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Travel Smart Tips: Rome

November 9, 2015
Travel Smart Tips: Rome

Rome. The Eternal City. The expensive city.

Most people, whether avid travelers, or once-in-a-lifetime trip takers, have Rome on their list. Perhaps it’s the history that summons you, or the air of romance and mystery portrayed in the oft alluded to Roman Holiday. Either way, whatever starry-eyed notion brings you to Rome, the reality of the city can sometimes rear it’s trash-littered head. Rome has a bit of a reputation. Corruption, pick-pocketing, price gouging, man-handling, inept public transportation, monuments closed without warning. You name it, someone visiting Rome has complained about it.

So, how do you fix all of that? You can’t. Rome is out of your control.

But, if you know how, you can easily make all that Rome has to offer work to your advantage. Traveling smart contributes to traveling safer and traveling cheaper no matter where you go in this world.

 Travel Smart Tips: Rome

Are you interested in seeing magnificent works of art, but less than enticed by entrance fees and long lines? Visit some of Rome’s 900+ churches! The entrance to most churches is free, including St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, the largest church in the world. There you can see Michelangelo’s famous La Pieta, a jaw-droppingly beautiful marble statue depicting the Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus. Other famous works of art in otherwise possibly overlooked churches include Renaissance master Caravaggio’s Calling of Saint MatthewSt. Matthew and the Angel, and the Martyrdom of St. Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi; Michelangelo’s Christ Carrying the Cross at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva; and Caravaggio’s Martyrdom of St. Peter and Conversion of St. Paul,  Raphael’s Chigi Chapel, and many statues by Bernini at Santa Maria del Popolo. Each church has its own operating hours, and some can be quite idiosyncratic. Make sure to double-check before you make your plans.

Go for a walk. It’s really that simple. Every corner you turn, every small side street you walk down, can hide the most beautiful treasures, both big and small. Not to mention you’ll save the hassle of dealing with the public transportation system, an organization plagued by a reputation of running behind schedule, drivers striking without notice, and passengers left stranded.

Every random stroll in #Rome is free entry into a museum of hidden gems!

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the things you find walking back to your car after the bar.

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Are you getting thirsty on your walk around Rome? Carry an empty water bottle with you and fill it up at one of Rome’s many Nasoni, or public water fountains. These fountains, of which there are around 200, can be found throughout the historical center. The best part? This water is clean, drinkable, and free! Not to mention fresh! If you want to blend in with the locals, drink from the Nasoni  – it’s the same water coming through the taps in Roman homes! ACEA (manager of water services utilities) has a map of Nasoni locations throughout the historical center, which can be found here.

Many famous attractions in Rome offer free admission, including the Pantheon, the Spanish Steps, St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Trevi Fountain (among many others). But, if you happen to be in Rome on the first Sunday of any month, you are in luck! All public museums, monuments, and archaeological sites are free to all visitors! Choose wisely what you will see during that time, as some places, such as the Vatican Museum, are absolute madhouses. Others offer discounts after a certain time of the day, so make sure to double-check those places you’ve decided you want to go!

roman ruins and rain!

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Be smart about how you eat and drink! It seems like every other week a disgruntled tourist is posting a picture online of a receipt for four coffee’s and a gelato costing an astronomical amount. If you order a coffee, pastry, gelato, or anything else that is served at a bar and can be eaten standing up…stand up! The cost of the same item, when seated, can be triple. Not to mention, when seated, you have to pay a service charge (or coperto), which can range anywhere from 1-5 Euro per person. This rule of thumb applies even more so if you are near a famous attraction such as the Vatican Museums or the Colosseum. And if the menu doesn’t have prices? RUN.

Do as the students do and have aperitivo! Did you spend too much on that rockin’ purse and now you’re short on cash for dinner? Aperitivo is a pre-dinner drink (see some of my favorite Italian cocktails here) that typically comes with access to a full-fledged buffet of salads, pizzas, mini-sandwiches, and sweets (shall I go on?!). Some restaurants create a platter for you and serve it to you at your table, others are a bit more casual. In Rome, the price for what will become your favorite thing about Italy, commonly ranges from 9-15 Euro (drink and food). Have a drink, or two, and eat until your heart’s content…no need for dinner after!

aperitivo

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If you are looking for the perfect time of the year to travel to Rome, let me be brutally honest and tell you that summer is not that time. Overwhelmingly hot and humid, Rome becomes a dense and insanely crowded city during the months of June, July, and August. August is quite possibly the worst time to visit Rome, as the majority of Romans flee the city for the coast for the entire month. That means fewer people, yes, but fewer people that run the restaurants and stores, leaving many things permanently closed. The best time of the year to visit Rome is in the fall, when the temperature hovers between 62-72 degrees Fahrenheit (17-22 degrees Celsius) well into mid-November, and day trips outside of the city (perhaps a weekend in Tuscany), put you smack-dab into the middle of harvest time (new olive oil sampling, anyone?!).

grapes just chilling on the side of the road during my walk today.

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So, are you ready for your next trip to Rome? Keep these travel smart tips in mind and I promise you’ll leave feeling as if you’ve conquered the city, know the ins and outs, and can blend in with the locals (don’t wear flip-flops!).

A presto!

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A Weekend in Tuscany

August 27, 2015
Weekend in Tuscany

A weekend in Tuscany. My body relaxes and my heart and mind collectively smile. Just saying it aloud causes a collective sigh from anyone within hearing distance. Now, those of you who know me know that I am not one to romanticize Italy. In fact, I recently guffawed at a dramatically idyllic  New York Times article written by a man who had just honeymooned through Italy with his wife in their vintage rental car. Italy can be magical (especially if you have an unlimited budget), but like most places, it does have its flaws. But Tuscany, the Val D’Orcia region in particular, is a place where I feel magical. A sort of weightless ease that I’ve found only once before: on the porch of the house I grew up in.

Weekend in Tuscany

I fell in love with the Val D’Orcia the first time I stepped foot out of the car at the agriturismo we frequent. It was so quiet that it was almost unnerving, the air so fresh that my then cold-addled head didn’t know which way was up. But, my Italian was adamant that I would enjoy this weekend in Tuscany, for my 29th birthday, even with a raging head cold. He was right.

Known for the production of some of Italy’s most sought after wines, the Val D’Orcia stretches south from Siena to Monte Amiata and is characterized by its famous landscape. So famous, in fact, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004:

The landscape of Val d’Orcia is part of the agricultural hinterland of Siena, redrawn and developed when it was integrated in the territory of the city-state in the 14th and 15th centuries to reflect an idealized model of good governance and to create an aesthetically pleasing picture. The landscape’s distinctive aesthetics, flat chalk plains out of which rise almost conical hills with fortified settlements on top, inspired many artists. Their images have come to exemplify the beauty of well-managed Renaissance agricultural landscapes. (via the UNESCO website)

When you think Tuscany, I guarantee the picture in your mind is of rolling hills in hues of brown and green, and the winding roads lined with Cypress trees that are splashed on every postcard and travel guide you have. In fact, the first time I watched the sun rise from our bedroom at the agriturismo, I thought as though Mr. Darcy would crest that low hill with his brooding brow and high-waisted pants. The glowing light would hit him just perfectly from behind so that he appeared other worldly. You know what I’m talking about ladies. The end of the otherwise snooze-worthy Keira Knightley version of Pride & Prejudice was decidedly the best part.

A Weekend in TuscanyOur morning view (photo credit: Rebecca Danks)

Whenever we have guests visiting us in Rome, we make it a habit to spend a short two-day weekend in this region. Over the last two years we’ve gone so many times (my Italian has been frequenting these places for over a decade), and delighted so many friends and family, that I thought I should put it down on paper and share the wealth. I’ll let you know where to stay, what to visit, and most importantly, where to eat! Other than that, get yourself a GPS when you rent your car and just follow the beautiful winding roads wherever you feel you are being taken!

Where to Stay

Weekend in TuscanyAgriturismo Podere Agogna (photo credit: agriturismo website)

When we spend the weekend in Tuscany, we always stay at Agriturismo Podere Agogna. This charming, still-working farm is off the beaten path. Literally. The small dirt and gravel road that leads you deeper into the country eventually veers off to the left and ends at this magnificent property (at night you are likely to see some wild boar and porcupines cross in front of you on the road). Don’t come here looking to relax by the pool with a drink – there isn’t one. But that’s the beauty of it. This is the kind of place where you sit at the large table on the porch with your friends, a bottle (or two) of wine, playing charades until the early hours of the morning. Bruna and her husband Pasquale are delightful hosts, greeting you at any time of the day when you arrive and making sure your stay is nothing short of remarkable. Ask them for a tour of the grounds and you’ll see Via Francigena, the old trade route running from France to southern Italy, right in the backyard (it’s been common to spot hikers, backpackers, and others finding their way down the road, offered coffee and other refreshments by Bruna and Pasquale). Make sure to check out their cellar, which they carved into the side of a rocky hill, that contains their homemade marmalade, wine, and other goodies. Do I even need to mention how magnificent breakfast is? You’ll enjoy a multitude of homemade cakes, marmalade, and coffee on the beautiful outdoor porch.

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in TuscanyVia Francigena road marker on the grounds of the agriturismo

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

Where to Eat

Weekend in TuscanyTerrace at Osteria La Porta (photo credit: restaurant website)

It’s hard to pick a favorite of anything, let alone a favorite restaurant in a country admired the world over for its culinary traditions. But I can say, without a doubt, that Osteria La Porta is my favorite restaurant in Italy. Quite possibly the world. I kid you not. And lucky for you it just happens to be in Monticchiello, a small town in the Val D’Orcia, less than two miles from the agriturismo I mentioned above. To be quite honest, I have very few pictures of Osteria La Porta or its delightfully delectable food. Why? Because I’m too busy stuffing my face. The menu changes seasonally, but some things they do exquisitely all of the time: roasted piglet, braised boar cheek, roasted pigeon, and my Italian swears by the savory pie of porcini mushrooms with pecorino (a regional specialty cheese) and truffle.

Weekend in Tuscany

Weekend in Tuscany

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Lugano & the Saga of Disappointing Travel

July 21, 2015
Lugano & the Saga of Disappointing Travel

“Look. I have a strategy. Why expect anything? If you don’t expect anything, you don’t get disappointed.”
― Patricia McCormick, Cut

Easier said than done, right? Especially when it comes to traveling. You spend weeks, months, even years, collecting pictures of exotic locales and resplendent monuments, only to realize when you get there that the pictures, while beautiful, were in no way the reality you are now faced with. All that you had dreamed about while you were supposed to be answering that email from your boss was lost behind the new dark tint of your no longer rose-colored glasses.

While we spend our time pinning, filtering photographs, and sharing travel stories (I say “we” because, hey, I’m totally guilty of this as well), we may let other, possibly more relevant information, get lost in translation. My travel boards on Pinterest certainly don’t reveal graffiti-laden monuments and overflowing trash bins, nor do they properly convey the smell of a crowded city on a stiflingly hot summer day, or the elbow to the ribs you get while trying to view the same 5′ x 5′ framed masterpiece as 3,500 other people.

PINTEREST LuganoLago di Braies, Italy ‖ photo: Pinterest

=Austrian National Library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), Vienna, Austria ‖ photo: Pinterest/Wick Sakit

And, while it may seem like I’m Debbie Downer-ing all over this post, I promise I’m just trying to give myself a pep-talk and I thought, hey, others may need this smack on the back of the head too! You see, I had *gasp* my first very disappointing travel experience recently, and at the end of the day I was angry, irritable, and resentful that I had wasted the time and money to get there.

While rocking in the corner and repeating to myself “I am not alone,” I ran across a fantastic post from the husband and wife duo of Adam and Hannah over at über-popular travel blog Getting Stamped. Asking a large handful of their travel-blogger friends for their most disappointing travel experiences, Adam and Hannah were able to put together a list of helpfully honest and relevant mini-reviews for the realistic traveler (read the full post here – it’s awesome!). If this roundtable taught me anything (and it did – never going to Brussels), it’s that I not only need to research the places I want to see, but also pay attention to the things about them that I need to see in order to effectively counter-attack any potential discouraging situations.

If only I had that sage wisdom before I went to Lugano, Switzerland, a place surprisingly not on Getting Stamped’s list (probably because I’m the only person ever who was like, “hey, guys, let’s go to Lugano, it looks awesome”).

I suppose Lugano could be a lovely place to retreat for the summer if you have a lot of money and time to spend. The hotels on the lake are grand, the restaurants expensive, and the water sparkling. But for the average tourist who will spend only a day in the small lakeside city, it offers very little. The majority of the food that is affordable, is mediocre and unfortunately, as with any new place, you may very well choose wrong. One could say that the biggest attraction besides the lake and its promenade is the shopping. Luxury stores abound here, and while the Swiss Franc exchange rate between either the U.S. Dollar or the Euro is not astronomically high right now, Switzerland has historically been an expensive country (the most expensive in all of Europe according to one 2014 report). The casino, particularly for those who are familiar with U.S. casinos, is more than a little disappointing and the sidewalk cafes with lake views either cater directly to you with a tourist menu (pictures included – RUN!), or don’t have what you want at all. You would think a fully stocked bar in a luxury lakeside resort city would be able to make a Champagne cocktail.

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Lunch in Lugano ‖ Cold, bland pasta with congealed sauce ‖ 22 Euro

I can’t very well speak for the whole of Lugano, or the other small towns and mountain-top retreats surrounding Lake Lugano, but I can say that my overall impression was further solidified by my experience there (or lack thereof).

There were a couple of things I did enjoy in Lugano, however, including visiting the beautiful Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli. The church, which began construction in 1499, has one of the most stunning frescoes I have ever seen, and the most famous of the Renaissance frescoes in all of Switzerland: Passion and Crucifixion by, Bernardino Luini, 1529. 

IMG_2991Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli ‖ Passion and Crucifixion

IMG_4211-001Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli ‖ Passion and Crucifixion

IMG_4207Chiesa di Santa Maria degli Angeli

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Sacro Monte di Orta

July 13, 2015
Sacro Monte di Orta

I must be absolutely insane to long for the days of employment.

Leaving my career behind when I got married and moved to Italy was an easy decision at the time: I had met my other half, the Angel to my Buffy, the Darcy to my Elizabeth, so what was a little sacrifice?

But it hasn’t been easy. Even now, being in Italy for almost two years, my mind is still trying to force itself into the career-minded mold it lived and thrived in for so long. You must have a career, you’re not contributing to the success of your family unless you’re making money, who are you without a job?! In the U.S. we have this little habit of viewing ourselves as our careers. When we meet someone for the first time the first question we typically ask them is “Oh, what do you do?”.

It is simply not like that in Italy. I’ve had an hour long conversation with someone where work didn’t come up once. My mind is slowly adjusting, and in order to break out of the cycles of worthless doom (can you tell I’m a bit dramatic?) I get trapped in from time to time, I focus on the positives of not having a traditional 9-5. Among them, I get to volunteer, I can work on my voice, I’m on the board of an Expat organization, I have time to write this blog (hey, that’s pretty awesome!), and I get to travel with my Italian when he goes away on business. Major bonus there.

Since business travel doesn’t necessarily cater to the tourist, I get to experience things that I never even knew existed. It’s my own little slice of heaven, and there’s a certain magic to doing it on my own. I can’t rely on my Italian, who is in meetings all day, for directions, translations, or itineraries. It’s all on me…and it makes it all that much better.

One of the treats I recently discovered was Sacro Monte di Orta, a beautiful walking path and garden carved into the side of the mountain overlooking lake Orta and the island of San Giulio. Along this wooded path are twenty chapels full of magnificently carved figures and intricate frescoes that depict, and celebrate, the life of Saint Francis of Assisi.

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Sacro Monte di Orta, literally translated as Sacred Mountain of Orta, is one of the nine Sacri Monti (Sacred Mountains) of Piedmont and Lombardy, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Garden of Ninfa

July 3, 2015
Garden of Ninfa

Among the many things my intelligent, kind, generous, funny, handsome Italian brings to the table is his knowledge of Italy and its small, hidden treasures. I’m an off-the-beaten path kinda girl, both in life and in travel. I like to experience and appreciate things that most people overlook simply because they don’t know that they exist.

The Garden of Ninfa (Giardino di Ninfa), though fairly well-known by locals of the Lazio region, is mostly overlooked by travelers making their way through the Italian trifecta of Venice-Florence-Rome. Though its location isn’t ideal for those who have only a day or two to spend in Rome, it is ideal for those spending three or more days with some time set aside for exploring the countryside. I can say, it is most definitely worth the trip.

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The original town of Ninfa, nestled between the Lepini Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea, was erected on the site of one of the area’s most abundant springs. Over time water has played a crucial role in the survival, and flourishing, of Ninfa. In learning how to master and control their abundant water supply (an early dam can still be seen today), the small town was able to power small machinery such as mills and olive presses.

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Though once prosperous, like many things throughout history, Ninfa was ultimately destroyed by war. In this case, inter-family papal wars. Continue Reading