Monday, April 17, 2017

Italy: Leave No Carb Behind

Armed with a fresh pair of compression socks and our Lonely Planet Italy travel guide, we boarded the flight for Rome. While this was my second trip to the land of pasta and vino, it had been almost ten years since my last visit. I was excited to check out the sites again with a fresh set of eyes and a renewed sense of adventure.

I remember two things about my first trip to Rome- it was unbearably hot and absurdly crowded...not exactly one of my favorite cities. However, what I quickly found was that visiting during March definitely helped with both of these negatives. After a day of flights, we started off our journey by stumbling across the Trevi Fountain before making our way to the Pantheon. Unlike what my 21 year old self thought, this is not, in fact, the Parthenon... but the ambiance created by the hippie playing Pink Floyd in the square made for some nice background music as we stopped for some bird shaped antipasti.

We spent the rest of our jet-lagged day getting lost around Piazza Navona before we found what we were truly looking for...gelato! And not just any gelato- chocolate dipped gelato! This pistachio dark chocolate number alone was worth the trip.
The next morning I practiced some of my excellent Italian skills acquired from three months worth of Duolingo at colazione (breakfast). The waiter seemed unimpressed that, "Io scrivo un libro!" (I write a book.) After that, I pretty much just stuck to, "Grazie." At any rate, because no trip to Rome is complete without visiting the famous sites, we walked over to the Spanish Steps and pretended to be models waiting to be hired by a Renaissance painter.
Then we took a trip through time to Palatine Hill (home of ancient palaces), the Roman Forum (home to ancient government), and of course, the Colosseum (home to Russel Crowe and other ancient gladiators). While you realize that many of these buildings are thousands of years old, you can't help but wonder why these important sites weren't maintained better. This is actually because of Roman "recycling." You see, when Christianity took over Rome, they took apart the ancient buildings and used the materials to build churches and even Saint Peter's Basilica.
One thing we did this trip which I hadn't done previously was venture down to the Colosseum floor which is a maze of rooms where animals were kept and hallways that Maximus would've walked through. It was pretty incredible to see this man-made feat, and it's no wonder it's a Wonder of the World.
On our third day in Rome, we headed to the Vatican. Whether you are Catholic or not, it's
difficult to deny how impressive this state is. We were quickly overwhelmed by the amount of paintings, statues, and tapestries. I also had quite a fondness for the incredible ceilings.

 All in all, I was a bit underwhelmed by my second trip to the Vatican. Perhaps it's because of the different ways I view religion these days, or maybe it was just the hoards of people, (don't ever go on a Monday!), and the fact that I didn't get to lay on the floor in the Sistine Chapel, but by the end of our tour I was ready for my bread basket and pizza, (because that's a thing you do in Italy and I want to post some food pics).
Roma was a much more enjoyable city than I had remembered it being and I'm glad to have gotten to explore it again. Before we left, we made sure to toss some coins in the Trevi Fountain as we headed towards Florence.

Having visited Florence before and watching Under the Tuscan Sun on numerous occasions, I already knew that I was going to love going back to this city. Our hotel was just a few blocks from one of the most famous sites in the city, the Duomo, and we wasted no time checking it out. I think you could literally spend hours outside just looking at the fine pink, green, and white sculptures and carvings that decorate the outside of the building.

And this trip, we decided to take the extra steps (literally) to the top of the dome. At first I thought we were just going to the rotunda, but quickly realized that we'd be slinking through the narrow passageways that led us to the very top of the cathedral and to a breathtaking view of the city. While not for those who are claustrophobic, your 463 steps are definitely rewarded.
Continuing with the theme of steps, we went next door tGiotto’s Campanile, or bell tower, where we climbed another 414 steps and also the baptistery next door which was created because no one could enter the cathedral until they were baptized. Here, my obsession with Italian ceilings continued. 
Of course, no trip to Florence would be complete without their most famous cuisine...BEEF! We stumbled across a little restaurant where I had steak with truffle butter. There are no words to express just how delicious this steak was. It would only be outdone the next night by Hot Stuff's bistecca alla Fiorentina at Buca Mario. A steak that was bigger than the dinner guest and then topped off with a dessert trolley...two words that were like magic to my ears. Of course I had to try the Torta della Nonna, or Grandma's cake, which was essentially a pastry crust filled to the brim with vanilla custard. Florence was definitely winning in the food department.

So if not for the food and the architecture, why else is this city so amazing? Some may say it's the art, and for good reason. After all, Florence is home to David and the Birth of Venus, both of which we saw. And while Renaissance art isn't exactly my jam, I could probably sit and stare at Michelangelo's sculpting all day. The detail and the expressions felt through a statue where something like I've never seen before. 
But for me, the amazingness actually lies in getting outside the city and into the Tuscan countryside. My favorite part of our entire trip was when we did a bike tour through Tuscany. We started out by visiting an old castle, once home to a Count and Countess, but now a winery and olive oil factory. Then we set off on the rolling hills with our Italian bike helmets and my trusty bike aptly named Einstein. Our journey led us to lunch on a hilltop before we biked back to the castle. I don't know what it is about me + vacations + bikes, but I loved it! 

Our time in Florence quickly came to an end, but not before we could snap some #EPP (European power pose) photos. (It's an Instagram thing...and it's kind of weird. #youths).

When most people think of Venice, they automatically think of romance, because really, what could be more romantic than a city built on water with gondoliers rowing through the mazes of canals? What I thought of when I remembered my first time in Venice was the horrible smell, brown water, and being lost. However, just like in Rome, I was again pleasantly surprised by this city during my second time around. The whole concept of Venice is fascinating to me- a city built on water and being held up by tree trunks. I loved all of the bridges and tiny nooks hidden within the cities tight streets, (don't get me wrong, when you have somewhere to be, this is also very frustrating). And the best part is just how quiet it gets in Venice because there are no cars. It's amazing that we don't realize how loud all of the cars and buses can be!

Of course our Italian foodie trip continued when we tried out a wine and cicchetti tour on our first night and got to experience the happy hour-esque Venetian culture. Cicchetti are small plates like tapas that incorporate fresh seafood and compliment any wine that you choose. Delish!

 We also found cookies that you buy by weight...obviously this was a highlight for me. We even managed to make our way through the maze of streets to find this particular shop twice. I suppose at least we were walking while we ate them. 
 The sightseeing game in Venice was strong as we got our taste of both the local life and the tourist spots. We started by going to the weekend fish market and seeing people buying their dinners which made me wish that we were invited over for dinner.
 Then we headed over the Rialto Bridge to go to Piazza San Marco, home to another beautiful cathedral and palace. 

We also dared to attempt another maze to find the Libreria Acqua Alta- a bookstore that was full of boats. They had so many books they even built a set of stairs out of them! Definitely an awesome, unique find. 
For our last stop, we decided to branch off from the main island of Venice and head to a few other islands, Murano and Burano. The first is home to many amazing glass blowing shops where Hot Stuff tried in vain to find a life size glass horse. The second is known for its handmade lace and colorful houses. Apparently, the island originally painted their homes in different colors to help the fisherman find their way home. 
All in all, our trip to Italy was full of everything you would expect: food, history, sight seeing, and fun. I can't wait to see where our next journey will take us!