Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Beginning...

Welcome to our story! Wayne and I had considered Italy for our honeymoon, but ended up going to Paris instead. Not a bad second choice, true, but we've still been wanting to see Italy together. Over my many years travelling for work I accumulated bunches of miles, so we figured it was time to cash in.

Last fall I started playing with dates and itineraries and we settled on being gone for our 5th anniversary and hitting Florence, Siena and Rome. It seemed so far off and now it's come and gone. Oh yes, I'm writing these entries from our written journal of the trip, but I will date them with the days we were actually there. The blog will have them in reverse order.

So scroll to the bottom to start with day 1....

Saturday, February 10, 2007

dem bones

Finally a great night of sleep! Could have been the velvet draperies drawn around the bed creating a cavern for sleep. But it was needed & welcome.

We had planned on this day being a Vatican day since we'd scheduled a tour of the Scavi for the afternoon. We didn't plan, however, for a rainy day in which every other tourist in Rome would try to seek shelter in the Vatican. The museums changed their admission times for individuals this year - tour groups get in at 8, individuals at 10. Since I didn't get a reservation, seeing the Sistine Chapel would have required a multi-hour wait. And since you can only enter the Basilica through one door with metal detectors, that line wrapped through the colonnade all the way around Piazza San Pietro. We quickly abandoned there and strolled along the Tiber toward Campo di Fiori (Field of Flowers) to see the outdoor market and a bite to eat.

After our snack we wandered around and stumbled on the Area Sacra, ruins of the 4 oldest temples found in Rome (4th cent. B.C.). We continued along Corso Vittorio Emanuele and I realized we were standing in front of Gesu, the Jesuit Mother Church. I hadn't planned on visiting but since we were there we went in. What serendipity! It was gorgeous, an amazing site full of art. We spent most of our time with necks craned looking at the ceiling. This snapshot doesn't do it justice. The fresco was of all these people at the pearly gates and some looked as if they were falling right on us. Actually the intention was that they were falling to hell - built during the reformation, this was a message to the Protestants, told in no uncertain terms that they were wrong.

Since we hadn't planned on visiting Gesu, we were surprised when they came shuffling us out after 15 minutes. They close for the afternoon so our exploration there was done.

The one thing I did have planned was a tour of the Vatican Necropolis. Since we had tickets, the Swiss Guard let us in the back entrance and we were able to skip the looong line and take a quick peek inside the Basilica. Back at the Scavi (necropolis) office we met out guide and began the descent. Here's the quick history courtesy of

After being crucified, Peter was buried in a hillside necropolis, a city of the dead. It was a place, fashioned to look like a city in miniature, where wealthy pagan families entombed their dead in houses where they could continue their new lives. Emperor Constantine eventually became a Christian and, in the 4th century, ordered the construction of a church over the tomb of St. Peter. The church also covered the other mausoleums in the ancient cemetery.

In the 16th century, the present basilica was built on the site. Donato Bramante designed the basilica; Raphael, Frea Giocondo da Verona, and Antionio da Sangallo continued the design after Bramante's death. When the last of the new architects, da Sangallo died, Michelangelo was commissioned to complete the design. He designed most of the apse and the main dome before dying. The dome was completed by Domenico Fontana in 1589, and inaugurated in 1593.

As the centuries passed, so did the memory of the necropolis beneath the basilica. In 1939 workers digging a tomb for the deceased Pope Pius XI, broke through a wall beneath the church and rediscovered the necropolis. Pope Pius XII ordered the excavation of the necropolis, but kept the work secret in case Peter's tomb was not found. Since the necropolis acts as the foundation for St. Peter's Basilica, the entire area could not be uncovered without the possibility of having the Basilica collapse. Work continued for a decade and on December 23, 1950, Pius XII announced the discovery of St. Peter's tomb. On June 26th 1968, Pope Paul VI announced that the remains of St. Peter had also been discovered.

The tour began by winding down a narrow path between the mausoleums of ancient Romans. We could see into several excavated crypts decorated with mosaics and many holding urns from pagan cremations. It was a narrow path but we had plenty of headroom. The guide had us imagine blue skies overhead, as that was the scene 2000 years ago. She told us of some pagan burial rituals, including large parties held several times a year at the crypt. The deceased weren't left out of these parties, as the survivors poured wine to them through tubes.

As we progressed through up the street, she noted carvings on crypts that indicated Christian burials were taking place - words like "rest in peace" and mosaic scenes from scripture. All this was leading up the path to the place where St. Peter was buried after his own crucifixion. It was hard to tell exactly where, but they illuminated the spot with a red light. From there we ascended to see the monument erected over the grave by Constantine. The tour ended in a beautiful chapel adorned with green marble. The altar was erected in front of the grave of St. Peter, and apparently this was the original "St. Peter's." The Basilica was built over the chapel. Around the side of the altar, we could view the bones that were found and are said to be St. Peter's. While there is very little dispute of the site of Peter's grave, archaeologists have none of Peter's DNA to prove beyond a doubt that the bones are his. However, it is generally agreed that they are based on the age of the man at death and the fact that the dirt on the bones matches that in the grave.

The exit of the tour led through the grottoes of the past popes. I realized too late that the crowd was gathered around John Paul II's tomb. We couldn't get back to see it. We trudged back to the hotel, winding through streets and circling around a few times. We grabbed some pizza near Piazza Navona before heading in and crashing hard for a nap. I checked the pedometer - 24,558 steps before 3pm!!!

After our nap we got ready for dinner. We decided to stroll toward the Spanish Steps to find something. We enjoyed the window shopping at some designer shops, then found Hostaria al 31 on via delle Carrozza. We had some wine & bruschetta then I enjoyed spaghetti with pesto and Wayne had spaghetti with tomato, chili and bacon. All very delicious. On the way home we circled over to Giolitti for dessert - lemoncello & fragola for me, cafe & ciccolatta for Wayne. Yum! Hard to believe we only have one day left. Tomorrow it's off to the Forum of ancient Rome.

Friday, February 9, 2007

5 happy years

Friday was our fifth anniversary and unfortunately we planned it to be a travel morning. The bus ride to Rome would take about 3 hours, but we were excited to get to the Eternal City. We had a little trouble figuring out where to catch the bus. They all pulled up at this little piazza. People got on, people got off. Most buses were only there for a few minutes, so we were nervous about jumping on the wrong one. I asked a couple of other drivers where the bus would stop...

ME: um, scusi? dov'e l'autobus per Roma? (believe me it sounds worse than it looks)
HIM: (through a haze of cigarette smoke) eh,lautobusperromaelafermatasena (grand gesturing with arms off to the left)
ME: grazie? (confusion)

So the grand gesture made me think we should be on the next little block, where I see many other buses lined up. Only thing is, they all look parked, like they're waiting for a trip later. Our 10:30 ticket time is drawing near so I stroll back by the drivers again.

ME: um, scusi? dov'e ......
HIM: (interrupting, rolling eyes) LA. FER-MA-TA SE-NA. LA. LA. (pointing to a pole 10 yards away that says "Fermata Sena".
ME: Ohhhhhh. Grazie! (Smiling sheepishly)

So this wouldn't be so difficult if the stop were marked better than a pole with a little placard on it. And if they told you 10:30 was when the bus left the main station, then made 3 more stops before getting to where we were. Whew!!

Thankfully there was little difficulty after that. A steady drizzle started by the time we arrived, but we were determined to see some sights. Our hotel was incredible. It shared a piazza with the Italian Parliament building and was easy strolls to all of the sights. We followed a walk from one of our books highlighting many works of Bernini. Sadly the Fontana dei Fiumi in Piazza Navona was concealed by scaffolding, but we wandered around the Pantheon, Piazza Colonna and the Trevi Fountain. I think Wayne believed I had a plan for where we were walking, but I really just pointed us in a direction and we found beautiful things everywhere.

One of Wayne's favorite finds was ZaZa! This pizza place was about the size of 2 telephone booths, but man was it tasty. We got Pizza Bianchi, or white pizza. Basically it was focaccia with olive oil and herbs brushed on, topped with cherry tomatoes that had shriveled and burst while roasting in the oven. Did I say tasty? It was the best slice we had the whole trip.

The eating didn't stop there. Along our walk we found a mall right in the middle of Rome. It reminded me of being at the Forum in Caesar's Las Vegas, but the espresso and hot chocolate we had there were perfect to wait out the rain. Our next necessary stop was gelato which we first indulged in near the Trevi Fountain. Later we discovered that the historic Giolitti was about 50 steps from our hotel. Funny how every trip to or from our hotel went right past that indulgent gelato shop? We tried many flavors, but my favorite combo was fragola e limoncello (strawberry and lemon). Mmmmmmmm.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Under the Tuscan Sun

For Thursday I scheduled a day with the highly touted Luca Garappa from Hills & Roads. He planned a day for us based on what I told him we were interested in: wine, small towns and beautiful scenery. He picked us up at our hotel at 9:30 and we were off.

We began with a winding drive through the beautiful hills of Crete Senesi, or "Sienese Clay". In the morning mist we were surrounded by vast farms such as the one pictured above. Luca told us that several farmers may share the land and rather than fence it, they know their boundaries by natural landmarks. The earth changes composition from hill to hill, so there were many variations in color and crop grown. Typical produce includes olives, grapes for wine, fava beans and sunflowers. We also saw animals - sheep, cows and horse which made us baa, moo & neigh and smile with thoughts of Miles.

We stopped in Asciano, a small medieval village and also Luca's home town. We strolled through the town while Luca pointed out buildings and fountains. He has a true love of the ancient buildings and scoffed at many of the modern renovations we saw.

The next stop was at one of the vineyards of Donatella Cinelli Colombini, near Trequanda. Since it was winter, Luca had to search to find an open winery so this one was a new experience for him also. In the high season the Fattoria del Colle can host around 70 guests for a week of activities. We began with a tour of the grounds near the house which include a formal garden, pools & game area (archery & ping pong included!). The chapel on the grounds was built in 1592 and is still consecrated today. The villa is filled with antiques and art from the exciting history of the home. The most renowned resident was Peter Leopold of Hapsburg (The Grand Duke of Tuscany and later Emperor of Austria in the 1700s), who used it as a "romantic" refuge.

Beneath the villa are the wine cellars where we went next for our informal tour and tasting. The wineries here are unique in that they are managed by a staff of women only. (I think the only man is a consultant.) This was my first winery tour so I soaked it all in. Finally it was time for a tasting. We tried 3 wines: Chianti Superiore, Cenerentola Orcia, and Brunello di Montalcino. Since I'm an amateur I won't try to describe any of them, but will say that we enjoyed them all and purchased a bottle of the Chianti Superiore and Brunello di Montalcino. They also produce olive oil, so we requested a taste of that as well. I had no idea that a formal olive oil tasting is similar to a wine tasting - including the swirl, sniff and sip. It was tasty but I don't think I'll be chugging oil again anytime soon. We tried black, green and mixed olive oils and liked the mixed most.

After lunch in a nearby small town (including more wine) Wayne & I were getting drowsy. Luca drove us toward the Chianti area of Tuscany for a stop in another medieval village, San Gusme. This small walled town seemed deserted but Luca assured us that it was not, everyone goes to the main towns to work. We soon found the bar (yes the only bar) and had our espresso fix. After a quick stroll inside the walled town we hopped back in the car. The Chianti area is more wooded, and while also beautiful, Wayne & I preferred the rolling green hills of the Crete Senesi.

The next stop was supposed to be a tour of Castle Brolio. I think the combination of lots of wine & riding in a car was taking its toll and Luca noticed. He offered us the option of a briefly stopping at the castle and then returning home, so we skipped the formal tour and wine tasting. We'll have to seek out their wine in the states since the Castle is a world-famous producer of great wine, the Brolio Chianti. Luca told us that the castle dates back to the 12th century and was a fortress on the edge of ongoing battles between Florence and Siena. As recently as the 20th century that castle was still used for military purposes when it was briefly occupied by Nazis during World War II.

This evening we were worn out from our day. It was truly a highlight and we're so glad we hired Luca. But for this evening we settled with sandwiches (panini!) made in the deli down the street. We managed to request them to be made without speaking English! Quite a step up from our first meal in Italy.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

But she's a good looking 660 year old!

Wednesday we headed to Siena by bus. Neither of us had been before and several friends told us it was a fantastic place to visit. The Hotel Cannon d'Oro didn't have the ambiance of Davanzati, but at half the price it will be fine for a quick stop. We set out to explore - quite easy since there are directional signs on the corners of many buildings. We wound down to Il Campo, a fantastic open Piazza. It's amazing to think that they hold a horse race in this Piazza twice a year. I read somewhere that they put mattresses on the corners of the buildings so the horses (and jockeys?) don't get injured.

From there we headed up the hill to the Duomo. Wow! The entire place is covered with carvings and mosaics. The floors are covered with inlay areas telling stories from the bible or about people of Siena. Around the ceiling of the nave (central area of church) there are busts of 172 popes peering down like gargoyles. Again we followed the Rick Steves' tour and enjoyed the education. Some areas were being cleaned so we couldn't get close. A Duccio stained glass was out for cleaning, so the place was much brighter than usual.

Back outside we could see the markings where the cathedral was intended to be. It would have been a cross shape but only the shorter arm was finished before the Black Death swept the area. We skipped the museum and headed for the Baptistery which was built into the hillside below the church. Lots more art with the central baptismal font that was sculpted by Donatello and Ghiberti.

I tried to convince Wayne to go to San Domenico by telling him that they have her 600+ year old head of Saint Catherine on display. Seriously. And her thumb! We went off to find the place but got lost going up and down big hills (where are those directional signs when you need them?). Alas, Wayne was tired of "churches and old art" for the day so I conceded and we went to find some snacks. On the way we passed this cool car that Wayne hopes to own someday. Sweetie, that's probably the only way you'll get to own a Lamborghini!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

reservations, schmeservations

Our hotel arranged reservations for the Uffizi Gallery at 8:15 (my request) so we wandered over toward Piazza della Signoria a little early to "beat the rush." Ha. There were about 6 people waiting so we ignored our reservation (saving the 6 extra euros) and just bought the regular tickets. We started up the 4 big flights of stairs to the museum level. There was art everywhere! The stairs and halls are lined with statues, portraits encircle the hall at ceiling level, every nook and cranny is stuffed with some treasure. I joked to Wayne that whichever Medici peon was responsible for displaying the art groaned every time they brought home a new piece. "Another bust?? Oh hell, stick it above that window."

We followed Rick Steves' tour through the gallery. Got a few chuckles at his descriptions and we were glad we didn't bother with the museum's audio guide. We/I really enjoyed the progression of art from the Middle Ages (where painting a crucifix in 3 dimensions meant you painted it flat then tilted part forward) to more realism, perspective & beauty in the Renaissance. The primo holdings were several large Botticelli's ("bottled-jellos", per Wayne). We sat for a while admiring these. Through a few more rooms there were daVinci, Michelangelo, Rubens and Titian pieces. We liked RS's comparison of the chaste beauty of Boticelli's women to the lurid, centerfold-style woman by Titian. It's hard to imagine in today's world how shocking some of this stuff was when it appeared.

We strolled up to the San Lorenzo street market and checked out the goods. I wanted to get Wayne the apron with the David printed on the front but he refused. I think he was nervous that a little band of gypsy kids would swarm us any moment, so we moved on. We indulged in so caffe latte and ciccolata at Bar Ginori and decided to check out the crowd at Galleria dell'Accademia, a.k.a. home of The David. Our reservations weren't until the afternoon but since the crowd was light we went on in. David is the star of the museum but I really liked the "Prisoners" pieces - sculptures that look like bodies trying to break free from their stone. We rounded out the afternoon with some shopping at the smaller Mercato Nuovo. Wayne found 10 (!) new ties and I indulged in a gorgeous green leather tote. Quite a nice day for the arrivederci to Florence.

Monday, February 5, 2007

to the Other Side

Since Mondays in Florence = all museums closed, we set out to fill our day elsewhere. After a quick stroll through the Duomo we crossed the Ponte Vecchio and headed for the Oltr'arno area, the other side of the river. Armed with a tour from a guidebook, I led Wayne up a huge hill to Fort Belvedere for it's spectacular views of the Boboli Gardens. It, too, was closed. So we headed down another road along one of the original city walls. We figured out that the trees we were passing were olives. I was walking, just enjoying the sunny day, checking out the wall and trees; but I think Wayne was starting to fear we were heading nowhere. Ha HA!

I made him climb another big hill to reach Piazzale Michelangelo, which offered fantastic views of the city and beyond. We sat on the steps, I ate my orange pilfered from breakfast and we noticed a little activity on the terrace below. There was an entire wedding party all decked out doing a photo shoot. That photographer made his bride sprawl out on the lawn, wrap herself around a light pole and gaze longingly at her new man. The poor groom passed us a sighed deeply. I guess the sentiments are universal. Why these crazy pictures???

We went up the hill a little further to San Miniato, a beautiful Romanesque church that is still a monastery. Our favorite part, a morbid as it sounds, was the cemetery. The church was encircled with white marble gravestones, crosses and garage-sized crypts. Apparently the last few centuries of wealthy Florentines used their graves to show off too. My favorite, though, was a grave marked by this statue of a mom and her boys. The woman lived into her 60s, but I can totally understand why she'd want to be memorialized at the time when her boys were babies.

After the loooong trek back to the hotel we sought out Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. I'd never heard of it until I started planning this trip then quickly learned it was one of the world's oldest pharmacies - Dominican fathers began making herbal remedies in the back garden in the 1200s. It opened the store selling to the public in the 1600s and has been selling these faab-u-lous soaps, teas, lotions and potpourri ever since. I'm kicking myself for not taking any pictures inside (see some here) but I wouldn't have done it justice. We (I) indulged in a few goodies, including the "boys protective cream." Miles now has some of the most luxurious buttpaste in town!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Super what?

In the ranking of romantic spots to vacate with your honey, Florence must surely be in the top 5 [along with Paris, Venice, San Francisco and some itty-bitty island in the south Pacific - someday!]. When I discussed our trip plans with friends, Florence was definitely the favorite. It's just big enough to have lots of great restaurants, fantastic museums and shopping, but small enough to wander aimlessly, leisurely taking in the sites. A perfect way to start the trip....

We cabbed it to the hotel and quickly realized we weren't staying at the Palazzo, but at the Hotel Davanzati next door. This hotel got great reviews everywhere I looked and our stay there confirmed them all. Yes, the room was comfy but beyond that there was free internet, a great breakfast, happy hour with delicious bruschetta and Prosecco. We borrowed guidebooks from the library and set out to roam the streets.

The city was bustling. Lots of folks making their way around the street markets, eating gelato, sitting at the cafes & just soaking it all in. We saw a huge carousel in Piazza della Repubblica, a marionette show in front of Santa Croce, and little pirates, Poohs & princesses toddling by. After the first pirate we thought, okay Disney is big here too. But after a few more princesses and lots of confetti and silly string in the streets we learned Sundays in February are mini-Carnevales.

Yes, I said Sunday. As in Superbowl Sunday. Wayne realized about four days before we left that we would be in Italy for the Superbowl. Whoops! A few "pubs" had signs for the game, but since it would be shown at 1am the Erwins would not be in attendance. Sorry sweetie.

Instead we gorged ourselves at a highly recommended place, Il Latini. What an event! They have two seatings, so Tomasso at the hotel made our reservations for 7:30. We joined the crowd waiting out front and when the owner opened the door watched as everyone surged forward and began shouting. They must have been saying "reservation for 4!," "reservation for 8!" because the owner/greeter/host led them in. Finally I got the guts to elbow in with the natives and we were taken to our table. A few moments later, a couple was seated at table with us - Americans!! The couple from Houston had left their 3 year old boy for 2 weeks in Italy, so we had lots to talk about.

What we knew of Il Latini before getting there is that you sit down and they bring you food. And more food. And more food. And that's exactly what happened. I guess we could have asked for a menu, but when in Rome... I mean Florence. When we entered we'd passed a guy shaving piles and piles of prosciutto, so we weren't surprised when a plate of it showed up for an appetizer. The Primi, or pasta, course was next. We (all 4) couldn't decide so they brought some of all the options to share. All were delicious: spinach & cheese ravioli with tomato sauce, penne with meat sauce, and rigatoni with wild boar sauce. Yes, Miles, we ate wild boar! We agreed we'd be fine just finishing the pasta and leaving, but we saved room for the courses to come.

As we ate the pasta we noticed tables around us being served huge slabs of meat. One couple had what looked like a literal side of beef. So Wayne and I decided to share the Secondi course and selected sausage & beans. That was a great choice, just the right portion and delicious too. Dessert followed: biscotti, gelato & vin santo (dessert wine). What a meal! And throughout we were helping ourselves to the jug of Chianti Classico on the table. Our bill? A mere 65 euro! We wandered back to the hotel and resigned ourselves to learning the score of the big game from BBC the next morning.

[Photos: a replica of Michelangelo's David in Piazza della Signoria, its original home; Nicole rubbing the boar's nose in Mercato Nuovo. This supposedly ensures a return to Florence; the carousel in Piazza della Repubblica; us at Il Latini - see the prosciutto hanging inside; a wild boar! (not my photo) ]

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Heading to Roma!

Leaving home was as tough as we had anticipated. Miles is so much fun these days that we had been dreading the actual departure. We know he's in great hands, but it didn't make it much easier. No tears, so we {Wayne} held strong. Miles did cling to Wayne's leg's a little, which was super sweet and sad.

The flights I booked had us going through Charlotte to Philadelphia then on to Rome. Kind of a pain to take so many, but otherwise we'd have been sitting in the Philly airport for 8 hours. Ugh. Because I had soooo many miles we were able to get Envoy Class seats which made the trip much more enjoyable. We clinked mimosas as we awaited departure and perused the dinner menu. The plane we were on has individual entertainment centers at every seat, so Wayne & I selected our movie and started them simultaneously. Wouldn't want one to see the good part first!! The crew in our cabin was fantastic and the flight was smooth, but we still didn't get much sleep ~ maybe 2-3 hours or rest at most.

We landed in Rome the next morning around 8:30. We'd decided to start our trip in Florence and work our way back to Rome for the departure. I'd heard too many horror stories of strikes to risk being too far away from the airport. So that meant we got off the plane and hopped on the train for another hour and a half. That was very crowded but the views! The countryside was so lush and green, odd for this time of year we were told. I guess it has been warmer than usual this winter.

I'd bought a sandwich at the station in Rome so we weren't starving anymore. That was fun. The buying part, I mean. I studied French in high school and took some at UT also, so when we went to Paris for our honeymoon I listened to some CDs prior and managed to get us around pretty well. I impressed Wayne, that's what counts! So going to Italy I was nervous about not being so adept. I'd been before, so I knew we would manage. It's not like we were going to be in China where I couldn't even read the words. But when it came time to order that first sandwich I was a Mo-Ron. All I could do was point and look pleadingly. Totally blanked that the word for sandwich is... panini.