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April 2015

Our Trip to Italy: Venice

 

David and I headed to Venice from Florence and got there in the early afternoon with more than enough time to explore. We were only spending one night in Venice, so we wanted to pack in as much as possible. Our hotel was close to the train station in the Santa Croce neighborhood and on a canal. David was even able to get us a room with windows on the canal. One we checked in and dropped off our bags, we decided to venture out and see the city.

 

Navigating the alleyways in Venice made me feel like Jennifer Connelly in The Labyrinth. It’s one of my favorite movies from childhood, but not one I ever really wanted to recreate, at least not without David Bowie as the Goblin King. Seriously, the maps were not helpful since some of the alleyway were too small to even be on the map, not to mention the fact that the signs that were meant to help you find your way were anything but helpful. They were often contradictory, and you would have to take numerous twists and turns before you found the next sign, all the while hoping you were going the right way, because you knew you wouldn’t be able to find your way back to the previous sign.

 

 

After walking for what seemed like forever, David and I finally found our way to the Rialto Bridge, then to St. Mark’s Square. I was so disappointed by both, and I honestly went in with little to no expectations. The shops on the Rialto Bridge had all the same crap quality Murano glass you could find anywhere else in Venice. Very few shops we saw actually had good quality, authentic Murano glass made by master glass makers. I was told most of it came from China, or was made by the apprentices, which was why it was all so cheap. As for St. Mark’s Square, for me, it was the least inspiring city center we had seen the entire trip. There were a bunch of restaurants, each with their own bandstand and mini group of classical musicians. The restaurants were close enough to each other, that you were confronted with a cacophony of music from all the surrounding restaurants.

 

Since neither David or I were too excited to find our way back through the labyrinth to our hotel, we thought about taking a Gondola.  Honestly, I thought Gondolas were cheesy, but David really wanted to take one. Turns out they are 100€ for 30 minutes. Nope. We decided to try to navigate our way back on foot, which was going smoothly until I mistook a traghetto crossing for a bridge on the map. We basically came to a dead-end at the Grand Canal with no way to cross. Luckily some locals soon joined us, and we learned that for 2€ we could cross the Grand Canal on the traghetto – a gondola boat, but with other passengers that is rowed by two oarsmen. It may not have been as romantic, but David got his Gondola ride.

 

 

The city was very pretty as the sun was setting, and we had an amazing dinner at Impronta Cafe. It was one of out best meals in Italy. However. walking to and from dinner made me realize just how glad I was that I had David with me. The winding alleyways become creepy and ominous at night. Since it wasn’t tourist season, most of the walkways were pretty deserted and all I could think of was someone hiding in the shadows waiting for unsuspecting tourist. Overreaction, I know, but I would have been really uncomfortable walking the streets by myself. Even with the sun still out before sundown, the buildings were too tall to allow much sunlight to filter into the alleyways.

 

 

The canal our hotel was on at night

 

The next day, before leaving Venice, David wanted to go visit the Jewish Ghetto. I had zero desire to go visit an upsetting site of our people’s history, so I waited at the train station while he went and explored on his own. I’m glad he enjoyed it so much, but I grew up with such horror stories from WWII and what my family went through, I know that visiting the centuries old ghetto would have been really upsetting for me, even if it pre-dated the war.

 

All in all, I didn’t love Venice, but I don’t have a solid, rational reason why. Maybe I was just sick of traveling at the tail end of our trip, but I just didn’t like the atmosphere. I’m still glad we got to experience it though.

 

Our Hotel: Hotel Ariecchino – My least favorite hotel of our entire trip. Our room was tiny and dated, the stairs up to the room smelled of sewer, and the staff was only somewhat helpful. We did have a good view of the canal, but we also had a view of the nearby bridge, and everyone on the bridge had a view into our room.

 

Best Restaurant: Impronta Cafe – David and I both had what may have been our best meal in all of Italy here. If you go to Venice, you must give this place a try, but be sure to make a reservation!

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Our Trip to Italy: Florence

 

After our time in Cinque Terre, David and I headed to Florence. Like Rome, I was incredibly excited to see Florence. Both cities were at the top of the list of places I needed to visit before I died. Like I’ve said before, most of my college studies were focused on the history and art of both cities. Before going to Italy, I couldn’t decide which one I was most excited to see, and after spending time in both cities, picking a favorite is difficult. Walking through the historical sites of Rome was unbelievable, while the art and beauty of Florence were breathtaking.

 

I’d always wanted to the Duomo, and suggested a hotel that was literally right next to it. David surprised me with a room with a view of the magnificent dome. Looking out our room from bed and seeing the Duomo towering over us was indescribable. Falling asleep with that view outside our window and waking up to it was something I will never forget. The location was also fantastic since the Duomo is basically the city center of Florence.

 

The view of the Duomo from our hotel room

 

I had researched the best way to view the sites in Florence, and since we would be there for 3 nights, I decided to buy Firenze Cards. For 72€ a person you get access to almost every museum and site in Florence for 3 days, you get to skip the lines, and you get free wifi within the city so you can actually use your phone. It really was a fantastic deal, especially since I planned on dragging David to as many museums and sites as possible. The wifi was spotty at best, but we were there to experience the city, not play on our phones.

 

Front of the Duomo (The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flower)

 

The Florence Baptistry under renovation

 

You will not believe the number of days one of my professors spent lecturing on Ghiberti’s doors of the Baptistry. I will admit, they were much bigger and impressive in person than I ever expected them to be. It was nearly impossible to even get close enough to get a picture due to the constant crowds surrounding the doors. I was lucky enough to get this picture early one morning before most of the other tourists had gathered and got this picture.

 

Ghiberti’s Famous Bronze Doors on the Baptistry

 

Our first day in Florence was a Monday, and we learned that on Monday, many museums are closed.  We were lucky enough to find the Medici palace open, but it was really disappointing in my opinion. It hadn’t been maintained as a residence and instead was really just a bunch of big empty rooms with some art on the wall.

 

After the palace we headed over to San Lorenzo Market. It’s a huge outdoor market dealing mostly in leather goods and scarves. I had read that Florence was known for its leather and scarves, and I can see why. Some of the purses were absolutely beautiful with amazing leather and the assortment of colors and scarf designs was overwhelming. I couldn’t rationalize buying another purse but I did buy some gorgeous scarves. I cannot tell you how many locals I saw wearing scarves, and in so many different ways. It was a staple piece of everyone’s wardrobe.

 

Once David and I had seen everything there was to buy at the market, we headed south to the Ponte Vecchio. I have to say, walking over a bridge that was built in the 1300’s was surreal. It was everything I imagined it would be, with its little jewelry shops lining either side. If only I could have afforded some of their pieces.

 

David and I explored some more of the city on foot, and grabbed dinner at an amazing restaurant named Osteria dell’Olio where we had an amazing Tuscan Steak. I highly recommend it if you are ever in Florence. The next night David went back after I had called it a night, ordered the steak again, and did shots with the owner.

 

The next day, all of the Museums were opened so David and I took full advantage. Our first stop was the Accademia, the museum David was most excited to visit. After seeing all of Michelangelo’s art in  the Vatican, David was really excited to see Michelangelo’s David. Being able to use our Firenze card to skip the line was fantastic because the regular line was ridicules.

 

I knew the David was big, but I had no idea just how big. It’s huge. I’d always assumed like the Sistine Chapel, it must be over-hyped. Once again Michelangelo proved me wrong. Standing in the presence of the artwork was breathtaking. In addition to the size, the detail he was able to create was astounding. It sounds cliche but he made marble look like a living person. The muscle and veins look like they are really just under the skin.

 

 

The hand detail is amazing

 

Next on our museum tour was the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Medici Chapel. I specifically wanted to see the crypt where Lorenzo the Magnificent was entombed. Yes, again, I have a morbid fascination with crypts and tombs. The first stop in the basilica was the Chapel of the Princes. A lot of it was under renovation but it was still beautiful.

 

The Medici Chapel

 

Cupola of the Medici Chapel

 

Then we ventured down into the crypt. Lorenzo de Medici and his brother Giuliano were interred together under this Madonna sculpture that was made by Michelangelo.

 

Tomb of Lorenzo the Magnificent

 

Next on the agenda was the Palazzo Vecchio. I was less interested in seeing the art, and more interested in seeing the building itself. I had the great idea that we should climb the tower. I am an idiot.

 

The Palazzo Vecchio

 

 

The stairway was tiny, but it was pretty incredible to be in a medieval building and seeing the old cells in the tower and the holes in the ground to pour boiling oil or other fluids on enemies in the event of an attack. The climb sucked, but was totally worth the view.

 

View from the tower

 

View from the tower

 

After the tower, we headed over to the Uffizi Gallery. It’s home to countless pieces of famous art, but there were only two I wanted to see. I’ve wanted to see Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera in person since the first time I saw them in a book. I can’t explain why, they just speak to me. I think they and the women they depict and beautiful. I suspect David was pretty happy I wasn’t going to drag him through the entire gallery, room by room, for the rest of the afternoon. He was also excited to finally see some artwork by DaVinci, which was in the room next to the Botticelli collection. The photos really don’t do the paintings or their vivid colors justice, but they were the best shots I could get.

 

The Birth of Venus

 

Primavera

 

After the gallery, I had hoped to go to the Boboli Gardens, but by the time we got out (the place is a maze and they make you wind through all of it to get out), we were tired and I was sick of being a tourist. I just wanted to walk the city and enjoy it instead of rushing off from site to site. We went back over the Ponte Vecchio, waked around, then headed back and explored some stores. There is a store that we saw in Rome that was also in Florence and Venice and I loved it. They had the cutest little gadgets that I never knew I needed. Every time we saw one of the stores we had to go in and play with everything.

 

My favorite store in Italy

 

There was also a really cute store where everything was 19€. They also had these adorable shirts by a cartoonist that I regret not buying. I wanted one you see in the window that said “chic” with the giraffes.

 

 

I regretted not getting one so badly, that before our train left for Venice, I got up super early, and walked to the store in hopes of picking one up. That’s when I was able to get the picture of the Baptistry doors. Unfortunately, Italian businesses open on their own obscure schedule, and nothing really opens before 10am or 11am. Walking around at 9am, you would have thought it was 6am in the US. The streets were dead. No wonder they call us workaholics. To kill time while waiting for the shops to open, I walked around and enjoyed the best cappuccino I had during our trip. I waited until 10:20 but the store still wasn’t open and I had to head back to the hotel so David and I could head for the train station.

 

Morning on the Arno

 

The best cappuccino I’ve ever had

 

If you go to Florence let me know so I can give you money to buy me a shirt!

 

Florence was all I had hoped it would be and more. Like I said, picking a favorite between Florence and Rome is really hard, but if I had to, I think I’d pick Florence. The city was just beautiful. David says without a doubt it was his favorite. I was so happy he ended up enjoying the art and was such a good sport about being dragged to see all the things I’d always wanted to see.

 

Our Hotel:Hotel Duomo – the rooms were updated, clean, and a good size. The bathroom was also pretty big by Italian standards and even had a bathtub. The view was phenomenal.

 

Must See Sights: The Accademia, The Duomo (even if just walking around outside), the Palazzo Vecchio, Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi Gallery.

 

Best Restaurant: Osteria dell’Olio – the staff was the nicest we experienced in Italy. Get the steak, it is worth it.

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Our Trip to Italy: Cinque Terre

 

After 3 nights in Rome, David and I headed up to Cinque Terre for a night. Cinque Terre consists of 5 little towns along the coast that are absolutely beautiful. We stayed in Monterosso al Mare, the last of the 5 towns.

 

This portion of the trip was entirely planned by David. I have to admit I wasn’t too excited to travel for  5 hours by train to spend one night by the beach. I was going to Italy to experience the art and culture. If I wanted a beach I’d have gone to the Caribbean. I reluctantly agreed to go, but told David he had to plan it all. In the end I was so glad we went. It was beautiful.

 

View of part of the village from our hotel

 

 

Unfortunately, our last night in Rome I started to get sick and it continued the entire next day and evening while we traveled to and were in Cinque Terre. When we arrived all I wanted to do was sleep, I felt so miserable. I started to panic because I had started to feel so ill and had no idea what to do since we were in another country. I was a crying, useless baby while David saved the day by running down to the village and getting some cough syrup and vapor rub. I loaded up on both, popped some Advil, and passed out for a few hours.

 

Meanwhile, David went to explore. At the end of the first half of the village there is a tunnel that leads into another little village. I think it may be surrounded by the city walls. David had dinner over there while I was out cold at the hotel. I woke up when he got back, took more medicine, and passed out again.

 

The next morning, I was feeling a little better. No more fever and my coughing was less frequent. David wanted to show me the area he had explored the night before so we walked through the tunnel to the little hidden village. It was adorable.

 

 

There were winding little alleyways with cute shops and restaurants. We walked around and had lunch before heading back to catch our train to Florence.

 

 

A sign outside one of the restaurants

 

The walk back to the hotel from the tunnel

 

 

I have to admit that the beach was beautiful and walking along it was such a change of pace from our time in Rome. However, I cannot imagine how crowded Cinque Terre must be during the summer at the height of tourist season. I think it would be much less enjoyable then. Part of it’s charm while we were there was how quiet and peaceful it was. It was exactly what I needed to try to recover from whatever sickness I had before we set off for Florence.

 

Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to stop in the other towns of Cinque Terre. I really wanted to visit Vernazza, having seen it in so many pictures. It looks beautiful. Hopefully one day we can go back and explore them all.

 

Our Hotel: Hotel Suisse Bellevue – The hotel was great. It was up on the mountain a bit and had an amazing view (be sure to ask for a room with an ocean view). Since the hotel is up the mountain, you have to take a shuttle, but the shuttle leaves every hour I believe, possibly every half hour, and takes you down to the village and back. It was super convenient. It also picks up and drops off right by the train station, which was super helpful.

 

Must See Sights: Definitely go through the tunnel and explore the other half of Monterosso!

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Our Trip to Italy: Rome

 

Our first stop in Italy was Rome. We flew the red-eye into Milan, then hopped on a high-speed train to Rome as soon as our flight landed. I wanted to be sure to be in Rome for my 30th birthday. I honestly had no desire to actually see Milan, we only flew into the city because that was a requirement of the amazing airline deal we got.

 

The two cities I had always wanted to visit, and that I was most excited to see were Rome and Florence. I don’t know which one I was most excited to see. By the time we got to Rome, we had been traveling for 24 hours and were exhausted. We both decided to just get some sleep and be well rested for the next day, my birthday.

 

Day 1:

 

When planning our trip, I wanted to make sure our first day in Rome was laid back and stress free. I knew we would be tired from traveling and I didn’t want us to rush around from place to place with a schedule. We got up, got breakfast, and just walked the city. We visited the sites you can just walk up to and got a feel for the city. Walking around Rome was wonderful. It wasn’t dirty or trashy like I’d heard from other travelers. The locals were by far the nicest that we encountered on the entire trip, and I don’t think it was just an act to get money from tourists. They were so genuinely warm and friendly. Any concerns I had about a language barrier quickly disappeared – even if someone didn’t speak English, and if my broken, terrible Italian didn’t work, everyone was still so eager to help us and figure out what we were trying to communicate. Some of the interrelations were quite funny, and left us all laughing.

 

Our first stop was to walk to the Colosseum, which was less than a mile from our hotel. It was amazing to walk a block from our front door and see the ancient site rising above us.

 

Our next stop was the Trevi Fountain, which was undergoing some reconstruction. The fountain was drained of water, and you could walk through the restoration site on a little bridge. I didn’t mind I didn’t get to see the fountain in its full working glory, it was still beautiful. The area around the fountain was a great area to walk around. There were tons of great restaurants, some good souvenir stands, and fun shops – you just had to be careful of the guy’s selling selfie sticks. They were EVERYWHERE, swinging the sticks in the air.

 

 

From the Trevi Fountain, we walked to the nearby Pantheon. I have always wanted to see the ancient temple turned church. It did not disappoint. It is 2000 years old and the best preserved building of Ancient Rome. It is absolutely stunning due to both its size and design. It’s amazing that they were able to construct such a beautiful building so long ago, and build it well enough for it to still be standing in such great condition.

 

 

I was breathless once I stepped in and I saw the beam of sunlight streaming in from the oculus. Pictures really can’t do it justice, it’s something you have to see in person. Despite the tourists milling around below, the light streaming in creates an ethereal feel to the entire chamber, settling a peace over everything and everyone. An unrelated plus side to the Parthenon is that it was free, and there wasn’t any line to get in.

 

 

Walking around Rome, you see a lot of nasoni – little water fountains. I had researched the nasoni before our trip and I could not wait to use one. The water is safe for drinking and incredibly cold and refreshing, coming from a reservoir 70 miles outside the city. They are a great way to stay hydrated while touring the city, and you can refill a bottle, saving money on bottled water.

 

 

After walking the city all day, David and I saw a local store owner come out of her store, walk across  the street to a nasone, and drink from it. I’d wanted to drink from one all day, but that was all the push I needed. A local did it, so I wanted to also. The water was so cold and refreshing. It was like drinking from a fresh spring. It was delicious. I was even able to convince germaphobe David to give it a try and he agreed it tasted wonderful. When in Rome . . .

 

 

On day one I was also sure to get gelato. Luckily we had a great gelato place next to our hotel and it was delicious. Definitely worth all the hype, and better than ice cream in my opinion.

 

 

Day 2:

 

For our second day in Rome, I had planned two tours – The Vatican in the morning, and the Colosseum and Roman Forum in the afternoon.

 

If you want to visit the Vatican, I definitely recommend booking one of their tours – it was worth every single penny, and I’m saying that from a general standpoint, since I’m not even Christian, let alone Catholic. I also recommend booking the tour ahead of time, rather than the day of, otherwise you will be stuck in a line longer  than any I have ever seen. I’m not kidding. I was advised to book the earliest tour I could, because there are less tourist and crowds in the morning. Ours was at 8:30, and the advice I had received was definitely accurate. By the time we were done, the entire square was packed.

 

The Vatican was by far my favorite part of our ENTIRE Italy trip. No question. We did a 3 hour tour that included the museums of the Vatican, as well as St. Peter’s Basilica – the actual church portion of the Vatican. I was a history major in college with an emphasis on renaissance Europe, and a minor in humanities, both areas which involved a heavy focus on the Vatican, as well as it’s art. I had always wanted to see it, having studied it so much, and I was not disappointed. The array of art was absolutely unlike any I have ever seen, spanning so many periods. There was so much, I simply couldn’t photograph it all, or include it all here.

 

 

One fresco I have always wanted to see in person is the School of Athens, which is located in the former papal apartments. Having studied all it’s symbolism, finally seeing it in personal was very exciting for me. All of the papal rooms painted by Raphael were beautiful, but this was by far my favorite of his frescoes.

 

The School of Athens

 

I was less excited to see the Sistine Chapel than other parts of the Vatican. I know, EVERYONE wants to see the Sistine Chapel, but I always assumed it was over hyped. I was wrong. It was everything they say it is, and more. You can’t take pictures inside the chapel, so I don’t have any to share, but if you get the chance to see it, do not pass it up. It’s one of those things you should see before you die, even if you don’t care a fig about art or religion. David never took an art history class, could care less about most of the art we saw, but he said that the Sistine Chapel was absolutely amazing. He said it actually have him an appreciation for art, and the rest of trip he was actually interested in the other pieces of art I made him see.

 

One interesting aspect of the Vatican tour was that although we went through what used to be the private rooms for Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI, perhaps one of the most infamous Popes in history (and not for good reasons), the tour guide completely glazed over his history and legacy, as if to act like he never existed. His rooms weren’t even preserved, and instead are cavernous rooms, with empty walls, free of any frescoes – they were long since removed – and housing modern art. None of Borgia’s notoriously extravagant decorations or touches remain and the tour guide was eager to rush us through the rooms. I doubt we would have even seen them if they could have used an alternate route.

 

Our tour guide told us that the current Pope, Pope Francis has opened up more of the Vatican than had been opened to visitors before. He gave up his freedom to roam the galleries so that the public could see and benefit from all the art collected by Popes and The Church over the centuries.

 

After the Museum tour, we headed to the basilica.

 

 

When we walked in, it took my breath away, even more so than the Pantheon. My pictures do not do it justice. It is so grand and ornate, you don’t know where to look first. The picture below was taken from the middle of the basilica. It is much larger than just what I pictured. It’s massive.

 

 

The cupola of St. Peter’s Basilica

 

The canopy over the tomb of St. Peter and directly under the cupola.

 

Michelangelo’s Pieta

 

I have this weird and morbid fascination with crypts. I guess maybe because in the Jewish faith, we don’t have crypts. Or I’m just dark. I really wanted to see the crypt below St. Peter’s, especially since it contains the tomb of St. Peter. It is also the resting place of Popes that were not subsequently sainted after their death (those are placed upstairs in the basilica). It took David and I a while to find the stairs down to the crypt. We had to ask 3 separate Vatican employees and aimlessly wander before we found it. No wonder it was so hard – the staircase is hidden behind a huge column.

 

 

Understandably, we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the crypt since it is a resting place, but if you ever get the chance, go down there. It isn’t creepy at all. It’s just really interesting, especially St. Peter’s tomb.

 

In the basilica, along the walls, there are also the bodies of saints, as I mentioned above. Some of them are in glass coffins so you can actually see them. Don’t worry, nothing gory, their faces and hands are covered so you don’t actually see any exposed body parts. I was so fascinated by the practice of preserving the dead for the faithful to see. Again, it is a practice so different from those of my faith, I can’t help but be curious and interested in it.

 

 

Of course I had to take an obligatory picture of the Swiss Guard.

 

I was curious about everyone working at the Vatican, and wanting to avoid getting a practiced answer, I questioned our tour guide at the Colosseum whether everyone working at the Vatican was Catholic. I was curious whether it was a requirement. This tour guide was born and raised in Rome, and grew up singing choir in the Sistine Chapel, so I trust she knows a thing or two. She told me everyone working in Vatican City must be Catholic, practicing, in good standing, and much attend church every Sunday as well as do confession once a week. Additionally, they must be married to a Catholic, and cannot get divorced or they will lose their job.

 

After the Vatican, David and I headed over to the Colosseum for our second tour of the day. Right now they have the underground tunnels of the Colosseum open for tours so you can see where they kept prisoners, gladiators, and animals. Unfortunately those tours were all booked so we had to do the regular one.

 

The site is truly amazing. I loved being able to see history in physical form. It’s like looking back in time 2,000 years. It seems impossible that the ancient Romans were able to build the Colosseum, let alone that it is still standing today, even if partially in ruins.

 

The outer walls have fallen in some areas.

 

 

View from the Plebeian seats.

 

After the Colosseum, our tour headed over to the Roman Forum, the site of Ancient Roman ruins. It was really an amazing experience to know I was walking where Ancient Romans once walked during their daily routines – where Julius Caesar may have walked.

 

 

The first stop in the forum was the Basilica Aemilia where Ancient Romans shopped. The brick building behind the ruins is the Curia, where the Roman Senate met. It’s not the building where Julius Caesar was actually killed though. At that time, the Curia had burned in a fire and was being rebuilt so the Senate met in a temporary building outside the forum.

 

 

Next we got to see the stone upon which Julius Caesar was cremated. People still leave offerings to him, usually in the form of coins and flowers. It’s located on the site of a temple that was dedicated to him after his death. He was a man turned god.

 

A 2,000 year old road that is still in fantastic working condition.

 

All in all, Rome exceeded my expectations. It was absolute heaven for a history nerd like me.

 

In case you want some ideas for your own trip, I’ve included my recommendations below:

 

Our Hotel: Duca d’Alba The hotel was centrally located and walking distance to everything we needed and wanted to see, including the train station, which was very convenient. The room was a good size, clean, comfortable, and the bathroom was newly updated. The staff was incredibly nice and helpful. I can’t say enough good things about them.

 

Must See Sights: The Vatican. If you see nothing else in Rome, you need to see the Vatican.

 

Best Restaurant: The best places we ate at in Rome were Er Faciolaro near the Pantheon, where I had the best calzone of my life. The dough was unlike anything I have ever had.

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