Recent PostsPart 4: March in Northern Italy: Milan, Genoa, Lake Como, Lake Lugano, Pavia Italy Through Fresh Eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March - Part 3 Rome Italy Through Fresh Eyes - Chasing the Sun in Italy in March: Part 2 Florence Italy through Fresh Eyes - Chashing the sun in Italy in March - Part 1 Venice
Spring 2017 - Italy in 4 blog posts: Italy through Fresh Eyes Part 1 Venice; Part 2 Florence, Part 3 Rome, Part 4 Milan
I spent eight days looking at Italy "through fresh eyes" - doing the classic first timers trip to Italy - Venice, Florence and Rome. This was my 13th trip to Italy, but it was the first for my friend Crista and I really enjoyed showing my favorite country to a 'newbie'. I'd been to Rome seven times, Venice five - most recently just last July but I wanted to show her all the 'must sees' and it turned out to be a chance for me to see what you really can see in just a week. We had a great time, and while we certainly didn't see everything, we hit most of the highlights, had time for some leisurely drinks, gelatos and meals and never felt rushed. Unfortunately for her, Crista had to go back to work but I had an additional 5 days.
I've been on a quest the last few years to 'research' places to go where it's 'nice' when it's not 'nice' where I live (northeastern US). So this was part of my research mission to see how northern Italy is is the early spring.
Although the first week we were looking at cool rainy weather in Milan and areas around it – especially the lakes – and thus made a last minute switch to Rome (where we had 70 and sunny), by the second week Milan had great weather. After one morning of drizzle the sun came out and stayed out for five days, temps climbing from the low 60s to over 80.
All over Lombardy and the Veneto – green grass, tons of pink and white flowering fruit trees, other trees just starting to bud out, dandelions, little white wild flowers, jasmine, forsythia, daffodils, tulips, wisteria.
This was my third visit to Milan, a city I didn’t even deem worthy of seeing until my 6th trip to Italy. And I still don’t think it’s on a par – from a tourist standpoint – with Rome with it’s ancient ruins and Baroque piazzas, or Renaissance Florence, or ‘like-no-where-else-Venice’. But it’s a nice city. The Duomo and Galleria and surrounding piazza is incredible and most certainly ‘worth’ seeing. And it’s got some nice shopping/strolling streets, a pretty decent center city castle whose courtyards you can wander around for free, and a pretty park. And Milano Centrale is one of the ‘best’ train stations in Europe. A huge Fascist era building that itself is worth seeing if you like train stations. But I think the best reason to plan a few days in Milan is that it’s transportation connections are so good. It’s got two airports and if you’re traveling from anywhere south to the rest of Europe, or going from one coast to the other in Italy, you most likely will go through Milan. And it’s so central there are numerous really worthwhile day trips possible. On this trip I did Pavia ( ½ hour by frequent train), Lake Como and Lake Lugano (both less than an hour), and Genoa, which at 1 ½ hours is close to my limit for a day trip, and now that I’ve been there I know next time I will plan to stay a few days, but it was a totally enjoyable day trip from Milan. Other day-trips easily done from Milan include Bergamo, Cremona, Brescia and Parma.
Sunday, March 26, 2017 Rain in am, sunny and 63 rest of day. Spent a lovely six hours exploring Pavia. Loved it.
Pavia is a university city with Romanesque and medieval buildings and an interesting historic center set on a river. Founded by the Romans, Pavia reached its greatness over 1300 years ago when it became the capital of much of the Italian peninsula. A comfortable provincial town founded on an easily defendable stretch of land alongside the confluence of the Po and Ticino rivers. Pavia barely gets mentioned in guidebooks and travel forums, and when it does it’s because it’s only 8 km from the Certosa di Pavia, a huge monastery complex, which I ended up not getting to as I so enjoyed the city itself I spent all my time there.
At first Pavia seemed to me a bit like Vicenza – quiet, prosperous, pretty - but not very interesting. The Duomo was impressive but not particularly pretty from the outside and looked closed. Most of the stores were closed (it was Sunday). I found the covered bridge – Ponte Coperto - and that was quite nice. It’s a reproduction of a 14th century bridge destroyed during the war, which itself was built near the site of a Roman bridge over the Ticino river. I sat on a bench in the sun for half an hour and watched locals walk their dogs and kids. Then explored the center – I found a TI Office which looked closed but there was a guy in there who let me in and gave me maps and was extremely helpful telling me where to go. Having the map really helped (I left my relatively lousy guidebook map in the hotel). There are posted maps all over town but without having one in my hand I kept forgetting where to turn. With the map and his instructions I easily found the main square, Piazza della Vittoria (really nice, lots of outdoor cafes and pretty buildings).
The University, one of the oldest in Europe (founded 1361 but possibly based on a school here from 825). There are at least 12 different courtyards and gardens, all arcaded, beautiful. The architecture is a mix of baroque and neo-classic. Three of the medieval towers (there were once 100, now only about 5 left, but they are quite striking) are in a park like setting behind the University.
The Castello Visconteo, (1360s) looks like a small fortified castle but was actually used as a private residence, set in a lovely park with people, kids, and dogs and everything green and with wildflowers blooming.
There are plenty of churches – none terribly beautiful on the outside, but all were huge and gorgeous on the inside. San Michele (between the bridge and main part of town) had extensive carvings on the sandstone façade including griffins, dragons and other beasts locked in a struggle with people representing the fight between good and evil. Inside was huge and impressive but my favorite was the lower level crypt/chapel – very Romanesque.
Another, Basilica of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, (close to the castle) 1132 is similar but of brick instead of sandstone but also has a lower level chapel that feels very old (and that strange feeling I get in some very old churches that is a combination of spooky and religious). In both churches there was singing/chanting coming from unseen voices.
A third church, Santa Maria del Carmine (towards the main piazza), also of brick was less interesting but it did have frescoes featuring the town’s bridge and other sites and some secular scenes. All were free to enter, and none had more than a handful of tourists.
I went past the Duomo a second and this time it was open and gigantic –and very white inside (different from the others which were all much darker). There was a mass just starting which actually added to the effect. Outside was a band performance and little festival. Earlier I’d passed the band leading a parade of people (many of them children) holding signs. Not sure what they were celebrating but everyone seemed very happy. Outside the Duomo the band was playing “YMCA” – then to walk into this incredible church with a mass (in Italian obviously but to me it sounded like Latin) – quite the contrast.
Back to the bridge as I saw a photo of it from the opposite side (didn’t walk across it the first time) and the view is better from that side. Finally headed back towards the train. The whole town was out shopping/walking/eating gelato. Huge difference from the sedate feeling in the early afternoon (it was now after 5pm). Tons of dogs of all kinds, lively atmosphere, birds singing in back streets/along the river, some street performers, the band (parade), the singing in the churches, wisteria, forsythia, trees just budding out, warm sun, cool breeze. Lovely day.
Monday, March 27, 2017 - Sunny and 65 – Took 8:10 train to Genoa, arrived just before 10. Walked all over. Took 4:09 train back.
I liked Genoa a lot more than I thought I would. I had figured it would be sort of like Palermo, maybe not even as nice, kind of gritty, rather dark. But it was lovely. Sprawled behind the port area (Italy's biggest) is a dense and fascinating warren of medieval caruggi (tiny alleyways) – and these are kind of dark. But the rest of the city is bright and clean and there are some incredible buildings, including several 16th and 17th century palazzos along Via Garibaldi which are a UNESCO site, and the 19th Century city along arcaded Via XX September which is the main shopping street – with all the usual international chains.
The main Piazza – Piazza Ferrari – separates the old town from the more modern 19th century city, and has a huge fountain which was incredible. 19th century neo Baroque buildings surround it including the ‘Borsa’ and the Teatro Carlo Fellice.
A couple blocks south from Piazza Ferrari brings you to Piazza Dante off which is the ancient main gate to the city, Porta Soprano, still very imposing with two huge towers. Right next to that is the tiniest cloister – no church, just a perfect square little arcaded stone cloister from the 12th century. It is the Cloister of sant’Andrea. Christopher Columbus’s house is supposedly right around here but I didn’t see it.
Southwest of Piazza Ferrari is the Chiesa dei Sant Ambrogio e Andrea (big, pretty and yellow, late 1500s) and Piazza Matteotti, home to Palazzo Ducale, the historic location of the Genova Republic' s Government and today is the center of all Genova' s cultural activities.
In the other direction from Piazza Ferrari is tiny Piazza Matteo with a cute little black and white striped church. This beautiful little square is the domain of the city’s most acclaimed family, the seagoing Dorias, who ruled Genoa until the end of the 18th century. The church is 12th century and contains the crypt of the Dorias’ most illustrious son, Andrea. Several of the buildings surround the piazza are also black and white striped (like many others in the city) which denotes homes of the most honored citizens.
Just around the corner from Piazza Matteo is the larger San Lorenzo Cathedral – also black and white stripes with a pair of nice lions guarding the stairs leading to it. It’s Romanesque-Gothic, begun in 1160, remodeled in 1307 with a Renaissance dome added in 1557. From here Via San Lorenzo is the ‘main’ street leading down to the port. On the map it looks like a big busy street but in reality it’s narrow and pedestrianized, not all that much wider than the narrow, atmospheric alleys all around it.
It opens out onto the area just behind the Harbor. Via di Sottoripa is a covered street with lots of eateries. The back of Palazzo San Giorgio is here. The back of the building looks like a medieval castle, but the front (and side) is bright, beautifully painted with pastel colors including a huge depiction of Saint George slaying the dragon. The place is absolutely gorgeous, only slightly diminished by being right across from the large highway overpass.
There is a relatively busy street even under the highway, but there are lights and crosswalks and it’s easy to see the harbor from the main side of the road. Porto Antico, totally revitalized over the past two decades, it’s old warehouses converted into exhibition spaces, concert halls, museums and waterfront cafes. It’s Italy’s biggest port, but the industrial shipping and cruise ship areas are way off to one side so the area directly in front of the city area I just described is all open and inviting. There is what is supposedly the ‘best’ aquarium in Europe (I was really sorry not to have time for it) which includes a huge round Biosphere which stretched out into the harbor. The Galeone Neptune is certainly an eye catching addition to the harbor. It’s a replica of a 17th century Spanish galleon. It was built in 1985 for Roman Polanski’s film Pirates. But it sure is pretty.
Another eye catching thing on the other side of the aquarium is Il Bigo – a ride in a capsule strung from what is supposed to look like a ships crane, that gets lifted high over the port. Next to this is an old warehouse renovated to house a huge ‘Eataly’ and numerous other shops and restaurants. There are sailboats, yachts, sightseeing boats. Modern art sculptures, renovated old cranes. The whole area is delightful (especially on a blindingly bright day with temperatures in the high 60s) and I walked quite a ways just taking it all in.
I could have stayed down by the waterfront for the rest of the day but I wanted to see the street which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so I made my way back inland and up through the narrow caruggi. The streets here are indeed dark and narrow and the few piazzas are so tiny you can hardly call them piazzas. But Piazza San Luca has a pretty little church and Piazzi Banchi is a tiny but busy little square with an interesting kind of elevated church.
There are over a hundred Renaissance and Baroque palaces on the Strade Nuove (‘New Streets’), built between the 16th and 17th centuries and 46 of them are collectively listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, the main ones on Via Garibaldi, a few blocks inland from Piazza Ferrari. Descriptions of Via Garibaldi make it sound like a grand boulevard but it is actually a narrow pedestrianized street which feels even more hemmed in by the large palazzos on both sides. Palazzo Rosso, Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Tursi are the most well known.
Just a block past Via Garibaldi is Piazza del Portello, a busy traffic square, which has the entrance to the Art Noveau lift up to a belvedere with great views of the lower city, the water and the hillsides which are the ‘suburbs’ of Genoa, with pastel colored buildings as far as the eye can see.
Everything was a lot closer together than I expected it would be. From the maps and what I read I figured the hills would be worse and the distances much farther. Genoa is a large city (Italy’s 6th largest I think) but the historic core and the waterfront are close together and it’s very walkable. There is a lot I didn’t get to and I definitely plan to come back. Still, I walked a ton (though never considered taking the metro which I though I would have to). The route I took is only about 5 miles, though of course I double around a lot so did at least twice that.
Via XX Septembre arcaded shopping street
Mercato Orientale (left and center) on Via XX Septembre and one of Genoa's two main train stations, Stazione di Genova Brignole
Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - Sunny and 65
It’s just about exactly an hour from Milano Centrale to Varenna. I bought my return ticket before I left Milano as I had heard the Varenna station is unmanned – which it is, but there is a café at the station and they do sell train tickets there, plus there is a ticket machine. I bought a ‘mid-lake’ ferry pass and took the ferry first to Menaggio for an hour or so, then to Bellagio for another hour or so, and spent the rest of my day in Varenna.
Lake Como in March
Snow on the higher peaks in the distance. Wisteria, forsythia, dogwood, tulips, daffodils, pansies. Empty boats. A few tour groups in Bellagio but Varenna and Mennagio were empty except for the locals and a handful of independent tourists. Less than half the stores were open but that was enough – not much to buy except overpriced clothes. Plenty of places to get lunch, a drink, gelato.
Bellagio had lots of ‘pre-season’ construction going on, reminded me of Positano in March. In fact, just in general it reminds me of Positano. Almost every shop is a tourist store or eatery, nothing I want to buy. Bellagio is supposed to be the ‘prettiest’ town on Lake Como (a designation which is deserved in the case of Positano) but isn’t. Varenna is far more attractive and interesting with a long lakeside walk with breathtaking views, tons of little steeply stepped stone lanes (most of which are not lined with stores) going up to an attractive little town center with cute church and some real stores scattered in among the tourist ones. I liked it best 13 years ago, and still feel that way. I have no idea why people prefer Bellagio, and probably it’s fame has made it even worse as there appears to be virtually no ‘real’ houses or stores. Menaggio is even less touristy than Varenna. Long wide lakeside promenade and a tiny town center with two attractive churches but overall somewhat less pretty than Varenna.
Lakeside Promenade in Varenna
However, overall, as beautiful as Lake Como is, I really prefer Lake Garda. The mountains are higher and closer (which might be the case with the top half of Lake Como, I have not been there) and the three northern towns on Lake Garda are more interesting and scenic than the Lake Como towns, the lower towns are larger and prettier and then there is Sirmironie.
But the birds were singing, the sun shinning, cool breeze, warm temps. It was lovely. In another month there would be more flowers blooming, more things open – so a more lively atmosphere – but there would be more people too. Other than the chance of clouds/rain being higher in March I think planning a trip to the lakes in early spring is a great idea. As long as you can choose a sunny day (eg plan to stay in Milan and do other things if the weather is bad).
Wednesday, March 29, 2017 - Sunny and 70 - Lugano, Switzerland – OMG what a gorgeous day – 75 and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. Lugano has a magnificent setting, much better even than Lakes Como or Garda. Lugano itself is a medium size city (71,000/140,00 urban area), mostly pretty modern. There’s been a town there for thousands of years but most of the buildings are from the late 1800s and later. The ‘center’ seems to be 1880-1920, some nice arcaded buildings and streets but nothing that feels especially old. And lots of 20th century building – that’s the majority. So not quaint, not especially atmospheric, but what a setting. There is a long promenade (at least 2 miles) part of which is a very nice park. Lots of things in bloom – pink and white flowering trees, dogwood, tulips, daffodils, willows just budding out, palm trees! I love that there you can see palm trees and snow covered Alps at the same time (which is also true of Lake Como). Delightful to walk along the water through the park. Lots of swans (and very tame). Hardly any boats in the water (most still have their winter covers on and pulled up on the shore) so that looks different than summer but otherwise it could have been June (probably more in bloom even than in than in June).
I walked all over – the ‘center’ is tiny, one main square and a few minor ones – lots of chain and designer stores, but nothing terribly interesting (and virtually nothing touristy). Italian is the main language though some signs are in French and German as well (not much in English).
I took the funicular up to Monte San Salvatore (26 Swiss francs, took credit cards). Fabulous views. The view is definitely better if you walk the five minutes from the top of the funicular station to the top of the church (there’s a viewpoint up there). The views from the ‘terrace’ at the restaurant at the funicular station are nothing compared to those five minutes further up. They had an interesting display of Swiss Tourist Posters from the last hundred years all along the walk up to the viewpoint.
I was unable to get anything to eat as I had no Swiss francs. I could have gone to an actual restaurant which took credit cards but I had my ham and swiss croissants and water so all I really wanted was a smoothie or something but that was not worth taking money out of an ATM for since I was there just for the day.
The train situation was interesting. On the way there I had to buy a ticket with seat assignment and it was just like all the other train trips I’d been taking in Italy. Very orderly. At the border some immigration and border control guards got on the train and walked through checking random passports (a nice looking blond –e.g. they were not profiling potential immigrants - across the aisle was checked but no one else in our row). On the way back it was just a ‘ticket’ (no seat assignment). Much more crowded and kind of chaotic – the exact opposite from previous train trips in which Swiss trains were super orderly and on time and the Italian trains not so much. They announced they would be checking identity cards but I didn’t every see anyone.
Thursday, March 30, 2017 Sunny and 80 – Spent the day in Milan.
I had not expected it to be so hot so of course was over dressed. But it was an absolutely gorgeous day. I walked from the hotel to the Duomo, through the Public Garden (which was OK, nothing great except it was the perfect trees just leafing out so everything is that luscious green color and the sky was intense blue), then checked out the Venetian Gate – two mid 19th century buildings, again, OK but not something to go out of your way for. Normally when I stay at Hotel Berna I take the metro the two stops to the center, but it is totally walkable if you aren’t in a hurry.
The Corso Venezia is one of Milan's most prestigious streets, bordered by stately buildings in a multitude of architectural styles, from Renaissance to Art Nouveau. It's about 1 km long and runs north from Piazza San Babila to Porta Venezia, and iis bordered by the Giardini Pubblici, one of the few public parks in the center of Milan.Just inside the park is the Museum of Natural History. From Piazza San Bablia to the Duomo is a short pedestrianized street filled with shopping options.
The last of Italy's great Gothic structures, Milan's Duomo took over 500 years to complete. Begun by the ruling Visconti family in 1386 – it is one of the ten largest cathedrals in the world, with 135 marble spires, a stunning triangular facade, and over 3,400 statues flanking the massive but airy, almost fanciful exterior. From the roof are stunning views of the flying buttresses up close as well as views over Italy’s most frenetic city.
Every time I've been to Milan I've gone to the Piazza del Duomo. For one thing it's an amazing sight, but it's also very much in the center of the city. Walking around the Duomo and through the Galleria is a 'must-see' whenever you are there. I'd been inside the Duomo on a previous visit but had never gone up to the roof.
There was at least a 15-minute line to buy tickets for the Duomo, I just got the roof access as they are now charging for the Duomo interior as well and since I’ve already been in there and it was such a gorgeous day I wanted to be outside. Then another 15-minute line for the lift plus some serious security. There’s a bit of construction going on up there so a good deal was under scaffolding – not terribly noticeable from the ground but it was from up there. Still, interesting to see the flying buttresses up close and the views of the piazza in front, etc.
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele is a spectacular, late-19th century glass-topped, belle époque, barrel-vaulted tunnel. It is essentially one of the planet's earliest and most select shopping malls, the prototype of the enclosed shopping malls that were to become the hallmark of 20th century consumerism, and of course none of those have come close to matching the Galleria for style and flair. This is the city's heart, midway between the Duomo and La Scala, an important meeting and dinning place. Like the cathedral, the Galleria is cruciform in shape. The great glass dome above the octagonal center is a splendid sight. The paintings at the base of the dome represent Europe, Asia, Africa, and America. The Galleria has always been home to luxury retailers like Prada but until 2013 there was also a McDonald’s in there. It was prevented from renewing it’s lease (after 20 years) and sued the city. McDonald’s is now located just outside the Galleria and it’s former space is occupied by a second Prada store. The entrance from the Piazza del Duomo is framed by a monumental triumphal arch, drawing people in from the square in front of the cathedral in.
The Galleria was constructed during the era of Italian unification and symbolized Italian unity, so it was decorated with patriotic symbols. Mosaics on the floor below the dome depict the coat of arms of Savoy and Italian cities are allegorically represented: a wolf for Rome, a lily for Florence, a bull for Turin and a white flag with red cross for Milan. Stepping with the heel of your foot on the genitals of the bull is supposed to bring good luck.
Just off the Piazza del Duomo is what is left of medieval Milano, now just a small Piazza (Mercanti) with a couple of buildings including the Palazzo della Ragione (1228) and the Loggia degli Osli (1316), and Palazzo dei Giureconsultli (with the clock tower) . From there, Via Dante is a pedestrianized shopping street full of restaurants and cafes that runs to the castle.
Castello Sforzesco, begun in 1358 and expanded several times through the 1400s. The present castle, with a square plan laid out around three inner courtyards , is dominated by its many towers. The main entrance leads through the castle's tallest tower - the Torre del Fiarete - to the Piazza d'Armi, an expansive inner courtyard. Behind this tower is the heart of the castle with the palatial residences of the Sforza dukes enclosing two smaller courtyards. Castello Sforzesco is home to a number of museums, but the grounds are free to wander through.
The sun was shining beautifully on the front of the castle and the fountain in front was going. I ate my croissant with ham and cheese and cherry tomatoes along with a limone granite sitting on the bench around the fountain. After wandering around the castle grounds for a while I made my way into the park, sat for a while in the sun (too hot to linger). Parco Sempione is a nicely laid out 116 acre park in a landscape style with winding paths, open grassy areas, tall trees and a picturesque bridge across a central pond which usually nicely reflects the castle. Everything was in bloom and it was just lovely.
I then checked out the Arco della Pace, which was originally a triumphal arch and looks very similar to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris, the smaller cousin to the more famous Arc de Triomphe which sits at the far end of the Champs-Elysees. Arco della Pace sits at the site of one of Milan's town gates, which was originally the entrance to the city from the road which led to Paris.
From there I managed to walk to the Cemetery without getting lost (the map I had printed out was actually very detailed). The Cemetery, billed as Italy’s Pere LaChase, does have a lot of very fancy statues and little buildings/tombs but as far as I know no one famous is buried there. The huge main building was pretty impressive as well.
Then I debated walking or taking the metro back to the hotel. By the time I got to the metro stop I wanted it looked like I wasn’t all that far but it turned out to be a bit of a slog. Passed some of the new shinny glass office complexes, something I don’t usually see in European cities as they, fortunately, tend to be segregated in the outskirts.
The last evening in Milan I enjoyed the beautiful way major monuments in European cities are lit and the way they glow golden against the dark blue sky.
For the Venice, Florence, and Rome portions of my trip see "Italy through Fresh Eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March" Parts 1, 2, and 3
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Thursday, March 23, 2017 - Rome
We ended up getting to the train station almost an hour before our train to Rome so we sat and had cappuccinos at a train station café listening to people play the piano. I love that many train stations in Europe have pianos just sitting there waiting for passersby to stop and play a few tunes. In the hour we were there several people did just that.
Train was high speed (up to 255km/hr) and took just 1.5 hours. Went through a lot of tunnels – ear popping. Somehow I booked us in Business Class – seats are a bit wider, and leather instead of cloth. Otherwise no difference and certainly not worth any extra money.
Checked into the Hotel Julia. It’s almost a half hour walk from Termini. It’s twice as far as the Floris, the other hotel I’ve stayed at recently in Rome, but they were full with only two days notice. So it was a pain to drag the bags, but once at the Julia it is closer to everything. A ten minute walk to the Trevi Fountain, less than five minutes to Piazza Barberini (where there is a metro stop), and on a quiet (for Rome) street. It's a perfectly fine hotel, not luxury but clean and comfortable. There is an annex next to the main building, where the rooms are a bit nicer, but the wi-fi not as good (at least it wasn't a few years ago, it was great in the main building this trip).
As we had not planned on going to Rome on this trip I had none of my information with me, no map (although the hotel has good free maps they give out). Fortunately I’ve been there enough recently that I know my way around pretty well. I took Crista on my favorite “Introductory Rome Tour” (the center of Rome is a UNESCO World Heritage Site)
Trevi Fountain (nice and clean after it’s recent renovation, the scaffolding that’s been in place the last few years all gone), The Trevi Fountain, 1762, is an incredible Baroque Masterpiece, huge and beautiful. But it's beauty and fame (featured in "Three Coins in a Fountain", the 1954 film that was the first color film to be produced on location, it made half of America decide to go visit Italy) have caused it to be difficult to visit. An aquatic marvel in a city filled with them, the fountain's unique drama is largely due to the site: its vast basin is squeezed into the tight meeting of three little streets (the "tre via", which gives the fountain its name) with cascades emerging as if from the back wall of Palazzo Poli behind it. The tiny piazza in front of it is literally jam-packed most of day, full of tourists trying to throw a coin over their shoulder into the fountain to assure they will return to Rome. There are some railings to lean on - if you can get anywhere close to them - but no benches. Early in the morning before the tour groups arrive it is still enjoyable, after that forget it.
Piazza Colona (site of one of the most dramatic obelisks in Rome, the Column of Marcus Aurelius built in AD180 but changed in 1589 when a pope replaced the Roman warrior on top with a statue of St Paul. Behind the obelisk is the Palazzo Chigi, residence of the prime minister.) Then on to Piazza di Montecitorio – a Bernini designed piazza containing a 6th century BC Egyptian obelisk. About a block further is La Maddalena, Rome’s only truly Rococo church, 1669. Slight detour back a block or so to Piazza di Pietra home to 11 huge Corinthian columns that are the remains of the 2nd Century Tempio di Adriano.
Clockwise from upper Left: Piazza di Montecitorio, La Maddalena, Column of Marcus Aurelius, Piazza di Pietra
Another block or two to Piazza Rotunda.
Piazza Rotunda is one of my favorite piazzas in Rome but it was soooo crowded and a line to get into the Pantheon! (it’s free, the line was just too many people trying to get in). Six previous trips to Rome, many of which were in high season and I never saw it like this. So we skipped going in for the time being. At 9:00 the next morning there was no line and virtually empty inside. In the center of the piazza is my favorite fountain, the Fontana del Pantheon, 1575, surmounted by an Egyptian obelisk.
The Pantheon is the best preserved ancient monument in Rome. A pagan temple originally dedicated to 'all the gods' it was transformed into a church in AD 609. Originally erected by Agrippa in 27BC, (you can still see letters engraved on it spelling Agrippa) it was rebuilt by emperor Hadrian in AD120. It's size is immense but more impressive is the harmony - the diameter of the dome is exactly equal to its height - some people call it the world's most architecturally perfect building. The opening in the center of the dome is 30 feet in diameter, the temple's only source of light, intended to symbolize the 'all-seeing eye of heaven'. It houses the tombs of the artist Raphael and the first king of Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II.
Just behind the Pantheon is the Chiesa di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, a church built over (sopra) an ancient temple (of Minerva). The church has been ‘renovated’ numerous times so it’s not terribly authentic despite technically being Rome’s only Gothic church. But inside is a Michelangelo sculpture and outside is an adorable elephant sculpture atop a short obelisk, by Bernini. Free
On to Piazza Navonna – [So far this is only about .8 mile] Rome’s most impressive Baroque square. The piazza’s long narrow shape is because it was built over space formerly used for chariot races. At center is the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, [Fountain of the Four Rivers] built by Bernini in 1651. The figures of the four rivers represent the four known continents as of 1650: the Nile; the Ganges (holding an oar); the Danube (looking at the obelisk); and the Plata (from Uruguay, tumbling backward), with its hand raised. The figure of the Nile is hiding its head because it represents a river whose source was then unknown. At the south end is the Fountain of the Moor (Fontana del Moro), also by Bernini. At the north end of the square is The Fountain of Neptune (Fontana di Nettuno), a 19th Century addition.
Crista duly impressed, not only with all the sculptures and fountains, but also the beautiful Sant’Agnese in Agone church, and just the overall ambiance of all the ochre colored buildings, cafes, artists selling their work. So far we have seen enough sculptures, fountains, etc. to fill a museum, but all of it for free, in the places for which they were designed.
We then wound our way through the narrow streets and tiny Piazzettas towards the Tiber (one of my favorites is Piazzetta di S Simone)
and up to Piazza del Popolo, one of Rome’s largest squares which was gorgeous in the late afternoon sun with blue sky and puffy white clouds. [another approximately 1 mile]. In the center is an Egyptian obelisk from the 13th C, brought to Rome during the reign of Augustus, surrounded by four of my favorite lion fountains. Surrounding the square are other statues and fountains. At one end is a pair of twin churches, Santa Maria del Miracoli and Santa Maria di Montesanto. At the other is another church, Santa Maria del Popolo (1442-47, Renaissance) and Porta del Popolo, the gateway in the 3rd C Aurelian wall. The gate was erected in 1561, and was one of the major gateways into the city.
We climbed the Rampa del Pincio from Piazza del Popolo to the Pincio Terrace, in the Borghese Gardens. There is a spectacular view of the city from here. Everything was that gorgeous spring green color, there was wisteria, forsythia, and pink and white and purple flowering trees.
About a half a mile from there brings you to the top of the Spanish Steps. Guidebooks say the Spanish Steps are ‘one of the most famous images’ in the world, certainly it’s well featured in tons of books and movies but Crista managed to have never heard of it. Still, she managed to be impressed by it.
It is one of the most majestic urban monuments of Roman Baroque style. Designed in 1723, the Spanish steps (there are 135 of them) were funded by the French as a preface to the French church, Trinità dei Monti at the top of them. It was given the name Spanish Steps because the Spanish Ambassador lived at the bottom, in the Piazza di Spagna. It has long been one of the most popular tourist attractions in the city: attracting artists and writers and was full of elegant hotels. At the foot of the stairs, is the Barcaccia Fountain, the work of Bernini who went on to become the creator of some of the most important masterpieces of Baroque art in the city. In the form of a sinking ship, the fountain recalls the historic flood of the River Tiber in 1598 and refers to a folk legend whereby a fishing boat carried away by the flood of the river was found at this exact spot. In reality, the sinking boat was ably invented by Bernini to overcome a technical problem due to low water pressure. The sun and bee ornamentation is a symbol of the Barberini family and a reference to Pope Urban VIII who commissioned the work. The staircase is an architectural feat with its ramps and stairs that intersect and open out like a fan definitively providing a solution for connecting the square and the Trinità Church above.
Via Sistina is just a busy shopping street although I love the view of the bell tower of Santa Maria Maggiore in the distance. At the end of the street is Piazza Barberini, with the 1642 Triton Fountain (Fontana del Tritone) in the center. Another baroque masterpiece by Bernini ( as well as the Palazzo Barberini a block down the street), it features four dolphins holding up an open scallop shell in which a triton sits blowing into a conch.
Piazza Barberini is only about a tenth of a mile from our hotel, on via Rasella. So this whole walk is really only about 3 miles – although with little detours and such it took us considerably more (according to my fitbit).
We had dinner at a restaurant on Piazza Barberini, got a bottle of wine and went back to the hotel.
Friday, March 24, 2017 - [Mostly sunny, 75] - We repeated the beginning of yesterday’s walk, this time getting to the Pantheon before the crowds. But from Piazza Navona we went in the other direction to Campo di Fiori.
Streets in the area between Piazza Navona and Campo di Fiori
In ancient times the square was used as grazing land for cattle, hence the name, which means field of flowers. In those days buildings stood on one side of the square only, with a view over the Tiber on the other. During the 1500s, this square was the geographic and cultural center of secular Rome, with inns and the occasional burning at the stake of religious heretics. The hooded statue in the center is of a philosopher burned at the stake here in 1600. Today the campo hosts a morning open-air food market (Mon.-Sat. 8 AM-1 PM), Except for the pizzerias and gelaterias, it still looks much as it did in the early 1800s.
Next we stopped at the Torre Argentina / ‘Area Sacra’, site of the remains of four temples from 200-300 BC. A cat sanctuary, run by volunteers is in one corner and cats roam the area.
A few blocks further on is Piazza Venezia, sort of the central ‘hub’ of Rome – a very busy, traffic filled square in front of the Vittorio Emanule II Monument. The monument, to the first king of Italy (I think there is a monument and/or street named after him in absolutely every town in Italy) is a huge white building, with an enormous flight of stairs leading up to it. Totally covered in statues, and fountains and columns. Inside the building are museums, but on both sides are terraces with great views in all directions and those are free.
Across the street is Trajan’s Column sitting at the beginning of the Via dei Fori Imperiali. Mussolini cut through centuries of debris and junky buildings to reveal many archaeological treasures and carve out this boulevard linking Piazza Venezia to the Colosseum. The vistas over the ruins of Rome's Imperial Forums from the northern side of the street and the Roman Forum on the south side make this half mile one of the most fascinating walks in Rome. And it's mostly pedestrianized.
Begun by Julius Caesar as an answer to the overcrowding of Rome's older forums during the days of the empire, the Imperial Forums were, at the time of their construction, flashier, bolder, and more impressive than the old Roman Forum, and represented the unquestioned authority of the Roman emperors at the height of their absolute power. A good section of The “Roman Forum” can also be viewed from this street, and recently signs have been erected telling people what they’re looking at, and with drawings showing what the ruins would have looked like. The Roman Forum was the center of life in Rome, evidenced by the many remains of triumphal arches, temples and basilicas. Although fascinating just to look at, having a map or guidebook telling you what each ruin was is a good idea, although the new signs really do help. You also get a different feeling and perspective from walking around in the Forum and from viewing it from above (both on this street, and even better from behind Capitoline Hill).
Back of Palatine Hill, the Imperial Forum from Via dei Fori Imperiali
The Roman Forum as seen from via dei Fori Imperiali
The Roman Forum as seen from behind Capitoline Hill
The Colosseum sits at the end of Via dei Fori Imperiali. The huge amphitheater was built on the site of an artificial lake, part of Nero's huge park in the center of Rome which also included the Golden House (Domus Aurea) and the nearby Colossus statue. This giant statue of Nero gave the building its current name. The Colosseum is gigantic and from pictures of it’s original appearance, clad in marble and covered with statues, it was really impressive. Especially from the outside. But it’s still really impressive even though most of the statues and marble were stolen over the centuries to build Renaissance era churches and palaces. Not that the inside isn’t also really interesting, but if time is limited, walking around the outside I think is better.
The Colosseum was the place of the grossest and best-organized perversity in all history. Gladiatorial contests were designed to make Romans better soldiers by rendering them indifferent to the sight of death. Exotic animals were shipped in from the far corners of the empire to satisfy jaded tastes (lion versus bear, 2 humans vs. hippopotamus). Not-so-mock naval battles were staged (the canopied Colosseum could be flooded), and the defeated combatants might have their lives spared if they put up a good fight. Many historians now believe that one of the most enduring legends about the Colosseum (that Christians were fed to the lions) is unfounded.
Tickets (which include the Forum, the Colosseum and Palatine Hill) can be bought at any of the three, and lines are always shorter at the other two. Even with a ticket, lines to get into the Colosseum can be crazy. We walked all the way around the Colosseum which I recommend. It really does look different from the ‘back’ as well as the ‘front’.
We stopped for cappuccinos and a snack at a café – horribly overpriced but worth it for the view.
Between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill, the biggest of the triumphal arches, the Arch of Constantine, 315 AD, spans the via Triumphalis, the way taken by the emperors when they entered the city in triumph. Today it’s lined with tour buses. We walked all the way down and around to the back of Palatine Hill through the Circus Maximus which was where chariot races were held. Today it just looks like an empty park. But seeing the Palatine Hill from the different angles is interesting. Palatine Hill is the center-most of the Seven Hills of Rome and is the ancient most part of the city. Imperial palaces were built here and it is from the name “Palatine” that the word palace/palazzo come from. It was on the Palatine Hill that Rome first became a city. Legend tells us that the date was 753 B.C. The new city originally consisted of nothing more than the Palatine, which was soon enclosed by a surprisingly sophisticated wall, remains of which can still be seen on the Circus Maximus side of the hill.
At the far end of Circus Maximus is the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, with a Romanesque campanile (11th century), best known as the home of the “Mouth of Truth” (bocca della Verita), made famous in the movie “Roman Holiday” where Gregory Peck demonstrates to Audrey Hepburn that the mouth is supposed to chomp down on the hands of liars who insert their hands. Ninety percent of the tourists who come here stand in the long line to get their photo taken and never even venture into the church, one of the most unusual in Rome. The church, with a haunting, almost exotic interior is free, and for €2 you can go down into the crypt which is even more intriguing. Outside, on the Piazza della Bocca della Verita are two Roman era temples, the Temple of Hercules Victor (the round one) and the Temple of Portunus, a diety related to the ancient river harbor just across the street. There’s also the Fountain of the Tritons (1715) and around the corner from this piazza is another large arch, the Arch of Janus.
From the Piazza della Bocca della Verita we detoured across the street to have a look at Isola Tiberina (the island in the Tiber). The oldest bridge in Rome, the Ponte Fabricio (62 BC) connects the island to the Tiber’s eastern bank. The island is associated with the healing powers of the god Aesculapius, son of Apollo. Legend has it that in the 3rd C BC the Romans sent a boat to Epidaurus in Greece to discover a cure for the plague. On the return trip Esculapio left the ship in the shape of a serpent and swam to the island, indicating that a temple to the god of healing should be built here. The church of San Bartolomeo was built on the site. In the 1st C BC the Romans reshaped the island with slabs of travertine to form a “prow”.
Continuing on to Via del Teatro di Marcello you pass by the church of San Nicola in Carcere (St Nicolas in Prison), a typical example of Roman 11th C construction which was built within the ruins of three republican era temples. The temples were dedicated to the two-face god Janus, the goddess Juno and to the god Spes (hope). These Temples once overlooked the city of Rome’s fruit and vegetable market. The columns that once held these temples up can still be found embedded into the walls of the church and are easily seen just by walking by. This church also has a crypt that you can go down into, although we didn’t do that this trip.)
Another block or so is Teatro di Marcello, a small corner of the 2000 year old arcade has been restored to what presumably was the original look. Next to it are three Columns of Apollo and a smattering of other, smaller ruins.
Another block or so brings you to the base of the steps leading up to Capitoline Hill (Campidogilo), the most sacred of Rome’s seven hills. It was once the epicenter of the Roman Empire. The city's archives were kept in the Tabularium (hall of records), the tall tufa structure that forms the foundation of today's city hall, the Palazzo Senatorio, which features a classic Renaissance Italian bell tower and double sided staircase.
Michelangelo created the piazza with it’s slightly convex pavement, the staircase ramp, the buildings and facades on three sides, and the pedestal for the bronze equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. On the other two sides of the piazza, Palazzo dei Conservatori and Palazzo Nuoveo, have been incorporated into the Capitoline Museums, one of the oldest museums in the world. These museums house some of the greatest pieces of classical sculpture in the world including the renowned symbol of Rome, the Capitoline Wolf, a 6th C BC Etruscan bronze (the suckling twins were added during the Renaissance to adapt the statue to the legend of Romulus and Remus – there is a copy outside). As Michelangelo's preeminent urban set piece, the piazza sums up all the majesty of High Renaissance Rome. From behind the Palazzo Senatorio, a stairway leads down, offering the best overview of the roman Forum. The front of the piazza looks out over the Piazza Venezia.
The loop I just described (from Piazza Venezia and back) is about three miles (plus detours of course). From the Hotel and back we walked about six miles.
After a bit of siesta at the hotel, we headed to St Peter’s. The first stop was Ponte Sant'Angelo, pedestrianized and lined with ten stone angels it joins ‘the heart of Rome’ with the Vatican side and leads directly to Castel Sant'Angelo.
Castel Sant’Angelo - During its many years of existence, the building functioned as a mausoleum, became part of the city wall and later was turned into a fortress before it functioned as a papal residence and finally as a barracks and military prison. Emperor Hadrian chose this spot away from the city’s main area as the site for his tomb. From the top is one of the best views of Rome. The castle houses part of the Museo Nzionale Romano. In AD 590 Rome was stricken with the plague and Pope Gregory organized a procession to pray for the city’s release. As a result of the miracle the building was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo. In the 9th C it was linked to the nearby Vatican by building a high defensive wall. The spiral ramp inside the castle dates back to the time Hadrian’s mausoleum and part of it can still be climbed to the main courtyard where the statue of Archangel Michael, 1544, stands. There is another Archangel Michael, 18th C, at the top of the terrace along with the Bell of Mercy which in the past pealed to announce executions. The moats and gardens are a 20th Century addition.
St Peter’s Basilica looks close from Castel Sant’Angelo but it’s actually more than half a mile. Piazza San Pietro is huge, with a massive Egyptian obelisk supported by bronze lions and two fountains in the center and surrounded by the ‘Tuscan Colonnades’, four columns deep which curve around the sides of the square from the Basilica. Bernini designed the piazza and the colonnades to be “the maternal arms of the mother church”. The whole ensemble is gorgeous and a definite ‘must see’ even if you have no interest in the catholic religion. The place is packed with tourists most of the day, some just taking it all in, the rest waiting in the long security line to get into the church. Given our limited time on this trip we didn’t go in but it is a really amazing space and worth the hour or so wait on line. Around the side of the piazza is the city wall, through which a gate leads to the entrance to the Vatican Museums (which always has an enormous line – every time I’ve been there – July, March, November, early in the morning, mid day, rain, shine).
We took the Metro back, got a pizza to eat in room and took a short siesta before heading out for a drink and to see Rome lit up. The Piazzas are all beautifully lit – my favorite for evening ambiance are Trevi (if the crowds aren’t too bad), Rotunda and Narvona. We started the evening with a drink near Piazza di Pietra, strolled around the streets and piazzas as the sky turned dark blue and the buildings became beautifully gold colored, and finished the evening with a gelato at a café in Piazza Rotunda next to my favorite site in Rome – the Fontana della Rotunda backed by the Pantheon.
Saturday, March 25, 2017 [Sunny and 78] – Not a cloud in the sky. Best day yet and we had nothing really to do. We had condensed what we planned to do in two full days down to a day and a half since we discovered that there were demonstrations planned in Rome for the 60th anniversary of the European Union so stores were to be closed and they made it sound like pedestrian access to the center was going to be curtailed - they were expecting possible violence. We tried to get our train tickets changed to an earlier one but couldn’t (special price). So we went to S. Maria Maggiore (with our bags) and took turns going in and sitting in the sun. Then went to a café and sat in the sun there and age gelato. Had lunch at the train station, then comfortable 3-hour train trip to Milan.
For the Venice, Florence, and Milan portions of our trip see parts 1, 2, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017 [Sun and clouds, high 60s] - On to Florence! (After a short stroll around the the ‘Ghetto’ section of Venice) Train was from 11:25-13:30 so we bought lunch to eat en route.
Although I’d only been to Florence once, 9 years before, we easily found the Hotel Alba Palace on the street to the right of the train station. The street is not especially scenic, nor is exterior of the building. But lobby and breakfast room were quite nice, and there’s a bar with cold water, hot water – tea, coffee, etc. and cookies and savory snacks (pretzels, nuts, etc.) available all day. The room - #001 is right next to the breakfast room and elevator – but utterly quiet inside. And OMG – what an amazing room! The room is two stories high with a gigantic exposed stone and brick wall and another brick wall, arcaded ceiling, two story marble column. Queen size bed, beautiful painted armoire, matching small cabinet (hiding the mini-fridge), and bench (plus a wooden table/desk and two wooden end tables. 48” flat screen TV. And then ---- wood and iron spiral stair case leading to a loft with two twin beds, more great furniture and French doors leading to a large terrace with a table and chairs. And the bathroom is also huge, with full tub. So it’s clearly a ‘quad’ room. Only a 5 minute walk from the train station or Santa Maria Novella church/piazza (with several decent restaurants) and about 10 minutes from the Duomo. What a find. €125 a night. (Only drawback was a rather mediocre breakfast)
We dropped our stuff and went out to explore – Piazza del Duomo , Piazza Signoria, Pont Vecchio, Mercato Nuovo, San Lorenzo cloister, San Lorenzo Market. Florence center, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, is quite compact and very walkable and much of the center is pedestrianized.
On the way back to the room we stopped and got a bottle of wine and got some of the free snacks from the hotel and had ‘cocktails’ on the terrace. Then I ran out and got some early evening shots while Crista hung out in the room. Then went to one of the restaurants on Piazza Santa Maria Novella – pasta, risotto at an outside table (they had heater lamps).
Can you “see” Florence in one full day? Yes you can.
Wednesday, March 22, 2017 [Mostly cloudy, 70]
The buildings on the Piazza del Duomo – which include the Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile di Giotto are among the most colorful buildings in Italy. The exteriors are composed of geometrically patterned bands of white, pink, and green marble, an interesting contrast to the sienna-colored fortress-like palazzi around the city. One description I read said they looked like “buildings in carnival wear”. Florence has a very heavy, somber and foreboding feel to its streets lined with dark, heavy stone palazzos so the ensemble on Piazza del Duomo really stands out. The Duomo is one of the largest (Europe’s 4th largest) and most impressive cathedrals and represents the “flowering of the Florentine Gothic style”. The dome, by Brunelleschi, was the largest when it was built (1296 to 1436) and he based it on the construction techniques used in the Pantheon. When Michelangelo was working on the design of the dome of St Peter’s he based it on the Florence dome. Opposite the Duomo is the small, octagonal shaped Baptistery. The exterior is clad in the same tricolor marble as the Duomo, but seems much more ‘plain’ – except for the famous bronze doors- which some say marks the beginning of the Renaissance. The actual building is much older than the Duomo, but during the same period that the Duomo was built, the interior was covered with glittering mosaics (by Venetian and Byzantine style artists). In addition to the ‘usual’ depictions of Christ, saints and sinners, there is an interesting monster like creature devouring a human.
The interior of the Cathedral can be entered for free, but the Baptistery as well as climbing the Campanile and the Dome of the Duomo require a ticket. One ticket (15€ covers all of them plus the cathedral museum). In addition, in order to climb the Duomo dome, you need a reservation. The building directly across from the Baptistery has tickets and a machine where you make your climb reservation.
Duomo and Campanille Bronze doors and interior of Baptistery
We did the Baptistery first thing in the morning – amazing and wonderful to see but it doesn’t take long as it’s just one fairly small open space. The Duomo itself is of course much larger although most of the ‘decoration’ has been removed to the museum. The most impressive part is the view of the dome – which even from the ground floor is pretty amazing. With the ticket you are also allowed to go down into the crypt, which had some interesting displays.
At our reserved time we got on line for the Duomo climb. As they only let people in every half hour, you are accompanied by quite a crowd as you ascend the 463 steps. The frescoes are even more amazing up close – and the same ‘human eating monster’ featured on the Baptistery ceiling is also here. Unfortunately you have to look through Plexiglas, which does detract. It was a fairly orderly climb till just before the open area at the top where it became a zoo – mostly due to people who felt they needed to take selfies up there. After elbowing our way past the selfish selfie takers we did enjoy the view. I think the view from the top of the campanile (414 steps) is even better as it includes the Duomo (and is way less crowded and crazy so the climb is more enjoyable). But no frescoes. So you really do have to do both.
Close up of the frescoes on the Duomo ceiling including saints, sinners, skeletons and a human eating monster/devil creature.
Around and beside the Duomo are Palazzos, stores and cafes.
A few blocks away, amidst more palazzos, is the Nouvo Mercato (now selling mostly leather goods to tourists) with the famous bronze boar, whose nose is shinny because people rub it for good luck.
It’s only about a five minute walk to the other main piazza in Florence, the Piazza della Signoria which is home to the Palazzo Vecchio (town hall), the Loggia (originally built to shield dignitaries from the elements during speeches and ceremonies) and the Uffizi gallery, Florence’s major art museum. Guarding the entrance to the castle-looking Palazzo is a copy of Michelangelo’s “David”. I know many people feel you ‘need’ to see the original, but I actually think I prefer a copy in an original setting to an original in a museum. While David is pretty serene, just standing there looking good, most of the other sculpture is pretty violent. Perseus holds up the severed head of Medusa, The Sabine Virgins are Raped, Hercules slays the Centaur Nessus, and a large lion guards the whole area. Outside in the Piazza itself are Cosimo de Medici on his horse as well as Neptune and his fountain.
Just behind the Palazzo Vecchio is the U-shaped Uffizi Gallery (Italy’s top visited museum – long lines, reservations recommended. I had visited on my previous trip to Florence and we didn’t have time this trip). But the building itself is pretty impressive, and it opens out onto the Arno, with a view to the Tuscan Hills across the river, and the Ponte Vecchio, another of Florence’s ‘must sees’. The bridge was built in 1345 to replace an even earlier version and has characteristic overhanging houses lining both sides. In the 16th century, it was home to butchers until Cosimo moved into the Palazzo Pitti across the river. He couldn’t stand the stench, so he evicted the meat cutters and moved in the classier gold- and silversmiths, and jewelers occupy it to this day. Apparently there is a way to walk from the Uffizi (which was offices, Uffizi means office) over the top level of the Pont Vecchio to the Pitti Palace with out having to interact with the hoards of people. Today there are still hoards of people – tourists from the time the jewelry shops open till late evening. So walking across it is not as rewarding as viewing it – which can be done from both banks of the Arno as well as the next bridge up. Ponte Vecchio was the only bridge spared by the Nazzi’s as they retreated from Florence, deciding it was too beautiful to blow up.
We walked to Santa Croce, another beautiful exterior (the Duomo buildings, Santa Maria Novello and Santa Croce are all pink/white/green marble and very ‘pretty’ compared to the dark Siena colored stone of most of the other buildings in Florence – made even darker and more somber looking by the fact that it was cloudy). Considered Florence’s second most important church after the Duomo it sits at the eastern edge of the centro storico in one of the most ‘genuine’ neighborhoods left in the center. It’s often referred to as Italy’s “Westminster Abbey’ for the number of it’s highly decorated chapels and the tombs of some of the most important Italians of their day: Michelangelo, Dante. Galileo, Machiavelli, Rossini. The side chapels, 16 of them, richly frescoes (many by Giotto), go on and on, as do the cloisters. There is also a leather school, which although no longer staffed solely by monks, does still produce leather products.
From Santa Croce we hiked up to Piazzale Michelangelo and Santa Maria al Monte above that. Great Views (despite the clouds). The church is quite dark inside and has a very different feel to most of the other churches in Florence.
Back in town we wandered over the Pont Vecchio but the jewelry was above our pay grade so we went back to the San Lorenzo market. I was tempted by the bags – Florence is pocketbook shopping heaven - Crista got a large light leather tote bag with matching bag inside and smaller pouch. But I resisted and only got a few smaller pouches for camera accessories etc.
We had dinner at a restaurant near the Pont Vecchio but it was quite decent pasta and grilled veggies.
Thursday, March 23, 2017 [Cloudy in Florence, Mostly sunny, high 60s in Rome] - After breakfast we took a stroll around the historic center and climbed the Campanile.
Then Santa Maria Novella –the third of the ‘white, pink and green marble’ churches in Florence. There were some interesting cloisters. While not quite as impressive as Santa Croce in terms of amount of frescoes, the ones they did have were more interesting as they included scenes of Florence and surrounding areas.
Just before the trip I had read a novel by Sarah Durant set in 15th century Florence which featured a family that hired a painter to paint the family’s palazzo’s chapel with frescoes. The painter used the family members as models for the faces of people in the frescoes, and scenes from the area. So this was apparently a common practice, at least in residential frescoes. I found it interesting to wander the streets of Florence and imagine what is in all those palazzos. Now I know many of them are carved up into apartments, or offices, etc. but originally they were ‘family homes’. Having read the novel, “The Birth of Venus” did certainly help to bring 15th century Florence alive. Sarah Durant has written numerous other historical novels set in various Italian cities (“In the Company of the courtesan” 16th Century Venice; “Sacred Hearts” 16th century Ferrara, etc.). Also watching movies set in places I’m going to visit is a good way to get a ‘feel’ for a place. For Florence one of the best is “Room with a View”. A more recent one is “Inferno” with Tom Hanks based on the Dan Brown novel.
For the Venice, Rome and Milan portions of our trip see parts 1,3, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"
For more photos click on "All Photographs in the upper right corner and navigate to the Italy gallery.
Italy thru fresh eyes / Chasing the sun in March
I decided to go to Italy for my spring trip for three reasons: first, well it’s Italy; I really didn’t need any other reasons. But two, I found a great fare from my local airport to Milan, and three, I wanted to continue my ‘research’ on Italy in the ‘off‘ season. I have been going to Europe every summer for about 15 years, always in the month of July, but some day I’ll be done with work and will be able to travel whenever I please, so am always looking for places where it will be ‘nice’ when it’s not ‘nice’ where I live (the US northeast).
When I told my friend Crista about the trip she decided to come with me. She’s never been to Italy and only once to visit a friend in Scotland so a real ‘newbie’. Our original plan was going to be Venice, Florence and Lake Como, but by mid week the forecast for Milan/Lake Como was rain so we made a last minute switch to Rome for a couple of days. Thus we ended up doing the itinerary that is so often posted on travel forums from newbies and mostly shot down by those of us ‘in the know’: 8 days Venice, Florence, Rome, Milan.
Crista only had time for 8 days but I had an additional 5 days for day trips from Milan. I did Pavia, Genoa, Lake Como, and Lake Lugano. The last day I stayed in Milan.
Part 1: The “Classic” One Week in Italy: Venice, Florence and Rome
We did all the things that many people (myself included) advise against. We flew in and out of Milan even thought that wasn't our destination. We tried to 'see' three major Italian cities in a week and took trains from Milan to Venice, Venice to Florence, Florence to Rome and Rome to Milan. Phew. Sounds like we'd spend all our time in trains and the whole thing would be very rushed. Well, I'm here to say it actually wasn't and Crista said she never felt rushed and loved it. So I think I'll be revising the advice I give people from now on.
It was a fast pace, no doubt about that. Crista walks a lot faster than most people, and doesn’t ‘require’ a lot of time to see things. For many people this wouldn’t be a very satisfying way to travel. She did a fair amount of “OK, what next?” and I’d say, “THIS IS what’s next – we’re here, just look around you”. Had to explain what a ‘passeggiata’ was and why doing that is fun. But everyone is different and goes at a different pace. This was my 13th trip to Italy, I’d been to Venice 5 times, and Rome 7 times (Florence only once before) so I was really just enjoying seeing things through her eyes and playing tour guide. Crista is a very smart, highly educated woman, but she had a pretty terrible grasp on geography and history and did zero research. I do such extensive research before trips (including reading novels set where I’m going, watching movies that took place there, etc.) that my husband says it’s almost ‘too much’. But my advice to new travelers will continue to be to at least read a good general guidebook before you go anywhere so you know what you’re seeing. And listen to us experience travelers when we tell you to stamp your train ticket before you get on!
Arrival Day - Saturday, March 18 [Sun and clouds, 60s] - We arrived only 20 minutes late into Milano Linate. Crista’s bag, which AerLigus made her gate check in Dublin, saying it was too large, arrived quickly. (BTW – last time I flew AerLingus to Italy they made me gate check my bag as they said I had ‘two’ pieces – this time they said nothing about my bag plus ‘personal item’ and it was the exact same two pieces - which goes to show it’s a crap shoot what is and is not OK). Anyway, her bag came through right away and we were outside, having bought our bus tickets to Milano Centrale, just before noon. I asked a man standing by the sign if the bus was the right one (it looked different) and he pointed and said yes. But we almost got on it and it was going to Slovenia!!! Turns out he was pointing to the space in front of that bus where the right one was about to arrive – fortunately he saw us and told us. We got to Centrale just about 12:45 so good thing I booked the 13:40 train and not the 12:40 as we would have just missed it. We had time to get a Panini and coffee and got to Venice just after four.
I had stayed at the Palazzo Odoni just last July – loved the hotel and didn’t even consider looking for anyplace else. It’s in the Santa Croce district, about 10 minute walk from the train station or Piazzele Roma, on a quiet canal, in what is – for Venice – an ‘un-touristy’ area. So what for most first timers – finding the hotel you booked – can be difficult when you are tired and jet-lagged, was for Crista just a short stroll since I knew where I was going. We were checked in and ready to head out by 5 for what we thought would be a short stroll to show her a few canals and find dinner. We ended up walking all the way to Piazza San Marco (and back). The adrenalin gets going and everything is so new and exciting. We were almost back to the hotel before we found a place we wanted to eat. I think there were actually mostly locals in there, and it was just a two-minute walk from the hotel.
Palazzo Odoni Entrance Courtyard
Palazzo Odoni - A 16th century palazzo that's been in the same family for generations, comes complete with antique furnishings, a very high quality breakfast (and a golden retriever).
Can you “see” Venice in one full day? Yes you can.
Sunday, March 19, 2017 [Sun and clouds, 60s] Great hotel breakfast – huge, delicious croissants, various meats and cheeses, fresh fruits (melon, pineapple, kiwi, strawberries, oranges, bananas), yogurts, breads, and of course cappuccino. After pigging out on that we walked to the train station and got a vapparetto day pass (€20 each) and took our first ride down the grand canal to San Marco with me pointing out most of the most important palazzos (at least the ones I could remember the names of). It was bright but overcast – no blue sky and the colors on the palazzos seemed really muted compared to summer. Crista was still duly impressed (though I don’t think as much as I was my first time on the Grand Canal).
Grand Canal March 2017 (above)
Grand Canal July 2016 (above)
Passing under the Rialto Bridge I noticed that it's renovation was completed, the scaffolding of recent years gone, all very clean and white. We considered getting off to explore the market but decided it made more sense to get to Piazza San Marco and the Doges Palace before it got crowded and visit the Rialto market later.
The stone Rialto Bridge was the first permanent bridge across the Grand Canal. The central path is full of shops – mask, glass, bead and souvenir, as are the calle leading to the bridge from both directions. The fondamenta on both sides of the grand canal are filled with restaurants and hotels. The Rialto Market is the city's main source of fruits, vegetables and fish. The Rialto Bridge and surrounding area are the second most crowded in Venice, and while not quite as bad in March as in July, it was still pretty bad. I think cruising under it in a vaparetto is a much more enjoyable way to experience it than walking across it, but he view from the bridge is the quintessential Grand Canal View (if you can get close enough to the edge to see it).
We got to San Marco about 9:45 (the ride takes just about 45 minutes).
Piazza San Marco is definitely the 'center' of Venice, one of the most famous squares in the world, much larger than any other in Venice, and the only one to be called a 'Piazza" - all others are 'campos' or 'piazzettas'. At one end sits Basilica San Marco, one of the most famous buildings in the world. The Basilica was built in 1063 to house the remains of St Mark the Evangelist. The façade is a mix of east and west. The doorways are massive European Romanesque. The mosaics are mostly Venetian designs but executed by Greek craftsmen. There is sculpture from Constantinople, columns from Alexandria, and Capitals from Sicily. The upper story has Gothic style arches and the whole thing is topped by Greek domes with onion shape caps. However, it comes together in a bizarre sort of harmony. It is simply the most unique church in Europe, which as Goethe said “can only be compared with itself”.
The Piazza is rectangular, but opens wider at the basilica end, enhancing the perspective and creating the illusion of being even larger than it is and flanked on three sides by arcaded buildings of apartments known as "Procurazie," once the official residences or offices of state ministers and now full of shops and cafes. In the summer the outside tables are full, and in the evening bands play at three of them. On this March day most of the tables were empty.
Piazzetta San Marco – is the smaller square between Piazza San Marco and the lagoon, with the Doges Palace along one side. Two granite (Egyptian) columns topped by Venetian-Byzantine capitals stand at the entrance to the piazzetta. One supports the famous statue of the winged lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice The other column bears a statue of St. Theodore and his dragon. I believe there was a third column that fell off the boat as it was being delivered and still sits at the bottom of the Grand Canal.
The Doges’ Palace is a Gothic Renaissance building begun in 1173 which integrated walls and towers of an AD 810 castle, beautifully carved in pink and white marble. Architecturally, the Palazzo Ducale is a unique mixture: the style of its exterior, with its geometrically patterned stonework and continuous tracery walls, can only be called Islamicized Gothic, whereas the courtyards and much of the interior are based on Classical forms. It is one of the finest secular building of its era in Europe, and the central building of Venice.
The line for the Doges Palace was about 10 minutes long.
Inside is a beautiful arcaded courtyard and finely sculpted grand stairway. Once the private home of the Doges (Venetian ruler elected for life), it is today a museum filled with art treasures, including Tintoretto’s “Paradise”, one of the largest paintings in the world, in the huge “Sala del Consiglio” where the city parliament met. Room after room of incredible wall and ceiling paintings and carved wood. We spent about 2 hours there and neither of us felt rushed or that we wanted more time. I do have one friend who said she spent 5 hours but you’d have to examine every single thing to do that. Another friend went on a (high end private) tour and said they were in there less than an hour. So I guess we were going at ‘average’ speed.
The best part was the prisons and walking through the bridge of sighs. The prisons were both more extensive and larger (and nicer) than I expected. Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) connects the Doges Palace to the 16th Century Prigioni Nuove (new Prison). Those condemned to death had to pass over it on their way into the prison and back out again to be executed in the Piazzetta San Marco. The bridge was built in 1600 by Antonio Contino, and takes its popular name from the sighs of the prisoners who shuffled through its corridor.
I’m glad I finally saw it, but I’m also glad I didn’t have to wait 2 or more hours in line in order to do it. And I don’t think it was a ‘highlight’ of Venice
At that point, now about 12:30, the line for the Loggia Museum in San Marco was about 10 minutes long. Nice views of the Piazza and the Piazzetta. The museum essentially consists of the loggia (with the fabulous views) and close ups of the horses (both the ones outside and the originals inside) and of the mosaics of the church.
Coming down from the loggia you entered the church itself, which was illuminated for the mass. We were allowed to walk around the sides, just roped off from where the parishioners were sitting. I think it would be much less impressive to tour the Basilica when it’s not illuminated (which is most of the time). It was a Sunday and there was a mass going on; the incense and the singing really added to the experience. So on my fifth trip to Venice I finally did what most people do on their first trip. Actually on my very first trip, which was 17 years ago, we did go inside the Basilica but it was not illuminated and therefore very dark.
Then we headed back behind the Bridge of Signs (the Castelo district) as I was looking for an old church with nice cloisters (St Apolonia). Took forever to find it despite it being literally behind the Bridge of Sighs. I had been there, I had a paper map, and we had the phone map and we asked two different people and it still took half an hour. That’s the fun of Venice. When we did find it, it was closed. Oh well, had a nice lunch with our ‘intro to Venice’ Bellini’s.
After exploring around San Marco we took the vaparetto as far as S. Toma and walked to the Ca’Rezzonico. (included on the Museum Pass with the Doges Palace – along with ten others which we didn’t have time for). Ca’Rezzonoco is an impressive palazzo filled with three floors of 17th and 18th century Venetian art. But we got over dosed on it after an hour or so. (The friend that spent 5 hours in the Doges Palace spent 3 hours here). Some nice views from the upper floors. Then we walked the rest of the way back to the hotel, got lost of course, but isn’t that the charm of Venice.
After an hour or so we decided we needed to make use of the remaining daylight and vaparetto pass so took another ride down the Grand Canal. This time we got front row seats! Just as we were leaving the train station stop a couple of boat ambulances whizzed in and took someone from the stop in front of us. Interesting to think about water ambulances. Second time we had an ambulance incidence on this trip. (first one was on the plane).
It was cool but sunny as we started but as we approached San Marco the fog literally rolled in. You could see (and feel) it rolling in. It was quite interesting. But would I choose the Grand Canal with front row seats, cold and fog – or crammed in like a sardine but with bright sun shinning on all those palazzos. I think I pick the sun.
Anyway, great views, but it was pretty cold. So we ended up eating dinner just past Piazza San Marco. A guy standing outside a restaurant as we paused to look at the menu started talking – in flawless English. He was ‘Venecian-American’ – from NY. Said his hospital on 18th street was now condos. I said the one I was born in was also condos. I had almost the same conversation (minus the hospital part) with a guy we dubbed “Mr Astoria” in Chania, Crete last summer. Apparently middle-aged men who have lived for most of their lives in the US are moving back to the homeland and working in the tourist trade. But he was nice and we were cold so we went in. The food was OK and they gave us free prosecos ‘since we were from NY’. Sure. After dinner it was cold and most of the stores were closed so we took the vaparetto back. It was cold and foggy but that made for really interesting light.
So – that’s what you can accomplish (and still have fun) if you move fairly quickly and you have someone with you to show you where to go (or have done your research). We did three and a half rides on the Grand Canal, 4 major sites (Doges Plalace, Basicila San Marco interior, Loggia Museum, and Museum Ca’Rezzencio), walked all the way from the train station end to Piazza San Marco and back, and had sit-down dinners and lunch. Did a bit of tourist shopping. And did not feel at all rushed. The whole of Venice is a UNESCO World Heritage Site so just wandering along the back canals and riding the vaparetto down the Grand Canal is really enough to make a trip to Venice worthwhile, and to know that you have seen it. Adding a couple of museums and the Basilica and the Doges Palace were just icing on the cake.
Monday, March 20, 2017 [Sun and clouds, 60s] On our other full day we spent the morning going to the Rialto market (bit of a disappointment, it wasn’t a ‘fish’ day so just produce) and then did a half day trip to Vicenza – partly to see a smaller town but mostly because Crista wanted to go to Jazzercise. She’s an instructor and it’s a ‘thing’ for jazzercise instructors to visit classes when traveling to foreign countries. She did it in Scotland last year. So she had made arrangements with Lucca of the Vicenza studio. I had been in Vicenza as a day trip quite a few years ago and remembered it as very, very quiet, pretty enough but not as interesting as other towns in the area such as Verona and Padua (and Mantua, Ferrera, Treviso). And it was the same this time. We were there on a Monday and lots of things were closed. We did a walking tour of the palazzos that the TI office gave out, and had some really good gelato but 3-4 hours was plenty. Crista went to her Jazzersize class and I went back to Venice.
Vicenza - The small city less than an hour from Venice, was home to Palladio in the 1500s, who, after studying architecture in Rome came here and developed the style named after him. Today the city, one of the wealthiest in Italy, is a living museum of his buildings and thus a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Left top: Piazza dei Signori, dominated by the most awesome of Palladio's creations, the Basilica Palladiana (bottom left) , also known as the Palazzo della Ragione. Top right Opposite the Basilica is the Loggia dei Capitaniato designed by Palladio in 1571 to replace the medieval residence of the "Capitanio", the Venetian Captain in Vicenza. Bottom right: Corso Palladio, home to many of the city's grandest palazzos.
Vicenza - Top left: town gate and Torre Bissara, Top right: Palladian Loggia Valmarana in the Giardino Salvi
Back in Venice I walked from the train to Rialto (got lost a few times, but an area I had not explored – much more residential. Once large campo was full of locals having aperitifs or coffee and kids playing soccer, roller skating, dogs playing. Then to Piazza San Marco. Got a small pannini for dinner, ate while walking. Don’t do that in Piazza San Marco, a sea gull literally nipped at the food in my hand! The main ‘street’ between the Rialto and San Marco is like a mall with chain stores, including Disney, Benneton, Prada, etc. Managed to get back to the hotel from San Marco without getting lost – first time I did that! It took just over half an hour and about 2500 steps/1 mile (according to fitbit). But I was walking fast, not strolling.
We checked the weather forecast for later in the week and it was for rain all three days we planned to spend in Lake Como - So – we decided to go to Rome instead! At this point it was 11 pm and we both had had a couple of Bellinis. But we managed to rebook our last night in Milan and book the other two at a hotel in Rome I’d been too previously. And booked the necessary train tickets. We ended up ‘eating’ one ticket which we no longer were going to use but we actually ended up saving money. But forecast for Rome is sun. And now Crista will get the ‘grand Italy tour of Venice, Florence and Rome’.
Thoughts on Venice in March. Well definitely less crowded but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t crowded in the touristy areas such as Rialto. Piazza San Marco was noticeably less crowded. We waited 10 minutes to get into the Doges Palace, about that for the Basilica. The line that in July stretched from the Basilica to almost the canal was about ¼ as long midday, same for the bell tower. So not ‘no lines’ but clearly shorter ones. Back ‘streets’ almost deserted, but the main streets to and from Rialto/Piazza San Marco etc. had enough people that you had to go around them or slow down. But overall, on a crowd basis it was almost like night and day the difference between July and March. Mid day on the vaparetto we easily stood by the side, at 5pm we even got a front row seat! There was a mix of sun and clouds and Sunday night it was super foggy (and cold). Very different from a full moon and bare legs weather. I wore a thin long sleeve shirt and half the time I had a down jacket on and the other half not. The light is definitely different, the water not as blue/green, the sun (even when it is out) doesn’t really get into the smaller canals and calles even at mid day. I’m guessing there is a tiny window of ‘good weather/ not terribly crowded’ that probably lasts a few days around late April but for most of the year I think you have to choose. This was interesting, and very glad I got to see Venice being more like a real city instead of ‘Disney World’ but I guess if I had to choose I’d pick the crowds over the poor light/cool temps. But that might be the photographer in me, I think others would choose the opposite. Piazza San Marco is nice to not be jammed, but the atmosphere is better in the summer.
I was in Venice last July and it was terribly crowded. I’d been before (in 2000, 04, & 08) and while there were certainly crowds in the main touristy areas of the Rialto, Accademia, and San Marco during midday, in the early and later hours and anywhere other than that main tourist stretch it was not at all crowded. But this last trip it was mobbed from 8 am to 10 pm and even on the smallest back canal. A friend had been first week of April last year and said it was wonderful, no crowds, great weather. So I decided I wanted to experience that for myself.
For the Florence, Rome and Milan portions of our trip see parts 2,3, and 4 of "Italy through new eyes: Chasing the Sun in Italy in March"