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Venice, Florence, Rome post-Christmas travel

I am currently living abroad teaching English in France for the school year so my husband and I decided to take advantage of spending our first married Christmas in France combined with a belated honeymoon trip to Italy after Christmas. We had an action packed week and a half zooming through Italy and it is definitely one of my favorite trips we've done! We spent a total of 12 days on our trip including travel days on the beginning and end. Unfortunately when I moved to France I left behind my Rick Steves' Italy book but I was luckily able to find it through a library app I have on my iPad and phone. This was definitely not my favorite way to use the book though. Flipping through a paper one is much easier! And trying to read the maps on an itty bitty phone screen is not ideal. Maybe this would be a good route for very tech-savvy people that don't want to lug around a book but for me it mostly led to frustration and very cold hands as I couldn't wear my gloves and operate my phone at the same time. Anyway, on to the actual trip review!

Day 1: 12/26/18
We started our trip from France since that is where I'm currently living. We traveled to Paris and then left the evening of the 26th on the night train to Venice. We used the Thello train company and it was about a 14 hour trip. Although I only managed about 4 or 5 hours of sleep, I'd say the train was definitely worth it. The tickets were less than half the price of flying to Venice and we were sleeping (or trying to) so we weren't losing any precious sightseeing time. We chose a couchette with six people total which was the cheapest option. We ended up with a nice family from Singapore that spoke both French and English so we were able to pass a pleasant evening conversing with them. This was our first night train experience and I would definitely repeat it. I know that we got lucky with friendly, safe travel companions which was comforting since I was warned ahead of time by several people about theft on night trains. I still brought anything remotely valuable up to my top bunk with me and kept it near my feet while I slept just to be safe.

One odd experience on the train was when an employee came through asking for all of our passports since we would be crossing the border in the wee hours of the morning. I never let my passport out of my sight and this woman wanted to collect them and keep them for the night which struck me as odd. Especially since we were not leaving the EU so there should be no reason they needed to see our passport. She was also simply stuffing them into a massive bag with no semblance of organization. How in the world were they ever going to find us in the morning on this massive train? We reluctantly gave them up and after discussing for a minute or two ended up chasing the lady down and asking for them back. She seemed a little miffed and told us rudely that we'd be woken up at 3 a.m. by the police when we crossed the border if we didn't let her keep them. We took them back anyway. We didn't want to start our trip off by losing our passports or my French visa. And she had already managed to lose my husband's passport in the depths of her bag and took about 10 minutes of searching to dig it out. In the end, the border police never came by to check our passports which were safe and sound in our bags. However, another train employee did come by and wake us up around 4 a.m. searching for a French passport that they had lost. So, while I would recommend the night train, keep your passport close by! I'd rather risk being woken up for a brief passport check than spend my first day of vacation at the embassy trying to get a new one.

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Day 2: 12/27/18

We arrived in Venice on the night train around 9:30 in the morning. I definitely recommend keeping an eye out the window as you approach the island of Venice. It's fun to watch it come into sight as you cross the lagoon! And keep the other eye on your suitcase if it has four, very smooth rolling wheels because it will take off down the aisle and attempt to plow down other passengers if the train brakes suddenly.

Arriving a little sleep deprived left both of us rather frustrated with each other and the fact that we had no map, no WiFi to look one up, and I hadn't downloaded the directions to our bed and breakfast. We were able to find the TI in the train station and bought a 3 euro map which then proved to be totally useless as I had no idea of the address of our bed & breakfast. I took the plastic off the map, opened it once, and never looked at it again the entire time we were in Venice. So unless you really want carry around an over-sized map and know every single tiny back street of Venice, I would say it's probably a waste of 3 euros. It's more fun to get a little lost anyway. Except when you're exhausted and carrying around luggage. Luckily we were staying at a Rick Steves recommended place so after looking it up in his book we figured out the general direction we needed to go. We bought the vaporetto passes and shoved our way onto an overcrowded one. Somehow I imagined the vaporetto would be speedy but they are possibly some of the slowest boats I've been on. Maybe it's the word - vaporetto - that makes them sound like they should be fast but they most definitely are not. So if you're going somewhere on the vaporetto be sure to leave plenty of time to get where you're going. After some confused wandering up and down the same street about five times we finally found where we were going - Corte Campana B&B.

We stayed in their Sisters Room and it was very comfortable. The bathroom was just down the hall but it was still a private bathroom for our use only and it was not at all inconvenient to walk ten steps down the hall. The owners Riccardo and Grace are both very friendly and helpful! They gave us a small paper map when we arrived which is what we used for a map the whole time we were in Venice. The TI map sat untouched on a nightstand the whole time and we left it behind for the use of any future tourists that might find the small version insufficient. My husband and I both agreed that we would stay at Corte Campana B&B if we ever return to Venice. We loved it! The location was also perfect - only about a 2 or 3 minute walk from St. Mark's.

We started off our first day with lunch at a nearby restaurant called Rossopomodoro. It's part of a chain but was very good and not too expensive. Their pizza was quite delicious. Our first sight after that was the Correr Museum where we bought the combined ticket for the Doge's Palace (an amazing time-saving tip, thank you Rick Steves!). I was not blown away by the Correr Museum but they did have a temporary exhibit on the printing revolution that I found interesting and my husband was a fan of the weapons sections.

At this point, our sightseeing was halted for a visit to the tourist doctor/first aid station that Rick Steves recommends on St. Mark's Square. If you have a medical problem while in Venice this is a very efficient way to get it taken care of! We were in and out with a prescription in hand in about 30 minutes. Not very much English was spoken but we were still able to communicate what we needed to.

At this point it was dark out, so we headed towards the Rialto Bridge for some night time views. It was beautiful especially with all of the extra lights for Christmas! After some down time at our B&B we headed back out for dinner. My husband was brave enough to try the scary looking black seppia al nero. It was actually quite tasty! A good cultural experience if you're not too scared of the color.

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First off, if you already made it through this far reading about our trip, thank you! I hope our experiences will help someone else have an even better trip! :)

**Day 3: 12/28/18

Breakfast is offered at Corte Campana B&B which is a great way to start the day! Riccardo and Grace stop in to chat with guests while you eat and offer any tips they can for what you have planned that day.

After breakfast, we started our day at St. Mark's Basilica in hopes of beating the tourists coming in from the mainland that hadn't yet arrived. This turned out to be a very good idea as we waited in line for maybe 10 minutes and when we came out the line was enormous! Don't forget to check your bags if you have anything larger than a purse. They don't have signs about this until you reach the front of the line and then you have to give up your place to go check your bag around the corner. There were many unhappy people in front of us getting out of line.

The inside of St. Mark's is spectacular! Unlike any church I've seen before. It was almost completely covered in shiny, amazing mosaics. Spend your time wandering around in here. As you exit, you can turn left and go up some skinny stairs to a museum. This is definitely worth the 3 euro entry price. You're able to have access to the front roof/balcony, as well as up close views of the mosaics, views of the church from above, and the chance to see the original horses that stood on the front of the basilica.

After the basilica, we hopped next door to the Doge's Palace. Luckily we had bought the combo-tickets the day before and were able to wait in a much shorter line of people with reserved tickets. If you're doing the Correr Museum and Doge's Palace, I highly recommend doing this! A huge time saver! Don't go into the Palace expecting a palace. There is no sumptuous furniture and lavishly decorated rooms. This is a government building filled with rooms that served many legal and judicial purposes throughout the years. Also, if you're there in the winter, don't be fooled by the coat check. It is FREEZING inside this place. Dress as warmly as possible and don't give up even your scarf. Il Paradiso was impressive to see and is worth a trip inside the Palace if you're an art lover. The prison is also interesting although the Bridge of Sighs is much more interesting viewed from the outside.

For lunch, we thought we'd just find something along the way to the Accademia. Bad plan. We stopped into artblu cafe after examining their menu and deciding it sounded alright. This was the worst and most overpriced meal we had on our entire trip. The pasta I ordered was gone in about 5 bites and seemed as though it had probably been microwaved and my husband's pizza was so tough that he couldn't cut it with the steak knife. I even took a picture of the cafe on the way out so I could remember to put it in here and tell you all not to go. Cheap sandwiches would have been a much better choice!

Luckily the Accademia helped make up for our horrible lunch. The Accademia Bridge offers some great views of the Grand Canal and all the traffic passing by. The Accademia itself was very interesting although a bit small since a large portion of it is closed for renovations. We were able to walk right in with no ticket line. I thought we were in the wrong place for a minute when we arrived and there was no line. Overall, I'd say it's a very manageable museum and has some very intriguing art with good descriptions. We finished our day with a visit to the Frari Church and some wandering through the back lanes. Frari Church was definitely worth a stop. As Rick Steves says, it's pretty cool to see art in the place it was originally intended to be. On the way back to our B&B we swung by Suso's for some gelato. Even in winter, it's irresistible! For dinner, we gave up on restaurants and stopped by a pasta to go place. For about 10 euros we were able to have a much better meal than our pricey lunch!

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Hello, I am curious which program you are doing to teach English in France, because that's something I'd like to do. I lived in Europe a long time and miss it. I speak French as well as some German. Sounds like a fun way to spend another year in Europe. But I'd have to find a way to bring my dog. Do you make enough money to rent a flat over there? As Paris is super expensive.

I had the same experience on night trains when much younger, and do not enjoy them myself but we made sacrifices to keep on a budget back then. I was in Venice last summer and also enjoyed wandering around getting lost going through tiny tiny alleys, but finally took some kind of boat trip to get back to the train station in time. It was crowded in June but beautiful weather and I liked Venice. If you can return to Italy then I highly recommend Siena - loads of historical buildings like Florence but not crowded at all (unless you go when they run the horse races).

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Hello cslux,

I'm doing a program called TAPIF. The pay is not great but it's just meant to be enough to pay your living expenses so if you want to do anything else, it's best to come with some money saved up! I'm based in Rouen in the Normandy region and it's still enough of a salary for me to pay rent with a roommate and live comfortably. Some of the schools also offer housing but mind did not. It's still a great way to enjoy a year in Europe though! And I know there's another assistant in the region who managed to get her dog here but it was a process! The Fulbright program is also an option if you're under their age limit which I believe is 28.

Thanks for the tip on Siena! We're already counting down to a hopeful future trip in Italy and would love to include Siena.

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Continuation of the report:

Overall, we loved Venice! I think it was my favorite stop of the whole trip and if I could go back and redo the planning I would have added an extra day there. We had hoped to go on an evening gondola ride for maximum romantic views of night time Venice since we were on our honeymoon but unfortunately the fog did not agree with this plan. I think evening fog in winter is probably quite common in Venice considering that the city is literally full of water. We did follow Rick Steves' Grand Canal Tour which still offered great views but didn't have quite the same charm as a gondola ride. I would also say that staying on the island is probably one of the best choices you can make if you're planning to visit Venice. While it might cost a tiny bit extra, having the whole place almost to yourself after 5 or 6 in the evening when the rest of the tourists go back to the mainland is spectacular. We felt like we were on our own private island in the evenings with almost no one else in the streets. It was a great relief from the crowds during the day!

Day 4: 12/29/18

We left Venice mid-morning so we had time to sleep in a little and enjoy one last breakfast with our hosts. Again, I would like to emphasize that the vaporetto is SLOW. So, really don't cut it close if you have a train to catch. After a quick and stressful sprint to our train, we were on our way to Florence. We used the Italo company and it was very quick and comfortable. You're also able to show them your tickets on your phone so you don't have to worry about not being able to print paper ones on to go.

Our arrival in Florence was smooth and although we walked the wrong way out of the train station for about 5 minutes (yay, no maps!) we eventually found our way and arrived at Casa Rabatti where we stayed with Marcella (another Rick Steves recommended accomodation). The room was comfortable and Marcella was very welcoming. She has extremely limited English but by some miracle I could usually understand what she was saying to us (a benefit of speaking French, maybe?) however, I could not speak Italian back to her. Despite the language barrier, we got along very well and my husband and I are now charged with mailing her pictures of our babies whenever we have children. At least, that's what I got out of our final conversation on the last day.

Anyway, after dropping our bags at Casa Rabatti, we walked to the Accademia which is only about 10 minutes away on foot - a very easy walk. I had reserved tickets ahead of time so we picked these up and then waved at everyone waiting in the normal line as we passed them by and walked right in. Even in winter, reserve your tickets to save precious time waiting in line. David is one of the few art marvels I have walked around the corner to see and actually said, "wow". He is magnificent and well worth a trip to the Accademia if you have any appreciation for sculptures.

After the Accademia we had a very late lunch just around the corner at Ará è Sicilia where we tried arancini for the first time. They were very delicious! As long as you can handle fried food they make for a great quick lunch with many different flavors available. They're also extremely affordable as only one or two are plenty to fill you up. It's also a good break from non-stop pizza and pasta dishes. Although I'm pretty sure risotto could maybe still count as pasta...

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We decided to try the Duomo next but upon encountering a line that wrapped almost the whole way around the building (what's this about no crowds in the off-season?) we decided to change up the plan and instead went to the Duomo museum just behind the cathedral. This was a great choice as there were almost no crowds and this is where most of the real art from the Duomo is anyway as well as the bronze doors from the Baptistery. It's quite a large museum so plan plenty of time here if you want to enjoy everything. The Baptistery is open a little later so we were able to make a quick stop in there afterwards. The ceiling there is amazing!

After this, we made our daily gelato stop and wandered towards the Ponte Vecchio which is lovely lit up at night. For dinner, we stopped at a small place near the Duomo called Pizzeria a Taglio where you can buy pizza by the weight. I am terrible with the metric system so we just picked our flavors and asked for enough for two people. They heat it up, cut it, and then send you outside or down to the basement to enjoy your cheap dinner. This was a great money saver for us because we both ate for only about 10 euros total. We like mixing in a few cheap meals like this every now and then to help with our budget especially when the food is still good.

Day 5: 12/30/18

Our next day in Florence started off at the Uffizi Gallery. We also had reservations here and had picked up our tickets the day before at the Accademia which saved us some more time. Even with reservations, we spent about half an hour waiting in line after our entry time but our wait was much shorter than that of the people in the no reservation line. Again, it's worth two extra dollars to skip hours of waiting in line. This was another large art museum and I'm glad we didn't do it and the Accademia back to back or I think we would have been overwhelmed by too much art in one day. Having it on a separate day allowed us to enjoy the art with fresh eyes.

Looking for a cheap but good lunch option we ended up at Self-Service Ristorante Leonardo. The food was really good and very affordable. And tap water is free! A major bonus. We made it affordable by both taking a pasta course and then splitting a meat course and veggies which was more than enough food for the two of us. With the energy provided by lunch, we braved the line to climb the Campanile which actually moved fairly quickly. The views from the top are definitely worth the climb! And there are several platforms along the way at which you can stop and catch your breath. I took advantage of every one of these.

Our day ended with a visit to Palazzo Vecchio which is open late - very convenient if you want to extend your sightseeing day a little longer. It was a very neat place. I enjoyed learning about the symbolism of all the decoration in every room. The maps room was also very interesting.

Dinner was at Simbiosi Organic Pizza and Lovely Food which was a great little pizza place not too far from Casa Rabatti. The pizzas were affordable, unique, and very delicious. We'd definitely eat there again. It's fairly small though and popular so make sure to arrive early or consider making a reservation.

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Day 6: 12/21/18

For our last day in Florence and New Year's Eve, we decided to day trip to Pisa. We were able to very easily take the train between Florence and Pisa which led nicely into the self-guided walk of Pisa which leaves from the train station. This was a great introduction to Pisa outside of the Field of Miracles. The last time I was in Pisa, I never left the Field of Miracles and it was neat to see a bit more of the city. Also, don't pick the oranges on the trees all around town in winter. They are not at all tasty.

We then did the classic Field of Miracles visit - Duomo, Baptistery, cemetery, and views of the tower including taking some stereotypical tourist pictures. We had a bit of time left over at the end of our visit until our train back to Venice so we took a stroll along the medieval wall that is still left around part of Pisa. You can enter in the corner of the Field of Miracles on the far end from the Tower. It only cost about 3 euros and gives you great views over the entire Field of Miracles as well as a pleasant stroll above the crush of tourists swarming below. The wall is actually quite long and we spent about an hour and a half round trip walking down and back.

Back in Florence, we celebrated the New Year. All of the main squares around town had different concerts available which is a fun way to spend the New Year surrounded by Italians and tourists. We ended up in front of Palazzo Vecchio listening to a classical concert for the last few minutes before ringing in the New Year with fireworks and surrounded by enough champagne popping to leave the streets coated in a sticky layer. This was the perfect sized town to celebrate New Year's Eve! Not too overcrowded but plenty of options for entertainment.