Return to Italy

    Our return to Italy was another trip taken with our frequent travel companions, Ed & Marie. They had never been to Italy so I designed a trip which incorporated the best of what we had seen previously with a few new places, so the trip would have some special interest for Lee & I as well. We began in Rome, one of the greatest cities on earth, and a city rich in attractions, yet characteristic of the unique culture that makes Italy such as popular travel destination.
    Once we arrived at our hotel, the lovely Santa Chiara, we headed for the Pantheon, just a block away. We had a light lunch in the Piazza della Rotunda and then toured the stunning interior of this well-preserved building. Next we walked to the Trevi Fountain, which has been significantly improved since we last saw it — the fountain itself is the same, but the viewing area has been much improved with stairs going down to the fountain and an elevated observation area that allows better pictures). We all took turns throwing coins into the fountain, then moved on to the Spanish Steps.  We were somewhat disappointed here, since there were no flowers lining the steps (probably because this was now October, rather than summertime) and the Triniti dei Monti Church, at the top of the stairs, was under construction. Exhausted now, from our flight and our lengthy excursion, we walked back to the hotel, along the Via Condotti and Via del Corso, the two major shopping streets in the city (to whet the girls’ appetite).
    That evening we had a very good dinner at the Ristorante Pummarola, near the Pantheon. Eddie began his love affair with Spaghetti Carbonara. We finished the day with a gelato.
    In the morning we headed for Ancient Rome. We admired the Victor Emmanuel Monument (the "wedding cake") and then climbed the stairs to Michelangelo’s lovely square, the Campidoglio. From here, we walked down into the Roman Forum to "walk with Caesar". We came out at the other end, at the Arch of Constantine, and beheld the Colosseum, the world’s first large arena, and a monument to Roman engineering. Thankfully, we had made reservations, which saved us much time, since the line to get tickets was extremely long and slow. We also picked up one Audioguide to share (basically unnnecessary unless no research is done prior to the trip).  We wandered through the aisles and were impressed that a partial floor had been added since we last visited.
    Once again, San Pietro in Vincoli Church frustrated us — we found it, not far from the Colosseum area, but again it was closed (from 12:30 – 3), so we returned to the hotel for a siesta. Actually, Lee and I decided to use the time to take a walk to Trastevere, the very old "ghetto" section of Rome across the Tiber.  It is still a bit run-down and the graffiti and garbage on the streets is a bit disconcerting, but some of its narrow streets are charming. Santa Maria de Trastevere is a pretty church on a pretty square with a pretty fountain at its center.
    We had a lovely dinner at the Osteria Dell’Ingegno, then strolled through the Piazza Navona, our favorite square in Rome, did some people-watching and had some gelato. 
    Our day at The Vatican was next on the agenda. On our way we strolled through the Campo de Fiori which used to be a flower market, but now is just an open air market with food and other items. The girls enjoyed this immensely, since this is where residents shop. From here we crossed the Tiber River on the Ponte Sant Angelo which leads dramatically from the Castel Sant ‘Angelo (Hadrian’s Tomb) toward the Piazza San Pietro and the looming presence of the Basilica San Pietro. Once again, we saved a considerable amount of time and aggravation by purchasing tickets on line, prior to our arrival. We walked past the line, which was already many blocks long and right to the Vatican Museum entrance, where we waited a short time for our tour to begin.
    Simona was fantastic — she took us on a 2-hour educational tour of the museum, made much richer because of her detailed and informative narration. The Rafael Rooms were certainly one of the highlights. I especially enjoyed what is known as the "signature" room, because Rafael put himself into the fresco devoted to Philosophers and historical figures, such as, Aristotle, Plato, Euclid, Ptolemy (next to the painter) and Michelangelo. On another wall were the writers and poets, like Homer, Virgil, Sappho, etc.
    The Sistene Chapel was, of course, the most beautiful of the rooms. Simona told us that Michelangelo took four years to complete the ceiling (only small sections could be done at a time, because of the very nature of a fresco –paint must be applied while the plaster is wet).  She also told us that his first ceiling paintings (the Noah frescoes) were done in a smaller scale, because he only realized that they couldn’t be seen too well when he came down from the scaffolding, so he increased the scale size for subsequent panels. She also told us many details about the Last Judgment, the wall painting in the chapel which was painted when Michelangelo was much older.
   Because we went next to the Basilica, we also did not have to wait in that line since we were coming from the museum. We marveled at the Pieta, on the right as you enter, and the glorious "high altar" with its carved wooden columns. No longer can visitors descend into the crypt beneath this altar.
   From the Vatican, we headed for the Piazza Navona again (to see and appreciate it in daylight). We spent about 2 hours here, eating lunch, drinking wine and soaking up the ambience. From here the girls went shopping by cab, and Ed & I returned to the hotel area. We stopped at Santa Maria sopra Minerva Church to see Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, and then nursed a beer at the Piazza della Rotunda and people-watched. That evening we had the "best" gelato in Rome at Giolitti’s.
    Leaving Rome the next morning, we stopped first at Montecassino, the famous mountaintop Abbey which was heavily bombed during World War II, because the Germans were maintaining a headquarters and observation point here. What an incredible sight — a light-colored brick fortress perched at the top of a mountain, high above the surrounding countryside. We walked the grounds and saw the memorial cemetery. Thirty-thousand men lost their lives here!
    Our next stop was the city of Caserta, where Italy’s monarchs maintained their Royal Palace, a huge, Versailles-like edifice, spectacularly opulent, with gilded furniture, ornate chandeliers, ceiling frescoes and bas-relief walls. The gardens were a disappointment, because we expected to see thousands of flowers but it was just a landscape garden.
    Our final stop for the day was Sorrento, at one end of the Amalfi Coast. However, we missed the exit to Sorrento from the Autostrada, and ended up near Salerno, at the southern end of the coast. Instead of retracing our steps, we decided to drive along the Amalfi Coast to Sorrento. I absolutely loved it!  The drive extremely dangerous — a narrow road, just barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass, winding precipitously along a steep cliff, high above the Tyrrhenian Sea. The scenery was breath-takingly beautiful alhtough there were times when it was impossible to take your eyes off the road ahead, especially when a large tour bus approached from the opposite direction. The girls were somewhat frightened, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The only downside, in my estimation, was that it was slow going, and it seemed to take us forever to reach Sorrento.
    Our hotel, the Settimo Cielo, was, even by European standards, spartan, but our patio, looking out over the Bay of Naples was worth the minor inconveniences. Plus, the hotel more than made up for in friendliness what it lacked in amenities. In addition to all this, the price was right (and we got a discount because we carried a Rick Steves Guide).  
    Our first day in the area was our worst weather day of the trip. We took the train to Pompeii, on suggestion from the hotel staff, since we could avoid getting lost (almost a daily occurrence for tourist in Europe) and would not have the hassle of parking the car.
    Pompeii is an amazing place!! The town is a time-capsule of life in the Roman Empire during the period around the birth of Christ. When Mt Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD the people of Pompeii had no warning so were caught doing their normal daily activities when they were killed and buried under the ash. Excavations of the site bagan in 1748 and still continue today. Most of the fragile artifacts recovered here are now housed in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, but much has also been left at the site, for the visitor to discover and imagine.
   Our visit was ultimately abbreviated because of the weather, but we saw enough to appreciate this incredible window on the past. Using an audioguide, we explored the Forum, with its Temple of Jupiter and its Basilica (not a church but the primary place in which business was conducted). We saw frescoes on the walls of some dwellings, tiles on their tables, graffiti, etc.
   Perhaps the most moving part of our visit was the Place of the Fugitives (Orto dei Fugiaschi), a glass-enclosed area which displays casts of actual people of the city, frozen in grotesque postures, caught at the moment they perished. It was very eerie!
    We returned to Sorrento, had a quick lunch and headed south to explore the Amalfi Coast. Today we could truly appreciate its beauty and splendor since we were not hustling to get to our hotel. We headed first for the southern end of the drive, and then worked our way back toward Sorrento leisurely. Nestled along the route are a series of small, charming towns which cling to the cliffs of the Latari Mountains and tumble down to the water below.
    Amalfi is the largest community along the drive and offers a wealth of activities for visitors. Its Duomo, with its Paradise Cloister, is worth visiting. Above Amalfi is the even more charming village of Ravello, which offers perhaps the best views along the entire coast because it is so high up. We enjoyed sitting with a coffee on the adorable main square, watching the local children play soccer. It was an idyllic setting. We also walked down several of the narrow, pedestrian-only, alleyways to access even better views at the Villa Cimbrone and the Villa Rufolo.
   We drove through other villages, like Atrani, and Maiori, until we reached Positano, our favorite stop on the drive. We stayed here through the dinner hour and beyond, strolling the streets and browsing in the shops. We admired the Santa Maria Asunta Church with its gold and green ceramic dome, checked out the tiny beach, lingered on the small piazzas, and then, reluctantly, headed back to our hotel.
   The next day was even more exciting. We walked down to the Port of Sorrento and took the fast ferry to the Isle of Capri, one of the most anticipated events in our entire itinerary. Our plan was to immediately board another boat to the famous Blue Grotto, however, wouldn’t you know it, there was a strike going on and the Blue Grotto was closed!  We were extremely disappointed, but unscheduled labor actions are commonplace in Europe, so this was not unusual.
    We took a bus up to Capri Town and spent the rest of the day in this perfect little village that oozed charm. We strolled the myraid of labyrinthine alleys which make up the town, past hundreds of sparkling, white-washed buildings, crammed with shops and restaurants. Most of the activity in the town is focused around the Piazzeta (Piazza Umberto II). Here, there is a cute clock tower, a church, and the ubiquitous shops. We separated because the girls were very much intent on shopping while the guys wanted nothing to do with that.
    I found my way to the Certosa di San Giacomo, an old monastery which dates to 1371, where I also discovered the former estate of Adolf Krupp, a wealthy entrepreneur who donated his entire property to the town when he died. The gardens are lovely and there are several observation areas with unbelievable views of the rugged island coast, and especially of several offshore sea stacks, called I Faraglioni. We finally left the island at about 4 PM to return to Sorrento and dinner at La Favorita — very good food eaten in what resembles a greenhouse.
   The next day was our longest driving day of the entire trip — a distance of over 500 miles, from Sorrento to San Marino, on the east coast below Ravenna.  We also planned several stops along the way. Our first stop was very brief, in the city of Spoleto, famous today as the venue for an international music festival in the summertime.  Since this was October, we were more interested in seeing the Rocca Albornoz, a Papal fortress which dates to about 1360 AD and the Ponte della Torri, a 14th century aqueduct, 262 feet high.
    From Spoleto, we headed higher into the Umbrian hills to the religious center of Assisi. This town is, of course, notable as the location of the extraordinary Basilica di San Francisco, a church built to commemorate the life of St Francis of Assisi, the founder of the Franciscan Order of monks. The church is truly spectacular with beautiful frescoes which chronicle the saint’s life adorning the walls of both the upstairs and downstairs church.  They were painted by the best artists of the day, and the church further displays intricate woodwork in its choirs.
    The town of Assisi is also charminig, with narrow, cobblestone streets which extend up and down the hills. They are all built of the same light-colored stone and the overall effect is quite enchanting.
     We continued onward to San Marino, the oldest (4th century) and the smallest Republic in the world. Our hotel, the Grand, the nicest in our entire trip, was not only elegant, possessing many amenities, but also provided a stupendous view of the countryside (the town of San Marino is on top of Mount Titiano). The little town is almost "Disneyesque", a perfect, walled, Medieval city with scrubbed sidewalks and streets and cute, narrow, cobblestone alleyways and stairways leading up, up, up. Some sprinkles prevented us from seeing all of the town that evening, but Ed & I returned in the morning to do the rest.  We also had one of our best meals of the trip at the Cantina di Bacco, an adorable little place with walls of the same light brick which adorns the town.
     Early the next morning, Eddie and I climbed and climbed to the top of the village to see the Tre Castelli, the three castles which rise from the Medieval walls. There was considerable fog that morning, but we were able to take some pictures during brief breaks in the overcast. We all left San Marino, thinking that this was a true "gem".
    We headed further north to Venice, our next and much-anticipated destination.  Since there are no cars allowed in Venice-proper, we waited in a long line, then left our car in a carpark on the outskirts of the city. Lugging our luggage across the busy square to the Vaporetto stop was both difficult and comical — we felt like idiots! After arriving at our stop, we then had to find our hotel amidst the narrow alleyways of a city where everyone gets lost. We eventually had to cross three bridges (really sets of stairways over the canals) to get to our hotel. We were exhausted!
    After checking in and freshening up a bit, we had a light lunch and headed for Piazza San Marco, the "drawing room of Europe" and one of the most spectacular squares in the world. We got back to the hotel that evening to find several urgent messages — my Aunt had died, and my daughters wanted to make sure I knew. Her death certainly saddened us, but there was nothing we could do, especially since it was not just Lee & I on this trip.
    We began our first full day in Venice with a tour of the Doge’s Palace, the residence of the reigning Venetian governor for hundreds of years, when Venice was a major player on the world trade scene. It was another tribute to opulence, with gold everywhere, frescoed ceilings and great artwork. The Major Council Chamber was perhaps most impressive, displaying Tintoretto’s Paradiso", the largest oil painting in the world. We also crossed the famous Bridge of Sighs into the dank and dark prison, where many a criminal spent the rest of his life.
    Next on our list was the Basilica San Marco, with its distinctive Byzantine architecture and beautiful mosaics. We marveled at the Pala d’Oro with its inlaid precious gems.
    We took the Vaporetto to the Rialto Bridge, the most famous of the three bridges which cross the Grand Canal, where the girls did some browsing in the shops which line the bridge. In the meantime, we did our laundry, a necessary chore when away from home for so long. Later, we stopped at the Santa Maria della Salute Church, located right at the lagoon end of the Grand Canal, but it was closed. We strolled for a while in quiet, slow-paced Dorsoduro, a dramatic contrast with the San Marco area, crossed the Accademia Bridge, and headed for Harry’s Bar, which we were prohibited from entering because Eddie was wearing shorts.
    For dinner, we heeded the hotel clerk’s recommendation and ate at the Trattoria Al Scalinetti, very close to our hotel. It was excellent! After dinner and some gelato, we went back to St Mark’s Square, and found, to our amazement, a quasi-battle-of-the-bands going on. We joined the crowd which was moving from one outdoor band to another, as they played their characteristic selections. First, one band would play their two song, then another would play theirs, and so on. It was a wonderful end to a lovely day.
    Our last day in Venice was even more low-key. since we had taken care of the major tourist sights already. We started at the Campanile, the Basilica’s Bell Tower, where Ed & Marie took the elevator to the top for panoramic views of the city (Lee and I had done this previously, so we just browsed the outdoor stands while they went). Then we boarded a Vaporetto for the Lido, Venice’s beach area. We walked a bit in this upscale neighborhood, had a coffee, and then took a ferry to Burano, one of the islands in the lagoon, which is characterized by brightly-colored houses with cascading flowers from their window boxes, and lace-making.  The main street is adorable, lined with numerous shops and restaurants. It leads to Piazza Galuppi, the main square, which is also colorful and cute. The girls enjoyed browsing in the shops, in this much less hectic environment.
    We returned to the city, where the girls demanded some quality shopping time. We later met them at Harry’s and this time we were allowed in to sample their famous, almost iconic, Belllini, a drink made from peach juice and Prosecco wine (a sparkling variety). It was excellent, but with an exorbitant price tag. Oh well, how often does a person get this opportunity?  
    The next stop on our "Best of Italy" tour was Florence, cradle of the Renaissance and one of the greatest destinations in the world for the Arts. We arrived in the city at about noon, dropped off our bags and walked around the corner to see the Duomo, Florence’s beautiful Santa Maria in Fiore Church, with its pink, green, and white marble, tastefully blended and accented with exquisite sculptures and other decorations. Above it looms the incredible Brunelleschi Dome, the largest in the world when it was built. We circled the church, checking it from all angles, admired the amazing bronze doors of the Baptistry, and explored the rather drab interior.
    Then we walked to the Piazza della Signoria, one of the major gathering places in the city, with its numerous well-known sculptures and the tall tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. We continued onward to the Arno River, where we checked out the Ponte Vecchio, a bridge
over the river which is lined with shops.
    The following day was "museum day". We had booked times online, prior to our arrival, for the Uffizi Gallery in the morning and the Accademia in the afternoon. Once again, it was refreshing to avoid the long lines at both venues. I would heartily recommend that everyone book reservations such as this prior to leaving home, because it saves a considerable amount of time.
    The Uffizi is one of the world’s finest museums, since it started with the collection amassed by the Medici’s, Florence’s most powerful family. We lingered at the Botticelli’s (especially the Birth of Venus), Rafael’s, Titian’s, Da Vinci’s, and Michelangelo’s. Downstairs, a special exhibit entitled "The Mind of Da Vinci" fascinated us.
    At the Accademia, the focal point for all is Michelangelo’s David, which once stood in the Piazza della Signoria (now replaced by a copy). It is such an exquisite piece of Art that we spent many minutes admiring it from all angles.
    After that, the girls again wanted to do some shopping, so Eddie & I headed for the Santa Croce Church, another beautiful white marble church which is famous as the final resting place of many of Florence’s most famous residents. We saw the tombs of Michelangelo, Rossini, Galileo, Marconi, and a special memorial to Dante (who is actually buried in Ravenna). The altar of the church is also exquisite.
    On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Santa Maria Novella Church with its interesting facade of green and white striped marble, Its lovely marble altarpiece is noteworthy, as well as some of the wall murals, its stained glass, choir stalls, and side altars.
    For dinner, we went to La Fonticine, a restaurant near our hotel which was recommended by Fodor’s. It turned out to be one of the best meals of our trip. The pasta was "to die for" and the steaks were tasty and extremely tender.
   We followed this with gelato at our favorite place in Florence, Perseo, at one corner of the Piazza della Signoria. We especially enjoyed the Zuppa Inglese gelato. We lingered to watch some street performers, then headed back to our rooms.
   We drove south toward Siena and our last destination of the trip after the obligatory stop at the Piazzale Michelangelo, the overlook above the city which is the source of some many photographs of Florence’s skyline. Here also is the third David sculpture, another copy. Because traffic made our exit from Florence rather slow, we decided to skip our drive through the Chiant wine country and head for San Gimignano, our only major stop on the way to Siena.
   San Gimignano is one of Tuscany’s "Hill Towns" and what a lovely little town it is with its Medieval walls, narrow, cobblestone streets, light-colored brick buildings, and adorable little squares. The girls found ample shopping along the streets and Eddie & I explored and found numerous photo opportunities.
   It’s not quite as "perfect" as San Marino, but it is close. We wandered through the Piazza della Cisterna and the Piazza del Duomo, admiring the towers which are the city’s signature (it is often referred to as the "Manhattan of Italy"). There were originally 72 towers, but only 14 remain. The tallest tower still standing is the Torre Grosse and I climbed all 280 stairs to get a great view of the rooftops and the Tuscany countryside.
   Eddie & I also walked up to the Rocca which also provided great views. We bought several bottles of the famous local wine, Vernaccia, to bring home, but abandoned our original thought of shipping home a case or two because the cost was prohibitive.
   We continued to Siena and, for a change, had no difficulty finding our hotel, the Palazzo Ravizza, which we all loved. After unpacking, we headed immediately for the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s famous main square, oval in shape, which is also the scene (two times a year) for the annual Palio, a horse race through the square between Siena’s neighborhoods, for local bragging rights. The square is huge, flanked at one end by the imposing Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall, with its distinctive bell tower, Torre de Mangia. As always, around the square are numerous shops and restaurants.
    Siena’s Duomo is almost as exquisite as Florence’s. However, its beautiful facade was being restored. We had dinner at the hotel restaurant (very good!), took part in the evening passagiata, had our gelato, and went to bed (Siena is very quiet at night, since many of the visitors are day-trippers).
    After a nice breakfast, we headed south for Rome and the airport, completing our wonderful journey.


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