Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ciao Bella! (Italy - Part 1)

For our second anniversary, Dorothy and I threw around a few ideas for several months, finally landing on traveling around Italy for a week and a half.  We reconnected with our partners in crime from Bermuda and started to plug away at our desired itinerary.  It was quickly decided that we would revert to Gate 1 Travel again, as they did a fine job of putting together last year’s anniversary trip through Central Europe. 

We netted out with a trip starting in Milan and then to Venice and Florence for two nights in each city, and then three nights in Rome to cap off the trip.  The “When in Rome” Anchorman jokes started immediately and didn’t really end throughout the trip.  It doesn’t take much to keep my mind occupied.  In any case, here is a recap of the trip itself, along with some personal highlights and recommendations.  Given the length, this write-up is broken into two parts.  The first part will cover off on the highlights through the first half of the trip, which includes Milan and Venice.  The latter half (Florence and Rome) will be put up later this month. 

In an effort to reduce aggravation, we paid for direct flights to and from Italy through Alitalia Airlines.  However, I still had a fear of a plane with no air vents above given last year’s sweat-induced flights aboard European airlines.  We were off to a good start, as Alitalia has a partnership with Delta and we wound up on a Delta plane … with air vents!  Our flight was in the early evening and unfortunately, too early to be tired on the plane itself.  The plane made good time due to strong winds so it wasn’t too uncomfortable. 

Highlights from the flight include:
    • Sitting next to a Seahawks fan and talking about the forthcoming season for a good 45 minutes
    • Watching “This is 40” – a pretty funny film in the Judd Apatow collection
    • Dorothy and Alicia standing in the flight attendant pass through and people coming up to them with ridiculous comments or ideas

We arrived at Milan Malpensa (the airport) and took the train down to Cardona station – a central station in downtown Milan and only 30 minutes from the airport.  (That would be your first recommendation vs. overspending for a cab.)  From there we took a cab to our hotel – Antares Hotel Concorde.  The hotel itself was pretty nice, but of course hot.  Unfortunately our rooms weren’t ready when we got there in the AM, so we had to find something to do.  (Insert Dorothy meltdown here)  Upon being ready to hit the streets, we found a small café to park it in. 

Culture shock quickly followed as we had no idea what to do, how to order, etc. and were still feeling the effects of the flight.  Two way-too-strong cafes later and I was ready to run circles around Milan despite working on an hour or two of sleep.  After sitting at the café for a bit, we went back to the hotel to see if the rooms were ready but they were not.  Rather than doing any more walking around, Dorothy and I plopped down on a lobby couch and faded in and out of consciousness over the next hour.  Finally, the front desk gave up and offered us up a room vs. having two people snoring in their lobby. 

We planned a three hour tour that included a skip the line to see “The Last Supper” for later in the afternoon.  I would definitely recommend looking into using Viator for any and all travel tours as we have really lucked out with them over the past two years.  The walking tour takes you around many of the highlights of the city, including; Castello Sforzesco, Duomo, and Galleria Vittorio (where you will find Bull’s Balls).  At the end of the tour, you are taken to see da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” – which was amazing.  They give you 15 or so minutes to stare at the art and do not allow pictures to be taken anymore in the room.

After the tour it was time to find an establishment that partook in some “aperitivo” – an Italian tradition somewhat similar to happy hour here in the states, where bars/restaurants charge you for a drink ($8-$12 USD) and provide free food for you to enjoy.  This is an ingenious concept that needs to be brought over to the States.  Like, right now.  If you are a restaurant/bar owner and reading this, please consider “aperitivo”!  Within minutes of getting to the right section of Milan, we found a strip of establishments that all had specials.  Aperitivo is typically from 7-9pm in Italy, but 7pm must be like going to a bar here in the US at 10pm and there are very few there at the beginning … except tourists like us. 

Day one essentially ended after aperitivo, as we wound up back at the hotel bar afterward for a night cap.  The hotel bar was actually quite nice.  However, we couldn’t say the same about the scotch they served.  We called it a night shortly thereafter in preparation for day two. 

For the first time in our travel history, Dorothy and I slept through the hotel breakfast.  The flights and long day prior must have knocked us out.  We wound up stopping at a Trattoria within minutes of the hotel and ordered a pizza.  This wound up being a definitive top five pizza from the trip.  When in doubt, go with a Trattoria (family owned) restaurant in Italy. 

On day two in Milan we booked Hop On / Hop Off bus passes, where you could circle around the city and get off the bus as you pleased.  Over the course of the (rainy) afternoon, we realized that we were the only ones hopping off the bus at any point.  Everyone else just stayed on the bus and must have done the full circle, then got on a bus with a different route and done the same thing.  This is the only explanation we could come up with.  Literally no one else ever got off a bus that we were on. 

I would not recommend this tour in Milan unless you don’t like walking around much at all OR you have a desire to go to some of the areas that are further away.  We booked this through Gate 1 Travel and their partnership with “CitySightseeing Milano”.  Through this company, it would be the “green line” that would be worthwhile to book the tour and that would take you to go see the Lido (sporting center), Ippodromo (Hippodrome and Leonardo’s Horse), and Stadio San Siro (Stadium and museum).  If those are points of interest, than the hop on, hop off tour would be worth it. Otherwise, just walk around the city itself and at your own pace.

The day was full of pop-ins at various churches, museums, etc.  We had one major hiccup on day two and that was due to not being able to find the entrance to Pirelli Tower for the life of us.  We took the bus tour to the appropriate stop and then walked around for some time before realizing we had walked way too far out of the way.  We finally arrived at Pirelli Tower and the viewing deck/floor had been closed for a few hours.  So if you have pictures from the top of Pirelli Tower, we would love to see them …

After a second aperitivo session, we wound up heading back to the piazza by the Duomo.  The Duomo at night is beautiful.  After a number of pictures, including ones with the iconic Ray-Ban sign in the back, we picked a restaurant/bar in the piazza to enjoy the sights and sounds.  Brad swore that his Old Fashioned was the best he ever had, while the ladies enjoyed their Bellinis.  My Manhattan was OK at best and yes, we were a little out of element.  Afterward, it was back to the hotel bar – where we were asked to sit in the lobby instead of the bar itself – for a few drinks.  The bartender made all of us, including other guests, sit in the lobby and would walk back and forth from the bar to serve us.  No one quite understood what was going on so it was up to the room to get ready for our train ride to Venice the next morning. 

Milan pictures:

The Duomo:

Bull's Balls:

Piazza Duomo at night:

 Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II:

Milan - Welcome to Aperitivo:

There was a twenty minute delay for our train to Venice out of Milan and this naturally drove me crazy.  Once on the train, there were women in our seats and you would have thought we screamed bloody murder after politely pointing to our tickets and showing them that they were our reserved seats.  I really wish the US would spend money on high-speed rail.  If we are going to waste money, let’s put it towards something like this.  (Steps off pedestal)

The train ride from Milan to Venice is very simple and relatively quick (under two hours).  We arrived at the train station (Stazione Venezia Santa Lucia) that is directly in Venice and were able to walk to the hotel – the Abbazia Hotel.  Unfortunately, the entrance to the hotel is in a small side street that we walked past a handful of times, before a sweet old woman took us down the right path. 

Three words: Venice was awesome!  It is the only city that we went to that I would undoubtedly go back to in a heartbeat.  The uniqueness and charm is felt immediately after walking out of the train station.    After finally getting to the hotel, we stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant right by the hotel and on the Canal Grande.  Dorothy ‘accidentally’ ordered a full bottle of wine, so lunch turned into an hour long event.  After lunch and changing at the hotel, we wound up deciding to take the boat taxis to all of the surrounding islands.  Each island has its own niche and charm.  In Murano, we stopped at a local glass company to watch them put together a few pieces of glassware.  After a mistaken trip to the island where the cemetery is, we finally made it over to Burano – which is known for its lace products.  I would recommend taking a trip to both to see the local culture and uniqueness of each. 

After making it back to the main island, a little bit of a process again, we were ready for dinner.  There really isn’t aperitivo in Venice, much to our chagrin.  So we went with a recommendation from the front desk.  The only problem was that we couldn’t find said restaurant and wound up at a local place that wound up being very good – Al Bacco Felice.  Afterward, the island was hit with a bit of a storm and we ducked into a bar run by Croatians.  We wound up parking it here for several hours as Brad and I sat outside and smoked cigars under an overhang, while the ladies chatted it up with several other tourists.  Another couple made a dinner recommendation for the next night.

On the way home from the bar we started to realize that Venice closed down relatively early at night.  We wound up having to buy wine to go at an Indian restaurant across the street from the hotel.  It was actually pretty neat (for the lack of a better word) to see the water of the canals come up onto the streets after the storm.  You will have to trust me on this one, as I realize that doesn’t sound very cool or interesting whatsoever when reading this.  After hanging out in the hotel lobby for a while, it was time to put the women to bed.  Brad and I wound up having a second cigar walking around Venice.  I have yet to mention how romantic Venice is because I was saving it for this part of the story …

The Abbazia Hotel breakfast was pretty standard; nothing extraordinary but perfectly acceptable for being “free” with our stay.  Our second day was already planned as we were going to take a gondola tour and then head over to Piazza San Marco and the Rialto Bridge to see the highlights of Venice.  The gondola tour took a little under an hour and you get to see the side canals (assuming the water level isn’t too high when you visit) and the Canal Grande.  If you go to Venice, you have to splurge and take a gondola tour. 

After our tour we walked over to the Rialto Bridge and did some souvenir shopping.  We then made the trek over to Piazza San Marco and as soon as we turned the corner to get into the Piazza, I think we all realized we would be spending some time there.  The Basilica (church) was gorgeous.  Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) was equally breathtaking.  You also have the Bell Tower and the view of the water at the edge of the Piazza.  After "climbing" (via elevator) to the top of the Bell Tower – and a near heart attack at the top of the tower by one in our party – it was time to sit down for some more wine.  In the Piazza, there were a number of tourists openly feeding the pigeons and letting them fly/land on them to take pictures.  Why do people let flying rats land on them; I have no idea. 

An hour or two later and it was time to walk back to the hotel and soak in the rest of the view of the main island.  Remember that recommendation for dinner we received from the other tourists?  Well, that restaurant took an hour to find and then when we got there, was closed.  We were batting a cool 0% in finding and enjoying the recommended eateries.  After more pacing around, we wound up going back towards the hotel and found a Seafood / Italian restaurant – Trattoria Povoledo.  The owner of the restaurant spent time in Australia and the states and has nested in Venice.  This was my favorite restaurant from the entire trip – great food (risotto and lava cake for dessert … phenomenal) and great service.  We wound up spending the entire evening here and took the wine back to the hotel to prepare for our next stop, Florence. 

This concludes Part 1 of our Italy write-up (see Venice pictures below).  Overall, I’m very happy that we went to Milan.  You don’t run into many people that say they have seen “The Last Supper” up close and in person.  That was amazing, as was the Duomo.  I cannot provide a high enough of a ringing endorsement for Venice.  It was gorgeous.  Prior to the trip, several people told us that “Venice smells”.  Apparently that is occasionally the case in the middle of the summer.  However, given that we were visiting in April, this wasn’t an issue whatsoever.  Again, I loved Venice! 

Stay tuned for Part 2 of our trip to Italy in the coming weeks, covering off on the highlights of Florence and Rome.  If you have any of your own recommendations for Milan or Venice, or if you think we missed anything, let us know in the comments below.  Thanks!

Venice pictures:

Welcome to Venice!

Murano Glassware:


Enjoying the Venice streets:

Gondola ride:

Rialto Bridge:

Piazza San Marco:

Piazza San Marco from the top of the Bell Tower:


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