The Italian Job – Florence, Rome, Italy, Europe

As the bartender asked for my order in broken English, I thought to myself: would Charlie Croker have stopped for an espresso on his way to the Alps? Perhaps not, but we weren’t tearing out of Turin after a bank heist either.

Our taxi driver did stop on the way to the airport at the end of our whirlwind excursion through Rome and Florence. My sister and I were picked up at 6:00 a.m. sharp, in order to make our 7:30 a.m. flight to London, our final destination being the States. We were staying at the Hotel Donatello; about a half-hour from the airport. Our driver, Guiseppe, introduced himself, then helped us carry our bags down the long staircase carefully placing them in the back of his Fiat.

Unscheduled stop on the way to the airport
Guiseppe dashed around corners and sped through intersections, drove atop a stadium and traversed a river – no wait, that was Charlie – with the expected boisterousness of a Roman taxi driver. Ten minutes into our ride, the Fiat came to a complete stop. Guiseppe did not hit anything or anyone. He thought it would be the perfect time to stop at his favorite café for a shot of espresso before he dropped us off. Going 70 miles per hour down two thousand year old donkey cart lanes takes substantial energy out of a driver.

My sister and I looked at each other with trepidation. We are going to miss our flight, our eyes read. Not speaking English, Guiseppe beckoned the both of us to exit the car with the crook of his right index finger. Being the braver of the two (or perhaps the dumber – I’m the blond), I crept from the auto and into the only brightly-lit storefront on an otherwise forebodingly dark street. About a dozen men were in the panineria, casually leaning against the counter, chatting about nothing in particular in a lazy, early morning Italian murmur.

"Caffe," he said, motioning back and forth between the board and me. Smiling a bit uncomfortably, I shook my head, no. Guiseppe sensed my confusion; he reached into his pocket, put his own money onto the counter and waved his free arm over his head as if he were saying: take what you want, it’s on me. I was startled. Guiseppe repeated his bidding. Understanding what he was offering, that he was paying (although a jaded person might believe that it was built into the fare), I complied and placed an order. I sipped my to-go drink for a minute or two, patiently waiting while Guiseppe visited with his friends. Slurping down his remaining caffe, Guiseppe wished his friends a good day and we continued on our way. We made our flight.

Dichotomy of personalities
The Italians dine at a leisurely pace, yet drive like the devil is at their heels. They are affectionate and warm people, yet not once did I get my bottom pinched (is that a bad thing? The jury is still out). Everywhere we went, people were helpful, suggesting time-saving and money-saving measures whenever possible, sometimes in perfect English, other times in a combination of broken English and point and nod. Only once was our limited Italian corrected in a terse manner by a harried Florentine woman working the counter of a busy pastry shop. Our vacation was a short one: three days in Rome, two in Florence and one in London. Although we are not Christians per se, we decided we wanted to capture the true spirit of Christmas by spending it in the center of Christendom.

Initial plan changes
Our initial plan was to see the Pope for midnight mass. When we finally made the decision to be in Rome for Christmas, it was early November. The Santa Susanna Church, the American Catholic church in Rome. is the place for Americans to get tickets for this service. You can apply for tickets through Monsignor Roger Roensch at the U.S. Bishops Center for Visitors to the Vatican. His office telephone number is 0113906.690011; fax number is 0113906.679.1448. Email is nacvisoffrome.csm@citiesonline.it.

The success rate of acquiring tickets weeks before the holidays is slim to none. Savvy travelers plan six months or more in advance for such an event. Rachel and I do not plan far into the future. In fact, we have purchased plane tickets for foreign destinations a few days before the departure date.

We arrived in Rome on the afternoon of Christmas Eve. To get the best fare for a ride into the center of any European city, approach several taxi drivers. Ask a group standing together, or at least within earshot of one another. Look each one in the face, individually, for the charge. This method will start a bidding war, which will knock off a few euros from your fare. The other option, what we chose for this particular ride, is to take a privately-run shuttle bus. It's similar to a taxi, but the vehicle is a minivan; loads you and as many as can fit in the vehicle. It makes stops at several accommodations; we were hoping it would drop us off right at the door where we were staying. Cost us 20 euros per person; not bad.

It's always best to check the website of those places you want to see if you are traveling during the Christmas holiday. Sometimes hours are more limited; other times the attraction may not be open. We missed out on seeing the treasures of the Vatican on this particular trip.

Donatello, where we stayed, was an attractive, family-run establishment. The rooms were small, but clean, attractive and modern. Carlo, the concierge, suggested we go to the Vatican before noon on Christmas Day, as the Pope would be in the square blessing people. He marked a map for us not only to the Vatican, but also to points of interest along the way. We followed his route, although we marveled more at the citrus trees than the buildings from antiquity. I noticed Italians do not maintain their resources as the British do. The Tower of London is not littered with rubbish and graffiti like some of the sites in Rome. To be fair though, I found Rome to be well worn and lived in. The Italians are more laissez-faire than we Americans, and less concerned about everything looking spit shined.

The Vatican and…
It took us about an hour to reach the Vatican. It was now 10:30 a.m. Gorgeous security guards searched our bags. The two best places to see beautiful men are the U.K. and Italy – hands down. At this time of the morning, the crowd was thin. We walked around to see what was open. The Basilica was open; in we went. It's an overwhelming display of Baroque exuberance, filled with color and light. We ambled along with our heads cocked upwards in a sixty degree angle, tilting downwards every so often to avoid obstacles. We spent only a half hour there; I was coming down with the flu. We found ourselves a seat and waited for the moment when the Pope would grace us with his presence.

We were not disappointed. At high noon, the Pope came outside and joined the faithful, albeit at a safe distance. He was seated in a chair at the end of the staircase leading to the Basilica. We were a few hundred feet from him, close enough to just barely make out his face. He was surrounded on both sides by children seated on stadium-style benches, cheering madly, whenever he said something that aroused their passions. Occasionally, he called out the name of a particular country; those representing the nations erupted into great fervor.

It was at the Trattoria da Marco e Fabio that we met Fabio; one of its owners. It wasn't in our guidebook. There's no garish sign in front. In true Italian style, food was brought out to the communal tables. We ate whatever they were making in the kitchen that day. Everyone dug into the heaping servings of antipasti, pasta, more pasta, dolci, more pasta, vino, etc. Our bill was probably half what guidebook suggestions would have been.

I was now running a temperature, so we took the subway to the Coliseum – impressive. Tourist attractions are either overrated or underrated. We did not feel cheated at this attraction; its size, shape, details are worth a visit on the beaten tourist path. Like eating gelato – a creamy, delightful, frozen concoction from Italy, much like our ice cream, but tweaked to give it its own unique flavor and style. Both are Italian and to be savored.

Cradle of the Renaissance city
Florence was on our itinerary next. We made the mistake of taking a "milk train", arriving nearly four hours later – definitely the cheapest ticket, though. If you are going to more than one city, it is better to buy a pass, like the Eurail pass.

We stayed at the Bonciani, a short walk from the train station. We found it to be clean, pleasantly decorated and warm (temperature). Several online reviews disagreed with us. Perhaps we were lucky. Having the flu, I was grateful for a warm room. The staff, though, was snotty, should not have been in the service industry.

Most stores were closed the day after Christmas, but the museums and the Duomo were open. The street markets were also in full swing. We saw the Uffizi, home to the da Vincis and Botticellis; the Pitti Palace, the former residence of the rival family to the Medicis; and the Galleria dell’Accedemia, which holds Michelangelo’s renowned statue, David. There is a plaster copy in the Victoria and Albert museum in London; see the original at the Accedemia. There are also plaster casts of other famous statues outside on a square near the Uffizi, lending a nice, if touristy, Renaissance touch to the square. We broke up our museum visits with gelato stops, trying new flavors at each shop we went into. I became an instant fan of banana and pistachio, although classic vanilla is still the best flavor.

All paths lead back to Rome
Our return to Rome brought us to the central train station; not only as a place where our train came to a stop, but also for shopping. Laziness, exhaustion and the symptoms of the flu encouraged us to do the remainder of our shopping in the station. Who else but the Italians would have a Bennetton and other trendy chain stores in their train station?

Time flew. Soon we were at the airport saying goodbye to our taxi driver, Guiseppe. He reached over and embraced us as he said arrivederci. He then jumped into his Fiat and raced off to his next fare. I didn’t even yearn for a mini.

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