Italy Trip

Italy Trip – August, 2010

Beginning with champagne

Beginning with champagne

The silence is broken only by the whir of a small fan stirring the still air around me. It is 2:30 in the morning and I am wide awake. My natural rhythms are completely out of sync after traveling for over 20 hours to arrive here in Siena, Italy. The evening is warm but much cooler than when we arrived this afternoon.  Temperatures dropped after dark but still too warm to even need a sheet to sleep and I’ve already had enough sleep for today

My favorite shop

My favorite shop

Our vacation begins in even more chaos than our normal trips. Tuesday. Aug. 10, we are still unsure of where we are going. Flying standby requires flexibility and patience but we usually have a better idea a little further in advance than this time. By Tuesday morning we are still inclined toward Italy but the flights aren’t working out as planned so we explore Spain. Having been to Madrid and Toledo already we thought somewhere in the south like Cadiz or Seville would be fun. I explore various hotels and eventually find everything to be very full and then the train turns out to cost much more than we anticipated, so Spain is out. Next we look at England, but we have been many times already and the goal is to explore as much of the world as possible. Then we look at a possible return to Portugal. We loved Porto and claim it our second favorite destination so far, after Greece (flights were full to Athens as well). We talk with my brother, Dustin, and get excited over his descriptions and recommendations for the medieval town of Siena. Finally we come back around to Italy.near our hotel

The flights to Rome are worked out by departing Phoenix at 5:30 am and having a 5 hour connection in Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte is another place we really enjoyed when we lived there for a year but 5 hours in the airport is not that pleasant. The pieces begin to fall into place.

Generally we like to fly First Class as another of the perks of working for an airline but although there are lots of seats on the plane to Charlotte, first class is full. So the day begins with a four hour flight in coach, then a five hour layover before finally boarding the flight to Rome. This flight is wide open in first class and we enjoy the much more comfortable seats and attentive service of Envoy class for the next 8.5 hrs. Our flight attendant, Bob, is attentive without being intrusive. We actually sleep quite a bit on the flight, although intermittently, and feel quite refreshed on our arrival at the Leonardo Di Vinci (Fiumicino) airport on the outskirts of Rome.Our Siena room

As we wind our way through the airport (surprisingly small for such a busy hub), we finally arrive at immigration. A young, dark-haired, typically good looking, Italian Immigration agent does not even look at us, let alone smile.  He reaches for our passports; one Canadian and one US. He doesn’t even open them but just picks them up and drops them back down for us with a wave of his hand to proceed. He definitely didn’t have his espresso yet this morning. Next is a long walk to baggage claim and past security at the customs area where the sign says “Proceed unless you have something to declare”.

It is easy to find the trains, just follow the signs with the picture of a train.  We embark on a one hour ride into the center of Rome (about 16 Euros for us both), find the bus station and then, after a 1.5 hr. wait, get on the bus to Siena (about 22 Euros per person). The bus is more efficient than the train, since the train goes first to Florence, change trains and then to Siena. Finally a three hour bus ride through beautiful rolling hills covered in trees, sunflower fields, corn fields and vineyards brings us to Siena.

This medieval town, perched on a hilltop, is actually closer to Florence than to Rome which suits our purposes for a planned day trip. As the bus winds up the hill, the modern town slowly turns into the winding narrow streets and ancient buildings we are expecting. A short walk from the ‘end of the line’ bus station brings us to our hotel, the Albergo Cannon D’Oro. This hotel is centrally located on Via Montanini, about 200 meters from the Piazza del Campo (in the center of town) and very close to the bus station. Until 1262, it was a former palace owned by the noble Bulgarini family. Afterwards the building was owned by Ghinibaldo di Saracino and his wife Sapia Salvani, featured in Dante’s “Divine comedy” (Canto XIII, Purgatory). The old Ponzi’s tower can be seen in the Hotel’s facade. The hotel was recommended to us by the folks at the Albergo Bernini Hotel which was highly recommended by Dustin and Laurie but unfortunately unavailable during our time.

The room is very basic but clean and functional with a private bath and suits our preference for something unique as opposed to luxurious. The biggest drawback; the three floors we  walk up and down to our room. No lift in this hotel. We drop our luggage and go for a stroll around the streets.

Almost right next to our hotel we found Ristorante Vitti. Definitely a family owned and operated restaurant with outdoor seating and friendly, efficient service. I am not normally a big pasta fan but when in Italy…… My house special of tagliatelle with saffron and ham in delicious cream sauce is outstanding. Steven chooses spaghetti marinara and a bottle of local wine completes our first ‘taste of Italy’. We finish with a unique, ice cream type tiramisu and an espresso. Hence I am up at 2:30am writing, with a battery about to die.

My battery is done and our converter does not have the correct adapter for Italy it seems so shopping will top my list tomorrow.

Our exploration of Siena begins with wandering the medieval streets full of unique shops looking for an electronics store to buy a converter. The hotel has several, none of which fit my laptop but we enjoy searching the colorful, crammed shops and continue on until we find the Siena Duomo.

The Siena Duomo (Cathedral) beginnings are not well known, seeming to originate in the 9th or 10th century but not well documented until about 1058. Soaring heights, graceful arches and majestic yet slender, black and white striped columns evoke the Gothic feel while maintaining a lightness of clean, linear lines that is particularly Siena. As with most European cathedrals construction occurred and design changed with numerous commissions for different areas and decorations over a couple of centuries. The stained glass circular window above the choir is exquisite and the cathedral houses early works of Michelangelo and Donatello. See the attached pictures and go to http://www.sacred-destinations.com/italy/siena-duomo for historical details.

Siena is also known for its famous bare-backed horse race, the Palio. Begun in the 17th century this race was used to settle disputes between the 17 districts or Contrades of the city. There are two races, one in July and one in August. Each with its own symbol and colors, the streets throughout the different districts of the city flourish with flags and emblems of their Contrade. You cannot ‘become’ a member of a Contrade but are born and baptized into the club. Everyone born in Siena wears the special scarf of their Contrade during this week. Although there are many scarves and flags in the shops showing the symbols and animal of each Contrade, the scarf worn by the members is unique and can easily be told apart from those for sale. In the days leading up to the race the young men (closely followed by many young women) roam the streets in groups singing special songs. The songs all have a couple of basic melodies but they change the words to sing about their horse, their pride, and their enemies and of course, the most important of all; Love. The spectacle of flags and banners waving from the ancient buildings and roaming young men with excellent, powerful voices ringing through the narrow streets feels as if you are living in medieval times.

The Piazza del Campo, the central plaza, is where the race is run. It is what we would call a very short ‘bush’ track. On this day they are drawing lots to see which 10 of the 17 Contrades will race on Monday. Thousands of people crowd the plaza, generally grouped in their Contrade, to cheer on the selection and hope for their horse to be picked. The judges are seated at a long table with a variety of clerks and officials in medieval costume. Next to them the horses line up with their jockeys and two large scoreboards display the names of the horses as they are chosen, to the thunderous cheers of their Contrade. After the selection is finished, the clubs march through the streets, with their horse, singing the praises of their animal and their club, winding their way to the church of their neighborhood. If the horse acts up when he is taken into the church it is considered a sign of good luck for the race.

After all this excitement we decide a rest and a bite to eat is in order and find a little café called La Taverna di Cecco on Via Cecco Angiolieri, a small side street up from the Campo. The picnic tables are along the building wall on the street. They are sitting on small platforms built to even out the steep incline of the street and are covered with large umbrellas. We order a Panini and a bottle of house wine (generally a Chianti in this area) and enjoyed a beautiful dish (see picture). The Panini consisted of wedges of cantaloupe, slices of Italian bread spread with a variety of toppings; humus, red pepper spread, diced tomatoes and basil, and three kinds of prosciutto.

As we complete our lunch a sudden rainfall forces us inside to finish our wine and we are treated to a whole new place to explore. This building is 1,002 years old and full of niches set into the walls housing historical icons, simply covered by a plate of plexi-glass to protect them. A nice conversation with a British couple and the owner of the Tavern round out our luncheon.

By now the rain stops and we are back wandering the streets, constantly attracted to the rousing singing. A group of young people are sprawled on the edge of a street, with bottles of wine and plastic cups, singing about their champion and all wrapped in the black and purple colors with the Owl as their Contrade symbol. I stop to take a picture and enjoy their enthusiastic singing and then suddenly realize they are singing in English. “No pictures, just money!” The leader, Hoboka? (sorry about the misspelling) brings wine and a glass and is leading the singing right to me as I fumble for change in my purse. Steven is on the sidelines laughing at them teasing me but finally comes to my rescue with some change. Hoboka offers us wine and tells us they are collecting money to continue partying until the race. His friend Danielle also comes over and they explain some of the story and celebration. Their horse won last year, the jockey passed up the mount of another horse to stay with theirs and their ‘enemy’, the Unicorn club was not chosen to run this year so confidence is very high. Down the street a bit we find a market and buy two more bottles of wine to bring back to the singers and they invite us to attend their Contrade dinner that night.

They take us to buy tickets and show us where to return for the dinner in about an hour.  We quickly return to our hotel to change and meet them back on the appointed street. There are two rows of tables stretching about 3 blocks along one of the narrow streets, blocked off at either end and dinner is prepared and served by local volunteers. This dinner is part of the tradition and is occurring in each Contrade that night. Bottles of red and white wine are set along the tables about every 5 ft. and plastic cups, plates and silverware are laid out. Our hosts reminded us this is not a restaurant and that food will come eventually. Meanwhile everyone is mingling, talking and singing. The young men sit together in the middle of the tables and kindly seated us with the girls nearby. At the very farthest ends of the tables were the children. The girls, Daniele, Deborah, Silvia and Falada (I am sure I spelled this wrong, sorry) were all from different areas, not part of this Contrade, and were studying archeology at the Siena University. Since a big part of their singing is about love, we are constantly serenaded as the boys surround the girls and sing to them and generally flirt and play, all night long. Dinner is an Italian home-cooked dinner beginning with penne pasta in a marinara sauce, then two other dishes in succession that are unlike anything we have had before. One is, I think, artichoke wrapped with chicken. We finish with a fruit cup dessert. The wine is continuously replenished and the singing continues throughout the evening. It is a very special experience to be able to share a traditional, special evening with a great group of people and we thank them for their hospitality. (See picture)

The next day the town continues to fill with more and more people coming for the race. As we are out walking it starts to rain. The crowds thin out a bit as people dash for cover but we keep walking and eventually arrive at the Basilica di San Francesco. Here we spend the rest of the afternoon enjoying the creations of a variety of 13 – 16th century artists and sculptors.

Running back though the still pouring rain we thankfully duck into our Ristorante Vitti to dry out and have dinner. Tonight is our typical starter of pasta, followed by whole prawns steamed in garlic and veal scalopini. Delicious! We ended our evening with espresso. Steven tried Amaré while I sampled the Grappa.  The crowds are still growing so we decide to get up early and move on to Florence instead of staying for the race.

Florence: Decided not to stay in Siena for the races but moved on to Florence as there is much here Steven wants to see . The temperatures are high and we are trying to escape the heat. I am soooo glad we moved on. Siena was an incredible experience, particularly being a small part of the Palio, but we  exhausted the churches and art that is Steven’s passion. So on to Firenze!

The train to Florence is about 1.5 hrs, even with stops at several small stations, and cost 12.50 Euros for the two of us. I found a hotel the night before on Trip Advisor rated #23 out of about 496, even though it only showed as a one star. The Hotel Fiorita, on Via Fiume, is about a 5 minute walk from Santa Maria Novella, the last station on this train route. ( http://www.hotelfiorita.com/description.htm)

On the third floor, but with a typically European lift, it is beautiful! Twenty foot ceilings with incredible crown moldings and ceiling medallions, a large room with wardrobe, desk, private bath and a double bed. It even has a great little balcony and air-conditioning. The front desk is manned 24 hours and the staff is awesome. Roberto in particular helps me with the internet and booking our room in Rome for the last two nights. He calls, makes the reservation, and gives us a hand written receipt.  He also promises a call to ensure we have no problems when I raise the question of a couple of less than stellar reviews about the property. He says it is owned and operated by the same people as this hotel so should be just as good and it is a two star and this is only a one star. You could have fooled me!

We buy tickets on the red “City Sightseeing” Hop on Hop off bus and ride around the city to get a feel for where everything is located and then dinner at a very contemporary little restaurant right beside Brunelleschi’s Dome. The basilica is already closed but we walk  around the outside and wander the streets a bit before turning in for the night.

In the morning we begin with Santa Croche where Michelangelo, Maccavelli, and Galileo (among others) are buried. There is a tribute to Dante, although he is actually buried elsewhere, along with many works of art and a lot of history, all quaintly described on the audio text you get for a couple of Euros.  I recommend you listen to these audio presentations as the stories really bring the period to life. Next is Steven’s priority in Florence; to see Brunelleschi’s Dome. We spend the morning at the Basilica. Steven has been teaching about this structure for 27 years and it is an incredible experience for him to see it in person. The dome was an incredible architectural invention at the time.  Even though the line is very long to climb to the top and his intrinsic fear of heights makes him shy away, Steven is willing to have a go at the climb.  Fortunately the long line is not moving very quickly so we decide to save it for another time.

By the afternoon we are a little worn out so decide to get our money’s worth from the 24 hour pass we purchased on the City Sightseeing Bus. (22 Euros per person for 24 hrs) We take the outlying region tour in order to get an overview and see the sights. We discover Fiesore! What a beautiful spot and next time we are here we will definitely spend at least a day and dinner in this beautiful location at the top of a mountain, overlooking Florence. In the 19th century many Brits restored old homes and castles to their prior glory and planted incredible gardens and trees. Specifically they planted many Cypress trees to create the dream of romanticism of the time. It is truly a beautiful spot and if it wasn’t already  so late in the day we would have stayed for awhile.

We come back to our lovely room for our typical afternoon siesta and about 9pm go out to dinner. We enjoyed our dinner so much the night before we decide to go to the same spot again. We have to wait for a table but it is well worth the time! Tonight we decide to share so we can sample more flavors. Our starter is crostini’s with chicken pate’ and topped with a pea. Next we share the spaghetti air tuttie de la mare. The mussels are amazing! The aroma and flavor of garlic permeate the mussel and it is an incredible burst of flavor in my mouth. This from someone who declares they do not like mussels. There are also clams and a very small amount of fish of some sort. Paired with the homemade spaghetti there is not description that can truly do it justice. Next we have the Osccobucco! Every dish has truly amazing flavors and the same outstanding service as the night before. Paired with the local house wine and finished with a delicious espresso, it is truly an excellent dinner for about E50 total. Trattoria La Madia on Via del Giglio, www.ristorantelamadia.com

Finally it is to bed for tonight….David tomorrow, then off to Roma!

Well we don’t get to see “David”.  The museum is closed today but we do manage to go shopping on the Ponte Vecchio. My beautiful gold earrings are a joy to purchase.  The shop owners lock the door and are ‘closed’  dedicating all their attention to us while I try on a variety of beautiful gold jewelry before finally making a choice. Steven also finds a unique onyx ring with a small silver bar, centered by a small diamond at the Zoppini Store in the Piazza Stazione. I love this ring! When the sun or evening lights hit it on an angle it shows the most amazing deep blue fire.

Rome:  Trains run about every half hour beginning at 5:30am so we do not have any trouble catching one at 8:00am. The choices are the ‘fast train’ taking 1.5 hrs or the local train that stops everywhere, taking 4 hours. We opt for the slightly more expensive ‘fast train’ (44 Euros per person).

The Hotel Nardizzi Americano, booked for us by Roberto, is conveniently close to the Rome Termini station and right across from the Ministry of Defense building and their beautiful garden. The hotel is on the Fourth floor this time, fortunately with a lift. The halls and breakfast terrace are very beautiful. The room is much smaller than the one in Florence but still with the high ceilings and the French Doors to our little balcony. The room is very clean and has the most comfortable bed of any of our hotels on this trip.

The afternoon is spent doing our usual ‘round the city’ on the Hop On Hop Off Bus (save your receipts from one city and you get a 10% discount at the next). With only one full day in Rome I am happy we are able to have really good views of the Coliseum, Circus Maximus and several other spots we don’t have time to actually visit. We walk about at length looking for the Spanish Steps and a place for dinner that night but eventually find signs leading to the Trevi Fountain instead. It is beautiful but very crowded so we take some pictures and start heading back in the direction of our hotel looking for a dinner spot on the way. By some miracle Steven sees a small ristorante, surrounded by greenery, with outdoor seating (the only kind we choose) but there were no tables available. Louis, the Maître de of sorts, suggests we sit inside with an aperitif until a table becomes available. They provide us with glasses of champagne while we wait, for about 10 or 15 minutes, until a table is free. This is our extraordinary dinner we usually have on our last night in a country! Again, sharing dishes allows us to try more things so we begin with Mussels – Fisherman Style; steamed in a perfectly seasoned tomato and garlic broth. The most divine, tender, flavorful morsels I have ever tasted! Of course the usual delicious Italian breads were served, perfect for soaking up that precious broth. Our next course is fettuccini with porcini mushrooms and shrimp and then veal meatballs in a white, cognac sauce that are indescribable. Finally we have the most perfect tiramisu ever created!  An excellent bottle of Santa Christina Merlot, 2008 from Tuscany accompanies dinner and as usual we finish with espresso and a little Amaretto. Dinner is divine! Service is very good from our obviously expert and perfectionist waiter although his frustration with a new and inexperienced trainee was entertaining. Trattoria Tritone was established in 1800 as an old inn and is beautiful and unique in every way. http://www.trattoriatritone.com/english.html

The dinner is so excellent and our bodies so relaxed after the past week of constant walking that we decide on a short cab ride back to our hotel instead of our usual walk (about 7 Euros).

This morning it is off to spend the day seeing the Sistine Chapel and Vatican City. We ride the Hop on Bus and arrive about 9:30am to a line of two to three hours waiting to get into St. Peter’s Basilica. Fortunately we know to check if we are in the right line for what we want. I stay in line while Steven goes off to check. Not long after he leaves, a tour guide informs me this is the wrong line.  We should go through the arches and outside the city walls to the line for the Sistine Chapel. I don’t want to leave as Steven will never find me again in the crowds of people filling the huge piazza but I manage to spot him all the way across the huge space and finally make my way to him. We follow the directions outside the walls to get in another line that goes as far as we can see along the wall. It actually is only about 1.5 hrs. in line although it goes by quickly.  Entertainment is provided as various vendors come by selling fans, parasols, bottled water, hand bags, hats, and most anything else you could think of to buy. There are also people speaking every language, enticing us to bypass the lines and come on a guided tour instead (which we will do next time).

When we finally reach the entrance we head straight for the Sistine Chapel, not knowing that it is a very long and circuitous route meant for you to enjoy all the variety of sculptures and art in the museum, culminating at the chapel. We race by everything and eventually arrive in the Chapel itself.

I do not have words that can adequately describe the beauty and emotion of this place. For Steven, it was a most emotional moment to see firsthand the timeless works he has taught about for so long. We stay a long time and eventually even get a seat on the bench that surrounds the walls of the chapel so we can contemplate the incredible talent of Michelangelo in a little more comfort.  Steven gives me a complete lesson on each part of the ceiling and the fresco of the Last Judgment on the wall behind the Alter which enhances my understanding and enjoyment of the works. Finally, we work our way out and return to the beginning to go through the museum again and appreciate the many incredible works of art housed here. We spend about 7 hours and don’t even get to St. Peter’s as the lines and crowds continually grow worse though out the day.

By now we are completely spent and just want to have some dinner and an early night before leaving for the US in the morning. We stop at a great little place we found near our hotel for drinks and snacks called George Byron’s (yes Lord Byron) but the tables are all full. We do a little shopping as we walk along and Steven gets some great shirts and a pair of linen pants at a shop called Van Gogh’s. They even tailored his purchases in about 1 hr. before they closed since we are leaving early in the morning. Finally we find a spot with tables available and sink into the chairs for a bit of wine and food. We hadn’t looked at the name until after we sat down but it is an Irish Pub. Nothing on the menu is Irish so we end up with an interesting combination of a salmon brochette, a pasta dish and what they called a giant Wertzel, a German sausage. Although this is what we order, we are actually served an Italian sausage dish that is very good.

Back at the hotel we meet up with some very nice English folks (a couple from around Yorkshire and the man’s sister who lives in Australia) who we met at the lift earlier in the evening. They have several questions for Steven when they find out he is a professor and we chat a bit before parting ways. We all meet up again when we go back to the little terrace for a happy hour bottle of wine and end up having a wonderful conversation for a several hours.

My favorite things about every European country we visit, are meeting new people, spending hours over excellent food and enjoying long, pleasant and thought provoking conversations. I don’t miss TV or my computer for a second.

In the morning we check out and take a taxi to the train station, the train back to the airport and manage to find our way through the airport to our flight back to Philadelphia. After a 9.5 hour return flight we are jolted back to the hustle and bustle of North America. Sitting in a café in the airport while we wait for our connecting flight, my first thought is how noisy and busy and super fast paced everything is around us. TV’s are blaring, people are talking loudly all around us and the servers are flying through the crowd at rocket speed. We end up catching a flight straight back to Phoenix since the Milwaukee flight we intended to take is oversold. Finally, at about 11pm we are back in our own house. I do really enjoy my own bed and eggs for breakfast (something we couldn’t find in Italy) but I really miss the different pace and attitude toward life that we embraced in Italy.

We have been home for several days now and back at work but we still find everything too busy. I guess it’s time to start planning our next trip

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