Our First Week in Italy: Rome, Spoleto, & Siena

March 28 - April 18, 2008

Our Three-Week Italy Vacation - Overview

We had a fantastic vacation in Italy! Almost three weeks. Our trip overview page is here.

March 28 - April 5, 2008

Our First Week (This Page) - Where we Stayed

Rome - 3 nights, beginning March 28. Stayed at Hotel Oceania.

Spoleto - 3 nights, beginning April 1. Stayed at Hotel Charleston.

Siena - 2 nights, beginning April 4. Stayed at Albergo Bernini.

Friday, March 28

Rome

Arriving

Arrived at Rome Airport (Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino) at 4:00 pm. Took the "Leonardo Express" train from the airport to Roma Termini Station in Rome. (Remember to validate train tickets before boarding!) Walked to our hotel, which wasn't far (taking great care to protect ourselves from pickpockets, who are a serious problem at and near the station).

Hotel Oceania was nice, comfortable, and quiet -- with our window looking out over a courtyard. Very pleasant staff, with good light breakfasts. And a good location, Near Termini Station. We pretty much walked everywhere else in Rome (except for a couple cab rides -- mostly to save time).

The First of (Many!) Wonderful Meals

Dinner at Ristorante Target Roma, on Via Torino. (Recommended in Rick Steves Italy.) Fresh (of course!) pasta with pears and truffles, and pizza with eggplants, tomato, & mozzarella. Yum! Relaxed but elegant interior. Nice way to finish a long day!

Saturday, March 29

 

Ancient Rome and the Colosseum

In advance of our trip, we had booked quite a few tours over the Internet, which we were very glad to have done! We walked to the first tour of our trip, Viator.com's "Skip the Line: Ancient Rome and Colosseum Walking Tour." 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. Our guide, Azurra (sp?), was great! Very knowledgeable and a thoughtful guide. We saw: The Colosseum, Palatine Hill (ruins of emperors' palaces and a view of Circus Maximus), and the Roman Forum (ancient Rome's main square), with ruins and grand arches. All were amazing!

Colesseum

Colesseum

Colesseum - under the former floor

Arch

Columns in the Forum

The Forum

We walked up to Capitol Hill (after leaving the Forum), crossed Piazza Venezia (in front of the way-over-the-top Victor Emmanuel Monument), picked up some sandwiches and had our lunch in front of the monument.

Galleria Borghese and the Astounding Bernini Sculptures

Then a taxi to a pre-booked entry to Galleria Borghese (for the 3:00 pm to 5:00 pm slot). The sculptures by Bernini are unbelievable. Apollo and Daphne, and Pluto and Prosperina, in particular. Not to mention paintings by Caravaggio, Raphael, and Titian -- all in a beautiful Baroque palazzo.

Garden in Villa Borghese

We walked from the Galleria, through the expansive grounds of Villa Borghese (on which Galleria Borghese is located), to the Spanish Steps. And then, eventually, to dinner at Ristorante Pizzeria Sacro e Profano, on Via Dei Maroniti (recommended in Rick Steves Italy). Not as good as last night's dinner (and, we were next to the silverware staging area), but the pizza was very tasty.

Trevi Fountain

Walked back by Trevi Fountain.

Trevi Fountain at night

On the way back to (and just past) our hotel, I took these long-exposure photos, at the intersection of Via Settembre & Via Orlando.

Time-lapse in Rome

Time-lapse in Rome

Time-lapse in Rome

Time-lapse in Rome

Sunday, March 30

 

Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

Another great Internet-booked Viator.com tour. "Skip the Line: Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel Tour." Took a cab from our hotel to the Vatican, where our guide was Christine, who was great. There's "way too much to see" in the Vatican Museums, but Christine was very good at pointing out -- and giving context to -- many of the (many!) highlights, but without overwhelming or overloading us. And, seeing the familiar-from-books Michelangelo frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- "in person"! -- was wonderful. The tour was scheduled to run from 9:30 am - 12:30 pm, but Christine stayed with us 'til around 1:30. Another great tour.

St. Peter's Cathedral.

More Sites, & Food

We walked from the Vatican to Piazza Navona -- pausing for some delicious gelato along the way. Had a late lunch at Bar Navona, sitting at outside tables (in the sun) along the edge of the Piazza. Great fun watching the MaƮtre d' working the crowd on the Piazza. A persistent guy!

The old and the new.

Walked to the Pantheon.

The Pantheon

Looking up, inside the Pantheon

Looking up, inside the Pantheon

Looking up, inside the Pantheon

Looking up, inside the Pantheon

Dinner at Ristorante Ditirambo, just off Piazza Della Cancelleria, near Campo de' Fiori. Good, rustic food. (We read about it in a review by Tom Seitsema of the Washington Post, and in Fodors.) And then a nice walk back to our hotel.

Monday, March 31

Spoleto

Driving in Italy

A new adventure started today -- driving in Italy! (Especially in Rome!) Lane markers? What lane markers?...

In general, trains are the best way to get around in Italy. But we decided to get a car from March 30 through April 6, so we could see some places that just aren't accessible by train.

Driving out of Rome was a challenge. The drivers are very aggressive, but I was okay with that. The biggest challenge was navigating. We didn't make any wrong turns, but we weren't always sure that we hadn't...

Civita di Bagnoregio

Our first stop on the way to Spoleto was Civita di Bagnoregio. A tiny "hill town" town now perched on top of a column of rock. Founded by Etruscans about 2500 years ago, and now reachable only via a narrow footbridge. We had bruschetta and wine at Antico Frantioi Bruschetteria (as recommended by Rick Steves) and saw (and got an explanation of) his large 1500-year-old olive press. So many birds twittering in the eveving as we crossed the footbridge back to our car!

The drive from Rome (A) to Civita di Bagnoregio (B):


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Approaching by foot (the only way to get there).

Civita di Bagnoregio

A bit closer.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio - potted plants

Civita di Bagnoregio - Doorway: outside on both sides

Civita di Bagnoregio - two doors

Exiting the town.

Civita di Bagnoregio

A look back at the entrance.

Entrance to Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio - a detail

The light was very nice late in the day.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Drove on to Spoleto, which we picked because it was close to the Monti Sibilini in the Apennines, which we wanted to explore a bit, and because it sounded like an interesting town to visit. It was!

The drive from Civita di Bagnoregio (A) to Spoleto (B):


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ZTLs in Spoleto - Yikes!

Driving into Spoleto gave us our first experience with the dreaded "ZTL," for Zona Traffico Limitato, which are restricted traffic areas in the center of many Italian cities and towns. In the larger cities, if you cross into a ZTL when you shouldn't, cameras will snap photos of your license plate and you'll be fined (through your rental car company, so not paying the fine is not an option). Check out the description on this confusing web page, which provides a good example of a ZTL sign. Yes, the sign is hard to miss, but just imagine trying to sort out all the fine-print restrictions and eccettos (exceptions) while driving, and with other drivers behind you who already know the deal. (And, there's rarely anywhere to pull over to stop and read and think!)

I had checked via email with the Hotel in Spoleto (which is inside the ZTL), and their advice was to just drive in ("it won't be a problem if you're a guest"). But we were coming from the south, vs. the directions we had, which assumed a northern entry to the city. To make a (very!) long story (somewhat) shorter, we crossed into the Spoleto ZTL, but couldn't find our way to the hotel, so we turned around and navigated around the outside of the city and came in from the north. It was not (until much later) clear to us if Spoleto had or didn't have the automatic-ticket-mailing-to-ZTL-violators cameras (turns out that they don't), so we had visions of returning home to traffic tickets in the mail from Spoleto, due to our transgressions. This ZTL anxiety was a recurrent theme for our otherwise very enjoyable vacation.

Hotel and (Wonderful!) Dinner

The Hotel Charleston was very nice. We were in a separate apartment-like building, reachable via a (very!) narrow street behind the hotel. Christiana, at the hotel desk, recommended a wonderful restaurant for us, Antica Cantina de' Corvi. One of our courses was pasta with black truffles -- with black truffles being a local delicacy. Wonderful food, service, and atmosphere.

Tuesday, April 1

 

Mountain & Valley Drive

This was our day to visit the Valnerina (the Little Valley of the River Nera), Norcia, and the Monti Sibilini.

The Valnerina

A view from the tower back to Panorama del Facciatone.

A view from the tower back to Panorama del Facciatone

Gargoyle

Dinner at the Trattoria la Torre (right off the Piazza). No menus! Our pushy waiter (or maybe he was just impatient) reeled off our options (which I barely understood) after we had been seated for no more than 30 seconds, and didn't understand that we wanted a few minutes to think! Pressure! But the food was good and very fresh tasting. We both had pasta with Bolognese sauce -- me on tortellini, and Elizabeth on tagliatelle.

Continuing on to Florence...

Click here to continue on to our second week in Italy.

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Castelluccio. At the northern end of the Piano Grande.

Castellucio

Castelluccio

We continued on to the north, and then down a winding road from the Piano Grande via the Nera Valley.

From Spoleto (A) to Norcia (B) to the Piano Grande (the white dot is at Castellucio, a tiny town at the northern end of the Piano Grande) and then back through Visso (C) to Spoleto:


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Back to Spoleto

Dinner at Ristorante Pentagramma, Via Tommaso Martanid, in a converted horse stable. Good food, but the service was inattentive and it was a bit noisy due to a convention-type group. It was good, but it didn't compare to the previous night's fantastic dinner and superior service.

Wednesday, April 2

 

Exploring Spoleto

Walked up the hill to the Duomo -- Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta. Fodor's Italy says: "Inside, the Duomo holds the most notable art in town, including the immaculately restored frescoes in the apse by Fra Filippo Lippi (1406-69)."

Walking up. (Spoleto is hilly!)

A narrow street in Spoleto

Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Coronation of the Virgin, apse fresco by Filippo Lippi

Inside the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Inside the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Organ in the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

From the 14th century.

Madona and child, in the Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta

Then walked over to the Ponte delle Torri, which was closed for work. Very nice to see, nonetheless.

Ponte delle Torri

Exploring Assisi

Off to Assisi by car. After more ZTL anxiety, we found the parking lot suggested in Rick Steves Italy (in Piazza Matteotti). Rick Steves Italy has a great walking tour, which took us by (and described some of the history of) the Duomo (San Rufino), the Basilica di Santa Clara (St. Clair), the Temple of Minerva, turkeys in a post-1492 fresco (Columbus brought 'em back from the Americas), and the grand Basilica di San Francesco with its Giotto frescoes, which we toured. (Giotto was the first painter -- ever -- to present people more as humans than as icons.) An amazing and wonderful town.

Spoleto (A) to Assisi (B):


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San Ruffino.

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Street in Assisi

Santa Chiara (Saint Clare).

Santa Chiara in Assisi

Santa Chiara in Assisi

One of two lions in front of Santa Chiara.

A lion in front of Santa Chiara

Looking from Piazza Santa Chiara down to the back of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Santa Maria Maggiore in Assisi

Sweets!

sweets in Assisi

Santa Maria sopra Minerva. 

Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Assisi

Santa Maria sopra Minerva, column

Narrow Assisi stairs.

Stairs in Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco. We took the tour inside, too. Impressive! Particularly the Giotto frescoes.

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Basilica di San Francesco, Assisi

Two Assisi doors that caught my eye.

Door in Assisi

Stairs and door in Assisi

Back to Spoleto

Dinner at Ristorante Apollinare, Via S. Agata. Recommended by Christiana at our hotel. Sat in a nice nook table (under the arch in the first image on the restaurant's site) and enjoyed a great meal. Much better than the previous night, but still no comparison to Cantina de' Corvi, which was a culinary and gustatory highlight.

Friday, April 4

Siena

Driving

Drove from Spoleto to Siena. Along the way, took an interesting detour up a hill on the north side of Lake Trasimeno to Castel Rigone, (which we read about in Umbria - From the Italy Experts, by the Touring Club of Italy). Nice views of the lake from olive groves on the hills, and a visit to an old church.

Santa Maria del Miracoli, in Castel Rigone.

Santa Maria del Miracoli, in Castel Rigone

Olive trees and Lake Trasimeno.

Olive trees and Lake Trasimeno

From Spoleto (A) to Castel Rigone (B - north of the lake) to Siena (C):


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Arriving in Siena

After more ZTL anxiety (and Siena does have cameras hooked into an automatic mail-you-a-ticket system!), we found our hotel, Albergo Bernini. The plan was to drive into the ZTL to the hotel ("It's okay if you're dropping off your luggage"), and then to park in a lot outside the ZTL. The streets were so narrow and filled with people that I felt like I was driving on pedestrian-only walkway. I ended up driving past the hotel without seeing it and then getting lost. Elizabeth got out and found the hotel while I waited in the car, pulled into what might loosely be considered a parking space. We got ourselves checked in at about 5:30 pm.

The view from the hotel's deck is great! Each morning, we had (somewhat chilly) light breakfast on the deck, which was great!

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

From the deck of Albergo Bernini

Basilica San Domenico, from the deck.

Basilica San Domenico, from the deck of Albergo Bernini

We stayed in a separate apartment a block or so away from the hotel. It was nice, although it was on a somewhat noisy street corner. I imagine that staying in the hotel proper would have been quieter. No regrets, though; it was a good place to stay, and nice to be in the "old" part of town.

Dinner

We walked to Nello la Taverna, Via del Porrione (just off of the Piazza del Campo, the main public space in Siena), which was recommended by Rick Steves Florance and Tuscany. The owner was a friendly guy who was proud of his combinations of diverse yet complimentary ingredients. Not everything worked perfectly, but it was, nonetheless, a pleasant place for a very tasty meal.

Saturday, April 5

 

Siena Sights

Our Albergo Bernini apartment -- the window in the upper right.

Albergo Bernini apartment

Got to the Duomo Siena (the Siena Cathedral) at about 11:30 am. A 10 Euro addmission to the Opera Della Metropolitana gets you into the the following four sites: Museo Dell' Opera (includes a view from Panorama del Facciatone), the Battistero, the Cripto, and the Duomo itself.

Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral - details

Siena Cathedral - details

Siena Cathedral - details

A view from Panorama del Facciatone (an unfinished nave of the Cathedral - cut short by the Black Death), including Torre del Mangia.

view from Panorama del Facciatone

Inside.

One scene from a series of ten scenes of the life of "the first humanist," Aeneas Piccolomini, painted by Pinturicchio in the Piccolomini Library. I like this description in Rick Steves Florence and Tuscany: "Twenty-seven-year-old Aeneas, riding a white horse and decked out in an outrageous hat, pauses to take one last look back as he leaves Siena to charge off in the first of many adventures in his sometimes sunny, sometimes stormy life."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siena_Cathedral#Piccolomini_Library on his horse

A Bernini sculpture of Mary Magdaline in the Cappella della Madonna del Voto.

Bernini sculpture of Mary Magdaline

Went up the Torre (Tower) del Mangia, with great views down on Piazza del Campo, just below, and all of Siena as well.

View from the tower in Siena

View from the tower in Siena

Looking down at Piazza del Campo.

View from the tower in Siena, looking down at Il Campo

A view from the tower back to Panorama del Facciatone.

A view from the tower back to Panorama del Facciatone

Gargoyle

Dinner at the Trattoria la Torre (right off the Piazza). No menus! Our pushy waiter (or maybe he was just impatient) reeled off our options (which I barely understood) after we had been seated for no more than 30 seconds, and didn't understand that we wanted a few minutes to think! Pressure! But the food was good and very fresh tasting. We both had pasta with Bolognese sauce -- me on tortellini, and Elizabeth on tagliatelle.

Continuing on to Florence...

Click here to continue on to our second week in Italy.