Imagine this: You are embarking on a twelve-day journey to Italy with your own “famiglia” by your side. As you board the aircraft, soon departing for Rome, you smile knowing that your dream apartment in a foreign paradise awaits you. An apartment with six bedrooms, a well-appointed kitchen, and a modern, minimalistic living room dressed in wall-to-wall white. An apartment that is situated amid Centro Storico, the center of Rome, where Trevi, the Spanish Steps, and the Villa Borghese are just a few blocks away.
I don’t often splurge on luxurious accommodations when leisurely traveling, but this year offered a unique opportunity due to a special celebration. On April 17, 2018 my husband, his family, and I (a total of twelve travelers) trekked to Rome and Florence in effort to give my husband’s father the best 70th birthday ever. We planned everything to a “T”- arranged two HomeAway rentals and car services to accommodate multiple families. We planned excursions, chose meals, and spent from January to April ensuring that all of our needs in Italy were met. My husband, especially, was committed to itinerary perfection: So much research went into his presentations before family members chose their desired daily agendas- I truly applaud his efforts.
This blog has been difficult to write, I must admit. There were so many things that Italy offered, and while I did do a lot and am grateful for the memories made, there was a lot that I did not do. Over the past four months, I have jumped between sentiments of appreciation and sorrow when thinking about this trip. But today, I choose to document the more blissful moments, share the highlights of the vacation in hope that I help another with their planning. For me, I’ll just have to go back.
Our Rome HomeAway rental is no longer available, but I love where we stayed: If you opened apartment windows you could smell the sweet and savory aromas of the restaurant below. The neighborhood was not touristy, had the feel of a safe side-street, but was less than a mile away from Rome’s major attractions. Our street was sprinkled with smaller restaurants, spilling out onto sidewalks under ivory colored awnings amid little pastry shops and convenience stores. After a long evening walk, the street was perfect for picking up some gelato or a slice of pizza before heading in for the night.
Apartment Address: Via Lombardia 30, Roma Lazio 00187
I suppose that I can break up my itinerary into things that I did do, and things that I did not, but suggest that you add to your list. I’ll be honest: I have grown accustomed to traveling on my own terms; My job and past experiences have allowed me to become very independent in where and how I wander. Most often, I travel alone and navigate through “safety zones” within city walls: I people-watch in coffee shops. I stroll through parks and meander in and out of cute boutiques and research literary nooks. I take photos and eat as many foreign foods as I can and watch the sun rise and set from the tallest buildings and the grandest overlooks.
And that was the intention here as well, when I planned out this trip. I built out an Excel spreadsheet of the “lesser known” gems, was set on visiting them outside of full-family outing tour times. But with so many travelers and such little time, different interests and different needs, some things just didn’t work out. We only had two full days in Rome- looking back I wish we had just one more day to circle back to everything we walked past while en route to our tours. There is simply so much to see and do!
Tour The Vatican: Since we had such a large group, we opted to spend a few extra dollars and book a private tour of the Vatican prior to its opening. We arrived at 7:30AM and the tour lasted until almost noon. I am SO HAPPY that we invested in this type of experience, because at 10:00AM the masses started trickling in and by that time, we were almost done with the walkthrough. We used the “Walks of Italy” tour company and cannot say enough about it- I love that they employ those who are passionate about the sites themselves. Our guide was an art historian, for example, so he was not only knowledgeable about the theological aspects of the Vatican but could delve deeper into the artists and sculptors that worked in the space as well.
- Fun Tip: Make sure you get a Vatican stamp at the gift shop since the Vatican has its own artwork! I also took a picture depicting bi-location while straddling two countries at once.
- If I Went Back, I’d: Climb Saint Peter’s Basilica
Visit Trastevere: From the Vatican, we walked to Trastevere for more local flair: The area is known for its cobblestone streets and ancient houses that portrays true, original Italian character. We had lunch at Hostaria Pizzeria- Il Vicolo di Caruso before heading back to our apartment.
- Fun Tip: Drink the house wine, always- It’s not only cheap, but incredibly delicious wherever you go
- If I Went Back I’d: Simply spend a lot more time in Trastevere. These were snippets from my own itinerary:
- Climb The Colle Del Gianicolo, Trastevere, And Watch The Sun Set
- Indulge In Apritivo At Freni E Frizioni, Alembic Art Bar, Or Hybris
- Find The Open Door Bookshop And Stroll Through Neighborhoods; Get Gelato at Fatamorgana Trastevere
- Eat At Dar Poeta, Caffe Settimiano, Checco Er Carettiere, Or La Gatta Buia
- Have A Cocktail & Chocolate At Vendita Libre, Cioccolata e Vino
Explore The Colosseum, Roman Forum, & Pantheon: We used the “Walks Of Italy” tour company again to skip the line and discover Rome’s ruins: This time our guide was an archaeologist who worked in her free time at the Forum, so she was able to give insight on her personal findings. Although we did the tour mid-day and the area was absolutely packed, our guide’s expertise and the ability to see some off the beaten path areas of the Colosseum made this well worth the extra money.
- Fun Tip: Bring a water bottle and don’t be afraid to drink from the natural fountains along the tour route, as well as in other parts of the city. The water is cool, fresh, and completely safe.
- If I Went Back I’d: Spend more time in the area before and after the tour. The Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Pantheon are definitely worth seeing, but the surrounding neighborhoods are perfect for Apritivo, visiting the Baths of Carcalla, shopping and sampling at the Campo de Fiori, and viewing some of the lesser known historic sites, such as the Arch of Constantine.
Other personal highlights included lit-related findings: I took pictures inside the Keats-Shelley house by the Spanish Steps and found (and drank from) the Fontana del Libre. I recommend viewing Trevi and the Spanish Steps at night or in the early morning- crowds make it difficult to enjoy the view sans chaos. (Remember: When throwing a coin into the famous fountain, tossing from the right hand over the left shoulder will ensure that you will return to Rome in the future. I think I did it wrong.)
Some family members snuck away from the pack and did some pretty cool things- One went to an opera, another couple didn’t participate in both tours but opted to take the self-guided Rick Steve’s walking tour of the city. My husband and I trekked to the Aventine Keyhole, a place on the top of a hill that allows you to view the city, including the Vatican, from a truly unique vantage point. (There is a park at the peak as well that promises picturesque sunset views- I want to go back just to stop and savor a few moments at that spot.) Other things on my list included exploring the Speakeasy scene at watering holes such as the Jerry Thomas Project and The Barber Shop, visiting the Borghese Gardens, and eating in a cave at the Ristorante Da Pancrazio amid the theater of Pompeii’s ruins.
I have two favorite memories while in Rome, timestamps pressed on my heart that override any of the above itinerary items:
We took my father in law to meet his family members for the first time in a small town outside of Rome called Ripi. It was incredible: Cousins gave us a tour around the cobblestoned neighborhood and people seemed to come out of their homes to greet us, the streets otherwise empty. “Is this your family?” they would shout in Italian before beaming, hands in the air to say “Buongiorno!” We then drove to their home and ate the most fantastic, fresh, perfectly crafted seven-course meal. I have never seen a table so long, filled with such friendly strangers. Many family members did not speak English but we managed to still find commonalities and swap stories, share laughs, and revel in perfect company.
One night in Rome, we walked around the Centro Storico neighborhood until we found a restaurant called Ristorante Al 34 on a little side street by the Spanish Steps. We sat outside and ordered appetizers, fresh pasta dishes, and two large carafes of the house wine. The meal seemed to last for hours, and once the wine started moving through our veins, we all relaxed and surrendered to the moment of dining beneath a flickering street lamp while listening to the melodies of an opera singer mere feet away.
Once again, I wish that I had one more day in Rome to wander- Eat dinner alone with my husband on a terrace somewhere, watch a sunset while sharing a bottle of wine, lie in the grass beside the Ancient Ruins Of Parco Degli Acquedotti, watching clouds while hand in hand. I crave more of those moments, but trust that I will be back to enjoy more of a local experience.
The second half of our trip was spent outside of Florence in an incredibly luxurious villa on the Tenuta di Nozzole. Although more remote (the city of Florence was about 45 minutes away from our estate and we only spent one day there) we occupied ourselves with the most delicious food and wine.
The nine- bedroom estate was one of the grandest homes I’ve ever stepped foot in. It had a pool, and a pool table room. Expansive dining areas in and outside that promised fantastic meals and the freshest snacks, prepared by the estate’s in-house chefs. There were terraces and large rooms with even larger windows, with views of sprawling vineyards.
Mike and I had first bedroom pick and we chose the honeymoon suite, the best room in the house complete with a huge, luxurious bed, a stunning bathroom, and a fireplace that stood tall between two linen- lined windows. My favorite thing to do was to lie in bed, crisp white sheets against bare skin, and welcome the morning light with a notebook and pen in hand. On some mornings, my coffee would grow cold as I occupied myself with words for the first few hours of the day.
We were waited on, hand and foot. We pre-purchased cases of wine so when one bottle was done, another cork was unscrewed. Breakfasts consisted of a buffet of fresh meats and cheeses, croissants and biscuits, eggs however we wanted them and the crispiest bacon. Snacks were plentiful on the terrace and dinners were elaborate and never-ending: I tried pate, tartar, foie gras, and lard on perfectly baked baguettes.
Our meals were ones I won’t soon forget. Although my inner explorer felt uneasy at times, removed from the bustle of yet another city, the wine, the food, and the views were enough to settle and satisfy.
If staying in a local town in Tuscany, however, I do recommend renting a car. Greve in the Chianti region had bus stops but we waited almost two hours for one to come along. Some family members, my husband included, ran out of patience before one arrived, and we were confused as to how to pay so we ended up getting a free ride to town.
We used car services during the two days we ventured to Florence and the Marchesi Antinori Vineyard in Siena.
I will start with Antinori first- It is a MUST-SEE Winery if you are in the Chianti region. The family history, the harvesting technology, the stunning landscape and landmark, and the wine itself was all superb. We took a tour of the place and it was unlike any other vineyard I have ever seen before. I highly recommend arriving early for lunch- a charcuterie board with meats, cheeses, jams, and breads awaits! The tour lasts a total of 2.5 hours and is 60 euro with other guests, if you do the “Bottaia Tour.” (You won’t be disappointed- Instead of doing a tasting outside of the gift shop you are suspended in a beautiful private room above the “cellar.”)
Florence was another day trip and although a little more relaxed than Rome, I still wish we had more time. Families split as soon as our car dropped us off and I was able to do a quick stroll through the San Lorenzo Market and a speedy pass through Massimo’s Leather Shop before settling into a Brewery nearby. After some lunch, we ventured to see the Statue of David at The “Accademia Of Florence” and walked around the Piazza del Duomo. The crowds were a bit off-putting, and my husband is afraid of heights so while we did not climb the 463 to the top of the Duomo, its something on my list for the next time I visit.
I also want to make sure I save time for some of these!
- Visit The Palazzo Vecchio Tower
- Stroll Through The Boboli Gardens
- Ride The Carousel & Eat Gelato In The Piazza Repubblica
- Take Photos Of The Bridge Of Ponte Vecchio (We Walked Across It And Obviously, The Pictures Are Not As Impressive)
- Visit The the Uffizi Gallery
- BUY A Jacket Or Purse At Massimo’s Leather Shop
- Venture To The Basilica di Santa Croce (Basilica of the Holy Cross) Where The Remains Of Dante, Michelangelo, and Galileo Reside
- Watch The Sunset From Piazzale Michelangelo
- Find A Secret Bakery, like Pasticceria Vinci & Bongini
Our friends had been to Florence a few years before us and had recommended a dinner spot that I now wish to pass along. The place does not look like much on the outside, but if you are looking to get your hands on a fantastic Steak Florentine, you must go to La Martinicca. My husband got to pick his serving from a platter brought out by the server. I snuck a few bites of his dinner but was utterly in love with the pear and Gorgonzola pasta pillows that I had.
Here I am, 2,569 words later, and I still cannot accurately recount all that I saw, the sentiments I felt, the memories made and the pieces of my heart left along my route. It was an incredible trip indeed, and I am so grateful for the opportunity. I ate well, saw some really great sites, drank unbelievable wine, and most importantly, was present to watch my sweet, selfless father-in-law witness his own promised land for the first time, and genuinely enjoy a milestone birthday with his family by his side.
If it is in the cards to venture back to Italy, I am curious to learn from the experiences of other locals and fellow travelers. What were some of your favorite things? What were some of your low-lights?
Looking forward to learning more about the ways that others roam.