Venice

Our day in Venice was only proof that I want to visit a bazillion more times before I die. We began the day with an epic breakfast. The hotel had a spread with everything from homemade cafe latte, to crepes, to Italian meats and cheeses.

We then embarked on our Walks of Italy tour with Sabrina. Low-key, but informative, she knew a lot about Venice. We wandered neighborhoods, saw the Rialto fish market and even took a gondola ride. The fish market was a real highlight, since I’m a huge Marcela Hazan fan. I liked to picture myself walking in her footsteps, as she’d shopped there for groceries for her meals and cooking classes. Eventually, we broke for lunch. Sabrina recommended Rossa Pomodora and it didn’t disappoint. We had delicious fried appetizers—including panzarotti and fried macaroni! Then I had a calzone pizza and Paul had a diavolo pizza. We returned to the group to tour St. Marks and the Doges Palace. No photos were allowed inside, but the Byzantine mosaics in St. Marks were stunning. The Golden hallway at the Doges’ Palace weren’t anything to scoff at either. We even got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs and I sighed a lot for good measure. After our tour, we walked Venice. We tried to get up to the top of a department store for a scenic view but it was too crowded. Instead, we found a square, a bar, and indulged in many spritzes. Dinner was pasta bolognese for Paul, more cuttlefish for me, and seafood risotto for the two of us. We rounded out the evening with Nutella, tiramisu, mixed berry, and lemon gelato. The next morning we shared a water taxi to the airport with an Irish couple. The boat FLEW through the water! At one point we almost lost a suitcase and the handle that controlled the glass ceiling cover broke off. The boat attendant yelled “oh my god!” which did nothing for my fraying nerves. The Venice airport was a crowded nightmare, but we made our plane and luckily had an uneventful flight.

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Rome to Venice

We almost didn’t make our Vatican tour. We had slept poorly the night before because our hotel gave us the worst bed and the noisiest room imaginable. Plus, we were both experiencing some trip fatigue and neither of us is religious. But I’m very glad we went to see the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s, and the Sistine Chapel. We had a semi-private tour and while I wasn’t entirely sold on the blonde girl from Alabama guiding us, she did a wonderful job and knew her history and art history inside and out. She was also a talented storyteller. 

The art was staggering. We spent most of our time in the Raphael Rooms, as well as the Sistine Chapel (sadly, no photos allowed.).

St. Peter’s was staggering. Gold and mosaics and beautiful statuary everywhere you look. It’s impressive, but I can’t help thinking that Jesus wouldn’t be keen on any part of it. 

After, we walked a bit around Vatican City. The sheer scale is amazing. 

After the Vatican, we rode to Termini station for our train to Venice. Exhausted we grabbed cheap deli sandwiches and ate them sitting on the terminal floor. Go hygiene!

We arrived in Venice and were awe struck by how pretty and novel the city is. No traffic! We boarded the vapporetto to our hotel and sat next to a drunk Californian named Scott. He was a nice enough dude but thick as a brick. He had been to Germany and was blown away by the Holocaust.

“I didn’t even go to the  concentration camps, man, but I was still blown away. Like those were the people who killed 11 million Jews. I’m such a proud American that we didn’t do that. Like even though I was drinking, like it got me.”

There was so much wrong with his understanding of the past and the present, I didn’t know where to begin. 

Our hotel was near St. Marks and we got really lost trying to find it. Luckily, the people at Locanda Orseolo were amazing and helped us every step of the way, even staying on the phone with us as we walked. 

When we arrived, we went to our room and found this. Clearly, they know we are lushes. 

The desk clerk, Lorenzo, recommended a stellar place, Cherubino. I could eat there everyday and never tire of their delicious spritz. 

Or their chicetti plate which boasted the entire sea—whitefish, squid, octopus, toro, shrimp, sardines. 

We also had clams in a delicious tangy, spicy broth. 

The cuttlefish ink pasta was my “revelation” dish. Paul’s was carbonara but I enjoyed nothing as much as I enjoyed this pasta. Eating it, you look a fright with black teeth, but it’s so worth it.

Paul had a frito misto plate. 

After, we enjoyed St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto Bridge area with fewer tourists at night time. 

We capped the day with gelato. Lemon for Paul. Mascarpone and fig for me. After all that travel and walking and eating, it was time for a comfy robe and slippers!

Rome, part 2

Before we left the ship, we went to O’Sheehans for one more pub style breakfast. There was a mix-up with our shuttle but thankfully we called the company or we would have been stranded at the cruise terminal. By the time we made it back and settled into our hotel, we were ready for lunch. Our guide for Taste of Testaccio recommended a pizza joint called Trieste and its crispy, tiny pizzas didn’t disappoint. We tried the margherita, salsiccia, and carbonara. 

Then we went for our Crypts and Catacombs tour. No photos were allowed but it was an amazing tour. We saw the Catacombs, San Clemente, and (my favorite) the Capuchin Crypt. The guide did a great job of illustrating how the Capuchins’s desire to have a continuation beyond their death has happened, since people visit their bones and talk about them hundreds of years after their death. It was a powerful reminder of the fleetingness of life. 

We also got to see the balcony where Mussolini declared Italy’s involvement in WWII. 

After a lengthy tour (nearly 4 hours of walking and lots of stairs), we were ready for spritzes and dinner. We had made reservations at Hostaria Romana but major language barrier issues meant they didn’t have us on their roster when we arrived. Thankfully, the iPhone logs calls, so I could prove I’d called them before. The owner set us up with a last minute table and I’m so glad he did because the meal was incredible. 

It started with complimentary potato puffs. 

I had caprese salad while Paul chose a pecorino and Parmesan heavy cheese plate. 

The real stand out was the fried artichoke. Crispy, salty, utter perfection. 

This bucatini alla amatriciana was my favorite of the trip. It reminded me of my grandmother’s gravy. 

Paul stuck with carbonara. We had ordered secondi, but were so stuffed from appetizers and pasta we begged the waiter to cancel the rest of our order. 

The decor was nifty–tons of scrawls on the walls, including a totally appropriate fuck Trump. I chose the slightly more romantic message below. 

We wrapped up the night with a walk to the Trevi fountain. The fountain was immense and so beautiful. We turned around, threw our coins over our shoulders, and wished we would come back to Rome. It can’t happen soon enough, IMHO. 

Sea day and Naples/Amalfi Coast/Pompeii

We had heard a lot about how crazy Naples is and I wish we could have seen more of it first-hand,but we decided instead to do a tour of the Amalfi Coast and Pompeii. We began with a stop to see the city of Positano from a scenic distance.

We saw olive trees preparing to be harvested. 

After the ride along the Amalfi Coast, we stopped in Sorrento where we learned a bit about inlaid woodworking (and got to use their toilet for free). 

A highlight was lunch–a delicious Naples style pizza from a restaurant called Tasso. 

After some more scenic views, we arrived in Pompeii. Our guide, Vincenzo, was witty and charming throughout but his storytelling really shone as he walked us around the ruins of Pompeii. He painted a vivid portrait of the people and their history. 

Interestingly, here’s how you’d find a local whorehouse. 

In the background is Mt. Vesuvius. 

Each statue was affecting, but the scared man struck me particularly hard. 

We wrapped up the day with dinner in the ship’s dining room and more music by Siglo. 

Barcelona

There are many cities we’d like to revisit after our trip, and Barcelona is definitely at the top. We took a tour with Barcelona Day Tours and the guide Xavier was truly excellent. We started with a scenic view of Barcelona. 

We continued on to MNAC, an art museum with beautiful architecture and an impressive view. 

We shuttled from place to place and I liked capturing random moments as we drove, including this mix of two of my favorite things—Dia de los Muertos skulls and tacos. 

A real highlight of the tour was seeing Gaudi’s art and architecture. This building is supposed to mimic St. George and the dragon. 

After, we headed to another Gaudi creation, Park Guell. A failed housing community, it’s a major tourist destination now. It’s a good reminder of how you may be hated during your own time and then be a legend forevermore.

This woman was like the Chiciquita banana lady in stone. 

Our last stop was La Sagrada Familia. I wish we could have gone inside, but the outside alone was impressive. It was hard to find a place for the eye to land, it was so visually distracting. The guide said it should be completed within our lifetime and I’m crossing fingers we get to see it complete. 

After the tour, we walked Las Ramblas. It was a holiday and so the already crowded area was even more packed than usual. Sadly, the food market La Boqueria was closed on Sundays. Another solid reason to return to Barcelona one day. 

We got stuck on this road waiting for the parade to pass for what seemed like hours in the hot, kind of smelly crowd. Eventually, we bull rushed our way through, nearly trampling a bunch of school children marching in the parade. Sometimes you gotta do, what you gotta do. Even if it involves assaulting Catalonian kids. 

Xavier recommended we try the oldest restaurant in Barcelona, Can Cullereto, and it did not disappoint. A real authentic little joint, we shared jamon Iberico, pan con tomate, grilled squid, gambas al ajillo, and paella. The jamon was the standout. It had an intense flavor that almost reminded me of cheese it was so savory and strong and delicious. 

We made it back to the ship, thanks to the port shuttle. That evening, we laid low. We read, we enjoyed some frozen drinks, and relaxed. 

Cannes and Palma de Mallorca

Most days we booked our own independent tours, but on the days of Cannes and Palma we took ship excursions. As a rule, the ship excursions are overpriced and real cattle herding affairs (these weren’t really different than the norm). The one benefit of the early morning excursion was the reduced breakfast crowds. We basically had our own private omelette station on the outdoor deck of the ship. It’s quite the life looking at beautiful vistas and eating eggs. We began the excursion with a walking tour of Cannes, seeing some beautiful fortified monasteries, as well as a mask alluding to the Man in the Iron Mask. 

The outdoor market was a real highlight, with delicious baked goods and a bright array of fresh veggies.

We even got some delicious spices to take home (we used the Cannes one to make chicken last night and it was delicious). We took a ferry to St. Honarait island to a monastery afterwards and had a wine tasting in a hot, dusty, rocky field. Far from a highlight of the trip, the scenery was beautiful but standing in the heat drinking nasty ass monk wine was not. 

The real highlight, however, was using the bathroom. We broke off from the group to use the monastery’s outdoor toilets. I entered the room and was faced with a porcelain coated hole in the ground. There were two ridged areas where I’m assuming one should put her feet. But there was no clear flushing mechanism, toilet paper, or conventional toilet. Undaunted, and really needing to pee, I removed my pants and underwear and put my feet in the ridges. I looked down into the hole and I’m pretty sure I saw some workers off to the side of my peripheral vision. After seeing the workers, I was a bit less certain that I was standing on a toilet, but I was certain that a bunch of French workers had full access to seeing my privates.

“Sacre bleu! Is zat bea-var I zee?”

So, yeah, I peed in some kind of French piss trough over some monastery workers.

The tour was intense–we realized it was a level 3 tour (the hardest) and were delighted that the Palma tour was a lazy level 1 tour.

We tendered back to the boat and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Cagney’s steakhouse on the boat. Since it was a free certificate, we went all out. Shrimp, crab cakes, wine, wedge salad, two porterhouses, truffle fries, mac and cheese, creamed spinach, and sauteed mushrooms. 

Paul had a brownie for dessert and I had the most amazing apple tart with red wine ice cream. We wrapped up the night with martinis and a Latin band. The dancing people brought some tears to my eyes–there was something so beautiful about the happy, dancing, joyful people.  The band was excellent with a broad range of songs ranging from “Despacito” to Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello.”

Saturday we slept in and enjoyed some more omelettes. The excursion to Palma was very restful, bussing around to castles and monasteries. Eventually, we drove to Valdemossa and enjoyed the scenic rugged views, paella, sangria, and bocadillos.

We wrapped up the day with more music, some pub food, and a pleasant run in with a couple we met during our CBM tour. They were a wonderful couple from Canada and they made our day telling us about Terry and Dennis trying to sing karaoke, but entering in the wrong song and yelling at the cruise staff because they had to sing “Love Shack” instead of the Righteous Brothers. Those two were annoying, but a non-stop delight for their stupidity.

Boarding the ship and Florence

We were fortunate to take a cruise as part of our trip to Europe. We departed from Rome, Civitavecchia, to be more exact. It’s about an hour and a half from Rome, so we hired a shuttle to take us to the port. The downside of travel is the majority of the other people you travel with and this shuttle was no exception. We had the most annoying Texans on our ride–the kind of morally bankrupt idiots who give America a bad name. As hurricanes ravaged the US, these ladies were plotting how to buy land in FL and vacation there with a trailer, so that they didn’t care if it got destroyed since they’d have no major investment lost. Ugh, they piss me off just writing about them. Moving on….

We did have some awesome Aussies in their 70s and 80s, a group of friends who saw the world together. One feisty woman, Audrey, even vowed her next trip would be to Alaska to mush with the dogs!

We made it to the ship and relaxed with many drinks, a delicious dinner, and a really solid classic rock cover band from the Philippines. The guitarist was a master impressionist and you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a Filipino guy sing “Money for Nothing” in a dead-on Mark Knopfler impression.

The next day we headed to Florence. While our one tour through Can’t Be Missed was great, this first one sorta sucked the big one. It started about 45 minutes late because two dullards–Terri and Dennis–read their reservation incorrectly and showed up super late. I don’t blame CBM for this necessarily, but they definitely did not need to delay everyone’s tour for those two. It wasn’t just waiting on those two, but the disorganized nature of the tour that really bothered us. The driver didn’t have a clear picture of the tour, he left us a with a guide who had us pay money for tickets, but then didn’t GET the tickets from the taker so we were stuck in limbo for 30 minutes, etc. We eventually made it into the Accademia and saw selected art pieces, including the David. 

Then we walked to the Duomo and Baptistry. I wish we’d had time to go inside, but next trip. The outside alone was breathtaking.

We made our way to the Ponte Vecchio and a small market with the “little pig” or “Porchilino” statue (my new nickname).  While looking at the Arno, all Paul and I could do was sing the Police song that mentions its name. 

For lunch, we wanted the authentic Florentine steak experience and this was a solid offering. We also ate criminally overpriced, but tasty gelato. 

We stopped at an overlook for a picturesque Tuscan shot. Terri and Dennis, our arch-nemeses, were nice enough to take our picture. This picture aside, these people really sucked. It’s hard to put into words, but Terri kept yelling about the air conditioner being too loud and not being able to hear anything. When the driver turned it down, she then yelled about it being hot. Keep in mind this cycle repeated about every 5 minutes for a 5 hour tour. You’d want to kill her too. Dennis made loud international phone calls to his adult son to discuss his fantasy football team and to remind him to read Proverbs. At every site, Terri would flit around with her giant iPad elbowing people out of her way to get the shots she wanted. It didn’t help that they were both self-professed Jesus freaks who clearly didn’t get the Biblical memo about not being a rude, self-absorbed asshole.

After Florence, we went for a brief stop at Pisa. It was cool, it leaned, but I really had to pee and some of the bloom was off the CBM tour rose. 

When we got back to our room, industrial fans were going in the hallway and our carpet had been replaced. Some tiny flood must have happened, but nothing of ours was damaged. Norwegian Cruises handled it like a champ and gave us a free specialty dining meal, a bottle of wine, and chocolate strawberries. The night wrapped up well with some music and late night spicy Asian wings and nachos. Cruising is the good life.

Rome, day 2

Our second day in Rome, we took another food tour. Some people may feel in a city of countless ruins, art museums, and cultural wonders, a food tour is frivolous. Those people are fucking morons and I don’t want to know them. Food is the real reason to hop a plane and travel thousands of miles to Europe, duh.

We felt pretty confident navigating the metro, but realized the directions from Taste of Testaccio had forsaken us. Thankfully, the brilliant invention of GPS set us on the the right track again and we arrived in plenty of time. We ambled a bit around the tiny square in Testaccio where we were supposed to meet the guide. A woman approached us, speaking in rapid Italian and pointing at her ring. She thought I was a local! This was a major win for me, since I am part Italian. I had finally returned to the mother land and I fit in with “my people.” I’m no “medigan.” But, meh, I kind of am, since I speak basically zero Italian (cursing and ordering food aside) and so she looked crestfallen when I only spoke English and quickly moved on.

The tour began in a small family-owned bakery where we had pizza with thin slices of potato and rosemary and marinara.

Next, we moved on to Masto where I won a free glass of wine, since I knew the cheese we ate after the tasting plate was pecorino romano. I always knew consuming a lot of cheese would pay off. The tasting plate had mortadella, prosciutto, cassoulet cheese with peppercorns and honey and marmalade to dip, and olive tapenade.

Romans love fried food, so we tried vegetable tempura and fried apples next. Paul is an avowed picky eater but even he enjoyed the fried squash. He really expanded his palate this trip eating fried veggies, gelato (he hates ice cream), etc.

After the fried foods, we traveled to a local food market and purchased tomatoes, mozzarella, and bread to make bruschetta with tomato, basil, and cheese. We also had more suppli (not as good as the ones from Supplizio), and some delicious Italian craft beer.

We sat down for a pasta supper at Flavio al Velavevedetto, a restaurant built on the garbage heap where ancient Romans dumped their used amphorae. Each Roman classic pasta was tasty, but not the more remarkable versions of the trip.

We ended the tour with gelato. I had the tiramisu and almond and Paul began a love affair with limone.

A non-food highlight for this 19th century literature buff was seeing Keats’s grave, though we were hustled out before I could see PB Shelley’s grave. Next time, Rome, next time.

Uncertain we had enough time to make it back to the Colosseum by metro, we hired a car and went to catch our next tour with City Wonders. This tour was a death march. The Colosseum, Palantine Hill, and Forum. 3 plus hours of walking after 4 hours of walking on the food tour. The guide, Alessio, was knowledgeable but low energy and there were about 8 times we almost told the group to leave us for dead, because we were so exhausted.

It’s not easy maneuvering (or being the one to maneuver) these stones when you’re blind. Ancient ruins were not really designed with the disabled in mind, but Paul managed each site like a champ and I take some credit for not killing him with my guiding. 

After a brief trip to the hotel to recuperate, we made our way to Salumeria Roscioli. While not quite as wonderful as Armando, the anchovies in the burrata, the cheese plate, and the pasta alla gricia were pretty amazing. We blew the waiter’s mind by ordering 3 pastas for primi and no secondi course. The carbonara had a strong pecorino flavor, which was good, but I was not terribly impressed by the bottarga pasta. That gricia…that will haunt my dreams. We ordered a Tuscan syrah for the meal and were given complimentary red wine cookies and chocolate sauce for dessert. The cookies were nice, not too sweet, like many Italian desserts. 

Rome, Day 1

We had a super early flight to Rome from Paris and our jet lagged bodies did not appreciate the 3 am wake up call. We zoned out on the flight and landed in Rome about 2 hours after we took off. In a twist, the plane disembarked from the back and we were in the midst of a very large group of Asian tourists. I made the mistake of trying to follow the normal process of leaving a plane, ya know waiting your turn and grabbing your bag from the overhead. But as I tried to get our suitcases a deafening cacophony of irate Asians trying to deplane first (like 14 rows behind me) got me so flustered I just gave up. “How do you say rude assholes?” I asked Paul. Overhearing us, an Italian businessman quipped, “in Chinese.”

Surviving the deplaning, we made it to our hotel. Easily the worst hotel of our trip, the room wasn’t ready, the attendants weren’t helpful, and so we made our way to the streets to explore the Monti neighborhood. We were about 3 minutes from the Colosseum it was crazy seeing ruins in your backyard! We found a tiny coffee shop and had some lackluster Nutella pastry and a cannoli. I expected a lot more from that cannoli, let me tell you. 

We returned to the room and slept for a few hours. Waking up, we ventured to the Pantheon, stopping for pizza along the way. 

We also made our way to the Piazza Navonna and reveled in the beauty of the landscape, even though it was ass to elbow with other tourists (a recurring theme of the trip). 

Still a bit peckish, we went to Supplizio for the Roman version of arrincini called suppli. Paul loved the carbonara and I preferred the cacio e pepe.

We ambled through some tiny streets, dodging cars and Vespas and people. landing eventually at a small cafe for Prosecco and our new favorite drink, the Aperol Spritz. 
We headed back to the Panthenon, as it was less crowded a bit later in the evening. 

We finished the day with one of the most epic meals of the trip at Armando Al Pantheon. The waiter recommended a delicious red wine from the region and we enjoyed it alongside the best buffalo mozzarella and tomato bruschetta. Paul had the carbonara which had the most intense egg flavor. I had the pasta alla amatriciana. For secondi, I had the veal saltimbocca and Paul had a chicken and peppers dish. We raved about this meal for the entirety of the trip and can’t  wait to return some day! 

Paris, France Day 2

Day 2 in Paris dawned clear and sunny, despite many dire forecasts. <!-more-> &nbsp

Our day began with a Secret Food Tour of the Montmartre area. Our guide, PJ, was a character. Clad in a leather biker vest, he was funny, a touch bawdy, and very knowledgeable about French food, wine, and culture. We began at a local boulangerie, watching the bread being put into the oven.  The tour structure was quite clever—mimic the Parisian buying habits (grab bread here, meat there, cheese here and then bring them back and sit down for a meal together).  The meal took place at a restaurant right near where Edith Piaf used to sing.


After our walk, we settled down to a hefty tasting meal. PJ purchased three kinds of baguettes—regular, whole wheat, and corn—and they served as handy vessels for the parade of meat and cheese to come. The corn was the real revelation—a little sweet, a little savory, and a whole lot delicious.


We began with a trippel creme cheese with truffles. Soft cheeses aren’t usually our jam, but the earthiness from the truffles really helped it go down a treat. It was followed by a goat cheese in ash and a hard goat cheese. The soft one was too funky for us, but the hard one was a favorite of Paul’s.


Next, we came the meats. Salame, meat from the neck that tasted like andouille, and actual andouille made from intestines and stomach that tasted like tiny ribbons of chewy fat (not my fav).


Up next were the terrines. Duck and rabbit, both delicious, and head cheese.


The strong cheeses rounded out the savory portion of the meal—Comte and Roquefort.


Finally, we rose and walked off some of the goodies we’d just consumed. We went to this amazing macaron and chocolate shop run by two Korean bakers/chocolatiers. We had honey, fig (only French bakery to have real fruit filling put in the macaron), chocolate, and coffee.


Paul’s life was changed by the sea salt and caramel chocolate. 

Next, we had some choupetts. Delicious light pastries with a tiny crunch stuffed with whipped cream. We both agreed we would have enjoyed it even more without the cream.


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The tour ended with crepes from a little hole-in-the-wall crepe shop. We chose the lemon, butter, and sugar which was good, but definitely not the best thing on the menu. That comes later…..

Stuffed full of decadent Parisian treats, we made our way to the Arc de Triomphe, Champs Elysee, and the Eiffel Tower. We had tried to see them the day prior, but I experienced one of my mini freak-outs at the subway map and spent so long staring at it, like it was in Greek, that we missed our window and had to hustle to the wine tasting.  I saw many beautiful things on this trip, but Arc de Triomphe monument really blew me away. Not sure why, but it made me a little teary.


Paul then suggested heading to the Place de Voge area for a glass of wine. We wandered around the area a bit, seeing Victor Hugo’s house and the Place de Bastille. The Place de Bastille was slightly spoiled by the Nokia advertisement wrapped around it (nothing says liberte, egalite, and fraternite like rampant commercialism)!


We wandered around the St. Paul/Marais district before making our way back to Montmartre and the Sacre Couer. We took the funicular up to the Sacre Couer and when we tried to get back down, some people had messed up the machines so they could sell illegal tickets. Not cool, folks, not cool.

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We had a kind of lackluster dinner of escargot (pretty solid), rump steak, croque madame, and a Cote du Provence rose. We remained hungry and went in search of the hole-in-the-wall crepe stand again. And, boy, are we so glad we did. Not only were the ham and cheese crepe and the nutella crepe the best bites we had in Paris, they were right up there with some of the best food of the entire trip.

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Look at those looks of pure joy, folks. Pure, crazy joy.