Min and Joe’s Travel Journal:  Italy March 9-17, 2005


Tuesday March 8

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.


Wednesday March 9

 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.




 Capitol Hill

 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.


Thursday March 10

             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 emotions. 

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.





 Saint Angelo’s Castle crossing the Tiber River

 Fountain in the Piazza Navona

 Trevi Fountain





Friday March 11

            We boarded 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.




 Grand Canal

 Pensione Guerrato Hotel



            After 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). 




 Grand Canal

 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.


Observations:  Fewer 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

            We checked 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.

            We ate 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.

            After lunch 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.




 Tiber river


            While 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 sleep.




 Florence Duomo

  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 streets.  Siena 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.




 Main Plaza – prime people watching hang-out

 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 the Tuscany countryside.  The works were very mature and of high quality.



Siena Duomo

 Viewing Siena from the roof of Opera museum


We 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 from Florence 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 Piazza Navona.  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 pizza award.




 Sunset on our last evening

 Baffetto Pizza (Mmmmm)


Wednesday March 16

            We checked 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 ham).

            We covered more Rome territory today.  We went up north to the Piazza Popolo.  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

 Italian gelato



Special 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.