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ITALY  SORRENTO - HERCULANEUM - CAPRI - VENICE - FLORENCE - ROME

 
Pictures of Italy At the Bottom of the Page

BRIEF IMPRESSIONS OF ITALY

The people were very nice. I had a preconceived notion that we might run into a lot of "high strung, hot blooded, temperamental" folks because of some past encounters with Italian tourists elsewhere in the world. But we were met with warm smiles most everywhere. 

I think more people use cell phones in Italy than anywhere else we've ever visited. On a flight from Malta to Rome when the Alitalia jet taxied to the gate, the first two people heading to the exit door both had cell phones at the ready and started yakking just as soon as the passenger door was opened.  And I thought Hong Kongers used a lot of c-phones but Italy takes the cake!

In northern Italy, they love to wear their fur coats during the winter.  I've never seen so many fur coats in any one country.

Elevators in most Italian hotels are TINY!!!!!!!

Just like in much of Europe, it seems like most people smoke in Italy and it can be a bit irritating to us non-smokers.

Where's all the garlic?!!!! I was absolutely shocked at the lack of garlic in the food of Italy.  The only noticeable garlic at all was on a pesto pasta dish being prepared on the Eurostar train. This was the case during our trip to northern Italy and on a second visit to Sorrento. 

The steak in Florence was second to none in the world - which came as a surprise. You don't associate Italy with steak. At least I didn't. The olive oil was out of this world and the olives - beyond words if you like 'em. Like in many parts of Europe, dogs were perfectly welcome in even the finest Italian restaurants and I think that's nice. How they get their dogs to behave so politely is beyond me! Italian wines were great and reasonably priced. Grappa, high-octane booze fashioned out of leftover grapes, was a nice finish to dinner.

In our humble opinion, the food is much better in northern Italy than in Sorrento although prices are much, much cheaper in Sorrento.

A word about restaurants in Italy. We saw "restaurants," "trattorias," and "ristorantes." To us, there was hardly any difference although Italians will tell you that a trattoria is more informal.

Pickpockets are a serious problem in Rome. More on that later but watch out if you go. Somebody will try to get your purse or wallet.

Now..on with a city by city description of our experience.
 

SORRENTO & VICINITY

We flew into Rome and then took the Eurostar  train down to Naples.  The train ride is beautiful.  You pass through miles of vineyards interspersed with olive trees, sunflower fields and other agricultural interests.  As mentioned above, you smell the aroma of garlic as the steward comes through the train taking lunch reservations for the dining car.

From Naples we caught up with the Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento.  Connecting at the Naples train station was kind of sleazy. The Naples station is fine but the passageway to the Circumvesuviana station was creepy. There was a long moving sidewalk in a dark and dank corridor with a bunch of odd looking transients milling about.  From Naples on down to Sorrento the journey takes about an hour.  While the Eurostar is a fairly luxurious train the Circumvesuviana is more like an above ground subway.

The Circumvesuviana passes by numerous lemon tree groves and along the way even those unfamiliar with Italy will recognize at least one stop - Pompei.  As the train chugs along in and out of tunnels (the cool, breezy tunnels are much appreciated in summer since it's hotter than blazes and the train is not air conditioned) you notice the mountain that caused all the trouble back in 79 AD, Mt. Vesuvius.

Sorrento is the end of the line for the Circumvesuviana and we hailed a taxi for the ride to our hotel -- the five star Excelsior Vittoria.  Little did we know that the hotel was just a short walk from the train station and the taxi driver wasn't about to tip us off.  But it was just as well.  We were dead beat having traveled for more than 32 hours non-stop since leaving Detroit.  It felt good just to sit in the cab for the 5 minute ride to the hotel.

When we arrived at the hotel, a host was at the door to greet us with two cold glasses of orange juice.  The staff showed us to our room and explained how everything worked.

The Excelsior Vittoria (hotel web site here) is an elegant and beautiful old hotel.  From our room (which had a terrace at least as big as the room itself) we looked out over the Gulf of Naples with a clear view of Mt. Vesuvius.  The hotel consists of two mansions and a couple of chalets and sits on a cliff overlooking a harbor and marina.  Numerous ferries depart from the dock heading for Capri, Naples and other destinations.  Some of these ferries are huge and seat hundreds of people.

The hotel is the only one in Sorrento (to my knowledge, anyway) that has a special elevator that takes guests down to the beach/marina area.  But don't get excited over the word "beach."  There's just a tiny strip of beach which was attached to the marina and was used by locals.  You wouldn't want to swim there anyway.  The water was littered with trash and streams of thin oil on the surface.

The hotel was very nicely landscaped with oleander, lemon trees, and all kinds of palm trees and flowering bushes.  Many of the plants were familiar to Florida while others were common place in the Midwest U.S. during the summer growing season.

One great thing about this hotel is that once you walk out the front door and down a long, narrow driveway through the garden, you emerge right out into downtown Sorrento complete with shops, restaurants, etc.  The Excelsior Vittoria is for that special night or two.  It doesn't come cheap but it really is worth it.

Just walking around the old streets of Sorrento was a treat.  And it always amazes me how vibrant and full of life European cities are.  One Sunday night as we returned to the hotel from dinner at 9:30, the streets were absolutely jam packed with tourists and locals alike.

Shopping in Sorrento might include one of their favorite liqueurs--limoncello.  It's often consumed after dinner in a well chilled shot glass.  It's made from the local lemon crop and has a pretty good kick to it.

HERCULANEUM (Ercolano)

My wife and I discussed a brief side trip on the Circumvesuviana train to Pompei but after doing some research, we opted instead to visit the ruins at Herculaneum because they are better preserved and less trampled by hordes of tourists. 

The train ride from Sorrento took the better part of an hour.  Once at the train station in Ercolano (that's the stop to look for) you just leave the station and head down the main street toward the sea.  Where the street ends, you'll find the ruins. The walk to the ruins is nice, all down hill until you get to the bottom of the ruins.  Coming back it's a hike!  And if you're hungry, look for the lady with the steaming vat of boiled corn on the cob if you're there during the corn season!  While we didn't partake, it looked and smelled great!

If you're in the mood for a quick soda or meal, we can recommend a little place called Trattoria da Calcagno.  It's on the main street just before you arrive at the ruins.

When Mt. Vesuvius blew its top in 79 AD, this town was buried under tons of volcanic mud that sealed everything and kept it in amazingly good shape. The human remains are long gone (I guess to museums) but the buildings are in tact.  Even some of the original wood can still be seen.  And if you stop here, you'll marvel at the tile floors and drawings on the walls. 

CAPRI

While we had only a short amount of time in the Sorrento area, we decided to take a ferry over to the famous Isle of Capri.  Italians pronounce it "CA-pree" with emphasis on the first syllable.  Unfortunately we weren't using our noodle.  We took the elevator down from the hotel around 11:30 on a Sunday morning and booked a ferry over and back.  The ferry was jam packed but that was nothing compared to the madness of the crowds already on the island.  Once you arrive, you head for the funicular to take you up a steep cliff to Capri town.  It's confusing to say the least.  You have to battle thousands of people over to the funicular ticket window to buy your tickets.  And by the way, you'll find the ticket counter in the exact opposite direction from the funicular train.  The ticket office is back toward the water.  Having waited in line for 10 to 15 minutes to get your funicular tickets, you then battle thousands waiting to get onto the funicular.  Once up to Capri town you exit the funicular and find that there are several more thousands milling about town---nearly elbow to elbow. 

We retreated away from the crowd, found a frozen lemonade stand and enjoyed a refreshing drink.  The crowd was just too much to do battle with so we just did some quick shopping, headed back down on the funicular and took a nearly empty ferry back to Sorrento.  I can only imagine how crowded the ferries must be coming back from Capri in the late afternoon!

While the trip to Capri was certainly worth it--it's a very pretty little island--the bone crushing crowd was overpowering.

If you're going to Capri in the summer time--and especially on weekends--take our advice and leave early.  I'd catch a ferry no later than 8am from Sorrento or Naples.

RESTAURANT REVIEWS IN SORRENTO FROM OUR OWN, PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

La Favorita-O'Parrucchiano turned out to be our favorite dining experience in Sorrento.  It's hard to describe this restaurant.  It's a very big, multi-level restaurant with so many palm trees and greenery inside that you feel like you're eating in a tropical garden.  In the section where we were seated, there was no actual "roof" overhead.  It had some sort of mat above head and around that, you could see the stars!  As you always do in Italy, we started off with a pasta dish as starters.  In my case I had spaghetti with clams and it was nothing short of sensational!  These were tiny clams kind of like Manilla clams back home in the U.S. only smaller, less sandy and so sweet they were almost sugar like. These little guys are the best clams I have ever enjoyed anywhere in the world.  For my main course I had roasted chicken and it was excellent.  My wife had a steak for her main course and it was super.  All this with a bottle of good, local wine and dessert came to less than $55 U.S.!  Eating in this part of Italy is a real bargain. The restaurant is located at Corso Italia 71-73. 

Zi 'ntonio was another great find in Sorrento.  We started out with some melon with prosciutto and it was great.  Next we moved onto a pasta course and onto the main entrée.  I had a fried seafood platter consisting of octopus, squid, prawns and a tiny fish called "white bait."  These little guys are about the size of a scrawny, skinny goldfish and are fried whole complete with their beady little eyes staring back.  My wife had the house specialty -- lobster and lemon risotto.  When you order this entrée, the restaurant sends you home with a nicely custom painted dish as a momento.  We finished off the meal with some sort of sinfully rich chocolate desserts.  Again, the tab for two with a bottle of wine came to just about $60 U.S.  Not bad for fine dining!  You'll find this fine eatery at Via Luigi de Maio 11. Web site is hereNote:  There are two restaurants listed on this site.  We dined at the first one and not at Zi 'ntonio Mare.

Ristorante Panoramico is one of the hotel restaurants at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel.  We were really tired after our long journey from the U.S. so we dined here for our first dinner in Sorrento.  My meal started out with a king prawn pasta.  My wife started out with a lemon risotto.  Both were excellent.  For our main course, I chose tuna in a marsala wine sauce.  The fish was well prepared but was quite a small serving, perhaps a two ounce serving at best.  Cindy opted for a rolled beef filet in a tomato sauce and she pronounced it "okay."  We both selected one of the "set meals" on the menu which included dessert from the trolley.  Each meal set us back 41 Euros and to be honest with you, the whole evening was just "okay."  The view was nice right on the terrace but the waiters were a little pushy with the service.  I think they viewed us as riff-raff.  We're often viewed that way for some reason!!!  We just don't have that filthy rich look that so many do have who stay at this very affluent hotel.  One thing about this hotel is interesting.  You never get a bill.  You never even see a bill.  Your waiter tabulates everything including tip and you don't see the final numbers until you check out.  Rather strange, isn't it?
 

VENICE (Venezia in Italian)

We left the main train station in Rome (Stazione Termini) around mid morning on Sunday. A word of advice. Rome has an overabundant supply of pickpockets so watch your stuff carefully. More about this later under the Rome heading.

Train stations are often seedy looking places but the Termini in Rome was very nicely planned. They even had orange trees growing inside the station!

One thing's for sure. Italian "artists" spend a lot of time putting their graffiti on EVERY train car they can find. Even many of the snazzy, bullet-like Italia Eurostars have been customized!

As usual when we go to Europe, we picked up a Eurail Pass before leaving the States allowing for unlimited first class travel in Europe for a week. It's a great deal and I highly recommend it to you if you'll be doing much travel by train.

Most of our train segments wound up being in Italian Eurostar trains—a little nicer than regular IC, EC, or local trains and a small supplement is charged. But it's worth it.

This trip took us through numerous rail tunnels and through hilly countryside with lovely Italian villas and farms. There were mountains with snow on top and it was a pretty ride.

The trip—as I recall—took about 4 and a half-hours to complete. Just minutes before we got into Venice we noticed fog. Then as we crossed a railway causeway across a tiny chunk of the Adriatic extremely heavy fog was apparent.

A short time later the train pulled into the station and from there it was just a quick walk out of the rear of the station to catch a vaporetto (the equivalent to a city bus that is a boat) to our section of Venice.

You can also catch a water taxi to your hotel or wherever you're going but it's way too expensive, in my opinion. It's about $50 for two on a journey that only takes 6 or 7 minutes. Vaporetti will get you there for a buck or two.

There are a few big foot bridges that cross the Grand Canal. Otherwise if you need to get across you'll just have to take a vaporetto (they stop on both sides, depending on the route) or take a water bridge. That's a guy with a gondola that paddles you across. Same basic boat but not to be confused with the famous gondolas that carry romantic couples along the canals. The latter are beautifully decorated but not cheap. For a half-hour ride you'll probably wind up paying $100 or more. Be SURE to get your deal set before climbing on board. Get the price you're gonna be paying and the exact number of minutes your gondolier is going to paddle you around. I hear people often get shortchanged on time. So watch your watch!

IMPORTANT TIP: Try your best to go to Venice with just one bag and preferably a carry-on type bag. Schlepping on and off boats and down narrow, cobblestone passageways is extremely difficult if you're trying to manage several bags and there are NO porters to help you find your way around the city.

First impressions? Ya walk right out of the train station and there it is---the Venice you've heard about, read about and seen on travel shows. Just down the steps from the train station there's the Grand Canal and across it, ancient buildings. The canal is teaming with action. Everyday "work" boats, vaporetti (plural for vaporetto), taxi-boats, gondolas (yep, the ones you've always heard about) and even boats picking garbage out of the water. But NO cars anywhere because there are no roads. And it was COLD. I'd say it was probably 35 and the fog almost felt like ice. We wished that we had brought our gloves on this trip!

It's confusing arriving at the train station at first and most of the guide books don't explain in enough detail but all you have to do is walk down the steps and head down the way to a floating dock that has a yellow colored shelter on it. This is where you purchase your tickets and catch the vaporetto which is a medium size vessel that serves the same task as a public bus in our country. There are a few seats forward in the outside…a large standing area in the open air…and an enclosed area with quite a few seats. If you're prone to getting seasick (like my wife), pop a Dramamine if you're gonna be spending much time on one of these water buses. You purchase a ticket at the little ticket window and then go down a gangway to the floating dock where you wait for the next vaporetto to approach. Each one is numbered and just like with subway systems, route maps are featured at each stop. Of course you've got to have an idea of which route you need to be on but if you've done your homework before you head over there, then you'll know at least vaguely where your hotel is located. So check the map and then make sure to hop on the correct vaporetto. Several different numbered boats stop at each station.

In our case, we got off at the most popular vaporetto stop—Piazza San Marco (Plaza San Marco). That's pretty much the centerpiece of Venice. After getting off the vaporetto we followed the crowd straight ahead down a narrow walkway and Cindy darted in a shop to ask for directions to our hotel – the beautiful Europa Regina. We were told to go straight ahead, hang a left, walk over a small canal bridge, and then look for a walkway on the left that was labeled "Europa."

Turns out those directions were right on. It was scary at first because darkness was just setting in and a small sign directed us off the main passageway to a LONG, dark, narrow passageway to the left. After a few hundred yards there was another sign to turn left---again down a long, dark, narrow passage. All of a sudden the hotel appeared on our right in a little plaza area and again, we got a surprise. There was an Italian army guy standing right out in front of the hotel sporting a machine gun! I immediately asked the concierge if the 'hood was safe and she said it was. She said there are way too many pickpockets in the summer but during the winter it wasn't all that bad.

OOur room was lovely and had a partial canal view but it was SO foggy, we could hardly even make out the beautiful church just across the Grand Canal. We paid about $160 per night for our three nights there which is extremely reasonable for a five star hotel. That's why we go "off season" in many cases to save geld. During the summer months, this same hotel room went for—as I recall--$700 a night!!!!!! Ouch! We found a similar deal in Salzburg at the Hotel Radisson Altstadt. During the winter, the room went for $150. The same room in the summer had a posted rate of $800!

The only negative things about the Hotel Europa Regina were the small shower stalls (not much bigger than a phone booth and just as tough getting in and out) and EXTREMELY expensive buffet breakfasts. I thought Hawaii was bad at $20 bucks a pop for a lavish buffet breakfast. Our hardly "lavish" breakfast at the Europa Regina cost $35 each! Needless to say, we didn't eat at the hotel that often for breakfast!

Venice was absolutely incredible. Ya hear about it with NO roads and NO cars and you see pictures but being there really made us appreciate it. The buildings were built on wooden pilings and amazingly, while they are sinking slightly and leaning, they're still viable. Had they had the technology to use steel beams all those years ago, the city would have already been doomed to sinking because of the salt corrosion, etc. The city is built in a Lagoon on the Adriatic Sea.

Off the Grand Canal are dozens of smaller waterways. Some big enough for small boats to use them, others so small gondolas can hardly navigate them. They were kind of like water alleyways.

Plaza San Marco is the centerpiece of Venice, as I mentioned, and it's a beautiful square surrounded by old buildings and a beautiful church—St. Mark's Basilica. It's just fantastic. Next to the church is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace). Nearby is the campanile (bell tower) that chimes away all day long.

I think the best part about Venice is just strolling through the narrow walkways (some barely wide enough to accommodate two people side by side) and hopping on a vaporetto and just chuggin' along takin' in the sights.

You WILL get lost if you do much walkin'. Navigation is very difficult for us Yanks if we HAVE to get somewhere fast. But just relax and enjoy the sights and ask for directions. By in large, we found the Italian people to be very friendly and most spoke enough English to help us.

It was too foggy to consider a trip to one of the nearby island but we heard great things about the island of Murano where they are famous for their glass blowing skills. Nearby Burano is famous for its lace crafts.

The food was good and the wine was great. Pizza in Italy is a lot different than our's in America. A pizza over there is made on VERY thin crust. They are nearly always hand-tossed and baked in a wood-burning oven. The most popular is the classic margherita. Just a touch of tomato sauce, a little mozzarella and a touch of basil. Most every Italian washes it down with a bottle or two of wine at lunch but it's too early for me!!!

RESTAURANT REVIEWS IN SORRENTO FROM OUR OWN, PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

La Favorita-O'Parrucchiano turned out to be our favorite dining experience in Sorrento.  It's hard to describe this restaurant.  It's a very big, multi-level restaurant with so many palm trees and greenery inside that you feel like you're eating in a tropical garden.  In the section where we were seated, there was no actual "roof" overhead.  It had some sort of mat above head and around that, you could see the stars!  As you always do in Italy, we started off with a pasta dish as starters.  In my case I had spaghetti with clams and it was nothing short of sensational!  These were tiny clams kind of like Manilla clams back home in the U.S. only smaller, less sandy and so sweet they were almost sugar like. These little guys are the best clams I have ever enjoyed anywhere in the world.  For my main course I had roasted chicken and it was excellent.  My wife had a steak for her main course and it was super.  All this with a bottle of good, local wine and dessert came to less than $55 U.S.!  Eating in this part of Italy is a real bargain. The restaurant is located at Corso Italia 71-73. 

Zi 'ntonio was another great find in Sorrento.  We started out with some melon with prosciutto and it was great.  Next we moved onto a pasta course and onto the main entrée.  I had a fried seafood platter consisting of octopus, squid, prawns and a tiny fish called "white bait."  These little guys are about the size of a scrawny, skinny goldfish and are fried whole complete with their beady little eyes staring back.  My wife had the house specialty -- lobster and lemon risotto.  When you order this entrée, the restaurant sends you home with a nicely custom painted dish as a momento.  We finished off the meal with some sort of sinfully rich chocolate desserts.  Again, the tab for two with a bottle of wine came to just about $60 U.S.  Not bad for fine dining!  You'll find this fine eatery at Via Luigi de Maio 11. Web site is hereNote:  There are two restaurants listed on this site.  We dined at the first one and not at Zi 'ntonio Mare.

Ristorante Panoramico is one of the hotel restaurants at the Excelsior Vittoria Hotel.  We were really tired after our long journey from the U.S. so we dined here for our first dinner in Sorrento.  My meal started out with a king prawn pasta.  My wife started out with a lemon risotto.  Both were excellent.  For our main course, I chose tuna in a marsala wine sauce.  The fish was well prepared but was quite a small serving, perhaps a two ounce serving at best.  Cindy opted for a rolled beef filet in a tomato sauce and she pronounced it "okay."  We both selected one of the "set meals" on the menu which included dessert from the trolley.  Each meal set us back 41 Euros and to be honest with you, the whole evening was just "okay."  The view was nice right on the terrace but the waiters were a little pushy with the service.  I think they viewed us as riff-raff.  We're often viewed that way for some reason!!!  We just don't have that filthy rich look that so many do have who stay at this very affluent hotel.  One thing about this hotel is interesting.  You never get a bill.  You never even see a bill.  Your waiter tabulates everything including tip and you don't see the final numbers until you check out.  Rather strange, isn't it?
 

VENICE (Venezia in Italian)

We left the main train station in Rome (Stazione Termini) around mid morning on Sunday. A word of advice. Rome has an overabundant supply of pickpockets so watch your stuff carefully. More about this later under the Rome heading.

Train stations are often seedy looking places but the Termini in Rome was very nicely planned. They even had orange trees growing inside the station!

One thing's for sure. Italian "artists" spend a lot of time putting their graffiti on EVERY train car they can find. Even many of the snazzy, bullet-like Italia Eurostars have been customized!

As usual when we go to Europe, we picked up a Eurail Pass before leaving the States allowing for unlimited first class travel in Europe for a week. It's a great deal and I highly recommend it to you if you’ll be doing much travel by train.

Most of our train segments wound up being in Italian Eurostar trains—a little nicer than regular IC, EC, or local trains and a small supplement is charged. But it’s worth it.

This trip took us through numerous rail tunnels and through hilly countryside with lovely Italian villas and farms. There were mountains with snow on top and it was a pretty ride.

The trip—as I recall—took about 4 and a half-hours to complete. Just minutes before we got into Venice we noticed fog. Then as we crossed a railway causeway across a tiny chunk of the Adriatic extremely heavy fog was apparent.

A short time later the train pulled into the station and from there it was just a quick walk out of the rear of the station to catch a vaporetto (the equivalent to a city bus that is a boat) to our section of Venice.

You can also catch a water taxi to your hotel or wherever you’re going but it’s way too expensive, in my opinion. It’s about $50 for two on a journey that only takes 6 or 7 minutes. Vaporetti will get you there for a buck or two.

There are a few big foot bridges that cross the Grand Canal. Otherwise if you need to get across you’ll just have to take a vaporetto (they stop on both sides, depending on the route) or take a water bridge. That’s a guy with a gondola that paddles you across. Same basic boat but not to be confused with the famous gondolas that carry romantic couples along the canals. The latter are beautifully decorated but not cheap. For a half-hour ride you’ll probably wind up paying $100 or more. Be SURE to get your deal set before climbing on board. Get the price you’re gonna be paying and the exact number of minutes your gondolier is going to paddle you around. I hear people often get shortchanged on time. So watch your watch!

IMPORTANT TIP: Try your best to go to Venice with just one bag and preferably a carry-on type bag. Schlepping on and off boats and down narrow, cobblestone passageways is extremely difficult if you’re trying to manage several bags and there are NO porters to help you find your way around the city.

First impressions? Ya walk right out of the train station and there it is---the Venice you’ve heard about, read about and seen on travel shows. Just down the steps from the train station there’s the Grand Canal and across it, ancient buildings. The canal is teaming with action. Everyday "work" boats, vaporetti (plural for vaporetto), taxi-boats, gondolas (yep, the ones you’ve always heard about) and even boats picking garbage out of the water. But NO cars anywhere because there are no roads. And it was COLD. I’d say it was probably 35 and the fog almost felt like ice. We wished that we had brought our gloves on this trip!

It’s confusing arriving at the train station at first and most of the guide books don’t explain in enough detail but all you have to do is walk down the steps and head down the way to a floating dock that has a yellow colored shelter on it. This is where you purchase your tickets and catch the vaporetto which is a medium size vessel that serves the same task as a public bus in our country. There are a few seats forward in the outside…a large standing area in the open air…and an enclosed area with quite a few seats. If you’re prone to getting seasick (like my wife), pop a Dramamine if you’re gonna be spending much time on one of these water buses. You purchase a ticket at the little ticket window and then go down a gangway to the floating dock where you wait for the next vaporetto to approach. Each one is numbered and just like with subway systems, route maps are featured at each stop. Of course you’ve got to have an idea of which route you need to be on but if you’ve done your homework before you head over there, then you’ll know at least vaguely where your hotel is located. So check the map and then make sure to hop on the correct vaporetto. Several different numbered boats stop at each station.

In our case, we got off at the most popular vaporetto stop—Piazza San Marco (Plaza San Marco). That’s pretty much the centerpiece of Venice. After getting off the vaporetto we followed the crowd straight ahead down a narrow walkway and Cindy darted in a shop to ask for directions to our hotel – the beautiful Europa Regina. We were told to go straight ahead, hang a left, walk over a small canal bridge, and then look for a walkway on the left that was labeled "Europa."

Turns out those directions were right on. It was scary at first because darkness was just setting in and a small sign directed us off the main passageway to a LONG, dark, narrow passageway to the left. After a few hundred yards there was another sign to turn left---again down a long, dark, narrow passage. All of a sudden the hotel appeared on our right in a little plaza area and again, we got a surprise. There was an Italian army guy standing right out in front of the hotel sporting a machine gun! I immediately asked the concierge if the 'hood was safe and she said it was. She said there are way too many pickpockets in the summer but during the winter it wasn’t all that bad.

Our room was lovely and had a partial canal view but it was SO foggy, we could hardly even make out the beautiful church just across the Grand Canal. We paid about $160 per night for our three nights there which is extremely reasonable for a five star hotel. That’s why we go "off season" in many cases to save geld. During the summer months, this same hotel room went for—as I recall--$700 a night!!!!!! Ouch! We found a similar deal in Salzburg at the Hotel Radisson Altstadt. During the winter, the room went for $150. The same room in the summer had a posted rate of $800!

The only negative things about the Hotel Europa Regina were the small shower stalls (not much bigger than a phone booth and just as tough getting in and out) and EXTREMELY expensive buffet breakfasts. I thought Hawaii was bad at $20 bucks a pop for a lavish buffet breakfast. Our hardly "lavish" breakfast at the Europa Regina cost $35 each! Needless to say, we didn’t eat at the hotel that often for breakfast!

Venice was absolutely incredible. Ya hear about it with NO roads and NO cars and you see pictures but being there really made us appreciate it. The buildings were built on wooden pilings and amazingly, while they are sinking slightly and leaning, they’re still viable. Had they had the technology to use steel beams all those years ago, the city would have already been doomed to sinking because of the salt corrosion, etc. The city is built in a Lagoon on the Adriatic Sea.

Off the Grand Canal are dozens of smaller waterways. Some big enough for small boats to use them, others so small gondolas can hardly navigate them. They were kind of like water alleyways.

Plaza San Marco is the centerpiece of Venice, as I mentioned, and it’s a beautiful square surrounded by old buildings and a beautiful church—St. Mark’s Basilica. It’s just fantastic. Next to the church is the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace). Nearby is the campanile (bell tower) that chimes away all day long.

I think the best part about Venice is just strolling through the narrow walkways (some barely wide enough to accommodate two people side by side) and hopping on a vaporetto and just chuggin' along takin’ in the sights.

You WILL get lost if you do much walkin’. Navigation is very difficult for us Yanks if we HAVE to get somewhere fast. But just relax and enjoy the sights and ask for directions. By in large, we found the Italian people to be very friendly and most spoke enough English to help us.

It was too foggy to consider a trip to one of the nearby island but we heard great things about the island of Murano where they are famous for their glass blowing skills. Nearby Burano is famous for its lace crafts.

The food was good and the wine was great. Pizza in Italy is a lot different than our’s in America. A pizza over there is made on VERY thin crust. They are nearly always hand-tossed and baked in a wood-burning oven. The most popular is the classic margherita. Just a touch of tomato sauce, a little mozzarella and a touch of basil. Most every Italian washes it down with a bottle or two of wine at lunch but it’s too early for me!!!

RESTAURANT REVIEWS IN VENICE – FROM OUR OWN PERSONAL EXPERIENCE 

LA CARAVELLA (web site here) was just down the narrow walkway from our hotel. We saw it as we walked to our hotel and I hoped it was good because we were tired and didn’t want to have to go far. And it WAS good. It specialized in seafood. I started out with a spider crab cocktail and it was good. Just the meat from a tough, hard-shelled crab with a touch of extra virgin olive oil drizzled on top and a squeeze of lemon. Next I had the traditional pasta course (you have several to choose from at each restaurant) which was linguini with clams. My main course was a fried fish platter featuring various critters that had been hauled out of the Adriatic Sea. The dish contained octopus, squid, shrimp, big fish filets and some extremely small fish about the size of a long, skinny goldfish and fried whole. Pretty good stuff. Cindy had a nice steak (filet) and it was good. Salads came with each main dish. Tab with wine was around $90. We ate there a second time and I had lamb chops which were excellent. We highly recommend this restaurant.

HARRY’S BAR  (historical prospective, click here) is often described as the best restaurant in Venice. It was a favorite of Ernest Hemmingway. The guys at Harry’s Bar invented "Bellinis" which are a concoction of wine (Prosecco) and white peach juice. So start with one of those! It’s low octane and harmless but tasty. The food was excellent here. I started with a fresh pasta dish then moved on to a main course of sautéed sole with a light tomato and olive sauce. A watercress salad dressed lightly with extra virgin olive oil and lemon was served along side. I can’t remember what Cindy had but it was great. Again – this restaurant comes highly recommended and it’s just a few steps from the San Marco vaporetto stop. If you’re arriving by vaporetto, just walk straight ahead and it’s the very first door on your right as you head down the passageway. Tab was probably around $80.

DO FORNI (web site here) was another great place but hard to find! This place is popular with locals and tourists alike. They specialize in seafood (like so many Venetian restaurants) and I started out with a seafood cocktail (marinated or poached octopus, squid, and shrimp) and then moved to the pasta course and inhaled a fried fish platter for the main course. Cindy had lamb and it was very good. A very nice restaurant and they start you out with complimentary Bellinis. Tab came to about $70 (for lunch).

 

FLORENCE (Firenze in Italian)

A few hours on the train from Venice and we arrived in Florence. It was odd to see cars again! A short taxi ride took us to our hotel – the Hotel Helvetia & Bristol, located in the heart of the city. This is one of the best hotels in town and it was nice but not a dream place.

If you’re into history and art, a visit to Florence would have to be one of the high points of your entire life. Michelangelo’s contributions are everywhere including his famous "David" in one of the museums. Again, this is a city where you just get out and walk. It’s beautiful and the weather was nice. Sunny with highs around 58.

We strolled through the Piazza della Repubblica famous for its cafes and took in the sites of one of the biggest churches in the world – the Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore. It’s decorated with literally tons and tons of brown, green and white marble. It must have been stunning when it first opened so long ago. But even with aging, it’s quite a site. It was so big that there was no way I could get a good picture of it without flying over it in a helicopter!

We also walked over to the world famous Ponte Vecchio, a bridge spanning the Arno River and featuring dozens of jewelry stores.

To be honest, we didn’t do a lot because we were just there for two days and we’re not big history buffs. We just mainly strolled around appreciating the sights and sounds. Sounds? Tons and tons of church bells going off. It was really pretty to listen to.

Someday we’ll return to Florence and do it right. Same with Venice and Rome. Our M.O. is to invade a place, see how the locals live and then go back and explore it in depth when we get a chance.

FLORENCE RESTAURANT REVIEWS --- FROM OWN EXPERIENCE

OMERO (web site here) was recommended by a couple of books and is located on a hill about 15 minutes by cab from the city center. I absolutely LOVED the place. My wife thought it was so-so. It had "hair" from the moment we walked in the place with air cured parma hams hanging from the ceiling in the lobby. And talk about history—Galileo used to live just across the street. I had no idea heading over there but Florence is famous for beef! But not just any old beef—it’s famous for "bistecca alla fiorentina." Florence beefsteak. They take a giant two inch thick T-bone and grill it over charcoal and it is traditionally eaten…as our waiter told me…"red." That’s just fine with me because I love my steak really, really rare. Folks, this steak was one of the finest slabs of meat I’ve ever inhaled!!! Wow it was good. I’m told this beef is special because it came from a special breed of cattle called chianana—cattle originally raised by the ancient Romans and Etruscans and used for sacrifices to the pagan gods. The pasta course I chose to proceed it was excellent too. It was called pappardelle with wild boar sauce. Wide noodles with a light sauce of wild pig. Cindy ordered fried chicken (again, an unexpected but popular dish in Florence) and found it scrawny and not that good. She said the pieces were about the size of a starling bird! But even more incredible than my steak was the bowl of large, green olives (some that still had stems) on the table when we came in. I have never tasted such incredible olives in my life. They appeared to be "half cured"…in other words, not really briny and wrinkled up. Each bite was like a bite of extra virgin olive oil but with a fruity, nutty taste. We thought about buying some of them and trying to sneak them back into the U.S. but decided not to. I’m not sure if it would have been illegal because most food items that can be legally brought back into the U.S. have to be canned, etc…although…while we were there the U.S. eased up on some salamis which had been banned. Anyway…if you’re ever in Florence during the winter and love olives, you MUST go to restaurant Omero and indulge yourself. My mouth is watering just thinking about 'em. I highly recommend this restaurant. My wife might beg to differ!

OLIVIERO was the second restaurant we chose for dinner and it was somewhat of a disappointment. All of the books recommended it and gave suggestions on things to try. On this particular night, most of the items I had read about were NOT on the menu. And it was a very small menu. We both started out with pasta course and for the main selection I had a steak (filet) and it was good. I can’t remember what Cindy had. The atmosphere was really nice but the service so-so. The next time we head back to Florence, we’ll give this one another try. Surely all the books can’t be wrong!

Book recommendation: (The True Insiders Guide to) Eating in Italy by Faith Heller Willinger and published by William Morrow and Company, Inc. All you need to know about restaurants, customs, terms, language and phone numbers to restaurants in much of Italy although this book did not cover Rome.

ROME (Roma in Italian)

As mentioned earlier, after flying into Rome we chose to stay at the Hotel Atlante Star and for a couple of reasons. It’s extremely close to the Vatican and we wanted to at least see it. And the hotel provided a free courtesy pick-up at the airport.

As usual in Europe, your flight gets in early and when you head to the hotel your room isn’t ready—sometimes you wait for hours. We sipped coffee at the hotel until the room became available at about 1pm and then we hit the sack for a couple of hours of shut-eye. We had planned to get up and walk over to the Vatican but the place was swarmed with visitors because the Pope declared the year 2000 a special Jubilee Year. Way too many people to fight. So we just chilled at the hotel and strolled around the block.

The hotel was okay. Nothing ultra fancy. The room was TINY to say the least. It had two small twin beds pushed together. There was about 11 inches of room on each side of the beds and that was it! The room did have a nice little balcony although it was a little scary to stand out there—about 30 feet above the street.

The noise was awful. Police cars going by all the time with their European sirens blaring, dogs barking and..get this..even guys playing bagpipes! Bagpipes in Rome? Yes—and here’s the deal. That day (Saturday) Scotland was playing Italy in rugby and our hotel was loaded with Scots. They fueled up at the bar, put on their kilts, grabbed their bagpipes and went parading down the street!

There are certainly better places to stay in Rome but if you plan to spend a lot of time exploring the Vatican, this is an excellent choice and the people were very nice.

Sunday it was off to Venice and later Florence. Now..fast forward to our return to Rome on Friday.

We hopped a cab from the train station to our second hotel in Rome – the Hotel de la Ville InterContinental Roma. The hotel was old and lovely although the staff seemed rather arrogant to me. I guess it’s just like the U.S. Visit a small or medium town like Indy and you’ll generally find nice people. Visit a town like Boston or New York and you’re liable to run into a few snobs. I certainly have! And I used to live in Boston so I know what I’m talking about!

The hotel was located at the top of the Spanish Steps in the heart of Rome.

The room was on the small side with about a 20 to 22 foot ceiling! Like all other hotels we stayed at in Italy, this one had a chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The bathroom, while nice, had a teensy-tiny shower stall. I almost had to lube up with Vaseline just to get in and out of it. It was even a tight squeeze for Cindy.

We arrived late in the afternoon so we just chilled at the hotel for a couple of hours and then went out to dinner (restaurant reviews to follow).

The next day we got up and set out exploring. I had been warned time after time about pickpockets from EVERYBODY who has ever gone to Rome so we were on our guard.

Throughout the trip I wore a money pouch that worked like a necklace which allowed my wallet to remain inside my shirt. At each hotel, we put our passports, plane tickets and extra cash in the main lobby safe. And Cindy wore her purse strapped tightly around her neck and UNDER her coat.

So….we headed for the Metro stop quite near to our hotel to head to the famous Coliseum (Coliseum). After buying our tickets we headed to the platform to wait for a subway to arrive. The platform was crowded with people and I cautioned Cindy to watch her purse like a hawk. A group of 5 girls about 30 feet to our right attracted our attention because one of them had a baby on a papoose rig so that the baby hung in front of her near waist level. We felt sad that a girl so young (probably 15 or 16) already had a baby to care for. And she was bottle feeding the baby. The train arrived and it was jam-packed. I’ve never seen a subway that crowded before. We and the others pushed and shoved our way on and the girls got on next to us. Five seconds after the doors close I felt something touch a camera, which I had in a coat pocket. I immediately put my hand on the camera. 15 seconds later the girl with the baby in the frontal papoose rig pushed into Cindy and using the baby as a blocker, took her hand, slipped it up under her coat and started trying to unzip her purse. Cindy…always on guard…felt it and pulled back. Now ironically when the train reached the next station about another 30 seconds down the way, two Roman cops just happened to be waiting to get on the train and when the doors opened, they immediately started yanking the girls off the train for arrest. I guess they were a known gang of purse-snatchers although the girl with the baby disappeared deep into the crowded car and got away. A kind Italian woman who watched what the girls had done explained to police what had happened and the cops asked Cindy if she would like to file a police report but we declined. It would have taken a lot of time going back to the hotel to get our passports, etc., and besides…the little hoodlums didn’t get anything.

From what I’ve heard from EVERYBODY…if you go to Rome and you spend enough time there, somebody will try to lift your purse or wallet. Be VERY careful. Another famous trick they use over there is snatch purses from Vesper motor scooters. As a woman walks along the side walk the scooter rider speeds by and grabs her purse often dragging her until the strap breaks or she lets go. If you’re a couple, make sure the guy is on the street side while walking down the street. And ladies should wear their purse tightly strapped to the opposite side of their body to where the street is. And keep a tight hand on the purse at all times.

Distraction is the main goal of would be pickpockets. Some guy came up to me at the train station in Rome with a bunch of Papal placards spread out like a huge deck of cards and he kept trying to get closer and closer to sell me one of them. I kept backing off but no doubt he was after my wallet. The plan was to put the cards right under my nose so I couldn’t see his hands probing my pockets.

And perhaps the worst distraction trick I’ve heard about from friends is when somebody appears to spill something on your back and then offers to help wipe it off. While the "good Sam" is wiping your back, his buddy is going through your pockets.

And watch out for the Gypsy kids. Not to stereotype but hey mob tourists and usually use some distracting objects like cardboard paintings again, so you can’t see their little hands doing the dirty work. Roman pickpockets are slicker than snot, I’m tellin’ ya!!!!!!!!

Well we finally made it over to the Coliseum (Ancient Colosseum ) and it was fabulous to walk around and imagine what must have gone on there so many years ago. It was planned about 72 AD, as I recall, and while they did enjoy watching humans fight animals and other animals fight each other, they never threw Christians to the lions like the rumor goes!  At least that's what the guides told us.

We then just walked all around Rome until the rain hit and we caught a subway to the train station and then hailed a cab back to our hotel late in the afternoon. Cabs were hard to come by because the Pope was celebrating a special Jubilee Year Mass that day for the disabled. Thousands and thousands of people confined to wheel chairs and even beds were using public transport to get to the Vatican for the special blessing.

At the ancient Coliseum, guys dressed up like ancient Roman guards pose for tourist pictures on stones and one man confined to a bed with wheels actually was taking in the sights just like any other tourist and had his picture snapped with the Roman guard.

I’m glad he was well enough to still enjoy life.

Other than the one bout with rain, the weather was quite nice in Rome. Sunny and 58 for the most part.

Our flight home was great. We left Rome on a Delta MD-11 and immediately after take-off, made a right turn out over the Mediterranean Sea. A short time later our jet was right between Corsica (on our right) and Sardinia (on our left). Then we flew across the entire Mediterranean Sea. We passed right, smack dab over the middle of Barcelona, over the top of Madrid, right over Lisbon and then out into the open Atlantic. Next we passed over the Azores, a lot of open water, then over Bermuda and then we hung a left and headed toward the Great Grit – Atlanta.

ROME RESTAURANT REVIEWS – FROM OUR OWN, PERSONAL EXPERIENCE

Les Etoiles (web site here) was the gourmet restaurant at our first hotel, the Hotel Altante Star near the Vatican. The restaurant is on the top floor of the hotel and affords a magnificent view of the illuminated Vatican. The restaurant specializes in Italian dishes with a Mediterranean slant and it comes highly recommended in all the books. Our dining experience, however, was less than stellar. I chose duck, something that I rarely eat and it was, well it was AWFUL. It tasted more like dried up, thin slices of jerky with an obnoxiously pungent blood red wine sauce than anything else. The pasta course (can’t remember which one I had) was pretty good and Cindy’s steak with peppercorn sauce was OK but nothing to write home about. We’d have to pass on this one next time we’re in Rome based on our first experience there. The best thing about the place was the stunning view of the Vatican.

La Carbonara got our attention because of the very name itself. Everybody has heard of pasta carbonara, right? Well some say it was actually invented at this place during the latter days of World War Two when a G.I. came in and offered the chef his powdered egg and preserved bacon if the chef could whip something up. Walla – spaghetti carbonara! This little place was great and our server was absolutely outstanding. His name was MASSIMO RIZZO. He looked a lot like former baseball manager Sparky Anderson and he was kind, funny, and offered extremely good service. When you walk in this little restaurant they have an array of appetizers sitting on a table. So we nibbled at those and then ordered our pasta course which was---of course---pasta carbonara. It was lightly coated in an egg sauce with just two or three small but flavorful little bits of bacon. Again—I hardly ever eat veal because quite frankly I don’t like the way they treat those calves…but I wanted to experience a truly native dish so I opted for the veal saltimbocca and it was good. Cindy had chicken and enjoyed it. For dessert we wanted to sample bonafide tiramisu. It was very, very different from what we get here. Here, it’s nothing but sweet, thick chilled cream, etc. At La Carbonara, it was simply a small, square cake coated in powdered chocolate with a very thin but seductively rich layer of butter cream inside. And you eat it with a fork. We’d give this place high marks and even with a little house wine, we probably got out of there for $60. It’s a neighborhood type restaurant frequented mainly by locals, I’d think. Go there! And try to be seated where Mr. Rizzo is serving. He’ll make your meal memorable and pleasurable.  The restaurant is located at Piazza Campo de' Fiori and their phone number is 06 68 64 783.

La Piazzetta de la Ville Restaurant at our hotel (Hotel de la Ville Inter-Continental Roma) was surprisingly good! Normally we avoid hotel restaurants like the plague but when the rain started coming down we didn’t feel like schlepping around looking for a place for a late lunch. So we hit the hotel restaurant. I started out with an incredible risotto made with pesto and uwe cheese and it was nothing short of sensational. Cindy started out with a truffle stuffed tortellini and it was quite good. She had veal marsala for her main course while I had chicken breast pepperoni and both were excellent. By the way, pepperoni in Italy does not mean sausage as it does here. It simply means peppers over there and in my case, the chicken was topped with red and green bell peppers and onions. Great meal!

Alfredo’s. (Web site here.) Okay, okay, it’s probably a tourist trap. But our hotel concierge did say nice things about it and I’m glad we tried it. It’s THE place where fettuccini Alfredo was invented! The place must have 500 photographs of famous diners who have enjoyed the food there. One I noticed had a rather puzzled looking President John F. Kennedy diggin' into his plate of fettuccini Alfredo. The restaurant started out with the original Alfredo. Then came Alfredo number two. And it’s now on Alfredo number three. He’s a rotund little guy with a moustache approaching handle bar status. He came up to our table and gave us each a very insincere handshake. The meal started out with---what else?---fettuccini Alfredo. The pasta and sauce was hand-tossed at a serving table adjacent to our table. It was very good but quite a bit different than the "heart attack on a plate" we’re used to here in America. First of all, the pasta is not floating in the sauce. It’s more dry than wet. And secondarily, it’s VERY heavily flavored with parmesan cheese. If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t even think there was any butter in the sauce at all. It’s still a killer, though, because basically all it is is butter and cheese tossed with the noodles. Cindy had chicken for a main course and I had a filet steak in green pepper sauce. Very good. So what if it’s a tourist trap! It’s good food. So go there! And the locals like it, too!

Hard Rock Café (Web site here.) The name says it all. But hey, they serve good, reliable food and we just happened to stumble on this one a few blocks from our hotel in Rome. The burgers were good and we picked up a shot glass. We collect 'em from Hard Rocks all over the world (Hong Kong, Kowloon, Bali, Singapore, London, etc.).

One final note. Watch out for strikes. The Italians are always going out on strike over something. The day we got there, regional trains were on strike. The post office wound up with a strike while we were there. And the day after we left, air traffic controllers at Rome’s international airport were gonna go out on strike. At least they usually warn people several days in advance that a strike will be taking place and the strikes only last from a few hours to a couple of days – usually.

A final word about tipping. Taxi drivers appreciate a little extra—up to 10% but watch 'em because they tend to sometimes nudge the meter up just as you’re asking how much the fare is and you’re digging around for your money. All in all—taxis were reasonable. At restaurants, nearly all of them include a "bread" or "cover" charge on the menu. It’s called "coperto." Most restaurants also tack on a service charge, which covers the tip for your waiter. Most restaurants leave a service charge on the menu ranging from 13% to 20%. If it’s 20%, most servers won’t expect anything extra. Also note that when you pay by credit card, they nearly always total it out and therefore you are unable to leave the tip on the card. So if you pay by charge card and you need to leave an extra tip on the table or choose to do so, you’ll have to do it in cash.

Well that’s it for Italy. It’s a great place.

YOU’LL NEED A PASSPORT TO GAIN ENTRANCE INTO ITALY (although the immigration people let everybody in without even looking at their passports or speaking to them when we arrived in Rome and I didn’t even notice any customs officers at the baggage claim exit). CURRENCY IS THE EURO.  IT USED TO BE THE LIRA. DRIVING IS ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD.

Photos:
Rome, Venice and Florence
Sorrento
Sorrento Restaurants
Grand Excelsior Vittoria Hotel - Sorrento
Herculaneum
Capri

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