Here is a timeline with some pictures from my wonderful 11 days in Italy, which was not nearly enough time! Click each city to jump around if you like 🙂
Sunday 12/18 –
The bus from Munich took all day because we stopped roughly every two hours for 15 minute smoke breaks. So it goes in Europe. The 8am bus arrived at 4pm to the water bus station in Venice. It was already dark outside, and the fog on the water made it difficult to see. I could barely even see the towering church across the canal (pictured above)!
After settling in at the hostel, I joined Sevag, the “hostel” manager, for a coffee. I say “hostel” because it was a two bedroom apartment which he had listed as a hostel as well as on Air BnB. Quickly I learned that you pay extra to sit down at cafes in Venice, so we stood at the counter with our espressos like many other patrons. The espresso here was affordable at $1, so we had two. I learned later that Sevag is quite a regular at this café, sometimes stopping in for as many as five coffees in a day! He enjoyed this particular café’s assortment of coffees and regularly purchased beans from them for his fancy home machine (which was a recent present to himself).
From there, I went for dinner at Antico Panificio. I was perusing the menu outside when the manager hustled me to a table. Traditionally, I prefer not to dine at restaurants that hustle people in from the street, but I was hungry and Sevag had said it was good. I inquired about the seafood antipasti, specifically whether it was raw or cooked, but went with the sea bass at the recommendation of the manager. Surprisingly, he brought the antipasti as well because apparently he thought I meant to order both the $20 antipasti and the $21 fish. I asked for a glass of Merlot, ready to drink cheap Italian wine instead of not-as-cheap-as-you-would-expect German beer. He offered to open an option from the bottle menu because it was “better”, and charge me by the glass, so I said alright. He kept refilling my glass, which I did not request, and also brought bread to the table, which I didn’t touch. At the end of the meal when my check was $70, I was a little put off. I ate all of the antipasti and the fish because I was hungry, it was fresh and tasted delicious, but I hadn’t ordered more than one glass of wine, or bread, and hadn’t planned on spending that much.
I was also creeped out by the manager/server, who had started coming on to me as he continued to pour wine. He asked if he could take me for a drink after dinner and told me he was off work at 9pm. I said, “No, thank you, it’s Sunday and I’ll be going home to call my family.” He then offered to give me the wifi password so I could call them from there. I declined, saying I’d rather do it from the hostel. He then asked if I would come to his hotel room, and offered to “let me” call from there. I said no again, then he glared at me with his hands on his hips from across the room for a while. I asked for the check six times before he brought it, along with a lemoncello that I didn’t touch, and I noticed it was 9:30pm. I saw that the girls next to me had just received their check so I waited until they got up and I walked out the door and down the street close to them. This is the only time that I have felt uncomfortable being a female alone, knock on wood.
I went to the 10am walking tour only to discover that I was the only one registered. I offered to join the afternoon walking tour and my guide said, “No no, it’s fine, you’ll get a private tour.” So we took off, first going through the Jewish Ghetto (the first Ghetto, established in the mid-1500’s to keep the Jews safe/isolated at night from the Christian community; because there were 5,500 people living in the small area, Venice’s first and pretty much only buildings over three stories tall are in this neighborhood), then walked around by the casino (Europe’s oldest, and also where Richard Wagner died of a heart attack), a few of the many churches, the “Bridge of Tits” (where prostitutes used to hang out the windows showing off their goods and attracting customers back in the day), before crossing the canal via gondola ride and perusing the Rialto Mercato.
We stopped for a coffee and talked about architecture for a bit and he told me some sad facts about Venice. Like how there are only 60,000 people living there now and over 200 million tourists per year. The old people don’t know any other way of life, so they stay even though all the stairs and the >400 bridges impede their quality of life and ability to get around. The young people don’t like all the tourists and also find life on the main land easier, with more efficient utilities, cheaper bills and better transportation, so they’ve left. Some day in the not distant future, Venice will be a theme park instead of a real city, with literally everything focusing on Disneyland-like tourism. It’s also sinking, a combination of rising water levels (*cough*climatechange*cough*), increased flooding (up to 60+ annually when this used to happen less than 10 times per year), and the fact that Venice is built in the middle of water, set up on wooden stakes that plunge deep into the earth, and was probably never meant to be permanent. All this water and flooding is eroding the houses and the infrastructure of the city… So, who would want to move there?!
Anyways, we ended our tour a little later close to The Ponte dell’Accademia, a wooden bridge which was set up to be temporary in 1933 but was just left that way. There are only four bridges that cross the grand canal. The Rialto is the most famous one, lined with designer shops and crowded with tourists. Another one close to the train station is made of glass and has a little pod that can shuttle people across on the side (it was out of order at the moment). It’s called the Constitution Bridge (pictures below). From there I stopped for a little olive-covered personal sized pizza and a mini-split of Prosecco on my way to St Mark’s Basilica. Of course I arrived just in time for both my phone and camera to die, how predictable. I walked around a bit then went back to the hostel to charge my electronics. I was on my way out to have dinner and listen to jazz when I received news about the Berlin attack. This news made me sad and I stayed in to read before an early bed time.
After a visit to the train station to book the rest of my Italian reservations, I went to the fish market at the Mercato Rialto since it was closed the day before. Many pictures later, I stopped for a bite (what Italians call “tapas”) and an Aperol Spritz (which totaled $2.50… Venice doesn’t have to be expensive).
Then I headed over to St Mark’s, went up the bell tower for $8, took 12 pictures in the course of six minutes and come back down. After a trip inside the actual church (where you can’t take pictures), I went next door to the Doge’s Palace. The entry fee here was $19 and I was a little annoyed by the price until I got to the giant hall with Tintoretto’s painting Il Paridiso, which is the largest canvas painting in the world. Very impressive. This work supposedly meant so much to him that he even petitioned for a smaller salary over the six years in which it was completed. The rest of the artwork in the room is amazing, as well. Each of the Doge’s is depicted along the perimeter of the wall, except for one, who was exiled and whose portrait space filled instead with a black cloth to represent his betrayal, which I found was an amusing story. From there, I walked around looking for a church where a violin performance was supposed to be happening at 4pm. I found the church, but there was no performance. Such is my luck. So I wandered around a bit more, then went back to the hostel to write postcards until dinner time. Opting to stay nearby, I dragged myself a few blocks away to the Osteria Nono Risorto, where I had a tasty and simple penne Bolognese dish followed by a salad with arugula and prosciutto. (back to top)
I dropped my bag at the Plus Florence hostel and went straight to the Mercato Centrale, which was just as AMAZING as Florence itself (the sunny 60-degree weather and a respite from snow boots gave me a happiness high). The bottom half of the great market hall is your typical produce, fish, meat, cheese, and flower stands. The top half is a “street food” market with a couple bars, picnic style seating, an Eataly, and a cooking school with a great calendar called Cucina Lorenzo De’Medici. From there, I went to dinner at Trattoria Zaza. I had seen that Steak Florentine is a big deal in Florence; however, it was 1.5-2kg and $45 most places, so I did not order that. I did have a smaller steak covered with arugula and a pepper cream sauce alongside rosemary potatoes. It was delicious, cooked perfectly, juicy and the $4 half split of red wine to go with it was certainly a good deal.
I thought the bread was disgusting, and later learned that decades ago when Italy enforced a tax on salt, Florentine bakers decided to not use it anymore, so the bread is just sort of tasteless and pretty much never molds, since it would be salt that keeps it moist and allows bacteria to grow! A good first night, all in all.
I walked to St Mary’s church in the early part of the day for one of the free walking tours. There’s only one company that provides a free walking tour in Florence and they have an AM portion and a PM portion, both 90 minutes in length. This was the worst walking tour I have ever experienced. There were around 40 people, the guide spoke very quietly and was not animated at all, it was hard to hear him, etc. After the tour, through which I learned pretty much nothing, I went to the Duomo and got a couple scoops at Edoardo’s Gelato. It was SO GOOD. The chocolate hazelnut flavor was almost like fudge in consistency. Delightful. After that I went to see the statue David at the Gallery dell’Accademia.
For dinner that night, I joined a friend at a restaurant of his choosing. He ordered calf brains (which is why he took me there) and I had the Branzino. Dessert was a cheesecake-like torte with a chocolate swirl. The gelato earlier in the day was a much better way to use “sweets points”. We had after-dinner sparkling rose at Spumantino Verrazzano, a cute little place across the street from the Ponte Vecchio.
Bike day! Hallelujah! I joined “I Bike Tuscany” for a ride through the hills of Chianti. The only other people with us was a family of Brazilians, who gladly adopted me for the day. There was also the tour guide, Bill, an American, so there were 10 of us altogether. I cycle a lot at home and feel at-home on a bike, so during this 22-mile ride it was common for the tour guide to send me ahead and give me a landmark at which to stop and wait for them. We had lunch at a winery and were able to sample a couple of Chiantis and a Super Tuscan. Bill and I enjoyed the duck pate as a first course while the Brazilians all had the cheese plate. The ladies had the pesto pasta as a second course while all of the men ordered the Bolognese. For dessert, everyone had the flourless chocolate cake and an espresso. Nothing like a day of exercise to justify eating a lot of carbs at lunch. It was a beautiful day cycling through the gorgeous landscape in the sunny 60-degree weather. Just perfect.
That evening, I joined my friend for dinner again, this time at La Giostra at the recommendation of some friends back home. My friend told me that La Giostra translates to “The Carousel” and that he had been worried I wanted to go ride the carousel at the Piazza della Repubblica, like a “typical tourist”. Haha. This place was very eccentric. We were greeted with glasses of Prosecco and a small plate of hours d’oeuvres including a tomato bruschetta and some cheese. Our Portugese waitress presented the bottle of Chianti in a fashion I have never experienced, swirling it around and holding it vertical to the decanter until all the liquid had glugged in. I ordered the goat chops and fried artichokes, which were shockingly delightful. They were a little bit bigger than lamb chops and there were about eight of them on my plate. The meat was cooked bone-in, as well as cooked through, and there was enough fat to keep it moist. It was kind of like a steak-meets-porkchop-but-cooked-welldone experience.
I really enjoyed it; the only other goat I’ve eaten has been from road-side huts in Mexico. He had a steak, which I didn’t get to taste because he enjoyed it so much it was gone before he thought to ask me if I’d like some. We skipped dessert here and enjoyed Amaro Montenegro instead. I love Italy.
Saturday 12/24 (Christmas Eve)
Another tour day, I joined 44 other tourists on a bus that took us to Siena, then San Gimignano, then Pisa. In Siena we took a short tour and learned about the horse race and the old cathedral. I had a cappuccino and a croissant at a little café before we got on the bus to San Gimignano, which is a medieval town with not a lot going on outside of its beautiful landscape. Then we had lunch at a winery, where the tables were set up between large wine barrels. It was a pretty cute, but the food left something to be desired and the wine tastings were not nearly as good as the day before. Pisa was the most boring place I’ve ever been in my life. I know I’m not supposed to say that but I thought to myself, “I want to take this picture and leave.” But since we had 90 minutes to kill there, after I took the traditional Pisa picture I went to the nearby McDonald’s for a beer. I really just needed a reason to stay in there since it was now past sunset and cold outside.
Back at the hostel, it was too late to get anywhere for dinner. Even though it was Saturday, not much would be open on Christmas eve, so I stayed at the hostel and had their 3-course Christmas Special. It was not good. Course one: a square of mashed potatoes wrapped in bacon and served over tomato sauce. Course two: pappardelle noodles with Bolognese sauce; this course actually tasted good but the portion was huge and I could have done with just this for dinner. I was able to eat 1/3 of it before I started to feel full and stopped. Course three: pork loin wrapped in “pastry dough”; there was nothing correct in the description of this course. It was chunk of overcooked pork wrapped in bacon, then stuffed inside an overcooked brioche bun. Everything was dry and tough; I didn’t eat ¼ of this course. For dessert, there was actual pastry dough covered with a copious amount of a very strange cream sauce. I had one bite and was done. Worst meal I had in Italy.
Sunday 12/25 (Christmas Day)
I walked around taking pictures of things outside since nothing was open. There were actually quite a few restaurants open, and I had French onion soup with a glass of Prosecco and a coffee before crossing the Ponte Vecchio to take more pictures on the south side of the river. I skyped with my family, as well, and had dinner at a Greek restaurant. Grilled octopus and falafel cakes. It was fine, at least better food than the night before. After dinner I went to the Piazza De Michelangelo, which has a beautiful view of the city and is much less busy at night time. (back to top)
In the morning I went to Rome, arriving much earlier than I had thought but it was okay because the hostel was ready for me. I went next door and for my second pizza in Italy. Then I worked on my Munich blog and enjoyed a couple beers at the hostel bar in the evening. There was a rock band playing and I did some tip-trading with a few Americans.
I had purchased an 11:30am entry to the Vatican, so I left the hostel at 9:30am and walked there (3 miles), stopping to take pictures along the way. I treated myself to a couple scoops from Old Bridge Gelato, where the Pope’s visitors stop to get their gelato. It was a good treat, and only $2! After a guide through the Vatican and a visit to the Sistine Chapel, I walked through the gardens a bit and went to the plaza at St Peter’s Basilica. One look at the like circled around the plaza and I was turned off from trying to go inside.
On the walk home, I stopped to do a little shopping and had dinner at Antica Boheme. I had walked a lot that day, so I treated myself to a plate of mixed appetizers with vegetables and a slice of omelet before enjoying the linguine with prawns. There was not enough meat on this dish, it seemed that the prawns were really just there to add flavor, but it did taste good and the service was good and wine was CHEAP! An affordable and enjoyable meal, overall. I made friends with some Costa Rican’s at the hostel bar and we tried to get a spot on stage for karaoke night but that dream never became a reality before the fun stopped at midnight.
I started the day a little late, with sore feet from over 30,000 steps the day before mostly being on cobblestone roads. On my DIY walking tour, I saw the Coliseum, the Imperial Forum, Circus Maximus, the “Mouth of Truth”, the Pantheon and the Trevi fountain. For lunch I stopped at Pianostrada, which is described as a “food laboratory”. Here I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and a creamy Burrata that was heaven-sent. Look at that thing:
Definitely check this place out if you go to Rome! I had planned on having a small plate at another restaurant on the way towards the Trevi fountain but I wasn’t hungry so I didn’t. After tossing a coin with a wish and witnessing way too many couples “cup-caking” at the fountain, I stopped at Blackmarket Cocktail bar for a drink before 7pm dinner reservation at La Carbonara…
This was, hands down, the best meal I had in Italy. If you are in Rome, go to La Carbonara your first day there and make a dinner reservation for another night because most likely you will not get in without a reservation. The sweet server called me “Lady” all night in the cutest way possible. He learned it was my last night in town and treated me like a princess. After a glass of sparkling wine, I came back from the bathroom to find a glass of red wine sitting on my table. The server came by and said, “Lady, it’s your last night, we’re going to make it a night to remember.” And beamed his infectious smile at me. At his recommendation, I had the fresh fettuccini with pistachio sauce and it was simple, flavorful, delicious. Then I had Saltimbocca alla Romana and it was to die for, all the flavors melting together. The server refilled my wine glass in a not-being-a-creep fashion, and brought over a big ole’ glass of Amaro along with my after-dinner espresso. And when the check arrived… $38. I love this restaurant. Maybe it was the superior service that got me, because the meal I had was fresh and simple. It was a perfect last night in Italy and someday I will go back to Rome just to dine here again. (back to top)