Archive for ‘Italy’

September 24, 2011

When In Rome

by Anna

Rome was as magnificent as I remembered.

Johnny and I found a little hole in the wall apartment right by the Trevi Fountain, putting us in a great location to walk everywhere. Over the course of five days we maneuvered our way through throngs of tour groups and hit up many of the main attractions such as Piazza Venezia, the Colosseum, Arco di Constanino, Palatine and Roman Forum; Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps; the Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori; Villa Borghese; Vatican City, Piazza San Pietro and St. Peter’s Basilica.

Our apartment was literally a “hole in the wall” The streets of Rome
Piazza Navona
St. Peter’s Basilica
Piazza San Pietro The Swiss Guard
Baldacchino in St. Peter’s
En route to the Colosseum
Ancient Rome The Colosseum
Enjoying the view

Aside from visiting these major sites we had a great time wandering the backstreets around Piazza Navona and Campo de’ Fiori where we could momentarily escape the crowds and just enjoy the lively pulse of the city. We found a great bar called Bar del Fico, which felt like the Lower East Side meets Rome, where we’d check emails, research activities for the next day and eavesdrop on the passionate game of chess that seemed to be permanently ongoing, morning, noon and night, amongst a raucous group of older Italian men. We also had a good time perusing and picking up picnic supplies at the colorful outdoor market at Campo de’Fiori, getting paninis handmade at a nearby butcher shop and strolling through Villa Borghese.  Walking around the quiet yet still lively streets in the Jewish Ghetto and sampling Jewish-style fried artichokes was another welcomed relief after we had battled the crowds around the Coliseum and Roman Forum.  We also taste-tested many different gelato flavors and establishments and declared our favorite to be San Crispino, which was conveniantly situated a couple blocks from our apartment. Any place that won’t serve their gelato in a cone because it detracts from the flavors of the ice cream means serious business!

Campo de’ Fiori Fruit stalls
Paninis to order! Jewish Ghetto

Other highlights for us included our visit to the Museo e Galleria Borghese. The walk through the park to get there was just as nice as the beautiful and immaculate interior which showcased amazing frescoes, sculptures, paintings and furniture; my favorite being Bernini’s Apollo e Dafne. We also loved our visit there, because as we approached the Museum, a nice lady came up to us and asked if we needed tickets (she happened to have two extra). She was like our sight-seeing fairy godmother, and she saved us time and money and renewed our faith that not everyone is out to scam you (having been on guard since our Barcelona subway incident)! The Pantheon also remains at the top of our list for most awe-inspiring site. We made a point to walk past it every night on our way home to see its massive façade lit up and towering over the music-filled piazza.

Pantheon oculus Villa Borghese
Trevi Fountain Not a bad stop on the way back to our apt.

One of our favorite evenings in Rome was our night in Trastevere on the other side of the Tiber river. We wished we had ventured over earlier in our stay because we loved the colorful, narrow streets hung with laundry lines, the bustling cafes and the more “neighborhoody” feel of the area. We also happened to be in Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere at mass, and the site of the beautiful gold interior of the Basilica di Santa Maria glowing with candles and people was magical. We decided to try a restaurant that we read about in Lonely Planet called Da Augusto. It was tucked into a tiny little quiet piazza. We got there before it opened but noticed that people had already started to sit at the few small tables out front. We decided to follow their lead, and it paid off! Within 15 minutes, every table was filled and there was a line at the door. The tiny restaurant finally opened its doors, and we were greeted by friendly servers and a bustling scene around the once quiet piazza. We had a delicious meal of Amatricione and Cacio e Pepe Rigatoni, grilled local veggies, a half liter of tasty house red and a delicious home-made pine nut cake. The entire meal came in under 30 euros, and was one of our favorites in Rome.

Crossing the Ponte Sisto bridge to Trastevere Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere
Spanish Steps

After five days in Rome our feet, feeling similar pains to ones we felt after Paris, were happy to say ‘Ciao Roma,’ and head for the rolling hills of Tuscany!

September 14, 2011

Dreamy Spoleto

by Anna

We bid farewell to Croatia on Sunday and took a three hour ferry from Vis to Split where we had to take the Blue Line overnight ferry to get back to Italy. Now, I may be a little dramatic in saying that the ferry ride was a total nightmare (Johnny will tell you it wasn’t that bad), but I wasn’t expecting our sleeper cabin to be in the depths of the ship in a metal coffin. Ok, ok, I AM exaggerating, but we were surprised when we discovered that “Deck 2” was actually between the engine and where the cars were kept. There weren’t even windows until you reached “Deck 5.” Apparently they figured it was more important that the “night club” and “casino” have windows. I almost opted to sleep on the open air deck on the 8th level, but after a bottle of wine, some watery spaghetti and playing with Johnny’s hair, I felt better about descending back down to the depths of Deck 2 and slept pretty soundly with the help of an Ambien until our 6am wake-up call. We got to Ancona around 7:30am, ran to the train station which was farther away than we thought, missed our train by 5 minutes and subsequently posted up in the train station for the next few hours. We finally got on a train at 11:30am and after a couple hours had made it to Spoleto!

Boarding the Blue Line
Wine makes everything better Johnny feeling very “Johnny Depp” with his tan & ponytail

Like most terrible travel days the trip paid off. Spoleto is beautiful, and we have been having the best time here! I have to give props to Johnny for randomly picking this town as a stop on our way to Rome. Located on a hilltop in the Umbria region of Italy it is surrounded by rolling hills that seem to be every shade of green and even sometimes blue and purple. The sky at sunset looks more like a painting than real life, the town itself somehow instantly felt “homey” and all the people have been extremely friendly and welcoming. Every steep winding street seems more ancient than the next, there are barely any tourists and every meal has been DELICIOUS. And as an added bonus, we are staying at a charming hotel/B&B. It’s the best of both worlds…our room is cleaned every day, we got shower gel AND slippers, and we are treated to a nice breakfast every morning on a terrace overlooking the hills. We’ve been feeling quite luxurious:)

Spoleto is probably best known for a music/dance/opera/drama festival that began in 1958 and is held here every summer in June/July. The performances take place around the town in amazing settings like an ancient Roman Theatre and on the Piazza del Duomo in front of the town’s cathedral. Since we just missed this festival, we wandered around and enjoyed the ancient ruins and pretty scenery. This included a visit past the hilltop fortress to a bridge built on a Roman aqueduct called the Ponte delle Torri and a short hike from there to the 13th century Chiesa di San Pietro. We made the most of the terrace at our hotel as well, reading and lounging in the afternoon. I even busted out my sketchbook finally…it is hard to not be inspired by such a beautiful landscape.

Piazza del Duomo
Fresco in the cathedral
Teatro Romano
Ponte delle Torri
Crossing the Ponte delle Torri View from the Ponte delle Torri
Lounging on the hotel’s terrace Sketching the view from the terrace

I think the highlight of our stay here though has been the food! The area is well-known for truffles, and there are all sorts of varieties of truffle dishes on every menu. Each restaurant has served food that tastes like a wonderful home-cooked meal. Today was undoubtedly the best experience of local food, as we decided to try out a wine bar called Osteria del Matto that we had passed several times over the past few days. We read on a food blog that the place is run by Filippo and his “Mama,” and that the food is bought fresh each morning and the menu decided on the spot by “Mama.” We settled in on a bench outside, and the courses of food started to arrive….lentils, toasted bread with olive oil and garlic, pancetta bruschetta, chicken in mustard sauce with grilled radicchio, home-made pasta with chili, garlic and olive oil, etc. It sounds like a ridiculous amount of food, but everything was in small-sized portions and came out slowly so that you had time to savor each bite and then digest before the next dish. Before we knew it, we had struck up a conversation with the man at the next table, Dennis. He was from Dublin, and he and his wife owned a vacation home in Umbria about an hour away. He had been coming to this place for years, and said it was the best (we had to agree!). Soon, Filippo came out to say hi to Dennis and bring him some home-made beer, followed by “Mama” asking us if we wanted more food. Next thing I knew, I was sitting alone at the tables as Filippo had taken Johnny and Dennis off to see where he was home-brewing his beer and the beginnings of a new beer bar that he plans to open in a couple years. Before the end of the meal we also ended up meeting a group of Australians from Melbourne and a group of Americans from Kansas City. It was an international affair at Osteria del Matto, and we left with full stomachs and some original artwork by Filippo.

Dinner at La Torretta Another great meal at La Lanterna
Osteria del Matto Secret recipe chicken at Osteria del Matto
A close-up of Filippo’s work

We couldn’t have enjoyed our time here more, and we are ready to take on Rome tomorrow!

September 11, 2011

Back To The Boot

by Johnny

A couple weeks ago our second workstay host emailed us to say that she had gotten sick and would no longer be able to have us as helpers.  We were a little bummed because this workstay was on an operating winery outside of Rome, and we were really looking forward to learning about the winemaking process as well as attending the weekly sustainable agriculture dinners the winery hosts.  But we figured, “Hey, nothing an extra couple weeks bouncing around the Croatian islands and a detour down to Montenegro can’t fix.”  And as you can see by our recent posts we’ve been having the time of our lives.  But once we got to the island of Vis, even though it’s just as beautiful and even more remote than the others, something just wasn’t feeling right.  It’s hard to explain, but both Anna and I were feeling a little…well…bored and worthless.

I think I just heard a collective “PUHH-LEEAAASSSSE!” from all the employed folk back home, but it’s true.  We weren’t really meeting any locals…we weren’t really learning anything new…we were just lazing around waiting for something to happen.  And while I am thoroughly enjoying being the tannest I’ve been since Junior Lifeguards, we didn’t save for years, quit our jobs and take this once-in-a-lifetime trip just so we could sit on the beach for weeks at a time (although we are definitely looking forward to posting up on the beaches in Thailand and Indonesia).  OK, now I’m really pissing off my working friends.  Anyways, we quickly booked an overnight ferry back to Italy and emailed every farm and winery we could find in hopes that they could take us for a week or so before our friends Brian and Marisa meet us in Florence on September 26th.  Fingers crossed!

August 15, 2011

Home Sweet Verona

by Anna

As you can imagine, I was really looking forward to reuniting with Verona. It has been nine years since I lived and studied there for the summer between my Junior and Senior years at USC. I was so excited to visit my old stomping grounds and to show Johnny all of my favorite spots!

Our view every day walking into Verona’s center

Verona is as lovely, if not more so, than I remember. Situated in a bend of the Adige River, it is bordered by beautiful bridges and castle-topped, cypress-lined hillsides. Every piazza, alley, fountain and fresco in Verona is picture-perfect.

After settling in at our B&B, Lo Streggato, where we really enjoyed getting to know our hosts and their funny 6-year-old son Marco, we spent the week eating yummy breakfasts on their rooftop terrace, cruising through Verona’s picturesque streets, hanging out in Piazza Erbe, Piazza Bra and Piazza dei Signori, eating delicious meals, sitting alongside the river and climbing the surrounding hills to check out views of the city. It was a wonderful, relaxing week in a place that I love….and a place that I’m pretty sure Johnny loves now too!

Piazza Erbe at Night
Ponte Pietra, one of Verona’s oldest bridges
Porta Borsari, an ancient Roman gate leading into the city dating to the 1st century BC
Along the River Adige at night
Delicious melon and Parma ham Osteria del Bugiardo
Verona sky Gelato
Verona Madonna in Piazza Erbe
Castelvecchio bridge

One of the things I couldn’t wait to eat again (and for Johnny to try) was Risotto All’Amarone. Amarone wine, which happens to be my favorite but is always too expensive at home to buy, is produced in Valpolicella in the Veneto wine region where Verona is situated. Even though the dish slightly resembles baby food, it is DELECTABLE, and Johnny and I had it twice during our stay and wiped our dishes clean both times.

Risotto All’Amarone at Hostaria La Vecchia Fontanina

Because of my affection for this wine and for other wines in the Valpolicella (translated: “valley of many cellars”), we found a wine tour that took us into the surrounding countryside one afternoon. We had a wonderful time with another Swedish/English retired couple from Salzburg and our two Italian guides. The countryside is literally minutes outside of Verona’s city center, and we loved seeing the valleys dotted with medieval churches, villages and vineyards. The vines were heavy with grapes and we learned that the majority of the grapes are grown using the “pergola” system, resembling umbrellas, so that the grapes are more protected from the weather while still having access to the sun. Our tour led us to Fratelli Vogadori in the Negrar valley where we tasted Valpolicella Classico, Ripasso, Amarone and Recioto. One of the brothers (of Fratelli Vogadori) poured our tastings and explained that Amarone is so expensive because of how long the process is to produce the wine. An Amarone is rarely drunk less than 5 years after the vintage! We picked up a bottle for 18 euros (!) and were on our way back to Verona.

Plump grapes that will be ready to harvest in September Amarone and Ripasso aging in barrels

Another highlight of being in Verona at this time of year is that it is opera season! The beautiful Roman Arena in Piazza Bra, which dates back to the 1st century AD, hosts operas all through the summer. I had seen Carmen at the Arena nine years ago and remember it as being a truly magical experience. Because of this, Johnny and I bought tickets to see La Boheme about six months ago. We chose La Boheme, because the musical Rent was inspired by it, so we thought we’d have an easier time following the story line. We treated ourselves to an amazing dinner at Botega Vini (a must-stop Verona institution with a small novel of a wine list) and then made our way down Via Mazzini to Piazza Bra and climbed up to our seats on the stone steps within the Arena. With a full moon as a backdrop to the stage, and hundreds of people holding lighted candles as dusk set in and the orchestra began, we felt transported to another time. It was an amazing evening that I will always remember.

Bottega Vini Pre-opera dinner
The Arena in Piazza Bra
The stage
Candles lit all around the Arena La Boheme

We also took advantage of the opera on several of the other nights that we were in Verona and sat in Piazza Bra with pizza and wine and listened to the sounds of the other operas, like Aida and La Traviata, wafting from the Arena. It was like a free concert every night!

So, it’s “ciao for now” to Italy (don’t worry, we’ll be back in September) as we make our way to Slovenia where we’ll be celebrating our two year anniversary!

August 15, 2011

A Day On the Lake

by Anna

After a loooong travel day on Sunday beginning at 5am that included almost all modes of transportation – a taxi, a bus, a flight, another bus, a train and then a short walk – and which also included me having a disagreement with my stomach and throwing up on almost all of these modes of transportation – we finally made it to Lake Garda, Italy!

Lago di Garda

We had a day to fill between San Sebastian and Verona, and Lake Garda, Italy’s largest lake and only a 25 minute train ride from Verona, seemed like the perfect spot. I had been to Garda on a weekend trip from Verona in college and remembered it being really pretty. There are towns scattered all along the edges of the lake, and we chose Desenzano for our one-night stop. It was a charming start to Italy (and a reminder to Johnny and I of how awesome this country and its food are!), and Lake Garda was even more beautiful than I remembered! After a nap at our B&B, I managed to refill my empty stomach with some delicious pizza, and Johnny got his first gelato (strawberry, in case you were wondering).


The next morning we checked our bags at the front desk of our B&B and headed over to the ferry to take a ride across the lake and spend the afternoon at another town called Sirmione. Sirmione stretches out into the lake on a peninsula causing it to have beautiful views from all sides. We had a great time exploring the nooks and crannies of the town and its 13th century Scaliger Castle and treating ourselves to a nice long lunch where Johnny had the best Caprese of all time! In a happy Prosecco, pasta and Caprese haze, we slowly made our way back to the ferry, grabbed our bags and caught the train to Verona.

The Ferry
Sirmione Sirmione
Scaliger Castle
Prosecco…yummmm Caprese….yuuummm
Chillaxin in Sirmione