12 in 12 Challenge – March – AKA The Italian Job

Ciao!

Continuing on with our 12 in 12 Challenge and March’s expedition was to Italy. Somewhere both of us have wanted to visit for ages but never got around to. After looking at various places, we decided on Rome and Pisa as a good start.

As is usual, click on any gallery pictures to see full size.

After a fairly straightforward journey to Manchester Airport, we had a couple of hours to spare before the flight to Pisa so naturally headed for the nearest bar where we found ourselves surrounded by stag parties on route to the likes of Prague and Belgium. I managed to grab a seat and Patrick went to the bar. Heading back with 2 pints, he somehow managed to drop one of them, all over the table and my suitcase, across which was my bag and jacket. The stag party at the next table found this hilarious of course whereas I was a tad concerned that I was going to stink of booze for the rest of the journey and be thrown off the plane for being drunk.

The flight was on time and uneventful and the journey from Pisa Airport to the railway station was only six minutes on the Pisamover shuttle. After a bit of the usual confusion with Google maps, we found our hotel, just a few hundred yards from the station. Hotel La Pace (pronounced pacha) was a very traditional old hotel with interesting old furniture and objects as well as more recent artwork on display. The reception staff were very friendly and helpful. Our room was clean and comfortable and the breakfast the next morning was plentiful, even though the hot food was actually cold, it was tasty and set us up for the day. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone needing a hotel near the station.

Our first evening in Italy and we headed in the direction of the river Arno. It was a pleasant evening and we found a nice square, Piazzo delle Vettvaglie, just off the main shopping street, with bars and restaurants surrounding it and lots of seating. Not quite ready to eat, we sat outside the bar and had a couple of drinks and just watched the people around us. Friday evening and lots of locals and tourists alike were enjoying the evening.

As usual, I’d done a bit of research and found a few restaurants that sounded good. We opted for Il Prosciuttaio, a teeny tiny place that I would probably not have chosen had I just walked past. It had the smallest kitchen I’ve ever seen, just behind the counter, just three tables inside and about half a dozen outside. Family run with mother cooking and father and son waiting tables and they were so friendly and welcoming. Food and wine was delicious and the bill was less than 50 euros, and they put a bottle of limoncello and two small glasses on the table for us to help ourselves to a drink to ‘aid the digestion’. What a little gem, again I would definitely recommend this place to eat if you visit Pisa.

The next day and we had time to kill before our afternoon train to Rome so we had a walk along the Arno, avoiding the Piazza dei Miracole (Tower area) as we would spend time there on our return to Pisa later in the week. It has to be said that there isn’t an awful lot more to see in Pisa other than the obvious but it’s a lovely city and as usual, I took a few little snaps!

Soon we were on our way to the station for our three and a half hour journey to Rome. Arriving at Roma Termini and I’d already researched how to get to our Airbnb but our host Monica had also kindly sent me a message to tell me the bus number. Public transport in Italy is a bit of a strange system. You buy a ticket from either the metro station or a kiosk at a bus station or even some little stands dotted around the streets. Then when you get on a bus, train or metro, you need to get the ticket validated using a machine on the bus or whatever. This caused us quite a bit of amusement later in the week when the buses were so crowded, people just had to pass their tickets down the bus and hope someone would validate it for them!

St Peter’s Basilica

We managed to navigate the system and got to the apartment where Monica met us to show us how to work things etc. We thought she’d never leave, she went into so much detail. She was very helpful though and recommended a couple of nearby restaurants.

The apartment was in a residential area within a few minutes walk of The Vatican, we could see St Peter’s from the top of the street.

We were itching to get out and have a look around and we were hungry by now having only had a sandwich since breakfast so set out in search of food. We somehow managed to walk straight past one of the restaurants that Monica had recommended as the name wasn’t clear but found ourselves further along the same road at La Vittoria where we sat outside for a drink. After a while, seeing the delicious looking pasta and pizza coming out, we decided to ask for a table inside to eat. It was a bit chilly for me to be comfortable eating outside! After a lovely meal, Patrick had lasagne, which was so light and tasty and I had penne arrabiata, which was just hot enough to be tasty but not so hot that you can’t feel your lips, as is sometimes the case. This is another place I would recommend, it was a lucky find, another bill of around the 50 euro mark for 2 meals, a couple of beers and a couple of glasses of wine.

As we were so close to the Vatican, after our meal we decided to go and have a look around. There was an underpass to cross the busy road and lots of people coming and going. There was quite a security presence, soldiers and police both inside and out but we have found the same all over. Even in Pisa near where we stayed, there was a public square with a military presence. I wasn’t sure whether I should be reassured that they were there or worried that they were necessary. The Vatican is seriously impressive but I found it incredibly sad that a place with so much wealth and opulence had a huge number of homeless people on it’s streets. Having said that, the homeless were mostly in tents, all of which were exactly the same, so I assume these tents have been provided to them by a church charity. Strangely, there were also loads of gulls flying around. Obviously confused by the lights and thinking it was daytime but even so, there were a lot of them! We never did make it back to Vatican during the day, despite staying so close!

For our Rome itinerary, we were (very loosely) guided by the Earthtrekkers 3 days in Rome itinerary, but we missed out a lot of the museums as we felt it would have been far too tiring for us. The blog was incredibly helpful for me in deciding where to visit though and I’d recommend seeking out travel blogs for wherever you may plan to visit to give you ideas.

Our Airbnb was close to the bus and train station San Pietro, where we could catch buses or regional trains into the centre of Rome. On Sunday, we had tickets to visit the Colosseum, including the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. As our Colosseum visit wasn’t until 11:45 we decided to go to the forum and Palatine first. We spent a bit of time mooching around and then overlooking the forum from above and by the time we went into the Palatine/Forum complex, we hadn’t really left ourselves enough time to explore it properly. I’d read that around an hour would be enough time, but for us it wasn’t anything like long enough. Neither of us had realised how large an area it covered and unfortunately, we’d only seen a bit of it when we had to go to the colosseum for our time slot. A shame because we would have enjoyed a bit more time here. 

We’d got an audio/video guide for the colosseum but if you are considering that, in my opinion it really wasn’t worth the extra. I felt I spent so much time looking for the next POI that I wasn’t seeing what was around me. I gave up on it eventually and just observed and read the info boards instead.

Colosseum Rome

For me, it just felt absolutely mind blowing to be standing where, 2000 years ago, the public would have been watching the gory and brutal gladiator games. Looking down at the underground chambers, imagining how bloody terrifying it must have felt for the condemned men waiting there to be sent up to die, at the hands of another man or by wild animals such as lions and bears. The Romans of that time were both civilised and barbaric. 

Next up, after a lunch of a shared pizza and a beer (Patrick’s ‘large’ beer which turned out to be a litre!), we headed off to see the Altar of the Fatherland, the largest monument in Rome which honours Victor Emmanuel II, the first King of a united and independent Italy, quite a popular guy judging by the number of streets, bridges and piazzas named for him everywhere we’ve been. You can climb the steps to the very top for an amazing view but we didn’t have the energy.

We did climb the steps of Capitoline Hill, to the Piazza del Campidoglio with the huge replica of the statue of Marcus Aurealius. At this point, feeling we must be almost on top of the flipping world, perhaps we felt we hadn’t quite walked and climbed enough already, because we then climbed yet more steps to the Basilica di Santa Maria in Ara Coeli, built in the 6th century on the ruins of the Temple of Juno Moneto, the Roman Goddess of money. It stands on the highest peak of Capitoline Hill (so now, we were on top of the world, well Rome anyway), a beautiful church inside but the outside is rather ugly. Even though I am not a believer in any religion nowadays, I was brought up Roman Catholic and my dad had such a faith in his religion, so I found myself drawn to lighting a candle in his memory, as well as those of my two brothers taken too soon. That made me a bit emotional and I was pleased to get out into the fresh air again.

Rooftop Bar at Oro Bistrot

The aforementioned Earthtrekkers blog recommended a visit to the rooftop bar at Oro Bistrot so, being ready for a drink and a chill out, we headed off. It was part of what looked to be quite an exclusive bistro and we were stopped at the door by a uniformed doorman asking if we had a reservation. We said we just wanted a drink on the rooftop and after a quick phone call to see if they could accommodate us, he directed us to an incredibly small lift to the top. It was a tad expensive but that’s to be expected I suppose for the location but the view was spectacular and my cocktail was delicious (don’t ask what I had because I now can’t remember!).

Back at our digs and we were trying to decide where to eat. The restaurants that Monica had recommended were both closed and we wanted somewhere different to La Vittoria. After a bit of Google research, I found us a craft beer pub, The Saxophone Live Pub, about 20 minutes walk to the north, past the Vatican that also did food. After a couple of excellent pints of a local cask ale, a porter from Hoppycrat brewery, and a burger with chips, we headed back ‘home’ to get some rest ready for the next day’s itinerary.

Monday morning was bright and sunny and very warm, we headed for the bus to visit the Castel Sant’Angelo but found it was unfortunately closed on Mondays. Undeterred, we had a walk around the outside, took some photos and then set off across the Tiber along the beautiful Pont Sant’Angelo, a bridge lined with statues of angels, where I was accosted by a Roman Centurian! After shoving a crown on my head and insisting I pose for photos, including sitting on his knee (Patrick missed that photo sadly), he naturally expected payment. It all happened before I knew what was even happening to be honest, and five euros later, we were on our way. He must make a bloody fortune!

We continued on our walk to Piazza Navone, this absolutely gorgeous square, with it’s three beautiful fountains and lined with restaurants was absolutely packed with tourists. The weather was playing nicely and it was a lovely hot, sunny day. We sat on a bench for a while, me with an ice-cream, listening to a fabulous busker playing guitar tunes by the likes of Santana and Pink Floyd, a great talent and we tipped him as we left to go to one of the cafes we’d spotted that served sandwiches. After a lovely light lunch and having spent quite a while relaxing in Piazza Navone, we headed off again to our next point of interest.

The Pantheon was a short walk away and although there was a queue to go inside, we decided to join it and go in. I’d never given any thought to what the Pantheon was before my visit today, I just knew it was an ancient Roman building, perhaps where the Senate met or something but no, it was originally a pagan temple and since the 6th century has been a Roman Catholic church that still holds services. The oculus in the domed roof is seriously impressive at 9 metres across, how the hell did they build such a thing back then? The sun shines through the opening, hitting the same spots at various times of the year. I could imagine the worship of the Gods in a place like this.

Leaving behind the incredible Pantheon, we headed for the Trevi Fountain. Although it was also heaving with tourists, it was still a beautiful site in the glorious sunshine. Goodness knows what it is like in this city when the season really gets going, I can’t even imagine how many more people must be here, it must be impossible to get around or see anything. The fountain sculpture is huge, much more than I expected to see and yet another impressive piece of art.

Trevi Fountain

To end our second day in Rome, we set off towards the Spanish Steps, considered the longest and widest staircase in Europe. They were constructed in 1725 and the reason for their name is that the Spanish Embassy moved onto the square in the 17th century and the name stuck. Apparently in 2019 a bye-law was passed outlawing sitting on the Spanish Steps with the punishment being a 400 euro fine. Well judging by the eleventy-billion people sat there today, no one appears to be policing that particular law. As were were there, we decided to walk up to the top, enjoyed the view for a few moments and then went back down, via an empty side staircase! I didn’t manage any photos sadly as there were just too many people around.

Back to the apartment for a freshen up before going out to eat at one of Monica’s recommendations, San Pietrini. Sadly this did not go well, the staff were not welcoming, the food was ok but Patrick’s was cold and we had to return it. We complained and were given a reduction but it wasn’t a pleasant experience. Least said, soonest mended.

So to Tuesday, our final full day in Rome and we had planned a train journey to visit the ruins of Ostia Antica, the ancient port city of Rome. However, the weather had other ideas and the pouring rain we woke up to was forecast to last the whole day. As it clearly wasn’t the best day to visit an outdoor attraction, we decided instead to visit some indoor museums. The Vatican museums would have been the obvious choice but were already sold out for today so we turned to trusty Google and found the small but perfectly formed Museo Leonardo Da Vinci, featuring exhibits based on the drawings of the man. It was small but absolutely fascinating to see these items that were created by Da Vinci’s brain, variations of some of which we still use today. There were the usual ‘flying machines’ that we tend to think of in relation to Da Vinci but also weapons of war and tools for industry. We found it really interesting and spent quite some time in here.

After a coffee and sandwich break, we next headed for the Capitoline Museums located in Piazza del Campidoglio, where we’d been on Sunday. I am so pleased we decided to go back and visit the museum because the artwork inside was well worth seeing. The original bronze sculpture of Marcus Aurelieus on horseback as well as the sculpture and various paintings and tapestries depicting Romulus and Remus being suckled by the She-Wolf being among the more famous ones.

For our last evening, we would have perhaps enjoyed a night in, cooking for ourselves but sadly we had no decent supermarket nearby, the large Carrefour being closed for a refurb, so we opted to eat at La Vittoria again having enjoyed it on our previous visit. It was lovely again and the free limoncello at the end, as seems to be the norm in Italian restaurants, was most welcome.

Wednesday morning brought rain again, we were due to catch our train to Pisa at lunchtime so after a coffee, we sat on the balcony watching the comings and goings of the traffic as Romans were going about their daily routine. We had been highly amused by some of the parking we had seen in the area and this morning was no exception as cars were abandoned almost in the middle of the road whilst parents dropped off their children at the nursery opposite. The bus journey to Roma Termini station was very crowded and the traffic horrendous, I wish we’d thought to take the regional train really. We hadn’t bothered with the regional trains during our stay because the places we wanted to visit were not close the the train station but today we could have just gone straight there. Anyhow, eventually we arrived and found a train station more like an airport! It was huge and the upper floor was completely given over to restaurants and cafes. We managed to grab a table for a coffee and a snack to while away the time until our train was due to leave.

Arriving in Pisa mid-afternoon we again turned to Google maps to direct us to our AirBnB, the walking route took us down a little alleyway and I was already thinking that I didn’t want to have to come back this way at 7am on the morning of our flight home! Later we realised that it was parallel to the main shopping street that we were already familiar with from our first night in the city so we didn’t need to be down there really.

We arrived at the AirBnb to a nice welcome from Paul, our host but the room was a bit of a disappointment. It was clean and tidy and in a great location, the host was friendly and helpful and booked us a taxi for our journey to the airport on Saturday morning but the kitchen was in no way, shape or form suitable for self-catering, it did have a gorgeous view from the window though! We found a nice supermarket round the corner which had some really lovely fresh food but we had no means of heating anything other than in one pan on the hob, so we were going to have to eat out each night again. This might not seem like a hardship but we do enjoy spending some of our evenings cooking and enjoying a beer and glass of wine, especially after a day of trekking around sight-seeing.

After a few beers at a local craft beer bar, Enobirreria L’Etrusco, that Aunty Google had found for me, we headed off to find somewhere to eat. I had seen great reviews for one in particular and we eventually found it…closed. A bit tired and fed up now we found a restaurant just around the corner from the apartment with the usual pizza and pasta offerings and went in but the food was very disappointing.

I had pencilled in a possible train trip to the Cinque Terre for Thursday but having had a bit of a discussion, we decided that all the train hopping would be a bit too much. After a full week of sight-seeing we were feeling tired. It was raining again so we decided to spend the day in Pisa and to visit the famous Leaning Tower. It is an amazing sight, so beautiful and after spending a bit of time trying to get ‘that’ picture, we gave up and had a walk around it instead. Eventually the rain stopped and the sun came out. We bought the combined ticket for entry to the Baptistry, Cathedral and museums and enjoyed all of them very much. The Opera Del Duomo museum was fascinating, opera in this sense not meaning what we usually understand it to be but more like the literal translation which is work, as in the works of art of the cathedral. The huge bronze doors with panels depicting the stages of the life of Christ was very impressive as were all of the sculptures, the displays of religious ceremonial vestments was eye-opening, when you think that whilst displaying such wealth, these religious leaders would have been preaching in front of some very poor people.

The architecture of the buildings in the Piazza dei Miracole, which is what the area is called, is truly stunning as you can see from the header on this post and yes, the Baptistry is also slightly leaning, for once it’s not my wonky photos that are to blame. We thought that while we were in the area, we would go up onto the walls for a walk along them but unfortunately due to the high winds that had spung up, the walls were temporarily closed to visitors so we couldn’t do that.

As we couldn’t walk the walls, we decided to visit the Botanical Garden, which is thought to be the first University botanical garden in Europe, founded in 1543. It is home to ancient trees and plants from around the world. As it was so early in the season, there wasn’t a lot to be seen in the actual gardens but the glasshouses had impressive displays of flora from deserts and tropical forests. The museum building was particularly impressive for it’s decorative shell frontage. It was worth the visit and would be glorious in season.

After a quick freshen up in the apartment, we went out to Enobirria L’Etrusco again and then onto the fabulous beer shop/bar La Torre del Luppolo, which had an amazing selection of beers on tap and in bottles/cans. After a bit of a discussion we decided to eat at Il Prosciuttaio again and set off across the river. After a lovely meal, bottle of wine and the obligatory limoncello, we paid our bill and set off back to the apartment, both now feeling a bit merry. We didn’t think we’d had any more to drink than any other night but neither of us can remember much after getting back to the apartment!

On Friday, we took the 30 minute train journey to Lucca. We’d been told by several people that Lucca is very beautiful, cobbled streets, beautiful piazzas, a mini Florence without the crowds, and the impressive walls surrounding it could be walked or cycled all around. Perhaps it was the hype and expectation we had but we were a little underwhelmed in all honesty. Once up on the walls, it was just like being in a park anywhere, the width of the walkway was so large that it really didn’t feel like we were atop the walls at all, apart from the obvious viewpoint of looking down at the city. After walking the walls for a while we headed into the town and after a coffee and snack, we wandered around, in and out of winding streets and various piazzas. One piazza we found had a beautiful fountain, La Pupperona, where locals and tourists alike could drink or fill containers with water direct from the hills behind Lucca.

Fontana della Pupporona – Lucca

Eventually we found ourselves in Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, previously a Roman Ampitheatre where gladiator games and other entertainment would have been held, it’s now full of cafes with outside seating and a very lovely place to sit and while away and hour or so, which is exactly what we did next before heading back to the station for our train back to Pisa, the return journey for the two of us cost the princely sum of £7.50!

The previous day in Pisa, we’d noticed a restaurant that served steaks, after perusing the menu, we decided we would perhaps eat there on our last evening. Why on earth we didn’t think to book a table I have no idea but needless to say, when we went back on Friday evening it was full. We really didn’t fancy pizza or pasta again and hadn’t really seen any other options. Also not wanting a late or boozy night due to having to be up early for our flight, we decided to have a couple of beers and then swing by a kebab shop we’d spotted to take something back to the apartment to eat. It must have been the worst kebab I’ve ever had, not that I’ve had many as it’s certainly never been my takeaway of choice. So, quite a disappointing end to our last night but we were early to bed and early to rise the next morning.

Our taxi was due at 7:30, outside the front door so we headed off down the stairs at 7:20, having left the key in the apartment as requested by our host who was now away for Easter. Reaching the front door, it dawned on both of us at the same time, we couldn’t get out without the key. Patrick ran back upstairs only to find that the apartment door locks automatically as you leave, he couldn’t get back in to retrieve the key. So, now I’m in full panic mode. We’re stuck in the foyer of the apartment building with no way of getting out or getting back into our apartment and our taxi is due in 5 minutes. We had no option but to go and try to wake up one of the residents. Patrick goes to the first door on the first floor and after a few minutes a guy opens up the door a crack, he can’t understand what Patrick is telling him and closes the door. We’re wondering whether to knock again or try another door when his wife appears. Thankfully she understands a bit of English and we make her understand our situation and she comes down and opens the door for us…which apparently, we didn’t need the key for afterall! We apologised profusely, both feeling very embarrassed but also relieved at being able to get out and seconds later, our taxi rolls up.

Pisa airport is quite small but we found somewhere to grab a croissant and a coffee, as well as a sarnie for the plane. The flight and trains home ran smoothly and there ends our Italian adventure.

Finally, as usual, I can’t resist a pretty window, not as many as I usually photograph though.

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our trip and that some of the links may be useful to you if you decide to visit Rome or Pisa for yourselves.

Until next time…arrivederci