Monthly Archives: September 2013

Best places to stay in Italy

Going to Italy was an adventure in budget travel. We flew over on frequent flyer miles and had a really tight budget. The goals for the trip were simple and frugal; they included eating, walking, having a place to sleep, walking, taking pictures and getting from place to place on public transportation.  Once we arrived we just enjoyed being there.  To accomplish these goals we had our trusty Rick Steve’s guide to Italy and used it to lay out our plan of visiting six cities, seeing what we could for free and staying at his two dollar sign accommodations in each town.  His one dollar listings were hostels so you might worry about the two dollar sign, but we didn’t, and believe me there was no need to be apprehensive. The places we stayed were amazing, and the people who operated them were delightful to talk to.

 The above picture is one of the most famous scenes in Siena. The shot is taken from a bridge with an opening to this view which looks at this magnificent brick church of San Domenico. In fact this very picture is featured in Rick Steves book. The long low building in front and to the right of the church is where we stayed in Siena.  Our balcony is the second one in from the right of the church. The Alma Domus is the former residence of the nuns and offered a pleasant atmosphere at a great value.

Looking out from our “quaint balcony” we could view the Siena red roof tops and the bell tower which tolled every evening and very early on Sunday mornings.

 See how pretty this room is, just perfect for Gina and I.  
 This silly grin and dreamy look on my face gives you an idea of how much I just enjoyed being there.  We spent many minutes taking in the view from our room.

 We arrived in Lucca by bus just after dark. The trick is trying to find these rooms in towns with dimly lit narrow streets and few signs. We loved the flat streets of Lucca.  After two days of walking in towns on hills it gave our legs a break.

Gina is good at following directions and in short order we came upon this grand door that looked like it could open into a castle or a dungeon.  It was a little hard to tell in the dark. We rang the bell and waited, a voice came through the speaker that said he was expecting us.  He would be down in a minute and I couldn’t wait to see what was behind this huge door.

 To our surprise, it opened into a courtyard.  We were guided across the large square, through another grand opening, up a flight of stairs and down a hallway to our room with a private bathroom just across the hall. We should not have been too surprised because Rick Steves says La Magnolia B&B is “buried in a ramshackle old palace in a central location.” It was a perfect location and a wonderful place to stay.

 Obviously these pictures were taken in the daylight and the view out back from our one window was just fine.

Lucky for us free bikes were provided, because the reason we wanted to visit Lucca was so we could ride along the made to order, smooth, flat rampart around the old city wall.  So far we are doing well with the budget.

Oh how we loved magical Manarola. We arrived by train, at the bottom of the hill.  Our lovely room with a view is pictured below, at the very top of the town.  See that large pinkish structure and then the small space with three buildings straight across from it.  Ours is the little pink one between the two lighter colored ones. Trucking up that hill with luggage was just one of the reasons we packed light. We saw two other women who did not pack light, nor could they find their room. The afternoon sun was warm that day, they were not as happy as we were.

Walking down the very narrow street that was ours we heard a lady calling out the window, saying the name of the place we were looking for over and over.  We looked up and said “Yes, we are looking for Ariadmare.  She was very happy to see us, spoke no English, but none the less showed us all around the room explaining how all the doors, windows, keys and lights worked, we smiled and nodded, but got the jist of it. Later her son would be up to go over it again in English, with a thick Italian accent.

The panoramic view off our patio was mesmerizing.  All through the town there were vineyards to walk, hills to climb, pictures to take and streets and shops to explore, what more could you ask for.

This giant water wheel was right around the corner after coming down the longest hill. The incline was so steep you had to hold yourself back.  I joked that this is how the town got its name.  Man-a-roll-a-down- the-hill.

And then we arrived in Rome after a 4 hour train ride of uninterrupted views of life in Italy. It was late afternoon when we got off the train, and we knew our Nun run inn was near the station. We walked up this street and saw a small round building that said information center. Perfect. We asked the whereabouts of The Suore di Santa Elisabeth inn. The lady sent us far away and we walked for a half hour or more with our luggage in tow, only to come back to the same place, walk behind the information center to the door of our inn. Gina figured it out.

We spent the rest of the early evening taking in the full view from our roof terrace that looked right down on the information center where we had stopped. By the time we reached Rome our budget was in such good shape that we added another goal…….shopping!

The terrace was great place to hang out in the day light hours as well, resting up after our long day walking the streets of Rome. Even with a few shopping excursions we still came in under our tight budget and room to put our purchases in our suitcases. We brought our supper up to the terrace and watched the sunset.

 That was just after the half hour nap we had after walking from 9am till 6pm.  We did not consider this a bare bones place to stay because of the great breakfast hall and the terrace, but I gotta admit the walls in our room were pretty bare except for the crucifix above our beds.

We slept well after the bell ringer guy, who got carried away,(I pictured him swinging from the bell rope, unable to stop the ringing) finished his job. It was our last night in Italy and I was dreaming. 
It was a pleasant dream, cause I knew my husband of 45 years, would be happy about the budget. I loved all of our cozy places to stay and much prefer them to any hotel.
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Three Coins and more

When in Italy, do what movie lovers do; visit movie sites. Seeing the places where scenes from some of our favorite movies that were filmed on location was one of our inexpensive goals. Our first movie memory was  in Siena in front of this mammoth white and green striped cathedral called The Duomo in Italian. This ornate shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary is full of colorful art including Michelangelo statues and intricate paintings on the marble floors. 
 After touring the inside of the church we walked down the great steps and realized that the two younger would be lovers, Sofie (Amanda Seyfried) and Charlie (Chris Egan), in the movie “Letters to Juliet,” sat at an outdoor table, and shared gelato in the open area below. What we saw was a bench along the opposite wall but no outdoor tables or gelato stands near by.

Here is another familiar sight on the street corners of Siena, this big footed fellow playing an accordion (that is the correct spelling, I looked it up).  He was not in the movie, but his buddy, a guy in spray paint gold from head to toe, cranking a real music box is the one of these professional pan handlers that appeared in “Letters to Juliet” as Sofie and Charlie strolled through the streets just as we did.  Somehow, even though we saw him, we missed getting a picture of the gold man.

Piazza Navona has been the center of Roman life since ancient times. The oblong square retains the shape of the original race tract built by the emperor Domitian.  Today a variety of aspiring artists hang out here and help keep the famous piazza in Rome’s lime lite.  It was the scene in the movie “Return to Me” where Bob, played by David Duchovny returned to Grace (Minnie Driver) after she fled to Rome upon discovering she was the recipient of his first wife’s heart after she died in a car accident.

You gotta love these beautiful paintings of the doors of Italy.

You could spend a lot of time looking at them.

With few breaks, we walked all over Rome from 9 in the morning till 9 at night.  We had lunch, dinner and a half hour break in our room between those times.  We wanted to see “the mouth of truth” and put our hands in it like Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) did in our favorite Italian movie classic “Roman Holiday”. However, due to a wrong turn or two on poorly marked streets, we missed the face carved in marble and only saw the mouth that “bites off the hands of liars” in this picture at Piazza Navona.

We did see the famous Spanish Steps where Princess Anne (Audrey Hepburn) enjoyed her gelato as Joe sweet talks her into spending the day with him.  I am standing right behind the step she sat on.

Here Gina is sitting right behind the guy who was sitting on the step Audrey Hepburn was sitting on.  He knew he had the step we wanted and was in no mood to move, so we got the next best shot.

Actually, it was a long day and we had a lot of walking to do. We were in no mood to wait for a better shot.

Right around the corner was the famed Trevi Fountain, crowded as usual, with people who want to throw a coin in the gushing watery pool thinking it will give them a wish and assure a return to Rome.  The fountain was made popular in the United States in the 1954 film  “Three coins in the Fountain”, a story of three women who go to Rome and throw coins in the fountain to find love.  The song by the same name became a classic performed by both Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

And there you have it.  Our tour of favorite movie sights in Italy.  Join me next week as we take a peak at our favorite alternatives to hotels.

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Wine, food and gelato – while looking for Lorenzo in Italy

The chick flick movie, Letters to Juliet, told the story of a young girl and an older woman trekking over Italy looking for the man who was her first love many years ago. They found several men, who were indeed not the one she was looking for, but in the end, she did find Lorenzo, whom she immediately fell in love with once again. It was a happy ending. 
My daughter, Gina, was determined to find me a wine I could love on our trip to Italy. It could be our own movie saga, and we were up to the task. We began in high spirits, visiting six cities in the country noted for food, wine and gelato. We called the experience “Looking for Lorenzo.” It turned out to be a harder task than looking for the men in the movie, and the results were not nearly as satisfying. The truth is I don’t like wine or any beverage with the big “A” word in it. I don’t go for the big “C”‘s as in caffeine, coffee or coke either. However, in case you’re wondering I do like Pepsi (diet, caffeine free) Pizza and Parties, and…….
I love Italy!
Our search and our trip began in Assisi, after dark, at dinner time.  We found this little family owned restaurant at the top of the long climb up narrow streets and winding paths.
Pasta and pretty wine settings awaited us. I loved the picture it made.  I was up for the old college try,
that was not the reaction Gina was hoping for.
Take me back to the deep fried mashed potato puffs and that luscious pork in gravy.
Next stop, sweet Siena, a captivating town with steep hills, three story buildings, secrets and laundry lines. I was infatuated with the laundry lines that had clothing hanging on pulleys from nearly every window.  We eyed the white plaster mannequin in the frame and wondered about the secrets she kept behind the curtain.

The famed Piazza with gelato shops on two corners was one of our first stops.  Gelato makes happy faces. In this picture it looks like we are the only ones sitting in the middle of the square but really we are not! Many people sit in this square. So we decided to get our picture taken sitting in the middle of the square. Did everyone just get up and leave us? I don’t think so. Granted, that’s what it looks like, but I promise you, it is the thing to do in the Piazza.  We did not overdose on gelato! We only had two…that day.

Just looking at this display would make your heart sing. It reminded us of another movie made in Italy with the line “Soooooooo  Happy!”  Can you guess which one?
Ah-ha!  Back to the infamous search, with dinner in a pizza shop.  How is the wine here?  Well actually I could sip this one twice, before I gave it up. It was a white sparkling wine.  We concluded that this might be Lorenzo’s cousin, but definitely not him.
Two wonderful nights in Siena and two wonderful dinners.  Everywhere you looked there was wine to be had and delightful pictures to be taken of it’s ever changing displaying varieties.
The aroma of this wine got to me even before the liquid reached my unwilling lips and my taste buds said…..
Oh brother, this is not my Lorenzo!
I didn’t choke right there in front of God and everyone, I just called for water and handed the glass back over to Gina…
and ate the pasta.
It rained in Lucca.  Bad hair day and I felt the same way about the wine.
The train took us to The Cinque Terre or five lands on the northern Mediterranean Coast.  Here we visited a couple of small towns. Corniglia had a picturesque little wine bar called Enoteca Il Pirun, boasting of wine tasting adventures. Ah-ha!  Maybe this is what we are looking for. 

The display of stemmed glasses, and distinctive bottles of multiple shapes and sizes made me want to like the wine.   
Gina tried her hand at what looked to me like guzzling.  You are supposed to pull the pitcher far from your mouth and catch the stream of wine as it tumbles down your throat.  However the bib is provided for misses that dribble down your chin and land on your chest. Mario, the bartender/owner, gave her a demonstration as to how it is done.  Let’s just say he didn’t need a bib, and Gina did.
And you could say tasting didn’t go well for me.

Here we are back in our favorite town of Manarola where the gelato kept getting better and better. Yeah, who needs Lorenzo anyway.
Leaving the coast we end our trip in Rome, doing all the movie sites we could manage in a day, along with the coliseum, complete with gladiators and crowds.
They call it bruschetta – it looks like tomatoes on toast. It tastes much better than it would if I tried to put chunks of tomato on toast.
You really want me to try this again, in a street cafe in Rome with all these people walking by?  All I can say is “Here’s to Lorenzo, wherever you are.”  I didn’t find you on this trip unless you were disguised in a……

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A Cappadocia story

Taking a bus from Ankara to Cappadocia is to spend a lot of hours on a highway with little to look at except farm land with large fields and small equipment producing shredded wheat size hay bales in contrast to the size that is produced today in America. BUT, to arrive in Cappadocia is a treat for the senses that transports you to complete other worldliness.  The bus enters into small towns and as the riders get off we watch pedestrians go about their daily routines in and out of small shops and houses carved out of volcanic rock. It takes your mind to story book scenes and makes you want to smile and embrace the magical atmosphere even after a long ride.  Our destination is a large beautiful hotel built in the midst of these luring sights, but we will spend several days here touring and making moonscape memories.

We toured several of the well known cave churches used in the 1st Century AD. Writing to the dispersing Christians, St Peter addresses Cappadocia in his first epistle in the Bible and salutes them with grace and peace.

This is known as the “Dark Church” and has many paintings of early Christianity and Bible stories that have been covered over and restored several times over.

We spent the hot afternoon walking through the labyrinth of tunnels into underground rooms that had been dug out over 9 generations and used to hide only when the people thought they would come under attack. The tunnels were low, narrow and dark.  The enclosures at the end of the tunnels were at least 10 degrees cooler than anywhere else, and for a short time it felt like someone had turned on the air conditioner.

The rooms were small, with openings cut in to see into an adjoining room.  The doors were small and there were seats and/or shelves carved into some of them. There were torch light holes in every room.  What a thrill to imagine the antiquity of this place and the lives of those who had to escape here.

There are actually 5 miles of tunnels in the complex.  Let’s just say I’m glad we had a guide.
On the outside the temperatures were well into the 90’s, so every time you saw a hole in the rock you had the urge to climb in.
Moonscape memories

Then there was that very, very hot afternoon when we were scheduled to take a walking tour of Rose Valley. Armed with coolest clothing possible, good walking shoes and plenty of water, we got out of the air conditioned car about 10 minutes from the hotel and began our decent.

Down, as in almost straight down and except for the heat and the very real potential of slipping on loose stones, going down wasn’t bad until………..

We passed this and I wondered about the second story dwellers.  Did they have fairy wings???

If they did, I wanted a pair when I saw our next challenge.  No wings in site, so we took to the ladder. Going down backwards seemed the best alternative for the most of us.

After that there were cool tunnels that twisted and turned as we went deeper into the valley.  We took short breaks in some of these tunnels that were so dark you couldn’t see anything but the light at the end of it,…. as soon as you turned the last corner.

At the bottom we found an oasis of sorts, some had tea, served by a man and two boys who made a humble living by serving hot tea to more than hot and tired walkers.  I passed on the tea.

Going back up was something I began to worry about when we finally got to the bottom.  We were informed that we were taking a short cut, but it was straight up.  I had to rest often, becoming over heated and somewhat short of breath.  At one point I felt it would help If I relieved myself of my upper under garment. So discreetly, while we were taking a break, I did just that and slipped the unmentionable into my pocket.  It didn’t help that much and as we neared the top, my fellow walkers got more and more concerned about me as my face was beet red.  I was alright and I knew it, but they didn’t.  When we at long last reached a point where a car could come to get us, they insisted we stay and wait.  I was all for that, but it took awhile and the redness of my face was still a concern.

When they suggested pouring the remaining water over me to cool me down, I mildly protested and then the protest went up a notch or two until finally they gave a bottle of water to my husband, who knowingly poured it down my back.  I laugh now telling that story, but no way was I going to reveal my secret to mission workers, a man I had never met before and children.  I was fine, but, I must say, the pool back at the hotel felt more than refreshing upon our return.

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