Find History and Romance Here
Update— I have extra printed postcards from this trip, let me know if you’d like one.
When we booked the trip, I did what I always do: looked for sample itineraries. I visited Italy once before when I was studying abroad, so I knew that it would be difficult to see a lot in such a short amount of time. Every website said it: You can’t see Italy in a week.
Since we arrived at home, I can confirm that it’s true. There’s so much to see (and eat) all over Italy, and many cities have smaller towns surrounding them with rich histories and lifestyles to experience. What was originally supposed to be a two-city trip (Milan and Florence), quickly turned into three. We actually booked our hotel for Venice while we were in Rome (thanks wifi & cheap travel sites).
Though our traveling-policy is usually to not overdo it, we set a very quick pace. We did manage to came back to our room to work or relax for an hour or so, but some days it was tough to stop (or to start back up again). For anyone looking to take this trip: it’s possible, but you’ll savor every moment not on your feet.
Religion and History in Rome
The Eternal City is one shrouded in myths and stories, much different from other famous cities. There are two legends about the founding of Rome, though both agree on the year — 753 B.C.
The first says that after escaping Troy, Aeneas of Virgil’s epic poems (Aeneid) went to the area and married the daughter of a king. His children eventually became Romans. The other is the myth of Romulus and Remus. These twins were born from a virgin, sent to a Moses-like death and saved by a variety of gods, animals or shepherds, depending on the version. Ultimately, the city is founded by and named after Romulus, who kills his brother.
Many cities advertise their rich histories, but it’s only Rome that has the past literally standing at its center. I was in awe the first time I saw the Colosseum in the distance. The Roman ruins stand out even though the city doesn’t have the modern steel and glass skyline of New York. I’ve never made it inside the Colosseum, but the entrance under its side is cold and dark. It’s really the only thing that reminded me that despite its impressive nature, this amphitheater saw thousands of deaths. Crowds watched both human and animal blood spilled here. It’s somber and strange when there are men dressed up in gladiator costumes for tourists.
Read up on some history (or get a guidebook) beforehand and you’ll be able to spot all of the important buildings. Some require more imagination than others, such as Palatine Hill, which is still being excavated and doesn’t look like it’s been restored like some of the more prominent structures. Here are other places we visited:
I said it about Florence, and I’ll say it again: You don’t need to be Christian to appreciate the Vatican and St. Peter’s church. It’s just huge! I highly recommend seeing the museum and the church itself.
The official Vatican tour was also worth it. It’s about three hours long, though I was told to see the entire museum would take much longer. We skipped many rooms including the contemporary art (Picasso, Matisse), to get to the Sistine Chapel at the end. You get a thorough explanation of Michelangelo’s famous fresco, “The Last Judgement.” Afterward, you can go back into the rest of the museum. Again, I’d highly recommend to get some sort of a guide.
There were lots of fun facts and jokes along the way. The most surprising was that the latest restoration of the fresco (1980 – 94) was funded by the Japanese Nippon Television Network Corporation with $4.2 million USD. Basically, this Japanese company owns the photography and film rights of the Sistine Chapel fresco. That explains why I don’t have any photos, but I’m sure a Google search will help you out.
I’m a big fan of museums and art (just in case you couldn’t tell), and this one was really amazing.
Venice on the Water
While in Venice we learned that Veneto, one of Italy’s richest states, had a referendum for independence from the rest of the country. The famous city of Venice is its largest municipality. About 4.8 million people live in the area. Almost 90% of eligible residents voted for independence. (Ultimately this vote was just for show).
We arrived into Venice’s S. Lucia train station and had a nice view of a city on the water (and covered in bridges). Of course we still had about 2 miles to walk to our hotel, after deciding that the water taxi was too expensive. Well, here’s our walk on Google Maps, with an estimated 34 minute travel time. Once we got onto the first bridge, we realized that it would actually be pretty exhausting to walk all the way there. Not to mention trying to run back a couple of days later to catch our train.
Our first stop after the hotel was Saint Marco’s Square, with a basilica, tower and palace at the center. This view onto the Grand Canal was really just beautiful. We also stopped at Alfredo’s Fresh Pasta To Go for a late lunch around 3 pm. It’s wise to have lunch before then if you want to sit down at a nice place. This applies to the other cities we visited as well. We got delicious, fresh-made pasta in Chinese takeout-style box. The owner was really sweet too, even after I spilled soda on the floor.
Venice is one of those places people dream of seeing and rightly so. Still, I don’t think you need to spend more than a day and a half there to take it all in. After a full day, we were scrambling for things to do. I’m curious if someone had a different experience.
Enjoy the sights of Venice.
Check out the first part of this trip in Florence, Italy.
Art is the soul of Florence
That’s what stayed with me after a spontaneous trip to Italy. Since we work for ourselves, my husband and I take advantage of lulls in our schedule to travel. For our week long trip, we covered a lot of ground — Florence, Rome and Venice. Our first stop was Florence where art is not imported into museums, but is at the very heart of its history and its everyday life.
This city is thought to be the birthplace of the Renaissance. Even now in hindsight, it is one of the most beautiful and interesting cities I have had the pleasure to visit.
Our flight from NYC took us to Milan’s Malpensa airport, and then we took a high-speed train to Florence.
(You can fly into any city in Italy, but we took advantage of a discount from Emirates Airlines. Look out for a two-person deals around Valentine’s Day. This happened in 2014, and in 2015 they also offered a round trip flights for two people for $799! Their “economy” section could just as well be first class in my opinion).
Art & Culture in Florence
This is the city where the Renaissance began in the 14th century. Everything that was inspired by the Italian lifestyle or Roman paganism and funded by the influential Medici family (14-15 c.) or the church so many centuries ago still defines the feel of the city.
We tried to visit some of the important sights in Florence in two days.
Italy is known for having lots of plazas that are closed off to cars for the most part. If you walk along the Arno River there is no shortage of them. There are also several old bridges connecting the city on both sides of the river, the most famous being Ponte Vecchio. This bridge is only open to pedestrians and has a hidden tunnel underneath that was built for the Medici family to cross over. Supposedly the bridge was spared destruction during World War II because Hitler walked over and thought it was beautiful.
Piazza della Signoria is another impressive area, where Palazzo Vecchio sticks out with its tower and Roman statues seem to be everywhere. The Uffizi Gallery has a large collection of Renaissance art, including Michaelangelo’s famous statue of David. One of my favorites was the sculpture of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea (or the Greek’s Poseidon).
Inside the palazzo, the grandness of Salone Dei Cinquecento truly took us by surprise. The giant frescos on the walls, the golden panels on the ceiling and the statues are not something you can forget. My photos definitely don’t do it justice, but if you plan to visit it’s definitely worth the 10 euro ticket. Besides the main hall, there are several floors of rooms filled with art. When the Medici family lived there, the rooms were painted to represent each member with a Roman god. It’s a pretty great concept and a spectacular thing to see.
We also spent a few hours admiring the Florence Cathedral, known officially as Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Italian. It’s easier and common to refer to it as “il Duomo” (the dome). There’s an entrance fee that includes the dome, bell tower and the cathedral.
Hiking up a Cathedral
A note to future visitors: to get up to the top of the dome, you have to climb 436 steps so wear your sneakers and bring a bottle of water. It wasn’t easy but the view was amazing. The dome is painted with Renaissance frescoes. Though much of the art here is religious-themed, you don’t have to be part of the church to enjoy it. I don’t know why, but I was really into the part of the fresco which I now know is “The Last Judgement” (1572-79, Giorgio Vasari). Not knowing much about Biblical stories, I was thinking about Dante’s The Divine Comedy the whole time. In fact, Dante was born in Florence though he was exiled for part of his adult life.
Part of the appeal of the dome, constructed by Filippo Brunelleschi, is that its complicated construction is somewhat mysterious. From its completion in 1446 to today, it is still the largest “brick and mortar” dome ever built. An article in National Geographic from February 2014 said that architects are just figuring out how such a large construction site came together more than 500 years ago.
To this day, we don’t know where he got the inspiration for the double-shell dome, the herringbone brickwork, and the other features that architects through ensuing centuries could only marvel at.
Perhaps the most haunting mystery is the simplest of all: How did Brunelleschi and his masons position each brick, stone beam, and other structural element with such precision inside the vastly complex cathedral—a task that modern architects with their laser levels, GPS positioning devices, and CAD software would still find challenging today? – Tom Mueller, Nat’l Geographic.
After our hike up il duomo, we put off climbing up the famous bell tower. We finally decided to go at sunset, but only got part of the way. I’m sure it’s worth it but I don’t have any regrets. My feet agree.
An Italian Palace
Another major stop is Pitti Palace, and the adjoining the Boboli Gardens. You have to buy a ticket to some of exhibits to get into the gardens. We saw several rooms in the palace and one exhibit of fashion from influential women of the past and present. After everything else we saw, the gardens were a bit disappointing. Everything looked unkept. Maybe it’s because it was technically still winter, or maybe not. The gardens were large and it was hard to tell which paths led to something more than more trees. We relaxed a bit on the benches, but I’m not sure how much of it we actually saw.
We were exhausted at the end of our first day, and even more so at the end of the second. On the third day, we jumped on another train to Rome. Looking back I’d probably take at least another day in Florence. It turned out to be my favorite.
Want more of Italy? Read about the second part of this trip to Rome and Venice.