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

Bruce and Ryan's Italian (mis)adventure

The next several posts will capture the highlights from a recent trip that my father and I took to the old country...Italy.  This will likely be my dad's last major trip in this lifetime and I wanted to use the trip to share my love for the country and capture some of his life history through a series of interviews.

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...