Playing Cards The Italian Way – Scopa and Briscola

Playing Cards, Rome, 2008Playing Cards, Rome, 2008

Looking back through my travel journals I realized that one of the most often enjoyed activities were the many card games played with our family and friends.  The two most popular games being Scopa and Briscola.  Joe’s father Richard taught me how to play both games which he learned from his father who grew up in Sicily.

While Scopa and Briscola have different rules they both utilize the same deck of 40 cards, beautifully illustrated, which are divided into four suits. As all things in Italy there is variation of the four suits depending on the area of the country.  The southern cards: Neapolitan, Piacentine, Triestine, and Sicilian are divided into Coppe (Cups), Ori or Denari (Golds or Coins), Spade (Swords) and Bastoni (Clubs), while  the northern cards: Piemontesi, Milanesi and Toscane use the French suits, Cuori (Hearts), Quadri (Diamonds, literally “Squares”), Fiori (Flowers) and Picche (Spades, literally “Pikes”).  The designs have evolved over the centuries and one of my favorite books which illustrates this evolution is Passione collezionismo Carte Do Gioco by Frederique Crestin-Billet.  Throughout my travels I would look for antique, unusual, or highly decorated decks of cards.  This can quickly become an obsession.

While we often played cards late in the afternoon before dinner, in our apartment or hotel, we sometimes played cards at one of the local cafes.   If I could suggest one tip for getting to know locals this would be it – break out a deck of cards.

Churches and Crypts

There are more than 900 churches in Rome most Catholic but not all.  Of these, there are four major basilicas in the city which fall under the direct supervision of the Pope – Basilica of St. John Lateran (Also the seat of the Bishop of Rome) Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Basilica of Saint Paul, and St. Peter’s. Visiting any one of these many churches will provide you with a crash course in history, architecture and art.   Some of my favorites are listed below with a short rationale of why.  You could live your entire life in Rome and not visit all of these remarkable structures. If you find yourself walking past a church and the doors are open I encourage you to go inside – you never know what you will discover.  Everything from Bernini sculptures to Caravaggio paintings to some interesting relics are housed within these houses of worship.

Crypt of Balbi – you can see in detail the layers of Roman civilization from the earliest days through the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  It is like one big layer cake that you get to walk through and actually see and touch the layers.  Also very near to the Largo Argentina where Caesar is reputed to have been assassinated.

Santa Cecilia in Trestevere – Somewhat out of the way this church was built over the upper class home of it’s namesake.  Be sure to tour the excavations under the church.

San Luigi dei Francesi – Near the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon this church houses three spectacular Caraviaggio paintings, among which include the Calling of Saint Matthew, one of his most powerful works.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva – The only gothic church in Rome.  I recommend visiting late in the afternoon when the setting sun is directly in front of the entrance.  Before entering, take your picture in front of the famous Bernini  baby elephant carrying an obelisk. Among the many notable works of art inside is a wonderful sculpture by Michelangelo, a muscular Christ Bearing the Cross.

via Churches and Crypts.

Day Tripping – Rome to Florence

View of Duomo from San Miniato
View of Duomo from San Miniato al Monte, Florence, 2012

There are many day trips to nearby towns and cities that you can take from Rome.  Florence, Frascati, Tivoli, and Ostia Antica are among some of my favorites.  Taking the high speed Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) or Frecciargento (Silver Arrow) from Roma Termini Station to Firenze located just under 300 km to the northwest from downtown Rome, takes 90 minutes.  Italy’s high speed trains are a great way to travel, comfortable and ultra modern,   maximizing your time.

Among Florence’s many treasures are Michelangelo’s David, Brunelleschi’s Duomo, and Masaccio’s frescoes of Adam and Eve. Depending on how much time and energy you have it is possible to see all three.  I recommend buying tickets to the Galleria dell’Accademia (David) and the church of Santa Maria del Carmine (Adam and Eve frescoes) in advance to avoid long lines and wasting valuable time.

View of San Miniato From Boboli Gardens, Florence, 2013
View of San Miniato al Monte From Boboli Gardens, Florence, 2013

One of my favorite itineraries for a day in Florence includes arriving at Santa Maria Novella Station and taking a taxi up to San Miniato al Monte for an incredible view of the city. From the basilica walk the short distance to Piazzale Michaelangelo for another incredible view of the Tuscan valley.  From the piazzale look for the stair case at the northwest corner and wind your way down the footpath past the Giardino delle Rose, a hidden gem, to the old city gate at Piazzetta San Miniato.  From this point you can wander toward Ponte alle Grazie and cross the bridge from the oltrarno, “beyond the Arno”, quarter of the city into the historic center of the city toward Santa Crocce.   This is about a two and one half hour walk of incredible vista’s which allows you to avoid large crowds and plenty of time to visit some of the major attractions.  As you wander this particularly beautiful corner of Firenze stop to enjoy a caffe, browse some of the incredible shops, and take as many pictures as you can. You will remember this city for the rest of your life!!

Room with a View, Friends on Their Terrace, Florence, 2013
Room with a View, Friends on Their Terrace, Florence, 2013

How Many Obelisks Are There in Rome? – Creating Your Own Walking Tour

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome 2012My favorite obelisk is located in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva near the Pantheon

As many times as I have been to the eternal city I have never seen all thirteen obelisks (8 ancient egyptian and 5 ancient roman) – Rome harbors the most obelisks in the world.   If you are looking for an adventure for yourself, for visitors, or for your family,  setting out to see all of the obelisks is one of the best.

Many times throughout my stay in Rome I would think about something that I was interested in: Bernini statues, Caravaggio paintings, fountains, remnants of the ancient aqueducts, places in Rome featured in movies – and then I would set off to see as many of them as I could.  This is a great way to learn about the history of the city, become more familiar with the city, and discover all sorts of new favorite destinations.

Create your own walking tour!!

Modern Italian History – Royal Family, House of Savoy

Coat_of_arms_of_the_King_of_Italy_(1890)

The House of Savoy (Casa di Savoia) formed in the early 11th century, through gradual expansion, grew from ruling a small county in the Savoy Region to eventually rule the unified Kingdom of Italy (1860-1946).  Ruling for 85 years the four most recent monarchs include Victor Emmanuel IIUmberto IVictor Emmanuel III, and Umberto II. The last monarch ruled for a few weeks before being overthrown by a Constitutional Referendum, and a new republic and government was then proclaimed.  Both Victor Emmanuel II and Umberto I are buried in the Pantheon.  Today’s descendants are a lively cast of characters who occasionally appear in the papers.

Renting a Car in Italy – Some Practical Advice

Tivoli, 2009Tivoli, 2009

If your plans have you headed to Italy for more than two weeks I would recommend that you consider renting a car and take advantage of a few driving adventures.  A wonderful article in the travel section of the New York TImes, that I often recommend, about the ins and outs of renting cars abroad is included in this post.

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to book your rental car through the country website for the rental company of choice.  For example go to hertz.it vs. hertz.com.  Most large companies with international locations will allow you to choose the language you wish use on the site making it very easy.  You will often save 30% simply by doing this. The second piece of advice – know which credit card you will be using prior to booking and have a full understanding of the coverage your bank provides on rental cars outside of the U.S.   Note the related article about IDP’s below.  I have never been asked for anything other than my US drivers license.

Lastly enjoy the experience – driving through the hills of Tuscany or along the Amalfi Coast is a memory that you will keep for life and well worth the effort.

Recommended Reading

City Secrets of Rome

This little gem of a book makes a great gift for friends and family that may be headed to Rome and definitely is something to pack into your own suitcase.  I referred to this book often especially when having a “tourist block”.

City Secrets Rome brings together the recommendations of artists, writers, historians, architects, chefs, and other experts whose passionate opinions and highly informed perspectives illuminate well-known sites as well as overlooked treasures. These expert travel companions share with you their favorite little-known places including restaurants, cafés, art, architecture, shops, outdoor markets, strolls, daytrips, as well all manner of cultural and historic landmarks.

City Secrets Rome, Series Editor – Robert Kahn

Day Tripping – Rome to Tivoli

Villa d'este Fall 2013Large Fountain, Villa d’Este, Tivoli, 2012

There are many day trips to nearby towns and cities that you can take from Rome.  Florence, Frascati, Tivoli, and Ostia Antica are among some of my favorites.  Taking the train from Roma Termini Station to Tivoli, located about 30 km to the northeast from downtown Rome, takes about 45 minutes. As the train pulls out of the station and moves into the country you see parts of the city you normally wouldn’t experience and finally as you climb the gently curving hills toward Tivoli you can look forward to beautiful vistas including some waterfalls.

Among Tivoli’s many treasures are Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana (Hadrian’s Villa).  Both exceptional in what they have to offer.  If you have to choose, Villa d’Este, would be my choice for the exquisite fountains, vistas, and greenery. (NOTE: Villa d’Este and Villa Adriana are closed on Mondays)

Upon arriving at the Tivoli Train station walk downhill on  Viale Giuseppe Mazzini.  When you arrive at the traffic circle, round the circle to your right, and stop at Il Ciocco for an espresso. From the back of the bar you can look down upon Villa Gregoriana.  From here you can follow the signs to Villa d’Este and enjoy your walk up into this ancient town.

Hills with a View – Climb One!

View of the Vatican from the Aventine HillView of the Vatican from Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill, Rome, 2012

Within the ancient walls of Rome are the Seven Hills upon which the city was built – Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinial, and Viminal.  In addition there are many other hills outside the walls of the historic center – Cispian, Janiculium, Monte Mario, Oppian, Pinican, Vatican, and Velian.  All of them offer spectacular views and I encourage anyone visiting Rome to take the time to climb one or more.  One of my favorites is the Aventine.  There you can enjoy one of the best views of the city as well as the church of Santa Sabina, mother church for the order of Dominicans.  I recommend approaching the hill from the north near the Circus Maximus and departing down the hill toward Via Marmorata. Time permitting visit Vopetti and the Protestant Cemetery.  You can spend an entire day in this rione (Ripa)

The Pleasure of Food

Kersten Family at Ristorante Da PancrazioEnjoying a typical Roman pranzo at Ristorante Da Pancrazio, Campo di Fiori

Too say Italians love their food is absurd.  They obsess about it!  Having eaten in just about every region of Italy in every conceivable type of establishment I will say that I especially enjoy traditional Roman dishes.   Roman cuisine evolved from a historical perspective from creative use of what the nobility threw away or “paid” their servants.  Many of the typical Roman dishes incorporated inexpensive items – offal, organ meat, etc. knows as the “quinto quarto”.  Today’s dishes have evolved from those recipes and focus mainly on fresh vegetables, cheeses, and pastas.

When visiting Rome I balance trying new places and new dishes with my favorites.  Some of my favorite places in the Campo di Fiori are listed here.

Cafes, Enotecas, Gelaterias, Osterias, and Pizzarias