Italy 2001: Como and Venice

Dear Reader: This trip covered the period September 1 through September 16, 2001.  Obviously, the tragic events of September 11 came right in the middle. It was very difficult being out of the country on that day and during those first few days afterward. Upon hearing the news, we certainly wanted to come home immediately, but of course, that was impossible.  Thus, as you read these posts, you will get the "before" and "after" of that terrible day.


Saturday, September 1
We left from O'Hare at 5:30 pm. The flight was bumpy but uneventful (except that the video went out about 40 minutes in, so there were no movies!). It was hard to believe we were actually going until the flight attendant started speaking in Italian.   We have planned and are doing this trip all on our own; no tours, no city guides.  Wish us luck!

We landed in Milan, at Malpensa Airport, right on time at 9:00 am.  When we got down to customs, we saw a sign that said "USCITA". naively we thought that that was a special customs line for US Citizens, but we saw lots of people going there and some were "obviously" Italian. So we went toward the sign and down the corridor and there were two signs: "USCITA" and "Customs". Everyone was heading toward "Customs". And then we realized: "USCITA" is Italian for "Exit"!  D'OH!!!!!  Welcome to Italy!!!!!

We got through and got our bags and boarded a shuttle bus to take us to Milan Central Station. Along the way we noticed there is an awful lot of graffiti; it is on almost all public buildings.  Various pictures, words, and symbols. If they are discouraging this or trying to combat it, it seems like they are losing.

The station was really neat: one of those old-time European stations with those funny-looking European trains. We had about 90 minutes before our train left, so we checked out the stores. There was a place that sold sandwiches - mortadella, bologna, etc. We bought a big piece of pizza (pizza! In Italy!). Then we went to our "wagon". It was one of those cute compartments you see in the movies. Just us, so we didn't have to stow our cases. It was a really smooth 40 minute trip to Como. Then a short taxi ride up the mountain to Villa Flori - a magnificent little hotel situated right on lake Como!

Our room (including a balcony) overlook the lake. Beautiful!

So far we have had no problem with the language (except for that "USCITA" incident). We are trying a few Italian words and most everyone speaks some English. After we settled in we went for a walk. We're actually outside of Como, so we walked to the next little town, Cernobbio, which was founded in the 12th century!. Lots of narrow, cobbled streets and tiny cars and motorcycles whizzing by. We stopped for the first of many gelatis and it was wonderfully delicious.  We spent about 2 hours wandering around, most of it within sight of the lake.  Went into one old church where the organist was practicing "Pomp and Circumstance"! 

Side note: they have the outside shutters on the windows, just like they did in France. We saw people leaning out of windows and talking to people below and then closing the shutters.  Most of the buildings are white, the shutters are green, and the roof tiles are red.

Got back to the hotel and sat and read on our balcony; the temp was about 70; just perfect.  Got dressed and went for dinner at 7:30, which tonight was right downstairs in the hotel. That was good since we were quickly becoming sleepy (we had pretty much been up for 30+ hours and a 7-hour time change). We ate outside, right by the lake. The dinner was very good and only 147,000 Lire (including tax and tip - about $70; the Euro comes into being on Jan 1, 2002).  Wendy had risotto with shrimp and arugula, lake fish with zucchini and carrots, fresh berries, and caffe Americaine.  Wayne had potato-bean soup, veal with lemon, pear tart. Yum.

Got up to bed at 9:30 and slept until 8!  Probably would have slept later, but one of those doo-do-dooo-do ambulance sirens woke us up (probably a good thing).

Monday, September 3
Labor Day back home (but not here)

We started with breakfast on the terrace by the lake. A standard European hotel buffet: croissants, Nutella, museli, fresh fruit, ham (pancetta?), hard-boiled eggs (usually in brown shells), mortadella, cappuccino, hot chocolate,and OJ. 

Then we taxied into Como. We walked through the old part of town, saw the Duomo - a real old church.
Inside, there were paintings and sculptures 500 and 600 years old. We saw little boys chasing pigeons in the square (must be a common thing with little boys around the world!). But, of course, there was a McDonalds right there.  The temp was in the mid-70s and sunny.  We noticed that people say "Prego" (which the dictionary defines as "You're welcome") the way the French say "Voila", as in "Here ya go". 

Next we took a hydrofoil (way cool) to Bellagio. Bellagio is a small town with a definite tourist area. So we walked up and down (yes, up as in up and down as in down) the streets for about 4 hours.  In the middle we stopped for lunch. We sat on a terrace overlooking the lake. We had grilled sole that the waiter filleted at the table (missed a few bones though) and grilled veggies and gelato. So far the flavors we've had are coffee, pistachio, and raspberry.  Then we went back on the hydrofoil (and slept a good part of the way).  Again, we sat on our balcony and this time saw a seaplane take off from the lake, circle around between the mountains, and land...over and over.  Speaking of the mountains - they are so densely covered with trees that it looks like velour that you could just brush across with your fingertips. 

Then, before we knew it, it was time to eat again! We went to "Sant Anna 1907". Got there at 8:00 and we were the only ones there!  But, it soon filled up.  We had the most wonderful meal. Wendy had zucchini flowers, sea bass with couscous and a plum tarte. Wayne had light ragu-filled ravioli with "crustaceans" (dainty shrimp or lobster), pork slices with mouth-watering mushrooms and a fabulous "stuffing" (which contained many mysterious things). Then a ricotta cheesecake covered with fresh berries. One of the all-time great meals.

Side note: It is so civilized here! The public bathrooms (a good gauge) are the cleanest we've ever seen. The women's bathroom in the train station was spotless (even though it was the "stand up hole-in-the-ground" type!).

Tuesday, September 4

Mostly a travel day. It started with thunderstorms in Como and ended with thunderstorms in Venice. The thunder sounds different here; is that possible? We took a train to Venice- it was very nice and smooth, but about 4 hours. We got in at 5pm, took a motor taxi (e.g., a boat) to our hotel, the Kette. It was fantastic! There were so many boats and the gondoliers were all singing "O Sole Mio" (because the tourists think that's the only song they know). By the time we got to our room (15 minutes), the rain had stopped. We took a short walk to St. Mark's Square.

Really neat - lined with shops: silk, lace, leather, glass, jewelry...repeated ad infinitum. Oh...and a McDonalds and a Foot Locker. There were 1,000s of pigeons in the square, but when we came back after dinner (9:30) they were all gone!  Where'd they go? Venice reminds Wayne of the Far Side cartoon with the frogs in the desert saying "We'll put the swamp here"; this place must have had people on boats in the ocean saying "We'll put the town here"! What were they thinking? Luckily, the square was not flooded, as it so often is.

Venice is a-maze-ing! You never saw so many clueless people (us included) walking around with maps trying to find a certain "street" (street being a 3-foot wide covered walk between one set of stores and another identical set of stores).

Tonight's dinner was at da Mario alla fava. Very intimate, as in sitting on top of your neighbors. We had primo pasta (tagliotini with crab), secondo (misto peche - grilled fish - scampi, sole, sea bass), grilled veggies (peppers, tomatoes, eggplants; apparently they're not big on greens), dessert (Wayne - gelato with hot fudge mousse; Wendy - gelato with berries).

We did get lost going back to the hotel. We knew right where we were, but couldn't find the passageway we needed. So we went into a different hotel and asked where ours was, and the lady (nicely but with a little exasperation) said "Go out the door, left, left". D'Oh! There it was, like 20 feet from where we were.  Just as we got into bed it started to thunder and pour. Cool!! And a good bed, too.

Side notes: The restaurants all give you the regular basket of bread, like we get at home, but they don't give butter or olive oil or anything to go with it! Guess it's supposed to be good enough to eat dry. Also, they don't serve ice in any of the beverages. And in some restaurants, if you order the house wine, they give you the whole bottle and charge you for what you drink.

The fire alarm box in the hotel has a sign above the glass reading "To crash in event of fire".

We've noticed that more than a few of the gondoliers pole along with one hand while using their cell phone in the other!  Old meets new.

Wednesday, September 5

It was still a little drizzly when we awoke. We forced ourselves to partake of the buffet breakfast. It was very crowded in the smallish dining room We chatted with a couple from the Five Towns on Long island! Then we started our hike-of-the-day. The rain had stopped, and we found our way to the Accademia. (Once you figure out the main streets, you realize that Venice is not all that big. It's just the maze of side streets that make it tricky. And since there are NO CARS, the streets don't need to be wider than 3 feet!)  The Accademia is now an art museum filled with 100s of pictures, many of them "Madonna e bambino".  It is also the home to Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci (1487).

From there we took a vaporetto (water "bus") to the area of the Jewish Ghetto. We were walking to it with our map in front of us and a couple said (in English) "Are you looking for the Ghetto?". We said yes and they pointed in the direction to go. Turns out they were from Buffalo Grove! OY!  The Ghetto is very stark; it has two Holocaust monuments. It was the first ghetto in Europe, and, in fact, "ghetto" is the Italian word for foundry; that's what was on this site before the jews were cordoned off here. We took a tour of 3 of the oldest synagogues (one dating back to 1532!). Very ornate inside (which is unusual for a synagogue) because they were built by the Venetians because the jews were not allowed to be carpenters (only merchants, money lenders, second-hand clothes dealers, and doctors!).

We stopped for a quick lunch on our walk back; salad and pizza. We got into the place two minutes before they stopped serving (at 2:30).  They had about 30 varieties of pizza including one with "cavallo". What's that? "It's horse meat, boys!" (We just had onions and olives on ours.)

Then we stopped back in St. mark's Square and toured the Ducal Palace. Lots more BIG paintings (walls, ceilings, etc.). It was very neat. Then we sat outside at Florian (famous eatery) and had a drink (bellini for Wendy) and listened to the live "orchestra", for which they charge L7,500 per person.  After sitting and people watching for a while, we went back to the hotel and changed for dinner. Tonight it was Fischerretta Tratoria. We sat next to a couple from Chicago who had just gotten engaged while on a gondola ride!!  Here our guessing game is "Where are the tourists from?", not "What is the waiter's name?".  First, we split Spaghetti a Vongole (clam spaghetti, but the clams were like candy). Then Wendy had sea bass with olives and zucchini flowers and grilled vegetables (I see a pattern here); Wayne had a steak. Then chocolate cake and fresh berries for dessert.  After that, while walking, we stopped for gelato!  Lemon and hazelnut!

Side note: The only poultry they have on the menu is duck. We asked the waiter about chicken and he said they don't have it in this part of the country!

Thursday, September 6
Guess what? We ate breakfast again...right on schedule. Then, as we'd been instructed, we got to St. Mark's Cathedral very early (we were about 10th in line) and waited 1/2 hour for it to open.

It's really impressive inside (especially the floors for us geometric / quilt types), but there was very little explanation of things (as in many of the other "famous" churches), and we pretty much had to stay on the tourist carpet and it was a constant flow of people, so we were in and out in 10 minutes! Then we went to the top of the adjoining clock tower - great views - but we were sure to leave before the bells started to clang!!!

Side note: Update on the toilets: As noted, the train station had the hole-in-the-ground model. This is also true for many of the older buildings. But even in some of the newer buildings, the women's toilet is "regular" (Western), but the men's is just the bowl; no liftable seat! What's that about? I guess you just need to squat.).

Then we took the ferry to Murano, the glass-making island. it looked just like a little Venice. Same canals, boats, buildings, bridges, churches. We went into a few glass places (what's with the Picasso and clown faces?), and eventually bought a beautiful sculpture from one of the master glassblowers.  Then lunch: mixed salad to share, spaghetti with meat sauce (Wa), grilled sole with veggies (We - again?), cappuccino. Not bad!  Then back to the "mainland", and another relaxing time at Florian's; this time with gelato. A little more walking, and then dinner right near our hotel. Wendy: an appetizer of crab in the shell, tagliatelle with lobster sauce (to share), bream with asparagus and salad, fresh strawberries. Wayne: veal with porcini mushrooms, strawberries.  Wonderful!

Then we went back to the square for more music and gelato. The weather was so perfect, and even at 10:00 there were many people there listening to the "Battle of the orchestras" (form the various cafes lining the square!).

Side note: The shops:  Just like in France, it seems like they are all pretty specialized. The tabacheri, where you can by tobacco, cigarettes, stamps. The farmaceria - drugs and misc. toiletries (they actually hand-mixed some body lotion!). Pastercerias are bakeries. Bars serve snacks / gelato; kind of like a deli. A trattoria is more informal than a ristorante.

Time to head to Florence!


Thursday, September 7

Another mostly travel day.  We started early and saw the Museo Correr.  Lots of Venetian history - really cool. One more walk through some of the streets we had missed before, a cookie at a bakery, and then back to the Kette to check out. Took another water taxi (it pulls right up to the lobby!) back to the train station. Along the way we saw a HUGE cruise ship and wondered:  a) how it would get under those low bridges (lol) and b) what would the Venetians of 500 years ago (Masters of the Sea) have thought if they saw this behemoth steaming into port! 

The train was once again very clean, comfortable, and smooth.  It took from 12:30 - 3:30 to go to Florence (Firenze), so once again we missed lunch (we tried to eat in the snack car but couldn't decide what to get).  We got to the Hotel Silla at about 4:00. it was....quaint; like a Motel 3 - not what we're used to (though the location was excellent).  The bedroom section was ok, but there were several steps to get down there. The bathroom was the size of a small closet. The bidet, toilet, and sink were on one wall, the shower-head on the other, and a drain in the middle of the floor! That's right! No separate shower; the floor sloped so the shower water could drain out. On the other hand, as we found out the next morning, it would win an award for the best cappuccino and breakfast pastries (served on a lovely garden terrace overlooking the Arno).

Anyway....we had been told that the best gelato in Italy was at Vivoli in Florence, so we headed there straightaway!

Then we walked by the Ufizzi gallery (more later) and ended up on the Ponte Vecchio.

Even though it is not very big 9just spans the river), there are like 5,000 jewelry stores!  All selling the same stuff! After an hour or so of walking we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

Side note: We didn't fully appreciate the absence of cars in Venice until we got here. Venice was so quiet, and no car smells and you just walked down the streets. here, we first had a harrowing ride from the station (barely missing one lady on a bike and several pedestrians). it was like being in a video game! Then when WE went walking we had two narrow misses ourselves! There are literally 1,000s of motorbikes that zoom at you from every angle. They seem to be somewhat careful, and there appears to be some sort of rules / order, but it is really quite frightening.

After a little difficulty (there was no indication of the restaurant other than a small address marker!), we eventually found Murate.  Whoa!! We had the "Surprise" dinner - they don't tell you what it is until they serve it! Hey...if you can't be adventurous on vacation, when can you? Six courses! Fabulous!!! And the staff was excellent too.  Started out with Tuscan white bean soup with shrimp. Next, poached cod (quenelles) with sauce and julienned veggies. pasta (grigelle) with roasted tomatoes. Zucchini soufflé. Roulade of chicken with pistachio stuffing (for Wendy), braised beef (for Wayne; the only course we could choose). Chocolate cake with melon.  We chatted with folks from Brazil and Argentina. Then we staggered home!

Saturday, September 8

Tooday was museum (and gelati) day!  We got up early and had a great breakfast on the terrace. It started out a little chilly, but by noon it was in the low 80s. After breakfast we headed for the Accademia (yup...just like in Venice).  Since we had pre-registered we were able to bypass the line of touristas and walk right in. This is where the real David statue by Michelangelo is (there are other copies throughout Florence).

It was very impressive, especially to hear the story behind it (we eavesdropped on a guide's group).  We saw some other pictures and sculptures (but the David is the main attraction) and then headed to the Uffizi.

On the way, Wendy had her first gelato of the day (sadly, not from Vivoli).

The Uffizi was really something! it has works of art by great Italian artists such as Botticelli, Giotto, Cimabue, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Raffaello, just to name a few of the most famous. We had the tour-tape, so we learned of the history and chronology. One of the most famous pieces is "The Birth of Venus" by Botticelli.

Afterwards, we stopped for lunch at a café; outside overlooking the river. It was a simple snack, but somehow it tasted better because we were in Italy.  Wendy had tuna on focaccia; Wayne had a chicken cutlet sandwich. And the Florentine sun warmed us nicely!

Next stop: The Duomo. This is actually the Cathedral of Florence. It's dome dominates the skyline, and we climbed all 463 steps to the top!

It was pretty hot up there. You get to walk around inside and outside; not as neat as Notre Dame, but still cool. Going down was pretty easy, and by then it was time for more gelato! So we hiked over to Vivoli.  Yum!! Then we checked out the Basilica of St. Croce. We had passed by several times and thought "ho hum...another church", but...uh uh.  Inside are buried Galileo, Rossini, Fermi, Dante, Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, etc. Wow!!!! And it was a really impressive church, too. Plus, we could see the line 13' up the side of the wall from the flood of 1966.  DaVici has a memorial, but the guide was still angry that he chose to die in France instead of Italy.

Then we checked out a few hundred leather stores. Found a great ceramic store and bought a beautiful platter. Then a short stop at an internet café to send an email to a few folks back home (what a world!), then home to get ready for dinner.  We had cabbed into town in the morning, but it was so nice out we decided to walk back. What a lucky break! it turned out to be a special "Feast of St. Somebody" day and there was a long "parade" of folks dressed in traditional 15th century Florentine garb. Drummers, flags, horns, sharp swords, funny hats! neat! Well...after all that excitement, we had worked up a hankering for some gelato! So we "happened" to walk by a Vivoli on the way to the hotel. Yummo. What a long, tiring, exciting, tasty day!

But wait; there's dinner! Wayne had spaghetti with anchovies, lemon veal, Tuscan white beans 9to share) and cheesecake with berries. Wendy had Linguini with shrimp and zucchini flowers, swordfish with olives and tomatoes, fresh fruit. 

Side notes on the eateries: The service in every restaurant has been wonderful. They are so attentive and helpful and efficient. But what is so different is that when you are finished with dessert, the waiters basically disappear!  You could sit there for hours without a problem. They won't bring you the check until you call them over and ask for it!

Cappuccino after dinner is pretty frowned upon, and the "café americain" is pretty strong! And when you ask for decaf, it is usually instant.

In all of the trattorias we've eaten in, we've noticed the same pattern: up front there is a smaller seating area, right on the street, usually with an opening to the kitchen (which is visible). Then there is a second room (off to the side, further back, or upstairs), which is decorated a little nicer and may even have fancier place settings. It appears that the front room is for walk-ins while the other room is for those with reservaziones!

When you order a "glass of wine" they bring you a small carafe which must surely hold 12 oz. So you really get several glasses.

Sunday, September 9

Today we explored on this side of the Arno (where our hotel is), which we discovered is the hilly side of town!  First we walked to the Pitti Palace, some of which was built in 1548.

Wow!!! This certainly rivals Versailles. Every room has fantastic ceiling frescoes, paintings, etc., and the walls are COVERED with paintings. Most of them are huge (like 4'x4' and up). Then we went "out back" to the Boboli Gardens.

It's kind of like our botanical garden, but much, much older and with lots of statues and fountains. And it was quite a hike as there are many stairs up and down. Plus there were some fantastic views of the city.

And we had one of the top 3 lunches ever! The food was molto bene (even though, as "park food" we had had low expectations), and we were outside overlooking the entire city.  Wendy had bruschetta with tomatoes and olives; Wayne had antipasto with crostini and pate, prosciutto, and salumi. Then we shared a salad.  It was so good and relaxing that we sat there for 90 minutes, which turned out to be a little mistake as we started to doze off and found that we could hardly move when we tried to get up!   So then we walked back down to the shops and had some inferior gelato (we were way too far from Vivoli!). Then we walked back up into the hills to the Piazelle Michelangelo...

...where there is ANOTHER (bronze) copy of the David overlooking the city. The place was crawling with tourists (ugh!) and buses and cars. More inferior gelati.  Once again, we were fortunate to be there as a bride and groom and their whole family came out of the church and posed for pictures. Then we sat for a few minutos and had some fresh-squeezed very tart lemonade. Then back down the mountain to our room, change for dinner, and out again.

We went to Camilla Trattoria and had one of the best dinners of the trip. Linguini Bolognesa (una por due - one order for two - we are finally getting smart!), zucchini flowers - deep-fried and delicious, scampi with porcini mushrooms (porcinis come from Tuscany!), tomato with mozzarella, fruit tart.  We were too tired and too full to even think about gelato!!!! And it was so good, we made reservations to come back the next day! Unheard of in travel history.

Monday, September 10
Ouch!!!! Our legs were really hurting from all of the walking and climbing we did yesterday.  We woke up to a rainy, chilly day so we were forced (ha ha) to eat calazione (breakfast) in the dining room. It was a fancy room with great paintings, wall moldings, etc.  Had some more "more" (mulberry) tart. Yum - that's a-more!!!!! Then we headed out. Soon the rain stopped. We saw a few churches and by then it had started to warm up.  Due to a mix-up by our travel agent, we had to switch hotels for this night. So we went back to our hotel, got our stuff and taxied to the other one.

Side note: We have seen a lot of older women who remind us of Wendy's Gramma Doris. Whether they are widows with lots of energy, Italian ladies talking fast, or whatever, the similarities have been amazing.

This new hotel is a Best Western, which are actually a higher quality hotel in Europe; this one was rated 4 stars and it was nice.  So we checked in and then went out again, but this time it was for some serious leather coat buying (not shopping!). By the way; Vivoli's is CLOSED ON MONDAYS! So we had to suffer through an almost gelato-less day.  One of Wendy's work friends had recommended a specific leather maker's shop, so we went there. We found the most beautiful coat, and then we had to get gloves to go with it. The owner, Francesco (what else?) told us about a wonderful restaurant and gave us a discount coupon! Hmmm....what to do? Back to Camilla's for lunch!!!! Fab, and we bought a bottle of their special olive oil.

Then we walked around some more...and some more...and more. Then we tool a carriage ride. It was really great: bouncing along the cobblestone streets while the driver gave us a running dialogue, most of which we could not hear, and what we could hear we could not understand because it was in Italian!  Then we headed back to the hotel, but along the way we stopped at Gilli's in Republic Square. it has been in business since 1733!!!  We figured they must have good gelato, and we were right! So then we went back and got ready for dinner.

We ate at Panemonio ("pandemonium"), the one recommended by Francesco. it was in the Ocarno section of town, on the other side of the river, near our first hotel! We thought it would be an easy walk, but there were many confusing side streets and the numbers didn't really make sense, but eventually we stumbled across it. What a gem. The menu was entirely in Italian, so after a little coaching, we ordered:
Antipasti misto (anchovies, salted and non-salted), grilled peppers and eggplant salad, grilled steak with tomatoes (Wendy)  and mushrooms (Wayne), Tuscan beans, Cheesecake (Wa), fruit (We).
While we were eating, two Japanese ladies came in and were seated at the table next to us. We quickly recognized them as the same two who had sat next to us at Fonticini Ristorante on Saturday night!  What a small world!

As we were finishing, Francesco suddenly appeared with his entourage; apparently he is a regular. he came over to our table and greeted us and told the waiter to bring us some limoncello, the "national" drink, which they did, along with grappa (which we did not sample). Oh! It was icy cold and so sweet and so delicious - but they give you those tiny glasses for a reason: SO STRONG!

Side note: All of the restaurants play this 60s pop Muzak (usually instrumentals). Such things as "Let It Be", "Bridge over Troubled Waters", and "Whiter Shade of Pale". And this is in cafes as well as high class restaurants.

We were stuffed and quite tipsy, so we decided it would be best to get a taxi home (even though it was only about 4 blocks!), so we did and crashed into bed immediately. Zonk!


Tuesday, September 11

Moving day again!

We only had a few hours left in Florence so we went to the Bargello Museum.  It was fantastic, especially on top of what we have already seen.  In fact it was so good we didn't even have time for our last taste of Vivoli! We had to run to get back to the hotel before the noon check-out time. Then we rented a car. It was a wild ride to get out of Florence - not for the faint of heart!  We got stuck in a rotary; cars and bikes whizzing all around! But we actually made it our safely and didn't get lost.  We took a beautiful ride to Montaione; it's only about 40 miles from Florence.  We checked into our hotel which is just beautiful; a renovated 15th century palazzo with tile floors and wood beams and a fantastic view of the Tuscan countryside. We then had a simple lunch overlooking the valley. it was at a bar / deli / snack bar - we wouldn't dream of going to a place like this in the States, but it was recommended by the hotel so we risked it.  We had grilled vegetables (peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, onions), mixed olives, crostini with liver, pizza with mushrooms. Then we went to the pasticerria next door and had miniature Italian black-and-white cookies and cappuccino.

Next we drove to San Gimignano, a 10th-century walled town about 18km from here.

It was really neat from the outside, but unfortunately, the inside was just a big mall of stores, stores, stores. It was like a miniature Firenze: leather stores, gourmet food stores, ceramic shops, gelato shops, artists' stores, etc.

And then we heard about the attacks on New York and D.C.

We were in a small gallery buying some watercolors at about 3:00. As we were checking out, the clerk was on the phone. He paused and asked if we had heard about the explosions at the World Trade Center where "50,000 people had been killed". We had no idea what he was talking about, nor could we imagine. We took our purchase and left. But why would he say something like that if it weren't true? We got a sick feeling in our stomachs. We were heading back toward the entrance gate when we noticed a group of people clustering around a TV in the window of a bar. It was tuned to CNN and the headline said "America Attacked".  We watched for a few minutes in the same disbelief and shock that everyone everywhere felt. After a few minutes we hurried back to our car and drove straight to the hotel. In our room we put on CNN and saw those terrible images over and over. We tried to call home; it took us a while to get through, even longer for the kids in Connecticut and Boston, MA.  And we sat there watching for several hours.....

We had no appetite (we had earlier cancelled our dinner reservation), but eventually went in a daze down to the hotel's dining room. The food was probably wonderful, but we took no notice and practically forced ourselves to eat. The room was somber; there were other Americans there. The staff was obviously distressed and kept saying how sorry they were and could they do anything. Soon there were hand-printed signs in the lobby and elevator expressing sympathy and support for the American people. 

We spent the rest of the day and much of the next just trying to block out the anger, shock, and deep pain of what we had seen, but it was impossible. Those ghastly images kept replaying over and over in our minds. Unfortunately we live in a world that features both huge concentrations of people and the tools of technology that allow a madman to cause untold destruction if that is his intent. And when dealing with fanatics for whom heroic death is the path to martyrdom and eternal glory, we must face the disturbing reality that the game is always in their favor.

Obviously, the tragedy hung over us for the rest of the trip (we actually talked to our travel agent about leaving ASAP, but that was not to be with the grounding of all flights), but we did do what we could to instill some kind of vacation normalcy. We certainly were not going to sit and watch CNN for the next 5 days.  So on we went.


Wednesday, September 12

Today we went to Siena.

We started by taking the scenic route, but after driving through Pogibonsi several times we decided to get on the Autostrada.  We finally got there after an hour and a half.  It was way better than San Gimignano. It is much bigger and there are more churches so the stores seem less "Woodfieldy".  The biggest tourist attraction is the Piazzo del Campo, the main town square, and the clock tower, the Torre del Mangia.

First we climbed the 400 (aarrgghh!!) stairs to the top of the bell tower. From there we could see the entire countryside and the wall of the original town.  Then down...not so easy.

next we went into several churches. The neatest was in the Duomo Cathedral which is the only church where the entire floor is covered with marble inlay pictures of biblical scenes, etc.  The amazing thing is that many of those scenes are only uncovered once a year - in September!! So we were very lucky to be able to see them.

Then we had a nice lunch of linguini with rucola and shrimp salad with radicchio and asparagus. Oh...and some very good gelato.  many more stairs and lots of walking. Then we got back on the A2 and made it directly back to Montaione.  And of course, another dinner. We ate at Carpe Diem. Wayne had linguini con vongole (clams); Wendy had linguini with pesto and tomatoes. Then we shared steak with porcini mushrooms and white beans. Then a "delicate almond cake".  It was just a neighborhood spot, but very down-to-earth and delicious.  What was more memorable was when the waitress took our United Airlines credit card. She asked if we were Americans, then went on to express her condolences for the tragedy.  This was the same sentiment echoed at our hotel; they said it was our home away from home and would be happy to provide anything we needed.  All of these people did provide some solace to us.

Thursday, September 13

Today we visited two smaller towns in the region. We took the SI-FI Highway (yes! Siena - Firenze) back toward Siena, but turned off and headed to Monteriggioni. The roads here are great! The autostrada is very nice and here, too (as in Florence) people are good drivers. The country roads are two-lane and very windy (as in switchbacks); first up then down, but there was very little traffic so the driving was wonderful. And we passed by many fields of sunflowers - some yellow and pointing their smiling faces skyward; others withered and sere with their heads bowed down. And many, many vineyards with purple grapes hanging heavy on the vines. 

So Monteriggioni (built in the early 1200s!) was like San Gimignano, a walled "city", only smaller, less crowded, less touristy, and fewer stores. So it was more in its "raw" state. There were lots of signs explaining the history and architectural details of the walls and towers.

Then we went back through the countryside to the Etruscan town of Volterra (basically, several thousand years old!). A large walled city complete with piazzas, churches, and an internet café! This town was recommended by our hotel as the perfect place for a picnic...and they were so right! The gardens (in the shadow of a medieval castle) were beautiful. We bought some paninis, grilled veggies and some pastries. And, despite the tiny ants, the picnic was very romantic.

Then we drove back through the countryside (we've put on about 400km already!).

Dinner was at Casa Masi, a Tuscan farmhouse about 10 minutes (in the other direction) from our hotel. It was a really pretty room.  We had mushroom soup (Wa), ravioli filled with mushrooms in an onion sauce (We), veal with lemon sauce (Wa), roasted squab in a sweet wine sauce (We). Dessert was the mixed platter, which included chocolate-dipped strawberries, cheesecake, apple tart, chocolate mousse, and cake with pine nuts. overkill? You bet!!!  But fun and tasty.

Friday, September 14

before breakfast we walked around the old part of town. Really quaint, but it still is a town - people live and work there! We went to an open air market, which included not only the normal fruits and vegetables, but also fresh fish, roasted chicken, cheeses, clothes and books! They have this market once a week, so again we were lucky to see this slice of real Italian life.

Had a lovely breakfast and then checked out of Palazzo Mannaione. Once again, the staff was just fantastic. In every place we've stayed everyone has been so nice.

So we took the two-lane through to Poggibonsi (now a very familiar way to go) and then on the autostrada to Siena to catch our train to Rome.  Here is where the word "harrowing" comes into play. We needed to drop the car off at Avis before noon (or pay extra), and our train is scheduled to leave at 12;20. It's 10:51 - no problem, right?  uh-uh. Siena is the worst for finding your way around by car!!!  Like all of the Italian cities, the streets are marked (if at all!) by a stone slab carved into a wall of a building on the corner. So it is nearly impossible to come up to an intersection and see the name of the cross street! We had a map (provided by our hotel) of the street where the Avis drop-off location was, but we had no idea how to get to that street or even what street we were on once we left the autostrada! D'oh! That was a blunder! So we stopped to ask a caribinieri (who no spoke English). He drew a line on our map and pointed. We followed it and after a while ended up.....somewhere! So we asked another polizia and he said left, right, left. Next thing we knew we were headed toward the on-ramp for the autostrada!!!! Yikes! So we pulled over and jumped out and asked a pedestrian (who luckily was Canadian) and she pointed and said "Stay right". We drove and did and found the correct street!!!  AAArrrgghhh!!! it was 10 feet from where we were after polizia #2!  We drove down the street (it was only 2 blocks long - no wonder we couldn't find it!), and still couldn't see the Avis place! So we asked another pedestrian and he said "Go back 300 meters". We blocked traffic and made a U-turn and drove back and there it was: a tiny store-front with only a little "Avis" sticker on the door!  Sheesh!  We were looking for a good old American huge-lot-rental-car-return center! We parked - again blocking traffic as it was a narrow street - and ran inside and....nobody there!!!!!!!!! "Buon Giorno", we shouted. After un minute someone came in the front door....the employees were having coffee at the bar next door!  What time was it? 11:55!!! One hour to find the place!!!! We said "Here's our key, please call a taxi".  One came a few minutes later. Luckily, the stazzione was only a short ride away, and Mr. Taximan knew the way, so we got there at 12:05 and made our train! Whew!!!!!!

Rome and home....

Monday, September 17

On the train to Rome!

First class is great! The bags go in the overhead. The only scary thing was getting on in the first place: it was quite a high step up!  The trains usually run on time (so we were told), but ours was 30 minutes late getting into Chiusi, where we had to switch trains for Rome. So once again we had to hustle to make the connection. Run up one flight of stairs (with our luggage of course), then down another...only to find that the next train was late coming in!  Puff...puff.

Finally got into Rome at 4 pm and checked into the Hotel Mascagni. Another winner!  A tiny lobby, but a beautiful dining room (with rosebuds on each table), and a lovely room with a big bathroom and fluffy towels!  So we dropped our stuff and went right out and walked to the Coliseum.

Wow!  Really cool.  But we didn't see any lights, so we assumed they don't have any night games!!
By the time we got there it was 5:45 and it closes at 7, so we had no time to dawdle.  Really neat to see it in person after having seen so many pictures and read so much about it. They had a lot of explanatory signs and exhibits on the "mezzanine" level.

Then we headed for the Forum (nearby), but it got dark and was starting to rain, so we hopped into the subway. It was very crowded as it was rush hour. Pretty much like the CTA except the outsides of the cars were COVERED with very pretty graffiti pictures. (We assumed it was graffiti and not "official" art.) 

Then out for dinner..a walk in the rain (so romantic! so vacation!)...and when we got to the restaurant (d'Oro) they had special plastic bags for each umbrella so they wouldn't drip on the floor!!!  The food was yummy. Wendy had linguini with pine nuts, arugula, and tomatoes. Wayne had a platter full of mussels and clams. Divine!   Wendy then had grilled sea bass with chicory; Wayne had pepper steak. For dessert a chocolate tartuffo (Wa) and mixed gelati with pineapple (We).

Side note: NONE of the hotel rooms we've been in have had any kind of clock! Unusual for the U.S. of course, but here it makes sense. Why? Because they all have those clock towers which chime out the time.....even through the night!

Saturday, September 15

Our last day!
So we had to make the most of it (Translation: MEGA-WALKING!).

First things first: breakfast! Sugar-glazed croissants!  Yummo.

The metro was close to our hotel and the things we wanted to see, so we bought an all-day pass. It was about 8:30 and not crowded at all.  First stop: The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.  We got in a line that was about two blocks long (a lot of groups) at 8:55. It moved quickly and we were inside the building at 9:10.  You have to go through the Museum part to get to the chapel (and it seemed like there was a gift shop every 20 feet along the way!).

We had audioguides and they were very informative. Many rooms of tapestries, statues, frescoes,
paintings, etc.  Finally, everyone is funneled into the chapel. It was beautiful...but hard to keep looking up as so many people were crowding around and the ceiling is so high. But what a sight!

Then we walked a few blocks to St. Peter's. Really impressive! The square! the church!

Inside are statues of many Popes (and even John Paul's body in a glass case!). The best was
Pius XII (?) because his statue had glasses!  This was so incongruous with the hundreds of stern-faced statues we've seen the last 2 weeks.  We then stood in line to go to the top of the dome, but it wasn't moving at all and the thought of another several-hundred-step climb was just too much.

Side note: Wendy had visited here in the summer of '74. Her recollection: "When I was first here I was struck by the contrast between the extravagance of St. Peter's and the poverty outside in the piazza. I had heard that they'd "cleaned up" the number of beggars, and it did seem like there are fewer, but we did see more people begging here than elsewhere. And the extravagance of St. Peter's hadn't changed at all."

We hopped back on the metro and went to the Spanish Steps.

They were neat, but covered with people and not as big as Wayne had envisioned based on pictures he'd seen (maybe they're bigger when no one is on them!). Then, guess what? It was time for lunch.  We went to a pizzeria that was supposed to be good, but it was closed! At 1:30!!! So we ate at the first place we saw. Wow! We sat outside and had delicious salads, but we realized later we never even saw the name of the restaurant! Then we went back to the Steps because Wendy said "We have to climb them! Everyone does!". Well....she did, Wayne didn't. 

Then Wendy bought some genuine Italian leather shoes at Bruno Magli.

Then we walked over to the Trevi Fountain.

It was very big and beautiful, but, again, swarming with tourists. We did not realize, and I'd bet a lot of other people don't either, that it is actually built into the side of a building!  Of course, like any fountain, one must throw in coins to make a wish. The throng of tourists was about 10 deep, so we could not get close. So Wendy took a coin and took a big wind-up and threw a hard, fast one...right into the head of a lady 5 feet away!! Ouch!!  She turned around and we both acted nonchalant as we tried to stifle our giggles.

By now it was close to 3:00 - traditional time for gelato (at least for us!). We went to Crispino's; supposed to be the best place in Italy. It was very good!  What was different about it was that they keep the gealti covered (with fancy chrome lids) instead of showcasing the actual fruit, etc.  They also have a wider variety of flavors including pear. Wendy had ginger/cinnamon. #1? Perhaps!!!

Then we walked to the Pantheon.

Next, the Piazza del Popolo, full of obelisks, fountains and statues. The piazzas all over Italy are cool; we don't have anything like this at home.

Finally, at about 6:00, we staggered back to the metro. Even though it was Saturday, it was jam-packed. We almost couldn't get off at our stop! Then a little rest before our last big meal. We realized that we had never gotten back to the Forum!!  OK: a good reason to return!

We went to Piperno in the Jewish ghetto - based on multiple recommendations for their fried artichokes. To get there we took a taxi to the other side of town; the restaurant is located in a little courtyard off of an alley. We started with the artichokes; fantastic! Spaghetti Bolognese to share, veal for Wayne, sea bass (again!) for Wendy. This "sea bass" is different than the Chilean variety we get at home. Sides of green beans and fried zucchini flowers. They were not as good as some because they were stuffed with cheese!. The final dessert was wild strawberries with gelato (We) and chocolate gelato (Wa).   Ahhhhhhhh................

We got back to the hotel after a breathtaking (not in a good way!) taxi ride.  Back in the room we packed, settled our bill, talked to the parents and the kids, and called it a day.

One last ride.......

Sunday, September 16

The whole week we had been following the news, especially about when airports might re-open and flights might get back on schedule.  As it turned out, our flight to Chicago was the first one that was allowed to leave as planned.  So we were very apprehensive about actually getting out.  We got to the airport 3 1/2 hours early!  They checked our passports before we even got in the check-in line! Then we waited in that line for 2 hours! There were many machine-gun-armed guards everywhere (even more so since our check-in line was right next to one for El Al!). When we got to the front they checked our passports again, plus our tickets, and gave us the boarding passes. They also gave us luggage tags and labeled our bags and taped them shut!  The next stop was at another counter for passport check #3! More questions about our trip and our luggage; then it finally made it to the conveyor belt.  Then we proceeded to x-ray. It was another long line, but we got through in about 10 minutes (which was good, because the flight time was 1:15 and it was now after noon!). After x-ray, yup, passport check #4....and this time they finally stamped them.  Next, to the monorail shuttle which took us to our gate. We passed duty-free shops along the way, but had neither the time, nor the money, nor the desire to stop.

At the gate! And....passport check #5.  Also some random baggage checks by stern-faced caribinierri, but we were not selected.  Finally we boarded, and it looked like we would be late taking off. We noticed the flight attendants were all wearing special white ribbons. The pilot came on and announced we would be delayed for about an hour to ensure that everyone could board. This was understandable and perfectly fine with us.  He also talked very openly about last week's events (this was a United flight), and the precautions we'd all experienced, and that there were many other behind-the-scenes precautions going on as well. He was very reassuring.  Finally, we took off. Bye-bye, Italy. When lunch was served (we were in business), it was as usual except that the knives were plastic. Another reminder of what had happened and what we'd be going home to.

The flight was nominal. We talked about our trip and how great it was, but also about the tragic events of last Tuesday. How strange it was not to be there. What it must have been like for the whole country. When (if ever) things would return to normal.

As we approached O'Hare, the pilot came on and said "Welcome back to the USA everyone".  I think all of the passengers were holding their breath as we descended.  And when we finally touched down, we all broke out in applause.  It was quite an emotional moment.