Get Your Kicks on Highway 34 Across Iowa

Check out my latest blog post, posted on the Travel Iowa blog about one way to cross the state, via Highway 34. This post features great stops along the way and a few fun facts! If you like it, be sure to give it a +1!

Get Your Kicks on Highway 34.

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Vieques, Puerto Rico

The second day of our Spring Break trip to Puerto Rico happened to be St. Patrick’s Day. We started off by planning to take the ferry to another island that is part of the Puerto Rico territory, Culebra. I’d heard amazing things about Flamenco Beach and Culebra, and with a ferry ride being $4, I figured it would be worth checking out. I had read the reviews online and was prepared for a bad scene, and I was not disappointed. We got there a little over an hour early, and the line for the ferry was already about five blocks long. The ferry schedule is not ideal for day trips unless you get on the first ferry at 9 am. Hope was fading fast for being able to get on the ferry, and we were discussing contingency plans and sent Chelsey to check out the front of the line. Here, she discovered that all of those people in line were trying to get to Culebra and there was no line for the ferry to Vieques. We figured ‘why not?’ and grabbed seats on that ferry just in time for the scheduled departure.

Main port of Vieques

Our ferry docked at the main port of Vieques

Once we got on the ferry, things settled down. Vieques is about 8 miles east of the main island of Puerto Rico and it took a little more than an hour to get there and (on this day at least), it was a smooth ride. Once we arrived in Vieques, we were faced with the next challenge: figuring out what to do with the rest of the day. I had done some preliminary research on Culebra, but had no idea about anything on Vieques. Vieques is fairly large but skinny, about 21 miles long by 5 miles wide. As you might expect from that much shoreline, Vieques has more than 50 beaches.

Like Puerto Rico, Vieques was owned by the Spanish and was actually where they built their last fort in the New World. It was ceded to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War. Starting in the 1940s, the U.S. Navy actually owned about two-thirds of the island. After WWII ended, the Navy used the island for military exercises, including as a testing area for bombs and missiles. In May 2003, the Navy withdrew from Vieques, and now a majority of the land is designated a National Wildlife Refuge and is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It is actually one of the largest wildlife refuges in the Caribbean.

Chelsey, Sarah and I at Barracuda Bay

Chelsey, Sarah and I at Barracuda Bay

When we disembarked from the ferry, we were in the main town of Isabel II (Isabel Segunda), the capital of the municipality. It’s nothing special, a few bars, shops and markets. After a quick look around, we agreed that the best course of action would be to start at the bar (it was St. Patrick’s Day, after all). Here, we ordered some pina coladas and asked the bartender for some advice. In a stroke of luck, he used to live in the DC area and had been living in Vieques for about five years. After chatting with him, we had a better idea of what we could do with our day. Then we got even luckier: the other patron in the bar was also looking to head out to the beach for the day! After a few calls, he arranged a vehicle for us and we decided to head out with him to explore the island.

So for the second time that day, we figured ‘why not?’ and the three of us headed off with our host for the day, James. James is originally from Texas, so Chelsey was excited about that. We stopped at a local shop and grabbed beer and some amazing fresh fruit for the day and headed to the beach. He has worked as a tour guide, so he knew all the best spots and filled us in with some history and fun facts along the way.

Playa La Chiva (Blue Beach), Vieques, Puerto Rico

Playa La Chiva (Blue Beach), Vieques, Puerto Rico

Many of the beaches on Vieques are still known by the names the Navy gave them, including Red Beach and Blue Beach (zero points for creativity), although there is a movement to return to the traditional names.  Many of the beaches have areas where swimming is not recommended due to the possibility of unexploded ordinance (!), including the key across from the Blue Beach. The possibility of leftover bombs aside, the beaches are beautiful! And unlike Culebra or some other beaches in San Juan, there weren’t very many people there. We spent most of the day at Playa La Chiva (Blue Beach), and there were probably only about 20 other people there during the day.

Sunset on the Esperanza Esplanade

Sunset on the Esperanza Esplanade

After soaking up an acceptable amount of sun (except for Sarah), we unfortunately had to start heading back to catch the 6:30 ferry back to Fajardo. Along the way we stopped in Esperanza, the second biggest city on the island. We had a snack at a great bar and walked along the esplanade, which offered beautiful views. In honor of the holiday, we had a couple green shots of Jameson – proving there is no escape from green food coloring on March 17.

We headed back to Fajardo happy with our amazing day and only a little sunburnt. We had another great dinner in Fajardo and declared St. Patrick’s Day a success.

And if you don’t believe me, check out this photo essay about Vieques from The Washington Post: In Puerto Rico, a glow in the night.

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Viajamos a Puerto Rico! (Part 1)

One of the best things about college is Spring Break. Since I started grad school at Western Illinois University in January, I have been looking forward to the week off from classes and dreaming of where I could go. After looking into several options, I ended up deciding on Puerto Rico and convinced two of my friends from DC to join the trip. Flights from DC were cheaper, and I had enough miles accumulated to cover my flight from Bloomington to DC so I figured it would work best to fly out of DC. So I flew to DC and met up with Sarah and Chelsey, and also had a good chance to see some of my old friends from my time in DC. I went to the Iowa State gamewatch and even went to brunch. Our flight left late Sunday night, and we arrive in  much warmer San Juan at 2 am.

We rented a car for our three days in Puerto Rico since public transportation is not great. And since we had a limited amount of time the car provided us the opportunity to get out and see a little more of the island. After a slow start, we did some shopping in San Juan to get a few supplies, including some lunch to have a picnic in El Yunque. Many of the franchises in San Juan are American, including plenty of fast food restaurants and pharmacies.

We headed out on the open road, following Google Maps for directions to El Yunque. As we got further from San Juan, the Burger Kings and Walgreens gave way to roadside produce stands and small restaurants. We kept climbing higher and higher and finally decided to stop and stretch and take in the view. While we were standing on the side of the road, a helpful Puerto Rican man stopped by and asked us if we were headed to El Yunque. We said we were and he told us that we were way off – apparently this happens a lot as Google Maps gives the incorrect location! He was very kind and helpful in giving us the right directions and we headed back down the curving road to try again.

La Coca Falls, Puerto Rico

La Coca Falls in El Yunque National Forest

We made it to El Yunque without any further problems and headed into the rainforest to check things out. El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Managed by the U.S. Forest Service, it is approximately 28,000 acres of Carribean tropical rain forest, which is on the small size for a national forest. Much of the protected area is the Luquillo Mountains, with an elevation of 3,533 ft. above sea level. Like Table Mountain in Cape Town, it is named for a distinctive topographical feature. El yunque is Spanish for ‘the anvil’ and reflects the flattened top of the namesake mountain. Much of the rainforest is drivable, but there are also many trails. Unfortunately, we were low on time and even lower after our detour, so we didn’t have much time to really go for a hike. We stopped at the first waterfall, La Coca Falls, which is right on the main road.

La Mina Falls, Puerto Rico

Swimming in La Mina Falls

After taking a few pictures, we continued down the road to La Mina Falls. To get to La Mina, there is a short hike, but the path is well maintained and well trod. This is a popular swimming spot, and even though it was a little cool in the shade there were tons of people swimming and frolicking in the waterfall. It was a great place to have a picnic and chill out for a hour or so.

After checking out the highlights at El Yunque, we headed to Fajardo, which was where we would be spending the next two nights. We were looking forward to taking a nighttime swim in the Bio Bay – until our host told us that while the water was open to the public, in order to get there you had to rent a kayak or go with a tour group. After some last-minute research, we admitted defeat. Guess we’ll just have to come back!

We decided to go out for a nice dinner and found a place called La Estacion (an homage to the fact it used to be a gas station). We decided to sample a few different things, including traditional dishes of mofongo and pinchos. Mofongo is made from fried green plaintains, mashed with seasonings, usually garlic and bacon or pork rinds. This was served with a mahi-mahi and shrimp sauce and was absolutely delicious! Pinchos are skewers of meat, similar to a kabob or souvlaki and were also delicious! Fully satiated, we grabbed a few local beers and headed back to our apartment and ended our first full day in Puerto Rico.

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Let’s Talk about Greek Food

Food is Greece is an important part of the culture. Many people are familiar with Greek food – gyros and Greek salad are menu staples that transcend Greek food. Greek food is full of flavor, commonly seasoned with garlic, oregano, thyme, basil and other fresh herbs. Lemon and olive oil are common bases for sauces and soups. Greeks are very welcoming and love sharing their food with you. Several of the restaurants, I went to gave me a free dessert, which were all amazing. Honey is the main sweetener used, and fresh fruit is popular as well. When I was in Greece in October and November, it was pomegranate, orange, and mandarin season.

Olives and olive oil are abundant as well. I actually passed through Kalamata, home of the olive of the same name. These olives are popular since they are larger and meatier than other olive varietals. Olives are packed in brine or olive oil and keep until the next year. Green olives and black olives are the same olives but picked at different parts of their maturation process. Olives in Greece are almost always served with the pits in them. Olive oil is used in anything that needs oil – even for light frying. Greece has the purest olive oil in the world and it is pretty tasty.

Here are a few other tasty things I ate during my time in Greece:

Feta cheese: The most common cheese in Greece, feta is served in slabs as an appetizer, atop Greek salads, and as a snack. Sometimes it is served with olive oil and oregano drizzled on top. This salty cheese is made by brining cheese curds made from sheep’s milk (or a combo of sheep and goat milk) and stored in the brine to preserve it.

Greek salad with a Corfu Beer - perfect combination!

Greek salad with a Corfu Beer – the perfect combination!

Greek coffee: A thick, foamy coffee served with the grounds. Boiled over an open flame in a metal pot used especially for coffee, it is usually served very sweet and very hot. There are varying levels of sweetness and strongness. Although it is a small amount of coffee (about the same as a cup of espresso), it is a great start to the morning. Don’t drink the grounds (unless you like coffee grounds, then drink away!).

Greek salad: Similar to a Greek salad that you would find on many menus in the U.S. except for the notable distinction that a true Greek salad does not have lettuce. Usually made with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives (with the pits), onion, green pepper and a slab of feta cheese on top. The dressing is usually heavy on oregano and olive oil. This is a great side dish or light meal, especially in the summer when these veggies are at their peak freshness.

Greek yogurt with honey

Greek yogurt with honey

Greek yogurt: Now pretty common in the U.S., Greek yogurt is a high-protein, thick yogurt with no flavors added. Greek yogurt is commonly eaten for breakfast or dessert, usually with honey. It is also used as a base for dips and sauces.

Chicken gyro in Athens

Chicken gyro in Athens

Gyros: First off, stop saying ji-ROS. It’s pronounced more like YEUR-o. Here’s a helpful video. Moving on, a gyro is the Greek equivalent of a fast food hamburger: ubiquitous, cheap, portable, quick and most importantly, delicious! Before coming to Greece, a gyro was pretty much the extent of my experience with Greek food.  A warm pita filled with meat (usually lamb or chicken), french fries, lettuce, tomato, onion, and sauce – either a mayo/ketchup hybrid or tzatziki sauce (see below).

Mousakka: The Greek version of lasagna, this is a layered casserole made with eggplant, potatoes, meat sauce and Bechamel sauce. The meat is flavored with tomatoes, garlic and onions. This is a hearty dish, perfect after a long day of touring monuments and museums – or working!

Prawn souvlaki with chips in Methoni

Prawn souvlaki with chips in Methoni

Souvlaki: Basically a meat kabob, souvlaki can be made from pretty much any meat, but chicken and pork are the most common. These are usually about 2-3 Euros for a skewer of meat, making it cheap – and filling. The meat is usually marinated before being placed on the grill, and they are brushed with olive oil, lemon and seasonings (oregano, garlic, etc.) while on the grill and after. Souvlaki can be eaten by itself or on a pita with toppings similar to those in a gyro – tzatziki, lettuce, tomato, onion, etc.

Tyropita (cheese pie): Made from phyllo dough, a flaky, thin pastry crust; and filled with cheese, these pies are easily portable and delicious. A variety of cheeses can be used, but a mix with feta is the most common. Cheese pies are a great breakfast or snack during the day, especially when they are served warm.

Tzatziki: A dip or sauce made from Greek yogurt, lots of garlic, and cucumbers. Most of the tzatziki I had in Greece did not have dill, but a few did. Tzatziki is a great sauce for gyros, a dip for French fries or pita, and even by itself.

Similar to Italy, my advice would be to try new things and get out of your comfort zone. Many of the places I visited were near the sea, so there was an abundance of fresh, amazing seafood, including prawns, kalamari, and a variety of fish. So go beyond gyros and really experience the fresh and vibrant flavors that Greek food has to offer!

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Let’s talk about Italian food

Obviously, one of the first things that comes to your mind when you think of Italy is the food. I can’t lie, I do love a good trip to Olive Garden, but what I experienced in only two weeks in Northern Italy  and Rome is so far beyond amazing that it is hard to describe. However, I will try my best. Here are some of the highlights (in alphabetical order, it was the only way that seemed fair).

Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como

Bresaola sandwich in Dongo, Lake Como

Bresaola: This is a thinly sliced beef that has been salted and air-dried for two or three months to a dark, almost purple hue. Similar to American chipped beef, this is common in far northern Italy, including the Lake Como region. I had it by itself, in sandwiches, and even on pizza. One of the most popular ways this meat is served as an appetizer with rocket and parmesan cheese.

Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice

Pasta with cuttlefish ink in Venice

Cuttlefish ink: The cuttlefish is a member of the same family as squid and octopus, and serving it in a sauce of its own ink is a traditional Venetian specialty. Although it looks a little strange due to the deep black color, the taste is very mild and a little salty. The flavor is not too fishy or overwhelming. Pasta made with cuttlefish ink is another option, with the black color of the pasta providing a unique look to regular spaghetti.

Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome

Hazelnut (top) and Disaronno gelato in Rome

Gelato: No doubt you have at least heard of gelato, which is basically ice cream. The process of making gelato is bit different, and it is a little lower in fat than traditional ice cream. While not a huge fan of ice cream, I did appreciate gelato for the wide range and uniqueness of flavors available. I tried cream, pistachio, coffee, hazelnut, Nutella, salted caramel and a few other flavors. My favorite was a Disaronno (amaretto) flavor.

Panzerotti: Kind of like a softer fried meat pie or calzone, this was one of the specialties in Milan. We tried the classic tomato and mozzarella and were not disappointed. Although it can be messy to eat this “pizza donut” (as Chelsey calls it) would be right at home at the Iowa State Fair. These are also available at Italian McDonalds.

Pecorino: A hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk, pecorino is a common staple on cheese boards, breakfast buffets, and sandwiches. Although occasionally gritty, it has a nice, smooth flavor that stands on its own, as well as blending with meats, honey or jam.

Truffles: A member of the fungi family, truffles have long been treasured for their complex flavor. We were very lucky that we were traveling through Tuscany, the heart of Italy’s truffle production during truffle season. Especially in Siena and Florence, dishes with truffle were prevalent on many menus. The woody, mushroomy flavor of truffles added to gnocchi (potato dumplings), risotto, and pasta was truly amazing. Truffles come in both white and black varieties, with white being rarer and, therefore, more expensive.

The biggest advice I can give about food in Italy is not to be afraid to try something out of the ordinary. As with most cuisine types, the actual food is very different from what we have Americanized it into being. Don’t stick with the turisto menu of lasagna and spaghetti Bolognese; try something new. If something is specialty in the area where you are, try it! There is a reason it is a specialty, it’s probably delicious. Try the strangest gelato flavor, the weird-shaped noodles and the dishes you’ve never heard of. After all, you can have as much chicken ziti as you want next time at Olive Garden, but who knows when you’ll be in Italy again.

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…Do as the Romans Do.

After a successful day in Vatican City, I decided to dedicate my second full day in Rome to the Colosseum and Ancient Rome.

Up close and personal with the Colosseum

Up close and personal with the Colosseum

The Colosseum is something that absolutely lived up to its larger-than-life reputation. I walked from my hostel near Termini Station to the Colosseum in order to see a little more of Rome. Just as I was starting to wonder where it was – I looked down the street and was blown away by how big the Colosseum was. The Colosseum also won the award for the longest wait time of any attraction I visited in Italy, with an almost 30-minute wait.

The inside of the Colosseum is less impressive,  but it is very cool to walk around and take in the view from each side, trying to picture 55,000 or so screaming spectators watching a pair of gladiators fight to the death or a lion or elephant being hunted down below. While most of the stage is gone, one section has been restored. The part that is not covered shows the ancient aquaducts. It’s amazing that this building is nearly 2,000 years old.

After a tour around the Colosseum, I headed over to Ancient Rome. This site includes the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and several temples and churches. Palatine Hill is one of the seven hills of Rome. Located in the center of the seven, it is the middle hill and the most important in Roman mythology. It is here that the cave that sheltered Romulus and Remus and kept alive by the she-wolf. Of course,  Romulus and Remus later fought about where to put the new city and Romulus killed Remus (thus the name of “Rome”). Historical evidence does support that people have been living there since 1000 BC. The Palatine Hill overlooks the Roman Forum on one side and the the Circus Maximus (ancient chariot racing stadium).

The Palatine is home to the remains of several aristocratic homes, including the one that is believed to be the home of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. Rome’s subsequent emperors including Tiberius and Domitian also had their palaces here, and eventually the hill was home to one giant palace, called the Palatium. The Latin word for Palatine, Palatium is actually the root of the word palace.

The remains of Ancient Rome

The remains of Ancient Rome

The Roman Forum is the remains of the main marketplace of Ancient Rome. Similar to the Agora in Greece, most large cities had a similar forum for conducting commerce, catching up on news, giving speeches, and other important events. Along with the commercial center of the city, near the forum were other important government and religious buildings, including several churches and temples.

Since this was my last night in Rome, Italy and Europe, I went all out for my last big meal. I started with an antipasto of bresaola,  rocket and parmesan; followed by a main dish of a typical Roman dish of Bombolotti al Tamatriciana con guanciale di amatrice e pecororino romano (short pasta tubes with a spicy tomato, guanciale (similar to bacon), and pecorino cheese). While the pasta was a little more al dente then I would have preferred, it was still delicious! For dessert, my waiter brought me a shot of limoncello, a strong, sweet lemon liqueur that is a traditional after-dinner drink. It was the perfect last supper in Italy.

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore

Since my flight wasn’t until Sunday night, I still had most of the day to wander around Rome. I started the morning by attending mass at the Basilica Papele di Santa Maria Maggiore, the largest Catholic Marian church in Rome. It is a Papal Basilica, which means that the pope can (and does) use it. I actually ended up at the Latin mass, which was interesting even if I only understood half a dozen words. By my count there were at least 30 priests, counting the Archpriest and other assorted super-priests (not sure of their official titles), which is probably more than there are at church most Sundays in Corning.

After mass, I wandered around and checked out some of the other sights in Rome including Piazza Navona, my favorite piazza. Piazza Navona is home to the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers), which represents the major river from each of the four continents that were under the papal authority when the fountain was designed in 1651 by Bernini. The four rivers represented are the Nile (Africa), the Danube (Europe), the Ganges (Asia), and the Río de la Plata (America).

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in the Piazza Navona

I also stopped by the Campo de’ Fiori, another square that hosts a huge open-air market with vegetables, clothes, and other food items. I also went to the Pantheon, which is one of the best preserved Ancient Roman buildings. This Roman temple was first commissioned by Marcus Agrippa and rebuilt in 126 AD by the emperor Hadrian. The reason for the preservation is that it has been in use since it was built, including for the last 14 centuries as a Catholic Church. I also stopped by the Spanish Steps.

As my time in Rome drew to a close, I reflected on the amazing opportunities I had in Italy and in Greece. It was an incredible adventure and I am very lucky that I was able to do it. My advice? If you have the means, motive and opportunity to travel – do it!

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When in Rome…

Technically this was my second time in Rome, but since the first time I was there for less than 24 hours, I considered this my first real trip to Rome. The reason I planned my trip this way (starting and ending in Rome) was because when I decided to change my trip from two days to two months, it was cheaper to change the dates of my flight out of Rome (even with the added transportation costs to/from Greece) than switching my flight to go out of Athens. Plus it gave me a great chance to explore one of the great cities of the world.

I flew from Athens to Rome. When I flew into Rome the first time, we took a taxi to our apartment. However, since I was alone this time (and not so jetlagged) I tackled public transportation. Similar to Athens, the airport is about 30 kilometers from the city center. Both airports are easily accessible by train – however, the Rome (FCO) airport is a non-stop, 40-minute train ride to Termini Station instead of a multi-stop, hour and half to the Athens airport from Syntagma Square.

After arriving at my hostel, the first order of business was food. It was late afternoon so I decided to take it easy and wander around and see what there was to see. I ended up in the San Lorenzo area and figured it was time for a glass of wine so I ducked into a small bar for apertivo. Along with my glass of wine, there were a couple kinds of pasta, salads, bread and other appetizers available for an extra 1.50. The apertivo is a fantastic deal – especially if you are travelling on a budget!

The next day I headed  to Vatican City. The first thing I noticed after getting off the metro was the incredible amount of tour guides trying to drum up business. Many offer tours that allow you the opportunity to ‘skip the line’. However, being the low season, there wasn’t much in the way of lines, so even as much as I hate waiting in line, it wasn’t even close to being worth it (especially at nearly twice the price). Entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica is free, and I waited in line for about 15 minutes – roughly the same amount of time I waited in line to see San Marco’s in Venice.

St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

St. Peter’s Square is an amazing place, so waiting in line wasn’t too bad. The church itself is beautiful, although it isn’t as ornate outside as some other cathedrals that I visited in Italy, although it is much larger than most of them. The square is surrounded by massive Tuscan colonnades, topped with In the center of the square is an Ancient Egyptian obelisk that is approximately 4400 years old and has been in Vatican City since 1586. It was a beautiful, sunny day in Rome and I enjoyed wandering around the basilica and the square.

Next stop was the Vatican Museums, which house the collection of the Catholic Church. Founded in the early 16th century, the Vatican Museums are actually more than 50 galleries, and 2013 was the 5th most visited art museum in the world. On the way to the museum, I was again assailed by tour guides begging me to go on a tour. These tour guides were the most frustrating thing about Vatican City. While they can be found throughout Rome, they seemed especially aggressive around the Vatican Museums. Again, while definitely busy, the lines weren’t terrible and nothing was too crowded.

The collection is amazing, with works of art from Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Caravaggio,  and lots of other well-known artists. Of course the main draw at the museums is the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. This was the only place in Italy that I visited where the ‘no photo’ rule was strictly enforced. Along with art and other relics amassed by various popes over the past 5oo years, there are also papal artifacts, including stamps, personal effects and Popemobiles of all kinds – sedia gestatoria (gestatorial chair; a fancy throne used to literally carry the Pope on your shoulders), carriages and modern-era vehicles. After a few hours exploring the museums and grounds, I headed back into the city center.

The eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

The eternal flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

I wandered around and encountered Il Vittoriano, or the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II (Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II).  This this a massive monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Italy (1861-1878). Completed in 1925, according to Wikipedia it is 135 m (443 ft) wide and 70 m (230 ft) high – so yeah, it’s huge. All columns and statues and fountains and winding staircases and stark white marble, this structure is excessive and somehow perfect. I know it’s totally tacky and all dignified visitors and Italians hate it, but I actually kinda loved it. In the front, below a statue of the goddess Roma is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider that holds unidentified remains from WWI.

I went up to the roof to check out the best 360 degree view in Rome and was not disappointed. From the top of the Vittoriano you can see across Rome, including Ancient Rome.  There is also a great museum on the experience of Italian emigrants, including those that emigrated to the U.S. While I am a fairly typical American mutt, there isn’t any Italian blood in my family, but I still enjoyed this small museum. After this, I was exhausted and headed back to the hostel and to another amazing Italian dinner.

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