Posted by Deborah

Italy trip log



Seth and I started off the new year with a trip to Italy that included Venice, Florence and Rome. We knew the weather wouldn’t be ideal, but we wanted a chance to spend some time together after I got back from Mexico, plus we found a good deal with Gate 1 Travel Company. (They had a package which included flights, hotels and train transportation between cities – the rest was up to us.)

The weather didn’t cooperate, as we expected, but the sights were still amazing. Best of all, traveling in the off-season meant that we hardly had to wait in line to see them.





Day 1/2 – Friday Jan. 4 – Saturday Jan. 5, 2008 VENICE

We left Chicago around 3 p.m. on Alitalia. Seth was disappointed that we had an older plane – no individual television screens on each seat. I was disappointed that the grown woman behind us thought it was perfectly reasonable to jiggle her knees against the back of my seat. It took eight hours to get to Milan but because of the time difference it was already about 7 a.m. when we arrived. From there, we flew to Venice and took a water taxi to the Ai Mori hotel. After a nap, we walked around the city, including the nearby Jewish quarter. Not much was open by that hour, but we managed to stop in a few stores and a church. Despite the cold and drizzle, it was amazing just to walk around. Everything looked so picturesque, and the water was much cleaner than I expected.



We ended up near the Rialto bridge at the Bacaro Jazz restaurant. It was recommended by our travel guide and turned out to be one of the best meals of our trip – especially my pepper steak smothered with cream sauce. We walked to St. Mark’s square and then spent at least an hour wandering through the quiet streets and bridges to get back to our hotel. Venice shuts down early, even on the weekends. But that was fine with us after a day of exhausting travel.



We never did get the back story on this, but the ceiling of the restaurant was literally covered with brassieres.
Day 3 – Sunday, Jan. 6, 2008 VENICE
After a surprisingly robust hotel breakfast buffet, we took the vaporetto (water bus) back to St. Mark’s Square. We only had one full day in Venice, so our mission was to cram in as many of the major sights that we could. We started with the Doge’s Palace. The Doges were life-appointed leaders who, even though they were the highest governing authority in Venice, had no real legislative or executive power. And they lived in this massive palace that included a sizable prison. That and the rooms full of armor went on a little long in our opinion, but the rest of the place was pretty interesting. I was most impressed by the intricately painted ceilings, which I later learned were fairly common in many of the Italian attractions we visited.



Pigeons outside the Doge’s Palace

The courtyard of the Doge’s Palace


We grabbed lunch at a random trattoria a few streets off of the square, which was okay. Then, we headed to the Basilica di San Marco, which the square is named for. It was the largest church I had ever seen (though that record was broken toward the end of the trip when we visited the Vatican). The walls and ceilings inside were covered with gold mosaics. Even the floor was made of marble mosaic tiles. You had to pay to get close to the front or take in the view from the top balcony, but we were satisfied with the cheapo walk through.

The entrance to St. Mark’s (we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside).



Next, we went to the Museo Correr, which was included in the ticket we’d purchased for the Doge’s Palace. Technically, that also led to the Museo Archaeologico and Museo Biblioteca Marchana, but it felt like one big museum of sculpture, ancient texts and religious paintings. It wasn’t as great as our guide book made it sound.

By then, it was about 4 p.m. and we had to choose between the Vivaldi museum and the Jewish synagogues. We voted for the synagogues even though it was further to get there. We made it to the small ghetto by 4:30 p.m. but had just missed the last synagogue tour of the day. I was so mad because that guided tour was the only way to even get a glimpse of any of the synagogues. We could still enter the Jewish museum, but it was tiny and not really worth the money. It was still neat to be in the very first ghetto, though. Apparently, the word “ghetto” was coined in Venice when the Jews were forced to live there in the 1500s. We snapped some photos of the Holocaust memorials in the square, then walked through a main shopping drag and looked at a couple of bar/restaurants for dinner. We settled on a Mexican place called Iguana. I know, why eat Mexican food in Italy? I think we were drawn in by the cute dogs inside, plus it looked a lot busier than some of the other places.


A vaparetto crossing under the famous Rialto bridge at dusk.



Day 4 – Monday, Jan. 7 – FLORENCE

We got up really early to take advantage of our last short morning in Venice before we caught the train to Florence around 10 a.m. We walked through the narrow streets near our hotel, past the house where painter Tintoretto used to live and peeked at the Renaissance art inside the Madonna Del Orto Church. We also saved some time to shop on our walk to the train station.

It was an easy three-hour ride to Florence and the first-class car was quite comfy. Our hotel there, the Croce di Malta, was very close to the train station but a little further from the heart of the city than we would have liked. Many attractions were closed because it was a Monday, but the Museo dell’Opera was open. We probably would have never gone here if we had a choice of something else, but it turned out to be fairly interesting. Essentially, it was a huge collection of art from the Duomo, the city’s gigantic cathedral. There was an unfinished Pieta that Michaelangelo had intended for his grave (guess he didn’t get his wish), embossed bronze panels from the doors to the Duomo Baptistry, and loads of religious statues. On the top floor, you could watch workers restoring various items from the collection.

The Pieta by Michelangelo.


From there, we walked across the street to see the cathedral that had generated all of this art. Of course, because most of the art had been moved to the museum, the inside of the cathedral seemed pretty barren. The outside still looked amazing because all the statues that had been taken to the museum were replaced with replicas. It was at least triple the size of St. Mark’s in Venice, and again, I thought for sure that I was in the largest cathedral ever. The paintings on the domed ceiling above the main altar were beautiful; otherwise it was fairly dark inside. We decided to skip paying extra to see the excavated crypts underneath, the separate Baptistry and the bell tower.




After a break for coffee, we were off to another church – the Basilica di San Lorenzo, which contained art from the Medici family collection. One of the pieces was an altar by Donatello. Attached to the church was a crypt containing some of the Medici family members and their religious “treasure.”

Like Venice, Florence was a charming place to just walk around. We made our way across the Arno River on the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) which hardly feels like a bridge because it’s closed in on both sides with jewelry shops. We had to kill some time shopping before the restaurants opened, which led to an unfortunate incident with dog poop. I’ll spare you the details.


A view from a bridge over the Arno River



The White Boar, or Osterio del Cinghiale Bianco, was highly recommended by my parents and, dare I say it, even worth having to walk through dog poop to get to. The ribolta (bread soup) was delicious and inspired me to take my own stab at making it when I got home. (The recipe I found online actually tasted pretty similar!) Seth enjoyed his lamb and I had a variation of bistec florentina, a thinly sliced version served with lettuce, tomatoes and olive oil. As if that wasn’t enough, I stopped for strawberry gelato on the walk home.


Day 5 – Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2008 – FLORENCE

Amazingly, we only had to wait about 15 minutes before getting into the renowned Ufizzi art gallery. It’s certainly the most incredible collection of Renaissance art that I’ve ever seen. Boticelli’s famous “Venus” seemed kind of faded in person, but I was very impressed with some of his other pieces there, especially a “Virgin and Child” scene that had rich dark colors and gold details worked into the women’s hair and robes. Works by Perugino, Leonardo and Tiziano were other highlights. The audio tour was worth the extra 8 euros. Seth got a bit overloaded by all the religious art about halfway through so he spent part of the time on the second floor terrace, which had a nice view of the skyline.


On the Ufizzi terrace


After that, we picked up paninis at a street stand and watched the daredevil pigeons creep up to us in search of crumbs as we ate them on a curb at the Piazza Signora. Then, we walked to the synagogue in the eastern part of town. It was a huge Moorish-style building made of pink and green marble. Inside, the walls were decorated with patterns in all kinds of deep colors. It was the biggest sanctuary I’d ever seen. I thought it was beautiful, though Seth said it felt too much like a church. A small museum on the top two floors contained some artifacts and a mini Holocaust memorial.


From there, we walked to the Accademia del’Arte to see Michaelango’s “David.” It was a small place compared to the Ufizzi, with a lot of the same gold-gilded religious iconic art. But the David was well-worth seeing. Who would’ve thought that a man made of stone could be so hot? I also drooled over a music exhibit that included at least two Stradivarius violins. I just need one of those and I’m set for life.




After a break at the hotel, we took a long walk to Osteria de Benci for dinner. We started with an excellent white bean and garlic bruschetta. They only sell steaks there by the kilogram, so Seth and I shared a piece that actually weighed 1.3 kg. That’s 2.9 pounds!!! Granted, that’s before it was cooked, but still. Good thing we had such a long walk back to start working it off.


Well, cooked is maybe an understatement. Yuck.

This living room set was randomly out on the street. Seth is demonstrating what the little figure on the Italian exit signs looks like.


Day 6 – Wednesday, Jan. 9 – FLORENCE


We started the day at the Bargello, which had a ton of great sculptures, most from the schools of Michaelangelo and Donatello. Donatello’s campy bronze “David” was in restoration, but they had the work area set up in the middle of the gallery so that you could watch the process and hear about it from a tour guide standing there. The miniature “practice” sculptures and super-small ivory carvings were also amazing. Seth’s favorite was a bronze “Mercury.”


The courtyard of the Bargello



Next, we went to the Pitti Palace, which has something like six separate museum collections. We got a package that included two art galleries and restored “apartments” of the royalty who once lived there. Before entering the Galleria Palatina, there was a nice special exhibit but of course we can’t remember the painter’s name anymore. The Palatina was especially spectacular because the rooms themselves were works of art. In fact, the rooms were almost more impressive than the paintings that were packed on their walls. Every ceiling had a mural, many with elaborate borders that were painted with so much depth that we wondered if there was real texture. Several rooms had huge chandeliers dangling over beautiful inlaid marble tables. I was aggravated because it seemed like they kept closing sections of the gallery without warning. If they hadn’t finally reopened one hallway, we would’ve missed a third of the rooms. I think we also missed the whole section of “Tapestry Apartments” that were supposed to be attached to the “Apartmenti Real.” Grr.


After a break for late lunch at a random trattoria down the block, we came back for the “modern art” gallery upstairs. In this case, modern meant 1800-1940s. Many of the later artists (Cisoni and Michele Gigione) reminded me of other famous impressionists such as Renior and Cezanne, but of course, all of these guys were Italian. Only a couple of rooms in this gallery were closed, but also the winter apartments and the costume gallery. Again, I was peeved. But Seth was already arted-out by then, so we took a bus to Piazzale Michelangelo for an overlook of the city. Other than the view and a hideous copper replica of the David, there wasn’t much to see up there. We had to wait a while for the bus back because it only came every half hour. Since we didn’t really know the routes, we took a meandering tour of the city until we ended up back in the downtown where we found another random trattoria for dinner. This one was actually pretty good. I had ravioli in a walnut cream sauce and Seth did the tourist menu which came with salad, wine, spaghetti, steak and fruit. The steak was surprisingly juicy considering that it was actually cooked until it turned brown! We checked out some bars on the way back to the hotel. A place called Noir had a free buffet but the drinks looked overpriced and we didn’t feel hip enough to hang out there. So we backtracked to the center of downtown where we finished the night with dessert wine and coco gelato.




Day 7 – Thursday, Jan. 10 – ROME


By train, it was only an hour and a half to get to Rome. Figuring out how to get from the station there to our hotel was a much more stressful experience. With the help of a transit system information booth, we figured out a direct route on the red metro line. The Hotel Cicerone was fairly standard compared to our last two. From there, we took a bus to the Colosseum area. We walked around the forum; Seth listening to his audio guide and me occasionally glomming onto tour group guides. The Arch of Titus was definitely better in person, as was the Colosseum. It was so cool to be walking around all these historical places that I’d studied back in high school.



The Arch of Titus

Forum ruins

Exterior of the Colosseum


Interior of the Colosseum



We passed another excavation site – the Foro Imperiali – as well as the “Wedding Cake” monument to a former leader. We stopped in two churches, then walked past the government buildings and found a tourist info booth on Nacionale Street. The restaurant we were looking for was closed, so we settled for pizza. We shopped for an hour or so, then took the metro back to our hotel area where we found a cute bar that turned out to be a great deal. They had a free buffet that included desserts from their pastry case, plus very nice waiters.



Seth with the Arch of Constantine behind him.



Day 8 – Friday, Jan. 11 – ROME


In the morning, we rode the bus back to the Colosseum area to see Palatine Hill, which we didn’t have time to do the day before. I’m glad we came back because the gardens were much more extensive than I had expected and included palace ruins, a small museum and a great view of the city.



We hailed a cab from there to the synagogue hoping to take the 12:30 p.m. ghetto tour, but it turned out to be an hour later and we’d already reserved a time slot to visit the Borguese art museum that afternoon. Since we were already there, we went to the museum, which included entrance to the main synagogue and a smaller one in the basement that’s used by the Spanish Jews. The museum was much more comprehensive than the ones we’d seen in Venice and Florence, probably simply because the Jewish community there has always been larger. I liked how the exhibits mentioned if the items had come from one of the five former synagogues in the area and pointed out nuances of the Roman Jewish community. For example, they didn’t put Mezuzzahs on their doors. I can’t remember why. Both of the synagogues we saw had incorporated pieces of the five original synagogues. I especially enjoyed just walking around the ghetto. Since it was Shabbat, the Jewish day school had ended early and all the kids seemed to be out in the street with their parents. We saw at least four kosher restaurants including a fast food joint. I was so excited to be able to eat a beef hot dog in the land of pancetta.




We wandered around for a while trying to figure out which bus would take us to the Villa Borguese, but it seemed like there was no direct route so we took another cab instead. Here again, the setting was art in and of itself. The two hours we were allotted was just the right amount of time to take in both floors of the refurbished mansion. The first floor highlighted sculptor Canova. I didn’t know much about him beforehand, but was quickly impressed with his gift for capturing emotion and movement in a still moment. Other classical sculptures looked stiff and boring next to his work. The paintings upstairs were more of the same subject matter but the opulant ceiling frescoes and fancy furnishings made it more interesting.



A building near the Bourguese



Finding the correct bus route to the Pantheon was a bit of a challenge, but we somehow made it. It seemed to rise up out of nowhere in the middle of a city plaza. A lot of Rome was like that – modern city built right on top of and around ruins. It didn’t take long to look around the Pantheon, which is considered the most complete ruin from ancient Rome. It was turned into a church, which helped its preservation.



We walked to the Piazza Navona to admire the fountains and critique an amateur opera singer. We window-shopped at some antique stores and a place that carried beauty products based on recipes that monks developed hundreds of years ago. You’d think the hand cream was blessed by the pope at 25 euros for a tiny little container. Eventually, we found our way to Maccharoni for dinner. I almost led us way out of the way on our walk back to the hotel, but Seth caught me. Apparently, I need to work on differentiating streets from bridges. We finished the night listening to a live local band at a bar called Fonclea. It was an older crowd, but still fun.


Day 9 – Saturday, Jan. 10, 2008 – ROME


The Vatican museum was probably the busiest of any of the tourist attractions we visited on our trip. It was like herding cattle to get through the exhibits leading up to the famous Sistine Chapel. Again, beautiful ceilings in all the rooms. I loved seeing Rafael’s frescoes up close, more pieces I’d studied in high school. The modern art section was a good break from the crowds, though it seemed a little out of place amid all the historic stuff. Seth wasn’t as awed by the Sistine Chapel as he thought he’d be. It was hard to appreciate the detail in the paintings because they were so high on the ceiling. Plus, it’s almost overwhelming because there’s so much art in one space. But I loved how Michelangelo painted a guy who criticized his work as the devil. That’s priceless.


My favorite of the Raphael frescoes


The Pinoteca art gallery was mostly religious iconography though a Raphael painting stood out as well as some realistic looking animal paintings. We went through two long hallways filled with sculptures as well as the official sculpture collection and the Egyptian collection. We probably only got through about half of the massive museum, but what we missed were mostly religious artifacts and Vatican history.

Finding a place to eat nearby was difficult because it was already past the Italian lunchtime serving hours. We ended up a snack shop that turned out to be a total rip-off, including a $9 soda! I guess that’s what we get for trying to eat outside one of the most famous places in the world. It was raining fairly hard on our way to the Basilica of St. Peters. Now this was truly the largest church I had ever seen – it’s got to be the largest in the world. Inside it was just decadent – marble floors and statues everywhere, including Michelangelo’s famous “Pieta.” We also saw the crypt below where some past popes were entombed and fought through throngs of obnoxious Asian ladies in the gift shop.


A (crooked) picture of the Basilica

La Pieta


It was already dark by then, but we hadn’t seen the Spanish Steps yet so we headed that way. It wasn’t as pretty as the springtime pictures I’d seen, mostly because the church at the top was partially blocked by construction scaffolding. That was one downside of traveling in the off-season – it seemed like a lot of places were trying to finish up renovations before the busy tourist season. We climbed up the steps and peeked into the church. Then, we gradually made our way to the Trevi Fountain, stopping at shops along the way. We each threw two coins into the fountain (after Seth missed on his first try) according to tradition: One for a return trip to Rome, the other to “assure” that our wish would come true.


Seth wanted to see the Colosseum at night so we again bumbled around trying to find the right bus. Rome definitely had the most complicated transportation of the three cities. We got there fine but then ended up going the wrong direction on our way back. Finally, we found our way back on the metro. We spent our last night in Italy back at the little bar near our hotel, a romantic end to a vacation that went by much too quickly.