Blog 006: 171015 Last couple days

Montepulciano, Montalcino and going home

Sitting on the plane writing this, we are sad to be going home. Holidays, no matter how long, always come to an end too quickly. 

Montepulciano is quite a bit larger that some of the nearby medieval mountain towns and villages. It boasts relatively quiet streets and alleys. There are some very large hills and as sedentary desk working people we were panting trying to get around, tiring ourselves out. 

The piazza with the main church is large and relaxed with a few small restaurants and shops. And many other restaurants up and down the streets where we enjoyed some lunch. Montepulciano is in a way special to us as we are united on a common love of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo (which we know is not here) so originally we thought our favourite wine came from here. 

We made our way away from Montepulciano with a few souvenirs, memories and photographs. The views, shown above, are really brilliant across the valleys.

Jenny enjoyed both the cute little back up trucks and the fiat 500 that we were driving so she posed for a few photos as a send off to Italy and the cute car.

Back in Siena we marvelled at the restaurants on steep hills, they shortened two legs more than the other on both the chairs and the tables to enable people to sit on the hill. We then had a brilliant dinner at a restaurant recommended by our hotel owner, “La Finestra” behind the main piazza. Rob’s steak was huge and very tasty whilst Jenny made sure to have the required Bruschetta which was delicious.

Finishing this post in the air now. We had a stressful morning. Driving from Siena to Rome is relatively straightforward, finding petrol to buy with a UK credit/debit card on a Sunday morning was almost impossible. We took a round trip of 25 minutes to eventually find some but after waiting for the car rental shuttle this meant we arrived to the airport with only 30 minutes to spare. 

Luckily Ciampino is very efficient, has excellent free WiFi and the best toilets I have seen in Italy. So in less than 5 minutes we were through security sitting with some arancini balls and a drink. 

Bye Italy. We’ll be back!

xo

Blog 005: 171013 Italy day seven

Siena, Monteriggioni and San Gimignano

Siena is not a good city for driving and parking.

Before we get to that though we had a lovely day. Once more Rick Steve provided an excellent guide for the city of Siena. With an audio splitter and two pairs of headphones in hand we wandered the streets of Siena learning of the 17 Contrade and the parts they play in the development of the city and its famous Palio race. 

The route takes you around all the major sites including the half built duomo and a coffee shop. We stopped off a few times on the way as well for carbonara, prosecco and coffee. 

Siena is really beautiful and finding out about its important historical origins as well as those of the banking industry and bank robbing was also an added bonus. 

Tired of walking and full of food and drink we headed off to find the car, miles away on that random street where we left it and headed out of town. Jenny got a quick driving lesson from Rob and she was pretty good if not a little nervous. Driving round a small industrial estate was fun so she might drive out on the main roads tomorrow. 

Rob jumped back in the driver’s seat and we headed for a small hilltop village called Monteriggioni. Comprising of only a small square, a few buildings and a half collapsed battlement it is an utterly charming little spot to wander, look in the shops and as Jenny found out, stroke some more kitties. It is a lovely place and even better if you find the free parking, avoiding the extortionate fees. 

We stayed here a little while had a drink each but decided to head on further for dinner. Deciding San Gimignano was much bigger with many more options. 

Although somewhat true, the whole place seemed to be completely closing down and there was apparently no free parking. We traipsed around the whole city to find somewhere to eat, something made more difficult since we both only wanted pizza. Eventually we came back to the main square and found an option which was lovely. Two pizzas and a pineapple juice later we were on our way. 

Having had only a little trouble finding a parking space last night we had assumed that we were by now certified professionals, this was not the case. A first hurdle was the road being blocked at the end with no entry followed by at least a dozen cars going in circles as we were looking for spaces. 

Eventually we capitalised on a great space, available as it was small enough for the fiat 500 but not much else. Rob manoeuvred in, lined up and beamed at his work to find out that “Sabato” means Saturday, tomorrow, was street cleaning day so no parking at 6am to 8 am. Frustrated and dejected we pulled out of the space and made our way round the block five or six more times. Eventually, another space appears. The sign on the other side of the road says “Venerdi” (Friday) morning is cleaning day, success! 

Walking back to the hotel we notice one side of the street is “Venerdi” but our side is “Sabato”. Oh lord no! Eventually after a few more times round the block the spectators of the football file back to Thier cars and we are rewarded with a space. Another 5 minute walk to our hotel on top of the previous 18 minutes…

xo

Blog 004: 171012 Italy day six 

Car parks, driving and pretty Pienza

 So today wasn’t particularly action packed, we checked out of our hotel in Rome which had become a stable base for us and headed over to Ciampino airport where we had hired our car for the last few days of our trip.

I say Ciampino airport but it was 3km away in an odd industrial estate. However, after a quick bit of faffing we were on our way. Jenny was extremely happy that we had a Fiat 500 she desperately wants one herself. Though a little disappointed that it wasnt pistachio green. 

We drove then from Rome to Pienza making quite a few wrong turnings on the way. 

The views are stunning and we sat down to have a lovely coffee on the town wall overlooking the Tuscan hills. 

Eventually we ended up in Siena and made our way up a steep hill to our hotel. We had heard about parking being difficult so we were chuffed to find a spot less than 5 mins walk from where we were staying. Later we realised, with the help of the hotelier that we were in fact inside the restricted residents only zone. Something which comes with a 100 euro fine. 

Before all that though we tucked into a lovely bottle of prosecco. Not that it says great things about our choice, we find the exact bottle of bubbles from our wedding day at a motorway service station. We just couldn’t say no. Being both clumsy and tired though we managed to spill most of it on either ourselves or the bed. 

We traipsed back to our car and found out the signs were true. It was in this illegal zone. Therefore we turned around drove out and we are hoping for a miracle not to get a fine. After driving through the suburbs of Siena for around 40 minutes and debating the merits of the different parking zones we settled on a spot a mere 18 minute walk back to our hotel…

After a long day of driving and finding spaces, worrying about the street cleaning agenda and the market day calendar, we treated ourselves to a lovely meal. It was a lovely place called Antica Trattoria Papei and eventhough the brought me a beef steak instead of the pork one I ordered the apologised prefusely allowed me to keep the beef and only charged for the pork. Lovely people, great food, not too expensive. Highly recommended. 

Tomorrow we hope for a more chilled out day. 

xo

Blog 003: 171012 Italy day five 

Crêpes and Steps and Cats and Dogs

Having traipsed around most of the famous sights already, we decided to focus our attention on relaxing and eating and drinking. Jenny wanted a crepe so we hunted everywhere for one. Finding crepes in Rome is not easy. Especially in the morning but eventually we found a nice lady who turned on her machine and made us crepes and milkshakes. At 10am. 

Mine was huge! And extremely tasty. So full to the brim with heart disease we set off in search of the Spanish steps, described by some books and websites to be something similar to the Aztec pyramids.

They are quite impressive and hard work to walk up and down. So to commemorate our arrival we indulged in a number of selfies whilst trying to avoid catching other tourists in the photos. 

By this point we were of course exhausted (it was 30 minutes later) so we consumed a couple of delicious cocktails over looking the Spanish steps. The rooftop cocktail bar  come pizzeria (Il pallazetto) was a great find and started filling up as soon as we arrived. (They also had amazing WiFi allowing us to backup the hundreds of photos we had taken)

Noticing the beautifully romantic streets winding away from the Spanish steps we wandered towards trestevere where the pharmacy sign informed us that it was an uncharacteristically warm 30 degrees Celsius in mid-October. 

We of course rewarded ourselves with another glass of wine and a light lunch. Having only been out of bed for 3/4 hours and eaten a huge crepe and lots of nuts and a large thick milkshake it didn’t seem sensible to have the customary 5 course Italian meal. 

This photo from a previous evening shows the charm of the Trastevere and it is well worth a visit for a meal in one of the many, if a little touristy, trattorias. 

After running out of the big ticket items we were looking for things to do. Having heard of the cat ruins at La Torre Argentina we made our way over and were not disappointed. There were cats everywhere; lying in the sun curled in the shade or searching for food. Jenny especially was in heaven though we were both quite taken by some of the cute fur balls. 

After searching for a park to walk around. We tried one green area on the map and it turned out to be a huge cemetery (Verano Cemetery). We eventually found Villa Borghese which has/is an amazing park. Really beautiful, full of decorative pagodas, buildings and statuettes and hundreds of dogs on walks it is a really pleasant evening stroll. The temple in the middle of the lake in the photo is utterly charming and worth a visit to get away from the loud cobbled city streets. 

We ended the night with a perambulate through the north west of Rome. Across the piazza del popolo, apparently sponsored bby a Samsung note 8 on a selfie stick we came across a tiny cute little bus and ended up in Trattoria Al Gran Sasso. The food here is excellent and we had a delicious entrecote steak on a bed of rocket and grilled calamari. The tiramisu is also definitely worth a try.

Rome is a very easy city to walk around and there is always another cute restaurant or charming street around the corner. Any visitor to Rome should make sure that they have the time to experience this side of the city as it is extremely rewarding. 

xo

Blog 002: 171011 Italy day four

Coliseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon and plenty of wine!

As yesterday, a late start for us, so much so that the cleaner and front desk both contacted us to check if we were alright and needed our room cleaned.

Having read about the lengthy queues for the coliseum, we went the recommended route of purchasing tickets at the palotine gate. There was no queue and the ticket offers one time access to each of the palotine hill, the forum and the coliseum which can be spread over two days, there are discounts for 18-25 year olds.

The first view you get of the coliseum, although half destroyed and partly restored dramatically portrays a picture of the power of the Roman empire and instills the never ending image of Rome in your minds.

Although it is definitely busy, the crowds are nothing when compared to those of the Vatican. There is ample space surrounding the coliseum to grab many photos and sufficient space to meander around hundreds of street sellers and more tour guides!

Since we had already purchased our tickets the queue was quite short to get through security and without much waiting we were able to enter the coliseum.

Not the easiest area to navigate, signs seem to conflict with each other and the only access upstairs seems to be signposted with “no entry, fire exit” signs. But once you find your way out to the arena the sight is superb. Rising all around you the collosal walls that would once have sat up to 50,000 spectators and a reconstructed portion of the arena floor are stunning. Even more so when you remember this structure was built 2000 years ago with no heavy machinery, although thousands of slaves.

We downloaded Rick Steve’s audio guide of the Colosseum and it was a really handy way to learn about the history, usage and structure of the whole area since there is very little in the way of signage. (Italy must sort this out). Although it may seem obvious the Colosseum is one of the best things to see and do in Rome.

A visit from a feline friend and hundreds of photos left we left awe inspired and wanting more ancient Roman relics.

The “Roman Forum” as impressive as the Colosseum is an area once used by the ancient Romans and includes the remains of many temples, market places and homes. The effect is impressive and we were guided around once more by Rick Steve’s audio guide.

The most impressive ruin is that of the Basilica, formerly a large administrative building with large barrel vault niches remaining from what would have once been a collosal structure. All European churches (where the word ‘basilica’ stems from) are built with the same basic layout.

Capturing the dramatic scale of the Pantheon on camera is almost impossible. It’s gigantic beautiful and perfectly shaped some tower above and the shaft of light that shines down through the open ceiling is quite impressive. Entry is free, there is no queue and you can spend ages staring up at the sight. Well worth a visit for anyone.

Wondering the streets of Rome near the Piazza Navona once more down to the Campo Fiori we drank some more wine and soaked up the atmosphere before unsung a relatively cheap pizzeria to replenish ourselves from a long day of walking.

Rome is beautiful at all times of day and offers many opportunities to explore and find a place to have a quick drink or bite to eat, generally at a reasonable price.

Blog 001: 171010 Italy day three

Vatican museum, St Peters Basilica and lots of queuing!

We starting off our third day with a long lie in. Not rising until gone 11am, we hopped on the metro and pulled up to ottaviano station, just five minutes walk to the Vatican museums entrance. 

We pre-booked our tickets online and we highly recommend you do the same. There was a queue snaking well over 500 metres. And we were told by some relatively pushy tour sellers that it would take around 3 hours. So it’s good to be able to skip this entirely. 

We were in characteristic Rob and Jenny style 2 hours early for our booked slot so we ambled through the streets which aren’t particularly romantic, more functional. And happened across a trattoria on the street corner where we could embibe and refresh. 

Jenny guzzled down an Aperol spritz, a firm favourite with the Watts women, and I managed a 1/4 litre of vino rosso della casa (house red). A Spaghetti Bolognese, Gnocchi alla Pomodoro, lemon meringue pie and tiramisu better satiated and we were on our way. 

The Vatican Museums seem to be a selection of buildings in the grounds of Vatican city which, as far as I can gather have been changed, updated moved dozens of times over the years. There are many sections including stolen Egypt mummy and tomb remains, Roman copies of Greek sculptures and countless representations of Heracles. 

There seem to be an endless stream of thousands of tourist groups from all over the world presumably lulled into a tour by the unbelievable length of the queue. 

The audioguide attempts to explain items. And there aren’t too many points to stop off and listen which is helpful in keeping you moving. But it does assume you know a fair amount of detail on the former Popes or understand significant portions of the Christian faith. 

Finally you arrive at the only thing 95 percent of the visitors wish to view, the Sistine chapel with its brilliantly painted wall and ceiling frescos. Those which ended up nearly being the death of Michelangelo. 

You are funneled unceremoniously down narrow marble lined corridors and stairways with a crush of people in front to stop you moving and a torrent or people behind you to trigger your claustrophobia. Eventually the room presents itself and half a dozen guards proceed to simultaneously “shush” you,  command you to keep moving and clap at you to stop taking photos.

It doesn’t feel particularly sacred and you feel compelled to remain within the room for as long as possible after shuffling tirelessly around the remaining museum. The frescos are in my mind brilliant. But the atmosphere is not one of an art gallery for appreciation but more of a curiosity show at a fairground. 

All in all, unless you are particularly fond of religious art or know a significant portion of the Catholic and Papal history the museum’s will be slightly pretty at best. Being released at the end (finding the exit was difficult) was the best feature and I have to say it is ticked off my list, but I won’t be going again. 

We did not send a postcard in the Vatican postoffice but it is a popular event and I have received a message from a relative previously which I have to say was quite a novelty to see the Vatican State postal mark.

The other major attraction in the Vatican State is St Peter’s Basilica. Until recently the biggest church ever built it is the church of the Pope and it is here that addresses and sermons are given. 

Inside is a magnificent marble triumph with columns, frescos, gilded edges and mosaic floors spanning wall to wall. As impressive as it is however this is not a museum and you are left guessing who the mummified remains belong to and why there are great sections which do not allow public access. In any case I would recommend a trip to the basilica to any Rome visitor. Entry is free and the security queue is quick. 

The Swiss guard of the Vatican are famous world wide and to this day you can see a couple members upon departing the basilica. They try not to move or laugh though sometimes they seem to struggle. However their clothing is beautifully bright and it is worth a quick picture. 

After many hours destroying the soles of our shoes and feet, a well deserved sit down and glass of wine was consumed at a self service cafe just outside the boundary of the Vatican State. Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. Our favourite. 

Unfortunately we had run out of time to visit the castle. But it still stood proud lit up at night. Instead we wandered towards the main city across the ponte dell sant Angelo and found a cute restaurant “Il Fico” just moments before the Piazza Navona. 

The steaks were superb and cooked to perfection nicely accompanied by a bottle of prosecco to keep us going. As well the starter I ate was an egg in pecorino with truffle. It was extremely tasty and I had to use bread to wipe off the last residue on my plate. 

Passing by a chocolate shop with a chocolate fountain wall we meandered through the long and impressive Piazza Navona which is littered with street artists and men selling flying led helicopter toys, whizzing them up in the air I almost bought one. Until Jenny prohibited it. 

We arrived at one of the most romantic spots in Rome, the Trevi fountain, at night. It truly is a remarkable sight and is crowded by hundreds of like minded tourists throwing coins taking selfies and grabbing pictures. Of course we did the same and made a few wishes too. 

Another quick stop off for a mojito and a debate of the meaning of our lives later we ended up in a very loud and long cobbled tunnel on our journey home. Luckily we happened across a gelateria. 

Jenny didn’t like the flavour choices she made (froyo made with pistachio and hazelnut and also coffee icecream) so tried to scoop one half off the cone. She ended up losing the whole ice-cream. That on top of my whole glass of spilled prosecco earlier made for a very clumsy night. 

Rome is a beautiful and romantic city but it is more enjoyable to spend time wandering, drinking eating and chatting than standing in a queue of 1000s of tourists.

Toodles

xo