Rome and Florence, Spring, 2022
Mark and I visited Rome twice before we retired (car camping) and 3 or 4 times in our European RVs in the last 12 years. This visit we rented an AIRBNB for 19 nights beginning April 6. We had several criteria for our rental. It had to have a short cancellation policy because of covid, and also because 3 month trip cancellation insurance would have been very expensive. Further, I have knee issues, so we needed no more than one flight of stairs or an elevator. Other factors were cost, noise level, proximity to the historic area, a couch and a bed, washer and an oven. The last two because of our length of stay. We reserved many months in advance, which was especially important as not many rentals have good cancellation policies. If you want to see our unit, it is called “New!!! San Lo.Ft.” and is hosted by Vincenzo. With all fees it was $97 per night, but possibly would be less now as the Euro has fallen about 10% in the last few months—a downside of booking early. We were a little way outside the historic center just southeast of the main train station Termini. We could walk to the National Roman Museum, central market, about 20 minutes and about 40 minutes to the Coliseum. Mostly we took the bus, less than a block away at 1.5E. ($1.62). If you are staying in or near the historic area you will be riding the buses, not the metro.
If you want a blow by blow of our visit go to Mark's blog at roadeveron.blogspot.com. I will concentrate on the practical. Before you make any reservations check holidays. In our 19 days there was Good Friday, Easter, Easter Monday, Anniversary of Rome's Founding, and Italian National Liberation Day. These all affect hours, crowds, and what is open. To our surprise all the grocery stores were closed on Easter and Easter Monday! Also check when museums might be free. And don't go to any that are popular on a free day unless you can make advance reservations. April in Rome is high season, especially if it contains Holy Week. We couldn't get Vatican Museum timed tickets even three weeks in advance and had to go through a tour company and pay twice the price. Another hot ticket is the Borghese Gallery—and don't miss it. Also the popular restaurants book up well in advance—even the ones that are not expensive. To make any museum reservation in Italy you will need a smart phone and be able to get text messages. Their systems require a two part authorization from your bank. Another reason we like FI as texts are also free overseas.
Be prepared for lots of differences in Italy from other European travel. Not as many people speak English; motorbikes are fast and often don't follow traffic laws; noise levels on Friday and Saturday nights go really late—say 3 am, so bring your ear plugs; laundromats in Rome are somewhat scarce; your apartment might have a washer but the dryer is a drying rack; buildings turn off central heating after April 15 regardless of the weather; there is no free water at restaurants even out of the tap and most restaurants have a modest cover charge; lunch and dinner are very late—1-3 for lunch and 8-10 for dinner (though some open at 7 for tourists.); there is a gelato shop on every block. Some of these things are great, some not.
We brought a couple of useful items for staying at a rental apartment. 1) a water filtering carafe (the water is good but the pipes in an 80 year old building?) 2) several re-usable command hooks to hang toiletry bags, coats, whatever, wherever you want 3) an extra phone battery (very difficult to use Google maps to find the right bus if your phone is dead) 4) binoculars for churches and Sistine Chapel 5) wash cloths (not used in Europe) 6) a travel pillow (most BNBs are furnished in Ikea) 7) credit cards with no foreign transaction fees 8) metal clips 9) small plastic containers to make ice in 10) fly swatter (no screens on windows) 11) color catchers for doing laundry in 1 load.
In planning your visit I would suggest going to the Nation Roman Museum early on before the Forum. There are lots of statues there so it can be an overload. For me the best is the top floor where they have recreated Roman villa rooms from the paintings and stucco found in the Villa Farnese and the garden scene from Livia's Villa. Unlike Pompeii, you can walk into the rooms and get a feel for them and see the frescoes very up close. On the ground floor are the statues that you can imagine in place when you visit the Forum and other ruins. The first floor (2nd in US) has also got a couple of terrific pieces including the Discus Thrower and the famous hermaphrodite.
One big change is that you must buy a timed ticket for the Coliseum in order to go to the Forum. This should be bought at least 3 weeks in advance. If you get it for late afternoon it might help you avoid trying to see the Forum in rain as the ticket is good for the Forum for 24 hours before and 24 hours after the entry to the Colosseum. You also do not want to go to the Forum on a sunny day with the temperature over 70—it is a beastly hot valley with no shade. Also don't miss the Forum at night—preferably right after moon rise. Go to the Capitoline Hill and climb the ramp just to the right of the Victor Emmanuel Monument (to avoid the very steep steps), stay to the right of the center building and proceed back to the patio overlooking the entire Forum with the Coliseum all lit up at the very back—stupendous.
We found one restaurant in Trastavere that we liked, super popular. The line moves fast but if you don't want a wait, 6:30 might work—7 didn't. We also liked the pizzeria Dar Poeta, especially the amazing nutella and ricotta dessert. The small one is gigantic. Again very popular spot with no reservations. Trastavere is crazy now—super crowded with tourists and at night too with Romans. But the three important churches are worth the trek. The Porte Portese market on Sunday mornings is a complete waste of time unless you want 2E underwear or fake Dr. Martens. No interesting bric-a-brac etc, just a mile of cheap clothes that will disintegrate on washing.
By the way, everyone here is wearing at least a surgical mask inside any building and on public transportation. Many also on the streets. The only noses seen are on folks speaking English! Italy eliminated indoor mask requirement on May 1 so this will be changing. The main point is that if future masking is needed, Italians are willing to comply.
We found about 3 weeks a good amount of time for Rome including recovery from our jet lag, but if you have never been and want to do everything you may want longer.
ON TO FLORENCE
We left Rome by train from Termini. We have only ridden trains in Europe once in the last decade so when a woman approached wearing a name tag we allowed her to help. Ended up tipping 2E and we wouldn't have needed her but it was somewhat confusing. She used the ticket machine to turn our phone ticket to a paper ticket (but most folks just used it on the phone), then she led us to the right platform, and told us they wouldn't let us on the actual platform until 40 minutes before train departure. She also pointed out that on the signs of which platform to use our Florence bound train was listed as Milan as that was its final destination—this was very important to know and certainly worth the 2E. I had no idea the train was bound beyond Florence.
If you have large luggage try to get on your train car early as the luggage space fills quickly and the overhead bins only take the smaller carry-ons. Arriving in Florence we simply walked to our air bnb as it was about 3 blocks. Our host's representative met us and helped us carry one of the suitcases up to the first floor (European) apartment. She spoke excellent English, and the apartment was really nice and spotlessly clean. We took pictures of everything before we unpacked and settled in. The 1 bedroom apartment was called the Tosca suite and was about $100 a night. It was within reasonable walking distance of everything we wanted to see this trip—basically the furthest was about 1 mile, so we never rode a bus. We had 8 nights and should have planned for 3-4 more. Florence is very compact and there are no Roman ruins but it is and was the capital of the Renaissance and seeing all the important art is a very intense experience. With more time you can spread it out more and have some days to recover. Florence is also a beautiful city to wander down allies and lanes. It was never modernized so the buildings are wonderful, the streets narrow. It is intensely touristed but somehow that doesn't take away its beauty. Mark's blog shows all the places we visited. We did not go inside the buildings at the Duomo, the Accademia, the Pitti Palace, Medici tombs, or take the bus up the hill to the Michelangelo Belvedere and the church up there as we had done all before and most more than once. If you can, read Brunellechi's Dome and The Agony and the Ecstasy before you arrive.
For some sites you absolutely need reservations well in advance...the Uffizi, Accademia, Bargello, and any place holding a special exhibition that might be popular. There has been a Florence museum card in the past that can save you a good deal of money but when we bought it we found that it wore us out trying to do so much in 72 hours. It was temporarily suspended while we were there so we weren't tempted. I did notice that they now had an option to buy an additional 48 hours.
The Uffizi has finally fully opened the first floor of the museum, so to see the whole thing is absolutely a full day, and that's by walking fast through some of the post-Renaissance pieces and skipping most of the sculpture on the second floor (especially if you have been to Rome.) You can't leave and come back, there is no place to picnic at all, so for lunch you must eat in their mostly outside cafe. It is mobbed at lunchtime, so we ate about 11:30. Worst lunch in all of Italy and overpriced. But you will need the break. Getting into the museum is always confusing. You take your reservation ticket (mobile or otherwise) to one window (and no more than 15 minutes ahead of time), trade it for another ticket, then walk across the courtyard and find the right line for those with pre-reserved tickets. All of the entrance is under construction so you have a long, long with lots of steps route to actually get to the second floor where the visit begins. If you need an elevator you must arrange it before even getting in this line as the elevator for the start of the visit is in another building. Most of the staff speak little English so forget asking questions or directions. But still it is wonderful. If you are a Botticelli fan understand that some of his pieces are in the rooms before the Primavera and Birth of Venus rooms (which are always mobbed.)
Be sure also to visit the San Marco Museum, with its Fra Angelica fresoes in nearly every room. Another church which has the entire Renaissance catalog of painters is Santa Maria Novella. On the first Sunday of the month and the 2 days before they also show some of the hidden 14th century frescoes that are behind the giant oil paintings in the nave. Then there is the Botticelli (bring binoculars), Giotto, the absolutely amazing Ghirandaio chancel behind the altar, and the Spanish chapel. This is a 2-3 hour visit. Plus you must go around the outside of the complex and visit the pharmacy where they have been selling perfumes since the 13 century. Very expensive wares, but don't miss the side front room with all the frescoes—not your local Walgreens. We also like the Ognissanti church for the Botticelli and especially for the Ghirlandaio Last Supper. The latter has very restricted hours, so check the website. It was not open the entire visit this time.
Currently, they are studying and restoring parts of the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine church. To do so they have erected scaffolding and allow very small groups up in the scaffolding, where you stand 5 feet from the frescoes and see them at eye level. Weekends are best as there are no workers, but getting tickets is almost impossible. Ours were a fluke. But if art is your thing it is worth building a trip around getting these tickets.
Eating in Florence revolves around beef steak Florentine. Bifstecca. When we first visited in 1979 we never ran into it (maybe because we were too poor to even notice?) Gradually it has gone from a specialty at a few restaurants to being sold almost in the pizza joints. It is basically a very, very rare t-bone or similar served for 2 or more people with the size of 2.2 lbs (1 kilo) and up. It is priced by the kilo and sides are extra. Usually they bring the raw steak out to your table for your approval. At one restaurant they asked if we wanted it medium because they could tell we were Americans. Don't do it—get it Florence style. The steaks are very well aged and even super rare they don't taste raw nor are they particularly bloody. We thought both our meals with steak were less tender than in the past (though still wonderfully) flavorful. We also noticed that restaurants now serve up to 3 grades of the beef. Next time we will go for the best. We also had some delicious panna cotta. There is a great deal of wild boar served in various forms. We had an appetizer of venison and wild boar sausage—tasted like dried ham and any old pork sausage to us.
Finally, now is a very good time to be in Europe. Because of covid and sadly, the war in the Ukraine, the dollar is very strong. The Euro as of May 8 is $1.05 and the pound $1.23. These are amazing low prices. We are now in England and have found groceries and eating out in both Italy and England to be less than costs in the US. England is difficult to drive in but there are trains and buses and we may try that route in the future. I will write about our English month long trip in the next issue. Happy travels. Vicki