Rome, Day 1

Rome, Day 1

Today was “explore Rome via bike” day! After such an amazing breakfast spread in Split, the breakfast was pretty underwhelming the Spagna Royal Suites, though it was good to eat lightly after such a big meal in the night prior. We had some coffee to pick us up and were off to the bus stop to ride our way over to the Coliseum. Taxis are very expensive in Rome and the public transit in is amazing so we decided to give the bus a go. Our hotel actually gave us a phone with free calling, wi-fi, and location services to help us get around without using our data and that basically saved our lives. We were easily able to find our way to the bus, the right station, and then over to the TopBike Rental & Tours shop.

Check-in for the bike tour was quick and they had a wide variety of bikes. We had electric assist motors on ours just in case the 4-hour trek got difficult, but I ended up turning that off for the majority of the ride (maybe all of those cycle classes were paying off?). Our guide, Muana, was from the Netherlands, and we had a New Zealander, two Australians, and an American guy in TopBike training also accompanying us.

Muana guided us out of the shop and to the Coliseum first for a quick recap of its history. We had a detailed tour of the Coliseum scheduled for the next day, so her quick overview was perfect and a nice rest before biking over to the “Wedding Cake” building, aka the Altare della Patria, nicknamed after its opulence and resemblance to a massive, tiered cake.

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We then rode over to one of the most famous fountains in the world, the Trevi Fountain, for another pit stop. The fountain is massive and the sculptures are breathtaking. So much talent and effort went into its creation.

We then biked down to the Pantheon and got to go inside. If you have never been, it has a huge dome with an open center. I can’t even begin to describe how large it is and how astonishing the architecture to stabilize such a dome is.

We then rode across the Tiber river to Piazza Navona, which used to be a horse racing stadium. It is now a massive square surrounded with shops and restaurants and has another gorgeous fountain of Four Rivers (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi).

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After some gelato in the square, we ride around the Roman Forum and to the Coliseum. Overall, we had 4 hours of scenic views, interesting factoids, and perfect biking weather. If you are heading to Rome for the first time, TopBike is a great way to see the city and get the lay of the land before doing other sections in-depth.

Our tour was over around 1 PM and we were famished! The area around the Coliseum has pretty expensive restaurants, so we took Muana’s suggestions and walked deeper into the city. Ryan was in the mood for pizza and we were starving, so we stopped at the first place with pizza we came across – Urban 47. It was cute outside and ended up being quite large and cool inside with a very modern kitchen and appetizer room. I had some delicious ravioli with shrimp scampi and Ryan had another perfectly delicious pizza.

After lunch, we wandered through the streets back to the hotel, took a quick nap, and reemerged to find a place for Ryan to do laundry. After 1.5 weeks in a suit case, it was time for some freshening up! The nearest laundry mat was right by the Spanish Steps in the most expensive shopping area of Rome with stores like Gucci, Channel, Louis Vuitton, and tons of other glorious designers that make closet sing and my wallet weep.

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We strolled down the shopping mecca until finally coming to the laundry place where a really nice Canadian couple taught us how to use the machines. Ryan decided to risk his laundry so we could take a walk to the North entrance of Rome. We walked to and around the square, and up to a look out point with an amazing view and some live music courtesy to the street musicians. The path at the top lead back to the top of the Spanish Steps, so we walked to that and back down – boy was it packed! When doing tours, I always recommend going to sites early in the morning because the crowds just keep growing as the day goes on.

Thankfully, Ryan’s laundry was still there 30 minutes later and we swapped it over to the drier, took another walk around the town, visited some shops, and returned to great smelling, clean clothes! We dropped those off at the hotel and set out to find a spot for dinner.

After walking 10 miles already today, Ryan was not wanting to go on a journey to find the perfect restaurant, so we walked up to the first one we saw. The restaurant’s “hype-man” out front was in top-convincing-mode. He walked us through the menu, showed us where they were making the fresh pasta, and offered us free champagne, so we were fully enticed into dining there.

We were the only patrons so far, so the host sat us right in the window so other passers-by could see the restaurant had people in it – talk about strategy! Within a span of 5 minutes, the entire restaurant was full. Ryan ordered fettuccine alfredo and I got a mushroom sausage dish with thick pasta noodles.

The dishes were as they looked… OK. They did not have a ton of flavor but they weren’t bad. I probably should have stuck with my traditional favorites and not branched out to try something new but. .. when in Rome right?

We got our fill pretty quickly, especially after I accidentally poured out ½ of the bottle of balsamic vinegar on my bread plate and tried to cover it up by eating a ton of balsamic soaked bread.

After dinner, it was a quick walk back to the hotel and early night for our big walking day tomorrow.

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Rome, Italy

Rome, Italy

I woke up this morning with a little wine-induced fuzzyness from our romantic evening prior. I was pretty proud that I set my alarm, charged my devices, and even pre-packed a little! I felt great though and it was time for another fantastic breakfast at the Coronaro Hotel. I didn’t eat apple pie for breakfast again this morning, instead opting for croissants, some prosciutto and cheese, and yogurt. Ryan ordered the “best pancakes of his life” which were more like crapes with a fantastic berry compote. He also got a ham and cheese omelette and I tried the Diocletian omelette made of prosecco and honey which, unfortunately, was brown/ greyish, looked pretty gross, and didn’t have much flavor.

After breakfast, we packed our room up, checked out of the hotel, and left our bags at the front desk. We had a minor panic when the front desk tried to give us our rental car keys back from the day before – the hotel was supposed to call the rental car company the night prior so they could pickup the car! Somehow, that didn’t happen and the hotel wanted to charge us for parking and who knows what the charge would have been from the rental company! Thankfully, the hotel comped our parking charge and got things sorted with the car company so the crisis was averted.

We decided to do a little shopping before our 1:30 ride to the airport. It was sprinkling a bit but that didn’t stop the businesses of the city! First, we stopped at Jupiter’s temple in the palace. Apparently, the tickets we bought to the bell tower two days prior included Jupiter’s Temple, so the guy at the front entrance just asked to see pictures of us at the bell tower as proof we bought the tickets – pretty smart move huh?

The temple was slightly underwhelming, consisting of one statue and 3 caskets, but seeing stone caskets from 10 AD was pretty surreal.

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After the temple, we walked to the green market and it was bustling! I wish we had a market like that in Texas! The smells of the flowers, herbs, meat, and cheese were intoxicating and even made my overly full stomach rumble. We bought some freshly shaved prosciutto, honey, lavender, and olive oils for our families and didn’t want to leave.

 

Eventually, the time came for us to head to the hotel. I had left over cheese, bread, and meat from dinner the night before, so that was my “light lunch” before we took off to the airport. Our cab driver was quite talkative and pointed out all of the historical sites along our 30 minute ride. He also told us the state of the country and how governmental corruption has made it impossible for foreign investors to invest in Croatia, how there are only jobs during summer tourist season and that, during winter, there are not enough jobs to go around. How the pay is not enough for young people to start family’s so more Croatians live outside of Croatia and in Croatia because there are more job opportunities. It was quite a sad but interesting point of view.

The Split airport only has 8 terminals and is super small. Checking in for our flight took about 30 minutes and we had 1.5 hours to kill before takeoff. The airport was so small that, once we did need to board, we walked the tarmac to the airplane and walked up a short flight of stairs onto the craft. There wasn’t even room for carry on bags! Fortunately, the tiny plane had no issues taking us to Rome, though it was too small for a gate and we took a bus from our landing pad into the Rome airport.

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It was about a 65 euro taxi / Uber ride from the airport to our hotel in Rome so we decided to take the train for 14 euros instead. The train was relatively easy to find as the airport is so well signed, and we were on a direct train to Rome quickly. The travel time taking the train vs. a cab was actually very similar too – so no time lost!

We were in a bit of a hurry at this point since we had a 8 PM reservation at Il Pagliaccio.  Translated as “The Clown”, Il Pagilaccio is a two Michelin Star winning Italian restaurant in the middle of Rome run by chef Anthony Genovese. Since there aren’t any Michelin Star places in Texas, we wanted to try one out as a honeymoon treat! We arrived at our hotel at 7 PM and the restaurant was about a 15 minute drive, so we needed to change quickly – the only problem was the guy at reception had trouble finding our reservation. I got about 4 emails over the past three days from Expedia telling me our stay at the Dharma Hotel was approaching and I had my confirmation sheet printed, so I was so confused. I handed him my sheet and he directed my attention to the date of our stay, September 30th, and reminded me it was only September 25th! I accidentally brought us to the hotel we are staying in before we head back to Texas! Ryan was not happy and the time was ticking!

The front desk guy called us a cab and we rushed to the new hotel, he dropped us off on a side street and we finally found the Spagna Royal Suites and rang the bell. The guy who answered said we were, yet again at the wrong place, and we needed to go to the other Spagna hotel down the street – seriously? Ryan was laughing at me and it was already 7:40 so when we arrived, huffing and panicked at the Spagna, they quickly tried to calm us down. The two reception guys called the restaurant to bump back our reservation to 8:30 and walked us through the amazing concept hotel. They brought us down to level two, where our room was, and walked us through the amenities, including a sauna in our room! There were even a bunch of fish tanks spanning the entire wall adjacent to our room with jelly fish and other sea creatures. How cool!

Jelly fish tanks at the Spagna Royal Suites in Rome, Italy

We quickly freshened up and were off in another adventurous cab ride, squeezing narrowly through alleyways packed with people and cars. We didn’t think we were going to make it a few times but successfully got to Il Pagliaccio in good time.

The staff at Il Pagliaccio was so polished, with white gloves and perfect timing, and I loved the ambiance of the restaurant. We were seated in a corner table and I couldn’t help but eaves drop on some of the interesting conversations at tables near us, spanning from the hedged-fund class dating scene in NYC, to tips on how to write thrilling, non-fiction novels. It was quite a scene.

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We choose to do the 8 course “surprise” tasting menu and started with a glass of Pinot Grigio before transitioning to a nice, 2012 Chianti Classico (Ryan’s favorite) to go with it.

The dinner started with 3 amuse bouche dishes, ranging from 36 month old parmesan cheese, dry yeast and venison waffle with salad, lentils and blue cheese, chickpea foam with anchovies and crunch bread, and a “surprise” mushroom dish.

The main courses began with a chilled mushroom soup and oyster in green, burrata and tapioca. The chilled soup was an amazing start to the night. To be honest, when the oyster arrived on our table, I was slightly hesitant, but I do love oysters. It ended up being a surprisingly delicious course with interesting texture bold flavors.

As a pasta lover, when the tagliolino came out with a savory sauce and freshly made noodles, all of my senses were sent to heaven! The first pasta course was followed with veal tortellini and carrots, and I was finally, again, reunited with truly Italian pasta. While my taste buds wished that the dishes were twice their size, my stomach was already starting to fill up – oh no!

We enjoyed some delicious bread variations with the main courses. One of the breads was a fantastical crispy and fluffy salted focaccia. It was by far my favorite. I finally flagged down the waitress to get a second portion of the carby goodness but, before I could take a bite, another waiter came and delivered our white fish and peas course and stealthily took my bread! I think that moment was the saddest I have ever been in relation to food. Like, envision your favorite piece of food ever, and then, as you are about to enjoy a miraculous bite, someone swoops in and takes it from you, never to ever be had again! And now you feel my ciabatta sorrow…

Do you know what the best way to cure bread-induced depression? Desert! After we finished our final entre, the desert train started down the tracks.. and was 5 carts long! It all started with milk ice cream, goat cheese, caramelized rice and pear compote in an amazingly complex dish. My favorite part was the bits of cereal under the ice cream which gave some crunch to the otherwise soft compilation.

Milk ice cream, goat cheese, caramelized rice and pear compote.

Next was a lemon cake topped with mint and berry, a sorbet, assortment of truffles and other little pastries.

We were stuffed beyond reason. Thankfully, I came prepared in a flowy dress, and we had a long walk back through the streets of Rome to our hote. We even got a sneak night-peak at the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon before arriving at the hotel.

Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii, Italy

I have always loved Greek and Roman history and mythology. I took multiple classes on the subjects in college, have watched almost every TV show and movie released along those themes, and went to Greece a few years back, so now was my time to visit one of the most well-known areas of Italy to see the ruin that Mount Vesuvius caused in Pompeii!

For those of you who don’t know, the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Under 13 – 20 feet of ash, most of the city was preserved and excavated, and you can see plaster moulds of the Pompeii citizens in the ash.

We woke up at 6 AM to have a carb heavy breakfast and hop on the bus for the 5 hour drive to the ruins. We slept, watched the Davinci Code, and observed the view of castles and farms in Limoncello country –  a delicious lemon liquor famous in the region. The lemons in the area were bigger than grapefruits!

Once we arrived at Pompeii, we grabbed some lunch in the market and shopped around before our tour. We were so relieved to find a place that had salads and fruit instead of bread and pasta to help digest everything. There was tons of volcanic rock to buy for souvenirs and pretty jewelry. One of the old gypsy ladies that was selling jewelry to one of my friends while eating rice and the rice was rocketing out of her mount between her missing teeth and hitting my friend. It was so gross but hilarious and I ended up buying a really pretty stone bracelet from her. Make sure you have a personal zone between you and these sweet old ladies just in case!

When the time came for the tour, we met our guide and walked through the turnstiles to the momentous place. I was in awe to finally be walking through a place I have been wanting to visit since my Latin class in 7th grade. There were tons of other people touring and getting around some of the larger tour groups while walking through the houses and bath houses was a little tough. I definitely recommend getting an early tour before the masses get there.

Dating back well before the destruction in 79 A.D., it was amazing to see that some of the frescos in the homes were still preserved and you could even see colors from the paint! There were pots, tables, and other objects preserved in the ash, but the most interesting were the moulds of people who were made during the excavation, Parents holding children, people crouched down, and even dogs… all having almost no time to react to Mount Vesuvius‘s wrath.

The bathhouse’s were also pretty cool. The engineering that went into making the steam rooms and hot baths vs. the cold pools was visible in the ruins and very interesting to learn about.

Pompeii, Italy

We toured up to Pompeii’s city center which had a fantastic view of the volcano. Note: even though other people might be doing it and there are no signs, do not climb on the ruins or else you will be chased down by angry site workers.

Pompeii Tips:

  • Have salads when you seem them on the menu. With carbs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the majority of the trip, salad will really help with digestion and bloating.
  • Get an early tour to avoid the crowds.
  • Bring a hat, sun glasses, sun screen, and water. There is almost no shade while touring and the light color of the ruins reflects the sun, making it very bright.
  • Do not climb on the ruins.

 

Seina, Italy

Seina, Italy

I don’t know what is worse news; waking up to heard that your travel guide is MIA, or waking up to hear that your guide is missing who has the breakfast vouchers! Apparently, our guide was out and about with some of the group until 5 AM and slept through endless knocking and texts until we broke into his room to rouse him! With Dario in tow, we scarfed down some nibbles and took off our Siena.

Siena is just beautiful. Rolling hills, gorgeous old buildings…  stereotypical Italy that any painter would want as their subject. In trend with all of Italy’s other cities, it also has a massive basilica dedicated to St. Catherine, however, it actually had St. Catherine’s remains on display inside which was a little different. The streets in Siena are very hilly and lined with various flowers and flags from all of the different districts that make up the city. Every year, these districts participate in two-horse races in the track in the middle of Siena, called the Palio di Siena, which people from all over the world come to see! Unfortunately, we were not there at the right time of year to watch, but if you visiting Italy between July and August, you should definitely check it out!

We stopped for lunch and sat outside of a little restaurant on random street we wandered down during our free time. As we progressed through our meal, dull thuds reverberating through the streets started getting louder and clearer to hear, and it turned out that the district we were having lunch in was having a parade! There were about 50 people dressed up in their traditional garb with their district flags flying high! It was so neat to see the locals traditions in-person like that.

Eventually, we made our way back to the main square where the horse races take place, the Piazza del Campo, and hopped on the bus for Assisi. About 20 minutes into the bus ride, we realized we were missing to of the more wondering-off types in our tour, and we had to go back to Siena to pick them up. Major bummer from a timing perspective, but at least they were OK.

I took a nap on the bus to Assisi. We arrived and took an escalator up to the top of the steep hill on which Assisi stands, and walked to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi; yet another astonishing catholic building filled with incredible art and sculptures. We quickly toured the church as a darkening sky and the rumbling of distant thunder warned of the impending downpour. All of a sudden, we were in a race against the rain and huge gusts of wind to get to our hotel and unload our bags from the bus before getting soaked! Thankfully, my bag was one of the first to get unloaded, so I was able to remain somewhat dry during the luggage battle up to our room on the 4th floor. What a sight it was watching the rain run over the beautiful view we had from our hotel window!

Once the storm dissipated to an acceptable umbrella level, a few of us ventured off into the streets of Assisi to find a spot for dinner. We ended up finding this French-ish Italian restaurant that was decorated like the inside of a doll house… That should have been our first warning. I got sat in front of some really creepy dolls that wouldn’t stop watching us and a TV near by was playing a very dramatic, old Italian soap opera show. Not only was there a creepy factor, but we could see the waiters SMOKING in the kitchen! Unfortunately, we had already ordered at that point and my scrumptious sounding meal came out as a soggy, truffle, mushroom, and bacon mess. How do you screw those ingredients up so badly?! We paid way to much for our meals, I guess entertainment was included, and left to find a market to buy Pringle’s to fill us up and wine to finish off the night.

Creepy dolls in the French / Italian restaurant in Assisi, Italy

Siena Tips:

  • Watch the Palio di Siena horse races in July & August.
  • Explore the different districts to encounter surprise parades, see the differences in the decorations and flags, eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and stop into enchanting little shops.
  • Take silly pictures with scenic views!

Florence & Pisa, Italy

Florence & Pisa, Italy

I woke up this morning at 7 AM with a purpose. The doors for the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo climb open early and we wanted to be first in line for the 420 step hike to the top! I got dressed via flashlight so I wouldn’t disturb my roommates, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before meeting some of the other girls for our trek to the Duomo. We waited in line for about 30 minutes and watched at least 4 or 5 brides walk by with their groom and photographer in tow to take early morning wedding pictures – hat a great idea to avoid the crowds!

The climb up to the top of the Duomo was like going back in time. The pathway up was narrow and old and you could feel how the stones had worn over hundreds of years to other adventurers. Mid-way up, you walk around the inside top of the Duomo and see the incredible paintings that line the dome. The scale of this Heaven, Earth, and Hell depiction is just mind-blowing. You can see, in the picture below, the 10 foot high fence lining the walking path in relation to how giant the whole place is.

After more stairs an a steep ladder climb, we finally made it to the most breathtaking view in Florence:

On top of the Duomo, Florence Cathedral, Italy

Since we got up so early, there were not that many people, so thankfully, it wasn’t crowded. If you can climb the stairs, and they are challenging, this is a must do in Florence!

After the Duomo, we met back up with the tour group and our Florence guide to learn about the Florence Cathedral itself, walk past the Uffizi Gallery, and continue over the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence. It had a truly beautiful view of the river. We continued our walk to a local leather factory for a demo! The leather workers showed us how to tell real leather from fake leather and how they make hard boxes completely made out of leather. It was super interesting and I highly recommend watching a demonstration before buying any leather goods from the markets.

By the time we were done with the leather demo, we were starving. We picked up a bag of cherries to snack on on the way back to the hotel where our bus to Pisa was waiting.

A 1.5 hour drive later, we finally arrived at the market around the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa for a gnocchi lunch before our next tour. We walked through the gateway to the giant green Piazza where the Leaning Tower of Pisa and cathedral are.

We toured through the cathedral in front of the Leaning Tower first. The catherdal has several huge stone pulpits with intricate engravings that each took 10+ years to carve. The wealth of the church back then is truly astonishing and hard to grasp until you have toured your share of Italy’s cathedrals.

We walked into the Baptistry, the 100% marble Duomo looking building in front of the Cathedral. Every hour, a priest enters the Baptistry to sing for the sole purpose of demonstrating the amazing echo effect that the architecture of the Baptistry creates. It was unlike anything I have ever heard before. A must-do in Pisa!

After our tour, we walked to the Tower, and saw just how far down it has sunk. Apparently, architects have found away to fix the leaning issue, so the Tower will not be sinking or leaning any further.  We took a bunch of pictures (typical tourists) and then soaked up the sun in the lawn. It was amazing to relax in a place with such a view!

We packed up about 45 minutes of free time, headed back to Florence, and took a quick shower before walking to our wine tasting dinner. Our dinner was in the cellar of a wine shop. The cellar was quite large and went under the main road. It used to be a jail with lots of tunnels but, overtime, the some of the tunnels collapsed and this particular one now only takes wine as its captives. It was a very cool vibe for our very Italian, mustached wine instructor to teach us how to pair wines, meats, and cheeses in. We had very generous amounts of wine, a white and two reds, and ate a ton of parmesan cheese, and bread with balsamic vinegar.  Needless to say, it was a tasty and tipsy night!

Florence & Pisa Tips:

  • Climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo in the early morning for a quick climb and views without lots of other people.
  • Go to a leather factory and learn all about the leather process. They are mostly free and teach you great tips for spotting fake and real leather throughout the markets.
  • Try the fruit at the local markets. It is so delicious and a great, healthy snack.
  • Listen to the singing in Baptistry in Pisa. The echo in the marble building is not to be missed.
  • Wear sun screen and / or a hat. There is not much shade in Pisa.
  • Visit a local winery in Florence and learn how to pair wines and how experience them.