Thursday, April 30, 2015

Florence - Thursday - 4/30/15

Finally this morning I awoke feeling somewhat normal! The maid barged in at 7:30am and woke me up which sort of screwed up my sleep, but it was still probably my most peaceful night of sleep thus far. Not for poor Eric, he was still struggling. We set the alarm for 9am and I dragged him out of bed around 9:30am.

After many attempts on a very unreliable website, we booked our train passes to Florence, and headed to breakfast. I had my usual plate of sweets, yogurt, and fruit. Eric had his usual; my leftover sweets, eggs, and sausage. The cappuccinos and coffee were perfect as expected.

I can't get over the difference in customer service here in Italy vs. the US. Sometimes it's a good thing, like being left alone while shopping, but most of the time it is bad. For example, the Italians don't always go out of their way to extend themselves the way Americans do. I often sense attitude from employees and definitely a lack of friendly faces. There are also frequent displays of unprofessionalism that would be completely inappropriate anywhere back home. For example, the hostess at breakfast was visibly upset and started storming around the tables while her employee made a face behind her back. I am sitting here watching this and noticed others watching too. I couldn't understand a word she spoke but I knew it was bad. All I have to say is that I'll take the customer service in America (even when it's corny or fake at times) over the service in Italy any day! God bless America! Haha

The next few hours were quite boring. We freshened up and packed. We were both feeling a little nervous about the gypsies and pick pockets at the train station (mostly because Eric spent 2 hours researching these fascinating subjects last night). We both left ultra paranoid.

Although we spent most of the day traveling, it was nice to just relax and take our time. Today might be the only day in my life when I wake up in Rome and go to bed in Florence. Kind of cool!

Well, we made it on the train with no gypsies! You can't trust everything you read online... Eric and I faced each other sitting in aisle seats with a table in the middle. All of the window seats were taken when we booked the tickets. We didn't want to book too far in advance in case something unexpected came up.

I found the train station to be very non threatening but also very crowded and quite confusing! We had to ask a lady for help twice, as we tried to figure out which track our train was on (and by we, I mean Eric who did all our navigating).

Before boarding, I realized I was hungry and didn't want to pay for train station junk food, so I quickly opened our large suitcase on the floor and pulled out 4 granola bars while Eric kept a lookout. Mission accomplished, and after chowing on 2 bars I felt a little more relaxed.

This was Eric's first time on a high speed train. There were big windows everywhere and I couldn't wait for the views! I sat next to an Italian girl around my age and Eric sat next to an Italian man in his 40s. Both seemed friendly enough. I felt so relieved to be sitting next to a woman knowing I wouldn't have to worry about some oversized man invading my personal space!

I actually fell asleep for a few minutes on the train, so I must have under-slept last night because I never nap. I used the restroom once and it was so clean - I was shocked.

On the train writing this blog on my iPhone

I can't emphasize enough how absolutely gorgeous and picturesque the Italian countryside is. It's exactly like you're imagining except better. All the trees and grass are incredibly green and the mountain range is stunning. "Wow" is all I can say. It looks like a fairytale!

The train ride flew by in flash. I couldn't believe how quick we arrived in Florence. The train travels up to 150mph which I guess explains why. The Florence train station was just as packed and chaotic as Rome's.

It was a bit of a challenge to walk with our 4 suitcases and 2 bags all the way to the hotel. The distance was close but it was tough because of the cobblestone streets, traffic, and crowds.

My first impression of Florence wasn't much because I was too focused on getting my bags to the hotel. We were both so relieved when we walked into our lobby off this narrow little road.

Part of the lobby of our hotel, Number Nine

We were greeted by this pretty Italian woman with the sweetest personality. Right off the bat, I was so impressed with the personal 5-star service we received at the Number Nine hotel! She seated us in the lobby and we were served glasses of chilled water. She sat with us and reviewed everything we needed to know about our stay.

The concierge helped us choose an authentic restaurant for dinner that evening and even made us a reservation for 7:30pm. Our host escorted us to our room and we were so in love with the place! It's definitely more of a boutique hotel, and you feel it immediately with the high end service and chic decor. Our room was so nice, modern, and very clean. There was a beautiful bathroom, robes, slippers, and a comfortable bed. It was not nearly as big as our suite at the Westin in Rome, but completely fine for us.

Eric feeling excited about our Florence arrival

Beautiful bathroom

Quaint and cozy

The exterior of our room

We settled in and unpacked. One super neat perk was that the mini fridge was stocked with drinks/snacks and it's all free! Also, we could have breakfast delivered to our room for free, which is always nice. There is a spa and gym downstairs that I will have to check out tomorrow. I'd like to use the gym at least once while I'm here.

Everything FREE in the mini fridge

I didn't even bother changing out of my yoga pants and we headed out to explore. Our hotel is situated on a narrow little street with several restaurants and shops right next door. I was falling for Florence already! We walked to the end of the street, looked left, and whoa! There before our eyes was the Duomo. As Eric had told me, it truly is a spectacular church. It's tough to describe, but the exterior of the structure is magical. It almost doesn't seem real. Again I felt like I was in a Disney movie or something. I'm happy we stayed so close to the Duomo because we'll get to see it everyday.

Incredible detail on the exterior of the Duomo

Another view of the Duomo. It's huge

We continued our walk towards the Duomo. There is such a noticeable difference between Rome and Florence. They are barely comparable and sort of different the way Boston and NYC are different (with Florence being Boston and Rome being NYC). Eric told me there are tons of study abroad programs and universities in Florence, which explains all the young vibrant students everywhere. This city feels so lively, positive, and fun. The streets are quainter and cleaner. The people in general seem happier. These were all things I noticed almost immediately and Eric agreed. I for one, was so excited I couldn't stop smiling!

Bell Tower next to the Duomo

Eric has been to Florence before, back in 2006. He said it feels like nothing has changed and he's excited to be back with me :) One fun thing I came across is the Magnum shop. Magnum the brand of ice cream bars you buy at our grocery stores! There is this large shop that sells different kinds of Magnum bars and you can customize your ice cream bar by adding toppings to it! I will definitely try this while I am here.

Customize your own Magnum Ice Cream Bar - YUM

When I realized we still had over an hour until our dinner reservation, I grabbed a cup of gelato. I couldn't resist the elaborate display of fluffy flavors, even though I knew it was "fake." Regardless, it tasted creamy and delicious and came with free pieces of waffle cone, my favorite!

Fluffy Display of Delicious Gelato

It was a beautiful night with clear skies but very chilly. Unfortunately the smoking habits here are just as awful as Rome. Gross!

We stopped and took pictures at a few different plazas. One notable plaza we frequented during our stay is named "Piazza della Signoria." There was a cool museum, large fountains, and tons of historic statues. 

Piazza della Signoria

Historic statues in the plaza

Our favorite statue - Perseus with the head of Medusa

After the plaza we walked to the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge. It was packed with people and full of shops. The view from the bridge was gorgeous! I loved seeing the Tuscan mountains in the background.

View from the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge

Great shot of Eric on the Ponte Vecchio bridge

As we toured around the city I took advantage of a cool photo-op and asked Eric to pose.

Eric modelling on the streets of Florence

Another adorable kids clothing store! 

After walking around a few sites, we arrived at our restaurant (Club Culinario Toscano Da Osvaldo). The interior was small and homey and we were greeted by a very friendly server. It's funny how serious they take dinner reservations in Italy. We were the first people to arrive for dinner (at 7:20pm) and every table had a place card on it with the name of the reservation. I noticed a board that listed all the specials and in the corner it said "love is free." How sweet is that? It certainly set the tone for what turned out to be such an enjoyable meal. 

On our first night in Florence, we ate here

I love the interior of the restaurant. So much character I could have taken dozens of photos!

We sat down excitedly to examine the menu and ordered house wine with many different dishes. My favorites are in the following order - artichoke appetizer, roasted green peppers, Ravioli with a hearty potato filling and light sauce, meatballs (much different from your standard meatball and very tasty) and last but not least, turnips.

My favorite - artichoke appetizer

These were breaded meatballs - I have never eaten anything like this before.  The sauces complimented the meat very well

Eric's ravioli was scrumptous!

Obviously Dessert was great as well. We split tiramisu and homemade limoncello. I didn't even realize I liked limoncello but this was excellent.

Does this even need a caption? I think not....

You don't have to tip in Italy but we left 4€ because I was so pleased with the service. I felt like the waiter really loved his job, and described the menu items with sincere passion. I loved my experience at this restaurant and would highly recommend it to others.

By the time we left dinner, the city was hopping! There were bands playing all over and people swarming everywhere. This city almost feels like an adult playground, especially since you can drink in the streets. I saw many students walking in packs drinking openly.

We realized this is a holiday weekend in Florence. I guess May 1st is their Labor Day, which probably explains all the festivities. We walked by a shoe shop and the employees were blasting music and dancing around. It was so funny and so something you'd only see in Europe. We almost felt tempted to stay out and enjoy the fun, but we weren't dressed properly and felt too tired. I would rather start fresh tomorrow and I can tell this party will last all weekend anyway.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rome - Wed - 4/29/15

The alarm went off at 9am and after a few minutes I forced myself out of bed, feeling like I was being waken in the middle of a deep sleep again. This is definitely the hardest part of my days in Rome (I know, poor me) but I am slowly getting accumulated. Within 5 minutes I started to feel okay and forced Eric up.

Dressed casually, we headed down to our elaborate and free breakfast buffet. The Sotheby's conference was in full force and agents in suits were swarming every inch of the lobby. They had their own private breakfast so our restaurant wasn't too full. I ordered my usual cappuccino and americano. Eric had to track down water, which seems to be a hot commodity in this hotel and is never readily available. As I ate a variety of Italian cakes, coffee flavored yogurt, and fruit, we discussed our upcoming day and I told Eric more about my friendship with Aman, whom we'll see later today! 

There was a waiter who kept grabbing plates off our table way too quickly, American style. Annoying! The lax service in Italy is one thing I really enjoy. It's so beyond obnoxious when servers are hovering nearby waiting to grab your plate the second you finish.

After our restroom ritual was finally complete, we headed out into the absolutely beautiful day. The weather was perfect and we deserved it after last nights rain. Eric navigated us through the streets, trying to avoid areas with too many tourists. I stopped many times to take photos of interesting shops and buildings.

Quaint organic market near the Westin

I like the name!

Flower Obsession

How neat are these news stands that are all over the city?

Our first destination was Plaza Navona, which turned out to be quite charming.

Eric standing in Plaza Navona

Nutella readily available at one of the many gelato shops

The tourist traps around this plaza were extra tempting and beyond cutesy. There were tons of artists gathered in the middle of the plaza with their paintings on display. I would love to buy one for home but was worried about transporting it safely. We took your standard shots of the church and fountains and headed out, being extra careful for pick-pocketers!

Art in the plaza. I want one!

Charming terrace in the plaza

Church in the plaza

Me in front of the church

Street Performer - I had to shoot from a distance otherwise you have to pay for a picture!

So many kids stores in Rome!

Eventually I came across the most hilarious street performer, or a man who attached his head to a fake baby's body in a stroller. His legs were hidden so all you saw was this huge human head in a stroller sucking on a pacifier making baby noises. It was so disturbing and fascinating at the same time. I tried to sneak a pic for free but the guy noticed and stuck his head down. Can you imagine doing that type of work? I would guess that it requires an intense regimen of hard core drug usage.

Disturbing street performer - he hide his face because I didn't pay to take a picture!

It was a short walk to the Pantheon, our next stop. We managed to sneak a bathroom break in a restaurant with really clean bathrooms, which was a huge win! The Pantheon, like all the attractions in Rome, was impressive to see in person. It's so large and so old and I couldn't help but wonder how in the world it was built with such little technology 2,000 years ago!

Eric in front of the Pantheon

The Pantheon up close and personal

The area was busy but not too overly crowded so we walked in and hung out for a bit.

The most fascinating thing I spotted inside the Pantheon was this outrageous mullet

Interior of the Pantheon

Afterwards we headed back to the hotel and showered to get ready for the rest of our day. 

Palm trees in Rome

By 3pm, we hopped into a cab and took off for Trastevere. The plan was to meet Aman at 6 in the main square, but we arrived early to explore the town. We started by attempting to trace the steps of our foodie tour from the night before. This only worked for the first ten minutes and then we couldn't remember anymore.

Trying to trace our steps from the food tour...

We randomly found the cheese shop from our foodie tour

I found a cute store and spent some time looking around. If this boutique were located in the US, you would be immediately greeted by an overly eager and desperate saleswoman. This behavior generally prevents me from shopping in boutiques back home. In Italy, however, you are completely ignored as if you don't exist. I therefore felt comfortable enough to browse without a desperate salesclerk watching my every move. I decided on a small serving platter and a retro necklace. I haven't decided yet if these will be gifts or if I'll keep them for myself.

Cute shop where I bought a few souvineers

I was enthralled with the character of this bookstore! You'd never come across a shop like this at home (maybe in Cambridge...)

The narrow cobblestone streets of Trastevere

Mmmm tasty window display

We then wandered through the streets and finally found a neat restaurant named Baylon Cafe to unwind and have a little snack before dinner. This place had great style and a hip vibe. We ordered red wine, a salad (trying to eat my veggies), and prosciutto with mozzarella. Until recently I never realized how much I like prosciutto, mmm.

Our table at Baylon Cafe

I noticed the Italians like to put corn in salads, yum

I think you know what this is...

I tried to use the bathroom before we left but the stank in there was too overwhelming. It was the kind of stench that's so strong, you almost feel like you ate it. Absolutely disgusting! Unfortunately, I have found that the public bathrooms in Italy are generally filthy and unkept. This definitely isn't always the case, but it certainly seems to be an issue here more than in the US!

We continued through the streets and came across John Cabot University, which is the school MSU partners with for study abroad! At State, I was dying to do this program and just couldn't afford it. It's so funny to see the school in person after so many years!

John Cabot University - I am sure my Mom remembers how badly I wanted to study abroad here!

This window sill captured my attention

Eric looking fly as we walked around town

Eventually, I felt tired of walking and dodging the endless stream of aggressive motorcyclists and mini cars. I literally wanted to kick the next one that zoomed by me at high speed! Enough already!

We found our meeting place early, and had a glass of prosecco while waiting for Aman to show up. I liked that this restaurant served little appetizers to go with our cocktails for free (mini sandwiches, olives, potato chips). Midway through our prosecco, we had to move to avoid the yucky second hand smoke coming from table next to us. Joy.

Aman showed up and I spotted her across the plaza. I got up to greet her and she looks almost exactly the same! It's funny how some people from high school look exactly the same and some completely different.


As expected, we had a lovely evening with Aman. It was Eric's first time meeting her. She reminded me that the last time I saw her was 2 years ago, or April 2013 right before she moved to Italy and right before my wedding. I think back to our cross country running days in high school and can't believe that here we are in Rome together! Of course we did a ton of catching up while taking a walk around and stopping at a few of her favorite shops. I bought 2 more necklaces.

I love this necklace!

We then headed to Meridionale, the restaurant where Aman had made a reservation. Her boo, Kenny, was supposed to meet us but he wasn't feeling well. We enjoyed a 3 hour meal and had a great time! When we first arrived, Aman started reading through the whole menu, describing every option to us. Finally, Eric noticed that she was given a menu in Italian and we were given menus in English. Lol. I enjoyed hearing Aman's explanation either way.

The food was unique and very delicious. The atmosphere and decor was awesome. We were so happy she took us here because we would have never found it on our own. At 7pm the place was empty and by the time we left around 10pm it was packed. I love how late they eat in this country!

It was fun learning about Aman's international life in Rome. She does communications work for a large research company, which is where she met Kenny, who is from Peru. It seems that she is quite content with life in Rome and is trying to figure out her future like the rest of us. Her family is visiting in July and they are renting a large villa in the Amalfi coast. Wish I could go!

After dinner, Eric snapped a cool pic of us in front of some interesting graffiti, and off we went. Now that our evening is over, I wonder when I'll see Aman again.... Maybe her wedding in Peru?

June 2008 - Aman visits Nina in Boston

April 2015 - Nina visits Aman in Rome