Rome – Day 2

Rome Colosseum Exterior

We conquered a majority of Rome on our second day. Victor Emmanuel II monument, Capital Hill, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, Colosseum and the Borghese Gallery. I’m glad to say we hit it all and even called in the night early. The trick is to buy the Roma Pass. It gets you in to your first 2 museums for free and gives you free metro rides around the city.

Although we should have, we didn’t take the metro this day. My legs are still throbbing from walking all the way from Camp de’ Fiori to the Borghese Gallery. If you know Rome, you’ll know that is a crazy long walk.

Rome Giolittis Breakfast

We started the day with a classic Italian breakfast – pastry with an espresso – at Giolitti’s, the world-famous gelateria. We initially wanted to get gelato, but thought 8:30am was a little too early for ice cream. So, we opted for the pastry. It was probably one of the best pastries I’ve ever had. Think a chewy chocolate croissant filled with Nutella.

Rome Pantheon Day

First on the sightseeing list was the Pantheon. There are several “pantheons” in Europe, but Rome’s is definitely the first. It was initially built in 126 AD. That’s over 1800 years old! Once used as a church, the Pantheon now houses the tombs of Rome’s most famous artists and kings including Raphael and Victor Emmanuel II.

Rome Emmanuel II

Next we headed over to the Emmanuel II Monument to take a few photos. This is probably one of the grandest buildings in all of Rome. The monument was built in the 1920s as an homage to Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of a unified Italy.

Rome Capitoline Hill Horse Statue

Just around the corner is Capitoline Hill. This hill houses a handful of museums filled with art, temple ruins, and statues and paintings from emperor Marcus Aurelius’ collection. The Temple of Jupiter was once ancient Rome’s most important temple and the little remains of this building are found in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The Tabularium was by far my favorite part of this group of museums. Not only because it has a cool name, it gave me my first “wow” in Rome. The Tabularium houses the remains of the Temple of Veiovis and has panoramic views of the Roman Forum.

Rome Forum View From Tabularium

We headed for the Roman Forum for a walking tour of the most densely populated area of Roman ruins. The forum was the heart of ancient home with the city’s oldest and most important governmental buildings. Just reading through Rick Steve’s walking tour of this site taught me so much about ancient Roman culture and modern day culture. Like, how Star Trek gained inspiration for its names from Emperor Nero, Rome’s leader in the 50-60s AD who was against Christianity, and Romulus from “Romulus and Remus,” the two brothers who founded Rome.

Rome Palatine Hill Ruins

Next on the list was Palatine Hill, the birthplace of Rome. Which is now ruins of a giant palace, Palatine Hill has a ton of history – birthplace of Rome’s first emperor, homes to several emperors after that, the hill in which Hercules defeats Cacus for stealing cattle, etc. Too much to go over here, but very interesting nonetheless.

Rome Cavour 313 Buffalo

So, believe it or not, we finished with everything above in the morning. We took an hour break at Cavour 313 for a quick lunch of traditional Italian bar food. K ordered the buffalo platter which included dry, cured buffalo and 2 kinds of cheeses made from buffalo milk with a drizzle of really good olive oil and balsamic vinegar. I had the spinach salad with pears and some kind of creamy herb cheese. Both were delish, but K’s definitely was the highlight.

Rome Colosseum Inside

In the blink of an eye, we headed for the Colosseum. THANK GOODNESS we had the Roma Pass, otherwise we would’ve had to wait in a line several hours long. We cut through the line in a breeze and began our self-guided tour courtesy of Rick Steves. That’s another reason why we’re quickly going through each destination. Not really because we’re in a rush, but because we’re able to guide ourselves around each site with commentary from Rick Steve’s tour books. The Colosseum is the Colosseum. Not much to say here, except that it was really cool to see in person. If you’ve watched Gladiator, you know everything about this place.

Rome Borghese Gallery

Last but not least, we headed for the Borghese Gallery way up north of Rome. Note: If you want to visit this museum, you must make reservations in advanced. It sells out quickly and you’re only allowed to be in the museum for 2 hours. Borghese was a famous cardinal in Rome and was an avid art collector. His villa in which the museum is housed showcases the works of Raphael, famous sculptor Bernini, and another famous painter Carvaggio. The pieces in this museum are very unique and it definitely stands out amongst other art collections. The most memorable for me is Bernini’s sculpture of Apollo and Daphne. This statue shows Daphne in the process of turning into a tree as she is escaping from the perusing Apollo.

Rome Giolittis Gelato

We were pooped after this marathon of a day, so we rewarded ourselves with some gelato from Giolitti’s! They’re famous for their chocolate gelato, so we got that and I added a scoop of pistachio. Did you know they add home made, unsweetened, whipped cream on top of the ice cream? I’m still not sure if I like the combination, but I was impressed. At about 8pm, K and I headed back home to eat our leftovers from the night before and crashed for our next day of events. Stay tuned!

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Lessons learned for a healthy and warm fall/winter vacation

During our trip to Europe, we’ve made a few observations on what we should have packed and how we should have improved.
Our packing list after the jump Read the rest of this entry »

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En Route To Barcelona! – Day 6

Hola! This is the day we left for Barcelona. Once we checked out of our FriendlyRentails.com apartment in Rome, we headed for the Fiumicino Airport.

We flew Vueling, one of the many small jetliners that fly within Europe. I was so nervous for this flight since I’ve read loads of bad reviews online – flight cancellations, luggage restrictions, etc. But, everything worked out.

The transportation from BCN to Barcelona is very easy. They have a bus called the Aerobus that takes you from the airport to 3 different locations in the heart of the city, all for about 5 euros per person.

We also purchased the 3-day Barcelona Pass at about 35 euros per person which gave us discounts on museum entrance fees and free usage of the metro.

The apartment we rented was located in Barceloneta, kind of like their version of Fisherman’s Warf, only quieter and more residential. There are tons of hidden restaurants in Barceloneta, but I have no idea how they make any money. Every restaurant we passed by was nearly empty except for a few touristy restaurants along the water. I’m guessing it’s the time of year.

Barcelona Apartment Inside

We rented a studio apartment through Rent4Days.com. This apartment was the nicest place we stayed in throughout the entire trip. It was clean, modern and comfortable.

Barcelona Rey de la Gamba Paella

Barcelona Rey de la Gamba Chocolate con Churros

The first night there, I was exhausted, mainly because I had just caught a cold. So, we decided to take it easy and call it a night early. We were lured into one of the touristy restaurants, El Rey de la Gamba, on the water by a persistent hostess. I was eying the mountain of fresh seafood being devoured by 2 little Japanese girls at a table nearby. And before we ordered, the smell from a large platter of fried seafood passed by us. This place is going to be good. So after a quick review of the menu, we ordered a chicken and shellfish paella and a small plate of patatas bravas (fried potatoes with a creamy tomato sauce). This was satisfying. This was the reason why I wanted to come to Barcelona. For the relaxation, for the food, for the experience. The paella was the best I’ve ever tasted. Better than the Spanish Cultural Center in SF and way better than Girard’s Paella in Pacifica. The rice was so flavorful and aromatic and the seafood was fresh and buttery. The order of paella was so large, we took half of it home and saved it for dinner the next night. To top off the meal, we had an order of chocolate con churros, a classic Spanish dessert. We dipped the freshly fried and sugar-dusted churros into a large cup of thick hot chocolate and licked our fingers clean. Te quiero Barcelona!

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We dilly Dali in Figueres – Day 9

Barcelona Figueres Dali Museum Lady

Our day trip from Barcelona consisted of Dali, Dali and more Dali. We took the slow train to Figueres (1.5 hours), where the only main attraction is the Dali Museum. Yes, it’s another art museum. But this isn’t like any kind of art, this is Surrealism. Fantasy.

Barcelona Figueres Creepy Sculpture

The few Dali sculptures in the courtyard in front of the museum gave us a taste of what’s inside the museum. Dali was clearly on drugs, but when he was asked the question, he answers, “I am the drug… take me.”

Barcelona Figueres Dali Museum Cadillac

The entrance of the museum leads to a round room with a 1941 Cadillac that rains on the inside when you insert a coin. For some reason, Dali created a lot of coin-operated art. Behind the car is a boat 50 feet in the air holding Dali’s partner, Gala, with tears made out of condoms hanging below.

Barcelona Figueres Dali Museum Abraham Lincoln

When we made our way up the ramp, we entered the theater with a huge painting of a half naked man with a cracked skill and doorway through his ribcage. To the left, there is a painting of a nude Gala overlooking a balcony. If you look through the coin-operated telescope, or just squint your eyes, you can see the face of Abraham Lincoln.

This is just a taste of what’s in this museum. You have to see it for yourself. Rick Steves even says that this is probably the most interesting museum in all of Europe.

Barcelona Figueres Meat Combo Lunch

Before we headed back to Barcelona, we stopped for a mediocre lunch at a cafe near the museum. I had a Spanish omelette with croquettes and a side salad, while K had the meat combo consisting of a 12 inch hot dog, a pork cutlet, a hamburger patty topped with fries.

Barcelona Tapa Tapa Artichokes

Back in Barcelona, we shopped a bit before we headed for a light dinner at Tapa Tapa on the Pasaig de Gracia. I had to have my patatas bravas and I wanted to try the fried artichokes. Second time in a row, I was not disappointed. The lightly salted artichokes were crispy and tender.

Barcelona Cocoa Sampaka Hot Chocolate

Barcelona Cocoa Sampaka Desserts

Now for the best part of the day. Dessert. Barcelona is said to have some of the best hot chocolate in the world. I did a little research online and found Cacao Sampaka in the Eixample district. When we walked into the restaurant, we were told that they would close in 10 minutes but we could come in for a quick drink. We got 2 cups of hot chocolate with some lady fingers and some kind of sugar pastry. As soon as we got our order, we were told we only had 2 minutes left. We chugged the hot chocolate and ate our desserts like no tomorrow, but we loved ever second of it. The chocolate was super thick, rich and creamy. It was like drinking a chocolate dipping sauce. I also tasted a hint of cinnamon and other spices. Before I left, I purchased a bag of the hot chocolate mix for my bro and sis-in-law as well as a box of chocolates for my parents. The hot chocolate mix was just as good as the one at the restaurant.

Soon after, we made our way back to our apartment in Barceloneta.

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Bye Bye Barcelona – Day 10

Just like Rome, we saved our last day for shopping and relaxation. We needed  to take it easy for our trip to Paris the next day. The night before, we did a little research on discount shopping and stores that sell Balenciaga bags. Who knew Balenciaga bags were so hard to find in Barcelona? I did find one at this one designer handbag store, but it wasn’t the size I wanted, so I passed it up.

Barcelona Tapa Tapa Iberian Ham FriesBarcelona Tapa Tapa Chorizo

After a late start, we decided to grab lunch at our favorite restaurant at the pier, Tapa Tapa. It was such a beautiful day, we had to sit outside along the water. We ordered more food at this particular meal than at any other meal during this trip. That’s the problem with tapas, you can easily order way too much. We had the patatas bravas (of course), iberian ham with a fried egg on top of a bed of fries, endive salad with smoked salmon and dill dressing, chorizo sausages and a plate of fidua (paella with vermicelli noodles). For drink, I had a cup of peach juice and K got the orange. Our last day in Barcelona and we JUST discovered that the chorizo is AMAZING. Dang! We could’ve eaten this every day! The baby chorizo was so flavorful and spicy. It definitely did not taste like any chorizo I’ve had at home.

Our first stop on the shopping agenda was Bershka on Passaig de Gracia. Bershka is a Spanish clothing store owned by the same company that owns Zara. Both stores are very similar, but I found Bershka to be a little cheaper. I copped a brown faux leather belt and a black lacey cardigan for $38 US. Not bad for Europe.

We were also severely under-prepared for the cold weather in Paris. Travelling with a small carry-on had it’s limitations – we couldn’t pack heavy coats! We realized we couldn’t afford authentic European clothing (stuff you can’t get at home), so we headed for Zara. There I got a white sweater with elbow patches and a navy peacoat. That was about $80 US altogether. K got a very sleek-looking black trench. Little did we know we were still very unprepared for the cold weather to come. I’ll get back to that in my next post.

Barcelona Escriba Hot ChocolateBarcelona Excriba Pine Nut Balls

At this point, we had walked up and down the Passaig de Gracia all the way from the Avinguda Diagonal to Plaça de Catalunya and worked up a hunger for some hot chocolate. We found another hot chocolate place, Escriba on La Rambla, in one of our travel books. We were very much tempted to go back to Cacao Sampaka, but we forced ourselves to try something new. We ordered 2 large cups of hot chocolate and 2 marzipan balls covered in toasted pine nuts and honey. In comparison to Cacao Sampaka, this hot chocolate was grainier. The pastry sounds better than it tastes too. I was expecting a crunchy outer shell, but the entire ball is very soft. It might’ve been better with a peanut rather than pine nut crust.

So, after our snack, we headed back to the apartment to pack and call it a night early. We needed tons of shuteye before our trek to our last stop, Paris!

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