We needed to get out of town and breathe some open air for a couple nights, so we settled on a hastily-researched camping getaway in Anza Borrego State Desert Park. Boy, did it deliver! The stars our first night out there were shining brighter than any I’ve seen anywhere else in California! Breathtaking!
We camped at Tamarisk Campground, which had spacious spots, clean bathrooms, and water spigots, basically everything you need for a good campout! The temperature dropped to around 50 F at night so the campfire was much needed! We spent the next day driving around the massive park getting our bearings. We didn’t do too much hiking because we had the dogs with us. They weren’t allowed on many trails and it was too hot to leave them in the car in the middle of the day. We’ll definitely have to come back to explore the Mud Caves and do the famous Palm Oasis hike.
We did check out the awesome visitor’s center, drove to the Ocotillo Sand Dunes, and then ate great cheap Mexican food in the tiny town of Borrego Springs. There were huge rusty animal sculptures all over the town so we had some photography fun with one of those.
The road home took us through Julian, so naturally we had to stop for some famous Julian apple pie! I’m so glad we were able to get out in nature for a couple days. My soul always feels refreshed after some time in the middle of nowhere!
I’ve never been super into Italian food. Maybe it’s because I’ve never really found the good stuff! We CHOWED down in Italy! Italian food is based on simple, fresh ingredients and exquisite craftsmanship. Every restaurant worth its salt makes their own pasta and menus change seasonally. Thank God we walked so much to stave off too much weight gain.
Breakfast every day was cappuccino and “cornettos”, which are Italian croissants filled with Nutella!!! Yummers!
The antipasto was also amazing! Here’s some bruschetta and prosciutto with melon before lunch!
“Suppli” are basically breaded deep-fried risotto balls. I want to eat these every day for the rest of my life!
Cured meats, bread with gorgonzola truffle spread, tapenades, and veggies at the Mercate Centrale in Firenze. Definitely go there for the amazing local food choices!
The most epic meat and cheese board in the world from La Prosciutteria in Roma.
Pasta made from scratch is SO MUCH BETTER than dried boxed pasta. The pasta was really thick and rich! I tried spinach-ricotta ravioli with garlic sage cream, spaghetti a la pesto, and many more!
Last but not least, dessert! Authentic tiramisu is not very sweet with a very strong coffee flavor. This one was pistachio flavored, hence the green color.
Gelato was also a daily occurrence. This one was from Perche No! in Firenze, which I had dreamed of visiting since hearing so much about how good it was from a high school history teacher. He’s now retired and I half expected to run into him there! I can’t wait to go back to Italia with Zach someday and try all the goodies again! Until then, I’m on the hunt for suppli in California!
Climbing Il Duomo di Firenze on top of Santa Maria del Fiore is a must-do in Italy! We stuck it out through a three-hour-long line to get our chance. The good thing about waiting in line with a group is that you can do shifts. A couple of us would hold the place in line while a couple of us would wander off to explore the Piazza del Duomo, drink cappuccino, go to the bathroom, etc. It was still a looooooong and slow-moving line!
The humongous and intricate Gothic cathedral was begun in 1296, and the dome was engineered by Brunelleschi. The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can climb the dome, climb the belltower, or visit the baptistry. The views from the top of the dome over Florence are amazing!
Fresco of “The Last Judgement”
Florence is beautiful! I can’t wait to go back someday and see more of Tuscany!
After a few days in Rome we managed to secure a hotel in Florence (“Firenze”). This was not an easy feat, as it was Holy Week and everyone and their mother was flocking to Italy’s famous cities. But we found a cheap room and made it to the Trenitalia station bright and early, despite staying up waaaaay too late drinking and chitchatting the night before. Hey, you only live once!
On to Tuscany (Toscano). Due to our pathetic condition, we didn’t get to enjoy the scenery on the train ride as much as we’d hoped. By the time we got to Florence it was cold and raining (these SoCal kids are NOT used to that!) and we were desperate for food and a nap. Several pizzas and several hours later, we were back in shape and ready to go look around the slightly wet city. Florence had a lot more varied food options than Rome did, strangely. We stuck to Italian food though; it was just too good! Florence was much smaller and easier to walk around than Rome, but still packed with gorgeous architecture and history!
Basilica di Santa Maria Novella
The (fake) David, by Michelangelo, in the Palazzo Vecchio. The real one was is inside the Academia Museum (Academia di Belle Arti di Firenze), but tickets sell out months in advance and we didn’t think that far ahead.
Perseus killing Medusa.
Battling the Minotaur.
Ponte Vecchio, super old bridge covered in jewelry shops.
Stunning view over Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo.
Tomorrow we’ll get to Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, one of the most famous churches in the world, and climbing it’s beautiful dome!
Our second day in Roma included the necessary trip to the Vatican City (“Vaticano”). Since it was Holy Week, we expected it to be thronged with tourists, and it was. You couldn’t walk five steps without a street vendor trying to hawk you a selfie stick. Lines were long to go into St. Peter’s Basilica (“Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano”), but we survived all the waiting and pushing for a chance to go inside the world’s largest and most famous church. After clearing the ticket booth and two sets of metal detectors, the line of people began filing up a winding staircase inside the Duomo. The church is one of the most famous work’s of Renaissance architecture, designed in large part by Michelangelo. It wasn’t until we made it to the first balcony that we got to view the magnificent ceiling and cupola. Believe it or not, this entire ceiling is not paint, but a mosaic!
After getting up close and personal with the amazing mosaic interior, we continued upwards. The stairs got steeper and narrower, with the outside walls even tilting in on us. I’m not normally a claustrophobic person, but the tight spaces and the slowly plodding line made this trek a little nerve-wracking! I was really glad when we finally got outside at the top!
The view over the rest of the Vatican and out into Rome was stunning!
After taking pictures and buying some postcards from the rooftop gift shop, we headed back down 500+ stairs to go inside the cathedral. So much ornate sculpture and artwork it was overwhelming!
One could easily spend hours navigating the interior of St. Peter’s but by this time our crowd tolerance was wearing thin. We headed outside, past the Swiss Guards, and off to a well-deserved lunch!
After making our way to the famous Coliseum we continued on past the Forum ruins, marveling at the blend of ancient and more recent architecture, plus a million statues of Caesar all mixed up together.
We also stopped to see the “Cake Topper Building” as Amanda called it. It’s actually the Monument to Victor Emanuel II, Italy’s first king. Construction began after WWI and dragged on for a long time. Most Romans unequivocally hate this gaudy, tacky building. It doesn’t really fit in well with the ancient ruins surrounding.
From the cake topper we could see the main square Piazza del Popolo where Mussolini delivered his speeches during his dictatorship…
and a great view of the Coliseum and Forum.
At this point, it was finally time for lunch. That being said, I think a whole separate post will have to be used to describe all the amazing food eaten in Rome! So stay tuned for that…
The Trevi Fountain was under construction which made it a little harder to see. Legend has it that if you throw a coin into the fountain it means you’ll come back to Rome. We didn’t get to throw any in since there was a fence up around it, but I hope I still get to come back!
Gotta love hilariously translated signs! We did our best to shout, squall, and sing our way up the Spanish Steps after reading this.
Another beautiful fountain…
Some more stopping in piazzas for intricate fountains and crowded people-watching.
Another cool thing about the piazza fountains is that they all have pillars with Egyptian hieroglyphics sticking out the top. These date back to the times when Cleopatra came to rome to marry Marc Antony.
Next up! The Pantheon! It was founded between 25 and 27 BC and is the oldest surviving intact pagan temple. It was dedicated to all twelve of the Roman gods and later converted into a Catholic church once Christianity took over. To say it is impressive is an understatement.
The afternoon ended up with more strolling through piazzas, some mucn needed gelato, and then dinner and wine with friends until late into the night. The excitement got us through all of our jet lag and we had such a fun time exploring as a reunited group!
[Disclaimer: I apologize for having some trouble with photo uploading in this post. Please CLICK on photos to make them bigger!]
Buongiorno! Guess what? I’ve been traveling across the pond again! I never expected I would get back over to Europe so soon after our fall backpacking trip, but a combination of a friend studying in Rome plus a super-cheap-flight was too good to resist! Sadly, Zach couldn’t get out of work to join me for this one. Instead my travel companions were Kelsey and Colton (a long-time friend and her awesome boyfriend). Together we teamed up to find our mutual friend Amanda in Roma! Having a friend already know the city and speak Italian made our trip so much easier! We didn’t plan a lot ahead of time and relied on Amanda to show us the sights. She was the best tour guide ever! On our first day in the city, after sleeping off enough of our jet lag to be functional, she gave us a whirlwind, 22-mile walking tour of so many famous spots!
First we stopped at La Bocca della Verità (“the mouth of truth”), located outside the church Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin. This ancient sculpture of the god Oceanus has been used as a “lie detector” since the Middle Ages. Apparently if you tell a lie with your had in the mouth, the god will bite your hand off! I don’t know, but I didn’t try it…
This small church had some throw-backs to the pagan practice of skull-worshipping. The supposed skull of Saint Valentine is even enshrined there!
Next we climbed the Aventine Hill to Rome’s famous Orange Garden. We found a great view of the city and the Tiber River (“Tevere” in Italian) up here!
On top of the hill is Basilica di Santa Sabina, another small, old church with a beautiful pastel-colored ceiling.
Also up there is the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, a UN-recognized sovereign state and the world’s oldest existing chivalrous order. Woah! I had never even heard of these guys, so learning the history was mind-boggling! Rome has so many ancient secrets! The Knights of Malta don’t allow visitors, so all you can do is peek through a tiny keyhole into the garden of their church headquarters, Basilica di Santa Maria del Priorato. When you do, you get a very awesome and surprising view!
One of my favorite things about Rome was the super-old but still-maintained free water fountains all over the city. Clean, fresh, cold aquifer water! Amazing!
Ice cream and snack trucks for tourists were also abundant. (Sorry for the stupid spot on my lens in this photo!)
Down the hill we went to the famous Circus Maximus chariot racetrack. It’s basically just a field now. We still had some fun reenacting the races.
What would a trip to Rome be without the epic Colisseum? It was thronged with tourists, of course, and we opted not to go inside. The beast of a structure is definitely impressive enough from the outside!
And with that, I’m only about halfway through our marathon Rome day, so check back tomorrow for the rest of day one!