2016 European Tour, Days 11-15: Genoa, Florence, Pisa, Rome

Day 11, Thu 13Oct16: The original cruise plan called for us to dock next in Portofino, but somewhere along the way plans changed and we landed at Genoa instead. It’s notable for being the birthplace of Christopher Columbus. If Monaco the day before was the most scenic dock view and entrance to a port, Genoa was the worst: from the dock and through an enormous port building, we had to then cross a busy highway and then walk along a street lined with discount shoe and clothing shops, and Asian cafes and markets seemingly exiled to the fringe of the city, to get into town proper. Once there, the city is very compact, as most of these places we’ve visited: narrow streets, many smoking pedestrians, churches and museums and cafes.

The highlight of the city was Via Garbaldi, a street lined with “palazzi”, large mansions once owned by the wealthy of the city. These structures are shoulder to shoulder along the cobblestone street, impressive only once you step inside: each one has a large inner courtyard, the four or five floors of each structure rising on three or four sides around you. Nowadays these are government buildings, banks, and museums. We found a charming little restaurant for lunch, Ristorante Au Cafe, one seemingly local and not tourist-oriented yet which had an English menu, and then spent a rather frustratingly leisurely hour-plus meal trying not to express American impatience while the waiter came by only every 15 minutes or so. I had a “Genoese” minestrone soup, very thick and green, and a Leek Pie, which is pretty much a quiche.

The city has another cathedral, another fountain, more shops… but the day was dampened, literally, by a persistent drizzle. We bought no souvenirs.

Day 12, Fri 14oct16: The dock was Livorno, our last stop before Rome, but there’s nothing to see in Livorno. It’s a gateway to Florence and Pisa, and from here we did our longest excursion, i.e. planned bus tour arranged by the cruise. We boarded a bus at 8am for an hour and half ride (along the equivalent of an interstate highway, through the countryside) to Florence, one of the great cities of Italy and inland from the coast, known for its huge cathedral, or Duomo — the fourth largest in the world, we were told — and its Uffizi gallery full of masterpiece paintings, and its food. Alas, as with earlier trips, the excursion allowed no time to visit the gallery, and we’d likely have had to have made reservations far in advance anyway. (Next time!). It was a day-long tour, and we had a good tour guide, although she seemed preoccupied with advising the group where clean toilets were to be found at every step along the way. She led us on a walking tour through the center of town, past the cathedral, the square full of statues, including a copy of Michelangelo’s David and the statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa (second photo on this page is the iconic view that graced the front cover of Edith Hamilton’s MYTHOLOGY, a book I’ve had since high school), ending up at the Piazza Santa Croce, where we had lunch in a cafe with great pizza and pasta, and shopped the many leather shops around the area, finally buying two Italian leather wallets. Alas, we didn’t have time to make it into the Santa Croce Basilica, in which lies the remains of Galileo, Dante, Machiavelli, and Fermi.

(Note about the pizza: what we had at this cafe was great, thin crust with cheese and other ingredients on top, perfectly baked; but no better than the best pizza we’ve had in LA or the Bay Area. I’ve always heard stories about how the pizza in Italy so outclasses anything available in the US. Well, maybe, if all you know of pizza are the chain franchises. Later, we had a very disappointing pizza at a sidewalk cafe in Rome, a so-called “Caprese” pizza with mozzarella, tomato, and basil — is was a huge lump of melted cheese with tomato halves and basil leaves dropped on top after cooking.)

Our day-long bus trip returned from Florence to the coast, to Pisa, as a storm front moved in and thunder and lightening and rain threatened our visit. The storm let up only slightly as we arrived in the huge bus parking lot near the square in Pisa. As it happened, a second excursion bus from the cruise, taking a very similar day tour, was there at the same time. The storm was so heavy that our guide suggested that we could make the walk to see the leaning tower, or skip it and return to the ship, but we’d have to reach a consensus. The other bus had a similar dilemma, and so we combined forces, sent those who wished to return from both buses back on one of the buses, and those from both buses who wished to walk in the rain to see the tower stay. We stayed.

The tower really does lean alarmingly. I tried to take photos with the tower upright and the surrounding landscape at an angle, but the view wasn’t convincing. There was no time to climb up into the tower. Our return was delayed for almost an hour by a missing passenger — these tour guides are committed to keeping track of their flock — who’d missed the rendezvous point. But eventually we reconnoitered and made our way back to the ship.

And on Day 13, Saturday 15Oct16, we docked near Rome, actually in Civitavecchia on the coast, the nearest port to Rome; and the way cruise ships work, they want you off the boat as quickly as possible on that last day. You pack your luggage the night before and leave it in the hallway; they carry it off during the night and you pick it up the next morning after disembarking. If you get up early enough, you have time for breakfast, and then you gather your carry-ons and exit the ship for the last time, pick up your luggage, and then you’re free. The cruise company offers various “transfer” arrangements — buses to the airport, to selected hotels in Rome, etc. — but at rather exorbitant prices. Instead, we took a free shuttle bus to the local train station in Civitavecchia, bought tickets to Rome Termini for 5 euros each, and rode the hour-long trip into the city. And then a taxi to our hotel.

So the end of our trip was 2 1/2 days in Rome, Saturday afternoon through Monday, leaving to fly home Tuesday morning. We were at the Ludovisi Palace Hotel, on Via Ludovisi, northwest of the Termini train station and a few blocks east of the famed “Spanish Steps” and the high-end shopping district below them.

Rome is, of course, a magnificent city, full of ancient history and many monuments, churches and museums and ancient sites. The central city is small enough to walk. My primary impression though, as I’ve already mentioned on Facebook, that the city is overwhelmed by tourists, so that visits to any famous sites entails wading slowly through huge crowds. We walked to the Trevi Fountain and the Pantheon, both, as I said, so crowded that it was difficult to approach, let alone appreciate, these sites. We had dinner that night at Osteria Barberini, a tiny place with a basement dining room, that currently features truffles, so many they’re features in every dish. We chatted with other American tourists at the next tables.

Still, I think, we did as good an overview of the city as might be done in 2 1/2 days. We boarded a hop-on/hop-off bus on Saturday for a quick tour; boarded it again on Sunday, and got off at the Coliseum, and stood in line for an hour to gain entrance, skeptical of the “skip the line” hawkers. Monday we did a Vatican tour, arranged through the hotel, for a guided tour through the still very-crowded many galleries leading up to the Sistine Chapel (silence! no pictures! God’s butt!) and then St. Peter’s Basilica itself, an enormous structure, the largest I’ve ever been inside.

We walked back along the river and to the shopping district and found a place to buy requested souvenirs. Later, along the shopping streets below the Spanish Steps, we walked back and forth, looking at expensive Italian shoes (400 Euros, for shiny and square-edged fully leather shoes!), and bought instead for much less money a couple perfectly nice pairs of shoes from Geox, an Italian chain; and a sport jacket and a blue sweater from another nice shop.

And that night, while almost randomly picking a nearby highly-rated restaurant (via TripAdvisor), had perhaps the best dinner of the entire trip, at Orlando, a few blocks from our hotel. Not a tourist spot, yet they had one waiter who spoke English. The antipasto starter was served as a series of small plates, all beautiful; the wine delicious and inexpensive; the entire bill no more than any other restaurant we’d been to along the way.

And on Tuesday we flew home, first to Frankfurt, then a long 11-hour flight to San Francisco, already described on Fb.

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