Friday, October 31, 2008

When In Rome You Do as the Romans Do: Part Two

More rain.

We awoke Tuesday morning to the sound of thunder (we went to sleep to the sound of thunder as well) and dressed appropriately. Joe found a flier for a bus tour that allowed you to “hop on, hop off” at various sites around Rome so we decided to spend the 36 Euros and utilize the transportation. We were getting weary of legging it everywhere and thought, what with only one day to spend in Rome and it being a wet one at that, we should give ourselves a break. The concierge at the Hotel Ciccerone front desk took our deposit, handed us a receipt, and pointed us in the direction of the nearest stop at the Pont D’Angelo. We slogged off through the wet in search of our bus.

Along the way, we were accosted by various street vendors selling umbrellas. I was determined to avoid what I deemed a frivolous purchase and, pointing to my trusty LL Bean all-weather coat and Joe’s plastic poncho, waved them off. We arrived at the bus stop a few minutes before our scheduled pickup and joined several other damp tourists, all waiting for their buses. Pont D’ Angelo, across the Tiber from the Castel Sant’Angelo, was a “hop on, hop off” point for several bus tours. Aside from the blue sign for our tour company “Ciao Roma” there were three others, all with pretty much the same route through Rome: Vatican, Sant’Angelo, Villa Borghese, Colosseum, Forum, etc etc. However, our bus company sign was the only one with a soggy notice attached: “Tour Itinerary Subject to Change Due to Social Demonstration”.

Hmmm. Could be problematic, but we were willing to give it a shot anyways. Beats sloshing through the rain, even if we miss a few sights along the way.

Our appointed pickup time came and went but we continued to stand patiently in the pouring rain waiting for our bus. Traffic was indeed heavy with the morning commute and the weather playing a factor so we figured we would give the tour company a break and wait it out.

We continued to wait. We noticed green buses and red buses for the other tour companies came and went. No blue bus. The next pickup time came and went. Still no blue bus. I was starting to get seriously soggy. I was also getting cranky with the aggressive umbrella salesman who kept coming over to me every few minutes, insisting I buy. I glared at him and he retreated before I could grab an umbrella and smack him over the head with it. Finally, after 45 minutes, the mythical blue bus was nowhere in sight so we decided to return to the hotel. Along the way I slipped and landed on my butt in a puddle so I was not in a happy mood when I confronted the concierge who set us up on the Bus to Nowhere. She was quick to give us a refund.

After a break in our hotel room, we regrouped and headed off for the 15-minute walk to Vatican City.

There was a slight break in the weather and the feeble sun bounced off the wet street leading to St Peter’s Square.

It also shone on the hundreds of people standing in line to enter the great basilica. What the hey?

After a few inquiries, we discovered that the line was for the security checkpoint. Good lord (really). Joe and I have been to the Vatican before (where there were no lines except to the confessional) and so we decided we didn’t need to see it again. Off to the next sight.

It started to rain again, so Joe and I decided to give the bus tour another try. The green bus for “Tour Roma” was stopped at Vatican City so we forked over our Euros and “hopped on”. The ticket seller gave us a set of headphones we could plug in to our seats and we listened to the sonorous voice of some British actor explain the history of whatever soggy landmark lay to the left or right of us. The bus crept its way out of Vatican City and across the Pont D’Angelo (still no blue bus to be seen!). It crept a few meters beyond the Pont D’Angelo and then pulled over. Break time! The bus driver, tiring of the traffic logjam, needed a cup of coffee. Luckily the sun broke through again, this time with more strength, drying the seats on the upper (open air) deck of the bus. Joe and I went above and waited to get moving again. But no standing on the top deck!

After 20 minutes or so, the bus made its way back into traffic and we made the slow, torturous circuit around to Villa Borghese and down Via Veneto.

It was now an hour and a half since we left Vatican City and we’d gone perhaps three or four miles. On the Via Veneto we came to a full stop once again, this time with a stand of orange trees tantalizingly out of reach.

We were hungry. The demonstrators were approaching our street and all traffic was being halted until they passed. The bus driver advised people to get off here and leg it to the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps because God knows when the bus was getting there. The bus emptied except for us and a few others. The bus driver announced that as soon as the parade passed, the bus was skipping the next few stops and going directly to the train station. Yay for us – I needed to make train reservations for Venice.

Once the demonstrators had marched by (still don’t know what it was all about) we made relatively good time to the train station, “hopped off” and took care of business. The Colosseum didn’t seem so far so we decided to leg it rather than take our chances with the bus again. We made the walk, spotted the ancient walls and promptly sat ourselves down at a Colosseum-side café where we polished off two sandwiches and a bottle of wine in record time.

And waited (once more) for the rain to stop.

The demonstrators passed by the Colosseum (they were following us!)

and, after snapping a few pictures of them, we decided we’d had it with the weather. Time to find our bus for the ride back to the hotel. We made it to the bus stop just as there was a (brief) break in the weather and were rewarded with a photo of the Colosseum with rainbow adjacent.

As soon as I snapped the picture, the skies blackened once again and a torrential downpour began. After a half hour, our green bus appeared amidst the cheering of many tired and wet tourists. We “hopped on” and made the slow, torturous circuit back in the direction of Vatican City.

It was now getting dark and the afternoon commuter rush had started. Apparently, the demonstration was STILL going on and, you guessed it, they were blocking our path once again. The bus inched up the road. Joe plugged his headset back in to see if he could find something to listen to. He found some classical music, interrupted occasionally by our tireless narrator who intoned that, just to the left and through the foggy window and pouring rain, we could see the site where someone may or may not have been killed a few hundred years ago. Near Piazza Navarro, the bus pulled over yet again and the engine was shut down. The bus driver got out and walked off down the street. Uh…..HEY! Where the hell are you going? He returned after a few minutes and announced the bus would be parking here indefinitely. He and the ticket seller helpfully pointed out where we were on our maps and we “hopped off” the bus and headed off into the rainy darkness hoping to find some familiar landmark.

We had made friends with some American tourists on the bus and we all decided to hike together – safety in numbers and all that. Maps in hand, we marched off in the direction of what we hoped was Vatican City. At one point, one of our group swore our bus had just passed us but we decided it was a hallucination and kept going. Stepping through puddles and avoiding homicidal motorists, we arrived at our destination, Pont D’Angelo. Congratulations all around.

Joe and I didn’t go far for dinner that night, just downstairs to the hotel restaurant.

And it didn’t rain once.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

When in Rome You Do as the Romans Do: Part One

We arrived in Rome from Genoa Monday afternoon. (Note the blogger hard at work)

I had splurged a bit and booked us a hotel in the Piazza di Spagna, in a room overlooking the famous Spanish Steps. Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck were long gone, but the romance of the place still hung in the air. Or maybe it was just the smell of zealous tourists, all jostling for a spot on the massive staircase where they could take a photo of all the other tourists taking photos. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Our taxi driver deposited us in the piazza after extorting 20 Euros for a 5 minute ride from the train station. We found no. 20 and shook up to the fourth floor on the ancient lift (one at a time – as there was only room for one person and one suitcase). After sending the lift back down to pickup my husband, I tried to discern the reception desk in the shadowy hallway. It seemed unusually dark. Once we gathered our things and headed down the hallway, I saw the problem: no lights on. The owner, on verge of tears, greeted us at the reception desk and explained to us that not only were there no lights, there was no running water as well. Oh. She pulled out a map and showed us where she had booked us another hotel across town by the Vatican. She assured us the same rate with four stars. She bid us a tearful farewell and we went off in search of Hotel Cicerone.

Unwilling to risk another fleecing by a Roman taxi driver, we began what turned out to be a pleasant 15 minute walk to our new hotel. The owner of the previous hotel had not lied: we were not disappointed. The sprawling Hotel Cicerone catered to the (English-speaking) tourist trade and was a little large for our tastes but a huge room with full amenities, a king-sized bed, a Jacuzzi, and a full “American” breakfast for $143 a night? Um…yeah. We’ll take it.

We were a little hungry and thirsty (shocking, I know) so we went off in search of a neighborhood grocer to supply up. We passed block after block of fashion retail before stumbling on the Rosticerria Franchi.

Holy moly, what a find. Cases of prepared foods. Displays redolent with cheeses I had yet to sample. Long racks strung with salume and twenty different kinds of proscuitto

and from the ceiling hung the Mother of All Great Cured Meats: Jamon Iberico from Spain.

I’ve bought this meat before for special occasions in LA and it is spectacular. The meat comes from a special breed of black-footed pig in Spain and is just now becoming available in the States. Imagine proscuitto with 10 times the intensity of flavor and you have jamon iberico. It carries a hefty price tag as well – about $135/lb. Bianchi had five of these haunches hanging above, each weighing a good 10 to 15 lbs apiece. That’s a lot of meat moolah.

We grabbed a hunk of soft pecorino romano, a long link of some sort of hard salume, couple bottles of wine and headed out. We selected some enticing red peppers and fruit from a street vendor as well.

Back at our room, we laid out our treasures and feasted.

And napped. And blogged. And napped again.

Let’s Go had recommended a couple of restaurants over by Piazza di Spagna so we made our groggy way to Trattoria di Settimio all'Arancio around 8:30. Note: Only two weeks in Europe and we were already eating when the locals did.

Despite the late hour, the restaurant was still waiting for its evening rush, as indicated by the number of “reserved” tickets on the tables. Still they squeezed us in and we enjoyed a simple dinner of vegetable soup (for Joe) and spaghetti alle vongole (for me). The soup was rib-sticking thick with zucchini blossoms, onions and garlic, dusted with what tasted like fennel pollen.

My vongole was tasty and generously portioned and I gobbled it right up since, you know, I hadn’t eaten in 2 hours or something.

Joe passed on the wine (true story – I was there) and stuck with water while I had a nice glass of house red. Note: Two weeks in Europe and I haven’t had a bad glass yet. Nice way to end the evening. I even found a short-cut back to the hotel!

Final note: I snapped this photo of The World's Ugliest Purse for my pals Nancy and Crys:

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Blesse mon coeur d'une langueur monotone

Note: Though these photos are from last Thursday in Caen, I couldn’t think of what I could write that would properly convey the awful grandeur of Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery there. I let the pictures speak for themselves.

How can you look on this and not be moved?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lupo Antica Trattoria de Menochette – Genova

When you’re eating and drinking your way through The Continent you always hope to stumble on that little out of the way place, the family restaurant, the one where the sons are in the kitchen and the family works the front of the house. Where the décor is eclectic and entertaining. Where the food is spectacular. Joe and I were lucky enough to find such a place for dinner last night in Genova, which was particularly welcome after our disappointment in Marseille.

The trattoria was right next to our hotel, Hotel Agnello d’Oro, another great find through my new favorite hotel booking engine, We were starved after our trip from Marseille and were tired from the (milk run) train we took from Ventimiglia to Genoa aka Genova (A Word to the Wise: Never take an Italian inter-city train that runs only second class accommodations. Deadly). After checking in, we grabbed a bottle of wine and a few goodies from a local market then stopped at a hole in the wall for a small pizza to go. The pizza was mediocre but we were famished and polished it off in about 5 minutes. It would tide us over until the trattoria opened at 7:30 pm.

After a little blogging and a nap, we rolled out the door and 15 feet up the street to the trattoria.

There wasn’t more than a few minutes wait before we were escorted to a table right next to the dessert table, where I got an eyeful of the torte della nonna and a small bowl of black truffles. No, not the chocolate kind but the mushroom kind. What they were doing on the dessert cart I have no idea but I enjoyed having a place of honor next to what looked like $400 worth of truffles.

We started with a cold bottle of rosé

and ordered an appetizer of shaved Serrano ham with smoked raw fish, and an insalate. (Note: Sorry there are no complete pictures of any of the dishes. We started eating before either of us remembered to take a picture)

The owner/waiter/host slid by our table with an amuse bouche (divertire bocca?) that included fresh peas in herbed cream and little squares of fried polenta. Nom nom nom. We were craving pasta and the Lupo did not disappoint us with their selections. I had a plate of round paste (begins with an “L” – I should write this stuff down) with a rosemary pignoli cream sauce.

Joe had ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricotta with a Bolognese sauce made with chopped fish instead of meat.

We tried not to scarf it down in one bite but it was fantastic food and we were famished. Luckily, we managed to grab a few pictures before we cleaned our plates completely.

After a digestivo, we thanked the owner and his wife,

took a few more pictures, signed the guestbook,

and rolled out the door and back to our hotel. All of that for 83 Euros.

Molto bene.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Escape from France or How We Put One Over on SNCF

Joe and I have been traveling since 9:30 this morning and are on our third train of the day, heading along the northern coast of Italy and into Genoa. Just now, the conductor checked our train tickets – a first today.

We lumbered into Marseille last night around 9:30 pm and went directly to our hotel (very nice – a great boutique hotel I got very cheap and last minute through

We hoped to make it down to the Vieux Porte and have ourselves some bouillabaisse but we were thwarted by the late hour and the prices (59 Euros per person!). Instead, we returned to our ultra comfy room with its queen-sized bed (luxury!) and snacked on fruit and nuts, resisting the over-priced items in the mini-bar. We took care to turn back the time on our cell phones as Daylight Savings Time was ending in the European Union. Our plan was to get a good night’s sleep and make it to the train station to catch the 8:37 am train to Ventimiglia and then go on from there to Genoa, arriving mid-afternoon. Ah, the best laid plans…

The alarm went off at 6:30 am and I thought it seemed very light out for that time of the morning. An hour later I discovered that AT&T had also turned back the time on my cell so it was an hour later than we thought. No time to make the 8:37 train. There was a train at 9:37 but…. oy … it was a TGV. We decided to take a chance and see if we could get a reservation. We cabbed it to the train station and got there at 9-ish only to discover a huge line of people waiting to make reservations. And there was only one ticket window open. Great. I stood in line for about 20 minutes, sandwiched between two people reeking of garlic (I imagine I don’t smell so great, myself) in a train station that reeks of piss. Piss and garlic. Great combo when all you’ve had is a couple cups of coffee and a sandwich in the last 24 hours.

Realizing I’ve got no chance of getting a reservation before the train pulls out, I ducked out of line, grabbed Joe, and we headed for the train. Screw the reservation, we’d take our chance on the train. What’s the worst they could do? Put us off at the next stop?

We found a couple of empty seats in the first class car and rehearsed our story. We lost our reservation. No… we forgot to get one. No… we didn’t know we were supposed to have a reservation. Joe promptly went to sleep, confident that his wife, with her shaky French, could sweet-talk the conductor. The conductor who never came. Yep, I waited nervously for three hours rehearsing my speech for a conductor who never checked our tickets. Sweet!

I figure that between this and the free Metro ride in Paris, we’re up 14 or 15 Euros. That'll get us another good bottle.

Caen et Joseph

No, not my Joseph. Our Joseph.

Joseph is the day desk clerk at the Hotel Etap in Caen and the sweetest fellow you can imagine. He was born in Senegal, educated here in Caen, and hopes someday to find a job more rewarding than day desk clerk at the Hotel Etap. He loves his iPhone. He is a huge follower of basketball and the NBA and is probably Allen Iverson’s biggest fan outside of the US. He speaks excellent English aside from his native French. He knows good wine. He was a great help to us on our trip through Caen.

First, Caen. Caen is the capital of the Normandie region of France. Caen is known for its Calvados (apple brandy), its history (William the Conquerer to the D Day Landings) and its weather (Seattle with better booze). So it rained, we drank Calvados, and we visited Omaha Beach. Check Caen off the list.

In between, we found some good eats (Joseph with restaurant suggestions),

visited the Memorial du Caen Museum (Joseph printed out a map with the bus route),

got a really good deal on our budget hotel (Joseph gave us a break on the price),

and bought a couple bottles of Calvados to mail home (Joseph is bringing them to the Post Office for us on Monday).

Seriously, I’m sending this guy an Iverson jersey.