Rome: A First Exploration

Rome, the Eternal City—possibly my favorite city in the world. Few cities can match the history, art, architecture and beauty—oh, and the food—to be found in Rome.

Getting here couldn’t have been easier. An hour and a half on the train, a short cab ride and 2,000 years back into the past. Check out the door to our Airbnb apartment:

And the inside ain’t too shabby:

We’re staying in the heart of the historic center, just steps from many famous sites. As we’ve done in the other cities, we set out to explore after getting settled in. First, Piazza Navona, which is literally a block away.

You might recognize Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers from The Da Vinci Code.

Next, we stopped by the Pantheon. This amazingly preserved building dates back about 1,900 years, and has been in continuous use since then (first as a Roman temple, and then as a Christian church from the seventh century onward).

(Check back later for photos of the interior; there were simply too many people when we got there.)

One thing I love about Rome is that there are about 900 churches. And so many of them house masterpieces of art in situ—on site, in the place where they were designed to be—that you can stumble on famous paintings or sculptures at random. Which is exactly what happened today.

As we walked, we passed several churches with beautiful facades, so I finally ducked into a random one to take a look. And there in a side chapel were three paintings by Caravaggio, one of which was a painting I had hoped to find on this visit (The Calling of St. Matthew, one of the first paintings I learned about in my first art history class). Such finds illustrate the magic of Rome.

A few blocks south, we came to Largo di Torre Argentina, a hole in the ground surrounded by busy streets and stores where ancient Roman ruins have been excavated. And not just any ruins; amongst them was found part of Pompey’s Theater, on the steps of which Julius Caesar was assassinated.

The tree on the left in the photo above marks the spot where Caesar met his untimely end at the hands of the Senate.

Someone left flowers for the fallen tyrant. Requiescat en pace.

The ghost of Julius Caesar is not the only one to call this place home. A colony of feral cats also lives here—so many that a group of volunteers have set up a cat shelter on site, sterilizing every cat they can get their hands on, and giving them food, shelter and veterinary care. My niece Kelley has to come to Rome just for this cat sanctuary.

Next on our exploration: Campo dei Fiori. Translated as “field of flowers,” this piazza becomes a flower (and food) market every day, though we got there too late in the day to see it. We did find Giordano Bruno brooding over the site where he was burned at the stake by the church in 1600 (for daring to believe that stars were distant suns with planets encircling them and other fanciful—and heretical—nonsense).

Oh, and spritzes. We stopped for some spritzes. Have I mentioned these yet? We’ve been enjoying them the whole trip. For those who live near us, these will be served frequently at our house all summer long. Yum!

And of course, the obligatory photo of the gelato of the day (with a magnificent backdrop).

We finished the day with a sumptuous dinner at Mimi e Coco, a tiny little restaurant directly across the narrow street from our apartment. I mention it mainly to make the point that there are little restaurants like this literally every few doors. And based on our observations, nearly all of them are packed. Clearly, food is a major part of the culture here, which we’re excited to experience.

Finishing in Florence

This was our last full day to see what we could see in Florence, and I think we made good use of our time. While I think we may leave the city having just scratched the surface, there’s so much to see that the surface offers plenty.

We spent the morning at the Duomo, exploring everything the Santa Maria del Fiore cathedral complex offered.

First, we dropped off Carol at the museum while the rest of us climbed the 463 steps to the top of the dome.

The stunning Last Judgment frescoes on the inside of the dome were as stunning as the view from the outside of the dome.

Italians typically have just a small pastry with espresso for breakfast. Following this practice, we’ve found ourselves quite ravenous by the time lunch hour rolls around, and today was no different. Following another recommendation from The Breen Team (my nephew and his wife, who honeymooned in Italy last September), we found our way to La Divina Pizza.

I’ll just say that this place was aptly named; the pizza—particularly the crust—was simply divine. And it was fun to try the by-the-slice experience where the slice is cut for you with a pair of scissors.

The gelato of the day also came by way of a Breen Team suggestion: from Perché No, a place where they said they found the best gelato in Florence. It was good, but I think yesterday’s award-winning San Gimignano gelato was a touch better.

In the afternoon, we made our way across the Ponte Vecchio to the Oltrarno, the other side of the Arno River.

First stop, the Pitti Palace, home of the Medici family. Or, more specifically, the Boboli Gardens, their sprawling backyard.

Third time’s a charm, so we went with the Breen Team one more time, following their “must do” suggestion to take a bottle of wine to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sunset. A rock-solid suggestion.

The idea of enjoying a bottle of wine at sunset conjures feelings of intimacy and relaxation. A thousand other people had the same idea, however, so we didn’t exactly get that. But the views, particularly at this time of day, kept the Breen Team’s perfect record intact.

We felt a trip to Florence wasn’t complete without a dinner of bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak), so we treated ourselves to a last supper splurge at Osteria dell’ Enoteca, just up the street from the Pitti Palace (not sure whether the Medici are regulars).


Rather than offering a wine list, the sommelier brought me to the wine case and helped me pick out a bottle.

Tomorrow noon, we head for the Eternal City. Ciao, Firenze!

Under the Tuscan Bus

It’s nearly midnight, and my Fitbit has recorded more than 27,000 steps today. So I don’t even know why I’m posting a blog update; well, the answer is because I don’t want to let you down, dear reader. However, you might be more of a viewer than a reader today. My bed calls to me longingly, so I’m planning to write little and share lots of photos.

Today, we left the tour guiding to others and ventured out to Tuscany by bus on a guided tour. The itinerary: Siena, lunch at a winery, San Gimignano and Pisa. Maybe doesn’t sound like much? Look at a map. Or my Fitbit. We covered a lot of ground, and while the organized tour aspect made it feel a bit rushed at times, we saw a lot of pretty amazing sights.

First up, Siena:


Piazza del Campo, where they run the famous Palio horse race.


Our visit happened to exactly coincide with an anti-mafia protest march—which made the walking difficult, but offered some unique photo opportunities.


Siena’s facade was pretty epic…


…as was its interior, especially the marble inlay on the floor.


The oldest bank in the world (still open, but only banker’s hours).


Ciao, Siena!

By this point, we had already walked (and driven) a lot, and our stomachs were crying out. Fortunately, the next stop was worth the wait: lunch at Fattoria Poggio Alloro, a winery in the heart of Tuscany, with a view of the “Medieval Manhattan,” San Gimignano (our next stop.


The towers of San Gimignano are visible in the upper right of this photo.


The Medieval Manhattan.

Next stop, the hill town of San Gimignano in all of its medieval towered splendor.

Of course, the day didn’t pass without gelato, and today we got to try the best in the world (two-time world champion).

Last but not least, we stopped in Pisa—because, if you go to Italy but don’t get a picture with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, have you truly done Italy? (The answer is, totally, yes—but we still got the picture.)

Focus on Food

In Venice, we didn’t have a plan, just a list of things to see and do in any order, on any day. That worked out well, because anywhere you go in Venice is an adventure.

Our visit to Rome, on the other hand, is pretty well programmed. With so many things to see in the cradle of western civilization, a plan is a necessity; so I expect that visit will also work out well.

In Florence, our strategy was more like Venice’s: a list of things to see, but no specific plan. Like Rome, however, there’s a lot to see here, so a more structured plan might have served us better. Things were complicated by the weather—cold and windy, with Renaissance-sized narrow streets acting like wind tunnels—by hordes of people who seem to mostly be Italian youths on school trips, and by the fact that most of the major sights here charge for entry. As a result, our sightseeing (at least by my overly particular standards) has been a bit disorganized.

But don’t get me wrong: we had a great day, mostly focused around food. And though we’re surrounded by history, Italy is also well known for food, so there’s absolutely nothing wrong with how the day unfolded.

We started out by trying to follow a Rick Steves audioguide tour through the historic center. But the cold, crowds and whims of a seven-year-old made it an extremely challenging endeavor.

Things turned around, though, when we popped into a lovely little restaurant called FrancescoVini near Piazza Santa Croce for lunch. We each tried a different pasta, and everything was delicious, including the house Chianti and dessert of vin santo and biscotti.

My post-lunch plan was to check out the Basilica of Santa Croce. I have a thing about churches—I’m not religious, but churches provide heaping servings of history, art and architecture, all in one place—and this particular church is the last resting place of famous Florentines like Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. But it turns out that Santa Croce is one of those many sights in Florence that charges a (hefty) fee to enter, so we gave it a pass. But here’s the beautiful facade!

The rest of our afternoon was covered by a plan we made just this morning, a pizza-making class. It was a fun activity for all ages, and a great way to make memories—and our dinner.

Molly and some other kids also got to help the chef make gelato, so Molly not only made her own dinner, she helped make her gelato of the day (chocolate, for those keeping score at home).

After class, we stopped at Mercato Centrale, Florence’s giant public market. The downstairs area—presumably the fresh market—was closed, but the upstairs level offered a wide range of food venues, much like the public markets that are (finally) taking off in the U.S. (Denver just opened its fourth).

Finally, we visited Eataly, a large store that was like a mini version of the public market: all manner of Italian groceries, prepared foods to eat there or on the go, and a bar/restaurant.

Back at our apartment, we finished the day with a bottle of prosecco, some pecorino we bought at Mercato Centrale and bread from Eataly—because apparently we didn’t get enough cheese and bread from pizza class.

Travel Day/Rest Day

Today was the first of two travel days of our trip (Venice to Florence). It also turned out to be an impromptu but necessary rest day, so this won’t be the most exciting update.

We took the vaporetto one last time from our Venice apartment to the train station, allowing me to capture this photo that illustrates the city’s perennial struggle against the Adriatic.

We rode a high-speed Italo train to Florence, and it had to be the smoothest train ride I’ve ever experienced—so smooth that I couldn’t even tell when we started moving unless I looked. And smooth enough that we all (minus Molly) took naps at various points.

After dropping off bags at our Florence Airbnb apartment, we were starving (or at least I was). So our first stop was All’Antico Vinaio, home of the supposed best sandwich in Florence, at the recommendation of my nephew Collin. We had La Summer, the most popular ‘wich: prosciutto, mozzarella, basil and tomatoes on ciabatta—all ingredients unbelievably fresh.

It was a day that ended in “y,” so it was time for gelato. This time, Grammy Carol joined in.

We then walked off the calories and sampled some of the sights we’ll explore in more depth tomorrow—but despite the earlier naps, we didn’t last long. We returned to the apartment before 6 PM, and everyone (again, except Molly) fell asleep on the couch. And here we remained; after going strong since Friday, we decided a rest day (what was left of it, anyway) was just what we needed.


Santa Maria del Fiori: a closer look tomorrow


Molly does not approve


Palazzo Vecchio


The Arno River


Carousel ride on Piazza della Repubblica

P.S. Happy Fathers Day to me!

Things Are Looking Up in Venice

Our two main sightseeing goals for today were St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Doge’s Palace.

I can share some historical context—St. Mark’s was built in the 11th century; the palace of the Doge (Duke) was the seat of power for all of Europe for 400 years—but as it turned out, today was really all about ceilings.

Truly, we spent more time today looking up than looking around. While the walls of the two sites (and the nearby Correr Museum) were decorated, the ceilings stole the show. Especially in the Doge’s Palace, where virtually every ceiling in every room was a gilded masterpiece by Tintoretto or some other master.

See the photo above in which Molly stands with arms raised? That’s the Hall of the Grand Council (which can hold 2.600 people). The far wall is Tintoretto’s “monsterpiece,” Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world. Truly, one could spend an entire day (or more) studying and interpreting the countless paintings; for us, it was almost overwhelming.

The visit to the Doge’s Palace also gave us an insider’s look from the Bridge of Sighs (the bridge that leads from the palace to the prison, where prisoners got one last glimpse of Venice and sighed with regret). Molly had my phone at the time, and I found this photo later, composed and shot all by her; I think we have a budding photographer in the family.

Cassie and Carol made a quick stop at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art…

…while Molly and I enjoyed the gelato of the day (despite cold and rainy weather) and saw the outside (and inside, where we warmed up) of the Santa Maria della Salute Church.

It’s our last night in Venice, so of course we had to have one more meal of cicchetti, the small bites that are so popular here.

So long, Venice. Next stop, Tuscany!