Blog #22 - When in Rome, Do As The Romans Do!

Last we left you we were on the train heading to Florence to experience for ourselves the epicenter of Italian art and culture. 

Vince had been there before, but this would be the first time for Steph. 

Florence is never cheap, we knew we’d have a challenge ahead of us to find a reasonable and economic place to stay.  On first cut, we found no hotels for less than 125 euros (approx. $175 CAD) per night.  Ouch.  And we did not want to end up in a hostel with the twenty-something’s (because, as we’ve discovered earlier while on the road, we’re not 20… anymore).

Um, maybe we shouldn’t have left Florence until the last minute…

Our dilemma: where can you sleep on the cheap at a world-class tourist destination, when you don’t want to spoon creepy crawlies nor hear drunk kids being loud and obnoxious at all hours of the night? 

The answer?  The suburbs!

So, our “Florence hotel” was in fact in a very industrial area called “Prato Est” and was coincidentally also right next to one of Italy’s biggest malls! 

So there we were in a 4-story Ibis Hotel in the far end of a mega-mall parking lot.  It was just us, a few businesspeople, and on one particular night, a busload of weekend shoppers/tourists from Hungary.  The location also helped us scratch an itch we’d been having for some minor retail therapy since hitting Europe a few weeks ago (after several months on the road our threads were getting a little old…).

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What a score and what a way to hack Florence, no?  We got a nice clean room for maybe one-third the cost of Florence proper and the only catch was that we had to take a thirty-minute train into the city.  We were tourist-commuters!  Not a bad deal, overall, and the fare was only 2.50 euro each way (the TTC could take a lesson in here!).

So we explored Florence on foot, by walking.  We learned so much in such a short period of time, admiring all of the beautiful things about this city – all the statues, churches, fountains, gardens, and architectural marvels all around.  So many recognizable names lived here – too many to list – but let’s just say this was the city of Ninja Turtles (Rafael, Donatello, Leonardo, and Michelangelo).  OK, now we have really shown our age. :)

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Florence is vast, but the historical center is easy to navigate by foot and there are so many culinary treats along the way, from the usual cannoli and gelato, to cold cuts and cheese plates.  Seriously, we found a deli-counter restaurant that served only antipasto!  In the two days we were actually in Florence, we visited and climbed the Duomo (most beautiful views of the city – go in the late afternoon), Piazza Michelangelo (the views!), and of course we walked across the Ponte Vecchio (did you know this was the only bridge in Florence that the Germans did not blow up upon their retreat in WWII, on account of its beauty?).

Italy, like many other places, has regions that each make their own claim to fame in the food department.  For example, Cinque Terre is known for the lemons and pesto, while Lucca was known for wild game such as rabbit and stuffed pastas.  Well, Florence is known for Steak!  Awesome! 

Learning what food each region is proud of is half the fun of traveling Italy.  We love this and think we should do the same in Canada.  Each city and town should claim a food to make their town mascot.  Wouldn’t that be funny on the ‘Welcome To’ sign?? Toronto…home of bad street meat.  Maybe on a t-shirt??  No?

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When it was time to pack up and head out we were a bit sad as we truly enjoyed our time there. 

But no time to reminisce just yet!  We were on our way down to Rome to see our friends Gisella and Roberto, BUT on the way there we were also going to make a pit-stop in Pisa. 

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It was an hour train ride from Florence to Pisa, and as soon as we arrived mid morning, we checked our bags at the main train station and headed by foot to the complete opposite side of the town to see this famous landmark.  Pisa in general was quaint town, smaller than the other cities we had seen but nice all the same.  In Pisa, because it was a short stop (maybe 4 hours) we really didn’t figure out their town mascot cuisine, but we sure enjoyed the drinks.  Vince’s new favourite afternoon Italian cocktail is the Spritz.  The ingredients include Aperol (bitter, but not so bitter like Campari), Prosecco, and a splash of soda, all dressed up with bricks of ice and a wedge of orange.   A perfect way to cool off from the intense Pisa heat.

The leaning tower was spectacular and unbelievable, and despite the searing heat (no shade!) we managed to spend a solid hour taking kitschy photos and admiring the view.  We highly recommend an afternoon in Pisa … but not much more than that. 

So we collected our bags and headed to our final destination of the day…. Roma!

We rolled into the Rome Termini around 7:00pm and quickly jumped into a taxi to head to Parioli, a nice neighborhood in Rome just north of Villa Borghese, to stay with our friends for the next four days.  We had visited Gisella in Rome before, a few Christmas’ seasons ago, and had a fantastic time so we were looking forward to the reunion and to catching up.

It was instantly awesome, as it has been with our other hosts in the past, we just jumped right in and adapted to their schedules / rituals / eating patterns ;).  We just love to see how other people live, especially in different countries, in different cities.  When in Rome, right?!

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Gisella and Roberto’s apartment was built in the 1930s – during Mussolini’s reign – it had the highest ceilings you have ever seen.  It was like you were living in a fashion museum.  On our first day in Rome – get this – we didn’t leave.  We spent the whole day just enjoying her living room, catching up on administration and cooking her and her daughter Viola the best Italian-Canadian meal we could (after a short jaunt to the local market).

The second day we took a long slow walk to the Vatican in the afternoon, about a two to three hours from Parioli.  When we got there we plugged in our headphones to the iPhone and took in one of Rick Steeves’ audio tours of this ultimate Catholic church.

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We may have forgot to mention earlier, but since learning of it on the cruise, consistent with the theme of ‘hacking it’ we have been using an iPhone app by Rick Steeves, the guy who is an expert Europe traveler.  He gives expert audio tours of most of the big sites, and most important, they are free!  His tours are funny, down to earth, filled with just enough history and facts and also the odd corny joke.  Plus, isn’t it cute that we walk around Europe, arm in arm listening to our iDevices together…. awww amore! 

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After the Vatican we met up with Gisella and Viola for an evening of local food at a non-touristy dinner spot close to her apartment. The traditional dishes to Rome were all ordered including Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe and Pasta alla Norma. Yum and very Roman. So relaxing and so nice to see Rome from a different, more residential, perspective. 

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On our last day, we decided to go inside some other sites that we’d seen from the outside on a previous trip, namely, the Colosseum and the Forum. We spent 4 hours walking around Palatine Hill, learning from Rick Steeves for free and taking shade wherever we could from the intense sun. We don’t think we have ever been this tanned before. Thank goodness for SPF 50. After we finished we walked past Steph’s favourite building… the Typewriter (also built by Moussolini). Vince is convinced she wants to be a dictator someday when she grows up. For dinner that night we planted our behinds smack in the middle of tourist ground-zero in Campo di Fiori to enjoy the setting sun and the various buskers around the piazza, all from our outdoor dinner table. (Our favourite was the bohemian bubble lady, who blew bubbles for kids to pop – that was it. She had a committed fan club of children, including us. ;)

This last visit to Rome was very memorable and enjoyable and we cannot wait until the next time we go. A special thank you to Gisella and Roberto, and especially Viola for letting us take over her bedroom. We wouldn’t have had such a fun time without you. We hope to host you someday in Toronto where we can return the favour. Grazie!

We sign off this week from the train heading south to Pompei. We will be spending four days in this area exploring volcanoes, ancient ruins, and hopefully hiking the Amalfi Coast. We even splurged and booked a night on Capri. Hoping to spot a celeb. Hey when in Amalfi, right?! 

Allora, ciao amici!

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