When in Rome...

Trip Start Aug 31, 2009
Trip End Jan 08, 2010

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Saturday, January 2, 2010

The food in Italy alone is worth crossing an ocean for. I know it sounds cliché but it's true. On our first night in Florence we discovered that while our hotel was nowhere near the city center we could easily walk from one end to the other. Well, "easily" might be a stretch; it wasn’t the distance of our hotel to everything in Florence, it was the sidewalks you have to take to get there. We’ve read that Florence is the best place to get hit by a car and it couldn’t be more accurate. Most sidewalks are just big enough for one person to walk down, forget walking side by side and when a person is walking toward you, you had better pray a bus isn’t coming down the street because one of you needs to budge. In other areas, there are no sidewalks at all, pedestrians just spill onto the cobblestone street and walk with traffic. Luckily, in these areas, Italians usually slow down in their tiny, quiet, hybrid cars but not always, it's a little risky. After negotiating several sketchy sidewalks and carefully making our way to the center we stopped into a little wine bar for dinner and were greeted with one of the most helpful, pleasant servers we’ve ever had this side of the pond. The handwritten menu was only in Italian and the only familiar words to us were “bruschetta” and “Panini”. Our server could tell we were having trouble so he offered a few suggestions and we took his advice and never looked back. I’m still not entirely sure what we ate but we had several plates of small servings of toasted bread with foie gras pate, crostini with melted cheese and balsamic vinegar, caprese salad, and some wonderful ham-toast-truffle oil concoction, in addition to a few glasses of the house Chianti. We were also treated to a complimentary dessert that was simply wonderful slices of bread topped with a mild, creamy white cheese, honey, and an orange peel. It wasn’t necessarily what we ate in Florence it was the quality and the simplicity of the food that made it a religious experience. Everything, and I mean everything, is covered in a healthy drizzle of olive oil or truffle oil. Mozzarella cheese isn’t like any you’ve had before, it’s soft, almost creamy and absurdly flavorful I don’t know how I’ll ever go back to rubbery, watery balls of mozzarella ever again. The tomatoes taste like they come from a different planet, I feel cheated I’ve never had tomatoes so juicy and sweet before. After dinner, it was necessary that we sample what Florence is famous for - gelato. We took our guidebook’s suggestion and went to a place called Gelataria de Neri and it was amazing. I tried both the riso (or rice flavor) and ricotta with fig. I know, it doesn’t sound great, but I could eat that for the rest of my life. Italians take their food very seriously and they definitely don’t mess around with the gelato either. Where else but in Italy can you find ice cream inspired by cheese and rice that’s actually decadent and wonderful in every way?

On our next day in Florence we headed back to the city center to check out all the Florence has to offer – the Duomo, a very large and impressive cathedral, the Accademia, where Michelangelo’s “David” is housed, and the Science Museum, as art and science are Florence’s two claims to fame. While we didn’t actually go into any of the museums (due to the admission price) we still enjoyed wandering through Florence and admiring its incredible architecture.

We left Florence the next day feeling like we’d never eaten so well and headed on to Rome to celebrate New Year’s Eve. We had dinner reservations at a wine bar called Etabli and were really looking forward to our evening. When we arrived in Rome we discovered, much to our confusion and dismay, that Rome only has two metro lines (other cities like Paris or Berlin have at least 10). These metro lines, of course, only intersect in one spot and the lines form an “X” with the crux at the main train station. Our hotel was about a 20 minute walk from the nearest metro station at the top of the right side of the “X” and Vatican City and the main area of Rome is near the top of the left side of the “X”. Needless to say, getting around without a vehicle or a working knowledge of Rome’s bus system proved to be challenging. We left our hotel an hour before dinner was to start at Etabli and the journey there was quite an adventure. After the 20 minute walk to the Metro in the rain (and in my heels on the cobblestone – my feet/ankles are STILL sore) we arrived at the intersection of the two metro lines to get on the other line that would take us near Etabli. After examining our ridiculously small map we decided the metro wouldn’t get us near enough the restaurant for us to make it on time so we would just take a cab from the train station. After all, our hotel told us a cab from our hotel to the restaurant would only be 10-15 EUR. Once we emerged from the train station we were greeted with the sound of sparkler bombs and M-80’s being ignited in every direction around us, I literally felt like we were in a war zone. Apparently Europeans only get access to fireworks once a year – something I’m beginning to understand. Anyway, we approached a cab driver about getting a ride to the restaurant only to learn they were charging 40-50 EUR to go only a few miles. Then we decided to take a bus. After deciphering directions given to us by some nice gentleman in Italian we found our correct bus…just before the bus driver’s scheduled smoke break. We sat in the bus terminal for about ten minutes while the bus filled to excess capacity with loud, drunk, American tourists being generally obnoxious. After the bus finally got rolling I had the pleasure of listening to some arrogant college kid lecture his friend about why everyone should speak at least two languages for about ten minutes too long. We finally got out at a stop we thought was near Etabli and wandered for another 15 minutes or so, asked about three strangers and a cab driver for directions, and through divine intervention FINALLY found Etabli, 45 minutes after our reservation. Luckily we didn’t miss much, it was still cocktail time (open bar all night – yes! :) ) and dinner hadn’t been served. We had a lovely evening with an amazing four course Italian buffet (seafood skewers to pasta to tiramisu), live music, and a champagne toast at midnight.

The next day we wandered back into Rome’s city center for a little sight-seeing and food. Many things were closed due to the holiday but tourists were still out in hoards. Of course it rained that day so the incoherent wandering and darting that is characteristic of every tourist was exacerbated by their giant umbrellas. The day after we planned to visit Vatican City and the Coliseum/Palatine Hill area, however were largely disappointed to discover a literal sea of people at the Vatican and a line to get into the museum wrapping around two sides of the enormous building. Instead of waiting for at least two hours we decided to just walk around and take in the Vatican from the outside which alone is impressive. The Pope is like a rock star to Catholics, there are jumbo-trons and speakers lining the extravagant marble columns so that the masses can see the Pope’s addresses. Not being Catholic myself, I’m sure I’ll never understand the gravity of visiting the Vatican or catching a glimpse of the Pope in person but you could sense the fanaticism everywhere. In fact, as we exited the metro station a few blocks from the Vatican, we overheard some American girl say to her friend “I’ve waited for this day my whole life – it’s devotion". I would be lying if I said I didn’t shudder slightly in disgust at this comment, but that’s another topic. After we tolerated all we could of the masses and their cameras we jumped back on the metro and headed to the Coliseum. Of course, there was a mile long line for this attraction as well, but luckily we were approached by a tour company that was just beginning a guided tour which allowed participants to skip to the front of the line for a small fee. It was money well spent, before we knew it we were inside the Coliseum being regaled with stories of gladiators fighting each other and animals all in the name of entertaining the Roman elite. Although the Coliseum had a gruesome and inhumane purpose, it is still a fascinating structure and a curious part of Rome’s history. After the Coliseum we had a break in between our next tour of Palatine Hill and grabbed a few items from a nearby grocery store and picnicked on the steps of the Coliseum. I am so thankful we also saw Palatine Hill; it is full of church, temple, and castle ruins and boasts a great view of Rome. We were fortunate enough to be touring during sunset which made for a very picturesque landscape.

After a quick siesta our last night in Rome began. We had dinner at an OK place (Florence was indisputably the best place I’ve eaten in Europe…or ever for that matter) and capped the night off by wandering around the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, both of which are amazingly breathtaking and add to Rome’s charm.

The next day we were off to Zurich, the midway point on our way “home". Our whirlwind tour of Europe was a blast; I can’t believe it’s almost coming to an end…
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