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Amsterdam and Italy (finally!) in November 2021

My husband and I finally took the trip to Italy that we had initially planned for May of 2020. We had credit with WestJet, and since they have no direct flights to Italy from Calgary in November, we ultimately decided on a layover in Amsterdam, and took advantage of this to spend a couple of days in this city, since we had never been to Amsterdam.

We bid for an upgrade to business class ($10 above the minimum bid) and were successful. So, our Hallowe'en, overnight flight to Amsterdam was peaceful, and we were both able to sleep much of the way. Our flight landed at Schiphol Airport at 12:40 pm, and it didn’t take long to go through border control. We bought a 3-day pass that gave us transportation on buses, trams, and trains, including the train from the airport, plus a ticket for our return train trip on the 4th morning, and it wasn’t long before we were on the train headed to Centraal Station. From there, we caught a bus to our accommodation—Sweets Hotel Beltbrug. We were a bit ahead of check-in time, so I texted the hotel to let them know we had arrived early, and we found a bench along the canal to wait in the sunshine for our door code. We got the code just as we were watching the bridge go up to let a boat through.

Our “hotel” was really a tiny house once used by the bridge keeper for the Beltbrug bridge. We entered to find a delightful, charming little place. It had a king-sized bed surrounded on two sides by shelving. There was a small sink and a bar-sized fridge, as well as a kettle. There was a closet, with a wall safe, and some cubbies beside the closet. Slippers were provided for us in one of the cubbies. A half-moon table was set into the wall by the front window. A bathroom containing a toilet and shower (all in one room) was near the exit door. The room was bright and had views of the canal on three sides—the front looked out onto the street that crosses the bridge, the side overlooked the bridge itself, and the back overlooked a windmill along the canal. We loved it!

We settled in and went for a walk to check out the neighbourhood and get some supplies. We were taken with some of the architecture—such as triangle-shaped apartment buildings—the number of bicycles parked on a nearby street (dozens and dozens), and what we presumed was a little free library, complete with a bookshelf, an easy chair and a table, all outdoors. There was a grocery store nearby, so we picked up some milk for our coffee, bananas, pastries, and snacks. We ordered dim sum for supper using Deliveroo, and a fellow on a scooter delivered our dinner about a half an hour later. After dinner, we went for a brief walk along the canal.

We had reservations at the Anne Frank House the next morning. We walked there. It took about half an hour, and we got there early, so we explored the charming area a bit. The AF House is a must-see for anyone who has read the book or who is interested in Holocaust history. We liked the respectful way the the audio guide stopped for the annex section. It was sobering to see the markings on the wallpaper showing the children’s growth and pictures Anne had pasted on the walls to decorate her space. Most amazing was seeing a brief, accidental film clip of her, looking out the window at a bride at the Westerkerk next door.

We had an hour to wait for the antigen test we had booked nearby, so we explored the canals and architecture in the area some more. After our test, we headed towards the Museumplein, where we had a reservation at the Van Gogh museum for that afternoon. It was raining, so we found a sheltered spot to wait for our test results. Once we got them and entered them into the app, we headed into a restaurant for our first inside-a-restaurant meal in over a year. We chose the Small Talk Café and Coffee Shop on a corner near Museumplein.

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We sat upstairs where there was only one other occupied table and ate delicious hamburgers. After lunch, it was time for our entry into the Van Gogh Museum.
We really enjoyed this. The museum includes works by Van Gogh’s influences and contemporaries, as well as his amazing paintings of sunflowers, almond blooms, and some self-portraits. When we were finished, we saw that it was now really pouring outside. We were still feeling pretty energetic, so we found a corner out of the way of the museum exit to book tickets for the Kattencabinet and figure out how to get there. A pompous security guard came over and ordered us to go outside, as if we were loitering teens or transients or something, instead of 63-year-old adults who had paid to be there. I was not impressed. We are usually pretty compliant and respectful, but we decided to ignore him while we finished booking our tickets and figuring out the transit route.

We took a tram and got a bit lost trying to walk to the cat museum. We finally found it in an old mansion (built by the mayor in the 1600s) that was nicely preserved. The cats in the museum were friendly and the displays were fun and interesting- including photographs of famous people with their cats like Dali, Hemingway and Josephine Baker.

We decided to walk back to our bridge house and saw a restaurant on the way that looked appealing: Morgan & Mees. They weren’t serving dinner quite yet, so we ordered three of their small plates: Bitterballen, Shrimp Croquettes, and Roasted Ribs. Everything was delicious. After we ate, we went back to our little bridge house and had a great sleep.

The next morning, we had another antigen test booked not far from Morgan & Mees, so we went back there for breakfast. It was lovely. We both had cappuccinos and omelettes (eggs, Gruyère cheese and chives on sourdough) with a side of greens.

We returned to the bridge house to pick up our bags, since we would be staying at a different bridge house that night. Sweets has an agreement with a hotel near the train station for storing luggage, so we took a bus to the station and found the hotel. This was the first time we had walked around that area, which is filled with hotels and crawling with tourists. We were very glad we weren’t staying right around there.

We had a few options for what to do that day, depending on the weather. Since it was sunny and warm in the morning, we took the train out to Zaanse Schans- an historical village/museum not far from Amsterdam. We spent a lovely couple of hours there. I watched a heron catch a fish in the little canal. We went to the wooden shoe museum and store and bought a windmill souvenir. (We always buy small items to hang on our Christmas tree and remind us of our travels.) We had pannekoeks for lunch. My husband’s was cheese and onion and mine was Nutella. We ate on the deck, watching the ducks. Just as we were finishing a cold front suddenly blew in, so we walked over to look at the windmills before heading back to the train. Zaanse Schans was a pleasant and charming break from the city. Thank you to those who suggested it.

We collected our bags and then set off for our second bridge house: Kortjewantbrug. This house is in a little tower with a 360 degree view of the harbour, canal, and city. After settling in, we walked back to the train station area and hopped on a 5 pm canal tour. The sun was setting and the bridge lights and street lights were coming on as we cruised through the harbour and the canals. This was a magical time of day to do a canal tour. After the tour, we walked back toward our house, purposely taking an indirect route to see more of the area. We went to a restaurant, Kadjik, not far from our house, and had delicious Indonesian food. We headed back to our tower and enjoyed the view of the harbour in the fog.

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We would have liked to have had more time to enjoy this bridge house, but we had a flight to Rome the next morning. We left the bridge house early in the morning and walked to Centraal where we caught a train to the airport. We had breakfast at the airport before our flight.

It was a brief visit to Amsterdam, but we were pleased with it and felt that we fit in a nice variety of sights.

I'll add the Italy portion of the trip report in the days to come.

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What a great report. Glad your trip went so well - thus far :). Glad the security guard didn’t actually throw you out in the rain. We were in Italy in October - It’ll be interesting to hear about your November experience.

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Van Gogh Epilogue: I sent an email to the Van Gogh Museum a couple of days ago, giving feedback about our experience. (I waited until we were home, because I find it challenging to type on a mobile device.) They have responded with an apology, a promise to follow up with the staff, and a refund of our ticket price. (We had booked online before travelling, so they have a record of this.) :)

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We had an uneventful flight on EasyJet, after an amusing scene where a loud woman tried & failed to force her too-large bag into the carryon sizer (sort of like Cinderella’s stepsisters trying to force their feet into the glass slipper). After we landed at Leonardo da Vinci airport, we walked off the plane & out of the airport without having to show anybody anything—just like walking off a bus. We were originally planning to take the train into Rome, but the taxi stand was right there, & we decided to just hop in a cab & go. It took 40 minutes & cost us €40 & quite a few “ooohs” & “aaahs” to get to our apartment near Piazza del Popolo.

We stayed at Incentrum on Via del Babuino. Our apartment was on the 4th floor (really the 5th), up a long & winding staircase. We travel with carryons only, so it wasn’t too much of a problem, but we’ve decided we might be getting a bit old for climbing all those stairs after walking so much most days. Anyway, we loved the apartment otherwise. It was spacious & comfortable.

Once we got settled, we went out for groceries & dinner. We were attracted by the fairy lights twinkling over the outdoor tables at Il Melarancio on a small side street, & we weren’t disappointed with our choice. We had appetizers of fried calamari & Sardinian cheese with nuts & honey. My husband had lasagna, & I had pasta amatriciana. After dinner, we walked to Piazza del Popolo to look at the obelisk & the fountains. It was a lovely evening, so we decided to go see Piazza Navona & the fountains there. This was stunning at night, with the fountains lit up, & it wasn’t very crowded. We spent a lot of time looking at all three fountains there & noticing the details. As we left the piazza, we bought a bag of roasted chestnuts from a street vendor & munched them as we walked back to our apartment.

We felt we’d had a lovely introduction to Rome.

On our second day in Rome, we had a tour of the Capuchin Crypts & the Catacombs, booked with The Tour Guy (aka The Roman Guy). The company had given us extra credit when we had to cancel our May 2020 Vatican & Pompeii tours, & we used part of it for this tour.

On our way to the tour’s meeting place at Piazza Barberini, we stopped to see the Spanish Steps. There was nobody on them, so we took advantage of the photo opportunity. We went to the nearby McDonald’s for breakfast—blasphemy, I know, but it was uncrowded, inexpensive, fast, & decent—we ended up breakfasting here 3 times. We had to show our proof of vaccination & were given tickets to eat inside. We had bacon & eggs along with cappuccinos & pastries. We had to turn in our tickets when we picked up our orders.

We met our guide, Francesca, & the other couple on our tour & Francesca told us about the square & its fountains. Then it was time to enter the Capuchin Crypts. These were amazing! Each crypt or room is decorated with artistically arranged human bones—which isn’t nearly as creepy as it sounds. The skeletons dressed in Capuchin robes were pretty creepy, though. They made my husband think of dementors.

We had a peek into the church, Santa Maria Della Concezione dei Cappuccini, & Francesca gave us some interesting information about the painting of the archangel Michael killing Satan (who wears the face of a Barberini). A priest was conducting mass, so we didn’t spend long in the church, so as not to disrupt the service.

Our driver was waiting across the street with our van, & we drove through the ancient main gates to the city onto the Appian Way. We stopped when we reached the point where no vehicle traffic is allowed, presumably to protect the original stones on that part of the road. There were also ruins there, including tombs & a church.

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Following this, we drove to the nearby San Callisto Catacombs. Here, we had to go with an in-house tour guide, & the English tour was too crowded—there were probably about 30 people. We were in narrow, poorly ventilated passageways in a large group that included 5 unmasked, & presumably unvaccinated, children. (These were tourists. Italian children we encountered were typically wearing masks.) I was not impressed & not comfortable, so I hung back, a few feet behind the group & didn’t see much. Overall, there wasn’t a lot to see, anyway, except for empty spaces in the wall where bodies were once buried. I was expecting something more like the catacombs in Paris & didn’t find these ones very interesting.

Our tour ended at the The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument. We learned that a lot of Romans don’t like this “modern monstrosity,” but it IS pretty impressive, nonetheless. We were more interested in the ruins of Trajan’s Forum nearby, so we walked around there before looking for a lunch spot.

We found an outdoor spot at Le Lantern on a quiet street & ate pizzas. Then we headed for the Pantheon, passing the giant marble foot on the way. There was a long lineup to get into the Pantheon. It snaked back & forth in front of the entrance, but it moved fairly quickly. The interior was definitely impressive. Afterwards, we returned to Piazza Navona, because Francesca had told us about the nearby “talking statue.” This is a very old statue of Pasquino, & there’s a board covered in notes beside it. This is where Romans have traditionally posted messages, especially complaints about the government. It’s sort of an old Roman version of Twitter.

We decided to head toward the river as we walked back toward our apartment, & we happened upon the Ponte Sant’Angelo & Castel Sant’Angelo. We decided to cross & look at the many statues on the bridge. After we looked at the bridge & the exterior of the building, we continued along the river, because it was nice along that side with a tree-lined pedestrian walkway. We saw a charming outdoor café, Bibliobar, that looked like a mini-library, with bookshelves filled with books, so we stopped for a cold drink. We continued walking along the Tiber enjoying the sunset views of the river & the birds swooping around the trees. We crossed back over to the Piazza del Popolo & picked up takeout chicken & steak from the restaurant, Due Gi, on the ground floor of our apartment building.

The next day was Vatican day. We got up early to walk there, which took about 40 minutes. It was a lovely, blue-sky morning. We met our guide & group just outside the main entrance to the Vatican We had to go through vax check, security scan, & audio set pick-up (so we could hear our guide, Carolina). We toured a portion of the museums—to see it all would take years, apparently. We particularly liked the Raphael rooms, especially the painting where he put himself in, as well as Michaelangelo & other contemporaries. There were so many treasures, even in the limited part we saw, I was struck with the contrast of the Vatican’s extreme wealth & the poverty of so many of the people in primarily Catholic countries. Then we arrived at the Sistine Chapel. It wasn’t too busy—easy to find spots to sit, & we looked our fill. We weren’t allowed to take photos in the chapel, but I saw someone in our group doing so. Afterwards, I asked him to airdrop them to me, figuring that, this way, I was remaining somewhat virtuous. However, as I almost got struck by lightning that evening, perhaps the powers-that-be didn’t see it that way. LOL

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The tour entry to the basilica was not open, due to Covid, & Carolina said she heard it might stay closed permanently. So, we had to wait in line in St. Peter’s Square to enter the basilica. It was worth the wait. The sheer size of the place is impressive all on its own, & there are markings on the floor to show how other famous churches would fit inside the basilica! The chapel on the right holds the Pieta, & it was easy to get close & look & take photos. We learned that what appeared to be paintings in the basilica are, in reality, mosaics, which makes them all the more impressive. There was a baptism happening while we were there. Our guide said a wedding is about €40,000, but she wasn’t sure of the cost of a baptism.

After the tour, we walked to a nearby restaurant, Café Girolimettii, where we sat outside & had pasta: amatriciana & carbonara.

We were footsore, so we took a cab back to our apartment & had a rest before our Borghese Gallery entrance time. We took a cab to the gallery, also, because it was raining.

The Borghese Gallery was busy, but we enjoyed the Caravaggios & the Berninis—especially the Rape of Persephone statue that is well known for how true-to-life the marble flesh is, especially where Hades’ hand grips Persephone’s thigh.

When we left the gallery, it was foggy & just drizzling lightly, so we decided to walk through the park. The cypress trees, lights, & sculptures looked magical in the fog. However, it began to rain increasingly harder & soon there was lighting right overhead. We tried to figure out how to get to a bus or taxi stop, but we were in the middle of the park, & our map app wasn’t very helpful. By the time we reached the base of the hill there were rivers of water flowing down the street. We had to cross in ankle deep water & slosh through deep puddles in the Piazza del Popolo. We got back to our apartment, turned up the heat, put our wet stuff on the heated towel rack, & snuggled in for the night.

Our fourth day in Rome, we had a booking with Coop Culture for the Colosseum “Full Experience” tour. On the way to the Colosseum, we stopped at the Trevi Fountain &, of course, tossed in a coin & made a wish. At the Colosseum, it was interesting to see the underground, especially the sample of the slave-operated lifts & the underground passageways. It was a sunny, warm day (about 74 F) & when we got up to the arena level, it felt like 90 degrees. After we left the Colosseum, we walked to a side street where we had pizza & salad outside at Pasqualino Al Colosseo, & then we walked to the Palatine Hill entrance. We loved exploring the ruins here & seeing the views of the Forum & the city.

We took the metro back & got gelato from Due Gi, downstairs. I had strawberry (amazing!) & my husband had pistachio. We ended up getting burgers & fries from there for supper a little later & ate in our apartment. We had an early morning the next day.

We got up at 5:30 a.m., because our Roman Guy driver was picking us up at 6:30. We had breakfast & coffee in the apartment & then went downstairs where we met Daniel, our driver. We picked up three other tourists, a young couple & an older man whom we recognized from our Vatican tour.

We drove to Pompeii, stopping midway for a break. It took about 2.5 hours in all. Our guide was Sasha, & he was very familiar with Pompeii. His father & uncle had also been guides there. We were amazed at how huge Pompeii is—much bigger than we’d imagined. We saw the ruins of the villa & spa near the entrance, the large plaza, some displays containing artifacts and plaster casts of three bodies, the villa with the “beware of dog” sign (tiled floor), the temple of Apollo, the Pan statue, a villa with a reconstructed garden & many frescoes, bakeries, restaurants, &, best of all, a newly uncovered section with some gorgeous, well-preserved frescoes.

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After Pompeii, we drove to Sorrento, where we had lunch. We invited Walter, the older man, to join us and went to Pizzeria Da Gigirio. My husband had grilled sea bass & salad, & I had fried shrimp, octopus, & a salad. We then walked around Sorrento for another hour or so, admiring the views & the shops. Afterward, we drove back to Rome. It was a long day, but we enjoyed it immensely.

The next day, our last in Rome, we had planned to go to Hadrian’s Villa. However, there were a few things we still wanted to see in Rome, so we decided to stay in the city. We headed for the Santa Maria sopra Minerva church, & once we got there, we realized we’d passed by it before, as it’s next to the Pantheon. As we approached the entrance, there were some women speaking to a priest in Italian. The priest gestured them inside, & we followed. The courtyard was completely painted with beautiful frescos, & we followed the women as they headed into it, but then the priest motioned us all in another direction. As we entered the sanctuary, we realized that we had inadvertently crashed a funeral, so we left quickly out of a side door. Oops.

We then headed to the Largo de Torre Argentina, because I wanted to see the cat refuge there. There was a lot of construction or perhaps reconstruction, going on among these ruins, but we saw at least a dozen cats.

We also wanted to see the church of St. Peter in Chains, which Walter had told us about. (He’d lost his wallet there or been pickpocketed.) On the way, we stumbled upon the piazza designed by Michelangelo & the Capitoline Museums & decided to see if we could go in without a reservation. It turned out that we could. I’m really glad we didn’t miss this. The sculptures were spectacular, & we enjoyed pasta on the rooftop terrace. Afterward, we walked to the church & saw the relics (chains that were supposedly used on St. Peter—thus the name) & Michelangelo’s statue of Moses.

We took the metro back to our apartment & got take out & gelato from downstairs again. After that, we packed for the next stage of our Italian adventure.

We certainly didn’t see all of what Rome & the surrounding areas had to offer, but we felt as if we’d had a good taste of it, & we were ready to move on.

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I forgot to say that we had to show our proof of vaccination at every indoor venue in Rome, and I was pleased with that. I had worried that our proof might be rejected, since we had only a provincially issued document that might be unfamiliar to many of the people checking. But it was never a problem, and one person checking (at the Catacombs) even pretended to scan the QR code, which I know did not work in Europe. (Our province now has one that does, but it wasn't ready when we went.)

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You saw a lot in your short time, and it didn't seem rushed.

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The next stay on our trip was Orvieto. However, we weren’t going there directly. We’d hired a car & driver through “My Day Trip” & requested stops at Sacro Bosco & Civita di Bagnoregio on the way.

We ate breakfast in the apartment & our driver, Gianluca, was waiting outside a few minutes ahead of time in a Black Mercedes A Class Sedan. We drove in comfort for about an hour to Sacro Bosco (aka Park of the Monsters). The countryside was colourful as most of the leaves were still on the trees. There weren’t many people there on that sunny Wednesday morning, & it was a lovely break from cities & towns. Sacro Bosco is a weird but also kind of wonderful park, created in the 16th century, scattered with strange sculptures, buildings, & fake ruins. We spent a pleasant hour there, & then Gianluca drove us to Civita di Bagnoregio (also known as “The City in the Sky” or “The Dying City”). This is a medieval town that a 1695 earthquake & subsequent erosion have separated from the surrounding communities, with only a long, steep footbridge for access, although I believe the ~20 residents & delivery people are allowed to use scooters & bicycles. Anyway, because of its relative isolation & few residents, the town has retained its character & charm & has become a sort of living museum. Some of the cafés, etc. were closed, probably because it was off season, & the Duomo was under renovation, but we enjoyed looking around the town, taking in the spectacular views, seeing the cats (Orvieto is also a cat refuge). We stopped for pie & cappuccinos & headed back to the car for the short drive to Orvieto.

Orvieto is also on a hilltop, & the hill is composed mainly of tufa rock. It’s a lovely sight from the road below.

Many of the streets in Orvieto are very narrow, so the driver dropped us off within a few metres of Hotel Duomo, where we were booked for one night. After checking in, we went to the nearby Piazzo Duomo & ate a pasta lunch on the terrace of Bar Caffeteria Hescanas while gazing at the Duomo’s spectacular golden façade, sparkling in the sun against the blue sky, & the contrasting black & white stripes on its sides. Even the stone benches in the Piazza have matching stripes. There is so much to see on the façade alone; it’s really over the top. I particularly got a kick out of the friezes depicting scenes from hell or purgatory. After lunch, we bought tickets & went into the cathedral. Statues of apostles line the sides of the main aisle. There are other beautiful & important sculptures inside, as well as frescoes.

Afterward, we explored the Centro Storico a bit more, including finding the cat refuge area (of course) & finding a little park that offered gorgeous views of the Umbrian countryside in its fall finery.

At 5:15, we met our group & guide in the Piazza for our tour of the Orvieto Underground, which began at the same park. This tour took us into one of the two publicly owned caves out of the approximately 1200 underground caves in the city. Most of the caves are connected to private homes & businesses in the city, & with a consistent temperature of 15 degrees C & 95 percent humidity, they make perfect wine cellars.

We saw an ancient Etruscan well & a temple, in addition to a somewhat more “modern” olive pressing area & areas with many pigeonholes in the rock—literal pigeonholes where these birds were raised. We also saw a cave where people sheltered during WWII—about 800 people in a room that was probably not more than 300 square feet, with stone benches built into the sides.

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After the tour, we went looking for dinner, but nothing was open. We wondered if this was due to the season, so we returned to our hotel to ask where we could eat. We were told that restaurants were open between 7 & 10 in the evenings, so we had to wait. We had a rest & then went out again at 7. We found a place called Antico Bucchero, where we ended up having one of our best meals in Italy. I had wild boar stew & my husband had lamb chops & the house red wine. We shared a salad, & my husband had a tiramisu for dessert. After dinner, we returned to the hotel & had a great sleep in the quiet town.

The next morning, we took it easy. We had an excellent breakfast in the hotel (included) & went back to our room until 11:30. After we checked out, we walked to the funicolare to get down the steep hillside to the train station below. The train station was right across the street from the funicolare exit, so we crossed & waited for our 12:30 Trenitalia train to Firenze.

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When we arrived in Florence, we were meeting a driver whom we’d booked through our hotel. We had trouble finding the meeting place, because the sign for the pharmacy was blocked by construction. Once we found it, our driver was waiting & it was a quick trip to our hotel. We actually could have walked, but it was nice not to have to figure out directions right away. Our hotel, the Palazzo Alfieri Residenza d'Epoca was amazing! We have rarely stayed anyplace so luxurious. Our room looked out at the river & we could even see the Ponte Vecchio in the distance. Our room was like an apartment. It had 20-foot ceilings and 2 sections—the bedroom & ensuite bathroom on one side of the entrance way, & the small kitchen, chaise lounge, & jetted 2-person tub on the other side. The shower in the ensuite was huge, with a rainfall showerhead & coloured lights. Breakfast was included in our rate, & the breakfasts were fabulous with lots of choices, including fresh fruit, pastries, & eggs made to order.

After we settled in, we went out to have lunch & get oriented. We stopped for lunch at the restaurant connected to the hotel, Foody Farm, & had excellent spinach soufflé & pasta. The sun was almost setting by this time, so we walked along the river for a bit. We watched bats flying out from under the bridge eating mosquitoes & then we walked to the Duomo & looked around the outside of it. Then we walked through the Piazza della Signoria, looking at the statues & fountain there, including the David replica. We crossed the Ponte Vecchio, because our app told us there was a grocery store on the other side, & so there was. We picked up some food & snacks & then walked along the other side the river back to “our” bridge, the Ponte Santa Trinita. We had supper & a tub & settled in for the night.

We had tickets to climb Brunelleschi's Dome at 8:15, so we had pastries in the room & headed out. It wasn’t very busy on the climb, fortunately, & the paintings in the dome & the view from the top are spectacular. Again, I really enjoyed the images of purgatory/hell. I wonder what that says about my character? LOL To add to the atmosphere, chanting rose up from the Duomo’s main level & surrounded us.

After climbing back down, we headed back to our hotel for a full breakfast & then walked to the Uffizi Gallery for our 10:45 entry. This gallery is in a beautiful building that is a work of art in itself, & it is filled with antiquities & works by Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, & more. However, it is also very crowded, even during low season in a pandemic (when numbers are supposedly controlled). I really can’t imagine enjoying a visit there during high season. We saw some amazing works, but we were glad to leave.

Our Uffizi tickets included a visit to the Boboli Gardens & Pitti Palace, so we crossed the Arno & headed for the gardens, since it was a nice day. We enjoyed exploring the gardens in the sunshine & spent a short time in the Pitti Palace looking at some of the “modern” galleries before heading back to our hotel, dinner at Foody Farm, & a hot tub.

On Saturday, we had tickets to enter the Accademia Gallery at 9:15. This was early enough to see David without too many people around. We explored the unfinished Michelangelo sculptures & the musical instrument displays & tapestries. We really enjoyed this gallery.

We decided to just wander around Florence after that. We walked to the Piazza San Marco, which had lovely rose gardens. We wandered along streets lined with booths of street vendors & looked around the Mercato Centrale.

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We ended up near the Fortress & train station, which wasn’t a particularly interesting area, so we heading back towards the Arno. It was sunny & hot. We passed the statue of Garibaldi, & we saw a beach where a man was playing with his dog. We noticed a park and outdoor café across the river, so we headed there, wanting lunch. However, lunch wasn’t being served at that time of day, so we went back to our hotel room & had snacks. We went out again to a La Carraia across the river, because it is one of the top-rated places for gelato in Florence. (It was good, but I liked the gelato we had in Rome better.) We went outside to eat it & stood under the awning of an outdoor café that wasn’t open that time of day. This turned out to be a good choice, because a thunderstorm blew in & rain began pelting down. More & more people joined us under the awning & we all waited for about half an hour for the storm to pass. We were treated to a beautiful double-rainbow over Florence when it was over. We crossed back over the river & found a store that carries a brand of shoes I like & can’t get at home. I bought a pair on sale for half price. Score! We were going to eat at Foody Farm again, but, apparently, needed reservations for a Saturday, so we went up to our room & had snacks instead, because we didn’t feel like walking anymore. Of course, we also had a hot tub.

The next morning, Sunday we decided to take the train to Pisa. This hadn’t been a priority for us, but we felt like getting out of the crowds in Florence & we ended up really liking Pisa. A square on the way to the tower had a cute carousel & a man making giant bubbles for the children to chase. When we reached the tower, we were awed by its beauty & felt it would be worth seeing even if it weren’t leaning. The outsides of the Duomo & the baptistry are lovely, too. On the way from the train, we had passed a charming, cliché restaurant patio with red flowers & red-checked tablecloths, so we headed there for lunch. It was the Ristorante Pizzeria Duomo, & the service & food (we had pasta) were fabulous. Since it was a lovely afternoon, we decided to visit the botanical gardens, & we enjoyed this peaceful break. Then we took the train back to Florence & grabbed dinner food from the grocery store. We relaxed in our room & had a hot tub that evening.

We had reserved our last day in Florence for a day trip to Siena. We caught the bus & enjoyed the scenic ride. After we arrived, we explored the area around the lovely Piazza del Campo. We then headed to the cathedral. We initially weren’t intending to go in, having seen many cathedrals already, but we changed our minds, & we’re so glad we did. This Duomo is filled with amazing marble inlaid floors depicting scenes from mythology & the bible. There are also sculptures by Michelangelo & Donatello, a pulpit that looks like a stone merry-go-round, & a gorgeous library filled with incredible, illuminated manuscripts. Wow! Thank goodness we didn’t miss all this. We also went to the “crypts” which are really the ruins of an ancient church upon which the existing Duomo was built, & the baptistry, which contains more carvings by Donatello. We had a late lunch & then caught the bus back to Florence. We rode in the front on top of the double-decker bus, & it was a hair-raising trip, due to the winding, narrow roads & aggressive driver, but we enjoyed the views of the sunset highlighting the fall colours in the Tuscan countryside. Back at the hotel, we packed & had one last hot tub in our beautiful suite.

I know many people who have said that Florence is their favourite place in Italy. Florence had some beautiful sights, to be sure, but I can’t say it was my favourite. It was too crowded, even during off season in a pandemic, but I’m glad to have visited once.

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After another great breakfast, we walked to the train station to catch our Italo train to Verona. Once we arrived, we caught a bus to Piazza Bar. We walked to our hotel, Hotel Milano and Spa, which was nearby. Even though it was only 12:30, we were able to check-in right away. Our room was fairly basic, but the décor was fresh and modern, and the location was great—very close to the Arena.

We went exploring, walking along, Via Mazinni, a beautiful shopping street paved with pink Verona marble, and ended up at piazza Delle Erbe. On one side of the piazza there was an entrance to a Christmas Market, so we headed in. There were stalls with food and wares, surrounding the statue of Dante, and there were animated displays with Santa, snowmen, reindeer and Christmas trees. We bought some fabulous chocolate and a lovely ceramic grater and lemon juicer set. We decided to have lunch, grilled meat sandwiches, from one of the food booths.

We had asked the hotel receptionist for restaurant recommendations. When she asked what kind of food, we responded, “Not pizza or pasta.” She gave us recommendations for a seafood restaurant and a place that served grilled meat. So, after lunch, we decided to wander in the direction of the seafood restaurant, just to look at the menu, and see what else there was to see on the way. We were treated to some beautiful views of the Adige River and some of the buildings and structures lining it. We went back to the hotel for a break and, around 5 pm, we headed upstairs to the rooftop bar and a view of the arena. We were the only people there, so we had a drink and chatted with the bartender who was from Moldavia. Then, we headed back to the seafood restaurant for dinner. We arrived at 6:30, but they weren’t open yet. We didn’t feel like waiting around, so we went back to the Christmas Market and had a wonderful dinner of pork, potatoes, and sauerkraut. On the way, we came across the Scalinger Tombs. Amazing! After dinner, we went to see Juliet’s balcony. It’s in a small square and is clearly not original to the building. Nearby is a statue of Juliette, along with a couple of stores selling romantic souvenirs. Of course, Juliette is a fictional character, but the building was the residence of the family upon which the Capulets were supposedly based, and, anyway, it’s fun to make believe sometimes. I’ve heard that that little square can be crowded with up to 1000 visitors during busy times. I can’t imagine, but I’m glad it wasn’t too busy when we were there.

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We had a good sleep in our hotel and went downstairs for our breakfast in the morning. There were quite a few decent breakfast options, including eggs, pastries, and fruit, so that was good. After breakfast we walked down Via de Roma to Castel Vecchio. I loved this place. We spent a fair amount of time on the bridge, which is a beautiful structure with jagged crenellations which echo the crenellations on the castle. Then, we went into the museum, which is a wonderful museum that is designed around the unique architecture of the castle. It contains many renaissance and medieval paintings and sculptures. We spent a long time there, when we were done, decided to go to La Griglia, the other restaurant recommendation, for lunch. We were the only ones there for lunch, and the meal and service were both fabulous. We liked it so much, we made reservations for dinner that same night. My husband had filet with olive paste wrapped in bacon (Filetto in camicia di speck e patè di olive) and I had cooked vegetables and pasta, tagliatelle with cream sauce, pine nuts, and bacon (Tagliatelle con crema di rucola, pinoli e speck).

After lunch, we headed across the river to visit the Giusti Garden and Palazzo. As we entered the garden, the sun came out, and we spent a wonderful afternoon exploring the sculptures, pathways, woods, turret, and fantastic views with less than a handful of other tourists in sight. I loved this place. The palazzo was lovely, too, especially the enormous ballroom with views over the garden.

We returned to the hotel for a rest, and to wait for our spa time, which we had booked for 6:45. Because of Covid, we had the spa to ourselves for our time there. There was a large shower with coloured lights (emotion shower g), a sauna, a steam room, lounge beds, and an outdoor hot tub with a view of the Arena. We spent a bit of time inside and then headed out to the hot tub, the main reason we had booked the spa. However, there were a couple of young women sitting right beside the hot tub, taking photos and selfies. This felt odd and uncomfortable to me, so I headed back to our room, while my husband stayed a bit longer in the steam room. The next day, we were informed that the hotel had removed the 15 Euro apiece charge for the spa, since we didn’t spend our full time there. That was very kind of them. We hadn’t asked for that, but we appreciated it.

After we showered, we went back to La Griglia. We were greeted by name, told “our” table was ready, shown to the same table, near the fire, as we’d had at lunch, and offered the same drinks as we’d had before. We felt like cherished regulars. This time, I had the filet, and my husband has Uncle Angelo’s lamb chops. We could watch them being grilled over the wood fire near us. After dinner, we waddled back to our hotel and rolled into bed.

On our last morning in Verona, we had some time before our train to Venice, so we went to see the arena. This arena is smaller than Rome’s Colosseum, but it is well-preserved and has been in use since the 1stc A.D. Concerts are still held there.

Verona was an “add on.” Since we didn’t do the Croatia part of our originally planned trip, deciding to save that for a different time of year, we had “extra” days in Italy. After receiving a number of excellent suggestions on this forum, we chose Verona, and I was surprised to find that it was my favourite place of all the places we visited in Italy. It was a nice size, a nice balance of busy/quiet, and it was absolutely lovely and charming.

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It didn’t take long to get to Venice from Verona. We hopped on the vaporetto to S. Marco/S. Zaccaria, following the instructions our B&B host had sent. We were able to use the outside door code & leave our bags in the courtyard while we went for cappuccinos & pastries nearby to wait for our host to meet us. Shortly afterward, we checked in & got settled. We had a suite in Residenza de l’Osmarin, on a quiet canal not far from St. Mark’s Square. Our suite was on the top floor of the building. It had a kitchenette & a terrace overlooking a little canal, perfect for our 3-night stay. We went to a nearby supermarket to buy some milk & snacks & picked up a radicchio & asiago pie from a takeout shop to reheat for supper. Afterwards, we walked to Piazza San Marco to scout our meeting place for our tour the next morning. The square was beautiful in the evening with its pink lamps & with the moored gondolas bobbing in the Grand Canal. We walked along the canal for a bit, looking at the statues, buildings, & bridges, including the Bridge of Sighs. There was a full moon that night, & when we got back to our suite, I got some lovely photos of it shining over our canal.
The next morning, we had breakfast in our suite & then headed back to Piazza San Marco to meet our tour guide. This was another “extra” tour paid for with our additional credits, & it included a tour of the basilica & the area around it, & a gondola ride. There was one other couple on our tour. During the first part of the tour, the guide gave us some information about the square & the basilica, especially the scenes depicted on the outside. We also got to experience the Acqua Alta. We had been worried about not having suitable footwear for this, but our concerns were unfounded. Even though it was full moon & high tide, the Acqua Alta amounted to a couple of puddles in the square.

We entered the basilica & marveled at the scenes on the entryway ceiling, depicted in mosaic & gold leaf. The entryway ceilings have Old Testament scenes, & the interior ceilings have New Testament scenes. The floors had some amazing tilework, too, depicting griffons & peacocks, for example. There were places where the floor was obviously uneven & salt-stained, due to flooding & settling. It’s incredible how one can see multiple duomos, & each has something different & interesting & amazing to see.

After we exited, our guide told us about the clock & how it shows the phases of the moon, as well as the time.

We walked to the Rialto Bridge, taking some twists & turns so our guide could point out a few sights, such as the Scala Contarini del Bovolo (snail staircase) & then to the canal stop where we were meeting our gondolier for our ride. Our gondolier whistled, sang, answered questions, & pointed out the sights. It was a thoroughly enjoyable morning.

After the tour, we then went to the Doge’s Palace & stopped for lunch in the Museum Café. We ate pasta & sat in front a window where we could watch gondolas go by as we ate. The Doge’s Palace itself was overwhelming. Again, we were struck with the amount of wealth that existed & by the over-the-top displays of it. Of course, we loved seeing all the Tinterettos, especially the huge Il Paradiso in the great council chamber. We also crossed the Bridge of Sighs to see the prison, & that was a sobering contrast to the palace.

After we left the palace, we decided to just walk around & get lost. But, no matter how much we tried, we always ended up in a place we recognized. We went back to our suite for a rest & then went out again, nearby, for dinner.

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The next day, Saturday, we had an appointment to get our PCR tests for our return to Canada. So, we took the vaporetto to P. de Roma. Once we found the clinic—which was close by, but we got confused, because our app didn’t show us that we had to cross a major street, the test was quick & easy. We returned to P. de Roma & caught a vaporetto to Murano. We walked along the canal from the dock, looking at all the fabulous glass pieces in the shop windows. There were animals, dancers, candies, insects, 101 Dalmations, Santa with his sleigh & reindeer, a complete orchestra, devils, & all manner of other pretty pieces. One place had an amazing chandelier with a dragon winding around several glass dragon’s eggs, each a light & each with a different baby dragon in a different stage of hatching. We popped into one shop to buy a glass gondola & gondolier for our Christmas tree, & three tiny animals, one for each of our kids. We saw a woman selling fresh vegetables from a boat. We saw a cute little girl skipping along & singing to herself, unselfconsciously, as only children can do. We found Murano pretty & charming.

We then walked to the Faro terminal & caught the vaporetto to Burano. And, of course, found it even prettier & more charming, with all the brightly coloured houses. We wandered around, eventually ending up in a plaza where we found a sports bar with a patio, so we stopped for pizza & fried calamari. We walked around some more, met a stray cat, saw a tower that leans, bought a lace handkerchief for my mother-in-law, & then caught the vaporetto back to S. Marco. When we alighted, we wandered around, trying again to get lost. We intentionally took narrow side streets & various unplanned turns, & we ended up right smack in front of our building, coming from the opposite direction than usual. So much for getting lost in Venice! LOL. We ate dinner in our apartment & completed our forms for transit in the UK & for our return to Canada.

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On our last full day, Sunday, we had booked the Best Western near the airport, but our host allowed us to leave our bags in the building for as long as we wanted. After breakfast, we headed down to the vaporetto stop so that we could ride outside in a vaporetto all the way down the Grand Canal. We sat outside in the back & took photos. It was a cold, drizzly day. Most people got off at P. de Roma, but we had the not-so-brilliant idea to stay on the vaporetto, thinking it would head back up the Grand Canal, & we could see anything we missed on the first go. However, the vaporetto continued on through the port & around the lagoon, heading back to S. Marco that way. It was a long trip. We were cold, but we decided to stay on & get off near the Cannaregio district so we could explore around there. But we were wrong again! This time, the vaporetto did turn around, & it started heading back the way we’d just come, instead of going up the Grand Canal. We got off at the next stop, across from S. Zaccaria, & decided to explore that area, instead, but it seemed to be mainly apartment buildings & wasn’t very interesting. By this time, we were very, very cold, so we took the next vaporetto back & headed for a restaurant near our building. By the time we finished our lunch, it was mid-afternoon, & we decided to just head to the Best Western & relax, as we had a long day of travel coming up. We picked up our bags & caught another vaporetto to P. de Roma, where we caught the airport bus. The boat & the bus were both extremely crowded. It was difficult to get off the vaporetto at our stop, & I had to ask the man behind me to please stop pushing me, as I was in a line behind other people getting off, & we were all maneuvering around a baby in a stroller. Then, we missed our stop to get off the airport bus, because the sign changed to an advertisement or something just at that time, instead of displaying our stop, & by the time I clued in to what the recorded announcement said, we were already passing it. Fortunately, the next stop was not too far away, so we walked back to our hotel. We arranged an airport shuttle for 5:30 am, because we did not want to deal with the airport bus again.

We walked to Da Marco Bar & Ristorante down the road for dinner. The food was surprisingly excellent. I had chicken & pasta, & my husband had a duck & pumpkin dish. We turned in early.

The breakfast room at that hotel opens at 4:30 am, so we ate & took the shuttle the short distance to the airport. It was pouring rain, so we were doubly glad to not be dealing with the airport bus.

We’d had a great holiday. Our trip home was not so great. The flight from Venice to London was fine. However, many people were not masking at Gatwick airport, & I left behind my travel pillow, which was really a travel pillowcase stuffed with two of my sweaters & a hat & gloves, when I had to remove it for facial recognition. Masking was also not enforced on our 9-hour WestJet flight home, & the guys behind us were ordering vodka after vodka so they could keep their masks off. Others nearby were not wearing masks, also. As a result, I double-masked for the entire flight & did not eat or drink. It was a miserable flight.

Flight home aside, we feel like we were lucky in that we seemed to be in a window when the Covid situation was relatively calm, just before everything started taking off again with Omicron. It took extra planning & research to ensure we crossed all the Ts & dotted all the Is, during Covid, but it was worth it.

Thanks to everyone here who helped with ideas and advice, & who posted about their own experiences, which ultimately helped with ours. And thanks to everyone who took the time to read this lengthy trip report. :)

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Excellent trip report - thank you! Helped a lot with my vicarious traveling…