Thursday, May 09, 2013

ITALY May 8th to 20th 2013

So, 2013 is my year off from racing and we finally made it to Europe. For years we had been discussing a holiday which did not involve a race...and we finally narrowed it down to Italy. Our trip was, fly into Venice take the train to Florence (day trip to Sienna by bus), take the train to Naples (Day trips to Capri and Pompaii), take the train to Rome and fly out of Rome.

Venice 2 days one night.
Florence 3 days four nights
Naples 2.5 days two nights
Rome 3 days four nights

Few details:
1) We flew US Air.
2) Did all the BnB Bookings on Airbnb. Worked out really well.
3) Booked all our train tickets between the Italian cities from the US through the TrenItalia site. ( click on the UK flag (top right of the screen) for English language. You need to create an account and after that it is pretty simple.

Things to do:
1) Inform your Credit Card Company/Debit Card (Bank) about your trip details.
2) Get a Europe telephone plan/Data plan for the trip.
3) Get the Rick Steves book on Italy - electronic version. We down loaded it on our kindle. Excellent resource.
4) Down load all the Rick Steves podcasts for the various museums and other attractions. They are pretty good.
5) Get printout of all directions.
6) Be Prepared to walk 8-10 miles a day in Florence and Rome.
7) Buy an Italian/English translation book.
8) Get an Italian/US plug-point for your chargers and carry all your chargers.
9) Buy a money belt and carry cash. We figured, if you eat out for both, lunch and dinner - it will be ~€35.00 for two per meal with wine. So about €70 a day. We had lunch out and dinner at home.
10) Buy the Florence Pass (€50/head) and Rome Pass (€34/head) - it may seem expensive, but it saved a lot of time. Specially in Florence. The Florence Pass covers almost all the museums and is valid for 72 hours from first use. Rome Pass covers two attractions and then you get discounts for others and is valid for 3 days including the day you first use, if you use the Rome pass in the evening you lost that entire day, your pass will be valid for the next two days only.
11) We carried thin towels with us, some BnBs had old looking towels - we used ours instead. Bed linen was clean everywhere we stayed.

The trip:

Venice: BnB was nice. Clean and relatively quiet. The room was at San Silvestro Square which was a 2 min walk from the Rialto bridge and about 10 mins from San Marco square.

We landed in at 9:30AM. We took the Alilaguna boat to Rilato bridge. The trip took about an hour and 20 mins but was a great introduction to the grand canal. We had a 10 min walk to San Silvestro Square. Demitri was at the room to meet us.
After settling in, we walked to San Marco square and then along the water front. It was HOT so we came back and slept for a few hours. In the evening we walked to the train station - 30 min walk through the maze of small alleys. From there we walked back to Rilato and stopped for dinner at one of the waterfront restaurants. Lots of Bangladesh waiters! After a decent dinner we strolled to San Marco Square and listened to the live bands playing. Sat there for a few hours. Beautiful evening. We crashed at 12:30am.

Video: Venice Evening


Dinner in Venice

Venice at night

May 10th. Dimitri made breakfast for us and we then walked to San Marco Square and went up the tower - excellent views of Venice. We walked through the Duomo of San Marco and slowly made our way back to Rilato for a quick lunch and then picked up our bags and took the Vapporetti to the station. Our train for Florence was on time.

Reached Florence at 6:30pm. It was raining. We bought our bus tickets at the station newspaper shop and caught the number 22 bus to Maragliano and San Jacobin St, it was PACKED!! We had no idea where the bus was, luckily there was an English speaking Italian on the bus, he told us where to get off. Could not find the place so called Flavio. Debora came out of the house to show us the place. We were right there. Flavio and Debora welcomed us into their lovely place and after showing us where everything was they suggested we go to the local pizza place, San Jacobino pizza, for dinner. AWESOME pizza. Packed with locals, the house wine and pizza were delicious.

May 11th. After a fitful night's sleep we were up at 7:00AM. Flavio and Debora had left for their trip. We made some coffee and headed to the station to buy our tickets to Sienna on the 12th. We walked across to the tourist information office (The TI Office is across the road from the station) and bought our Florence passes which were €50.00 each, but did not have any waiting time at the museums. We walked along the Arno river and just waltzed into the Uffize museum. After 3+ hours we strolled out - fascinated. We had a quick bite at a roadside tavern and walked to the Museum Veccio. The Florence Card works for almost all museums in the city and includes free city transport for 72 hours from activation. We walked up the Veccio tower 210 steps for a super view of Florence. We the walked to the Duomo, the crowning dome that defines Florence, and walked up the tower...410 steps for an even more awesome view of the city. We could see the viewing gallery on top of the Duomo. Unfortunately the Duomo museum had closed. We walked to the Academia and again waltzed past the lines due the Florence card. Wandered around and saw the star attraction 'David'. The unfinished Michelangelo (or so most people think) statues were super. The profusion of Medici sanctioned art depicting Mary and baby Jesus were just fantastic and overwhelming.
At 6:40pm we were done! We strolled back to the pizza place and polished off two pizzas.

Florence Skyline

Replica of David - outside the Uffizi

Fountain of Neptune - Out side the Uffizi

May 12: Got up to and checked our email for the first time since leaving the US. Well, our Rome booking had been cancelled because the 'host' was unwell!! I logged onto Airbnb and tried a place and sent out an email. We had tickets for Sienna so we had to leave the house by 8:15am. The bus station is like India. Total free for all. We managed to get on the Rapido bus to Sienna - an hour and twenty min trip. Once there we walked to the square and climbed to the top of the 'Torre del Mangia' tower. Sienna is not called 'little Florence' for nothing. If I have to see my photographs in a few months they will look the same. But Sienna is cute, we followed the intercity flag rivals and just walked around. The black and white cathedral was super! We stopped for lunch at the main square...finally got Wifi! And figured out that the booking we had sent out in the morning for Rome did not go through! Back to the grind. By 2:00 pm we were done with sienna. Wandered around till 4.00 pm and again had an Indian moment getting into the bus back to Florence.

Sienna skyline

Sienna flag march


We got back to the BnB, called Flavio and asked if it was on to use the laptop. Looked for a place and sent in our booking. Then went back to the pizziaria San Jacopino's for dinner. Got back and Debora and Flavio were back from their trip. Had a glass of wine and discussed Italy/India, politics and finally called it a night at 10:30pm. 13th was to be a light day - no Pisa trip as we had to figure out the Rome BnB situation.

Video: Florence from Pitti Palace.

Florence BnB was nice, clean and very comfy it also had a garden! Flavio and Deborah had left the house to us for 2 nights while they went to France.

May 13th.
We got up at 8:00 and spent almost 3 hours looking for a BnB in Rome. After several declines we finally got one and we left the house at 10:40 for Pitti Palace which is across the Arno river. The place was about a 40 min walk and we crossed at the Pointe Vaccio bridge which is open only to pedestrians. We spent 3 hours walking along the gardens and checked in to the various museums at the Pitti (All covered by the Florence Card). We then walked across the bridge to check out the cathedral and the Duomo museum. We got back at 6:30PM and sat with Flavio and Debroa, who cooked a super dinner for us, and polished off a couple of bottles of wine while discussing topics from politics to religion to prices of land in Bombay, Florence and San Francisco. Flavio loves Bombay and has visited often for business (antiques). Flavio and Debora are wonderful hosts and awesome folks.

Michelangelo's unfinished Pietà

Donatello's Magdalene Penitent

Our hosts in Florence

May 14th
Got up at 8:00 and made our way to the station. The train was on time. We had a nice 2:30 hour ride to Naples. We were warned about Naples and that it was rough and dangerous. We got off at Napoli Centralle. Went to the tourist office (located in the station) and picked up a map, asked for train directions to Dante Square (Piazza Dante). On a whim we decided to walk to our BnB and the lady at the TI said it was a 30/40 min walk. Off we went. Naples felt, smelt and was as messy and crowded as Bombay. We stopped several times to ask for directions and finally we found our BnB. The roads were really narrow, almost like Venice. Elizebettet showed us our apartment and gave us a 15 min review on what to do in Capri and Pompaii. The BnB was very cool, split level and a private apartment. Given that Naples is where the Pizza was invented she told us to visit a small pizza place just below where we were staying. It was good stuff. Naples was a bit of a shock, graffiti, crowds and hot! We walked to the port and checked out our morning route and the time it would take. And were in bed at midnight.

Naples BnB

May 15th
We got up early and caught the 8:05 ferry to Capri. Went straight to the Blue Grotto booking and we were the first folks there. The weather was perfect and once we made our way into the grotto the guide asked us to look back!!! WOW!! The blue was incredible! The place was really cool. We were back at the main port in an hour! Rick Steves book was spot on...arrive early and skip the crowds at the grotto. We then took the Funcicular to Capri and then the bus to Anacapri. From there we rode the chair lift to the top of Mount Solaro. The views were spectacular!! The clouds were just about rolling in. We then hiked down to Anacapri (40 minutes) and strolled around the little town. We made our way back to Capri by bus (which was packed) and floated around at the port. Tried the lemonchello, pretty nice. We met and talked with a wonderful girl, Carmelita, from Naples. She teaches Spanish in Capri. We chatted all the way back to Naples and exchanged emails to keep in touch. The hand movements and gestures in Naples is just awesome to watch. It was overcast by evening. Naples has a lot of police presence around...a heck of a lot, including military folks. They have made big strides in cleaning up the crime over the last few years. There were many young kids at the squares and all the commotion and cops did feel safe and good. The city is definitely on the up.

Video: Blue Grotto.


Blue Grotto - Capri


With Carmelita at the Naples Port

May 16th.
We were up early. Packed up and walked to the bus station to get a bus to Pompaii. It was raining. Our 4.00 umbrella from Florence was already on its last legs. The bus trip was 30 minutes. We could not get a guide so we bought one of those 12.00 books (got it for 7.00) and we just wandered around reading up on stuff. Pompaii is brutal...warm, unshaded and relentless ruins :). We finally called it a day a 2:30 and made our way back to Garibaldi Station (Napoli Centralle). We hung around the station area waiting for our 5:00PM train to Rome and had a nice comfy ride. The TrainItalia goes at 300kmph!! Pretty cool! In an hour we were in Rome! We found our way to the TI (it is on Platform 24, where the trains leave for Fiumicino Airport) and bought Rome Passes. We made our way to the Metro and Ambra's boyfriend let us into the apartment. We bought some bread, salami and called it a night.




May 17th.
Got up at 7:30AM – it was pouring Romans and ruins! By 8:30 it had settled in to an overcast morning. 9:15AM we took the metro to St. Peters Square. We got into the line to visit the Vatican Museum. The line was long, wrapped around the Vatican wall but it was moving fast. Several guides came by selling their services for a guided tour and a guarantee of not having to stand in line. We almost took them up, but decided to go it alone and. We were inside within an hour. The museum was incredible! The highlight for me was the sculpture of ‘Laocoon and His Sons’ – absolutely brilliant. We managed to skip the exit for the general public and got into the Sistine Chapel by following one of the guided tours. That saved us at least an hour of waiting in line outside. We took the long route to the Sistine, stopping along the way to see the profusion of art. I had downloaded the Rick Steves podcasts for the Sistine Chapel and once we made our way into the crowded center – we just stood there looking up at the masterpiece. The wall behind the alter 'The Last Judgement' was incredible too. The finer points of the explanation through the podcasts really helped us understand the panels and 'The Last Judgement' behind the alter. After the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel we made our way to the St Peter’s Cathedral – now that is something – a thing of immense beauty and scale! The Pieta by Michelangelo is a bit far and put behind bulletproof glass at a slight height – it is not the best vantage point, but the beauty of that sculpture is hard to miss. We were out at 4:00pm and wandered around the Square. Stopped for a quick coffee and walked into National Museum of Castle Sant’ Angelo which was built as Hadrian’s mausoleum. Nothing much to see there – we then crossed the Tiber and wandered around to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain and made it home after a stop at McDonalds for a break from Pizzas and Pasta...the guy at the counter in McDonalds says, ‘Take the chicken burger – it is ready’...only in Italy! Got back to the BnB and chilled out for the rest of the evening

The statue of Laocoön and His Sons

Sistine Chapel

St. Peter's Basilica

Statue of St Peter at St. Peter's Basilica

Mosaic - "The Alter of the Lie"

St. Peter's Basilica


Looking over Piazza del Popolo

Trevi Fountain

At the Colosseum

Colosseum pillar


May 18th.
We left the house at 9:40 and took the train to the Colosseum. Since we had bought the Roma Pass - we skipped the lines and walked right in. Sweet! We spent a few hours walking around, again the Rick Steves podcast was perfect. Then we walked past The Arch of Constantine to the Roman Forum and spent a few hours tracing the steps taken by the Caesars and about a billion other tourists! Augustus’s Villa was closed, but we wandered around the gardens and then decided to take a long lunch. We walked along the streets until we found a place we liked and plonked ourselves for a good two hour lunch. Post lunch we walked to the Circus Maximus and spent an hour resting at Tiber Island (small island in the middle of the Tiber) watching folks fish. We then walked past the Spanish Steps (not sure why this is so famous!) and made our way to Piazza Navona and Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers (Ganges is one of the statues). We walked on to the Pantheon – the dome that inspired the domes in Florence, Vatican and everywhere else. We stopped at some of the better known pizza places and coffee houses along the way. We then walked back to Metro station and called it a night.

May 19th.

A day with no agenda. We decided to check out the other side of the Tiber, Trestavere area. We walked around without any game plan – revisited a few areas - Spanish Steps to Piazza del Popolo to Borgese Garden to the Piazza Venezia and Victor Emmanual building, museum and church behind it. We crossed the Tiber to Trastevere area, had a long lunch - stopped for a campari/orange at the Tiber Island and once again made it to Camp de fiori - this time for a long dinner. Then traced our way back to the Metro via the Trevi fountain.

And - just like that our trip had come to an end. Loved my first visit to Europe and Italy. Florence was certainly the highlight of my trip.

Metro in Rome was really easy to use. Great directions, well marked on the floor with arrows and train directions leading to each platform.

Campari and Orange

Campo dei Fiori

Campo dei Fiori - Dinner