• Click CONTACT US in the footer if you have any problems registering for the forums.

Rome, Tuscany, Venice & Amalfi for Beginners

nikkihop

10+ Posts
By nikkihop from USA, Summer 2011
Two adults and two college girls for week one and nine days of solo bliss for the adults on the Amalfi coast later. Arrive in Rome on June 1, 2011 and return June 16, 2011. Three days in Rome, three days in Florence, two in Venice, one in Assisi on the way to Sorrento.

This trip report was originally published on Slowtrav.com.

Introduction

My Philosophy on Choosing Hotels

For me, location is key, followed closely by price and something I call the eye-roll factor. The eye roll factor comes into play when you imagine yourself telling people about your fabulous vacation and when you get to the part about the hotel you stayed in ... do you roll your eyes in disgust or comedic forbearance?

How do you know ahead of time whether you will roll your eyes? It’s a bit tricky, but it has to do with whether or not I would be ashamed to show anyone else the website photos and what the reviews on Trip Advisor say. I look at what others say about shabbiness, loud church bells ringing next door, lack of privacy, down-the-hall bathrooms and bed quality.

A note about that last one: If you Google search the Boolean terms tempurpedic, hotel, rome, and Italy, you will find hotels with Tempur-pedic® beds. I did this search for all the cities we stayed in because bed comfort is of particular concern to my man. I even found a hotel in Sorrento that purported to have Tempur-pedic® beds. That is another story, but the short version is that Domus Sorrento turned out to be a bait and switch, i.e,. when I emailed to confirm, they said they were under construction and wanted to move us to a non-Tempur-pedic® bedded place without Internet access across town. Reservation cancelled. Even bed quality is second to location. My strategy is to look at a tourist map online (see www.mappery.com in the reference section) and find a location that I think will be within walking distance to several main sites. Then, I will note down several likely street names on Google Maps and Google search the street name and “hotel.” This is how I found Hotel Apollo in Rome and Casa Del Garbo in Florence. Then I check out the reviews of several hotels in this location, on Trip Advisor and Hotels.com before booking. I do it this way because I like to get up early and my man doesn’t. If I am within walking distance to several churches, fountains, markets, etc. that open before 10am, I can get up and explore for a couple hours and then meet him back at our fabulously-located hotel for brunch before setting out to explore together mid-morning. This way, he gets to sleep in and I get more culture, not to mention the smug feeling that I am getting more out of our vacation than he is. (wink)

Price is important to me, but I’m a fickle economist. If I like the location and I love the look of the hotel, I will shut my eyes and give them my credit card number. If I don’t see anything I love, I am the duchess of nickel and dime. I always cross check my need to be frugal against my eye-roll factor and my gut feeling on whether or not the cheap hotel will significantly reduce my travel experience. I don’t like to spend a lot of time in my hotel room. I consider it a necessary and preferably brief stop-over in between the night walk through the city and the early morning prowl through historic churches.

Love Letter to Steve Jobs

It recently became important to me that my hotels have free wireless Internet access. This is a luxury and isn’t a deal breaker, but I am addicted to my iPad and I love to be able to update my travel notes/journal and do my fussy Internet searches at will. No, I don’t work for Apple, but ya’ll should get yourselves an iPad. (Insert Italian hand-kissing gesture here) I take hundreds of e-books (including all the Rick Steves), maps, hiking guides, hotel reservation confirmations, itineraries, music, movies, world wide web and more with me on one compact, convenient and absolutely-adorable-in-its-lime-green-case package. I even use it to back up my camera’s memory cards.

Learning the Language

As an American, I have to admit I’m slightly ashamed of my “lack of culture,” i.e. that I don’t fluently speak a language other than English. I have stilted high-school French, some basic slang Spanish, a little Turkish thanks to an ex-boyfriend, and can count to three and say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in German. What can I say? I was an Army brat and only learned what I needed to know. However, I love to learn languages and feel compelled to learn basic language skills wherever I go. My favorite classroom is my car. I learned beginner Italian through a combination of Mark Fobrose’s Behind the Wheel: Italian and Michael San Filippo’s About.com Italian Word of The Day. It was fun and reduced road rage all at the same time. I now know enough to order meals, tell someone I’m tired/hungry/cold/hot, buy things and find things. I can even be cheeky in Italian. When the Navy Seals took out Osama Bin Laden, I was able to learn the phrase, "Io sono Americano. Posso ottenere uno sconto di Bin Laden?" which, roughly translated, means “I’m an American. Do I get the Bin Laden discount?” Hey, I figured since America rid the world of one of evil's minions, I might get some discounts on museum fare, fruit and coffee. It was worth a try.
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
Arrive in Rome

May 31, 2011


Arrived at Austin Bergstrom Airport two hours early for our noon connection to Washington Dulles. Note to self, the Continental President's Club gave us a hard time because even though we booked through Continental, the flight is on a United plane (thanks, merger) and United has no deal with AmEx. Luckily, DB (darling boyfriend) had his priority pass through American Express, which lets us bypass the dragon at the Continental Presidents Club reception. Free muffins and orange juice abound beyond the gates.

Arrived with only minor irritation in Dulles caused mostly by an inordinate number of very big and tall men and one screaming two year old who had to literally be dragged to the rear of the plane like a martyr to the stake. That poor kid must have been traumatized by a previous experience. He kept straining into the passenger's knees all the way back to the caboose, fruitlessly looking for sanctuary. I felt his pain. Seats 26A-D are right by the rear toilet and can't smell very nice.

June 1, 2011

Long flight to Fiumicino with very little sleep. Video screens both broken on DB's and my seats ... the only broken screens on the flight, as far as we can tell. For the 'loss of comfort', we receive a coupon for a 'token of appreciation.' Free slippers? Peanuts? We have to go to the United website to find out. I'll keep you posted.

Waiting in the Rome airport for DB's two college aged cousins (We're treating them to a trip abroad); their plane is delayed by two hours. Sent frantic messages to the car service who was supposed to pick us up at 10:00am instead of the new delayed arrival at noon. Made OCD checks of the constantly-shifting line of cabbies and chauffeurs holding up signs to check for my name. No one had anything close to my name, so I just assumed the driver checked the flight info and would be there later, or we would just take a taxi to the hotel.

In the meantime, we dropped four and a half euro on a tiny glass of sucre rosso aranchia (blood orange juice) to rent a table in the airport bar/cafe. It was pretty good for €4.5 ... it better be. At least the juice bought us some prime sitting real estate for those three hours.

A note about Italian men: what's with the bright yellow or red pants? Or the neon yellow Adidas with the matching neon yellow tie over navy shirt and under navy linen jacket with jeans? Maybe it's a football team spirit thing.

Really good people watching so far. By the way, the euro exchange rate in Rome was not as good as the rate in Washington by a loss of about $40. DB found a plug for his cell, which was nearly out of juice, so glad we brought the right adapters. Girls finally arrived looking how DB and I felt after waiting around the airport bar for nearly three hours with only juice to sustain us.

Wonderful, completely silent driver met us at the gate with perfect timing just as the girls showed up. Then, took us on what I can only imagine is a fairly typical breakneck formula one race to the Hotel Apollo. We only had a few near misses with the pedestrians and vespa drivers and it was hard to tell who would be at fault more if there was an accident. Nonetheless, we arrived at the Hotel Apollo safely and I would book our driver again, which we found through Rome, Inc. Tours. I will rave about them later. It was only €60 for a large van that easily held the luggage of four quivering, jet lagged, and somewhat shocked people unused to Italian driving. Then again, we were all holding our breaths, so maybe the van wasn't as palatial as it seemed. Hotel Apollo (Oh -POLE-oh, as I was corrected by our otherwise silent driver ... apparently my Texas accent was unacceptable. Forgive me oh Greek god of whatever.

DB falls face-down on the queen sized bed at the Hotel Apollo, which we booked for three nights. We got two rooms, one for the girls on floor one (actually the second floor by U.S. Standards) and one for DB and I on floor three. The total cost was $1,077 dollars or approximately $179 per night per room. They do have an elevator, which says maximum six people. That's two people and two small rolling bags in America. I took one look at DB and decided to fight my sightseeing battle later. The girls and I wandered a few blocks and ordered pizza, pasta and wine for a late lunch on Via Nationale Two hours later we pried DB out of bed with a spatula and drug him the four blocks to the Colosseum. He was cranky.

He was less cranky when, thanks to Rick Steves, we bought our Roma passes in the metro station by the Colosseum (no line) for €25 per person (pp) and bypassed the enormous line at the Colosseum completely. Don't think, just buy your Roma pass. We had unlimited metro rides and two free exhibits (Colosseum and Forum count as one) for the price.

Feeling and little punchy by the time we got to the Forum, we wandered the ruins for a couple of hours, taking photos and drinking from the spring-fed water fountains before being kicked out at around 6:30pm.

Note: there are a lot of pigeons and seagulls in Rome, a fact I noticed more because apparently DB has an irrational fear of birds that I wasn't previously aware of.

Like true tourists, we stopped into the first restaurant we found outside the Forum gates, a cafe called Massenzios. We ordered spaghetti bolognese, pizza with prosciutto and two seafood risottos and washed it all down with two bottles of wine for €69. Yes, like true tourists, we fell into the first tourist trap we came to ... jet lag does that to you. As far as I remember, it was fine. We had to stop for our first gelato at Gelateria Il Gelatino on Via de Serpenti on the way back to the hotel. I had the the coffee flavored gelato, which was very good. DB falls face-down on the bed again and is out for the count.

1920-02-Roman_Colosseum.jpg

The Roman Colosseum
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 2, 2011 Day Two: Vatican City

I woke up at 6:45am and took a three hour walk before meeting the girls and DB back at the hotel for breakfast (collazione) in the breakfast room on the roof. Really good selection of cereal, pastries, cold cuts, coffee and juice. This became our routine.

As an early riser and extremely enthusiastic traveler, I'm like a kid on Christmas morning on trips like this. I ventured out alone and walked down the Via Nazionale toward the Victor Emmanuel monument. As it was June 2, the city was setting up for the big parade, so I wandered along the barricades admiring the police uniforms, which are designed by Valentino and Armani. Seriously. Mainly, the polizia stand around smoking and talking on their cell phones, but there was no traffic, so I guess there was nothing else for them to do but look good in their chic uniforms.

Very few people were out and about. I saw Trajan's column and his forum in almost complete solitude. As the morning wore on, I saw a few early parade-goers and their families and felt a bit conspicuous with my camera bag and gawky face. Rome is a place that inspires the gawky face; it can't be helped. The most amazing thing about my morning was when I walked down the Via Corso and followed the signs to the Trevi Fountain. There were two Chinese tourists and a gaggle of pigeons there, but no one else in the soft morning light. I'm not shamed to admit that I had a little La Dolce Vita moment of dreaminess and would have jumped in and danced in the fountain had it not been for those sweet Chinese folks. I shook myself mentally and took photos instead.

From there, I wandered all the way north to the Spanish Steps, which are worn down to slope toward the bottom and were slick with the morning dew. I am not waxing rhapsodic. I only know this because I slipped and slid - fell down about five of them, plopping neatly on my rump on the second tier of stairs. After a visual re-con to make sure no one saw and a small prayer that I did this before 8:00am when there are no crowds, I chalked it up to an experience. I didn't just see the steps, I fell down them.

I walked back to the hotel and made it just in time to have breakfast and coffee with the girls. DB was grumpy and not showered by the time I got back to the room. "Today is Vatican Day!" I chirped, and he brightened a little bit. He's secretly dying to see the Pope's digs.

I had pre-booked a five-hour tour for the four of us through Romeing tours. They are awesome. Ian Sumpter was our guide and promised us a €20 discount if we brought him a U.S. Sports logo ball cap. Longhorn cap in hand, we met Ian in our hotel lobby.

When Ian picked us up, DG1 and DG2 were in for a shock. Ian is an extremely good looking Irish bloke. DGs perk up. I immediately started congratulating myself for inadvertently finding the best looking guide with the cutest accent in Rome. DG2 gives me a high five and we girls all wipe a little drool away before setting off with Ian to the Vatican. DB acts oblivious. Ian sets off with four little ducklings in tow. Even DB has a bit of a man crush because of Ian's Irish accent and all the football talk. DB spent much of his childhood in London. They talk of London and Ireland while we three girls admire from behind.

Had to take a circuitous route through Rome because of closed metro stations for the parade. We walk several blocks and don't have trouble with pickpockets on our first metro ride to the Vatican. Let's just all pause to appreciate that Ian picked us up at our hotel and escorted us to the Vatican and booked our welcome driver and Vatican tickets, all for less than €400 for four people. (€240 for the five-hour tour, €81 for Vatican tickets, €60 for the airport van) I know it sounds like a lot, but it was worth every penny and was less than any other tour company offering private tours. Ian was awesome!

Ian took us through the security and started our tour with a very funny intro out on the Vatican patio with full pantomime demonstration of Egyptian, classical, renaissance and baroque art poses. Ian is very knowledgeable and awfully cute. Did I say that already?

Had lunch in the Vatican cafe and had the worst pizza in the world. Like Chef Boyardee, but cold and rubbery. Had beer though, so all was well.

We saw the pine cone piazza, and the brass globe in the courtyard, which is like the eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings, before heading into the sculpture galleries, where I promptly lost my glasses in in the Greek sculpture room. Miraculously, I found my glasses. After all, it is the Vatican. Thanks Pope Benedict. Never thought I would need to learn the Italian word for glasses, but it actually came in handy when I asked the right docent if he had found any during my search. I nearly had a claustrophobic fistfight with the crowds touching me in the miniature pantheon/octagonal room but DG1 and I made it out without bloodshed. DB, Ian and I went to the Raphael rooms expecting terrible crowds and left the girls behind at the Sistine chapel. Another miracle: there were no crowds to be seen, so DB and I had a private Raphael tour and met the girls in the Sistine chapel. We marveled and got the heck out.

Ian showed us St. Peters and then left us to climb to the dome ourselves. (€20 for four people). We thanked him, tried to restrain ourselves from hugging him, and paid him with cash and Longhorn hat. Next, we climbed the dome ... 551 steps. DG1 at 23 and DG2 at 21 are young, and you'd think they would have more energy and enthusiasm, but both looked ready to fall over by the time we got to the top. DB and I were good, and I was definitely the most childishly enthusiastic at 37. Mass started while we were at the top, so we got to watch the Benediction mass from the cupola at 4:45pm before heading down.

I was up for Castel Sant Angelo and Bernini's bridge, but DB and the girls boycotted any more walking. They plopped down on a stone wall, and I left them outside the Vatican so I could power walk the quarter mile to Bernini's bridge of angels. A couple were getting their wedding photos taken on the bridge, which was romantic and inhibiting, as I was snapping my own photos. I hope I'm not in some couple's wedding album. Weird.

Power walked back, scooped up my pooped compadres, and we all took the Metro back to the hotel. We showered and headed off to dinner at a fabulous restaurant recommended by our hotelier right off the Via Nazionale called Petruccis. Four meals, a couple of appetizers, two carafes of wine for €91. Not bad.

After dinner, we all walked to the Trevi fountain. What a difference! There were a million tourists there! Of course, it's still beautiful, but more like Disneyland. I was so grateful I saw it early and empty and magically. We walked back to the hotel, where the girls and I left DB and then walked to Colosseum to photograph it in all its nightly splendor. Then, we stopped at Il Gelateria again for gelato (dulche de leche this time.) Bedtime.

1920-03-Vatican_BW.jpg

Vatican City
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 3, 2011 Day Three: Rome - Jewish Ghetto and the Pantheon Before Driving to Florence

When I asked the girls last night if there was anything they wanted to do that we hadn't done already, DG1 mentioned she wanted to see the Jewish Ghetto. I looked it up on the map, and we agreed to meet in the morning so we could breakfast on pastries in the ghetto. DB had no interest and decided to sleep in as usual.

Woke up early again ... walked a couple of hours to see the sights. I hooked up with the girls to walk through the Jewish ghetto for cornetto and coffee. Both girls were pretty sleepy still at 9:30am or so, but off we went with me leading according to the map and my two ducklings in tow. Well, DG2 was definitely my duckling, with her sweet disposition and tendency to just follow me without question or looking both ways on the street to make sure I wasn't leading her into traffic. DG1 cannot really be classified as a duck.

On the way to the ghetto, we saw the Victorio Emmanuel monument and Trajan's column (again, for me) before crossing the ponte fabriccio onto the island in the middle of the Tiber. At this point, DG1 was starving and getting a bit grumpy. DG2 and I were happily discussing boyfriends and their tendency to avoid doctors, but I started looking in earnest for a cafe so keep the grumpy beast at bay. We settled on pastries at a charming cafe in the heart of the ghetto. All the locals lined up to stand at the counter with their espresso and pastry, while we Americans chose to sit at a small table under umbrellas to gorge ourselves on a pile of pastries and lattes. It was a fab breakfast except for the small sparrow incident.

As I mentioned DG1 has a fear of birds and demonstrated said fear when a small sparrow landed on our table for crumbs about halfway through breakfast. After breakfast, we all met DB at the Pantheon. We explored and took photos, then decided to split up again, the girls to do some more shopping and DB and I to stroll. DB and I had an early afternoon appetizer of prosciutto and cheese at a cafe outside the Spanish Steps while waiting for the girls. We all walked to Spanish Steps; we climbed up this time. No one fell down.

Afterwards, we took the metro to the hotel. DB and I left the girls there to pack and took the Metro to go get the rental car at the train station. We navigated our way past the ZTL zones in Rome back to the closest parking spot to our hotel. I parked on Via Corso while DB walked two blocks to the hotel, got the girls and bags, and walked back lugging the bags to load us up. We couldn't park on Via dei Serpenti because it's strictly locals only unless you want a whopping ticket from the license plate cameras. I drove out of town carefully, but very quickly.

I had best panini of my life at an autogrill on the A1 on the road to Florence. I still think about it and wish I could go back.

We drove into Florence, which, like everyone says, is a total nightmare. Freakin pedestrian only ZTL signs (see the travel tips section of this website). ZTL signs are the bane of Florence. After congratulating myself for getting to Florence with no problems, we could not find a way into the city without running into a ZTL. Moving as fast as Italian traffic, it was impossible to slow down enough to get a good look at the ZTL signs and translate them (despite three solid months of Italian lessons). Finally, I was able to pull into a parking spot and walk over to a sign to find out that one of the signs only restricted cars at night from midnight until 3am. We were able to make our way to the train station, and parked at the train station and walked two blocks to the Hertz rental office (closed). ( Why Hertz chooses to be located in the center of this city is beyond rational thinking.) However, sign on door directed us to leave the car at a garage a block away for a €14 fee. No problem. Our very courteous garage attendant ordered us a taxi, whose driver was waxed from head to toe, and was wearing a wife beater and short shorts. Ah, Italia...

Our driver took us at white knuckle speed, dodging tourists, right into the Piazza della Signoria for the relatively bargain fare of €15. We were dropped at the edge of the piazza and walked across the square to the Casa del Garbo apartments, which are amazing. Right on the north east corner of the piazza our apartment opened onto the piazza itself.

We trundled our luggage over to the front door, where a small pink note was taped to door with my name on it instructing me to call the owner's number. We called and waited a few minutes, drooling at the appetizing smells coming from the cafe immediately outside our front door. Ten minutes later, we were let in by a charming young man who offered to carry one of our bags up the four flights of stairs. A quick jealous look passed between the four of us and DB2, as the smallest and youngest won out with her green eyes and cute puppy dog look. The rest of us hauled our bags up the stairs and flopped exhausted into the apartment, which was as charming as it could be without being on the ground floor.

A quick shower for all in the huge bathroom (though only one) and off we go to find food at 10:00pm at night. Thankfully Cafe Vecchio, the second cafe from our front door agreed to serve us, though we were the last guests. We had a good meal (again, a bit expensive because it was strictly tourists). When we tried to order more wine, our cute waiter just laughed charmingly, in a head-thrown-back, oh-you-funny-Americans kind of way. He said with a giggle that the kitchen is closed. We asked for wine to go, which he found even funnier. No dice. So, we took a quick turn about the piazza and turned in.

1920-04-Jewish_Ghetto.jpg

The Jewish Ghetto
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 4, 2011 Day Four: Tuscany and Volterra

Up early in the morning (jet lag receding), DB went foraging for pastries and brought back sodas, when we all wanted coffee. In all fairness, he doesn't drink coffee and thinks Dr. Pepper is the world's most perfect beverage, so we all just smiled and accepted our coffee-less lot. Our apartment had a coffee maker, but we hadn't made it to the store yet. Another trek to Hertz to rent a car to drive in Tuscany. Yes, I know it's weird to get to Florence one day and then turn around and leave it the next day, but that's the way we roll. I wanted to make the Saturday market in Volterra and since the Florence Duomo is open on Sunday but many other things in Tuscany are not, Saturday seemed like the best day for our drive. We would have two more days in Florence.

We were getting pretty adept at the ZTL dodging, so we zipped out of Florence at around 9:00am and took a beautiful drive to Volterra. DG1 and DG2 slept the whole way. I was hoping that the Volterra-Twilight movie series tie-in would garner some enthusiasm ... once they woke up. I made DB pull over several times so I could get out and take photos of the Tuscan countryside. I could have driven all day with that kind of scenery, especially since the weather was gorgeous and I was with my sweetie. Our eyes were as big as saucers taking it all in.

We arrived in Volterra in time for the market (closes at 1:00pm) and wandered through the market stalls, which sold everything from fruit to granny-sized panties and girdles for the Italian grandmas. I should note that we were able to find free parking in one of the many free lots (thanks again, Rick Steves). I agree with other posters on this website that it's best to rent the smallest car possible so you can fit into the tiniest parking spots in the world.

For lunch, we had to wait a bit since restaurants don't open until noon. We were the first customers at Il Pozzo Degli Etruschi on Via Delle Prigoni in Volterra, which has great food and the cutest waiter in the world. Seriously. DG1 and DG2 begin drooling again. Twilight-schmilight. The fastest way into these girls' heart is a good looking guy. Can I take credit for this one too? Most of our lunch conversation involved the morals of leaving stateside boyfriends for cute Italian men. We ordered the antipasti de mare, crostini with pate, bruschetta with pomodoro, two macaroni for DB and I, ravioli with tartufi for DG1 and grilled vegetable pizza for DG 2. Only half of a liter of wine since were driving. All of that was only €57. Wow.

After lunch, we wandered and marveled for about 20 minutes before the girls wanted to go back to Florence. Thus began the first real rough spot of our trip. It's a weird dynamic. DB is 41 and I'm 37. Neither of us has kids. We've been together a long time, and though we're both successful, we aren't rich. Family means a lot to DB and years ago, he made a promise to all of his much younger cousins that he would take them on a trip when they graduated from high school. Generous, right? He took the first group of five cousins to Ireland a few years ago and this year, we combined our trip to Italy with DG1 and 2. I have to confess here that I really don't get the girls' lack of enthusiasm. If a cousin were giving me an all-expense paid trip to Italy, I can't imagine pooping out 20 minutes into the first town on the Tuscany itinerary. DB is a bigger person than I. He would give you the shirt off his back, and if you were tired a mere 100 yards from the top of Everest, he would turn the sherpas around. I just goggled at the girls and said, "How about ya'll sleep in the car on the way to San Gimignano?" The girls didn't appreciate my suggestion. After some more half-hearted sightseeing in Volterra, we drove back to Florence by way of San Gimignano, though we never got out of the car. Yeah. Bummer, right?

I ooooohed and ahhed from the car to try to regain some of my own enthusiasm. On the bright side, it did start to rain after we left San G and so it wasn't so tragic that we were returning to Florence so early. We were now pros at the ZTL thing and returned the car with no problem.

I walked DB and the girls to the apartment, and then set out alone for another two hour walk around town, stopping into shops and churches along the way. At dinnertime, I met them at the apartment and we headed out to dinner. Since everyone was tired, we basically fell out of the apartment again and ate at i'Lorenzaccio, a trattoria right outside our apartment. This time, we ordered the quatro fromaggio pizza, insalata misti for three, bruschetta, lasagna for DB, fettucini alfredo with salmone for DG2, and vegetable pizza for DG1. A full liter of wine, a €109 bill, and we're ready for gelato.

Mint for me, mint and cioccolatto for DG1, mango for DG2, and DB tried to get fancy and order vanilla with some fresh strawberries. However, apparently they only sell strawberries by the pound, so what he actually got was a pint of stawberries and a small scoop of vanilla on top. It cost like €10. He had forty strawberries left over. We ate some of them for breakfast:)

1920-05-Volterra.jpg

Volterra
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 5, 2011 Day Five: the Ufizzi and a Rainy Day in Florence

Tired from my long day of walking, I slept until 9:00 the next morning. Now jet-lag free, DB was up early and went to pick up our tickets for the Ufizzi Gallery, which was about 100 feet across the Piazza della Signoria. I showered in our palatial bathroom and got ready without hearing a peep from the girls' bedroom. DB returned and again dragged the girls out of bed. A little tired of the grumbling and frustrated by their lack of enthusiasm, I went to get a croissant and a coffee to go while we waited for them. DB is a saint for letting me have some alone time. We all met at the Ufizzi.

DG1 never really recovered from the fact that she had to get up by 8:30am. An admittedly type-A traveler, I had downloaded a self-guided audio tour courtesy of Rick Steves on DB's and my iPods as well as a couple of extras for the girls. DG2 was quite happily plugged in on the tour, but DG1 drifted behind until a leaking water bottle in her bag gave her the excuse she needed to bug out and wait for us in the cafe. The rest of us saw the Ufizzi, including the Venus on the Half Shell and wonderful sculptures. Once the tour was over, we had a snack in the rooftop cafe and wandered the museum a bit more before heading to the Duomo piazza for lunch.

We stopped in to a trattoria/cafe called Il Ristoro for lunch. Our waiter adored DB2 with her sweet face and dark hair and took every opportunity to call her sweetie, honey, darling. We all ordered food at counter and Luigi our loving waiter brought it to us at some delightfully air-conditioned tables at the back of the trattoria. Collectively, we ordered grilled, stuffed pomodoro, a beef and zuchini panini (me), a salami and cheese panini, caprese salad for DG2 and a vegetable calzone for DG1. Cost: about €27. We walked around the Duomo rather than going in because of crazy lines (only open from 1:30 until 4:30pm on Sunday, so everyone was making the most of the day) and hit the gold stores to window shop on the Ponte de Vecchio. I wanted a gold charm for my charm bracelet, but the €380 price tag on every tiny charm was too much for me.

We crossed the river and walked the hundreds of stairs to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the best view of Florence. Gorgeous, until the sky cracked open and DG1 and I took shelter in a pitch black church (Sant' Niccolo) to wait it out. DB and DG2 took shelter in a small portico outside the church. Inside the church, hundreds of people piled in, but the roof leaked. At least it kept the hail off our heads. I sat down with my handy iPad to blog and DG1 contemplated our position in case a tornado hits. It didn't. We eventually ran outside to hook up with DB and DG2 and all sat down to blog, text, mess with our fancy cameras and lament the fact that three of us were wearing white.

Since it rained every day at 4:00pm, we thought the rain would stop if we just waited it out. We waited. And waited. No sign of stopping. Finally, we decided to call a taxi, or at least the apartment concierge, so he could call a taxi for us, but our sweet concierge told me in halting English that it was probably not possible. When it rains, everyone takes a taxi, and the likelihood that he could get one to drive up to San Niccolo on the Mount was slim. Maybe if we walked down to Michelangelo's plaza?

We walked down to the plaza and found an American couple who called a taxi and had been waiting an hour. So, we hiked up our sodden white capri pants and started hoofing it through the rain to the bottom of the hill, where we found another miracle in the form of a wine bar tended by another good looking waiter. We adopted a new motto: when it rains, we pour. Three glasses of cabernet later, we ran the mile back to our apartment, giggling.

We had a dinner reservation at 7:30 at Trattoria Nella, which we made in person the day before. It would be another miracle if we could all shower and and hoof it over to the restaurant in time.

Military showers and a short walk later, we discovered that despite our miraculous bathing abilities, many restaurants, including our own, shut down when it rains because of poor tourist flow. The proprietor waved us off lazily with a shrug, saying something like, "problem with the kitchen." DB makes a half hearted attempt to negotiate ... 'we made a reservation!' Another shrug. Dejectedly, we stumbled off to find food to soak up the wine we drank earlier.

We fell into the first tourist trap restaurant we found that was open, the Bar La Borsa. We were seated outside, but our table was under a large portico and dry. Our waiter was friendly, and apparently has an ex girlfriend from Austin, Texas. I found this hard to believe, but it was a good ploy to garner a big tip. He joked and then followed every joke with Jay, kaaay!. Jaaay kaaay (text talk for just kidding). Oddly, he called DG2 Jennifer all night (not her name ... not even in the ballpark) and flirted outrageously, which worked somewhat to put everyone in a better mood. We ordered two more bottles of wine, the largest diet coke you've ever saw, four misti insalatas, fettuchini with prosciutto, tagliatari with zucchini, a pizza margherita, a pizza with prosciutto and funghi, and a sausage pizza for a grand total of €96.

We switched tables to get away from a table full of smokers, only to have two French tourists seated next to us later who plow through three cigarettes each in 30 minutes. We're done with our meal by the time the last one is lit and DB and I opened our umbrella behind us to block the fumes. Yes, I know its childish and probably as rude as trying to inflict lung cancer on your dinner neighbors with second hand smoke. However, but by that time, we had four bottles of wine in us for the day and no more friendly tolerance for the masses of smokers in Italy. Miracle number three happens when we asked if we could take a bottle of wine to go and our waiter just gave us one without making us pay for it. We shuffled cheerfully home in the rain and eventually went to bed.

1920-06-Florence_Rain.jpg

Raining in Florence
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 6, 2011 Day Six: Florence Duomo & Road Trip to Venice

Last day in Florence. I get up at 6:30 and wander. Since it was raining yesterday, I decide to walk back over to Michaelangelo Piazza to see if I can get a photo or two of Florence. The piazza is deserted and has the best views of Florence. They even have an open concession stand. I wander back along the river and the Ponte Vecchio, still shuttered and deserted in the early pre-tourist morning. I look at the Duomo in the early morning light and then find a military police parade warming up back in the Pizza del Signoria. It looks like they're throwing some kind of awards ceremony with platoons of red feather crested helmets and rifle platoons; there are even K-9 units. The small military band plays and they march around. I take photos and then pick up three coffees to go and some pastries. I drop one of the coffees on the way back to the apartment, so my morning offering to the girls is the pastries, and I drink the other two coffees myself.

We leave the day's itinerary up to the girls, and they decide to see the Duomo and then the Accademia Gallery to see the David, which we had meant to do yesterday before the rain. The Duomo lines are crazy. I read in Rick Steves that if you go to the Duomo Museum, you can buy tickets for the Terraces of the Duomo Tour for 15 euro a ticket and don't have to wait in the lines. We buy our tickets for the English tour that starts at noon and, congratulating ourselves for skipping the mile long line, grab a snack and some drinks, and then walk over to the Accademia to see the David. Doh! It's Monday and the gallery is closed. We actually came to Florence and didn't see the David. I'm sad. No one else seems to be. The girls go off to shop while DB and I stroll. We meet up for the tour and are gobsmacked by the accessibility this tour has. You literally slip in the back door with no wait, meet your English speaking guide, and get an informed tour of the church itself before being led to a side door to climb a few hundred steps out to the outside of the church, where you walk along the parapets for amazing views of the city and the piazza far far below.

Then, you are led to another side door where you can climb to the top of the dome on your own, or choose to go back down. Unsurprisingly by now, DG1 and 2 go down while DB and I climb to the top. It's only a hundred or so more steps and some winding corridors to get within a few hundred feet of Brunelleschi's frescoed dome. Gorgeous. Magnificent. Wish you were here. We climb up to the very top to see a panorama of Florence from the lantern, take some photos and climb back down.

We venture back to the apartment to pack and call a taxi to drop us off at Hertz (again) to pick up the rental car and drive to Venice. The girls do not seem happy to be getting back in the car. The third time is the charm. After three trips in and out of the ZTL driving zones in Florence to and from the Hertz office on Maso Fineguerra, we managed it for the last time with no problems. The car's GPS has this weird Darth Vader voice which gives us directions in slow motion. It's too slow to be helpful, so we rely on the Michelin maps I had downloaded onto my iPad "in case of emergencies." Another gorgeous drive through northern Tuscany and Perugia, winding through hills and tunnels, we head toward Venice. Approximately three and a half hours and another stop at the Autogrill for the worlds best panini, we arrive In Venice and pull into the convenient Hertz parking lot just over the bridge at Piazale Roma.

DG1 and 2 looked beat, and I worried about getting them and their bags over all the bridges and cobblestones to the B&B. We all trooped over to the tourist information booth outside the station to get vaporetto tickets, and then trooped over to the fermata stop to catch the number 51 vaporetto to the San Zacharia stop, just past St. Mark's square. It was a beautiful boat ride over to the incredibly packed San Zacharia vaporetto stop, with the sun setting and clouds rolling in.

We trundle our luggage over a bridge and down an alley or two to find the Locanda Querini, our B&B in Venice. We found the B&B without getting lost thanks to the old iPad and the maps I had downloaded. So far we were two for two on good hotels, so I was optimistic.

My optimism faded a bit when I found out they only had one room reserved for our four person party. I had booked two double rooms, but was told on arrival they only had one room by a sweet concierge with almost no English. No problem. This is why I have been learning Italian. I whipped out the iPad and showed the concierge the confirmation email I had received just a few days earlier (upon my request). I think he could tell from my I-am-a-prosecutor lawyer tone and look that I was not going to settle for one room. I didn't mean to scare the guy, but in moments he was on the phone with the owner. DB and the girls look nervous. I explain what's going on. The owner clears everything up by phone. The concierge was so sweet about it ... even offered to carry my bag up the one flight up the stairs. All crises averted, I chatted with him in my halting Italian to make nice nice.

We're shown to our rooms, which are charming in a Grandma's artwork kind of way. The girls' room is especially nice, as it looked out onto the sleepy Quirinal Plaza through four large windows with floor-to-ceiling brocade drapes and red geraniums in the window boxes. Both rooms had private baths, Murano glass chandeliers and tall, tall ceilings and were spacious by European standards. I paid €560 for two double rooms for two nights (approximately $198 per night per room). Not cheap, but a good price for Venice, and a great location.

We rested for a while and went out in search of food. Looking back, I am ashamed to say I didn't place much emphasis on on restaurant research. We are kind of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants when it comes to eating. Although DG1 is a self-proclaimed foodie and an expert in health and fitness (she was a bit disappointed in the lack of vegetable and fruit selections on the menus in Italy), the rest of us will pretty much eat anything you put in front of us.

We sat down at the Da Aciugheta Ristorante around the corner from our hotel and weren't much disappointed, despite its being an expensive tourist trap (yet again). We shared an order of bruschetta, then DB and I ordered the special - linguini di mare, a yummy mix of squid, mussels, clams, and various other shellfish on a bed of buttered linguine with basil. I cleared my plate. DG1 ordered an insalata mista and spaghetti, and DG2 ordered the salad with a pizza. And of course, we all ordered wine, which came in a bottle, not a carafe like it did in Tuscany. Hey, no problem. We're flexible. It was a long dinner and we sat at the table for hours watching people and chatting. It was one of our most expensive meals, at €118.

DB had to do some work and left us girls to go find an Internet cafe that we saw on the short walk to the restaurant. The girls and I continued to drink and chat as only girls can do. DB actually came back at some point to check on us and nothing had changed but the amount of wine in the bottle.

At this point, the odd dynamic reasserted itself. The girls' trip was almost over since they were flying out in two days to go back home. After a bottle of wine or so, DG1 was feeling comfortable enough to let me in on her thoughts of the trip so far. I had met both girls before, but don't know them well. They don't live in Texas and we hardly ever see them. However, DG1 went on to tell me that this trip wasn't what she expected and that she and DG2 (who was silent throughout the discussion) were surprised I was even invited on "their trip." She told me this trip wasn't how they envisioned their trip, which would have started in Rome and then wandered at will without a plan or reservations. According to DG1, they would have slept in every day and then had a leisurely brunch before deciding the plan for the day. At a break in the harangue, I gently reminded her that DB and I are beyond the backpacking phase of our lives and that trying to fit three cities into an eight day span of time required a bit of coordination seeing as how we were staying in apartments and hotels rather than hostels. I also reminded her that it was they who decided to do three cities in eight days, and that they were asked to list the things they wanted to do in each city. After that, I just kept my mouth shut, apologizing that it wasn't the trip they wanted and keeping my thoughts to myself.

Now, I realize that a blog like this is a bit unfair because it's from my perspective and I'm not planning on sharing it with the girls. It wouldn't exactly be good for DB's family harmony. That being said, my thoughts at this point were basically that:

1) DB and I have been together a long time and split the costs of this trip down the middle, which meant I was paying for one of the girls, but was in the unenviable position of being told I shouldn't have been "invited";

2) if a cousin and his girlfriend had invited me on an all-expense-paid trip to Europe at 23 years old, I would not be looking a gift horse in the mouth;

3) DB and I made all of the decisions together and the fact that DB was off working instead of taking this conversation on the chin like I was was friggin' irritating;

4) this conversation would not be happening if DB were here. Apparently I am bad cop today ... and on this trip;

5) no more wine for either of you two spoiled ungrateful...(not going to finish that thought);

6) They have been drinking and they are apparently not used to getting up early and traveling extensively, so I will let this slide. I can always blog about it later.

Yeah. Okay, I feel a bit better. After my peace-making apology, DG1 had no steam left and DG2 had the grace to look embarrassed. DG2 was actually quite sweet about it and went pretty far to make up for the tone and content of DG1's rant. The girls and I walked a bit after dinner and then we all went back to the B&B. DG2, now nervous about what I would say to their generous cousin, actually walked me into DB's and my room and hovered uncomfortably. She hugged me goodnight and awkwardly left with what I can only imagine were uncomfortable thoughts about the discussion DB and I were about to have. DB was still busy working on his laptop and didn't notice. I went to bed without saying a word to him. I didn't trust myself at that point. We'll continue this on the morning of Day 8... (Don't you just love other people's dirty laundry?)

1920-07-Duomo_Terraces.jpg

Duomo Terraces
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 7, 2011 Day Seven: Venice

DB woke up as I was preparing for my usual morning expedition to really get to know Venice in the early morning light. He could tell I was irritated by something from the previous day. I told him what happened and vented my frustration. Solid, loyal guy that he is, he got pretty fired up because he knows how much planning and worrying I did about putting a trip together that would please everyone, especially two college-aged girls. Then, it was me who had to talk him down off the ledge. We decided that I would be off the hook for the girls' last day in Italy and that he would entertain them, or rather follow them around while they decided what they wanted to do for the day. I was perfectly happy to have a day of sightseeing to myself. I left to explore, get some more cash, and have some breakfast.

I returned around 9:30am and DB and I showered and put on wet weather gear because the clouds we saw the day before came in with a fury and it was raining outside. Having rethought the issue of having to entertain the girls by himself, DB began a major campaign to try and smooth things over and convince me to come with him and the girls. Huh. (Here's me thinking a bit uncharitably, "It ain't so easy, is it Mr. Internet Cafe").

His re-think began when I reminded him that DG2 had really only had one thing on her list for Venice -- to see some glass blowing on Murano. No one but DG2 wanted to take the 45 minute water bus out to the island, see some glass factories and then truck the 45 minutes back to Venice on their only full day in town. I was happy to be missing this little expedition and DB didn't want to do it either. Ever the problem solver, I told DB that Rick Steves recommended a little known glass blowing demo off St. Mark's square -- a compromise to the Murano round trip. The catch was that you had to flash your RS Guidebook to a guy in the shop below and beg entrance to the demo, which is normally a private affair for cruise passengers, with special exceptions made for RS devotees. DB looked at me with horror and said he wasn't going through all that rigamarole just to see some glass and that DG2 could lump it. I crossed my arms, raised my eyebrow and said "Welcome to the club of sacrificing what you want to do to make other people happy, my love." That's when the big "come with us" sales pitch started.

What can I say, I am a sucker.

First, we stopped off at the Trattoria all' Antica Sacrestia, a Rick Steves recommendation that was a block away from our hotel to make reservations for four for that evening. The owner looked so pleased to have someone make a reservation, he said my name over and over as if committing it to memory instead of writing it down.

Our next stop was Rick Steves' glass blowing demonstration. We walked over to St. Marks Square, where the Galleria San Marco has a glass showroom. With my slightly guilty looking crew trailing behind me, I walked to the back of the shop, where a good looking Italian man stood with an FBI earpiece (not really ... I think it was a blue tooth) was guarding the back door. I said to him in my best Italian,"Mi piache Rick Steves. Vorrei vedere il demonstrazione, per piachere." (I like Rick Steves. I'd like to see the demonstration, please," or something to that effect, while holding out my iPad, which had been cleverly turned to the full-color cover of Rick Steves' Italy 2011 guidebook in Kindle e-book format). The Italian James Bond chuckled, mentioned something about Rick and my charming Italian language skills and let us past the red velvet rope. (Okay, I think it was a chain).

We went across an alley, through a door, up some steps, and were met by another good looking Italian boy. He was dressed in tight, almost white jeans, a carefully unbuttoned-to-just-there shirt, and had a very smooth sales pitch. He took us to see a brief glass blowing demo being given to paying tourists through various tour companies (ours were Japanese) where a master artist blew out a beautiful red horse with black feet and mane. I felt smug because, for the bargain price of 12 dollars for Rick's book (which is worth its weight in gold), I got to make DG2's activity happen while saving everyone the 80 minute round-trip vaporetto ride out to Murano. DB just looked at me with wide eyes and told me how glad he was to have me with him. I felt better.

The charming, very smooth as glass sales specimen of fine Italian genetics walked us slowly through the showrooms trying to get DB to buy his ladies a €4,000 blown glass fish or Picasso-like figure in profile, but with two eyes on the left cheekbone. DGs just made eyes and smiles at said specimen and distracted him from his purpose of emptying our pockets. Eventually, DB gave a last look around and said we had better go ... we'll think about the big fish ... and we became the tourist fishes that got away. To be fair, I did buy a small Venetian glass and silver charm for my bracelet for €28 because it is beautiful, makes a lovely souvenir, and because I appreciated the red carpet treatment and free tour. I recommend this glass shop for those of you who can afford some of those beautiful higher priced items.

We strolled around St. Mark's until we found a cafe selling Cokes and panini. We bought two panini to share around and started to sit at a "free" table, only to be told by the cashier that if we sat, the price would be double. We didn't sit. We took our drinks and panini outside and sat on the steps, watching the rain and letting the girls decide what to do next.

The girls had no idea. We sat some more. DG2 turned to me and said, "What do you want to do?" Oh, no! Not falling for that one. I said I would do whatever, or could go off on my own. Girls frown in thought. Nothing happens. Sigh. It rains some more. I look at DB, who is now carefully avoiding my eyes. Good Lord. "All right," I finally say, "Since it's raining, we can either see the Duomo and/or the Doge's palace, or we can hop on the vaporetto no. 42 and float down to see the Rialto and the Grand Canal. Rick Steves says the San Giorgo Maggiore church bell tower has a great view of Venice and it's not supposed to have much in the way of a line." Everyone jumps on my coattails and off we set for the vaporetto stop. (Can you tell I'm a little gun-shy at this point? Is this what it's like to be a mom? If so, you mothers have my sympathy. I'm not cut out for this.)

We ooh and ahh our way down the Grand Canal snapping photos and arrive at the island of San Giorgio and the church. We explore the church and take the elevator to the top and take some more photos. Because of the rain, we didn't stay long at the top of the bell tower but saw Venice from across the canal looking stately and gray in the mist and rain.

On our way back through the church, we noticed several workers tinkering with a large white cylinder in the center of the nave. It looked almost like a 6 foot tall white hockey puck-like altar. As we were leaving, DB spotted a poster for Anish Kappor, an artist who was exhibiting a performance art installation in the church. Sure enough, just before we left, they got the complicated cylinder, which houses an amazing smoke apparatus, working. The smoke from the cylinder rises up like a tornado and is sucked up by a large duct and fan placed in the dome of the nave. The installation was titled "Ascension" and represented Mary's spiritual ascent into heaven. With the lighting in the white marble church, the whole effect was ethereal and really did look like a spirit rising to heaven. It was beautiful and definitely goes down on my list of best serendipitous sights in Italy.

Full of wonder, we hopped back on the vaporetto for the short trip back to San Zaccharia. We went briefly back to the hotel to freshen up, then walked down to La Serenissima for coffee and some wireless Internet and a snack. Turns out, the only things they had for a snack were the usual formaggio, fish, and pasta plates. We all really wanted coffee on this cool and rainy day, so we ordered three coffees, one black tea for DB, and then the fun started. We ordered one shrimp cocktail, one cheese plate (formaggio misto), one small plate of spaghetti and bruschetta. Our waiter didn't even try to hide his disgust. He actually refused to take the order at first. Finally, and with face screwed up in anguish, he put in our order, but basically shamed us mercilessly for the 45 minutes we were there. And yes, it was our foodie that ordered a cappucino and spaghetti, so I didn't feel so bad with my cheese and Americano.

Next, we split up - the girls to shop and DB and I to stroll down to the Rialto and ride the vaporetto number two back up the grand canal to Harry's Bar. We didn't order anything, but peeked in just to see what all the fuss was about. Then we all met back at the Trattoria alla' Antica Sacrestia for dinner. We were met by the owner, who called out my name as if we were old friends and showed us to a table in a room wall-papered in old Venetian prints and artwork, wood-beamed ceiling and old wood furniture. Sugar-rimmed glassed of a campari apertif were served immediately as a house special. We ordered the antipasti special, a seafood platter that came with baby shrimp in an interesting flavored mayonnaise, mussels, cabbage, calimari and assorted other items that I can't recall. It was delicious. We ordered another bottle of cabernet. I ordered the pasta of the day, a porcini and linguine pasta dish that was so full of flavor, it left me wondering what they do to our mushrooms back home that makes them so bland. DB order a prosciutto pizza, which he says was the best he has had in Italy so far. The girls both ordered salads and DG1 had the lasagna, while DG2 ordered a seafood pasta. Great meal. Lovely old world atmosphere. It was almost too much when the owner presented me with a little gift of roasted, dried peppers and tomatoes as a parting gift. Everyone should make a reservation here.

After dinner, we took a final vaporetto trip down the canal at night so the girls could see the Rialto bridge at night and get one last gelato before their early flight back to college and home the next day. I saw my first huge Venetian rat on the wharf, which thankfully was at least 10 feet away and quickly disappeared. We boated back and went to bed.

Now, I know what you're thinking. We didn't see the Doge's Palace or the inside of St. Mark's Cathedral. How can you go to Venice and not see those things? I agree with you. I just wasn't prepared to make a fuss about it when I know the girls have little attention span or desire to see the inside of more museums and churches. DB couldn't care less. Someday I will go back. The peace of mind was worth the loss of the tours.

1920-08-Ascension.jpg

Ascension by Anish Kapoor
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 8, 2011 Day Eight: Kayaking the Canals of Venice

DB and I got up at 5:15am to pack and send the girls off. We walked them down to the San Zaccaria vaporetto stop to take the Orange Line Alilaguna boat to the airport. We waited with them for the boat, then said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel.

DB attempted a couple more hours of sleep, while I went out exploring again on our final (and rainless) day in Venice. I had a good two hours to kill and I used it well, walking all over the island taking photos and just soaking it in. As early as it was, there were practically no tourists and only a few locals walking dogs and setting up shops. I walked pretty far afield, visiting the San Polo, Santa Croce and Dorsoduro neighborhoods. Venice is an amazing city for details: funny doorknobs set in the middle of doors in the shape of gargoyles, small shrines set in alcoves above and next to doors, old wooden boat moored to private landings on the canals, seagulls washing themselves in cisterns, and buckets on a rope that are let down to haul groceries and deliveries up to upper stories of the tall, narrow buildings.

DB and I had something really special planned for the day. We booked a kayak trip with Venice Kayak, where our guide Rene would guide us through the canals of Venice at water level. I met DB back in the B&B, where we packed up the rest of our luggage and left it in storage in the lobby. We took the number 42 vaporetto from San Zaccaria to the island of Certosa, a stop that we had to request especially since the water bus only stops there upon request. We walked down the long wooden pier and into the walled enclosure on Certosa, which houses boat builders and other maritime businesses and research outfits. We walked down the main path and spotted a couple of tall Danish men relaxing outside the island's only cafe.

With our Texas Longhorn baseball caps, we were easily recognizable as the tourist paddlers for the day. Rene Seindal and his friend Piers were our guides for the day. We bought some bottled water at the cafe and then headed down a grass path to get outfitted with our kayaks, life jackets and spray skirts before hauling the lot down to the lagoon and setting out across the bay.

I cannot adequately describe the next six hours. It was magical. I won't say it's not hard work -- there were three foot swells in the lagoon and it was a lot of paddling, but I would do this again and again if given another chance. There is no better way to see Venice.

We paddled into the naval boat yard at the east end of the island first, pausing to see a submarine and the glorious architecture before being ushered out by the naval police. We then paddled along the coastline until turning into the canals just before St. Mark's square. DB and I are relatively experienced paddlers, but we have never kayaked in such close quarters before. I, in particular, was a bit of a maniac at first because I was so enthusiastic about taking photos, managing my paddle, and drinking in the waters-edge view. I found it hard to concentrate on maneuvering my 14-foot kayak in channels barely wide enough for two kayakers when there was so much to see.

Rene, our guide, is from Denmark, but moved to Venice years ago and now gives knowledgeable kayak tours of the city. He has apparently had to deal with a lot of disgruntled gondoliers, who must have a license to operate in the canals, whereas Rene does not. He and Piers were wonderful, snapping photos of DB and I all day, which they later sent to us in an online album. Rene kept a running dialogue going of Venice's history. We paddled quietly through back alley canals with Venetian laundry hanging out to dry overhead. Occasionally, gondoliers and local boats would pass us as we gripped stonework, doors, boats and each other to steady our kayaks in the wake of these larger boats, which tossed us gently around. Many of the beautiful bridges that we paddled under were barely tall enough to allow a gondolier to pass under while hunching and ducking to fit. We had no trouble and glided easily along, with the hoards of summer tourists trooping over the bridges above our heads. So many of them took my photo, I felt self-conscious and wished I looked more presentable than the two pigtails I sported under my Longhorns cap. Many Texans called out "Longhorns!" or "Go! Sooners!" (boo) as we paddled by.

We stopped for lunch at a pizzeria on the Campo San Giovanni e Paolo underneath the large equestrian statue of Colleoni in front of the stately old church. We just paddled up to the white marble steps leading from the water to the piazza and left our kayaks on the first wide step. We walked a few meters over to the cafe and sat an ate. We got a lot of stares, but it was fun.

Back in the boat after lunch, our beautiful sunny day began to turn a bit darker and Rene checked the forecast and said it would likely rain in the afternoon. In one of the most staggering moments of the day, we paddled down the tiny Rio de Santissimo canal, which is only accessible by kayak, and paddled through a tiny tunnel just tall enough for kayakers. The tunnel leads directly under the Santo Stefano church and put us out near the Campo Sant'Angelo on the other side. Loosely heading for home now, we paddled the piece de resistance (sorry for the French)and hit the Grand Canal to paddle under the Rialto Bridge. This was the action sequence of the day, since we had to dodge water taxis, fast-moving and unforgiving vaporetti, and stern-faced gondoliers on the main route through Venice. Paddling hard, we made it safely down and across the Grand Canal and back out to the bay via some smaller canals. Once in the lagoon again, the weather turned and the water rose to three foot swells. We struggled back to Certosa, tired and happy.

I would love to close this portion of the report and pretend that the day was perfect, but thus begins probably the biggest planning mistake I made on the whole trip. Not wanting to lose any more time than was necessary, we planned on renting a car after our kayak trip and driving down south to the Amalfi Coast, stopping for the night in Assisi.

Oh. My. God. My arms were so tired from paddling and I was dirty and just plain beat, but DB and I retrieved our luggage and made it to the airport to pick up the rental car by 7:30pm that night. We set out south and stopped for dinner at another Autogrill for panini before continuing the journey south. It was the most painful drive I think I have ever made in my life! We were so tired. The odometer was just crawling along. DB and I had to switch drivers several times, because once it got dark, the narrow mountainous road and florescent-lit tunnels just got hypnotically monotonous. Somehow, we made it to Assisi and the Hotel Fontebella before passing out completely.

Note to self: never drive after eight hours of kayaking!

1920-09-Venice_Kayak.jpg

Kayaking in Venice
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 9, 2011 Day Nine: Assisi, the Marmore Cascade, & Sorrento

After the misery of our drive the day before, DB and I woke up in a beautiful hotel room with a spectacular view of the Perugian countryside. I heartily recommend the Hotel Fontebella, but make sure you book the Valley View room overlooking the broad expanse of countryside to the south. We paid $161 for one night. This was DB' favorite hotel, mainly because of the comfortable king-sized bed. He wished we could have stayed longer than one night for that reason alone. We slept in and relaxed a bit.

As usual, I got up earlier so as not to miss the fantastic breakfast, which is included in the price of the room. If you stay here, do not miss breakfast. It's the room. It's in this vaulted-ceiling cavern on the ground floor, where the sun streams in and turns the white bricks golden in the light. It's medieval and glorious. They serve cold cuts, pastries, cereal, juice, coffee and other assorted yumminess.

For $10, we got to park our rental car all day just steps across the narrow road from the front door. So, we left the car and strolled around Assisi, popping into St. Francis' church to pay homage and climbing the steep winding streets to Rocca Maggiore, the medieval castle atop the hill. As far as I am concerned, this is a must-see and better than anything else in town. You truly get a sense of what it was like to live in a medieval castle. We climbed the battlements and walked across the long brick corridor that connects the tower with the castle proper to get a magnificent view of the town and surrounding farmland. We both could have spent more time in Assisi, but we were eager to get to our slow travel destination, the Amalfi Coast. All too soon, we climbed down the hill, packed up and drove out of town on our way down south.

We had one more stop on our way down south. I wanted to see the great man-made waterfall built by the Romans in Terni. It was a beautiful drive and a nice place to stop and rest. We parked at the top of the hill and walked to the upper belvedere to view the waterfall, which was creating rainbows in the sun. We shot some gorgeous photos and then drove down to the lower belvedere to see all of the falls from a greater vantage point. We would have hiked down and back up, but dark clouds were once again gathering in the distance, and we wanted to stay as dry as possible. Sure enough, as soon as we got to the bottom viewing belvedere, it started to rain. We stood in awe for a few moments, snapped a couple of photos, and then headed back to the car.

The drive to the Amalfi Coast was uneventful and easier than the drive from Venice to Assisi. The hard part came when we hit the pedestrian only signs (again) in the town of Sorrento, where we would be staying for the next six days. Finally, I just had DB pull up to a police officer guarding the road and explained in Italian that we were trying to check into the Palazzo Abagnale and could we drive through to drop off our luggage? No problem. The polizia practically gave us an escort on foot the two blocks to our guest house. We unloaded the luggage and checked in.

This B&B is a breath of fresh air. It's extremely mod - very 1960. Our room was pure white with modern silver and acrylic fixtures and a king-sized turquoise bed that looked exactly like the photos on the website. The staff was very kind and helpful and breakfast was delicious. Fabulous coffee and blood orange juice. We paid $603 dollars for five nights.

We parked the rental car overnight in the main city parking garage until we could return it in the morning and said goodnight.

1920-10-Marmore_Cascade.jpg

The Marmore Cascata
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 10, 2011 Day 10: Sorrento and Herculaneum

DB slept in a bit while I went downstairs in the unique three-person elevator made of glass. It was the first elevator that size that limits the capacity to three. In fact, if you bump against the walls, the car will stop. There are tiny electric laser sensors that stop the car if you break the beam. We found that out last night with our luggage.

Breakfast was good: lots of different types of pastries, corn flakes, cold cuts of prosciutto, salami and cheese, coffee and two types of juice. I had an apricot croissant, some ham and cheese and a bit of cereal with my coffee and brought some orange juice up to DB, who doesn't eat breakfast. I sat near the balcony so I could eat while people-watching on the Corso Italia just off the Piazza Tasso or main square. Hundreds of people were out strolling down Via Italia underneath the orange trees, which grow right down the main drag. I'm dying to pluck one to see if they're edible, but I'm afraid the diesel exhausts from all the vespas have tainted them.

DB and I returned the rental car. A bit farther down the Via Italia, where it turns into Via Capo, we found a laundry recommended by Rick Steves. It was about €30 for three big loads; pick-up was the next day.

DB was in the middle of trying a big lawsuit, so he needed to find another Internet cafe so he could handle a few crises. I wandered in and out of the nearby shops and bought a hat and souvenir scarfs for my sisters. Once DB's business had been reduced from a red alert to a general warning yellow, we walked back into town and had lunch at the Foreigner's Club, also recommended by Rick Steves for its panoramic view of the sea. DB had a prosciutto pizza, and I had the gnocchi in a marinara sauce. It was good, not fabulous, but the sea views made it worth the pricey bill.

In the afternoon, DB and I took the Circumvesuviana train out to Herculaneum, and got there by 4:00pm just before it closed. We took out our iPad map and the Rick Steves self guided tour and began exploring. We were amazed at how well preserved all the houses, streets and buildings were. Frescoes and mosaic floors are still gracing the walls and floors. The cobblestone streets look as if they were still in use by the donkey carts and Roman citizens who lived here how ever many hundreds of years before. We spent a couple hours wandering and wondering and made our way back to the Circumvesuviana, where we promptly got on the wrong train to Salerno, not Sorrento. We figured it out only a couple of stops later, and rode back a couple stops to get on the right train.

We were a little tired and hungry after our first day and ate at a restaurant we saw close to the station called the Rosso Lione (red lion). We really liked this place. We returned to eat here again on our last night. Wait staff brought two slices of pizza as complementary appetizers. I ordered the fettucine bolognese and DB ordered the salt and pepper prawns, which were unshelled and a mess, but tasty. The biggest disappointment was the insalata verde, or green salad. In Italian this means iceberg lettuce with some vinegar and oil. I was so hungry, I just peppered and ate every bite.

We took part in the nightly passegiatta, where everyone strolls the now-closed-to-traffic main street to kanoodle and window shop with their family, lovers, babies and dogs. The weather was beautiful and we really enjoyed our first night on the coast.

1920-11-Sorrento.jpg

Sorrento by sea
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 11, 2011 Day 11: Positano and Sorrento

Our goal for the day was to get up early and take the ferry out to Positano for some sightseeing and possibly a hike or some sunbathing on the beach. However, we didn't get moving until after ten and missed the 10:30am ferry. Since the only other ferry didn't leave until 3:30, we hiked back up to the Sorrento bus station and got tickets for the bus, waiting in the sun for 30 minutes or so with a hundred other people for the SITA bus to come along. We climbed on and took the twisty, turning coastal road over to Positano, which took about an hour.

It wasn't bad, and gives you tantalizing glimpses of the sea and beautiful scenery as you go. Once in Positano, we walked down the steep main drag, which is lined with spectacular magenta bougainvillea and beautiful shops. We took photos and generally just reveled in being tourists. We ate at a beach-side restaurant and had two pizzas: margherita and marinara, with a couple of insalata mistas (mixed salads). It was good, but not fantastic, and probably overpriced. If you've read the rest of this blog, you've seen that we're not foodies, so I'm not going to apologize:)

We wandered into a couple shops, but then it started to look like rain, so we headed back up to the bus stop to wait nearly an hour for the bus back to Sorrento. By the time it showed up, there were a thousand people waiting, pushing, shoving, all trying to be the handful of persons to get on the already-full bus. DB and I managed to get on, where we stood for a while, and then managed to get a couple seats as passengers got off.

A poor Indian woman with claustrophobia and/or motion sickness literally fought her way to the front of the bus from the back and the bus had to stop several times to allow her to be sick along the narrow shoulder. As someone who occasionally suffers from car sickness myself, I felt for her, and it was good to know the bus drivers have some sympathy. You can't tell that from their driving.

By the time we got back to Sorrento and showered and changed, it was 8:00pm. We walked down to the public gardens to watch the sunset and visited a couple of shops to find a gold charm for my bracelet as a souvenir. Not having eaten breakfast (late start) and having just a couple slices of pizza and a bite or two of salad for lunch, I was getting to the end of my rope, blood sugar-wise. DB had to drag me around looking for a place to feed me mumbling about keeping Twix bars and granola on him at all times in case of emergencies.

We finally landed at the Fauno Bar for dinner, which is a ristorante with yellow awnings on Via Italia and within earshot of the roving band playing old classics. It was great for people watching. I attacked the bread sticks, and while still munching contentedly on these, ordered the filet of sole in lemon and orange sauce. DB ordered the mixed grill of chicken, lamb, beef and potatoes, which could have fed eight comfortably. We had some gratis limoncello (not really, there's a three euro cover charge that covers your shot glass of bitter face at the end of the meal). Then, we paid our bill of €41, and wandered through the street stalls and some stores.

Finally, we headed back to Gelateria Davide for gelato. Strawberry for me this time and black cherry for DB. Delicious. The owner explained in perfect English that the gelato shops who heap their bins with mile-high mounds of gelato are showy but not up to code. If the gelato rises above the red line of the cooler(he pointed it out to us), then the gelato warms and loses its consistency, and possibly its flavor and freshness. He took a lot of pride in his gelato and we went back to him several times for our nightly fix.

Another passegiatta back to our breezy guest house holding hands and feeling like the lovers we were.

1920-12-Positano.jpg

Positano
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 12, 2011 Day 12: Capri

Still recovering from our whirlwind week with the girls, we slept in a bit and missed the early ferry (again) at 10:30 to Capri (we had difficulty pronouncing this correctly as Kaaaaapree, instead of the Americanized caPREE. Too many capri pants out there to be able to adapt to the correct pronunciation.)

The noon ferry was packed with people -- standing room only, which is fine because we normally like to stand somewhere along the railing to catch the fresh breezes. This time, we had to muscle our way through the crowd, squeaking by the seated passenger's knees, and kind of wedge our way into a small 22" space off the railing, much to the consternation of an Italian man who wanted to be able to see the water from his comfy hard plastic seat a foot and a half away. We smiled and shrugged and he took it well. If it hadn't been us, it would have been someone else. We tried to squeeze together and move any time there was something to see. We saw him in Sorrento with his wife the next day and he seemed happy to see us so he couldn't have been too put out.

Turns out that with the haze and clouds, you couldn't see much anyway. As the island of Capri approached, the famous Faraglioni Rocks came into view and you could already see the long line for the funicular from the busy port where we docked. We got our bearings and bought our tickets for the funicular to take us up to Capri town (still saying it wrong in my head as I write.) The funicular was uneventful aside from some very pushy line jumpers who had to be just five more people ahead, like it made much of a difference in the crush. In our experience, this aggressive queuing up and line jumping was normal. In the central U.S., we have more space, therefore we respect personal space more and are generally more likely to follow the rules, whether written or unwritten. This is definitely true when it comes to driving, although I have to say, I enjoyed driving in Italy because it felt precisely like I didn't have to obey any restricting rules about center lines, speed or lane changing. (Tom Petty's Free Falling playing as a soundtrack to this paragraph.)

At Capri town, we bought a map for €2 at the main tourist office that had all the Capri island footpaths and hikes marked. DB has this amazing ability to eat, like, once a day, and he's completely happy. He's like a wild dog, gorging and then going for days without sustenance. If we were in the wild together, there's no doubt I would turn cannibal first, since I have to eat regularly or I become alternately like a three year old child or Alien vs. Predator. Feeling the latter coming on, I force DB to feed me at the Il Limoni Terrace Ristorante at the island's Best Western.

Il Limoni is not an obvious restaurant. You have to go up some stairs and walk through a lemon grove to get to the poolside wicker chairs and white tables. It was romantic eating under the huge lemons growing overhead. I had the special, a buttered spaghetti with shrimp and crawfish with cilantro and a light bianco salsa (white sauce that was more clear than white) recommended by our adorable sixtyish waiter who spoke only Italian. DB had the club sandwich, being all pizza'd and pasta'd out for the present. We lingered at lunch, and since there were only three people in the restaurant, no one minded.

After lunch, we hiked the long route out to the Arco Naturale, which had panoramic views of the Faraglioni Rocks and beautiful coastline. We paused a lot to watch and photograph the hundreds of seagulls gliding above and below on the hot air currents. My sensory memory of Capri will be the hot white stucco buildings covered in bougainvillea and trumpet vines and hibiscus, and the smell of jasmine. The hike was beautiful, but hot and steep on the way back to town, up about 400 steps. Once at the top, we walked by a fifty-ish woman sitting on a park bench enjoying the sun. She must not have enjoyed the sun too much because she was wearing hot pink pants and a nude colored bra with the straps hooked off her shoulders and nothing else. Her shoes, shirt and bag were laying next to her and she was calmly reading the paper as we walked by. Apparently, everything goes in Capri ... except the bra. I admire her guts, if not her outfit.

Once back into town, we took the short hop on the orange city bus for €1.50 pp to Anacapri, where we paid another €5 pp to see the amazing tiled floor of the Church of the San Michele Arcangelo. We walked around the wooden plank boardwalk admiring the artist's painting of Eden, complete with unicorns, lions, bulls and birds, all with very human eyes. We arrived just before a big tour group and found out one of the church's hazards. The big attraction is to climb a small circular staircase up to the tiny choir loft to admire the whole tiled floor from above. The hazard is that it is a tiny choir loft and there's only one set of stairs. After waiting 20 minutes or so at the top for the never-ending tourists on their way UP, we, along with several other trapped individuals, finally began to yell down "fermata! Sinora, fermata!" until someone was smart enough to let those of us who wanted out to come down the stairs, leaving more room in the clown car act upstairs.

DB and I walked a bit and took the chairlift called the Seggovia from downtown Anacapri to the top of Monte Solaro for its amazing views of Capri. It was a very cold and windy trip since it was four o'clock and the daily rain clouds had moved in. So, we ordered a coffee for me (very tasty) and a Gatorade for DB at the top, which he said tastes fruitier than those at home. Although we didn't get the best photos because of the clouds, it was still worth the trip.

It was getting late though, so we cut our visit in the clouds a bit short and headed down only to wait for 30 minutes or so in the line for the bus back down to the Marina Grande and the last ferry home at 7:00pm. We waited, and waited, and waited. Eight buses up and none down. In groups of two, the line shortened as people decided not to wait for the bus and caught taxis down the hill. I will admit, I have this irrational OCD thing about being late or missing trains, ferries, etc. I get it from my mother, who is always at the airport three hours before her flight. I start to get antsy. DB tries to be calming, which somehow, despite his sweetness, makes me even more anxious (now I have to be anxious for two people since clearly he is not using up his allocation of anxiety ... yes, I know it's crazy.)

So, I edge over to the taxis and get a quote. "Quanto costa per il taxi a Marina Grande?" I ask. "Venti," says the cabbie, sensing a sucker with OCD. I go back to DB and suggest we find another couple to share it with us. We're overheard by a cute Italian couple next to DB, who jump on the chance. So, at €5/pp we hire a private cab to speed us down to the wharf, thereby averting self-created crisis and the crowded bus, which eventually came, because we saw another couple who was in line behind us at the bus stop later on the last ferry. Hey, I'll bet they didn't get the added bonus of a near crash after a game of Italian taxi chicken on a hairpin curve above the steep, steep drop-off.

Not ready to give up my anxiety yet, we made a mad dash to several boat docks until we finally find the right one and then wait for 45 minutes. It all seems so ridiculous now, and yes, I am thankful every day for DB, who takes it all in stride.

Once on the ferry, three German girls sprint on without tickets and giggle their way right to the back of the boat (where we are standing). However, they are found by the captain and after much hand gesturing and stern looks (captain), and more giggling (girls), the girls tell him they will pay but it's the last boat back to Sorrento and they're not getting off. I am both shocked and incredibly impressed by their strategy. It's that whole follow-the-rules American thing. I never would have thought of it. We bought our round trip tickets when we boarded in the morning.

DB and I head back to the Abagnale to shower and change and decide on dinner at Trattoria Laterna. I have a cautionary tale to tell. As usual, DB and I watched all the plates coming out and served to others at nearby table (one of the perks of slow Italian service). I really like the look of this juicy roasted chicken dish that the guy next to me ordered. So, instead of ordering off the menu, I tell our business-like and straight faced Maitre'D that I'll have what he's (pointing) having. To be fair, the Maitre'D did say something about grilled chicken, but in my innocence, I just figured it was a language subtlety and merely pointed again at the guy's delicious looking plate and said, "Yes, that!" with a smile. The translation was wrong because the plate he actually brought me was a flat looking grilled chicken that didn't look nearly as good. My face fell, especially because the roast lamb that DB ordered (off the menu) looked fabulous and my grilled chicken looked like it came from Luby's. I decide to be brave and point out the error to our waiter, who then proceeds to shame me, arguing that he said "grilled" didn't he? I half halfheartedly say, but I wanted what he was having... And then give up and just wave my hand and say never mind, I'll eat the grilled chicken. Just to be perverse at that point and make a bigger spectacle of me, the waiter now decides to whip my plate away and bring me the other dish. In the looong ensuing wait, DB ate all his lamb chop with homemade potato chips and we split the insalata mista before the roast chicken finally, and grudgingly came out. It was very good, but colored the whole experience.

The same waiter then asked me if we wanted to put the tip on our credit card, and once he realized it would be me paying and not DB, he was very nice to me, giving me the first smile we'd seen all night. I did leave a tip, and now pass this tip onto you -- always order from the menu ;)

DB and I stopped at the gelateria next door to the Abagnale (coffee flavored for me and black cherry for DB), then headed home to bed.

1920-13-Capri.jpg

No shoes, no shirt, no problem in Capri
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 13, 2011 Day 13: Sentiero Degli Dei (The Pathway of the Gods)

We're up and about at 10:00am to catch the 10:30 ferry from Sorrento to Amalfi. Yay! Third time's the charm. It's overcast and cool, and the boat ride is brisk and uneventful, with a brief stop to unload and load at Positano. Our goal in going to Amalfi today is to take a bus to Bomerano/Agerola, and from there, to hike down and back around to Positano along the Sentiero degli Dei (the Path of the Gods).

As the ferry keeps going and going past Positano to Amalfi, I start to worry about the distance. It seems like miles and miles. DB gives me the same worried look. Oh well, we'll give it a try. We buy the bus tickets to Agerola at the tobacco shop off the roundabout circling the statue of the inventor of the compass (local Amalfi boy) and head across to the big buses to catch ours. No problems there, but make sure to tell the bus driver what stop you want, because the stops are not clearly marked and the bus driver does not call out the stop names.

I thought the bus rides we had taken so far were relatively hair raising in the lack of space in general for large buses, the traffic, the seeming lack of road rules, but I clearly had no idea. This bus driver schooled us on that point. He was the epitome of aggressive Italian driving. The bus would rock from side to side at every curve we took at speed, jerking right and left to navigate the bends and wheeling around hairpins with no concern for oncoming traffic. As the biggest motor on the road -- path, at times -- I guess our driver figured everyone else would get out of the way. If they didn't, we'd be goners considering the fact that the edge to nowhere was 18 inches away and about two miles down with nothing to break the fall but some vines and scrub decorating the cliff-side. I adjusted my white knuckle grip on my backpack and prayed we would not soon be decorating the cliffs below.

Prayers answered, we got off with several other hikers at Bomerano. We trekked through town, coming upon helpful signs for the hiking path. We set off on what was supposed to be only a three hour hike to Positano. Gilligan's Island theme playing in my head, we head for the path. At the much higher elevation, there's a lot less distance than it looked to be from the water at sea level. It might have been a three hour hike too, but the three hours doesn't account for the hundreds of stops to marvel at the gob-smacking views. Ancient terraced vineyards and groves line what used to be the main traveled road between these mountain towns before they built the roads of death. People lived here, and some still do. There are still working vineyards and farms on these paths, and we stepped around the evidence of mules and/or horses still used to cart supplies in. Absolutely amazing. Crumbling shells of cliff-side villas and small huts still used for tools and such cling the the mountainside with cascades of wildflowers, bougainvillea, and jasmine.

It was cloudy and cool when we began the hike and warmed up and cleared as we neared Positano. DB and I could not decide if this was our favorite thing in Italy or the kayak trip in Venice. Tough call because they were so different. Both trips made you really feel what it must have been like in the old days of Italy. Both were breathtaking in their own ways. On our trip down the Path of the Gods, we saw thousands of lizards, butterflies and bees, as well as peregrine falcons and even a huge raucous raven with a nest very high on the cliffs.

The last ferry leaves Positano at 5:00pm, and we again started to worry about time since we had dawdled to gape and admire so much. We picked up speed. We could always take the bus back to Sorrento, but both DB and I wanted to avoid that possibility in favor of the smoother, more comfortable and faster ferry. We didn't reckon on all the steps you have to take to get down out of the mountain to sea level in Positano. Since we had taken a bus to get us up the mountain (Thank God) we had no idea how many steps it would take to get down. I didn't count them, but it must have been at least a thousand or more.

Who knew it would be so grueling to walk down steps? Ankles, calves, back ... they were all protesting by the time we wound down past homes, gardens, even construction work on the paths that connect suburban Positano with its more touristy city center. I began to admire these suburban Positanoans and wonder if they are some kind of super race. The chubby and ever-smoking construction workers make me pause mentally in that thought, but physically, we keep on. It didn't help our physical pain that we were almost running down so we could make the ferry. It was weird when we actually hit the road, the first flat ground we had seen in an hour. It felt like being seasick or drunk, trying to lift your feet up too high or stubbing your feet down on the pavement expecting another step down. We wobbled quickly to the wharf and made the ferry with minutes to spare, which we spent soaking up to our knees in the sea for medicinal purposes.

Smooth ferry ride back to Sorrento, and we only have.to.hike.up.the.steep.stairs.to.get.to.town before we collapse in the hotel room. We rally for the sole purpose of trying this amazing Chateaubriand for two that we saw prepared for another couple on our first night at the Rosso Lione down the street. We really liked this restaurant -- the only one we made a repeat visit to -- because the owner keeps plying you with free appetizers of flatbread, crusty french bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and pizza slices while you wait for the admittedly slow service. Still, with all that bread, a half liter of wine and water, we were quite happy to wait. When the Chateaubriand arrived, the wait seemed inconsequential. Our waiter brought out the meat perched on top of a crusty loaf and surrounded by grilled vegetables, all gloriously arranged on a wooden platter. He divided up the bounty, decorating two plates with grilled red peppers, onions, fried zucchini, tomatoes and endive before shaving the beef very thinly and piling it in the center of the plate on top of the sliced crusty bread. It was fantastic. We nearly cleared the plates despite our exhaustion.

We complimented the staff and were rewarded with two shots of limoncello gratis and an offer of more if we wanted it. After the wine, limoncello and a potbelly full of food, we slowly stumbled back to the room and passed out.

1920-14-Amalfi_Hike.jpg

The Sentiero Degli Dei
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
June 14, 2011 Day 14: Return to Rome and the Opera

I woke up early with an allergy-induced asthma attack and sore calves from all the steps down the mountain into Positano yesterday. Of course, I forgot my inhaler, which I never thought I would need because I only get asthma about four times a year. Chest tightening, I head downstairs for some coffee, hoping the caffeine will help. It does, a bit.

DB and I pack up and check out of the Palazzo Abagnale at 9:30am and head on over to the Circumvesuviana train station for the trip to Naples. It's only a couple of blocks away and easy to roll the suitcases there on the wide sidewalk. That's another excellent point in favor of staying at the Palazzo Abagnale -- it's only two blocks from the train and bus station. We sit on the train for a while chatting up a couple from Argentina about the political referendum and Berlusconi, and saying yes to about a dozen people who ask in various dialects if this is the train to Pompei. Si. Yes. Oui. Da. Ya.

Finally, the train starts rumbling and a band gets on, serenading us with gypsy music and La Bamba and passing a hat around. The band gets off a few stations later, and a French couple with a cute baby and the worst body odor possible sits down next to us. We turn our noses to the five inch gap above the open window and tough it out. Please God, let them be getting off at Pompei too.

We arrive without any trouble at the Rome Termini and walk a couple blocks to our last hotel - StarHotel Metropole. We love the location (close to the train that will take us to the airport tomorrow and to the opera we're seeing tonight.) Other than that, it looks like any nice Doubletree or Hilton back home. Much more Americanized and plush. We're given free wireless access for 30 minutes or so in the lobby so we can print our boarding passes for tomorrow. DB falls face down again on the king-sized bed and I'm restless, so I hike off to see the things I missed during our first three days.

I power walk over to the Piazza Navona from a different route than I've taken before and watch some break-dancers and BBoys spinning and dancing in the piazza. I stop into several shops looking for last minute souvenirs. I pop into a couple of churches and then I head back so I can get ready for the opera.

DB and I shower and dress up -- the first and only time we've bothered while in Italy. We have tickets for a performance of a medley of famous opera arias at St. Paul's Within the Walls just a couple of blocks away from the hotel. I would have loved to book tickets for a full opera like Tosca or Madame Butterfly, but we just missed the opera season and this was the best we could do on our schedule.

We ate dinner at a nice restaurant right next door to our opera site, La Terrace on the via nazionale. Living up to its name, the restaurant is one wide terrace with a shining view of Rome at sunset. We could see the angels and trumpets on the Vittorio Emmanuel monument in the distance and a sea of Roman red rooftops. We had a mixed seafood appetizer, the Trancio di bacca and the filettino di maiai. It was all delicious. We paid around €75. The staff were a bit taken aback at our speedy progress through dinner and immediate request for the check once we received our entrees, but we didn't want to miss our performance.

We walked over to St. Paul's, a beautiful church practically next door to the restaurant. The performances were good, although not up to the caliber of a true opera, of course. Still, it was entertaining and a perfect last-night-in-Rome activity. Not too formal, which was nice. For any ladies wondering about dress code, I wore an ankle length maxi dress in Mediterranean colors and nice flat sandals. DB wore slacks and a button down shirt. There were folks much more casual and some much more dressed up, so I felt we hit it just right.

We strolled back to the hotel slowly and went to bed early since we were getting up at 5:00am to catch the train to the airport, which leaves at 6:06am.

1920-15-St_Paul_Within_the_Walls.jpg

View of St. Paul's from La Terrace restaurant
 

nikkihop

10+ Posts
Day 15: Leaving Italy

I cannot stress the importance of Rick Steves' Guidebooks. He's got pretty much everything covered and I don't want to take away anything from his hard work by repeating everything I learned from him.

Check out his section on the Leonardo Express train to the Fiumicino Airport in Rome 2011. We followed his instructions to the letter and he's right about everything, from the times to get there and the way you must validate your ticket at the little yellow boxes on the station walls before boarding. The one thing he didn't cover was that the stations may change boarding tracks and you must pay attention to the reader boards to find out if you're in the right place. I highly recommend learning a few basic travel phrases so you can communicate with personnel (not just the English-speaking information booth staff). It came in handy to be able to query the baggage handlers and other likely looking staff members.

DB and I got to the airport in plenty of time for our 8:30 a.m. flight back to Austin, with one plane change in Newark. For any travelers who made it through my lengthy report, I hope it helps even a little bit. Happy traveling!

Notes about Resources (below)
  • SlowTrav: obviously
  • TripAdvisor: This was the website I liked best for reviews of hotels. I compared the reviews to the ones I found on hotels.com.
  • Mappery: You can’t beat this site for tourist maps of all your travel destinations. I saved maps for Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, Assisi, Sorrento and Amalfi as PDFs or images on my iPad and had them wherever I went, even if I didn’t have internet access. It was one of the best things I ever did, plan-wise.
Reading List
  • Rick Steves: Rome 2011; Italy 2011; Florence & Tuscany 2011
  • The Life of Michelangelo Buonarroti, John Addington Symonds
  • The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Volume 01: Julius Caesar, Gauius Suetonius Tranquillus
  • The Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Volume 02: Augustus, Gauius Suetonius Tranquillus
  • Stones of Venice, John Ruskin
  • Italian Hours, Henry James
  • Last Days of Pompeii, Baron Edward Bulwer-Lytton
  • Pompeii, Robert Harris
  • Behind the Wheel – Italian 1 (audio), Mark Fobrose
1920-16-CasaDelGarbo.jpg

View from the Casa Del Garbo in Florence
 

Sponsors

Booking.com Hotels in Europe
AutoEurope.com Car Rentals

New resources

Top