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June 23, 2004

Recommendations

If we can find time this week, we’ll post some of our recommendations and lessons learned for any of you considering a trip to Italy. Until then, ciao!

What we'll miss. What we won't.

Things we’ll miss
The food
Meals
Art everywhere
History everywhere
Europe’s diversity of languages and cultures
Being on vacation
Not worrying about calories
A gelateria on every corner
Morning cappuccinos
Appreciating shade and big stone churches on a hot summer day
Late-afternoon naps
Cheap, good wine
Cheap, good olive oil
Pets in restaurants
Eating

Things we won’t miss
Italian drivers
Motorized scooters
Tourists
Long lines
Crowds
No air conditioning
Not understanding others
Not being understood by others
Cover charges for bread
Casual approach to time
Being lost
Dirt and pollution
Pay bathrooms
Lunchtime store closings
Having to buy water at restaurants
Being charged more to drink sitting down
Eating nothing but carbs
Searching for cheap internet connections
Paying 2 euros or more for a soda
High prices in cities (especially Venice and Florence)

Flight delays

The hotel at Malpensa Airport, Hotel Cervo, was perfect for our needs. It was cheap, clean, and five minutes from the airport. We slept well but far too briefly, needing to be up for a 8 am flight.

Our travels could have been smoother. High winds in London delayed our arrival there by more than 90 minutes, which caused us to miss our flight to Chicago. We were rebooked on an American Airlines flight two hours later but were told to go the gate for a seat assignment. Unfortunately, we did so before we got any food or drink for the long flight. At Heathrow's Terminal 3, the gates are a very long hike away from the shopping and restaurants, and once you enter the gate area you are not allowed out. Although we managed to talk our way out, it was just too far to get anything for the flight (I tried, though, sprinting through the terminal but turning around after hearing a premature boarding announcement).

Our new Chicago flight left a half hour late but is due in at around 2:50, two hours after we were originally due in. We are very much looking forward to being home, but sad to be done with our vacation.

Update: Home, safe and sound. Our second flight arrived about 25 minutes early, leaving us on the ground only 90 minutes later than expected. Customs was no big deal, and neither was the cab ride home.

Venice to Milan

Written June 22, 2004
We left Venice today, and we’re glad. The city is a gem, and we’re very lucky to have seen it before it falls into the sea sometime in trhe next century. But two days here during high season was more than enough. The crowds in the tourist neighborhoods around Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge are stifling. Even the wider streets can be unpleasant to walk down; the congestion on the narrowest streets are best avoided entirely. Venice’s saving grace is that most of the people, perhaps fearful of getting lost (not an unreasonable fear), stick to the main streets—leaving the back alleys wide open for pleasant wandering. Our fondest memories here were spent just a few blocks away but worlds apart from the main tourist drags.

So now we’re on the train to Milan. The trains are efficient and comfortable (when the air conditioning works; it was broken in the first car we sat in). Boarding the train was relatively easy, though it was made harder by the weight of the four bottles of wine we acquired in Tuscany, and the fifth given to us in Venice by Hotel Danieli. We had hoped to ship all of these, but apparently the U.S. has severe shipping restrictions for international wine shipments (something to do with 9/11—we have no idea why).

When traveling in a foreign country, not speaking the language can put up walls between you and the people you encounter. But it can also open doors to memorable experiences. Our train compartment to Milan was shared by an Italian, Fabio, who talked to us in broken English for about 45 minutes until we reached our destination. Fabio, who “has 29 years,” had been traveling by train all over Italy the entire day for reasons we were not able to figure out, was working in a factory in Sorrento for the past four days, does occasional freelance computer networking consulting and would want to open his own business were it not for the red tape in Rome, went to law school but quit because he did not enjoy it, and prefers swimming and rowing to soccer and basketball because they are less competitive. He was pleasant to talk to as we sped across northern Italy.

On arriving in Milan, we checked our bags and took the Metro to the Duomo. On emerging from the subway, we were disappointed to see the huge church covered in scaffolding. But the doors were still open, so we went in and were not at all disappointed by the Gothic-style interior. It’s immense, seemingly bigger than Notre Dame in Paris (although we might be wrong about that, not having looked it up). Unlike the other cathedrals we saw on this trip, the interior is decorated predominantly with beautiful stained glass, as opposed to elaborate frescoes.

After our Duomo visit, we walked around briefly looking for a restaurant and ended up in an open-air luxury mall named, as are many places herefor Vittorio Emmanuel II, the first king of unified Italy. The people-watching here was very interesting, especially to observe the contrast between Milan and the other places in Italy. Unlike Rome, Florence, and Venice, Milan is a thoroughly modern city. Lots more people in stylish suits. Locals move more purposefully. Modern architecture to complement the older buildings. Milan is still Italian but much more closely resembles the world we are used to in the United States.

Our final Italian meal was a disappointment. Mindful of the time and the need to get to our airport hotel before the shuttle stopped at 11, we opted to eat at Biffi, which we chose because it was the best-seeming of four nearby choices. The food was decent, but was extremely overpriced and probably not any better to Italian food we could have gotten at home. Worse, the check was slow in coming, and we were unable as planned to go elsewhere for dessert and coffee.

June 22, 2004

We won't miss the lines.

Quick breakfast this morning in the Italian style--croissant and cappucino standing at the bar. Then to wait in a very long line to get into St. Mark's Basilica, a beautiful cathedral at the foot of St. Mark's square. It's nearly 1,000 years old and, unlike many of the churches we've seen on the trip, has a very different, Eastern feel to it. Chalk it up to Venetian trading power with Byzantium.

A morning of wandering is ahead, then a quick lunch, then a three-hour train ride for a very brief visit to Milan.

More Venice

Written June 21
After a long afternoon of walking around the city, getting ourselves intentionally lost, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a while. I intended to take a nap, but that plan was derailed when outside our window three girls turned street performers decided to entertain the tourists in front of the Grand Canal. It wouldn’t have been a problem had they been good, but they weren’t. At first, the nearby gondoliers seemed quite amused by them, but eventually they made them leave. They probably were bad for business.

Around 5:30, we headed to an internet point to go online and find a suitable restaurant. We took a healthy walk to Osteria da Alberto, where we decided to go eat. We were early for our 8:00 reservation, so we hung out in a nearby piazza, Campo S.S. Giovanni and Paolo. We watched a boy and his father kicking around a soccer ball against an ancient church; eventually another boy joined the game. Though I’m not fond of soccer, it was interesting to see young kids who were relatively good at it; the typical American kid wouldn’t know where to start, although they’d be much more likely to throw a football with a proper spiral.

Dinner was very good—good, simple Venetian food and a place we would wholeheartedly recommend for a relatively inexpensive (for Venice) meal. As we were eating however, a neighborhood cat just wandered in the restaurant and made friends with the patrons, rubbing against the table legs and hopping up on a free chair. The presence of the cat caught all the Americans in the restaurant by surprise, though the Europeans, with their much more lax health codes, didn’t seem to think it was such a big deal. The cook came out of the kitchen, scooped up the cat and pretended to bring the cat into the back, “To the kitchen…I cook!”

On a beautiful evening for strolling, we took a long way back to the hotel, stopping occasionally to watch the gondolas pass, to look at the shimmering reflections of shop windows, and to stop into a store selling masks in an 18th century style (a la Amadeus). Had we a better idea how to pack them, we probably would have bought several.

We’ll miss Venice a lot. It’s as beautiful a place as you’ll ever see. But the enormous crowds are plain overwhelming, and we won’t miss the constant jostling and extraordinarily high prices. Tomorrow it’s on to Milan for dinner and a train ride to our airport hotel.

June 21, 2004

Why no photos?

In case you're wondering why we've been stingy with the pictures, it's because our digital camera stopped working in Florence. We've been using our film camera for the last few days.

Venice is wonderful...and annoying.

We set an early alarm to see Venice in the morning, when it's at its second-best (it gets better in the evenings). We weren't disappointed. Piazza San Marco was, at 8:15, relatively empty and tranquil. Better yet, cafe seating was available even as the cafes were not yet open, providing us with the same view without the obligation to spend 20 euros for a couple of cappuccinos and croissants. When the cafes started opening and the tour groups started coming in, we left for a less touristy piazza and had a nice breakfast over a newspaper.

Back to the hotel to shower and get ready for our day. Our room is a wonderful place to get to go back to. Opening the windows onto the canal makes everything feel so...Venetian (as long as we don't look down and see the hordes of tourists and souvenir stands below). But as beautiful and luxurious as our hotel is, we don't like it nearly as much as the other places we have stayed in Italy. We have encountered a lot of old-world snobbishness here that has been very off-putting. Example: Our clothes are very wrinkled. I called down to ask if it was possible to get an iron for a very wrinkled shirt. "No, it is not possible. But we can press it for you." Now, I assume most of this hotel's clientele are wealthy enough that they do not think about ironing their own clothes -- though Janene and I will stand a much better chance of getting wealthy if we do not spend 9 euros to get a shirt pressed.

Now that it's noontime, the crowds are out in full force, and the city, like Florence, resembles Disneyland Italy. Everything is so beautiful here that I can understand why it's so crowded, but it doesn't make it pleasant. We plan to wander the back streets, intentionally getting lost, and find a nice place for lunch.

Goodbye, Lucca. Hello, Venice.

Written June 20
This morning we said goodbye to our Lucca hotel, Alla Corte degli Angeli, which we really liked, except for the very mushy bed—not unusual for European hotels, in our experience.

All morning we encountered typical Italian situations that would have driven us crazy at home, but in Italy it just gave us some material to write about. First, we found that nothing—literally nothing—is open on Sunday morning (most stores aren’t open on Sunday afternoon either). We tried going to both a food store and a Mailboxes Etc. this morning, both of which were supposed to be open but weren’t.

Next, we sat in the lobby after checking out, thinking that we had requested the car, only we hadn’t. The hotel staff was content to let us relax in the lobby for a while. When we mentioned to them that we were interested in leaving the hotel eventually, Roberto at the front desk asked us, “Do you want your car?” This idea was so novel that we thought we’d just take Roberto up on it. They just don’t like to rush you in Italy. It’s just like at dinnertime, when if you don’t ask for the check they’ll let you sit there until closing time, maybe later. At home, we would be very impatient about the delay. Here, we shrug and are grateful for having good material to blog about.

We decided to stop in Bologna for a quick lunch. Bologna is known for its food, which is ironic considering its namesake lunchmeat. (Does anyone know where bologna got its name? Or, for that matter, why bologna is pronounced baloney?) Most everything was closed here as well, though we managed to find a decent pizzeria that screwed up both of our orders, omitting my capers and Janene’s basil. Before we left, we took a 10-minute walk around town and saw enough to decide that we would consider spending more than an hour the next time we were in Italy. The city is oft-bypassed between Florence and Venice, but has an attractive city center as well as a number of historic buildings worth a visit.

Our arrival in Venice was very hectic. We dropped the car off at Hertz, which has its offices at the car park facility. The office was closed, so we had to pay the 19 euro fee for a day of parking. After dropping off the key in the after-hours box, we tried to navigate the maze of disoriented tourists and daytrippers at Piazzale Roma, where the vaporetti (water taxis) depart for their trip down the Grand Canal. It took several false starts, but finally we found our way onto the boat and to our hotel, Hotel Danieli.

This is another one of those hotels that we highly recommend if you can stay for free. It’s tremendously opulent. Walking up the stairs and down the hall makes us feel like royalty. Our view is of the Grand Canal, which is very cool. The view is enough to make us ignore the noise outside the window, as the vaporetto stop is conveniently and loudly located directly below us.

We spent our evening wandering the streets of Venice, stopping for a better-than-average-but-disappointing-compared-to-the-food-in-Tuscany meal. The city, however, is magical. Venice has as many, if not more, tourists than Florence. But while they were hard to escape in Florence, they seem to stick to the main streets here, which leaves dozens of small alleyways and side streets available if you’re sick of the crowds. The city is especially beautiful at night. We loved wandering with no particular destination. It will be even nicer on a weekday, when more stores are open.

Piazza San Marco is as stunning as we imagined it. It’s a beautiful public space in the shadow of an immense cathedral. There are hundreds of chairs for three different cafes, each with its own four-piece orchestra to entertain their respective audiences. It’s very touristy, and sitting at the cafes is absurdly expensive, but it all creates an amazing ambience. The people-watching in the square is just as fun. Our favorite experience this evening was watching a very young and very small Asian-American boy dancing in a large puddle. He was having the time of his life, as were the growing crowd of tourists surrounding him, enjoying the show. Two American teenagers even came up to him to hand him coins, just as they would do for any other street performer.

June 19, 2004

Lucca is lovely.

We are really enjoying our day in Lucca. It's only about an hour from Florence, but it feels a world away. It's very relaxed, with enough tourism that we don't feel out of place, but not so much that we feel like we're at home.

This morning I woke up early for a couple of laps around the city walls, about 4.5 miles. The walls are probably the best part of the city. The top of the wall is widely used for jogging, strolling, and biking. Best of all, it is level and shady. Running has been a challenge elsewhere on our vacation, thanks to the hills and uneven surfaces.

I came back to the hotel to pick up Janene, who did not sleep well because of a bad back (she had slept funny the night before). We ate our mediocre hotel buffet breakfast food, and then headed to a place to buy olive oil and wine recommended by a hotel employee. He had warned us that the people there did not speak English and that few tourists venture there.

He was right. When we entered, we found three Italian men in the back, smoking and drinking wine at 10:45 in the morning. They were in a very animated conversation which became less so when we entered. When we mentioned to the man behind the counter that we were hoping to taste some wine, he pulled a couple of bottles off of the shelf. Then he went to a meat slicer and started making us some salami sandwiches, which we didn't recall ordering. After he finished, he poured each of us a full glass of two different wines and invited us to taste. They were all very good, good enough to convince us to buy a couple of bottles along with a bottle of olive oil.

After that experience, we wandered around town for a while, stopped for some coffee to rest my aching feet (already sore from all our walking, even more so when combined with the running). A quick slice of pizza for lunch, then back to the hotel to pick up clothes for a small load of laundry.

This afternoon, a bike ride around the walls, maybe a quick nap, and our last dinner in Tuscany before we head to Venice tomorrow.

June 18, 2004

Lost in Lucca

Made it to Lucca, though as usual when we get in the car, the trip was an adventure. We won't miss driving in Florence. It's a total video game. Cars, scooters, pedestrians, bicyclists...they're everywhere, they move in random directions, and they appear out of nowhere. It's very fortunate that we made it out in one piece.

Lucca, by contrast, is much easier to drive in, although it wasn't easier to find our destination. Getting close to the hotel was no problem, but we missed the final turnoff, not noticing that what appeared to be an alley was actually the street we wanted. Having gone about 300 meters too far, we pulled to the side of the piazza and asked directions to the inn from a nice policeman, who spoke as much English as I speak Italian. He told me that the streets were one way and we would have to exit the city walls to start all over again. Also, while Janene waited in the car, he walked me to the inn so I would know how to find it the next time.

The only problem was that once I got there, I had no idea where the car was. All the streets look alike here, and none of them are straight. Alessia from the hotel came with me, but I couldn't tell her where to find my luggage, my car, and my wife. I told Alessia we pulled over at a piazza, but the first one didn't have any of the things I was looking for. "Was there a church?" she asked. "Maybe," I said helpfully. So we went into another direction, but found no luggage, car, and wife. Then I mentioned we pulled off to the side, and Alessia said "Ah." A few minutes later, we found what we were looking for, we inherited a back seat passenger, and made our way to the hotel.

Two hours of the Renaissance

This morning, the Uffizi Gallery, which is, according to our guidebook, the best collection of Renaissance paintings anywhere. It was an outstanding museum, and we enjoyed it a lot. The museum, however, seems to tolerate rather than welcome visitors. Where the Accademia, despite the age of its building, feels reasonably modern, the Uffizi is dingier and hotter and has very poor lighting.

One thing the Uffizi does have in common with the Accademia is the same need to wait in a line, even with a reservation. Our reservation was for 8:15, so of course the reservation line began moving at 8:25.

We climbed the two enormous flights of stairs and entered the first room, only to discover that there were no descriptions of the paintings, not even in Italian. Wanting to get more out of our experience, we took the lift downstairs to get the recorded audio tour. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but our enthusiasm waned in the 15 minutes it took us to get to the front of the very short line. (I can't figure out why Italians drive so quickly since they do everything else so slowly.)

The audio tour was helpful, giving us valuable context as we moved through the rooms of paintings. The rooms were roughly chronological, which allowed us understand the development of Renaissance artistic trends-development of perspective, greater use of human emotion, increased use of light, and so on.

The audio tour also referred to many rooms that were closed. A good portion of the museum, in fact, was off limits to us. Our guidebook warned about the impromptu closures. After viewing all of the rooms in the first two corridors, we were unable to find anything to look at in the third corridor, even as our recorded audio guide was ready to tell us more about the late-Renaissance masterpieces beginning in Room 41. The rooms all appeared closed, but so many at one time? We asked the nearest gallery attendant, who, sensing our disappointment, shrugged apologetically "Room 41 is closed," she told us. "Room 42 is closed. Room 43 is closed. Room 44 is closed. Room 45...I am not sure, but it is probably closed." All told, we probably missed 40% of the museum. Something to see the next time we're in Florence.

After the museum we headed for the second day in a row to I Fratelli, a literal "hole in the wall" sandwich shop and wine bar just two blocks north of the Uffizi. It had been recommended to us by our guide on Wednesday, and it appears in both our guidebooks. If you're in Florence, don't miss it. Fresh bread and delicious sandwiches, plus the opportunity to taste a variety of Italian wines for ridiculously low prices. (Yesterday, I had a small glass of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, a respected wine, for 0.80 euros - about $0.96.)

Back to the hotel to pack and head to our next destination, Lucca. By the time you read these words, we will be at our new hotel and using their internet connection.

Florence has a quieter side. Who knew?

Last night we got a different taste of Florence, one that was much more appealing. South of the river, across Ponte alla Carraia away from the packed city center, we saw a much quieter city. Less traffic, fewer scooters, fewer tourists. Before dinner we spent several hours walking around this part of town and wondered how the city could be so different just across the bridge from the chaos of tourist Florence. There are still plenty of "sights" south of the Arno, including Pitti Palace, the historic residence of the Medici family. Having seen many sights already, we did not choose to see more. We were just grateful to have found a lower-key part of a very intense and exhausting city,

Dinner was at Il Cantinone, a nice osteria south of the Arno below the Santa Trinita Bridge. This restaurant was filled mostly with tourists, but they were not nearly as hard to be around as the ones we encountered at dinner the previous night. The restaurant, close to our hotel, was on the ground floor in a medieval-era building, in a former wine cellar. The food, as always, was excellent. We each ordered a complete dinner, which included bruschetta, a pasta course, a huge portion of bistecca alla fiorentine, roasted potatoes, and a quarter-liter of wine for each of us, all for 50 euros combined. We also had some company for free, a couple of 60-something women who, upon sitting down to the table next to ours, asked us hesitatingly, "Americanos?" When we confirmed that yes, in fact, we are Americanos, the two women proceeded to talk to us throughout the meal. I would tell you more about our conversation, but that would indicate that we were paying more attention to them than we did.

June 17, 2004

More on Florence

Okay, more details about Florence. Our hotel, the Westin Excelsior Florence, is very, very nice. I cannot recommend highly enough staying here in a lovely junior suite for free, as we are doing using our accumulated rewards points. This hotel is extremely luxurious, considered one of the nicest in town. Our fourth-floor room overlooks the Arno River with its two balconies. The view is magical, especially in the morning, when you can see the Renaissance-era skyline reflected in the river below.

The only drawback to our temporary living space, which some may see as a plus, is that we feel like we're in the U.S. Embassy. Everyone here is American. Everyone. If we didn't want to speak a word of Italian to anybody, we'd get along very fine. It's comforting, but it also makes the travel experience a little less exotic.

Florence is nearly as crazy as Rome but not nearly as big. There are more Vespa scooters, seemingly, and the enormous tourist population is crammed into a much smaller space. The city also has a very youthful feel; at night the piazzas are full of American college students. This gave the two of us thirty-somethings a decidedly un-youthful feel.

Tuesday was the first day I was starting to feel a bit homesick. I wasn't feeling very well, probably something I ate. Hard to believe that I would have stomach issues after a week of a steady diet of pizza, salami, proscuitto, and strong cheeses. I also was feeling extremely sluggish and was not anxious to see or do anything. By Wednesday I was feeling better, in time for Janene to feel not so well. She thinks she might be getting sick, as she has had a sore throat and a headache. She's in the room resting now, so maybe that's all she needs (we haven't gotten a lot of sleep during the past few days).

On Wednesday morning, we took a three-hour walking tour of Florence through Walking Tours of Florence. If you find yourself in Florence and are looking for an overview of the city, I highly recommend them. Their brochure features accolades by both Michael Palin and Alex Rodriguez, so you know they're good. Our guide was extremely knowledgable and entertaining, and gave us a great overview of the city, providing a mix of architectural, art, and civic history.

The afternoon was spent with a nap and a quest--a search for a place to get our laundry done. It turned into more of a quest than expected. We were told of a place just down the street. It wasn't far, but wheeling our suitcase down the narrow bumpy streets along with the scooters and cars made it a pain to traverse the several blocks. The first time we went to the lavanderia, it was closed for the afternoon. Many businesses shut down for several hours during lunch, so this was not that unusual. However, the second time I went back alone, and the front door had a sign saying "Subito torno" (back soon). In Italian, this could mean tomorrow, so we went back to the hotel, found another place in the opposite direction, and had better luck this time. We got our clothes several hours later, and now have enough to last us the rest of the trip.

Before dinner, we took an expensive cab ride to San Miniato, a medieval'era church in the hills above Florence, above the Piazzetta Michelangelo. We went to the church because our tour guide mentioned that they do a daily 5:30 mass with original Gregorian chant. It was a unique experience to hear the ancient music in a 700-year-old church. Unfortunately, the monks weren't the best singers, and the church did not provide the best sound. We had fun anyway.

Dinner was at Mamma Gina's, a restaurant south ofthe Ponte Vecchio. We were disappointed. Our meal was eaten in a room full of American tourists, several of whom had polished off two bottles of wine and were acting the part of the stereotypical Ugly Americans--loud voices and needing to be the center of attention. We never would have noticed them in the U.S. -- okay, these particular Americans would have been hard to miss -- but here, abroad, they really stood out. The food was, as usual, excellent, but overpriced.

So what about Florence? We have very mixed feelings here. Certainly, for art and architecture, this city can't be beat. You can't walk a block without seeing something beautiful that belongs in a textbook. It would take a year to see it all, a lifetime to understand it. But compared to everywhere else we've seen, this feels like Disneyland Italy. See the Renaissance, speak one or two words of a real foreign language, spend incredible sums of money (Florence is very expensive), and top off the afternoon with an ice cream cone. There are so many tourists here that it's difficult to get a sense of the real Florence. Take away 50 to 100 tour buses from the city center, and I think this city would leave a much grander impression. Unfortunately, those 50 to 100 tour buses aren't leaving before we do, and we'll have to look forward to our next trip here, during low season.

We're alive.

We've been out of touch. Our apologies. Our hotel, despite having every conceivable luxury, does not have ready internet access. We are able to use the computer at their sister hotel, but at 7 euros for 15 minutes, we have been declining the privilege.

Learning from our experience at the Vatican Museum, we decided to go see Michelangelo's David at the museum's opening time. With our reservation card in hand -- the reservation entitled us to bypass the long line and wait in a shorter line -- we headed to the gate. The ticket-taker promptly sent us to a different line to wait, thus defeating the point of the reservation. A nice American let us in front, and in we went.

The early reservation was a good idea. We had about 10 minutes nearly to ourselves before the tour groups made their way in.

Not being artists, we lack the vocabulary to describe what makes David a better sculpture than others in Florence. But seeing it up close, it's clear that it is better. It's more...alive, as if it's getting ready to step off the pedestal and go to a different part of the museum for some peace and quiet. Other sculptures, by contrast, seem much stiffer by comparison.

The rest of the museum was nice. It's a small museum, so manageable in a few hours. We enjoyed the temporary musical instrument exhibit. The other art was impressive as well, but it was very religious-themed, which, though interesting, starts to look the same after a while.

We'll have more to say about our stay in Florence later. Only 1 minute of internet time left, and I have to save this post before it disappears!

June 15, 2004

A nice morning for a run?

I wasn't able to get my run in this morning, so I asked at the desk if they could recommend a suitable place to go. In town isn't a good option--it's too hilly, the street is too uneven, and cars running down the narrow streets can block your way. She pointed me to a street on the map, about 15 minutes away by car.

This was the first time I have driven in Europe without a navigator in the passenger seat. My poor sense of direction is well known. Fortunately, I did a passable job of getting to where I wanted to go. Even merged successfully into a traffic circle with a rush-hour backup.

About three-quarters of the way to my destination, it occurred to me that I had left the hotel without my wallet. No money, and, more importantly, no driver's license. Great. I instantly slowed down, having visions of mammoth fines and some time in a Sienese jail (wonder how the food is?).

I parked the car along the road--no way to know if it was a legal spot--and headed down the road. Within a minute, it was clear that the path was less than ideal for jogging. Narrow sidewalks meant I would have to step onto the road periodically, not something I was anxious to do given the many blind curves and erratic driving habits here. There probably were suitable side streets to take, but with no map, no money, no ID, and no Italian, I did not want to stray too far from the car for fear of losing it forever.

Giving up, I headed back to the car, clutched the steering wheel, and by some miracle found my way back to the general vicinity of the hotel. Had to go into the hotel to ask again for directions to its parking lot, but all in all I was pretty proud of myself for not accidentally winding up in Florence.

June 14, 2004

Dinner with other Rick Steves readers

Dinner at Osteria di Tamburino, a Rick Steves-guidebook-approved restaurant that turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the hotel. We've learned to trust his recommendations, but you can always tell from the clientele that other people have his book and swear by it. We're not really trying to be part of the club, but he hasn't steered us wrong yet. That must be why he has his following.

Anyway, the food was surprisingly good, and just 37 euros ($41) for two pastas, two vegetables, two 0.75 liter bottles of water, 1/4 liter of wine, dessert and two coffees. The coffees were probably unnecessary. In Italy, caffé means espresso, and what exactly is the point of decaf espresso?

The rain has stopped, so we're headed out for a short walk before an early night. We originally planned to leave Siena in the morning to see the countryside, but we like it so much here, we're going to spend most of the day here before heading to Florence.

A day in Siena

Not much to post today, other than we had yet another very nice day. Siena is a great city. It was the chief rival of Florence in medieval times, but the plague of the 1360s killed off most of Siena's population. It ensured that Florence would become the far more famous place and inherit many more American tourists.

The city--walled, like Montepulciano--is charming, with its original medieval layout intact. The hills are very steep, considerably more so than San Francisco. The two focal points are the Duomo, Siena's impressive church, which was originally conceived to be bigger than St. Peter's; and Il Campo, the town square, which is our favorite of the trip so far. Last night, we sat on the fountain steps and watched the people go by. We did the same at lunchtime today while eating a couple of slices of prosciutto and mozzarella pizza.

As the rain clouds approached, we thought it would be a good time to visit the Duomo. The church was very impressive, highlighted by the elaborate tiled floor, the numerous statues and artworks, and the side library of 15th-century liturgical music books. We followed the audio guide tour and spent about 90 minutes there.

When we left, the rain still hadn't come, but the weather looked even more ominous then before. So we headed back to the hotel, ducking into a local food shop to try a slice of Panforte, a Sienese fruit bread and local dessert specialty.

Back to the hotel to check email, relax, decide when we'll have to go to a laundromat, and plan for dinner.

June 13, 2004

June 13, 2004: In Toscana

Another early alarm this morning, this time to get the car and make sure we could leave Rome without killing ourselves and others. I was pretty nervous about driving here because we saw how others do it. It turned out to be no problem at all. We left the hotel by 9:20, and, it being Sunday morning, there wasn't much traffic. For the first few blocks of our drive, Janene caught me using the turn signals when changing lanes. This probably made the evening news in Rome. In our previous three days here, we didn't see a single other person using the turn signals. Until we got our car, we didn't even know the cars here had turn signals.

So we were on our way to Tuscany, stopping at several rest stops on the Autostrade that put ours to shame. Several had whole rooms devoted to fresh meats and cheeses. The food is far better than you would ever expect to find while on the move.

Driving in Italy does not seem like a big deal, although it will take another day or two for us to get completely used to driving habits here. Italians are not fond of, shall we say, the lane system. On the winding back roads, the cars swerve, tailgate, and generally drive on whichever side of the street suits them most at the moment. Their preference changes often. Even the cars approaching you are likely to share your lane until the last possible moment.

The first Tuscan town we stopped in was Montepulciano. IMG_0760We meant to spend an hour or so there. We ended up spending about three. Known for its wine, Montepulciano is a classic hill town, a walled city that got its start in medieval times. The city has an ancient and somewhat forbidding feel to it, perhaps reflecting its origins during a relatively barbarous period of history. Yet the town now was filled with interesting shops, wine tasting rooms, and restaurants, providing it with an attractive blend of old and new. We really enjoyed our time here, as well as our pizza lunch.

A bit further down the road, we stopped in Pienza, a Renaissance town with a much lighter feel to it but equally delightful. By the time we got there, it was late afternoon, and many of the locals were out, headed into town for a stroll before church. We found a nice cafe overlooking the Tuscan hills and enjoyed the view.

We did the remainder of the drive to Siena and arrived around 6. We drove through the walls of the city and, just a block from the hotel, found ourselves stuck behind an unexpected parade, unable to go further for another 10 minutes until it passed. The parade, IMG_0779we later discovered, was part of a summerlong celebration of the Palio, a big Sienese horse race that takes place twice a year. The town is divided into 17 different regions, each representing a different neighborhood, each represented by distinct colors and an individual flag. On Sundays between June and December, several of the neighborhoods march around the town to a drum cadence. It's a very festive atmosphere. The parade, which we joined on its second go-around, was for the Civetta neighborhood, which has instantly become our favorite part of town. We're hoping the results of the Palio (twice every summer) get posted on the internet so we can cheer them on.

The evening ended with a very nice dinner at Taverna del Capitana. The pasta was the best we've had yet on our trip.

Tomorrow we'll explore Siena in greater depth. It's supposed to rain quite a bit tomorrow, so it may end up being an inside day.

June 12, 2004: Last full day in Rome

We woke up early on Saturday. Our plan was to see the Roman Forum in more depth, but to do it early before the crowds made doing so unpleasant. We were out the door by 7:45, had a traditional cappuccino and croissant at the bar of a cafe (standing is half the price of sitting down) and made it to the ruins by 8:40, 20 minutes before the gates opened. At 9, we wandered in and followed our guidebook tour until 10:30, when the crowds were thickening.

Afterwards, we walked up to Campidoglio and sat in a nice courtyard, watching several wedding parties at a popular Roman photo-op. Next stop was the Pantheon. On our way was the Vittori Emanuele Monument, which in its basement museum had a photo exhibit devoted to the Allies' liberation of Rome from the Nazis in 1944. The exhibit was surprisingly wonderful. The first appeal was the air conditioning, but our planned five minutes there took more than 30, and easily could have lasted two hours. It was especially nice to see photos of places that we had seen during just the past two days, and that have barely changed at all in the last 50 years.

The Pantheon was next, and it was amazing to be in a building that's pushing 2,000. The building was spared destruction because of its use as a Christian church when Rome fell. The other Roman sites are magnificent, but you have to use your imagination a lot when you look at them. The Pantheon, however, is still a functioning building, with even the floors still intact.

Next was lunch from Antica Solumeria, a very good grocery right on the Pantheon square. We ate sandwiches and drank Fanta sitting in the columned entryway to the Pantheon.

Then, gelato at Giolitti's the elusive gelateria we had missed the previous night. It was worth the wait. The selection was large and included the standards; every fruit flavor imaginable (including blackberry, raspberry, pineapple); and more unique flavors such as rice, caramel, Cappuccino, and Grand Marnier. We ordered small cones, which were still large enough to include three flavors and topped with whipped cream.

Back to the hotel around 2:30 for a nap and to check email. Then, it was time for my run, which required a great deal of motivation on my part, especially considering how much my feet hurt from our miles of walking the previous two days. Once I got going, it was really enjoyable. Instead of using the treadmill, I ran through the Villa Borghese, past the museum of the same name, past the zoo, and a ways around the perimeter of the park. I was reluctant to stray too far from the outer edge of the park because I knew I would get lost otherwise. The streets were closed to cars, so I was able to run past tourists and locals alike, out for a weekend late-afternoon stroll.

For dinner, we took the long walk to the Campo d'Fiori, and had a wonderful dinner at the guidebook-recommended Ostaria da Giovanni ar Gelletto on the nearby Piazza Farnese.

Afterwards, a stroll through the Campo d'Fiori, the least touristed place we have seen on our short Roman holiday. While there were still plenty of other tourists, this was the first time where we felt we were seeing Italians on their own turf. And as a result, the place was chaotic. Lots of bustle, lots of noise, lots of hand gesturing.

Though fun, we didn't stay long. We walked along the Tiber, back to the Campidoglio and down the steps to see the Roman ruins at night. Many were more disappointing than we expected-we just didn't see a great vantage point. But the Colosseum was beautiful at night. We sat for about an hour and then took the Metro ride back to the hotel.

Tomorrow again will be an early morning. We leave Rome via car, which, having seen the way Romans drive, makes us very nervous. The plan is to depart before the traffic gets heavy.

We'll miss Rome a lot. But this city, as beautiful as it is, takes a lot of patience. It's probably for the best that we're leaving before it runs out.

June 12, 2004

June 11, 2004

Long, hot, frustrating day yesterday…and we made the best of it. We started by taking the Metro to Vatican City, hoping, along with every tourist who wasn’t at the Colosseum and Roman Forum, to see the Sistine Chapel. When we arrived at around 10:20, the line into the Vatican Museum was longissimo.

At first we were irritated that it would take so long to get in, then we were relieved to see how quickly it the line was moving. Then we soon became irritated again as we tried to find the end of the line and saw that it looked like one of those Renaissance artist studies in perspective in which the line seems to go to infinity. Our irritation eventually turned into amuseument and disbelief, as we realized just how long the line was and that there was no force of nature that could convince us to wait on the shade-free sidewalk under a baking sun. Peak tourist season doesn’t officially begin for a few more weeks; we can’t imagine how much more crowded Rome can get.

So…a quick change of plans later, we headed into Popeland to see St. PetersIMG_0714, whose line was kind of long but, under the circumstances, suddenly quite manageable to us. Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Square) is beautiful and looks exactly like the images from television. It’s enormous, as is the focal point, St. Peters Church. As our Rick Steves guidebook says, “To call it vast is like calling God smart.”

The interior is cavernous; the gold-lined ceilings are incredibly opulent; every wall up to the very high ceiling is filled with priceless art and sculpture (especially Michelangelo’s “Pieta," which, to our untrained eyes, seemed much better than the other sculpture, much more alive); the floor is entirely of magnificent marble.

As beautiful as the church is, it’s also a bit much, apparently designed to inspire awe in the power of the papacy as much as in God. If we were Catholic perhaps we would feel differently, but other European churches we have been to—Chartres comes to mind—have felt much more religious and spiritual. Of course, it’s hard to create an atmosphere of religiosity among thousands and thousands of picture-snapping tourists.

We left St. Peters, walked by some nuns on their cell phones (who are they calling, their broker?), consulted our map (an important theme on this trip), and headed to lunch nearby at Vito e Dina, a cheap restaurant we had seen in an article in the online Los Angeles Times. There was no mistaking the place once we got there; Dino was out front, proudly pointing to the article on the front window and announcing its presence to every passerby. He was a stereotypical Italian character, and the restaurant was a real find. Great food and quite inexpensive. The bruschetta was of particular note. I do not eat tomatoes. I do not like being near tomatoes. But when in Rome… Not only did I like the tomato-topped bread, I wish I had more of it right now as I type.

We figured we’d head back to the hotel via the museum, and go in if the line was more manageable. It was, less than half the length as before. So we decided to give it a try, chatting with a couple of newly graduated Stanford students enjoying a five-week trip through Europe. We felt quite old by comparison.

We followed the sign to the Sistene Chapel, got to where we thought it was, looked upward a lovely ceiling that looked somewhat familiar, and thought it was very nice but a bit underwhelming. We remarked how it seemed so much emptier of tourists than we had expected. It took us about five minutes to realize that we were not seeing the Sistene Chapel (we’re very quick). We saw some additional signs, followed them, and proceeded through a long series of rooms, at least a dozen, any of which could have temporarily been the Sistene Chapel as far as we were concerned. Each of these rooms was progressively more crowded, filled with amazing art that would have been much easier to appreciate were we not joined by so many other fellow travelers.

The crowds and claustrophobia only got worse. We proceeded single file down a long, hot staircase into the Sistene Chapel (for real). It’s magnificent. But at the end of a long, sweaty day, on aching feet, among several thousand tourists in a room that would have been crowded with several hundred, we just weren’t in the mood. We stayed for about 15 minutes and wondered what the masterpiece would have looked like under quieter circumstances.

Headed to the Metro, we got very lost, yet again. A nice older couple pointed is in the proper direction. Every time we veered from their instructions, they shouted disapprovingly from behind, caught up with us, and pointed us in the way they would have preferred us to go. Eventually, we took a hot Metro ride back to the hotel for a quick power nap.

Around 7, we left for a nice Friday evening stroll among the Italians and other tourists in their finery. Started in the Villa Borghese, sat in the Piazza del Poppolo, down Via Corso. We ended up at the Spanish Steps and, hungry (it was 9 pm; late by our standards, early by Italians’), looked for a restaurant. It’s always a mistake to look for food when you need food, at least if you’re hoping for someplace unique. We can’t remember the name of where we ended up, and the food was just as forgettable. The giant squawking parrot by the kitchen (don’t they have health codes?) was the main memorable part of the evening, along with the couple from Tampa sitting next to us and, minutes before they were to be served, asked us how our meal was. How do you answer that question?

We walked back home, hoping to pass Giolitti’s, a famous gelateria we had read about and passed the previous night. It was nowhere to be found. At no time during our trip have we set out to find something and ended up there as planned the very first time. After about two miles of walking, we finally admitted to ourselves that we had no idea where the place was (and later discovered it wasn’t even in the same neighborhood). Instead, we just got gelato at a reasonably nice spot near the Trevi Fountain, sat, ate, people-watched, walked back to the hotel, got lost on a walk we had already done once before, finally made it to our room, and collapsed.

June 11, 2004

A full day of Ancient Rome

Though I wrote this entry throughout the day, it’s getting posted all at once. There’s no in-room internet access here, so we’re not able to get online as often as we thought we would.

***

A good night’s sleep left us refreshed, though more disoriented. The second day of getting used to a big time change always seems to be the hardest.

***

I woke up early, at 7:30, for a quick run on the treadmill. (The Chicago Marathon isn’t planning to run itself!) Fortunately, there were only two other Americans in the gym. But I’m being redundant. Almost everyone in the hotel, except for the staff, seems to be American. It feels like an extension of the U.S. Embassy down the street. The familiarity is comforting, but we are definitely giving up something in local flavor. Had we not been staying here for free, we probably would have chosen a different place. The hotel is great, though. Very comfortable beds; very nice service; great gym; beautiful building, inside and out.

Headed out shortly to see the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and lots of other highlights of Western Civ 101.

***

The first view from the Colosseum Metro station is awe-inspiring. You emerge from the dark station, and there it is, right in front of you. It’s bigger and taller than you imagine. It’s dirtier than you imagine. And it’s just as impressive as you imagine.

Then you notice how chaotic everything is. Every ten feet or so, a local asks you, “Do you speak English?” When you answer yes—you learn not to answer at all—they try to book you on their Colosseum tour. The impromptu tour operators are not as aggressive as the gladiatorsIMG_0676, who, dressed in their full imperial garb, will pose in pictures with you for a not-so-small fee.

The line to get into the Colosseum was very long and probably would have taken us over an hour to reach the front. We remembered from our Rick Steves guidebook that the ticket office to the Palatine Museum offers a combination ticket that includes admission the Colosseum. There was only one person in front of us. It was definitely the right choice, and not just because it saved us time. The ruins surrounding the museum and the grounds were very impressive, and we had them largely to ourselves. We then proceeded past the Roman Forum, and those ruins were more than impressive.

Some things just defy description, and this part of Rome fits into that category. The combination of its great age, immense scale, and historical importance connects you to the past in a way that almost nothing else could.

***

After wandering through the Roman Forum ruins, we searched in vain for a nearby restaurant mentioned in our guidebook. This is a very difficult city to navigate. We ended up grabbing a sandwich and slice of pizza at a “Gastronomia” truck near the Roman Forum. The food wasn’t bad, better than you’d expect from a truck in a tourist neighborhood.

***

We went back to the Colosseum to check out the interior, and ran into a young couple who had taken for us earlier in the day. They mentioned that an English-language tour was available at 3. Unfortunately, the guide’s English was lacking, and we did not get much out of the experience.

Back to the hotel via a hot, sweaty, crowded ride on the Metro. Deciding where to go for dinner.

***

Crossing the streets in Rome is intimidating. The streets are wide, the cars (and Vespa scooters) drive very fast, and no one really pays much attention to the traffic signals. Today we figured out the secret to crossing like a local. You just have to show the drivers that you can’t be intimidated. When you want to go, you just go. They’ll speed up at first, just to see if you can be cowed. When they see you can’t be, they’ll stop grudgingly and let you proceed. The alternative is to wait for an opening, but those don’t seem to come around very often.

***

This is the part where I would tell you about all the interesting things we did at night -- a stroll past the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, getting lost on the way to the Pantheon, dinner at Pizzeria Bufetto, a tartufo in Piazza Navona at Tre Scalina. Unfortunately, I lost all of it when my computer crashed (I thought Macs are stable!?). If I can, I'll update the text later. But you may just have to imagine our lovely evening.

June 09, 2004

We're here. And we're tired.

We made it to Rome, safe and sound. This will not necessarily be a very coherent update. We are very, very tired from the long day, night, and day of travels.

Our flight out of O’Hare was delayed an hour while they resolved some maintenance issues. While the flight was otherwise uneventful, it did cause us to miss our connecting flight out of Brussels. This gave us an extra 90 minutes to kill in the airport there—a very nice airport, though if you ever find yourself there, you’ll definitely want comfortable walking shoes for the exceedingly long hallways. The 90 minutes was barely enough time, however, to straighten out the mess caused by confusion between American Airlines, Sabena, and Alitalia. Each one seemed to think the other was responsible for the lack of the appropriate sticker on our revised boarding pass. In the end, we made it on the flight with no problem, and arrived in Rome around 2 pm.

The trip between the airport and downtown Rome was effortless, a very easy 32-minute train ride. Finding a cab between the train station and our hotel was not effortless. We exited out the first exit we saw, which turned out to be a little-used alternate. This led us to a street filled with independents looking to coax you into their cabs. Not knowing how far away our hotel was, we had no interest in getting in a taxi and not having any confidence that the route taken was reasonably direct. After much confusion and investigation, we finally found an official taxi stand, and we werepleased with the €7 fare.

We arrived at our hotel, the Westin Excelsior, which is lovely. We highly recommend staying here for free, as we are, using our Starwood points. The Via Veneto neighborhood is on the touristy side, but since peak tourist season hasn’t quite begun, it is relatively manageable.

One nice feature of our location is our nearness to the Villa Borghese, a great “Central Park” of Rome. We walked through it briefly today and spent some time people-watching on a shady bench.

Headed back to the hotel for a quick change of clothes, only to find out that our bottle of wrinkle-release spray exploded after some not-so-delicate handling from the Transportation Security Administration. Indeed, my clothes weren’t wrinkled anymore, though they were awfully wet.

Dinner at a charming place, Santo Padre, recommended by our guidebook. The food was delicious, though in our jet-lagged state, the use of a verbal menu in broken English was a little intimidating. Everything was great, though, and we think the meals will be a highlight of our trip for the next several weeks.

Tomorrow we plan to do the Ancient Rome sights. Hoping a good night’s sleep will make them much more interesting.

June 02, 2004

Greetings! We have nothing to say yet.

Welcome to Italia 2004, a weblog devoted to Lee and Janene's Italy Experience. 14 days and nights in Rome, Florence, Venice, and points in between.

Nothing to report yet, as we won't actually leave Chicago for another six days. This blog will be much more interesting after we have, I don't know, actually gotten on a plane.

For our loyal past readers, you'll see some changes with this version of our travel blog. There's now a comment feature, which gives you the ability to share with the world your belief that we seem to be having a perfectly lovely time. I'm also hoping that we can add photos, which will take some pressure off of us to supply consistently witty and interesting commentary.

Finally, the standard disclaimer: We make no promises that we will keep this up. If posting is sparse, assume we are having an amazing time, can't find a internet connection, or have decided to do as the Italians do and go on strike.

More next week.