Our Italian Holiday – A Second Day in Rome

We spent the first day of our stay in Rome going on organized tours through the whole day.  We only had a morning tour scheduled for the second day.  Our destinations were the Colosseum and the Forum, both places that were close to the hotel.

This is what I noticed across the road that morning when we left the hotel we were staying at. These steps lead up to the Basilica di San Pietro in Vincoli (the Basilica of St. Peter in Chains).OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe church houses Michelangelo’s statue of Moses.  This place was not part of the tour and some folks were hoping to climb to the top of the steps later in the day, but we ended up not having time to do that.

Marisa led us on this tour once again.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a lot of people already at the Colosseum early in the morning (but is was not as packed as when we left the place later!). Marisa took us up to a corner on the second level of the Colosseum to tell us about its history.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Colosseum was constructed in the first century AD.  It was essentially a place for free entertainment to keep the population occupied.  Marisa mentioned that the primary thing  notable about the structure of the Colosseum was its size, but its architecture itself was not unique. It was similar to other amphitheaters in design.  She also noted that many bits and pieces from the structure are missing because the Romans were good at recycling their building materials even in ancient times.  (You will notice such missing pieces in many other ruins in Italy.)  Another point she noted that stuck with me was that the kinds of fights between the gladiators that we are used to seeing in movies, fights that often ended in the death of one person or another, were not that common.  This is because gladiators were expensive to train and maintain, and in the end replace.  Also, the animals used in the fights had to be brought from other places, which could be an expensive proposition.  The Romans took care of their property.  They were quite practical in these matters.

After Marisa’s talk we had some free time to ourselves.  I had to make my way to the other end of the Colosseum to take pictures with decent lighting. (The panoramic pictures below are clickable!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a picture from the side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHere is a picture of the hypogeum, the space beneath the surface of the arena.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe did see the remains of what might have been the biggest temple in Rome, the Temple of Venus and Rome, from one of the openings in the second level of the Colosseum.Temple of Venus and Rome from the colosseum.jpgHere is a picture of the Colosseum as we were departing.PB134996.jpgWe then walked through the Arch of Titus OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAinto the area of the Forum. This is a rectangular plaza at the center of the city of Rome surrounded by the ruins of several ancient government buildings. This space was originally a marketplace.  Across the Forum we could see the City Hall on the Campidoglio (Capitol Hill), one of the seven hills of Rome.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the Arch of Severus towards the right and in front of the City Hall in the picture above.  The Altare della Patria is to the right in the background next to City Hall. We saw ruins such as the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa temple that was converted to a church later in its existence (something that happened to a lot of temples, including the Pantheon), and the remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA among other historical artifacts.  The Forum was the last stop on our organized tours in Rome.

Marisa then guided us back to our hotel after giving us a couple of suggestions for things to do later in the day.  Some of us decided to take a walk to the Jewish area of the city (also called the Ghetto) for lunch.  The food there was highly recommended.  We walked from the hotel down the Via dei Fori Imperiali which was crowded by this time,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand went around the Altare della Patria to the steps that went up the Campidoglio to City Hall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the picture above you can see the much steeper steps to The Basilica of St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven behind the steps that we took. The steps to the basilica are called the “Stairway to Heaven”!

There are two statues at the top of the steps that we took to the Piazza del Campidoglio in front of City Hall.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere is a statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse in the piazza in front of City Hall. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked to the side of City Hall from where one could get a good “grandstand” view of the the Forum below us with the Colosseum in the distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe remains of the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Severus are to the left in the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Jewish Ghetto where we were headed for lunch was not too far away.  It was quite busy by the time we got there.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALunch was excellent.  We ordered the fried artichokes that are a specialty of the place.  After lunch we started walking towards the Tiber river.  We passed the Great Synagogue of Rome.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked across the  Fabricious bridgeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto Isola Tiberina (Tiber Island) on the Tiber River.  There is, as you might expect, a church here, the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Island. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed to the other side of river from the island over the Cestius Bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked along the river for a short distance to the Garibaldi bridge,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and then crossed back to the side we had originally started on. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got a good view of the island as we crossed the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe then decided to walk back to the Pantheon and the Piazza Novona to see if I could get more pictures, since Marisa had rushed us through the previous day.  We managed to find the Pantheon.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took a picture of the obelisk in the Piazza della Rotunda in front of the Pantheon. (There are 13 obelisks all around Rome, all of which came from Egypt!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut we then got lost looking for the Piazza Novona even though we had maps in our hands.  We gave up the attempt and decided to try to find our way back to the hotel. We found ourselves on the Piazza Colonna once again with its column with a statue of Marcus Aureleus on top.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finally managed to get on to the Via del Corso and the route back to the hotel.  We passed the Altare della Patria once again on the way back.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat evening the tour group was taken to the Le Terme del Collosseo restaurant near the Colosseum for dinner.  (We were told that this was the location of Nero’s residence in times past, but who really knows!)  Dinner was accompanied by musical entertainment – classical and operatic music for the most part.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had a nice time although this might have been only the second occasion in Italy during which the food was not completely up to snuff.  But there was enough wine and entertainment to save the day!

After dinner we were picked up by Aldo in the area of the ColosseumOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAfor a night-time drive through the city to see the sights at night. It was a beautiful experience, but conditions were not very good for taking pictures.  Here is a picture of the Tiber with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAldo dropped us back at the hotel after the ride.  We were all tired and ready for bed.

There were some in the group who were leaving the tour for home and other destinations after this stop. The rest of us had a morning departure scheduled for Pompeii and Sorrento.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – The First Day in Rome

After the day of travel from Florence (through Assisi), we were now ready to tackle the streets of Rome.  This former capital of the great Roman Empire has a lot to offer for a visitor. It is a bustling metropolis where modern life mixes easily with the artifacts of days past.  There is much history to explore around every corner.  In the touristy area of the city, high-end fashion stores mix with temples from ancient times and churches and from the middle ages. There is always something new to experience as one explores the narrow byways and charming piazzas of the town.

Rome is a city full of tourists.  The place was packed even though we were were arriving at the tail end of the tourist season.  If you happen to be in a bigger tour group, it is especially difficult to keep track of your group in certain places.  We found out that it is standard practice for tour guides in Italy to keep in touch with the people in their groups using radios.  We carried one for the most part of the trip.  We would listen to Alessandro or the local tour guides (all of them were excellent!) over the radios as they carried a sign for the group attached to a pole over their head and led us on while speaking into a microphone.  Sometimes the sign on the pole was all you could see as you listened to your tour guide.  It worked out very well, and was especially critical for our visits today.

Marisa, our local tour guide, arrived at our hotel to lead us to the  Via del Corso, the main street along the historic center of Rome.  As we left our hotel on the Via Cavour, we walked past an intersection where you could see the Colosseum which we were to visit the next day,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand then we were on the Via dei Fiori Imperiali,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAa wide boulevard that runs from the Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum.  The street still had some road traffic early in the morning, but it is open only to pedestrian traffic during most of the day.  This road was built by Mussolini in his own honor.  He considered himself as great as the old roman emperors and wanted to build a memorial for himself.  He destroyed a bunch of homes and other buildings, and also ancient ruins. These ruins now lie on both sides of this street.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed the Altare della Patria, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAthe National Monument (also known as the wedding cake).  You can see the soldiers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the top of the steps in front of the monument.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the Via del Corso and in front of the Altare della Patria is the Piazza Venezia, the central hub of Rome. Next to it is the building and the balcony from which Mussolini used to give his fiery speeches to the Italian public.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATraffic around the piazza is crazy!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe entered one of the side streets paralleling the Via Del Corso as Marisa navigated the group towards the center parts of town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur first stop was the Trevi Fountain, which is the terminal point for one of the aqueducts that used to provide water to the city.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe place was packed with tourists.  It is a practice at the Trevi fountain to throw a coin into the fountain and make a wish.  (They do donate the money that ends up in the pool to charity.)  From the Piazza di Trevi one can see the flags on top of the Palazzo del Quirinale, a complex that includes the presidential palace.  One of the flags is the presidential flag. ( I believe the presence of this flag indicates that the president is around.)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Then it was back on the side streets following Marisa.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAShe showed us a vehicle that looked like a car but was not really a car. The Aixam 400 quadricycle only needs a moped license to drive it.  It runs on an engine that is about 500 cc in size, and it is surrounded by cheap plastic.  Apparently parents buys these for kids. Sounds  dangerous!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe next stop was the Piazza di SpagnaOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand the Spanish Steps.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe place owes its name due to the presence of the Spanish Embassy that has been there since historical times.  There are also other embassies in that area.  You can see the Trinità dei Monti church at the top of the Spanish steps.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was on to the next stop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We passed by the Piazza Colonna and the Palazzo Chigi located there.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe latter is the official residence of the Prime Minister of Italy.  We went through the Piazza di Pietra and saw the remains of the Il Tempio di Adriano (The Temple of Hadrian) there.  The temple is located to the right of the picture below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe last stop before lunch was at the Pantheon where we explored the inside of the roman temple that has been converted into a catholic church (this happened in many temples in Rome). OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.   The doors are massive and have been in use since historic times without need for replacement.

The crowds were out at the Piazza Navona where we stepped into one of the restaurants by the side of the square to have pizza for lunch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter lunch we gathered at a corner of the piazza and headed down to the riverOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto be picked up by Aldo to be driven to the Vatican.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAVatican City, the seat of the Roman Catholic church, has an interesting history.  It used to be that the popes ruled all of Rome, but when the country of Italy became a republic, they had to withdraw to an area that eventually became the Vatican.  They were only recognized as as city-state in 1929 by Mussolini.

The place was packed!  We were able to get to the front of the line to get into the grounds because we were part of a tour group.  Once inside, we walked to an open space in front of the Pinacoteca Vaticana (the Art Gallery) where they had pictures from the Sistene Chapel shown on a board.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMarisa explained to us that since conversations were not allowed in the Sistene Chapel itself, the authorities had provided this resource in the garden so that guides could talk about the chapel before entering.  Then it was time to get in line to go through some of the Vatican museums that led to the chapel.  We walked past the Fontana della PignaPB124839.jpgas we walked through the Cortile della Pigna to enter one of the museum buildings.

Once in the buildings, it became a greater challenge to stay together as a group and keep track of Marisa and her commentary.  The place was jam packed, and often times the only sight of Marisa was the sign she was carrying at the end of the pole.  Alessandro brought up the rear well behind us to make sure nobody got separated from the group and got lost.  These are random pictures from the museums. (Click on one of the pictures to look at them in full size.)

We then entered the Sistene Chapel where no photography is allowed, and only whispered conversations.  It was amazing to be in this place packed with so many people with relative silence! The works of Michelangelo on the walls and the roof tell many stories.  The sheer volume of the space that was painted in such great detail takes your breath away.

The next stop was St. Peter’s Basilica.  Unfortunately, there was some event being planned in the church for the next day.  There was also some kind of a pilgrimage event going on and additional lines of people entering the church.  There were chairs placed in the central portion of the church and we had to proceed along the sides where it was more crowded than usual.  Here are a few random pictures. (Click on one of the pictures to look at them in full size.)

As we walked on to St. Peter’s Square after the tour of the basilica, we passed a location where there were Swiss Guards stationed.  Their uniforms were covered by their cloaks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were chairs all over over the square and one was not free to wander around freely.  You could see the balcony from which the pope speaks to the people on special occasions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople wandered around the sections of the square that were not blocked off. The light was fading. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll around the square were the colonnades with the statues on top.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOne could see the building of the Prefecture of the Papal household and the Residence of the Pope, all part of the Apostolic Palace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPope Francis apparently chose to stay at the Vatican guesthouse instead.

We stopped at the Vatican gift shop for a while. It was dark by the time we made our way back in the bus and drove off into the night.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had to be dropped off a fair distance from our hotel because the roads nearby had been  closed on account of some kind of protest going on closeby.  The group straggled through the local roads and made it back safely.

After a short break at the hotel we went for Sunday vigil mass at a church within walking distance. The small church, Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Monti, was built in the 16th century  and has a lot of history associated with it.  You can see a bunch of historical artifacts in the church.  The outside of the chruch also reflects its time. It was not in very good physical shape inside, and there were only a handful of older people attending the service.  The priest had to soldier on on his own with minimal assistance.  (He had a good singing voice!)  There must be quite a few catholic churches in Rome, and I wonder how they are financed and manage to stay open.  After mass, following up on a hankering for Indian food, we walked to an Indian restaurant, Maharaja, close by.  The food was good.  After dinner the women retired for the evening and the men stayed out a little while longer for gelato.  And then it was back to the hotel rooms, and that was that for the day.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – To Assisi and Rome

In one of my earlier blogs in this series I mentioned how well the company organizing this tour took care of us during the trip.  One of the aspects of this care was the process for checking into and out of our hotel rooms whenever we visited a new place.  Our bags, which were carried in the belly of the bus that we were on, were uniquely marked with an identification tag.  When we arrived at a hotel, we were given the keys to our hotel rooms, and our bags magically arrived at the doorstep after we got to our rooms.  When we were about to leave a hotel, we were given a particular time in the morning (even before we checked out) at which to leave the bags just outside our room, and the bags just disappeared until their reappearance at our rooms at the next stop.  The process worked flawlessly through the whole trip.  The coordination between the tour group and the hotels was completely invisible to us, but there must have been quite a bit of work to get us checked in without our having to pull out our passports at every stop, and to have the bags delivered to the correct room and then picked up by the hotel staff every single time!  We did not have to do a thing in this regard.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog.  We had a good night’s sleep after that wonderful dinner experience in Florence.  We were picked up from the hotel by Aldo the next morning for the next leg of our trip to Assisi.  Assisi is the birthplace of St Francis, and it also the place where he is buried.  Indeed, this is the town around which the story of his life revolves.   He did a lot to change the church for the better during the middle ages.

People were headed out to work as we headed out of the city.PB114481.jpgThe skies looked threatening.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter negotiating some stop-and-go rush hour traffic along the bank of the Arno river, we made a turn on to a bridge over the river and  headed out of town.PB114491.jpgIt rained along the way.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took these two pictures at a rest stop by playing with the point of focus of the lens on the camera.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi (Basilica di San Francesco d’Assisi), the mother church of the Order of Friars Minor of the Franciscans, appeared as a blur on a hill through the rain as we approached.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe bus headed a short distance up the hill and dropped us off at a parking lot, where we waited for our local guide to arrive.  We could see the town of Assisi above us,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand the plains below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA There appeared to be an entrance-way into town next to the parking lot,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbut instead of taking that route, we walked up a road to a different entrance higher up the hill.  Fortunately the rain was somewhat light at this point. On the way we caught sight of the Basilica higher up on the hill.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce we got through the entrance wayOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA we found ourselves at the corner of three streets and we turned up the street for the Basilica.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had to go though a security check to enter the Piazza Inferiore di San Francesco. The particular name for the square is probably because it is at the level of the lower church, the entrance to which can be seen at the side of the building in the picture below. The entrance to the upper church is from the front of the basilica.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the group gathered near the entrance, it was time to enter the lower church of the basilica.

The usage of cameras was prohibited within the church. We sat in a pew where our guide spoke to us about the place and about St. Francis of Assisi. We visited the crypt below the church where  St. Francis of Assisi is buried.  Then, exiting the back of the lower church, we walked around a courtyard from which we could get a view of the back of the church.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe entered the upper church from the back.  Once again, photography was not allowed. After the tour we took some pictures from the front of the church and began our walk back to the parking lot for the buses.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe clouds had lifted a little bit over the plains.  We could see the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels in Assisi (Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli) in the distance.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe exited the square,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and stopped at a local gourmet deli for some sandwiches.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The skies were getting darkerOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA as we walked back to the parking lot after lunch,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand then the rain really began to come down heavily.  The wind had also picked up as the storm passed through.  We had to take shelterOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwhile we waited for Aldo and our bus to reappear. We had to make a run for it through the rain to board the bus once it arrived.

We had a couple of hours of driving left to get to Rome.  It rained on and off along the way.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon we had made our way into this sprawling metropolis and, after navigating some of the local streets, made it to our hotel close to the Colosseum. Dinner that evening was in the hotel itself. It was another multi-course affair with enough wine on the side to keep up the the good mood even though we were tired.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter dinner some folks decided to go out for a walk and see a little bit of the city while the others retired to their room to take care of other stuff.  We got to bed at a reasonable time.  We had two days of exploring to do in Rome, and it was clear that there was a lot to do.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – The Dinner in Florence

Now may be a good time to mention our bus driver Aldo who drove us all the way from Venice to Sorrento.   Aldo did not speak English well enough to try to talk to us, and that might be the reason he seemed to be very quiet on the bus. But if you sat in the front of the bus you could hear the conversations he was having with Alessandro, our tour manager, in Italian.  Aldo had that calm air about him that made our bus-rides all the more relaxed and enjoyable.  He drove the huge bus in all kinds of situations, including the drives on the highways, and the twists and turns of the narrow streets that had to be negotiated to get to out-of-the-way places.   He drove day and night and in different kinds of weather conditions without any change in the handling of the bus. He was a master of the road.  We were all appreciative, and so was Alessandro our tour manager.  He even made up a ditty for us to sing to him as a token of our appreciation (“Oh Aldo..”).

I will also preface this particular blog with a note that the experience that we had that night which I am going to write about was totally unexpected.  After all, we had all paid what we thought was a reasonable amount of money for what we presumed would be a simple tour with a focus on sightseeing.  Although a few dinners were included, we were thinking of them as additions to the package to make our life easier during the tour.  The lunch the previous day had been a pleasant surprise in this regard.  But the experience of the dinner that night really blew away expectations!

Folks might have been looking for a little bit of relaxation after a long day of walking around Florence, but there was more to come that evening.  Dinner was happening in a restaurant called “I Tre Peni” in the hills of Tuscany on the outskirts of the city.  Aldo was there promptly at our hotel with his bus to get us to our destination.  It was not an easy drive through the narrow winding roads where there was barely enough place for automobiles , let alone an automobile and a bus, to pass each other.  I think there was a little bit of blind faith, and perhaps a short prayer or two, involved in negotiating the blind corners, hoping nothing was coming the other way.  But Aldo got us there with aplomb.

We were greeted at the entrance with glasses of a blue wine courtesy of the owners to the restaurant, a family that own a winery called Fratelli Saraceni.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a couple of musicians there to entertain us, a guitar player and a singer.  There were more bottles of different kinds of wine awaiting us at our dining table.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe dinner started out with a wonderful spread of vegetables laid out on a central table for all to share.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is quite the sight, and a nice surprise.  We had been missing out on the usual vegetable intake that we were used to at home.

The singer walked around the restaurant singing to the ladies and inviting them for a dance or two.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe merriment continued through the items that we were served before the main course, and indeed all of this food was polished off.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe musicians would take breaks from their efforts every once in a while and then come back to sing some more songs for us.  At some point one of our fellow travelers was invited up to sing an Italian song with the musicians.   And then the folks at our table convinced me in my inebriated state to join the guitar player to sing a song that I did not know the words to.  I survived, and fortunately others were in the same state of mind as I was so that it did not matter that I was probably making a fool of myself.  By this time the guitar player was playing more and more riffs from songs in English that I could recognize, and so some of us joined in the background singing from our table.

The main course consisted of a serving of different kinds of meats on a big dish, to be shared around the table.PB104452.jpgIt was all quite tasty.  And the wine kept flowing.  After dinner Alessandro joined in some of the singing and noted that it was time for some dancing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAldo was also invited to join the musicians.  He watched the rest of us with a somewhat bemused look on his face.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFolks boogied while the musicians did their thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Alessandro then introduced a newlywed couple who were a part of our group and brought out a cake for them.  A song was sung for them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen informed that there were other couples who were celebrating their anniversaries during the trip, he invited them all up.  The musicians sang a song to all of them,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand they then all together blew out the candle on the cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Finally it was time for dessert and a shot of limoncello to close out the festivities at the restaurant.

On our way out of the restaurant we stopped at the front desk to jointly order a few bottles of different varieties of wine to be shipped home for us.  (This is something we may not have done if we had been in a different state of mind!)  The bottles of wine have just arrived.

Folks were in a great mood on the drive back.  There was music and singing, and even an attempt at trying to dance,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAas Aldo drove the winding roads carefully, on his mission to deliver us safely back to our hotel.  But he was also part of the fun. At some point he had us going around in circles in a roundabout.   There had been some talk before we set out for the restaurant about walking to a good gelato place near the hotel after dinner for more dessert.  But some of us had had enough fun for the day.  We retired to our rooms in a tired and tipsy state of mind ready to fall asleep.  We had the drive to Rome ahead to us the next day to consider.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – The Day in Florence

After a day of travel, this particular day was devoted to taking in the sights of the city of Florence (Firenze).  Florence, the capital of Tuscany, is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, and is well known for its art and architecture. The city has an important place in the history of Italy.  This was the land of the famous  Medici Family in the middle ages.

This was a view of the Arno river early in the morning near our hotel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were taken on a bus from our hotel to the Accademia Gallery, where the primary attraction is Michelangelo’s statue of David.Bus being loaded for ride into the middle of Florence.jpgThe lines to enter the gallery were long but things were moving since it was still early in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe statue of David is indeed stunning in its setting, and it gets your attention from many different locations in the gallery.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMichelangelo was also a  anatomist. He understood the muscle and bone structure of a human being very well and was a master at recreating this in his work.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other interesting room was the collection of sculptures made by students at the Academy in the past as a part of their studies.  These were not necessarily meant for  public viewing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe holes in the sculptures were meant to be peg-points so that anybody making a copy could get the correct proportions for the piece they were sculpting.

After we were done with the academy we walked down to The Dome of Florence Cathedral.  You could see the bell tower in the distance as we approached the piazza where the church is located.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The church is huge.  In fact it is so big and is in such a location that I found it impossible to capture the entire building in a single picture.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Piazza del Duomo where the church is locatedOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAalso includes the Florence BaptistryOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the bell tower for the church called Giotto’s campanile.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The architecture of this huge church is amazing. The dome of the cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is a symbol of Florence. It is massive and an amazing piece of engineering whose architecture and construction is still discussed by the experts.  Nobody had built a dome of that size at that time. It is actually a double dome (designed this way to try to lighten the weight) and the inner one is apparently 5 to 7 feet thick and is considered safe in spite of cracks which you can see from the ground.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the visit to the cathedral we walked the narrow streets  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto the Piazza della Signoria.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo landmarks of Florence that are around this plaza are the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia dei Lanzi.  The plaza also includes a water fountain with a  massive statue of Neptune.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This was the end of the morning tour.

We then walked on our own down to the  Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the the Arno river.  The bridge has high-end jewelry stores on both sides of the walkway.  While others indulged in shopping we took the views of the Arno river from the bridgeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and got an opportunity to take pictures of the bridge itself and the buildings on the river bank.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe passage-way on the left of the panoramic pictures was part of the Vasari Corridor built between two palaces in the middle ages.

After lunch it was time to visit the Uffizi (it is to the left of the dark brown building in the pictures above). Folks in Italy say that the Uffizi is to Florence what the Louvre is to Paris.  It is something that you should not miss if you go to the city.  (This was all news to me since I am not a real connoisseur of art.)  It is a massive gallery and it would take a few days to go though it diligently.  Our tour guide just walked us through a few of the rooms.  Here are some of the sights (click through to see individual pictures).

After the tour we headed for the Piazza di Santa Croce.  This is the location of the Basilica of Santa Croce.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrorence is known for its leather work.  Alessandro had set up a tour of a leather shop for us.  We learned how to identify real leather!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe hung out in the plaza for a short while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter this stop, the others in our group decided to take a taxi back to the hotel while the two of us decided to take a walk along the Arno to our hotel. The sun was beginning to set. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got to our hotel room without any issues.  It was time to relax for a short while. There was more fun being planned for that evening as a part of the tour,  a subject for the next blog in this series.

Our Italian Holiday – Getting to Florence

We had a very nice time in Venice in spite of the short stay there.  It was now time to set out on the next leg of our Italian vacation. We were heading to Florence (Firenze).

It was early in the morning when we started our walk towards the location where our bus was waiting for us.  We got our last sight of the Grand Canal partially lit up by the morning sun as we crossed over a bridge on our way on foot.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed the bus stand for commuter buses from the mainland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe caught the Venice People Mover train from a building close to the bus stand for a short ride to the  Tronchetto parking lot where our bus was waiting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon we were headed off the island over the bridge paralleling the bridge for the railway line. The Ponte della Libertà (or Bridge of Liberty) was built by Mussolini in the 1930s.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On the mainland we followed the railway tracks for a short while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We passed a stationary Frecciargento high-speed train. This one can get you from Venice to Roma in less than four hours. (BTW, there are faster train lines in Italy!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we were in the countryside and on the highway passing Padua and Bologna.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a few hours, including a couple of “il bagno” stops along the way,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe entered a stretch of highway cutting through the Apennine mountain range, crossing from the eastern side of Italy to the western side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were several impressive tunnels that the highway went through while crossing this range.  This highway is also a part of the European Union highway system with a European highway designation E35.  We saw European Union license plates on trucks from different parts of the continent.

We reached our destination for the afternoon, the province of Lucca in the Tuscany region soon after.  We stopped at the Fattoria Il Pogio vineyard just outside of the town of Lucca for lunch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had lunch at the restaurant after an tour of the farm led by a rather enthusiastic lady. The last picture in this set is of an olive tree.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were other tour groups at lunch, which was accompanied by a few different bottles of wine produced at the estate.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were offered a formal meal, something typical of many of the dinners we had in Italy.  We ate and drank heartily, and people were in a great mood after all was said and done.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rain had started to come down heavily by the time we reached Pisa for our next stop.  At the bus  stop in Pisa, we were surrounded by a number of people of African descent selling small items, including cheap umbrellas.  We bought one. It had a minor design issue but proved to be adequate for the task. There was also a minor emergency when getting people off the bus because many of them had make use of “el bagno” in a hurry, no doubt an aftereffect of the merrymaking that had accompanied lunch.  There was also the thought that crossed the mind that the impact of the leaning tower of Pisa would be enhanced by the state of mind that people were in.

The leaning tower, called the Torre de Pisa in Italian, is the bell tower for  a cathedral called the Duomo di Pisa. There is also a baptistry next to the church. The place itself is called the Piazza dei Miracoli (which translates to Square of Miracles) or the Piazza del Duomo. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was obvious from initial observations that the tower was really leaning (apparently about 4° at this time),OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbut I got to thinking that, without a context, one could even make an upright tower look like it was leaning, depending on how one took a picture of the structure, or one could even take the picture of a leaning tower from a direction from which it might look upright.  Here it is being pushed upright with some effort.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also spent some time in the cathedral.PB094050.jpgThe area at the entrance to the piazza was  filled with little shops selling knick-knacks and food and drink.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe visited some of the stores and had drinks to warm us up before heading back to the  trolley that was to take us to the bus that was waiting at the bus stand.

The drive from Pisa to Florence was relatively short.  We got to our hotel with sufficient time left for us to go out to get some dinner.  We found a nice place within walking distance.  The menu at the restaurant showed that one could order three courses for dinner, but they did not object to each of us buying only a single item on the menu from any of the course selections.  We could see that the meals were being freshly cooked in the the kitchen that we had passed to get to our seating towards the back of the restaurant. We retired back to the hotel after some good food and wine.

It had been a relatively long and wet day and we were tired.  It was time to crash out.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – Our day In and Around Venice

Our first morning in Venice involved a little bit of adjustment due to jet lag.  The disruption in our schedule the previous day was also going to make this our first chance to really see the city.  The tour group got us started with a good breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant.  There were no real surprises with the food except for the coffee machines.  They were capable of producing coffee in a bewildering number of ways except for the one way that we were familiar with. We had to figure out how to use the machines. We had to use some ingenuity to manage the machine to get the consistency of what is called cafe americano.  Europeans drink a much stronger coffee than is common in the USA.

I had a few minutes to go to the back of our hotel (along the Grand Canal) before we started our morning visit to the island of Murano to get my first glimpses of Venice in the daytime.  The sun had not yet risen completely.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had to walk to an area beyond the railway station to catch our boat to Murano.  This was what it looked like in front of the station.  Venice is still a bustling city in spite of the fact that the population is decreasing and the city is sinking.  Tourism keeps it going. It was a busy commuter day, with the water buses plying their business getting people to different work destinations in town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOur boat to Murano entered the open waters beyond the island after passing the dock for the cruise ships that visit.  We could see the shoreline of Venice as we entered the waters beyond the island.  You can see bridges at the entrances to canals, and water buses operating along the shores.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture  below, taken from the waterway, is of the Doge’s Palace, and the tower at Piazza San Marco. We were scheduled to stop there on our way back from Murano.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see that the waterways are the lifeline of the city.  Here is a ferry.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe police get around in boats.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMurano itself is well known for its glass works.  After our arrival at the dockPB083507.jpgwe visited a place where glassware is made.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got a demonstration. The gentleman in the pictures below made two items for us.  The first one one was formed by a process that involved shaping the glass while it was being rotated at the end of a long rod.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe second item, which used colored glass, required other more intricate techniques to stretch and shape it.  He started this work with a round piece of glass and finished with this exquisite shape in less than ten minutes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the visit to the factory, we returned to Venice OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand disembarked within walking distance of the Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the way to the Doge’s palace, we passed by the Bridge of Sighs, the bridge that offered convicts their last view of Venice before imprisonment in the building next to the palace.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe took a tour of the Doge’s palace, with its massive ornate rooms with artwork and decorations everywhere. Our tour guide described the history, architecture and art of the place.  We also visited the prison across the Bridge of Sighs in the later part of the tour.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Chamber of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace shown below is reputed to be one of the largest halls in Europe.  It is hard to imagine that large structures like these built on a foundation of wooden pilings driven into the ground below the sea still survive.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the tour we took a break to have lunch and relax in the piazza. Here are a few pictures from the piazza. The first one is of St. Marks Basilica.  We did go inside the church earlier as a part of our tour.  The interesting thing is that while it is still in use, it is unstable, with the floors all warped, and with water entering the church from below the floor when the waters in the city are high.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is our group from Gaithersburg.  The picture was taken by Alessandro.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a view of the piazza.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was time for our gondola ride. After riding initially through some of the narrower canals,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe entered the Grand Canal in the area of the Rialto Bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPB083685.jpgOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe grand canal was busy and we passed many water buses.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were entertained by a singer and an accordion player who were on one of the boats in our group.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was back into the narrow canals to get back to where we had begun the ride.  I took note of the effect of the rising waters on some of the buildings.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe saw maneuvers like this a few times during the ride.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the ride we hung out near the Piazza San Marco for some more time. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started our way back to the hotel on foot as the sun began to set.  The picture below is the view we got of the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe restaurant along the canal in the picture below appeared to be open for business.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe buses were still plying the grand canal.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a lot of people around, walking past the brightly lit shops on the Rialto bridge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked through a few other shopping areas.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

We had to figure out dinner plans after we got back to the hotel. This was one of the few nights we were being left to our own devices without something being scheduled as a part of the tour. Some of us were still suffering the effects of jet lag and chose to stay behind in the hotel while the rest of us went out to look for a place to eat.  Our selection for a restaurant that night turned out to be the only really bad choice we made with regards to food and drink during the trip. But that was OK. We were too tired and quite happy to get some sustenance before we headed back to the hotel to get some shuteye. We had an early departure to Florence scheduled for the next day.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – Arrival in Venice

We returned from our wonderful Italian holiday almost two weeks ago.  I have been unable to spend time writing about it until now because of preoccupation with other things.  There was the catching up to do after the long time being away, and also the preparations needed for Thanksgiving. I also decided to post pictures of the trip to my other website first, and that is still an ongoing process.  But I think I now have some time to try to catch up on my blogs.

First of all, I would be remiss if I did not note that one of the primary reasons we enjoyed the trip immensely was because of the organization that went behind the arrangements for the trip.  This time we booked a prepackaged tour with a tour company. The tour was extremely well thought out, with good attention to so many fine details, that in the end we came away with an extraordinary experience. Overall, the tour included a large number of tourists (a busload if you will) with people from many different parts of the US, and also including a couple from Australia.  We had folks in all age groups, including many young people from the New York to Washington DC region, some older folks from the south,  and also a couple who might have been in their seventies (who seemed to be involved in some sort of late life romance (purely my guess!)).  We ourselves were three couples from the Gaithersburg area, friends from church.

In addition to providing us with an unforgettable experience, the organizers of the tour took care of all our needs, and there was really not a single thing that we needed to worry about.  Everything went smoothly. The bus rides were comfortable. The hotels were great.  The daily breakfasts were excellent.  Additionally, they provided us with a few food experiences that were unforgettable (including musical entertainment and as much wine to drink as one desired).  Their tour guides in the different cities were very knowledgeable and experienced, and excellent in their interactions with the group.  Last, but not the least, we had an outstanding tour manager, Alessandro Ricciardi, who made everything fun while throwing in a few extras to make our experience even more unforgettable.  He was the consummate professional, doing everything to make us happy, doing a lot of unseen work in the background, while making all of his efforts look so effortless.  He was extremely knowledgeable about matters related to his country, and was happy to talk about his own life experiences in this context.  Great guy!

Our trip stared at Dulles airport with red-eye flight to Munich in Germany.  We were going to take a local flight from there to Venice (Venezia) the next morning. The group was excited about the upcoming trip.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was the aircraft that took us to Munich.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Munich we got some bad news that our onward flight to Venice had been cancelled.  We got ourselves booked on an alternate flight later in the day.  This meant that we were going to lose some of the time that we had wanted to spend on our own in Venice.  But there was nothing to be done about this.  Folks caught up on their loss of sleep from the previous flight while waiting for the connecting flight in the airport lounge in Munich.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy the time we got on our way to Venice the sun was beginning to set.
We got some good views of the city while coming in to land, and it was getting dark by the time we got on the ground.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATaking the boat from the Venice Marco Polo airport (which is on the mainland) to the island of Venice was a unique experience.  The small boat moved with great speed following a pathway (highway!) for boats that was marked by pillars sunk into the floor of the sea on either side of it.  Any time we passed another boat going in the opposite direction our boat would get caught in its wake and bounce around somewhat violently.  All this was happening in the dark!
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe had rooms in an old hotel along the Grand Canal.  (I realized later that almost all the buildings in Venice are old!)  The street below our window seemed to be somewhat busy that time in the evening.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFortunately we had reached the hotel just in time for the introductory dinner. We met Alessandro and the rest of the folks who were going to be on our tour. We were also provided with additional information for the tour.
OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause of jet lag due to the time difference between the US and Italy (nighttime in Italy is still evening time in Gaithersburg), it was not too late for us to take a walk after dinner.  We wanted to get a flavor of the city before the activities of the next day.

The unique thing about Venice is that because it is crisscrossed by canals, and because all automobile traffic stops close to the place where the bridge from the mainland reaches the city, there is no motorized traffic to be be encountered in the city.  You can walk freely on the streets.

We walked past small storefronts like this one for a little pastry shop.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed many shops set up in little shacks in the middle of the street that were selling small items for tourists.  Most of the shop owners seemed to be immigrants from different parts of the world.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe crossed over a few canals,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand passed by a few eateries that were open late.  Pizza and panini seemed to be the most common items to be found for a quick bite.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen it was time to head off to bed and get ready for the adventures of the next day.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.