As you know, we've been planning this trip for months, at least 8 or so, I think. The chalkboard in our kitchen has been the planning ground.
And I think we pretty much stuck to the schedule, with a few things dropped and a few things added.
We arrived in Rome on Thursday morning, having left JFK the night before. On our ride in from the airport, we saw the Circus Maximus and Colosseum, among other ruins and got really excited about finally having arrived. Our hotel room, in the Albergo Cesari, near the Corso and Via di Pietra, across the street from the Temple of Hadrian, had a tall ceiling with a window and shutters. There were three beds--two twin and a queen--so we were all comfortable. Our first stop: ordering gelato in Italian at Della Palma where I would go 25 years ago We had zuppa inglese, zabaione, ciocolato dell' arancia, gianduia, Nutella, frutta di bosco, and "black passion." The kids loved it and we would have gelato at least once a day for the entire trip!
It was drizzly in Rome when we got there but we still went out wandering. We marveled at the tiny streets and were kept on our toes in avoiding cars and scooters. We loved the lovely buildings mixing different time periods, the random excavations revealing remains 20'+ down, getting lost a few times. And we practiced our very limited Italian every chance we could. We saw the magnificent dome of the Pantheon and Raphael's tomb; the Trevi fountain was so crowded. Our first church beyond the Pantheon (which is now a church, but is so clearly an ancient building), was St. Ignazio of Loyola, with its trompe l'oeil ceiling which thrilled everyone. We lit some candles for friends and looked at the various chapels; the kids couldn't quite wrap their heads around relics--especially human remains. We walked around Piazza Venezia and the "wedding cake" in the rain with quick sightings of the forum amid all the preparation for the Rome Marathon on Sunday.
Then we went to see the cats at Torre Argentino which was everyone's highlight. The non-profit cat shelter takes care of feral cats in Rome; during the day, many of them live in the ruins in the excavation (scavi) and most of them sleep in the shelter. They receive food and medical care. We took lots of photos and even sponsored one named Smemorina, who likes to be sprayed with water when the plants get watered and so sits by the sliding door waiting. (We went back again on Monday.)
We had dinner at a place recommended by the nice staff at our hotel, Falchette, I think it was called. I don't recall all the dishes, but we all loved Sis's creme brulee with a wonderful orange flavor.
It's funny, I both remembered and didn't remember so much of Rome and, later, the other places. More like I remembered dreams from memories from 25 years ago. So, it was both a reunion with Italy and a whole new experience, especially with Mama, Sis, and Bud.
Friday: We had tickets for an early entry to Sistine Chapel, with less than 100 or so others. Mama couldn't believe it and was dazed and inspired to see it all together; the kids were amazed, too. Bud especially tried to work out the various symbols and meanings, wondering about why Michelangelo would paint his self-portrait in a saint's flayed skin. Instead of departing with the tour group to the Basilica, we decided to go through some of the Vatican museums to see the Laokoon ("Did it have to be snakes?" they asked, a la Indiana Jones) and Raphael's School of Athens, particularly. We also saw the Apollo Belvedere, Belvedere Torso, Nile River God, Hall of Maps, so many beautiful art works and incredible rooms. We fought against the paths of the increasing number of visitors headed to the Sistine Ceiling and got turned around more than once.
So we decided to take a break at the cafe, in the courtyard near the giant pine cone, a cafe which hadn't been there on my last visit. We had yummy panini and remembered to request "still" water for me and the kids and "frizzante" for Mama.
It was so crowded by the time we were done, and everyone was so tired from traversing the museum, that Mama and the kids skipped climbing the dome of St Peter's. But we did go inside. I was touched by the Pieta, more so now probably because I'm a mom. The kids and Mama couldn't get over the size of the place--10' letters around the dome, all of the decorations being mosaics, even the sense of sfumato or haze because it was so large.
We tried to catch a cab to our next stop, but the first few drivers tried to scam us. One wanted €48, another €20 for a ride that should have been less than €10; they mocked us when I told them we'd go by the meter, so we kept walking. The kids were shocked; Mama and I know it happens in all big cites, including NYC, and knew better.
We headed to the Spanish Steps (which we incorrectly called the "steppi di Spagna") and had lunch at Babbington's Tea House, across from the Shelley and Keats's house. I know, English food in Italy? But I love afternoon tea and the English love of Italy and their communities there area a part of its history. We had chocolate orange sables, finger sandwiches, lemon chicken pilaf, apple lemon cake, rose tea.
Bud adeptly navigated us back to our hotel where we enjoyed a siesta before going out again. This time it was the Piazza Navona, where we sat by the fountains and watched the people for a long time. Even though we'd only been here a few hours, we already recognized all the street hawkers-- with the selfie sticks, scarves, the glowing slingshot parachute toy, and colorful gel balls. No, grazie. We stopped at a pretty paper store (I love Florentine paper and now Sis does too.) I also bought my favorite souvenir: a blue Roma scarf with the Parthenon and Caryatids. Yep, those are in Athens.
And then we dined outside on prosciutto and fresh mozzarella plus tasty pastas and oxtail. We even had gelato twice during the day! At Grom--salted caramel, pistachio, fiordilatte, cassatta, raspberry, and strawberry; at Crispino--lemon cream, honey cream, and chocolate rum. All in all, it was about 18,000 steps, a number we would match or top everyday we were in Italy except the day we got to Venice (because we took a boat ride for 2 hours instead of walking!)
Saturday: We had delightfully, but inadvertently, arranged our trip so that we got to sleep in approximately every other day; today was one of those and it felt left. We almost didn't make it to our underground tour of Nero's Domus Aurea because we couldn't find the entrance, despite asking four different people (including two professional tour guides with groups!) I'd been to the site when I was studying abroad but hadn't recalled exactly where the entrance. It's such an amazing place, even more now that they've excavated more, restored it, and produced a vivid virtual reality presentation which rolls back time to show the Golden House as it first existed. Mama and Sis had a great time taking pictures of it. I even got one of Sis doing just that, in her hard hat. Our guide compared Nero to Trump--we tipped her extra!
Next, we visited San Clemente, another of my favorites two decades ago, with its descending levels of 12th-century church, 4th-century church, and earlier Mithraic temple. It was our first Romanesque church, with a flat, coffered ceiling and a rectangular (not cross) layout, derived from Roman basilicas that were used a law courts and other offices. There was a lovely mosaic shimmering with gold, of sheep in the apse behind the altar. "Holy sheep," the kids said. I tried to explain that they were metaphorical, symbols for the apostles. And Bud said, "Mom, they don't look like metaphorical sheep." By the end of trip, they could recognize the Annunciation (Angel, lily, book, Holy Spirit), Mary by her red and blue robes, some saints by their attributes (often of their deaths, such as Sebastian and his arrows, Lawrence and his grill, Catherine and her wheel), John the Baptist with his cross and skins. It really is amazing to descend into the history of Rome, to realize that quite literally everywhere in the city has 20' or more of ruins underneath from a few thousands years. And there are hidden springs, too, one of which Bud through a coin into.
Next came the Colosseum, which has never been one of my favorites, though I'm not sure why. I sat on the main level while they climbed above (some pretty steep stairs, they admitted; some people came down backwards, they said.) We were all impressed by Roman engineering. Not as interested in gladiators. But we took a lot of pictures from the outside, particularly as we walked around it at least one whole time. And we kept running into another set of street hawkers. Three times, men from Africa (and one was wearing a Texas Aggies shirt!) asked if I were from Africa and told me I looked like their moms in an attempt to sell bracelets and then tried to give them to me "free." I couldn't quite figure out the scam but knew there must be. Mama finally looked it up--they get you to take the freebie and then, if you won't pay, they and their friends surround and pressure you until you did. I know they are migrants and need money, but I don't like scammers.
We ate lunch on the hill right above the Colosseum, something called the scholar's cafe because of all of the international students; Bud's lasagna was great, though the pizzas Mama and I got were average. We've all decided that we like antipasto plates and could see have bread, cheese, and deli for dinner sometimes (though, mercy, we ate a lot of ham on the trip and could do without that for awhile.)
At Mama's request, we made a visit to St Peter in Chains to see Michelangelo's Moses. In fact, the whole family has been entranced by Michelangelo this visit, both his statues and his Sistine Chapel. I liked the Romanesque church, though I liked San Clemente more. I got to talking with a priest from Knoxville who asked me to pray for the 100 members of his parish who had recently been arrested by US Immigration; he said they were being held in their own kinds of chains, just like the relics at the high altar.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the Forum, but, instead of focusing on identifying exactly what we were looking at, we just took in the ambiance. I liked all the columns, particularly the ones in groups of three. Bud and Sis teased me about this--why didn't I like five columns or seven? What was so great about three? I hadn't realized and really couldn't say, but I do prefer three. We only saw one cat, which I hope means the shelter has been making a difference (I think they do a lot of neuter and release.) The evening light made the forum glow and we talked about how artists had been traveling here for centuries to see that light. Sis and Mama took a lot of pictures; Bud hopped around, doing a bit of Forum parkour. I soaked it all in, both the ruins and my family.
Dinner was actually dessert at Giolitti's, another famed gelateria, with a huge Olympic sundae, zabaione gelato cake, sfogliatelle pastry (Sis's very favorite), and a cup of amarena, arancia, and ananas gelato for Bud.
Sunday: Pompeii!!! We took our first train ride in Italy, riding the express down to Naples and then catching a local to the site. Mama had arranged reserved seats (and chosen the express that went almost 300 km/hr), so it was pretty easy--and quick, only about an hour to Naples. We all loved wandering the ruins and talking about the thermopolium (food stalls--serving, we joked, "olives in olive oil!"), tesserae in mosaics, column orders, archaeological techniques, the geckos we kept seeing, Roman house configurations, Roman engineering feats, fresco styles and techniques, ancient temples and religion, The Last Days of Pompeii, the Doctor Who episode in Pompeii, trade in the ancient world, how much I don't like big tour groups and pushy leaders who hog all the space, etc. We saw many sections I hadn't seen on my previous trips (2? I can't recall if we went with my summer school) and also revisited the "Cave Canem" ("Beware of Dog") mosaic which holds a special place in family lore (Gommie just couldn't believe such a thing existed and doubted me.) This time, I was more struck by the tragic suffering and death that took place there; the plaster molds made us all reflective. And I appreciated all the trees and plantings more. The kids were great sports--we walked for 7 or so hours--something like 24,000 steps (even with train rides back and forth) in the warm sun (yes, with sunscreen!)--though Sis was fighting off allergies and kinda miserable and hot by the end.
We got dinner at the train station--more panini, with ciabatta and foccaccia--and, because we had some time, Mama and Sis made a run to a special sfogliatelle bakery. They were hot out of the oven--crispy layers, sweet ricotta filling with candied orange and fior di sicilia. There were even two versions, the layered one and the "shortbread" or more stuffed roll-like one. YUM!
We stopped at Venchi's for gelato on the way home, the chocolate shop and gelateria at the end of "our" street. Sis asked if there would be chocolate in Florence and Venice, too, but I told her they'd banned it. (We actually saw a Venchi's in both towns, I believe.) Sis got a delicious chocolate crepe and the rest of us got gelato (cappuccino, mascarpone with caramelized fig, vanilla, caramel, coconut, and lemon.)
Monday: HORSES!! This was the day for Sis's special treat (as was sleeping in until the ride.) She was to ride horses on the Appia Antica, the 2400-year-old Roman road. And it poured rain all day. We hoped it would stop, bit it never came close. Horse girl didn't care; I'm sure the handlers thought she was nuts, but they were game (and well decked out in big rain coats.) Sis rode a horse named Zorro, 16 1/2 hands high and a former champion jumper, I think he was the biggest horse she'd ever ridden. And Mama's horse was even bigger! But they did it. Bud and I waited in the farm house, in a family compound that reminded me of Aunt Sis's home on the bay, near a fire one of the family members had built. When Mama and Sis, with a huge grin on her face, got back, we had lunch made by Grandma and Auntie. (After we dried them off with towels and hair dryers!) I think it was the food highlight of our trip--bruschetta either with tomatoes or oil and salt (for Sis and me), Grandma's homemade sauce on tagliatelle, chicken in orange pan sauce, roasted potatoes, salad with simple oil dressing, red wine, homemade tiramisu, and espresso (strong and bitter but also fruity.) No one really spoke English, but we were able to convey our thanks for the horses and delicious meal. Wonderful!
Because it was still raining, Mama and Bud went to see the rain through the Pantheon roof, while Sis and I stayed back for a siesta. Later, we visited "our" cat Smemorina and adopted Ray Charles long- distance, too, because he reminded me of our dear old Mojito. Then we visited a few more churches on the way back, stopping at Il Gesu and St. Maria Sopra Minerva. We all threw pennies into the Trevi, beautifully lit and crowded, but we got a seat on the marble bench and people watched for awhile. Sis took pictures while Bud dissected the sculptural group. We hung out people watching at the Pantheon next, eating dinner from the local salumeria. And more gelato from Della Palma! Riso e latte, orange flower, limoncello, honey sesame seed, passion fruit, melon, coconut, and pineapple. A pretty great last-day in Rome.
Tuesday: Before we left Rome around 9 a.m., we stopped by Santa Maria Maggiore, the large and beautiful basilica I (think I) remember loving so long ago. Because we had our bags with us, we had to take turns going inside. And when I first entered, the lights were off--it was dimly glowing. Yes, this was it. In a bit the lights cycled on, too brightly. Mama liked it to, especially because it was devoted to Mary; every proto-feminist young Roman Catholic revered Mary, she said. It was a very short stop--no time even to see the scavi--but I'm glad we made it.
We then took another express train to Florence, an hour and a half through the lovely Tuscan countryside. Our hotel Casci, in an old palazzo, was on a main street, just down from the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi. After dropping off our luggage (wisely, just a small carry-on and backpack for each of us) in our small room with lovely views of roofs and backyards from two big windows that created a great cross breeze (though later we learned they also let in mosquitoes!), we headed to San Lorenzo, which lacks an ornate facade, and Michelangelo's statues in the Medici chapel, including Day, Night, Dusk, Dawn and the two brothers. Art history 101 came rushing back to Mama, who compared and contrasted the allegorical statues for the kids. Palazzo Medici Riccardi was next, with gorgeous frescoes by Gozzolli, was otherwise the only real disappointment of our trip. I had wanted it to be more of a house museum; instead, it was a civic building (albeit once a palace) now open to the public for a fee. (Unfortunately, I only read about the Palazzo Davanzati, the museum of the Old Florentine House, after we left town. Oh, well, I'll add it to my list for next time, with the Borghese gardens, Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli, the D'Este garden of fountains, the Palatine which I have never seen, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, the Galileo Museum, and any of the churches of Venice, which I've also never seen.)
We had a meal to rival Grandma's at Gozzi--tripe in tomato sauce, saltimbocca beef roll ups, sliced steak, pasta ragu, peas, white beans in oil, and pasta with pomodoro, plus another lovely espresso. We lingered over the meal for quite awhile, savoring every bit.
Then we were on to Santa Maria Novella with incredible art, with Duccio's Madonna and Massaccio's Trinity among others (We gave a short Italian Renaissance art lesson and a mini-catechism--thank heavens for their Neighboring Faiths class!) and beautiful cloisters, three of them, I think. I love a cloister. When in Pompeii, I'd said I wanted a house with a peristyle; now I wanted that Pompeiian villa with a cloister, too. Later, we added a canal to it!
That evening, we strolled through the outdoor market, filled with scarves and leather and tchotchkes and pushy vendors. Sis got a leather belt and I got a few scarves. We had dinner at the new and hip indoor Central Market--arancini with ragu and also prosciutto and cheese, a meatball pizza "taco," fusilli in pomodoro, some Chinese dumplings, and fried foods plus, of course, gelato (ciocolato and arancia, pinolata/pine nut, tiramisu) and panna cotta and zabaione!!!
This was our busiest day of the trip, with three timed tickets. We started at the Baptistry, with the gorgeous ceiling and floors and the reproduction doors. Next was the Museo del Duomo, where we saw the real Ghiberti doors and Michelangelo's other Pieta. Mama and the kids headed to climb the Dome at 10 while I stayed in the museum. I actually found the roof, and with the miracle of texting, managed to connect so that I could know when they were at the lantern and they could look for me. I thought I saw them--teeny people waving and then "dabbing" but it turned out not to be "my" people. They emerged about 10 minutes later and I got pictures of their specks!
After a quick trip to another paper store and sandwiches at the base of Bernini's Rape of the Sabines at the Loggia dei Lanzi, we rushed to the Uffizi for our timed ticket. What can I capture about seeing Botticelli's Primavera and Birth of Venus, which were Aunt Sis's favorites, which she'd introduced to me along with Michelangelo and the Pre-Raphaelites and Post-Impressionists and Picasso and her love of art, which I saw on my one-day trip to Florence in a crazy, ill-planned stunt of abandoning my tour group to rush in at the last minute to see both paintings without knowing how to get back to my group (but was found by one of the other tourists as I wandered the Piazza Signoria!). I miss Aunt Sis. And I actually cried in the galleries. She would love that the kids were at the Uffizi, in Italy, getting the trip of a lifetime and a wonderful introduction to art. We saw Fra Fillippo Lippi's Madonna (we call him "Flippy Lippi,"), Cimabue's Holy Trinity, Duccio's Madonna, Michelangelo's Doni Tondo (and they know about tondos and the relationship to birth; also cassone panels and weddings!), Raphael's Madonna of the Goldfinch, Leonardo's incomplete Adoration of the Magi (Mama's favorite because it shows the artist at work), Bronzino's Eleanor of Toledo, Parmagianino's Madonna of the Long Neck, Titian's Venus of Urbino, Caravaggio's Bacchus, and so many more. We paused for awhile at Artemisia Gentileschi's Judith and Holofernces, which I contrasted with other treatments of the same topic using a line from Zootopia--"Blood! Blood! Blood! And death!" (There was also a small exhibition of works by Elizabeth Sirani; glad to see them rediscovering other female artists.)
By this point, Sis's ankle really hurt. She hadn't exactly sprained it, probably just overdid it on the Duomo climb. But she was hurting. We rested on the terrace of the museum, with a gorgeous view of town, indulging in affogato, big Uffizi sundae, and apple pie.
Mama took Sis home in a cab and texted with Goo to confirm treatment (RICE--rest, ice, compression, and elevation), while I took Bud to see the David with our third timed ticket of the day. We had a wonderful time together exploring the whole Accademia. He loved Michelangelo's Slaves emerging from their blocks of marble and really appreciated the work of the David, especially the veins on his hands; we circled the statue a few times. I had made a comment to him about the fact that, while David's hands were oversize, his "bits" were small, a holdover from Greek sculpture and notions of what it is to be civilized (i.e. animal lust and sexual urges under control.) A woman heard me talking and asked me to repeat what I'd say because she had noticed it--and then she called over a friend to have me explain it again. Bud was so embarrassed. But he recovered. We saw all galleries of earlier paintings and then the plaster cast collection, where we talked about the training of classical artists and the creation of plaster reproductions. Bud was amazed to see a 3-D version of Titian's Venus of Urbino, which painting we'd seen just a few hours before.
We got takeout for dinner, since Sis was stuck at home. She wanted Chinese--there is actually a small Chinatown in Florence; the rest of us had pesto pasta, lasagna, and red wine beef on mashed potatoes. Later, while I stayed with Sis, Mama and Bud went exploring by the Arno, to see Florence lit at night. (This is when he got his gelato--mint this time.)
Thursday: We arrived in Venice, our final stop, midmorning, after a two-hour train ride mostly through mountain tunnels. Our hotel room at the Palazzo Vitturi on Campo Santa Maria Formosa was a wonderful surprise--like something out of a Henry James novel. Mama had booked the special suite for our last two nights, with two floor-to-ceiling windows opening onto balconies over the square, Renaissance decorations on walls and ceiling, and enough room for all of us. (Lambeth, it was as decadent as our huge room at the Lainston, though with no heated bathroom floor!)
We got lost trying to find the hotel manager's recommendation for lunch. Getting lost is definitely common in Venice. But, in the process, we stumbled across Aqua Books, which was on Mama's list to see. It's a bookstore with a marine theme, complete with a gondola filled with books in the middle. A stack of books like a staircase allows you to gaze over the all into the small canal. And there were cats! We also found a restaurant and had a delicious lunch nonetheless, at Strega (think Strega Nona, the fairytale grandmotherly witch), with seafood for Bud and a bechamel-based, carbonara-like lasagna for me, plus incredible panna cotta and tiramisu.
Sis's foot was tender but manageable, so we visited a "house museum" of a palazzo of super-rich 18th-c Venetians, the Ca' Rezzonico. This is what I wanted the Palazzo Medici to be--room after room with furniture, decorations, and a feeling of what it was like to live there. From the top floor, a gallery of Italian Renaissance paintings by lesser-known artists, we spied a garden which we hurried to find. It was the Rezzonico garden, where we sat listening to birds singing and let Sis rest. We decided to spend some time riding the vaporetto around; we'd get a good look at Venice without having to walk. We rode to the end, at the Lido, and back with Mama and Sis taking lots of pictures.
We window shopped on our way home two hours later, with Sis intrigued by all the glass and Mama interested in the masks (she bought a cat one.) We had our dessert first, again, gelato from Suso's, including frutta de bosca, limone, Moor of Venice dark chocolate and coffee, pistachio and amarena cherries, and finally Tzi Tza, an almond and candied orange gelato, in a panettone "taco." I almost lost mine when I didn't see some steps down, started to lose my balance, and caught myself from falling by hopping/running down the other steps, all WITHOUT dropping my gelato!!!
We had dinner at a small pizza place, getting potato and prosciutto pizza, mushrooms and prosciutto pizza, and two torte rustica, with prosciutto and cheese and one with that and mushrooms, which we ate in our suite while listening to the folks pass below. Eventually, the kids fell asleep while Mama and I were talking and people watching on the balcony. Pretty much a great day!
Friday: It was our last full day and we were trying not to be sad. We breakfasted at the table near the big balcony outside our room because the students in the hotel had taken over the breakfast room; it felt extra-decadent to eat there--pastries, eggs, sausages, yogurt, cereal, juice, cappuccino, hot chocolate (more like warm chocolate pudding not quite set.) It was sort of a sleep-in day because we didn't have anywhere to be until almost 10. Mama had booked the "secret itineraries" tour of prison cells and administrative offices of the Doge's Palace. Yep, we got to see where Cassanova was imprisoned and see all the places connected with his daring (if probably mostly fictional story of) escape. Then we toured the formal rooms of the Doge's palace on our own, which are so elaborate as to almost be hard to look at--how many Tintorettos can you take in at once? And Longhi, Veronese, Tiepolo, etc. Then we were off to the mosaics and inlaid floors at the Basilica of San Marco, skipping the long line for the Pala D'Oro. By this point, I was the one who was done; I just couldn't take anymore stairs and I didn't care if I saw another paining.
So we took a break at Florian's in the piazza, where we could watch in surprise and a bit of queasiness as other tourists hand-fed pigeons so they'd climb up on them. We had sandwichs which were brought out to us under mesh lids; apparently the seagulls are very aggressive. I shared an amaretto sundae, with everyone--coffee, chocolate, and amaretto ice cream with amaretti cookies and more amaretto!
The kids and I siesta-ed while Mama went wandering, finding the model boat shop where she got a kit to make a gondola. I just enjoyed being in our room. At 4pm, we took a delightful and calming gondola ride, my first, along the waterways near our hotel. We were gifted a bottle of Prosecco by the hotel, which we took on our ride--very romantic, even with kids in the gondola with us. Mama and I actually even liked it. It was so quiet in the gondola, so smooth and peaceful, with wonderful views of all the old buildings. I wasn't sure I'd enjoy it, thinking of it more as a canoe ride, but I'd absolutely do it again. Prosecco or not.
Our last dinner was at a special seafood restaurant recommended by the manager. They even called a head to make sure that Sis could have pasta without seafood. Mama and Bud loved it--black cuddlefish, scampi, prawn, lobster, and who knows what else. Sis and I had steak, her with potatoes, me with artichokes. Plus my chocolate "spaghetti" with mint gelato "After Eight" dessert and a little limoncello. Yep, red wine, prosecco, limoncello--plus cappuccino and espresso--what Italians we were becoming!Except it was time to go home. We people watched and packed, not quite ready to leave Italy but knowing we'd had a wonderful time.