Sunday, June 26, 2011


Like 7 Miles

We hit the ground running on our first day in Riomaggiore. Almost literally, but not quite. We did sleep in a bit, though the timing of our day worked out perfectly. It began with a long way down to Via Columbo, and a trip to the tiny Co-op a few steps up the way. Out in front they had displayed all manner of fruits and vegetables, of which we grabbed some apples and pears. Inside the tiny store was packed an amazing amount of food and goods. At the front was a small deli, where we ordered our usual salami with cheese on a roll. We also grabbed some granola bars, corn chips, and off-brand cookies. Then we faced the day ahead.
The twenty minute walk back to Manarola was busy, but bright and breathtaking. It was when we got into Manarola that we realized just how many people had our same idea. We made a quick trip through the tunnel to the main street, but once we had a glance, we decided to backtrack to the train station and continue on to Corniglia, as the walking route between the two towns was closed. The tickets were easy to come by and cheap, but as we waited on the platform, more and more people began to trickle in, and eventually entire tour groups were standing with us waiting. We must have waited at least a half hour, and there were so many people trying to fit on the train that we wished we had just taken the alternate walking route. However, it seemed rather silly when the train ride lasted less than five minutes, and we began a rather hot trek up the snaking road from the train station to Corniglia. Unlike the other towns of the Cinque Terre, Corniglia sits atop a soaring cliffside rather than at the tide. It is a very quaint, old place, small and close-knit. Memories of hazelnut gelato with my mom came back to me. We climbed to the panorama to see Manarola and the coastline, and on the way back said hello to a very sleepy kitty beside the stairs who looked exactly like my Ziggy. It was like petting him again. We ate our lunch on someone's doorstep, then set out on our long trek to Vernazza. My memory served me well, and we headed up the road, then down into a shady gully with a stream and a bamboo thicket alongside. We hiked 4 kilometers up stairs, through olive orchards, at the base of soaring green mountains, along mile-high cliffs with commanding ocean views, down into shaded woods, and up and down again. Occasionally we would look back at Corniglia and Manarola, far in the distance, in amazement at how far we'd come. The breeze alleviated the heat somewhat, though I will say in all honesty that I can't recall sweating so much in my life.
We made the slow descent into Vernazza. It is a truly gorgeous, unique place. The first you see is the ancient tower used to scout for pirates back in the day, then the part of the town below the tower which juts into the ocean, and eventually the bulk of the town, which much like Riomaggiore, is nestled between two steep green hills, cluttered with buildings of all shapes and sizes. The hills which rise steeply above the town are striped with the horizontal lines of the vineyards for which the Cinque Terre is so famous. Upon descending into town, we immediately saw a Siamese cat lounging on the path, whom was friendly and soft. Our first contact with the town was in its quieter section, above the train station, where a small deep creek bisects the village. I had an objective in mind, and soon it came into view. Il Pirata caffe was a frequent stop for my mom and I three years ago, and a source of many fond memories. We were greeted by Massimo, the biggest character of the two twin Sicilian brothers who own the caffe. He is very Italian, and hilarious. He immediately handed me a menu and pointed to my favorite: Panna cotta with mixed fruit. He says: 'Here, you must try this, is the dessert of your dreams.' I smiled and nodded, as this was what I was there for.
It was cool outside, so we grabbed a table for two, and soon were presented with the panna cotta I had been waiting for. Absolutely smothered in fruit, whipped cream, powdered sugar/chocolate, and raspberry sauce. And beautifully arranged to boot. We made unfortunately short work of it, but I wasn't done yet. We cooled off with our (iced!) Fantas, then soon were setting ourselves on their famous canoli with ricotta cheese. I aimed to order the same one my mom and I had tried, though I'm not sure if it was the same. Either way it tasted amazing. Once finished, Massimo treated us to a free iced cappuccino (bellisimo!) and asked us about our origins in his funny Italian way. He urged us to have dinner there, saying it would be 'the dinner of your dreams', though we told him we would not be staying in Vernazza for dinner. Knowing he had tried, he shrugged and said, 'Well when you are married you come back here and have dinner.' We laughed and agreed, thanked him, left the check and the tip, and went on our way.
Refreshed and happy, we took in the sights of Vernazza. Each town in the Cinque Terre has its beauty, but I will admit that Vernazza is probably the most unique. Every inch of it seems to be different from the last. It is a bit more touristy than Riomaggiore, though a local presence still exists strongly here. We roamed around the small marina, as the town is sloped though not nearly as severely as Riomaggiore. There was activity everywhere. People swimming, cliff diving, sitting, talking, dining, ferries coming in and out. I'd forgotten how busy it was here. We decided to climb to the tower, Castel Doria, to see the town from a different view. It was a pretty vertical climb, but the effort and €1.50 entrance fee was worth it. From the small tower one can not only see the extent of Vernazza and the jutting hills surrounding it, but the coast farther north, the next town of Monterosso, as well as the coast that we had just hiked, and the two towns south. The ocean glittered in the afternoon sun, bright blue and pure. A beautiful view I was glad to revisit.
Everything was as I remembered as we traveled up the center sloped street to the train station. Luckily for us, a train pulled into the station just as we did, so we hopped on board with only the tickets we had bought that morning and hoped no one would check us. Sure enough, we made it back to Riomaggiore without a hitch, retracing in 10 minutes a journey that had taken us the entire day on foot.
Despite the many steps back to the apartment, we were eager to wash the day off and start fresh for dinner. We ate at one of the places only steps from where our stairs end on via Columbo. It was a nice restaurant, though not so much so to keep us from going. I ordered stewed veal, and Erik a seafood soup, which both came out in steaming huge pot-like bowls. It was impossible to eat for at least ten minutes, though my soup was delicious when I could eat it. Erik, though, was faced with the challenge of shelling his meal, as all of the sea life were whole. We tried some more wine and decided it wasn't for us, though out of politeness, I finished it. As always, we ended our tiresome yet rewarding day with a relaxing and rewarding gelato, on the rocks of the jetty in the Riomaggiore marina, the sun turning the sea to gold.


To Riomaggiore

Our day of travel out of Lucca was the most daunting, yet one of the smoothest we've had. We had the luxury of sleeping in (or attempting to), then packed once again and prepared to leave. After a final hearty breakfast ala Claudio, we left our big packs with him temporarily, as our train didnt leave for another few hours. We visited the ATM, then a gelateria for some early panna cotta and caffe. For close to an hour we watched the activity of piazza San Michele, a much busier day than previous. As we were anxious to get to the train station, we retrieved our bags and said arrivederci to Claudio and Jerry. Even the short walk through the town, under the wall and to the train station was difficult with our packs. As the self service stations in Lucca are fairly rudimentary, I decided to wait in line to personally order the ticket. I did get a ticket to Riomaggiore, but it had hardly any information about our trip. Luckily, I had looked at the train schedule that morning, and knew what our connections were. During our hour wait for our train, we noticed a crowd beginning to form, with yet another camera crew at its center. A tall man with dark curly hair and nondescript casual clothing seemed to be the center of attention, and we figured he was some kind of Italian celebrity director, though neither of us knew who he was. I guess we'll have to google it.
Our train finally came, almost a little late, but we soon were heading for Viareggio, our first leg of the trip. The ride was short, only about a half hour, then we made our connection for La Spezia, the longest portion. The entire ride was truly stunning. The countryside here is just beautiful, with mountainous peaks on all sides, carpeted in greenery and closely knit villages, some in valleys, some perched atop steep hillsides. The sunshine was only interrupted by the swirling clouds which engulfed the upper massive peaks of the Carrara mountains. We made it in to La Spezia sooner than we expected, and it was only a ride of minutes to Riomaggiore, as it is the southernmost of the Cinque Terre. After the darkness of the tunnel through the mountain, we were suddenly propelled into bright sunlight, the train stopped, and we stumbled out to a panorama of the glittering ocean. Without fail, the expanse of water always amazes me. We made a short trip underground to reach the main platform. On the huge natural stone wall above us was painted a beautiful mural honoring the heritage of Riomaggiore. Once again we headed underground through a smaller tunnel which runs along the main train tunnel, domed with a bright blue ceiling, its walls decorated with maritime mosaics, shells, rocks, and colorful paintings. Then we emerged into Riomaggiore proper. It was love at first sight. It is truly a beautiful little town. And in truth not that little. The main street, Via Columbo, makes a lazy arc where the canyon of two steep hills once converged, the slopes of these hills now ridged with the cheerful, almost humorously multicolored buildings of infinite height, width, and character. A veritable myriad of stairways, passages, and narrow lanes lead up almost vertically on both sides through the village as it ascends. I will say first off that Riomaggiore is a very bohemian place. Everyone is friendly and understanding. Two or three tiny grocery stores can be found along Columbo, and the many restaurants, pizzerias, and bars zigzag their way up the street, mixed among private residences and hotels. Everything has a very lived-in feeling, without being trashy in the least. We found the office of our 'hostel' with ease, a small room with vaulted brick ceiling and stringed beads on the door, a cluttered yet seemingly organized jumble of things, with a desk. Giacomo, our renter, is a personable, laid back guy in his 30s, a bald surfer, if likened to our culture. He spoke English very well and used his hands while talking more than any other Italian I'd seen. After some paperwork, we began the long hike up many, many stairs to the apartment, all the while hefting our packs. He also pointed out a faster way from Via Columbo (which we found later was still a good deal of stepping).
The supposed hostel is doing itself a disservice by the name. It is perfect. With two separate rooms, one with a single bed Erik used for storage, and the small bathroom, and the other room with the double bed. The kitchen utilities were across the hall but exclusive to us, with our key. And all those steps were worth the effort. As if the apartment could not be more ideal for our use, the view is absolutely perfect. An entire panorama of Riomaggiore, including the small harbor and ocean. Literally breathtaking. Both of our expectations were completely overwhelmed. Giacomo left us the keys and we settled in. Not long after, we set on the town. We explored the length of Via Columbo, quite a steep hike toward the end, but the shops waned, and we turned around. On the way we saw two kitties lounging and stopped for a pet and photos. We scanned the restaurants along the way, and decided on one farthest up the street, with a nice covered seating area and good menu. I ordered swordfish, and Erik had breaded veal with French fries. The most unique part of our meal was the end, as we ordered panna cotta with carmel, (delicious but about half too small), and sciacchetra with biscotti (a local dessert wine which my mom loved on our last trip). The wine was for old times sake, and didn't appeal to either of us, but it was worth a try. After we paid il conto, we descended Via Columbo to the marina. It's a very narrow harbor, but vertical, framed on either side by sheer cliffs, with a mishmash of structures rising from them. Below, the concrete ramp meets the tide, flanked by archways which house all manner of nets, buoys, and small fishing boats docked in a line. As you pass the marina and ascend more steps to the left, a path which opens to bars and gelaterias on the way, a view of Riomaggiore's small harbor and the coast of the Cinque Terre expand before you. The path continues around the stone cliffs which crumble into the ocean, hugging the mountain, until another tiny bay opens up, seeming to be cut directly into the mountainside. Here is the closest Riomaggiore comes to a beach, which is simply a surface of pebbles, boulders, and cliffs. Far above the beach stands the exterior of the train tunnel, with arched openings to give the travelers inside a taste of what is to come. This tiny beach seems to always be crowded. We stayed long enough to take in the views, then got gelato and enjoyed it on the return down the blue tunnel toward the train station, where the Via dell'Amore begins.
This flat walk follows the majestic cliffs between Riomaggiore and Manarola, with only a railing between you and a two hundred foot plunge to aquamarine waters below. The cliffsides are beautiful, covered in local vegetation, with colorful flowers and prickling cacti. The sun sank below the far range on the coast of Monte Rosso, the Northernmost town, painting the entire Cinque Terre in dusty orange. One could not ask for a more romantic welcome to such a beautiful place.


Big change to a Small City

Though we slept in this morning to recover from our previous day of travel, we headed downstairs to sift through some antiques and found that breakfast was still up for grabs. Quite a nice spread had been set out by Claudio and his wife Claudia. Yes, Claudia. Oddly enough, she is Scottish, or something similar, which you can hear in her accent. In addition to the selection of cereal, bruschetta, sliced meats, croissants, and yogurt, they offered us tea and coffee, and fried eggs, which we kindly refused but enjoyed a hearty breakfast of the rest of the selection. Their black and white mild-mannered terrier, Jerry, lurked below the table hoping for scraps. Fueled for a day out in Lucca, we thanked our hosts and descended to street level in the tiny elevator. The antiques market was still going strong, and as we explored further into the surrounding area, we realized that it spread throughout much of the city. I spent time pursuing my Venice postcard, and Erik searched for an object to take home. We meandered through the lines of tents, the tables beneath each loaded with hundreds of unique items. We took our lunch on a shady bench on the edge of a piazza lined with huge birch trees, cafes, and stores. At one end there was even a carousel playing Disney songs in Italian. Thanks to our hosts, we paid for neither breakfast nor our lunch of apples, meats, and croissants.
After perusing the seemingly endless expanse of the antiques market, we decided to take a break from our hunt, and went to rent bikes, as the museums and churches we wanted to visit were closed. I can easily say that this was the most enjoyable activity in Lucca. The rentals were cheap, €2.50 per hour, and the bikes were smooth and easy to ride. The most unique characteristic of Lucca is its medieval outer walls, which are now beautifully maintained pedestrian/bike paths, lined with the same birch trees seen throughout the city. The breeze and dappled shade from the trees made the ride absolutely ideal and perfectly beautiful. A ride around the city on the walls takes less than 30 minutes, so we were on our second trip when I suggested we stop in town to grab some snacks. The downhill slope took us back to the piazza where we had eaten lunch. I stayed with the bikes while Erik scoured the section of the antiques market we hadn't seen yet, then he stayed with the bikes while I got some candied peanuts and candy from a vendor. After a final stop for reasonably priced gelato, we resumed our second round on the walls. On the back portion of the city is a gorgeous green open area beyond the wall, bordered by evergreen trees. We pulled in to one of the battlements which juts out from the wall, now made into a shady park, where we enjoyed the delicious peanuts and the view.
We returned the bikes with time to spare, and headed toward the center of town to find the icon of Lucca, their Chiesa San Michele. Essentially, we spent 15 minutes finding the piazza San Michele, which ended up being only a street down from our apartment. It is where much of the activity- if one could call it such- happens in Lucca.
For the remainder of the evening we resumed our hunt at the antiques market. We saw a great many interesting things, hundreds upon hundreds of items, though nothing really caught his eye. Just as we were ending our day and heading toward a recommended place for dinner, I glanced at one last vendor as the rest were closing up, and spotted a collection of keys in a box. At first glance, they looked like ordinary old keys, nothing remarkable, but as I dug deeper, I found not one, but three beautiful old keys. One was very ornamental, but the key itself was very short, so I decided on the one with the most gilded design. I am very happy that I found something to take home, though I wish Erik had been as fortunate. We enjoyed the hunt all the same.
Dinner was outside a small trattoria, where cars and trucks came within inches of me, though the osso bucco with mashed potatoes and raspberry panna cotta was worth it.
We got lost on our way to the circular piazza called the anfiteatro, though saw a side of the city we hadn't seen. Among the quiet streets, we felt more like locals than tourists.
Our second day in Lucca was essentially a replay of the previous day, though in the morning we climbed their tallest tower, Guinigi, which has a great panoramic view of the city. It was a beauifully clear day, and the entire valley and surrounding mountain ranges could be seen. Piano music wafted faintly up to us as we took in the view. We visited the other large church in Lucca, San Martino, which is completely white inside, dim, though lighted with many stained glass windows which cast amazing hues on the colorless marble. We passed up the cathedral museum and instead rented another round of bikes, returned to the apartment for a nap, then set out to find dinner. We spent a good hour and a half out in the streets scouting the list of recommendations Claudio had made, though only one stood out to us, a place right off of Piazza San Michele called Trattoria de Leo. It was a crowded little restaurant, though we arrived shortly after it opened at 7:30, but the roast chicken and potatoes were prepared in minutes, and delicious. We ended our last night in Lucca with flute music behind us, and large gelatos in our hands. How else?


To Lucca

Today was our smoothest travel day yet. We got ready, packed, and cleaned the apartment as we had done twice before. I missed Florence even before we had stepped out our door. Passing the duomo for the last time was a difficult thing to do, and we stole a couple final glances over our shoulders as we headed northwest toward the train station. Our packs were heavy but manageable, and the heat was much more bearable than yesterday. Straight to a self service station we went after entering the noisy station, knowing the drill by now. The first machine we tried did not accept cash, and the second required almost exact change, but eventually we had a ticket and were prepared to decipher which platform our train would arrive on. I checked one of the stationary boards nearby and found that platform 5 was the one we needed, heading to Viareggio, Lucca being the second to last stop. The train wouldn't depart for almost another hour, so we hunkered down against a wall near track 5 and ate our lunch of salami and rice cakes. Around a quarter to 1:00, the train still hadn't come in to the station, so we double checked the live display boards and found that the platform had changed to track 8. It was already in position, so we verified our ticket and boarded the train. The cargo shelves overhead were too small for our bags, and anybody else's, so we had to set them on the seats across the aisle. Thankfully the train was fairly empty so we didn't feel bad taking up extra seats. We offered the floor space below our bags to some American women who were struggling to find space for their luggage.
The train ride lasted less than an hour and a half. I caught up only a bit on my journals before the train slowed into Lucca's station. We hopped off, descended below the tracks and back up to street level, then attempted to get our bearings with the map. Eventually we simply decided to use our intuitions, which were much more helpful than the Google map directions we had printed. As we walked further, we soon realized that we were currently outside the city walls, which, preceded by a green, manicured lawn, rose up rustically before us. We followed a gravel path around a bend in the wall, and were faced with another wall. As we continued, we discovered a tiny door in the brickwork which was in fact the opening to a tunnel which spiraled lazily back toward the city. Another doorway and a short stairwell later, we stood atop the Lucca city wall, which was lined with sturdy birch trees, split in two by a bike path. Even our first impressions of Lucca were positive. Again we put away the map and let our previous research and instinct lead us to the apartment. It was no difficult task to find the antiques fair we had been anticipating, as it was spread out among the streets and small piazzas within a five-block square radius. With glances at items calling for closer inspection, we made our way between the white tents and ristorante tables to via Cenami. We had no trouble finding our apartment number, and pressing the button beside the door, were let inside. Past the dark entryway, we stood at the fork between a stairwell to our right and an open courtyard with an elevator to our left. Fortunately, a man was exiting the elevator just as we looked out, who motioned us in, and turned a key to send the elevator to the second floor. We stepped out onto a small entryway which opened into several rooms, and were greeted by Claudio, the manager. He spoke quite decent English and was rather friendly as he showed us two options of rooms we could take. We opted for an attic room, which is small but unique, with a low slanted ceiling which you have to watch out for while using the bathroom. He gave us a map with a list of local restaurant recommendations, and the wifi password, which was most helpful. Breakfast is also provided in the morning, and fruit and water are also complimentary.
After settling in a bit, we headed down to the street to tackle the antiques fair. The number of tents packed into such small spaces was amazing in itself, but the amount of items laid out beneath each tent was the most surprising and intriguing. We only sampled a portion of the fair, but the range of items we saw was great. From glass vases to war memorabilia.
Ultimately, we spent close to an hour sifting through hundreds of old post cards, searching for ones of our cities which suited our fancy. The older the better. In the end, we found great treasures from the 1920's - 40's of five cards, Rome, Siena, Florence, Lucca, and Paris. The oldest is marked at the year 1925. Each is not laminated, with the wear of time and the intrigue of some Italian citizen's scrolling inkwork on the back. All for €5. What a great find. I plan to frame them together when we return to the states.
As the vendors began to zip up their tents and cover their treasures in tarps, we followed Claudio's directions on the map to find a good place for dinner. The first place we tried didnt open for dinner until 7:00, and as it was 6:30, we tried the next place, called Gnam Gnam. It's a very interesting, modern place with excellent food. I ate something similar to my meal of last night, and Erik finally got his sufficient portion of lasagna. A very filling meal of high quality.
Dessert was a bit harder to find. I've been hankering for some panna cotta since I've only had it once in Rome, and it took us a couple circuits around the area to find a place that sold it. It was completely worth the wait. Possibly the best I've had. Though I still had the munchies evens after dinner and dessert, we strolled slowly back to our place on Al Tuscany, where I was finally able to update my blog. If our short day here is any sign, I am looking forward greatly to our time in Lucca.



Our final day in Florence was a long, tiring, and rewarding one.
It was hot today. Almost Rome hot. The sun was out most of the time, which was nice aesthetically but not for comfort. We took our usual route through Piazza Della Signoria, past the Uffizi, then west along the Arno to the Ponte Vecchio. This was the first contact we'd had to the famous bridge, and what we did have was short lived, as the alley between the endless jewelry shops was very crowded. Within fifteen minutes of stepping out our door, we reached the Pitti Palace. It's a very expansive and uniform structure, prefaced by a vast piazza which slopes down to the street. We originally mistakenly bought tickets for the Gardens behind the palace (Giardino Boboli) as well as the Palatino and Modern art galleries. The total for both tickets cost us €22 each, so we hurriedly returned the more expensive ticket with no problem. After breathing a sigh of relief, we proceeded into the main courtyard of the Palace, whose side rooms contain the exhibits included in the entrance fee for the Gardens. We viewed multiple rooms of treasures from ancient Russia, including gold and jewel-incrusted swords, reliquaries, and amazing ivory sculpture. We also viewed a 17th-century costume gallery which was hard to find and not really what either of us were expecting.
Thankfully, the gardens were enjoyable despite the heat. The hill above the Pitti Palace is carpeted with manicured lawns, terraces, groves of trees, and shaded pathways. We explored a portion of the gardens I had never seen before, a hilly area with once-paved paths, dappled with the sunlight and shadow of the arching foliage overhead. We returned to the main entrance of the gardens, a large semicircular amphitheater lined with sculptures, an obelisk and oversized marble bathtub in the center. Of the many resident cats that i remember from our last trip, only one was to be found near the gift shop, taking a snooze right in the middle of the gravel walkway. She enjoyed the stroke on the back and chin rub as much as i did. I miss kitties.
Up two flights of stone stairs is a terrace in which a murky fountain sits, full of fish and ducks. Another dogged trip up two more flights will grant you the top of the gardens, where a tall female sculpture stands, facing a nice view of the palace and a slice of Florence. We skirted the border of the garden, then descended again, past an old tea house, and to the best spot in the gardens for a panoramic view of Florence.
As the fates would have it, indeed I ran out of battery on my second photo of the panorama I intended to take. Cursing first the battery for inaccurately telling me its charge level (it said full charge that morning), and myself for not having charged my second battery, we assessed our options. Our plan was to head over to see Fort Belvedere, then head east to Piazzale Michelangelo. With this new development, our original plan was not possible, so we made the (literally) 15 minute return down the hill, through the Piazza Pitti, across the Ponte Vecchio, and to the apartment to charge my battery. This was a good opportunity to rest, though the fact remained that neither of us had eaten much of anything that day, aside from some yogurt and fruit that morning, and an apple during our exhibition tour in the Palace. Even so, we struck out again in an hour or so, around 3:30. We retraced our steps of the morning, recrossing the Ponte Vecchio, though altered our route by making a left on via Giorgio, an uphill path toward Fort Belvedere. This was a nice piece of deja vu for me, as my mom and I had made the same trek on the sloping street, only downhill instead of uphill in the overcast, humid heat. We stopped for a look at Galileo's house, then took a slight detour through the Bardini gardens, a surprisingly smaller yet more well-maintained version of the Boboli Gardens. Resuming our trek on via Giorgio, we found the fort, which was unfortunately closed, then headed left past it to follow the tiny road which runs parallel to the city wall. Erik was skeptical that this road would lead us to the Piazzale Michelangelo, but as I had researched this route beforehand, was confident of our path. Despite having to walk in the paved gutter most of the time due to occasional traffic on the one-lane road, the hike was enjoyable, with the ancient city wall and olive grove on our left, and another smaller retaining wall on our right. We descended back down into civilization, then were faced with the hot, steep climb up to the Piazzale. We faced and conquered it with courage, likely a hundred steps at least, but the breeze and view at the top were worth every bit.
The Piazzale Michelangelo is an impressive terrace in itself. A massive open space with a road circling the inside and a parking lot for locals, lined with the usual assortment of gimmicky souvenir and gelato carts, intermixed with street mucicians and talented watercolor artists. A bronze copy of David stands upon a pedestal, in an epically triumphant pose, surveying the massive expanse of Florence. This panorama can be described no way other than stunning. Miles and miles of red roofed buildings, church spires, and ancient structures stretch before you, the Arno glittering to the left, outlined by the Ponte Vecchio, and the Duomo standing proudly at the center of the mass, its powerful bells only faintly reaching your ears at this distance. The tower of Palazzo Vecchio also creates its own mark upon the horizon. And yet, Florence spreads for miles still to the East, farther than can be seen even from this vantage point. All of this, the origin of the Renaissance, tucked in the slopes of a vast valley, outlined by the gentle yet proud ranges which mark the borders of the great city. I could not have asked for a greater reward to such a long day of trekking. Nothing can resemble the experience.
After fully enjoying the fruits of our labor, we returned the way we had come, though instead this time we passed beneath the city walls and crossed the Arno again, followed it West, then passed through the Uffizi courtyard and the Piazza Della Signoria. We headed over toward the Duomo by way of the back streets to try and find a more off-the-beaten-path place to eat. Instead we stopped by our grocery store to pick up supplies for the next day, then with our packs full of food, stopped at a small yet charming Ristorante. It was a lively place, with arched brick ceilings and nice lighting.
Thankfully, our intuition proved correct, as our best meal of Florence was here. For as little as we ate during the day, and considering how many miles we walked, it seems a miracle that we kept enough energy in us to do what we did. When our meals came, mine of grilled strips of steak, and Erik with a veal bone with mushrooms and sauce, we 'ate like homeless people' as Erik likened it to. After thoroughly enjoying our meal, we dropped the groceries off at the apartment then made our last trip to the Piazza Della Signoria. It just so happened that the gelateria two doors down from us had none other than Panna Cotta flavor. I definitely bought the large cone. I will never love another gelato flavor for as long as I live. Erik picked up some tiramisu gelato from his favorite place, in the alley off of the Piazza. We enjoyed our final Florentine gelato nowhere else but on the steps of the town hall, the sculptures of Hercules and Perseus at our backs, the Palazzo Vecchio stretching toward the darkening sky, its facade and windows glowing brightly. To stand where the rebirth of art was conceived, is to stand almost in a dream. Goodnight, Firenze.


More Michelangelo

We slept in again this morning, as we had no reservations to keep, and didn't get out the door until a little before noon. It's interesting to step out the door onto via Calzaiuoli. It's almost like trying to get onto a freeway or step into a rushing river. Immediately you are immersed in the energy of Florence's busiest street, with all kinds of people passing on their way to somewhere. We hooked a right onto Calzaiuoli and then a left toward the east portion of Florence. Without a map, we found the Bargello, though it took us a trip around the small museum to find the entrance. Though the Bargello is one of Florence's tinier and lesser known museums, it houses a concentrated yet strong set of works. The building itself is part of the experience, as its frescoed, vaulted ceilings and crest-covered rock walls remind one a bit of a castle. It has beautiful high rooms with patterned windows that make interesting light patterns on the marble floor, and walkways which open onto the main courtyard. The most notable work housed here is Donatello's David, which marked the introduction of the male nude into the renaissance, though to be honest, is outperformed by other pieces in the gallery. One in particular I've always loved is Giambologna's Oceano, whom I had the pleasure of drawing again, and gave Erik a spontaneous yet successful drawing lesson on. It seemed that many others had the same idea, as there were students all throughout the museum sketching.
Once again, Piazza Della Signoria was our place to eat lunch. We resumed our spot from the previous day and were just opening our package of salami when we noticed a camera crew making their way through the crowd, with the cast of Jersey Shore safely at the center. I've never watched the show nor had the desire to, but it was a funny and rather interesting coincidence. We got a couple photos as best we could.
After enjoying the familiar guitar music and the atmosphere of the piazza, we headed northeast again for a quick stop at the Internet point, in order to read reviews and decide on either the Galileo museum or Michelangelo's house museum. Not only was the Casa Buonarroti less than five minutes away, but less expensive and better reviewed. Our choice was obvious, and it proved to be a great one. This museum is quiet and small, but packed with enjoyable artifacts, art inspired by, and original works from Michelangelo himself. The rooms which stood out to me the most were those containing his rough ink sketches. Ironically he wanted to burn these, as he was such a perfectionist, he did not want people to see the workings of his brain, and instead wished to seem perfect. In fact, I feel more of a presence of his very hand in these sketches, moreso than the David or Pieta. The rooms also contained original sketches from Leonardo Da Vinci (rather pathetic ones to be honest, some were literally a half inch square) and others. We headed upstairs, where we saw his diplomas, miniature models he had done in preparation for his main pieces, and a room full of Baroque-era paintings illustrating his life. The only complaint I can say about this museum is that the docents were rather overbearing and started following us around because the museum was closing in fifteen minutes.
After an afternoon of quiet museums, we returned to the crowded and noisy Piazza for another drawing lesson. We spent nearly two hours sitting on the steps of the town hall, me doing my best to teach Erik the fundamentals of drawing the figure. What better figure to instruct with than the David (or rather its copy)? Despite the noise and crowds due to a very strange and creepy mime whom the tourists found very amusing (he was just obnoxious), and incessant hassling from the cup-shaking gypsies, a rather impressive drawing of David was born. Even with just a few sessions of drawing practice, I've seen a great improvement in his work. He's a good padawan. :) I inked and washed a couple of my previous drawings, got an offer from a random Italian for my drawing of Saint Teresa's Ecstasy which I kindly refused, then stopped for dinner on the opposite side of the Piazza. The Jersey Shore crew made another appearance, but overall we enjoyed our meal- me, fillet, and Erik, salmon with the same sauce- in peace.
We grabbed gelato and made another stop at the organ concert. The experience is both impressive and slightly unsettling, as the church is lit sparsely and dramatically, combined with the ominous yet intricate notes of the organ which completely immerse you in the reverberation of sound. A street performer dressed like Charlie Chaplin caught our attention momentarily before we headed in for the night. There is no place like Firenze.


The Hard-hitters

One of the greatest art collections is housed in Florence at the Uffizi gallery. It's a horseshoe-shaped gallery with three floors, the third of which is lined with windows and at one point runs parallel to the Arno river.
As the gallery sits directly adjacent to the Palazzo Vecchio, a walk of merely minutes from our apartment, we had no trouble keeping our 10:30 reservation. If ever you visit the Uffizi, please do yourself a favor and make a reservation. We collected our tickets at the number 3 door, and literally walked inside while, as so many times before, those who failed to plan ahead stood wasting their time in line while we headed on to the art. Checking our bags was required, though they told me to keep my camera with me, which was quite an unfair thing to ask due to the no-photo policy.
The main hall of the gallery is lined with windows, between which on either side stand ancient sculptures, usually Roman copies of Greek originals. The sculptures here are in my opinion the weakest aspect of the collection, as the quality of the paintings completely overshadows all else. The main hall opens into a myriad of rooms which house specific eras or artists' work within. First, one will tour the Byzantine rooms, then essentially, section by section, view the Renaissance's evolution throughout the gallery. The number of artistic gurus whose work is displayed here is staggering. I'll list the ones who come to mind immediately: Giotto, Duccio, Cimabue, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Durer, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Tintoretto, Raphael, Artemesia... And that's the short list. Such works as Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus hang here. Short of the Louvre, the Uffizi is possibly the most concentrated collection of talent housed in a single museum.
We spent 3 or 4 hours soaking in the glory of the greats. The lunch we ate was fit for a dog, but the weather and location- atop the town hall, across from the Palazzo Vecchio, was grand.
With the juice from a fresh fruit cup quenching our thirst, we sat on the side of the town hall which faces the intersection between the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi. Counterfeit art vendors attempted to sell their wares to no avail, and even once the wind blew one poster beneath the feet of an innocent passerby, who effectively creased the poster in half in mid-stride. The vendor was furious, but could do nothing, as the tourist was innocent.
After taking in the music from a live guitarist and the bustle of the crowd among the ancient structures surrounding us, we made our way to Santa Croce. This church has fascinated me since I took a peek into its courtyard three years ago. Since then, it has become increasingly intriguing for reasons I will explain shortly.
The facade is impressive, sheer white marble with ornate patterns of inlaid green and pink. It is a rather large church, more like a monastery, as its grounds spread horizontally for almost an entire block. Other than the facade, it is a very medieval-looking structure, made of dark stone. Despite the steep entrance fee, we were eager to get inside. (Everything is expensive in Florence) Again, it seems a very medieval church. Probably gothic in style. Dim inside, though beautifully lit in places by stained glass. Toward the altar and on the side aisles lie tombs in the floor. It is rather unsettling and one instinctively avoids stepping there. As beautiful and sobering as the church itself is, the draw for us were the tombs of none other than Michelangelo, Galileo, and , to name a few. Michelangelo's tomb was one of the most modest, considering his status, though still regal, and adorned with high quality marble sculptures representing each of his crafts: painting, sculpting, and poetry. A bust of his likeness stands above the tomb. Through all the busts we have seen of the great man, I can finally visualize what he once looked like. It was a great experience to pay our respects to arguably the greatest artist to ever live. The halls and side chapels are tranquil and interesting, and the courtyard outside is beauifully well kept. A truly enjoyable experience.
We headed farther north directly from Santa Croce to find Michelangelo's house. It was closed, so we stopped into an Internet point to email the family and transfer some of my photos to a flash drive.
Our dinner that night was a bit unorthodox, but unforgettable. On our way back to the apartment, we stopped by the grocery store to stock up on sustenance for the next day, and realized they carried a top ramen equivalent. We grabbed a few bags of ramen, some chips, salsa, and salami, and went home to prepare our impromptu meal. The stove was an electric, and kept turning itself off and on, but ultimately, after a half hour, we had our dinner laid out on our circular table on the terrace with a nice table cloth and drinks. Again we watched the sun sink below the horizon together and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Firenze.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Day of Medici

We began our first official day in Florence by climbing over 400 steps to the top of the dome. Yep, over 400.
After stepping out our door onto the perpetually busy via Calzaiuoli, we made the short two-minute stroll north to the Piazza del
Duomo. It is impossible to keep from standing in awe of this structure upon each and every visit, even in passing. The facade is dizzying with its volume of detail. With its twisting arched borders, numerous niches and complex green-white-pink striped color scheme, it is truly an astounding piece of architecture to behold. At the side of the nave's exterior is a small door which serves as the entrance to the cupola. We waited in a short line for just ten minutes before paying our €6 entrance fee to begin the epic climb. Actually, to be honest, it really wasn't as difficult as I remembered. The climb begins fairly straightforward, with the usual stairway up to the smaller side dome, which houses some original sculptures from the facade. You emerge into the upper balcony which follows the inner dome, a flurry of figures above you in the amazing fresco of the dome. Then the hike gets interesting, with twisting spiral staircases and eventually, a climb up stairs which literally follow the curve of the dome. The humid and stuffy climb in itself is an experience, but the commanding view of the city is more than worth the effort. The red tiled roofs flood for miles beneath you, the hills which rise above the valley on each side punctuated by the towers and domes scattered throughout. It is incredible the very expanse which Florence extends.
Reluctantly we descended the way we had come and traded the birds-eye for the ants-eye view beside the Duomo. We waited in another line in the sun to enter the interior of the Duomo. Admittedly, Florence's Duomo exterior and size may completely dwarf that of Siena, but without a doubt, the interior of Siena's duomo takes the aesthetic cake. What Florence's Duomo lacks in concentrated decoration, it makes up for in scale. Beauty can certainly be found in its simple, commanding, soaring columns and arches.
Next, we returned blinking onto the bright sunlit street, and flanked the Duomo to visit its museum. This was a sight my mom and I did not get around to, so I was looking forward to something entirely new. The chunks of stone tracery, columns, and statues from the original facade were very well displayed and preserved. The blueprints, trials and sketches for the design of the duomo, as well as wooden miniatures, were fascinating. However, the pieces which I looked forward to most were Michelangelo's last Pieta, and Donatello's Mary Magdelene. I was disapponted with neither.
The incomplete quality of the final Pieta was the aspect I loved most. Seeing michelangelo's very marks on the marble and the unfinished faces of Mary and Jesus gave such a sense of Michelangelo's presence. And seeing his own self portrait in the face of Nicodemus was potentially the greatest aspect.
Similarly, the roughness of Donatello's Mary Magdalene in wood gives her the haggard appearance the piece is known for. It is both a haunting and beautiful piece, in its own right.
After the Duomo museum, we made our way toward the Medici Chapels and the church of San Lorenzo. Every day, armies of vendors line the street beside San Lorenzo with white tents, the contents ranging from leather goods to golden trinkets. Though the San Lorenzo market was not our destination, the experience of walking the aisle between the rows of tents was an interesting one. Shortly we reached the front of The Medici Chapels, where we propped ourselves against a wall and ate our usual lunch. Afterwards, we forked over €6 to see the Medici Chapels. It's quite a unique structure, even on the exterior, with robust domes and pinnacles which come together to create an organized jumble. Inside, the door opens directly into the reliquary, which is simply a wide, low room with vaulted ceilings, the walls and marble floors lined with the tombs of the Medici. The more important members have upright marble tombs which stand near the walls, Lorenzo the Magnificent being in the largest and most centrally placed tomb. The columns which support the cryptlike room are abutted by displays of the Medici family relics. These relics are particularly fascinating, not only for their opulent and ornate design, but because they contain shards of bone from ancient Medicis. Often these bone fragments are unrecognizable, though at times one can just identify a finger here, a rib there. I personally find it both a little barbaric yet very fascinating.
The most worthwhile (yet not enough for the price) portion is the chapel itself. It's an extremely vertical room, made of only dark colored marble. It makes for a very impressive chamber, which is surprisingly well lit by its large number of high windows. I am glad that I was able to see this sight, though I wouldn't recommend it for the price tag, unless they dropped it by a couple €.
By contrast, my €8 Firenze shirt was an investment I was happy in, though we ultimately passed up the Baptistery, as it's a single room chamber with a €4 entrance fee. Its ceiling mosaic might be famous, but we decided against it.
Erik took a short nap at the apartment while I sketched beneath the vaults of the town hall beside the Palazzo Vecchio, a platform full of copies of famous sculptures including Perseus, Rape of the Sabines, and Hercules and the Centaur. The latter is what I chose to sketch, as it is masterfully executed, massive, and shows incredible motion. I wish I had noted the artist.
As I worked toward completion of my sketch, Erik returned from his rest and decided to join me in sketching. I must say he completed his best drawing to date, and he expressed an interest in sketching more later on. Maybe I can teach him a thing or two. :)
Our reservation at the Accademia drew near. As Florence is incredibly convenient even to walk, the trip on foot from Piazza Della Signoria to the Accademia takes no more than ten minutes. And this is a museum I am happy to pay €14 to get into, the extra €4 being for the reservation we willingly made beforehand to avoid waiting in a horrendous line. The Accademia houses a ton more art than I remembered. The entry room houses the original Rape of Sabines sculpture, and along the walls are hung great paintings from the Renaissance. Exploration of the rooms to the right will reward you with crisp and masterful 18th century sculpture, as well as an instrument museum. The center of the show is always David, however. And for good reason.
As if to amplify the utter perfection of Michelangelo's arguably finest work, his Prisoners sculptures line the hall which leads to David's chamber. These unfinished figures seem to writhe within the marble itself, their roughly-hewn bodies a testament to their creator's processes.
As much as I am in love with Bernini's work, I must give Michelangelo his dues on possibly the grandest sculpture in existence. Even for its supposed disporportion, I believe the David is as perfect as a sculpture can be. Even in a standing pose, David's balanced muscularly lean frame sways into fluid motion. He is powerful, confident, and relaxed. His massive right hand, with knuckles and veins bulging, rests calmly on his well-defined thigh, as his other drapes the sling over his shoulder in resolution. His facial features are unique in every way, yet follow the classic forms of male beauty. The only betrayal of David's confidence is revealed in the humanizing furrow in his brow.
We spent nearly two hours in one of the smallest museums I've been to. Anything less would be rushing.
After a few final glances, we left David in his eternal pose of triumph, and headed back to Piazza Della Signoria for dinner, and on the way saw a guy on a bicycle with a tree in his backpack. The waiter got my order wrong (chicken Bolognese) so Erik ate his tiny portion of lasagna before mine was even done. He's been disappointed with the portions here, so we are going to try to find some less-touristy places to eat in the following nights.
Later on, we gravitated toward a concert on our way back home, and sampled a bit of modern
Italian music. We then climbed to our rooftop terrace to enjoy some nonalcoholic beverages, but soon realized that we needed dessert. So we scurried downstairs, to a gelato shop a few doors down, where I got a nutella-whipped cream crepe, and Erik his staple tiramisu/caffe gelato. We scurried back upstairs to enjoy our desserts and watched the sky grow darker and the street lights grow brighter in the great city of art.

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Red or Black?!?

It was a challenging day. The weather was merciful, as it has been, so I can count that in my blessings. We packed, cleaned, and departed our apartment around 9:30. With our heavy packs weighing us down, we made one last glance at Il Campo, and made the long, hilly, half-hour trek to the correct bus stop. We stopped in to a tabbaco shop along the way to buy bus tickets, though the woman at the register didn't speak English, so the barista at the other counter had to translate. Thankfully we asked where the bus stop was, as Rick Steves' map didn't reach that far north. We trudged to the stop, where the display was indecipherable. Just in time, we asked a group of locals which line to take, and it rumbled up just as we finished saying 'grazie'. The lurching bus ride lasted maybe fifteen minutes before depositing us at the train station. Here we went immediately to the self service kiosk, which was user friendly, save for the fact that it gave me a reimbursable voucher for my change and no departure time on my ticket. I stood ten minutes in line to get my change and ask about the train times. It ended up that we had about 15 minutes to get food and board the train. Thankfully our train was clearly marked and on the first track, so I quickly grabbed some yogurt, pre-popped popcorn and a drink. The train left right on time and we were off for Florence, our packs stowed overhead, with the green Italian landscape rushing by.
It was a very short trip-about an hour and a half. Originally we got off at the wrong stop, one before our correct stop, as it read 'Firenze Ripeti'. We quickly hopped back on to the train for a short ride to the Florence SMN, the main train station. Then we began our long walk to the apartment. Florence is dirtier than I remember, moreso even than Rome, with unkempt buildings and unending graffiti. The farther toward the Arno you move, however, the cleaner it becomes. My bag seemed heavier than last time, and the walk was not an easy one. Thankfully though, we could see the Duomo above the rooftops and knew where to go. We took a slight detour to withdraw from an ATM, which is what caused our next problem.
We found via dei Calzaiuoli in a different way than we should have. Our best choice would have been to enter the street through the piazza Duomo, which would have saved us quite a bit of trouble. Instead, we entered it halfway through. Our apartment is number 11. What we didn't know is that via dei Calzaiuoli has two different number sections: Red and Black. Not specified on the apartment information was whether our apartment was in the Red or Black section. We found number 11, but it was...a leather store. No apartment door to be found. Looking around desperately for some kind of answer, we checked the store. It was closed. We checked the list of names on the apartments down the street. Nothing. We sat down on the side of the street, at a loss. Racking our brains for some kind of plan, considering phone cards and internet points, Erik pointed out a girl on a cell phone a few steps from us. I hopped up and asked her if I could please use her phone. She said she didn't have much time left, but let me call the owner. His English was good but it was difficult to communicate over a mobile phone on a busy street. The girl who owned the phone offered to speak with him, as she was fluent in Italian. It turned out that our apartment was on 11-Black, as the numbers reset at a certain point along the street. The apartment owner offered to meet us outside the apartment in a half hour. With much thanks and a graciously refused offer of a euro for her assistance, we left the helpful traveler and headed down the street in search of our apartment. Thankfully, it is located right beside a Disney store. Did you know that in Italian, Tangled is just called Rapunzel?
Via dei Calzaiuoli is excellent for people watching, as it happens to be the main fashion street in Florence, and we did so for a little over a half hour before the owner's wife arrived to show us the apartment. She was very pretty, a woman in her forties, smartly dressed. It was clear that she was of good means and status, but though she spoke no English, did her best to communicate with us, and as equals.
It was at this point that our day took a drastic turn for the better. The Florence apartment is even better than I anticipated. It is rustic, yet elegant, spacious yet a perfect size for what we need. And it has a rooftop balcony. And yes- we can see both the Duomo and Piazza Della Signoria. And did I mention it's a less than five minute walk to both of them? Perfecto!!
It's on the fourth floor, which is quite high, and requires a ride on the elevator because you may as well be climbing Il Duomo if you choose to use the stairs.
After showing us the apartment, the woman collected the (reasonably priced) rent, and left us with the keys. Moto bene!
We unpacked, settled in, and even washed our clothes in the provided washer after a bit of trial and error. After a half hour we hung our clean clothes out to dry on the roof. What a fantastic view. Surrounded by red tiles and chimneys, with the Duomo 100 yards to our left, and the tower of Piazza Della Signoria on the right, with the energy if via dei Calzaiuoli below.
After a brief rest, we took to the streets. South of the Duomo, Florence is beautiful. be honest it's a bit sketchy. We tried to find the Leondardo museum and Piazzale Bruneleschi, but no luck with either. We opted to circle the Duomo, which disappointingly is rather filthy toward the back. The front and most of its right side, as well as Giotto's bell tower, are brilliantly white and clean. I'm hoping they will be finished cleaning the entire structure by the time I return.
With my memory leading the way, we found a supermarket my mom and I had frequented on our last visit. Here we stocked up on food and drinks for the following days. Oh, and hand soap, as our apartment was strangely empty of it. With our groceries in hand, we became intrigued by the sound of a pipe organ which emanated from a small church down the street. We closed out our first night in Florence early, with food in the refrigerator and the noise of the street far below, a far more relaxing end to how our time in Florence began. We had a place to sleep, and each other, everything else was a luxury.



This was our lazy day in Siena. We awoke late and didn't get out until around noon, which was quite relaxing. Our first destination was Il Punacoteca Nazionale, which had been closed on the previous day. We stopped at a small market along the way to pick up a couple of apples and drinks, with Michael Jackson playing over the speakers. The Pinacoteca is a collection of byzantine and pre-renaissance paintings housed in a large medieval building. As it turned out, the place closed at 1:00, so we were only able to spend less than an hour there, but the €4 price tag was worth even the short visit. Returning down Via del Citta, the main street which circles Il Campo, we found a well furnished cafe (I had been there before), where both of us grabbed a couple salami-on-baguette sandwiches. As usual, we ate these and our apples on Il Campo, which was markedly more crowded than the day before, and much warmer. I used this opportunity to tan my post-winter legs. I'm getting pretty tan :)
Another round of panna cotta gelato later, we made a quick trip back to the apartment for a bathroom break (as a visit to the public water closet costs €.50) and to change into shorts. The local Internet point was our next stop, a tiny, interesting place run by an Indian family, with colored scarves hanging from the ceiling. We let out families know we were still alive, and I attempted to transfer some of the photos from my SD card to my flashdrive, which was difficult as it took about 5-8 minutes per 27 photos. Good thing is I freed up another Gigabyte on my SD card.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon on Il Campo. There were almost as many dogs there as tourists, the most common breed being the dachshund. A woman sat down near us with a fuzzy little puppy, probably a mix, who gave my knee a lick when I came over for a pet. His name was Tito.
We watched the shadows lengthen over the red brick of the square and enjoyed the impromptu guitar music from a musician down the way, watching some American kids playing soccer and the groups of tourists and Italians alike taking in the cool Tuscan evening.
We made a return to the restaurant we ate at the first night, Erik ordering the ossobuco yet again and I had a lightly fried veal with French fries, not my best meal but the atmosphere was perfect. Our dinner stretched on for close to an hour and a half, listening to and watching the multitudes of birds wheel overhead as the moon rose above the torre del Mangia, the sky falling into evening's colors. I enjoyed my final panna cotta gelato as we made the short hike to the piazza del duomo, taking one last long look at its marble facade as the gelato dripped all over my fingers. Our final stroll past il Duomo and down the short path back to the apartment was a happy one. With the amber lights illuminating the darkening streets, the sky still bright though the sun had long since sunk below the horizon, and the distant echo of a concert several streets over, we said arrivederci to our final evening in Siena


The Medieval City

The inconveniences we endured the previous day were justified by the location of our apartment. We took a right out of our door, a left onto Via dei Pellegrini, another twenty steps, and were faced with the massive wall of the baptistery. Siena is much more hilly than I remember, but it creates a great deal of drama and variety for architecture. We hiked the steep steps beside the pink and white marble front of the baptistery, and beneath a large doorway of similar architecture into piazza del Duomo. With a look toward the sky, the striped duomo tower soared above the dome. We circled the side of the church and stood back to take in the facade. Due to the fact that Siena and Florence were rivals in the middle ages, it is no surprise that this Sena duomo follows the same style and color scheme as the one in the rival city. It is quite impressive, and the large circular window reflects the clouds. The best part, however, is inside.
The interior of the Siena duomo is one of the most unique I have ever seen. It is dim in medieval fashion, yet well lit with a good number of windows and lamps. The most remarkable aspect of this duomo isn't its size- as it is in fact quite intimate, but in its striped columns. In an almost moorish style, black and white marble trade off to create a truly mesmerizing pattern. Another aspect I love about Siena's duomo is the organized jumble which the columns create. At a certain point to either side of the main dome, the columns align between each other to form a fascinating, complex arrangement that accentuates the depth of the space. To the right of the main dome is a small tranquil chapel, adorned with Bernini's work. The duomo claims fame from the work of Duccio and Giotto as well, among many others. A library with long windows is lined with massive ancient illuminated manuscripts beneath glass.
We emerged into the sunlight only briefly before ducking back into the duomo museum. It is a modest collection which forbids photographs, though it allows you to see the original sculptures from the old facade, and original paintings by Duccio and others which had been completed for the duomo. The greatest part of the museum was in fact its connection to the Siena panorama. A 100-step climb in a narrow, spiraling stairwell rewards you with a commanding, uninstructed view of the sandstone hued medieval town, and surrounding rolling Tuscan countryside.
We took a brief lunch break, a massive slice of moderate quality pizza with a coke for €4, in the atmosphere of Il Campo. Returning to the baptistery, we viewed the dank yet once elegant marble basins. The crypt, right next door, was worth a quick look for the deteriorating frescoes and old brick ceiling. No need for a return next time.
After spending our morning inside, we decided to do the opposite for the remainder of the evening. We headed down via Fontebranda, feeling a bit like a rustic San Francisco, and wound our way to the church of San Domenico. Arguably it is the biggest church in Siena, though it is very austere in its decoration. Plain wooden floors and a ceiling supported by wooden beams stretch for a hundred yards, the floorboards bathed in shafts of sunlight from the few yet tall stained glass windows. This church is impressive for its size and humility, but the most interesting factor is the head of St. Catherine, Siena's patron saint, and her finger, preserved and on display. This practice seems a bit barbaric to me.
We returned toward the city by way of a tiny little cobbled road which led steeply back from the outskirts of town. We followed the road past San Mateo, a church I had seen on my last visit, so we stopped inside. Interestingly enough, some kind of mass was in session, and we realized as we sat down that the locals in the pews were reciting some kind of scripture. It was fascinating but a little too creepy so we quietly escaped before we could be abducted by the cult.
We finally found the edge of town, and a great view of the countyside. Vineyards and cypress trees lined the green rolling hills, topped with little red roofed villas. Beautiful.
On our journey back to the center of town, we turned a corner and witnessed a street sporting a multitude of blue and yellow flags. As we continued toward Il Campo, crowds of locals had formed on the street and were sporting the same flags around their necks. Something was going on but we didn't know what.
Il Campo seemed to be the place at which all of our evenings seemed to come to an end, and we spent the evening there, updating our journals and absorbing the activity of the square. We ate dinner at a fancier place farther down the square, me with roasted chicken topped with Sienese spices which reminded me immediately of thanksgiving. Erik ordered lamb, which was very good but the portion small. We ended the day in our usual fashion, taking in Il Campo as the shadows slowly engulfed the buildings, panna cotta gelato in hand.


To Siena

It was a bittersweet morning. We awoke early, packed and cleaned the apartment. As instructed, we left the keys behind and made our last exit onto via Governo Vecchio. We caught the 64 bus, squeezed in among the less-than-ambrosial passengers and made the final roundabout past Victor Emanuele monument and to the Termini station. Finding our train to Siena went quite smoothly. We headed immediately for a ticket kiosk, and had our tickets within a few minutes. Once we were at the tracks, we found ourselves a bit stumped by the system. After asking an employee, we were heading toward track 1. I verified the ticket and we boarded the train. This is how it works: On the Departures board, you will find the time closest to your ticket in bold. Also in bold is the ultimate destination of your train. For us, our train was headed for Florence, but we needed to make a connection in Chiusi, so we just needed to stop there. Listed below the bold lettering is a list of all the stops and the times the train will reach them. Pretty simple when you know what to look for.
It took a few tries to find a sufficiently empty car where we could stow our bags. We ended up sitting across from a guy from San Luis who was using the hostel-to-hostel technique. Though spontaneity sounds fun, I prefer knowing where I will be sleeping in the evening.
The train ride from Rome to Chiusi lasted close to two hours. The scenery was nice, but we spent most of our time in tunnels or behind trees. We said caio to the guy from San Luis, crossed under the tracks, and waited ten minutes in line to use the grimy bathroom. We then ate a lunch of surprisingly good cafeteria style pizza and waited for our next train to Siena. It arrived shortly after we finished our 'meal', we boarded after asking some English-speaking tourists if they were going to Siena as well. It was a modern, stylish train, unlike our last ride, with spacious seating (though markedly less comfortable than the last seats). Erik kept worrying we were on the wrong train. Eventually I convinced him otherwise, and I was right. This train ran for slightly under an hour and a half, and was considerably more scenic. The countryside rolled in green and gold, mottled with the shadows of the clouds above, dotted with cypress-lined drives leading to quintessential red-roofed villas. No better word to describe it than charming. The last stop was Siena. We exited the train and easily purchased our €1 bus tickets.
The challenge began when we boarded the next bus, which immediately from my recollection took us in the opposite direction of Siena.
I began to get concerned when I didn't see Siena. Even moreso when all the other passengers got off and Erik and I were the only ones riding the bus to nowhere. Eventually the bus stopped and I asked the driver if the bus went to Siena. Though he didn't speak much english, he confirmed that indeed it did. However, he didn't start up the bus again for another ten minutes, then returned to the other town and picked up passengers. Only when we passed the train station in the direction of Siena did I begin to relax. I confirmed with another passenger on the bus of our destination and she graciously gave us directions. The final stop did come, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we stepped off. But that was not the end of our difficulties.
We found Il Campo, the center of Siena, easily enough, within ten minutes or so. From google maps, I thought I knew where our apartment was in relation to our favorite gelato shop (of course). Unfortunately this was not the right street. We asked several locals where Piazzetta Bonali was, all of them unable to tell us. At this time we were quite exhausted and frustrated. After asking a couple separate souvenir vendors the location of the nearest tourist information, we headed across the campo in search of answers.
Hallelujah, they told us exactly where to go. It turned out that our apartment was one street down from the one we originally looked on, though midway down, a very small piazza intersected it. We thanked her wholeheartedly and struck out, glad to have a heading. Indeed, we had no trouble finding the place thereafter. It is in a very small intersection of streets which form a very very small square if it can be called such. We rang the bell at the gate labeled Gianni, as instructed, and the iron gate opened. We crossed a tiny courtyard and climbed five flights of steps to the top., while lugging our painfully heavy packs. But our was not quite done being interesting yet.
A woman named Julianna and her young husband and daughter greeted us. They are very friendly but do not speak much English. We entered the flat. It is a massive establishment. The setup and furnishings are rustic yet elegant, and we followed the family into a sitting room, where we were asked to have a seat. We spent the next fifteen minutes waiting for the two to decipher our passports and record the information for their records. Then we were showed our room. It turns out that our apartment is only a small part of the larger apartment. We have everything we need, though the aspect of living in the same house with people who speak little English is a bit hard to get used to. They showed us the separate kitchen and dining area, gave us the keys and left us to unpack.
What an experience.
Thankfully, the location of the apartment was worth all its hassle. A two minute walk to both Piazza del Duomo and Il Campo. Can't ask for much more.
Our evening was much less stressful. We settled in, I handwashed some if my clothes and left them to dry while we went to Il Campo for dinner. il Campo is the center of Siena, bordered by quaint yet impressive medieval buildings, and the imposing torre del Mangia. The piazza slopes downward toward the tower, lined with cross-cross red bricks. We ate right on the square, an excellent meal for both, I with four-cheese gnocchi and Erik with ossobuco. The weather in Siena is drastically cooler than that of Rome, by ten degrees easily. I found that my jacket was not enough. We headed back up to the main street, Via dei Citta, to see about some gelato from the favorite place of the last trip with my mom. Unfortunately, they did not have panna cotta ice cream as I had hoped. We settled for caffe and noce. Though we were shivering, we enjoyed every bit of it and were grateful we had a sure place to sleep that night, and thankful that the trials of the day were over.


Arrivederci Roma

Our final day in Rome was our least hectic. Again the weather was ideal, less hot than the previous day, which came in handy for the amount of walking that was ahead of us. We made a leisurely stroll to St. Peter's square, realized that it was extremely crowded, and instead headed back to Castel Sant'Angelo. We stopped into a random baroque church on the way and enjoyed a short break from the noise outside, then proceeded to the Castel. It is a very medieval structure, though impressive, with musty passages that lead upward to the papal rooms. Many of the underground passages bring to mind an Indiana Jones film. The most interesting sights to see in the Castel are of the exterior. The outer walls and parapets are well preserved but their age is evident, with inner courtyards and towers containing ancient trebuchets, cannons, and crude cannon balls. The papal apartments were a bit disappointing, as I would have liked to have seen more information on the Borgias there.
We ate lunch in the park which once was a moat surrounding the Castel, tried to win the affections of a skittish yet curious kitty, grabbed the best gelato in Rome near the pantheon (creme carmel and chocolate mousse) then returned to the apartment to rest.

After feeling recharged, we returned to St. Peters. It was wonderful to fully absorb the place one last time, when not feeling completely exhausted. I received a fantastic surprise as we walked into the nave, a mass had just begun and the single voice of the choir resonated throughout the massive chamber. No experience could match it.
I had the great opportunity of completing a new sketch of the greatest cathedral on earth. I have found a much greater comfort in drawing perspective and architecture in recent years, something which has a
lways eluded me. Now even moreso I feel as though I can successfully communicate what I'm seeing. I stood for nearly an hour with the voices of the choir and organ immersing me fully in pure beauty.

With reluctance we bid farewell to St Peters, returned to our neighborhood and meandered down Via dei Corallo (the street where my mom and I stayed three years ago). We ate at a small restaurant near Piazza Navona, splurging on more expensive dinners, as we had been careful with our expenditures, and still came out under budget.
Making one final return to the Pantheon, we enjoyed our second gelato of the day from the Montecito cremeria on the porch of the Pantheon. The sun cast an orange glow on the piazza, the lights flickered to life and the music echoed through the square. One could not ask for a better ending to a fantastic adventure in the eternal city.


Bernini Day

I finally feel comfortable here in Italy. I believe it took a bit of time to develop a system that would optimize the enjoyment of our day by eliminating as much discomfort as possible. We discovered yesterday that almost directly across the street is a supermercato which is deceivingly large. As opposed to paying €4.50 for a Sprite at a restaurant, one can buy a liter and a half for €1.50, which will last you two days. We learned to recycle bottles of powerade we had purchased on our hot day at the Vatican, and fill them with red Fanta which tastes like Hawaiian Punch. Anything to avoid drinking awful tap water. We have been buying our breakfasts and lunches at the market as well which allows us to spend a little more on dinner and still come out under budget.
The weather has improved with each day we stay in Rome. Today it was even cooler and brighter, though the Roman sun had lost none of its remaining in the shade as much as possible was a must. We hopped the 87 bus, which took us on the familiar route past the Victor Emmanuele monument, and toward Termini station. We knew our stop was Nazionale, but what we didnt realize at first was the fact that there are four Nazionale stops on the same street, each with a subname. So we hopped off the bus at the first stop, and ended up walking the length of the street in order to reach the stop we should have gotten off on. It was a happy mistake though, as we were given the opportunity to enjoy the city at our own pace. This is the more metropolitan area of the city, where the streets are wide, busy, and hectic, though still rustic at its core, as modern hair salons share walls with ancient chapels. We made a left on Via Torino, crossed a busy parking lot-piazza, then headed for the corner on the opposite side of the street, where the facade of Santa Maria Della Vittoria was covered for renovation. But it was the inside we were interested in. I can easily say that among all the churches we saw in Rome, this is the most ornate. When we stepped inside the tranquil nave, we were instantly overwhelmed by the sheer ornamentation of the place. Richly decorated fails to describe the very opulent nature of this church. It was awe inspiring. The salmon colored marble columns were edged with stripes of gold, carrying the weight of marble angels carved by Bernini himself, their robes flowing without the need for wind. Every column, arch, vault, and niche was embellished with paint, gold, metalwork and oil paint. The best aspect of the space is that it is literally filled with Bernini's work. Each and every sculpture which clings to the walls and ceiling, big and small, was crafted by his hand. And it shows. It was dim, cool, and quiet. A welcome change from tourist-packed sights. One can feel so much greater a connection with a place when it's seen in the way it is meant to be seen. The experience is much more organic, and you feel as if you belong to it, and it to you. When a place makes an impression upon your heart and memory, it becomes a part of you.
The centerpiece of this chapel is not in the apse but to its left, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Bernini embodies the writings of St. Teresa, who experienced a vision of an angel piercing her with a golden arrow, which filled her with both the pain and extreme joy of God's love. It was truly wonderful to finally see the piece in person. We spent nearly an hour there, I missed no opprtunity to sketch the famous piece, and absorbed the tranquility and beauty of the place.
Emerging from the dim quiet of the chapel and into the bright, raucous bustle of the street required a bit of an adjustment, but soon we were heading northwest toward the curving Via Veneto.
Santa Maria della Consezione is a unique place inside and out. The exterior is recognizable by its dual stairways, its chapel by its eerie, smoky humility, and its crypt by the artfully arranged bones of 4000 capuchin monks. One is almost stifled by the musty, earthy scent upon entering the low-ceilinged first chamber, where you make a 'donation' of a single euro to gain admission. Hereafter lie six alcoves upon a joining low passage, each room literally covered in complex designs created by the curving of stained mandibles, ribs, parallel clavicles, shins and finger bones, but mostly vertebrae. Skulls have been stacked neatly in arched arrangements, beside rows of thigh bones. In several chambers, entire skeletons lean lifelessly against the bonds which attempt to hold them upright, clad in draping brown monk robes. Their fleshless grins defy the solemnity of the place yet remind one of their own mortality.
A short visit to this place is all that is needed, but an unforgettable one is guaranteed. We took a deep breath of fresh air once outside, glad to return to the land of the living. Following the curve of Via Veneto, we then crossed a very busy intersection and entered the Borghese gardens. The massive umbrella pines that dotted the expansive lawns provided shade as we headed North up the wide pedestrian-only pavement. Locals out with canine friends abounded, the dog breeds as diverse as the people themselves. We then came upon the villa Borghese. It was bigger than I remembered, a beautiful white structure with a massive porch. We ate an identical lunch in the shady courtyard. The finches there must have been famished, as they went to such great measures as going for the food in your hand even as it was on its way to your mouth.
We gave in to feeding them out of the pure enternainment and at one point, a bird caught a crumb of bruschetta as it was still airborne.
We wrapped up our modest lunch and descended beneath the front stairway to purchase our tickets. The Roma pass covered both of our tickets, so we reluctantly checked our bags and cameras and waited for our 1:00 reservation.
Though the villa Borghese is brimming with great sculpture, it's hard to focus on anything but Bernini's sculptures, which usually occupy the center of each room. Bernini is aptly referred to as the father of the Baroque era. In my eyes, he is arguably the most talented sculptor in history. Michelangelo is indeed a master, but the emotion and movement Bernini brings to his work is unmatched. Bernini captures a single moment in a story as if the figure simply turned to marble in mid-action. The bland expression of previous Davids is traded for extreme concentration in Bernini's version, the unbelievably delicate foliage sprouting from Daphne's fingers hardly seems like marble, and Pluto's hand sinks solidly into Proserpina's thigh as he whisks her away to the underworld. Seeing the 8 Bernini sculptures in the Borghese is worth the trip and reservation (I called it in over the phone then used the Roma pass to get in for free)
We recharged in the peace of the gardens, then headed back the way we had come, made a wrong crossing and ended up following the highway, then turning around again. Within ten minutes we had reached the Spanish Steps and enjoyed the panorama of Roma, then quickly escaped the crush of tourists to find the Trevi Fountain, which was also swarming with the public. We stopped to admire the architecture and toss a coin into the aquamarine water before maneuvering our way through the dense crowds. The crowds at the Pantheon were much more manageable, and we arrived in time to go inside and enjoy the most influential structure in art history. It is simply a massive circular chamber, topped by a huge concrete dome with concave squares to lighten it, and a large circular opening at its center called the oculus. The tombs of both Raphael and Victor Emmanuel rest in the niches.
We returned to Piazza Navona for dinner. We landed a table right on the Piazza, I enjoyed some Italian sausage and some free champagne.
We closed our amazing day with some equally amazing kiwi, passion fruit, and raspberry gelato.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Ancient Rome

The morning began cloudy, though we were not deterred. We headed down Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, visited the ATM, then realized that our bus, in Via Torre Argentina, was just around the corner. We hopped the 87 bus and lumbered through town, passing the impressive white marble monument to Victor Emmanuel, and within five minutes found ourselves stumbling out of the bus and faced with the Colosseum. It still leaves you with nothing to do but stare and nothing to say but wow. After a short trip to palatine Hill, we were informed that our Roma passes would apply for both sights. So, as has become our custom, we slipped past those who failed to plan ahead and right into the Colosseum. Even with a third missing, this is a truly breathtaking structure. I am always fascinated with its state of decay. And I'm glad that the Italians keep it that way. We meandered the passages and floors of the stadium, surrounded by the reminders of the past. If you looked hard enough you could see the peasants in the seats, and the gladiators fighting for their lives. Gives you the chills. I stopped to sketch and no sooner did the rain begin to sprinkle, then the drops became larger. I shrugged on my jacket and propped my umbrella on my shoulder to protect my work. It was wonderful to sketch again. And as I did so, the rain stopped, the clouds broke, and the sun illuminated the ancient stonework around me. Something in me clicked and I felt so alive.
We spent nearly two hours in the Colosseum, every second an experience. We ate our lunch of salami, feta cheese and brucheta chips atop the knoll which overlooks the Colosseum and Arch of constantine.
Feeling refreshed, we visited Palatine hill. The Roma pass covered it as well. This hill can be described as eerie, mysterious, majestic and haunting. The skeletons of grand palaces stand as a testament to Rome's great fall. Remnants of ornamental stonework lay strewn in the dirt.
We descended through pleasant gardens to the Forum. I believe it trumps Palatine Hill in mystery. One can almost imagine how incredibly grand the structures once were. It is a jumble of toppled columns, derelict walls and rubble. It must once have had some semblance of order, but now it looks as if the city planner had been drunk. It was hot and our hydration limited. After navigating the ruins, we gratefully trudged up the steps and to the Victor Emmanuel monument. Though it is generally not seen as a tourist sight, it is a truly magnificent structure. I can easily say one of the greatest in the city, or maybe even anywhere. Next door we hiked up Michelangelo's steps to Capitoline hill. It has a great view of Rome, and is one of the most unique landmarks in the city. We then descended and made our way back to the Pantheon with no trouble. It was fantastic to see its interior again. It's bigger than I recall, and the dome still blows me away. I had the pleasure of perching on the fountain steps and sketching. I find that I feel more connected to a place if I sketch there. It's such a wonderful piazza, filled with so many different kinds of people, each one a character. One of oarticular interest was a woman who had mastered the cello and played the great classical compositions beauifully. After enjoying the scene, we enjoyed dinner at the restaurant across the street from our apartment. I had veal in red wine. Delicious. Currently we are solisly under our food budget thanks to the supermarket. We are dead tired but have spent an incredible day in old, old Rome

Thursday, June 9, 2011


The Vatican

Our morning began early and bright with absolutely beautiful weather, a welcome lucky sign of the fate of our day at the Vatican. After packing our bags with leftovers from last night's meal of cold fresh salami, prosciutto and cheese, we began our first official Roman journey. Fortunately, our accommodations are located in a perfect location near Piazza Navona, and we made our way down the hectic, frenzied causeway that is Corso Vittorio Emmanuele. Dodging impatient Vespas and attempting to avoid being mesmerized by the circus of traffic, we crossed the glittering Tiber, admiring the rotund profile of Castel Sant'Angelo, and wondered where exactly the Pope's secret passage might run beneath the cobblestones.
It is a vain endeavor to keep your heart from momentarily ceasing to beat as you first lay your eyes on St. Peter's Basilica, framed by the Via della Conciliazione. The power and depth that emanate from the place even at a distance is simply palpable. We soaked in the majesty of St. Peter's square while sharing our picnic meal, often joined by uninvited hungry pigeons. Upon finishing our meal and absorbing the square a bit more, we crossed its expanse and passed beneath the arches of Rome's city wall. Hugging the massive stone barrier which marks Vatican City, we soon found ourselves faced with a massive line of people which snaked along the wall as far as could be seen. Thankfully, we soon determined that these unfortunate souls had neglected to reserve their tickets in advance. We passed each of the hundreds of sweaty tourists feeling both pity and a sense of great relief. Best €4 ever spent.
We ducked into the modern marbled entry hall, endured security for the first time that day, then picked up our tickets, and waited with the mob of fellow visitors to have those tickets checked and to ride the escalator to the top floor.

The Vatican Museum is not the Louvre, though at times it can be equally as confusing. That said, it is a truly astounding collection. With a vast display of ancient Greek sculpture, sizable rooms filled with ancient Babylonian and Egyptian artifacts, an underappreciated Etruscan/Iron Age exhibit, as well as animal marble sculpture, tapestries, and classical paintings. I cannot even begin to describe the process of the three hours we spent there, though it did involve becoming dehydrated, becoming desperately lost in an attempt to find a drinking fountain and restroom, walking the wrong way for nearly fifteen minutes before being forced to return the way we came. While suffering the heat with long pants (due to the dress code inside St. Peter's) we braved the constant jostling of other visistors and literal crush of tour groups. At long last, (oh how long that last was), we stepped into the dim high chamber, the Sistine Chapel. The crowds fade as one stares skyward, mouth open, at the sheer awesomeness of this room. Every wall, surface, niche and curve of this room brims with the touch of the great master. The room hums with the voices of a hundred occupants, their conversations and photography hardly discouraged by the attempts of security to both quiet the mass and keep their cameras off.
After tearing ourselves from the masterful grasp of Michelangelo, we made our long return trip through the Vatican Museum and along the wall, back to St. Peter's square. Following a short break, we endured our final line for security and ascended the steps to the basilica.

For three years, words have escaped me as I have made vain attempts to describe the pure majesty of St. Peter's Basilica. 'Awesome' is an overused word in our society today. But truly, returning to the true meaning of the word, the Basilica fills you with nothing but all-encompassing awe. As you step through the heavy wooden doors and into the rush of cool air, as your foot strikes the marble floor for the first time and your eyes focus on the monolithic expanse before you, you realize that you are in a place of utmost holiness. The seven foot glittering gold band recites Jesus' words to Peter while sheer marble faces plunge one hundred feet to the floor. Above, shafts of sunlight pierce the calm air, illuminating both the ring of windows at the base of the main dome and the angels who perch atop Bernini's bronze altarpiece, which seems to soar nearly as high as the ceiling itself. Monolithic marble depictions of biblical figures stand in niches beside 10 feet wide mosaics. Gold glimmers upon arches and veins of marble seem to give power and strength to the walls which they form. And shining like a beacon of spirituality the world over, the golden beams of gilded bronze frame the glowing stained glass figure of a dove, a symbol of hope at the center of the blazing sunburst. This is St. Peter's basilica. The largest church in Christendom, the truest demonstration of human capability, fueled by the hand of God.

The view from the top of St. Peter's basilica is nearly as striking as its interior. Though the climb to the top, conquering hundreds of steps along the way, is nearly hellish, the panoramic view of the eternal city lets one gain a firm grasp on its richness. Sprawling before you are numerous sights which are not only beloved by the world, but immersed in centuries of history.

We returned the way we had come, exhausted beyond measure but full to the brim of awe and wonder. After a short rest, we made the short walk to the Pantheon. The seagulls and swallows swarmed the sky above the square, while pigeons remained earthbound in hope of forgotten morsels. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a candle lit dinner at the back of the square, facing the converted pagan temple, contemplating on the Latin words inscribed in its stone face. Soon the umbrellas came up and waiters scrambled to keep their customers dry as our perfect weather of the day was traded for slight rain. This change did not bother us as we picked up our second gelato on the way back home. Pistachio gelato was interesting.

It is incredible what one can experience in a single day. And this is the first of 30.

6/4 - 6/5

The Exodus

After enjoying a fantastic performance of Mary Poppins the Musical in Sacramento, the Peck family said their heartfelt goodbyes and left us at the Larson residence. We took a 3-hour nap and awoke at 4am to groggily gather our single (large) carry-on bags, containing all of our necessary belongings and accessories, as well as our (thankfully) smaller, lighter day packs. Off to Sacramento airport we rode, in the uncharacteristically rainy June weather, with Jennifer Larson as our honorable driver. After a brave yet reluctant goodbye from Jennifer, we proceeded to check in with United airlines. With only a minor delay, and no hassle with checked baggage (thanks to my mom and Rick Steves) we bypassed security with no trouble and headed toward our gate, where we sampled some bland Starbucks oatmeal and waited anxiously for our first departure. Neither of us could believe this day had finally come. We still can't.

The flight from Sacramento across the United States to Washington DC was fairly short-lived, or at the very least, I remembered little of the 5 hour flight, as I fell quickly asleep in favor of watching the exceedingly generic Adjustment Bureau. After catching some chicken tenders and braving the vast line at Subway, we found ourselves boarding the smallest commercial craft I've ever experienced, requiring us to leave our invaluable larger carry-ons in the hands of the attendants to be stowed below the plane. Between fits of sleep and fleeting worries about the fate of our baggage, the two-hour flight to Montreal was a blessedly short one.
Despite our excitement at beginning the final and most tedious leg of our exodus, the Montreal airport was both beautiful and beastly. Thankfully customs went smoothly, and in spite of a gate change, we prepared for our 8-hour trek to Rome. In all honesty, for me this was the strangest part of the travel, as most of our time on this flight was spent in darkness, which was a bit depressing. However, I must explicitly say that Air Canada was a stunning carrier, which included personal touch screens, decent in flight food, and the general amenities. The seats were comfortable, and the only complaint I can make is only a mistake on my part, as sitting at an exit door proved to be quite cold at 37000 feet, 78 degrees below.
The Italian coastline was a welcome sight, only obscured by slight cloud cover. We gathered our hefty belongings for the final time and exited the plane into the sharp contrast of 73 degrees and humid. After being shuttled like sardines to Fiumicino, we made our long journey to the bus station, following the signs, amid the rush of people, listening to the tumult of languages swirling about us constantly. Advantageously we picked up two Roma passes on our way to the bus depot, where we boarded a large charter bus to take us to the Termini station. This is where it really began.

As we lumbered from the agricultural outskirts of the Roman countryside and deeper into Rome proper, the excitement grew increasingly palpable. Signs in Italian, tiny cars vying for the same spaces as buses, and daring vespa drivers gave a hint of what was to come. Winding our way through the seedier parts of Rome, we anticipated reaching the old city center, which when it did finally appear, did so as a monarch commands attention. Modern, decrepit structures suddenly were traded for ancient robust works of achictectural mastery. Our hearts both skipped a beat as we said a quick 'ciao' to the Vatican wall, then before we knew it, we were shuffling from the bus at the Termini bus stop-- though it looked different than I had expected. Having thrown us for a bit of a loop, this turn of events proved to be the most challenging part of our first day in Rome. We headed down the street in search of a bus stop. The 73 degrees with humidity was a drastic difference from California's low 60s, and we quickly shed our jackets, and wished we could trade our jeans for shorts. After reading a bus sign or two, with no sight of our stop (Chiesa Nuova), we stopped in to a Tabacchi shop to ask for directions. Thankfully the reply told us that we needed to board bus 40, which gave us a bit of a lead. With our packs already straining our shoulders and spines, we stood at the bus stop down the street for what seemed an eternity, waiting for the 40 bus. To our dismay, every bus which would take us to our destination either whizzed by us, was too full, or we missed it for various reasons. We decided to follow the buses' routes down the road, where we found success at last. We boarded the correct bus, feeling much like obnoxious turtles in the cramped and stuffy space, though the ride through the city was worth the trouble. We hopped off at Chiesa Nuova, which we soon learned is only a two minute walk from our apartment.

We are at a perfect location. Five minutes walking in one direction gets us to piazza Navona, and an additional five minutes from there is the Pantheon. We are a two minute walk from the main street in Rome, Corso Vittorio Emmanuele, which if taken for 15-20 minutes will lead you to St. Peter's. The apartment is on Via Governo Vecchio, framed by an arched doorway. After passing through the door on the street you follow a low passage and out into an inner alley, where three small apartments sit within the shadow of the taller buildings which flank them. We found the door to #34 open, and within the owner, Andrea Marchi. He was a humorous, good-natured man in his late thirties, bespectacled with a receding hairline and slightly wild curly hair. He enthusiastically gave us the tour of the very small apartment, handed us the keys and bid farewell. Not long after we settled our belongings, the overcast weather turned to rain and going out was no longer an option. Our jetlagged bodies were grateful as we slept for several hours, sleep having been difficult on the plane. Around 7:00 that evening I woke with a start, realizing the rain had stopped. We grabbed our day packs and went to explore the neighborhood. The streets were saturated, but there was no shortage of Vespas, smart cars and pedestrians attempting to occupy the same narrow passages. The restaurants were full and the rain didn't seem to have deterred anyone in the least. We stopped at a small rustic restaurant after checking their menu, and sat down at a table with a direct view of the street. Erik ordered the quintessential Italian pizza, and I a traditional plate of assorted meats and cheeses. Both our dishes were fresh and authentic, the atmosphere quiet and quaint. The perfect beginning to a Roman holiday.