Whirlwind trip hits Rome, Florence, Venice in a week

As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I loved to go to Italian markets to sample their offerings. The various salamis and pastas soon became my comfort food.I yearned to experience this food again, but I wanted to go to the source: Italy. Aside from the food, I wanted experience the country’s art and architecture.For someone who hasn’t been to Europe in years and is content with traveling the Southeast, the trip was a big undertaking. Months of planning, budgeting and learning the language became the scene in our house.We made our decision: We were to visit Rome, Florence and Venice in a one-week period. I dubbed this whirlwind tour The Italian Sampler. Romantic Rome After a nine-hour flight, we were greeted by Rome’s golden sun peeking at us through the darkness. It was a sight for sore eyes. Even though we didn’t sleep a wink, we were ready to tour Rome when we arrived at Fiumicino Airport.There is no need to rent a car in here. Simply find your way to the local train, which whisks you to the Termini central station. From that point, it’s best to set out on foot to explore this city filled with ancient ruins, world-class museums and amazing cuisine.

When we arrived at Termini, we were pleasantly surprised to find many hotels located across the street. We chose Hotel Mediterraneo, a restored property that is reasonably priced and puts you in a central location.A front desk employee pointed us in the direction of the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Trevi Fountain and local museums. By purchasing a Roma pass, a tourist discount card, we were able to jump to the front of the line at the Colosseum, see other attractions at a reduced price and ride the transit system during the two-day stay.

After breakfast at the hotel, we embarked upon our tour of the Vatican and its museums. The nearby train quickly brought us to this magnificent site. The line was long, but it would have been longer if we went later in the day. The key is to arrive early and stick with what you would like to see. For myself, I had to see the Tombs of Popes. Just as I suspected, Pope John Paul II’s tomb drew massive crowds. After visiting the tombs, I spent much of my time in St. Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.The Holy See left me awestruck by its art, architecture and beauty. Television and photos do not do it justice. You must physically be in the Vatican to seriously experience it. I will see the Pope’s future addresses through a different prism. In Rome, I rediscovered the food I loved as a child. Seek out eateries run by generations of families, and you’ll likely end up with a good meal. My new memories of mouth-watering risotto at Osteria della Fontana near the Trevi Fountain and uncut pizzas at Bar Pizzeria Koski on Via Cavour are priceless.

Exploring Florence

It is impossible to see everything in Rome, but our tour had to move on. We booked a pair of tickets on a Eurostar train and headed to Florence. Italy’s trains fill up fast, so it’s a good idea to reserve your seats in advance. In addition to the price of our tickets, a 15 Euro reservation fee was added onto the bill.Eurostar trains are punctual, so arriving early to your platform is recommended. We were treated like royalty on this modern mode of transportation. Food and drinks were quickly served and we promptly arrived in Florence.

The first thing to do in Florence is to get out at the main train station and proceed to the tourist information office across the street. There, I learned that Florence’s streets are laid out in a grid-like fashion. It’s tough to get lost in the city.We made the trek to our hotel, Hotel Cellai, which was a 20-minute walk. Our decision to stay at this historic property was a good one. We weren’t looking for posh accommodations to spend two nights. We just needed something near main attractions like the Uffizi and Academy galleries, and Hotel Cellai delivers on all counts.

Last stop in Venice

The last leg of the tour took us north to Venice. Yes, it’s chillier here than in Rome, but its sheer beauty outweighs the weather.It was easy to locate a water bus, which took us to the Domina Giudecca Hotel on Giudecca Island. The hotel is off the beaten path, and when it comes to Venice, that is a great thing.Most of Venice is a bit touristy, so staying on Giudecca was perfect for my us. We found our hotel room to be modern and cozy. A morning breakfast served in a greenhouse-like room was among the best bites on our journey. After visiting St. Mark’s Basilica, the famous Caffe Florian and the Academy Gallery, our Italian Sampler tour concluded, too fast. We flew directly out of Venice to return home. It was nice to be back, but I will never forget Italy’s beauty and scrumptious cuisine.

More infoHotel Mediterraneowww.mediterraneo.hotelinroma.com

The Vatican http://www.vatican.va/

Hotel Cellai http://www.hotelcellai.it/

Rail Europe http://www.raileurope.com/

Domina Giudecca Hotel http://www.dominahotels.it/

Did you know?

Hotel Mediterraneo was designed in 1938 by Mario Loreti, and is located on the highest of Rome’s seven hills, the Esquilino.

The Vatican Museums originated as a group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius II (1503-1513) and placed in what today is the “Cortile Ottagono” within the museum complex.

Hotel Cellai advises visitors on alternative itineraries, which include trips to the Santa Maria Novella laboratory, one of the oldest pharmacies in the world, and the nearby town of Fiesole.

Domina Giudecca Hotel overlooks the Palada canal on the island of Giudecca, and is only 10 minutes by boat to Piazza San Marco.

Sources: Hotel Mediterraneo, The Vatican Museums, Hotel Cellai, Domina Giudecca Hotel

----- Sidenotes to trip:

Day seven evening of 12.30.2006 - New Years Eve 12.31.2006

The trip to Venice was a bit longer than the Rome to Florence leg. Still, it went fast. By the time we reached Venice, it was cold and dark. The frigid temperature didn't bother me as we searched for the water bus that would take us to Giudecca Island where we would stay. If Venice was this nice at night, I was anxious to see it in the day! We got off the boat and somehow navigated our way to Hotel Giudecca. I love this place. The front desk clerk was incredibly nice. Unfortunately, he gave us a room key that opened up another guest's room. Oh my. I opened the door and almost had a heart attack as I saw a young couple watching TV. Thank goodness that was what they were doing. Imagine having to face them at breakfast the next morning! We informed the desk clerk who was in total shock from our episode. Our room at the Giudecca was cute with a low-slung ceiling and doors. We had incredible views of the canals from our patio. Somehow we had enough energy on arrival to explore Giudecca at night. We ended up at the island's youth hostel where we dined on their pizza and phoned home using pre-paid cards. Seeing these dapper young women and men made me long for a time when I should have trekked through Europe and beyond. When we retired to the Giudecca, the front desk clerk was in the lobby ready to end his evening shift. We recounted our time in Italy to him and his girlfriend, who looked like a model. 12.31.2006 We awoke to a gorgeous Venice morning. The bells were sounding and the air was crisp from the patio. Outside of our room was the smell of breakfast wafting through the corridors of Hotel Giudecca. This was the best morning meal we experienced in Italy. Breakfast is served in a greenhouse-like room. It is without a doubt -- Hotel Giudecca receives high marks in my book. The afternoon was filled with making our way on San Marco. It was a must to tour St. Mark's Basilica and Square. Just like Fiesole, we had our backpacks. Thankfully, St. Mark's offers a place to rest those massive contraptions. It was bit harder to deal with them at Caffe Florian where we dined on expensive finger sandwiches. Apparently filmmaker Woody Allen hangs here with his young bride. A nice gay British couple shared the room with us. I think they were happy to see us leave as they had the entire place to themselves. We went onto the island's Academy Gallery. Out of all the galleries I have toured on this visit, this one has the most enormous paintings. Daylight was burning again which forced us to miss a ride with a gondolier and a visit to the Guggenheim collection. Even though Venice is a tourist trap, I was used to it at that point on the trip. The shopping is endless. The gondoliers are everywhere. The self-appointed business people are festooned throughout the area. And the pigeons are even more annoying. After a day on San Marco, I longed to see the lesser-traveled sections of Venice, but time was a factor. We took the water bus up the main canal and headed to the bus that would take us to our hotel. The wife quickly bought a mask for my daughter just before we boarded the bus. We decided to stay at the Courtyard by Marriott, Venice. The brand-spanking new hotel was welcomed us with open arms. Indeed it was not an ambitious choice since it is American, but this was New Year's Eve and we were quite tired. The front desk clerk was the nicest man in Italy. Since this was New Year's and there were not many eateries near it, he suggested a wonderful pizzeria around the block called Crazy Pizza. As he was telling us about the eatery, a loud bell alarm sounded. The clerk rolled his eyes and ran to a back room to shut it. "Oh, there are no technicians in Italy to fix this," said the gracious young man. I turned to the wife and told her that this alarm will keep going off. The problem reminded me of an alarm problem that I experienced in my junior year of college at Ohio University. I lived in a private dorm where the alarm constantly went off and we had to evacuate every time. We put it out of our minds as we unpacked, but a few minutes later, "Ring! Ring! Ring!" We called the nice man at the desk who promised that it wouldn't happen again: Famous Last Words! We headed into the Venice night to Crazy Pizza and were pleasantly surprised. The waitress gave us shots of liquor in honor of the holiday as we ordered scrumptious pizzas with exotic fish on them. The night at the hotel was filled with watching New Year's ceremonies on TV and plenty of alarm annoyances. Our plan to chill out on this evening failed miserably. In the morning I wrote a missive excoriating the company and PR department who did pretty much zilch in helping me get a press rate for the room. In hindsight I still cannot understand why they couldn't help in that department. Indeed hotels book up, but I felt that I could have included them in one of my travel stories. The deal was great to stay near the beautiful new airport if you were flying back to Atlanta. But no one can imagine how unsettling the alarm was for us. I was so cranky at the airport I nearly wanted to chew the Delta clerk's head off as she demanded to see if our bags fit in the Sizewise display. We hopped on an 11-hour flight which had some great food and films on it. I got to see The Queen with Helen Mirren as we flew over Spain and England. Of course the video iPod helped as well. What a trip! The memories will last a lifetime.

Day Six 12.30.2006

We boarded the rather crowded number 7 bus to Fiesole. I didn't mind standing up most of the time. To me it was more important for the wife and the locals to sit down. The guilt trip was eating away at me. Standing up was advantageous because I could see for miles as we climbed into the Italian hills.Unfortunately, we got off too early and ended up on the outskirts of Fiesole. I received a number of "I'm-gonna-kill-yous." As I reassured the wife that another bus would pick us up, we were burning daylight.About 20 minutes later, another number 7 bus scooped us up to the main piazza. The scene was stunning. Since we were backpacking, we carried all of our goods up a steep hill to San Francesco church and a cute little eatery: La Reggia.As the bells of Fiesole were ringing, we made our way into La Reggia. Nothing beats a hilltop view combined with their salami sampler. At this point in the tour, I became a salami expert. At La Reggia my plate had a mixture from the Nocia, Sienna and Genoa areas.There is a resident cat at La Reggia. At first he didn't respond to me, but when I tried some Italian on her, she meowed loudly. Ah, a cute Italian kitty! I guessed that the cat was female because she was incredibly verbal.After La Reggia, we stopped into a leather good shop where I purchased a nice change purse. I needed it to hold my 1 and 2 Euro coins.The number seven bus promptly got us back to Piazza Stationze, Florence's hub train station. As we sat in the food court, I couldn't help but notice a wealthy American family feasting on American fare! Why would one go to Florence and order a Bud Dry? Hmm, a bigger American Idiot than myself perhaps :-)Seeing how Italy prides itself on religion, language and culture made me optimistic that there is so much beauty in the world. Large families conversing with a liveliness that I have never witnessed is something that we are seldom experiencing stateside.For me and probably scores of others, a visit here is cherished. Who knows when or if I can get back here. I savored it all as we boarded the ES to Venice.

-- Day 5 12.29.2006

The second day in Florence included the Uffizi Gallery and the Academy Gallery: We had reservations for both. Indeed it was monumental to see the massive statues and artwork in both galleries, but the main course was you guessed -- David. The wow factor is off the charts; one must see it to believe it. The staff unenthusiastically would yell, "No photo" as doltish visitors snapped off shots of this legendary display. Roaming Florence's user-friendly, yet touristy streets, we decided to book our trains to Venice. We stopped into the American Express office. The kind bespectacled lady behind the counter said, "All trains to Venice is full." "Oh no, wait. That can't be," I replied. "I was told in Rome that we could wait and book the Venice leg of our tour on the ES train." The worker could have cared less. "Ask me again in a half hour." she said. "Why?" I impatiently queried. "The computer is down," she calmly said. As I paced the office for 30 minutes, I couldn't help but feel the panic. We were to fly out of Venice to get home! It would have gotten ugly if I couldn't get back. When the computer came back to life, suddenly we were able to find a spot on the ES train. However, the booking was for a later train on the third day. That left us with some time on our hands. After asking locals what we could do with our time, they suggested that we take a bus to Fiesole, a cute suburb in the hills near Florence. That was our plan for the last day in the Florence area. With sore feet, we retired to the Cellai.

-- Day 4 12-28-2006

Our last day in Rome was brief since we were headed out to Florence by mid-morning. That was when we experienced our biggest glitch at the Mediterraneo. One elevator was broken and the working lift was slow. Little did we know that the hotel’s main stairwell was a few feet from the elevator. We took the service stairwell! There were a few “I’m gonna-kill-yous,” emanating from my wife as we went down the steps to the first floor. The moments were brief, but somehow an agitated spouse makes it seem like forever. Breakfasts at the Mediterraneo were exquisite. Eggs, ham, salami, pastries and what became my friend—Nutkao, an even better version of Nutella.We cut it close to get to your Eurostar train at the Termini station. I counted my blessings once again as we found the “binaro” or platform where our train picked us up.In hindsight it was worth it to reserve the tickets, but there was a last minute catch. Even though I was supplied with a pre-paid Trenitalia pass, I had to pay the 15 Euro reservation fee. This caused a bit of confusion causing our agent at the Termini station to lose her temper.The ES train was fast and efficient as it toured us through the scenic northern portion of the country. The green rolling hills dotted with sheep and wineries made me want to chuck it all and move here to become the owner of a winery. The fog was thick as we reached Italy’s valleys. To pass time, the Italians who were on my train were reading and rug hooking. I was with my MP3 player passing the time listening to Foo Fighters. Surely they must have these gadgets, I thought to myself. After all, mobile phones are as much as staple here as the pasta. I had the best Sartre moment I could think of when I thought: What are they hearing in their minds that I cannot? Eminem? Neil Diamond? Elvis? We exported them to this land and in return we got their clothes and food which we translated into the Olive Garden, Pizza Hut and Value City. I went back to thinking other items we gave the Italians like SUVs and minivans. How can their narrow roads handle a Jeep Grand Cherokee or a Hummer (which I encountered on a Rome street)? Traffic is already crazy in Rome as cars jockey for position. They could care less how banged up they get.We pulled into Florence’s hub station. The advice to briskly walk through here and head across to street to their information center is a good one. The hub station is dark, depressing and filled with plenty of characters. Tourists are targeted with bogus hotel offers and taxi rides. We found out that both offers are needless – especially if you are traveling light. If you decide to take a taxi ride, be prepared to pay the price. It is at least 9 Euros per person plus baggage fees to get to where we needed to go: Hotel Cellai. We walked and were ever grateful for the decision. The 20 minute walk wasn’t that bad. Centrally located to all of the action, Hotel Cellai is a reasonable place to base oneself on a Florence visit. I was again struck by the pesky thermostat. Noise was another problem here. Our room on the first night was on the street and over the lobby. We put in our earplugs, but they barely helped. We would later move to a back room. They wonderful staff helped us with that decision.The tea and cookies each afternoon made up for any shortcoming. Hotel Cellai’s rooftop patio is another plus with priceless views of Il Duomo and the hills. Even on a chilly evening we relaxed in their comfy chairs. Drinks weren’t being served up here and that was OK.Just outside of the Cellai is where modern civilization began. We could have wandered its streets and without going into one shop, bar, restaurant, café or museum and we would have been satisfied.We had 72 hours in Florence and we were curious enough to spend some Euros. Like Rome, Florence has long lines to its main attractions. Il Duomo was first on the list. The cupola lines were outrageous. We settled for another challenging climb with a birdseye view of the city: the bell tower. The 414-steps were a workout. The step’s passageways are narrow and with handrails.After negotiating the long way down in the bell tower, we searched Florence for more churches only to find out that unlike Rome, there is an admission price tag of 3 Euros to many of them. Florence’s residents and kids under 11 get in free.Dinner time was early. This time we went through the Pointe Vecchio and over to the Osteria del Cinghale Bianco. Apparently Americans frequent this hotspot, probably for its Florentine Zuppa, a hearty stew of beans and spinach. Pasta Tagliarini is another signature dish here.Sitting next to us was Roscoe, a 16-year-old student from Los Angeles who enjoy dual citizenship. Roscoe’s dad is an art director in LA who holidays back home at this time of the year. The reason why I’m using his first name only is that Roscoe enjoys fine wine with his dinner, followed up by melted chocolate, a chocolate éclair and a cigarette for dessert at a nearby gelataria. As he dined with us, Roscoe stated that Italy is still patriarchal. In other words, no questions are asked about his dual citizenship since it is his dad who is Italian; not his mother. If it was his mother, they would be asking more questions.I’m not sure if I’ll see Roscoe again.Instead of the straight chocolate, we went to another gelataria that supplied us with chocolate-covered waffles. We topped that off with a visit to a wine bar where we sipped the vino along with some Tuscan treats. Of course a dog was looking on.The wine bar visit was followed by the loud night at the Cellai. But they made up for it with the fabulous breakfast in the morning.


Day 3 12-27-2006

We set aside the majority of the third day for The Vatican, the crown jewel of all the attractions. The mantra could not be repeated enough: Arrive early and if possible, get plenty of fluids. If there is one word to describe The Vatican it would have to be "overwhelming." The Vatican and its museums are endless. Our plan of attack was similar to Rick Steves': start where civilization started--in Egypt. From there, go to the must-see areas including the Pope's Tombs, Sistine Chapel and St. Peter's Basilica and Square. Be prepared to be in a foot traffic jam at Pope John Paul II's tomb. This scene reminded me of this Pope's popularity as visitors prayed before the tomb and took photos. This must be a big act to follow for Pope Benedict XVI.Even in December, the off-season, the crowds are thick and it still gets warm in the massive line to leading into the facility. I cannot imagine how hot this place gets in the spring and summer!It was off to the Spanish Steps via Rome's Metro subway system. A quick stroll to the Ottaviano station from The Vatican was easier than I thought. We were at the Spagna station within minutes. Historical and grand, the Steps reminded us why we came here. It is something that we don’t see everyday in our cookie-cutter lives. The tourist scene is big at the Steps. Self-described business people attempt to sell obnoxious flying disks. As you ascend the Spanish Steps, the Hotel Hassler comes into view. Its most recent guests were actors Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes who were here to conduct their pricey wedding. When we toured the Hassler, Romans in the hotel pointed us to Mr. Cruise’s favorite restaurant -- a quick hop from the Hassler. Our weary eyes and feet were seeking more so we headed off to the Pantheon. A circular, expansive treat filled with religious symbolism that could only be found here made the walk worth the effort. Rome’s mega churches represent a style and class all its own. Just around the corner is the Piazza Novano. Its carnival-like atmosphere could be anything witnessed in the States except that it is ensconced in an area filled with Roman architecture. A merry-go-round, contest booths and stuffed animals festooned everywhere brought a bit of home to us. The difference here is that you couldn’t find an information stand that contains Palestinian rights pamphlets in much of the U.S. -- OK, perhaps on the Berkeley campus. Hunger once again set in as the day drew to a close. We asked Hada, a hard-working journalist we met, where to dine. Her suggestion was La Danesina osteria – which is not far from the piazza. “We are not open until 7.15 p.m.,” the waitress emphatically stated when we arrived. The wife and I took advantage of the time by stopping at a nearby bar for what else – wine, salami and cheese. When we arrived at La Danesina around 8, the cozy diner was suddenly getting packed. It seems that the Italians handle the crowds a bit differently. I received my pesto pasta dish at least 10 minutes before the wife’s plate of veal, salami, salad and ham. Perhaps these dishes were prepared with an extra TLC of which we weren’t aware.

-- Day 2: 12-26-2006

Touchdown on Italian soil boosted our sprits. Fiumicino Airport was a breeze. We deplaned and navigated our way through customs. In hindsight there was little difficulty in finding the connection platform to the city's train system. It was there where we met a lovely Australian couple with their 18-month-old baby in tow. The ever-adventurous duo told us that they were on summer holiday trekking to see a relative in Kiev, Ukraine via Italy. They had no hotel reservations in Rome and that fact didn't seem to make them worry."We'll find a room or maybe even a hostel," the young lady said. She told me how they roll with the punches when traveling. They once camped in cars. "One time, we took steaks and cooked them over an open flame with an old pan. We found out that we didn't have utensils, so we ate them with our bares hands," she said in her quaint Aussie accent."What did you have to drink?" I queried."We had a warm bottle of wine," she replied.A few moments later, she informed us that she is pregnant with her second child. "I get a bit of sickness, but it goes away pretty fast," she stated in a cavalier manner.Now they know how to travel. Aside from being self-employed, the rail-thin husband is an avid scuba diver. I admitted that I couldn't come close to leading such an exciting life in the States.We parted ways before we got to the Termini Station. The central hub is a busy one filled with scores of passengers, locals and workers. Clutching all of our goods, we headed for the street level in search of our hotel. Thankfully, we were booked in the nearby Hotel Mediterraneo. Since we vowed to never rent a car on the visit, this hotel's locus was a blessing. Our biggest problem at that moment was dodging the taxis, Smart cars and buses to make the diagonal walk to the stately hotel. We would soon learn that we became experts at learning "European Frogger."The weather was excellent during the entire stay. Either there was a higher power looking over us on this excursion or global warming was on our side during the last week of December 2006.Upon arrival at the hotel, we were greeted in the lobby by a gracious employee, Francesca. As I organized our belongings, Francesca patiently answered my wife's laundry list of questions in good English. The woman was an absolute gem. We made our way through the classically decorated lobby to their one working elevator. The well-used lift gave us a few scares while we were in it. Sometimes it delayed us causing us to take the wrong stairwell on one occasion. With all of its years of wear and tear, the operators of the property have made good improvements and perform top-notch maintenance.Our room at the Mediterraneo was spacious and comfy. Street noise wasn't too much of a problem because an extra set of windows were installed. The bathroom was even more impressive with a state-of-the-art Euro shower. As a self-admitted American Idiot, I did have a problem figuring out the heating/cooling system due to my natural incompetence and lack of knowledge with the Metric system. We were lucky it wasn't freezing outside. But the Hotel Mediterraneo was the perfect base-camp as we created our strategies for seeing as much as possible in Roma for our two-day stay.We made our way back to Francesca in the lobby in search of a main street, Via Cavour. She pointed in the direction of the street, but of course, we went the other way to Piazza della Republicca. Its beauty and grandeur barely scratched the surface in our introduction to Roma. Doubling back, we found Via Cavour and grabbed a pair of pizzas at Bar Pizzeria. The workers were fast in preparing and serving a salami-prosciutto my uncut pie and the wife's shrimp-mozzarella version. With two cappuccinos added onto the tab, the lunch cost nine Euros. A couple from Great Britain found it quite humorous as we tried our Italian on the hasty server. I felt like an even bigger American Idiot.As the Colosseum came within our sight, we were taken aback: We were finally here, in Italia. Descriptions and pictures cannot do it justice. You have to be here.After much thought, we opted for the Roma Pass. The Roma Pass is a three-day card that includes admission on Rome's metro system and a choice to get into many of the city's attractions.The Roma Pass came in handy as we whisked ourselves into the Colosseum. Somehow it felt smaller to us. We can't explain why. Perhaps photos and videos-especially Billy Joel's recent concert here-make everything look bigger. The Colosseum visit was more breathtaking with the way the setting sun was enveloping this historical site.Like many of Rome's sites, the Colosseum is a tourist trap. There is a bit of irony with the juxtaposition of the legendary site and the tourist trappings surrounding it. In my opinion it is Italy's economic engine harmoniously running alongside its dearly-held heritage, traditions and values. In the days I was in the country, I have never witnessed such dedication to country and piety.What I was disappointed with was how the vendors take advantage of the tourist scene with exorbitant prices. I can understand how they need to make some serious Euro to stay alive, but I would spend more of my money with an honest operator. Just like any tourist area, there are smooth operators looking to rip you off. I did my best to avoid the tacky "actors" playing Gladiators who coax you to take pictures with them as they attempt to get you to pay up for the request. Ditto for the people who stand around as statues. Then there are the legal and/or illegal vendors who push their wares. The most popular non-essential items were mini tripods, belts and battery-operated toy cars at the time of my visit. I suppose that last one is to get the little child in the group to beg dad and mom to purchase the piece of junk. If there is any piece of advice I can supply here, it is to keep your wallet in its front pocket and ignore these con artists. Italy will not think anything less of you if you appear to be a jerk to these self-described "business operators."The icing on the cake to the vendors are the gypsies. Don't fall for their schemes either. Many of them are females bottle feeding their babies. Personally I think they play gypsies on TV. Don't get me wrong, I'm too compassionate. Just like any country, Italy has its share of con artists and homeless people.As we negotiated ourselves through the crowd, we used our Roma card to visit the nearby Palatine Hill. The climb was worth it. Ancient ruins basking in the golden Italian sunshine is priceless.At that point, I thought my day was over. I was wrong. The wife got her second wind. I was running on autopilot and went with the extended plans."We must see the Trevi Fountain," she exclaimed.Mapping our course to the Trevi was easier than previously thought so we set off on foot. Rome's layout is a user-friendly grid system. The drawback is that many streets aren't marked. We fell off course a few times. We met the locals and learned about the places to see and avoid.The Trevi Fountain was packed."We have to throw coins over our shoulders and make a wish," Brooke yelled over the crowd."Ah Fortuna," a con artist said as he approached us with a rose. Apparently the rose adds to the wish you make."Non, non," I exclaimed as I handed the flower back. I wasn't ready to fall for this scam nor the throngs of other hustlers pushing obnoxious lighted fly-up discs.The Trevi Fountain is prime opportunity for petty crime. It is a disturbing trend. So is graffiti. The vandalism to its buildings and infrastructure is heartbreaking. Still Italy's dedication to history somehow dwarfs this unfortunate truth.Hunger set in as we left the Trevi. We stumbled upon a family-owned osteria or eatery called La Fontana. The soft, delectable risotto was seasoned just right with olive oil and cheese that can only be found in this country. What I forgot about European eateries is that dogs are allowed inside. If only Americans could train them as well as their fellow pet owners across the pond, perhaps you would see the quite domesticated animals in stateside restaurants.We retired back to the Mediterraneo as we looked forward to Day Three of the journey.


Day One: 12-25-2006

As I construct my manuscript, I will record my notes and observations here. We flew on Christmas Day thinking that somehow it wouldn't be too busy at Atlanta's airport. After all, we flew on the same day in 1995 to London and the experience was pleasant. My how things have changed. The beautiful international concourse was buzzing with activity. After we went through security, we grabbed a bite at a diner where we met a lively couple from South Africa. As we were dining on our burgers, we discussed what we do for a living, our travel plans and politics. It felt like we were in an embassy because the views we were expressing were different from what has been said throughout Georgia and the Southeast in recent years. As the region has grown more conservative, the rest of the nation has moved in the other direction. Proof of this shift was evident in the autumn 2006 midterm elections. Georgia conservatives say that the state is on a different level because their policies have created a strong economy. Perhaps that is partly true, but it is more likely that those on the Right in Georgia have become strong in many sectors including business, houses of worship and education. I pointed out that religious study is making its way into the public schools. Both state Republicans and Democrats are behind this effort. Even before we left U.S. soil, we already discovered how the world feels about the current American administration and its policies. We attempted to show the couple some optimism as we pointed out that a new opposition Congress was coming into session that will hopefully produce positive results. It was a tough task. I told them that even though I have been a frequent critic of the administration over the years, I have toned down my rhetoric because I have grown incredibly tired of it all. I said that we need to focus on the future that includes global cooperation. Nice try on my part. The couple had a good chuckle over this as they said that the U.S. supplies them with plenty of humorous fodder. I decided I'll leave the "PR repair effort" to Mr. Tony Snow and his co-workers in Washington and Crawford. Oh, back to the trip :-) After the delicious meal, we proceeded to the gate. Of course we were early. I was programmed that way by my chronophobic dad. I show up to just about everything early. Fortunately, my wife is typically late since her dad taught her to make late grand entrances. It balances us out I suppose. Honestly, I did marry-up :-) "This flight is overbooked. If anyone would like to give up their seat, we have a gift for you," boomed the airline representative. The flight was overbooked on Christmas Day? The gift was a $400 voucher towards a ticket that one could use within a year. With a week planned in Italy and months of "pre-production," there was no way we would give up our seats. We read every Rick Steves book, bought special backpacks and tried our best to learn some Italian. After all was said and done, we boarded the plane with everything. Yes, we did not check anything on! Traveling Rick Steves-style is the way to go. I love his philosophy and would soon learn that scores of others agree as his books are carried all over Italy. The nine-hour flight went fast as we watched one good movie on the flight; viewed our video iPod filled with episodes of Sleeper Cell; listened to plenty of Macca on the MP3 player. Heck, the Atlanta-based carrier served up decent airline fare: It was pasta of course! After flying through hours of darkness, we were greeted with the gorgeous Roman sun.


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