Italy on a shoestring |

Italy on a shoestring

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Rome's baroque Trevi Fountain, completed in 1762, soars 85 feet high.

Rome nourishes the traveler’s soul. The ancient Coliseum comes alive with the shouts of the crowd to gladiators. The 27 B.C. Pantheon transports the traveler to ancient Rome.

Food for the soul abounds. But, hey, what about food for the body? The Tightwad Traveler has resolved to tour Italy without depleting the family fortunes. Staving off starvation in a large European city like Rome threatens to compromise that penny-pinching goal.

In Rome’s ristorantes, the expression “low price” rhymes with “no dice.” To start, your less-than-genial waiter plunks down a tiny basket of bread on the table. Later this extravagance appears on your bill as “Bread, 6 euros” (about $9). A plate of pasta costs about $24. The pasta sits alone on the plate. You want a vegetable? 8 euros (about $12).

Clearly, we need a way to dine without busting the budget-if we plan to meet our challenge to travel Italy on the cheap. Why eat when one has already feasted upon Raphael’s Vatican frescoes? Because we’re ravenous! The challenge is, will the Tightwad Traveler “fork over” the big bucks for food? Or, find an alternative?

Here’s the solution: When we first query our desk clerk, the beautiful AnnaRosa, for a restaurant recommendation, we get stuck with stuffy waiters, white tablecloths and mediocre high-priced food. When we ask her, “Where do you eat?” we end up in gastronomic heaven.

AnnaRosa recommends what the Romans call a “bar,” really a deli-restaurant. Our find is located on a side street just off the hi-glam Via Venetto, the street where Fellini filmed “La Dolce Vita.”

Locals eat at these no-menu bars, peering through glass to select dishes such as succulent veal meatballs, rich artichoke lasagna and delicate tiramisu. The hostess mothers us (“Thees dish make you strong!”), the waiter teases us and the pastry girl beguiles us. The bill fails to flatten us.

Another economical solution involves a visit to the colorful farmers’ markets. Travelers can pick up an inexpensive lunch at these not-to-miss markets and enjoy a picnic. Add some bubbly store-bought prosecco to the picnic and you have a champagne lunch on a tap-water budget.

We take the high-speed train from Rome to Florence. After landing at our hotel, we walk-everything’s close. Cutting transportation costs leaves cash for a Florentine indulgence, gelato. Glass cases in gelato shops display colors and flavors ranging to bright green pistachio (delicious) to rosy raspberry (heavenly).

Every piazza abounds with sculpture. Take, for example, the Piazza della Signoria’s Rape of the Sabine Women and Hercules and the Centaur, late 16th century works by Giambologna. That same square’s Neptune Fountain and its commanding statue of Medici Grand Duke Cosimo I on horseback vie for honors with a copy of Michaelangelo’s David. You can’t just walk through these piazzas on your way to somewhere else. You have to gape in awe.

Nor can you whiz by Florence’s masterpiece domed cathedral, Il Duomo. Its towering campanile and separate baptistery with famous gold-figured doors, loom against a sky free of high-rise buildings. Go above the city to the hilltop Michelangelo Piazza for the full-whammy Florence architectural view.

Prior to departure we puzzle over maps trying to figure out how to get around Venice without a wallop to the thinning wallet. The guidebooks we consult warn about the costs of Venice water transportation. We end up jumping on and off the water taxi, a public transportation bargain, to go places like famous St. Mark’s Square.

“Get lost in Venice,” our friend, Roger, counseled before we left Colorado. We plunge into cobbled streets so narrow we keep our elbows against our ribs and inviting corridors and passageways. We cross ancient stone piazzas, each with the requisite centuries-old church. We follow intriguing alleys into charming oblivion. One-of-a-kind shops and boutiques alongside, ornate wrought-iron balconies above and glimpses of tiny arched bridges beyond all motivate us to keep trudging. We finally emerge on a broad terrace alongside the Grand Canal where Italians, in noisy camaraderie, drink wine at tiny tables. We sit down and drink it all in.

We park cheap at Stapleton, the old airport parking, now an RTD park and ride. From there we take the convenient RTD SkyRide express to DIA. We fly to Rome using reward miles accumulated on a Visa card. We lodge at the Hotel Grand Flora, a seven-night no-cost stay on Marriott reward points.

For the next three weeks, we follow simple rules:

1. Use public transportation

2. Eat where the locals eat.

3. Visit museums on free days. And get a reservation; lines are long.

4. Check on arrival at the Visitors’ Info Center for festivals and other free events. We find a great regional fair in Rome’s beautiful Borghese Park that exudes local color.

5. Use an ATM instead of a money exchange. Unlike credit cards, debit cards often incur no transaction fee, but check with your issuing bank before departure.

Local author Mary Ellen Gilliland has just published a new book, BRECKENRIDGE, 150 Years of Golden History. She has written other local histories and a trail guide, The New Summit Hiker.

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