Italy: Tips for Eating Out in Rome

Eating Out in Rome by Natalie Parker

Eating out in Rome was actually stressful.  It’s something we weren’t expecting.

My thoughts below apply mostly to the Trastevere area, avoiding the tourist restaurants.  I’m sure there’s more to this and we could have spent more time in Rome to get to know it better, but I hope for the casual traveler, this will help soften the blow a bit.

Make reservations beforehand.  We called several days in advance to many places and were consistently told they had absolutely no availability at all for any of the days we were there.  Not early in the evening or late at night.  I honestly find that hard to believe but maybe I’m missing something.  Looking back, I would have tried to call a month ahead of time (which still kind of seems outrageous, we weren’t looking at five star restaurants).

Walk ups are possible, but you have to be forward or the staff will ignore you.  This was a bit of a shock to the system.  I’ve never experienced it before — in any country I’ve been in, even in famously “rude” France, someone at least acknowledges your presence when you are trying to get a table.  After having all restaurant staff ignore us, we had to physically flag someone down and ask if they had room.  We were mostly treated like a bother and that they were doing us a favor by even talking to us.  This wasn’t the case at every place we tried, and I’ll highlight those in a roundup of restaurants later.

We had some really great meals and not everyone was aloof or indifferent.  But, I think this is worth noting if you’re traveling to Rome just so you’re in the right mindset.  Again, expectations are everything when traveling, so if we’d known that eating out was going to be a contact sport, we’d have been in the right mindset for it.

Just like in Paris, not every place will do dishes justice.  While it’s easier to find a decent plate of pasta in Rome than soup a l’oignon in Paris, we still had some mediocre dishes.  For the times we had to dip into touristy restaurants, we had much better luck with the pizza (pizza is harder to mess up?).

Have you been to Rome before?  I’d love to know if our experience was unique.

On Being Afraid of Flying: the Sudoku Books

Sudoku Book by Natalie Parker

I remember when I wasn’t afraid to fly.

I remember my first big episode on a plane.  I was really having a hard time.  I remember when the panic started to set in.

We had been married less than a year.  I still don’t know exactly why things changed for me.  I used to be able to fly through a thunderstorm on a plane with 30 seats.  I wonder if I subconsciously felt I had more to lose.

That first time, that first really bad plane ride, Mr. P knew something was wrong but wasn’t quite sure how to fix it.  He decided to talk with me and keep me busy.  He took the airline magazine out and showed me how to play sudoku.

We did the puzzle together.  He kept asking me what the next move was and I tried to keep my mind off the shaking plane and think about strategy.

A few months went by.  It was our first anniversary.  One year married.  I really don’t remember what I got him.  I remember what he got me.

He handed me a package and explained that the first anniversary is supposed to be paper.  I opened up two brand new sudoku books.

We were planning on going places, you see.  We’ve since flown thousands of miles and visited all seven continents.

On every plane ride, one of these sudoku books is in my carry on.  Every time.

Italy: Vatican Museums Tips & Review

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

The Vatican Museums are a must-do on most Rome lists.

We expected the Vatican Museums to be a knock-our-socks-off experience but it wasn’t.  We’re still very happy we went though.

Our Impressions and Experience

We booked tickets in advance for 10:30am and got to skip the gargantuan line.  Even in the morning, the museums were oppressively crowded.  On top of that, the free map was pretty worthless, so we couldn’t tell if we had to shuffle through all the galleries or if we could skip ahead to what we really wanted to see.  We didn’t want to accidentally miss anything so we shuffled along.

15,000 people visit the Museums every day.  We wish they’d limit the size of the tour groups they admit.  There were groups of 20-30 people all trying to move together through a tiny door or enclosed space — it was easy to get swept up in the wave.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

It was difficult to stop and look at anything, both due to the crush of people but also the setup.  Aside from the Pinacoteca Vaticana (more on that below), it’s not set up like a classic museum experience.  There isn’t space to sit back and enjoy the art.  It’s a set of galleries that you pass methodically through.  The Louvre in Paris is far superior in terms of experience.

On that note, there weren’t as many showstoppers as we expected.  The top 3 pieces for us were the Sistine Chapel (obviously), the Raphael Rooms (including the The School of Athens, below), and Raphael’s Transfirguration in the Pinacoteca Vaticana.  Our next favorite after that was the map gallery but it was hard to enjoy due to the crowds.  It’s very possible that we’re snooty/biased but we’ve been to Egypt before so their Egyptian collection wasn’t that impressive.

The Sistine Chapel was everything we hoped it would be.  I was glad no photos were allowed because it made for a better experience.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

Tips for Visiting the Vatican Museums

Buy tickets online early.  I’m always stunned to see lines when tickets are easily available ahead of time.  The lines here were particularly epic, so buy online!

Print online voucher, skip the lines, get tickets inside.  After buying online, you get a voucher to print.  You must redeem that voucher for the actual tickets when you get to the ticket hall.  The good news is that you can skip the line to get to the ticket hall!

Get there early.  Get the earliest time you can make.  Hopefully it will cut down on the crowd issue.  Our tickets were for 10:30am and we had trouble with crowds.

Get a tour book with a decent map.  The free maps aren’t great.

Use the post office near the gift shop.  If you’d like to send a post card from the  Vatican, the one at the museum gift shop had a shorter line.  Bring a pen, there are no free pens available (they’ll sell you one though!).

Get between the herds.  Do your best to stay between the big tour group herds.  It’s very easy to get stuck behind a group or swept up with them.

You can take photos, but no flash.  Learn how to use your camera!  No selfie sticks are allowed, and no photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel.

Vatican Museums by Natalie Parker

Don’t be a jerk in the Sistine Chapel.  No photos are allowed, don’t try it.  I don’t think anyone wants to see the blurry picture you snuck with your phone to prove you were there.  Keep your voice down.

Check out the modern art.  The modern religious art after the Sistine Chapel was quite good and few were stopping to look at it.

Make sure to visit Pinacoteca Vaticana.  We were shocked at how many groups skipped this.  The Raphaels here (pic directly above) were easily top 3 of the whole experience.

Have you visited the Vatican Museums?  Any tips for a great experience?

eBooks are the Best for Travelers

Why Ebooks are Best for Travelers

I really hate to say this, but I’m a huge fan of eBooks now.  I don’t think I’ll take a hard copy book on a trip again.

Why I Dislike eBooks

I resisted as long as I could.  I love real books and the feel of them in my hand.  I think eBook services and publishers are shady.  I wrote my first research paper in library school on eBooks and how they erode libraries’ missions to serve their patrons and protect their privacy, their rights, especially patrons with disabilities.

How I Came Around

But, push came to shove and I had to get off my soapbox when I spent a month in London on business.  There was no room in my suitcase for a month’s worth of reading material.  Buying books while I was there was not an option — the exchange rate is horrendous.

Mr. P and I decided to try out eBooks on our tablets during our weekend trip to Ireland in March.  It just worked.  I went eBook-only for the month in London.  When we went to Italy for two weeks this summer, it was eBooks again.  We didn’t even bring a hard copy guidebook.

Why eBooks are Fabulous for Travelers

Not having to pack multiple books.  Not every traveler is a bookworm, but we are.  It was amazing to not have to carry heavy books (even paperbacks) in our luggage or carry ons.  I gained so much purse space by just using my tablet!

Not worrying if you will “run out” of stuff to read.  My tablet will hold a ton of material.  I read more in Italy than I ever have on a vacation because I didn’t need to worry if I’d have enough book left for the plan ride home.

They can be cheap or free.  You can get books that are in the public domain for free.  Mr. P is in the middle of Les Miserables and was easily able to find a copy for his tablet.  Plus, you can check out books from your local library.

Libraries are accessible wherever there’s an internet connection.  This was the best.  Whenever we finished a book, we could log on and get another one.  Taking an afternoon rest in one of our apartments in Italy, we’d finish a book and get another one immediately.  I tore through a book faster than I thought I would during an airport delay in Rome.  I was able to download another one before boarding our 11-hour flight home.

You can belong to more than one library for better selection.  Every library has different contracts with eBook providers.  I belong to my city’s library system and also the county system.

They can be used during takeoff.  This used to be one of my biggest complaints with eBooks.  Remember when you had to turn off all electronic devices before takeoff?  Since that’s not the case anymore, I can seamlessly read in the boarding area, after I take my seat, and all the way through takeoff.

I’m a total turncoat even though I still have philosophical issues with the eBook business.

How do you read when you travel?

Photo courtesy Maria Elena via Creative Commons license.

Scrapbook Layout: Football Season

Cal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie ParkerCal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie ParkerCal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie ParkerCal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie Parker

The Story: Football.  Need I say more?

Key Ephemera: I have to have someplace to put my season tickets and our fridge magnet.  I love mixing them up with photos.  See more on how I scrapbook with fridge magnets here.

Changing up the Fonts: I’ve used Bebas almost exclusively on older football pages.  I decided to go with a smaller, more sleek headline this time.

More Football Layouts: I’ve done similar layouts for every year that I’ve been a season ticket holder.  They’re similar, but each have a slightly different take: 2004 part 1, 2004 part 2, 2005, 2006.

Go Bears!

Cal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie ParkerCal Football Scrapbook Layout by Natalie Parker

Fonts: Futura, Nevis, Cambria | Tools: Silhouette SD (headline), Epson Stylus R2000 (photos) | Supplies: Pioneer SJ-100 Jumbo Scrapbook (scrapbook & pages), Epson Semigloss Photo Paper (photos) | Ephemera Included: Season tickets, fridge magnet.


Rome Snapshots

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

The first stop on our grand Italian tour this summer was Rome.  We spent five nights there.

First Impressions of Rome

We enjoyed our stay but didn’t love it.  There were lots of bright sides (see pictures below).  If I try and put my finger on why Rome didn’t suck me in like other European cities, this comes to mind:

It was more run down than I expected.  Expectations are everything when traveling, of course.  It felt at times like we were in a cross between a middle eastern city and a European one.

Eating out was stressful.  I’ll cover this in another post but I’ve never had more difficulty getting into good places to eat.

Overwhelming crowds and touts.  It was impossible to enjoy places like the Spanish Steps or Pantheon without being overrun by crowds and touts trying to sell us things.  The touts were really aggressive and I almost lost my marbles when one touched me.  Italy in the summer?  I know.  But this wasn’t the case as much in other cities we visited after Rome.

Lack of good public transportation.  I’m spoiled by other cities, but I hate that to get between sites, often the 45-minute walk was the best option.  Traffic was too congested for a cab.  It seemed insane that we couldn’t find a decent bus route to get us from the Spanish Steps back to our Trastevere apartment.

The Good Stuff

Despite the above, we enjoyed our time, both sightseeing and eating.  We stayed in Trastevere, which was a great decision.

It was a cute neighborhood and full of good food.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Right up our alley, right?

We spent one very long day checking all the Vatican boxes.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Thankfully, we broke up the day by getting amazing pizza that we saw on one of Anthony Bordain’s shows.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We ate small pastries every morning for breakfast.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We took a food tour and found an amazing porchetta shop.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We walked everywhere.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Even to the Colosseum one day when a charity walk blocked the bus route.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

Pizza and pasta.  I found that it was easier to find good pizza at touristy spots.  Pasta was a bit more hit or miss.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We happened on a restaurant one night that had a Roman-era wine cellar.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

We loved the rooftop views from our apartment.

Rome Snapshots by Natalie Parker

After a bunch of packed days, we took our tired feet to the train station and headed to Venice.  Before we get there, I have some more tips on Rome to share.  Stay tuned!!

Our Very First Home

New House

Big news over here in Natalie-land:  Mr. P and I have purchased our first home!

We are very happy to have purchased and remained in Oakland and are excited about our new neighborhood.  Though the house was move-in ready, we are discovering that homeowner feeling of death-by-a-thousand-tiny-projects, also commonly known as death-by-a-thousand-trips-to-home-depot.

We’re finally settling in after moving and we’re really smitten.  I’m really excited to share projects with you now that we don’t have bed sheets covering the windows anymore.

Moving was relatively painless thanks to lots of help from our families and that we Kondo-ed all our stuff earlier in the year.  We got to skip the step of whether we should keep or give things away because we’d already done that earlier in the year.

It’s a ranch-style home that was built in the 1950’s — an odd find since a lot of the housing stock in Oakland is craftsman.  It was built as an office and we are the first ever to be using it as a house.  It has more space than we are used to, so we’re being very careful to keep our stuff in check and not grow into all the closets.

Exciting things ahead!