|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-9|
illos by KURT ERICHSEN
|In the beginning – there was gelato.
I grew up, partly, in an Italian neighborhood. While I’m not Italian, many of our neighbors were from the old country – specifically Sicily – and had brought their customs and food with them. Besides the wonderful Italian restaurants, they also had cafes featuring espresso and gelato. Ah, gelato, often called Italian ice cream, made daily on the premises of the café. The “Italian ice” sold in grocery stores are just flavored frozen water. Real gelato is a frozen confection that prefects ice cream.
It’s been a long time since I’ve had real gelato, so when Rich and I decided to spend 10 days in Italy, I was determined to sample that favorite treat in its true form. And see some of the great world art and architecture, for good measure.
A Trip to Remember – Getting There
It could not have been a better day if we had planned it. Rich and I had some of the best gelato in the world, the weather was hot, but not oppressive, and we’re listening to excellent classical guitar being played by a Polish musician outside the Uffizi Museum in the incredible city of Florence. We had been in Italy for five days with five more to go and we didn’t want it to end. Or at least not leave Florence. We could only smile, considering how badly the trip began.
Trading in airplane miles will get you a free ticket, but you will be put on either the fullest planes or the least full planes. And you will have a stopover somewhere. Our flight from Washington to Frankfort was full and we (that is to say, I) got to sit next to the thing more feared on a flight than the emergency exit aisle – the Unaccompanied Minor. In this case, it was a German boy, 10 or 11, I guess (I finally realized why adults ask children how old they are – so they know how to deal with them). He had limited English, a backpack of soda pop, chocolate, and cookies, and several wrestling action figures he played smack down with when he was bored. Which was most of the time. On an 8-plus hour flight.
The plane was an older one with small TV screens positioned around the ceiling – one of which flickered and rolled much of the time - and toilets that stopped working one at a time as we grew closer to our destination. Yes, a flight to remember.
And Frankfort (Germany) Airport is probably one of the lower Circles of Hell. At least it seems that way if you’re trying to breathe. For a “No Smoking” airport there is plenty of smoking going on. Every café has a “smoking” and “no smoking” section, as we used to see in the U.S., with nothing separating the parts. There is a “smoking lounge” in the middle of one of the corridors, where anxious fliers gathered around a counter selling cigarettes and puffing away. No walls or chairs, just there in the middle of the corridor.
We sat for over an hour at the gate with my lungs and throat burning, worrying this would be a portent of things to come. The flight to Rome was in a nearly empty smaller plane. We flew over the Alps and, after several glasses of water, I felt better. We landed at the Leonardo da Vinci Airport, a poor imitation of the Frankfort Airport, and made our way via train and subway (called Metro) to the stop near our hotel.
Livin’ the Roman Way
We had booked our hotels on the internet after researching them on tripadvisor.com as well as looking at their websites. We settled on Les Chambres d’Or as our place to stay in Rome. It’s a B&B near the Vatican as well as a metro stop. On a quiet neighborhood street, it was in our price range and came recommended by someone Rich worked with. That said, we really didn’t know what to expect.
We found the door with a “Les Chambres d’Or” plaque, but it turned out that the lobby was across the street in a café. The hotel staff was very nice, checked us in, and offered us complementary drinks, which we accepted, while our bags were taken to the room. It was mid afternoon, we had been traveling since the day before, and it was pleasant sitting outside watching the world walk by. We decided to have dinner there, it was a café after all, and go over to the Vatican to catch a late Mass.
So we asked the waiter to hold our places, ordered dinner, and followed the bellman to our room, which turned out to be in an apartment building on a cross street. The door of the building opened to a long hallway ending in an open courtyard, complete with a garden and park benches. The apartments were around this open center, which was well maintained. We got into the old, ornate, and very small elevator for a trip to the second floor, where the hotel rooms were located. We received the keys to the apartment building, the “hotel” on the second floor, our room, the electricity, and the room safe. Our room was the one directly across from the main door and not the best choice. But the room was the standard size for the price – small – with a TV and air conditioning. It turned out to be reasonably quiet, as long as you were planning to get up at the same time the maids started working.
We found out later we were actually staying in Hotel Catone, named after the street. It was cheaper than Les Chambres d’Or and not as roomy. I think it was deceptive to book us into one hotel when we were actually staying in a lesser place. However, it was inexpensive and acceptable. And the breakfast at the hotel lobby/café was included with the room and was very good.
We changed our clothes and brought out the “tour guide” of our trip - Rick Steves’ Italy 2007 – a brick of a book, which we called “Rick The Brick” for the rest of our trip. Thus prepared, we had our first meal in Rome and walked the five blocks to the Vatican.
While there are no border crossing guards to enter the Vatican (it is a separate country), there was security for St. Peter’s Basilica as well as a dress code – no bare shoulders, no bare midriffs, no bare thighs. My legs were covered, so I put on the unlined jacket I brought with me to cover my bare shoulders. I should have brought the shawl I had, but I was tired. It was hot, very hot and I sweltered. I finally dumped the jacket and draped a large scarf (which a lot of women were using as cover) over my shoulders. We not only saw all the magnificent art in the Basilica (such as Michelangelo’s Pieta), but we attended the 5:00 pm Altar of the Chair (Vespers followed by Mass), which was pretty special. And all in Italian.
Following Rick The Brick’s commentary, we enjoyed seeing St. Peter’s and walking around the Square. We also encountered one of the first of the many free, drinkable water fountains in Rome. Rome is build on aquifers and the city has many water fountains, potable water, around the city. We only had to buy water once and filled up our bottles at the fountains. The same aquifers also power the many fountains in Rome, most of which were built before the electric pump.
Since we only had two full days in Rome, despite being tired, we hopped the Metro to the stop for the Trevi Fountain. We walked around a bit before we found the place as there are no streets that directly approach it. Fortunately there are signs at street corners that point toward the main attractions. I loved the Trevi Fountain; what a lively place! The areas was packed with people and vendors, but we managed to wind our way down to the edge of the fountain for a photo op of the ritual of tossing a coin over my shoulder into the fountain, assuring a return to Rome. For all the art history I’ve read, it never occurred to me that the Trevi Fountain was attached to the back of a building. It’s pretty magnificent, even if you can’t walk around it.
We walked back to the Metro station we had come from and found it closed. One of the waiters at a near by restaurant told us about a bus that followed the Metro route. We hopped on it a few minutes later. It was crowded, as most people had expected the Metro to be open. It was supposed to close at 11:30 PM. We found out later that line was closed at 9 each night for repairs. Rich recognized our stop and we got out at the right place. We were exhausted when we returned to our pied a terre, but eager for our first full day in Rome, The Eternal City, after a good night’s sleep.
Walking the Pilgrim Path
The next day started with a wonderful breakfast at the hotel café, with the first of many, many cappuccinos and a variety of cold cereal, pastries, sandwiches, yogurt, fruit juices, and fresh fruit. We had a chat with a Canadian couple at the café the night before who said they had gotten in line for the Vatican Museum at about 7 AM and waited about 2 hours for the place to open. Once it opened, they got in after about 15 minutes. Well, we were pretty tired from our trip, so we slept in and didn’t join the queue lining the Vatican wall (remember Mission Impossible III?) until about 9:30 AM to get into the Vatican Museum and, ultimately, the Sistine Chapel. While, thanks to Rick The Brick we had reservations and could skip lines elsewhere in our trip, we did not take that option with the Vatican Museum. I think the time was too short between our going there and the time frame for reservations. We didn’t know what the weather was going to be like and didn’t want to be stuck touring ancient Rome in the rain.
The line for the Vatican Museum went around the corner (which turned out to be the first of three corners) and was the width of the wide sidewalk. And packed with people. Fortunately, the line moved at a continuous slow walk, so the two and a half hours spent on line didn’t seem that bad. We had water, Rick The Brick, and a couple from Glasgow, Scotland, who we talked with for about 2 of the hours. They were on a package tour and staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Rome. They had been dropped off early in the day and did the St. Peter’s Dome climb first thing in the morning. Unfortunately, they were expected at the pick up point at noon and had to leave after waiting about 2 hours.
The Vatican Museum was incredible and totally worth the wait. I’d do it again, even though it is a several mile walk. And the Sistine Chapel was more magnificent than any pictures, as photos lack the scale. I’m probably one of the few people to be interested in not only the walls and ceiling, but the floor. The floor of the Sistine Chapel is a mosaic of what we know as quilt blocks, Hole in the Barn Door, Ohio Star, Square in the Square, Lemoyne Star, and Flying Geese. People were asked to be quiet and not take pictures, so we did not get a photo. Italy turned out to be a quilter’s tour, with quilt blocks everywhere. We also took advantage of the Vatican Post Office by buying and mailing a few post cards from there.
After the tour, we decided to eat at the cafeteria there, even though Rick The Brick said it was pricy. Well, we didn’t think so and it was an opportunity to sit and eat. Rich got a salad, which he liberally dressed with vinegar and olive oil, and I got a cheese plate, after Rich said he would try all the cheeses. Both were good and to my surprise, Rich even said he liked the cheese. Unfortunately, we didn’t find any more hard cheeses for him to sample in our travels.
We talked briefly with a couple from the Midwest who were driving around in Italy, to ultimately end up in Slovakia, where the wife’s family was from. They had not been back there since the Soviets had left, so they were looking forward to it.
Now, we do not drive when we travel, we use public transportation, taxis, or walk. We walked a lot on this trip as well as taking the subway in Rome and Milan. Florence was compact enough to walk most places. We occasionally saw a tourist (we guessed) driving and they did not look happy. In Florence a van passed us at least twice, with three very unhappy people in it. Rome was very spread out, so we used public transportation and walked a lot.
After being refreshed, we got in line to do the Dome climb to the cupola. We took an elevator to the roof of the nave, which gave a great view of St Peter’s interior. One is only allowed to go part way around and there are large nets, but you can see the people below and hear things going on. From there, there are stairs that go to the roof of St. Peter’s, which has a great view as well as a gift shop and restroom. (There is no way to get out of any museum in Europe, except thru the gift shop. I’m not complaining, just explaining.) Like Washington, D.C., Rome limits the height of modern buildings, so there is no modern skyline, giving it a timeless quality. After taking in the view on the roof, we approached the stairway to the cupola. Signs at the ticket line stressed the climb was long.
And they were not kidding, that it was quite a climb to the cupola. It’s 323 inward sloping steps (this is inside a dome, after all) up a very narrow one-way staircase with very few resting spots. If you have trouble with spiral staircases, you should skip this, unless you have the overwhelming desire to see Rome from a vantage point higher than St. Peter’s roof. And it was hot. Once we got on the cupola, it was shoulder to shoulder up there. We managed to get a few photos before wiggling our way back through the crowd to the exit. People were only allowed to exit a few at a time, so it took a while before we could climb back down the sloping narrow steps to the roof and then wait for the elevator down.
Once back on earth, we checked out a few of the souvenir shops as well as the Mosaic stores we had seen the day before ringing the square. I’ve been collecting mosaic pins and pendants for several years and I usually find them in antique shops and flea markets here. In Italy, they are found in souvenir shops! I think I was a little disappointed to learn that.
We went into two shops specializing in mosaics of the high end variety. The jewelry was very nice, but the real gems were the “paintings” done with minute pieces of glass to make the image. Unless you looked closely, it looked like a painting. And the prices for these pieces were pretty high.
In one of the souvenir shops, I bought two mosaic pendants I felt would add to my collection. We also bought a bunch of souvenirs. It was time for dinner, as the Vatican took the whole day.
While waiting on line, several of the nearby restaurants had passed out their menus. They had several fixed priced meals and we considered doing that, so we looked at several places before settling on one. We started our practice of getting the house wine, when the restaurant had one, at dinner. We only had one bad meal in Italy and that was in Milan.
La Dolce Vita Walk
We decided to spend our evening doing a bit of the Dolce Vita Stroll recommended by Rick The Brick. We took the A train to the Flaminio stop and emerged onto the Piazza Del Popolo. This car-free square has an obelisk in the center, which was originally in the Circus Maximus, which was brought to Rome by Augustus after he conquered Egypt. Santa Marie de Popolo church is on the square and has Raphael’s Chigi Chapel and two painting by Caravaggio, but it was closed by the time we got there. We walked the Via Del Corso again to a cross street that lead us to the Spanish Steps.
Like the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps are a major meeting and hanging out place. Unfortunately, the column at the top of the Steps and the front of the Spanish Embassy (which gives the Steps its name) were covered in scaffolding. Oh, well. After walking around a bit, we decided to call it a night. The Metro had closed early again, so we got a taxi back.
Doing the Caesar Shuffle
Tuesday, the weather was still beautiful and very warm as we had a great breakfast and got ready to explore ancient Rome with the Roman Forum/Coliseum walk, AKA the Caesar Shuffle. We had to cross the Tiber and take the second Metro line for the Coliseum stop. Rome has two Metro lines – A and B, with A going roughly north and south and B going east and west, crossing only at Termini railway station. We had been riding on A around town and it was time to ride the B line. Where A was new, clean, shinny, quiet and well maintained, B was old, covered in graffiti (which covers a lot of Rome - one way I recognized our building was by the graffiti), loud, and a bit clunky. When those doors snapped shut, you knew the warnings about losing a limb if caught were true. They want to add more Metro lines, but keep finding ancient ruins every time they try to dig a new line.
We walked out the Metro station and there was ancient Rome, or what’s left of it. Thanks to Rick The Brick, we knew not to wait in line at the Coliseum for tickets, but walk past the Arch of Constantine on the Palatine Hill to a ticket booth where one can buy tickets. You only need tickets to the Coliseum and the rest is free. (NOTE: This changed this summer – Palatine Hill is no longer free and requires a ticket.) What Rick The Brick did not tell me was how poor the walking would be. The roads, or paths, were large stones with a space between them. I heard a guide telling a tour group that the wagon wheels made the “grooves”, but I doubt it. I think we’re walking on the foundation of the roads and streets and they were covered with a smoother coating in ancient Rome. Anyway, I would have done better with my thicker athletic shoes than the thinner walking shoes. At least I wasn’t in high heel sandals as one young woman who I saw touring was wearing.
We strolled the Forum area, guided by Rick the Brick. It must have been magnificent in its day. Sadly much of the rock used in the ancient buildings was carted off to be part of other buildings in Rome. Well, recycling. It was interesting how structures in later years had been build onto the ancient buildings. The Temple of Antonius Pius and Faustina was later inhabited by a church and Capitol Hill had an apartment building built on top of it. Some columns were excavated, cutting away the wall of the building to show them, sort of like a cutaway of the structure. The Arch of Septimius Severus still shows the triumph of Rome in the relief carvings.
We then trundled back up and down the hill to the Coliseum, by passing the sweating tourists in a long line, and entered the entrance for groups. We went through the turnstile and headed for the elevator. It was cooler on the upper floor of the Coliseum and provided an excellent view of the interior, as well as a very nice visiting exhibit on EROS. We finally decided to walk around the ground floor and move on to our next destination, the Pantheon.
After lunch at one of the many small cafes, we found the Pantheon tucked behind the main shopping street. What a beautiful old building. As in other places, there were a lot of people just hanging out and enjoying the day and the sights. We toured the Pantheon briefly, noting the various roles it’s played in Rome’s history. If it hadn’t continually been a religious center, it might have had the same fate as many of the buildings on the Forum’s site – broken into building materials for other Roman projects.
We Achieve Gelato
Up until then, I had been satisfied with cappuccino and nice meals with wine, but I was wondering if I’d ever get the gelato I had wanted to try in its native land. Rich was reluctant, for some reason. The cities we toured are dotted with little cafes, called bars, that offered a variety of sandwiches, drinks – from coffee and alcohol to bottled drinks – pastries, and gelato. Made daily, gelato, often displayed with pieces of whatever flavor it was, such as slices of melon or coffee beans sprinkled on it, was available in almost every cafe. It was hard to walk for more than a block without seeing a café. Every now and then, there was a gelateria, a café that specialized in gelato. I’m glad that American fast food places have yet to get a toehold in the parts of Italy we saw. The only one we saw consistently was McDonalds.
So I got him to try some gelato. The smallest size is quite a bit of ice cream and you get two flavors, if you want. We got one flavor each and shared. I got strawberry, while he got chocolate. I loved mine and he was less than impressed. It was good, but nothing special, as far as he was concerned, until he tried mine. While there are a variety of gelato flavors, as far as we’re concerned, the fruit flavors of gelato are where the cold treat shines. It’s like eating a piece of chilled fruit, the freshest, ripest, sweetest (but not cloyingly so), juiciest piece available. The nuts flavors were pretty good, at least the one I tried and the Nutella (a chocolate-hazelnut paste) was wonderful and much better than the watery chocolate. Walking around Rome with gelato started our tradition of having gelato at least once a day.
We also made the effort to see the Disney Store on the Via Del Corso, the main shopping district, as it was near by the Pantheon. The narrow street had lots of closed stores, being August, but the Disney Store was open. Since Rome is stuffed with museums, the Disney Store capitalized on this by incorporating bits of “ancient inscriptions” on the walls about the characters, mostly Mickey and with caryatid columns using Goofy to hold up the building. My favorite was a floor mosaic of Pluto, imitating the mosaic in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, with the “Latin” inscription – Cave Canem – Beware of the Dog. I understand the store is a “must see” for visiting archeology students. The Disney Store in Florence had a more general Italian theme, but was just as amusing. Alas, the Pooh bears they had, while very interestingly dressed as various animals, were too pricy to buy. I was hoping for Pooh dressed in Roman attire, but was disappointed.
Last Night in Town
We finally called it a day and metroed back to our street. After changing clothes, we walked to the end of our street, crossed the cross street, and entered the back door of the local church. It was a wonderful building, packed with statures and paintings, again decorated in what I recognize as quilt blocks. We attended the 5 PM Mass in anticipation of the next day, which was a Holy Day and much of Rome’s attractions would be closed. It was all in Italian, but the place was wonderful. The only modern touch were the electric “candles” at the various altars.
Since it was a little early (the good restaurants open at 7), we decided to take advantage of one of the fixed price meals at one of the restaurants near our hotel. The price included appetizer, first and second course, vegetable, and dessert. The service was included, but not the wine. The meal was pretty good, but the wine was just passable. The best part was people watching inside the restaurant (sitting outside would mean sitting in cigarette smoke). We also had a classic dessert – Macedonia di frutta – fresh fruit salad. The waiter assured us they had personally cut up the fruit that morning. It was a refreshing way to end a meal and macedonia gelato, when we tried it, was pretty good, too.
Since we had been caught twice with no Metro after 9:30, we decided to just spend the evening walking around St. Peter’s Square in near by Vatican City with Rick The Brick. We filled our water bottles just outside of the square for the trip the next day.
Arrivederci, Roma, Ciao Firenze
Our time in Rome was over and we needed to travel on to Florence. After another wonderful breakfast, we checked out several souvenir shops, again, and went back to our room to pack. We checked out and hopped the Metro to the train station. We bought tickets on the Euro star for “Firenze” and said “Arrivederci!!” to Rome. We saw a lot, but we really just hit the highlights. If putting a coin in the Trevi fountain means anything, we will return.
Taking the train is THE way to get around between Italian cities. The train was very comfortable and in a short hour, we were at the Florence train station.
Had we been familiar with Florence, we would have walked to our hotel, but we opted for a cab. Being an holiday, the streets were packed with people and the taxi had to move slowly through the streets. The cab stopped in front of an alley and the driver said that was as far as he could go, our hotel was down the alley. So we rolled our luggage up and down the small street, looking for Olga’s House. We finally saw a small brass sign near a door way and pushed the buzzer. A voice told us to come up and the door was buzzed open.
80 Steps UP
We crossed a few yards of floor to the stairs and started climbing with our two suitcases and backpacks. And we climbed. And we climbed. Passed first floor apartment. After another long climb, we passed the second floor apartment. The dog on the welcome mat became a signpost in our climb. We finally reached the third floor apartment and our host, Roberto. Like the hotel in Rome, Olga’s House is an apartment turned into guest rooms. Unlike Rome, this hotel is owned and operated by one energetic Italian. Roberto welcomed us warmly and showed us around. The room he gave us looked out to the Straw Market, but between the noise reducing windows and the floor air conditioner, it was no problem. We received another set of keys – the apartment building, Olga’s House, our room.
Roberto told us he had originally tried to make breakfast each morning, but decided that it was just not working out. Instead, he had agreements with two of the cafés on the square at the other end of the alley (we had come in the Straw Market end) and gave us chits for each day, good for a cappuccino and a brioche. It was a smaller way to start the day than in Rome, but not a bad start.
We unpacked a bit and prepared to look at a bit of Florence.
Stepping into the Heart
The square at the other end of the alley is the heart of Florence, Piazza Della Signoria. This is the plaza featured on the signature pictures of Florence, the building with the tower is the Palazzo Vecchio. That is the first view we got of the heart of Florence. Next to the Palazzo Vecchio is the Uffizi Gallery, with the Loggia dei Lanzi facing the square, a terrace with a number of important statues, notably Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa. In front of the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michelangelo’s David, where the statue was originally installed until it was relocated to the Galleria dell’Accademia (Accademia) in 1873. In front of the fountain is a plaque on the pavement that marks the spot where the monk Savonarola was burned in 1498. Near the entrance to our alley is a historic marker that shows the Roman buildings that once occupied this spot. Florence was a Roman outpost, but still had some buildings.
We had reservations for both the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia for Friday, but it was Wednesday and we wanted to explore a little. Florence is just croggling. We walked down Via Calzaiuoli, passing Orsanmichele Church, with its statue-filled niches. Two of the statues are by Donatello – St. Mark and St George – which are a little hard to find. One of them was being restored, so it was covered in plastic.
We continued on to the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore), Florence’s magnificent Gothic cathedral, with a neo-Gothic façade in gaudy pink, green, and white Tuscan marble. Yes, we are now under the Tuscan sun and it is hot. It has a dome than one can climb, but then you’ve climbed the biggest, the second is not much of a challenge, even if it is the inspiration for St. Peter’s in Rome. We decide to skip the 463 steps and just enjoy the outside and the bronze doors. Giotto’s Tower is next to the Duomo, which could be an alternative to climbing the dome, if you’re after a view. The Duomo Museum, which we might have been interested in, was closed for renovations. So we walked across the way to the Baptistery, featuring Ghiberti’s bronze doors, praised by Michelangelo as being fit to be the gates of heaven. Michelangelo knew what he was talking about.
Gelato, Little Pig, and Mosaics, But Not Siena
After all the heat, we decided two things, we needed gelato and a siesta, a Italian custom we adopted for the rest of our stay. The stay at Rome had been too short to include an afternoon lay-down, but Florence was a different story. According to Rick The Brick, Florence had THE best gelato. We didn’t sample the entire country, but we did find the best was there and the best of the best was in a café next to where we were staying, one of the two cafés where we had breakfast in the morning – Café Perseo. THE best. The first time we had gelato there, Rich got Woodland Berries, a mixture of seasonal berries that was just out of this world. The melon was spectacular, as was the blackberry and coconut. I don’t care much for coconut, but we saw coconut pieces on ice being sold as a treat in many of Rome’s street vendors and the gelato was wonderful.
After a little rest, I wanted to see the Straw Market (Mercato Nuovo), as we had seen it briefly when we arrived. According to Rick The Brick, there is a circled X in the center of the market loggia. This marked the spot where people hit after being dropped as punishment for bankruptcy, in days long past. On the side of the market is a large bronze stature of a wild boar, whose snout has been polished by thousands of hands rubbing it. It’s Porcellino, “little pig,” which functions much like the Trevi fountain in Rome. You put a coin in its mouth and rub the snout. The coin falls into the grate below and you will return to Florence someday. We walked around the Market and just enjoyed the day.
We also looked into a mosaics store on the Piazza Della Signoria. In Florence, mosaics mean the inlaid technique rather than mosaics of tiny pieces of glass used in jewelry. However the store did have some of the pieces I collect and just the earrings I had been looking for. The young man there offered to give us a deal and I now have the earrings I went to Italy to find. He was also had information on visiting Siena – don’t.
Now we had planned a day trip to Siena for the next day, Thursday, August 16, as we had reservations for the museums on Friday. We had asked around and everyone we knew who had been to Italy said, “See Siena, before Assisi. See both if possible.” Well, Siena was a little more possible, being closer, and we had planned on taking the bus there. However, once a year, on August 16, a famous event happens in Siena, the Palio di Siena, a world-famous horse race. Which we had not considered when we were planning the trip. The older man in the mosaic store was from Siena and said, the square would be packed by 8:30 in the morning and there would be no opportunity to tour at all that day as the public buildings would be closed. And then there were the crowds. So we decided we’d try a day trip on Saturday.
Having done quite a bit and with the day slowly ending, we decided to find a place to eat. We investigated a number of restaurants and settled on a local looking pizza place. It didn’t open until 7, so we came back at 7. When we walked in, the waiter said they opened at 7. It’s 7 we said. Here’s your table he replied, and we settled in for a nice meal. Little did we know at the time that we would being eating 3 of our 4 dinners at the Casa Del Vin Santo.
It’s a cozy pizzeria, with Mario making the pizzas and calzones in a little kitchen that juts into the dinning room. The waiter was an older man and he brought us a wonderful house wine. He seemed surprised that we wanted to share a pizza, but the standard size pizza there is about the size of a medium. I saw people eating the entire thing, but we decided to share and split a dessert. Which we did. The pizza had a thin crust and was baked in a brick oven. We had a terrific time and decided we would return before we left.
A Day in Florence
So we had a free day, as we were not going to Siena. We decided to just relax and enjoy Florence. And we did.
We had our cappuccino and brioche at Café Perseo, just like the natives, aside from not knowing much Italian. We explored the street our room was on and discovered that it had not only a souvenir shop, but a barber and a small grocery store, as well as a view into a restaurant kitchen.
We walked our feet off, seeing the sights. We walked along the Arno River, crossing over the Ponte Vecchio, peeking into the gold jewelry shops on the way, and exploring the south side of town, which seemed not as touristy. There is tradition on the Ponte Vecchio of lovers buying a lock, putting their names and the date on it, and then locking the lock on the gate around the bust of Cellini in the center of the bridge. Cellini was a sculptor and known for the bronze of "Perseus holding the head of Medusa", on the Piazza Della Signoria, among others. Apparently the romantic tradition is waning as the locks are removed each night. The times we crossed the Ponte Vecchio and looked at the locks, they were always from that day.
Back on the north side, we visited Santa Croce Church, quite a wonderful church filled with the tombs of famous people, such as Galileo and Michelangelo, and frescos. We strolled the grounds and just soaked in the atmosphere. Earlier, I had noticed Rick Steves’ Florence and Tuscany on one of our host’s book shelves. He said to borrow it while we were touring. He also noted that people under 30 seemed to favor the Lonely Planet series of guide books where the over 30 crowd liked Rick Steves’ books.
We spent quite a bit of time talking with Roberto, either inside or outside during our stay.
We also enjoyed some of the music being played at the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza Della Signoria. In the evening, buskers played outside the Uffizi Museum, but we had not realized that someone would be playing during the day. We heard the sound of a classical guitar and followed the sound to the entrance of the Uffizi. Piotr Tomaszewski, a Polish guitarist, played there every afternoon we were there. He was wonderful and Rich was tempted to get Piotr’s CD, but didn’t. In the evening we heard buskers playing a bagpipe and a violin. I think they were students.
We also discovered the self service cafeteria that seemed to be popular in that part of Italy. While it wasn’t exactly our version of a self serve, it did offer a wide variety of foods at relatively reasonable price. We were a bit worn out, so the lunch did us good.
Florence also has a Disney Store on the main street, just down from where we were staying. It had an Italian theme, but not quite the ancient look of the Rome store. Just about everywhere we went in Italy, store fronts proclaimed “Saldo!” Except for the Disney Store. I did take advantage of one “saldo” and bought a T-shirt with the skyline of Florence on it for 5 Euros.
We also went back to the train station, which was also the bus station, to check on buses to Siena. Unfortunately, the Saturday schedule to and from Siena was very poor. We decided to see Siena on another trip as it would be too much of a hassle for this trip. More time in Florence!
Beneath the Florence train/bus station is a shopping mall. Many of the stores were closed – August – but an internet café was open. It was the first opportunity we had to get on line and we took it. On our walk back to the Piazza Della Signoria, we passed another internet place that was a little cheaper and we used that one the next day.
Eating Raw Ham
After rest and a chat with Roberto, we went off to dinner at a place we noticed in our walking. I think it was where we first ate the appetizer that Rich had noticed someone else eating the evening before - prosciutto e melone or raw ham and melon. If you’ve never seen it, it is thin sliced pieces of prosciutto ham, a ham cured by drying with a “sweet” salt, over slices of melon, where the rind and seeds has been removed. You slice a chunk of melon and of prosciutto, and eat them together. Heaven. Rich doesn’t usually try different foods, but he liked the look of it and decided to try it, even after I told him it was raw ham. The rest of the meal was OK, but we decided to return to Casa Del Vin Santo the next night so Rich could try the house vine again and for pizza.
Fabulous gelato rounded out the day. We headed back for the Long Climb to bed to prepare for the two museum reservations we had.
Reservations for Two, Saw Three
Thanks to the info in Rick The Brick, we had reservations at both the Uffizi Gallery and the Accademia for Friday. We decided to try the other café that Roberto had an agreement with and had our cappuccino and brioche at Café Rivoire, which Rick The Brick notes has fancy desserts. They do. But we had art to see.
The first reservation was for the Accademia, where we passed a long line to stroll right in. The main, and maybe the only reason, to visit the Accademia is to see Michelangelo’s David and unfinished Prisoners. While our Rick The Brick has a little bit on the Accademia, the Rick Steves book we borrowed from Roberto’s library had a detailed tour of the place, which is a feature we like about his books.
The Accademia was crowded and the art was a bit repetitive after a while. Rick’s lively commentary really made touring the Accademia fun. I noticed a new gadget that tour guides are using. Rather than gathering people in a groups and speaking loudly, they now have a small microphone they speak into and everyone in the group can hear through an earpiece attached to a transmitter. While this is a great way to make sure everyone in the group hears the talk, it means one can no longer eavesdrop on a group.
According to Rick The Brick, around the corner from the Accademia was a smaller museum, Museo dell’Opifcio della Pietro Dure (Museum of Precious Stones), a museum featuring mosaics of inlaid marble and stones. It was just around the corner and cheap, so we spent the better part of an hour enjoying the art. The exhibits are all in Italian, but one is allowed to borrow a booklet with the English translation. I don’t think they get a lot of people as we saw only one other person touring the place.
After a lunch in a small café, we had a rest before our late afternoon reservation for the Uffizi. We weren’t worried as all we had to do was cross the plaza and we were there. Part of the Uffizi is being renovated, so we had to look behind some of the scaffolding to find the line to change our reservations into tickets. Since the line is almost at the end of the building, we had a chance to see the courtyard, lined with statues of famous Florentines. Also there were street artists who, dressed as statues (or in one case an Egyptian mummy), stand in niches and pose for pictures with tourists.
We got into the line to get into the museum and chatted with a couple and their kids from California. The Uffizi only allows 600 people in at a time, so we had to wait a little bit. Once we got in, we climbed the four floors to the museum, which is a U-shaped floor set up in chronological order, from the 13th to 17th centuries. The main hallways are lined with sculptures and, near the ceiling, are portraits of the de' Medici family from the beginning. The Uffizi (Offices) was originally offices for the Florentine magistrates and built by the de' Medici family. Again, Rick The Brick’s smaller cousin, Rick Steves’ Florence and Tuscany, was invaluable. While Rick The Brick had a small section on the Uffizi, Rick the Smaller Brick had a tour of the building with amusing commentary along the way.
The Uffiz features a number of famous pieces of art, including (but not limited to) Giotto’s altarpiece, a Botticelli room with The Birth Of Venus, two minor works by Leonardo, some Raphaels, and the Venus statue that inspired The Birth Of Venus. We only had two hours to see the place and I wish we had had more time. While it wasn’t stuffed with famous art, there was plenty to see.
After a cappuccino in the café, we made our way with the rest of the crowd down the stairs, though the gift shops (I lost track of how many), and out into the late afternoon.
We decided to go back to our favorite pizza place, as Rich wanted to try the house wine again. As well as enjoy a pizza again.
We got there and the older man wasn’t there, but a younger man was. After directing us to a table where we could watch Mario (Buna Sera, Mario!!), he suggested a wine other than the house wine. He even was going to give us a deal on it. Rich stuck to his choice. Thus a relationship with a waiter named Constantino was begun.
We had a great dinner and a fun time. After another evening walk around the Piazza Della Signoria, listening to a busker, we called it a night.
It was going to be our last full day in Florence and we were apprehensive about what lay before us in Milan. Rome and Florence had been such a good time that Milan would have to be either incredibly fantastic to not be a major let down. Staying in Florence was tempting, even though we couldn’t extend our stay – Roberto had people coming in – and our flight was out of Milan’s airport. And Milan had two things we could only see there – La Scala and The Last Supper.
So it was with that in mind, we started our last full day in Florence with cappuccino and brioche at Café Perseo, and headed to the south side of town to the Piazzale Michelangelo, high above the city.
A Walk On the South Side
We crossed the bridge closest to us to the south side of town. The Arno River was very placid with a few birds sunning themselves in the warm sun. One large bird had found a perch in the center of the river on a tree branch sticking up. It contemplated the river, ignoring the many people and cars on either side.
The south side of the Arno was not as old as the north side, but still very nice with several parks with statues. According to Rick The Brick, the walk up the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo took half an hour and I think that was when the footing was better. Either that or we picked the wrong path as the steps were very crumbled and almost non-existent in places. It was another place where my walking shoes didn’t go well and I was wishing I had put on the athletic shoes instead.
After what seemed like hours of tough slogging, we reached the plaza at the top. In the center of the huge plaza, was another copy of Michelangelo’s David, this time in bronze. It was difficult to go anywhere in Florence and not be confronted with David in all his glory. We walked around the plaza and took the “floss” picture for our dental hygienist. She collects pictures of her patients flossing during their vacation. The Piazzale Michelangelo has quite a view of Florence and we walked around the plaza to see it all. It was hot and we were a bit tired, so we did not go into the San Miniato Church just off the plaza. Maybe next time.
started the long slog down, promising ourselves gelato at the bottom
of the hill. We could have taken a bus, as Rick The Brick mentions,
and probably should next time.
Last Night in Town
We walked back across the Ponte Vecchio and decided on a rest before evening Mass and dinner. When walking around the Duomo, we noticed that Saturday’s at 5 PM, there was a mass in English. We got there early and had to wait until the church closed for the evening before being escorted into one of the side chapels. The Duomo is an incredible place, with beautiful ceiling art. We spent the time before Mass craning our necks to see everything.
Afterward, we enjoyed the evening until 7 and our favorite pizza place opened.
Once again we returned to the Casa Del Vin Santo, this time to try the wine Constintino suggested and pasta instead of pizza. We said “Ciao!!” to Mario, who was setting up his ingredients. We learned that he was a new hire as the man who used to be their pizza chef, and give a show doing it, had met with an untimely end. His picture was on the wall beyond the oven. While Mario was not a showy chef, he was a very good one.
We had a great time eating and talking with Constintino. We were even treated to limoncello, a lemon liqueur, served in small, slender, chilled glasses. Incredibly wonderful stuff, which, like slivovitz or ouzo, is meant to be sipped in small amounts.
We walked the Piazza Della Signoria, listening to a busker, and soaking in the ambience of the plaza. Again, we were apprehensive about moving on to Milan the next day.
Arrivederci, Firenze, Ciao, Milano
Sunday morning wasn’t quite as sunny as the last few mornings had been and Café Perseo was closed. So we headed to Café Rivoire for our morning breakfast. We walked around a bit, soaking in as much of Florence as we could before returning to Café Rivoire to buy some sandwiches for the trip. Rich had also bought some apples at the little grocery store on our street.
We finished packing, got our taxi, said “Arrivederci” to Roberto and Florence and were dropped at the train station, planning on taking the mid morning Euro Star.
Apparently this was also the plan of a great many other people, as that train was full, as was the one after that one. However, the local train, which left just after the Euro Star and took an hour longer to reach Milan, had plenty of room. So, at half the price, we decided to take the later local.
Had we known, we would have walked to the station rather than take a taxi. Still, we had time to use the Internet café at the station. We found a place to sit while waiting (I sat next to a young man who was reading the latest Harry Potter book, in English) and soon we were on the platform ready to board the train. We decided to get in the last car and settled into the comfy seats.
It wasn’t the Euro Star, but it also wasn’t full and was just as pleasant. So it took an hour longer, but we got to see a bit of the towns and cities where it stopped for passengers. During the trip, several young girls walked up and down the aisles, dropping off pieces of paper with something in Italian and picking them back up again after holding out their hands.
We finally arrived in Milan and the weather, which had been beautiful so far, was beginning to look like it was turning bad. The sky drew more cloudy and I thought I could hear the rumble of thunder in the distance.
They Roll Up the Sidewalks in August in Milan
We found our way around the train station and to the correct street our hotel was on. Where before we had a room near the centers of Rome and Florence, we were in a hotel near the train station, about two miles from the city center – Hotel Berna. It wasn’t hard to find and was the most deluxe accommodations we stayed in during the trip, as it is a four star hotel. We got a good rate, so we were set for a good stay in Milan. It was the only hotel where we didn’t have to climb stairs; we were on the ground floor. The room was large, the bathroom was large, and the window had a close fitting wooden blinds, making it pitch black at night. Our window seemed to look out on a courtyard that was in the middle of renovations, but we didn’t see anyone working there during our stay.
We had looked at a Sheraton closer in, but the reviews on tripadvisor.com all mentioned the “ladies of the evening” who strolled there every night. Apparently this is a feature of many hotels in Milan, as we had our own group of ladies hanging out there each night.
After settling in, we decided to walk around looking for food and to get the lay of the land. It was pretty obvious that Milan took August vacations more seriously than either Rome or Florence as most of the restaurants and stores had signs indicating they were closed until September. We finally found one restaurant near our hotel open.
We sat down next to two young men, who turned out to be from Cincinnati, OH, and the young woman next to them was from Argentina. Rich asked about the house wine and the conversation went from there. The men were on a meandering tour of Europe and a bit of Asia, spending a day or two in each city as the mood struck them. The woman had been transferred there by her company.
We had a nice time talking, which made up for the poor quality of the food. The meals in Milan were the poorest we had in Italy. The wine was so-so. I got pasta with salmon and rocket in a white sauce. The dish had obviously been made earlier and reheated. The salmon was in same size slivers as the rocket. We were disappointed.
After wards, we decided to walk toward the city center. The streets were deserted, except for the “ladies of the evening” near the hotels. We had walked a while when I realized I had dropped my hat in the restaurant. While Rich went back for it, I slipped into church where a late Sunday mass was in progress. Like the other churches we had seen in our travel, it was beautiful.
The weather was getting chillier and we didn’t find anything open, so we decided to return to the hotel and take advantage of the coffee and tea with cookies in the lobby sitting room. We passed the time pleasantly before bed, chatting with a few people who came though, notably an English couple about our age.
Big Breakfast, Little Touring
As befits a four-star hotel, the breakfast buffet was incredible and we ate our fill. To our dismay, the weather had turned chilly and wet. Just before we left home, Rich asked if I had packed anything long sleeved. Well, no, it’s August. However, I did put a long sleeved t-shirt in my suitcase. I was glad I did.
So we unpacked our umbrellas and headed to the subway. We had scoped it out the day before to see how to buy 24 hour tickets. For some reason, the area near the ticket kiosks always had about 8 to 10 policemen standing around in full riot gear. However, the subway was easy to use and we hopped a train to city center. We came out on the Piazza Duomo and our first sight of Milan’s Duomo, the city’s centerpiece. The Gothic cathedral is a feast for the eyes and the second largest church in Italy after Saint Peter’s Basilica. It was started in the late 14 century and wasn’t finished until the 19th (or according to some, the 20th) century. The church was being renovated, so the front was covered in scaffolding. The Duomo Museum was closed for renovations.
We found the tourist information center just off the square and this was important as we needed to buy the tickets for the tour we reserved for the next day. We had two days in Milan and all the sights were closed on Monday (which it was). The two young men had hoped to see The Last Supper, but they would find it closed. The tourist center was also where the tour would start from the next day.
We had gotten there earlier than when things opened, so we strolled through the Galleria Vittorio Emanuete, Milan’s four-story glass-domed arcade build in the last 1800’s, which was pretty empty. We walked though to the square behind it that featured a statue of Leonardo surrounded by his famous students. The statue faced the world’s most famous opera house, La Scala, which has no performances during August. We walked the side streets for a while and ended back at the Galleria. We noticed a McDonalds and a Café McDonalds there and, on Rich the Brick’s recommendation, we looked inside. Café McDonalds is like a smaller version of Starbucks or Panera, with a variety of coffee drinks and pastries. So we indulged in some refreshments. The café was a little crowded, but the McDonalds part of it was packed. Rick The Brick was right – it was good people watching.
After more walking around, we went through security into the Duomo and enjoyed the mini tour provided by Rick The Brick while it poured rain outside. The Duomo is as sumptuous on the inside as it was outside.
We finally decided we’d find some gelato. It was OK, but Florence really did have the best. After returning to the hotel and resting, we decided to try another restaurant near our hotel which had not been open on Sunday. It was a restaurant whose menu was printed in five different languages, just the type of place Rick The Brick councils against. However, not much else was open, it was rainy and chilly, and we were hungry.
As it was one of the few places open, it was popular. We decided on pizza, the same one we got at our pizza place in Florence. It was OK, but instead of having the toppings spread out on the pizza, each was put on in a clump. The wine was nothing to write about.
On the way back to the hotel, we passed a cafeteria looking place, which had been closed earlier in the day. We noticed that the British couple we had been running into at the hotel and downtown were there and they waved to us. We went in and talked for a while. We decided to hang out at the hotel for a while, drinking tea and eating cookies. So we spent a pleasant few hours with our new friends.
The weather might have been bad and the city underwhelming, but we had some great conversations in Milan.
Last Day - Last Supper
The last full day in town dawned rainy, more so than the day before. We had the wonderful breakfast at Hotel Berna with a touch of sadness that we had to be up before breakfast opened to catch our plane the next morning. We had a great time in Italy and the trip definitely had a winding down feeling. Being on the verge of seeing The Last Supper almost felt like a let down. We had had such a wonderful time in Rome and Florence, with great weather, that the rain seemed to dim everything.
We hopped on the metro and arrived at the information center early, by about 45 minutes. About 15 minutes before we went out to the bus which started up as if to leave as we talked across the rainy Piazza Duomo. Rich ran over, the bus stopped and the door opened. We got on. For some reason, the bus needed to move up a few feet at that point as we sat there for 20 minutes more while a few others boarded the bus.
The morning long tour was given by a young Italian woman who presented the tour in both English and German. The bus pulled out of its spot, drove a few feet and stopped at the Duomo, our first stop. We ran thought the rain to the church and sat in pews while our guide talked about the church and its history. In English and then German, her lecture disturbed by a sudden loud speaker announcement in several languages for quiet and for no photography, neither of which the crowd paid attention to.
After we had a few minutes to walk around the Duomo, we left and crossed the plaza and street to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuete. We gathered in the center of the glass-domed building and she gave another talk about when it was built and the significance of the mosaic lunettes in the ceiling. We then continued through the shopping mall to the Plaza della Scala and La Scala.
Our tour tickets allowed us entrance to La Scala, where we had time to look out into the famous opera house and the row of busts of famous composers in the hall way before a quick bathroom break and back to the bus. We didn’t have time to look in the La Scala museum, but our tickets would let us in anytime that day. We resolved to visit the museum after lunch. Our next stop would be at the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie and The Last Supper.
The bus wound through the city while the guide pointed out sights in English and German. At one point in her German spiel, the bus bumped the curb and she said, “Mama Mia!” and when right back into German. I wasn’t overly impressed with the rest of the people on the tour as they would start talking once the tour guide started speaking German (I believe two couples spoke German). I felt that was very rude.
The bus went though the main shopping center of the city, which has all a famous Italian designers stores. Most of the stores were closed, of course. We passed Sforza Castle, and when we stopped to look at it from the bus, the street vendors selling umbrellas rushed up to the bus only to be disappointed that we were not getting off. We passed an important sports stadium, Giuseppe Meazza Stadium, the historic Milan Monumental Cemetery, where many famous people are buried and the grounds have a magnificent collection of cemetery and memorial art, before arriving at the Church of Santa Maria della Grazie. We walked around the building to the entrance, where we were given magnetic strip cards and waited for our time on the card to view The Last Supper.
There was a display about the painting and one woman from the bus remarked that she was surprised The Last Supper was part of a wall. She thought it was on canvas. She then wanted to know if we were going to see the Mona Lisa here as well, not realizing it is in Paris. I guess she thought they were paintings on canvas, hanging side by side in a monastery.
Since there are so many people who want to see it and it’s not in the best of repair, the room with The Last Supper is sealed at both ends by automatic doors that open every 15 minutes to allow groups of 25 to enter. You are shut in for those 15 minutes and then you must leave, to the gift shop.
While waiting, we noticed a number of Japanese woman dressed in kimonos, also waiting. Earlier in the tour, we had seen a group of Japanese tourists dressed in a similar manner in the Duomo and in La Scala. We had seen a lot of tour groups, but this was the first one we had seen in kimonos. Several of the women must have been confused as to the time they were to enter The Last Supper because when they tried, the guard stopped them and tried to explain, in Italian, that their tickets were for 10:45, not 11:45. At least that is what I think he was saying as their tickets had 10:45 printed on them and it was approaching 11:45. He finally allowed a few of them to tag along with our group.
We stepped into a hallway, waiting until the sealed doors opened. Then we entered the former monks dining room, now empty of everything except indirect lights and barriers preventing one from walking directly up to the art on the walls.
There is was in its tattered glory, The Last Supper. A work of art that has been reproduced, copied, parodied, and nearly destroyed, we finally saw it. And it was truly incredible. Up until then, I was feeing that Milan would be a bust and skipping The Last Supper would be OK. I’m so glad I didn’t. We stood around in the room in hushed silence after the tour guide’s short lecture in English and German.
On the other side of the large, empty room is a Crucifixion by Donato Montorfano, which as fate would have it, looks as bright as the day it was painted in the plaster in 1495. Since The Last Supper started deteriorating in Leonardo’s lifetime (and looks pretty bad today), it’s a little startling to see such a well-preserved fresco on the opposite wall, especially after the room was almost destroyed in the Second World War. While neither the tour guide nor Rick The Brick mentioned it, Montorfano’s work should also be considered part of Leonardo’s work because of the figures on the lower edge of the work. The figures are members of the Ludovico Sforza family, the Duke of Milan at that time, and are purported to have been added by Leonardo in the same tempera he used in The Last Supper. Naturally, that is the only part of this work which has deteriorated, just like The Last Supper.
At the end of the 15 minutes, we were ushered into the gift shop to wait for the tour bus. It was one of the priciest gift shops I’d been in during the trip. I had gotten bookmarks for my sister in Rome and Florence, but even those were pricy. It was still raining a bit when we got back on the bus and headed back to the Piazza Duomo.
Pass the Risotto
We got back after noon and decided to have lunch and then see the La Scala Museum, as it was closed until 1 anyway. I had seen an open restaurant on a street near La Scala when we were on the bus, so we walked down the Via Verdi looking for it. One sandwich-type place looked a bit pricy, so we kept walking. On the corner was a large restaurant that had the look of a fast food place, except it was huge and all in Italian. The menu posted outside had a large variety of dishes and it seemed to be doing a brisk business. We decided to eat there. It turned out to be one of the best meals (outside of breakfast) that we had in Milan.
We were gestured up stairs and we found a table in one of several crowded rooms. It was a mixture of families and business people and probably few tourists. The menu was in Italian and English. We saw what other people were eating and the portions looked pretty big. The one thing I had wanted to try in Italy was risotto and the menu had several types. So we decided to split an order of risotto and asparagus. I hadn’t realized how chilly it had been outside until we went in the restaurant and it was so warm.
Two business man sat next to us and also ordered. The waiter took the order by punching buttons on a handheld key pad. The food was delivered from the kitchen and distributed. One paid by taking the number from your table down to the cashier and the bill was printed for you. The restaurant, Pastarito, is an Italian chain, with other restaurants in other Italian cities. If they ever want to franchise here, I think it would be very successful.
Our risotto was delicious, creamy, and yummy. We had no trouble eating the whole thing, despite it being a large portion. The business men each ordered pasta dishes, one with tomato sauce and one in a cream sauce. They left a little before we did and Rich noticed that the man who had the pasta with the tomato sauce has not finished his. So Rich took his (Rich’s) fork and snagged a few piece of pasta. He said it was also pretty good.
La Scala’s museum was open, so we showed the guard our tickets and spent the better part of a hour looking around the museum at the various opera and ballet artifacts. There were a lot of paintings and busts of famous artists and several small rooms displaying costumes from several operas. Most of the signage was in Italian with a bit in English. It was quite nice and not very crowded, even for a rainy day.
Upon leaving, we found a gelato shop and had so-so gelato while we walked around for the last look at Leonardo’s statue and the magnificent Duomo. Our visit to Italy was definitely winding down.
After returning to the hotel, we decided to have dinner at the cafeteria we had seen our English friends in the night before near the hotel. The choices in the cafeteria were interesting and fairly good, except for the wine, which was so-so. We watched local Italian news TV, guessing at what the reports were about. We then headed back to the hotel for more tea and cookies to prepare for our flight home the next day.
At O Dark Hundred
Having scoped out the bus to Milan’s two airports that left from the train station, Rich was confident we would get the direct bus to the correct airport. He just didn’t think we’d get the first one at quarter to 5 in the morning. Our flight was at 8 AM and we needed to get there with plenty of time.
So we got up before dawn, had tea and cookies, finished packing the few things out and left the hotel. The night clerk unlocked the door for us and waved good-bye. We were the only ones on the street, even the streetwalkers having left for the night. We decided to take the street that circled past the cafeteria and came out near the restaurant we had eaten at the second night. As we were waiting for the walk light on the next block, a bus with the name of our airport on it stopped at the traffic light. It was the first and direct bus from the train station to the airport. Rich ran across the street and knocked on the driver’s window. He pointed to the bags and the driver opened the side of the bus and the bus door. We put our bags on and climbed aboard. After paying the driver, we settled into a nearly full bus for the nearly hour ride.
The bus looped though the city, picking up more people at an airport bus stop near a group of hotels. The bus then entered a highway. It was the first time we saw a highway in Italy, as we had traveled by train. It was like the ones here, with plazas with services. It rained quite a bit on the way, even though it had not been raining when we got on the bus.
We arrived at the airport in more than enough time for our flight to Vienna where we would get our flight to Washington. There were a number of people there and we had to wait until our ticket counter opened. Once it did and we got our tickets, we headed for the gate.
We found the gate after going though security and the duty free. The room had a loud buzzing and women were smoking in the rest room, so we headed back to the restaurant area. One cafe was open, so I got a cappuccino and Rich got his first hot chocolate of the trip. He had been offered it before, but never had one. It was much thicker and richer than the hot chocolate here. We contemplated the end of our trip while listening to several American businessmen at a table next to us and watching several women making sandwiches for the café.
We finally boarded the plane after a cold ride in an airport bus and walking across a very wet tarmac to stairs onto the plane.
The small plane wasn’t very full and that was good thing because as the plane taxied down the runway, the overhead bin above us began to leak water. I had gotten a newspaper from the flight attendant and used it as an umbrella while Rich got up to take our backpacks out of the bin. The flight attendant rushed over and, once she saw the water, got some paper towels. The people sitting ahead of us hopped up and got into forward seats.
The rain finally stopped and we weren’t too wet. She said we could sit anywhere, but we decided where we were would be OK and it was. I was a bit disturbed as I don’t think planes are supposed to leak, but the rest of the flight was smooth.
We walked down steps again at Vienna and crossed the tarmac to the airport, which was nearly as smoky as the Frankfort airport. Vienna was packed with people and the signs were confusing. Unlike many other airports, you passed though security just outside your gate, so once there, if you wanted to leave, you had to pass back though security to return to the gate area. We thought our connection was tighter than it actually was, so we had a long wait at the gate. I watched a security woman and her dog inspect a near by lounge before many of us were moved to it, the original gate having about seating for half the people waiting.
We finally got on the plane and it turned out we were in the very last row of seats on the plane. Which turned out to be just fine. We were close to the lavatories and the seats reclined. The plane was a newer one with individual viewing screens on the back of each seat. Rich spent his time watching one of two cameras on the plane – a forward one that showed what was ahead of the plane and one pointing straight down from the plane. I watched a few movies (OK, slept through one) and discovered how to play solitaire on the system, but failed to win even one game.
We arrived back in Washington to warm weather. It was good to be back after such a terrific vacation. Italy was so much better than we had imagined that we’ve already decided we need to return sometime.