Wednesday, 26 September 2012
The trip on the night train was a little rough. Doug and I were both coming down with some sort of illness (congestion & low grade fever) and neither of us really slept. We got into Florence around 6am and found the bus station to catch the bus to Siena. In my sickie fog, I had to ask a local (in Italian) where the station was because I couldn’t quite remember. We found it, caught the bus without a problem, and made it to Siena around 7:30 or so. It was still REALLY early, so we figured we’d find the hotel and leave our luggage until it was official check in time. Well, between when I booked and when we arrived, the hotel had changed addresses, and we had no idea. We stood outside, feverish and bewildered, until someone passing by saw us with our backpacks (and thank goodness I still remember enough Italian) and communicated that the hotel had moved, it was up the street. It was still MUCH too early anyway, so we took up a spot in the Piazza del Campo and alternated taking naps on the sun-warmed bricks. After we finally checked into the hotel, we found a pharmacy and some cold meds and then went back for a long nap since we were both pretty well beat. It ended up being a very off day, but we needed the rest pretty badly. We did manage to get up for a walk and dinner later in the evening and then it was back to the hotel for sleep.
Thursday, 27 September 2012 We had booked a tour with a local company, so we got up and met our guide, Gianni, at the entrance to our hotel. It may have been much more expensive than renting a car and driving around ourselves, but not having to drive and having the knowledge that Gianni had was really worth it. Gianni took us to some little known places, knew the best wineries to tour and sample, and taught us about the wineries and how they worked. We visited during peak harvest season, so most of the operations were in full swing and really neat to see at that level. We stopped at the Borgo San Felice which was once a town, but had been completely bought up by a hotel company. The whole thing, except for one house, was a resort. As Gianni explained, people slowly moved away, closer to Florence and Siena, and this little town out in the country was getting emptier and emptier. It’s happened a few times, apparently, and all sorts of celebrities will rent out the town for a weekend for events. We made two stops at wineries for wine tastings, had an incredible lunch at a small, family-run restaurant, and wandered through little Tuscan towns all day long. We got back to Siena around 5pm, wandered around for a while, and found an amazing dinner – wild boar was ‘in season’ and pici was on the menu, so we had our fill of some very regional and typical Sienese food.
Friday, 28 September 2012
We got up early, found breakfast (espresso and a pastry) and got a taxi to the train station for the train to Rome and then out to Ostia. There was a snafu with the hotel that I was pretty pissed about. We booked the hotel four months in advance, but somehow they were overbooked and we got bumped to a ‘sister’ hotel that was further away and probably the most gaudy and tacky hotel I’ve ever seen. Think Caribbean (palm trees, etc) meets Rome, meets China, with a military museum, ALL AT ONCE. The room we were brought to was clean enough, but we couldn’t walk anywhere which was one of the benefits of the hotel I had originally booked at. The plan for the day, since Rome was really a stop over for our flight to Brussels, was to go to Ostia Antica nearby. It’s basically like Pompeii without the volcanic activity. Really, IMHO, better than Pompeii, because you don’t have to go through Naples and it feels SO much bigger. We spent the afternoon wandering through the ruins, and then went off to find dinner. Well, the restaurants didn’t open till 7:30 or 8pm, and were pretty firm about that time, so we walked around and had a glass of wine at a cafe to waste time. We ended up at a really wonderful little place that even gave us a complimentary cordial to finish the incredible dinner. We got our pickup back to the hotel and prepared for the flight the following day. By this point we were both feeling better and not hitting the cold medicine as much!
Saturday, 29 September 2012
The hotel had a shuttle service to the airport which was nearby in Fiumicino, so that was thankfully an easy transfer. Our flight was pretty short and we arrived in Brussels in the early afternoon. A short train ride later and we were brought practically to the front door of our hotel. Not bad! The hotel was a B&B based out of an artist’s studio and the retired couple who ran the whole operation were really sweet. The rooms were SPACIOUS and each had a different theme and color scheme. Really neat – it felt so comfortable and like home. Breakfast consisted of bread brought up in the morning with a layout of spreads (jam, nutella, etc) and coffee/tea, all do-it-yourself in the kitchen on your floor. I really loved this setup and how well it worked. We had been in Brussels the year prior, so we had a pretty good handle of where we were and where we wanted to go. First stop was the Cantillon Brewery, my personal favorite brewery, ever. They still make beer in the old fashion, using wild yeast, and have such a limited production that we can’t get it at home, so we brought a few bottles home. Then it was off to Moeder Lambic for a few more beers before dinner. The beer tends to be not as strong (ABV 5% or so), so it’s easy to sit around and enjoy a beer or three and not get totally sloshed. We walked around the area around our hotel for a while, saw the Manneken Pis and the usual crowd gathered around him, had dinner, and made it back to the hotel.
Sunday, 30 September 2012 We figured not much would be open on Sunday, so we decided to head back to the Military History Museum since we knew we missed a section of it the last time, plus, it’s free to enter! We did sleep in a little though and took our time getting going in the morning. On the walk there, we wandered through a flea market and oogled all the things on display, mostly antiques. Turned out that we didn’t miss nearly as much as we thought we did at the museum, but we did get to go to the roof top and see a full panorama of Brussels which was pretty neat. The musuem also had a special exhibit on the day-to-day items of soldiers during World War I and II which was pretty fascinating. The things they brought with them, the things they were issued, things they made themselves. After the museum, we went to find Wafels and Frites, as you do in Brussels. We made a few stops for food and beer as the day went on, lingering for a while here and there, having a taste of some AMAZING Chimay 150th anniversary beer. There was of course, Delirium, and another stop at Moeder Lambic before dinner which was Doug’s favorite, Waterzooi, and I had the Flemish Rabbit. Brussels, I love you, and would love to spend more time seeing the rest of Belgium!
The following day, which I don’t need to make a whole entry about, was our flight home, involving a 7 hour layover in Washington, DC. Ick. The joys of frequent flyer miles flights.
Overall, the trip was incredible – from the crowded and crazy fun time at Oktoberfest, and then to the more relaxed trip through Italy and Brussels, it was really an awesome vacation. If you’d like to see more photos, I’ve got the full set uploaded to flickr, here.
Still March 19. Our hotel in Florence was the Katti House B&B. We checked in easily enough, though the owner didn’t speak much English – just enough to get by – but it gave me a good chance to work on my Italian a little bit, so I didn’t mind! We were brought to our very spacious room (with shower/toilet), and wandered off to find dinner. We ended up at Regginella, a small place near the hotel (which was also near the train/bus stations). The food was excellent, and we were even served some Limoncello on the house to end dinner. Back to the hotel, and to bed – the street was a little noisy, but it wasn’t peak tourist season, and it was chilly enough to need the window shut at night, so it wasn’t that bad.March 20. We end up having to catch the earlier train to Venice, so we only have until 2:30pm. It was also Sunday, and a bunch of things were closed or running limited hours, and really, Florence wasn’t appealing to either of us that much – it’s a very americanized and tourist filled city. If you’re going to visit for the art, that’s wonderful, but the city itself is kinda dirty and leaves a lot to be desired. After Siena, Florence was a huge disappointment. We got up and I got a chance to chat with our hotel owner in Italian which was great fun. She thought Doug was German (his family is near 99% Dutch) They allowed us to leave our bags in the hotel check-in area and again, we PacSafed them just in case. (Photo to the right is of the Duomo (cathedral) of Florence, a view from halfway up the bell tower)
After finding some good espresso for breakfast, we found that the Campanile (bell tower to the Duomo) was open for business. Made it all the way up the 414 steps with the bells clanging in our ears every 15 minutes (photo to the right is the view looking up). At the top, it was REALLY windy, but crystal clear and made for a great view. Here, we’re going to suspend the stair counter since this was the last tower we climbed – 1496 stairs in four days. I’d tell you how hard it was to get out of bed in the morning, but that number speaks for itself.
We spent a little time wandering around Florence. Crossed the Ponte Vecchio and oogled the gold, walked past the Uffizzi, and through the markets at San Lorenzo. Near the Ponte Vecchio, there’s a chain set up to separate the pedestrians from the street. The entire chain was FILLED with padlocks stuck to the chain. We got home and found out they were Love Locks (photo to the right) – couples in love lock a padlock to a bridge, chain, fence, etc and then throw the key in a nearby river symbolizing how they’re locked together in love. AWWW. Anyway, short entry for Florence, but we made our train on time and were off to Venice!
I realized that I was WAY behind on these, so here’s the next installment from our trip in March. (Is it really almost July already? It can’t be!) As always, click any photo to see the larger version on flickr.
March 18. We missed the train to Siena from Rome by about three minutes – the train was at the far, far end of the station and as we were quick-walking to get there, it pulls away. Ugh. Next one was in two hours, so we spent a little time people watching outside the police station which proved to be good entertainment. We ended up on the 10:58am train which arrived at Siena (via Chiusi) at 3:20pm. Somehow, I had neglected to write down the address to the hotel on my master-sheet, but thankfully a very nice cab driver knew exactly where to go, the B&B San Francesco. It’s tucked in a tiny alleyway near the Basilica of San Francesco (St. Francis). The room we booked came with a toilet and shower (somewhat of a luxury for European hotels on a budget), check in was easy, and the folks at the desk spoke enough English, and I had apparently remembered enough Italian that we figured things out just fine. We got to the room, dumped our bags, and ran out after taking a quick peek at the view (to the right) – Incredible.
We booked it on over to the Tuscan Wine School, making it there just in time. Doug and I had decided to do the small wine school class in the city rather than a full wine tour of the region mostly due to time constraints. If we had spent the full two weeks just in Italy, it would have made sense to do a full day wine tour, but I really wanted to go back to Siena (the city where I spent four months for a semester abroad) and spend time in the city proper instead of just being there for the hotel. Anyway, the class we took was the Tuscan Wine class, and I can tell you, having already spent four months (granted, years ago) studying Tuscan Wines in great detail, that this class was SPECTACULAR. I learned a few new things (my studies were more casual, perhaps), and the range of wines presented was absolutely perfect. The teacher, Maria Luisa, was very knowledgeable and spoke English perfectly though we did share a few words in Italian after she found out that I studied there nearly 10 years ago. The tasting ended with Cantuccini and Vin Santo, two of my all-time favorite things.
We wandered off to the Piazza del Campo for dinner – pricey, but it’s quite the experience to sit in that piazza under the moon and take in a meal (photo at right). After that it was off to the Dublin Post for a beer seeing as we had missed getting beer on St. Patrick’s day, and Doug felt it was his duty to have at least one beer. They had a great selection (as always), and overheard a number of English conversations (lots of exchange/study-abroad students in Siena). Then it was back to the hotel to collapse.
March 19. Breakfast at the B&B San Francesco was included, so we helped ourselves to an AMAZING spread in the common kitchen/dining area. They allowed us to leave our bags at the hotel in the hallway while we were out sight seeing for the morning. Since it was in a hallway, we decided to lock up the backpacks with our PacSafesjust in case – it’s not that we didn’t trust the staff of the hotel, it’s just a travel precaution (and really, if anyone wanted to help themselves to some dirty socks, they were more than welcome). Anyway, we went to the Duomo Museum and climbed the facciatone (big facade) (131 stairs). The facciatone is the remnant of a very ambitious plan to expand the Duomo (cathedral) in 1339 which would have made it larger that St. Peter’s in Rome. Unfortunately, the plague swept through shortly thereafter leaving them with no workforce and no money to finish the project. The view from the top of the facade is rather spectacular and well worth the climb (photo to the right, top).The same ticket that permits entrace to the Duomo museum (if you do the city-attractions ticket), also allows entrance to the Bapistry, Crypt, and Cathedral. Doug jokingly called the cathedral (Duomo) the zebra church (photo to the right, ) – the entire inside is made of black and white marble arranged in stripes. It’s really quite a sight to behold. The floor is marble as well, and while mostly covered up, a few open spots show the incredible detail of the marble murals. I’ll let you go poke at the flickr set (linked below) for those photos, otherwise I’ll be posting every photo from Siena here in the blog. I just love it that much.We did lunch at a little place called La Vecchia Taverna di Bacco. INCREDIBLE. I think I had this gorgonzola cream sauce gnocchi which was just to die for. Siena in general is pretty expensive, so you just can’t look at the bills and be shocked, but I didn’t think this place (on a side street) was too bad for lunch with wine.Post lunch, we decided to burn off some of those calories. The big tower in the center of the photo at the right/top is the Torre del Mangia – 400 stairs to the very top. That brings our stair counter to 531 for Siena. The view of the piazza below, and the countryside is always incredible (photo to the right, bottom), and well worth whatever they’re charging for it (and the time spent in line as well).
We finished off the tower at the bottom with Frittelle di Riso (fried rice balls, photo to the right). In honor of San Giuseppe (St. Joseph), a little shack is set up in the Piazza del Campo and sells fried rice balls covered in powdered sugar. It was something I remembered from my study-abroad days, and LOVED back then. Doug really liked them too, so we enjoyed one last paper cone full before going back to the hotel to grab our bags.Back at the hotel, we collect our bags and head out to the bus station. At the end of the little vicolo, there’s a small square with a fountain. A table was set up, and one of the youths at the table calls out to us (something I didn’t catch at first), so we curiously walk down to see what’s going on. He pegs us for Americans and hands us more Frittelle and cups of prosecco, “For San Giuseppe! From the Contrada del Bruco!” (Bruco = Caterpillar) Siena has these contrada, or neighborhoods, that each have some pretty fierce pride. There’s an annual horse race in the piazza, and each contrada raises money, cares for a horse, chooses a rider, flag bearers, etc. It’s a pretty elaborate thing, and I suppose it would be like Eagles fans vs Cowboy fans, but with 17 neighborhoods each in competition with the others. They have little festivals and special feast days and whatnot throughout the year, and it’s sort of like an extended family in a way for people who live in the contrada’s boundaries. Anyway, short cultural history lesson aside, it was pretty neat to be flagged down like that, and we thanked them and wandered off to the bus station. We grabbed our tickets to Florence, deciding not to get on the VERY PACKED first bus and grabbed the second one instead. It’s just an hour’s bus ride to Florence, and is MUCH easier by bus than train.
The husband and I packed our enormous backpacks and headed off, thanks to a batch of frequent flyer miles, on a two week vacation to the cities listed above. I’ll put up a post per city over the next couple of weeks – in part for myself, to remember the places we went, as well as for others to enjoy. The trip was March 15-29, 2011 and here it is, April 8th, and I’m still having a hard time getting back into the groove of things at home. I was told that means we had a terrific time, and I’m inclined to agree :)
Roma! We landed in Rome early on March 16th after leaving the USA on the 15th. We were able to take the train from the Fiumicino airport to the main train station in Rome (Termini), find our nearby hotel (Hotel Papa Germano), and be all checked in and settled with the room by 10am. It was drizzly but about 60 degrees F, so not incredibly terrible. We grabbed our things and took the metro out to the Vatican City. After going through metal detectors and security (something new since my last visit in 2002), we were permitted to go inside St. Peter’s Basilica. First we saw the inside of the Basilica, marveled at the size of the place, the art (The Pieta!), and just took some good time taking it all in.Photo to the right is of the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica, looking up at one of the many, many domes inside.
We then decided to go and climb the cupola, “a piedi,” and save one Euro per person. If you took the elevator, it cuts out 231 stairs from the total of 551 stairs. We arrive at the top of the 231 stairs where the elevator lets out, and it’s the gallery inside the basilica. Nice view of the whole basilica from a safe, fenced in walkway that goes around the entire cupola (see photo to the right). Great, we think, that wasn’t too bad, we’re there, and that’s it, and we go back down, right? No. There are another 320 stairs that wind in the narrow space between the inner and outer skins of the cupola, taking you ALL the way to the top of the highest point in the Vatican. At one point, near the top, the walls curve in on a diagonal so that you are basically walking up those stairs leaning sideways. Doug demonstrates the beginning of the walls moving in on his 6’4″ frame in a photo here.
We make it to the top, and the view is spectacular. Spectacularly pouring rain too. Good thing we brought the rain jackets instead of heavy winter coats. Anyway, I shuffle out, get a photo of the view (photo to the right), and then wait in line to head back down all 551 of those stairs again. At the bottom, we went back inside to the Crypt which holds the tombs of 91 popes including the most recent burial, Pope John Paul II. I had the pleasure of sitting through Easter Mass in 1998 with him, in the Vatican on a high school trip to Italy. I’m not the world’s most religious person, but the dude was pretty well liked and a master of I don’t even know how many languages, so even if the religious importance of the mass flew over my head, the cultural importance of JP and the pope’s position certainly did not. When we got to the point where his tomb was, a large group of mourners (he died in 2005 by the way), clutching tissues and sobbing, had been given a sizeable area to stand and mourn as long as they wished. Doug was a little shocked, and I was too, given the amount of time that had passed. Found out after we got home, that he’s set to be beatified on May 1, 2011, so that might have been part of it too.
After spending most of the day at the Vatican, we walked a short distance to the Castel Sant’Angelo. We were pretty beat by that point, and the Castle offered us some more stairs that we begrudgingly took to the top of the castle (photo to the right is from the top). A stage and sound equipment was being set up outside but we couldn’t figure out what it was for.. something was going on, in all that rain?After that, we took the metro back to the hotel and took a short nap before dinner. Dinner in Italy doesn’t start until 7 or 8pm and forget about even finding a restaurant open before 7. It’s a later event than it is in the USA, and is always at least an hour or two long. You relax, enjoy yourself, chat, and have a full, FULL, 3-course-minimum meal. We took advice from the hotel reception staff and went across the street, still a little travel weary, to La Famiglia. They had a tourist menu for 16€ plus 4€ tip. The wait staff spoke English – I speak Italian, or at least used to be pretty good after studying it in college plus the semester abroad for four years – and the food was delicious, ESPECIALLY the orange custard Tira Misu.
March 17. We wake up and finally figure out that the stage setup from last night was for the 150th anniversary of Italian Unification. We were up early, and a little worried that everything would be shut down for the day because of the big holiday. Instead, we find out that everything is free because of the big holiday – we didn’t pay a single admission fee anywhere all day long! Not bad. So we wished Italy a Happy Birthday and set out to the Baths of Diocletian which wasn’t quite open yet. So, we go on a walk around the block and stumble into Santa Maria degli Angeli e Martiri (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Angels and Martyrs). Camera crews are set up inside and outside the church for something (probably as part of the celebration of the unification), but the cathedral is still open, so we go in to waste some time before the baths open. Turns out, the cathedral was built using the existing walls of the ancient Roman bath. There’s also a really neat sundial built into the floor, also referred to as the Meridian line. A small hole in the wall allows a spot of sunlight that shines at solar noon to mark the date. It was pretty neat to see something like this inside a cathedral, and we took some time looking it over (photo to the right).
The Baths of Diocletian finally open, and we go inside (for free!). The courtyard outside is lined with row after row of grave stones gathered from various sites around Rome. The museum inside contained so many incredible artifacts including a large collection of items from burials in the surrounding area. It was totally visual overload, and I REALLY enjoyed spending time inside (and out of the rain). We then hop the metro out to the Coliseum – a must-see landmark in Rome. Noticing a long line at the Coliseum, we walk down the street and stop in for some pizza. The rain had stopped for a short while, but started up again just as we were finishing lunch. The wait staff moved us under the umbrellas on the outdoor dining area, and let us hang out with our wine until the downpour stopped. At the coliseum (photo to the right), entrance is free again, and we dodge in and out of passing downpours, wandering around the complex.
It looked like the rain finally gave up for the day, so we decided to hit up the Roman Forum and Palatine hill. I still get chills walking on the ancient Roman roads (Via Est Via Romana!), thinking that I’m walking on the same stones where Julius Caesar, Cicero, and other notable Romans once walked. Those four years of high school Latin really bring ancient Rome to life in a way that can’t possibly be described in words. We spent the remainder of the day exploring the forum including the Stadium of Domitian (photo to the right). Headed back to the hotel, and again upon recommendation by hotel staff, went off to a nearby restaurant, Da Vincenzo. Another fantastic meal, served by an English-speaking waiter with quite the sense of humor (he had us laughing all night). Another classic Italian dinner, complete with wine and dessert. We went back to the hotel and got ready for our morning departure to Siena.