Italy Fam trip Tuscany and Rome (69 kms and 109,000 steps later) February 2019 (Lisa Bain and Manya Kellou)
Rome -28 Feb 2019 to 03 March 2019
After the amazing discovery of the Tuscan region, thanks to TFL Tours, a smooth train ride took us to Rome for the grand finale of a quick but spectacular trip to Italy.
The train departed on time at 8:45 am from Viareggio Station, on February 28th. The smooth first-class journey took about three and a half hours, with several stops along the way, including Livorno where we picked up Federica. Italian Rail is efficient and inexpensive. Our one-way ticket cost less than $40CDN. The landscape was amazing and varied, from seaside towns to hilly villages, with olive groves, vineyards, and mimosa bushes in full yellow blooms. The animated conversation amongst us made the trip even more enjoyable and in no time Rome Termini was reached. Upon arrival at Rome Termini, all travellers booked through TLF tours are to meet at Gate 1. This to avoid being lost or subjected to aggressive non-licenced taxi drivers. If a private transfer is not pre-booked, taxis are available and plentiful just outside the arrivals’ hall.
After a short and fast drive, we arrived at The Grand Hotel de La Minerva, where our room was ready. What a surprise to walk into a twin bedded Grand Deluxe Room, with a view to the back of the Pantheon. A welcome gift of a Bulgari bag and truffle chocolates was waiting for us in this beautiful room. Windows opened to a lovely courtyard, adorned with an obelisk by Bernini, and where every day a cellist played classical and contemporary tunes to the delight to those who gathered around to listen to him. This included us of course.
Built in the 1600s and recently renovated to meet the modern standards of a luxury five-star hotel, Grand Hotel de La Minerva offers some 135 rooms and suites. With its proximity to the Pantheon and other points of interests the hotel attracted many artists, including the French writer Stendhal, famous for his book Le Rouge et le Noir. The 800 square foot Stendhal Suite is absolutely stunning. With its painting ceilings, a lovely foyer, a very large king bedded bedroom, a living room and a marble bathroom with a very big round Jacuzzi tub, the suite is elegant and very luxurious. Like most of the hotels in Italy, the elevators are narrow and can accommodate a maximum of two persons at a time with one suitcase each.
Breakfast is served daily in a rooftop restaurant from 6:30 am to 10:30 am, with a 360-degree view of Rome. The location of The Grand Hotel de La Minerva couldn’t be more ideal. Only a few steps away for the Pantheon, it is the perfect point to visit all the attractions in Rome: Piazza Navona, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and others.
The afternoon was spent walking with Federica, her favourite guide and personal friend Paola.
We met outside the Vatican Museum entrance and that is the closest we got to visit this unique and smallest nation in the world.
Our walk started in Travestere neighbourhood of Rome, with a coffee and a glass of wine at the quaint “love is art Gallery” coffee shop. Cost of espresso €1, cost of a generous glass of wine €5. An amazing little place where you can buy art, buy food and drinks while listening to music! This neighbourhood is known for its trattorias, craft beer pubs and artisan shops. A lovely spot to visit day or evening and where you’ll find a genuine local experience.
From there we crossed over the Tiber River on Ponte Garibaldi found ourselves in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. In the distance is the Tiber Island (Isla Tiberina) shaped like a boat and connected to the city of Rome by two bridges, including Ponte Palatino. This 2000-year-old bridge is also known as Ponte Rotto because one of the three arches were destroyed by a flood in 1598. The river current is so strong that many architects tried to rebuild it, including more than 2000 years old, to the city of Rome. The island used to be a temple dedicated to the Greek God of medicine, and today the hospital still stands there.
The Jewish Ghetto is the oldest Jewish neighbourhood in Italy, dating back to the Middle Ages. It is home to ancient ruins, restaurants and a significant building with a plaque bearing the infamous date of October 16, 1943. That is when some 2000 Jewish individuals were rounded up and deported to concentration camps. Only 16 of them returned.
Our walk continued towards Piazza Bocca Della Verita (the mouth of truth) made famous by Audrey Hepburn in her film “Roman Holiday”. The mask located beneath the Portico of Basilica Santa Maria in Cosmedin is thought to be originally a drain cover of the face of Hercules, dating back to the 1st century. It is presumed that anyone daring to speak an untruth while inserting a hand in the mask open mouth will have it bitten off. Today, tourists from all over line up in droves to test this legend.
In the distance, the early evening lights illuminated the majestic Palatino Hills, while our guide Paola narrated the story of the twin brothers Romulus, founder of Rome, and Remus. The legend says that they lived in a cave and discovered and raised by a she-wolf.
Our walk took us to Testaccio for aperitivo at Ketum on Via Galvani before our sumptuous dinner at Angelina’s next door. Aperitivo is an elaborate version of our happy hour. For €10, you are served one drink, and you can sample a full buffet of cured meats, roasted vegetables, pizza, grilled squid and other delicacies. This was to be a full meal until we sat for what Federica planned for us, a multi-course Italian dinner set in a rustic décor. Brian was so taken by the chef, a gorgeous young woman that he had a hard time swallowing his food! Testaccio has been the new hip Roman “hood” for some time now. I first heard about it in a Globe and Mail travel article in 2007 and I was thrilled to be there. The name comes from Testa, which means chard. That’s where Romans discarded their broken clay pots. We passed by a park made entirely of broken clay pots. Until about 40 years ago, that’s where you’d find the slaughterhouses. Today it is a “gentrified area” with quaint bistros and restaurants, shops and art galleries. Unfortunately, it was late in the evening and we couldn’t walk around this iconic neighbourhood.
March 1st – Morning self- directed Baroque Tour
Rome is a walking museum. Wherever you look there is a statue, a fountain, a church, a temple, an excavation. And walking is the best way to see it all. Right after breakfast, my walk first took me to Trevi Fountain. By the time I arrived at around 9.30am, the place was mobbed. No selfies or pictures are taken there. Definitely, a breathtaking site not to be missed one of the largest and most beautiful statues of the world. For better viewing of this masterpiece, go at the crack of dawn.
Further on, I stopped at the bottom of the Spanish steps. There too were hordes of tourists, vying for the perfect picture. It was a grey morning, perfect for a brisk walk to Piazza di Espagna. In the 17th Century the area around the Embassy was considered Spanish Territory, hence the name. Here, prestigious fashion stores, the likes of Prada and such can be found.
I meandered from narrow cobblestoned street to the next, taking my time, admiring this amazing city and returned slowly back towards the spectacular Piazza Navona and its three fountains. The largest Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (four rivers) consists of four figures representing the rivers Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata. The obelisk in the centre was imported from Egypt. Bernini was the artist that completed this magnificent fountain. A lovely piazza to sit and enjoy the street artists and performers, or to enjoy a gelato.
The Pantheon could be seen from our hotel room and by walking by on our daily walks to dinners. We chose not to visit inside, but to enjoy the view from our lovely room.
March 1st – Afternoon – The St Regis Hotel Rome – visit and lunch
Carmen Slodczyk invited us for an afternoon inspection of this very luxurious St Regis Hotel, located by the Piazza di San Bernardo at the crossroads of Largo id Santa Susanna and via Venti Settembre. Our city map showed a 45-minute walk from our hotel, but with Lisa brisk pace, uphill, we arrived at least half an hour prior to our appointment. Right upon entering the lobby, you feel the opulence of the place. The hotel has recently undergone a €125million renovation, including adding some exquisite art pieces. When we arrived, there was a “Sabre of Champagne” in the main lobby. Usually, it is held in the foyer every night at 7:30 pm sharp.
March 2nd – Museum day
Lucky for us, that Elena of TFL was able to get us two tickets for the Galleria Borghese that morning, bright at early at 9:45 am. Each ticket holder is allocated exactly 45 minutes of the self-directed visit, with headphones. This a definite must on your itinerary in Rome. Some of my favourite pieces are the David by Bernini, and the rape of Daphne also by Bernini. Legend has it that Apollo, stung by Cupid’s love arrow, became so consumed with her beauty that he wanted to own her. But smart Daphne turned herself into a tree to escape Apollo’s wrath. After the Museum visit, we walked through the magnificent Gardens at Villa Borghese. With the green foliage and the many fountains, this park is known as the “lungs of Rome”. Our walk to us to another to the beautiful National Gallery of Modern Art where we spent some time admiring some of the more contemporary pieces of art.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a lovely church at Piazza De Popolo for another viewing of Bernini’s masterpieces at the Santa Maria de Montesano Church. This is also the starting point of the very long Via Del Corso with its boutiques and street entertainers.
For our last night in Rome, we treated ourselves to a juicy hamburger and fries in a little bistro just around the corner from our hotel. What joy to sink our teeth into good old American food after a week of pasta! Spoiled you say? You bet!
March 3rd, bidding farewell to Roma.
After a lovely breakfast on the rooftop restaurant and last pictures of the 360-degree view of Rome, it was with a bit of sadness to say “Arrivederci” Roma. We booked a private transfer for only €50 which is the same price as a taxi. A beautifully dressed woman in high heels and designer sunglasses driving a black Mercedes was our chauffeur! In less than 45 minutes we arrived at Fiumicino airport way ahead of our departure flight to London. Rome airport is clean, efficient and offers great shopping for those last minute souvenirs.
The flight to London was very smooth, the attendants friendly, but again the service on board was very minimal. Coffee and tea were the only items served free of charge. With a few hours before our flight to Vancouver, we were invited to the British Airways business class lounge where we waited in comfort for the last leg of our wonderful journey to Italy. As luck was again on our side, we were treated to a surprise upgrade to World Traveller Plus from London to Vancouver. Lisa was assigned a window in the 1st row, and I, an aisle in the last row. Beautiful and intimate cabin, located between the First Class in the front of the aircraft and the Club World cabin right behind, the seats have greater recline than in economy, head and footrests. The eight hours plus journey went by quickly, thanks to the extensive choice of movies, documentaries and games. World Traveller Plus is an affordable alternative to business class, offering extra leg room, larger seats with amenities such as toilet bag with toothbrush and paste, eye mask and noise-reducing headphones and at delicious meals.
A big thank you goes to the TFL Team for taking such good care of us, for their generosity and for showing us Italy as they would have done for their clients.