Aplscruf's Music, Art, and Literature Blog

Italy 2008

Italy 2008

Venice - Canal from Rialto Bridge

Although this isn’t a music journal, I thought it was worthy enough to add a separate Travel Category.  Our trip to Italy in the summer of 2008 was a trip of a lifetime. We’ve traveled to quite a few states in the U.S. as well as Canada and Mexico, but nothing so far beats our trip to London and Italy.

June 22 London to Venice
We had morning tea with Cousin Joan and Michael in their beautiful October Cottage, about 45 minutes south of London.  I will discuss our short visit and tour of London in a different journal.  Michael drove us to the Gatwick airport at about 10:30.  After brief hugs and promises to return, we ran through a quick security check after Jake had to be patted down for his big metal belt buckle!

More sitting and waiting.  We boarded the plane fairly quickly, but had to sit on the tarmac for about an hour!  Once again we were next to a small toddler, about 17 months.  The parents were very nice, young couple originally from Canada, but working in London.  They were on their way to Venice for a vacation.

Finally arrived in Venice about 4:50.  On the way, I remember seeing beautiful hillsides of England, then the gorgeous Swiss Alps.  I remember Dad telling me about his adventures in the Army, and how they took leave to visit Italy and the Alps.  He always wanted to go back, and encouraged me to visit; but not possible on this trip.  As we flew over the marshes surrounding Venice, it looked more like a swamp to me!  We then flew in a little closer and I could see some familiar towers and the Grand Canal.  The airport was very nice and clean.  It was very hot; much hotter than London, that’s for sure!  I believe the time was about an hour later than UK time.  Customs was a matter of getting our passport stamped!

We found our way to the ticket office to purchase our vaporetto tickets.  We hurried over to the boat dock, then realized too late that we were almost out of water.  Darn.  We had to wait approx. ½ hour in the heat, although the dock was covered.  We had all of our luggage of course, and were feeling good about not over-packing!

Venice on the Horizon

Finally the vaporetto (water bus) arrived.  It was the slow boat, but we thought that would be the most economical at 12 euro apiece.  We could’ve taken a taxi, but it would have cost about 100 euro!  We thought we could use the money somewhere else, so we sat back to enjoy the ride.  Well, about 45 minutes of sweltering heat later, we were really questioning our decision!  The canal was so crowded, and they had to dock in very tight spaces.  They had so many stops.  It seemed like at one point it was so crowded that they just turned around and went another direction.  I’m not sure.  It just seemed like forever.

Gondolas and Ducal Palace

By this time, we were pretty hot, cranky and hungry.  Finally, over an hour later, we came to our stop, right in front of San Marco!  Oh, what a beautiful place!  We unloaded our suitcases, headed to the left and promptly got lost.  Although we studied our maps, we weren’t really sure of the scale or the location of the street in which to turn.  We went back the way we came, then past the Piazza.  I argued with Pat (trying to keep my temper and voice down) that I was sure our hotel was not that direction, that we were indeed on the left side.  So back we went, dragging and rolling our suitcases behind us!

By San Marco

Finally we turned on the correct street and then we didn’t quite know where the next turn was!  Up a very narrow street, then left.  We ended up walking right past the door, because I looked left instead of right!  We walked by a restaurant and asked the nice waiter who told us to go back and we would find it on our left.

Ah, there it was!  Locanda Antica Venezia on Calle Frezzaria!  But the door, which had two brass doggies for doorknobs was locked.  What next?  So we saw the intercom and buzzed it.  We couldn’t really understand the clerk, although he was speaking English.  We told him our names and he eventually buzzed us in.  We entered and found ourselves standing in a square dungeon of a room.  Not a very nice entryway!  We then saw the stairs and started climbing up, up, up!

Doggie Door at Locanda Antica

Four flights up was the front desk!  Again, although our legs and lungs were killing us, we were so glad we didn’t over-pack.  A nice female clerk showed us to our room, another flight up and through a dining area and little living room with a big couch and tv.

Jacob's Alcove

Our room was soooo cool!  It had the original beams dating from the 16th Century!  This was originally a house of a patrician.  They gutted out the attic and made it into several living quarters.  Ours was a suite because of the extra boy in our party.  We loved it!  We quickly ran to the windows and opened the Real green shutters and just looked and listened.  Although our windows overlooked a little alley and a terra cotta roof, we could hear the noise and chatter of the people below, cats, dogs, church bells, boats on the Canal, clinking of silverware on dishes.  It was hot, though, so we shut them up again and cranked the air conditioning.

A Room With A View

After cooling off a bit and changing and drinking lots of water, we decided to venture out to find something to eat.  We didn’t have to venture far to find a little restaurant just around the corner from our alley on Calle Valleresso.  It was pizza, and I thought, “how original” but we were too hungry to care.  We just needed some food.  Our waitresses and two others were Asian.  I was thinking, “What did we do, find the only restaurant in all of Venice without Italian waiters??  Whatever, just give me some food!!!”

We ordered pizza, salao, and wine.  The wine came first.  OMG.  It was so good.  Just a house wine, but it was so smooth, fruity and delicious!  I can’t remember what salao is, I’ll have to look it up.  I think it was mixed veggies and bread or something.  Then the pizza.  Oh yum!!  We ordered two, one with meat and I believe mushrooms, and the other cheese so we could take some to Mike and Jackie when they arrived later that evening.  We chowed down and only had two or three slices left!!

Very satisfied and full, we walked back to our room to await our friends, Mike and Jackie, who would be joining us for most of the trip.  We weren’t exactly sure when they’d be in, but we were estimating around 8 or 9:00.  We got up to the front desk and looked down and saw Jackie’s auburn hair coming up the stairs!

We quickly tried to hide and surprise them, but that didn’t work, of course!  Lots of hugs and squeals of joy that they made it!  They were exhausted after their huge travel day of Seattle-Calgary-London-Venice!  Ugh.  They were hungry, so we immediately showed them up to their room next to ours, and gave them our remaining pizza.  They ate it furiously while telling us about their trip and asking about our London visit.  We were all pretty tired, but wanted to go explore.

We walked out to the Piazza where we could hear the little orchestras playing, watch the other tourists (including ourselves) gawk at the beautiful buildings surrounding the square, and look up at San Marco and the Campanile Tower.  We took a few pics and headed home, but first found our soon-to-be favorite gelato shop and had pistachio, melon, stracciatella, and dulce latte!  Yum.  Back up our stairs, Jackie and Jake counted 84 steps to our rooms!!

San Marco

June 23 Venice, full day

Although we were somewhat used to the time change after being in the UK for 3 days, Mike and Jackie would need some adjustment time.  We all got up early though and showered.  That was an adventure, until we figured out the routine.  Our bathroom was down the hall, but we had a key.  We shared it with M&J, but it worked out well.  The shower, on the other hand, was simply a very small but deep bathtub with no curtain and with a shower attachment and hose that you would have to use by either squatting or kneeling (as Mike tried to do and Pat walked in on him!!) or just sitting down and enjoying the difference in culture.  Jake also liked the bidet!  We all tried it and had varying responses!

We went outside to the little rooftop courtyard and the waitress brought our first cup of caffe!  Oh, it was soooo good.  With a little warm latte, perfetto!  We were now officially Italian.  We had a nice little breakfast with lots of choices for hot food, as well as a simple buffet of granola, yogurt, and fresh fruit and juices, including blood orange juice (my fave).  Jake said he liked the croissants and corn flakes the best.  We found this menu throughout our stay at all the bed-and-breakfast hotels.

Grand Canal

We gathered our small backpacks and water and headed out for our first full day of exploring.  We didn’t have a set schedule in Venice because we knew it would be better to just keep it unstructured as we all adjusted to the climate and time zone.  We took Rick Steves’ advice and just got lost in Venice!

Venice Alley

We sauntered down the narrow alleys which actually kept us out of the sunlight and much cooler.  We crossed over little bridges that were packed with tourists and gondoliers chanting for our business: “gondola-gondola-gondola!”  We found a Tourista agency not too far from our hotel.  We decided to purchase our train tickets early, since we had a plan for getting from city to city.  It was easier than we thought, and the ticket agent was very helpful.


We continued to stroll around through back alleys, shops, over bridges.  Laundry was hanging between alleys, just like in pictures and movies.  Flower boxes were hanging off deck railings overflowing with brilliant summer colors.  I thought that was just a stereotype, or maybe just a tourist area, but no, it’s everywhere!  People live here!  I felt like I was in DisneyWorld, only not so sterile of an environment.

Venice Piazza

I have talked to quite a few people who have visited Venice, and about 50% of them didn’t like it because of the smells and grittiness of the place.  This is exactly what I loved about Venice!  It gave it its charm and unique quality.  In a place like DisneyWorld, although initially magical, my senses are dulled.  Eventually after a couple of days there, there is no sense of…authenticity…I’m not sure.  All I know is my senses in Venice came alive.  I could smell every alleyway, I could smell the people, I could smell the beautiful fruits (the grapes did smell purple, just like the movie Under the Tuscan Sun) and vegetables in the market, I could smell the water in the canal, and I could smell the food cooking in all of the little trattorias and osterias and ristorantes that we passed.  I embraced that city; we all did.


We walked and walked and walked.  We strolled the back alleys and glass shops (the island of Murano is world-famous for its glass art), bought glass earrings, bottle stoppers, bracelets, stepped over many bridges, found a sleeping cat next to a doorway (I petted it then hoped I didn’t get ring worm!), saw graffiti, a down comforter hanging, more flowers, the Rialto Bridge, where an older French couple asked us to take their picture without saying a word of English, merci, merci!, San Marco in the daytime, cruise ship tourists by the thousands, a Ferrari gift shop (where Jake purchased his r/c Ferrari), saw delis full of wine, meats and cheeses, saw a beggar lady who looked 95 hold out a tobacco case for change, gondolas and gondoliers down every back tributary, a street guitarist, store fronts for the best designers: D&G, Armani, Gucci, leather goods, and postcard shops.

Rialto Bridge

Also, I became enamored with the doors and door knockers.  I first noticed our doggies on Locanda Antica’s green doors.  Then I decided to take pictures of them as we strolled down the many streets and alleys.  I must have taken at least 50 pics just of door knockers!  It became a joke after awhile, as everyone would start looking with me.  More knockers!  Here are some big knockers! Etc.  There were mostly made of brass or maybe bronze.  The best were patinaed and old.  There were lions, cougars, Africans, Egyptian pharaohs, more lions, flowers, rings, gargoyles, and even more lions.  And the doors…how old?  Wooden, dented and scratched, painted, stained, light, darker, black.  Years of knocking, banging, hitting with keys, groceries.

Door Knocker

We remembered watching a show called Three Sheets where this funny guy travels all over the world to try out the different alcohol-related customs.  He went to Venice in one episode and visited Cantina Do Mori, a little wine cantina from the 1460’s!  They had a variety of appetizers he tried as well as many choices of red and white wine.  One of the appetizers was octopus, which the host tried, but made a terrible face.  Jake decided this would be the appetizer he would choose, if we actually found the place.  Which we did!  We literally stumbled upon it while turning in to an alley near the Rialto Bridge.  It was dark inside the narrow little cantina.  The servers were very reserved and watched us as we ooh-ed and aah-ed while looking at the ebony wood walls and all of the appetizers in the case, and all of the wine.  We played it safe and just ordered a glass each of the house wine.  I tried the white, since it sounded cool and refreshing, which it was.  We then chose our appetizers.  Jake, the baby octopus.  It was a whole baby octopus.  Ugh.  I had bruschetta.  Pat had a prosciutto sandwich.  M&J also tried bruschetta.  Jake actually finished the whole octopus, much to our horror!  We soaked in the ambience of the place and still couldn’t believe that cantina has been in business since before Columbus sailed the ocean blue!


We finally wore down with  true hunger and turned into a little square and without giving another thought turned right into a little Trattoria Pizzeria.  I didn’t pick up a business card, but remembered the not-so-unique name.  The waiters, although a bit stand-offish, were prompt to seat us.  There were many people outside, but we soon realized if we ate indoors we usually had the place to ourselves as well as air conditioning.  Also, lunch and dinner for the locals was never the same as when we wanted to eat, so we usually did eat almost entirely alone.

We ordered red wine and again found it delicious!  We also ordered bottled water (gas and no gas) as was a tradition in each city we visited.  I’m not sure if this was borne from ignorant tourists not trusting the water, or something in which they prided themselves.  Either way, it was refreshing.  We each had varying dishes of lasagna, spaghetti and gnocchi.  Jake had gnocchi al pesto, Mike had gnocchi al pomodoro, Jackie had spaghetti margareta, Pat had lasagne which he said was like butter, and I had tortellini with spinach and cheese and pomodoro marinara.  All good!  We stuffed ourselves and headed back out, first stopping for more gelato for dessert.

Spending months learning, reading and preparing for our trip was so worthwhile.  Our greatest asset was the Rick Steves series of books and travel shows on our public channel.  He has such practical advice from hotel choices to food, to which way to look for a taxi when you get off the train at your destination.   One of the things we enjoyed the most in each city, but especially in Venice, was something I’d read and seen on one of his shows: water spigots!  The bottled water was great in the restaurants, but when we were wandering through back alleys in Venice, the spigots were our lifeblood.  We all started out with full water bottles, but the heat and walking drained them quickly.  We turned a corner and found ourselves in a very tiny square surrounded by apartments and window shutters.  Looking down was a little running water spigot.  Do we drink…?  Yes.  We filled up and found the water to be cool and amazingly good.  Apparently it is piped in from the Alps.

Water Spigot

Took a rest back at the hotel and decided to eat dinner at another little pizza joint next door to the one from the night before off Calle Valleresso.  It was a little fancier, the waiters were very Italian and wore white dinner jackets.  One stout little waiter would sing at the open door into the alley to entice customers. The food was fairly reasonably priced and again very good.  We had lasagna there, too, and it was comparable to the place at lunch.  We had a little fridge in our room so we were able to save some nibbles for the next day.

June 24 Venice – 2nd full day

We breakfasted at 8:00 and already we could feel the heat bearing down on us at our rooftop perch.  But oh, the caffe latte was soooo good!  Today we had to dress up for San Marco.  We decided to take a tour of the basilica which opened at 9:00.  We made sure wear our nicer clothes and cover our shoulders.  I brought my nice wrap, which was way too hot, but did the trick.

Bridge of Sighs

San Marco Horses

Italian Navy

We started walking through the Piazza, but were stopped and directed over to the side.  The Italian Navy was marching through!  What a sight!  We watched as hundreds marched by in blocks of three or four.  They were all so beautiful!  Even those with glasses were very stylish!  They stopped and the Navy band played a few songs, then they marched back toward the dock.  As we stood in line for St. Marks, they marched back and did it all over again!  I took lots of pictures.  They were in camouflage with little black berets with anchors on the beret fronts.  There was an Italian lady in line behind us trying to speak with Mike, and what we could decipher was that they were either going to or were back from Afghanistan.


Finally, our line started moving and we were shuffled in to the Basilica.  It was stunning.  Gorgeous gold mosaics depicting bible stories glimmered in the morning sunlight.  The domed ceilings and arches looked like they were painted in gold.  Closer inspection made us realize how painstaking it must have been to lay all of the tiny pieces of glass and still make brilliant pictures with shading and flowing robes and varying colors and tones of skin and backgrounds.  On the outer walls was the story of how monks smuggled the bones of St. Mark himself back to Venice, where he now lays to rest under the large altar.

San Marco Mosaic

We snuck away from the generic and hard-to-hear tour guides and up the steep stairs to the balcony which had a breathtaking view of the city, Grand Canal, Piazza, and the Navy.  We spent several minutes taking pictures, walking carefully around the sloping balcony.  From there we could really look closely at the mosaics.  Each little piece was only as big as my finger nail!  There were also four bronze horses that kept watch over the Piazza.  I later found out these were copies.  The originals were kept in the museum.  We decided to check out the museum next.


It was hot, we were all a little hungry, but thought we’d just breeze through it at our own pace.  We purchased our tickets (fairly cheap) and past an old marble pedestal…and then…The Four Horses.  I had seen beautiful gold mosaic depictions of Christ on the cross, Mary and Jesus, the Nativity, the Pieta, but the Horses made me weep.  I couldn’t take my eyes off them.  The rest of our group continued on around the corner and explored other rooms of the small museum.  I lost track of the time.  I asked a tour guide, “How old?” Her reply, “Two thousand years.”   I read that the horses were first thought to be from Constantinople, that Constantine acquired them, then Napoleon took them, then they ended up in Venice, then back somewhere else, then they finally mounted them atop the Basilica.  About 25 years ago they finally moved them inside.   They were at least 95% copper, had some copper color left after much restoration, but still had some green patina.  They were scarred and scratched from their days outside to keep the sun from reflecting too brightly off their strong bodies.  I guess what brought so much emotion out of me were their expressions and the details on each one.  I felt their presence, like they were real.  Bold, strong giants, trotting proudly, veins, wrinkles, snorting, shaking their massive heads, slamming their hooves down, bringing their strong legs up for the next step….2000 years.  How did the warriors carry them from place to place without damage?  Why were they so prized?  Who made them?  I cried.  I sobbed.  I wept.  I was completely overwhelmed by their power. Nothing, not the saints, not the Madonna, not even Jesus, had the power to move me the way the Four Horses did.

I caught up to Pat as he was walking back to find me.  I started crying all over again.  I tried to explain to him and to Jake and M&J, but I just couldn’t figure out what moved me to tears.  There’s a word for people who have an emotional reaction to art.  I don’t remember now what it’s called!

We wandered through the rest of the museum, then I asked if I could have one more look before “letting them go” and promising to visit them again.  I still have burned into my memory the last look of the first horse peering over the dividing wall at me.  I guess that’s my one thing that I want to remember the most.  Ralph and Karen’s son Chris passed away a few years ago.  I didn’t know him very well, but I learned so much about him at the funeral, which made me sad, but at the same time, glad I got to know him better.  His friend said that they had traveled to Italy (at that time, Italy was only a far-off dream to me).  He said that they were in Tuscany and could see a beautiful landscape in front of them.  Chris told his friend to burn that image in his mind forever, and every time they went anywhere, they would try to remember that one special image that made the trip so special.  This was my image: The Four Horses. See more information here: http://www.jssgallery.org/Essay/Venice/San_Marco/Basilica_San_Marco/Four_Horses.htm

Original Four Horses, copyright philg@mit.edu

A View At The Top of San Marco

We soon departed the Basilica and decided to take a ride up the Campanile tower since the line was fairly short.  Luckily there was an elevator since we didn’t feel like climbing stairs in that heat.  Up to the top, we had an amazing view of the city and beyond.  Oh my gosh, we haven’t even covered ¼ of the city!  We thought for sure we’d walked most of it!  Then we found our “house”!  Locanda Antica, with its big white awning was easily recognizable.  It made sense, since we could see the tower from our seats at breakfast!  We took some pictures (try to find the Locanda!)  and made our way back to the elevator door.  It was pretty crowded and hot up there, but there was a nice breeze from the canal.

From the Tower

Our House With White Awning

Above San Marco

By the time we got back down, I was a little dizzy from the heat and was hungry.  We got some water and headed back to the rooms to change and take a break.

Time to head out again to get some food!  There was a self-serve café just down the street that we thought we’d try called Chat Qui Rit, which means Cat something.  It was very overpriced, not that great, and very hot inside.  We paid 68 euros just for the 3 of us!  And there was a Soup Nazi moving the line along.  Prego, Prego!

Went back to the room and had a siesta.  I believe this is the time that Jackie fell asleep in a chair in our room!  We were all a little tired.

Doges Palace

We went to Doges Palace (got tickets in the am after our Basilica tour).  It was pretty much a self-guided tour through the lovely palace of a very rich dude.  It was right next to the San Marco Piazza, a pinkish marble building built in a U shape with a great courtyard surrounded by statues.  Inside was stunning with gold leafing, ornate wall decorations, rooms packed with paintings and painted ceilings, an armory room, and then things changed from banquet halls to the halls of justice.  This is also where prisoners were tried and found guilty or innocent.  If found guilty, they were led across the Bridge of Sighs (their last look at the Canal–sigh) and into the dungeons of the prison next door!  We walked through the bridge and took pics of the tourists taking pics of us!

On Bridge of Sighs

Water Taxi Tour

That evening, we decided to hire a sleek wooden water taxi.  We all decided not to take the pricey and touristy gondolas.  We just didn’t think that was what we wanted to do.  Of course, everyone thought we should have, but we weren’t really into it.  Besides, I said, we did that in Vegas! Ha  Pat and Mike dickered with the driver to get the price down about 10 euros (big deal–still cost 90).  But it was very fun.  He cruised through the whole canal and took us around to spots we weren’t able to walk to without having a few more days.  He didn’t speak English, so that was the only bummer.  It would’ve been nice to be able to know what we were looking at.  I did point out the Peggy Guggenheim Museum!

We then went to dinner at Green Bar, which was a little deli full of nice panini sandwiches, good beer, and strawberry bellinis!  Yum!

Back to the hotel after a little shopping and more gelato.  Oh, and one night while licking our heavenly gelato from our favorite little shop by our hotel, we witnessed the purse dealers and purse pimp in action.  At first, we weren’t sure what was going on.  There were African men that would appear on the street corners and alleyways holding big blue plastic bags.  We thought they were garbage collectors at first, and I almost threw my gelato napkin in one of them one time! Luckily, I thought better and didn’t attempt it!  But that night, we saw one of them pull out some purses as a group of young women strolled by.  They stopped and bargained, then continued walking, but turned around and bargained some more.  The pimp, an Italian man, was speaking to the dealer to either get more money or to keep selling, etc.  Finally the deal was made and one of the women left with a big purse, and the dealer ran a few yards up the street to hand a wad of cash to the pimp.  Wow.  It was fascinating to see how it worked.  Although illegal, most cops just turned their heads as long as they weren’t pestering or causing trouble.

June 25 Venice to Florence

We were up by 7 am, showered, had our last breakfast on the roof with our caffe latte and then caught a vaporetto to the train station.  It was hard to say goodbye to Venice.  We took our last looks as we putted down the canal.

The train station was a bit confusing.  We figured out which train, but we weren’t sure where the first class coaches were.  We hopped on, trying to run to the correct coach.  It was very difficult hauling our suitcases onto the narrow steps and then down the very narrow aisles.  We found what we thought were our seats, but then ended up moving to a different coach after we started out.  We finally figured out how to read our tickets after we found the correct seats.

The train ride took longer than we thought, because we actually went back one hour for the time change.  We took some short naps, got some food.  Took some pictures of the rolling hills.  It reminded me of Northern California in the springtime.

After passing through several little towns, we finally arrived in Florence, Santa Maria Novella station.  It was an eye-opener.  It was very hot, extremely busy with taxis, buses, electric buses, scooters, people walking, tourists gawking, businessmen in beautiful suits on bikes and scooters, and all on cobblestone streets!  We were frightened to move!


Arno River

We found the taxi line outside the station and hailed two after looking up our next destination.  We prayed we’d get to our hotel in one piece!  It was pretty dodgy getting through some narrow streets to our hotel, Hotel Maxim on Via Caiziouli.  Talk about a central location!  We were literally surrounded with the biggest sights in Florence, including the Duomo, Giotto’s Tower, Uffizi Gallery, Accademia, and Ponte Vecchio bridge.

The hotel didn’t have much style, but the front desk people were friendly.  Our room looked like an old hospital room, painted stark white with high ceilings, one middle light hanging in a white ball, a tall window and a tiny desk and mirror.  The bathroom was moldy with a little fan that had to be plugged in to work.  Jake was immediately disappointed after loving his little alcove bed and attic room in Venice.  And we all hated the traffic and craziness of the city.

Pitti Palace and Gardens

We settled in and decided to get a small bite to eat and take a look around.   We walked and walked and walked in the 90 degree heat!  Again the buildings were tall, so we were able to get out of the direct sunlight.  We decided we had some time to do whatever we wanted so we ended up purchasing tickets to Boboli Gardens, which was the “backyard” of the Pitti Palace.  Pitti, once owned by the Medici family, is now a giant museum.  We were going to other museums over the next few days, so we opted out, much to Jacob’s relief.  As we were walking up the paved entrance to the palace to purchase tickets, this little English girl with blond braids was talking to her father: “Seriously, Daddy, if I have to see one more museum…”  We laughed!

We thought we’d stroll through the gardens at our leisure.  What we didn’t know is that the gardens were situated on a very large hill!  We had to walk up,up,up!  On the way up were beautiful fountains, hedges and statues.  Jake especially liked the statue of Neptune in one of the fountains because he just did a play about him in his class.  There was a giant statue of Ceres that must have been about 15 feet tall.  We finally made it to the top where there was a little box hedge garden and a fantastic view of the Tuscan hills.  Just like in the movies or photographs.  There was even a little castle at the top of the far hill.  Also, there was a pretty little museum we visited with china of all sorts in cases.


Art Students

City Wall

We were getting hungry and thirsty, so we walked back down and found a little restaurant on the corner just on the south side of the Ponte Vecchio.  It was very fancy with dark wood walls and furniture and covered tables, but no one was in there!  Once again, it was too early for dinner, and I think people do small meals for lunch.  The waiter was very nice and friendly, and once again we ate and ate and ate.  Ensalada Mista, pasta, gnocchi, wine, bread…very good, but I didn’t write down the name of the restaurant!  I’ll see if Mike did.  Gelato for dessert somewhere on the streets.

There was definitely a different flavor in Florence.  For one thing, the gelato tasted different!  It had a creamier texture.  The people of Florence were very much there to do business. This was a working city, not just a tourist trap.  People in nice clothes and suits were rushing back and forth, walking in heels on cobblestone streets, scootering, biking.  The street shops were not full of glass trinkets and souvenirs, but full of designer clothes and handbags.  Much fancier than Venice.  This was a fashion Mecca, a sister of Milan.  The cobblestone streets were only cut off from vehicles in the main square by the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio Bridge.  The rest of the streets were fair game.  We really had to watch ourselves and watch the streets to avoid getting run over by Vespas.  It was very stressful until about the 2nd full day.

Florence's Duomo

Copy of Baptistry Door Panel

Sasso di Dante

We took a break back at the hotel, then ventured out for a little while at sunset.  We again wanted to eat, so we settled for Sasso di Dante (Stone of Dante, or Philosopher’s Stone).  Again, the food was excellent, and the prices were much lower, very reasonable.  It was somewhere near the Duomo, but not sure of the street.  There were some of the friendliest waiters we had on the whole trip.  I later asked, “Que es Sasso?”  Stone!  Look! Right here!  Oh, the stone was planted right by the side of the restaurant with a little plaque that said Sasso di Dante!  I took a picture.

June 26 Tour Day

The David!  So many years went by thinking about going to Italy someday and seeing the Statue of David.  It was bizarre to think I was actually going to accomplish that dream today.  Several months before our trip, we made arrangements to meet Lise Apatoff, an expat tour guide.  Pat’s accountant friend at work gave us her information and was very satisfied with her when they went on a tour a year before.  I called her when we got in town and she was excited to meet us.

I passed her in the hall of the elevator without thinking…I hadn’t seen a picture of her.  So I ran back upstairs to see if I could catch her.  I introduced myself, and she thought I was too young, so she didn’t question if I was the Lisa she was looking for!  That was a nice thing to say!  Plus she was amazed I just ran up 3 flights of stairs.  Well, I told her, we had a lot of practice in Venice!  She went back down with me to meet the rest of the gang.

We started in a big square behind our hotel.  She sat us down in the shade on a bench and began to tell us a brief history of the city, as well as some of the surrounding buildings in the immediate square.  She had maps, postcards and old pictures of what Florence used to look like.  It was very interesting, yet not drawn out too long, being that the day was going to be hot, and Jake’s patience would not stand for too much study today!  All of the buildings that surrounded us were made of large rectangular stone and were hundreds of years old.  Some were like old towers that hadn’t changed over the years, but apartments butted up on either side of them.  The walls of the towers and old buildings had holes in them for inserting boards for climbing to the roof to fix the terra cotta shingles.  They also had hooks where rods could be hung below windows to show off the family crests or hang laundry, or even attach a pet monkey on a lead.  Lower, there were O rings attached on embedded iron to tie up horses.  They also had wooden hatches next to doors for delivery items that would go to the kitchens, etc. so the carts didn’t have to go through the front doors.  On the corners of the more prominent homes or businesses, there were religious depictions of Mary and Jesus.  Usually pictures with words of scripture or family names or both below.  Some would be etched into the stone, but many were encased in glass several feet up on the corner walls. 

We got to go into an old house from the 14th century.  Like the other towers and surrounding buildings on every block we walked on, this was wedged in between a row of other apartments and old towers.  I would have walked right by it, but she knew her way around all the back alleys and streets.  The house was now a museum.  She spoke to the lady at the entrance in Italian, and in we went.  There were 3 or4 or maybe more floors to this place!  They had the first 2 completely restored.  There was an old fresco of a knight with the family crest on one wall by the stairs.  A little stone lion guarded the staircase rail.  That is one of my favorite pictures that I took.  The little lion had such a sweet face.  The floors were all terra cotta tile.  The original door was studded with large iron spikes for security.  The kitchen was on the very top floor, but this was still being renovated.  All the cooking was done on the top so the smell of meats and smoke would drift upward and out of the house.  The bedroom had a little cupboard embedded in the wall and was like a little shrine for praying to Mary and Jesus, with beautiful paintings on the inside.  There was even a little bathroom in the corner, which was very unusual for the time.

Lion on the staircase

Little shrine in bedroom

Looking Up

We also visited an old church or convent that was important because inside was a very old fresco of the Last Supper.  I don’t remember the artist, but I did keep a pamphlet about it.  I’ll add that in later.

We then walked over the Ponte Vecchio bridge where she brought up the story of the German officer who was in charge of blowing up the bridge during WWII.  He couldn’t do it.  He’d studied art history and knew that the bridge was a significant part of the Italian Renaissance.  So he instead blew up the buildings and roadways on either side of the bridge, making it impassable, and keeping the bridge safe.

The bridge also has a passageway over the top of it for the great Medici family to cruise back to their palace without being noticed.  The bridge used to be filled with meat markets, but it was too stinky for the Medici family, so they sent the meat markets down the street and allowed jewelry vendors to occupy the bridge instead.

We walked to a back street and found a strange building that looked like it had been fractured down the side with a jagged knife, then attached to another.  This was where a car bomb blew back in the 60’s, I believe.  They rebuilt the part that blew off, so the building looks very odd.  They planted a new olive tree next to a very old one and fenced them in next to the building as a remembrance of the more recent 911, and how things do tend to continue on after great trauma.

Fractured Building

We walked Northeast toward the Accademia.  On our way we walked past the Duomo and the doors of the Baptistry, the beautiful bronze doors!  My friend Karen and I saw 3 of the original restored panels at the Seattle Art Museum back in April.

After paying for our tickets, we strolled first though some 13th century paintings and then into the beautiful rectangular room with a dome at the end. I had to look; I knew he was standing there!  David!  First, Lise tortured us by showing us some other sculptures of Michelangelo’s, his great Slaves, where the gorgeous bodies are trying to set themselves free of the marble.  Beautiful.  But I wanted David.  She saw me peeking, and quietly acknowledged that we would get there soon enough.

We strolled quietly over to him.  He wasn’t looking directly at us, but off in the distance at his giant prey.  He had such a presence, such a power to him.  There was a dome above him that let the natural light bathe his thin, muscular physique.  Nothing can really describe seeing him in person.  I’ve seen so many pictures of him, that being right there in front of him was very surreal.  Lise pulled us off to the side in the direction in which he was looking.  I couldn’t keep my eyes off him.  She explained the story of David, and also the story of Michelangelo and how he was only 26 when he sculpted this masterpiece.  And how his patron complained that David’s nose wasn’t quite right.  So Michelangelo climbed up his scaffolding and pretended to work on the nose.  He took some marble dust from his pocket and slyly dribbled it down to make it seem like he was chipping away at the nose.  He got down and let the patron view it.  Perfetto!  He was perfetto, smooth, beautiful.  His stare was ass-kicking.  We didn’t stay as long as I would have liked, but I knew I had to make compromises with our group.  Some day, when I’m an old lady, I’ll come back for a visit and stay as long as I please.

We finished our tour at Ristorante da Mimmo.   It was originally a musical theatre with high ceilings and arched entryways.  It was beautifully painted, and again, empty!  She sat down with the waiter and spoke Italian and had him go through the menu with us.  I had the best lunch here. It was some kind of pot roast in an orange-brown sauce over noodles.  It was terrific.  I forgot the name, and I couldn’t find it on their online menu!  Darn!  I might write to Lise and see if she can find out next time she’s in town.

We were all exhausted as we made our way back to the hotel.  Jake was feeling overheated, so Pat stayed back with him while I went out with Mike and Jackie for gelato.  I grabbed an extra for the boys and headed back with melting cups!  We all took a break for awhile, then I headed out with M & J for a bus ride to the top of a hill called Michelangelo Park.  At the top, was a beautiful, scenic park and also a giant bronze-green sculpture of David.  There was a great view of the city from here, and the surrounding Etruscan (Tuscan) hills.  We also went into an old convent chapel where there were beautiful paintings and very old altar.  It was dark, cool, and very peaceful.

Bronze David

View of Ponte Vecchio

We decided to hike back after getting some water and a cool, fruity granita.  It was quite a long hike to the bottom of the hill, then over the bridge and up a few blocks to our hotel.  What a long day!  The boys were recovered and ready to go eat again.

We ate dinner at I Fratellini.  It was another little gem tucked away on a side street.  It was in Rick Steves’ book and another tour book we had studied.  It was good and had reasonable prices.  We have some funny pics of Jake here, because he was pretty tired and silly by this point.

We got more gelato, walked around by the Duomo and settled in for the night.  We even did some hand-washing of our clothes in the sink!  It actually worked out ok, and most of our clothes were completely dry by the next afternoon.

Giotto's Tower

June 27 Uffizi Gallery Tour

Piazza Signoria

Fake David

Medusa's Head

Uffizi Gallery!  We met Lise at 9:00 in front of the “fake” David in the sculpture piazza.  She took our picture in front of the fountain statue of Neptune, which Michelangelo supposedly called a waste of marble!  Or the big fat white guy!  We only had to wait about 5 minutes to get into the gallery because she had ordered tickets for us months in advance.  That is the only way to go.  The line for non-ticket holders was insane.  Plus, just after 9 or 10, the cruisers pile out of the buses and invade the city, so we were smart to go early.

Lise briskly walked us through 14th century Madonnas, including my favorite Giotto, with the little angels looking up at the holy Mother and Child.  Then on to the 15th century and Botticelli, my absolute fave.  I should have been more assertive and told her I’d catch up to the rest when they moved on.  I wanted to stare at La Primavera for the rest of the day.  I loved the sweet faces, faces that could be seen in modern times, the almost cartoon lines that outlined their shape, the 2nd toes longer than the big toes, beautiful colors, the flowers.  The tondo with the boys’ faces of innocence.  Venus, The Venus.  Gorgeous.  We’ve all seen it a million times, but to be in front of the real thing was surreal.  There was also Michelangelo’s tondo with the beautiful bright blue and orange-red robes.  I love Jesus’ angelic face looking up at his Mama.  Leonardo’s painting of the Visitation, the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, a classic.  Look at it from the right side and look left for the best view.  He structured it with a left-centered perspective.  We also saw two Adams and Eves.  One is always shown in the beginning of Desperate Housewives.  It again was weird to see something that has become part of pop culture.  Titian’s Venus de Urbino was also there, laid out and beautiful, with her chamber maid in the background picking out her gown from a large trunk.  Masaccio (Little Tom–cat) and Vasari, the great and first art historian and artist himself.  But it all went by too quickly.  I could’ve spent hours there if I had the time by myself.  Instead, I settled with a book on Botticelli in the adjoining bookstore.

The rest of the afternoon was a blur.  We paid Lise for her services and thanked her profusely.  I promised to write to Rick Steves and recommend her.  We were hungry when we were finished touring.  We walked back to our street and found another cafeteria style restaurant that was air conditioned.  It was called Queen Victoria cafeteria or something like that.  I remember the server was very gorgeous, as were most of the young men in this city!  We had a quick lunch and some good non-alcoholic sangria punch with big chunks of fruit that was very refreshing.

I think we went back to the hotel for a break after that.  I’m pretty sure this is the day we decided to find a branch of Mike’s company, AON Consulting.  We took a city bus (it was at least 90 that day) and it got crowded really fast.  Jake found a seat and I stood behind him.  I could smell the sweat of the bodies around us, including my own!  Jackie was the victim of the worst possible thing that could happen on a long bus ride.  She was standing, and a man got on and stood in front of her, raised his arm above her head to hold on to the rail, and released the pungent odor of his armpit directly into her face!  She managed to keep from fainting and throwing up, so I must give her credit.  We were able to laugh about it later as she and Mike re-enacted the scene!

We found the AON building a few blocks up the street from where we got off the bus.  It was nicely renovated and had a beautiful courtyard.  We went into the very modern lobby while Mike presented his card to the non-English speaking receptionist.  She called for a representative to come downstairs to meet us.  A very beautiful and English-speaking rep came to meet us.  She was very accommodating and friendly.  We were very sweaty and hot, but tried our best to be good Americans! I remember feeling embarrassed by the amount of sweat dripping off my face and staining my shirt!  She was going to take us on a tour, but we bowed out, and Mike politely told her we just wanted to stop by and say hello.

I believe we walked back from AON and back to the hotel for a long break.  As the sun was going down, we decided to do some shopping.  I wanted a bag or satchel.  I didn’t want a fancy designer bag, just something simple.  We hit some shops near the hotel and then wandered down to the Piazza Signoria and over to an outdoor market.  I found about a billion purse vendors!  I took a pic for my purse fiend and friend Stacey.  I wanted a brown one, not too poofy, not too girly, and large enough to hold my papers and files.

I'll Take the Brown One

I Medici.  Perfetto!  An older balding man was the vendor of the I Medici bags and purses.  He was friendly, talkative, and willing to bargain a little.  He gave me his pitch, and I didn’t feel like walking away.  The leather is tooled here, in Italy.  In America, they stamp the word Coach on them and raise the prices!  He showed me the one I picked from the many hanging purses.  He opened it and showed me the hand-made quality, told me how it will get softer with age and last for years.  I fell in love with it.  He said if I want it, it’s $125 euro, but for me $90.  I should have dickered with him more to get the price down, but then we somehow got on the subject of dogs.  He asked what kind, I said Rat Terrier!  Then he got excited and took out his wallet to show me his two dogs, a fat, black and white Bull Terrier and a Jack Russell!  We laughed and compared dog stories of the barking, the fighting, the funny personalities.  We exchanged our euros for the bag, and wished him well.  I later saw an identical bag in a shop window in Rome for 135 euro, so I felt like I did alright.

Street Artist

Fresh Produce

WSU Grad's Knocker

We later walked down to the Ponte Vecchio for dinner.  We turned off before the bridge down the left side and saw a sign called Osteria del Cinghialebianco (white boar).  As usual, we just stumbled upon it.  It was more crowded than some of the other restaurants we’d been to, but they quickly accommodated us at a long table by the door.  This place was like a little brick cave.  It was dark with arched walls, but friendly and cozy.

Jake had on his Materazzi soccer jersey (a royal blue and black striped jersey, the team of Florence–Materazzi being a very good-looking player, according to the female store clerk, as she tapped her finger on her tooth!) and was a hit with the waiters!  When in Rome…or Florence…The one waiter slapped Jake on the back with a big, “Materazzi! Very good!”

Again, we had really good food, great wine poured from a little terra cotta pitcher with a glazed white boar on it.  We again ate too much.  We finally realized that we can order family style and just share.  We made the mistake over and over again of ordering separately and having way more left over than we could ever eat.  We also did not have a refrigerator in our room, so food was wasted.

June 28 Travel Day from Florence to Pisa to Monterosso

This was an exhausting day for me and I think for everyone.  We made the mistake of not getting our bags packed all the way the night before and found ourselves rushing to finish in the morning.  We were 15 minutes late getting downstairs to the taxi.  I felt really bad about that.  It was hot already, but off we went to the train station.  There were delays.  We were confused as to why our train wasn’t showing up on the board.  We had to stand around and wait to see which terminal it would pull into so we didn’t accidentally get on the wrong train.  This was very nerve-wracking.  Once it showed up, we had to run with our luggage to make sure we were ready to board.  The trains waited for no one!  It was scorching hot.  We finally embarked and had about an hour ride to Pisa.  No first class this time.

We disembarked and checked all of our bags at the station.  That was smart because we then had to get a taxi to the Campo di Miracolo (Field of Miracles) where we had tickets to the Leaning Tower.  Everything was rushed now that we were arriving later.  Plus, we hadn’t had our coffee or our usual big breakfast!  Pat and I were starting to get very crabby, and I had a pounding headache.  It felt like 95 degrees when we finally arrived at the Tower, and it was only about 10:00.  We verified our tour time (again, we pre-ordered tickets about a month in advance, so that part was easy) and walked down the block to a café for some coffee and a quick lunch.  Pat and I were not cooperating this day.  We really needed some “us” time and some relaxation, which we did not experience in Florence.  After some food and caffeine, we were a little more civil.

Part of Leaning Tower

Duomo and Baptistry

Leaning Tower of Pisa

We checked our remaining backpacks with the tour office and got in line to climb the tower just after 11:00.  It was blistering hot out.  It was so weird to think we were actually climbing the Leaning Tower!  The same tower found on pizza boxes, so many pictures and movies, such an icon of Italy.  As we stood right in front of it, I found the degree of the lean quite astounding.  I hoped it didn’t pick today to fall over!

Crushing the Tower!

Up we went!  It was also quite obvious on the inside as we climbed that the tower was leaning.  The stairs circled around and around, but when we would climb toward the leaning side, the stairs felt like they evened out and we were climbing horizontally.  It was the strangest feeling!  It was also much cooler on the inside, as the marble walls protected us from the sun’s heat.  The 700 year-old stairs were so worn in the middle from all the tourists climbing them that they were dented in the middle and smooth as David’s bottom!

Marble Steps of Tower

Jackie and I fell a little behind the boys.  There were two guys from India behind us who struck up a conversation.  One was from Calcutta and I believe the other was from Mumbai.  They were here on business, but were taking a day off for sightseeing with their Italian tour guide, Mario, who waited for them safely below.  They were trying to get Mario’s attention.  We came to a resting place and looked down at the small people wandering about the grounds below.  They found Mario!  They pointed him out to us.  “Mario!”  We all shouted! “Maaa-rio!”  Jackie, who has a great whistle, helped out.  Everyone looked up but Mario!  We laughed and tried again.  They later asked where we were from and also asked if we’d ever been to China.  We both said no.  Then one said in his heavy Indian accent, “Never go to China.  They can’t even speak English there! They don’t even know the word for water!”  Too funny.  We later laughed about this because we could barely understand them because of their accents.  We had a lot of fun calling out to Mario, though.  Tourism really does break cultural barriers, if you pay attention and keep an open mind.

At the top (it was a little dicey climbing around some stairs with a little railing to get there) we took a few pictures and quickly headed back down.  The town of Pisa is filled with red terra cotta rooftops.  In the distance we could see some hills.  We carefully made our way down to the bottom.  We were happy we went; it was something so unique to experience.


We decided not to tour the other buildings.  There was a basilica and baptistery in the Campo, but we’d seen enough.  We were ready to get on with the next part of our journey.  We stood around in front of the Campo for a good 20 minutes without being able to hail a cab.  Finally, we saw some buses go by and decided to try our luck at reading a bus schedule.  We made our way across the very busy street and stood at the bus stop wondering if one would stop for us!  Finally one stopped and I politely asked if he was going to La Stazione?  Si.  Yess!  We hopped on.  It was like a Greyhound bus, very plush seats and air conditioning.  We were the only ones on it.  I quickly realized we’d never purchased a ticket for the bus!  Usually, you purchase tickets at the Stazione or at local tobacco shops.  We didn’t even think about it.  We had some cash, but then I got nervous thinking he’d charge us a bundle.  He was quiet and just drove on, and seemed to be heading in the right direction.  We arrived at La Stazione, which was actually the bus station.  This was ok, though, because he pointed that the train station was just up the block.  We started to disembark, and I believe Mike asked how much.  He said no charge (or something to that effect) so we all thanked him profusely!  Grazie! He was handsome as well.  Older, but still had that beautiful olive skin, chiseled jaw and dark hair, with green eyes.

We walked toward what we thought was the direction of the train station, but got a little turned around.  We asked a passer-by, and she directed us up the street.  We were pretty close.  We found the baggage claim area, which was now just about full of people.  He recognized us, though, and let us in behind him to pick out our bags.  That was very generous of him, since we probably would have missed our train if we would have had to wait in line.

We had time to grab some food at…McDonald’s.  Ugh.  But they actually had quite an assortment of pannini and other more nutritious snacks.  Jake chose the more American Big Mac.  This was his first ever!  He can now tell everyone he had his first Big Mac in the Pisa train station. Gross.


On to Monterosso!  Back on the train, clickety-clack.  We were hot and tired.  As we made our way toward the coast, we caught glimpses of the sea!  That made us perk up a bit.  It didn’t take too long to get there from Pisa, maybe 45 minutes, if I recall.  We disembarked and trudged with our luggage down a very long staircase to the sidewalk and street below the station.  Ahh, what a view!  But we had work to do.  We had to find our next hotel.

It was hot, steamy-hot.  A different heat than in Florence.  This definitely was humid.  It was like the Ligurian Sea was simmering.   I felt like a dork hauling my suitcase behind as I waked past all of the laid back tourists and near-locals (this is where Italians come to play) in their swimsuits and sun dresses.  I was not feeling great by this point.  Pat, also crabby and hot, plowed ahead of all of us to find the hotel, and pretty much left us standing there wondering why he was in such a hurry.  I’d had it.  I gave up, and just decided I couldn’t worry about him, I just needed to go at my own pace.  Jackie and Mike calmed me down and we continued up the street, hoping we were going the right way.  It was a tiny village, so I was pretty sure we’d run into it soon.  Just a minute down the sidewalk, and there it was!  The pink hotel!  La Villa Degli Argentieri!  Right across the street from the beach…but what they didn’t say on the website, is it is also right across the street from a gigantic parking lot!  To the left and right were the beautiful beaches.  That was a bit disappointing.  Also, not only were Mike and Jackie supposed to switch rooms after the first night, so were we.

Between this news and just being overheated and exhausted from our long day of traveling, I was very unsettled.  I didn’t feel I could nest here knowing I couldn’t really unpack and unwind.  I knew we had to move out the next day to a different room, so I just couldn’t enjoy myself.  Instead of taking some time to cool off and relax in the air conditioning, everyone wanted to hit the beach.  This didn’t help my mood because it was still so hot out.  I went anyway and we walked over to the public beach and plopped down among the throngs of locals and tourists.  I felt a little uncomfortable and overdressed in my tankini.  Most had bikinis.  Some were topless.  Pat and Mike located the most perfect-breasted specimen.  We waded out into the rocky shoreline, and the water wasn’t too bad.  It took me awhile to get used to it, and I did not feel like jumping in.  So I just hung out at about waist level and watched the boys swim.  Jackie stayed up on the beach.  It was really too hot to stay out there long.

We were getting hungry for dinner so we headed back to our rooms.  They were really quite nice.  The color scheme was a sea-foam green, Jake’s favorite.  The shiny green tiled floors felt nice on our feet.  The bathroom was floor-to ceiling tile with very nice jetted showers.  The tiles, mirror and even toilet were decorated with little fish and sea life.  The toilet seat was blue plastic with embedded plastic sea creatures.  Very cute!  We quickly changed and headed around the corner of our hotel to dinner.

Started with some Lemoncello liqueur, which was cold and refreshing.  We also had a berry-infused white wine at dinner.  We had good food again.  I think Jake had some mussels, I had a local fish, and Pat had another kind of fish.  It was very tasty.

I remember being very crabby that night.  Just exhausted.  I had a terrible time getting to sleep because the pillows were like rocks.  They were flat and absolutely could not be fluffed up.  My head actually hurt from them!

June 29 First Full Day in Cinque Terre

Luckily, the next day we awoke somewhat relaxed and cooled off.  We had a nice breakfast downstairs and got to know our hosts a little better.  Enrico was very courteous, and Monica gave us a good tip on restaurants.  We also changed rooms, so I felt much more settled in after being able to unpack.  Another gorgeous day…we were wishing we could stay a week and really unwind here.  We took it slower today and had some fun.  Mike and Jackie wanted to hike the entire trail from our town, Monterosso, to the first town, Riomaggiore.  They decided to wait one more day and take it easy today.

Riomaggiore rocks

We packed up our backpacks with necessities and walked into Old Town to purchase tickets for a boat ride to Riomaggiore.  It was comparable to an Argosy boat with passenger room inside as well as space in the bow and stern and along the sides for viewing.  It was steamy on the sea that day.  There was fog or steam making the hills of the towns seem even farther away.  We motored past the little towns, excited to explore as many as we could.  Our family wasn’t keen on hiking the whole Cinque Terre, but we definitely wanted to visit the towns.  The water was a gorgeous deep aqua/sapphire. 

After about ½ hour, we docked at Riomaggiore.  It was a bit tricky disembarking as the boat got tossed about in the sea.  We enjoyed exploring the little shops.  We found some nice souvenirs including a red ceramic bread/oil tray, marble wine stopper, little trinkets to add to necklaces, amazing cookies that tasted of lemons and strawberries but were lighter than shortbread, and cold lemoncello.  We wanted to get Cinque Terre wine, but it was ridiculous to purchase and export.  It would have cost over $100 to send 3 or 4 bottles home.  The only not-so-appealing part were the public restrooms which were glorified holes in the ground with a piece of square porcelain surrounding a 6 inch hole.  But when you gotta go…

We walked the beautiful trail called “Lovers Walk” from Riomaggiore to Manarola.  Pat surprised me with a lock, key and Sharpie to “lock our love” on a special point on the trail.  There are literally hundreds of padlocks and little notes and graffiti along the trail.  We found a perfect place by a little seat overlooking the sea to write on our padlock: Patrick + Lisa 2008 20 Years and locked it on the bar to the left of the lovers’ seat.  We had someone take our picture.  Unfortunately, that picture is on the disk that I lost on the airplane.  I’ll need to call one more time to see if I can find it.  Darn.  Maybe we’ll just need to go back! (After this journal entry, Mike and Jackie gave us a disk of pictures and on it was a picture of our lock!)

Padlock of Love on Lovers Walk

It was getting scorching hot again, although there was a nice breeze off the water.  When we arrived in Manarola, we were ready to eat again.  As usual, and to our utmost pleasure, we just stumbled upon a delicious place to eat!  This time, it was a place Rick Steves recommended.  We knew that because there was a big laminated pic of him and an article about the trattoria outside the restaurant entrance!  There was a covered outdoor café area and air conditioned seating inside, but it was filling up quickly.  It was called Trattoria Il Porticciolo.  They sat us down by the pass through at the kitchen, which was interesting because we got to watch the cooks and waiters in action as they cut up focaccia, mixed up mussels and pasta, chopped insalata mista.  Our waiter was a little man with a big memory.  He looked more German than Italian.  He took all of our orders without writing down anything!  I had gnocchi al pesto, Jake had lasagna al pesto and Pat had salmon ravioli.  Sooo good!  The tomatoes in the salad were fantastico!  The place filled up like crazy, with lots of Americans who had already marked this one in their guide books.  Once again we felt so lucky to find such a great place to eat.

We then strolled the town and did some shopping.  We wandered and purchased our souvenirs then caught the boat back to Monterosso.

Monterosso Beach from Cemetery

Later that afternoon (at least I think this is the day) Mike, Jackie and I explored an old hillside cemetery and church in Old Town.  We climbed and climbed up steps and a shady path to a very old cemetery.  There were large family tombs going back at least 200 years, if I recall.  There were individual tombs, and then a small graveyard behind the church.  We quietly entered the church, and to our surprise, heard beautiful songs being practiced by the local monks.  We caught our breath and just listened for several minutes.  It was beautiful.  We were the only ones there!  The graveyard was interesting, and what a view from the top.

We were very sweaty from our day so we took cool showers back at our adorable pink hotel.  Mike and Jackie agreed to let Pat and I have some much needed “us” time, so they took Jake to dinner that evening.  We took our time getting ready and enjoying time to ourselves and not feeling pressured to do anything in particular.  We spotted M&J and Jake eating at an outdoor caffe along the beautiful walkway next to the beach.  Jake was eating cantaloupe and prosciutto and loving every bite.  What a great kid!  We continued our walk over to Old Town.

View of the restaurant from hillside

We chose to go to dinner up on the hill by an old watch tower.  It was called L’Ancora Della Tortuga.  There were spots to sit alongside the big wall facing the sea, but we chose to sit in a booth inside the cave-like restaurant.  It was a cozy candle-lit spot with a bit of air conditioning (again, even at night it was hot) and privacy to just talk and enjoy each other.  The food was tasty, the wine excellent, and in large, generous glasses.  We shared our meals and took turns trying out each dish.  They left us alone to eat and relax, but then I believe our waitress was taking a break because we never saw her again!  We finally summoned someone over to get our check.  That was ok, we enjoyed our quiet time.  We caught up to M&J and Jake in our hotel lobby watching the end of the European Gold Cup of futbol.  Spain won against Romania, and it seemed Italy was cheering for Spain.

June 30  

Mike and Jackie decided to walk the entire trail this day.  They later said they got up so early that the sun wasn’t even up yet, so they waited an extra half hour or so.  They said they had trouble identifying parts of the trail and went on goose chases trying to find where it linked back up.  They also met people along the way, and spent a good half hour talking to a particularly chatty Australian.  It didn’t take long before they were sweating through their clothes.  They called us at different points along the way to tell us of their progress.

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a very restful morning of sleeping in.  I awoke wishing for another week to unwind here.  I was finally feeling relaxed!  We decided to take the Cinque Terre train to Vernazza, the next town down from us.  The scary part was waiting in the tunnel for the train!  The high-speed trains also use the tracks through Monterosso, and they fly through.  We felt we were going to get blown right out of the tunnel!  Finally, our train came through.  You have to jump on quick or you’ll miss it!  And make sure you’re on the correct side of the tracks!


This is where I stopped writing.  Darn me!  I’ll have to go from memory.  In Vernazza, we enjoyed the beautiful seascape and quaint shops.  One art shop in particular was called Bottega d’Arte Cinqueterre on Via Roma.  There was a woman there tending the store that surprised me with English when I faltered in Italian asking about the price of something.  Turns out she was American married to an Italian artist who made all of the items in the shop.  There were beautiful paintings of the Cinque Terre (I purchased a calendar of the paintings), t-shirts with colorful designs, ornate handbags, and little trinkets to add to bracelets or necklaces.  I purchased a couple of the trinkets.  One was a little Giotto angel that I gave to Stacey.  Another was a picture of Vernazza’s colorful port.  As we left, I said to Pat and Jake, “I think I’ll have to marry an Italian artist so I can live over here!” and Jake immediately responded, “But what would Dad and I do??” So cute and funny, yet really made me think about our bond.  Then we decided we’d just have to be polygamists, like the crazy people we’ve seen in the news recently!

We got hungry so we started looking for restaurants.  We kept seeing signs for Al Castello.  That sounded interesting.  We climbed and climbed up through tiny alley ways by apartments and up steep steps following signs to Al Castello.  Ah, here it was, with a magnificent view of the port and sea.  There was a wide, sloping outdoor deck with a covering, but open sides for viewing the beauty.  I’m assuming the slope was for drainage in a storm.  It was weird to see my wine in my glass tilt slightly off level!

A very nice older gentleman served us.  He liked Jacob’s Materazzi jersey and patted him on the back!  We had our usual delicious meal with a great view.  I think Jake ordered linguini with clam sauce and I stuck to spaghetti.  We stuffed it down and I remember having some good bread and a cold glass of white wine with it.  The only negative side was the table next to us.  There was an older American man with his wife who were giving our nice waiter a hard time.  He seemed very rude and snotty.  He said to the waiter that he would “…only order the fish if it is fresh.”  The waiter, seemingly insulted, blurted, “Fresh!  Yes, it’s fresh!  It comes from….(he threw his arm out in a gesture to the sea below) there!” We looked at each other and smiled!  But we were also sickened with the idea of the stereotypical American tourist who behaves badly and gives us a bad name.

I was stuffed, and couldn’t finish my spaghetti.  I wanted to take it with me, but we didn’t have refrigeration back at the room.  The funny waiter came by and said, “You didn’t like it??”  No, I loved it!  I’m very full!

We took a boat back to Monterosso after grabbing some gelato first.

We met M&J back at the hotel where they told us of their hike.  They were really glad they did it, but it did get quite hot and humid.  We were all ready to hit the beach awhile.  We rented some chairs and umbrellas at the “pay” beach this time so we could have a little shade and a more comfortable place to hang out.  It was well worth the money.  We took turns going down to the water and cooling off.  Jake and Pat were like fish and could stay out there all day.  It took me several minutes to get used to the water temperature, but I finally submerged myself.  It was very refreshing!  I should have done this on our first day; I would have cooled my temper!  We dozed in the sun and under the umbrellas.  While enjoying my lounge chair, a little Italian boy with a mini accordion came over and played a sweet little song.  He looked longingly in my eyes as he played his only song over and over.  I could just imagine his Papa telling him to be sure to look directly into the tourists’ eyes so they’ll give you money.  I thanked him, and then he held out his hand.  I said, “Sorry, no dinero.”  He trudged off, but then recovered as he found willing people at the next row.

We cleaned up and decided to follow our hostess’ advice for dinner and ate in Old Town off Via Roma (all roads really do lead to Rome!) called Al Pozzo.  When we got there, a waiter, who looked a little like a cross between Colin Farrell and Antonio Banderas, seated us.  He had a great sense of humor and joked with us while we looked over our menus.  We also noticed that our hostess, Monica, was also seated a few tables over by herself!  Oh, she recommended the restaurant that her boyfriend worked at!  What a character!  There was also a very nice Italian family on our right with two little boys.  The waiter was joking with them in Italian.  We couldn’t understand everything, but caught enough of their mannerisms to know he was messing with them about their food choices, etc.  It was really cute watching their dynamics.  We ordered a huge iron skillet of risotto with mushrooms and just gorged ourselves.  It was simply delicious.

We went back to the hotel and opened a bottle of wine that Mike had purchased in town.  It was very unique and rich, a blend of three different wines, if I recall.  I was too tired and full to finish mine, but we enjoyed our rooftop view of the sparkling stars and silhouetted hills.

We packed and geared up for our very busy day ahead.

July 1
Monterosso to La Spezia to Roma!

A very, very long day.  We had to move out of our rooms fairly early, then we had most of the day to ourselves because our train was not coming until about 5:00.  We roamed the town and ate lunch at a little trattoria below a hotel.  It again felt like we were in a basement or a cave.  I believe it was located off Via Padre Semeria or Via Molinelli.  It was in a white building.  The older woman serving us and the cook spoke no English.  It was great!  We were the only ones there, and they were very accommodating.  We had some good beer, more excellent pasta and salad.  We were able to point to what we wanted and did our best to sound out our food names.  Grazie!

We finally were ready to catch our big train to Roma.  I think we had to take one train to La Spezia, then load onto another one to Rome.  We were grateful we got first class seating for this long haul.  But…once we got our first class seats, we realized we were also in an enclosed room with a glass door.  It reminded me of Harry Potter’s train ride.  Or the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night!  There was an extra guest with us.  A businessman with his briefcase and newspaper.  I felt like saying to him, “Forgive us, we are loud, sweaty and tired Americans!”  Our quarters were so close, our knees almost touched!  We were face-to face with him and his newspaper.  Luckily, he was off after about two stops and 45 minutes into the ride.  We had so much luggage to cram in that little space.  We were so grateful he left or we’d be pretty uncomfortable.  Jake and Pat did leave for awhile down to the cafe car, so that freed up some room.  It seemed like we were on that thing forever.  We also weren’t quite sure where to get off.  As we got closer to Rome, there were several stops.  I double checked our tickets and read up on Rick Steves and kept watching the signs.  Finally, our stop came.  It was about 10:30 pm!  We were wiped out and hungry.

We quickly grabbed our luggage and jumped off at our stop, carefully looking about for thieves.  I saw no one of any questionable character.  It was pretty quiet until we hit the street where the taxis lined up.  Then it got scary.  Taxis were queuing up in lines 3 or 4 deep.  People were in line, but the taxi system was chaotic, and various drivers seemed to be arguing over whose turn it was to take passengers.  Suddenly, what appeared to be a taxi driver grabbed Pat’s suitcase and started rolling it into the street in the maze of taxis. Pat, being the smart man that he is, did not let go of his grip on the suitcase and followed the man to his taxi!  We all thought for a moment he was scamming us.  He just wanted first dibs on our group!  M&J followed into the next car and we were on our way.  It was a crazy ride on cobblestone streets.  I really thought we were going to be killed!  There are no lanes, no lines, and no rules.  If you want to pass on the right, pass on the right.  If you want to go faster than the car in front of you, then tailgate until you find an opening on either side to pass.  It doesn’t matter, just get there as fast as you can!

Our stop was at Hotel Smeraldo Roma in a little alley called Vicolo dei Chiodaroli.  It was southeast of the Pantheon and Campo di Fiori.  We watched the meter go to 11 euro, but the driver wanted 20 “for bags” that we loaded into the trunk!  Gimme a break.  We were too tired to argue so Pat paid the man.  We trudged into the small lobby and got keys.  Unfortunately, this must have been another converted building.  The little elevator was only big enough for 3 people and no luggage.  We took turns either trudging up the stairs or taking the elevator to the 3rd floor.  We were tired and crabby.  M&J found their rooms on the 2nd floor below.  Or maybe they were above, I don’t remember.

We unloaded our bags and decided to go back out for a quick bite.  We were exhausted.  There was a little trattoria right across the alley way from the hotel entrance.  Instead of checking there first for food, Pat insisted we walk down the dark alley and around the corner of the block to find something.  Of course, many stores and shops and restaurants were closed.  It looked a little “iffy” to be walking too long around there by ourselves.  Jake was also very tired.  We made our way back to our alley and I finally took the initiative to see if the trattoria had food.  Pat waited outside while Jake and I went in.  I asked the blue eyed black-haired waiter: “Food?  Foccacia, Spaghetti? Food?”  He understood, yes, they have food!  We found Pat and he seated us.  We were wiped out and so hungry.  We guzzled some water and they brought some bread.  We shared some gnocchi and maybe spaghetti and salad.  Much better!

Our room, although very clean and modern, was very small.  We had three twin beds all lined up with just enough room to get our legs between them.  We had to shove our luggage along the sides and in the armoire.  The tiny bathroom had a shower literally the size of a phone booth.  It had a vinyl accordion door that didn’t want to be shut properly.  It was claustrophobic!  The best part was the window next to the toilet.  You could open it and listen to the locals at the bar down the street and across the alley.

Vatican Museum

Next morning was our tour day.  We had to get up bright and early and be ready for someone to pick us up for our Vatican tour.  We were hoping they could find us!  We had called to verify our dates, etc. while in the Cinque Terre, so all was in place.  We had to go early, so I don’t think we had time to eat at the breakfast table.  We grabbed some yogurt or granola bars or something.  Pat, Mike and I took turns hitting the little coffee shop next to the trattoria.  The grumpiest barista ever in all of Europe served the caffe.  I made the mistake of ordering like a dumb American.  I wanted caffe latte, to go, but I wanted latte fria-cold.  I wanted to finish it before our ride arrived.  It took her a minute to understand me, and she scowled her way through it.  It was embarrassing.  Then Mike came in and ordered a shot of espresso.  This Australian man stopped him and said he was the first American he’d seen who ordered it right!  He didn’t see Mike dump a pile of sugar into it! Ha  He set down his shot glass, but left a little in the bottom.  The barista, with a concerned look said, “Finito?! Finito!” and made him take the last sip!  Then she smiled.

A tour van picked us up right on time.  We drove to another part of town and got on a big bus.  They did a roll call and off we went.  We had a nice tour guide who spoke English.  What we didn’t know and what they didn’t tell us in the tour information was yes, we would get an English-speaking guide, but we would also be in the same group with French tourists.  The guide also spoke French.  So every time we would visit a different room of the Vatican Museum or view rooms leading up to the Sistine Chapel, we would hear descriptions first in English, then repeated in French.  It doubled the length of the tour and really started to get on our nerves.  Jake was getting especially bored.

We did enjoy the Sistine Chapel and looked up until our necks hurt.  My favorite is the Delphic Sybil.  She looks so young and strong.

After the tour, they loaded us back in the bus and dropped us off at the Vatican-approved gift shop where we could pick up items and souvenirs blessed by the Pope.  How unbelievably tacky, I thought.  We politely looked around and thanked our guide, then walked over to a café for lunch.  We had the usual gigantic servings, but were thankful to sit down after 4 hours of standing and listening and looking.

We then made a plan to walk back over to St. Peters to see the inside of the church, which was not part of the tour.  Pat was not too happy about this, and probably wouldn’t have gone, except M & J reminded him that we’ll probably never be back here and this is the reason we came to Rome.  So he agreed.  We walked back in the heat through the gigantic square where I could imagine throngs of people gathered when the Pope is giving a speech.  We then had to go through a bag check and xray, but it went quickly.  We were thankful again to be in shade and the coolness of marble.


San Pietro









Michelangelo's Pieta

San Pietro Duomo


The inside was a glorious sight!  We were truly amazed by the monstrosity of the place and all of the ornate and gigantic sculptures  and paintings that adorned every wall.  I gasped; the Pieta was to the right!  I walked over and got as close as I could.  There was Michelangelo’s other masterpiece, now protected behind glass.  Mary, her face so sad, looking down on her sacrificed son.  It was breathtaking.  We then looked up.  Above was a large hole where sunlight was beaming through, illuminating the marble floor and the gilded and painted dome.  Beautiful.  Oh, but there was more…that was only one “little” nook.  The architecture of the place was astounding.  Domes, double crosses, marble, gold.  An altar that must have been at least 20 feet tall, blessing St. Peter’s bones.  Massive.  Enormous.  Overwhelming.  There was a fuzzy line separating the holy/sacred from the secular/worldly.  So much wealth and power cannot be a good thing.  Is this truly the way to worship?  What would Jesus say to all this?

We again headed out into the blazing sun, but only for a few moments to watch the changing of the Swiss Guard.  It was a little uneventful, but their outfits were very colorful in blue, gold and red.  We also hit the souvenir shop for some post cards.  Mike and Jackie made sure to mail theirs from the official Vatican post office so it would be stamped there.  That was pretty cool!

We decided to catch a hop-on-hop-off bus back to our hotel, but we had to step off several blocks from our hotel due to the heat.  We were cooking.  On top of the bus the sun was beating down on us.  We decided to go below, thinking we were safe from the sun, but the inside was stagnant with heat.  It must have been at least 10 degrees hotter inside!  I couldn’t take it.  I thought I was going to pass out.  We walked a couple of blocks and I could feel myself on the verge of fainting.  I needed water and cool air NOW!  We finally found a gelato shop and we ordered and headed downstairs and to the air conditioning.  Jackie also got me some extra ice with lemonade that I slurped.  I was finally feeling much better about 20 minutes later.  Ugh.

Rome at Night


We got back and took a break, I believe.  We then headed out and saw the Trevi Fountain and Colosseum at night.  That was a beautiful walk.  East Indian peddlers were stationed all around the Colosseum and sidewalks selling everything from knockoff paintings to camera tripods and all kinds of souvenirs.  No one seemed overly aggressive, and there seemed to be lots of security around.  We never really felt unsafe except at the train station, and that was mostly just from being tired and going from the laid-back Cinque Terre to full-on Rome.

July 3

This was Mike and Jackie’s travel day.  We ate breakfast and said our goodbyes at the hotel door.  It was so sad to see them go already.  We had tears in our eyes.  It seems like they just got here!  We were now on our own today, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.

We started out by going to an internet café just up the street from our hotel to make sure our plane schedule was still on time.  We needed to book our seats.  Pat had a terrible time trying to enter our booking code and getting it to recognize our info.  I don’t know why it didn’t accept it.  He kept trying and finally it worked.  I thought he had the wrong number, as he transferred it from the original email.  We were getting crabby at each other.  But it worked out and we took a break before venturing out in the heat.

We decided to get back on the bus while it was still not quite so hot out.  This time, we were prepared with extra water and an umbrella to beat the sun.  We sat up top, and were actually pleasantly surprised by a nice breeze until the bus stopped at traffic lights.  We did ok though, and enjoyed the tour much more.

We hopped off near the Colosseum again to witness it in the daytime.  We walked over to a little restaurant across the street.  We had to eat indoors in the air conditioning again.  Again, pretty much by ourselves!  We chowed on spaghetti and beer.  And lots of water.  This place was called Royal Café Art Restaurant.  It was next to a hotel.  The inside was decorated like the Sistine Chapel with enormous frescoes on the walls.  It was well-done.  A little pricey, but we didn’t care at that point.  We then decided to take a taxi back to our hotel.  It was spendy to do that, but we needed a break from the heat.

Pantheon Dome

Inside Pantheon

We then walked to the Pantheon, I believe.  It was so amazing. It was built in the 1st century, then taken over by Christians at some point in time.  The outside looked like the ancient ruins we’d seen all over Rome, but the inside was completely preserved.  The marble was polished, colorful.  The ancient deities had been replaced with Christian figures.  The large, perfect circle that was the dome’s eye, was allowing a beautiful wide beam of light to hit the floor.  It was so amazing.   We strolled around the huge columns on the outside, walked towards the fountain and looked back for a better view.

We started walking back to the hotel, but decided to take a back alley.  What a perfect walk we had!  We found a little butcher shop and quietly stepped in.  I believe it was called L’Arte del Norcino Lavorazione di Carne Suina, Via Di Torre Argentina or Via Dell’Arco della Ciambella (2 locations).There were a couple of people milling around.  The place had not been overrun with tourists.  The skinny, little old balding man behind the butcher counter was a true Italian.  No English.  He smiled at us as we stared with our tongues hanging out at the hanging prosciutto and all of the meats in the refrigerated counter.   We browsed the small shop quickly and decided on some biscotti and a little pasta and olive oil kit for Diana.  We turned to the counter, and the nice little man handed us each a slice of prosciutto he’d just cut.  Oh my god.  It melted in my mouth.  I could feel the smooth layer of fat on the roof of my mouth.  A little salty, not too much.  Nothing like the crappy preservative-filled meats we get at home.  Just perfetto!  He smiled at us as we mmmm’d and ohhhh’d!  He then crossed his hands and moved them apart like an umpire who declares a safe step to the base.  He said something in Italian to us.  We figured this meant: “Done Shopping?”  Si, si.  We paid the lady behind us near the door after he rang up our bill.  Grazie!!

We also purchased a little book on Rome that showed what all of the ancient buildings used to look like.  It was like a flap book where you could see before/after.  It gave a little history of each location and building.

That evening for dinner, we walked over to Campo De’ Fiori and at at the restaurant with the same name, right in the piazza.  It was amazing.  The food was overpriced here (you pay for the name and the view of the piazza and the bronze statue of Bruno, who was burned at the stake right in the piazza) but the atmosphere was superb.  There were musicians playing, artists selling jewelry, florists, all gathered in the square.  It was so romantic.  Jake enjoyed it, too.  There is also an ancient fountain in the square bubbling away.  We enjoyed our very romantic dinner, trying to just soak everything in on our last night in Italy.

We strolled the piazza after stuffing ourselves with more pasta.  We saw a skinny unshaven and very tan artist selling his silver jewelry out of a cart.  We’d seen him earlier in an alley right next to the piazza pounding away at a ring or bracelet.  His English was good, and he was very friendly.  He laughed at my poor attempt to speak Italian.  I tried on one of his rings that looked like two tiny spoons wrapped together and decided that was the one for me!  Only 15 Euro.  A steal, considering he was making them by hand just hours before.  He cleaned and polished it for me and said he could adjust it if I wanted it tighter.  My hands were swollen from the heat, so I declined.  He then gave us a tip to go visit Trastavere, just a short walk of 100 meters from the square. We thanked him, but we were too tired to walk anywhere else that night.  Maybe next time!  I will keep that ring forever.

July 4 – Home

We had a long journey ahead of us.  First, we had to take a taxi to the airport.  We got a good view of Rome and the outskirts during our 40 minute ride.  The driver was quiet, but friendly. I opened him up by asking about the cost of a flat in Rome.  I believe he said it was 3,000 per month!  That’s euros!  The city is all cobblestone until we reached the outer walls and on to the freeway. I wonder how many square miles of cobblestone??  Unreal.  I won’t miss the traffic there.  Or the Vespas.  On to London, then nonstop to Seattle.  Forever.  For some reason, it didn’t seem quite as bad getting home once we were on our way from London.  Customs took another 45 minutes or so, but the agent was friendly and joked with us.  Dad was waiting for us with open arms in Baggage Claim.  Back to the rain, back to reality.

We never once felt like we wanted to just go home.  We wanted to stay in Italy.  Maybe not in Rome, but Venice…we could have stayed there for at least a week, then on to the Cinque Terre for a week or two….then on to Southern Italy for awhile, then up to lake country, then Ravenna, oh, and don’t forget Siena…someday, someday….

January 1, 2011 Posted by | Italy, Travel | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments