Rick Steves, The New Emperor of Rome

posted by Amy

Rome is old!

We spent almost a week in Rome.  Most tourists don’t spend that long, but due to waiting time while the Indian Embassy was processing our visas, we had the week.  We stayed in a great little hotel called the Hotel Oceania, which by sheer coincidence was just a few doors away from the Indian Embassy.


Hotel Oceania was recommended for us by the Rick Steves’ tour book on Italy.  For those of you not familiar with Rick Steves’, he is an American travel writer who has made a career out of travelling in Europe.  He writes books, has a podcast, a website. I think he even has a tv show (public TV).  His catch phrase is “Through the Backdoor,” and he promises to give you all the hints to avoid lines, save money and have an authentic European experience.


Apparently a recommendation from Rick Steves’ for a small hotel in Rome is enough to set them up for life.   We were lucky to find a vacancy and the hotel was full the whole time we were there.  We stayed in the family room, all five of us in one room.  There was air conditioning and comfortable beds and not much else.  Exactly what Mr. Steves told us to expect.  Actually, he called it, “a slice of air conditioned heaven in the middle of Rome.”

The famous Spanish Steps


The staff was incredibly hospitable answering all of our questions and pulling out map after map to get us where we were going.  Our favorites were Anna who seemed to be a manager.  Whenever she talked to me she would say, “Yes, Lady.”  Or, “What do you need, Lady?”  I finally figured out she was giving me a direct translation for the Italian custom of using the title Signora to address a woman.   As in  Si Signora, or Bonjuourno Singora.  It took me a while to realize she wasn’t just being ironic with me.  We also loved the man whose name we never caught.  We called him Curly Hair Man.  He of course told us his life story and ended up with the trip he was about to take the next week to visit his sister who lives outside of Tel Aviv for the first time in 18 years.  He was the winner of all of our unused Israli shekels.  As Rick Steves’ rightly pointed out, cleanliness and hospitality are really all we need.  It didn’t hurt that they had a great internet connection too, free!


Trevi fountain, coin throwing event.

In the late afternoon, the weary travelers gather in the courtyard and have drinks and talk about their days.  We are all going to the same sights so all the information is valuable to us.  Which is the best entrance to get into the Coleseum?  What time of day is best to go to the Vatican?  Do I need to buy tickets ahead of time?  How far to walk to the Trevi Fountains?  The other tourists all pull out their copies of the Rick Steves Rome Bible and give out their best advice.


The Synagogue, built by the Italian government to apologize for forcing the Jews to live in the ghetto for almost 2000 years...

We had a great time seeing the sights of Rome in the searing heat.  Highlights of Rome included a tour of the Roman Jewish Ghetto, a bike tour of Rome (somewhat terrifying as the city is really not set up for bikers here), the Forum and the Sistene Chapel.  We somehow did not catch the really great food that everyone talks about and instead had enough mediocre pasta and pizza to fill us for a lifetime.

Maya pondering the Vatican art collection

Not surprisingly, one of the best activities we did was to download the Rick Steves audiotour podcast of the Colesseum on to our ipods.  We walked around the ancient building, two to an ipod using our splitters so that we could share, and heard Rick Steves give us a really great tour, not too long, not too short.  Rick Steves’ tourists should never worry about looking ridiculous while touring world famous monuments.

Not feeling at all self conscious about our headphones.

Categories: Italy | 3 Comments

No Rooms. No Toilets.

Posted by Amy

We are just past our two-month mark and although we purposely didn’t book most of our lodgings before we left home, we have made a point of reserving a room at least one night in advance.  Tonight was only the second time where we left in the morning and had no idea where we would be sleeping that night.  After having overstayed our welcome in Italy, mostly due to a long wait at the Indian embassy to obtain visas for later travel, we decided to hightail it back to France.   We booked a last minute barge trip up a river in Southwest France and had to drive 13 hours over the next two days with the five of us, a bike and way too many bags tightly squeezed into a Fiat Picasso.  We don’t have those cars back home, but go ahead and Google them.  They are very cute, little cars.  Little cars.


After driving 7 hours, in and out of tunnels, mostly high up on the cliff of a mountain overlooking the Mediterranean, with night falling, we decided it was time to find a hotel.  We programmed the TomTom (our GPS) to look for a POI, or Point of Interest for those of you who don’t speak TomTom.  The TomTom directed us to a hotel just 1.2 km off the highway called, The Florida Dip.  We drove until we found the destination, surprisingly very much exactly where TomTom said it would be. We decided to send David in to check this establishment out.


There didn’t seem to be a door leading to the hotel so David entered through the Florida Dip Ristorante.  The room was filled with Italian working men, only men, eating their dinners.  They all looked up from their plates to give the American in quick dry pants and a baseball cap a good long stare before returning to their pasta and scallipini.  David found the lone woman in the restaurant.  She looked like she knew what was what, so he decided to see if she could help us.


He asks her, “Do you have any rooms?”

She points up a staircase and answers, “Upstairs, upstairs.”

David thinks about this and rephrases the question, “So, you do have rooms?”

She answers again, “Rooms yes, no toilets.”

Curious.  He tries again, “You have rooms but no toilets?”

She responds, “Tonight, no rooms and no toilets.”

Not being one to give up, David asks, “What about the hotel across the street?  The Argentina?  Do they have rooms?”

“Yes, they have rooms, but no toilets.”


She thinks for a second and then writes the name of something on a slip of paper, a hotel? A town?  We aren’t sure.  She hands David the paper and says, “3 km.  Toilets.”


Sure enough we followed her directions 3 km to a fine little hotel with toilets, showers, a restaurant and a laundromat across the street.  All the luxuries we could ever want.  We even were served a three-course Italian Touristic Dinner that none of us really wanted to eat for a “very special price only for your family.”


Did that hotel really have no toilets?  Did they have toilets just not in the rooms?  Maybe she took one look at David and decided this was a guy who needed his own  toilet in his own room.  Down the hall wouldn’t cut it.  And why do no woman eat at this restaurant?  And most of all…..where were all of those men staying in those rooms going to go to the bathroom tonight?

Categories: Italy, Toilets | 2 Comments

Our Tuscan Summer

Our Tuscan hosts, Serena and Alessandro

Posted by David

You’ve heard about Tuscany before, people rave about the beautiful rolling hills, the vineyards, the long and sumptuous dinners with incredible wine and romantic sunsets.  It’s chick flick and James Bond-cool rolled into one.  It’s the Napa Valley of Italy and has been so since way before Napa was even napping.  It’s gorgeous for sure and we wanted to experience every bit of it. We thought that at the two month point in our travels we would need a respite; a place to kick back, sleep, and enjoy a little peace and quiet after being on the go so many weeks in a row.

We had met a wonderful Italian family in England who were from Tuscany and they suggested that we book a stay at something called an agriturismo.  They are working farms that have little houses for guests. They said it was a great and affordable way to see Tuscany.  Sounded amazing and just what we needed.

I found several agriturismo spots and sent inquiries. We wanted something close enough to Florence so that we could make day trips, a place outside the hustle of the large city, and walking distance to a village.  One called Podere Il Poggilio (owned by Serena and Alesandro) got back to me right away with incredible enthusiasm for their farm and some of the funniest use of the English language that I’d ever read.  I was hooked and after showing it to Amy, we booked it for 10 days excited to pick grapes and olives and bake in the Tuscan sun.

After our stop in Casale Manferato to visit the Ottolenghis, we spent two wonderful nights in an incredible place near the town of Asti (also in Piedmonte) that was a centuries old church converted to top-notch hotel.  On a Sunday morning, we left the comfort and ease of the hotel for our three-hour drive to Tuscany.  In typical fashion, I had written down the address for the agriturismo and typed part of it into the GPS but never spoke directly to Serena, the owner, about the specifics of reaching her farm.  The address was confusing as it had the postal area which was a town called Pontesieve but not a street number.  We arrived near Pontesieve , the town we thought the farm was in, in the late afternoon.  Italy is different about time on Sundays.  They are basically shomer shabbos (observers of the Sabbath) and they take it more seriously than any hasid I’ve ever known.  Stuff is closed, shut down, people are inside eating the Italian equivalent of chullent all day on Sunday.  After sundown, people come out, shops open, and stuff comes alive.  When we got to Pontesieve it was still Shabbos, and we were hopelessly lost.  We had been on the road for more than three hours, the kids were hungry, we had no idea where we were going and the two or three people we found on the street spoke only Italian.  You know the feeling.  We passed the same signs no less than five times before stumbling on another agriturismo.  I rang the bell and the woman spoke English.  She thought she knew the place we were staying and pointed us in the general direction. We thought we were close but there weren’t any signs and we were losing hope.  We saw a young couple with a baby on the street and asked one more time if they knew Podere Il Poggolio.  The woman said she knew it and if we continued up the 8% grade for another 5KM along the snake-path-single-lane road on the edge of the mountain, we would see a small sign hidden behind a large tree pointing us to the farm.  We climbed, and climbed and climbed some more. Clutch, brake, clutch, brake, clutch, brake. The kids were in the back throwing up, Amy was doubting we were going in the right direction when we saw the sign.  It was about the size of a 3 x 5 index card, hand painted, black on black.  We had finally arrived, it was late, we were exhausted and Serena, who was even more enthusiastic in person than she had been in the email, greeted us and showed us to our quarters.  I was surprised that such an excitable woman wanted to hide her business from visitors.

Anyway, we woke up in the morning and went to breakfast in a common area that was beautifully positioned overlooking a valley and the town of Rufina.  Serena and her husband were incredible people who, 15 years ago had “dropped out” of the fast lane, bought a farm and slowly turned it into a business producing wine, olive oil and providing accommodations for tourists.  Serena often war a long white cotton dress that was classic Tuscan peasant.  She spoke less with her mouth than with her entire body, arms in the air, torso back and forth, head bobbing up and down. The place was amazing but there were a few small things that made it a bit unusual.

First, we were at the top of an incredibly steep mountain with a single-track road that really required a 4 x4 and not the rental car we were driving.  This was not a place to take a walk on a nice morning, for fear of a car or tractor coming up or down the mountain.  There would literally be no place to stand to the side to let the traffic pass.  And did I mention that like most rental cars in Europe, ours was a manual.  Amy does not know how to drive a stick shift.  This made Amy feel a bit trapped at the top of the mountain.  Because we had requested a place to fit all of us, we were given an apartment that was a bit away from the other cabins on the farm. Our apartment was connected to two other apartments inhabited by true Tuscanos.  Our next door neighbor, Paolo, Serena told us, was a true Tuscano farmer and that if we wanted to see ho   w the Tuscans lived 150 years ago we should go inside his apartment.  After seeing Paulo walking around with a Mussolini-era rifle slung over his naked shoulder going after some sort of white pheasant, I decided it was best to stay out of Paolo’s abode. Nonetheless, he was very pleasant and seemed un-phased by the loud North Americans constantly coming and going from the house with various Apple products in search of the perfect WiFi connection.

Next door to Paolo was an old Italian gal who enjoyed singing old Tuscan melodies while she hung her laundry out to dry.  Between belting out these melodies, she called for her dog whom was fond of chasing two black cats up a large tree and then standing below the tree barking for hours on end.

In addition to being on top of the mountain and not knowing how to drive a car with a clutch, Amy and Rikki had terrible colds and felt miserable.

We had great excursions into Florence, Pisa, Lucca (the main supplier of toilet paper to Italy), and other great towns.  We spent Erev Rosh Hashana at a beautiful baroque synagogue in Florence that was filled with Florentinian Jews and lots of travelers from all over the world, including a group of North American students that were studying abroad in Florence.

Serena and Alessandro were wonderful and their farm was amazing.  In spite of being virtually unreachable by the majority of non-Tuscan tourists, it was a beautiful place.  Our Tuscan summer was not as we had planned but we had fun and managed to stay alive driving up and down the mountain and staying next door to a rifle-wielding hunter.

Next stop, Rome!

Cannolis made by Rikki

Categories: Italy | 4 Comments

How to Order Gelato

Posted by Rikki

Ask for lots of tastes!


Today, I’ll be talking about how to order gelato.  For those of you who don’t know, gelato is the Italian word for ice cream.  First, you have to find a good gelato place.  The owner should be Italian or else you’re kind of doomed.  Second, you have to look at the display.  See if the ice cream looks fluffy.  A lot of natural colors and flavors are good too.  Third, order your gelato.  Don’t be afraid to ask for tastes.  You have to be very careful about ordering.  You have to ask for a small or say the price like, “ A 2 euro size please.”  Some places like to give the tourists extra large sizes and then charge them 10 euros!  But if  you’re Leo, go ahead and get the 10 euro size.

Firzenze - The gelato capital of the world

Categories: Italy | 8 Comments

Casale Monferrato

Casale Monferrato

Piedmonte, Italy

Northern Italy between Turin and Milan

Posted by David

Our first stop in Italy was Casale Monferrato where we had arranged to meet two remarkable people, Adriana and Giorgio Ottolenghi.   Casale Manferato is a small town in the Piedmonte region of Italy (yes, that’s the same Piedmonte that supplies us with that delicious low-fat beef). The town, like all Italian towns, has a very long and storied history involving Romans, Kings, Queens, Napoleon, and a few Jews who have somehow remained in this town for over five centuries.


Adrianna and her sister, Rene Tore arrived to my Mom’s hometown of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, from Italy after WW II.   After surviving the war by hiding in a convent among other places, their parents decided that they wanted their children to come to America.  Both girls ended up graduating from the University of Wisconsin, but later Adriana went back to Italy to care for her grandmother and fell in love with Giorgio. She returned permanently and her sister and parents followed. It was pretty easy to track down Adriana as she and Giorgio take care of the Jewish Museum and the ancient synagogue in Casale Monferrato.   She was thrilled to hear from me and invited us for a visit to her town.


So, back to our encounter with Adriana and Giorgio…….


Adriana greets us like family at the gate to her and Giorgio’s home that has been in his family for over 500 years.  She has a beautiful smile and a warmth that defies the fact that we have never actually met one another.  We enter a courtyard to her building, which once housed Giorgio’s entire extended family and is now subdivided into apartments that they rent out.  Their apartment is like a museum, filled with centuries old paintings and Judaica that they have collected.


Prior to WWII, Adriana’s father owned land in France (I believe vineyards) and when the Nazi’s took over, he lost everything.  The family hid in various places for more than four years, always on the run.  The girls could not go to school but they were spared deportation to Auschwitz like so many other Italian Jews.  Giorgio’s family, who had lived in Casale Manferato for over 500 years, was able to slip into Switzerland with his parents and wait the war out, even managing to enter university while he was there.  He returned to Casale Manferato after the war and unlike most other parts of Europe, his family was able to reclaim their house.  Giorgio will be 89 in January and looks about 70.  Incredibly, he graduated from medical school when in his late 40’s.  His intellect and incredible disposition must be what keep him young because he said he doesn’t exercise or eat particularly well.


We walk to the synagogue down very old brick streets to a non-descript building where we enter through a side door.  Prior to the Jews being emancipated (sometime around the unification of Italy in 1870) synagogues could not be built on a main street or face a church.  Inside, the sanctuary is incredible.  It is decorated in a baroque style and although it has been restored over the years, it made it through WWII with only minor damage and the theft of several Ner Tamid fixtures that hung near the Ark.  The sanctuary is set up with the Ark at the end of the room and the Torah reading in the middle.  The pews have little boxes for members to keep their sidurs, talisim, and tefillin and of course there is a balcony for the women as the shul pre-dates any sort of orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist type delineations.  The Museum part of the building has some incredible pieces of Judaica including a document signed by Napolean regarding Jewish emancipation in Italy.  How these things were saved through the war is itself a miracle.  The basement of the Synagogue has an amazing collection of Hanukah menorahs that are part of an annual contest of artists sponsored by the community.  We also see the ancient matzah oven as well as the outline of the mikvah that was once in the basement.


The beautiful Casale Monferrato Synagogue

Adriana is an incredible guide.  She shows us the displays they use for the local schools who come for visits showing the major Jewish holidays.  There are only 8 Jewish people left in Casale Manferato, but the Synagogue and museum is visited daily by school groups, foreign Jewish tourists, and people observing the annual day of Jewish Heritage that Europeans observe at the end of each September.  Adriana meets all these groups.


We walk back to her house for a bite to eat and to say goodbye to her and Giorgio.  Before we leave, she takes us down to her garage, which has four enormous wooden doors that must have been a horse stable at one time.  She opens one of the doors to show me her 1966 Fiat 500 that has been meticulously cared for since Giorgio bought it for her new.  It’s another one of her museum pieces.


Adriana and Giorgio wish us arrivederci with hugs and kisses and we are off to our next stop in Asti.



Fiat 500




Categories: Italy | 4 Comments

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Toilette…


Funny stories from Italia By Eva Goldman


A few days ago we were at a rest-stop eating lunch and a guy sneezed on my neck!  At first I didn’t hear him sneeze, but then I felt some wetness on my neck.  It was one of the most discussing things that ever happened to me.  I had to put hand sanitizer on my neck!  I knew that if he was going to say I’m sorry or whatever it would be in Italian, but he didn’t even say anything!


Onto the next story.  This story is about a language confusion.  Today we went to an international book store.  While Maya was taking forever looking at book,s I asked the lady working there if they had a toilette.


Here is how the conversation went.


Me: do you have a TOILETTE?


Her: Yes, let me check. (types something into the computer), Follow me.


Her: Do you want the movie or the book?


Me: No, I meant the place where you “go”


Her: Okay, okay(and starts looking through books).


Me: Mom, I didn’t want the book I have to go pee!




Her: Si, Si I am looking for it here on this shelf.


My Mom: BANJO?(bathroom in Spanish)


Her: Oh yes yes yes…


She gives us a key and we were still confused, where is it?  She points her finger up.  We finally find some stairs. Few!



Categories: Italy, Toilets | 3 Comments

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: