Min and Joe’s Travel Journal: Italy March
We flew from Seattle
to Amsterdam and then on to Rome.
The flights went very smoothly and we were fed well on both trips. Both pilots made beautiful landings that the
whole cabin applauded – first time seeing that.
Thumbs up to Northwest Airlines and their Dutch affiliate KLM. Took about 10 hours to fly
from Seattle to Amsterdam
and about 2 hours from Amsterdam to Rome.
Twelve hours of flight and nine time zones
later we arrived in Rome’s
Leonardo DaVinci airport around 11 am. Min’s mom, AJ, arrived shortly
afterwards. Most of the airports in Italy are
located pretty far outside of town so we hopped on a train to get
downtown. We changed in some U.S. currency
for Euros, a humbling experience (about $1.30 for €1.00), and lucked out in
getting to the train station 2 minutes before the next train into town. Train ride took about 40 minutes.
The train station
was huge, we joked that it seemed larger than the airport terminal. We had reserved a hotel that was a convenient
ten-minute walk from the train station so we were able to find it pretty
easily. The young guy at the desk spoke
English and was very friendly. He gave
us a map and pointed out where some of the popular sites are located.
We dropped off the luggage, packed
a bag and went for a walk to get oriented.
After walking a few blocks we came to an intersection and found the old
Roman Colosseum looming in front of us.
A walk around the Colosseum led to the Forum where emperors and philosophers
supposedly once spoke to the masses. It
was cool to see that some of the old architecture was still intact, though much
of it was reduced to rubble.
The Forum walk brought us to
Capitol Hill and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Nearly every step of our walk led to
historical sites or modern monuments. It
was interesting to see a modern-day city functioning in the midst of relics
from an ancient civilization.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
Observations: In the
states when we say a building was “built in ‘80” we’re referring to 1980, in Italy they
actually mean it was built in 80.
We woke up early and had a nice breakfast with hot “latte”
(milk in Italian) at 7 am sharp. After
breakfast we jumped onto a very crowded metro train and rode over to Vatican City. Walking into the open expanse of Piazza San Pietro (St. Peter’s Plaza) from a little side alley was an
eye-opening experience. The Plaza is
surrounded by two rows of giant marble columns that extend out like arms giving
you a big hug.
Piazza San Pietro
Piazza San Pietro
It was nice and quiet when we first
arrived. We toured the Basilica, the Vatican treasury and museum. It is mind-boggling to think of the history
and the influence that forms the epicenter of the Catholic faith. After walking around for about two hours on
our own we managed to latch on to a free guided English tour. The guide was an art history major at one of
the local Universities and a great speaker so this was a lot of fun. The construction started in 1506 with
Architect Bermande, and took 120 years to complete
with a few major design changes with architects
changes. It was originally in the shape
of Greek cross (same length in vertical and horizontal), then Latin cross
(longer vertically, as we see today), Greek cross (Micheloangelo)
and then Latin cross again. Everything
was so grand in size that we would have missed its magnificence if the guide didn’t
point out the optical illusions. The
blue lettering 2/3 ways up the dome is actually 7 feet tall (closest guess was
2 feet) in precious blue gem and gold.
This is the world’s largest Basilica, in fact, to boast this point, it
engraves other major basilicas names on the hallway floor to indicate their
sizes if they were to be contained in St. Peter. It is 200 meters in length (2 football
fields). All the frescos and canvases
were replaced by mosaic for preservation.
Each tiny glass bead in the mosaics was made for an exact match of the
original color – a giant jigsaw puzzle project that took 6 years and hundreds
of artists around the clock work. This
celestial place instilled a renewed sense of human wonder. Joe’s favorite piece of artwork in Vatican City, and of the
whole trip, was Michelanglo’s sculpture Pietà in St. Peter’s.
The sculpture depicts the Virgin Mary holding her lifeless adult son in
her arms. The sculpture projected raw
We heard many interesting anecdotes on the tour. Side note: Pietà is
one of Michel Angelo’s earliest known creations; he completed it when he was in
his mid 20’s. The Vatican rule
has it that artists were not allow to take credit for their commissioned piece
as an artist’s work was his attribution to God.
Pieta is perhaps the only piece of artwork in St. Peter’s that contains
a signature, as Michelangelo snuck into the basilica one night to chisel his
name onto the Mary’s sash to end all rumors about the creator of the
piece. We were told that the Vatican leadership simply looked the other way when he
broke their rule because how much they liked him. It now stands behind bullet-proof-glass
thanks in part to a madman who charged the sculpture with a sledgehammer in 1972. It is difficult to photograph for this
reason, so the picture below came from the web.
Another artist attempted to sign his painting but was denied, and he
took revenge in the way. In the old
tradition, the sitter was not allowed to see the painting until it was
done. On the day the fresco was unveiled
to the pope and the Vatican leaders, the
stunned audience saw the face of the pope was replaced by the artist’s self
portrait! This was the last protestant
artist the Vatican
hired. We also heard that you can get
married in the Basilica with a fixed 2 year waiting period, and the reason may
not be what you expected: it is because the church wants to make sure there is
a long enough courtship before getting married.
Commissioned work by Bernini
Sculpture inside St. Peter’s Basilica
Church service in St. Peter’s
After grabbing a quick lunch we took a tour of the Vatican Museum.
Just like the treasury, it is pretty amazing to see the collection of
artwork and artifacts that the Vatican
has accumulated over the years. The
highlight of the museum is definitely a walk through the Sistine Chapel. The frescoes are beautiful even in the dim
natural light of the large cathedral.
We decided to take our time and walk home from Vatican City rather than
ride the subway again. We crossed the Tiber River
on a footbridge near the base of Saint Angelo’s Castle (another stronghold of
the Catholic Church that supposedly has secret underground passageways to Vatican City). We walked through Piazza Navona,
a popular hangout for street artists, and on into Campo de Fiori
which is a nice little neighborhood packed with restaurants. We stopped into a little diner for dinner, one
of those places where you can point to the dishes that you want to sample. Piazza Navona was
one of our favorites on the trip. It was
full of artists and just a happy gathering place for all. After dinner we visited Trevi
Fountain and the Spanish Steps. I’m not
sure why they call them the Spanish steps (they were a gift from France so I
imagine the French were irritated by the name), but they do offer a nice scenic
overlook and a place to sit and rest after a long walk.
Angelo’s Castle crossing the Tiber
Fountain in the Piazza Navona
Friday March 11
a 9am train to Venice. The ride was nice but took a good chunk of
time out of the day (about 4.5 hours). The
hotel reservation service in the train station found a great place for us near
the Grand Canal in a nice part of town. For people that are looking for a “no-frills”
(old world simplicity) hotel in Venice with lots
of character and a friendly staff, we recommend the Pensione
Guerrato Hotel (also recommended in Rick Steve’s book
on Venice). Like many buildings in town this place was
built nearly 800 years ago. The hotel is
run by two guys that manage to keep the front desk open 24 hours a day, and the
establishment is decorated very tastefully.
It was wonderfully clean and cozy (and had a wonderful breakfast
selection); we highly recommend it.
Venice itself turned out
to be quite different than what we had imagined. We had pictured a town inundated by shallow
tidal flats and flowing canals but in fact there is plenty of solid ground and
the town is friendly to people on foot (no cars period). The town is an absolute labyrinth of narrow
alleyways that serve as streets. Every
alleyway, even if it’s a meter wide, has a name and is on the map.
Pensione Guerrato Hotel
getting settled in at the hotel we made our way to the Ponte di Rialto bridge, one of the few
that crosses the Grand Canal, and managed to
locate “Rosticceria San Bartolomeo”
recommended by the Rick Steves book. It was another one of those diners where you
can look at all of their offerings and point to what you want. This one had lots of fresh seafood and
pasta. Our favorite dishes were their
seafood lasagna and shrimp mushroom ristotto dish (repro’ed successfully).
Piazza San Marco
We went for
a nice after dinner walk through the Cannaregio and Castello districts and eventually came upon Piazza San
Marco, one of the liveliest plazas in Venice.
people in Venice, aside from hotel workers,
spoke English so it was generally a bit harder to communicate with people in Venice than it was in Rome.
Having said that, Venice
is a town that thrives on tourism so where there is a will to communicate,
there is a way.
Saturday March 12
After breakfast at the hotel we walked the opposite
direction down the hotel’s alleyway and were pleasantly surprised to find a
lively open market with tons of fresh seafood and produce. There is wide selection of the fresh seafood
(much bigger than Pike’s place). Lots of
locals hung out here. We bought some
fruit and then headed back towards Piazza San Marco to explore the area.
Saturday seafood and produce market
One of Venice’s
many small canals
We visited the Doge Palace
that for many years was the main meeting hall for Venitian
royalty and the political elites. This
tour provided quite a bit of background information on the history and
evolution of the social system in Venice. The original settlers of Venice, who fled
into the undesirable salt flats to get away from barbarian invaders, managed to
build an impressive town that was as unique in its social system as it was in
its architectural design. We don’t
recommend the audio tour on this one – it was long and winded and you could not
select to listen to specific pieces.
After lunch we went to the Gallery
Academia museum that has a nice collection of art from the Baroque period
(prior to 1400). We then walked over to
the west end of town to visit St. Rocco and St Maria dei
Frari, two of Venice’s
old churches. We got lost several times
trying to find our way across town but this gave us a glimpse of some of the
less touristy parts of town. At one
point we came across a small schoolboy who was about 6 or 7 years old. While passing us he decided to try out his
English and began with “Hello, my name is …”, but when Min said hello he got
all shy and ran away giggling.
By the way, the “Everything shuts down” during Siesta hours
was absolutely true, especially on this Saturday afternoon. It was even hard to ask for directions
because the only people still walking around between 1-2 were the ones holding
on to maps too.
Sunday March 13
out of the hotel in midmorning and went for a short walk before heading to the
train station for our trip down to Florence (Firenze). The train ride lasted about 3 hours. The hotel reservation service at the train
station in Florence
was completely useless because it was never open for business during our
stay. But of course the local hotels
send staffers down to the station to bargain with people standing outside the
hotel reservation office. We settled on
a place that was less than a 5-minute walk from the station.
lunch at a little Ma and Pa type restaurant that Min picked out of the tour
guide. The tortellini was pretty tasty
but the spaghetti was quite average. We
also learned that some restaurants in Italy have a per-person cover
charge added to the bill even if not all parties ordered.
we walked around a bit to get ourselves oriented and then made our way over to Florence’s Gallery
Academia museum. While the museum is
touted for being the home of “David”, a sculpture that boosted Michel Angelo
into prominence, there is little else to see in this gallery and we would place
it fairly low on the priority list for future tourists. Final review: not worth the 1 hour wait and €
8.00 ticket price. It’s about the same
price as a ticket to the Louvre but its not even fair to compare their collections.
walking down a large street we were drawn to the entrance of a church where we
heard the voices of a women’s choir. We
had arrived just in time for a concert and we were able to grab a few seats in
the pews. As it turns out they were an
American girls choir from Massachusetts (“The Dana Hall Chamber
Singers” from Wellesly prep boarding school). They put on quite a show that mixed American
Christmas classics, modern day favorites and even had the older Italian crowd
up on their feet and clapping to a Southern Baptist gospel song at the end. The staunch Roman Catholic Bishop had a look
on his face that indicated he wasn’t sure if he should smile or repent. It was a chilly evening out, so this English
concert added a warm surprise accent to our memory. We grabbed a late dinner that consisted of
some tasty tuna salads and steak kabobs and then headed back to the hotel for
Girls choir concert
Monday March 14
We set aside this day for a little day trip further into the Tuscany region. We settled on a small town by the name of Siena based on the fact
that everyone we talked to who has been there, simply loves it. You can add us into that category as well.
Siena was once one of the most prominent cities in Europe,
with a population of about 60,000 that eclipsed the population of Paris back in the 14th
century. But constant wars with its
neighbors in Florence, in which Florence was absolutely brutal (see side note
below), caused the town to be “pickled gothic” as one tour book cleverly put
it. The town’s population has not
changed much since the 14th century and if you ever want a prime
example of Gothic architecture, this is the place to visit.
Side note: Many
graphic and some amusing accounts of the Florence-Siena bad blood wars can be
found in tour guides. One story tells
how Florentine warriors catapulted horse dung and donkeys into Siena after one of their crushing
defeats. Another, even more brutal
account reports how Florence literally salted
the earth in Siena
to punish their enemy. Perhaps that’s
why the town never grew much after the 14th century and dwindled to
social and economic insignificance. And
as the tour books say, Siena’s
loss is our gain- it is a unique place to visit.
We were happy to find that there are frequent bus trips that run between
Florence and Siena and the two cities seem closely
intertwined today despite their storied past.
We caught an 8:30 am bus and got to Siena around 9:45. The SITA or Trans buses are a little better
than the train because they bring you right into the downtown area whereas the
train station is outside of the town.
My first impression was that Siena has a college town atmosphere with an
old world flavor. When you walk the
streets in the old part of town it feels as if you’ve been transported back in
time several hundred years. The brown
brick buildings, open courtyards and green gardens give Siena
a feel that is different from Rome, Venice and Florence. There are many interesting little curio shops
in the downtown area, and in the center of town pedestrians rule the
was the first town in Europe to ban motorized
vehicles in the downtown corridor. In
the heart of the old downtown area is a large plaza that is built like an
amphitheater. It serves as a perfect
place to sit and watch people, and in the lunch hour it was a mingling spot for
university students, locals and tourists alike.
Plaza – prime people
Looking down on plaza from Opa Museum
We discovered a great pizza joint called “Pizzeria Forzanti Paola” just off the main square that we visited
for brunch and again for a late lunch.
All three of us got hooked on their Rippota
pizza (ham and cheese). It was a family
business. The middle-aged lady was
busily taking pans of pizzas fresh out the oven, cutting and dishing out to
everyone, from school kids to business suits.
Her son helped at the counter while the husband worked at the oven. The robust gestures and her serene and
genuine smile to every customer, the kids wolfing down the food right in front
the counter, so warm and cozy, conveyed the simplicity of living and fullness
of hardworking, I could paint the scene!
It was a memorable highlight of Sienna.
Between pizza meals we invested in
a combination museum pass which pretty much got us a key to the city for their
historical venues. First, we visited the
Opera museum (doesn’t mean opera in English) which has a nice collection of
cathedral art (especially sculpture) and also offers a surprise panoramic view
of the town from their rooftop. We then
went on to the Duomo (huge church) where we were
granted access to the catacombs, baptistery and main chapel.
Our last stop in the old part of town was a shrine that was
built on the birthplace of St. Catherine.
Catherine was born into a poor Siena
family and as the story goes, shunned all forms of worldly distractions for the
power of prayer. She was so gifted in
this realm that in 1375 on the fourth Sunday of Lent she was marked with the
sign the Stigmata. She wielded
tremendous influence in the Catholic world, had quite a following and even
convinced the Pope to return to Italy
and reform the clergy and Papal States. After visiting St. Catherine’s shrine, we
walked to the edge of town in search for a bathroom (bathrooms are few and far
between and most public restrooms require a usage fee). Even in the University district we couldn’t
find a bathroom, partly because it was during the siesta hours and everything
was closed. We pooled our coins (enough
for one entry into a public restroom) and then took a vote as to who was the
most deserving. The remaining two of us
later discovered that when you find yourself in this situation the trick is to
locate the nearest McDonald’s; its like walking onto a piece of American soil,
free bathrooms and all J.
We found a beautiful gallery “Il Paesaggio
Dipinto” on our stroll. It has a collection of Tuscany regional landscape works. The beautiful fields of sunflower and bright
flowers from artists’ eyes, I understood why everyone recommended us to tour
countryside. The works were very mature
and of high quality.
from the roof of Opera museum
returned to Florence
around 4 pm and managed to find a really nice spot for dinner, another place we
would recommend if we were to write our tourbook, “Rosticcer LL Pirata”. They had the tastiest roast.
We took another Florence
night walk and saw the not-so-pretty side of the town: street cleaning vehicles
spray cleaning the roads and garbage floated everywhere. We also saw lots of Spanish kids on field
trips at many major attractions. While in
line for the Florence’s
Academia Gallery, we observed the majority of the graffiti on the walls were in
Spanish. We were discussing why there
didn’t seem to be that much littering in some other European touristy cities like
Paris and German towns. It might be due
to cultural differences…
Tuesday March 15
We woke up bright and early thinking
that we would beat the crowd to the notoriously popular Uffizi Gallery. We were wrong.
We arrived at Uffizi shortly before
8 am; the gallery was to open at 8:30, but there was already a huge line out
front. Our initial estimates were 45
minutes to an hour. We were wrong.
…Three hours later we got to the
front of the line, and by this time we were half delirious and very curious to
see if any Gallery could possibly be worth a 3-hour wait. Uffizi was indeed a beautiful Gallery, the best
in Florence. We were wishing that we had an extra hour or
two to take in their collection but unfortunately we had to cut things a bit
short and head out for a 3 pm train to Rome. We swung by the diner we had discovered the
night before and grabbed some food for the road.
The trip to Rome
was fairly short, less than 2 hours.
For our last night in Rome we decided to revisit our favorite plazas, find a
beautiful spot to watch the sunset and then set out in search of Rome’s best pizza. In retrospect I think we did an awesome
job. The sunset view was a lifelong
memory, and the pizza was one of the best ones I’ve ever eaten. For a nice sunset view in Rome, we suggest
climbing to the top of Vittoriano near Piazza dei Campidoglio and watch the sun
set over the rooftops, cathedrals, and Roman Pines on the far away hill. For an excellent pizza, we recommend heading
over to Pizzeria Baffetto on the southwest side of
We opted for the chef’s specialty –Baffetto- a
pizza topped with mushrooms, sausage, onion, artichokes, fresh mozzarella and
eggs. They bake them in an old
wood-burning stove and the thin crust comes out tender and soft in the center
and crispy on the edge. It won our best
Sunset on our last evening
Baffetto Pizza (Mmmmm)
Wednesday March 16
out of our hotel around 8 am and walked AJ to the train station so that she
could catch her early flight home to Madison. Min and I had about 8 more hours to enjoy Rome so we decided to
return to a couple of our favorite hang-outs and try some new food including a
tasty Italian ham and cheese sandwhich and gelato
(Italian version of ice-cream). The
Italians are about as serious about their ice-cream as they are about their
pizza. Both of which can be found in
abundance and in more varieties than imaginable. Our favorite was “Gelateria
della Palma” (in Steve
Rick’s), the gelato picture below only captured half of their selections. While walking around Campo de Friori, we saw many locals eating a tasty looking
sandwich. We followed and back traced
the source, and found our best sandwich shop.
They cut out a sheet of fresh foccia bread to
any size you want (sold by the kilo), stuffed with fresh mozzarella and ham,
all made to order. The setting was
quaint, a few beer barrel seats and the round tables and high chairs around the
walls. It was packed with locals. There was no menu or ready-made sandwiches we
could point to, so Min ordered by pointing to a customer holding a
sandwich. We learned a new word: they
call this type of sandwich “Proscuitto” (also means
territory today. We went up north to the
This one is a bit removed from the touristy area but close to a street
(via del Babuino) full of
upscale shops. We discovered our
favorite Antique shop on the road. “Dott. Cesare
Lampronti Antiquario”. We were never interested in antique shops but
Min had to go in after seeing the artworks in the window. It had a small ordinary look from the
outside, but it was amazingly large inside, room after room, and it was all 18th
century famous oils, ORIGINAL! It would probably
be considered a small museum in the States.
After seeing so much good art works, I understood why
people say it’s harder to make a living as an artist in Europe;
even many of the street artists were very talented and skilled. But it’s also a blessing to be part of such
environment as an artist for the same reason.
Art is everywhere: you don’t have to go to a museum to see art --
beautiful sculptures were ubiquitous in public places. There seemed to be more galleries (and of
good quality), even in smaller towns in Europe
than here in the States. The art and cultural
awareness were more of an integral part of life.
Best sandwhich shop in Campo de Fiori
thanks to Dai Wei, Joe Self and Max Fabbricino for
the inside tips on places to go and things to see. We really appreciate your suggestions.