5 days in Rome and Umbria

I am someone who loves to travel, yet after 30 countries I had not made it to Italy.  I knew that I would eventually get there and wanted to make the most of this once in a lifetime trip.  My husband and I had exceptionally high expectations – and they were met!  We loved the culture, history, architecture, people, art, and food!  Our two week trip in March included touring Rome, Orvieto, Assisi, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Chianti, and Venice.  This entry focuses on Rome and Umbria.  When planning your trip to Italy, remember that it gets VERY hot in the summer and that not all hotels have air conditioning.  {Restaurant suggestions are at the end.}

Saturday – Rome 

We arrived in Rome and took the Leonardo da Vinci express to Termini.  As in the rest of Europe, the trains from the airport are reasonably priced, clean, and efficient.  We stayed at the Hotel Cortina, Quirinale Via Nazionale 18.  Polite staff, 10 minute walk to Termini train station, convenient bus access.  Adorable breakfast eating area with delicious continental breakfast – pastries, cheeses, meats, fruit, bread, cereals.  Best cappuccinos crafted with love each morning.  Our room was a comfortable size, but the shower was European-size (small).

Breakfast eating area
Breakfast eating area

After getting settled at the hotel, we walked to Santa Maria della Vittoria.  The famous statue Ecstasy of St. Teresa was truly stunning and a wonderful introduction to Bernini in the flesh.  The frescoes on the ceiling were vibrant and the marble angels float down into the church beautifully.

Ecstasy of St. Teresa (Bernini)

Walking along a street lined with lemon trees, we passed the Triton Fountain (1642, Bernini) towards the Spanish Steps.  Yes, this tourist destination was crowded but we got there in time to see the sunset over Rome.  As evening fell, we wandered towards the Trevi Fountain to toss the obligatory pennies – promising our return to the fountain one day.  Beautiful during the day, the fountain is absolutely stunning at night.

Spanish Steps, Rome

Sunday Our first historical stop was the Roman Forum.  We arrived right when it opened and purchased dual tickets for the Forum and the Colosseum (allowing us to skip its very long line later).  From the street, the Roman Forum looks like disorganized ruins but the audio guide explained the evolution of this historical area.  The Basilica Emilia has been restored with beautiful floors and two-sided stuccos on display. The Temple of Venus and Rome was built on the same scale as the Colosseum; this engineer was impressed with how it could have been constructed!  Climbing up Palantine Hill, one can see beautiful views of the Colosseum from the botanical park.  (Skip the Augustus House in the back….)  The Colosseum itself was larger than expected.  Throngs of tourists hurried our stay, but the educational information in the shaded portion was worth a few extra minutes.

Roman Forum

Palazzo Valentini was one of the best experiences.  This archaeological find available only via guided tours allows visitors to walk through the ruins brought alive through sound and lighting.  One feels transported to the past.

Our next stop was Palazzo Doria Pamphilj, which reminded me of the Frick but 5x bigger.  The ornately decorated rooms had floor-to-ceiling paintings and a descriptive audio guide.  On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at Il Gesu (Baroque church ~1600) which is ornately decorated with lapis lazuli, gold, and marble.  The two breathtaking chapels at the front are gorgeous, tasteful, and spiritual (Jesus on the cross on left, Mary on right).


Our quick walk through the Jewish Ghetto took us past the Tartaughe fountain (turtles), Portico d’Ottavio, and Teatro di Marcello.  Crossing the river, we wandered to Santa Maria in Trastevere to glimpse its shimmering gold mosaics outside.  While built in the 3rd century, extensions were added in the 12th to what it remains today.

Monday Orvieto and Assisi (Umbria)

We used Viator to book a day trip via bus to Orvieto and Assisi.  The Orvieto Duomo has a colorful Gothic façade on the outside .  Well-preserved pastel frescos surround the Miracle at Bolsena (blood-stained cloth, transubstantiation) in the left chapel and gruesome frescoes depict the agony of the Last Judgment in the right chapel. (Luca Signorelli, 1450-1523)

Duomo, Orvieto (front) Duomo, Orvieto (side)

The bus stopped for lunch at a lovely countryside villa, allowing us a chance for olive oil tasting as well.  The portions were generous and the food was delicious.Orvieto_Assisi Lunch StopWe entered Assisi by walking east from Porto Nueva to St. Francis’s Basilica.  The pedestrian-friendly streets reflect the simplicity of life with adorable shopping.  The Basilica consists of an upper Gothic church (scenes of St. Francis’s life, thought to be one of the earliest examples of perspective), a lower Romanesque church, and the crypt with St. Francis’s tomb.  All are well-maintained and create an artistic yet spiritual experience.

St. Francis of Assisi

Tuesday – We used Viator for a guided tour of the Vatican to most efficiently see the highlights of art in the Vatican and to skip the line for tickets (Dark Rome Tours).  This amazing collection met my high expectations from Art History – Raphael Rooms, Sistine Chapel, Bernini’s staircase.  Vatican Museum

St. Peter’s Basilica is a masterpiece in its own right.  St. Peter’s “square” is actually a semi-circle ending at the basilica; it is surrounded by a colonnade and its roof lined with 140 detailed Bernini sculptures.  The Basilica is the largest church of Christendom at over 18,000 sq. ft. and it is filled with masterpieces such as Michaelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s canopy, and Bernini’s St. Peter with Angels.  We picked up our tickets for an audience with the pope (Wednesday mornings at 10a.  To attend, one must apply in writing preferably via a church www.vatican.va).

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican

A long, meandering walk back to the other side of the Tiber took us past Castel Saint’Angelo (thank you, Dan Brown) and through the Piazza Navona.  The piazza has yet another obelisk that was stolen from Egypt and a beautifully sculpted fountain.  Next stop was the Pantheon which reminded me of Low Library at Columbia.  Amazingly, it was built in 120 AD with an oculus “eye of heaven” hole at the top of the dome!

We stopped at two churches before dinner – St. Ignazio di Loyola (the ceiling by Andrea Pozzo has detailed brilliant frescoes that set the standard for aerial perspective, but the highlight is the painted cupola that gives the impression of a dome in the church.  When the Jesuits ran out of money and couldn’t build the dome, they commissioned this convincing optical illusion) and Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi (3 stunning Carvaggios, complete with lighting for 3-5 minutes for a few Euros).

St Ignazio di Loyola, Roma

Wednesday – Our day began with the audience with the Pope.  After his drive around the square in the Pope-mobile, he welcomed the audience with over 5 languages.  From Vatican City, we took the subway and then a bus to get to the Appian Way – the original highway from 312 BC – and the Catacombes of San Sebastian.  These crypts are visited via a guided tour that takes you underground to see a pagan cemetery, one of Sts. Peter and Paul’s resting places, 1st century homes, and the relics of San Sebastian (arrows and post).  An artistic highlight is the statue of Jesus, completed by the prolific Bernini when he was 80.

Taking the bus back to Rome, we stopped at Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano.  Do not miss this church!  It had the best audio guide (on iPods!) complete with history and art information.  Borromini put the final touches on the church’s architecture.  It houses enormous sculptures of the saints along the main aisle, frescoes on the choir of the church (walls near the altar), an ornate baldacchino, and a brilliant gold mosaic in the apse (over the high altar).

St John in Laterano Basilica, Roma

If you are interested in history and architecture, another church to visit is the Basilica San Clemente.  A 12th century church was built on a 4th century church, which was built on 1st century Roman buildings.  One can view a 1st century temple with herringbone floors and homes with running water (still)!

Walking back to our hotel, we stopped at Sta. Maria Maggore (largest Catholic church in Rome dedicated to Mary).  The architecture on the outside sides is more ornate than the front/back, but this is most likely due to the streets leading up to the square.  We visited it in the evening and the church had an eerie, solemn feel without the obligatory Euro to light the 5th century frescoes on the ceiling.  Once lit, the church felt comfortable and welcoming.

Thursday Before heading to Florence, we visited the Galleria Borghese museum (reservations required, timed entry).  This mansion was built in 1615 and has been gloriously restored to house amazing art.  My favorites were 1) Canova’s Venus Victrix (rumored to be Bonaparte’s sister) look at the sculpted cushion and pose, 2) Bernini’s David detailed angst in face and his twisted body, 3) Bernini’s famed Apollo and Daphne  with lifelike facial features and a feeling of movement from the couple (as well as surprisingly thinly sculpted leaves), and 4) Bernini’s Rape of Prosperena with his hand realistically grasping her thigh.  I loved having the audioguide for the sculptures.  Be sure to keep moving to the upstairs picture galleries as well; art lovers WILL run out of time and be escorted the door after 2 hours.

We arrived in Florence via train in the early evening, giving us time to walk to our hotel, check-in, and wander around the city before dinner.

Restaurant Suggestions, by Neighborhood:

1)      MONTI/FORO ROMANO: La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, Via Leonina.  Our best meal in Italy, surrounded by Italians and tourists with red & white checkered table cloths.  Rigatoni carbonara with peas and bacon, Gnocchi with meat ragu sauce, Veal ravioli with truffle sauce, Saltimbocca with mashed potatoes, Molten chocolate cake. www.latavernadeiforiimperiali.com/ 

La Taverna dei Fori Imperiali, Roma

2)      TREVI FOUNTAIN: La Fontana di Venere, Vicolo dei Modelli, 56.  Great balance of flavors.  Cacio e Pepe, Ravioli with sage butter, Risotto with peas and mushrooms  www.veneretrevi.com/

3)      TRASTEVERE: Dar Poeta, Vicolo del Bologna 45.  Thin crust pizza.  We had one with zucchini and cheese, the other with pancetta, tomato, pecornia romano.  Small and crowded, a good quick stop if in area. www.darpoeta.com/

4)      NAVONA: Il Cartoccio, Corso Vittorio Emanuele 200.  Adorable fried food shop.  We munched on calamari, artichoke, and olives with two Peronis.  Great lunch stop for “on-the-go”. https://www.facebook.com/IlCartoccio

Il Cartoccio, Roma

5)      PANTHEON: Tazza d’Oro (Via degli Orfani, 84) and Giolitti (Via Uffici del Vicario, 40).  Mediocre and touristy, but satisfies the cappuccino and/or gelato cravings. www.tazzadorocoffeeshop.com/   www.giolitti.it/

6)      MONTI: La Taverna de Monti, Via del Boschetto 41.  We had spaghetti and shrimp, veal marsala, and spaghetti ragu.  We dined next to some police officers, which was a cultural experience, but found the food wanting compared to other dinners. www.tavernamonti.info/

7)      TREVI FOUNTAIN: Il Gelato di San Crispino, Via della Panetteria, 42 e in Via Cilicia.  All natural and fresh ingredients were good, but the flavor was not as developed as some other gelatos we tasted. www.ilgelatodisancrispino.it/

8)      TREVI FOUNTAIN: Pizzeria La Scricciola, Via del Lavatore, 41.  With this name, how could the pizza not be delicious?  Pre-made crust is heated by the slice.  We had traditional tomato mozzarella and prosciutto with pecorino and Russian dressing.  Excellent lunch stop.  We ate up front by the counter, but there is also a seated area in the back for dining. www.facebook.com/scricciola85

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