Thursday, April 12, 2001
I almost didn’t leave the airport. Dimwit that I am, it never occurred to me that flights going from Cincinnati to New York right before Easter might be full. And since I fly standby, a full flight means that I stand a good chance of not getting on. However, luck was with me, I managed to get the last seat on the flight to JFK.
Once in New York, it was easier to get to Italy. In fact, I even managed a seat in business class, which makes all the difference in the world. The meals and wine are served on real china and crystal, and the comfortable leather seats actually recline into a horizontal position. I still wasn’t able to sleep much, but I was contented. My seat companion was an Italian man from Rome who occasionally chatted about the city.
Friday, April 13
I arrived at Fiumicino Airport in Rome around 9:00 a.m. Going through customs was fast (not a single line anywhere!). Since I had no checked baggage, only one carry-on, I promptly made my way to the railway station to catch the Leonardo Express to Termini Station. I bought my ticket (L17,000), validated it in the yellow box near the tracks, and boarded the next train. (Note: this trip took place right before Euros were introduced into Italy). Once on the train, I sat next to a young Italian man who offered me a piece of gum. Since my mouth felt like a garbage can, I accepted it, but then gasped once I bit down. It felt like I was chewing on a wad of Vics Vapor Rub.
The mild headache that had started that morning, and which was getting worse during the 30-minute ride to Termini, made me want a hotel quickly. Fortunately, the hotel I found was located only a few blocks from the train station on Via Milazzo. Hotel Rubini was nothing special – basic, budget, boring. The room was small, clean and included a shower and toilet, television and telephone for L200,000 for a double. For one night, I didn’t care what it looked like.
The room was ready by the time I got there, so I dropped my bag in the corner and looked longingly at the bed. I usually don’t advocate taking a nap after an overseas flight, but decided to catch a few winks in the hopes my headache would go away. I woke up completely refreshed a few hours later, with my headache completely gone, feeling great and very alert! Maybe this nap thing works.
My friend, Nona, was due to arrive in the next couple of hours. In the interim, I wandered over to the train station and bought a slice of pizza. I found the headquarters for Enjoy Rome, an independent tourist office located on Via Marghera. The staff spoke excellent English, they were helpful, gave me a free map (better than the one from the train station), and some useful information on busses and the Metro. I believe they also offer walking tours of Rome, along with other services. Next, I spotted a combination Laundromat and Internet Point right down the street from my hotel.
Nona reached the hotel around 5:00 p.m. We headed out to see the town. I have been to Rome before, but this was Nona's first visit, so I figured we’d hit all the main tourist attractions right away. Our first stop was the Coliseum, which we got to via the Metro. Once there, we found out the inside was closed. There were huge crowds, along with police and lights set up all over the place.
I asked around, trying to find out what was going on. I learned the Pope does the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday night. He starts with Mass at St. Peter’s, then leads a procession over to the Coliseum. He stays at the last station (on the hill above the Coliseum), and is eventually joined by the other members of the procession who go through the other stations at the Coliseum. I wanted to watch, but the crowds were growing, we were tired. We took off for the Forum, still as impressive as I remembered.
Our next stop was the Campo de Fiori. On the way, we passed by the Largo Argentina ruins, stopped to say hello to the cats. When my brother was here last year, he and his wife met Sylvia, a woman who helps take care of all the cats sheltered in these ruins. They’ve sent her money since then, and he asked me to say hello for them. Unfortunately, she wasn’t around. We did a little window shopping, gravitated towards the lush shop near the square. This is a British shop filled with scented, natural bath products. I’ve ordered from their website before, but I've never been to the shop. I was excited to see it. Of course, the products and instructions were in Italian – hard to know what each one was.
We found a little restaurant (Trattoria er Grottino) on the Campo that had outdoor tables. We plopped ourselves down to graze a little. The food was good and filling – nothing fancy, but it hit the spot after a long day. I had pasta carbonara and insalata mista; Nona had fettuccini in some kind of sauce, and prosciutto with melon that was extremely yummy. We shared a big bottle of mineral water and a bottle of the red house wine, espresso. Our bill was around L67,000, which included a L4,000 coperta.
We sat, ate, talked and watched the view for a long time, then wandered over to Piazza Navona, where we walked around and bought a few cheap souvenirs. After a while, though, our bodies started giving out, so around 11:00 p.m., we found a #64 bus to take us back to Termini. It was packed. We must have missed our stop because we wound up making the rounds again on the bus. On the second trip, the bus went to the San Pietro station and parked, turning off the engine. We were the only ones on the bus at this point. I started to panic. The bus driver assured me, however, that he was indeed going back to Termini. He basically told me to sit down and shut up (well, that was what it seemed like – I didn't have the vocabulary to understand him).
Eventually we left the station for Termini, passing Largo Argentina for the fourth time that day. By midnight we were in our hotel – those beds never looked so good.
Saturday, April 14
We slept until after 9:00, waking up to rain, thunder and lightning. We ate a quick breakfast – stale roll, orange juice and cappuccino – packed and headed out the door with umbrellas and rain jackets. On the way to Termini, we stopped at the laundromat to check our email. The price was very reasonable – only L4,000 for 30 minutes.
After reaching Termini, we bought our rail tickets (using one of the convenient machines) for L42,500, and were on our way to Florence. As the train got farther away from Rome, the weather became better. By the time we reached Firenze Santa Maria Novella Stazione, the weather was beautiful – crisp, cool and sunny! We picked up a map at the TIC, a poor map – not worth the stop.
We got lost a few times, but we finally made it to the B&B, rang the bell and were admitted upstairs. I was taken aback for a minute when I saw the five flights of stone steps (she DID warn us!), but gamely headed on up. The place was beautiful – stone stairs were decorated with a black wrought iron railing. The building was labeled a palazzo, dates back to the 1600’s. Once we reached the top, Paola Fazzini, the owner, met us with a friendly greeting and showed us our room.
We actually gasped with delight when we saw what we would be staying in. The room was large with twelve-feet high ceilings, whitewashed walls, hardwood floors. Two twin beds sat in the middle, and an antique desk with a bowl of potpourri graced the corner, along with two matching chairs and a wall filled with shelving and drawers. However, the best was the view! Huge French windows overlooked a large, lovely Italianette garden filled with paved stones, trees and colorful displays of azaleas and geraniums, interspersed with clipped topiary hedges and tiled roofs – one of the loveliest views I’ve had while abroad.
Paola showed us the two bathrooms we'd be sharing with the other guests – one had a tub and the other a shower (and shower doors!). Both were clean, quite large and contained a blow dryer and assorted soaps and cleansers. We then went to the kitchen, which was filled with gleaming white appliances (including a dishwasher and stove), set off by a terracotta-tiled floor. Various plants filled the corners of the room, and a skylight brought the sunlight in. The refrigerator was stocked for the guests’ breakfast the next morning – eggs, cheeses, milk, yogurt and butter. The pantry had various cereals, jams, bread, coffee, tea and assorted other items. In addition, Paola had bought an enormous Easter cake for us to feast on over the holiday. One corner of the kitchen was devoted to guidebooks, maps and a choice of reading material left behind by other guests, a phone on a table was for our use although she asked that we leave L200 for local calls and L2,000 for calls to cell phones).
The kitchen was available to all guests for as many meals as we wanted to prepare. There were four rooms, two bathrooms - all this for L150,000 for a double, which included the breakfast! We couldn’t believe this. We liked it so much we decided to see if we could stay the whole week. Paola told us we could stay until Thursday, which suited us fine. We could still make day trips to places we wanted to see, we didn’t have to travel around on buses with our luggage looking for a place to stay.
Now that I’ve rhapsodized over this place, I must point out two downfalls to this B&B. One, the five flights of stairs to climb can be a strain – especially that last flight! Two, Paola only accepts women as guests. She advertises on some lesbian sites, but any woman, straight or gay, is welcome. My friend and I did not feel out of place. Paola does not live on the premises, but she comes every day to clean, and restock for breakfast the next day.
After unpacking, we headed for town to eat a late lunch, using the map Paola had given us (much better than the TIC ones). It was still chilly, but the sun shone brightly as we made our way through the Easter crowds. We stopped at a little place near the Duomo, where we bought a sandwich and a glass of wine for about $4.00 each – the owner insisted we sit at a table and eat, and pooh-poohed the idea of a table charge.
Then Perche No for gelato. We licked our cones on the way to the Ponte Vecchio – strolling, sightseeing. Our first stop was a street called Lungarno Acciaiuoli, which runs along the Arno. There is a store called Sacchi that specializes in silver. My sister-in-law had bought some pieces there, and recommended it so we decided to stop in. They had a beautiful array of silver jewelry and other items, and I treated myself to a gorgeous chunky silver and lapis lazuli ring. Nona, not to be outdone, bought a replica of a small silver sandal on a chain. We spent a few moments admiring each other, then headed on.
At this point we just meandered around for a while. The Church of Orsanmichele invited us in (or seemed to), and we stopped to marvel at the beautiful fourteenth century work. It looked to be in the process of restoration, but we were still able to see most of it, including the altar in the middle, with its striking Madonna and child painted by Bernardo Daddi. By now we were winding down, so decided to head back to our room for a brief respite. Nona opted for a nap, and I headed to the guidebooks in the kitchen to look for a restaurant recommendation that was close by. I spent some time chatting with Fiona and Melanie while they fixed their dinner for that evening, and finally settled on a place not far away.
The place I chose was closed over Easter, however, we headed farther down Via Degli Alfani, and came to Trattoria il Teatro. The menu posted outside was completely in Italian, so we decided to trust to luck and went in. Our luck held out because we wound up having a wonderful meal. The server was friendly and extremely helpful, taking time to explain the menu and what some of the dishes were. I forgot to note the names of the dishes we ate, but I did almost lick the plate clean. We shared a bottle of agua mineral sensa gas (regular mineral water without the fizz) and a bottle of Chianti.
After dinner, we ordered a heavenly dessert – an elegant and delectable crème caramel that literally melted in our mouths and a white Bavarian-type cream covered with tiny luscious berries. Both were mouthwatering and delicious. Our bill came to L112,000 – a bargain.
Sunday, April 15
Easter morning. We woke up early to another crisp, clear and sunny day. We went to the kitchen and had the Easter cake - like a bread, very dense, sweet, flavored with bits of orange rind, covered with a rich, crusty sugared topping.
Our plan was to head to the Duomo for the Scoppia della Carre ceremony which happens every Easter morning. By the time we got there, a crowd had already formed, making it difficult to see the procession slowly making its way towards the Duomo. The cart – more of an ornate structure, roundish, with a dome and old. At 11:00 a.m., the priest released a mechanical dove, which flew out into the square and ignited the fireworks attached to the cart. It was slightly alarming since they were practically on top of the crowd. At one point, an ambulance barreled its way through, barely stopping while people rushed to get out of its way.
We had no reservations for the Accademia, but we only had to wait in line for 20 minutes or so. The Accademia was superb with "David” and other works of art. Our next stop was to the church of Santa Croce – enjoyble, but I was appalled at the number of tourists who disregarded the “no camera” signs. We fizzled out at the Boboli Gardens before reaching the top. Back at the B&B, we ate, talked on every topic with a few of the other guests (wine helped) and at midnight, went to bed.
Monday, April 16
Our destination was San Miniato al Monte – one of my favorite churches. It’s a beautiful twelvth century church with an incredible view. I wanted to walk around the cemetery, which is filled with graves and mausoleums that mimic palaces and cathedrals, but it had closed. The plaque at the entrance reads in part.
Among hundreds of elaborate tombs in the neo-mediaeval style, the cemetery has the graves of many famous people such as Carlo Lorenzini (author of Pinocchio), Giovanni Papini, Vasco Pratolini, Pietro Annigoni and Giovanni Spadolini.
I only recognized Pinocchio, but I was still impressed.
Tuesday, April 17
Assisi is a fantastic city – every step reeks with charm. Everything is photogenic – especially the views of the Umbrian countryside. The day was beautiful too, which helped – sun reigning over a bright blue sky, silhouetted by white billowy clouds.
We stopped at all the sights, bought a few gifts along the way. A shop called Ferdinando Tontino had some unique examples of pottery and tiles I liked. What made it more worthwhile was an exceptionally handsome Italian sales clerk – something about those Italian men!
The Basilica di San Francesco affords yet another incredible view – I wanted to move here on the spot. My next trip will be devoted to Umbria, maybe Marche. On our way to the Basilica, I stopped at a little table and had a Mass said for my brother-in-law, who is gravely ill.
Back in Florence, we ate at Antico Noe on Volta di San Piero, near the B&B. We took pity on two young American students who wanted to eat and had no reservations (neither did we, but we got the last table). We invited them to share our table. They were studying in Paris and were in Florence on holiday.
Wednesday, April 18
Today it's Siena via the SITA bus. Round trip tickets were L22,000. We arrived just in time to buy them and board the 9:10 a.m. Rapido Express bus. Mostly I gazed out the window at the picturesque countryside as the bus moved along, although it got exciting at one point when the bus driver, obviously suffering from an excess of testosterone, played “chicken” with another car. We arrived in one piece, and were soon on our way to the Campo – a scenic town. We wandered around for the next few hours, snapping pictures here and there, and visiting the sights.
After lunch, we continued exploring, then returned to Florence. We had plenty of time, so we went to the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. In a nutshell, the products here have been around since the 13th century when Dominican monks concocted herbs and potions for their infirmary. Around the 16th century, they started selling the products to the public. During the turbulent 1800s, the Italian Government took it over, and passed it on to the Stefani family, who has owned and managed it ever since.
They sell potpourri which is made from herbs and flowers from the hills of Firenze – very potent. The bag I bought is scenting my whole bedroom now. The women at the shop told me the scent lasts a year with proper care. They have wonderful toilet waters and soaps with fragrances like Verbena, Pomegranate, Lavender and Orange Blossom.
They also sell antique preparations for the skin and body, and a scent called "Water of the Queen" which was devised and produced for Catherine of Medici. The building is in an early 17th century palazzo, with huge rooms and frescoed ceilings. One room is devoted to herbology; the others to perfume and body products.
We stopped to buy a lovely piece of hand-painted tile from a woman in a shop on Borgo Pinti. The outside of the shop is decorated with beautiful hand-painted tiles of Florence scenes, and the inside is filled with ceramic pieces that she has made and painted. Many of the pieces show pictures that tell a story, all are hand-painted by Perla. She told me she is doing this because her father did, and his father before him. Her brother was carrying on the family tradition, but he died at a young age. She inherited the shop. She was sweet and pleasant. I left with more than a souvenir – the memory of a delightful encounter with a charming woman.
We also stopped at the Paperback Exchange, a boon for Americans in search of reading material. Finally back to the B&B for our last night in Florence.
Thursday, April 19
On the way to the train station, I stopped by the Studio Art Centre International (SACI) on Via San Antonin, which is where my daughter had attended school the previous semester. The staff was extremely friendly and welcoming, and were thrilled that I had dropped by. They took us on a tour of the school, showing all the facilities and studio workshops, letting me see some of Katie’s work, which the school had bought and put on display. I was then taken to meet the director – a gracious and charming person.
At the train station we bought our tickets to Roma, this time paying the L54,000 for the EuroStar train, thereby cutting our travel time by 30 minutes. The ride was uneventful, we were soon at Termini Stazione in Rome. The woman at the reservation counter in the TIC only had a room for L200,000 at the Hotel Cambridge on Via Palestro, about a five-minute walk. The hotel was fine – bigger than our last one, with a more extensive breakfast.
Once we were settled, we took a bus to St. Peters. The cathedral was as moving and immense. After touring the inside, we went below and visited the Popes' tombs.
Friday, April 20, 2001
After a breakfast of cappuccino, rolls, brioche, croissants and orange juice, we left for the airport. Once there, we had to split up since Nona was flying Air France, and I was using my buddy pass on Delta. I was back in business class, making my way home. Nona didn’t have the same luck. wound up getting stuck overnight in Paris.
I have to say one of the joys of traveling is being home again, snuggling up in your own bed. As Dorothy Gale says, “There’s no place like home”.
Mardee Sherman lives and works as a lawyer in Cincinnati, Ohio, and spends her free time dreaming of places to visit. She has traveled to Japan, Spain, England, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Wales, France and the Caribbean.