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Rome Two Sisters on an Un-Slowtravel Trip to Rome & Florence


10+ Posts
By margaretlb from New York, Fall 2006
Two sisters on a jammed-packed itinerary in Rome and Florence during October 2006.

The Day Has Finally Arrived! Buongiorno Roma!

In April, my sister and I decided to take a trip to Rome and Florence to celebrate Sis’ 50th birthday. She had never visited Europe before and, although I have visited Florence and Venice several times, I had never been to Rome. We decided on October and I immediately went into planning mode. I gleaned lots of information from SlowTravel, Fodor’s, SlowFood and tripadvisor as well as from the many books I’d purchased from Barnes & Noble and Borders. I’d always been intrigued with the thought of going to Rome but never seriously studied the idea. Once decided on the trip, I realized how little I knew considering the varied layers of history. I devoured books about Roman history, the early church and the art and architecture of the various eras. I needed to know what was there before I could decide what to see! Well, I’m happy to say the research paid off.

Day One (Thursday): 10/19/06

We arrived in Rome on time via Alitalia direct from Newark Liberty. Our prebooked driver from Context Rome was waiting and we were at Hotel Britannia (via Napoli, 36 ) in the via Nazionale/Termini neighborhood by 9:00. The front desk secured our luggage, we tidied up in the lobby’s lounge and hit the street by 9:30. We had the whole day ahead of us but first, sustenance. (The food on the flight was inedible.) For me, an important part of vacation is good food and I did a lot of research on eateries. I’d decided on a Rick Steves recommendation and wasn’t disappointed; we had a very nice brunch of termezzi, grilled vegetables and good coffee at Café Nazionale ( via Nazionale, 16-27). RS describes the café as “woody elegance with local office worker crowd,” which is a perfect description and it was a great place to catch our breathe.

Strangely, we weren’t at all tired so we began to follow the arrival day itinerary I’d prepared and were surprised at days end to find we actually accomplished all I’d hoped we’d do but never expected to manage! We walked up via Nazionale the few blocks to Piazza della Repubblica and entered Santa Maria degli Angeli – is there a better way to start our tour than with Michelangelo’s creation? Converted by Michelangelo from the tepidarium of the Bath of Diocletian, it gave us our first taste of the Roman-Christian hybrid architecture.

After visiting this church, we walked a few blocks to Santa Maria della Vittoria and our first Bernini. Saint Theresa and The Angel is remarkably beautiful as is the entire Corardo Chapel. There were several tour groups of students and tourists so the church was too crowded to really enjoy fully, but was well worth the stop for the Bernini chapel alone.

We then made two quick stops visiting Bernini’s San Andrea al Quirinale and Borromini’s San Carlo della Fontane. I was interested to see the contrast in the architecture of these famous rivals. I loved the motion of San Carlo and Sis was incredulous over the angels hanging down from the cupola in San Andrea. These churches are all so close to one another that we were able to spend time to enjoy them, taking a really good look around (except at S.M. Vittoria) in about three hours. Time for our massages!

Over the years, I’ve found that a good massage on arrival day really helps chase the jet lag away. I pre-booked massages for us at Hotel Russie (via del Barbuno,9) for 2:00. We hopped in a taxi, arrived at 1:45 and enjoyed fantastic 50 minute massages. They have a lovely full service spa with a beautiful hydropool and hamman (i.e., Turkish bath) – we considered bringing our bathing suits but decided against it (had we brought them we’d have had the pool to ourselves – oh well). The hotel is on Piazza del Popolo so there was a taxi rank right there. We headed back to our hotel and checked in to our room.

I’d booked Hotel Britannia using hotels.com and several weeks before arrival I sent an e-mail to confirm our room and to request a balcony. I stated I was willing to pay a supplement and received confirmation of a room with terrace for an additional €15. The hotel was very nice with old world charm and a friendly, helpful staff. The room itself was spacious with very comfortable beds, freshly pressed sheets every day and a modern bathroom. There were lovely decorative touches with satin draperies, atmospheric professional photos and a fish! Yes, a fish bowl with a “little fish for company” as the welcome card stated. We unpacked and rested for a couple of hours.

Our busy arrival day wasn’t over yet. Still feeling refreshed we dressed for dinner and took the short walk to visit Santa Maria Maggiore which was on the route to our restaurant destination. We’d already visited several beautiful churches but this major basilica is stupendous! There was a mass underway in the Borghese Chapel and the beautiful voices of the singers filled the church and our hearts. The fifth and eighth century mosaics are not to be missed and the church is just filled with statuary and marble work (here, young Gian Lorenzo Bernini learned his craft at the knee of his father, Piero). We stayed until the church closed at 7:30 and continued on to Trattoria Monte (via San Vito, 13A) under our umbrellas as a steady rain was falling.

Via San Vito is only two blocks long with a ruined arch between the two blocks. Our approach from the church brought us down the quite half of the street and in a doorway I could clearly see three huddled people and hear a sound click, click, click. We kept to our purpose on the opposite side of the street but sis had a clear look and realized they were junkies preparing their fix. The click, click was a fingernail tapping the hypo. Well they were engrossed and we never felt threatened although my sister was shocked.

We arrived too early for our reservation and the staff was enjoying their family meal; when sis and I saw the food we could hardly wait to see the menu. The food was delicious. I had Zuccini Flan on Carrot Puree, house made Gnocchi with Cingiale Sauce and Cod With Onion, Pinoli and Raisin Sauce (wow); my sister enjoyed Sweet Onion Flan, Egg Noodles with Porcini and Beef Shank Stew. We shared a bottle of Maremma Toscana and for dessert Michele had her first Panna Cotta served with strawberry sauce and I couldn’t resist cantucci and Vin Santo.

The 15 minute walk back to the hotel, still under a light rain, was just what we needed after that big meal. Day one had ended and we had tomorrow to look forward to. A day that we already knew would be the toughest one in our itinerary.
Day Two (Friday 10/20/06): Our Ancient Rome Immersion. So Here's Where It All Got Started!

I realized in order to appreciate the Ancient Roman sites that our best bet would be good walking tours. I really liked the many reviews I read about Context Rome and booked two of their tours for this day. Michele and I had discussed this before booking as each tour was four hours and we’d have a two hour break in between. Knowing we only had five days in Rome, we decided to deal with the probable exhaustion and push to the limit. The weather forecast was for rain all day so we donned the raincoats, grabbed the umbrellas and called a taxi. What a day we had!

Our morning tour was Roma Antica and we were to meet our guide at the entrance to Palatine Hill. There were two Context groups meeting and our guide, Adam Gutteridge, is a PhD archaeologist with a passion that was infectious and his tour was both erudite and entertaining. We had a full tour of six participants; the two other couples were traveling together and near retirement ages - and also from NYC. Certain parallels between the Emperors and our current Administration were drawn and we joked that we liberal New Yorkers were kept together to keep from offending other tourists. Half of this tour was on the Palatine, we then descended into the Forum (which was crowded with school groups) and finally walked over to the Coliseum.

After the tour, we bought sandwiches from the vendor right outside of the Coliseum and sat there on a wall to eat; it was a great place to people watch. Our afternoon tour was to begin at the Temple of Hercules at Piazza Boca della Verita so we grabbed another taxi, got to our meeting place early and found a comfortable bench. So far, the day was overcast but no rain. We felt it was a gift as we were fully prepared to be sodden.

We sat facing the Piazza and discussed all we’d learned that morning and just let the panorama around us sink in. There was a line to enter Santa Maria in Cosmedin, I guess to see the “Mouth of Truth,” but perhaps there were some interested in seeing the Cosmedin floor and mosaics in the church. I never got the chance to visit the church and will have to return some day. From our bench we had a great view of the Temple of Hercules; we later learned it is the oldest temple in Rome, built during the Republican Era. Other buildings in our sight were an interesting contrast as these were built under the Fascist Regime and are used today for government offices. The hour passed quickly and soon I recognized our Context docent from her website picture.

Patricia Gaborik, another young PhD. scholar who lectures on ancient Roman society and politics was our guide for the afternoon on the Classical Rome Tour. There were only two other participants in the tour, a lovely couple celebrating their 20th anniversary. They had been with the other Roma Antica group that morning so we all agreed that we’d keep the pace slow. The tour began in the Foro Boario area which was the cattle market hence the Temple of Hercules and we were shown other ancient cattle related ruins in the area. We criss-crossed the busy roadway “Roman Style” (as New Yorkers we really didn’t have much trouble jaywalking in traffic) as Pat pointed out these interesting sights.

We next visited San Nicola in Carcere which is a church that has three Roman temples imbedded in its walls. We entered the church and experienced our first subterranean adventure. In the excavated basement of the church, the buried Roman columns have been exposed as well as the alley that ran between two of the temples. It was quite interesting and, although Patricia gave our tour, there is a resident docent who will give a tour with a suggested €3 donation. We then proceeded to the Theater of Marcellus, a ruined theater on which a XVI century palazzo was built and is now converted into apartments! Talk about recycling. We then walked through the dense historical center of the city visiting Campo de Fiori, Piazza Navona (still shaped like the arena that was once there)(unfortunately, the Bernini fountain is being cleaned and so could only be seen through the spaces between the plywood), Area Sacra (et tu Brutus?) ultimately arriving at the Pantheon. There were renovations taking place inside the Pantheon so I wasn’t able to pay homage at Raphael’s tomb but we still thoroughly enjoyed its beauty. The bronze doors are particularly spectacular. The tour was well worth it and, between this and the morning tour, Michele and I felt we had a good basic understanding of Roman history and culture. Our docents had succeeded in putting Rome in context.

We stayed in the Pantheon until closing at 7:30 and we had dinner reserved for 8:30 so we had an hour to kill. First we looked for and found the restaurant, the streets in the ancient center are tricky, and then entered a lovely wine bar for a glass of wine, a comfortable seat and a ladies room. I’m sorry that I didn’t note the name of this place but it is down the street from San Eustacio and there is a police kiosk right outside; actually a big police presence as we were close to Palazzo Madama (the Parliament Building). This was the only place we encountered that English wasn’t understood at all. The friendly barista was very cheerful and my “rosso secca” resulted is a great Chiant Classico Riserva. She also made us a tasty plate of cheese, pepperoni and olives. We ended up coming here again on Monday evening.

Dinner time. Al San Eustacio (Piazza dei Cappretari, 63) where I tasted my first fried artichokes and also enjoyed Fettuccine With Porcini and Grilled Lamb with roasted potatoes. Michele skipped the appetizer, had Spaghetti with Lobster and the Grilled Lamb. I had a nice glass of the house red which was a Chianti Classico and sis was in the mood for Coke. Sorbetto and biscotti with Moscato and another satisfying meal. We had the manager call us a taxi and while waiting he told us he’d spent time living in both California and NYC.

Well, we arrived back at the hotel at midnight having left it that morning at 8:15. We’d made it through our most ambitious day with flying colors. I suppose we probably walked at least 10 miles, participated for hours in thought provoking conversation, saw sights we’d never expected and fell in love with Rome.
Day Three (Saturday, 10/21/06): Bernini, Caravaggio and

I thought I’d plan this day with a more leisurely pace after our Ancient Rome marathon the day before. I reserved the Borghese Gallery for 11:00 so we didn’t have to leave the hotel until 10:00. We slept late (to 7:30) and enjoyed the lovely buffet breakfast. The breakfast at Hotel Britannia is outstanding. Warm scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage and frittatas; all fresh fruits – two types of fruit salads, sliced pineapple, cantaloupe, kiwi; ham, prosciutto, briscola, cheeses; many kinds of fresh baked goods and yoghurt. Excellent coffee. Again, we called a cab and stepped outside to wait.

Well, then it happened. That old cliché situation, the pinch. Or actually, more like a pat. Just standing there, minding my own business talking with Michele and I felt it. I turned toward the guy yelling “you stupid ass, pinching an old lady” – (I’m 52 and hardly look old but certainly too old for this). My reaction was to yell at him, I don’t know why I did I’m usually not loud. He looked shocked, startled like a deer in the headlights. Maybe he was just (as the Italians say) “scemo” you know, like someone who was hit in the head with a bag full of nickels. Anyway, the look on his face cracked me up, our cab arrived and we both got in laughing.

We arrived at the Borghese and the beautiful parkland. The walkway to the museum is lined with ancient statuary with missing limbs and such. These old, static subjects just don’t hold my attention. I’m only mildly interested in them from an historical perspective; as art, they just do not move me. I knew what lay ahead and was very eager to see the works of Bernini and Caravaggio. We picked up our tickets, checked our handbags and retrieved the recorded walking tour. I thought it strange that handbags had to be checked (along with cameras) but that you kept your coats; they give you a small, clear bag for your wallet. We were right on time and entered the museum. The palazzo is over-the-top ornate and full of statues, bas reliefs, frescoes, paintings, large and small bronzes and I’m sure much more but with a two hour time limit you just can’t attempt to see it all. The sculptures by Bernini are simply, sublime. It is difficult to image the beauty he brought out of the marble; how real, how alive his figures are. Persephone, with Pluto’s strong hand pressing into her thigh and tears streaking down her cheek; Daphne, with laurel leaves of seemingly transparent marble sprouting from her fingertips and the artists interpretation of Apollo Belvedere in futile pursuit; and David, his mouth set in determination at that moment he begins the spinning motion to release the force within him. Sublime. To reach the pinacoteca, there is a long flight of stairs, many stairs. I’m not sure if this gallery is handicapped accessible. I did see a very small elevator but it would not be able to hold a wheelchair. There are many very fine paintings and we made sure to take a really good look at the Caravaggio’s as we had another Context Tour that very afternoon, the Caravaggio Seminar.

Just under the two hours, we left the gallery in order to beat the crowd to the checkroom. We did. We then spent a good while in the gift store and I purchased a few books and Michele purchased a framed Raphael reproduction. I asked where the nearest taxi rank was and was told to exit the grounds and make a left. We did. And we walked, and walked and walked some more. We did find the taxi rank, thankfully with a waiting taxi, after asking a couple of more people as we walked along but it was probably a 15 minute walk. We did get to see a very nice residential area. We were headed for Palazzo Barbarini for our 2:15 rendezvous with out next docent.

We met Frank Dabell at the appointed time and found we were the only two participants for the seminar – an unexpected private tour which was wonderful. Frank is an art historian on the staff of the Temple University campus in Rome and a lecturer for the New York Metropolitan and Michele and I enjoyed a fantastic lesson on Caravaggio, his predecessors and those artists he influenced. The National Museum of Ancient Art in Palazzo Barberini is currently under renovation but the paintings we were interested in were available for viewing. Interestingly, we began the seminar by studying a beautiful painting by Filippino Lippi (one of my favorite Florentine artist) and proceeded through the picture gallery until reaching the Caravaggio’s all the while receiving a wonderful lesson from Frank. The third floor of the museum was open and Frank explained that it rarely is, so we took a few minutes to walk through the Barbarini private apartment, which is filled with furniture and decorative art. Also, some paintings and several pastel portraits by Rosalba Carriera, a woman portraitist from Venice whose work I had enjoyed at Ca’Rezzonico last year. Borromini was one of the architects that worked on this palazzo and the central staircase was his design; a spiraling oval and again, such motion. The architecture of Boromini that I had the opportunity to see while in Rome was a revelation for me.

After our tour of the museum, we all got into a taxi and proceeded to the chiesa of Sant’Agostino located in the historical center where we viewed a later work by Caravaggio, Madonna of Loreto. Then, on to San Luigi di Francesci (the French church in Rome and still central to the French community) where we were astounded both by the Saint Matthew cycle and by the church itself. In the back of this church is a shrine to Mother Mary and it is here that expectant mothers in Rome come to pray for a healthy baby. Next to the shrine are typical votive offerings of silver but also little pink and blue stuffed animals and ribbons. Michele spent a little time to pray for her twin grandsons and the other children in the family. This visit ended our tour that had already exceeded the 3.5 hour scheduled. The tour was supposed to proceed by foot to Santa Marie del Polpolo but Michele and I agreed that we were more than satisfied with our private art history seminar so we thanked Frank and went our separate ways.

Right at the corner of the piazza is an ultra modern wine bar so we stopped for a late lunch as we’d had nothing since breakfast, it was already almost 6:00 and our dinner reservation wasn’t until 9:00. A nice glass of Toscana IGT each and a shared panini and tramezzini, a quick stop to the ladies room and we were on our way to see Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

I’d read that this church was a virtual museum of Tuscan art and we weren’t disappointed with what we were able to see. We didn’t choose the best time to visit; Saturday evening Mass was in progress so we only quietly visited the rear of the church. Another reason to visit Rome again as we barely skimmed the surface of what this church has to offer. It began to rain lightly and the sun was setting so we hopped into a cab as the former passengers alighted. This was the only time a cabbie ripped us off. We were grateful to get a taxi so easily as we were pretty tired and the turn in the weather could have made it difficulty to find another. In a short while, I realized that the meter was ticking a lot faster than usual and noticed the “tariffa 2.” It was already evening and I wasn’t positive that the tarrifa should have been “1”, so I kept my mouth shut and became a party to the rip off. The fare should have been about €9 and turned out to be €13+. I thought it was a pretty cheap lesson, looked him in the eye, and had him count out every centime in change and, of course, left him no tip. We both knew what was going on here but it wasn’t worth a confrontation.

We had a couple of hours before getting ready for dinner so we showered and relaxed.

The rain stopped and we had a nice ride through the Borgo area where we had 9:00 reservations at Les Etoiles on the roof of the Hotel Star Atlantic. Our table was waiting by the window with a beautiful view of floodlit Saint Peter’s cupola. We skipped appetizers, which were extremely expensive selections like beluga caviar and fois gras (by extreme, I’m talking €30 plus). We both really enjoyed fresh pasta with a prosciutto cream sauce. Michele had beef and I, pheasant; I drank a split of Frascati and Michele kept to mineral water. The food was very good and so was the service so I was surprised when it came time to order dessert and was told that the kitchen was closing so we were limited to sorbetto, gelato or cheese cake. It was only 10:30 and this was Rome for goodness sake! Well, we “made do” with sorbetto, cheese cake and good coffee but at that point I felt like we were being given the bums rush. The piano player was still playing but we were the last diners and left before 11:00. I guess the fact that the restaurant is in a hotel that caters to Americans and Brits gears it toward early diners. Anyway, it was our most expensive meal at €159 and the rush at the end spoiled it; I had expected to sit and enjoy a cognac while listening to the piano player and really make a night out of it. I’d recommend the restaurant but be aware that reservations should be for an early dinner.

Another long day came to an end; so far we’d seen a lot of interesting things but there was still so much to see and we only had two remaining days. Tomorrow was Sunday and we’d be going on our Pilgrimage Walk so another early rising ahead.
Day Four (Sunday, 10/22/06): The "Mother of all Churches" and Michelangelo, Too

This was a day that I eagerly awaited. I booked the “Pilgrims Tour” with the Anno Domini Organization and knew we’d be visiting San Giovanni Laterano, San Clementi and San Pietro in Vincoli. We were up early and had breakfast in our room as we had to leave the hotel by 8:15. It had stormed during the night and into the early morning but by the time we left, the weather was clear and lovely. We arrived a little early and walked around the piazza in front of San Giovanni’s, marveled at the size of the façade and then walked around the back to the obelisk to meet our tour. No one was there but within a few minutes our guide, Sev Borzak, arrived. Sev is PhD who teaches Ancient Roman Topography (at, I believe Rome University but I’m not positive). Sev explained that the other participants called the office early to cancel the tour because of the weather. Voila, another private tour!

San Giovanni Laterano, which has written across the façade SACROSANCTA LATERANENSIS ECCLESIA OMNIUM URBIS ET ORBIS ECCLESIARUM MATER ET CAPUT, "The Most Holy Lateran Church, Mother and Mistress of all churches of the city and the World." This is the site of the first basilica built by Constantine. The original church founded in 313 was sacked by the Vandals in the 5th century and restored by Pope Saint Gregory in 460. In the early 10th century the basilica was completely rebuilt after an earthquake; it was destroyed by fire in 1308 and again in 1360 and for the next century rebuilding had fits of starts and stops. Finally, when in 1646 the church was in danger of collapse, Pope Innocent X commissioned Borromini to rebuild the church in the baroque style that it still is today and the gilded ceiling in the transept and Cosmatesque floor that were kept from the former 14th century church are a wonder to see – most especially the gorgeous floor. Here’s an interesting fact, Constantine accepted Christianity because of his vision of the Cross before the Battle of the Malvern Bridge against Maxentius’ troops and the basilica is built over the destroyed barracks of Maxentius’ army. The size of the church is imposing and it is topped by huge statues of saints. The main door is from the Curia, the Senate House, in the Forum Romanum and in the vestibule is a large statue of Constantine that was found in the Baths of Diocletian. The Gothic baldachino has within it a reliquary containing the heads of Saint Peter and Saint Paul; the reliquary is quite large and can be clearly seen. The large and beautiful apse mosaic is from the 13th century but the uppermost area dates back to the 4th century! The church is just full of art and is incredibly beautiful. I think it would be impossible to decide which of the many chapels is the most beautiful.

Also on the Piazza San Giovanni are the Scala Santa, the Holy Stairs which are the stairs of the Praetorium of Pontius Pilot on which Jesus walked and which were brought to Rome by Saint Helen. The stairs are ascended on one's knees while praying and certainly many millions of devout Christians have likely made this action a part of their Pilgrimage. There are also side stairs for those not wishing to ascend the Holy Stairs, and at the top is the Holy of Holies; the private chapel of Popes before they relocated to Avignon. This chapel was the location of the Pope’s treasury and contained many relics (some are still kept here). Sev was pleased to see that the altarpiece was open so that we could see the ancient icon of Christ, the Acheiropoeta meaning “not made by human hands”; some believe it was painted by angels.

We next took a short walk to the Basilica of San Clememti which is believed to have been built on the site of the 1st century “titulus” church – the house church where services were held when Christianity was still an underground religion. And before we left this church, we too would go underground. The main entrance to the 12th century basilica is through a fortified gate leading to a small courtyard. Sev explained that during that era only Baptized Christians could enter the church so the catechumens would listen to the service from this courtyard. The church is built on top of the 4th century church and is slightly smaller than the original San Clementi as we’d later see when we went below. The Schola Cantorum (choir area) is from the original church and has decorations of the fish, dove and vine that were symbols in the early Church. It is thought that the alter canopy is also from the original church. The Tabernacle has been attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio and is an important piece of sculptural art in its own right. In the apse is a magnificent fresco of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles and this is surmounted by a fantastic mosaic of the Cross and Tree of Life. The mosaic is decorated with doves (symbol of the soul) and the phoenix (eternal life) and lambs. We did not visit all of the side chapels but did spend time at the Chapel of Saint Catherine which was painted by Masolino (and perhaps Masaccio) (I’d hoped to go the Bancacci Chapel in Florence but forwent my reservation).

Then down we headed into the 4th century basilica unearthed beginning in 1857. I was glad that we had a guide with us as it is somewhat confusing to understand the excavation; many of the arches of the original church had been walled up so as to bear the weight of the current building. Sev was able to help us visualize the ancient church and also pointed out the many fresco remnants. I was particularly taken with the shrine to Saint Cyril; my seventh grade teacher was Sister Cyril. All the while we could hear water running down below so we sought out the source which brought us to the Roman street and buildings. We saw the Mithric Temple which was much larger than I expected and then Sev brought us into a large Roman room that was the source of the water. Many articles I’ve read state that the original house church is this room but Sev explained that some scholars felt that the room was actually a mint and that the house church was one of the other buildings. An interesting fact, Fr. Joseph Mullooly, the priest that excavated the site in 1857 is buried under the alter in the 4th century church – how appropriate.

On to San Pietro in Vincoli where the relics, the chains that once imprisoned Saint Peter are displayed. This is also one of the original parish churches in Rome and was originally built in the 5th century, renovated in the 8th and rebuilt in the 16th (another building project of Pope Julius II). Here is the final resting place of the grand project that was the bane of Michelangelo’s life – the tomb of Pope Julius – his magnificent Moses. What can I say about Moses? His terrifying scowl and powerful triceps, fingers stroking that almighty beard – a tour de force. It is said that Jews came in great number to admire this work. And to think there were supposed to be 40 statues of this importance! Well, we got the Sistine Chapel instead and I’d be hard pressed to decide which project to elect so I’m glad Julius made that decision.

This was the end of our Pilgrims Tour and the time we spent with Sev was completely rewarding; having a private tour was an unexpected bonus. The tour ended at noon and we had reservations for brunch at the rooftop restaurant in the Forum Hotel. We walked over to the hotel and powdered our noses in the lobby lounge before taking the elevator to the roof where we were met by the maitre d’ and shown to our table overlooking the Imperial Forum. We spent a leisurely 2.5 hours over brunch, enjoying the view and the food. The street below is closed to traffic on Sunday and there were strolling bands and stilt walkers, fire eaters and jugglers – what fun we had that afternoon. We both decided on the appetizer buffet which was fantastic. A partial list: roasted oysters, shrimp oreganata, risotto, stuffed mushrooms, roasted peppers, cheese (including boccacini knots of fresh buffalo mozzarella), cured meats, melon, prosciutto (the most beautiful I saw in Rome, still on the leg bone and served like a steamship roast by the chef), olives; as I said, a partial list. The buffet was also quite lovely to the eye with grand serving platters. We both then had Veal Sorrentino and dessert from the dessert buffet. We tried the panna cotta, cheese cake, baba rum and fruit salad. I again had a split of Frascati, sis enjoyed her coke. The check was €117 and was really well worth it. We had a lovely afternoon on a beautiful day with a vantage over Rome and a birds eye people-watching view - and the food was great!

We were to meet our 4:00 Trastevere Tour at Area Sacra so following our trusty map, we made our way around the Victor Emmanuel Memorial to the “Cat Sanctuary.” We were familiar with the area as we’d been here on Friday afternoon with Patricia. Well, at 10 minutes past the meeting time we decided we were stood up, so we walked over the Ponte Garibaldi and into Trastevere. I really wasn’t crazy about Trastevere, which surprised me as I’d read so many postings about how “authentically” Roman it felt. I suppose if you head further into the neighborhood you’d find that authenticity but the walk to Santa Maria in Trastevere was just plain touristy and run down looking with too many street vendors selling the same handbags and sun glasses that you see in every city you visit (including New York). The homeopathic pharmacy on Piazza Belli was thankfully open as Michele had forgotten the medicinal cream for an itching skin condition on her hands and several days without her medicine was causing a flare-up. The pharmacist recommended a cortisone cream which worked fine for the duration of the trip.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is another remarkable church and we spent about an hour here just truly enjoying ourselves. Where to begin. This is another tituli parish church built in the 4th century and rebuilt in the 12th. The façade is from the 17th century but the giant mosaics are from the 12th and represents the Virgin Mary in the center, with the wise maidens on the left and unwise on the right (no crowns and unlit lamps). The campanile is from the 12th century as are the interior columns although these were originally ancient (perhaps the Temple of Isis or the Baths of Caracalla) (there are female pagan deities on the capitals). The apse mosaic is marvelous, especially the frieze of the Lamb of God and Twelve Apostles. The ceiling painting is by Domenichino! And, in the Altemps Chapel there is a miraculous icon from the 6th century, “The Madonna of Mercy” (this chapel is kept locked but you could clearly see the icon through the gates). We sat on a bench near the rear of the church and sat wide-eyed, just taking it all in. There were preparations going on either for an evening mass or some other service and the choir was practicing near the front of the church as congregants began arriving. We took this as our cue to move on so we exited into the busy piazza. We headed back the way we came and stopped at an ATM (I found ATMs to be scarce in Rome).

We originally planned to eat dinner in Trastevere near the terminus of the tour that wasn’t. It was 6:00 and we were tired so, instead of walking around for another couple of hours until dinnertime, we got on the taxi line and within 30 minutes we were back at the hotel. We relaxed/collapsed for a couple of hours and then decided to figure out dinner. I did have my Rick Steves and his café recommendation from Monday had been just right so we tried another one of his tips – and that worked out, too.

About 9:00 we walked a few blocks to Restaurant Target (via Torino, 33) hoping they’d be able to seat us. There were quite a few outdoor tables and a 20-something crowd was starting to arrive. We were seated downstairs (our preference) and the place was quite nice – clean, contemporary décor with white tablecloths. Rick describes the place as a pizza and pasta restaurant but they had a full menu and very, very good wines by the glass. We both had the Cold Seafood Salad and house made Pasta with Prosciutto. For secundo, Michele had Pork Limone and I, a lovely mixed salad. We skipped dessert. All in all, a really nice place with good food and friendly service.

We took the short walk back to the hotel and watched CNN for a while then, to bed. Tomorrow would be our last day in Rome and we were getting up early (again) to head to St. Peter’s for the Scavi Tour.
Day Five (Monday, 10/23/06): Scavi, Vatican Museums and Saint Peter's (almost)

We started the day with another excellent breakfast and at 8:15 had the front desk call us a taxi. We had to be at the Scavi Office by 9:15 for our 9:30 reservation. I had sent a request to the Vatican in June requesting an English tour for this day and requested early morning. While working on our itinerary, I kept Monday clear as I’d decided to work a Vatican Museum tour around whatever time the Scavi was offered (if offered at all). About two weeks before departure I received the notice from the Vatican that there were spots for us on this early tour. Perfect! I reserved Context Rome for their afternoon tour on which they still had room. It seems everything I planned was falling together better than I could have expected.

The taxi dropped us off right outside of the Piazza San Pietro and the piazza was still quiet – it was a gloriously beautiful day. Other than from afar, this was our first look at Saint Peter’s. It was hard to imagine that any church could loom larger than San Giovanni in Laterano, but there she was – Saint Peter's.

We entered the colonnade on the left and proceeded to the Swiss Guard gate and were allowed entry to the area of the Scavi Office. We were early but I checked in anyway and was told to wait outside. We enjoyed this view of the Basilica that is not open to the general public and later we found out that this area was at one time part of the Circus of Nero. Different language groups were gathering for their tours. There was a group from Asia (I believe the Philippines) and everyone in this group was dressed in their Sunday best; all the men in suits and ties and women in dresses or business pants suits. Most of the women had their heads covered in silk scarves or lace mantillas. In a short time, the rest of our group assembled and our docent reminded everyone that anyone with health problems or claustrophobia should refrain from taking the tour but if anyone was overcome, she would immediately bring the individual to the surface. We entered a side door that was on the level of the confessio and descended below through a locked gate.

We first entered the excavated pagan necropolis and viewed the mausoleums. At one time this was the surface level and we walked along what once were the streets within the cemetery. The burial chambers were decorated with frescoes and bas reliefs and several had stone shelves with carved out depressions that held cremated remains; these depressions had conical shaped pottery tops. There were quite a few of these mausoleums on view and the docent spoke about burial practices during Roman times. Eventually, we reached the burial site believed to be the place that Saint Peter was buried after his crucifixion in the nearby circus. This was a humble tomb that was originally marked with a simple stone. Within 20 years of Peter’s death, a stone shrine was erected over the site and then Constantine built the first Saint Peter’s over that. When excavated, some human remains were found and these bones are displayed in a clear box in the opened tomb. They are believed to be those of Peter and this site has been venerated since his death, which lends support to this being the actual burial place. The main alter in the Basilica above stands over this spot but directly above, in the confessio level, is a beautiful shrine that can be visited by anyone who enters the Basilica. This shrine has a wall that reaches down and touches the actual tomb.

We ascended into the confessio where we parted from our docent and Michele and I walked around viewing the tombs of Popes. At Pope John Paul II tomb there were many pilgrims in prayer. When we exited the confessio we could have gone into the Basilica without waiting on line but we were planning to be here with our Context Tour later that day so we decided to walk to the front of the Vatican Museum and to have lunch and relax until we had to meet our docent at 1:00. We had a forgettable “tourist menu” lunch but the restaurant was comfortable and quite and promptly at 1:00 we saw our Context guide arrive out front.

John Boyden is a Theologian that is studying Canon Law at the Pontifical University. He explained that he arrived from Pennsylvania to study Theology for one year but has been living in Rome nine years now and isn’t quite sure when he’ll return to the States. I guess in his line of business, Rome is the place to be! There were two other couples on the tour so we had a full contingent of six. Then John dropped the bombshell. Saint Peter’s was closed that afternoon due to a special Mass. Closed. What do you mean, closed? We could have gone in this morning and didn’t. I had gone against my Cardinal Rule not to put my life on hold and to experience what I can while the opportunity is available – and I had passed up St. Peter's. I felt a bit out of kilter, incredulous. Michele’s face just fell and the sound of her voice, a lament, “You mean I’ve come all the way to Rome and won’t see St. Peters?” John offered that is was possible that the Basilica would reopen for a while after the Mass but we wouldn’t be able to enter from the Sistine Chapel (and that the office would reimburse part of the cost). Oh well.

We got on line and in about 20 minutes we entered the Vatican Museums. First stop was a trip to the lavatories and we reassembled on a terrace that overlooked the rear of St. Peters and the Gardens. Next, on to the Pine Cone courtyard where there were displays explaining the Sistine Chapel so John brought us over to one that was vacant and gave us a lesson on what we’d later see. Then we spent time viewing the casting of the Pieta and received a lesson about that wonderful work that we weren’t going to see as it’s in St. Peter’s (rats, again!). The Museums were packed with people so this was not a leisurely tour and all we managed were the “highlights.”

The Belvedere Courtyard was fantastic and had several ancient statues that did move me. The Laocoon on display was actually a reproduction as the original was being displayed in a special exhibit celebrating 500th anniversary of “New” St. Peters. I believe John stated that the special exhibit was in a temporary building in Piazza San Pietro (I’ve since heard that the exhibit was right inside the Museums, near the entrance) but I knew we’d have no time for special exhibits as we were leaving Rome at 9:30 the next morning for Florence. Still, even as a reproduction the Laocoon is wonderful. So full of pathos; the tragic expression of Laocoon as he looks heavenward in plea to the gods to spare him and his sons. So seemingly full of life; his muscles and those of his sons struggling against the giant serpent. After viewing many static antiquities such as those I’d seen at the Borghese Museums, the immediacy of movement in this work was astounding. Wasn’t this really sculpted by Michelangelo? No, of course not but I could certainly understand that this statue was undoubtedly studied by the great man. We also viewed Apollo Belvedere which I really, really enjoyed after having seen Bernini’s Apollo pursuing Daphne on Saturday. These two ancient works along with the Belvedere Torso were such a major influence in Western art that I feel privileged to have viewed them (well OK, Laocoon was a reproduction but at least cast from the original).

Next we passed through rooms of animal statues. We didn’t tarry here and I’m glad we didn’t as I’d read that most of these were “repaired” statues and there was so much “real” art to see. We did stop for a while in the Round Room and were awe struck by the huge porphyry basin from Nero’s Domus. It is tremendous and carved out of one block of that rare, Egyptian stone. In this room is also a large bronze Hercules which is the largest bronze extant from Ancient Rome. Apparently, this statue was once hit by lightening and thought to be bad luck, so it was buried long before any of the sacks of Rome and was therefore never melted down for armaments. The following room had two large sarcophagi of the rare porphyry that were made for, but never used by, Saints Helena and Constanza. This is not the Egyptian Room but there are several authentic Egyptian statues and others that are Roman in the Egyptian style.

We passed along the long hall and stopped to discuss the tapestries designed by Raphael and manufactured in Belgium. Several designs were finished by his students but I don’t really recall exactly why (perhaps he had died?) nor how many. In any case, they are lovely. Both Michele and I love tapestries; Michele has several beauties and we both have great ones our mom bought for us in Venice. We gave a cursory look around in the Map Room; actually, we did stop to discuss a few of them. As I mentioned, it was a beautiful, sunny day and there are many windows along this corridor so the atmosphere was really nice.

Then, the Raphael Rooms. These were another highlight of this trip. I had read so much about these works and had studied pictures of them but I was surprised at their size! The rooms seemed small in comparison to the frescoes. Some of them were beautifully restored. Both the School of Athens and the Disputa are not to be missed. They alone are worth a visit to the Museums. I recall my sixth grade teacher, Sister Antima, who used to love field trips and Friday afternoon art class. She would hand out index card sized reproductions of great world art and we’d each get our own copy. Well, one of these was School of Athens and I remember that we discussed this fresco and how this was the first I’d learned about Aristotle, et al. That was an awakening to me, so to see the original had deep, personal meaning and I was very moved. I really would have loved more time in these rooms but the pace of the tour was steady – the Museums were really quite crowded so in places it was difficult to linger. I can’t imagine what it’s like during high season!

At this point, John gave us something to think about. He offered to meet us in the morning to tour Saint Peter’s. He had no tour scheduled for Tuesday and was willing to meet the six of us to do the Basilica part of the tour. I knew it was easy to change train tickets and we were staying only of few blocks from Termini. The other two couples also wanted to meet and we decided on 8:30. I was so grateful that John offered as up until that point I had not considered rescheduling our train in order to see Saint Peter’s – I believe it would have occurred to me later, but maybe it wouldn’t have occurred to me until I had time to regret not thinking of it in time!

OK. Next up was the real biggie – the Sistine Chapel. Wall to wall people bumping and jostling around. The noise level wasn’t as bad as it could have been although there were plenty of people talking. I was prepared for what I’d see having studied pictures of the frescoes and having read several good books (at least twice, each). We spent a good half hour to 45 minutes here which was long enough considering the crowd. (I think it would be worth the cost to take the private night tour after the Museums close.) Michelangelo’s Ceiling is awesome, spectacular, startling. The colors are wonderful and the style, so different from anything we’d seen before. I also enjoyed the "Last Judgment" recalling that this was painted after the sack of Rome by German mercenaries in pay of the Spanish; Michelangelo and the Pope had a message to give the King of Spain – “repent you so-and-so, or this will be you on Charon’s ferry.” We’d started our Roman Holiday by visiting Michelangelo’s Chiesa Santa Maria degli Angeli; marveled at Moses in San Pietro in Vincoli; now, astounded by the Sistine Ceiling. (We still had David and Prisoners to look forward to in Florence).

Because the Basilica was closed, we walked back through to the entrance to exit. This walk is a blur to me. We were busy discussing what we’d seen and taking quick looks at art along the way. I was mentally distracted by ticket changing logistics. We were meeting friends from home for dinner and hadn’t planned on returning to the Termini area until late tonight; I was rearranging our itinerary to accommodate going to the train station. So, with all of that going on in my head, I completely forgot the Pinacoteca. Forgot ... the Pinacoteca! I wanted to see the Venetians. I mean, I’m driven to seek out Veronese wherever I go. I think of the line from “Bread and Tulips”, “distraction can sometime prove fatal.” Well, my distraction wasn’t fatal but I’m sure not happy about it considering we had the time and we were right there.

We parted the group at the exit, all of us looking forward to meeting in the morning. There is a taxi rank right in front and we caught a cab in just a few minutes back to the hotel. We retrieved our train ticket from the safe and walked the few blocks to Termini. Exchanging the ticket from 9:30 to 12:30 was quick and easy. This unscheduled trip to the station actually worked out well as we had a look around and familiarized ourselves for the next day.

Back out front to catch another taxi and experienced attempted “tourist taxi rip-off number two.” We fended off the stream of gypsies (although I did give one woman a couple of cigarettes) and got a taxi pretty fast. “Piazza Rotondo, Pantheon, per favore” and I notice the Tariffa 2 starting to click. “Escusi, tariffa due or uno”? “Oh, sorry, sorry I forget to change.” Yeah, right. I felt triumphant.

We had arranged to meet L&C at 7:00 in front of the Pantheon. They arrived in Rome on the previous day, Sunday, and would be there until Friday. We were meeting for dinner before we departed for Florence the next day. I knew how crowded the Piazza Rotonda is but I figured we’d eventually find them. Well, I alight from the taxi and who’s walking right toward me (but not seeing me) but L! Our dinner reservation at Da Armando du Pantheon (via Salita de’ Crescenzi, 31) wasn’t until 8:30 so I suggested we visit the wine bar Michele and I enjoyed on Friday.

We thoroughly enjoyed this enoteca again. The place was empty again but I’m sure it gets busy later as it’s a lovely place with a lot of wine. We enjoyed Vin Nobile de Montepulciano (by the glass) and it was delicious. L&C visited Montepulciano a few years earlier so the wine has special meaning for them. We again had a nice plate of cheese, pepperoni, crostini and olives. C wanted to find a tabacci to buy a Cuban cigar but couldn’t make himself understood; the barista thought he was asking permission to smoke and she kept point to the no smoking sign. They were enjoying their total inability to communicate; C is a twinkling-eyed Irish-American who does sales for a living and is completely charming in any language and the barista was having great fun. He decided to wander around the neighborhood but I had made sure to point out the restaurant as we passed by earlier so, if he got lost, he knew where to meet us. He didn’t get lost and he found his cigar. We left happy and laughing and headed to another great meal recommended by Slow Food.

Da Armando du Pantheon is a small trattoria just off the Piazza. I’d say there is seating for maybe 30 people and the kitchen is open and bustling. I really fell down on the trip report job as I only made notes on what I ate but what I had was delicious. We all thoroughly enjoyed the food (L&C returned here for lunch again the next day). I had Pasta Carbonara, Veal Saltimbocca, fresh peas and a wonderful Pear Poached in Red Wine with Prunes. We four had a nice visit, Michele and I recounting all we’d done in Rome and they filling us in on their sightseeing since arriving. They had taken the Context Rome Spagna Walk and were disappointed, feeling that the €80 it cost them was too much for what they saw and discussed. I think this kind of “orientation walk” is probably better to take with one of the less expensive companies like Romewalks or Icon. After our nice visit, we caught a taxi back to the hotel. We had packing to do.
Day Six (Thursday, 10/24/06): Good Morning Roma; Good Night Firenze

Our last morning in Rome. We had breakfast delivered to our room and checked out of the hotel by 7:30. The front desk held our luggage, called us a taxi and we arrived at Piazza San Pietro by a few minutes after 8:00. We met John and the rest of the group at the obelisk and as we walked to the Basilica, John started giving us a lesson in the architecture. We ascended the stairs and entered the portico with its five bronze doors. The central door was manufactured in 1445 for Old Saint Peters and the artist, Filarete, was from Florence. This door was made around the same time as Ghiberti’s “Paradise Door” at the Baptistery in Florence so I had fun comparing the two and Michele took a good look so that she would remember it when we got to Florence. We entered the church.

At first sight you really don’t realize how large the church actually is. Everything within (statues, mosaics, alters, baldachino) are proportionate. Although awesome in size, the individual doesn’t feel belittled. The church was still quiet; masses performed by visiting priests at the side alters were finished and tour buses hadn’t started to arrive yet. There were very few people and we had a leisurely visit. How could I possibly do justice to Saint Peter’s? Entire scholarly books don’t do justice to the place. Highlights for us were: Michelangelo’s Pieta (which we’d seen as children at the NY Worlds Fair – thank you Cardinal Spellman for having pull with the Pope); Bernini’s baldachino (OK, so he did loot the bronze from the Pantheon but it is spectacular); Bernini’s Cattedra and “Gloria” (is there a more beautiful apse in any other church in the world?) The mosaics are beautiful, the tremendous statues in the niches of the pillars are lovely, the ancient Saint Peter with his toes worn away from millions of pilgrims kisses was humbling and the light! The light streaming into the nave was spiritually uplifting. One other comment, don’t miss the shrine to Alexander III by Bernini; that skeleton of Death lifting the marble drape and reaching for Alexander is both wonderful and really creepy.

It was nearing 10:30 and our tour was over. The church was getting crowded and the line outside had already formed. We thanked John and went in search of a bancomat. We found the ATM and sis also spied a vendor selling 12 inch tall gladiator figures; he had three styles and she bought all three. Another taxi and when we reached the hotel, she ran over to via Nazionale to a tourist store and bought a nice big duffel to hold the gladiators on our transit to Florence.

We retrieved our luggage and arrived at Termini about 45 minutes before departure. We stopped to buy a bottle of water and found the track where our train was already waiting so we had plenty of time to board and get settled. I had learned in fall 2005 that the seat numbers in first class are typically Italian – in other words, whatever numbering order is used there seems to be no logical sense applied. I had sis wait on the platform while I entered the car to get our bearings. The luggage rack was already full but we were assigned seats 92 & 96! These turned out to be the last seats in the car; one seat on each side of the aisle near the door to the lav and next car. Next to the seats was plenty of room for our suitcases so, not only didn’t we have to deal with finding someplace to stow them, we never had to worry about them as we would have if they were out of sight.

We got comfortable, sat back and relaxed for the next 90 minutes as we rode through Tuscany. This was Michele’s first look at the Tuscan countryside and she loved it. Sis has always loved low mountains and rolling hills and had at one time considered moving upstate to Sullivan or Duchess counties; she spent her transit in reverie and thought the country was beautiful. I, on the other hand, am strictly a city girl; all I saw out of my window were farms. Well, I’ve seen Tuscany before and it’s nice to pass through on my way to cities. I spent my transit tweaking our Day One Florence itinerary to accommodate our later than expected arrival. But foremost on my mind was Santa Maria Novella. If I saw nothing else in Florence this visit I would not miss this church (on each of my previous three visits, events intervened precluding a visit)!

A pleasant, restful and uneventful train ride. A long walk down the platform pulling much too heavy suitcases and a quick cab ride around the corner to the Adler Cavalieri Hotel (via Della Scalza). Florence! My heart soared.

Just as I had to Hotel Britannia, several weeks before arrival I contacted the Cavalieri. I alerted them to our early arrival time, insured they understood twin beds and confirmed they would store our baggage until check-in time. The hotel was nice; a marginal 4 stars. It seemed a little worn down here and there but, on the other hand, had a lot of 4 star amenities. You enter the lobby but it is really just a long front desk in a nice woody room. Off to the side is a room with leather seating and a "clubby" feel. There were a couple of long corridors leading to banquet rooms and such. Display cases were here and there and contained high end product displays like in a Hilton or other 4 star brand.

Our room was ready and we were assigned a triple room at the front of the hotel. It was a great room. Two large windows with excellent soundproofing let the sunlight stream in. Along with the twin beds, there was also a massive sofa that would be the third bed, an also massive wardrobe and armoire set and an English language movie channel on the TV. Not that we were in Italy to watch TV, but it was nice to watch in the morning while dressing and at night before bed. The bathroom was modern with luxury toiletries. We looked forward to another comfortable stay and were not disappointed. We hung up a few things, locked some stuff in the safe, stopped at the front desk to arrange our dinner reservation and headed out into the Florence afternoon.

Our first stop: Santa Maria Novella. Many of the sights we’d seen in Rome were fantastic and brought me to the state of wonder but only Santa Maria Novella brought me to the state of tears. When I entered that soaring Gothic space and walked over to see Giotto’s Cruxifiction ... well, that just did me in. I cannot describe how I felt looking at this masterpiece! The work is beautifully restored with vibrant colors and gleaming gold. But then, all of the art, indeed the entire church has obviously been the focus of a major restoration project. The façade is currently under scaffolding and, while we were there, renovation of one of the obelisks in the piazza was completed and the other, begun. The artworks within are all in superb condition, that is to say the best condition possible. “La Trinita” by Masaccio looks washed out like it was over cleaned but perhaps this is result of the original paint mixture or of some previous restoration attempt. It’s still an impressive fresco. How appropriate that Brunelleschi’s Crucifix hangs in this same church. As I stood in the Tornabuoni Chapel looking at the incredibly beautiful fresco cycle by Ghirlandaio and his workshop, I felt my spirit soar. A physical pulling sensation from the solar plexus and the top of my head began to tingle! I cannot recount in any words I know the beauty of this chapel. The stain glass window also designed by the master is in complete harmony with the rest of the work. One of the greatest masterpieces I’ve been privileged to see. There is just so much more great art in this church: Cappella Strozzi with frescos by Filippino Lippi; the Polyptich by Andrea Orcangna; the massive Della Robbia in the Sacristy (indeed, the entire Sacristy/gift shop is a treasure). We spent about two hours in the church and were really getting hungry as we’d only had an early breakfast (were we really in Saint Peter’s Basilica this morning?) Rather than go on to visit the museum, garden or cloister we left to forage for lunch.

We crossed the street and headed down via Dei Banchi toward the Duomo. I had in mind to eat at Lo Scudo on via Dell’Oriuolo (really good pizza and pasta, right behind the Duomo) but right there at the corner of via de Panzini was a small café that looked nice. We walked in to see the cold display and were told the soups were minestrone and pasta fagiole; I ordered the first and sis, the second. In just a few minutes they arrived nice and hot. The soups were both very good and we also shared a tremezzi. It hit the spot.

Then we decided to just walk around. We entered Piazza del Duomo and circled the church. The ornate encrustation really impressed Michele. We stopped to view the Gates of Paradise door at the Baptistery (I mentioned to Michele that two of the panels will be on display here in the US sometime in 2007 – the name of the museum displaying them escapes me, but I’ll surely find out the details). We then walked down via Proconsolo, the curve of which follows the pattern of the ancient Roman wall, past the Badia and Bargallo and over to Piazza Signoria. We lingered here for a while, walking around and looking at the statues on the piazza and in the loggia. This was my fourth time to Florence and I’ve read extensively about the city over the years, so I was glad to act as unauthorized tour guide for Michele. It was now past 7:00 and we had 8:30 dinner reservations in Santa Croce, so we exited the piazza by way of Piazza d’Uffizi and Michele had her first look at the Arno.

We walked over to the Ponte Vecchio and sis finally got to see what I’d described to her after my first visit. We window shopped for a while; some of the shops were closing for the day but plenty of them were still open. I noted how high the prices were – much higher than they were in November 2005 (less than a year earlier) – and way, way above what they were like in spring, 2003. I actually saw a tri-colored bracelet that matched a suite I’d purchased in 2003 (ring, earrings and necklace – not a chain with an ornament but an actual necklace); for the suite I’d paid €1100, for the bracelet they were asking €1500! Who needs another bracelet anyway?

Walking along the Arno on the way to Santa Croce, Michele stopped to buy an knock-off handbag for her grandchildren’s mom, L, (one big enough to hold the twins “stuff” for easy transport). She got a price she couldn’t refuse as the vendor wanted that last sale of the day. She also bought L a beautiful leather bag and a couple of more knock-offs during our shopping day later in the week. On we walked to Santa Croce while I pointed out the fortified palazzos along the way.

When my husband and I visited in late November 2005, we stopped into Santa Maria della Grazie on the lungarno of the same name. This tiny chapel houses a “miraculous icon” and I’d hoped to show Michele but the chapel was closed for the day. We arrived at Piazza Santa Croce at about 8:00 but decided to see if we could be seated early. We had reservations at Boccadama (Piazza Santa Croce 25-26). This small restaurant is attached to a wine bar with the same name. The menu is very small but, from the reviews I’ve read, this place is all about the wine. Be forewarned about the short menu. For a non-picky eater (like me) the menu is great; everything looked delicious to me. Michele, on the other hand is kind of picky and every secundo had an ingredient she wasn’t crazy about.

Dinner was delicious! We shared a plate of antipasti which was generous and consisted of sliced boar salami, prosciutto and cheeses, various olives, and crostini. I enjoyed a bleu filet and Michele, who usually eats medium-well, enjoyed a rare sliced filet over arugula (which she doesn’t eat but this was her “compromise” order). She ate every morsel of that rare beef which she would never have touched at home – and loved it! The beef was superb. I can’t say what the wine was, exactly, but it was a Sangiovese and was delicious. I don’t recall if we had dessert.

OK. I have to admit that my trip report for Florence will have some gaps as, by this point I was falling down on the job in keeping notes. I’m not much of a note taker on vacation (this was actually my first real attempt at it) but at least in Rome, we really kept to our itinerary. I can therefore recall a lot of our experiences as the itinerary jogs the memory and I did try to always jot down what we ate. In Florence, we ended up kind of winging it a lot. We had a wonderful time but I know there will be some gaps in the report.

Back to Boccadama. We discussed our jam packed day over dinner. We had started early in Rome, meeting John at 8:30 at the obelisk in Piazza San Pietro; taken a restful and stress free train ride to Florence; was overcome by the beauty in Santa Maria Novella; and, had walked the streets of Centro Storico. Time to call it a day. We caught a taxi at the taxi rank on the piazza and reached our room at about 11:00. Tomorrow, more knock-your-socks-off art!
Day Seven (Wednesday, 10/25/06): Fra Angelico, Michelangelo and the Rest of the Gang

This was going to be a really big day: San Marco, Accademia, Uffizi. Huge. We woke early and went downstairs for breakfast by 7:15. The breakfast was better than OK but not to the same standard that the Hotel Britannia had been in Rome. Really good cold meats and cheeses, many baked goods (but all of them sweet), cold cereals, fresh yoghurt as well as commercial, soggy bacon, terrible (if any) dry scrambled eggs, canned rather than fresh fruit. The most terrible coffee I’ve had in Italy; so bad, in fact, that I drank tea for the duration. There was enough variety to put together a better than satisfactory breakfast but I would have loved some fresh fruit.

We had the front desk call us a taxi; taxi service is one of the pleasures of Florence as their service is great.

We arrived at Piazza San Marco by 8:30 and entered the museum into the cloister. Stepping into the cloister, even today, feels like you’ve left the world behind. There weren’t many tourists there that morning so the cloister was actually empty and the entire museum was very quiet. We first stopped to admire the Crucifixion by Fra Angelico that is painted on the wall in the loggia. We also enjoyed the portraits of the various monks and saints painted along these walls as we made our way to the room full of Fra Bartolomeo works and then around to the former hospice with even more works by Fra Angelico. We then backtracked to the room with the great Crucifixion on the wall; I’d read that condemned prisoners during the Republic spent the night before execution in this room with their confessor. When I visited here with my daughter in 2002, she wasn’t able to enter this room stating she felt too much negative energy (I purposefully never told her the history of this room).

We next went upstairs to visit the monks cells. This area of the museum did have a couple of French tour groups that were pretty pushy but, we’re from NYC so knew how to ignore their crush. I’d seen these frescoes several times before but I always enjoy seeing them again especially when seeing them anew through someone else’s eyes. The library was closed so we headed back downstairs to use the lavatory and then entered the gift shop which houses (in my humble opinion) two of the greatest works in the museum: the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio and a very beautiful Della Robbia.

It was after 10:00, so we exited and walked through Piazza Annunziata on our way to Accademia and our 11:00 reservation. There was a not-too-long line for the non-reservation tourists and, even though we were about a half-hour early, we were allowed entry. So many people visit this museum simply for the Michelangelo’s (which are wonderful) but the main sala is full of beautiful paintings by: Perugino, Bartolomeo, Ghirlandaio, Lippi, Giambologna, Uccello and many, many others. We spent close to an hour in this room before proceeding to David, Prisoners, Matthew and Pieta. Michele’s comment about David “isn’t he just perfect!” Yes, sis, he is! Then on through the medieval and early renaissance galleries of beautiful icons and alterpieces. More big names: Giotto, Gaddi, Monaco. And unknown names called “Maestra of ...” A new gift shop has opened since last fall and a proper exit from the museum is now completed. The gift shop is really nice and I bought some art books published by Scala; I buy these whenever I’m in Italy as I find they have good information and pictures and aren’t expensive.

We had a 1:00 reservation for lunch at Coquinarius (via dell’Oche, 15r), a wine bar I had hoped to try the previous November but never had the chance. It’s a small, modern place with seating for maybe 30 diners and ended up a great choice for lunch. I had a lovely salad with grilled chicken and Michele had a pasta dish (sorry, no note of exactly which pasta), which she also enjoyed. We relaxed over a glass of wine and talked about our busy morning. Michele was astounded by what we’d seen at San Marco and, of course, who isn’t impressed by David, et. al.? Sis was really looking forward to our afternoon at Uffizi and so was I. Each time I’d been to Florence I’d spent a minimum of five hours in this museum. Our reservation was for 3:00 and the museum closes at 6:50 on Wednesdays so this would be a shorter visit for me but I felt long enough for sis to get a real taste of the offerings yet avoid “museum overload” considering our itinerary for this day.

Before we knew it, the time was 2:40 and we had to rush to Uffizi to pick up our tickets. We left Coquinarius, making a left on via dell’Oche and walked past a small handbag boutique with very interesting handbags displayed in the window. My 23 year old daughter is a “handbag hound” and I’m always on the look-out for unusual designs, which this boutique had many of. I rushed in to request a business card and told the clerk I would return (which we did on the following day).

Piazza Signoria was packed and I rushed ahead of sis to get to the ticket office. I was glad that I had been there just the previous year as I knew where the ticket office was located (which had been moved since my visits in 2002 and 2003). Had I not known the location I would have been lost as the area is under renovation and the office was hiden behind plywood. Tickets retrieved, a quick smoke and we entered the fabulous museum.

My plan was to stick to the Renaissance art; three hours is just not enough time to see everything (it’s not even enough time to do any justice to the great Renaissance works). We spent the afternoon in these rooms and I just followed Michele’s lead. We spent as much time as she wanted in whatever rooms she was interested in. She “discovered” Botticelli on this trip and spent a lot of time enjoying his works which was fine with me as in these rooms are also some of my favorites, Lippi and Ghirlandaio. The museum was crowded but we just ignored the crowds and focused on our interests. I’m certainly not going to try to write an Uffizi Guide as part of this trip report. Suffice it to say we had a great afternoon of great art and would have been happy if we had the time and stamina to have had a longer visit.

On exiting, the route is set out so that you pass through the DaVinci Special Exhibit. Assembled out of wood using Leonardo’s plans, these creations and machines were pretty astounding. The gallery was jammed with kids using the hands on displays which was truly heartening but made it difficult to pass through. We again spent some time in the gift shop and sis bought several decoupage reproductions and I, more books. We exited Uffizi and took a seat right outside on some long concrete benches just to give our knees and feet a break! To say we were tired would be a serious understatement.

We had no dinner reservations for this night as I had in mind to eat at Yellow Bar (via Proconsolo, 35-37-39R) which has a no reservation policy, begins serving at 8:00 and was close to Uffizi. We were going to look for a wine bar to kill time but were stopped in our tracks by the window of Cosimo (Piazza S. Firenze, 15-16-17-18R) seller of fine leather handbags since 1960. This family-owned shop has some of the nicest handbags we’d seen and we ended up here for an hour of shopping. I purchased a mustard yellow bag for my daughter and a great leather portmanteau for myself – I now have a really special carry-on bag for my travels. Michele bought a bag for our sister Maria and one for herself. I had a nice chat with the proprietor, the son of the original owner; he had an 8x10 photo of the shop during the great 1966 flood (the 40th anniversary of which occurred while we were in Florence) showing the water up above the plate glass windows! The entire first storey of the building was under water. I highly recommend this shop-the quality is excellent and the prices, honest. Still too early for Yellow Bar, we started walking around and found ourselves on via del Corso. Michele noticed a gift and antiques store; a doll in the window caught her eye. We went inside where she purchased it for our niece, C. The merchant was an elderly gentleman that spoke perfect English and showed us around his interesting store.

We bid farewell and continued along via Corso until we reached Brashi at number 67r, a family-run housewares store with lots of surprising items. Sis had spotted wooden carousels so in we marched. The carousels were also animated music boxes and momma brought them off of the shelf behind the counter so Michele could take a closer look. When she realized sis would be buying several, she brought her into a back display room that had shelves of them to choose from. Michele bought three (€25 each); one for each of her grandsons and one for C. She also bought wooden bugs (€10) that held a pencil cup with colored pencils for all three kids. I purchased a music box with dancing ballerina for C (€20). I had spotted wine serving kits and the one I decided on has the usual corkscrew, bottle coaster and stopper but also includes a champagne stopper, a special gadget to remove air from a re-corked bottle and a wine temperature gauge (€40); I purchased one for my husband and one for our daughter (the chef) and Michele purchased one for her oldest son. I also bought a set of cookie cutters to add to my daughter’s collection. Of course, every thing we purchased were wrapped up beautifully. We were their last sale of the day and they had locked the doors a good half hour before we were ready to go. I’m sure they were very happy about the sale and we had a fun time in this store. You could really go nuts buying stuff for your home or for gifts here and the prices are really reasonable for the style and quality. On to Yellow Bar.

We waited about thirty minutes to be seated and were placed at the end of a long table. This place is a noisy, casual place with lots of locals and tourists. The pizzas look very good but we were there for the house-made pasta. I had an appetizer of prosciutto and melon and sis had prosciutto and fresh mozzarella, we both had delicious Pasta Carbonara. For secundo, I ordered pork cutlets in lemon and Michele had another rare beef filet (although not as rare as the night before). For dessert, we both had the sorbetto of the day which was honeydew – yum. Dinner was very satisfying and the atmosphere was fun; we ended up back here for dinner the following night. We asked the waiter to call us a taxi, which arrived in just a few minutes. We arrived back at the hotel at 11:30 and decided that the following morning we were going to sleep late to recuperate from the very long day spent mostly on our feet. Our itinerary (and our age) was catching up with us!
Day Eight (Thursdsay, 10/26/06): Shopped 'till We Dropped

We slept late, until 7:30 (!) and went to breakfast at 8:15. The same story as yesterday, no eggs only dried bits left in the pan. The waiter was pretty surly, too, only bringing us one pot of tea water although we both wanted different teas. Maybe he got a lot of grief from earlier guests who wanted eggs! He was the only service person we met on the entire trip that had a bad attitude. Anyway, we ate and left the hotel to walk to the Bargello.

Near Piazza della Republica, Michele noticed a vendor who, along with various souvenirs, also sold inexpensive luggage. We both already knew we had to purchase an additional suitcase each in order to haul back our loot; Michele was doing a lot of shopping and I’d bought a lot of books so the new 50 pound weight limit was working against me. We noted the location to return to after visiting the Bargello. It was another beautiful day and the streets were already getting busy.

Because of its limited hours, I had never made it to the Bargello before and, like Santa Maria Novella, I was determined to see it on this trip. I really never imagined that the collection would be so extensive! The central courtyard itself was worth spending time in just in order to imagine what it must have been like to live in a fortified palazzo. The sculpture collection (Michelangelo, Donatello, Gianbologna, Cellini, de Cambio) is vast and important. This I expected. What I didn’t expect were the decorative arts; tableware, ceramics, jewelry. And the Della Robbia’s! We ended up spending about three hours here missing our reservation for the Brancacci Chapel (which was a conscious choice on my part – how could we cut short the Bargello?)

We decided to spend the day in the Centro Storico but first we returned to Theresa Cambi (via della Oche, 17r) where I bought two bags for my daughter; one of them a purple felt evening bag (€30) and the other a crocheted sack (€23). Michele bought a stylish leather handbag for L (€85) and one for herself. We next found Parione (via dello Studio, 11r), a lovely stationary store where we each made purchases. My daughter’s boyfriend, J, has a love for things related to writing so I bought him a box of hand made stationary paper and a calligraphy pen set with artisanal ink (€84, total). Michele bought our nephew, N, a journal and pen and also made a few other purchases.

We reached via Calzaiuoli and stopped at Migone, “confetteria classica Firenze” and bought fresh torrone (two kinds), cantucci and an assortment of hard candies to bring home. It was much too warm to consider chocolate.

We next made our way back to the vendor to purchase the suitcases and return them to the hotel. After dropping our purchases off in our room, we stopped into the Pharmacia Santa Maria Novella (which was a few doors down from the hotel), where I purchased a gift for my assistant at work and replenished my supply of talcum powder. Michele also bought powder and we returned these purchases to our room before heading back to the center. We were hungry and returned to the same café we visited on our arrival day to have lunch. This time, sis ordered the Ribollita soup (tomato with stale bread) which I’ve always been curious about so I tasted hers; it’s good but very filling. I again had minestrone and we shared another tremezzo. Well, we had a loose plan to shop and to stop into the Duomo and Baptistery but we never did visit them; we just shopped ‘til we dropped!

We spent the rest of the afternoon in “slow gear.” It was already after 3:00 and we still had gifts to buy so next we headed directly to San Lorenzo Market. Here, we had fun. We split up but kept each other in view and touched base often to look over and recommend vendors. My husband asked me to bring home local art. This is something we always do and enjoy together. I came across a woman artist showing her etchings and her work was well worth the asking price; I purchased two. One, a lateral view of the Arno with bridges, about 4”x10”, €15; the other, a standard view of the domes of San Lorenzo and Duomo, about 8X10, €25. My husband was very pleased. Other purchases I made (and recommended vendors): leather gloves (men, €35; women, mid-forearm, €42); silk ties (€10 or three for €25) and scarves (silk prints, €10; silk velvet, stamped Venetian style, €35; silk pashmina €20) at Belinda (stand 21); leather bound journals (4”x6”, €15; 4x8, €20) and men’s wallets (billfolds with a change compartment, €25) at Molinuccio. My only other purchases here were an Italia baseball cap and Firenze T-shirt for our brother, The Collector. Michele bought some little duds for her grandsons and really nice sweatshirts for her sons, The Athletes. She found a leather men’s touring bag (very stylish shoulder bag to hold maps and such) for her husband who was to leave on a trip in November. She also found another handbag for herself that she just couldn’t resist as well as some other items.

All day we had our eyes out for a tabacci to buy Cuban cigars for our husbands. Michele spotted one, Tabaccheria (Borgo San Lorenzo,41r) and we each purchased four cigars for the hubbies: two Romeo & Julietta’s and two Partagas’. Michele also tried to find a leather cigar holder for her husband but all of them were for thin, short cigars. Next we stopped at a perfumery on via Calzaiuoli for cologne for sis’s older sons. Looks like we were finally finished, famished and ready to call it a day. We headed back to Yellow Bar for dinner.

We were laden with packages and told the waiter we’d wait until a booth was available; he said 10 minutes, it was thirty minutes. We didn’t care. It was our last night in Italy, so we were happy to stand out front, looking at the palazzos lining via Proconsolo. We had a reprise of the previous night’s dinner, except for secondo I had a salad. Again, very satisfying (I’m a sucker for fresh pasta). I had hoped to visit a few more restaurants in Florence but Yellow Bar really was just right for us on these final nights. It was only about 10:00, but we had the dreaded chore ahead of us – packing all this stuff up for traveling home.

It’s never fun to pack and it’s really not fun to pack with the intent of getting things home in one piece! Actually, my packing was pretty easy as I really hadn’t bought much (I’d just brought gifts for family while in Paris in April and Florence last November) and what I did buy was unbreakable. My major issue was distributing the weight with the knowledge of the 50 pound limit – most of my purchases were books and I had no scale. Imagine, when I weighed in at the airport, one bag was 48.5 lbs and the other 49.8!! Michele had the challenge: gladiators, musical carousels, pencil holding bugs. Well, she did it and everything got home fine. One of her bags was over by about two pounds but the Alitalia agent made a pass (thank you kind agent). We finished packing somewhere around 2:00am but we had plenty of time to sleep late in the morning; our flight wasn’t until 12:00.
Final Day (Friday 10/27/06): Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

We got up at 7:45, dressed, ate breakfast (again, no eggs just evidence that there had been former eggs on the platter) and took a taxi to the airport, arriving by 10:00. We first went to the customs window to have VAT paperwork signed and then outside to the regular mailbox to deposit it. Alitalia now has check-in on the second level so you have to take an elevator if your luggage weighs a ton like ours did. Anyway, it was fast and easy but I can imagine a bottleneck occurring at busy times.

We walked around the airport for a while, had another cigarette or two, then went to the gate (security was quick) to await the flight. Leaving Florence is like leaving an old friend.

An uneventful short flight to Milan where we had a 3.5 hour layover. We stopped in the Lindt store but the chocolate was too soft for me plus I was headed back to WeightWatchers upon my return. I did buy one candy bar for the flight but when I later opened it, it was almost liquid so I discarded it. Michele bought some truffles which are her favorite. Then we found the snack bar and we had the only pizza we ate in Italy! I had a slice and a salad; Michele had a few bites of her slice and a pasta. She had those bites just so she could tell her sons that she had Italian pizza. Well, of course, it wasn’t very special. In fact, it tasted just like local pizza here on Staten Island.

We had spied our gate earlier but I didn’t notice that there was a glass wall hindering access. We decided to head to the gate about 45 minutes before boarding and I discovered the glass wall and realized (of course) we had to go through passport control before the international flight. Well, the line moved fast and we got to our gate 30 minutes early. This was going to be a Boeing 777 so there were a lot of people waiting for the flight. We managed to be on the first bus (in spite of the several Italian businessmen who kept trying to ease in front of me) but I got pulled aside for a carry-on search. Well, I lost half of a mini-tube of toothpaste and the opened bottle of water. We were on the first transport and had plenty of time to stow our carry-ons and get comfortable; our seats were on the aisle, across from one another.

Because of the bus transport and the security searches it took at least 45 minutes to fully board the plane – and fully boarded it was; there were very few empty seats scattered about. There were a lot of people, native Italian speakers as far as I could tell, that weren’t happy with their seat assignment. Lots of people were milling around trying to get people to change with them. Some dissatisfied travelers were actually getting upset with people who wouldn’t give up their assigned seats for them! The flight attendants were having a terrible time. Then I witnessed a real first for me. The plane begins to taxi for the runway and there are still at least 12 people refusing to take their seats; finally, when we stopped at the runway to prepare for takeoff, they sat down. All sis and I could do was laugh as it really felt like we were watching a sitcom.

The flight was coach so you can’t expect much by way of comfort. Poor Michele ended up with the guy in front of her having his seat back the entire time (just as what happened to her inbound) and the guy behind her sat with his feet up on his carry-on, his knees up against the back of her seat so she couldn’t recline hers. He was being a smart _ss and feigning sleep. When she got up to use the lav (actually, I found out later she went to ask to be moved) smart _ss saw she left so decided to stretch his legs. I guess he didn’t realize she and I were together; I nonchalantly got up, stepped into the aisle, bent over and pushed her seat all the way back. Well, you can bet that startled him and he started badgering me about how that wasn’t polite and how I should have asked. Yeah, right. I turned my back and sat back down.

The flight crew was friendly and efficient and seemed excited and in a jovial mood. Maybe they were looking forward to downtime in NYC. The food was basically terrible but the salad, bread and dessert were OK. There were several pretty good movies to choose from although I don’t recall them and beverage service was set up in the rear to help yourself to during the flight. We arrived at Newark Liberty about an hour late but passport control and customs were fast. I always find the passport agents and customs folks so welcoming at Newark – they always seem happy see you and there was a lot of World Series banter between arriving Americans and the agents. All of our baggage arrived with us, unscathed.

Our sojourn had come to an end – but the reverie ...
Rome Reading List:
  • “Pilgrimage: A Chronicle of Christianity Through the Churches of Rome ” by- June Hager
  • “A Catholics Guide to Rome” by- Frank J. Korn
  • “High Renaissance Art in Saint Peter’s and the Vatican” by- George L. Hersey
  • “Basilica, The Splendor and the Scandal: The Building of Saint Peter’s” by- R.A. Scotti
  • “Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling” by- Ross King
  • “Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy” by- David Mayernik
  • “Rome: A Guide to the Eternal City” by- Sophia Pescarin
  • “Subterranean Rome” by- Ivana Della Portella
  • “The Early History of Rome” by- Livy
  • “Signs & Symbols in Christian Art” by- George Ferguson
  • “The Holy Bible” Acts of the Apostles
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