Cinque Terre

The mythical “five lands” were simultaneously different from one another, generally packed with tourists, stunningly beautiful at times, struggling to hold onto their identities, and worth the time to explore.

We managed to visit them all, except Corniglia. Vernazza was probably my favorite. No real reason; just the best vibe for me.

Lavaggiorosso

For our time in the Cinque Terre, we elected to use a tiny town in the hills above Levant, Lavaggiorosso, as a base.

This place featured little in the way of cell coverage, but it made up for it in charm and authenticity, with nothing but walking paths through the village and beautiful scenery on either side of the ridge we were perched.

Turino

Kath and I stopped overnight in Turino, just to take a look around. We encountered giant, magical creatures in the central square, plus a soaring tower just outside of downtown. It was the perfect break before the tourist crush of the Cinque Terre.

Accommodation Review: Hotel Assisi, Rome, Italy

We were sure Rome was going to be a pain. Almost every large city we’ve ever visited while traveling seems to pull more out of you than it puts back. Our goal was to just to try to have a decent time in Rome during the 2 days we had there and try to see some highlights at the end of our trip, before heading back to the States. Our stay in Rome turned out to be a lot more enjoyable than we imagined, and a lot of that was due to the centrality and comfort provided by the place we stayed: Hotel Assisi [Google map].

After all, when you imagine being in Rome, you might imagine hanging out at the Colosseum.

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However, finding a place to stay near the Colosseum, one that is also comfortable and safe and offers good links to travel beyond the city, well, you have options, but it can be difficult to figure out which one to choose. We went with Hotel Assisi, which received several good reviews online and is a relative bargain at 80€ per night for a double. Is is also located only a couple of blocks from the central train station in Rome, Termini, and easy access to the metro.

On the downside, I saw this random scene from the remains of a very localized Vespa fire a block away from Hotel Assisi and Termini, so it isn’t clear how safe your vehicle would be if you parked it in the area.

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The lobby of Hotel Assisi is where you enjoy the excellent complementary breakfast (feature all of the espresso you can drink!) and a good (if charged per hour) wifi connection. There is also lounge area with some entertaining ancient tourism videotapes of Rome from the 1970s. Don’t miss those!

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Our only complaint is that our room’s fan made a lot of noise (which the management fixed after we told them about it) and the air conditioner in the room didn’t really work to cool it (and there was no way to turn it up or change the settings – which left the room pretty hot). However, the neighborhood around Hotel Assisi is pretty quiet, so we slept well with the windows open.

The bathroom was pretty small but very clean and adequate. There are two competing and excellent Italian restaurants just outside the front door of Hotel Assisi, so getting a good meal at a decent price, even late, is pretty easy. The reception was cordial and helpful, offering advice about the best sites to see (and order to see them in, based on our time limits), as well as providing options concerning getting to the airport (which is pretty easy from the train station – there is a special train that runs every half-hour that takes you there).

All in all, Hotel Assisi was a good deal for the money. You could do a lot worse.

Contact Information:
Hotel Assisi
http://www.hotelassisiroma.it
info@hotelassisiroma.it
Via dei Mille, 29
00185 Roma, Italy

(39) 06 445 3813

Accommodation Review: Bed and Breakfast La Chica, Petrognano, Italy, in the Garfagnana Region

We were unprepared for the Garfagnana region. We thought we were just heading into a more hilly region of northern Tuscany. Little did we know that we were actually heading into some real mountains. Accessible mountains, but mountains all the same. The small community of Piazza al Serchio provides an excellent stepping stone to explore this region, and the tiny nearby hamlet of Petrognano [Google map] contains a nice place to stay while you do it: La Chica, a quaint bed and breakfast.

Unfortunately, we spent too much time taking pictures of the beautiful nature of the area that we never thought to get a picture of our room or the outside of the building. However, the central location of La Chica is one of its best attributes, as it helps to get you keep into the nature of northern Tuscany that is impossible to do if you stay somewhere like Lucca or Pisa or Florence. And vistas like this are just stunning, as you are driving up and around the mountains of the region.

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The towns are charming, too. This is Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, a few kilometers down the road from La Chica, where two come together and make their way through the mountains to Lucca. The multicolored buildings were a treat in this place.

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You are also near the Ponte del Diavolo (Devils Bridge), a medieval bridge that spans the river.

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In between the larger mountains, there are serene and idyllic valleys, like this one below Castiglione di Garfagnana.

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Where there are mountains, there are often lakes, and the Garfagnana region is no different. The Lago di Vagli features great picnic spots, a free swimming pool, and a little town in the center of the lake, surrounded by water.

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Perhaps the best thing is that you will see very few tourists at all in the whole region, especially non-Italian tourists. There just simply aren’t any large buses showing up and disgorging tourists by the hundreds, as you see in Siena or the small towns in the south. You get a real sense of what I came to see as “real Italy” in the Garfagnana region.

The amenities at La Chica are adequate. The owner, Paola Pignatelli, lives nearby and really goes out of her way to help in any way she can. Note that English is more rarely spoken in Garfagnana, so be sure you have a good Italian-English dictionary if you have any special needs.

The room we stayed in was comfortable and larger than the others in the trip, and the bathroom was spacious and clean. Strangely, we never got any breakfast at this bed and breakfast, but this was probably our fault and we didn’t mind anyway. We stayed for 3 nights, and for 50€ per night, it was a pretty good deal. Again, you won’t be spending much time in your room here. The nature that surrounds you will call you to explore. And you won’t be able to resist!

Contact Information:
Bed and Breakfast La Chica
http://www.bbplanet.com/bed-and-breakfast-la-chica-garfagnana-piazza-al-serchio_s11386/en/
beblachica@libero.it
via statale, 9 Petrognano, Italy, 55035
(39) 328 705 9270

Accommodation Review: Casale a Poggiano, Montepulciano, Italy, in Southern Tuscany

This place was a highlight of the trip. Located only a few kilometers from Montepulciano, in southern Tuscany [Google map], Casale a Poggiano fulfills the dream of what most people imagine about a vacation in Tuscany. Nestled on a hill and surrounded by tall trees and vineyards, the pleasures of the Tuscan lifestyle are spread before you, from the quaint ancient house to the friends you meet at breakfast.

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Run by a wonderful woman named Isolina, Casale a Poggiano offers a great place to just take in the Tuscan atmosphere or as a launching pad to the many sites and towns just over the next set of hills, including Sienna, Pienza, Montalcino, Arezzo, Perugia, and Orvieto. This is the little town of Montefollonico, I think, as viewed from the backyard of Casale a Poggiano.

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And this is the view of Montepulciano, which is only a 10-minute drive away.

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Speaking of the backyard, the grounds are kept very clean and neat. (Just remember to dodge the monster pine cones that can fall at just the right time and crack you on the head. Seriously, they are dangerious…)

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Everything about the place gives you the sense that it has been here for a very long time. Check out the lichen on the tile of the back house.

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The back of the main house is covered with vines and windows that swing wide. You will swear that you have stumbled on the set of Under the Tuscan Sun.

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There are little odds and end everywhere on the grounds, including this cool little flower planter made from an old plow, sunk into the dirt.

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But, I’m sure you didn’t find this review to read about flower boxes… The four rooms available at Casale a Poggiano fit into the country lifestyle of the house. There are lots of classic, old touches, like the wash basin and the large armoire, create the sense that you are far away from modern life when you visit. There is even complementary local brandy and biscotti outside of your room, which you can enjoy with the complementary wi-fi, which tends to break the spell of being in the Tuscan countryside, but at least you can upload some pics from your trip thus far and catch up on some email.

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Our visit was well timed, as Casale a Poggiano is usually pretty booked, particularly in July, but with the economic downturn of 2009, we were the only people there for 3 of the 4 nights we stayed. This really helped with the illusion that we were Tuscan nobles enjoying the fine weather in our country house, with our own private (and excellent!) pastry chef Isolina to whip up some unforgettable breakfasts.

The three upstairs bedrooms are located up the staircase in this picture. I hope the dog is still alive when you visit, as it is really old but a real sweetheart.

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In short, Casale a Poggiano is a great place to stay, if you have your own wheels and don’t mind the 80€ per night high-season rate. (There are lower rates for other seasons and, possibly, other rooms. Ask when you call or email to book.)

Contact Information:
Casale a Poggiano
http://www.poggiano.com/en/
http://www.tuscany.net/poggiano/
via di Poggiano 21, Montepulciano, Siena, Italy 53045
(39) 057 871 6446 or (39) 328 732 2057

Accommodation Review: Pensione Colomba, Praiano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast

I’ve had several people ask follow-up questions about some of the accommodation reviews I wrote for some of our other trips, so I know that the reviews are getting indexed and people are finding them in search engines. We stayed in some pretty fantastic places in Italy (all booked expertly by Kath, I should add), so I thought I would continue the accommodation review tradition by looking back at the four places we stayed in the country. Spoiler alert: To one degree or another, we liked all of the places we stayed and would recommend them. However, read on, because the details for any particular place may cause it to be inappropriate for your visit.

The first place we stayed in Italy is Pensione Colomba, which is located in Praiano, a small town on the Amalfi Coast, south of Naples [Google map]. Praiano is a great place to stay, if you value getting away from the bustle of the larger towns in the region, like Positano, when you are ready to bed down for the night. Also, as Praiano is very vertical, heading straight up the hill from the sea, almost any place you stay will have great views. Pensione Colomba is located half-way up the hill from the main road running along the Amalfi Coast, the SS163, and it is such a hike to get up to the place that they utilize a cable lift system for your bags to take them up and down from the car park, which is next to the main road.

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The stairs can be kind of brutal, especially if you have to make the trip several times a day. Thankfully, there are several ways to and from the main road from Pensione Colomba, so once you know Praiano, you will know what part of town you want to come out at and can take the appropriate set of stairs.

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Enough about the stairs – let’s focus on the view. Even when you are climbing those stairs, you can always stop and take in the view, which make the climb a whole lot more enjoyable. All of the rooms in Pensione Colomba seem to face the sea. Our room was at the top of the building, which appeared to be somewhat built into the hillside. We shared a large balcony with another room, and when the sun set, we were treated to views like this.

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Simply stunning. The air was still and clear for our entire stay, and it made the fantastic vistas available from Pensione Colomba even better. This is a view from the balcony across the sea and down the Amalfi Coast to the west. You could see for miles and miles.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t get any pics of the room or the outside of the hotel. However, we found it very clean and more than ample for our needs. Like many hotels in Italy, Pensione Colomba features a complementary basic breakfast, served outside and facing the sea. Our room had a small bathroom but a decently-sized bed, writing desk, some chairs and such, basically a nice place to stay.

The staff really took care of us, even keeping some medicine we needed kept cold in their fridge. (The rooms don’t have refrigerators, which wasn’t a big deal.) Breakfasts were ample, and they will cook dinner for you or provide a bigger breakfast for a fee.

The key to the place, though, is the location and the view. Pensione Colomba helps you get up and away from it all, even on the busy Amalfi Coast, putting you in close proximity for day trips to Positano or Capri or Amalfi or some of the decent (but tiny) local beaches. We paid 70€ per night, which is a pretty good rate for the area, and we stayed 4 nights.

Contact Information:
Pensione Colomba
http://www.pensionecolomba.it

Via Croce
84010 Vettica Maggiore (SA), Italy

(089) 874079
info@pensionecolomba.it

The Pantheon and a Brush with Power

Near the Vatican is impressive Castel Sant’ Angelo, which has been a castle, fortress, and prison for various popes over the years. The Ponte Sant’ Angelo in front of the castle is a beautiful bridge, full of very statues in dramatic poses.

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We stumbled across the city, bouncing from gelateria to shoe store, eventually ending up at the Pantheon, which is one of the most impressive structures I’ve ever been in. Most impressive is the concrete dome, poured in place with scaffolding, which is one of the first uses of concrete and definitely one of the earliest examples of concrete that still exists and is useful today, more than 1900 years after it was built.

Even Kath was impressed…

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After seeing the sights in the Pantheon, I went outside to rest and soon heard a commotion nearby. Thinking that someone may have been hit by a car, Kath and I joined the crowd streaming that direction. Instead of a traffic accident, we got a picture of Prime Minister Berlusconi emerging from a gelateria with a big cone full of the good stuff, looking very happy and flanked by a dozen security guards that melted into their vehicles when it was time to speed away.

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To make sure that we come back to Rome, we had to make a final stop at the tourist mecca, the Trevi Fountain. Kath drew the short straw and got picked to throw the coin over her shoulder in the fountain, which is a tradition that is supposed to bring you back to Rome at some point in the future. It was quick and painless, and we got out of there.

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Rome was much more than I was expecting, and the trip, as a whole, was even more enjoyable than I could have hoped for. We had a blast, and I hope to return to Italy someday and explore another set of niches of the country, such as Sicily, Lake Como, Cinque Terre, or Milan.

Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum

Where the Vatican gets you, so far as money is concerned, is the Sistine Chapel. I would estimate that the Sistine Chapel is, easily, the thing most people want to see in Vatican City, as it has images that some of the most beautiful and recognizable among any in Rome. I mean, that ceiling is something else, and the folks that run Catholicism aren’t stupid. They know a revenue opportunity when they see one.

So, what did they do? Well, even though the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica are right beside one another, they’ve set up a system where you have to enter the Vatican Museum to see the Sistine Chapel, and it costs 14 euro per person to enter the Vatican Museum. Also, because you are so far from the Sistine Chapel once you enter the Vatican Museum, you have to walk half-way across Vatican City, twice, to get back and forth from the Sistine Chapel.

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What’s the good news? Well, for one, it’s worth it. Also, while you are trapped in the Vatican museum, the other exhibits are pretty good and worth seeing, and the cafeteria isn’t a rip off. All in all, it is still a must-do when you are in the area, but just try to put all the pointless walking out of your mind. At least you are walking down beautiful (but extremely long) corridors that look like this:

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Once you get to the Sistine Chapel, the hallway narrows and you have to kinda squeeze through a little door to make it inside. Once there, you aren’t supposed to (1) say anything or (2) take pictures. However, everyone there (and it is usually standing room only) is doing both of those things, just about has loud and fast as they can.

The tourist-factor aside, the ceiling and walls (and just general architecture of the place) are amazing.

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We visited in 2009, a few years beyond a reconditioning of Michelangelo’s masterpiece, and the colors were so vibrant, so alive, the painting really spoke to you, even with the tourist throng all around and the ushers coming in ever few minutes and yelling, “Silencio!”

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The paintings extend down to the walls from the ceiling, with some characters in one painting bleeding over into another scene. The optical illusions must have taken years to perfect.

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Outside, we found one of those wonderful, free, clean water spigots that are located all over Rome. While most folks just filled up their water bottles, I drank the cool water straight from the source. Yum!

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We went to several very good exhibits and ate lunch there, and finally, we were ready to move on and see some more of Rome. The stairs as you leave the Vatican Museum were a final treat though. Quite trippy going down…

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I really enjoyed the figurines on the stairwell railing.

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Next up, we headed back into Rome and across the city.

It’s Holy, See?

We only had one full day in Rome, and we were determined to make the most of it. One place that seemed like it would provide a lot of bang for the buck is the Vatican, so we took the metro from the train station and zoomed under the city to the doorstep of the Vatican Museum.

As you are probably aware, the Vatican is a city within a city. Rome completely surrounds it, and while there is no document check to move from Rome to the Vatican, you can certainly feel the difference. Many buildings in the Vatican are visible from Rome. This is the view of St. Peter’s Basilica from the Ponte Sant’ Angelo.

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Once you enter St. Peter’s Square, the immensity of the place really hits you. So much of Rome is made up of tiny little streets that crash into each other in seemingly random ways. It can be like a jungle, where you can’t see any landmarks and you aren’t sure which way is north or, even, which way you came from, if you turn around.

This is not a problem in St. Peter’s Square. The obelisk and fountain, plus the statues that surround the place, will help to remind you exactly where you are. And, if you get lost, some helpful (and colorful) Vatican guards will gladly show you the way.

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The front of St. Peter’s Basilica also gives a little foreshadowing of how big it will be in side. Those little specks at the bottom of this picture are people trying to get in the main entrance.

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Inside, you’ll find a lot of interesting stuff, including a dead pope.

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Katherine got to touch the foot of St. Peter’s statue (a traditional Catholic ritual), while I gazed away at the amazing dome above it all.

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When I turned off the flash and cranked up the exposure, I got a nice shot of light coming in the center of the dome.

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St. Peter’s Basilica is free to visit, but be aware that there is a very strict dress code. No shorts are allowed, or dresses higher than the knee, or any shirt that exposes the shoulders or is too revealing. We saw several folks pointlessly arguing with the Vatican guards, seeking entrance when they were wearing totally appropriate clothes for a 41 degree Celsius day in Rome that didn’t meet the Vatican standards. Some of these folks were pretty angry, so be sure to dress appropriately, if you don’t want to make a quick trip back to the hotel to change.

When In Rome…

After dropping off the rental car, taking a shuttle in from the airport, and getting settled in our hotel (Hotel Assisi, near the train station), we headed out to explore the city. Our first stop was to pick up my brother’s leaf. For the last few times we’ve gone abroad, my brother will get on Google Earth and pick out a tree somewhere near a place were we are going to be visiting. In the course of the trip, we track down the tree, get a leaf to take home to him, and take a photo. This trip’s tree was in the Parco del Colle Oppio, just to the northeast of the Colosseum. And, man, it was hot. And dry. But we got the leaf.

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The Colosseum and the nearby Arco di Costantino don’t really look real up close. In fact, a lot of things really don’t look real in Rome, but you have to learn to just trust your eyes and enjoy what you can, trying your best to ignore the crush of tourists, and hawkers that follow tourists, and guys dressed as Roman soldiers that want you to take a picture with them, and tour guides that chide you in your native language if you don’t use their services.

Perhaps the most interesting physical thing about the Colosseum is the sheer number of holes in its ancient structural walls. Near every intersection of the marble blocks in the travertine pillars facing out has a huge hole in it, some so large that you can’t understand how the entire structure can stay up. Apparently, I’m not the only one that noticed this. The odd thing about these holes is that they formed so long ago that no one is exactly sure what caused them. The leading theory is that iron clamps were in place to hold the blocks together but were taken out in the 5th century to be used for other things, during a period the Colosseum was starting to be used as an unofficial building material warehouse.

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Another of the most interesting remains we came across is the Porticus Octaviae, which has a fascinating history and allows the visitor to see several different styles of ancient architecture, materials, and architectural purpose in the same building, while standing the exact same spot. There is something that stirs within you imaging this place as a library, curia, and fish market through the years, this now ramshackle, almost dangerous-looking ruin located a dozen or more feet below the current level of the street. You can see the ancient (and largely destructive) attempts at patching it, to keep it a viable building for daily use.

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Nearby the Porticus Octaviae is the Temple of Apollo, or what stunningly remains of it.

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Rome wasn’t all old carved marble to us, though. We wanted to experience some of the street life, and we found some of the best local flavor and least tourists, in the old part of town at least, in the Trastevere area. I mean, who could not love a place that could make a meringue cookie this large?

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The Pantheon was a treat, as well, but we wanted to spend more time than we had left in the day, so we bookmarked the spot in our mind and agreed to come back tomorrow.

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While walking back to our hotel, we practically stumbled by the famous Trevi Fountain, which only has its majesty diminished due the crushing crowds that jostle for position near the edge of the water and along the steps beside. The scene on the fountain confused me, but I’ve since learned that is depiction of virgins leading Roman citizens to the source of pure water outside of Rome that ends up in the fountain. Ironically, the carvings of natural rocks, which are actually carved out of natural rock (marble), make the fountain so striking, in addition to it’s sheer size.

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Once the blasting heat of the sun starts to fade, Rome really starts to turn on the charm. Street life has this kind of intimacy in Rome, one where you can’t help bumping into strangers as you scan your surroundings for the ever-present little nuggets of art, tiny treasures that Romans have come to expect and internalize and take for granted.

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I had come expected a gritty city, but Rome had begun to charm me, despite the heat of mid-July.

View all of our photos of Rome

Around Garfagnana and Northern Tuscany

We were due back in Rome in a few days after returning from Grado, and other than the roads, we hadn’t seen much of the Garfagnana region. The next  morning, we headed down the main road of the region, along the river, heading south toward Lucca. Along the way, we came across this cool old medieval bridge, the Ponte della Maddelena (or sometimes called the Ponte del Diavolo – the Devil’s Bridge).

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It was very steep in the middle and more than 900 years old, but as amazing as that is, I found it more strange that the hundreds of motorcycles moving on the roads on either side of the river didn’t want to cruise up and over the bridge. After all, there were no stairs to block them. I guess the few tourists taking pictures at the top of the bridge really put them off of that idea.

We wandered through several of the larger and smaller towns of the region, including Castiglione di Garfagnana, where Katherine took a quick rest in a very beautiful spot.

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One of the wonderful things about the Garfagnana region is that you can really get far, far away from the major roads and enjoy nature with Italians doing the same thing. During one of our loops off of the main road, we drove beside the Lago di Vagli, which features a picturesque town toward the middle of the lake, which was formed by a dam and has an abandoned village at the bottom of it that you can actually visit every few years, when they drain the lake.

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All along the way,  I made sure to keep myself caffinated. But all of those uppers required some downers for, well, you know, equilibrium, so you have to balance it out with a beer or a glass of wine. The risk, though, of course, is that you can look like this at the end of the day.

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Rather than zooming directly back to Rome via the autostradas, we headed west over the mountains and were able to see many of the famous mountains that contain some of the world’s finest marble. And the scenery wasn’t half-bad either…

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We emerged from the mountains near the sea and headed south to a very crowded Pisa. The leaning tower was the major draw, as you might expect, but the tourists were almost a sight to see by themselves, disgourging from buses and bumbling through ramshackle street shops, wandering into the light and expressing their wonder at the sights in front of them by acting like they were holding up the tower for hundreds of photos taken per minute. I mean, there was literally a line of people waiting to get the correct perspective to make the same optical illusion joke as the person directly in front of them.

Oh well, the duomo and the tower are very beautiful and worth experiencing close up.

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And that lean is very real. I really didn’t expect to really worry about the structural integrity of the tower, but even with the actions they’ve recently taken to preserve the tower – like taking out the marble columns on the downward side and replacing them with lighter materials – I’m not sure I would want to go up there. And the waiting line of tourists and high admission price settled it.

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Before the Romans dominated the peninsula, Etruscans ruled the roost. We swung into the Tuscan southern highlands and explored a few ancient towns founded by Etruscans among an area of hot springs. We also explored a small island connected to the mainland by a small spit of sand and a bridge. Porto Ercole really looked like an interesting place, but we were running out of light.

We didn’t actually make it Rome that night, but we did find a decent pension 30k north of Rome, along the sea.

Click here to see all of our northern Tuscany photos