserved for the natives, true experts, or certifiably insane.
  2. Most offensive action of the day-  Dad spilling his Coke on a gentleman on the ride home.
  3. Food highlight- That smoked mozzarella.

You won't likely see this anywhere else.  We saw this at the train station and it captures the true essence of Naples.

Monday, March 27, 2017

3/13/17- First day in Rome

Brief prelude- After a long over-night flight and we arrived Sunday night at Rome's Fiumicino airport.   Compared to the underwhelming and confusing experience at London's Heathrow during our layover we were very pleasantly surprised by the cleanliness and efficiency of Italy's flagship airport.  Who would have thought that the Brits would be outdone by the Italians.

The Victor Emmanuel II Monument
Our home-base for our Roman holiday would be the Hotel Forte. It is a smaller boutique hotel conveniently located just off of the Spanish Steps. What this place lacked for in space was more than made up in proximity to some of the best sites of in the city.

Day One Activities- We decided to jump right into the frying pan with a visit to the Vatican Museum and St. Peters Basilica.  We figured that if we could handle the crowds here everything else would be a relative walk in the park.

Among the morning Vatican highlights were:

  • Going through the lines security to get into the museum only to have my dad discover that he left his new iPhone in the cab on the way over.  Thankfully we had a great cab driver and got the issue resolved with minimal cost and impact to our schedule.  
  • Trying to push my dad in a wheel chair through the museum and quickly discovering that it does a pretty poor job accommodating those with special needs.  At one moment I was having difficulty getting my dad up a ramp which resulted in a brief bottleneck jamming up the traffic.  This gave me a wonderful opportunity to be on the receiving end of an insulting Italian hand gesture from one of the local security guards...his way of kindly imploring me to get my act together and stop gumming up the flow. You can refer to the 1:30 mark of the video below to see what I got.

  • Even though we are in the relative low season the crowds were insane.  To make matters worse the museum is set up to drive everyone to the Sistine Chapel which is a final destination.  The result is that you can't enjoy many of the wonderful sites along the way (Hall of Tapestries, Maps, or Raphael Rooms) because you are being constantly pushed by the flow of traffic.
  • Laoco├Ân has always been my favorite sculpture.  It not only captures one of my favorite stories from antiquity, the Trojan War, it also served as one of the principle inspirations to many of the great Renaissance artists like Michelangelo.  
  • The hall of busts, since it is somewhat detached from the major traffic, is a wonderful spot to enjoy the myriad treasures from antiquity that the Catholic Church had plundered over the years.  So much marble!
  • The Sistine Chapel, as expected was crowded and rushed.  So many people shortchange themselves of a wonderful experience because they rush to the chapel.  My dad tried to sneak some footage of the ceiling to no avail.  This is one of the few spots in Italy where they stringently enforce the no photo/video rule.
The Sistine captivated our morning and exhausted my feet.  We walked a few blocks north for a quick lunch of porchetta sandwiches at Angry Pig.  It gave us a quick moment to sit down, fill up, and recharge our batteries.  Soon enough we were back to Vatican City, this time to experience St. Peters Square.

Afternoon highlights included:
  • Bemusing, or rather amusing, myself at how easily my dad falls for the street vendors. Between the 1/4 mile walk from the museum to the square he got suckered into buying some cheap water colors, a laser pen, and some post cards.  He's such an easy 'mark'.
  • Seeing the long line filing into the St Peters Basilica and deciding that we should make an attempt at sneaking in through the exit.  My dad made it in but I was stopped.  I spent the next 30 minutes trying to distract and heckle the Vatican Guard.  
A busy day led to a memorable evening.  After a brief break we headed out on foot from the hotel in search of some typical Roman fare.  We settled on Dilla.  It had a welcoming staff and an atmosphere that is now being more commonly mimicked in the States.  We had some of the best bruschetta I've ever had.  Why favorite toppings were the artichokes, mushrooms, and ricotta.  I ordered the Cacio E Pepe and was somewhat underwhelmed.  It was exceptionally rich and the noodles were a little too al dente for my taste.  A brief walk to the Spanish Steps and our first day was a resounding success.

Other notes/highlights:
  1. Italian tip of the day-  Always take advantage of the free breakfast provided by the hotel.  They typically provide a healthy option of pastries and juices as well as a few attempts to satisfy American appetites with things like bacon and eggs.
  2. Most offensive action of the day-  My dad asking for BBQ sauce to go with his porchetta sandwich.
  3. Food highlight- The aforementioned sandwich.  Italian meals and dishes are exceptionally simple and what allows them to get away with this simplicity is the quality of their ingredients. 
The old man and the bruschetta shangri-la
Making friends on the Spanish Steps
Amazed at the beauty and the prices at Kiton

3/23/17- A fitting end in Venice

That'll cost you 100 Euros I guess it makes sense to spend the last chapter of our Italian journey in the town most commonly associ...