Rome, Florence and Sestri Levante

I know I’m breaking the prime rule of blogging (be timely) given that I got back from Italy in June but damn, I’ve been BUSY. So, for what it’s worth, here are some of the highlights from my two-week trip. Which already seems like light years ago.

You can find the usual advice on all these places at TripAdvisor.com but here are some things you might not discover.

Rome

Do a tour of the Vatican. It’s worth the price to not have to wait in line for three hours outside and wander around not having a clue as to where you’re going or what you’re looking at. We went with Presto Tours. Our guide was Jen, a law student from Venice Beach, Ca, studying for her LSATs. She had a vast knowledge of Roman history, Vatican artwork and general art history.

Some of the highlights were the Sistine Chapel (which is the only part of the entire Vatican that you are not allowed to photograph), Pinacoteca (or, picture gallery with amazing works from Giotto to Raphael to Caravaggio) and a statue gallery which I forget the name of.

Other must see spots are the Colosseum (the sheer numbers of people and animals killed in it runs shivers up your spine), the Trevi Fountain (started in 1629 and completed in 1762), the Pantheon (built around 125 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian).

As far as restaurants, you really can’t go wrong as long as it’s not one of those tourist traps — you should be able to recognize those. But here are two that were really memorable:

La Fontana: This little family owned restaurant bills itself as “Typical Genuine Home Cooking” and everything from the mozzarella to the lemoncello is made by the family on their farms. I wouldn’t pass up the melon wrapped with prosciutto even if you don’t eat meat. All of their pastas and sauces are home made. It’s located at 36/E Via Liguria near the famous Via Veneto.

Ristorante Arlu: When we walked into this empty restaurant, the family was all sitting at the back table eating their lunch before the crowds came. Don’s pass up the homemade gnocchi no matter what else you eat. It was trully the best we found in Italy. Arlu is the perfect place to eat either before or after the Vatican since it’s only a few blocks away. The address is: Borgo Pio, 135.

Florence:

First, do all the things the guide books tell you to do in Florence. Just make sure you don’t cheat yourself and only schedule a few days here (like we did). There’s so many great sites to see and so many off-the-beaten-path cafes and shops, you really need at least a week.

I found a great apartment to rent online from a vacation rental website: VRBO. It was a lovely 2-bedroom/2-bath a few blocks away from the Galleria dell’ Accademia, where the David is housed. It was much cheaper than most nice hotels and nice because it was in a quiet neighborhood with a family-owned restaurant right next door, a wine shop, salume shop and bakery right across the street. Definitely the way to go if you have kids with you.

All the guidebooks tell you to go to the Duomo. And, it is fabulous. But, unless you have extreme claustraphobia, you have to climb the 463 steep stone steps to the very top of the dome. The view of the Tuscan countryside is reward enough. But if you need more, just substitute that for your workout that day.

There are great restaurants everywhere. The specialty is the Tuscan steak, but I would recommend passing on that (and not just because I don’t eat beef). You can get a gargantuan steak anywhere. It’s not that special. Try Trattoria Za Za at the Piazza del Mercato Centrale. It’s traditional Tuscan fare and it’s very reasonable. Try the traditional bread soup (more bread than soup), the artichoke appetizer and eggplant parmiagiana. And if you must have meat, I hear the beef filet with cognac melts in your mouth.

I would skip all the restaurant desserts in favor of every small gelateria in the city. The oldest, most famous is Vivoli gelateria (via Isole delle Stinche, 7r). It’s a bit tricky to find but well worth the hunt. I discovered melone gelato (cantelope)  in Florence and it is now my all-time favorite. But peach, pear, dulce de leche were all close seconds.

Sestri Levante

After a week in cities, lovely as they were, I was ready to chill on a beach. Thanks to the GPS navigation on my i-phone, we found our way from Florence to the lovely little seaside town of Sestri Levante. Once we arrived there, it was clear this place was like the Jersey Shore for Italians – more of a local vacation spot. We stayed at Hotel Miramare. We had reserved a non-ocean view but they gave us an ocean view with a balcony for the same rate when we checked in and it was lovely. Other than the fact that the air conditioner was somewhat weak and that you have to pay for beach chairs (which was a rip-off at $25 euro a day) the hotel was great. We could walk to the quaint downtown strip full of restaurants and could swim in the bay that was literally ten steps in front of the hotel.

Hotel Miramare at Sestri Levante

Hotel Miramare at Sestri Levante

There’s a lot more I can tell you about these cities if you’re headed that way. Let me know!

Also, there are more photos here:

http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=22681&id=511849773

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