Friday, September 30, 2016

Honeymoon: Florence Part II, Orvieto, Rome

Florence Part II

Monday. September 26

Our last morning in Vernazza was pretty as a picture: blue sky, light breeze, no crowds. It was a good day for a train journey. We had breakfast on our patio, then packed up our bags. We invested in the 3€ for someone to carry our bags to the station. Though, it's hard not to feel guilty when he is carrying them both right behind you...

We met the loud group of Aussies at the station, and we found out they were all over for one of their daughter's wedding. They were off hiking and asked what we had done. Well, we saw the towns from the water! Heck, we were overachieving it on the art museums and Vernazza was our chill space. No guilt on our end!

Our train from Vernazza was late, as was our train from La Spezia, which made for a very mad dash for our Pisa train. We barely had time to get our seats before it left the station. So we arrived in Florence on time at noon.

There's something so comforting and stress free about returning to a city. You know how to navigate the train station, how to get to your hotel, where some restaurants and gelato places are. It takes away so much of the travel stress. We stayed in our same hotel, and while we were given another room, we still had a Duomo view, a big tub, etc.

Today was church day. Almost all the museums are closed on Mondays, so it was our chance to see the Duomo and Santa Croce. We also saw that a museum in town had an Ai Weiwei retrospective that we wanted to do. So it was a slightly packed afternoon.

We found a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves for lunch, which was near Santa Croce. We both had traditional Tuscan soups, and Todd had some meatballs and sautéed spinach. It was a light but hearty meal at a local place.

I've been reading EM Forster's "A Room with a View," so Santa Croce has been on my mind. I remember seeing it 22 years ago and being blown away by it. This second visit was just as rewarding. The large tombs, beautiful floors, and seemingly endless little chapels. The cloisters attached were quiet and simple in their beauty with the green trees and grass contrasted with the bright blue sky and the humble brick.

We then made our way to the Duomo. We thought the line would be long to get in, so Todd went to the line and I bought gelato. They had vegan hazelnut, chocolate, and mango, so we had a wonderful variety. I walked to find Todd near the front of the line. It was actually moving fast, so we had to get out of line three times until our gelato was finished and we could go in.

Last week we had visited the Duomo museum, so we saw many of the original pieces that were once inside and outside. The outside facade is so beautiful and complex, that you expect to see the same inside. When you first walk in, it's surprisingly sparse. There isn't much going on. Beautiful marble floors, huge vaulted ceilings. You make your way up the nave to the dome, and then you are struck speechless. It reaches higher and higher with Brunelleschi's amazing layers of frescoes.

But there is no rest for the art bound! We did the Duomo (that's what you do after all), and Todd was like "come on! Ai Weiwei!!" So we headed to Palazzo Strozzi where we saw his exhibit "Libero" spread throughout the whole palace. We got the audio guides, which were very helpful in deciphering the multiple meanings behind each piece. He is so political and provocative in both the objects, the materials used to make them, and the histori-political context. He touches on migration, pollution, violence, censorship.

We then carried ourselves home to rest our weary feet. They really are getting weary. Thank goodness we had a hotel with a tub in Florence. After dinner we had individual bath soaks planned. We went on the hunt for a nearby restaurant mentioned in the guidebook but passed a Chinese restaurant. I realized when Todd pointed it out to me that I just couldn't do spaghetti marinara again. That Chinese food was so good. Sometimes when I find tofu in the middle of a trip, I get overly excited. (Once in Cape Town, I came across a health food store with a sign saying fresh tofu. I hadn't had it in two months. I'm not going to lie to you, I took it and went back to my friends' house and ate it as it came.) we stopped by another gelato restaurant that had vegan flavors on the way home. Vegan pistachio ice cream. Yum.

Tuesday, September 27

We woke up in Florence to our last breakfast in our room. We didn't sleep too well, and it must be because we are getting to the end of our trip. Things are speeding up again.

We had a 9am train to Orvieto, and it was miraculously on time. Through the course of the trip, it only got delayed 10min. We passed through the pretty Tuscan countryside, making our way to Umbria. We arrived around 11:30, bought our Carta Unica tickets, which covered all the sights, and took the funicular up to the top of town. We squished in a bus to the Duomo square with a tour group, which was thankfully only a 5 minute ride.

We stepped off into the Duomo square and were faced with the bright wonder of the facade. Beautiful white, pink, blue/green, gold. Even after the Florence Duomo, we were awestruck. We ambled down to our b & b, but it was a little early to check in. She directed us to a restaurant for lunch, which was just what we needed. We ordered bread with olive oil tasting, which consisted of her just dumping two kinds of oil over slices of bread. It was delicious though! Todd had pasta with boar, and I had pasta with veggies in a nice sauce. We ambled around and went back to our hotel to check in.

After getting settled, we started our sightseeing. With the Orvieto card, everything was covered. First, the Duomo. The outside is a spectacularly busy wonder. We found out later that it was thanks to the local Bishop who brokered a deal in WWII between the Nazis and Allies that the Duomo was not bombed. At the same time that the altar and chapels are rich in detail and art, the rest of the church is simple with its striped stone walls and alabaster Windows. I admit that I took more photos of the pillars and wall textures than all the illustrious art.

After the Duomo, we decided to see some caves, which is what Orvieto is known for. There was a Roman cave that we could see and a formal underground Etruscan cave. When we asked the woman at the tourist desk what the difference was between them, as we were trying to decide if we should see both, she just looked at us and said they were very different. By the end of the day, we would know what she meant.

We took the short trek to the Pozzo della Cava, well of the cave. This Roman cave highlighted various pottery that was found there, how olive oil was made and stored, and how Romans got their water. While I wouldn't say I'm scared of heights, there's something very nerve wracking looking down a 30m well. Besides the Sistine chapel, it is one thing on this trip I don't have a photo of. We meandered through the caves a little awestruck by the sizes of them.

As we were exiting, Todd went ahead of me and the older man who worked there (he was at least 8O I'd say), came up to me, took my hand, and with a smile I can only call the "dirty old man smile", he led me to the back room of the restaurant saying, "venga, venga" (come, come). I mean, I know he didn't mean me any harm,  but my woman alone prickles were standing up on my neck (what does his wife in the next room think he's doing? I mean really he must be harmless.) He led me to a space between two tables, still pulling on my hand, smiling, and saying "venga." He then pointed downwards and I jumped with fright. He'd led me to the plexiglass covered floor that looked deep into a lower cave. And then he jumped on the glass. Twice. By his time I was giggling helplessly and stepping away from the plexiglass, refusing his encouragement to jump. My knees were a little wobbly. I said goodbye and thank you to the man and found Todd waiting for me outside with a slight smirk on his face. It's always the old guys that he's got to watch out for.

We power walked to the Tourist office to get on the 4:15pm underground tour, but it was already sold out. So we booked the 5:30 tour and went to the archaeology museum to kill time. It was a cool
Museum with Roman urns, busts, and other chipped pieces of history. But it didn't take long because it was small and no signs were in English. So some time was killed but not much. we went to the  little cafe and got a snack and watched the people outside.

Finally, we took the underground tour that led us outside the city and deep into two public caves below. Back in Etruscan times, the people (and one especially forward thinking Ruler person) knew that if the city was under siege, the only way it would survive would be if it had water. So they started digging wells. In fact several wells were dug, and Orvieto wasn't really ever sacked. In addition, there were city laws that said you could dig vertically within the same dimensions of your house. So people dug themselves wine and food cellars that kept everything at 15c all year round. Almost every house and business has its own cave.

Those with more money had a house along the city wall and they carved themselves pigeon rooms. They had discovered that pigeons were far easier to keep than chickens. They carved out a window so the pigeons could fly out, and they dug roosting holes for them. The pigeons would go out and feed themselves, come back and roost and have babies, and the family would have lots of easy meat. So pigeon became a local culinary specialty. Especially the baby pigeons. Poor piccolo Picciones.

Anyways, it was a fascinating tour that also included rooms were stone was quarried (until the city stopped it under fear that the city would literally cave in) and olives pressed. There were small little passageways and spectacular views of the countryside. As the woman had said earlier, they were indeed two very different cave experiences, both of them interesting in their own way (venga, venga).

We took our now sore feet back to our B&B to figure out dinner plans. There was no shortage of restaurants, and I walked us to one that had a good review only to find it closed. So we went to the second one. Everything there is homemade, so it wasn't a surprise what happened when I said "sono vegana" to the owner. He literally stepped away from me and started flailing his hands around saying "no, no, no." He motioned for us to go down the street and take the second left. We just chuckled as we wandered away, not finding the restaurant. So we went to our third choice, which was absolutely fantastic. I had pasta  with veggies, Todd had rabbit and veggies, and we had some amazing bruschetta with shaved truffles. I also ordered a glass of the Orvieto white wine. While Todd dug into his decadent tiramisu,  I drank my vin santo for dessert. It was a great meal.

We stopped by to see the Duomo all lit up at night, meandered into a store to buy some ceramics, and went home to crash for the night in our cute little room.

Wednesday, September 28

We didn't have an early start (our train was at 11:20am), but we didn't sleep very well. We got up early and had breakfast at the family bar/cafe downstairs. Clearly there is an artist in the family who did pieces in our room and in the restaurant. Todd went up to take a nice long shower, and I went on a morning photo shoot through two of the churches we'd been passing. On the way, I stopped and bought more ceramics. I mean, you buy glass in Venice, paper in Florence, and ceramics in Orvieto.

It was a good stay in Orvieto, and I could certainly see us returning. I think both of us would take a writing retreat in a Tuscan/Umbrian town (anybody want to recommend a writing residency for us???). But, with our flight going out of Rome Friday morning, it was time to get there.

It was a fast train to Rome and only mildly late. We had no interest in navigating a bus, so we took a cab to our hotel. To say that Rome was a shock to our system would be an understatement. Rome is manic. It makes Chicago traffic and cab drivers seem like passive little kittens. We were jostled past all the big monuments (oh, there is the coliseum, there is the "wedding cake") until we gleefully got out of the taxi and into our cosy little hotel room.

There was never any doubt that we would only see a handful of things in Rome, if that. We only had a half day and one full day, and it was at the end of our trip, so we hadn't booked anything. Yet, when we were in our hotel room, we were possessed by the tourist devil to try the Vatican museums. I got online and booked us a 3pm entry with an audio guide. We took a taxi to save our feet for the museums. The taxi to the museum was even more manic than our earlier one. Traffic was crazy, we saw a taxi try to get around a bus only to have misjudged the distance and to have his front crushed into the back side of the bus. Even in front of the museum, it was so packed with people that we knew we were heading into an Uffizi experience on steroids. (We have decided that one of Dante's modern levels of hell would be tour groups in a museum. Omg they incite evil thoughts and make the experience a difficult one to enjoy.)

I will say from the start that the Vatican museum has some absolutely amazing art, ceilings, and sculpture. The problem is that it's so darn crowded that you find yourself eager to move quickly to the next room to avoid the tour that is about to shift. We still spent three hours walking from room to room, ogling the ceilings, admiring wonderful pieces of history. I just wish it had been an experience like the San Marco museum in Florence, where you had space to be contemplative about the art. 22 years ago, I visited the museum and had a very different experience. Perhaps it was because I was starting to really question my Catholic faith, but back then, I felt quite negative about all the wealth in the Vatican. Perhaps I am more worldly, less judgmental, and non-Catholic now, but I could appreciate the art and architecture more (when I could really enjoy them).

One of the funny small world things that happened was in one of the early rooms of the museum, I was looking around and did a double take. There, sitting on a bench was Bob, one of the Victories board members where I work. There were hugs all around, and we found out they had just landed that day. Todd and I could not imagine doing the Vatican after the long haul flight. It was hard enough spending an hour in Westminster Abbey when we arrived. Throughout the museum, we kept bumping into them. Towards the end of our visit as Todd and I were heading to the Sistine chapel, we saw a bunch of guards close off the  stairs leading to the chapel. They just ushered us the other direction. But all the signs no longer said the chapel.  I asked a guard the way to the chapel and we told him the other way was closed. We ran into Bob and crowd and they followed us. The guard sent us down a very narrow hallway, confirming with another guard that it was okay. We got to the side door of the chapel, and the guard there wasn't going to let us in. "I said no! Why are you still here," he shouted at us. Between the bunch of us, we managed to convince him that we were coming in, and he caved.

Once we were in, Todd and I made full use of the audio guide. In other areas of the museum we didn't listen to the full pieces because you just had to keep moving (almost like the way the Tower of London puts you on a conveyor belt as you pass the Crown Jewels). The guide gave us great detail about the frescoes, and I really didn't remember anything from 22 years ago). We found seats along the edge and took it all in at a leisurely pace. Eventually, we were tired of hearing the guard occasionally shout "silencio! Silence! No photo! No video!" (Interesting fact that Todd discovered: there is so much CO2 from visitors in the Sistine chapel that they may have to start limiting people who visit because it is damaging the paintings. Millions of people visit a year, so no wonder.)

Rick Steves mentions that you should try to get out the back entrance because it will lead you to St Peters Basilica. It is the exit for groups, so we put our heads down and just tried to look like we were with any of the groups that were there. Not a problem really as the guards weren't policing it, but in the Catholic house, I felt so guilty!!! We made our way out of the chapel and into the Basilica. I knew that this church would trump (this word is so icky now) the other churches we'd seen, and Todd was as awestruck as I'd expect. We saw Michelangelo's Pieta and wandered around the various tombs of popes. A mass was being said in the apse, so there were some areas we couldn't see. We could see the one tomb that has stayed with me the past 22 years. The tomb with the skeleton coming out from under the marble robe. Still so creepy. Todd pointed out that several of the paintings were actually mosaics. Indeed, they are mosaic copies of originals that are now in the museum.

After three hours in the belly of the tourist beast, we ambled out into the square and tracked down a taxi stand to head back to our hotel. At this point in the trip, saving our feet, especially Todd's, is more important than money or time. And in traffic, it's slow going despite their manic driving. Todd had spotted an organic restaurant near our hotel when we arrived (he really looks out for my vegan needs!), so we went and had an amazing meal. Absolutely delicious. Four types of bruschetta, fried onion rings, good fish for Todd, a stack of veggies layered with pesto for me, and a vegan apple cake for dessert. Soooo good.

Thursday, September 29

Our last day of vacation. We had made a tentative plan of seeing the Pantheon followed by a small trek to Ostia Antica, the old port. We stuck to the plan.

After a nice hotel breakfast (eggs for Todd in Italy finally!), we took the short walk to the pantheon. It was nice and quiet and empty of tourists. It's such a strange thing to see a Roman building repurposed as a Catholic church, but it is also what has helped the building survive. You have a core structure of brick, stone, and marble with more baroque touches inside. The pillars are carved from single slabs of Egyptian granite that were shipped up the Nile back around 120AD. Seems like such an amazing feat, and this is just one building.

After a brief visit, we started our trek to Ostia Antica. Our hotel concierge had given us the wrong bus number to the station, but luckily we city slickers figured it out and got on the right one. We took a bus to the metro train to the suburban train. It only took an hour door to door, and while we were exhausted after the day, it was so very cool.

Ostia Antica is the old Roman port. Because the Tiber river is too narrow at points for large trading ships, they would dock at the port and load their materials on a river barge for delivery. Unlike the Forum and other inner-city Rome ruins, this site is relatively preserved. There are full and half structures of buildings. There are large columns. There is an amphitheater. There are mosaics in all sorts of hidden and non-hidden places. It's a large, large site, and even after four hours of walking (and 20,000 steps later), we still did not see more than a third of it. The guide and signs weren't super helpful, but they did give us a nice basic starting point.

It's so fascinating to think that you are
Walking along paths made by people 2,500 years ago. The remnants of their lives still exist. Pompeii may have tragedy, mummified remains, and rude graffiti, but this felt like a living city. One of the reasons I love (LOVE) historical dramas is the way they help you visualize a time in history. HBO's "Rome" did help me visualize this place in a living way. Come to think of it, Ostia Antica could do with some actors in costumes walking around. A roman centurion, a wench, a merchant, etc. I do love me some living history!

Finally, our feet were finished. We made our way through the labyrinth of ruins and back to the train station. We got on the right bus and back to our hotel. After a long day on our last day, it's hard to figure out what to do, how much you can take. We sat in our hotels rooftop patio, playing cards, resting our feet, trying to decide. Todd wanted to see a fountain but couldn't take a long walk. So we walked the 5-10 minutes to Piazza Navona, found a great restaurant on the piazza, and enjoyed our final meal. We wandered the square and saw the fountains, especially the Bernini centerpiece "The Four Rivers." In a moment of naïveté, we decided to walk to the Trevi fountain. First off, it was further than we thought based on the map. Secondly, there were way too many people and way too many annoying vendors trying to sell you things. It was just too much. So when we got to the throng at Trevi fountain (I'm guessing it's always madness there), it was just exhausting, and we promptly caught a cab home. We didn't throw coins. We didn't collect $200 as we passed go. Just thankful for fountain to hotel taxi service.

Friday, September 30

We once again took pity on ourselves and opted for hotel to airport car service. Cheaper than a cab and in a Mercedes, we were only mildly jostled to the airport for our 11:30am flight. There was no mad dash to the gate like in Gatwick. Just a herding of cattle through security, on to shuttle buses, and through fairly nonexistent customs. I bought the most expensive average salad ever, and we waited to board the plane.

Final Thoughts

We are currently over north Canada with still 4 hours to go until we land in Chicago. It has been a romantic, fun, and exhausting honeymoon. It's both just what we needed and yet still not enough (can we go sit somewhere remote with no people for a week???). It's been our first real vacation as a couple, except our two week writing residency in Vermont in 2013.

This honeymoon took a village of generous gifts from so many friends and family. It's been fun to tell people what we've seen and done thanks to them. It's been fun writing this blog so that everyone could read it. Most importantly,
Todd and I have had the time together to explore, experience, and relax (we did relax some I think). Anybody who knows me knows how much I've wanted to travel with Todd. I'm so grateful that we had this opportunity, and after our feet and bodies recover, I can't wait to do it again somewhere else. But perhaps slower and quieter.

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