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.

Rome, day 1

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View of Rome from our EasyJet flight

We landed in Fiumicino airport at 6 pm, after a 2 hour flight from Gatwick, and got our luggage fairly quickly. After going through customs, we followed the signs towards the train to get to the Leonardo da Vinci Express. This train is express from the airport to Termini station, which is the central station in Rome. The train lasts about 30 minutes and departs every 30 minutes and costs €14 per person. There are automated ticket machines at the platform (you can choose from several different languages) where tickets can be purchased. Using this type of train (run by Trenitalia), the ticket must be validated before you get on the train or you will be fined up to €200. The areas where you can validate (convalidare) are yellow boxes that are on the train platform. The ticket is inserted into the machine and a faint stamp and a partial hole punch are the validation stamps so one cannot reuse a ticket or try to ride for free. The train filled up rather quickly, but we had gotten on early and had secured seats that could accommodate our luggage.

At 7:45 pm, we pulled into Termini and caught the Metro (Line A) from Termini to Spagna. Before getting on the Metro, we had to purchase tickets, which are available at every station from an automated ticket machine (cost: €1.50 per person). Tip: Before leaving the US, we printed out a Rome Metro map and put it in our travel binder. Last trip, I downloaded a free Rome Metro app that works without using data but the system in Rome is relatively simplistic (only two lines, A and B), particularly compared to London, Paris, and NYC, so I felt that it was sufficient to just check the map on the wall at the Metro station. We had also planned out routes ahead of time and considered the Metro stops we would be using. I realize this is a little “Type A,” but it helps us to figure out timing as well as the best way to not get lost!

After arriving at the Spagna station (also home base during our last trip), we took the exit towards the Piazza de Spagna. We chose Hotel Mozart based on location and reviews, but mostly because we were able to book a stay in one of the hotel-owned apartments. I have always wanted to live in Rome, and staying in an apartment at least gets me slightly closer to realizing that dream. We considered using a service such as Airbnb or VRBO, but once we found the hotel-owned apartment for a good price (and not having to worry about meeting the property owner, security, or even cleaning), we were happy with our choice. The location of the apartment on via de Ripetta was the reason behind our choice for that particular property. During our last trip to Rome, we had stayed relatively close by and the location is central to the majority of the sites we had planned to visit in Rome.

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La camera (bedroom)

The hotel itself is located just off the via del Corso, right by the Spanish Steps (Piazza de Spagna). After checking in, a hotel staff member walked us to the apartment two blocks away from the hotel and showed us around. The apartment building is lovely and secure, with a small open courtyard and an elevator. Our apartment was on the 2nd floor  and the stairs easily accessed the apartment also. The apartment was spacious and more than adequate for the two of us. There was a fairly large en suite bathroom and a separate living room and dining area.

Cucina (kitchen)

Cucina (kitchen)

The kitchen was pretty well equipped, with a 4 burner electric stove, a toaster oven, and a dishwasher. The hotel supplied pots, pans, plates, glasses, mugs and cutlery as well as some dishwashing detergent.

We would have been happy to stay in the apartment and crash, but we were starving and had planned to go to one of my favorite restaurants from our first trip to Rome called La Buca di Ripetta, which was just down the block from the apartment (and truthfully one of the reasons the apartment’s location was so appealing to me). Since we were unsure what time we would arrive and check in, we did not make reservations and just banked on being able to get a table. Thankfully, we were right. The restaurant was almost to capacity but there was a table available. We ordered an antipasti of fritti misti (mixed fried vegetables) and my husband had bacala (fried cod) while I went right for pasta and had linguine with pesto, cherry tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella, a variation on my favorite dish I had there last visit. We also had a contorno (side dish) of cicoria (chicory) to get some type of vegetable into our diet (since I’m not sure the last time we ate anything green…). The meal was good, not great, but we were just over the moon excited to be in Rome.

Enjoying gelato di San Crispino in front of the Pantheon (in the piazza della Rotonda)

Enjoying gelato di San Crispino in front of the Pantheon (in the piazza della Rotonda)

We finished dinner and headed over to get dessert–gelato (duh) at San Crispino. We had never been to that particular gelateria before but had read wonderful reviews on Fodor’s and TripAdvisor so we couldn’t pass it up for our first night. It did not disappoint–the flavors were unique and sumptuous. I had their standard flavor, “il gelato di San Crispino,” a honey-based cream flavor as well as the walnut with dried fig, which was amazing. My husband had whiskey flavor and the gelato di San Crispino. We savored our gelato as we walked the few steps to the Pantheon and took in the majestic building at night, our favorite time to wander about Rome. The steps of the piazza della Rotonda became our living room as we lounged in front of the Pantheon, people-watched, and finished our gelato.

Fontana di quattro fiume in Piazza Navona

Fontana di quattro fiume in Piazza Navona

After dessert, we walked to the Piazza Navona, my favorite Roman piazza, and then over toward the Trevi Fountain, which was unfortunately drained and covered in scaffolding for a deep cleaning. Bellies full of delicious Italian food and hearts full of Rome, we made our way back to our beautiful appartamento.

Scaffolded Trevi fountain

Scaffolded Trevi fountain

Back at it–London, Rome and Milan, here we come!

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The view of Rome from above

 

After an almost 4 year traveling hiatus, we decided to plan a trip again. Vacation days, amazing airfare, and severe wanderlust all serendipitously intersected and thus began our trip!

A little bit of background: my husband and I have our finger on the pulse of airfare and our bags are half-packed (I’m partly joking) so that we can take off pretty much at a moment’s notice (more on packing later). Over the past year, I have been working on my Italian skills for this very purpose by listening to Berlitz and Pimsleur courses and taking continuing adult education Italian lessons as time permits. Ultimately, my Italian teacher told me that I just needed to go to Italy and speak. With that decree tipping the scales, it was time to plan a trip.

We knew that we wanted to go and had an idea of when, but airfare was just not cooperating. We are located in the Philadelphia area and constantly watch airfares to Europe out of NYC, Newark, and Philly airports using airfarewatchdog.com. One of the best ways to keep an eye on this is via Twitter, but the site also sends out fare alerts via emails for particular routes.  Always ones to jump on a good deal, we found airfare on Emirates for $400 round trip per person from NYC to Milan–nonstop. Game on.

Airfare to Milan booked, we began planning our itinerary. We seem to be developing a pattern: we visit a city, stay for a few days, then yearn to go back. Our last trip to Europe included one previously-seen city (Paris) and added on a new one (London). This time around, we decided to revisit London and Rome, then tack on Milan and Orvieto. Some people may want to see as many cities as possible during a trip, others like to stay in one place, but we wanted to mix it up a little bit. We both loved Rome and London and felt that we had more to see and do in each city, which is why we decided to go back.

Our itinerary was as follows: fly from NYC into Milan, then transfer to an EasyJet flight to London without even leaving the airport. Spend three nights in London, then take an EasyJet flight from London to Rome. After spending 4 nights in Rome (day-tripping to Orvieto by train), we planned to take a train from Rome to Milan, then spend a night in Milan and fly out the following day. We decided to stay in Milan not only to see the city but to not have to rush before catching our flight and risk missing it due to some unforeseen train strike (as so often occurs in Italy…).

Full report to follow!

Our first day in Rome!

Many of my friends have recently traveled to Italy or are planning a trip, which has made me nostalgic about our honeymoon in May-June 2010. We traveled to Rome, Siena, Florence,Venice and Paris for 11 days total and took close to 1,000 photos and kept a good little travel journal while we were away so my recall of our trip should be pretty accurate! Tip: When we go away, we keep all of our ticket stubs, pamphlets, receipts and brochures and try to scribble down our days’ events when we get back to the hotel in the evening so we have some sort of record of our trip.

We left for Rome on a red-eye flight from JFK the day after our wedding. The late flight is something we repeated on our most recent trip and is becoming our modus operandi for traveling to Europe. We took a 5 pm nonstop flight from New York that got us into Rome at around 8 am on a Monday morning. Red eye flights can be a little bit annoying, but our feeling is that we hit the ground running and get a full day in our destination city without having to “waste” time or money on hotels and allowing us to maximize our time away. If time or money were unlimited, it is nice to get to a hotel at check-in time, relax for a bit before hitting the sights, but traveling on a budget (both financial and time) makes the red-eye a more economical choice.

We arrived at Rome’s Fiumicino airport and got our luggage quickly, then made our way upstairs towards the train (Leonardo Express, € 14 each). Just near the train platform was a grouping of shops, including train ticket sales and small caffes. We purchased two tickets for the train from the ticket office and moved to the platform. Note: On trains across Italy, you have to get your ticket validated before you get on the train (I have no idea why). You will see a smallish, not always conveniently placed yellow box near the platform, and you have to put your ticket in to get stamped. If in doubt, make sure you have plenty of time before your train and watch locals get their ticket stamped, or you can ask one of the station employees. Worst case, you will go to board your train and the conductor will tell you that you have to run all the way back to get your ticket stamped (happened to us in Florence…ugh!). So try to get it validated off the bat!

The Leonardo Express links the airport to Rome’s Termini station, which is the main train station. The ride takes about 30 minutes and there are no stops in between. The trains come every 30 minutes, so it is a very easy way to get to and from the airport, and probably cheaper and more direct than taking a taxi. When we got to Termini station, we joined up with the morning rush and got onto the metro. Rome’s metro system is incredibly easy, especially compared to cities like New York, Paris, or London (who also all have fantastic undergrounds!). It is broken into two lines, A and B (easy enough!) and like all public transportation, you have to know which direction you are traveling in. Our hotel was situated just near the Spagna (pronounced span-ya) stop, so that became our home base. We took the A line towards Batitstini and got to the Spagna stop. Navigating the system is easy, but hauling two 50-lb bags of luggage and two carry-ons is the hard part, especially since there is a massive shortage of escalators and elevators. The adrenaline of being in Rome fueled me to be able to schlep my own bags initially, but by the 4th or 5th set of steps (and all of the rush-hour commuters, which I found hilarious because by this point, it was about 10 am, well past rush hour in the States!), I grew tired and my poor husband took the job of hauling our bags. As I have mentioned in previous posts, we have bags by a company called High Sierra, which are huge rolling duffel bags that can be turned into backpacks. We bought these specifically for this purpose, since carrying a backpack is easier than hauling a bag. We got through this leg without needing the backpack yet (but wait until Florence…).

Finally, we exited the Spagna station and it sunk in–we were really here, in Rome! After being on the ground for 2+ hours, we were outside and could take in a breath of Roman air! We arrived at our hotel, the Marriott Grand Flora Roma Park on the via Veneto, not far from the Spanish Steps and just next to the Villa Borghese (more on that later…). It was about 10:30 by the time we got to the hotel, which was too early for check-in and our room was not ready (as we had anticipated). We stashed our bags with the front desk in their locked room, freshened up in the hotel’s bathroom, and headed out into the Roman air.

After leaving the hotel, we walked down the via Veneto and stopped in a tabacchi (small tobacco shop) to buy our Roma Pass. Tip: In large cities such as Rome and Paris, there are passes that you can buy to gain access to sights and jump to the front of the line. Each pass is specific to the city, so it is worth doing some research before you go. For the Roma pass, which costs € 25 each, you get unlimited access to the Rome metro system (which was great for us) and free admission to two “museums or archaeological sites,” according to the website. They can be purchased online, at any museum, or at a tourist information site (PIT), listed on the website.

We continued to walk down the via Veneto and just reveled in being in Rome as we walked. Something about the city just made me feel like I was…home. Maybe some of it had to do with the fact that we had Google-mapped a lot of it and our planned walks around the city, or that I have seen Roman Holiday like 20 times, or that my great grandparents are from Abruzzo, the region just east of Rome, but it felt so familiar and perfetto! The other thing that struck us as we were walking was just how walkable Rome really is–it is much smaller than I had thought, looking at a map. My husband had a whole itinerary planned that I thought was overly ambitious, but once we started walking, I realized how doable it actually was.

We rounded a corner and I heard it: the rush of water and noticed that we were nowhere near the only people walking towards a common destination. Before I knew it, the Trevi Fountain was looming right before me. Tons of tourists swarmed around the fountain, throwing in coins and taking pictures, but I was able to tune those distractions out and focus on the beauty of this immense fountain carved into the side of a building. We marveled in the immensity of the Trevi fountain, but knew we would pass by it a lot on our travels, so we headed over to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon was initially built as a temple to all of the gods (pan = all, theon = gods) and is now for all intents and purposes a church where many people are buried (including the artist Raphael and several kings). Admission is free and it is definitely worth seeing. One of the most spectacular things is the oculus, which is essentially an opening at the top of the dome that lets in light (as well as air, rain, snow, birds, etc). A drain in the bottom of the Pantheon takes care of any rainwater that may have accumulated.

We left the Pantheon and walked over to our first of many churches: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Afterwards, we walked to St. Ignatius church to admire the trompe l’oeil dome. We were starting to drag a little, so we went to Caffe Sant’Eustachio, where we each got their famous grancaffe, a secret blend of espresso beans that is delicious and caffeine-packed!

We walked to our next destination: San Luigi dei Francesci (St. Luigi’s church), which is the French church in Rome and marveled at the gilded ceiling there. After we left the church, we happened upon my favorite piazza ever: Piazza Navona. The buildings surrounding the perimeter of the piazza are relatively short, which enables you to see the sky well and makes it feel like you are on a movie set!

We headed over to the Largo di Argentina, an archaeological site not far from the Piazza Navona that houses many of Rome’s stray gatti (cats). Having five of our own cats, we especially wanted to stop by and see these. The ruins are below street level, so the cats are safely shielded from the traffic of the busy streets nearby. They are cared for by a group of people who have them spayed/neutered and vaccinated and are fed daily (the nonprofit group is run on donations).

After bidding the cats arrivederci, we realized how hungry we were and decided to stop for lunch for our first meal in Italy. We had found Enoteca Corsi (on the via dei Gesu) on TripAdvisor and went there for lunch. We had a quartino (1/4 liter) of red house wine (when in Rome…) and I had a caprese salad (mozzarella, tomato & basil–an entire ball of mozzarella!) while my husband had some type of meat (we had no idea what it was…) which were delicious. We ended up spending about €27.50 on lunch, which includes service in Europe (almost always). When we got home, we saw an old episode of “$40 a Day” with Rachael Ray from 2002 and she had visited there as well!

After leaving lunch, we walked through the Jewish quarter and across the Tiber river to Trastevere, which is sort of off the beaten track of downtown Rome. We crossed over the Isola Tiberina, a small island in the middle of the river that houses a hospital on our way there. Once in Trastevere, we went to Santa Maria in Trastevere, another church. There is a statue of Saint Anthony there, who was my grandma’s favorite saint who she prayed to all the time, so I felt compelled to light a candle. Many people go there to pray to San Antonio as well, and you can write him letters with your prayers on them and leave them at his feet, which I did as well.

We wandered around the maze-like streets of Trastevere for a little while longer before heading across the Ponte Palatino and back towards downtown Rome.