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porcupine Rome - A travel report by Bryan
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Rome,  Italy - flag Italy -  Lazio
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porcupine's travel reports

Christmas In Italy

  17 votes
In December 2005, I arrived in Italy for a 4 week stay that took me through Christmas in Siena and New Year’s Eve in Sorrento. All tolled, I visited 10 destinations during my month long misadventure as described in the following excerpts.

Illusionistic ceiling of Sant'Ignazio...yum..
Illusionistic ceiling of Sant'Ignazio...yum..
Flying into Rome, the half hour train ride from DaVinci airport to the city was fairly easy to access. Once you buy your ticket, make sure you stamp it in one of the little yellow boxes at the station. This validation/time clock system is true of all train tickets and I suppose it ensures that you will not use it again since the ticket is for the route and not necessarily for a departure time. The bus system is similar. Logistics aside, I couldn’t have been more excited for my first visit to this destination which has been a lifelong dream for me, as I’m sure it is for many.

The neighborhood near the train station is not very spectacular, but you can find a decent hotel there at a reasonable price. I stayed there on the way out, but upon arrival I wanted to stay near the ancient center so I walked from the station to the Pantheon. This is not advised. A bus (#64 to the Ancient Center) would be more efficient when carrying your bags, but I was determined to simply arrive and explore. My feet paid the price.

It may be best to pick a hotel from the Lonely Planet as there are not many signs on buildings that clearly reveal a hotel or hostel. Nevertheless, I found a beautiful place called Teatropace33 near Piazza Navona. At €90/night on the off season, I was indulging, but I was thankful it wasn’t June when the rate is doubled. For the same price, there is a hotel directly across from the Pantheon called the Abruzzi. The place itself is about half as charming as Teatropace33, but the view is unbeatable. If you stay anywhere in or near the ancient center, you will have easy access to most of what you might like to see in Rome, including the Vatican. The beautiful Piazza Navona with fountains by Bernini is a great place to find restaurants, shop, and mingle with other travelers, and it is probably the center of tourist activity in Rome.

Favourite spots:
Amusing add for an Italian maternity shop at Christmastime
Amusing add for an Italian maternity shop at Christmastime
When in Rome, be extra careful about crossing the street. Various mopeds and scooters will dart out of alleys that lead to piazzas so you can never be too careful. I found the best way to cross a big street was to put a Roman between myself and any oncoming traffic. So much has been said about Rome that I will leave out many details of my journey, in favor of sharing potentially overlooked gems. Near Piazza Navona, but hard to find is the Sant’ Ignazio Cathedral. It should be fairly devoid of visitors, and it offers a beautiful illusionistic renaissance ceiling by Andrea Pozzo, with requisite scenes of the hereafter. The Capitoline museum at the Forum with its vast collection of Roman statuary was a must for gaining a sense of ancient Rome. Otherwise the Pantheon is free and I must have walked in and out about 12 times during my visit.

What's really great:
The sustenance of pizza and wine.
The sustenance of pizza and wine.
My favorite part of Rome was simply walking the streets and consuming pizza, wine, and gelato, which I did almost daily. At €6 for a liter of good house wine versus €3 for a can of coke, the choice was clear, and Coke was not “it” .I also indulged in fresh orange juice which varied in price from €2 to €6 per glass. Not cheap, but ohh so good. Don’t waste your time with the Trevi Fountain or the Spanish Stairs. They are simply tourist traps that offer nothing but a clichéd photo opportunity. The train system in Italy is magnificent. Cheap, frequent, and on time, I traveled from Rome to Venice, points in between and back again for about €200. I departed Rome for Florence and stayed in one hotel that I will endorse called the Guida which was cheap and near San Lorenzo church. They were rennovating at the time, but should be done by now. Of course the Duomo is magnificent and I needn’t add to its reputation. If you have the stamina, climb the dome for the best view of Florence you can get.

Tomb of Michelangelo at Santa Croce in Florence
Tomb of Michelangelo at Santa Croce in Florence
In case you haven't noticed, I am simply writing a story here and ignoring the prefab topics. It's so limiting. On with the show.

If you want to see the real statue of David, go to the Galleria Dell’Academia. A church on the north side of town called Santa Croce has the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli among others if you’re interested in such things. The San Marco monastery where Savonarola spent his monastic life, is worth exploring to see monk cells that serve as miniature galleries, each with a different rendering of the crucifixion. On the east side of the Arno river, there is a small café called Hemingway, which if you can find it, has the best cup of hot chocolate in town as endorsed by my former girlfriend who lives there, and I will concur. This is literally a cup of melted chocolate with cream. I vote for the one with peperoncino. Michelangelo Park on the east side also has a great view of Florence if you can't or don't want to climb the Duomo.

Climb the Duomo in Florence. It's worth the walk.
Climb the Duomo in Florence. It's worth the walk.
From Florence, I took day trips to Siena, Pisa, and Assisi, all of which can be conquered in a few hours. Nearby San Gimignano is also highly recommended for its many medieval towers, though I never made it. Pisa of course has its leaning tower, and the street on the way there is all else you will need to see. Assisi is an immaculate cobble stoned hillside town where I chose to stay overnight, but it was not necessary for the sake of sightseeing. I simply felt like meditating and getting lost in the wilderness.

Of the aforementioned, Siena has the most to offer and is definitely worth an overnight. The fan shaped central Piazza del Campo is a medieval masterpiece, and if you are there in July, the Palio horse race must certainly be a magnificent spectacle, but I’m sure it will cost you much money and trouble. I enjoyed this small city on Christmas eve where I attended midnight mass at the enormous and magnificent Sienna Duomo.

I suppose you can just look at the Duomo from the ground too...
I suppose you can just look at the Duomo from the ground too...
If you find yourself in Italy in December, you will see many manger scenes called “Presepio”. I can honestly say that they were all very paltry, especially as compared to all the renaissance art of the same subject.

Up to Venice on a long train ride, the “Wizard of the Sea” is everything it is advertised to be. I would go so far as to say that Venice is the most unique and beautiful city in the world. Since no cars are allowed, much of the old charm is preserved. Really the whole place is a museum and I will simply share with you the potentially overlooked Scuola Grande di Rocco. With its gorgeous wood carvings, I can’t say I saw anything else like it in Venice.

Of course San Marco is a must see and if you are there in the off season like myself, you will have the luxury of not waiting in line. Next door to San Marco, the Palazzo Ducale is loaded with enormous wall and ceiling paintings. I've never seen such enormous rooms without pillars supporting the structure. Amazing.

Assisi. They've definitely fixed the place up since the time of St. Francis
Assisi. They've definitely fixed the place up since the time of St. Francis
The Foresteria Valdese where I stayed was exceptionally pleasing at €60/night, and you should reserve a room there before you arrive. It’s attractive, clean and near San Marco. I can only imagine how beautiful the city must be in February during carnival when everyone dons the white porcelain mask.

As far as navigating Venice, a map is helpful to spot the general location of a destination, but in the end the place is not that big, and getting lost in its maze is half the fun. Street signs point you in the direction of landmarks like San Marco or the Rialto Bridge, and this is more helpful than any map. Gondola rides ranged from €70 to €90 for a 45 minute ride, and I can only imagine the fee in the summer. Save your money and get some hand blown glass which is for sale everywhere, but I didn't see any Venetian blinds when I was in town.

The vertigo inducing town of Poisitano on the Amalfi coast
The vertigo inducing town of Poisitano on the Amalfi coast
For New Year’s Eve I decided to head towards Mt. Vesuvius and I made the mistake of considering Naples as a place to stay. The massive amount of homemade fireworks and garbage piles on the street was more than enough to convince me to head a little further south to Sorrento for the last night of ’05, and I couldn’t have chosen more wisely. Sorrento had its share of homemade fireworks which were going off all day and erupted like Vesuvius herself at midnight, but the clamor only made me all the more thankful that I departed Naples which hosts a reputed €3 million display, the biggest in Italy. If chaos and drunkenness is your scene, stay in Naples for New Year’s Eve. Otherwise, pick up the train known as the Circumvesuviana and head south.

Other recommendations:
Getting plastered in Pompeii
Getting plastered in Pompeii
Sorrento is a lovely orange and lemon treed coastal town that offers easy access to Poisitano and Pompeii, both of which I enjoyed thoroughly. I’m sure all these places are considerably more crowded in summer, but hey, it’s the Mediterranean coast, or more specifically, the Amalfi coast. I stayed at and recommend the Pensione Linda in Sorrento. The bus ride to Poisitano was a harrowing Hitchcock inspired ride of vertigo, and I enjoyed walking this Cliffside village that clings to the rocks like a stucco spider. Pompeii is just what you’d expect. Be sure to ask where the plaster body casts are located, it’s a big place.

Back to Rome for 3 more days until departure, I enjoyed my final days by strolling the area near the Vatican picking up various plastic gifts for Christmas. I managed not to gain any weight since I walked so much, and I look forward to my next visit which will focus more on the region south of Rome. What a friendly and beautiful country. Ciao Bella!

Published on Wednesday October 4th, 2006

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Tue, Oct 10 2006 - 10:42 AM rating by marianne

great report, informative and entertaining. You are so right about validating train tickets before boarding. We had to convince the guard that we did not know about this practice, he wanted to impose a hefty fine.

Mon, Oct 09 2006 - 04:06 PM rating by st.vincent

Great report Bryan, easy to read and a nice story with a bit of humour that works well.

Mon, Oct 09 2006 - 05:32 AM rating by mkrkiran


Thanks for such a great report. Your attention to detail and the narration makes it special.


Sun, Oct 08 2006 - 10:57 AM rating by eirissa

I like your report because it's very personal and well written. In August I saw the ceiling in Saint Ignazio but all my pictures of the ceiling were blurred:) So thanks for your photos and description:) Florence is great, isn't it? Best wishes:)

Thu, Oct 05 2006 - 12:36 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Very complete and useful report. 5 *

Thu, Oct 05 2006 - 08:35 AM rating by eirekay

Bryan, Great report! I enjoyed reading your "adventure" and I've always been a fan of Elton John.

Wed, Oct 04 2006 - 03:20 PM rating by mrscanada

Seeing the picture of getting plastered in Pompeii was so cute. Great report.

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