Friends, ferries, and far away lands

I was lucky that not only did I make friends while traveling, I had one of my very best friends come visit me on Santo Stefano. Taylor got a room in an AirBnb right on the hilltop facing downtown which made going out and exploring that much easier. I stayed with her on the visit since public transit was so wonky and I was a few miles from the port itself. The host was incredibly gracious about adding me last minute. It was a true bed and breakfast, with a large terrace where they served an amazing spread for breakfast each morning. The host’s mother made homemade jams and she made pastries and other baked goods for breakfast, made whatever espresso drink you were craving, along with your standard cereal, fruit, and juices. We befriended their tiny rescue kitten who couldn’t have weighed more than 2 lbs, along with their large golden retriever. We weren’t the only people staying there, the guest family, the host, and her boyfriend were all so kind. We felt completely comfortable and welcome.


When I said the house was on the hilltop, I meant it. We had to zigzag down hills and old streets to get to the bottom where the port was. We got all dolled up and made our way out for aperitivo. Aperitivo is this beautiful concept of ordering one beverage and having access to a buffet of delicious Italian foods. These aren’t just small appetizers, I’m talking pasta dishes, rice dishes, a full roast pig, other meats, huge assortment of roasted veggies, fried mozzarella, and best of all, it’s bottomless! You may pay up to €10 for your drink, but eating your fill is encouraged and we took advantage of that! We even ran into our AirBnb host and her boyfriend, so we picked a good, local place. After dinner, we met up with another au pair I met living on the island, stopped by a gelato bar, and then met up with some of her friends to have a few more drinks at another bar along the port. With a full day ahead, we didn’t shut down the bars, but did stay out fairly late before making the hike back home.


We decided to spend a day on Porto Santo Stefano’s next door neighbor, Giglio. We picked up some cappuccinos from a bartender not interested in serving us, bought tickets for the ferry a few hours later, then laid out on a rocky public beach while we waited for our ferry time. The roundtrip cost was about €32 for the both of us. We bought beers on the ride over and relaxed for the hour ride. Once there, we ran into some other transportation issues. The dreaded Italian bus system. We bought the cheap tickets only to find out they had absolutely no idea when the next bus would be coming. We debated getting a taxi to the top of the island, but were relieved when the bus showed up about 20 min later. The winding drive was so worth it, especially when we reached the castle at the top. We picked up a couple of caprese sandwiches and then made our way inside the walls of Giglio Castello, where people still live! Though it’s considered a castle, it is more of a walled in maze of a village. We climbed the steps to the tops of the walls where we could and generally just wandered around. We got our fill of Instagram pics and felt we had explored all the four corners, we bought bus tickets back… only to get on the wrong bus! (My bad…) Which put us on the opposite side of the island. We did get to see some incredible views and briefly check out the beaches. Once back on the correct side of the island, we stopped by the port side bar for a couple of mixed drinks from a very cute bartender. I’m glad we did because the ride back proved to be extra choppy!


It was Taylor’s last night, so we went out for a giant cheese platter, then picked up some beers and wandered the streets before just enjoying the incredible view from our AirBnB. She had to catch the bus to Orbetello and then a train to Florence, and with how unreliable the bus system was, she picked one in the early afternoon. We walked the streets some more before befriending a bartender and having a few frozen coffees. It was bittersweet catching the bus back home, but our weekend spent exploring a Mediterranean Island is something we have yet to stop talking about.



Island Time

With the help of never ending cold weather and undying wanderlust, I’m finally updating my blog with potentially the most relaxing month of my life. We spent my last month in Italy on the peninsula of Monte Argentario on the coast of Tuscany. My day to day could be boiled down to mornings on the beach, afternoons at the pool, and evenings eating gelato, but there is something to be said for taking the time to just enjoy life and what is around you.

First of all, the peninsula is more of an island, connected to the mainland by three very thin, separate, strips of land. On the “island” there are two main villages Porto Santo Stefano (where we stayed) and Porto Ercole. To the southeast is Giglio Island that can be reached by ferry, but that I’ll cover in the next post.

As an early riser, I got to enjoy my morning coffee long before anyone else was awake. I could sip it on the terrace overlooking the water. The house sat way atop a hill so you could see Porto Vecchio and look out to the mainland across the water. The only other times I have heard such silence in my life were in camping in New Mexico and Wyoming. We also didn’t have WiFi in the house for the first week, so it was a nice time to just sit in silence and enjoy the view and breeze. Once everyone else got up, we would have breakfast and get ready for the beach.

There are very few public beaches on the island and those that are tend to be more rocky. Otherwise you had to pay for a spot/lounge chair for a few hours or the day. You can also opt for a family size spot including multiple chairs, a toy box, umbrella, and mats. We had a spot rented at a club for the whole month, so spent mornings there. The spot had a nice big umbrella which my Irish skin was more than thankful for. It was nice to know exactly where we were going each day for the beach and we could even leave the kids toys in the toy box overnight, meaning less stuff to lug back and forth. Equally as nice was knowing the beach would be clean and not overcrowded. If you didn’t have a spot reserved, there was no guarantee of getting an umbrella, or even a spot on the weekends. The clubs varied in price, but each had their own bar and set piece of land. Having a set place even made it easier for the kids and myself to find people to socialize with everyday. The waves were super gentle so you could lay on a raft in the water or just wade without the worry of getting bowled over.

We usually left the beach around 2, just as the heat of the day was kicking in. There was a pool at the house, so after cleaning off from the beach, we normally spent afternoons swimming laps or just lounging further. After dinner, we would head into one of the towns for gelato. Try keeping a beach body when it’s considered a mortal sin to turn down a nonna’s offer of gelato.

During the day everyone was packed onto the beaches or lounging poolside and except for a couple of restaurants and marts, the entire town shut down from 1-5 each day. At night, however, everyone flocked to the “downtown” areas for dinner, drinks, dancing, and gelato. In the town of Porto Santo Stefano, concerts played almost nightly in Porto Vecchio (the old port/harbor). Because of where the house sat, once we were in/out for the day or night we had stayed out for quite a bit. This meant gelato time led to long walks around Porto Vecchio, Porto Ercole, and Orbetello (a town on one of the strips of land connecting Monte Argentario to the mainland.)

There is so much more to the “island” than just relaxing and it holds so much history. As well as the adventures that can be taken to it’s nextdoor neighbor, Giglio.

Under the Tuscan wind 

What do wild boar, rogue cows, and hot pink Disney blankets all have in common? They all played a role in an incredible weekend in the Tuscan countryside.

A small village on top of a hill outside San Casciano dei Bagni, abandoned in the 60s, and renovated over the past dozen years serves as a weekend getaway for the family I live with and about 10 other couples and families. They each have their own private space they’ve renovated to their liking, but are also a tight knit community.


We arrived Thursday, after getting settled in, and hanging out with the neighbors, we set out for dinner across the valley. Which means a long drive along the ridge through woods, other small towns, and looking down on the fields below. We ate dinner at the somewhat famous Trattoria da Gianfranco in Trevinano. White wine, draft beer, and bruschetta covered the table quickly. Followed by our main courses. I tried cinghiale in umido, wild boar, with a side of tomatoes. A little heavier than I’d normally eat in the summer, but it was full of flavor and definitely worth trying. We followed dinner with light, fluffy, wonderful tiramisu. On a (very) full stomach we set out for home around 11, only to come across a herd of rogue cows walking along the road. The herd was spread across a mile or so, cows or bulls occasionally darting across to meet one another or walking slowly down the middle of the road. A first for all of us, which I’m sure was an unwelcome surprise for a farmer the next morning.

Friday was a little slower. A cold and rainy day, we slept in and took it slow. The family staying with us arrived from the US that afternoon, so we took a long lunch at the house as the kids got acclimated to each other and the adults caught up. A slow day in is no problem with me when it’s filled with good company, conversation, food, and, of course, wine. The parents all went out for dinner that night, but the kids and I got to enjoy fresh made pici pasta in red sauce and chocolate covered profiteroles for dessert, a favorite in this house and a new favorite for the guests. Then, a rainy night calls for Uno and cartoons.

Saturday, was the day of the big birthday party for the girls’ mom, Carlotta. Unfortunately, it was cold and VERY windy, but that didn’t stop us. We went into San Casciano for a few last minute things, had a snack of pizzette, and went back home for a light lunch of sausage, cheese, and fruit. That evening we had 30 people over for a cookout. Appetizers, bruschetta, bread, plenty of Chianti wine, beer, and champagne, pasta in red sauce and white sauce, chicken kebabs, pork ribs, sausage, fruit tart cake, chocolate cake, and cookies. One of the neighbors played piano and his son sang, which quickly became karaoke. After much coaxing, I sang “A Whole New World” while wrapped in a hot pink Disney blanket. The cold sent everyone inside by 12:30, but not after plenty of Italian and classic 80s songs were sang.

Our last day in the countryside was spent exploring Radicofani and the fortress there. After a late breakfast, because everyone except me and one of the girls slept in, we left the villa. Walking the streets of Radicofani, we saw one single person, all the shops and restaurants were closed. It was like being in an abandoned town. But when we came to the center we found a market and restaurant to have a long lunch (noticing a theme?). From there we had to drive up to Fortezza di Radicofani. Where you can see all across the countryside, being the highest point. You can also pretty much see the fortress from any point down below as well. The castle has a long history in the land disputes between Siena, local aristocracy, and the Pope. At one point it was taken over by a man known as the Italian Robin Hood, Ghino di Tacco. Ghinno robbed merchants and travels as they passed, but sparred students and the poor. You can known wander the grounds and climb the tower to take in the view of the expansive Tuscan hills and valleys.

The countryside of Tuscany has this deafening silence about it, where you can’t seem to help, but relax. We’ve explored abandoned villas on precious trips and stopped in small towns and bed and breakfasts for meals. It almost seems like a fairytale untouched, with so much left for me to explore.

So Frascati, so clean clean 

The summer crowds have descended on Rome and after two weekends of travel, it was time for a slow Saturday. Frascati was hitting the brakes.

The town, known for wine and villas, is a €2.10, 30 minute train ride from the Termini station in Rome. It’s in the Alban Hills, the same area as Castel Gandolfo.

I didn’t really have too many goals heading into Frascati, except trying the wine. I really didn’t know too much about the town, but I did know going in to expect certain sites not to be open, just because. This was a day to be taken in stride.

I arrived in the city shortly after 1 p.m., planning to see a few things before grabbing lunch at a suggested restaurant. First stop, the Cathedral right in the historic center…. closed. As well as the Church of  Gesù right around the corner. Just a short walk away is Piazza Marconi with a terrace looking out over the hills and if you turn around, Villa Aldobrandini. Don’t expect to walk in the front gates of Villa Aldobrandini, if at all. I had to hike up a side road and walk in through a side gate. The Villa itself isn’t open, but you can walk around the grounds. Standing in front of the house you can see the mini vineyard, tree lined path from the front gate, piazza, and out into the valley. They were setting up for an event behind the house, so I couldn’t explore the backyard that had what looked like a fountain and other monuments. From there, I wandered over to Villa Torlonia, which turned out to be more of a park with ruins, but there was plenty of shade to break the heat.

My plans for lunch (and most importantly wine) didn’t pan out. By 2:30 the restaurant I wanted to try, along with most others, was closed. I had a little lunch at a bar in Piazza Marconi, unimpressive, but with a good view, before going to the small museum nearby, Scuderie Aldobrandini. Apparently, the building used to be the stables for Villa Aldobrandini. The museum hosts ancient artifacts from the area and some models of nearby villas. The small city has an extensive history from the 16th century villas built by nobility for status, rather than farming, to being bombed in WWII. Upstairs, it houses recent pieces of art. The small museum, plus the art exhibit upstairs cost €3 (reduced rate for <26).

Too early for dinner and with most everything closed, I walked over to Villa Sciarra, which also turned out to just be a park with some ruins, but a good view of the valley off to one side.

With plans for the evening, I grabbed a small gelato and returned to Rome on the 5:30 train.

I didn’t get to try the wine as planned, but it was nice to get a break from the crowds and explore a small town for the afternoon. All together (train, museum, gelato, and lunch) cost me €19.70. I wouldn’t call it a destination, but a nice afternoon if you’re in Rome for a bit. Just be sure to grab lunch before 1:30 or plan to stay for dinner so you don’t miss out on trying the food and wine.

Hostel living

The diva stayed in a hostel. I know, shocking!

I stayed at On the Way Hostel in Palermo on the recommendation of another traveler. The pics looked good, other reviews looked decent, and best of all it was cheap and breakfast was included. Plus, it’s a great way to meet other young travelers. Being a diva, I tried to get a private room, but there were none available. I settled on a female-only four person dorm. Hello, bunkbeds! The hostel wasn’t well marked and not technically on the road that it’s addressed as, I walked past it twice.

Cleanliness: The beds and sheets were clean, but the floor left much to be desired. This is why you always travel with slippers or at least plastic sandals. The bathrooms and kitchen were as clean as what you expect in a college dorm. They were cleaned each day, but with a couple dozen traveling teens and young adults staying, that wears off real quick.

What you get: It depends on when you check in, but I paid €17 a night. Sheets, Wifi, luggage storage, and breakfast are included. Breakfast was choice of breads/toasts, jams, cookies, cereals, yogurt, juice, coffee, and some fresh fruit. I was actually surprised by how big the spread was, there’s plenty of seating, and even two balconies. A fresh towel is €1 and an additional euro for a face towel. If you don’t have a lock, I highly recommend buying one for €2, then you have it for further travels. The rooms have lockers to keep your stuff in, which I kept locked at all times. It was marked that after checkout luggage storage cost €2, but they didn’t charge me to leave my bag in the storage room. They also offer other services like printing and laundry for a small fee. The staff was very friendly and helpful. On my first night, one of the managers gave me a great recommendation for a restaurant.

Location: The location was right in the middle of the city near the train and bus terminal, meaning picking up my bag right before heading to the bus was super convenient. It was however, very noisy at night. It’s right off the main road, there are bars nearby, and people driving past blasting stereos (something I haven’t encountered in other cities).

Benefits: I saved money and met a couple of really cool people. I had dinner with one of my roommates the first night and learned a lot about her job as an NGO worker. I’ve been lucky to meet really intelligent, interesting people on my travels so far. I could use the fridge to store my groceries from the second day, saving that much more.

I probably won’t be staying in a hostel again, but it was definitely an experience worth having. Overall, it was a fine, and definitely a place I would recommend for young travelers looking to save money, especially if you’re still used to dorm life. I however, did not feel as rested or refreshed as I would in an AirBNB or hotel. #DivaLife


Sicilian experience 

So, I’ve told you about the historical sites I visited in Palermo, but what about the actual experience? Palermo is a true melting pot of cultures, boasting Norman, Arab, Byzantine, and, of course, Italian heritage and influences. For a lover of history, grasping the many and lasting influences was both challenging and inspiring. I didn’t know what to expect walking in, which presented some significant road bumps, but I also met some wonderful people that on the way.

Most travel sites, blogs, and even city webpages I read before I left said churches don’t charge entrance fees, but ask for donations. It’s not a donation and it’s not optional. Each church had a manned ticket booth at the front entrance. Along with that, information on websites and brochures often did not match the reality. I stopped by the tourist center for a map and brochures early on. For the Norman Palace, both the brochure and website said the ticket office was open until 5 p.m. and a youth (<26) discount was available. When I arrived at the ticket office at 4:30, they informed me it actually closed at 4 and there was no youth discount, only for children. That was frustrating as I had planned to over the Cathedral and then the Palace on my first day.

But the first day was not a total loss! My roommate at the hostel the first night was an NGO (Non-Government Organization) worker from Prague, who is doing a lot of work with immigration in Europe. I invited her to dinner at the restaurant the hostel recommended, Antica Focacceria San Francesco. We split a four course “sampler” meal and wine. It included an appetizer plate, pasta with pistacchio sauce (delicious), salad, and a traditional Sicilian dessert. The dessert, Cassata Siciliana sponge cake soaked in liquor, layered with ricotta, marzipan, and coated with a pistachio paste, topped with a candy cherry. It was absolutely delicious, but probably way too much food. We sat outside and listened to the small band play, complete with accordion of course. All that cost us each €20.

The second day, I learned wandering was more difficult and less safe than in other cities. The map I was given was not well marked or accurate (roads not to scale and places ending up being much further walks), and it was easy to end up in not so nice neighborhoods. I did not feel as safe wandering in Palermo. Between the uncertainty of the map and how I was treated by men. It was much more than cat calling and a few times I was not left alone, not a good feeling when traveling alone. Once you leave the touristy areas, the roads were often dirty and littered with dog poop.

Many signs, exhibits, and tours were not in English. For someone working on Italian it was great practice! But many tourists are used to the dual (and sometimes more) signs found in Rome and other cities. My tour guide at Castello a Mare did not speak any English, but worked very hard to make sure I understood and answered all my questions. People were very patient with me practicing Italian and didn’t automatically jump to English (whether they could or not). Bring your guidebook, dictionary, and get ready to practice!

But again, not a bad day. I enjoyed a “lunch” of pistachio and hazelnut gelato, with a the bottom of the cone filled with melted chocolate at Brioscia. After getting tired of the heat and spending money, I opted to buy groceries (olive bread, ham, peaches, and .99 set of three wine juice boxes) and eat my dinner down by the port. I sat on the rocks at Foro Italico, watched the ships come in and out, and enjoyed some music being played.

Sunday, was too rainy for the beach, so I wandered a bit before relaxing in Villa Giulia, then getting more pistachio gelato at Antica Gelateria Ilardo, one of the oldest gelatarias in town, est. 1860.

If I were to go again, I would make sure to plan accordingly for the beach and get a much better map. I would also not go alone.   Plan ahead, make a clear budget, and don’t get caught up in the “best duomo” views each church boasts. Make sure to try pistachio everything and gelato is the best lunch.

Sizzling Sicilia

Flying into Palermo not only made the trip much quicker, but the bird’s eye-view on the way in set the tone for an almost tropical weekend.

From above I could watch lone ships streaming through the clear blue water, before we landed seaside next to a mountain (okay, it was more like a really big rock). The shuttle ride from the itty-bitty airport to the center of Palermo took about 50 minutes and dropped me just blocks from the hostel I was staying in. (I’ll have more on that in another post.) All checked in and ready to explore by 3 p.m. I set out to explore the city.

I like to pick a key site and then meander my way there, unless there is a deadline, taking my time getting to know the city, but that was going to cost me in Palermo. Turns out you have to pay to go into any church in the city. Only €1.50-2, but that adds up really quick for the zillion churches. A little annoyed, I made my way to a quick lunch and headed for the Cathedral (site is only in Italian). To climb on the roof, see the tombs, crypt, and treasury it’s €7. The view from the roof was worth that alone, but be ready to feel the burn on the spiral staircase. From the roof you can see out to the water, to the mountains, and all the diverse rooftops in between. Like most of the historical buildings in the city, it has Catholic, Arab, and Norman influences, so this isn’t just walking into another Cathedral. Sometimes the influences are melded together into one piece, other times they stand in stark contrast next to each other. The church also includes a shrine to a priest killed by the mafia, a theme repeated through many of the sites I visited. The treasury contains pieces from the churches history dating back to 1185. Which takes you to the crypts… and if you’ve never stood in a crypt 100% alone, it feels a bit ‘Cask of the Amontillado’ except I was 100% sober and hopefully don’t have any sins that bad.

Day 2, I expected to be a bit longer, but made my way quickly through the sites I planned. I began the day walking though the historical neighborhood of Ballaro and checking out the huge market with everything from fresh swordfish bigger around than me to all sorts of fruits. After walking through the main market, I passed through quite a few others selling hand crafts, bed frames, toys, paintings, and more. Essentially anything and everything you could need.

After the market, I visited the Norman Palace, home to the Sicilian Parliament, where I was adopted by an elderly, Italian tour group. Rather then touring the palace alone on my own time, I was included in the introduction and tour of the chapel within the palace. The chapel’s Arab influence was even stronger than that of the Cathedral, noticeable in the frescoes and paintings on the wall. My tour was completely in Italian, but I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I understood. After the chapel, I set out to tour the rest of the palace on my own time. The apartments, as they’re called, are separated into themed rooms, The Herculean Room, The Room of Past Presidents, The Chinese Room, etc. Each depicting paintings and pieces dedicated to the stories or theme. I rounded out the tour of the palace with the special art exhibit, ‘Novecento Italiano. Una Storia’. The exhibition includes a diverse range of artists from the 20th century, all set on returning to, as they say, ‘the origins of art’. The exhibit brought full circle the ancient building into the modern world. The entire tour took under an hour and cost €12 for the chapel, apartments, and exhibit.

Next stop, dead bodies. No, really. The Catacombes were as interesting and creepy as you’d expect and the last place I’d like to be in case of a zombie apocalypse. Yes, I paid €3 to look at dead bodies on display. All clothed in their death outfits and some even still had facial hair. It was worth the visit, if only for the novelty of it and took maybe 30 minutes.

Then, it was off to Teatro Massimo, the third largest opera house in Europe. This was another cheap and fast tour, neither of those used with a negative connotation. €5 (because I’m an infant <25) to go into the 1,300 seating auditorium, learn a bit of history, sit in the royal box, check out a rehearsal, and a surprise addition of costumes used in the past. The backstage tour was unavailable as they were building a set and I skipped the €20 rooftop tour. I took the tour in Italian because I didn’t want to spend 30 minutes waiting around of the English tour and why not test my skills at any chance? It was definitely worth it and I don’t feel like I missed out on too much.

I finished those and the 7 miles of walking in between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and that’s including additional side street wandering and stopping for gelato. I was warned that it would be easy to complete the visits fairly quickly. Because it was hot and humid, I opted to save the rest of my list for the next day, as my flight out wasn’t until almost 5 p.m.

Day three, the rain came down and hard. I knew that was going to happen the night before so I decided not to head out to the beach. I slept in a bit, grabbed breakfast, and checked out as the rain slowed at 11. With only a couple of stops in mind, I started at Castello a Mare. Built in the 9th century, it was once key to defending the port. As expected, it’s right up against the port, but fairly overgrown. You can walk right through the ruins to an extent and even touch parts of it. To visit the ruins cost €3 and I was followed around by an apologetic tour guide who didn’t speak English. MORE PRACTICE. He was very accommodating and I was able to ask questions to gain a better understanding of the fort. There was some signage in English to bolster his mini tour. The church and castle itself stood until they were demolished in 1923, then it was further demolished by bombs in WWII.

I spent the rest of my final day enjoying the statues, palms, structures, and flowers within Villa Giulia, about the only free place in Sicily. The botanical gardens were right next door, but the garden itself was pretty enough to spend a few hours in after the skies had cleared.

The bus to and from the airport was €6.30 in each direction or €10 roundtrip if you bought it at the airport. The lines were limited and security was quick, so I got to enjoy the view of the water while I waited for my plane. A word to the wise, you can’t use mobile boarding passes at the airport or print them beforehand for Vueling, so you’ll have to go old school and check in when you arrive.

Next I’ll cover staying in a hostel, all the wonderful food I tried, and some of the road bumps face in Palermo.


Ancient roads take me Rome…

One of my first ‘adventures’ here in Rome was biking la Via Appia Antica, the Appian Way, the first great road of Rome.

This road built in the 4th century B.C. takes you through fields, to ruins, and past beautiful villas. At one point it stretched 365 miles from Rome to the Brindisi, a port seen as Rome’s gateway to the East. We decided to cover about 7 or so miles by bike. Not just on any day, but Appia Day, a day celebrating the road and it’s history. This meant not only was it a bumpy ride (I can’t imagine riding on a stone road by carriage), but that it was packed with booths, reenactors, and hundreds of visitors (otherwise known as obstacles). Biking the road and fields was a wee bit painful, adding to the fact I hadn’t been on a bicycle since 2014 and that was a beach cruiser.

To get from the bike rental to the actual road, we had to bike on a bike of a rocky path through a field with some short, steep slopes. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I am helping the girls improve their English while I’m here. We only had Costanza (8) with us this weekend and she is always eager to know what things are called in English… her curiosity has no bounds, which is great! Even to the point that as she was flying down a rocky slope ahead of me she was yelling back ‘Come se dice frenare?? Come se dice frenare???” (How do you say brake?) if that isn’t commitment to learning, then I don’t know what is. After about an hour of talking to reenactors and biking, we stopped for our picnic lunch in a field and laid out under some olive trees.

We didn’t explored ruins along the way, picked up brochures on the history, and after getting exhausted of biking up hills and dodging people, we stopped for some drinks and snacks at a country club just off the road. Now about 3.5 miles out, we decided it was time to make our way back and find some well deserved gelato.

The ride back we took it a little easier and stopped to check out more ruins along the way. Then of course laid out in a field again to relax and call Vitoria (10) on her field trip, before the last stretch to the car. Because what are Sunday bike rides for, if not taking it easy? (Did I also mention it was Mother’s Day? Carlotta is a trooper!)

After our trek and with sore bums, we stopped for gelato at the famous Mondi in Ponte Milvio. (Carlotta tells me it’s the best gelato in Rome, the girls argue their neighbor gelato shop, where they have made friends with the servers, is the best.) Then ended the night with pizza and wine in the house to finally relax.

The views from Via Appia Antica and the rich history are well worth the (free) trip. Though, I probably would’t recommend doing it by bike, ancient roads are not built for comfort. I will probably head back out to Via Appia Antica to explore the Catacombes a bit more and take my time walking around.

Day trip: Castel Gandolfo

Spoiler alert: there was no grey wizard… or hobbits. Also, if you ask to meet the wizard, they will assume you are talking about the Pope and NOT be amused.

Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, is in the gorgeous Castel Romani area sitting high above Lake Albano. It has only been open to the public for tours for the last few years. The 45 min train ride there takes you through fields and small towns. Early on in the ride, you pass by fairly well intact ruins of the ancient aqueducts. I had to look up what it was that stretched for miles. Then, Lake Albano opens up in front of you. In the basin of hills and a sparkling clear blue. From the train station, you have to hike about a mile up on a path to get to the mansion and historic center (should have worn sneakers, not sandals). At the top the view is opens up even more, forcing the entire crowd from the train to stop for selfies.

I arrived a little over an hour before my tour, so had time to wander a bit and scope out some restaurants with great views for afterwards. I opted for a shorter day and only toured the mansion itself, not the gardens. Let me tell you, I learned a lot about Popes on that hour tour. There have been A LOT of Popes. I had the audioguide and seemed to be the only one to listen to every single number. Some served only days, some were marred by nepotism and scandal, others accomplished many great things for the greater good. Also, lesson learned about putting sparkling water in a bottle for natural water. I ended up surrounded by half the security team when the lid blew off my bottle with a loud, echoing popping sound. They didn’t find it as funny as me and the lady next to me.

Aside from the first floor museum exhibit, you are also taken through the Papal apartments, which was a little too intimate for me. “Now you’re standing in the Pope’s bedroom where he sleeps!” Ehhhhh…. The residence is somehow both opulent and plain at the same time. Great works of art and stuffy, fancy furniture in some rooms, to almost bare walls in the offices and bedroom. It was if walking from a basilica into a corporate cubicle. The tour is all of €5-10 depending on if you qualify for a discount, so it was definitely no waste of money. Perhaps the gardens would have been a nice addition.

Next stop, lunch with a view! The first restaurant I found and absolutely wanted to dine at, turned out to only be open for dinner. By chance I spotted a little cluster of tables down the road, perched right by the edge looking over the lake. Bingo! La Cruna del Lago turned out to be a nice, little find. No English from the servers, always a good sign of local, and a nice chance to practice my Italian. No pricey lunch that day! I was served a 1/4L of house white wine and pasta for €10 (that included water and table service as well). Along with the stunning view of Lake Albano as seen above. Not having to catch the train until 2, I took my sweet time on lunch and enjoying the view.

Overall, the trip cost me a total of €19.20 for round trip train tickets (€4.20), lunch, and the tour. I would recommend taking the garden tour for a little longer day and I would have liked to spend a little time down at the lake, but overall it was a good day trip without being overly exhausting.


Day trip: Tivoli

It’s a long holiday weekend here in Italy, so rather than fight the crowds and pay a lot of money, I decided to take day trips from the city. Starting off with Tivoli on Friday, June 2. (Also known as Festa della Repubblica/Republic Day)

Tivoli is about 30km outside of Rome and home to Villa d’Este. 5km south of there is Villa Adriana. I woke up early, made my way by bus, then metro to the right bus station, and bought a €2.10 bus ticket out of the city for our 50 minute trip out of the city.

Villa d’Este proved to be a little oasis of it’s own outside of the city and Tivoli itself is a cute mountain side town. The Villa built and once home to Cardinal Ippolito II, houses Renaissance art, frescoes, and boasts a sweeping garden with large fountains. And also overlooks the mountainside with an absolutely stunning view. The house itself took no time at all to get through, but I could have stayed in the garden for days. With a number of paths cutting each and every way, fountains popping up in each corner, and a large fountain overlooking a row of reflection pools. For €8 I was pleasantly surprised. The house was also not overcrowded like many of the tourist attractions within Rome. I didn’t find myself fighting my way to look at pictures or being pushed past at the fountains. I was able to take my time and truly enjoy the experience.

After the villa, I stopped at Trattoria del Falcone and there is apparently nothing more distressing/intriguing than a young women dining alone. Literally, every server, bus boy, manager, and host stopped at my table to check in on me. Since my day had proven to be so inexpensive so far, I splurged a little on lunch. Bruschetta, seafood gnocchi, and of course wine. With a side of answering questions about my back story and what I thought of Tivoli and Italy in general. Even without the attention, I would highly recommend the restaurant. Everyone from young couples to families were there, it seemed mostly Italians and not too touristy.

After a little bit more wandering around to the fortress Rocca Pia, I made my way to the bus for what I thought would be a direct trip to Villa Adriana. Nope. The Villa was a two mile or so walk from the bus stop, and honestly not well marked. This part of Tivoli proved to be not as nice as the area surrounding Villa d’Este. My long walk was filled with horn honking and cat calls. Yippee *eye rolls*. By the time I got to Villa Adrianna I was a little grouchy, but walking on ruins improved my mood quite a bit. The villa was once an imperial residence built by Emperor Hadrian between 118 and 138 AD. Villa Adriana lets you walk right through the ruins of the libraries, piazza, hospital, theaters, and a pool I wanted to jump into. Being right up in the ruins and not far off behind ropes offers a much more magical experience. The site was overgrown with grass in some areas, but it was clear cut where you could explore. The massive villa could have taken many more hours to get through, but I only stayed for about 2.

Tivoli ended up being an exhaustive day trip, but rich in history and good food. For two historical centers, round trip bus, and lunch I spent a whopping (LOL) €48.30…. and more than half was on lunch… whoops! The train drops off outside of the city center, but I would highly suggest taking it instead of the multiple switches from metro to bus. It turns out to also only be about €4 in each direction. Or if you’re willing to take your chances against Roman drivers, driving.