GET TO KNOW ITALY – SEIZE THE MOMENTBy Chanika from Vacations Team
Of all European landscapes to traverse, Italy would be the one that I am more than certain you will return to again and again, the country feels strangely familiar. I grew up in a rather unconventional household where my father insisted that Asterix comics would suffice as bedtime stories, as interest in the places specified by the comics grew, so too did my love of Italy. Legend has it that the city of Rome was founded by Romulus on Palatine Hill after he was given a sign by the Gods, he gave the city one more thing, his name. Rome is home to European history so rich, you see it almost as soon as you start your way from the airport to your hotel, passing through ancient fortress walls and buildings, the ethereal city knows how to welcome you.
I would recommend staying close to the train station, this would mean you are centrally located and also that you don’t need to lug your baggage around when you need to leave the city for your next Italian destination. Rome offers you the Trevi Fountains, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum and a host more. Starting your day early is always advised, and beginning your day at the Vatican is even better. The Vatican is essentially separate to Rome, housing one of the grandest and most beautiful churches in the world, St Peter’s. Tradition holds that the Basilica was built on top of the final mortal resting place of St Peter, I don’t know if it’s that thought or the architectural brilliance of Bernini, but you feel like you are entering hallowed grounds while queuing up for the security checks just outside the colonnade. The structure is designed in a way that makes you feel like you are being embraced by God, and quite frankly, the wait doesn’t feel like queue up, because you’re given the chance to marvel at the beauty of Bernini’s genius and then be astounded by how well this renaissance structure has stood the passage of time.
Once the security checks are done you begin your tour, I need to note here though, please do not entertain the countless citizens of the area who will tell you that they are guides and that they can show you around, if you choose to go on a guided tour, please arrange for before your arrival to the Vatican. Italy just like all of Europe takes pride in its history, as they well should, the country’s approved guides have to go through rigorous history lessons and testing, and honestly, it shames the beauty and the magnificence of the places you visit if you’re given false information. And now back to the Vatican, coming closer to the entrance of the Basilica you will get the chance to see the Swiss Guards in action. They are essentially the world’s smallest army, they are watchmen of the Vatican and the young men tasked with guarding the Pope. These young men are indeed all Swiss, Catholic and have had formal military training from the Swiss army, but operate separately to them. There’s so much history to delve into, but just not enough time, from the uniforms, to why Swiss to the acts of bravery by these young men (hence the reason for certified guides too! J). Getting inside this magnificent façade, you’re blown away by the ethereal beauty and complexities of it. No picture can ever come close to describing the works of art, effort and passion that’s been put in over the years by all the masters of the renaissance. From the only known work of Michelangelo to have his name inscribed, the Pieta and Bernini’s baldachin, time instantaneously flies but stands still at the same time. If you are to really indulge and not rush through, spend the day, take your time, visit the Sistine Chapel and the museum, just immerse yourself in the beauty of the works of art that you are witnessing.
Where the rest of the city is concerned, start at the foundation of the city by the Palatine Hill with the arch of Constantine and the Colosseum, personally, I didn’t quite feel like it was worth buying tickets to go inside the Colosseum as the structure has been looted over the ages and different wars, seeing it from outside is just as good. Palatine Hill, the next place I would recommend would be on the low ground area of the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, a beautifully preserved area of ruins that played an important role in the lives of Romans past. One of the most interesting places to me within the area was the Temple of the Defied Caesar. Travelling towards town the next most visited sites would be Capitoline Hill, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps and the Pantheon, all within walking distance of each other. Around this area, you also find some really great restaurants and little stores selling wine that let you sample their products with different bread and cheese. When in Rome, indulge in the food, it is a gastronomic treat and it doesn’t matter if you’re vegetarian or not, there’s something in there for everyone. Quaint little restaurants with music and a lively atmosphere are coupled with stores selling leather goods to gelato and anything in between, as the phrase sold by countless souvenir street hawkers read, Carpe Diem!
Now Rome is pretty much dead centre in the country, from there you can go south towards Naples, the Almafi Coast, Puglia and so forth, its beauty unparalleled and the chances for you to sample some of the best wines and foods the country has to offer being a promise, but for this trip, I will focus on going towards the north, that’s starting in Rome and ending in Milan. Travelling through the cities is fairly easy via train, it’s efficient and it’s cheap. Hiring a private vehicle is expensive and driving in Italy is perhaps an experience that may well be reserved for another trip. About an hour’s train ride away from Rome, lies the impressive Tuscan region. Every trip I’ve been to Italy in has involved long conversations with guides and they all swear by the majesty of the region. And as you near the region, you can see why, the city of Rome and all the vestiges of a big city starts fading away and all you can see for miles is rolling emerald hills, a few castles and vineyard upon the vineyard. There’s always a sense of tranquillity that washes over me whenever I visit the region and one of its most famous city, Florence.
Ah, Florence, what can you not say about the city. This city was the birthplace of so many of Italy’s treasures, from Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Dante and the Medici family, Florence is an artist’s paradise. The city seems to live, breathe and swear by art, the city centre at any given time has someone there playing an instrument or singing. I found some days it was just nice to sit by a café and watch life go by. In Florence the places I would most recommend visiting Uffizi and Accademia galleries (Accademia houses Michelangelo’s David) Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens and while you stroll through the city you will come across the magnificent Duomo. A half-day tour of the city will take you through Michelangelo’s house, little cafes and will end at the Pitti Palace, try managing the tours on your own in this instance as opposed to being guided, as most of the sites in Florence would need time to savour, and when evening hits, catch the sun setting by the Arno with a glass of wine and good company.
About 20 minutes from Florence, you’ll find Pisa, the birthplace of Galileo Galilei and home to the famous Leaning Tower, since it’s so close, I suggest visiting the monument during the evening, with the setting sun, ample time to wander around the monument and minus the stress of crowds.
A train ride from Florence will get you to Verona, a quaint little city which houses among other things Juliet’s balcony, the story goes that the Bard had penned Romeo and Juliet based on two star crossed lovers that had lived in Verona, Juliet’s balcony is flooded with lovers young and old that come to visit it, perhaps utter the lines and place a lock close to the balcony. The city also houses an amphitheatre and the beautifully preserved ruins of the fortress to the city.
Venice is close at hand, and I’ll be honest, of all cities I have been to in Italy, Venice didn’t quite have me enthralled, yes, I did want to visit it, based on all the pictures I’ve seen and things I’ve read. Getting to Venice can be done on the train, the most famous square in Venice, where all the pictures are taken is called St. Marks, and there, you can will your time away by one of the cafés located or just choose to go through the narrow passageways of the city that wind and take you up to the most interesting little shops you can come across. Venetian glass is famous across the globe, and none more famous than Murano. The factory allows tours and it typically starts off with a glass blowing demonstration by a master. These men are not taught by formal schools how to do the magic they do with glass, it’s handed down from father to son through generations and is a closely guarded secret. The famous gondola ride is wonderful, and you are taken through weaving canals and shown structures of importance, note to the wise, it’s a bit claustrophobic, since there as so many gondola’s that taking tourists around.
The final stop in this blog post would be Milan, now for this, I will not take you through the city, instead would implore you to end your trip in the lake district. Lake Como is breathtaking, and the beauty that surrounds it is equally surreal. The ending of the holiday is a relaxing one, basking in the glory of nature and Italian cuisine.