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ROME & FLORENCE at Christmas

We love our life here in Ascoli but it was time to get out of town again and see more of Italy.  We had been to Rome and Florence before, but not in several years and never at Christmas.  It was also about time we took the bus from Ascoli to Rome, which is the most cost-effective means of getting there – only 54 Euro for two people round-trip.  Many people we know take it to Rome/Fiumicino airport and use that as the jumping-off point to wherever they need to go . What was a bit of a surprise, not a problem, is that you have to change buses in Porto Ascoli (about an hour out) and have since learned this is a new twist.  It wasn’t a problem, just a surprise.  The buses are comfortable, long-distance buses without bathrooms.  We were pleasantly surprised to have what was essentially a bus attendant on the long leg who served water and caffe.  I’m pretty sure she had other responsibilities too.  They made one rest-stop in-route at what looked like an Italian Stuckey’s, minus the pecan logs.  Due to construction on the autostrada (which has been going on since long before we got to Italy) the bus was running about an hour late.  No problem for us since central Rome was our final destination, but if you had a flight to catch, it could be a bit stressful (i.e., our friends the Klesper’s exerience).  So after a comfortable trip of four hours we arrived at the Rome/Tiburtina Station around 3:00 PM.  As you can imagine in any large city, the bus station was chaos.  Luckily the taxi stand was not hard to find.

Navona Queen/Navona King Suites:  This was our third time in Rome and we knew exactly which area of the city we wanted to stay in.  We decided to try this new B&B (opened in May 2013) in a terrific location and are so happy we did.  It is in a very old palazzo right on Corso Vittorio Emanuele II (next to the piazza of Chiesa Nuova) but the entire B&B has been totally refurbished. As is the case in many large ancient cities our B&B was located on the top floor of a palazzo that also housed both private apartments and business offices.  We reached the reception via the classic cozy old elevator only large enough for two people and two pieces of luggage.

Note to Americans – don’t take the B&B name literally because it does not refer to the size of the beds and they are one-room suites in US terms.  The name designates which half of the B&B is owned by which of the two family groups and the rooms are large by Rome city standards with “en-suite” bathrooms.  The B&B consists of 12 rooms on the 5th floor.  With the height and double-pane windows it is pretty quiet.  However, you are on a main thoroughfare in Rome so if you open the window, you will hear the sounds of the Eternal City.  Isn’t that what you came for?  The rooms have queen beds, individually controlled heat and air-conditioning, satellite TV and great bathrooms (important in Italy).  A European breakfast is included and is served in a sunny breakfast room with views to St. Peter’s dome.  Navona Queen Suites is already rated #51 of 2,426 Rome B&Bs and Inns.  We were on a winter special rate of 100 Euro/per night, but it is still a good value for the money even at their summer rate of 135 Euro, but book early.  This is a family affair with a great sense of hospitality and customer service.  Reservations are handled by Matteo while his Mother, Annita, makes sure you feel welcome and makes great cappuccinos.  Dad, Marcello, keeps things running and is in charge of “new projects” and gave us a tour of his latest one – the rooftop terrace that should be ready by spring.  Some of the reviews mention a roof-top garden in process that should be ready by spring.  It is HUGE and the 360 degree views of the city from six stories up are spectacular.  Because of it’s location, set back on the roof, it is a quiet refuge from the city.  I’m visualizing a comfortable chair and a glass of vino and can’t wait to return.  Click here to go to web site.

Once you’ve seen the Coliseum and the Roman Forum you’ve seen them and they haven’t changed for almost 2,000 years, so we didn’t try to go there this trip.  But where the people gather, shop and eat is an ever-changing scene.  From Navona Suites we can walk to Campo di Fiori in five minutes, Piazza Navona in ten minutes, the Vatican or Trastevere in 15 minutes and be at the Spanish Steps in 20 minutes.  Buses run up and down Victor Emanuel so you can easily get wherever else you need to go.  There is a bus stop and a taxi stand about a block away from the B&B.  Because they are right in the old section of town, there are no Metro stops nearby – but who needs them?

The Christmas market in Piazza Navona was interesting but nothing like I had imagined.  At both ends there were some entertainers, the person standing like a statue covered in metallic paint that is everywhere, some minor artists and only occasionally a really iffy Bobo Natale (Italy’s version of Santa).  Lots of knock-off designer purses and watches could be purchased as well as hand-made jewelry.  The uninspired booths that lined either side were selling a surprisingly repetitious selection of candies and sweets, ornaments, toys and everything you could ever need to set up the most extensive Nativity scene ever.  Honestly, every other booth (and sometimes two booths in a row) were selling hand-made creches, hand painted Marys and Josephs, animals, angels, wise men and baby Jesus’ of every conceivable scale and price range.  The focus in Italy is more on the Nativity scenes than the christmas ornaments and decorations.  There were a couple places that sold porchetta sandwiches, sodas and cotton candy, that was pretty much it for food.  There was a carousel in the middle and along the other side of the piazza the booths were mostly carnival games of shooting, throwing, etc. in hopes of winning a cheap trinket or the “grand prize” stuffed animal – no different than in the US.

One night after a quick pizza, we walked the length of the Christmas market, as we did every night, and decided this night to exit the north end of Piazza Navona and zig-zag our way back to the B&B.  In a couple blocks we surprisingly found ourselves at the Tiber River at the Ponte Umberto I.  We forgot that the Tiber takes a sharp right before heading north again, putting it very close to Piazza Navona.  We decided to cross the bridge and head left toward the Vatican as there were just enough people on the street to make you feel safe.

So at 9:30 PM we were wandering St. Peter’s Square with no more than twenty other people on the night of the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  A large Christmas tree was up but the Pope does not light it until Christmas Eve. The other two times we’d been in St. Peter’s Square there were so many people you felt like an ant in a colossal colony.  Our first visit in 2000 was a Vatican Jubilee Year and there were at least a million youth from around the world in line in front of us to get into St. Peter’s Basilica.  In 2007 we arrived on a Wednesday morning when the Pope was giving his weekly public audience in the square, so it was mobbed.  I think we were blessed by the Pope while there, if blessings by CCTV count.  This night was the most spiritual of our visits and I was certain that at any moment my rejection of the Catholic faith would catch up with us in the form the Vatican police bringing our magical moment to an abrupt halt.  But no, we roamed in the dark, practically alone, to our heart’s content and then crossed the Victorio Emanuel bridge and walked the amazingly short distance back to our B&B.  I was bummed that we both had left our cell phones charging in the room we so could not Facebook a photo.  Larry did bring his camera, however, and should have photos for the blog.  We did go back to the Basilica in the daytime and there were so few people we made it through security and inside in around 15 minutes – what a treat.  However, Larry’s camera battery died about half-way through our visit so not as many photos were taken as we’d have liked.

Which reminds me – I was strongly tempted to purchase a calendar I kept seeing of hunky Catholic priests, but resisted.  Yes, they were fully clothed, but very handsome.  I later read about it in an Italy Magazine article on-line that explained  the photographer said he focused on young priests as a way to show that a calling to devotion and faith is still alive.  Click here for article.

Having spent ten days in Rome in 2007 seeing the major sites, we visited some of the lesser-known sites, but all are addressed in Rick Steve’s books.  Not elaborated on here is the 2,000 year-old Pantheon and the many centuries-old churches we wandered through.  We spent an educational afternoon in the Galleria Doria Pamphilj, wandering through a noble family’s home of which Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) was the patriarch.  The 1.5 hour audio guide explained the family’s history as well as the art and is lovingly narrated by the prince who still resides there among over 600 works of art by Bernini, Titian, Raphael and Caravaggio.  We thoroughly enjoyed an afternoon at the Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) circa 9 B.C. located next to the tomb of Augustus on the riverfront housed inside a beautiful contemporary glass building by an American architect, Meir,  which opened in 2006.  The Altar itself was interesting enough (I recommend the audio guide to understand what you are looking at) and worth the visit.  Lucky for us we got the bonus of a marvelous temporary exhibit of 68 impressionist and post-impressionist  paintings from the Mellon collection usually housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.  (Exhibit ends next month.)  Camera battery recharged, our last day in Rome we were headed back to St. Peter’s for photos, but decided to pop into the National Museum of Castel Sant’ Angelo as we passed by.  Castel Sant’ Angelo was originally built as a monumental grave of a Roman Emperor in 139 AD, and was used for an imperial tomb for almost as century, then reused as a military outpost, fortress, official palace and safe house for popes and clergy and then a state prison and barracks.  It became a National Museum in 1925.  Sadly the interior papal apartments with their frescoes and art were not open to the public that day.  The views of Rome from the terrace of the Angel are spectacular.  A couple very enjoyable hours later we left with only enough time for lunch at a great restaurant (see Food Blog) before we had to catch the bus back to Ascoli.

Two great websites in Engish, & will let you know what’s going on while you are in town.  I am a strong believer in the value of investing in a tour guide or, as a minimum, an audio guide when you visit historical sites, museums and especially ruins.  How could hiring someone who knows the site/works of art much better than you not add to your experience.  I can’t count how many times, in an attempt to save money, I’ve opted out of guides and left not knowing much more than I did before I arrived.  Other than maybe in a church, rarely does one have the time to sit down and read a guide book while visiting a site.  You can download Rick Steve’s free audio guides to your cell phone and save the cost on some sites.  Also is highly recommended for tour guides.

At the suggestion of a friend, one day we took a high-speed train from Rome to Florence to check out their Christmas market and decorations.  We decided to try a private rail company – Italo – and we were not sorry.  They leave out of Tiburtina Station from their not-quite-completed terminal, and were in Florence in less than 1.5 hours having reached speeds of 150 mph.  Their Christmas market was in the piazza in front of the Santa Croce Basilica and much more like what I expected.  This market was smaller, of course, but the vendors were housed in really cute chalets selling foods and crafts from all around the world and plenty of nice areas where you could sit down and enjoy the food.  We can never tire of visiting Santa Croce, one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy, founded in 1294.  From the pink and green marble exterior to the works of art by Giotto, Donatello and many others that are sheltered inside – it is stunning.  To stand in front of the funeral monuments of Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and Dante is mind blowing.  We also went inside the Duomo, walked the Ponte Vecchio and around the Uffizi but we didn’t have the time or stamina to go in.  We had a nice long lunch at a family-run trattoria (see Food Blog).  I have to admit we pooped-out long before our train back to Rome was scheduled to leave at 8:30 PM, so we hung out at a bar near the train station until time to go.  It was a very long day but well worth the effort.  For what’s going on in Florence or The Florentine Newspaper on-line are both in English.

Food Blog with restaurant reviews should be up in a couple  days!

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