HostelLife: Conversations with guests – Yanni, Lola & Alina

This past Easter, I chatted with these three warm and friendly Indonesian guests about the Pope, pasta and the fact that they are 3 strangers traveling together.

19 May 2016

Rome’s Parks – Parco degli Acquedotti (Aqueduct Park)

13166650_1552014401761198_318685946_n

This is the first in a series I’ll be posting about Rome’s various green areas.

On Mother’s Day this year and with an entire day to have my minions children and husband at my disposal, cater to my every whim, all to myself, I decided on lunch at my favorite restaurant and a bicycle ride.  We don’t all have our own wheels, so we reserved some bicycles to rent.

I found on-line the kind folks at Fuori di Ruota, a cultural association in a private residence.  Reservations are mandatory and it’s possible to just send a text message or email and they speak multiple languages including English, Spanish and French.  They responded very quickly to our request.

We picked up our bicycles and directly across the street was the Parco degli Acquedotti, but were informed that the Via Appia was a 25 minute ride away.  Since we had very  limited time and the Via Appia definitely deserves at the very least 2 hours, we decided to just ride within the park.

13181442_233570773681139_473558892_n

The park gets its name from the two aqueducts in the park – the Acqua Claudia and the Acqua Felice.  Near the entrance to the park across from Fuori di Ruota one can also see the remains of the Villa delle Vignacce, once a very large private residence that was built in the 2nd century AD.  It’s also possible to see a section of the Via Latina – one of the original Roman roads that was built in the 300s BC and once stretched for 200km.

13151335_713521868787510_533375902_n

The park is truly spectacular –  incredibly green and the dirt paths are well-maintained (by Rome standards).  On the weekends you’ll get an eyeful of everyday Rome – folks having a picnic, jogging, strolling, cycling, having a picnic or an amorous cuddle.  Since it’s a protected area, there is no development within the park and you’ll even see sheep herders and their flocks grazing in the fields.

13102335_1583323295052825_1850664504_n

Despite some mention of it in various guidebooks such as Rick Steves, most visitors to Rome don’t head this way.  The park is easily reachable by public transit and there are two metro stops nearby – Lucio Sesto (15 minute walk) and Giulio Agricola (10 minute walk) both on the red line/Line A metro in the direction of Anagnina.

 

 

Discovering Montalcino wines with Curious Appetite & We Like Tuscany

12750326_204201699942013_1868172696_n

I didn’t always like wine.  My family is Puertorican and ours is a rum culture, not a wine culture.  Living in Italy for the past 17 years, I have definitely gained an appreciation and love for wine and I try to learn what I can usually from knowledgeable wine expert friends in Rome like #winelover Sarah May Grunwald of Antiqua Tours or Hande Kutlar Leimer of Vinoroma.

This past March, I was invited by my friend Coral Sisk of Curious Appetite who is based out of Florence to join in on a group wine tour being led by her and We Like Tuscany specifically visiting small, independent producers of Montalcino wine in the Val d’Orcia area of southern Tuscany.  The whole area became a designated UNESCO World Heritage site in 2004 and it is a stunningly beautiful part of Italy.

12345865_883048271810084_1173523882_n

We had an early start and while the day was grey and drizzly, our group was small and in good spirits – we were in a beautiful place in excellent company with lots of great wine in our near future – who wouldn’t be!  Our first stop was at the Casato Prime Donne winery.  Donatella Cinelli Colombini is an inspiring entrepreneur who started this first all female winery in 1998.

12716990_237446549929768_573315760_n

At Casato Prime Donne each part of the winery during tastings is a multi-sensory experience with music specifically and expertly selected in each of the rooms to correspond with the wine being tasted.

12822437_821853571294843_2017822432_n

A red heart on the barrel signifies the top of the top at Casato Prime Donne winery – wine made from the best grapes grown in the best part of the vineyard and an extremely limited quantity produced.   After our visit, I had to buy a couple bottles to remember the experience.  The red heart bottles were out of my price range, but they have a wide range of differently priced options to choose from.

12826290_231249480555183_374310126_n

I’m not used to drinking wine so early in the morning so I took very small sips at Casato Prime Donne and saved most of my wine drinking for our second stop at Santa Giulia winery which despite the wet weather had gorgeous views.

12826116_871903602932293_441293499_n

We toured a bit of the winery, but primarily did our wine tasting with lunch.  It was a wonderful spread including a thoughtfully prepared first and second vegetarian course for me as the lone veggie in the group.  I don’t ever expect a special meal so this was very much appreciated.  Gianluca Terzuoli poured the delicious wines from his family’s vineyard that is run by him, his wife and parents.  At mealtime is the traditional way to drink wine in Italy and my preferred way as well so this was perfect.

12798089_852301778214273_649121612_n

After a delicious meal which was prepared by Gianluca’s mother, we headed to our third and final stop of our wine tour at La Fornace winery.  Founder and patriarch Franco Giannetti passed on the family business to his son Fabio and it was very obvious that he inherited a love for their land and passion for their product.  Both father and son were there to pour the wines and tell us about their winery and the history of wine in the area.

11363856_475417235988721_1276515483_n

As a small independent business ourselves, I feel strongly about supporting other small, family run businesses like the wineries we visited.  In the internet age, their product is now available to everyone so if you don’t live in Italy there’s limited quantities you can take back home with you, but they can ship and then thankfully, it’s always possible to order more.  Wine tours or a wine tasting are definitely a great idea when in Italy as it’s such an integral part of the culture here.  So much wine and so little time!

12798169_1054098524655529_117805059_n

The wine I brought home didn’t last very long, but I still have a bottle of a 2009 Santa Giulia Brunello di Montalcino that I’m saving for a future special dinner.  Thanks so much to Curious Appetite and We Like Tuscany and all the wineries we visited for a very memorable day.

HostelLife: Conversations with guests – Adam & Anna

Adam & Anna are brother and sister, on their first trip alone together and first time to Europe.  This time I have a special guest helping me interview them – Viola (my youngest daughter)!

30 April 2016

The Vatican Museums & St. Peter’s Basilica with Through Eternity

12965720_1607283402926672_1417519784_n

The last time I had been to the Vatican Museums was on our honeymoon in 1998 and to the Basilica with my mother in 2006.  In 1998, my husband Steve and I went to the museums before there was an option to book on-line, but I don’t recall standing in a queue or if we did, the wait not lasting very long.  It was September, but so incredibly hot.  I remember being overwhelmed as well as underwhelmed inside the museums as I sweated from room to room.  Weeping Madonna, weeping Madonna, weeping Madonna.  I just didn’t understand the appeal.  I missed a lot and understood even less.

Fast forward to 2016 and this time Through Eternity invited us on one of their tours.  We work with several long-standing reputable walking tour companies in Rome and Through Eternity was one of the first we worked with as they started the same year we did in 1999.  Despite very positive reviews from past guests over the years about their tours, we had never actually been on one so I happily accepted their offer.  After looking at their many tour choices, I decided on the Vatican.  We have many guests who have the Vatican on their “to see” list and so I thought I would like to experience it again, but this time with a well-informed guide.FullSizeRender-7

Of the two Vatican tours they suggested, one was an extensive 5 hour tour and the other was a 3.5 hours.  I wanted the full experience so I opted for the 5 hour tour.  Mario was our guide, a Dutch transplant who has been living in Rome for several years and has a background in art history and theatre.  He was very knowledgeable and friendly and definitely knew his way around the Vatican.

12965099_788875904581577_1357221429_n

Tickets are available in advance on-line, but it’s amazing how in 2016 people still queue up to purchase tickets.  The queue for this is extremely long and you’ll find yourself standing for at least an hour if not longer before you’ve even entered the museums.  Thanks to Mario, we passed all the queues and went straight in. We only had to wait a few minutes while he went to pick up the pre-arranged tickets.  After that, we followed the masses up into the museum.

The Vatican Museums are not just one museum, but many museums within a museum.  It’s simply impossible to see each and every work of art here.  Mario explained that if you were to just spend a few seconds in front of every work of art in the museums, it would take you many years to see everything!  I could have easily spent an hour alone just in the The Gallery of Maps seen here:

12912574_1732048660373485_1999107598_n

Mario led us through to the more important artworks and even so, it still took us 4 hours to get through and we even bypassed several areas such as the Egyptian Museum.   The Vatican Museums receive an average of 25,000 visitors a day, but its rooms, doorways and corridors were not constructed for this kind of traffic so in peak season when the place is packed, it’s slow-going.

12519667_134845556918091_2077845990_n

12501799_208298556218473_1736672821_n

There are several outdoor courtyards throughout including the Cortile della Pigna seen here. These are great spots to get some fresh air and escape the close quarters.

 

12965286_159902041072258_524207078_n

The Sistine Chapel is found within the museums and it took us at least an hour to get there from this courtyard.  It’s very difficult if not impossible to make a direct bee-line from the entrance of the museums to the Sistine Chapel, so keep that in mind.  I don’t have any photographs here of the chapel because it’s a no-photography zone.  I still saw people trying to take photos and who were probably able to get away with it because of the crowds, but don’t be a jerk and respect the few rules they have.

From the museums, you are able to go directly into the Basilica.  Despite being the largest Catholic church in the world, it still felt manageable.  Mario explained that this effect was due to perspective and that in fact the statues and lettering in the church were all incredibly large.

12905001_1015210945200613_756001936_n

Our 5 hour tour ended 6 hours later and my husband and I were utterly exhausted, but despite that we immediately were eagerly thinking about a future Vatican tour we would like to take.  Once was definitely not enough.  Although next time I think we’ll opt for a 3 hour tour so that we can also fit in climbing the dome again – something we didn’t have an opportunity to do this time around.

Some of my tips on touring the Museums & Basilica:

  1. At the very least, order your tickets on-line.
  2. Better yet, take a small group tour – a small group tour at the minimum consists of 6 people and at the most 15.  We had 8 people on our tour.  A small group tour allows you to actually listen to and interact with your guide and the others in your group.  There are several reputable companies in town including the long-established Through Eternity company with whom we did our tour.  Guests of The Beehive receive a 10% discount on most of their tours.
  3. Cover knees and shoulders.  You will not be allowed inside the Basilica if you do not have them covered  – this goes for men, women and children.
  4. Bring a bottle of water and rest when you can.  It gets hot in the museums especially in the summer – no AC and very few places to sit.  There are several outdoor courtyards throughout.  Take advantage of these spots to sit and rest and fill up at the outdoor fountains that are marked “Acqua Potabile” (Potable Water).
  5. Bring a picnic-style lunch.  There are a couple of cafes at the museums, but I thought the food was barely edible and overpriced.  After that experience, Steve and I decided that we could offer something better so if you would like us to prepare a picnic-style lunch for you to take with you, let us know.  Orders must be made at least a day in advance.  For more information, ask at our reception.
  6. Reconsider bringing children to the museums if aged 0-12 years old.  I saw several very young children while we were there and my heart went out to them and their bored and tired little hearts.  No fun for the whole family!  The museums are just too much for little children  – it’s an exhausting day for the parents and if grown adults want to throw a tantrum after hours at the museum, you can imagine what the kids will be like.  Either hire a babysitter or plan on coming back to Rome and visiting the museums when the kids are in their teens.  This doesn’t apply to the Basilica which is much less time consuming and more manageable.
  7. Give yourself time to climb the dome – it’s an incredible experience, but reconsider if you are overweight, suffer from a heart condition or are claustrophobic.

Thanks again to Mario for his insight and knowledge and Through Eternity for their generosity and for allowing us to see the Vatican with new eyes.

 

24 April 2016
1 2 3 10