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Spring Break in Italy 2006
Posted by: steph on Mar 24, 2006 - 12:42 PM
We arrived in Rome after meeting up with our daughter and her friend in London at Heathrow. The girls are doing their junior year abroad in London this semester and the trip was scheduled during Spring Break. Both my husband and I had been to Rome once before (in 1986 and 1985 respectively) but the girls had never been to Italy, which explains why this account covers most of the major sites in a week long trip!

Rome - Where It All Begins

Our driver was waiting in the arrivals hall as planned and we hopped into the mini van and began (futilely) trying to reach the owner of the apartment we were renting on our daughter's cell phone (our third day in Rome we figured you needed to add a zero to the phone number). Our driver had a cell and was able to call for us and all was set.

We rented an apartment in the Via dell'Orso (above the famous Orso 80 antipasti restaurant) through Regent Suites. The apartment is reviewed separately on this site. If you rent it, go through which offers a better rate. We arrived after about an hour and settled in. We had dinner downstairs at Orso 80 - great antipasti. Then we walked to Piazza Navona where we admired the fountains at night and had great gelato in a shop just off one of the side streets. I didn't note the name of the place (it was certainly nothing famous), but it was full of about a dozen nuns all with cones of gelato and we figured it had to be good. It was the best gelato of the trip! My husband discovered "Amarena" which was an Italian cherry vanilla that bears no resemblance to the neon maraschino cherry-vanilla that you get in the States. It was great and he stuck with that for most of the trip. Jayna liked the "Straciatella" (sort of a chocolate chip/fudge swirl) combo and Mallory had coconut, and also stuck with that the entire trip. Of course, fickle me, I had something different every stop so I can't even remember what I had the first night. I think one of the flavors was cappuccino. It was all good. We then wandered to the Tiber and walked across the bridge to the Castel Sant'Angelo admiring the dramatically lit dome of St. Peter's from the bridge.

The next morning we were scheduled to meet our guide, David Lown of Roma Antica. We decided to venture out and see if there was a spot for coffee open at 8 a.m. near Piazza Navona. Well, we found a place that was clearly local, not tourist. While we sipped our cappuccini a parade of locals came in and out including a few "working girls" who had just ended their work for the evening and were stopping in for panini and Heineken at 8:00 a.m.!

We headed back to the apartment and David met us at 9:00. Our first half-day with him was scheduled for a walking tour of ancient Rome including a variety of sites, from ruins near Piazza Navona, to the Pantheon, to the Theatre of Marcellus, to the Forum and ending at the Colosseum. David did a great job of weaving ancient Rome with the modern city and showed us important sights that we would never have known about (or appreciated) without his help. He was well-versed in both art history and the history of ancient Rome and not too professorial for the girls who were thinking they were on break from classes!

After we ended our tour at the Colosseum we took the metro back to the Piazza Spagna for lunch and window shopping. We wandered into a restaurant called "Al 34" which was fabulous and great service, never mind that it was almost 2:00 p.m. by the time we got there. We walked on back towards the apartment where we were ready for a break. We saw a nice restaurant near our apartment called "Lagana" that I remembered seeing well-reviewed on Slow Travel, so we went there for dinner that evening. We had antipasti and pasta - all was good. We skipped dessert and went for gelato instead.

The next day we were set for another half-day tour with David, this time for the Vatican Musuem and St. Peter's. However, this was Saturday and the line for the Vatican Museum was horribly long, about an hour. We finally made it in and enjoyed the tour with David, but afterwards we did not feel up for the still very long lines to get into St. Peter's (the wait is for the metal detectors). David gave us a tour and some history of the Piazza St. Pietro, but we returned to have lunch near Piazza Navona and decided to venture to the Trevi Fountain that afternoon and head back to St. Peter's towards the end of the day when we suspected the lines would be shorter.

The Trevi Fountain was packed, but it was fabulous. After we all threw in our coins, we popped into Benetton so the girls could do some shopping. We then headed back to the apartment for a break before heading back to St. Peter's. As we arrived around 4:30 p.m. the lines were fairly short. We ended up right behind a nun from Yonkers, New York who lived in Rome and was going for a special mass at 5:00 p.m. which was the one time a year they bring out the veil of St. Veronica - if that makes any sense (I am not Catholic). Anyway, we visited the cathedral, wandered around and made it out before mass began without a problem.

That night we tried to have dinner at a restaurant I saw in the Michelin near our apartment, but without a reservation it was impossible. Instead we walked across the square to aonther place which was fine. We had to be well rested the next day to make our way across town to the Excelsior Hotel (coincidentally where I had stayed the last time I visited Rome in 1985!) to pick up our rental car and head for Siena.

Rome to Siena (Via Orvieto) and the Tuscan Hill Towns

We left Rome bright and early Sunday morning and headed towards Siena. A word to the wise - the time to drive out of Rome is Sunday morning. There was almost no traffic, making navigating to the autostrada effortless.

En route we planned to stop in Orvieto if we could. Since all was going according to plan (no traffic, sunshine, easy drive) we took a quick detour to Orvieto and visited the Cathedral. After we wandered the Cathedral, watched the one-man band performing in the piazza, bought postcards and took in the view from the hilltop city, we headed back toward Siena.

We realized we probably would like to eat before we got to Siena, so I started thumbing through the Michelin Red Guide "Italia" in the car hoping to find a restaurant en route that was open on Sunday and not too far off the beaten path. We succeeded and made our way to Sinalunga where the Michelin "two-forker" restaurant "Da Santoretto" waited. Amazingly, we managed to find it without much trouble and walked into a rather modern, recently remodeled, airy, spacious room. The menu was set, with a couple of choices for each course and it was read to us in Italian by our waitress. We managed to order after asking her to repeat a few things and we had a great lunch.

We then headed on to Siena and nearly came to blows trying to find our hotel, the Borgo Grondaie which was near the train station. I saw several reviewers on had suggested that the directions on the website were wrong, but I just figured: those tourists, what do they know? WE can find it. Well, after driving around what we knew was close (but not quite) several times, I was begging Scott to stop so I could call them. He was getting that stubborn face that says, "I am a man and I have no need of asking directions ever."

Amazingly, we found it and checked in to two very lovely rooms in this small hotel. We dumped our luggage and headed into Siena to walk around the town before dinner. The girls enjoyed the shopping, we waltzed through the Duomo and watched the sunset over the main square lighting the campanile to a rosy glow.

Then on to dinner. Or not... We had chosen a place in Vagliali, La Taverna di Vagliali. If we thought finding the hotel was a "challenge", this turned a nine kilometre drive into a road rally. Needless to say, we returned defeated to Siena after driving for an hour and a half and had a fine meal in a little restaurant right off the square. Next time, we decided to (a) make reservations and (b) to avoid surprises and to do a "drive by" before leaving for dinner!

First, we had plans to take the girls to see a couple of hill towns we had enjoyed on past visits to Italy: Volterra (city of alabaster workshops) and San Gimignano (enchanting city of the many towers). We headed first to Volterra, wandered the town, enjoyed the many stone workshops and bought alabaster souvenirs before heading on to San Gimignano. We had lunch at a cafe in the main square and then I headed back to the car because I was freezing (the sunshine didn't take the chill off the cold wind that was blowing all day). The rest of the group did some geocaching in San Gimignano before we headed back to Siena.

When we returned to Siena we decided to climb the bell tower. Surprise! Tickets were all sold out by 3:00 p.m. Instead, we wandered the town shopping and had gelato to soothe our disappointment at missing the tower climb. Then we had reservations, but needed a drive by, so we made sure we could find the Antica Trattoria Botteganova (which we did with no problem). We then returned to the hotel for a rest before dinner. Dinner at the Botteganova was very good, but it was a little weird that they brought me a padded footstool to rest my purse on!

One more note about the Borgo Grondaie - the breakfast was fabulous: meat, cheese, salami, about six different crostata/pastries, fruit, yogurt, toast, cereal, cappuccino and everything you could want. We really enjoyed this hotel and highly recommend it.

To Florence - Via Pisa and Lucca

We left early for Pisa, because we knew we had a lot of driving and we hoped to have lunch in Lucca after seeing the Leaning Tower. We made it to Pisa without much of a delay (some slow traffic on the ring road around Florence) and then hit the Campo di Miracoli. Pisa is one of those places where, once you have been there, you have no desire to ever return. That said, until you have been there the idea of seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa is remarkably seductive. Scott and I had been there, but the girls had not, so of course we were going.

On the positive side, when we were there in 1998 the tower was closed, you could not climb up to the top. Now, with the succcess of various stabilization efforts, you can climb the tower (for a price of course). We got to the ticket window about 10:30 and there were open spots at 10:50 so we got right up, enjoyed the climb, the views and the experience. Then we ran the gauntlet of souvenir hawkers and got the heck out of Dodge.

The real reason to get out was lunch. Scott and I fondly remembered our last visit in 1998 when we ate at "La Mora", a starred restaurant just north of Lucca in Ponte e Mariano. Actually I ate there twice the last trip and had the most amazing gnocchi with truffles both times! We made it there not too much past one and without any problem we were seated. We decided to have the "tasting menu" and Mallory began selecting her choices, because the menu appeared to offer three selections of entrees, three choices of meats and the like. When she began selecting, the maitre d' very kindly told her that the tasting menu was comprised of "very small portions" of all of the offerings listed (I think there were eight). Mallory lit up like a Christmas tree!

While I did not find the courses to be any smaller than a normal portion in Europe, after the first two to three we began seriously lagging. We should never have eaten the entire red pepper timbale that was the first course. But it was divine. By the end of the meal we were all happy, but it took a bit of time and we didn't have time to visit Lucca, becuase the girls were scheduled to meet a friend in Florence at 4:30. We had seen Lucca, but the girls will have to save it for another trip.

On to Firenze!


In Florence our home for two nights was the Hotel Davanzati, just a stone's throw from the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza Repubblica and Piazza Signorina. The Davanzati was fabulous. Fabrizio and Tom made us feel welcome and were very helpful with suggestions for dinner, sightseeing, museums and such. We had already made arrangements for a guide, Daniela Bigatti, who we found through recommendations on Slow Travel. Daniela was wonderful and can be reached via e-mail at She will send suggested itineraries and is very willing to tailor the tour to your interests.

We arrived not long before dinner, and the girls were headed out for pizza so we just ate at a small trattoria just 50 yards from the hotel that Tom suggested as a casual sort of place. It was wonderful. Much better than the "finer" place we tried the next night.

The next day we were up early to meet Daniela at the hotel and headed for the Uffizi where she had made reservations for us. I cannot even begin to imagine how we would have seen and appreciated half as much as we did without Daniela's guidance. She focused on Italian masterworks, espcially Tuscan artists. After the Uffizi, we had lunch then reconvened for a walking tour of Santa Croce and the Medici Chapel as well as a few other sights. I highly recommend Daniela and only wish we could have spent more time with her.

We also ventured out for gelato in Florence, both at Perche No and the "famous" Vivoli. Both were great, but really nothing was as good as the place in Rome (the no-name place with all of the nuns) that first night. Nonetheless, there is no "bad" gelato and we enjoyed both.


Venice, La Serenissima, what more is there to say? It is one of those places where you are never sure whether it is real or a theme park/movie set. Venice is breathtaking, and we arrived, dumped the rental car in the Piazzale Roma and as the sun was getting low in the sky made our way via vaporetto down the Grand Canal to Ca Satriano, our B&B.

We arrived and found Ca Satriano without any trouble and after dumping our luggage headed for Piazza San Marco. The shops were open so we wandered in and out and then went on past St. Mark's to see the Bridge of Sighs and the Danieli Palace, where I stayed the last time I was in Venice in 1985!

The next morning we met our guide, Fernando Viotta. Fernando was amazing, knowledgeable, entertaining and in addition to showing us the sights and relating history, gave us a sense of what it is like to live in a city like Venice where the resident population is dropping and more and more of the city is devoted to tourism. We saw San Marco, many churches, piazzas and squares, as well as palazzos and enchanting vistas. We finished up in the fish market near the Rialto Bridge.

After lunch we took a vaparetto to Murano and wandered the main drag peering into the glass shops. We did not end up going to watch glassblowing, partly because where we live we can see that anytime. We then headed back to Venice and did a bit of shopping before dinner. I bought a Fortuny silk scarf and tasseled purse in peacock blues and Scott got a blown glass sailboat in some little shop of St. Mark's square. We ogled all of the fabulous jewelry and just enjoyed the atmosphere.

Before dinner, we took the girls to the Danieli for Bellinis. However because white peaches are not in season in March they were made with strawberry puree instead (even better!). Then dinner, and more gelato - the perfect end to an Italian vacation.


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