Friday, August 3, 2012

Just a Pile of Old Rocks

While I bashed Rick Steves a little bit on the food advice, I can say that he's really been spot-on with seeing the sites.

If we had read more carefully we would have had tickets to the Uffizi and Academia.  It wasn't Rick's fault, he tried to warn us.

Where Rick really shined for us this trip were two thing: Information about the Roma Pass, which at 30 Euros/ea was a real plus, allowing us to skip lines at the Collosseum, Forum, and Borghese Gallery.  We saw all three without additional charges.  If we had felt like traveling on busses, those would have also been included so we highly recommend going with the Roma Pass. 

Also, Rick completely hooked us up with Rick Steves Audio Europe. It's an audio guidebook complete with walking tours for lots and lots of sites, all of which we downloaded ahead of time (no internet connection required in country).  The FREE iPhone app also has maps, and full transcripts of the audio content.

We used them for the forum and for the Colosseum.   Both were just under 1 hour long, and paced very well.  We learned things that wouldn't have been easily apparent: there were 80 elevators underneath the floor of the Colosseum for elevating animals, plants, gladiators, etc. 

Most of the Colloseum was built as a combination of brick and concrete and then finished with Marble exterior.  We also learned about another roman invention - the vomitorium (passageway beneath seats) which is something present in all of our stadiums to this day.

For the forum, the walking tour was necessary.  Without some type of guide, the astounding site would have only appeared to be a pile of old rocks with a few rotting columns. 

There were many people hawking tours with large groups trying to huddle around one tour guide.  We were able to go at our own pace with our personal guide on our iPhones.   It was like a far cheaper (less interactive) version of Elizabeth from Florence.

We learned about the history of Rome, the Roman empire, architectural features, as well as history of many of the emperors.

One of the most beautiful parts of the forum were the grounds of the former palace of the vestal virgins.  The vestal virgins were the keepers of the fire in the temple of Vesta (also in the forum).  It was thought that as long as the fire burned in the temple that Rome would continue.  That this dedicated and important group of women was chosen prior to turning 10 and served a 30 year term.  If they were still virgins at the end of the term they were given a large dowry and were allowed to marry.  If they were found to have lost their virginity they were given a loaf of bread, a candle, and buried alive in a catacomb.

There was also a really neat collection of glassware from ancient times.  It again was nearly impossible to photograph so you'll just have to believe that the range of colors and patters was stunning.  Several pieces were made with the millefiore technique seen in some of the beads from the store in Nairobi.

The history and detail provided by the walking tours were astonishing for something provided free of charge.

You're going to love Italian Food?

Being foodies - Lisa and I had thought that in a country with such strong food traditions we would have little issue trying to find good meals.  Wow, were we wrong.  We've had pasta so dente that you needed to pick it out of your teeth with a toothpick, tons of mediocre pizza, and meh pastries.  Not to mention the "risotto" that one cafe tried to serve that was basically wet jasmine rice with a few mushrooms thrown in for good measure. Most of the gelato has been good, but a few were underwhelming.  Of course there are two sides to every coin so I'll present both here.

Us: We came unprepared to find great food.  Yelp, our usual tool for finding fabulous food is far less functional here than in the states.  Our primary guide book (Rick Steves 2012) was also pretty ineffective when it comes to food/eating.  Turns out next time we travel in Europe we'll be picking up a Michelin or Zagat guide to bring along.

Italy: You really have three kinds of restaurants: Italian dining, wine bars, and cafes.  They basically all serve the same thing: pizza and pasta, coffee, wine.  The price varies, and the quality varies (not as much as the price).

Over the trip we really came to appreciate the vast smorgasbord of variety that's currently provided even in stuffy 'ole Indianapolis (Thai, Japanese, Italian, Chinese, Sandwich, Burrito, etc).

We finally got smart and spent a little more time researching (plus more $$) and had our first really solid meal of the trip last night at Taverna Trilussa.  It's an Italian restaurant that specializes in delicacies of Rome in particular.  They prepare each pasta dish individually serving it in it's pan to emphasize their small-batch thinking.

Lisa had a tasty spinach ravioli in an egg-based cream sauce that was finish with bits of hard boiled egg.  It was what alfredo sauce in the states always wishes to be. I think that she finished it, which means it was really good.

I had a roman specialty called amatriciana which is a hollow pasta tossed with a tomato based sauce and cured pork cheek - guanciale (although the English translation on the menu just said bacon.....).  It was very tasty and the pasta was cooked to perfection.

We also had a tasty dessert that night called Mille-feuille which was lots of tiny sheets of pastry with tall layers of pastry cream interleaved and a big dollop of nutella on top. 

We were so 'fat-and-happy' that we decided to skip the port and head straight home for bed.  Finally, nearly done with our trip we found a great meal in Italy.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

La Specolla

From the outside looking in it may seem like we always have things under control.  Reality is unfortunately, slightly different.  For example, usually we're well researched regarding trips, and having things well planned in advance.  For this trip, however life got in the way.  Despite advice and books from the Girls in NC, and numerous tips from our newest biking buddy in Indy we both failed to plan ahead to get reservations for the Academia and the Uffizi gallery.  So, we traveled to Florence without doing the quintessential visit of David. 

On the other hand, it's not much different from visiting NYC twice without seeing the Statue of Liberty, which is the case for both of us.  Fortunately, Lisa had a backup plan.  She had heard about a museum called La Specola.  It's famous for it's collection of taxidermied animals, and fantastic 18th century wax anatomic models.  Basically, right up our alley.

The first few rooms were filled with great bug specimens from all over the world.  Lisa was horrified about several of the larger ones (as seen above).

One of the particularly awesome bugs were some of the butterflies that impersonate leaves.  Take a close look at the picture above and see if you can identify the leaves from the butterflies.

The collection of taxidermied animals was pretty impressive, going on for several rooms.  The range and breadth of the collection was broad including a rhinocerous and a lion (which was quite a bit better than  Unfortunately for the whole museum they were all behind these awful glass and wood cases with the most depressing fluorescent lighting possible.

The bird rooms were particularly impressive.

Next we moved on to the anatomy rooms - there were again several (at least five) that were each filled with at least 50 individual models and usually at least one full-size model standing or laying down.  Each highlighted a different portion of anatomy:

Muscles and bones

Vascular anatomy and the lymphatic system

Neuro-anatomy.  Of course, there was a room dedicated completely to obstetrics with different models demonstraing different stages of pregnancy as well as a model of different types of ectopics.  Due to the poor lighting, and plate-glass they were all difficult to photograph.  I felt lucky to get the few pics shared above.

In the final room, there were four particularly detailed and graphic wax models representing 'life' during the black plague and this head.  The pieces in this room were obviously special, since they were actually well lit and much easier to photograph.  They were part of a collection by a particularly gifted wax artist named Guilio Gaetano Zumbo and were created in the 1700s.  This model of a human head exposing the muscles of the face, and the salivary glands was particularly vivid and actually utilized a human skull as the basis for the model.

Overall, it was a great little museum off the beaten path.  I'm not sure that I'm sad we missed David.