As many of you know I was just on a two-week trip in the U.K. and Italy, half with Sarah, her dad and sister, and half with just Sarah. I had a lot of job stuff to do right when I got back followed by a rushed trip up to Cape Cod for my college roommate and dear friend Ishan's wedding to my other college friend, Switch, but I thought I'd write a belated trip recap.
Strap in, and read as little or as much as you wish -- it's logistically detailed and is more of a journal for myself that you also may read than it is a concise account of the trip. Haha.
Iceland Layover, London, Oxford, and London:
Sarah's family originally booked this trip for Sarah, her father, her brother, and her sister, but her brother dropped out after the tickets had been paid for and her father graciously asked me to join in his stead. Their itinerary had been four nights in London and three in Rome, but I suggested to Sarah that we extend the trip and I show her a bit more of Italy, in part because I love northern Italy and in part because she already had been to Rome. When we tried to change our transatlantic flights the travel agent said we'd have to just cancel both transatlantic legs. In the end, we booked new flights, extending our Italy leg AND leaving a day earlier for London so that Sarah could see Oxford, where she's interested in studying cognitive neuroscience someday.
For the eastward leg, we booked with WowAir, a new low-cost Icelandic carrier with a stopover at Keflavik. It was better than a full-fare American airline and offers flights from D.C. to Iceland for $99.99 and to continental Europe for as low as $149.99.
We arrived in the morning with an ambitious first day planned, looping from London to Oxford and Cambridge and back to London by around 11PM. We quickly revised that plan to checking into our hotel, St. Ermin's in Westminster, and napping before an afternoon ZipCar drive to Oxford.
At Oxford, we explored a bit and flew my drone to capture some great footage of the University, including Christopher Wren's Bodleian Library. Then we drove back to London.
The following day we met up with Sarah's father and sister, who had arrived the previous night. We hit the Churchill War Rooms; walked around St. James's Park; and peered into Buckingham Palace through the gate.
For me, London felt less like a vacation and more like a brief return home, so it was funny doing touristy things in a city I know about as well as D.C. or Tokyo. Sarah's Dad especially enjoyed the Churchill War Rooms and I generally enjoyed being back in my favorite city on the planet.
We explored a bit and returned to our hotel, after which I suggested we head to Covent Garden and choose a place for dinner. We ended up at a pub between Covent Garden and Leicester Square, after which Sarah's dad and sister returned to the hotel and Sarah and I walked through Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and nearby. We eventually grabbed a taxi to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, maybe the oldest pub in London, in which Cha will remember having a pint or two on one of his visits. We then walked up to St. Paul's Cathedral and took in the ever-changing skyline from Millennium Bridge. We returned to the hotel and rested up for our scheduled early morning bus tour.
In the morning, we raced to a nearby bus station where we boarded a bus that would take us to St. Paul's Cathedral, the changing of the Horse Guard by St. James's Park, the Tower of London, and Greenwich. Bus tours are a miserable experience in a place that is new to you, but a bus tour in a city in which you have lived a year-and-a-half of your life is especially Hellish. Sarah wasn't feeling great so she wasn't over the moon either. The Polish tour guide described various locales or historical figures as if no one on the bus had ever cracked a book, and as if she had only barely done so. But St. Paul's is still pretty.
I'd been to the Tower of London before, and the concept of braving a massive line for the crown jewels appealed to neither Sarah nor me, so shortly after entering the Tower grounds she and I returned to the hotel on some Boris bikes (the colloquial name for the instant rental bikes all over London, so named for Boris Johnson, London's former mayor and current bumbling Foreign Secretary). After a quick freshening up, we cabbed back to the pier at the Tower of London to reunite with Sarah's father, sister, and the rest of the tour for a ferry to Greenwich. We sat in the park in Greenwich and then ferried back to Westminster; walked to the hotel; and grabbed a bite at a pub nearby before turning in for the night.
My suggestions drove our third day in London, which meant hanging out near and at University College London, one of my study abroad almae matres, and visiting areas of East London I used to haunt in law school days. Our first stop was the British Museum, maybe the best museum on earth and home to many spoils of the Empire's cultural theft, including the Elgin Marbles.
At the British Museum Sarah and I separated from her father and sister and walked to UCL's campus area. We checked out the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology; Jeremy Bentham's familiar seated corpse; and picked up some goodies at the University store. UCL has one of the best neuroscience departments on earth, so Sarah was as happy as I was to be back on my academic home turf. We met back up with her dad and sister at UCL's Grant Museum of Zoology, a beautifully odd museum that I love to visit. Picture creepy animals in preservation jars.
The jarred moles and monkey skeletons had worked up our appetites, so I suggested Ubering east to Tayyab's for an early dinner. Tayyab's is an East London institution with fantastic Punjabi food in Whitechapel, an area affectionately known as Brownchapel for its heavy south-Asian and near-eastern populous. Dinner didn't disappoint, with awesome naans, saags, and keemas you have to keep eating well-past the time you are full.
After Tayyab's we walked down Brick Lane, the cultural heart of the area, full of various ethnic cuisines and vintage shops, ending with two rival bagel bakeries, the one of which nearest the corner is the correct one, and the other of which doesn't merit mention. If you want some salt beef with hot mustard at 4AM, Beigel Bake is your ticket. Sarah's dad and I spoke with a man in a parked car outside Beigel Bake, and if I remember correctly, he said the son in the family that owns the shop had murdered his mother and sister the previous week. Sounded horrible, but they were still open.
We walked through Shoreditch to Liverpool Street Station, where Sarah's dad broke off back for the hotel and Sarah, her sister, and I found a pub. There we had some drinks, decompressing in the area famous for Jack the Ripper's murders. We eventually Ubered back to the hotel and rested up for our early-morning flight to Rome.
We left the hotel before sunrise for our 8:15AM flight from Gatwick. I was in good spirits and didn't feel particularly tired, so I took to annoying exhausted Sarah and her exhausted sister for the drive to the airport. A short flight and an arranged pickup for "Radock Kester" later, we were checked into our hotel, the Sofitel Villa Borghese. Sarah and I rested for a while before setting out walking on our own down the Spanish Steps and onto a random place for lunch.
After lunch we continued walking in the vague direction of the Colosseum. We took in the sights and eventually reached our prize; stopped for a drink at a place that overlooked the Colosseum and eavesdropped on an obnoxious couple seated at the table next to us.
We Ubered back to the hotel and caught some sleep for the all-day tour I had booked for the next day.
My good friend Marta from Torino had recommended a tour guide named Francesca Valente in Rome and I'd arranged the tour to be with her. Francesca lived up to Marta's recommendation and took us through the "underground" part of the Colosseum in addition to the usual tourist areas. After the Colosseum, she took us onto the Roman Forum, the Palatine Hill, and two additional churches, the Basilica di San Clemente and the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo. I'd been to Rome before but never toured the Colosseum. Going out on a limb, it's impressive.
After resting up in the hotel, Sarah and I caught a late dinner at a pizzeria near the hotel and then slept.
The following morning Sarah's dad and sister went to the Vatican; Sarah and I already had been to the Vatican on other trips to Rome, so we swapped Francis for Fellini and through some combination of the subway and the bus made it to Cinecittà Studios, filming site for, among others, Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," William Wyler's "Roman Holiday" and "Ben-Hur," Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Cleopatra," Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York," Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" and, on television, HBO's excellent "Rome" and "The Young Pope." Cinecittà was like a more up-market version of Atlas Studios, a favorite of Ridley Scott's that I visited with my mom in Morocco. It's absolutely worth a visit if you're a film-buff and you've covered a fair bit of Rome already.
From Cinecittà again we made our way on public transportation into less-tourist-trod Rome, to visit a local neighborhood restaurant called Trattoria Il Timoniere, which I'd seen on an episode of one of Anthony Bourdain's television shows. We got there an hour before they were meant to open, so we found a couple of seats outside a convenience store on a nearby street and shared a large bottle of Birra Moretti.
We were the only customers in the restaurant for the entire meal, which was so delicious again I could not stop eating until well after I was full. I enjoyed speaking with the Bangladeshi chef who had appeared on the episode of Anthony Bourdain's show, and an Italian woman who arrived later and possibly owned the restaurant. They were both friendly and encouraged my rusty Italian. We started off with zucchini flower crostini, followed by a plate for each of us split between amatriciana and carbonara; then we split a main course of saltimbocca with vegetables. It was worth the flight to Italy, and cheap.
Before the trip, I'd been speaking with my dear friend Nina from Australia, who it turned out would be passing through Rome on a layover on her way back to Melbourne. We arranged to have drinks after dinner and met on our hotel roof for a couple and then went nearby for more. It was great to see her, especially on a serendipitous layover. This was our final night in Rome, and Sarah's father and sister's final night in Europe altogether.
My volume was down on my iPad so we didn't hear an alarm to join Sarah's dad and sister on their way to the airport in the morning. Fortunately, we didn't have a flight to catch and were going to the airport only to pick up a rental car, so we took our time getting there. From the airport we took a quick pitstop at Cerveteri, a pleasant enough town near famous Etruscan ruins. When we got to the ruins themselves, we didn't have the Euros in cash required to enter, nor did we have the motivation to return to an ATM in town, so we flew the drone around for a while; took in the beautiful scenery; and drove on.
We drove on small mountain roads through pretty Tuscan towns, and eventually reached Bologna, our home for three nights. Our AirBnB hostess was unable to meet us for our 1AM arrival, so instead we went to a pub at which her husband worked and retrieved our apartment keys from the bartender. We drove onto our AirBnB, a medieval tower in a neat area in historical Bologna, and crashed for the night.
I designed the second half of our trip to be a less about sightseeing and more about relaxing and eating and Bologna was a great place with that attitude. The city is dominated by the leaning Asinelli towers but we had a tower of our own, ideal for relaxing and/or sunbathing with a beer.
Sarah and I spent a lot of time on the roof or on our lower balcony eating simple meals at home, but our best meal in Bologna by far was the pizza at Ranzani13, a hipster pizza and beer place Sarah had found online. We got three pizzas there, all of which were fantastic. The fig, stracciatella, and ham may have been the best one, and I don't even like figs. It was a great meal for our final night in Bologna.
The following afternoon we drove on through Modena and Carpi, two picturesque towns in Emilia-Romagna, each of which has a beautiful church and square.
After Carpi, we drove through the mountains to the west coast, where we reached La Spezia and boarded a seven-minute train to Riomaggiore. Riomaggiore is a small seaside down in the so-called Cinque Terre or "five lands," five beautiful cliffside towns on the Ligurian Sea. It's unclear how you drive or park in Riomaggiore, so we had been instructed to park in La Spezia and take the train one stop into the town. There we were met by our AirBnB guy, standing atop a station bench and calling, "John." We handed over our bags to a porter to somehow get them to our apartment and the AirBnB guy walked us through two tunnels and part of the town to reach our harbor-overlooking apartment. The view was beautiful, and we'd have it for two nights.
The next day we decided to kayak along the coast. Again lacking cash Euros and without a Bureau de Change in sight, we could only afford three hours in two kayaks, but that ended up being enough time to break a sweat and take a break to sunbathe and explore on a rocky outcrop south of Riomaggiore.
We had been making pasta in our kitchenette, but for our last night in Riomaggiore we ventured out and had some average pizza in town. Then we came back and sat on our balcony with some wine and beer, enjoying the vista.
Back to Emilia-Romagna:
The next afternoon we returned to our car in La Spezia and drove down to Pisa. We actually didn't see the Leaning Tower, but saw the pleasant enough town, and then drove back up into Reggio-Emilia, arriving just before 11PM at our farm hotel, Antica Corte Pallavicina Relais. We checked in and quickly I fell asleep.
The following morning we did a bike tour of the surrounding cheese factory and farm with the woman who had given us our room key the previous night. She was amiable and pleasant but it was revealed that she was a temporary intern from Parma, and this city woman did not know enough about the tour stops to answer basic questions. Still, it was neat to see an authentic parmigiano reggiano cheese factory, some well-treated pigs, and their raisons d'être: culatello, proscuitto, etc.
When we returned to the hotel after our bike tour, things devolved speedily. The hotel had accepted a wedding ceremony and reception which took over the property for the day. Loud and poorly sung karaoke vibrated our room walls in the middle of the day making it impossible to rest. We had planned to spend the day relaxing and exploring the grounds, but there was no way to do that with all the noise. The majority of the wedding party stood on one side of the palace garden while one man's music-accompanied crooning boomed across to them through speakers on the other side.
Because we could not comfortably stay, we left for the entire day. Our first stop was Cremona, another nice enough Emilia-Romagna town.
We then drove on to Parma and had a light lunch.
We continued onto Sant'Agata Bolognese, home to Lamborghini, arriving at Lamborghini headquarters with about a half-hour before its museum would close. That ended up being about a perfect length for a visit. The museum was full of beautiful Lamborghinis of various eras, and had a temporary exhibit with Ayrton Senna's Formula One cars. It's a bit odd to see a McLaren in the Museo Lamborghini, but there it is.
After the Museum we drove on to Reggio Emilia, my favorite town in Emilia-Romagna, and one off the usual tourist itinerary. It had two beautiful squares, between which we had a fast, delicious pasta dinner.
We made a quick detour to the nearby Ferrari headquarters and returned to the hotel. When we arrived around midnight, the wedding had ended and we were able to sleep.
The following morning a new woman was in the hotel office. She gave us a tour of the palace culatello and cheese cellar for which the hotel was famous. She was far more knowledgeable than our intern guide and even showed me the board marking where Anthony Bourdain had left culatello to age on an episode of his show. I walked the grounds of the mostly horribly-staffed hotel, taking pictures of peacocks and botanical beauty, and trying to forget about the service.
Our flight was in a few hours and the airport was almost two hours away, so we drove onto the airport, making an ugly-American stop at McDonald's, and discovering a thing of beauty known as the Kit-Kat McFlurry.
After some last-minute duty-free shopping, we boarded our Airbus A380 Emirates flight to JFK and later a puddle-jumper from JFK to Dulles. Emirates continues to be a great airline and my first experience on an A380 was super pleasant.
Phew. You made it to the end. Thanks for reading!