Monday, March 2, 2015

{Vacation ReCap} Rome Italy: Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, & theColleseum at Night

After wrapping up the Vatican tour, we walked back to our neighborhood to grab lunch (it was only noon after all).  We were starving and randomly chose Sette Oche Ristorante because it had outdoor seating.  It ended up being a great choice!  I had perhaps the best gluten free pasta yet, and the blanco house wine was only 8 Euros - Score!

Tom made friends with the cat who joined us for Lunch

After satisfying everything but our sweet tooth, we decided to grab some gelato and head back to the apartment to rest up a bit before heading out again.

Refreshed from the afternoon downtime, we got ready and began the walk to the Spanish Steps and Trevi fountain before dinner.   The walk itself was beautiful...

Unfortunately for us, when we arrived we realized that the Trevi Fountain was closed for repairs. It was completly dry and almost entirely obstructed...womp womp.  We found out that the House of Fendi took it upon themselves to restore it which was unfortunatley timed with our trip.  Oh well.

It was then time to check out the Spanish Steps and I have to say, we weren't the biggest fans...and not just because the Trinità dei Monti was also under construction...

I had heard that it was a cool place to sit and people watch and generally hang out, but I couldn't wait to leave almost as soon as we got there. There were pushy guys thrusting roses into my face everywhere I turned, and they didnt take simple "No's!" for an answer.  Thoroughly annoyed, we decided to climb to the top to enjoy the view and then move on to grab a much needed cocktail.

After a few unsuccessful attempts to find the Hotel Hassler where we had origionally planned to enjoy drinks, we decided to go ahead and get dinner instead.  A co-worker highly recommended the restaurant we had in mind and knowing that they have great taste in food, we were excited to give it a try.

Ristorante Pietro Valentini  exceeded all expectations.  Not only was it perhaps one of the best meals we have EVER had, we were blown away at the hospitality and warmth of the owner, Semona.

Once she found out I was gluten free, she asked me my name and everytime a course came out, as she walked by she would say "Megan, tell me:  how is that gluten free?" in the most adorable, kind way.  Beyond that, the food itself was outstanding.   We heard this place was known for their generous use of Tuscan truffles and when our pasta arrived, we were not disapointed. Semona brought over a huge truffle and proceeded to shave it onto our pasta like it was just a normal hunk of parmesean cheese.  Our only regret is that we split this dish instead of ordering our own.

I mean, just look at all those truffle shavings...yummm....

In addition to the pasta starter, we also split a bottle of wine, fresh fish (we saw them walk the fish into the kitchen after we ordered it!) and steak.  While it was a relatively simple meal, the quality of the food and the way it was prepared made it stand out.

The restaurant was small and intimate and thankfully not overrun with tourists (There were definitely a few solo Italians enjoying a meal), we sat next to a nice couple and found out we had a TON in common.

Not only were they also from the Chicago area, the husband, like Tom, works in Finance.  Beyond that, they too had just come to Rome from Florence and like us, were on their way to Positano the very next day.  Furthermore, they were staying at the same hotel we were heading to!  They were even leaving Italy the same day we were and gave us a heads up that we should keep an eye out for the airline strike that was rumored to hit around then.   What a small world.

Making the world feel even smaller, another gentleman accross the restaurant overheard Tom say where he worked - and even though he lives in NY - wanted to know if Tom knew his financial advisor.  Figuring it a long shot because there are several offices all over Chicago, he indulged him. And whadda know?  Tom knew of the guy and said he would pass along his regards.  Too funny!

After stuffing ourselves, we decided against drinks elsewhere as we knew we should think about heading back soon to pack.  Even though the day was starting to catchup with us, we couldn't resist jumping into a cab to see the Colleseum at night. I have heard it is so beautiful and knew this would be our only opportunity to see it lit up.  Semona kindly hailed a cab for us ("I get you cab, Megan...Gluten Free!"  I died).

The somewhat out of the way stop was totally worth it. Seeing this at night is a sight I won't soon forget.

Random:  how cool are these ancient fountains which still provide incredibly fresh spring water?

We called it at that point, figuring we could enjoy a drink while packing up back at the apartment.  We would need to be ready to leave straight away after finishing our tour of the Colleseum the next day!

I have to mention that a few months later, we recieved a fun surpirse that took us back to this awesome night:  Semona sent a Christmas card and it put ridiculously huge smiles on our faces!  What a great lady!


Sunday, March 1, 2015

{Vacation Recap} Rome, Italy: Vatican City

There is a lot to cover so I'm breaking up this post into two seperate posts.  There are only so many words and pictures a person can take at one time ;)

This is essentially Part 1 of our full day in Rome!

We woke up from yesterday's travel day refreshed and set out on a nice walk towards Vatican City. About 25 minutes later, we found ourselves at the entrance and despite it being only 9am, the line was already wrapped around the block.  Gulp.

Luckily we had a private tour planned and found our guide, Luca Romano, holding up an iPad with our names displayed and so were able to bypass everyone.  Phew!

I have to stop here and say that booking the private tours for our two days in Rome was by far one of the best things we did for ourselves on the trip.  We used Best of Rome Tours and while not cheap, we consider them to be a great value (some other tours quoted around $600/tour but this was around $200 give or take).  Each of our tours lasted about 3 hours and we saw and learned more in those 3 hours than we would have had we attempted it on our own for an entire day.  This allowed us to still have the rest of the afternoon and evening  to "wing" things and take it easy.  I only wish we had done something simliar for our "free day" in Florence!

Anyways, Luca was amazing.  We felt as though a local friend was showing us the sites - not a tour guide.  He was incredibly approachable and knowledgeable. I wish that I had noted more pieces of info in order to share it here, but I was too busy oohhing and awwing.

Because it was only the 3 of us, we could get into places the larger tours couldn't.  He expertly bypassed any line and got us close to everything he was explaining. If you have a chance to take one of these tours, I highly recommend asking for Luca!

Tom and I are Catholics as are our families, and being here was a very special experience.  Being in a place with so much history and also being inside something like the Mary room - knowing how much Mary meant to my grandmother for instance - made me feel overwhelmed at times.  There were moments I felt like my grandmother was right there with me experiencing this along with us and I may have gotten choked up once or twice.  I will say Tom was suspiciously quiet at times too...

There is no way I can remember all of the factoids and what not, so what follows regarding Vatican City is mostly picture heavy with a few sentences sprinkled throughout.

After purchasing our tickets and getting settled, we came upon a great view on our way to the Vatican Museum - there's St. Peter's peeking out from behind the trees!

We thought the grounds were beautiful...

We discovered that each Pope left various gifts to the Vatican in order to be remembered.  Everything from the monuments you see above to pottery.

Once we  made it to the the Vatican Museum, we found ourselve in a series of grand hallways - each with their own theme (sorry these might be out of order - put hopefully you get the picture)

The "Map Room"

The Tapestry Room (that's Luca below)

He cracked us up saying that Jesus participated in the first ever ice bucket challenge, hehe

There was the hallway with a TON of art. This particular piece was so large, even my wide angle lens couldn't fully capture it.

This section of mosaic tile floors was beautiful - it's hard to capture just how intricate the design is through pictures.  This area was the only part of the floor that was sectioned off.

The ceilings in the hallways blew us away.  The below pic is actually painted onto the ceiling - its not molding like it appears.  We couldn't believe this was just paint!

All of the ceilings blew us away in fact.  Those Italians must have strong necks!

There were lots of various statues and sculptures displayed throughout the museum...

When we  found ourselves inside the Mary room we were stunned - it's so gorgeous in person.

As we left the Mary Room, we noticed a familiar looking parking lot.  Apparently, the archives - yes from the Da Vinci code, ha - are underneath!

From there, it was onto the "Rapheal" rooms!  The talent this guy must have had in just his pinkie finger..wowza.

From there, we went into the Sistine Chapel. I wish we had pictures to share, but they don't allow cameras inside (Luca said it was that way so they could get people to buy the pictures - makes sense as everywere else inside the Vatican allows you to snap pics).  It was jaw dropping for sure and also kind of funny, because you cram inside the chapel and just look up for about 10-15 minutes.  My neck hurt after that short of time, so I don't know how Michalangelo did it. It was also pretty funny because they require you to be completely silent yet had professional "shushers" who's "shushing" was MUCH louder than any of whispering I heard!

Afterwards we went outside and headed to St. Peter's Basilica!

Bronze Door

St. Peter's was overwhelmingly beautiful. I can't even begin to describe the scale of this place.

For instance,  the letters you can see around the top molding all the way around?  They are twice as tall as the average male.  The bronze sculture that looks almost like gazebo at the end of the aisle?  It seems average size when you first walk in...

Yet by time you get up close and personal, you feel like an ant

What took us by surprise, were multiple bodies of past Pope's just laying out there for all to see.

Apparently, they can choose to be put on display and some took the Vatican up on it...

This is the entrance to the catacombs where other bodies of Pope's are at rest.

There was also a small area where you could say a prayer in front of the casket of the late Pope John Paul II

We couldn't help but be awed at the beauty around us and also because we knew we were in the presence of such meaningful artifacts.

For instance, there is a place were you are surrounded by various statues.  Each of them represents and contains an artifact from Jesus' crucifixion.  This one reportedly holds a piece of a spear which was used on him (our guide was a bit skeptical that this was true, but still...).

A Beautiful alter...

The Vatican is also home to one of Michelangelo's most stunning pieces, the Pieta.  I found this piece even more breathtaking than David and was surprised to learn he created it at only 23 years of age! It was so incredibly lifelike and beautiful and somehow evoked a lot of emotion.  In the 70's someone tried to destroy it so now it's behind glass, but it's still a very powerful thing to see in person.  I have to say I love how the church literally puts Mary - a mere woman, hehe - on a pedestel for being such a strong lady and mom.

There are markers on the floor that indicate how big the Vatican is in relation to other Cathedrals around the world.  The one for St. Patrick's in NYC, for instance, indicated it was only half the length of St. Peter's.

On our way out, we passed by Cherubs offering holy water

They were beautiful...

...but also a tad creepy (and HUGE) wish I had someone standing in front for scale - they towered over me

Sufficiantly overwhelmed, we went outside to wrap up the tour.

We saw the Swiss Guard (so chosen because, you know, Swiss and neutral...).  We discovered that they have a hard time finding qualified people because there aren't a ton of Catholics in Switzerland. However, once chosen, the Vatican provides housing for them and their families.  I wonder what it would be like to grow up in Vatican City?

St. Peter's Square

Luca kindly offered to take a picture of us, and was immediately thanked by being asked to take photos of about three other couples after...poor guy!

Welp, that wraps up our tour of Vatican City!  I'll be back with Part 2 of our day in Rome soon.  Spoiler alert: it was delicious!