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A Cooking Class in Rome

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A trip to Italy is associated with a delicious, stuff-your-face-with-the-best-food-ever kind of experience. So, participating in a near 7-hour cooking class in Rome delightfully checks a major box off the nom list.

Cooking Classes in Rome in the heart of Trastevere is owned by a half-Italian, half-American couple who is charismatic, witty and ready to open their kitchen to you for a day that will leave your belly full and your heart happy. Chef Andrea Consoli and wife Erica begin with an introduction to Roman cuisine and transition into what is a full afternoon of interactive cooking that’s educational and super fun–and I’m talking in the form of taking a meat cleaver to a chicken or making your own bow-tie pasta from scratch.

You’ll be greeted with espresso and breakfast sweets in a beautifully decorated front room and given a chance to mingle with the other students (a small international group of 10). Following that, you don your apron and get to work stirring, chopping, laughing and tasting.  Andrea provides Italian culinary histories, tips and know-how the whole way through. It’s a hands-on experience with never a dull moment.

You should be prepared to eat. A lot. Our menu included stuffed artichokes that we trimmed and cleaned ourselves, a blow-your-carb-loving-mind dish with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, sausage over pasta, a traditional chicken cacciatore with 2 side dishes and, naturally, a sweet and creamy tiramisu.

Not only does Cooking Classes in Rome provide you with an opportunity to learn more about traditional cooking, but it also makes you feel like you had a chance to really delve into the culture and expand your knowledge through your taste buds.

Class including 4-course meal is €65 per person; optional wine pairings €20 per person.  Menus change seasonally and based on dietary requests.

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food 

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Florence for Foodies

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Florence. The birthplace of some of the most inspirational people in the Western world: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dante and…Natalie Panozzo, co-owner of Florence for Foodies; a walking food tour that will school you on everything from grassy olive oil to grappa spray.

Florence for Foodies begins with a marocchino; an espresso with milk, cocoa and melted chocolate (pictured above) at a lovely little cafe where Natalie or her partner Samantha Boi teach you the Italian Coffee Code of Conduct—i.e., no dairy in your coffee past lunch. That’s for babies.

In the central market, you’ll sample the very best bollito (pictured), a sandwich made of marinated veal and two secret sauces that the people of Nerbone have been making since 1872. You’ll also try outrageously fresh cheeses, cured meats, olive oils and decades-aged balsamic vinegars, all accompanied by chianti—a breakfast wine, of course.Bollito Sandwich

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At the next stop, you’ll be greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a fantastically salty, doughy coccolo sandwich filled with prosciutto and creamy Stracchino cheese. Wash this down with more Chianti Reserve and learn about the wine region while you stand in a 500-year-old wine cellar that was once a prison cell!

Next, a dreaded grappa spray. Grappa = hard alcohol made from grapes, to the tune of 120 proof. This mouth spray of death comes in an innocent-looking perfume bottle and has been used as an afternoon pick-me-up for decades. Oh yes, it will definitely induce an involuntary yowza at first. But don’t worry bella, everything gets sweeter from here on out as you live la dolce vita with chocolates and gelato.

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IMG_4392Florence for Foodies lasts 3 hours and leaves you with a wonderful experience. You’ll learn about the historical nature of food production in Tuscany and eat and drink your way through one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Who can say “no” to that?

 

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food

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Now You’re Cooking with Romans!

Fire

And so it rained.

A rainy Roman morning
A rainy Roman morning

Throughout our time in Rome we had been waiting for the rain. It was supposed to start the night we arrived, and yet conditions remained dry. Until this morning. But really, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We had a cooking class that was to take up half the day.

We walked across the Tiber into the neighborhood of Trastavere, where things seem far more residential…and maybe a smidge less touristy. The challenge would be finding this place, because Cooking Classes in Rome looked to be run out of a house in the neighborhood on a small side street…at least that’s what I got from the website. In truth the operation is run from a storefront, but inside it feels like a warm home. There are pictures on the walls of cooking classes past and a large dining table in the middle of the main room.

We were welcomed in by an American named Erica…originally a Michigander, which made Lauren happy. The table on this particular day would be full, with fellow cooks in training from Germany, Hungary and the U.S. All said there were ten people, half of whom were named Nicole.

Chef Andrea showed up as we were enjoying some coffee and breakfast pastries around the table. Erica and Andrea are married…Andrea is not American, he’s from Rome and full of amazing insights to Roman cuisine.

Look at all this food we have to cook!
Look at all this food we have to cook!

He struggled to get in the front door, both arms strapped down with bags and bags of food. Everything we were about to cook had just been picked up from the local market. After a few minutes of introductions we moved into the kitchen, we heard the rundown of what makes Roman food so different and special. Andrea also spent a lot of time stressing the importance of locality and seasonality. For that reason we’d be carving artichokes for one of the courses. If you’ve never carved an artichoke it’s an adventure.

I’m not going to go over every detail of the class…I’m not looking to give away any secrets. But here’s what we made: stuffed Roman style artichokes as the appetizer, home-made bow-tie pasta with a fresh mushroom and sausage sauce for the first course, chicken cacciatora with a side of roasted potatoes with rosemary and sautéed flat beans with cherry tomatoes for the main…and the desert was tiramisu. I ate a lot of the tiramisu.

Here’s what you need to know about the class: it’s very hands-on. Whether butchering chickens (don’t worry you’re not killing chickens) or properly cleaning mushrooms fresh from the earth or making pasta from scratch I picked up a bunch of new skills in the kitchen. The class isn’t going to teach you to be a chef, but it will give you an appreciation for cooking…and maybe inspire you keep learning once you get home. And because of Chef Andrea’s focus on locality, you’ll learn a lot about Roman cuisine and Roman culture.

We're happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird
We’re happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird

It’s been said many times on this blog: eating is at the core of travel. We all eat. We all eat differently based on where we are. So if a person is what they eat, a key way to understand them is to eat what they eat. At the very least you’ll get a taste of their culture.

Chef Andrea was very good about “showing” and then letting everyone “do”. I’ve been to a lot of cooking classes that are a whole lot of show without the do…or, even worse, the do without the show.

When we finally sat down to eat it felt like an accomplishment. We were about to consume the spoils of a great victory. The class also offers a wine pairing with each course, Lauren and I opted out because we had a busy afternoon and evening ahead. Everything was delicious…and because we had spent the last few hours with these people it was a very relaxing friendly meal. There were students experiencing travel for the first time, photographers

Here we are all enjoying the dinner
Here we are all enjoying the dinner

offering the eye of perspective, a few just visiting Rome for the weekend, some looking for the next step in another land and at least one who was absolutely obsessed with Bon Jovi. All in all it made for great dinner conversation…such that we got carried away and stayed longer than the class actually ran. But in true Italian fashion there was no rush to get anyone out the door…because that’s all part of the experience.

Lauren and I were the first to leave, because we had a laundry list of things to do on our last night in Rome. Before we left though, Erica gave Lauren a list of shops to find some of the great ingredients we used through the day…she also gave us a list of restaurants and at least one tiramisu spot to find.

As we walked out the door the rain was finally letting up…it seemed perfect as we walked through Trastevere on a hunt for some of the spots on the list. Collecting things along the way we worked our way back up to the Pantheon. We stopped by the other night, but it was closed. I really wanted to get inside, since that didn’t happen in my last trip to Rome.

The Pantheon is also important to me as a Washingtonian. So much of our architecture is inspired by this building: The Capitol Building, Museum of Natural History, National Archives, West Wing of the National Gallery of Art and most obviously the Jefferson Memorial. Walking into the Pantheon is the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to appreciating the classical

A look at the Pantheon from the outside
A look at the Pantheon from the outside

Romanesque influences around Washington.

Like all the great Roman buildings still intact, or partially intact, the Pantheon is still here because it was turned into a church. Being inside and seeing these Catholic symbols littered about the building I can’t but help to feel sad for what once was. There’s a certain silliness in making this a church, with it’s high unsupported domed roof with an oculus leading to the heavens. This was a temple to all the gods of Rome, putting crosses and portraits of the Virgin Mary inside doesn’t change that.

And that’s why the Pantheon is important…because it’s not a testament to Roman polytheism or to Christianity…but instead to human power and the use of symbols to solidify that power. Making the Pantheon a church was a way for the Church to show it reigned in the absence of Roman power. Taken in that context the Pantheon is very much a living building. On this night it felt a little more alive as the moisture in the atmosphere outside succumbed to the wicked ways of gravity and fell into the building through the oculus. The rain reinforced the idea that the reclamation of forces bigger than all of us combined are never far away. Still though, for about two millennia this was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Romans knew what they were doing.

St. Peters from up the Tiber
St. Peters from up the Tiber

We headed back across the Tiber to a shop that Lauren wanted to get back to on Via Cola di Rienzo. I probably would have put up more of a fight but I wanted another shot at that gelato. And so we walked. While we were in the shop the skies opened up and Lauren, with hopes of making things faster, had me wait in line while she went looking for one other item. Our plan was to rendezvous at the gelato shop.

Back outside and without an umbrella I darted from awning to awning hoping to dodge the raindrops. It was not an effective strategy. By the time I made it to the shelter of the gelato shop I was thoroughly soaked and Lauren was MIA. I ordered and paid, she still wasn’t there. So I went outside to look (under the awning of course) and I heard Lauren shouting from down the street. She was soaked.

“I was missing!” she said grabbing her gelato. She had walked out a side entrance of the shop and ended up on a completely different street. We finished the gelato as the rain subsided and then headed back towards Piazza Navona for dinner. We had already made reservations at a restaurant we scouted the night before, and we wrestled with whether we should just break them and try one of the eateries Erica had listed for us. Ultimately proximity was the deciding factor, we were just across the bridge from the place with reservations…and we had done an amazing amount of walking in the last three days. In fact, I kept track. In three days we walked 17 miles.

The dinner was alright, not to the level of what we’d experienced over most of the trip. But I think a lot of that was due to my still being full from our earlier dinner at the cooking school. Still though it was a nice romantic spot to enjoy the last night in Italy with Lauren.

Throwing our coins in...it looks a little freaky
Throwing our coins in…it looks a little freaky

We stopped by the Trevi Fountain on our way back home…seeing as we were in bad moods the last time we were there we didn’t want to jinx any possible return to Rome. And so we returned to throw our coins in again to curry favor with the fates. Even at the late hour the fountain was busy, although nothing like the mobs that are there during the day. It’s touristy, and it’s awesome.

Coins deposited we took our time wandering through the streets of Rome back to our hotel. Again I had fallen in love with this city, with this country. For Lauren this would go down as her favorite trip abroad, and I’m inclined to agree with her. From the canals of Venice to the streets of Florence and Rome there’s something around every corner to stir the heart and inspire the mind. And obviously there is the romantic appeal, the notion that one of the biggest moments of our lives will be forever frozen in time in this country. The next morning we flew home to Washington, where the broad streets seemed out of place. Buildings a few hundred years old now seemed brand new. Meals seemed rushed.

For a moment we had returned to our native landscape seeing it as a foreigner. That is the true mark of an excellent trip.

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There’s no Pope at the Vatican

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Our hotel in Rome was modern, coming with all sorts of neat amenities…including blackout shades. They were soundproof and completely dark. I woke up on this morning trying to figure out why the people in the room above us would be vaccuming at 3am. After a bit of fumbling around I found my iPhone, it read 9:30…certainly my phone was still on American time. But then I looked at the alarm clock in the room. Also 9:30.

Could it be 9:30 at night?? I was in a downward spiral of confusion, it was like a horrible episode of the twilight zone. I had no concept or idea of what time it actually was…where was the sun!

And then Lauren pressed a button and the shades opened. And low and behold it was a beautiful sunny day outside…not raining…

Road paint Vatican
Road paint Vatican

We walked to the Vatican with no tour plans. Again this is a flexibility allowed while traveling in the off-season, not necessarily a great idea in the busy season. I’m not really sure why we walked, but we did. It was a long walk, but pretty as we followed the Tiber.

After ducking in for coffee we headed down towards St. Peters Basilica…it’s tough to miss, big dome…it’s own country. As we approached the square it was only a matter of moments before we were hit up for our first tour. Getting a tour is a little like buying weed outside a Phish concert…you get a lot of shady offers, and ultimately you just have to go with the one that looks least desperate.

We ended up with a guy named Angelo, a fast talking American-Italian. He told us he grew up in Rome, but his parents were Italian, but that he went to college in California. I don’t know, I lost track…but he sounded pretty American with very Italian pronunciations. It didn’t matter, because he was good. I secretly grade all guides in the back of my head…mainly because I was, and still am, one. I’m not afraid to admit that I think I’m very good at doing the job, and it takes a lot for me to admit that someone’s actually better than me.

Angelo was better than me.

The model for God
The model for God

His information was top notch, his timing was excellent…but most importantly his presentation was perfect. I’ve always lamented guides who spit out random dates and facts as though they mean something to an audience. What separates good guides from the rest is the ability to put those dates and facts into context. Make them part of the story that explains a culture. Create a narrative that engages the audience enough to build a curiosity within them. A good traveler should be hungry to learn…and a good guide transforms average travelers and tourists into good travelers.

This was my second tour of the Vatican, and honestly…it didn’t really get me going the first time around. I’ve got a natural distaste for organized religion, and I really let that cloud my last trip through more than it should have. I broke my own rule about keeping an open mind. This time I wanted to fix that.

Things were much busier than we had expected around the Vatican for the low-season…but something was happening. In just 48 hours Pope Benedict XVI would be giving his final mass, and by weeks end he would be retiring. The first pope to do so in 600 years…and we were there for it.

I know when I give tours around big event in America I really try to stress the importance on my clients, because it goes beyond a simple holiday or vacation. Your trip is now intertwined with history, and every time you hear about that important moment you will remember your trip. For the rest of my life when I see Pope Benedict XVI or Francis I I will think of my time in Rome. Angelo did a masterful job of driving that point home.

Walking through the Vatican museum halls
Walking through the Vatican museum halls

Around the square scaffolding was going up for television crews, already satellite trucks from around the world were deployed. Just walking to the entrance of the Vatican Museum I counted three cardinals. We were but flies on the wall…but it was an important room of history. Inside the museum was crowded…walking through I took notice of things I hadn’t recognized before. Partly thanks to Angelo, partly because I wasn’t quite so disoriented as before.

Trying to get a handle on the Vatican Museum in one day is impossible, in fact it’s impossible in a decade…that’s one of the reasons a guide is so critical. Aside from the National Mall here in DC, the Vatican is the second largest concentration of human knowledge on the planet. Really getting to know everything here requires a PhD.

I finally caught the significance of the headless, armless sculpture that everyone stopped to photograph: it was Michaelangelo’s model for God. I understood the connection between ancient Rome and the Church: a large porphyry wine vat/bath will do that. I grasped the symbolism of the Map Room: the maps are arranged in geographical order from south to north with the west on the left and the east on the right. My brain was just being bombarded with incredible information throughout the tour with the grand finale yet to come.

My first time in the Sistine Chapel was memorable, but slightly underwhelming. I didn’t fully comprehend what I was looking at. Before we even entered the museum corridors, while we were in the Court of the Pine Cone, Angelo did what all the guides do: he went over a replica of the Sistine Chapel on a poster board. But he told the story so well that I could feel the angst of Michaelangelo as he spent four years arching his back in the most unnatural way, alone, in the dark…painting. And he had never painted a fresco before. Never. Angelo illustrated how we could look at the ceiling and watch Michaelangelo learn from panel to panel as the depictions became less cluttered and sharper.

The point being that as we came into the Sistine Chapel with a much better idea of what I was looking at…key considering you don’t get a lot of time in there. It really is a stunning place, and this time I felt moved by its power. It’s not a well lit room, I’m sure mainly for preservation, and everyone inside is craning their necks to look at the paintings. Every once in a while someone takes a photo, prompting one of the guards to shout, “No, photo.” Seriously people, just stop taking pictures. Respect the room, there are good photos online…and your picture’s going to suck because you’re trying to take a quick shot in a dark room before a security guard yells at you.

Instead, soak in the moment…in just about two weeks television sets around the globe will be showing this room full of cardinals as they meet to select the next pope. This is the intersection of history and travel. We’d be one of the last groups to come through before the Sistine Chapel was sealed off for preparations. But in that moment, we saw what the cardinals would see…the place where stoves would be installed with pipes leading to the roof that would gush black smoke or white smoke. This was an epic transition, and we were standing in the room where it all would happen.

Rome_0256From the Sistine Chapel we went into the cavernous St. Peters Basilica…it does a good job at making you feel small. The interior again offered reminders that big changes were coming. The statue of St. Peter was outfitted in an ornate robe and wearing a crown. Thousands of candles were lit in every corner of the church. There was a general buzz of energy rolling through the great hall. We walked around taking pictures and listening to the stories about the statues until the tour wrapped up. It was a much better experience than my first visit to the Vatican, as a matter of fact I didn’t even make it up to the dome the time before.

Thankfully, again, the line was short. After walking miles already on the day we opted for the lazy route and took the elevator up…but even so the elevator only goes about halfway up. There’s still a cramped staircase to walk up. In one section the spiral case is so tight as to bring on some serious dizziness. And then the path follows the curvature of the dome such that you have to walk while leaning to the right. And then it’s a final set of ladder-steep stairs before emerging atop the dome. And the site’s worth it.

Even on this cloudy day Rome is sprawled before us beautifully. We can look down on the square and on the interior of the Vatican and on the Sistine Chapel.

Panorama from St. Peters Dome
Panorama from St. Peters Dome

Leaving the Vatican we walked down Via Cola di Rienzo toward Piazza del Popolo and finally stopped for food at a little market and had some pizza after a long day of not eating. The place was a good find, not necessarily unknown…but also not crushed with tourists. We kept walking before a tractor beam lured us into a gelato place called Mo’s Gelatarie. I don’t care if the name sucks.

Awesome gelato
Awesome gelato

I don’t care if it’s touristy (which I’m not sure it is). It was the best gelato we had on the trip. And as we devoured our gelato we crossed back over the Tiber and found ourselves in Piazza del Popolo. This was the entrance to Rome from the north before the city expanded. In the middle of the piazza is an obelisk brought in by  Augustus from Egypt…like all the other obelisks and pagan symbols in this city a cross has been attached to the top, so as to protect it from being torn down.

Looking south from the obelisk is a straight show down Via del Corso to the Altar of the Fatherland, or the Victor Emmanuel II Monunment. It’s a neat site-line that also gives some clues to the city’s layout. We sat at the base of the obelisk for a little while, resting up our sore feet, before continuing down to Piazza Navona. This was a spot Lauren was anxious to get to…as was I. My last time through Rome I got a cursory look at it and then left, and it just seemed like a place I wanted to spend some time.

We sat at one of the overpriced cafes to grab a drink before dinner and take in the scene. The piazza had once been a stadium where the Romans would flock to watch the games and some races. Today it’s still a popular gathering place flanked by restaurants and churches…the centerpiece being Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, which has an…wait for it…obelisk as a centerpiece.

The plaza was full of chants and songs…not Italian chants and songs, but Welsh shouts and songs. It was the night before Wales took on Italy in the Six Nations Rugby Tournament. And the Welsh were out in force…and they tend to drink, just a little bit….and then they tend to chant and sing. After a trip to Cardiff a few years ago I can testify to the anarchy that is Welsh fandom, and it is beyond entertaining.

As we listened to the Welsh cheer, Lauren and I started talking about rugby, and the need for America to embrace the sport. As the conversation continued one of the guys sitting at a table next to us started leaning further and further back,  until finally he turned around.

Piazza Popolo
Piazza Popolo

“Sorry for interrupting, but can I just say how nice it is to hear Americans talking about Rugby,” he said in a South African accent. And from there he and his friend basically joined our table. We drank with our random new friends for another hour and a half talking about random topics and giving them advice from our path. It’s chance encounters like this that really make me love travel. Finally after a few beers we made our way to dinner and then home.

St. Peters Square
St. Peters Square
Inside St. Peters
Inside St. Peters
Let my people go!!
Let my people go!!
Lots of candles
Lots of candles
I was in this church on assignment the day Benedict announced his retirement.
I was in this church on assignment the day Benedict announced his retirement.
The Sistine Chapel from up high
The Sistine Chapel from up high
Jesus on the rooftop
Jesus on the rooftop
Looking down into the square
Looking down into the square
Tight spiral staircase
Tight spiral staircase

 

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Roman Ruins to Spanish Steps and a side of liver

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There is a circuitous nature to travel. You’re always on your way back to somewhere. We started off our journey in Roma Termini shortly after landing in Italy, and now we were back at Roma Termini to start the Roman chapter of this holiday.

Thankfully our seats were more comfortable than this.
Thankfully our seats were more comfortable than this.

The train ride was the best yet…the business class seats were the same price as coach. I’m not really sure how or why, but I went ahead and seized the opportunity. The result was leather seats, more space and a lot more silence.  The weather changed as we sped down the Italian peninsula. Florence was still cold and rainy, which made saying goodbye all the more melancholy. But as we continued south the clouds broke and sunshine reigned.

It was really just a tease. I had been paying close attention to the forecast and the sun was expected to stay through the afternoon…and then rain, lots and lots of rain for the rest of our stay in Rome. I was annoyed. It’s stupid to be annoyed at the weather, you can’t change it unless you’re a believer in cloud busting in which case you have bigger things to worry about. Suddenly there was a lot of pressure that Lauren and I were artificially creating to see as much as possible before the rains came.

We got to our hotel just after noon and thankfully we were able to check in, drop our bags and plan…well, sort of plan. I had left this part of our trip open to anything, specifically for the unforeseen: i.e. weather. The only thing we were booked into was a cooking school class on our last day. With the absence of a clear plan, we waffled a bit before getting out and about. We debated the plan of attack, and I won Lauren over to making the Colosseum and Roman Forum a priority for the day. They were outdoor activities, and we should make good use of the weather.

We took the long way to the Colosseum to grab some food.  Although we live in a big, busy city it takes some adjustment whenever you step into another big, busy city. Moreso after spending a week in smaller, tamer cities. Rome can be very overwhelming, and for a few minutes it was. My travel equilibrium was a bit off as we sat down for a snack, sometimes you just need a reset.

A look down Fori Imperiali at the Colosseum
A look down Fori Imperiali at the Colosseum

We walked down Fori Imperiali, the ancient stadium looming large on the horizon as columns and ruins occupied the cityscape. As did growing crowds: tourists snapping pictures, street vendors selling random useless wares, street performers painted as statues or wearing Roman Centurion garb. It’s a walk that has an almost amusement park feel to it…something I suppose is virtually unavoidable in a place like this.

We had not booked a tour of the grounds, it’s not necessary…but it is recommended. There’s just so much to take in, it’s easy to get lost in the site. Typically you’re better off planning a tour in advance, but the spontaneity of the day prevented that for us, so we got in the general admission line before being sold on a tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It ended up being a good call. To be honest I didn’t pay too close attention while we were in the Colosseum, this was my second time doing the exact same tour.

A fancy panoramic look inside the Colosseum
A fancy panoramic look inside the Colosseum

The guide was good, but I had heard it all before. This was more for Lauren. This gave me a chance to soak in my surroundings, to imagine the tens of thousands watching as gladiators fought thousands of wild animals or each other to the death. This building was the symbol of Roman power. Think about it, they built this thing 2000 years ago. If a stadium in the States turns 20 the ownership starts crying for a new stadium…and I doubt future societies will be paying for a tour of Cowboys Stadium in 4013…at least I hope not for the sake of American legacy.

A wide angle look at one side of the Colosseum
A wide angle look at one side of the Colosseum

Being on the grounds later in the afternoon was also nice. The tour seemed much more relaxed than the last one I did, and the lighting made the Colosseum feel more alive. Our guide took us outside and tagged off to another guide who would show us the Forum starting with Palatine Hill. This time I paid much closer attention, last time I didn’t get up to Palatine Hill. Also the weather was fantastic, as we walked up the hill the sun was dropping towards the horizon. The yellows and oranges of the Roman cityscape took prominence. I remember and think of places in colors…and Rome has always been yellow and orange. Weird, I know. With the city sprawling before us, ruins around us and everything framed by umbrella pines and a setting sun the scene was quintessentially Roman.

A look through two umbrella trees at the Colosseum
A look through two umbrella trees at the Colosseum

Our guide walked us through the ruins atop the hill, painting a picture with her words of what was once here. I would kill for a time machine to see this place in its glory. Just the little bits of marble and porphyry offered glimpses into the imperial grandiosity of this place. The guide was Canadian, but had been living in Rome for a while. This would be a bit of a theme: North American expats giving tours throughout Rome. She told us that if we wanted to see the stone that was once on Palatine Hill we wouldn’t have to go too far…much of it had been used in St. Peter’s Basilica. This was another, more tangible, theme: the Catholic Church destroying or absorbing what was left of the Romans. It is proof of the First Law of Thermodynamics, that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. The total amount of energy and matter in the universe remains constant.

Substitute power for energy and you can understand the development of Rome.

We finished the tour in the Roman Forum, surrounded by shells of buildings that had been excavated from under thirty feet of earth…and then quarried out for their stone. But there were no shells in theses crumbling structures. Even in the midst of total war that devastated much of Europe the Allies and Nazis were able to agree to avoid turning this testament to the ancient world into a battlefield.

And that only underscores the apocalyptic feeling of the Forum. Here a great civilization once stood…now they are

This was once a palace
This was once a palace

gone completely. If you’re ever in the mood for an existential crisis, this is the place. We walked along the main road of the Forum, which is now disjointed and about as smooth as U Street in NW (for you non-Washingtonians…that’s not smooth).  We were told that at the height of the Empire the road would have been smooth enough to rollerblade on, but as the site was first excavated little care was given to the road. Regardless, it’s a terrific exercise to imagine in whose steps we were walking as we meandered down this now bumpy road. It’s also interesting to look around and see the inspiration for our own city, our own country. Many of the design elements in DC are modeled from Rome, and certainly the modern idea of American democracy has its roots in Greece and Rome under the senate before becoming an empire.

Leaving the Forum we decided to head towards some other “outdoor” activities before the weather moved in. Already clouds had shut out the setting sun and the temperature was dropping. Thinking with our stomachs first we decided to stop by a restaurant we had scouted and make a reservation. We continued up Via del Corso before taking a right

Proof they actually do clean the Spanish Steps!
Proof they actually do clean the Spanish Steps!

on Via Candotti…it was only a few blocks to the Spanish Steps, but it took us a while to get there as Lauren stopped at virtually every storefront to say, “Ooh, pretty.” The street is like a condensed version of 5th Avenue, or maybe an ancient version. One way or the other it ends at the Spanish Steps, one of those random landmarks that inexplicably draws crowds. In this case the crowds were in the plaza, and not actually on the steps. Police were holding everyone back as a cleanup crew scoured the stairs. We walked around the corner and sat outside a wine bar and finally got a chance to relax. We had been moving non-stop since getting off the train, and this was our third day of crazy-distance walking. After a few drinks we took some crazy random set of side steps up through an alley and then up another set of steps before following the road to a large open balcony. There below us were the Spanish Steps, looking over our shoulder behind us was the Trinitia dei Monti church…and momentarily we were on French soil.

And so we walked down the Spanish Steps, which were funded by the French, leading from a French church to an Italian piazza where a fountain dedicated to an ugly boat was commissioned by a Pope. Rome.

The plaza was hopping with activity as we wandered around. We didn’t manage to get into John Keats house, which is probably for the better because he owes me $50,000…but that’s another story for another time. We walked back down Via Candotti, and again it took forever, before heading back to the restaurant for dinner. This meal ended up being our worst in Italy, although I’m going to attribute that to

Via Candotti from the Trinitia dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps
Via Candotti from the Trinitia dei Monti atop the Spanish Steps

grumpiness at the end of a long day and menu selection. I ordered lamb sweetbread…which is neither sweet nor is it bread. It was a pressure decision, and it didn’t work out. There’s just something about lamb liver and pancreas lightly fried that doesn’t appeal to me. I got about halfway through the dish before my gag reflex kicked in. There was certainly a moment when I thought I was going to hurl liver chunks all over the restaurant…though I managed to keep it down. The gnocchi I had for my pasta dish was tasty though.

Our plan after dinner was to stop by the Trevi Fountain for one last good weather excursion. We threw in our coins and left…we were both in a bad mood, cranky and arguing with each other…I’m blaming the liver. Nevertheless we walked home quickly and in a huff. If you’ve ever traveled with anyone else, you’ve hit this point. Mutual exhaustion leads to mutual miscommunication and mutual annoyance. As a couple we’ve hit this point on a few different continents in more than a few different countries. And our point on this trip was now, brought on no doubt by the pressure we placed on this first day because of the weather forecast. Weather. Maybe I’ll study cloudbusting when I get home.

But 99 percent of the day was awesome;)

 

A seagull sits atop the Roman ruins
A seagull sits atop the Roman ruins
An inscription in the Roman Forum
An inscription in the Roman Forum
A message along the main road of the Roman Forum
A message along the main road of the Roman Forum
Moonrise over the Colosseum
Moonrise over the Colosseum
A wider look at the Colosseum and the moon...Apollo would be proud
A wider look at the Colosseum and the moon…Apollo would be proud
An umbrella pine tree atop Palatine Hill
An umbrella pine tree atop Palatine Hill
It's a grassy, viny hypogeum
It’s a grassy, viny hypogeum
The Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum at the opening of the Roman Forum
The Arch of Constantine next to the Colosseum at the opening of the Roman Forum

 

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Inspiring Florence on a cloudy day

Uffizi gallery

Inspiration is often fleeting…sometimes it hits you like a thunderbolt from the heavens: unexpected and with great force.

In the Uffizi courtyard
In the Uffizi courtyard

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence is shaped like a U, its open end flowing into the Piazza della Signoria. The closed end of the U is an archway leading to the Arno…but inside the U is a category 5 vortex of inspiration. The Portico degli Uffizi is the courtyard formed by the U and is guarded by statues of great Florentines either by birth or through life. There are a few names you might recognize: Amerigo Vespucci (can’t love ‘Merica without him), Leonardo da Vinci (he had a code), Dante (Hell’s a hotter place), Michaelangelo (David is a goliath because of him), Donatello (did not, in fact, carry a bo), Machiavelli (politics would be no fun without him), and Galileo (you are, in fact, not the center of the universe).

If you’re mind is not blown surrounded by this greatness….you have no mind. All of these men shaped not only the world of their time, but the world of today. In fact, I’m still sending letters of apology to the people of Florence for having defiled such great intellect with the moronic presence of the Jersey Shore cast. No, I’m really sorry about that. Really.

Before we made it to the Uffizi we had already started our day inspirationally. Our first stop was Galleria Accademia to see The David. My first time seeing David I remember being unexpectedly awe-inspiring. I went in to see what I thought would be just another statue and instead sat there in amazement at the detail and precision of the sculpture. There would be no element of surprise for this second time, but I was still in awe. To be that close to such a masterpiece and bear witness to the skill and labor that enabled its creation…it’s, well, inspiring.

After lingering we walked through the rest of the museum before grabbing some coffee. Just a heads up: there’s almost always a line, in the offseason the line’s short and fast so it’s not really worth spending the extra cash on an express ticket. Can’t say the same about the busy season. But two off-season visits I waited a combined total of 15 minutes to get in.

The Pope is in the house
The Pope is in the house

From coffee we made the call to go ahead and grab lunch, it was already midday at this point. We headed over to one of the suggestions that Nat had given us: Pizzeria Ciro and Sons. The place has a bunch of outdoor seating, but the day was cold, damp and gray. Our first bout of bad weather on this trip. So we opted to sit inside. Walking in you’re greeted by the “kitchen” of wood fired stoves. The main dining area was under a high domed ceiling that, along with the walls, was covered in heavily weathered frescoes showing the past glory of Rome. See, the restaurant was once a home. A home owned by the family of a guy named Ippolito Aldobrandini who would go on to be a cardinal in the Catholic Church before changing his name to Clement VIII…as in Pope Clement VIII. And now we were eating pizza in his house…Italy…

By the way the pizza was delicious. Lauren pronounced it the best she’s ever had. I’ll give it a pretty damn good rating…I mean it was holy pizza. With lunch just finished it was time to start thinking about dinner.  Lauren was particularly excited about one suggestion that Nat had made, a small family operation adjacent to Signoria. We stopped by to make a reservation on our way to the Uffizi…key, for reasons to be explained.

If I ever started an Italian hip-hop group it'd be called: Statues and Frescoes
If I ever started an Italian hip-hop group it’d be called: Statues and Frescoes
The Vasari Corridor, because walking outside is sooo unbecoming
The Vasari Corridor, because walking outside is sooo unbecoming

My last time through Florence I didn’t make it into the Uffizi, an omission I always regretted. So this time there was no way it wasn’t happening again. Further…the gloom of the day was perfect museum weather. The gallery is extensive, think of it as the massive attic collection of the Medici family. If you’re not sure who the Medici are just think something…go ahead, think something…anything. Now you know who the Medici are, seeing as they’re largely responsible for modern thought. It was through their patronage that the Italian Renaissance was born and flourished. PBS probably put it best, calling them the Godfathers of the Renaissance in their tremendous four piece series on the family.

So there you have it. A family with power and cash and an urge to show off that power and cash. What better way to do that than to collect the art of the known world while commissioning the greatest artists alive to create new pieces. And now we wait in line 500 years later to see what they made. Our line was short…if you come in the high season book in advance or face lines up to 5 hours long.

The main corridor of the gallery is lined with statues from ancient Rome and the Renaissance and frescoes line the ceiling from end to end, a distance I’d estimate to be about four city blocks. There are 45 rooms, each showcasing incredible art…pieces like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus da Vinci’s Annunciation and Tiziano’s Venus of Urbana not to mention works by Michaelangelo, Carveggio, Rembrandt and Ruebens. Oh, also there are somewhere between 3,000 and a million works depicting the Madonna and her Child…no disrespect to the Mother Mary or Jesus Christ, but that’s one theme that gets a bit old. With that said, there are interesting tidbits to find in some of these pieces, little notes of rebellion against a Church that forced artists to submit to its despotic ways.

The end of the first gallery overlooks the Arno, which even in the murkiness of February effuses with inspirational waters. We spent somewhere between three and four hours in the gallery, and only scratched the surface. I mean we didn’t even make it into the famed Vasari Corridor with another KILOMETER of art stretched along the secret passage built for the Medici to walk from the Pitti Palace through Ponte Vecchio to the Uffizi. That’s something you have to book well in advance and, even at that, be lucky. By the way, I love that they measure their art in Italy by the kilometer.

In reflection...I was there
In reflection…I was there

We walked up to the rooftop balcony overlooking Signoria…and even with low clouds and chilly temps the view is astounding. As is the perspective, think of the people who have stood here and down below. Think about what happened here. Think about the modern Western World starting right here, at this spot. This is why I love Florence.

Leaving the gallery we went on something of an expedition, Lauren spotted a piece of pottery in a storefront on our first night and she wanted to go buy it. We crossed Ponte Vecchio exposed to the elements instead of in the comfort of the Vasari Corridor and found the storefront. Closed. But Lauren wasn’t giving up. We dove into the narrow alley of shops next to this storefront and found a collection of little pottery shops. While Lauren shopped I stood outside taking things in. There was a bank of mailboxes for the occupants of the apartments and stores. Average enough. Then I looked above the mailboxes to a tile with a passage written in Italian…I noted two phrases: immortali di storia florentina and in quest casa dei macchiavelli. I took two years of latin high school, and just enough stuck with me here to know that said: “the immortal history of Florence” and “in this house Macchiavelli” deductive reasoning allowed me to grasp that I was standing at the mailbox of Machiavelli, the masterly and dastardly skilled political advisor.

Something to the effect of the ends justifying the means
Something to the effect of the ends justifying the means

And someone who’s works I’ve studied extensively, he’s known for The Prince but it’s his Discourses that really teach. And here I stood where he once worked. Today it’s just a simple collection of shops and apartments. I took a picture of the tile and translated it, this place had been reconstructed…but still. Alleys in Italy.

From what I understood of the translation, the original had been destroyed in total war…as in World War II, which leads to an interesting point as we cross Ponte Vecchio. You see, there is this wonderfully sensational rumor that I’ve heard a few times regarding this old bridge. They say that as the Nazis retreated across the Arno that Hitler ordered all bridges destroyed…except…Ponte Vecchio, because he loved it. I had heard that story a few times during my previous visit to Florence, and I only bring it up here to say I’ve never been able to confirm it. These sort of rumors tend to have a way of propagating and becoming truth simply by repetition. Being a former tour guide I’ve heard more lies come out of the mouths of my colleagues than any politician. And nearly 100 percent of them unintentional. I know I stand guilty of this. It happens easily enough, someone trains you, you trust them and their information, they say something interesting…you say “that sounds interesting!” you note it and add it to your spiel and never think to check up on the fact. So it goes, the unofficial history of the world. I don’t say this to bag on guides, you’ll usually learn more from them than doing something on your own…but always keep a bit of cautious skepticism in your travel arsenal.

We went back to the hotel and cleaned up before dinner. I think at this point we were both a little tired and grumpy…but dinner would change that.

Just a little bit of Madonna
Just a little bit of Madonna

The place is called Osteria Vini e Vecchi Sapori, calling it a restaurant is generous. They only have seating for 18, so really it’s as if you’re at somebody’s house for dinner. To make things even more rich, it’s run by a family. One son cooks with the mama while another son waits tables and the father tends bar. We were seated at a table of four, but it wasn’t the two of us for long. About 15 minutes after we sat down another man came in and sat himself at our table. He was clearly a regular, bantering with the family before finally settling in with a biography of Andre Agassi and a glass of prosecco.

The menu was handwritten…in Italian…no translation. We stared blankly at it, recognizing a few words and getting ready to order based on those few words. But fear not, for the waiter son, Tommaso (who looks like he’d do very well in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood) knelt down at our table and translated the entire menu, offering advice and warnings. We started with prosecco and switched to wine, both flowed freely and often. Our first course was a Caprise salad that, if I could recreate and sell, would make me a wealthy man. The pasta course brought rabbit ragu pappardelle for Lauren and ravioli stuffed with butter and sage for me. The main was fried beef with tomato for Lauren and beef stew for me. Every bite was amazing. The stew was so thick as to be served in a clump on a plate rather than in a bowl. We cleaned our plates and downed a few more glasses of wine, which were filled by Tommaso once they were a quarter full. Eventually the man reading Agassi was joined by his wife. Between each course was a break, a chance to breath and take in the atmosphere. The restaurant was full now, with people waiting outside. The walls decorated with wine bottles and a massive wooden chianti vat cut in half  and covered in postcards from around the world and homages to Madonna, the singer not the Mary.

We were told not to leave without trying the raspberry tiramisu. When Tommaso asked us about desert, we said two please…he looked at us:

“No, are you sure you want two? Are you not full?”

I couldn’t tell if he was offended by our sweet ambition.

“No, we are full…but we heard amazing things.”

“Ok, I will bring you one…then if you want another I will bring you another.”

I’ve waited a lot of tables in America…and at every place I was urged to upsell at every chance possible. I’ve never come across a server in America that would say something like Tommaso. For him, it was about really taking care of us over making a few more euros off an extra dish that might be wasted.

The tiramisu was gone in less than thirty seconds…it was that delicious. And we are that disgusting. We ordered another, Tommaso laughed. And we killed that second one as well. I still want more.

The bill came, it would be the cheapest meal of the trip. It was also the best.

We walked through Palazzo Signoria, meandering through the streets taking our time on our last night in Firenze…inspired by the incredibly lit palaces, and the shops sporting world-class fashions. We were inspired by a divinely delicious meal and an incredible show of hospitality. We were inspired by the voluminous history of this place and the enormous pride of its residents. We walked home that night inspired by our surroundings, inspired by life…inspired by travel.

In the waiting line...
In the waiting line…
Roadpaint without the paint
Roadpaint without the paint
Lauren's always posing
Lauren’s always posing
The bar...with a few legs of meat just hanging out
The bar…with a few legs of meat just hanging out
At home this bike would already be stolen
At home this bike would already be stolen
David and his shadow
David and his shadow

 

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So. Much. Food.

Florence 1_ME

About 500 years ago.

That was our joke by this point in the trip…that just about every story starts, “About 500 years ago…” if not a thousand years ago. Italy’s history is immense, complicated and…well…overwhelming. I like to have a mastery of the history of a place I visit. And on my second time through Italy, I still feel like I’m scratching the surface.

And through the day my comprehension would come into sharper focus…because of food.

I had booked a food tour through Florence as a surprise for Lauren with an outfit called Florence for Foodies.

Lauren posing
Lauren posing

I was a little apprehensive about devoting half a day to food…but this is Italy, no, this is Tuscany. Let me say this quickly: before attending a food tour…don’t eat. We had a quick breakfast at a cafe around the corner from our B&B, it was good but not as good as what were about to spend the next four hours consuming.

On the steps of San Lorenzo we met our guide Nat. That’s when she told us there would only be two other people joining us…awesome news. I hate being among big gaggles of tourists jockeying for the best spots to take a picture or get a bite or hear. After a few minutes the other two showed up, a couple from Hong Kong Chris and Sandy. They were about our age, and very excited to be on the tour.

Nat started us out at a cafe, she sat us down and explained the rules of coffee in Italy. I don’t know if it was quite a “Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus” moment…but it was pretty close (remember what I said about coffee being a religious experience in Italy). She explained why coffee to-go is a horrible thing, how the barista takes great care in the creation of the experience, from warming the cup atop the machines to taking the time to properly grind the beans and measure the ingredients to creating little pieces of art atop the finished product. Obviously every coffee house in Italy isn’t going to take this great care, but I can tell you more do than don’t.

We continued onto the market up the street. We grabbed these sandwiches called bollito: they were ridiculous. Veal and cheese and secret sauce and more secret sauce, both of which were spicy served on “Roman” bread. The market reminded me of Reading Terminal in Philly. And I suppose at the very surface level that can be attributed to Philly’s very Italian heritage. But I digress, the sandwich was great. I ate two. I would’ve eaten five were it not for our ill-thought out pre-breakfast breakfast.

We moved through the marketplace sampling cheeses and meats as we went. I believe I had my first taste of pecorino (it’s sheep cheese) and now I’m addicted. Except it’s expensive in the States…we need more sheep. To be honest there were a lot of things along the way I’d never tasted, and probably wouldn’t have had I not been on this tour.

Meat!
Meat!
A Twilight-free zone
A Twilight-free zone
Balsamic...balsamic and more balsamic
Balsamic…balsamic and more balsamic
Little bites of delicious
Little bites of delicious

Eating is a necessary component to travel. I’ve never understood how people get on a plane, fly a dozen hours and then eat exactly what they would at home…or complain when they can’t eat like they do at home. And before you say that doesn’t happen I can bring up hundreds of examples during my time with Contiki.

And Nat did a fabulous job of explaining the historical context of what we were eating…like why Tuscan bread was so bland: blame Pisa. The need for prosciutto: blame Pisa. The same goes for Ribollita: blame Pisa. Or why olive oil tastes different in Italy: it’s not pasteurized…probably Pisa’s fault. Clearly Florentines hate on Pisa like Washingtonians and Philadelphians hate on Dallas.

Oh…and by the way we were washing everything down with wine. We sat down at one of the counters in the market and tried nearly a dozen different varieties of balsamic so we could taste the evolution in aging. We did the same thing with olive oil, although they are better in reverse: balsamic is better with age, olive oil is better with youth. Before this experience I shunned balsamic, but I walked away enjoying it. And to taste a fresh olive oil endowed upon me an appreciation for why this ingredient is the centerpiece of so many Italian dishes. The freshest bottle we sampled tasted like the Tuscan hills on a fresh summer afternoon, if I close my eyes I can see that taste.

And it seemed like everything had a bit of truffle in it. I don’t like truffles, call my palate unrefined if you will, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the taste of a sweaty sock found on the floor of a Metro train. Nonetheless, I sampled and sampled and sampled. Truffle infused honey…bruschetta with truffle…truffle infused spice mix…balsamic and truffle. On the other end of the spectrum Chris was rapturously consuming every bit of truffle he could get his hands on. With every bite he closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, probably trying to wash the flavor over every taste bud in his mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy food that much.

Into the wine cellar
Into the wine cellar

Moving on from the market things got serious. We went to a wine bar called Zanobini, which looks a lot like a bottle shop…except: there is one counter about four feet long as soon as you walk in. The floor is worn showing where patrons stand throughout the day. It’s the sort of place that you nip into between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner to have a glass of wine and socialize…or in the case of the guy sitting in the only chair, to stay from breakfast to dinner and drink several glasses of wine: such is the Italian way, such is the Tuscan way.

The black rooster...the one that won I suppose
The black rooster…the one that won I suppose

The owner of the place welcomed us in, and explained the history while offering up a toast of prosecco…I love prosecco.  That’s probably why I can’t remember the history of the place, the prosecco or probably the grappa spray…yeah…it was probably the grappa spray. From what I remember the wine bar was a prison cell some 500 years ago (roundabout) and a guy who opposed the Medici family was imprisoned here for plotting to kill them, or maybe tickle them…I can’t be sure…grappa. At some point a black rooster fought another black rooster from Siena to set the border between the two regions…grappa. In the basement of this wine bar was the wine cellar, amazing I know. The room smelled musty and old and haunted. We drank before heading back into the proper wine bar, and then it was grappa time.

Wait, what it this grappa you speak of?? Well I’m so glad you asked…it’s like killer death spray. It’s the alcohol of grapes taken past the point of wine, way past. It’s like 60 percent alcohol and it’s used as a “pick-me-up” for Tuscans in the afternoon or morning. But you don’t drink it, and you don’t inhale it…you do something in between. Grappa is sprayed from what looks like a perfume bottle onto your tongue, and let’s just say there’s a bit of a shock to the system.

Everyone took their sprays, and we were all happier having done it. We went from there to wrap up with some gelato. And yet another mystery was resolved: how can you tell good gelato from bad. Nat walked us by the Duomo and outside one of the gelatories (?), there she gave us a lesson. If the gelato is on display it is no good, they want to bring you in with the colors not the taste. Those who make superb gelato do so fresh every day, and to keep it fresh they don’t display it to the open air. They are confident enough in the taste to keep it out of view. I wish I could remember the name of the place she took us to, but…grappa.

The tour ended at the gelato place, but Nat took the time to give us a list of restaurants to check out through the remainder of our time in Florence. One of those recommendations ended up being the best meal we had in Italy…but more on that later.

A Duomo shadow
A Duomo shadow
Soaking in the Tuscan sun
Soaking in the Tuscan sun
The Florentine skyline
The Florentine skyline

We made our way back to the Duomo…the weather again was superb: mid-50’s and sunny. Great for February. My last swing through Florence took me into the Duomo, but not on the Duomo. So we bought our ticket and walked the 463 steps to the cupola. Little windows brought fresh air into the ancient stairway and breathtaking peaks at the Florentine skyline. Atop the view is truly astounding. Present-me was momentarily angry with four-years-ago-me for not taking this climb last time. Spread before us was a sea of rust-colored roof tiles soaking in the soft rays of the waning afternoon sun. Streets appeared as capillaries instead of the broad veins of North American cities. The Tuscan hills hugging this enclave that would produce the next evolutionary leap in human thought to catapult us from the dark ages into discovery. If you are not moved by such a site I implore you to burn your passport and never leave home again.

We lingered letting the afternoon continue its course as we took photos, and then eventually descended the steps back to ground level. After a quick stop at our hotel to make a reservation for dinner we walked towards the Piazziale Michelangelo for the sunset. This involved more steps and a lot more walking. I stopped feeling guilty for not running while on vacation.

The wide view of Piazzelle Michelangelo
The wide view of Piazzelle Michelangelo

The vista was terrific with the whole of Florence sprawled out before us as the encroaching night gave the skyline new character and depth. The winds whipped up the Arno and the temperature dropped, but again I was lost in the view. A bit of advice here: even on this chilly evening there were a lot of people at the park…if it’s nice and you want a good spot show up well before sunset. There are vendors selling snacks and drinks up there.

We walked down from the hill along the now dark Arno, it just seemed that every corner of the city was beautiful. My love of Florence was again justified and overflowing.

Getting to the restaurant proved to be a challenge as navigator Lauren led us to Pizza San Spirito instead of Via Santo Spirito. In her defense Spirito was in both. This is where I turn into a whiny bitch…no more grappa. I had been carrying my camera gear around through the day and wearing bad shoes for all the walking. I was tired and sore and lost. We found our way back to the river and then honed in on the street (which by the way is only named Santo Spirito for like a block).

We got to the restaurant, Il Santo Bevitore, before it even opened…many restaurants in Italy open for dinner at 7:30pm. Another reason I love the place, eating late into the evening is very much my style. The restaurant’s atmosphere was romantic and traditional with hundreds of bottles of wine adorning the walls…and the place was busy, make reservations. The meal was another show-stopper with a course of a traditional bean soup, followed by a pasta course of ravioli stuffed with basil and pecorino and finally more steak. I could be more specific, but Lauren’s the food writer…I just eat the stuff. And stuffed I was, after yet another long meal at the end of a long day of eating and walking and eating and walking and eating and walking.

We made our way home we wandered through the arch of Piazza della Republica and onward back towards the Duomo before calling it a day. A full, full day.

A dimming Duomo
A dimming Duomo
Ponte Vecchio and the Arno
Ponte Vecchio and the Arno
Towards Uffizi
Towards Uffizi
Doumo alit
Doumo alit
David...but not David
David…but not David
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Speeding into the Renaissance at 150 mph

Florence_0181

Sometimes I really hate travel. I don’t hate the drama and the discomfort and the unfamiliarity. I hate falling in love with places…and then breaking my own heart as I leave. It’s a strange phenomenon, one I know all too well.

I purposely set our train to leave midday from Venice with the idea that we’d have a bonus morning to check out anything that might have been overlooked. But in fact, it only turned out to be another wander. I know there are readers out there who will cringe when I say this: Venice is all about the wander. Yes, great museums and restaurants and churches and towers and cafes and palaces are plentiful in this city of islands. But its character is in the walk.

Colorful peppers
Colorful peppers
This just makes me want to be a vegetarian
This just makes me want to be a vegetarian

We crossed the Rialto Bridge again heading over to the markets…and we found them…in the Lost Square! What was empty space the previous days was now kiosks full of fruit and vegetables and storefronts with freshly butchered meat hanging. It was a scene for the senses, with captivating smells and sights and textures everywhere. We spent some time walking through the markets, watching the traffic of the Grand Canal cut through the brilliant morning air. The sun, fresh for the day, brought out the colors of the mansions and palaces and hotels hanging over the canal…it’s waters reflecting that crayola creation aqua-marine.

Horsemeat anyone?? Strange...now I want a nachos belgrande.
Horsemeat anyone?? Strange…now I want a nachos belgrande.

It was a scene I just wanted to put on a movie screen and show everyone in the world.

After a couple of laps, and Lauren posing outside a shop that apparently specialized in butchered horse meat (I couldn’t find the Taco Bell sign), we settled into a little cafe. My morning coffee routine is important…very very important. The odd thing is my addiction to caffeine only started four years ago, and not for taste…but truly for the benefits of the drug. It gets tiring to take Australians out every night of your life followed by early wake-up calls. Coffee became an occupational necessity.

Some morning coffee
Some morning coffee

I point this out because the last time I was in Italy, I had yet to develop this delicious addiction. And now my morning coffee in Italy is not just a necessity…it’s a religious experience. Italy has ruined coffee in America for me. For us it’s utilitarian: on the go, mass-produced, ancillary. For them it experiential: on the slow, carefully crafted, communally central. There’s no sleeve on your cup to stop you from getting burned…because there’s no cup you can take with you. You sit there at the coffee bar and you drink, surrounded by patrons talking incessantly and animatedly about who knows what (I really should’ve learned Italian). I know at any one of the 16 Starbucks within a block of my apartment talking above the looping Josh Groban album is highly discouraged. As is loitering unless you’re retired, homeless or in a meeting because your non-profit doesn’t have meeting space.

I’m struggling to go back to that.

And so we sat, enjoying our morning coffee, enjoying each other and enjoying everything around us. We stopped in a few shops along the way…but generally we just walked around. Enjoying another day of wonderful weather. We lingered, walking slowly back to the hotel. Neither of us wanting to leave Venice.

We grabbed our bags and walked the 200 feet to the vaporetti (on our way in we walked like two miles) and boarded for the last trip down the Grand Canal. 15 minutes later we were back at the train station. Naturally we were early (I say naturally for Lauren’s sake…if it were up to me we’d get there within 60 seconds of departure) and so we sat on the steps of the train station soaking in the sun watching Venice sail back and forth along the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

Back on the train, I felt better about sleeping the entirety of the trip up. Because the train follows the exact path from Venice to Florence as we did from Rome to Venice. Not that you get a feel for the countryside at 150 mph but it’s remarkable to watch everything zoom by. Also the train was almost empty until we got to Bologna..and even then it was only about 75 percent full. This is probably a good chance to plug a great blog I’ve used for the last five years or so when it comes to planning train trips: seat61.com. I’ve followed this guy’s advice in the UK, US, South Africa and Italy and he’s never steered me wrong. And if you’re not using trains while traveling abroad…you’re not really traveling;)

Getting into Florence reveals the bad side of train travel. You don’t exactly see the most glamorous side of a city first. So it goes in Florence, lots of graffiti and dilapidated apartment blocks. Even the train station is an odd shell of a building with a bizarre hybrid of brutalist and art deco design elements.

And then you walk out of the train station.

And there Florence opens her arms to you. Gorgeous and cobblestoned. (Yet another Italian city not made for rolling luggage…what were these people thinking?!?) Walking to our hotel something felt very off-center and it took me a few blocks to recognize why I was subliminally distressed: the re-introduction of the automobile. It’s noise and it’s speed and it’s smells. I’m certainly biased, I think urban cores should be limited to automobile access, but after a few days without seeing a single car it’s a bit of a shock to the system to be surrounded by them.

The Doumo
The Doumo

Florence is orders of magnitude easier to navigate than Venice and within minutes we were at our hotel. But I didn’t really believe it was our hotel. We were staring at two massive wooden doors with heavy brass rings as door handles. Behind us, about 100 steps away was the entrance to the Duomo. Score.

After being buzzed in Lauren got her workout of the day trying to open the mammoth doors. We scrunched into a tiny elevator that occupied the space between a square spiraling staircase. Getting out onto the third floor we attempted to check in. This place is a bed and breakfast, technically, built into an ancient palace. The staff is limited, and as we tried to check in the poor woman manning the desk was assaulted by a phone that rang every thirty seconds. Eventually she just ignored it and showed us to our room. Massive by European standards…big by American standards. There were no frills to the room, but it was comfortable and the window opened to the dome of the Duomo. We loved it.

The moon and the Duomo
The moon and the Duomo

Both starving we dropped our stuff and exploded into the crowds of tourists clumped together gawking at the Duomo. We settled on the first pizza place we could find…not bad…super touristy, we ate in the basement seating area surrounded by the signatures and catchphrases of people who had visited in the past.

“John 6/29/10 from North Carolina”

“Bec…Aussie, Aussie, Aussie…Aug. 2009”

“Gag…me…2/2013”

I didn’t sign. There were no signatures pre-dating 2008…I didn’t want to be erased. We walked on down to the Piazza della Signoria. My last time through Italy I found Florence to be my favorite city…and I was anxious to see if that feeling was justified. We walked under the Uffizi Gallery and along the Arno before crossing the Ponte Vecchio. And now I was on new territory…I didn’t cross the bridge on my last trip.

For whatever reason I expected Florence to be warmer than Venice. That was not even slightly the case. Crossing Ponte Vecchio the wind whipped through the spaces between gold and jewelry stores and chilled me to my bone. Naturally, I craved gelato. We stopped, gobbled some

The Arno in the waning light
The Arno in the waning light

more down and kept walking, before finally settling on the sun-soaked hillside in front of Palazzo Pitti. We sat here for a while…there was no real purpose to the walk aside from getting the lay of the land. Now I just wanted to warm up in the sunshine until it dipped below the horizon.

We got a good tip on a restaurant and so we decided to swing by to make a reservation…and after we stopped in a random coffee shop, that was also bar and ordered drinks to warm up. It was just going to be one drink, but then we discovered the free wi-fi. Up to this point in time we had kept the engagement to ourselves. Now we reached out to our friends and families. Lauren sent out some emails and posted to Facebook (it’s not official until it’s on the FB) while we got drunk in a bar decorated in American license plates and playing music videos from 1983. It was awesomely weird.

After a quick hotel stop we doubled back to the restaurant…both thinking we were on our way to something truly Florentian and slightly off the track. Open the door, and every table is full, thanks to a couple of busloads of Japanese tourists. Definitely very much on the track.

Whatever. It was delicious. The place is called L’Osteria di Giovanni. We drank and we ate…then drank some more and ate some more. In total the meal lasted almost two hours. (Vegetarians close your ears) I had a steak that was close to one of the best I’ve ever had. Medium-rare with proper coloration but no blood…apparently they hang the beef draining it before cooking. But it was still amazingly juicy and tender. After more wine we paid and left.

Walking along the late-night streets of Florence as the college kids headed out in packs we were driven to stop in one more bar for a final drink…another American bar…WTF!? Seriously, just randomly chosen by the fates. After a final beer, as Lauren checked back in on email, we made our way past the shining Duomo and back into the hotel. The pain of leaving Venice now replaced by the joy of being in Florence.

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Venice is Italian for Lost…fact!

Venice_0223

Sometimes I’m a little…shall we say…overzealous when it comes to planning out holidays. I want to see and do as much as possible in the window of time I have in any given location. Lauren tends to want to relax a little more. Quite frankly, she gets annoyed when I plan thirty activities in a day. So I really made an effort to leave a lot of flex time in this trip…once the proposal was finished, that is.

With that in mind we slept in a bit our second day in Venice. Sure there’s an amazing amount to see, but jetlag’s a real bitch sometimes…like when you stay up for 30 hours straight.

One of the last wide-shots
One of the last wide-shots

Walking back into the streets of Venice is a jolt back to time and place. The streets are busy, but not in that bad way. No cars means no honking horns, bad drivers with Maryland license plates or choking exhaust. That in itself is relaxing.

Also on this trip I don’t think either of us were worried about being super-touristy. There’s always this absurd pressure to stray off the beaten path…but in a city as ancient as Venice pretty much every path is beaten to a pulp. So we headed straight back to St. Marks and grabbed a table in the sun at one of the extraordinarily over-priced cafes. We knew it was over-priced but we didn’t care…call it an experience tax. Sometimes you do things in places because they’re meant to be done there. And so we sat in the sun and watched as people posed for pictures and fed the pigeons and kissed and argued. The bells of St Marks chimed and chimed and chimed again. And we just sat, enjoying the scene and enjoying the moment.

Don't feed the birds!
Don’t feed the birds!

Eventually we crossed the square to Caffe Florian, touted as the oldest cafe in Italy it deserves a stop in. Nevermind this would be like my ninth cup of coffee. (We’ll talk about coffee later.) The place is worn, in that gilded Venetian way. There are several rooms, each gaudy with some sort of theme or fresco. One of the rooms had a bunch of photos showing Italian troops staging in St. Marks Square during WWII, it was oddly creepy.

We kept it simple and sat at the bar. We probably would’ve started out over here but the seats outside were well in the shade. Nonetheless it was a quick drink and a nice little experience before moving on.

The obligatory Rialto Bridge self-portrait!
The obligatory Rialto Bridge self-portrait!

It was safely lunch time so we headed back towards a restaurant I had tried to get into the last time I was in Venice…that time it was closed. There was no urgency, so we took our time…stopping for gelato 11 or 12 times. Lauren paid too much for a purse. We checked out a few glass shops. And posed for photos atop the Rialto Bridge before finally trying to find this restaurant called All’ Arco. It’s easy to feel like a rat in a maze in Venice…and sometimes I feel like humans have been lured to this amazing place by a superior species just so they could watch us wander lost. And wander we did.

I never get lost…I know that’s a very male thing to say…but it’s true. Getting lost is Lauren’s realm. So after the third time walking down the same street I was genuinely confounded. What’s more we kept ending up in the same nameless square. We came to call it Lost Square, because inevitably whenever we were lost we ended up there. It was like one of those levels in Zelda back in the day that just kept spitting you out in the same random spot ten screens across Hyrule from the level you needed to be in…9-year-old me didn’t realize it was simply training for navigating Venice.

Eventually, through painstaking calculations based on gravitational and celestial observations we ended up at the restaurant…closed…Ganon always wins…

At this point we were both starving, and seeing as we now had a good tour of the neighborhood we settled for a little pizzeria that we had passed up 6 or 7 times. It was delicious, and I was only slightly bummed at having missed out on the other restaurant.

It was late afternoon by this point, so we stopped by the hotel to plan out the evening. We made reservations at a restaurant recommended by the front desk clerk and bought tickets for a Vivaldi concert after. With a quick stop by the room we were back out and towards St. Marks to get some photos as the sun set.

Sunsetting from the palace
Sunsetting from the palace

I was setting up a shot on my tripod under the Doge’s Palace when, as I reached into my bag for another lens, the camera toppled over onto the marble ground. I really couldn’t believe it…when I set up the tripod I forgot to secure one of the leg and gravity did the rest of the nasty work. The camera was fine…the lens, not so much. The focus ring was busted…this is the third 10-20mm lens I’ve broken. It’s just a bad luck lens. But perhaps the only saving grace: although I couldn’t focus, the lens was locked into a pretty neutral position so I could use it and maybe, just maybe get the photo I wanted. Otherwise, I had two other lenses and another camera with me.

We walked around separately taking photos and taking in the scene as the sun dropped. Another gorgeous scene, another time I wish I was a much better photographer. I’m sure not breaking lenses is a good first step in that endeavor.

St. Marks at night
St. Marks at night

As the night sky took hold we crossed the square again taking a few nightshots as the street-peddlers changed from selling roses and t-shirts to glow-in-the-dark-flicky-helicopter-thingys. We got lost on the way back to the hotel, drank some more coffee and Bellinis and then found ourselves.

After a quick change it was onto the restaurant, which was just around the corner from where we ate the night before…brimming with navigational hubris we set out sans map. And got lost. After asking directions a few dozen times we eventually found the restaurant, a small ancient little place. We were the only guests for the first half of the meal, which was a little awkward as our waitress just kind of stared at us while we ate. It was a romantic enough place, not nearly as good as the night before…but it fit the bill.

Lobster linguini
Lobster linguini

After a bottle of wine or two and a healthy portion of lobster linguine we left for the concert. It was another crisp, cool evening with a spectacular sky. The concert hall was actually a church…not a church of any special note but still more ornate than most in the U.S. The hall was clearly a multi-purpose room, but decked out with ancient frescoes and ornate wall fixtures.

The performers, all women at first, wore the hoop skirts and corsets and powdered wigs of the 18th century style. Eventually a man emerged to play the lead…presumably the role of Vivaldi. The concert was fantastic, and about two hours in total with an intermission. Just another little reminder of the terrific incubator of talent and creativity that this lagoon has been for a millennium and a half. A little touristy…maybe…but again travel is about cultural immersion…and sometimes that means walking among the masses.

And with the Four Seasons ringing in our heads we capped off another wonderfully romantic Venetian night with drinks before not getting lost on our way back to the hotel.

That's Vivaldi...looks good for being a few centuries old
That’s Vivaldi…looks good for being a few centuries old
I just can't figure out why that dress went out of style
I just can’t figure out why that dress went out of style
Multi-purpose room frescos
Multi-purpose room frescos
Bridge at night
Bridge at night
Paddle away
Paddle away
Near moon
Near moon
Gondolas resting for the day
Gondolas resting for the day
It's a glassy place
It’s a glassy place

 

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The One Time We Went To Italy and Got Engaged

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I’m sitting behind a pair of women who have had enough to drink that they spent the first hour of this flight violently convulsing in laughter while watching Mike and Molly…thankfully they have passed out, and the seat of the woman in front of me is broken, which means she can’t completely recline. I know I’m in the minority here, but reclining chairs in coach should be banned.
I say this as Lauren is reclined and sound asleep. And thanks to a sleeping pill and a glass of wine her face is pressed up against the bulkhead of the plane with her mouth half-open. I probably should’ve followed her example…but I’m too nervous to sleep.
The fist part of my plan was a success, getting the ring, making Lauren think that going to Italy was her idea…and organizing everything in Italy for the next 10 days. Getting through security at Dulles was a bit nerve-racking. I had the ring in my camera bag and I didn’t want Lauren to know it even existed. My plan was to “accidentally” end up in a different security checkpoint line, but Lauren thwarted that. As a backup I had attached a note to the ringbox that read: “Engagement ring be discreet!”
The last thing I needed was some TSA guy holding the thing up and asking me what’s in the box as Lauren looks over my shoulder. That would’ve been romantic…somewhere between the body scanner and the conveyor belt. But alas they didn’t even check.
On our way
On our way
The flight tracker on the chair in front of me says we have about 4 hours and 46 minutes until we land in Rome. It’ll be my second trip to Italy and Lauren’s first…odd considering the motley collection of countries she already has under her belt. I’m excited to get back and spend more time in three amazing cities: Venice, Florence and Rome. Although I really wish I had learned some useful Italian…
The flight is dark as we cross the North Atlantic…but I can’t sleep. This is going to be a long, long day. Lauren’s still out cold…she has no idea what’s coming.

Getting around Italy is incredibly easy…trains connect most major and medium-sized cities, and there are ways to get everywhere in between. From the airport we took the Leonardo Express to Roma Termini…and cue the first major hiccup of the trip. I booked our Trenitalia tickets before leaving and uploaded what I thought to be all the pertinent information into this new travel app (Tripit=awesome). Well…it turns out I didn’t include all of the important information.There’s

A bird's eye view of the itinerary
A bird’s eye view of the itinerary

a six character booking code called the PNR, it’s something I shouldn’t have missed.

We were a little over an hour early into Roma Termini. I figured we could transfer the tickets for an earlier train and get an extra hour in Venice. Instead I needed that extra time to find the stupid PNR. I tried just working with customer service…not even a little luck there. The woman said, “no PNR no ticket”…that was apparently all the english she could speak. I tried to pull up some wireless, I knew I had the ticket in a folder in my email. No wireless. Now Lauren, grumpy and lacking in sleep, started to give me the “I’m going to punch you in the face” face. I told her to watch the bags…I was going on an Internet mission. I walk outside the station, and given the relative stress of the situation I just had to smile looking down the long Roman street. We are in Italy.

I saw a McDonalds…now before you panic about me eating at a Mickey D’s in Italia…take a deep breath and count to three. When you travel enough you know there are certain spots the world over where you can bank on free wi-fi, and McDonalds is one of those places. And sure enough…wi-fi. Aaah, but that would be too easy. You see, Italian law has changed since the last time I was here: for what’s being touted as an anti-terrorism law you must have either an Italian sim card or specific authorization from the wifi provider to get access to the free networks. Mind you they didn’t even check our passports as we entered the country. So these anti-terrorism claims are specious at best.

So I walk back into the street…play frogger through some Vespas and Fiats and cross the street to an Internet cafe. These places are always shady…I’m not sure why. I walk in, get a computer, spend all of 90 seconds opening my email, pull up the ticket, take a picture and close the browser. It cost 50 cents. I don’t have cash, they don’t take cards. They have two dozen machines in the room linked to all the information networks around the globe…but they can’t take a card, even for the meager sum of 50 cents. Instead I get a lecture about “thinking” before being waved off into the street.
I meet back with Lauren, and with plenty of time to spare. Starting a trip with bad karma is tops in the “Don’t travel this way!” handbook, so I grab a euro off Lauren, played Vespa frogger again and pay the Internet guy.
All is right with the world.
Bridges with stairs and boats
Bridges with stairs and boats
Once on the train it’s clear this will be an easy trip. Trenitalia trains are spacious and clean…and fast. Also there’s plenty of room to stretch. It’s so much better than the cramped conditions on the plane. And it’s cheap. I’ve never understood the economics of train travel in the States. But if it were this cheap at home I’d ride the train a lot more. Same goes if we actually had high-speed rail outside the Northeast Corridor.
Suffice it to say, the conditions were ripe for full black out mode. No sleep on the flight and comfortable seats on a gently rocking train puts us both out cold within minutes. I woke up intermittently just to note how beautifully Italian the countryside was…and then my eyelids lost the battle with gravity. Before I knew it we are crossing the lagoon to Venezia!
Disembarking from the train…SNAFU #2: instead of walking out the main entrance we took some weird side route, missing the information kiosk where we could have bought some tickets on the vaporetti(the public water buses) that would have taken us within a block of our hotel. We wander lost for a moment, consider a 50 euro water taxi before finally deciding to just walk.
In Venice walking with baggage is a mistake. There are countless bridges, and all of them come with stairs. When the city rose from the lagoon 1500 years ago I really wish they had the foresight to know that tourists would be lugging wheeled luggage everywhere…it was a long journey, but my forearms are huge right now.
Walking into our hotel a tinge of adrenaline shoots into my veins. Zero hour is approaching and I was really hoping the hotel would live up to the recommendations. The Hotel a La Commedia is nice, modern but classical.  The front desk clerk announces we’ve been upgraded to a larger room and lists the amenities before popping the question:
“Do you want a gondola ride…if so we can arrange one with other guests, it is cheaper that way?”
Nooooooooooo!
“We’ll talk about it,” I say.
We get into the room. It’s spacious. The bathroom is a cave of marble and gilded trimming. I really just considered staying in the bathroom, it’s gorgeous.
“Oh, I need to head back to the front desk, I forgot to ask something,” I said. Lauren just looked confused. I run back downstairs and grab the attention of the front desk clerk.
“OK…I couldn’t say this before but I should have a gondola ride already booked for tonight. I’m going to propose…gratzi” My liberal use of the word gratzi underscores my mastery of the Italian language.
“Aah, si si. 7:00 tonight. Meet here in the lobby.”
I run back upstairs.
“Oh while I was down there I went ahead and booked a gondola for tonight!” My plan was working.
After a quick clean up we headed out to take in la Serenissima…without 50 pounds of luggage in tow. From the hotel it’s a short walk to St. Marks Square.St. Marks Emerging from the narrow streets into that great open space is nothing short of breathtaking. Lauren got a bit emotional, she’s dreamed her entire life of making it to Italy…and this was the precise moment she fully arrived. The square swallows you whole, both temporally and spatially. For centuries this has been the epicenter of one of the great cultural collections of man. It was one of the first test tubes of democracy. It served as a crossroad to the world in the age of sails and played a central role in the development of a Western identity. For all of this it seems surreal, almost make-believe…as though it was perhaps built originally by a time-travelling Sheldon Adelson just so he could have inspiration for his grand casinos in Las Vegas and Macau (but then I realize if Sheldon Adelson could time travel he probably wouldn’t have given all that money to Newt and Mitt). This is what Venice does so well, it recognizes its history without bastardizing it. It would be easy for the city to become a caricature of itself, but there’s a feeling of pride amongst residents bent on not sinking below the weight of their city’s own appeal. It’s a pride that can easily enough be mistaken for arrogance.
Needless to say there are throngs of tourists. The square is the center of the tourist universe on these islands. But that goes with most places in Venice, I’ve never been here during peak season…and I can only imagine how insanely busy it must be.Venice_0454
We took a walk along the waterfront, saw the Bridge of Sighs and then did what one absolutely must do in Venice: get lost. Earlier we were lost, but that wasn’t fun thanks to the luggage. Now it was fun. Venice is an endless maze of streets and shrinking alleys and miniature walking bridges. There is no skyline to reference…just shutters and plants and clotheslines and storefronts. And the streets don’t make sense, many nameless leading to an unidentified plaza or square. But eventually, as is typical, the path leads to a familiar spot. In our case it wound back to St Marks. We snapped a few shots before heading back to our hotel…my adrenaline now really pumping. I was being quiet. Lauren thought I was upset about something.
Back at the hotel I spent the time nervously getting dressed. I waited for Lauren to hop into the bathroom, I needed to transfer the ring from my camera bag to my coat pocket. That couldn’t happen with her in the room.
“So…I’m done getting ready. The shower’s all yours…”
“I don’t think I’m going to take a shower. I’m a girl that takes time and I don’t really feel like it right now…”
“But it’s our first night in Italy, don’t you want to get all made up and wear a dress…”
“No, it’s going to be cold. I’ll be fine with a sweater and jeans. And I don’t have time. You don’t understand what it’s like to be a girl…”
“So no shower? You were on a plane for like 8 hours…”
“I’m fine.”
I had no other line of attack. Every effort I made to get Lauren out of the room failed. She was secretly sabotaging this proposal. Not to mention the conventional rules of personal hygiene. I had one last chance. Walking out of the room and down the stairs I reached into my pocket and pulled out my house keys.
“Damn….I forgot these were in my pocket. I’m gonna have to take these back up to the room.”
“Oh, you can just put them in my purse.” She says holding her purse open, thwarting yet another plan.
“No, that’s alright. I don’t want you to have to carry them around.”
“It’s alright…it’s not that big of a deal.” She says kind of annoyed that I’m making this a big deal…but she doesn’t understand this IS a big deal.
“Nope, that’s fine. Meet you in the lobby.” I bolt up the stairs. And go to open the door.
Now I’d love to explain what happened next but I simply don’t possess the expertise. You see, the doors at this particular hotel require that you hold a masters degree in safe-cracking to actually open the door. There’s a formula: put in the key, count to three, wait for green light, turn clockwise quarter way, do the Harlem Shake, turn key rest of way, open door.
For what felt like hours I sat there trying to open the door. Sweat pouring down my forehead. I was just waiting for Lauren to come up the stairs to check up on me and ruin everything. Finally, magically, miraculously, divinely…the door opened. I Tebowed and then I slammed the door shut behind me. Exchanging the ringbox for the house keys I ran back downstairs.
“Let’s go get a bottle of prosecco…wait can we have that on the boat?” Lauren says.
During the day gondolas crowd the smaller network of canals that divide Venice into 117 different islands. Midday it’s almost a logjam as day trippers and cruise ships offload their clients onto the city. At night, at least in off-peak season, the canals are empty. Granted its cold, but if you’re prepped it’s a peaceful, romantic experience. After getting that bottle of prosecco we follow the bellman to our gondola…and there waiting behind a dock shrouded in ivy is a gondolier named Lorenzo. His gondola is gorgeous, trimmed in gold with plush seats.  After helping us aboard we start our journey down the Grand Canal. Quickly we were under the Rialto Bridge and past the lingering traffic of that busy spot. With Lorenzo quietly singing and guiding the gondola through to a narrow passageway and the stars in the cold clear sky shining brightly, the moment was set. He told us of the home of Marco Polo and Casanova as I began my attempt to reminisce with Lauren about our relationship.
“Remember when we made out on the side of a dirty interstate in Texas…”
“Oooh! That sparkles!”
“Remember when I sent you roses in India…”
“Oooh! That shines”
“Remember when I surprised you in Toronto…”
“Oooh! Pretty!”
Every time I’d push down the path of romantic conversation she interrupted pointing at one thing or another…until finally I just went ahead with my preplanned speech which sounded nothing like my preplanned speech..as a matter of fact I’m pretty sure I didn’t even ask her to marry me, I just mumbled and shoved a ring in her face in the dark. Naturally she couldn’t see it and Lorenzo was just trying to not act awkward.
“Oh my God! Are you proposing!?! Is this really happening?!?!”
Clearly my preplanned speech worked.
Lauren said yes, even though I totally choked. And turning a corner, we came across a section of bridges with bustling restaurants and gorgeous lighting on both sides. It was a little celebration as we finished off the bottle of prosecco. The ride flew by, and before we knew it we were stepping off the gondola as Lorenzo said:
“You remember me, Lorenzo!”
With some time before dinner and so we stopped in at one of the coffee/ shops/bakery/bars for some celebratory drinks. It was a special moment in a epically special place. Venice is designed for moments like these. And naturally we got lost on the way to dinner. The dinner was excellent…a little place called Osteria alle Testiere that specializes in Venetian seafood. We ate and ate and drank and then ate some more…Lauren stared at the ring.  Eventually we found our way back to the hotel.

I love it when a plan comes together
I love it when a plan comes together
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