The Trip: {Rome}

On to the next adventure:

We said goodbye (for now!) to Hannah, took the tram down the mountain to the train station, and set off for Rome…

…we were tired at this point. Very tired.

So exhausted, in fact, that once we found our seats, we popped in our ear phones and each listened to a book on tape the entire hour-plus ride. Apparently, we didn’t say a word, because an older Australian gentleman next to me almost jumped out of his seat when we arrived at the station and started to converse about how to reach our apartment. “I thought you were deaf mutes!”, he laughed..

No, it was just all of those dang stairs.

Arrival in Rome was a bit hot and hurried. The Husband’s phone was acting up, and we couldn’t get a hold of our apartment manager to let them know we had arrived! In the end, we waited by the door until an American staying in the same building happened to walk by! A quick text, a few more minutes of sitting on suit cases in the middle of the street, and we were in our cozy, cool, lovely room… what a relief!

{More stairs, a terrace, cozy bed, cool doors, amazing views}

We booked this spot using Vacation Rentals by Owner, or VBRO.com (I would highly recommend for the U.S. or European travel). It was perfect! At the top of a historic building, it had a queen sized bed, a lovely balcony, a kitchen, table, bathroom and pull-out couch. The neighborhood was fantastic and lovely, and we were about a 5-10 minute walk from the Colosseum and Forum!

{Yes, that’s “it”!…}

After a quick bus tour our first night, and a good night’s rest, our first full day was packed to the brim with tours and stops at the Colosseum, Palentine Hill, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the “Mouth of Truth”, the Pantheon and numerous other fountains, squares, shops and sights!

{Our first day of sights – beyond lovely! Trevi was our favorite: Bottom, second from left, but each spot was just as we imagined. I don’t think anything here could disappoint…}

The next day, we woke up bright and early and visited the Catacombs of S. Callisto and the Vatican city, including St. Peter’s, the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel. We almost skipped seeing the catacombs, but they ended up being one of my favorite stops in Rome – if you visit, it is worth the extra distance! We used our hop-on-hop-off bus pass to drop us off and pick us up, and it worked out perfectly (Only one company has a route that travels along the Appian Way, so double-check before you purchase).

{Catacombs along the Appian Way were so moving. It was fascinating to learn about the incredible faith of the early church in Rome. Michelangelo’s Pieta at St. Peter’s was incredible to see, and the Vatican at night was totally beautiful – glowing with golden light}

As we checked sights off our list, and did our best to absorb every bit of what we were seeing, we couldn’t help but just sit there in silence at times – nursing sore feet,  with brains that were overwhelmed with facts, and hearts full of the emotion of this place – his how could we comprehend all that we’d witnessed? By the end of the second day, the Husband put it nicely: “Rome won.”

Yes. At certain points during the trip – including an unexpected extra hour-long walk back from the Vatican late at night – we were conquered just as the other thousands of souls this empire has defeated through the ages. Somehow, it almost seemed appropriate… in a small way, we could wrap our minds around this place a little better than when we arrived.

Fortunately for us, we had a breath of refreshing air awaiting us for our final full day in Rome. Hannah and Federico came to visit! Hannah stayed with us, and Federico stayed with relatives in the city. Ahhh… at last, we were blessed with two guides that spoke the language, knew their way around, and made us the best lunch we tasted in Italy the next day. JUST what we needed! That, and a week-long cruise, of course :)

{Walking into each church was like opening a treasure chest. Each one was different, and completely astounding. The care taken to adorn each building amazed us – many took hundreds of years. It was obvious that these perfect works of art were an act of worship in and of themselves}

We spent our last day in this blessed, dangerous, beautiful and brutal city following Hannah and Federico as they took us through some of the most lovely and interesting churches in the city; had an amazing meal; found a cool, sweet park with lots of fresh breezes and glorious views; and then, said goodbye…

{Groceries were purchased, and the most amazing lunch on the planet was created: Pecorino Romano, ripe tomatoes, Pizza Bianco, Salami, strawberries, fresh mozzarella, and garden greens… bliss!}

We were more cultured, awed, and humbled than when we arrived, and we were sad to go…

But, crystal clear blue water, free frozen yogurt cones, and four more fascinating destinations awaited us as we boarded the train once again.

Next: We’re off to sea!

The Trip: {Venice & Orvieto}

This post should have read, Venice, PISA and Orvieto…

…but that was before the rail workers went on strike, we skyped with friends in two nations to change plans, I almost died of thirst on a train, I gave a lady from South Africa two granola bars, and we walked over ancient cobblestones with our suitcases a mile out of our way after we got lost (for the first time) on our way to the station.

Oh, Europe. We love you.

{Cancellato, Cancellato, Cancellato… and lots of tourists in line for refunds}

During our stay in Florence, we planned a day trip to Venice, and to Pisa. One of those, as you now know, was cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances. However, the other, along with a gondola ride straight out of a book, or a dream, or a Disney theme park (whatever speaks to you) more than made up for it.

Who needs to see an ‘ol lopsided building anyhow.? That’s what I told myself, anyway… It sort of worked.

Venice:

{Made-on-the-spot espresso on the train, the Tuscan countryside, water taxi ride…}

The train ride to Venice was our first rail experience,  and we navigated it wonderfully. Mind you, this was the day before they were on strike, so we were blissfully unaware of the problems we could have faced… thank goodness! The city itself was packed with crowds. There was a boat race that day, so there were several thousand EXTRA tourists and spectators packed on to the narrow bridges and streets – quite a contrast to the relatively easy to navigate (and breath/have elbow room) Florence.

But, Oh…

…it’s so beautiful.

We purchased the Venice Pass (to bring us to the front of the long lines!) and took the vaporetto (water taxi) to St. Mark’s Square from the train station to see the Doge’s Palace and Basilica of St. Mark. The square was full of people, but the sights were beautiful. The “bridge of sighs” that passed between the palace and its prison (where prisoners would sigh as they took one last look at Venice as they crossed) was one of our favorite spots (top right, above!)…

{Narrow water-streets, our gondola, the Grand Canal… and that blue door}

After touring both the palace and the church, we wanted to get into the city to see the lovely little waterways and more of the Grand Canal – too picturesque for words! We ended a rather warm, crowded day with a cool, peaceful, romantic gondola ride (so, so worth it!), and some local cicchetti at al Pesador – a bar nestled right along the Grand Canal and the Rialto bridge… octopus, yum!

{Flavors, guide book review, the husband trying new things, fresh-water fountains}

We really enjoyed walking the streets, browsing the lovely Murano glass and traditional lace – both made on one of the hundreds of islands that make up this amazing, historic city. As we often felt during the trip, we had to leave too soon… but, more adventures awaited us!

Orvieto:

Because Pisa was a no-go, our next day was spent getting a refund at the train station, then spending some extra time in Florence before departing earlier-than-planned to Orvieto. It turns out, this was a blessing in disguise! We adored every moment we had in this tiny city-on-a-hill in the Umbria region with Hannah!

{Views, our suite of rooms and breakfast… oh, to be sitting there again!}

We stayed at B&B La Magnolia, and it was more perfect than I could have imagined. Serene, the owner, also owns the fun cafe & bar downstairs (where our breakfast was served the first day – above middle), and was wonderful to work with. Our suite was at the tippy-top of the historic building in the center of town, and had a fabulous view of of the city and countryside below. It was also just steps from Orvieto’s fabulous duomo, which was one of our favorite churches we visited on the trip… and that’s saying a lot!

The highlight of this portion of the trip, however, was getting the chance to see Hannah “in her element”! Now fluent in Italian (though she would deny it), seeing the place I’ve heard so much about from her over the last few years was amazing. She works with a college program that she attended while in school, and is getting ready to start her Masters in Fine Arts this summer. Orvieto has inspired her work in so many ways – it was easy to see how she fell in love with the views, the culture, the language and the people…

Speaking of the people, we also had the delightful pleasure of meeting Hannah’s talented, amazing friend – Federico. He is a shoemaker and leather craftsman that learned his art in Rome, and lives in Orvieto where he has a shop. We had a blast getting to know him, seeing his beyond-beautiful work, and taking advantage of his tour guide and pizza ordering skills :)

{The evening streets were dream-like, and the sunsets were not to be missed}

While here, we toured the duomo, visited ancient pre-Roman Etruscan ruins, walked down the St. Patrick’s well, climbed the clock tower and ate the most fabulous pasta alla carbonara and affogato known to man at Mezza Luna Trattoria (the restaurant with the amazing flowers hanging over the door, above). The pizza with spicy sausage and Gorgonzola wasn’t too shabby either… or the wine…

…let’s just say it was a good thing we climbed 10,000 stairs while on this trip.

All to quickly, we said goodbye… and were off to Rome!

…more coming soon!

P.S. On another note – Happy third Anniversary to my brave, strong, smart, Godly, devastatingly handsome husband… We always said we would go on adventures together… I’d say we’re off to a good start ;)

See, Dine, Explore {Vegas}

Want to know what we saw, where we ate, and what we explored? I’ve written it allll down for you. Here you go!

Dining:

Serendipity 3 – Caesar’s Palace

The Food: Even without the added benefit of dining with Dick Clark, this place was fabulous. Though they are known for decadent ice cream creations – the frozen hot chocolate is a must, even at $10 – but there were plenty of healthy options as well. I had “A Summer Bries”: An open-faced turkey, brie and apple sandwich with cranberry mayo, on raisin pumpernickel bread, and the Husband enjoyed a yummy BBQ chicken and cheddar flatbread pizza. Offering a full bar and dinner options as well, I would say this would be one of my first choices for brunch or lunch on the patio.

The Atmosphere: The atmosphere was totally whimsical. Lots of pink, ornamental bushes in the shape of ice cream creations fun signage… like something out of Alice and Wonderland! Just enjoy the quirkiness, and try not to ruin that white shirt with chocolate dribbles.

Sensi – Bellagio

The Food: I picked this spot for its local, seasonal ingredients and variety of options – We weren’t disappointed. Their cool menu was separated into sections: Seafood, Sensi Rolls, Asian and Italian. I had the Tandoori Butter Chicken Curry with basmati rice, and the Husband had Pad Thai with Kaui Sugarcane prawns. The meal was served with warm homemade naan and crispy flatbread and dipping sauces and seasalt: a sweet and spicy oil dip, yogurt tzatziki-like dip and sundried tomato-like spread. Everything was bright, fresh and delicious.

The Atmosphere: The kitchen was in the center of the restaurant, and was encased in glass. It was very cool to see the preparation, and everything was pristine. The walls of the restaurant were a mix of dark panels, stone fountains made of and thin veils of water. The Bellagio itself, which has an Asian theme, and the high-end shops in it’s mall are beautiful. Take a stroll and catch the famous outdoor fountain show set to music as well (Cooler than it sounds, the water shoots up to 240 feet in the air and is very fun to watch!).

Canyon River Cafe – Palazzo

The Food: We went here for lunch on a recommendation by Gina – It was perfect! Everything on the menu looked both delicious and healthy, and we would have never found the place without seeking it out. We ordered fresh juice (you can pick your combo – I had carrot, ginger, grapefruit!) and homemade ginger ale. We started our meal with kale chips and their homemade ranch dressing. These were perfectly crisped. I ordered a rare Ahi tuna sandwich with avocado, swiss, tomato and onion, and the Husband had fire roasted chicken sandwich on a potato roll with cilantro-lime aioli and and roasted tomato. So. Delicious.

The Atmosphere: Nothing fancy, and nothing particularly “organic”, “earthy” or “health-foodie” about it, which surprised me (because their menu is blatantly so). It was small, on the third floor of the hotel, and pretty unassuming, but totally worth a stop (especially once you’re ready for some green stuff in your life!). Expect to see people in everything from workout attire to business suits!

Julian Serrano – Aria

The Food: A friend recommended this spot, a tapas bar, and the menu reeled me in at once. We ate here before we saw LOVE, and really enjoyed the huge selection of tapas dishes. Raging from contemporary to traditional and including plenty of vegetarian options, we ordered five and a dessert (and a lovely red sangria for me!). We had:

  • crispy pancetta iberica | pork belly | molecular mozzarella | creamy potatoes (The best of all of them!)
  • black rice | fresh calamari | lobster meat | sofrito | squid ink (A close second)
  • stuffed piquillo peppers | goat cheese | mushrooms (Delightful)
  • callos a la madrileña | honeycomb tripe | morcilla | pork chorizo | beef shank | garbanzos (Good, but not as wonderful as the others)
  • spanish iberico sliders | prime beef | iberico pork | caramelized onions (A favorite of the husband)
  • molten chocolate cake | orange jelly | blood orange ice cream (Mmmmm..)

The Atmosphere: The Aria hotel and casino is one of the newest on The Strip, and you could tell. It was pristine, modern, and my favorite of all that we walked through on our trip. Even the Casino floor, which is usually packed full of lights, smoke, people and machines was almost serene with extra leg space, tall ceilings and fewer lights and noises. The restaurant was open to the hotel lobby and other shops and dining spots, but had a unique flair (and very cool bathrooms… a voice recording taught you Spanish!). Sleek and fresh, but not breathtaking.

Mon Ami Gabi – Paris

The Food: Perfectly Parisian. I ordered the French Onion soup with Gruyere (my first time ordering this classic) and thought I had died and gone to heaven. I’ve seen this soup before… watery, crunchy cheese. yuck. This was gooey, decadent and rich. Served with a warm personal baguette and fresh butter, I could have eaten just that and been totally satisfied. However, I also ordered the sandwich de Jour – an open-faced wild mushroom and egg on sourdough with more cheese and pommes frites. Sparkling water topped it all off…Sigh. I wish the Husband had been there too so I could have eaten tasted his lunch too.

The Atmosphere: Even though I ate here alone while the Husband was at one of his training sessions, it was totally lovely and comfortable. I waited an extra 30 minutes and was seated on the patio facing the Bellagio fountains in the bright sunshine. With book in hand, under the Eiffel Tower, I could almost imagine I was sitting in Paris! The inside of the restaurant was beautiful as well – lush, sunny and with a ton of character. My only disappointment is that I didn’t get there for breakfast or brunch (Which looked even better than their lunch and dinner menus!) But alas, I had a massage scheduled after my workout that morning… ; )

Spago – Forum Shops at Caesar’s

The Food: One of Wolfgang Puck’s famous restaurants, I chose this spot because I went to his Beverly Hills location when I was 14 with my parents… it was a fabulous experience for young kid, and I’ve wanted to return ever since (And, it offers seasonal cuisine!). I got my chance! I had a “Bee’s Wings” cocktail (gin, ginger honey, lemon juice, shaken – mmmm), and we split a grilled octopus salad with white bean raguout before ordering an Alfredo with prawns (him) and pan seared duck breast with savoy cabbage puree, honey-glazed turnips, huckleberries and sauce a l’orange  (her) entrees. There was a less expensive “cafe” menu with delightful options as well – the pizzas looked divine!

The Atmosphere: Beautiful! The restaurant is right next to a large replica fountain, and the patio is under a painted “sky” – The husband kept saying it really felt like we were outdoors! The interior was modern and fun.

The Public House – Venetian

The Food: I chose this location because during our stay, a Groupon popped up for it ($25 for $50 worth of fare). I checked out the menu, and bought it right on my phone! It was only a quick walk from our hotel, and served a variety of fun dishes – both “small” plates and “large” entrees. Their specialty was beer (the Husband enjoyed a “rare cask beer”), but they had a great wine list as well. We split their take on Welsh Rarebit, and the Husband ordered the fancy pub burger (so, so good!) with bacon marmalade, Gruyere, roasted tomato and Guinness aioli . I ordered an heirloom beet and goat cheese salad, and two small plates: Crispy oysters with foie gras, golden raisins and cider gastrique; and potted farm egg, with forest mushrooms, ricotta and sourdough crouton. Everything tasted bright, and had its own twist. We had the chocolate stout layer cake, malted ice cream and caramelized rice crispy bacon for dessert (wow!).

The Atmosphere: An upscale “pub” flavor, there was lots of dark woodwork and a sprinkle of what I would call “modern Americana” decor. Very manly (I had to get the Husband a burger after enduring kale chips and other “light” picks during the trip). It’s a great spot to pause at while walking the shops, or moving between the Venetian and Palazzo hotels.

Hotel:

We stayed at Harrah’s, Las Vegas. I was unsure about how we would like the accommodations – We had to stay here because this is where the Husband’s conference was being held (and they gave us a rockin’ rate: $25 for weeknights, $88 for the weekend), but I knew from reading reviews that it was a bit older, and not super fancy. Once we arrived, though, we realized it was perfect! While it wasn’t very fancy or super-duper large like the Ballagio, Venetian or others, it was one of the ONLY places that you could walk right out of the hotel and onto The Strip! Most hotels sat back quite a way from the sidewalk, and had lovely, but looong winding paths to their doors. Because we weren’t that interested in sticking around our own hotel anyway – I wanted to see as many as possible! – it was perfect for making a quick exit, and was located smack dab in the middle of the Strip. So, if you want to go pretty cheap, but be in the middle of the action, Harrah’s is a good bet (AND they have Starbucks!).

Things to See and Do

Grand Canyon Tour

There are so many similar companies out there, and all of them seemed to have mixed reviews and horror stories, so I entered this experience with low expectations. But, we ended up having a blast!

We used GrandCanyonTours.com, and paid $199.00 for two tickets (Final cost charged was $209.00, and we tipped the suggested $20 per couple at the end of the day). This included: A Pick up by a shuttle at our hotel at 6:45a.m., a small breakfast snack at the Planet Hollywood hotel before boarding the large tour bus and taking off around 7:00a.m., entrance to the Hualupi Indian reservation where the west rim canyon access is located, 4 hours of free time at the canyon (The Grand Canyon SkyWalk is located here, and tickets were available for $40. We didn’t feel the need to go – the views from the Canyon ledge were fabulous!, but it was an option some really enjoyed. There was also an option to take a helicopter ride.), A BBQ rib lunch (could have chosen chicken or a few other options – the food was cafeteria style but very good!), a quick stop at a Route 66 diner for a snack on the way back to Vegas (sweet potato fries!), and a quick drive-by/stop at Hoover Dam for pictures! Whew! It was almost a 12 hour day, but so worth it.

The tour guide was chatty and a bit goofy, but overall very knowledgeable and funny. They showed a documentary about the SkyWalk on the way down, and some comedy show clips on the way back after a quiet “nap time”. The scenery was beautiful on the trip, and it didn’t seem long at all though it was three hours each way.

Free Shows – Bellagio Fountains, Mirage Volcano, Treasure Island Sirens

Besides the numerous (often pretty weird) sidewalk entertainment, you can catch hotel shows while just taking a stroll! Most run just during the evening hours – signs are posted – but they are worth a quick stop. The fountains were my favorite – beautiful!

Beatles LOVE Cirque Du Soleil

…. totally spectacular. The artistic direction was stunning, and the stunts, dancing and acrobatics were absolute perfection! Roller-bladers, aerialists, twirlers, modern dance, lights, projection, stage transformations… this show had it all (and it was set to my favorite music!). We purchased our tickets ahead of time, but for many shows it is just as easy to pick them up while you’re in town. They are pricy – expect to pay over $100 – but there isn’t a bad seat in the house (a circular theater) and it is very, very worth every penny.

Shopping

Like I said before, we didn’t spend a lot on things to take home (our suitcase wouldn’t have allowed it anyway! It was already overweight… ahem. My fault). But, it was amazing to just browse everything from Jimmy Choo and Chanel to Cartier and Louboutin. Several hotels have large indoor shopping areas attached – Venetian, Cesar’s, Planet Hollywood, Aria…. you can’t miss them.

PURE nightclub, Caesar’s

This was our late-night spot. There are a lot of places to choose from, and each is a bit of a fiasco to get into (long lines, lots of bribes, many have pricy covers – $30-$100+). There are a lot of VIP tickets that you can purchase, and people handing out “free” or discounted entrance passes, but it is pretty difficult to decipher which of these services are legit, and which are scams. We were handed tickets early in the evening, and because this spot was close to the hotel, we decided to try it out. After a long wait with lots of crushing crowds, we got in! It was expensive and crowded, but had cool decor and a rooftop portion that had great views. This was one of those times I was glad I had my husband with me, if you know what I mean, but together we had a blast :) We were wiped out after about two hours (for some, the night was just beginning!) but it was a pretty fun experience overall.

Random:

  • You will walk a LOT. As in, miles. Bring flats you can carry in your clutch to and from places that you want to wear your sky-high heels… trust me!
  • Grab all the free coupon and guide books you can – There are some good ones in there!
  • Make reservations – Even the morning of! It gives you a little peace of mind, and you can always bump them back or cancel if you really need to. Some weekends get busy, and you don’t want to miss out on a restaurant you picked!

Wishlist

There’s always next time!

  • Eiffel Tower – We meant to make a trip up to the top, but ran out of time!
  • Breakfast – My favorite meal of the day, but between work, flights and tours, I had to “settle” for Starbucks coffee and oatmeal every day :) There are lots of good places I looked at though: Babystacks, Hash House a Go Go, Mon Ami Gabi and Serendipity 3 all had devilish looking pancakes…
  • Tao – Seemed like a very cool club, but very hard to get into.
  • Titanic – An amazing exhibit at the Luxor, ran out of time!
  • Other shows – So many neat shows and concerts, Phantom of the Opera, different Cirque shows and more!
  • Shopping – Sigh.
  • Pools – Were closed for the season. We didn’t really miss them too much, but I would have loved to lay out and read!
  • Win a million dollars.
  • :)

Vegas: A wonderful place to Explore!

Let me know if you have any questions – I’d be happy to answer them!