So. Where to begin? Perhaps first with an admission of guilt. I’m guilty of extreme procrastination, my mind and time on other matters (namely work), but always with the nagging thought ‘I should be writing. If it’s important enough, I can find the time’. So here I go, with less than 48 hours left of our Christmas vacation in an attempt at atonement for my wayward typist hands that have (in self defense) spent many hours tap-tapping on this keyboard- just not on this blog. It’s clear to me that if I try to cover all we’ve been up to since returning to Lagos in August, I’m afraid I’d never finish- so, I best keep this post focused on the two and a half weeks Greg and I just spent in Italy.
But, before I dig into a thick description of the food and the wine, and the sites and the adventures, I think establishing a bit of ‘travel style’ background is in order. I believe that we all have our own unique travel style, either as individuals or as couples. Some people like to plan out their travel in advance down to the minutiae of details: the particular pieces of art to view in each museum visited, dinner reservations at that to-die-for restaurant, or a planned walk to a particular street corner at a particular time to view a particular monument or statue. These travelers book in advance after spending hours researching and comparing, calculating costs whether in dollars or simply the benefits of visiting one area/country over another. These travelers have done their homework, know where they’re going and why, and what they’ll see when they get there. There is a daily schedule, a plan, a timetable and a list to check off. I like to think of them as ‘destination driven’ travelers; this is not a criticism, merely an observation.
Then there’s travelers like me and Greg. We are at the opposite end of the travel spectrum. We are probably more ‘come as it may’ than ‘destination driven’. There are no advanced dinner reservations, very little research accomplished, and plane tickets (and hotel rooms) are often purchased close to the departure date, much to our travel agents’ chagrin. And, there is absolutely no daily schedule planned in advance- at best, we have a vague idea of what we might like to see or do on any particular day. At some point before our impending departure, we’ll pull out a calendar and talk about possibilities. Then we put the calendar away again because we can’t make a decision- “I don’t know, what do you want to see” turns into, “Let’s talk about it next weekend” until it’s down to the wire and we have to make some bookings. The first thing we do upon arrival at our new destination is to procure a tourist city map, followed by a dinner recommendation from the concierge or desk clerk for something ‘Local, not too touristy’ and head out. We study the map during our meal, Google what looks interesting or things we’ve already heard about, and go from there. Much of our time in a new place is spent going for a stroll without a concrete destination in mind. Our walk is punctuated by numerous stops- for a cup of tea, a scoop or two of gelato, a long lunch or a chance to duck into an interesting shop.
It comes down to this. Our criteria for a good vacation is time spent observing the unfolding and cadence of the local scene, stumbling upon a fabulously one-of-a-kind, hole-in-the-wall restaurant. But most of all, time to let out a long, pent up breath and simply be…together. So far, this strategy has worked really well for us. Although I will admit that we had to do a bit more pre-planning for Italy, at least for our time in Rome, because we were meeting friends there. More on that later. Suffice to say, Greg and I are happiest when our vacation is mostly unplanned and spontaneous, includes lots of good food (and wine for me), time for Greg to sleep-in in the morning while I find a river or other interesting area to take a long run, and an afternoon nap for the both of us. We accomplished all of this, and even managed to see a boat-load of antiquities during our visit to Italy.
Ah, Italy… seductive temptress of slow artisanal foods and plentiful inexpensive wine, a storied and ancient past casually waiting around the next corner (and the next, and the next…), pleasant and helpful locals, efficient and timely trains…really, what’s not to love? Yes, Italy caters to tourists and there’s more museums, historical sites and monuments to idle away your days then most other countries then most other places- the exception is Egypt, reveling in her glorious, yet somewhat faded, pharaonic past.
But, a traveler can also find the chance to get a sense of the more pedestrian, and admittedly less glamorous (but refreshingly authentic) Italy. This is found through casual conversations with locals like Claudio, the bartender at the Hotel Berchielli in Florence where we stayed for six days. With minimal prompting, Claudio shared how vacation days work for Italians (4 weeks in the summer, 2 during the holidays unless one works in the hospitality industry- then, time is best taken in January), his work history (twenty-five years at Hotel Berchielli- he switched after spending ten years at a different hotel because his current management is more efficient, he enjoys his colleagues, and it’s closer to the train station) and his daily transportation route to work (local train from a small, outlying village thirty minutes away, ten minute walk to work. Cost- 41 Euros per month) and why it doesn’t make sense to own a car in Europe (expensive petrol and purchase price, and small, twisty roads with little or no parking). Like any good host, Claudio is not one to take ‘no’ for an answer. Upon his insistence, I enjoyed a typical Italian dessert of somewhat desiccated biscotti ingeniously softened through an extended dip in a small glass of sweet Italian dessert wine. Simple, refreshing after a robust meal and quintessentially Italian.
We also met Richard, an interesting Brit that returns to Italy time and again for the architecture; he’s in the restoring business back in England where he renovates 400 year-old structures using traditional techniques. Richard and his wife are ‘destination driven’ travels as they book “by appointment only” visits to hidden art galleries housed in Medieval chambers, planning which important pieces of art they will see this visit during their four or fifth tour of the same museum. It’s good I didn’t marry Richard. But, he was great fun to run into in the hotel bar (with Claudio) after returning from dinner for a nightcap and a chat. Richard told us about his latest apprentice ‘This one’s a keeper’ that been working with him these past three years in a small town outside of Wales. Richard was taking pictures of masonry work to send back to his apprentice to demonstrate the timelessness of craftsmanship evident in Florence’s Renaissance-era buildings. Richard kindly sent us pictures of the Ascension parade we would have loved to see, but missed because it was held the same time our train left Florence to take us back for our over-night in Rome before returning to Lagos the next morning.
But, I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Florence was actually the end of our Italy trip- we started in Rome. Much to both of our surprise, the time we spent in Rome was by far our favorite- the weather was perfectly chilly and dry, especially after too many months in the hot and wet of Lagos. Of course, we loved the food, managing to stumble upon amazing little eateries hidden along back streets in small neighborhoods. One of my favorite was found in the Hebrew section towards an area called Trastevere. This is where we had cheese and meat sampler that was even better than a similar board we sampled in Paris last year. I ordered a baked artichoke drizzled in extra VO that was helpfully de-leaved with the hairy center removed, but the long stalk intact. Our first dinner out was with Gulia, more on her soon, at a local pizza joint with hands-down, the best wood fired, thin crust pizza either of us had every eaten.
We wandered the streets of Rome with a vague destination in mind only to stumble upon a multitude of monuments along the way- one afternoon, Greg suggested we go to Neptune’s fountain in the Navona square and I added in finding the Trevi Fountain because it was close. Between the two destinations we managed to run into the Pantheon. After a meandering walk to the Coliseum our first full day, we ran into friends from Lagos that we were planning to meet for dinner that night. About thirty minutes later while having lunch, we were still laughing about our chance encounter with our friends when one of the Kindergarten teachers from Lagos walked up. She was there with her husband and boys seeing the sites and visiting the Vatican for her birthday, and just happened to walk by our back street restaurant.
Understandable, we were most excited about seeing Gulia, Greg’s Italian exchange-daughter that stayed with his family in Kalama during her senior year of high school nearly fifteen years ago. Consulting with the UN on economic-related work while she finishes her PhD, Gulia met us for dinner numerous nights, and spent Christmas Eve day with us at the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. Gulia is smart, funny, easy to spend time with and quintessentially Italian. I fell in love with her within five minutes of meeting. We’re hoping she’ll visit us in Lagos, the economics of developing countries is her work-focus, and we’d love to have her come sailing with us in the summer. We had detailed conversations about the nuance of language- what is the literal translation of prego (I beg of you) versus the usage (you’re welcome) as in ‘thank you (gratsi), you’re welcome (prego)’ and the benefits of owning a scooter over public transportation despite the expense (the metro is old and annoying and buses tend to not always follow the correct routes). While I don’t think Greg or I ever figured out what to look for, Gulia insists there are definite signs of a good gelato shop versus a mediocre, touristy gelato shop…something about the number of flavors, the look of the display case and the person standing behind the counter. All I know is that the gelato we had with Gulia has convinced me that ice cream is a far second in comparison.
One of our days in Rome was actually spent outside of Rome in a little village called Tarquinia about an hour train ride northwest along the coast. Set in the hills about the valley, as any good Medieval city should be, Tarquinia gave us another experience of authentic Italy. We met our friends from Lagos, Sean and Katerina, as it’s Kat’s hometown and they have an apartment in the ‘family’ building directly outside the Medieval walls of the city. The area is known as a Etruscan site with numerous pre-Roman excavations of villages and artifacts above the Medieval walls. We learned all about Tarquinia’s far past via Kat’s father who doesn’t speak any English, but told me all the stories whether Kat was there to translate or not. Wandering through the 600 years old church and museum holding countless artifacts with Kat’s fathers made for an amazing, and again, authentic experience.
A view of the valley from the Medieval city of Tarquania
This was also the site of the most epic meal I’ve had anywhere in the world. Greg and I experienced true ‘slow-food’ with a family-style sit down Italian lunch that lasted three hours. I cannot possible do the meal the justice it deserves other than to say if was a locally sourced, fresh that day, made-to-order amalgam of old-world culinary tradition and a genuine affinity for demonstrating love through food. When I cut into my individual starter of artisanal cheeses and meats served on a scared board and saw my ecstasy mirrored in Greg’s face, I knew we were in for something special. Wild boar, roasted chestnuts, white truffles, home-made pastas, rabbit, hand-stretched buffalo cheese- it’s telling that not one of us had room for dessert (even the teenagers), though we all did manage an espresso, keeping with the Italian theme.
As much as we absolutely loved our gastronomic slow-food experience in Tarquinia, Greg and I went mostly gluten-free two days later. (What!? Who would suddenly decide to go gluten-free in Italy of all places?) I know, I know- what about the thin crust oven fired pizzas, the freshly rolled and cut pastas, the pieces of crusty bread slowly swiped across a shallow plate filled with pooled extra virgin olive oil and aged balsamic? I won’t bore you with the details other than to say that the extreme congestion Greg has been experiencing since we met over six years ago pretty much disappeared after 24-hours after our first dinner sans bread or pasta. So, like any good traveler that measures the worth of a day around finding the next glorious meal, we refocused our culinary sights on three items: cheese and meat plates, tender cuts of beef and as many green veggies we could stuff in. This leads me to our favorite restaurant in Florence, Il Celestino.
We managed to snag a last minute seating after rolling into town. We had traveled by fast train from Venice late afternoon on New Year’s Eve. We had been prepped with tales of Florence’s culinary delights so anticipation was running high. In particular, we were encouraged, no it was demanded, that we try bistecka while in Florence, an amazing cut of dry-aged, grass fed T-bone finished as all superior cuts of meat should be; grilled medium rare and adorned with a simple shake or two of salt and pepper, then finished with a drizzle of EVOO. Did I mention the minimum order for bistecka is 1 kilo? For my American friends that may not be up on their metric conversion, that’s 2.2 pounds and yes, we ate every tender ‘slice with a butter knife’ morsel. And, this was after sharing a starter of tuna carpaccio served over arugula (rocket), a side order of fresh fries (not really on our new diet, but hey, it wasn’t wheat!), and fresh spinach sauteed in garlic, onions and olive oil and a split of Chianti. We were in Florence six nights total and we unashamedly ate at Il Celestino three times, but we only ate bisteka twice- the third night, we opted for the more sensible baked salmon.
Our waiter was engaging in an authentic way, and interested in our experiencing the best they had to offer by suggesting we try the ‘Just made three hours earlier’ Tiramisu (I know, gluten, but not like a hunk of bread) and the flourless chocolate lava cake. I think what I like most about Celestino’s is that it was clearly a family endeavor. The owner’s daughter hosted New Year’s Eve, and was there our last night with her kids celebrating her daughter’s birthday- we were brought a piece of the birthday cake after the entire restaurant sang happy birthday. Should I admit that after we had already eaten dessert? Seems indulgent, especially since I’m pretty sure we had our ‘last chance’ gelato stop earlier in the afternoon. But it wasn’t all just eating and wandering around ancient sites.
I’ve discovered that one of my favorite parts of travel, especially since moving to Lagos, is the opportunity to run somewhere shall we say, a bit more pedestrian friendly. Or at least pedestrian neutral. This is a big mark of a good vacation for me- a chance to go for long, uninterrupted runs, especially along rivers. I run in Lagos three or four days a week, depending on my work schedule. During the week, I run the field at school; fives times around the outer edge is a mile. I’ve stacked up quite a few in the last year and a half. While adequate, it can become a bit mundane I imagine somewhat like a rodent on a wheel inside a cage. So, on Sunday mornings, I run ‘out’, meaning some pre-determined route around Victoria Island or Lekki Island that I’ve communicate to Greg before taking off. Better safe than s
orry. I’m mostly left alone, especially as the only thing I have on my possession is an extremely old phone shoved in the side of my running bra that is not very noticeable (not a whole lot going on up there). Besides, I’d challenge pretty much anyone to reach inside my shirt for any reason. I run Sunday mornings outside of campus so I can have some sort of unfettered contact with local Nigerians, feel like I have a sense of independence and hold on to a sense of normalcy.
So when we’re traveling, I make sure we’re going somewhere I can run. I’ve run along the Seine in Paris (see blog post from October 2014), a huge urban park in Spain (see blog from Christmas 2014), the boardwalk in Cape Town (oops! See October 2016- actual blog and pictures will come shortly, promise) and the Tiber River in Rome, followed by the Arno in Florence. One of the advantages of running in Europe during October and December-January is the cool. I’ve read that 50 degrees fahrenheit is the optimal temperature for running and I’m a believer. I pounded out a quick 8.5 miles on New Year’s day in Florence, yet nearly threw-up after running dismal 10 minute miles during a 10K race last year in Lagos. Clearly I’m more northwest than tropical girl.
The other great part about running a city you’re visiting is the chance to reconnoiter a route that one may not have chosen if simply walking. This was the case in Rome Christmas morning when I stumbled upon the quaint bridge to the Hebrew section of Rome, which led to our discovery of the fabulous dinner the next day I already wrote about. It’s impossible not to return to the same spot where an ancient old man was playing traditional jewish tunes on the accordion in the early morning chill to share with your traveling partner in crime.
In part, this is probably why Venice, while an amazing site to behold, was my least favorite part of our trip. Picturesque, romantic, quaint and magical, Venice is truly a site to behold- just not if you’re looking for a little elbow room or respite from other tourists. Venice was all this and more; extremely crowded, claustrophobically narrow, and very expensive with a sole focus on the tourist trade. We took a ton of pictures because Venice is as stunning as the pictures or movies you’ve seen. But, there’s just not a lot to offer beyond the canals and Gucci shopping, especially if you’re ‘come as it may’ travelers like Greg and I. Venice takes planning and that’s just not our style. However, we did buy tickets (yep, stumbled upon the opportunity wandering around the streets) to one of my favorite indulgences: a live concerto of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a Renaissance-era building, the name of which I’ve lost track, complete with the performers wearing period costumes and wigs. I tried to talk Greg into the Verdi and Rossini operetta (I love the Barber of Seville), but that was a no-go for him.
‘Click’ the links below to view some youtube videos in Venice…
So, the concerto and the numerous iterations of Panna Cotta we sampled were my favorite parts of Venice. Running was simply not possible; too many tourists, too cold (about 32 degrees) and just not the same vibe as Rome. Glad we went? Absolutely, time and money well spent. Would we plan a return trip? Nope. But, we’re already thinking about a return trip to Italy for more time in Rome, a trip to Pompeii and the island of Sicily. We’d love to visit Gulia’s at her home on Sardinia to meet her parents and sample the cuisine. I bet there’s even some good running there, if we time it right.
I hope your Christmas and New Year’s was as glorious as ours; enjoy 2016!
If you’re interested in browsing all 386 of our pictures from this trip, I’ll send a link to my new Google Photos site. They are sequential: Rome- Venice- Florence- Rome. Enjoy!