Bella Italy!

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Europe » Italy
May 22nd 2008
Published: May 22nd 2008
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ITALY: Rome, Florence, Pisa, Tuscany, Venice...
March, 2008...

Bella Italia! Italy is a place that most people yearn to visit at some time in their lives, and although Bill and I had visited Rome and Venice before, we eagerly accompanied our friends Ed and Charlotte on their first visit to this rich, exuberant culture. We wanted to travel with a spirit of adventure instead of having everything be structured, controlled, and predictable, so we consulted with a company called Italy Source to help us plan our independent travel. They helped us custom-design our trip and arranged museum reservations, train travel, hotels, and much more, according to our desires.

Our overnight flight from Houston had a connection in Paris before arriving in the Eternal City of Rome the evening of March 8, 2008. We enjoyed a beautiful nighttime view of the Colosseum and Constantine Arch as we traveled by taxi to the Barberini Hotel, which is located in the historical center of Rome. After checking in, we walked a block to Barberini Square for a quick dinner at a cozy wine bar. We quickly learned that the menu prices were applicable only if you ate standing up. If you want a table, you pay extra, sometimes as much as 5 euros. In this case we didn’t mind because the table was outside with a great view of the Square. Anxious to sample the edible art of Italy—gelato—we each had a cone before returning to our charming rooms. Each room had a luxurious marble bath with bidet, towel warmers, and huge tubs. Posted price (we actually paid much less, thanks to Italy Source) was $308 euro/night ($460).

We enjoyed a delicious buffet breakfast the next morning, Sunday, which was included in the price of the room (for non-guests it was $45 per person). Unfortunately, the tour guide that was supposed to meet us at 9 a.m. for a private tour of ancient Rome did not appear. We called her cell, and she reported that she thought the tour had been cancelled. She was very apologetic and offered to meet us at 1 p.m. instead. So, with the rest of the morning free, we took off for the “Heart of Rome,” the area around the Pantheon. Pantheon, meaning "temple of all the gods" was originally built as a temple to all the gods of Ancient Rome. Since the seventh century, it has been used as a Christian church. It is said to be the best-preserved building in the world. We attended Sunday mass at 11 a.m. in the Pantheon and then explored some of the magnificent churches in the surrounding area:

• Church of San Luigi, considered the national church of Rome; magnificent main altar and side chapels of Caravaggio art
• Santa Maria Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church (dating to 1280), which houses a little-known Michelangelo statue, “Christ Bearing the Cross” and holds burial remains of St. Catherine of Siena
• Church of St. Ignazio, with a painted false dome on its ceiling by Andrea Pozzo. The dome is actually a flat canvas about 13 meters square that looks like a three-dimensional dome from below.
These are just three of the examples of hidden art that is scattered all over Rome in scores of impressive churches that you might never think to enter!

It was nearing 1 p.m., when we were to meet our guide, so we headed in the direction of our hotel, pausing briefly at the beautiful Trevi Fountain to toss coins in it. We barely made it back to the hotel at 1 p.m., eating our lunch (sandwiches packed at breakfast) on the run.

We began our guided tour by taking the subway to the core of the ancient city to experience the classical antiquities of the Roman Empire, which spanned about a thousand years between 500 B.C. and A.D. 500. We toured…

• The Roman Forum, the political, religious, and commercial center
• Arch of Titus, commemorating the Roman victory over Judea, or Israel
• Palatine Hill: Rome first became a city on the Palatine Hill in 753 B.C. It later became a place where palaces were built by the many emperors and the rich lived.
• Circus Maximus, located next to the Palatine Hill
• Arch of Constantine, honoring the emperor who legalized Christianity in A.D. 312
• Colosseum: 2000 year-old architectural and engineering wonder
• Piazza Venezia, dominated by the huge Victor Emmanuel Monument, 500 feet wide and 200 feet high.

While the tour was absolutely fascinating and the guide an expert in Roman history, we began to tire and were grateful to sit awhile and rest our feet on the subway ride back to our hotel.

After a brief rest, we had delicious Italian pizza for dinner, which is called cena in Italian, at a small sidewalk cafe. I had eggplant pizza, which was quite tasty, followed by gelato, which we ate as we took a Rick Steves-recommended, after-dark walk to one of Rome’s iconic sights, the Spanish Steps. The wide, curving staircase is part of the Piazza di Spagna, named for the Spanish embassy to the Vatican, which has been there for 300 years. Many Romantics over the years have hung out, lived, and died here—British poet John Keats died in the building to the right of the Steps, and fellow Romantic Lord Byron lived across the Square. The piazza is a thriving night scene, as people sit on the steps, play music, hang out, and drink wine. After people-watching for awhile, we strolled back to the Barberini for a good night’s sleep.

After Monday morning’s extravagant breakfast at the hotel, we taxied to the world’s smallest country, Vatican City, to meet guide Agnes for our private, VIP tour of the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica. A private VIP tour arranged in advance enables you to skip the long lines to buy tickets and enter a special VIP entrance to the museum; however, we still had to wait about an hour in the pouring rain before we could enter. This immense museum has four miles of displays and is one of Europe’s top three or four houses of art. Seeing it properly would take a lifetime, but we only had three hours to navigate the labyrinth, so we were glad to have a knowledgeable guide to lead us to the highlights.

We started with the Belvedere Courtyard, where are displayed some of the best Greek and Roman statues in captivity, including the dramatic Laocoon, a marble Hellenistic statue from the first century B.C., which was dug up in Nero’s Golden House during the Renaissance. The centerpiece of the adjacent hall, the Hall of the Muses, was the Belvedere Torso, a 2,000-year-old sculpture that is said to have had a great impact on Michelangelo’s art. Finishing off the classical statuary were two fourth-century sarcophagi made of extremely hard stone called porphyry. These royal purple tombs were quarried and made in Egypt for Roman emperor Constantine’s mother and daughter. They were Christians, and therefore, outlaws, until Constantine made Christianity legal in A.D. 312. The special technique for working the stone was lost for a thousand years, and porphyry was not chiseled again until Renaissance times.

After long halls of old maps, tapestries, and fig-leaf-covered penises—Pope Pius IV ordered the fig leaves added to protect the modesty of hundreds of nude statues—we came to what we were looking forward most, the Sistine Chapel. Brilliantly restored, the Sistine Chapel is the pope’s personal chapel and also the place where a new pope is elected. Of course, the chapel is famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes representing the story of creation and the “Last Judgment” behind the altar with its clear message: some will go to hell, some to heaven. Again, Pope Pius IV did not like the nude representations, so he called in an artist to paint cloths over the private parts. The artist, however, also added donkey ears to one of the people in the painting to represent the complaining Pope.

In the recent restoration project, no paint was added. Centuries of dust, soot, and glue (that had been added at one time to make the frescoes shine) were removed, revealing the bright, original colors. As part of the deal with the company who did the restoration, no photos are allowed in the Sistine Chapel; however, that didn’t stop most people (including me) from snapping a few anyway.

We exited the Vatican Museums at this point to take advantage of a shortcut to St. Peter’s Basilica. There is no doubt that this is the richest and most impressive church on earth. To call it vast would be an understatement. Among the impressive features:

• Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” which made Michelangelo famous at age 25
• Bronze statue of St. Peter, its toe worn away by the kiss of millions of pilgrims
• Michelangelo’s magnificent dome, decorated with mosaics depicting God and the twelve apostles 250 feet above the floor
• The main altar, sitting directly over St. Peter’s tomb and under Bernini’s seven-story bronze canopy
• St. Peter’s Throne and Bernini’s starburst dove window called “Glory of St. Peter”
• The gilded Baptism font

Contrary to popular belief, St. Peter’s is not a cathedral, as it is not the home of a bishop.

Our last stop was St. Peter’s Piazza, or Square, which is said to hold about 300,000 people with no crowding. Bernini’s Colonnade stretches around the piazza with its 284 massive columns that create an impressive optical effect when viewed from a particular point on the piazza—the 284 columns in four rows look like one row of 71.

By this time it was mid-afternoon. We did some shopping in the gift shop, quickly ate our packed lunches, and decided to visit the catacombs on the outskirts of Rome. We grabbed a taxi, pre-arranging the round-trip fare at 70 euros, or about $110, and drove via the famous Appian Way (Rome’s first and greatest highway, built in 312 B.C.) to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano, the largest of Rome’s many catacombs. The catacombs are burial places for Christians who died in ancient Roman times, and although the tunnels are empty of bones, the 45-minute tour was fascinating. By law, no one was allowed to be buried within the walls of Rome. Pagans were cremated, but Christians preferred to be buried so they could be resurrected when the time came. From the first through the fifth centuries, Christians dug an estimated 375 miles of tomb-lined tunnels and passageways, with networks of galleries as many as five layers deep. By legend, the catacombs were also hiding places for Christians in ancient Rome. The fish became their secret symbol by which one Christian identified another. In more recent times, Jews hid in the catacombs during World War II, when most of Europe’s Jews were being rounded up and shipped off to death camps.

Tuesday was get-away day for Florence. We taxied to the train station for our first-class, reserved seats on the high-speed, 150 mph, Eurostar passenger train. A convenient, comfortable way to travel, the trip took only an hour. Our hotel in Florence was another of many delightful surprises on this adventure. The Hotel Degli Orafi-- located on the banks of the Arno River in the heart of the city, only minutes away from all of the historical sites and next-door to the famous Uffizi Gallery. We had a luxury suite of two bedrooms, two baths, living room, kitchen, and dining area on six different levels, in the style of a Tuscan villa. It normally rents for about $800 per night, but with the help of Italy Source, it was about half that. The baths were in all marble, and breakfast was served in an opulent dining room with crystal chandeliers and frescoed ceilings. We later discovered that a key scene in the movie classic “A Room with a View” was shot in this hotel.

Our afternoon private walking tour with Paola, a local scholar, began at 2 p.m.; unfortunately, so did the rain! However, good independent travelers make the best of whatever comes their way, so we brushed away the inconvenience, got out our umbrellas, and explored the most famous sights of Florence’s ancient centre. It is said that one-third of the world’s most important works of art are located in Florence and to fully appreciate Florence’s art, architecture, and history would take weeks, but we were able to touch on the highlights during our two days here:

• Piazza della Signoria, the city’s political center, both ancient and modern, where the imposing Palazzo Vecchio stands with its imposing 308-foot turret.
• Loggia dei Lanzi with several important statues, including Cellini’s bronze statue of Perseus holding the head of Medusa and Giambologna’s “Rape of the Sabines”
• The wonderfully eccentric church that looks like no other in the world, Orsanmichele, which originally was a grain market and storehouse in the fourteenth century; magnificent 15th century Florentine sculptures sit in elaborate niches on both sides of the door.
The great Duomo cathedral, third largest church in the world, with Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s 366- foot campanile—one of Italy’s most beautiful bell towers-- and the Baptistry with Ghiberti’s “Gates of Paradise” bronze doors: ten large sculpted panels dramatically depicting the Old Testament
• The ancient church of San Lorenzo, one of the oldest in Florence and burial place of all principal members of the Medici family
• The charming Ponte Vecchio bridge (Old Bridge) over the Arno River with its gold shops and picturesque views
• The lavish and imposing Pitti Palace, which we viewed from the outside only

For dinner, we re-traced some of our steps from the tour to find an inviting self-service café with traditional Florentine food. A much-anticipated dessert of gelato followed. Unfortunately, we didn’t ask the price before ordering, and they charged us about $8 per cone! It certainly was good, though.

Wednesday was a packed day with a morning experiencing two of the most famous museums in the world and an afternoon excursion to Pisa. First, we had another unbelievable breakfast in the elegant hotel dining room before setting out for our reserved entrance to the Accademia museum, which houses Michelangelo’s magnificent sculpture of “David,” one of art history’s greatest masterpieces. This 500-year-old sculpture has held timeless appeal because of its significance in projecting the Renaissance’s view of man at his best—vigorously beautiful, rational, competent-- as opposed to the Dark Ages’ view of man as an ugly, corrupt being.

Our next reserved entrance was for 11 a.m. at the Uffizi Gallery, located adjacent to our hotel and home of the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. Every single piece of art in the museum is considered a masterpiece, with works by Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Rubens, Titian, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, including his “Birth of Venus.”

We still had some time before we had to be at the train station for our excursion to Pisa, so we squeezed in a visit to the Basilica of Santa Croce (Holy Cross), the largest Franciscan church in the world. It is massive and holds amazing art, as well as the tombs of Michelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Dante, and Napoleon, just to name a few.

A short one hour after leaving the Florence train station, we were gasping at the beauty of one of the most famous places in the world. Scattered across a golf-course-green lawn are four large, bright-white, marble buildings that make up Pisa’s unique religious center, called the Campo dei Miracoli, or Field of Miracles. The most famous one, of course, is the Leaning Tower, or the bell tower of the adjacent Duomo (cathedral), which was begun in 1063. The other two are the Baptistery and the Camposanto Cemetery. All four structures lean.

First, of course, we took dozens of photos of the Leaning Tower from several angles on the huge, grassy lawn, among hundreds of other tourists “propping up the tower” as they posed for the cliché shots. It is nearly 200 feet tall and leans 15 feet off the vertical axis. It started to lean almost immediately after construction began in the year 1173 because it rested on a very shallow 13-foot foundation, which began sinking on one side into the marshy, unstable soil. Unsuccessful attempts to stabilize it continued over the centuries until finally in 1990 the tower was closed for $30 million of repairs. Now stabilized, it still leans and is probably still falling. Ed and Charlotte climbed the 294 tilting steps to the top while Bill and I watched from below.

Lining this field of artistic, classy Romanesque buildings is a gauntlet of forty or fifty of the tackiest souvenir stands we have seen since The Great Wall of China. All sell the same miniature leaning towers, “leaning” cups, keychains, tee shirts, etc., which you buy because you desperately want to preserve the visual memory of the experience.

The round-trip train ride for the four of us was a reasonable 43 euros, or about $62—definitely the way to travel between cities in Italy. We returned to Florence around sunset, delighted that we had decided to take the unexpected side trip to Pisa. We enjoyed another delicious dinner at a pizzeria, where I had a tasty potato-and-eggplant pizza, followed by, of course, a chocolate gelato! This time we asked the price beforehand and paid only about $4 for a large cone.

We met Azzurra, our driver and guide, early Thursday morning for our 9-hour driving tour of the Tuscan countryside in her comfortable Fiat wagon. Gasoline in Florence is running about one and a half euros per liter, or about the equivalent of $8 a gallon. (Back home, it is still around $3.25). Our first stop was at Piazzale Michelangelo, which overlooks the city from across the river and has a stunning view of Florence, before leaving the city for the rolling, sun-soaked, Tuscan hillsides and charming, medieval hill towns. Dispersed among the rocky terrain were vineyards and olive groves that stretched as far as the eye could see. Being early spring, the vineyards were still bare, but the fruit trees were pink and white in full bloom across the undulating landscape.

We pulled over to the side of the road and got out of our vehicle to get a closer look at a Sangiovese-grape vineyard. Sangiovese is the grape that is used to produce the prized, world-famous Chianti Classico wine. The climate, soil, and altitude are perfect in this part of Tuscany for this particular red-wine grape. Fava beans, which trap nitrogen, are planted in alternating years to provide fertilizer for the soil. Wine has been produced in this region since the 13th century, and there are about 600 wineries housed in medieval castles, villas, and monasteries, many of which are family-owned and operated.

Our next stop was Greve, the principal town in the Chianti wine district, which has an unusual, triangular main piazza overlooked by a statue of local boy Giovanni da Verrazzano, who became in 1524 the first European to see Manhattan island. A fixture on the piazza since 1729 is Macelleria Falorni, Chianti's most famous butcher shop ( ). This quaint butcher shop, currently run by the 8th generation descendants of the founder, is also a wine shop, cheese shop, and tasting cellar. A rich combination of aromas in the shop came from the sausages, Tuscan hams, salamis, wild boar hams, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oils, and other Chianti specialties. The dense olive oils of this region are of such high quality that they are called “green gold.” Hundreds of Prosciutto hams hung from the ceiling overhead, as we tasted delicious samples of everything.
Greve is surrounded by delightful medieval villages, such as Montefioralle with its stone houses and streets. The village of Montefioralle dates from the year 1085 and is probably one of the most ancient in Chianti. Still today it is enclosed within its original walls at the top of a steep hill, but only about 20 or 25 people live here fulltime. We strolled among the shady, leaf-covered alleys, cobbled courtyards, crooked niches, and wobbly stone steps of this charming, picturesque village, whose character seems to have changed little in hundreds of centuries.
From then on, it was an endless parade of classic Tuscan scenes: rolling hills topped with medieval towns and castles, well-ordered rows of vines and olive trees, stone cottages, aristocratic country houses, valleys, Romanesque churches, and lines of cypress trees marking the properties. It was the panoramic Tuscan countryside that you find on calendars and postcards.
The main square of the fortified, hilltop village of Volpaia is where we enjoyed an outdoor lunch on the terrace of a cute little light-meal bar. What struck us was an atmosphere of times gone by as we were greeted warmly by the two sisters and their mother, who operate the bar and adjacent trattoria.
Volpaia is a village of 50 to 60 people that dates to the 1100’s. Most of the town is now involved in winemaking.
A winding road to the top of a hill near the town of Radda took us to Albola Castle (Castello D’Albola), a well-preserved castle and classic example of a mountain fortress, dating back to the year one thousand. The castle has been transformed into a winery with 2,000 acres of vineyards. After a tour of the historical wine cellars of this incredible estate, we were taken to a magnificent room devoted to wine tasting, where we enjoyed a tasting of half a dozen fine Tuscan wines, including the elegant Chianti Classico. "Classico" refers to the most ancient area of production of the Chianti region. Specific regulations apply to the Chianti Classico to differentiate it from, as Bill calls it, the “common Chianti,” which he doesn’t particularly care for. Most notably, a larger percentage of Sangiovese grapes are required in the Classico than in the Chianti. In addition to the very specific rules that dictate the production methods of Chianti Classico, there are regulations that determine what specific color, odor, and flavor the wine must meet. After tasting, Bill agreed that Classico was a significantly better wine.

With a buzz from all that wine-tasting, we leaned back and relaxed as Azzurra began the one-hour drive back to Florence. When we arrived at our hotel, we enjoyed drinks and snacks at the roof-top Terrace Bar with its beautiful views of the Duomo in one direction and the Ponte Vecchio in the other. Later, we had another tasty Italian pasta dinner at a sidewalk cafe near the Duomo called Hot Pot, which Bill had spotted on our first walking tour two days ago and which we had unsuccessfully tried to find since then.

Friday morning, a two-and-one-half-hour train ride with stops in Bologna and Padua brought us to our final destination, the idyllic island city of Venice. We boarded our pre-arranged, private water taxi for the 30-minute trip to our hotel via the canals of the city. Water taxis are the limousines of Venice with their spacious, leather-upholstered cabins and mahogany hulls and decks, and they are also the most expensive means of transportation around Venice. Venice consists of a hundred islands laced together by 400 bridges. Originally born in a lagoon about 1,500 years ago as a refuge from barbarians, Venice is a city floating on the sea and slowly sinking.

Our hotel was the Palace Bonvecchiati, ( ), which is ideally located in the heart of Venice about 200 yards from St. Mark’s Square in one direction and from the Rialto Bridge in the other direction. After checking in, we walked to the Rialto Bridge and ate our picnic lunches on its steps. The dramatic, stone-structured bridge has stretched across the Grand Canal since 1591.

The afternoon was all about what Napoleon called “Europe’s finest drawing room,” the Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square. After making our way through the tourists and pigeons of this two-football-fields-long plaza, we toured St. Mark’s Basilica, which was built in the 11th century and houses the bones of St. Mark. The interior was breathtaking: 43,000 square feet of Byzantine gold mosaics and colored marble, which produced an almost eerie golden glow inside. Next, we toured the Doge’s Palace, the seat of Venetian government, which was the most powerful in Europe for about 400 years. The Palace was like a storybook of Venetian history told through its magnificent paintings (including the ceilings), the Bridge of Sighs, prison cells, senate hall, armory, and courtyard.

Next, we experienced the traditional “must” for tourists, especially romantics--a gondola ride. For forty relaxing minutes (and about $130 for the four of us), we enjoyed this uniquely Venetian experience. Gondoliers, who must be born in Venice, invest greatly in their gondolas. It costs about €20,000 for a hand-built wooden gondola that can last 20 years. Aside from having to recoup their investment, their means of living is also relatively higher, as living in Venice can be quite costly. The drivers were clothed in what is considered traditional wear for them: black pants; a black-and-white-striped shirt; and a hat with a red ribbon. The gondolas have plush seats and are very comfortable. We had an amazing view of Venice as we traveled the canals, and the setting sun cast a beautiful, magical light on the water and pastel-colored buildings around us. Although the Grand Canal is gorgeous, the best part was going down narrow canals and seeing everyday people's apartments and homes. Even if you don't like doing touristy things, you will not regret or forget a gondola ride through Venice's breathtaking canals!
Saturday morning we were met by another very knowledgeable guide for our walking tour, Katarina, a professor of Italian history at a local university. We primarily focused on the labyrinth of back streets and passageways, twisting streets and alleys, which are the soul of this unique city. The point became not seeing “the sights,” but soaking up the atmosphere. We learned about the history of Venice and the challenges it has faced and is facing now, especially the flooding and the exodus of locals. Katarina pointed out the flood barriers in the doors of each building and the salt in the bricks of the buildings. Venetians built their structures a thousand years ago with a special waterproof stone block at the base with regular bricks above them. Now when it floods, the water rises to the level of the bricks, and they are beginning to crumble. We all laughed at Charlotte, who attracted excitement throughout the trip, when she touched one of the bricks and it crumbled in her hands. We laughingly teased her, “These bricks have lasted through one thousand years of wind and floods, but one touch from you and they are dust!”

The native Venetians are being driven out by the high cost of living and lack of normal amenities (You can easily get tourist trinkets, but it is hard for them to get groceries or get their shoes fixed.) Everything has to be shipped in from the mainland, and there are virtually no jobs other than those in the tourism industry. A 1,000 square-foot studio can sell for a million dollars, and those are being bought by rich foreigners as second homes. Venice’s population of 62,000 is half of what it was thirty years ago, and 2,000 leave every year. At this rate, it is predicted there will be none at all by 2040, and it will be a museum town only. In addition, although there is flooding 100 days of the year now in Venice, by 2050 it is predicted to happen every day. So, go now!

The afternoon was spent on the islands of Murano and Burano. We boarded Venice’s unique form of public transportation, the vaporetto, or water-bus, for the 20-minute ride to the island known for its glassmaking industry since 1291. Glassmaking has been an exalted art form since that time, and glass artisans were given high honors, such as being able to marry into the Venetian nobility and immunity from prosecution.

Murano is a quiet island a world away from touristy Venice and has its own Grand Canal lined with shops, sidewalk cafes, and glass factories. We watched a glassblower at work in one of the factories and then took a tour of the incredible glass art in the showroom before strolling along the canal, browsing, and stopping for coffee at one point. Then it was back onto a vaporetto for a longer ride (about an hour) to the island of Burano, which is known for its lace and picturesque pastel houses. Burano is an island far off the main Venetian island group, but it's much quieter, less crowded, and quite colorful. In fact, it is so colorful that it could be a set for a Kodak commercial! There is very little business or shopping here, as it is almost all residential. We roamed the streets along the canals of this unbelievably colorful fishing village. The story goes that the distinct color of each house was to remind the fishermen where they lived!

A long vaporetto ride brought us back to St. Mark’s Square around 7 p.m., hungry for our last chance to eat real Italian pizza and gelato. We ate at a sidewalk café called Happy Pizza and then had the best gelato yet—at least for me—the chocolate mousse gelato.

Sunday morning it was sadly time to say “arrivederci.” A water taxi picked us up at our hotel at 4:30 a.m. The hotel had provided us with boxed breakfasts, which we ate at the airport as we waited for our Air France jet to Paris and then on to Houston, arriving mid-afternoon.

Viva Italia!


14th August 2009

great blog!
Just wanted to say your page is great we're planning a trip to Italy and you sure gave a lot of helpful information!

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