Italy, April 2022

I recently returned from a trip to Italy with my brother, James, in celebration of his 35th birthday. In the middle of the pandemic, I asked him where in the world he’d want to go or what single attraction he’d be most excited to see on a trip together. After some deliberation, he decided on “The Colosseum,” and I started planning.

Bookings

Unlike many of the trips that I plan, this one was straightforward to book. While the number of separate itineraries was larger than normal due to split tickets and positioning flights, they were very easy to procure and manage. Given the presence of positioning flights and split tickets, I’m going to outline the complete booking for each individual rather than by itinerary.

There were a few constraints that made booking “optimal” flights difficult, namely that I wanted to ensure that James and I stayed together until departing Europe for the USA. In truth, it wasn’t too difficult to ensure this as long as we were willing to take an early flight with a long layover.

In general, I’ve been trying to use expiring credits and travel wallet funds, even when the pricing is a little off compared to normal. Getting something for those credits is better than getting nothing. That’s why I paid for cash fares for positioning flights on Alaska Airlines for both James and I.

Flights

  • James
    • 309.00USD (cash fare, using Alaska wallet funds)
      • SEA-LAS on AS J
    • 53,000 Air France Flying Blue Miles + 248.31USD
      • LAS-AMS on KL J
      • AMS-FLR on KL J
    • 53,000 Air France Flying Blue Miles + 312.27USD
      • NAP-CDG on AF J
      • CDG-SEA on AF J
  • Nicholas
    • 53,000 Air France Flying Blue Miles + 248.31USD
      • LAS-AMS on KL J
      • AMS-FLR on KL J
    • 77,500 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Miles + 191.39EUR
      • NAP-CDG on AF J
      • CDG-LAX on AF J
    • 119.00USD (cash fare, using Alaska wallet funds)
      • LAX-LAS on AS J

Hotels

Trains

  • Firenze Santa Maria Novella to Roma Termini on Frecciarossa in Business for 42.90EUR per person
  • Roma Termini to Napoli Centrale on Frecciarossa in Business 36.90EUR per person

Activities

SARS-COV-2 Procedures

With how quickly travel requirements change, it is likely that those we encountered and are outlined in the following few paragraphs may be out of date when you’re reading this. That being said, this is what we encountered and the solutions we chose to ensure everyone could move between countries with a minimum of fuss.

For entry, Italy required travelers from the United States to be fully vaccinated. In addition, all travelers were required to complete a passenger locator form prior to arrival. In Italy, mask usage was required on transit and was requested in all indoor spaces. Vaccination status was not checked at any point during our travels and mask usage was very low, in general, even in locations where it was purportedly required.

For entry, the USA required all travelers to present a negative SARS-COV-2 PCR or antigen result obtained within one calendar day of departure. To fulfill this requirement, I brought an Abbot BinaxNow proctored home test kid from eMed for myself only to find that it had expired because I misunderstood the extensions that were provided.

As such, James and I both got tested at a pharmacy at Napoli Centrale. The test cost 20.00EUR per person and the entire process lasted 30 minutes. We had to provide our passport to the pharmacist and pay in advance of the test.

For both our outbound and inbound itineraries, we were able to provide the documentation required for travel to the airline (KLM and Air France, respectively) through an online portal and receive confirmation of acceptance within a few minutes.

Day 1

We arrived at LAS two hours before our flight only to find it had already been delayed an hour. As such, we headed to the Centurion Lounge to spend some time before walking to our gate. The lounge was the least busy I’ve seen it in quite some time. The offerings included grilled tri-tip and asparagus salad and were tasty, if not up to the level of those commonly found at SFO.

Upon boarding, we found ourselves on a fairly new KLM B789 with seats in business class having a 1-2-1 layout. We settled into our seats, I informed James there was no charge for anything that he wanted, and we enjoyed the flight to AMS.

The seat on this particular aircraft is comfortable and spacious with a single storage cabinet, ample overhead bin space, and plenty of room to stretch out and sleep. I could comfortably lay on either my back or side and the air nozzles above my seat ensured I was able to keep cool.

Masks were not required on the flight, but I left mine on for most of the journey, especially when I was sleeping. Most people didn’t bother to wear a mask onboard for any period of time. Masks were required once we deplaned at AMS but this was not enforced in any meaningful way.

The on-board meal was decent, but not exceptional. The service was extremely friendly and personable, though, and I was able to get some sleep before landing in Europe.

We landed at AMS and deplaned without issue. Because we were continuing on to another Schengen Zone country, we had to clear customs before heading to our connecting flight. Luckily, this was a trivial matter – it felt like the old days.

James exchanged USD to EUR at a Travelex and then we headed to the KLM Business Class Lounge. It was absolutely packed, but we managed to find two very comfortable and isolated seats and relax with some sparkling water and cappuccinos.

Ninety minutes later, we got up and walked to our gate. Boarding took place at a remote gate reached by bus. The seats were similar to US airlines’ domestic first class, which I found unusual for intra-Europe business as it is usually just a blocked out middle seat.

The service on our short flight to FLR was fantastic – the flight attendants were, again, quite friendly. The dinner meal on the short flight was delicious. Interestingly, mask usage on this flight was strictly enforced given the Italian destination and their regulations in regards to transit.

When we arrived at FLR, I procured some EUR from a local bank’s ATM before heading outside to the tram and purchasing tickets for 1.50EUR each. The tram whisked us away to Santa Maria Novella railway station and we walked to the Hotel Lungarno from there.

The Hotel Lungarno was everything I hoped it would be. The rooms were beautiful and spacious. While the rooms were the same category, mine was two stories and James’s was one story. Unlike the typical metropolitan hotel, I felt like I had room to spread out and take advantage of all the space available to me.

Soon after we arrived, the concierge called James and asked him to come down for a complimentary drink at the bar. We were seated outside on the patio overlooking the River Arno and we enjoyed our gratis cocktail and mocktail.

Afterwards, we set off across the Ponte Vecchio for the first of many times. After walking around the city center for a little bit, we got stuck in a rainstorm on the way to Gelateria La Carraia where we sampled the dark chocolate and tiramisu flavors. I wholeheartedly recommend this location. The gelato is fantastic and well-priced.

We ate our gelato hidden underneath a random shop’s canopy while we waited for the storm to clear up a bit and then we walked back to the hotel for some much-needed sleep, completing the longest day James has probably ever had.

Day 2

Breakfast at Hotel Lungarno was included as part of our rate and was absolutely delicious. There was a large and varied buffet with plenty of meats, cheeses, and baked goods. You could also ask for eggs cooked to order (which we didn’t realize until the second morning) and any type of espresso preparation you preferred. We each drank three cappuccinos a day, I believe.

After filling up for the day, we set off for the Duomo complex where we had reserved timed entry to Brunelleschi’s dome at 0900. When we arrived at the entrance, we joined the line of a few dozen people and waited a few minutes before being granted entry.

We walked the narrow staircases from the bottom to the first internal terrace in the dome where we admired the artwork depicting heaven and hell. From there, it was into the dome interior where we were able to marvel at the work of engineering genius up close and personal before popping out into the open air.

The view from the terrace around the dome was just as beautiful as the last time I visited and, while a little nervous at first, James worked up the nerve to step close to the edge so I could snap a few pictures of him.

After half an hour, we were ushered back inside and made our way down, stopping briefly on the upper internal terrace.

Once at the bottom, we walked to the campanile for another steep climb. I think the view from Giotto’s bell tower is the best one in Florence – you can take in the full majesty of the cathedral’s dome and look over the beautiful rooftops as far as the eye can see.

Again, we made our way to the ground level before heading over to the baptistery. Unfortunately, much of the building is under restoration so you can’t experience the full majesty, but what is on display is still beautiful. The sheer amount of gold in the art is somewhat overwhelming.

Next, we headed around the north side of the cathedral and got in line to visit the interior. The queue moved swiftly, and we were soon inside. The interior of the cathedral is breathtaking, and the history exposed below is even more incredible when you understand the history of the site from the time of the Roman Empire through the construction of the first church on the site and finally to the present building.

After visiting the cathedral, we returned to the hotel for a brief respite before walking back to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. We perused every piece in the collection, including the works from Donatello and the reproductions of Michaelangelo’s Pieta (a nice preview of things to come).

Eventually, we were both dead on our feet with James admitting that he was falling asleep standing up towards the end of the exhibit. As such, it was back to the hotel for a quick nap before heading to Il Konnubio for dinner at the suggestion of the concierge.

We were seated immediately in a small booth above the rest of the dining tables. Service was delightful and the food was tasty with an interesting vibe. I had the asparagus stuffed gnocchi as my first course with the rabbit royale as my main while James chose the purple udon noodles with vegetables and vegetable ratatouille. The bread we were served was obviously fresh-based and the amuse bouche we were provided were delicious – mine was a molasses beef tartare with cocoa powder, which was surprisingly appetizing.

After dinner, we did a loop of the Florence city center to finish off the night and headed for the hotel in preparation for the next day’s activities.

Day 3

Again, the day started with a delicious breakfast before walking to the Galleria degli Uffizi where I was able to bypass the ticket line to pick-up the tickets I had reserved online. In fact, I was able to pick up the tickets for the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia at the same time.

We spent all day in the museum. First, we admired the Roman statuary:

The second part of our visit involved wondering at the spectacle of late-medieval and Renaissance art from a variety of masters including Boticelli, Rafael, Michaelangelo, da Vinci, Titian, and Carvaggio.

After freshening up at the hotel, we visited Chianineria Dall’oste Firenze for dinner. While James is a vegetarian, I really wanted to try the local cattle and was keen to sample this restaurant’s fare based on a recommendation from Angela.

Unfortunately, the meal was a disappointment. The beef tartare was delivered with condiments on the side and the steak I ordered arrived absolutely riven with fat to the point where I had several ounces of fat strips on my plate at the end of the meal. That would have been all right if the marbling made the meat delicious, but it did not seem to have that effect, unfortunately.

James ordered vegetable soup and mushroom ravioli, which were mediocre in his telling. Overall, I would give this restaurant a pass.

Again, we walked around the Florence city center after dinner but, being too full for gelato, we decided to head back and hang out in James’s suite for about an hour before parting ways and getting some sleep.

Day 4

We ate a large breakfast given we would be traveling in the middle of the day and, afterwards, walked to the Galleria dell’Accademia. James had a morning nose ring malfunction which delayed us slightly, but we were still able to arrive during our ticketed time slot by walking 1.5km in 11 minutes.

After clearing security, we bypassed all the tour groups who stop immediately after entering and went straight to the gallery containing Michaelangelo’s David. There, we were able to admire the statue in peace and take some pictures before the crowds piled in. The difference between 0910 and 0920 was incredible.

We briefly perused the rest of the gallery, including an interesting exhibit containing various busts of Michaelangelo purportedly created by his friend at the time of his death. Walking back to the hotel, we took advantage of the beautiful weather and took a few pictures.

After securing our luggage, we checked out and walked to Santa Maria Novella rail station for our train to Rome. I opted for the Freciarossa bullet train to keep our travel time low. It was a very pleasant journey in comfortable seats and with snacks included – I love train travel in Europe!

When we arrived at Roma Termini, we walked a very short distance from the station to our hotel for the next three nights, Anantara Palazzo Naiadi. Our rooms were on the second-floor and were large and well-finished. I had some minor quibbles about the property, like the water running brown from mineralization initially, but the hotel was centrally located and very comfortable. I would classify it as mass-market luxury, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

Shortly after checking in, we set off on a giant walking tour of Rome, visiting most of the main tourist sites including the Colosseum, the Imperial Forums, Trajan’s Column, the Victor Emmanuel II National Monument, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps.

We returned to the hotel to give our feet a rest before walking to Al Forno della Soffita for some pizza. Just like on previous visits, the dishes were delicious, and the service was attentive and friendly. I would recommend this restaurant to anyone.

After a very long day, we headed back to the hotel for some rest (and to consume the delightful welcome cake that was provided to us).

Day 5

Breakfast was included as part of our rate and the hotel had a great spread that should cater to any taste. The fruit was fresh and delicious. There were plenty of meat and cheese options. We drank several cappuccinos each day and I orderd poached eggs every time we ate breakfast. They were cooked perfectly.

After filling up, we headed towards the Colosseum for our guided tour of the amphitheater and the excavated underground area, the Palatine Hill, and the Roman Forum.

We met Elisa from Roma Experience in front of Palazzo Manfredi and started our tour. We were told the history of the building while we walked to the entrance and then toured the main and underground levels before getting to stand on a reproduction of the stage (elevated a couple of feet above where it was in ancient times).

We walked to the Palatine Hill after departing from the Flavian Amphitheatre and toured the ruins of the residences of the Roman emperors. It is hard to fathom how a family could live in such opulent luxury at any point in history. The ruins tell a story of wealth and power that would be hard to understand in any other way.

From the residences, we moved to the the Roman Forum, the center of Roman life. Elisa relayed details about the various roadways that have been escavated and how we were walking along the pathway from the first century BCE, located a few feet below the one that imperial Romans would have used. She described the looting that took place by the Church throughout history that destroyed the ruins in order to build echlesiastic structures. We learned about the Vestal Virgins and their elevated place in Roman society.

Finally, she showed us the spot where she personally escavated a jar containing the remains of a human sacrifice made to ward off invasion by the Gauls before showing us the spot where Julius Caesar was cremated and lauded as a deity. We finished with a brief overview of the structures at the end of the Roman Forum and why they were important.

I chose this particular tour at Angela’s suggestion from her time in Rome with her mother and I was not disappointed. Elisa was a font of knowledge and suffered through our endless questions with nary a glance. She even took a selfie with us!

When our tour concluded, we walked to the Musei Capitolini to take in a wide array of Roman statuary and other historical artifacts. I particularly enjoyed the bronze statues collected in the beautiful atrium, including the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius which is still partially gilded. I also love the view of the Roman Forum from the terrace inside the tabularium.

After the museum, we returned to the hotel to rest for a few minutes before striking out in search of some food. First, we tried Centro but they were closed for dinner with the kitchen reserved for a private event. We stumbled onto Maestro which had middling reviews on Google but plenty of tables available and an interesting menu. In search of refuge from the increasing rainfall we gave the establishment a shot and were pleasantly surprised by how delicious the food was. I opted for cacio e pepe and crispy duck. James chose eggplant parmesan. We both enjoyed our dishes quite a bit.

Day 6

We woke up early and walked to the Vatican Museums, arriving at 0720 to check in for our tour. We were met by our guide, Massimo, who herded the other four members of our group into line and then proceeded to explain the symbology of the Sistine Chapel. The walk was quite pleasant, and we got to see much of the city without the crush of tourists you’d usually see on highly trafficked roads.

Eventually, we walked inside the Vatican and were whisked through the entry gate into the Cortile della Pigna where we had a great view of the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. From there, we were treated to a whirlwind tour of the Gallery of Maps, the Gallery of Tapestries, important pieces of statuary in the museums, the Raphael Rooms, and, finally, the Sistine Chapel.

After leaving the Sistine Chapel we took a circuitous route to the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica. After passing through security, we entered the vast expanse and saw Michaelangelo’s Pieta (the real one this time), Saint John Paul II’s tomb, and various other sacred pieces. The bronze canopy and interior of the dome continues to amaze and, as always, it is absolutely incredible that almost all of the mounted art in the basilica are mosaics, not paintings.

Our tour completed and we opted to remain in the church for a while longer, visiting the tomb of the popes and doing another lap around the church to really soak in the architecture and artistry.

We departed St. Peter’s and walked back to our hotel. Along the way, we stopped to rest in the beautiful weather outside of Castel Sant’Angelo.

After drinking some water and resting our feet for about an hour, we set off to the Villa Borghese gardens and walked most of the circumference as well as a large portion of the interior. We found a terrace overlooking the Roman rooftops and took a few pictures.

I asked the concierge to recommend a restaurant for dinner and make us a reservation. At 1930, we set off for Ristorante Target where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of rigatoni carbonara and salmon for myself and vegetable couscous and Greek salad for James.

Day 7

After a hearty breakfast, we walked to the Circus Maximus to take in views of the ancient racetrack and the Palatine Hill overlooking it before circling back for a final look at the Colosseum.

We collected our luggage before heading to Roma Termini for our train ride to Napoli Centrale. The journey was comfortable and, upon alighting, we made our way to the Piazza Garibaldi subway station for a short trip to Piazza Amedeo before walking the rest of the way to the hotel.

Unfortunately, it started to rain as we walked from the subway station to The Britannique, but other than being a little wet, we made it safely about 30 minutes after leaving Napoli Centrale.

The Britannique is a beautiful hotel with excellent finishes and, above all else, incredible views over the water towards Capri, Sorrento, and Vesuvius. We were lucky to both be upgraded to sea view rooms and enjoyed the unobstructed sightlines.

After drying off, I bought tickets for the National Archaeological Museum of Naples online and we headed back to the subway. Two stops later, we walked to the entrance and were able to skip the long ticket line due to the advance purchase.

The museum primarily holds works from Rome that belonged to the Farnese family (the so-called Farnese Collection) and those recovered from Herculaneum and Pompeii. Quite frankly, the artifacts are breathtaking, particularly the bronze and marble statues recovered from Herculaneum and the frescoes recovered from Pompeii. Some of the day-to-day items recovered from Pompeii are equally impressive, including a full set of silverware.

By the time we left the museum we were very tired and opted to eat dinner at the hotel restaurant. Service was excellent and the food was delicious. James chose a salad with olive oil and lemon dressing to start and gnocchi as his main. I opted for duck confit with greens to start and ginger confit with cod for my main. I would highly recommend checking out the restaurant if you opt to stay at this hotel and are looking for an easy, but tasty, option.

Day 8

James’s birthday was full of adventure, but not until after breakfast. The spread at The Britannique was simple, with a smaller selection than the other properties we stayed at, but tasty, and the views were absolutely incredible. The breakfast restaurant is on the fifth floor and, on sunny days like we were lucky to have, it feels like you can see forever.

We were met at 0830 by our driver, Roberto, who drove us to Pompeii where we met our tour guide, Annalisa. She was energetic, informative, and very pleasant. I felt like I learned a lot and really got to see the highlights of Pompeii. For me, the most impressive part was the frescoes in the “House of Lovers” that we were shown, especially those with a rich blue color.

The whole site was incredible, though, and it didn’t feel too busy. While we certainly intersected with crowds at some points, when we stopped to look at something, we were mostly alone.

After we departed from the ancient city of Pompeii, Roberto took us to the modern city of Pompeii, which was celebrating the supplica, a holiday for the patron saint of the city. We walked up the main boulevard to the central plaza and saw a well-attended mass and spent a bit more time wandering around the city center.

Afterwards, Roberto took us to a local pizzeria, I Matti. I ordered a plate of prosciutto and burrata and the Anni 90° pizza whereas James ordered fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta and a margherita pizza along with a glass of the house red wine. The meal was good, not great, but certainly fueled us for the next stop on our journey.

Roberto drove us to Mount Vesuvius, stopping at a scenic lookout along the way. We hung out on the edge of the mountain for a while talking and took some pictures before continuing on.

We arrived at the trailhead to Mount Vesuvius about ten minutes after it had started to pour rain. With a timed entry, we had no choice but to proceed at 1500. We walked to the end of the trail in about 25 minutes, getting soaked along the way. Luckily, the rain stopped when we reached the summit and we were able to take some nice pictures on the way down.

We returned to the trailhead and Roberto transported us back to the hotel where we hung out in James’s room for a while before I went to bed. Unbeknownst to me, James headed to the bar for an old-fashioned and they plyed him with bar snacks and a cake for his birthday.

Day 9

Our last day in Italy was the only truly unplanned day of the entire trip. While we had intended to visit Capri, the entire island was covered by a giant cloud all day long.

After breakfast, we set off in search of a pharmacy in order to get a (hopefully) negative SARS-COV-2 rapid antigen result. The first pharmacy recommended by the concierge was closed. The second pharmacy didn’t offer testing.

We decided to head to Napoli Centrale and look for a pharmacy that offered testing and, hopefully, offered results in English. In the end, we were able to procure the results we needed for 20.00EUR and a 30 minute wait.

After getting our results, we decided to walk down to the Port of Naples and along the coastline. It ended up being a beautiful day to walk the outer circumference of the city. When we got to the end of large coastal park, we cut up to the hotel where I provided photos of our passports and negative test results to the airline for verification.

I received confirmation that our documents were accepted, and we decided to walk to 50 Kalo, a highly rated pizzeria in Naples. We both ordered the margherita and it was absolutely delicious. I highly recommend this restaurant if you’re ever in Naples and, in case it matters, I’m pretty sure we were the only non-Italians in the entire restaurant.

After that, it was back along the coastline and then up to the hotel to pack and sleep in preparation for a very early morning.

Day 10

We woke up at 0300 in order to check out of the hotel at 0330 and take a car at 0340 to Naples airport. The driver was racing along the way, to the point where we arrived at the airport prior to it officially opening.

After clearing security, we waited in the terminal until the Pearl Lounge opened. I was pleasantly surprised by the lounge as it was spacious and well maintained.

We boarded our flight after my boarding pass set off a bunch of alarms and enjoyed the two hour flight to Paris. The meal was good, but not as good as the intra-Europe KLM one.

Once in Paris, we cleared passport control without problem and then found the Air France Business Lounge in Terminal 2E, Hall L. We waited there until a half hour before our flights boarded. We did a lap around the terminal, I dropped James at his gate, and we each boarded our long hauls back to the United States.

From there, it was the usual – sleep a bit, enjoy a few meals, and write this blog post. James arrived at SEA safely and on-time while I transited LAX on the way home to LAS. The seats on Air France’s 77W are showing their age and were definitely less comfortable than those on KLM’s 789. The food, though, was delicious.

We had an awesome trip together, and it was something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. We had so many moments that stick with me and I am so glad we took advantage of this opportunity together.

1 comment

  1. a wonderful write up Nicholas! Very enjoyable to read, and felt like I was there with you and James on this trip!

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