Putting Francis in Charge

We followed our friends to our rental car at the beginning our short vacation together, feeling a palpable sense of freedom and relaxation. The source of our contentment was easy to pinpoint: we weren’t in charge. While we had all chosen the destination and lodging together, another couple had rented the car and they would be doing the driving and navigating. As Paul and I climbed into the far back seats of the rented van, we felt as much like privileged children under the care of doting parents as any middle-aged people possibly could. We were so unburdened by responsibility that we were practically giddy.

All of which leads me to tell you about Francis Surman.

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Katie’s Itinerary for a Week in Benano

I always offer to help our guests plan their trips, and I’m happy when they accept some help. And when my friend Katie accepted my offer, I was thrilled.

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Katie had agreed to act as her traveling party’s activities director, and they hit the jackpot when they assigned her to the role. She read everything I sent her, pored over this blog and Rocca di Benano’s Pinterest Board (which is sort of ironic, since she was the one who taught me the wonders of Pinterest), then drafted an itinerary that we worked on together.

Here’s the itinerary Katie has proposed for her group. Although there’s not one agenda that will work for everyone, this is one great way to spend a week at Rocca di Benano.

Read to the end to see just how good Katie is. (Hint: she even researched gelato!)

DAY 1 (Friday) — ARRIVE IN ROME

Francis Surman will meet us at the airport and take us to Hotel la Residenza (€130/night). Take a hop on/hop off double decker bus tour of Rome and/or stroll around the neighborhood. Villa Borghese park, Spanish Steps, and Piazza del Popolo are all within easy walking distance.

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DAY 2 (Saturday) — MEANDER FROM ROME TO BENANO

P1040573 - Version 3Francis Surman will pick us up at the hotel and take us to Benano, touring along the way, including a stop in Orvieto to pick up the rental car.

Dinner: either eat in at the villa, or go to to Nuovo Castello in Torre Alfina (10 minutes from Benano) or La Pergoletta in Castel Viscardo (5 minutes from Benano)

DAY 3 (Sunday) — AGRITURISMO PULICARO & LAKE BOLSENA

Brunch and farm tour at Il Pulicaro (10 minutes from Benano), then …

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… Lake Bolsena and town of Bolsena (1/2 hour from Benano), then …

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Dinner: Either stop on the way back from Bolsena at Ristorante-Pizzeria “L Pignatto” in San Lorenzo Nuovo or make dinner for ourselves eat at the villa.

DAY 4 (Monday) — CIVITA DI BAGNOREGIO & ORVIETO

Tour Civita di Bagnoregio (35 minutes from Benano), lunch at Hosteria del Ponte, then …

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… on to Orvieto (35 minutes from Civita; 18 from Benano), then …

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Dinner: Ristorante Zeppelin in Orvieto

DAY 5 (Tuesday) — TUSCANY

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Cross over into Tuscany and take  Via Cassia up toward Pienza. Other stops could include Bagno Vignoni (hot springs); Montalcino (Brunello!); Sant’Antimo Abbey (check schedule for Gregorian chants);  Monticchiello (maybe lunch on the terrace at La Porta?). Dinner options: in Montepulciano (perhaps A Gambe di Gatto?); in Orvieto on way home if we take the freeway back; or at the villa.

DAY 6 (Wednesday) — FLORENCE

Catch an early train to get to there before 10. Spend the day touring Florence. Either stay for dinner there and take a late train back or eat in Orvieto near the train station (Ristorante Trattoria da Valerio or  Trattoria da Dina).

t-numunoDAY 7 (Thursday) — WINERY and ORVIETO

Wine tasting at Palazzone, followed by another visit to Orvieto and dinner at Osteria Numero Uno in Orvieto

DAY 8 (Friday) — FINAL DAY AT BENANO

Lazy day near Benano, including (maybe):

  • a long walk through the vineyards and olive orchards right around the villa;
  • walk over to Viceno for a caffè at the bar there and a pottery demonstration;
  • last visit to Visit Castel Viscardo (the market comes to Castel Viscardo on Fridays);
  • last stroll around the castle in Torre Alfina.

Dinner option: Hire Alex to barbecue for us at the villa.

DAYS 9 – 12 (Saturday – Tuesday) — LEAVE BENANO / RETURN TO ROME / DEPART FOR HOME

Return rental cars, then Francis will drive us to Hotel Due Torri (€147-190/night) in Rome, touring and lunching along the way). While in Rome, take in dinner at Il Bacaro one night and at Osteria del Pegno another. Tour the Colosseum, Vatican, and go on a Rome Food tour.

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There’s something else you should know about this extensively researched itinerary: Katie found the most highly acclaimed gelaterias almost everywhere they’re planning to go. Here are some of the gelataterias they’re hoping to visit:

Rome: Any or all of the places mentioned in this blog post, but especially Gelateria del Teatro.

Torre Alfina: Sarchioni’s

Bolsena: Gelateria Santa Cristina

Orvieto: La Musa, on the lower end of the Corso (the main shopping street) and Gelateria Pasqualetti. There are two Pasqualetti locations: one is on Piazza del Duomo and the other is at the corner of Via del Duomo and the Corso.

Don’t Be Afraid to Take the Train in Italy

Traveling by train while jet lagged in a foreign country may seem like a daunting task, but you can do it! I recently arrived in Rome, found the train station in the airport, bought a ticket and rode to the main terminal in Rome (Roma Termini), bought another ticket and rode to Florence (Firenze). After a few days there, I took the train to Orvieto, which is the closest train station to Benano.

I am woman of let’s say “mature” years, and I did all this train riding without any help, all by myself. And, it was a very pleasant experience—not to mention less stressful and cheaper than taking the same route with a rental car.

Of course, once you get to Orvieto, you will need to rent a car to get to Benano and see the sights in the nearby Umbrian countryside and small villages. For visits to the larger cities and more distant sites in Umbria and Tuscany, you can choose to drive to Orvieto and take the train. It will be easy since you have already got the hang of the Italian train system.

The first thing you should do is visit the Trenitalia website at www.trenitalia.com

Here you will find all kinds of information about the trains in Italy including instructions for buying tickets online and downloading a mobile app for your smart phone or i-Pad.  Here you can see schedules and times to help you plan your trip.

I do not recommend buying a ticket online to be used immediately upon arrival in Rome. Your flight might be delayed or canceled. Besides, it is very easy to purchase a ticket at the station.

In the Rome airport, after claiming your baggage and passing through customs, follow the signs that say “Tren”. Ignore the long line of people trying to buy tickets from a human being, and use one of the freestanding automatic ticket dispensers. It’s easy. Choose your language, and follow the instructions to purchase your ticket to Roma Termini.

Look at the board overhead to see what track (binario) your train will be on, and THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT: be sure to validate your ticket in the small box at the beginning of the track before getting on your train. If you don’t see it, just ask someone.

When the train stops in Roma Termini, avoid the temptation to walk into the building at a right angle to the train, unless you want to rent a car. Walk toward the front of the train and into the main terminal. This may be a little overwhelming, but take a deep breath and look for the now familiar automatic ticket machines straight ahead of you.

Buy your ticket to Orvieto if you plan to go straight to Benano. Take a look at the duration of the various options. The intercity trains will get you from the main terminal in Rome to Orvieto in a little over an hour; the regional trains take about an hour and 15 or 20 minutes and cost about half as much. My only recommendation is to choose an option where you do not have to change trains; there are many direct trains and this option is just easier.

Other advice

  • Watch out for pickpockets and panhandlers in the big city train stations. Keep your valuables on your person, and do not turn your back or walk away from your bags.
  • Watch out for gypsy taxi drivers. They generally approach arriving passengers at the end of the train platform or in the terminal. These are unlicensed and will generally charge you more than the official taxis just outside most train stations.
  • It’s OK to eat and drink on the train. Pick up a bottle of water, a snack or a carry out from one of the terminal shops before boarding the train.
  • When in doubt, ask a question. The people who work for Trenitalia wear gray uniforms and generally speak English. They are very nice and helpful. Do not hesitate to stop them and ask a question. The people who look like mechanics or train workers are also customer-friendly, but their English skills may not be as good.

Discovering Your “Inner Train Geek”

I’m lucky to have Paul with me, at least for the first third of this trip. His company is enough – his willingness to write a blog post is icing on the cake. This one’s from Paul.

Here’s a tip for anyone staying near Orvieto and contemplating a day trip into Rome or Florence: it’s eminently doable, but simply rolling out of bed whenever you please (as we did) and showing up at the Orvieto train station (as we also did) with the intention of hopping a train to Rome (as we had) puts you at risk of a brief interruption in marital bliss (as we had), hereinafter referred to as a “BIMB.”

Here are two ways to avoid this and get the most out of your day-trip-by-train. First, don’t try it on your second day in Italy – you’ll be too jet-lagged to get moving early enough to make the most of your time in either city. Instead, do it on a day when you feel like getting up and out the door a little early. You can get to Rome or Florence by train before 10 a.m., but in each case count on catching a train that leaves Orvieto before 8 a.m.  (One Florence-bound and five Rome-bound trains do.) Don’t worry, the train’s rocking motion will help you recapture the sleep you bypassed. And it’ll be easy to find a train that gets you back to Orvieto in time for dinner (say, 7 to 7:30), if not a nap beforehand. This requires carefully studying the train schedule.

Which brings me to my second way to avoid having your day trip to Rome or Florence start off with a BIMB: one of you must be willing to find your “inner train geek.” Italian train schedules are readily available online. This easy access helps you familiarize yourself with the schedule and its symbols well ahead of time, long before you have your loving spouse breathing down your neck accusing you of misreading it.

Obviously, the definitive schedule (“orario”) is on the wall of the train station on the day you’re traveling. I find these schedules hypnotic, causing me to stand there for what must seem to Karen like hours, mouth agape in full fly-catcher mode. I dart back and forth from “Partenze” (the outbound schedule) to “Arrivi” (the return schedule), calculating trip duration (e.g., the fastest to Rome from Orvieto takes 52 minutes), and noting train types (the fastest are Eurostar, Intercity, and Euronight) and schedule changes for holidays (“festivi”), of which the Italians have un sacco (a lot). If you’ve mastered both the schedule and your traveling companions’ normal vacation pace, don’t be afraid to swagger to the counter and order up round-trip (“andata/ritorno”) tickets, rather than buying two one-way (“andata”) tickets. This should save you time on the other end.

One last piece of advice:  if you’ve got time to kill before the next train leaves for Rome or Florence, instead of cooling your heels inside the station’s sterile lounge, consider distracting your family or loved one with a coffee or spremuta (fresh-squeezed orange juice), or else a quick and cheap (€1) ride up the Orvieto funicular, which you can catch just across the street from the station.

Artist’s rendering of K&P, post-BIMB