Italy 2017: Vatican Museums

From our research we knew that the Vatican Museums were going to be an epic undertaking. To make sure to see all of the most interesting bits before our feet gave out we planned out a route in advance. We rarely rested, didn’t visit every gallery, and it still took us over four hours of exploring to get through the entire complex! There is a well labelled route that takes visitors one way through a series of galleries, all ending up at the famous Sistine Chapel. I believe we walked about four miles by the end of our visit!

Cortile della Pigna (pine cone)
Cortile della Pigna (pine cone)

Chiaramonti Museum
Chiaramonti Museum, a loooong hall of exquisite sculpture

Perseus with the head of Medusa  Augustus of Prima Porta
Perseus and Augustus of Prima Porta in the Braccio Nuovo gallery

Braccio Nuovo gallery  Laocoön
Braccio Nuovo gallery and the Laocoön

porphyry bathtub of Emperor Nero
porphyry bathtub of Emperor Nero (hard to see in this photo but the stone is purple)

mosiac floor
gorgeous mosaic floor in the Pio Clementino

Gallery of Maps
the ceiling in the Gallery of Maps outshines the walls!

School of Athens by Raphael
The School of Athens by Rafael

more amazing ceilings

Vatican Museum
amazing ceiling and frescoes in the Rafael Rooms

Jesus and his sheep  spiral staircase @ Vatican Museum
Jesus and his sheep; the spiral staircase

The sheer amount of priceless art and opulence is a bit overwhelming to be honest. And, of course, there are several gifts shops along the way so you don’t even have to wait until the end to buy souvenirs. </sarcastic voice>

of course there's a gift shop

We have no pictures to share of the Sistine Chapel as you are not allowed to take pictures in there. Most people were obeying the rules, but the experience of admiring the ceiling was periodically interrupted by loud “SHHHHHH”ing noises from the guards and the occasional “NO PHOTO!”

Overall, I think the Vatican Museums is an experience absolutely worth doing once, just make sure to wear your most comfortable shoes. And the next time we’re in Rome we’ll definitely make it inside St. Peter’s Basilica.

Italy 2017: Palatine Hill, Roman Forum, and Colosseum

One ticket gets you into the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the landmark Colosseum, so we spent the better part of a day exploring the ruins. We took a (rather jarring) bus ride that dropped us off directly across the street from the Palatine Hill entrance. After a quick security check we purchased our ticket and started exploring the grounds.

Palatine Hill is one of the famous “seven hills of Rome” and was home to a string of Roman Emperors including Augustus and Domitian. It is absolutely amazing that anything is left after two thousand years!

Palatine Hill
the hippodrome, i.e. horse facilities

Palatine Hill
former fountain space

Palatine Hill

From the former palaces we headed down Palatine Hill toward the Roman Forum, first with a great piazza view.

Roman Forum from palatine Hill

Roman Forum from palatine Hill

Then down into the valley itself.

Roman Forum wisteria

Vestal Virgin statue @ Roman Forum  Roman Forum

The amount of history is just staggering, with centuries upon centuries of human activity in this one site.

As we made our way toward the southern exit, I went to check out the Temple of Venus and Rome. Lo and behold, it had a perfect view of the Colosseum.

Colloseum

us in front of the Colloseum

parents taking photos

After a few photos, we walked over to the security check, then made our way to the top ring of the Colosseum.

Colloseum interior

By this point we were getting rather tired and hungry, so we didn’t read all the various signage on how the stadium worked; however, it certainly looked like you could read and learn a lot if you were so inclined. Exploring the whole site takes hours and the opportunity to better understand the history on this site is well worth the effort. Also worth noting, your ticket is good for two consecutive days, if we had more time we likely would have planned to visit the Colosseum the following day instead.

Italy 2017: food & drink in Rome

Sunday

Looking for a late lunch, we quizzed our hotel guy for options nearby. One of his recommendations was Lo Zozzone, hidden in an alleyway off a tourist restaurant street. There were many sandwich & pizza choices, all a slight variation of meat / cheese / toppings – and everything was delicious!  I ordered #24 – salami, smoked mozzarella, olive tapenade and rocket greens while Eric had #17 – speck (ham), smoked mozzerella and tomato. The sandwiches were enormous (and a reasonable 7,50 each) and we enjoyed the people watching that sitting outside afforded us.

delicious sandwiches @ Lo Zozzone

family selfie in Rome!
before we walked all over the city and wore ourselves out!

Eric had marked gelato places all across the city on our map, so when we discovered a popular place was nearby we got in line. Worth it! Eric had mint and the namesake flavor (a caramel cookie concoction) while I tried the nutella and chocolate.

waiting in line for gelato  enjoying gelato

It was definitely worth the 10 minute wait in line, and good enough that we returned the next day too!

By Sunday evening Mom was pretty tired, so the rest of us headed up the street to Fermento, near our hotel, for dinner. It is a swanky little place with mood lighting and a hipster vibe. I had the beef tartare that was chunky and tasty with a glass of prosecco and Eric enjoyed the paccheri (large tube pasta) with bacon. The service was efficient and polite and we would return on a future trip.

Monday

After spending the morning and most of the afternoon exploring ancient Rome, we needed some nourishment.  Eric suggested a sandwich and beer at a tiny brewpub, My Ale, near the Campo de’ Fiori area. Thankfully, we found a place to sit (taking up half the seats in the process!) and decided to split a “red” sandwich with ham, mozzarella cheese, tomatoes and basil.  We each ordered an Italian beer, Eric the Lariano Falesia (bock) which was really good and me the Bruton Momus (scotch ale) which was okay. It grew on me but I wouldn’t order it again. Regardless, I would return to this place for the sandwich bread alone – it was the best of the trip!

beers @ My Ale

While exploring the Trastevere neighborhood, we gave our feet a break for a quick glass of wine at Essenza Wine Bar. The food menu looked good as well, but I stuck with bubbles and Eric had his second pecorino of the trip.

Essenza Wine Bar  pecorino by candlelight

Our least pleasant (and overall strangest) meal of the trip was at Al Palazzaccio.  I have no idea if it was just an off night but our waitress seemed to want to be anywhere but there: communication was difficult (wines listed by the glass were not actually available by the glass, the bread basket kept reappearing after we had said we didn’t want any) and the food took forever to come out despite the restaurant being nearly empty. Add a drunk old man banging on the window, being overcharged a few euros for Mom’s dish, and the fact that the food was just okay and well, we wouldn’t come back here.

Tuesday

With one more chance for a panini sandwich before heading home we stopped into Duecento Gradi on the way to the Vatican Museums. Eric had the Irnerio (Tirolese smoked ham, buffalo mozzarella, and pachino tomato) with a Ritual Lab Lemon Ale that was really an APA. I had the Pigneto (bacon, pecorino and porchini mushrooms) with a malty ale, the Be Four Paradise Red.  I should have stuck with “ham” vs. “bacon” as the texture was a bit too raw for me in this sandwich. Everyone else loved their choices.

We left the museums too late to get into St Peter’s so our consolation prize was gelato at the Old Bridge Gelateria. Darn.

  

Eric’s parents were resting before our dinner reservations, so we picked up a few snacks for the plane trip tomorrow at a local grocery, then stopped into Lumiere for a pre-dinner drink. For future reference, the free potato chips that came with our wine were nice but $10 would have gotten us a nice plate of appetizers – good to know for next time! Eric got to try another pecorino and I had yet another lovely prosecco. Curious about the reds on the glass list, we split the Malandrino (Multipulciano d’Abruzzo) – it had nice fruit with a touch of green pepper on the finish.

me and a glass of prosecco @ Lumiere  tonnarelli cacio e pepe (bottom) and gnocchi bolognese (top)

Our final dinner of the trip at Su e Giù was great! I ordered a Chianti Classico for the table that went with all of our delicious pasta dishes. Eric had the traditional tonnarelli cacio e pepe and I had the gnocchi bolognese (with a much redder sauce than the ones up north). For our main, we split a plate of hot sliced beef with rosemary, vinegar, garlic and olive oil. Now I know where my much-loved (Chicago-style) Italian beef sandwiches come from! A lovely lemon sorbetto with cookies for dessert rounded out the meal.

Italy 2017: exploring Rome

Sunday

The quick 1.5 hour train ride from Florence to Rome was fairly uneventful. It took us a few tries to find the subway entrance from Termini as it wasn’t well marked and a few entrances to the A line were closed for some reason. We wound up traversing the entire station and then cramming ourselves into a subway car for five stops. (This was the only time we attempted the subway in Rome.) After a quick walk to our hotel, we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Rome.

Ten minutes later we were looking at this…

Ahhhh. :)

Eric and I both expected to like Rome the least out of the three cities on this trip but within hours, I was completely charmed. Yes, it was crowded; I can’t imagine how/where people find parking; there are a lot of touristy sites and tourists in them; however, it was sunny and with a belly full of a panini sandwiches and delicious gelato, we enjoyed all of it.

Piazza Navona

There were quite a few musicians and buskers in the plaza along with many families enjoying the weather.

Fontana del Moro
Fontana del Moro

rome-12
Sant’Agnese in Agone

Fontana del Nettuno
Fontana del Nettuno

Pantheon

An ancient building surrounded by a modern city, and just as amazing as you think it would be — from the open dome at the top to the massive circular room of altars and mosaic floors that have seen nearly two millennia.

Pantheon  Pantheon dome

Pantheon

Trevi Fountain

Everyone who is not hanging out on the Spanish Steps is taking a selfie in front of the Trevi Fountain. Including us.

Trevi Fountain

mom & I @ Trevi Fountain  Eric and I @ Trevi Fountain

Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps)

We made it all the way to the top and managed not to trip over anyone sunning themselves on the stairs!

Piazza di Spagna (aka Spanish Steps)

Monday

Trastevere

After an already full day of sightseeing, Eric and I felt our feet didn’t hurt enough so we headed across the Tiber to this quiet (during the day at least) neighborhood of winding, cobblestone-lined streets.

Giulia

MiMi the Clown  dog paste-up

Trastevere  one way to display a potted plant

Trastevere

We found some good street art and paste-ups, then hit up a wine bar as soon as it opened for a nice bubbly before heading back along the Tiber.

Tiber River views

Vatican City

Before heading back to the room, we decided to get a few shots of St Peter’s Square and add a new country to our growing list – Vatican City!

St. Peter's Basilica @ sunset

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Square

Italy 2017: food & drink in Florence

Thursday

Our only dinner reservation in Florence was at La Buchetta on our first evening, largely because we didn’t know what to expect amongst restaurants there. We were seated promptly in the back room under a video monitor that showed the plating action in the kitchen. While the waitstaff seemed a bit harried, our waiter spent some time with us describing all the dishes in English which we really appreciated! Eric and I decided to each get a pasta appetizer and then split a main course. I opted for the Gnocchi Angeli e Demoni and Eric had the Tagliatelle al Cinghiale. We then split a lovely beef filet with walnuts as our main. I also picked out a fruity red to compliment the meal. Overall it was quite tasty and we left stuffed!

'heaven and hell' gnocchi @ La Buchetta  bolognese @ La Buchetta

Friday

Our first gelato stop in Florence was GROM where I was seduced by the salted caramel flavor. Eric chose both coffee and chocolate. Even the small size allows you two flavor options and at 2€ it’s a great deal.

salted caramel gelato @ GROM

Later in the day, after a bit of shopping and between museum visits, we stopped in for a glass of wine and to rest our feet at Enotecca Alessi, across the street from GROM.

Eric tried a Vernaccia (ver-nach-e-ah) di San Gimignano (notes: green, earthy, peppery, med acidity, melon, full bodied with light bitterness on finish) and I chose the one rose by the glass (notes: deep pink color, berry nose, light cream, quite nice). We also split the Florentine pate with blue cheese. The cheese was great but the pate was rather liquidy and lacking flavor. Overpriced at 10€ but at least the bread was good and it gave us a boost for the afternoon museum visit.

glasses of wine @ Enoteca Alessi

After visiting the Uffuzi Gallery, we decided to check the lines at the popular All’Antico Vinaio panini shop near the duomo. There was no wait at 5:30pm, so we grabbed a quick sandwich to split. The Schiacciata del Boss (‘crushed boss’) sandwich includes prosciutto, truffle spread and pecorino cheese on bread that was a perfect blend of crunchy crust and soft interior – delicious.

All'Antico Vinaio panini

After a quick rest in the room, we decided to explore the other side of the river. On the way to dinner we stopped into Caffe Neri for a take-away chocolate cannoli.

cannolis @ Caffe Neri

Our original wine bar choice, Le volpi e l’uva, was packed so we choose the nearby Signor Vino instead. We found a place to sit in the retail area and after ordering our wines at the bar (and paying) we had a plate of free snacks delivered. How nice! In the mood for sparkling, I tried the Pinot Bianco Cuvee Brut and Eric got a traditional Prosecco. Both were very drinkable. For the second round (we had snacks left!) Eric went for a Ribola (notes: flinty, fairly light, light lime with some acid on the finish) and I tried a rose (notes: very light, drinks more like a medium body white; good value at 12 euros a bottle).

 

After dropping Eric’s parents off at the hotel (and polishing off the above cannoli), we wandered around looking for somewhere to enjoy a nightcap. After passing a few lively places, we circled back to Le Cappelle Medicee. Eric tried another white varietal, a Pia de Remole (notes: little funk on the nose, light honey tone (very mild sweetness) with some acidity; pleasant aperitivo) and I had my third rose of the trip, a Rosatello Prima Cuvee (notes: medium color, nice acidity and medium body with a bit of spice and fruit).

nightcap @ Le Cappelle

Saturday

We spent most of the day outside of the city touring Tuscany, so the only meal we had in Florence was dinner. We were still a bit full from our extensive winery lunch, so we stayed close to our hotel and tried Fermento Food & Beer where we split two pizzas. We sat outside but the heat lamps and rain shields did their jobs to keep us comfortable.

dinner @ Fermento

Italy 2017: daytrip to Chianti

There are many, many options to explore the Chianti region via daytrips from Florence. We immediately ruled out any that involved being on a bus with 50+ other people, so that left small van tours and private tours. In the end, we decided to spend more money and booked a private tour with Avventure Bellissime for the four of us that included visits to two wineries and three hillside towns. A good mix of scenery and wine tasting!

Simon, our driver, picked us up promptly at the hotel at 9:30am and we drove just out of town to Michelangelo Piazza where we had uninterrupted panoramic views of Florence. Stunning.

view from Piazzale Michelangelo

The road transitioned from city to green countryside very quickly, with many charming villas and valley views as we climbed into the hills south of Florence. Our first stop was Montefioralle, a tiny hilltop village, where we walked around and got a little history of the area.

Montefioralle

Montefioralle  Montefioralle

How do you know a wine is officially a Chianti Classico? Look for the black rooster on the label!

A quick stop in the nearby town of Greve in Chianti allowed us an hour to shop at the Saturday market and people watch. I picked up a couple tea towels for a few euros but I thought the painted pottery was too expensive for the quality.

Saturday Market - Greve in Chianti
scooters and modern art  meat shop in Greve in Chianti

Simon stopped to let us take some photos and then it was on to our first winery of the day (and lunch) at Castello di Monterinaldi.

Tuscany views

Tuscany views

Upon arrival, we had a brief tour of the winery which included large concrete fermenters (as opposed to stainless steel) and a look at their extensive barrelling caves. The dessert wine stays in a barrel for 5 years!

Castello di Monterinaldi

concrete vats @ Castello di Monterinaldi  wine barrels @ Castello di Monterinaldi

Castello di Monterinaldi

The grounds were very well landscaped with lovely views, and they even had a two story chicken coop. But enough exploring, it was time for lunch! We were shown into a private room with a huge platter of antipasto and the hostess poured us our first taste of the rose. The antipasto was followed by tagliatelle bolognese, a chicken dish with dessert wine reduction, and an apricot tart for dessert. Everything was really tasty and paired well with the Tuscan wines. Even though there was another group with us on the short tour, we had separate rooms for lunch, so it really felt private and special.

pre-lunch @ Castello di Monterinaldi 

Our last hilltown of the tour was Castellina in Chianti – a charming little town with old walls and wine cellars. We walked through the Via delle Volte, a stone arched passageway, and did some shopping in the main square.

Via delle Volte in Castellina in Chianti  fountain in Castellina in Chianti

Castellina in Chianti

Our last stop of the day was a wine tour and tasting at Casa Emma.

Casa Emma

views from Casa Emma

The weather was fine, so we were able to sit out on the balcony overlooking the vineyards while we enjoyed our four wines accompanied by bread and cheese drizzled with their house balsamic vinegar. Our notes are below…

  1. Chianti Classico (90% sangiovese) – paprika smokiness, cherry and leather (2014). Nice tartness, residual smokiness. Lt.caramel. Goulash ready.
  2. Vignalparco Chianti Classico (100% sangiovese) – jammier, dry finish. Much less smoke. Preferred #1
  3. Chianti Classico Riserva #3 – reserve, quite refined. Much less acidity. Could definitely sit for a few years.
  4. Soloìo I.G.T. (100% merlot) – berry and floral, quite light and pleasant. Very interesting.

Overall, I was happy with our choice to do the private tour. Simon was a knowledgeable guide and we never felt rushed. I don’t know how hard it would be to schedule wine tastings in this area without a guide, but I think that’s something we may explore on our next visit.

Italy 2017: Florence museums, Bargello & Uffizi Gallery

Florence was a major center of the Renaissance, and quite a few important art and architecture pieces remain in the city. On this trip we visited two of the highlights, the Bargello and the Uffizi Gallery.

Bargello

We started our day at the Bargello. Their main door is much smaller than many other museums, and a bit hidden –  we actually walked around the entire building before figuring it out! Once inside you start in the large courtyard with quite a few pieces of sculpture.

Bargello National Museum  'David' by Donatello

There are several Donatello and Michelangelo pieces, along with detailed ceilings and a cool armor room.

Madonna of Mercy @ Bargello National Museum  this seems reasonable

Bargello National Museum  Woman with a Bouquet of Flowers @ Bargello National Museum 

Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi is the most famous of the Florentine museums and has correspondingly large crowds. The entrance here was also a little confusing, with multiple lines that were not well signed, but after a quick security check and two large flights of stairs we were in the amazing top hallway with art seemingly stretched to the horizon.

Birth of Venus @ Uffizi Gallery

The Tribune @ Uffizi Gallery  Sleeping Ariadne @ Uffizi Gallery

Uffizi Gallery

Even the floors and ceilings are decorated!

Aphrodite of Doidalsas @ Uffizi Gallery  Uffizi Gallery

The Uffizi has an amazing and overwhelming art collection, with hundreds of sculptures and interesting paintings. Due to the popularity there are a lot of tour groups and they can get quite annoying, but with some patience you can find gaps between the groups. Plan on a good three hours to explore.