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Sunday, July 6, 2008

Travel Journal: Italy 2008

Travel Journal: Italy 2008

Part I
From February 16th through the 24th we were on vacation in Italy. The first four days we spent in Rome. This is a description of the things we did during those four days. Joe took most of the pictures during the vacation, and the attached Shutterfly link has a selection of the pictures from the four Rome-days. The weather was beautiful during our entire stay in Italy (in contrast to the winter storms occurring in the US). On the fifth day of our vacation we took the train to Florence to stay there for a few days.

- Willemien, Jim and Joe

Shutterfly link:

* * * * * * * * * *

Saturday Feb. 16th
After an overnight flight from Philadelphia with not much sleep, we arrived at the Leonardo da Vinci (Fiumicino) Airport outside Rome around 8 am local time and took a taxi to our hotel, Hotel Quirinale, in Rome.
Because it was too early to check into our rooms, we left our bags at the hotel and headed out. Our hotel was located on the Via Nazionale, and so we started walking down this busy shopping street. We stopped at a restaurant for a quick breakfast, and then continued walking, past the Palazzo delle Esposizioni and the Mercati Traiani (Trajan's Markets) to the Foro Traiano and the Collonna Traiana. From there we walked on the Via Dei Fori Imperiali past the Forum Romanum to the Collosseum. What a truly colossal structure, almost 2000 years old and a good part of it still standing!

After a gelato from one of the numerous street vendors we started walking back to the hotel on Via Cavour and Via Torino. When we got back to the hotel around 1:30 pm our rooms were ready: a "double" for Jim and Willemien, and an adjacent "single" for Joe. We all crashed for an afternoon nap. That evening we had a wonderful Italian dinner at restaurant Est Est Est.

Sunday Feb. 17th
Our hotel had a very nice breakfast buffet every morning (although the scrambled eggs were not so good). After breakfast on Sunday morning, we walked to the Termini train station to buy 3-day tourist passes for the metro, bus and tram. They cost 11 euros each. We had decided to see the Palatino (Palatine Hill) and the Collosseum this morning, so we took the metro to Circo Massimo. After exiting the metro station, we walked across the Circo Massimo to Palatino. We had read in our Rome guide that you could buy a combo ticket for both the Palatino and the Collosseum at the Palatino, thereby avoiding standing in a long line for the Collosseum. As an added bonus, we found out that European Community passport holders under age 18 had free admittance. Fortunately we had brought Joe's Dutch passport along, so he got in for free! After wandering around Palatino we exited onto the Forum, and walked around on the Forum. After admiring the Arch of Constantine we entered the Collosseum. It was amazing to finally be standing inside this huge structure! We were able to walk around at our leisure, both on the ground floor and on the second floor.
After seeing the Collosseum we walked over to the Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II. We had lunch near there on an outdoor terrace.

After lunch we walked to the Pantheon. Another amazing experience, to see this building! It was built in the 120s A.D. and never structurally modified. The dome is 143 feet (44 meters) wide, and is open at the top. This oculus, 30 feet (9 meters) wide, lets in the sun and, if it rains, the rain! There are holes in the floor which drain the rainwater. Near the Pantheon is Gelateria Minerva, where we went for our afternoon gelato. The gelateria was recommended by Joe's Latin teacher, and the gelato was indeed superb.

Next we walked to the Trevi Fountain, designed by Nicola Salvi and built in the years from 1732 - 62. Joe threw some coins into the water, which, according to tradition, promises that he will come back to Rome some time! Near the Trevi Fountain we saw a sign pointing to an archeological site. We paid admission and descended into the "dig". It had been a home in ancient times, and it was found when a cinema was being built.

We were now sufficiently tired and saturated with history and art, so we headed back to the hotel for a late afternoon nap. At 7 pm we went to a concert by the Danish pianist Berit Juul Rasmussen in the church near the hotel (Saint Paul within the Walls). Jim noticed in the program notes that she plays in a trio, and later secured a commission to write a piece for them: (The name of the group, Embla, derives from Norse mythology). After the concert we went to have dinner at a nearby restaurant, La Cucina Nazionale. The food was delicious, and Willemien had the best calzone she has ever tasted!

Monday Feb. 18th
Today was Vatican day. We took the metro to the Vatican museums. There was a long line, but it moved relatively quickly, and after 45 minutes we were inside. While waiting in line we overheard a tour guide saying that it was so busy because all the other museums in Rome were closed on Monday. We had to follow the large crowd through all the museums, and ultimately came to the Sistene Chapel, where everyone gazed at the famous Michelangelo frescoes on the ceiling. Photography was not allowed here, and the guards were kept busy reprimanding people for taking pictures.

After lunch at a nearby restaurant we headed over to Saint Peter's Basilica. We looked around this immense basilica for a while, admiring artworks like Michelangelo's Pieta (1499), which is behind a glass panel since it was attacked several years ago. Willemien remembers walking around the sculpture when she visited Rome on a school trip in 1974.

And where there is a dome, it must be climbed. Willemien bought an elevator-then-stairs ticket, Joe climbed the stairs all the way. Jim stayed on the ground (no stairs or heights for him). We had a nice view of Rome from the top of the dome, and also a view into the church from the first level of the dome.

After the afternoon gelato break we walked to Castel San Angelo, and then to Piazza Navona. We took a break at an internet cafe, where Joe checked his IM account. We walked back to a bus stop via the Via del Sudario, where the Dutch writer Rosita Steenbeek lives. Willemien had read her book about Rome, in which she mentions where she lives.

After dinner at La Cucina Nazionale (yes, again, because we liked it so much last night!), we took the metro to see the Spanish Steps and the Piazza del Popolo. Then back to the hotel for a good night's sleep.

Tuesday Feb. 19th
Before we left for our vacation we had made a reservation on the web to see the Villa Borghese at 11 am today.
It was good to have the reservation, so we were assured of our entry time. It is managed very well, so that you don't have to battle large crowds once you're inside. We had ample time to admire all the beautiful sculptures, paintings and other artworks. The many Bernini sculptures were just amazing.

After having soaked up all the beautiful art, we took a walk in the gardens that surround the Villa Borghese. We had a drink at a cafe in the park, and then we took an electric mini-bus to Tiber Island. The Fatebenefratelli hospital occupies most of the island.

Near Tiber Island is the neighborhood which used to be the Jewish Ghetto. Here we saw the Teatro di Marcello and the Largo 16 Ottobre. On October 16, 1943, 3,091 Roman Jews were gathered on this spot and sent to the concentration camps Auschwitz and Birkenau. Only 15 survived.
We bought a lunch on-the-go and took a tram to Trastevere, a neighborhood across the Tiber river. After taking the tram back into the city, we hopped on a bus to the hotel. Near the hotel is the church Santa Maria Della Vittoria, where we went to see the famous Bernini sculpture The Ecstasy.

That night, after dinner, we packed our bags for Wednesday's trip to Florence.

Part II

Pictures are at this link:

Wednesday Feb. 20th
After breakfast at the hotel in Rome, and checking most of our luggage at the hotel, we went to Termini station to catch the 9:12 am train to Florence. We did not know this was the slow train, so after two hours of stopping at every little train station we started to wonder where we were. We had also forgotten to stamp our ticket at the self-service check-in machine at the head of the train track or "binario," but the train conductor reluctantly let us off the hook for the hefty fine. Finally after three hours we were able to find the names of the towns on our map, and at 12:45 pm we arrived in Florence. We decided to walk from the train station to the hotel. It was wonderful to walk through this old city where Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello and so many others walked the same streets. We stopped off at a self service restaurant (Queen Victoria) for a quick and convenient lunch, and then headed over to our hotel, the Degli Orafi, right near the Ponte Vecchio. When we showed our hotel voucher, there was a lot of typing at the computer and frowning on the part of "Nina" of the hotel staff, and we started to get worried. The manager had to be called, and after he took his turn looking at the computer and frowning, he told us that there was something wrong with our reservation. Oh no, we thought, now what? But then he apologized and said that he could put us up in one of the hotel's luxury apartments asking "Would you like to take a look first?" No, we said, we would love to have the apartment, please take us up there. So we ended up staying in a newly renovated apartment with on the first floor a single bedroom with adjacent bathroom, living/dining room, fully functional kitchen (complete with dishwasher, stove, plates, and fine tableware). Upstairs was a master bedroom with an adjacent large and luxurious bathroom. It was spacious and beautiful!

That afternoon we walked to the Duomo with its famous and innovative cupola designed by Bruneleschi. We saw the Gothic interior of the cathedral, which is very sparsely decorated compared to the intricate patterns of white and green marble on the exterior. We also went inside the Baptistery (referred to as "bel San Giovanni" by Dante), and Joe climbed the 414 steps of the free-standing, 85 meter high Campanile (bell tower). We walked around the city some more and found a church named Santa Maria Del' Ricci, which had some interesting shrines inside. We decided to do some shopping for dinner at a small local supermarket. For 20 euros we had fresh tomatoes, peppers, olives, cheese, bread, prosciutto, and various other things, which together made for a wonderful antipasto-dinner. That evening Jimmy B. came over to our hotel to pick up some clothes we had brought with us from Arlington. Jimmy, the oldest brother of Joe's friend Mike, is in Florence for a semester abroad. He gave us some good tips, such as how to bargain at the markets, to go up into the Duomo at sunset, see the Mercato Centrale, and eat at one of the restaurants near there.

Thursday Feb. 21st
The Hotel degli Orafi had an unbelievable breakfast buffet, even better than the buffet in Rome. It included caviar, salmon, and rich Florentine pastries. Not crowded, we always sat at the window overlooking the Arno, and could see people rowing on the water. (The movie based on E.M. Forster's novel "A Room with a View" was filmed in room 414 of this hotel). After breakfast we walked to the Galleria degli Uffizi, which is located practically next door to the hotel. (We later learned that a 1993 mafia bombing had damaged not only the Uffizi Gallery, but also our hotel). We spent a good part of the morning in the voluminous Uffizi Gallery. In the afternoon we walked across the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti. We bought a ticket for the adjacent Boboli Gardens, where we walked around and enjoyed the beautiful, sunny weather.
Upon returning home at Hotel degli Orafi that afternoon, we found a chilled bottle of sparkling wine waiting for us to celebrate Jim's birthday, compliments of the hotel. At sunset we walked over to the Duomo, and Joe climbed to the top to take pictures. That night we had a very good dinner at ZaZa's, to continue the celebration of Jim's birthday. (Coincidentally, Jim had spent his 30th birthday in Florence 24 years earlier).

Friday Feb. 22nd
After the breakfast buffet, we checked our bags with the front desk of the hotel and walked to the Accademia, where we had a reservation. The famous David by Michelangelo is here, and it was an unforgettable experience to see this massive sculpture up close. It is more than 500 years old. See a detailed description here:
After our visit to the Accademia, we walked to the Mercato Centrale. This is a large, indoor market, where you can buy fresh produce, fish, and meat. Willemien purchased fresh mandarins, in Italian ("tre mandarini", and "grazie"). Prices are negotiable, but Willemien just paid the stated price. At the adjoining outdoor market, Joe wanted to apply the bargaining power he had just learned from Jimmy to acquire a genuine Florentine tee-shirt at a rock-bottom price. He negotiated with an elderly woman street vendor to get a tee-shirt for 4 Euros. Unfortunately Joe was not feeling very well, so we decided to head back to Rome early that afternoon. Willemien and Joe went to the train station to purchase reserved train tickets (this time for the much more expensive, but faster Eurostar train), and Jim walked to the hotel to check out and retrieve our bags. After arriving back at the Hotel Quirinale in Rome (where our large bags had been held for us), Joe went to right to bed. He was very sick with a stomach flu and incapacitated for the rest of the evening.

Saturday Feb. 23rd
Joe felt a little better this morning, so we all went downstairs for breakfast. Then Joe rested some more in the hotel room, while Jim and Willemien took turns taking walking around various neighborhoods in Rome. Around lunchtime Joe said he felt a lot better, and we took the metro to Colosseum. From there we walked to see the remains of the Domus Aurea, Nero's big palace. We had a wonderful lunch on a hill near the University at a family-run outdoor cafe. We were entertained by the teenage daughters who would timidly wait on tables while mom and dad would kindly argue with them from the kitchen. One of the daughters kept coming back to our table to inform us (in Italian) that a certain item was not available, asking if we wanted something else instead, and we replied in Italian/English, hoping for the best. The food turned out to be as good as the setting, and we were in no rush to return to snowy Boston the next morning. But, our vacation was ending. That night we had another great dinner at La Cucina Nazionale, and we packed our bags to be ready to leave on Sunday morning.

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