December 29, 2013 – Going Home

It has probably taken me a month to write about the trip home because it was so horrible…

We have a lot of legs to our trip home. First we are going from Rome to Frankfurt, then Frankfurt to Houston, and finally Houston to San Francisco. The first leg goes smoothly.

Our trip to Houston is delayed. Then it is routed in a great arc trying to avoid weather over the northeast U.S. It is very, very long. Deplaning, we are hoping that we might still make our connection. Houston has a giant airport. The walk from the plane to immigration must be a mile. We hobble along as fast as we can. United has promised us that we have enough time to get through immigration and on our way because there are few international flights. Tonight, though, there are others. The line for U.S. citizens is very long. There are only three agents. While standing in line, we miss our flight. United has been kind enough to go ahead and book us on a later flight supposedly leaving at 9:30 PM. We crawl through the line. By the time we get through immigration, it is 9 PM. We still have to collect our luggage and go through customs. After getting our bags, we recheck them and then have to go through security again. At 9:15 we send Sarah ahead running to tell them we are on our way.

Sarah meets us half way to the gate to tell us that the plane is delayed until 11:40 PM. We have spent a lot of time sitting around today. We have been traveling almost a day’s worth at this point and we still have 4 hours to SFO. The United employees tell us that even though we have Business/First seats that we will have to sit in coach. Finally we get on the packed plane. Babies are crying and people are coughing for the next 4 hours. We arrive at SFO around 2:00 AM. By the time we collect our car, drop Sarah off, and make it home it is 4:00 AM. I swear I am never going anywhere again.

Of course, here it is now the end of January. Memories fade. Yesterday I said to John, “Gosh, it seems like we’ve been home forever! We need a trip!” But maybe a road trip this time.

What we did a lot of on the way home…

December 28, 2013 – Rome

Last day of sightseeing is upon us. We get up early wanting to beat the crowds at St. Peter’s. Arriving shortly before 9 AM, the lines are much shorter and we are inside quickly. We spend an excellent hour or so looking at all the interesting sculptures and tombs. By the time we leave the line is at least four times as long as when we arrived.

After successfully finding an ATM so that we can use taxis today, we walk to Castel Sant’Angelo. Built between 132 and 139 AD, The Mausoleum of Hadrian, usually known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is a towering, hulking, cylindrical building. It was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The building was later used by popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum. It is also another site in the video game, Assassin’s Creed, and Sarah is eager to explore. There are way too many slippery steps here and I spend most of my time waiting for everyone to finish looking around. It’s fun, though, to watch the Roman crowd who are taking advantage of the good weather this Saturday.


Needless to say, we are all pretty tired out by the time we’ve finished with St. Peter’s and Castel Sant’Angelo. Lucky thing, it’s lunch time! We find a groty place not too far away. Things are not looking too clean here but we are too polite to get up and walk away. The answer to “How’s your lunch?” is “It’s food and I am sitting down.”

Our last stop for the day is the Pantheon. The Pantheon commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome, and was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian about 126 AD. This building is astounding. It has the largest brick free standing dome in the world. Since it was converted into a church, the Pantheon was not gutted or torn down the way most ancient temples in Rome were. It is a marvel to stand in this almost 2000 year old enormous building and look up at the beautiful coffered ceiling towards the oculus.
The Pantheon
The Pantheon

Coffered ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon
Coffered ceiling and oculus of the Pantheon

We catch a taxi (finally) back to the hotel, pick up our luggage and make our way to Rome airport for one more night before we leave. After a totally awful dinner, we pack up and we will be on our way home tomorrow.

December 27, 2013 – Rome

Sarah said that we shouldn’t make this trip longer than three weeks. Here on our three weeks +1 day we are starting to break down. John and I are aching and Sarah may have broken a toe this morning. But the sightseeing must go on!

We bid farewell to our apartments on Via Spada and catch the train for Rome. Sarah is very keen on seeing Rome and we are less so.

Only one of our rooms is ready when we arrive at our hotel near the train station. We stow our luggage in Sarah’s room and have lunch in the hotel restaurant. Then we are off! We buy an all day ticket to the Metro. First stop, Colliseo. There are a lot of people on the train. They are mostly Italian. What? Are they going to visit their historic sites? We have run into almost no visitors everywhere we’ve gone. I guess because they all decided to visit Rome.

The Coliseum is packed and the line is very long. The last time we were here, we could walk around the historic sites. Now it is all fenced off and there is a ticket into everything. We decide to walk around the outside of the Coliseum and then up the Palantine Hill. There are vendors pushing souvenir drek in our faces.


Our next visit is to the church of St. Peter in a Chains. There is a sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo here, a group of interesting frescoes and St. Peter’s actual chains.

We are pretty tired now and Sarah is limping because of her toe. We head back to the hotel. Since we are taking the Metro there is a lot of walking and stair climbing. We are all pretty sore by the time we arrive back at the hotel.

The hotel has a happy hour and we could use some happy. We have drinks, snacks and a light meal in the lounge and retire early.

December 26, 2013 – St. Stephen’s Day – Florence

St. Stephen’s Day is kind of a quasi-holiday in Italy. As far as I can tell the main activity of the day is eating a pannettone type of sweet that is dome-shaped and has raisins or almonds or chocolate bits on top. The sticking out raisins etc. on top of the dome-shaped bread commemorates St. Stephen’s martyrdom by being stoned. In art, St. Stephen is usually shown with rocks on top of his head.

Unfortunately when Sarah goes down to our bakery next door to pick up our St. Stephen’s bread for breakfast, they are closed for St. Stephen’s Day. Sigh.

Today’s sightseeing main event is the Medici Chapels and San Lorenzo Cathedral. (No pictures allowed)The first San Lorenzo was built in the 300’s, rebuilt in the 1100’s and it’s interior was redone in the 1500’s. It is the first cathedral of Florence and also the home church to the Medici.

Unfinished front of San Lorenzo
Unfinished front of San Lorenzo

San Lorenzo complex
San Lorenzo complex

The Medicis were quite full of themselves and wanted a lasting monument to their wonderfulness. All the big name art and architecture players were involved. Michelangelo won the bid for the exterior but like many of his projects, it was never completed. He also did a lot of the sculptures in their mausoleum.

Lorenzo Medici's tomb with three Michelangelo sculptures (Figures of Dawn and Dusk and idealized Lorenzo)
Lorenzo Medici’s tomb with three Michelangelo sculptures (Figures of Dawn and Dusk and idealized Lorenzo)
Guiliano Medici's tomb with Michelangelo's Night and Day plus idealized Giuliano
Guiliano Medici’s tomb with Michelangelo’s Night and Day plus idealized Giuliano

Tourist note – The audio tour in the Medici Chapels is incredibly pompous and so filled with architectural jargon that we couldn’t figure out what they were talking about.

Our visit to San Lorenzo takes up the entire morning and afterwards we head back to the apartment to finish up yesterday’s lasagna and to start packing. My suitcase seems less full. Either I am getting better at packing or I am forgetting something.

For our final dinner in Florence we decide to go to Il Caminetto, a restaurant that we’ve been to on previous trips. Our dinner did not turn out so well. Perhaps we were less discerning ten years ago or the food has gone downhill.


We finish up with vin santo and cookies which we all enjoy.

A final walk by the Duomo and we say goodbye to Florence.

Goodbye, Florence! I hope we can make it back someday
Goodbye, Florence! I hope we can make it back someday

December 25, 2013 – Christmas in Florence

Merry Christmas!

It is our first Christmas in Florence. Well, maybe our second. A long time ago (1998?) we went on a family trip and I think we woke up Christmas morning in Florence and then took the train to Rome. But today’s Christmas was a little more traditional.

We’ve been accumulating our favorite Christmas foods since last week. Bagels are not so easy to find in Florence where their taste in bread seems to be stale and saltless. But we find them and we have our usual Christmas breakfast of bagels and lox with cream cheese, onions, and capers. Our only deviation is that John picked up Madagascar peppercorns instead of capers. It turns out that they are really tasty and add some extra spiciness.

Bagels and lox, beer and prosecco
Bagels and lox, beer and prosecco

We have a pretty lazy day. We read our books and hang around the apartment. Sarah goes out for a walk. There is some napping. Sarah makes a lasagna for our Christmas dinner. It is delicious! The Italian cheeses have a creamier texture and more vibrant flavor.

Real Italian lasagna made by Sarah
Real Italian lasagna made by Sarah

Tomorrow is our last full day in Florence before heading to Rome and home.

December 24, 2013 – Florence

Happy Christmas Eve! Usually on Christmas Eve we have a family gathering with lots of hors d’oeuvres and the grandkids, their parents and us exchanging gifts. Since we are not at home and Jon and his family are not with us, our Christmas Eve is the same but different.

John and I decide to opt out of sightseeing today. The pace has been pretty intense since we got to Italy and we figure two days in a row of down time will help for the final push through Rome. Sarah, though, has other ideas. And that’s fine.

She starts her day with a hike up Giotto’s Campanile. The views of Florence are wonderful there.

View of the Duomo from the Campanile
View of the Duomo from the Campanile

View of the Baptistry from the Campanile
View of the Baptistry from the Campanile

This is followed up with a trip to San Marco where Fra Angelico did his fresco work. No pictures allowed.

After lunch she has a trip to the Baptistry and another hike up into the dome of the cathedral. In comparison, John did a little shopping and we read books.

View of the Campanile from the top of the Duomo
View of the Campanile from the top of the Duomo

Ceiling of the Baptistry
Ceiling of the Baptistry

Late in the afternoon, Sarah and I go to the leather market and end our day on the Piazza della Republica having a cup of tea. Very civilized.
Afternoon tea
Afternoon tea

We fix our munchies and have a lovely Christmas Eve toasting and reminiscing about our trip.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE! (munchies include crostini de fegato, pizza sticks, biscotti, and salami and cheese mini-sandwiches)
HAPPY CHRISTMAS EVE! (munchies include crostini de fegato, pizza sticks, biscotti, and salami and cheese mini-sandwiches)

December 23, 2013 – Day trip to Siena

Monday is always a tricky day in Italy. Most museums are closed. Some churches are open abbreviated hours. So when we see that the Pinacoteca Nazionale, the Duomo and the City Hall in Siena are open at least part of Monday, it seemes a good time to go. Added to this bounty, the rain is supposed to hold off in Siena until Tuesday.

The train to Siena runs every hour at ten after. We catch the 8:10am and are in Siena before 10am. It is a pretty rickety old train not like the sleek ultra-speedy one we took to Rome last week. But it gets the job done. We catch a taxi to the Pinacoteca Nazionale.

There are many artworks at this museum that we enjoy – a lot from the 13th and 14th century. As in many other things, Siena was competing with Florence for the best “fill-in-the-blank” and art was one of them. Here are a few favorites.

It’s already after noon and on our way to the cathedral we see restaurant Numero Unico and it’s open. Much like the museums, restaurants also tend to be closed on Mondays. It’s pretty contemporary which is unusual and it’s menu is less traditional which is also unusual. My lunch is well-ordered and is delicious. The best of all three of us. (Go, me!)

After lunch we look at the beautiful Duomo from the outside since the cathedrals here have decided to now have a combo ticket letting you see about five different things for a lot more money. We just want to see the inside of the church but are not willing to pay $50 to do so.

The Duomo in Siena
The Duomo in Siena

Our last stop is at Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. The Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) was constructed in 1297 and its original purpose was to house the republican government. The palace is covered with frescoes. The most famous in the meeting room for the government is Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. It was unusual for the time since it did not deal with religious themes. Justice is on one wall depicted by a woman with other virtues around her. The effect of Good Government is on one side wall with happy prosperous people in a city and verdant fields in the country side. The other side, Bad Government, shows an evil devil like creature devouring citizens, a crumbling city and war.

Palazza Pubblico
Palazza Pubblico


We catch the train back to Florence having thoroughly enjoyed our outing in Siena. We do a little shopping for our Christmas dinner, buy some sandwiches for later from the bar next door and spend a quiet evening.

December 22, 2014 – Florence

Today we get up early so we can beat the crowds at the Uffizi. On reflection it might have been better if we had gone later. There is no line for general admission but there are a ton of tour groups. The trouble with tour groups is that they move like a large scrum from painting to painting blocking the view for everyone else. It is annoying but not fatal.

The tour groups begin to form outside the Uffizi
The tour groups begin to form outside the Uffizi

Of course there are no photos allowed here. We did not even sneak one this time. Important works here include Madonnas from the 13th-14th centuries by Giotto, Cimabue and Duccio and a lot of other early Renaissance painters. What a lot of people come to see are the Botticellis. There’s also a couple of paintings by Da Vinci and one by Michelangelo. Three hours are about my limit for art galleries. As we are leaving we discover that there is a whole new section downstairs for later Renaissance works. We give this a quick look through.

For Italians lunch on Sunday is the main meal of the day so we will make it our main meal as well. We find a trattoria that looks good and settle in. Our next sightseeing objective is Santa Croce and it does not open until 2PM so we can enjoy our lunch/dinner for the next hour and a half. The food is good although not cosmic.

Santa Croce is a BIG church. Many important people are buried here. We see the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, and Rossini to name a few. There’s also a lot of early Renaissance art.

John and I are tired out and we leave Sarah around 3 PM to finish up at Santa Croce and see whatever else she likes. We walk through the Christmas market and back to the apartment. Sarah comes home later full of all the things that we’ve missed – perhaps some other trip with better knees, I’ll see it all.

December 21, 2013 – Florence

Since yesterday was a slow sightseeing day, we have to make up for lost time. I have made up a schedule of what’s open on what day and what times they are open. Paper in hand, we are ready to hit the streets.

First up, the Last Supper by Ghirlandaio in the Ognissanti Church (All Saints.) This is the church we tried to get into this past Wednesday only to find it closed. This morning it is open! We make a contribution to restoring the church’s works and are ushered in by a pleasant lady behind the desk. We are, of course, alone in the chapel where the work is.

Ghirlandaio's Last Supper
Ghirlandaio’s Last Supper

In 1480 when this fresco was made, Leonardo da Vinci would be familiar with Ghirlandaio’s work and probably set off to make a more dynamic work when he painted his Last Supper in Milan. It’s true that the figures are more static but the painting is full of symbolism that would have been instantly recognizable to 15th century Catholics.

Our next stop is at Santo Spirito. We have been trying to get into this church for almost 20 years. The church was closed for much of this period due to problems in the scruffy San Frediano district. But today it is open! We spend some time examining all their paintings and sculptures. They have works that span the time from the 15th to the 20th century including a copy of Michelangelo’s Pieta and a crucifix by Michelangelo. There are no pictures allowed but Sarah manages one of the Pieta.

Santo Spirito
Santo Spirito

Copy of Michangelo's Pieta in Santo Spirito (original in St.Peter's)
Copy of Michangelo’s Pieta in Santo Spirito (original in St.Peter’s)

After this we look at their museum. It is mostly filled with fragments of columns and statues but has an interesting fresco covering one wall.

14th century crucifixion and a fragment of the Last Supper in the Santo Spirito museum
14th century crucifixion and a fragment of the Last Supper in the Santo Spirito museum

Two of the apostles at the Last Supper surviving from this 1380 fresco
Two of the apostles at the Last Supper surviving from this 1380 fresco

We walk along the streets of San Frediano with its many workshops. While Sarah and I duck into a cafe for cappucini, John goes in search of Mama’s Bakery for our Christmas bagels. Sarah insists that we take a “selfie” out on the square.

Marionette workshop with creepy headless puppets waiting to be rehabilitated
Marionette workshop with creepy headless puppets waiting to be rehabilitated

Selfie of Sarah and Mom
Selfie of Sarah and Mom

John's back with our Christmas bagels!
John’s back with our Christmas bagels!

Time for lunch! Our go-to place in the Santo Spirito piazza is Osteria Santo Spirito. I first ate here in 1995 while on a spouse’s tour of a Florence while John worked. We always have their rigatoni with ricotta salata.

After lunch we tackle the Pitti Palace. Sarah makes a fine tour guide for me as we go from room to room examining all the paintings and identifying saints. Our new favorite painting at the Pitti Palace? Raphael’s Madonna dell’Impannata. Jesus looks so happy here and it almost looks like Saint Catherine might be tickling him. At least I prefer to think that’s what she is doing rather than pointing to where he will be stuck with a lance during the Passion.

It’s getting late and time to head back to the apartment after a long day sightseeing. But there is still enough light to take a few photos on the Ponte Vecchio.

Dinner tonight is at 5 Amici. Although it is a humble trattoria, the food is very good and the waiter actually wants to serve us! We have a good time and head back to our apartments.


Florence is decorated for Christmas!
Florence is decorated for Christmas!

December 20, 2013 – Florence

This morning we get a slow start but we are finally up and out by 10:45. Since most things here are primarily open in the morning we have to be better about getting up and ready.

Our main event today is going to the Accademia, home to Michelangelo’s David. Along the way we pass through the Duomo square. Photo opportunity! The Duomo begun in 1296 and completed in 1436 has the largest brick dome ever constructed, a real engineering marvel of its day.

 Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze
Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore or Il Duomo di Firenze

Included in the Piazza del Duomo are Giottl’s Campanile and the Baptistry.
Florence Baptistry, an octagonal building begun in 1059
Florence Baptistry, an octagonal building begun in 1059

We spend a little time in the square enjoying the beauty of these buildings. They all look a little grimier since we were here last. I think the cleaning process is much like the Golden Gate Bridge’s painting schedule – when you complete the painting (cleaning), you start all over again.
Sarah and John in front of the Baptistry's Doors of Paradise
Sarah and John in front of the Baptistry’s Doors of Paradise

Sarah  and the large Christmas tree in the square
Sarah and the large Christmas tree in the square

We spend the next several hours at the Accademia. Once more there is no line to get in. Unfortunately no photos are allowed, not even with no flash. I can only imagine that this rule is because if you have your own pictures you won’t buy anything from the gift shop. The big draw here is Michelangelo’s David. It is truly monumental and awe-inspiring every time I have seen it. Also there are the “prisoners” which are unfinished sculptures which look like the figures are trying to emerge from the marble. Sarah and I really enjoy the vast collection of early Renaissance altarpieces and paintings displayed here.
Replica of David in the Piazza Signorelli
Replica of David in the Piazza Signorelli

At this point it is going on 2 PM and time for lunch. We stop at Ristorante Accademia in San Marco square. Because the restaurant is near the Accademia everything is 2 euros more than elsewhere. Food pictures –

So lunch is really good.

At this point John and I are pretty worn out. My knee continues to be a big problem and is swollen from all the walking about in Rome yesterday. We head back to the apartment after buying some groceries. Sarah plans to visit the Duomo complex and also San Marco. Unforunately San Marco is only open in the morning and the Duomo is now selling only a combo ticket for a bunch of attractions and she is unsure whether she should go ahead and do everything alone. So not a totally successful afternoon. Once again we are too full from lunch to have anything more than a sandwich and go to bed.