20 June 2012

Rome and Venice

Rome and Venice are not new destinations.  I have been to Rome a few times, with the last visit 5 years ago.  I was in Venice 27 years ago as part of my first visit to Europe (on an American Express tour).  My choices of destinations for this trip were directed by special tours I wanted to take.  I had heard about a special St. Peter's Basilica tour that took you underground to walk through the excavations of the necropolis right underneath the Basilica.  You have to apply for a reservation by writing to the Excavations Office with proposed dates.  They promptly came back with one and I proceeded to plan a trip around it. You get to see the initial location of St. Peter's tomb, as well as the niche where his supposed remains are displayed.  You are also allowed into ST. Peter's Chapel and the Renaissance section of the Popes' Grottoes, both of which are not open to the general public.

I had also heard about a private tour of the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel that is intermittently made available where you are part of a group of no more than 12 people who have two hours in the evening to tour without anyone else being there.  I wrote to several tour companies that advertised this tour arrangement six months before my planned trip.  Ultimately, none of them were going to offer that tour within the time period I had planned for Rome.  So, I looked for other tours and activities that I could do which were out of the normal tourist experience (in a large part to keep me away from the huge crowds).  I ended up booking the Vatican Gardens Tour, a night visit to the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums (smaller crowds), the Coliseum Dungeons Tour, and a visit to a lesser-know palace museum.

I chose to go back to Venice because I wanted to give it another try.  When I first visited, I was a bit disappointed.  I had looked forward to the visit, but ended up disappointed with the experience.  I think a large part of it had to do with the crowds.  Venice was probably my first experience with huge tourist crowds.  But so many people over the years have told me how much they loved Venice that I had to give it another try. So Venice became the second part of my trip.  And I found a smaller tour that sounded interesting: Secret Rooms of the Doge's Palace.

To get to Rome, I flew from SFO to Frankfurt and then connected to a Lufthansa flight to Rome.  The Leonardo da Vinci Airport had not changed much, except for offering an inexpensive bus service now to Roma Terminii (Central Station).  They still had the train, and I decided that was the best way to go even though the bus would have been less than half the cost (but probably take twice as long).  At the train station in central Rome, I bought a subway pass and rode two stops to the Piazza Barbarini.  That's where my hotel had an hourly shuttle.

For this trip, I decided to stay away from central Rome because most of the things I was going to to were going to be near Vatican City.  So, keeping with my Hilton status, I chose the Cavalieri Waldorf-Astoria, one of the nicer hotels in Rome.  It isn't the most convenient hotel, being up on a hill and about a 45-minute walk to the Vatican.  But I had heard great things about the hotel and it was more convenient overall.  To get around most of the time, I walks down the hill (about 5 minutes) and then caught a bus that brought me to the Vatican Museum area in about 10 minutes.  I also could take the hotel shuttle bus direct to central Rome.  Generally, this worked pretty well.  I mostly rode the buses with my pass, only really using the subway to get to and from the Coliseum.

The Cavalieri treated me very well.  They upgraded me to a Corner Suite, and I had access to the Imperial Lounge (the Executive Lounge). This is the only Hilton property where you cannot get upgraded automatically as a Diamond VIP to Executive Lounge access -- you have to buy a room that comes with access.


Living Room

Imperial Lounge
I enjoyed my tours very much.  I was not allowed to take photos on the necropolis tour.  I also wasn't supposed to take any photos while visiting the Doria-Pamphilj Palazzo, but I accidentally took one before I knew it was forbidden.

Caravaggio paintings in San Luigi

Looking up from the Coliseum below the floor level
Gladiator entrance gate

View of the Coliseum from the upper tier

Cave of Lourdes in the Gardens

The Forum from Coliseum upper tier

Eagle Fountain - Vatican Gardens

Backside of St. Peter's from the Vatican Gardens

Vatican Museums courtyard

Garden building where scientists met

Doria-Pamphilj Palazzo

On this trip to Rome, I made my first visit to the Trastevere section.  A restaurant that I had sought out, called Glass Hostaria was located there.  This part of Rome was very active in the evening and a great place to stroll around.  And the restaurant was very good, serving modern cuisine with Italian ingredients and style.

Glass Hostaria

Glass Hostaria

Glass Hostaria

I had the long tasting menu, and with dinner starting at 8 pm, I wasn't done until just after 11 pm.  I thought I had enough time to catch the regular buses, but I learned about how irregular they can be sometimes.  I waited 40 minutes for the bus that would take me back to the Vatican area.  But I just missed my connecting bus to take me back up to my hotel area.  So I had to wait a bit for one of the night buses to come along to complete my journey back.

After four nights in Rome, I was off to Venice.  A couple of months prior to my trip, I managed to find a nice fare on the Trenitalia website for a discounted First Class fare.  Since it was a 3+ hour ride, it sounded like a good deal.  The only advantage first class has is that is not quite as crowded as second class and you get a free beverage.  But it was on one of the newer fast trains, so the ride was very smooth, and there were only four stops. We departed on time and arrived on time.

For Venice, I pre-purchased a 3-day transportation pass, which was good for most rides within central Venice (only excludes the airport).  Once I arrived in Venice, I just had to go to a ticket machine, enter my reservation number, and it dispensed the card that would serve as my vaporetto ticket.  I also pre-purchased 10 bathroom cards which would provide me entrance to the public toilets in Venice at a discount -- one card=one visit.  I had to pick these up though from the hellovenezia booth at the train station.

I decided to splurge on a hotel in Venice to help make for a memorable trip.  The Bauer Il Palazzo is located about two minutes from the Piazza San Marco at the entrance to the Grand Canal.  It was a great location, with a vaporetto stop nearby.  If anything, it was too close to the day crowds, so most of the time, I went elsewhere during the day. And the hotel was very nice.  I probably overpaid, but Venice is like that.  However, I had a roomy suite and breakfast on the rooftop terrace was included, as was a complimentary dinner and airport transfer.

Venice was much better this time.  I knew what to expect with the crowds.  But, moreover, I knew how to deal with them by avoiding them when I could.  During the latter part of the day and evening, all the day trippers and tour buses were gone, making even central Venice much nicer.  I had a museum pass as well, so I wandered around visiting many of them.  Sometimes I just walked without direction and let the walkways, alleyways and canals just unfold.  My trusty iPhone kept me from getting too lost.  I took a boat ride to Murano, visited the Venice Casino, and also discovered a modern cuisine, non-tourist restaurant called Avogaria. Venice turned itself into one of my favorite cities in Europe.  With no cars, no scooter, no bicycles, it's amazingly quiet when you get away from the tourist masses.  The churches all seem to overflow with interesting artwork and relics.  It didn't hurt that I had great weather as well. It was a magical and almost surreal place to spend four days.

From a museum's upper floor

Hotel Bauer Il Palazzo

Quiet canal

St. Zaccaria (father to John the Baptist)

Gondola traffic





Rialto Bridge

On the Grand Canal

A church interior

Departing Piazza San Marco

From Venice, I flew to London via Munich. Normally, connecting through Munich is pretty quick, but this time, there was a bit of a crowd at passport control, even in the fast-track line.  Even though my flight from Venice was a little late, I still had enough time to catch my flight to London.  I did have to pass up a visit to the Sentator Lounge though because it was going to be a bit of a walk to my next gate.

 I spent the night in London, and had the chance to try a relatively new and popular restaurant called Pollen Street Social, located in Mayfair.

With my return from London, my 11-day trip came to an end.

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