Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Vive Bene Spesso l'amore di Risata Molto (Live Well, Laugh Often, Love Much)

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Sometimes a place just feels right; it touches your soul. For me, that's Italy. While you'll find lots of places we truly enjoyed and had amazing experiences, Italy was different. Perhaps it is my Italian heritage as my fraternal great grandparents were from Italy. Perhaps it's something indefinable. Perhaps it's a combination of things. In any case, when I was sitting with the family in a crowded, noisy and rustic 16 seat restaurant hidden in an alley off of the Plaza Signoria in Florence something just felt right with the world, like I was in a place I was truly meant to be. Much of Italy was like that for me.

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We arrived in Rome and hit the ground running on the afternoon of April 3rd. We headed straight for the Coliseum which we knew stayed open late and tends to be less crowded in the evenings. We also knew our time in Rome was very limited and we didn't want to miss out on any of the major sites. The light was gorgeous on the old stone of the Coliseum, and we were able to walk through the structure and really take it in without much in the way of crowds at all. From there we wandered down the Imperial road taking in some glimpses of the Roman Forum and the Victor Emmanuel II monument (better known as the big typewriter!).

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Tamara and I sought out the little bar where we had sat 21 years before to take in a beer and the monument as recommended by our, then, only guide book “Let's Blow Through Europe”!

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We then found a place to enjoy the first of several great Italian dinners while sitting on the street and trying to avoid the pleading stares of the beggars and street performers wanting money. As we strolled home, we found the first of many gelaterias and the kids had their first taste of real Italian gelato—and they were hooked! So much for the budget!

So much to see, and so little time! We were up bright and early on day 2 with the mission to see as many sites as possible. First on the list was Palatine Hill where many of the Roman Emperors had their palaces, each building bigger and better than the previous.

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Palantine Hill connects with the Roman Forum. No way could we miss that! Thanks to the Rick Steves' guide book for navigating us through the various ruins. It's amazing that the forum is in ruins for the most part, but still really gives you a sense of what life must have been like 1500+ years ago politically and religiously. It is completely unbelievable that people STILL leave flowers in Julius Ceasar's temple ruins to honor his memory!

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We still had a couple of hours before our appointment at the Vatican (don't wanna keep the Pope waiting!), so we used the time to take quick walking tour of Rome. First up was the ugly on the outside but gorgeous on the inside Pantheon.

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Next on the list was the Trevi Fountain. Yes, it's a little touristy, but also impressive and romantic. The kids threw coins in the fountain and Tamara and I toasted with a glass of wine.

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Last on the list was the ever crowded Spanish Steps where people watching (many of them in the throws of some serious PDA) is the rule.

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We had a quick lunch (pizza on the run) and headed to the Vatican Museum early for our 2pm reservations there. The Vatican Museum (new since our last visit) is quite impressive. There are treasures from every country and time period. My only complaint is that the place is really spread out and chaotic; there doesn't seem to be a good logical way to explore the place. The Vatican is a sovereign nation with its own stamps and money so we had to try out the post office (sorry if you didn't get a postcard; we could only send to those who's addresses we had memorized) before we headed to the Sistine Chapel.

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The Sistine Chapel is initially impressive, then eventually overwhelming by the sheer number of amazing paintings and frescoes throughout the long halls and rooms you pass through on the way to the Chapel itself to see Michelangelo’s Ceiling. (Photos were not allowed, but I took one anyway and was rewarded with a finger wagging from one of the security people.) It wasn't at all what Tamara or I had expected. We thought there was a circular dome dominated by the famous “God reaching out” image, but it wasn't. There were many small frescoes with one in the middle, no bigger or more impressive than the others being the “God” one. It tells a story and the relatively small box layout reminded me of a comic book. This is not to say that it isn't impressive and beautiful, just different than what we'd expected.

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We took the 15 minute hike around the Vatican wall to see St. Peter's Basilica, but by then were a bit too wiped out to consider the climb up the dome. We were able to see the Pieta which is now hidden behind bullet proof glass and frustratingly difficult to get a decent photo of thanks to reflections, tourists stupidly using flash, and a bright window behind it that just ruins any framing you try. Back 21 years ago the statue just sat there where anyone could see it, photograph it or even touch it—times have changed.

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Over then next 18 hours after walking out of the doors of St. Peter's, Tamara and I made the 2 biggest “dumb tourist” mistakes of this entire trip. First, we stopped at a nice looking street side shop with chairs and tables on the sidewalk. The kids had been very good all day and were wanting some gelato. Initially we planned to return to the Spanish Steps to buy some there from a vendor then eat them on the Steps. But this place looked inviting, a guy was sipping on a huge liter size mug of beer and Tamara was in the mood for wine. We knew prices were higher to sit on the patio, but didn't bother check prices before ordering (no menus on the table), the waiter was very eager to take our order and we'd already announced plans for gelato and how could I get anything less than that huge liter of beer? How much more gullible can one be?

Next thing we know the orders are coming, Tamara's looking at the menu and sees that a glass of wine is 12 Euros (1 Euro = $1.30), we learn that my beer was 18 Euros, and that the kids' fancy fruit decorated gelatos were 15 Euros. Yes folks who've already pulled out the calculators, we spent almost US$100 for a quick afternoon snack! Talk about feeling stupid! But, lesson learned, will move on, but our “traveler” status took a hit toward common “tourist” status with that.

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We made up for it with a great dinner choice—Don Giovanni as recommended by Rick Steves. This place is well off the tourist routes, but still walking distance from our hotel. They speak essentially no English and have made no concessions for tourists (ie. No English menus or pretty pictures to point at), and they've been there serving great food for 50+ years! We enjoyed a fabulous meal, enjoyed listening to a few other English only tourists struggle to figure out how and what to order, and had a wonderful experience. In this situation and many others in Italy, we were profoundly glad that Tamara speaks such good Spanish since almost everything said in Spanish can be understood by Italians, and vice versa. While certainly not identical, the translation is much easier than to/from English and it certainly facilitated things for us during our time in Italy.

And now for our second screw up in 18 hours.... The next morning we were going to Firenze, better known as Florence in the States. We'd checked the time on our train tickets and were glad to find we didn't need to be at the train station until about 11am. So we lounged about the hostel, doing email and reading and just having a nice time. We arrived at the train station, checked the departure board and didn't see our departure time listed. After going to another train leaving soon for Firenze we asked the conductor if there'd been a time change or something. He “kindly” pointed out that the time we were looking at was the ARRIVAL time in Florence, that our departure time, now long past, was 8:30am!! Holy cow. Fortunately we were able to get tickets on another train leaving a short time later, but the error set us back another 130 Euros and about 3 hours in time. Another learning opportunity, albeit an expensive one.

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Ah, Florence! Warning: I'm about to wax eloquently. Once we arrived in Florence the walk from the train station took us past the huge and beautiful Duomo cathedral and to the nicest youth hostel we've ever seen. Our early afternoon arrival allowed us plenty of time to check in, get some photos of the Duomo, and then take a walking tour to the Old Town highlights that really helped get us oriented and to allow us to warm up to this amazing city.

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Tamara and I had not ventured outside of Rome on our prior trip (other than a few hours in Brindisi to catch a ferry), and we know now that we really missed out because of that. Florence is beautiful, historical, and yet is packed with modern shops. While we all remember learning about something called the Renaissance in school a hundred years ago, it's a bit hard to appreciate out of a text book. But in Florence it absolutely comes to life. This was the home during that short 100 year period of Galileo, DaVinci, Michelangelo, Dante, Machiavelli, and many more people who in this relatively small area absolutely revolutionized thinking, art, politics and religion of the world. The spirit of those men and many others live on there today.

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We happened upon the first great Florentine meal at a small place that just had a nice menu, good cheap wine, fresh artichokes and family style meals of pasta and secondi followed by excellent desserts really set a high standard for meals to come.

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The next day we had afternoon tours of the Uffizi Museum and the Academia, so we started the day with a visit to the extensive local market and then to the interesting DaVinci museum where they had no 'old stuff', but they had hand made reproductions of many of DaVinci's drawings. Many of them were hands on so the kids really enjoyed seeing these ancient designs come to life. We watched part of a DVD about DaVinci in Florence and the kids really enjoyed that dramatic history as well. Heath has become a devoted Da Vinci fan.

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The Uffizi Gallery is a collection of art work collected by the rich and powerful Medici family during and after the Renaissance. There are some amazing one of a kind pieces here that put many museums to shame.

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The Academia is an old art school (still working) that is much more famous b/c it houses the original David (the photos are from a replica in the town square). I think this is another of the “You have to see it for yourself” kind of pieces. At 4 meters tall the detail and emotion of this depiction of David before he confronts Goliath (the most common belief, though some say it could be after) is impressive, he looks both confident (front view) and pensive (side view), he's physically perfect and absolutely beautiful. The sculpture itself is in great condition with a bit of weather wear on one shoulder (I couldn't see it), a repaired left arm (barely noticeable—caused when a bench was thrown on him during a riot), and some chips out of the left big toe from when a deranged guy pulled out a hammer and beat on him a few years ago (so now he's behind a thick plexiglass wall).

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(and yes, the kids are getting pretty used to artistic genitalia of both sexes by this point!)

Dinner that night actually beat the first night. You can read the description of this little place, Vini e Vicche Sapori, at the top. But you have to go there to really appreciate how you become a member of a little family that happens to serve exquisite food. You're elbow to elbow with the other 15 diners in a room smaller than most dining rooms in the US. It's one of the few reservations required places and with good cause. We gave our waiter a limit and told him to make us happy—he did it for 30% less, and we left walking on air. We'd have gone back, but the place was booked up for the next 2 nights.

After dinner we strolled the much quieter than daytime streets and piazzas and stopped for a few minutes to listen to an outstanding guitarist/singer that performs nightly at the piazza dela signoria. The kids are sure the guy can make it in the real world.

Our 3rd day in Florence was a bit more relaxed with a visit to the Museo Galileo which had all sorts of scientific instruments, pre North America discovery maps of the flat world, and other displays. It was a bit much to take in and not particularly visitor friendly, but still interesting. From there we visited the Church of Santa Croce which is famous for housing the tombs of many famous Florentines including Galileo (once the church got over excommunicating him for saying that Earth wasn't the center of the universe), Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Dante and lots of others. They also had some cool art as well a famous leather working school that was once part of a monastery.



The rest of the day we relaxed at our hostel, caught up on email, writing our blog and the kids enjoyed a couple of movies. Our feet needed the break!

We had a very early departure the next day (after quadruple checking the departure time) to get to Milan so we'd be there in time to meet our tour group. No mistakes this time, we got there in plenty of time. We hit the ground in Milan at a run because our tour started about 1 ½ hours after our train got in and we had to navigate the metro and then walk 7 blocks to our hotel to drop off luggage, then 7 blocks back to the metro to get downtown to meet the tour group.

“Why the rush for a tour?” you might ask—well, getting in to see the Last Supper is very difficult. If you try to order tickets just to see the painting you have to reserve them 2-3 months in advance. They allow just 900 people per day to see the painting. If you have just a month in advance you can get in by doing so with a tour group. Also, since we had less than 24 hours in Milan we felt a tour would maximize our sight seeing and get us in to the Last Supper. The only draw back was our tight window of time.



In any case, with a pretty good sweat to show for our efforts we made it to our meeting point in plenty of time. The tour was decent and the guide was a cute Italian girl—what more could I ask for?


We saw many of the downtown highlights and finished up with DaVinci's Last Supper. Unlike the Sistine Chapel we were really awed by the sight. Since DaVinci painted the Last Supper directly on a wall (not a fresco which goes onto wet plaster and can often be removed and moved to museums and such) you can only see it in the rectory of the church where he painted it. But that is actually good. Since it was restored in 1991 you can see the original colors and the way he used the layout of the room itself really enhances the perspective and background as well as the way he chose to show light in the image. While every effort is being made to keep this image alive and preserved, it is clear that one day the building itself or the image itself will deteriorate such that we won't always have this amazing work. We were thrilled and impressed to see it. (Though, like many of these great works, I couldn't photograph it mostly for copyright reasons, but also because so many forget or refuse or don't know how to turn off the flash on their cameras and the flash damages the paint over time).


The day in Milan was topped off with a special request from sports nut Brendan. We took a metro to San Siro where the big soccer stadium played in by both Inter Milan and AC Milan play in. We couldn't get in to take a tour, but it was exciting for him to see the huge fancy stadium.


Our last night in Italy, we sadly went for our last Italian meal, and found a little family diner near our rather basic hotel. Finally,I finally found a place serving salcicce (Italian Sausage) and they had a cheap fixed price menu! I have been craving real Italian sausage for the last 8 months! It was a “good bye” gift from Italy that my Italian soul very much appreciated.. We had such a wonderful time touring the ruins, appreciating the art, and enjoying the cuisine. If throwing the coins in the Trevi Fountain works, we WILL be back! Arrivaderchi Italy, we're off to Spain.

Woo Pig Sooiiieeee!!

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