A Travellerspoint blog

January 2015

Circling the Adriatic San Marino


When I planned our itinerary, I knew there was no question that we would stop in San Marino once I realized we would pass close by. Who could resist this tiny independent nation, which claims to be the oldest sovereign state in the world and is the second smallest in Europe after Monaco? Aside from the curiosity of its size and its position entirely surrounded by Italy, San Marino is home to spectacular mountaintop castles that look like they came straight from the set of the Lord of the Rings.

The drive from Urbino to San Marino ended up being more challenging than I expected. Despite the fact that darkness had fallen, I chose the inland route that was shorter in distance but longer in time than the coastal route. I really hate retracing my path on a road trip, and the coastal route would have meant doing just that. The inland route, however, was a tortured affair of single lane roads and hairpin turns that caused Mei Ling to lose her dinner just as we were arriving in San Marino. I'm sure the views would have been magnificent had we taken the drive during the day, but the deep darkness ensured that the only view I had was the 100 meters of road illuminated by my high beams. I also lost navigation somewhere around the border, although I still had GPS. I'm still not sure if this was due to loss of signal due to the mountains or if for some stupid reason Italian SIM cards don't work correctly in San Marino. It's hard to imagine a tiny country like San Marino with its own cell phone plans, but wonders will never cease in Europe. Despite the last minute navigation problems, we found our way to Hotel Joli in Citta di San Marino without too much difficulty. I had some difficulty communicating with the night manager due to my weak Italian and his almost complete lack of English, and both of us felt rather silly much later to discover that we could converse easily in French. We ended up with a single room for the four of us, but it didn't really matter as both kids went to sleep easily and didn't wake up until morning.

The next day we stocked up on the hotel breakfast and headed towards the funicular, which would take us down to the farmer's market in Borgo Maggiore. The terrace at the funicular station afforded some great views over San Marino.
large_IMG_7251.jpglarge_P1010009.jpg

Cleo rode the funicular for free.
large_90_P1010011.jpg

We were fortunate to be in San Marino on market day for Borgo Maggiore. The produce market was small but it was a nice opportunity to ride the funicular and see a slice of everyday life in San Marino.
large_IMG_7261.jpg

We returned to the car to drop off our fruit purchases, where we made a pretty big mistake. We forgot to put the kids in the carriers and leave the gondola in the car, which turned out to bite us in the end. The walled city is a series of narrow terraces climbing up the mountain connected by steep paths. The locals manage to stuff a impressive array of souvenir shops, snack joints, and designer outlets along the sloping streets which creates something of a sterile atmosphere. The real payofff comes at the top with the beautiful medieval castles of Torre Guaita and Rocca Cesta.
IMG_7265.jpgIMG_7266.jpgIMG_7274.jpgP1010019.jpg

We made it to the entrance of Guaita and realized that there was a steep staircase leading up into the ramparts and the tower. Without the carriers, it wasn't going to be safe or comfortable to go up and we didn't have anywhere to leave the gondola and valuables. We decided to walk towards Rocca Cesta instead and got close enough to see the castle, but the path became impassable for the gondola and we had to settle for pictures.
large_IMG_7273.jpg

On the way back down we hunted for one of the top rated restaurants on TripAdvisor called Smaller, and eventually found it after walking back and forth in front of it three times. It ended up being worth the trouble, providing satisfying portions of Marche standbys like gnocchi and grilled meats. After lunch, there was nothing left to do but work our way back down to the parking lot and head north to the region of Emilia-Romagna.

Posted by zzlangerhans 20:05 Archived in San Marino Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Marche

Parco del Conero and Urbina


I wasn't really sure what I was getting into when I chose Parco del Conero as our first stop on the Adriatic portion of our journey. My alternatives were the larger city of Ancona and the seaside town of Senigallia, and in fact I didn't make a final decision until the day before we left Umbria. I was a little worried that Conero might be a park like one of the National Parks in the US, best suited for outdoor activities like hiking and camping. That's not usually our thing, especially with the babies. In the end, I decided it was our best option and we could always leave early in the morning. Since it was a last minute decision, I used Booking.com to reserve accommodation instead of Airbnb. I had had good success with that site in Portugal and Spain, especially on very short notice. We got into Conero later than I had planned, about 9 PM, thanks to some poor navigation on my part as we arrived at the park. We were able to find the B&B at the listed address without too much trouble, but unfortunately the place seemed to be completely dark and deserted. We got out and walked around for a while, but didn't have any luck finding anyone to ask questions or any sign of a functioning accommodation. I tried calling the number that was provided and got no answer. Since it was getting close to the magic hour of 10 PM when all restaurants in rural Italy seem to close, we decided to make a run for the shoreline a few miles away to get dinner so that we wouldn't end up screwed out of both food and lodging for the night. After we parked, I scouted out the restaurant I had called to be sure they were open and was delivered the heartbreaking news that the kitchen was already closed. An image of Mei Ling strangling me flashed through my mind. I wailed something about having called about the closing time and the manager said "Oh, you mean the seafood restaurant. We're the steak restaurant." So we were saved. I whisked the family into the seafood restaurant a flight of stairs further down the hillside and we quickly ordered while I tried to secure other lodging. My attempts were all rebuffed, which as it turned out was fortunate because when I tried the original B&B again in desperation, someone answered and assured me that they were open and someone would be there. Dinner was so-so, but it was a lot better than going hungry.
large_IMG_2828.jpg
Mixed seafood at Ristorante la Torre (looks better than it tasted)
...

When we got back to the B&B, there were a couple of people waiting in the driveway with flashlights who escorted us back to a gated compound directly behind the building we had previously encountered. It seemed that in the offseason they closed the main building, but didn't have any sign or other indication of where to proceed. Rather annoying, but par for the course in Italy, and in the end it all worked out. The accommodation turned out to be a comfortable suite which allowed us to split the kids up so they wouldn't wake each other during the night. In the morning, we were quite surprised by the beauty of the place we had wandered into. The B&B was surrounded by a rolling hills with sunflower fields and imposing mountains and cliffs in the distance. Breakfast was a generous and tasty buffet of fruit and pastries.
IMG_7154.jpgIMG_7152.jpg

We packed our bags and proceeded to our first stop, Loreto. This hilltop town is best known for its enormous Basilica della Santa Casa, which dominates the central piazza. In front of the fountain in the piazza there were some beautiful chalk reproductions of classic Renaissance paintings. The town and streets are quite picturesque with some nice views over the surrounding valley. There are quite a few shops on the street leading away from the Basilica and Mei Ling was able to accomplish most of our gift shopping for our friends' kids.
IMG_7155.jpgIMG_7160.jpgIMG_7159.jpgIMG_7158.jpg

Satisfied with Loreto, we moved on to Sirolo where the old town is perched atop a grassy mountain that descends sharply into the sea. The town was rather sleepy and nondescript but the views over the Adriatic were fabulous.
P1000997.jpgIMG_7170.jpg

We were getting hungry so we descended from the heights of Sirolo and wound our way downhill to the seaside town of Portonovo, which seemed to be mainly distinguished for seafood restaurants. The Lonely Planet-recommended Il Molo seemed to be the most popular of the adjacent seaside establishments, and we weren't disappointed. The pasta, fish, and especially the hard-to-find cockles were excellent and the meal was complemented by crisp white wine and a beautiful seaside setting surrounded by mountains. Cleo had a lot of fun playing on the rocky beach. The picture of her triumphantly holding up an ice cream is one of my favorites from the trip.
IMG_7177.jpgIMG_7172.jpglarge_IMG_7180.jpgIMG_7183.jpgIMG_7182.jpg

Satisfied that we had seen the best of Parco del Conero, we set off along the coast in a northerly direction. On our way, we briefly stopped in Senigallia which seemed dreary and out of season. I breathed a sigh of relief that we hadn't missed Parco del Conero for this. At Senigallia, we turned inland towards our next destination, Urbino. In some ways, Urbino was similar to the hill towns of Umbria, yet everything seemed to be on a slightly larger scale. The streets were wider, the buildings seemed denser and more imposing, and there were a lot more people around. The crowdedness was likely due to Urbino being a university town, with lots of shops and street cafes catering to a student population. It was drizzling, which gave us an opportunity to try out our waterproof stroller covers.
large_IMG_7194.jpgIMG_7186.jpgIMG_7187.jpgIMG_7190.jpgIMG_7191.jpg

Partly because of the rain, we uncharacteristically chose to visit the museum at the Palazzo Ducale. While I remember walking around the building, I'm hard pressed to visualize any of the artwork I saw inside. I guess I'm just not a museum person.
P1010001.jpgIMG_7192.jpg

We finished with the Palazzo just in time to get to one of Urbino's top restaurants, Antica Osteria de la Stella, half an hour before they opened to make a reservation. We returned after a brief stop at an outdoor cafe and were seated in a dining room nice enough to make me feel guilty about inflicting the babies on the establishment. However, thanks to our early arrival we were able to work our way through an excellent dinner including venison with wild berries and strozzapreti pasta in under an hour and escaped just as the dinner rush was beginning.
large_IMG_7250.jpg

We made our way back to the car for what I hoped would be a quick inland run to the second country of our trip, the Republic of San Marino.

Posted by zzlangerhans 10:09 Archived in Italy Tagged marche loreto sirolo portonovo urbino parco_del_conero Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Hill towns of Umbria

Sunday morning we got a quick breakfast of Porchetta and then packed the four of us, the bags, carseats and the gondola (my pet name for our double stroller) into a little taxi which took us to the Europcar rental office near the train station. After an interminable line to sign the paperwork, I was directed to a garage a few blocks away where I waited again for twenty minutes for the dudes to bring me my car. There was less than half a tank of gas so the guy scribbled something on my copy of the contract. I wasn't about to argue because Mei Ling was still back at the office with the two kids and all our stuff and I'd already left her alone there for a half hour. I activated Google maps and made my way back to the office, which was no small task since the road I had walked down was a one way. Finally I made it back to the office, hooked up the car seats and strapped the kids in them, arranged the bags in the trunk and wedged the disassembled gondola into the front seat. Mei Ling had the unfortunate duty of sitting in the back between the car seats to play stewardess to two very picky, needy first class passengers. I was nervous at first, having read terrifying descriptions of Italian drivers, but since I'm not exactly meek on the road myself I quickly realized that part of things was going to be OK. We made it out of Rome fairly easily and got to our first destination, Spoleto, in about an hour.

I should add here that my go to guide for practically everywhere in the world is Lonely Planet. It falls into just the right spot between backpacking and luxury travel, so you get the whole range of local destinations with respect to expense and difficulty. We aren't backpackers by any means. We want to eat well and sleep comfortably, but we don't want to be coddled and waited on either. We aren't hikers or adventurers either, but we do enjoy the outdoors and natural beauty as well as urban attractions like restaurants and crowded markets. Lonely Planet has been pretty good to us in most respects, although I've learned not to take them as a sole authority on restaurants. Mei Ling had also bought a copy of Rick Steves Italy before we left, although I didn't much care for it because it ignored most of the country to focus on the places Rick Steves had been. I did take some notes and photocopy some pages for places I planned to visit, which came in very handy in Umbria. However, most of the towns we decided to visit were chosen based on the write-ups in Lonely Planet. We did have to pick and choose, and of course I still don't know if the ones we skipped like Narni, Gubbia, Norcia, and Assisi would have been more enjoyable than the ones we visited. I know for sure that there are still enough towns to justify a return visit to the area.

Google Maps failed me for the first time coming into Spoleto. I had charted a course for the Rocca Albornoziana, a medieval fortress, but Google Maps wanted me to pull over inside a tunnel on the highway. I circled and came back to the spot a couple of times, and eventually concluded that the fortress was on top of the hill the tunnel went through. That was the first of many times Google Maps would misdirect me when I entered the name of a landmark or restaurant. Eventually I learned it was much more reliable to figure out the exact address I was going and enter the address rather than a name. We eventually found our way into the town of Spoleto, where I had my first experience with restricted traffic zones, white signs with red circles that indicate that only certain cars may travel into the city center. These signs always indicate the presence of cameras which will photograph your license plate, possibly multiple times, resulting in tickets being forwarded to the rental car company. The rental car company, in turn, will pass on the fines to your credit card bill along with whatever convenience charges they can dream up. It's a rather terrifying prospect, so whenever I see those signs I immediately halt forward progress and start looking for a parking spot. I struck out close to the center but eventually found a pay spot a quarter mile away in a modern part of town. I used my small stash of coins to pay for an hour and a half in advance. I never did figure out how to pay for parking using my SIM card, and instead got into the habit of saving change and stashing it in the pocket of the door handle for parking. After the first time I rarely ran out.

We piled the kids into the gondola and ambled towards the old town. One of the interesting things about the hill towns, and many other Italian cities was the contrast between the modern city and the old town. Many times it would seem like there couldn't possibly be anything of interest in a nondescript city, when we would suddenly stumble into a beautifully preserved old neighborhood of cobblestone streets and churches. There's nothing remotely comparable in the US. We eventually found our way to the entrance of the old town, where we stopped for gelato and then proceeded to the Duomo, the ubiquitous cathedral found in practically every Italian city.
large_Cleo_Spoleto.jpg

Our next challenge was a long, wide staircase to the upper level of town. Normal able-bodied travelers probably wouldn't even notice it, but it's quite a significant job with the gondola which has to be levered up over every step. Fortunately, Cleo wanted to climb the stairs on her own which made my job a lot easier.
large_IMG_6784.jpg

Eventually we made our way to the entrance to the fortress, but when we looked inside all we could see was a steep gravel path leading upward indefinitely. At that point, we decided that the fortress probably wasn't going to be that exciting anyway and decided to explore the narrow streets of the upper level of town instead. It was our first experience with the narrow alleys snaking between the tall buildings of the hill towns, and very enjoyable.
IMG_6787.jpgP1000930.jpg

We then made our way over to what seemed to be the best restaurant in town, Tempio del Gusto, where we found the owner setting the restaurant up for dinner. Unfortunately, he wasn't going to open for over an hour and we felt there really wasn't enough to justify hanging around so we decided to move on to the next town instead. On the way back to the car we heard a band playing in the park, and Cleo dragged us up to a little cafe where a classic rock band was just finishing their set. We stuck around to have some fruit juice and rather tasteless snacks, and then piled back into the car and hit the road again. For more on Spoleto, have a look here

Our next stop was Todi, a quintessential hill town reached via an uphill, winding road. We parked in a lot at the base of the old town and stopped for pictures at the famed Chiesa di Santa Maria della Consolazione. We took the second picture at night at the end of our walk, when the church was illuminated with floodlights.
90_P1000931.jpgIMG_6811.jpg

We plowed our way with the kids up one of the steepest streets I've ever climbed, with one of us towing the gondola from the front while the other put a shoulder into it from the back. Eventually we reached the top where we found the charming Piazza del Popolo and beautiful views over the surrounding valley.
IMG_6796.jpgP1000934.jpgIMG_6800.jpgP1000937.jpg

We ate dinner at the Lonely Planet recommendation Antica Hosteria de la Valle, which was the best meal we had in Italy up to that point. Pasta was perfectly cooked with flavorful and generous fresh truffles, and game dishes were also excellent. It wasn't the fastest dinner we ever had though, so it was about 8:30 by the time we got out of the restaurant. We knew we were a lot later than we had promised to show up at the B&B, so we hurried as much as we could down the dark and curvy roads. We had been warned not to use Google Maps, so we followed the instructions we had been given which ended up working quite well. The B&B was truly well off the beaten path, however, so we had a few nervous moments driving down narrow dirt roads in a dense forest before we eventually got there. By that time it was 9:30, which apparently was considered the middle of the night as the owner seemed rather grumpy. We tried not to trouble him too much as we unloaded everybody and everything into our comfortable little chalet, accompanied by a very friendly dog. We had chosen a two floor, three bedroom accommodation for our two night stay which turned out to be very charming and comfortable.

After a restful night, we snacked on a chocolate cake we found in the kitchen that apparently was the latter half of our B&B. We stepped outside and took stock of our surroundings, which were even more impressive than the Airbnb photos that had drawn me to the location in the first place. Across a valley we could see the walled city of Orvieto perched at the top of a steep plateau. Unfortunately, my point-and-shoot camera doesn't do the view justice at all.
P1000968.jpgIMG_6996.jpgP1000940.jpgP1000969.jpglarge_P1000942.jpg

We then drove through the beautiful Umbrian countryside to our first destination, Civita di Bagnoregio. This was a fortunate result of Mei Ling's investment in the Rick Steves book, which gave a lot of emphasis to the town. The Lonely Planet barely mentioned it, but I would place it in the middle of the list of our top ten experiences of the entire journey. Civita di Bagnoregio is a 2500 year old ghost town on a crumbling plateau connected to the modern village of Bagnoregio via a steep footbridge. We were fortunate to arrive in Bagnoregio on market day so we breakfasted on porchetta and bought a salami that was fated to roll around in the trunk for another three weeks. After a little fumbling around with Google Maps to find the access road to Civita and the right parking lot, we extracted the gondola and brought the kids to the foot of the bridge. Gulp. The incline made Todi look like a gentle slope. We returned the gondola to the car and strapped the kids onto our backs instead. Even though there was a tall railing on either side of the bridge, it was hard to ignore the feeling of walking a giant balance beam suspended across a deep chasm. The walk was strenuous, but the views over the surrounding valley were stupendous. Eventually we reached the old town and wandered around the medieval alleys and courtyards. Most the the buildings were made of a brownish stone whose edges had been rounded over the centuries. Ivy covered many of the facades and there were potted plants and flowers everywhere. Unfortunately, there were two large tour groups there at the same time which detracted somewhat from the quiet beauty of the town. A few restaurants looked interesting but it was still early and we didn't want to lose too much time so we just had a drink and headed back for the footbridge and the car.
large_P1000944.jpglarge_P1000946.jpg90_P1000953.jpgIMG_6895.jpgIMG_6887.jpgIMG_6885.jpglarge_IMG_6897.jpg

After Civita, we drove to the famous Umbrian hill town of Orvieto. Orvieto is best known for it's magical setting within medieval walls at the rounded top of a tall plateau, as well as one of the most recognizable Duomos in Italy. We chose to take the cable car up the plateau instead of the road, which led to a mad dash through town to get lunch before all the restaurants closed. Lunch ended up being average, although atmospheric. The town itself felt a little sterile to us compared to Todi and Spoleto, but there was no denying the beauty of the Duomo despite the scaffolding that marred the left side of the facade. For more about Todi and Orvieto, check this blog.
IMG_6906.jpgIMG_6910.jpgP1000956.jpgIMG_6913.jpglarge_90_P1000959.jpg

After a couple of hours wandering around Orvieto, I was at a loss for how to spend the afternoon. I knew there was a fairly large lake nearby, so we decided to drive to the town of Bolsena on the shore of Lago di Bolsena. Aside from an attractive central square, there didn't seem to be an old town in Bolsena. The deficit was more than compensated for by the beautiful lake with a sandy shoreline, and a backdrop of a paved boardwalk with tall trees in full foliage. We brought the kids down onto the beach for a while and took some pictures as the sun set.
P1000962.jpgIMG_6901.jpglarge_P1000965.jpg

We ate dinner in one of the top TripAdvisor rated places, Il Pinzale, and weren't disappointed although I lost a half hour driving in circles due to entering the name of the restaurant in Google Maps instead of the address. They specialize in the local lake fish and we found the pan-fried filets delicious, as well as the pasta. Cleo made some Italian friends and they horsed around on the swings just outside. By then it was late so we drove back to the B&B. It was our last full day without a change of accommodation until Venice.

The next morning we dragged our feet getting up and getting out of the house, and we paid for it by arriving in Perugia after the weekday produce market had already closed. I also had a hard time finding the city center, so we parked on the main street close to the university and ended up walking about half a mile with the gondola to get to the main square. Perugia is much bigger than the other hill towns and contains a large student population, which gives the city a very lively and cosmopolitan feel. We had a fairly good lunch at one of the more highly rated restaurants. It was a slow day for them, so we spent some time talking with the owner and the Cameroonian waitress before buying some macaroons for Cleo at a lovely pastry shop. We wandered a few more narrow streets and then I got a cheap haircut on the way back to the car. It's hard to put a finger on what I found so appealing about Perugia, but I made a mental note to return here some day and use it as a base to explore the Umbrian cities that we didn't have time to see on this trip.
large_IMG_6997.jpgP1000971.jpgIMG_7014.jpgIMG_7007.jpgIMG_7001.jpglarge_IMG_7008.jpg

Our last hill town before we reached the Adriatic for the first time was Spello. The old town here was essentially a one street show and we found a parking space in the main square. We walked downward until we couldn't stand the idea of lengthening the uphill climb any more and then reversed direction, eventually finding ourselves at a scenic overlook below the Chiesa di San Severino. Spello in some ways was like a living version of Civita di Bagnoregio with similarly colored stone walls, narrow alleys, ivy and plants. In the square where we had parked, we stopped for a while in a lovely Alimentari and examined various local delicacies.
IMG_7022.jpgIMG_7029.jpg90_P1000980.jpgP1000981.jpgP1000990.jpglarge_P1000992.jpg

And just like that, our time in Umbria was finished. I would have loved to stop in Assisi but it was already getting dark and our next destination, Parco del Conero, was something of an unknown quantity.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:56 Archived in Italy Tagged orvieto umbria perugia spello todi spoleto civita_di_bagnoregio bolsena Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Walking Rome

We got up relatively early on our first full day in Rome and tooled back through the Mercato de Campo di Fiori, where we discovered porchetta for the first time. For the uninitiated, porchetta is a roasted roll of pork containing layers of fat and skin and generous flavorings of wild herbs. Served on fresh focaccia bread, it's like an umami explosion. We also took a look inside one of the most famous norcinerias in Rome, Antica Norcineria Viola. Aside from having every conceivable type of ham and pork sausage ever invented, they have an enormous selection of beautiful truffles. If it was possible to buy a bottle of the smell inside the place, I would have bought a case. Here's more about Antica Norcineria Viola
large_IMG_6417.jpg
large_IMG_6419.jpg

We then joined the stream of tourists strolling over to the Coliseum, which truthfully can be enjoyed just as well from the outside as the inside. However, the tickets for the Coliseum and the Forum are sold as a package, so we went in the Coliseum and confirmed that it looks on the inside pretty much as one would expect.
IMG_6517.jpgIMG_6514.jpg

The Forum is a much more pleasant experience than the Coliseum, if one isn't an aficionado of Roman architecture. It's a short walk through a grassy open area with ancient buildings in various stages of ruination. Cleo found it to be a good place to jump out of the stroller and stretch her legs.
Forum_2.jpgIMG_6530.jpg

After the Forum, we walked back towards the Fontana di Trevi via Piazza Venezia, which took us past some beautiful buildings and monuments. Unfortunately the fountain itself was a major disappointment. The entire structure was surrounded by walls of Plexiglas due to an ongoing renovation. Between the Plexiglas and the enormous crowds of people, it wasn't even possible to get a decent picture of the fountain. It was a shame, because I had been in Rome twenty years earlier and remembered the scene as having been quite peaceful and beautiful.
large_5DEB3202044A1824E93311F60C96ED0E.jpg90_P1000872.jpgIMG_6532.jpglarge_P1000860.jpg

We did a little shopping (traveling with two babies results in intimate familiarity with supermarkets and convenience stores around the world) and then made our way to the Spanish Steps, another tourist favorite filled with vendors of every conceivable form of crap. After that we headed to the Pantheon to decide where to have dinner. After enjoying an operatic serenade from a quite talented amateur in front of the Pantheon, I reviewed all my resources and could only find one of my listed restaurants close by which of course wasn't taking walk ins. I called around (an unlocked phone and SIM card are indispensable) and eventually found a recommended spot on the way back to the apartment that could seat us. I'll make a brief note here to say that when you go to cities like Paris, Rome or Venice you need to decide in advance if you are going to sightsee or if you're going to eat. If you're planning to eat, there are very few decent restaurants in the central, touristy areas and you will need to reserve those days in advance. Those reservations will severely restrict your sightseeing. The other option is to pick restaurants out of the center, but that will require some form of transportation. Since we had the two babies, we knew we'd be sacrificing cuisine for our freedom to roam the city at our own pace. As expected, Rome and Venice provided our stomachs with little to remember. Fortunately, we did a good job of avoiding total garbage after our first night. If you want a headstart on finding decent restaurants in Rome, perhaps try here or here.
large_P1000876.jpgIMG_6537.jpgIMG_6541.jpg

Dinner was pleasant, although I've forgotten both the name of the restaurant and what we ate. I do remember it seemed to be a family-owned place and the waitress was very warm and friendly to the kids, although Cleo kept attempting to slip out the front door into the busy cobblestone street. After dinner, we felt some renewed energy and crossed the Tiber, where I got very disoriented despite my GPS and we eventually ended up in front of a very large building which appeared to be some kind of palace or museum.
large_P1000889.jpg
Do you know this building?

That's right, it was the Vatican! Believe it or not, I didn't figure this out until the next day. We made our way back across the river and got some gelato at Campo di Fiori, and then back to the apartment and bed.


We started our second day armed with a list of produce markets and farmer's markets scattered around Rome, with the goal of browsing as many as possible. After another breakfast in Mercato de Campo di Fiori, we struck out for a supposedly awesome weekend market at the Circo Massimo, which we unfortunately were unable to find. I don't know if it was discontinued, or if I just got my signals crossed, but those things happen. Fortunately, our next stop was the Testaccio market which had the reputation of being the most gritty, local market in Rome with a specialty in organ meat, one of Mei Ling's favorites. It was quite a long way to the market, but we had plenty of energy and enjoyed the walk.
P1000900.jpgP1000897.jpg

The market itself was pleasant enough but not very atmospheric, which was not surprising as the very old market had been moved to modern new digs just a couple of years previously. There were some interesting stalls although there didn't seem to be much food preparation on the grounds. On the way out,we saw the famous giant painting of a leaping wolf on the side of an apartment building. Here's more about the Testaccio market and Rome's food markets in general.
IMG_6674.jpgIMG_6675.jpg

Our next stop was the beautiful neighborhood of Trastevere, another fairly long walk. Once there we stumbled onto another outdoor market as well as a wedding at a beautiful church. After meandering through narrow, lovely streets we found a place to have a decent lunch. Trastevere was the most peaceful and pretty neighborhood we encountered in Rome, and would probably be my choice for a pied a terre should we find ourselves there again.
IMG_6677.jpgIMG_6685.jpgIMG_6689.jpgIMG_6690.jpg

After lunch we made our way over to the Vatican, basically because I felt we had to even though Mei Ling wasn't too enthusiastic about it. Of course, it was mobbed with tourists taking selfies and a number of offbeat characters seeking attention. We got on the long line for St. Peter's Basilica, which gave me some time to review my notes and figure out that we weren't going to see the Sistine Chapel that way. The Chapel is actually incorporated into the Vatican Museum, and that definitely wasn't going to happen. Fine, there's no shortage of pictures of the Sistine Chapel I can look at any time I want (I still haven't). Mei Ling enjoyed pointing out to me the number of tourists in shorts and tanktops after I had stressed these were verboten in the Vatican. I had the last laugh however when the guards at the Basilica denied entry to a girl in shorts (after she had already bought her ticket). The Basilica was impressive, of course, and quite loud on the inside from hundreds of echoing conversations. This was fortunate as Cleo decided to have a tantrum once we got inside, and no one noticed.
IMG_6702.jpgIMG_6709.jpgP1000906.jpgP1000912.jpg
The Vatican. Cleo seems to be getting religion in the last photo.

From the Vatican we headed north and then east for quite a long walk outside of the tourist center, appreciating a more modern side of Rome. This path eventually took us back across the Tiber and to the Piazza del Popolo, another landmark that was already starting to fill up with tourists and some locals getting ready for the evening stroll down the Via del Corso.
IMG_6714.jpgIMG_6715.jpg

Instead of heading down Via del Corso immediately, we walked up a winding road towards Pincian Hill, which overlooks the Piazza.
large_90_P1000920.jpg

Pincian Hill is next to the Borghese Gardens, home of one of Rome's best known museums. We spent about half an hour at the outskirts of the Borghese Gardens, but decided against a full exploration as it was getting late.
IMG_6724.jpgIMG_6722.jpgIMG_6723.jpgIMG_6721.jpg

Finally, it was time to take the promenade down the Via del Corso and slowly make our way back to Campo de Fiori. We were too exhausted to hunt for a restaurant so we self-catered from one of the late night delis in the square and had a very messy dinner at home. Just like that, we were done with the first stop on our trip, except of course for the joy of picking up our rental car the next morning. I'll close this post with a couple more pictures of my beautiful wife and the beautiful river Tiber.
large_Tiber.jpglarge_IMG_6712.jpg

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:24 Archived in Italy Tagged rome vatican coliseum forum trevi borghese testaccio trastavere popolo Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Rome arrival

I should make it clear early on what motivates us to travel, and what our priorities are when discovering a new country or culture. We're mainly into experiencing the modern life of the places we go, which means markets, restaurants, street festivals, and lots and lots of walking. What we aren't particularly into is monuments, landmarks, and museums. It seems a lot of people have a checklist of famous places wherever they go - they run down the list, take a picture in front of each landmark, and then feel like they've accomplished something even though that's what thousands of tourists have done before and thousands will do after. We're more focused on those unique experiences that only happen when we merge into the ambient scene and try to live like locals. Of course, I still feel compelled to see some of the more famous spots but I'm getting better at ignoring the vast majority of the semi-obligatory attractions, especially the museums. After all, I don't really know or care that much about classic art or archaeology and I never go to museums in the cities I've lived in, so why force myself to do that when I travel? It doesn't really make sense.

I bring this up because Rome is a classic example of the dichotomy between our kind of traveling and sightseeing. While the city is a sightseers paradise, the sheer density of tourists in the center of the city obscures whatever real modern Roman culture may survive there. For us, it was a challenge to find the things we like which are awesome produce markets, delicious food, and authentic street life. In the end, I think we enjoyed ourselves because we managed our expectations and didn't build Rome up to be some kind of cultural epiphany. We had our first jetlagged evening then two full days of walking, and that ended up being just right for us.

The Rome airport is actually in Fiumicino, about an hour to the east with traffic. We didn't get much sleep on the plane despite flying a redeye (our daughter Cleo doesn't really sleep on planes) but fortunately I had researched the complex airport taxi issues in advance. Despite consistent information I had received that I should be able to get a taxi to the city center for €48, we found this almost impossible. Several official-looking and very confusing signs were posted at the taxi stand that listed different potential prices. There seemed to be a number of airport employees at the taxi stand whose only job description seemed to be to convince us we actually had to pay €70 for the taxi. Just when I was about to give up and pay the jacked up price, one of the white Roma Capitale taxis stopped in front of us and agreed to take us to the center for €48. Of course, when we got to the destination he tried to explain we actually owed him more but I pretended not to understand and bundled everyone into the apartment. Our Airbnb hosts were super friendly and helpful and seemed shocked that anyone would have attempted to charge us more than €48 for the taxi ride, which they believed to be a strictly-enforced standard. So, our first experience of Italy was a little frenetic which actually was good preparation for the next couple of weeks.

large_5D6E09ECBABB739775D1CEDB2AF54299.jpg
The babies were thrilled to arrive in Rome.
...

Airbnb is always our first choice in the US and Europe, especially if we're staying more than one day. We've had great experiences and we typically get two bedroom places for much lower cost than we would in a hotel, especially in large cities. There's also the added convenience of a kitchen and sometimes laundry facilities, as well as the occasional helpful host. I'll qualify that by saying that we had many more logistical problems with Airbnb hosts in Italy than we had in other countries, although things usually worked out for us. The main problem we had in Italy was that many hosts didn't update their calendars so that apartments which appeared to be available actually were not available. Eventually we realized we had to send out multiple requests simultaneously to find an apartment that was really available. In Rome and especially in Venice, it seemed like there were hosts with multiple listings who were playing bait and switch games. They would promise you one location with the plan to inform you on arrival that there was a problem with that apartment and they would need to "upgrade" you to another apartment which was generally lower quality and in a worse location. Fortunately, we figured out how to spot these games and managed to avoid them. Airbnb worked much more smoothly in the other countries we visited on this trip.
large_5D8379CDF318DBD56E2CAB3745872A3B.jpg
The kids getting settled in Rome
...

We had decided to stay in Campo de Fiori for the central location as well as the proximity to the Mercato di Campo de Fiori. I think this was the right decision, although the area itself wasn't as lively as the area around the Piazza del Popolo and the Spanish Steps. Trastavere would have been a decent place to stay as well. Despite our sleep deprivation, we unpacked the necessities and then took a quick swing through the Mercato. The market was on the small side but had an impressive variety of colorful and fresh-appearing produce.
large_5DC7F7D0E013DDFE2EE891EF2DF20D3D.jpgCampo_de_Fiori_fruits.jpgIMG_6658.jpglarge_5DB0009BCB70F7802FF48715F11B2110.jpg
Mercato di Campo de Fiori
...

After getting an SIM card for Italy, we checked out Piazza Navona which was pretty but touristy, with street performers.
90_P1000853.jpgIMG_6407.jpg

Piazza Navona
...

Regretfully, the sleepless and exhausted family grabbed dinner at a local restaurant Pierluigi which had been recommended by our hosts. I had assembled quite a list of restaurants from Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor, and Chowhound but in my exhaustion decided to chuck all that aside and go with the local recommendation. Ouch. Pierluigi ended up being our first and worst meal of the entire month-long trip with inedible food and incredibly obnoxious attempts to jack up the bill, such as a seven euro microscopic bottle of lemon soda and a whisper from the waiter that service was not included on the check. In general, it proved to be extremely difficult to get decent food both in Rome and Venice, but Pierluigi was in its own realm of awfulness.
large_5D8CCD86D150C9425780F0F618170218.jpg
Pierluigi in happier times (before we ate there)
...

After dinner we weren't capable of anything other than crashing at our apartment.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:39 Archived in Italy Tagged rome Comments (0)

(Entries 11 - 15 of 17) Previous « Page 1 2 [3] 4 » Next