Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Vatican

On our first full day in Rome we visited the amazing Vatican, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter's Basilica. It was quite a walk from our hotel but we opted to walk anyway. I think we logged some 20,000 steps that day!

After the long walk, we were jut outside the walls of the Vatican. I knew we were getting close as a very long line was formed all the way around the walls. I told everyone to keep going, that the simple reserving of tickets would allow us to bypass this craziness! Sure enough, we approached the front of the line and there was a separate area for those who had tickets reserved. Seriously, it takes minutes to do this online ahead of time, which I highly recommend!

A tiny part of the long line we bypassed by simply reserving our tickets ahead of time

Once inside and with our tickets in hand we saw all sorts of amazing artifacts. I decided last minute to add on the audio tour so we would really know what we were looking at and I'm glad I did. I got the children's audio tour for Braden (11) and Ava (9). Braden said he would have preferred the adult tour as the children's one was a bit "young" for him.

The Vatican Museum really is an incredible place that would take days to fully experience. I'll just share some photos and let the photos do the talking!

Inside the incredible Vatican Museum

The Bramante Staircase in the Vatican, which is a piece of art in and of itself

After spending time in the Vatican Museum, we visited the Sistine Chapel, no photos allowed. We spent a lot of time listening to the audio guide and gazing up at the ceiling that Michaelangelo famously painted. We were shuttled in like cattle, but I understand order needs to be kept in a place like this. For a moment, the photo-lover in me wanted to "steal" a pic, but I opted to not only observe the rules to be an example to my kids but also to simply just enjoy being in the moment. A photo of the ceiling would have not meant much later on as it would not have properly captured how incredible it really was. We all quietly reflected with our necks cranked and our eyes turned skyward, gazing at the masterpiece on the ceiling while listening to our audio guide.

Once we finished visiting the Sistine Chapel, we headed to St. Peter's Basilica. This church was absolutely incredible. It was so much larger than expected, the ceilings so vast, the details so intricate, everything was just on a much, much larger scale than can be imagined.
Outside of The Vatican

The incredible St. Peter's Basilica

We made our way out of the Vatican, but first stopped to watch the Swiss Guards in their unique uniforms.

Swiss Guard at the Vatican

We ate at another local restaurant for dinner. The ambiance was lovely in the evening. We had a funny moment with Braden: the waiter asked how they liked their food and Braden decided to be honest by explaining the pasta in Italy is a bit too salty, he prefers the American style. Oh my! I bet the Italian waiter was shocked at that! I guess fresh pasta tastes different than our hard, ol' American pasta, especially to an 11-year-old!

Another wonderful restaurant in Rome, even if it had "salty pasta" according to Braden!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Goodbye Tuscany, Hello Rome

The next day, we had to pack up and clean the house as we were leaving Tuscany and heading to Rome! Once the car was loaded up we drove about a half hour to Pisa, which is just west of Lucca. As we drove the windy road through the Tuscan countryside we could see the Leaning Tower of Pisa in the distance - how exciting!

Once we arrived, we found a well-kept parking lot where buses also parked. We then took a short bus ride to the Square of Miracles. We walked passed many vendors, trying to hawk their fare. At first I was annoyed when they would call out for us to stop but then realized this was their livelihood. It tugged at my heartstrings a little bit knowing that relying on tourists to buy their goods was how they survived. I talked with the kids about it and in the end they each bought a little Leaning Tower as a souvenir.

Souvenir shopping in Pisa

Once within the walls, we were very impressed with how the grounds were kept up. The Field of Miracles was a beautiful expanse of land with the three beautiful buildings - The Baptistry, Cathedral, and The Leaning Tower of Pisa . Crowds of tourists were milling about, taking some really funny photos of themselves "holding" up the Tower.

Entering the walls of Pisa, within the walls of Pisa

At the Leaning Tower of Pisa

After we got some photos and bought souvenirs we opted to eat at the McDonald's right outside the walls. It was quick, easy, we knew our kids could eat there (allergies), and then we could set off on our way to Rome.

Our "McMeal" after visiting Pisa, before we took off for Rome, and yes, that is beer!

During our drive to Rome we passed many amazing little villages, some set up high in the hills. It would be amazing to stop and explore every one of these villages. One would probably get a true sense for Italian village life by doing so.

We decided to drop our vehicle at the airport and take a taxi to our hotel rather than trying to drive into Rome. It was a great decision. Our taxi driver was really nice and talked the whole drive into Rome. At one point traffic came to a dead stop and he had to slam on his brakes. My mom ended up hitting her face on the seat in front of her and had a swollen lip after that. This happening the day after our hospital adventure had us all on edge.

As we came upon the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome, where our hotel was located, our big taxi van was meandering down little alley-ways full of people! I was SO nervous we were going to hit somebody. My mom and I were looking at each other incredulously, both wondering if this was ok! The taxi driver explained that only licensed taxi drivers can drive down these seemingly pedestrian-only alleys. He finally stopped and pointed out where our hotel was down another alley-way. He said the van was too big to go down that one so we hauled our luggage down the bumpy cobblestone streets to the gated entrance of our hotel. I was feeling a bit deflated, with my mom's current bloody swollen lip, my daughter's immobilized arm, and wondering about this new location. Once we were let into the gate all my worries melted away. It was beautiful with vines creeping up the walls, flowers billowing out of window boxes - it felt like an oasis after the making our way through the crowded, bumpy streets. We walked into the tiny office and a very sweet, friendly receptionist checked us in. We were feeling better already. She took one look at my mom and asked what happened - she couldn't quite word it the right way and asked if she had "herpes on her lip"...we all laughed as we thought she might have meant cold sore, but we explained what happened. She offered ice and seemed genuinely concerned. We figured we would go out to dinner and get ice there.

We were led across the courtyard to our room and when we entered we were so pleased! The room had a full-sized bed and two twin beds on the bottom floor, and a curly stair-case that led to a loft with two more twin beds - perfect for the 6 of us! It was clean and spacious and we were appreciative to have a more modern place to stay after our old-fashioned Tuscan house.

The hotel was a true gem and I was thrilled with our choice to stay there. The courtyard was central to all the rooms, little tables and chairs were set out so one could read, eat, or even play cards, like we did. There was a breakfast area with a good selection of food - traditional European meats and cheeses, along with yogurt, granola, fruit, bread, and pastries. The tables inside were set up nicely with cloth tablecloths and napkins. We also got coffee, juices, and cappuccinos. In the evening, there were some light snacks if you bought a drink at the bar. We would get a glass of wine and sit out in the courtyard to relax at the end of the day. The hotel also housed a rooftop deck and there were lounge chairs to relax on. This hotel was truly an oasis in the middle of Rome!

Our oasis of a hotel in Rome, the Hotel Santa Maria

Once we unpacked and refreshed we headed a few streets away to a restaurant. We had wanted to sit outside but were so hungry we opted to not wait and sat inside. The kids had pizza, two without cheese. Unfortunately my asking for pepperoni on their pizza was translated to "peppers" so the kids got peppers on their pizza, not pepperoni. Oh, well, I said, when in Rome!

The quintessential Trastavere neighborhood we stayed in in Rome - this is the restaurant we ate at on our first night there. This was just around the corner from our hotel