So I Went to Italy…

It was a honeymoon of sorts as it was where the Mister and I had wanted to go in June, but that was peak season and so expensive. I did a little research and learned that everything we wanted to do would be half the price in October. So we went to Mexico then (Also off-season. I guess that’s our style.) and made plans to do the big trip in the fall.

It was the perfect idea. Not only is everything more affordable, but the weather is perfect. It was 75 degrees and sunny every day. It only rained the day we arrived and the day we left. There were still a lot of tourists in the bigger cities but it wasn’t overwhelming. We were still able to do everything we wanted to do. And we brought some friends with us.

We started our trip in a small town called Ravello on the Amalfi coast. It was a long journey to get there. We flew from Seattle to NYC and then took a small Italian airline called Eurofly to Naples. We met our friends (2 from Seattle, 2 from Britain) and Francesca the Italian Driver at the Naples airport and piled into a van. Ravello is a cliff town along the Mediterranean, so to get there, we had to drive along some very windy and narrow roads. Our Seattle friends, like us, had been up for 20 hours already by that point. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes, even under the best conditions. And these were those conditions. We had an empty seat next to us, I had wine and sleepy meds and a white noise track on my iPod, but I still only got about 2 hours of interrupted sleep at best. So we were pretty loopy by the time we arrived in Ravello. But we aimed to stay up as late as possible to acclimate ourselves to the local time.

We dropped the Brits at their hotel, got some provisions (wine, bread, cheese, toilet paper) from a little shop, and met up with Luigi to check into our villa, which would be our home for the next week. It did not disappoint. The view was astounding. 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms, a washing machine, a sizable common area, plenty of pots and pans and dishes in the kitchen, and a huge deck from which to gaze upon the Mediterranean and the town of Minori. We also had an adorable bonus cat family living across the way with two young kittens who were always up to cute kitten mischief.

We spent most of our days exploring the town. There was a lovely garden and cloister in which we picnicked, after gazing out over the Terrace of Infinity. This is an incredible view and it is said that Satan brought Jesus here to tempt him. But basically everything in the town was beautiful and every view breathtaking. Everyone spoke pretty good English but even if they didn’t, it wasn’t hard to communicate in our spotty Italian. We were even able to borrow a bottle opener from a shop owner who spoke exactly zero English, when we’d lost ours. There wasn’t much night life to speak of (other than a classical music festival, which we skipped) but we managed to keep ourselves entertained by eating late dinners (as the Italians do) hitting the shops to stock up on wine before they closed, and playing cards and games at the villa till late.

The bus system was decent and easy to figure out so we took a couple of day trips to the surrounding towns. However, when we went to Minori, we took the stairs. Minori is straight town two miles of staircase which seems easy enough and was a terrific adventure. Of course, our thighs paid the price the next day. Luckily, we were able to stretch out our aching muscles. The Italian word for stairs is “scala” and there are scala EVERYWHERE. There is even a town above Ravello CALLED Scala. You can imagine how many stairs that place has.

Another epic hike occurred when we took the ferry to Capri. We could have take the funicular up to the main square, but we decided to take the scala. After that we, hiked down a hill to the “beach” that one of our companions had read about it in her guidebook. That beach had since been commandeered by an opportunistic tourist board and they were charging 16 Euros for access. We were damned if were were gonna pay that much, but we had hiked a long way, so we scrambled over some rocks and took over a little rock ledge that some German teenagers were just vacating. I’m sure they were pissed about the 16 Euros too.

By that point, I was so sore (and my grandma knees were literally swollen) that I was afraid to jump off the cliff (about a 20 foot drop) into the sea. I feared I wouldn’t be able to climb back up the rocks and we still had to get back up the giant hill into the town. But everyone more able-bodied did some cliff-diving and sea-swimming and said it was lovely. It looked lovely. The sea literally sparkles.

While we basked on the rocks, a few more tourist groups happened by. I’m sure everyone was looking for a way to save 16 Euros and still go swimming. It was a hard sell but we convinced a German man to use the spot while his wife and son looked on. We continued on our hike.

To avoid a particularly daunting scala, we went in a different direction to get back and ended up doubling our return hike. Normally, I love a hike, but I was not dressed appropriately at all. No one mentioned hiking in the Capri brochure so I didn’t have appropriate shoes and was wearing a long skirt and dress shirt. I was pretty uncomfortable but it was hard to not have a great time since the scenery was so astoundingly beautiful.

When we finally reached the center of town, we took the funicular back down to the dock and ate gelato while we waited for our ferry. You eat a lot of gelato in Italy. It’s like coffee in Seattle. You can’t walk ten feet without finding some and it’s all delicious. It’s also one of the cheapest things you can eat. Thank god for all the scala.

At the end of the week, our British friends returned home and 2 of our Seattle friends went to Naples for some romantic alone time. Justin, who was up north for a wedding and joined us at the villa late in the week, accompanied us on the train to Florence, and then connected to Sienna.

The Rick Steves book stressed the importance of looking like you know what you’re doing so as not to be a mark for scammers. He said not to trust anyone, young or old, man or woman. Therefore, B. and I would try to plan our routes from the train and then just keep moving once we’re on our way. We elected not to take a cab because our hotel was only about a mile from the train station. But Italian streets are confusing and we had a nasty habit of going in the wrong direction every single time. It also turns out there was little reason to be paranoid. Us hardened city folk didn’t look like marks. Yes, we had suitcases, but only one each and we could carry them easily ourselves. We didn’t keep our wallets in outside pockets or sort through wads of cash out in the open. The people Steves was warning were people like my parents who aren’t used to the big, bad city. We didn’t really realize this until late in our trip, however. So dragging our suitcases through throngs of people and around the Duomo was a little stressful. We expected old ladies to bum rush us while their babies mugged us at knife point.

Our hotel was nice enough and centrally located. I loved that even a tiny room with a closet-sized bathroom still has a bidet. Maybe that’s why the Italian’s are so laid back.

We had a whole day in Florence the next day, so we decided to rest up for site seeing and just wander around. The city is small and very walkable. I read about a place in the Steves book that specialized in vegetarian Italian cuisine which really piqued my interest. We had been eating nothing but bread and cheese (and meat for others) for a week and I was dying for some vegetables. Ravello has a lot of things to offer but fresh produce isn’t one of them (olives don’t count). I’d also been searching for tartufo (truffles) for a while. They were apparently in season.

We found the correct piazza for the restaurant but couldn’t find the restaurant itself. We took a gelato break and then continued searching. We were pretty hungry at this point so we decided to give up pick some place. The fine print under the sign told us it was the place we’d been looking for. But it was clearly under new owners, had been renamed, and the menu was different. But they had truffles! And spinach! We doubled down on truffle dishes (bruchetta tartufo with white beans and tartufo pasta) and got a side of spinach. It was cooked but it felt really good to be downing some greens. The noodles were amazing. They weren’t what we were expecting. They were very dumpling-like. But it’s exactly how I like my noodles. And oh the truffles!! We dined outside and watched the local punks and their dogs gallivant about the piazza drumming, smoking and dancing.

After dinner, we wandered around and crossed the Arno river, which looked surprisingly stagnant, but was still beautiful. If it flows toward Pisa, carrying the urine of the Florentines, it does so very slowly. We also hung out in the Piazza della Signoria to look at the amazing statues there including my personal favorite of Perseus standing over the body of Medusa and holding her head, entrails dangling.

First thing the next morning, we got in line at the Accademia to see the David statue. I had neglected to make reservations and Steves warned that we would spend two hours in line. He was right. We passed the time by reading the hilarious graffiti on the walls outside the building and watching the guys who sold the cheap art prints scatter any time the cops came by.

Once inside, we decided it was worth the wait. Even though his image is somewhat overused in relation to Florence, David really is pretty amazing. We sat for a while and regarded his backside. I also really liked the incomplete Michelangelo sculptures which showed some insight into how these things are made.

We grabbed some lunch and then walked up some (surprise!) scala to the Piazzale Michelangelo with yet another replica of David and the best view of Florence. I was having a bad day in relation to my grandma knees and I even lost my gelato in a classic bad-day scenario. But B. was patient and let me rest while he took the pictures.

When we got back to the hotel, the desk person told us she had successfully made reservations for us a another Rick Steves recommended restaurant. We’d walked by earlier and couldn’t find the place so we assumed it too was closed. But apparently not. So we hauled ass to get back to that area and hoped to find it open. And low and behold, there it was. It wasn’t open during the day so maybe they keep it in cloaked mode too? I dunno. We were just happy it was there. Steves suggested the house wine so we naturally got a carafe of that. The house bread was also delicious. It was warm and moist and some of it was corn-based. I ordered the tartufo ravioli with gorgonzola and B. got the “risotto” with spinach. My dish was incredible but B.’s risotto was a little disappointing. It didn’t appear to be arborio rice and it was extremely al dente. But B. was hungry and ate the whole thing. We closed the meal with a delicious creme carmel and chatted with the older couple next to us who were also there based on Steves’ suggestion. Looking around the restaurant, we noticed that every table had a blue Rick Steves book out. Hilarious. I wonder if they get any local business at all.

The next day, we took the side streets to the train station bound for Florence. On the way, a cobble stone got the better of me and my knee went out. My knees hadn’t given me this much trouble in a long time. It was pretty frustrating. But at least we were going to be sitting on a train for the next couple of hours.

We mapped out the way to the hotel (or where we thought it was since we weren’t sure) and planned to walk there rather than take the water taxi. This might have been a mistake. Venice is all stairs and bridges which is tough for a suitcase on wheels. There are also lots of streets which just end in a drop into the canal. Added to that was the fact that the hotel wasn’t where we thought it was a few shop vendors knew where the hell it actually was. We called the hotel and the “man” on the phone was very unhelpful. Instead of directing us to the hotel, he directed us to a place to ask directions. Er…gracie. But we did just that and eventually found the place.

The “man” we spoke to was actually a large, incredibly surly lady. She hurriedly checked us into our rooms, gave us the world’s heaviest key and pointed us up the stairs. She took our passports to, I thought, copy them or scribble down the information. It wasn’t until we were upstairs that I realized she never gave them back. We freshened up and then headed our to enjoy our only day in Venice and I asked her for our passports. She sighed a deep sigh, took them out of a cubbyhole and wrote the information in a notebook. Then she plopped the passports on the counter and gave us a look. And thus endeth our interaction with the grumpiest person in Italy.

Holy moly, Venice is beautiful. You don’t even need to pay 90 Euro for a gondola ride. It’s romantic enough just to walk around. My knee was still hurting quite a bit but since this was our only day there, I powered through. In the Piazza San Marco, we encountered our first and only scam: Those guys peddling roses. Usually my “no gracie” is enough, but this guy wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Bella,” he said. “Gratis.” He pushed the crappiest rose toward me. “Gratis. Gratis,” he said. I thought he meant he might as well give me that one since it wasn’t looking so hot. But once I caved and took the rose, he turned to B. and said “One Euro”. I handed him back the crappy rose and we walked away. There is no such thing as gratis.

We walked around the waterfront and took loads of pictures. We also noticed the well-dressed Policia Venezia. I never really got the “man in uniform” thing until then. They have wonderful black tailored uniforms with red trim and a fashionable leather satchel. Their job, as far as I can tell, is to walk around the waterfront looking snazzy and striking fear into the hearts of the guys who sell the knock-off hand bags. Keep up the good (looking) work, men!

For dinner, we took another Rick Steves suggestion and partook in the cicchetti pub crawl. Cicchetti is basically Venetian happy hour. Bars offer wine or belinnis and little fried snacks and sandwiches for 1-2 euros. You order a drink and a little snack and then stand or sit out in the piazza and drink and visit. The weather was perfect for it too. Some of the snacks were surprisingly sports-bar. I had something that was basically a jalepeno popper. But I also had an incredible brie and walnut mini sandwich. We didn’t meet any Venetians but it was cool just to be there blending in with the locals and doing as they do.

Then it was time to head to Rome. Having learned our lesson, we took the water taxi back to the train station. As per usual, we followed Rick Steves’ advice and bought a Roma Pass for 20 Euros at the train station. This gave us 3 days of unlimited metro use as well as free admission to 2 Rome sites and discounted admission to anything else we wanted to see. We hopped on the subway and took it 2 Spagna. This time, we had a map and knew exactly where our hotel was on it. Of course, we STILL went the wrong way. Fortunately, we passed several Chinese restaurants on our little detour. By this point, I was craving vegetables and tofu like crazy. I never thought I’d say this but I desperately needed a break from cheese and I need some serious protein.

When we finally found our hotel, we were pleased as punch to find it the picture of luxury. It was pretty pricey, but so were the hotels in Florence and Venice and they were pretty sparse. The Hotel King was fancy pants and the king-sized bed wasn’t even two twins pushed together! We had a full bathtub and even a spare room for some reason. Nice!

The first night, we went to the elusive National Museum of Rome. Perhaps it wasn’t well-marked because it was undergoing construction. We didn’t realize until we were on our way out that all the good stuff was the stuff that was scattered in the front courtyard. They were renovating the display room and just stuck everything out front like a car on blocks. We probably didn’t even have to pay to get in. But we had our Roma pass so admission was free for us anyway.

After that we embarked on Operation Tofu. Mr. Chow’s won us over ( that name again is Mr. Chow). It wasn’t the best Chinese food we’d ever eaten, but it sure hit the spot. We got spinach, spring rolls, tofu and veggie fried rice and we ate every last morsel.

Then we walked around Rome following Rick Steves’ night walk which brought us past the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. The Pantheon was absolutely incredible to see. It looks like it was transported to a trendy modern piazza from the past. Of course, we stopped along the way for our daily dose of gelato.

The next day was Vatican day. Since it’s its own country, we figured we’d better allow for a whole day and not really plan anything else. I’m glad we did. First of all, Vatican city was blowing it up that day because the Pope was giving a speech outside the Basilica. So we figured this was a good time to head into the museum and see the Sistine Chapel. We were right. The line moved very quickly and soon we were inside looking at bust after bust of dead or fictional Romans and loads of lion statues. I also really enjoyed the Egyptian room which had a couple of mummies. The Egyptians really did have the coolest gods. Sekhmet is kinda smokin.

When we were ready to see the Sistine Chapel, we followed the signs up the stairs. So did a thousand other people. What they don’t tell you is that they plan to herd you through room after room of mediocre Catholic art, up stairs, down stairs and under scaffolding before you finally get to the bloody chapel. By the time you get there, you are so tired that you just glance at the ceiling and then are ready to leave. Yeah, it’s impressive, but so was the pain in my knees. I’m sure they do that on purpose so as to prevent lingerers. They also make sure you have about 100 opportunities to buy souvenirs on your journey. Every other room has a gift shop.

Next, we grabbed lunch in the form of some delicious falafel chock full of fresh lettuce and tomatoes. I love the food in Rome. We needed to refuel before fighting the throngs of people heading into the Basilica.

After making sure we were compliant with the dress code, we fell into what I now call an Italian Line. If you want to get into a place, you pinpoint the entrance and then push, shove and elbow your way toward it. We waited in that thing for about 45 minutes. I’m not usually one to get claustrophobic but I was definitely feeling pretty tense in that mob. This was compounded with continuing knee pain and an asshole teenager in front of me who kept elbowing me in the boob and face every time the crowd shifted forward. The only thing that kept our spirits up were two hilarious old Irish men behind us, telling incomprehensible jokes about talking salmon.

Once we finally made it through, it took me a few minutes to stop being so pissed off about the line and enjoy the beauty of the Basilica. It’s pretty, but I also couldn’t help but be a little annoyed. It’s the lapsed Catholic in me. The thing is lined with gold and they still had the nerve to put out prominently placed (and gold-plated) donation boxes. Cos the Vatican needs more money.

When we finally got back to the hotel, all I wanted to do was relax, drink some vodka, and then eat more Chinese food. Justin surprised us from the lobby and was enthused about our plans. Of course, we had already finished most of the vodka by the time he showed up. That’s why it was probably an errant decision to drink another bottle of wine with him in his hotel garden before finding dinner. By the time we got to the Chinese restaurant, we were all pretty wasted.

We gorged ourselves on delicious Chinese food and beer. The plan for after dinner was to find the piazza that his coworker had recommended; a lively place near the French Embassy. Of course, we got lost along the way. This was not unusual for us, but being drunk didn’t help. I was feeling like I might need to abandon the mission and go pass out, but Justin convinced me to grab some water in the Pantheon Piazza and rally. Somehow, a large bottle of water and a conversation about the inevitable robot apocalypse sobered me up enough to allow me to finish the journey.

We finally found the piazza in question and it was indeed lively. Most of the people there, it seemed, were young, drunk tourists so we fit right in. Entrepreneurs tried to sell us megaphones. We weren’t interested but we pointed them in the direction of some obnoxious hatted Americans and, as I predicted, those guys were game to make their voices louder.

Around 2:30 we decided to call it a night and find a cab. I was happy I was able to rally on Justin’s only party night in Rome. In fact, it was our only party night since we left Ravello. Site seeing really takes it out of you. Unfortunately, it was all a little too much for me and I lost my Chinese feast to the hotel toilet.

The next morning we got a late start on site seeing on account of my tremendous hangover. But we were determined to get out and see the Colosseum and the Forum. I’m glad we did, even thought it was a little slow-going. The Colosseum was really cool inside. We think they should renovate it and turn it into a “Medieval Times” style dinner theater.

The Forum proved a little difficult for us, however. It’s basically old Rome so it’s pretty huge. But for some reason, there’s only one entrance, and we WENT THE WRONG WAY. We missed it by about 30 feet and ended walking all along the outside. By the time we found the entrance, I no longer cared to go in. But we still had to meet Justin so we got some lunch and waited.

The only place to eat, really, was this crappy cafe across from the Colosseum. It was by far the worst food we ate on our trip. And the most expensive. Beware of convenience. I ordered an egg sandwich and the eggs looked like they’d been sitting under a heat lamp for 5 days. I basically just ate the bread.

We met up with Justin and gave the Forum another go. I’m glad we did. It was incredibly cool to be able to walk around the ruins of an entire city. Although they don’t let you go into the really cool parts, like inside the buildings. They say it’s a safety issue, and that’s probably true, but it wouldn’t be too hard to make those areas safe and restore them just a little bit.

Continuing our Roman meal theme, we dined on Japanese food that night and then turned in fairly early for our long journeys home the next morning.

B. and I had time to kill before we headed for the airport, so we fit in one more little detour. We went to a church about 2 blocks from our hotel (of course, we went the wrong way) which houses the bones of Capuchin monks in the basement. It was a mandatory donation of 1 Euro to get in but it was definitely worth it. They were artistically arranged (sacred hearts and lamps made of monk bones) and very cool.

At the airport, we tried to spend our Euro coins and waited to board our Eurofly flight to JFK. The monitor said it was on time so we waited. And waited. And waited. And hour late, we boarded the bus which took us to the plane. One the plane, we waited another 30 minutes with no explanation before finally taking off. Once we were in the air, the captain apologized for the delay and “explained” that it was due to “taking longer than expected to load bags”. WHAT? We were that late because they took their time loading bags? Jesus. Once we arrived in JFK, we had to sit on the runway for another half an hour because we were so late that there wasn’t a gate for us. None of the Italians on the plane seemed at all bothered by this. I will never take an Italian airline to Italy again. I can totally swing with a laid back meal but a laid back flight is not OK. If we were trying to make a connecting flight home, we would have missed it. We’d already been up for 20 hours as it was.

But that was definitely the worst thing that happened on our trip and it was at the end. We spent the weekend partying with Elyse and Wade at their Long Island wedding and had a great time. When we finally got home on Sunday, we were happy to see our cats, but we had no regrets about our awesome adventure. Bellisimo!

See the rest of our Italy pics here!

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2 Comments

  1. What a saga! Thanks for sharing. My one regret is that it didn’t register with me somehow that you were about to go to Italy; otherwise, I would have gladly sent you our well-detailed list of vegetarian places in Rome, Florence and Venice. Oh well. I can only hope that you managed to make it to Il Margutta in Rome, which is the best vegetarian restaurant in the world… but if not, it’s good to save something for next time.

  2. Sadly, I never even saw the word “vegetariano” anywhere on our entire trip, other than in the Rick Steves guidebooks. When you live in Seattle, you sometimes forget that it’s not so easy to find vegetarian food in the rest of the world. I actually thought of Miki while I was there and lamented how hungry she must be when she travels to Europe. But if you guys have a list, perhaps not! Next time I will come more prepared on the food front.


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