Tag Archives: Rick Steves

Things to do in Roma

11 Feb
I am frequently asked for ideas on what to do in Roma. After all, we have people house-and-cat-sitting all the time, often for 2 or 3 weeks. And living here, we certainly have to get beyond the usual suspects.
Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Embedded in the steps of the Great Hall of Galleria Colonna, this cannon ball dates back to the Risorgimento.

Everyone knows the Colosseum and Vatican, and probably the Galleria Borghese. While these should not be missed, there are many other lesser-known sights to consider. You might also enjoy reading my blog on the subject of off-the-beaten-track ideas.

Palazzi, museums, events, and exhibits

From April-November 12, 2017, there are once again special events in the Forums, a guided walk through Caesar’s Forum at night, and a multi-media show in the Forum of Augustus. You can find info at Viaggio nei fori. There’s nothing like a lovely outing after dark on a warm summer night. Take a break during the heat and head out after an early dinner for these events. I would do both, if not necessarily on the same night. If you have trouble reserving online, do not hesitate to call. They speak English.
Domus Romane at Palazzo Valentini is not the usual Roman ruin. Everyone we send here says it is one of the best things they did in Roma. Beneath a government building in the center of Roma, just off Piazza Venezia, are the excavated ruins of a Roman palazzo. You walk across a Plexiglas floor to view them, enhanced with a multimedia presentation to illustrate what things looked like 2000 years ago. Only three English tours daily so be sure to reserve online in advance.
Hard-hat tour of Nero's

Hard-hat tour of Nero’s “Golden House,” the Domus Aurea.

Domus Aurea, Nero’s Golden Palace. Who can resist? It is legendary, although the goldenness is long gone. The restoration project is ambitious given the size. Visit the website and click on “Opening Hours.” Be aware, it is cold underground and even in summer you’ll need a jacket!
We went to Villa Torlonia a couple of years ago on a sunny February Sunday and enjoyed it very much. Recent guests told us that more has been done and one can even visit Mussolini’s bunker from WWII. The entrance fee to see all of the buildings is a little expensive, IMHO, but worth seeing for architecture buffs. La Casina della Civette is quite unique.  The Mussolini Bunker is priced separately from the main buildings.
Villa Torlonia

La Casina delle Civette at Villa Torlonia, a curious mix of styles.

Galleria Colonna  is only open on Saturday mornings with an English tour at noon. We went early and had a wander around, then took the tour. Lovely private collection in an amazing building. The Colonnas are an ancient Roman family and members still live in the palazzo in private apartments. We have not been to the Princess’ Apartments, but British friends said they were great, so we need to go back.
Palazzo Farnese, the French Embassy to Italy. This is an historic building with Michelangelo’s art and frescoes worth straining your neck to see. English tours only on Wednesday at 17:00 and you must reserve a few weeks in advance for security reasons.
Villa Medici

Niobe suffers from hubris and loses al of her children. Gardens of Villa Medici.

Villa Medici, the French Art Academy in Roma. Open Tue-Sun with English tours three times each day. You will see what the gardens of a Renaissance Roman villa night have looked like.
The Palazzo delle Esposizioni has special art exhibits that are usually worthwhile. Recently we saw French Impressionists from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Very busy Sundays when Roman families seem to flock to museums. 
Palazzo Braschi Museo di Roma near Piazza Navona is an under-visited, very tranquil museum. Cool on a warm day and certainly a respite from the rain should that occur. Featuring art depicting Roma in days gone by.
The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi was like an Escher painting.

The massive staircase at Palazzo Braschi is like an Escher painting.

Galleria Doria Pamphilj in the historic center is also under-appreciated. It is yet another private collection in the old family digs. The collection includes Bernini, Caravaggio, Tiziano, Raffaello, and several Flemish Old Masters. The audio guide is excellent.
The Quirinale, the President’s Palace. Only recently opened for regular tours, thanks to President Sergio Matterella. Previously it was the Papal Palace (pre-Vatican days) and also housed four kings of Italy. Like visiting the White House, but security is less stringent and it’s fancier.
Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Riding the moving ramp down at Eataly. This is a huge place, built in what was an abandoned air terminal.

Eataly has two locations, a small one in Piazza della Repubblica, and the Mother Ship near Stazione Ostiense. I believe the larger store is worth the trip. Easy to stop on your way home from Ostia Antica (see below) with many choices for lunch. Eataly features Italian-made food products and a few non-food items. It is a showcase for all good things in the Italian food culture. Getting there once you reach Stazione Ostiense is a bit interesting, as I mentioned in my blog. You must persevere!
Looking to leave the crowds behind? Villa Farnesina is hidden away in Trastevere. Commissioned during the Renaissance by Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker, it contains frescoes by Raphael and is lightly attended. 
Churches worth seeing: Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, St. Ignazio, San Clemente (the famous layered church), San Giovanni in Laterano, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Prassede, San Luigi dei Francesi (the seat of the French Catholic Church in Rome) and others too numerous to mention. 
Bernini's elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Bernini’s elephant obelisk, Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

Guided Tours

There are two places we highly recommend guided tours: The Vatican and The Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino.
Walks of Italy  does a special tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s, “The Pristine Sistine.” I highly recommend it. It is not inexpensive, but the groups are small (only 12 people), the guides are educational and entertaining, and you get to the Sistine Chapel before it is a hot mess of people.
For the sites of Ancient Rome, the Colosseo/Foro Romano/Palatino, a private guide is a great idea. For about €50-55 per hour, you get a personalized experience. Sonia Tavoletta (soniatavoletta63@gmail.com) and Francesca Caruso (francescainroma@gmail.com) are excellent. They will customize anything you want. If you have four-or-more people in your party, this is less expensive on a per person basis than many organized tours. 

Day Trips

Ostia Antica. In the

Ostia Antica. In the “Piazzale delle Corporazioni” or Square of the Guilds. Mosaics depict services and products.

Ostia Antica is less than an hour away from Roma by local train out of Stazione Ostiense. What the volcano did at Pompeii, time and the river did to Ostia Antica. These are actually well-preserved for Roman ruins, and I find the Rick Steves’ audio guide (MP3 available at his website) and the guide in his book are excellent for self-touring.
Orvieto is a one-hour train ride from Roma Stazione Termini and a fascinating Umbrian hill town. There is a nifty funicular that glides up from the train station to the plateau. Great place to wander, see the Duomo, have lunch, shop a little. Again, I have to turn to Rick Steves and encourage you to consult his guide to make good use of your time. The underground tour is worthwhile!
Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Fountains and pools of Villa d’Este, beautiful during the day, take on added drama at night.

Tivoli is about an hour by train from Stazione Tiburtina and an excellent trip any time of the year. We’ve gone in August for the evening light displays at Villa d’Este, which makes a wonderful one-night trip (see my prior post here). We’ve gone to Villa d’Este in September and April as well, and to Hadrian’s Villa (Villa Adriano) in May one year. Villa d’Este is easily done by train, but I would suggest having a car to try to go to Villa Adriano. Alternatively, take a bus tour from Roma. (Haven’t done this myself but there are options through many tour companies if you care to research it.) I think Villa Adriano would be best with a guide. It’s vast and a bit confusing.
Formal gardens, Lazio Albano, the Papal Gardens

Formal gardens, Albano Laziale, papal estate.

Castel Gandolfo and the Papal Palace. The Apostolic Palace is where the popes up until Papa Francesco went to relax and escape the heat of Roma. Papa F doesn’t relax and eschews the trappings of papal wealth. Bravo! Thus, one can visit the palace almost any old time. Castel Gandolfo is a lovely little town with good restaurants in addition to the fantastic Papal Palace. It would be hard to combine with my next suggestion because the gardens one visits in the Vatican by Train tour are actually in neighboring Albano Laziale, but if you enlist a taxi and make lunch a quick panino you just might manage to do both in a day. 
The Vatican by Train  is an all-day event. You start with about 90 minutes to tour the Vatican Museums. (It is not enough time for the entire museum so you must pick a facet, a corner, and see what you can. We chose the Pinacoteca, which we had to ourselves for most of an hour.) Then you have a walking tour of the Vatican Gardens, which leads you to the San Pietro train station where you catch your private train to Albano Laziale and a tour of the papal estate there. You ride a train through these gardens as well. An audio guide is provided.
There are many other possibilities: Sperlonga for the beach, Frascati just because (porchetta and local Frascati wine), Tarquinia for the Etruscan museum and tombs (stunning!)…. 

Miscellany

10 Things you can do for Free in Rome from Italy magazine.
Coop Culture is the official ticket site for many Italian sites. Check them before using a consolidator, who will add on fees.  If you are going to the Colosseo without a guided tour, get your skip-the-line tickets from Coop Culture.
The Roma Pass can be worthwhile if you do the Colosseo, et.al., one day and the Galleria Borghese the next, making those your first two entries with the pass. Otherwise, forget it.
Transportation tickets/passes. You can buy tickets for single trips for €1.50 at any edicola (newsstand) or tabaccheria (tobacconist). There are also passes for 24, 48 and 72 hours at €7.00, €12.50, and €18.00 respectively, which are usually available at the edicola or tabaccheria. A 7-day pass is €24.00. Details at ATAC.com. Note that few buses sell tickets on board. Buy before you board and validate or risk a huge fine. 
Transit Trip Planning is available here. If you are traveling with a smartphone, download ProBus, AutoBusRoma, or Moovit. You can research bus routes and get an estimate on when the next bus will arrive.
The books 24 Great Walks of Rome, Rome the Second Time, and 111 Things to Do in Rome are great for inspiration! I found all of them either at Amazon.com or Powells.com.
Movies in English are shown every week. Usually, they are posted on Friday for movies from Saturday through the following Wednesday. Check here for what’s on. Some of the theatres do not sell popcorn or anything else to eat or drink, so eat before you go.
Now you see why they say Roma una vita non basta! (Rome – a lifetime is not enough!)
If you have a favorite place I haven’t mentioned, please leave a comment.

Unexpected Croatia

23 Jun
In the end we liked Croatia and would probably return; however, we expected to like Croatia more than we did in actuality.  Is it heresy to NOT rave about a place that everyone raves about?
Don’t get me wrong: we are glad that we made the trip and we really enjoyed our extended time with Rick and Jane, but the country did not enchant me as I had thought it might. That’s the problem with expectations: sometimes things do not live up to them.
Along the Korčula waterfront in the morning, soft light, pastel colors.

Along the Korčula waterfront in the morning, soft light, pastel colors.

Everyone said we would love it, and we did like many things; the sailors in the group would perhaps like to take a coastal sailing trip and pull in to dine each night since the food and wine are so darn good.

On the plus side

  1. It is beautiful. The waters are clear and the coastline is pristine. The cities are clean and there is no litter.

    Above Dubrovnik.

    Above Dubrovnik.

  2. The food is great. Heavily influenced by Italian and other Mediterranean cuisines, it features lots of fresh seafood and is well-prepared and healthy. There was some creativity in the cuisine we enjoyed in Dubrovnik. I expected more of a Balkan meat-and-potatoes diet but was pleasantly surprised.
  3. Dining is not expensive. One night in Dubrovnik (the new port area) we had an excellent two course meal including antipasto, main and contorni (usually sold separately in Italy) plus 2 glasses of wine each for about $68.00 for two. We’ve paid more than that for pizza, wine and fritti in Roma when the exchange rate was poor.
  4. The people are very nice and speak English fluently. While I cannot read much that is written on signs, the spoken English is clear and correct grammatically. They learn it from TV as the dubbing so prevalent in Italy and France does not exist there. Croatians grow up hearing English and reading the Croatian subtitles.
  5. Every single toilet we’ve been in has been, at a minimum, sparkling clean and often very nice. I know this seems odd, but when you have encountered the bathrooms on Trenitalia or in some Roman bars, finding a country full of clean restrooms is a pleasure.
  6. No one is selling Selfie-Sticks, roses, or flying light-up junk in the street. Hallelujah!
Ric and I took a lot of pictures…. Click on any one of these for some highlights from our time on Korčula.

On the other hand…

  1. There is a lack of efficient public transportation within the country so we had lots of windshield time. The train system is non-existent so most long haul travel is bus or ferry (or plane). It can take 4 or 5 hours to go from Dubrovnik to Split by bus, or 4 to 11 (eleven!!!) hours by ferry. Driving is 3.5 hours so that is what we did on our return. If you like to drive, it’s great. But be prepared to spend a lot of time getting from one place to another.
  2. It is dry, at least in Dalmatia. I like a more forested place, a rainforest with big, big trees. This is dry like Hawaii at Kona or parts of California. Obviously a personal preference. Beachgoers would love this climate.
  3. Cruise ships, sometimes 7-a-day in port at Dubrovnik, equal an overload of people clogging the streets. The Old Town in Dubrovnik just cannot handle the strain making…

    On a typical day, cruise ships in port - both old and new - plus launches to carry passengers to-and-fro.

    On a typical day, cruise ships in port – both old and new – plus launches to carry passengers to-and-fro.

  4. …Dubrovnik Old Town a caricature of itself. “There is no there, there,” as Gertrude Stein famously said (although about Oakland, CA). Shops and restaurants overwhelm what could be a very pretty, quaint place.
  5. The hawkers in front of restaurants in Dubrovnik  are indefatigable. They thrust menus in your face in an effort to attract your business. Very desperate seeming and annoying, adding to the State Fair atmosphere as one walks down a crowded street.
  6. The lack of racial diversity was odd. Racial minorities were conspicuously absent. I conjecture that because Croatia is not yet in the Schengen Zone, the immigrants arriving in Italy, Greece and Spain are not making their way here. 
I must give the Croatian people credit for their recovery and the building of a tourism industry that provides much-needed capital to its sagging economy. Twenty years after the war, you’d hardly know the war happened except that memories are long and when one engages a Croat in conversation one hears widely varying points of view from “It was better under Tito” to “Thank God the Communists are gone!” But it is difficult to get a feel for Croatian culture when you are so surrounded by TOURISM.
Also kudos to Croatia for good roads, overall. We were impressed by the autostrada, which although of limited presence was well-engineered and the tolls were cheap. Be prepared, though, for sticker shock of a different nature: prices look high but are actually moderate. The Croatian Kuna is about $.15. Yes, fifteen cents to the kuna (hrk). When you see a price on a menu of 110.00 hrk, your mind does a flip thinking “$110.00!!!” but it turns out to be $16.47 for that marvelous grilled tuna! Our four-night apartment rent was a staggering 5416 hrk, but a reasonable enough price in Euros. One throws around 200.00 hrk notes like twenty-dollar bills in the U.S.

 Things we enjoyed

  • Eating. Everything. Croatian prosciutto is delicious and different from Italian. They know what to do with mussels, risotto, and octopus. Pasta is perfection, grilled calamari sublime. Blitva may change my relationship with chard forever. Try sheep’s milk cheese from the island of Pag. It is perfect with their red wine Plavic Mali. See also my blog at Our Weekly Pizza for lovely seaside pizza dining in Korcula.
  • Exploring the island of Lokrum, just offshore of Dubrovnik. Wooded paths, a Napoleonic-era fort, and fantastic views are coupled with an absence of crowds. As in any good Italian location, one could get a good cappuccino on the island, served in a proper cup, not the American standard, Styrofoam.
  • Driving into Montenegro where there are more vestiges of the Communist Era than we saw in our Croatian wanderings. The Bay of Kotor is pretty and we had a nice lunch in Kotor Town, although once again a fortified city has been made a tourist zone and feels unreal.
  • Walking the walls in Dubrovnik, although I wish we had gone at 8:00 AM in the rainstorm when, according to friends who did so, they were the only people up there. The views are great, but it is a conga line that only moves at the speed of the slowest, most out-of-shape person. Thankfully that was not me.
  • Our tour of the Pelješac Peninsula, famous for wines most North Americans have never heard of unless they’ve been in Croatia. Pošip, Dingač, Plavic Mali: all good! People are passionate about their wines and we know why after a day of tasting. Our driver and guide, Petar of Dubrovnik Riviera Tours, was excellent giving us lessons not only in the wines of the region but of the recent history and political turmoil still simmering.
  • The Korčula Island Tour with a driver/guide, including the Ethnographic House in Blato where we were treated to a dose of cultural insight by a kind woman who was preserving the old ways of her family and sharing them passionately with visitors to a museum kept in the family home. It seems the Croatian emigration was akin to the one from Sicily and Calabria in the early 20th century.
  • The War Photo Limited museum in Dubrovnik which gave us some insight into the war specifically in this pretty city we had wandered. It was sobering and moving to think of something so brutal so recently in the Western world.
We like an active vacation and in summer hiking is a favorite thing to do. There is some hiking in Dalmatia, but the dry landscape and the heat limited attractive possibilities for us. We are not beachgoers so that as an activity was out. There are museums, but not the knock-your-socks-off variety so prevalent in Italy that one has to see before dying.  We had a lot of transport time with two day-long professional tours in vans, one day-long self-tour in a car, and one half-day driving back to Split. That’s lot of windshield time in a week for Ric and me. Luckily my brother was driving, or we had a tour guide. 
At the end of the 8 nights/9 days, we wish we had spent more time in Split and less in Dubrovnik. Rick Steves’ Guide to Croatia & Slovenia says:
“While Dubrovnik’s museums are nothing special, the city is one of those places that you never want to leave— the real attraction here is the Old Town and its relaxing, breezy ambiance. While Dubrovnik could easily be “seen” in a day, a second or third day to unwind (or even more time, for side-trips) makes the long trip here more worthwhile.”
Split is charming lighted at night.

Split is charming lighted at night.

So we planned 4 nights/3 full days. In planning the trip with one night in Split and two on Korčula, we thought the centerpiece of our trip should be the 4-night stay in an apartment high above the Adriatic in Dubrovnik. The Stari Grad (Old Town) was so crowded, hot (breezes were rare) and annoying we could barely stand to pass through it. In our experience, restaurants outside of the Stari Grad were far superior in food and atmosphere, and where the locals go. Thank goodness we stayed outside the old center! 
Sailboats crowd the Split marina as the sun colors the town.

Sailboats crowd the Split marina as the sun colors the town.

Split, on the other hand, had a great vibe and we could have spent more than our allotted half-day there had we known. Maybe the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia is more suited to the two-or-three night hops that Ric and I usually avoid.  
If you like beach time and really want to relax, or if you like sailing, the Dalmatian Coast is probably your cup of tea. We are happy to have visited and learned a bit about the history both ancient and recent. We had a great time with my brother and sister-in-law!  We are happy to have dined so well, been treated so kindly, and to have been exposed to the fabulous wines available there. The Italians, the French, and other cultures that have long been overrun by touristic hoards could learn a few lessons in customer service. The Croatians, Montenegrins, and Bosnians have it down. They are very friendly and one is made to feel welcome in a most hospitable way. 
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