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Italy 2012

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FC: ITALY 2012 | Italy 2012

2: Saturday, May 19 The Air France flight from Atlanta to Charles de Gaulle was 9 hours and thankfully filled with episodes of Downton Abbey on the iPod. There was no sleeping since our internal clocks were on Atlanta time. We finally negotiated the very confusing Paris airport, caught the flight into Rome, and the shuttle delivered us to our hotel for the next 2 nights, the Grand Hotel Palatino. Our travel agent advised us that 4 star European hotels may equal the USA’s 3 star hotels; however, the Palatino was better than expected. We learned that Italian hotels are forced to conserve energy. In order to operate the lights in the room, we had to insert the card key into a slot on the wall and most distressing of all was the limited hours for use of the air conditioning—3:00 pm to midnight and 7:00 am until noon.

4: We were met by our Trafalgar/Food Network Travel Director, Roberto Astarita and hit the ground running with a short meeting of all the guests and a brief overview of the next 9 days. That evening we all dined together at The Cabiria del Rome in the Marriott Hotel. The restaurant was nice and we were served wines and a delicious spumonte, but that’s where the deliciousness ended. The group consensus urged Roberto to persuade decision-makers to change restaurants—after all, this is a Food Network tour. We had the following: pasta with tomato sauce (good); chicken with mushroom sauce, green beans, and carrots (memorable only for its dry rubbery texture and resemblance to a TV dinner); fruit tart (quite good); selection of cookies (meh); and burned bruschetta. It was a great time, though, to get to know different people and to tour the streets of Rome. According to Roberto, he was determined to make us travelers and not tourists.

6: Sunday, May 20 After a few hours of sleep due to upside down internal clocks, no air conditioning, and loud Roman crows, we headed off for the Vatican. We joined Elaina, our local tour guide, and she filled our heads with factoids about the Vatican, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Swiss Guard. Special blessings and masses were taking place inside the Basilica amidst the crowds of people. Inside and out, Vatican City is beautiful. While in St. Peter's Plaza, Elaina pointed out the windows of the Vatican belonging to the Pope’s bedroom and office. If the office window is open, it means the pope is in residence.

11: The Corps of the Pontifical Swiss Guard is a small force responsible for the safety of the Pope. Guards must be Catholic, single males with Swiss citizenship, between 19 and 30 years of age and at least 5' 8.5" tall. The term of service is between 2 and 25 years.

12: Above: The Pope's Balcony Right: The Pope's office and bedroom windows

13: Above: Sara with St. Peter's Square in background Right: Statue of Jesus on St. Peter's Basilica

16: Afterward, we headed to the Colosseum and Elaina explained the significance of the various “seating layers” of the structure as well as the system for ushering spectators through numbered gates. Seating locations were separate for the emperor, senators, nobles, and citizens. The “basement” of the Colosseum is tunneled for movement of competitors, animals, and performers for events. All around and through the Colosseum are holes left by the iron bands originally installed to add support to the structure. Through the centuries various conflicts required removal of the bands to melt and turn into weapons. These holes are seen on many of the ruins around the city.

20: Colosseum Stairway Interior Archway showing holes left by removal of iron bands

21: Roman Ruins

22: The magnificent building, Il Vittoriano, is called the “wedding cake” by the locals. It is a monument built to honor Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy, and holds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an eternal flame. Many Italians regard the building as useless since it is not used for much except admiration by tourists.

24: Tonight we headed to Piazza Navona where Roberto treated us to a gelato at Tre Scalini. Tartufa gelato is the specialty, a rich dark chocolate blended with liquored cherries. It was decadent and built for two to enjoy. We walked the streets, window shopped, and visited the Pantheon. The Patheon was built in 126 and is currently used as a catholic church. A photo shot through the locked door revealed what appeared to be the alter. We ate dinner with several couples at Trattoria Dell’ Anima, where we had sautéed artichoke and the recommended pasta purses filled with ricotta and pears on a puddle of carrot puree. This was hands-down a top favorite dish in Italy.

30: Monday, May 21 It was a downpour outside, and we had one umbrella between us. Lucky for us umbrellas are for sale on the street for 5 euro. We meet our tour bus driver for the week, Antonio, and over the course of the week we say to him many times, “Buongiorno, Antonio” and “Andiamo, Antonio.” | We met Elaina again and set off for the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican museums are over 9 miles long, and it is said that if you spent only one minute admiring each painting it would take you 4 years to complete the circuit. We only explored two hallways, but it was absolutely full of sculptures, paintings, and weavings. Even the views from the windows were works of art.

31: Vatican Museum Ceiling | Museum Statue

32: Weaving "Lord, Where Are You Going?"

33: Painting Exerpts Neptune Leading Christopher Columbus to the New World Translation: “With the grace of God and the effort of will we obtain the excellence of virtue."

34: View of St. Peter's Basilica (in the rain) from Vatican Museum

35: "Sphere Within Sphere" in the Plaza of the Vatican Museum

36: When we reached the Sistine Chapel, it was full of people with standing room only. Several employees were present to clap and shush the crowd when it became too noisy. No photos were allowed due to damage from flash over time. Also, the restoration of the Chapel was commissioned by Fuji Film and the company owns the rights to all photographs of the Chapel. Michelangelo worked on the Chapel twice—as a young man he worked on the ceiling, and in his later years he painted "The Last Judgment." He inserted himself into various scenes by using his own face on the peeled skin of St. Bartholomew and as the older version of Abraham on the wall.

37: Disclaimer: These photos were taken from the Internet. From the large photo clockwise: The Last Judgment, St. Bartholomew's flayed skin, long view of the chapel, ceiling.

38: After we left the Chapel we traveled to the Tuscan region on our way to the small walled village of Orvieto. Signs on the interstate warned of an accident ahead, so Antonio detoured through the countryside. The scenery was breathtaking even if the road was quite narrow. The bus reached a small town and the road took a hairpin curve. We were doubtful the bus could negotiate such a sharp curve and apparently the locals were doubtful as well. People poured out of houses and businesses to watch this spectacle. All it took was a few moved cars and Antonio’s skill—we were on our way. A visit to Orvieto is a 3-level plan: park your ride in the parking lot, ride a railcar to the second level which is the beginning of the village, then catch a bus up the steep road to the village itself. The rail system was built in the late 1800s and is actually two cable pulley cars that operate on one track with a passing lane built in the middle of the track—as one car descends the hill, it pulls the other car up the hill. The heart of the village is the 13th century duomo (cathedral), and Orvieto has a very large, ornate, gorgeous duomo. This is a quiet residential town where tourism is contained to the square, which is trimmed by shops and restaurants. We joined Lou and Georgette for lunch at Ristorante Maurizio where the food was underwhelming. Roberto urged all of us to try the wild boar since it is local to Tuscany. Lou and I ordered boar in tomato sauce with polenta; Sara ordered pasta with tomato sauce and ricotta cheese; and Georgette ordered a meat variety platter. The only one pleased with lunch was Sara, and the rest of the food was “boaring!” Off to cleanse our palettes with chocolates from a shop around the corner.

48: Next, we check into our hotel, Il Piccolo Castello in Monteriggioni, where the staff was accommodating, and the décor was nice with a French door opening to a small sitting area with grass and trees beyond. This evening, the Il Piccolo chef prepared a delicious meal especially for us: soft-as-a-pillow gnocchi in a light tomato sauce, Cinta Senese pork with grilled zucchini and eggplant, and tiramisu so delicious that it converted former-tiramisu-hater Sara.

52: Tuesday, May 22 We traveled toward Florence and picked up Libero Saraceni--our chef, host, and instructor for the day. We literally picked him up at an intersection and continued to Sant’ Ambrogia market in Florence. Libero was engaging, informative, and instantly lovable. He divided us into small groups and armed us with spending money and a list of ingredients—in Italian. We walked through this fabulous market stocked with various vendors of fruits, vegetables, meats, breads, beans, rice, cheeses, and desserts.

53: Chef Libero | Shopping in Italian

60: On the way back to the hotel, Roberto took us to San Gimignano, a picture-perfect walled medieval village. It was a step back in time and the inspiration for Aaron’s video game, Assassin’s Creed. San Gimignano was Tuscany personified with its beautiful streets lined with homes and shops, long-range mountain views from various terraces around the town, and warring gelato shops both alleging to be the best gelaterria in the world. While most of the others attended a wine tasting, we chose to shop instead. Back at Il Piccolo, we were too stuffed to eat and visited with Lou and Georgette and newlyweds, John and Jackie while we snacked on cheese, bread, tomatoes, and strawberries bought at the market earlier that afternoon.

68: Wednesday, May 23 Our first stop today was Siena, home to the Palio, a twice yearly horse race which takes place around the Piazza del Campo. Siena was such a surprise because we entered through the gates to a quiet little village. As we walked through the streets, it was apparent that this village was much larger than the medieval walled villages previously visited. It opened to the very large Piazza del Campo which was grounded by the Cathedral of Siena. We were set loose to explore a city filled with shops, restaurants, a transit system, and a university. We concentrated on not getting lost and made our way back to the Piazza for a cappuccino at a restaurant on the square—one of the few ways to access a clean restroom.

72: We stopped briefly in Greve for lunch at Caffe’ le Logge on the Piazza Giacomo Matteotti. I had a salad of greens with grilled chicken, pine nuts, and Valencia oranges drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and Sara had spaghetti with tomato sauce. Both were outstanding. A cat stopped by the table and found a friend in Sara. She fed him bread and chicken until a man sitting on a nearby bench asked us to not feed him meat. The cat looked like Lucy with Patches stuffed inside, so maybe he was on a diet. Since it was siesta, the shops were closed and we headed back to the bus. After a twisty, curvy bus ride over and down a mountain, we arrived as Castello Vicchiomaggio, a quality Tuscany wine estate. We were treated to a wine making lesson, a wine tasting, and an opportunity to photograph the estate and beautiful countryside.

80: As if today needed anything to make it more special, the piece de resistance was a dinner hosted at the Lenzi Family Winery. After a walk down the cypress-lined driveway, we were greeting by Mrs. Lenzi and her daughter, Diana, who toured us through the winery. In the wine aging barn, the Lenzi’s served dinner at a long farm table where Diana, a trained chef, served us antipasto consisting of prosciutto, pecorino, zucchini quiche, onion frittata, and crostini; chick pea soup; pasta with oven roasted tomatoes, bacon, and pecorino; lemon and sage chicken stew, endive gratin, and potato gateaux; and chocolate wine pear strudel. To describe it as delicious is an understatement, and the Lenzi ladies were very accommodating and happy to have us as guests. The trip back to the hotel was pretty exciting when Antonio navigated a u-turn in someone’s driveway and made cars drive backward in order to let us pass on the road. On the ride, Roberto promised to play classic Italian ballads, but instead played YMCA which had everyone singing along and signing to the song.

82: The photo of the inset shows a bombshell that struck the house in WWII

86: Thursday, May 24 We met local tour guide Rosa in Florence and went straight to the Accademia di Belle Arti ("Academy of Fine Arts"). The Accademia was founded in the 1500s for the study of arts, and houses David, the magnificent marble statue created by Michelangelo in the early 1500s. Rosa brought our attention to the detail of David’s musculature, veins, stance, and facial expression—which many conclude depicts David’s contemplation before he killed Goliath. Photos are not permitted inside the Accademia; however, replicas of some of the more popular statues are located in the public square of the Palazzo della Signoria. The visit to the Accademia was too short before we walked through the streets to the Florence Duomo and the Baptistry of St. John. It was very crowded, and after a few minutes we continued to Peruzzi, a leather shop, for a demonstration of fine leather making. We shopped through Peruzzi’s and more than a few of Florence’s other leather dealers before stopping for a gelato.

90: The Rape of the Sabine Women | David

94: Our next stop was Villa San Michele located in Fiesole, one of Florence’s more distinguished neighborhoods. The Villa sits on a hill and is the sight of a former 15th century monastery, now serving as a hotel with multi-level terraces landscaped with trellises, flowers, fruit trees, outbuildings, and a gorgeous pool. For lunch we enjoyed a wild green salad with walnuts, capers, parmesan, and an herb sauce; veal with mustard sauce; Sara had the vegetarian option of a Florentine crepe with pecorino fondue; and a trio of delicious miniature desserts. After lunch we were invited to the outdoor terrace for cappuccino and petite fours. We all left feeling just a little more special.

102: Our next visit was not scheduled, but Antonio and Roberto thoughtfully stopped at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial. The gate was closing, and Roberto promised the attendant that we would simply drive through and not exit the bus. We were in awe at this meticulously manicured site that serves as the final resting place for the American service members who died in Italy in 1944 and 1945 during the last campaign to drive the German forces off the Italian peninsula. Of the 5811 recognized service members, there are 4189 identified personnel, 213 unidentified personnel, and a memorial for the 1409 missing in action. Included are 4 women, 5 sets of brothers, and 9 Tuskegee Airmen. In recognition of the Italian Campaign, there are also American cemeteries in Rhone and Sicily-Rome.

104: That evening Roberto offered us the opportunity to have dinner at the nearby village of Monteriggioni, population 60. It was a charming village with several shops and restaurants. We ate at Ristorante da Remo, the restaurant associated with Il Piccolo. At the table were stuffed fried zucchini blossoms, pasta with pesto sauce, and a wild boar dish—all delicious. Of course, before leaving, there was another trip to a gelato shop.

110: Friday, May 25 We said goodbye to Il Piccolo on our way to Venice, with a stop in Bologna. There we met a local tour guide in the main square and walked to the University of Bologna, which dates to the 10th century. Along the ceilings were frescoes of various coats of arms of those who contributed to the university. We visited the School of Medicine’s Anatomy Theatre. The walls and ceilings were covered in wooden carvings of the great contributors to medicine, and in the center of the room lay the anatomy table where dissections took place. Most anatomy lessons took place in the cooler months, and on days when there was an abundance of donated bodies, it was not uncommon for students to stay around the clock in order to make the best use of their subjects. We made our way to Il Caffe’ Della Corte for a prosciutto, parmesan, and wine tasting. Bologna is considered the gastronomic capital of Italy, and this was a beautiful setting for a bit of instruction on the making of different kinds of prosciutto. We walked through the streets and stopped for lunch—pasta with tomato sauce again for Sara, and a frozen tiramisu and cappuccino for me. We ended up in the main plaza to meet Roberto and, while we were waiting, had another gelato.

115: Italian drinking fountains are centuries old and still in use

116: It's easy to see that Bologna is the culinary capital of Italy. The shops selling produce, pasta, meats, cheese, seafood, and confectioneries seem endless.

117: At our tasting, we realized that prosciutto is serious business in Italy. The aging process greatly influences the texture and taste.

118: We said goodbye to Antonio in Venice and caught a water taxi from the mainland to the heart of Venice itself. As Roberto led us through the city, he insisted we look left into the shops until he finally told us to turn around and take in the beauty of St. Mark's Square. He was right to insist we be amazed all at once. He then led us to the center of the Square in order to experience the 360 of its beauty. We finished crossing the square right to the gondolier station and boarded our gondolas complete with champagne. The gondolas took us through winding canals, down the Grand Canal, and back to where we started. In an effort to familiarize us with the real Venice, Roberto led us through the streets and off the beaten path, where only the locals live and boys played soccer in their neighborhood square. We then taxied back to the island to our hotel, the Ausonia Palace Hotel.

121: The Rialto Bridge was built in the 1500s and spans the Grand Canal

126: Saturday, May 26 It was raining when we met our local guide this morning, and we followed her along the Grand Canal, through St. Mark's Square, and negotiated streets so narrow that our open umbrellas scraped along the walls. We ended in the marketplace where produce and seafood was for sale. Roberto left us with instructions to find our way back: at St. Mark's Square, turn left at the Grand Canal, walk over 4 bridges, and meet him at the clock to head to our next stop. Fortunately, we had several hours so we shopped and stopped for lunch at La Terrazza in the Hotel Bonvecchio, where we had the most wonderful spaghettini with clams, asparagus soup, and peach bellinis. As the restaurant bordered the gondola station, we snapped a shot of a passing accordionist.

127: Afterward, we water taxied to the Murano Glass Factory for a glass blowing demonstration--it was fascinating to watch a figure emerge from a hunk of molten silica. An invitation to the showroom revealed prices through the roof. Thankfully, nothing was so striking that we were tempted to spend $3000 for a vase. On the way back to the hotel for a rest before dinner, we stopped by a gelateria.

128: The Leaning Tower of San Pietro di Castello | The Bridge of Sighs connects the prison with the interrogation rooms. It is so named because those escorted to prison sighed at their last sight of beautiful Venice.

129: The Procuratie buildings line St. Mark's Square. They housed those responsible for the keeping of St. Mark's Basilica as well as the well-being of the citizens.

131: Campanile (bell tower) of St Mark's church

134: La Terrazza

136: Dinner tonight was held at Do Forni, and we were served Caprese Salad (delicious), tagliolini with vegetables, tagliatelle Bolognese with meat sauce (good), fillet of sole with artichokes (delicious), mixed grilled vegetables, and tiramisu (wonderful), followed by cappuccino. A walk through St. Mark's Square at night is beautiful with the hundreds of lights along the Procuratie buildings. We boarded our water taxi back to the hotel and began packing.

141: What a wonderful trip—so many unique experiences, a skilled and informative tour director, and terrific fellow travelers. As they say, all good things must end, and in Roberto’s words, “Andiamo a casa” or “Let’s go home.”

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  • By: Brenda S.
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  • Title: Italy 2012
  • Food Network Tour of Italy: 9 days through Rome, Tuscany, and Venice
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