Thursday, August 23, 2012

Venice, Aug. 5, 2012

Aug. 5, 2012
Venice, Italy

We’re in Venice! But the less said about our flight over here, the better.
The next time we have an overnight flight, I really think we’re going to have to splurge on first class and get a sleeping pod. It’s impossible to sleep in a cramped, upright economy seat. Plus the food is probably better in first class.

Venice is beautiful, but all of our friends who’ve been here before were right – in August, it’s just as hot and humid as it is in Chicago, and it’s very crowded. After we checked into our hotel (the Hotel Bel Sito in the Campo Santa Maria del Giglio), Gary and I went for a walk to the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square) to find an ATM and browse around. We found it was very hard to navigate the narrow cobblestone streets because they’re just teeming with tourists of all nationalities, many with young children in strollers. As for the heat, we had to take two showers today – one in the morning and one in the evening. I wish I had been able to book a tour later in the year in September or October when it’s cooler and supposedly less crowded in Italy, but all of the Go Ahead tours for this particular trip were already fully booked for those months. I guess other tourists besides me are catching on to that, so maybe it wouldn’t be less crowded here in the fall after all.

Venice is still beautiful, though. It really is a city built on water. It’s actually a group of 118 small islands in a shallow lagoon that are separated by 177 canals and connected by more than 400 bridges. In the older central section of the city where we’re staying, the canals act as roads and all transportation is on foot or by boat. We had to take a pretty wild water-taxi ride over here from Marco Polo International Airport on the mainland. The only place where motor vehicles are allowed is on the northern edge of the city, where they recently built parking facilities and a road to the mainland.

The architecture here is incredible. Venice was a very wealthy center of trade and commerce during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance because of its access to the seas, so many of the buildings, especially the churches and civic facilities, are very lavishly decorated in the Gothic style with elaborate sculpture, gilding, and bright paint. And of course, there is always the sound of bells ringing from the many church bell towers.

Everyone here speaks pretty good English, so I haven’t had much of a chance to use the Italian phrases I taught myself before we got here. I say “Ciao”, “Grazi,” and “Buon giorno” a lot just to show I’m making an effort, and I did ask a booth vendor how much something cost in Italian (“Quanto costa?”). But they seem to know you’re American as soon as they hear your accent and launch right into English, so you can usually get by with that.

Later on, our tour group had an introductory meeting and went out to dinner at a local restaurant (Taverna dei Dogi on Calle Albanesi near the Ponte dei Sospiri or “Bridge of Sighs”) with our tour director Monique Verloo, who is a pretty interesting person. She’s half Belgian, half Italian, but was born in the States, so she holds dual citizenship and speaks several languages. She lives in Rome during the summer as a Go Ahead tour director and in Pennsylvania during the winter as an architectural historian, and also teaches Aviation English to Italian pilots and air traffic controllers.

There are about 25 or 30 people in our group, including a family from New Jersey, but mostly middle-aged women traveling with friends or family members. The exception is two young girls in their late teens or early 20s, Jennifer and Ali, who just happen to have grown up and gone to school in Manhattan, Illinois, which is only about 10 miles from New Lenox, where we live. Talk about a small world!

Italians sure do like to eat. At dinner tonight, we were served four courses (first lasagna, then salad, then rosemary roasted chicken, then gelato with fruit), which Monique says is pretty standard for most Italian dinners. Yet all of the Italians I’ve seen so far have been skinny! How do they do it? (On second thought, it must be all the walking they do here. Let’s see what they look like in Florence.) All of the food was excellent!

The bread (which Monique says comes with every meal and for which you are charged whether you eat it or not so you might as well eat it) was in the form of hard, crusty rolls and was served without any butter or olive oil, so at first we weren’t sure how we were expected to eat it. They gave us butter when we asked for it, but later I saw Monique using her roll to mop up the meat sauce on the lasagna, so I guess that’s how the locals eat it. (We found out later that it’s considered very “lower class” here to eat your bread with butter. Maybe it’s that way for Italians, but for Americans it’s just the custom we’ve grown up with.)

They also do not serve tap water at restaurants in Italy. If you ask for water, you get a bottle of mineral water, which is available in either “sparkling” or “still.” They also refer to it as “with gas” (sparkling) or “without gas” (still), which caused some confusion the first time we were asked. I thought maybe they were enquiring about the state of our digestion instead of our water preference. (For the record, Gary and I prefer our mineral water – and our digestive systems -- without gas.)

After dinner, Gary and I went for a nightcap at a little place that Monique recommended called Sangal, a contemporary-style restaurant and lounge bar with a great outdoor terrace on the roof. It’s in a square called Campo San Gallo on a side alley and over a stone bridge off of the Piazza San Marco. (Most of the restaurants, shops, and cafés directly on the square are very expensive, so it’s always best to find something on the side streets.) We liked it so much we’ll probably go back there for dinner tomorrow night.

While we were looking for the bar, we also ran into an American couple from North Dakota on the bridge who asked us to take a picture of them, and to make sure that we got the Hard Rock Café in the background. (It must be mandatory now for every popular tourist spot in the world to have a Hard Rock Café.) When we said we were from Chicago, the guy said “Go Bears!,” which was nice to hear. When Gary asked him if he preferred the Cubs or the White Sox, he said he wasn’t much of a baseball fan, but if he had to pick he’d go with the White Sox. This is exactly how Gary and I feel, so it’s another case of “a small world.”

Venice, Aug.6

Aug. 6, 2012
Venice, Italy
Today, a local guide named Lisa took us on a tour of Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.
The Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square in English) is the main public square of Venice. All other squares in the city are known as campi (campo in the singular tense). The Piazza features the famous cathedral of St. Mark’s Basilica (Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di Marco in Italian) at the eastern end, which is the one of the most famous examples of Byzantine architecture in the world; St. Mark’s Campanile, which is the bell tower of the basilica and stands alone in a corner of the square near the front of the church; and the Clock Tower on the north side of the square. The clock is built above an archway over a main street called the Merceria, which leads to the Rialto, the financial and commercial center of Venice.

The long Gothic-style arcade along the north side of the square, known as the Procuratie Vecchie, used to accommodate the offices of the Procurators of St. Mark’s, while the arcade on the west side is known as the Napoleonic Wing because it was rebuilt by Napoleon in 1810 when he took over Italy. The arcade on the south side of the square, known as the Procuratie Nuove, is built in the Classical style. It was meant to be a palace for Napoleon’s stepson, but now houses the Museo Correr (Correr Museum). There’s also a famous café on the ground floor called Caffe Florian, which is one of the oldest coffee houses in continuous operation (since 1720). We were tempted to go there, but were warned it was one of the most expensive places on the square.

The Doge’s Palace was the official residence of the Doge of Venice, the chief authority of the Republic of Venice. It also housed the courtrooms and the prisons. The palace is located in the Piazzeta di San Marco (the “little square of St. Mark”) adjacent to the south side of the large square, and is built in Venetian Gothic style. It’s very elaborate inside, with lots of marble, carved and painted ceilings, pure gold gilding, and wall frescoes. You can tell the Doges wanted to demonstrate how powerful and wealthy Venice was through the care they lavished on their civic buildings.

The tour ended with a glass-blowing demonstration at a glass shop whose name I can’t remember, which is just as well because we didn’t buy anything there. The glass-blowing demo itself was fascinating, but after that they ushered us into their showroom for the obligatory sales pitch. That’s the one big drawback with tour companies – they usually have arrangements with local merchants to bring their groups into the stores and try to get them to buy. I liked several pieces of the glass jewelry I saw and they also had some very nice wine glasses, but everything seemed extremely expensive. Gary convinced me we could probably find something made of Venetian glass for more reasonable prices if we looked around (it turns out he was right).

Lots of the big hotels in Venice offer boat rides over to the island of Murano, where the best Venetian glass is made, but I’ve heard these tours can be scams. The glass factories there do a very hard sell, and if you don’t buy anything, they’ve been known to inform you that you’re on your own getting back to your hotel. I’m glad our tour company kept us away from there.

After the guided tour, we were free to spend the rest of the day as we wanted. Gary and I decided to skip touring St. Mark’s Basilica because the line was too long. Instead, we went to the top of the bell tower (luckily it has an elevator), where we saw a fantastic panorama of the city in all directions.

We also viewed the art work, furniture, and other items in the Correr Museum on the upper floors of the Procuratorie Nuove on the southeast side of St. Mark’s Square. We then split a small pizza marinara for lunch at a little pizzeria off the square whose name I also can’t remember. Pizzas here have a much thinner crust than in the States and are more sparing with the toppings, but are still very good.

After that, we walked all the way to the Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal to browse through the luxury shops and restaurants located there, then did some souvenir shopping at some of the less expensive shops closer to San Marco. We were able to find a wine stopper of Venetian glass for much less than that glass shop would have charged us.

Speaking of shopping, you’ll also see lots of vendors standing on the sides of the streets or in the squares in Italy selling cheap little toys and fake leather handbags. We weren’t tempted by anything they were selling, which was a good thing because we found out later these “vendors” have no license to operate. They run at the first sign of the police, but it doesn’t stop them from setting up again in another street.

The best part of our day was in the early evening when we took the private gondola ride that we had signed up for, which included a bottle of champagne; two musicians (a vocalist and an accordion-player) who serenaded us as we floated along the canals; and a picture of ourselves in the gondola by a professional photographer. You can also take public gondola rides, where you share the cost (and the boat) among 4 to 6 other people, but of course it’s not as romantic. Sure, it’s kind of a hokey, touristy thing to do, but it’s also unique to this city. How can you be in Venice and not ride in a gondola at least once? Besides, Gary and I are celebrating our 32nd anniversary on this trip, so this was our treat to ourselves. It was actually very enjoyable – everyone on the bridges stopped to call out to us and took pictures as we floated along and sipped our champagne.

After the gondola ride we were still in a mood to celebrate, so we stopped in at several bars for drinks before going back to Sangal to have dinner on the terrace. Since we were ordering for ourselves this time, we confined ourselves to just two courses. I had ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, seafood, and asparagus tips for an entrée, and tiramisu for dessert (homemade, of course). Yum. I just know I’m going to gain weight while I’m here.

After dinner, we went back to Piazza San Marco, which has more of a party atmosphere at night (not to mention being much cooler), and mingled with the people there before heading back to the hotel.

Florence, Aug.7

Aug. 7, 2012
Florence, Italy
Today was our busiest day yet on the tour. We got up early and took a water-taxi to the parking facilities located on the north edge of Venice, where we boarded a private bus for a 3½-hour ride to Florence.
There we dropped our luggage off in a secure room at our hotel since the bedrooms weren’t ready yet. Then Monique led us on a 20-minute walk through the streets until we came to the Piazza del Duomo (“Cathedral Square”). Here, after we took a break for lunch (Gary and I found another little pizzeria), we met up with another local guide, Laura, who took us on a tour of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower, also known as simply the Florence Cathedral).

Believe it or not, this church took 140 years to build -- construction started in 1296 and wasn’t fully completed until 1436! To be fair to the builders, work on the cathedral had to be stopped for a while in 1348 because of the Black Death, and it was a pretty mammoth project. It’s one of the largest churches in Italy and has the largest brick dome ever constructed in the world.

It is built in the Gothic and Gothic Revival styles, and is famous for its Renaissance dome built by Brunelleschi, its frescoes, its multi-hued marble exterior, and its 44 stained glass windows.

Because Italy is a conservative Catholic country, both men and women have to follow a “dress code” before they are allowed into any of the churches. This means no bare knees or shoulders. You have to wear long shorts, slacks or skirts that cover your knees, and your shoulders must be covered by sleeves or some kind of wrap such as a scarf. Some of the churches give away disposable plastic capes, but this particular cathedral didn’t. Luckily, I had packed a cardigan sweater on the off chance it would be chilly in Italy, and I brought it along with me to drape over my shoulders when we entered the church. (I was already wearing a sun dress that covered my knees.) This was a little uncomfortable in 90° weather in an un-air conditioned building, but we’ve gotten used to being hot on this trip.

One thing I didn’t bring along with me on this tour was my purse, which I deliberately left back at the hotel. Monique and our local guide warned us repeatedly about being on the look-out in Florence and Rome for pick-pockets, who are supposedly very good at what they do and do it just about anywhere, such as open squares, markets, banks, and churches. (Monique told us she once had a group where eight people all had their pockets picked while they were in line in a bank.) They recommend that you use a money belt for your cash and credit cards (you don’t need to carry your passport on you when you’re sightseeing unless you’re going to a bank). At the very least, you should carry your purse in front of you at all times so you can keep an eye on it.

Gary was wearing slacks with buttoned pockets, and he said his wallet should be perfectly safe because any pickpocket would have to get past the buttons first. I agreed that we would probably notice someone trying to unbutton his pockets, but I was still a little nervous and stood behind him much of the time so I could keep an eye on his pockets. (Gary says I’m paranoid, but I just think I’m careful.)

Another thing we had to watch out for in the squares was the panhandlers, who were quite aggressive. They’ll walk right up to you and hold their cups in your face. Many of these panhandlers are Gypsies. Monique told us later that the Italian government actually gives Gypsies a stipend of €1200 per month, which is higher than what many workers earn on their jobs. They do this because no one wants to hire Gypsies, as they have a reputation for stealing, pulling scams, or faking disabilities to inspire sympathy. I found the best way to deal with the panhandlers was to walk away, or else just turn my back on them if we were waiting in a particular spot to meet up with Monique. I know that sounds callous, but I think there are better ways to help people than by giving away all your spare change on the street. Besides, if they’re getting government support, they don’t need my spare change.

After the cathedral, our guide pointed out the bronze doors and other Florentine Romanesque features of the octagonal Baptistry of St. John across the street, then took us over to the Piazza della Signoria, a public square that acts as a meeting point for both Florentines and visitors. The main attraction in this square is the variety of statues by Renaissance artists such as Ammannati, Cellini, Donatello, and Giambologna. Some of these statues are in an open-air, arched gallery in a corner of the square called the Loggia dei Lanzi.

I had seen pictures of many of the sculptures in this square, such as “The Rape of the Sabine Women,” “Perseus,” and “The Fountain of Neptune” when we studied the Renaissance in school, so it was thrilling to actually see these works of art in person.

Michelangelo’s masterpiece, the “David” statue, also used to be in this square, but the one you see there today is a copy (although a very high-quality copy). The original was moved to the Accademia Gallery in Florence in 1873 in order to better preserve it. Monique had tried to get our group reserved tickets to the Academy and to the Uffizi Gallery, where many other masterpieces are on display, so we wouldn’t have to wait in the general admission line.Unfortunately, reserved tickets were already totally booked and she was not able to get them. Gary and I debated whether we wanted to stand in line for hours in order to see the original David, but ultimately decided against it. We only have two days in Florence, and we don’t want to spend the majority of a whole day waiting in a line. Maybe we’ll do it on a longer trip in the future.

Besides, the replica is expert enough to give you a good idea of what the original must be like. One thing you notice is that David’s head and his right hand seem abnormally large. That’s because they are – Michelangelo carved them that way on purpose because the statue was originally supposed to be installed on the roofline of the Florence Cathedral, and the larger proportions would have looked normal when the statue was viewed from below.

After the guided tour, we were taken to a leather shop for another demonstration and sales pitch. The demonstration was more of a series of tips on how to determine fake leather from genuine, and it was actually pretty informative. Basically, you can never trust what the vendor tells you, the smell of the item, or even the tag inside the item that says “100% Genuine Leather.” (Illegal or unethical vendors will tell you anything to get you to buy; they often use sprays to give a synthetic item a leathery smell; and the tag could be made of genuine leather, but not the item itself.) A lot of illegal vendors will also pretend to hold a lighter to the item, because real leather is not supposed to burn easily.

Instead, look for irregular pores; feel for rough edges where the fabric has been cut; and separate the lining from the garment or item to look for the suede underside that real leather will always have. (As soon as I got back to the hotel, I checked the supposedly 100% genuine leather shoulder bag I got in Mexico several years ago. Thankfully it did have suede undersides on the seams, so I wasn’t cheated.)

Then of course we were paraded through their shop in hopes that we would buy something. They did have some nice leather handbags there, but I already have some leather handbags and wasn’t interested. And of course, they were all expensive.

After this, Monique treated us all to slushies at a little snack shop, then we headed back to the hotel to get our luggage and check in. This hotel, Pallazzo Ricasoli on via delle Mantellate, is comprised of an older building and a newer one. Gary and I are in the newer building, which is so ultra-modern that it took a while to figure out how all of the various features worked. For example, the lights in your room won’t stay on until your room key-card is hung up on a hook in front of a motion sensor. I guess it’s meant to ensure that you always know where your room key is. Other nice features include wooden slats instead of window blinds that you have to manually crank open or closed; an emergency cord in the shower that you’re supposed to pull if you have an accident in there; and a bidet (actually, most Italian hotels have these last two).

Dinner tonight was another group affair at a local restaurant a few blocks away from the hotel called Ristorante Alfredo on via Don Giovanni Minzoni, one of the oldest restaurants in Florence (dating from the 1920s). This time we had five courses: spaghetti Bolognese, polenta with mushrooms, a variety of meats (thinly sliced rare beef, pork, short ribs, and pork hocks), zucchini, and gelato with fruit. I still haven’t seen any fat Italians since we’ve been here. If they eat this way all the time, it really is a mystery how they do it.

After dinner, Gary and I stopped off and got a bottle of wine at a local grocery store across the street from our hotel. Although the Tuscany region is famous for its white Vernaccia di San Gimignano wine, we were searching for a red wine Monique had told us about called Brunello, a robust, full-bodied red which is made from 100% Sangiovese grapes and has been aged for at least four years. The grocery store didn’t have any Brunello, but the lady behind the counter recommended another red wine which wasn’t bad. Our hotel has a terrace on the roof where some of the girls from our tour group were gathering, so we took our wine and some plastic glasses up there, pulled up some lounge chairs, and had a nice talk with everyone before turning in for the night.

Florence, Aug. 8

Aug. 8, 2012
Florence, Italy
Florence is gorgeous! In fact, the whole Tuscany region is gorgeous. I can see why people fall in love with this area of the world.
Most of the buildings are in classic Renaissance style covered in pale pastel stucco with red tile roofs, and in the countryside are rolling hills, lush vineyards, cypress olive trees, and pine umbrella trees. We saw all of this during the bus ride for the day trip we had signed up for today.

Monique had the bus driver stop so we could take pictures from a scenic overlook of the Arno River. We also stopped to see the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, in which are buried the remains of American soldiers (and at least three Army nurses) who were killed in the fighting in Italy during World War II. It’s one of 24 military cemeteries established by the American Battle Monuments Commission, an independent U. S. government agency that creates military burial grounds and shrines for American casualties in foreign countries. I can only imagine how painful it would be to have a loved one buried in a land far from home, but still I’m glad the U. S. has these places for those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

One of the highlights of the day was a visit to a walled medieval city called San Gimignano. This town is famous for its towers, of which 14 are left and can be seen on the skyline from several miles outside of the town. At the height of its power from the 11th through 14th centuries, San Gimignano was an important cultural, economic, and trade center. It declined during the Black Death, and is now a tourist and artistic resort.

The main church in the town, the Collegiate di Santa Maria Assunta (Collegiate Church of the Assumption of Mary), is known for its beautiful, vivid, colorful frescoes, which cover almost every inch of its walls and illustrate the life of Christ and various other religious topics. (In the Middle Ages, the common people were illiterate, so the best way to educate them about anything was through images.)

Gary and I made a special point of going into this church (luckily, it was one of the churches that give out disposable capes to cover your shoulders, since I hadn’t brought my cardigan along on this trip) in order to see the portion of the frescoes depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, which Monique had told us about. This segment of the frescoes was quite graphic in showing what would happen to offenders who indulged in the Seven Deadly Sins. In the panel portraying Greed, a sinner was shown tied down on his back with a row of devils squatting above him, pooping coins into his open mouth. You can only wonder what kind of mind thinks up things like that.

Also quite gruesome was a museum of torture implements, all of which have unfortunately been historically documented as being used at one time or another (some still are, apparently). Not for those with weak stomachs.

On the lighter side, San Gimignano also boasts a very famous gelato shop called Dondoli Gelateria di Piazza, which has won the Ice Cream World Championship several times (when you taste it, you know why), been mentioned in several world traveling guides, and been visited by many celebrities. It’s known for its very unusual flavors of gelato, such as Dolceamaro (cream with aromatic herbs), Crema di Santa Fina (cream with saffron and pine nuts), and Champelmo (pink grapefruit and sparkling wine). Gary and I went with some of the more conservative flavors. We had two scoops each of chocolate and rosemary-flavored raspberry (called Rosemary’s Baby). Without a doubt the best gelato we sampled in Italy.

Speaking of Italian treats, there is also a bakery in San Gimignano, Panifico Boboli, which makes ricciarelli, those soft, chewy almond cookies covered with powdered sugar that my family used to eat only at Christmas time when we were kids. Monique treated the group to some during our visit. Between this and the four-course dinners, she’s going to get us all fat.

The town also has various other little shops where we stocked up on more souvenirs for ourselves, such as Tuscan olive oil, a natural stone necklace, and colorful 100% cotton tablecloths.

The other highlight of the day was a wine-tasting session at a family-owned winery called Tenuta Torciano just outside San Gimignano. Here we were given a variety of both red and white wines to sample with a “light lunch” of only three courses (an appetizer course of Tuscan bread, salami, and cheeses; an entrée of lasagna; and Tuscan cookies and biscuits for dessert).

Gary and I finally got a taste of the famous Brunello wine here. We liked it so much we ordered a bottle to be shipped directly to us at home. (We don’t mind buying things at these “demonstrations” if it’s something we really like and it’s reasonably priced. While it was kind of expensive at €52 a bottle or about $68 in U. S. currency, Monique said she hasn’t been able to find it in the States for less than $75.) We also ordered a bottle of the winery’s truffle-flavored olive oil, which was poured over the lasagna we were served for lunch, and also a fantastic raspberry-flavored balsamic vinegar that can actually be served over desserts such as vanilla ice cream and strawberries (just a couple of drops, of course).

After we got back to Florence, Gary and I did some more sight-seeing and souvenir shopping along the Ponte Vecchio over the Arno River. This is the only bridge in Florence that was not bombed during World War II because of its historical importance. It is also lined with luxury gold and silver jewelry stores, art dealers, and souvenir shops. (There was some really nice “bling” in the jewelry shop windows, but nothing we could afford.)

Then we had dinner at a place called FrancesoVini, located on Borgo de Greci off of the Piazza della Signoria (behind the statue of Neptune in the square). This restaurant is situated in one of the oldest buildings in Florence over the ruins of a Roman amphitheater, and specializes in typical Tuscan dishes such as Florentine beef (bistecca alla florentine). Gary and I split one of these huge steaks between us with a side of roasted potatoes. Fantastic! We haven’t had a bad meal in Italy yet.

Tomorrow we go on to Rome . . .

Rome, Aug. 9

Aug. 9, 2012
Rome, Italy
Rome is amazing – a thoroughly modern city that is in many ways just like other big cities anywhere, except that every time you turn a corner you can see the ruins of some excavated ancient monument.
It was such a thrill when I got my first sight of the Coliseum on the horizon as our bus was driving toward it. It’s been reproduced in so many books, paintings and movies that you almost think it’s a figment of our collective imagination. The fact that it actually is real, and that it’s still around after thousands of years even if it is in ruins, is mind-boggling.

Our local guide, Yohanna, was very knowledgeable about the Coliseum and the nearby Forum, which she took us on a walking tour to see. (She’s also very spunky – she told off a vendor who had parked his van illegally. We couldn’t understand a word she said, but we could tell she was hopping mad at him.)

Did you know the Coliseum only took 8 years to build (unlike the Florence Cathedral which took over a hundred years)? Of course, the Romans had the help of 40,000 slaves on the Coliseum, so maybe it’s not such a surprise. Did you also know that it actually had a retractable canvas awning that could be manually pulled across the top opening to keep sun and rain off the spectators? Those Romans were some incredible engineers.

Inside of the Coliseum, hardly anything remains of the original sand-covered wooden arena floor, so that you have to use your imagination to picture the gladiator fights that used to be held there. But the underground chambers where the gladiators were held before fights are still clearly visible. Our tour did not include taking our group down into the underground portion of the Coliseum since the temperature was about 100° and there was danger of heat exhaustion. But we were able to roam around the upper portion and take as many pictures as we liked.

Yohanna then boarded our bus with us to narrate information about several other notable monuments and buildings we passed, such as the Constantine Arch, the Arch of Titus, the ruins of the Roman Baths, the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, and the Twin Churches and the Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo. (Rome has more obelisks than any other city in the world, most of them taken from Egypt after they conquered it in 30 BC.)

During the bus ride, Monique also chatted about what it’s like to live in Rome, which is where she lives most of the year. Apparently it’s expensive, like it is in most big cities. An average apartment of 600 square feet is about €1000 to €2500 per month. Most residences in Italy come with a small front-loading washing machine, but no dryers. Clothes are hung up to dry in Italy. (I did see a lot of laundry hanging outside of windows in Italy.)Basic utilities are about €155 per month, and they're paid for in person at the post office every two months. Eating out can be pricey – from €50 to €300 per person depending on how fancy the restaurant is, not including wine. A new car runs about €17,333, which sounds cheap but most cars here are very small. A lot of people buy Vespas or scooters instead. Public transportation (the Metro or the bus) is much more economical at €1.30 for a one-way ticket.

Gasoline is the equivalent of $9 a gallon here, and most of that goes to finance the government-subsidized health care system, as do the taxes, which are among the highest in world (about 46.25% of a Italian worker’s salary goes toward taxes.) Monique told us about a woman in one of her tour groups who broke her leg and had to be taken to the hospital for a cast, which didn’t cost her a cent even though she was a foreigner. A system like this has both its good and its bad points. If you have a chronic illness or an accident, it’s good to know that free treatment is always available to you. On the other hand, you have to be willing to give up much of your take-home pay in exchange for that “free” health care.

After the tour, Gary and I had a drink and chatted with Yohanna in the bar of our hotel, the contemporary-style Mercure Piazza Bologna on Via Reggio Calabria. (Even when you’re just having a drink in a bar in Italy, they feed you. Usually it’s just a little bowl of potato chips, but sometimes you get other things like nuts or little toasted sandwiches.)

Some of the group was going on an optional dinner theater outing called Dinner with Tenors, where you have dinner while being serenaded by Italian opera singers. Gary and I are not into dinner theater, so we had opted out of this. Instead, we explored the neighborhood and had dinner at a local restaurant called Ristorante Preistorici. The food was fine (I just had a salad with cold boiled shrimp), but the restaurant itself had kind of a hokey prehistoric theme, with pictures of cave men painted on the walls. They even had a “Prehistoric Appetizer” listed on the menu. There was no description of it, so I was afraid to order it. What’s their idea of a “prehistoric” appetizer – raw mammoth meat?

We probably would have gone to a different restaurant if we could, but it was one of the few eating places open. Apparently, August is the month when all of the Romans leave Rome to go on vacation. (Monique told us that Romans all go to the same places when they’re on vacation, to the point where they’re even lying next to each other on the same beaches, so they never really get away from each other.) The good part of this is there is hardly any traffic on the streets of Rome in August, but on the downside it means not as many stores and restaurants are open.

Today was the actual day of our 32nd wedding anniversary, even though we’ve been celebrating it this whole trip. Some of the women from our tour group were also having dinner at Ristorante Preistorici at another table. When they stopped by our table to chat as they were leaving, Gary told them what we were celebrating and they all congratulated us.

Rome, Aug. 10

Aug. 10, 2012
Rome, Italy

Today was an optional trip to Pompeii which Gary and I chose not to do because of the heat and the crowds (it’s the most visited site in Italy). We decided it could wait for another visit, preferably in the fall when it should be cooler and less crowded.
We spent the day exploring Rome instead. That is, we explored Rome after we figured out how to buy a Metro (subway) ticket. The ticket machine wouldn’t take our money because we only had high-denomination euro notes on us and the machine can only give out up to €6 in change, so we had to buy our tickets from a tabacchi (tobacco shop) instead. Then we took too long to insert our tickets into the automated ticket-taker and had to ask a guard to open the gate to admit us onto the platform. Once we were actually on the subway, it was easy to navigate our way around.

We began our day in the Piazza del Popolo because we wanted to visit the Santa Maria del Popolo, an Augustinian church on the north side of the square that contains artwork by famous Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Bernini, Carravagio, and Sansovino. (Unfortunately, the Chigi Chapel, which was designed by Raphael and completed by Bernini and which was also featured in Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons, was undergoing restoration work and was covered over with canvas.) There is also a very nice contemporary portrait of Pope John Paul II in this church by Russian artist Natalie Tsarkova.

From there we window-shopped on the Via del Corso, which is where the average Roman goes shopping and contains lot of shoe stores, department stores, fashion outlets such as Benetton, Gucci, and Prada, and the Ferrari flagship store (which was way too expensive for even Gary to consider buying anything). Along the way we stopped in the Piazza Colonna to examine the ancient Column of Marcus Aurelius.

Then we had lunch at the nearby Alfredo alla Scrofa, which is the original location where the famous Italian dish Fettuccini Alfredo was invented. Gary has been spoiled for Fettuccini Alfredo ever since he first tasted the real thing at the location this restaurant used to run at the Epcot Center in Disney World, so of course we had to visit this place and sample it now that we were in Rome. Although this restaurant is no longer owned by the same family who invented the dish, it supposedly still uses the original recipe and still has pictures on the walls of all of the famous movie stars and celebrities who have visited it. They tossed the noodles with the butter and Parmesan cheese right at our table, and it was one of the richest, most satisfying meals I have ever tasted. (Gary said that while it was good, it was not quite as good as he remembers it to have been at the Disney World location. Maybe it’s always that way – nothing is ever as good as the first time we do something memorable.)

There is also another restaurant in Rome, Il Vero Alfredo at Piazza Augusto Imperatore, which is run by actual relatives of the man who invented the dish. We passed it on our wanderings during the day, and stopped to take a picture of it. We’ll have to visit that location the next time we’re in Rome to see if their version measures up to Gary’s memories.

We then explored the Piazza Navona, one of Rome’s main public squares, and located the nearby restaurant where we planned to have dinner that night, called Casa Coppelle at Piazza delle Coppelle. It had been highly recommended to us by an American couple from Virginia that we met in a snack bar in Florence.

We next visited the Ara Pacis Museum on Lungotevere in Augusta on the east bank of the Tiber River, which contains a modern reconstruction of an Altar to Peace built in 9 BC using original pieces that had been excavated or recovered from various other locations. The museum itself is a contemporary-style building that opened in 2006, and I have to say that the air conditioning in there was pretty refreshing.

While we were in the museum we picked up a brochure listing various things to see and do in Rome and it mentioned a traveling interactive exhibition called “Leonardo da Vinci: The Genius and the Inventions,” located in the Piazza della Cancelleria. It sounded fascinating, so after getting directions to the piazza from the bartenders in a snack bar we stopped at for a drink, we headed over there.

The exhibition consisted of 45 actual working replicas of da Vinci’s various machines based on his drawings and designs, such as his numerous flying apparatuses (apparently da Vinci understood the basic principles of flight but never actually built any of his designs), a hydraulic pump, a rolling mill, an Archimedean screw, musical instruments, a war machine resembling an armored tank, and webbed gloves for use in water.

There was also a bicycle supposedly designed by da Vinci (some scholars think someone else might have added the bicycle’s loom onto two wheels da Vinci had already designed), so of course Gary had to try it out.

A funny side-note: the sketch for this bicycle was found on the back of one of da Vinci’s drawings of sexual organs that he produced during his anatomical studies, so the whole sketch was censured and hidden for almost 500 years, until it was rediscovered in 1974 during the restoration of his Codex.

There were also reproductions of some of the most famous paintings and drawings from this very versatile Renaissance genius.
Dinner at Casa Coppelle was pretty good for the most part. The interior is more like the inside of someone’s elegant home, with lamps and bookshelves, and the background music was jazz, which was a nice change from “O Sole Mio” and “Volare.” Our entrees were excellent. I had a very good Niçoise salad, and Gary had beef fillet simmered in blackberry sauce and grappa (an Italian liquor).

The only problem was that service became much slower as the restaurant filled up and we had to wait a half-hour for our tiramisu, which turned out to be the only disappointing thing we ate in Italy (a thin layer of cake at the bottom of a glass with a lot of custard-like filling on top). It also got rather hot later on, since they had seated us at a table up front right near the door where we didn’t get any of the air conditioning from further inside. I would definitely try this restaurant again, but next time I would allow plenty of time, request a table outside or in the back, and try another dessert other than the tiramisu.

We had another subway adventure when we were ready to go back to the hotel. We first had to find a shop or restaurant willing to give us change for a €20 note, which is surprisingly hard to do. Then we took the wrong staircase when we got off at our stop, found ourselves in an unfamiliar part of the Bologna neighborhood, and had to wander around until we got our bearings again.

When we got back to our hotel room, we found a bottle of champagne in a cooler, two glasses, a flower, and a note saying “Happy Anniversary” from Monique. One of the girls from our tour group must have passed along the news to her. After all of the walking around we had done that day, it was very invigorating to pop open that bottle!