Category Archives: Italy

Milan, Italy – How to Turn Lemons into Lemonade

Both of us were so excited to travel to Milan not so much to see Milan, though we were excited about that, but more for using it as a jumping off spot to take the train up to Lake Como, Lake Maggiore as well as visiting the World Fair being held in Milan.

We left Verona, our fascinating stop on the way to Milan and hopped on the train to continue our journey from Venice to Milan.  I very much enjoyed looking out the windows to see the landscape of northern Italy pass us by.  Within a few hours, and after a quick nap, we arrived in the Centrale train station in Milan.  Walking into the station we were struck by how beautiful the station is.  I later found out that it is considered one of the most stations in all of Europe and we can certainly believe it.IMG_1867

We had reservations at the Hilton using the points that we had earned for our American Express Hilton Honors credit card that has no annual fee.  Why I like this card is that I get 5 times points when I use this card at grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants.  That is huge.  I make it even better than that because I buy merchant gift cards at my grocery store and get 5 times points.  If I am going shopping at TJ Maxx I will go into my grocery store and buy a TJ Maxx gift card and use it for my purchases.  Let me not digress any more – we had reservations for three nights at the Hilton and then our final night in Milan at the Holiday Inn at Linate Airport to save us travel time in the morning before our too early o’clock flight!  The Hilton is a short 2-3 block walk to the train station.  After our nights at the B&B in Venice, this room looked like a palace to us though in reality it was fine, nothing special.

After walking outside and finding a little outdoor cafe where we had great pizza, we headed back to our room.  It had been a long day that had started too early in Venice.  We looked on the television and on my iPad for the weather in Milan and it was not looking good at all.  They were predicting rain, heavy rain and then more rain for our entire time we would be in Milan.  Our hearts sank as most of our plans needed good weather.  Who wants to be on a boat in the middle of Lake Como when it is raining very hard.  We “Facetimed” with our daughter, who had a baby girl three days earlier, and she gave us great advice and we wondered why we didn’t think of it.  Her advice – leave; go somewhere else.

We hadn’t paid for our room and most likely we would be able to get the points back for one of the nights.  Here we are – the travel planners having to make a sudden,  decision to just go somewhere else.  Were we up to it?  Could we be spontaneous?  Were we willing to try?  With a resounding yes we decided the next morning (after we had slept on it) that we would leave but not check out in case we wanted to come back to our room.  I quickly pulled up the radar and weather.com on my iPad and we kept looking at where we could go.  Turin – nope, was going to rain there as well.  Switzerland – rain there as well.  San Marino – too far since we had to return for our flight and hotels too expensive.  Bologna – hmm, that might be interesting.  After more searching, it was Bologna home of Bolognese Sauce!  We checked on Trip Advisor for a hotel that would be close to the train station and we booked a hotel that I had never heard of – Starhotels Excelsior which was across the street from the train station, had very good reviews and cost less than $100 per night and it included a breakfast.  With a leap of faith we walked to the train station, purchased our tickets and made the 8:30 AM train to Bologna.  Since we were being so adventurous, we decided to make another stop in a small Italian city – Parma, home of Parmesan cheese. Do you see a “food” thread running through some of the towns we are visiting?

It wasn’t long before we were in Parma.  We searched the station for a luggage locker and couldn’t find one.  Apparently Parma doesn’t have a Left Luggage locker.  Blogger Hubby thought we would have to get back on the next train to Bologna because we couldn’t enjoy Parma pulling our luggage.  I asked him to give me a minute and I walked into the hotel next to the train station – the NH Hotel Parma and asked the reception desk if we could leave our luggage with them as we were just visiting for a few hours.  They had no problem with it, gave us a claim check and even gave us a map and their recommendations of where we should walk.  Blogger Hubby couldn’t believe I asked and even more that they agreed.  I really believe that people in the tourism business want to be helpful particularly Europeans.  If you are ever in Parma, I would recommend this hotel by what I saw in the lobby – it was very nice and convenient to the train station as well.

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Off we went with our map in hand.  This being Saturday we weren’t sure what we would find.  Saturday apparently is market day in Parma.  I’m used to farmer markets with stalls or tables of fruits and vegetables.  This was nothing like that.  Streets were crowded and bustling with people looks for deals on clothing, kitchen wares, shoes, purses, etc.  We could barely get through the crowds.  I thought it was great and I was in my element wanting to be like these Italians, searching for great buys.  I guess I forgot that whatever we purchased, we would have to fit in our already full and heavy luggage.  I could still vicariously enjoy what they were doing.  One vendor caught my eye.  He was standing on a corner and had a sheet on the ground with beautiful designer purses.  The cobalt blue Chanel purse caught my eye and before I could approach him and ask how much, he quickly grabbed everything in the sheet and ran down the street.  I looked around the corner to see what spooked him and it was two police officers.  I knew that he was selling counterfeit purses but honestly (and don’t get angry at me) I really, really liked that purse.  I liked the color, the shape and it didn’t matter as much that it was a Chanel.  I missed my chance.  Believe it or not, I would see him a few more times as he was always looking over his shoulder or listening to the signal his spotter would give. Blogger Hubby would not let me purchase that purse.  I know he was right but that purse, it was really great.

 

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All the little stores selling meats, cheeses and pizza slices were open.  We bought what we wanted to eat and went across the street to sit on a park bench and eat our lunch overlooking the river.  Parma is home to one of the world’s oldest universities having been founded in the 12th century.  This would be a good city if you have college age children to spend a semester abroad – lively city without being overly crowded.

As we walked back to the hotel for our luggage and subsequently to the train station to continue our travels to Bologna, we were again in awe of the beautiful architecture that was in Parma particularly the Governor’s Palace that dated back to the 13th century.

We were pleased with our stop, would welcome a return to Parma and would like to have more time so we could take a cooking lesson or a food tour of this area.

 

Verona, Italy, Juliet’s Balcony and Aida

We left Venice on the morning train to travel to Milan for our next four days.  We planned to get off the train in Verona in an attempt to see more of Italy than just Rome, Florence, Naples, Milan and Venice.  Some of the smaller cities interest me because I think that they be more authentic and less touristy.  For these reasons we decided to explore Verona and the fact that it was another UNESCO World Heritage Site added to our desire to explore this city.  The city has been in existence since 1 BC and has flourished for over two thousand years incorporating the old with the new.

We departed our Milan bound train car and walked into the Verona station.  Our first course of action was to find the luggage locker area.  At 5 euros per bag, we shoved as much as we could into our bags, checked the hours of the luggage locker, found out what time the trains to Milan (our destination ) were and then we headed upstairs and out of the train station to find the tourist information counter.

Our train ride from Venice to Verona
Our train ride from Venice to Verona

We really didn’t do any homework about visiting Verona and were traveling somewhat blind.  As we waited for the bus to take us downtown, we were befriended by another American couple that were probably our age.

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We got off when they did and were amazed when we saw a Roman amphitheater similar in appearance to the Roman Coliseum only much smaller.  This was the Arena and it was located by the largest piazza in Verona, Piazza Bra, convenient to the buses and public restrooms.  The Arena is the third largest amphitheater in Italy after Rome’s and Capua’s. The Arena could seat 25,000 spectators in the 44 tiers of seats while they watched gladiator shows.  While we were walking around, we even saw a gladiator ourselves!

A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn't know that they had a Coliseum.
A surprise finding this in the Piazza Bra in Verona. We didn’t know that they had a Coliseum.
Our own gladiator!
Our own gladiator!

What was even more amazing to us were all the huge props outside the Arena. I never expected to see a huge Sphinx or Egyptian soldiers. I couldn’t stop taking photographs as I walked all around the Arena. What I found out is this is where open air operas are performed in the warmer months and they were getting ready to perform Aida about a week later.

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Verona is the scene for three of Shakespeare’s play – Romeo and Juliet, Two Men of Verona and The Taming of the Shrew.  The one thing that I really wanted to see was Juliet’s balcony.  Before you get upset, I know that it is a work of fiction however there is Juliet’s Balcony and a statue of Juliet.  With our map we were able to locate it.  It was very crowded.  I was somewhat upset that many, many people were all over the Juliet statue rubbing their hands on her breasts.  To me they were sexualizing this innocent love story by what they were doing to her and it left me very unhappy.

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You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
You might be able to see the statue of Juliet a little to the right of the center
The "famed" Juliet balcony
The “famed” Juliet balcony

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By now it was getting hotter and we were thirsty and hungry.  We headed off to the Piazza Erbe where we refilled our water bottles at the spigots by the fountain.  It was Friday and the market was in full swing.  We were lucky that we found cups of fresh fruit being sold.  Each of us buying a cup of delicious melons, pineapples, and apples quenched our thirst and revitalized us.  I’m sure we weren’t the only tourists at the Piazza but to us it felt more like a neighborhood than a tourist destination.

Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.
Piazza Erbe with the white tents of the market area.

As we walked back to Piazza Bra to catch the bus to go to the train station, we saw the original 3rd century Roman gates in the original city walls.  I am constantly amazed at the age of some of the structures in Europe even though I know logically that Europe is much older, at least in civilizations, that we are.

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If you have an opportunity, explore some of these other Italian cities.

Venice – St. Mark’s Square and Sightseeing

As a child, a young adult and even as an older adult, I always had a mental list of places that I wanted to visit.  They either came about from books that I had read, places mentioned in school by history or literature teachers, even movies and television shows.  Venice was one of those places.  I certainly learned of it from Marco Polo’s travels.  There is a certain mystique about Venice and that may come about from the ornately decorated masks that Venetians wear during carnival time. Whatever the reason I was very anxious to spend some time in Venice. Blogger Hubby – well he would have been happy with half a day thinking that it was very odorous and crowded.  Two nights was our compromise that made both of us happy.

After we left our luggage at Ca’Bella B&B, we headed out to see what we could see.  We set out on foot, trying to follow signs to the Rialto Bridge, the oldest of the four bridges to cross the Grand Canal.  This stone bridge was completed in 1590 and has become somewhat of a tourist photo op.  We initially began walking by ourselves  with very few people in the little alleyways that  wind throughout Venice’s neighborhoods but the closer we walked toward the more touristy areas, the more crowded it became.

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The Rialto Bridge – to me it looks prettier from a distance

As we were making our way to St. Mark’s Square we would see  winged lions all around Venice.  The lion is the symbol of the patron saint of Venice, St. Mark.   St. Mark was among the earliest founders of the Christian church, and the man who wrote one of the four gospels.   Theologians believe it is the oldest of the four gospels.   St. Mark went to Alexandria and founded the Church of Alexandria.  He was killed when the pagans of the city resented his efforts to turn the citizens away from their traditional gods and was buried in Alexandria.  Around the 8th century  two Venetian merchants stole the bones of St. Mark and brought them back to Venice, who at that time, had no patron saint. That’s a brief history of how St. Mark came to Venice.

We stood and viewed the magnificent St. Mark’s Basilica.  The sun was beating down as we just stood there trying to take it all in.  I had wished that there were benches that we could sit down on to rest our weary feet so that we could appreciate our surroundings but it wasn’t to be.  I guessed that I had imagined that there were many steps to sit down on and feed the pigeons, benches all around the square….but it turned out that it was my imagination only.  Nevertheless, the square was spectacular.

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I love symmetry
I love symmetry
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?
Can you see the four horses that were stolen by Napolean but recovered?

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By now it was lunchtime and getting hotter.  We hopped back on the vaporetto to head back in the direction of our B&B.  At our stop there was a little cafe that was on the water and looked to be perfect for lunch.  We eagerly ordered our first real Italian pizza made in Italy with a small antipasto to share.  A glass of chianti complimented our lunch.  What could be better – sitting with a glass of wine, eating authentic pizza on the water in Venice?

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We strolled back to our B&B for our, now typical, afternoon rest to get out of the hot and humid weather.  It was a chance to recharge our internal batteries and be ready for what will come later in the day.

Once it cooled down, we went to that terrible restaurant that I wrote about last with the tomato paste bruschetta.  We had fun after dinner just walking and getting lost, as we had been advised to do.  We viewed the gondoliers in their typical striped shirts and black pants.  We did not take a ride in one of the gondolas as they were very expensive and we did enjoy watching them ply the waters.

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After we people watched and waked around, we decided to head back to our room.  We hopped on a vaporetto that we thought (operative word – thought) would take us back to our neighborhood, however the vaporetto was going in the opposite direction.  Instead of going west, we went east.  It seemed like this vaporetto was taking the working people back toward mainland Venice.  All in all we considered it an adventure, saw a great view of Venice at night and went about 90 minutes out of our way.  It gave us a good laugh that would continue until the next night.

Hope you enjoy some of our photos of Venice.

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Arriving in Venice – Riding the Vaporettos and our B&B

After somewhat of a hot evening on the overnight train from Vienna, we arrived around 8:30 AM at the main train station for Venice – Santa Lucia. We walked from our train car into the station that was brimming with activity, people rushing to their trains so they wouldn’t be late for work, tourists rushing to get on the train to take them to the airport.  We too were rushing to get to our next adventure – this time in northern Italy.

From all the advice we were given and had read prior to our trip, it was suggested that we purchase our vaporetto (water ferry) tickets online so we could save some money as well as long having to stand in the long line to purchase them in Venice.  We did just that at this site, printed out the confirmation number and was told where we could redeem our tickets once in Venice.    I believe we paid about 30 Euros each for unlimited vaporetto rides for 48 hours.   As we were walking out of the train station on our way to redeem our tickets, a very nice American couple came up to us and asked if we were just arriving.  They very kindly gave us the rest of their 7 day pass indicating that they had over 48 hours left.  It was very sweet and giving but we had just purchased our tickets though they were not validated yet.  We kindly thanked them, took the tickets and hoped for a refund of our tickets.

We found the station on the canal for the #4 vaporetto which would bring us to the stop for the B&B that Blogger Hubby chose.  I REALLY wanted to choose where we were staying in Venice but I needed to let him do some of the planning.  After all, how bad could it be?  One of the first things that I noticed about Venice, and you may call me an ignorant American, was that it didn’t smell.  I had been warned by so many people about how smelly Venice is so I was very pleasantly surprised that it didn’t.

Riding on the vaporetto we enjoyed the breezes that came our way form being out in the open on a boat.  That got to be a regular theme for us and we really enjoyed it.

Most vaporettos had forward facing seats with an aisle in between - this one was different than the usual
Most vaporettos had forward facing seats with an aisle in between – this one was different than the usual

We got off at our stop and after I took a photo of the stop so we could show if we got lost or needed to get back here we began to try to follow the directions we had received.  Almost immediately we were lost looking for the first street to turn into.  We walked up the sidewalk where we got off the boat and then turned around and found it.  The name was on the side of the building that we couldn’t see from the direction we were walking along.  We were told to turn left at the first square, bear left then right and after a  little bit of backtracking, we finally found the Ca’ Bella B&B.  I walked into the main lobby and the decor, to me, was different than what I was expecting.  It looked like they had a chandelier with pink and blue pacifers – really, that’s what I thougt.  This is their picture of the lobby on their website:

Ca' Bella website lobby picture
Ca’ Bella website lobby picture

Doesn’t look too bad but now here are my photos from the lobby and yes, I know the lighting is different but so is the furniture, etc:

Ca' Bella - my photo
Ca’ Bella – my photo
and from this angle where their picture had chairs
and from this angle where their picture had chairs

That was part of the problem with this little place – there was really no place to sit and perhaps meet other travels..  The “little garden” area was just that – we had a little patio table for two for our breakfast.  The manager, Krystina, was very nice and helpful though for dinner suggestions we were sent to her friends that owned restaurants.

The first night’s dinner was so bad that Blogger Hubby insisted we only go to restaurants that had pictures of their meals.  I was salivating for some fresh bruschetta – you know, the chopped up fresh tomatoes with some basil and olive oil on top of some really good bread.  Are you in agreement with me?  What I got was tomato paste like substance spread over a thin toasted slice of bread.  Absolutely disgusting 😦  He had a fish stew that he didn’t feel was too good either though he ate it all up – after all, he is a charter member of the “Clean Plate Club”.  Me, I left the tomato paste bread behind.  We also found out that if you sit for dinner, or lunch, there is an extra charge, sometimes about 3 euros per person, that is for the bread, silverware, napkin, etc.  Some restaurants that are further away from the touristy areas do not charge it.

As we have found during our entire trip, it was another hot and humid day in Europe. We are finding that we will go out in the morning, have lunch and then go back to our room till it cools down, generally just before dinner.  We know that we are missing time in some of these great cities however, the high heat and humidity is not my friend and I tend to get a little (mind you, I said a little) grouchy and whiney and uncomfortable.  When we were in Singapore back in 2013 I did have a heat related episode where my skin got bright red, and I couldn’t cool down even with a wet towel around my neck.  I’ve been cautious ever since then.  We just do what we need to do to stay as comfortable as we can.

Now that we have checked into Ca’ Bella, it was time to go explore Venice.

 

Rome – The Eternal City and Abitazione Pigneto B&B

Ever since I took Ancient History in 10th grade, I have wanted to go to the Ancient Cities. The opportunity came and Blogger Hubby and I jumped on the chance.  We didn’t have many points to use for hotels so we looked for more affordable options for staying in Rome.  We were able to use UAL miles to fly Luftansa from Washington Dulles to Rome via Frankfurt.  Nothing special about the flight or the food on the flight.

As I have mentioned before, we use Trip Advisor quite a bit so of course we went to them right away to see what was recommended by other travelers.  We found a B&B outside of the city that came with great reviews and the cost was 60 Euros (as opposed to paying about 200 Euros in the city).  Abitazione Pigneto had an 89% approval rating with Trip Advisor.  After a few emails back and forth, we booked this B&B for the days we were in Rome prior to our cruise as well as a few days after our cruise when we would be returning to Rome.

We opted to ask our host Giorgio to pick us up from the airport.  We had read on Trip Advisor that he would do this.  His fee was much less than hiring a cab.  We could have used the train/tram/bus but since we didn’t know where we were going and we would be tired after an overnight flight, we thought it was best to have him pick us up.  That was the right decision as he gave us a running commentary as we drove into the city,  pointing out different buildings and giving us a mini-history lesson.

The B&B was on the 4th floor of the smallish building.  We took the elevator up and was shown our room.  It was a small room with a double bed, small television but the best part was that it opened up onto the balcony terrace  overlooking the side street that we were on.  We also had a shared bathroom that was not a problem whatsoever.  We shared it with one other room.  The third room in this B&B had their own private bathroom but it didn’t have the balcony access that we did.

We were in the Pigneto section of Rome which is east-southeast of the city, one block from public transportation. This is a true neighborhood that we were in where middle class Italians live. At the top of our short street was a fantastic gelato store – probably the best I’ve had to date!  The street behind ours was a farmers market during the day that sold all sorts of produce.  Also on this street was a small grocery store where we would buy great bread and cheese to eat and wine to drink on the terrace outside of our room.  At night the stalls disappeared and the table and chairs were put out in front of all the cafes so there would be outdoor dining.  Truly an authentic Italian neighborhood with lots of restaurants, cafes and people strolling and talking.  I knew we would not have this experience in the tourist section of Roma.

with my Pacsafe Purse
with my Pacsafe Purse

Breakfast was not what we were used to in the States, it was a few slices of cheese, meat and dry toast with really good guava juice.  Before we would go out, we would speak with Giorgio and he would advise us which bus we needed to take.  He also gave us a handout on how to get back to the B&B from various points around the city.  As I mentioned before, it was extremely convenient to the tram/buses.  It seemed like all the transportation went by or stopped at Termini, which is the huge train station and probably center of transportation in Rome.

our guide at the Colosseum
our guide at the Colosseum

We booked a tour with Angel Tours that covered The Forum, The Palatine Hill and finished at the Colosseum.  Being part of a tour group you get to skip the long line at the Colosseum – it was well worth the cost of the ticket.  Our guide was from England and had just received her Masters degree in Ancient Studies from Oxford.  She really made the tour come to life with us as she told us many stories and explained so much to us.  I would recommend taking a tour if there are many things that you want to see in the city that you are visiting – you will get so much out of it, more than you would have by just walking around and reading the placards.

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After a few days of touring we needed to go to the Port of Civitavecchia to meet our cruise ship.  We had several options for getting there (which is about 90 minutes from Rome); we could take the train and then walk from the station to the port entrance or; we could join others and rent a limo to take us or; we could ask Giorgio how much he would charge to take us.  The third option is what we went with.  It was the least expensive and the most convenient.  For the return trip back to the B&B after our cruise, we decided we could take the train from the port and then the tram from Termini back to the B&B since we had become familiar with the transit system.

We had a wonderful cruise and looked forward to our return back to Rome where we toured the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica and the Borghese Gardens.  We never got to go inside the Borghese Villa since we did not book tickets online and when we were ready, there were no tickets to be had.  Lesson learned – always book tickets online first for popular venues.

There are so many wonderful things to see in Rome.  I was completely enthralled with the city and all of the sites.  I can’t wait to go again