Trip Log: Bracciano, Italy

Jenn and I went to Bracciano, Italy (near Rome) the second week in December. Here’s the account of our trip:

Friday, December 1: Departure

Friday’s snowstorm in Chicago didn’t throw a wrench in our plans. In fact, my new Canon SLR camera (ordered Wednesday night at 11 pm) even arrived on Friday before noon, just in time for the trip. I got stuck at work finishing a few things, but managed to make it home by 4:30 despite a wreck on Lake Shore Drive. I picked up Jenn in a cab, and we made it to the airport at full speed — about 2 hours before our scheduled departure time.

The International terminal doesn’t lend itself to people watching — everyone is pretty weird. We debated whether the person sitting next to us in the food court was male or female as we munched on McDonalds. I gave Jenn a little bit of a scare, as after we got to the gate, I slipped back out by the ticket counter to buy some books. The security line had proliferated by the time I went back, and she was wondering whether I’d forgotten my ticket or something.

The flight was pretty uneventful, and I didn’t at any point think I was going to die from boredom. We flew Swiss air, which overall has better food than any of the American carriers. Can’t say as much for the movie selection. We arrived in Zurich, had to go through security again, and then got some hot tea before getting on the flight to Rome.

Saturday, December 2: Arrival in Bracciano

Once we got to Rome, we were supposed to call Gloria (our host), and it was a case of “how many blondes does it take to figure out the phone”. Finally we reached her, and she was already at the condo — so we set out to take the train. We only had one connection, which was quite the welcome to Rome.

As we were sitting on the platform, another train arrived (not ours), and one guy who had been eyeing us got on the train, stood in front of the door, and whipped out his ding dong as the train pulled away. Based on his previous behavior, Jenn suspected this was going to happen…and she nonchalantly informed me just in time for it to be forever burned in my memory.

Gloria picked us up at the train in her little Matiz (think four-door tiny Fiat-like car). We managed to cram in our suitcases and head to the condo, which was only about a 10-minute walk away from the train station. Just to give you an idea, it’s sort of like 12th century townhouse/villas with very narrow cobblestone streets. Her place was originally built in the 1200s, and it’s like 200 feet from the castle. It’s a village unto itself, with restaurants tucked in, people sitting in their windows and people’s laundry hanging outside. It’s really, really cute, and the teeny little kitchen is really cute.

She had to go meet a friend for coffee, so we got settled in. It’s basically a three-story townhouse, with each floor about 15×15 ft. We originally had the top two floors (kitchen/living on one, bed/bath on other)…but as I’ll explain, we ended up getting the whole place. So we took off to stroll around town and grab some groceries for breakfast.

Bracciano is super cute — everything easily walkable. It sits high on a hill above the lake, which is probably about the size of Milford. It’s an old volcanic crater. There’s a trail down to the lake, and it’s probably about a mile. The town itself has tons of tiny little shops, cobblestone streets, and it’s lit-up like crazy for Christmas. Everyone in town was out (it was about 5:30 on Saturday), and we later learned that this is the time when everyone “cruises Main” by foot to see and been seen. I couldn’t believe how many people were on the streets. (It was a beautiful evening — in the 60s).

So we headed back to the condo, and we tried the key for about 10 minutes before giving up, since Gloria and her husband were coming back about that time. That’s how we ended up also getting the first floor–we were worried the key to our original door wouldn’t work. It really worked out well, as each of us had a bedroom and bathroom.

We chatted with Gloria and Leno for a little bit, and then we all went out for pizza (along with another girlfriend of theirs who is German but has lived here for 25 years) at this great backroom place in the boonies that was totally packed. Great pizza, but even better “suppli”, which are basically rice balls with tomato, breaded and deep fried. Yum. It was a really fun dinner, and since Leno had just gotten a camera just about identical to mine 3 weeks ago, we had a lot to talk about (we both had them there at the table and were examining them). After dinner they dropped us off at an Irish pub, which was the least Irish place we’ve ever seen.

Sunday we slept until 2.

Sunday, December 3: Exploring Bracciano

At that point we forced ourselves out of bed and went on a 2-hour walk to explore the lakefront and the town. Then we headed out for a great dinner at a place Gloria recommended. It was a mom-n-pop but nice traditional Italian place, and we both had excellent pasta, then Jenn had steak and I had lamb chops.

Overall things don’t seem to be expensive at all. Definitely no more than Chicago.

Monday, December 4: A trip to Viterbo

Monday we got up fairly early. Jenn went for a run, and I went for a shorter run/walk. The hills are killer! I mean like 45 degree angles.

Then we got cleaned up and went to Viterbo, which is about a 45-minute train ride north of Bracciano. It’s famous for it’s walled ancient city, most of which was built in the 1100s-1300s. The popes used to camp out there. I got a lot of interesting pictures. We just spent the day walking around, with stops for lunch and coffee. We got back around 6, and got reeled into a clothing store, where we both got suckered in to buying cute stuff. 🙂

Though Viterbo was a place better described in pictures than in words, our dinner Monday night was downright funny.

We’d come upon a number of little restaurants in our wanderings around Bracciano. In fact, there were probably eight enotecas (wine bars with lighter fare) and trattorias (restaurants that do serve wine) in the “borg” alone. One particular narrow dim street had several places as you wandered down, and on Tuesday night, we wandered to the one half-way down the street called “Un Alte Botegglia”. As with most restaurants in Italy, there was a big handwritten sandwich-style chalkboard of daily specials perched outside the door, surrounded by a few empty tables. And, as is the case with all restaurants in Italy, there was only one other table of people there at 8:30 p.m. — far, far too early for dinner.

Since we’d come directly from Viterbo via the internet place, I was dying for a bathroom. So, as we went down the few steps into the softly lit brick arched ceiling place and spotted a table, I spied the bathroom to my left and promptly went in there. Meanwhile, Jenn got situated at the table, and by the time I got back, there were already two glasses of champagne. I thought she was just overexcited to be out of the office, but in fact, the owner/chef/whatever he was (let’s just call him the “dude”) had brought them by “on the house.” He was a bold, friendly guy who liked to practice English, and since there were few of us in the restaurant, we got a lot of attention from him and his younger gal sidekick.

We spent the first few minutes trying to figure out what wine to order, knowing that we’d had fantastic luck with Chianti. The dude and sidekick quizzed us about what to eat, and came to the conclusion that we should have Barolo if we were going to have Tuscan beef like the couple at the table next to us. Obviously it was a $60 bottle, to which the dude said, “but it’s Barolo” and gave one of those Italian shrugs accompanied by a contorted face as if to gesture “duh, of course”.

We opted for Chianti.

The couple next to us highly recommended the truffle ravioli, which we proceeded to order and fully enjoy. It came out to us in a skillet, and I think we ate every last drop. Then came the Tuscan beef, appearing like a seared thick-sliced roast, sizzling on a hot stone as it was delivered to our table. The dude served us each a piece. And I’ve never had a tougher piece of raw meat in my life. From the looks of the dish on the platter, it was cooked. Once sliced on our plates, it mooed. I spent a good three minutes cutting off the first bite, and fortunately I was able to avert the dude’s hawkeye watch over us by slying eating pieces of fried potato at an even pace. But as he caught Jenn having trouble, the dude came over, took her knife, and proceeded to cut a piece of her meat into teeny little pieces on her plate.

Obviously we had started to giggle by this point, and the middle-aged British couple next to us started to giggle along. Once the dude was back in the kitchen, the man said in his classic accent, “Hahw deed yew fahnd yohr stahk?” Then the woman added, “Eet was ah beet cheway, no?” This wasn’t surprising, given that the cut of meat was brisket.

In retrospect, we should have ordered the lake fish.

But at least our food issues were good reason to start a conversation with that couple. They had been in Bracciano for a month, killing time while their “winter home” in the Canary Islands was temporarily being used by other people. Although they were British, they lived in northern France on a “farm” – 3 acres – that they bought in recent years. They told us of their stories in raising a few goats and pigs, and raved about goat’s milk. Apparently the 75-year-old farmer from whom they’d purchased their land was keeping an eye on everything in their absence.

We finished our conversation with them over profiteroles, vinsanto and biscotti – all quite good.

Jenn had the dude wrap up the rest of the meat in foil, which we took it back for the cats that roamed our little street. They were delighted – everything was licked clean by morning.

Once back at our place, we went through our nightly ritual of reading magazines and sipping tea, while we came down from our tipsy state.

Tuesday, December 5: The ancient city of Ostia Antica

We ventured out to Ostia Antica on Tuesday, which was truly amazing. It’s located about 30 minutes west of Rome, pretty much where the Tiber meets the Mediterranean, and it was a major center of commerce in the 2nd through 4th centuries (I think). It’s an ancient city that really remains in tact — at least the first story of the buildings, and a lot of mosaic. You’ll have to google it to try to get the effect. In terms of size, it was probably over a mile long by a half-mile wide, full of stone ruins, just like being on an ancient city’s main street. We left that morning about 10, got there at noon, and then left when the park was closing at 4. The train out there was pretty funny–completely covered in graffiti. It was an absolutely gorgeous day–didn’t even need a jacket. And there weren’t many people in the park (maybe 30). Our legs are super sore from walking hills in Viterbo yesterday, and my ankles were equally as sore the next day from walking on the stone roads. (Think stepping stones across a lake that are about 1 foot in diameter–not the easiest thing to navigate. Fortunately no one wiped out like Jenn did in Viterbo.)

I took a ton of pictures, and we got silly as the evening sun was casting shadows and tried some portraits of each other. (The promptly erased most of them.)

I never really adjusted to the time difference. For the first half of the week, I went to bed between 10-11, woke up between 2-3 for a few hours and read, then went back to sleep for 2-3 hours. I finished the book “Mountains Beyond Mountains” on the plane, then finished “The Eyre Affair” around 5 that morning.

Tuesday night, after we got back from Ostia Antica, we went to the internet place with the intentions of booking our hotel in Rome for Thursday and Friday nights. We had decided a couple weeks prior that we wanted to stay somewhere nice, near the Spanish Steps (i.e. on the cusp of great shopping). Many of the hotels in that area were boutiques that required a “reservation request” e-mail, to which they would respond. Jenn had picked out one particular hotel and sent a request the prior week, but she hadn’t heard the verdict until the night before, when she had given them a call to confirm. Unfortunately they were booked, so we set out on a wild goose chase of calling every decent hotel in our travel books, to no avail. Because of the “Immaculate Conception” holiday on Friday, all of the hotels were booked to the brim on Friday night. All this said, Jenn was a bit panicked on Tuesday night as she surfed the web to try to find something. Finally I discovered a place on Expedia that seemed to fit the bill, and we booked it.

The internet place was a rather weird scene. It was more or less a cramped storefront next to the train tracks, called “International Telephone Center” with 6-7 pay phone “booths” around the front half, and five computer terminals in the back. Every time we were in there, all of the phone booths and terminals were full, making for a warm, sticky ambience. The two early 20’s girls working there sat in a closed-off booth, similar to a bank teller drive-up window, and though they didn’t speak much English, we were able to figure out that we needed to show our passports in order to get logged on. The second evening we were there, a tall, older British (I assume) man came in and started speaking to the girls slow and loud, as if they were deaf. “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH? I NEED A NUMBER. WARSAW SAYS THEY NEED A NUMBER.” Even with his deliberate English, we as English speakers couldn’t figure out what he was talking about. As he got more frustrated, we became more annoyed. Finally, after a good 5 minutes of repeating the same phrase over and over, another man intervened and tried to translate. But by that time the girls were so pissed, they weren’t willing to help. Apparently the guy had transferred money to Warsaw, but had failed to get a confirmation number, for which the Warsaw folks were now asking.

The kicker was that he reappeared the next night, and the previous night’s performance was repeated verbatim.

We stopped back at our place and then we hunting for food. We didn’t really want to go through the full Italian dining experience, so we opted for a pizza place where you could get it by the slice. Just as we approached, a car-ful of yard apes (late teen boys) hopped out and went in, so we decided to just let that situation expire before going inside. So we roamed around for another ten minutes, before coming back to find that they were still sitting on the few barstools inside. Enough, we were hungry. So we ordered a couple slices (I got ham and potato – yum), along with some suppli (those fried rice balls we’d been salivating over since our first night out.) We took everything back to our place and ate at the little dining table, had some tea, and then each headed to read in bed.

Wednesday, December 6: A castle tour and a trip to Rome

Wednesday morning we each got up on our own, with Jenn going for a run, and me going for a walk/jog down to the lake, as usual.

I should mention here that it’s quite clear why people in Europe don’t value hygiene. The bathrooms are just downright crappy. First of all, the hot water tank in Jenn’s bathroom was about the size of a milk carton. And my bathroom was equipped with a tub and hand shower head that was a complete pain to use for washing my hair.

We happened to have a deadline of 10:55 that day, so that we could make the castle tour (entrance a little down the hill) at 11:00. I tied up my wet hair, Jenn put on her boots, and we ran out the door. Since we were basically dressed from shopping in Rome, poor Jenn had to navigate the cobblestones in stilettos, which was less than ideal.

We saw the gates closing as we approached, but we managed to get in just in time for the tour. There were only 6 of us, and the tour guide informed us that the tour was in Italian. Fortunately a cute little middle-aged Australian gay man enthusiastically volunteered to translate for us – which was to our benefit, as his translated quips were delivered in a far more animated fashion that the tour guide’s.

The castle was interesting, but not the most spectacular castle I’ve ever seen, by any means. Hard to imagine why TomKat picked it for their wedding. We pumped the tour guide for info, but she said all she was allowed to reveal was that the wedding was in the first three rooms we went through (the last of which was a ballroom). The most interesting room on the tour was the bedroom of one of the wives – significant because she was a Medici, who married an Orsini at the age of 13. Apparently their marriage wasn’t a happy one, as she was known to have a lot of one-night stands, who were used for their services and then pushed down into a deep pit, being chopped up as they hit knives on the way down into a vat of acid. Jenn asked to see the chamber, but obviously the tour guide refused. Photos were banned, too, but I snapped some out on the terrace before we headed down to the prison, then to the kitchen. Finally we were shooed out the back door.

At that point we were right next door to our place, so we headed back, I dried my hair, and we trotted off to the train station to head to Rome.

There were a number of different stops we could take to get to the main area of Rome, so we took the train to Ostiense station, then caught the subway to Piazza del Popolo (one stop past our target area of the Spanish Steps) to figure out if that station had a train for us to get back to Bracciano that evening. No luck. Fortunately we hadn’t gone far out of our way – Baurbarino is the street that connects Piazza del Popolo to the Spanish Steps, and it’s a great ∏ mile strip for shopping. We stopped in a few stores on our way to the day’s target: D&G.

Lesson learned: eat BEFORE shopping, or get crabby. Though I take this rule very seriously, we got sucked into D&G before finding food. Fortunately I was able to manage my hunger as Jenn tried on a number of items, finally settling on a black coat and a pink flowery silk top. The gal helping us was very friendly, and I’m sure she was thrilled with her commission.

Unfortunately after D&G, we continued to ignore our hunger, as I spotted Furla across the piazza, and I just couldn’t resist going in. It happened to be next door to the hotel where we were going to stay the following night, so we poked our heads in there too and found no one at the reception desk. At least the place looked fine. Then on to the Max Mara superstore on Via Condotti (the Michigan Avenue of Rome). And then we were really dying. At that point we whipped out our travel guides to search for a recommended spot in the area. It was nearing 4 p.m., so when we got to our first choice, it had already closed for the afternoon. (Restaurants usually close from 3-8 or so). So we found the next nearest thing, which was more or less a corner wine bar that served food. We pretty much justified this as dinner, which made it easy to order wine instead of diet coke. We each ordered pizza, and though Jenn thought she was going to get a winner when she ordered Chianti, it was downright bad.

We milled about the high-end shops in Via Condotti for another hour or so, then decided we’d had enough for the day. There was just one task yet to accomplish – getting a gift for our host. We’d had a few different thoughts on gifts, with most centered around something that could be left in the house for other home exchangers to use. We contemplated a cozy blanket, a plant, a bottle of wine, and travel guides. Jenn remembered seeing a travel bookstore earlier in the day, so we went in search of it. I thought she was talking about a different bookstore we’d seen, so we stopped there first, and then she convinced me that there was indeed a better place down the street – and she was correct. We ended up getting Gloria a travel guide for Buenos Aires (they’re going there in February), along with a copy of the book I’d brought from Chicago called “Central Italy”. It was the most information book we’d seen on Bracciano and the surrounding areas.

With that chore behind us, we headed for the metro, which took us to the Puerto Aurelia train station. There was quite a herd of people doing the same thing, we once we got to the right stop on the metro, we discovered that the train platform was about 4 stories up. And since we couldn’t find a ticket machine, we ended up going all the way up, then all the way down, then all the way back up again – and we never did find one. But since we hadn’t seen ANYONE taking tickets on any of the many train rides we’d taken, we went ahead and just got on the train. And indeed, no one came to hunt us down.

The train ride was about 45 minutes, and I spent some time going through the Buenos Aires book, making notes about our recommendations. Jenn had been craving sweets, so we stopped at our favorite “grand café” in Bracciano, where I had Nutella gelato and she had profiteroles drowning in chocolate sauce. When we arrived back at our place, we realized we hadn’t yet opened the wine Leno gave us on the first night. Apparently they buy a barrel from a particular vineyard in Tuscany each year and then bottle it up themselves. Neither of us was particularly in the mood for wine, but we couldn’t be rude and leave it, and it just seemed wrong to dump it down the drain. So we popped it open, and it was definitely worth it. We didn’t make it through the whole bottle, but it was darn good stuff.

Thursday, December 7: On to Rome — and the Borghese Museum

Thursday morning, Jenn woke up startled to see the cleaning lady coming in the door. A couple nights before we’d talked to Gloria, and she told us that new guests would be arriving Thursday afternoon. Fortunately she came on Thursday instead of Wednesday, so that Jenn could have her own bed for one more night. Jenn had already moved her stuff upstairs, knowing the cleaning lady would be arriving before we headed out. So she jumped out of bed, threw on her running clothes and headed out the door.

I was just starting to roll out of bed (after at least three snoozes on the tiny alarm clock – one of those manual ones with the little hands that leave it to anyone’s guess as to what time the alarm is really set for). As she headed in my bathroom for a shower, I took off on the last walk to the lake this trip, with my camera in hand. It was a beautiful, sunny morning, so I took the roundabout way back behind our place, then went down through the park to the lake before huffing and puffing it back up the hill to town.

Once back, I jumped in the tub, then started trying to make everything fit in my suitcase. We headed out about 11:30, a bit worried about how we were going to drag all our crap by foot to the train station. It was probably a little over a half mile of cobblestones, but it all worked out OK, given that it was mostly a downhill trek. The train we hoped to make turned out to be about 20 minutes late, which was overall good, but it after we had lugged our bags across the tracks to the second platform, there was an announcement that the train would be arriving instead on the first platform. Back across we went. Before this last move, Jenn had grabbed a couple Cokes, which I had just opened before the announcement was made, making my trip back across even more cumbersome than the first time.

We had quite a bit of discussion about which stop we were going to take, given our luggage situation. We first contemplated going to Ostiense and taking a cab to the hotel, but Jenn was feeling brave, so we got off at Puerto Aurelia, then took the metro to the Spanish Steps. Given the early afternoon time of day, there was no one on the metro, and this plan worked out well.

The hotel was about a block from the stop, and it was on the third floor of the building. We had to take turns riding the tiny elevator (complete with sliding gate), as we couldn’t fit both of us plus our luggage in there at once. It was even hard just getting myself and my stuff in there. The “hotel” was more like a nice old apartment building—with only 7 apartments on the floor. Again, no one was at the reception desk, but finally we spotted a maid, who told us to go down to the second floor. Apparently there were two “hotels” with the same reception desk. I waiting for what seemed like an eternity for Jenn to return, and when she did, Elizabeth (the reception gal) was with her, still apologizing for them being overbooked for the following night. Jenn then explained that because they were overbooked for Friday, they’d made arrangements at Hotel Art (a more expensive hotel that we’d read about), for the same price.

Elizabeth let us in to the apartment, which was HUGE! It had a full-size kitchen, living room and bedroom, and the best bathroom in Europe. (We were so glad to have great showers the next morning). We sat down for a few minutes, explored our room (including taking a few pictures of our view out the bedroom window of the Spanish Steps), and then gathered ourselves up to head out on the town.

Earlier, when we’d arrived at the train station, we’d made reservations to go to the Villa Borghese Museum at 5:00, with the idea that we’d then spend Friday morning at the Vatican Museum. Later it occurred to us that the Vatican might be closed on Friday due to the holiday, so as we asked Elizabeth to call and ask. She reported back that the Vatican was closed both Thursday AND Friday. So, we headed out to shop a little, and then, being a little short on time, made a run for the Borghese (about a mile away).

Reservations are required for the Borghese, and visitors are only allowed two hours in the museum. We were told to arrive 30 minutes before our designated entrance time of 5:00, and we were welcomed into a packed, warm, humid room with lines for both tickets and coat check. It didn’t take too long to get organized, and then we picked up audio tours, which looked like cell phone handsets from those old bag phones.

This was a very good choice. Unfortunately Jenn’s handset decided to quit just as we reached the top of a very long spiral staircase with the rest of the herd. So I just hung out on the steps while waiting for her to return with a new one. In retrospect, it was a good thing we were delayed – it gave the crowd some time to clear out. We figured out quickly that the audio tour actually began on the floor below us, so we went down there and pushed “play”.

That floor was focused mainly on sculpture, and specifically on several of Bernini’s baroque sculptures. The baroque period was about catching subjects in motion, rather than being posed. And his sculpture of Daphne and Apollo was incredible. The scene was Apollo catching Daphne as he was chasing her, and as he was grabbing her, she was turning into a tree. It was amazing how he had really caught the moment, and sculpted little leaves out of marble. All of these sculptures were set in the middle of opulent rooms, with intricate frescoes from floor to ceiling.

We continued on to the next floor—mainly paintings, where we saw a few famous pieces. The Caravaggio ones were of most interest to me, as I’d read a book this year called “The Lost Painting”, which was the true story of uncovering one of his works that was thought to have been destroyed. There were a few Rubins and Raphaels there, too.

We took a leisurely walk back from the museum, heading down the wide gravel path toward one of the openings in the wall that surrounded the garden (about ½ mile). By that time it was dark, so we paused at the top of the Spanish Steps to take in the scene. The it was on to the hotel to change clothes and head out for dinner.

We’d had hotel reception folks recommend a restaurant for us, and then make a reservation. We’d opted for something traditional, rustic Italian, and indeed once we’d made the mile-long walk to the Pantheon area, we found ourselves in the most rustic of restaurants. I think we were a little overdressed in our black pants. We were definitely the only non-Italians in the cozy room of about 15 tables. Our waiter didn’t speak much English, but one of the two menus they gave us was English, so we didn’t have any trouble figuring out what to order. And as usual, we were both interested in the same things. Jenn started out with Canneloni, and I got risotto, and then we both got filet with a gorgonzola sauce. Yum. We finished about 10:30, and as Jenn was about fed up with two girls a few tables over, who were tipsy and loud on account of Lemoncello.

We paid, and then ventured to Piazza Navona to check out the Christmas market, which turned out to be a kitchy small time state fair, complete with a carousel, chestnuts on an open fire, and booths of junky paraphernalia. So we headed toward the Trevi Fountain, which beautiful and tourist-packed, as usual. I think we were still a little tipsy from dinner, as when I spotted a couple trying to take a picture of themselves, I practically snatched the guy’s camera to take it for them. Fortunately they returned the favor.

Shortly thereafter we headed for the hotel, and Jenn got a hankering for gelato en route. As we approached the fountain at the bottom of the Spanish Steps, she offered to run to the top to see if the gelato place we’d seen earlier was still open. It was nearly midnight by this time, and my feet were killing me, so I sat down at the fountain to wait. She returned about 10 minutes later with a cone for her and a cup for me, which she found not at the top of the steps, but rather a few blocks down from where I was sitting at the base. We headed off to bed. Jenn generously let me have the (very hard) bed in the bedroom, as she preferred the proximity of the sleeper sofa to the bathroom.

Friday, December 8: A Pope sighting on a national holiday

Friday morning we awoke to the sounds of a crowd gathering at the Spanish Steps, and an orchestra was setting up half-way up, not far outside our window. We finally got decent showers, for the first time all week, in the glorious aqua tile bathroom. We were anxious to get to our new hotel to make sure they indeed had a place for us…at the rate we were promised. So we packed all our stuff up again and headed a couple blocks over to a cute street of galleries, where Hotel Art was situated.

Weird place.

The hotel was in an old building with arched ceilings and tile floors, but upon entry we encountered two white fiberglass “pods” resembling airplane cockpits, which served as reception desks. Since it was before noon, we handed off our luggage to retrieve later in the afternoon when our room would be ready.

We headed out again to search for a purse. Target: Fendissimo, aka cheaper Fendi. Jenn had a shopping guide to Rome from her visit several years ago, and we had already found a few things out of date (to be expected). Fendissimo was one of them. But in the process of trying to locate it, we saw the Ferrari store—where Jenn had been wanting to go to get a treat for her car-buff dad. The place was decked out in Ferrari red, chrome, energetic displays, and most of all HOT men in driving suits. Jenn started stalking one of them…and then another would appear.

Appropriately, the song “It’s Raining Men” started playing.

I don’t want to sidestep the fact that we lingered a little in that store before she decided on a cap, and we checked out.

Tod’s was just around the corner, and seeing several cute bags that met my “fit a computer, has an outside pocket criteria”, we popped in. Again, after a few minutes of wandering around, “It’s Raining Men” started playing in the background.

Apparently the universe was giving us a clue to the events of the coming evening.

Our target shopping experience for the day was a map and art market, and on our way there we decided to thwart our inevitable need to eat lunch at some point. So we stopped in at a takeaway pizza counter (pizza sold by the kg) and made our selections. I opted for my new favorite—potato and ham, no sauce. Jenn went for mushroom. And just as we grabbed the wrapped slices from the top of the counter, a cook brought out hot fresh suppli–we’d almost forgotten! And divine they were.

The art market was just down the street from the pizza joint, in Piazza Fontina Borghese. There weren’t many vendors—maybe 5—but each had a mobile stand with all sorts of antique prints ranging from botanicals to maps to modern-day kitchy reproductions. I was on a mission to find a map of Rome, the perfect souvenir of our trip.

The various dealers in these booths were hungry for our business. I approached a fat book of botanical lithographs at one place, and just as I started flipping through, the lady from the next booth was on me, telling me about her wares, then leading me over to her pile. After looking through her stuff, I headed back to my original spot and inquired about the price of a very pretty world map adorned with zodiac signs, hand painted. It was $200 Euros, but I found another stash of larger-format maps in that booth, helped by the middle-aged dealer man. After much deliberation, I decided on two, then went on to a stack of botanicals, thinking they might work in mom’s house. Jenn went to find an ATM, having decided on a couple wine-label-like little pieces for her kitchen, as well as a small print of a hot air balloon. By the time she returned, the dealer was packing up my five items, and I was flipping through the etched letters of the alphabet in search of and “N”. So she started looking for a “J” or “K”, which didn’t exist due to general absence of those letters in Italian. That led to looking at more stuff, including a series of Madonna/Child (her obsession this trip), and she ultimately decided to get one.

As we were on our way out, told us the Pope was going to be giving a blessing at the Spanish Steps at 4:00, and he wondered if we were going. He told us it would be a better idea to catch sight of him en route to the Steps, as the crowd would be massive and it we’d be targets of pickpockets if we had all our stuff along. So he told us to camp out on a particular street, on which the Pope would be traveling en route from the Vatican.

It was a little after 2:00 when we headed toward Castle San Angelo, near St. Peter’s Basilica. Both these sights were across the Tiber from the market, and after crossing the bridge (stopping to take a few photos of the river and puffy white clouds against the blue sky), we came upon another line of fake purse vendors. We managed to avoid the vultures as we wandered through, and soon we were at the door of San Angelo’s. We grabbed Diet Coke and snacks from a street vendor outside, and then headed inside.

The castle is ancient and generally creepy, but interesting because of its circular shape. All of the rooms are tiny. We had to speed through given our Papal deadline, but first we climbed to the top, where there was a café on the terrace overlooking St. Peter’s. We gulped down tea (me) and the thickest hot chocolate on record (Jenn), snacked on a couple butter cookies, and then attempted to have someone take our photo with St. Peter’s in the background. This simple task turned into a bit of an ordeal. First we tried it ourselves. Then we asked another guy, who didn’t do a good job at all. Finally we conned a British girl into trying—and her noble attempt resulted in a couple shots that were at least manipulatable.

By that time we were running late for the Pope sighting, so we scurried down the steps, through the purse vendors and along the river to assume our post on the procession route.

Earlier that day we were pretty apathetic about seeing the Pope, but as the day wore on, not only were we excited to witness the presence about such a famous person, but Jenn was really excited to see the Popemobile. I didn’t even know there was such a thing until she told me about it, so I was pretty pumped, too.

Quite a few people had gathered, but not nearly to the extent of the assumed mob at the Spanish Steps. After about 15 minutes, we started to see guys in black suits with ear pieces out in the street, and then we saw the front of a black limo through the crowd of people. Shoot. No Popemobile. But instead Benedict was standing up through the sunroof, completely out in the open. People were yelling “Papi” and waving, while big dork me just cared about getting good photos. So I guess in the end I did see him with my naked eye, but it was really mostly through the lens of my camera.

From there we shopped our way up Via Vittoria, and as our blood sugar levels dropped, our crabbiness levels rose. Soon we were near our hotel and nearly had a fight over whether to stop back there, split up or whatever as our next move. I really wanted to change clothes before dinner, so I convinced Jenn to come along to the hotel. And we had a snack. Much better.

By the time we emerged, it was raining. We didn’t have an obscenely long walk, but I was in wedge boots, the streets were wet, and it was coming down pretty hard. We were attempting to share an umbrella. Just as we hit the front of D&G, my leg slipped out from under me, and I went down. My whole left side was soaked, but we couldn’t help but laugh.

Our dinner selection (recommended by the hotel) was likely the most disappointing place of the whole trip. Earlier in the day we’d asked the hotel receptionist for a good wine bar, and she recommended one that we’d heard about the day before – one focused on the cuisine and wines of Lazzio (the province in which Rome resides). We had a reservation for 9, but we decided to take a chance and show up at 8 because we were starving. The non-English-speaking host was confused by our lack of skills in Italian, so he went up to the bar to find translation help from the manager, who was a little miffed at the inconvenience. Nevertheless, we got a good table right by the window.

The space was cool enough – clean and modern, seating about 40. I’m sure we were the only non-Italian speakers in the place. We had a revolving door of wait staff, who were equally unfriendly to the host, and it took over half an hour to get our wine. We got our meat and cheese plates before the wine even came. Fortunately the food calmed us down, and the forthcoming pasta was a treat.

We got out of there in less than an hour and a half. And by the time we left, the rain had died down.

Since it was our last night in Rome and we really hadn’t been out for a night on the town our whole trip, we headed toward Piazza del Popolo to an Irish bar we’d identified in our guidebook. We got there, and there was no bar to be found. So we traipsed on to choice #2 – another Irish pub called Trinity College, about a mile away.

As an aside, bars aren’t historically part of Roman culture. That’s why all the pubs are Irish. The funny part is that all the Irish pubs are run by Italians, and there aren’t any Irishmen to be found.

The bar was tucked about 50 feet off the main street, and there were a few people lingering outside in the “patio” area when we walked up to the door. Inside it lively, but not packed. And after a 7.5 minute peruse around, we decided to head home.

Just as we turned to walk out the door, one of the bartenders winked at Jenn just at the second I saw a downpour outside the door. We opted to stay for a drink.

During the first drink, we discovered that two of the bartenders were downright hot. During the second drink, people started to approach us.

The first guy came up to us with his sidekick, who didn’t speak English. We started with small talk, then moved on to a conversation about his work as in doing historical documentary films on Ancient Greece.

Another guy came up behind me and said, “Your face, it’s like the sun. Your eyes, they’re like the sea. I can see the fishies.”

Yeah, right!

Then the first guy resurfaced, asking me to go home with him. Upon a prompt and adamant, “No”, he proceeded to tell me he was in a six year relationship, and for the past year it had been an “open” one, because his girlfriend wanted some excitement. He said she liked to go to sex clubs, and he wasn’t into it – hence his presence at the bar that night.

Then, thank goodness, he left.

Meanwhile, one of the hot bartenders was slipping Jenn strawberries.

Long story short, we left the bar when it was closing at 3:30, caught a cab, and got in bed about 4.

Saturday, December 9: The trip home

Two hours later, we got up to go to the airport. When Jenn was brushing her teeth, I asked her if she was still drunk. She pondered the question for a second, and then responded, “Yeah, I think I am!”

At 7:05 we ran downstairs with our luggage, to find that our cab had left us. Fortunately another one promptly arrived, in the middle of a downpour.

At the airport, we waited in line forever, miserable from lack of sleep. Finally we got through to the ticket counter and through the security line. At that point we parted ways, so that Jenn could get her VAT refund, and I could look in the duty-free shops.

I browsed until the last possible minute, of course, and once I started heading for the gate, I realized I was going to have to take a tram over to the next concourse. Yikes! I got to the gate, and I was the very last person on the plane. The flight attendant said my friend was looking for me, and when I got to my seat, Jenn had big eyes and was almost sweaty – she had actually run for the plane, thinking she was going to miss it, only to discover that I wasn’t on there yet!

I slept the whole flight from Rome to Zurich. We both napped a little and watched movies on the flight from Zurich to Chicago.

A trip wouldn’t be complete without one more bit of drama. Once we got through passport control at O’Hare, I picked up both my bags, but we could only find one of Jenn’s. After searching and searching the various belts, Jenn started to get really worried. Finally we went to the lost baggage counter, and the guy there finally found a message that it hadn’t made it on the flight, but that it was on the next day’s flight. Crisis averted.

Sunday, December 10: Processing the Trip

Our first full day home was Sunday, and we decided to go to church and to Southport Grocery for brunch. There we used the paper tablecloths to jot down notes for this story, as well as think about the general themes of our fantastic trip:

· Everyone was very friendly
· Italian is comprehendable
· Blue-eyed blondes stand out
· We got really sore from all the hills and stairs.
· Urban hiking in heels leads to a lot of falling down
· We were always having problems with keys
· It’s clear why people don’t shower in Italy. The showers are terrible!
· We travel well together!

6 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Terri Taft said,

    Hello, I would like to know how young you girls are as you remind me of me when I was 20 years old and making my first trip to Rome with my girlfriend about 1959 or ’60.

    Shocker: I am now 71 this past month and have not quit going back to Rome since my first trip. Every year. I guess I flipped a lot of coins into Trevi. In fact I am leaving Tues, Oct 6 and will be there for the month.

    I think I met Gloria; if she rents a place that is rather chopped up located at the top of the hill in Bracciano. My place has the faded ancient green doors as you go to up the hill, through the tunnel/arch on the right by the steps. Across from the fountain and rows of trash cans. LOL (They keep it really clean now) But I guarantee you we have a great shower! There are some really beautiful apartments in all the conglomeration of stone and concrete. The people who worked in the castle back in the 1200’s used to live in those places. That’s when there was no plumbing.

    What’s interesting about Italy is that the people do not build to tear down but use every square foot of old space and revive it to be useful. That’s where the charm is. Here in the States we build to last 30 years, then tear it down and build some other thing to last a few years.

    It was a kicker for me to read your article, especially that you stayed in Bracciano and visited Viterbo. I enjoy going there and also you can catch a little bus in Viterbo to see the beautiful Villa Lante gardens and other beautiful villages and sites in the neighborhood.
    I’d like to know what place you ate the tough steak so I don’t go there. The Tuscan beef is well known as the best as the beautiful white cows are indiginous to the area and are famous for their tenderness. They cook the steak on a hot fire and flip it over once and then it is “done”. Still bleeding tho. But extremely tender.

    There is a wine bar next to the gate you entered to visit the castel. But I am wondering if that is where you were. They have always had wonderful food, especially the spinach souffle to die for.

    As far as the big fiasco marriage of Tom and Kate; I hope they never set foot in Bracciano again. The new lady Mayor, the shops, the people spent lots of money to welcome them to Bracciano. They were rude to the Mayor, the shops and the people in general. Bracciano will never welcome the likes of Hollywood types again! My taxes paid for his butt to be there when they had to redirect traffic and disrupt the town for weeks for his skinny little ass to show up in the back door of the castle. He snubed them all.

    He has not learned that when to are visiting another culture, you are not the king. The little runt.

    When one stays in a medevial village with homes that are three times older than our country, and the one you picked to stay in does not have
    the greatest plumbing, but plenty of bidets to wash the real dirty end, I would not jugde the people of the country as dirty.

    Travellers must show respect to their foreign hosts and be careful not to label them. In their hearts they welcome you.

    It is good that you keep a journal of your travels; next time you visit Bracciano, stop in.

    TT Dallas Taft

    • 2

      Taylor Holliday said,

      I enjoyed your comment to Galoping Nellys trip log about Bracciano. My wife and I plan to spend at least a couple of weeks around the lake next month. We are in our mid fifties and reinventing our lives. I’ve been a family doctor in a small town in Virginia for the past 25 years. I’ve given up my comfortable and wonderful practice to, hopefully, move to Italy with Jenny, my artist wife of the past 35 years. Do you have any suggestions of where to stay in Bracciano or Anguillara? We will be very conscientious and respectful of the owner’s property.

  2. 3

    I have loved reading about Bracciano and we will be visiting 2 – 4
    May 2012 and would love advice of accommodation as it appears quite diverse. We love Italy and usually stay in smaller hotels. We would also appreciate some eating places to be recommended. We cannot wait to visit your country again. Last year we had 5 weeks
    and could now live there!!
    Thank you
    Glen Lunt

  3. 4

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    Appreciate it!

  4. 5

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  5. 6

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