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The Forum.

My husband and I got married on October 18 in Louisville, Kentucky at St. Boniface Catholic Church, followed by dinner and dancing at 21C Museum Hotel. It was everything I could have hoped for. I just wanted to carry my gorgeous Technicolor autumn bouquet and eat endless canapes with bison tartare, quail eggs, and truffle oil, surrounded by art, with my husband, forever and ever.

But this series of posts is about my honeymoon in Italy, which turned out to be a natural extension of what we loved about our wedding. We enjoyed fall foliage in Piemonte and unfamiliar flowers and trees in Rome. At wine bars in Florence and Venice, we helped ourselves to aperitivi and cicchetti, buffets of complimentary appetizers. We ate steak tartare and eggy pastas all over Northern Italy. We visited Alba at the height of its short white truffle season. We saw so much art. And we took part in the Catholic ceremony of all Catholic ceremonies.

Almost a year has passed since the trip, but all of the details I abbreviated to a word or a couple of words in my daily log of the trip — written around 6:00 in the morning each day because I was sick for the duration and never recovered from jet lag — I still remember in full. So without further ado, the story of how I fell in love with Italy.


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Romantic Rome.

It wasn’t love at first sight with Italy, but it was close. I had a similar experience with my adopted home on the west coast, Los Angeles.

Like LA, I think Rome seems like an amazing place to live — a sprawling metropolis built on gorgeous rolling hills with far too much culture to take in in a year, let alone a week — so a short visit can present frustrations, and I think a lot of people are harder on the cities because of that. In both LA and Rome, public transportation seems like a hassle, and the coverage is lacking. Rome is far more walkable than LA, though, and we easily did at least 8 miles a day and saved cabs for the evenings. And similarly, the sights were important and impressive but also severely congested, and in spite of all of our research into restaurants, we usually felt like there was another world of dining that exists beyond the reach of the tourist. But we did our best.

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I loved Rome’s sky blues and shades of peach, everywhere!

We arrived to Rome on a Tuesday morning. The cab ride from the airport was the quintessentially European cab ride I hoped for — the kind where you get honked at constantly and justifiably, you risk serious head injury if you don’t wear a seat belt, and the driver is totally unapologetic about his swerving and gesturing and cursing even though he mutters an occasional “sorry.”

“I’m great!” I assured him, and I was. I was in Italy. And his approach to traffic amidst palm trees and tiny cars was what I fantasized about doing every day of my 11-mile, one-hour-each-way commute in Los Angeles.

All I wanted to do when the travel was over with was shower and sleep, but our hotel room wouldn’t be ready for several hours. I understood. And it was for the best — I needed to adjust to the new time zone by staying active. But that was easier said than done; I spent my first drowsy hour in Rome in a phone store while my husband purchased an international SIM card and activated the service. Phone stores make me catatonic even when I’m not jet lagged.

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Soon, I was hungry, and I wanted pasta. But the number of restaurants and cafes on every block of the city is overwhelming, so I narrowed the options by seeking out somewhere with a nice view. We settled on Baccanale in Campo De’ Fiore, a quaint square that was part farmers market and part flea market. I should’ve trusted my new husband, who’d been to Rome as a teen, when he assured me another notable square was only a five minute walk further and had far more attractive scenery for al fresco dining — Piazza Navona. But we’d already walked a few miles and I was certain the restaurants in the nicer square would be far more expensive than the expensive menus I was looking at (and I would be wrong).

My husband had a delicious pappardelle dish, and I ordered carbonara, which, to my surprise, came with rigatoni instead of spaghetti. The texture of the traditional egg sauce was closer to scrambled than soft boiled, and I was really surprised and a little disappointed, naively worrying it wasn’t “authentic.” (In retrospect, I think it just had a lot of cheese.) Everyone around us was speaking English, and I was disappointed about that, too. But it’s hard to have perspective after 3 hours of sleep, if that.

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Piazza Navona.

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You should probably eat in this square.

We went sightseeing after lunch. We started at the Pantheon, which is as old as Jesus, though it functioned as a polytheistic temple for centuries before being consecrated as a Catholic church in the Middle Ages. It’s so impressive as to induce shivers, a must on anyone’s Rome itinerary. Spectacular frescoes by Andrea Pozzo greeted us at the Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola, or Chiesa di Sant’Ignazio. Another worthwhile stop was the Capuchin Crypt, a series of small chapels with altars elaborately designed from human bones, believed to be the remains of Capuchin monks. Unfortunately, the Trevi Fountain was under construction and hard to imagine at its best, and the Spanish steps were overrun by tourists and seedy vendors.

In the middle of our sightseeing, we stopped into the Church of Santa Susanna, home of the American Catholic Church in Rome, to pick up tickets for the Papal Audience the following morning. But not just any tickets. Our second day in Rome, we would join other newlyweds, or Sposi Novelli, on the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica and receive a marriage blessing from Pope Francis.

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Panorama of St. Peter’s Square.

We had opted to stay in the Vatican because of this, and we chose our hotel for function over form — it was two blocks from St. Peter’s Square and moderately priced, for Rome. But in spite of our hotel’s dorm-like appearance, the customer service was beyond compare. Swan towels and a tray with a bottle of Prosecco and champagne flutes awaited on our bed, for our honeymoon. Then, when we needed to wake up much earlier than the start of the complimentary breakfast services, the housekeeper brought us trays just overflowing with food both mornings.

We ate crudo and pasta at a seafood restaurant near our hotel for dinner before finally, finally, going to sleep.

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The Vatican at dawn.

For Sposi Novelli, I carried my wedding dress in a garment bag from Louisville to Italy, and my husband packed his suit. We woke up well before sunrise, showered, dressed in our wedding attire, borrowed a hotel umbrella for the forecast of morning rain, and walked the short distance from our hotel to St. Peter’s — then waited. We weren’t admitted for at least an hour, and when we were, it was sheer chaos. Tickets weren’t checked. But, then, we couldn’t imagine anyone traveling halfway around the world with wedding gowns without the best of intentions.

Our view from the second row was spectacular, to the back and right of Pope Francis. Sunrise over St. Peter’s was astonishingly beautiful, with wisps of clouds in every flavor of gelato throughout the morning. And it didn’t rain. Thank God, literally. The square soon filled up with tens of thousands of pilgrims, a moving sight.

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Pope Francis and the Papal Audience.

In all, we waited more than four hours for the Papal Audience to begin. And the program is, admittedly, long. All known groups of Pilgrims are individually welcomed, and a greeting is issued in at least a dozen languages. Then, the readings, prayers, and any remarks are translated into at least six languages. But the energy is palpable. Try as one might to have a cathartic breakthrough, or even pray, I found myself just watching Pope Francis sit, stand, sit again, occasionally look around, at one point grab his cap before the wind could carry it away — and listen to the crowd erupt in cheers at every opportunity. It was interesting, and we were so close.

We would’ve gotten a lot closer, too, were Italians to assign a higher value to orderliness — but historically speaking, their notions of patience, fairness, and acquiescence (or lack thereof) are probably responsible for the successes of the Roman empire, Renaissance, and, briefly, Silvio Berlusconi, so I’ll give them a pass.

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We reviewed the Vatican newspaper’s photos of Pope Francis’ Papal Audience and eventually found a good shot of us together. I kind of love this photo — we’re so wistful!

We were among the first ten couples to arrive of at least 70 couples. In the past, Popes have met and blessed couples individually, and they’ve had their photos taken by the Vatican newspaper together. Pope Francis’ tremendous popularity has made this increasingly difficult with the volume of participants, though, and our group was to be assembled into a receiving line about 8 rows deep. The Vatican guards emptied our seating section from back to front, so those who were the first to arrive were farthest from the Pope. We did not get to personally thank him, as I’d hoped, but we did get our picture with him, in a sense. And, as my brother wisely pointed out when we shared our story, “The last will be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:16.)

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The best porchetta.

A very sweet Minnesota couple recommended a certain lunch spot to us on learning how much I loved porchetta, so after changing out of our wedding gown and suit — my dress would be rolled into a ball at the bottom of my suitcase for the remainder of the trip — we tracked it down. We actually found the couple there, too, because just telling us about it made them crave it. My porchetta panino (extra porchetta) with a glass of red wine that tasted exactly like a Red Delicious apple was one of my favorite meals in Italy, so much so that I pressed my parents to go across multiple email exchanges when they visited Rome as part of a cruise tour a couple of weeks later. They went and concurred. Shockingly, I didn’t get the name of it, but my resourceful husband tracked it down with Google Street View: Bar Il Postiglione on Via delle Fornaci just south of St. Peter’s Square. Look for a yellow exterior, a big glass deli case with gorgeous porchetta in it, and a chalkboard out front that boasts, “here we make the best sandwiches in town.” They do.

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The Colosseum.

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The Forum.

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Also the Forum.

From there, we took off to explore the Colosseum and Forum. They were spectacular to see, but the jet lag weighed on me. When we got to the Forum, my husband said something mildly critical to me pertaining to religion that really set me off, and it didn’t help that he wanted to spend so much time staring at a map of a place that didn’t exactly require one. We were surrounded by ruins, most at least three stories high. Add jet lag to my tendencies to be sensitive and impatient, and a gladiator coming at you with a sword in each hand will seem like a better travel companion.

Our memorable Trastevere restaurant and its many empty tables.

But a little wine in our hotel room before cabbing to the trendy Trastevere neighborhood for the evening helped to lighten our moods. And we fell in love all over again over an unexpectedly romantic dinner at Di Umberto, thanks to a memorable server. We’d requested an outdoor table when we made our reservation, but it was colder out than we’d expected on arrival. We asked before ordering if we could move to an inside table, all of them being empty at the time, and he said, sneering, in his thick accent, “Zat would be impossible!” It was a bonding moment with my husband. Our server didn’t even lighten up when we ordered the tripe. Eleven months later, whenever something seems really easy but slightly annoying to do, my husband and I look at each other and say, “Zat would be… eem-poss-eeb-la!” and crack ourselves up.

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Cacio e pepe?

I didn’t even love the meal in spite of him. The tripe had an ammonia taste because it wasn’t well cleaned, a “raw beef” salad turned out to be boring bresaola instead of tartare, and the pecorino in my cacio e pepe wasn’t so much the grassy, floral, and salty indulgence that I expect from good sheep’s milk but, rather, more like eating a crayon. Still, it was memorable.

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Sculpture in the Vatican Museum.

We woke up before dawn again the next morning for a guided tour of the Vatican Museum and St. Peter’s Basilica that would allow us early access to the Sistine Chapel, which is just astonishingly beautiful (and cannot be photographed, a rule that is easily disregarded but should be respected). And I can’t understate how worthwhile these admittedly expensive tickets are to really enjoy the art. We walked through the chapel again later in the day, and tinned anchovies packed in olive oil have more room to breathe.

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Exterior of the Vatican Museum.

To that end, I was relieved when we left the museum. The Vatican does not limit the number of tickets it sells to the museum in a day, and this is probably a mistake. By the end of our tour, around noon, it was so crowded that moving freely through the museum was actually impossible. We shuffled slowly, everyone traveling in the same direction, helplessly pressed against the backs of the people in front of us with people breathing on our necks behind us. It felt dangerous and detracted a little from the experience.

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St. Peter’s Basilica.

My husband told me that St. Peter’s Basilica would surprise me, and it still gives me shivers to call up the memory of it. If it didn’t exist it would be unfathomable — I couldn’t believe the size, let alone the ornateness, of a structure completed 400 years ago. I knew that much of the basilica’s marble was scrapped from the Colosseum over the 120 years of its construction, but standing next to one of the 145 foot high columns, about as wide as my arm span, I couldn’t help but think it was worth it. I was also surprised to discover that several preserved bodies of Popes were on display. I imagine it could be an overwhelming experience.

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Michelangelo’s Pietà.

We returned to Trastevere for dinner again on our last night, by way of a long stroll from our hotel, stopping wherever something interested us. We had the funny experience of looking for a famous church devoted to Santa Maria and finding another smaller, darker, dustier church devoted to Santa Maria a stone’s throw away instead, and spending a little too much time in both out of a sense of obligation. We enjoyed wine and free wifi at Ombre Rosso, and found our first aperitivi, or little appetizers that are complimentary with the purchase of an alcoholic beverage, at the regrettably named Long Island, before finally enjoying a quiet dinner.

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Cute street!

We were surprised to find that many restaurants were closed by 9:30 p.m. in Trastevere, so we reluctantly landed at the wildly inviting cafe Grazia y Graziella. It didn’t say “authentic Italian” so much as it screamed “Americans welcome.” But in spite of being obviously tourist-friendly, with English translations, attentive multilingual servers, and a large, butter-colored open space decorated with what I would describe as a bicycle picnic motif, the restaurant was host to a good number of young Italians. We shared a prosciutto and mozzarella plate and carbonara and al’amatriciana pastas, and a lot of wine. I humbly realized that wherever I was in Rome, I was having an authentically Roman experience.

It was bittersweet, packing and eating our pasta leftovers for breakfast the next morning, but I was pretty excited for Florence.

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Goodbye, Rome!