Fuss at da Felice

Not much to report today. It has gotten a bit cold and gray here. It is well into November now.

I had some work to accomplish – which will be tomorrow’s project as well. And since I had been to the grocery twice yesterday I didn’t have much of an excuse to go out. Plus, it was moving day for me. Since I’ve been back from Rome, I’ve been in a different apartment – same complex – until the other one opened back up again. And that was today in the late afternoon.

Really, I had barely unpacked from Rome knowing I was moving again in less than a week. So I worked as much as I could stand it and got all packed up to transfer around the corner. Paola came and helped me with my bags and we both exclaimed that I am never going to get home with all this stuff! I thought I was a bad packrat at home, but the trait has followed me clear to Italy. I simply do not know where all this “stuff” comes from!

And groceries! Lordy sakes, my daughter always says I have more in my fridge than she does for a family of five. And when I bagged up my fridge today it was true. I really don’t have to go out for anything! Except I need to walk…

So, once I got moved over this evening, I got situated and then had to go out. My feet just need to go now. And even though I have plenty of food, a slice of da Felice pizza sounded mighty good. I tell ya, this place has cornered the market on fast slices of pizza. And what a deal…

ImageIt was standing room only, as usual, but I wedged my way in and ordered one slice and small glass of red wine. The pizza was 1.20 euro and the wine 2.20 euro more. And when I say slice of pizza, I mean one-fourth of a pie. They slice it off, hot out of the oven, cut it in two, and weigh it for price.

There happened to be a table next to the wall open, so I slid in. Wow oh wow is this pizza good. And soon a gorgeous Italian girl said “(something, something) senora?” I smiled and motioned for her to sit down. She tossed back her dark locks and focused on her pizza.

In just a moment, her handsome boyfriend joined us. He took the seat on the side but was very, very animated. He sat his pizza down and began a rambling italian dialog with the girl I couldn’t make out a word of. He was gesturing and pleading and looking at me out of the corner of his eye every 10 seconds.

I kept my head down and ate my pizza. So did the girl. She acted like he wasn’t even there. Still he went on and on, talking and gesturing and not taking a bite. Finally he got quiet and began to eat his pizza.

It was silent while he ate his slices. The girl ate one of hers and after one bite of the second piece she made a disgusted look and set her pizza on his plate. He let out a heavy sigh, but he ate that slice as well. Neither one said another word.

When the guy got up to leave he looked at me and said “buona sera” – which I said back in return. He left the room and the girl took her time putting on her black leather jacket over her Yves St Laurent belt and Gucci purse. She flipped her dark hair back again and walked out past the man without a backward glance. He followed her like a stray pup.

I have no idea what transpired. I have no idea how beautiful women lead such men around the way they do. But that was the fuss at da Felice this evening.

As for me, I still needed to walk so I went farther up Filungo to the art store and got a new .01 waterproof black pen for sketching. The one I have is shot. And I don’t have a handsome man to abuse over every little thing, so a new 2 euro pen will have to do…

Local Flavor

Today was a revelation. I went to the supermarket. The real supermarket. Outside the walls. Where the locals go…

When I first got to Lucca, my landlady Paola had marked some spots on the map for me. One was the local supermarket, which she labeled “very cheap” but it was outside the walls and looked to be a good distance away. But now that I am more familiar with the layout of things, I took another look and it didn’t seem far off at all.

As much as I like the neighborhood shops, some things are a bit pricey. And the selection is very limited. For instance, I’ve been buying Prosecco at the butcher shop. The older couple there are very nice and the Prosecco was only 6.50 euro per bottle. (Compared to $13 at home.) Well, one day I went in and they didn’t have any. And when the new shipment came in, the price went up to 8.50 euro. I wasn’t sure if their cost went up or they were just glad to have an outlet for it – me! But it is cheaper elsewhere, so that was that.

I’ve also been a bit disappointed with the cheese selection. Once I got some fontina and it was great, but that market hasn’t had it again. All the markets seem to carry is pecorino, which ranges from mildly strong to wildly strong and I just don’t enjoy it much. What I’ve got now is a hankering for some cheddar – or colby – or colby jack. Maybe melted on some cauliflower…

ImageSo I thought I’d take my noontime walk over to the big supermarket and check it out. I got out my map and took off with an empty bag to bring things back in. And of course I got turned around. It looked so simple, too! Oh well, it was just a few blocks and I actually ended up on the back side of the market, so I just crossed the street and went around front.

How nice to walk into a real supermarket again! I never thought I would say that! I usually hate going to the store at home. Too big. Too much. Too many unnecessary choices…

ImageWell, what a fickle creature I am! I was overwhelmed with wonder at this big market. The produce section was buzzing. People were crowding to get fresh things – which they then put on the scale and pushed the button with the corresponding picture on it and a sticky price tag pops out. I got a couple fresh artichokes to steam later and a few pieces of fruit.

From there I had to plan how much I could carry back. But I found a great sale on Prosecco – bottles that are normally 7.90 euro were 50% off. Just 3.95 each. I put two in my bag. I walked around and was amazed at the prices. I’ve been paying tourist rates, that’s for sure. And the wine! There were lots and lots of “table” wines for 3 or 4 euro per bottle!

ImageAlas there was no cheddar cheese. I thought maybe in their deli or “exotic” department they might have some imports. But there wasn’t a shred of yellow cheese in the place. All white. White, white, white. And no sour cream, either. Two of my staples that I miss. Oh well, I’ll keep Taco Bell in business for a while when I get back!

When I had what I thought I could carry I checked out. I had to get a couple plastic store bags since I couldn’t get everything in my tote. But I noticed that everyone does bring their own bags – and they bag it all themselves. They bag while the cashier is ringing it up. The cashier is seated and waits for the person to finish bagging to pay.

So I headed back with my bags but it wasn’t long before I could have kicked myself for not taking my trolley with me. This is exactly why I got the darn thing and now I’m walking a mile back with two bags of groceries. Brother.

ImageBut I did go back the correct way and there is actually a nice path that cuts back to the old walled city. It was quite gorgeous and I even set everything down to take a photo. (Please DO click on these photos to enlarge them. The embankment is the old city walls.)

ImageLooking the other way you can see one of Lucca’s famous towers. So I guess it IS nice to take a look from outside the walls!

When I got back to the apartment I unpacked my goodies and got out the receipt to gloat over my savings. Except….

I was charged full price for the Prosecco! Daggone it! And I probably didn’t get a discount on the other items I thought I was getting either!

Well, I had to work for a while but it was bothering me, so I figured I’d just take my evening walk right back to that big old store. I made sure I had my receipt and this time I took my wheels. Might as well make it easy to get things back home.

ImageIt was a beautiful walk back over. And it didn’t take long since I actually knew where I was going. But when I got there I went and checked the Prosecco display to make sure I understood the price. Sure enough, it was 50% sconti (discount).

I took my receipt to the customer service desk and showed them the charge. One lady spoke SOME english and puzzled over it. Finally she said, “oh, you have to have a store card to get that price!”

She and her colleague looked at each other satisfied and she pushed my receipt back at me.

“Store card?” I repeated. “Si,” she said.

“So where do I get one?” I asked. (Hey, I’m gonna be here another month – I’m practically a resident!)

She looked puzzled again but pointed me to another desk. I walked over to it and it had a closed sign on it. BUT a girl came up – who tried to ignore me – and I told her I needed a card. She looked blank.

However, there was a card brochure right on the counter, so I held it up and said “I need this card.” She pulled out an application, I put down my name and address and she handed me a card. Viola!

I took the card back over to customer service and they looked at me in surprise. “I can’t give you money,” said the lady. “But you can get credit when you buy again.”

“I’m buying again right now,” I said. “So how do I get the credit?”

She didn’t seem happy but she said to tell the cashier to “call Giada” when I checked out.

Okey dokey, then.

So I shopped. And boy was it fun. Such a different variety of things to try – and not expensive. I just wish I knew what they all were! But I will have a lot of entertainment going to the supermarket now for a while. Here’s some of what I got…

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Have you ever seen a package of just 4 eggs?

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Quail eggs – I didn’t get these…

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This small bag of flour was 32 cents

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Milk was hard to pick out. They have lots of kinds – most not refrigerated.

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Some cocao for milk at bedtime – 50 cents

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A 2-pack of sorbet right off the store shelf. You put it in the freezer.

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It’s yummy frozen. 1.22 euro for two. I got the mandarin orange as well.

So once Giada came over and took off my discount from the Prosecco earlier in the day, my grand total was 6.12 euro. Then I went to a quiet spot in the store and stacked my bags on my trolley and headed home. It was quite painless and a very nice walk. Now I won’t be able to pay the in-town prices for my wine, so I guess the big supermarket will become a regular stop. But it is definitely cheap entertainment! And local flavor…

Note: all content copyright of Starr Daubenmire. Starr is an artist and freelance writer based in Southwest Ohio. Starr can be found at Google+ at+Starr Daubenmire

Wednesday Night in Lucca and My Hair Looks Fabulous!

Tell me something… why is it when I look like a wet dishrag and dare to run out for much-needed eggs and milk – I run into exactly who I don’t want to see me looking a mess. BUT, when I just got a spectacular haircut the world really should know about, I don’t have a thing to do and all those folks who caught me in the market in my slippers at midnight are nowhere to be found.

ImageWell, it is just the same in Italy. I went out this evening and got a haircut and it looks so good! Actually, I went out at noontime to get a haircut (I’m way overdue since leaving home in September) and I found a salon nearby. I was standing across the street trying to decipher the prices in the window when a man opened the door to usher out a client. She had glowing new red curls, sparkling in the sunlight and a delighted smile on her face. They air-kissed on both cheeks and she strode away.

The man looked over at me, did that once-over appraisal look up and down, and shut the door. Hmmm. They do have very glamorous photos plastered all over the windows. And pretty pricey looking products. Maybe this isn’t the shop for me. I walked on.

But later in the day I took a look in the mirror and no doubt about it – this hair needs cut. So I put on my coat and walked a different direction where I thought I had seen a salon. Sure enough, there it was and it wasn’t busy. I walked in the door and greeted the man, “inglese?” I asked. “no,” he replied.

I made cutting motions with my fingers… “haircut?” I inquired. “Si,” he said and jumped up to take my coat.

His assistant, a girl dressed all in black (as he was) motioned me to the shampoo chair. She proceeded to wash my hair with very warm water and it was heavenly. Ahhh… a scalp massage. And a rinse. And conditioner. And another rinse. Bliss!

The man then took over. He wore a pack around his waist with scissors and razors, etc in it. We made motions back and forth to explain the haircut, but he was good – I wouldn’t have had to say a thing. And it was fun to watch his concentration in the mirror as he tweaked and perfected each part of the process. The assistant was at the ready to sweep up clippings or hand him extra brushes as needed. Quite surgical!

So I was really tickled with the end result. You never know what will happen when someone cuts your hair and they don’t even speak your language! But this turned out great. Too bad I don’t have anywhere to go after my italian coiffure!

Meanwhile, I HAVE been back in Lucca for a couple days now and I haven’t filled in the gap since Rome. Well, here’s what happened…

I left Sweet Stay in Rome – which was a bittersweet parting because Piotr and Paola were so delightful (and the city so grand, of course!) and there were big hugs all around. I headed for the train station in a taxi. After all the walking and getting turned around, it was a luxury to be taken right where I needed to go.

ImageIt was easy to locate my first train – one of the fast trains that go between the big cities. And I already had a reserved seat – car 6, seat 10A. I found my way but the train was packed. And I couldn’t begin to lift my suitcase overhead. So I tried to squeeze it into the seat with me, but it wouldn’t go. I was mortified. And next to me was a very small Asian girl who motioned me into my seat and wedged my suitcase between us. But it really wasn’t between us – it was mostly on her side. I wasn’t sure what to do because this was not a short trip – more like an hour and a half!

The girl was fine with it and I couldn’t believe it. She kept saying “don’t worry” but I would hold on to that case whenever the train went around curves so it wouldn’t push against her. And both she and her mother smiled at me all the way to Florence. I felt like such a clod.

But I was relieved to make it through the first leg of the train trip. I am not yet comfortable on the trains, especially with luggage. But the worst was yet to come…

I had a good 20 minutes between trains, so I got to the track where the train to Lucca was to depart. I knew the number and looked on the screen for news. It was supposed to be track 7, but this was the one train on the screen without a platform number listed. Great.

The crowd grew. We were all watching for the track listing. Soon, the NEXT 6 trains had track numbers, but not 3072. Finally, it popped up to have a 15 minute delay. OK..

Another 20 minutes went by and no news. Other trains are leaving. Then it pops up 30 minute delay. Crazy because there is another train to Lucca before that! Now what to do? I wait.

Suddenly, the word “cancelled” appears beside 3072 and the next train to Lucca is ready to leave. I scurry down the platform (with a hundred others) and show a man in uniform my ticket. “Get on this train fast!” he says. Well me and the word “fast” don’t exactly work well together, but I lunged into the nearest door where people were already standing several deep in the entry. Desperate, I rolled my bag into the car and towards the only empty seat.

I got the last seat and one of the Asian boys nearby lifted my case overhead. I collapsed in relief. Honestly, does this really happen to other people who never ride the train in Italy? Geez…

The next few stops were even more crowded – standing room only in the aisles. People were in and out and up and down all over the place. Like musical chairs. But the farther we went, the more it cleared out. By the time we got to Lucca – I was an hour late – there were 3 people left in the car. And the train stopped a long way down the tracks from the station, but once I got to the station entrance I knew where I was. From there it was a walk back to the apartment I call home. Thank goodness!

I don’t hate the trains – they’re just hard for me. And I’m surprised we don’t have them in the U.S. They’re a great way to get around – if you’re used to them and you aren’t carrying anything!

So anyway, walking back through Lucca was a bit of a revelation. The comic fair must have been the end of the tourist season. Many of the familiar cafes have been dismantled now. The restaurants are still open but you have to go inside.

ImageImageAnd more street work has started. It is interesting because these old cobblestones are historic and they probably only fit one way. So they have to be marked before being lifted so they can be replaced just like they were. It’s so nice that they take the time to do it. It has to be a pain!

So the city is relatively quiet but the locals are out as always. And I still like to go out and walk a couple times per day. Usually at noontime and again in the evening.

ImageEarlier today I was going past Pizzaria da Felice, a busy local eatery, and I remembered they had this desert-looking thing in there. I stopped in and pointed at one. “Cioccolate?” I asked. “No,” said the girl, “chestnut.” Well, I had seen a number of people order it, so I said ok. She popped it in the wood-burning oven and I slid down the counter to pay. Pretty soon I had a hot chestnut pancake folded over a dab of ricotta cheese. I took it outside to eat since this place is always standing room only.

ImageI can’t say I have the taste for chestnut yet – although I’ve tried. MB and I got a roasted chestnut from a street vendor and didn’t like it well enough to buy any. But I did think it was something you would learn to like if you tried it a few times. So in Rome, I tried to get another taste. The vendor said no and held up a card saying you pay 5 euros minimum. So I walked away.

But they smell so good that I tried again in Lucca. This time I held up a 50 cent coin and asked for 1 chestnut. The vendor gave me about 5. They were warm and mealy but only slightly sweet. More like a potato than a nut. Almost like they need salt or butter or sugar to bring out the taste. But then that would be too American.

So I munched on the chestnut cake (castagnaccio) and it was OK – but I think you have to really acquire the taste for it. And if you lived here where the chestnut orchards abound, and every year your mama and your nonna would bake chestnut cakes – well then you would probably love it when chestnut season rolls around!

Now me and my beautiful new haircut are going to bed. Too bad you didn’t get to see how good it looked for a few hours! Doncha just love a good hair day!!

The “Stupid Steps Syndrome”

I do think going to the Vermeer exhibit was the perfect way to end my tour of Rome. What a once in a lifetime treat!

But after a VERY long evening of walking – in the rain – I am convinced I have a particular syndrome that can’t be helped because you are probably born with it – like blue eyes or flat feet.

Thinking back it seems it first came to light in France, although I didn’t know it at the time.

ImageAbout a dozen years ago, my son Bill and I went on a quick trip to Paris with my friend Bill and his daughter Jennifer, age 12 or so. Naturally we hit the highlights, the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. But the other thing I wanted to see was the steps that lead up to the Sacre-Coeur. It is on the hill of Montmartre, the highest point in Paris.

The guys didn’t care about seeing them one way or the other and all Jennifer asked was if she could rent some rollerblades for the trek. Well, her dad had said yes the day before, but when we actually headed out, he went right past the skate shop and didn’t stop. Jenn’s lip started to pout.

We made it up the right hill but I got distracted by seeing the infamous Moulin Rouge in the distance. I wanted to walk that way. And we did, but it led to a great misunderstanding…

That was the opposite way of the Sacre-Coeur steps, but I didn’t know it. And somehow the guys thought I knew where I was going. Meanwhile, I thought THEY had a plan to get us back to the steps.

Five miles later we had seen nothing but concrete and Jenn was in tears. We stopped at a cafe for friend Bill to do some damage control. (He shoulda gotten her the rollerblades!) We were too tired to go any further and Jenn had a fit. “All this for some stupid steps!” she cried. And we all had to agree. And ever since, we have called the beautiful, scenic approach to the Sacre-Coeur, “the stupid steps.” And little did I know that would be the story of my future tourist forays on foot….

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I walked much more of this city than I planned to!

This trip has been the perfect example. My first day in Rome I got turned around so many times – all while consulting the map – that it was downright embarrassing. Not to mention painful.

But one would think, after a week of wandering the same streets, that I would have a better handle on it.

I don’t. Making my way back from the museum on Sunday evening was a total disaster. All I had to do was go back through neighborhoods where I had already been, but it just didn’t work out that way. And the pain between my shoulder blades became intense. At one point I sat on a wet ledge and wanted to cry. It felt like someone had put a hot knife blade in my upper back and left it there. I dug in my purse for my emergency pain pills. These are not advil – they are the real thing and I don’t have many of them. But it was time to take one even though I had nothing to drink.

I popped one in my mouth and just sat there until I could swallow it. Then I consulted the map again, which is wet and tattered and starting to fall apart. Honestly, I had stopped after every couple blocks so I didn’t get so far off course, but I was still pretty much lost. Not totally – but pretty much. And it was dark. And raining.

ImageSo it was walk, walk, walk, check the map. Try to figure out where I was. Every time I did I was amazed that I was farther from my room than before. How can this be? I was on every side of this huge monument at one point or another, trying to use it as a landmark. (Note: holding the map in the right direction DOES help!)

And every once in a while I just had to find a spot where I could lean my head and shoulders backwards as far as possible to work some of the kinks out. I’m sure I looked quite strange attempting back bends over low railings, but the pain was killing me! At least my feet are still moving. And I do have my umbrella so the Africans are leaving me alone.

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much scarier at night in the rain, alone…

Finally I arrive at the wall along the Tiber River. I recognize this wall. It looks the same all along the river clear back to my room. I check the street signs at the intersection I am at.

My heart sinks. Sure enough I have gone the wrong way again and I am along the river alright. But a good two miles on the OTHER side of my room. God help me, how am I going to get back?

In hindsight, I should have backtracked through the same busy tourist areas I had just walked through. But I knew that river wall would get me back and I struck off in that direction. However, it wasn’t long before I realized I was all alone. It wasn’t really late, but it was dark. And for all the traffic on the street, you couldn’t see me walking along that wall at all.

ImageOn and on I walked. It seemed like forever. I shuddered whenever I passed a few young men who were hanging out along the riverside. I would walk with determination, swinging my pointy umbrella, and try to look nonchalant. (I’m sure THAT looked convincing!) Then I would turn to make sure I wasn’t being followed.

Geez, it was a long way back. And I was so soaked and exhausted when I got near my room that I couldn’t even eat. Once through my hotel door I went straight to the kitchen and made a pot of cammomile tea with sugar! I retreated to my room to drink it down nice and hot.

ImageMy hair was plastered to my head and my socks were molded to my feet but I was able to change into dry clothes and enjoy the tea. Then it was lights out – at 8:30 pm – with a grateful prayer to have made it back safe and sound.

The next morning I showed Piotr where all I had been. “You must have walked 10 kilometers!” he exclaimed. “Well done!” ummmm… yeahhhh….

Believe me, “Stupid Steps Syndrome” is a real disorder. And now that I know I have it for sure, I’m not going to be so trusting in the future. It’s worth it to me to get a companion or take a taxi to avoid the pain and danger of being lost in a large strange city at night in the rain.

In fact, SSS could be contagious – or even hereditary. My son Brad appears to have it. We’ve always made fun of him for getting lost so easily (which I much better appreciate now.) And my other son Bill says that Brad has it so bad that if he even gets in your car with you – as a passenger – you’ll probably get lost, too!

So if you are ever with me when I’m traveling, never believe a word I say about which direction to go. I mean well – I just can’t be trusted. And it isn’t my fault…

The Very Rare Vermeer

Sunday was my last full day in Roma. What a fabulous infusion of art, architecture and big city life this part of my trip has been. And how fortunate I am to have had 6 days to enjoy it. Seeing Rome in a day or two would be an unreal whirlwind.

As of Saturday I had hit all the major landmarks on my list – although there are enough churches and museums here to keep one busy for an indefinite amount of time. In fact, when I was on the hoho bus, I kept seeing signs for a Vermeer exhibit – which is quite unusual. So I had to look up what it was all about.

ImageVermeer is the Dutch painter of “Girl With a Pearl Earring” fame. Some years ago I was able to see his work “the Lacemaker” in the Louvre in Paris. At the time I was shocked by how small it was – only 9.5″ by 8.5″. I was struck by the mastery of the painting – it was an exquisite piece and possibly my favorite memory from the Louvre. I think I saw “the Astonomer” that day, too.

The other thing about Vermeer is this… he was not prolific. He spent months on each of his paintings. And he died young. So he did not leave behind a vast collection.

There are a mere 36 (maybe 37) Vermeers known to the world, only 26 of which can be seen by the public. They are spread out in 15 different collections, and none are in Italy. (22 in Europe and 14 in America.)

So this exhibit, which includes 8 Vermeers and 50 paintings by his Dutch contemporaries, is a very important show. I decided it was the perfect way to end my trip to Rome.

These masterpieces from the 1600s are on display in the Scudiere del Quirinale, built in Rome in the early 1700s. What a venue!

I located Palazzo del Quirinale on my map – which wasn’t far from the Trevi Fountain. And since my hoho bus pass was still good, I took the bus to that stop and figured I would find my way. Aren’t I the clever one after a few days in Rome?

I managed not to get too turned around, but for some reason my upper back between the shoulder blades was giving me some shooting pains. I stopped for some hot soup and advil and checked my map. It was a bit further to walk than I expected, but oh well. When I found the right street I sat on a ledge and rubbed my back on a metal fencepost. It couldn’t be far now…

And in fact, it was in sight. I was so encouraged that I hopped up and gimped up the hill to the entrance. There wasn’t much of a line – maybe a hundred people. But it was moving fast. Sure enough I was in the door in about 20 minutes. I bought a ticket and was told to check my umbrella. Then, as in every other museum in this country, I started the visit by going UP many flights of stairs. I don’t understand that layout, but it sure is popular.

The exhibit was marvelous. I’m even going to venture to say it was my favorite art I saw in Rome. And I’ll tell you why…

Yes, the Vatican is full of treasures you can’t begin to estimate the value of. So is the Ufizzi in Florence. BUT they are all heavy, heavy religious works – commissioned by the popes and churches and kings and whoever else was in power. And all artwork had to depict the party line – whatever it was at the moment.

Vermeer painted everyday life. At that time the Netherlands was at peace (after just finishing a war) and paintings were not being commissioned by churches or royalty. Art was sold in public markets and bought by ordinary families. Merchants, bakers and brewers wanted to buy the things that would show they were successful. They hung the paintings in their homes, so they had to be small.

ImageAnd what I like is seeing what an artist would paint when he had a choice. Vermeer painted mostly women in an everyday context. This painting, “Girl in a Red Hat” was absolutely striking. The colors in person are brilliant. Vermeer allows the girl to gaze directly at the viewer, which makes it both arresting and intimate. It wasn’t something he did often. The light on her face makes it feel like you could just reach out and touch it – even after all these years.

ImageFor me, the entire exhibit was lovely and I was especially taken by Artist in His Studio by Michiel van Musscher. But mostly I just wanted to stare at the Vermeers – and I could because it wasn’t overly crowded!

And now I am one of the few people in the world who has seen 10 of his pieces – more than a fourth of the work he is known to have done in his short lifetime.

It was a perfect Sunday in Rome.

Until I started to walk home…

And this will take some explaining, so please continue on to the next post…

Touring on the HOHO Bus

On Saturday I decided to go get on one of those double decker buses that go all around the city. They hit all the major sites (or stop near them) and you can hop-on, hop-off (hoho for short) as much as you like. I figured it would be an easy way for me to get to the places I can’t walk to.

I knew the buses had a hub near St. Peter’s Square but I had looked online to compare companies and it said there were stops at Castel St. Angelo, which is right across the bridge from me. That is a bit closer, so I headed that way.

ImageThe bridge itself, Ponte Sant’ Angelo, was already a hotbed of activity. Since it leads to a major attraction, many vendors set up there. In fact you can barely walk on the sidewalk along the bridge because the vendors and performers are taking all the space!

I actually do enjoy some of the performers. The musicians add a nice touch and are usually pretty good. Today there was an accordion player, an acoustic guitar guy and an electric guitar guy who had his own CDs for sale. I have no idea how much money they take in, but I am past giving handouts myself.

So I wove through the crowd on the bridge and looked around from the Castel for the buses. Hmmm… can they be over to the right where I can’t see them? It’s the opposite direction of the stop at St. Peter’s, but there is a market of tents over that way, so I’ll go look.

The market was the typical street vendors and I have grown very hesitant to approach and look. Once you show any interest they are on you like a duck on a june bug and I find it unpleasant. I did reach out and touch a black and white purse that caught my eye. Instantly the vendor picks it up, unzips it and shoves it at me. “15 euro” he says. “No, thanks,” I reply. “Nice purse. You need. You buy.” he insists. I shake my head no. “Give me 12 euro!” he demands. I start to walk away. “Give me 10 euro!” he pleads. Well the thing can’t be leather at that price and I leave with him hollering after me.

At the end of the market there were no buses. Drats, went the wrong way again. And I don’t want to walk back through that market so I start off on the streets to loop around back to where I started. I thought it would just be a few blocks, but Roman streets are not always parallel – especially when I’m wandering around.

Half a mile later I ended up at the bus hub where I could have gone directly an hour before. Oh well, I have all day.

ImageThe ticket for the Roma Open Tour Bus is 22 euro and takes about 2 hours. Sounds good to me. But by the time I go up the narrow winding steps to the top deck and get a seat, I have my doubts about hopping on and off.

Then a VERY large girl with painted blue nails plops down next to me and crams me into my side of the bus. She has to reach over me to plug in her headset, which she has no qualms about doing. And she spent a good amount of time with her arm across me punching the buttons to get everything to her liking. I was squished and couldn’t even move my arms to unfold my map so we had a bit of a tussle while I situated myself and fought back. Really, she needed a seat and a half – and I certainly need a full seat to myself, so we jostled along and arm-butted for several stops.

Finally she and her equally large boyfriend got off and I spread out. Thankfully no one sat next to me for the rest of the trip.

The first part of the route was places I had already been so I just enjoyed seeing the view from the top of the bus. But eventually we got to further out parts of town and I was all eyes. I was thrilled when we came upon the Colosseum. What a great way to see it! I had no desire to go down to ground level and get in the long line to get in. Snapping pics from atop the bus was perfect.

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How exciting to see this in person!

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Constantine Arch

Right after the Colosseum was the Arch of Constantine, and if I missed anything it would have been the Arch of Titus (Arco di Tito) which is a little farther up and the bus didn’t go past it.

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Arco di Tito

But here is a photo I found and a brief reason why I would like to have seen it…

This arch was built to commemorate the victory of the Romans over the Jews in 70AD. The Romans had destroyed the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, leaving nothing standing, and brought the Israelites back to Rome as slaves. Now ordinarily the Romans were pretty good about keeping slaves. They tolerated their customs as long as the slaves would make allegiance to the Roman Empire and worship the emperor as a god. This was no problem for most conquered tribes because they worshipped numerous gods anyway.

Not the Israelites. They had only one God, Jehovah, and refused to bow down to the emperor. So the Romans forced them to build this arch which celebrated the Roman victory over them. And they got to be part of the work force on the Colosseum as well. Throughout history, Popes used the Arch of Titus as a site for oaths of submission. Roman Jews always refused to walk under it. Then, when David Ben Gurion declared independence for the State of Israel, the chief rabbi gathered the entire Roman Jewish community by the arch and in solemn procession, walked the opposite way under the arch to symbolize the return to Jerusalem and Israel.

ImageFrom there it was on to more ancient sites: the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. It is thrilling to see such historical remains of the empire that shaped the modern western world.

We get our word “palace” from this hill – and there used to be so many here that later emperors had to build somewhere else. It must have been quite the neighborhood to be in!

ImageThen it was more riding to weave back through Rome to where we started. Several times we passed this huge building, Victor Emmanuel Monument, which was built for Italy’s first king. Locals actually make fun of it because of its grandiosity and refer to it as “the wedding cake,” or even more irreverently, “the dentures.” It really is quite a spectacle!

So I got my overview of the grandeur of Rome and loved it. Traffic was quite heavy so I was on the bus for about 2.5 hours. That was fine, but I was ready to get off when we got back to St. Peter’s Square.

Now I’ve seen everything I want to see, so on Sunday, my last full day here, I will probably walk back to a couple favorite areas and hang out for a while. One more day in Roma!

Dinner at Sweet Stay

My day of visiting the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s was indeed a long one – more than 7 hours on my poor feet. Good thing I have them fairly whipped into shape – and a steady supply of advil. But I still had a treat in store before the day was over. Piotr and Paola at the Sweet Stay Guest House had invited me to have dinner with them to have a real Roman meal of something I might not order out on my own. We had discussed it ahead of time and decided on fish.

ImageSo when I got back to the apartment, Piotr had been to the market and was busy cooking. The fragrance was delightful and it felt like a nice “welcome home.” But before I get started telling you about it, I have to say that this was something special they did for me. If you come to Rome and check in at Sweet Stay (and you should!) you will get a comfy room and a nice hospitable breakfast each day, but dinner is not included. Just so we’re clear…

So… the menu… which my friend Vicky will find most interesting (she’s fascinated with food and cooking) and my daughter Ellyn will find appalling (she’s not)…

First off, when Italians say “fish” they mean anything you pull out of the sea. I said that a fish is a flat thing with a tail and they said, no, a fish is anything that swims in the ocean. And that includes shrimp (prawns), mussels, clams, squid and octopus – all of which were on the counter!

Piotr has experience as a chef, so will only buy what is fresh and local. And he had chosen to make fish soup (Zuppa di Pesci) for the main course. Here are some of the beautiful ingredients…

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large, fresh prawns

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cute little beady-eyed guy…

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mussels and clams galore

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Mr. Squid…

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… and his ink…

ImageOK, that was just for the soup. Piotr had already made the broth from bones and such and was just chopping up the rest. Meanwhile, Paola sliced some fresh bread and got the salad ready. Now, this, my friends, is a salad.

Paola opened a bag of fresh arugula, a bitter green, and poured it in a bowl. She dressed it with just a bit of oil and vinegar and salt and pepper. Not much.

Then she pulled a package of compressed octopus slices out of the fridge! It was in a packet, sliced thin like you would get cheese or meat from a fine deli. She was surprised that I had never seen such a thing and explained how it is made. The octopus meat is vacuum packed into a jar to press it down very tightly and then it is sliced paper thin and packaged to sell. It has been cooked during the process.

ImageSo the salad was simply a couple slices of pressed octopus with arugula salad on top. They served it with a Rose wine. And I have to say it was not only beautiful, it was quite tasty. But I did have to add some salt to the greens. But that’s me. They don’t eat a lot of salt and I do even though I probably shouldn’t.

So far, so good. They were glad I liked the salad so we were on to the soup. Lots of “fish” and broth over a piece of toasted bread in the bottom of the bowl. And that is actually a very fine way to serve soup! Piotr says the bread really makes it for him.

ImageWell, how can you go wrong with all that delectable sea food in a bowl?. And the best bread you can get fresh anywhere.

Oh my goodness, this is not only bounty from the sea, it is a gift of a meal from these new friends. Piotr and Paola. How kind of them to share a small part of their lives with me while I’m so briefly here in Rome. Such a special treat and I will always treasure it.

ImageI asked if I could take their picture and they “posed” for me – Piotr is making a face (sorry Piotr) but you have to meet these generous folks who have made my stay in Rome so nice and comfortable.

And we have had a lot of fun talking about our differences – which is what we did while Piotr cooked the next course, risotto with squid and squid ink. He said it would take about 15 minutes to cook and you absolutely must eat risotto hot and fresh right out of the pan.

So we chatted and laughed and switched to a nice white wine, a Vermentino. I had seen this wine in restaurants and asked what it was but no one could explain. P & P said that vermentino is simply a type of grape that makes a nice light white wine that goes well with fish and rice. Great!

ImageAnd then the risotto was ready. It was hard to get a good photo because the squid ink turned it black. And there were pieces of squid in it which gave it a briney flavor. Fishy, but not strong at all. The main taste was the rice with a little mild fish to it. Quite good. Piotr said I was brave to try it since I didn’t eat much, but I actually liked it and wished I could have eaten more. I like that fishy rice, even if it is black!

I don’t know the nutrient value of squid ink – or why people would have ever started eating it in the first place – but it might be interesting to find out.

Can you imagine being the first person to say, “hey, I wonder what that tastes like?”

I’m brave, but not that brave…

ImageSo that was dinner and my eyes were beginning to shut on their own after my Vaticano day, but then Paola offered me a sorbetto. I didn’t know what it was so of course I had to try it. I was unsure what to expect, but it was something she actually bought in a bottle.

OMG – it was like drinking lemon pie. (And I LOVE lemon pie!) It was sweet and rich and creamy and left foamy milk marks on the fluted glass. Yum, yum yummers. Lemon pie in a glass. I never tasted anything like it! What a nice ending to the meal!

Finally, I really couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer and I had to say goodnight. I would have loved to turn on some music and dance around the kitchen and help with the dishes, but I just didn’t have it in me. I was actually going to go to my room and catch up on the blog for the day, but I didn’t have that in me, either.

All I could manage was to clear my things off the bed and dive in for the night. And boy don’t you sleep well when you’ve had a satisfying but tiring day and a good meal in your belly!

I slept like one of those angels I saw at the Vatican (do angels sleep?) and dreamed of the streets of Rome and glorious art and monumental architecture and all the fishes in the sea. Topped off with good friends and lemon pie.

Thank you Sweet Stay, and Paola and Piotr, for a truly delightful, memorable day in Rome!

Basilica San Pietro

Once you exit the Sistine Chapel, and you have chosen the right door, you can go directly to St. Peter’s Basilica without getting in line again. St. Peter’s Church is surely the richest and grandest in all of Christendom. As Rick Steves says, to call it vast is like calling Einstein smart.

ImageThis was my first glimpse of the dome from down the street the other day in the rain.

ImageAnd here is a photo I found of the inside during a special mass. There’s really no way to describe the opulence of this structure. You just have to see it and stand in awe of the incredible art and wealth in one place.

To the right of the entrance, behind bullet-proof glass is Michelangelo’s Pieta, which he sculpted at age 24. (A pieta is a work that shows Mary with the body of Christ taken down from his torture stake.) Michelangelo’s brilliance still shines in this powerful masterpiece. Jesus’ is accurately depicted as dead with rigor mortis setting in – which Michel had learned from studying cadavers. Mary is over-sized in proportion to her son to symbolize her eternal love and faithfulness, She has a youthful glow that belies her age.

ImageOver the main altar, where only the Pope can celebrate mass, is Bernini’s 7-story tall bronze canopy.

ImageImageAfter all this splendor, you exit back out the facade and into the famous St. Peter’s Square. But as you come down the front steps, there is a gate to Vatican City on the right, which means a couple of Swiss guards are posted there.

The role of the Swiss Guard is largely ceremonial but they are a trained security force and the official army of Vatican City. Each guard must be a single male with Swiss citizenship between the ages of 19 and 30. Each must be at least 5’8″ tall and have completed basic training with the Swiss military.

Each guard goes through a ceremony to pledge his allegiance to the pope. He receives a personally tailored uniform consisting of 154 pieces, constructed by the Vatican tailor. And no, Michelangelo did not design their outfits.

ImageSo on out into the massive St. Peter’s Square. This monumental space was designed by Bernini as well (seems he’s all over Rome!) to hold the masses of people who would flock there for ceremonies and blessings from the Pope. It’s a huge elliptical shape enclosed by 284 Doric columns four rows deep. Thankfully it was pretty sparse when I left the Basilica late in the afternoon. Not to be disrespectful, but that area would hold way too much of a crowd for me!

But it is really a privilege to see these magnificent landmarks. Now when I see them on the news or in a book or magazine, I have a personal reference. I’ve been there, I’ve walked on that ground and I experienced a little of the glorious history they represent.

The Vatican Shuffle

Probably number one on my list of things to see in Rome was the Vatican Museum and today was the day. The only problem was, I didn’t get my ticket ahead of time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try. One night I tried to buy a voucher from a street booth but the man only spoke Italian and didn’t understand what I wanted. I gave up for fear of getting the wrong thing. Then I was going to get a ticket online but you have to print out the voucher and I don’t have a way to print. So I had to wait until I could ask my B&B folks if they could print one for me, but it was too late. The online tickets have to be purchased 48 hours in advance.

Oh well, I just got myself ready and prepared for standing in line. How bad could it be?

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This is only a SMALL part of the line… probably not even a quarter of it!

OK, I left the room about 10:30 am and walked straight to the vatican, so I guess I ambled up on the line about quarter or ten till 11. The sun was shining and the line was moving, although I couldn’t see how far it went, and I settled in. The “skip-the-line” vendors were working the crowd hard, but I didn’t see anyone buy their overpriced tickets.

For a long while I shuffled along in silence beside a quiet older man, focused on keeping my place. The ticket vendors circled like vultures. Other people in line started sending part of their party off to buy food and bring it back. It was getting past lunchtime.

After an hour or so we turned a corner and still the line stretched out of sight. Gypsy beggars held out their Jesus pictures. Crippled souls sat or lay on the ground along the wall with a cup extended for coins. More vendors, now with postcards and keychains. Even when you say no, they talk to the side of your face and shake their goods at you.

Finally I start talking to the older man. He is from Toronto and can’t believe he is standing in a line this long. Neither can I. And I don’t think I would for anything else. But at least we can chat and the weather is mild and we compare our guidebooks on what we are about to see – if we ever make it to the entrance.

Finally, about 2:15, we are at the door. Almost 3.5 hours in line and the tour is just starting. I’m feeling a little faint, but we hang together through security and the ticket booth and many flights of stairs. We arrive at an open plaza that leads to more stairs and the beginning of the museum. There is a cafe on the left. I have to stop, so this is where we part ways.

I get a tuna sandwich and a glass of Prosecco and just sit for a few minutes. I am alarmed at the number of large tour groups filing by and entering the museum. It seems like an awful lot of people cramming in there… an awful lot!

And it was.

When I made my way inside I was enveloped into a mass of bodies moving as one unit. Shuffle, shuffle, stop, squeeze, get poked with purses and umbrellas, shuffle some more. How are we going to see anything at this rate?

Sadly, it stayed that way the whole time. I maneuvered around tour groups when I could, but it was only to butt up against another one. I really think if I had just lifted my feet off the ground the crowd would have carried me right on through the whole place. So it was squeeze your way to what you wanted to see, then squeeze back in and keep moving. Lots of people just held their cameras over their heads and pushed the button, hoping for the best. I didn’t even bother – postcards are better pics anyway.

After what seemed an eternity we came to a loop of rooms. I could see where you would wind around and come right out on the other side of the rope I was standing beside. I felt the sudden need to escape. I caught the guard’s attention and motioned and asked, “can I come under the rope, please?” “no,” he said, and motioned for me to take the loop through the rooms. I thought I would cry so I stood as pitifully as I could and asked again. “Please?”

“Are you alone?” he asked. “yes!” I replied eagerly. He unhooked the rope and let me through. Oh bliss! Some fresh air and I could get my nose out of the back of some guy’s oxford shirt…

Of course it was right back into the crowd again, but oh well.

So why am I not expounding on the glorious treasures of the Vatican Museum – the greatest collection of western art in the world? Because I couldn’t get near it! I’m not going to say I’m sorry I went, because I’m not, but it was a bit of a letdown to go on a day when it was that crowded. I don’t like crowds, I don’t like tour groups, and even though I tried to suspend my own biases, it was draining to contend with. Still I am glad I made it through the Vatican Museum. And I will spend some time looking at the treasures online and up close.

The highlight, however, is the Sistine Chapel. I was greatly anticipating seeing that. And it is glorious. It has been restored to its original colors and stretches overhead at 43 feet wide and 131 feet long. The most famous excerpt from it you usually see in books, the creation of Adam, is just one small central panel.

ImageImageThe stories of the rascally Michelangelo Buonarroti spending 4 years painting this ceiling are fascinating. He got the job when his rivals suggested him for it to the Pope. They knew he had never done frescoes before and they thought he would do a terrible job and make them look better. Michel did not want the job. He considered painting to be an inferior art form to sculpting. But the pope bribed him with promises of a huge sculpting project later, so Michel took it on.

After a fierce learning curve, he got pretty good at it. He also had to design special scaffolding for the project. Some accounts say he was able to paint leaning backwards – and over his head – but that he didn’t lie on his back to do it. He had a lot of assistants who he didn’t allow to do much painting – maybe a patch of sky – and hired and fired them constantly. He made them mix plaster and paint and truck it up and down the scaffolding. He didn’t like people seeing what he was doing so he would chase them away. He even threw wooden planks at the pope from the catwalk!

But all was forgiven when the masterpiece was revealed and even Michelangelo’s rivals were impressed.

Today it is one of the most magnificent pieces of art on earth – if you can enjoy it. I entered the room with the masses. The room itself was literally packed shoulder to shoulder with people craning their necks upwards, mouths hanging open, shooting photos. The entire place was at a standstill with guards occasionally trying to move people along. It did little good.

I moved from spot to spot as I could to view various panels, but it was really a jostling mess overall. I soon had to find the door and just tell myself I was there and I’ll have to study it more from photographs.

And in fact, there is quite a controversy about the overcrowded situation at the museum. The Sistine Chapel, in particular, is suffering damage from the pollution of so many bodies crammed into the same space.There are plans to install more cooling systems to handle the body heat and flakes of hair and skin that everyone leaves behind because it leaves a residue in the room.

Critics want the crowds to be limited by ticket sales but the museum directors don’t want to lose the revenue. I for one would like to see the crowds controlled. If I knew I could only visit the museum by getting a timed ticket, I would plan for that. It would be so much more enjoyable. And I wouldn’t have spent almost 7 hours of the day literally shuffling through miles of lines and crowds.

So then it was on to St. Peter’s Basilica, and I’ll have to make that the next post…

Roman Splendor

Few cities in the world have as many stupendous sights as Roma. And seeing them in person, for me, is surreal.

It’s not just the historical age of things, although that is hard to wrap your brain around. It is the scale. The monuments are huge. The fountains are turbulent geysers. The bridges and buildings are mammoth – and they’re everywhere!

There was a time when just the word “Rome” meant civilization itself. All lands were either part of the Roman Empire and thus civilized, or they were barbarian. That reign of power lasted about 1,000 years – from 500 BC to 500 AD or so. Even now, Rome is still the center of that ancient world and you can see the evidence of it.

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The Pantheon and Della Rotunda Fountain

Today I walked to the Pantheon neighborhood which is considered the heart of Rome. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved structures in Rome and the only one that has been in continuous use since it was built. The one-piece granite columns are the biggest in Italy and were shipped in from Egypt.

The style of this building has been copied so often for public and government buildings around the world that it is known as the most influential design in western architecture.

The building itself sits below street level today which shows how the rest of the city has been built up on 20 centuries of rubble. It’s easy to imagine the early Romans congregating here.

From there I went in search of the Trevi Fountain. Fontana di Trevi is the largest baroque fountain in Rome and one of the most famous in the world. I remember the song and the movie, 3 Coins In the Fountain from the 1950s.

It’s interesting that no streets actually open right out on to the fountain. You kind of have to sneak up on it, which is fun because I could hear the water before I got in sight of it and it added to the excitement. Then suddenly you turn the corner and there it is…

ImageIt is spectacular. The god of water, called either Oceanus or Neptune, is the central figure. Horses and Tritons (sea gods of half man, half fish) convey all the motion of the theme of the fountain, taming of the waters.

But then it was a bit tricky to actually get close to the fountain! It was packed with tourists all the way around. I fought my way in and down one level, but it wasn’t worth trying to get closer. People were jostling shoulder to shoulder and taking turns photographing each other – which was hard to do because other people were constantly squeezing by and getting in the picture. Those who tried to stand back while someone took a photo just clogged up the whole works, so it was a mess…

ImageTradition has it that if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain your wish to return to Rome again will be granted. So lots of people do – the fountain takes in about 3,000 euro a day, which the city uses to fund a food program for the poor. But I didn’t get close enough to toss a coin and I’m not much for superstitions anyway. Plus I throw like a girl even on a good day with a clear shot, so me flinging small missiles through that kind of crowd would probably just cause an incident…

The crowds at the fountain were stifling and there was no where to sit and enjoy the view so I moved on to find the Spanish Steps. About halfway there was where I stopped for my expensive glass of wine I mentioned in the last post. And even though I got ripped off, it was a nice break and part of the whole Rome experience.

The wine and advil stop renewed my energy and I looked forward to seeing another of Europe’s most iconic sights. Again, you just sort of come up on this sight and suddenly you’re looking right at it! This was my first glimpse…

Once more, this famous destination was filled with people – who become part of the attraction. There’s someone sitting on almost every one of the 138 steps that make up the largest stairway in Europe. I made my way to the next to highest level to enjoy the view.

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At the top of the Spanish Steps

I always wondered why these famous steps would be named “Spanish” when they are in Rome, but now I know. This square, the Piazza di Spagna, was named for the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican. Ah ha… And it is a popular hangout both day and night. Here’s a view of the crowd below…

ImageI got back to the bottom of the steps and sat for a while. Great spot for more people-watching! I studied my map to plan my route back and a young man came over to ask for directions. I actually knew where he wanted to go and showed him on the map. He and his wife waved gaily at me as they took off down the street with their rolly bags and I thought to myself, of everyone in Rome to ask directions of… if they only knew!

There were a lot of horse-drawn carriages in the center of the square and for the first time I saw costumed gladiators walking around. I wanted to get a photo of one but I noticed they stayed behind the horses unless someone was engaging them and paying them. I read that they don’t take kindly to having their pictures taken unless you pay. And I certainly didn’t need another confrontation for the day. Especially from some bruiser wearing a big fake muscular torso!

Finally I headed back to the room and for once made a straight beeline to it. When I came back out at the Tiber River I had made a giant loop and I knew right where I was! Glory be, I never got turned around at all. And my feet and legs were holding up quite well. In this sprawling city, that is quite an achievement!

And that’s just some of the splendor of Rome. I still have several more days and lots to see. How exciting!

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