4/15/2007: 1st flight left an hour late, but we did get to switch seats with someone so we could sit together.
2nd flight was also an hour late. I talked to the lady at the gate counter to see if we could get seats together. She found two side-by-side seats in the back of the plane, which was fine with us. About 20 minutes later, she called us over the intercom to come back to the counter. She tore up our boarding passes, saying, “People say I’m too old to be romantic” and handed us two new boarding pases for exit row seats (poor man’s business class). The seats gave us plenty of leg room. Our seats were directly across from one of the flight attendant’s seats, and she happened to notice that I was playing with my wedding ring (I’m still not used to the feeling). She asked us if we were recently married, and we told here we were on our honeymoon. About halfway into the flight, while serving dinner, one of the flight attendants gave us two small complimentary bottles of red wine, a tiny amount of which we managed to spill on Cary’s tray table. After an otherwise uneventful flight, we landed in Rome, took a fairly quick trip through passport control and located transportation to our first hotel, the Starhotel Metropole. The trip to the hotel took a little more than an hour, but it was a nice scenic ride. Watching the scooters and tiny Citroens navigate the dense traffic was amusing. Once we arrived at the hotel, we met up with Renata, our tour guide and checked into our rooms.
Cary and I took a short but much needed nap, then met up with the tour guide at 6:00 with an introduction and discussion about the activities over the next few days. After the introduction, we all packed into the tour bus for a quick trip to the Mangrovian Restaurant. Dinner included appetizers (bitter greens with baked roquefort cheese and tomatoes with fresh mozzarella), a pasta course (ravioli and fettucini poporo), main course (chicken for me and beef for cary) and desert (raspberry gelato), with plenty of wine, water, etc. Dinner lasted until 8:30, when we headed back to the hotel to sleep off the food and rest up for the first full day of touring.
Day 2 started with a 6:00 wakeup call (we set our own alarm for 5:30), a quick breakfast (prunes and blood oranges!) and then it was out to the bus for our trip to the Vatican. Becase we were with a tour group, we had reservations for all of the places we were scheduled to tour, so, as our guide put it, we got to stand in the “happy line”. We were actually the first group to arrive, so our wait in the happy line was very short (about 30 minutes). The other line — the “sad line” — started lining up at about the same time we did, around 7:30am, but no one in that line would be able to get into the Vatican until 10:00, and by the time they did get in, the place would be incredibly crowded. Each person in our group had a “Whisper box”, a radio receiver which enabled us to hear our tour guide from a distance. Our reservation allowed us to be the first group of the day to tour, so our guide was able to stop in places he wasn’t normally allowed to in order to describe what we were seeing. Highlights inluded the Vatican tapestry room (which housed some of the oldest and largest tapestries in the world), the map room and the Sisteen Chapel. Fortunately for us, the Chapel was practically empty when we arrived, and was started to fill up by the time we left. Normally, our guide would have had to describe features of the chapel before we were able to actually see it, but since we were the first group, he was able to talk to us inside the Chapel itself, which really enhanced the exprience.
We also got to visit St. Peter’s Basillica while a German mass was underway. After the priest’s homily, the Hymn was Bist Du Bei Mir, which is one of Cary’s favorites (she knows all the words in German). We got to see two popes entombed in the Basillica. After leaving the Vatican, we rode to the Colesseum, where our guide described what it was like to be alive when the Colesseum was in one piece. Our next stop was a walk to the Senate, where Julius Caesar was murdered.
In the afternoon, we scared up lunch at McDonalds (sans ketchup, much to Cary’s dismay), then after a quick nap at the hotel, we went on a walking tour of the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Thunder started to roll in during our tour of the steps, and we were greeted with an impromptu hail storm with pouring rain. After the rain subsided, we rode to a restaurant and had a fairly mild dinner (not quite as good as the one the night before).
On Day 3, we awoke to a 6:00AM wake up call, ate a quick breakfast and hopped on the bus for a 3 hour ride to Pompei (with a quick stop at an Autogrill, a roadside ZipMart-style convenience store with restaurant). Our tour of Pompei lasted about 2 1/2 hours, after which we ate au fresco at a nearby restaurant and had chocolate Gellato for dessert (with a cute little spoon). Ending the tour of Pompei, we rode back to the hotel, scared up some pizza and red wine for ourselves at a The Risorante Santi, a tiny local restaurant and called it a night.
Day 4 – A 6:30AM wakeup call, followed by breakfast put us on the bus at 8:00 for the 3+ hour ride to Montecatini. Along the way, we saw a couple of medeival towns and some beautiful countryside. Before reaching Montecatini, we took a long and winding road over the hills of the Chianti region of Italy, where we toured a winery in the Castle de Verazzano. Wine tasting and lunch concluded the tour. We reached our Hotel at around 4:00. The hotel was very old and very creepy, but luckily, we were given an enormous heavy magical talisman to ward off the evil spirits (it looked like an oversized keychain with our room number on it, but they’re not fooling anyone). With our afternoon free, Cary and I walked the streets of the tiny town of Montecatini, stopping for pizza at a cafe, picking up some Cialde (large, saucer-sized pastries consisting of two thin wafers with a cream in the middle) and some lemon Gelato.
Day 5 – Our wakeup call today was for 6:00AM. Breakfast is being served at 7:00AM, and we have to be on our bus and leaving the hotel for Florence by 7:50AM (It’s forbidden for our bus to be on the tiny Montecatini streets after 8:00AM (to make room for the school buses), so we had to leave the town a little early. Our first stop in Florence was the Academy of Art. There we saw a room ful of renaisance religious art from monasteries and churches closed during the anti-clerical and Anti-monastic reign of Napolean. Then we saw six unfinished marble statues by Michelangelo. They are called the prisoners because Michalangelo said that when he sculpted marble that he was freeing the statues trapped inside it. Finally, we got to see what we had really come to the Academy to see, “David”. He is 15 feet tall from head to toe. Once we left the Academy, we walked to the Piazza de Signori, which has been since medieval times the seat of government in Florence. David was originally on display right in front of the Palace de Signori and ther is a replica of his statue where it originally stood. We then walked to the Piazza de Santa Croce ( Holy Cross). We were taken to a jewelry and leather shop on the square that had extremely expensive jackets, purses, wallets and belts. They were asking more than a thousand dollars for a Men’s leather jacket. Sam and I decided to take a pass on shopping there. We used our free time to wander around taking picures and window shopping. We went to the Santa Croce Basilica and saw the tombs of Michaelangelo, Galileo, and Dante. Sam had some pepperoni pizza and I had some tortellini for lunch at a street side cafe. Later, we went to Vivoli( a famous Gellaterie). They had more flavors of gelato that any other place we had seen. Sam got melon, which tasted just like cantelope. I got blood orange. It was by far the best gelato we had so far. Once back at the hotel, we had a rather bland dinner with some lively company.
Day 6 – We had a 6:30 wakeup call, followed by breakfast at 7:30. We were on the bus by 8:45 for the trip to Lucca. It was originally an Etruscan town later occupied by the Romans and then much more recently Italians. There is a wall with embankments all along the inside that encompasses the limits of the ancient and medieval city. It was fun to walk around the narrow streets and up onto the city wall for a great view. At one point we happened on a beautiful church that was a shrine for Saint Zita. She was lying fully clothed in a glass case and was in pretty good shape for having died more than 800 years ago.We had pizza again for lunch before hopping back on the bus for the trip to Pisa. Pisa has become a huge tourist trap. There were tons and tons of junky souvineer stands and people trying to sell you scarves and sunglasses. The tower is a lot smaller than you would think it would be. There were lots of people trying to stage the “I’m trying to straighten up the tower” picture, which, when taken out of context, looks like some weird performance art. The Doumo, a church right beside the tower, was lined with beautiful paintings and some interesting tombs. Leaving Pisa, we then returned to Montecatini, had some more Gelato, and had dinner at Villa Pasqualle, a restarant on a hill overlooking Montecatini. Dinner was pretty good, but was oddly . . . mushy. Aside from the beef and chicken in the main course, it was mostly risotto and pate on toast. During dinner, a musician played on a synthesizer while we ate and went largely unnoticed until well into the evening when many people decided to start dancing. Someone mentioned to the musician that we, along with another couple, were newlyweds, and that was his queue to play a slow song, at which point everyone started clapping for us to dance. So Cary and I (and the other couple) slow danced to a couple of songs while others in the group took pictures of us and danced as well. By this point, some people in our group had already had a bit too much wine, and the music moved from traditional Italian classics like “Volare” and “That’s Amore” to bizarre choices like “The Chicken Dance” and “YMCA”. Eventually, the evening calmed down and we headed back down the hill for one last night at the Grand Hotel La Pace.
Day 7 Padua and Venice – We started the day with a 6:00 wake-up call, and put our bags outside our hotel room just before 7:00 to be loaded onto the bus. After a 7:00 breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, loaded onto the bus and headed for Padua. We arrived in Padua to find a large gathering of people in town for a bunch of marathons. While there, we toured the Basilica of St. Anthony. No pictures were allowed in the basilica, but we did get to see the tongue, jaw and vocal chords of St. Anthony along with his vestements, all preserved and displayed in reliquaries in a chapel near the main altar. Sunday mass was finishing up while we were there. Leaving the basilica, Cary and I had a little trouble deciding where to eat. We only had about 45 minute before we had to meet up with the bus. After searching, we found a cafe and grabbed a table. It occured to us after about 15 minutes that we weren’t going to be served in time, so we decided to skip lunch and head for the bus. But on our way there, we saw a small cafe and managed to eat a couple of hot dogs — oddly enough — with just enough time to spare to make it to the bus.
Leaving Padua, we arrived in Venice about an hour later. Venice was our last stop on the tour, and we no longer needed the tour bus since we would be taking a boat to the Venice airport on Wednesday. We therefore said goodbye to our bus driver, Massimo, who over the course of our vacation, managed to maneuver our tour bus through some amazingly tight spaces. After leaving the bus, we took a short walk to the boats that would take us to the island. We checked into our hotel, The Plazzo Selvadego, which was quite a step up from the Grand Hotel La Pace. After checking in, we took a short nap, then met up with Renata at the post office just outside the famous St. Mark’s Square. We arrived at the restaurant after a 5 minute walk through the narrow maze of Venice streets. Dinner in Venice was Italian with a seafood twist (shrimp, spaghetti noodles with mussels, lasagne and veal scallopini with tiramassu for desert). It wasn’t terrible, but not quite what we would have liked. Leaving the restaurant, we stopped in St. Mark’s square to listen to the dueling orchestras before heading back to the hotel.
Day 8 Venice and Burano
We began day 8 by meeting Renata at the post office, where we met up with another tour guide, Manuella, who took us on a tour through the Doge’s Palace. The tour of the palace included a walk through the prison, which was connected to the palace by the famous Bridge of Sighs (the only covered bridge in Venice). After leaving the Doge’s Palace, Manuella led us on quick tour of St. Mark’s Bassilica. Manuella dropped us off at a Murano glass factory, where we got to watch a glass blower make a vase and a small horse. We then heard an explanation of how the colors are added to Murano glass, and what makes each handmade piece of glass unique. After the tour, we broke from the group and ate lunch at McDonalds, then headed back to the hotel for a rest. We then rejoined the tour group and headed out by boat to the lagoon, taking a 45 minute ride to the island of Burano, a small town known for its brightly colored buildings. Renata explained that, according to legend, the houses were painted bright colors so that the fishermen, returning from a long day of fishing and drinking, could more easily locate where they lived. We had some time on our own to explore the town and purchase some gifts (which were much less expensive than the same items sold in the main part of Venice), then met up for dinner at a local restaurant. Dinner was again very seafood heavy, and was very good. After dinner, we headed back to the boat for the trip back to Venice, walked around for a bit, got some Gelato (Cary got lemon and chocolate, and I ordered caramel), then retired to our hotel for the night.
Day 9 On our own in Venice
On Day nine, we were entirely on our own. We first ventured out to the Rialto bridge, crossing over onto the northwest part of Venice to visit the Academy Museum. On our way, we stopped at the Friary and saw some beautiful art and took pictures of the various tombs inside. Eventually, we arrived at the Academy Museum and spent about an hour and a half walking through the museum. There were a lot of really interesting art and sculptures in the museum. Leaving the Academy, we headed back towards our hotel, stopping at McDonalds (a different one, closer to the Rialto bridge) for lunch. After lunch, we did the bulk of our shopping for gifts and souvenirs. Cary found a great pair of Murano glass earrings, and I picked up a really nice pen and ink set. We then went back to the hotel for a quick rest. After doing a little more walking, we met up with the tour group for our farewell dinner. This particular dinner wasn’t that great, but everyone seemed to have a good time anyway. After dinner, we walked back to St. Mark’s square, picking up more Gelato on the way (Cary got lemon and strawberry, and I got chocolate). Arriving in St. Mark’s square, we sat for a while and listened to one of the neatest things about Venice: in St. Mark’s Square, every single night, the cafes in the square place hundreds of chairs and tables in the open area and people pay to sit and listen to live orchestras that take turns playing well known classical music. We then returned to the hotel room and retired for the night.
Day 10 Going home
Waking up on day 10, we packed our luggage and left it outside the door for the porters to put on the boat. Our luggage would take a separate boat to the airport. We had a quick breakfast in the hotel. Most of the other people in the tour group had already left (they all had really early flights), leaving only Cary and me and two other couples. After breakfast, the six of us met up with Renata and jumped on our water taxi for the ride to the airport. After a fun 45 minute ride, we were dropped off at the airport. We said goodbye to Renata and got in line to wait for our turn to check our bags. Cary and I ate lunch in the airport before going through security. After lunch, we checked our bags and headed to the gate for our flight. The flight from Venice to Frankfurt was pretty quick. Once we landed, we had to make a long walk to the gate for our next flight. Unfortunately, the Frankfurt airport did not have metal detectors, so each and every person had to be frisked by airport security with a metal-detecting wand. Cary made it through security long before I did. I was next in line to be patted down, but security let a couple of older ladies through, which took a while. By the time I got through security, the plane was already boarding, but we made it on with no problems. The flight from Frankfurt to Chicago lasted about 9 1/2 hours. We had some decent meals on the plane. Arriving in Chicago, we discovered that our flight from Chicago to Raleigh had been cancelled by Air Traffic Control, and we had been booked on the next available flight at 6:00AM the next morning. Since the flight was not cancelled by United, they were not obliged to put us up in a hotel room, but they did give us a voucher for a 50% discount at local hotels. Unfortunately, all of the local hotels were booked because so many flights were cancelled. Cary and I ended up sleeping overnight in the airport. Without a blanket (it was cold in the airport) or extra clothes, it was pretty hard to sleep. We managed to get maybe 2 hours of sleep, so we were pretty exhausted by the time our flight was ready.
Day 11 – Our last flight home
Once we got on the plane at around 6:00, we were delayed by about an hour and a half because there was a problem with a piece of equipment in the plane’s wheel well. The pilot said it would take about 45 minutes to fix, but one of the mechanics working on the problem was injured — we later heard through the Air Traffic Control radio that he was doused with hydraulic fluid — and they had to call another mechanic to work on the problem, which required that he start over from the beginning. Eventually, we got into the air and arrived in Raleigh by around 10:30AM. Cary’s sister Emily picked us up at the airport and drove us home, where we TRIED to stay up to re-adjust to local time. We ended up staying awake until about 6:00PM, when we finally crashed and slept peacefully.