Paris or Rome?

A reader asks:

I have been reading your blogs after doing a search for travel advice.  They are definitely interesting and it sounds like a good time.  I’m traveling to Finland for business the last week of October but want to layover in either Rome or Paris for two days to check out the sights of one of these historic cities before I head back to the States.  Any recommendation as to which is the better city to visit for just two days.  I’m sure it’s a personal preference thing, but I’m curious what your opinion is if you have the time.

It’s a tough choice — both are world class cities. It depends on your interests. I would say Rome, since in a couple days you can hit some major sites (Vatican, Coliseum, etc) and taste some excellent food. I feel like Paris is less favorable to a quick drop in — it’s more a city where you settle in for a week and experience Parisian culture.

How the Italians Resolve Awkward Endings to Phone Conversations

“Ciao” is such a versatile word in Italian — it can mean hello and goodbye.

I noticed that Italians end phone conversations with several “Ciaos.” In other words, “blah blah blah Ciaooo, Ciao Ciao Ciao Ciao” then hang-up. The Ciaos are uttered with increasing speed and decreasing volume, one right after the other.

I have no idea how this mode of conversation evolved, but I would guess it’s a resolution to that awkwardness we all experience at the end of telephone calls. The conversation is finished. How the hell can we hang up? My go-to is, “Ok, I’ll talk to you soon.” Others throw in a few “take-cares.” The Italians have it down: one side starts saying Ciao, then the other starts saying it, and when they’re both repeating “Ciao” over and over again, they both hang up.

Final Two Days in Rome

Having knocked off the major attractions my first two days in Rome, I had the luxury of taking it slow my final two days. The weather has cooled a bit which makes it more pleasant and conducive for meandering. I focused on villa Bourghese in Friday, a huge park in Rome (the biggest?) which has a variety of trails and benches and fountains. It was a great escape from the noises of city life. It was also surprisingly empty — still lots of tourists, of course, but far less than I expected. I ended up spending a good three hours in the park. Had lunch. Read a book for an hour. Watched some babies run around. The park also houses a few key Roman art museums, but I’ve had my filling of art on this trip, so I passed on Caravaggio. I then went for a great run along the River Temepre which divides the northern part of Rome. There’s a bike/running path along the street along the river but every couple miles there’s a small entrance to shoot down right next to the river. Some trash and rubble still lie along the river, but it’s still a nice, short job from near my apartment to the end of the trail. For dinner I went back to the pizzeria across the street where I went the first night — I suppose I should be “exploring” more, but thunderstorms were on their way (they came and went) and I didn’t want to risk getting lost. I was the only person dining alone in the restaurant. Maybe I was at too nice of a restaurant or maybe the solo-book-reading dinner is just more common in the cafes I frequent in San Francisco. Given the centrality of good food and conversation in Italian culture, or so says stereotypes, I suspect it’s the latter.

My final day in Rome — a quiet Saturday as citizens rested for the big game Sunday — entailed a visit to Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Trevi Fountain is where you’re supposed to face away from the huge fountain and throw a coin over your shoulder and it gives good luck in your romance life (or something like that). The fountain is impressive and worth a visit, if only to get a laugh out of all the people trying to throw their coin in the right way. My guidebook tells me more than 1,000 euro is thrown into the fountain each day and that it goes to charity…at least it does now. For the past year a guy has been scooping out coins each night and was actually able to support himself. That’s entrepreneurship.

The Spanish Steps — or Piazza di Spagna — are also impressive, but only if you’re a big people watcher. The views at the top of the steps are nice. It’s not Tuscany Hilltops, but still provides some geographic lay of the land. I strolled down via Corso afterwards, a short way from di Spagna, and it was here when I got stopped by the cops. When the police approached me my heart started racing. “Sdflkjasdflj” the cop said. “Sorry, English,” I responded. “Do you have a license for those guns?” he asked again in pretty good English. I immediately started kicking myself. Why did I wear my sleeveless Nike shirt today? “You know the rule officer, Sun’s Out, Guns Out,” I responded.

Joking aside, the stroll was nice and amazingly I bumped into a bus line that took me right home when I had enough for the day. I did the run along the river again and now am resting, packing, and thinking about the tough few days ahead of me.

I had the best dinner of my stay in Rome at a restaurant five minutes away from my apartment off Piazza Mazzini. Mozzarella bufala (sp), which I’m now addicted to and wonder what I’m going to do post-Italy, as an appetizer, six fluffy pieces of bread doused in olive oil, a half liter of mineral water, and fried turkey breast with spinach. Big portion, pleasant atmosphere with my companion the Financial Times, and only 16 euros all in! Who knew I would get such a deal when my only criterion was a restaurant that would serve dinner at 6:45 PM. I got lost on the way home, of course, but only for a few minutes. Call it divine intervention or the kinship of all living things, but I amazingly ended up at a gelatto place, so I had to get some ice cream, too.

Rome is a world-class city which I recommend to everyone. It didn’t quite “charm me to death and leave me gaping for more” as one guidebook suggested — to me it seemed like another big city with everything and more — but it certainly can withstand several days of intense tourism without feeling too small or too big.

A Hotdog and Burger in Rome

That’s how I celebrated July 4th, by myself, in a hole in the wall place in Rome. Two observations.

1. The burger and hotdog were really sophisticated. Good bread, a piece of tomato, and lettuce around both. When the guy delivered the burger he said, “Your hamBOOgur” (that’s how they pronounce it).

2. The only bad thing about the dinner was the ketchup and mustard dispensers! I hate when restaurants in the States provide ketchup in glass bottles instead of plastic squeeze ones. In this Rome restaurant, they provided them in plastic mini packages that requires a knife to tear open. After spending literally 10 minutes trying to tear open the ketchup, I then picked up the yellow packets which were right next to the red ketchup. I got that open too, and squirted it onto my hotdog. Wait! It’s white! I looked at the label: mayonnaise!? I forgot that Europeans love dipping their stuff in mayonnaise. But why the yellow label!!

Want to Kill Yourself? Be a Pedestrian in Rome

When I was in Dublin, Ireland I had the most difficult street-crossing as a pedestrian of my life. It was a massive six way intersection, one of which led into the Microsoft campus. Cars streamed in all directions and there were few islands to stand on while making the crossing. I spent about 5 full minutes studying the situation (think of George in the Seinfeld “Frogger” episode). Then had about three false starts, where I started to cross but then deemed it too dangerous. When I finally crossed safely 10 minutes later, I knew I had made history.

That Dublin incident still reigns, but in Ireland it was an anomaly. Here in Rome, being a pedestrian on any street is dangerous. Hey — I may be spoiled, since in Switzerland any car that seems even the faint outlines of a pedestrian must stop. There are big fines for any car that does not yield to the pedestrian at every single street. Nonetheless, what goes on in Rome is totally absurd. You can be halfway through the crosswalk and cars will still whiz by. The circular intersections don’t help.

It took one full day in Rome observing the locals to figure out how to cross a street safely. What works for me is to use a lot of hand gestures. It also helps if you’ve just eaten pasta — the energy boost is key. Seriously…hand gestures do seem to work. Try to attract the attention of the driver. Be assertive. Step onto the street. Try to time the lights.

The odds are stacked against you. You only have to be wrong once. Godspeed.

Rome Rome Rome: Days 1, 2, 3

I arrived in Rome Tuesday afternoon and in the train station was personally warned about pick pockets. (I later received a second personal heads-up.) So, I thought of Tom Ridge, raised my security alert to Orange and practiced "increased vigilance."

I took the underground Metro to my host Nicola’s flat, picked up the key from the janitor, and settled in. He wasn’t coming back until late the next night, so I had the place to myself. It’s nestled in a nice northern residential neighborhood, free of tourists, close to the metro and buses, and right across the street from a pizzeria.

The package I mailed to myself from San Francisco was waiting and I anxiously opened it to find the several books I sent, including a Rome guidebook, and about a dozen Cliff Bars. I spent the rest of the afternoon trying to nap and reading about Rome. I allocated more time to Rome than any other city — 5 nights — because I had heard so many good things. So I felt no need to pack each day with activities.

The next morning I set off for St. Peter’s Square. The Big Man — aka Benedict, aka The Pope — was making his weekly address on this Wednesday morning from his summer house away from Rome. They were still broadcasting it in the main St. Peter’s square. The tourist scene in Rome is so thick that once you find the general location of a place you just follow the crowds. I walked along leisurely, still recovering from my frantic last day in Florence, and enjoying all the nuns from all over the world walking hurriedly into the square.


St. Peter’s square is amazing! Massive TV screens projected Pope Benedict’s address. The whole atmosphere is architecturally awe inspiring and spiritually very "alive." I could tell to even be in the square was an important religious experience. I listened to Benedict speak in several different languages and different sections of the crowd erupting at hearing their native tongue.

PopeFrom there I wandered over to St. Peter’s Basicilia / Sistine Chapel and the Vatican Museum. A good 1.5 hour queue to get in. When I finally got in, I took my fine time. I checked out paintings and frescoes and statues. I took breaks on a chair and reviewed my guidebook for some historical background. There’s one huge arched hallway filled with gold and frescoes — incredible. The Sistine Chapel itself finally came and was kind of overwhelming. No pictures allowed, but to see frescoes like THe Last Supper up close and personal was awesome.Sistine

Exhausted from the several hour visit to the Vatican (a sovereign state with their own currency), I returned to the flat, hung out, and then headed down to the train station for some admittedly expensive wi-fi. I had a dinner at a cheap restaurant and then walked casually along the blocks near the main train station. This is a great after dinner walk. Few tourists, sun hitting tops of buildings, a warm breeze. I got so caught up in the beauty of my walk that 9 PM passed me and as I learned later the Metro line I take closes at 9 PM for repairs. I was screwed. It took me 2.5 hours to get home as I hopped on different buses and trams and each driver told me something different. Disaster.

Day 3 I focused on the Roman Forum, Coliseum, and Pantheon. The Roman Forum deserves a good hour of walking around. A guided tour is overkill, I think. Simply gaping at the relics and trying to imagine Roman business being conducted is good enough. Of course, it’s hard to stay too long at the Forum because you see the Coliseum in the distance. Seeing the Coliseum from afar was like looking at a guidebook. It looked just like it does in the pictures. Before entering the lengthy queue to get in, I bought a sandwich at a cheap stand set up outside. In front of me were some black American guys speaking ghetto English (which i haven’t heard in awhile) to Italians who didn’t seem to understand a word: "You not hearing me. Gimme my money back. Give me my fucking euro back. You aint givin’ me the right size ice cream." Indeed.Forum

The Coliseum lived up to its billing as the most important tourist attraction in Rome. On this stop I regretted not doing a tour — I think it’s chock full of interesting details which would have been useful. I also haven’t seen "The Gladiator" so I didn’t have my Russell Crowe imagery top of mind. Nonetheless, the whole set up can’t be described in words, so I leave a photo and a request that you, too, visit it.Collis

The Pantheon isn’t too far away and equally deserving of aesthetic and architectural praise. It made me think fondly about my 5th grade humanities assignment to build a replica of a pantheon using white cardboard. Seeing it up close and personal, it’s hard to get your head around a few questions: how did they find single pieces of stone that served as the doric columns? How can there be no reinforced concrete?

Pantheon Two full days in Rome knocked off the key attractions, leaving me with two more days to check out secondary sights and try to catch up on reading.


Two Nights in Florence

My stay in Florence was good but could have been better. I endured a series of unlucky happenings which dragged me down.

As my train pulled into Florence from Rovereto, the staple holding my Italy guidebook pages together fell off. The tourist office at the train station was closed. I couldn’t find the lockers to store my bag for the next few hours. All the while, I continued sweating profusely (I have the whole trip) since the heat continues to pound down on Europe.

After resolving all of these issues I made my way to the tour bus. I had calculated that doing the tour bus would be a smart move since it hit all the places I wanted to go to (easier than public transit) and would take me up into an adjoining town which has splendid views of Florence. After boarding the tour bus I was informed that Florence’s most famous art museum the Uffizi  – and arguably one of the three most important in the world – happened to be closed for the day. Shit! I intended to spend my afternoon exploring the museum and not save it for the last minute when I’d be rushed for time.
So I hopped on the one hour bus tour, got a basic orientation of the City of Florence, and then made my way to the galeria academe where Michelango’s David is held. When I asked somebody how to get to the “David” she asked me if I wanted to see the original or the replica. It raised an interesting question – does it matter? I decided to see the original, since I was in Florence anyway. This decision meant a 1.75 hour wait. Ugh. A group of Santa Cruz, CA based girls were behind me in line (second time in a row I’ve stood next to Santa Cruz people). They were annoyingly loud and talkative.

After waiting in line all that time, I got the front ticket window and only then do they describe all the security rules. I had to take my laptop out of my bag and turn it own and show that it was operational. The airport doesn’t even require that! Inquiring minds want to know why they didn’t bother to describe the security and ticket prices to people while they were in waiting in line, instead of furthering the bottleneck at the front. The staff throughout the museum were not friendly.
Once inside, everyone feigns interest in the paintings (we’re here for the David!). I, too, took a gander at the paintings and random statues. Not very interesting. I finally made my way to the main hall where The Man stood. Wow! It’s so much bigger than I expected. And so much more perfect than I expected. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, unfortunately. Seeing David probably made the wait worth it.

I spent the night at a Servas house. This is only Servas house I booked for the whole trip – many weren’t available. And frankly, it didn’t work out too well, for a variety of reasons. I ditched after the one night and the following morning checked into a hotel. For 100 euros I got two full breakfasts, a clean room and bath, wi-fi in the room, and easy walking distance to train station, laundry, and a gym. If you’re in Florence Hotel Kraft is a good bet.

Florence Day 2 included the bus and more great Tuscany views, but mostly some logistical stuff I needed to catch up. Did my laundry, worked out for a couple hours, did email and RSS. It was Monday, so no museums. In the evening I went to a cooking class (described on main blog).
On the morning of my final day in Florence, I set off for the famous museum which had been closed my first two days. Some of the most famous Renaissance art is housed here. Guidebooks say “Expect a 2-4 hour queue to get in.” With a 2 PM train to Rome, I left my hotel at 9:30 AM for the 15 minute walk. If I got there by 10, I could afford a 2 hour wait, an hour at the museum, and then time to walk back to the train station. Sure, I could have woken up earlier, but the whole reason I went to the hotel was b/c I’ve been on low sleep. Of course, I got lost on the way to the museum. I was told to “walk along the river” – unfortunately I walked the wrong way. 45 minutes later I arrived at the museum. The queue was painfully long (though a good chat with some Texans behind me and reading my book made it acceptable). As I approached the ticket window I looked at my watch. It was 12:45 PM. I knew that by now any time I would spend in this museum would be purely to say I’ve been there. Once inside, I spent a laughably short amount of time. No time for audioguide or sitting or reflecting, just racing through the hallways and try to draw 30 seconds of meaning from, say, Botticelli’s “Venus” painting.

Someday in the future I’ll return to Florence with more time, more luck, and several art history books at my side!

Day 19: Rovereto and Verona, Italy

Massimo and I spent most of our Saturday in Verona, a medium sized city in Northern Italy. We visited a big amphitheater where they were preparing for the launch of Aida. it’s the largest coliseum in Italy that’s fully intact (Rome’s are more in shambles, I hear).
Then we shopped. Verona is known for its fine Italian fashion. Massimo picked up some things, while I reflected on the extent of my shopping experience: once a year I go to Vacaville, CA which is a couple hours north of SF to the outlet malls where there are cheap shoes and pants and shirts. Outside of this trip, I avoid the deadly experience of buying new clothes. But window shopping in Verona was actually quite pleasant, as was helping Massimo decide which shirt most extenuated his charming Italian personality.

Verona is most known, though, for being the place where Romeo and Juliet is set. We saw the scene, including the balcony and a statue of Juliet. There was a line next to Juliet and I soon learned that grabbing her boob is supposed to bring good luck. So I waited my turn and went right after this American dad lifted his kids on shoulder and said "ok now touch her boobie." Good values to indoctrinate, indeed.

Img_1121 For lunch we had a casual meal and then lay on the grass in a park for a half hour. I searched, fruitlessly, for a hotspot, while Massimo bought a few more things. We left Verona in the mid-afternoon, headed in the direction of our village, and stopped at one of the small lake towns to watch Portugal vs. England soccer.

Next we headed over to one of Massimo’s childhood friends’ house in Rovereto. He and his girlfriend are web designers and have free wi-fi. I connected for a couple minutes, downloaded more than 400 emails, refreshed my RSS reader to more than 700 new items, and then closed out and we walked downstairs and across town to a Chinese restaurant. What a lovely evening! Warm breeze, cobble stones, people on the streets. The Chinese food was good – big portions, low prices. It’s funny hearing Chinese people speaking Italian. Thanks to Massi’s friend Mauro’s insider knowledge, I ordered a special kind of desert. In addition to the ice cream in the bowl, you get to keep the bowl! (I gave the bowl to Massi as a thank you gift).
After dinner I had a leisurely tour with Mauro and his girlfriend. We struggled to overcome the language barrier, which was fun. I learned that Rovereto is home to the largest museum of modern art and is a nice tourist attraction for people swinging through northern Italy.

My final full day in North Italy was more than 12 hours long – exhausting – but well worth it. I’ll miss this small village. This is true Italy.

Spending a Day in Venice

Friday Massimo and I drove 1.5 hours south from his village to Venice. 15 million people visit Venice each year and for good reason – it’s simply stunning. After a day wandering around my big take-away is that everybody should spend a day in Venice, but not a day longer.

We started at the Piaza San Marco, where we walked the street section of Venice, saw the Rialto bridge, and basked in the gorgeous architecture of the main square. Packed – packed! – with tourists from all over the world. I don’t think I saw a single Italian person who lived in Venice. We bumped into some Russian girls who “needed help with directions” (Massimo thought they wanted more) and they were awed by me being from America. “So far away!” they said. Hmm…
Instead of paying big bucks to go in a gondola, we simply watched others. It was fun. We did use public transit, a big boat, to go from Piazza San Marco to Plaso “Murano,” about a 20 minute boat ride away in Venice.

In Murano there’s the famous glass making factory. We caught the tail end of a demonstration. Wow! A guy used a 1000+ degree oven and put a huge ball of firey goo on the end of his stick and used another device to stretch it in different directions. In two minutes a fully recognizable glass horse was produced.
Food, hotels, water taxis, and just about everything else is super expensive. This and the crowds is why a day in Venice is about all a reasonably frugal and reasonably energized person can take.  But it’s definitely worth a day-trip. Perhaps the most picturesque place I’ve been to.

Welcome to Italy!

Thursday morning I left Zurich in car with my dear friend Massimo and we trekked 5 hours through Austria and Germany to Northern Italy where his family has a house in a small village near the city of Rovereto. It poured as we drove, but as we arrived in Italy – almost magically – the clouds disappeared, sun came out, and it was a brilliant day.

Before heading to the house we stopped at the small town of Malcesel. The views across Garda Lake were simply amazing. Cobble stone streets, colored houses with low ceilings, and gelato ice cream stores. Ah, Italy! We stopped for a mid-afternoon sandwich and people watched. Time and time again I am reminded of one simple travel fact: nothing beats touring with a native. Even though Massimo lives in Zurich, he knows his Italian and Italy.

We stopped by a grocery store to pick up some food for the next few days at the house. We walked inside and I’m immediately confronted with a huge section of bread. Tons of kinds of bread. All different sizes and smells and colors. Predictably, there were also entire aisles of pasta and olive oil. Massimo pointed out to me “the American section” – ie the frozen food section – and oddly enough there was a frozen pizza called “Big American Style.” It was your plain pizza loaded with toppings. Why would someone in Italy of all places by an American style pizza?!

The village I’m staying in is a true small village. Maybe 30 people. Everyone is family. The house is cozy. I read the Financial Times on a deck looking out on mountains (reminded me of Yosemite) and vineyards with Massimo’s most excellent jazz music playing softly in the background. For dinner, Massimo showed me true Italian cooking. we first had tomates and mozzarella (this is a universal food – I have it in SF, had it in Ireland, Switzerland, and now Italy). Great stuff. Then he made pasta with an interesting topping – salmon and all sorts of spices we picked up at the market. All throughout Massimo did his best Cooking Channel imitation. It wasn’t 5 star cuisine, and it wasn’t hostel cheap shit. Just perfect. Totally authentic.

In between course 1 and course 2 we poured through hundreds and hundreds of his pictures on his computer with Alicia Keyes, jazz musicians, and Elton John in the background. It was great seeing and hearing all the stories…including the many pictures he took when he was in San Francisco last year (SF is a beautiful city!). A couple glasses of wine, bread, pasta, and a pudding-esque dessert later, and I was feeling very content, and very lucky.

(pictures forthcoming)