Sunday, November 30, 2014

il nostro ultimo giorno in Italia

We slept in a little barely making it to breakfast by 10.

We mapped out our plan while we had the hotel wifi. By the way, I figured this out in Florence that you can download a city in Tripadvisor so you can look up restaurants and attractions without internet!

Our hotel is in the Cannaregio. So we set out to explore some other areas of Venice.  We walked through Piazzale Roma and Dorsoduro districts. We visited   Campo San Barnaba. This is where Katherine Hepburn fell into the rio in 'Summertime' and also where a portion of 'Indiana Jones and last Crusade' was filmed. We enjoyed some pizzas at Al Profeta (Calle Lunga San Barnaba Dorsoduro, 2771). Thanks Shannon For the recommendation! We split two pizzas between the four of us- we finally have figured out the portions that fit our budget and bellies.  We bought an italian type angel food cake for our early breakfast tomorrow. We leave at crack of dawn!  After lunch, we returned to the nearby Campo San Barnaba so kids could have some gelato at Grom.

Another tip we figured out late was to use restrooms in fancy hotel lobbies! Just pretend you know where you are going. :)

We went back to Piazza San Marco to see it in daytime (don't go here if you have a fear of pigeons!) and spent probably too many Euros to take the elevator (no stairs to take) to the top of the Campinale (bell tower) that was originally a lighthouse. Great views! Supposedly can see the Alps from here but it was overcast.

We saw the two columns and then the Bridge of Sighs which connects the prison to Doge's Palace.  We took turns going through the gratis areas of the Palace since otherwise you have to check your bag which was a little out of the way.

The rain picked up so we scooted in a bar for drinks and free wifi.  Then shopped our way back to the hotel to make arrangements for our early departure.

We bought one way tix for airport shuttle bus for the 5 am departure. We have a 15 min walk in the morning with our luggage..thank goodness we packed light with room to spare for the new gifts and mementos.

We found a great place on tripadvisor for our last dinner. It was near the Jewish Ghetto and close to our hotel but in an alley off the beaten track. Lots of locals. The waiter really wanted us to like everything. He brought us complimentary Prosecco and later bruschetta. We all had great meals! Ravioli, spaghetti pescatore, mussels/clams, grilled shrimp...and we shared a few desserts.  Probably our best overall meal.

During dinner we talked about our bests of the trip...

Pizza - Gusta in Florence (great value too)

Pasta- Rome Il Girasole ravioli with truffle and Bentigodi Chef Domenico in Venice 

Gelato - Eduardo near Duomo in Florence

City- Florence

Attractions- Rome - Forum & Colosseum

Church- Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Cathedral 

Hotel- Florence Della Nazioni 

Ambiance- Venice and Florence

Shopping - Florence - leather!

Beverage -House reds

Best looking italian men and women Venice

After dinner, we said goodbye to our new friends Phil and Morgan from Chicago and finished packing....

P.S.Christmas is still pretty muted here but did see the Venice version of Big Johns Xmas trees...

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Lost in Venice

We took our train to Venice which took about two hours. The initial impression of Venice impressed us all.  Our next spot Hotel Villa Rosa is convenient to the train station in the Cannaregio district...about a 30 min walk to Piazza San Marco ...assuming you know where your going.

After dropping our bags we grabbed lunch with Phil & her daughter Morgan. We sat outside overlooking a canal. 

After we did some shopping...the Murano glass is beautiful. 'They' say you should get lost in Venice. No problem. We wandered for a bit then stopped for a drink....wandered quite a bit to find Piazza San Marco...stopped for a drink and wandered some more. Venice has like 400 bridges and we'd count them down as we walked. Each is unique in its own way.  

Tripadvisor ratings confirmed our spot for dinner- Antico Calice (calle degli stagneri, 5228. We all had homemade pasta with seafood. 

We decided we were done walking for now so found our way to the Rialto Bridge and took a vaporetta to the train station stop.

We are so happy we are ending our trip in Venice...the pace is very chill. It was good that we stopped in Rome first while we had the energy. Since there is so much to see..them Florence slowed us down a bit and Venice is a terrific finale.

Friday, November 28, 2014

La dolce la niente (the sweetness of doing nothing)

We spent our morning walking around Florence. I thought we could see Boboli gardens but it was walled off and we had little time to tour it so...we headed back to train station to catch a tour we booked.

We first had some lunch at La Dantesca (front is off Via Panzani 57/r) back door is off Piazza S. Maria Novella. They are known for pizza ...we know now good sign of pizzeria we like has the brick oven as times we've had it has been our favorites. Here's the oven and one few Xmas trees we've seen...

We booked and caught our 1/2 day Chianti Colours and Flavours bus tour (Ciao Florence brochure at our hotel or Convenient pickup near train station. 158 euros included two wine at a more modern winery and one at a 3rd generation family owned farm and a stop at Greve- a quaint wine village. 

We sampled at least 3 wines at each location and tasted some chianti jelly or olive oils as well.  The tour started at 2:30 the drive out was beautiful even overcast but once we got to second stop it was dusk so no sights on way back. Our bus was maybe 1/4 full. My recommendation for future visitors is to look into booking a private tour to visit the Chianti region. Probably would have cost same and have more freedom.

When we got back this evening we ate at a restaurant near our hotel called Il Portale (Via Luigi Alamanni, 29r). The waiter insisted on ordering for Jason (ravioli with boar stew on top) and brought him a complimentary limoncello after dessert. Natalie loved her mussels and chocolate pie. Jacob had hard time finishing his spicy pomodora penne dish but managed to eat his chocolate Nutella cake. I enjoyed lasagna forno.

We packed up our new treasures and gifts from Florence tonight in prep for departure to Venice tomorrow.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Our non traditional Thanksgiving

It started out rainy but the day recovered fast.  If you can enjoy a city in the rain you know you'd love it even more in nicer weather. First stop of the day...the Accademia to see Michaelangelo's Statue of David before tours rolled in.  Feels strange to take a family picture with a naked guy but it had to be done. By the way he looks good on the backside as well.

Our student friend from last night recommended Eduardo a Gelateria in the back right of the Duomo. We were their first customers of the day. They open at 11 but were in no hurry. Their gelato is organic and the best we've had I'd say. We all had white chocolate with a scoop of something else..chocolate or cinnamon.

Eat then work it off! Our Duomo bell tower tix we bought yesterday were good for 24 hours which is great as you can climb steps in both buildings and experience the evening and daytime views.

The Duomo climb is tougher and steeper in spots. During the climb you stop on two levels on the interior of the Duomo. The ceiling frescoes are amazing from near and far! This building is solid or I would have been more scared. Certain heights (usually ones where I can't hold on to anything) bother me so this was far out of my comfort zone but lots of self talk and womaning up for my kids worked for me. We climbed up breaking a full on sweat! Reached the top and witnessed the sun coming out! We snapped lots of pictures! Then on the descend we decided we could live here. Kids said their friends could visit them, Jason can put in for European transfer and I'm sure I could figure out how to give private tours in English....or sell selfie sticks or umbrellas.

Next up was the leather market near Lorenzo square. At first you feel like you are getting had but we got better at haggling. The boys bought wallets and Italian hats. Natalie and I bought handbags and a belt to share. Then we splurged big time on a leather jacket for Natalie (it's amazing on her and fits me too)...we got a great 'student price'. She'll have it forever we rationalized. Once Jason was numb to spending, I got a super nice leather tote for my laptop (dear Aarons...I may need a smaller laptop if my monstrosity HP doesn't fit in my new bag!). We are styling!  Walking our of the market I basically had to look down so I could stop the shopping madness!

We returned to Trattoria Mario (tried to go last night but only open for lunch) near Mercantale Centrale. It's a poplar place but we got a table (I keep wondering how crazy these places would be in summer and thankful for all we get to do without much wait).  You order the bistek florentine by the kilo so had to trust the waitress got the right amount for us. This was our big thanksgiving meal after all!  Roasted potatoes and wine too of course. They show you the meat before they cook it and don't ask you how to cook it- they know best. Chef Mario's hat had 'no coke with steak!' written in In English with sharpie. Jacob got worried but I said that was for adult Americans only.  Some parts of the steak were more amazing than others but we all enjoyed it and the ambiance.

Came back to hotel to stop bags and regroup.  Jason chatted with his mom to wish her Happy Thanksgiving!

Then we headed out to see and cross Ponte Vecchio. Tons of fancy shops on the way there way out of our budget...the bridge was covered in high end jewelry shops.

Time for dinner! We heard much about Gusto Pizza so we had to find out if it's the best pizza ever. It's definitely yummy and a great value. 5 euros for a mm fresh margherita pizza. They open only at lunch and then 3 hours at dinner. Again we were the first there at 7pm and there was a line behind us. Food Network's Guy Fieri had visited there and the man taking orders was so proud and showed us his pictures on his phone. Later the same guy drew Natalie a map when she inquired about his favorite Gelateria.

It was about a 15 min walk (we've walked 22,000 steps today! Over 10 mikes!). The gelato place calked Vivaldi was so cozy in the back with couches and free wifi so we Facetimed my mom to wish her Happy Thanksgiving!

Then we walked back to hotel. Things look to wind down much earlier in Florence.  Jason and I split a bottle of chianti while visiting with our travel cohorts Phil and daughter Morgan in the hotel bar.  The kids enjoyed the chatter as well- we've all become way more chill  in less than 7 days.  

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Firenze agrees with us

Arividerchi Roma!

We got a taste of Rome's traffic this morning headed to the train station...but made our train to Florence. We bought coach tickets as part of our package (not fast tix) figuring the trip was only an hour and a half (and only stopped 2x before)...and as a family we wouldn't know what we were missing. Everyone slept except me (probably the cappuchino) which allowed me to finish my bookclub book. 

We noticed right away in Florence the pace is more chill, people ride bikes everywhere, beautiful sights in every direction (even on this overcast and later drizzly day) and town is less overwhelming...although we still manage to get lost. But getting lost when you have no where to really be is fun!

Our hotel is 3 star (hotel Delle Nazioni) and located literally a block behind the train station. Convenient location and popular spot for many hotels. They boast themselves as an "Internet Hotel" which seems funny since all hotels really need to be in 2014. We were pleased to have two separate rooms again! No view and decor is bit outdated but we've got a framed print of Jim Morrison shirtless on our wall...and a toilet with a powerful flush.  Overall clean and meets our needs.

First thing we did was eat of course!  Jason found a great restaurant on Yelp called Trattoria da Giorgio (Via Palazzuolo 100 rosso). They basically just offer a fixed price menu. 13 euros a piece included bread served in a brown paper bag, a half liter of wine, a first course of pasta, a second course of meat and a side dish. We all loved our pasta dishes, Kids really loved their ravioil. Only bust was Natalie ordered salmon as her meat course thinking it would be grilled salmon but it was cold and thin like lox.  The roasted potatoes with olive oil and rosemary had me reaching my fork over to Jacob's plate to help him out.  We also met a nice American couple who had just been to Venice- they shared tips with us and since they were headed to Rome next we just shared our blog. 

We figured the best way to get our bearings and because we already paid for it as part of our pkg...we'd catch the double decker hop on and off Sightseeing Florence bus. There are two lines. We took the one today that drive around the perimeter of Florence and up into the surrounding hills to a town called Fiesole. The bus stops there for 30 min to allow you time to see the church and take pics. We grabbed some hot drinks to go. 

We got off the bus around city center and walked through piazza San Marco (the church was closed) and ended up at the Duomo...amazing architecture and so ornate looking from the outside. We still are wondering 'how' these amazing buildings are everywhere.  

It started to drizzle so we bought tickets to hike the bell tower. It was like we paid for a great workout class...414 steps up and 414 down. Great evening view at the top. Tickets are good for 24 hours so we can climb it again in daytime.

Natalie and I have a list if leather goods we man to acquire. Jacob on a hint for the ultimate wallet. We browsed a few shops but know we need to head to the markets.

The rain suggested we park ourselves in a wifi bar. I had my first limoncello which was strong but tasty. 

After, we headed to a restaurant found on tripadvisor but didn't notice that it was closed for dinner so we hopped back online (we use data plan sparingly) and found a great option...Osteria Pepo (Via Rosina, 4/6r off Piazza del Mercato Centrale). Loved the complimentary Prosecco when we sat down. Jason's meatball dish was amazing and Jacob's beef in some tasty gravy was a hit. Natalie enjoyed her pasta and clams. Mine was the least favorite but still great. Eggplant and pasta with ricotta. We make friends almost everywhere we go...tonight we sat next to about 8 college girls who were dining with one gals visiting family...the family was from East Cobb. Girls were all from NYU or Rhodes. They shared lots of shopping tips and claimed they have all gained the Firenze 15 similar to the freshman 15.  We talked about how Christmas hype is non existent here and some girls shared that they would be going to Hard Rock Cafe tomorrow for the traditional Thanksgiving fixings. No doubt if I had to do it over again I would have studied abroad.  Our kids definitely want to- they have been bitten by the travel bug!

We decided to make it an early night tonight so we could have a full day here tomorrow and maybe do a day excursion on Friday.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Roaming in Rome

Last day in Rome...we decided to hit the highlights we missed.

First up we went to monument Victorio Emmanuele II...first lingering among the ruins outside the Forum and then we headed to the glass elevator. Well worth the $21 or so to get the panoramic view of Rome....which included all the sights we have seen. 

After this, we headed back to the Parthenon to see the interior and the building in daylight. Amazing detail! After we walked to Piazza Navona to see the fountains and this famous site for La Dolce Vita. 

Enjoyed some gelato at Grom and people watching and then walked to the Jewish Ghetto or Ghetto Ebraico where we saw synagogue ruins and stopped for drinks. 

After this I got us lost after crossing the Tiber in Trastevere. I think we entered this bohemian village all wrong but we ended up at Baccanale Trastevere (via della lungaretta 81) where many Italians were gathered for the big soccer fame -Italia vs Russia. 

We ate here and had several cocktails while visiting with a young couple from Holland - Lowmae and Bobby.  We exchanged lots of info about our cultures from cost of living, smoking, thoughts on Rome, university, politics and even cleaning help. I felt rich and spoiled explaining that we had this much square feet and someone to help me clean! In the midst of all this fun I I saw a rat race under our table and theirs while advising the world to raise up their feet! Guess this was norm for Italians and the Indian vendors selling their treasures nearby as they just laughed and laughed. We lingered there even after the rat vacated the premises. Then took a cab home. I expected to pack and fall asleep but when Jason and I headed to lobby for next day train info we ended up buying drinks and met a new mother daughter duo (Phil and Morgsn) who was also on the 'Travelzoo special' and headed to se spots as us. They have used TravelZoo to are much of the world! 

Some have asked how italian men are treating us.  Italian men prefer Natalie...they walk by her making eye contact the whole time. Natalie says they aren't 'smooth'.

It's also hard to tell Christmas is about a  month away. You just don't see the decor, lights, santas and such that you do in US around this time of year.

Weather has been perfect and look forward to Florence tomorrow.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Buon Natale kids!!!

Every now and then we tell the kids "Merry Christmas" or "HappyHanukkah" as this is definitely a gift that keeps giving to these kids and we need them to remember how spoiled they are once December 25 comes and there is little to unwrap but great memories.

We started our day after breakfast grabbing the metro again...big oops that Natalie and I boarded a train without the guys!!!! They were right behind us but didn't make it in before the doors closed.  We had NO euros but thankfully our phones as I knew what stop to get off at. It all worked out but it felt like a movie. Our lunch place was a bust as by time we found it - it wasn't opened...who'd think that a place wouldn't open til 12:30 for lunch???  So we went to Old Bridge Gelateria for a quick snack before our 1pm appointment time. Kids love straticellia gelato's like chocolate chip.  The place was ok- not as great as books say-  and right outside the Vatican wall. The street vendors surrounding the Varican were obnoxious today. We had online tickets (best thing ever...thanks mom!) but the vendors still try to scare you about the wait time and how awesome their personal tours are and by the way you need this ugly scarf or 'selfie' Bluetooth stick so you can use it to take pics of your party.  I was getting mean with my 'no' which made kids laugh. 
(Here's a unauthorized selfie in Sistine Chapel)

What can I say about Vatican museum... so much talent in one building! The map frescoes and gallery of tapestries are a great appetizer and then you see paintings by Raphael, Salvatore Dali, Matisse, Chagall...heard of these guys??? Then after much anticipation of winding through room after room the Sistine Chapel. Bigger than I remembered and still packed with people even in the off season. We quickly retreated from the tour groups and found a bench to take it all in. Normally kids are wanting to rush through this but ours were old enough to really enjoy it. After, we were ready for a lunch break so we looked up a place calked Al Musei (via Santamaura 5/5a) of our best meals...we all shared pizza, spaghetti carbonara, lasagna and Jacob's 'scallopini' he ordered expecting scallops. We all sampled tiramisu for dessert and some complimentary clementines.  Recharged we were ready for St. Peter's Cathedral. The line slightly weaving in the piazza looked worse than it really was. Entrance to the basilica is free but they do scan your belongings on the way in. We chatted with folks in line and read up on the history in the guidebooks while we waited the 30-45 minutes. It's worth the wait! As you walk through these places you wonder how every nook and cranny or sculpture or painting was completed way back when. Michaelangelo's pieta was carved when he was 25! We opted to go into one area which was closed off for prayer only. So peaceful with just a small crowd and several nuns. Emotions were heightened as Jason, the kids and I all prayed for our family's health...particularly for both our moms.  My mom has always wanted to visit Rome. I have to say that this city isn't for the elderly or unfit...cobblestone streets, skinny sidewalks, tons of stairs and mom is here with me in spirit.  

Our hop on hop off pass was good for two days so we opted to trek across town on it with our next destination being Piazza Spagna (Spanish steps). I think about my PSU buddies Erin and Michelle throughout this trip. Spanish steps was one of these spots where it felt like I was there with them a short time ago. But this time we started at the top of the steps and it was evening so the view was lit.  Lots of lingering folks or PDA couples. 

We had some drinks nearby at 'Do bar-Do ris' on Via fellow Carozze. Natalie and Jacob hated their hot chocolate which was like Hershey syrup heated up but we all enjoyed the free wifi break. 

The internet allowed us to scout out on Tripadvisor a good $$ dinner spot. We ended up picking a great one called Il Girasole (Via del Boschetto 28) even if the walk was longer than we thought.  My dish we decided was the best...ravioli with spinach and ricotta in a white truffle sauce. Love is sharing a dish that you just want to face dive in. And somehow Jason chipped a tooth at dinner...wasn't even eating anything hard! After, we metroed home - our first metro at night. Felt safe but decided the cab right to our hotel would have been worth the extra 6 or 7 euros.

More pics later...I don't have many on my phone from earlier today in Vatican or at one awake to share ones they took on theirs!