By Don and Linda Freedman

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Winter 2003

Rome | Lucca | Florence | Rome

With our last winter trip to Italy fresh in our minds, we booked our seats to Rome the moment an Air Canada Seat Sale was announced.

Italy is the perfect destination for us to escape the northern weather and the blues that go with it. We love cool, crisp temperatures with sunny, blue skies when it's comfortable to walk with a sweater or jacket and if a bit nippy, hat and gloves. And so it was in Rome, Lucca and Florence. Temperatures in Lucca and Florence were 5 to 10 degrees Celsius and 7 to 12 degrees in Rome. We had only a few brief showers during the twenty-three days, luckily always managing to be in the right place at the right time. The added benefits of seasonally lower prices and lack of tourist hordes are very powerful arguments for winter jaunts to Italy.

This would be our longest-ever stay in each of the three cities. We were looking forward to leisurely walks through the streets, finding new goodies, exploring in more depth the treasures of each city with perhaps some day trips to nearby gems. We got our rail passes from Rail Europe, to enjoy the carefree and comfortable benefits of travel by train.

At the airport, Linda's cuticle nippers and my tiny, blunt-tipped grooming scissors that would be difficult to use as a weapon were confiscated from our carry-ons. We bought an envelope and stamp and mailed these items home, where they waited for our return. Linda's razor sharp dental instrument was overlooked so there's still plenty of room for improved airport scrutiny. On arrival, I bought a small scissors at the little pharmacy across from the Hotel Delle Muse, which now resides in an envelope tacked on a board in Giorgio's office, awaiting our return. Of course Giorgio will be happy to mail them to me at our next first stop hotel, but I think it'll be cool to have scissors tacked to walls in my favorite hotels waiting for my return, as if I need another lure. Linda solved her AWOL cuticle nipper problem by heading across the street for a manicure even before she unpacked.

With carry-on only, it took us no time to pass through immigration and customs. The Hotel Delle Muse had arranged for a limo transfer for us. The driver was waiting at the Banco di Roma exchange office, where we were told we'd find him. The cost of the limo is 49 EUR, good for up to four passengers with their luggage.

We would be five nights in Rome, three in Lucca, seven in Florence with the last eight in Rome, before returning to Toronto. Our goal is always the same, to find individually run three-star hotels that offer clean, decent-size accommodation at a reasonable cost. We look for places to call home while away, where we'd look forward to returning and feel comfortable recommending to our readers.
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The Hotel Delle Muse, via Tommaso Salvini 18, in the Parioli district is our place in Rome. The hotel had been a charming villa with a lovely garden for leisure or dining in the warm weather. Parioli is an upscale residential neighborhood surrounded by magnificent parklands and the estates of Villa Borghese, Villa Ada and Villa Glori. We spent a good part of the first few days taking relaxing walks through the neighborhood recovering from the eight and a half hour flight and the six hour time difference.

There are two Internet points in the lobby as well as Internet access in each guest room. The casual, friendly dining rooms and bar exude the friendly spirit of the establishment. Three generations of the family Lazar and their veteran staff are devoted to your comfort and well-being. Giorgio is ever-present to help with your every need and to offer timely tips of what to do and see, adding something special to your stay you might otherwise have overlooked.

On each of our visits we've stayed in a different room, and this time was no exception. As usual, our room was spotlessly clean with shining tile floors throughout. The king-bedded (twins together) room was quite a nice size with a desk, several chairs and a large closet. Best of all was the double glass doors leading to a large terrace overlooking the garden. The bathroom, generously sized with a stall shower and bidet, had the same garden view. All of the above plus satellite TV made the digs just perfect for our thirteen days in Rome.

The breakfast buffet offers a huge variety from which to choose, with several treats like baked apples and pears. We have always enjoyed having lunch or dinner at the hotel, our schedule permitting. The preparations are excellent, the extras abundant and the prices extremely reasonable. New since our last visit, a complimentary prosecco aperitif is offered by the management. A self-serve selection of vegetables, meats and cheeses offers the opportunity to select your favorites. These side dishes are included in the price of your meal and there is no additional charge for bread either.

Our favorite pastas until now have been spaghetti aglio/olio e peperoncino and penne all'arrabbiata. A new one has taken over, spaghetti al limone, with a zesty lemon cream sauce that is heaven. The mixed salad is always outstanding with a nice variety of garden-fresh greens, arugula, tomato and carrot.
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Bus #360 which leaves from Piazza Delle Muse, a three minute walk from the hotel, goes to the Termini train station (for the air terminal), Santa Maria Maggiore (Colosseum-Roman Forum), Piazza Vittorio and St. John in Laterans. Half way to Piazza Delle Muse is a tobacco/newspaper stand that sells bus tickets. There is also a ticket machine at the bus stop. Tickets are good on buses, the metro and the trams. We used single tickets at .77 EUR, which are good for seventy-five minutes from validation on the first bus, anywhere within the Comune di Roma. (If caught without a validated ticket, the cost is 51 EUR.) A daily ticket is 3.10 EUR, the right choice for more than four seventy-five minute segments in a day. And there's a weekly pass for 12.40 EUR.

Giorgio suggested that we see the very special marble exhibit at the Mercati Di Traiano (Markets of Trajan), via IV Novembre 94. We took bus #360 to the Stazione Centrale (Termini) and walked through the lively, lovely Piazza della Repubblica to the wide shopping boulevard, via Nazionale to IV Novembre and the markets of Trajan, in times past a commercial complex consisting of three levels of shops and a large hall that was used as a market. The semi-circular design and brickwork have long made it one of our favorite sites. The remains have been beautifully restored and maintained and it was the perfect venue for displaying the collection of colorful marble statues, architectural pieces and artifacts.

Across the way is the colossal monument (Vittoriano) dedicated to the memory of Italy's first king, Vittorio Emanuele II. Started in 1885, it was completed in 1925. The wide central stairway leads to the alter of the nation with the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, constantly guarded by two sentinels. Glorious sculptures abound and in the center, the riveting equestrian statue of Vittorio Emanuele II. The stairways to the uppermost levels had recently opened to access by the public so we were able to enjoy amazing views of the Roman Forum, Piazza Venezia and surroundings, the Mercati di Traiano, the Fori Imperiali and so much more. Linda didn't know where to point her camera first.

It was a bright, sunny Sunday and as we walked by the marvels of the Roman Empire, the sun shone on the ancient pillars, stones and bricks. Suddenly Linda declared, "Today I really fell in love with Rome!" In the days ahead, these feelings were to grow.
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But now it was time for a gelato break. Giolitti was not very far away and it wasn't long before we were sitting out front nursing waffle cones of pistachio, baci and chocolate topped with incomparable panna.

It was so exhilarating to be away from the below freezing temperatures and loathsome wind chill, that we decided to walk back to the Della Muse. There were Romans of all ages in the streets, the busiest area being the shopping streets around via Del Corso and the Spanish Steps.

In the past, we have walked from the Spanish Steps through Villa Borghese north to the hotel. Today we opted to go north on the popular via Veneto, east on via Sicilia, north on via Salaria continuing on to Piazza Ungheria from which it is only a ten minute walk to the hotel. It was an interesting walk through nice neighborhoods of the city center, offering another perspective of life in Rome. After the long walk into the early evening, it was great to enjoy a salad and pasta at the hotel and retire fairly early.
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Early to bed and late to rise, now finally we had overcome our sleep deprivation. We received a tip about a place that serves the "ultimate" roast pork (porchetta) sandwich. Bus #360 to the train station brought us within minutes of roast pork paradise. The Roman National Museum, across from where the bus stops, is at the corner of via Viminale. Er Buchetto is a hole-in-the-wall with three tables located at 2F via de Viminale. Take-away orders are filled for those not wishing to wait for seats. Upon entering, one is greeted by the amicable owner carving slices of freshly-roasted pork for filling panino or for eating separately with a bread roll and a side dish or two.

We managed to squeeze into a couple of seats and opted for sandwiches and the delicious local wine that's featured. Sheer delight, the divinely-flavored, succulent pork is roasted to a turn and served in a crispy roll. While chewing the last of our sandwiches, we nodded to each other and ordered one more for sharing. This place is a real find that the locals have been keeping to themselves.

The blue sky, bright sun and moderate temperature was still with us as we crossed via Nationale to via delle Quattro Fontane, turning left on via del Quirinale to Piazza del Quirinale dominated by the magnificent Fountain of the Dioscuri. The Quirinale Palace faces onto the piazza. Since 1948 it has housed the offices and residence of the President of the Italian Republic. The palace takes its name from the hill on which it stands, the highest of Rome's seven hills, the Quirinale. The costumed guards and sentries were striking as they stood at attention and then marched at the monumental front entrance. The Palazzo della Consulta, now the seat of Italy's Constitutional Court, faces the piazza and with the fountain and the palace makes a powerful architectural statement.

After wandering down the hill to via del Corso, we found our way to Piazza del Collegio Romano for a tour of the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, seat of one of the most prestigious private art collections. We were captivated by the sculptures and paintings of Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Velasquez and our favorite, Bernini.

Once again we were within striking distance of Giolitti for a late afternoon treat. (Hey, they didn't name a flavor after Linda for nothing! La Paloma in Toronto often features Cioccolinda, Linda's all-time favorite, dark chocolate with toasted almonds.
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Giorgio suggested we try a new restaurant he had recently discovered. Antico Arco Ristorante is located at Piazzale Aurelio 7, Giannicolo, Tel: 06/5815274. The crisp, contemporary environment is supported by a similar menu and service. All dishes were beautifully presented, prepared from top quality ingredients with neat extra touches that were unexpected delights. While we perused the tantalizing menu, we were served house appetizers of quails eggs, polenta, melted cheese with fresh pepper, a delicate, delicious delight to go with our first sips of a fruity Merlot by Casale del Giglio, Lazio.

Linda started with foie gras mousse served with crunchy pan brioche, which she proclaimed wonderful! I had spaghetti with a thick, rich melted pecorino sauce and ground black pepper, an incredible taste delight. The first of the extras is that Linda was served a tasting portion of my pasta. Before our mains, the second surprise appeared in the form of a Piemonte risotto made with Nebbiolo wine, celery and carrot. Next time we visit this restaurant, a full order of this dish will be on our agenda.

We enjoyed the leisurely pace of the service, an appropriate waiting time between courses. Linda's beef tenderloin slices with sautéed artichokes on a bed of fried noodles was matched in tenderness and flavor by my two lamb tenderloins wrapped in a thin, herbed crust with foie gras sauce and a poached pear sauced with Port. This was a marvelous dining experience at fair prices.
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After an early breakfast, we walked to Piazza Ungheria and took the #19 tram to the Vatican (25 minutes). We had not been back to St. Peter's Basilica since our first visit in 1980 with our children. Our memories were dim on specifics but bright with the remembrance of the vast scale and the exquisite works of art. The big difference was having to go through a security checkpoint and the number of guards around.

There are five doors leading to the Basilica, each of which has a story. The central bronze door is a bronze smith’s masterpiece. Its relief’s include scenes of the martyrdoms of Saints Peter and Paul. The last door on the right is the Porta Santa, famous throughout the world because it is only opened by the Pope at the beginning of Jubilee years.

Once again, walking into the Basilica was awe-inspiring, a grandiose intertwining of religion and art. Immediately to the right is the Chapel of the Pieta, with its famous Michelangelo statue of the body of Christ lying across the lap of his mother, which the artist sculpted at the age of 24.

We were entranced by the beautiful sculpture, the architecture and the art, the gigantic 120 meters high dome, the magnificent bronze canopy below the dome, the colossal statues of St. Helena, St. Veronica, St. Longinus and St. Andrew and the list goes on and on. The arresting genius of Bernini and Michelangelo thrilled us once again.

Below the Basilica are the Vatican crypts, which contain a collection of early-Christian sarcophagi and numerous tombs of Popes. We went down to the first level, which is stunning. Reservations are required to visit the two lower levels.

Via dei Corridori Borgo S. Angelo connects the Vatican to Castel S. Angelo. The brick superstructure that runs along this way contains a passageway the Pope's used to take refuge in the castel, which was used as a fortress in times of peril.

The large, round castel is an imposing structure intended by the Emperor Hadrian as the burial place for himself and his family. The picturesque Ponte Sant'Angelo in front linked the mausoleum with the center of Rome. All but the first and last bridge supports are original. The views along the Fiume Tevere are captivating in both directions. The mausoleum when converted to a fortress became a prison. It now houses a very worthwhile museum with exhibits explaining its history and construction, wonderfully-preserved and beautifully-decorated. Papal apartments with frescoes and prisoners cells are a major attraction. Also quite unique is the collection of strongboxes that used to contain the church archives brought over by the popes. Our favorite was a tiny chapel designed by Michelangelo with a gorgeous white marble window visible from the outside. The climb to the top is worth the effort for compelling panoramic views of all of Rome.
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Crossing Pont Sant'Angelo, we continued on via dei Coronari, which was the way pilgrims came to the Vatican. In earlier times, religious items were sold here but today it is home to serious and inviting antique shops. All the shops along this street are interesting as well the narrow side streets and alleys. The apartments above are very much in demand as this spot in the heart of old Rome has somehow escaped the constant masses of tourists.

Piazza Navona is a tourist favorite for enjoying a sidewalk coffee and people watching. Today a seasonal lack of tourists and a slight drizzle kept the traffic to a minimum. It was just us and mostly students admiring Bernini's Fountain of the Rivers and the 17th century baroque masterpiece, the Church of Sant'Agnese in Agony (named for a young girl slaughtered for refusing marriage), designed by Rainaldi and Barromini. This popular piazza is situated on the site and retains the shape of the ancient Stadium of Domitan. The buildings surrounding the piazza are actually supported by the ancient bleachers.

The Church of Sta. Maria della Pace is adjacent to the piazza in vicolo della Pace. It was erected in 1482 by Pontelli and restored in 1656 by Pietro da Cortona. The baroque facade was painted by Raphael and the dome and graceful cloisters were designed by Bramante.

Continuing eastward, it's a short walk to the most imposing, most important and best-preserved Roman Temple, the Pantheon. It was built by Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of Augustus in 27 B.C. in honor of all gods, hence its name. In 609 it was consecrated as a Christian church by Pope Boniface IV, who dedicated it to the Virgin Mary and all the martyr saints. The church became the burial place of illustrious Italian artists and members of the Royal Family.

The entrance is supported by 16th century granite columns from Egypt. The brass from below the roof was used by Bellini to cast the great baldacchino over the Confessione in St. Peter's Basilica. An imposing bronze door leads to an incredible and majestic circular design. Alternating rectangular and semi-circular niches line the walls. The hemispheric dome is 43.30 meters to its open top and its diameter is an equal to its height. It's not only an architectural marvel, but an encyclopedia of Roman culture.

There are certain sites that always require a visit, perhaps to perpetuate the good feelings that bring us back to certain places. The Trevi Fountain has that effect on us. It was built on the rear of two buildings and across a patio between the two. The architect Nicolo Salvi erected it for Clement XII at the end of the 17th century. At its center is a statue of Ocean riding in a sea-chariot drawn by two Titans, the basin below symbolizing the sea. We still give an audible gasp when we catch our first view and we do not have to throw a coin into the fountain to guarantee a return to this splendid city - we're returning for eight more days after visiting Lucca and Florence!
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