Saturday, March 31, 2012

Rome Trip Report, part 1

Hubs and I recently returned from a 10-day eating and sight-seeing trip to ROME! We had a fabulous time, and I'm recording my trip report here and at fodors.com, both for my benefit (so I can remember all the we did and saw) and as a thank you to all the great travelers who helped us plan our adventure!

Day 1
We touched down in Rome at 6:35 a.m. We couldn't show up at the apartment we rented until 10 a.m. to check in and ditch our bags, so we had a leisurely breakfast at the airport. A few espresso and pastries later, we hailed a cab to the historic city center. Now, this cab ride is usually supposed to cost a flat 40 Euros. But on the day we arrive in Rome, there was a HUGE marathon going on in the city center, so the flat rate was not being offered. We hopped in the cab anyway, and our driver made a valiant effort to get us to our rented apartment, dodging yellow tape, swerving around runners, stopping other drivers to ask which paths were clear, etc.

I was so glad to see the little green door of our apartment building! We booked an apartment through Homeaway.com, and we honestly couldn't have been more pleased with it. On the second floor (though Americans would call it the third floor), we had a bedroom, office closet, bath, closet/storage space, kitchenette, dining table, and a living area with a sofa and television set. There was plenty of room for spreading out, making espresso in the mornings, and unpacking. Free wifi was also available, which turned out to be a huge plus. The apartment practically abuts the Imperial Forums and is within blocks of the Colosseum. Our location made all major attractions easily walkable.

Once we'd checked in and put our things up, we explored a bit. We were very near the Vittorio Emanuelle Monument, a large, white, statue-topped structure that pays tribute to the first king of a united Italy. The structure also houses the eternal flame of Italy's unknown soldier. But for us, the best part of the monument was the amazing view you got of Rome's rooftops from the summit. Though we didn't pay to go up even further in the elevator at the top, we could still see for miles.

We wandered a bit before sitting down for a forgettable lunch near the apartment at Mario's Restaurant. I had the pasta carbonara, and hubs had the lasagna. We ordered a side of grilled vegetables and a big bottle of still water. After eating a bit, we couldn't keep our eyes open any longer, so we headed back to the apartment for a nap!

Rested, we ventured out again for exploring and dinner. We took some beautiful photos of the Colosseum lit up at night. Quite by accident, we stumbled onto Iari the Vino Restaurant and Pizzeria. They had a prix fixe dinner special, so in we went. I chose the pasta amatricana for my first course - bucatini pasta in a tomato sauce with sausage/bacon. The pasta was nice and al dente, and the sauce had good flavor. For my second course, I had veal roullades with ham and mozzarella. A nice arugula and tomato salad rounded out the plate, and our server brought oil/vinegar/salt/pepper to dress the greens. To finish, I had a delicious tiramisu with coffee. Everything was tasty, and with wine, my whole dinner was 16 Euros. A great value. Hubs ordered a Coke and a sausage and mushroom pizza (also good).

We had grand plans to walk around the city after dinner, but we were so pleasantly full, and so tired from traveling and the time change, that we headed for bed!

Day 2
After a nice hot shower, I was off to track down breakfast. Ideally, I was searching for a local bakery. But I didn't find one. Stomach growling, I eventually settled for a small touristy restaurant where I could at least get a crema croissant and an espresso. It wasn't overpriced, but I knew I could do better.

After eating, we headed for the Roman Forum. (We'd started out at the Colosseum, but the ticket line was heinous. We went to the Forum first, and we only had to wait in a two-person line for admission. That same ticket gets you into the Colosseum as well, allowing you to skip the awful line there.) I was really glad that we had both a book to guide us and our Rick Steves audio tour (a FREE app!), because unless you have someone telling you what you are seeing, you have no idea what you're even looking at, much less its significance.

I really enjoyed the Temple and House of the Vestal Virgins, and learning about them, and I marveled at the spot where Caesar was cremated. (People still leave flowers there today.) I think I would have enjoyed the Senate building more, but it held some other exhibit of artifacts and was clogged with teenagers on group tours, making it difficult to get a sense of the place and appreciate all that had happened there.

After the Forum, we were starved. We tracked down a restaurant in one of our guide books - Pizza Forum. I chose the Pizza Margherita, and hubs had the Quattro Formaggio. They were both DELICIOUS! Thin, chewy/crispy crusts, delicious toppings, and great flavor. Two pizzas, 2 waters, and a Coke ran us less than 20 Euros. Yum!

Afterwards, we headed to the Colosseum. Because we already had tickets, we breezed past the line and got right down to sightseeing. Again, our trusty guidebooks and Rick Steves' audio tour saved the day. They walked us step-by-step through the site, and we roamed around at will and learned all about the ancient "games." (Romans were a bloodthirsty bunch. The thought of the number of people who died at the Colosseum is chilling.) And incidentally, everything about the Colosseum reminds you that it's an ancient site. I kid you not, as I watched, I saw a chunk of rubble fall from one of the interior arches into a roped-off area below. In some ways, I am amazed that the place is still standing, what with all the foot traffic it gets.

Feeling a little weary by this time, we headed back to the apartment for a quick nap. After resting, we had a great Skype call with family back home, and we were on our way. (We'd bought an iPad just before the trip specifically for this purpose. The wifi in the apartment made it possible for us to keep up with our sweet son back at home, as well as our parents. It was a great investment for the trip, and we later used the device to show off some of our vacation photos!)

As dusk was falling, we set our sights on the Trevi Fountain. It was easy to locate (follow the sound of water), and I was surprised by how massive it was. (We'd seen the miniature copy of it in Las Vegas at Caesar's Palace. The original is, naturally, much more impressive.) We both threw our coins in, took some photos, and people-watched for a bit before deciding to find dinner. There was a local recommendation in another one of our guidebooks - Bruschetteria Nonna Papera. After a few wrong turns, we practically tripped over it, so we settled in for some food. We felt we had to start off with tomato bruschetta, which featured delicious grilled bread. Then, hubs had the veal saltimboca, and I chose the seafood risotto. The risotto was excellent, with plenty of seafood throughout the dish. Clams, fish, shrimp, even some squid ensured that I had a delicious seafood surprise in each bite. We washed it all down with wine and beer.


As we walked out of the restaurant, we realized that we hadn't had a single bite of gelato since arriving in Rome. Nearly all of our guidebooks agreed that we were very near one of the best spots to sample it in the city - Il Gelato de San Crispino. Hubs' excellent sense of direction led us right to it, and I got a cup of the house specialty - Sardinian honey gelato. It lived up to the hype. I savored it slowly as we laughed, talked, and ambled back to the apartment.

Day 3
Day 3 of our trip dawned early. We'd reserved tickets at the Vatican, and we didn't want to be late! We skipped breakfast and took our inaugural Roman subway in order to arrive at the Vatican well before our 9 a.m. reservation. Even so, we were rushing to make it! Luckily, because we'd booked ahead, we were (again) able to skip the horrific-looking line and breeze right into security. After trading our paper reservation for a formal ticket, we were in!

However, we were mightily regretting skipping breakfast by this time. Growling stomachs led us to a beautiful little museum cafe, where we got pastries and espresso for a mere 6 Euros. We were able to enjoy them in an alfresco dining area bordering a lovely (and uncrowded) garden full of citrus trees and fountains. Fortified, we began our attack on the Vatican Museum. We first headed for the Egyptian and Etruscan rooms, which feature gorgeous sculpture, pottery, and jewelry. (While the main hall of the Vatican Museum was completely packed, we had the Etruscan rooms practically to ourselves. There's solitude even at the Vatican Museum, if you know where to look!) We loved the octagonal sculpture gardens, too, and enjoyed the tapestries in the long hall whose eyes seemed to follow you!
We finished up with the Raphael Rooms, which were terribly crowded, and the Sistine Chapel. (What is there to say about the Sistine Chapel? It was crowded, but it was sublime. I plugged my earphones into my iPhone for my Rick Steves audio explanation, and I was in heaven.)

Next up, St. Peter's Basilica. There were lots of people there, but the massive space didn't feel crowded at all. The airy dome, the amazing sculpture, and the paintings were all gorgeous. I stood in front of the Pieta for a long while. It's mesmerizing. I gave the foot of St. Peter's statue a quick kiss before we left.

Famished, we left St. Peter's in search of food! We walked a block or two off the main drag and started looking around. We quickly found Verina al Masherino and plopped down at an alfresco table. We started with a liter of water (We were PARCHED!) and a mozzarella and prosciutto appetizer. Yum! The generous plate came with bread, olives, and a tangy artichoke heart. Then, I had the fettuccine papalini, with delicious eggy noodles, peas, finely sliced mushrooms, and bacon in a creamy sauce. This was amazing, one of the best pasta dishes I had on the trip, and I cleaned the plate. Hubs had the canneloni.

After dinner, we were pooped! We shuffled back to the apartment for a rest. We woke up with feet itching to walk, so we legged it through the shopping district to the Spanish Steps. The steps were crowded and touristy, and I was underwhelmed by them. However, the real purpose of visiting the area was to sample one of the restaurants our guidebooks told us was a justified splurge - Il Gabriello. A few blocks from the Spanish Steps, the restaurant's white, unassuming little sign leads you down a staircase and into culinary happiness. I had the lamb, and hubs had the veal. We ordered grilled vegetables as a side and a nice amount of house wine. My lamb was perfectly cooked, and the house wine more than met my expectations. With water and bread, this would have been a full meal, but we couldn't resist dessert. I chose a giant cream puff smothered in chocolate, and hubs ordered a molten chocolate cake (the kind with the gooey center). Dessert and a few espressos later, we felt we were definitely living the sweet life! The tab for the whole meal was 61 Euros. Not cheap, but not outrageous. We felt it was an excellent value for the food and the service.

We took a leisurely stroll down Condotti to get back to the apartment, finishing up by admiring Trajan's Column and the Imperial Forums, lit dramatically at night.

More to come . . .

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Little people take over in Jackson!

Great things are going on in Jackson right now for the younger set! There are TWO great exhibits currently running, plus a theatre production!

First, the Mississippi Museum of Natural Science has an exhibit on offer until May 6 called Animal Secrets. The exhibit focuses on the lives and habitats of forest animals. Clay absolutely loved the darkened cave where he could discover animals with a tiny flashlight and the giant tree where he could pretend to be storing acorns for the cold winter months. Visitors can also build their own ants and play with eagle and raccoon puppets. As usual, this exhibit is offered in addition to all the great things you can see at the museum any time - the fish tanks, the two-headed snake, the nature trails, etc. We tuckered ourselves out exploring, then picked up a bit of Chick-fil-A on the way home. A great Saturday!

And just this weekend, the Mississippi Museum of Art unveiled their Curious George Saves the Day exhibit. Full of fun illustrations, letters, manuscripts, and more, this exhibit traces the lives of Margaret and H.A. Rey and their most famous creation - Curious George. Little man has been a HUGE Curious George fan since he was very little, so we couldn't miss this exhibit. We showed up on opening day to not only see the show, but to participate in all of the family activities the museum had planned. After arriving, we picked up our yellow safari hat and our passport. Once we'd enjoyed story time, we set off into the exhibit. Along the way, we had our passport stamped at booths where we decorated bookmarks, created a postcard, drew in a giant dry-erase book, and more. We finished up with a free red balloon and a ride around the art garden on a miniature train. Topped off with a couple of slices of pizza at Sal and Mookie's for lunch, and little people (and big people) were very happy. You have until July 22 to catch this exhibit! Don't miss it!

For next weekend, we have tickets to New Stage Theatre's production of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I know a few of the cast members, so I am especially looking forward to the show! Most of the original shows have already been sold out, but the theatre recently added an additional performance on March 8. There's still time to sneak a seat! Tickets are a bargain at $10.

So much going on! So much to do! Buckle your little person in the carseat and meet me out there!

Friday, March 02, 2012

Bookmarked

Two books I read recently that I thought I'd weigh in on.

Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, was an excellent novel about family, country and how one's past shapes one's future.

In Missing Hospital, a mission in Ethiopia, a beautiful nun dies in childbirth. Her twin boys, Shiva and Marion, are the product of a secret union between the nun and the resident British doctor. Wracked with grief over the nun's death, the doctor abandons the boys, who are later adopted and raised at the mission. Years later, as political strife tears the country apart, Marion flees to the United States to save his life. Apart, the boys both grow into men fascinated with medicine, men whose pasts confront them in life-altering ways before the story's conclusion.

I worried that this book would be depressing, but its heaviness is tempered by vivid, loving descriptions of Ethiopia (almost its own character in this novel) and the characters' fortitude and optimism in the face of harrowing circumstances. Even the storylines with sad endings have some peace about them, some feeling of closure.

Verghese is an adept writer, and one whose own love of medicine is evident in this book. I learned all kinds of things, and I have a new appreciation for those who choose a life of healing. Though the book starts rather slowly, it is ultimately worth reading.

I also read Off Season, by Anne Rivers Siddons. In it, we meet young Lily, whose wealthy family summers on the Maine coast. There, she discovers her first true love and experiences her first true loss. As an adult, Lily returns to the same little beach house she frequented as a child when her husband dies unexpectedly. Memories echo all around her as she sorts out a new way of being and tries to make sense of all that has come before.

Though Siddons does an admirable job of creating a world and peopling in with characters, I have to say that this book is a downer. There is so much death in it, and Lily is forced to rally again and again. I didn't care for the ending, especially after I'd invested the time to cover nearly 400 pages getting there. Can't recommend this one.

Shame, shame, shame!

Oh, shame on me for not visiting this space in such a long time! Shame, shame, shame!!

Succinctly, January and February were FULL of activity. Some developments at work (I got a promotion! Woo hoo!), some family drama (mom got her hip replaced, sister is nearly to term with a high-risk pregnancy), and some of our general fun-finding (a divine gala at the Mississippi Children's Museum, lovely nights out with friends and family, etc.) have kept me busier than usual.

There's no use in trying to catch up, really, so I'll just forge ahead with today's story.

Months and months and months ago, hubs and I decided to take a trip to Rome this spring. We booked plane tickets. We found an apartment to rent in the historic center of the city. We booked it and began the long season of anticipation. I bought guidebooks and highlighted them obsessively. I began trolling fodors.com. We got some Berlitz DVDs and started rolling our r's.

Then, my sister got pregnant, and there were major complications. Then, my mom discovered that she'd have to have her hip replaced, and mom's visits to the hospital never seem to be routine. In the face of all the family issues swirling about, hubs and I realized there was a good chance we didn't need to be going anywhere.

So, we stopped planning. Stopped looking at guidebooks. Stopped making reservations. Stopped learning Italian.

And then, about two weeks ago, we noticed something. Our family issues were not ending in disaster. In fact, they were progressing nicely towards positive resolutions. Which meant . . . which meant our trip to Rome was imminent, and we couldn't speak any Italian other than "sorella" (sister) and "jurisprudenza" (law). We also hadn't make a single reservation, not to tour the Vatican, the Colosseum, not to eat anyplace special, not to do . . . anything.

Sooooo, in the past week, we have been a veritable storm of productivity. We've alerted our banks and credit card companies that we'll be traveling. We've converted money. (Good night, the exchange rate is HEINOUS.) We've bought suitcases (Hubs got me a darling little red Samsonite! I love it!) and made reservations. We've blown the dust off the guidebooks.

The only things we haven't done are to learn some Italian (which I intend to do in haste) and start getting excited! We have ten glorious days in Rome planned. It's the first time we've been overseas since little man came along, and I intend to savor every moment!