Ciao, Italia, we hardly knew ya.

Hoo boy, are we tired. Rome is really, really fun and really, really tiring. Did I mention that we’re tired? Oh, and we’re full. Monty Python full. But happy.

After buying jewelry and eating pizza on our first night in Rome, we tried mightily to take advantage of as many recommendations as we could. Herewith are some highlights:

Villa Farnese

Villa Farnese. Cultural and convenient!

Villa Farnese. Cultural and convenient!

This was on nobody’s recommendation list, but this medium-sized palazzo in Trastevere had something very, very important going for it – it was just outside our front door. There are days when we just can’t seem to get ourselves out the door in the morning, and by the time we do it’s afternoon. Then we feel a little bad that we’re not being more efficient with our time. On such days we try to grab the closest bit of acceptable culture that we can. Villa Farnese more than fit the bill. The palazzo was built between 1506 and 1510 for a fellow named Agostino Chigi, who was a banker from Sienna and the treasurer of Pope Julius II. The house was acquired in the late 1500s by the great grandson of Allessandro Farnese, who was Pope Paul III during the mid-1500s.

Yes, kiddies, this was during the good old days, when Popes had mistresses and children and they ordered hits on their enemies and who knows what other nonsense. While I’m wandering off on this digression, permit me to take another detour. The reason all this Farnese business is interesting to us is that part of our routine these days is to watch at least one episode of the Netflix show Borgia each evening. (Thank heavens for the geek who invented the virtual private network, or VPN, which tricks Netflix into thinking we’re in Cleveland.) At first it was what passed as preparation for our visit to Rome, but now it’s just junk food – full of sex, violence, and opulence, the visual salt, sugar, and fat that keeps binge watchers satisfied. It has some of the worst acting I’ve ever seen, but if the wifi falters on any given night I start to get the shakes. To make matters worse, we’re watching the bad Borgia – the one with some guy from Philly playing Pope Alexander, not Jeremy Irons. This is the Costco pork rinds of binge television.

Where on earth was I? Oh, yes, Villa Farnese, which is not to be confused with the more important Palazzo Farnese across the river, which is now owned by the French government and is no longer open to the public. The Villa, while something of a lesser establishment, nevertheless has a really wonderful collection of frescoes, including a famous one by Raffaello.

Rafaello's famous cherubs.

Raffaello’s famous cherubs.

We also practically had the place to ourselves, which is always a challenge even in the so-called off season in Rome, and came away feeling that we had satisfied the cultural tourism gods.

Do not try this at home, gents.

Do not try this at home, gents.

The Vatican

What can you say about the Vatican that hasn’t been said? There are seven kilometers of galleries and it’s the fifth most visited art museum in the world. I’m also kind of a baby when it comes to museums. I have a short attention span, the dust makes my sinuses run, and after a few hours I’m ready to eat. Nevertheless, you can’t come away from the Vatican museum without being impressed or overwhelmed. You’ve got your Michelangelos, Caravaggios, Titians, Berminis, Raphaels, and basically all the Renaissance art and Greek sculpture you can imagine. And then there’s the Sistine Chapel, which is all it’s cracked up to be. After weighing all the good advice about how to procure the services of a guide, we ended up going the official route – for thirty euros you can get tickets to the museum and join a group led by an official Vatican guide. I suppose you pays your money and you takes your chances, but our guide was amazingly enthusiastic and quite terrific. Two thumbs up for the Vatican.

Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Our friend Hubert recommended this really interesting church, which began its life as a Roman bathhouse and was converted to its present use by Michelangelo in 1563. This wasn’t a bathhouse like in an Al Pacino movie, though. It is said that the Baths of Diocletian could accommodate three thousand Romans at any given time. In fact, the church, which is massive, was built just from a portion of the bath complex, the frigidarium, the cold bath. There was also a caldarium, which was a pool heated by a big furnace, as well as other pools and rooms and spaces where Romans could be Roman together.

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The church also has a nifty meridian – a long line built in the floor that is aligned with a hole in the roof that serves as a giant sundial calendar. I wasn’t particularly good at math or science, and I’m always mystified at feats of genius like these.

Finally, the thrifty part of me always loves the free churches. 🙂

Gallery Borghese

Our friend Hillary recommended the Gallery Borghese, a palazzo built to house the art collection of Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was Pope Paul V’s nephew. After the pope’s election, Scipione was made secretary to the pope and the head of the Vatican government. Borghese used the position to make himself and his family very wealthy, and he spent some of his booty on art. In other words, the Borghese family made the Borgias look like the people on Duck Dynasty. And hoo boy did they collect art. The place is stuffed full of paintings and sculpture, the highlights of which are extraordinary sculptures by Bermini, who makes marble look like silk. They do a decent job of managing the crowds there by selling two hour tickets and then clearing out the gallery at the end of the period, like they do at baseball doubleheaders these days.

A pretty good Bernini.

A pretty good Bernini.

That’s it, you ask? Um, yup, basically. We were also invited to spend our last two nights in Rome at the very nice digs of a friend of a friend, which was delightful. We were also invited to crash a reception. Thanks to our very efficient packing, we were ready for such an occasion – Janine looked lovely in her cocktail ensemble, and I even had a jacket and tie in my bag of tricks.

Of course, we also had to eat, and I include a couple of quick reviews.

Ditirambo Ristorante

This place sits just off the Campo de Fiori near our apartment in Trastevere. We waltzed in without a reservation, got the only available table, and were treated to a gracious and quite delicious meal. We started with a simple salad of shaved fennel, oranges, and pomegranate. Our primi was the classic Roman pasta tonnarelli cacio e pepe. It’s as simple as gets – they make a sauce out of cheese, black pepper, and the starchy salty water the pasta cooks in, and this version was spectacular. They call it tonnarelli because the pasta, which is basically a fat spaghetti, looks like a tuna. (The Italians are so evocative. There’s a pasta called orecchiette, or “little ears,” and a dish called strozzapretti, or “strangle the priest.”) The main was a splendid suckling pig – roasty, crispy, and just the right amount of fatty. Dessert was a lovely sponge cake topped with a poached pear with a dandy pasty crème on the side. The service was gracious and lovely and the food was terrific, and with a bottle of delicious pinot nero from Alto Adige, the whole thing came to less than sixty euros. Go there.

Hosteria da Corrado

Our host in Trastevere recommended this one. There are various levels of fanciness in Italy – ristorante, trattoria, and the homey osteria. In many of them, like Hostaria da Corrado, there’s no menu. You sit down, somebody rattles off maybe two or three choices for a starter and a main (in Italian, natch), and you’re off to the races. We had another classic roman dish rigatoni all’amatriciana, which is a tomato sauce made with cured pork jowls (close your eyes and it’s just really good bacon), and a thin pan-cooked steak that they hammer to a medium well, but which was fatty and salty enough to be somehow perfect. This is cooking like you wish your grandma did, and you have the benefit of watching locals come and go. The owner knew each of his customers (except us and one other brave table) by name. it was a little slice of Roman life.

Ristorante Compagnucci

Finally, we end on a meal that kept on going. Ristorante Compagnucci is a neighborhood place out by the Appian Way that was recommended by a friend. We made the minor mistake of just asking them to bring us what they thought was good without placing any volume limits, and the food just kept coming. Fried anchovies, more pasta all’amatriciana, octopus and green bean salad, and some kind of fish. It was all great, but way too much (how DO people eat this much this late?) although the highlight of the evening was the server. Her family owns the restaurant, and she only works there once in a while. Her English was good, and we struck up a very nice conversation. The short version of the story is that we invited her and her family to visit us if they make it to San Francisco. Such is the way of travel.

And that’s Italy. There’s so much to do in Rome, much less Italy, that I always leave feeling exhausted but strangely unrequited. I have seen the Sistine Chapel, though, which was the goal in the first place. And we ate pretty well.

Next up – Athens, and then Istanbul. If you have suggestions, please weigh in!

From Sicily to Rome – Pick Your Metaphor

Moving from Sicily to Rome is quite a shock. I’m struggling to come up with the best metaphor. If Sicily is an old Fiat 500, Rome is a Maserati. No, that’s not right. Maybe Rome is Sicily’s more accomplished sibling. In Noto they charge 2 euros to look at some random ceiling. In Rome, you go to the Pantheon. Anything you can do, I can do better.

Except relax. We started our tour in Sicily to decompress, and we did that. Sicily was a charming, sunny (mostly), and yummy (usually) way to ease into our world tour.

Anyway, the metaphor doesn’t matter. But after spending almost three weeks in what we might charitably call a laid back atmosphere, we are now in the midst of the thrum of one of the world’s great cities. On our first night, we wandered about Trastevere, which is one of those Rome neighborhoods with windy streets, like Forza d’Agro or Ortigia, except it has people in it. And not just people, but hip people, wearing fashionable fashions and soul patches and shoes that cost more than twenty bucks. And street jazz. What passed for a crowd in Forza was a bus full of Dutch people.

We arrived on a Saturday night, and even though it was All Saint’s Day, a holy day of obligation, in Trastevere the people seemed obligated to get a drink. The bars and restaurants were jammed, which meant that they were open. This was good, because we were ready for human contact and we were hungry.

Hip, Happening, Trastevere

Hip, Happening, Trastevere

Our first stop was Pizzeria Ai Marmi. This felt like the Katz’s Deli of pizzerias. It was jammed full of people tucking into pizza and platters of beans and sausage and other homey stuff, and it was staffed by an army of guys who looked like they’ve been doing this very intricate dance for decades. Now I know, I know, pizza is a Naples thing, but Romans are entitled to pizza too. I also assume that there is no shortage of other excellent pizzerias in Rome, but our host recommended this one as his favorite and that was good enough for us. We were lucky enough to be seated just across from the pizza making operation, and it was like watching Nijinsky, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev dance a pas de trois. Or baseball’s famous double play combination, Tinkers to Evers to Chance, turn two. One guy rips little pieces from a huge mound of pizza dough and forms balls with them and then uses a rolling pin to turn them into disks thin enough to read the paper through.

Rolling out the dough

Rolling out the dough

He then arranges about thirty of them ever so nicely onto a big marble counter. At that point, his partner applies the toppings based on the orders arranged on pieces of paper on a pegboard on the wall.

Ready to go in the oven

Ready to go in the oven

Then the oven guy, who has been stoking a blazing wood fire, transfers the thirty or so pies to the oven using the longest pizza peel I’ve ever seen. By the time he gets the last one in, the ones that went in first are ready to come out. They go right onto plates and onto the counter.

Out of the oven and off to the tables

Out of the oven and off to the tables

Sitting ten or so feet away, the smell of the pile of steaming pizzas made me quite emotional, but you know how I am. By this point, the waiters had lined up, ready to get the pizzas to their tables within seconds. We watched this process repeat about every ten minutes. That’s three pizzas a minute. And how was the pizza? Perfect. The sauce was tangy, the cheese was creamy, and the crust was thin, chewy, and crunchy all at once. We also had a bowl of beans and sausage in a very spicy tomato sauce. Damn. Dinner and a show.

On our way home, we strolled through the piazzas and alleys of Trastevere, and Janine paused every two or three feet to regard the arts and crafts on offer from various sellers. She was taken by one jewelry stand, and we struck up a conversation with a fascinating fellow who was turning out bracelets and necklaces in front of our eyes. Was it my imagination or was he speaking Italian with a Mexican accent? Sure enough, he was from Monterrey, Mexico, so we switched from my hideous Italian to my merely lousy Spanish. What a fantastic and fascinating guy. Ivan is only thirty, but he’s been in Rome for six years, and he makes a point of traveling throughout the continent to buy materials and learn about other places. He talked about how the poor education system and failed political institutions in Mexico has made it impossible for him to succeed there. His travels have taken him to Turkey, Morocco, Serbia, and even Afghanistan, among other places. He’d love to visit New York or Japan, but he can’t get a visa to either place. It’s too bad – they could use his ingenuity and creativity. We exchanged notes on places we’ve visited and he gave us some suggestions that now has us rethinking how we’ll spend time in Turkey. We must have talked for twenty or thirty minutes and we had his undivided attention, which might have cost him a few sales. Janine bought a necklace and a bracelet (we are for the most part limited to purchases that are very portable), and of course she now has a story to go with them. Good luck, Ivan. It was really great to meet you.

Ivan, a true Renaissance man

Ivan, a true Renaissance man

Thanks to all for your excellent suggestions for things to do in Rome. We are doing our best to get to as many as possible, although we were stupid and only allowed for five nights. What were we thinking?

In the next month or so, we have Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, and either Marrakech or Fez in our sights. It’s too many places and not enough time, but we just can’t help ourselves. Seven months isn’t nearly enough time to see the world. If you have suggestions or thoughts about any of these places, please feel free to weigh in. The crowd is a dandy travel agent.

Arrivederci, Sicilia! What we loved, and what we’ll never understand.

The thing about being a fish out of water is that people are walking around on their two legs and breathing air, and being a fish, you spend a lot of top flopping around on your side trying to get some water in your gills.

Traveling in any foreign country requires embracing the unknown, which can be uncomfortable. There’s the language difference, of course, but adjusting to the rhythms of life can be just as difficult. As I’ve noted, shops open and close with little rhyme or reason. As in many European cities, they close at lunchtime, which is remarkably civilized. Shopkeepers go home for lunch or a nap, or something, then stay open into the evening. This is just dandy, except when you want to mail a package at 2PM. I wandered past the corner grocery on Wednesday at 3 and it was closed at midday, it was closed on Wednesdays, and they were closed for some kind of vacation – the Sicilian trifecta! Today, the supermarket was closed at 2. The supermarket! Restaurants don’t open for dinner until 7 or later, although I’m told that in Argentina they don’t start the party until after 10.

Oh, and I’ve really enjoyed watching Sicilans park their cars. This would never fly back home.

"Parallel" parking in Sicily

“Parallel” parking in Sicily

I will also never wear a man purse.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

Nope, sorry, not gonna get one.

We made a grudging farewell to Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

Farewell, Ortigia.

We were sad to go because we had just started to find our groove there. We knew where the good restaurants were and we had our sights set on a few others. The other night we wandered into this really cute place that felt like a tapas joint in Madrid. There were lots of wines by the glass, and plates of meats, cheeses, and just yummy stuff in general. The hosts were gracious and friendly and the tiny café was filled mostly with young, hip locals who were having a dandy time. Places like that just make you happy. As promised, we returned to the ridiculously good deli (which was even better the second time, if you can believe it) and felt like regulars. (I had a moment with one of the busboys last time when he cleared a small piece of bread off our table and I started crying. It took him a second to get the joke, and then we all had a nice chortle. When we came in again it was like an old friend had come back.)

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

One more look at Fratelli Burgio.

The aftermath

The aftermath

Then we pushed on for Noto – a city that is said to represent the best in Sicilian Baroque architecture, and which was made a Unesco World Heritage site in 2002.

Noto

Noto

Things started slowly when we couldn’t find our apartment. It’s in the center of the old city, just behind the famous Duomo, but 1) we were having trouble negotiating the one way streets and alleys, and 2) our host neglected to mention that our apartment is on an unmarked alley off a long street of stairs. Having been failed by google maps, we triangulated on what we thought might be the place, and eventually connected with our host, who speaks even less English than we speak Italian. After an hour of driving, walking, and crawling in circles, we finally walked through our door. And yes, there was the tiniest bit of bickering.

The town itself reminds me of a wedding cake – it looks pretty good, but it feels like it lacks a bit of substance. The people seem kind of standoffish, and once you’ve walked the length of the main street, you’ve kind of got the place covered. To be sure, the architecture is quite amazing – there are more palazzos (palazzi?) than you can count, and, like everywhere else we’ve been, they are charmingly crumbly without actually falling down.

Our day at the museums was entertaining without being terribly educational. The Notoans (Notoites?) need to up their museum game just a bit. On the one hand, you can wander into a gem, like the jewel box theatre in Noto called the Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo. It’s pretty new – it was built in 1870. It’s one of those theatres with all the boxes, like in Amadeus. Our visit continued our tradition of visiting theatres without actually seeing any theatre. It was also singularly uninformative. There was no commentary, no information, no nothing. You show up and a guy points you to the theatre, and you go in a look around and take pictures. That was about it. We also had the place to ourselves, so we could have climbed into one of the boxes and taken a nap.

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

Teatro Tina Di Lorenzo in Noto

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We also had a hilarious visit to the Palazzo Ducezio, which houses the Noto city offices. The tour consisted of a visit to the Hall of Mirrors, which now serves as a meeting room for official city business and such. The ceiling was painted in 1826 and restored in 2001. It’s lovely, but I felt a little like Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s Vacation. A woman led us into the room, and said, basically, here’s the room, and then she stared at us. We went, we looked, we left. We also toured another palazzo that houses a rather sad collection of paintings with mildewing mattes and other underloved pieces of art. Janine and I found ourselves tallying up the value of each visit, kind of like one of those ladies of a certain age you see on the Upper West Side bus – you know, with the fur coat – might. For our five dollar ticket, we figured the art collection at about a dollar, the hall of mirrors at about a quarter, and theatre came in at, oh, two bucks. You win some, you lose some. On the other hand, in Ortigia we saw a real live Caravaggio in the church of Santa Lucia alla Badia for free. It’s also free to look at the outsides of the buildings wherever you go, so there’s that.

On the other other hand, if you try to take a picture of Elmo in Times Square, he’s liable to tackle you to the ground and start beating you if you don’t give him a buck or two. So maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Ok, enough with the culture and onto the food.

We’re leaving Sicily tomorrow, and the food has been distinctive and really great, so I thought I’d try to remember the dishes that stood out.

At that little tapas place, we had little rectangles of cheese that turned out to be ricotta mixed with honey and orange juice and baked in the oven. Baked ricotta – who knew? Those made me weep. They were creamy, sweet but not too sweet, and they made my heart sing (after I was done weeping). We also had eggplant parmigiana that was just eggplant sliced thin and stacked like a lasagna and cooked with a simple tomato sauce and topped with ricotta salata. So simple, but killer.

Janine says that the Pasta Norma I made when we arrived in Forza was the best she had in Sicily. All you need are good eggplants – you chop up eggplants, cook the bejeebers out of them in olive oil, add tomatoes (they add ricotta down here, but I didn’t have any) and top with ricotta salata. Good stuff.

One day we went to the local market in Ortigia and bought some of those jumbo prawns we’ve been devouring whenever we have the chance.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

The outdoor market in Ortigia.

Janine made a great pasta with eggplant, tomato, and peppers, and I broiled the prawns simply with garlic, oil, and salt, and I must say, they were as good as any we’d had. It stunk up the apartment, but it was worth it.

Our dandy dinner.

Our dandy dinner.

By the time we reached Noto, we had acquired a medium-sized collection of condiments and marinated things. (We can’t help ourselves. An entire shelf of our refrigerator back home is dedicated to pickles, olives, and other condiments). We had bought olives, marinated mushrooms with mint, sun-dried tomatoes and capers with oregano in oil, and we still had some of Janine’s pasta sauce. I had the contours of a chicken dish in my mind as we pulled out of Ortigia and we found a butcher shop that was actually open and I bought half a chicken. When we arrived in Noto, the kitchen had almost no equipment, but inexplicably, it had a tagine. So Sicilian Chicken Tagine it was and I’d have happily paid real money for it at a restaurant. Sadly, we forgot to take a picture.

There were other great things – the arancini (deep fried rice balls) and the anchovies marinated in orange juice, vinegar, and sugar in Taormina, the cannoli at Giuseppi’s place in Forza, and all that great, cheap, flinty, bracing white wine.

Finally, on my deathbed (after I’ve had a Peter Luger steak), I will ask for one of those mini mozzarella balls in cream topped with olive oil and ground pistachio at Fratelli Burgio in Ortigia, and I will refuse to die until I get one.

It is on to Rome, where if I don’t finally see the Sistine Chapel I will go on a hunger strike which will make my blog entries considerably shorter. What are your favorite things to do in Rome?