Falling in Love with Italy: Pisa & Florence

Our destination today is the famous town of Pisa where we explore the Square of Miracles, featuring the Leaning Tower, Cathedral and Baptistery. We then head to Florence, birthplace of the Renaissance where we visit the Academie de Arte to view Michelangelo’s David. Along the way, we observed ancient Roman aqueducts from our coach; I even managed to catch a decent photo with my iPhone (below).

pisa and florence

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Pisa

We departed for Pisa immediately after breakfast as usual. Upon our arrival we observed the usual roadside vendors selling kitschy tourist souvenirs. When we entered the square, I was surprised by the size of the area surrounding the tower. For some reason, I had always pictured in my mind the tower surrounding by other buildings in congested metropolitan area. I had not expected the  large green open spaces. Fortunately, these were roped off to confine the crowds to the pathways. The crowds were so intense the grass would otherwise not grow.

leaning tower pisaThe first structure we came to from this entrance was the Baptistry (pictured in the bottom photo above) – a large dome topped circular building. The cathedral was in between the Baptistry and the Leaning Tower. This Unesco World Heritage Site, Piazza del Duomo di Pisa, is unique. The tower was impressive indeed. Like many other visitors, we did our best to take a creative photo despite the crowds.

installation art pisaWe were afforded little free time here, not enough to wait in queue to climb the stairs of the tower but enough to capture photos and enjoy the architecture. As a result, we chose to dine quickly, choosing a McDonalds – trusting in free public restrooms and wifi. It’s also fun to compare menus. We still reminisce about the delicious black & white burgers and teriyaki rice wraps we had in China. Patrick and I both tried the McLobster sandwich and were pleased.

Tuscan Hills

We then proceeded to the heart of the Renaissance, which we discovered was a signifiant distance. We thereby arrived at our hotel, Art Gallery, late in the afternoon. We had very little time to freshen up before we needed to join our group again for the option Tuscan Hills Dinner at Villa Machiavelli.

florence vineyardThe drive to the villa was very scenic, through the Chianti hills, past vineyards and sunflower fields (sadly, they were no longer in bloom). The ancient stone house of Machiavelli was perched a top a small hill and was overlooked by an imposing castle across the vineyard. It was here that the political theorist wrote his immortal, The Prince.

After a toast of blue champagne, a living history interpreter portraying Machiavelli’s spouse, led us on a tour of his home including the wine cellar. The meal and our dinner companions were wonderful – one of the most memorable evenings of our stay in Italy. As we dined on tapas of cheese, bruschetta, ravioli, and gnocchi, we enjoyed three different wines (each paired to a specific dish). My favorite was the Volare, a pinot grigio and pompelmo rosa blend.

A musical trio – violinist, guitarist, and a vocalist – provided us with entertainment. Prime Rib was the main course and it was served with yet another wine. Everything was so very delicious. I had a fabulous time! We even purchased a case of wine to commemorate our evening.

Florence

The next morning, the itinerary included a walking tour of Florence. Giuseppe gave a short overview of the morning, detailing for the first time to the group that we would see the location where Michelangelo’s David had initially been located but that the original had been replaced with a bronze replica. The marble statue had been moved to the Academie de Arte. We (along with a couple from Colorado) had informed our guide early on that we were going to try our luck and get tickets to see David opting to forgo the walking tour.

He tried to talk us out of it initially but upon discovering how important it was to us, agreed to try to pull a few strings. I didn’t expect him to follow through – he had seemed unmotivated. Much to our surprise, he not only got us tickets in advance but we were able to skip the lines entirely, jumping in with another tour group. He asked only that we didn’t say anything to the others in the group and we slipped away as the group walked past the academy.

davidMichelangelo’s David

Upon entering the gallery in which David was the centerpiece, chills ran up my spine. I had never before been so moved by a piece of art. It was incredibly beautiful. I was amazed at the detail – the veins of David’s hands, his toenails, his muscles, his shoulders. Perfection. Photographs do not do it any justice.

At the Galleria del Academie de Arte, we also enjoyed several other sculptures by Michelangelo – some unfinished – in addition to a large gallery of busts and smaller works by less familiar artists. The museum obviously attracts a lot of attention because of the David, but the rest is a lot of religious art which is great but you really have to be into religious art.

Of most interest to us was Marco Polo’s bible – though many of the pages had begun to deteriorate, the text was still legible and the illuminations vibrant. Jeffrey was most interested in several volumes of illuminated works that looked like hymnals. dante florencePiazza de Saint Croce

When we completed our self-guided tour of the museum, we headed to the Piazza de Saint Croce, one of the main plazas or squares located in the central neighborhood of Florence. Here we were to meet the rest of the group. Along the way, we did a little shopping and took several photos by the Ponte Vecchio – a Medieval stone closed-spandrel segmental arch bridge over the Arno River. It is noted for still having shops built along it, as was once common.

florence duomo

Florence Cathedral 

As we continued on our way to the piazza, we came across theand the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (the main church of Florence). Il Duomo di Firenze, as it is ordinarily called, was begun in 1296 in the Gothic style with the design of Arnolfo di Cambio. It was so grande that we had difficulty getting a decent photograph.

The exterior of the basilica is faced with marble panels in various shades of green and pink bordered by white, an elaborate 19th-century Gothic Revival façade. The complex includes the Baptistery and Giotto’s Campanile are part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site covering the historic centre of Florence. The the dome was once the largest in the world and remains the largest brick dome ever constructed.

Dante

Once we reached the piazza, we got a quick bite to eat at a cafe and wandered about the piazza to pass the time. Here we observed the statue of Dante, a major Italian poet of the Late Middle Ages. His Divine Comedy is widely considered the greatest literary work composed in the Italian language and a masterpiece of world literature.

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This concludes my Falling in Love with Italy hopscotch. I am planning another series in October to share our experiences in Greece.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Verona & Lake Como

We began our tour of Italy today by heading west across the plains of the Veneto to Verona, the home of Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers. Sadly, however, we were only stopping here briefly. verona lake como

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Verona

Upon our arrival, we were lead to the main piazza and to the Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheatre built in the first century.  Located in the Piazza Bra, it is internationally famous for the large-scale opera performances given there.

Verona is visited frequently by those who love Shakespeare as it is the setting of Romeo and Juliet. It’s home to a 14th-century house said to have Juliet’s balcony, even though the building’s connection to the play is fictional. When the house was originally built, there was no balcony. In the 1930s an enterprising young man built one and capitalized on the fame.

juliet verona

What surprised us, however, was the graffiti on the wall in the narrow alley leading to the courtyard below her balcony. Here’s another look.

We were given just 30 minutes of free time to explore on our own. We opted to purchase a a couple calzones. The light continental breakfasts we have been provided just haven’t been filling enough.

Not All Goes As Planned

As part of a tour group, we have had the advantage to take in a great deal and skip the long lines at the Vatican. We are discovering, however, that some of the advertising is a little misleading, especially to those unfamiliar with the area.

arena veronaWe had missed out on the forums when we were in Rome (amongst other things) and we discovered today that we would not be seeing Michelangelo’s David as we had originally expected. Instead, we would be taken to the piazza where it had been initially erected and where a replica now stands.

We didn’t come all this way to see a replica so we are thereby making plans to skip the walking tour of Florence so we can see David. Our guide, Guisseppe, didn’t seem very willing to help us but we shall see.

Lake Como

When our group reconvened, we continued north to the Italian Lake District to visit Como, located on the southern tip of Lake Como, a favorite summer retreat of the rich and famous. It’s known for the Gothic Como Cathedral (or Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta), a scenic funicular railway, and a waterfront promenade. duomo di verona

Here we were afforded a leisurely afternoon due in part to our family decision not to pay for the optional cruise along the shore of Lake Como to see the fabulous villas. Instead we enjoyed walking along the promenade – Geneva collected beach glass while the boys brainstormed entrepreneurial ideas and computer programming.

Como Silk Industry

We then did a little window shopping. The stores here were too high end for our taste – Gucci, Prada, Sephora, Louis Vutton – my oh my. We discovered that Como provides silk for the fashion houses of Milan, Paris and New York, as well as Italy. Patrick couldn’t go home without purchasing a couple.

Silk has been part of Como’s existence for over 4,000 years, which takes us right back to the Middle Ages. In the sixth century silkworms were smuggled out of China in bamboo canes and brought to the eastern Mediterranean by two Persian merchants disguised as priests. From there, breeding of the silkworms spread to Sicily and continued further north.

gelato veronaAt the turn of the 18th century, Como became Italy’s largest silk producer, with the help of mechanical methods replacing older ones. Silkworm breeding as died down since WW2. Como now imports the cocoons from Brasil before the silk is woven, colored, and tailored to design in Italy.

Before departing, we treated ourselves to another gelato, carmelized fig and wild berry for me! I could eat gelato every day.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as I share our experiences in Pisa & Florence.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Falling in Love with Italy: Venice & Burano

Our journey continues today north across the dramatic Apennine Mountains to the romantic city of Venice. Here we also make an excursion to the colorful island of Burano.

venice buranoWe departed Assisi en route to Venice excited to get underway. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at Ristorante Albergo in Ravenna at a family restaurant where we enjoyed a wonderful homemade lasagna. After our meal we had a short time to wanter about.

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

S. Apollinaire in ClasseWe took in the local Basilica di S. Apollinaire in Classe (interior view) and a statue of Cesar Augustus, founder of the part of Classe. We also saw four water buffalo statues but our guide did not know the significance.

Venice 

Upon our arrival at the bus terminal near Venice, we boarded a water taxi and headed to the heart of Venezia. We walked about just a little and the Basilica of St. Mark’s was pointed out to us. We then immediately boarded a gondola. I observed that our fellow travelers all grouped up in groups of sex, leaving us on our own. As a result, the musicians boarded with us – quite a treat!

Jeffrey and Geneva snagged the best seats, the little squirts! I loved the narrow alleys and “backstreets” of classical Venice.

gondola veniceWe then immediately boarded a third floating vessel, this one more like a small passenger ferry, to return to the bus terminal. We ultimately made our way to Hotel Il Burchiello (street view), located in Mira on the mainland. Fortunately, we would have another day in Venice and didn’t feel as rushed as we had in the previous cities.

The following day we returned to Venice. Our first stop was the Museo del Vetro on the island of Murano to see how the artisans create the hand blown and sculpted glass for which they are so famous. Venetian glass was developed in the thirteenth century and toward the end of that century, the center of the Venetian glass industry moved to Murano.

In the showroom, the guide showed how durable the pieces with silver and gold infused inside the glass by literally banging it atop the table. We selected a rose bud vase on behalf of my mother-in-law as well as a pendant for myself.

modern veniceFrom there, we had the option to join the group for a tour of the Cathedral Basilica di San Marco however we opted to explore on our own. Geneva really wanted to visit the Peggy Guggenheim museum which we had observed from the water taxi the day prior and we wouldn’t have had time otherwise.

Along the way, we stumbled upon a Vivaldi museum featuring a diverse collection of string instruments from his time. It was a lovely hidden gem that we wouldn’t have experienced with the group and one that we all enjoyed.

vivaldiThe winding streets of Venice are indeed a labyrinth. I’ve always prided myself on my sense of direction but the narrow alleys and many dead-ends, it wasn’t easy. I blame it on the poorly drawn map we were provided. I swear it wasn’t drawn to scale. We continued on and upon crossing the Ponte dell Accademia, we knew we were close.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection (interior courtyard) was also spectacular. Original works by master artists – Calder, Dalí, Kandinsky, Picasso, and brothers Jackson and Charles Pollock among others. One of my favorites was an untitled collection (pharmacy) by Joseph Cornell. Seeing the pieces in person was just stunning.

Thereafter, we made our way to the Ponte di Rialto as we had passed under it on the water taxi and that side was under renovation. We wanted to see it from the reverse. It was a significant distance away and my navigation skills were again tested (click to see the crowds) but we prevailed.

lost in veniceAs we made our way back to meet our group we did a little shopping. I found the most wonderful glass shop that showcased very intricate sculptures of insects by Camuffo Giovanni. I had a difficult time selecting one. Now that we are home, I wish I had purchased a couple more. He seems a little lonely. I haven’t been able to find them online, sadly.

Burano

At 2pm, we met up with the group and took a ferry to the island of Burano. The colorful homes here are very vibrant. It was clear the residents of this island enjoy a simpler, less hectic pace of life. Sadly, many of the homes are also for sale. Giuseppe explained that the young are selling their inheritance and moving away.

burano fishermanHere, we enjoyed a nice seafood meal at Ai Pescartori (street view) with clams in a tomato-base, seafood risotto, shrimp, grilled fish, and calamari. Dessert was a light tiramisu style torte with a crispy top layer. So good!
sketching buranoAfter our early dinner, we wandered about taking photos. Geneva wanted to sit and paint so I stayed with her (we both would have liked to stay here longer to relax) while the boys continued to explore.

We returned to the hotel relatively early in the evening. Patrick and I walked to a little market a few blocks down the street for snacks. Thereafter we retired early.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as I share our experiences in Verona & Lake Como.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Falling in Love with Italy: Assisi & Pompeii

Our destination today is Pompeii and Assisi. We spent the morning touring the excavations of Pompeii, the perfectly preserved Roman town which was engulfed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. We will then proceed thereafter to Assisi in the region of Perugia, a town that has changed little since the time of St. Francis, who was born here in 1182.

assisi pompeii

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Pompeii

The city of Pompeii had been built atop ancient lava flows. Despite this, the people had forgotten the danger. Despite earthquakes preceding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the people were caught unawares. Most died from the pyroclastic heat and gases that preceded the explosion. The eruption of 79 AD buried the city in 20+ feet of ash and pumice.

The Roman emperor sent help, but upon finding the entire area buried, they returned. We know of the eruption mostly from two letters written by a boy who had witnessed the catastrophe from across the Gulf of Naples. He described his observations and state the eruption began about 1 pm, the clouds shaped like the umbrella pine tree or a mushroom.

The ruins were rediscovered 267 years ago. Presently, one third of the city remains buried. Excavations have since stopped – the focus now on restoration. At its peak, an estimated 20,000 people lived in Pompeii. pompeii us

It was fascinating to walk about the excavated and restored ruins. It provided us with a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Rome. Streets lined with shops and restaurants, houses, public meeting places (including a gymnasium with spas and massage areas, two orchestras, a basilica, and a training center for gladiators). Archeologists determined the function of each structure by artifacts found within the walls – doctors instruments, breads, weapons, as well as frescoes that adorned the walls.

pompeii homeAs a port city, many foreign sailors would arrive in Pompeii. To aide those who didn’t seek the language, relief images were carved into the rock as road signs. Jeffrey of course found it very humorous that a phallic symbol indicated the direction to the brothels. You can imagine his laughter when at the kiosks surrounding the ruins, vendors had a great variety of kitschy souvenirs featuring these symbols.

Read more about Pompeii in Jeffrey’s essay, Pompeii Rises from the Ashes.

Assisi

After a few hours in Pompeii, we were back on the road continuing to Assisi. Along the way, Monte Cassino was pointed out us – visible from our coach from distance – the location of a 5 month battle at the end of WW2.

St. Francis of Assisi was born to a wealthy merchant, growing up in a life of comfort. He served for a time as a soldier and had been taken prisoner in Perugia. It was during this time that he began his conversion.assisi duomo

Upon his return home, he would travel to Rome on behalf of his father but began to give away his goods and profits to those in need. He eventually dedicated his life to the church, much to the anger of his father. He later founded the Order of the Friar’s Minors (Franciscan Order). he died on 3rd October 1226 and was canonized just two years later.

For a fascinating glimpse into the life of St. Francis, consider Scott O’Dell’s book The Road to Damietta.

The basilica in Assisi was built in his honor and is actually two distinct basilicas. The lower one (built first) featuring frescos of the life of Jesus. The upper basilica features 28 frescos depicting the life and work of St. Francis painted by Thomas of Celano and Bonaventura between 1297-1300.

assisi window

We had only a couple of hours in Assisi. I loved the historic, medieval feel of the city. As we wandered about the shops, I was delighted to find the pendant I had first seen at the Vatican museums, Rosoni by Landolfo which are inspired by the elaborately carved windows of the Basilica Papale di San Francesco.

As we arrived at our meeting place at the bottom of the hill, I realized that my mother-in-law would also like one of the pendants (she had given us money to spend on her behalf). I had only 15 minutes before our coach was to depart. Though I knew they wouldn’t leave without me, I didn’t want to delay our departure and worry our guide, Giuseppe. We had already experienced this frustration twice before due to another party in our group. I thereby raced up the hill, arriving out of breath, able to indicate my desire only by pointing and labored words.

assisi kids

Our accommodations at the Casa Leonori were spartan owing to the humbleness of the Franciscans. The kids said, “Our towels are like crepe paper and our bed like cardboard on box springs.” I actually appreciated it for the experience – it was just one night after all.

Dinner was very similar to the night before. I particularly began to get frustrated with the quality of food provided. Admittedly I am a foodie and tasting authentic regional dishes are a big part of what I love about traveling. You know there is a problem when we are in Italy and my 10 year old son says to me, “Mom, you make better pasta than this.” I am not fond of group travel – but again, I’ll save that diatribe for a future post.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as our journey continues north to Venice & Burano.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Falling in Love with Italy: Sorrento & The Amalfi Coast

We departed Rome via coach en route to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Our seats were comfortable and to our surprise, we even had wifi – such a blessing. I love being able to stay in contact with family at home and they enjoy seeing pictures and hearing snippets of our adventures. Not surprising, we loved this region of Italy and hope to return for a more relaxed exploration.

amalficoastFrom the coach, we enjoyed a view of the Gulf of Naples and upon our arrival in Sorrento, we were given the opportunity to take part in a tour of a wood factory to see how inlay is done. Since the 16th century, the region has been famous for the local industry of the inlaid wood (marquetterie) made by different natural woods cut out and put together to form elaborate patterns and images.

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Patrick and the kids were not interested in the tour (and from previous experience we knew it was a canned program with a hard sell at the end of the tour). We thereby opted to explore the shops and avenues on our own each spurning off the Piazza Torquato Tasso. We discovered many of the shops featured products of citrus fruits, leather goods, and predominately wood inlay – furniture, serving trays, music boxes, picture frames, chess sets, etc.

It would be impossible to imagine the Amalfi and Sorrento Coasts without their charming and extremely fragrant lemon gardens. Lemon groves abound in this region and help the environment by preserving the stability of the soil.

The Sorrento lemon (also called the Limone di Sorrento) is a highly regarded lemon variety whose popularity outside of the United States rivals that of the Eureka. At the turn of the twentieth century Sorrento lemons were sold individually and could only be handled by women who had to have trimmed nails and wear cotton gloves to handle them.

We had browsed several shops when we came to a small wood shop with a gallery near the entrance. When we entered, the elderly proprietor greeted us with a warm, “Preggo!” I browsed around a bit and asked a few questions. He pointed out that his box had inlay both around the base of the box in addition to the lid. I noted that his boxes were also less expensive than those I had previously seen. He assured me he had made it himself. As he wrapped my selection, he showed us his 200 year old scissors and explained that he had learned his craft from his father. “Si! Si, mi papi!” he exclaimed.

sorrentoHe was so friendly – the epitome of an Italian gentleman. He hugged us good-bye and kissed the back of my hand. Meeting him far surpassed the experience we would have had at the factory tour. He even gave Geneva scrap pieces from inlay projects that lay beneath his faith. Though it was essentially rubbish, it was the patter that she desired to embellish her own art in her sketch book.

Our tummies alerted us to our basic needs, also evidenced by everyone’s growing grumpiness. We thereby settled upon a restaurant serving fish. Thereafter we wandered about the city a bit longer, leisurely taking in the experience. Patrick bought some lemon candies. We enjoyed the view of the gulf from above the Marina Grande. We would have liked to spend the day here but with group travel, we had a tight timeline.

We met up with our group again at 2:30 at which time we divided into two groups. Most took the coach to our hotel (Towers Hotel Sorrento) while a handful boarded a small van and from there proceeded to drive along the Amalfi coast to Positano on the other side of the peninsula. This coastal road is very narrow and congested. At one point becomes a single, one-way lane that zig zags along the Amalfitano coastline.

The views were magnificent. We stopped at an overlook for photos. Here we sampled limoncello (29% alcohol) and fresh sliced peaches from a local vendor. I bought each of the kids a granita – which they agreed was, “Delicioso!”

When we reached the village of Positano, we parked and proceeded down to the beach by foot. The path was lined with a variety of shops, art galleries, restaurants, and vendors all along the way.

positanoUpon reaching the shore, Geneva and I immediately took off our shoes and dug our toes into the sand. We would have loved to cool off with a swim but we hand’t been informed we would have time and thus we didn’t bring our suits or towels. We were a little disappointed.

We walked back up at 5, stopping briefly at La Zagara for a gelato – berry for Jeffrey, lemon and peach for Geneva, peach and cantaloupe for me, and chocolate for Patrick. After a long delay (several fellow travelers misunderstood the return time and/or got lost), we returned to the van and drove back to the hotel.

After an unremarkable dinner at our hotel, we walked around the property a little. Jeffrey found a piano tucked away in the corner of the lobby and he entertained our tour group before we all decided to retire for the evening.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as I share our experiences in Assisi & Pompeii.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Falling in Love with Italy: Sightseeing in Rome

We arrived in Rome in the late morning and had a long wait for our luggage at the carousel and another long wait for our rooms upon our arrival at the Ergife Hotel via taxi. Several drivers offered “taxi” services upon our departure of the hotel lobby – we’ve learned however that it’s best to walk past to the line of “official” taxis outside; generally less expensive and no need to trek across the expansive parking lot.

Once we had arrived at our rooms (with tiny twins reminding us of Xi’an – where we were coincidentally exactly two years prior), we changed into our swimsuits and went down to the pool for a couple of hours. It was huge and though a little chilly, the swim felt so good. Just what we needed to loosen our muscles after the long flight and many hours of sitting. We took a short nap and then returned to our room to change for dinner.

sightseeing in romeSightseeing in Rome ~ Day One

Via Ottaviano

We then ventured forth to experience Italy for the first time. We walked quite a distance from the hotel to reach the subway and then proceeded to Via Ottaviano, not far from the Vatican, where we window shopped for a short time before coming to a quaint restaurant with outdoor seating along the sidewalk. The boys selected pizza (cheese for Jeffrey and salami for Patrick) while I chose spaghetti carbonara and Geneva, a mozzarella and tomato salad. The food was delicious! Pasta and pizza in Rome! I could hardly believe it was true.

After dinner, we continued to walk along Ottaviano until we came to the St. Peter’s Square. The boys spent a significant amount of time here taking photographs as Geneva and I sat down to people watch. To be quite frank, I hadn’t slept well on the plane and wasn’t feeling well. Geneva enjoyed the quiet time to sketch in her journal.

As we began to retrace our steps back to the hotel, we stopped for gelato at Lemongrass. It was heavenly! Geneva selected their signature recipe – lemongrass with white chocolate, lemon cream, and grain pralines. Patrick and Jeffrey chose their usual, cookies & cream and mango, respectively. My choice was ricotta e fiche – soft white sheep cheese with Mediterranean figs. Mmmmmm. To this day, Geneva and I rave about the gelato here. It turned out to be the best in all of Italy.

davinci journalsSightseeing in Rome ~ Day Two

Piazza del Popolo

The following day, our first destination was the Piazza del Popolo for a which featured an Egyptian obelisk at the center. Here we also discovered a Leonardo da Vinci museum which was very nice – featuring many hands-on models and a few artifacts, namely a few of his journals!

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Castel Sant ‘Angelo

We then walked to Castel Sant ‘Angelo, crossing the River Tiber via the Ponte Regina Margherita. The Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, is a towering cylindrical building in Parco Adriano. It was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. Once the tallest building in Rome, it was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle, and is now a museum.

The castle was quite impressive and thus we paid the admission to see the interior. Were were not disappointed. There were many artifacts and elaborately decorated rooms within. Most notably was a statue of Marcus Tulles Cicero. As we rounded the steps to a lower level, I’d remarked that it resembled Voldemort and the party behind us started laughing and stated they were thinking the same thing.

Dinner at Il Giardino

In the afternoon, we met up with our Trafalgar tour group for introductions and an overview of our itinerary. It was quite a large group in comparison to International Expeditions, our first experience with group travel. To conclude the evening, we took a bus around the city for a short evening highlight tour and then enjoyed a traditional Italian style dinner at Il Giardino de Albino. The meal was several courses – antipasti, a variety of salami selections, breads, four pastas, and dessert with coffee and limoncello, a lemon liqueur.

Sightseeing in Rome ~ Day Three

We departed via coach with the group for the Vatican, the first of our optional tours in Italy (and an extra expanse paid in country). Trafalgar had made advance reservations and thus we were able to skip the long lines that serpentined around the Vatican walls. We were able to enter immediately upon our arrival, a blessing as it was pouring down rain. This is the best benefit of traveling with a group but I’ll save these observations for a later post.

The Vatican Museums house ancient Roman sculptures such as the Laocoön, Renaissance frescoes, and the Sistine Chapel, famous for Michelangelo’s ceiling. Our tour group moved rather quickly through each of the rooms it was near impossible to retain what she shared – even when we could hear her. It was so crowded.

The art inside was simply stunning. I hadn’t realized that the borders or frames between images was not in fact 3-dimensional  paneling but was painted to appear 3D! Even the long hallways were decorated floor to ceiling; mosaic inlay floors, tapestries and sculptures on pedestals, and my favorite the cartography hall with maps of the Roman provinces and regions representing each of the foreign dignitaries.

Sistine Chapel

The Sistine Chapel was larger than I had imagined. Photographs and talking were prohibited but that didn’t stop everyone. As the murmur of whispers grew, the guard boomed over a megaphone, “SILENCE! SILENCIO!” We enjoyed sitting on a bench along the wall to take in as much detail as we could.

popealtarSt. Peter’s Basilica

I was impressed, too, with the enormity of St. Peter’s Basilica. The paintings inside had been replaced with mosaics as the smoke from the Pope’s ___ had damaged the fragile nature of the paints. Symbolic burial urns and numerous altars adorned the cavernous interior. There were also two mummies of past popes who had been canonized:  

  • Pope John XXIII (1963) — who convened the Second Vatican Council; he was exhumed in 2000, mummified and put on display under St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
  • St. Pio da Pietreicina (1968) — Italian priest who was inflicted with stigmata (the five wounds of Christ) while praying.

In the floor were covered openings that gave visitors a peak into the crypts below. There are over 100 tombs within St. Peter’s Basilica, many located in the Vatican grotto, beneath the Basilica. These include 91 popes.

Within the Basilica there is also a wedding chapel and a Baptismal Fountain. During our tour, there were services taking place at a couple of the altars. In the center was a large dark canopy that looked to me like Mahogany. Our guide pointed out that it was actually bronze. In fact, all the dark colored material on the walls and surfaces that looked like wood is actually bronze. From this central canopy, only the Pope is permitted to give services.

colosseumThe Colosseum

The early part of the afternoon was spent at the Colosseum. It is hard to imagine the splendor of this incredible structure – built primarily for Roman entertainment of slaughtering wild and exotic animals. We learned that the thumbs up / down hand signal so popularly featured in the movies is slightly inaccurate. To save the life of the gladiator, the emperor would poll his people. If they felt his performance worthy, they would enclose their thumb within their fists. To signal his death, they’d made a slow downward slashing motion with an open palm.

Much of the Colosseum has fallen into ruins and has only partly been restored. Fortunately, a portion of the arena floor has been rebuilt so visitors can visualize the structure at the peak of its use. Just before departing, we took a group photo at the Arch of Constantine.

As we drove back to the hotel that afternoon, we drove past the Circo Massimo where chariot races had previously been contested. Other notable sights we observed from the coach included the Palatino and Campidoglio (hilltop square designed by Michelangelo). I was frustrated that we didn’t have more time.

pinnochioBackstreets of Rome

In the evening we gathered for the second optional tour, Backstreets, Piazzas, and Fountains of Rome. Our first stop of this walking tour was the Trevi Fountain which was sadly under renovation during our visit. So much of the fountain was covered in scaffolding and the area so very crowded (several other tour groups were here at the same time) that it was uncomfortable and very frustrating.

After a quick little gelato, we continued on our walk rather swiftly through the back streets as our guide pointed out different architectural points of interest. There was just too much visual and audio input that even I was overwhelmed. Jeffrey gave up listening and removed his ear bud.

Along the way, there were many quaint little shops, restaurants, and gelaterias where we would have loved to browse. I was especially disappointed that we were not given time to stop at a shop where a woodworker was carving a Pinnochio. I so desperately wanted to observe him longer and buy one but we were pressured to keep moving.

pantheonThe Pantheon

The Pantheon was constructed on the site of an earlier building commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus. The present building was completed by the emperor Hadrian and probably dedicated about 126 AD. An opening at the center of the ceiling lets in natural light and of course any precipitation. The center floor is clear of furnishings or sculptures but covered with elaborate mosaic designs.  As before, the interior walls were adorned with murals and ornately decorated altars.

Piazza Navona

Lastly we visited the Piazza Navona which had at one time been built on the site of the Stadium of Domitian (1st century AD) before the walls bordering the Trevere (River Tiber) were built to avoid flooding and the city streets were raised. A prominent feature of this piazza today is Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, or Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

Here, we were given a short time to browse on our own and get something for dinner. Another unanticipated expense. I’ve become a little disenchanted with group travel. We opted to move away from the piazza and find a small pizzeria that would be a little less spendy.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as I share our experiences in Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

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