Wordless Wednesday: Hike from Vernazza to Monterosso

Photos from our 2-hour, sweaty hike from the harbor of Vernazza to the small town of Monterosso al Mare in Cique Terre, a string of five fishing villages high on the Italian Riviera that are a National Park and Protected Marine Area. (More about Cique Terre coming soon!)

Beautiful, panoramic views of a wild coastline in Italy, with terraces growing grapes and olives bordering the open water of the Mediterranean Sea.

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Italy, part two: Day trip to Pompeii and Sorrento

touring pompeii ruins from rome italy travel

When we were first planning our trip to Italy, we thought we’d go to Herculaneum instead of Pompeii. We didn’t think we’d have time for both, and reviews online leaned towards Herculaneum having much smaller crowds. But while looking at tours we found City Wonders’ Full Day VIP Pompeii and Sorrento Small Group Tour from Rome.

On this tour, guests meet at the train station in Rome (where we were renting an apartment), take a hide speed train to Naples and then bus to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Pompeii for a tour and then have lunch in the beautiful seaside town of Sorrento. The small group numbers and high-speed train sold us on this tour vs. the many others available.

When we got to the train station there were a lot more than the promised 15 person limit. This was because some people were touring Pompeii and then climbing Vesuvius, and some were touring Pompeii and heading right back to Rome in time for lunch. There were multiple groups meeting up, and the tour company had everything super organized and down to a science. (I am not being paid to say this, it was just my experience.)

We boarded our train and kind of kept to ourselves on this first leg of the trip. Once we arrived in Naples, each group walked to the right bus for them. They were high, air conditioned tour buses, and a place where we could leave our belongings throughout the day. The driver also had bottled water for 1 Euro which came in handy quite a few times. Everyone in Pompeii was selling for 3 Euro.

On the way to Pompeii our tour guide pointed out sites and gave us some historical background about Naples and Mount Vesuvius, the only active volcano in mainland Europe, which has produced some of the continent’s largest eruptions. “Vesuvius is most famous for the 79 AD eruption which destroyed the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Though the volcano’s last eruption was in 1944, it still represents a great danger to the cities that surround it, especially the busy metropolis of Naples.” [geology.com]

Our guide seemed to think that living at the base of an active volcano affected the mindset and personalities of the people who lived there. They were known for short-term plans and living in the moment.

When we reached Pompeii, we were handed off to a Pompeii tour guide who helped us jump the line. After a quick water buying and bathroom break, she toured us through ancient ruins for over 2 hours.

pompeii fresco, art in italy

I don’t think the paint I get at Home Depot will withstand a volcano…

I’m not one who is big into history. For some reason memorizing facts and learning from ancient cultures has eluded me. But Pompeii suddenly brought history to life for me! It was such an amazing experience that brought us right into the heart of a primitive culture. We walked ancient streets and used their crosswalks, we went into homes and saw where they collected water in the entry-way and could still view paintings on the walls!

We could see on the edge of fountains where the rock was rubbed smoothed and almost polished from the spot where people had to put their hands to lean in and take a drink – in the year 57!

pompeii ruins, water fountain in italy

See the spot on the right of the fountain head that’s very white? That’s where they put their hands to lean in for a sip 1980 years ago!

There were penises engraved on building cornerstones pointing to the nearest red light district. There were bath houses and amphitheaters. We could see their ancient plumbing system in some areas – water was abundant here – but the pipes were lead!

Pompeii Amphitheatre ruins italy

Pompeii Amphitheater

ancient wall decor pompeii italy ruins

Bath house carvings

Our tour guide gave us headsets so we could hear her even if we were 20 feet away and looking too long at one thing while she moved on to the next. She explained things in great detail and pointed out lots of meaning in the artwork I never would have noticed or understood without her. In fact, with all the time we spent in Pompeii, we probably saw 1/10th of the ruins, and I still could have easily gotten lost and had no idea what I was looking at without a tour. I strongly recommend a guide, not just a map!

We also witnessed ongoing excavation teams hard at work. And the most moving part is seeing plaster casts of the volcanic eruptions victims. It was not lava who killed the people here, but a pyroclastic surge of ash that killed people instantly and encased their bodies, forming a hardened shell. In 1864 Giuseppe Fiorelli, the director of the excavations, discovered a technique that allowed the body shapes to be preserved. It’s not a body, or a skeleton, but a plaster cast of the last shaped left behind by the bodies – some crouched, some curled up in a ball, and others of their family pets!

“Fiorelli’s excavators discovered hollow pockets in the ash in a lane named the Alley of the Skeletons. Inside, it was possible to make out human bones. But instead of digging through the ash to remove them, Fiorelli instructed the diggers to pour plaster into the hollow. They left the plaster to harden for a few days, then chipped off the outer layers of hardened ash. What was revealed was a detailed plaster cast of the body of a citizen of Pompeii at the moment of death.” [decodedpast.com]

Yes, it’s creepy, and it’s also history brought to life!

Our tour concluded with some time to wander the ruins on our own, take photos, and a few minutes to shop the souvenirs being sold outside the site.

Then our group boarded the bus again and we drove to scenic Sorrento. On the way we were able to stop and enjoy the view – looking out towards Capri – and seeing some of the local lemon, fig and olive trees.

drive from Naples to Sorrento italy

This is what the drive looks like, only some parts the street is narrower and scarier on the side of the cliff

vesuvius italy travel blogger couple from florida

Mt Vesuvius in the background again

Sorrento is a safe and touristy resort town on the seaside. The views are gorgeous, and you can buy lemon ANYTHING there. Pottery, towels, shirts, soaps, lotions, booze, cookies – you name it, they make it with lemons. Luckily our tour included a limoncello tasting.

lemons for sale in Sorrento, italy

Once the tour bus was parked, our guide pointed out a meeting place and time for the end of our trip to Sorrento. Then we had the option of lunch with him or going off on our own. He showed us where local shopping, upscale shopping, the beach and the town center were. He also pointed out where the limoncello would be if someone just wanted to meet later for that. We primarily stayed with our guide.

The restaurant he led us to for lunch called themselves “American style,” but luckily they actually were not American at all. They just offered a page of American cocktails in the menu and spoke really good English. Tables were reserved for us overlooking the water, and Brian and I got a table for 2.

lunch in sorrento italy

Lunch view looking back towards town

sorrento to capri view in italy

Lunch view looking toward Capri with the edge of the Grand Hotel Excelsior Vittoria on right

Raffi Darrow travel to Sorrento Italy from Florida

Lunch Selfie

After we ate our fill of pasta and tried the local cocktails, we had no space left in our tummies for the desserts that looked delectable. It didn’t matter though, because we were off to our Limoncello tasting – which included not only a few sips of different adult drinks, but also tastes of cookies, nuts, and candies made with local lemons. I bought my boss some organic lemon honey while there.

We had about 90 minutes to ourselves to look around Sorrento, and I was determined to find a gift for my mom. Brian patiently shopped with me and offered his advice, and graciously helped me finish off some dark chocolate gelato at the end of the afternoon.

Our final view in Sorrento

After spending 2-3 hours in the heat looking at ancient ruins in Pompeii, the lavish and casual Sorrento tourist feel was a perfect contrast. I’d love to spend a trip in Sorrento, Capri, Naples and the Amalfi Coast in the future someday! (Although our beaches in the Tampa Bay area are much prettier!)

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Trattoria della Barchetta, Rome restaurant review

Trattoria della Barchetta, rome, italy restaurant

Set a few blocks away from the hustle and bustle of the Lepanto Metro stop and the River Tiber, kind of near The Vatican, sits Trattoria della Barchetta. The restaurant seems unassuming from the outside with about 4 visible windows flanking the front door with white awnings discreetly stating the restaurant’s name and a few small outside tables.

architecture in rome italy

Great architecture along the way

The first time we ate at Trattoria della Barchetta, it was me and my husband, and we were looking for a leisurely, romantic, authentic lunch. We had no plans for the afternoon and wanted food that would WOW us. We entered about 20 minutes after they started serving lunch. My first reaction was to the amazing smells. My second was that the dining space was so much larger on the inside than it seemed from the outside. I guess many locations in Rome have small entries but lead back into deep spaces. Then I saw a round table just left of the entrance full of a variety of fresh baked desserts.

Two men were busy behind a counter and looked up to greet us with a friendly “Ciao!” To one we asked, “Two for lunch?”, an immediate way of letting them know they were dealing with English speakers. The other brought us each a glass of cool, sweet, bubbling prosecco and a blob of hot, fried dough covered in fragrant olive oil to whet our appetites. They were so puffy and heavenly scented I asked if they were fried zucchini, but he insisted it was pizza. This was while we were still standing in the doorway! Then they showed us to our table.

selfie in rome italy restaurant

trattoria della barchetta menuTrattoria della Barchetta has a folded, laminated menu with English translations showing a wide variety of pastas, meats and desserts. Tucked inside is a brown piece of paper with a handwritten Italian menu. During my trip planning for Italy, someone told me to be on the lookout for this! Usually items that are handwritten are made with ingredients that are fresh that day. So we tossed the extended menu aside and just ordered off the Italian menu. And we were happy to find we could understand most of the Italian ourselves – from just a little time spent on Duolingo before our trip, plus Brian’s high school Spanish and my high school French. (You’ll find the link to their menu on their website is broken.)

Gnocchi with mushrooms

Gnocchi

Brian ordered gnocchi with mushrooms. There was not much of a sauce, maybe a drizzle of white wine. I had four-cheese tagliatelle pasta with black truffle. Both were great, but the truffles were a bit rich for me and I couldn’t finish my meal. Brian’s was amazing down to the last bite! I asked if we could each have one more of the little pizza dough balls we had when we came in, and they brought us a bowl full to enjoy. After we ate they came around with a tray of pastries to try (which I declined) and chocolate covered candied orange (which Brian insisted I had to try.) That put our tummies over the top and we took the Metro back to our apartment to shower and nap.

Tagliolini with cheese and truffles

Tagliolini with cheese and truffles

Pizza dough balls

I so enjoyed the meal, service and atmosphere, and was disappointed that we hadn’t room to try more – like beef or veal – that I told Brian I would be happy to return again for dinner one night. As it happened, we had a day trip to Pompeii and one of our fellow tourists mentioned on the train ride home that he wanted an authentic delicious dinner for his last night in Rome. I suggested Trattoria della Barchetta, showed him our food photos from lunch, and said, “I can’t guarantee we won’t be there too.” So he asked if we’d meet up with him, and we did at 8pm that night.

montecompatri wine in Rome Italy

one of the wines we tried

The three of us ate dinner like Italians that night. When you reserve a table in an American restaurant, they assume you’ll eat, pay, leave – and they can turn the table over to another paid customer. But in Italy when you reserve a table, you are expected to linger and it’s yours for the night. With all of our food, two bottles of wine and interesting conversation (he was also the parent of teenagers and had some cool travel stories to tell) we were there for a few hours. We shared two appetizers (one was mussels and clams but I forget the other one), veal, the same gnocchi Brian ordered, and more I can’t remember. (I let our new friend take the photos and he was going to email them to me but he hasn’t and I’ll probably never see him again.)

For dessert we ordered tiramisu to share – which the server came and made tableside. That added a special touch! They also brought over 4 bowls of cookies and sat them on the table for us to taste as we liked while we finished off our wine and conversations.

When supper was over and we were a little tipsy, I told Brian that we should visit the Trevi Fountain. I figured the big crowds would be gone at night. The one time we saw it during the day the crowd was so big we never pushed our way through to get close. It was also our last night in Rome, so I thought it was our last chance to toss a coin in. You are supposed to toss a coin from your right hand over your left shoulder to ensure a return trip to Rome. Rumor has it the money is collected to finance a supermarket for the poor people of Rome with the help of Italy’s Red Cross.

trevi fountain rome italy

Selfie at the Trevi Fountain

We walked to the Trevi Fountain with our buddy and found approximately 25 people hanging out. Nothing like the 6-rows deep crowd of 10am-5pm! We tossed our coin. Then we all set out for a nightcap.

By the time our drinks were finished, the Metro was no longer running, so Brian and I walked the 2.5 miles back to our apartment past The Vatican. This provided a lot of beautiful photo opportunities – with historical sites well lit at night. Brian was gushy and romantic about both our relationship and our pretty last stroll through Rome. I will have lovely memories for a long time from that night.

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Italy, part one: Trip Planning and Rome

Brian wanted to go to Austria this year. That was his original game plan. But while visiting my aunt and uncle in San Fransisco in March of 2016, they suggested we go to Italy. My cousin was helping her boyfriend’s family run a B&B there. The prospect of being in a country where we had never been and didn’t speak the language with someone we trusted who was already entrenched in the culture was a bonus. Plus – pasta. So we changed plans.

We narrowed down which cities we wanted to visit. Brian did some research on that on his own, as well as airport locations. Once we had our tentative list of cities, we worked on travel dates. Then, one night when we were looking at flights, we saw a great price we couldn’t pass up – and we went for it! Our plane tickets, flying into Rome and out from Venice, were booked!

I then emailed a list of friends who I knew had been to Italy in the past couple of years. I asked them about their favorite sites and restaurants and started a Google Doc shared with my husband with a long list and web links.

Next, we researched apartments through sites like HomeAway and Booking.com. Brian sifted through tons on his lunch breaks and showed me a narrowed list to make a final decision. We decided on 5 days in Rome, 2-3 days in waterfront Cinque Terre, 6 days in Florence and 2 days in Venice. Since we only had 2 days in Venice and I figured we’d be exhausted by the end of two weeks of touring, I suggested we splurge and pamper ourselves at a nice hotel for those last 2 nights. Brian checked into places that would allow us to earn Marriott points. In the other locations we looked for details like air conditioning, non-smoking rooms, laundry and elevators. Soon all of our lodging was booked and our excitement for the trip was building!

We also started walking together three mornings each week for 3 miles to prep for all of the touring we would be doing. As Florida spring heat and humidity kicked in and our morning walk left us soaked with sweat, we hoped Italy would yield milder temperatures. (Spoiler – it didn’t.)

Did you know you can make a custom Google map? I made one for each city we planned to stay in, and started plotting sites and restaurants recommended by our friends, bloggers, Instagrammers, and “Wine Spectator” magazine. That way if we were out and needed to know what we were near, I could just check on my phone.

We also prepped with some help from travel guru Rick Steves. We had a book of his about Italy and one specifically about Venice. We watched videos of him eating pasta with dough on top in Cinque Terre. We read packing tips and Brian purchased a small, theft-proof backpack. (Small so it could still enter holy sites and theft-proof meaning the straps had metal running through them so they couldn’t be cut through, and the zippers had a locking mechanism.) I bought myself a dress that covered my knees and shoulders (for visiting holy sites) that was made from sweat-wicking tech fabric. We bought a power adapter for the Italian outlets. I upgraded my sneakers and bought a comfortable wedged heel for evening strolls on brick streets. Before we knew it, June rolled around and we were ready to go!

Rome

Brian and I left Florida on June 8 for Rome. I had photos of our credit cards, passports and luggage on my phone and saved to Google Drive in case I lost them or my phone. After 2 flights, we arrived in the busy Rome airport hoping to find a driver holding a little sign with our last name on it – arranged through the landlord of the first apartment we had rented. We didn’t see him, but we had landed early, so we found a patch of floor off to the side and waited. After 20 minutes, I suggested that perhaps the sign that said “Darlou” was a misspelling of our name, and Brian approached the driver. Neither spoke the other’s language, but with a flash of an email confirming the apartment and some I.D., we were on our way in a nondescript black car with a man we didn’t know to an apartment we had never seen. It was sketchy and exciting, and the drive was much longer than I had anticipated.

Our view with the Basilica’s dome in the distance.

We buzzed up to the apartment, and the owner was there waiting for us. He pointed out a local pizza shop, the nearest grocery store and the entrance to the metro. He showed us how to work the key, elevator and washing machine. Then we snuck out on the bedroom balcony and saw the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica in the distance. The dome was so recognizable from our prep for the trip, and suddenly everything was real. 2 weeks of no email. 2 weeks of just the 2 of us. 2 weeks in Italy!!

We unpacked, and had a little time before our scheduled twilight tour of Rome. We decided to check out the nearby pizza place, Bonci, and I’m so glad we did. This little shop with tables to stand by and eat at outside was busy and smelled great. The people running the counter service somehow managed to keep track of all the orders in multiple languages. The pizza itself was like focaccia with a variety of available toppings. I got zucchini and olive oil, and it was incredible!

Our stroll to the tour’s meeting point took us right past Vatican City and a castle. There was a lot of street art along the way too, including violinists playing “Despacito” for change.

We met our tour guide in Piazza Navona and were treated to some live music.

See the building behind the musicians? Nothing in Florida looks like that, because nothing is that old. EVERYTHING in Rome looks like that. It is an architectural photographer’s dream!

On the tour we saw the Pantheon (below), Raphael’s tomb, the Trevi Fountain (more on the fountain in another post), the Spanish Steps, many ancient Egyptian obelisks and got gelato. I had a flavor based on the British Nestlé Lion bar and dark chocolate. (I quickly learned that plain, dark chocolate in Italian is fondente.) Brian had some kind of whiskey flavor.

Doorway of the Pantheon

Inside of the Pantheon dome

After our tour, we went to dinner and walked back to our apartment. Walking past St. Peter’s Basilica all lit up at night was beautiful!

The next morning we went to a nearby cafe for breakfast. My quiche-like thing stacked high with eggs and zucchini was called an omelette. Brian had a pastry. I bought a non-traditional cannoli that was all nuts on the outside and creamy stuff in the center (not shown, but amazing!) We did a little grocery shopping so we would have future breakfasts and some wine in the apartment.

We had an afternoon tour scheduled to go under the Vatican. “The Scavi Tour that goes through the excavations below Saint Peter’s Basilica is one of the most exclusive tours in all of Rome. Only 250 people are allowed through each day – compare that to the 30,000 that visit the Vatican Museums!” We decided to get lunch first. I googled restaurants near the Vatican and found 2 we were interested in. One seemed more casual and the other more romantic, so we hit the casual one – La Zanzara.

La Zanzara translates into ‘the mosquito’ in English. They had a lot of white tile and mirrors, giving the place a trendy feel. I asked Brian if he would try something he had never eaten before as an appetizer, and suggested the zucchini blossoms stuffed with anchovies and mozzarella cheese, tempura fried. They were described on the menu as “Pumpkin flower in Moskowskaya batter with cow’s milk mozzarella cheese and anchovies from Cantabrian Sea.” Brian doesn’t usually eat vegetables, and neither of us have ever been into anchovies, but I figured it was fried with cheese and a cheap appetizer. We tried them and loved them! Brian also ate a croque madame sandwich and I had a salad with seared ahi tuna. This is a great restaurant for a couple or a family. I saw young kids coloring at a table, a group of bros at a table, and lots of ladies getting drinks in pairs here.

TIP: you’ll find many small fountains all around Rome with water running out of them along the street (video clip below). These are not broken fire hydrants. They are potable water you can drink! Bring a sports bottle and fill it up along your route!

When we arrived at the Vatican, we were given a time to check in for our tour that was 35 minutes later, so we used that time to visit their temporary menorah exhibit. It was about the history of the menorah through art, and much of it was in Hebrew so I took a ton of photos for my parents. Imagine going all the way to Vatican City to see Jewish relics and art!

Then we went underground for the Scavi tour. No photos were allowed. Our tour guide gave a lot of historical details about The Vatican’s architecture and obtaining St Peter’s body. It was certainly a once in a lifetime experience. We exited in the Catacombs and were able to pass the line to enter Saint Peter’s Basilica. This cathedral is MASSIVE and covered in art pieces from floor to ceiling. Literally. There is not a spot without art anywhere in the entire, huge structure.

Maybe we were a little nutty, but we booked a night tour of the Colosseum for the same day. We went to the apartment for a snack and to foam roll our legs from all of the walking, and headed out to the next tour. We decided this was our chance to learn how to ride the Metro. Brian planned our route and knew where to get off the train — but boy were we in for a BIG surprise. We exited the train station and it was MOBBED. People everywhere. I couldn’t even find the exit turnstile because of the crowd and an armed guard pointed it out to me. It occurred to me that many of the people crowding us were young, pierced, tattooed and had half-shaved heads. Many also had rainbows on their Tshirts. And it was June. I looked at Brian and said, “I think we’re walking into the Pride parade.”

Sure enough, Roma Pride, which averages 1 million visitors was currently passing the Colosseum and the train station. Thank goodness the parade and floats were moving in the same direction we were so we were not swimming upstream! It was so cool seeing throngs of funky modernity next to 1500 year old relics!

When we made it to where the tour group was meeting, the guide was late for the same reason. We had to take an alternate tour route from our meeting point to the Colosseum since the streets were flooded with people, and along the way we saw and discussed the ruins of the Forum from up on Capitoline Hill and Circus Maximus.

We booked the Colosseum at night tour, because we heard it’s hard to see anything in the Colosseum during the day due to the dense crowds. This tour went on at the same time as maybe one or two others, but otherwise the Colosseum was closed to visitors. We went underneath the fighting site to where animals and some of the gladiators were held in cells. There was a replica of a wooden elevator on a pulley system that was used to lift animals into the arena space. We saw the main arena area just before sundown, and again after the underground tour when it was dark outside but areas were lit with spotlights. The Colosseum could seat over 50,000 spectators! It’s a large space that is now home to many cats that are cared for by locals. Legend says they are all ‘fixed’ and ‘chipped’ as well, and own by the city. [See one on my Instagram]

After the Colosseum tour it was about 10pm and we hadn’t eaten dinner. We found a nearby wine bar that also had a dinner menu. There we enjoyed lasagna layered with zucchini blossoms (notice a trend?), bread, wine, and two desserts.

Sunday we purposely had no plans other than our landlord wanted to take us to dinner. We wanted to just enjoy the city and each other’s company. I had noted the romantic restaurant I had read about online earlier and we decided to find it. Trattoria della Barchetta, and the reviews I read about it online, were NO JOKE! I’ll write about that delicious place very soon.

On our tours, all of the guides had mentioned the Audrey Hepburn movie “Roman Holiday” about a princess enjoying a day in Rome. (Only they call it “Vacanze Romane.”) Brian and I had never seen it, so when we snuck into bed at 2pm, found it streaming and watched it. The whole movie was filmed in Italy. Every scenic area they showed in the movie we had already been to! Even the fountain that Gregory Peck sticks his hand in! That was pretty cool. I recommend building some down time into every vacation or you’ll come home sick and exhausted.

Our landlord lived in a trendy part of Rome full of great food, and we were excited to see where he was taking us for dinner. We stopped at three landmarks along the way, but in the end he took us to Eataly. Eataly has a large shopping market and a few restaurants under one roof. It’s kind of like the IKEA of pasta. It didn’t seem as homemade or intimate as we were hoping for, and he didn’t give me time to shop for gifts after we ate. That might have been the most appropriate use of my time there. Oh well. You can’t win them all. At least the gelato was fresh, artisanal and delicious!

The next day we toured Pompeii and had lunch in Sorrento before enjoying our last night out in Rome. That will be saved for another post!

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