And the wine? Unbelievable. Considering I am not a wine drinker, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I did enjoy the wine.
The food? Fantastic. Italians love to eat and make sure you enjoy the experience.
Our final night in Rome, we went to Mangrovia, a restaurant in the heart of the city, with our tour group. Our first course included fresh tomatoes with cheese, eggplant and red pepper.¿Next came ravioli followed by a third course of noodles with vegetables. My fourth course was sea bass with potatoes followed by yogurt with fresh fruit. It was more than anyone could — or should — ever eat.
The scenery and history both were unbelievable. I loved the flowers, especially the gorgeous roses at the end of every row in the vineyards because they helped detect diseases that could harm the grapes. I also loved any chance I had to get out and run, especially in Venice and Florence, along the water.
Here’s a daily rundown of some of the things we did.
This is a day (actually a lot of night) spent in the air during as our flight from Detroit to Rome was a bit more than nine hours. Our timing was not the best, as we missed a scheduled Orbus shuttle from the aiport to our hotel — about a 45-minute drive to complete the 21 miles into the heart of Rome — and we had to spend more than two hours waiting for the next shuttle that gave us a chance to sample a couple of Italian pastries immedialey. Our shuttle run let us see just how hectic Rome traffic can be, and that there was no place that was off-limits when it came to parking, as double parking or parking on a street corner were common.
After a brief respite and chance to unpack, it was off to the four-course welcome dinner at a local restaruant near our hotel. We started with an antipasta plate of meats and vegetables. That actually would have probably been enough, considering the bread and wine served with it. However, next came two types of pasta followed by chicken, spinach and salad for course three. Finally, we forced ourselves to eat cheesecake covered with blackberries, craisins and blueberries that was out of this world.
Rome might not have been built in a day, but we put in a busy 10 hours touring the city. After a 6:30 a.m. breakfast, our tour guide, Simonetta, wisely had us off to tour the Vatican museum. We were one of the first groups into the museum when it opened at 8 a.m. and what a wonderful two hours it was. The history and beauty of the museum was breathtaking and there’s no way to accurately describe the magnificence of the Sistine Chapel and the four years of work Michaelangelo put into painting the ceiling.
We walked around the Vatican wall to St. Peter’s Square for a special treat — Pope Benedict XVI announced late the day before that he would make an appearance during a Saturday morning service. Italians came hours early to stake out seats/places for the ceremony. The organ music and choir were outstanding; the pope’s arrival made the day truly unique.
Next, it was off the Colosseum, one of the places I most wanted to see. Like the Vatican museum, it had a huge crowd — and also had local vendors selling all types of food and merchandise just feet away from the entrance. The Colosseum is a huge facility and I could just imagine how gladiators must have felt as they appeared to literally fight for their lives.
The Roman Forum, where Roman legions marched in triumph, was interesting because of its design and how much of the city you could see from the hill.
After a brief lunch stop — and yes, we had to each have a slice of pizza from a local pizzeria — our local guide for the day walked us through the historical center of Rome to various historical sites, including several churches and the Pantheon, and government buildings. We saw where another famous painter, Raphael, was buried.
Most importantly, we had a chance to see how the city’s residents spent their time on a Saturday afternoon.There were mimes and vendors everywhere. It also gave us a chance to take our first bites of gelato. It’s much like Baskins-Robbins’ ice cream, except the gelato is a lot richer and creamier. As Simonetta had predicted, we learned immediately to always order a larger size because there was never a temptation not to eat it all.
It also reminded me how small the world could be because we learned that the Asbury College choir had performed in Rome the night before. I also ran into two Washington fans from Portland who stopped me because I had a Kentucky cap on and asked me about Terrence Jones. They were both Jones fans even though both were still talking about his commitment to Washington at a signing day press conference only to change his mind and come to UK.
I enjoyed an early evening walk through a downtown shopping district that taught me never to complain about the price of Nike products after five minutes in the Nike store. It was also interesting to watch local folks shop at the neighborhood grocery store that was loaded with fresh produce, meat and cheese because Italians prefer to shop daily for fresh products.
We got a bit of a surprise at dinner. We wandered in Ambasciata Di Capri, a family-run business with a diverse menu. Our food was great, but the atmosphere was even better. Remember, Italians don’t rush, especially when it comes to serving food. However, there is no one waiter — everybody helps with everything. That included the restaurant owner stopping often to sing along with the guitar music being played by one of the locals. Not only did he sing, but the owner had a friend who stopped for dinner join for one song. That made the price of the meal seem like a bargain.
This was a day traveling about 250 miles along the Tyrrhenian coastline, an area where the Etruscans founded many towns. We stopped in Pisa for lunch and ate near the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa that is 180 feet high and is more than 12 feet out of perpendicular. It’s impossible to appreciate how much the tower really leans from looking at pictures. Seeing it in person, it’s almost hard to believe it is still standing.
And the churches near the tower are spectacular, too. We ate some kind of Italian speciality sandwich for lunch that the waitress recommended. It was great.
We went to Lucca and got our first extended free time to explore the scenic town on our own. What a treat this turned out to be. Rome was full of history, but Lucca was about today. Since it was a Sunday, we expected many shops might be closed. Instead, there was some kind of town festival going on.
We saw a parade with three bands that later turned into a band contest. There was an outdoor concert in another nearby section of town. In the main square, there were all kind of games for children — and adults to try. None were battery powered, either. I tried the Pogo stick and walking on stilts with no success, much to the delight of the locals. Numerous local vendors — not like those in Rome or Pisa, who were pushing knock-off items — had hand-made Italian speciality products for sell.
There was also a retro car show in the city, which is surrounded by a four-kilometer wall built centuries ago to protect the residents.
Once we got to our hotel, I managed to get out and take a 40-minute run that left me impressed with the home gardens I saw. Many looked like the produce was ready to harvest.
Our first stop was Siena, where we walked through narrow lanes to the Piazza Del Campo, theater of the biannual, medieval-style horse race known as the Palio. It apparently sparks the kind of reaction in this community that the Kentucky Derby does in the Bluegrass. The city was full of small, unique shops — and narrow, hilly streets. What seemed to be a sidewalk could quickly turn into a street with a car, truck or bus fighting with pedestrians for space.
We had perhaps the best hot chocolate ever to start our day. The cocoa came with a cup of homemade whipped cream and a cookie. That was perfect on a crisp morning and was the jump start we needed to look through the various shops.
Next it was off to San Gimignana, the most picturesque of Italy’s preserved medieval towns. Again, it was a treasure, full of shops and great cafes. Two can’t-miss spots were the home of the gelato — named the world’s best ice cream — and a cafe/bakery that had unbelievable chocolate and sandwiches. We wandered the streets into the fortress, where local artists and musicians were showcasing their talent and took a look at the unique cistern that once provided all the city’s water. We also saw several statues of an unclothed man on display at several locations in the city.
After a scenic one-hour drive through the hills, we came to Verrazzano Castle, where the world-famous Chianti wine is made. All grapes are grown on the property and the whole fermenting/bottling process takes place on site. The cellars are 1,000 years old — and even the restored ceilings were 600 years old.
To say our group had fun would be a huge understatement. The food was okay, but the wine was superb — and I an not even normally a wine drinker — as we sampled four different wines. I also had my first chance to sample grappa, a fragrant, grape-based pomace brandy that contains 35-60 percent alcohol by volume and was specially made at this vineyard.
The property also had olive trees used to make virgin olive oil. It was delicious with our meal of local specialities.
We made our way to Florence to spend the first of two nights near the city center and only a stone’s throw away from the Arno River.
Next week: Verona, Venice, Orvieto and Assisi offer more oustanding sites and architecture to see.