Bits and Bobs

Hello, blog. I miss you. Lately I’ve been feeling that I will never, ever have time in the day again to sit down and write a post. And yet! A lot of things come up that I want to write about! So today I decided to just start a little post of bits and bobs, and I am allowing myself to come over here for a few minutes in between other work and hurriedly write little installments. Once I have a few of them, I’ll publish it. Let’s see how this goes.

1. A pair of pants that was pretty snug after coming back from Europe is now fitting much more comfortably, and I stepped on the scale the other day and happily noted a couple of pounds lost. I haven’t been dieting or restricting at all — just engaging in my normal moderate/healthy eating and drinking plus being very active. It’s really nice to see this gradually paying off, as reflected in my more comfortable pants. That’s what weight maintenance is all about, for me: if I start feeling uncomfortably heavy or my clothes get too tight, I should be able to just rein it in a bit to more normal consumption patterns and see results — albeit gradual ones. Fine. Good.

2. I spent Labor Day weekend in Charleston with two of my oldest and dearest friends — and a few new friends I was meeting for the first time. It was my friend Mel’s bachelorette weekend! We had such a lovely time, including a fun night out, a day spent at the beach, and some really delicious food and drinks. As a fun bonus, my friend Claire drove to stay with me the night before the trip so we could drive the rest of the way to Charleston together (I’m halfway between her town and Charleston, so it worked out perfectly).  This had the nice effect of extending the fun — instead of driving 6 hours solo each way, I got to have a fun road trip with a friend. We had some good snacks, I tell you what. One word: Haribo.

3. If you follow me on twitter, you already know that I had to surprise-buy a new car last week. I was none too happy about it at first. My old 1997 Toyota Camry started making an unpleasant noise and the situation rapidly worsened. One minute I was all, “Hmmm, this doesn’t sound good but it’s probably…okay?” and the next minute I was getting my husband to follow me home from work just in case. The next morning, I almost didn’t make it to the shop, the car was struggling so hard. While it was in for repairs, I did some quick research on the trade-in/resale value of the car because I was concerned the cost of repairs might actually be more than the car was worth — which was less than $1000. CW and I thought the tipping point might be about $500-600, meaning if the repairs were that much, I should consider buying a new car instead. Imagine my reaction when the mechanic told me it needed an all new engine, which would run me almost $4000. So. I bought a new car. It is the first time in my life I have ever chosen a car myself, — and the first car loan I’ve ever had. I’m quite stressed about the financial aspect (money is my biggest anxiety trigger, for sure), but I love the car. It’s a 2012 Hyundai Tucson and it’s fabulous. Oh, and my completely dead Camry, with a bad engine, that had to be towed to the dealer? It got me $500 as a trade in.

The whole above story made me think I should write a little rundown of all my previous cars — kind of an automotive memoir. I once had a 1987 Chevy Cavalier I would love to tell you about, should I get the chance to write a real post ever again.

4. In other news, for future bits-and-bobs installments whenever I get a spare minute: I signed up for a 5K and hopefully also a 10-mile race; I got a box of terrible clothes from Stitchfix; and I love the new Jenny Lewis album.

Well, now I guess I don’t need to write those updates, do I? Regardless, I’ll be back.

 

Italy, Day 5: Rome [Last Chance for Gelato and Prosecco]

Our last day in Rome was upon us. The following morning, we’d be catching a flight back to Atlanta, so we had just this one day left to make the most of the city. CW and I each had one thing we wanted to do, so that was how we structured the day — we would spend the morning visiting the Catacombs of San Callisto (CW’s thing), then shop and have lunch at/near the market at Campo de’ Fiori (my thing). The only problem with this otherwise great plan was that the catacombs were about three miles southeast of our hotel and the market was about 2 miles in the opposite direction and it was raining all morning AND my beloved Birkenstocks, which I had worn almost every single day of the trip, walking ~10 miles a day, had finally given me a huge blister on the ball of my foot. So all that walking, well. It did not seem like a great idea.

I had made it to day ten without using much of my international roaming data plan, so I figured I’d just turn on data for the day and use Google maps public transit option to get us around town by metro and bus. It worked beautifully and I would like to welcome our Google robot overlords.

So, we got an all-day public transit pass (6 Euros per person and we were allowed to use the metro, the bus, and the tram/light rail — good bargain). We fairly easily caught the metro  bussed it over to the catacombs, staying out of the rain under the bus shelter while waiting for the bus that only runs every 40 minutes. It wasn’t exactly a fast trip, thanks to the wait, but it worked.

The Catacombs are located a few miles down the ancient Appian Way (remember learning about that in your history classes?), which, well, it is an ancient road. It’s narrow and cobblestoned and walled in on both sides, making it a bit of an adventure, particularly in the pouring rain. The rough yet slick-with-rain cobblestones shake and rattle the bus as it screams around the turns, inches from the high stone wall. And then the bus dumps you out on the side of the street — the street that is so narrow it barely seems able to accommodate two lanes of traffic, let alone pedestrians walking to and from bus stops. You basically have to press yourself up against the wall, squeezing your body away from passing cars, and pray for the best. As you walk down the road in this manner, you can’t really see where your destination might be — the high wall hides everything from view. Eventually you come to a hole in the wall that leads up the long driveway to the catacombs, where once again there are wide open spaces and quiet. Whew.

Pretty Road

We took a tour of the catacombs, in which I think some 500,000 people are buried — Catholic victims of Nero’s persecution. The tour was fairly interesting, but we were only allowed in one main level, where all of the niches had been opened and the remains removed. The deeper levels, where bodies still rest, are not open to visitors. No photos were allowed, so you’ll just have to imagine an underground cave with empty tombs. A little eerie, to be sure.

After the tour, our public transit adventure resumed. Google maps was a little iffy this time around when it came to catching the #118 bus back toward the center of town. It came by at the time the app indicated, but going in the wrong direction, or something. I forget the exact issue, but eventually it came down to a choice: stand out on the side of the Appian Effing Way (as we came to call it), waiting for the bus for 20 minutes in the rain, or get on it right away, going in the wrong direction, and ride around the loop route for 20 extra minutes while staying dry. We opted for the longer bus ride because neither of us was particularly confident about standing on the side of the road, up against that wall, while hoping desperately not to be squashed like a grape by a speeding Roman truck.

Via Appia Antica

I will note that the Appian Way is apparently closed to motor vehicles on Sundays, when it is available for people to walk, run, or bike. I think it would be quite lovely to see on a Sunday, but this was a Monday and hence, the potential to be squashed like a grape was very real.

Via Appia Antica

(This is meant to accommodate traffic going in both directions, and that “shoulder” has got to be less than one foot wide.)

At any rate, we caught the bus and made our way across town to Campo de’ Fiori, the famous market. I don’t know; I just love markets. I had fun looking at all the different kinds of produce that were sold — some new or unknown to me, some just being sold in a slightly different way, like these zucchini with the flower still attached. (Our lunch in Florence the previous day had featured stuffed squash flowers and oh, they were SO GOOD.) Please note the many, many varieties of sun-dried tomatoes. The italians do not joke around.

Zucchini

Porcini & Other Mysterious Items

Pomodori

Spices

We enjoyed a big Peroni and a snack at a nearby café and did some people-watching, and finally decided on buying a small bottle of olive oil and some interesting honeys to take home. We did not mention these items to customs. I think honey, as an animal byproduct, is supposed to be declared (?), but we kind of forgot about it. I’m…sure it’s fine.

Having accomplished our two remaining Rome goals, we had the rest of the day to wander a bit and do whatever we wanted. This sounds lovely, but at the time I think we both felt a bit purposeless. Rome has so much, a person can certainly wander aimlessly and happen upon wonderful things, However, there are times when having a specific objective would really help, and this was one of those times. We were both pretty tired and neither of us felt like making a decision about anything. We wound up wandering through the Piazza Navona, which seems sort of like a Roman fountain theme park, almost, and taking some photos there.

Fountains

The weather was clearing up and the sky was doing a very pretty fluffy white cloud thing.

We then found ourselves near the Pantheon and having a very overpriced pizza for lunch, paying, I suppose, for the view of the Pantheon more than for the food. It was at least our second time finding ourselves there, so we finally decided to go inside.

Pantheon

Pantheon

At this point, I was more interested in the beam of light coming in through the top of the dome than I was in learning about any historical or cultural significance, so I can’t tell you much about the Pantheon. Forgive me. Please enjoy this beam of light.

Our route back in the general direction of our hotel took us past the Altar of the Fatherland, this hugely ostentatious white marble building we had passed by so many times already while in Rome. Today, we decided to stop for a closer look. The day had turned out to be so beautiful — fluffy clouds racing across the sky, the hot sun being mitigated by all the wind in our hair. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon to photograph one of Rome’s most photographable spots.

Altare della Patria

The building is even bigger than it looks in photos, the steps going up higher and higher to the museum entrance, and it’s lovely to stop every now and again to see what you can see from each new vantage point as you continue to climb.

Altare della Patria

[202/365] Domes & Flags

Altare della Patria

I was less interested in the building itself (it’s not my taste at all) than I was in the views it afforded.

Rooftops of Rome

Rooftops of Rome

Trajan's Forum

I was glad we had such a beautiful afternoon to enjoy the last sights we’d see in Rome, and such a great view of the city. After we had our fill there, we meandered our way back to the hotel down some narrow little side streets and made a couple of stops on the way to fulfill my last two wishes for Rome: one more gelato, and one more bottle of prosecco.

We stopped for gelato at a little corner place with a couple of tables outside, but wound up sitting on some steps instead as the tables were taken by a group of 6-8 other American tourists who happened to be comparing their Fitbit stats for the day. (I always have sort of mixed feelings about running into other American tourists when out and about — of course, part of me likes to imagine that I am super special and therefore won’t run into anyone else like myself, but I also am aware enough and realistic enough to realize that I am, in fact, not that special at all. Anyway.)

On this occasion, I finally landed upon the perfect flavor combination: half bianco de something* and half delizie al limone, or basically half ricotta pistachio, half lemon with pastry bits. It was delightful. We grabbed a bottle of prosecco from a mini-market and hoofed it back to the hotel for a little siesta and refreshment and lounging until we were ready for dinner.

[*It had this lovely sounding name and now I’ve forgotten it and my journal says it was “bianco de [smudge]” and now I am bereft. Maybe it will come to me.]

Our last meal in Rome was at a little place near our hotel — nothing too trendy or near any of the big attractions, just a quiet place staffed with mostly older guys who were exactly attentive enough without being too present. I had a butter sage ravioli and CW had some kind of exciting looking seafood spaghetti with loads of interesting shellfish. When it came time for dessert, we looked at the pastry case and pondered, finally deferring to our waiter’s recommendation. He brought us a plate with three different pastries on it for us to split. By the time we were finished I was so full I was afraid CW would have to roll me back to the hotel.

We took our time heading back, and stopped one last time at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore to sit at the fountain and soak up a little more of Rome before it was time to head back.

Our Basilica at Night

I’ll probably write one final wrap-up post with some reflections and other tidbits, but otherwise the travel recaps are over! Whew. The entire collection of photos is available on flickr. And if you would like to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, you can check out Italy’s day onetwothree, and four, or follow these links for Greece, days onetwothreefour, and five.

Italy, Day 4: Florence [Bicycles, Art, Food]

Our fourth day in Italy was a huge breath of fresh air, because we got out of hot and crazy Rome and spent the entire day in Florence. Spoiler Alert: I LOVED FLORENCE.

Also, there are a lot of photos. When I pulled photos from my camera, the day we were in Florence had by far the most photos taken — about 350 prior to culling and editing. The two next-highest photo-count days were only in the 220s (Acropolis day and Colosseum day). I think the really high number of photos taken relative to the rest of the trip is telling: not only did I really love Florence, but it’s just a very pretty city. Hopefully this post captures some of that.

Onward:

We had already bought tickets for the high-speed train the day before, so we just walked the two blocks from our hotel to the train station to catch the 7:00 AM train from Rome to Florence — it would only take us 90 minutes to get there. Easy. I dozed through a lot of the ride up, but I did catch the occasional view out the window of rolling fields and bales of hay. Before I knew it, we were in Florence.

The first thing we saw on leaving the train station was Florence’s famed cathedral — surrounded already at 8:30 on a Sunday morning with other tourists taking photos.

Duomo

I kind of love it when I manage to catch people who are posing for cameras other than mine — like the little girl with arms wide and the older couple on the left side of the frame.

CW and I wandered the vicinity a bit, checking out the square, and found our way to a little pasticceria for a cappuccino.

Due Cappuccini

I have not yet convinced my husband that we need a cappuccino machine here at home, but don’t worry; I am working on it. Soon.

It looked like marzipan was popular in Florence, but I will let the Tuscans keep that shit because NO THANK YOU.

Pasticceria

The display was charming, though, was it not?

Among the many things that charmed me in Florence, bicycles were near the top of the list. It’s hard not to fall in love with a city that has such an easy-going bicycle culture. I couldn’t help but imagine myself there, tooling along the streets with some fresh produce from the market or maybe a bottle of prosecco in my bike basket.

Bicycles

Some shop and gallery owners decided to make the most of the city’s love for bicycles and use them in their curbside displays, like this art/print shop:

Shop Bicycle

Other bikes were just hanging out, chillin’, leaned up against a wall here or there.

Perfect Bicycle

Bicycles

Colorful Bicycle

Some bicycles were actually being used as intended.

Street

We slowly made our way through the streets, heading down toward the bank of the Arno river. It wasn’t pretty or scenic at all. Shameful, really.

Arno

(GAHHHH.)

Ponte Vecchio

We crossed the famous Ponte Vecchio, which I had heard housed a lot of shops. It turned out that they were all gold and gem shops, which seemed kinds of strange to me — but it may have explained the newly engaged couple I spotted later on in the day, taking a smartphone pic of the bride-to-be’s hand held up with a diamond ring in the foreground and the pretty bridge in the background. Awww.

On the other side of the bridge, we wound our way through a shopping area and I spotted a handmade paper shop called Il Papiro and promptly demanded to go in. (I am very fond of paper and book-related crafts, as you may know.) It was a teeny-tiny shop filled with hand-bound books covered in beautiful stamped or marbled papers, which are all made right in the shop. As I was browsing, my husband wandered his way into a back room where the marbling station was set up.

Paper Making at Il Papiro

The woman who was working there offered to give us a demonstration and let us take photos. She dotted the gelatin with oil-based pain in different colors, then marbled it by streaking it through with a wide metal comb. Carefully laying the paper down on the surface created this lovely marble effect:

Paper Making at Il Papiro

We wound up buying the piece of paper as well as a couple of other small items; we just loved the whole thing.

Studio

And that’s another aspect of Florence that I just really enjoyed: I knew it was an art town, but I didn’t really imagine how that would play out. It’s not just the birthplace of the Renaissance, but it’s also a city where artists are actively creating and contributing to an art culture right now. In addition to the paper shop, I saw groups of photographers (a club or class?) practicing together, a small studio in a neighborhood we walked through (above),  and plenty of other galleries and shops.

Even the front doors and windows of the houses we passed seemed to be thoughtful aesthetic statements. Going up this long hill (in search of an outlook we never really arrived at), we saw countless doors, windows, mailboxes, doorbells, and shutters that were pretty enough for a photo.

Downhill

Flowers

30

11

Mailbox

Eventually we found our way back across the Arno, stopping on a different bridge to try to get a good photo of the Ponte Vecchio. Well. Not like you can get a BAD picture of it, though, can you?

Ponte Vecchio

It was getting to be time for lunch. We followed the “stroll around aimlessly” method of looking for a restaurant and passed by a little place with a tiny outdoor seating area that had only about three tables. A couple of women were sitting out there for lunch, and the place looked peaceful and nice. We initially passed by and went down another block, but then CW decided he wanted to turn back. Good decision. We were about to have the hands-down BEST meal of the trip at Aroma.

Coming back toward the restaurant, we spotted the front door, which was closed, with a sign on it asking us to ring the bell to be let in. Well then. Certainly a different approach than that of the restaurants where an overzealous maître d’ tries to reel in unsuspecting tourists.

The restaurant is very small — it only seats about 30 people or so — and there were only a handful of other guests there. We sat on the patio and started perusing the menu (seafood) and the serious wine list. (No five-Euro house wine here.) While we were looking, the waitress* brought us each a glass of prosecco and a tiny amuse bouche. Things were off to a damned good start already. Eventually we decided on a couple of starters (salmon carpaccio and squid with stuffed zucchini flowers) and a bottle of wine.  While we waited for our food, our waitress came back out with a “present from the chef,” which turned out to be a very delicate vegetable samosa. We’d already had two dishes before the things we ordered had even showed up. That was kind of the way the whole meal went — we chose some things we wanted, and then the restaurant just brought out more for us, making what could have been a quick and simple lunch into a whole multi-course experience. After the prosecco and amuse bouche, the present from the chef, the cold salmon,  and the hot squid, she brought us espressos and tiny pies. TINY PIES.

Honestly, it was one of the top meals of my life.  Amazing.

Aroma Firenze

*After later looking at their website, I see that the woman who helped us is not just a waitress but is also the maître d’ and sommelier — and one of only three employes the restaurant has. She definitely knew what she was doing.

Our post-lunch plans involved seeing some art. Along the way, we also stopped to see some art.

David (Fake)

Don’t get too excited — this isn’t the original David; rather it’s a copy that sits in the Piazza della Signoria. We weren’t going to make it into the gallery where the real David lives (it’s in the Accademia), so we were happy to get the chance to look at its copy instead. In this particular piazza, there are copies of loads of famous sculptures, and people just hanging out with them like, Hey, man, I’m just hanging out with this sculpture and having a snack, NBD.

Hanging out w/Sculptures

We didn’t stop for long, though. We had other art plans.

Archway

In the Renaissance City,  we had to make a stop at the Uffizzi Gallery, which houses all sorts of medieval and renaissance paintings, as well as a lot of (Roman copies of) ancient Greek sculpture. We’d already seen a lot of marble sculptures, so our priority in browsing the gallery was seeing paintings. Among all the religious art, I found myself most drawn to the Annunciation paintings.

Annunciazione

The above painting, by Alessio Baldovinetti, was the first one I saw and I was instantly drawn to the image of Mary and the angel — a rare religious image in that it centers on women (with no depiction of Jesus or any other men). I saw and photographed a lot of Annuciation paintings, but here are just a few:

Annunciazione di Cestello

(Sandro Boticelli)

Annunciazione

(Leonardo Da Vinci)

Annunciazione

This one by Mathias Stomer was a favorite — I loved the naturalistic setting, so different from the grandiose or fantastic ones above.  Mary, sans halo, is quietly reading by candle light and the angel is all like, “HELLO, pay ATTENTION, lady!” and Mary is all, “WHO ME?! WHAT NOW??” I just liked it.

The most famous painting in the Uffizzi is probably Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, which I stood in front of for about 10 minutes waiting for people to move so I could take an unobstructed photo.

Venus

This is the chief peril of taking only a 35mm lens: in order to get the entire painting in the frame, I had to step back from it about 15 feet or so, leaving plenty of room for other photographers/viewers to step in front of me. I took dozens of photos of each painting, most of them with a head or elbow or shoulder (or three) in the way.

People Looking at Boticellis

I also took a lot of photos of people looking at art. Above is the Boticelli room (see Venus in the background?)

The Sleeping Ariadne below, a Roman copy of the Greek original, was another favorite. She looks so relaxed.

Sleeping Ariadne

I also saw the head of the original Ariadne, which, I believe, is all that remains:

Sleeping Ariadne's Head

I photographed people looking at sculptures:

People Looking at Sculptures

I don’t know why, but that image really appeals to me now. It just is so very much like what walking in those galleries is. You are looking at art, but you are also looking at everyone else looking at art.

We spent hours in the Uffizzi — it seemed to go on forever. By the time we were done, it was time for a restorative beverage, which we eventually found. It also probably should have been time for dinner, but neither of us was particularly hungry after our amazing lunch, so we opted not to try to find a place for dinner (which would have inevitably been a letdown after Aroma, anyway).

Our last stop in town, then, turned out to be the rooftop bar at Hotel Baglioni. It was a recommendation from my friend B., who had just visited Florence earlier in the summer — and we do love a good rooftop bar. The hotel is right near the train station, so we figured it might be the perfect stop before we had to catch the train back to Rome for the night. It was.

The view wasn’t too shabby:

Rooftops of Florence

That’s the famous cathedral you see above, and below — a rainbow.

Rainbow

A FUCKING RAINBOW.

AND THEN SUNSET.

Sunset

I mean. Florence knows how to get it done.

Me

All in all, it was a pretty magical day. I found myself wishing we’d gotten a hotel in Florence for the night so we could stay there for one more day rather than returning to Rome, but our train tickets were booked and our hotel room awaited us, so off we went. Till we meet again, Firenze.

More of my many, many photos of Florence are on flickr. And if you need to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, you can check out Italy’s day onetwo, and three, and follow these links for Greece, days onetwothreefour, and five.

Italy, Day 3: Rome & Vatican City [Making up for Lost Gelato]

It feels like it’s been so long since I left off recapping our vacation, but I suppose it hasn’t really been. It was just a rather long weekend — we had family visiting for a few days, then I wasn’t feeling so hot for Saturday and Sunday, and today it was a busy day back at the office. But let’s pick up where we left off, shall we?

Day three in Italy was our day to visit Vatican City: St. Peter’s Basilica, The Sistine Chapel, and all of the good Catholic stuff. CW and I both have very Catholic families (although neither of us practices now), so visiting Vatican City was definitely important to us. We had booked the tickets in advance thanks to the advice of our travel agent, who told us about the hours-long line to get in. Booking ahead would enable us to skip the line.

What neither of us had really realized was that what we were buying was not only a chance to skip the ticket line, but also a three-hour group tour. I don’t think either of us would have thought we needed to do the whole three-hour-tour thing, but it worked out well, so we were glad we did.

First things first: getting to Vatican City turned out to be a giant pain in the butt. For one thing, we had decided to use our Red Tourist Bus to get us there. (Recall the Red Tourist Bus adventure from the previous day, if you will, and you will see the potential flaws in this plan.) We and a tour booked at 10:45, and were hoping to just hop on the first bus of the day at 9:00, assuming we would get good seats and avoid the heat. Well. I will refrain from recapping the whole thing, but the bus was about 25 minutes late to pick us up and the entire time we waited we had to keep repeatedly fending off Guys Selling Stuff who were desperately trying to sell us tickets for the other tourist bus companies — the green bus, the yellow bus, the blue bus (“No, thanks.  We already have tickets for the Stupid @$#! Red Bus!”).

Well, fine. The Stupid @$#! Red Bus finally arrived and we got on and made it to our stop in Vatican City with plenty of time to meet our tour guide on time, so long as we could find the tour office without any issues. The only problem? Just try walking down the danged street in Vatican City without getting accosted by dozens upon dozens of Guys Selling Stuff trying to sell you skip-the-line tickets and tours. They are the most aggressive salespeople I have ever seen in my entire life. In your face, stepping in front of you, following you, trying every major European language to try to talk you into buying these skip-the-line tickets. Walking through the gantlet of these people is a serious blood sport.

We just ignored them and/or said “no” in every language we knew while trying to make our way to the tour office. I got so good at the stone-faced, thousand-yard stare that I nearly missed the one woman who was actually trying to direct us to the tour office (“I’m trying to HELP YOU, You’re walking toward the BATHROOM!” “Oh.”).

WHEW. We hadn’t even started the tour and we were already frenzied and exhausted just getting to the meeting point.

Once we got there, though, everything went smoothly. Our awesome tour guide, Maria, had a microphone/transmitter that she used to talk to us through our ear buds, so we could hear her narrative the entire time. All we had to do was follower her flag through the museum, chapel, and basilica.

Awesome Tour Guide

It should be easy, but following Maria’s flag through the incredibly crowded streets and sidewalks of Vatican City was hard enough. Then we had to file into the museum, go through a metal detector, and cram our way up a long set of stairs into the exhibit rooms. And that’s when we nearly lost her.

Going up the stairs, we were pressed into a crowd of people, shoulder to shoulder, surrounded by the faces of hundreds of strangers. In among them was one familiar face. “Hey, it’s Kelly W_____,” said my husband in a perfectly calm voice to our old friend who just happened to be passing us on the stairs at that exact moment. WHAAAAAT?! Sure enough, it was Kelly and his wife Heather — old friends of ours who used to work with us until they moved to upstate New York for new jobs about a year ago.

I MEAN. Of all the most insanely crowded and chaotic places in the world to run into a friend. It was unbelievable. CW and I had been offline the entire trip, not connecting to any type of social media, so we had missed all of our friends’ posts about their trip to Italy. Needless to say, we had no idea they would be in the Vatican at the same time as us. We had a quick hug-and-hello reunion, just long enough to plan to message each other on FB later that day, and then CW and I had to take off running after our tour guide, who had during this time made it to the top of the stairs and around the corner. We barely had time to register our astonishment before getting pulled back in to the tour experience.

One of the prettiest places in the Vatican Museum was the Pinecone Courtyard. Guess why it’s called that — just guess.

Pinecone Courtyard

Yup.

Pinecone Courtyard

We sat in the shade on some steps out here while Maria told us all about the background of Michelangelo’s painting of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. She was so knowledgeable about art history that she really made the story come to life. Michelangelo had, at that time, been a sculptor, not a painter. Choosing him as the artist for the chapel ceiling was actually not an award or a compliment, but an effort by a jealous rival to ruin Michelangelo’s career. He was reluctant to do it, but Pope Julius II was apparently not someone a person could say no to, if you get my drift.

Michelangelo was up there painting on that scaffold (standing, not lying down like you might have heard) and he was in such an awkward position that he couldn’t see the whole panel at once, and only got a good look at what he’d done after each panel was complete and he could get down. When he saw the first two panels, he decided he’d made a huge mess of it and ran away back to Florence, swearing he was done with the project. But no. The Pope sent his guard to Florence to drag the guy back and force him to complete the ceiling, which, of course, he did.

It really is amazing. But more on that later.

The reason we sat outside in the Pinecone Courtyard to hear about the Chapel ceiling is that there is no talking allowed inside the Chapel, so we got a little advance lecture before going through the rest of the museum and then into the Chapel .

The Vatican Muesum is …. a lot. You spend your time either gawking up at ceilings like this one (in some random gallery):

Ceiling

Or checking out the fabulously detailed mosaics on the floor, like this image of Athena:

Athena, Upside Down

Meanwhile, you’re surrounded by crowds of people. Your own tour group, other groups, individual wanderers, and just elbows and shoulders and knees everywhere.

Crowds

Trying to take a photo? So is everyone else.

Crowds

So we made our way through the crowds of the museum, trying to stick to Maria’s flag and follow along with her narrative (super informative and interesting!) until we got to the Chapel.

Inside the Sistine Chapel, there is no photography (sorry!), no talking, and no bare shoulders or knees.  (The teenagers in their short-shorts and tank tops who had to wrap paper sheets around themselves — well, is it wrong of me to have laughed at them? Silently? In my mind? I did.) The time we spent inside the Chapel was punctuated by periodic calls from the guards: Avanti, avanti! Silencio! NO FOTO! 

We got to kind of drift away from the tour group and spend our own time in there, silently gawking up at the ceiling, until it was time to meet up with the group again just outside. It was peaceful (mostly*) and beautiful.

*Okay, so there are rules in there, right? No photography, no talking, and no bare shoulders/knees. Respect the rules. I don’t care if you’re one of the faithful or not. So it was seriously a miracle when I did not reach down and snatch the iPhone right out of this surly kid’s hand when he hunkered down in front of me, giggling, to hide from the guards and lifted his phone up to take a photo of the ceiling. That phone was right under my NOSE, you guys. I wanted to stick my hand over the lens SO BADLY.

TEENAGERS FOR THE LOVE OF DOG.

The last phase of our Vatican tour was a visit to St. Peter’s Basilica, which is absolutely enormous and even more grandiose than I can possibly explain.

Gold

Inside, Michelangelo’s Pieta is behind glass, and it is the most exquisite piece of sculpture I have ever seen. Putting a photo of it here is preposterous, but here you go.

Michelangelo's Pieta

Maria’s explanation of this piece was another great thing to learn on the tour: Looking closely at the sculpture, you can see that Mary is depicted as being very young — far too young to be the age she would have been when Jesus was crucified. Jesus is also just a bit too small in stature, relative to Mary. These apparent “mistakes” are not actual mistakes, though, because what Michelangelo was trying to depict was not in fact Mary holding Jesus’ body at the time of his death, but rather Mary’s vision of Jesus’ sacrifice, which she saw when he was still an infant. So the young Mary of the statue is the mother of the infant Jesus, and the dead Jesus in her arms is only, at this point, a dream of the future.

(Our tour guide was so great — three-hour tour was totally worth it.)

Dome

Once we were done with the Vatican City tour, we just barely caught the Red Tourist Bus on its way back to Rome proper. On the way, we made plans. Serious plans. Gelato plans.

I had been talking and talking about all of this gelato I was going to eat in Italy, and somehow we had gotten to day three without me having had any yet. This had to change. So we bussed it back to our neighborhood and found a place for lunch (pizza! with anchovies! and a glass of prosecco!) and then made it a point to get some gelato. Pistachio and cappuccino were my first two flavors to try, and it was amazing. Pistachio turned into a real favorite of the trip. Loved it.

In the meanwhile, I had finally connected my phone to the data network so I could message back and forth with our friends Kelly and Heather. It was Saturday and they were leaving Italy on Monday morning; CW and I were spending all of Sunday in Florence. If the four of us were going to meet up on purpose, it had to be tonight. We would make it happen.

The four of us met up at the Altare della Patria (I figured it’s pretty easy to spot, as a meeting place) and walked around a bit looking for dinner. Our aimless walking took us to the Pantheon:

Pantheon

Oh, hi. Here we are at the Pantheon. (!!!)

We found a good restaurant in the neighborhood and I ate my first order of gnocchi in Rome. It was amazing. I figured if I was going to come back home fat on account of vacation food, I wasn’t going to regret things like the delicious pizza and prosecco I’d had for lunch, the gelato afterward, or this awesome plate of little pasta-dumpling-happiness.

It was so nice to sit and talk with H&K after not having seen them for almost a year– especially since it was such an incredible chance happening that led to us be able to have the night together! We, of course, had to get our waitress to take a photo to mark the occasion.

Auburn Reunion in Rome!

Can you see the glow? We were having a pretty good time.

After dinner, we wandered around a bit more through the Pantheon neighborhood when we stumbled upon the most beautiful gelateria ever. It was basically a sparkling orb of frozen goodness just beckoning us in. There was a long manifesto on the wall (Italians love manifestos, right?) about the quality of their ingredients and something about natural flavors, yada yada.

Had I already had gelato once today? Yes. Was I about to have it twice? YES. I did and it was lovely. (I had caramel and hazelnut this time; wished I’d gotten pistachio again.)

Stepping out of the shop with our gelato in hand, we wandered in the direction of some music we heard, which turned out to be coming from the front of the Pantheon. It was a string quartet playing for the crowd that had gathered there in the piazza.

This was one of those times when I had to stop and wonder at the magic of the day: happening upon our friends in the middle of a chaotic crowd, accidentally walking to the Pantheon, and now finding a string quartet playing there under the night sky just after our dinner. How do these things even happen? I didn’t know, but I didn’t want to let the little miracles of the day go unnoticed.

After a while, a very non-threatening police officer who looked like he must have been WELL over retirement age came and shut down the music by pointing delicately at his watch (despite the crowd’s boos and calls for “la ultima”), so we had move on.

A nightcap was calling. We stopped into a beer bar (birreria?) and there was some miscommunication about the sizes of beers people were ordering. My husband did say “piccolo,” but I don’t think he knew it would be this piccolo. Heh.

Two Sizes

Day three in Rome had been so full, it would be silly to complain about a small serving of beer. Just order un’altra.

There are more photos from the day on flickr. And if you need to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, you can check out Italy’s day one and two, and follow these links for Greece, days onetwothreefour, and five.

Italy, Day 2: Rome [The 30,000 Spanish Steps]

We woke up on our first morning in Rome with some big plans to check out the ancient sites in the historical city center. But first, we had to go upstairs and check out our hotel’s rooftop breakfast buffet. After five days of the most amazing rooftop breakfast buffet OF ALL TIME EVER (at the Royal Olympic in Athens), we assumed that this breakfast would be underwhelming. It was perfectly fine, I thought, but maybe I was just drawn in by the croissants and Nutella.

Breakfast

On our way to the Colosseum area, we stopped back into the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore for a few minutes and I managed to get a few decent photos of the interior. It’s a beautiful, quiet space.

Confessionals, Several Languages

Candles

Celing

Arches

Don’t worry, I did not include the photo I took of the body of Saint Pope Pius V, who rests inside the basilica, but if you’d like to see it it’s here.  (I mean, do you come to my blog to see photographs of dead popes? Probably not.)

After some quiet time in the church, we were on our way to a totally different kind of space:

Colosseum Walls

Oh yeah. The Colosseum. We got there pretty early in the morning (8:30?), but of course there was already quite the line to get tickets. It wasn’t too long a wait, though, before we were inside. Walking into the main space through an archway like this one was a very awesome moment — and I mean awesome in the sense of “awe.”

Archways

While the site was full of tourists like us, including plenty of tour groups and big families moving in bunches, it was never to difficult to move around in there. The space was designed to bring people together and allow them all to fit — its capacity was estimated at up to 80,000, which is around the same size as our football stadium. Wow.

Us

We explored multiple levels and walked all around to try to get a feel for its sheer size, but we weren’t allowed access into the lower levels, where the animals and gladiators were kept. It was interesting to imagine what that must have been like.

Lower Levels

The Colosseum also has its own museum included, which had a very cool exhibit about ancient reading, writing, and libraries. HELLO! I saw tons of interesting things there, like this Ancient Greek set of library rules:

Library Rules

Once we’d fully explored the Colosseum, we wandered around outside a bit taking photos, looking around, and trying to avoid the dozens of in-your-face street peddlers trying to sell sun hats, ice-cold water, and bus tours. (We already had our Tourist Hats and bus tickets, but more on that later.)

Just around the corner from the Colosseum is the entrance to the Roman Forum — and our Colosseum ticket covered admission to both. Lucky us! The Forum was a really nice place to explore:

Inside the Roman Forum

It’s much, much bigger than either of us expected, with something new and interesting around every turn. Whenever we thought a particular pathway was going to take us around back to the entrance/exit, we instead found ourselves heading in a new direction toward some other strange thing we had yet to investigate.

Inside the Roman Forum

There were big, wide-open green spaces and wildflowers everywhere, in among the ruins of all kinds of structures.

Wildflowers

And at a few points, we were able to climb the steps of part of an old building and find ourselves up high enough to be treated to a stunning via of Rome’s rooftops under a cloudless sky.

Rooftops

Now I am going to tell you a story about a hot afternoon:

By the time we had finished with the Forum, we had already been walking constantly for the entire morning and were ready to start heading toward somewhere where we could get lunch. We kind of took the long way round the Circo Massimo (old chariot racetrack, not a lot to see) and found a sidewalk café where we could get a pizza and some cold beers.

At this point in the day I was seriously starting to feel the heat and the sun. The air-conditioned inside of the restaurant felt amazing, but there wasn’t really anywhere to sit inside (unless we wanted to be crammed shoulder-to-shoulder between two other couples, which CW later said he wouldn’t have minded, but), so we sat outside. Even the shade from the umbrella did little to relieve the incredible heat. It felt like it was about a hundred and fifty degrees out there. The only thing that kept me from dying was a really big, really cold Peroni. Mille grazie, Peroni.

While eating, we noticed we were directly across the street from one of the stops for our Red Tourist Bus — we had bought tickets for the same hop-on-hop-off tour we’d used in Athens, and this would be our first try at hopping on in Rome. An air-conditioned ride around town (possibly stopping somewhere for further amusement) seemed like a good post-lunch activity. We had to rush to pay our bill and run across the street to catch the bus, but we made it. There were no seats in the air-conditioned lower level, but the open-air upper level had an awning and a cool breeze, so we settled in happily for the ride. About two minutes into the ride, CW realized he’d left his camera at the café. Oh hell no.

The busses aren’t supposed to let people off between official stops, but we begged and they obliged, letting us go about 5-6 blocks from the café. By the time we got back, no one had yet been seated at our old table and CW’s camera was still safely tucked underneath. WHEW. I am telling you, it would have been completely MISERABLE to have lost his camera — not so much because of the camera itself, but because of the photos that would have disappeared along with it.

Well, all we had to do was cross the street again and catch the next Red Tourist Bus. No problem. Except for one thing. The next bus that came around had no awning on the roof level and no air conditioning on the lower level — so we could choose to roast in the sun or steam in the sauna down below. We opted for the latter and hoped that once the bus got moving, the windows would let some air in, but our hopes were in vain. I am telling you, I have never felt so hot and disgusting and murderous in my entire life. All I could do was wilt limply into the hot plastic seat, fanning myself with the stupid Red Tourist Bus Map (“air-conditioned busses” MY FOOT) and praying for death or lemonade.

It was the longest bus ride of my life. We were stuck in the back of the lower level, with no air, and we couldn’t even see anything out of the stupid windows. Damn youuuuu, Red Tourist Bus.

We finally made our escape when the bus stopped near our hotel and I made a beeline for the nearest mini market, where I saved my own life with the purchase of an ice-cold can of Fanta Limonata, declaring it to be the most refreshing drink of all time. I drank it while lying in bed in my underpants, so, you know, that’s just how I do my glamorous Italian vacations.

This concludes my story about a hot afternoon.

After our glorious siesta, CW and I ventured back out in the cooler night air to look for dinner. It was supposed to be my job to choose the neighborhood/place, so I just started heading us in the general direction of the Spanish Steps, thinking we could stop somewhere halfway there (around Piazza Barberini) and find a restaurant, then check out the steps after dinner. My dining companion did not like the look of any of the places we passed on the way, and when we made it all the way to the Spanish Steps without having seen a place to eat, my dining companion then got grumpy that we had walked that far and  ended up at a tourist spot where there would be no non-touristy restaurants. (Sometimes, when it is my turn to pick something, I still find myself inexplicably thwarted in my pick.) So we then had to turn around and walk back in the other direction to try again. No one was happy.

Eventually we did eat dinner (nothing to write home about) and I think the food and the wine revived us enough to move on with the evening. We even would up walking BACK to the Spanish Steps to hang out with the crowds there. It is apparently the place to go sit and talk and — if you’re, like, 16 — to make out with your boyfriend/girlfriend in public.

Hanging out on the Spanish Steps

(That man seems to disapprove.)

The Guys Selling Stuff were there in full force, selling flowers, canned beers, and laser pointers (I… don’t know).

Hanging out on the Spanish Steps

On our walk back to the hotel, we passed some beautiful truffle shop called [Something Something] Tartufi, which was like a magical mirage. Their window displays were incredible — a single truffle or macaron displayed and packaged with the same level of style and elegance as if it were a $500 bottle of perfume. It was like a mirage, I say, because I always intended to go back there during business hours, but I never did. *sob* I didn’t even photograph it. Does it even exist?!

It turned out that all our walking — through the levels of the Colosseum, all around the Forum, the long way to lunch, back to get the camera, and then ALL around during the Neverending Quest For Dinner — amounted to the highest step count I have ever recorded on my FitBit: 30,060. WHOA.

I probably won’t get another recap up until Monday, so I’ll check back in then with tales of Our Day at the Vatican and the Surprise that Happened There. (Oooh.)

If you haven’t had your fill of Colosseum photos, there are about a million more in with the rest of the photos from day two in Italy, here. And if you need to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, day one in Italy is here and you can follow these links for Greece, days onetwothreefour, and five.

Italy, Day 1: Arriving in Rome [Plane, Train, Rain]

Our day started with one final beautiful breakfast on the roof of the Royal Olympic Hotel before we had to catch a crowded Metro to the airport. Before leaving the hotel, a bar/mirror/temple selfie was in order. So many of my favorite things all in one photo. Heh.

Bar Mirror Selfie

Goodbye, hotel! Goodbye Athens!

Getting to the Athens Airport was simple enough, but going through their security was…interesting. The woman in front of me had packed all of her liquids haphazardly, not in a baggie, and several of them were above regulation size. A shocking display, really. The security agent was going through every last item in her bag and trying to explain that the liquids had to be 100 milliliters at max.

“100 milliliters.”

“No, one hundred DOLLARS. This cream cost ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS.”

“You can’t take it.”

“IT COST ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS.”

This went on for quite some time until the Woman with the Expensive Cream finally decided to just check her bag. Meanwhile, the security agent running the X-ray machine accused me of having a tablet in my bag that I hadn’t removed, and I was all, no, definitely no tablet here, friends until my husband was all, um, what about your Kindle? Oh. Fine. Kindle. (They just made me remove it and re-x-ray — no big deal.)

Soon enough we were on the plane and heading for Rome. The previous night’s excesses (ouzo! house wine! prosecco!) were taking their toll on me, and for the first time in my life, my stomach rebelled against flying. Things were tense, but I kept it together.

On arriving in Rome, we took the Leonardo Express train from the airport to the main train station in Rome, just a couple of blocks from our hotel. After being spoiled rotten by the Royal Olympic in Athens, our very reasonable and totally fine hotel in Rome was an adjustment. (Fancy hotels in Athens right now are actually cheaper than modest ones in Rome, so we were also now paying more and getting less, which added to the sting.)

Once we had a chance to freshen up, we decided to get out of the hotel room and get the lay of the land. Our neighborhood exploration began with finding the Papal Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, which is just a couple of blocks from where we were staying and served as a good landmark (“our” Basilica) for the duration of our stay.

 

Basilica

We went in and looked around a bit, but I have better interior photos from later in the trip, so I’ll share those when the time comes.

At this point, what had been kind of gray, cheerless skies turned into black clouds and raging wind. A big rainstorm seemed poised to arrive any second, so while we kept walking in the general direction of the Piazza Venezia / Trajan’s Forum area, we found a little restaurant to duck into and get some refuge from the storm.

My very first taste of Italian food made in Italy was this caprese salad. Simple and perfect (although CW was wiser than I and opted to skip the pitted black olives — no olives will ever be as good as the Greek olives and that is final).

Caprese

We lingered over salads and wine while the downpour outside died down to a light drizzle and we could be on our way.

Let me assure you, rain slows down virtually nothing in Rome. The tourist-focused part of town we were walking into was still just as packed as it would be on any day in the summer. Rain also does not stop Italians from being incredibly dapper and fabulous. Observe this man:

ALMOST

[Oh, how I wish I had snapped that photo a second earlier, before someone had walked into the frame. I just wasn’t quick enough!]

We didn’t let the weather stop us from walking all around and taking in the sights, trying to get an idea of where some of the main sites were and how far they were from our hotel. We were able to walk to this area in about 20-30 minutes from the hotel, where we could see Trajan’s Forum, the Altar of the Fatherland, another huge church, and — around the corner — the Colosseum.

CW

Like Athens, Rome seemed to be filled with all kinds of interesting ancient ruins in among the bustle of modern life. Everywhere we looked, there were ancient structures, modern structures, and everything in between, all piled up together in the city’s close quarters — somewhat suggested by this photo (one of many I took trying to illustrate this convergence-of-time phenomenon):

Different Ages of Buildings

From here we started working our way in the direction of the Trevi Fountain, figuring it would be something fun and simple to see on our first evening in Rome. The walk there was full of more beautiful and interesting buildings, busy streets, populated squares, and many, many Guys Selling Stuff. Today, they were selling umbrellas. Throughout our time in Rome we would see them selling a lot more (ice-cold water, sun hats, tour tickets, toys…).

Guys Selling Umbrellas

The Trevi Fountain, as it turns out, is under repair and has been drained. Hmm.

Fintana di Trevi

The city has set up a walkway bordered by glass so that tourists can walk across the area where the (empty)  basin is, actually allowing us to get closer to the statues in the center than one normally would. There’s also a little substitute basin set up outside the walkway  for would-be coin-tossers, so no one has to miss out on the experience of making a wish at the Trevi Fountain. Did we throw in coins and make a wish? Of course.

Fintana di Trevi

Our next mission at the end of this long day was to find dinner. We just sort of walked randomly around the fountain area, working our way out a bit to get farther away from the tourist-oriented restaurants directly on the piazza. (I am not one to be overly concerned about avoiding restaurants that are aimed at tourists, but we did find that those places charge more money and seem to have less interesting food, so it’s worth it to try some places that are a little bit off those main areas.)

CW noticed this little restaurant, Da Olimpio, down an otherwise dark alley and that description… doesn’t sound promising, I guess, but it turned out to be lovely. Please allow my photo of their adorable house wine carafe to serve as all the info you need should you ever be in Rome and want to eat there:

Adorable Wine Carafe

It was a cute, rustic sort of place staffed by a lot of older men (career waiters, I suppose), who didn’t speak much English. We managed to communicate just fine, of course — they’re professionals and are well experienced in helping non-Italian-speaking tourists, whether we all speak the same language or not. Plus, I had been practicing “vino rosso della casa,” the most important part of any order.  The vegetable sides and wine bottles were all on display in cases near the door (something we noticed in a lot of places) and the food was simple and well prepared. Good stuff.

We took our time with dinner and with the walk home. We were enjoying being in Rome, but we also talked about the adjustment it was taking to be there — the pace and energy were so different after five days in Greece. Rome just feels like a much bigger city than Athens. It is. The sidewalks and traffic are busier, the energy is faster, the attitude is less laid back and less friendly than in Greece, in my perception.

On another note, here are two funny things from our Roman hotel:

Versace...

1) Apparently, Versace had something to do with our tile floor?

RULES.

2) The above is taken from our binder of hotel information. Any breaking of the hotel rules, and you “WILL BE IMMEDIATELY DENOUNCED TO THE POLICE.” That is some serious business right there.

We had big plans for our second day in Rome, so stay tuned for that update shortly. (I may or may not be able to do daily updates for the next couple of days as my in-laws will be staying with us, so if I disappear, never fear; I will be back!)

You can see all of the photos from day one in Italy here, and if you need to catch up on any of the previous daily posts, you can follow these links for Greece, days onetwothreefour, and five.

Greece, Day 5: Athens [High Places]

Our last day in Greece seemed to come around fast! While each day as we were living it seemed full of so much, by the time we knew we were about to leave, it seemed in retrospect to have all gone by so quickly. Isn’t that always the way? Well, we had to make the most of it, and we had grand plans.

Every day at breakfast we’d been looking out at Mount Lycabettus in the no-so-far-off distance and thinking about hiking to the top. Remember this view from day one?

Rooftop View

That big peak is Lycabettus. Does it look like a daunting hike? I don’t even know anymore. Looking at this photo, it does look daunting. But feeling as good as I felt after walking around all of Athens every day, I thought it was surely a doable adventure. CW really wanted to get up there as well, but was convinced we were signing up for a grueling mission. Nonetheless, we were in.

Our approach to the mountain* started in the National Gardens just outside our hotel’s front door. We then had to wind our way through some neighborhood streets, climbing higher and higher on sidewalks that turned into staircases, until we reached the base and the hiking trail that begins there.

*Technically a hill at only 908 feet, but if it’s called “Mount Lycabettus,” I shall be referring to it as a mountain from here on out. That is that.

Signs

The trail was rather easy going — walkable/runnable, but still steep even taking into account the switchbacks. There were a lot of interesting plants to see, including these trees imported directly from Dr. Seuss.

Awesome Dr. Seuss Trees

The views of the city were great throughout the climb, but the higher we got, the less inclined I was to venture out onto overlooks like the one below. I just hung back and took a photo of my husband taking his photo. That’s fine with me.

Stopping at an Overlook

Between this overlook with the bench and the actual top of Mount Lycabettus, we had to climb a long set of steep marble stairs that ended at the front of the Chapel of St. George, which sits atop the mountain (along with an open-air theater and a restaurant — it was too early for lunch or I would have really wanted to eat there. THE VIEW, DEAR DOG, THE VIEW.)

CW at the Overlook

We took our time at the top, taking photos, visiting the chapel and lighting a couple of candles, and just generally being happy to have made it to the top of the highest point in Athens with minimal trouble.

Chapel of St. George

Chapel of St. George

All in all, the hike to the top, staring from our hotel, took maybe an hour. I have a rotten sense of time, but it definitely couldn’t have been more than 90 minutes. Significantly less daunting than you would think, especially for two fit adults. There is also a funicular rail that will take visitors halfway up (and then they still must climb the marble stairs), but we wanted none of that. Getting to the top by our own steam was half the thrill.

A cappuccino freddo reward was absolutely in order. I just loved this café’s little blue table, and would like one of these for my own patio.  See also: the bottle for table water.

Well-Deserved Cappuccino Freddo

CW and I also had some other business we needed to attend to: we’d both been seeing things around town we kind of wanted to buy, but had been shopping around for the best ones, and today was the day to pull the trigger. I bought myself a pair of handmade sandals (I am wearing them today and I love them) and CW chose a beautiful mortar and pestle set made from olive wood. Shopping missions: complete.

We also had some unfinished business with the Ancient [Greek] Agora. We’d tried to visit it a couple of days prior, but it turned out to be much larger than we expected and we didn’t have the time to do it justice, so today was our day to go back for more. We had a really nice time strolling around the grounds. checking out the remains of all kinds of ancient structures, and visiting the Temple of Hephaestus, which you can see in the background of the photo below:

Us, Laughing

[Don’t worry; I am going to find that bra and I am going to burn it with fire, because no, bra, this behavior is UNACCEPTABLE. Also, yes, I am a giant.]

Okay, never mind that. Here’s a closer look at the Temple of Hephaestus:

Temple of Hephaestus

Are you tired of looking at my photos of ancient Greek temples and columns yet? Don’t worry, we’ll be moving on to Italy soon, where there will be…other types of ancient architecture.

Temple of Hephaestus

The Agora’s museum — part traditional museum with ancient pottery and other items behind glass, and part open-air sculpture museum — beckoned us as well. There were a lot of Grecian Urns (putting in my mind Keats’ ode, of course).

Amphora

This one was the greatest discovery, however:

Wine Cooler

Check it out. It’s an ancient wine cooler that may depict a scene from the Iliad, so it’s already fairly awesome. It would be placed in the cold sea, and the hole in the middle is actually a tube going straight through, allowing cold water to pass through the center and cool the wine more quickly. Greeks know how it’s done. That wine is staying cold. In modern times, however, they can simply serve your already-chilled wine with a side of ice cubes, as somewhat shown in this photo taken in a café on Hydra — Hydra, I love you forever. Call me.

The open air museum was a lovely space, and full of interesting sculptures. Below, there’s the Winged Nike (a favorite), a bust of Nemesis, and, finally!, a statue of Athena.

Sculpture Hall

Winged Nike

Nemesis

Athena

The second level of the open air museum has a pretty view out to the nearby hillsides of the city, and in this photo below you can see a certain handsome photographer taking advantage of the moment.

View from the Museum

Other handsome guys taking advantage of the open-air museum included this awesome dog. Look at him, just stone-cold chillin’ next to these statues on the ground floor, like he owns the place.

This Awesome Dog

Maybe he does.

As it was nearing time for lunch, it also seemed that a storm was approaching. We’d had good luck with the weather so far in Greece, only seeing a little light rain while we were safely inside the boat the day before. Today, we also managed to escape getting wet by taking an indoor table next to an open window in the comfortable Xenios Zeus restaurant high on the Acropolis hill. We’d walked by this place a couple of times and liked both the charming garden seating area and the menu, so we finally came back to try it.

(And yes, basically we started our day by climbing one mountain (fine, “mountain”) and then went to an entirely different high point in the city for lunch. Athens is a hilly place, but when you’re there and you’re walking it, it doesn’t seem bad at all and the payoff is always worth it.)

Window

We were safe from the rain but got to enjoy all the fresh herbs, flowers, and vines in the garden right outside our breezy open window. CW and I decided to try to order something light for lunch — just salad and a starter or two to share — so we could have a bigger dinner later. Well. Our light lunch turned into quite the feast.

Awesome Greek Lunch

There was Greek salad (no bullshit lettuce up in there — just the good stuff), dolmas, olives and peppers, grilled bread with olive oil, and this hummus-like spread that was made with salmon roe. I don’t know how to explain that last one but it was good. We lingered over the meal and enjoyed every bit of it, feeling stuffed to the gills by the end. Then, our waiter brought us each a slice of orange cake on the house, so how could we say no? It was soaked in some kind of orange syrup, which sounds a bit dodgy but tasted great.

Xenios Zeus

Xenios Zeus. Recommended.

The restaurant happens to be right near the little area I want to call the Secret Alleyways, full of narrow walkways, twists and turns, and charming little white-painted houses. We took the opportunity to walk through them one last time while we were in Athens, with me fantasizing all the while about how we could possibly manage to move into one of the hidden houses.

Narrow Stairs

Tiny Window

 

This tiny alleyway at the end of which sits a cat, as if artfully posed among these flower petals? This is the perfect example of things I loved about Athens. Not only am I walking down what feels like a charming secret passageway from a fairytale, just wide enough for one person to fit through, but also at the turn is this little scene that just couldn’t be any more perfect. At some point we started to think the cats and dogs of Athens were somehow descended from the ancient gods and goddesses. Perhaps this kitty was sending me some kind of message.

My Favorite Thing

Secret Acropolis Kitty

More Secret Alleys

Sigh. We went home via the pâtisserie and picked up one last bottle of wine, and had a little siesta before dinner.

In keeping with the theme of unfinished business, there was one thing we had not yet tried in Greece that we both had really wanted to: ouzo.

Ouzo

Mission accomplished! I was surprised to learn that it’s served like Pernod or Absinthe, over ice/with water added, and cloudy. I think the times I’d seen ouzo previously (in the US), I had seen it served as a simple shot (and, because it wasn’t mixed with ice/water, it was clear, like vodka). So this was a new experience. I’ve historically avoided licorice-tasting drinks, but what I’ve come to realize in recent years is that I only really dislike black licorice itself and Jägermeister. Other anise-flavored drinks are A-OK in my book, so I enjoyed the ouzo very much.

Afterward, we went to another rooftop restaurant in the area and had a lovely last dinner while enjoying the nighttime view.

Dinner on the Roof

After dinner, a final item of unfinished business: visiting our own hotel’s rooftop bar after dark. We’d first gone up there in the afternoon on day one, just to look. Then, we’d eaten breakfast up there every single morning of the trip. This night, we wanted to be up on the roof of the Royal Olympic, seeing the city at night, with the Acropolis all illuminated and so on. It was beautiful.

Prosecco on the Hotel Roof

Prosecco on the Hotel Roof

Prosecco on the Hotel Roof

Good night, Athens!

The next morning, we would be on our way to Rome, so stay tuned for that!

You can click on any of these photos to view it in larger sizes on flickr, and the entire set from day five in Greece is here. If you missed any of the other day-by-day recaps, you can also check out days one,twothree, and four.