We often find ourselves spending a night in Rome on our way to or from other places in Italy, as we did last month, and we enjoy the opportunity to savor the sights and tastes of the city even with just an overnight.
We’ve found a favorite little four-room inn, Relais Cavour, housed in a Roman palazzo that is a ten minute walk from Rome’s Termini Train Station, from where it’s an easy trip to the airport. With comfortable well-equipped quiet rooms – excellent beds, a sleek bathroom, space for our luggage, superior wifi, and plenty of electrical outlets – it’s a perfect fit for a one night stay. Breakfast can be delivered to your room – there are a table and chairs in each room – or if you’re leaving early, in a to-go bag. The Monti district, a few minutes walk from the Inn, has gotten a lot of press in recent years regarding new restaurants and boutiques, and is well worth a wander. When we spent a night there last fall, I mentioned the district and Kirk found an old-Rome trattoria on Yelp that we tried out – and LOVED. One of the best Carbonaras I’ve tasted! When we were at the Relais in January, arriving from the airport just in time for a late dinner, we tried to remember the name to find it again – we’d just finished a few days in Malta following a private tour for a guest who was seeking out her roots on the Adriatic Coast of Italy so we hadn’t planned for Rome except for booking a room! Couldn’t find it on Yelp, so we just started walking in the general direction, and after wandering down one cobbled street that didn’t look quite right, we tried the next one and there it was, at via dei Capocci #4- Trattoria al Tettarello! I had that memorable Carbonara again, and Kirk enjoyed one of the best steaks he’s ever had, along with an excellent bottle of Rosso de Montalcino. With unbelievably good prices and a cozy intimate down-home dining room, it’s a place we’ll return to again and again! In addition to the fun Monti neighborhood, Relais Cavour is also within walking distance of Rome’s number one sight, the Colisseum! It was a pleasure to walk to that icon at sunrise last fall before heading for the airport for the long flight home. We circled the massive structure, stopped for one last good Italian coffee, and gathered our bags at the Relais to be on our way. Another Roman beauty is even closer – Santa Maria Maggiore, which we pass on our way to dinner at al Tettarello. And if you have a little more time, the Campo dei Fiori market, always a delight, isn’t too far. Nor is the glorious Pantheon, and just around the corner, Kirk’s favorite coffee pause – Sant Eustachio. So even with less than 24 hours, it’s easy to enjoy a mini Roman Holiday!
Golden temples of old, scattered across the landscape of Sicily, were the focus of our week in western Sicily.
Castellamare del Golfo, recommended by our friend Laura of See Italy Travel,was a perfect headquarters for this winter stay. Our priority was views – and oh did we get them from our hillside Airbnb, La Casa del Normanno!Those golden temples we’re seeking out pop up inland – such as at Segesta, the closest to us at Castellamare, and in abundance at Agrigento – the valley of the temples (that’s Concordia at the top of this post), and majestically overlooking the sea at Selinunte.We spent the most time at Agrigento, in the fascinating Valley of the Temples, settled by Greeks around 580 B.C. With the best-preserved Doric temples outside Greece, it’s justifiably popular – but such a huge area (a 1300 hectare park!) that you don’t feel surrounded by crowds at all. Beginning in the Eastern Zone, we walked up to the Temple of Concordia which has survived almost entirely intact since its construction in 430 BC. Stopping for a light lunch, we reveled in the winter warmth, sitting beside fields of blooming flowers as we ate outside the little café. The area has been affected by earthquakes through the millenia, and the other temples, such as Hera and Hercules, have only sections standing – surrounded by tumbled pillars and capitals. Walking amidst this fascinating jumble emphasizes how massive the pillars and structures were! A pedestrian bridge brings us to the Western Zone where the main feature is the crumbled ruin of the Temple of Zeus. This would have been the largest Doric temple EVER built, but construction was interrupted when the Carthiginians attacked the city…then later what had been built was destroyed by an earthquake.
Although the original is in the Archeological Museum, the 8 meter tall telamon (a figure of a man with arms raised) which would have supported the temple, is still an awesome sight. Kirk stands by it to show the massive size.
As we drove off to another Sicilian beauty, we circled around to see the temple above us, a field of winter yellow blooming below.
About 20 minutes west of Agrigento the white cliffs of the Scala dei Turchi plunge to the sea, worth a walk along the beach to take a look! On the western shore of Sicily the ruins of Selinunte spread out over a vast area – so large we took advantage of the golf-cart shuttle to get to the seaside temple after wandering around a 5th century BC marvel. Standing between the massive pillars, we looked to the sea beyond, once again appreciating the winter warmth and the peaceful ambiance of this archeological park.
Then on to the sea, where once again we can walk amongst the ruins, marveling at the size and the workmanship still visible after millennia. Waiting for our shuttle back to the entrance, we’re in no hurry – it’ll be a long time before we can enjoy blooming daffodils back home in Virginia! We can’t recommend a winter jaunt to Sicily enough – where better to escape a cold bleak winter than surrounded by sunshine, blooms, and uncrowded majestic ancient marvels?!
Umbria Jazz Winter is now in its 25th year, filling the hilltop town of Orvieto with jazz all hours of the day and night. This marvelous town, halfway between Rome and Florence, is a joy any time of year, but especially delightful during this winter festival – jazz drifts through the doorways of bars and cafes, bundled up fans and families linger in the piazzas, sample a chewy nut from the chestnut vendor while sipping mulled wine, stroll the lanes during the evening passeggiata, pausing to greet friends, showing off holiday gifts of new cozy coats, follow the Tuscan troubadors Funk Off as they march through the streets twice a day – it’s all so much fun! It’s been 15 years since the first time we came, and my most vivid memory of that first year, 2002, is the New Orleans Jazz band strutting through the streets. The current marching jazzmen have been leading the parade for 14 years now – at noon and at 6.
The town goes to sleep for the winter, from what we’ve been told, after Umbria Jazz Winter, but it’s lively as ever right now – the florist under the arcades doing a brisk business, shop windows and entries showing off their best New Year’s Eve attire – the most beautiful boutique in town is esconced in a gorgeous old palazzo. Ready for a bite to eat, we grab a stump-table at Cantina Foresi, beside the majestic Duomo, and order the soup of the day and a platter of Umbrian tastes – superb as always! Hotel Palazzo Piccolomini is the perfect historic-center location to really feel a part of Umbria Jazz Winter – each year some of the musicians stay there, making our breakfast and aperitif conversations quite memorable for both us and our tour guests. This year a legendary bass player, Henry Grimes from New York, and his wife, were a pleasure to talk to – and passed on a CD recorded with Henry’s trio in the renowned Village Vanguard where some tour clients took us last year!
On our way to check out the sunset from our hilltop perch, we pass through quiet lanes, and there it is – a beauty! The pink hue spreads from west to east, where the cliff edge reminds us how high we are.
Another strut through town with Funk Off, another delicious Umbrian meal, just one more stroll through beautiful Orvieto, and we say goodbye til next years’ Umbria Jazz Winter.
Today’s garden day begins on that point of land we saw across Menton’s bay last evening. On a magnificent site perched above the sea on the Italian border, Hanbury Gardens were created in 1867 when Sir Thomas Hanbury bought this site, intending to acclimatize plants from around the world.
The entrance is at the top of the property, where we can instantly see the lush terraces tumbling to the sea – amazingly beautiful!
Could there be a better time of year to be here, with lush fragrant wisteria twining through the terraces and lacing pergolas as we descend? I think not! Slowly we amble down, passing colorful plantings, all the way to the stately home above the sea, where the terrace takes full advantage of the view. Now for the climb back up to street level – it was a loooong way down! Did anyone count the hundreds of stairs??
We’re invited to Villa Ormond in San Remo for lunch, and are met by town officials and a gaggle of reporters eager to interview attendees. After lunch the passionate head gardener shows off the many rare specimens in this park now open to the public.
Then we’re heading west, back along the coast to France, where La Serre de la Madone awaits us. Created between 1919 and 1939 by the renowned British landscape gardener Lawrence Johnstone, the rocky terraces of old farms must have been an intriguing challenge for the man who previously designed the glorious gardens of Hidcote Manor in the rolling countryside of the south of England. Each terrace here is different – a pond on one, geometric plantings on another, a pergola overlooking another, and by the wisteria draped house, a pond with throaty bullfrogs making themselves known. Truly lovely – the kind of place for spending peaceful hours – perhaps we’ll return and do so one day!
Eye-popping Menton welcomes us for dinner again, where the chef of Breijade Meridionale has prepared another floral-themed feast. Kirk becomes our wine steward for the evening, and these unusual hanging skewers….are soon aflame!
What draws us away from our favorite city of Florence? Our daughter, who awaits us in Rome! A quick train trip south, and we check in to our hotel, then stroll by impressive city mansions and across the river to more down-home Trastevere, where we’ll meet for dinner. As we’re taking in a few favorite sights, who should walk into Piazza Santa Maria de Trastevere but Sunshine and her friend Gabriel! Is there anything more fun than bumping into someone you love in a European square??! Hugs all around, and we walk together to Sette Oche, ready for dinner. Beginning with a platter of crostini to share, we sample several Roman specialties together – their Carbonara and Amatriciana, served on homemade pasta, are outstanding!
After stopping by our hotel to pick up all the Tuscan goodies we bought for dinner tomorrow night, we walk to their quirky and tiny “hobbit house” apartment near Campo dei Fiori and hand off the food.
When we first came to Rome, nearly two decades ago, we stayed near Piazza Navona, and it’s still one of our favorite squares, so we sidetrack through before heading “home” to bed.
Where to pick up a few more things for dinner? Campo dei Fiori market, of course! In the summer those flowers find their way into the fountain to cool off – not necessary on this chilly winter day!
Can’t do Rome without a stop at Kirk’s favorite coffee bar – Sant’Eustachio, near the Pantheon. We join the throngs (it’s ALWAYS packed!) for a Gran Caffé – their secret recipe.
I can’t resist this gentle fresco on a nearby wall – it always calls my name!
Continuing the rounds of Roman favorites, we linger at the Pantheon, where Kirk does a 30 second loop as a talented guitarist plays, then pause for a rare selfie. Back across the river to Trastevere, we enjoy the faded façades, revisit the gilded mosaics of Santa Maria in Trastevere, and enjoy an al fresco lunch at Cajo e Gajo, an easy choice after seeing Carciofi alla Giudia on the menu – you know how I love my fried artichokes!!
And I’ve never seen gnocchi with seafood before – delicious as well!Another piazza, another church – this one with hidden depths. Santa Cecilia, the patron saint of music, was a Roman martyr, and the church is built over the ruins of what was her home. We wait for the little gift shop in the rear of the nave to open, and pay our euros to descend the stairs. A warren of ancient stones await us, and peering into the dimly lit rooms, we follow one path after another til we arrive at a gilded chapel honoring the saint. Above ground again, the rosy streaks in the sky lead us to the river, where we just stand in awe, swiveling from one side to the other, taking in the vivid sunset over the city.
Returning by another way to the hotel, we pass an ancient theater, incorporated into the city how many generations ago?A lovely fountain graces another piazza – we’re enjoying these new-to-us Roman discoveries!
And now it’s time to share our Tuscan goodies with Sunshine and Gabriel for dinner. We start with salumi (cold cuts) and truffled pecorino, with jeweled spicy fruit – mostarda – as a relish, remembering the delicious tastes we sampled at the Mercato Centrale in Florence as we chose.
Then Kirk starts his magic in the tiny kitchen, painstakingly preparing his Famous Pasta – the final touch is crisp-fried garlic and pine nuts, then grated-by-Gabriel parmigiano – yum!We squeeze in a Tuscan dessert, Cantucci and Vin Santo, before bundling up and heading out for New Year’s Eve fireworks, prosecco in hand. Where’s the best place to see fireworks, we had asked….and the answer was by the river. So we head for beautiful Castel Sant’Angelo, and join fellow revelers on the bridge, counting down as midnight nears. Then the fireworks start, all over the city – we circle and ooh and aah with the rest of them, sipping our bubbly, guarded by the angels. Auguri! As the fireworks end and the crowd trickles away, we decide to visit other party piazzas – we’re not ready for the revels to end! Campo dei Fiori is crazy, with music booming from every corner. Piazza Navona’s more our style, and as tunes bop from a nearby restaurant we twirl in the New Year – may it be the best yet!!
As we’re coasting into Italy our pilot announces that we’ll arrive not in Florence, as planned, but Bologna, due to extreme fog in our expected destination. Dreams of a delicious Tuscan lunch forgotten, we watch the hours tick by as we await our luggage (everything’s slowed to a crawl in Bologna due to all the re-routed Florence fights!), then load a couple of very cramped buses for the hour trip to Florence airport. Gasps of astonishment waft through the bus as we approach Florence and see the entire city under a heavy blanket of clouds – and this at nearly 4 pm!
We’ve kept in touch with the owner, Gianni, of the apartment we’ve rented to let him know of our delays (can we rave once again about T-Mobile and their invaluable plans? No extra charges for texts and data wherever we travel!), and he meets us with a smile and takes us to our spacious home for the next few days. Before we even unpack we find the closest hole-in-the-wall and order a pre-dinner snack – oh those delicious Tuscan sips and tastes!
Then back to settle in to the apartment, located just over the Ponte Vecchio in the Oltrarno district – a superb location! If you’re looking for a comfortable, well-located and well-priced Florence spot, we sure recommend Guicciardini 10! After dinner we stroll across the foggy old bridge and from one favorite piazza to another, enjoying the mysteriously misty Christmas lights.
We wake up to the Florence we are familiar with – bright and sunny! Crossing the city to an old favorite, Teatro del Sale, we renew our annual membership, then stroll the fabulous Mercato Sant’Ambrogio before lunch at the Teatro. There’s something for everyone in the market – fresh fruits and vegetables outside, beautifully prepared meats, creative appetizers and cheeses inside, and out the back door the antiques stalls that used to be set up by the old fish market. Here’s Kirk’s description of a row of intriguing antipasti platters: “Found in a Florentine market: An assortment of ground meaty stuffings wrapped in thin “leaves” of dough. Cook in the oven and serve to admiring guests. Also there are tons of meaty cheesy vegetably things tied in strings with bacon or sewn together with toothpicks to be cooked and presented together. You don’t see this stuff in Italian restaurants in the US. Gotta be here for the real deal. Yum.”
We’re happy to find out that photos are now allowed at Teatro del Sale, where the chef shouts out what’s coming from the oven or stove-top from the kitchen window, dishing out ribollita, a warming stew, from a giant pot.For years the creative owner, Fabio Picchi, honored with a bust and photos above the wood-stoked oven and still cooking up a storm, would gruffly deny any photos, but now allows us to snap to our heart’s content. Baking pans and oval platters of pastas, vegetables, roasted chicken, and my favorite olive-drizzled focaccia (I could fill up on just THAT for lunch!) keep filling the table and our stomachs, with plenty of serve-yourself wine and water.
Fresh clementines, a bowl of rich whipped cream for tall twirly cookies, almond cake, and diamonds of Cibreo’s (Picci’s elegant flagship restaurant, from which all of the others developed) melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake sate our sweet tooth.
A reviving cup of Illy coffee in the library and we’re ready to hit the streets again.
Creative shop windows catch our eye as we walk to Piazza Santissima Annunziata with it’s unique monkey fountain, then back to Piazza del Duomo, full of so many memories. We had this view when we took Kirk’s dear mother to Florence, and rented an apartment so close we could almost touch the cathedral. And the soaring bell-tower always reminds me of climbing to the top with our grandchildren a few years later. From Kirk: “Here’s 30 seconds from the center of the Roman center of Florence. Romans tended to build near a river or a spring (preferably a hot spring) in a checkerboard pattern. There was usually one main east-west street called a decumanum and a north-south street called the cardo. You can see down all four directions from this point.”
As the sun sets we make it to Piazza Santa Croce, another favorite.F-lights, a holiday celebration of creative lighting on Florence icons, delights with art-class drawings projected on the simple facade of Santo Spirito, and near Palazzo Pitti colored balloons float above the street behind a marble column erected by Medici ruler Cosimo I in 1572 to commemorate his victory over Siena at the Battle of Marciano in 1554.Our time’s gone much too quickly – just enough hours to say hello to favorite spots – but before we go we can’t miss the Mercato Centrale, where we stock up on Tuscan specialties for our New Year’s Eve feast in Rome. And before the train speeds us south we peek into Santa Felicita at a Pontormo Annunciation, walk along the river to Torre San Niccolo, and are surprised by a rhinocerous hanging from the ceiling inside a beautiful palazzo, the city’s science museum.Bye-bye balloons, thanks for the party!
Slip into the window seat in our aisle and join us on our search for a symphony of views, flavors, culture, sounds, and friends. We'll let you know when we hear the harmony we seek - whether in a WOW classical concert, an awesome night of jazz, a magical vineyard or olive farm, or an outstanding bistro, trattoria, wine, garden, or experience. From our delightful maison de village near a Languedoc beach* to a canal-side string ensemble in Amsterdam, you'll read and feel like a real local.
The best way to describe us (Kirk and Anne Woodyard) is that we're interested in the stories that make the places we visit come alive.
We've visited Europe more times than we can count, learned some entertaining stories there, and met some warm and helpful people who also enjoy the wonders of music and life in Europe. Between our music-related travels, we split our time between our homes near Washington DC and in the the south of France. We look forward to sharing these stories and friends and experiences with you.