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Italy 2016

After our successful city stay vacation in Madrid, we decided to do the same for Rome, but also with a quick stop in Florence and a day trip to Naples (our other planned day trip was thwarted by a train strike).  Though we’d both been to Rome several times before, this felt like a more relaxed way to really soak in the city, resulting in both of us liking it more than on previous trips.

If you know for certain days you’d like to travel by train for longer trips, you’ll bet better prices by booking online.  Gone are the days when it was tough to use a U.S. credit card with Trenitalia online, and now it’s quite simple.  Weekends often offer 2-for-1 tickets, and often a first class seat is only a few Euros more than 2nd class (and usually worth the extra), but you get the best deals by booking farther in advance.


Fly LHR to Pisa and then bus to Florence train station.  Classic bad signage and disorganization at Pisa Airport, and the bus service which advertised heavily online just a week ago is no longer in business.  Suggestion – go OUTSIDE the airport to the bus area and look for the outdoor kiosks there.  The booths inside the airport give you erroneous information (if they give you any at all).  Terrible traffic going into Florence.

It’s raining a little, but the Duomo is beautiful at night and glistening when wet.  Dinner at Le Cappelle Medici, near the Medici Chapels, where we had a discount (honored with no trouble) by booking through TripAdvisor, and we enjoyed the Florentine steak.

Florentine steak at Le Cappelle Medici restaurant.

Since we were last in Florence in 2009 it has gotten grittier, dirtier, less authentic (thought things are better in the Oltrarno on the other side of the river).  The onslaught of immigrants selling junk like selfie sticks is unbearable.

Our Hotel Rapallo is terrific – great service, clean, excellent location (walking distance to the train station and historic center), wonderful and varied breakfast.


It’s Monday, which means the Uffizzi and some other museums are closed.  Perhaps this puts a strain on the crowds at the Duomo, which now requires reservations in any season to climb Brunelleschi’s Dome.  We buy a ticket and get reservations for the afternoon.  The ticket includes admission to Giotto’s Bell Tower, the Baptistery, the Duomo Museum, and the Dome.

View of Brunelleschi’s Dome from atop Giotto’s Campanile. Climbing both on the same day is like an Ironman Stairmaster.

Perhaps climbing the bell tower and the Dome on the same day isn’t the most genius idea.  We’ll call it Day of 1,000 Steps.  Legs are a little sore for days.  Not sure if waiting in line for the Duomo was worth the time, but now it’s been done and we’re set for life.  The view from the Bell Tower is just as good (and since it in includes a view of the Dome itself is perhaps the better choice).

The ceiling of Brunelleschi’s Dome as seen from the inside of the Duomo.

The next day there’s no line at all for the Dome, so we were just unlucky.  The Duomo Museum is excellent and the exhibits are well interpreted.

Florence, and all of Italy, is strewn with lovely courtyards.

We walk across the river for excellent gelato, and en route we enjoy the walk across the Ponte Vecchio.

Throughout this trip Italians kept telling us bleak their economy is, how hopeless the future is there, how they’d like to emigrate to America…But who would like to leave these work hours? We tried to eat at this gelateria, but we didn’t manage to be there during any of their 28 hours work week. Luckily we found an even better place just across the Arno at Gelateria la Carraia.

The best gelato of the trip is at Gelateria la Carraia.  Their main shop is in the Oltrarno just over the Ponte alla Carraia but they have a smaller branch near the church of Santa Croce on Via dei Benci.

22 Nov-2016

Fortunately we went to the train station the night before to figure out where the bus stop is because there is nowhere to get information, no informative posters.  It is just hopeless, and the Tourist Info. Centre near the Duomo was also completely useless (friendly, but useless, and gave us wrong information). Took the #36 bus to the other side of the river to the 500 Driving Club to rent my vintage 1967 Fiat 500.  Windows down, roof  open, off we go around the countryside.

The Tuscan Countryside with a vintage Fiat 500.

Afternoon train to Rome, the high speed FreciaRossa. Walk to Mok’House, less than 10 minutes from Termini Station and near the hip Monti neighborhood.  Mok’House has a couple of apartments as well as a couple of B&B rooms.  Since the values are so great in low season we rent an entire, large apartment to ourselves.  We even have 2 bathrooms, and the kitchen and washing machine are a great help.  Our hostess is extremely nice, shows us area maps, and escorts us up to the roof terrace for a glass of wine and view of the dome and tower of Santa Maria Maggiore Church.  .

Piazza Barberini, during an passeggiata

In Monti we stop at Fafiuche, a Piemontese Wine and Beer Bar.  For 3 Euros you also get one plate from their aperitivi bar.  We also buy a Piemontese chocolate pudding, expensive but delicious.  Their wine list is fantastic.  We stop at one of many neighborhood markets for provisions for the week.


 Woke up 7:30, made eggs with rocket and ricotta.  Buffalo butter has a very strong taste.

Walk to the Colosseum.  Not too crowded because we get there as it opens.  We purchase the tix  which is combined entry with the Forum.  We took photos, annoyed by people with selfie sticks, tried to photobomb a Chinese guy.

Colosseo 1975 – 1st trip to Rome and 1st place ever visited in Europe, and already wearing criss cross purse for safety and comfort. A happy era without selfie sticks or smartphones.


Colosseo 2016 — 41 years later, still wearing a criss cross purse to protect it from thieves and for comfort.

Lunch at Enoteca Corsi, where we ate in 2009.  Very good but dry, sauteed pork with some sauce, and potatoes.  Cream and bacon pasta.  ½ liter wine.  We informed them that we ate there before and how we went to the sister restaurant owned by a niece, who they told us moved to Melbourne, Australia.  “A better place for all.”  We get this same tone with everyone we speak to – Italian morale is down (and just a week after our vacation ends Prime Minister Renzi loses his referendum and is out of office).

The Vittorio Emanuele Monument as seen from inside the Roman Forum.

Long walk across the river to get gelato and go see a corrupted saint.  We had wonderful gelato at Gelateria del Viale, but of course the Basilica of San Crisogono is close, so we don’t get to see the saint.  Witnessed 3 girls share a very large soft serve in a plastic cup with tiny crunch dots — they all shared the treat with no fear of cooties.

Gelateria del Viale.

Lots of walking through the center of Rome.  We must make a stop at the Pantheon, which has to be one of the 10 architectural wonders of the world.

Classic Roman meal at the excellent La Taverna die Fori Imperiali.  They do not take email reservations, so we made them in person the day before (and they are pretty much essential).  Excellent pasta Gricia, long cut noodles with sauce and pork bacon cheeks.   Also veal pockets, a thin slice of veal with marsala sauce and stuffed with gorganzla and coated with hazelnut pieces – delicious.  Next table over was a friend of the owner/chef.  An older man with skinny wife and 2 girls who looked like they are affluent and take 2 hours to get ready.  The older girl, maybe 14-15, looked like a Robert Palmer guitar girl.  The owner doted on them. Pity their father and future husbands because this was one heck of a high maintenance crew.

The plural of Cavallo is Cavalli: near the Capitoline Museum.

We pop into Madonna dei Monti church, which is small but seems to always be open and is a pleasant place for a rest (a few days later we’ll catch a little bit of a rehearsal for a Christmas concert which eventually turns into a typical Italian bickering match).  Gelato at the Monti branch of Fatamorgana, which is grossly overrated.


Knowing we’ll do a lot of moving around today we buy 1 day transport passes.  Metro to Vatican City and arrive at 8:20 a.m. – not everything is open but it is quiet and peaceful and we go straight into St. Peter’s without a wait.

Photographs not permitted on the Scavi Tour, but snap away as the Vatican Christmas Tree is prepped.

About 8 months ago we reserved and paid for tickets for the Scavi Tour, a tour of the necropolis under the Vatican.  In 2009 we failed to secure tickets 6 months in advance, but this time we got an English tour on Thanksgiving morning.  You can book online at their Uffici Scavi (Excavations Office) website.   They will email you back in a couple of days to confirm a tour time, and then you prepay the tickets online.  You MUST bring a printout of your confirmation on the morning of your tour to get past security.  It is totally worth the trouble (no photography allowed).  During excavations before WWII to find the Tomb of St. Peter they discovered these old pagan cemeteries.  Fascinating, and our excellent guide gives us a lot of information.  The tour ends inside the grottos with the tombs of the Popes and from there you can into St. Peter’s without waiting in line.  John Paul II’s tomb has been transferred into the Basilica now.

The Pyramid of Cestius.

Line B of the Metro down to Piramede station, in Testaccio neighborhood.  The Pyramid of Cestius was built around 100 a.d., when he left it in his will no tomb=no inheritance.  Now the Protestant Cemetery and its famous inhabitants are there along with a small troupe of cats (donation box for food inside)

One of the cats of the Pyramid and Protestant Cemetery.

We steal some ideas from a Testaccio Food Tour we heard about on Rick Steve’s weekend radio program.  We do a mini version of the tour on our own (thereby saving the 80Euros x 2 savings to spend on actual food), but we’d recommend the tour to those who don’t speak Italian or who aren’t sure what to order.   We arrived at Volpetti Piu just as one of the food tours arrives.    Amazing deep fried baccala and zucchini stalks.  The salesperson is an expert, letting us try cheeses and meats that we buy.

The waiter at Eataly criticizes my request for ice, claiming it will “ruin” the flavor of my beverage. As it is an orange soda — albeit an artisanal one — and not a fine wine, he eventually gives in to our American eccentricity of wanting a cold drink.

All over the metro stations are signs for Eataly, promising it is just “pocchi passi”  away.  A “few steps” turns out to be easily 1 KM, perhaps closer to 2, through the train station, but this place is huge.  4 floors.  We have lunch, grilled calamari and medium steak.  There’s no regular gelateria inside (except the Venchi one, which we don’t think is all that great), but we have the soft serve Alpine gelato, which is fresh and exquisite.  Upstairs at the cheese counter some old battle-axe has parked herself in front of a bowl of fresh cheese curds, and eating one cube every ½ minute  we have to put our arms in front of her to get some for ourselves.

Translation:  “Spreadable Creams.”  Nutella and many, many other chocolate/hazelnut spreads.

From there it is not too long of a walk to the Centrale Montemartini, an old power plant turned into a sculpture museum.

Fantastic conversion of an old power plant into a sculpture museum at the Centrale Montemartini.

I think we’re the only visitors in the whole place,  We see the private train cars of Pope Pius IX, a heartwarming doll with her trousseau found in a the tomb of a Roman girl, and of course all the sculpture.  This place is off the radar, and though that is a shame we relish the lack of crowds.

Centrale Montemartini.  Roman Face.

Thanksgiving night dinner with coworker friends who just happen to be in Rome to visit their junior year abroad son.  It is the peak of truffle season, and we go to Osteria Barberini, which specializes in truffle dishes.  The mixed seafood grill, fish fillet, and especially the truffle risotto and truffle pasta are all excellent.  We pass on dessert so that we can get some overpriced gelato near the Trevi Fountain.

Before we know it, it is midnight, starting to rain again, and the Metro is closed.  More and more people, smelling worse and worse, keep cramming in.  Luckily our ride is short, but all the pushing and shoving causes the loss of a hat (purchased near Yellowstone over the summer, so that is disappointing).



Tomb in San Giovanni in Laterano.

Persimmons for breakfast.  Strike today, so we are on foot since there is no public transportation. First stop is St Giovanni in Laterano Church and to see the Steps of Pontius Pilate.


Pilgrims climbing the steps of Pontius Pilate praying one prayer per stop.

A few blocks away on Via Tasso is the small Museum of the Liberation of Rome (WWII).  Well done and in the actual prison (like prisons we’ve seen in Germany, Romania, and the Baltics, the graffiti scratched into the walls by the prisoners is still there.  It is by donation.

Graffiti scrawled on one of the cell walls. Curiously it is written in English, perhaps in the hopes of Allied liberation.  Post-trip research tells us that General Simoni was incarcerated at Via Tasso on the day the Americans landed at Anzio.

On Via Merluna, near the corner of Via Machiavelli, is a gastronomic shop serving prepared meals and cheese, charcuterie, and other items so we stock up.  Lunch on Via Merluna at Ristorante da Nino, where we have an excellent spaghetti allo scoglio with fresh clams and mussels.

Spaghetti with fresh clams and fresh tomatoes.

Just a couple of blocks from our apartment is the Basilica of Santa Prassede (St. Praxedes), which has some of the oldest mosaics in Italy.  It’s like a little bit of Ravenna in the center of Rome.  You have to put in 1 euro to light the flood lights so all the wonder and gold glitter shows up.  We tell the elderly nuns admiring the flagellation pole of Christ to stick around and enjoy our Euro of light, and they thank us.

Looking fashionable in 1975. Have thrown many coins in the Trevi since then and have managed to return every decade since.  In those days cards could drive right up to the fountain, and there were no barriers around it.

Santa Maria Maggiore is a couple more blocks away, and though we’d been there in 2009 we didn’t recall having seen the tomb of St. Jerome and the Crypt of the Nativity (which contains a relic of the manger).  The small Eataly in the Piazza Repubblica has many of the same items, but at 25%-100% higher prices (the aranciata is double the price of the Piramide Eataly).  Still we have good pizza.  Walk home., do laundry,  put hazelnut spread in old prescription bottle for breakfast ( to eat with or banana)


Early morning train to Naples.  At the open air market three flats of persimmons (kaki – tomato colored, perfectly ripe, sweet) is just 1 Euro.  The vendor is baffled when we give him one flat back and don’t request any change (they are soft and heavy, and 4 each seems like enough).  We eat them with a hot sfogliatelle.

Kaki & sfogliatelle in the heart of Naples.


The area near the waterfront has a lot of construction and unpleasant to walk around, so we just go back to the historic center (Spaccanapoli) and wander around.

Street band engaging quite a crown in Spaccanapoli.

We’ll let photos capture both the beauty and the chaos.   It’s Saturday, and everywhere are street musicians, families, vendors of cheap and disgusting off label cigarettes, and food of all kinds.  It is a feast for the senses.

One of 100s of abandoned buildings, overgrown and littered with rubbish.

Being the first Saturday before Advent many people have come to shop for pieces for their mangers (a big business here), but by dark it becomes impossible to even move.

Must-eats in Naples: Pizza, seafood, and gelato.

Church hopping is easy, and there are many beautiful and interesting churches in the quarter.  The Church of the Gesu Nuovo is notable for its stone façade of pyramid shapes.

Gesu Nuovo.  Note the unusual pyramidical facade.

Sadly the Galleria Principe di Napoli seems to be abandoned.  It’s Art Nouveau, or what in Naples was known as Liberty Style (as in the department store in London).  There are no open shops; tattered drapes cover many of the storefronts.  The surrounding area is in a terrible state, and it seems unlikely that the will or the funds will be there to maintain this space.

The splendor that once was the Art Nouveau Galleria Principe di Napoli.

And now covered up and abandoned.


Near the Archaeological Museum is a famous coffee place, There was an odd (and of course inefficient) ticketing system, and it wasn’t clear what was going on, but we just followed what others were doing.

You cannot come to Naples and not eat pizza.  Across from the famous but crowded and seatless Pizzeria Michele on Via Pietro Colletta we eat just across the street at Pizzeria Trianon, which is civilized and spacious.  The friendly waiter brings us ice for our drinks, and already we are happy.  He tells us the fresh tomato on one of the pizzas comes from the hills above Naples, and they couldn’t taste any sweeter or fresher.  The crust, cheese, toppings, all are top notch.  Across the street is Polo Nord, the city’s oldest gelateria, which doesn’t disappoint.

Naples wouldn’t be Naples without a chapel full of relics.


Late morning train to the Vatican to await Pope Francis and his Angelus prayer.  He is so far away, can barely see him in his balcony, but you can watch the jumbotron (and his voice is crystal clear).  He greets various pilgrimage groups, prays for victims of recent events, and finishes his speech with a “have a good lunch”.

The Angelus Prayer with Pope Francis.

After the Angelus we walk down Via dei Gracchi to Gelateria dei Gracchi (a return visit which did not disappoint).  Fondente with Grand Marnier is the big winner.   We stumble upon an Antiques market with vendors selling overpriced items.  Honestly, nothing ever gets sold.  When I took a photo of a stall for my book project, I annoyed the owner who wanted me to ask permission to take a photo.  Really?  In this day and age where every phone is a camera?  I have to ask?  When in Rome.  I apologized in Italian and asked, he said yes, and I didnt have to bow my head.

Best to ask permission before taking a photo in a flea market.

Back across the river in the Piazza del Popolo there is a concert/manifestazione related to the upcoming referendum.  We are handed a restaurant card for a 15 euro lunch.  Normally we ignore such things, but as we approach the place the daily menu includes a pasta caccio e pepe with zucchini flowers, so we go for it and are given free Prosecco.

Zucchini Flowers with pasta and fresh cheese.

One of Rome’s few free museums in the Napoleonic Museum, near the banks of the Tiber, once home of one of his cousins.  As it’s Sunday there are art history students acting as docents.  A temporary exhibit of Micro Mosaics is incredible.

One of many treasures in the Napoleonic Museum

Palace of Justice.

Dinner from the Chinese restaurant next door (quite good) along with other snacks on our rooftop restaurant.


Leonardo Express to Fiumicino and back home.