Venice was by far my favorite city. It’s so pretty. The attractions are not as impressive as those in Rome and Florence but I absolutely loved wandering the streets. They’re confusing and winding and you never know when one ends with a bridge over a skinny little canal or a dead end courtyard with laundry hanging cross-cross overhead. We also visited Murano (glass making island, although the factories were closed Sunday when we visited) and Burano (colorful fishing village — also a favorite). Plus I woke up early enough to watch the sunrise on my last day!
Florence is a majestic, low lying yet sprawling city and an ideal image of Tuscany. The brick buildings with red roofs sprawl out around the Duomo and has a much calmer feel to it than Roma. This is the only city where we stayed in an apartment (not Air BnB though) so it was a neat experience to sort of live as an Italian.
The Duomo is sort of like the opposite of the churches in Rome. Instead of a plain exterior, its interior is not especially impressive although it’s exterior is magnificent. It took several decades to build the patterned facade that truly makes the Duomo instantly recognizable from any other church. The ticket you purchase covers the five separate parts: the Cathedral, Crypt of St. Charles, Duomo Museum, Baptistery, Terraces, and climbing the top of the Duomo itself. The last one requires a (free) reservation which is understandable since, unlike St. Peter’s, there’s only one staircase at the top leading up and down so it gets a little crowded trying to enter/exit. The Terraces are just a little shorter than the dome but has an equally spectacular view of the surrounding area.
We also covered the Renaissance Walk and passed the Medici chapels, Medici-Ricardo Palace, Laurentian Medici Library, Piazza Della Signoria, and Loggia dei Lanzi (sculptures housed outside the Uffizi Gallery). Among the subjects I want to learn more about, the Medicis are near the top (along with religion, Chinese calligraphy, and how to change a tire). They were so important to not only putting Florence on the map but very much financing the Renaissance.
We also hit almost all the major Firenze sights. We visited David at the Accademia (he’s huge and so are his hands). We viewed dozens of Medici and Madonna with Baby Jesus portraits at the Uffizi as well as saw Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Da Vinci’s Annuciation. We marveled at the various globes, machines, telescopes, and fingers (two of Galileo’s plus his thumb) at the Galileo Museum. We walked across the shiny jewelry store lined Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge not bombed during WWII. And we took pictures in the Giardino Boboli in Palazzo Pitti. Again, we sort of stumbled across the Boboli Gardens as we were walking through the Oltrano neighborhood. The gardens turned out to be much bigger than we thought (they evidently partially inspired Versailles) and since the palace was at the top of a hill, it also happened to be another great spot to snap Duomo pictures.
The Vatican is a small, beautiful, artistic, extremely Christian sort of place. St. Peter’s Square (actually an oval) is hugged on two sides by giant marble columns with saintly sculptures sitting on top. In the center of the square is a fountain and an obelisk. Only after this visit did I start to appreciate how many religious symbols are represented on our currency.
St. Peter’s Basilica is easily the most grandiose and cavernous church I have ever been to. It’s interior and exterior are both richly decorated with ornate sculptures and art. There was a huge gold and brown altar in the center with twisted columns towering over visitors. You could even give confessions there in more than 5 different languages!
We climbed the stairs all the way up St. Peter’s dome and the view was breathtaking. Aside from St. Peter’s, we also toured the Vatican Museum which includes the Sistine Chapel. There were many rooms dedicated to Raphael (his School of Athens was my favorite) and several Michaelanglo works too. I wish the Sistine Chapel had room for you to lay down and fully appreciate Michaelangelo’s ceiling since it’s a substantial strain on your neck to keep looking up and take in the enormity of his work. As we wandered away from the Vatican, we stumbled across Castel Sant’Angelo (Mausoleum of Hadrian). It was a very stony and stoic structure but had a great view of St. Peter’s from afar!
Rome is such a beautiful, historic city. But it is still a city nonetheless with its own busy, crowded streets of impatient Romans tired of tourists blocking their paths, vendors selling their wares on every corner, and zig-zagging vehicles unbound by lanes or traffic signs.
I took a one-hour bus ride from the airport to our hotel near the Termini train station. After dropping our stuff off at Hotel Quirinale, we walked to the Spanish Steps and then down to the Trevi Fountain. In my opinion, the Trevi Fountain completely lived up to its name in size and grandiose. The water was such a beautiful Mediterranean blue and the statues were so well preserved, skillfully carved, and sparkling white. The fountain was extremely crowded with people speaking all languages but I still managed to squeeze in near the basin and make a wish.
As we walked around, we admired the beautiful architecture with its unique way of blending the old and the new together. Although the streets weren’t as narrow as Florence’s, they were still, to me at least, very unnaturally spoked in all directions and without Google Maps, it would’ve been hard to find any of our destinations at all. On the other hand, it was very easy to find churches. There was almost one at every corner. They’re all free to enter (even the most famous ones) and have the most gorgeous Christian artwork inside.
On our first full day, we toured the Colosseum and Roman Forum using our Roma Passes. The Colosseum is, of course, all ruins by now but wandering around inside you still get a great sense of just how spectacularly large the arena was and the noise that the 50,000 person crowd must have made whenever the first gladiator or beast or whatever walked out. The Roman Forum was my favorite Roman sight. Although also ruins, it covers a much larger area outside and with every column, arch, and statue, you really get a better understanding of how impressive it is that anything at all is left. There’s also plenty of green space outside that was a much more attractive sight after the dull brown of the Colosseum. After the Forum, we also walked up the colossal Victor Emmanuel Monument and walked inside the perfectly engineered Pantheon. On the way back to our hotel, we went through the Heart of Rome Walk and spent some time admiring the fountains and churches around Piaza Navona.
Before boarding the train to Florence, we visited the Galleria Borghese (Borghese Gallery) which houses a number of original statues and paintings by Bernini, Raphael, and other masters. The walk there was pleasant as the gallery is located inside a very beautiful park with lemon and orange trees. The Borghese Gallery was small but the statues were very, very impressive. At the same time, they were also a bit sad and violent. That seems to be a theme with the original Greek & Roman myths. My favorites included Bernini’s David (much more action filled than Michelangelo’s version), Canova’s Paolina, Bernini’s Apollo e Dafne, and Tiziano’s Amor Sacro e Amor Profano. Afterwards we also stopped by the Chiesa di Santa Maria Della Vittoria (Our Lady of Victory Church) to see Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy.
I wish I had brushed up on my Roman mythology/Bible stories before seeing all of this amazing artwork.