A Taste of Italy: A First Journey

A Taste of Italy: A First Journey

I’ve traveled to Europe six times in the past, but this was my first visit to Italy. I’m still trying to figure out what took me so long to go there. Since it was our first trip and we wanted the overview, our trip was decidedly not Slow Travel. But it made me realize that the next one will be!

Despite my dislike for hot weather, my husband and I are constrained by my school-year schedule. Therefore, any serious travel must take place during the hot summer months. We planned for six months for the trip, and relied on a travel agent for logistical support (airline and train tickets, hotel reservations, etc.). Our first European trip together several years ago was a three-week foray into France, Belgium and England, including a car rental part of the time. For this trip we decided to give in to our fear of driving in Italy, and stick to public transport.

Our stay in Rome can be characterized by a strong desire to see as much as we could in five days. Consequently, after a one hour nap upon arrival, we set out to see the “musts”. We began by visiting the nearest site near our hotel, Santa Maria del Angeli, which is built among the ruins of the Baths of Diocletian. We later ate at a nearby restaurant which was built in one of the remaining tours of the baths (“Terme di Diocleziano”, via del Viminale 3- across from Palazzo Massimo, around the corner from Termini station). As it was our anniversary, we sort of wined and dined on the roof terrace. The staff were very charming and the food very good. We enjoyed some good Chianti with our dinner, and ended with their bottomless glasses of limoncello! That’s how I found out my new medication didn’t mix well with alcohol…

We took a half-day guided tour of Ostia Antica the following day. I had the same feeling there as I experienced in Ephesus (Turkey) some years ago, that it almost seemed to live still- as if a togaed Roman might suddenly appear from a doorway. I strongly recommend visiting this site.

That afternoon we took the Metro to see the Colosseum. There were plenty of guides there; we checked that ours was a licensed one. The guide represented himself as a former teacher of Greek and Roman history; he was quite good, based on all I’d read before coming and what I’d learned from travel over the years. Later we wandered on Palatine Hill and down into the Forum. Whew! It was well over 90 degrees that day, so you can imagine how we reacted when we found that the air conditioning in our hotel room had stopped working. It was soon fixed, but tended to shut off for short periods during the night for the rest of our stay. Also during our Roman holiday we enjoyed coffee on the Piazza Navona; wondering at the Pantheon; gaping at the Vatican Museums (although it felt a bit like a slow motion cattle drive, given the crowds); and continually being amazed at finding ancient buildings in unexpected places all over Rome. We made a point of visiting the Jewish Ghetto of Rome, including the museum there and the synagogue. These days being what they are, there were armed guards and plenty of security precautions around the building. Since the Jewish community of Rome is the oldest continuous one in Europe, the visit was quite meaningful.

The next day we set off for Florence. Arriving at Termini station well ahead of time, we searched the departures board for the train to Florence. Since we saw nothing, we asked at the railway information booth and were told it would be posted 10 minutes before departure. We did wait. Nothing… nothing… nothing. About 8 minutes before departure we asked another person at the information desk and were told, “Oh, it’s the train for Milan, binario 3.” We had just enough time to make the train. Needless to say, we learned to ask very specific questions after that.

Florence Ah, Florence! I have a friend who says she cannot understand anyone who doesn’t love Florence. Fortunately, our friendship endures.

Despite the blast-furnace heat that greeted us there, we fell in love with the city. Our hotel was very close to the Mercato Centrale, and I wasted no time in finding it. I can only describe it as a food version of a jewelry store. For someone like me, who loves to cook and taste, it was an experience I will never forget. The aromas, sights and sounds had me whirling so as not to miss anything. Although I wanted to buy so many things and cook them, I had to settle for some fresh figs and some vacuum-packed dried porcini mushrooms.

My husband and I were very happy to meet our own Diva (Judy of Divina Cucina). We met for a drink and she gave us the inside scoop on many aspects of Florence and Tuscany, including what it’s like to live there and what should not be missed on the culinary scene. With her guidance, we enjoyed a wonderful dinner at a friend’s restaurant (Trattoria Antellesi, via Faenza 9/r). She also showed me a housewares store, where I bought a mezzaluna, and an out-of-this-world fabric store, where I later bought four cushion covers for my sofa.

Speaking of dining, we also enjoyed a wonderful meal at Le Fonticine (via Nazionale79n). The food was very good, the service traditional. Judy put us on to Trattoria Flexo (Piazza Mercato Centrale), and also Trattoria Za-Za, where we had two other good meals at reasonable prices.

Also while in Florence, we took a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano. Siena was poised for the Palio, so the racecourse on the Campo was already covered with soil, and the bleachers set up around the square. To me, Siena is saturated with a feeling of the Renaissance. It seeps from its stones and can be evoked in the faces of its people. Thinking of paintings I’ve seen from that period, it was easy to imagine the 21st century Sienese clothed in the rich colors of the 15th century.

Siena has its culinary attractions, too. I got my first taste of panforte, and was hooked on the nero version of the dessert. The pastry shops were filled with other specialties of the city and of Tuscany. I had to shop quickly, lest I outgrow my clothes. I nibbled on that panforte for the remainder of our trip. Of course, I had to buy some to bring home, too.

San Gimignano had a different feel. We didn’t have much time for that part of the trip, so we remained on the main street… until we caught a glimpse of a Raphael painting at the end of a street. No, it was the Chianti hills we saw, looking for all the world like a living painting. The part of the town we saw seemed to me too neat, too restored to give me the same historical sensation as Siena. Still, I would advise a visit.

Our hotel desk had reserved places for us at the Accademia and the Uffizi, so we had only to wait a short time to enter these galleries. I can hardly improve on others’ reactions to Michaelangelo’s masterpiece, but be assured I was totally in awe of the sculpture. The icons were another highlight, as was the exhibition of paintings on the theme of the myth of Lida and the Swan.

Later that day we learned that a strike was planned for our Uffizi day, but we decided to wander down there anyway. We were rewarded with entry to the gallery, although many rooms were closed. We felt really lucky!

Venice As we got off the train in Venice, we were rewarded with a refreshing, cool breeze. In fact, the weather was mostly cool and pleasant from then on. What a relief! I’d suffered from swollen legs from the heat, so I was quite happy at this change. Getting vaporetto tickets was an adventure. We bought a 3-day pass, as it was cheaper than daily tickets for two days. After several wrong turns, we found our hotel. I must say that our hotel was wonderful. The view included the domes of San Marco and the bell tower- fantastico!

My impression of that part of Venice was of being in an open-air maze. The streets are narrower than the corridors of the middle school in which I teach. I once heard that women navigate by using landmarks, while men use street names and highway numbers. In our case, I found this to be true. I got lost less often, as I navigated by using store displays and buildings as landmarks while my husband tried to remember street names. Still, it was confusing, and we had the urge to drop crumbs on the ground!

Our hotel was very close to Piazza San Marco, so we went there after leaving our bags at the hotel. My first view of this square won’t be forgotten, as it exceeded my expectations. Although crammed with tourists and flying rats (a/k/a pigeons), it was still very impressive. We wandered the square and its nearby streets, not really caring if we got lost.

That night we ate in a trattoria serving Venetian specialties, Trattoria della Scala. I tried a primo piatto called “sarde al saor”, in the hope of capturing some of the feeling of the city. I didn’t; it was very salty although I do like sardines. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate it, but the mixture of sardines, onions, pine nuts and raisins in a vinegar sauce wasn’t my favorite. The sea bass main course was very good, however.

The next day we took a pre-arranged tour to Murano, Burano and Torcello. This trip was another of becoming educated, as this trip would have been better-taken on our own by vaporetto rather than a boar tour, as we had only 30 minutes at each stop. We watched a demonstration of Murano glass-making before being taken to show rooms of the factory. There was not enough time to appreciate all of the styles and some of the wonderful art pieces in the showroom before we were herded onto the boat for Burano. Again, not enough time to appreciate the handiwork, this time of lace-makers. At Torcello we saw an old church and some Roman-era ruins, but 20 minutes was more than enough time for everyone in our group.

I found the Basicila astounding. The half-sunken floor, ornate floor, dazzling decorations… wow. It gave just a hint of the wealth that built Venice.

Off to Milan! The Duomo there is a knock-out, and the fresco of The Last Supper impressive, but this city is not really for tourists. We had planned to use it as down-time, but ended up wandering all over the center of town around the Vittorio Emanuele galleria, ogling the designer stores. I wish now we’d have spent another day each in Rome and Venice, and skipped Milan.

The last five days were spent in Switzerland. The goal was to enjoy a “Tops of Switzerland” tour of the Jungfrau at Interlaken and Mount Pilatus at Lucern, but we were greeted with thick clouds at each place. Regardless, we ascended both heights, as my husband had never been to the Alps. I experienced some effects of the altitude, which I hadn’t encountered before, so we took it easy on both summits.

Although this was my first visit to Italy; I am sure more will follow! Having experienced it in the “hit and run” style, I am certain the next visit will be Slow Travel-style. We’ll search for a nice apartment or villa with a decent kitchen so we can really explore the bounty of this wonderful country. Be assured we’ll check with our friends at Slow Travel for advice and ideas!

Hotels List Rome: Hotel Nord Nuova Roma, 3 stars A refurbished hotel near Termini station. Very helpful staff, very clean. Good breakfast buffet. Air conditioning worked fair, but sort of shut down at night- an issue in warm seasons.

Florence: Hotel Basilea, 3 stars Located near Mercato Centrale. Refurbished nicely. Small shower. Clean, very helpful staff. To work properly, window had to be left open a bit to allow cool air from air conditioning to come out of the vent. Resulted in nasty mosquito bites!

Venice: Hotel Bonvecchiati, 3 stars Good location not far from St. Mark’s Square. Very well-refurbished and maintained, even had alabaster sinks. Excellent air conditioning system. Efficient staff.

Milan: Mercure Relais (Formerly Hotel Adriatic), 3 stars Business hotel, much like a Holiday Inn except that the shower was extremely small. Prize-winning buffet breakfast. Not centrally located, but not too far from Metro, just off the ring road. Very helpful staff.

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