Rome, Day 4

We started the day as per usual with our hotel-provided breakfast. Following that, we began our day with a walk down the via del Corso towards the Piazza Venezia. We passed monuments such as Trajan’s Column as we neared the white marble monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II.  On our last trip, we had a snack at the cafe on top of the monument, which provides a nice vista of Rome. The massive building sits at the head of the via del Corso, which terminates in a busy traffic circle. From that vantage point, you can see the Colosseum in the distance. Behind the monument is the Capitoline Hill, another of Rome’s seven hills, which houses the Capitoline Museum (we have never actually toured this museum but it is open to the public). We decided on this particular route so that we could see the Roman Forum. We looped around the via di Monte Tarpeo, which turned into the via di san Teodoro to approach an indoor farmer’s market called Mercato di Campagna Amica del Circo Massimo, another find from Katie Parla’s website.  This market is only open on the weekends and is closed in August. The farmer’s market is another good place to buy gifts for friends and family. Whenever we go to a farmer’s market, whether it is at home or abroad, we make sure to bring a reusable bag like this and we have plenty of cash in small denominations to facilitate transactions. We bought various jarred spreads, olive oils, and cookies to bring home. After leaving, we passed the Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus) and the Boca di Verita (best memorialized in Roman Holiday) and crossed the Ponte Palatino to arrive in Trastevere. We turned right after crossing the bridge and walked along the Tiber until we came upon Piazza san Pietro (St. Peter’s Square).  We took small back streets to get to the piazza and encountered a mass of people. Every Sunday when the Pope is in town, he gives a papal blessing to those gathered in the piazza. We settled in amongst the crowd and waited for Pope Francis to come to a window on the top floor (denominated by a burgundy flag with the papal seal). He gave a benediction that lasted about 10 minutes, then the crowd began to disperse. We walked back to the apartment to put away our purchases and to rest for a little while, then made our way back out into Rome.

We decided to do a ‘highlights’ walk of our favorite places while on our way to lunch, passing through the Piazza Navona and by the Pantheon, ending up at our lunch destination, Open Baladin. This is a gastropub that serves Italian craft beers and the kitchen is run by the same chef that owns Pizzarium, Gabriele Bonci. After our pub tour in London, we were craving beer by this point so it was a good time to hit up this restaurant. The vibe is very laid back and we ended up eating at the bar. We enjoyed the food here most of any of the restaurants we went to in Rome. I had a veggie burger and my husband had a hamburger and both were fantastic. We also took advantage of the free wi-fi and hung out for awhile. There is an enormous selection of Open’s bottled beers as well as a great selection of their own beer on tap.

Feeling satiated, we left and made our way back past the Largo di Torre di Argentina and headed towards the Colosseum, along the via di Fori Imperiali,  stopping first to get an espresso in Rito Caffe, overlooking the Colosseum. We ended up in the church of St. Peter in Chains (Basilica di san Pietro in Vincoli) after getting a little lost. Afterwards, we headed through the Monti neighborhood and wandered through an indoor flea market and got gelato at Fatamorgana, which was (of course) awesome.  Our next destination was the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, a large basilica with beautiful mosaics. After leaving, we headed towards my favorite church in Rome, Santa Maria dell Vittoria.  There are alabaster angels all over the ceiling and portraits of my mother’s favorite saint, Saint Theresa, holding bouquets of pink roses. There is also a sculpture by Bernini called Saint Theresa in Ecstasy, which was being restored so we were unable to see it this time around. There was an organ playing and we just sat down for a few minutes to take in the beauty of the church. Feeling a huge sense of tranquility, we left the church and continued on our path and meandered through the There were ominous clouds but we stayed ahead of the rain and the sky gave way to a gorgeous sunset as dusk settled in.

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Day 3–Orvieto and a Roman ghost tour

IMG_1853During our planning, we had wanted to take a side trip during our stay in Rome. Because we had visited prior and had seen many of the sights (the Colosseum, Vatican museums, millions of churches, the Forum), we wanted to expand our horizons and see a new town. We wanted to take a train (had flirted with the idea of renting a car but decided that driving in Rome wasn’t really for us, plus we didn’t want the hassle of picking up and returning a car) and wanted to be within two hours of Rome. We did some research, taking into account weather and distance as the biggest factors. Our next trip to Italy will definitely encompass the south/southwest (Positano, Capri, etc) but because we were traveling in late February, those destinations seemed to be off-season. We had considered visiting my great-grandparents’ hometowns, Chieti and Campobasso, but there were no direct trains to either place and we ultimately decided that an ancestral road trip is for another occasion. We wanted to find a place that was a walkable town with multiple sights to visit (if we wanted to) and several restaurant options. We had already visited Siena (highly recommended, one of my favorite cities) and Florence, which would have been good choices.IMG_3291 Ultimately, we decided on Orvieto, a town in Umbria that is about a 1 1/2 hour train ride from Rome. Other locations that can be considered can be found here.

IMG_3305Before leaving the US, we planned as much of our trip as we could have. We found (but did not purchase) tickets in advance on Trenitalia‘s website to get an idea of our timetable and did as much research as we could on Orvieto. We also used our Rick Steves’ guide (Italy 2015) to help us navigate while we were there. On the PBS channel on Rook we watched an episode of Rick Steves where he went to Oriveto (I think it was the episode called Italy’s Hill Towns) so we were able to get an idea of the town from his trip.  He also has a good write up here. There are also some websites that help in familiarizing with the town, such as this one.

IMG_1852As was becoming our custom, we started our morning with an early breakfast at the hotel before catching the metro at our Spagna station to Termini. There, we caught the Trenitalia train to Orvieto. We purchased tickets at the automated machines at the station and validated them before getting on the train. The seats are assigned (unlike most Amtrak trains in the US). The car (carrozza) and seat (posto) are numbered and we were seated in car 4, seats 21 and 22. There is a conductor that comes around and makes sure that you are seated in your appropriate location and people can be sticklers about their seating locations. We were seated next to two older Italian women, which gave me a chance to practice my Italian and gave them an opportunity to speak English, which was so fun for me (my poor husband!).

IMG_3303The train ride lasted about an hour and a half, giving me time to get into my book, Still Alice by Lisa Genova–the movie with Julianne Moore is based on that novel. So good but very depressing. Tip: I have the Kindle app on my iPhone (and iPad and MacBook…and I have a Kindle too. I like reading, what can I say?). That app is great for travel because you can download books to read off-line, so you don’t end up using data while you’re abroad and it gives you something to do on long plane, train or bus rides. If you’re going to day trip and you’re using a device like your phone, try to remember to bring some type  of backup charger (but don’t forger a converter) as the trains have electrical outlets at every seat. I have a Mophie charger for my iPhone and a rechargeable battery pack that I got at TJ Maxx for like $10 that can be used for both the iPhone and iPad.

IMG_3294We pulled into the Orvieto station and disembarked. The train station is at the bottom of a hill (mountain?) and there is a funicular (funicolare) that takes you to the top, where the actual town is. The funicular costs €1 per person each way (I think the ticket is valid for 90 minutes so technically one ticket can get you up and down if you don’t plan on spending much time in the town). IMG_3295The funicular is like a gondola ski lift/cable car that holds maybe 20 people and the ride lasts less than two minutes. Once we arrived at the top, we got out and walked around the fort and small park that is directly on your left when you exit the funicular station. The views from this fort are pretty incredible.IMG_3296

 

 

 

 

We walked up the Corso Cavour, which is the main road that links the funicular to the city center. There are signs everywhere but it is a good idea to have a map (like in Rick Steves’ book) because it can get slightly confusing. We followed signs to the duomo, which was a pretty impressive facade. The exterior was gorgeous,  slightly reminiscent of Siena’s duomo (still by far my favorite)–very ornate, lots of gold and mosaics (I think) and statues. It costs €3 per person to enter, which also includes the cost of entering a chapel. There is a separate duomo museum that has some Etruscan art and some modern art (I’m not a huge art person, so it wasn’t really interesting to us) that is next door. IMG_3330Across the piazza is the information office that organizes tours of one of the most interesting aspects of Orvieto–its underground. The tour didn’t start for a few hours and we were hungry and a little cranky so we ended up bailing, though it was something we had planned on doing and it seems like one of the biggest draws that Orvieto has. There is an underground grotto and some caves that look really fun, probably especially in the summer when it is hot above ground.

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Since we were not really on our game by this point, we started to unravel a little bit and began aimlessly wondering, poking in and out of shops and then trying to find a lunch place. The restaurant we had been looking at turned out to be closed for repairs for the next week or month so that added to our “meh” mood. By that time, all of the other tourists wandering around the town also decided that it was lunchtime and finding a restaurant without a huge wait was a bit challenging. IMG_1865

We finally ended up at Trattoria La Grotta, a cute family-owned place where we were sat immediately. We ordered a bottle of chianti, a side of seasonal vegetables, and I had ravioli with black truffles in a hazelnut sauce and my husband had some type of sausage and potatoes. I think I could eat truffles on anything and be happy! That improved our mood somewhat and we set back out onto the streets of Orvieto.

IMG_1860We walked over to the Piazza del Popolo, where a market convenes every Saturday morning. Unfortunately, we caught the tail end, with vendors breaking down their stalls but we caught a glimpse of small(ish) town life in Italy. The vendors sold clothing (especially underwear!), fruits and vegetables, cheese, snacks, and household necessities like trash cans, paper goods, and cutlery. It is so easy for us to pop over to Target whenever we need anything and it really got me thinking of how it must be to have to plan for your weekly excursion to the local market and figure out what to do the remainder of the week. And Orvieto is a relatively large town with a bunch of shops but they seem to cater more towards tourists and visitors rather than the locals. After we left the market, we wandered around the streets a little bit more, then decided to head back to the train and catch a slightly earlier one than we had originally intended on getting since we were a little bored and it was a bit chilly and damp. One of the vendors that was set up by the funicular station was selling all kinds of candy, nuts, and roasted chestnuts. Every Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family roasts chestnuts (in the oven) so these are comfort food to me. I ended up buying a bag (maybe a half kilo, which is about a pound) and that was our snack for the train ride home to Rome.

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La Barracia fountain, post-vandalism

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Close-up on the chipped damage along the edge of the fountain

We arrived in Roma Termini and caught the Metro back to our home base, where we crashed and napped for a little bit. That day, the Dutch soccer eam had vandalized the centuries-old basin at the base of the Spanish Steps after playing in a match against Roma. We ventured over to the fountain to survey the damage, which was not a lot but was representative of tragic disrespect for a historical landmark.

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Piazza Farnese

Next on our list was a ghost tour, led by Dark Rome. I think we found this tour on Tripadvisor and booked it before leaving the US. As has become fairly evident, we don’t take many traditional tours and prefer to go it alone with guide books or we will pick up audio guides, particularly if they are free. We seem to like tours like this (or the pub tour in London) that have a theme and are a little atypical rather than a guided tour of the Roman Forum, for example (which I’m sure are fine, just not our thing).

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Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Morte, burial site of abandoned corpses in Rome

The tour was led by an American ex-pat (a 26 year old guy from Maryland) who is living the dream and living it up in Rome just because he wants to, which I find really admirable and pretty gutsy. The tour convened on the steps of a church (San Andrea della Valle), where a group of 10 or so gathered. It had been intermittently raining, setting the tone for the ominous tour. Our guide took us past places we had seen in the daytime and at night during both of our trips to Rome that we had never really thought twice about and he provided us with interesting information about the history, particularly the macabre.

 

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One of my favorite take-home points was learning about the Madonellas, which are touted as Rome’s “first security system.” They are portraits of the Madonna and Child with streetlights illuminating them (originally candles) that were put up in especially dark, seedy corners where crimes happened to occur the most to deter rapists and thieves. IMG_3562The theory is that criminals are deterred if they look up and see a mother figure (with the joke being that all Italian men, even criminals, are mamma‘s boys), particularly THE mother of all mothers (Mary–way to play on the Catholic guilt), that they would think twice about committing whatever crime they were about to do. According to our guide, after the institution of these Madonellas, the crime rate plummeted. I had seen them but hadn’t really paid much heed; after he pointed them out, I couldn’t stop seeing (and photographing) them! It began raining toward the end of our tour, which added ambiance to some of the chilling stories. The tour ended right in front of the Castel Sant’Angelo, down the road from the Vatican. Again, being one of my husband’s favorite places, we decided to see St. Peter’s at night and walked down towards the Vatican. With the rain letting up and the pavement glistening under the streetlights, the magic of St. Peter’s came alive.

IMG_3384We had decided to go to dinner in a new neighborhood that we hadn’t explored, Prati. We found a restaurant called Su e Giu, another family-run place. Because we were unsure what time the tour would end, we did not make reservations and figured we would try to get a table. Thankfully, this worked out well for us, partly because of the late hour. I love that Romans eat late–usually people don’t head to dinner until 9 pm. It can be a little jarring, particularly for people who eat at “normal” dinnertime hours, but our mealtimes are so erratic anyway that Rome just works for us. The restaurant is on three levels and we were seated in the basement, near the kitchen. We ordered some fried starters (artichoke, or carciofi, and mushrooms, or fungi) and a bottle of chianti to start. I had the cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper pasta) and my husband had bistecca al manzo (beef steak). All of the dishes were good, not excellent, but a welcome meal on a cold and rainy night. We ended our meal with a slice of chocolate cake, then walked home to our apartment.

 

Rome, Day 2–Vatican City and Trastevere

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Ara Pacis from the side

We woke up to a beautiful, sunny Roman morning and headed over to the Hotel Mozart for the inclusive breakfast (colazione). There was a lovely spread of house-made pastries, fruit, eggs, quiche, cereal, coffee and juice. We like to generally ascribe to the Italian philosophy of a quick pastry and espresso for breakfast but haven’t been known to pass up a free meal… Plus, we needed to fuel up for our marathon day ahead and wanted to get off to a hearty start.

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Ara Pacis from the front

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Castel Sant’Angelo

After leaving breakfast, we walked down the via di Ripetta, past the Ara Pacis, which is an altar dedicated to the Roman goddess of peace, Pax, and has now been enclosed and is a museum. We never went inside but passed by every day and night and felt that we could experience it fairly well without venturing in. We took the Ponte Cavour to cross over the Tiber River and turned left towards Vatican City.

We walked along the Tiber River (Fiume Tevere) until we reached the Castel Sant’Angelo. Because it was pretty early in the morning (9 am), vendors were just starting to set up and the buzz of people heading towards the Vatican began to pick up.

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Once we arrived at the St. Peter’s Square, the enormity of the piazza and the gorgeous buildings it houses hit us, as it always does. There was already a line around the perimeter of the piazza that was probably at least 300 people long by that point. We queued up and took in my husband’s favorite location in Italy (actually, not Italy as Vatican City is its own country). We waited about an hour and went through security before being allowed into St. Peter’s Basilica.IMG_3125 Last trip, we had explored the basilica pretty thoroughly and took the Scavi tour, which explores the underground tomb of St. Peter and the necropolis under the Vatican. This time, we decided to go up instead of down and planned to climb the dome (cupola) of the Basilica. There are two options: 1. Take an elevator halfway up and climb 200 steps to the top for €7 or 2. Climb from the beginning, which is 551 steps, for €5.  IMG_3176 Fueled by our breakfast and enthusiasm for being in Rome, we chose the latter. This climb is definitely not for the faint of heart and even taking the elevator, there is still a pretty steep climb up. The weather was in the mid-50s, which was perfect. I don’t think I could have completed this climb in 90+ degree heat!

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Interior of the Basilica

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View over St. Peter’s Square

We finally made it up and the views were unparalleled, both of Rome and Vatican City but also of the nave of the interior of the Basilica. IMG_3183On the way up, we took brief breaks to take in the view as we escalated the dome, and on the way down, we stopped at the gift shop around the mid-way point (there is also a cafe and restrooms) to purchase some rosary beads and other gifts for our family and friends.  IMG_3185After we got back down to earth, we went into St. Peter’s Basilica and toured around again. The enormity of the basilica is breathtaking, regardless of how many times one visits.

IMG_3181We left the Vatican and began to head towards a local market that I had been wanting to check out, the Mercato Trionfale, which is located a few blocks north of the Vatican.IMG_1764 IMG_1763 IMG_1762 I had learned about this market from various blogs but especially from a Roman food blogger, Katie Parla. She writes a blog called parlafood, which also has an accompanying app that we ended up getting. The app works offline, which was helpful when trying to locate restaurants or even picking up a map of Rome.  We stopped at multiple stalls and picked up fresh pasta, dried seasoning packets (we had no seasoning at the apartment), olive oil (both to cook with and to give as gifts), vegetables (onions, zucchini, zucchini flowers, fennel, avocado), and cheese (mozzarella and a hard block of Parmigiano-Reggiano).

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All of that shopping worked up our appetite, so we walked over to our planned lunch location, Pizzarium, a pizza by the slice (pizza al taglio) place owned by Gabriele Bonci and featured by Anthony Bourdain on his show, The Layover.

Katie Parla’s app helped us to navigate our way from the market over to the restaurant and we arrived to find a pretty small space with a line out the door. There were about four cooks taking orders and bringing fresh pizza from the oven to the display case. There are no signs explaining the types of pizza, so you either need to be adventurous and pick out what you want by sight or ask what types of pizza is available. IMG_1770The person in front of us had asked so I listened while the choices were explained. The guys behind the counter were speaking French, Italian and English, so my head was spinning with trying to translate everything but we ended up being happy with our picks: broccoli/spinach/zucchini flower, mushroom, mortedella/arugula/tomato, and spinach/goat cheese.IMG_1769

Be prepared not to sit inside, as there are no tables, or to grab one of the few tables outside. We decided to take our pizza across the street to the benches by the Cipro metro stop (which was kind of gross but we were starving). The pizza was good, not earth-shatteringly awesome, and it did the trick.

IMG_3237We took the metro back to Spagna and for some reason, decided to walk more (I think we ultimately clocked 17 miles that day on my Fitbit tracker!), so we walked through the Piazza del Popolo and up stairs to the Borghese gardens. There is an overlook that gives a beautiful view of the Piazza del Popolo and you can see St. Peter’s rising up over the city in the background. After taking a few pictures and taking in the view, we headed back to the apartment to drop off our goods from the market. We stopped into our local supermercato (supermarket) just around the corner from the apartment to pick up a few extras that I didn’t get at the Mercato Trionfale (an amateur chef, the menu of how I could use the ingredients I picked up earlier on a whim was solidifying in my head and I needed some gorgonzola and balsamic. Needed it.). Tip: Whenever I am abroad (and I know I’ve said this before), I love going into local supermarkets or convenience stores to see what kind of snacks the locals enjoy. I have done this pretty much everywhere, but my favorite place to get snacks is Bangkok, Thailand, where my father’s side of the family lives. Whenever we visit, my brother and I go crazy buying Thai snacks to take home, though we usually eat most of them before we ever leave the country! It’s also a great place to buy gifts: I got my mom some Lipton tea that we can only find abroad and my brother some digestive aids (sort of like Alka Seltzer) that are not so easy to get stateside.

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Oculus at the Pantheon

We rested our feet and took advantage of the free wi-fi in our room to check in with our pet sitter at home and our family, post a few Instagram shots, and then headed back out, rejuvenated. Next on our list was the Pantheon, which we were unable to enter the night before. We had been there before but wanted to check it out again. The dome is a feat of architecture for the time, and the oculus (open area in the center of the dome that lets the elements and light into the building) is just a very cool sight to behold. Even though our visit was in late February, the city was crowded and all of the attractions were full. We were hoping that being a little early in the season, we would avoid some crowds, but they were still everywhere.
IMG_3099After leaving the Pantheon, we walked over to our favorite coffee place, il Caffe Sant’Eustachio. Many people also had the same idea to hit up a mid-afternoon caffeine buzz, so the caffe was pretty packed. Following protocol, we ordered our due grancaffe con lo zucchero  (two of their specialty espressos with sugar) at the register, paid, then took our receipt to the counter and ordered our coffees there again. IMG_1778

The barista made our creamy espresso (no milk but it is thick and as creamy as if it had milk) loaded with sugar. We downed these at the bar, then headed back out to the streets of Rome to continue our afternoon.

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Next up, we walked over towards the Largo di Torre Argentina, the site of ruins where Julius Cesar was reportedly executed. More interestingly (to us, at least), it now houses a cat rescue sanctuary. Prior to our visit, we stopped at Vice a gelateria that we found with (guess what?) Katie Parla’s app. I asked the server for his recommendation and ended up with a chestnut flavor and tiramisu, both of which were delicious.

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While digging into our gelato, we crossed the street to see the cats. We had viewed the cats from above during our last trip, but this time we wanted to visit the cat sanctuary. Being in the veterinary profession myself and having, um, five cats at home, we were excited to see what they were up to in Rome. Basically, cat rescue (and their associated ailments) knows no language and the people caring for the cats were sweet and welcoming. IMG_3261We purchased a few gifts for colleagues and friends, with the proceeds all going towards the rescue efforts. After getting our cat fix, we headed back upstairs to street level.

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The Triumph of the Name of Jesus at Chiesa de Gesu

We walked to the Chiesa del Gesù, the mother church of the Jeusits. Since we went to a Jesuit university (Boston College), we were interested so we ventured inside for a view of the magnificent ceiling fresco, the Triumph of the Name of Jesus.  That’s the thing about Rome: there is an amazing church on every corner, and save for St. Peter’s Basilica, generally it is free to enter and you can see masterpieces made by artists like Bernini and Michelangelo. Just be respectful and cognizant of hours of worship, but churches never disappoint in their splendor, whether you are religious or not.

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Turtle fountain

After exiting the church, we walked south towards the Jewish Ghetto. We found the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) and took a few minutes to enjoy it. IMG_1807 IMG_1812

We walked through the Jewish Ghetto and did one of Rick Steves’ heritage walks. We did not end up going into the synagogue and its museum as it was near closing time so we continued on towards Trastevere, the neighborhood across the Tiber river. We walked through the streets of this old yet bustling neighborhood and took in its eclectic yet slightly hipster feel. Ultimately, we made our way up the colle di Gianicolo (Janicular Hill), one of Rome’s ‘seven’ (there are actually more than that) hills.

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Sunset over the Tiber

The walk up was fairly steep and along a pretty busy road, which was a little scary with the narrow/nonexistent shoulder or sidewalk at dusk with Roman drivers. Ultimately, we ascended a flight of stairs and found ourselves in the courtyard of the Chiesa di San Pietro in Montorio.

IMG_3283We were able to find the main road (via Garibaldi) and continued to the Passegiata del Gianicolo.IMG_1839 IMG_1836We followed that road to the pinnacle of the hill, the piazza Giuseppe Garibaldi. The view from this vantage point was unparalleled. The sun was setting as we crossed the Tiber earlier, but we got the last bits of light and saw the moon (and maybe Venus) from the top of the Gianicolo. We sat on a bench and got some well-deserved rest before heading back down to Trastevere. IMG_1841  IMG_3277 IMG_3276

Thus began the marathon of trying to locate our apertivo location: Freni e Frizione. We had learned about this bar from both Anthony Bourdain and Zane Lamprey (on an episode of Chug). The location was not intuitive as the entrance is sort of hidden on the side of the building and we passed it maybe three times, at least. I’m sure that being exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and in a little pain from walking didn’t really help our navigation skills. Finally, we found it. The bar is a little too cool for itself: it is located along the Tiber in an old garage (hence the name, which means “brakes and clutches” in Italian). The deal is that, like many bars in Rome, if you go from 7pm – 10 pm the bar has a nice selection of snacks (I think most if not all of theirs are vegetarian, a nice change in Rome) for free if you have purchased a drink. The snacks are actually a pretty decent buffet of salads and hot pasta and bread and you can make a meal out of it (if you haven’t walked 17 miles all day and are starving…). We drank and ate and rested our feet before heading back out into the night.

IMG_1849For dinner, we intended to go to a little mom-and-pop restaurant called Alfredo e Ada, but by the time we got back to the apartment to change, we were bone tired. I decided to cook using our goodies from the Mercato Trionfale from earlier in the day and made a pretty tasty pasta dish containing gemelli, asparagus, zucchini, sautéed zucchini flowers, parmigiano-reggiano, and a side salad of fennel, gorgonzola, balsamic, olive oil, red onion and avocado in our little kitchen.

London, day 3, part 2: An epic pub tour

We made our way to St. James’ Park tube station to catch a train to the London Bridge stop to meet up with the tour group for our pub tour, scheduled for 2 pm. A little background: I caught some type of flu/cold at the end of our first trip to London and the biggest casualty of my malaise was a pub crawl. This was not exactly the impetus behind our return visit to London, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a big contributing force, crazy though that may be.  This time around, we just intended on going to a few pubs, eating lots of battered/fried British comfort food, and drinking beer but not in any type of structured way. However, we were eligible for the 2FOR1 deals and happened across a historical walking pub tour and were hooked. Run by Mind the Gap tours, the tour usually costs £25 per person. It runs on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays and starts at 2 pm (kind of early for a Wednesday, but when in Rome…or London, I suppose). With the voucher, we only had to pay £25 total. The cost only includes the tour; beer is not included (you have to pay for your own pint).

An email from Mind the Gap, sent after the tour was booked, detailed where and when to meet. With that information, we got off the tube at the London Bridge station and made our way to the designated meeting spot (in the tube station, which happens to be under the Shard, the tallest building in London). We got there about a half hour early, so we walked down to Borough Market, a lovely farmer’s market/indoor food stall market in downtown London, on the south bank of the Thames. Some may say that it’s becoming a bit of a tourist trap, but I love it and would probably shop here/make a pilgrimage often if I lived in London. Unfortunately, time did not permit us to get anything to eat but everything looked amazing. We had explored the market on our last trip and were a little bummed that we didn’t have enough time to grab a sandwich or something this time around.

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Our fearless leader, George, under the sign for the George Inn. Coincidence?

Anyway, we met up with our group with a few minutes to spare. It turns out that our tour guide, George, was subbing in for the usual guide and that he only gives this tour sporadically. Regardless, he was knowledgable about the good pubs in the area and peppered our tour with facts about buildings that we passed or went into, which was unique and made the tour that much more interesting, as he is an architect by trade. There were about 9 other people on the tour with us, most of whom were native Londoners. Only one other American, a recent college grad, was on the tour with us (and he thought my husband and I were about 10 years younger than we actually are, so he is our new favorite person).

IMG_3043  George led us out of the Shard and down towards Borough Market. We passed through the courtyard of Guy’s Hospital and took a back entrance into the courtyard of the George Inn, the city’s oldest coaching inn. Remember how we hadn’t really gone to any pubs the last time in London? Well, this was actually the only pub we made it to and it was the one that started off our tour, which was a nice coincidence. Because we knew we had a few pubs ahead ofIMG_3045 us, we only had a half-pint each to try to pace ourselves. Some of the older men on the tour knocked back a full pint in half the time it took me to drink my half-pint and out-drank me by at least double. It was awesome.

After leaving the George Inn, we walked across the street and our architect (I mean pub tour guide) pointed out the Hop Exchange, which was a cool divergence of both the beer-related theme and a historical building. It was originally used as a site for hop trading for the brewing industry and now has been refurbished and is an office space. George brought us into the building (not part of the normal tour) just to look around the atrium for minute. The ornate motif of hops (which look sort of like artichokes or flowers when they are carved) decorates the entire outside of the building but is also repeated in cast iron scrollwork railings that surrounds the atrium. It is a structure I would not have given a second glance to; this is the reason I like to be on tours and to have places like this pointed out, particularly when it is relevant to the theme of the tour.

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Graffiti at the Rake. Victory!!

Next up on our list was  a bar called The Rake. It is the smallest pub in London (or it claims to be). It doesn’t have the feel of a traditional pub; in fact, it feels like a small surfer/beachfront bar/store. They specialize in craft beers, which we really didn’t see in other pubs and bars in London and I suppose is an emerging phenomenon that we have embraced full-on in the States. We were delighted to see beer on tap from a brewery not far from Philly (Dogfish Head, based in Delaware) but naturally steered as far away as possible in favor of trying beers we haven’t had before. The decor is fairly simple, with beer paraphernalia decorating the walls and wooden high tables and barstools. The Rake’s standout wall decor is the signatures of brewers from around the world. Victory Brewing Company, a microbrewery based in Downingtown, PA (very close to our house) had visited the pub and signed the wall, which was pretty special for us to see.

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Going over the Millennium Bridge, towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. Note our fearless leader, George, rocking a sweet yellow felt satchel. Amazing.

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Chewing gum art by Ben Wilson (cigarette butt left in for scale)

We left The Rake after downing a couple of pints. By this time, we were beginning to ease into conversation with each other, lubricated by the beer and the fact that we all had similar interests (London and beer…but also travel, history, culture, and sports). We met a lovely father/daughter pair (local Londoners) and struck up conversation with them as we walked along the south bank of the Thames. George pointed out some interesting historical facts as we walked through the a tunnel, past Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, and towards the Tate Modern. We crossed the Millennium Bridge, where our guide directed our attention to street art that we would have otherwise never noticed. Ben Wilson, an artist, has been painting miniature scenes on chewing gum stuck to the ground all over London (and all over the world, it turns out).

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The Cockpit Tavern

By this point, it was around 4 pm and the streets were becoming a little more crowded but the after-work set still hadn’t let out so the pubs remained fairly empty and getting service was still easy. George noted several architectural features as we made our way to the next pub, called the Cockpit Tavern, on St. Andrew’s Hill. He took us through some alleys and shortcuts that I would never be able to retrace but nonetheless was pretty interesting. The pub is very typical from the outside and is cozy and welcoming inside. We stayed for a pint and then headed back out into the streets of London to find our next watering hole.

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The exterior of The Blackfriar

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Bronze sculptures. It’s almost like being in a museum…right?

The next spot on our list was a pub that we had wanted to visit from our last trip, The Blackfriar. It belongs to a group called Nicholson’s (as did the Feathers, the first pub we visited after landing in London), which is a corporate group that owns historical pubs. The Blackfriars has bronze Art Nouveau sculptures and reliefs carved by a sculptor called Henry Poole. The bar itself is marble and the interior of the pub really is a beautiful sight to see.  We finished our pints and took in the beautiful surroundings before leaving for our next destination.

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Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese

Over the past year or so, I have really taken a liking to porters and stouts. Basically, anything that tastes like chocolate and/or coffee is okay by me.  My favorite one I have had so far is by an oatmeal imperial stout called Voodoo’s Cowbell. However, I have only had it once, on tap at a restaurant near home. An extremely close second is Samuel Smith’s Chocolate Stout and right behind that is Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout. That said, I was really excited when we happened upon our next pub, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese (plus I was getting hungry, and the fact that the word “cheese” in the name of the pub made me happy). This pub is one of several that is owned by Samuel Smith, so I was elated to head into the tavern to sample their beer. IMG_3062This pub is located on Fleet Street (the Broadway aficionado inside me was intrigued yet a little scared..Sweeney Todd, anyone?) and there has been a pub standing in this location since the 1500s. The pub was rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666 and you can feel the history as you enter the pub and descend the stairs to a dark basement bar. IMG_3063The small, cavernous rooms have plaster walls and low ceilings and archways, making one feel as though they have stepped far back in time. I ended up ordering a bowl of chips for all of the tour-goers to share (what can I say–I’m Italian! I have to feed people–it’s in my blood) and to help us to start to soak up some of the alcohol. My pint (and yes, I had a full pint this time) of Samuel Smith’s Oatmeal Stout was lovely and I thoroughly enjoyed that (plus fries. I mean chips. Chips make everything better).

IMG_3064We crossed Fleet Street and found ourselves at another old bar called The Tipperary. This is the oldest Irish pub in London and survived the Great Fire due to its stone structure.  The Tipperary was still relatively empty but as we emptied out of the bar, we started to notice the sun going down and more people gathering on the streets and in pubs as the workday was nearing an end. We peeked into the Old Bank of England (as the name implies, an old bank converted into a pub–really beautiful interior) but did not get a drink and continued on to the next pub.

IMG_3067The Seven Stars was next on the docket and was beginning to fill up with after-work revelers when we arrived. Apparently, there is a resident cat (as was evidenced by bowls of cat food and photographs of the cat behind the bar) but we did not ever see it, which was a bummer. It was starting to get so crowded that George and a few of the other tour members headed outside until those drinking downed their pints and we could move on.

We walked to the Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is the largest public square in London, then ultimately made our way over to High Holborn Street, where we found ourselves in the last pub of the evening, The Princess Louise. This pub is another Samuel Smith brewery-owned institution. It was around 7:30 pm by this point and the after work crowd was out in full force, making getting a drink a little more difficult. It felt like a normal night at a bar, which was fine because but at this point we all felt like a group that was just hanging out together rather than a bunch of strangers who had only met 5 hours prior. We had dinner reservations and some of the other tour-goers had plans, so we bade our newfound drinking buddies goodnight and caught the tube at the Holborn station to go back to the hotel.

Recap: We went to these bars, in this order: The George Inn, The Rake, The Cockpit, The Blackfriar, Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, The Old Tipperary, The Seven Stars, and the Princess Louise.

After changing for dinner, we hopped on the tube again to go to a new neighborhood that we had never seen: Chelsea. We had done some research on London restaurants and wanted to try something different and came across Medlar. This is a small restaurant in Chelsea that focuses on local, fresh ingredients–right up our alley. We also had come across a review by food critic Giles Coren, who has become familiar to us through a new BBC show, Million Dollar Critic. His snarky comments combined with his wit and Brit humor have drawn us into the show, and having given Medlar a great review made us even happier with our choice.

We had mapped out the walk from the tube station (Sloane Square) and knew that it was a little bit of a hike (a straight shot down the noble-sounding King’s Road). Ordinarily, we would have been up for the challenge, but after our marathon five and a half hour pub tour (we only ended up walking 2.5 miles and drank…a pretty good amount, maybe 4-5 pints each?), we were exhausted. However, we made the journey and walked to the restaurant, getting there with 5 minutes to spare. We had booked reservations on OpenTable (which I use all the time in Philly and NY, nice to see its presence in London) before leaving for our trip and could only get a 9 pm reservation, which ended up to be perfect given our schedule. The meal, a 3-course prix-fixe menu, was a little bit of a blur unfortunately because we were so tired. As far as we can remember, the service was excellent and my dessert, a banoffe tartlet, was sublime. I was so full and barely coherent but I made it a point to finish the entire thing. After dinner, the prospect of walking back to Sloane Square was so daunting (it was really only about 1.1 miles to get there) so we caught a cab to the tube station and got the train home to St. Ermin’s.

London, day 3, part 1: Retail therapy

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St. James’ Park

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Buckingham Palace

We started our second morning in London by going to breakfast in Piccadilly at Patisserie Valerie, a chain bakery where we had eaten last trip and had a good experience. On our way to breakfast, we walked through St. James’ Park and looked at the Queen’s waterfowl (ducks, geese and swans). We continued up the Mall and passed by Buckingham Palace. The last time we were there, barricades were up prior to the wedding of Duchess Kate and Prince William, so it was nice to see the palace in its normal state. We meandered by Clarence House and up towards Piccadilly to the restaurant.

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Full English breakfast

I am on a poached egg kick lately and had the same thing I had last time (eggs Florentine). My husband had a full English breakfast (scrambled eggs, baked beans, bacon, sausage and mushrooms).  IMG_1700 We also both had flat whites, our theme of the London trip, it seems. The breakfast was filling and got us off to a good start to what ended up being an extremely long yet fantastic day.

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The fragrance counter at Fortnum and Mason

Bellies full, we began our morning of walking and shopping. Our first stop was the Burlington Arcade, which is an arcade of shops that has been around since 1819. The shops were just opening, and since we were not in the market for haberdashery or cashmere coats, we kept on walking. We stopped into Fortnum and Mason, a beautiful department store that we did not have time to see last visit. We arrived just as the doors were being opened and toured each floor of the store. Being a veteran shopper (apparently my first shopping outing took place at 3 weeks of age at Lord & Taylor), I enjoy seeing beautiful stores and Fortnum and Mason did not disappoint.  Gorgeous as the shop was, we ended up not purchasing anything (though I wanted basically everything in the stationery section–one can never have enough notecards!) and continued on.

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Liberty

We walked up Bond Street and over to Regent Street, ultimately winding up at another national treasure of commerce, Liberty, a department store that was founded in 1875.IMG_1705 The store is famous for its unique fabric prints, which have been parlayed into collaborations with companies such as J.Crew. The building is a tudor-style exterior and has beautiful wood beams IMG_1706and paneling inside. They also have a nice yarn department and I purchased some knitting needles, as I am an avid knitter and they were really nice needles for a relatively reasonable price (£5). I also ended up buying a gift for my sister-in-law, who loves Liberty patterns.

After leaving Liberty, we walked over towards Harrod’s, another iconic luxury London department store. We never made it there during our last trip and wanted to stop in to see what the fuss is about. IMG_1711 IMG_1713 The scene in the food hall lived up to the hype, particularly the elaborate tiled ceilings, however we did not actually eat anything (or buy anything for that matter). The food hall at Harrod’s is filled with indulgent food–there is an entire room devoted to chocolate and an excessively large counter that houses oysters and caviar. I happened upon a leg of Iberico ham that cost £2,800.

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Blinged out Mercedes–covered completely in Swarovski crystals!

We left Harrod’s and walked over to Patricia Roberts, a shop that sells yarn and knitwear. I bought a couple of skeins of pale blue mohair yarn for myself. On the way to the yarn shop, we spied this insane Mercedes. We also walked by Harvey Nichols but I was department store’d out and had subjected my poor husband to enough retail therapy for the day (or month…or year…) so we returned to the hotel to drop off our wares.

London, day 2, part 2: Afternoon tea and a West End musical

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Lobby Lounge and the Baccarat crystal chandelier at the Corinthia Hotel

After a quick rest and wardrobe change, we headed back out and hopped back on the tube. We got off at Embankment and made our way to the Corinthia Hotel for afternoon tea at the Lobby Lounge. 

Afternoon tea is becoming a theme for our London visits; last visit we had tea at the Palm Court at the Langham Hotel, which set the bar very high. This time, we wanted to have a similar, decadent experience but at a different location. We researched tea options and considered some of the high-hitters including The Goring (closed for renovations during our visit), The Dorchester, Claridge’s, and even our own hotel, St. Ermin’s. A good resource for tea options (and current deals) is www.afternoontea.co.uk. One can find an afternoon tea starting at £15-50 per person. Since we really enjoy the experience, we were not especially budget-conscious when selecting our afternoon tea. We ultimately settled on the Corinthia Hotel, a relatively new London institution, based on reviews on TripAdvisor and Yelp as well as its location. We had purchased tickets to Once the Musical, playing at the Phoenix Theatre, and these evening plans somewhat dictated our tea location as we didn’t want to rush tea to make it to the show on time.

Table set for afternoon tea at the Corinthian

Table set for afternoon tea at the Corinthian

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Clotted cream and jams

We actually arrived about 20 minutes prior to our tea reservation and were seated immediately. We were each presented a menu with a selection of teas and descriptions of the finger sandwiches and ‘fancies’ (small cakes and other confections). I informed the server of my dietary preferences and she asked the kitchen to tailor my sandwiches to fit those requirements while serving my husband the normal variety. As is custom at these types of teas, if you enjoy a particular sandwich or sweet, you can put in an order for “complimentary” extras (keep in mind the actual experience itself costs £50 per person so complimentary seems a relative term).  I tend to skew towards black teas with vanilla, chocolate, and/or caramel notes, so I chose the Prince Alexander blend, which fit the bill perfectly. My husband had the Winston Churchill blend, which had a rich, smoky, tobacco flavor and scent to it. Our sandwiches came out (they were okay, fairly run-of-the-mill as I suppose is expected, but I must say that those at the Langham were fantastic so I was a little let down).  The service, however, more than made up for the average tea sandwiches. Our server was kind and attentive, explaining the menu and each sandwich and fancy that came out. She was quick to refill our tea and made sure we were comfortable.

Scones and fancies!

Scones and fancies!

The confections were delicious: scones were tasty (I can’t get enough clotted cream, seriously!) and the tarts and cakes were sumptuous and rich. We happen to be fans of the Great British Baking Show (on PBS–it seems like we watch a lot of PBS! Downton Abbey, I mean…) and now feel like we’re pastry experts (we’re not. I can’t really even bake.) and Mary Berry would probably praise all of these fancies.

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Note Christoph Waltz on the phone (over Dave’s right shoulder…)

Apparently the Corinthia Hotel is the celebrity-spotting destination in London as we saw both Christoph Waltz and Kelly Clarkson in the Lobby Lounge (both actually were sitting in the same chair, maybe 30 minutes apart), both on cell phones and chatting rather loudly. After we had eaten and drank our fill of tea and delicious carbohydrates, we set off for a walk to the theatre.

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Trafalgar Square

We walked up to Trafalgar Square and then along Charing Cross road to reach the Phoenix Theatre. Having already researched some post-theatre dining options, we took advantage of the time before the show to walk around Soho and check out some of the places we were considering, such as 10 Greek Street, The Three Greyhounds, and Busaba Eathai. After locating these restaurants and deciding on Busaba Eathai, we walked through Chinatown. I had not expected to have enough time to see Chinatown, so was pleasantly surprised to be able to fit this in, especially during Chinese New Year.  Stumbling across Chinatown in various cities (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco) seems to be something that I enjoy and I was glad to add London’s Chinatown to the list. Ultimately, we made our way back to the theatre to be seated for the show.

Lanterns in Chinatown

Lanterns in Chinatown

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The stage/bar at the Phoenix Theatre

Once is a musical that takes place in Ireland and is about a busker/vacuum repairman who meets a Czech girl and they fall into a relationship of sorts and make a demo album (the Cliffs Notes version). I saw the movie a few years ago and have the Broadway recording so I know the music quite well.  I often see Broadway musicals (growing up just outside of NYC) but just never made it to the Broadway version and as of January 2015, it closed in New York. The production also came through Philadelphia and I missed that as well, so I was excited to find out that Once was playing in the West End. We purchased tickets online a few weeks prior to our London visit and picked up the tickets at the will-call booth at the Phoenix Theatre.

Because a lot of the musical takes place in a pub, the stage turns into a fully functioning bar before the show and at intermission, which is a nice, interactive touch. Ronan Keating, an Irish musician and member of a boy-band (Boyzone, which I had never heard of), was headlining and apparently was a big audience draw. I think he did a good job but was a little bit let down by the female lead who I think over-acted the role a bit. I have heard people saying that they thought the stage musical was a bit of a caricature of the film, and I tend to agree. However, the music overall is great–the songs Falling Slowly and Gold remain some of my favorite songs.

After the show let out, we strolled over to Wardour Street to Busaba Eathai, a chain Thai restaurant in London. It was getting a little bit chilly and we were still kind of full from tea, but we can always fit in some Thai food!  Being half-Thai, I am of course somewhat of a harsh Thai food critic but Busaba was pretty good, particularly for a chain. My husband had a bowl of tom kha gai, a coconut milk-based soup, that had a different spin on it by the addition of woon-sen (glass noodles).  My pad thai was fairly bland but was made better when I added in some of my som tum (papaya salad), which was slightly spicy, even for me. The service was quick and we ate at bar-type seating along the front window. Satiated and warm, we walked through Leicester Square and grabbed the tube back to our hotel.

London, day 2, part 1: Hampton Court Palace

The view from our hotel room--Westminster Abbey on the right and the top of Big Ben on the left

The view from our hotel room–Westminster Abbey on the right and the top of Big Ben on the left

We woke up on our first morning in London to find that the rain had cleared and the weather was sunny and clear. Breakfast was on-the-go and consisted of almond croissants and flat whites (basically a cappuccino without foam) from Costa, a UK coffee chain shop right around the corner from our hotel. We stopped into the St. James’ Park tube station to purchase a one-day Travelcard for zones 1-6 (cost: £17 each), which enabled us to take the train out to our destination, Hampton Court (London is divided into six fare zones; Travelcards are available for either zones 1 & 2, 1-4, or 1-6 and can be purchased as peak or off-peak). Because it was a beautiful day and we were ahead of schedule, we walked to the Westminster tube stop, rather than taking the tube from St. James’ Park and switching lines. IMG_2990We took the tube from Westminster to Waterloo, then caught the National Rail for a 30 minute ride to Hampton Court Station. Note: make sure to check the departure time of your train; every other departure stops at Surbiton and you have to change trains to get to Hampton Court. The alternating trains are direct but are about 5 minutes longer.

Hampton Court Palace, one of the homes of Henry VIII, is about a ten-minute walk across a picturesque bridge over the Thames River from the train station. Trains arrive and depart about every 30 minutes to and from London.

The view of Hampton Court from the bridge over the Thames River

The view of Hampton Court from the bridge over the Thames River

Buying a Travelcard (and/or buying the Gatwick Express ticket) allows access to the 2FOR1 Days Out Guide entertainment deals. We ended up taking advantage of these savings twice during this trip–the first time was at Hampton Court Palace. The tickets are £18.20 for two adults (the price of one regular admission ticket). You have to print out a voucher before going to the attraction, so it is best to plan these before you go (as of now, they don’t accept mobile vouchers). When you get to the attraction, you also have to have your train ticket to be able to capitalize on the deal.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

The palace came to its glory under Henry VIII and has a lot of Tudor history (the initial building was started by Cardinal Wolsey, then taken over by Henry VIII). The tour begins in Base Court, a large stone courtyard. You enter the palace initially through an antechamber and pick up the free audio guide. One of my favorite authors, Alison Weir (I have mentioned her in previous posts) narrates the audio guide tour, which was a huge bonus for me. After getting the audio guide, you can put on velvet cloaks to get into the spirit of being a courtier in Henry VIII’s court (and you can wear them throughout your visit, which was a very cute touch, especially for children and families).

Trying on the velvet cloak--royalty suits us!

Trying on the velvet cloak–royalty suits us!

Before starting the tour, a video about Henry VIII’s six wives plays in a small room. The tour takes you through the Great Hall (the center of entertaining and eating) and into a stunning chapel (no photography allowed). One of the last remaining symbols of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn remains, carved into a wood panel. We spent about 15 minutes hunting for this symbol before asking a palace employee to point it out (as it turns out, it was right in front of our faces–so frustrating!).

The elusive Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wood panel carving

The elusive Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn wood panel carving (HA monogram, top right)

Many actors dressed in Tudor garb walk the halls of the palace, answering questions and doing reenactments every few hours (the daily schedule can be found in your brochure when you obtain tickets).

Tudor courtiers, going about their day

Tudor courtiers, going about their day

Towards the end of the tour, you find yourself in the kitchens of the court, highlighting food storage, preparation, and service. The kitchens of Hampton Court bring to mind the tremendous amount of work required to feed the enormous entourage that comprised the court of Henry VIII. A working fireplace definitely softened the damp chill that probably permeates Hampton Court for the majority of the year. After warming up in front of the fire, we continued on our walk through the palace.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

Unfortunately, Henry VIII’s tennis courts were closed during our visit, but watching this documentary on PBS (and some episodes of The Tudors) made us feel like we had already seen it, but it was a bummer nonetheless. We stayed at Hampton Court for about three and a half hours and ended our visit by going through the hedge maze in the garden (apparently the oldest surviving hedge maze in the UK–where apparently hedge mazes and their age are a ‘thing’).

Finally! The 'centre' of the maze.

Finally! The ‘centre’ of the maze.

Even though it was mid-February and the hedge was not incredibly dense, the maze was still fairly difficult to get through. Just as claustrophobia was setting in, we found the center of the maze and exited.

We made our way back over the bridge to the train station and caught the train back to London, about 30 minutes ahead of our planned schedule. We made it back to our hotel and changed into our evening attire and made our way back to St. James’ Park tube station.

Coming up: part two of our second day in London–afternoon tea and a West End musical