A statue of St. Paul at St. Peter's Basilica. Jesus is front and center atop the facade flanked by St. John the Baptist and St. James the Greater to the right and St. Andrew and St. John the Apostle to the left.
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Day 43: St. Peter’s Basilica

There’s a point on a long journey where travel fatigue subsides and changing cities, beds and cuisine becomes the norm. By day 43 of our European adventure, it would have been easy to just find another city, but unfortunately a pair of return tickets to Tokyo were dated for the following day.

We dotted our map with the last things we wanted to see and set out toward Testaccio again. However, we only made it a block before diverting back to Biscottificio Innocenti for another bag of cookies!

With cookies in hand (and mouth), we crossed the Tiber River and headed for the Pyramid of Cestius. After toppling Cleopatra’s Egyptian empire in 30 BC, Romans went crazy for all things Egyptian. The pyramid was built somewhere between between 18-12 BC as a tomb for politician Gaius Cestius. The walls, steeper than those found in Egyptian pyramids, are oft-cited as the source of the disproportioned depictions of pyramids in European art.

Nearby, the shopping-mall-sized Monte Testaccio appears to be nothing more than a tree-covered mound, but its real secret lies underneath. Located near the Tiber River, it was used as a state-run dumping ground for ceramic olive oil jugs during the Roman Empire. Archeologists have dated pieces back to 140-250 AD, but concede the site may have originated two centuries earlier.

From there, we took a bus across town to Vatican City. While we watched the Pope’s Wednesday address and toured the museum on our first visit, we weren’t able to make it inside St. Peter’s Basilica. To visit the world’s largest church, topped by the world’s largest dome, is to witness the opulence of the Holy Roman Empire at its peak.

Designed by Michelangelo and other leading Renaissance artists, the Basilica was built from 1506-1626 and is revered as much for its architecture as it is for its purpose. The regal marble and gold interior, as well as the 96-foot-tall bronze baldacchino canopying the alter were widely criticized at the time for being too over-the-top.

Large and imposing statues of former popes line the inner and outer nave. Just inside the doors, crowds gathered around the basilica’s most famous piece, Michelangelo’s Pietà. The sculpture of Jesus on his mother’s lap after the crucifixion is notable as the only piece the artist ever signed after it was claimed to be the work of another sculptor. Michelangelo’s name can be seen on the sash laying over Mary’s chest.

Heavy rain pummeled the area while we were inside, but finally started to let up as we found a local pizza place for lunch, followed by some unique gelato at Gelateria dei Gracchi. We continued east toward Piazza del Popolo, gateway to the famed gardens of Villa Borghese.

The 200-year-old Piazza del Popolo is still one of Rome’s most popular public squares. Located just inside the old city walls of the Roman Empire, it’s anchored by a piece of Egyptian history. An obelisk of Ramesses II was brought from the ancient Egyptian city of Heliopolis in 10 BC and installed in Circus Maximus, the former chariot racing stadium in the city center. It was moved to its current location as part of Rome’s 16th century urban expansion.

Behind the piazza, a zig-zagging road leads to the top of the Pincian Hill, home to several beautiful gardens, including the Villa Borghese. The sweeping views of the city from the top are absolutely magnificent. The large trees provided great cover for the passing rain showers, which in turn provided amazing light in contrast with the purple skies.

We wanted to cap off our trip with a nice dinner out. At the recommendation of our B&B host, we chose La Botticella in one of Trastevere’s back streets. The small hostaria is run by two sisters and has a homey feel about it.

Another couple entered shortly after us. In typical European fashion—despite the many empty tables—they were seated right next to us. They turned out to be visiting from Montana (not quite Cascadian, but close enough!) and as the wine flowed, we had a great time chatting with them.

However, the food quickly distracted us from the great company. It was one of those meals that should really be eaten in private due to the constant moans of satisfaction. We started with the traditional Roman fried artichoke. The ricotta and porcini ravioli special was delicious, but the spaghetti all’aglio, olio e peperoncino (garlic, olive oil and spicy peppers) had us ready to pack the chef away in our carry-on. We finished the meal with a heavenly strawberry tiramisu.

As we paid our bill, both sisters came to to say farewell. One carried a plastic bag with a bottle of the house red wine in it and handed it to Viktoria as a gift for International Women’s Day. Someday we’ll return to Rome and our first stop will be La Botticella!


Biscotti and amaretti cookies from Trastevere's Biscottificio Innocenti.

Biscotti and amaretti cookies from Trastevere’s Biscottificio Innocenti.


The 2000-year-old Pyramid of Cestius was built after Rome's conquest of Egypt.

The 2000-year-old Pyramid of Cestius was built after Rome’s conquest of Egypt.


Looking down the nave of St. Peter's Basilica toward the dome.

Looking down the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica toward the dome.


Inside St. Peter's Basilica, Michelangelo's Pietà shows the body of Jesus laid across his mother's lap following the crucifixion.

Inside St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s Pietà shows the body of Jesus laid across his mother’s lap following the crucifixion.


A flower truck parked near Via dei Gracchi on Rome's north side.

A flower truck parked near Via dei Gracchi on Rome’s north side.


Looking over the shoulder of the goddess of Rome at Piazza del Popolo.

Looking over the shoulder of the goddess of Rome at Piazza del Popolo.


Famous Italians are memorialized in 228 busts that fill the Pincian Hill Gardens near Villa Borgehese. The light after a hard, fast rain was beautiful!

Famous Italians are memorialized in 228 busts that fill the Pincian Hill Gardens near Villa Borgehese. The light after a hard, fast rain was beautiful!


Fontana Oscura (Dark Fountain) in Villa Borghese during a rain shower.

Fontana Oscura (Dark Fountain) in Villa Borghese during a rain shower.


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Flowers at the Campo de' Fiori market.
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Day 42: Pizza and Piazzas

It was around 5 a.m. when the constant trilling of the doorbell told me I was doomed to never sleep again. An early arriver to the B&B with no apparent concept of time or decorum kickstarted day 42 a couple hours earlier than expected. But when life gives you lemons at the crack of dawn in Rome, toss them aside and grab a double shot of espresso!

The early wake-up call gave us a head start on the rest of the tourists. Following a walking tour of Centro Storico’s public squares—or piazzas—we started at the Campo de’ Fiori market.

Italian for “Field of Flowers,” Rome’s oldest market has run daily since 1869. Thanks to its name, it’s commonly thought to be a flower market, but originally offered just fresh fish and produce. Today, locals come for groceries, gourmet cheese and even some fresh flowers (pictured above) while tourists are tempted by the carry-on-sized oils, vinegars, salts and more.

At the popular Piazza Navona, we hung a right into the less-touristy Piazza Sant’Eustachio, home to an 8th-century church of the same name. We quickly passed through Piazza della Rotonda, where the morning crowds began to gather at the Pantheon, and continued into the church courtyard of Piazza di Sant’Ignazio.

We joined the locals for a second round of coffee in Piazza di Pietra, named for the imposing ruins of the Temple of Hadrian, before finishing our walk at Piazza Colonna. A popular public square predating the Middle Ages, the Column of Marcus Aurelius dating to 193 A.D. is the main attraction.

We returned to Trastevere for lunch at Forno La Renella. The popular bakery draws hefty crowds for pizza at lunchtime, but is most famous for its breads. The shop’s oven has been pumping out classic Italian breads since 1870, cooked to perfection by a fire fueled by hazelnut shells. The nutty smell fills the streets and reportedly infiltrates the bread as well, but after a couple giant slices of pizza, it was impossible to confirm this personally.

We walked off our lunch a little bit, then set out on a mission to find another bakery we’d read about after leaving Rome the first time around. Biscottificio Innocenti is tucked away from Trastevere’s town center on a side street in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it storefront. Even more popular with locals than tourists, Innocenti pumps out piles of Rome’s best cookies on a 60-year-old conveyor belt oven that fills the center of the small shop.

Opened in 1920, the third-generation owner was delightfully cheerful and patient as we perused the two dozen options in the window display. She offered suggestions as she filled the bag with tasty treats. The shop’s most popular cookie is a hazelnut-flavored mound of goodness called brutti ma buoni, literally “ugly but good.”

While we sat on the single bench and sampled our bounty, the owner dropped a couple hot-off-the-belt almond cookies in our bag. Others came and went, clearly regulars who knew both the owner and the cookie selection well. Cookies = Love.

In the evening, we geared up for the crowds and headed back to Centro Storico to visit Trevi Fountain. We’d visited once before during the day, but the view at night is equally stunning. The floodlit facade and water illuminated from beneath make the fountain glow. We sat for awhile, appreciating the beauty while ignoring the selfie stick users and vendors. Finally, we tossed our coins in the fountain, thrown with the right hand over the left shoulder, to ensure a return to Rome in the future.


The statue of Giordano Bruno looks over the market in Campo de' Fiori.

The statue of Giordano Bruno looks over the market in Campo de’ Fiori.


A busy side street near Rome's famous Pantheon.

A busy side street leading to Piazza della Rotonda, home of Rome’s famous Pantheon.


The Pantheon

The Pantheon


The charming Piazza di Sant'Ignazio is the community center for Sant'Ignazio Church.

The charming Piazza di Sant’Ignazio is the community center for Sant’Ignazio Church.


A baker at Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti takes a sheet of cookies out of the conveyor belt oven.

A baker at Biscottificio Artigiano Innocenti takes a sheet of cookies out of the conveyor belt oven.


The popular Trevi Fountain at night.

The popular Trevi Fountain at night.


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Looking back toward Testaccio from the Ponte Testaccio bridge.
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Day 41: Rome Redux

There was a sense of relief when the overnight train from Vienna pulled into Rome’s Termini Station. For the first time on the trip, we knew exactly where to go. The same bus going to the same Trastevere bed and breakfast where the same host—the wonderful Danilo at BB Danilo—would be waiting for us. No orientation necessary meant we could just start enjoying the city.

We really loved Rome the first time around and wondered if it was just the thrill of a new city or the city itself. It didn’t take long to figure out it was the latter. We enjoyed a quick espresso with Danilo, then set out on the town.

Having checked out most of the major sights last time, we could focus on exploring some different parts of Rome this time, starting with the Porta Portese Flea Market along the Tiber River in Trastevere. Open every Sunday, the nearly mile-long market starts at the Ponte Sublicio bridge and runs down Via Portuense before spilling into the side streets at the Ponte Testaccio bridge.

The somewhat-chaotic market is great if you’re looking for cheap bags, clothing or knick knacks and the aggressive vendors are open to haggling. Chances are the products aren’t exactly what they claim (“Of course it’s made in Italy!”), but even if you don’t buy anything, it’s worth a trip just for the experience.

At the end of the market, we crossed the Ponte Testaccio bridge where several cars were parked in front of a dilapidating complex. We figured they were coming across the bridge for the flea market, but instead they were walking into the complex. Seemed prudent to see where they were going!

The rundown complex was a former location for the Peroni Brewery and a slaughterhouse built in the late 1800s. Vacant for two decades, the MACRO, Rome’s Museum of Contemporary Art, took over the grounds in 2000, sharing the space with the Sapienza University of Rome School of Architecture.

We followed the others through the grounds into a large courtyard on the other side where the Città dell’Altra Economia farmers market was in full swing. We’d found our people as vendors sold organic products, arts, crafts and food. Local artists sold their works from the trunks of their cars at the Car Boot Market. Café Boario was just starting to populate their mostly-vegetarian buffet, taking care of our lunch for the day.

After a little rest to recuperate from the lack of sleep on the train, we headed back into Trastevere’s old town. Trastevere is unique compared to Rome’s sightseeing center. While there are still tourists, there’s also a lot of locals, including a younger crowd of ex-pats thanks to the two American universities located in the neighborhood.

We had an early dinner followed by gelato at the popular Checco er Carettiere restaurant. The crowds at the cafes started to pick up as Roman dinnertime started around 8 p.m. We wandered the cobblestone streets, taking in the ambience, until the rain forced us to call it night.


The Porta Portese Flea Market in Trastevere.

The Porta Portese Flea Market in Trastevere.


Entering the mysterious Peroni Brewery/slaughterhouse complex...

Entering the mysterious Peroni Brewery/slaughterhouse complex…


... and the Citta dell’Altra Economia farmers market that emerged on the other side!

… and the Citta dell’Altra Economia farmers market that emerged on the other side!


The charming streets of Trastevere at night.

The charming streets of Trastevere at night.


More Photo of the Day posts from our January-March 2016 trip to Europe

One of Bologna's most distinctive features are the thousands of porticos, or arched walls, that fill the city, many of which were built in the Middle Ages. They're such a part of the city's personality that they're being considered for a UNESCO property listing. They give a character to the town that can't be found anywhere else.
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Day 9: The Streets of Bologna

We used our last full day in Italy exploring the city of Bologna. Most famous for its cuisine (see day 8), Bologna also has a dynamic history going back to 1000 B.C. It’s been a center of culture, architecture, art and music in Italy for centuries and, as home to the world’s oldest university, it’s steeped in academic tradition.

One of its most distinctive features are the thousands of porticos, or arched walls, that fill the city, many of which were built in the Middle Ages. They’re such a part of the city’s personality that they’re being considered for a UNESCO property listing. They give a character to the town that can’t be found anywhere else.


The Fountain of Neptune stands near the city's main public plaza, Piazza Maggiore. Completed in 1597, it was commissioned in honor of the election of Pope Pius IV. Luxury auto brand Maserati uses the statue's trident design in its company logo.

The Fountain of Neptune stands near the city’s main public plaza, Piazza Maggiore. Completed in 1597, it was commissioned in honor of the election of Pope Pius IV. Luxury auto brand Maserati uses the statue’s trident design in its company logo.


The basilica and clock tower of Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano near Bologna's iconic Due Torri (Two Towers).

The basilica and clock tower of Santi Bartolomeo e Gaetano near Bologna’s iconic Due Torri (Two Towers).


A little of everything Bologna... Asinelli Tower, the tallest of Bologna's iconic Two Towers, and the porticos lining the old streets.

A little of everything Bologna… Asinelli Tower, the tallest of Bologna’s iconic Two Towers, and the porticos lining the old streets.


A piazza in the center of the University of Bologna campus.

A piazza in the center of the University of Bologna campus.


Porticos surrounding the central piazza on the University of Bologna campus.

Porticos surrounding the central piazza on the University of Bologna campus.


The late afternoon sun finally broke through after two days of fog during our time in Bologna.

The late afternoon sun finally broke through after two days of fog during our time in Bologna.


Graffiti on storefronts near the University of Bologna campus.

Graffiti on storefronts near the University of Bologna campus.


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Day 8: Fat City

Travel days are often the worst part of traveling. They’re full of unexpected delays, bad food and mysterious sights, smells and sounds. The first half of day eight of our adventures around Europe became one of those travel days.

Fog delayed our train from Florence to Bologna by more than an hour. What should have been an easy 35 minute trip became a multi-hour ordeal. Being in Italy, we missed out on the bad food experience, killing 90 minutes in the train station cafe drinking espresso and enjoying Ortolano sandwiches from the deli. We scored seats on the train next to the lady who spent the whole trip talking on her phone while her fussy kids cried for attention.

But it can always be worse and our travel karma balanced out when we arrived in Bologna. Our B&B was wonderful and our host, Mario, gave us a perfect lunch recommendation nearby.

Ristorante da Bertino e Figli is exactly how we pictured a small Italian restaurant; several tables packed closely together, the walls plastered in framed photos and newspaper clippings. Everyone had wine with their lunch, the conversation growing more boisterous with each passing sip. Dogs accompanied their owners into the restaurant, laying quietly under the tables as if they’d been here before.

And the food… One of Bologna’s nicknames is “La Grassa,” or “Fat” thanks to its world-famous cuisine. Tortellini, lasagne and mortadella (Americans might be more familiar with Oscar Meyer’s version called bologna) all got their start here. We had gnocchi and spinach/ricotta-stuffed tortelloni, both smothered in tomato sauce. For dessert, almond cake and semifreddo al mascarpone.

Each bite was to be savored, exploring the textures and flavors as the layers melted away in our mouths. At the end of the meal, we were looking for someone to hug or somewhere to cry tears of joy from an unforgettable meal, the best so far in Italy.


The lobby of Ristorante da Bertino e Figli.

The lobby of Ristorante da Bertino e Figli.


Dessert of almond cake and semifreddo al mascarpone, better known as tiramisu.

Dessert of almond cake and semifreddo al mascarpone, better known as tiramisu.


Students walking around the Communications campus of the University of Bologna. The city also earned the nickname of "La Dotta," or "Eridite," for its long history of higher education. The University of Bologna is the world's oldest, dating back to 1088 and boasting alumni like Nicolaus Copernicus (who figured out the sun was the center of the solar system), author Dante Alighieri and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio.

Students walking around the Communications campus of the University of Bologna. The city also earned the nickname of “La Dotta,” or “Eridite,” for its long history of higher education. The University of Bologna is the world’s oldest, dating back to 1088 and boasting alumni like Nicolaus Copernicus (who figured out the sun was the center of the solar system), author Dante Alighieri and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio.


The corner supermarket by our B&B had a nice selection of local nuts, and these guys who were a long way from home! Yay for Oregon hazelnuts!

The corner supermarket by our B&B had a nice selection of local nuts, and these guys who were a long way from home! Yay for Oregon hazelnuts!


More Photo of the Day posts from our January-March 2016 trip to Europe

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
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Day 7: Leaning Tower of Pisa

There are just a handful of landmarks that are intertwined with the identity of a place. The Great Wall of China. The Statue of Liberty. The Eiffel Tower. And the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

On our last day in Florence, we took a day trip out to Pisa to see one of the world’s great architectural follies. Construction on the grand tower began in 1173, but stopped just a few years in as the first three tiers began to list. Pisa’s artisans started again 100 years later, but could never solidify the foundation, built atop soft sand and clay. To compensate for the lean, the builders created a subtle curve in the remaining tiers.

The tower continued to sink as the centuries passed. By the 1990s, it had a five degree lean and was in danger of collapsing. To bring the tower back to its original lean, workers excavated more than 70 tons of soil from the north side, effectively sinking it back to “level.” The solution is expected to preserve the structure for another 300 years.

In person, the lean of the tower is far more impressive than in photos. The flag atop the tower is perpendicular to the ground and the neighboring Baptistry (which leans 51 cm itself) provide a baseline to see how far off-plumb it really is.

The quintessential Pisa photo is the “holding up the tower” shot. Watching all the tourists holding contorted positions and balancing precariously on posts and rails, all for the perfect shot, is part of the experience.


The neighboring Baptistry provides a point of comparison to show the amount of lean in the tower.

The neighboring Baptistry provides a point of comparison to show the amount of lean in the tower.


From this angle, the "banana curve" of the tower can be seen. The original builders attempted to compensate for the tilted base by curving the remaining tiers.

From this angle, the “banana curve” of the tower can be seen. The original builders attempted to compensate for the tilted base by curving the remaining tiers.


Close-up of the base. The tower began to list after the first three tiers were built due to the unstable sand and clay soil under the foundation.

Close-up of the base. The tower began to list after the first three tiers were built due to the unstable sand and clay soil under the foundation.


Holding up the tower is a lot of work. That's why the tourists take turns.

Holding up the tower is a lot of work. That’s why the tourists take turns.


Imagine this scene without the tower...

Imagine this scene without the tower…


The tower's neighbors in Campo del Miracola, the Duomo and Baptistry, are also slightly crooked at 25 cm and 51 cm respectively.

The tower’s neighbors in Campo del Miracola, the Duomo and Baptistry, are also slightly crooked at 25 cm and 51 cm respectively.


Back in Florence to finish the day, we walked through the south part of town and across the Ponte Vecchio bridge. The bridge is lined with shops on both sides. Originally butcher shops, they now host jewelry and clothing shops.

Back in Florence to finish the day, we walked through the south part of town and across the Ponte Vecchio bridge. The bridge is lined with shops on both sides. Originally butcher shops, they now host jewelry and clothing shops.


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A view of Tuscany's rolling hills over the picturesque homes of San Gimignano.
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Day 6: Tuscany

On our sixth day in Italy, we set out on a tour of Tuscany’s wine country by way of its historical medieval villages.

We started in San Gimignano, home to a village that dates back to 3 B.C. During the Middle Ages, the city was a popular stop for Catholic pilgrims and experienced an era of growth, adding several churches and large towers. Many of those towers still stand today, making the walled city on a hill look like a mini stone metropolis from a distance.

Lunch was at Trattoria Borgo di Racciano, a nearby vineyard, olive grove, restaurant and bed and breakfast. The menu boasts typical Tuscan food, but they do a set menu for tour groups. We started with bruschetta topped with their homemade olive oil and slices of local cheese (most plates had two slices of salami, but everyone was envious of the cheese on the vegetarian option). The second course was a simple penne pasta with tomato sauce, but it was easily the best I’ve ever had. We finished with biscotti and Vin Santo, a strong, sweet dessert wine. The cookies are meant to be dipped in the wine. All the while, bottles of white and red wine from the vineyard lined the tables. I had a bit of a nap on the bus after lunch.

From lunch, we went to the city of Siena. Possibly the most famous of Tuscany’s hill towns, it has a recorded history back to 900 B.C. Walking through the old streets was like stepping back in time, although the luxury jewelry, clothing and gelato shops kept one foot planted in the present. Our favorite part was the town square, Piazza del Campo, where we watched kids playing with confetti and silly string while dressed in costumes as they celebrated Carnivale.

We had one last brief stop in the small village of Monteriggioni. It was after dark already and the town had mostly shut down for the day. It’s most notable for being used in the description of the rings of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s 1320 poem “Divine Comedy.”


The streets of San Gimignano.

The streets of San Gimignano.


A group of locals gathered in San Gimignano's town square to chat and watch the tourists go by.

A group of locals gathered in San Gimignano’s town square to chat and watch the tourists go by.


Torre Grossa, the tallest of San Gimignano's 14 towers.

Torre Grossa, the tallest of San Gimignano’s 14 towers.


It's darks day in San Gimignano.

It’s darks day in San Gimignano.


A view of San Gimignano's towers from Borgo di Racciano.

A view of San Gimignano’s towers from Borgo di Racciano.


A lonely olive on one of the trees in Borgo di Racciano's grove.

A lonely olive on one of the trees in Borgo di Racciano’s grove.


 

The Siena Cathedral, built in the 13th century, features one of the world's most ornate church facades.

The Siena Cathedral, built in the 13th century, features one of the world’s most ornate church facades.


Confetti and silly string color Siena's Piazza del Campo.

Confetti and silly string color Siena’s Piazza del Campo.


More Photo of the Day posts from our January-March 2016 trip to Europe