2018 Europe Trip: Venice

(This is part 7 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

By now, the routine of leaving Milan and boarding a train was old hat. I can’t say enough about how much we appreciated having this home base (thanks, Sara!). If you can arrange your international travels so you have a friendly home to return to occasionally, definitely do it.

We stumbled through the intermittent rain showers, hopped the train to Milano Centrale, and then boarded the 2-and-a-half hour train to Venice.

We had only one night in Venice (which meant we could get away with just backpacks!) and we planned to make the most of it. (Including, of course, morning gelato at the train station in Venice.)

We started by taking the Vaporetto (water taxi, really more like water bus) from the train station around the island to the Arsenal stop.

Then we backtracked on foot, exploring as we went. We had a delicious lunch at a crepe place I found on Tripadvisor and then headed for St. Mark’s to see the main touristy sights.

Unfortunately, the rain really started to come down, which interfered a little with our outdoor exploration vibe, but we did the best we could.  We bought cheap umbrellas (that began breaking the moment we opened them, but they only needed to last a few hours), and when it got really heavy we went into stores, or under other cover.

But let me say this — Venice is magical. People say it, and you nod, but trust me, it is. It’s unique, it’s beautiful, it’s romantic and amazing.

Yes, it’s crowded during the day, but as night falls and the day-trippers leave, the beauty really comes out as it gets quieter. We, of course, did the gondola ride — you can’t come all the way to Venice and not do it. It wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it.

We went into every little shop that caught our eye. We bought souvenirs and sweets, and picked up some cookies from a tiny bakery in a residential neighborhood where nobody spoke English (those were great cookies). We had dinner near our hotel, dining outdoors on a street loaded with passers-by.

It was bitter-sweet. We knew our trip was almost over, and here was such a magical place. It was hard to know we were only staying one night.

The next day we rose early and took another Vaporetto ride, this time with a practically empty boat, meaning we got to sit on the back in the open area. We ooh’d and ahh’d at every building, and soaked in the hot morning sun.

We dropped some of our bags at the train station and spent the remainder of our day there wandering Venice by foot, exploring and shopping and drinking espresso and eating gelato and basically doing what we’d done in every place in Italy, trying to suck every last minute out of the trip.

We had a somewhat fancy lunch at a place with great atmosphere (though I felt the Tripadvisor reviews were probably artificially inflated by the amount of free grappa and limoncello they gave out after the meal).

And then it was time to head back to Milan. We had one last evening in Italy and we had plans to really enjoy it — we wanted to revisit the parks and walks we did on our first day with our new, more traveled eyes. But the weather had other plans as more rain rolled in. We didn’t have the enthusiasm to walk hours in the pouring rain.

Instead, we got a restaurant recommendation from one of Sara’s friends, and ended up having the best meal of our trip. Every bite of food was perfect, and the service was out of this world. We had a delicious Bistecca Alla Fiorentina, this massive T-bone steak seared on both sides and nearly raw inside, seasoned with rosemary, salt, and pepper. Every bite had a mix of the tender rare inside and the seared outside. It was carnivore perfection. (The picture below the meat shows what they give you when you have a ten-year-old and don’t order dessert!)

We walked back, and had one last late-night gelato, hand-in-hand-in-hand, soaking in the beauty of Milan, knowing we’d be home the next day. It had been a long trip, but while parts of us were ready to be home, parts of us were dreading the return to a normal life, normal obligations, normal everything.

Our trip home was smooth — trains, planes, and a car ride home from New York (thanks again, Uncle Joe!). We were exhausted by the time we got there, but it was done. Our first meal back in the States? McDonald’s. Not for any reason, it was just what they had open at the rest stop. I’ll admit it — it was nice to have something familiar. But … I’m still daydreaming about those Italian meals. A few weeks after we came back, I made a rich meat sauce, bought some fresh pasta, and had a couple glasses of Chianti with dinner. It was nice, but it wasn’t the same.

And don’t even get me started on the coffee.

2018 Europe Trip: Wengen, Switzerland

(This is part 6 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

Thanks to cousin Sara, we spent the night in Milan free of charge, other than the cost of a fancy burger at a fancy burger joint (which came with the added bonus of people-watching on Corso Garibaldi, a treat in of itself). And, we were able to do all our laundry and completely shift our luggage around to reflect the next few days in Switzerland. The weather forecast was all over the place — low 70s to low 60s, with possibilities of rain at all times. Adjusting for uncertainty, knowing we’d be in the mountains, we kind of had to pack for everything. Still, it was nice to know we were only packing for two nights. We’d be back in Milan before we knew it (and our trip would be almost over, which we were trying not to think too much about).

We were up early and off to the Milano Centrale, for a five-stop, four and a half-hour journey from Milan, through the Alps, leading us to the mountain village of Wengen.  It had taken a lot of research about Switzerland to decide on where to stay — we wanted a quiet alpine village, and while there were plenty to choose from, Wengen had stood out when I was planning.

The train trip was mostly uneventful — the culture shock was real, though. In Italy, everything is written in Italian and English. In Switzerland, everything is written in German and French (and maybe Italian, if you’re near Italy).

So, navigating the train stations was trickier, and we had lots of changes to deal with. That, and the currency was different — Switzerland isn’t on the Euro. Finally, we lost access to the wi-fi hotspot, now that we were outside Italy’s 3G network. That said, everyone we met was wonderful, and we had no more trouble with finding folks who could help us out in English than we did back in Italy.

What wasn’t uneventful was the change in scenery. Heading into the Alps was something amazing; we kept craning our necks to see more and more amazing views, the deeper into Switzerland we got.

By the time we got to Lauterbrunnen, we were in full-on awe.  I mean, how could we not be?  Every few minutes we were going past a postcard made real.

I love the mountains; I’ve always loved the hills of western MA (I proposed to my wife atop modest Mt. Tom), the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. The Rockies, of course, captured my heart when we traveled to South Dakota and in 2002. But nothing had prepared me for the magic of the Swiss Alps.

The final leg of our trip, from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen, was on a cog railway. The train seats were old-school, wooden benches with thin cushions.

The windows were open to maximize the views and the fresh mountain air.

We slowly climbed the meandering, steep track, through these little alpine villages up to Wengen.

We passed fields full of wildflowers, tiny little waterfalls (some, not so tiny), cows and sheep, snow-covered peaks in the distance. Butterflies flew in one window of the train car and out the other. We passed through little tunnels.  It was unreal.

As I write this, I’m still in awe that I was able to be there.

We got off the train and stood rooted to the ground. It felt alien to us: the mountain peaks, the beautiful cow pastures, the clouds which felt like they were right above us. The train took off (continuing higher up the mountain) and we couldn’t stop smiling. The night before we had dinner in the high-fashion high-speed city of Milan. And now, we were about as far as you can imagine from that feeling.

Wengen itself is a small ski village, with no cars. You can explore the whole place on foot in a few hours (and we did, because we had time to kill before our hotel would let us check in). The center of town had a slack line and a playground, and Evie had a blast playing in the warm mountain air. We had a simple lunch of deli sandwiches from the bakery, not because we specifically wanted that, but because many lunch places weren’t open, and those that were seemed to be very expensive.

Wengen is a very family-friendly place, overall. It was a pleasant change from the cities of Italy to be surrounded by families on foot, young people playing tennis, little kids out for bike rides. Everywhere we looked, we were reminded of where we were, high in the mountains.

A gondola ride up to the peak of Mt. Mannlichen was in the center of town, and we took the trip up there (opting to pay extra to ride atop the gondola — quite an experience since I’m not super-comfortable with heights) as we watched clouds start to roll in.

We walked to the peak, took pictures, checked out the snow (yes, snow, in July) and continued to feel in absolute awe of our surroundings.

There were fields of wildflowers, too, quite a contrast to the snow.

Then, of course, the raindrops started splattering and the thunder started echoing off the surrounding mountains. We took the gondola back to town.

Dinner that night was simple, fairly unimpressive food in our hotel. It cost way more than you’d expect — Switzerland is expensive.

As the rain continued, we settled into the comfortable and spacious hotel room, leaving the windows open to hear distant thunder rumbles, and read, listening to the rain punctuated occasionally by the cheering sound of soccer fans watching the World Cup across the street.

The next day we explored the village and surrounding area on foot, taking a nice gentle hike along wide trails.  It was a perfect day of relaxation in the majesty of the mountains.

We admired views of a distant waterfall, said hello to people gardening in their yards (in homes that you would need to walk to, from town, since there are no cars), watched cows and sheep grazing in the fields, and generally fell in love with the Alps.

Evie thrived on the amount of independence we felt comfortable giving her in this wide-open space.

We also explored the shops in Wengen itself, and picked up some souvenirs. I’m used to tourist towns having jacked up prices, but Wengen takes the cake — maybe you forgot your boots and you have a big hike planned? Well, here’s a nice $380 pair. That sweatshirt is cute, and it’s “only” $120. We also just relaxed in the great outdoors — played in the playground, played a game of chess on a giant outdoor chess board, had a picnic lunch on the picnic table in the center of town.

Dinner that night was at a somewhat reasonable restaurant (Italian food, because, you now, we hadn’t had enough of that!), and another quiet night in the hotel room.

We loved our time in Wengen — we loved the hotel, with its heated indoor pool and spacious rooms. We loved the surroundings. We loved the overall feel of the place. I can imagine spending a week there, hiking a few hours every day in different directions and admiring all the spectacular scenery. But the money is no joke. Everything costs more than you’d expect, and at least where the food is concerned, the quality isn’t necessarily in line with the expense. As a beer nut, I was disappointed in the lack of variety too — Switzerland has more breweries per capita than anybody in the world, but at least everywhere I went, they all offered the same pale lagers.

We had given ourselves plenty of time to explore on our trip back to Milan the next day.

We spent a few hours in Interlaken but didn’t love the feel there. It was too touristy, too artificial (though it had some beautiful moments too).

I managed the trains suboptimally, too, and we ended up with over an hour to kill in the not-too-exciting train station at Spiez (though the below view was worth stopping to enjoy).

Finally, we had our only real train delay, meaning we ended up getting back to the Milan train station at 10:20 PM, and back at Sara’s even later. We unpacked, ate a very late dinner of scrounged-together snack food, and re-packed for our early morning departure. One more destination awaited us.

2018 Europe Trip: Florence

(This is part 5 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

We departed Orvieto via train for Florence in the early afternoon, about a two-and-a-half hour trip. The rural countryside slowly evolved into the city sprawl around Florence, and we changed trains outside town at the Rifredi rail station before arriving at the Santa Maria Novella station. We were seasoned travelers at this point, navigating the changing trains without much stress at all, though we did see the only real sketchy behavior of our trip out of an obviously drunk guy on a nearby platform who kept hitting a vending machine trying to get food to fall out of it.  Train stations attract a certain type of individual, even in exotic Firenze.

Now, I’m going to be honest here: I was prepared to be underwhelmed by Florence. We are not big art fans, and we were not going to visit the Uffizi or the Galleria. But multiple people whose opinions I strongly trust said Florence was amazing, and it had the advantage of being close to Pisa, which Evie was dead-set on visiting. And, I’m so grateful that we took their advice. Florence really came to us at the perfect time; we had our city skills and senses honed by Rome, and we were fully relaxed from our time in Orvieto.

It helped that we ended up in a great hotel — the Hotel David, on the opposite side of the Arno River from the busy downtown. They’re a small, family-run business, and deserve every one of their 2600+ five-star reviews on TripAdvisor. We felt welcomed at every turn, and enjoyed the generous breakfasts and happy hours, included in the nightly room rate. If you find yourself in Florence, tell them “David” sent you!

Our first night in Florence, we stayed close to the hotel, instead of venturing into the city proper. We enjoyed the appertivo (happy hour, basically) at the hotel, with wine, beer, and snacks outdoors with other guests.

The hotel was small enough that we felt comfortable leaving Evie in the room (where she could chat with her friends over the free wifi) while we sat outside reflecting on our journey and planning ahead. We did this both nights and it was part of what made the hotel great.

That night we had dinner at a place recommended by TripAdvisor, a “concept restaurant” in the back of a clothing store.The menu was even printed on a shirt!

My food was good, but Jess’s was amazing — especially her appetizer: toasted bread slices with pistachio, honey, Gorgonzola cheese, and celery. A strange combination, but she still talks about it.

Walking back to our hotel, we saw the sun setting over the Arno River and had to stop at a bridge and stare. It felt magical, and I couldn’t want to get across that river the next day and explore everything.

Florence felt completely different from Rome. Rome is sprawling and massive and full of surprises. In Florence, it felt like we always had the context of either the River or the Duomo at all times; it’s compact and beautiful, and absolutely manageable on foot (although we did take a shuttle bus from our hotel into the city each day, it would have been walkable).

We started our day of exploration at Ponte Vecchio, and took everything as it came. We had no set agenda — we visited gelato places recommended by the waiter at the hotel, Jess shopped for a pocketbook, we stood around in awe at plazas full of statues, we walked around the Duomo and admired it from all angles. We had a delicious lunch at a little sandwich place, made with local meats and spreads you wouldn’t find back home.

We also visited a museum in Florence — but not really a traditional one. The Leonardo da Vinci museum is dedicated to replicas of his inventions or concepts, many of which you can manipulate to see how they work. It’s a very hands-on experience and I highly recommend it for families (or anyone who is into engineering and “how things work” type exhibits). If you’re more interested in his art, however, I think there are probably better museums to explore.

We capped off our day of exploration, sightseeing, and shopping at the Piazzale Michelangelo, overlooking the city of Florence as the sun slowly sank to the horizon. This was an incredible experience, one of the coolest city views I’ve ever seen, surrounded by the awesome vibe of a crowd of people all in collective awe.

There were people playing music, vendors selling snacks, beer, and wine — people camped out spots on the stairs hours in advance, opening bottles of wine and picnic basket dinners. It was something you can’t really see in the states.

Our dinner was at the bottom of the hill, at a cozy little restaurant in a residential neighborhood.

Walking there was a treat in itself, winding down the hill from the Piazzale, pausing at various spots to admire the views. This was more or less the end of our time in Florence; one full day, with a night before and after. I wish we could have stayed longer — one problem with a trip like this is that you never really get a feel for the flow of a place, and I would have loved to get into the flow of Firenze.

The next day we took the train to Pisa in the morning, on what was the hottest day of the trip. When we first started planning the trip, Evie asked for two things: the Eiffel Tower, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We didn’t make it to France, but we could do Pisa.

We visited the famous leaning tower, took the requisite pictures, and shopped for souvenirs.

I know Pisa has more to offer than just the tower, but we weren’t there for long enough to explore it. It is a beautiful tower, with or without the lean!

We made it back to Florence in time to meet up with some friends who happened to also be traveling through Italy at the same time (we had hoped our paths would overlap, and they did, by a couple hours). We spent some time chatting at the train station before grabbing a quick lunch and boarding a train back to Milan … and from there, to a whole new country. Switzerland awaited!

2018 Europe Trip: Orvieto

(This is part 4 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

The train trip from Rome to Orvieto was only about an hour, but it felt like moving from one world to another. The train station in Orvieto is tiny; you’re standing outside looking across the tracks at green grass, instead of a massive city station with twenty platforms.

It took us a moment to find our way to the car rental place, but it wasn’t long until our bags were in the trunk and we were on our way out of the town of Orvieto and into the outlying countryside, to a 17th-century farmhouse which was completely renovated a few decades ago and is now known as the Agriturismo Antica Olivaia.

I’ll call it a B&B, for simplicity’s sake, but an Agriturismo is an Italian concept where innkeepers on a working farm, vineyard, or other agricultural property derive some (perhaps even most) of their income from tourists, rather than the normal commercial purpose of the property. In this case, the farm is still a working olive grove, but I suspect they do more business with overnight Bed and Breakfast guests than they do making olive oil.

The B&B was a short drive outside the town of Orvieto, but I had never driven in Italy. To make things even more exciting, I had rented a car with a manual transmission. I’ve owned several manual transmission cars and wasn’t worried about it, but it did make the drive on the unknown roads reading Italian signs a bit more interesting. We quickly turned off the main roads and found ourselves on a narrow, winding road through a hilly rural countryside where tall grasses obscured our vision of what might be around the next corner.

We were slightly nervous, since all we had for directions were printed from the B&B’s website. But the directions were perfect, and within half an hour we were pulling up to the gates of a beautiful farm estate.

It’s not really possible for me to overstate how awestruck we were with where we were staying. The views in every direction were amazing.

In the distance, the hilltop city of Orvieto was easily visible. Between us and that, however, were miles of open space. In every direction there were beautiful fields, lines of trees, and stereotypical Tuscan views (the B&B is actually near the connection between Umbria and Tuscany). It was silent — no cars, no trains, no honking horns or police sirens. Just birds and insects in the trees. Even remembering it now, I feel my stress level fall.

And once we got inside, it was even more amazing — as wonderful a B&B as I’ve stayed at across all our years of travel. It wasn’t a cheap place, but we’ve paid more for worse places.

The personal connection with the innkeepers and fellow travelers is one of the key benefits of staying in a place like this. We had a nice chat with our hosts, who correctly read our mood (after a day of travel, we wanted an informal dinner close by, as opposed to a formal dinner a longer drive away) and recommended a pizza place in the residential area of a nearby small town. They called ahead and got us a table outside for soon after they opened for dinner (remember, Italian meal schedules are time-shifted from what we’re used to). We loved the mood of the place, and had fun negotiating the menu with our waiter who spoke almost no English.

Everything was tasty, and halfway through our meal we saw a police officer redirecting traffic (not that there was much) to make way for a small, somber procession through the town. It was clearly religious in nature, with priests and kids in robes holding candles. We learned later it was (if we understood correctly) a march in honor of the town’s patron saint. It was a reminder of just how far we were from home.

We returned to the B&B after night had fallen, and if anything it was even more amazing in the early evening.

The city lights of nearby Orvieto sparkled in the distance, but around us was dark and silent, except for the summer-night noises of insects in the trees and fox kits barking in the fields. It was almost impossible to imagine that a few hours before, we had been in the bustle of Rome. It was magical.

The next day we had a delicious breakfast with our fellow guests, and then a pasta-making lesson in the kitchen with the innkeeper.

We swam in the pool, played with the dog, and Evie made friends with the other kids who were visiting.

After the relaxing morning we made our way up to the old medieval town of Orvieto, which was magical in a completely different way — we took the funicular up the steep hillside and explored the entire town on foot (the photo below is of downtown Orvieto, with the hilltop town above it).

We walked through a park and admired the views of the same valley we had admired from the other side at our B&B.

We admired the strangely striped Duomo, with the incredible detail on its front.

We had a light lunch at a hole-in-the-wall place. We explored narrow alleyways that probably haven’t changed in a few hundred years.

Unlike Rome (and later, Florence and Venice), there were no crowds here. Yes, there were other tourists, but the crowds and the sort of city behaviors that come with crowds (pushy vendors, panhandlers, tour guides shouting to be heard) were completely absent. While Orvieto proper was very small, I could see how people could find themselves wanting to stay there a few days, like a small seaside town that rewards a full exploration.

Back at our B&B we had a homemade dinner which was simple but delicious, including the pasta we had made in the morning’s cooking class.  There was a full house, and we drank bottles of wine with dinner, then sipped homemade aperitifs afterward with exotic flavors like rosemary and anise.  Then, we watched one of the most amazing sunsets I’ve ever seen.

We conversed late into the evening with our fellow guests, trading stories, rolling our eyes at some and becoming strongly invested with others.  Evie and her friends from earlier ran off and did their own thing while the adults stayed at the table and conversed with the innkeepers.

It was bittersweet, because this place is the kind of place we usually seek out when we travel — quiet, beautiful, with great hospitality. I can easily see how someone could settle into this beautiful place for a week, exploring the countryside, coming back to swim and nap in the hammock in the garden, then seeking out little local treasures for dinner.

But that wasn’t the kind of trip we were taking — we had much more to do. So, we went to bed, knowing the next day would bring another massive change of scenery.  The next morning we took it easy, swimming in the pool and letting the lazy summer sun and quiet country noises relax us.  Around lunchtime, though, it was time to depart again — back to downtown Orvieto, back to the train, and on to Florence.

2018 Europe Trip: Rome

(This is part 3 of a series of posts about our Summer 2018 trip to Europe. The series starts here.)

The high speed train from Milan to Rome took three hours, roughly 9 AM to noon. On this trip, I grew to enjoy the rail connections we took. In almost every case, we had a group of four seats to ourselves. It was a chance to decompress, rest, read, and write. We could absorb whatever we had done already and begin plotting what we would do next. With plenty of space at our seats, room to move around, and hardly any stress at departure or arrival, it was sort of the opposite of air travel. I’m jealous of the rail system they have in Europe. It totally changes the travel equation.

Our hotel in Rome was a Bed & Breakfast in the Monti neighborhood. We chose it because it was walking distance to most of the attractions we wanted to see, convenient to the train station, and was a spacious room for three with a balcony overlooking an interior courtyard for a very reasonable price.

We had some speed bumps getting to the B&B — our walking directions from the train station ignored the easy, direct route, and tried to save us a couple minutes by sending us over winding cobblestone streets which I’m sure were charming but which made for a bit of a struggle pulling our luggage (compact though it was). When we got to the B&B, we had to phone the innkeeper and get the codes for the electronic door (this was our only interaction with the innkeeper — a very different B&B experience than we were used to back home), which took a bit of time and had us a bit worried, but turned out fine.

Once inside, we dropped off our bags and headed out to explore Rome (no particular destination in mind, just pick a road and start walking) and find some lunch.  Somehow we were surprised by the palm trees; they definitely added to the overall feel of the place.

It rained on and off and we took occasional shelter under trees and overhangs (because we hadn’t bothered to take the umbrellas provided for us by our innkeeper — oops). We felt a little giddy, to be honest, alone in the massive city that was Rome, able to do whatever we wanted and having no particular destination in mind. We wandered more or less aimlessly, picking random directions at intersections and keeping half an eye open for lunch.

We stumbled into a little cafe along a main road where an English-speaking woman behind the counter helped us navigate the somewhat confusing menu (pick from these refrigerated already-prepared meals, which they’ll heat up for you and bring to your table, basically). We picked out some food, and settled in to eat it, watching out the large window as people walked by in the rain. On a giant TV on one wall, a selection of Madonna music videos played. I have no idea why, and it added to the feeling of cultural difference by giving us something familiar and yet out-of-place.

We continued our wanderings (picking up gelato, which you can assume happened multiple times every day, even if I don’t mention it) and ended up back at the B&B for a late-afternoon rest. This would actually turn into a recurring pattern on our trip — by taking a little break before dinner, we made sure we were ready for the later evenings in Italy. Nobody was overtired or overwhelmed, Evie could text her friends back home, and we could assess our evening plans together.

With umbrellas in hand this time, we headed back out and threw the customary coins into Trevi Fountain. I expected it to be a mobbed tourist scene, and it was packed with people, but it still felt magical and beautiful.

Even as crowded as it was, we could slip off to the side and admire the fountain while people vied for prime picture-taking spots at the front. In its own way, the fountain was peaceful and calming, even in the midst of the chaos of the tourist mob.

We went from there to the Spanish Steps, and had a similar experience.

We got “suckered” into buying roses from one of the many folks working the crowd, but while I’m sure we overpaid for them (and tossed them in the trash shortly afterward) they made great photo props and I don’t regret it.

Rome is an amazing city, massive yet full of art and life. The main roads are chaotic and loud, full of cars and scooters and ambulances and police, but the side streets are often empty and silent, many pedestrian-only and paved with ancient cobblestone.

As we walked, we would round a corner and stumble onto an old fountain, or an obelisk, a statue, or a church older than our country.

This is a city steeped in history the likes of which we can only imagine in the US, and yet has all the hustle of a modern national capital.

We had dinner at a fairly nondescript place near our hotel, and slept well in our quiet B&B room (we had not yet met another person there).

At breakfast we finally met the housekeeper, a wonderfully charming woman who spoke almost no English (to match our almost no Italian) but was quite hospitable and friendly nonetheless. From there we walked to the Colosseum for our four-hour tour. It was the only tour we had booked in advance, and covered the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum.

I apologize for the abundance of pictures from this tour; trust me, I could have posted more.

The sun was beating down on us, but we were well hydrated. We walked all around, over, and through the ruins, receiving an excellent education by a local guide.

This was a big splurge for us and it was well worth it (even if somehow, we forgot it was a four-hour tour at 10 AM which meant Evie was getting hangry right when the tour peaked).

We paid extra for a tour that went underground in the Colosseum; I’m glad we did, but for me personally, the Colosseum was less amazing than Palatine Hill and the Forum.

The sense of history, of these peoples from around this region who picked this spot to settle, put aside their differences, and build a city that helped define Western civilization for thousands of years, is something incredible.

Match that with the incredible views, the impressive umbrella pines, the summertime smells of wildflowers; I could have spent the whole day outdoors at these ruins.

After the tour we had a late lunch at a hamburger/pizza place and then got some rest back at our B&B before going for an early evening walk.

We ended up at the Fountain of the Naiads, a spectacular sight not far from the train station.

We wandered more, and ended up having a somewhat ordinary dinner sitting outside at a restaurant with a view of the Colosseum. I wish we had spent more energy finding good food in Rome. Every meal we ate was fine, but I know there’s excellent food to be had in Rome, and we didn’t really find it. That said, we enjoyed eating outdoors and watching the city.

We had time to kill the next morning before our train left, so we took another walk in a new direction.

We visited Piazza Navona and had some more of that quintessential postcard Rome experience.

We visited a cat shelter we had learned about online, where (some of) the city’s famous population of stray cats is taken in, spayed or neutered, and given medical care before either being adopted out or simply given a good place to live out their remaining days.

We also walked past the Pantheon but didn’t go in; the crowds were getting massive at this point.

Our tour guide the day prior had suggested it might be this way due to cruise ship crowds — from all I’ve read and seen, cruise ships have really changed the character of tourism in Italy (everywhere, really, I’m sure). And it’s not just cruise ships. In general, as the economies of the world develop and their borders open up, people want to see the world. With the Internet, there are fewer “best kept secrets.” Crowds are a fact of life, and finding ways to savor the real flavor of a place becomes a new challenge.

I can’t possibly write about everything we saw or felt in Rome. It’s a massive city, with beautiful surprises around every corner. There’s a small population of wild parakeets near one building that we watched for a while, for example.There are drinking water fountains everywhere so you can refill your water bottle.

The official buildings of the city are immense works of art themselves. Statues, fountains, plazas, and views frequently make you pause and stare for no good reason.

It’s also a bustling European capital, with traffic, crowds, noisy streets and police-escorted motorcades right out of a Jason Bourne movie.

We were both enchanted and exhausted — and we didn’t even visit vast stretches of the city, including any of the Vatican.

Our time in Rome was at an end, though. We had lunch on our way to the train station, and boarded an afternoon train to Orvieto, where we would experience a complete context change.