Friday, September 28, 2012

Rome, Venice and All the Pasta

September seems to be a recurring month of few posts for me.  This year, I have a good excuse.  We divided the month between five countries: Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, France and the United Kingdom.  The days blurred together as Eric and I celebrated his birthday in Paros, flew to Rome to meet his parents for their vacation, and then traveled with them through Rome, Venice, Prague and Paris. 

Eric's 31st also included stuffed grape leaves, Greek meatballs and chocolate croissants.

My first impression of Rome when I visited back in 2008 was of a busy city where you could turn a corner and trip over ancient ruins.  On a tour of the catacombs this month, our guide spoke about the Visigoths and other groups that I half-remembered from world history class in high school.  Oh right, I thought.  Those weren't just stories.  Rome's history is present even as buses hurtle through centuries-old city walls and tourists use iPads to take pictures of the Colosseum.  The ancient blends with the medieval, with the Renaissance, with the modern to create the rushing capital of today.

A few Pines Near a Catacomb
(my favorite movement of Pines of Rome)
St. Peter's Basilica
Interior of St. Peter's in the mid-afternoon
The Basilica of San Clemente is one of the most fascinating illustrations of Rome's long history.  The twelfth century basilica was built on top of a basilica from the fourth century, which had itself been built on top of a second century pagan temple.  Below the pagan temple, there is an even lower layer of Roman apartments from the first century.  The church began excavations in the mid-1800s and the lower levels are open for public viewing. I had never heard of it before stopping there on a tour, but it was one of the most fascinating places we visited.

Though Rome is full of must-see monuments, I focused on making up for months without good pasta.  From tortellini to ravioli to penne to spaghetti to pastas I'd never heard of before, I ate my way through Rome.

Penne carbonara, spaghetti with marinara sauce, and lasagna
When a waiter offers to give you a tasting menu of Roman pasta dishes, say yes.
After a few days, we all boarded a train towards another iconic Italian city: Venice.

A rare moment when a canal is quiet enough to have still waters.
Every so often, you'll meet a traveler who resists seeing anywhere popular.  If the destination is not sufficiently unknown/difficult to reach/not listed in Lonely Planet, it's too mainstream for his or her itinerary.  It's the backpacker version of "My favorite band is so underground you've never heard of them."  Venice will probably fall into that category.  Everyone goes to Venice.  It's expensive, it's crowded, and it's a city where every step puts you in the background of some other tourist's photo.  However, Venice is my proof that popular, mainstream destinations are not the travel equivalent of "Call Me Maybe."  

Piazza San Marco
Venice is popular because the Basilica di San Marco is stunning.  It is popular because getting lost down back alleys lets you feel like you are discovering something new and unmapped.  It is popular because at night, when you walk along the canals beside docked gondolas and speed boats, eating a cup of gelato and listening to the water lap at the stone walls, you can barely believe the city is real.

A view from a canal-side café
Yes, you might get glass shop fatigue and yes, the Rialto Bridge is so crowded that you will have to elbow your way to the edge for a view of the Grand Canal.  Yet there always seem to be more piazzas to explore, more pastries to taste, and more canals to see.  

View of the Grand Canal from the Rialto Bridge
Venice does have good signage to get you around,
though admittedly some look a little... murder-y.

A side alley in Venice
Maybe everyone goes to Venice, but for me it has earned its popularity. 

Next up: Burano, an island near Venice that deserves its own post.

What cities have you fallen in love with?
Do you mind crowds, or do you prefer less-visited places?


  1. That pasta looks DELICIOUS. Yum. Italy and Spain are on my list of countries to go to next :).

    I kind of fell in love with Paris, but the fact that it was 50 and rainy and miserable each day didn't help. And that my friend I was staying with only had heat at night :-/. I would like to go back another day and stay in a hotel and experience it a bit more ... and the food, of course :P I miss those croissants. How was Paris for you?

    1. I loved Paris! I'm sorry the weather wasn't great for you. We had a couple days of rain, but overall it was pretty and sunny. I love French food, and I agree, I can't get enough croissants. Spain is on my list of countries to visit, too! I hope you get to go there soon.