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.
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.