Jewish Ghetto and Pons Fabricius, Rome

What does a perfect evening in Rome look like? Perhaps seeing an amazing sunset from the oldest bridge in the city followed by Jewish-Roman cuisine that you will be talking about long after you go home?

This past October, we strolled along the Tiber River (street level not down by the water) to get to Rome’s oldest bridge, Pons Fabricius aka Ponte dei Quattro Capi, arriving just before sunset. Built in 62 BCE, this bridge stands in its original location and its original state. Seriously, how is that even possible??? It stretches from the eastern side of the Tiber (the one with the Colosseum) to Tiber Island in the middle of the river, which is fun to walk around and serves as a great backdrop for photos. The Latin name “quattro capi” means “four heads” and refers to two pillars that each depict the two-faced Roman god Janus. (see picture below) Those statues weren’t on the original bridge but were moved there in the 14th century. Rome truly is one big outdoors art museum.

After you get tired of all the beauty of the bridge and island as the sun sets, you can take a quick walk to the Jewish Ghetto and experience amazing food. Ba Ghetto Oldest Jewish Restaurant In Rome | Kosher Cuisine Rome is where we grabbed a patio table after wandering around and seeing some of the area’s historic sites. While we were feasting on artichokes alla giudía aka fried artichokes, pasta with pine nuts, and lamb stew, we heard someone call out my husband’s name. Lo and behold a guy he went to high school with just happened to be walking by and recognized Thom. What! They had a totally unplanned and happy reunion. They hadn’t seen each other since 1974. But back to the artichokes. They were SO delicious. We are going to Milan in a few months and Ba Ghetto has a restaurant there. I’m building my Milan itinerary around getting more artichokes. Yum!

Needless to say, the Jewish Ghetto should be on every visitor’s list to experience. By the way, ghetto is a name given to a location where people were forced to live. This particular ghetto is among the oldest in the world. We didn’t have time, but I would have liked to have taken a walking tour with an experienced guide to learn more about the history of this area in Rome. Next time!

Piazza Santo Spirito, Florence

Piazza Santo Spirito is my beloved epicenter in Florence. The Oltrarno (meaning the “other” side of the Arno River opposite the Duomo) is known as the meeting place of excellence for local Florence residents. Recently, we stayed in an apartment a few blocks away so that I could experience this beautiful place on a daily basis. On the square, the merchants are selling everything you need (or just want!) from clothing to bags to hardware to fruits/veggies. The focal point of the square is the Basilica di Santo Spirito. Built in the early 1400’s, you will probably see art students with their easels from morning light to the golden hour drawing this landmark. Go inside and appreciate every nook and cranny of this preeminent example of Renaissance architecture.

The locals shop at this market that happens every day during the week on the square but, on Sundays, the market expands with even more arts, crafts and food items to buy-mostly cash only accepted. To give you an idea of pricing, I got a lightweight knit sweater for $10 euros, a vintage scarf for $5 euros, an old table runner for $2 euros-so many treasures to discover!

The cafe life is strong in Piazza Santo Spirito. We were lucky to snag a café table for our lunch on a busy Sunday. The waitress in charge was very directive in telling exactly where to sit at our four top table-she didn’t seem thrilled to have two people taking up the whole space, but we just smiled and rolled with it. The café lunch crowd was primarily locals enjoying family dinner but there were some tourists like us that they put up with. Very reasonable prices and great meals-Thom had veal meatballs on top of mashed potatoes (the Italians never serve meatballs with pasta), and I had a lovely light salad with pears, pecorino cheese, walnuts and lettuce with an aperitivo. We enjoyed watching the diverse crowd on the square out to enjoy the beautiful warm day. This is the Italian life that I miss so much when back in the US.

Hidden gem alert: Enjoy your coffee on the covered patio overlooking the square at Loggia Rooftop Bar at Hotel Palazzo Guadagni, which is also a great place for an evening cocktail. The view is awesome and it’s just a pleasant place to be. After a cappuccino or espresso and a pastry, bring your cash to the market on the square and gather food from the various vendors for dinner. I had the best figs of my life purchased from one of the market vendors-if you are in Florence during fig season (June to September), you are very lucky. When we arrived in late September, the figs were all gone. One more reason to go back to Florence soon!

Parma Day Trip from Florence

Guest writer: Thom George, my awesome husband

When Melinda and I were planning our trip to Florence, Italy, my college buddy, Sam K., told me that he would be there during the same time. He was combining a little bit of work with the wedding of his son. We discussed getting together during our time in Florence. Shortly after arriving from Paris, Sam called and asked if we’d like to take a drive with him to visit a prosciutto di parma producer in Parma, Italy. Sam works in the food industry and this supplier was one of his customers. Melinda had work to do (and is a vegetarian) so she stayed back at the apartment in the Oltrarno and I went off to Parma with Sam, his son and his friend, the New York Cheese Chick (she does private cheese tastings in Florence!)

A pleasant two and a half hour drive through the Tuscan countryside brought us to the Tanara Giancarlo SPA production facility where we were met by the owner. Before giving us a tour of the production facility, he took us to a local restaurant and treated us to a delicious lunch that started off with a board of cheeses and yes, prosciutto. The main course was a selection of handmade ravioli stuffed with ricotta, pumpkin, and bitter greens (my favorite); homemade fruit pie and espresso finished off the meal.

Upon returning to the facility, we all donned lab jackets, hair nets and shoe covers before entering the production area. The next 45 minutes was a tour, complete from the receiving and approving of the hog legs through the multiple stages of salting the meat, washing it, aging it, deboning the leg, and finally packaging and shipping the product around the world. In total, we covered 4 floors on the production facility where they process 108,000 hog legs per year.

Finding a tour: Thom went on a private tour that isn’t available to the public-it’s all about who you know! However, you can find similar experiences on Viator depending on where you are staying. These type of immersive food experiences will make for a lasting memory of your trip to Italy. Enjoy the journey!

Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, Rome

All Rome visitors should visit the Trevi Fountain, featured in movies, a popular backdrop for photos and truly spectacular in every way. Plus, if you throw a coin in (using the right hand over the left shoulder according to legends) you will surely return to Rome. Reason enough to visit! An estimated 3,000-euro coins are thrown in the fountain daily, raising money for Rome nonprofits to assist the needy. Don’t try to harvest euros from the fountain to pay for your vacation though because it’s against the law. See, my handy tips will save you from a visit to an Italian jail AND you will get good photos (see the one I took below with my phone!) but only if you behave!

Just a little Trevi Fountain history for you-the fountain is from the 18th-century and marks the terminal point of an ancient aqueduct. The name “Trevi” is from the Latin word Trivium meaning the intersection of three streets as it is located in the center of De ‘Crocicchi Street, Poli Street and Delle Muratte Street. Entire books are written about this iconic historical fountain so read up before you go if that’s your jam.

Spanish Steps: Walkable from the Trevi Fountain, this staircase has 135 steps between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Piazza Trinità dei Monti and is a major tourist magnet, though I was underwhelmed. It’s a staircase (see middle photo below). Meh. However, the Trinità dei Monti church at the top is a nice background to the steps and there is a lovely fountain at the base to feature as a backdrop for picture taking. Just like the Trevi Fountain, this site has been in many movies shot in Rome. Depending on when you visit, in the spring there are flowerpots with pink azaleas and petunias on the steps which make for even better pictures. It’s all about the pictures and this is the spot! Again, go early for less crowds in your shots-we were there around 9:30 am and it was already filling up.

Visiting Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps: Since these are outside sites, there is no entrance fee. Just show up very early in the morning to get some great pictures and soak in all the unique features of the fountain façade before the crowds show up and you can’t even get close enough to throw a coin in and guarantee your return trip to Rome. We arrived at 8:30 am and joined a few Instagram influencers who were taking their “money” shots in front of the fountain. I proceeded to also pose for Thom to take some memorable photos. It is lovely and I would highly recommend you take an early morning stroll to see it and then walk about 8 minutes to also see the Spanish Steps while you are in the neighborhood. Then, it will be time to enjoy the Rome café life with an aperitif. Cheers!

Trastevere Neighborhood in Rome

One of my favorite Rome experiences was wandering the Trastevere neighborhood. Meaning “beyond the Tiber”, Trastevere is located on the south side of the river away from the normal Rome tourist sites. While there are definitely tourists here, there are also locals eating and enjoying the social life. So be adventurous and immerse yourself in this pocket of charm, entertainment, shopping and food when you visit Rome. Take the back streets, admire the faded Renaissance buildings, towering Roman pines, and enjoy an aperitif at a café on the piazza while the music flows from street entertainers.

I had done some research on this area and found THE coolest shop, Elvis Lives. Two graphic designers create and stock Elvis Lives with kitschy merch featuring Elvis and branded items featuring the Italian term “Daje” (meaning Come On!). We bought lots of unique souvenirs to bring home, especially for an Elvis-loving friend. We also happened upon a pop-up gallery of artists selling jewelry, prints, etc. in a loft space. You just never know what you will find! My travel advice is to not over plan your itinerary and to leave time daily for walking around and absorbing the local culture.

We ended up stumbling upon a fabulous restaurant that had an open table. Nannarella: Nannarella – Locanda in Trastevere – Dal 1930 (nannarellaroma.it) has a great outside patio. The pasta was amazing, and we enjoyed the people watching while we ate. Probably best to make a reservation so you can enjoy Nannarella-we got lucky as it seemed very popular. After dinner, we walked a few miles back to the hotel enjoying the evening and happy that we got to explore the unforgettable Trastevere neighborhood.

Vatican City

The Vatican Museums that are part of Vatican City are among the most crowded in the world, sometimes having as many as 20,000 visitors in a day and recently I was one of them! Go early and don’t plan any other activities the day of your visit except aperitifs and dinner afterward. You will end your day tired and hungry but appreciative of all the beautiful art and history you have experienced. Vatican City is definitely a “must see” when in Rome.

Our early morning tour began on the street nearest the main entrance to the Vatican Museums. Our tour guide Fabi was so knowledgeable and fun. She really brought the history of the Vatican to life. I would highly suggest taking the first tour of the day even though it is an early call at 8 am to meet the group. Don’t be late or you will be left behind. Trust me, it gets crazy crowded later. While it’s busy in the morning hours with booked tours getting in early, it’s still manageable. Fabi guided us through the various museum galleries including the Room of the Candelabra, Hall of Tapestries, and Gallery of the Maps. It was nice for Fabi to offer to take pictures of us. We don’t have many pictures of us together other than selfies.

Before reaching the Sistine Chapel, you will receive a reference map you can use once inside, which is a useful resource since visitors to the chapel are expected to be silent as they observe Michelangelo’s masterpieces. Do NOT take pictures in the Sistine Chapel. And don’t use your wife (talking to you Thom!) to screen your efforts to try to take a picture without alerting the very visible security guards who are monitoring everyone’s movements.

After exiting the Sistine Chapel from a side door, we headed straight to the St. Peter’s Basilica, skipping the lines. Fabi took us to see the baroque Baldacchino, La Pieta, and other masterworks. You can go underneath the main floor of the basilica, where hundreds of Popes are buried. We finished our tour in front of the Basilica.

It’s huge-Vatican City consists of :

1) St. Peter’s Basilica – the massive cathedral

2) St. Peter’s Square – the large plaza open space in front of the Basilica. This is where the Pope will come out on Wednesdays and ride around in his Pope cart around the temporary seats that they set up. I wish we had taken the time to experience this, but we were just too tired after our Tuesday tour and our tour guide told us you had to get there very early in the morning to grab a seat. Next time!

3) Vatican Museums – a very large museum complex with many galleries hence called ” museums “. At the very furthest end of Vatican Museums is the Sistine Chapel, the interior of which represents the pinnacle of the Renaissance. The Sistine Chapel is part of Vatican Museums.

4) Vatican Gardens – the vast green park behind the Basilica which makes up the remainder of Vatican City. These green spaces covers the largest area of the city. You may be too tired to walk the gardens. We were.

Take time to check out the Vatican Post Office-Anyone can walk in and mail a post card here. It’s on the left side of St. Peter’s Square. This is also where the public bathrooms are located. Be prepared for a line.

ENTRY TO THE VATICAN:

Vatican Museums – Official Website (museivaticani.va)-if you don’t want to take a tour, you can go on the official website and get entry tickets 60 days in advance of when you want to visit.

Early entry is only for those with a pre-booked Vatican guided tour, so book online before you travel in order to skip the queues and the crowds in the Vatican Museums. We booked this tour https://www.tripadvisor.com/AttractionProductReview-g187791-d12631026-Rome_Vatican_Sistine_Chapel_and_St_Peter_s_Basilica_Early_Morning_Express_Tour-Rom.html

VATICAN DRESS CODE:

Ladies:  You MUST cover your shoulders and knees.

Men: Same as the ladies. No hats.

VISIT TIPS: Bring water and snacks! Wear comfortable shoes as you will walk miles. There are hardly any places to sit down and rest. By the end of our tour, I was tired, dehydrated and ended up squatting along a wall in St. Peter’s Basilica and the security guard asked me to move, which we did directly to the nearest place that sold water.

Borghese Gallery and Gardens, Rome

One of my favorite experiences in Rome was our day spent exploring the Borghese Gallery and Gardens. Located in the middle of Villa Borghese Park (the third largest public park in Rome with 198 acres), the Gallery is relatively small compared to the other Italian museums we saw on our trip and two hours or so is enough to take it all. Then, take the rest of your day to discover the gardens. We got a combo pass to get into the museum and then took a guided golf cart ride around the huge park. What fun! The views of Rome are impressive (the gardens are high up on a hill) and the Roman pines are stunning.

Just because the Gallery is small doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time. Their collection is well curated and features many paintings and sculptures from Gian Lorenzo Bernini including his intrepretation of David. There are small intimate rooms, some even have benches (!) where you can sit and reflect on the beautiful art by Raphael, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Rubens. Most museums don’t have anywhere to sit so I really appreciated this convenience at the Borghese Gallery. While I love all the “famous” art, I also appreciated the little unknown art that seemed to pop up everywhere in the quirky rooms-over doorways, on the ceilings, etc.

Our hotel was within walking distance (at least for us-a mile or two away) and we enjoyed walking down the hill after our visit and exploring the Piazza del Popolo (People’s Square) and having an aperitif at one of the many cafes. If you have time check out the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, in the northeast corner of the Piazza. I can’t get enough of all the beautiful churches in Italy-each one no matter how big or small is spectacular and unique.

ENTRY TO GALLERY

There is timed and restricted entry to keep the Borghese Gallery free of crowds so enjoy wandering through the spectacular collection of Renaissance and Baroque artwork without the typical tourist crush.

Buy your timed entry tickets to the Gallery online in advance: https://borghese.gallery/tickets/. You can also get guided tours of the gallery. We took the timed entry/skip-the-line plus a guided golf cart tour of the gardens (they are massive-too big for even us to walk around and see it all!) This is the tour we enjoyed: Rome: Borghese Gallery Skip-the-Line Ticket & Golf Cart Ride | GetYourGuide.

Pitti Palace

Pitti Palace (Palazzo Pitti) is a fabulous Renaissance masterpiece situated on the south bank of the River Arno near the Ponte Vecchio Bridge in Florence. Named after a Florentine banker Luca Pitti, construction on the palace began in the mid-1400s and has become home to centuries of history and art. The lovely Boboli Gardens is directly behind Pitti Palace. I would recommend allowing a day for each of these Florence “must see” sites.

Purchased by the Medici’s in 1539, this palace served as the official residence of the Grand Dukes of Tuscany and other dignitaries as time went on. Eventually, the palace was donated to the Italian people and opened to the public. If you’re a fan of Versailles, then you will love Pitti Palace-lots of gold. However, it’s less crowded than Versailles! The palace is filled with amazing art and décor divided into five museums: the Treasury of the Grand Dukes and the Museum of Russian Icons (with the Palatine Chapel), the Palatine Gallery and the Imperial and Royal Apartments, the Gallery of Modern Art (1700s and 1800s) and the Museum of Costume and Fashion. The stunner for me was the amazing ceiling art. Always look up! Not just frescoes but also ceiling sculptures adding texture and interest. 

Warning don’t get too close to the precious artwork! My husband was explaining his interpretation of a large sweeping piece and his hand moved within inches of the canvas, setting off alarms and subsequent yelling by the security guard in the room to step away. Thom regularly gets into trouble at museums for this type of behavior and never learns his lesson. High fiving sculptures and walking into “no access” designated areas are also his hallmark.

Take your time, meander through the rooms, listen to an audio tour if that’s your jam and appreciate all the beautiful art. I enjoyed the Pitti Palace more than the crowded Uffizi Gallery. The location was also better for me as the palace is in the Oltrarno neighborhood where we were staying and close to lots of cafes and artisan shops to explore after our palace visit.

ENTRY DETAILS

Official ticketing page | Uffizi Galleries check online before you go because opening hours change with the seasons. You can get a daily ticket for $10 euros. We got the 5-day pass for $38 euros each where you have to get your timed entry to Uffizi first and then you have 5 days to also go to Boboli Garden and Pitti Palace and Archaeology Museum. You have one paper ticket to hold on to and show at these places to get in and skip ticket buying line. It’s very convenient and they way to go if you want to visit all these places, which I highly recommend.

Boboli Gardens

Think of Boboli Gardens as Florence’s open-air museum with a view. Located directly behind Pitti Palace in the heart of this busy city, these gardens are an escape into 111 acres of fabulous landscaping and art. The Medicis created this Italian garden style oasis in the 16th century, which became a model for many European gardens. Open to the public since 1766, there are statues, grottos, fountains, pavilions, and even a Porcelain Museum to explore. So much to see! In between visiting all the fabulous Florence museums, Boboli Gardens is a much-needed nature break. Stroll the many paths and work your way up, up, up to experience 360 views of Florence and Tuscany.

Bring a compact blanket, picnic lunch and water and you’ll be all set to relax. Boboli Gardens could be an all-day outing depending on how much time you have in Florence. At the end, you can take the north exit to visit Fort Belvedere (see my blog post of the Fort here) or the southwest exit to visit La Specola which houses the Museum of Zoology and Natural History. Or maybe it’s time for an aperitif, in which case there are many cafes ready to serve you right outside Pitti Palace. If you leave through Pitti Palace, you will probably see Morgante, the court dwarf riding the back of a turtle. Give him a pat for me!

ENTRY DETAILS

Boboli Gardens Boboli Gardens Tickets & Tours 2022 | Florence Best Deals 8:15-6:30 daily but check online before you go because opening hours change with the seasons. You can get a daily ticket for $10 euros. We got the 5-day pass for $38 euros each where you have to get your timed entry to Uffizi first and then you have five days to also go to Boboli Garden, Pitti Palace and the Archaeology Museum. We went to them all! You have one paper ticket to hold on to and show at these places to get in and skip the ticket buying line. It’s very convenient and the way to go if you want to visit all these places, which I highly recommend.

St. Ermin’s-Best Hotel in London

Bee lovers, history buffs, dog lovers and those who appreciate over the top hotel service will love my favorite hotel in London-St. Ermin’s. I’ve travelled all over the world and this is my pick for best overall hotel. Hands down. A historic property set in a private courtyard, it exudes charm but most of all I love the consistently world class customer service I’ve received every time I stay there. Their staff is well trained, friendly and go out of their way to make you feel special. Another bonus is the location, which is easy walking distance to many sites such as Parliament, Westminster Cathedral, Big Ben, Hyde Park, St. James Park, Churchill War Rooms, 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, etc.

Caxton Bar & Grill/St. Ermin’s Bees/Afternoon Tea

The formal lobby serves as an elegant gathering place for the afternoon happy hour with free wine/nibbles most days and a fine place to have a cup of tea. Everyone but especially kids (who may never have seen such a relic let only used it) seem to be fascinated with the typewriter available with paper to type out a review of the hotel. Just off the lobby there is the Caxton bar and restaurant where the morning breakfast is served. Upstairs, there is a lovely room for Afternoon Tea that is served daily. Featuring sweet and savoury treats from the hotel’s rooftop garden and bee garden, you can’t ask for a more quintessential British tradition to enjoy during your trip to London. Make reservations here for Afternoon Tea well in advance of your visit. It’s popular! After taking your tea, go upstairs to the third floor and visit the St. Ermin’s bees. Safely behind glass, you can watch them go about their daily business of making honey.

While Thom and I have stayed at St. Ermin’s several times on both business and pleasure trips, I didn’t stay there on my Ladies Trip recently because we needed the added space of an ARBNB. However, we did visit after our Parliament trip to soak up the warmth of tea served in the bar and take advantage of the grand staircase to pose for pictures with a kind staff member serving as our photographer.

Perks that we loved at St. Ermin’s:

  • Free wine and canapes for happy hour Monday to Thursday 5:30-6:30
  • 24 hour gym
  • Free water and candy in room minibar-handy to refuel after a long day of walking
  • International breakfast buffet free with made-to-order omelettes (with Marriott Platinum status)
  • Mailed my postcards to US for free
  • Typewriter in lobby that you can use to leave reviews of hotel-kids are fascinated by this device
  • Amazing front veranda where you can relax, eat takeway food or drinks or get lobby service from hotel bar
  • Concierge service-lent me a new electric adapter when mine failed to work
  • One block to St. James tube station-so quick to get around London
  • 10 minute walk to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Parliament, Hyde Park
  • Starbucks, Pret-A-Manger and pharmacy one block away
  • Grand staircase in lobby for photos you’ll want to share
  • They allow pups-who doesn’t love a pet friendly place!

St. Ermin’s History

St. Ermin’s is built upon the site of a 15th century chapel dedicated to St. Ermin (thus the name!). The building was converted into a hotel in 1899. Famous for a meeting held here by Winston Churchill in 1940 with founding members of the Special Opertions Executive (SOE) also known as Churchill’s Security Army. This elite group formed the basis of the SAS and took over an entire floor of St. Ermin’s as its headquarters during WWII while the M16 were stationed two floor above. Churchill was known well in the hotel’s Caxton Bar during this period. History buffs will love staying here and walking over the Churchill War Rooms for a tour.

After WWII, a “Division Bell” in the hotel lobby was rung to signal MPs that they had eight minutes to get back to Parliament to the House of Commons to vote. Now the bell now longer rings but you never know who you might meet at the hotel because it is located within the “Westminster Bubble” very close to government buildings. It is rumored that MPs could use a secret tunnel to get back to Parliament, running from under the grand staircase in the lobby to the House of Commons. Hmmmm….who doesn’t love a British mystery?